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Shields and Brooks

February 13, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and “New York Times” columnist David Brooks. First the same-sex marriage issue. Is that going to become a presidential election issue, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, it is, Jim. There are basically two ways you can run for reelection, whether you’re running for county commissioner or you’re running for president for a second term.

One is say, look, these are our successes, our achievements, progress was made. Let’s finish the job. The second is look we don’t have a lot of things to celebrate, but let me tell you, the guys on the other side are really dog robbers and grave robbers and worse. You want to shift the focus and the attention to a referendum. This is an issue that has presented itself to the Republicans, and which they’re going to seize. And I don’t think there is any question about it. Democrats are very much on the defensive.

The public is against gay marriage. I would make this prediction unequivocally. Just as at the 1984 convention in California that nominated Walter Mondale, Jean Kirkpatrick used the term– San Francisco Democrats.

It will be the first or second speaker at the Republican National Convention who will talk about Massachusetts Democrats, the Massachusetts supreme judicial court; in all likelihood, it’s a Massachusetts nominee at a Boston convention, and while the public is against a constitutional amendment or very ambivalent about a constitutional amendment, the issue of gay marriage is unpopular.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree? Do you agree it will become an issue the way Mark said it will?

DAVID BROOKS: Not quite. It is utterly legitimate as an issue. There is all this talk described as a wedge issue or somehow a nasty issue — it is an issue. We should have debate about it. Sometimes I get the impression a wedge issue is any issue that might benefit a Republican, and Democrats never have wedge issues.

JIM LEHRER: In other words, you think it is a legitimate thing for the American people to be debating?

DAVID BROOKS: It’s an important change that we need to talk about it. I’m not on the Republican side of this particular fight but it’s something that is perfectly legitimate to have an election about. On the other hand, I do not think it will be a major issue in part for some of the reasons Mark described.

I think politically it is an incredibly complicated issue. As Mark said, two-to-one people oppose gay marriage. On the other hand, as Mark also said, a majority oppose a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. And then there’s another public dynamic coming through here, which is that people resent the courts pushing them around.

So there’s all these cross-cutting currents. I generally fall back on the Gigot rule, named after the guy who used to sit in this chair, which is that whatever party raises any issue relating to gays loses. People just don’t want to talk about it. And so I think any party is going to be careful about raising this issue.

JIM LEHRER: In other words, the Massachusetts Democrat line that Mark laid out, you don’t think….

DAVID BROOKS: That may come up, but it will come up for a whole range of issues if the Republicans decide that John Kerry’s greatest vulnerability is that he is a Massachusetts liberal, which I don’t think is what they’ll decide.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of John Kerry, do either of you have any information since we last talked which was two nights ago that would make you believe that John Kerry is not going to win Wisconsin on Tuesday?

MARK SHIELDS: I have not. Unless something has happened in Osh Kosh tonight. We have not.

DAVID BROOKS: Within five rows of Jane Fonda — that has become an issue – in 1971.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s talk about that. We talked about that the other night. But the issue about Vietnam, what John Kerry’s situation anti-war efforts, that photograph and other things, and of course President Bush’s record with the Air National Guard. Are we going to fight Vietnam all over again?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think, Jim, what you are seeing is the White House just released one of the great….

JIM LEHRER: Hundreds and hundreds of documents….

MARK SHIELDS: Shake ‘n’ bake maneuver that has been used by every administration. You get something you want to get out that’s unpleasant, do it late Friday afternoon on a holiday weekend and dump hundreds of pages, just do a big paper dump on people in hopes that it won’t be reported immediately.

It is a defensive issue. If the debate is over who is the better warrior, who is the stronger defender of this country when it was under combat siege, John Kerry wins that argument. So Bush has to get at commander in chief, I return to the original point, if you can’t talk about what you’ve done, you talk about what the other guy did 30 years ago, and the Republican national chairman, the Bush campaign chairman, are attacking John Kerry and putting him somehow in the same crowd of several thousand people three years before Jane Fonda went to Hanoi, this seems to be the issue.

But I think it’s a problem for the president because it plays right into the whole credibility erosion which we’ve seen all week.

JIM LEHRER: You said the other night when we talked about this, David, that this was of no relevancy. Do you still feel that way?

DAVID BROOKS: More than ever. I spent the week talking about Zakawi, this terrorist in Iraq, about weapons of mass destruction, about the Pakistani nonproliferation or the proliferation threat coming from there with serious people and then I turn on the TV and see the White House press corps baying like jackals about this stupid story from 1972. That was 30 years ago.

You know, the youngest voters were born in 1986. What are they supposed to make about something that happened in 1972? I just think Sept. 11 happened — we’ve got important issues to talk about. The idea that we are talking about something 30 years ago; we are as far removed as Vietnam as Vietnam was removed from prohibition. It’s as if the 1968 presidential debate was how Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon reacted to some Calvin Coolidge policy. It’s ridiculous to go back this far.

MARK SHIELDS: Let me dissent. Jim, one of the charges that’s been leveled against the president is the vulnerability the president has politically, is that he is too close to those who are well off, that he’s shown too much concern for those who are well off. This is a pattern of treatment that the president received. He jumped over 500 people to get into a unit – it was known as a champagne unit.

His attendance record was spotty. He got out eight months early. There were n awful lot of people in Vietnam who would have liked to have got out eight months early.

