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Shields and Brooks on American life amid a pandemic

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the latest political news, including a surreal week in which much of American daily life shut down, bright spots of people helping each other in a time of need, President Trump’s handling of the crisis, the ongoing issue of political polarization and how government should respond.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Some news just in: A member of Vice President Pence's staff has tested positive for COVID-19. The White House says neither the president nor the vice president has been in close contact with the person.

    Now, to help make sense of a week that doesn't seem real to many of us, we turn to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    And neither one of you is here with me. We are keeping you at what we think is a safe distance, but we're so glad that you're here.

    David, how do we make sense of this, you know, things going on that I think most of us could never have imagined?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I sort of have a split-screen reaction to this.

    When you talk about regular people and how they're acting, I think it's been a remarkably good week, an uplifting week on the whole. This is something — even though we're separated, it's something we're all going through together. And we're having the same experiences and undergoing the same anxieties.

    In a weird way, we had to be put apart in order to feel together. And there are so many acts I have heard about or communicated with and heard about of people helping elderly in their apartment buildings, about people having virtual cocktail parties.

    I really do think it's a moment where social connection has risen top most to mind, and people are finding innovative ways to connect with each other. So, society wise, it's a good moment.

    Politically, I'm a little less sanguine. I think President Trump has had — much improved, but his neuroses and narcissism still show up and still give me pause.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I want to ask you both about that in a minute.

    But for now, Mark, how are you making sense of all this?

  • Mark Shields:

    Judy, I'm not sure how much sense I can make of it.

    I mean, I don't disagree with David's assessment. But I — to me, what has been most revealing is revealed by The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, there is almost a political divide on the crisis.

    And that is that Republicans, particularly President Trump's most ardent supporters, have been quite resistant to accepting that this was a crisis, and, in part, because of the denigration of the government by the administration and by previous conservative efforts, very little trust or confidence in our collective action, whereas Democrats have been far more — perhaps because of their skepticism about President Trump, have been far more willing to accept that this is a global, national and personal crisis for all.

    So that is — that's been — we're in political silos. And, usually and historically, crises have sort of brought us together. And that — beyond the acts of individual kindness — has not occurred yet politically.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do you see that divide out there, David?

    How serious is it?

  • David Brooks:

    Partly, we just see through tribal lenses these days. Partly, it has to do with population density. It's the denser places that are reacting more quickly, where I think people are a little more alarmed.

    Partly, it is distrust of the media, more on the Republican side. But I do think — I think, at the end of the day, we're about to enter — we're not in the Italy phase yet. When we get to the Italy phase, we're going to be terrified.

    And there will be scary moments. And I'm hopeful that everybody in the country, regardless of political belief, will seize on that and say, oh, yes, this is super real.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark, how are you sizing up the leadership we're seeing this week, whether it's coming from the White House, from the governors? What are you seeing out there?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, the president's mood has changed.

    Whether it was the intervention by Tucker Carlson or just the weight of empirical evidence, and listening finally to scientific voices in his — in his own vicinity, the president's manner has been more serious and more somber.

    At the same time, we come back to what was identified as both a strength and a problem of his in the 2016 campaign that remains. And that is, the question is, do you take what Donald Trump says literally, but — or seriously?

    And that — Salena Zito, the reporter and columnist, wrote in 2016 that Donald Trump's supporters took him took him seriously, but not literally, and his critics took him literally, but not seriously.

    Ideally, what you want in a leader at a time — especially a time of crisis, is somebody both, that you could take seriously and take literally. And the president has just been corrected so many times on his misstatements, whether we have 15 cases and it's going down to zero, that everybody can get a test, from on the — we're on the verge of a vaccine, and then the correction and amplification comes out, that it does, I think, cripple him as an effective spokesperson.

    And I would just add to that his attack today on Peter Robinson (sic), as accounted earlier in the "NewsHour," was just symptomatic of that attitude and that ability to be comforter in chief, consoler in chief, teacher in chief that is part of the presidency.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David, how much does what is going on with the president matter at a time like this? And what about some of the governors who people are looking to and making different assessments of?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, even on his best day, the president is unnerving.

    The fact that he lashed out at the reporter who asked a very simple and softball question, well, how would you comfort people who are afraid, first of all, he revealed that it was all about himself. He assumed the fear was — must because he wasn't doing good job.

    And then he was sort of triggered by the idea of empathy. And so that was just unnerving.

    To me, I worry about actual production. Are we actually producing tests? That, to me, is still an unanswered question. We cannot lock down our entire society for an indefinite period of time. We have to move to this total lockdown, which we have to do right now, to a process where we test people, we test everybody.

