Shields and Brooks
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JIM LEHRER: And to politics and other matters now with Shields and Brooks. Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks. First the week in caucuses– a potential sweep for Kerry, David?
DAVID BROOKS: Looks like it. I think what’s happened this week is that the general election started to [inaudible] to the president’s reaction to politics and how badly he’s been doing. And I think they are thinking November now.
JIM LEHRER: Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: The Kerry argument has moved from electability to inevitability. And the train is leaving. You better get on seems to be the message to leading Democrats. It’s interesting in two respects. One, for the first time a Democratic candidate for president is telling a constituency in a major state what it doesn’t want to hear. In Michigan, John Kerry has long been an advocate of increased automobile mileage standards strongly opposed by both the Auto Workers Union and the auto industry. And yet, he is leading in that state.
So I think it is taking on the look of a Kerry thing and I think David is absolutely right. I mean, perceptions frequently pass for reality in politics, and there’s a perception now among both Democrats and Republicans that George W. Bush is in trouble.
JIM LEHRER: Where do you think that comes from?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, it comes from him having a bad week and dropping 11 points in his approval rating. He had one of the worst State of the Unions in recent memory. The trip to Mars didn’t really seem to go anywhere. We didn’t find weapons of mass destruction.
JIM LEHRER: Not the trip. You mean his proposal.
DAVID BROOKS: His proposal –
JIM LEHRER: The trip to Mars is doing fine up there –
DAVID BROOKS: The two rovers. Karl Rove wishes he was up there right now.
JIM LEHRER: Let’s move right along, please.
DAVID BROOKS: OK, I’ll keep moving. So the president does something radical and agrees to go on Tim Russert’s show on Sunday, on Meet the Press, which is a high risk gamble but it’s a gamble, it’s a sign that they think they have to turn things around.
JIM LEHRER: And, Mark, today he announced this bipartisan independent commission to look at intelligence. He had said earlier he wasn’t going to do this. Everybody said the president wasn’t going to do it. What changed his mind?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, just picking up exactly where David was, Jim, I think the president’s greatest vulnerability and Republicans will privately concede this, George W. Bush’s strength was never his mastery of substantive detail or his deep and strong experience in any area. It was always I’m a straight shooter unlike my predecessor, you won’t have to worry. I’m direct, I’ll level with you. And you have got weapons of mass destruction.
Now you have his budget which is a shell game at best — a bait and switch at worst. You’ve got him changing his tune and his position and I think — I really think that for the first time there’s a question of his credibility being eroded. As far as this was concerned because the idea came from John McCain, somehow there was sort of an initial negative response from the White House. I mean, in many respects, it’s the most shrewdly political thing for the White House to do. Any further revelations that come up embarrassing details that got public, hey, the commission is looking at it — we can’t comment on that; the commission is looking at it.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think of the commission idea, David?
DAVID BROOKS: I think it’s a good idea and I also think the people he named are great. First, they are independent people. Lloyd Cutler, Patricia Wald, nobody is going to push these people around — let alone John McCain. The second thing and the most important thing to me is that they are not in the tank for the intelligence community. He could have gone out and picked a bunch of ambassadors and Council on Foreign Relations types — people who are born in the mentality of intelligence community with the methodology of the intelligence community, but in my view that’s the problem.
He needed smart independent people who could take a look at not only the intelligence and the details but the way people in the intelligence community think and who don’t, aren’t part of that social science mentality that really is endemic to the intelligence community. So I think this is a root and branch look at the way we have done this.
JIM LEHRER: There are have been rumors, I’m sure you all know, that the reason this has been delayed is because they had trouble getting any Democrats to agree to serve. How do you read that? They still have two seats they haven’t filled yet.
DAVID BROOKS: I think we’re available.
JIM LEHRER: OK.
DAVID BROOKS: I think, you know it’s a partisan year and a lot of Democrats were understandably worried they would be part of a white wash — an effort to cover this whole thing up. But in the people they got there’s no possibility for that. Patricia Wald, a very prestigious lawyer — Rick Levin, the president of Yale — independent and extremely well thought of at Yale, these are people that are really not questionable.
JIM LEHRER: How do you read the fact that there are no Democratic senators, serving senators? Chuck Robb is a former senator and he’s a former Marine and he’s on the Armed Services Committee, knows intelligence and all of that but he’s not a current senator?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, the only current officeholder is John McCain.
JIM LEHRER: He is a Republican.
MARK SHIELDS: He is a Republican, although the White House sometimes questions that. I mean, John McCain is –
JIM LEHRER: Excuse me, is the tension between John McCain and the White House as strong as it has ever been? I thought that had gone away, no?
MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s fair to say that maybe the principals are friendly or formerly friendly but at the level of the most loyal lieutenants on both sides, open amity, hostility and mistrust I think it’s fair to say.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, David?
DAVID BROOKS: Basically, yes.
JIM LEHRER: Go ahead. Story to interrupt you, sir.
MARK SHIELDS: That’s all right. Jim. I mean, Bob Graham, who was on Margaret’s segment with Pat Roberts, would have been logical, former chairman. Lee Hamilton in many respects — Jim, this is the seventh commission. You have eaten up a lot of people. That’s one of problems. I mean, this isn’t [inaudible]. This isn’t something that somebody just came up with. This really is — they are looking for people and they go to the rolodexes and an awful lot of them have been spoken for.
