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Analysts Weigh War Resolutions, Presidential Race

February 16, 2007 at 6:25 PM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: And, Mark, there was a great deal of difference of opinion on the House floor over whether this nonbinding resolution was important, not important. But they passed it; it was hardly a squeaker.

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: It wasn’t a squeaker, Ray. And it was interesting. You’re right. I was up there, and I know David was, too, listening to the debate.

And the Republicans’ criticism of the Democrats’ position seemed to be alternately, “This is an empty gesture. It’s a hollow, meaningless, nothing but words,” or, “This is the end of Western civilization as we know it.”

In fact, Adam Putnam, the chairman of the Republican House Conference, combined both positions in his own argument, that it was meaningless and empty rhetoric, and a threat to the Western world.

So it’s an important first step. We’re about to go in the fifth year…

RAY SUAREZ: But first step toward what?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it’s the fifth year. The fifth year of the war is about to begin. And this is the first time this Congress has dealt with it, debated it, voted on anything.

And I think that the next step is going to be in the form of the dealings, just as Chuck Hagel told Judy, dealing with the appropriations process. And it’s going to be a real fight. There’s no doubt about it.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, David, we also heard Chuck Hagel say that this was a big deal, for all the attempts to minimize it over the last several days. What do you think?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: I’d say a medium deal, I think a precursor to a big deal. I mean, I think you can’t beat something with nothing. And so far, the war opponents have nothing. It’s no surprise that the war is unpopular, and that was registered in the vote. But you’ve got to have some alternative policy.

And some people do. Jack Murtha has a policy of withdrawal. Other people do. Joe Biden has a policy. But you’ve got to have resolutions that propose an alternative.

And until there is an alternative, I don’t think you’re going to see much fracturing in the Republicans. And you really won’t see much weakening in the White House resolve to continue with the surge.

So we’re going to get to a debate where Jack Murtha is going to say they’re going to pose restrictions and conditions on the money that’s being spent or on the way the troops are rotated in or out.

And at that point, you not only have a big debate because you’ve got two alternative policies; you have a huge constitutional crisis, because you will have people in the White House saying to people in the Congress, “You guys are micromanaging troop levels in a war. You can’t do that.” And that really will be a big moment.

Alternatives to the troop surge

David Brooks
New York Times
If you want to get the troops out, call for a resolution that calls for getting the troops out. Don't monkey with the rotation schedules and the conditions. I just think it's indirect. It's not honorable. Do it straightforwardly.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you recall anything like this happening, a rebuke to a president's policy during a time of war?

DAVID BROOKS: Not to a military operation that's already under way. The surge is under way. The troops are going out there. And so, after it's already under way, I don't recall anything like that.

MARK SHIELDS: I dissent with David. I think there are a number of proposals, not just Jack Murtha's. Carl Levin's had -- I mean, Barack Obama has one. Hillary Clinton has one, which you criticized, as well.

But I think that what we have now, Ray, is a fight coming up. And I think Murtha, Jack Murtha, who's the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Defense Appropriations, has framed it in a way that is going to be politically difficult for Republicans to oppose.

That is, he's saying, "We're not going to send any troops in unless they are fully equipped, fully armored, the troops themselves and the equipment they're using. And absent that, they will not go in, and that they have to be fully trained."

Now, the idea that you're going to be some sort of a sunshine patriot or a summer soldier and say, "Well, that's all right, let them go whatever way." That to me is a reasonable.

Now, obviously, it's a political position he's taking. He's against this war. He has stated his opposition to it. He wants this war to end. But I think that, as a political position, is almost unassailable for the Republicans.

RAY SUAREZ: But he's also insisting on a much longer interval between combat tours.

MARK SHIELDS: He is doing that.

RAY SUAREZ: And isn't that just a backwards way, a way of backing into cutting down on the number of people who can go to Iraq?

MARK SHIELDS: There's no question. And Gen. Schoomaker yesterday, the outgoing Army chief of staff, yesterday said that the Army is not ready, that it cannot deploy, that it is exhausted, that it really has to be restored, refurbished, and re-supplied, as well as the troops.

