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Shields and Brooks on Obama’s Vatican visit and a health reform milestone

March 28, 2014 at 6:34 PM EST
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including efforts by the U.S. and the European Union to deter Russia from entering more regions, President Obama’s meeting with Pope Francis, a milestone for Affordable Care Act enrollment and a new internal report on the New Jersey bridge lane closure scandal.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Gentlemen, thank you very much.

So, President Obama in Europe this week, Mark and David, trying to rally the allies, stiffen their spine to stand up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, if that becomes necessary.

But, Mark, is the West united and ready to do what it takes to stand up to Russia if they need to?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t know, Judy.

We hope that’s the case. But I think we’re closer to it this week than we were probably two weeks ago, because, if anything, Putin’s actions have driven the Western allies closer together. There was lingering — were lingering problems. The United States’ invasion, occupation of Iraq was opposed by France and Germany. There have been disagreements sometimes on what to do in the Middle East.

But there’s been now a recognition of dependence and interdependence, that they have a lot more in common than they have dividing them. And I think, if anything — the allies, as we call them, the Western — Europeans are a lot closer and more united than they were, in large part because of the leadership of the leaders, including the president, but particularly because of Putin’s actions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: More united, David, and strong enough to do what it takes?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, those are two separate questions. More united, for sure, certainly united on our analysis of Vladimir Putin.

I thought President Obama said it very well in Brussels this week, that Putin represents really a threat to the global order, that he — the idea that you can change borders, the idea that you can have spheres of influence, that’s just not acceptable in a post-Cold War world. And I think the Europeans and Americans see that the same way.

What we’re going to do about it, there is union, but there is some division. The Europeans are obviously, for economic reasons, a lot less willing to go far on sanctions. They rely on Russia for energy. They rely on Russian oligarch money through their banking systems, real estate, schools. And so they have been a little more hesitant.

Nonetheless, I think the sanctions have been pretty strong. The crucial issue going forward to me is this issue of aggression. Vladimir Putin doesn’t necessarily seem to be moved by economic sanctions alone as he masses troops on the Ukrainian border.

Do you actually have to have some sort of military deterrent? And nobody is talking about putting Western troops into Ukraine, but arming Ukraine, some other method of deterring from Putin from actually going in and rewriting those borders.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does the West, Mark, have the stomach? Or is it prepared to do something like that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I don’t think Ukraine, I don’t think anybody pretends that’s the case, Judy. And I think the appetite for further military engagement is pretty far diminished after Iraq and Afghanistan in particular.

But I do think that the isolation of Putin, rather than humiliation, which I think is what the president has approached, has been wise. Let’s understand, Putin doesn’t represent some international movement. It’s not communism, in the sense that there are outposts all over Central America following Putin.

This is one man. He is the decider. He is Russia right now. And I think to the degree that he can be isolated and made to — just as President Reagan didn’t say, let’s go in and take down that wall and destroy it, he said, tear down that wall, and I think that’s been really the approach that President Obama has taken this week.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And maybe that phone call today, David, or late today, was a good sign. We don’t know. We don’t know what really came of it.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

I would say it’s not just Putin, one man. I think I disagree with Mark on that one. Putin is part of sort of a nationalist ideology. The books he sends out to regional governors really saw Russia as the crucial world power, the bridge between East and West, playing a much more enlarged role.

And one of the things we have seen in Russian public opinion is, Putin’s stock has surged. He’s become very popular in the course of this crisis. And the idea of invading Ukraine is also quite popular.

MARK SHIELDS: I’m not questioning his popularity in Russia, or his support in Russia. What I am saying is, there are not Putin outposts in Nicaragua, there are not Putin outposts in Central America and Latin America, because there’s no ideology or philosophy here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, next stop for the president was Rome, where he met with Pope Francis.

How important — and it was a very interesting meeting. The pictures were kind of captivating, the two of them talking. How important is it for the president to be seen or any president to be seen as aligned with the Catholic — the Roman Catholic pope?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, yes, I think this pope is great, has captured the imagination.

Pope Francis, I mean, is 89-3 favorable among American Catholics, according to Gallup. He’s 11-1 favorable among all Americans, and including among Protestants. So, he’s a world figure. He’s where Barack Obama was five years ago, man of the year and sort of captured the imagination, a rock star.

But I think, politically, it’s important in this country because, very bluntly, Republican leaders have been shrewdly close to Catholic bishops on particularly cultural and social issues, on abortion, on same-sex marriage. They have identified with them. And this pope has not changed the words, but he’s changed the music. And he talks an awful lot more about the idolatry of money.

He talks about trickle-down economics being a failure, and treating human beings as throwaways. And so he’s actually — as Steve Schneck said on the broadcast last night with Gwen, he’s to the left of Barack Obama. He talks about the poor. Barack Obama talks about the middle class.

So, I think in that sense, politically and economically, it was good for the president, and it certainly strengthens his economic argument here at home.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, David, some of the pope’s popularity can rub off on the president, or that is not the way it works?

