Episode: Shields and Brooks on shifting strategy in Syria, Paul Ryan’s speaker ascension

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Shields and Brooks on shifting strategy in Syria, Paul Ryan’s speaker ascension

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first, there is a new speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the political landscape may be shifting in the Republican race for the White House.

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

Welcome to you, gentlemen.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Friday before Halloween. Thank you for being here.

So, let’s talk about the lead story tonight, Mark, and that is the decision by the administration to send less than 50 special operations troops into Syria. They say, it’s not a change, there won’t be — they won’t be involved in combat.

But does this make it any clearer what the administration’s strategy is in Syria?


And it’s — well, taking them at their word that they won’t be involved in combat, Judy, obviously, they are now in harm’s way. And it increases the risk or exposure of capture and all that that could mean.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. My view is, you can leave the Middle East, but it won’t leave you. And so the president’s tried to withdraw from the Middle East and withdraw separately from Afghanistan, and, as a result, there has been a void and a chaos and the destruction of these two countries, of Syria and Iraq, as we formerly knew them, a continued crisis in Afghanistan.

And so he’s begun to look around and seeing the situation deteriorating, and he’s trying to adjust. And, to his credit, he’s trying to adjust in a way that’s politically embarrassing, because he made these statements, we will not put combat — we will not put boots on the ground. He said it bluntly in Syria.

But he’s doing the right thing. The question is, is there a strategy? And I still don’t see what the strategy is. Are we willing to tolerate Assad? Are we just trying to get ISIS? Are we trying to get Assad? Who are we actually trying to get?

And then it’s — the steps are so small. And so it looks like the classic case of mission creep. And what happens if one of these guys gets captured? What happens if a Russian bomb lands on them? You can imagine the world the day after that.

And so one would feel more comfortable if there was some plausible road forward, rather than what you get this feeling is, of a series of tactical mission creeps.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think there is a strategy that the administration is just not sharing with us, Mark? Do you think that is what is going on?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, that may very well be the case. I’m always willing to admit my own ignorance.

But four dozen American special forces doesn’t seem to be a particular answer. This is — you know, David is right. Acknowledging the stakes is good for any president to do. But we have drawn red lines. We have said what was intolerable. Assad had to go.

Now we’re looking at an election. And I hope Geneva is successful. I hope that there is an election. I hope he’s voted out and that he leaves. But I don’t see a master strategy at work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, speaking of master strategies and bringing it all the way back home, we do have a new speaker of the House of Representatives. Paul Ryan was elected this week.

He had said for days that he wasn’t interested, but he finally came around and he won a big — David, a big majority of the Republicans. I guess only nine voted against him. I guess my — but my question is, he said in his speech yesterday the House is broken, we’re going to start doing things differently, we’re going to work with the other party.

Is that something he can deliver on?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, temperamentally, he’s sort of fit for it. He had a nice line in there, that he said, if we have clarity, we will have more charity.

And that is both sides of him. He has certain convictions, a pretty conservative guy. But he is also a really nice guy who does get along with people and who is a very charitable guy. And so I think, temperamentally, he’s well suited for the moment, as much as anybody can be.

But he does believe in certain things. And I think, if there is — can be small agreements over the next couple of months, or 18 months, whatever it is, he will go for it. But I don’t expect that to happen. I think the big news of Paul Ryan’s ascension is that it’s possible that the Republican Party, after really veering off into some very dangerous political territory, now as its most prominent spokesperson has Paul Ryan, a very mainstream, popular, admirable, and attractive figure.

It may, if the presidential race turns out a certain way, have Marco Rubio. And Ryan and Rubio is a generational shift and probably quite an excellent leadership team as the two faces of the Republican Party.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re tying it to the presidential.

But just for a minute keeping it in the House, Mark, is he — he’s saying, I want to work with the Democrats. I want to work — he said, I want to do some bipartisan things. But that’s exactly what the most conservative — the Freedom Caucus says they don’t want to do.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I agree with David.