DAVID BROOKS: The great and good is a limited supply.
JIM LEHRER: The great and the good. Never mind. George Tenet’s speech yesterday, what did you think of that?
DAVID BROOKS: I thought he made some good points. I think the best point he made was that this weapons of mass destruction program was not as we thought it was but it was not dead either. It was in remission but it could be sprung up at any moment. And he made some good points that the CIA did get some things right about the missiles and things like that. I think the fundamental problem is he did not grasp the reality that we now understand was the Iraqi reality, which was this was a regime that was decomposing.
You had scientists; you had military leaders; you had a dictator and sons in total chaos. And you look at that speech. There’s no understanding of how they got it wrong. They got it wrong because they imposed a false order on Iraqi reality. They thought it was a regime like any other. But it was not a regime like any other; it was a regime teetering near anarchy, and the CIA never understands disorder because they impose a rationalistic framework on anything.
JIM LEHRER: I think he would be a great commission member, don’t you, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: But I don’t think he fills the Democratic seat. Jim, I disagree –
JIM LEHRER: You agree on Tenet?
MARK SHIELDS: No, I thought Tenet, what Tenet did was interesting. This is a fellow who came to the CIA as a staffer from the Hill.
JIM LEHRER: As a Democratic staffer.
MARK SHIELDS: A Democratic staffer on the Hill under Bill Clinton and what he did yesterday was defend his agency and said look, we never said there was an imminent threat. I mean, he was pretty blunt about that. What was truly impressive this week was to see this administration that has always spoken with a single voice many discordant contradictory voices, many voices contradicting themselves.
Colin Powell flip flopping in the space 24 hours — wouldn’t have gone to war, the president made the right decision to go to war. George Tenet, I thought made the case for his agency and said, you know, the unstated conclusions of his remarks and everything going on this week is if you are going to have a preemptive war that demands a level of certitude that the intelligence must be so good on the part of president who asked the nation to go to war in a preemptive war. That obviously has not been the case here. John McCain said that in the piece.
JIM LEHRER: Imminent. Use of the word imminent — George Tenet said we did not say there was an imminent threat. So, where did that come from?
DAVID BROOKS: It came from pundits. If you look at what George W. Bush said, he said grave and gathering. He was always careful to say grave and gathering threat. His whole main argument leading up to the war was we can’t wait for it to be imminent and that is the problem because we’re in a bind here. And when you have terrorists and weapons of mass destruction, you can’t wait until they are right on top of you. But as it stands now with our intelligence community, we can’t act first because we can’t have confidence in our intelligence.
MARK SHIELDS: When the national security adviser to the president of the United States goes on national television and says we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud, that isn’t imminent? I mean –
DAVID BROOKS: That was her point that was the point; we can’t wait for imminence. We have to, when its grave and gathering –
MARK SHIELDS: We’re talking mushroom clouds — you are talking about nuclear weapons for goodness sakes. It turns out, I mean, what Colin Powell said a year ago at the U.N. when he made the case to go to war and it was probably the most conclusive expert witness in behalf of that case, you know, it’s totally contradicted by everything that has happened since.
DAVID BROOKS: It’s mostly contradicted. One thing we know is we do a terrible job of measuring proliferation. As Senator Roberts said earlier, we underestimated the Iraqi program in 1991. We underestimated Libya, we underestimated Iran. We underestimated in the Iraqi case. Now we overestimated but we just have no idea what is going on with proliferation.
JIM LEHRER: Before we go. I can’t leave the most exciting subject. I got to talk about the budget — the president’s budget. You heard what Mark Shields just said. He said it was a shell game the president was playing. What do you think?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, there’s some truth to that. I don’t know how you measure the relative dishonesty of all the different budgets. Every year there’s smoke and mirror involved — but I will say one thing, which a lot of Republicans are upset at and it goes into this — when they sold the Medicare and prescription drug bill, they sold it as a $400 billion bill. Two months later we discovered they were off by 33 percent. That is a $530 billion bill. And, you know, they must have known. There’s a lot of unhappiness on the Republican side as well as the Democratic side that somehow the numbers are not coming out straight.
JIM LEHRER: Should it be seen as an election year document and dismissed or do you think..
DAVID BROOKS: Presumably what happens is going to be based on this budget and it’s a budget that has Republicans outraged. The level of domestic spending increasing is just off the charts.
MARK SHIELDS: They are playing fast and loose with the president’s credibility. It’s his most precious and most perishable political resource. That budget is just replete with –
JIM LEHRER: Give us the worst example — in your opinion the Medicare thing?
MARK SHIELDS: Medicare. Here is the perfect example — the president said we were going back to pay as you go. Pay as you go, it was a system adopted in 1990s to balance the budget, which was if you and I come up with a new expenditure, we have to come up with taxes to pay for it or cuts to pay for it. The president says that is what we’re going to and he increases in Medicare, he increases in Social Security you have to have cuts elsewhere or the taxes to pay for it — except tax cuts. Tax cuts are sacrosanct; tax cuts don’t have to be justified in any way. Any tax cuts they don’t have to be –
JIM LEHRER: In other words you can cut the revenue but you don’t have to cut the spending to match it.
MARK SHIELDS: Not at all. When Bill Young, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee a Florida Republican, says the numbers don’t add up — I mean, he wasn’t talking Democratic jargon.
JIM LEHRER: Our numbers do add up and they say good night and thank you very much.