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Political Wrap

October 26, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And to our weekly analysis by Shields and Brooks: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and the Weekly Standard’s David Brooks.

Mark, the administration’s handling of the anthrax story, how are they doing getting the proper message out?

MARK SHIELDS: Not well, Jim. Conflicting messages. They have got a conflicting mission too. They’re trying to reassure, they’re trying to allay fears, they’re trying to establish confidence.

Confidence generally is based upon knowledge and information. What we found out after the tragedy of two postal workers at Brentwood dying, that basically the government is learning about it as it goes along.

They don’t know any more than we do. And that’s what’s really I think sabotaged and undermined their whole effort, their whole case– compounded by one little instance. We’re told not to take cipro, the anti-toxin or whatever –

JIM LEHRER: The prescription….

MARK SHIELDS: The antibiotic intended to mitigate and neutralize the effects. Then we find out that 200 White House staffers who weren’t even exposed are taking it. So that sort of confidence depleting.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, David?

DAVID BROOKS: I basically agree with that. If I had a dollar for every time I heard the phrase “steep learning curve” over the past week I’d have my own stimulus package because they’ve been talking about over and over again.

I think they’re doing a little better this week. Last week they came out, “We’re in control, we can handle this.” They clearly weren’t in control. This week at least they’re admitting, Tom Ridge did yesterday; we’re not in control. We have a lot to learn. There’s a lot out there. So I think there has been some improvement.

What I would love to see is Tom Ridge get out of a press conference and go to the Brentwood postal facility and say we let you down but your suffering is not in vain. We learned X, Y and Z and we’re going to do better next time. I think that would be a move that would be candid, brave and would just liberate, transform the atmosphere.

JIM LEHRER: Is it just me, Mark, or I notice whether it’s Tom Ridge or you can go through the list, when they start every one of these news conferences, the first thing they say isn’t what happened — they start praising everybody in the room, every organization is working great and yet things don’t seem to be working so great. Why doesn’t somebody tell them to stop doing that, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s supposed to be team building or something. It’s one of the… I saw it once in a book at an airport, you know, if you praise everybody in the room, somehow it will… it’s communication.

But you’re absolutely right, Jim. Then as soon as they leave the room we get the squabbling between the agencies. I mean it’s the FBI and the NIH, and the CDC, and they’re all blaming each other.

JIM LEHRER: As you said, David, the bottom line is that somebody just say, hey, look, here’s what we know. Here’s what we don’t know. We’re in this together. Some people have died, et cetera, et cetera” and then move on.

You mentioned the stimulus package. I’m going to use that as a segway to what Congress does. What is going on up there? It passed the House by two votes. It’s been suggested that this is the Republicans going after their philosophical agenda, no matter what, meaning no matter September 11th. What’s your explanation?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, Christmas time kids write out their wish list for Santa Claus and the House Republicans wrote out their wish list. They sent it up and it’s not going to pass.

Some things in the House bill will pass, will go into the Senate bill and will finally get reconciled. There are some good ideas and a lot of horrible ideas.

There’s a lot of weirdly anti-free market, anti-conservative ideas. It’s not a free market idea to think that you can plan a stimulus package that will perfectly time a boom. It’s not a free market idea to think you can, you know, suddenly manipulate the economy to create a recovery. Milton Friedman never believed in that. Yet the Republicans are just hopping on board throwing in all sorts of junk into this thing. It’s just what they want. But it’s a foolish idea that is losing support. I think it will lose support and will certainly shrink as the Senate and the White House grapple with it.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think is going to happen then the Senate? The Senate is not going to buy this, will it?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think you can walk away from the House action without saying this was a serious political mistake. Bill Thomas as the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee is as smart as he is prickly. He’s very difficult to get along with but he’s awfully smart. I just think that he made a serious political misstep here.

They have a provision in this bill which Democrats are doing cartwheels over. It passed 216 to 214, which means that every single Republican is the key vote. Everybody in the 216 because there have been 215-215 it dies. It’s a campaign issue next year. One simple thing, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: In other words, this guy, whoever I’m running against….

MARK SHIELDS: If Sammy Glick hadn’t voted for it or Billy Bob hadn’t voted it, this wouldn’t have happened. Take the case of Enron, a Texas energy company very close to President Bush, they gave $1.8 million to Republican candidates and committees.

JIM LEHRER: Last year.

MARK SHIELDS: Talk about a return on investment. They under the repeal of the alternative minimum tax get $254 million back. There’s $25 billion in repeal going back 15 years. They’re going to pay back out of the Treasury, which we now know is depleted and only existing on Social Security receipts, back to General Electric, General Motors and so forth.

Jim, I have to tell you alternative minimum tax was signed into law by that notorious liberal leftist Ronald Reagan in 1986.

DAVID BROOKS: I had a feeling Mark would bring this up but it’s not sporting of you; it’s like shooting fish in a barrel, because this is the stupidest provision of the law.

My only theory of why it’s in there is every once in a while each party has to put a provision in the law which confirms all the stereotypes of their enemies. That’s what this is.

JIM LEHRER: But in this case knowing full well it’s never going to be enacted into law.

