Shields and Brooks
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MARGARET WARNER: I’m here with Mark Shields and David Brooks. David, why did the president have to go to Capitol Hill yesterday and talk to his own troops, his own Republican troops, about Iraq?
DAVID BROOKS: People want to hear his voice, like we want to hear your voice. There’s just a mood of anxiety. You know, a lot of Republicans have gotten polls from their home states, it doesn’t look so good but I think — it’s really transcending politics at this point. They really are concerned about the country, and there’s sort of a non-partisan mood up there that one senator told me that it’s the most depressing period in his 30 years in the Senate, and people — a lot of people have been to delegations to Iraq. They want to offer advice. They want to know if we have a plan. They really want more communication with the White House. President Bush went up there to rally them. I’m not sure he quite communicated with them, but there is there’s a lot of people who just want to help.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you sense the same thing, Mark, a lot of angst or some angst anyway in Republican circles?
MARK SHIELDS: A lot, Margaret. I mean, David is right, but the problem is based in politics; what has happened to the Republicans are a couple of things. One, first of all, the generic vote test, which is if the election were held today would you vote for a Republican or Democrat for Congress in your district? That’s consistently going up for the Democrats and down for the Republicans.
This month alone it’s gone from three points in some polls to better than ten points in others, and Republicans are mindful of the fact when they took over the Congress in 1994 for the first time in 40 years, they only had a five-point bulge so there’s some anxiety there, but I think more than that, David is right in this sense. It’s what I called the stalled subway car syndrome of American politics, that is, if you’ve ever been on a subway car and it makes an unscheduled, unannounced stop between two stations and it goes dark, what you’re looking for, most of all, as the panic starts to build among passengers, is a strong, authoritative clear voice to come on and say this is where we are, this is what happened.
This is what’s being done to remedy the situation, and this is when we’re going to get out and that’s what people are looking for in the president and I think that’s — not only the visit there was political but reassuring or to reassure and then also that’s what the speeches are I think scheduled Monday and beyond.
MARGARET WARNER: You see obviously a connection between the two.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: The President’s beginning the series of weekly speeches on Iraq. But, I mean, what can he say about Iraq that’s going to reassure nervous Republicans on the Hill?
DAVID BROOKS: I think there are two things to say. First of all, what is the situation? You know, I follow this for a living. It’s very hard to tell, there’s some good things coming out, there are a lot of bad things. What is the balance — how does he see the balance? Secondly, I think what he has to say. Here’s what we did wrong – did some of that this week on the Hill– and I think the major mistake that they now acknowledge they made is that they overestimated the amount of time Iraqis would have patience for American sovereignty. They did not hand over power fast enough so I think if the President said that was the mistake we made but we’re going to hand over sovereignty. We’ve got this Lahkdar Brahimi plan to get a slate of Iraqis, we’ve got this, this, and this. That speech – that shows a new beginning. That shows we’re still — we’re on track. We’re learning, we’re changing, you know — we’re — you know, we’re not totally out of control here.
MARGARET WARNER: Mark, if you were in the predicting business, would you predict that George Bush would acknowledge mistakes? I mean, at his press conference just about a month ago, I think he was given four or five times to say whether the mistake in judgment had been made and he passed all those. Do you think he will this time?
MARK SHIELDS: No, I don’t think he will, Margaret. I think that, first of all, the mistake that was made is that George W. Bush followed a neo-con approach on the cheap. In other words, instead of saying I’m going to do this for democracy, I want to democratize the whole area, we’re going to remake the whole Middle East, and that’s the reason we’re going to go to war, they brought weapons of mass destruction. They went in with too few troops. They did all of this — they ran two wars, Margaret on three tax cuts. That’s what the budget thing is all about with John McCain, so, I mean, it’s all part of a problem.
He’s got to go in there and if you — if you’re George W. Bush and you’re running for reelection, what have you got?You’re commander in chief. You’re a guy that doesn’t change. You’re unflinching; you’re unswerving in your commitment. You’re not a cut-and-run guy; you’re a stay-the-course guy. The country doesn’t want to stay the course. We’re now approaching two-thirds of Americans think we’re headed in the wrong direction so what George W. Bush has to do is change the course to mollify people without appearing to look like he’s a cut-and-run, change-the-course kind of guy. It really becomes — your greatest political strength becomes an albatross because America really wants a flip-flop right now in the policy toward Iraq.
DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think they want a flip-flop. I think they want a change in strategy that will win. There are two debates here that are being conflated. There’s one debate, which is should we have gone to war and that debate has never ended and there’s some people stuck in that debate.
MARGARET WARNER: And it won’t end.
DAVID BROOKS: And it won’t end. So the same arguments are being made over and over again – but then there’s another group of people who are, we’re here and what are we going to do, and those are Republicans and Democrats, and so they are arguing about what passing Fallujah on to the Fallujah brigades, was that a good idea, was that not? They are talking about should we move elections a little closer than they are scheduled right now? Should we have rolling elections in the places that are stable first and then later; there’s a whole set of options out there and so I think the President has to get away from that first debate which is a debate everybody’s mind is made up. The second debate is an interesting debate and that’s pragmatism. That’s the sort of desperate pragmatism that I think people are looking for.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me shift this slightly, Mark. Why are we seeing also apparently divisions among Republicans on the Hill about Iraq? I mean, among them, for instance, this debate about whether to hold so many hearings on the prisoner abuse scandal. We saw it break out again today in Duncan Hunter’s Committee.
