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Analysts Discuss GOP Debate, War Funding Bill Veto

May 4, 2007 at 6:15 PM EDT

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

Mark, first, in general, what did you make of the Republican debate?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, after hearing Ronald Reagan lionized, eulogized, canonized, I can only pray that the next Republican presidential debate is independent at the presidential library of Harry Truman, but I think it’s revealing that all the candidates, not simply because they’re at Simi Valley at the Reagan museum, leaped over the 20 years back to Ronald Reagan, to talk about him and his presidency, forgetting that there had been two men named Bush there since, basically ignoring them, not even going out of their way to praise the No Child Left Behind, the tax cuts of George W. Bush.

And I think what it says, it’s a statement about the problem the Republicans have. In 1988, when George Herbert Walker Bush won the presidency against Michael Dukakis, he was, in effect, winning Ronald Reagan’s third term. And there’s nobody in the Republican Party or of the Republican Party that thinks that George W. Bush could win a third term or anybody is going to win a third term as part of it. So they’ve got to be agents of change without being disloyal.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: I do think there’s a problem with Reagan nostalgia in the party, which is not to say — I believe Reagan was a great president, great for his time, but his time is not our time. It was a ways ago.

And his time specifically was a time when liberalism was still on the march, in the late ’70s, when he was elected. And then the Soviet Union was still on the march, in some sense, so it was a classic time of big government versus small government. And those were the threats.

But now the threats are very different. The threats are threats of sort of these decentralized processes that transcend borders, whether it’s globalization or international terror. And it seems to me that’s just a big different set of problems. And you’ve got to come up with a different set of solutions, and the nostalgia for Reagan really doesn’t help with that.

Ties to President Bush

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
The big, central problem, part of the identity crisis of conservativism, is, what do you make of the Bush presidency?

JIM LEHRER: Were you struck, as Mark was, by the absence of the name "Bush" from these candidates?

DAVID BROOKS: The big, central problem, part of the identity crisis of conservativism, is, what do you make of the Bush presidency? And among the candidates, they don't dare talk about it, because the party loyalists are loyal to Bush. But among the people who write about this stuff, there's a difference.

Some people think the Bush administration was wrong, root and branch. Compassionate conservatism was wrong; the aggressive foreign policy was wrong. They think it was all wrong. Other people believe it had some good ideas which it executed poorly.

But that debate, what do you make of the Bush administration, is a key divide, which hasn't yet emerged, but it will emerge.

JIM LEHRER: And do you think it will emerge? Do you think that Republicans are eventually going to have to talk about the Bush administration, whether they want to or not?

MARK SHIELDS: I don't think they will. I mean, I don't think they'll talk about his restoring dignity, and a man of principle, and a man of character. They don't want to go there, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: And they'll just move on?

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, on an individual basis, I thought my old friend, John McCain, sensitive to the charge that if he is elected would be the first candidate elected after the age of 70, overdosed on caffeine.

JIM LEHRER: I was going to ask you, was he hurt the most or helped the most...

MARK SHIELDS: I thought he came out, and he was just a little hyper. It was sort of overcompensating. But I thought that he had a good night. The longer it went, the better, it showed that having been through this before is an enormous advantage.

Evaluating the candidates

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
I thought Huckabee came across as authentic, as well as likeable. And then there was a naturalness to him. He answered the questions. He didn't have talking points.

JIM LEHRER: Who else had a good night?

MARK SHIELDS: I thought Mitt Romney had a good night. I think Mitt Romney is personable. He's articulate. He's handsome. He's got the face that a man would love to punch. I mean, never had a cavity or a pimple in his life. It's movie star handsome.

JIM LEHRER: Just calm down, all right?

MARK SHIELDS: No, but I've got to tell you, but he's overtly optimistic, too. He exudes, projects optimism.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that?

DAVID BROOKS: If I had his face and his money, I'd be optimistic, too.

We're revealing too much about ourselves, I think.

JIM LEHRER: Let's talk about McCain and Romney.

DAVID BROOKS: I agree with Mark. He came out grumpy, angry in the beginning, classic case of being over-prepared. He had lines he wanted to deliver. He squeezed them in, in awkward moments. He smiled at awkward moments. He was too tough. He was not who he was. He appeared too grumpy. And that will change, as the debates go on.

