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As Congress Changes Hands, Bush Administration Undergoes Key Overhaul

January 5, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: The specifics of all of this aside, the discussion we just had, in a general way, Mark, we’re now about 24 hours into a new Democratic Congress, a Congress that has a Democratic majority in the House and Senate. Do you notice anything different?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Oh, I think so. I mean, I think Bob Walker and Martin Frost were both right. I mean, these are real changes.

I think, Jim, it’s practical. It’s not that the Democrats are necessarily more virtuous or pristine than Republicans. We just went through an election where one of the great bromides of American politics was totally repealed, and that was, “I don’t care whether people like the Congress as long as they like their individual member.”

And what we saw this time…

JIM LEHRER: They didn’t like either one.

MARK SHIELDS: … they didn’t like either one. And the Congress was seen as corrupt, inept, unresponsive, incompetent, sleazy, criminal, and, finally, and not doing its job in passing bills, in legislation, in appropriations, in passing a budget, in overseeing the disaster that’s Iraq. They’ve totally forfeited their responsibility in that area.

And so, consequently, the Republicans paid for it at the polls. The Democrats cannot afford to have two more years people having the same attitude in 2008 toward the Congress.

JIM LEHRER: A new attitude, a new Congress?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Right, new bipartisanship. It’s like that old Woody Allen joke that the lion will lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep, so the Republicans — but, no, I do think, in general, there are step forwards.

I was struck — Jeff Flake, who’s a Republican and a true reformer, said on the floor today, “You guys,” pointing to the Democrats, “have done better than we did,” which is to say the earmark reform, a lot of the reform efforts, the budget reforms, those are genuine steps forward.

Now, a number of Republicans — and I think a lot of Democrats — would say there is still a ways to go. There were loopholes. There was lack of enforcement in some of this stuff. But, nonetheless, steps forward.

I think everybody would wish they had gone through the committee process, which is how you’re supposed to write legislation as opposed to circumventing that, but, nonetheless, a good day.

JIM LEHRER: It seems so simply done, and it was all because of the election, right? I mean, the election results caused everything to be done so — I mean, David Dreier from the floor was in the piece, saying, “Oh, well, we wanted to do this, and Dennis Hastert wanted to do this,” but nobody did it until now.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, in part because the message hadn’t been sent. And they’re politicians. They really do respect that.

I think if the shoe had been on the other foot and the Republicans had won this victory, they probably would have done some of that, too, but they got in a rut. The Republicans got in a rut where they couldn’t imagine doing things differently. Even though people like Jeff Flake and David Dreier wanted to do things, the leadership was mentally just stagnant.

And so, new leadership, fresh…

MARK SHIELDS: Jeff Flake wasn’t in the same position that David Dreier was. David Dreier was the chairman of the House Rules Committee…

JIM LEHRER: The Rules Committee, right?

MARK SHIELDS: That’s a very — Chris Shays, an authentic reformer, said the Congress…

JIM LEHRER: He’s a Republican from Connecticut.

MARK SHIELDS: … Republican from Connecticut — the House did the right thing. I just wish my party had done it, the Republican Party had done it.

The Republicans, I just don’t want to give them a total free ride here, when John Boehner…

JIM LEHRER: Well, that’s what…

MARK SHIELDS: John Boehner of Ohio, the leader of the Republicans in the House, goes on, and he said, “What we really expect out of the Democrats is for them to treat us as they would liked to have been treated.”

Now, that’s a new moral standard. I mean, it’s not, “Do as I do.” “Do as I want you to do that you should have done and would have done if you had been there instead of me.” I mean, it’s convoluted.

DAVID BROOKS: It’s going to take me 10 minutes to figure out what you just said.

The role of bipartisanship

David Brooks
The New York Times
Nonetheless, I think one of the messages of the election, which is what we're seeing in this first burst of legislation, is that people are not only -- they're sick of the way government has been operating.

JIM LEHRER: David, Vic Fazio, the former Democratic congressman, was on the program last night. And he said that things are going to get done because there is nothing to be gained by stalemate.

In other words, the Democrats, they won the election, they have to do things. The president has a legacy, and he's got a lot of problems, a public opinion problem. He's got to do things. And as a result, whether anybody likes it or not, this is going to be a "do" congress. Do you agree?

DAVID BROOKS: I would think for the first six months...

JIM LEHRER: A new government, I should say.

