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Shield and Lowry Analyze Rice’s Trip and President Bush’s Budget

February 11, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Now, analysis by Shields and Lowry: Syndicated columnist mark Shields and National Review editor Rich Lowry. David Brooks is off tonight.

Mark, what would you add to how Condoleezza Rice has launched herself as Secretary of State?

MARK SHIELDS: I think she had a good week, Jim. I think she was helped by the fact that both sides realized that they want improved relations. They’re stuck with each other for the next four years.

And I think the administration understands that while it could have gone by in Iraq without Europe, it certainly needs Europe in dealing with Iran. But ironically, of course, after I think a very positive reviews of her work and style, substance, words that she spoke at her confirmation hearings came back to bite her a little bit. And –

JIM LEHRER: What was that?

MARK SHIELDS: On North Korea, citing the outpost of tyranny as one of the reasons, as they boast and brag that they have nuclear weapons and remember President Kennedy’s line during the Cuban missile crisis of 14 days said this is the week I earn my salary. And I think, you know, where she is coming back from an important trip and she is about to earn her salary.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think?

RICH LOWRY: Mark is right. It was a great week for her. She is an incredibly winsome figure and could I go on about that but I’m afraid Mark will think I have a crush if I elaborate too much. But, look, the administration realizes that it had a deficit when it came to diplomacy.

And these are the kind of trips that weren’t happening, for whatever reason. I think it was partly because Colin Powell wasn’t as energetic a believer in Bush’s policy as Condi Rice is. Also, Condi is just more personally vigorous and willing to travel. And this trip was partly a vindication of the old Woody Allen line that 80 percent of life is showing up. If you actually show up at these places, if nothing else, it tells them that you care enough to do it.

Now how much did she accomplish substantively? Not a lot. Maybe they get a little more NATO training in Iraq. But a huge part of diplomacy and I hate to be so cynical is atmospherics and sort of papering over differences. At the very least, she did a lot of that.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. The president put out his 2006 budget proposal this week, Rich, and the Democrats called it a hoax, a fraud, and a lot of other things. What would you call it?

RICH LOWRY: I would call it the most serious attempt at domestic discretionary spending restraint since the mid-1990s Newt Gingrich’s Congresses. Does this mean anything like this is going to pass? Very unlikely. Does it mean there is not a lot of blue smoke and mirrors in there? There is obviously.

But a lot of these cuts will not go through Congress. The president isn’t to blame so much for that as Congress is. And what will ultimately happen is the pattern we’ve seen in recent years with the Bush budgets, the House will pass a budget resolution that’s non-binding that looks roughly similar to it and then the spending will steadily increase from there.

And roughly – the pattern has been the percentage increase that Bush proposes in spending and this time there is not a percentage increase, roughly doubles by the time you’re through with the process. That will happen again; it will still end up more restraint than we’ve seen in recent years, but nothing along the lines of what he is actually proposing today.

JIM LEHRER: A serious document that should be taken serious?

RICH LOWRY: Sure.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: It should be taken seriously and it is not being taken seriously on Capitol Hill.

JIM LEHRER: By Democrats or by Republicans?

MARK SHIELDS: By Republicans and Democrats, Jim. I think that what the president is trying to do is to focus on spending, look here I am cutting. He is operating at a little bit of a disadvantage in this respect. Unlike Richard Nixon, unlike Ronald Reagan, unlike Bill Clinton, George Bush was re-elected with a party of his own in control of both Houses of Congress. They could play off against the Congress and for any shortcomings in the budget.

JIM LEHRER: Blame them, blame Congress.

MARK SHIELDS: George Bush can’t do that.

JIM LEHRER: Just he way Rich just did.

MARK SHIELDS: He is the leader of the Republican Party. He wants to focus it on the spending side because he doesn’t want to have anybody look at the revenue side, which is really — I mean the president passed a tax cut in 2001 at a time when there were budget surpluses as far as the eye could see — that before 9/11 and the costs of homeland security, the blow to the economy, the cost of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, before prescription drug and so the president wants to make these permanent right now and quite frankly, there’s been a profound change in the economic health of the country as far as revenue. And I mean he is going to be a debtor president.

JIM LEHRER: Because the revenues are down because when income — everything is contingent on the economy obviously -

MARK SHIELDS: And the tax rates.

JIM LEHRER: — and tax rates, yeah. Rich, much has been made about how conservatives are not anymore happy about this than liberal Democrats. Is that right?

RICH LOWRY: That’s absolutely true. There’s no effort on the part of the administration to exercise spending restraint whatsoever over the last four years. So the White House had a huge role in digging this fiscal hole.

But again, I don’t want to blame Congress for everything, but if you look at the other big fiscal issue over this last week, the cost of the Medicare program there was no significant power center in Washington that wanted to spend less on that program than the President did.

Initially, if you look at the history of it, Bush came in with a fairly modest proposal. It was the Republicans in the House that said no, that’s way too stingy and of course throughout the process it was congressional Democrats who were asking for an even more expensive program. So for now, for both Republicans and Democrats in Congress to act shocked that a new huge entitlement is expensive I think is pretty disingenuous.

