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Political Wrap with Mark Shields and David Brooks

December 20, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: And that brings us to Shields and Brooks: syndicated columnist Mark Shields and the Weekly Standard’s David Brooks.

I’ve got to give you fellows credit. You both had it right last Friday when you said it would be over pretty quickly. What finally closed, sealed Trent Lott’s fate?

DAVID BROOKS: I actually think it was the apology, the pseudo-apology, the attempted apology we saw last Friday when Lott was down there in Mississippi trying to show he changed and bared his soul and most people regarded that as a failure. And I think that that point it was a question of how the change would come, the Senators slowly beginning to talk to one another. It was all downhill from there.

RAY SUAREZ: So things like continuing to apologize during the days after that, the appearance on Black Entertainment Television, that just what?

DAVID BROOKS: My Brooks fourth rule of politics is that every scandal turns into a Tom Wolfe novel eventually, and seeing him on Black Entertainment Television suddenly supporting affirmative action, I mean, that’s just ridiculous.


MARK SHIELDS: I think it was that and I think it was more, Ray. I think it was a scrutiny of what had been the Republican wink and the nod in the old South from which Trent Lott came. He was a product of the old South and of racial politics. He was not a bigot himself, but there was always that element. It was present in the 2002 Senate Gubernatorial race in Georgia where the Confederate battle flag became the issue under Ralph Reed; it was present in the 2000 South Carolina presidential primary when George Bush used it against John McCain with Ralph Reed’s assistance. I think that became a problem, an embarrassment. I think beyond that, I think David is right.

But the White House, I have respect for Chuck Hagel, enormous respect, I think he is wrong when he says the White House was not involved – John Warner, Senator Warner said. The White House was in this up to their eyebrows. I mean you couldn’t pick up a news cycle, Ray, without an unnamed but respected White House source saying the president, A: would not be unhappy if Trent Lott left, B: would be happy if Trent Lott left, and so forth. Then you get Jeb Bush who usually – the president’s brother, the governor of Florida, who usually doesn’t comment on these things, saying that Trent Lott has to go, Colin Powell pulling the rug out. I mean, it was pretty obvious that George Bush wanted to establish that his compassionate conservatism was distinct and different from the old-fashioned conservatism of the Bill Cullmer, Jim Eastland, Trent Lott school in Mississippi.

DAVID BROOKS: Let me disagree with two things. First, the White House did not call the Senators. They made their position clear of what they think the Republican Party should stand for. But they knew that the White House does not call senators who have been there before they got to Washington and who will be there after because they know that backfires.

This was something done in the Senate. Secondly, and the most important thing about this whole scandal is the Republican Party and the soul of the Republican Party. Mark mentioned the Confederate flag being used this year in the election. I just think that’s a canard. That just didn’t happen. We have reporters looking for issues where they used the Confederate flag, pamphlets, speeches; in Georgia you just can’t find it.

Now, maybe somebody voted on the Confederate flag issue but it is not something the Republicans campaigned on. Nancy Pelosi made a statement which I found infuriating, accusing Republicans of being a racist party, accusing southerners of being racist hicks. I think it just goes over the line.

Out of this whole scandal the thing that has happened to this party, a few years ago it was the party of Jesse Helms in the Senate, Strom Thurmond in the Senate, Trent Lott leading. Now next year when it convenes, Bill Frist at the top, guys like Jim Talent from Missouri, Lindsay Graham from South Carolina. It is a new Republican Party; it’s more of a George Bush Republican Party. It is not that old Republican Party.

MARK SHIELDS: Sunny Purdue used it; it was used in his campaign in his behalf.

RAY SUAREZ: The Confederate flag issue.

MARK SHIELDS: The Confederate flag issue. That Ralph Reed, that they didn’t send 400,000 mailings in 2000 on George Bush’s behalf against John McCain as the only person, George Bush was the only candidate who hadn’t called the Confederate flag a racist symbol, sent out Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed in the 2000 campaign. This has been used, David. And it is, you know, you can pretend it hasn’t been, but it has. And I agree with you. I said on this broadcast last week, one of the reasons that Trent Lott had become an embarrassment was that the Republican Party had moved from Jesse Helms to Elizabeth Dole; it had moved from Strom Thurmond to Lindsay Graham. Those are differences and that’s profound difference and Trent Lott was, unfortunately for the Republicans and for himself, had a foot, two feet squarely in that earlier era.

RAY SUAREZ: So now we move to Bill Frist, Tennessee Senator, a man who has become quite wealthy from his family’s HMO, but also has done a lot of pro bono work as a surgeon in the third world, a man who has spoken up quite forthrightly on health care issues — a different kind of leader.

DAVID BROOKS: Absolutely. A man who is not particularly political for the first 35 years of his life, someone, as you say who goes to Africa to do surgeries, someone who is primarily interested in health care and education, his two top issues, kind of a compassionate conservative before Bush came along. And to me, the interesting thing is a personal thing: he is perhaps the least cynical member of the Senate. He is a very straightforward and sincere guy. It is actually interesting to see how a completely uncynical person will behave in a leadership job because it takes a bit of maneuvering. He is also a terrifically sweet and nice guy, which is I think what sealed it for somebody acceptable to northeastern moderate Republicans, southern, western, more conservative Republicans, in part because of his personality. He’s a very nice guy.

