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Shields and Brooks Discuss the Fight Over Judicial Nominees, John Bolton

May 13, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, when you put your practiced ear to wherever you put it, do you hear the rumblings of a nuclear explosion coming in the U.S. Senate next week, or do you hear sounds of compromise?

DAVID BROOKS: My practiced ear hears a lot of fuzz; unfortunately, I think there’s fuzz on all issues: Does Frist have 50 votes, close? Will Nelson and Alexander and the other 12 get a deal? I think they really want to.

JIM LEHRER: They really want the deal.

DAVID BROOKS: Those guys and I think most senators, a vast majority really want to. Do Frist and Reid want a deal? I think privately, we saw the public in exchange, there’s also backstage exchange. So there’s a lot of desire whether they can actually get there. I would say the odds are under 50 percent, but over 30 percent.

JIM LEHRER: Under 50, over 30, what would you – what numbers would you —

MARK SHIELDS: I haven’t seen Jimmy the Greek’s line on this one, Jim. I think there are just too many things headed for a train wreck here. We in America invariably have a habit of running the next election on the last election. And what we know about the last election is that President Bush won strongly on the votes of regular church-goers, of evangelical Christians who describe themselves as born again on issues called moral values. This is taken on — this is a litmus test to prove moral values.

JIM LEHRER: The judge issue.

MARK SHIELDS: The judge issue, and nobody has embraced it more than Bill Frist, a non-Evangelical Presbyterian, Ivy League educated, world known surgeon. And that’s a constituency out there that he wants to ingratiate himself with. I don’t think he could back down now. I think he — I mean, for example, Trent Lott was involved in trying to negotiate a compromise. Now to attack Trent Lott’s credentials, as non-conservative really takes some daring. And Rev. James Dobson, Dr. James Dobson, leader of the conservative movement attacked him for even talking about compromise.

JIM LEHRER: So where do you — on what do you base what you just said a moment ago, David, that you think both Frist and Reid want to avoid this?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I base it on the fact that first of all, they don’t know what is going to happen. And I have heard that both of them are a little nervous about it, especially Reid. I have to say. He’s less of an ideological person, more a transactional politician, just doesn’t like the uncertainty. Nobody knows what’s going to happen after this.

So they both would like to avoid it and mostly, most members of the Senate will say privately what Lamar Alexander just said publicly, which is they just love their Senate. They just don’t want it to change in a fundamental way. So that they can get to something that they can agree with, they would love to do it. The problem is the Senate has always opted — operated by informal rules, which is to say we’ll allow the filibuster, but don’t abuse it.

JIM LEHRER: Don’t go too far.

DAVID BROOKS: That is not written in black and white.


DAVID BROOKS: And once it gets — you blow up that trust, that custom, it is very hard to put the custom back. Then you sort of need a black and white rule. And there’s no way they are going to arrive at a black and white rule about the filibuster that they don’t agree on.

JIM LEHRER: So who benefits from a collision?

MARK SHIELDS: I can’t say who benefits. I tell you who doesn’t benefit and that’s the American judiciary, because whoever, if this goes through the way it is, Jim, and let’s be very blunt about it —

JIM LEHRER: Let’s take it through –


JIM LEHRER: Let’s assume there’s a filibuster and then the rules are changed, so to eliminate the filibuster on judicial nominees and then the Democrats go ahead with their threat, which is to slow the whole thing down, all right, now who — are there any winners in this?

MARK SHIELDS: No, there’s no winners in that. I think it is a strategy the Democrats can only play on a short-lived basis. I mean –.

JIM LEHRER: They can make a point, then move on.

MARK SHIELDS: In 1995, the Republicans closed down the federal government; Newt Gingrich never recovered from it, he plummeted in popular support to the point where he became a laugh line on late-night monologues. But I’ll say this, if, in fact we have reached the point where nominees are passed on straight party to be federal judges, lifetime appointments, are passed on straight party votes, not by the traditional way of 75 or 80 or 85 votes or in Scalia’s case unanimously.

I’ll tell you what you are going to have, the next time the Democrats have it, and they’re going to win back the Senate in your lifetime, certainly in David’s and mine, what is going to happen is the Democrats are going to play tit-for-tat. They are going to say okay, now we put up our guys, we don’t care what you think of them; we don’t care if you think they are too liberal, we’re going to push them through, 51-49 – and, boy —

JIM LEHRER: So you agree with David, you never put this — you don’t put this back in the box —

DAVID BROOKS: No, it’s been escalating. I would say the groups benefit. The James Dobsons of the world, the People For the American Ways of the world, because they, first of all they believe in it as a matter of conscious they want their kind of judges in, but secondly if they get just a majority it’s easier if we get a much more liberal judge or a much more conservative judge in, so they both benefit, they both want it, they both like the fight.

As a matter of conscience, also as a matter of interest because they can raise a lot of money off of it. I would just say there are a lot of Republicans and a lot of Democrats nervous about offending their groups.

How can we walk back — James Dobson will go ballistic, People For the American Way, or whatever. I’ve spoken to senators what happens when a James Dobson or People For the American Way go ballistic on you, and senators who have long experience of offending these people say what happens is they tie up your phones for a week. They immobilize your office for a week. But if you look at your poll rating back in your state, there’s no change. And so I just — it’s important to remind senators that there’s no big price here.

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t question that, and certainly the case with John McCain who’s been attacked by every interest group who has just soared off the board.

JIM LEHRER: And he’s the most popular – one of the most popular politicians in America.

MARK SHIELDS: That is what John McCain is today. But Jim, what you really have here is terminal hypocrisy; I mean, let’s be very blunt about it; 65 nominees of Bill Clinton’s were never given votes, for federal bench, never; they were blue slipped. That was the deal —

JIM LEHRER: They never got out of committee.