DAVID BROOKS: Maybe if he converts.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: No, I don’t think so.

One of — the interesting thing about these meetings, for any U.S. president, is the pope and — and whenever a pope — and this, obviously, is a magical pope, but any pope comes with the history of Catholic social teaching behind him so far, probably always.

And that’s a communal social teaching. That’s a social teaching that emphasizes solidarity. On economic terms, that’s going to put the church more on the left, on social terms, probably a little more on the right. There’s always going to be differences with any U.S. president, just the way our politics is aligned.

And I think it always has a positive effect on the president by reminding a U.S. leader — we tend to come from a more individualistic country — of a more communal philosophy.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And the pope gave the president his book, and I hope, personally and both theologically, he reads that book.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, two other things I want to ask you both about.

One, Mark, is the health care law, White House celebrating yesterday. The deadline is the end of March. They’re celebrating. They have — six million Americans have now signed up.

Is this — we know the law is still very unpopular, or largely unpopular with the American people. Does this, though, in some way take the edge off of the negative that the Republicans have made this as an issue?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it’s the old better than expected, Judy, is where it is.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, seven million was the target. Now it’s six million, and the Democrats are doing a little victory dance in the end zone over that.

It’s certainly far better than it was. And you can see that there’s been an all-out effort made. I do think the Republicans, quite honestly, have promised to come up with one that will cover everybody at a lower cost and at no intrusion. We’re still waiting for that. It hasn’t — it hasn’t happened.

But it has been an abject failure on the part of the Democratic administration to sell this plan. It was 36 percent approval four years ago in the CBS poll, 39 percent approval two years ago, and 41 percent approval. It’s a failure to convince people, persuade people that they’re right and the other side’s wrong.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

Well, I think the plan has achieved credibility. There was some possibility — I never thought it was a large possibility — there was some possibility that people wouldn’t sign up and the whole thing would collapse just by lack of effort. It has crossed that threshold. So it is going to function. The question is whether it will function well or poorly, whether the exchanges will work, whether the cost things will work, whether innovation will be driven by this.

And then we’re simply too soon to tell. It will take two or three years to even begin to get some sign of that. What we have now is people really reacting to it individually. A lot of people are pleased. They’re getting — they’re getting insurance at lower cost. A lot of people are displeased. They’re seeing their premiums go up.

I suspect, over the next six months, seven months, a lot of those individual experiences will begin to replace the more ideological reaction which people have to the bill now. I suspect it will still be a pretty good issue, at least this election, for Republicans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, one issue people are paying to today, Mark, is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. An internal report has essentially exonerated him of any role of this bridge closing political — what’s become a political disaster for him.

Does this report in any way mitigate the political damage that he’s taken, the hit he’s taken?

MARK SHIELDS: Bulletin: Governor Christie’s lawyers find Governor Christie innocent.

As I understand it, there are three investigations being conducted at the taxpayers’ expense. This is the first one, a million dollars to a firm that has represented the governor. So it’s not exactly Archie Cox or Henry Jaworski coming in — Leon Jaworski, rather — coming in…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Of Watergate fame.

MARK SHIELDS: Watergate fame, independent counsel, or a Star Chamber.

They interviewed everybody, except the three people that the governor continually throws under the — every available bus, Bridget Kelly, and Mr. Wildstein, and Bill Stepien.

So I think that there’s a lot of questions. We still have the U.S. attorney investigating, and we still have the legislature investigating. And the governor wants to declare himself innocent. He’s free to do that.

I just think what you have seen, Judy, you have seen him going from 41 to 12 favorable — 41 percent favorable to 12 percent unfavorable in the Wall Street poll to 17 percent favorable, 32 unfavorable. That’s a 44-point swing. He’s trailing Hillary Clinton by 12 — double digits in his home state. I just think that this has been a real blow to him, and he just can’t whitewash it himself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And he told Diane Sawyer at ABC, David, that he’s still very much thinking about running for president. Or at least he didn’t rule it out.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

I guess I agree with Mark. It is an internal investigation. But I do think one thing we can say is less likely, which is that there will be some smoking gun e-mail that will surface. I assume this firm — and it’s run by reputable people — Randy Mastro and other people are reputable people — I assume they didn’t bury some sort of smoking gun e-mail that they found among all their document searches.

So he may still have to face the testimony of these three people, the testimony of people that he did know what was going on. But there’s no — at least so far, no hard evidence that he knew what was going on with the lane closures.

So that, I think, is real good news for him. As for the political prospects, I’m struck by two things. The first is, I have seen him talking to Republican donor groups, and they are not interested. They want to talk about the national issues. The long-term problem, which is the one Mark referred to, is the popularity.

I think he has a little possibility, using the money he’s going to be getting, to build back some long-term possibility, but he’s obviously hurt.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Brooks, Mark Shields, we thank you.