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President Faces Katrina Fallout, Pakistani Protests

March 3, 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.

First, the president’s trip to India and Pakistan. The India nuclear deal, what do you think of it?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I support it.

JIM LEHRER: You support it?

DAVID BROOKS: To the extent that that’s very important. (CROSSTALK)

DAVID BROOKS: Listen, the argument — and it’s going to go to Congress, and there’s going to be a kerfuffle about it — is that we’re…


DAVID BROOKS: A kerfuffle.

JIM LEHRER: Kerfuffle, OK.

DAVID BROOKS: … that we’re extending, we’re allowing, we’re basically destroying some of the non-proliferation agreements that have been made, some of the precedents that have been laid down.

But my sense of the politics is — and this will be a tough fight — but my sense of the politics, from the context, is that members of Congress talk to people, especially in the business community, whose idea of India is excited. They come back from places like India and China with their eyes agog because of the growth opportunities.

And I think most politicians, and certainly in the administration, see the repair of the American-Indian relationship as one of the historic achievements that they and the Clinton administration before are responsible for, that they’re very excited about, and that the key thing in who should get nuclear weapons is the nature of the regime. And the Indian regime has been a good democracy.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, do you see that same kind of thing David was talking about in Congress…

MARK SHIELDS: A kerfuffle?


MARK SHIELDS: I haven’t seen one recently, Jim, but I’d say this…

JIM LEHRER: Right. So there’s going to be a big fight over this?

MARK SHIELDS: There will be a fight over this, because…

JIM LEHRER: Between whom and whom?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, because what it’s done is it’s taken the liberals who really have supported and championed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the strong supporters of it and put them on the same side with conservatives who see this as a very dangerous precedent, as far as Iran and other countries.

What we have here — and anybody says, “It isn’t the money; it’s the principles.” It’s the money. I know you have, as you get France, Germany, the United States, and Great Britain, all of whom are going to be able to sell a lot of nuclear equipment and reactors…

JIM LEHRER: That’s part of the deal. That’s part of the deal.

MARK SHIELDS: … and fuel to India. And they basically gave India a bye as far as their defense.

Now, why a separate standard? David has introduced a new wrinkle, that all of a sudden it becomes the regime there. If Iran goes to a constitutional democracy tomorrow and becomes peaceable, I guess then we’re going to see nukes move, I think, to other countries as a consequence of this.

And it will be a fight on the Hill. You’ve got Henry Hyde, for example, the conservative lion from Illinois, one of the managers of the impeachment of President Clinton, on the same side with Ed Markey, an anti-nuke Democrat from Massachusetts.

JIM LEHRER: Did Mark read you right, David? Are you suggesting that, if Iran would just change its ways, they could have a nuke program just like India, as far as the United States is concerned?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, the reality is they’re going to have a nuclear program anyway. (CROSSTALK)

JIM LEHRER: But, I mean, in other words, it’s OK?

DAVID BROOKS: No, I think that’s — well, I think…

JIM LEHRER: It’s a major thing here.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think one of the things the Bush administration has always emphasized, whether it’s in Iraq, or Palestine, or anywhere else, it’s the nature of the regime, stupid.

And so they’ve also emphasized: You judge countries by how they behave. If they’re a democratic country, transparent, they behave constructively in the world, the standards are different. That’s why the standards are different on this trip between India and Pakistan.

And there is money involved, but it’s not only the deals of the nuclear reactors that will be sold. It’s the oil market, reducing world demand for oil. It’s India playing a role in the Middle East, stabilizing the region. And, as I mentioned, it’s the incredible growth in the Indian economy, which is such a — the Indian and Chinese economies have become these great ideas and these great facts that are dominating political life.

JIM LEHRER: All right, now Pakistan…

MARK SHIELDS: It isn’t the silver bullet that’s going to restore George Bush’s political — I mean, there’s not — I mean, we spent more time talking about it than most people in America are going to spend over…(CROSSTALK)

JIM LEHRER: OK. Now we’re going to talk about Pakistan, Mark. (CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, which is transparent and democratic, and so we have to be — they have to be our best buddies.

JIM LEHRER: Well, that’s just what — that’s just the question I was going to ask, the different standards for Pakistan and for India?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, yes. But that, of course, flies right in the face of, you know, the United Arab Emirates are an ally and we treat all allies the same. So you can’t say that. But, yes, different standards.

