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Senate Debates Iraq, While Presidential Contenders Shift in Polls

March 30, 2007 at 7:30 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Lowry, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and National Review editor Rich Lowry. David Brooks is away tonight.

Mark, did the president make a difference by going to Walter Reed today?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I’m glad the president did go, Jim. I mean, it’s not much of a trip from the White House. It’s been a long time coming.

But the administration, the government, America is still reeling from the statement by the arrogant and insensitive general, when confronted with the wounded warriors living in mold, with rodents running, saying, “I don’t do barracks inspections.”

And that sort of became — Gen. Kiley became, for many Americans, the sense of indifference, and beyond indifference, as was explained in the segment with Judy, the bureaucratic nightmare that these troops are put through.

JIM LEHRER: Do you have the feeling now, Rich, that the message has now been heard loud and clearly by those who can do something about this and will do something about it?

RICH LOWRY, Editor, National Review: Yes, I think so. And, look, it’s obviously good the president went there today. It’s appropriate that he apologized.

But the most important thing in this whole episode for me is that there wasn’t much circling of the wagons right at the beginning. People were fired, and appropriately so, and that’s a problem this administration has had with its management style all along.

It’s the delegating down to people and then not holding them accountable when there are bad consequences. And this seems to be an exception to that.

JIM LEHRER: That was because of the new secretary of defense, Gates?

RICH LOWRY: Yes, I think there’s a different attitude there. And with Rumsfeld, who was so embattled, and they’re so used to having every possible charge thrown at him, there was very little give there. And the tendency always was to push back against anything and everything, and Gates has been a fresh start in that regard.

The future of Gonzales

Rich Lowry
National Review
The problem was, at the beginning, they did not say what Kyle Sampson said yesterday, which is: This is inherently a political position. And, yes, politics entered into our decisions in a variety of ways.

JIM LEHRER: Speak of charges, Attorney General Gonzales, how badly was he hurt by what his former chief of staff said yesterday in that Senate testimony?

MARK SHIELDS: He was hurt, Jim, and the vote is the silence from Republican senators. There are no defenders. Rich's magazine, the flagship magazine of the conservative movement...

JIM LEHRER: Yes, your magazine came after...

RICH LOWRY: That's what people always say what we call on a Republican to resign, "flagship," "most influential."

MARK SHIELDS: I just thought I'd quote him. I mean, really, I'm trying to help.

RICH LOWRY: I appreciate it.

MARK SHIELDS: Trying to help subscriptions. But in a strange way, it's a personal tragedy, as well as a public tragedy, because this is somebody without personal fortune to fall back on, without a family fortune, without, you know, many options, quite frankly.

I mean, this is probably, you know, the job that he'll hold, and I don't imagine a lot of firms are running to get him at this point. But I think the signal has been sent that he's out there, and the president's confident he can defend himself, and he's on his own, is the word.

JIM LEHRER: But the president's spokeswoman said today the president still supports him "100 percent," direct quote. What does that mean?

RICH LOWRY: Yes, well, they have to say that right up and to the point he leaves. But if you look at the body language, Mark is right. You know, the White House is not very strongly behind him. The Republican senators are very quiet.

And I think Kyle Sampson's testimony, there wasn't any evidence of anything improper or illegal about the firings themselves, but it does make it seem as though Gonzales was either deliberately deceptive -- and I'm open to the possibility that that's what he was -- or I think, a little more likely in my view -- and this doesn't speak any better of his job as attorney general -- that he is just not very careful with his facts or his language, which is something you expect of a lawyer and expect especially from the attorney general of the United States.

And you talk to any Republican on Capitol Hill, and they all agree the handling of this has just been horrible, and it speaks to an incompetence at the top of the Justice Department.

JIM LEHRER: Handling and incompetence, is that what this is about?

MARK SHIELDS: It is. I thought Kyle Sampson, the chief of staff's attempt to say, "Well, it was a problem of communications." It isn't a problem of communications.

