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Shields and Brooks on Northam photo scandal, abortion and border standoffs

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks analyze the week in politics, including the uproar over a racist photo on the medical school yearbook page of Gov. Ralph Northam, D-Va., the furor erupting over state legislation related to third-trimester abortions, hope for resolving the border wall standoff and the widening 2020 field of presidential candidates.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    An update now to a story we reported earlier.

    This evening, Virginia's Governor Northam acknowledged that he was in a photograph depicting blackface and a Ku Klux Klan outfit. The photo was made public today, and comes from his 1984 medical school yearbook.

    Northam's statement this evening said, in part: "I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused, then and now."

    And that brings us to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Hello to both of you.

  • Mark Shields:


  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, I want to begin, David, with this news that we reported earlier in the program, that the pictures of Governor Northam had surfaced. He was elected just a year ago, is seen as a progressive Democrat in the South, in Virginia.

    But now there's this. Can he survive this?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, first, it just shocks you with how appalling it is.

    1984, it was not like 1850. And it's his med school. It's not high school. It's not college. This is a full-grown adult. And so it's just shocking and appalling that this was the norm, that it was OK to do this.

    I don't know if it survives — he doesn't — Virginia is a one-term state, so he never has to run again. But I really don't know. I — frankly, I was a little more appalled by his comments earlier in the week about letting babies die on tables when they're born in late-term abortions.

    And that was sort of what got this ball rolling. And so I would say, these are two events that I find morally incomprehensible.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark, what about this? And I do want to ask you about the abortion debate that David's referring to.

  • Mark Shields:


    Judy, I think that Ralph Northam won a campaign last year in which race was the issue, and he was the pro-civil rights candidate, and was castigated by Republicans for sponsoring, supporting the removal of Confederate statues from public places to museums.

    And that has been his public record. This is very much at odds with that. And I agree with David. It's offensive and it's indefensible, and the fact that he was a grown man.

    I do not think it leads to resignation. It is a one-term state. But, I mean, it certainly, I think, inhibits his effectiveness as governor, and certainly from the moral level of a governor calling, summoning a people to sacrifice, a collective sacrifice.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we will certainly see. This is all literally breaking just as we're sitting here tonight together on the program.

    But, David, just quickly, you referred to the dispute, the, frankly, outrage that poured out earlier this week. Virginia, there was just — in brief, a state legislator in Virginia was talking about expanding abortion rights into the third trimester, a lot outcry about that.

    The governor was attempting to talk about it, as someone who was an OB/GYN, a doctor, a physician. But it made an even bigger story.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, well it started with Andrew Cuomo in New York, where they passed a bill with full-length abortion.

    And I — you can have pro-choice, pro-life — I thought Andrew Cuomo made a mistake in lighting up the tower on the World Trade Center. Abortion is a tough issue. You don't celebrate it, a full-term abortion, with lighting up a tower in celebration of your law.

    Then the — there was a bill proposed in the Virginia legislature to do this, and the legislator was asked, would she — could you abort a baby just before it was in the birth canal? And she said yes.

    And he was trying to explain it, the governor was, with — very medically, that the — if a child comes out with some problems, then the physician and the parents would decide whether or not to resuscitate.

    And, to me, that's not my understanding of the Hippocratic oath. If a baby is on a table, it's not even abortion anymore. It's a baby breathing on a table. And that's a human being, whatever you think of the pro-life issue.

    And so we're pushing new territory, I would say, in this debate, territory that almost no other country in the world endorses.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Where do you see this?

  • Mark Shields:

    I think David makes excellent points.

    I would add to this, Judy. Abortion is — Americans are collectively pro-choice and anti-abortion. You ask Americans, how do you feel about abortion, they don't like it.

    But a woman forced to make a decision under difficult circumstances, in consultation with her confessor, her conscience and her physician, they're not going to — they're not going to criminalize it.

    But, as long as the question is, what is being decided, as rather who is deciding, and when you're talking about what is being decided, what David has described, I think, frankly, it's now indefensible.

    Abortion is a — is an issue that Americans, quite bluntly, have never resolved. I mean, it remains in every Gallup poll every year the plurality Americans think abortion is immoral. They — at the same time, they do not want to criminalize it.

    But I do think that, when you get into the — as we talked about in Virginia, it's infanticide, when you say, make a child — have the child born, comforted, consoled, and then decide whether in fact — is it 24 hours, 12 hours, a week?

    I think — I just think the Democrats have gone from being the pro-choice party in both those instances to being the no-choice party.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we should — we should point out that what the Democrats are trying to do in a number of states is talk about the health of the mother, the life of the mother, the health of the baby. And those issues are part of this as well.

    But you're right. We're not going to resolve this, this evening. But it's an important thing to bring up.

    Let's talk quickly about the border wall dispute, David. Here we are, a week later. The committee is meeting at the Capitol. The president is saying, it doesn't matter.

    Does either — Republicans or Democrats on either side have more leverage? Where are we headed?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I assume we're not going to have a shutdown again on February 15, just because the Republicans, it would just be suicidal.

    And the Senate Republicans are a little more active this time. But I don't quite see how it gets resolved. Trump has said, the negotiations don't matter, I want my wall. Nancy Pelosi is still at the position a wall is immoral.

