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Shields and Lowry Analyze Intelligence Director Appointment and Social Security

February 18, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT

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’s your take on the nomination of John Negroponte to be the new director of national intelligence?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, I think he’s got a number of major hurdles that he confronts. I mean, first, just stylistically he was the fourth choice, publicly known as — it was building pressure that the job was vacant almost a sense that “we have got to take somebody to the prom.” And there was that sense he got the invitation.

But I’d add to that — obviously he’s got a tough task. He’s the first man in the job, he’s going to define it; he’s going to make it. It’s a tough task, 15 different intelligence gathering agencies, 15 heads he’s got to deal with, bring them all together.

And the third, I’d say is that Don Rumsfeld, who’s one of the most legendary turf fighters in all of Washington, a very effective internal elbows fellow in dealing in any hegemony and turf in an administration, is not going to go quietly. He’s got a major say right now in intelligence. I think this is going to be not an easy thing for Mr. Negroponte. It’s a tough job.

JIM LEHRER: Rich, many people have said — in fact some folks said this on this program last night — that it’s really up to the president. The president gives this man the power; then this man can do the job, doesn’t matter whether it’s John Negroponte or whoever it is, whether he’s having a problem with Rumsfeld or Congress or anybody else. Do you agree with that?

RICH LOWRY: That’s the most important key to power in Washington obviously is access to the president and the trust of the president. I think it’s understandable some people may have been hesitant to take this job, as Mark points out. It’s a new job, it’s a reorganization; any of these things are really hard to work. Look at the Homeland Security Department which by all accounts is still dysfunctional, will be for a long time.

That said, I think you have to judge Negroponte on his merits. He’s a serious guy. He’s served government in a bunch of capacities in some of the worst hot spots in the world whether it was Vietnam during the war there or Latin America in the ’80s or Iraq over the last eight months.

My concerns go much deeper. I don’t think this job necessarily makes sense from the get-go because if you look at the key intelligence failures, 9/11, or the intelligence failures in Iraq, which went much deeper than weapons of mass destruction by the way, we sort of missed the whole nature of the Iraqi government and society as it was existing prior to invasion. That had very little or nothing to do with the organization of our intelligence or with Don Rumsfeld.

It had to do with the fact we are unable to put agents on the ground in these places to give us the sort of intelligence that we need. And that is a capability that’s eroded over 30 years. If Negroponte realizes that and addresses that deficit in U.S. Intelligence, he’ll be a great success. Now, whether he does that or not remains to be seen.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that analysis?

MARK SHIELDS: I think the human intelligence part there’s no question. I mean, we’ve been defective in that and I think there’s been a certain technophilia fascination with, you know, pictures and satellites and all of that.

JIM LEHRER: Satellites and people down on the ground?

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. But the other thing, Jim, and Congress doesn’t get off the hook on this one. Rich is right. I mean, the homeland security is still very much in chaos. It’s not shipshape by many means. But one of the problems is that the head of homeland security is responsible and accountable to 88 different committees and subcommittees on Capitol Hill.

JIM LEHRER: They say Negroponte would be responsible to 80 himself.

MARK SHIELDS: Well at some point the Congress and its congressional oversight has to say “Okay, we’re going to give up some turf” because every little subcommittee has a piece of the action and say this is the committee and you’re only going to have to deal with one or two rather than 80.

RICH LOWRY: Good luck. Everyone wants to be called Mr. Chairman and I don’t know whether that’s ever going to change.

JIM LEHRER: And intelligence is a sexy subject, everybody wants to know the secrets and all of that. Social Security reform, Rich. How important was what Federal Reserve Chairman Greenspan said this week about private accounts? Personal accounts, I’m sorry.

RICH LOWRY: Get your lexicon right. Scott McClellan’s going to be all over you. It was a boost in the administration’s case. He bolstered it in two key ways: One, he said that there is a problem with the long-term financing of the program and, two, he said personal accounts make sense — now, with some caveats.

Now, he’s taken shots for this. People point out that Greenspan, there’s always an element of political calculation in the statements — which is true, he’s like a cat, he’s always landing on all four feet here in Washington, which is why in the ’90s he was sitting next to Hillary during one of the State of the Union addresses if you remember but I do think this is consistent with his views over the years. He want more private assets in individual hands, whether it’s from tax cuts or whether it’s from a policy like personal Social Security accounts.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think the impact will have on whether or not personal accounts get enacted in Congress? Do you think it’s an important thing?

MARK SHIELDS: Not to the degree the White House hoped, Jim. I think Rich is right. Alan Greenspan is like a Delphic Oracle, I mean you ask him who’s going to win the battle and he says “there’s going to be a great victory.” And you say, well it must be my side and while he says there’s going to be a great victory – you say you’re going to win – and that’s exactly what —

JIM LEHRER: Maybe the other guys.

RICH LOWRY: We need to do that as pundits, Mark.

MARK SHIELDS: He’s made a great career of it. He said that he is for personal account but at the same time he pulled back and said personal accounts are in no way going to help solve the problem of solvency on this.

