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Weekly Analysis of Shields and Brooks

March 19, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: And that brings us to the analysis of Shields and Brooks: syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

And Mark, it’s hard to remember a bill passed, signed, consigned to history that now seems to have so many bedeviling stories floating around it.

MARK SHIELDS: This is a real story I think. I think it’s a story for a couple of reasons, first of which is it’s united the Democrats — the Democratic House and Senate leadership both calling for a re-vote. I think what it does, Ray, is raise questions about misleading his own party, misleading the country on the cost of what it is going to be and suppressing those costs, and it — remember Tom Sculley, who was the Medicare guy, whom did he talk to at the White House, who told him to do this, and there is some real anger on the part of conservatives, who voted for it only with the understanding that it would not exceed $400 billion which became sort of the magic ceiling beyond which they wouldn’t go.

So I think it’s a political problem, and it’s a legislative problem, and what you have in Mr. Foster is the ideal whistle blower. Most whistle blowers sadly seem like sort of malcontents of some sort. This seems like an enormously conscientious even likable public person who is going to testify next Wednesday before the Ways and Means Committee and it is going to be a story — it is a story with real legs.

DAVID BROOKS: Small legs. First of all, these estimates are just guesses. They are elaborate calculations built on guesses of what these things are going to cost, $400 billion, $500 billion, estimates today say $7 trillion over 75 years. We really have no clue what it is going to cost. Do I think it would have cost, changed any votes? I don’t think there was anybody in Washington when it passed who thought it was a $400 billion piece of legislation. Everybody I knew, we probably talked about it here on this program.

RAY SUAREZ: If that’s the public number David and the fact that it is a third higher comes out not in the out years, not five years from now, six years from now, but a matter of weeks after the bill is passed. Isn’t that a little different?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, absolutely, and I’ve said that on this program. I believe they knew what this new estimate was at the time. I do believe they were wrong in not telling everybody. Well, I’m pointing out two things. First of all, it didn’t change any votes because everybody knew that this $400 billion estimate was off, just like every estimate is off. It is not like there is a right estimate cost. Second, they should have announced everything.

We do not yet know and I personally have gone too far on many issues where you do not know what the exact, what is in each estimate. If there were some things that were scored in the $400 billion, another piece of legislation with different provisions would score in the $500 billion. We don’t know that yet. We’ll wait for the inspector general’s report; then we’ll have better knowledge about it.

RAY SUAREZ: What about the PR program being run for the bill and the charges that are starting to look at how it was passed?

DAVID BROOKS: Two things. The how it was passed, the three-hour delay, I do think that was just a mistake. You can’t hold it open. One of the interesting things about this piece of legislation, nobody supports it now. I don’t know anybody who likes it. So if they want to re-vote and re-defeat it, that would be fine with everybody I suspect. The second thing is about the ads they’re running on the Medicare. I saw those ads before I even read about them and my first reaction was that they were over the line. The ads they are running in defense of the president that are supposed to be nonpolitical ads which are made to be political. So I do think that that’s another case where they’ve just bungled it.

MARK SHIELDS: I think this thing has an awful lot of angles to it. First you mentioned how they passed it, keeping it open until dawn, keeping the House vote open beyond the usual 15 minutes or even 30 minutes.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s explain what we mean by keeping it open.

MARK SHIELDS: Usually the House has a prescribed period of time in which members can vote. They vote electronically. And they’ll let it go a few minutes extra if somebody is on his way or her way from a House office or a committee meeting, and it may go 30 minutes; it may 35 or 40 minutes if you have got three or four votes that you know are coming in that you need to pass something. This was kept over for over five and a half hours. Throughout the entire night and quite openly the House leadership was leaning on Nick Smith, the retiring Republican from Michigan who has made serious allegations himself that had he was threatened. His son is running to succeed him — that any support for his son would be cut off if he voted against the bill.

He probably ended up helping his son because he did vote against the bill and, if anything, whatever independence and heroism that attaches on the stand probably his son inherits, but we are talking about $100,000 coffers of money and support or withholding thereof on the House floor. That’s going to be investigated by House Ethics Committee.

I just think that it’s a story where Tommy Thompson, secretary of Health and Human Services, who’s Mr. Sculley’s boss, and a very successful governor of Wisconsin, that he has demanded an investigation. He is distancing the administration — he’s distancing himself from the decision that was made. It’s a little bit like Arnold Schwarzenegger calling for the investigation of the allegations against him. I mean Tommy Thompson, I assume, probably was — is deeply involved in the passage of it and support of the Medicare bill. Of course quite obviously the word came from White House.

DAVID BROOKS: Let me just separate the wheat from the chaff here. We have got a lot of Washington infighting. Some of it was done well; some of it was probably done well. That’s not the big story here. The big story is that we have a $400 billion or a $500 billion or $600 billion, a massive piece of legislation that conservatives don’t like, that liberals don’t like, that centrists don’t like.

