Episode: Shields and Brooks on Clinton’s Benghazi testimony, Paul Ryan’s speaker potential

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Shields and Brooks on Clinton’s Benghazi testimony, Paul Ryan’s speaker potential

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s been a busy week in the political world.

Hillary Clinton testified during a marathon Benghazi Committee hearing. Paul Ryan says yes to run for speaker of the House, and Republican Ben Carson surpasses Donald Trump in the polls in Iowa.

For all of that, we turn to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome, gentlemen.

MARK SHIELDS: You’re welcome. Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Benghazi hearings, David, they went — I don’t know that it was 11, but it was eight or nine hours of testimony.


JUDY WOODRUFF: What have we learned? What was accomplished at this hearing?

DAVID BROOKS: Nothing was learned.

We learned that the Republicans can’t stump Hillary Clinton. She was composed, gave a lot of the same testimony she’s given before. This thing has been going on forever. And so nothing happened, really. And so that’s good news for her.

She — her composure was excellent. Congressmen do what congressmen do. And so it was a big nothing burger. And why the Republicans remain obsessed with this, at a time when the nation of Iraq has ceased to exist, Syria barely exists, there’s turmoil spreading throughout the Middle East — if you want to attack Hillary Clinton, it seems to me she was secretary of state at a time of deterioration in actual substantive grounds. Maybe that would be a good subject.

But there is a certain psychosis that goes through people’s minds, especially about scandals, but Clinton scandals, where they — where something smells, and they think there must be something big, and they imagine there is about to be some big revelation that will destroy their careers. But, since 1991, that has never happened, and the critics have always overshot the mark and ended up helping the candidate. And that’s what happened.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They have survived some challenges in the past, the Clintons, but, Mark, nothing burger, is that what it adds up to?

MARK SHIELDS: I would feel better if it were just the Clintons with the Republicans. I think this has been — for the past seven years of the Obama administration, it has been an obsession that — to prove not simply that the administration is not capable or efficient or effective, but that somehow it’s evil, maybe even criminal.

And that’s what was driving this Benghazi hearing, that somehow that there was some evil plot or evil scheme or diabolical whatever. The emphasis on Sid Blumenthal, who was a…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Her longtime friend.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, longtime friend, controversial, a conspiracy buff, an apparatchik, whatever else he is, but, I mean, hardly somebody of Rasputin dimensions that they wanted to elevate him to.

And in doing so, they were forced to go public with this hearing, which they didn’t want to do. They looked bad. They had…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meaning the Republicans.

MARK SHIELDS: The Republicans looked bad.

Hillary Clinton looked disciplined. She showed remarkable stamina. She showed thorough preparation. And she never went for the bait. The bait was to get her to do what she had done in the previous hearing, to show exasperation, to display temper.

And she just — she came off it, to use an adjective, presidential. And I just think — I just think that the Republicans ought to drop this and move on, but I think it is — I think it is symptomatic of a party that is incapable of accepting its governing responsibility.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly, David, Republicans, how — are they hurt by this or do they just move on?

DAVID BROOKS: Not really. I don’t think they’re really hurt. I don’t take the broad indictment.

Sometimes, a scandal cottage industry gets started, and it’s fed by people who get expertise, and then the talk radio get into it, and they get into the weeds. And they imagine something that big is about to happen, and the scandal cottage industries just go on forever.

And they think they hurt Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers this way, but I swear, if they want to take a real issue, the disarray of our Middle East policy is a real issue. Benghazi, if you list our foreign policy issues of importance, it would be number 197.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I think you have to say, Mark, this was a pretty good week for former Secretary of State Clinton, not only the general interpretation of the hearings, the fact that she doesn’t have an opponent that many people thought she could have in Vice President Joe Biden. He said he’s not running.

Where does that leave everything? What did you make of his decision? Were you surprised?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I was surprised, because I didn’t know.

