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Shields and Brooks

March 25, 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.

The Schiavo case, Mark. How do you read the politics of this right now?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think it’s all fallout, Jim. I think that the acts of the Congress have been greeted by voters with an enormous sense of skepticism — that they felt it was done — motives are always scrutinized and always open to consideration but I’ve never seen such overwhelming negative reaction on the part of the public.

I think if there’s a fallout politically they may have strengthened the president’s own relationship with the religious and cultural conservative wing of his party who were given great credit and deservedly so, I think, for the turnout in the last election for their support of him but since that election had been given very short shrift in the Bush’s second term agenda which has been bankruptcy, Social Security, tort limitation, liability and nothing on same-sex marriage and so forth. This time the president showed that he would stand with them on an issue that at minimal cost to himself, I think, quite frankly.

JIM LEHRER: Is that what this is all about, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, actually I think there’s a lot of sincere belief here. I mean, one interviews these guys and they believe — they are pro-lifers, they believe in a certain definition of life, that all life has intrinsic worth. The life of comatose people, of Terri Schiavo has the same worth as our life. And I think they believe that sincerely. Is there an element of politics in here? Obviously. But that’s democracy. You’re allowed to play to certain opinions. I think they saw it’s unpopular. I think a lot of people see them grandstanding but they were going to go ahead with it anyway partly for that sincere reason and part because it does — you know, the Republican Party has — 20 years ago was a party in the deep minority. As the social wing of that party, the religious conservatives have become more important, it has become a majority party. If there’s any evidence that this wing of the party is hurting the Republicans, it doesn’t exist because the party has risen as the social conservatives have risen.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think in this case the president and the Republican leadership misread the politics of it, or do you think they didn’t – what do you think — how did it play?

DAVID BROOKS: I find that hard. I don’t think it’s settled out. I think some of the polls, when you read the questions, they’re dubious. The polls lead you in one direction. I think, you know, any time a president shows sincere belief, whether it’s majority or not, there’s some set of respect for that. Whether there’s grandstanding or whether Bill Frist and Tom Delay come out enhanced, I doubt it. But when sincere belief is expressed, I think that’s fine. The one thing I’d say about the Democrats is that after they lose elections they’re always saying, you know, we have got to talk more about faith and values. This was a week when they really could have talked more about faith and values. You don’t have to side with Bill Frist or whatever but you have to talk that way. And when I look at the whole structure of the debate, what I saw was social conservatives making a moral case about the sanctity of life and social liberals making a legislative case about where this should be decided, so it was social conservatives talking morality and social liberals talking process. And I think that was an opportunity the Democrats missed.

JIM LEHRER: First DeLay and Frist and we’ll get to the liberals and the Democrats. Have they been hurt by this?

MARK SHIELDS: Just one point, Jim. I’m not questioning sincerity but I am saying this is a truly radical premise which was laid down, that there’s an absolute commitment on the part of the United States Government and the United States society to the prolongation negotiation of human life. OK? That’s really — that’s what underlies this. If that commitment is a serious one, it’s not only radical, I mean the commitment and the terms of resources, human, emotional, financial that you’re talking about for that policy’s implementation, you can forget all about tax cuts. You can forget about cutting Medicaid ever. And you’re really talking about –

JIM LEHRER: You’re suggesting that what the Congress and the president did was say well, look, this is no longer a decision for individuals and the courts, it’s a decision for the executive branch?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s no longer a decision for the state of Texas in the Futile Treatment Act George Bush signed as governor which enabled a hospital to terminate — as it did last week, to a five and a half-month-old infant with a fatal disease over his mother’s objections to terminate treatment and to take — end his life.

JIM LEHRER: David, do you see it in those big terms?

DAVID BROOKS: I see it halfway. I don’t think the president or anybody else said the government is going to take over this. But I do agree with Mark and I go with Mark to the emphasis that this was not about legislative shifting. This was not about judiciary stuff. This was about a fundamental division of values and the social conservatives said all life has intrinsic value. The social liberals said that quality of life is really important and that life exists on a continuum. Some people have the full capacity of life and some people tragically do not and that they can be — one can envision a circumstance where their death has more dignity than their life. And so you had two entirely different ways of looking at the world. Whether they thought — each side has thought through the implications of their basic beliefs, I doubt.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Bill Frist and Tom Delay, how do they come out of this?

MARK SHIELDS: Bill Frist I think was damaged, whether permanently we’ll find out. How? But how was he damaged? Bill Frist had the reputation of being — which he is — a physician, a world-class heart surgeon who takes off on his own and goes to the third world on Senate breaks to perform surgery pro bono. And if anything, that was going to be a great credential. It was going to be a doctor running for president rather than a politician. This week he looked like a politician. He gave a diagnosis based upon a videotape. Then his office scurried back to say it wasn’t a diagnosis. He looked political. It was not helpful.

Tom Delay, Tom Delay demonstrated once again the infinite capacity of some office holders when they’re under siege and under attack to make themselves, elevate themselves to be martyrs. He said to a meeting of the Family Research Council, he didn’t know it was being taped, that in fact God had sent the Terri Schiavo tragedy at this time to draw attention to the fact that the conservative movement and he were under attack by enemies.

So, you know — Delay welcomed it as a chance — I mean, does he have a long record in that field, yes? Had he been active in this cause? No. When you get a memo circulating on the floor of the House that says – Republicans — it’s important moral issue and our pro-life base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important issue, they condemned it — did the Republican leadership — they never denied it and they never disavowed it.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, David? Frist and Delay

DAVID BROOKS: Frist and Delay, I don’t disagree with anything Mark said about Frist and Delay I think they’re — Frist is a sincere man and in many ways a wonderfully admirable man who sometimes doesn’t let his true self come out because he’s running for president. I basically think that’s the situation. And Delay I think much less highly of and what Mark described is just grandiosity which afflicts some politicians.