And the president has hailed President Musharraf as a great champion of democracy, and we will find out. I mean, it will only be eight years since he’s taken over before there’s a presidential election. And, you know, a great champion you think might have won before that.

But, no, I think there’s no question, Jim, the discussion with Ray highlighted the fact that probably the hottest bed of anti-Americanism in the world has been in Pakistan. Yes, there was sort of a resurgence of popularity of the United States after our aid…

JIM LEHRER: Earthquake.

MARK SHIELDS: … following the earthquake, but it’s slipped back again because of the Pakistanis killed in the American air bombing.

JIM LEHRER: David, a lot of people say, “Hey, we have no choice with Pakistan. You can have all these abstract and wonderful policy ideas, but we’ve got to deal with Pakistan, because we need them so badly vis-a-vis the Taliban, and Al Qaeda, fill in the blank.”

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, this is why I’m glad I’m not in government. If you’re sitting outside, you can hurl epithets, “Oh, you coward; you’re betraying your principles.”


DAVID BROOKS: But if you’re in government, you have to deal with the reality that’s there.

JIM LEHRER: And that’s what it is?

DAVID BROOKS: And if Mark Shields was running Pakistan, we’d all be happy. But, you know, Mark isn’t, and Pervez Musharraf is. And so you have to deal with the guy. But I think what was raised in the discussion earlier is the concern that you do you hear from the people who are expert in the area, which is this guy’s a shah. Is this guy going to collapse, if he’s that… (CROSSTALK)

JIM LEHRER: And the lack of support below…

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Then what do you do?

JIM LEHRER: … was what the point was made.

DAVID BROOKS: Because then you really have — someone said to me who knows the region pretty well that his biggest nightmare is not Iran and not Iraq; it’s Pakistan collapsing, because then what do you do? And that really would be incredibly ugly.

JIM LEHRER: New subject. The Katrina videotapes that have been released the last couple of days, Mark, do you see anything there to bring a tear to your eye, or shock or outrage?

MARK SHIELDS: There are two events that have defined the Bush presidency and people’s perception of George Bush as a leader. The first was the first week of September of — second week of September 2001, the 9/11 attack. His response to that, his reaction, established him as a strong leader, commander-in-chief, president, presidential in the eyes of most Americans.

The second was the first week of September 2005, Katrina. And that was the bookend. And that was the antidote to all the good, the sense of ineptitude, of slow, indecisiveness, of unprepared. And I think any time Katrina is in the news, and especially these tapes — we have the president may have overstated it by saying, “Brownie, you did a heck of a job,” but Michael Brown, in the tapes we’ve seen this week, is the one person who comes out…

JIM LEHRER: He kept saying, “We have a problem here.”

MARK SHIELDS: … saying we’ve got a real serious problem here. And the response of the president is not what one would hope. We haven’t seen all the tapes, but the tapes we do see — I mean, he doesn’t ask a single question. He does seem disengaged.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Disengaged?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, in the one, he didn’t ask a question, but then we heard on the news summary today that he was asking, “Were the levees breached?”

JIM LEHRER: But not on the tapes… (CROSSTALK)

JIM LEHRER: He asked Brown, and Brown reported it… (CROSSTALK)

DAVID BROOKS: And Governor Blanco said they weren’t.


DAVID BROOKS: And so you’ve got a little sense there of the fog of war or whatever, the fog of hurricane.

So I do think that, you know, there are a couple of things to say. First of all, the president was a little engaged and that there was this fog and this confusion. Nonetheless, I think the thing you do get from the tapes and that first tape that we saw was him saying the right thing, which was, “We’re going to give you all the support you need. We’re going to be there.”

But then what the president said didn’t turn into the machinery of government working. And that’s, frankly, a pattern we’ve seen in the administration before.

JIM LEHRER: All right, now fit the tapes and also what’s happened in Iraq the last several days into this remarkable drop in the president’s approval ratings in all of the polls.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. I actually don’t think — I disagree with Mark. I don’t think Katrina had a big public opinion reaction, and I was surprised by this. But if you look at the charts…

JIM LEHRER: The video thing or just the whole thing?

DAVID BROOKS: The actual Katrina thing.

JIM LEHRER: The whole thing, OK.

