Political Wrap with David Brooks and Tom Oliphant
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JIM LEHRER: Political analysis by Brooks and Oliphant; David Brooks of the Weekly Standard, and Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe. Mark Shields is off tonight.
And on that issue of campaign finance reform and its renaissance, the Senate, as a result of the announced intention of one Republican Senator, Senator Smith of Oregon to vote to end a filibuster this, thing might happen next week, right.
DAVID BROOKS: I think it will. It’s close. There are some Senators who say they won’t vote for the filibuster, others will. Using George Bush technology, I’ve looked into the soul of the opponents of reform and they’re beaten men. They just want to go home, take a nap. They have been lopped upside.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Smith opposed to the campaign finance reform bill has decided– is it you’re reading the same thing, Tom?
TOM OLIPHANT: There is one opponent that we must never underestimate and never forget about, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky who has led the fight against it for years and will continue to in any way he. There are a couple little moves he has left, Jim, before he throws in the towel. He could try to object to whether the two bills are really the same and try to get it to a conference, may try to amend it. It does appear, as David said, that McConnell is getting ready to fight this with his allies in the courts. I have always believed with campaign finance reform that until the vote occurs, you never want to underestimate McConnell’s inventiveness.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree that without Enron this would never have happened?
DAVID BROOKS: I actually think the big hurdle was cleared in the Senate whenever it was the last time we were on several months ago. I think that was the big hurdle. The House was always for it. There was a well of opinion always for it. Campaign finance lobby is a very well funded lob to get rid of money in the system. I thought when they passed the Senate, they were skating downhill from that point.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think?
TOM OLIPHANT: Not entirely. I must say the pro-reform forces, Marty Meehan or Chris Shays, will tell you they believe they would have had it anyway. I’m not so sure after watching that marathon voting in the House last week. It was nip and tuck on a couple of those amendments. They weren’t sure how it would go. Enron was in the atmosphere it was coming out of people’s mouths all the time. Maybe some people who were inclined to be for it found Enron a marvelous peg on which to hang their vote, so I think did it matter.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of Enron, the General Accounting Office filed its lawsuit today against the Vice President, David. They want some records from the Vice President’s energy task force. How serious a matter is this likely to become?
DAVID BROOKS: I think it’s quite serious. And it’s going to go on for a while because both sides are incredibly stubborn on their position. I think they’re fighting on principle. It is also a question of the power of the executive and legislative and judicial branches, and that’s a fight we’ve been having for 250 years. And it’s a very important fight. The Administration’s position is the executive branch, like the legislative and the judicial, have a right to deliberate in private. And if one’s branch gets in the way of the other, then you can’t have honest government. You mess up the balance of power we have. I think there’s another stronger argument — which it’s subversive of our means of government.
We have always assumed when a bill goes up to Congress from the Administration, the question is is that bill, is that piece of legislation good for the country? But now, under the logic of the GAO, the question becomes was it conceived in immaculate conception? Did the aides in the White House have impure thoughts or did they meet with impure people while they were drafting this piece of legislation? And that is like Cotton Mather taking over the government looking for impurities in the drafting of legislation. It seems to me it is completely subversive of the rule of factions we’ve had running this country and I think it is a strong principle on which the administration is fighting this.
JIM LEHRER: Do you see it the same way, Tom?
TOM OLIPHANT: The same way as David at the beginning of his point in that there is no question this is as direct and major a constitutional clash so far anyway. Cooler heads could always prevail at some point, as is ever. But you have to remember, no president has ever made this assertion with regard to the General Accounting Office — Congress’s investigative and auditing arm. No president –
JIM LEHRER: Members are to — subpoenas before committees in the past.
TOM OLIPHANT: Yes. And there is an important difference there, as will you see as the Administration’s strategy to keep hold of the records. It’s not the records that the GAO wants. What the GAO wants is who did you meet with in the suit today, who did you meet with while developing this energy policy? On which dates? Then their little legal hook for asking the question is: how much did each meeting cost? I guarantee you no one is really interested in that.
JIM LEHRER: They’re not asking what was said?
TOM OLIPHANT: Originally, there was a request for notes and things going to substance. But the GAO has said it is going to scale back, and that makes the Administration’s position harder. David is correct, I believe, in talking about the concern that this White House, uniquely, has. But when the argument is made in court, the White House, President Bush or the lawyers on behalf of Cheney will be arguing that the GAO, in effect, that the statute is setting up the GAO is unconstitutional. Presidents have been– administrations have been cooperating with it for decades. No administration has ever made the assertion that the Bush Administration is about to make.
DAVID BROOKS: Well, the GAO has never sued in this way before. And the legal opinion is murky on this. And you find law professors on both sides and they debate what an agency is. The GAO is the right to investigate agencies. Is the Vice President an agency? Does the Vice President have the right to meet with people within his own government in private?
