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Shields and Brooks Debate Libby Conviction, Iraq Withdrawal

March 9, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks. Mark joins us from New York this evening.

Mark, to you first. The Democrats in the House trying — and in the Senate — but trying again this week to get some legislative language together to get U.S. troops out of Iraq by a certain date. Are they about to get their act together?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I think they are, given the fact that the party is obviously not homogenous or a terribly unified group, but I think that this is probably a proposal, an initiative, Judy, that as many Democrats will agree on this as any other idea that could be proposed.

And I think the problem that Nancy Pelosi faces as speaker is with her colleagues and comrades in arms philosophically, and that’s the left of the liberal, antiwar wing of the party.

And I think that, if anything, they may have been brought in to support for this new idea, this new proposal, by the White House’s statement that the president intended to veto it, which, of course, then makes the case that it is not a toothless, meaningless resolution, if the president is so upset that he’s going to exercise the second veto of his presidency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, do you think they’ll be successful, the Democrats this time?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Not in passing it, no. I mean, this was a case where they actually had the opportunity. In private, there are a lot of Republicans who would love to get out tomorrow, and in private…


DAVID BROOKS: … there’s a lot of disunity within the Republican Party. Believe me, you sit around with those Republican senators, they’re all over the map.

But the Democrats actually made it easy for them to be lockstep on this because it seems to them like a partisan exercise. And I think there’s some justice in that.

I mean, they’re arguing about whether to get out at the end of 2007, 2008. But the fact is, there’s a surge going on now, and we’ll probably know by summer whether it’s working or not. And if it’s not working, then everybody will want to get out. And whether we have a resolution now about the end of 2007 or end of 2008, it’s somewhat abstracted from that reality.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, has it really come down to that, where they’re just arguing over whether it’s this month, or that month, a few, six months later?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I don’t think it is, Judy. I think that, on one side, you’ve got an open-ended commitment on the part of the president, resistance on the administration’s part for any limitation, any test, any benchmarks, that either the administration that we have to achieve in our own success or that the Iraqis have.

And I agree that it’s a political document, as all political statements are and initiatives are, ultimately. But I think it contains elements that make it very difficult for the president to veto it and for Republicans to oppose it.

For example, $20 million more for Walter Reed, and another billion dollars for brain-injured troops, but even more importantly, an insistence that the president certify that the troops who are going over there have the best equipment, the best training, and the most safe body armor and vehicle armor available.

And if, in fact, improvised electronic devices continue and the explosions continue, I think that is going to put the Republicans in a very difficult position, if the president has certified that the equipment is the best we can do and just waives that requirement.

Administration facing resistance

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
[W]e've essentially had a war policy that has gone unexamined and really uncriticized from Congress in any substantive way for five years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does all of that make it harder, David, for the Republicans in the White House?

DAVID BROOKS: Politically, it's hard for them. I mean, no question about it, the polls are against them. Whether we stay or whether we go, people are sick of the war.

Nonetheless, if you take a look at what's actually happening in Iraq -- and I'm not someone who is super charged up about the surge -- nonetheless, we've had the oil law recently. We've had a real cleaning-out of the interior ministry. We've had some cooperation from Anbar. We've had quieting down in Sadr City, and now our troops can go into these areas.

It seems to me the events of the last couple weeks lead you to think let's give it a chance. And we'll know, as I say, in a few months whether it works or not.

And whether we have funding in this resolution for Walter Reed or ag subsidies, whatever it is, that has nothing to do with the real reality, which is, should we be there or not?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, it's true. The days are passing, in terms of the surge and seeing whether it's working or not.

MARK SHIELDS: No, I agree, Judy, and I do think that part of the sense of urgency on the administration is the growing resistance and independence in Congress and opposition.

I mean, we've essentially had a war policy that has gone unexamined and really uncriticized from Congress in any substantive way for five years. And, you know, I think that there is some sense of urgency, for the first time, that they'd better show progress, and there better be improvements in the situation.

Justice Department woes

David Brooks
New York Times
The FBI thing is a little different, because it's incompetence, not ideology. It's sloppiness, as the inspector general said.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bring you back home. It's been a tough period for the Justice Department, David, on top of this news today about FBI agents abusing the way they go out and gather information about people.

We've learned that, not only the eight U.S. attorneys were fired, we've now learned the administration decided to back off, change the law, make it harder to do that. What does all this add up to, do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think I was struck in Ray's interview with James Sensenbrenner's attitude, which was quite aggressive. He's a Republican, and he was not defending the administration. He was pretty tough. He said heads will roll.

And he linked the two. He linked the FBI thing with the firing of the prosecutors. So I think the administration is facing a pretty high set of opposition, even from within its own party on this.

And there are two slightly different issues, one, the politicization of the prosecutors. They are a political office. They serve at the duty of the president, because they are political appointees. And Clinton fired all the Republicans when he came in.

Nonetheless, they have to have some credibility. And the administration's handled this so poorly, that is now in doubt.

The FBI thing is a little different, because it's incompetence, not ideology. It's sloppiness, as the inspector general said. Nonetheless, there's clearly a high degree of frustration on all these issues where the administration is not super-duper sensitive on matters of civil liberties.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, even the Republicans are saying this was not handled right, well.

MARK SHIELDS: No, I agree, Judy. I agree with David. I dissent on the question of comparing it to Clinton coming in or Bush coming in and firing U.S. attorneys of the other party. That certainly has been the tradition and the custom.

