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Shields and Brooks

May 6, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: And now to our weekly analysis from Shields and Brooks: That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks. They’re joined tonight for a special British election edition by Alec Russell, Washington correspondent for the Daily Telegraph in London. Welcome to you all and welcome, Alec.

ALEC RUSSELL: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me start with you. How would you explain to an American audience yesterday’s result? That is, Labour still wins but with 100 fewer seats in its margin in the House of Commons.

ALEC RUSSELL: I think in order to understand yesterday’s election all you need to do is you need to look at Tony Blair’s face when he heard what had happened in his own constituency.

And he was looking very, very pained. It was the worst night for Tony Blair in a decade, I think we can say, more than a decade. How does one explain that to Americans?

The war in Iraq was far more controversial in Britain than it was in America, and Mr. Blair has paid the price for it, I suppose.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet, Mark, if any party in America won a 60 — still had a 60-seat majority in the Congress they’d be very happy.

MARK SHIELDS: Absolutely.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you read this result?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, looking at it from here, Margaret, I think first of all you have to say Tony Blair had been a very personal prime minister. I mean, he’d been a leadership of personality.

This was not a victory of Tony Blair’s yesterday, even though the Labour Party won an historic third term in the first time in its 105-year history. It was, in fact, a victory of his party.

The irony is George Bush won reelection in November in spite of his economic record. Tony Blair probably won reelection because of his economic record.

MARGARET WARNER: So do you think, David, that the British voters were able to do this kind of tactical voting? In other words, “We do want to return Labour but we don’t want them to have such a swelled head?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, there was some of that; they disliked Blair and so they reelected him. I don’t know how long he’ll stay at number 10 but he’ll certainly stay there. I think partly it was Iraq. I think immigration was a big issue.

I think he also — people get sick of somebody’s face after nearly a decade on TV. And the interesting thing about Tony Blair is he’s always been sort of a solitary figure from university, always been set aside from the Labour Party.

And you have to remember in Britain nobody supports him. The left doesn’t really like him; the Guardian doesn’t really like him; the right doesn’t like him because they like the Tories. So he’s just sitting out there all alone.

And that’s sort of been the new Labour conundrum. And so he is still out there all alone and there’s talk now that he may have to give up leadership of the party in reasonably short order. I think they’re getting a little ahead of themselves, but this could be sort of the beginning of the end.

MARGARET WARNER: Alec, explain that. How could the Labour Party win and already the papers are filled with talk that Tony Blair may have to go?

ALEC RUSSELL: Well, part of it, of course, is that he himself has said that he’s going to step down before the next election. So he has invited all this speculation because now everyone’s going to be saying “Well, so how long are you going to serve?”

There’s a ferocious newspaper and media culture in Britain and many of my colleagues in London will even now be writing pieces ending with big question marks “How long are you going to stay, Mr. Blair?” There will be cartoons with Damoclean swords hanging over his head.

There is also of course from the Labour Party’s point of view a very credible alternative, and they will be calculating, trying to calculate do we need to get rid of Mr. Blair as our party leader in time for the next election? If so, when and how?

MARGARET WARNER: And by that credible alternative, you mean Gordon Brown?

ALEC RUSSELL: I mean Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer.

MARGARET WARNER: Now why is he – I mean, he campaigned with Tony Blair. Why is he considered a stronger more credible leader for Labour than Blair?

ALEC RUSSELL: While I know Americans think of Tony Blair as the key figure in the Labour Party, Gordon Brown is the yin to his yang.

And the two of them have masterminded the transformation of Labour’s fortunes in the last 15 years. And there was this famous meal they spent together before Mr. Blair became prime minister about a decade ago.

We don’t quite know the details, but it was led to believe there was some sort of a carve up of power and Mr. Brown has been waiting for his chance to take over and he thinks his time is now.

MARGARET WARNER: So you all covered the American elections as well. Mark, explain why the Iraq War was so much more damaging an issue for Tony Blair, apparently than it was for President Bush?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it cost Tony Blair his trust, bringing his nation into war under false pretenses.

And George Bush didn’t pay for it and I think there’s a couple of factors: One is the British press, for all its troubles, and British parliament, were far more effective in holding Tony Blair accountable than was the United States Congress and the United States press as far as George Bush is concerned.

And secondly I’d say that the trauma and the experience of 9/11, the attack on the country, made the American voters more willing to accept the idea that the war on terror — that they were more safe with George Bush in the White House than they were taking a risk on somebody else.

And third, I guess, Margaret, the thing about this that changed it more than anything else, in my judgment, made a difference, anyway, is that in a strange way, Tony Blair provided George Bush the cover for the war.

The American people insisted there be a coalition. I mean, it was a phony coalition, only one other person, really, and Tony Blair paid a price for it, which enabled George Bush to go to war. If the United States wants to go to war against Iran, don’t count on Great Britain.

DAVID BROOKS: The guy got reelected; let’s remember that.

MARGARET WARNER: Even though it was the lowest margin. But he still has a 60-seat margin.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: But how much of it also was, David, that members of or Labour Party members or usual voters had a third place to go where they wouldn’t have to vote for the Tories but they could vote for the Liberal Democrats, something we don’t really have here?

DAVID BROOKS: Right, our country wants to have that, the McCain/Lieberman Party but it will never come into being. I was actually surprised how poorly the Liberal Democrats did this time.