It seems to me the fundamental question — and the lawyers will settle that — for the rest of us, the fundamental question is who cares? Who cares what they met with? The piece of legislation Cheney came up with and the Administration came up with is out there. The principle should be is the legislation good legislation — not who did they meet with or what did they eat or talk about.
JIM LEHRER: This also came up as a result of Enron and people want a list, do they not, to see how many people from Enron the Vice President met with and whatever. Does that become suddenly a problem that has nothing to do with the courts and legal precedents and whatever?
DAVID BROOKS: There is no question that this is politically disastrous for the administration because it keeps the Enron thing going for a long time. The political people in the White House initially said let’s get this over with. Let’s just give somebody the documents, the information. Maybe not Congress, give it to the press. That way we won’t compromise our principles. But Cheney said no, we’re not going to compromise our principles. The president said double no. You have got to understand the psychological spillover of the war. It’s like everybody’s Churchill in the White House. In GAO’s suit we found our mission and moment. We are not compromising on principle. That’s sort of the attitude that’s governing.
TOM OLIPHANT: A factual point. They didn’t say no. They actually coughed up six generalized instances of contact that either were with Enron or that included Enron, which indicated that at least, at the beginning the decision was, in fact, political. And that may color the legal judgments of what happened. Should also note there is a private group’s lawsuit already in court in Washington. And the assertion that an agency like this, and for those of us who are consumers of its products and they’ve helped me get to sleep for decades explaining how government agencies work, how decisions are made, they’re astonishingly detailed and have gone into precisely this area repeatedly. So I can’t overemphasize the fact that the president’s position is a unique one.
JIM LEHRER: All right, now. The same question though I asked David — the politics of this, the PR problem that this could create. Do you see that as becoming very important and big?
TOM OLIPHANT: It is already and it could get more so, and here’s how. You have this lawsuit that the GAO has filed. It’s entirely possible that one or more committees of Congress could decide on their own to subpoena this information. At that point, the White House would have to use a phrase that ever since Nixon no one has wanted to use, “executive privilege.” And that is an entirely different legal cat. It’s beyond my pay grade. But at that point, people vote in committees on whether to issue subpoenas. At that point, there are Republicans you can talk to right now who do not want to cast that vote.
JIM LEHRER: As you said, David, this is going to go on a while. Quickly, the president came back today from his trip to Asia. The “axis of evil,” those three words went with him, particularly when he was in Korea. In general terms, how does his use of those words look several weeks now after he used it in the State of the Union?
DAVID BROOKS: Yeah. I think they look superb. There are some simplistic people, especially in European capitals, who think you can’t have moral clarity and tactical subtlety at the same time. And I think Bush just demonstrated you can. He went to all these countries; he stuck by the idea that North Korea is an evil country, Iraq and Iran. He stuck by the Taiwanese people, he stuck by especially in the speech to the Chinese University, the American values of freedom, belief in God, religious freedom. At the same time he didn’t derail our relations with these countries. In fact, he seems to have improved them despite some intransigence on the Chinese part on these missile technology exports. But I think what he showed was you can be moral, be moralistic, stick by your principles and still be subtle enough so you’re not blowing up the whole world.
JIM LEHRER: How do you see it?
TOM OLIPHANT: You asked about the phrase “axis of evil.”
JIM LEHRER: Right.
TOM OLIPHANT: In his suitcase or his briefcase when he traveled, axis of evil was not to be there, not to be mentioned. In an aside, at the DMZ in Korea, he used the word “evil” after hearing about a particular incident. There is no question, in my view that if I could be a simplistic commentator in this capital, no question that it has undercut our relationship with South Korea, complicated our relationship with China and even been a problem with Japan. In this country, Cheney was traveling in California this week. He used the phrase. People love it. There is no question it doesn’t hurt the president politically here. But it makes prosecuting the war against terrorism more difficult.
JIM LEHRER: Why?
TOM OLIPHANT: Because it puts us– it puts a concept between us and our natural allies. And it even complicates things like our relationship, we’re finding out, with moderate elements inside Iran because they get pinned down as too pro-American to have any credibility in their own country. The reason that he was urged not to use the phrase during his trip was precisely because it complicates our relationship with our allies, not our enemies.
JIM LEHRER: I take it you would disagree with that?
DAVID BROOKS: I would. First of all in Iran, we had just had a majority of the Iranian parliament investigating the government’s export of those arms. If the reformers are hampered in any way, there’s no sign of it. People no longer dispute the fact that these countries are evil. That’s one significant improvement. I think what you see is a government that has clarified things in the way Reagan did with the “evil empire” speech and has just given a whole drive, a whole momentum to our move.
JIM LEHRER: I like to end the Friday night discussions on a note of complete disagreement, and I managed to do so. Thank you both very much.