This says something serious about Medicare — our medical reform over the next ten years. Somehow we have a massive bill that nobody likes. I don’t know whether it means there is no common ground or the whole debate is just in a turmoil but something is weird when you have a hugely expensive piece of legislation and nobody is actually in favor of it.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s move on to the anniversary of the Iraq war. Today the president was speaking to supporters, representatives of nations that supported this action, called it a brave and historic achievement. A year ago as hostilities were beginning, and he spoke to the country, he said it was to defend the world from grave danger. Is American rank and file faith in those two assurance solid?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, there’s still a majority of support for the war, there’s still majority support for the idea of getting rid of Saddam, and most importantly there is support in Iraq. There was a poll out just recently that a majority of Iraqis feel they’re better off than they were when Saddam was still in power. Seventy percent expect to be better off in a year and only 6 percent expect to be worse off.

I mean, the big story is here that a year ago Saddam was in his palace, Uday and Qusay were out hunting quail. Now we have a democratic constitution in Iraq. We have businesses starting. And we are, if this works out, we’re on a path, a bumpy path, toward some sort of democracy in that region, and hopefully spreading throughout that region. That’s the big story here. This is going to be the roughest year of what hopefully the next ten or 15 years when the payoffs will be seen.

MARK SHIELDS: Misinformation at home on Medicare, misinformation here. A year ago Ray the argument was used by the people who wanted to go to war: Look, this guy’s Hitler. One thing you do with it. You stand up as Churchill wanted to or you cave like Neville Chamberlain and so it was appeasement versus stopping another Hitler. He turned out to be a toothless tiger. It turned out to be a country not with weapons of mass destruction. The human rights activists were rights and the hawks were wrong. The sanctions had hurt. The sanctions had left Iraq a weak, poor and hungry nation with weak, poor and hungry people with no capacity to wage war against anybody else.

Now is Saddam gone? Is that good? Yeah, fine. Is the world a better place because he is gone? Absolutely. But was that the reason we went to war? No, it wasn’t and it wasn’t the case that was made. I mean, our credibility in the world is diminished, the mistrust of the United States — we’re isolated. What Zbigniew Brzezinski said in the segment with Margaret is true in spades. He said it more effectively but he said it more circumspect than is the reality.

DAVID BROOKS: He’s not a toothless tiger. He killed 2 or 3 million people in that region, over 30,000 people dying every year between the sanctions and the regime. But the mass graves were still being filled. The torture centers were still being filled. He was a guy who wanted to control that region and he was someone who was guy shooting at our planes.

RAY SUAREZ: I think that Mark’s point is that that is not why we were going to war.

DAVID BROOKS:Of course it was — it’s what the president said. It’s what I said 500 million times. It is what most people said, there were multiple reasons why we went to war. As the president said again and again and again, one was the WMD — the main one for me and for a lot of people was that the sea bed of terrorism was the cascade of tyrannies in the Middle East and you had to address the fundamental problem that there were all these people sitting around with no hope, with no rights, with no liberty and you had to change the dynamic in the Middle East.

MARK SHIELDS: There is no question absent the idea and the argument that he represented a threat to the United States, to our well-being, to the survival of this nation, to the safety of the American people that there wouldn’t have been a war, that George W. Bush could not have enlisted simply because of the terrible things he had done to his own people. That was not the case that was made to the American people or to the United Nations.

RAY SUAREZ: Spanish elections came over the weekend and there was a swing of a couple of percentage points and the government that supported George Bush is gone. Did the Spanish result indicate that people are separating the war on terrorism from the war in Iraq?

DAVID BROOKS: It depends which people.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s start with the Spanish.

DAVID BROOKS: I really don’t know why the Spanish voted the way they did. I do know that al-Qaida received a message that their tactics work and I do know that the gap across the Atlantic was widened, and it was widened for two reasons. The Americans and Europeans see things very differently and the Bush administration has done a poor job of selling their policies in the Middle East. Why wasn’t George Bush in Spain this week? Why wasn’t Colin Powell in Spain? They should absolutely have been there. We should have sent people immediately. But that’s only part of the problem.

The bigger problem is we just see terrorism very differently. I spoke to Romano Prodi, the European Commission president, last night; he said we can’t address — the al-Qaida terrorist situation will not be abated until the Middle East Israeli-Palestinian dispute is solved. I just fundamentally don’t agree with that. I don’t think al-Qaida is about the Middle East — about that particular dispute.

MARK SHIELDS: I recommend Keith Richburg’s reporting in The Washington Post which was pretty straightforward. The Spanish people were lied to by their government in when it happened. The government in power that lost on Sunday’s election made the case that this was the Basque terrorists rather than al-Qaida that had done this for domestic political consumption, showed how tough we were standing up to them and don’t we deserve another term in office and people — enough people had concluded quite apparently that they had been lied to and misled by their own government and they routed them out of office.

DAVID BROOKS: I would say you can conclude that but you still don’t give al-Qaida the appearance of a victory because then they’re going to be bombing another election in other countries.

MARK SHIELDS: I just couldn’t disagree more. People vote for their leadership based upon that leadership, its strength and weaknesses and they were let down by their own leadership.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thanks a lot.