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Shields and Brooks Talk Petraeus, Fiscal Cliff and Obama’s Emotional Gratitude

NewsHour political analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the top news of the week, including the legacy of David Petraeus’ career, whether taxes need to be increased for the health of the economy, the role President Barack Obama must play to encourage compromise in Congress, and Obama’s emotional thanks to campaigners.

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

    Welcome, gentlemen.

    We have seen you earlier this week, because something happened on Tuesday.


    It did.


    But we wanted you to come back on Friday.

    So, before we talk about the election and the fiscal cliff, Mark, this bombshell today that CIA Director David Petraeus stepping down after acknowledging an affair, once, what, the brightest light in the United States military.


    Yes, I mean, the flag officer of his generation, really, I think it's fair to say.

    And when people start talking about you running for president, it is, in itself, a great tribute. But I do feel badly. I feel this is a man who has given 35 years, more now, two years at the CIA, of his career, of his life for his country in public service.

    And one of the — Ronald Reagan said a lot of things, some of which were wise. And one of the really dumb things have said is that the best minds are not in government. If any were, business would hire them away. Well, David Petraeus and a lot of other people in civilian and military really great minds and great public servants.

    And I just want to kind of think about that right now and be grateful for the service he's rendered to his country.


    A stunning thing.


    Yes. I saw him a couple of weeks ago, and I asked him about what it was like to be at the CIA. I know he had loved the military and loved his service in the military.

    I was just curious what he thought. And he spoke about the people in CIA in such awestruck terms, their quality and especially the idea of they are all doing it in secret, and no will ever know what they do, and sort of that admiration for the service, which he embodied.

    But, you know, it's a — I think the Greeks understood this, that the very qualities that made him a great general make you a charismatic hero. And that attracts people. And it also, you know, being a charismatic hero for so many years, you probably get a little puffed-up vision of yourself as well.

    So, this is an old story. And so he — I think, in general, if he hadn't been head of the intelligence agency, he could have survived this. But when are you head of the CIA, this is not permissible. And so I'm confident he will go on to do something important. And, you know, one of the things he spoke about was maybe running a research group. And he has a Ph.D.

    And I think that would be a useful way to spend his life.


    We heard the tribute to him from the folks, the gentleman, the colonel who Ray interviewed a moment ago.

    So, let's go, let's talk about this issue that the president spoke about today and Speaker Boehner, the budget, the taxes, the fiscal cliff.

    Mark, the president, it seems to me, is drawing a line, as he has before. And he said, whatever it is, it has got to include taxes on the wealthy. The speaker is saying exactly what he did before, it can't include taxes on the wealthy.

    So where do you see this going?


    I see it going to demolition derby.

    I mean, we're in a little bit of a game of chicken right now, with the date pending at the end of year, and with a lame-duck Congress, with members who are leaving, who were defeated, who are retiring. But I think there's very few things we could say came out of this campaign of 2012. I mean, there weren't any nine-point programs by either the president or Governor Romney.

    But no one can argue that Barack Obama didn't stand clearly and unequivocally for raising the taxes on those earning over $250,000, just as Mitt Romney stood for repealing Affordable Care Act. Those were sort of the two linchpins.

    So the president does have, I think, a legitimate point of view. The speaker acknowledges that we're going to have to raise revenues. And I thought the conversation between Bob Corker, the Republican from Tennessee, and Ben Cardin of Maryland, just both reelected, was the most encouraging that I have heard in a long time.


    Well, Corker put it in terms of closing loopholes.


    Right, that the Senate is not the problem here. If it goes up to the Senate, we would have a deal.

    And I do think there is room for revenue. There is a distinction that Boehner makes between raising the rates, which the president wants to go up to 39.5 or 39.6, and keeping the rates the same, but closing loopholes to get more revenue that way out of the rich.

    You can't really get as much revenue that way. But — so there is some room for a deal. I'm just struck by how complicated it is. You know, Corker kept talking about entitlement reform. And he's right. That's absolutely necessary. But that is a phenomenally complicated thing to do.

