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Republicans Struggle Ahead of Fall Election

April 28, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, do you see a Democratic perfect storm coming toward these fall elections?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, I notice at Republican headquarters they’ve got rubber walls. Everybody’s on suicide watch there. I mean, it’s pretty bad. You know, I suspect they’ll lose the House and probably not lose the Senate. But I think the thing that we…

JIM LEHRER: Do you think they will lose the House?

DAVID BROOKS: That would be my guess.

JIM LEHRER: But it takes 15. Democrats need to gain 15.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, well, if you can’t do it now, when can you do it?

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: So that’s just my guess.

But, you know, I think some of the things, some of the people, comments made in that report are what’s really killing them: spending. I hear that everywhere. A lot of conservatives deeply offended the Republicans couldn’t control spending and they ran up the deficits.

And then the other issues that are just big are the immigration issue, and Dubai, little things like that, a sense of loss of control, loss of competence, loss of governing the way you’re supposed to govern if you’re a conservative.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see it?

DAVID BROOKS: I agree with David. I think that, if the Democrats can’t win in 2006 — now, the first stipulation is that a week is a lifetime in politics.

JIM LEHRER: Right, this is not even May yet, and we’re talking about November, right.

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: This is not the first of May. It’s six months away.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, sure.

MARK SHIELDS: But I think, as Republican pollster Bill McIntyre said it, it would almost take something miraculous to intervene to bail out the president.

And essentially what you have, in addition to all the problems that David defined, and the gas at $3 a gallon, and the war in Iraq bogged down, and the third anniversary, Jim, this coming Monday of the president’s “Mission Accomplished,” the end of combat, when 140 Americans had died.

And all of this converged is, I think, most of all is the president’s job rating has suffered. And that’s — off-year elections are essentially a referendum on the president.

That’s when the Democrats lost it in ’94. It was a referendum on the first two years of the Democrats running everything, House, Senate and the presidency under Bill Clinton. And I think the Republicans face a very much similar, except worse, situation this time.

JIM LEHRER: David, where does the gas price thing fit into this now? Is it a passing thing, or does this really go deep?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, you know, I guess it makes people upset. I mean, one of the paradoxes here is the economy is going great guns, growth at 5 percent or whatever it is. And yet, the people think the country is headed in the wrong direction, so the question is: Why?

Obviously, the fundamental thing is Iraq. But then Iran, I think the sense that we’re losing in Iran. But also the gas prices are clearly part of that.

I happen to think what’s happening in Capitol Hill is people behaving clownishly. I’m afraid they don’t know how clownish they look, that they actually believe what they’re saying; that terrifies me. Let’s face it. They’re diagnosing a problem incorrectly. They’re offering solutions that are silly, and they’re behaving like people who are panicked.

JIM LEHRER: Give me an example of each, the wrong diagnosis and the bad solution.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, the reason we have high gas prices is because of China, because of Iran risk, and because this transition to ethanol. These are serious, substantive things that it’s hard to do a quick fix for.

And everything that’s being proposed, whether it’s the oil reserve, whether it’s windfall profit tax, whether it’s in reducing environmental regulations, they’re all…

JIM LEHRER: What about the $100 rebate for everybody?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, that’s stupidity on stilts. I mean, you know, that’s a parody of stupidity. And so they’re behaving in a panicked way.

And at some point, I don’t care — we’re all upset about gas prices, but you want to see your leaders behaving responsibly. So they’re pandering; I don’t think it does them any good, personally.

JIM LEHRER: Doesn’t do them any good, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: It doesn’t do the Republicans any good, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Meaning the Democrats can pander, but the Republicans can’t?

MARK SHIELDS: The Democrats have more credibility on being critical of oil companies. It just came out, Congress Daily published the top 10 recipients of oil company — from the top 10 oil companies — from Chevron, which reported $4 billion today, and Exxon, which reported $8 billion in quarterly profits yesterday.

And there were four Republican senators, Conrad Burns of Montana, George Allen of Virginia, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, but the others were all Republican chairmen: Denny Hastert of Illinois, big oil state, Tom DeLay of Texas, you know, Bill Thomas, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

So when the Republicans start railing, and George Bush, you see him as a born-again populist now, talking about, “We got to do about price gouging,” it’s a little bit like Henry VIII talking about monogamy, you know, or liberal Democrats saying, “We’ve got to give the electric chair to pornographers.”

