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Shields and Brooks on Final Day of Alito Hearings

January 13, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: As a conservative, David, are you comfortable with what you heard Samuel Alito say this week?

DAVID BROOKS: Liberals are troubled and conservatives are comfortable, so I guess I’m comfortable. My semi liberal friends are saying Karl Rove planned this whole week.

And so when the Rove conspiracy theories come out, you know it was a pretty good week for conservatives. Alito did very well. Some people are charmed by Roberts’ good looks but I thought Alito was substantive and good and most of all, just a question of personality, modest. This is a country all about narcissism and self-display; he is not like that.

JIM LEHRER: You like him, the personality that came across?

DAVID BROOKS: A lot more than I thought I would, actually. He seemed like a serious, fair-minded person.

JIM LEHRER: But just in political ideological or position terms, did you hear him say anything that made you say huh oh?

DAVID BROOKS: Not particularly. I’m a little squishy on the social issues though. But, you know, I thought on issues like abortion, he said there’s the power of precedent but he didn’t commit either way, which I think is what he should say.

On executive power, frankly a lot of that got so arcane I don’t know what the unitary executive means. So I think a lot of regular people will be having — having problems judging that. But as a matter of politics it was a great week for Republicans. There’s no question about that.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, a matter of politics, a great week for Republicans, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Great week for Samuel Alito, certainly. I don’t think there is any question that he demonstrated conclusively that he has a judicial temperament, I think, in 18 hours of questioning.

JIM LEHRER: He not one time lost his cool.

MARK SHIELDS: Never. And I think Democrats’ only hope in sabotaging, stopping, submarining, whatever you want to say, this nomination was that he either belie his conservative — too conservative ideology and say something, make a mistake, or some sort of a temper outburst.

And that said, I think part of the strategy on the Vanguard and the Concerned Alumni of Princeton line of questioning was to not simply raise questions about integrity but in hopes of perhaps getting a rise out of him. He didn’t — he never once went for the bait in the entire week.

JIM LEHRER: Is there any question in your mind, Mark, that he will be confirmed? But do you agree with Sen. Specter it’s going to be a party-line vote in the committee and then probably in the full Senate as well?

MARK SHIELDS: Gov. Edwin Edwards of Louisiana once said he wouldn’t lose an election unless he got caught with a live boy or a dead woman in a compromising position.

I think given the lines of division and the firmness of positions in Washington right now, that which is unthinkable in the case of Sam Alito — an honorable and exemplary man — wouldn’t change votes.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that?

DAVID BROOKS: I do. It is a shame. But it is what it has come to because the executive power is still an important part of this issue, but it is abortion. And as long as we don’t have an abortion debate in this country, we are going to have these sorts of issues which really all about abortion in the attempt to target and destroy people who happen to disagree with you on abortion.

JIM LEHRER: Well, let’s talk about that. Based on what you heard him say, what you do think he will do if he is confronted with a decision or a vote or a position he must take on abortion?

DAVID BROOKS: My gut instinct and it was the same with Roberts is that personally he’s probably pro-life. But he would not overturn Roe v. Wade; that is just my gut instinct. He like Roberts seems like the sort of person who would not want to overturn a 38-year-old apple cart, or however many years it is, that is my gut instinct.

JIM LEHRER: What does your gut tell you?

MARK SHIELDS: My gut is that he is probably pro-life in his personal philosophy. He was very clear, however, at saying, he did respect precedent and I think the phrase he used, except special justification.

And I think you could make a case of special justification that the framers never intended in writing the right of privacy in the Constitution, they never contemplated abortion.

But I think it’s more likely that there will be cases like Casey. It won’t be a frontal attack and a repeal of Roe v. Wade.

JIM LEHRER: The parental — spousal.

MARK SHIELDS: And waiting period and the seriousness.

JIM LEHRER: That sort of thing.

In other words, you agree with Professor Tribe who said in that clip and said before the committee today that there won’t be — may not be an overturn; it will just be picked away at?

MARK SHIELDS: And I think there’s a chance that as Jan Crawford Greenburg said during the week that if it does come, it will then return to the political process where it will be debated politically, as it was being debated and states were adopting laws at the time that the Supreme Court and some states were going to have — Massachusetts a very liberal law and South Carolina wouldn’t. And that’s how it was moving politically when Roe v. Wade intervened and suspended the whole thing.

JIM LEHRER: Now, let’s go to other the issue, the hot-button issue, whatever hot button means in this context. But that is executive power, particularly as it relates to surveillance and all of that, that is on the front burner right now. What clues did you pick up from — about what Judge Alito might do on that issue?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, well I think that goes case by case. But, I think the underlying thing here was a political current that was going on which is the public was not outraged by the NSA story and that the polls clearly reveal that and I think that was where the big political impact came through.

And I think that is one of the reasons this was a good week for Republicans. Republicans like Lindsey Graham were sitting up there saying I’m worried about terrorists.

A lot of Democrats were saying I’m worried about the NSA. And if the American public has the ability to choose between which party, they’re going to choose the party worried with about terrorists. And I think that political current out in the country helped propel the Democrats from being too aggressive on Alito.

 

JIM LEHRER: There was an expectation going into these hearings, in fact we talked about it here, that the Democrats would attempt to use the Alito hearings as a way to really vent and vet this issue; they didn’t pull it off, did they?

