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Shields and Brooks

April 16, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And that brings us to the analysis of Shields and Brooks: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks. David, is this election going to be end up being a referendum on the Iraq war? Is that a possibility?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it’s a good possibility. My theory about this election right now today is that the people who are paying attention have made up their minds and the people who are undecided are not yet paying attention. It’s like in the primary season where the polls were floating around for a long time and the last three weeks, the undecideds finally started paying attention and the polls moved radically in one direction or another.

So I think it is quite possible that something happened in Iraq in October that will be either good or bad for the United States and that event will provoke a sharp swing in the polls. So it is sort of a last minute thing, depending on what happens now.

JIM LEHRER: Has John Kerry found his voice, found his position on the war? We just heard one clip what he said this week. What do you think, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think he has yet, Jim. I think he is still somewhat caught because he voted for the war and he, in a strange way, the worse the war goes, the greater the increase… you can see it now in the National Guard families, the reserve families… to bring our troops home. If that becomes a political movement, that become almost a difficulty for Kerry because the established position is we are going to stay the course.

JIM LEHRER: He agrees with the president on that.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. But I do think, Jim, that what we are seeing in this campaign is that George Bush’s greatest strength is in danger of becoming his greatest weakness. That was the war president and the war leader. His Achilles’ Heel, the economy, may in fact be improving, so I think there has been a turnaround but I don’t think that you want to see George Bush running as the war president right now.

DAVID BROOKS: I’m struck by the differences right now — moving forward — there are huge differences over the past year. Over the next year, I don’t think there are striking differences. I don ‘t know if you’ve got the same sense that I have, but I felt that Kerry has moved toward the center dramatically both on domestic and foreign policy in the last three weeks and they both basically embrace some sort of U.N.-led transition to elections and on domestic policy he has very aggressively embraced Bob Rubin economics.

JIM LEHRER: What about the specific issue that he raised in that clip? He has raised it before, very dramatically. In other words, the reason we went to war in Iraq. Is it possible to make that a viable political issue?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, politically, I mean, you could make it a legitimate issue to talk about it, and intellectual issue. Politically I think the American people are right now split 50-50. Whether it was a good idea, they’re willing to go either way.

JIM LEHRER: If casualties continue to go up….

DAVID BROOKS: It’s interesting how they both see it as a strength. The Bush campaign released commercials today attacking Kerry’s vote against the $87 billion to spend. So for some reason the Bush administration feels this is an issue they should be raising.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s hard for me to believe this ever becomes a plus for George W. Bush.

JIM LEHRER: — the prewar –

MARK SHIELDS: David makes the case that it’s about half today. It was 75 percent three months ago. The trend line is in the wrong direction. And but I don’t think … I think there’s two charges about the president I think that probably fall under an umbrella. One is he is reckless — that he has been reckless in his relations, he’s been reckless in his actions. I mean we are now back to the U.N. We are counting on the U.N. to pull our bacon out of the fire, Jim.

I mean, this is the U.N. that was ridiculed, repeatedly and publicly by the administration’s leaders as feckless at best and corrupt at worst. Now you hear the president, this is a master plan that’s going to do it. So I think it’s awfully tough to say that this was well planned, brilliantly executed and an indication of a command leadership.

DAVID BROOKS: I guess I differ. The best thing I like about the Bush administration the past six months is their willingness to be ruthlessly pragmatic. When the caucus system for moving to a transition in Iraq didn’t work, they dumped it. They dumped thing after thing looking for the thing that will work, and the thing that seems to be working is not so much the U.N., which they still have only moderate faith in, but it’s this guy Brahimi. For four or five months I’ve been hearing them talk about Brahimi with tones of great respect. They respect what this guy is going to come up with. And I think he has — because they can trust him, they can trust the U.N. a little more than they would otherwise.

JIM LEHRER: This week — how does the president’s news conference look three days later?

DAVID BROOKS: I think — again, I canvassed people that I know and I got wildly different reactions. Some people thought he was a forthright leader. Some people thought he showed he didn’t know that much and they were sort of spooked by sense that he doesn’t know that much about Iraq on the ground. I just — I found tremendously different reactions.

JIM LEHRER: What about your own?

DAVID BROOKS: My own reaction is that I guess…

JIM LEHRER: I’m sorry to ask.

DAVID BROOKS: I guess it’s my job, isn’t it?

JIM LEHRER: You better have one.