You know, it’s not quite credible.

DAVID BROOKS: But oil companies are not the problem, either. I mean, Exxon, you know, these companies have profits, like, 7, 8, 10 percent of revenues. That’s a perfectly normal profit range. Yahoo has profits of 45 percent. Plenty of — Apple, 25 percent of revenues.

It’s not like runaway profits. The fundamental problem, again, it’s China, and it’s Iran risk.

MARK SHIELDS: When you see the median income of the country actually dropping, median household income dropping, and people have to live in places like Burke, Virginia, 35, 40 miles from their job, and they drive 35 miles each way each day, all of a sudden that trip has cost them $15 in gas.

And they see $400 million golden parachutes for the company, that looks like a direct pass-through, David, to the oil companies.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Well, there are two things I’ll say about the oil companies. First, that $400 million compensation package is just infuriating. I almost want to see Exxon get punished just so that no company does that again. And that’s one issue: You know, nobody should make more than $390 million. That’s my rule.

But then the profits, that’s a totally different issue. And, to me, that’s a silly issue. The fundamental issues are what’s causing oil prices to go up. And the fundamental solutions are long-term solutions, trying to get better batteries in cars, and that sort of thing. It has nothing to do with anything that’s being talked about in the near term.

JIM LEHRER: Well, speaking of that, do you think, because all the emphasis is there, and the big spotlight is there, and the politics is all there, that something is actually going to happen about this?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I really don’t think something is going to happen.

JIM LEHRER: So it’s just kind of a…

MARK SHIELDS: I think something’s going to happen on immigration.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, but I’m talking about…

MARK SHIELDS: No, I know you are.

JIM LEHRER: … gas prices.

MARK SHIELDS: And I really don’t think something’s going to happen here. I mean, I think it’s a terrible issue for the Republicans going into the campaign of 2006.

JIM LEHRER: But aren’t they going to push hard for this program like yesterday?

MARK SHIELDS: But, I mean, they’re going to talk about CAFE, raising the standards?

JIM LEHRER: For gasoline mileage.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, the president, you know, was quite boastful of the fact they raised it for minivans and SUVs. We used 140 billion gallons of gasoline in this country last year. That saves 10 billion, the changes they made, over 10 years.

I mean, you’re talking about, what, three hours driving just outside of Green Bay. I mean, so I don’t think…

JIM LEHRER: You don’t see…

MARK SHIELDS: We’re not talking big; we’re not talking major.

JIM LEHRER: And he seems to feel the same way, there’s no reality here on the table.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, I mean, the gas prices — they could pass whatever. The gas prices will probably continue to go up as the summer season comes along. So if people are upset and if they’re going to blame government for higher gas prices, which I’m not sure they will, then that’s bad.

But, you know, gas and energy as a whole takes much less out of people’s pocketbook than in the ’70s and ’80s. I’m always struck by how people panic over gas prices. Housing prices shoot up, nobody runs to the government, and they take up a much bigger slice of the American public. But, psychologically, I guess gas is…

JIM LEHRER: Iran, what is your level of anxiety as a result of what happened today? We just heard the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations.

MARK SHIELDS: With Ray, yes…

JIM LEHRER: Yes, with Ray.

MARK SHIELDS: … and say that they had no belligerent intentions, and no hostile intention, no military intention. I think it will go to the U.N., Jim…

JIM LEHRER: How did that strike your ear when you heard him say that?

MARK SHIELDS: I thought he was — I mean, he was far and away the most rational spokesman for the Iranian regime that I’ve heard, either in person or in print, in quite a while. So…

JIM LEHRER: His rhetoric is slightly different than that of the president of Iran.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, yes.

I mean, he is the diplomatic corps, I would say, all by himself.

But, no, you know, I think we’re going to a reality of the United Nations Security Council. And France and Great Britain are with us, and Russia and China aren’t.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. How do you see it, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, they’re winning.

JIM LEHRER: You think Iran is winning?

