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Columnists Debate DeLay, Social Security

April 29, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Now, the analysis of Shields and Lowry: syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Rich Lowry of the National Review. David Brooks is off tonight.

Rich, how do you read the prospects and the politics of President Bush’s new proposal on Social Security?

RICH LOWRY: Well, the sales job, obviously the 60-day sales pitch around the country hasn’t gone particularly well. And, as far as I can tell, the White House strategy is just by hook and crook to keep some sort of momentum going. And I think that’s why last night he came out with a more detailed proposal than he has — had until this point, a more detailed proposal, although it’s obviously not a full-blown bill by any means. And he wants to appear purposeful, substantive; he wanted to float an idea that might perhaps have some appeal to more moderate Democrats.

The risk, of course, the political risk, is that almost every newspaper in the country had a headline about President Bush proposing Social Security benefit cuts. And that’s always difficult ground for Republicans.

JIM LEHRER: And Mark, the Democrats were unanimous in condemning this today. What’s going on there?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. I mean, when you saw Max Baucus and Dianne Feinstein, two of the people I think that the president was kind of hoping might eventually enlist, be allies in this effort, I mean being the most stalwart and most adamant in their criticism. I think two things, Jim. I think Rich is absolutely right. The 60 days have been a disappointment at best. I mean, I think the White House intended to do two things. They intended to sell the idea that this was a crisis, that we have a real problem and then secondly the appeal and attraction of personal accounts, although, you know, the president finally acknowledged that the second had nothing to do with the first and, if anything, wouldn’t solve it.

I think the difficulty the president faces and the Republicans face at this point is this, that you saw in Kwame’s piece they passed the budget by three votes in the House. They passed the budget by five votes in the Senate. It’s a Republican institute body so they had to arm twist and lean and all the rest of it. Jim, this involves a cut of $10 billion in Medicaid over four years. It also includes the sweetener of $106 billion in tax cuts and they can only pass it by three votes. Rich is right. I mean, any place that… Social Security cuts, these same guys, these captains courageous are not going to line up and say “let me vote for Social Security benefit cuts.”

JIM LEHRER: OK. If everybody agrees — and they don’t — but let’s say for discussion purposes everybody agreed there’s a crisis in Social Security, the Democrats don’t even agree there’s a crisis, but let’s say that they did and if you’re not going to cut benefits and you’re not going to raise the payroll tax, that doesn’t leave a lot of alternatives does it?

RICH LOWRY: By my quick back-of-the-envelope calculation it leaves basically nothing. So, you know, those are the two things that are necessary. And the case the Republicans will try to make in defense of this is, look, these are promised benefits that we’re cutting. Those promised benefits are not going to be there because there’s a huge shortfall in the system coming up, so do not use the promised benefits as the benchmark because they’re a fantasy and they’re not for real. Now, whether they’ll be successful in making that case, I don’t know.

JIM LEHRER: But what about, why isn’t the president getting more credit — I’ll ask you, Mark. Why isn’t the president getting more credit from Democrats over the idea that it’s progressive? In other words, he is going to preserve the benefits, the “promised benefits” for the low-income people by some measure but just take it out — but lower the benefits, the perceived benefits of those who are better off?

MARK SHIELDS: I think, Jim, there’s really not a political problem here; there’s a philosophical problem. Social Security has been social and it’s been security. It’s been equal across the board.

JIM LEHRER: Everybody gets the same.

MARK SHIELDS: And once you start — make it sort of on a welfare plan approach, the idea that well, those — it means the program itself is vulnerable to popular support. The universality of the program has provided near universal popular and political support. And I think that’s part of it.

The other reason the president had to have this press conference is right now President Bush, according to the Gallup Poll over the history, is at the lowest point of any president re-elected at this point in his presidency since World War II. So, I mean, you know, there’s a restlessness in the ranks. They had to do something.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Rich, that this news conference last night had a purpose beyond floating a new idea on Social Security?

RICH LOWRY: Sure. He’s been in a downdraft the last couple of weeks and a lot of it has to do with the economy and gas prices. That’s conventional wisdom that happens to be correct. And the problem any president has with gas prices is there’s very little or nothing you can really do about them. So President Bush is in a situation where he wants to talk about energy proposals to deliver the message that “I care about gas prices. I know they hurt and I really would love to do something about it even though these proposals won’t have any effect in the short term.” So he’s just in a — with the energy situation, he’s just in a tight spot.

