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Political Wrap

December 14, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Now the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and David Brooks of The Weekly Standard.

David, what would you say about these video tapes? They’re remarkable, are they not — or this tape, I should say?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah. They are remarkable. Leon Weiseltier, The New Republic, called it the mother of all smoking guns. And that certainly is true. It illustrated for me something I had read about, which is that the State Department keeps a list of terror organizations.

In 1980, every single one of those organizations was a secular organization. Right now the majority are religious organizations. And they’re not only religious; they’re medievalists. And that’s what we saw on the tape, all the talk of omens, and seers and dreams. We really saw medievalism on display.

The question for us and for Israel is that you have groups like al-Qaida, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, they really are — how do you integrate people like that in the modern world. How do you negotiate? In some sense Arafat, Black September, some of the Marxist terrorist groups, you could actually deal with them because they were members of your century. For these people, it’s much harder.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, what do you think about this?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, it was a devastating document, and I think just in a political level, it’s enormously helpful in shoring up public support here in this country, which has remained strong. But if we hit a rough patch, which is entirely likely at some point, if Afghanistan unravels into chaos, which seems a possibility, I think this tape will be a reminder and a fortification as to why we’re in it.

And I think it also helps with some of the wavering Arab support we’ve had for it, especially the time– let’s be very blunt about it — when the Palestinian-Israeli, the attacks upon the Palestinians by the Israelis make that a little bit more restive, the support of the modern Arab world. But I don’t think there is any question that it stands as proof positive for anybody.

The one caveat I have is this: To find out that the terrorists, the suicide terrorists did not know precisely their mission. Even if we had captured them beforehand, you know, one or two of them, they probably couldn’t have, even if they were so disposed and probably wouldn’t have been, could have told us that much. You know, Osama bin laden was the producer but there were screenwriters and directors so it is a whole apparatus. It isn’t just one man.

JIM LEHRER: As a guest said on the program last night, that the tape proved that Osama bin Laden operated the same kind of compartmentalized world that U.S. and other major western intelligence agencies operate. You don’t need to know something I don’t tell you. Brooks – he does need to know and you don’t know what he is doing and he doesn’t know what you’re doing.

Now, David, do you agree with Mark that if something tomorrow, the next day, a year from now, somebody says “oh, my goodness, things didn’t go well in Afghanistan,” that this tape will always be able to be held up of at least we went after the right guy?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think there was any doubt it was Osama bin Laden. I mean there was apparently no doubt in the Arab world, that they talk about congratulatory phone calls coming in.

It’s like you just had — your daughter was married and he’s getting calls from people, oh, congratulations, you blew up the World Trade Center. So I don’t think there was any doubt about that. The response has been interesting in part because it hasn’t been horrific in the Arab world.

One of the things I learned from the coverage of the Arab media today was that this war has gone down in the amount of media coverage in the Arab world. And when your team is losing, you don’t go to the ball games. So everybody always warns us about how the Arab street is always perpetually about to explode. Well, they’re not always about to explode even in the face of what’s happened.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, the indictment this week of the so-called 20th hijacker, the one guy who didn’t make it because he was in jail in Minnesota, but supposedly was to be supposed to be on one of those planes, what do you make of the decision to try him in the regular civil courts rather than the military tribunal?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think the administration wants to keep the military tribunal option available for–.

JIM LEHRER: For what’s his name?

MARK SHIELDS: For anybody.

JIM LEHRER: I meant for Osama bin laden.

MARK SHIELDS: But when it suits intelligence purposes, that they don’t want to reveal accusers or evidence or for political purposes, quite bluntly, where they don’t for whatever reason want the trial to be public.

I think in this case, there is apparently enough evidence publicly obtained, publicly available, to make a conviction, and I think to, at the same time mollify or revalidate to the American people the commitment to the rule of law.

JIM LEHRER: David, I found it interesting that in fact we ran some tape the other night of some Democratic Senators, Joe Lieberman being one of them, ripping into Wolfowitz and the administration for not trying this guy in a military tribunal when they were so upset before about the fact that they were even having military tribunals.

