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Shields and York Preview Obama’s Libya Address, 2012 Republican Field

March 25, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Examiner chief political correspondent Byron York discuss the week's news, including the growing list of Republican candidates for the 2012 presidential nomination and President's Obama handling of the coalition mission in Libya.

JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and York, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Byron York, chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner. David Brooks is away tonight.

Byron, what do you make of this potential 2012 Republican field?

BYRON YORK: You know, I think the most exciting thing for a lot of people on the Republican base happened this week when Michele Bachmann gave an indication that she might form an exploratory committee, got a lot more buzz than Tim Pawlenty’s Facebook announcement that he was doing that.

I think that is an indication that there is still a lot of lingering unhappiness with — among the Republican base with their field. Mitt Romney is a front-runner who they have never completely embraced. Sarah Palin appears to be not running at the moment.

You know, the first debate, Republicans’, is May 2 at the Reagan Library in California. She has signed to do a speaking engagement in Denver that night. So, she’s not there. It looks like Mike Huckabee is not running as well. So, it is enormously fluid right now.

JIM LEHRER: Enormously fluid? You agree?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. I mean, the Republicans are a lot more orderly and hierarchal than Democrats. Oftentimes, the Democratic nominee is somebody you had never heard of four years before — he is nominated.

That was the case with George McGovern in 1972. It was the case with Jimmy Carter in ’76, Michael Dukakis in ’88, Barack Obama in 2008. Republicans, there is a predictability. It was John McCain’s turn in 2008.

JIM LEHRER: Turn, right.

MARK SHIELDS: It was Bob Dole’s turn in ’96, George Herbert Walker Bush’s in ’92, and Reagan’s in ’80. This — there is no sense of order in this race. It’s nobody’s turn. There’s nobody in line.

Republicans form a line. Democrats fall in love when they pick nominees. That is sort of the difference between the two parties. The Democrats are emotionally glandular. Republicans are rather conventional and promote from within. And there really isn’t anybody who has emerged yet.

JIM LEHRER: Byron, is there a feeling among Republicans, potential candidates, and the people who might support some of these candidates that Barack Obama is vulnerable, that he can be had in 2012?

BYRON YORK: You know, it’s — it’s — there’s two ways of thinking about this.

A number of Republicans seem to be scared of the president, even though his approval rating is in the high 40s right now. And then others are saying, look, think back to 1992. George H.W. Bush had an approval rating about 90 percent. He was invincible. All of the really smart guys, like Al Gore and Mario Cuomo, decided not to run. And the prize went to the man who took the risk, ran, and Bill Clinton became president.

So, I think there are a number of Republicans that are saying this is a good time to run; let’s don’t wait four more years.

JIM LEHRER: What is your reading on Obama now? I know it’s early, to put it mildly.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. Well, but the problem is that, because our elections are in years divisible by four, the decision to run can be made no later than the winter of the year before.

And Byron is absolutely right about George Herbert Walker Bush. Ronald Reagan in 1983 at this point was at 35 percent approval. So everybody and his brother got in, I mean, John Glenn, and Reubin Askew, and Fritz Hollings, and Gary Hart, and Fritz Mondale, Jesse Jackson. They all ran because they knew he was going to be vulnerable.

By November of 1984, he was at 60 percent approval, and he carried 49 states. I mean, you make the decision now. And I think the decision they are looking at — Mike Huckabee had an interesting thing to say. I talked to him a couple of weeks ago.

And he said, look — he said, Barack Obama is not going have a Hillary this time. And he’s already said — they have put out word, the Obama campaign, which seems to have taken full form — that they are going to raise a billion dollars.

So, he said, you go through this long, costly, bloody battle, and you win the nomination, David said, that could be extended into April or May. And in May of 2012, you say, you’re facing an incumbent president with a billion dollars in his kicker and all the advantages of incumbency.

But what that overlooks is that, given the news of today and the unrest in the Middle East, the absolute unrest, I mean, we could be looking at gasoline at $2 — $200 a barrel and $6 a gallon. And if that is the case, Jim, if you’re a library board trustee in Kankakee, as an incumbent, you will not be reelected in 2012.


JIM LEHRER: Well, let’s talk about President Obama now, and particularly the Middle East and particularly Libya.

He is catching heat from Republicans, as well as Democrats, about how he has handled this. Does he deserve to catch some heat?

BYRON YORK: I think you have to grade him on two different scales.

On what is actually going on in Libya, the goal was to establish a no-fly zone and to protect civilians. They’ve certainly established a no-fly zone. They have mostly protected civilians, not certainly entirely. So, I think they get high grades on that.

But the domestic end of it, dealing with Congress, consulting with Congress, he was really too little, too late. He’s now saying he had a conference call today with a number of congressional leaders. He is going to consult more. But they are saying, well, you should have told us beforehand, and it was — he told them really hours before the action began.

And the other, the most important thing, in my opinion, is talking to the American people and explaining to them why you have taken, undertaken this rather major military action. He didn’t really do it. He still hasn’t do it — hasn’t done it.

JIM LEHRER: I just have been told, the wires have moved, the fact that the president is going to address the nation on Monday night.

So, he must have heard you what said, Byron.

BYRON YORK: That’s news, because Jay Carney today said it would be very soon, and it wouldn’t be over the weekend.


BYRON YORK: So, there has — pressure has been increasing, because it is traditional for a president, in a national address forum, to tell the nation what he is doing, why he is doing it, and how long he expects it to last.

JIM LEHRER: Is the problem the process, as Byron just outlined, or is it what he is, in fact, doing, what — in other words, the Libyan action itself is giving people problems, or that he didn’t consult or he didn’t talk to the people right and all that stuff?

