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Shields and Brooks Debate Political Impact of Iraq and GOP Legislative Push

June 9, 2006 at 3:21 PM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: But first, Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

And, Mark, when Saddam Hussein was captured, when his sons were killed, Uday and Qusay were killed, even when elections were successfully held, there was a spike in — a bump, at least, in public opinion at home. Does the killing of Abu Musab Zarqawi carry that possibility?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I don’t think so, Ray. I mean, I think, in a sea, an uninterrupted sea of bad news, it’s good news. It’s an island of good news, but I don’t think it’s going to provide that lift.

I thought just the contrast for the way the administration, particularly the president, handled it, there was no flying out to the aircraft carrier; there was no self-congratulatory. It was very measured, very restrained, I thought.

And, plus, I thought it showed a certain willingness to share the credit with the Iraqi government, which didn’t exist.

But you’ll recall at the time of the capture of Saddam Hussein, Howard Dean, now the Democratic national — candidate for president said we are not more — Americans are not safer as a consequence of his being captured. He was savaged, not only by his Democratic opponents, John Kerry, and Dick Gephardt, and Joe Lieberman, but by every conservative, every Republican, major newspapers and everything else. And he was absolutely right.

I mean, since that time — and Americans understand that — the violence has grown in dimension, and extension, and, apparently, in intransigence.

RAY SUAREZ: David, what do you think?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: I think we’re safer without Saddam organizing and we’re safer without Zarqawi. That doesn’t mean the cycle of violence he set off is going to continue; there seems to be consensus about that.

I think one of the thing — the things he introduced to this war was, first, the understanding that you could build on aspects of racial superiority to really stir up a sectarian war between the Shia and the Sunni, he really self-consciously tried to set that off and very successfully did set that off.

And then the second thing was the awareness that, with a certain sort of really horrible killing, you could destroy a civil society, make violence pervasive.

And so, his death doesn’t end the violence. He set off forces which now are rampant in Iraqi society. Nonetheless, it’s an opportunity. And, as Khalilzad was saying, more specifically, the creation of the interior minister is an opportunity, but nobody is expecting anything dramatic to change quickly.

U.S. perception of Zarqawi's death

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
But, you know, the problem for the administration is Americans are still dying. It isn't simply that Zarqawi was killed. Americans are still dying: 1,400 people were killed in Baghdad in the month of May.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Mark referred to an island of good news in a sea of bad news. Are there things happening, like the completion of the cabinet, that do mean forward progress and do mean that maybe the president is right when he says things are definitely headed in the wrong direction and the public isn't getting the right idea?

DAVID BROOKS: There have always been a lot of bad things happening and then an undercurrent of good things happening in Iraq. And I'd say, if I had to pick out the good things, they would be the creation of the cabinet, the training of the military, the possible cleaning up in the police force.

But the question to me has always been, talking about islands: Does what happened in the Green Zone, where Khalilzad is, affect what happens outside the Green Zone, in the so-called Red Zone?

You get the government working together, and they do seem to be working together now reasonably well, but is that going to affect the militias? Are there ties between the Sunni leaders inside the Green Zone and the Sunni insurgents outside? And that's still unproven.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, is there time for the war to look very different by fall?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I don't think so; I mean, I really don't. The administration went great lengths to tell us that this did not in any way give us a chance to bring troops out and was not going to do that.

And I think, Ray, the sectarian strife that David referred to, with the Sunni and the Shia, he built upon it, but it's there. I mean, it's not going away simply because he's gone away. I mean, it's the outside agitator, call them what you want.

This man was, you know, evil incarnate. I think that that's stipulated; it's agreed upon. And he was anti-democratic, totally anti-democratic. And he said -- I mean, he drew the line between Muslims who participated in democracy and said that was violative of their religious beliefs.

But, you know, the problem for the administration is Americans are still dying. It isn't simply that Zarqawi was killed. Americans are still dying: 1,400 people were killed in Baghdad in the month of May.

I mean, you know, we could talk about things being better. That is chaos and anarchy in a civil sense, the dimensions of which we've never known.

Domestic politics

David Brooks
New York Times
And I think that's part of a national sense that we can't risk increasing the deficit. We don't want new spending; we probably don't want to cut taxes any more; we want to take care of the deficit.

RAY SUAREZ: David, let's move to domestic politics. In San Diego County, the 50th congressional district has a new Republican congressman. What do you make of that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, there was some fear they would lose. It was a Republican district, but not a hugely Republican district. It was a normal Republican district.

