August 31, 2001
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and The Weekly Standard's David Brooks discuss discuss the upcoming agenda as the president and Congress return to Washington.
MARGARET WARNER: With us tonight is Shields and Brooks; syndicated columnist Mark Shields and The Weekly Standard's David Brooks. Paul Gigot is off tonight.
So, Mark, the budget surplus shrinking, the non-Social Security surplus vanishing, is this as big a deal the Democrats are saying it is?
|Tapping Social Security|
MARK SHIELDS: No. It is a big deal politically, Margaret in the sense that we went through a campaign in the year 2000 where there were swollen government coffers; there were surpluses as long as the eye could see and it changed the whole nature of the campaign in the sense that there were no hard choices. You could be for a tax cut. You could be for increasing defense spending, prescription drugs, or privatization of Social Security because the money was there.
There were no choices to be made. And it really did work to the Republicans' advantage. It worked to President Bush's advantage, Candidate Bush then, because he looked like a fellow who was willing to spend in certain areas that had not been historically associated with the Republican Party. Now this means that we're in a time of choices, tougher choices -- prescription drugs just as a beginning. And I think that changes the politics and I think it changes it to the disadvantage of the president.
DAVID BROOKS: Well, in this time of surpluses, everyone decided they could have fiscal rectitude. They could create this mythical beast called the Social Security trust fund. There is no Social Security trust fund there. There are general government revenues. And what Bush is now faced with the problem, do I keep my promise -- which he made during the campaign of keeping the Social Security trust fund -- or am I going to spend it on my priorities, which are things like education and defense? Budget fights are all about values.
If we decide we're going to respect the Social Security trust fund, we've rigged the game. We've said all the money in this $150 billion surplus we have this year is going to go our paying down the debt. None of it is going to all the other values.
MARGARET WARNER: So as the Democrats are pressing the president to say how are you going to spend, how are you going to pay for these items, how bad a bind is the president in?
MARK SHIELDS: The President is a bind. I don't disagree with David. Basically that was a Republican idea, this lockbox, we always heard about, don't touch a single silver hair on the venerable head of Social Security. They-- February 13 on the House floor, the record is just replete with all these people saying, I will never touch it; we'll never touch a dime. So there is a real tension point, flash point between the congressional Republicans who are on the record on this and the administration who are a lot more lukewarm about what they do.
The Democrats are going to try to frame the argument this way. It is a matter of choices, just as David said; it's a matter of priorities and values. George Bush has shown his priority and his values and that's a tax cut. I mean, George Bush was for a tax cut when we had too much money to get it back. He is for a tax cut when there is too little money for the economy. He's for a tax cut if there's declining reading scores. I mean -
|Political fallout because of the shrinking surplus|
MARGARET WARNER: In other words, they're going to play the blame game.
MARK SHIELDS: We won't have prescription drugs because he chose a tax cut. We won't have this spending for education because he chose a tax cut. I think that's what the Democrats will argue.
DAVID BROOKS: And the Republicans will say hey, are you for repealing the tax cut - which they're not going to be for because that really would spook the economy. Then the second thing Bush is going to do is do what he does best which is get out of town. There is going to be a war of bar charts in this town. If you love bar charts, this is going to be a great fall. And people are going to be talking about lock boxes. He's going to get out of town, and he's going to talk about values, communities of character, and he is going to talk about the real economy.
He thinks if he can go across the country and say what we have to do is get the economy moving again, then the people, the voters will ultimately say we don't care about all those lock boxes or surpluses and all that. We need the economy to get moving. And under that new atmosphere, he'll be able to break the promise on the Social Security trust fund.
MARK SHIELDS: And the economy is George Bush's. I mean, that's the rule of American politics. The president comes in, it becomes his economy. It's undeniably the president's economy as soon as he gets his economic program passed. Bill Clinton did in 1993 with his tax increase. George W. Bush did in 2001 with his tax cut. So it's his. If it is bad news, and this is where the flash point or the tension point comes between him and congressional Republicans. They're up in 2002. He can, you know, ride out the tough times. He can stay on the shore as the tide goes out and wait for it to come back in in time for 2004 if in fact it does. So there are divergent interests.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. David, so what do the Democrats do here -- because there are things they want - I mean, they bought on to the lock box idea, they want more money for education, prescription drug benefit.
DAVID BROOKS: It's weird. They're talking tough. You know, Dick Gephard'ts face is out there but Ross Perot's words are coming out. They're talking as if keeping high surpluses at the highest political value, that we've got to balance the budget. They're talking about cutting spending at a time of possible recession, which is weird for Democrats. This is the long-term problem for Democrats. If you talk like Perot or Calvin Coolidge and say we have got to balance the budget at all costs, we've got to protect these sacred programs, it means less and less money for the things Democrats traditionally like. One of the most important things in the CBO Report, this Congressional Budget Office Report, was an amazing bit of data that domestic spending is now, as a share of the total economy, is now at the level it was at in 1960. Ten years from now, it will be at the level of pre-World War II. That means the entitlements are growing, the domestic programs are getting squeezed. And liberals are, you know, where are the liberals? Why aren't they defending the domestic programs against the creeping entitlement programs?