But what this administration did was fire its own U.S. attorneys. In 26 years, from 1981 forward, through the Reagan years, eight of them, and eight Clinton years, and four first Bush, and five of this Bush, we had three out of 486 U.S. attorneys who were relieved, removed.

And George W. Bush and Alberto Gonzales did eight on December 6th, and then made the terrible mistake of saying they were doing it for professional performance, which immediately guaranteed that every one of them was going to fight for his or her own professional reputation and that their legislative sponsors, who are Republican senators in most cases, would come to their defense.

So it really is a political black eye at a time when the administration ill needs another one.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There's some agreement on that.

"Scooter" Libby verdict

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
I do think that the vice president has been hurt politically on this [Libby conviction]. I think the press has been hurt.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A couple of other things I want to ask you about, the Scooter Libby verdict, vice president's former chief of staff, David, convicted, found guilty of perjury, lying, obstruction of justice. What's your reaction?

DAVID BROOKS: My reaction is one of sadness. I mean, I didn't know him particularly well, but I did think of him as an honorable man. And I still think of him as an honorable man who I believe was guilty of this crime, and I personally don't think he should be pardoned. I think he should serve his debt to society.

Nonetheless, I think he was the culmination of a very ugly episode. I think Joe Wilson started this all by making a series of sensational and now we know false charges. The White House overreacted in a vicious way.

I thought Fitzgerald overreacted in a vicious way. This was supposed to be a leak investigation. He knew from his first day on the job that Richard Armitage was the leaker, and he didn't go off in that direction. He went off in the direction of Libby and Rove and Cheney, and obviously fatter targets for a prosecutor, but that's not where the original problem was, and so I think he overreacted.

It's a whole series of unlovely episodes, and Libby was the only one who's probably going to end up going to jail for it.


MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think the -- first of all, I disagree that Joe Wilson lied. I mean, what Joe Wilson found was what upset the administration to the point where the vice president emerged as the architect and producer of the program and project to discredit Joe Wilson by outing his wife as a CIA operative.

I do think that the vice president has been hurt politically on this. I think the press has been hurt. I mean, whatever pretense we had, legal cover we had that we could offer protection to a source who would talk to us off the record, that has certainly been blown by this case.

And I think the press really comes off with a serious black eye in the run-up to the war. I mean, they were cheerleaders, overwhelmingly. They didn't ask tough questions. They did not scrutinize or analyze or even remotely perform their adversarial role toward the administration.

And the revelation that a New York Times star reporter would attribute a remark and statements to the president's chief of staff, Scooter Libby, by describing him as an ex-Capitol Hill aide certainly raises doubts about the candor that we have in dealing with our own readers.

Early 2008 campaign polls

David Brooks
New York Times
I have to think that John McCain is, by nature and definition and total inclination temperamentally, an insurgent, a maverick candidate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just a couple of questions, two questions about the presidential politics. It's early, early, David, but we notice Rudy Giuliani, in the early, early polls, ahead of John McCain, who the conventional wisdom was it was John McCain who was the front-runner for the Republicans.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, and really far ahead. And I know a lot of very socially conservative people who want Rudy Giuliani. They know where he stands on abortion and gay marriage. They know all that stuff. But they like him because they think he's a fighter.

And they buy the story, which he tells quite well, that he fought liberals in New York, he even fought my newspaper, which goes a long way in the Republican Party. And so they like that idea, and so they're willing to support him.

They say, "He may not be a great guy, he may not agree with us, but we need that kind of guy now." So his lead is serious. I'm not sure it will hold up. His campaign is very poorly developed, but he is now the front-runner, with the support of a lot of social conservatives who will stay with him, I think.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How does that look to you, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I don't disagree with David. I would say that John McCain, of whom I confess to be enormously fond, has to be hurt by the disclosure that Rudy Giuliani is beating him by 20 points among independent voters, because those were always John McCain's really strong base and most enthusiastic backers.

And I have to think that John McCain is, by nature and definition and total inclination temperamentally, an insurgent, a maverick candidate. And as the front-runner going into this race, he almost became the establishment candidate, and it doesn't work for John McCain.

And I guess the only thing I'd add to that is that John McCain, fairly or unfairly, has become the face and the voice on Capitol Hill of George Bush's Iraq war, and that has hurt him, even though Rudy Giuliani has been a backer and supporter of that war, he hasn't voted for it, he hasn't spoken on it. He hasn't been as identified with it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But how much does it matter, David, who's ahead by 20 points or behind by 20 points at this phase, March of 2007?

DAVID BROOKS: There's a long way to go, but I do think it matters. The money is being decided now. The press is being decided now. Obviously, a lot can change, but the campaigns have to react.

McCain, as Mark suggested, has to come back to the magic. A friend of mine put it this way: What the country wants is the McCain of 2000. When McCain is offering them is the Bush of 2000, the big front-runner campaign, the big, bloated operation. And he's got to come back to that.

So he's got to respond to what is a genuine and substantive shift in Republican opinion. Giuliani has to respond by actually offering a campaign. People like the past of Giuliani. He hasn't yet developed the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying he hasn't done that yet?



MARK SHIELDS: That's a good point, Judy. I'd just add one thing, and that is the Republican who has led in the Gallup poll one year before the nominating convention, the last 14 times has been leading, has been the eventual nominee.

That's not been the case with the Democrat. That's only happened three times. But on the Republican side, to be the early leader is not unimportant.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are you saying the Republicans are a consistent party, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: The Republicans are a loyal party. They believe in a natural order of succession.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Shields, David Brooks, gentlemen, thank you both. We appreciate it.