I mean, he made a statement yesterday that has to just absolutely incur the wrath, and enmity, and opposition of anybody who was cut loose, and that is, "I don't see any difference" -- he equated nonperformance, malfeasance in office, or bad performance with just a political decision.

He said, "I don't think getting rid of anybody -- either grounds is fine." Well, if you're one of the people dismissed, it's one thing to say, "We're getting rid of you, Rich, because we want to bring in Billy Bob who needs this experience."

But when the thought is left, or at least the charge is left that we're getting rid of you because you're not up to the job or you did a bad job, that's pretty lousy.

RICH LOWRY: You know, the problem was, at the beginning, they did not say what Kyle Sampson said yesterday, which is: This is inherently a political position. And, yes, politics entered into our decisions in a variety of ways, because we didn't think they were following our priorities or we wanted to get someone we like a lot, you know, the credential of having this job. Instead, Paul McNulty...

JIM LEHRER: And then say next question and move on.

RICH LOWRY: Yes, but Paul McNulty, the deputy attorney general, said, no, this was performance-related. And the attorney general of the United States wrote an op-ed saying "they lost my confidence." And now he's trying to tell us, well, he really didn't even know why they were fired.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

The Iraq debate on Capitol Hill

Mark Shields
Sydicated columnist
What we're talking about is whether this president, who has had a free hand, I mean, for the six years -- I mean, no oversight from the Congress -- is going to have to respond to the Congress as an equal branch of government.

JIM LEHRER: The vote in the Senate this week, Rich, the war vote setting a nonbinding date for the troops to be gone. And, of course, it's a companion to the earlier legislation that is binding that was passed by the House. How close are we to a huge confrontation here?

RICH LOWRY: It's upon us. I mean, it's a big game of chicken. You know, Congress is not going to back down. The House and Senate will get together in a conference and reconcile their bills with some sort of deadline of the sort President Bush has vowed to veto. And he'll veto it, and then we'll see where it goes from here.

Republicans at the moment are pretty optimistic about the politics. They think, you know, this is an opportunity for them to paint Democrats as weak on the war and, almost as importantly, maybe to get some of their credibility back on fiscal issues.

Because there's so much extraneous spending in this bill, so many pork projects that the Democrats needed in the House to win over some key votes, that Republicans really feel as though they can hammer on that stuff, and Bush has been emphasizing that in his criticisms of the bill.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read the politics of this, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, I'm just amazed. I really am. I mean, we have 70 percent of the people in the country who are opposed to the policy; 60 percent now want a date set. And a majority of both houses of Congress have expressed that.

And let's be very blunt about what's in this. I mean, it's full funding for the president's surge, including the 28,000 troops that are scheduled to go there, which will bring up to 170,000, which is an increase by 50 percent where we were just three years ago in the number of troops.

So it's not an argument about that. What we're talking about is whether this president, who has had a free hand, I mean, for the six years -- I mean, no oversight from the Congress -- is going to have to respond to the Congress as an equal branch of government.

And up to now, I'm just amazed, the president sort of reacted like, "You're bothersome. You're meddlesome. You're not an independent branch of government."

And I just think that we are heading for some sort of a resolution. I think the Congress has acted. They'll be informally in conference between the House and the Senate the next two weeks, and then come up with something, as Rich has said.

But I'm amazed so far that no Republican -- a John Warner, former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, doesn't come forward and say, "OK, can't we work something out here?"

Tension between Congress, president

Rich Lowry
National Review
He's going to veto it, and then we're going to get closer to the time when it's really going to start pinching not to have this spending bill settled one way or the other.

JIM LEHRER: But the politics of working something out, doesn't it revolve around the charge that, in fact, both sides are making the charge about -- each is making the charge about the other that they're undermining or they're jeopardizing the funding for the troops that are already on the ground.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I mean, but the funding is in what's passed.

JIM LEHRER: But doesn't it have a condition of...