DAVID BROOKS: Joe Biden is not entirely consistent. I’ve always regarded this as the arsenic in the drinking water story. The Bush administration announced they’re going to put forward regulations.

All of polite society has a collective aneurysm because these regulations are going to be terrible, horrific; they’re going to be horrible military tribunals but when the administration actually gets set to put some regulations in order, they’re pretty non-controversial. And what we’re seeing is the administration is very reasonable on how they’re going to use the military tribunals.

I will say this: If you found out tomorrow that your husband, wife, son, daughter, was on the jury to try this guy, you would be nervous. And that’s one of the reasons we do need military tribunals. You wouldn’t want a relative of yours sitting on the jury because who knows what is going to happen.

JIM LEHRER: Congress was busy this week. Education reform passed. Is there is a winner there?

MARK SHIELDS: Sure, the President’s a winner. It was a signature item of his campaign platform.

JIM LEHRER: More money like $26 billion now.

MARK SHIELDS: Yep.

JIM LEHRER: Testing three through eight in terms of grades and all that sort of stuff.

MARK SHIELDS: He was a big winner, the president was, it neutralized what had historically been a great Democratic advantage issue.

And so in that sense– the big loser, Jim, has to be conservatism and the Republican party. I mean it’s a far enhanced, much larger, much more intrusive federal presence in education, which conservatives and others remind us has always been a state and local issue. But it’s a big victory for George Bush.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah. I do actually. Democrats have always had a huge advantage politically over Republicans on the education issue. Now it’s about even thanks to this. So it’s a political win. It is a policy defeat for conservatives and for George Bush to some extent.

There were three main engines to this thing: One, to give states flexibility. Bush wanted to do that. That was gutted in Congress. Two, to give parents power, some choice. That was gutted. Three, to give accountability — there is accountability. There will be tests annually but whether they will be applied to policy decisions is another matter. Good states will do it but bad states who don’t want reform don’t have to do it. So it is a small step forward.

JIM LEHRER: They’ve tied the test scores to the amount of funding, which is an interesting approach.

DAVID BROOKS: One of the most positive things on the tests is you can have what’s called value-added, which measures school by school, student by student, not how tall they are but how much they grew in that year under Mrs. Tweedy or your fifth grade teacher.

And so that actually gives you very good measures of how an individual teacher does. The problem is, in some states where they have those measures they don’t apply it to whether they hire or fire the teacher, they don’t apply to it policy decisions because that use of the merit system is politically objectionable.

JIM LEHRER: Election reform. How much reform was passed?

DAVID BROOKS: There’s some; there’s money for increased voting machines; there’s money for registration to combat voter fraud. To me, though, I have to pick on a pet peeve of mine. They’re putting through this election reform at the same time they’re redistricting.

What redistricting does is it eliminates the need for any of these votes because right now we only have 13 percent of the members of the House of Representatives who are in competitive districts.

Those out there — 87 percent of the districts — it doesn’t matter if you vote because one party owns that seat. So the idea that we’re patting ourselves on the back of that election form at the same time we’re undercutting democracy for the House of Representatives, to me, it’s a problem.

JIM LEHRER: That’s a savage attack that he just leveled, Mark.

MARK SHIELDS: It is. This is a guy who wants to take the politics out of politics, for goodness sakes.

DAVID BROOKS: Out of redistricting.

MARK SHIELDS: Hey, listen, you’re talking to members of Congress, that’s all they’re interested in.

JIM LEHRER: That’s the single most political operation there is, redistricting.

MARK SHIELDS: Martin Frost of Texas, a Democrat, has mastered it. He is as knowledgeable on it and the nuances of it in every state and county in the country.

Jim, no leadership from George Bush on campaign reform. Interesting, he will sign the bill. I don’t think there is any–.

JIM LEHRER: That’s not campaign reform–.