Everybody who said they knew who was talking didn’t know, and everybody who apparently knew wasn’t talking. But I didn’t know that he wasn’t going to run.

I will say this about Joe Biden. His absence means that the happy warrior will be missing from the Democratic battle this year. That’s what Joe — Joe Biden has personally at least 35 percent of the world’s known reserve of authenticity.


MARK SHIELDS: And we’re looking for the authentic.

Lindsey Graham, Republican from South Carolina, who is himself a presidential candidate and an active partisan, said of Joe Biden, if you don’t like Joe Biden, you ought take a serious look at yourself, because there is something wrong with you.

He is the nicest person I have ever met. God never made a better man than Joe Biden. This was before Joe Biden pulled out. This was just in an interview in Iowa a couple — a month or so ago. So I just think it takes a lot of courage to run. It takes a lot more courage to pull out. And I just — I will miss him and his presence in this race.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The fact that he’s not in, what effect does it have?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, obviously, it makes Hillary even more — she’s gone from the doldrums of three months ago now to the unstoppable behemoth that no one can touch in the course of a week.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

DAVID BROOKS: It does take away some of the joy. Biden could be very eloquent, very much in touch with working-class voters. He comes from that background.

And the other thing about what he did, the guy was elected senator, I think, when he was 29.

MARK SHIELDS: Twenty-nine. He was.

DAVID BROOKS: And he’s now looking at the end of his political career. And he’s a political creature. He loves politics. He loves talking to people. And so even getting out of the race means that his political career will end with the administration, one presumes.

And that’s a hard thing for a guy to say, because he’s been serving all his life and he’s loved the act of service.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Somebody who is taking — or trying to take a step up in his political career, Mark, is Paul Ryan, who decided this week that he is going to run for speaker of the House. He managed to get enough of not just Republicans, but very conservative Republicans, to say they’re going to support him.

How did he do that? To do what John Boehner and Kevin McCarthy couldn’t do, how did this happen?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think there were a convergence of things.

Paul Ryan is a near unique figure in the Republican House, in the Republican Party. He’s been a leader on philosophical and ideological issues. He was the candidate for vice president. He’s been a leader within the caucus and respected across all the divisions.

He laid down conditions, that he would only accept speakership and seek it under certain conditions. Interesting, one was family and parental leave, something Republicans have consistently opposed. But Paul Ryan…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wants it for himself.

MARK SHIELDS: Paul Ryan wants it for himself. He wants to spend — admirably, he wants to spend time with his children, who are in their formative and teen years.

Would that he would extend this to all parents. And I’m sure he will now that he’s speaker, about to be speaker.


MARK SHIELDS: But I think, Judy, it was an acknowledgment on the part of Republicans of just how desperate their straits were, that they couldn’t continue to flounder around as they have.

This is a party, right now, according to the Wall Street Journal/NBC and other polls, that the party members have no respect for the party leaders. And they think — Republicans think their own party is in terrible shape, and whereas Democrats, either rightly or wrongly, think that the Democratic Party is doing fine or doing OK.

But — so I just think that this was an acknowledgement that they had to turn and swallow some of their differences.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How does — what is it about him, David, that wasn’t acceptable, I mean, that wasn’t there in Boehner and McCarthy? What does he bring?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, partly, the Freedom Caucus changed. They are good at destroying. They’re not good at constructing. And they knew they needed a leader. There had to be some party leader to end what was going on.

And so when Ryan went in to meet with them, he said, well, if you want me, fine. I’m out of here. I don’t need this. But then he looked at their ideas about changing the way Congress works, and he didn’t concede to any of them, but he said, well, those sound like decent ideas. We will discuss it.

So he showed a little respect. And they softened. And, mostly, they softened, and because they had no real alternative. And so it was their softening, his display of respect, and the fact that he is a — he is the most policy-oriented speaker probably of our lifetimes.

There have been a lot of politicians who have been speaker, but he is a policy person primarily. And he has worked with Democrats, with Patty Murray.


