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Shields and Brooks on Trump’s Iran decision, Biden segregationist comments

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s political news, including President Trump’s response to the conflict with Iran and controversy around former Vice President Joe Biden’s comments about working with segregationists.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This week in politics, Joe Biden's comments on working with segregationists, and tensions with Iran escalate to new heights.

    It's time for the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Hello to both of you. A very, very full week.

    So, Mark, let's talk about what we are leading with tonight, and that is, again, the tense situation, standoff, whatever you want to call it, between the United States and Iran, with the latest news being President Trump had authorized a military strike, but then — or almost authorized, and then, at the last minute, pulled it back.

    What do we make of this?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, the president is keeping his word he made during the campaign to be unpredictable. And I think unpredictable is what this qualifies as, Judy.

    It's a little unsettling, obviously, because there is no scholar warrior like Jim Mattis in the room. It isn't — you don't get the sense that this has been well-thought-out and the idea that the country is prepared.

    There is no sense of what our objective is, and how we will know we have succeeded, and how the country gets on board, and whether, in fact, we do have, as we — for example, George H.W. Bush had 39 nations in the coalition in 1991 when he was responding to the invasion of Kuwait. And this is — we are virtually alone.

    I mean, it's unsettling. I'm relieved that the president did. I'm rather that he found out so late in the game, that nobody thought to tell him that we're talking about human casualties. But that's where we are.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What does this say to you, David, about this sort of last-minute reverse course?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    Well, first, I'm glad he reversed course. It does seems disproportionate to me. And disproportion is one of the primary elements of just war theory going back to Saint Augustine. So, Donald Trump and Saint Augustine have one thing in common.

    I guess I agree with Mark. I don't know what the strategy here — and, most importantly, I don't know — I don't know Donald Trump's theory of the Iranian regime. They have been expanding their terror activities and seemingly stepping up to the pace.

    But are there — is there a battle within the Iranian regime we should be conscious of to try not to tilt things over to the hard-core radicals? Or do we just need to lay down some deterrence? Is there a way we could sweet-talk them into being nicer? Like, there's all these things.

    And it's all about the regime. Are they the aggressor? Are we the aggressor here? These are the basic questions that underlie how you react.

    You need to — in order to know how to react, you got to know how they will react, and you have to have some theory of what they're thinking. And a normal president would give an Oval Office address and tell us, but we don't really have that.

    So I'm sort of struck. I don't know what the proper deterrence is, because I don't know what will deter or what their goals are.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark, is there clarity in the administration's approach to Iran, to what is going on?

  • Mark Shields:

    No. No, there isn't, Judy.

    And the old aphorism in Washington is, if you want people in on a rocky landing, you better have them be sure that they're on board for the takeoff.

    I mean, that is — coming back to George H.W. Bush, who was probably the model in this regard, he got his position ratified by the United Nations Security Council and approved by a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate, so that there was this a sense of what our objective was, what the — why the force was being applied, and that there had been an international effort to enlist support, a successful one.

    All of that is missing here, Judy. And so, as a consequence, there's just, I think, as David said, both curiosity, anxiety, and just tension.

  • David Brooks:

    And tactics are sort of driving strategy.

    So we have accidentally walked into the position where we have drawn a red line, where Pompeo was said that you cannot kill Americans. And if you do that, suddenly, things change radically. So that's a red line.

    And so if they do end up killing Americans, accidentally or on purpose, then what happens? And if you don't have the overall strategy — they have got so many tools at their disposal. They could do cyber-warfare. They could attack Iranian forces that are spread around the Middle East.

    They can, as earlier presidents have done, gone after the Iranian navy. There are lots of different things they could do. Some of them would kill people. Some of them wouldn't kill people. But if you don't have the overall strategy, you don't know what in order to do those things.

    So every day becomes its own decision points. And you're not really in control. It's — you're just stumbling around in the dark, doing one thing. Then they do something, and then they do something. And that, it seems to me, a perfect recipe for escalation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about the question that I was asking, I think, Senator Risch and Senator Reed, Mark?