MARK SHIELDS: They never got out of committee; some of them never got a hearing; some got hearings and didn’t get out of committee, some got on the floor and got out of committee and didn’t even get votes, I mean, 65. We are talking about 10 out of 229 now.

So, I mean, the idea that everyone gets a vote is a new conversion to these Republicans and these conservatives. That is something that they certainly didn’t practice in the Clinton years. And just changed it – I mean, there was a comity in the past; if David were a senator from the state, you were the president, and he objected to a nominee, that nominee would not be heard.

JIM LEHRER: No matter even if they were different parties.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: That is the way it used to be.

MARK SHIELDS: And, beyond that you had to have at least one minority party member of the committee vote for a nominee to get out of committee. These were all sort of built-in safeguards that David described to preserve the comity in the Senate, to be sure that people did come, that kind of — all of those were repealed by the Republicans when they took over. Now if both senators from the state object, it’s taken as an advisory rather than objection.

DAVID BROOKS: We could go on forever who started the Bork hearings, the Republicans, the use of filibuster; it ‘s just not a debate that ever ends.

JIM LEHRER: Well, all right. Let’s go on to another debate that hasn’t quite ended yet, John Bolton. What’d you think of what happened yesterday in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee?

MARK SHIELDS: If I were putting together my resume and I was John Bolton, I certainly wouldn’t list my principal supporter, Dick Lugar, who said, hey, look, the guy had no serious moral lapses and he’s never been convicted of a crime. Now there’s a ringing endorsement. And John –.

JIM LEHRER: But what does this mean?

MARK SHIELDS: What it means is right now coming off the judges thing, that the White House, in order to get Bolton confirmed is twisting arms on loyalty votes and there may be a trade-off with people — they’re going to lose on the filibuster vote.

JIM LEHRER: You are talking about the moderate Republicans.

MARK SHIELDS: How about Lincoln Chafee, I mean, this gives Lincoln Chafee –supporting Bolton, I mean, he’s tamed; he said Bolton called him, he reported today that private conversation that Bolton called him, told him he knew what a hard vote it was for him. But doesn’t that liberate him to now vote against his party on the filibuster? So it’s really become a complication for the White House; it’s become a test of their strength. And he’s a lousy nominee.

JIM LEHRER: A lousy nominee?

DAVID BROOKS: (George) Voinovich in some way asked the crucial questions: Is he the sort of diplomat we want? Now if you think the sort of diplomat we want is a smooth talking pretty face, John Bolton probably isn’t the guy. But if you want somebody who will resolutely stand up for American interests, he probably is the guy.

I think when you read the transcripts of what we learned in the past couple of weeks, he’s someone who pushes hard for the American position, pushes hard for the president’s policy in policy disputes in the State Department and then when push comes to shove and the people within the system say no, you give the speech we want to you give, you are not the boss here, he gave in. And he was a team player at the end of the day, after bruising a lot of feelings along the way, but he pushed hard and Bush obviously wants that kind of person at the U.N.

JIM LEHRER: Okay, but he’s now on the floor of the Senate on a vote of no recommendation. What does that mean for the possibility of his being confirmed?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it is likely that he will be. George Voinovich doesn’t really carry other Republicans. As for Chafee — people like McCain are strongly for him — as for people like Chafee and Hagel, I don’t think they were changed by arm twisting. I think they looked at the transcript, and they said don’t really like this guy, but there’s nothing disqualifying. There’s no big breach here.

JIM LEHRER: What about — but what about Mark’s earlier point, you know, even Dick Lugar said really bad things about this guy, and yet, oh, well, he is a lousy diplomat, he’s going to be — you know, he’s got a lot of problems but let’s send him and be our representative in the U.N. anyhow?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, Voinovich’s standard was: Is he the best man for the job? But that’s traditionally not the standard senators have taken. They’ve said this guy is the president’s spokesman. So unless he’s disqualified, we’ll let the president have his choice.

MARK SHIELDS: Let’s just go back. We had somebody win the White House less than a generation ago saying, why not the best; this whole Bolton thing reminds me of the Democratic chairman in a Republican state who’s looking for a candidate for state senate and he says, what do you want for qualification, and he says I want someone who isn’t under indictment or detox, I mean, that’s really what they’ve come to with this guy.

Why not the best? I mean, this guy is so flawed, so damaged, I mean, George Voinovich stood up there yesterday and said he’s a bully; if he were in the private sector, which Republicans genuflect before, he would be fired from any corporation for his conduct. Now they’re saying, well, the president wants him, in spite of the fact that he’s mediocre at best, I mean, he’s has got terrible human relations.

JIM LEHRER: Other than that —

DAVID BROOKS: There are two views to that. I mean, the president sees a guy who went to the State Department, which was hostile to a lot of U.S. policies, and the guy stood up for the president’s policies really strongly.

JIM LEHRER: Let me ask you this –

MARK SHIELDS: And Colin Powell didn’t?

JIM LEHRER: But let’s say he does get confirmed. Does he go as a representative of the United States to the United Nations as a flawed representative or does it matter? All this preliminary — all what has happened and been said about him, does it hurt him?

DAVID BROOKS: It will be up to him. He’ll be there every day; he’ll have to do the job. They will see him in person and either he will be effective or not.

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, the secretary of state said that several senators including Voinovich and Joe Biden, he’s going to be closely supervised — on a short leash.

DAVID BROOKS: All ambassadors are supervised; that’s the job of the ambassador.

JIM LEHRER: I supervised the two of you, and our time is up. We had seven other things we wanted to talk about tonight, but we didn’t get to, but we will next week. Thank you both.