No, I think that's it. But I think those -- the idea of people going in untrained and unarmored is unacceptable to the American people, irrespective of where they sit on this war.

RAY SUAREZ: Go ahead, David.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I would say, first of all, show some directness. If you want to get the troops out, call for a resolution that calls for getting the troops out. Don't monkey with the rotation schedules and the conditions. I just think it's indirect. It's not honorable. Do it straightforwardly.

The second thing I'd say, the surge is under way. We're going to have some troops already going there over the next several months. Are we going to leave them hanging out there without the full body, which the president and Petraeus thinks they need? I think that's a perfectly legitimate argument.

The Republicans would say, "You're leaving these guys just hanging out there, and the people they need to complete the mission aren't going to be coming."

And the third and the most powerful argument I think the Republicans are going to use is that, "You're sitting there in Congress. You don't manage wars and how many troops should be in a city, or what neighborhood they should be in. That's the president's job. That's in the Constitution. And there's plenty of backup for that. And we should not have 435 members of Congress micromanaging that."

RAY SUAREZ: Quick response.

MARK SHIELDS: You have a responsibility as a member of Congress. You voted to go to war. You have a responsibility to oversee that war.

This war has gone unsupervised. There's been no accountability for the past four years. The idea that you would not frame your position -- and Murtha has been very candid about where his position is. He wants this war over. But you want to frame it in a way that is politically defensible, because you know what the other side is going to do.

It's already said it. "You're selling out. You're cutting and running." They're going to use every scare tactic in the world. The idea that you go in and unilaterally disarm politically in presenting your position I think doesn't make any sense.

Senate vs. House approach

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
They're [the Senate] going to have to confront this in appropriations. They're going to have to confront this in defense authorization. I mean, it's going to be debated. You can postpone debate as long as you want, but the debate is going to come.

RAY SUAREZ: David, the Senate was way out ahead on these very questions, then got tangled in its various procedural knots. The House moved very quickly on this, for better or worse.

Talk a little bit about the dynamic between the two bodies now. Now the Senate's doing a very unusual Saturday session to take a test vote, of all things. Has the Senate's thunder been stolen on this question?

DAVID BROOKS: They certainly feel that. I saw Arlen Specter say, you know, we don't want to be the dominant body, we should at least be equal. We should at least be relevant to the debate. The reality is, they want to be the dominant body, believe me.

And so they are really the more foreign-policy-oriented body. And they want to be out front, and they know they screwed up with their own internal dynamics that rendered them irrelevant to this debate, which is exactly where they don't want to be.

So they're coming back Sunday. I'm not even sure that they're going to get to the vote to get the debate, to get what they need. But they really know they messed up.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Mark, does that shake loose votes that had been wavering, people who had been enticed by one side or the other on this thing?

MARK SHIELDS: I think what you'll see is -- I don't think they'll get to the 60. At least that was my own judgment from what I found today.

I do think that you'll find some of the Republicans who voted on the initial vote with their party on the procedural vote, such as Chuck Hagel, such as John Warner, will vote to bring it up, so it will be somewhere in the higher 50s. There will be improvement, but there won't be the magical number, and they won't come to that point of debate.

But Hagel put it well. They're going to have to confront this in appropriations. They're going to have to confront this in defense authorization. I mean, it's going to be debated. You can postpone debate as long as you want, but the debate is going to come.

Romney enters the race

David Brooks
New York Times
McCain is dropping on the Republican side because of ties to the war. Romney has really been dropping because of the flip-flops on crucial life issues. Giuliani seems to be floating above.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the 80 or 90 senators that are running for president will have to be in Washington this weekend, instead of New Hampshire.

MARK SHIELDS: ... Columbia, South Carolina, is more important than voting on Iraq, I think right now, whoever you are running for president.

RAY SUAREZ: But the field is fleshing out on both sides.