MARK SHIELDS: It has a condition. I mean, what it essentially -- if you want to boil it down, what the House and the Senate are passing is variations of the Iraq Study Group plan, which the president did. I mean, it said, "We want diplomatic initiatives in the area. We want standards set. We want benchmarks met. We want the Iraqi government to know that they don't have American troops there in perpetuity. And if they don't meet these obligations"...

JIM LEHRER: But doesn't it also include, Rich, the idea -- or at least this is the way it's being presented -- that if these conditions are not met, then the money will not be there?

RICH LOWRY: Well, yes, the House bill has benchmarks this year, but even if they're met, they want the drawdown to start next year in March, and I think be through by September '08.

JIM LEHRER: Right, September '08, that's right.

RICH LOWRY: Then the Senate bill says, in 120 days, the drawdown has to begin, "shall begin." So this is really a debate over whether the war is going to begin ending or not. And that's a huge debate.

JIM LEHRER: You think a deal could still be made, though?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, I really think the responsibility is with the White House. I mean, I don't think the Congress wants to go back to 1995 and the showdown or whatever. I think that still echoes in a number of people's minds, what happened to -- it was the end of Newt Gingrich, effectively, as a public figure, continue to be a political figure.

JIM LEHRER: But you think the president has got -- he's got more going for him on this one?

RICH LOWRY: He's going to veto it, and then we're going to get closer to the time when it's really going to start pinching not to have this spending bill settled one way or the other.

And then the question is, do Democrats really want to have the climactic fight then or wait until later in the summer or the fall? I think the politically more careful and risk-free thing would be to wait, but I'm not sure whether that's what they're going to do or not.

MARK SHIELDS: One thing, just to understand, the president has leverage, OK, in that sense, as commander-in-chief. What the president doesn't have is he's lost the confidence in his policies, the personal confidence of the American voters, and the trust in his Iraqi policy.

So the Democrats are on the side there, but they don't have the leverage of changing policy, and I think that's really where it is. Eventually, if it does come to what Rich just described, that game of chicken, there's always the possibility -- and I can't believe the president would reject this -- that there would be a 30-day continuing resolution to fund it.

JIM LEHRER: To fund it, no matter what?

MARK SHIELDS: And the congressional reference service came out today and said there is enough money to go into June, and perhaps into July. So it's not a matter of urgency, emergency.

Edwards, Thompson rise in polls

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
John Edwards, this put a human face on what has been his issue, which is health insurance. John Edwards has cast himself as a truth-teller. He says they're going to have to raise taxes to have universal health care.

JIM LEHRER: Quickly before we go, presidential politics. Two things have happened on the Republican side. Fred Thompson has suddenly -- boom -- number three in the polls. On the Democratic side, John Edwards has come up considerably since the situation arose with the recurrence of cancer with his wife.

What's going on here, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think, first of all, John Edwards, this put a human face on what has been his issue, which is health insurance. John Edwards has cast himself as a truth-teller. He says they're going to have to raise taxes to have universal health care.

And I think even the harshest critics would acknowledge there wasn't a false note struck by either John or Elizabeth Edwards in either of those periods, when they disclosed the illness, when they went on "60 Minutes."

And she, actually, made the case for him staying in the race. And it seemed her trust and confidence in him carried the day.

JIM LEHRER: Fred Thompson?

RICH LOWRY: It's extraordinary. You know, he does a couple of media appearances, and he's third place in the Republican race, basically, which speaks to how fluid and dynamic the race is, and the discontent, especially among conservatives, with the current candidates...

JIM LEHRER: With the front-runners.

RICH LOWRY: Sure, and he seems to be taking votes from all of them, potentially. But if he gets in, it really hurts Mitt Romney, and may make it impossible for Mitt Romney to win.

And, you know, three weeks ago, I agreed with the conventional wisdom that, you know, he's playing with this, it's good for his name I.D., it's nice to be out there. But, you know, I was talking to people today in a position to know who now put it at about 50-50 that he may get in, because those polls have caught his eye.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Well, we'll leave it there. Thank you both very much.

Rich, good to see you again.