JIM LEHRER: There are different two issues –

MARK SHIELDS: Two issues.

JIM LEHRER: — solvency and personal accounts, which is consider philosophically a good thing.

MARK SHIELDS: That we ought to go slow and we have to be careful about the deficit. I think the White House would have been pleased if this had been the statement going in the weekend, Jim. If it had been Greenspan endorses personal accounts. But it wasn’t.

The president stepped on the story by saying “well, we’ve got to keep open the option of. — I’m not ruling out the option of raising the Social Security tax collected on incomes above $90,000, and that started a firestorm. Luck would have it – and it wasn’t good — that the National Conservative Political Action Convention is meeting in town and every conservative in town was — just a firestorm of criticism of the president, including Tom Delay and Denny Hastert and others —

JIM LEHRER: What about Rich Lowry — were you part of the firestorm?

RICH LOWRY: This is one of the weird Washington things where technically it wasn’t a change in the administration’s posture because you read really, really carefully. They’re always leaving open raising this cap. And the high level administration officials —

JIM LEHRER: Explain what raising the cap does.

RICH LOWRY: The payroll tax stops at $90,000 a year. And when revenue raising —

JIM LEHRER: You make $2 million; your payroll tax is only based up to $90,000?

RICH LOWRY: You’re free after $90,000 — so one way to raise revenue is raise that cap. But Bush floated this in a higher profile way and the way that got everyone’s attention and it was not a good – if this was a deliberate ploy, it was ill considered for two reasons.

One, this will be a major concession if Bush gets on board this. This is something that you wait to float until the very end, until 4:00 A.M. dramatic meeting and say “okay, now I’ll do it.” He’s kind of blown that.

And the other problem, and Mark hit on it, the reaction from the House leadership was really severely against this. And you may have a dynamic where the Senate will not pass anything on Social Security unless the cap is raised, and the House won’t pass anything unless it’s not raised. And that’s going to be a difficult difference to bridge if it comes to that.

MARK SHIELDS: And to complicate things, Jim, the Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll came out this week and it showed after a month of the president’s campaigning where plurality in January had supported private investment accounts, now by a ten-point margin they’re down.

So that was not at all encouraging as well. So I think what the president was doing may have been a deft political move that did backfire. I think he was trying to send a signal to Democrats. He needs some Democrats to support him –

JIM LEHRER: To make this thing work.

MARK SHIELDS: — and I think he was trying to say “look, I’m open.” And I think the firestorm really just kind of ended that little —

RICH LOWRY: Just quickly, though, there are miles to go before anyone sleeps on this thing and one fact of the administration has going in its favor and I think has been strategically shrewd is the utter near total flexibility. They will — it’s not going to be like Clinton on health care where he really got locked in and didn’t compromise fast enough. As soon as there’s a deal anywhere near to what Bush wants, he’s going to take it.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of firestorms and the Congress and the president, the president re-nominated some folks that had been turned down earlier for judgeships. What’s going on there?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, the president made a pledge that he would do so and he did it. He won the election.

JIM LEHRER: And the Democrats are coming right back and —

MARK SHIELDS: Democrats are coming right back and Harry Reid sat here last night with you and recited the figures on 95 percent of his judges have been approved. I think this is a test of presidential politics as much as anything – not George Bush — but the race to succeed him and that’s Bill Frist, the Republican Senate leader.

Conservatives have made this very much the litmus test for him. Are you going to be able to get these judges confirmed? Are you willing to go to what’s called the nuclear option — and that is eliminating the filibuster and the extended debate which has been a hallmark of the Senate.

JIM LEHRER: Which any given Senate can do, can they not?

MARK SHIELDS: With 51 votes, as long as you get the chair and the parliamentarian and when the vote is appeal to a chair then you’ve got the 51 votes. There’s a question whether he does have the 51 votes but Pat Robertson, fond memory this week tossed out this challenge to Bill Frist. Is he going to be able to deliver on judges?

JIM LEHRER: Do you see it in Frist terms, too, Rich?

RICH LOWRY: A little bit. First of all, I think the biggest factor is the president campaigned on these judicial nominations in 2002 and 2004 and picked up seats in the Senate each time. So the White House believes this is a political winner and they believe putting these nominations up again is basically a win-win proposition.

If you get them through, wonderful; if you don’t get them through and there are more filibusters, well, then you get to call Democrats obstructionist, a charge that has had some resonance in recent years.

Now, with regard to the nuclear option, I think there are two things going on. I doubt it will ever happen. I think one is you’re playing brinksmanship with the Democrats and you’re hoping to get some concessions by floating that you’re really going to do this. I know you’re shocked, Jim, at the cynicism of that.

JIM LEHRER: Shocked.

RICH LOWRY: And two there is Frist is beating his chest about it because to appeal to conservatives because he is a likely 2008 candidate. I think in the end Mark is right and there are not the votes there to do it.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Well, look, thank you all very much. Rich, enjoyed having you with us the last two weeks.

RICH LOWRY: Thanks for having me.