MARK SHIELDS: Rich has put his finger on one of the president’s problem. George Bush’s appeal, his political appeal and the virtue that his allies emphasize repeatedly is look, he’s not a fancy phrase maker but you know where the guy stands. He tells you what he believes. And I talked to Republicans this week on the House who told me quite frankly they wouldn’t have voted for it. Jim, this was….

JIM LEHRER: Wouldn’t have voted for what?

MARK SHIELDS: The prescription drug bill in 2003. Passed in December 2003, Jim, all right; $400 billion they said that’s all it’s going to cost. They kept it open for five and a half hours on the floor, the vote to get those last arms twisted to get those votes passed.

Within 60 days, Jim, it was up to $534 billion. Now it’s up to $720 billion and it doesn’t go into effect until next year. It hasn’t even started yet and it’s gone up by more than 80 percent. So here’s the president on this one and he’s coming up on a budget. The president also is limping from credibility on weapons of mass destruction on the battle of Iraq and of course going into Iraq. So I think this budget becomes a little bit of a political problem for George Bush.

JIM LEHRER: But you’re saying, Rich, is that there are fingerprints from Congress all over this Medicare drug benefits things just like the President’s?

RICH LOWRY: I don’t want to disagree with Mark. The substance was atrocious and the policy was atrocious and the politics for Republicans or what they expected the politics didn’t work out either. So that was atrocious, too.

But are we going to say because the administration spent so much on Medicare, we should disregard what it wants to do in terms of spending restraint on domestic programs? No. Or should we look at Medicare and say, oh, they really messed up Medicare, therefore we should spend more for an eternity on Social Security and not look at a different way to do an entitlement program? No. So I think that’s kind of a non sequitur.

MARK SHIELDS: Just say this. The prescription drug bill is going to cost $7 trillion with a “T.” That’s more than all the money, twice over, that we need to make Social Security whole in perpetuity. So I mean we’re talking big, big money here and to add to the problems, I mean the Bush administration in a real stroke of just political stupidity decided to include Viagra under the prescription drug program.

JIM LEHRER: You’re already running on that one.

MARK SHIELDS: When grandchildren have to pay for grandpa’s romantic interludes – lifestyle –

RICH LOWRY: Believe me, there would have been congressman in favor of putting that in the package one way or the other.

JIM LEHRER: Moving right along. Social Security, Rich. How’s the president doing selling his crisis message on Social Security? It’s been a couple of weeks now since his State of the Union on that?

RICH LOWRY: Poorly. You have to give the initial rounds to Democrats and the opponents of the president’s idea that the crisis gambit has failed for a bunch of reasons, but most fundamentally because people don’t buy it. When the crisis dates, suppose the crisis dates you are throwing out are 2018 and 2042 — that just doesn’t sound like an imminent crisis.

But there are a couple of things going on that, unless you appreciate them, you’re going to discount the likelihood of this thing passing too much. One, is the president is extremely committed to it. He’s going to spend capital. He’s going from town hall meeting to town hall meeting. That’s extremely important.

Two, if the public doesn’t believe the crisis rhetoric, neither does it buy the implicit Democratic argument that there’s no problem with the financing whatsoever and you really don’t need to do anything to fix it. They don’t buy that, either.

And third, the last politically important dynamic – the last couple of weeks – is the panic among House Republicans has ended. The House is firming up. I would be pretty confident by May every single, virtually every single House Republican will be on board this thing. And then what the Republicans are hoping will happen is some group, splinter, can be a very a small group of Democrats, breaks off from the Reid-Pelosi line and offers some sort of plan. And that’s where you’re going to see the beginning of a deal.

JIM LEHRER: Mark?

RICH LOWRY: Stunned into silence.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s a great screenplay. It’s a great screenplay. It really is. The president spending political capital Rich is right. Jim, we can’t call them town hall meetings. They aren’t town hall meetings; they’re pep rallies, they’re pre-selected. You can’t get in there unless you’ve signed on, unless you’ve drunk the Kool-Aid and said you’re totally with the president. So these are not town meetings.

JIM LEHRER: Watch your metaphors, please.

MARK SHIELDS: It really is. They’re pep rallies. And I think Rich is absolutely right. The president is behind the eight ball on this politically. There is on these…you have to understand, the one person who has made more sense than anybody on this is Bill Thomas, the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. I mean, he’s approached on the basis of why are we wed to a payroll tax on this? We fund Medicare –

JIM LEHRER: If it is so important why can’t we –

MARK SHIELDS: Other important matters other ways and so forth. But he puts his finger on something very important. That’s why the House Republicans are nervous. Nothing passes the Senate with 62 votes. I mean you need 60 votes basically to get anything by. You got to have 75 votes. And that means you have to have bipartisan in the Senate.

And nervous House Republicans from the Midwest and the Northeast in particular don’t want to vote for something that does involve pain, does involve cutting future benefits, and dislocating some people, making some people angry if nothing is going to happen in the Senate. And that’s why you’ve got to get something bipartisan in the Senate going.

RICH LOWRY: That three weeks ago that was true. It’s not so true anymore. If you talk to top House aides, they are not much more confident of this thing and they are now at least willing to contemplate, they’re probably going to go Mark’s way and wait for the Senate but they are willing to contemplate doing their own plan and crafting it in a way that they think politically and substantively makes sense and vote on it first.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. We have to leave it there. Thank you both very much. Good to see you, Rich.