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Shields and Brooks Debate Alito’s Nomination, Middle East

January 27, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: To the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, how do you read the John Kerry sudden push for a filibuster, what is that about?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think there an unfortunate call for it, the venue is not ideal –

JIM LEHRER: The ski slopes.

MARK SHIELDS: Yeah, the Swiss connection. But I think there is among a lot of Democrats a sense that we’ve got to make a fight here. We’ve got to go on record because they’re fearful that when this thing does go as they think it is going to go, that Judge Alito joins the conservative majority in the court, and especially on workers’ rights cases and discrimination cases that they want to have made the case.

And what is most fascinating about this, there is political precedent. The liberals who fought Judge Souter’s confirmation, all the opposition for him came from the liberals and he ended up being a liberal vote. In the case of Clarence Thomas it’s probably fair to say that it was so acrimonious, so bitter, that it might have driven him even more into the arms of Justice Scalia than it did. So you don’t know how – what kind of effect this has –

JIM LEHRER: But you are saying, do you agree, David, that this debate could have an effect on the way Alito operates as a justice?

DAVID BROOKS: In the case of Clarence Thomas I think it absolutely had an effect.

JIM LEHRER: Is that right?

DAVID BROOKS: So I think that is quite possible.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read this filibuster thing?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, thought he should have done it while wind surfing; it would have been a more popular –

JIM LEHRER: I knew he was going to say something. Didn’t you know he was going to say something like that?

DAVID BROOKS: We were looking at Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, it is the first time he’s looked happy in years. One-liners, one week of happiness — don’t ruin it for him.

JIM LEHRER: That’s right.

DAVID BROOKS: And it is a week of happiness for Republicans. But as for what John Kerry did, vote no. Just — you want to register your opposition, vote no. You do not screw up the process. And you know, I think the Republicans make a good point when you say we were against Ginsburg but we voted for her. But if you are against the person, vote no. Don’t screw up the precedent that says, you know, we’re not going to filibuster. I think that is a valuable precedent.

I think if you are opposed to somebody you vote no, you don’t take the option, which is always there in the Senate, of totally wrecking the process. And so, you know, I thought what Kerry did and what Kennedy did was, you know, it endangered the institutions of the Senate.

But there is now a habit in this town, especially among liberals in opposition that you got to be the most vehement. And that’s the way that you prove you are the most pure.

MARK SHIELDS: It isn’t really a filibuster because there aren’t any enough votes -

JIM LEHRER: You’ve got to have 41 votes to have a filibuster.

MARK SHIELDS: So, I mean, probably shouldn’t have said that. But I mean, I think there is a purpose to be made in making the case. And let’s be very blunt about this — this 2008 politics –

JIM LEHRER: I was going to ask you about that.

MARK SHIELDS: Sure. John Kerry wants to run again. Mo Udall, the great congressman from Arizona, said the only known cure for the presidential virus is embalming fluid. He’s still got it; it is in his system.

And these are a lot of Democratic groups who care passionately about these issues, whether it is abortion, civil rights, workers’ rights or whatever, that they feel Judge Alito is a threat to, and so therefore you become a champion of them and maybe they are fair to you in 2008.

JIM LEHRER: All right. But in the process, David does he also endanger, maybe intentionally or otherwise endanger some of the ground that other potential Democratic 2008 candidates might have?

A lot of them are not going to have to vote on this filibuster, I mean on this cloture — let’s don’t call it a filibuster, on the cloture thing on Monday that could come back to haunt them, right?

DAVID BROOKS: I was talking to a bunch of Republican senators yesterday and they couldn’t understand why would they want to go on record, why would they want this vote; they couldn’t understand it.

But I think it is for this reason. There are some Democrats who are going to go with the groups. And that is going to be their funding base and Kerry I think will be among them. And then there are some, Mark Warner and Hillary is the interesting one who will try to present a more centrist view and who will not appeal as much to the angry base. And you know that is the geography.

JIM LEHRER: Also, Mark, the leader of the Democrats in the United States Senate, Harry Reid is not in favor of this, he said so, he doesn’t think — he’s almost saying what David is doing, just vote no and let’s get out.

MARK SHIELDS: No. Well, I think that Harry Reid also has other considerations here. I mean, the issues, this is not the best Democrats’ issue right now, I think it’s fair to say, the Alito nomination.

I mean, there are a lot of issues out there that are working for the Democrats. I mean the corruption issue is working very much. The president’s got pictures of himself with Jack Abramoff he won’t reveal. There is awkwardness in the administration. They’re going to have a state of the union message that is going to be nothing but a political memo; it’s not going to have any substance in it. So I mean, I think that’s –

JIM LEHRER: What he is talking about, Reid?

MARK SHIELDS: Reid is saying let’s get back to where we’re winning, the Democrats in Los Angeles Times poll today had a 12 point generic lead for Congress, which is landslide proportions by historical measurement.

So why spend your time on something like Sam Alito when are you going to lose?

JIM LEHRER: Does that make sense to you?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, though you know for liberals these issues until that the court decides are the core issues. I mean, I understand from an ideological point of view, I just think it is irresponsible from an institutional point of view.

JIM LEHRER: The Hamas victory in the Middle East, what does it say about wishing for democracy, watching the president yesterday explain in — almost in euphoric turns terms about the turnout in the election but then he didn’t like the results, has he got a problem with this?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah. I mean what he should have said is that we’ve got a really diseased region over there with totalitarian dictatorships and all these revolutionary movements of which Fatah was one and Hamas is another – different sorts of anti-democratic revolutionary movements that are stuck there.

