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Shields and Brooks Mull Security Debate, Supreme Court Fight

May 22, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the impact of President Obama and former Vice President Cheney's security policy speeches and the buildup to the president's announcement of a Supreme Court pick.
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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, was there a winner in the battle of the Obama and Cheney speeches?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, I think the winner, you know, straight up, down, was the president. It’s tough to go against the president, especially this president, who has a capacity to marshal his argument and make his case.

And Dick Cheney, in many respects, is a flawed messenger, maybe disabled messenger for a party that is hemorrhaging support right now.

The only question that I’ve had raised by Democrats was whether this was the wisest use of the president’s time, talent, and finite political — you know, his political prowess, I guess.

JIM LEHRER: The idea that, why should the president of the United States be going toe to toe with a former vice president of the United States on something like that?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Yes, but this is a huge issue. I mean, this is a big issue where the president’s made a whole series of discrete decisions, and he hasn’t laid it out for everybody. And this is a big issue, I think, of great concern to the left, but of concern to the country. I think it’s absolutely appropriate to use the president’s time.

And I would say he emerges as the big winner because this is an unfair fight. Dick Cheney doesn’t speak for the Republican Party. He doesn’t speak for where John McCain, the last Republican nominee, was on this issue. McCain is closer to Obama. He doesn’t speak to where George Bush was in the second term.

I mean, my main point is that the policy that George Bush had in the second term is very, very, very close to the policy Barack Obama has right now. We have a bipartisan policy on terror these days.

If you look at the individual issues of rendition, habeas corpus, the secret prisons, Obama has taken the Bush policy, made some adjustments, mostly minor, and then co-opted it. We have a bipartisan policy. My problem is nobody could admit that fact.

Barack Obama can’t admit to the Democratic Party that he took George Bush’s policy, and Dick Cheney wants to pretend that Barack Obama has made this vast departure so he can pretend that somehow we’re less safe.

Re-examining Bush's policies

Mark Shields
New York Times
I talked to some Bush people yesterday, and they said that the Cheney speech was very familiar to them. He's been making all those arguments within the Bush White House, while he was losing the arguments, and now he made them publicly.

JIM LEHRER: That make sense to you?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think it's a classic David insight, and perhaps a little bit of an overreach.

JIM LEHRER: I think that's a no.

DAVID BROOKS: That's the most insulting thing I've ever heard in my life.

JIM LEHRER: You don't have to take that. You don't have to take that, David.

MARK SHIELDS: I withdraw that compliment then. No, I think the president made quite clearly his differences in the speech yesterday. I mean, it was interesting. The first part of the speech was an indictment of what had gone before...

JIM LEHRER: Of the Bush administration?

MARK SHIELDS: That's right, of the mess we'd gotten into. Now, the president has also said -- and I think with some validity -- that Vice President Cheney was driven to speak -- and I think David's right, he's not speaking for the Republicans -- he was speaking as much against the policies that changed in the Bush administration in the second -- in defense of those that he had argued and for which he ultimately paid a certain price socially and powerfully in the administration itself.

JIM LEHRER: So you agree with David?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, no, I think the president made the case, though, that the techniques were wrong, that the going it alone, not talking to people was wrong, that unilateral military action was wrong, that the enhanced interrogation techniques, the torture put our troops at risk, put Americans at risk, recruited terrorists.

I mean, I think he made a very strong case against it. Then he pivoted and tried to make the case for the future, which is a more difficult case.

DAVID BROOKS: First, I would say that's the kind of point Mark would make.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, right.

DAVID BROOKS: But we stopped torturing people -- we stopped waterboarding people in -- I think it's March or certainly winter 2003. That's a long time ago.

What happened was, in the first years of the Bush administration, right after 9/11, they did a lot of stuff, but those policies were morally offensive and unsustainable. And people like Steve Hadley and Condoleezza Rice reined them in.

And you had an evolution over 2003, '04, '05, '06, '07, and '08 moving away from the policies that Dick Cheney now celebrates to a whole set of different policies, which are close to what Obama celebrates.

And I talked to some Bush people yesterday, and they said that the Cheney speech was very familiar to them. He's been making all those arguments within the Bush White House, while he was losing the arguments, and now he made them publicly.

