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Shields and Brooks

August 16, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TERENCE SMITH: That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and David Brooks of The Weekly Standard.

Gentlemen, welcome. I’ll resist the temptation to ask you about baseball and the strike.

Instead, the president’s economic forum – David, we started the week with 240 people down in Baylor University, in Texas, a lot of serious talk about the economy. What did it accomplish?

DAVID BROOKS: Not much. One of the nice things about this administration is that they’re really terrible at cynical empty gestures, and this was an effort at that. It was like trying to get the president in public kissing our economic boo-boos and telling us everything was going to be okay, and there was really very little substance.

It was almost designed to make the president appear like Maureen Dowd’s stereotype of him of someone who is not intellectually curious. I mean, I don’t know who had the idea, George Bush colloquium, symposium, put it altogether, and it’ll work; it just didn’t work.

If there was one bright light out of it, it’s that Charles Schwab introduced some substance to the idea, which was what we need to do is eliminate the double taxation on dividends, because one of the problems we’ve had in this country is that stocks, people now buy stocks hoping the price will go up instead of to get that dividend and that forces companies to hype their stock year after year, quarter after quarter. That’s a lot of the problem that we’ve had over the past couple of years.

So that was a little kernel of substance amidst a pretty embarrassing event.

TERENCE SMITH: Embarrassing event, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I didn’t think it rose to the level of a campaign photo-op. I really didn’t, I think David is right and I don’t think he is too harsh. The advance work on the Bush campaign’s presidential part was not good.

Baylor University, where it is, is known as the Baylor Bears. I don’t think, given this market, you don’t want to be associated with bears in any way. But the only emerging consensus I got out of it, Terry, was that first of all, less government regulation and further tax cuts.

Now there’s a problem with this. It’s not only counterintuitive since the September 11 and with the corporate criminality, if anything, Americans are for more activist, more regulating government in terms of their personal security, their national security, and also in their economic security.

And as far as tax cuts are concerned, I mean Alan Greenspan was on record pointing out up on Capitol Hill late July that our payments on the deficit, that’s what we have to pay each year to service the debt, the national debt, has gone from $700 billion last year– these are the Bush administration figures– to $1.8 trillion now.

So I mean the idea of more tax cuts at a time, I think is silly. Charles Schwab, I would point out, interesting idea, he was laying off 400 employees the very day of his suggestion.

TERENCE SMITH: That he was making that suggestion.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

TERENCE SMITH: David, if there was a headline out of it, it was that the president said, he promised he would veto some $5 billion in emergency spending that is headed for his desk. What about that?

DAVID BROOKS: It’s admirable. It’s a bit like trying to bail out the “Titanic” with a thimble because we are in the midst of one of the greatest spending in our history. George Bush’s administration – George W. Bush’s administration is spending domestic money faster than Clinton, faster than Bush, Sr., Bush, the elder, faster than Reagan.

DAVID BROOKS: You have to go back to the Ford administration to find a time when domestic spending has risen so fast, that’s not including defense spending; that’s not including the prescription drugs plan that’s about to be passed. It’s not just Bush; it’s the Congress. Fiscal discipline has just disappeared in the past year or two and Bush is finally starting to make some effort to rein it in but it is a pretty small one.

TERENCE SMITH: Is there any political resonance to it, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I think the political resonance, I think David is right – it’s a small symbol, it’s probably not terribly important. Terry, when you sign a $138 billion farm bill and veto a $5 billion expenditure, most of which will eventually be appropriated – because it involves things like scores of chemical deposits under the mall in Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian’s there; that has to be done.

The only value those are in their present condition unattended are to terrorists, so an awful lot of the spending in that $5 billion will eventually be done back door.

TERENCE SMITH: David, it was supposed to send a message, as you say, of some restraint on spending. What does he have to do to be credible on that beyond this?

DAVID BROOKS: There are a lot of Republicans who want to veto things, who want to veto if not some agriculture bill, some appropriations just to send a message to say enough is enough. It’s actually not clear what he’s supposed to veto, but there is this cry among Republicans, veto something, veto something, because he hasn’t vetoed anything yet.

TERENCE SMITH: Is this spending an issue politically yet, or has it not gelled?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s interesting, Terry. A consensus actually emerged in both parties in the ’90s on fiscal discipline, and it’s gone. I mean, once we had that experience of the surplus and President Bush’s tax cut has accelerated it and the spending goes on apace, I don’t think there is a political resonance to it right now.