And there was some fear that the national tide was so strong that it would sweep away the Republicans in this case. And it doesn't seem -- the national tide clearly is strong against the Republicans, but not as strong as some Republicans feared, so that's some good news for the Republicans.

And then there were two issues which I think really grew out of the California election. The first was the power of the immigration issue and the power of the people who are hardcore to build a wall. That's a powerful issue there right now, and I wish it were not the case, but it is the case.

And then the second thing that's strong and I think is important nationally about what happened in California was the defeat of a couple referendum on child care and funding libraries. One of them were to tax the rich to pay for universal child care.

And I think that's part of a national sense that we can't risk increasing the deficit. We don't want new spending; we probably don't want to cut taxes any more; we want to take care of the deficit. So there's going to be resistance to any new spending and tax cuts.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Mark, what does a Democrat in an up-for-grabs district take away from that as a lesson?

MARK SHIELDS: He takes away from it, first of all, Ray, that close -- Democrats learn painfully -- only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades and slow dancing. I mean, you don't get any silver medals for finishing a good second in a Republican district.

I think it also is that -- here is a district where the predecessor, the reason there was an opening, the fellow had gone to jail for collecting antique commodes, for stealing Rolls-Royces through bribery, for taking $2 million. And the culture of corruption, if it doesn't work there, it's not going to work in Racine, Wisconsin, or Kenosha. So I think that's the second thing.

And I think David's right on the immigration. I think the message that will be taken by Republicans in the House is: We're not going to buy the Senate bill.

But Brian Bilbray, the moderate Republican -- who's a lobbyist, as a matter of fact, former member of Congress -- who did win the seat ran against President Bush's immigration bill and John McCain, who was going to campaign for him, cancelled his visit because he was against the Senate-passed bill.

And I think Democrats better learn in a hurry, they got seats up for grabs in New Mexico, in Arizona, in Colorado where immigration is also -- they'd better figure out what their position is on it, because otherwise, on a one-by-one basis, this could be a lethal issue for Republicans.

Tom DeLay's departure

David Brooks
New York Times
My problem with Tom DeLay was sometimes he could be partisan at the expense of conservatism.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Brian Bilbray arrived, and Tom DeLay departed. Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay officially resigned from the Congress. He's under indictment in his home state of Texas, charged with laundering campaign money.

DeLay gave his farewell speech on the House floor yesterday. And true to his nickname, "The Hammer" went out swinging. Here's some of what he had to say.

REP. TOM DELAY (R-TX), Former House Majority Leader: In preparing for today, I found that it is customary in speeches such as these to reminisce about the good, old days of political harmony and across-the-aisle camaraderie and to lament the bitter, divisive partisan rancor that supposedly now weakens our democracy.

Well, I can't do that, because partisanship, Mr. Speaker, properly understood, is not a symptom of democracy's weakness but of its health and its strength, especially from the perspective of a political conservative.

Here on this floor, I have caught and thrown spears of every sort. Over the course of 22 years, I've probably worked with and against almost everyone in this chamber at least once.

I have scraped and clawed for every vote, every amendment, for every word of every bill that I believed in my heart would protect human freedom and defend human dignity. I have done so at all times honorably and honestly, Mr. Speaker, as God is my witness and history is my judge.

And if given the chance to do it all again, there's only one thing I would change: I would fight even harder.

RAY SUAREZ: So?

DAVID BROOKS: A lot of remorse there.

No, a remorse-free zone. You can give him credit for honesty. He believed in partisanship. And to some extent, I have no problem with partisanship. My problem with Tom DeLay was sometimes he could be partisan at the expense of conservatism. And especially on matters...

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what do you mean by that?

DAVID BROOKS: ... matters of spending. What he did was he turned the majority into a fundraising and spending machine in order to get more Republican fannies in those seats.

And that's fine, but the spending was not what Republicans were supposed to stand for.

The earmarks was not what they were supposed to stand for. So, in some ways, he was an old-fashioned party boss who built a majority by betraying some conservative principles.

MARK SHIELDS: He ran a corrupt political operation. Two of his top staff aides have already confessed to major crimes involving lobbyists and political corruption and payoffs and are turning state's evidence.

This is a man who obliterated the difference, the walls between public interest and private interest. He brought private interests in from K Street to write legislation. It's never been done before. It was sort of a, "What do you want? What do you need? Here's the money it's going to cost you," and that's what it was.

