Shields and Brooks on the Senate’s trade battle, train safety funding

JUDY WOODRUFF: This week, we saw battles between brethren. Democrats in Congress fought against President Obama's touted trade deal, while, elsewhere, Jeb Bush struggled against his own brother's presidential legacy on the question of the Iraq War, all this as a deadly train crash has renewed a national debate on America's infrastructure.

We turn now to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Gentlemen, welcome.

So, I want to ask you first, though, both about the Boston verdict, sentencing verdict.

Mark, you're from Boston. This is the death sentence, unanimous death sentence.

MARK SHIELDS: It is, Judy.

And the one just outstanding image I have is that of Bill and Denise Richard, the parents of little Martin, the little angel 8-year-old who was blown up in front of their eyes while their daughter, Jane, lost her leg, and their request to give life without parole. Otherwise, they said, the death sentence, we will relive this. Every appeal that is made, we will relive the worst day of our life.

It is an aspect that — and a perspective, I think, that appealed to me, given my feelings on the death penalty. But as pointed out by the prosecution, he put — he put the bomb four feet away from a row of children. It was a horrific, horrific, inhuman act. So, you know, my heart goes out to the Richard family and to everybody else who was touched and remains pained.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the jury went in the other direction.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. And some of the other families wanted this outcome. I think there was division among them.

I'm — personally, I am skeptical of the death penalty in cases where we don't know, we're not certain. There have been so many wrongful convictions, and so I'm not a fan of the death penalty. Nonetheless, I thought what Loretta Lynch, the new attorney general, said today was that this was truly the most horrendous crime imaginable, and for the most horrendous crime, the ultimate penalty is fitting.

I have some sympathy. And this is not a case where we really have too much doubt about who did it. We know this guy did it. It killed those children, and then killed the cop a couple of days later. And so if there's ever going to be a death penalty, I guess I think this is the case. Whether he will actually ever get executed, I'm a little dubious. I don't he ever will. A lot of the federal cases, they rarely actually execute the people, because the appeals take so long. But I guess it's fitting in this case.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, another — certainly another tragedy this week, Mark, is the train crash, train going off the rails, Philadelphia, eight people killed, 200 people injured.

As we said, a lot of conversation now about the role of safety in the railroads. We interviewed Sarah Feinberg a minute ago, the head of the Federal Railroad Administration, including some conversation about whether the federal government should be doing more. Speaker John Boehner was asked that at a news conference this week. He said the question is stupid because of the train speed.

But how should we think about this? I mean, should we be thinking more about government role at some level, or is that just the wrong way to go?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it's a little late to argue about government role. Railroads would not have been built in this country but for the government.

They were built — of course, the Transcontinental Railroad, by the federal government, whether right away with funding, to connect California to the rest of the country and to fight the Civil War. And it's been a policy of long standing.

This is an important — 750,000 Americans every day use this Northeast Corridor of Amtrak. Without it, you're talking about congestion and economic dislocation. Just traffic would be impossible. So, I think it's in the national interest.

Speaker Boehner knows what he is speaking about politically. I thought it was a terrible use of a word, stupid. But if you look at the states through which it runs, begins in Washington, D.C., goes through Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine.

What do they have in common? They're blue, quite frankly and bluntly. They vote Democratic. So, I mean, in a sense, the Republicans in the House have precious little interest in the Northeast Corridor.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you're saying there is a connection?

MARK SHIELDS: I think there is a direct connection, sure.

DAVID BROOKS: I wonder if Acela usage makes people liberal. I'm in trouble. I take that thing four times a week to New Haven.

I think there are two things to be separated, first, whether this crash could have been prevented with more spending. That, I'm less concerned — less convinced of. As we just heard, the implementation that would have been safety — that would have maybe prevented this crash — we really don't know what caused it yet — were paid for and were being implemented. And maybe it was implemented too slowly, maybe not.

But in this particular case, for some reason, the train was going a ridiculous — over 100 miles an hour. I can't even imagine what that would have felt like. And so whether we could have prevented this, I'm not convinced.

Whether we should be spending more, it's clear. For people like me who ride it constantly, the track bed, you feel it in different — you know if you ride it this much that you're going fast in a certain stretch, and you're going to terribly slow in another. Some of the things between the tracks are still made out of wood.

And we're just not spending enough on this, let alone the infrastructure, the bridges and all that other stuff. It's not a controversial statement to say we should be spending hundreds of billions of dollars more on infrastructure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As we said earlier, it seems like so much less attention is paid on this than on airline safety. Clearly, we need to pay attention to airline safety.

MARK SHIELDS: Absolutely. No, no question. I agree.