    And it's — the obvious exit route is, they find some money for border security, and Donald Trump gets to call it a wall, whether it's a wall or not.

    But it — the other — but they don't seem to have a route to get there. And they seem — both have decided, I can't let the other side seem to have won.

    And so, even symbolically, they can't share a victory here. And so I don't see a way out. It's certainly not evident right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The — Senator Shelley Moore Capito was on the program this week, Mark, and she said they're talking about, among things, fences, maybe levees, as one definition of a barrier.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes. That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, it could very well come down to some construction or definition.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes. I agree. I agree with David's — David's point.

    Judy, I think that, whether it's border security or whatever, the president is not being helpful. I mean, there seems to be, on the part of Republicans, Senator Capito, but Senator Cornyn, Senator Thune, an understanding that a — they got hurt, and they have got to resolve this, and they want to get it resolved.

    And, at the same time, they're being increasingly frank about the president's unhelpfulness in it. I mean, John Cornyn said, we're trying to figure out where he stands. And John Thune, the senator from South Dakota, said, we cannot say that these meetings are fruitless. We're trying to get something.

    It's almost — what President Trump is doing is making the congressional branch of our system more positive, I mean, that we're turning to them in hopes. We always thought the executive was very efficient.

    But, I mean, now the hope for resolving this really, frankly, is with the conference of senators and House members.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Even as the president pronounces it a waste of time.

  • Mark Shields:


  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, to the presidential contest.

    David, we have several people jumping in. Today, it's the New Jersey senator, U.S. Senator from New Jersey Cory Booker. A few days ago, Howard Schultz, the man who put Starbucks on the map, is saying he's seriously looking at this as an independent, getting a lot of flak.

    And one of the issues coming out of this is what Democrats are saying they want to do with regard to taxing wealth, taxing people who are extremely wealthy to get more money for the government.

    What — how big an issue is that going to be in this campaign, and what is — what does Howard Schultz bring?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, it was not a great issue to start with.

    People didn't want to raise taxes. That's just generally been an unpopular thing, even for Democrats. But the widening inequality makes it a much more accessible issue.

    The only point I would make on that is that, when we had tax rates up at 70 percent, the tax revenue as a share of GDP was about 19 percent. We reduced tax rates from 70 to 33, and tax revenues as share of GDP was 19 percent. It didn't really change. And that's because people avoid when you get it up that high.

    And so, to me, it — I don't think it makes a huge difference in how much people are actually paying in taxes.

    As for Schultz, I always want a third voice in this thing, but he has no message. The message of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism, it's fine, but it's not a message germane to this moment, and it's not a message that's going to mobilize actual independents.

    Schultz, if he does run, will only get votes if it's Trump vs. Sanders, say. If that — if that is the choice, then Schultz becomes the empty vessel upon which people will fall into.

    But it didn't need to be this way. He didn't need to be an empty vessel. He could have actually had a message. And he hasn't found one yet.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Democrats, of course, Mark, are saying he's got to get out of the race — or — which he hasn't jumped into yet. They're saying, don't get in, because you're going to hand the election over to Donald Trump, reelection.

  • Mark Shields:

    I have seen chilly welcomes before, but this ranks right up at the top.


  • Mark Shields:

    A couple of numbers, Judy — 537 votes, that was 2000. That was Florida. That's what Al Gore lost to George Bush and lost the White House.

    Democrats have not — why did he lose it? Well, one Democratic explanation is, there were 97,498 votes cast in Florida that year for Ralph Nader. If Ralph Nader had not been in the race, very little question that Al Gore would have carried Florida, would have been president of the United States.

    So third parties have been spoilers, rather than change agents, for most — in American politics.

    And, at the same time, I agree with David that there was no — there's no constituency, other than a couple of editorialists and very thoughtful journalists for fiscal responsibility and cultural liberalism, and that it's a — you're talking about one-third of 1 percent.

    Donald Trump depends on one thing. He's the only president in the history of the country that, every day of his presidency, now some 742, he has never had a positive day of polling, either personally or professionally. He needs a third-party candidate. He needs probably a third-party and a fourth-party again, so his 41 or 42 percent will get him there.

    And I think that's what you got in Schultz, who is kind of a — you're coming in to be a spoiler. And Democrats kind of understood that the important thing is to beat Donald Trump. At the same time, Democrats this week are spending time arguing about who can be the most leftist activist in party.

    The reality is, since 1990, the income, the household income of the top 1 percent has doubled in the United States, has doubled. That's the top 1 percent. Among the median income, household income in the United States, it's increased — increased by 6 percent.

    So the disparity in wealth is there. And the ability to pay is — I think the value that has embraced — Democrats have embraced in taxation. But, again, what you don't want to do is give Donald Trump a chance to make you the issue running against him.

    You want 2020 to be a referendum on Donald Trump, up or down on Donald Trump, not on some Democratic internal fight over issues.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Twenty seconds, David, which says that this whole debate over inequality is likely to be part of this.

  • David Brooks:

    It should be.

    I mean, Mark's point is right. And I'm conservative, but I do think we're — something's out of control.

    I will just say, finally, I have been — I do not like Donald Trump and I do not like his presidency. I felt the Democrats have done their best to slap people like me in the face over the last week on a lot of different issues.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we may have to pursue that another time we gather at this table.


  • Judy Woodruff:

    David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you.

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