    And that is, does this have longer-lasting effects, in that, does it give the sense that this is an administration that is indecisive, weak, and then have — in other words, are there lasting effects? Or is this just something you move on and move on to the next crisis?

  • Mark Shields:

    The next crisis.

    Well, I mean, I don't think the — I don't want to accuse the president of being weak, just as a citizen, quite frankly, not as — taking off my analyst hat, because he did show restraint, but about policy that he has not been able to articulate or explain, and therefore to enlist support for it.

    So, we're all by ourselves here, Judy. That's the difficult part. There are no allies. And that is — I think that's a consequence of everything we have been through for the first three years of this administration.

  • David Brooks:

    yes.

    And, at the core, I think he is America first. And that goes back to — whether he knows it or not, to a sort of an isolationist tendency, that we shouldn't get involved in foreign adventures. And that's pretty much where the American people are right now, and even where the Republican Party is.

    And so I think there's that core. But if you looked at his rhetoric, you would think he was most aggressive person on Earth, because his rhetoric is, we will rain down fire and death upon you.

    And so there's a gigantic gap between the way he talks and mostly what he's been doing.

  • Mark Shields:

    And it does — it's the maximum application. It's sort of contradictory, maximum application of force to the Iranian regime, yet I'm not going to get involved or we're not going to get involved in any foreign entanglements, which could collide.

    I mean, the maximum force at some point could lead to a foreign entanglement. That's — I think that's the dilemma.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Completely different subject area, but that's what happened, David, this week.

    And the Democratic — among the Democratic candidates for president, Joe Biden was making remarks. And he referred back to senators he worked with who he didn't necessarily agree with back in the 1970s.

    He mentioned James Eastland, the senator from Mississippi, Herman Talmadge from Georgia. These were known to be people who had supported segregation. But he was extolling the virtues of having — of needing to work with and working successfully with people he disagreed with.

  • David Brooks:

    Yes.

    Yes, when I heard it, I thought of Bono, who wanted to raise money to prevent — or to fight AIDS in Africa. So he went to Jesse Helms, who he probably disagreed with on every single thing on deep moral issues. Jesse Helms helped him. He saved lives in Africa.

    And my view is, if you're in the Congress, and your chairman happens to be a segregationist, you got to work with the person. And that's just part of politics. It's about conversation.

    And the second thing, you hope to change their minds. How do people become ex-homophobes? It's because they're in conversations with people who are not homophobes or who are gay or lesbian.

    And so, to me, engagement is usually the right thing. And, having said this, when I look at what's happening in the Democratic Party, this seems to be almost entirely generational. And so the older folks, frankly, John L. Lewis today was a strong defender of Biden. He said, yes, we worked with people in the KKK when we were in the civil rights movement.

    But some of the younger folks — and this is the big generation gap within the Democratic Party — they said, no, you don't touch — you don't touch that.

    And I sort of understand the argument, but I don't think it's right if you're in a body, and you're dealing with people who are elected.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He did get in hot water, Mark.

    I mean, is it purely generational? I mean, what do you see?

  • Mark Shields:

    Well, he did get in hot water.

    And it was a gift, actually, in a strange way, the Iranian — to Joe Biden, I mean, because it got him out of the hot water, and it got him into his wheelhouse politically, which is international, known, sure-footed, understanding the players and so forth, all of which seems to be missing from this administration.

    I agree with David to this extent. Politics is a matter of addition, not subtraction, Judy. If you're looking, you're looking for converts. You're looking for people to come over to your side. You're not looking for heretics. You're not hunting down people who are somehow morally defective or imperfect, to be banished to the outer darkness.

    It is no accident that, when the Democratic Party did have Jim Eastland and Herman Talmadge, they were in the majority. They were in the majority, which meant that people like Phil Hart, and Mike Mansfield, and Ted Kennedy could write great legislation, and that we had the Civil Rights Act, and we wrote Medicare, and we passed Medicaid, and we gave federal education. We passed the G.I. Bill.