And the fact is that we're still — the Highway Trust Fund is about to run out of money, and that the infrastructure of the country is in disrepair. The failure to invest in our public transportation and public life, I think, is a scandal and a shame, and it should be a national embarrassment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Trade authority, big vote in the Congress this week. It didn't go in the president's direction, at least the so-called procedural vote, David.

We are seeing a split among Democrats. The president may be working on it. What is going on here. And what does it say about the ongoing problems the president may have in his own party?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, first, there's just the tactical issue.

The president didn't reach out enough. We have come to expect that from this White House, that they often don't anticipate the most. They're not in close social communication, so they don't foresee problems that they probably should foresee. And that's just been a running weakness of the administration, I would say.

Second, it's just true that the Democratic Party is becoming more split, especially on the Senate level. There was always a House minority on the Democratic side who were very suspicious of trade, but now at the Senate level. And that's reflective of a party moving left. That's reflective of a fact that the argument about whether trade benefits Americans has become a more divided argument among economists, to be fair.

I did see Fareed Zakaria make an excellent point this week on — just on the merits of these kind of agreements. We can have arguments about whether NAFTA helped or hurt the United States. And I think the effect was probably minimal either way. It had a huge positive effect on Mexico.

Our neighbor to the south is a transformed country. It's a better country. It's sending fewer illegal immigrants to us. It has got more opportunity. It is much a better trade partner in policy terms. And the argument was that it's — these kind of trade agreements are a net benefit for the world, and a net benefit for our foreign policy, and in the long run, given the dislocations, are a net benefit for us, too.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see that?

MARK SHIELDS: To use that — Mansfield, Ohio. The reality is, the political reality is, Judy, that the president is lucky right now in the House of Representatives if he's in the teens on Democratic support. It's that low.

And David's right. There is a lack of personal touch. The coin of the realm politically in this town is coffee, a call from the president. This coin goes un-refunded in this administration. Barack Obama, even his greatest admirers say, is just terrible at this. He doesn't reach out. There's no personal connection.

So, he's right now trying to appeal to Congressional Black Caucus members. Keith Ellison from Minnesota said he — if Barack — President Obama needs a kidney, I would consider giving him one. I will not give him my vote on this. G.K. Butterworth, the president, head of the — Butterfield — of the Black Caucus, North Carolina, they have lost jobs. He had textile mills closed.

So, it's a real, real problem. The economy of the United States gross domestic product doubled from 1996 to 2015, doubled, more than, $8.8 trillion to $17.1 trillion. And the median household income went down, went down.

So, yes, it's, big picture, terrific. For individual people who have had their factories close in their district, I mean, you can't point to people and say, boy, because of NAFTA, all these jobs came in. You can point to town after town after city after city in America where factories closed after NAFTA as a consequence of NAFTA, and they — it overpromised and underdelivered.

And that's why there is suspension and skepticism. It's going to be tough to get Republicans. They have got to get over 200 House Republicans. And given their suspicion about the president on immigration and executive power, on environment, you know, it's going to be a tough haul for them, given their animosity toward him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I hate to let that one go. I know there is much more to say.

But just quickly to both of you on Jeb Bush, tough week, David, he had, when he answered a question about whether he would do what his brother did in going into Iraq, taking the United States into Iraq, knowing what we know today. He at first said, yes, I would. And then he was — backed off and gave different answers.

What's the impact of all this?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I sort admire him personally, a little fraternal loyalty there. And I'm sure he was torn on that.

He can be judged more harshly as a political manager. His whole idea is that he's an experienced, calm hand. But he certainly didn't handle this over the — over — well over the week. The final, most surprising thing to me is that the rest of the party seems to have switched to the idea the Iraq War was a mistake.

I was really struck by all — a lot of the other candidates came out and said obviously it was a mistake given what we know now about the weapons of mass destruction. And that is how parties shift sort of accidentally. Suddenly, they have decided the war was a mistake, after not admitting that for a long period of time.

And so I'm mostly struck by how the whole party seems to have pinioned on this issue in about three days.

MARK SHIELDS: Confidence eroding, I mean, a terrible performance by Jeb Bush.

In his autobiography, George W. Bush, his brother, to whom he was supposedly loyal, wrote, "The reality was that I had sent American troops into combat based in large part on intelligence that proved false." OK?

He admitted. Jeb Bush called it faulty. George Bush said it was false. I mean, since 2005, a majority of Americans, according to the Gallup poll, have said it was wrong and a mistake to go into Iraq.

And I don't know what Jeb Bush — he was the smart brother. That's what Republicans always refer to him as, the smart brother. And this was a terrible performance. And for building up confidence in him as a leader, I think it was less than helpful.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, he spent the rest of the week answering the question differently.

All right, we are going into the weekend. We thank you both.

Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.