I thought if there was ever a time when they could really surge and become really a rival to the two other parties this was it and they didn’t do it. I’d say the reason – the one thing I would point out here is the American electorate, the reason our election is different from theirs is that the American Republican Party is different from the Republican Party — from the Tory Party.

And the American political culture is different. We have social conservatives; they do not have social conservatives. We have –

MARGARET WARNER: Part of Bush’s rock-hard base.

DAVID BROOKS: We have a sense in the Democratic and Republican Party from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush that there should be some effort to spread democracy around the world.

That’s much less likely to happen in Britain. So the political cultures were very similar in the ’80s with Reagan and Thatcher but they really diverged, I think.

MARGARET WARNER: So let’s talk about the impact on the U.S./British relationship and the Blair/George W. Bush relationship. And, Mark, I think you said earlier if President Bush wanted to go to war against Iran, don’t count on Tony Blair?

MARK SHIELDS: Don’t count on it. I think it’s fair to say that one by one, George Bush’s allies, whether it’s the Spanish prime minister’s chosen successor being thumped in their election, whether it’s Berlusconi now under enormous pressure at home in part because of the attack — the report that Americans were blameless but nevertheless the killing of the guard of the Italian hostage who had been freed.

I think they’re going to be lonely — those G-8 meetings are going to be rather lonely for the president. And I think it’s fair to say that for both George Bush and Tony Blair their accomplishments are behind them.

And I think that, you know, to a great degree, what they’ve done is what they’re going to be remembered for rather than what either one will do in the future.

Finally I’d just say this, Margaret, and that is that the major difference David didn’t touch on is that the American people, half the American voters were convinced by Dick Cheney and others that Saddam Hussein had been involved in 9/11. And that was a difference.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think we’re going to see a significant change in the Blair/Bush relationship, in the relationship between London and Washington?

ALEC RUSSELL: I don’t think we’ll see a significant change in as much as we’re certainly not going to — Mr. Blair isn’t going to stand up and say “We’re pulling the troops out” or “I disagree with President Bush.”

MARGARET WARNER: My former good friend.

ALEC RUSSELL: My former good friend is no longer. But I think there will be a change. It will be a subtle change. And part of it will be dictated to Mr. Blair by what has happened last night.

The Labour Party will feel that the people have spoken, that new Labour, which was the movement that Mr. Blair led and brought to power and helped to make the party electable has been given a kick in the teeth.

And he’s been given a kick in the teeth and it’s time to return to a more traditional Labour Party approach to the world and this means you are not quite so cozy with a Republican president.

What that means in terms of Iran — I mean, I agree that Britain, if there was serious military action taken against Iran, Britain would not be four square behind America. But actually, to be fair, this is already been clear.

I think Iraq was something of a one off. Tony Blair is a conviction politician. He believed in this, and he decided this was where he’d lead and we won’t see anything like that again.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you think that would be true whether or not he were replaced by Gordon Brown? In other words, how different would Gordon Brown feel? Would that make a difference?

ALEC RUSSELL: Yes, I think even as we speak, there will be all sorts of people in the NSC and in the State Department who will be going over Gordon Brown’s speeches over the last four or five years.

Gordon Brown could be prime minister in two years time. I suspect Mr. Blair may last for longer than that. He doesn’t want to step down. He doesn’t think that his best accomplishments are behind him.

He wants to do a lot more. But, nonetheless, Gordon Brown will be almost certainly the next prime minister and he feels slightly differently about American politics than Tony Blair does.

MARGARET WARNER: Is the White House worried; should the White House be worried?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think they should be; I don’t want to take away Mark’s pleasure from enjoying the victory that he never had on this side of the Atlantic, which he’s enjoying today.

MARGARET WARNER: Ooh!

DAVID BROOKS: Listen, I think I’ve watched transatlantic relations with Britain, you know, for a little while. People are — I’m always stuck by how America and Britain respond to world crisis similarly. I don’t care what –

MARGARET WARNER: You mean, in their gut?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t care what party is in power. We have much more similar reactions, visceral reactions than we do with the Germans who are also our good allies or with the French or with the Italians. There’s just something about the Anglo-American culture, which causes some similar reaction time after time after time.

And I suspect whether it’s Gordon Brown or Tony Blair, I suspect the reaction will basically be, you know, not always the same but basically similar. The relationship will still be special, as they say.

MARGARET WARNER: But I mean, do you disagree with both Alec and Mark who suggest — let’s take Iran — that it would be pretty hard for the Bush White House to persuade Downing Street to join in?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah. It’d be hard for the Bush White House to persuade the United States. You know, I just think that’s so far beyond the realm of possibility that I don’t think that’s the issue. When it comes to invading France, we’ll both be there.

DAVID BROOKS: Just in response to David, I think we confused 9/11 and Pearl Harbor — or 9/11 and the march of Hitler. I mean, they are not comparable events historically.

We have not — Tony Blair paid a price politically for Iran – for Iraq. George Bush has yet to pay a price. The price will be paid and we know the currency it will be paid in.

It will be paid in lost trust of our government, greater skepticism and cynicism and a greater hostility toward our government, just as it was after Vietnam when people found out they were lied to going into war.

MARGARET WARNER: And yes, a final – go ahead –

ALEC RUSSELL: Yes, I quite agree that there’s a special relationship that will remain a special relationship. But I think in Mr. Blair’s third term he will be focusing on very different issues, issues not so close to this administration’s heart. Africa is going to be huge. Europe is going to figure very prominently as well.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. We have to leave it there. Thank you all three.