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Debates Continue in Congress over Iraq, Attorney Firings

March 23, 2007 at 4:24 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, how important was this vote in the House today, setting a deadline for the troops to withdraw from Iraq?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it is significant, Jim. And I think it will be proved significant over the next several months.

I think it is the first time the Congress has used its power to cut off — its power of budget appropriations — to express its opposition to the president’s policies in Iraq, which have lost the confidence of two out of three Americans, and the first time the Congress has gone on record.

And I think this is the high watermark you will see legislatively and politically for the president’s — in the Congress — for the president’s policies. I think, from here on in, the erosion will all be away from the president and toward those who oppose the war.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree? The erosion has begun; this was the high watermark for the president?

DAVID BROOKS: If this is the high watermark, it’s ankle deep, maybe toe deep.

No, I don’t think it was terribly significant. It was politically impressive that Nancy Pelosi was able to unite the Democrats behind the bill. But what is going to matter is what is going to happen in Iraq. And this bill will not have any effect in law, because it will not turn into law.

What will happen — what will matter is what is happening in the surge. And the surge will either be successful by mid-August, in which case Republicans and Democrats will probably want to stay, or it will be unsuccessful, and Republicans and Democrats will probably want to go.

What was said in this debate I think was hermetically sealed from what is actually happening in Iraq. The messages from the surge are very mixed. We saw how tough it is in that last report.

There was a very fascinating piece on the front page of The New York Times today talking about, now, that it is much calmer in Baghdad, families flowing in, in some cases, be able to go back to their neighborhood, in other cases, snipers actually killing the families that are trying to go back.

So, you get some optimistic messages, but extremely preliminary. If you can reconstitute those neighborhoods and the surge does succeed in Baghdad, then it will look very different in four months. If it doesn’t succeed, if we continue chaos, than this vote won’t matter.

Role of the surge

David Brooks
New York Times
One of the things, watching the debate in the House, that was frustrating was that it was hermetically sealed what from what is actually happening in Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: This vote is not going to matter; do you agree?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I don't agree. I don't...

JIM LEHRER: In other words, you don't agree with David that what happens on the ground is a lot more than what the House of Representatives did today?

MARK SHIELDS: I think the time has passed, Jim. I think the American people have concluded it is a civil war. It is a tragic civil war. Every thing that this administration told us about this war has been wrong.

I mean, Powell -- Wolfowitz said it was going to be post -- it was going to be Paris 1944. That was his description, the liberation. We're going to be welcomed. Second, it was going to be a secular, middle-class Iraq that was accepting of democracy, that would set this democracy epidemic to Syria and Iran.

Everything they have said has been wrong. Don Rumsfeld said, you know, that liberty is untidy.

JIM LEHRER: But what if the surge works? What if the surge -- what is David is right?

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, how does the surge work, I mean, that fewer killings, that the number of attacks on Americans goes back to where it was six months ago, where it was a year ago? I mean, there has been an acceleration of violence against Americans and on the part of Iraq's -- Iraqi...

DAVID BROOKS: One of the things, watching the debate in the House, that was frustrating was that it was hermetically sealed what from what is actually happening in Iraq.

I didn't see a single mention -- I didn't watch all the debate. I watched a bunch of it on C-SPAN. I didn't see a single mention of anything that has happened in the last six months or a year in Iraq. It was all Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, 2003.

DAVID BROOKS: And, listen, one of the things I got wrong early in this war, in supporting it, was not paying minute attention to the facts on the ground. So, I'm well aware of that mistake.

And what I saw in the debate was a complete replication of that mistake and a replication of the other error, which was not paying attention to history. The history has been clear that, when you try to withdraw from Iraq, you end up making yourself irrelevant, if you set a timetable.

And then the facts on the ground, I think Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution has for a long time put together the most honest account of how we should judge the facts on the ground. And I think his verdict now is that some promising results from the surge, but very preliminary. So, you got to keep an open mind about this. What bothered me about the debate was how detached it was from all that.

