Episode: Shields and Brooks on Boehner’s leadership turmoil, Pope Francis’ uplifting visit

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Shields and Brooks on Boehner’s leadership turmoil, Pope Francis’ uplifting visit

JUDY WOODRUFF: Capitol Hill was a historic place to be this week, with a papal visit and the surprise resignation of House Speaker Boehner.

Of course, those are the main topics for our turn to Shields and brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome, gentlemen.

So, Mark, surprised about Boehner?



MARK SHIELDS: But, as Lisa reported to you from the Hill, the speaker faced what is a vote of no confidence. He would have prevailed. He would have survived, but it would have showed him weakened within his own caucus. This was among the Republican members. So, I think he made the decision to go out on his own terms.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, a complete shock for you?

DAVID BROOKS: No, saw it coming months and months and months ago.


DAVID BROOKS: No, obviously, since the day he walked in the door, he’s had this challenge, and it’s grown more, but I don’t think anybody saw it coming in this way.

Obviously, I think the papal visit had — on the timing, had an effect. There is a beautiful piece by Robert Costa of The Washington Post talking about how, the night before, Costa, a reporter, was with him on the balcony, and Boehner was saying the pope stood right here, right here, and he asked me to pray for him. And he was so moved.

And so there’s an element of uplift, and might as well do the right thing. And this specific act was the right thing. Paul Ryan called it a selfless act. And I think it really is a selfless act. It spares us from a potential government shutdown. It helps the institution. It helps his party from the fallout from a government shutdown.

And so I think it’s a beautiful act. Now, over the long term, the downside of Boehner was that he wasn’t that imaginative and the Republicans weren’t that aggressive in putting together a lot of policies, an alternative to Obamacare, a health care, a tax plan, whatever.

But he did know reality. He could see reality around him. He knew the craft of politics and how you craft a deal, especially these budget deals. Some of his critics don’t seem to see that reality, that they don’t control the White House or the supermajority in the Senate. And they don’t seem to respect the craft of politics. And if they ever get in actual power, they are going to be introduced it to rudely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, David is saying it avoids turmoil, but, in fact, Mark, there is going to be turmoil as they figure out who their leadership is and they sort — because it seems to me the conservatives still want the same things, even with a bunch of new leaders.

MARK SHIELDS: You’re right, Judy. It postpones turmoil, instead of having it immediately.

John Boehner was never really a good fit with this particular caucus of fire-eaters. John Boehner was a legislator. He liked politicians. He was good at his craft. Perhaps they became suspicious when John Boehner, in 2001, cooperated. He actually practiced what the pope preached to the Congress. He cooperated and compromised with Ted Kennedy and George Miller, two ranking Democrats, on George Bush, President George W. Bush’s signature proposal of Leave No Child Behind.

And there were questions about him. He was willing to pass a highway bill. He was willing to pass an immigration bill. He was against closing down the government. He was willing to raise the debt ceiling. This raised suspicions within the true believer caucus, and which may be two dozen, it may be four dozen. And it’s not enough to pass anything.

And they’re just — quite frankly, all they did was — I think John Boehner — I think David is right — yesterday was the day of his life. He had — for 21 years…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Pope there.

MARK SHIELDS: … he had made the effort — he began when Tom Foley was speaker and John Paul II was pope — to get the Congress to invite him. And we never would have heard this remarkable pastor yesterday with the message of comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable yesterday and a national audience but for John Boehner.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, so do things change now? Does more get done, does less get done, is it the same? What’s going to be different about the way things work?

DAVID BROOKS: I think a lot is going to be the same, assuming Kevin McCarthy takes over.

He’s not that totally different than Boehner. He’s happy. He’s a happy guy. He’s a charming guy, right now a little more in favor with the very conservatives, but he’s still basically a reality-based politician. And he will understand how to try to do deals.

So, I think he will get a little bit of a breather. But the people who believe that they’re in office not to pass legislation, but merely to express their id are still there. And so that conflict will still be there.

And then, more structurally — Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution had a good piece today saying that the office of the speaker is weaker because there’s less earmarks, so they can’t give away pork projects to control people. The parties are weaker because of campaign finance. And there’s just a lot of free-spirited individualism in the House now.

And people can go off freelancing off on their own. And so the institutional power is a little weaker. So, even when a Democrat comes in, I think we’re going to see a lot more fractiousness.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even when a Democrat comes in? You mean even…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I mean, it’s different.

I think both parties are ideologically polarized. The Republican — some of the Republican Party doesn’t believe in politics. I think most of the Democratic Party does believe in politics. They’re the party of government. They believe in government.

And, so, in some sense, the Republican Party can get a little more extreme over tactics, but I think it will be hard for speakers in the future to control people, just because, if you have got a super PAC, if you got some independent expenditures, it’s hard to impose discipline anymore on the body.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, does more get done, does less get done? How do you see it?

MARK SHIELDS: Less gets done, Judy, I believe.