MARK SHIELDS: It certainly is. We had Gov. Romney come in, and we had the 412th announcement by Mayor Giuliani that he was, in fact, going to run. And it's an interesting field. It's becoming, I think, a fascinating field.

RAY SUAREZ: What do you think, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Three bigs on either side. Giuliani moved three centimeters closer to exploring the possibility of maybe conditionally entertaining the option of running. And to me, right now, he's had the best period, actually.

McCain is dropping on the Republican side because of ties to the war. Romney has really been dropping because of the flip-flops on crucial life issues. And Giuliani seems to be floating above, and it's worth remembering he's number one in the polls right now.

And what strikes me, I spent some time with some serious Republican evangelical donors this week, that they weren't rejecting Giuliani, even though he is extremely pro-choice.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, that's interesting, because you're saying the Romney flip-flops, such as they are, are hurting him. But isn't Mayor Giuliani trying to stake out some safer ground on some of these same...

DAVID BROOKS: No, he is. They're all moving, as candidates tend to. But what strikes me is, at least among this group, was that they were not satisfied with any of the options, but they were not rejecting Giuliani out of hand. And this is a group that knows where Giuliani stands.

It's always worth reminding ourselves that 60 percent of Republican voters do not know that Rudy Giuliani is pro-choice. And so when they discover that, he'll lose some support. But, nonetheless, a lot of people are going to decide -- and that was my sense from this group -- was that, you know, we don't agree with him on these issues, but it's war. And he's right for this moment.

MARK SHIELDS: I would just say on poll numbers at this point -- and I think David would agree -- they are written at the water's edge in wet sand. This is February of 2007. This is a year before the primaries.

I mean, we had President Muskie. We had President Romney in 1968, Mitt Romney's father. And I think that raises something. I think Gov. Romney's problems are deeper than flip-flops or becoming more conservative, like he changed and went to the other direction. I think America has become a more tolerant people in the last half-century, more tolerant place.

In 1958, 54 percent of Americans admitted they would not vote for a black for president. Now only 5 percent will say that. When Jack Kennedy ran, one out of five said under no circumstances would they vote for a Catholic. That's down to 4 percent.

The one exception is Mormons. And here's the irony, Ray. When George Romney ran, Mitt Romney's father, who was governor of Michigan in 1968, 17 percent of Americans said they wouldn't vote for a Mormon. Now, a full quarter admit up front that they would not vote for a Mormon.

And I mean, it's really -- he's encountering an enormous prejudice, which I think he will confront, not unlike Kennedy did with the Houston minister speech in 1960, but I think he has to.

A somber campaign trail

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
John McCain is paying, not simply for his being the most stalwart and visible supporter of the president's policy and his troop surge, but also for having been the de facto running mate of George W. Bush in 2004.

RAY SUAREZ: Is the war forcing some things to happen earlier? Or is the conversation on the trail getting more serious sooner than it would have been otherwise on both the Democratic and the Republicans?

DAVID BROOKS: It's a good point. I think there is an air of sobriety. I don't think the war is defining the Republican race. They're all within a stone's throw of each other. But it is defining the Democratic race, in particular Hillary Clinton, who's coming under this intense pressure to apologize for her position.

And it has created a sobriety. It's also created a sense, a different look at the candidates. Is Barack Obama ready for wartime? Rudy Giuliani probably wouldn't be a serious candidate if not for the war. So it does pervade the whole race.

MARK SHIELDS: I think the Republican race is being increasingly defined by it. I think John McCain is paying, not simply for his being the most stalwart and visible supporter of the president's policy and his troop surge, but also for having been the de facto running mate of George W. Bush in 2004. I think you're seeing the slippage there.

But he is the war candidate, and he's got the votes on it. Romney and Giuliani are positioned. They haven't voted on it. They've been chummy and supportive.

Giuliani is moving now, Ray. Giuliani is saying he would've gone in with more troops, wouldn't have dismantled Saddam's army. He's getting a little daylight between himself and George W.

RAY SUAREZ: Fellows, have a great weekend.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.