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Political Analysts Shields and Brooks Discuss Blair Visit, Iraq and FBI Raids

May 26, 2006 at 6:40 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And now, before we go to Shields and Brooks, Bush and Blair. The president and the prime minister had a joint news conference at the White House last night. A British reporter asked if the leaders had any regrets about the war in Iraq.

JOURNALIST: Mr. President, you spoke about missteps and mistakes in Iraq. Could I ask both of you which missteps and mistakes of your own you most regret?

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Saying, “Bring it on,” kind of tough talk, you know, that sent the wrong signal to people, that — I learned some lessons about expressing myself maybe in a little more sophisticated manner, you know, “Wanted dead or alive,” that kind of talk.

I think, in certain parts of the world, it was misinterpreted, and so I learned from that.

And, you know, I think the biggest mistake that’s happened so far, at least from our country’s involvement in Iraq, is Abu Ghraib. We’ve been paying for that for a long period of time.

And unlike Iraq, however, under Saddam, the people who committed those acts were brought to justice; they have been given a fair trial, and tried, and convicted.

TONY BLAIR, Prime Minister of Britain: I think inevitably some of the things that we thought were going to be the biggest challenge proved not to be, and some of the things we didn’t expect to be challenges at all have proved to be immense.

And, you know, I think it’s easy to go back over mistakes that we may have made, but the biggest reason why Iraq has been difficult is the determination of our opponents to defeat us. And I don’t think we should be surprised at that.

I’m afraid, in the end, we’re always going to have to be prepared for the fall of Saddam not to be the rise of democratic Iraq, that it was going to be a more difficult process.

PM Blair and President Bush speak

George Bush

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

David, let's start with Bush-Blair and work backward. What was their message last night?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, the intended message was that the formation of the government was a fundamental change event. I think one of them said this was what we've been working for, for three years.

Now, the insurgents are not fighting the U.S.; they're fighting a democratically elected government, albeit partially constructed without some of the security ministries.

But, you know, throughout the next day discussion, it's all been on what we just saw, the discussion of the mistakes they've made.

And the two things that leap out at you are the tone, and texture, and even rhythms of the president's speech. If you counted the pauses between each word and what we just heard the president say, different than what we heard two or three years ago.

And this is a war-wearied president. I mean, I think he's been speaking this way privately for quite a long time, but you began to see a glimmer of the man inside the White House -- which he hasn't really allowed -- of someone who is aware of what's happening, and who is aware of how tough it's been, and how tough it must be for him psychologically. And he began to show a glimmer of that.

JIM LEHRER: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Jim, ever since we've seen the steady erosion of popular support for the president's policies, especially his policies in Iraq, we're on the cusp of watching Republicans separate and distance themselves from the administration policies. Last night, I thought we saw the president distancing himself from his policies.

I thought that using the language as a mistake, the language he chose, and was a pretty hollow answer. And if he was going to talk about Abu Ghraib, then he could talk about -- you know, perhaps some of the torture policies of the administration, had at least condoned part of that, and the fact that the prosecutions had consisted solely of low-ranking enlisted people.

But I did think that David's right about the tone. What struck me was that Tony Blair has been an enormously important ally to the last two American presidents. He's far more popular in the United States than he is in Great Britain. And George Bush is far less popular in Great Britain than he is in the United States, so it's sort of a one-way street.

I mean, he has been the most loyal of supporters. And as I watched it last night, I thought Berlusconi of Italy is gone, Aznar of Spain is gone. Tony Blair is in the ninth inning of his prime ministership.

JIM LEHRER: Did you see Blair much more subdued than he's been in the past in talking about Iraq, did you?

DAVID BROOKS: I think so. He gave a speech -- I'm not sure; I can't remember where it was -- just a couple weeks ago, which was a very eloquent defense of Iraq. He's not backing down a bit, and he didn't back down a bit in that. And he said it's not a war between civilizations.

JIM LEHRER: In his speech today at Georgetown was not to back down, either, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: It's a war of civilizations against evil. And I think -- I still think, and this is what I think a lot of people in this country think why he's so popular, he makes the case better than Bush. He talks about the fundamental moral issue between this elected government and the people they are fighting.

MARK SHIELDS: He made the case for Kosovo better than Clinton. I mean, you know, he's a better advocate than either of the last presidents, but especially more so than Bush.

Congress lashes back at FBI

David Brooks
The two things that leap out at you are the tone, and texture and even rhythms of the president's speech. If you counted the pauses between each word and what we just heard the president say, different than what we heard two or three years ago.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Mark, let's go to the FBI raid controversy. Why has Speaker Hastert come out so strong on that? How do you read that? What's going on with him?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jim, you know, this is a Congress that, you know, you wondered what would get them exercised. I mean they -- we've had warrantless wiretaps. We've had total forfeiture, abdication of their responsibility of oversight for Katrina, for prewar intelligence, for lack of postwar planning.

They've just absolutely submitted to every request and demand for further executive privilege. But, "Boy, oh boy, you start messing with"...

JIM LEHRER: "My office."