JIM LEHRER: It just goes with the territory that when gas prices go up the president gets blamed no matter what, right? Jimmy Carter can attest to that.

RICH LOWRY: Absolutely. It’s not fair.

MARK SHIELDS: And it’s complicated by — I mean, no other American president in recent years has invited the Saudi prince to hold hands in his front yard. I mean, so –

JIM LEHRER: That could be considered good politics.

MARK SHIELDS: It could be, Jim –

JIM LEHRER: He’s trying to convince him to put some more –

MARK SHIELDS: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: — pump some more oil.

MARK SHIELDS: You’re absolutely right. But that then coupled with the prices and the tip off that the White House sees this as — is all the president’s trips to Crawford, there hasn’t been a single photo-op of him gassing up the pickup truck. They like that do that. They’ve avoided that one because they don’t want to have sticker shock shown on the evening news.

JIM LEHRER: New subject but still political problems, Rich. The issue of the House ethics rules being changed this week by the Republicans. Should that be seen as a cave-in to pressure from the Democrats? How do you interpret it?

RICH LOWRY: It’s certainly a cave-in and the reason they changed the rules originally was basically to protect Tom DeLay; now, partly because he’s a majority leader and he has a vulnerability, partly because there’s a perception on the Republican side that he’s the victim of an unfair partisan attack. But obviously those rules changes weren’t a matter of deep principle or you wouldn’t be going back on them several weeks later. And I think the DeLay camp is after a couple months of having these ethics questions adjudicated in the media, they’re thinking “You know what? Actually it’s better to go back to the ethics committee.”

JIM LEHRER: Do you think this puts DeLay in more jeopardy, or does it give him a chance to clear himself if, in fact, he can do so?

RICH LOWRY: It’s hard to say and it depends on what the actual facts are of these cases. Now, my guess, knowing what we know now, is that if the ethics committee made some judgment on him now, it would be a lot like the judgments they made on DeLay last year where he’s exonerated of violating any rules but he’s admonished to be more careful. And the way those admonishments played in the press and the way they’re spun very effectively by the Democrats was as if they’d been criminal indictments or something. They really hurt. So my guess at the moment would be he’d get an exoneration but with a sting, and the question then is how do both sides play that sting and who wins the spin war over it?

JIM LEHRER: Now, Mark, some people have suggested the Democrats have a be-careful-what-you-wish-for problem here that with the rejuvenation or the reactivation, I guess I should say, of the House ethics committee now that some charges may be preferred against some leading Democrats as well as Tom DeLay Do you agree?

MARK SHIELDS: I think when they open up to privately underwritten travel, that they — there are people who have taken trips; where there’s a question of whether, in fact, a legitimate institution, nonprofit institution has paid for that trip, I think they’ll be open to scrutiny.

JIM LEHRER: If any Democrats did it, they’re going to get caught just as –

MARK SHIELDS: I think they will.

JIM LEHRER: They’d be scrutinized at least?

MARK SHIELDS: I think DeLay has other problems. Right now you wouldn’t find any Republican that says Tom DeLay is ever going to be speaker. He is not going to be speaker. I mean, I think he has just got too much baggage. And what we saw this week I think, Jim, in the repeal of the ethics rules changes was this, that Tom DeLay had always been a major asset if I’m a Republican House member. He does a lot of things, he does them well, he’s effective, he’s tough, he’s aggressive, he deals tough with the institutions, especially downtown, K Street and all the rest. He does things –

JIM LEHRER: K Street is where the lobbyists are.

MARK SHIELDS: The lobbyists are, and things I want done for my candidacy and my party. And he’s always been an asset. What we’ve seen in the last couple weeks and Rich described it is Tom DeLay became a little bit of an inconvenience, maybe an embarrassment and a potential political liability. There is not a single Republican House member tonight who’s calling and saying “Tom, will you come into my district and campaign for me?”

JIM LEHRER: Yeah, go ahead.

RICH LOWRY: But the White House has obviously made a strategic decision to stand behind DeLay, and that’s because they still think as an inside player and a legislative technician, which has always been his great strength, he is still an asset. And on the Democrats and vulnerabilities they may have on their travel, the smartest Republicans are really determined to resist the temptation to go tit for tat on this because they’re operating off on the 1990s politics where Republicans went in whole hog with sort of scandal politics against Bill Clinton and it didn’t help and it arguably hurt. So they’re hoping to do sort of the — a model on what Clinton did. “We’re going about the people’s business. You know, you can obsess about who paid for Tom DeLay’s trip, you know, five years ago, we’re going to talk about substance.” At least that’s the idea.