    I mean, it's just — it's rather remarkable. Now, you can be pure, you can be noble, and say, oh, no, I only want people on my side who are absolutely pure. I don't want anybody who may have sinned in my church.

    That's a prescription for a minority party. And I will say it must be very satisfactory to be as noble as Cory Booker and Kamala Harris Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, to sit there and tsk-tsk Joe Biden.

    It is no accident that Joe Biden alone of anybody in public life has been asked give the eulogy at Strom Thurmond's funeral in South Carolina, and Fritz Hollings' funeral in South Carolina, at John McCain's and Ted Kennedy's, at George McGovern's.

    I mean, he is — that's the politics he's practiced. It's an imperfect politics. He's an imperfect man. But it's the right politics if you're going to be in the majority and make change in this country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, even with that, David, you had Democrats saying, OK, you may have to work with people across the aisle who you disagree with, but why did he have to hold them up as examples?

  • David Brooks:

    Right.

    Yes. He was tone-deaf on that, and just mentioning segregation. He could have said, I disagreed with so and so, John McCain, but I still was great friends with him. Raising the segregation issue was, frankly, generational and tone-deaf for a lot of people under — even at my age…

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    … who think, wow, that's just — that's problematic.

    And it actually is a moral problem. If David Duke were in the hallway here, would I want to talk to him? No, I wouldn't want to talk to him. And I get that.

    And yet I do think this attitude that morality is about canceling other people, banning speakers, shutting people down, calling them out, telling them, well, you're expunged from society, that instinct, to me, is generally — is a dangerous instinct, even if I get in private life, that I don't want to talk to a person who's an out-and-out racist. I just don't want to talk to that person.

    In Congress, it's a little different. They were elected by the people in the state. In Congress, you're trying to get something done. It's not about your own personal virtue. It's about what you can do for America. And if you got to work with them, you got to work with them, it seems to me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But there is, Mark, today a — it seems to me that there's a requirement — I guess the P.C. requirement has raised in terms of what…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    Maybe so, Judy.

    But, if you think about it, the most universally admired legislator of the last half-century is Ted Kennedy, all right, Ted Kennedy, liberal lion of the Senate.

    And what did every obituary, every eulogy, every tribute to him say? He worked across the aisle. He worked with Orrin Hatch to pass children's health insurance for working parents who didn't get insurance through their jobs and their employers. He passed AIDS aid. I mean, he passed Title IX.

    He passed voting rights, always working across the aisle, with Warren Rudman, with John McCain, with Nancy Kassebaum, with Bob Dole. I mean…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You're naming Republicans.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Shields:

    Republicans, exactly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, David, we're not seeing as much of that, I think is the point we're making.

  • David Brooks:

    Probably because we just have a culture that's performance.

    Like, Kirsten Gillibrand, the senator from New York who's running for president, saying she wouldn't deal with people who are pro-life.

  • Mark Shields:

    Yes.

  • David Brooks:

    Like, that's an issue — if there's ever an issue on which serious people can differ, that is that issue.

    And if you're going to draw the boundary of acceptable opinion to only us progressives, then you are really drawing a small boundary. We're not really having a democracy. We're just having a campus where you're not allowed to have diversity of opinion.

    And so I get the — the segregationist thing, that's the hard case. I get that, that you — most of us don't want to deal with that. But, in politics, you do what you got to do to build a majority. And, sometimes, you have to deal with people you have to hold your nose with.

  • Mark Shields:

    I worked on — oh, I'm sorry. Go ahead.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    These are tough questions.

  • Mark Shields:

    It's a tough question.

    I worked on Capitol Hill 1965, the Senate Voting Rights Act. And J. William Fulbright, the principal objector for the war in Vietnam, went down to Mike Mansfield and said, I'm going to vote for it. And Mike Mansfield said, no, you will lose in Arkansas. We need you more here on that.

    So, he voted against the Civil Rights Act, even though he wanted to, to preserve his options and serve the case of being against the war in Vietnam. Moral choice. I'm glad he made it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A lot for us to think about.

  • Mark Shields:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you very much, Mark Shields, David Brooks.

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