MARK SHIELDS: "You start messing with my office," I mean, these guys -- honest to God, they ought to be ashamed of themselves, the Congress. They really should.

You know, all you have to know is that the last time we raised the minimum wage in this country was nine years ago. We raised to $5.15 an hour. Since then, the Congress has raised its own salary eight times to a total of $31,600. I mean, you know, talk about being out of contact.

And I just think it's absolutely indefensible. I thought they're outrageous.

JIM LEHRER: You want to pile on, Dave?

DAVID BROOKS: Sure, why not? Everybody else is.

No, when there were the shots earlier today, the joke immediately went around, "Oh, it's just Denny shooting himself in the foot again."

So, listen, substantively, you know, we'd heard...

JIM LEHRER: We just heard the legal argument.

DAVID BROOKS: And there's an argument.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

DAVID BROOKS: And Dennis Hastert is right to say, listen, they've never done this in 200-odd years. Why do it now? I mean, that's substantive.

But politically, it's insane. I mean, people are going to think, "You can commit crimes, and the FBI and Justice Department can come into my house, but they can't come into your office?" No one in the country is going to buy that.

And let alone Republicans, they're going to say, "Finally, there's a Democratic scandal, and Dennis Hastert has turned it into a Republican scandal. This was our one moment when it's not about us."

JIM LEHRER: So why? Why did it happen?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think there are a couple of reasons. One, institutional loyalty. I think that's a big thing. Two, the natural hostility and the maybe extreme hostility that is developed between the Republicans in Congress and the White House. I mean, the relations are not good.

And, third, and this is lurking in the background, is the Abramoff scandal. What investigations are going to be ongoing about that?

JIM LEHRER: And it's these same guys called the Justice Department that are going to...

DAVID BROOKS: So the walls are up.

MARK SHIELDS: What's interesting is there's a certain irony. The FBI was accused of rogue investigations during the Clinton years of Louis Freeh. And to see it happen now -- I mean, with Denny Hastert, who has been the stalwart on Capitol Hill, as far as the White House is concerned, he has delivered on every important issue to them.

The Senate has just gone off the reservation time and time again. But he did break with them on the Dubai ports and on Porter Goss, and obviously this time. And I think there is some distancing, but I think there's also some fear about the Abramoff investigations.

Reconciling the immigration bill

JIM LEHRER: All right, keep going, immigration. The Senate passed the bill. Now it's got to be reconciled with the House. It's obvious that they've got a long way to go if they're going to get together. Are they going to do it, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think Mark and I agreed last week that it wasn't likely. And I still think that, though I think the argument has been sharpened by the possibility of them going home not achieving anything.

I mean, if you're in a safe district, you can probably go home and say, "I blocked amnesty," and you'll be a hero. But if you go home in most of the country and say, "This is a big problem. We're not going to do anything now. And if we're not going to do anything now, we're not going to do anything for 10 years, so you're going to be stuck with the status quo for 10 years or five years, whatever it's going to be," that's not an easy thing to say.

So I think there's going to be some pressure on the House to try to bend. And you began to see some House conservatives...

JIM LEHRER: All the pressure on the House, none on the Senate? The Senate can't move?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, you know, the problem is going to be you start losing Democrats if they move too much, I believe.

JIM LEHRER: And then they lose the whole thing.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, the rule is -- and just in a political sense -- Dennis Hastert as speaker has run the House on you have to have a majority of the majority. He would not bring up any legislation unless a majority of Republicans supported it first. So you could pass this, perhaps, with a hundred Republicans and 150 Democrats.

JIM LEHRER: This one?

MARK SHIELDS: This one, but he's not going to do that. He's not going to do it unless there's a majority.

If you had that same rule in the Senate, the immigration bill wouldn't have passed, because you didn't get a majority of Republicans supporting it in the Senate. That's why David's absolutely right on this.

I think Bob Dole put it well years ago. He said, rather cynically but astutely, "No legislator ever got in trouble by voting against something that passed and for something that didn't pass."

In other words, you can always say, "Well, I didn't vote for it, because I wanted to strengthen it." You know, "I opposed it, because it would have been" -- and I think Lindsey Graham, the senator from South Carolina, Republican, has said, look, we're responsible. We run the House; we run the Senate; we run the White House. People know, if there's no bill, it's going to be our fault.

But I think, right now, the prospects for a bill are less than dim.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with David that a failure to pass a bill because they've got everybody so riled up about this is going to be a real problem for anybody, for everybody?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it becomes a problem for the Republicans, because it's a...

JIM LEHRER: Only the Republicans?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think it's acknowledgement the Republicans are in power. This is the most disciplined I've ever seen the Democrats. All the Democrats will say on the subject is, "Tougher border security." That's all they -- I mean, you ask a Democrat, "What do you think?" "Tougher border security."

I mean, they understand that's their mantra, because it is -- it's a fight right now between conservative Republicans, the Senate Republicans, John McCain and George Bush. I mean, that's really...

JIM LEHRER: And Bush is with the majority here. And with the...

MARK SHIELDS: Well...

JIM LEHRER: Well, I mean, OK, not in the House, but, I mean, but in the...