And so I do think what Obama did -- very politically astutely, I guess, though not quite honestly -- was to pretend 2002, 2003, the Bush-Cheney era, was the entire Bush era, and it wasn't. And so he sort of had a little political sleight of hand.

But the good news is -- and this is Obama's major accomplishment -- and Mark did mention this -- is that, first of all, he took some sensible policies the professionals in the field really believe in. And he did something George Bush would never do, which is, A, to build a framework around them so they're sustainable and coherent and then, most importantly, to explain them to people.

The Bush had this vast evolution in policy, but Bush didn't care what people thought so he never explained them to people, would never admit he was changing course. Obama explained them and made them credible, and that's a big improvement.

Reconciling ideals with security

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
There is sort of an urge on [Cheney's] part to re-litigate those eight years to go back and especially to return to 9/11 and make the case that thousands and hundreds of thousands of people were saved by these methods.

MARK SHIELDS: I agree. I mean, his ability to explain is certainly superior to his predecessors.

But I think what President Obama did yesterday was to make the case, which has never been made by anybody in or out of the previous administration, that our values and security were not at war. I mean...

JIM LEHRER: It wasn't an either/or thing?

MARK SHIELDS: That's right, that we did not have to sacrifice, that his primary and overriding responsibility is to assure especially Democrats -- who had become the bed-wetter caucus up on Capitol Hill on this issue -- to assure them that the security of the nation, the security of our troops was of paramount urgency and overriding importance to him, but that our values really did not have to be compromised in that pursuit.

And I thought the choice, sacrificing acoustics for symbolism, of doing it at the Archives with the Constitution there was powerful.

JIM LEHRER: What about -- yes?

DAVID BROOKS: No, I would say that's mostly true, but it's not always true. I mean, we have 600 prisoners in Kabul. We don't give them habeas corpus rights. We have rendition still going on. There are some cases where they are at war and there is a tension between these two. That's unavoidable; I think the president acknowledges that.

MARK SHIELDS: He did.

DAVID BROOKS: That's why we have indefinite detentions under Barack Obama, something nobody likes and not really consistent with our values, but there are undeniable tensions.

I think one of the nice things that Obama did was he laid out these different levels of prisoners and said, These are tough calls, and I have tried to do the best I can, which is a very adult way of doing it.

JIM LEHRER: What about from Cheney's point of view? What explains former Vice President Cheney's -- he said it over and over again, he said it before he said it yesterday, but this idea that the country has been made unsafe or less safe because of all these things that the Obama administration has done. Is that going to ring true out there, do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it certainly hasn't, as of now or up to now. I mean, 27 times he mentioned 9/11 in that speech yesterday. It was rather remarkable. I mean, there is sort of an urge on his part to re-litigate those eight years to go back and especially to return to 9/11 and make the case that thousands and hundreds of thousands of people were saved by these methods...

JIM LEHRER: He said that again.

MARK SHIELDS: ... with which he's been identified, for which there is no proof, and then to kind of cherry-pick. I mean, he endorses Dennis Blair's statement about valuable information...

JIM LEHRER: The national intelligence...

MARK SHIELDS: ... national intelligence -- but then leaves out Dennis Blair's saying that this is -- overall, it hurt the nation's security, in the sense that, because of the values that were undermined, and it was not -- it was not worth what the sacrifice and the compromises that were made.

So there's something there with him. I don't know. I've heard Republicans -- David has better sources with them than I do -- suggest that he has never really gotten over the failure of President Bush to pardon Scooter Libby.

Cheney's motivations

David Brooks
New York Times
I just think [Cheney] genuinely believes those policies. He believes in enhanced interrogation technique. He thinks that saved lives... I don't agree with him, but I don't think he's Voldemort.

JIM LEHRER: Does that sound right?...

DAVID BROOKS: I don't think that's -- I think it's conviction. I just think he genuinely believes those policies. He believes in enhanced interrogation technique. He thinks that saved lives.

I think it's a matter of just raw conviction. There's no other reason to do this.