I mean, Tom DeLay, you know, was a great counter and all of that, but, I mean, in the final analysis, that's his legacy is that obliteration in Washington, to a considerable degree, go back and forth between public and private, job on Capitol Hill, job on K street, lobby, come back.

And I got to tell you: That's a change. And I'd say the other thing, it's going to be a test for the Democrats if they do win the majority whether, in fact, they will be vindictive and try and do what he did, which was to exclude the minority from any participation in the legislative process, and he did it quite effectively.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, for the record, that's what Republicans said Democrats did to them all during their time in the wilderness. And, interestingly, since you brought up the K Street Project, DeLay noted in his speech yesterday that that's one of the things that he is proud of as he departs as leader.

DAVID BROOKS: They have a different meaning. When he says K Street Project, it means differently than what the rest of us mean.

Estate tax and gay marriage

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
The idea that you get a lifetime of private food stamps for coming out of the right womb strikes me as basically unfair and un-American. Those are words of Warren Buffett, one of the great American investors, in his opposition to the tax.

RAY SUAREZ: This week also we had debates over the estate tax and gay marriage, both which went down to defeat. But why were they debated at all in the first place?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I happen to think they're both legitimate issues. I'm sort of not with the Republican majority on either of these. But, you know, on the gay marriage thing, everybody pooh-poohs it as this political distraction.

But the structure of the family is kind of an important deal. And I am as pro-gay marriage as it's possible to be. Nonetheless, I don't fault it as an issue, and the same with the estate tax. I don't fault it as an issue.

I'm for keeping the death tax or estate tax, whatever you want to call it, but many Nobel Prizes are against it. They think it's a stupid tax.

RAY SUAREZ: But let me interject this: Often parties in power, whether they're Democrats or Republicans, wait to introduce something until they know they've got the noses counted, and they're going up there, and they only introduce it when they know they're going to win. I didn't get the sense that that was the case this time.

DAVID BROOKS: No. Well, there are two things going on there. The more substantive thing is that, you know, you promote the things you believe in. And they believe in these issues.

And that's politics. I have no problem with politics; that's what it's about.

The second thing is they're in trouble. And they're trying, especially with the gay marriage thing and then also with some flag-burning stuff that came up, they're trying to stoke up the base. And that was done so clumsily and so stupidly I doubt it will work.

So, you know, there is some politics, but politics is the nature of the business.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: The idea that you get a lifetime of private food stamps for coming out of the right womb strikes me as basically unfair and un-American. Those are words of Warren Buffett, one of the great American investors, in his opposition to the tax.

I mean, what the inheritance tax is about and its abolition is essentially creating an American aristocracy. I mean, the Bush administration is bound, and determined, and committed to the abolition of all taxes on dividends, stocks and bonds.

So, presumably, you can be born -- this is a party that prizes achievement, entrepreneurial, the old American way, up by the bootstraps -- you can be born, Ray, with a silver spoon, with a trust, and never pay a dime of tax, and never do anything worthwhile.

And, you know, I come back to the Adam Smith value that the only reason that you've been able to make this, other than being blessed by a mysterious providence with the talents and energy involved, is because you have lived in a law-abiding society and government where those laws are enforced, where your property is safe, where the courts are honest and open, where the system is fair.

As far as the gay -- David makes the point there are people who genuinely and authentically believe in this. But, if the Republicans believed in it, if they really believed in it, why, for the first time in American history, would a party, Republicans in the House, bring up a constitutional amendment which had just been defeated in the other body?

You know, is that an act of legislative leadership? Or is that just a hoax, and a sham, and a pretense for...

DAVID BROOKS: Let me first celebrate Mark's mention of Adam Smith, which to me I can die happy now that Mark has mentioned that name.

RAY SUAREZ: You're making progress here.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I'm making progress.

But, listen, I'm for keeping it, as I said, but there are legitimate arguments against it. And Nobel Prize-winning economists make the arguments, basically on the idea that this tax encourages a lot of crazy economic behavior.

If you're rich, under this tax, you have been encouraged to spend a lot of money and not get taxed rather than save and invest and do get taxed. It encourages an enormous amount of rich people of hiring accountants and lawyers to get out of the tax, a lot of money wasted on evasion, so there are all sorts of perverse incentives.

I'm in favor of keeping it for two reasons. One, I think we need the revenue. But, two, I think it really does encourage people to give to charity. And so, on balance, I'm in favor of keeping it, but I do understand there are serious arguments against.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, I know it will come up against and we'll talk about it again. Fellows, thanks.