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Shields and Brooks

May 14, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks. Well, what a week since you guys were here last. In four days, I guess, you had Vice President Cheney saying basically get off Don Rumsfeld’s back; the president visiting the Pentagon and saying this guy is doing a great job and Rumsfeld himself heading to Iraq to get a hoo-ah from the troops.

Did he save his job, David?

DAVID BROOKS: I think he saved his job. I think that one of the things that’s happened this week and it’s a summary of a lot of things that happened is that sentiment on Capitol Hill among Republicans has taken a bit of a dive.

There’s a great sense I think among conservative Republicans who supported the war that they are not sure if the White House has a plan, they are not sure if the White House respects their views; they’re not sure if the White House has been listening to the things they’ve been saying about Iran and other things that have gone wrong, and so there’s been a loss of confidence, not a sense of panic, nobody wants to get out, but there’s now a sense of anger, anxiety and frustration with the White House by congressional Republicans.

RAY SUAREZ: It looks like Paul Wolfowitz got a little taste of that the other day at the hearing?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, all politics is local in some sense and in a number of respects the administration has not shown due deference to members of Congress who are in charge of a lot of things in this country and who have a lot of good ideas. There’s a congressman from Pennsylvania, a Democrat named Jack Murtha, who holds a lot of sway with a lot of Republicans on defense issues; he came out very strongly saying the war was unwinnable, and I believe a lot of republicans listened to that. They may not be with him, but there’s been a shift.


MARK SHIELDS: Just to fill out what Jack Murtha said: Unless you mobilize and are willing to make the commitment which the administration, of course, has been unwilling to make in terms of number of troops and just going all out.

I agree with David on the congressional attitudes. I mean, you can feel the enthusiasm going and certain distancing. Denny Hastert, the Republican speaker of the House, House Republican Caucus, criticized the White House for just lack of leadership, mixed signals, bad signals, no — not heeding them.

On the transportation bill, which is of great importance to a lot of members who are running for reelection, and he got a spontaneous cheer from Republicans in the House, and this is in a closed session with only Republicans there.

MARK SHIELDS: What struck me, Ray, this week was Don Rumsfeld, in an effort to save his job, flying to Iraq. He went to Iraq, and all he could think of was every Democratic presidential candidate this year on his Web site or in his basic speech told how close he was to John McCain, and, you know, geez, I’m very close, I work with John McCain, and John McCain is a friend of mine — and what Don Rumsfeld is doing — because John McCain the most popular political figure in the country to elective office. What Don Rumsfeld was trying to do is get the popularity, the respect and admiration Americans have for troops in Iraq to rub off on him, a little bit of their magic. He wanted to be seen with them, a little innocence by association, and I don’t think there’s any question, and I couldn’t get over it. He said it’s more fun here than it is back home.

RAY SUAREZ: Maybe he stopped reading newspapers.

MARK SHIELDS: It may be for Don Rumsfeld, but to the First Armored Division who has just had their stay extended ninety days by the secretary of defense over their one-year commitment, you know, it might have been nice to be back home rather than there, so it was — to me it was sort of a bizarre week, and I thought Dick Cheney gave the talking points to sort of the right wing talk radio industry with, you know, get off his case, I mean, get off his case and that became the mantra, that’s right wing talk radio likes to have a mantra and that’s what it became.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you agree with David that it worked?

MARK SHIELDS: Do I think it worked? Do I think his job — I think the administration faced if they were going to get rid of him, Don Rumsfeld, first there’s no natural successor, logical successor. Wolfowitz is not the person obviously, couldn’t be confirmed I don’t think, but secondly, Ray, beyond the lack of (inaudible) — it would have been an acknowledgment, a public acknowledgment of the abject failure and disaster that the postwar planning and management has been.

RAY SUAREZ: Go ahead, David.

DAVID BROOKS: I think the other thing that happened this week was the killing of Nick Berg. If right wing talk radio needs a mantra, I’m not sure they need a mantra, they have ideas, but the killing of Nick Berg apparently by Zarqawi personally rallied a lot of people.

I mean, it reminded people of what this thing is all about and for all the humiliation and the shame and the body blow that the prison pictures represented, the behavior by al-Qaida or at least Zarqawi, who is affiliated with al-Qaida, reminded people what this whole thing is about and what people are fighting against. I think it firmed up resolve for a lot of people that said, yes, we’re humiliated, yes, a lot of things have been — but the enemy is still out there and it is really, really bad and we need to buckle down.

RAY SUAREZ: Did it muddy the water a little bit, conflate issues that maybe there are things we should talk about separately? A lot of office-holders and people in the ‘commentareate’, have started to talk about the Abu Ghraib Prison and the Nick Berg killing as if they are the part of the same set of dynamics, like what — what’s the big deal about mistreating prisoners, look at how badly this…

DAVID BROOKS: No, I don’t think one mitigates the other. The prison scandal is the prison scandal, and we’ve — the whole world has felt the impact of that.

Nonetheless, it is useful to get perspective on the prison scandal, and the prison scandal took place in the context of war on terrorism. Zarqawi has been blowing up Americans in Iraq and before Iraq elsewhere in the world for ten years. He’s part of an al-Qaida operation. He’s part of an Iran-financed operation that now Muqtada al-Sadr is a part of, blowing up Americans. Now there’s a great argument to be made that the people who are blowing up Americans are funded from outside, are supported from outside and are organized from outside to a very large degree, and so that’s part of the general war in which this atrocity of the prison took place.