Senate vote on the war bill

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
When a president is -- just ignores and resists and rejects not only expression of election results, but of the opinion in the country, as this president has with his stubbornness, you have to take extraordinary measures.

JIM LEHRER: Is the Senate -- now, the Senate is going to take this thing up, Mark.

MARK SHIELDS: OK.

JIM LEHRER: And if -- the Senate doesn't even have -- as I understand it, their resolution isn't even as binding as the House, right? In other words, isn't there...

MARK SHIELDS: No, that's right. They have a goal.

JIM LEHRER: They have a goal, not a binding date, and all that sort of stuff.

MARK SHIELDS: Rather than a timetable.

JIM LEHRER: So, where -- what does all this mean?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, what it means, Jim, is, for example, every freshman in the House of Representatives, Democrat, voted for it, OK? That's significant. That -- the election...

JIM LEHRER: Voted for the -- today's...

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. OK.

MARK SHIELDS: The election last week -- the election last November...

JIM LEHRER: Had consequences.

MARK SHIELDS: ... had consequences.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

MARK SHIELDS: There are five freshman who really played a prominent role in this, all of whom were military veterans, including Patrick Murphy, who was with the 82nd Airborne in Iraq. I mean, these were all -- Joe Sestak, a three-star admiral, freshman Democrat.

I mean all of them stood up. The highest ranked -- Tim Walz, the highest ranking enlisted man in the Congress ever, I mean a command sergeant major, I mean, they all stood up and made the case that, from the units with whom they have served, their colleagues, that they were doing the right thing.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Well, let's take it down the court. Let's take it down the road here.

JIM LEHRER: All right, the Senate passes something, and then -- but the president said he's going to veto -- he's going to veto whatever -- whatever passes...

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

JIM LEHRER: ... if something does in fact pass the Senate and make it through -- I mean, through some kind of conference or whatever.

MARK SHIELDS: The president said it was meaningless...

JIM LEHRER: Meaningless.

MARK SHIELDS: ... and a real threat at the same time.

JIM LEHRER: A threat to the...

MARK SHIELDS: A threat to the country. I mean, that was his statement today.

JIM LEHRER: Where do you come down on that question -- on that issue, David, that -- I know you are opposed to what the House is doing. Is it hurtful?

DAVID BROOKS: I don't think it does. I don't think this kind of debate is hurtful.

And I think you go back 3,000 years, if people have a debate, do democracies fight wars poorly? And the bad thing about democracy is that it is tough to get consensus, and you can't get quick action, because we have to have big debates.

But, over the long run, democracies fight better wars, and tend to do very successful in wars, because we do have this kind of debate, and we can correct our mistakes. So, I completely reject the idea that having this debate undermines the troops.

JIM LEHRER: And what about the micromanaging accusation that was made against the Democrats?

MARK SHIELDS: Now, that's...

JIM LEHRER: You're not making that -- you're not making that...

DAVID BROOKS: No. No. I would, though.

JIM LEHRER: David is not...

MARK SHIELDS: Give him a chance, and he will do it.

MARK SHIELDS: No. I think, Jim, everybody acknowledges the president is the commander in chief, and the president runs our foreign policy.

When a president is -- just ignores and resists and rejects not only expression of election results, but of the opinion in the country, as this president has with his stubbornness, you have to take extraordinary measures. And I think that is what the budget, that is what it is.

The question is, who funds the war? And this was a decision that they made, that they are going to fund the war, and...

JIM LEHRER: Under these conditions.

MARK SHIELDS: Under these conditions.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, but, if the Democrats had really cared about that, they would have gotten Republicans. They would have had a debate which brought all the unhappy Republicans over to their side, which really would have put pressure on the president.

They didn't do that. They chose a highly partisan position, which made it clear: It's us Democrats against them Republicans.

And that made it very easy for the Republicans to hold together, and it made it very easy for Bush to hold tough.

Subpoenas over attorney firings

JIM LEHRER: New subject, but same kind of thing, a different confrontation between -- over subpoenas, against possible subpoenas -- they haven't been issued yet, but they have been authorized -- against Karl Rove and others having to do with the Alberto Gonzales and the fired prosecutors. How serious a deal is this?