Paul Ryan is liked by Democrats who have worked with him. If you like somebody and agree with their politics, you say he’s a person of convictions. If you don’t like what the person stands for, you can say he’s an ideologue. Democrats say that Paul Ryan is an ideologue and that he does — that he’s open to discussion.

And he’s — two things. I thought he was quite cute in saying that he — on the budget agreement that was reached, two years, which really makes his speakership a lot more palatable and possible success…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which Boehner, the former speaker…

MARK SHIELDS: Which John Boehner was the architect of and forged.

He didn’t — he condemned the process, but he endorsed the product. He voted for it, I mean, while condemning the process, which was sort of a bow to the right and to the Freedom Caucus.

But it’s a generational switch. We have had — now for eight years, we have had Nancy Pelosi as the Democratic House leader and John Boehner as the Republican House leader, switching back and forth on the speakership, Harry Reid, who is going to retire, as the Democratic leader in the Senate, and Mitch McConnell.

And this really is a major generational — generational shift. I think, Judy, quite bluntly — David mentioned the presidential — I think the Republicans are in such dire circumstances right now presidentially, right — they’re on the cusp of offering the nation two people who are, frankly, unelectable, in Ben Carson and Donald Trump, in my judgment, in the general election, that Paul Ryan as the face of that party is very important.

He’s going to have a tough task. I mean, if either Trump or Carson is the nominee, then I think the Republicans could lose the House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, pick up on this theme of a generational change, because you had — and my question, David, is coming off this debate this week, where we didn’t hear as much from Donald Trump and Ben Carson, and there just seemed to be, you know, a sense that Marco Rubio did well, the senator from Florida, Ted Cruz, the senator from Texas, they’re — what are they, both 44, 45 years old.

They’re of the generation you just spoke about.


And so I think it matters in two ways. The first way is, there are a lot of people who grew up in the age of Reagan. And Reagan’s solutions are sufficient, so let’s cut marginal tax rates, let’s pretend we’re going to cut the size of government, and that’s our policy.

But Marco Rubio, frankly, and Paul Ryan grew up in a different era. They grew up in an era where there were structural changes in the economy that were structural break — fissures in the economy, such that you could have growth, but no wage growth. And so they understand it’s not enough to just cut taxes.

And so they have — they, both Ryan and Rubio, Cruz a little less so, but have specific targeted policies like wage subsidies and stuff like that designed to get money directly to the lower middle class, the people who have seen their wages stagnant.

So, there’s an ideological shift. And then we just happened to have the fact that Ryan and Rubio in particular, Cruz a bit less, but also, they’re so wonky. Pelosi, Boehner, McConnell, these are political people. Paul Ryan comes out of Empower America, a think tank. He’s a think tank guy who just happens to have some political skills. Rubio is a bit of the same.

And so they’re the wonkiest pair we have had leading a party, if they become that, of our lifetime.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, at this point, Mark, is — you just said a minute ago the Republican Party is on the verge of something, of coming apart.

MARK SHIELDS: I think, Judy, people comfort themselves. Republicans say, oh, it’s like 2012, when we switched from Rick Perry to Herman Cain to Mitt Romney, then to Newt Gingrich, then to Rick Santorum, then back to Mitt Romney.

No, it isn’t like 2012. Now we’re looking at — we’re going into a year from the election, a year from the election, and we have at the top, at the very summit, we have Ben Carson, Dr. Ben Carson, retired neurosurgeon, and Donald Trump.

Now, if you think about it, in that debate — and David can talk on it — I thought Rubio had a good night, but, I mean, Donald Trump shows an indifference to truth that borders on contempt. I mean, when asked by…

JUDY WOODRUFF: What are you referring…

MARK SHIELDS: When asked by Becky Quick, who said, you know, you have said that Marco Rubio was Mark Zuckerberg’s favorite senator, or basically his servant, “Where do you get this kind of stuff?”

Well, it turns out it’s on his Web site.