DAVID BROOKS: If you look at the charts, I didn’t just see a big change when Katrina happened. I think Iraq drove the slow decline of the president’s approval. But then I think this week the decline from wherever it was, 40 to 37 or 34, I think that was the ports.

JIM LEHRER: The ports, Dubai. I forgot about that.

DAVID BROOKS: And then what the ports did was offend Republicans, because he had lost all the Democrats a long time ago, but it was Republicans. And you look at the upsurge of Republican anger, and especially people who are defining themselves as conservatives. I saw a 67 percent approval rating among conservatives, a third of conservatives not approving of President Bush. That’s very high, and that’s two issues, well, three, two and a half, the Iraq, but immigration and the ports.


MARK SHIELDS: Jim, there’s stuff in these polls that is so alarming to Republicans. I mean, there’s an anxiety that’s gripping the Republican Party tonight. First of all, just take this one fact: The disapproval, those who strongly disapprove of the president, in the “USA Today”-Gallup, poll was 44 percent.

JIM LEHRER: I saw that, strongly disapprove.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, strongly disapprove, and strongly approve was 18. And overall approval was only 38.

Now what that says — I mean, you’re measuring intensity. Intensity determines whether people vote. I have always been for gun control laws, OK? I have never voted for a candidate solely on the basis of his support of gun control laws. Yet people who oppose gun control laws, that will drive them to the polls or drive them on a candidate.

And that’s what Republicans have to be afraid of, is just as David is describing, the loss has been among Republicans. George Bush got 94 out of every 100 Republican votes against John Kerry. He’s fallen now about 20 points among Republicans. Now, that translates 20 percent out of 40 percent or 35 percent of Republicans, that’s your 7 or 8 percent drop right there. And he can’t make it up with Democrats and independents, because he’s already written them off.

JIM LEHRER: So he’s got to do it with his own?

MARK SHIELDS: He’s got to come back with his own.

JIM LEHRER: Let me ask you this, David. I’ve asked — we all have — we’ve talked to people in political life all the time, from presidents on down to JPs, and you ask them about polls. “Oh, I don’t care about polls. I don’t run my government or my precinct by polls.” And how does somebody not — how does somebody really ignore a poll that is dramatic and as difficult as this is?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, on two levels. There are two different levels. First, I think Bush really does think at this point in long, historical terms. He’s convinced he’ll be vindicated in Iraq in the long term.

That said, if you talk to people in the administration, just as they’re talking casually, they’re super aware of these numbers, because it’s not only that it’s some — I mean, he’s never running for office. But if they want to get something through on Capitol Hill, the numbers really matter.

The politicians fixate on these approval numbers. And if you’re trying to get a controversial piece of legislation, 47 or 48 is a lot better than 37 or 38. And then, when you talk about November, I know they want to be up around 47 or 48 by November, just so the president can help more candidates. That’s looking pretty unlikely.

JIM LEHRER: So David says they fixate on these polls, and yet when you interview him, they go, “No, no, no, I don’t look at any polls.”

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I know, and that’s…

JIM LEHRER: So why don’t we call it…

MARK SHIELDS: If George Washington had taken a poll, there wouldn’t have been a revolution.

JIM LEHRER: Why don’t we blow the whistle on him more, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I think we do. I mean, Jim, it’s a little bit like television ratings. You don’t mention them unless they’re very good. Nobody…

JIM LEHRER: That’s what Robert MacNeil used to say. We only talk about ratings on the NewsHour when they’re very high.

MARK SHIELDS: And candidates only talk about polls when they’re ahead. And you can always tell when somebody is behind because he invokes St. Harry Truman. You know, “Harry Truman was behind; he came from nowhere and won.”

There’s two numbers that scare Republicans who are running this fall. One is the president’s job approval rating, because it is a referendum on him, but secondly, it’s the right direction-wrong track. Is the country headed in the right direction or wrong track?

JIM LEHRER: That’s always in most of these — that’s in most of these polls, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And now it’s better than 2-1 wrong track. And that’s discouraging, because that, again, discourages your own people from coming out and, if anything, intensifies your opposition.

JIM LEHRER: So is it correct to summarize what the two of you are saying, whether people like polls or not, they do have an effect on the operation of the government?

MARK SHIELDS: They certainly do, Jim.

DAVID BROOKS: I certainly agree.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you both very much.