Romney I thought was fine. I didn't think he was tremendous. I thought there was a little too much platitudes. He squirmed, as he always is, when the pro-choice versus pro-life position is asked. But I think he was generally good. I thought the person that helped themself the most was Mike Huckabee.

JIM LEHRER: Mike Huckabee?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, he came across as extremely personable, the sort of person...

JIM LEHRER: Here's a guy who is hardly a household name.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, but I think he came close to entering the top tier or really elevating himself. First of all, he was a good personality, a very relaxed, warm presence.

Second thing, he actually branded himself. You know, you've got 10 guys up there. Distinguish yourself. And he actually distinguished himself as sort of a populist, straight-talking person from out in the country.

JIM LEHRER: What about Giuliani?

MARK SHIELDS: Can I just say on Huckabee? I agree. I thought Huckabee came across as authentic, as well as likeable. And then there was a naturalness to him. He answered the questions. He didn't have talking points, and his answers...

JIM LEHRER: No rolodex...

MARK SHIELDS: No, as others did. But I disagree with David about Romney. I thought Romney's answer on abortion was as good, if you move from pro-choice to pro-life in the Republican Party, and you're accused of flip-flopping, and you say, "Wait a minute, I'm traveling a journey already made by Ronald Reagan, by Henry Hyde, by George Herbert Walker Bush, all who traveled there," that's a pretty damn good answer, for that crowd and for doubters.

And I thought Rudy Giuliani, by contrast, when Chris Matthews asked him if Roe v. Wade were overturned, I mean, 20 percent of people in the country think it would be a disaster of historic proportions like Dred Scott, 20 percent think it would be morning in America, and he says, "It would be OK." I mean, that's alienating about 40 percent of the country.

DAVID BROOKS: That's 60 percent right there. He's doing fine. No, I thought Giuliani -- I noticed a lot of the pro-life people really think he did very poorly. And it was all based on that answer. And you got the sense, he's not afraid of terrorism, he's not afraid of crime, but he's terrified that somebody will ask him about abortion. And he still hasn't come up with an answer.

JIM LEHRER: Well, let me ask you a general field question. What do you think of the field, these 10 people who are now offering themselves to the Republican nomination? Good crowd? A good offering?

MARK SHIELDS: It's a better crowd than it appeared last night. I mean, Tommy Thompson, for example, the longest serving governor in the history of Wisconsin, the real compassionate conservative, did school choice, did welfare reform before anybody else did.

And, boy, I just thought he had a terrible evening. I mean, he didn't hear a question. And he wasn't forceful in making his story. So I think it's a better field, in some respects, than it presented itself last night.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I agree. And this is a terrible forum, you know, define your morality. You got 30 seconds. It's just not a good forum.

I think it's quite a good field. I think McCain is a serious statesman. Romney is fantastic businessman, successful governor, a couple successful governors. I think quite a serious field. Fred Thompson is hanging out there.

Looking for an 11th Candidate

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
I still think Giuliani is the most likely to just break out...He did poorly, Giuliani, last night, but I still think he has a lot of potential.

JIM LEHRER: I was wondering about that, about Fred Thompson and others. Do you have the feeling that Republicans, deep down inside, are still looking for an 11th or 12th?

DAVID BROOKS: They certainly are, certainly 60 percent of the party is looking. And I would think that last night helped Fred Thompson, because, A, nobody looked great, and nobody leapt forward, and he's sitting out there, and there's a lot of talk about him.

MARK SHIELDS: I agree. They're looking for Reagan. I mean, it's Godot. I mean, they want Reagan. And Fred Thompson is the closest thing to him. He's an actor. He's big. He's got a great voice, and he's not in the race. And I think that's what gives him the greatest appeal.

I mean, I happen to like him and admire much of what he did in public life, but if they think he's the answer to all their problems, I think they're kidding themselves right now.

They know that they're in trouble for 2008. They know the country is against them. They're looking for somebody to rescue them. Democrats used to do the same thing, look for somebody to rescue them.

The one point I disagree with David on is Rudy Giuliani; Rudy Giuliani I didn't think played well at all last night. He is used to a stage all by himself, to a microphone all by himself. And he was not comfortable. I'm not saying in that format, but I don't think he'd be comfortable in any debate format.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And he's still doing the speaker circuit. He still doesn't have a presidential campaign.

Just one final point. They know they're in trouble. A lot of people in the party...