TERENCE SMITH: There may not have been much dissent, David, at the economic forum expressed, but there has been dissent expressed among some leading Republicans, more of them this week, including Brent Scowcroft, the former National Security Advisor under the first President Bush about the administration’s ideas of using force to remove Saddam Hussein. Is this gathering together, this dissent, into any sort of critical mass?

DAVID BROOKS: I think there is a coalescing opponent to the Bush administration. It is within the Republican Party so far. The Republican Party is divided between Reaganites, who are for doing it, because they believe in a moral, pro-democratic foreign policy, and the realists. Scowcroft is a leading realist.

The realists are sort of Walter Middy – who think that foreign policy should be conducted by professionals, not for moral reasons, with great emphasis on stability.

So Scowcroft, for example, was against ousting the Taliban because he thought it would be destabilizing. He was against sending troops to get rid of Milosevic in Yugoslavia. He was against the Ukrainians in the Baltic states breaking up the Soviet Union. If you want to go back to ancient history, when he was in the Ford Administration, he was for blocking Alexander Solzhenitsyn for visiting the White House, because it would upset the people who were running the gulags. He is someone who puts great emphasis on stability. So it is no surprise he is against regime change in Iraq.

But the fact, and he’s a strategic thinker, the fact that he went public now, makes you think there is an opposition growing among the Scowcroft people, the Colin Powell people, The New York Times editors, and the wild card in this is George Bush Sr., who Scowcroft is very close to and what is senior saying to junior? That is sort of the gossip in Washington these days.

TERENCE SMITH: You’re not suggesting that senior has been saying to Brent Scowcroft, go out and espouse this view?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t know what happened between them. He could have just been a little yawning or grousing and Scowcroft went off and said this is Scowcroft’s opinion as well. So I’m not sure what the relationship is. It’s interesting.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. But, Mark, of course Brent Scowcroft is not the only voice among leading Republicans.

MARK SHIELDS: No, he is not. And I think in fairness to Brent Scowcroft, it was quite reluctant on his part. He has turned down interview after interview after interview, inquiry requests, even though there was general knowledge that these were his feelings.

TERENCE SMITH: This he did in an op-ed page -

MARK SHIELDS: He did an op-ed page in The Wall Street Journal after a “Face the Nation” interview, so going public was — I think it’s important– I wouldn’t make the same dichotomy David does between the Reaganites and the internationalists or the realists, however.

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s interesting. These people are real Republicans. They are internationalists, many of them who are, whether it’s Chuck Hagel, the Senator from Nebraska, whether it’s Jack Kemp, the former vice presidential candidate. Dick Armey I think is a wild card. He has never been accused of being an internationalist, but Senator Dick Lugar has expressed reservations as well.

I think it’s impossible to argue, Terry, that the case has not been made. And the administration has yet to make the case. They sent out National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice for a BBC interview, but, Terry, this is a case that has to be made by the president. Norman Schwarzkopf, the general who led the Persian Gulf invasion, said it takes no courage to order men into battle. It takes great courage to go into battle.

I think that what’s interesting is on one side you do have people who have known the agony and the pain and the loss of battle; whether it’s Colin Powell or whether it’s Dick Armitage, his deputy, or Brent Scowcroft, who wore the uniform of this country as an Air Force general.

And on the other side, absent the president’s own intervention, his own advocacy, there are a lot of people who haven’t; I mean, who have played this as sort of cold warriors, and talked about it being just a piece of cake or whatever else.

So I think it means that we are going to have a debate, which is important for the country; I think it’s important for the president; I think it’s most important for a national decision that involves the spilling of blood and the expenditure of treasury.

DAVID BROOKS: I’m not sure I buy the distinction that people who fought don’t want to do it. John McCain suffered in the war, and he’s a very strong supporter of going into Iraq. There’s people on both sides who have fought and suffered in times of war. To me the striking thing to me about the Scowcroft piece is how weak the arguments are on that side.

Scowcroft’s argument is that we should wait until we definitely know Saddam Hussein has nuclear weapons before we try to depose him. Well, how do we know? Is it after he destroys Washington or New York? He said we should give the arms inspectors one more chance. Well, come on; it has been ten years. To me the striking thing about the Scowcroft was just the weakness of the arguments.

TERENCE SMITH: But the argument goes on. Just a final thought, really quickly.

MARK SHIELDS: Larry Eagleburger. I think the weight of opposition puts an enormous burden on the president to make the case, which he has yet to make.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Gentlemen, thank you both.