MARK SHIELDS: Not the majority of his own party in the Senate, either. He doesn't have a majority in either.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, but, politically, I think they're in the worst place possible right now.

JIM LEHRER: They being?

DAVID BROOKS: The Republicans and, to a lesser extent, the Democrats, the Congress in general, the Republicans in particular, because they've poked sticks in every single beehive in the county and they haven't delivered anything. So we're in the middle of it. Everybody's mad; no one's satisfied.

Punishing the Marines and Enron

Mark Shields
We've never had a shortage, sadly, in this country of rich, greedy individuals. And these were guys in position of power who could do it.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

Mark, the first story tonight, the Marines and the civilian deaths in Iraq. Does this have a ring of a -- everybody say it's a serious, serious matter, another My Lai kind of thing, Abu Ghraib? Has this got -- what's your smell tell you?

MARK SHIELDS: People have been talking about it now for weeks. And, I mean, just people who care about the Marines, who care about the United States have all been solemn, and sober, and serious as they've talked about it.

JIM LEHRER: It's gotten worse in the last few days.

MARK SHIELDS: It has gotten worse in the last few days, and I don't think we know the full dimensions of it and won't know until we have hearings. I mean, here's someone like John Warner, a veteran of both World War II and Korea, in the Navy and the Marine Corps, so he's a serious...

JIM LEHRER: Yes, he was a former Marine. Yes, yes, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

JIM LEHRER: David, what's your read?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I agree with the seriousness, if you look at the video, you read about what happened, and you're stunned. It's an atrocity.

I guess the only political question is: Does it affect the war? Does it affect treatment of the war, public opinion of the war?

On the one hand, public opinion is so low, maybe it won't go lower. On the other hand, it's going to be a psychological blow for the country. It already is a psychological blow for the country.

The third hand, which I would argue which is that there are atrocities in many wars, it doesn't necessarily impugn the wars. If you were sitting in Dresden in World War II, this was a self-conscious atrocity, almost. Life was pretty rotten there. And that didn't mean we shouldn't be fighting the Nazis.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, David, the Enron verdicts. What's the message beyond the fact that Lay and Skilling were guilty of crimes?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, the message is that we've had a whole series of prosecutions and the penalties get tough. And if you're in Congress -- or if you're a corporate person fiddling with your books, and we've got a new scandal with Fannie Mae, you'd better watch out.

And I think the Justice Department has handled itself quite well. We've had WorldCom and this, and maybe Fannie Mae. And then the political debate is over Sarbanes-Oxley, whether you, in addition, need the regulations, and that has become a big political debate, as business has begun to push back against that.

JIM LEHRER: Sarbanes-Oxley just requires a lot more disclosure on all kinds of very difficult rules. I think it's difficult from a business point of view on reporting, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JIM LEHRER: Where would you put this?

MARK SHIELDS: If we had Sarbanes-Oxley, we wouldn't have had this.

JIM LEHRER: You mean, I mean, it would have prevented this?

MARK SHIELDS: We wouldn't have had Enron. That's right.

MARK SHIELDS: And we wouldn't have had Arthur Andersen.

JIM LEHRER: How big a deal is it? How big a deal is it that Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling were found guilty?

MARK SHIELDS: I think, you know, as somebody said, if they hadn't been found guilty, it really would have been...

JIM LEHRER: It would have been huge.

MARK SHIELDS: ... because, I mean, of all the countless people they hurt and were punished, whose lives were permanently damaged by these people.

We've never had a shortage, sadly, in this country of rich, greedy individuals. And these were guys in position of power who could do it.

And, I have to say, watching federal, career, government attorneys go head-to-head with $40 million defense attorneys...

JIM LEHRER: That's right.

MARK SHIELDS: You know, these are civil servants. These are people who make $100,000 a year, who coach Little League teams, whose kids are in public schools. They went toe-to-toe with these guys in the $800 dollar shoes and their $2,000 suits, and they kicked their tail and they did justice.

DAVID BROOKS: What struck me was Ken Lay couldn't even fake it on the stand. I mean, even on the stand he looked like a jerk, and you can't fake it for a day? So I guess character comes out or something.

JIM LEHRER: Is there a political dimension here?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I don't particularly think so. I don't think there will be a big political fallout.

MARK SHIELDS: Biggest single benefactors of George W. Bush. I mean, biggest supporters, '94, '98, 2000.

JIM LEHRER: But do you think that's going to resonate?

MARK SHIELDS: No, but I think that, you know, he was Kenny Boy, and then he became somebody, "Who? Kenny who?"

JIM LEHRER: You mentioned Fannie Mae. Of course, that's seen by some as the potential Democratic scandal, because two of the many leaders, past leaders who've started the culture were both Democrats, Jim Johnson and Franklin Raines.

MARK SHIELDS: Boy, you talk about a balanced ticket out there. They've put together at Fannie Mae. It was Republicans and Democrats in a mix. I mean, it really...

DAVID BROOKS: Most people aren't keeping score that way. They're thinking: corruption in the capital.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, it's not Republican or Democrat. OK, thank you both very much.