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Analysts Discuss Congress’ Iraqi War Debate and Immigration Legislation

June 23, 2006 at 6:20 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

What do you make of that story? What do you think of this whole thing that’s going on in Connecticut? And is it indicative of something larger that’s going on in the country?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I’m not sure it’s indicative. I think you may have two unrepresentative incumbents here.

I mean, I think there’s no question that both men, Chris Shays, the Republican, and Joe Lieberman, the Democrat, have gone against the grain of, one, their constituency, in the case of Shays, and to his party, in the case of Lieberman, because of their beliefs on it.

And they’re obviously willing to roll the dice on their beliefs, which are not popular, which are very much in the minority. I mean, Chris Shays could probably — he always has a tough race in that district, but he could probably win if he just trimmed his sails, but he’s…

JIM LEHRER: He won’t do it.

MARK SHIELDS: … he’s been there 12 times. And I’ve talked to him about it, and he’s convinced. I mean, he is a real believer.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

What do you think about it?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, it’s indicative of one thing. They’re both independent centrists in parties that are drifting to the extremes.

Shays is one of the few moderate Republicans left in the House; Lieberman is the most moderate Democrat in the Senate. And we saw a lot of the moderate Democrats get wiped away in the last 12 years, and I think in this election we’re going to see a lot of moderate Republicans get wiped away, and the parties are going to be a little more polarized.

And I think, if you talk to those two men, as I’m sure Mark and I both have, they’re not happy with the way the war is being waged. They supported it, but they’ve both been there. They’ve both offered suggestions on how to change it.

But as you go forward, they’re thinking, “What do we do? Do we want to sign on with John Kerry’s thing and get out very quickly?” And they both say no. And so they’re really stuck with a war they didn’t agree with the operation of, but they want to keep at it, and I think they’re both principled, gutsy, gutsy guys.

JIM LEHRER: And speaking of Kerry and the Senate, there were two votes or votes on two amendments offered by the Democrats. A lot of people are making a lot out of those, what it says about the divisions within the Democratic Party this week. What do you say?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, putting aside the merits of the Republican senators’ position, at a time when congressional Republicans are coming unglued over immigration and voting rights, it’s amazing to me, and rather remarkable — I think ahistorical — that a party chooses to galvanize and unite around an issue that claims support of less than a third of the people in the country.

About a third of the people in the country endorse the policy. That’s where they decide to stand with their president.

JIM LEHRER: You’re talking about the Republicans?

MARK SHIELDS: Republicans, they’re breaking with the president on other issues, on immigration and voting rights, where it has 85 percent…

JIM LEHRER: But locked in…

MARK SHIELDS: … but locked in on this.

JIM LEHRER: … on that.

MARK SHIELDS: And, I mean, to me…

Democrats and Iraq

David Brooks
New York Times
If the voters are confronted with two parties, one party is the Republicans who screwed up Iraq, and the other party is the Democrats who seem to want to cut and run... then what are they going to choose? That's actually a tough decision.

JIM LEHRER: But what about the Democrats?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the Democrats -- I mean, the Democrats are, you know, find themselves, there's a little sense of deja vu about 2002, 2004, where the Republicans kind of played the strength card and the Democrats weren't there. Democrats' argument is that six out of seven of them, some 85 percent, voted for the Levin-Reed proposal, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, to start withdrawal. And that that...

JIM LEHRER: But without a date certain?

MARK SHIELDS: That's right. That position is not that different from General Casey, who says he's going to withdraw troops by the end of the year, or certainly by the -- different from the Iraqi prime minister, president or vice president.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read the politics of this and what it says about the Democrats first?

DAVID BROOKS: Strictly on the politics, if the voters are confronted with two parties, one party is the Republicans who screwed up Iraq, and the other party is the Democrats who don't seem to -- who seem to want to cut and run, or seem to be defeatist, or who don't have a policy toward Iraq, well, then what are they going to choose?

That's actually a tough decision. And if you go back to Vietnam, liberals were right about Vietnam. But did it help liberals get a strong foreign policy credential for the next 30 years? No. It helped conservatives and Republicans, because people decided, "Well, they probably were wrong about Vietnam, but we're thinking about the next security threat, and we still trust conservatives to be the tough foreign policy types."