DAVID BROOKS: Iran is winning. I mean, that’s why they’ve ramped up the rhetoric, because this is a good battle for them. It raises their profile domestically, stirs up some national sentiment, raises up their profile with the Arab world, because they are standing down the United States.

We’ve offer carrots and no sticks. We’re having a real tough time getting any sort of coalition together; they’re marching along. And, you know, we can’t stop them.

JIM LEHRER: What do you make of the ambassador? He said it three or four times. He said: Hey, look, if they just turn down the rhetoric and take the pressure off, we don’t want to have a bomb. We don’t want to have much problem. Leave us alone, everything will just be fine. We’ll bring in the inspectors, and everything will be hunky-dory.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Well, I think it’s completely untrue. But I was struck that he used this theme, “Let’s not have a confrontational attitude.”

JIM LEHRER: Exactly.

DAVID BROOKS: And I wonder what that theme is all about. Maybe it’s the idea and playing to the idea in the United States that most of us don’t want a confrontation, especially with Iraq going on. There is a tremendous desire not to get into another confrontation, so I think it plays well here. It’s untrue, though.

MARK SHIELDS: I’m not an Iran-ologist. Are there Iran-ologists? I guess there probably are.

JIM LEHRER: Sounds good to me, Mark.

MARK SHIELDS: But I thought it was particularly deft of him, actually, this part, I have to be honest, was he said: We make a pledge not to invade or any hostile act against another country. Will the United States or Israel do the same?

Well, the United States invaded Iraq, and Israel attacked Iraq. And I just wonder if this was an overture to their colleagues in Iraq, I mean, as a way of saying, “Hey, you know, we’re not going after you. They’re the other guys that have gone after you, these two fellows. Do you want to be on their side?”

DAVID BROOKS: Also completely untrue, by the way. I mean, they fund Hezbollah and everybody else who’s bombing people all around the world. They’ve bombed people in Paris themselves.

JIM LEHRER: And there was, of course, a report today that Iran is the number-one state sponsor of terrorism in the world.

Two quick things before we go. First, beginning with you, Dave, the Karl Rove CIA leak thing, anything there to talk about?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, the thing that strikes me is how confident he was a couple months ago that he was not being indicted, the confidence that clearly was unmerited. I don’t know if he will or not be, but clearly the confidence that it was behind him was misplaced.

MARK SHIELDS: Fifth time before a grand jury, don’t know anybody for whom that’s good news. I mean, you go back, and you run the risk each time of saying something different from the time, contradicting yourself.

And he still, apparently, according to the source of Fitzgerald, Patrick Fitzgerald has not satisfactory explained the miraculous memory he had about his conversation with Matt Cooper of Time magazine after first not mentioning it, and then recalling it miraculously.

JIM LEHRER: Quickly, the coming of Tony Snow as presidential news secretary. Is that going to be a big change we’re going to see?

MARK SHIELDS: I’m a Tony Snow fan. I like Tony Snow. I think he’s a very able guy.

The press secretary for any White House, Jim, is the public face. And Scott McClellan had become a melancholy, defensive sort of talking points-bound face. I think Tony Snow will bring a certain panache, and dash, and some intellectual vibrancy to it, and we’ll see how long it lasts.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, David?

DAVID BROOKS: No, I agree. I like Tony Snow quite a bit. He’s a genial, very upbeat guy…

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, he is.

DAVID BROOKS: … very optimistic guy. And I think the other thing it signifies about the White House is the power of Josh Bolten now, changing things around…

JIM LEHRER: This would never have happened, you don’t think…

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I don’t think so. But I think there has been a gradual opening up. They’ve done a little better of opening up and talking to reporters, and I think Tony is part of that.

JIM LEHRER: Does it change the — I mean, Tony Snow comes from the outside. Well, he worked for George W. Bush’s father, but he’s not an insider, per se, is he?

MARK SHIELDS: No.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, as everybody has pointed out, he’s been quite critical on certain things, and he’s got a lot of credibility with Republicans, which will help, I think.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, it does. And, Jim, going in, he said: I not only have a seat at the table, I have a voice at the table, which means he’s going to be a participant in the counsels that make policy.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Speaking of policy, we’re through. Thank you both very much.