    And then on the other side, to close loopholes or even to raise rates, you probably have to do some big tax reform. Well, in 1986, when they did tax reform, you had some incredibly skilled legislative craftsmen, Bob Packwood and Danny Rostenkowski, who also had their personal failings.

    But it took them two years. And these are the people at the top of their game, and in a non-polarized body. And so I'm just struck by the incredible difficulty of what's ahead of us. And so I'm a pessimist. I think we're going to go over the cliff, at least for some time. Everybody's taxes will go up. And we're going to — they're going to play some real brinksmanship.


    But is it made any easier, Mark, that the president was reelected? And, as you are suggesting, he did have a mandate on this particular question.


    I think it does.

    I think the president has a tactical advantage, Judy. And that is, you have to understand this about Republicans. Ronald Reagan did sign, in fact, 11 tax increases while he was in the White House in his eight years. But he had — you know, he was Mr. Conservative, so he was given some latitude.

    George Herbert Walker Bush, president 41, facing the deficits, really ballooning deficits of the time, unprecedented deficits, collaborated with Democrats in Congress and with some Republicans and passed a tax increase.

    He paid dearly for it. The country got fiscal health out of it, but he paid. He got a primary challenge and he got the wrath of a lot of the base of the Republican Party, and he lost reelection.

    Bill Clinton then came and again to restore fiscal, to sustain fiscal health, increased taxes, without a single Republican voting for it. And what happened? He paid a price. The Democrats lost control of the Congress and for 40 — after having it for 40 years in 1994.

    And the lesson that was learned was learned by Bush 43, who came and cut taxes twice. Now, under Bush 41 and Clinton, we had sustained economic growth and fiscal sanity.


    And higher tax rates.


    With higher tax rates.

    Under Bush 43, with two tax cuts, we had an economy in torpor and we doubled the national debt. And — but it's become an article of faith — and David can explain it — that Republicans, that, you know, you don't go near a tax increase of any sort.


    Right. I'm thinking about the word torpor. I haven't heard that in a little while.



    First — couple things to say.

    First, we had — marginal rates have been — over the last 100 years have been all over the place, up to 90, 70, and basic revenues have been the same. They have been around 18 for basically decade after decade. So there has always been a way to get around the marginal rates.

    Second, I actually agree with Mark on this one. The idea that business is booming when the top rate is 36, but would collapse at 39, is just not supported by any actual evidence. And so a marginal rate difference of that much, I don't think would make a big difference. And if it was up to me, you would go up there.

    When you get around 45, 50, then you really are setting in some perverse incentives. So I basically agree that it wouldn't be that economically harmful. But it is an article of faith that the government is already too big. And Republicans don't want to give more.

    One of the reasons, I should say, I think I'm pessimistic is not only because the Tea Party is still there, and they're still pretty good at posing — putting primary challenges to Republicans, but this time even though the president I think does have somewhat of a mandate, the left is much more organized and much less willing to compromise.

    So, a lot of people on the left say, A., we gave at the office. We have already had some serious spending cuts last time. Now it should just be tax revenue. The president in his Des Moines Register interview said $2.50 in spending cuts…


    For every…


    …for every dollar in tax revenue. I really do not think the Democratic Party is going to accept that ratio. They are going to want 1-1 or 1-0. And so I think a lot more Democrats are willing to walk off the cliff.


    And so what does that mean?


    I'm not sure they are. David may well be right.

    I will say this. The president does have a real tactical advantage, I mean, because Republicans have all signed this pledge, and they are against it. If we just go to the 31st of December, taxes automatically increase. So then whatever he came in with a plan, Republicans could say they are voting for a tax cut…




    …when he comes in and then with closing the loopholes.

    I think the initiative has to be with the president. And it has to be in total collaboration with the Congress, and that's both parties. It is not just the president and the speaker or the president and Harry Reid or — but it's got to be Republicans in the Senate. It's got to be Democrats in the House.


