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Political Wrap

November 16, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, our Friday night analysis, tonight by David Brooks of the Weekly Standard and Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe. Mark Shields is off tonight.

This has been some week, David. Today Congress finally passed the aviation security bill. What happened to cause that to happen?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it didn’t happen a month too soon. The pressure became overwhelming. The people just became disgusted with the idea the two sides couldn’t get together with 4,000 planes flying a day. They finally got a compromise, which came from Trent Lott’s office, which essentially the Senate won. The workers are federal. There were some sops to the house, they’ll be able to fire the federal workers and there will be pilot programs for private workers.

But essentially the pressure on the House Republicans became too much for two reasons: First of all, it was framed by Dick Armey, the whole argument, and Armey has a talent for framing every Republican position in its least attractive light, and he did it again this time – as sort of a union versus anti-union issue, and the American people don’t care about that. They wanted to feel safe when they fly.

And the second overwhelming pressure, which finally caused the house to cave was the American people in a time of crisis, trust the government to do law and order issues. And that’s a lesson that should be learned on this issue, it should be learned on Justice Department and FBI anti-terror issues and we’ll probably learn again and again.

JIM LEHRER: Tom, what would you add to that?

TOM OLIPHANT: Sometimes logjams are broken because there are compromises. Other times logjams are broken because there is a cave-in. And this one was avalanche proportions. I think an additional factor here in the last month or so has been the repeated, sometimes egregious violations of security procedures that continue to happen at airports, including right here, right tonight in Atlanta, more than 90 by Norm Mineta’s count, I believe. And that made the House position unsustainable. And you could hear the sighs of relief from the Republicans in the House who were able to join that 410-person majority today to get rid of this issue.

JIM LEHRER: All right now, one issue they have not been able to get rid of yet though is the economic stimulus package. Explain where that rests as we speak.

TOM OLIPHANT: In a way I think it is the flip side of the point I just made about airline security. Here is a case where the parties are talking past each other, really as if they were talking from different planets. And in an atmosphere like that, you don’t get compromise.

JIM LEHRER: Explain the two planets.

TOM OLIPHANT: One planet, and I think the best example came from a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by Vice President Cheney, you hear language that talks about the economic slowdown in terms of a loss of confidence, a sharp drop-off in business investments in new jobs, leading to the conviction on the administration’s part, and most Republicans, that the answer is tax cuts.

From the Democrats, you get an analysis of the economic slowdown that focuses on the rising unemployment rate, the sharp falloff or apparent sharp falloff in consumer demand, resulting in a recommended policy that emphasizes the stimulation of consumer spending, or at least its maintenance. They go right past each other. I thought the best example of the failure this week was the inability of the Senate centrists to get any support from either side for a kind of split-the-differences compromise.

JIM LEHRER: Yesterday they said there aren’t enough votes to pass either one of these things passing in the night.

DAVID BROOKS: And likely in the Senate nothing will pass. Eventually the president, Tom Daschle, and the House will get together without passing anything in the Senate and finally get a compromise they can work at. The funny thing is, while this semi-high toned debate is going on about whether it’s consumption…

JIM LEHRER: A philosophical debate.

DAVID BROOKS: Meanwhile, it’s full piƱata time in the Senate. I mean, there’s…people just know, as one congressman said, “It’s a grab bag, so let’s grab.” Everybody is grabbing. A lobbyist said it was his patriotic duty to get his favor for his company, which he did. We have got stories about Hill staffers, former Hill staffers, making millions getting this and that. There’s funding for the eradication of aquatic weeds. Everybody is grabbing.

It makes, frankly, the airline security bill look like Plato talking with Socrates. It is really almost sick-making vision up there, this whole stimulus package. I think a lot of people have come to the conclusion it would be better if nothing passed.

JIM LEHRER: That’s a possibility, isn’t it, as the economy starts to get a little bit better off, forget it. Let’s not stimulate anything.

TOM OLIPHANT: Again, I think we may find out, as the months pass, that the issue may not be the recession. The issue may end up being the nature of the recovery, which may be an argument for not resolving this.

JIM LEHRER: You mentioned the anti-terrorism law enforcement thing a moment ago, David. There has been a debate this week because of the executive order that President Bush signed that would have terrorists tried in military tribunals rather than regular military courts. The civil libertarians: Bill Safire of the New York Times wrote one of the toughest columns I’ve read by him, and others have come down very hard on this. How do you feel about this?

DAVID BROOKS: What we’re seeing are a lot of people who are perfectly happy to drop 50,000 pound daisy-cutter bombs right on Osama bin Laden’s head are suddenly upset at the possibility we may arrest him without reading him his Miranda rights. There has been, as you say, from Safire and other people, what I think is real hysterical over-the-top reaction against somehow the infringement of civil liberties. The Bush Administration faced this choice. We may, within an hour, now arrest one of these top guys.

JIM LEHRER: Mark Thompson said it could happen in the next 48 hours.