So the paradox of Vietnam -- and I think it could be, though I'm not certain about this -- is that you can be wrong about this war, but still gain long-term political benefit by seeming tough.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about Mark's point how remarkable it is that the Republicans are backing a policy that, you know, that two-thirds of the American people are not supporting?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think there are a couple of things. First, they believe in it. They believe you've got to...

JIM LEHRER: Can't cut?

DAVID BROOKS: If we cut and run, it just would be a disaster, which I think is right on the merits.

Second, the Republican Party is good at certain things. They're good at cutting taxes. They're good at accusing the Democrats of being soft on defense. So there is sort of a comfortable posture for them.

And then, finally, there is no escaping Iraq, so you might as well take that on.

JIM LEHRER: Might as well take that on?

MARK SHIELDS: Let me just come back a part on this. There is nothing more enduring in American politics than a tactic or an idea that has once won a national election. And this has twice won a national election, that we're strong and the other guys aren't. And the...

Republicans vs Democrats?

JIM LEHRER: The Republicans against Democrats?

MARK SHIELDS: And what the Republicans are betting on in this election it strikes me as that the American voters would prefer someone who is emphatically strong and manifestly wrong versus somebody who may be right but isn't confrontationally muscular.

JIM LEHRER: OK. But what about the specifics -- what I want to get at is the specifics of what the Democratic proposals were. In other words, John Kerry had his proposal, and then there was the Reed -- what did that -- what signal does that send on behalf of the party, or if any?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I'm not sure it sends -- I think it shows a certain -- John Kerry probably would not be the most popular person in the Democratic caucus...

JIM LEHRER: It got 13 votes.

MARK SHIELDS: ... if you're doing a secret ballot. Well, but it also showed the division. I mean, if it had only been the one vote, you would have had all but six Democrats voting with the Levin-Reed position, and all of them, presidential candidates, non-presidential candidates, standing in a line saying, "This policy is not working. The other side is voting for the status quo, stay the course. We are for change, and they aren't."

Senator Kerry hurt the democrats

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
Chuck Hagel really raised the rhetorical level when he said, look, these focus group-tested buzzwords, like cut and run, debase the debate. And this is a serious debate. It's a serious debate about war and death.

JIM LEHRER: So Kerry, by insisting on a vote on his amendment, highlighted the differences and hurt the Democrats?

MARK SHIELDS: I think so. I think he's going through a certain personal epiphany, too, because of the 2004 campaign, but I think it certainly gave ammunition to those who charge that the Democrats are not united.

And, you know, the reality -- David talked about Vietnam. I mean, you know, Richard Nixon was elected in '68 on a secret plan to end the war. You know, 55 percent of the Americans who died, died in Vietnam after Richard Nixon was elected, and we left with Gerry Ford.

I mean, it was not exactly -- you know, there was sort of a rhetorical high road and toughness. But, boy, it was -- if not cut and run.

And I thought Chuck Hagel, to his credit, the Republican from Nebraska, really raised the rhetorical level when he said, look, these focus group-tested buzzwords, like cut and run, debase the debate. And this is a serious debate. It's a serious debate about war and death.

JIM LEHRER: I noticed that David used that term, too, three times.

DAVID BROOKS: ... and I feel a little bad, but not too bad, because the Democrats -- as far as I can tell, the John Kerry position -- I've studied all the floor statements -- they said nothing about Iraq. There was a lot of talk about Karl Rove being bad. There was a lot of political posturing.

But, a, why would we want to commit now to some decision we're going to have to take in a year about withdrawing or not withdrawing?

Second, do we have any confidence that any Democrat or any Republican say anything about the capacity of the Iraqis to handle defense within a year? Do they talk about the capacity of the Iraqi army to transport people, to do intelligence, to actually keep the place safe? No, that was entirely missing.