MARGARET WARNER: And there really isn't much of a voice for that point of view from the Democrats.
MARK SHIELDS: No, I think David's right. I think Democrats make a mistake if they start to get into the cold showers and root canal work of, well, I'll put on my green eye shade and my red pencil and say we can knock out $11.85 in parking fees.
MARGARET WARNER: But would you agree with David that, in fact, they put that green eyeshade on?
MARK SHIELDS: No, I think they've done it tactically, I would hope, rather than strategically - I mean, tactically because it makes George W. Bush and the Republicans on Capitol Hill look like rather silly hypocrites because just a matter of six months ago they were maintaining that this was a surplus in perpetuity, that they could have no choices, it would be anything anybody wanted, including a date on Saturday night would be available to them. Now they're saying, my goodness, 45 percent in three months, Margaret, of the surplus has disappeared. This is a program built upon ten-year projections. Talk about built on a sand bar.
|Measured spending, cuts loom|
MARGARET WARNER: But in the next month before the end of the current fiscal year, both sides are going to have to actually vote on things. What is going to happen? Let's take defense. The president wants this $18 billion more including missile defense.
DAVID BROOKS: There are a bunch of programs out there that are going to cost money. Defense? I don't think there is support there because I don't think there's support for Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, and I don't think there's great enthusiasm even among the House Republicans to bite the bullet and really court themselves on defense by spending the money. On education, I think there is support there.
MARGARET WARNER: To actually bust the budget number.
DAVID BROOKS: The real victim of this is the prescription drug plan. That's a big plan that a lot of people would have to get a lot of momentum built up for and I think the decline in revenues just kills that for this year.
MARK SHIELDS: I would say that, Margaret, the privatization of Social Security -- that commission could wrap it up right now and go have lunch somewhere because there is not going to be any money for that in the foreseeable future or the unforeseeable future.
MARGARET WARNER: That was predicated on there would be some kind of a surplus in the transition.
MARK SHIELDS: -- the transition cost of a trillion dollars were going to be available magically. That's no longer the case. I think prescription drugs is going to be the central battle between the two parties. I think you'll see the Democrats on the side of education and prescription drugs and the question is where the Republicans are going to be. And George Bush is going to lose Republican support if the economy doesn't start to show signs of improvement.
MARGARET WARNER: And all these votes are going to take place on the eve at least of an election year. We're always in an election year or on the eve of one, but what is going to be the repercussion politically and against whom for tapping the Social Security funds, even accepting your view, and it is correct-- I shouldn't say it's correct.
DAVID BROOKS: You can safely say my view is correct.
|The budget impact on 2002 elections|
MARGARET WARNER: There is no real Social Security trust fund in a little box somewhere but that's the view.
DAVID BROOKS: Listen, I think the history of the last 20 years says people like the idea of balancing the budget but they really like the idea of government helping them out in real ways. So in education, defense, other things, people are willing to be a little less virtuous on the budget to get those programs. So I think at the end of the day, they're going to say we want the programs, we'll tolerate spending a little less on paying down the debt than, you know, if we were pure on the Social Security trust fund.
MARK SHIELDS: I don't think it's going to be a loser. I think it becomes somewhat, if not a metaphor, then at least a hint that President Bush on the question, which has nagged him throughout his career, certainly his national career, is he competent? Is he really in charge? If this is an example of, you know, gee, he made this statement and what is he doing now? Do I really have that much confidence in this man? David said he is going to use the bully pulpit. In order to use the bully pulpit you have to be a bully preacher. In order to be a bully preacher, you have to have confidence in yourself and evoke confidence in your listeners.
MARGARET WARNER: So in other words, you're saying, you don't think we'll see ads going into the campaign next year by either Republicans blaming the Democrats for tapping Social Security or vice versa because everybody in Washington, all the parties, the president included, are going to be in on this?
DAVID BROOKS: I think essentially you know -- Democrats love blaming Republicans for trashing Social Security but, you know, I think they want to get their spending in, too. If the economy sinks, this is the crucial variable over the next few months - if the economy sinks, if the Dow is in 8,000 territory, suddenly the Republicans become FDR type Keynesian spenders. We need to spend money to get the economy going. And that changes the whole atmosphere and the idea of fiscal rectitude just goes out the window.
MARK SHIELDS: It changes the whole atmosphere and at the same time it works to the Democrats' advantage because if you're going to get into the question of who is more for big spending, and deficit spending, the Democrats have the pedigree on it.
MARGARET WARNER: Thank you both. Have a great weekend.