RAY SUAREZ: So the way that he ran, for instance, the Senatorial campaigns in the 2000 in the 2002 cycle won’t become an issue?

MARK SHIELDS: I think this was a vote among Republicans, it was not a vote among the whole Senate. And there is no quicker way to success in your own party, in either branch, than to have been the campaign committee chairman. You are the person who shows up with the check; you are the person that gets national figures to come in on the candidates’ behalf, you are generally the person with good news.

RAY SUAREZ: And money.

MARK SHIELDS: And money, which is good news. And the fact that the Republicans went into the campaign of 2002 with 20 seats to defend in the Senate, only 14 Democratic seats to defend, and actually came out ahead, you know, certainly redounds to his benefit. He has got a very steep learning curve, make no mistake about it. I agree with David, he is an interesting guy; he’s a man who didn’t vote until he was 36 years old. He has taken a pledge, a solemn pledge, which he’s reaffirmed – that he’s only going to serve two terms, which ends up in four years form now, which is one of the reasons that — his support from those who would like to be leader, because they know he is term limited and that doesn’t preclude them.

But I really, I think that the steep learning curve is don’t forget Trent Lott is the whip of his party in the House, he was the whip of his party in the Senate. Learning the customs, the idiosyncrasies, the special needs of each of the members. Trent Lott had great support in the northeast because he accommodated northeastern moderates and liberals.

When he became obviously a political embarrassment, then he became a liability and they had to move from him as well. He is going to have to learn this in a hell of a hurry is Bill Frist because he has never been in a leadership position before. And he’s got – number 2, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has never been a whip before. It is going to be a little– that’s one of the reasons they moved up the vote — Pete Domenici and John Warner pushed for the vote on Monday so they could kind of hit the ground and have a prime course.

RAY SUAREZ: Our senatorial guests pooh-poohed it a little bit but he is said to be closer to the White House than Trent Lott ever was.

DAVID BROOKS: He is closer to the White House personally; he’s also closer temperamentally. He is as I say more of a George Bush Republican – not that he was created by Bush, but he came out of the same sort of suburban Republican Party that is sort of the center of the party as opposed to some rural Republican Party that doesn’t exist anymore. He is someone who knows how to make deals. He is not a hard ideologue. He’s a practical person. I think we may actually see something sort of practical, a new sort of team orientation among leadership on the Republican side.

You know, when Lyndon Johnson was Majority Leader, you didn’t know who the whip was, it didn’t matter, but with Frist and a very strong determined player like Mitch McConnell as the number two, you might see Frist as Mr. Outside and he’s very good on television, and McConnell is Mr. inside, and he is a determined fighter on the floor.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark, do we end this week more likely to go to war than a week ago?

MARK SHIELDS: You know, I think there seems to be two senses in the country. One is that war is inevitable, and, and two, that the appetite according to both the “Los Angeles Times” poll and the “Washington Post”-ABC poll of the American people for war is subsiding.

And I think the country, the world, maybe Iraq is very fortunate to have at their position of central leadership at this moment, Colin Powell, who has the trust, I think of people, our allies, of Europeans, of the American people, as someone who has no blood lust in his eye, who knows the pain and the agony of war and would prefer to achieve this without war, without bloodshed, without carnage, and without destruction of life and city. So I think that in a strange way this is George Bush’s great credit or his great luck to have chosen Colin Powell and to have listened to him is a very fortunate moment right now.

DAVID BROOKS: We are closer to war than we were a week ago. Saddam Hussein’s report was an insult to the U.N.; Hans Blix accepts that. The French ambassador accepts that. Colin Powell expressed that very eloquently yesterday. We are closer to war because Saddam Hussein is driving us to war.

A couple months ago Bush had a decision. There was sort of the Dick Cheney path to take on Saddam; there was the Colin Powell path to take on Saddam. He chose the Colin Powell path to go through the U.N., but I think we are learning that because of Saddam Hussein’s nature, both those roads wind up at the same spot, which is inevitably a confrontation with Saddam because Saddam demands it, Saddam is a guy who wants to be remembered 500 years from now as someone who brought the U.S. low; he hungers for an apocalyptic conflict. Maybe at the last moment he will back out but he is showing no sign of it yet.

MARK SHIELDS: I do think that what Colin Powell offers is a chance of putting together a formidable enough coalition that there is no escape route that it is not just the United States and a couple of hanger-on countries doing this fighting. And I think presented with that reality, and the reality David described, I think there is a greater chance of that change coming without blood, without war.

RAY SUAREZ: Any quick final thoughts on Al Gore departing? The week’s news has sort of overtaken and it seems like an awful long time ago, David.

DAVID BROOKS: To me, it leaves the room open for Joe Lieberman. An interesting case for Jews. A lot of Jews suddenly don’t want Joe Lieberman at the top of the ticket because we’re confronting Arab nations, there’s a sense, well, maybe we don’t want a Jew at the top. To me, you don’t let anti-Semites determine how you run your country.

MARK SHIELDS: The Kodak moment for Al Gore turned out to be gracious withdrawal in 2000, when he conceded after a decision which I think will be questioned by constitutional scholars for generations yet unborn, but did so in a gracious and patriotic way. And now in pulling out this time he has probably written his political epitaph by saying, “This is the man who got more votes than anybody who ever lived, except Ronald Reagan, and wasn’t elected president.”

RAY SUAREZ: Mark, David, thanks a lot.