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Shields and Brooks

April 30, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks. The Kerry-Cheney exchange on Iraq who got the best of it, David?

DAVID BROOKS: I guess I thought Cheney did. It won’t surprise you, maybe, mostly because of the way they referred to Churchill and the way they bounced off Churchill. What Cheney said was Churchill came here to talk about a big global struggle. Cheney said we’re in the middle of another global struggle, like the Cold War, this is an ideological struggle. It’s a generational challenge, but unlike the Cold War we can no longer rely on containment. We have to go aggressively into Iraq to transform that region because in the age of nuclear weapons and terrorists we just can’t sit back and contain people.

So it was a grand vision, comparing it to the Cold War in some ways, differentiating from the Cold War in others. When you go to the Kerry speech and when you go to the whole Kerry campaign, are we in a global war? Kerry never addresses that. Do we face an ideological foe like the Soviet Union? Is Islamic fascism an ideological foe? Kerry has never really addressed that. Is Iraq part of the war on terror? Kerry has never addressed that. So you’re left with sort of a conceptual void when you get to Kerry policy. You know precisely what he wants to do now, which is to internationalize the transformation, bring in the French, but that’s a process issue. The total picture of where we are in the world, to me this has been the big problem with the Kerry campaign from the beginning, he’s never given that broad landscape.

JIM LEHRER: What’s your take, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s different from David’s in a couple of — I think major respects. First of all, this speech that John Kerry gave was obviously a direct response to Dick Cheney’s attack of him Monday. I mean, David talked about half the Cheney speech or a third of the Cheney speech. I mean, you know, the second half of the Cheney speech was basically part of a well-orchestrated move on the part of Republicans not to talk about Iraq. They don’t want to talk about Iraq.

I mean, the reality on the ground is so bad, so awesome and so terrible that public support for the war is just melting away, even as we sit here. They want to talk about John Kerry so that’s what they did all week. They talked about john Kerry. They had some of the Republican congressmen hit men go on the floor of the House and talk about medals. They had Karen Hughes go on the air and talk about what he did when he was 23 years old and so — this is part — Dick Cheney doesn’t mention the medals but Dick Cheney goes into the specifics.

I thought Kerry was given a high-profile opportunity today because the challenge and the invitation, because the president of the college was so publicly embarrassed by what he saw as just sort of campaign boiler plate on the part of Cheney that he extended an invitation to Kerry, and I don’t think there are defined differences between them.


MARK SHIELDS: On Iraq. I mean, other than the idea of bringing in NATO and — and — but Kerry’s philosophical approach is profoundly different about foreign policy from George Bush ‘s.

JIM LEHRER: Now whatever your view of it is, Mark, the conventional wisdom at least in terms of the pundits, et cetera, is that the exchange, particularly over — even the attacks on the medals and all of that, that Kerry came out the loser on all of this. In other words, he lost. Do you agree with that, politically I’m talking about?

MARK SHIELDS: I think, Jim, I think tactically Kerry lost the week.


MARK SHIELDS: Okay. Kerry wanted to talk about jobs. He wanted to talk about Ohio. He was on a jobs tour. I think strategically, if you look at this campaign, I would far prefer not to be in Karl Rove’s situation tonight. I mean, David’s own poll, the New York Times/CBS Poll, for the first time the president is under 50 percent.

By a 3-2 margin people think the country is headed in a wrong direction. Support for the war is melting, literally melting. We have never reelected a president in our history with a job rating below 50 percent and when the majority of people think the country is headed in the wrong direction.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think, David, that this — that the attack on Kerry on whether he threw the weapons — I mean, the medals or the ribbons or whatever is partly, is that hurting Kerry, do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: I think infinitesimally. I don’t think anything that small matters now compared to what’s going to happen in November. To me the paradox of this season politically, as far as the polls go, is that Mark is right that the president’s approval rating has diminished, support for the war has diminished but vis-à-vis Kerry he’s still reasonably strong.

In the last seven polls Bush is ahead of all of them. Even in my own poll and God knows I was calling people all night, the New York Times poll, it showed a significant drop in support for the war but still Bush, I think it was three or four points ahead of Kerry, so what you have is bad news for Bush but no good news for Kerry, and I think that’s for a couple of reasons. One, people aren’t yet thinking electorally. They are not ready to make a choice, but, two, Kerry has still not crossed the threshold of a strong leader and I don’t think internationalizing the transformation is a strong message.

MARK SHIELDS: I think David is right. I think — I want to agree with him, that what the polls say and especially the New York Times/CBS poll, the most recent one, is that people are really — serious questions, grave doubts about George Bush ‘s stewardship about the country, about the wisdom of his policy, about the wisdom of his leadership, but John Kerry, if you do the analogy of a Fuller Brush salesman, hasn’t even rung the doorbell yet, I mean, talk about making the sale. He hasn’t, and he’s not made the connection.

JIM LEHRER: They don’t see the choice yet.

MARK SHIELDS: I think they are looking for an option. I mean, if you look at those numbers, you have to say, hey, they are not just saying I don’t care who the other applicants are. They are saying this guy who is doing the job we have doubts about.

DAVID BROOKS: But if you do ask them who do you trust more on the war on terror, Bush still has I think a 24-point lead, there’s still a huge lead.