And could I be rude and just say that there are probably four dozen members of the House Republican Caucus who do not believe in government? And they are not — they have never accepted the responsibility of the governing party.

I mean, John Boehner accepted the fact that the Republicans are the majority party in the House and the Senate. Therefore, we have a responsibility to keep government operating, not to close it down, to fund it, to compromise, to get the votes necessary to pass the legislation required. And there are four dozen who say, hell no, if it does close down, great, that’s good, that’s what we’re here about.

And I don’t know how you govern with that. David’s absolutely right. Kevin McCarthy is one of the most gregarious members of the House. He knows his colleagues on the House — on the Republican side. He knows their kids’ names. He knows their wives’ names. He loves their company.

It will give him a two-month honeymoon, until the talk shows start in, and the right-wing network starts up, and this four dozen caucus who — four dozen of them, three dozen, or whatever they are, are just — they are absolutely nonnegotiable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some have called them the heck no — stronger word — of this caucus.


JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s interesting that, David, this comes the day after Pope Francis comes to speak to a joint session and talks about, we need to end polarization, we need to work together. What about the pope’s message at the White House in Washington? What did you take away from it?


Well, I thought it’s so clear how countercultural he is. We have ideological fights. He’s anti-ideological. He’s personalist. Somebody once said, souls are not saved in bundles, and he’s with each individual human being.

I loved the moment, little girl on the street, she came up to his caravan, and he embraced her. That was a moment, the pope and the individual. And so he represents community an ethos of community and uplift, which is just different than our horizontal politics.

It’s a vertical axis he’s on. And so, whether you’re Republican or Democrat, I think everybody felt uplifted, and both uplifted by his example and his humility, but also humbled by — he believes that the church is a hospital for the souls, and so he offered that as well.

And I would say, in general, we can have scorecards of how political he was. I thought the political speeches were fine. The U.N., it was fine, and one agrees with it. But some of the religious statements he made at the homily up at the Catholic Basilica here in town in Washington were beautiful.


DAVID BROOKS: And the religious statements were really profoundly beautiful. And I would hate to see them get drowned out, as we weigh whether he was a little more anti-gay marriage or pro-immigration, the political stuff. The religious stuff was really quite beautiful, I thought.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What did you mainly take away from this pope and this…


MARK SHIELDS: I agree with David.

There are a couple of things that — I was with somebody who had been at John Kennedy’s funeral, and said it was the closest thing they had seen to a Washington event since John Kennedy’s funeral, in this sense. Most events in Washington, other than inaugurals, which are a celebration, most of them, people come in great numbers to protest, for redress of grievances.

This was a joyful crowd. They waited for hours, literally hours, to see him for four or five, six seconds away, and walked away satisfied. And it was a joyful and very considerate crowd. It lacked the usual Washington elbows: Do you know who I am? I should be up front.

That was missing. I thought the speech to Congress was magic, in the sense that just watching the feeling in that room. There was a sense of awe about the man. But — and I agree with the scorecard, as to — which he did. He walks where he chooses to walk. He doesn’t prim. He doesn’t cockle. He says the same whatever audience he’s speaking to.

And the thing about the man that just strikes me is, history is written by winners, and it’s written about winners. It’s written about victorious generals and princes and powerful presidents.

And what — as John Carr said to you last — John Carr, Georgetown University — this man’s an outsider. He looks at the world from the bottom up and from the outside in. And after the speech, instead of accepting the lunch where all the power brokers of Washington come to lionize you on Capitol Hill and get all the toasts, he went down with 300 homeless people, and he fed with them and ate with them.

And it was just — it was marvelous. And he compared — he pointed out that Jesus was born homeless. It was just a marvelous — so it’s the eloquence of his symbols, as well as his language.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does it linger, David? Does something last? Is something now embedded in this city and anywhere else as a result of this? Or is this a fleeting moment?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, well, the lion won’t lie down with the lamb.

But I think he leaves a residue on people. I think it’s a profound memory with people, and it’s a moment of uplift for people. And so I think a lot of nonbelievers were moved. A lot of lapsed Catholics were moved. A lot of Jews and Protestants were moved. Everyone was sort of moved.

And that emotion leaves a residue. But I think, also, for a lot of people, I think the big effect — and this is Mark’s church — a lot of people, lives will be changed. Some tens of thousands will go to a mass, and their lives will be changed.

And we emphasize the man so much, but what he’s saying is the product of 2,000 years of teaching, of thought, of prayer. And he’s the current exemplar. We sort of overemphasize the individual and underemphasize the institution, I think, throughout this visit.

But for some large number of people, this will be a turning point in their lives. And that’s sort of worth celebrating. In Philadelphia, or in Madison Square Garden tonight, some people, this will be the moment something very fundamental shifts in their lives. And politics rarely achieves that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It certainly isn’t something we see very often.


JUDY WOODRUFF: David Brooks, Mark Shields, we thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

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