Finally, if you're an Iraqi in Iraq and you're sitting there thinking, "Should I help the government or should I help the insurgents?" And you see a Senate vote saying, "Hey, the U.S. is going to be out of there in a year," you think, "Well, I'm not going to help the government. I'm not going to help the government that may fall in a year because the U.S. pulls out."

So to me, it was all -- when he got to the ground on Iraq, it was incredibly counterproductive, though it served some political purpose back home.

MARK SHIELDS: Just one thing, and that is that I think the Democrats were trying to say -- maybe not well -- is, "Look, this is not a blank check to be redeemed in perpetuity in American blood and treasure." I mean, you have to take this seriously that you're going to be eventually on your own.

John McCain, by contrast, may have spread the really ugly truth, because, if we listen to it, Iraq government is not going to be able and the Iraqi soldiers are not going to be able to police and provide security to their own people. John McCain said: Iraq is for us to do, for us to win or lose.

This did not sound at all -- I mean, that was a strong, unequivocal statement by somebody who's been a strong, unequivocal supporter. And, boy, that is a commitment that is really a remarkable commitment, if that's the case.

DAVID BROOKS: He didn't mean to say that we're going to doing it alone. Everybody believes in standing up.

I mean, the perversity of the Levin, which was the centrist amendment, which that, in substance, it's very different from the -- very indifferent. It's about the same as the president's policy.

The president says, as they stand up, we'll stand down, which is what Levin said. The president said let's get some serious Sunni involvement, which in fact they have done with Zal Khalilzad, and that's what the Levin amendment said.

If you look at the actual substance, there wasn't much difference between the president's position and the Democratic amendment. It was a way to register some political disagreement without actually having a different policy than what the president already has.

Immigration issue divides Americans

David Brooks
New York Times
I think with immigration, it's just hard with a country as divided as this one to come up with a big piece of legislation. There's no consensus in the country about this.

JIM LEHRER: I got you.

New subject: immigration. What do you make of the Republicans' decision in the House, at least, all these hearings suddenly, rather than to proceed with the conference committee and get the thing resolved?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think with immigration, it's just hard with a country as divided as this one to come up with a big piece of legislation. There's no consensus in the country about this.

And as far as what the Republicans were trying to do with these hearings, the loudest voices are the most restrictionist voices. Any time you hold a hearing, you're going to get the most restrictionist, build-a-fence side.

And the politics -- I wish the politics were different, but the short-term politics are that it helps the Tom Tancredo, the people that just want to build a fence. The long-term politics helps the other side.

JIM LEHRER: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Ken Mehlman has been the Republican national chairman since January 2005. He's dedicated his chairmanship, under the leadership of President Bush, to minority outreach.

Fifty-five events on African-American campuses, on Latino communities, on immigration, and reaching out to groups that have not been represented. He's just had the rug pulled out from under him, on both the Voting Rights Act this week, which the House Republicans shelved after the Republican leadership stood up and said, "We're for it," with the Democrats shoulder to shoulder. "We're going to pass this. It's an icon of the civil rights era."

And then with immigration, and they've decided on immigration, that they're going to play very short-term 2006 election politics and risk writing off, as Matthew Dowd, the president's principal strategist, pointed out, a constituency that's grown 400 percent in the last 20 years and will determine the future of American politics, Latinos.

JIM LEHRER: See it the same way?

DAVID BROOKS: I completely agree with Ken Mehlman and Mark Shields.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, my goodness.

DAVID BROOKS: An unlikely duo, but...

JIM LEHRER: But do you think, in the short term, it will work for them?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I had someone tell me -- a Democrat tell me, if you ran, except for the Northeast, if you ran in the country by promising to cut off benefits to illegal immigrants, education, health care, you would win in almost every district in the country. That's short term.

Long term, Mark's exactly right. This group is here to stay. And not only is the group here to stay, but the people who believe in a growing country revived by immigration are here to stay. And, you know, we've seen California.

MARK SHIELDS: And as you beat up on illegal immigrants or whoever you want to call that they are, you're also offending and alienating permanently legal immigrants of all stripes, I mean, because they feel it. This is a time when they bond.

JIM LEHRER: Well, this is a time when we have to un-bond. Thank you both very much.