Brooks and Oliphant
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TERENCE SMITH: That’s syndicated “New York Times” columnist David Brooks and “Boston Globe” columnist Tom Oliphant. Welcome to you both. David, we’re ending the week in Iraq on something of a mixed note. There is a new interim government in place, we just heard the foreign minister giving us his views. At the same time, five U.S. soldiers, five more were killed today and five injured in an incident in Baghdad. So how does it look at the end of this week, politically, for President Bush?
DAVID BROOKS: I think most experts will say they expect the insurgents to keep up the attacks, especially after June 30, from their point of view they have to prove that nothing has changed. Nonetheless I think most people I spoke to think this was a good week. It was a good week because this government is, the people who know these individuals personally think it’s a pretty good group. It’s a group that’s been pretty independent of the U.S. at times. At the same time in their national televised addresses they went out of their way in English and Arabic to thank the Americans for liberating them. So it is a group that is not anti-American, but is not seen by and large in the pocket of America. So most people who know these people think we’ve had a reasonably good period.
TERENCE SMITH: A pretty good group and a pretty good week?
TOM OLIPHANT: Yes, as long as you recognize what I think is the fundamental nature of this challenge and that is that it’s a race where as you go down the track each hurdle is bigger than the last one. The forming of an interim government means nothing in the absence of particularly a U.N. resolution that everyone can live with in the world, not just the United States, and some progress in internationalizing the burden. It is remarkable to me, though, what a distance President Bush has traveled in the last few months. We’ve gone from “limited sovereignty,” to “sovereignty,” to “full sovereignty,” to at times it seemed like, “hey, whatever you want.” And the change in the White House and in the president, I think, is the biggest reason for this progress.
DAVID BROOKS: I agree with half of that, that there has been a desperate pragmatism born out of the failures of the first approaches. And that was the failure to handle sovereignty fast enough. I’m not sure internationalizing makes that much difference any more. I think the thing that matters is giving it over to the Iraqis. The foreign minister said it just now, there has to be first of all the appearance that the Iraqis are running their own country, but second of all more the reality. And I think that’s already happening. If you look at what happened in Najaf and Fallujah in the last couple of weeks, basically we had plans to go in there and take out these places, the Iraqis said no and we withdrew voluntarily and cut dirty deals in order to do so. So I think you’re seeing the Iraqis being much more aggressive. And the appointment of this new government, you know, we had ideas, Brahimi had ideas, but the Iraqis also had ideas and the Iraqi ideas tended to dominate.
TERENCE SMITH: Indeed there were people that the U.S. was supporting, who did not finally make the cut.
DAVID BROOKS: Right. Pachachi among others.
TOM OLIPHANT: I’m still impressed, though, by how much a more international character to this project, program, challenge, whatever you want to call it, is important to the Iraqis, and how we are beginning to realize that and become much more sensitive to it, I think, than we’ve been. I was struck by the foreign minister’s choice of words. He kept referring to multinational force, only rarely using terms like coalition, which I think has a negative connotation in Iraq today. So again, there is tremendous change in the American position, and that is why there has been progress.
TERENCE SMITH: Does it seem to you, David, that we have reached a point where the United States and this new government can work together and not at cross purposes?
DAVID BROOKS: I think we all now understand that part of the problem, the U.S. went in thinking we want democracy, they want democracy, we have a concentrate of interests, it’s all going to work. The U.S. now understands that we cast such a big shadow in the psychology of the average Iraqis that it has to seem less American, whether as Tom suggested it’s multinational or whether it’s just more Iraqi, there has to be, there is now an admittance of that. But I think the, another key thing that happened this week was that Ayatollah Sistani, the most important Shiite leader, endorsed the government while making the important point that we have to move toward democracy, because it’s only through democracy, and through the actual prosaic things people do to organize for elections, that the Iraqis will have the self respect, that they’ll be able to battle us with ideas and not just with bullets and bombs.
TOM OLIPHANT: I think there are two political obstacles ahead, though, that are very important, precisely because they don’t seem to have constituent political party kind of support. In Iraq, the American occupation is not popular. And yet it is favored by a government. That’s a dangerous situation potentially. In this country, neither John Kerry nor Bush favors setting a date for getting out, much less getting out, but nearly half the American people don’t want to stay. And I think there is a tension between the people and their government in both these countries that we have to keep our eyes on.
TERENCE SMITH: Another subject we had earlier in the broadcast. This latest set of numbers out on jobs, unemployment, the economy continues to grow, adding more jobs every month. Good news for President Bush?
DAVID BROOKS: I don’t know. It’s interesting. A million new jobs, 5 percent growth rate, increased productivity. If not for Iraq, the guy would be cruising to a landslide, I happen to think. Nonetheless, I think Iraq is more important politically than the economy. And the way we know that is that when Iraq goes bad, people’s perceptions of the economy, Americans’ perceptions of the economy go down, because they just are in a sour mood about things. So when people are judging the state of the country it’s Iraq that’s determining good economic news does not lift perceptions about Iraq. So right now this is an Iraqi election.
TERENCE SMITH: And they’re concerned, are they not, Tom, as well about the price of gas, and I don’t know to the degree to which the public relates the two, instability in the Middle East and the price that they pay at the pump. But it’s not… irrational…
TOM OLIPHANT: Let me try to deal with this problem with a little anecdote. I think what’s interesting about the increase in private sector employment over the last three months is that the Bush people have finally recognized that it’s an important political development. Virtually all their advertising money has been spent in the last three months trying to attack John Kerry.