    Basically saying, we will let the Bush tax cuts expire for the middle class and anybody…


    Let them go up. And then they go up. And then you come in and you are Lochinvar. You are writing a tax cut, even if it does close a lot of loopholes.

    And Bob Corker made the point, although it's not enough to raise revenues, but you make people high income choose what they want in the way of their tax expenditures. Do they want to give it all to the universities, their alma mater, or do they want to give it to medical science in charitable form, or their church, or do they want to, you know, buy that new Mitt Romney house in the West Coast?


    Can I just make one point that will be germane to a lot of viewers, I think?

    One of the likely ways to close loopholes, you don't tell people which loophole you are going to close. You say you can deduct up to this amount.


    That's right.


    And so my big fear is, people will take the mortgage deduction, but there will be no money left over for the charitable deduction.

    And charitable giving, giving to PBS will just plummet. And I think that is a real danger that people who care about private philanthropy in this country should be thinking about over the next year.


    And that is a formula, again, we heard Senator Corker talk about, putting a cap on it.

    So before — we have got a few minutes left. But I want to show something to our viewers. On the day after the election, the president went over to his campaign headquarters in Chicago, and he talked to the volunteers. I guess some of them are paid. Some of them are volunteers.

    And I want to show people what he said and get comments from the two of you. Here is what the president said on Wednesday.


    I am absolutely confident that all of you are going to do just amazing things in your lives.

    And, you know, what Bobby Kennedy calls the ripples of hope that come out when you throw a stone in a lake, that going to be you.

    I was just looking around the room and I'm thinking, wherever you guys end up, in whatever states, in whatever capacities, whether you're in the private sector, or the not-for-profit, or some of you decide to go into public service, you're just going to do great things.

    And that is why, even before last night's results, I felt that the work that I had done in running for office had come full circle, because what you guys have done, the work that I'm doing is important. And I'm really proud of that. I'm really proud of all of you and what you…



    Well, you could see he was tearing up there, David. That's not a side of the president he's shown very much of before.



    Some of it is fatigue. Some of it is from stress. But I think the big thing there and what he talked about at the beginning before that little segment was his own life, as a young community organizer, not doing so good, but really being affected by that process and seeing people out there that were sort of doing that course, though, as he said, more — smarter and more effective than him.

    And so what was nice about it was is, it wasn't, oh, we won this election, yahoo, we won. It was about the life courses of the people in that room, the young people in that room. And it was a very nice moment as he talked really much more about them than about him. And I think that's really passing it on, generativity, that got him moved.


    A couple of quick points, Judy.

    First of all, we don't see an emotional Barack Obama. He's a very cool customer in public. We see the big smile. And we see occasional pursed lips to express either solemnity or displeasure. But that's about the register and the range of emotions we have seen.

    What we saw there, I think, yes, partly fatigue, but obviously authentic and genuine. After — at that event, talking to one of the young people there who I know who has worked the last 18 months, 18 hours a day, seven days a week, the president went to each of the people, 700, individually and hugged and shook hands with each one of them.

    And it was quite an incredible moment for them. But, obviously, this was something that he felt, as well as just expressed verbally.


    We only have a little bit of time. But why do we think he hasn't shown that side of himself before?


    He's never been the angry black man.

    I mean, Barack Obama rose to political prominence and success in this country controlling his emotions. He's got a wonderful smile. And the smile is quite disarming and engaging and really winning.

    But he's never — he doesn't show the dark side. There's never the scowl. There's never the loss of temper, even very rarely raising his voice. And I think it had to be just an act of incredible discipline as part of his political career.


    Yes. I guess I would — I think he has a writer's personality. And I mean that as a compliment, actually, that it is a little detached and a little more aloof. But it was nice to see it there.


    Extraordinary piece of tape.

    And David Brooks and Mark Shields, an extraordinary week from the two of you. Thank you. We will see you next week.


    Thank you.


    Mark and David keep up the talk on the Doubleheader, recorded in our newsroom. That will be posted at the top of the Rundown later tonight.

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