DAVID BROOKS: That was the time pressure the administration faced to come one a policy where we would try these guys and come up with the policy quickly. So they gave the president maximum discretion and the problems they face, they said, “Suppose we pull one of these guys out of the cave. Do we need the right search warrant to go into the cave? Do we want to have a trial where we have to spill our intelligence guts to the public and therefore tell Osama bin Laden what we know about him? Do we want a trial where Osama bin Laden’s Johnny Cochran turns it into a show trial or where our witnesses have to be in public?”

Those are real constraints, real things most Americans probably don’t want to see. I think the administration was reasonably prudent in just saying they issued an executive order saying it’s going to be up to the president, Secretary of Defense, to set up the military tribunals and we’ll see what happens.

JIM LEHRER: Tom, how do you feel about it?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, speaking as one of those civil libertarians, let me try to match David’s challenge to avoid the hyperbole because I happen to think he’s right, that the alarms about this perhaps have been overstated. But if that’s the case, then I think the order the president has fashioned does his own intentions harm by not defining the conditions as David just did. It’s open-ended. For example, it makes possible the trial of people in this country under those circumstances.

JIM LEHRER: Not just people pulled out of caves in Afghanistan.

TOM OLIPHANT: Exactly. The second point is, if you study the administration’s statements on and off the record this week, I think you’ll find the focus on the message that we’re doing this because of that contingency David mentioned and because simply we can, because it’s legal. There is precedent for it.

There has been no attention paid by the administration to the question of whether we should do this; in particular, the impact on opinion in the world, in terms of presenting cases that are factually grounded, the impact on the historical record of winding this up in a way that can stand the examination of history, which often has not been kind to military tribunals.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think that the reaction to this, to some of the negative reaction, would kind of ensure or possibly help ensure that it isn’t abused in a way that if it is only used on the Osama bin Ladens?

DAVID BROOKS: The administration has sort of hinted in various venues that they won’t use it domestically. But the politics of this, I think, are very tricky. What you see, as we’ve seen in past war time events, you’ve got the extremes, the Bob Barrs and the Barney Franks who are against, and in the center you have not seen the Democratic leadership come out vehemently against this.

In the center, I really think there is a majority in favor of the military tribunals. I will say one thing where I sympathize with what Tom just said: The Administration has set this up extremely poorly, the Justice Department has communicated very poorly in a whole series of measures. This I think is the most defensible thing they’ve done but they preceded it with hard-to-defend things.

JIM LEHRER: You mean like listening in to telephone calls between lawyers and clients?

DAVID BROOKS: Exactly, and not releasing who they detained and why they detained them.

TOM OLIPHANT: Extending the dragnet from first 1,000 people, now you want to question 5,000 people. I mean after all, the investigation since September 11 have not really gone very well in this country. The real progress has come in places like Spain, and France, and Germany, and Britain and Jordan.

JIM LEHRER: And speaking of things that have gone well this week, how about the war on Afghanistan? You quoted Vice President Cheney. Another thing Vice President Cheney said in the speech, he kind of took some hits on the pundits, saying that, a surprise, I’m paraphrasing wildly here – much to the surprise of the pundits this war has gone very well. Is there some crow to be eaten, do you believe?

TOM OLIPHANT: Gobs of it, in my opinion. There is an institution…During the bombing of Yugoslavia, I used the term “commentariat” to describe politicians and journalism. It’s the fog of journalism, not the fog of war, and I think the same mistake has been repeated this time. You have a basically solid plan for prosecuting military hostilities that aren’t going to be over in 24 hours and it unfolds.

Our system, with its minute micro examination… I mean it’s as if on D-Day we had had specials on why it was tougher in Omaha Beach than Juneau or something, and one of these years, this system in politics and journalism is going to end because we look, truly, like idiots.

JIM LEHRER: David?

DAVID BROOKS: That hasn’t stopped me. I would say, first of all, we should be not looking at every conflict through quagmire-tinted glasses, which is what we have done. Because in the past three conflicts, we have succeeded beyond the commentariat’s view. Cheney was — not by name — but attacking my boss, Bill Kristol, who was critical of the administration.

JIM LEHRER: Editor, publisher of the Weekly Standard, right.

DAVID BROOKS: And in his view, and absolutely correct and well documented, what happened in the middle of this campaign is we switched strategies, George W. Bush switched strategies. We started out with a State Department-organized strategy of not going after the Taliban but going after al-Qaida, not supporting the Northern Alliance but going after the terror camps.

We didn’t use the B-52s until October 30, and that was after a long shift, engineered in part by Donald Rumsfeld and in part by Condoleezza Rice, in which we radically shifted strategies where we said we are going to help the Northern Alliance. They’re going to be our guys and they’re going to go in and take over.

JIM LEHRER: Do you want to help yourself with your boss at the Boston Globe?

TOM OLIPHANT: I dissent. I think the record will show a gradually unfolding and escalating plan and this idea is to create a situation where the good guys, seen as Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice, prevailed over the bad guys, seen as Secretary of State Colin Powell, and I do not think the historical narrative will support that.

DAVID BROOKS: The evidence is clear. Colin Powell was on the record saying the moderate Taliban should be in power.

JIM LEHRER: You guys go ahead and keep talking about this, but I’m going to say good night to you, officially. But thank you both very much.