For the last ten days, they’ve been creating a little commercial about an improving economy and they quickly slammed these numbers into the text, the script of the commercial, and started airing it today. Until now, the Bush campaign people have not thought that the economy was worth talking about. So this is a change that’s politically significant, I think. However, what we’re dealing with, I think, is a classic business recovery after more stimulation than a government has ever applied. Franklin Roosevelt must be looking down on this in amazement. But the business recovery is not the same as an improvement in the conditions inside families.
I prefer to look at things like household income, income measured on a per capita basis to see what’s happening to the standard of living. And that’s where you see the pressures of daily lives, life, impinging on ordinary American families, to a rather high income level. And until that changes, it could be goods prices, could be prescription drug costs, it could be health insurance. There are so many things that make getting by in America difficult today that the ability to feel prosperous is affected.
DAVID BROOKS: I think somewhat that’s true, but a million new jobs is not nothing over three months. That’s awesome. In this month’s figures we’re beginning to see wages rising, we’re beginning to see personal income rising, that only happens at the tail end of the wage growth when competition for employees begins to rise. I happen to think this government, you know, if you look over what’s happened in the last three years, they were faced with a potential crisis. They reacted forcefully. As Tom said, this was stimulus out the wazoo, if I can say that on PBS, and they, I wouldn’t have designed the tax cut the way they did it, but they did react forcefully, Republicans are not supposed to believe that the government can be simple enough to time a tax cut well to stimulate the economy, but they lucked out on this one.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. The other big story, the biggest story this week of course was the resignation of George Tenet as director of central intelligence. Assess the political fallout of that.
TOM OLIPHANT: Yeah. First of all, it is not the case that groups of Americans have been gathering on street corners all over the country to discuss the resignation of the CIA director. We like him here in Washington, and obviously and extremely. But the political impact at the moment is about zero, and it’s important to keep that fact in mind. Now most of my work has come off Capitol Hill this week, both Republicans and Democrats. And I believe that because there was a coolness on Tenet’s part and on the White House’s part, that while he wasn’t pushed, it does appear that it doesn’t really bother the president or any of his top advisors that he’s going to be gone.
What I see as the problem down the road is when these reports assessing the CIA’s performance start to come out and if the attempt is to focus just on Tenet’s tenure at the CIA, I think you’re going to get a reaction from him, vis-a- vis… that’s when the real political impact of this, as if there is friction later.
TERENCE SMITH: If he speaks out critically, you mean?
TOM OLIPHANT: Yes. We don’t know yet, there’s been much talk about particularly the Senate Intelligence Committee is going to focus on CIA failures. I’m told that’s not necessarily the whole story here, that they’re going to cast a wider net, look at how intelligence was used. And that’s where you could get some interaction between the administration and Tenet that would create a political problem.
DAVID BROOKS: John Kerry’s running mate. ( Laughs )
TERENCE SMITH: That’s right.
DAVID BROOKS: No, he’s out of here. I think the only political effect is that when these reports that Tom referred to would come out, if he had not resigned there would be a “Tenet must resign” kerfuffle, and now we’re spared that. I happen to think the political effect of all these report is when somebody suggests that we have an MI-5 type domestic intelligence agency, and that truly is a controversial notion, civil libertarians hate the idea. For the Republicans it’s a pretty good call, they would say yes, I think John Kerry would face some cross pressures within the Democratic Party. So I happen to think that we’re now spared the Tenet kerfuffle and we’ll have a broader discuss on television.
TERENCE SMITH: Speaking of John Kerry, he spent the week trying to outline his foreign policy and defense ideas. Is he in your view, Tom, getting across? Is he reaching the public and presenting a definable image on these subjects?
TOM OLIPHANT: The short answer, Terry, is no. I think I can illustrate it by asking David to tell me which of Kerry’s proposals did he find the most… ( laughter ) what’s going on here is an approach to the election that’s quite different from President Bush’s, and interesting on its own level or merits or demerits. Kerry is taking the slow road, the soft sell.
The first big $25 million ad buy was for two biographies, the second one, almost $20 million, is a short list of priorities with some pretty pictures and music. A bunch of speeches about national security, even though some of us might agree they had some serious content that interested us, the real point was showing him acting sort of like a president. Not being necessarily controversial or ideological. A couple of points are actually more on Bush’s right than his left, like wanting a bigger military, 40,000 more people in the armed forces. And next week when there’s a similar approach being taken to a bunch of domestic issues, again the idea is not news value or even shock value, but rather getting used to seeing the guy in a sort of presidential setting, slow and steady helping rather than anything dramatic.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you think he’s getting through?
DAVID BROOKS: No, I don’t think he’s getting through, but I do think he’s suggesting this feeling of safety, that he’s a responsible guy, he’s got eight foreign policy advisors, awful them supported the war, he doesn’t seem too liberal, he did call for a bigger military. To me one of the most interesting things he did was not in his speeches but in an interview with the Washington Post where he said he would de-emphasize democracy in dealing with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, would emphasize security more. He sounds more like George Bush the elder than George Bush the younger, and I think that’s about where the debate is, sort of center-right.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Just in the few seconds we have left, you’re such smart political prognosticators. Smarty Jones has the chance to become the first thoroughbred to win the Triple Crown tomorrow in the Belmont Stakes. Will he do it?
DAVID BROOKS: I think affirmed is going to win. ( Laughter )
TERENCE SMITH: Tom?
TOM OLIPHANT: The front-runners have not done well in politics this year, but I do think they’re going to do well in horse racing.
TERENCE SMITH: All right, we have you on the record. Thank you both very much.