A Republican said to me that Kerry got out early from Vietnam after his second tour and his third purple heart. I think the questions that go to, is the president going to level in the year 2004 about what went on? And now he has dumped all the records out, apparently, after essentially sitting on them for the past ten years.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read that to the document dump a while ago over at the White House?

DAVID BROOKS: This festered for days and days and I tried to follow it as much as I could possibly stand to. There was one guy who served with him does remember him being there on weekends. There was another guy who doesn’t remember, so you had all this cross cutting, and it was clearly never going away.

So I guess they finally dug up the faded old microfiches and dumped it out. The guy has been president for three years. If you want to make a charge that he is too close to the high and mighty, too privileged, does not represent the common people, that’s fine. But you have got Ken Lay; you’ve got Halliburton, there are many ways to get at that issue, which actually has to do with my lifetime basically.

JIM LEHRER: What about the counter attacks now on Kerry and his antiwar record and the photograph of his sitting in a crowd behind Jane Fonda? There’s the photograph. You can see there’s Jane Fonda in the kind of red sweater there and right behind her in the fuzzy thing there is John Kerry.

DAVID BROOKS: He needs glasses. He is squinting. I could care less about that. He came back — he gave testimony in which some people say he slandered his fellow vets by calling them war criminals. He gave a Harvard Crimson interview saying he wanted to get rid of the CIA — that was 1971, or ’72, or ’73.

JIM LEHRER: So you put that in the same category?

I put it all — it is so distant. He’s had a record. Both these guys have had long records which we can talk about. Why doesn’t anyone talk about the 90s, the ’80s — because boomers can’t get over Vietnam, a lot of us can get over it.

MARK SHIELDS: John Kerry came back from Vietnam where he had killed the enemy, personally –where he had seen his mates killed, where he had saved lives and he concluded it was a terrible war, a terrible mistake. And he led the fight against that war, and he gave one of the most eloquent addresses I’ve ever heard before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he said tell me, what do you say to the last man to die for a mistake? And, you know, it was an unanswerable question. I think that’s absolutely, if anything, it is a high patriotic deal.

JIM LEHRER: But the point here is if somebody disagreed, in other words, thinks it was the wrong thing for him to do, is it fair game now?

MARK SHIELDS: Of course it is. If they want to say that if Bob Kerrey who won the Medal of Honor and came back and turned on the war and said it was the wrong war and supported those who supported the war from fraternity row, want to turn on them, that’s great.

DAVID BROOKS: I’d like to make one important amendment. John Kerry’s heroism in Vietnam transcends the particular issues of Vietnam and he deserves credit and it goes to his character, which I think is eternal, just as John McCain’s heroism. He deserves credit and that is a legitimate issue that he has a right to talk about.

The political attitudes that he had as a 20-year-old or sitting with Jane Fonda or talking about the CIA, that stuff – that’s stuff that I think is over the bridge. That stuff is far away and it’s irrelevant. He has had many different opinions since then which are far more relevant in how he will behave as president than anything he said at a hearing or to the Harvard Crimson.

JIM LEHRER: Talking about the president, there is a new “Washington Post”-ABC poll today which shows that he has got a credibility problem. Over half the people think that he may have lied or exaggerated on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Is that a serious problem?

DAVID BROOKS: First of all, the question was did he exaggerate? And I think he exaggerated. I think….

JIM LEHRER: If you had been part of the poll you would have been part of the 50 percent.

DAVID BROOKS: They never let us journalists answer the question. Yea, I think he exaggerated. That poll is not particularly damaging. You can think he exaggerate and still support the policy. The credibility question is I think his greatest vulnerability — not because of weapons of mass destruction, more as we spoke a few weeks ago about the budget, a whole series of things where people feel he hasn’t come straightforward with the people. If I could just make one point about the polls, he has had as bad a two months as you can possibly have. John Kerry has had about as good a one month as you could possibly have. Despite that dynamic, they’re still basically even in the polls. So that suggests the president still has some residual advantage. It could get worse for him; he could lose. But he is sitting reasonably well considering all that’s happened.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about this poll?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s cumulative, Jim. I mean I think David is right. I think it’s the budget. I think it’s the joint chiefs of staff have gone up to Capitol Hill this week and saying you can’t play this way on funding for Iraq. They know they’re going to have to spend $50 billion in Iraq– in Afghanistan. They refuse to put it in the budget because they don’t want the deficit to be bigger.

As John McCain said, you are deceiving the American people. You’re deceiving the American people about the deficit and about the debt. That means they’re going to run out of money in September when the fiscal year runs because they don’t want to come up for a request until after the election for supplemental appropriations, so I think it this, it’s really a whole host of things; it is the weapons of mass destruction, it’s the cost of Medicare to get conservative votes for it. It’s $400 billion. Two months later it’s $140 billion more.

JIM LEHRER: Let me ask, David, do you think the president deserves this credibility problem? Is has he earned this credibility problem?

DAVID BROOKS: To be honest with you, it’s a mystery to me. I have reasonable amount of dealings with people in the administration and they strike me as earnest honest people, but yet this happens with some frequency. So to be honest, it doesn’t jar with what I know of the people in the administration. I think Bush is basically a straight-shooter but there is this record and it’s undeniable. So I don’t know how to square those two facts right now.

JIM LEHRER: Obviously, we’re going to have many opportunities to talk about this, I’m sure, in the next weeks and months. Thank you both very much.