DAVID BROOKS: I would say for the next little period. And a lot of this stuff is not particularly ideological. It doesn't get to liberal or conservative ideology to fix earmark reform. Even the PAYGO, which is to restrain fiscal spending, in general, both parties are in favor of deficit reduction.

JIM LEHRER: That's not an ideological...

DAVID BROOKS: That's right, they're not ideological. They have to do with the process of how government works. And one of the messages of this election...

JIM LEHRER: But it gets ideological, does it not -- I mean, a Democrat might say, "Well, in order to make things pay-as-you-go, let's raise taxes," and or a Republican can say, "To make things pay-as-you-go, we're going to cut programs," right?

DAVID BROOKS: Right, and some of that has already begun to filter up. Nonetheless, I think one of the messages of the election, which is what we're seeing in this first burst of legislation, is that people are not only -- they're sick of the way government has been operating. So a lot of this stuff is operational.

I think they will get a lot done on that. And I think they'll get stuff done on other things. I wouldn't bet on immigration reform, but it's certainly possible. I would certainly think they'll increase the size of the military, which is what both parties want to do. So I do think they will get a significant and surprising amount done in the first year.

JIM LEHRER: What about the letter today from Pelosi and Harry Reid?

MARK SHIELDS: Can I just say one thing about that?

JIM LEHRER: You may say one thing about that.

MARK SHIELDS: OK, that is, I think there's going to be a crunch period, Jim, when -- on tough things, say immigration, Social Security reform, the alternative minimum tax, coming up for that, that the Democrats are going to say -- and I think with some legitimacy -- to President Bush, "OK, we're for this. We're going to produce the votes, but you have to produce Republicans, as well."

This can't be a cheap shot vote, where the Democrats take all of the responsibility of passing, for example, immigration...

JIM LEHRER: Do you think that will happen? Do you think the president will do that?

MARK SHIELDS: I think the president has to.


MARK SHIELDS: The president wants his legacy, Jim.


MARK SHIELDS: And his legacy is passing things. And that's the only way it's going to pass, is with -- if it's going to be truly bipartisan, collegial, civil, whatever you want, you've got to have one-third of the Republicans or 40 percent of the Republicans voting for it, on tough issues -- yes.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see the president doing that?

DAVID BROOKS: Not particularly. The president's legacy is Iraq. That's where his focus is; that's where the administration focus is. I really do not think the domestic policy process is that vibrant in the White House right now. I think it's all about Iraq for him.

So the extent -- it's a question of time and busy people. They're going to be focusing on Iraq. They're probably not going to be focusing on some of this domestic stuff.

President considering more troops?

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
It's just saying, "Look, this is the reality. This is the legislative reality." We just went through an election where Republicans say they lost because of Iraq, where the face of the Republican Party is Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: All right, let's talk about Iraq. The letters today from Pelosi and Reid, how important is it? They said, "Hey, forget it. There isn't going to be any surge. It's a mistake. No more troops. The thing is over."

MARK SHIELDS: They maintain that they're speaking for somewhere close to 85 percent of Democratic members, that Joe Lieberman is virtually alone among Democrats who will support the president on the surge.

They want the president to understand that this is not just a lay down. They've got 12 percent support in the country, according to the polls. And it's almost as though...

JIM LEHRER: You mean, for a surge...

MARK SHIELDS: For a surge.

MARK SHIELDS: For increasing troops there.


MARK SHIELDS: And so I think that's really what it is. I mean, it's not -- there's no threat involved. It's just saying, "Look, this is the reality. This is the legislative reality." We just went through an election where Republicans say they lost because of Iraq, where the face of the Republican Party is Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: So what is the reality then today about a surge? The president is going to make a speech on Wednesday. He's changed the players, in fact, most of whom are now, "Hey, a surge might not be such a bad idea." Some of the others thought it might be a bad idea. What's going on?

DAVID BROOKS: The president has changed his mind. I mean, David Ignatius referred to it earlier. General Casey and General Abizaid were advocates of what you might call the light footprint approach, which is we should hand power over to the Iraqis as quickly as possible and get out of there.

That was tried, and the president really supported that approach for three or four years, to my mind, way too long. And he did it not because he agreed with the military strategy. He admired Abizaid and Casey, "As admirable men, I'm deferring to your judgment."

But after three or four years, a declining situation in Iraq, he finally got sick of that, not got sick of them, but got sick of the policy.

JIM LEHRER: Sick of the policy, OK.

DAVID BROOKS: And so he has gone over to the other school, which has been also boiling for the past three or four years, most prominently promoted by John McCain, which is the more troops policy.

