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Shields and Brooks Discuss John Bolton, Social Security and Iran Policy

March 11, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Brooks: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Earlier in the program tonight, David, it was suggested that today’s Iran policy announcement amounted to a retreat from the Bush doctrine. Do you agree?

DAVID BROOKS: I actually don’t agree with that. I’ve heard of that from some of my friends on the right. I think first of all, it’s amazing to see the multilateral cooperation all of a sudden. The Bush people speaking in French and, you know, it’s the new Bush term. But I think what it did was laid down a map — maybe not a solution, but at least a way ahead. Let’s face it, Bush really had no Iran policy that was plausibly effective. But when he went to Europe and he said ‘okay, we’ll help you with the carrots.’ But then after a few months you’ve got to agree us that it’s totally unacceptable for Iran to have nuclear weapons. And the Europeans have agreed to that. And then if the carrot policy doesn’t work, we’ve got to go to the U.N. and the crucial question is: What date does that happen?

JIM LEHRER: When does that happen?

DAVID BROOKS: And the supposition is it will be about June. So give the carrots a try, then in June we’ll go to the U.N. And that has its own problems but at least you’ve got a road map, you’ve got the West working together and you’ve got a test of test points.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read it, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Any time, Jim, in Washington, when an administration announces that a policy is not a change of policy, it’s a change of policy. And this is a change of policy. David’s right, there was no policy before so this is a new policy. And it’s a policy that does show wanting to play with others and go along and be part of a cooperative effort.

I think the date becomes very difficult because, as we heard in the discussion, the elections in Iran are in June. And this could be a… you know, you talk about a rallying point for a nationalistic candidacy, they’re trying to tell us that here they come, are we going to stand up to the evil West? I mean…so they have to be… they have to be very careful of that, that it does not become the dominant issue in Iranian politics.

JIM LEHRER: Is there a danger here, maybe danger isn’t the word. Is there a possibility here that we might get caught up again in a deadline situation and suddenly be in a confrontation that was not part of the plan?

DAVID BROOKS: No, there is that danger. The danger as we go to the U.N…. even if we do go to the U.N., there’s a great likelihood that Russia or China will veto anything. So then we are in a situation where we’ve declared that it’s unacceptable, Russia and China or somebody has vetoed it, we don’t have sanctions and they’re going ahead. And then what do we do? In that case, at least the U.S. can say, “hey, we offered the Iranians a good deal. We took the European road for a while, we gave them a good deal; they’ve turned a way from it; they still went for the nuclear weapons.” And that gives you a lot more justification to do whatever you need to do.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, are critics likely to be saying tomorrow, “wait a minute, we smell Iraq coming again,” or is there an Iraq –

MARK SHIELDS: I think there’s sort of a sense relief to see the president being collaborative and cooperative but I think the military option, Jim, is somewhat limited by just the fact that our troops are so extended and we don’t have… we don’t the military manpower to launch that kind of a… I mean, you know, we lost more Americans in February, 2005 in Iraq than we lost in February 2004. So I mean the election was wonderful but this is not a time for a victory lap in the Middle East.

JIM LEHRER: All right. New subject, Mark: Social Security. Big stories today in the newspapers, at least here in the East, as they call it, suggesting that the whole personal security account business is in so much trouble it may not even be brought to the floor of either House for a vote. Is that… does that read right to you?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, what’s been most amazing to me is that the whole aura of genius that absolutely sort of encompassed the White House after the president’s reelection victory and the Republicans’ victory in the House and the Senate — all of a sudden is subject to second guessing, doubt, criticism, open skepticism from Republican office holders. And they’re going very public on it. And it is… I mean, Lindsay Graham, probably… who’s been a strong supporter of the president –

JIM LEHRER: …senator from South Carolina.

MARK SHIELDS: South Carolina… put it very bluntly – said, hey, the sideshow, personal accounts, were always a sideshow and they became the main event. The main event had to be, which the administration did not emphasize in the judgment of many of its own supporters adequately, is to save and strengthen Social Security. The problem is saving and strengthening Social Security is not a plausible or believable mission for a conservative administration any more than a liberal administration says “we want to save and strengthen the anti-ballistic missile system, Star Wars.”

So as a consequence, personal accounts, which had the greatest appeal to George Bush’s most conservative, tax cutting, free market people became the centerpiece and I think it’s… they’re paying a serious price for it because the intensity of the opposition is there and it’s especially among older voters.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. I’d say the appeal is among younger voters who don’t vote, the opposition is among older voters who do vote. I think what happened Republicans really were trying to shift the attention this week to the solvency issue. And I think what they’ve got to do is split the vote. They have got to have one vote on solvency, which is what combination of tax cuts and benefits — or tax hikes and benefit cuts will get us solvent and then a personal account vote which may or may not pass. Because I think once you get it on to solvency — and we saw a bunch of plans from Chuck Hagel, from Sen. Bennett, from Lindsay Graham, wanting to cut benefits for the rich, maybe raise taxes on the rich, a lot of progressive plans –

JIM LEHRER: Raising the payroll cap.

DAVID BROOKS: At least over $100,000 would pay more. I think what they’re trying to do is say, okay, “Let’s get serious about solvency,” and I think when they do that, then they begin to split the Democrats, which hasn’t happened so far. You get one group of Democrats who really do want to tackle this issue and will entertain benefit cuts. You get another group who just don’t want to talk about it and then another group who want no benefit cuts at all. Their position is totally untenable.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think that… in other words, are you saying then that personal savings accounts are off the table now for all practical purposes?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I’m saying right now I think nothing will happen this year because the Democrats…

JIM LEHRER: On personal savings accounts.

DAVID BROOKS: Nothing, on anything.

JIM LEHRER: Okay.