And to go through the process so we can get the region to be in a normal situation, we have to basically induce a crisis. And the crisis is this transition from revolutionary movements to democratic movements. The problem is you have got to have a democratic mentality.

And so in this transition process it’s all mixed up. And you can have total chaos. The hope is that you will slowly move and people will develop democratic mentalities over the long-term.

But you’ve got this crisis to go through. And as a friend of mine says, sometimes the fever doesn’t break and cure the patient; sometimes the fever kills the patient. And that’s just a realistic bet the administration took. And I think it was the right bet because I think at the end of the day, most Palestinians do — are Democrats, do want to have some sort of normal democratic regime.

And you know, I think eventually we’ll get there and the past wasn’t a great paradise anyway. So I think it was worth the process but it’s a long-term process and we are now at that crisis moment.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, what do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, you can’t say I love the democratic process but I reject the product. I mean, this is the fifth instance now where democratic elections have not produced the desired result for the White House, perhaps even for the United States.

The Muslim brotherhood in Egypt, you had the election of the president of Iran. You had Shiites backed by militia winning in Iraq. You had Hezbollah winning in Syria. So I mean now you have five.

And I – you know, I think that David’s right, that three out of four Palestinians, three out of four Israelis all want the peace to go forward. But I think that the election results yesterday in Palestine strengthens Likud’s hand in the upcoming Israeli elections because all of a sudden it is going to be well, we better get tough again.

And Benjamin Netanyahu, who had been basically written off, now appears to be a formidable, at least a figure, major figure, maybe the foreign minister in the next Israeli government.

DAVID BROOKS: It’s possible that they do tend to polarize each other. But there is one positive thing that has happened. Somebody finally held Fatah and the Palestinian Authority accountable. Europe and the United States never held them accountable. They were given $7 billion after Oslo. They stole essentially 90.5 percent of that money for mansions, for Swiss bank accounts. We never held them accountable. Europeans kept giving them money regardless of the corruption. And finally somebody is holding them accountable.

JIM LEHRER: Their own people.

DAVID BROOKS: Their own people, which is the voters. Now I think our job is to hold the voters accountable, to remind them in a democracy choices have consequences.

You choose Hamas, we understood why you choose it. Nonetheless, we can’t deal with a Hamas. We’re going to isolate you. In the battle over the next years is the administration saying we can’t deal with Hamas, the Israelis saying we can’t deal with Hamas, the Palestinians saying in the first sentence we can’t deal with Hamas. And in the second sentence but they are making these little gestures, let’s deal with them.

And so I think it important to maintain a clear front that we’re not going to deal with Hamas because decisions and votes have consequences.

MARK SHIELDS: I think the results confirm the great dictum of the late speaker Tip O’Neill that all politics is local. I mean voters universally will tolerate a degree of corruption if, in fact, the government is delivering services and performing what it’s supposed to do. In this case, Fatah was not. And I think there was a “throw the rascals out.”

I think Hamas faces a real dilemma right now. Hamas expected to be the strong opposition party. And now they find themselves with the responsibility. And they’ve got one of two choices. Do they yield to their most zealous true believers on violence and on Israel, or do they accept the responsibility and risk alienating some of their strongest supporters by accepting the responsibility of governing?

JIM LEHRER: Meanwhile, the NSA surveillance debate, the president and his folks went out for the first three or four days this week. Where, quickly, where do things stand on that? The critics were out as well. Everybody has been talking about it. Any movement on either side?

MARK SHIELDS: Sure, there is movement. I mean, the administration that doesn’t pay any attention to polls now calls it the terrorist surveillance program. It’s not eavesdropping; it’s not wiretapping. The president used that phrase twice yesterday.

As long as the argument, it is fascinating to watch the polls, as long as the argument says civil liberties, should the president be above the law, should there be warrant-less eavesdropping, people say no.

When they cast it in terms of do you want the government stopping terrorists from getting into the neighborhood, then it’s yes.

So I mean it really comes down to how people do see it. And that’s the ambivalence the voters have.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I could say among Republicans there is a clear sense this is a winner.

JIM LEHRER: You mean, politically.

DAVID BROOKS: Politically, it’s a winner. I was joking — the Republicans are going to hold their convention at the NSA headquarters next year to sort of underline the issue. I still don’t see why we’re not at this point — why Democrats, most Democrats say we want — we think the program is necessary, we just want it in a legal framework. Why doesn’t some Democrat or some Republican say here’s the piece of legislation to put it in a legal framework? We really haven’t seen that from either side.

JIM LEHRER: The president was asked about that yesterday and I asked Alberto Gonzales about it and they both said no, we don’t really need that. We don’t want that, because it would tell too much about what is about — about the system itself.

MARK SHIELDS: Not to contradict you, Jim, but the president even went further yesterday. He said he not only — it wasn’t necessary, he didn’t want it; he might not even sign it. Now that is where the Democrats see their great advantage. They see the advantage of saying okay, let’s make this legal; let’s give the legal process there, and have him be the one that turns it down.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, I didn’t see that as a correction; I saw that as amplification, and I appreciate it very much.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s an act of friendship.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, absolutely right, and I appreciate it very much. And I appreciate both of you being here tonight.