And he's saying, "I'm finally going to commit more troops," which is what McCain and others have -- people like me -- have thought he should be doing all along, because there haven't been enough troops to advocate the policy.

The difficult question for the president is, is a policy that would have been correct in 2003 still possible in 2007, after everything that's happened? I personally think that the idea of putting Iraq back together, after all that's happened, is not possible.

But I do think, whichever way Iraq evolves, having troops to actually police some of these terrible neighborhoods in Baghdad may ease the way to a less barbaric evolvement. So it's a very tough issue, but I think he would do it, regardless of the polls.

The number of troops needed

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
It's not the same enemy that it was. It was Saddam Hussein. It was a brutal dictatorship. And now we're involved in a civil war up to our eyebrows.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jim, I think David talks about 2003 or 2007. The profound difference is that the mission has changed, and the enemy has changed.

It's not the same enemy that it was. It was Saddam Hussein. It was a brutal dictatorship. And now we're involved in a civil war up to our eyebrows. And the mission itself is not the restoration of some sort of civil, democratic society there, functioning, and the Middle East is a model...

JIM LEHRER: Make peace so we can make politics?

MARK SHIELDS: That's right. It's profoundly different at this point.

JIM LEHRER: But what about the president apparently making the decision, or at least in the process of making the decision, to add more troops? It could be -- how many -- what have you all heard, in terms of numbers?

DAVID BROOKS: Twenty to thirty thousand.

JIM LEHRER: Twenty to thirty thousand. Does that make sense to you, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Does it make sense to me militarily, politically?

JIM LEHRER: Any way.


JIM LEHRER: Any way you want.

MARK SHIELDS: No, it doesn't. I mean, it really doesn't. I don't think it's enough. If you're going to double it and really say, "We're going to make a major commitment, and this is where the United States is going to make its stand," that's one thing.

I think 20,000 troops is for -- especially for a finite time, facing the political reality that he has here at home, is just...

JIM LEHRER: So it would have to be a surge -- in other words, the idea would be a surge, as defined as something that doesn't last very long there, right?

MARK SHIELDS: That's exactly right.

DAVID BROOKS: But that's not going to happen.

The length of deployment

David Brooks
The New York Times
You've got to be there for a long time, and you've got to be there with 30,000 troops to hold key neighborhoods in Baghdad.

JIM LEHRER: Not going to happen?

DAVID BROOKS: The people who are most prominent in proposing the surge, a guy named Jack Keane, a recently retired four-star general, a lot of people who served recently in Iraq, in places like Tal Afar, where the clear, hold and build strategy really was successful, they say, "You've got to do it 18 months, or else the enemy will just hide underground for a few months and then pop up as you leave," as David Ignatius said.

You've got to be there for a long time, and you've got to be there with 30,000 troops to hold key neighborhoods in Baghdad. You know, I don't know the -- I'm not a military man -- but I do know that when we actually -- David Ignatius talked earlier in the program of him going through with Abizaid and others.

JIM LEHRER: In August, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: They could clear a neighborhood -- in August -- but then they'd leave, and we've all spoken to people who have been involved in that experience. The idea of this is to -- for the first time -- devote adequate troops so you actually clear, and then hold, and then build.

Now, I don't -- you know, again, there are serious military people who support it and serious military people who think it won't work. But it's interesting that finally we're trying something that seems plausible.

MARK SHIELDS: Eventually, we leave. I mean, that's what happens. I mean, that's, quite frankly, what happened to the Marines in three different occasions, going in the same city and taking it over...

JIM LEHRER: Fallujah, Ramadi, and then other places...

MARK SHIELDS: Exactly, and just going in, taking it over, pacifying it, turning it over, and then having the same thing come back. I mean, I think we're in a situation right now that we have no idea how to handle it or what to do about it.

DAVID BROOKS: But it's the only policy. It's the only one...

JIM LEHRER: How important is this speech? Apparently, it's going to be Wednesday night.

MARK SHIELDS: Wednesday.

JIM LEHRER: How important is this in the presidency of George W. Bush?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it's the last effort to get something less than a total failure out of Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think it's that important?

MARK SHIELDS: I think, Jim, that it's not only -- he has to -- so many things he has to do. He has to project confidence, inspire confidence, convince people that it's going to work, and then it has to be successful in a very short order. That's an enormous task and one that I just think is insurmountable.

JIM LEHRER: All right, thank you both very much.