JIM LEHRER: Would you use the same verb that Mark does to describe what’s happening to the support for the war, melting?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think it’s melting. I think it’s diminishing and there’s clearly — there’s a lot of anxiety out there, but I do think what you’ve seen in addition to doubts about how it’s going, fears and anxieties, I think you’ve got a sense from right to left that we could be on the bridge of a precipice, if we blow this Fallujah thing and then we really could be in a disastrous state, but, on the other hand, the number of people who support increasing the troops there and sticking it out has tripled.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Speaking of specifics in Fallujah, what do you think of this deal that’s in the works, to send in the Republican — not the Republican Guard but a general from the Republican Guard with an Iraqi force to replace the marines in Fallujah?

DAVID BROOKS: Like, you know, when you talk about these things you’re not on the ground so you don’t know but I must say I’m skeptical. I really don’t think — I think our troops there are the strongest troops. The people, as my paper has been reporting, the people who are fighting us with were Baathists who held back a year ago from the main battle and have been waiting for this insurgency.

They are tough, disciplined soldiers. You cobble together a last-minute army, I don’t care how good these Iraqi troops are, it’s just hard to fight these guys. I believe in this case, not in the case of Najaf, but in the case of Fallujah, these are people who just have to be eliminated, and they have to be taken out in tough measures and there’s going to be a huge hit but that’s probably the terrible choice.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, how do you feel about it?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, we made a couple of serious decisions, as soon as the war was over and Saddam was toppled. One was disband the Iraqi army and take every Baath party member who was — worked for the Registry of Motor Vehicles or was a substitute elementary schoolteacher and banish them, exile them. Now what we’re doing is trying to do is put an Iraqi face on the Iraqi battle of Fallujah for our side, so it isn’t Americans against them. We’ve got a Baathist general, Republican Guard. These were the guys who were supposedly, you know, headed for Nuremburg, and they are the ones that are — it tells you just exactly how monumentally unsuccessful this post-war policy has been.

DAVID BROOKS: It was a close call. First of all, it’s an Iraqi battle. Second of all, what happened, the 82nd Airborne was in Fallujah for the year after liberation. They made a decision we’re not going to take out these guys, we’re just going to try to pacify the situation, so they were there and they worked in Fallujah. I think the 82nd Airborne, I think they lost one paratrooper while they were there and that was a decision, which I think was defensible at the time, we’ll just try to pacify the situation so the political process will develop.

They didn’t know and we didn’t know that there were hard-core Baathists, there were Syrians, there were Iranians, whoever all the terrorists are who gathered there and they just couldn’t be pacified. Maybe in retrospect we should have been tougher in the beginning; maybe we should have fought them in the beginning but there are no good choices throughout any of this, and I think the 82nd Airborne’s decision was a defensible choice at the time to go slowly on the insurgents.

JIM LEHRER: So what should — if this — what are you saying, Mark, that this is a mistake to let these folks take over?

MARK SHIELDS: I think, Jim, what we’re talking about now is a policy being made ad hoc, on the run, out of desperation by the administration. I don’t think there’s any question. There is no — you know, the mission is not accomplished. The situation is dire. It is totally severe. I’m not questioning the wisdom of the military leadership on the ground.

I am questioning, you know, policies and decisions that have been made that obviously have come back to haunt this country, and I think what you’re starting to see right now in this country is a growing sentiment about getting out, and they can talk about cut and run or anything else and — and it just — you can feel it. You can feel it as you travel and talk to people. There’s a question is it worth it? We spent $200 million. We’re now approaching 800 American lives and thousands of Iraqis, and we have toppled Saddam Hussein from power. I mean, that’s — if you look at achievements.

JIM LEHRER: That’s what the president said when asked about when he said about the mission accomplished thing on the U.S.S. Lincoln a year ago. What do you think about his explanation for what’s happened in the year since?

DAVID BROOKS: Even Karl Rove has admitted that that was a big mistake. Listen, when that sign went up there and when he went on the Lincoln, the Baathists must have been chortling because they knew what was going to happen because they knew they had withdrawn; they had not fought us during the main campaign. They were going to wait and they were going to mount an insurgency campaign.

They knew that all along and we were hoodwinked, but I think what we’re doing now is what we had to do at some point, which is confront these people. This is into the new story, the Algerians confronted, the Egyptians confronted, the Syrians confronted and they did it in much more brutal ways than we ever will and we’re trying to confront people enemies of civilization in a decent way.

JIM LEHRER: Finally…

MARK SHIELDS: If the post-war policy had been planned nearly as well as that appearance on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln with the president flying in, the ship turned so that it was sunset and the ocean view in the back, the mission accomplished banner right within the camera, then we wouldn’t be having this discussion tonight.

DAVID BROOKS: Name a war that was planned well — World War II, World War I, the Civil War, there’s never been a war planned well.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of cameras, what do you think of this Nightline thing and Sinclair Broadcasting decision not to run that tonight?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, John McCain, who knows I think a little bit more about war and the pain and the anguish, has it absolutely right. I mean, Americans have to understand that there’s an enormous sacrifice being borne. That’s what this is about. It’s not an anti-war/pro-war. We honor those who serve. We don’t just pretend that they are patriotic Americans and we love them, but we honor their service. We honor, most of all, their ultimate sacrifice, and that’s what this is about.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Don’t need much to add that, you know, support the war, or oppose the war, those people gave their lives, we should pay attention to their lives, honor their sacrifice. And it doesn’t — it shouldn’t change our view one way or the other. We fought a war; we knew there would be costs —

JIM LEHRER: There always is –

DAVID BROOKS: — and those people are bearing or did bear the ultimate cost.

JIM LEHRER: Absolutely. Thank you both very much.