DAVID BROOKS: They get the hurt but none of the benefit. It doesn’t only, you know, say that people don’t have to pay the alternative minimum tax in the future, which might have shall have some incentive to get them to produce and invest more, it forgives them the money they paid in the past. There’s no incentive effect for this. It’s not sporting of you to attack that.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s move on to something else then. How about airport security legislation? What’s going on there, David? Why can’t it be passed into law?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, that’s a good question. Thousands of flights are flying every day under the old rules, which are unsafe. People on both sides of Capitol Hill are debating how many federalized airport security workers can dance on the head of a pin. It’s sort of appalling that this has gone on for six, eight weeks.

The argument is over whether these 28,000 security workers we’re going to have checking our bags and other things should be part of the federal government or should be supervised by the federal government but privately run, which is what they do in Israel and Europe.

There’s valid arguments on both sides. The appalling thing is that they’re arguing about this. To me the lesson is what Alexander Hamilton said that in times of war, executive is the one who should run the country and Congress should just stay home because this is pedantic.

JIM LEHRER: Why can’t they resolve this, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the executive — the President has not been a very strong or dominant voice in this whole debate. It passed the Senate 100-0, Jim, with —

JIM LEHRER: With federalization.

MARK SHIELDS: — federalization, with liberals like Phil Gramm of Texas and Trent Lott of Mississippi all voting for it.

What’s holding it up in the House is a small band of Republicans led by Tom Delay of Texas, Dick Armey of Texas and leadership… a very smart Republican in the House said to me today, he said, we have been most fortunate this past couple of weeks for one reason. The anthrax story has pushed this off… this airport security… Otherwise we’d be getting beaten over the shoulders and head and rightfully so for failure to act on this and, Jim, yesterday it was revealed that somebody on a Southwest Airlines flight got on with a pistol in his briefcase — he showed it to the flight attendant and volunteered it. Another disaster– and I’ll tell you it won’t only be a personal tragedy but a political debacle.

DAVID BROOKS: To be fair the Democrats could also say, okay, your plan is acceptable. They’re both acceptable. The Republicans want what Israel does and what Europe does. It’s not out of the realm of the possibility. So I think both parties are really responsible for the delay in this.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s go to Tom Friedman’s column today in The New York Times. He said– and we see the headline there: “We Are All Alone” – and the point he makes – just to account for those who have not read it — he just goes through the list.

Everyone from the Pakistanis to the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Indians, the Kuwaitis, everybody is holding back a little bit except the Brits. They’re the only one who really seem to care about these 5,000 Americans who died on September 11, et cetera. Is he right, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah… when I saw that I was reminded of a book I brought along for show and tell written by an Italian journalist named Luiji Barzini in 1953 called Americans are Alone in the World.

And the point is Americans have always been alone when we fight since we became a superpower in part because it’s lonely at the top. We have responsibilities, which nobody else has.

But in part because we have the missionary zeal about spreading democracy around the world which spooks other countries, who are a little more cynical, a little more real politique.

So I think Friedman is partly right that we are alone that all these other countries are supporting us Monday but not Tuesday or Wednesday. He’s wrong to think we’re to blame for it.

JIM LEHRER: He did say that.

DAVID BROOKS: He said it’s because we’re too selfish or double dealing. We’re got this stupid stimulus package. It’s just in the nature of American power.

One of the things that is unresolved in the administration approach to this is as we develop a coalition, do we say here our goal, if you want to be in our coalition, you can join us for this goal, or do we say we’ve got this coalition and then we talk to the coalition what should our goal be? Those are two very different approaches. So far I think Bush has preferred the former, which is the more aggressive approach.

JIM LEHRER: How did you read that?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, Tom Friedman is the dominant political columnist of this generation — not simply because he’s smart and works hard but he’s also an equal opportunity abuser as he did in that column. I mean you read other columns in The Times or others, you know where the guy is coming from and whatever the case he’s going… His side is always going to be defended.

I mean Tom Friedman stood up there and listed the shortcomings and the defects of all the parties to this whole event.

I do think this: That every member of the coalition– and Tom Friedman knows this better than virtually anybody– has been given slack by the United States though. I mean we’ve been giving slack because – very bluntly – I mean the President went out of his way to praise the Saudis this week. The Saudis have had nothing but bad press.

JIM LEHRER: Friedman makes the point that the Saudis won’t even share intelligence information for 10 of the 19 hijackers who are from Saudi Arabia — and there’s a lot of information — they won’t share it with us.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. But the president went out of his way to praise them in part, you know, because there are deals. I mean there’s Saudi oil and there’s also the House of Saud. What follows I mean some of these people are on the line. If they go… They don’t simply lose their jobs but they lose their lives. I think Tom Friedman laid it out as well as anybody could.

JIM LEHRER: He said also — he finished his column, David, by saying having written all of this he said, don’t worry about it. Let’s go about our business and if it means fighting a war on Ramadan or Christmas or Hanukkah or the Buddha’s birthday, just remember the firefighters in New York and the young Americans who are going to war on our behalf and forget about the rest of it.

DAVID BROOKS: I think that’s right. The most striking thing to me that happened this week is we decided thanks to some hints from the Pentagon that the Taliban is not like the Republican Guard of Saddam Hussein.

We decided they’re not going to give up. So there’s been a change of tone in the past couple days a lot of people around Washington saying we’re going to have ground troops, we’re going to have a long war. There’s been an upsurge in bloody mindedness. We’re going to get through this thing. There’s been an upsurge of seriousness, which means walking over Ramadan or whatever else that has to be walked over.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Thank you both very much.