    And the people who have the infection are isolated, and the rest go on with their lives. And so, to me, it's the actual production of stuff.

    When Dwight Eisenhower was running U.S. forces in World War II, he spent an enormous amount of time on landing craft. It was like the dull logistical things that you need to get a process and institution to work in response to a crisis.

    And I, frankly, don't have confidence that we're doing those dull logistical things right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, that's something the White House has been talking about, for sure, Mark.

    And Congress is also focusing on that. They're looking at legislation to address the health and medical urgent issues out there, as well as the economy, with so many people out of a job.

    What do you see coming from Congress? Is it moving fast enough? Are the political divides, speaking of divides, are they going to be so great as to, do you think, be able to even find a remedy here?

  • Mark Shields:

    I think they will act, Judy. I think the crisis is such that will find it in their own interests, as well as the national interests, to act.

    Just one sidebar. And that is, Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, deserves a shout-out for his leadership, as does Mike DeWine, even though, controversially, closing the primary on Tuesday. I think he's shown leadership, the Republican governor of Ohio.

    But I think the Congress is — Judy, I think we're seeing the divide philosophically, politically, as to where the money should go. I'm always kind of fascinated by the captains of industry who, in good times, believe that everything that's good is their own doing, and that all profits should be privatized, but, in bad times and catastrophe, are — run with a tin cup to the federal government to social realize their losses.

    I just have a simple proposal. And that is, fine, if the airlines want the American people to underwrite them, to take them over, they become a public entity, and, therefore, that the CEO is paid at the same rate as a member of Congress, $174,000.

    I mean, the idea of subsidizing $11 million salaries — I'm not talking about flight attendants or machinists or mechanics.

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • Mark Shields:

    I'm talking about people making $11 million, that they should be subsidized by taxpayers who themselves are beleaguered and besieged and scared…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about that?

  • Mark Shields:

    … is unacceptable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I'm sorry.

    What about that, David? We had economist Ken Rogoff on the "NewsHour" last night telling Paul Solman, this is going to be a recession like nothing we have ever seen. In other words, we may be looking at a need for trillions and trillions of dollars.

  • David Brooks:


    And I think the Congress has at least responded with the right scope of size, starting at a trillion in dollars. We may have to go up to $2 trillion.

    The thing I would say is, I have been reading about past pandemics. People in these fearful times are extremely sensitive to inequality, that somebody is getting better treatment than them. And so when you write the legislation, it has to go to those who need it most, those are lower down the income scale.

    I think it should be capped at a certain income. It should be in the form of unemployment insurance and small business relief, so they can keep meeting their payrolls. And it should be in the order of $1.5 trillion or even $2 trillion.

    I'm sort of shocked that the Republicans wrote their one bill, and then Democrats are going to come back with another. It seems like, in a moment of an emergency, they could actually write the same bill together.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, speaking of unfairness, Mark, the reports today about Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, Senator Kelly Loeffler of Georgia selling stock back in January, when they first heard privately about how bad coronavirus was going to be.

    They both say they didn't do anything wrong, nothing illegal, but people are asking questions.

  • Mark Shields:

    Judy, it's a time, especially at a — picking up on David's point — when 49 members of the Utah Jazz basketball team and company immediately get tested, while hundreds of front-line health care workers can't even get tested, there is special privilege and special treatment being shown, which the president seemed strangely indifferent to when the question was posed to him.

    And I just — I think, if — this is blood money, that's all you could say, in fact, they had a private briefing, and then sold their stocks. And Senator Loeffler: That's fine. Somebody else did it. I have a private adviser doing this.

    I don't care. I mean, this is — if this is the case, that you were informed of what was happening, and unloaded stocks that looked like they were going to be losers and took a profit, that truly is unacceptable. It is blood money and has to be pursued and prosecuted.

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • David Brooks:

    Yes, the thing that's going to determine success or failure in this crisis is one thing. It's social solidarity. It's the idea that we're all in this together, that we're all looking out for each other, nobody's trying to screw anybody else.

    And that requires what I think we're seeing on the ground level, which is people actually reaching out to each other and feeling connected with their neighbors, neighbors, they may not have known. But it also requires leadership from the top, leadership of empathy.

    It requires a sense that everything is surrendered to the common good. And that's just that — that — we enter this crisis with all those things, all the social solidarity levels at such low ebb, that we have no luxury here.

    We just have to develop and have to grow it in the worst possible way. And, obviously, what those senators did, or any kind of — anything that looks like privateering, even if it's wrong, that is unacceptable, when what — yes.

    So, I mean, we have just got to keep social solidarity uppermost on our mind.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    On that note, David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you both, and stay safe.

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