MARK SHIELDS: Election reform in the sense that there won’t be any-

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

MARK SHIELDS: — there’s no real political payoff. But again states’ rights. What happened to states’ rights? They were supposed to be organized – on both these issues they were supposed to be organized conservative opposition, at least to make the case on the House floor. This hasn’t happened.

And I think Florida is — still remains in people’s minds, regardless of the fact that people accepted the ultimate decision of the court, what we learned was the system is so inconsistent from state to state that there is a need for federal presence.

And while David makes the case about house races, at the presidential level, that really is important. I’m not concerned necessarily how Boise picks its alderman but I’m concerned how they vote for president.

JIM LEHRER: Is this going to change that? Is that going to make it — if you vote in Boise or you vote in Tallahassee for the president, you’re going to vote the same way, the process is the same?

MARK SHIELDS: There’s a lot better chance, as Chris Dodd, the Senate sponsor of the legislation, put it, that it will be easier to vote and a lot harder to cheat. And I think that’s a step in the right direction.

Interestingly some credit has to go to Mitch McConnell, the arch foe and enemy of campaign finance reform, who’s been one of the strongest supporters of election reform.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Another big move today, a big story in the Congress this week was the announcement by Dick Armey that he is not going to run for reelection to his seat in Texas. That means he will no longer be the House Majority Leader. How significant is that, David?

DAVID BROOKS: It’s significant because Tom Delay is going to replace him, and that’s pretty sure. And it’s a great Christmas story because it brings joy to the world.

Democrats love the fact they’ll have Tom DeLay to beat up for the next however many years. And Republicans like the fact because although when Tom DeLay’s name is mentioned in Washington, you’re supposed to hide the women and children because he is such a monster.

He is in fact the best legislator alive on the planet. He delivers vote after vote for the Bush Administration for the Republicans. He holds the Republicans together. He has been a devastatingly effective whip. Not the most attractive guy in the world but incredibly effective, incredibly good at his job.

JIM LEHRER: Mark.

MARK SHIELDS: Dick Armey deserves a word on the way out. I mean a couple of factors: At his best he was an intriguing legislator.

He reached across the aisle to join Ron Delhams, the Democrat from Berkley, California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, to sponsor a base-closing commission, Jim, that the Pentagon was against it, the Congress was against it, individual members were against it and they forced an up or down vote on whether they were going to close bases that were no longer needed. And he succeeded in 1993.

He did the same thing on farm subsidies I mean in that sense. At the same time, a petty vindictive small-minded man. Barney Frank, the gay congressman from Massachusetts he called barney “fag” and then said, oh, I confused the two words – and was very small and petty.

But what makes him most interesting and reminds me of the importance of the legislative process — is the first majority leader– if you think of the last five Speakers of the House you’ve known since I’ve been in Washington, John McCormack of Massachusetts, Carl Elba of Oklahoma, Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts, Jim Wright of Texas, Tom Foley of Washington, every one of them have been majority leader before he became Speaker.

This man, Dick Armey, was twice jumped over and deprived of the speakership. Why? Because he had lied to his own colleagues about a coup against Newt Gingrich in the summer of 1997 — and I got to tell you, in the legislative body, a man’s word or woman’s word is his or her bond, and it’s the coin of the realm. Once you lose it, you don’t get it back.

JIM LEHRER: Do you have a word about Armey?

DAVID BROOKS: An ideological politician; believed in ideas, terrible at pork, didn’t care about pork, but he was part of the “leave us alone” coalition, which Phil Gramm, also leaving the Congress, was also part of — get government off our backs.

We’re now in what George Will called a Hamiltonian moment — leaving some affirmative government. Bush moves in that direction. So in some sense a very strong set of beliefs he had but a bit dated now; they’re sort of 1995.

MARK SHIELDS: Democrats are popping corks at the prospect of Tom Delay being the face of the Republican Party.

JIM LEHRER: Why? Because?

MARK SHIELDS: They just think that Tom Delay is, he is a tough guy and he will show his toughness. It will be in public.

JIM LEHRER: As they say in journalism, we’ll see. Thank you both.