DAVID BROOKS: Because Rick Santorum said on a conference call last week –

JIM LEHRER: Republican senator from Pennsylvania –

DAVID BROOKS: Second in the Senate. “If there are no personal accounts, I’m voting no.” And there are a lot of Republicans who feel that way. So we’ve got a deadlock unless there’s sort of some big change.

JIM LEHRER: Nothing’s going to happen this year?

MARK SHIELDS: Rick Santorum is a different senator this week than he was last week because Bob Casey, the state treasurer of Pennsylvania just announced his run against him and he’s running ahead of him in the polls. And so Rick Santorum has spent a lot of time between Harrisburg and Allentown right now concentrating offering minimum wage proposals in the Senate instead of personal accounts right now.

But I think the fault lines, Jim, are not simply with the Democrats. I mean, you have the Republicans… what you have is lack of enthusiasm from business Republicans. I mean, other than those…

JIM LEHRER: You mean for the whole…

MARK SHIELDS: The whole Social Security thing.

JIM LEHRER: Just leave it alone?

MARK SHIELDS: They see all this political capital. They and the social conservatives, who are opposed to same-sex marriage, who are concerned about rampant abortion and gay rights and sort of what they see as the corrosion of the culture, they see their issues just being pushed totally aside by Social Security.

There are moderate Republicans who are deeply concerned about the deficit. We had the biggest deficit, Jim, in American history in the month of February, biggest budget deficit. First time it’s ever hit three figures. That’s the month of February.

JIM LEHRER: It is hard to get attention on anything else right now, is it not?

DAVID BROOKS: But it’s absolutely appropriate. The deficit is something, the entitlement problem is –

JIM LEHRER: Part of that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it’s bigger than that. There are two big problems that America faces: Nuclear bombs in the hands of al-Qaida and that we get crushed under the burden of the entitlements program. If we don’t tackle Social Security this year, we’re not going to do it in an election year; we’re not going to do it before a presidential election. Our next bite of the apple is 2009.

We’re not going to do Medicare, which is a much bigger problem. You’re getting into a situation around 2010 where already the budget commitments of Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid are just crashing everything else in the deficit… in the government. That’s why this is so important.

JIM LEHRER: Quick thing and then I want to go to John Bolton.

DAVID BROOKS: Okay. Oh! The problem…

JIM LEHRER: I know you disagree with everything he just said.

MARK SHIELDS: The problem… David talks about there’s going to be this emerging rational thoughtful consensus. We’re going to cut benefits and raise taxes. Mike Pence and the Republican study group in the House went on record this week. They said “there’s no way in the world we’ll vote for any tax increase. You can cut out this $90,000 playing games with that, we didn’t come here to raise taxes” announced the majority leader of the party in the House. There aren’t the votes in the House. The Republican House is not going to pass something with tax increases.

JIM LEHRER: John Bolton, the president’s new nominee for U.N. ambassador — a lot of heat immediately generated by that. Does it deserve to be a heatful – heatful — is that a good word? Does it deserve to be….

DAVID BROOKS: Humid?

JIM LEHRER: A humid nomination?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he’s a polarizing figure. He’s a guy with straight strong opinions.

JIM LEHRER: Remind people why.

DAVID BROOKS: Well he’s criticized the U.N. for being basically a big messy bureaucracy. He said you could chop off ten floors of that building and it wouldn’t do any harm — things I think are true. And he is a straight talker, tends to be a little abrasive, blunt, not very diplomatic.

I actually think he’s an outstanding choice, one, because of the reason we were talking about earlier, Iran. He’s there for Iran because if this goes to the U.N., you want somebody strong and straight talking to talk about Iran. And I happen to think our best ambassadors to the U.N. have not been diplomats, they’ve been people like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who were blunt talkers.

DAVID BROOKS: Daniel Patrick Moynihan and John Bolton should not be mentioned in the same sentence. They really shouldn’t. John Bolton is a guy who just loves to… He’s bombastic. He loves to say things that are totally provocative and totally incendiary.

JIM LEHRER: For instance?

DAVID BROOKS: That the U.N. doesn’t… there is no Security Council, there is no Security Council, the United States is the Security Council. I mean, this is supposed to be the one-world organization where we’re supposed to meet and resolve things without force. That’s what the U.N. is about. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the conservatives love to say he’s like Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was outraged at a U.N. resolution that equated Zionism with racism.

DAVID BROOKS: Who overturned that resolution? John Bolton overturned that resolution.

MARK SHIELDS: Forget John Bolton. I’m talking about… But Moynihan believed and if you ever talked to him or interviewed him he believed devoutly and passionately in the mission of the U.N. This is a man who doesn’t… this is like, Jim, having Howard Stern appointed chief of protocol. It’s like Siegfried and Roy going to the Pentagon, Mary Baker Eddy being surgeon general.

DAVID BROOKS: That’s a ludicrous caricature.

MARK SHIELDS: This is not somebody — this is a guy who loves to talk tough; who has got under his desk a grenade with a pen out. I’ve never known anybody who saw any combat….

DAVID BROOKS: This guy was assistant secretary of state for international organizations under the first President Bush, he’s been in administration after administration, he’s written serious works. You may not agree and he can be a little abrasive, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan can be, but he’s achieved a lot of things, including getting the resolution on Zionism equals racism repealed.

I don’t want to stress the Moynihan-Bolton relationship. But the idea that he’s some nut case, that he’s Howard Stern is just ludicrous. He’s a serious writer. He’s been writing about the U.N. for ten years –

MARK SHIELDS: Somebody ought to believe in the mission they’re assigned to. That’s what I’m saying.

JIM LEHRER: It’s been nice chatting with the two of you tonight and I’m really glad we got to Bolton before we go. Bye.