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Political Shockwaves Continue from Dubai Ports Deal

March 10, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks — syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, on the ports thing, is there a simple answer as to why this thing collapsed, finally?

MARK SHIELDS: There’s a simple answer, Jim.

I — I think that it — it has a couple of parts to it. I — I think there’s no question, this was a prairie fire across the country. I mean, it — talk about talk radio, whatever else. And the Bloomberg/L.A. Times poll showed, every single subgroup — liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, old, young, all sections of the country — opposed it.

But — and — and it was a scene not quite approaching that of 1974, when the Republican senators went to the White House to — to tell President Richard Nixon that his time was up. But, I mean, to see the Republican speaker of the House and the Republican Senate majority leader going to tell a Republican president they could not and would not try and stop…

JIM LEHRER: And that was earlier this week.

MARK SHIELDS: Earlier this week.

JIM LEHRER: And then — then, Dubai said, well, on second thought, we will sell it. And that was the end of…


MARK SHIELDS: That — that was — well, it was the end of the…

JIM LEHRER: Do you think it was — do you think it — it all started out there in the country and worked back, or it worked here, worked out, and came back?

MARK SHIELDS: No. I think — I think — I think it was something that was spontaneous. I genuinely do.

I — you know, it’s always great to have somebody — there will be three companies, organizations, saying, well, we organized this whole thing. But — but I think the other thing is that — and — and this is something the White House has to worry about — there was a — an accumulated festering resentment about what I — I call the “Don’t Ask/We’ll Tell” policy the White House has had toward the Congress, which is, you don’t ask questions.

And — and Tom Davis, the congressman from Virginia, Republican, a shrewd political operative, very respected, and a great scholar of the Congress, said this administration probably listens less to the Congress than any in history.

And I think there was a sense of: You know, you never listen to us, and, son of a gun, we thought you were smart, and you showed yourself to be incompetent.

JIM LEHRER: Showed themselves to be incompetent? Is that what this is all about, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, no. I — I mean, they could have handled the message thing different. But that’s not the core of the issue. The core of the issue is the merits of the issue. And I don’t think those have changed. I think this started when Lou Dobbs on CNN and Michael Savage on talk radio whipped it up, because the — the deal had been floating around there for months and months and months. And I think they began to whip it up. And then it caught on.

And a lot of people heard “Arab ports.” They’re nervous. They think we’re in a war. A lot of them think we’re in a war against Arabs, apparently. And they were — they were concerned.

JIM LEHRER: But what would you say to those who say to you, as I’m going to say to you, it’s really hard to whip people up on something they don’t care about?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Well…

JIM LEHRER: So, what was it? What did — what was it that this touched…


JIM LEHRER: … that caused this thing to take off?


JIM LEHRER: Because Michael Savage and Lou Dobbs, they talk about all kinds of things.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Right.


DAVID BROOKS: Right. Absolutely.

So, I would say there’s anxiety about where we are in the war on terror. There’s a lot of things blowing up around the world. Iraq is unstable, the Danish cartoons. There’s just a sense that we’re at war, and that we’re at war with a part of the world that — where a lot of things are going wrong.

And I think people heard United Arab Emirates, ports, where they know we’re vulnerable. The two together didn’t seem like a good idea. I think, if you had enough political leaders who would say, listen, I agree with you, if this was the Taliban taking over the ports, but the UAE has done everything we have requested of them. They have risked their lives. They have incurred the wrath of al-Qaida. They’re serving 700 ships, where you have UAE citizens, our military ships. And they’re taking care of it themselves.

They’re not blowing anything up. They’re doing what we want countries to do. If you had a — a phalanx of political officials saying that, I think you could have swung it a little. But you had, really, John McCain and Chuck Hagel and, I think, Jim Moran, and maybe a couple others, but that was it.

JIM LEHRER: What about the fact, though, that the president of the United States, who was leading — the leader of the war against terror, said this was OK? I’m not talking about the politicians here. We will get to them in a moment.


JIM LEHRER: But, out in the country, why was that not enough to cool the — the prairie fire?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, then — you have got a lot of things feeding in. And this goes in to what Mark says.

First of all, I have been hearing, for years, members of Congress say that the administration was arrogant, doesn’t communicate, has a very incompetent legislative affairs section. They didn’t make a big deal out of it, or they didn’t act on it, because Bush was up in the polls, and they needed him to win.