JIM LEHRER: The Republicans...

DAVID BROOKS: ... think they're in trouble for years, for a long -- a series of election defeats, but they somehow have hemmed themselves in so they can't offer any change. And somebody has got to crash through the barriers that they're restricting themselves with.

I still think Giuliani is the most likely to just break out. McCain did a bit a couple weeks ago. So he did poorly, Giuliani, last night, but I still think he has a lot of potential.

MARK SHIELDS: I think McCain has had the best couple of weeks of this campaign. I think he's got the maverick -- on immigration last night, he was the truth-teller. I mean, he knew it wasn't popular in that crowd. He knows it isn't popular with Republicans. It's the third most frequently mentioned issue among Republican voters, is immigration. Democratic voters don't mention it. It is a big, divisive issue, and he's on the wrong side, by most of their lights, but he made his case, I thought, quite forthrightly.

Iraq war funding bill

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
Republicans are floating the idea of they'll accept benchmarks, but not on military appropriations.

JIM LEHRER: David, new subject. What's your read on how the negotiations are going between the president and the Democratic congressional leadership over the funding?

DAVID BROOKS: Better than I thought a week ago.

JIM LEHRER: Is that right?

DAVID BROOKS: I mean, if you think coming to an agreement is a good thing.

JIM LEHRER: And you do or don't?

DAVID BROOKS: I do. I mean, I think it's bad for the troops to have them fight in this way. And the Democrats know they're going to fund. The Republicans know they're going to fund. And, basically, the Democrats have walked a little away from the withdrawal timetable, and they seem to have settled on this idea of benchmarks, which is the phrase they're all using.

JIM LEHRER: Better than timetables?

DAVID BROOKS: Right, and that is something I think a lot of Republicans, and eventually the White House, can live with. They all are sort of -- have different version of benchmarks.

My only problem substantively is, you know, if they've lost hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq, four million people have left the country, or moved. If this is not incentive enough to reach some sort of political compromise in Baghdad, is the threat of cutting off a few million dollars of aid going to change things? I'm not optimistic about that.

MARK SHIELDS: Apparently, Republicans are floating the idea of they'll accept benchmarks, but not on military appropriations.

JIM LEHRER: And not mandatory either, right?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, that's right. But, I mean, they will, unlike No Child Left Behind, which does have mandatory enforcement of benchmarks, we cut off fourth-graders, but we're not going to cut off the Iraqi government.

But what fascinates me -- David's right. There seems to be a positive attitude. I talked to the Democratic leadership today, David Obey, one the most respected, effective members of the House, is the lead man in dealing with, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, dealing with the White House. And he was sort of upbeat, which is not characteristic of him.

But, Jim, implicit in this -- the administration makes the case that this is the battle for civilization. I mean, you know, if we leave, they're going to follow us here. This is a war that's going to last -- it's World War II.

But implicit in this, their position is, if things aren't better by September, if the surge doesn't work, we're going to have to start pulling out. I mean, that's really it.

Now, if this is World War II, if this is really good versus evil, then what happens in September and the surge should not make a difference. But you have to concede that that is implicit in their argument.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I mean, that has been the central weakness of the Bush administration from day one, which is they thought a big global struggle, the organizing conflicts of our time, let's send 100,000 troops. Let's not send 300,000 troops. That has been the central weakness.

I will say, on their benefit, that at least the Republicans have some sort of conception for the next year of what to do in Iraq. The Democrats really don't. And if their surge doesn't work, except for Joe Biden, nobody has a plan after that.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of plans, what about Hillary Clinton's new idea to have a new vote to withdraw the original authorization legislation to go to war?

MARK SHIELDS: That she has with Senator Byrd.

JIM LEHRER: Exactly, co-sponsor.

MARK SHIELDS: Senator Byrd offered similar legislation during the Balkans war, when Hillary Clinton's husband was president of the United States. And Bill Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, said, "Don't do this, because it would hurt our position."

I mean, it has a certain political value to it. It makes the case, not against the troops, but against the president. You know, let him come in and tell us why we should continue this, extend it for another five years. It also makes the case where Republicans don't want this argument being made right now on the merits of the war.

DAVID BROOKS: I just think it's political posturing. As a friend of mine said, she won't apologize for her Iraq war vote. She'll just have it annulled. It has nothing to do with the future.

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