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Mark Shields and David Brooks Preview the President’s State of the Union Address

Mark Shields and David Brooks join Jim Lehrer for a preview of the State of the Union address by President Bush.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Finally tonight, some preview words about tonight's state of the union evening from Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks. Mark, what are your expectations for what the president will say?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Well, Jim, it's a rather remarkable moment. I mean George Bush stands before the nation and before the Congress tonight as the first president reelected to a second term in 64 years with his party in control of both Houses of Congress. It's an entirely different political dynamic.

    If you think of Bill Clinton was reelected with a Republican Congress; Ronald Reagan with a Democratic Congress and Richard Nixon with a Democratic Congress – you know, he really — the first Republican president since 1928 to have — to come to office with his party in control of both Houses.

    So it's an entirely different dynamic for the president, I think especially as he speaks to the subject of Social Security because unlike his victories, his impressive legislative victories in his first term where he won on Medicare prescription drugs, on his tax cuts, almost overwhelmingly if not exclusively with Republican votes, on this one, he has got to reach out and forge a coalition.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Because of the Senate he needs –

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    The Senate and also –

  • JIM LEHRER:

    — he has to have 60 votes —

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    And also because it's such a major proposal and because it's such an established Democratic program, he can't do it without Democrats. He can't do it numerically; he can't do it politically.

    And it will be interesting to me to watch how the president does it because he has established this as the cornerstone of his second term what he expects his second term to be defined on. His second term may not be defined on that no more than his first term was defined on "leave no child behind" because events intrude.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    What do you think about the president — follow up on what Mark has said first of all. Do you expect Social Security to be the cornerstone, not only of what he says tonight, but what he wants to happen from this point on?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    The briefers are saying the speech will be half foreign policy, half domestic policy.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Right.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    But this will be the first speech he's given in three years where domestic policy is more interesting. He's really given his layout in the inaugural for foreign policy. But on domestic policy he has got to do a couple of things: The first thing he's got to do is really lay out the case for Social Security.

    I think he really hurt himself by using the word "crisis," which really wasn't quite credible. It's a long-term relentless problem that will lead to serious deficits and incredibly high tax rates gradually over the long-term. He has got to lay it out specifically and credibly I think because there is a moment, especially in Republican ranks, a moment of anxiety, almost panic, that this is going to fail. So he's got to begin to build —

  • JIM LEHRER:

    That what is going to fail?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    That it will not pass.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    I see.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    And he has got to sort of build some popular momentum, credible popular momentum behind this idea that we have got to make a change. At the same time as Mark suggests, he has got to leave himself open — and this he hasn't done in any speech– to the idea that I'm about to compromise. The Democrats are part of this game and the Republicans, who are now in four different camps, are all part of this game. So he's got to be forceful yet flexible. And that's a tough deal for a speech.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    You would agree with that, Mark, that the first thing he has to do, he has to overcome anybody who's out there saying wait a minute; there is no urgent problem that needs solving. And then he has to then say, if he can get it past that, "okay, give me your ideas and let's work this out." Is that —

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    He does, Jim. Unlike the parallels that have been drawn with Bill Clinton and his health care plan, his universal health care plan in 1993 and 1994, when there was by every measurement of public opinion a recognized crisis in the country in health care the number of people covered that Americans wanted to see the people who weren't covered covered; and then obviously the devil in the details, the plan, the opposition to its form.

    The president has not established that there is a crisis. When the largest circulation paper in the country came out today editorially, the USA Today — not exactly a liberal rag by any means — and points out that there will be enough 75 years from now to pay every benefit to every beneficiary under Social Security if we just borrow $3.7 trillion. Now that sounds like a lot of money except when you figure George Bush's tax cuts cost $11 trillion.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    How does the president convince not only the country the public in addition to the people in the hall the member of the Congress of the United States, "hey, we have to do something here?"

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    A couple of things. When Social Security was created, I have forgotten the exact figures, but say there were 13 workers to every retiree. We are now down to three workers per retiree. We will soon be down to two. You just can't support something like that. And while there may be enough money for the benefits at least until 2042, what happens as the society ages, the amount of money that goes to paying for the elderly, Medicare and Social Security crunches everything else in the budget.

    There's less money in the budget for everything else we want to do. So you get this relentless pressure starting in about 2018 of we have to take money out of education, out of welfare, out of everything else to pay for the pensions and the Medicare. And so there is this relentless pressure crushing the government. To me, it is not a crisis. Bill Clinton said it was, Bush said it was. It is not a crisis but it's a relentless long-term problem and he has got to lay that out in a concrete credible way.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    How does he make the case if it is such a long-term problem that we've got — why is this the number-one priority domestically in our country today? How does he make that case?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Because if we don't do it now it becomes much tougher, and then Medicare is another problem which this will lead into. But if we don't do it now, our children will have no choices. They'll have such a debt overhang, they will have no choices. That's just wrong. It is going to be I think easier for people in the country than for people in that hall who are worried about two years from now, for the reelection.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    I think, Jim, the other thing that George Bush faces and is a real challenge, is you have to understand that within his constituency the libertarian economic constituency, they view Social Security as an evil, as an evil, as a created evil that really —

  • JIM LEHRER:

    You don't agree with that?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    I think there may be six people who do.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    I disagree. Grover Norquist and that whole movement, I think that there is no question that they viewed that this is an ideological imperative to dismantle it. George Bush does not come to this with totally clean hands in terms of the beneficiaries and depend upon Social Security.

    And I think it's a corollary here of the Nixon goes to China. Richard Nixon could open up American relations with China because of his long-established anti-communist credentials. Ronald Reagan understood early on with Social Security. He had to have Tip O'Neill; he had to have Danny Rostenkowski, the Democratic speaker of the House, the Democratic chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, as his allies front and center and his co-captains in this. The president doesn't have anybody like that right now.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Do you get the impression the president understands he needs — whatever counterparts there are he has to have everybody on board or this isn't going to work?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Not everybody. But I think the message is so clear that the Republicans don't want to do this without Democratic support and therefore you have got to begin to negotiate. I don't think — I think most Republicans think Social Security is a popular successful program that is just unaffordable and probably not right for our age where people are more familiar with personal choice and want to run their own lives.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    The good news is we're going to be able to talk about this later tonight and other nights as we go. Thank you both for now.

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