DAVID BROOKS: My reaction to the first 17 minutes was overwhelmingly positive — laid out a framework, laid out a direction for Iraq. My reaction to the question and answer period and I blame this partly on the press and partly on the president was that he was just repeating the same four points over and over again, you get a little bored and impatient.

JIM LEHRER: How did you feel about the president’s news conference?

MARK SHIELDS: I think he was stampeded into it, Jim, and I think it was a bad decision. I mean, the 17 minutes was a hybrid. We never had one of those before where the president comes out and gives a 17-minute speech and then…

JIM LEHRER: An address to the nation…

MARK SHIELDS: And then doesn’t answer questions. Before I don’t answer your questions, I want to make a 17-minute speech. And I just was struck by how un-agile the president is even after three-and-a-half years. The question he kept getting, Mike Allen of The Washington Post — among others — asked him why are you going in there with the vice president to testify at the 9/11 commission, the two of you together?

I mean, he just could have said something very light like, you know, the vice president isn’t sure of himself and I just want to be there to coach him. People would have chuckled and said he didn’t answer it but you got to like the guy. He just isn’t good that way.

And I was at a focus group Tuesday night among swing voters in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania being a key state. And it was fascinating. They like George Bush; they admire his resoluteness, and at the same time they don’t like this war and they don’t think he has an exit policy and they were looking for answers and boy if you were looking for answers Tuesday night, there were very few there.

JIM LEHRER: I was just going to say is that your view of it?

MARK SHIELDS: I think he just kind of got into this mantra of words and phrases in that second part and there weren’t answers to where we’re going, how do we go from here, Mr. President, not whether this is a battle for freedom, it’s a battle for Iraq, it’s a battle for democracy — there was no question of where we are going from here.

DAVID BROOKS: He anticipated the Brahimi plan which is a significant thing that’s going forward, a sort of positive development as far as Iraq goes. And he showed the most important thing he can show, which is that success is our exit strategy. We are not getting out until this is done. And that was the most important message to send to the troops, the American people and to the Iraqis. The substantive … the style of the press conference, that’s not his format but the substance: it’s four basic points, they’re the right points to make.

JIM LEHRER: The president also made news this week by endorsing Sharon’s — Prime Minister Sharon’s plan, settlements plan. What do you think about that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think, Jim….

JIM LEHRER: In the Middle East, I should have finished in the Middle East.

MARK SHIELDS: Go ahead.

JIM LEHRER: I just did.

MARK SHIELDS: You did and brilliantly so, Jim. I thought — I mean, the president broke tradition, broke pattern of six previous presidents, four Republicans and two Democrats, and I think it’s fair to say that we took sides for really the first time so publicly, so dramatically, between the Palestinians and Israelis. We ratified and validated the land grab on the West Bank.

JIM LEHRER: By endorsing the idea of keeping settlements Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Pull out of Gaza…

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. Pull out of Gaza? That’s a good deal. I mean, you can’t stay in Gaza for goodness sakes. They know that. They’re overwhelmed in Gaza. And the reality is, Jim, they’re closing down 500 settlements along — 500 people. Since 1967, there have been 200,000 Jewish settlers there. I just think that the president is probably best said by the leading Israeli newspaper, Sharon gets it all.

JIM LEHRER: Did Sharon get it all?

DAVID BROOKS: No, but he got a lot. Let’s be honest about that. He restated the position which was the Clinton position and the positions of every other president for the last three presidents — those suburbs outside of Jerusalem were never going to Palestine — the right of return was never going to be acceptable because it’s the end of Israel if they grant right of return. So he just made it explicit. The question is making it explicit a good thing to do or not.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s explain it for people who don’t follow this very carefully. By making it explicit now rather than to wait for it to be negotiated somewhere down the road, which has been the U.S. position, well, we’ll see how it all works out.

DAVID BROOKS: And the question is, does that make future negotiations, does that obviate them? Does that mean we are now going into a unilateral direction? And Dennis Ross, who was Bill Clinton’s man on the Middle East, was there at Camp David, said it does not pressure future negotiations at all. To me the most important thing and my main goal for Israel and the Middle East is to get them out of those settlements but in a way that does not reward Hamas.