DAVID BROOKS: He’s done some really tough stuff that he had to persuade his own party to endorse, some entitlement reforms.

And so I think he may actually help the Republican image, because, A, he’s just an attractive guy. He’s a nice guy. He’s an outgoing, friendly guy. But, B, he actually does care about policies. And he will be a little more aggressive in promoting policies.

And the Tea Party was right about Boehner. He wasn’t aggressive in promoting ideas. And so Democrats were coming out with proposals and ideas, and Republicans had a black hole.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But does this mean, though, that they’re going to — because he’s in place, that they are now going to be able to reach agreement on the debt ceiling and do something about the highway bill? Does this mean things are going to get done now that weren’t — they couldn’t get done before?

DAVID BROOKS: I find it hard to believe that they would ruin his early phase by going — shutting down the government and not doing the debt ceiling.

Further down the road, obviously, he will have the same problems that Boehner had.

MARK SHIELDS: The party — the job description speaker in the past has not consisted of including policy, other than Newt Gingrich, who was really the exception there.

I think, Judy, he’s making — in part of a concession, he’s making a mistake. And I think that the speaker’s job description has been the one person who can hold that caucus together. And one of the tools used to do it — and John Boehner did it tirelessly, and so did Nancy Pelosi — and that is to go out and speak to members in their own districts, to raise money for them.

And Paul Ryan, as I mentioned earlier, doesn’t want to do that. I don’t think you can subcontract that out. I really don’t. I think — and you can’t say, gee, I can’t make it this week. Can Sam or Sally do it?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why is that important?

MARK SHIELDS: Because it’s the speaker. And it’s a transactional, personal relationship the speaker has with his members: And I — remember, David, I came in when you had that tough primary and I said — and I need you on this one.

And that’s part of being speaker. I think it’s an added feature that Paul Ryan brings to it, this policy dimension. But there is no guarantee that the Freedom Caucus is not going to bring a motion to vacate, which is, of course, what drove John Boehner ultimately, which is a vote of no confidence.

And I just — I think David’s right. John Boehner will try to clear the decks of as many as he can of these controversial items before he leaves. But December 11 is the big day. That’s when the government has to be funded. And it’s going to mean probably taking the caps off of discretionary spending and defense spending. And I think that’s where you’re going to see the Freedom Caucus really rise up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, very quick, less than a minute, David.

New poll numbers out in Iowa that show a surge, at least over the last two months, for Ben Carson. He’s up 10 points over what he was in August. Trump is down a little bit. Cruz is up. What’s going on?

DAVID BROOKS: Two things. The evangelicals are coalescing around Carson, and, two, there are a lot of women who will not vote for Trump. And so he’s doing poorly among women.

And so I think that is what is happening there. I still am of the belief that neither of them is going to get the nomination. And so I look to…


JUDY WOODRUFF: Neither Trump nor Carson?

DAVID BROOKS: And I look to — just because that’s not the way history has worked so far. History sometimes changes.

But Rubio did well in that poll, so I’m looking at him as the alternative, if we ever get normal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then Jeb Bush, Mark, announced today he’s cutting back on staff, cutting back on his big — his headquarters.

MARK SHIELDS: Never known a winning candidate to cut back on staff spending or to close offices. So, it isn’t good.

I agree with David about Ben Carson. And he is broadly acceptable to more people in the Republican Party. Peter Hart did a focus group this week of 12 Republican voters in Indiana, and it came through, their admiration, affection for him, his moral leadership, and they’re — the doubts and skepticism about Trump.

And I think this is a problem that the Republicans have to deal with. Experience and holding an office in this year has become a liability among Republicans office seekers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: OK. Fascinating.

Mark Shields, David Brooks, we thank you, as always.

And just a quick reminder. You can now get Mark and David delivered to your inbox. Find the subscribe link at the top of our home page to receive our politics newsletter, and be the first to watch Shields and Brooks every week online.

You can find the link at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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