MARK SHIELDS: We really don’t know, because we’re not sure what the mission is. And that’s the president’s responsibility is to lay out what the mission exactly is, what it entails, what our commitment is, what the exit strategy is, how we will know the success.

And the confusion for the failure to make this case to the public, which now we’re told is going to happen on Monday night, all we have is sort of fragmentary reports. I mean, we have — the form has been quite good. I mean, the consultation — he ran in 2008 as the anti-George Bush.

Where Bush was accused of being impulsive and the decider and unilateral, he was multilateral, he was going to consult, he was going to seek consensus, not have military as the first option. And, certainly, that appears to be the case.

But, Jim, just like the bank bailout, just like the stimulus package, and to some degree like the health-care plan, the argument for Libya is, things would have been worse if we hadn’t done what we did. And, you know, that’s a tough argument to make to people, because there really isn’t any evidence to the other side. You want to take it on faith that that is the case.

And I think you can make certainly a case in the bank bailout or TARP that — and certainly the auto bailout, that things were better than they would have been. But it — still, it’s not the same as, now I understand where they are. This is not the Powell doctrine being met and defined.

JIM LEHRER: But is it not fair to say, Byron, that President Obama has done this intentionally? It may not work for him in the long run, but he wants to low-key this.


JIM LEHRER: This is not an American operation. We’re only going to do this a few days. Then we’re going to turn it over to somebody else. And he probably doesn’t even want to address the nation, hadn’t planned to address the nation on this.

BYRON YORK: But, you know, turning it over to somebody else is not an exit strategy. And the president did suggest that the exit strategy would come in the next few days.

And it’s just turning over American forces to the control of other nations or multinational organizations, which may not make every American happy. The president and the White House has used a number of euphemisms for what is going on. They won’t call it a war. The deputy national security adviser actually called it a kinetic military action.

JIM LEHRER: What in the world is that?

BYRON YORK: Kinetic is a word that is used at the Pentagon a lot to differentiate things like shooting people and dropping bombs on them, very kinetic, and cyber-warfare and other things that do not involve physical action. So, that is the kinetic lesson.


BYRON YORK: So, it is just unclear. The president — the question that John Boehner asked the president on Wednesday in a letter, which is, “If Moammar Gadhafi stays in power after this is over, is that an acceptable result?” I think that cuts to the heart of what’s going on here.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree that that is the heart of what — what is in people’s minds right now?

MARK SHIELDS: I think, Jim, I’m not sure that’s in people’s minds right now.

I would say that the president and the administration recognize that the American public has no appetite for another war. And so they decided to treat it seriously but to downplay it. That is why there was no war mentioned. And that is why we went ahead with the trip — he went ahead with the trip to Chile and El Salvador and Brazil.

But what it has done is it has left in its wake this confusion and this misunderstanding.

JIM LEHRER: But there is — you believe there is confusion?

MARK SHIELDS: I really do. I mean, I really do.

I think this is a — there is absolutely — I mean, Colin Powell — granted, the major blot on his career, as he acknowledged, was 2003 at the United Nations, when he failed in his responsibility, he felt, as secretary of state, going to war in Iraq in the first place — but he laid out, it has to be, A., first of all, in the vital national interests of the United States.

Two, there has to be a clear understanding and support of what the mission is, both internationally, which seems to be more the case, and as well as domestically. And, three, there must be overwhelming use of force. And, four, there must be an established and an understandable exit strategy, so you know what it is.

So, there is — there is no way to measure is it, in fact, protecting the civilian population of Libya that we have to remove Gadhafi? I mean, the president said, Gadhafi’s time is up. He has got to.

I don’t know what that means.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. But we’re not going to take him out. Yes.

Even just listening to the conversation that Jeff ran on Syria at the beginning of the program, you know, that has all — well, wait a minute, it has — they are talking about the same things. There’s — people are being killed. And the government is shooting civilians. Does that fit the criteria? You all are arguing, we don’t know what the criteria is.

BYRON YORK: Well, Mark hit the key thing. Can you convince the American people that it is in the vital national security interests of the United States? And I don’t think you are ever going to convince everybody, or even — perhaps even a majority, that this particular action is.

And the bigger question that you bring up is that there are lots of places where bad things are going on. There are lots of places where civilians are in great danger. Are we going to put no-fly zones over them? Are we going to intervene in those places? And this is something we might want to hear from the president on Monday.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think the president, with all the problems that Speaker Boehner has raised, and what the polls have showed, and what you all have said and a lot of people have said, that he can, in fact, get on top of this now with his speech on Monday? Or is it all dependent on what happens on the ground?

BYRON YORK: I think, first of all, the no-fly zone we established, it’s running quite well, because Gadhafi doesn’t have any airplanes that work.

We are now attacking Libyan forces, pro-Gadhafi forces, from the air. We’re doing it pretty aggressively. Even with today’s precision-guided munitions, there are going to be civilian casualties at some point if this campaign continues. That is going to cause anger in the Arab world. And that can lead to a very difficult situation for the president.

JIM LEHRER: There’s — he is in trouble, no matter what?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think it is…

JIM LEHRER: A few seconds.

MARK SHIELDS: I think — yes — I think it is difficult, Jim.

I mean, if Gadhafi were to leave next week and go to Venezuela, you know, that may very well be the solution. But we don’t know who we are for. We know who we are against. We don’t know how hard we are against him.

JIM LEHRER: Well, I’m for both of you. And thank you both very much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: And good to see you again, Byron.

BYRON YORK: Great to be here.