You cannot pull back unilaterally the way Israel pulled back from Lebanon because then Hamas celebrates: Oh, this works, this terror works. So they somehow have to withdraw from the settlements in a way that shows to Hamas, you know, this process is no the going to be good for you our unilateral withdrawal. We’ll do a punitive withdrawal and that’s the way you get the Palestinians saying, hey we can’t just sit here and let nothing happen. That’s the way you kick start a negotiations for settlement.

MARK SHIELDS: Let me just say, Jim, the United States may be a broker in the Middle East between the Palestinian and Israelis but it can no longer be an honest broker. Because we have come down and we have come down on the side of the most extreme position. And that is the most extreme position. There is no doubt about it. David said what was already going to be negotiated. What we did was we just intruded and gave away on behalf of the Palestinians without talking to them. We talk about believing in the existence of a Palestinian state by the year 2005. That is not Ariel Sharon’s agenda.

DAVID BROOKS: This is not the extreme position. It’s the Barak position, it’s the Rabin position; it’s the Clinton position. There is no way these suburbs outside of Jerusalem were ever going back. What is going to happen now is they’re going to be ripping Israeli settlers out of those settlements. It could cause the Likud government to fall.

MARK SHIELDS: The president in my judgment has yielded to what is the equivalent of the China lobby and I think John Kerry was mute in endorsing it and did not show any kind of a profile in courage. But China –

JIM LEHRER: You think this is locked into the 2004 election?

MARK SHIELDS: Paralyzed… the China lobby paralyzed the United States policy on China for a generation and George Bush is about to paralyze the United States policy between the Palestinians and… how would you like to be running recruitment right now for any of these groups? The oppressive Arab government that have used anti-Israeli feeling, as sort of a way — a palliative to their own people and their own failure and their own sense, were just given a gift.

JIM LEHRER: David.

DAVID BROOKS: We’ve had three years of no negotiations; we’ve had three years of freeze — we’ve had three years of terror attacks and worsening negotiations. Somehow you have to get the negotiations started. Getting the Israelis out of those settlements is the start of the process.

JIM LEHRER: You don’t think it is politically motivated?

DAVID BROOKS: Everything is politically motivated. George Bush is deeply into the Middle East. He overruled his key advisers on his decision to marginalize Yasser Arafat. Whether it was right or wrong it’s something he deeply feels it in the soul. There is politics in all decisions but I think it was a sincere decision.

JIM LEHRER: Before we go. You mentioned the 9/11 commission. What is your progress assessment of how they’re doing, especially after this week?

MARK SHIELDS: I think that the strategy outlines are pretty clear, the White House is trying to preempt them with the initiative of the national intelligence director dusted off the 15-month-old proposal from Brent Scowcroft — boy here’s a hell of an idea — and they would like to give the sense that it is very political and going after Jamie Gorelick who had been the former deputy attorney general and having her outed by John Ashcroft in his testimony with a memo he declassified on the spot. Hats off to Slade Gorton, former Republican senator from Washington who blew the whistle on John Ashcroft and pointed out that John Ashcroft in fact as attorney general had ratified the Gorelick memo. But I’ll say this.

JIM LEHRER: Say it quickly, please.

MARK SHIELDS: I think Democrats make a mistake to try and concentrate attention and effort on what preceded 9/11 to find a villain. George Bush’s political vulnerability is Iraq and the policy in Iraq. That’s his war.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about the commission?

DAVID BROOKS: Well I think it’s fallen in love with itself, becoming too politicized and made a mistake by allowing people on television shows like this one.

JIM LEHRER: This is different from all the other ones.

DAVID BROOKS: And as far as Gorelick, John Ashcroft made a valid point. Everybody is being attacked for building walls between the agencies. After the Moussaoui investigation, some FBI agents said we want to investigate these hijackings. Somebody said no you can’t do that. It is legitimate to talk about Jamie Gorelick writing a memo, saying no you can’t do that. That’s a major piece of the story, to me one of the major pieces of the story. If we are going to cast blame on people, she comes in….

JIM LEHRER: For the record she wrote the memo long before Moussaoui was arrested.

MARK SHIELDS: 1995, which was reaffirming a policy that had been in previous administrations

DAVID BROOKS: But the major issue of this investigation are the walls between the FBI and the CIA. She was part of it. John Ashcroft was part of it. The administration is going back for part of it.

JIM LEHRER: You all set a record tonight. I don’t think you agreed on anything I asked you about.

DAVID BROOKS: We agreed on your brilliance.

JIM LEHRER: Well, thank you very much.

MARK SHIELDS: 60-40.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you both.