MARK SHIELDS: No, and I think part of it was Sam Alito, part of it was the Democrats. I dissent somewhat from David. I think the country is pretty divided how this question is asked. Do you think the president ought to be listening in on conversations? Do you think that the executive ought to be investigating, following the Quakers, Catholic peace groups and so forth? And you will find no.

And then the question becomes well, how about to find terrorists. And then, well, gee, in that case. So I don’t think — I think public opinion has not clearly jelled in this, in this area.

And, you know, we have consistently had presidents in the past, whether it was Roosevelt incarcerating Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor, whether it was the Red Scare, at the time of the Cold War, where presidents have exceeded their power and the party that has resisted has sometimes paid a political price but usually been vindicated by history. But no, I don’t think they did make the case. I think there is a stronger case the McCain case is the great case.

JIM LEHRER: The torture case.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, here is an act, the president has basically said upon signing it in a public ceremony it wasn’t something that snuck up on. He had an Appomattox moment with John McCain at the White House accepting the torture amendment and then said, well, you know, I’m really not going to be guided by it.

Boy, if that isn’t, you know, a flouting of –

DAVID BROOKS: Come back to this political issue because I really think it a big issue of this whole week politically, which is why have the Democrats gone from a two or three to one registration advantage after World War II down to where it is even, and there are many reasons for that, that long, slow slide.

But two of them are not being tough on crime and not being tough on national security. And voters who looked at this week saw a party, I think, that was not tough on crime, was worried about law enforcement abuse more than about crime, not tough on Social Security, worried about NSA-type abuse than the terrorists.

JIM LEHRER: You mean in their questions to Alito.

DAVID BROOKS: In their lines of questions. And I think after every election loss the Democrats say we’ve got to get back in touch with white, middle-class America. And I think the members of this committee didn’t do that, in fact, underlined some of the doubts people have about the Democratic Party.

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t — I don’t question that the Republicans have had an edge on national security. I do think there is a difference between saying you are a criminal’s apologist and questioning and scrutinizing the strip search of a ten-year-old child, whether, in fact, that is an abuse of police power. And if you don’t stand up for that, I don’t know how you look yourself in the mirror at night.

DAVID BROOKS: I thought that was actually a crucial moment in the hearings because there was Leahy and others saying how do you justify a strip search of a ten-year-old girl and aside from the judicial issues, Alito coming back and saying if we don’t have searches of children, that’s where every drug dealer will put their drugs.

And so in this case, the girl was brought aside, they had a female person do the search. And it — that seemed to be an important moment because it’s really a clash between two different value systems. And personally, I was persuaded by the Alito argument.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I wasn’t. And the question was that there was no suspicion and allegation that the girl was involved in anyway criminally.

But that aside, on the question of the national security and why the Democrats have lost their margin, for one thing the Democrats had an enormously inflated edge in the South. I mean, that’s where the Democratic edge in the Congress was; it’s where a Democratic edge in registration was.

JIM LEHRER: And that has gone away.

MARK SHIELDS: And the Democratic Party was the majority party when it fought the two greatest issues: Vietnam was fought in the Democratic Party and civil rights was fought in the Democratic Party. And that split the Democratic Party and it did not split the Republican Party. I mean, so there are historical reasons are for it.

 

JIM LEHRER: What in general and quickly, David, and then to you, Mark, did you think in general how well — how did you think the senators did both Democrats and Republicans in posing direct, relevant questions?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think we all saw they went through the cycles of vanity, arrogance, bullying, meanness. You know, but I thought — the guy is a decent guy. If you thought the Democrats should have hit harder and somehow they would have exposed the dark, evil innards of Sam Alito, you were going to be disappointed, but that’s not the Democrats’ fault. He’s just the guy he is and I don’t think you blame the Democratic senators.

For one thing where I thought Ted Kennedy went over the line. First, well, the main thing was in the Princeton thing, the CAP. And there is a report out today that one of the things he read from this magazine, from this conservative alumni association was not a racist thing; it was a parody of a racist thing.

And if you do that, that is just intellectually dishonest to quote something as if this is the real belief and it was some stupid parody.

And I thought in many cases they were shaving the evidence, distortion of the evidence — that was just beneath what a senator should be doing.

MARK SHIELDS: That came out as a parody today. The founder of it said we want a Princeton where people look like us, think like us, and act like us, which was — which was a pretty thinly veiled way of saying it.

I thought the CAP thing was the one place where Judge Alito looked uncomfortable consistently when he was asked about it, and the reason is, my own speculation is he listed it in 1985 on his resume for a credential. I don’t think he ever belonged to it; I think he might have gone to one meeting. He sure as hell didn’t subscribe — nothing in his life position has subscribed to it.

As far as the senator is concerned — Joe Biden retired the Bill Clinton 1988 Democratic National Convention Keynote Speech Award. I don’t know if you recall that.

JIM LEHRER: I do.

MARK SHIELDS: Bill Clinton went on endlessly.

JIM LEHRER: Forty-five minutes.

MARK SHIELDS: When he gave — he gave this and the only applause line he got was when he reached the line “In conclusion,” and the crowd erupted in spontaneous applause. Now Clinton recovered by going on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and saying that wasn’t my best hour; it wasn’t even my best hour and a half. And he made fun of himself. Joe Biden better do that in a hurry if he wants to be considered seriously as a national figure.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Do you agree with that in a word?

DAVID BROOKS: I like Biden, but I think he will recover. He has got skills.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. All right. Thank you both.