JIM LEHRER: The memo. Now you want to talk about the memo.

DAVID BROOKS: The memo is true and untrue. Listen, I think the Republican Party is a socially conservative party. They are deeply morally offended by what’s happening to Terri Schiavo. And so to discern the politics from the sincerity I think is just impossible to do. Politicians rightly identify the same. They’re the same. And so most people one meets on the social conservative side are totally sincere about this and would do it even knowing how unpopular it may turn out to be.

JIM LEHRER: Now the liberal Democrats have been whopped by the liberal columnists, pundits, for remaining silent and on the sidelines during this major debate. Did they deserve to be womped?

MARK SHIELDS: They sure did. James Carville and Stan Greenberg, who are the architects of Bill Clinton’s ’92 race, run a think called the Democracy Corps, which conducts national surveys. They said of their last survey, “Democrats appear to lack direction, conviction, values, advocacy or a larger public purpose.” They certainly did nothing to rebut that presumption this week with the handful of exceptions, I mean, people like Barney Frank and Debbie Wasserman-Shultz of Florida and Jim Moran of Virginia. Most of them just headed for the hills, people who’d die to get — would knock over their grandmother to get in front of a microphone haven’t been seen. They went – Peter the Hermit somewhere. So, no, I mean, Democrats, you know, were nowhere to be found and they were missing in action.

JIM LEHRER: Sincere views on their part?

DAVID BROOKS: In part I think that’s half an indication that the politics of this are much trickier than they seemed from the first pass, which I think is certainly true. The second thing I’d say there were many Democrats, members of the Black Caucus, Sen. Harkin, many others who more or less sided with the majority. And I think they did so –

JIM LEHRER: With the Republican to pass the bill?

DAVID BROOKS: — on the grounds — Robert George who was on this program before didn’t get to talk about philosophy but he’s a philosopher. And one of the things he emphasizes is that if we start making distinctions between different sorts of people and who can be moved toward death and who can’t it’s the helpless and the weak who are going to suffer. And I think what Sen. Harkin and a lot of the other Democrats and Republicans are active on this, I think it’s because they have that exact fear.

MARK SHIELDS: I think that’s a very good point. But what we’re talking about, we mentioned last week, if we’re really serious about this, let’s have a public policy on it. Let’s have a major debate. This was a bill that was for one — it wasn’t a real piece of legislation, they knew it wasn’t a real piece of legislation, all it did was celebrate this one case, this tragic woman who will probably be dead a week — by the time we get together next Friday and, you know, but is that it? I mean, is it just then going to be sort of a direct mail piece?

DAVID BROOKS: That’s how a debate always works. There’s one case, everybody can see it on TV, there’s like a soap opera element but it sparks a real debate. I actually think there’s been quite a good week. We’ve had the trashiness but we’ve had a good debate as well on top of that.

JIM LEHRER: And you think it will continue after she goes?

DAVID BROOKS: Listen — there are millions of people who are going to find themselves facing issues like this. It’s certain to.

JIM LEHRER: One other just crass political question. The conventional wisdom is that Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida, has been helped by this, if, in fact, he decides he wants to run and take his brother’s place in 2008, do you agree?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think the American people are ready for a dynasty that three out of four presidents would come for from the same family.

JIM LEHRER: That aside?

MARK SHIELDS: I think Bush has always been known in the political community as the authentic Bush conservative. There were always some skepticism or doubts about George W. –

JIM LEHRER: And his father.

MARK SHIELDS: Certainly about his dad and certainly about his mother. But Jeb has been the true believer and he’s certainly acted in that way.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: I always believed for the rest of our lives the presidents would be Bush/Clinton, Bush/Clinton, Bush/Clinton forever. As for Jeb Bush, I have been told that he has told people with as firm a view as you can that he’s not running for president in ’08. And I believe that to be the case partly because people don’t want another Bush. So I don’t think his presidential prospects are helped. I think he was, again, motivated by sincere belief as much as a politician can be.

JIM LEHRER: Just a few seconds left. Any big change on Social Security since we talked about it last — last week?

MARK SHIELDS: Support not hemorrhaging is eroding. Today Chuck Grassley, the important chairman of the Senate Finance Committee whose bill has to come before committee said he is not confident that they’ll be able to pass it.

JIM LEHRER: I saw that. He said he didn’t think there would be one this year. What do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: I sort of agree with that, though I think we’re moving — we’ve seen proposals aggressively reduce benefits, reduce Social Security benefits but protecting the poor; we’ve seen Sen. Bennett, we’ve seen Democrats, if we do get to a point where we have one vote on personal accounts and one vote on the solvency issue, I think we’re coming to a consensus on the solvency issue. So there’s some subterranean movement on. Again, I’m not sure we’ll ever get to that point, but it’s most likely we’ll have “no” votes.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think separating the two would be helpful to the debate at least?

MARK SHIELDS: I think there’s just a fundamental flaw in the logic which is there’s a problem of solvency, there really is — 2041, 2042 — be able to pay 75 percent of the benefits. That’s a serious problem. We have to address it. My answer is we’ve got to have personal accounts. Wait a minute, no, that’s not going to have anything to do with it. I think unless and until the president really has to lead on this. He put the issue on the agenda and I think he has to come up with a proposal.

JIM LEHRER: OK. And we are out of time. Thank you both very much.