DAVID BROOKS: Substantively, I don't think it's that serious.

The prosecutors are political. They are -- in the -- the founders made them part of the executive branch, political branch. Now, that word has three meanings. It can mean they have to follow the policy priorities of the elected president. That's fine. That's good politics.

Then there is sleazy, but not illegal politics, which is, are they firing the prosecutors to help some cronies or because some members of the party feel uncomfortable? That is sleazy, but not a scandal.

And then there is the third meaning of political, which is, they are interfering with investigations. From my look at the evidence, some were fired for reason number one. They weren't following the priorities. Some were followed -- for reason number two, for crony reasons. And it's sleazy, but not a scandal.

None, so far, were fired for reason number three, which is a scandal. So, I think it is unseemly, what happened to those people. It's unattractive, but not a huge crime, so far.

JIM LEHRER: What about the subpoena confrontation?

MARK SHIELDS: I think that -- I don't argue with David that the president -- the president...

JIM LEHRER: On his three points?

MARK SHIELDS: His three points.

I do argue with his conclusion about nothing was wrong. I think the New Mexico case, there are serious questions of whether it was interference by Senator Domenici, by Heather Wilson, the congresswoman, Republican congresswoman.

MARK SHIELDS: ... and by -- in the Carol Lam case in San Diego, whether in fact the problem that is referred to in all the e-mails back and forth was her going after defense contractors, Republican congressmen, and the CIA agent who were later indicted.

Using transcripts

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
The president has to confront the reality that, 47 times, Clinton people, and 10 of whom had the same position that Karl Rove does have, testified, under oath, to the Congress, which was then controlled by Republicans.

JIM LEHRER: That may or may not come out in a wash. But I'm..

JIM LEHRER: My question has to do about the subpoenas, executive privilege. The president says they can talk, but they don't talk under oath. And there is no transcript, et cetera.

The Senate -- the Democrats in the House and Senate say, no way, Jose.

MARK SHIELDS: No way, Jose. The president isn't even on ice. He's on water when it comes to no transcript.

The secretary -- the press secretary of the president has a transcript every day of his remarks for two reasons, one, for the press, so that they don't get anything wrong, and, two, so the White House can't say he didn't say it.

I mean, the idea that someone is going to come in and -- being under oath -- I hate to hurt my liberal friends -- that isn't a big thing. Lying to Congress is a serious thing. And the way you prove lying to Congress is if you do have a transcript.

JIM LEHRER: What do you agree with that issue?

DAVID BROOKS: I actually agree with Mark.

DAVID BROOKS: Did we come to Washington so we -- the president says you can testify, but there can't be a transcript. This is what I came for, the sacred cause of no transcript.

DAVID BROOKS: It is pathetic. It is ridiculous. And it's a politically unsustainable way to have an argument.

But he's doing it because he wants to be seen tough on Democrats. And they want to be seen tough on him. It's the old line I have repeated on this show before: When two men have a fight over a woman, it is the fight they want, not the woman.

And it is not -- it's, the underlying thing is not so big. They want to have a big fight for their own political reasons.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see this thing going to some huge head in the Supreme Court of the United States, or do you see other heads getting together and resolving....

DAVID BROOKS: I have some faith in the process that, some -- the rationality of Washington -- that, somehow, they will -- because, look, who is walking around the country worrying about this? They want to have some legislation. This is just somehow out of control.

MARK SHIELDS: I think there will be a resolution. I think they will accept a transcript.

And, I mean, the president has to confront the reality that, 47 times, Clinton people, and 10 of whom had the same position that Karl Rove does have, testified, under oath, to the Congress, which was then controlled by Republicans.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

So, you think -- you don't think we're on the verge of a huge constitutional crisis that is going to tear the country apart?

MARK SHIELDS: It's not Marbury vs. Madison.

MARK SHIELDS: No, no. This is not the Dred Scott decision in the making, no.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

And I have to figure, and the Democrats, too, they want to actually pass some things that people actually care about, which would never happen if this dragged on.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. OK. Thank you both very much.