MARK SHIELDS: Well, part of that, Margaret, is just what’s the best way to handle it. You’ve got the Senate Armed Services Committee, Chairman John Warner, three Republicans, John Warner, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John Warner of Virginia and John McCain, all of whom basically say, look, America’s credibility is shattered or tattered, however you want to put it.
The only way it’s going to be restored is by a non-partisan, above-the-board, no holds barred, let’s get it out there hearing and investigation, and let’s — let’s do that right now. Their hand was enormously strengthened by General Abizaid’s own testimony, a man who’s a military commander in both countries, in 75 instances allegations of abuses, and he said abuse did occur in various places so we’re not down to the same one reserve unit in this one cell block, so there is a case to be made.
The other Republicans are saying, look this, isn’t helping us at all and it isn’t in the short run, but if they are continuing to have pictures come out like they did with Leonard Downie and Terry Smith showed in the “Washington Post” today and there’s going to be further evidence, it’s — what you want to do if you’re a Republican, I would think, is follow the lead of Graham and Warner and McCain and get the whole damned thing out now and not have it be coming out on Labor Day and the 15th of October.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree, David, do you think Warner is really on the right track here, even just from the Republicans’ point of view, to be pursuing this?
DAVID BROOKS: I don’t fault Warner for pursuing this. I am getting — I think this is a serious matter and God knows it hits us all right in the gut to see the pictures every day, but after three and four weeks I’m beginning to think we’re overemphasizing it. I did not think that two weeks when James Inhofe made the ridiculous comments but I’m beginning to think -
MARGARET WARNER: When he said he was more outraged by the outrage.
DAVID BROOKS: At that point I thought it was ridiculous. Now we’re three solid weeks into the story. There’s a lot of stuff going on in Iraq that we’re paying less attention to and more importantly that Donald Rumsfeld, Sanchez, Abizaid, all the soldiers are paying less important time to because they have to spend a lot of time on this so it’s a competition for time and there are two valid calls on their time so it’s a close call but I think we’re getting in danger of overplaying this prison stuff and distracting from what still is the main arena of action.
MARGARET WARNER: A Kerry Iraq question to you, Mark. Kerry met with Ralph Nader this week; they have different views on Iraq and what to do. Is Kerry developing an Iraq political problem of his own on the left in which members of his party are getting out ahead of him in terms of wanting to get out more quickly than he is ready to say?
MARK SHIELDS: I don’t know what the difference is between John Kerry and George W. Bush on Iraq at this point other than Kerry has for longer and stronger wanted to internationalize it and Bush has more recently come to that position. I think that politically it probably serves him well. Richard Nixon had a secret plan or a plan in 1968, not articulated but because the dissatisfaction of the country with the incumbent Democratic leadership he was elected. Dwight Eisenhower said simply, made a tour, a geography statement, I’ll go to Korea, that was his plan.
MARGARET WARNER: In other words, just saying I’m the new guy.
MARK SHIELDS: I’m the new guy, I don’t carry the same baggage, but I think Ralph Nader represents a potential threat to John Kerry. If this election is as close as people say it’s going to be, I’m not sure it is, but if say it is, in Wisconsin and Minnesota and Iowa, and hanging in the balance, if Ralph Nader becomes let’s be out of there by the 1st of October, this is over, John Kerry, you said in 1971, he’ll be the last man to die for a mistake, John Kerry, what do you say today? Does that get Nader a dozen, 15, 20 percent in places like Iowa City, in places like Madison, Wisconsin, in places like the twin cities of Minnesota where all of a sudden, you know, that comes out of Kerry’s hide, so I think it’s not all upside for Kerry.
DAVID BROOKS: I agree with that. In the presidential debate in the fall I guarantee you somebody is going to ask that question, what do you say to that last man to die for a mistake in this war if you think it’s a mistake — and my sense is most Democrats think in their gut it is a mistake and they do want to get out and Kerry is not representing his party on this. I think he’s being utterly responsible.
I think the Democratic Party after Vietnam took 30 years to become trusted as an internationalist party. I think Clinton played a role; I think Joe Biden played a role; I think Joe Lieberman played a role in getting the Democratic Party a sense that they can be tough; they can use the military; they can be trusted to be tough. I think if he then went back on that accomplishment, it would destroy the Democratic Party in foreign policy terms, no matter what people thought about Iraq, just as no matter what people thought about Vietnam. I think he’s doing the right thing for his party and the right thing for his campaign but it does not represent where the soul of his party is right now.
MARGARET WARNER: Last Kerry question to you both. Late this afternoon news leaked out that John Kerry is thinking of postponing the official acceptance of the nomination so that he can continue to be under the pre-general election funding situation or law and continue to be able to spend all this money he’s now successfully raising. Explain that, Mark, and do you think it’s a smart idea?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, you have to understand, Kerry on March 1 having basically sewed up the nomination, according to official records, had $2 million left. Bush had $110 million so the Kerry campaign set out to raise money, and they raised money, more money in that month than anybody has in the history of American politics, including George Bush. He out raised George Bush, and so he’s become competitive. Bush has now spent $80 million, and he’s still behind, I mean, in most polls, so Kerry has this money, and he’s got — he’ll get the nomination the end of July. He takes the $75 million public check and then for a whole month he’s going to be spending money out of that. I think it’s too cute by half, Margaret, to say I’m taking the nomination but I’m not going to take it right now, I’m going to take it in a month but I do want to make the speech, I want the bands and the bunting and balloons and everything else. I think it’s too cute.
MARGARET WARNER: Quick comment from you.
DAVID BROOKS: as if the conditions are– nothing happens enough, they have to make is a fake nomination with a plastic engagement ring. I agree with Mark. Too cute.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. David, Mark, thank you both.