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Political Wrap

December 7, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and David Brooks of the Weekly Standard. First Mark, are these mayors going to get a federal check in the mail anytime soon?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, I’m not sure that they are. In spite of the fact that we’ve seen the biggest 12-month increase of unemployed in 20 years and 1.2 million down in manufacturing in the last 18 months. But I don’t see that same sense of urgency on Capitol Hill.

JIM LEHRER: Why not, David?

DAVID BROOKS: I’m struck by the fact that this is the week that Afghanistan, the factions got together on Capitol Hill, the factions went kerblooey. Looked like on the stimulus package the two sides were getting together until today when Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader said we want to pass this thing with two-thirds of the Democratic vote. The Republicans said you’re changing the rules on us. They walked out on the negotiations. And they’re mad and this is part of a much more partisan atmosphere we’re seeing.

JIM LEHRER: They’re not even talking. They won’t talk again until next week, right?

MARK SHIELDS: In fairness, that was the Democratic plan going in was going to be two-thirds. And Republicans should have…

JIM LEHRER: I don’t understand what you mean.

MARK SHIELDS: What they say, Jim, going…what they’re doing is they’re pre-clearing this legislation. The Senate has never voted on it. So what Tom Daschle and the Democrats said, we will agree to something that we know will get two-thirds of the Democrats to support it.

JIM LEHRER: I got you.

MARK SHIELDS: And what has happened more than anything else right now is that Bill Thomas is the dominant, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Republican from California, a conservative, a man if there were an Olympic event for abrasiveness would win the gold, the silver and the bronze all by himself, but is smart and works hard – he walked out; he flew back to California spite of the fact that the president said Saturday and Sunday they’re going to meet. And he’s gone back. Has a fund-raiser tomorrow night.

But he just, in Bakersfield, he doesn’t have a tough race. But I think what it means more than anything else is unless and until the president gets in and Thomas has kept anybody from the White House out of the meetings. I mean in the past John Sununu was chairman, was chief of staff, sat in for President Bush. Leon Panetta sat in for President Clinton. There is nobody from the White House in this meeting. I think until the president really gets involved there, won’t be any action.

JIM LEHRER: Don’t the figures today put a little hot foot under everybody?

DAVID BROOKS: If you think this thing is going to help.

JIM LEHRER: That’s the next question. Even if they passed it, would it put anybody back to work?

DAVID BROOKS: I would say many people, and certainly on the Democratic side, have said it’s better to win this election, have this issue for the next election. I just think it’s weird for the Democrats to ask for two-thirds of their own caucus to support something before it becomes law. I mean, in the U.S. Constitution, is there a 30th amendment that says you have to have two-thirds of one party? I mean, it’s a bizarre requirement.

MARK SHIELDS: Has there been a single piece of legislation in this session where the Republicans didn’t get 80 percent? I mean, it’s just automatic. Republicans vote 90 percent. They did it yesterday on trade. They did it on the tax bill. They do it on everything. So I mean the idea of the Democrats want to have two-thirds doesn’t seem to be that overly ambitious.

DAVID BROOKS: If you want to craft a bipartisan centrist bill you can’t require that two-thirds of any one party support it. It is just going to screw up any sort of centrist package.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of something else, Attorney General Ashcroft’s skirmish mostly with the press over these anti-terror policies, today many newspaper editorials were suggesting that in his testimony yesterday he suggested that anybody who disagreed with his policies is somehow undermining, is giving ammunition to America’s enemies and pause to its friends. How do you sort through this?

DAVID BROOKS: He wanted to make sure he wasn’t accused of winning with charm alone, because he had no charm at all yesterday. He had a stylish defeat and a substantive victory. We in the media were all predicting this bloody hearing. And what happened? The hearing was not bloody on substantive grounds. The members of the U.S. Senate came very close to his position on all sorts of issues. There was this argument whether what the Bush administration said was constitutional. That argument has fallen away as the Senators have been reassured.

Senator Pat Leahy was not often the media horror land that the reports have been in. He dealt with reality. He appreciated the fact the administration has said these will not be secret military tribunals. There will be judicial review. What he and other Democrats tried to do was just pin it down, and so it was a very, in one sense on substantive grounds a very civil exchange. On stylistic grounds, Ashcroft said this incredibly stupid thing questioning the patriotism of people who criticized him, which was insane and has stolen the headlines.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. But today his spokeswoman put out a statement, and I quote “Anyone who reported”, like David Brooks just reported, “Anyone who reported this morning that he criticized”, meaning Ashcroft criticized anyone who opposed him was absolutely wrong and in doing because– anyhow, it reported anybody who opposed him was anti-American anything like that, didn’t get it right. How do you read this thing, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I agree with David’s analysis of what the Attorney General said. He defiantly and deliberately chose to confuse dissent with disloyalty. There is no doubt about it.