Now he’s weak. And now they’re concerned — there’s a general concern about the competence of the Bush administration. I would say, among Republicans, two big things happened this week. One, Bush has dropped out of the conversation. He’s just not even in what people are interested in.

And, second, among House Republicans, there was a sense, I think, until this week that the House — that the Republicans would squeak by and keep the House. I think that disappeared this week. I think a lot of House Republicans decided, we’re going to lose the House.

JIM LEHRER: And that’s what…

DAVID BROOKS: So, there was a great sense of panic on that side of the aisle, which contributed to all this.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, how — how much should this be interpreted as a defeat for President Bush? Is this a big thing for him? Do you agree with what David just said about this?

MARK SHIELDS: I — I think, Jim, it can’t be viewed alone.

I mean, when I said incompetence, I mean, this is an administration, don’t forget, that has — in the last year-and-a-half, or 15 months, has introduced a Social Security program overhaul that did not even get a vote out of a single Republican-controlled committee on Capitol Hill, that brought up Harriet Miers, a nomination that had to be withdrawn in haste and embarrassment.

JIM LEHRER: And conservatives kind of engineered that as well.



DAVID BROOKS: That was a little different. The elite attacked Harriet Miers.


DAVID BROOKS: Here, it’s a mass phenomenon.


DAVID BROOKS: The elite is with — with Bush on this.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Right.

MARK SHIELDS: And — and the — and Katrina, in which the president’s — you know, the president’s performance and the performance of his administration is — has just got failing grades across the board. So, the question of incompetence is there, even before we got to this. It was in that context. Free Trade vs. Security issue?

JIM LEHRER: So, if Dubai — if — Dubai, by itself, might not have caused all of this, if all these other things hadn’t come first? Is that…

MARK SHIELDS: There is — there is a point where David and I disagree on this.

And — and that is, I — I think there is an anxiety in this country. And it’s real and it’s authentic. And it’s — it’s in the — the headlines every day, another collapsing pension fund, another company saying we’re going to cut health care for retirees, we’re going to ask you to give give-backs.

There’s a sense that the United States, which provided this sense of enlightened capitalism, where workers had a certain security in this global rush, where jobs are running — and now it’s service jobs. It’s not just — it’s just not manufacturing jobs, which, you know, that was one thing, when blue-collar jobs — we’re now talking somewhere between 28 and 42 million jobs being subject to off — offshore.


MARK SHIELDS: And I think that contributes to it. I think that sense of unfettered free trade, isn’t it wonderful, foreign investment, isn’t it wonderful, is, wait a minute; is there anybody here who really cares about Main Street and the people who live there?

JIM LEHRER: So, it’s not just…

DAVID BROOKS: I do disagree with that.


JIM LEHRER: You disagree?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I don’t think it was a free-trade issue. I think it was a security issue.

I think there are a lot of Americans who — they’re not isolationists. I think they’re happy to engage with most of the world. They’re just not happy to engage with the Arab world.

And the Washington Post poll suggested rising if you want to call them racism, xenophobia about Arabs. And that’s only among the people who admit it. So, I just — I think that’s what drove this, rather than the economic anxiety, which is there on other issues. I think this was a security issue.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s blaming the customer. It really is. I mean, we — we have — we have got an American vote — electorate, Jim, right now that is pessimistic — borderline, they’re despondent — about the Iraqi policy of this — this administration. Eighty percent of Americans believe we’re headed for civil war in Iraq, 70 percent of Republicans.

I mean, there’s nobody who is — who’s talking about the possibilities of this turning around. There’s a sense we have been isolated in the world by — by the policies of this administration.

And, on September 11, 2001, the headlines in Europe proclaimed, we are all Americans, and, today, America is — is — is less than beloved and — and respected, and that this is a consequence of George Bush’s policies.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, obviously, things are going bad.

A couple things to say. First, on the — on that poll in particular, we ought to be careful about polls. Eighty percent say they’re heading towards civil war. I talk to people who live in Iraq. They have no clue. How are the people in — in this country supposed to have a clue?

I have no clue. So, at some point, polls measure things that don’t exist. Whether there’s anxiety, obviously, that’s true. But I — I really think this was an issue where I don’t know too many experts who are — this is something where Republican experts and Democratic experts are pretty much in agreement on this, on the merits. It’s just that that never got out.



DAVID BROOKS: On the ports thing.

President Bush’s Visit to Gulf Coast

JIM LEHRER: On the ports thing.