MARK SHIELDS: I think, Ray, your question is an accurate one. I think that it was — there was an attempt and I cannot — I cannot begin to grasp the sadness and the tragedies that the Berg family and his friends must be going through, just awful, terrible, and it was a gruesome, inhumane act, but — committed by gruesome, inhumane monsters, but immediately it was pounced upon by some who said, well, you know, this is what we’re fighting.

Therefore, these things go on in the prison and that was put down and put down totally by John McCain. John McCain, who has some standing as an expert witness in terms of POW experience, five and a half years of his own life, and he just — he just absolutely destroyed Jim Inhofe, the Republican senator from Oklahoma who said I’m outraged at the outrage, I’m tired of these people getting the humanitarian do-gooders — pointing out that the Geneva Accord — that the Geneva Convention — exists for the safety of Americans, that it’s a guarantee that way that we are a government of laws, and then John McCain just kind of defined the whole problem perfectly.

He said what differentiates us from our enemies is our treatment of our enemies, and, boy, that just stands by itself and it ought to stand as a beacon to every American who, you know, wants to somehow move away from what happened in Abu Ghraib and the damage that does to America’s cause.

RAY SUAREZ: David, in the last couple of weeks there have been lots and lots of polls taken during some of the toughest weeks of the war, and people marveled at the near stasis in the numbers. They weren’t moving very much either way. In the surveys that have been taken in the last couple of days, are you starting to see a little more movement?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, you are starting to see declining support for the war, declining estimation — people’s estimation — the president’s handling of the war and the most important number is the approval number. He’s down now, there are a whole bunch of polls — they all put them in the mid-40s, 45, 46.

If the election were held today, Bush would lose with those numbers, I believe. All Kerry would have to be was a viable alternative. The election isn’t being held today and it’s possible that when there’s actually a transfer of sovereignty to some Iraqi authority, then things will get a lot better, but this has been a dark period politically for the administration as well as militarily.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what’s different about now compared to a couple of weeks ago when troops were dying in bunches, and there were fires and explosions every day in Iraq? Why the movement now as opposed to earlier times when you — you might have expected it?

MARK SHIELDS: I think the war — I think the casualties have a cumulative effect upon Americans, but I think the pictures of the American mistreatment, abuse, psychological torture, call it what you want, of Iraqi detainees.

The president had cast this in such terms that we were the do-gooders, they were the evil-doers, that, you know, with — we were bringing, unlike Saddam Hussein, we were bringing human rights and democracy to Iraq, and that was a real blow to Americans, I think, and to our sense of ourself. I don’t think there’s any question about it.

There’s only two numbers that really count in the polls this far out, and David put his finger on one of them. That’s the job rating of the president, he’s doing a good job, bad job. At this point when Bill Clinton was running for reelection, he was in the mid-50s. When Ronald Reagan was running for reelection, he was in the mid-50s. David is right, George Bush is in the mid-40s.

But the other number that really matters is do you think the country is headed in the right direction or seriously off on the wrong track, and right now that number is going south in a big hurry on the president. It’s down to less than two-to-three — by a three-to-two margin people think it’s headed in the wrong direction, and that’s just the climate. That creates a climate for change in the country, and that, I think, probably means more than, you know, whether Kerry is up two or Bush is down two this week, because that means that it’s a referendum on the president and it makes it very tough and the only way the president has a hope is to savage John Kerry.

DAVID BROOKS: I say the president’s hope, which is in partial being realized, which is the moderates in Iraq have decided that the Americans are too incompetent to deliver us a good country for ourselves, we better do it for ourselves so what’s happened is Ayatollah Sistani, and all sorts of Iraqi moderates, have gotten together in a much more aggressive way in the past few weeks and said to the Americans and said to themselves we don’t want this guy Sadr in our new Iraq, take him out, and they have taken a whole series of gestures, which have made it seem much more promising that you’ll get Iraqis actually running their own country, that when Brahimi names his slate, it will have more legitimacy than one would have thought.

There was fundamental good news. I don’t want to say things in Iraq are good because you can barely travel the streets apparently; nonetheless, but the best reporting suggests the Shiites and the Sunnis and the Kurds in the North are suddenly taking responsibility for their own country so the next big event is going to be the June 30 handover, and if that comes off well, then there is a strong possibility that this thing will end up in a good place and that the Iraqis will have some sort of democratic process, and what they will do in that democratic process is hold an election and the candidate who promises to get rid of us will win.

RAY SUAREZ: How does that visit itself here at home? Those things that —

MARK SHIELDS: I think David has the best possible scenario for the administration, I don’t think there’s any question about it, and for Iraq it’s one we hope for. I don’t think politically it points — that events point to that. What’s missing in the whole equation is not simply an Adenauer or not simply a Mandela — they don’t have a Karzai. There really isn’t — there isn’t a natural leader. They don’t have a natural leader.

DAVID BROOKS: That’s because Muqtada al-Sadr killed them. (laughs)

MARK SHIELDS: That’s one of the real problems that we have, and if — if all of that happens, then I think that it gives — it gives the president a chance to say that we’ve made progress there, but there’s no question that whoever does run on the platform of Iraq for the Iraqis, get the foreigners out, has winning card.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark, David. Thanks a lot.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.