JIM LEHRER: Here’s the exact words. Here’s what she said, Mindy Tucker, “Anyone who reported this morning that he criticized anyone who opposed him was absolutely wrong and in doing so became a part of the exact problem he was describing.”

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, it was the written statement, it was his opening statement: “They give ammunition to America’s enemies.” I mean this was so evocative of an earlier era when liberals and democrats were branded as soft on communism. All of a sudden could you see soft on terrorism coming in.

And, you know, I’m just reminded of the words of a great American senator who said anybody who criticizes the United States pays her an implied tribute, pays the country an implied tribute because it’s saying, ‘I know we can be better. I know we can improve.’ And I thought what he did yesterday was cheap politics. I think it did work. I think it knocked the Democrats, with the conspicuous exception of John Edwards, back on their heels and they chose to concentrate on his rather bizarre position on guns.

John Ashcroft, I mean you have to give him credit, he’s loyal to the NRA, he says we can lock up people for three months, we don’t have to charge them with anything. We don’t have to let them see a lawyer. We can try them in secret, but by God Almighty, we’re not going to reveal whether they bought six semiautomatic weapons at a gun show. That would somehow be violating their privacy.

DAVID BROOKS: Everybody is allowed to see a lawyer. On the gun issue, he’s right to say the law that was passed on this gun control legislation says, ‘I can’t do that. I can’t just allow the FBI or anybody to go look at the gun records and then go fishing for suspects.’ That was written explicitly in the law. Chuck Schumer then said should we change the law, which was a fair question. He didn’t have a good answer to that. Let me talk a bit about the Ashcroft psychology because that’s something that conservatives understand, it’s hard for a lot of other people to understand. You come to Washington as a conservative, you feel a little alienated. You come as a Christian conservative, you feel more so because somehow you feel your values are under assault every day.

And what happens is you only deal with your intimates, you only deal with conservatives and you feel like the whole town is out to get you. And so you get this phenomenon that you see again and again in Republican administrations, have one or two high administration officials insulating themselves and developing this psychology that anything I do that liberals like is somehow a failure of my character. I think Ashcroft is falling into this very unfortunate pattern.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see it getting better or worse or…

DAVID BROOKS: It just spirals. And that Mindy Tucker comment is sort of a symptom of this psychological state. If I were privileged to be friends with John Ashcroft, I would say, ‘You have got to understand that people will give you a chance if you only reach out with some sense of warmth, some sense of understanding of where they’re coming from,’which he is not doing right now.

JIM LEHRER: Does that make sense to you, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: It does, Jim. He serves a political purpose for both sides right now. I mean Democrats don’t want to criticize a president who’s at 86 percent. They want to blame the policies on him even though they’re George Bush’s policies. So John Ashcroft….

JIM LEHRER: Beat up on John Ashcroft.

MARK SHIELDS: He’s not a terribly appealing public figure. He can do it. And he is a lightning rod for the Republicans as well.

JIM LEHRER: Fast-track authority passed the House yesterday by one vote. Is that important?

DAVID BROOKS: It’s important that it passed because there is this new world trade negotiations going under way which could open our markets for agriculture in Europe. The danger is the one vote. That’s an incredibly fragile majority to go forward with free trade. The Democratic Party was the party of free trade in the days of JFK. Bill Clinton and Al Gore made it the party of free trade. That is no longer the case and that’s a problem.

MARK SHIELDS: Disagree totally. Bill Thomas, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee chose to craft this in a way that there are 65, a third of the Democratic Caucus have consistently bought into free trade, no one more adamantly and more consistently than Bob Matsui of California. He totally excluded the Democrats from the participation in this whole process. So as a consequence they lost the Democrats from Silicon Valley, they lost everybody. And they had to lean so hard the Republicans on Republican members, Cass Ballinger of North Carolina had issued a press release on Wednesday say he was going to vote against it. He ended up Thursday under pressure and twisted arms from the Speaker and the leadership and the president voting for it.

JIM LEHRER: I’m twisting your arm to say good night. Thank you both very much.