And Ben Carson says, I believe we should tithe. That’s the taxing — our tax system should be based on tithing, said — well, you have said that it should be 10 percent, Dr. Carson. “I never said 10 percent.” Now, and Leviticus apparently says 15 percent. He’s changed it to 15 percent.


MARK SHIELDS: But, I mean, it’s just — these are — quite candidly, they have candidates who appeal to many Republicans. And I’m not faulting them for appealing to them.

David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s architect, said that, in the summer, you’re in the beauty suit, the bathing suit competition. You’re kind of looking and who do you like? Then you move into the talent test competition.

We’re in the talent test competition now. And these two are still at the top. And the only establishment candidate who really offers a potential help is Marco Rubio.

I thought Ted Cruz had the best night of anybody in the room. I mean, he just showed himself to be brilliant and agile, and I thought just as gifted a knifer as anybody I have ever seen.


DAVID BROOKS: Republicans just like the bathing suits a little more this year.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, they do.


DAVID BROOKS: So, I think it’s going to be cold. It will be a little colder. It will be December. They will be in their bathing suits.

But they can’t nominate this guy. Major parties do not nominate people like Carson and Trump. These guys are so incompetent. Whenever the actual subject is running the country, they just disappear from the debates.

And I just have to feel — I have had no evidence for this. And I have said this for six months now, that they’re about to collapse.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Not that we’re keeping track. Not that we’re keeping track.

DAVID BROOKS: The emerald path will get to Oz, the curtain will come down, and Marco Rubio will emerge triumphant.


JUDY WOODRUFF: We have heard you mention this before.

But what about…

DAVID BROOKS: I think it will — I do think it will be Cruz and Rubio at the end of the day. I think Cruz will inherit the — and Republicans are really angry.

They think the country is going down the tubes. And so they have to express that somehow. They are expressing it now. And I think — but those voters will eventually wind up with Cruz, and then the mainstream voters will wind up with somebody like Rubio or Kasich or who knows.

But I just can’t imagine. A major American party doesn’t nominate Donald Trump. I just can’t believe it. I will have to go to Canada after that.


JUDY WOODRUFF: But what about Mark’s point about — you get to react. But what about Mark’s point about — some of the candidates were asked questions, and then it turns out later what they said didn’t hold out? So, what about…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. There was the Carson moment with the dietary supplement thing.

They — I think the questioners were not prepared for the brazenness of the lies. Now, I don’t totally blame Donald Trump for not knowing what’s on his Web page. I can’t imagine he ever read his Web page. He’s not into that sort of stuff.

But there was a certain brazenness to it. And that’s been true of this year, that you — somehow, there is no political price.

I think that’s what Donald Trump — that is why he is a bit of a game-changer, because he has said eight million things that are normally disqualifying, but because the electorate is so angry, at least that part of the electorate, they say, well, you know, he says all this crazy stuff, but we need somebody who can really shake things up. So they are willing to tolerate it.

I still don’t think they are going to tolerate it at the end of the day. That’s my religion right now.

MARK SHIELDS: Just take just quick exception to David’s laudatory testimonial and tribute to Paul Ryan and to Marco Rubio.

Republicans still are addicted to the idea that once won them the presidency. And that was Ronald Reagan, cutting taxes by a third, double the defense budget and all the rest of it. And they still pay lip service, unbelievably, to a balanced budget, as they are offering supply-side tax cuts.

The two are just polar opposites and mutually exclusive, but they still talk in those terms: Oh, yes, we will have a balanced budget amendment as well.

And supply-side — I think it’s been proved at this point that supply-side basically helps those who are already well-supplied.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is all about cutting taxes.

MARK SHIELDS: It really is. And I just think they all come back to that.

Even Rubio, who is more different and more creative, it comes back to top — cutting the rate on the top.

DAVID BROOKS: A little less emphasis on that from Rubio.


DAVID BROOKS: When taxes were up at 50 percent, you can cut them down and it may have a big effect. Now they’re in the 30s. It has less effect. Rubio acknowledges that.

But their budgets don’t add up. I totally concede that point.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, next week, we will get out the calculator and figure it out.


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

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