I don't agree with him, but I don't think he's Voldemort. I don't think the way he's been cast aside as this dark menace is totally fair. I think it's a legitimate argument. I've heard people who are professional, nonpartisan people, when you ask them, "Well, do you get information from some of these technique? Is it worth it?" Most of them say it's not worth it, but they never slam the door shut, they never say it's a closed argument. Some of them say it's a jump-ball, it's 50/50, it's a close case.

So the point of view he represents is something I don't agree with, but I think it's a real point of view, and I think he really is doing it out of conviction that the nation...

MARK SHIELDS: I'm not questioning his conviction, but he's doing it with a vehemence and almost an intensity that is totally disproportionate.

DAVID BROOKS: The one area I'd say he's wrong -- I mean, he emphasized 9/11, as Mark said, and I think he's right about that. I think the fear that we felt on 9/11 was true and useful.

But then he's wrong to say, because you think 9/11 was an important event that your policies always have to stay stuck in amber from 2002. That's not true. You can feel the fear. You can feel the importance of that event and still your policies can evolve, which is what they did in the Bush administration, and he won't accept that.

JIM LEHRER: Won't accept that.

Obama's Supreme Court nominee

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
If the president came with the predictable, conventional, liberal nominee, that there was no place at all to find any common ground, then I think there'd be some resistance and maybe some anger. But I don't see it right now.

JIM LEHRER: All right, new subject, related, the Supreme Court nominations, apparently it could be released, announced this coming week. Do you anticipate a real serious fight over this? What's your reading of the leaves on both sides?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I don't get a sense that there's going to be a great fight. I don't think the Republicans have the stomach for it right now.

If the president came with the predictable, conventional, liberal nominee, that there was no place at all to find any common ground, then I think there'd be some resistance and maybe some anger.

But I don't see it right now. And I think what the president, according to people at the White House, is looking for is somebody who can -- who's not going to change the political line-up of the court, but maybe change the intellectual dynamic of the court by having somebody who can, perhaps, think a little bit more creatively and imaginatively about the progressive positions in making the case, not only within the court itself, but to the nation at large and the community.

JIM LEHRER: That's really it, isn't it, David? I mean, there's nobody suggesting that Barack Obama is going to select somebody who's going to change the 5-4 split in the Supreme Court as we speak, right?

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JIM LEHRER: Because Souter was one of the four or the five.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

JIM LEHRER: But depending on where things were, where Tony Kennedy went, where Anthony Kennedy went, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: But I do think the president thinks the chief justice, John Roberts, is a more aggressive arguer for the conservative cause than a lot of people would have thought when he was confirmed. And, therefore, I think he thinks there's a greater need, as Mark said, for a counterweight, and I think especially in the area of civil rights.

I think his interpretation is Roberts is more aggressive on the conservative side of civil rights issues, and he wants maybe a counterbalance of that.

MARK SHIELDS: One of his people said that the Lilly Ledbetter case is probably the perfect example, I mean, where -- it's the woman who had been deprived the same pay wage as men for years and years, and then was denied the right to sue for it, that Barack Obama would come down on the side of what great interpretation of justice that this is somebody who had been unjustly treated, whereas John Roberts and the court had, in fact, come down the other way. And I think he's looking for somebody who can make that case.

JIM LEHRER: Has there ever been a time -- I can't think of one, so if you all can, please help me -- where there's been a Supreme Court opening where it's been a given that a white male need not apply, there isn't going to be one, no matter what, it's going to be a woman or a member of a minority, correct?

DAVID BROOKS: Right, it's...

JIM LEHRER: Am I right about that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, some people thought that after Sandra Day O'Connor left the court, but I think you're right about that. I myself am troubled by that.

JIM LEHRER: Are you?

DAVID BROOKS: I'm not sure I'd do anything differently if I were the president, but kind of judging people by the shape of their sexual organs to me is a problem.

MARK SHIELDS: There's no question how little debate and discussion there is upon it, but, I mean, when you raise it...

JIM LEHRER: It's a given. It's just a given.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, you say, we're not -- not everybody is eligible. And it's -- so David Souter...

JIM LEHRER: This was after centuries where only white males were eligible.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right. That's right. The Sandra Day O'Connor seat is going to be...

JIM LEHRER: It's a hard -- it's a hard complaint to make at this point.

MARK SHIELDS: Especially as a white male.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you, fellow white males.