JIM LEHRER: And also I was reading that some of the Republicans are — love the idea that it’s gone to the ethics committee, can now act on Tom DeLay because that gets it off the — gets it away.

MARK SHIELDS: I can’t comment on it.

JIM LEHRER: And if the ethics committee rules against him, they rule against him, it’s done. If they rule in favor of him, it’s done as well. At least it gets resolved in some way.

MARK SHIELDS: I would just add one thing. This is not Tom DeLay’s sole vulnerability, the travel. I mean, even though it was lavish, as David Rogers pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, $28,000 for 10 days in London and Scotland. I mean, you’re living like a Mexican general if you’re traveling like that. Let’s be very blunt about it. But Tom DeLay has other problems; I mean, the Jack Abramoff investigation, now we have the Marianna Islands and what went on there. So, I mean, he’s fighting a war on a lot of different fronts.

JIM LEHRER: What’s your reading, Rich, as to where the nuclear, the potential nuclear confrontation over judges stands this week in the Senate?

RICH LOWRY: We had a veritable orgy of insincerity in the Senate this week with the various compromise offers from both sides, neither of which anyone had any notion that it would actually be taken up by the other side.

But my sense is that Republicans now have the whip hand on this issue because the further they’ve gotten away from the Schiavo controversy, there are a lot of people, including Tom DeLay that very unwisely imported the bad politics of the Schiavo case into what had been the good politics of the judges issue for Republicans. The further away from that, the surer the Republicans are that they’re going to have the 50 votes necessary to make this filibuster change and I think the attitude’s going to be if you have the votes, you might as well do it.

And I think Democrats may have overplayed their hands and may be looking at a situation a month from now when they basically will have an extremely difficult time blocking any Bush judges at all.

JIM LEHRER: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t know, Jim. There’s too many people keeping their own counsel on this — I mean, too many Republican senators who really won’t say how they’re going to vote. I mean, John McCain has said he wouldn’t vote for it. Rich is right, I mean, there’s enough hypocrisy. There are competing public impulses here. One is the public likes extended debate. They don’t want to see that ended but they believe every nominee is entitled to an up or down vote.

JIM LEHRER: Everybody, whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, just an ordinary citizen, sees the fairness of both of those concepts, right?

MARK SHIELDS: I –

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Rich?

RICH LOWRY: Yes. You see it — sorry, Mark, to interrupt — but in the Washington Post poll last — this week, “Do you support a change in the rules to make it easier for Bush to get his judges through?” Everybody says no, no, no, we don’t. But you ask them do you support an up or down vote on Bush nominees, yes, yes, we all do.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s the Republican mantra right now. I checked. Now, there have been 10 Bush nominees, over 200 approved who have been denied an up or down vote. OK, fine. There were 62 Clinton nominees who were denied an up or down vote. Now, should we start with them out of a sense of fairness?

JIM LEHRER: But a different process but the same result, right?

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. They were denied. They were perfectly –

JIM LEHRER: It wasn’t a filibuster but they never got out of committee.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: Some of them didn’t even get a hearing.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. But were they entitled to an up or down vote? I mean, I think that’s it. And Democrats historically of course have been opposed — the liberals have — to the filibuster but I think that just trying to take off a partisan hat, the thing that concerns me most is that if a party with a 52-or-3 vote margin in the Senate can confirm judges, I think what we’ll risk is the ideological polarization of the bench. I mean, there’s been sort of a tradition of presidents, whether Reagan or Clinton or whoever, you nominate judges who will be approved with 75 or 80 votes in the Senate. I see Democrats coming back with a Democrat in the White House on a 53-vote margin nominating — you know, going to be stuck in the craw of Republicans and I don’t think that’s good for the judiciary in the long run.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think — in a few seconds?

RICH LOWRY: Well, I think days of 75 to 80 votes on anything are kind of long gone or just in this polarized era where the margins are going to be much smaller. And, I mean, it is a fact with maybe one exception that the filibuster has never been used in this way before. It hasn’t.

JIM LEHRER: They’ve used other process but not the filibuster.

MARK SHIELDS: Abe Fortis was the first.

JIM LEHRER: Abe Fortis was the first, right. OK, we have to leave it there. Thank you both.

RICH LOWRY: Thanks much.

JIM LEHRER: Good to see you again, Rich.