Speaking of — staying with the president, the president — and Mark mentioned Katrina — the president went back to the coast this week. And, this time, he came down very strongly and blamed Congress for not funding the recovery.


JIM LEHRER: Is that going to — going to sell?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think it — it’s accurate. And I think it’s a function of two different things.

The first is this — this war we now have between the Republican Congress and the Republican administration, which is now breaking out. And, second, I think it has to do with a real frustration, which I have been hearing from the administration, which I think is justified.

I think Bush really did want to spend a lot of money on New Orleans. He gave that speech. And I think, even if you talk to people on Capitol Hill, I have heard this. The appropriation, the request was there from the White House. It was the House Republicans, basically, who didn’t give a damn. And I think that’s where the spending, and that’s where it really stalled. And I think he was expressing his frustration about that.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: It never got the degree of passion and intensity in support of the spending for Katrina that we had for tax cuts and cutting the capital-gains tax, which became the Holy Grail of this administration.

But I would simply say, politically, Jim, it won’t hunt, the idea that a Republican president — Harry Truman won reelection by running against the do-nothing 89th Congress. That was a Republican Congress. He was a Democratic president. The idea of a Republican president running against a Republican Congress in the sixth year of his presidency is — is just ludicrous. And people…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, he’s not running. He’s just expressing frustration.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean…



JIM LEHRER: But how does that — how is that going to go down out there, with — we are getting closer and closer, as you said earlier, to a — a very important congressional election. I mean, you have got a Republican president knocking a Republican Congress. How’s this going to work?


Well, I — I just think that it’s a breakdown.

JIM LEHRER: Breakdown?

DAVID BROOKS: I mean, there’s a breakdown.

Like I said before, if you hang around Republican circles, people are talking about Iraq. People are talking about free trade, and spending. People are talking about ’08 candidates. They’re not talking about George Bush. They’re not interested in what’s going on in the White House. They have — he’s…

JIM LEHRER: So, he’s irrelevant?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he’s receding.

JIM LEHRER: Receding.

DAVID BROOKS: And he may come back, but he’s receding right now, for sure.

MARK SHIELDS: Receding. I — I don’t — this is an even-numbered year. I mean, you asked what — why the Congress responded. The Congress responds — is a lot more responsive in even-numbered years, when their jobs are on the line, when they hear from their constituents. And they heard from their constituents.

I mean, every place you talked to on Capitol Hill, they were just being inundated with calls.


MARK SHIELDS: And it wasn’t — it wasn’t from a particular segment. It wasn’t evangelicals or organized labor or teachers. It was across the board. I mean, you would talk to any of them.

And, so, the — the president is — is seen right now, with his sagging poll numbers, as not an asset. I mean, he was regarded as almost a political genius, because he broke the political rules by running a reelection campaign where he made no attempt to reach to the middle or try and get people in the other party, by just organizing and getting out his own vote. And he succeeded.

He got a majority of the vote, and he won reelection. And a lot of Republicans say, wow, maybe we underestimated this guy. And the past two years, they have just — the — the past — since — since that election, in 2004, nothing they have done has worked.

JIM LEHRER: Do the — among the Republicans you talked to, David, do they see a way out for the president, a way back for the president, between now and November 2006?

DAVID BROOKS: I haven’t heard that, no. Like I said, I think there’s a — they’re — some of the smart Republicans I spoke to are praying are for Speaker Pelosi, which is a Democratic takeover of the — of the House.

JIM LEHRER: That the Democrats will figure out a way to blow it or…

DAVID BROOKS: And — and that the Democrats will overreach. I — I, by the way, think in ’08, the Republicans would be much better off if they lost the House, if there was some shared responsibility, if the Democrats were in the spotlight for a little while.

But I — like I said, I haven’t seen too many people figuring a way out. I think, when people talk about the White House, they talk about a bunch of people who have been there a long time and who are tired.

JIM LEHRER: Talk about it in the past tense.


MARK SHIELDS: I think — I think, Jim, that one thing the Republicans could do in the congressional — it would help the party — is if they would exercise the oversight responsibility of the Congress, which they haven’t done for six years. I mean, there’s certainly enough to look in to.

JIM LEHRER: Well, they sure did on Dubai.


JIM LEHRER: All right.

MARK SHIELDS: They — they did do that.

JIM LEHRER: All right. We have to leave it there.


JIM LEHRER: Thank you both.