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Shields and Brooks

October 4, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Brooks. Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and David Brooks of The Weekly Standard. Welcome.

Mark, the White House — on the Iraq story first — the White House pulled off quite a coup this week. Even before the house began debate, they staged a Rose Garden ceremony, the president, the bipartisan leadership of the house endorsing this compromised resolution. They even had a couple Senators. How did this happen?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I’ll say first of all, I’ve yet to speak to a single member who said I, in those private briefings have seen the smoking gun, the conclusive evidence that there is an imminent threat. That is not the case. And I mean people basically are still waiting for that.

But I think what has tipped the balance, Margaret, and many people have overlooked it — was after September 11, the presidency itself was so much strengthened as an office, institutionally, as opposed to the Congress.

Prior to that, there had been almost a balance between Capitol Hill and the White House. After September 11, in a time of crisis, Americans intuitively, instinctively turned to the president as the one voice who can speak to all of us and for all of us.

And especially in a time of national crisis and national tragedy, the president, when the president invokes national security, not only is deference paid, respect is paid, respect is paid. And he is given largely the benefit of the doubt.

So I think the president had, for the first time in ten years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the president had become the commander in chief in the time of crisis and I think it gave the president enormous political leverage.

MARGARET WARNER: Is that what’s at work here, David, a sort of deference?

DAVID BROOKS: Partially, though Tom Daschle somehow has resisted the deference. The key here is Richard Gephardt – the top Democrat in the House – he really was changed by September 11. For everybody it was an important event but he really said the “world has changed.”

“My vote on Desert Storm,” where he voted against it, “was a wrong vote.” That’s very rare for a politician to say that. “I misjudged Saddam. He really does mean to harm the United States” — he said that. So he has come over. Since September 11, he has had a very good relationship with President Bush, a friendly relationship, a relationship with a lot of long conversations in contrast to the poisonous relationship that Bush and Tom Daschle have.

So it was Gephardt really bringing many Democrats over that was the key to that event. And the Daschle contrast is the striking thing. Some people are for going into Iraq, some are against. Tom Daschle has no content to his position. He has partisanship. He is against Bush on what he seems to be doing. He has no positive agenda. It’s that vacuum at the top, the content vacuum, which is hurting Democrats in the Senate at least.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s go back to the House just for a minute, Gephardt’s participation, Mark, do you agree with David’s analysis of sort of why? And then explain, I gather there’s tremendous unhappiness with him at least in some ranks of Democrats in his caucus.

MARK SHIELDS: There was and there is. And I don’t know why. I mean David’s speculation is probably as good as anybody’s that Dick Gephardt had a Damascus experience and I think he was changed and it is rare when a political figure, especially a high political leader as Gephardt is in his own party, admits that he made a mistake on an important vote.

And there’s a lot of speculation, a lot of criticism, some from Democrats, some from Republicans that he is doing it for the 2004 — his own presidential ambitions — so he can position himself as a national leader, won’t be vulnerable on the charge.

I think that’s an unfair charge against Dick Gephardt because, given the intensity, and I’ve talked to dozens of officers on Capitol Hill, dozens of members, the intensity and the passion on this issue is all against going to war. It is not for going to war.

If there is going to be a constituency, and given all the moving parts, I mean all the things that could go wrong and the occupation of Iraq in perpetuity and everything else, the cost in life and treasure and disruption, probably it would be a safer political position for a Democrat seeking the presidency in 2004, to be a critic of George W. Bush right now rather than an advocate. I think in fairness to Tom Daschle, Tom Daschle is troubled.

I mean there’s no question about it. I mean he is holding his own powder. He has got a difficult political situation. He will make his position known, I’m sure.

And I don’t think that the poisoning of the relations between them is because Gephardt is sort of a good guy and Daschle is a bad guy. The Republican National Committee has spent several times over millions of dollars to demonize Tom Daschle. I mean their attempt is to turn him into the Newt Gingrich of 2002.

MARGARET WARNER: So David, what is going to happen in the Senate? Because in the Senate Daschle has made clear he expects and there are going to be other alternatives offered on the floor.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. There will be the presidential resolution, which is essentially what Gephardt endorsed. Then there will be a whole series of other resolutions.

There will resolution from Carl Levin, which will say let the U.N. decide first; let’s let China and Russia decide before we decide. That’s my spin on it. Then there is a more centrist resolution from Joe Biden –

MARGARET WARNER: The Biden and Lugar –

DAVID BROOKS: Joe Biden and Lugar, which says let’s go after weapons of mass destruction but let’s not change regimes. There have been 33 new democracies in the world since 1980 but let’s not let that tide of democracy extend to the Arab world. — again my spin on the Biden-Lugar resolutions.

It will give Democrats a chance to vote for some resolution that appears tough on Saddam Hussein but ultimately the president’s resolution is going to be the one that passes.

MARK SHIELDS: Joe Biden himself said that the train has already pulled out of the station. And I think the question — it’s a question of how many votes those resolutions will get, how strong the arguments will be. But I think there is very little doubt right now tonight in Washington about the outcome in either the House or the Senate.

DAVID BROOKS: But the debate really will be important that is starting – that’ll be next week – because we have had a debate about multilateralism; we’ve had a debate about the Iowa Straw Poll in 2004, how that’s affecting this debate.

We’ve not had a debate about Saddam Hussein. We’ve not had a debate about the Ba’ath Party and ideology; we have not had a debate of how Saddam courted Desert Storm. The focus has been as if we are debating World War II without debating Hitler – the Napoleonic Wars without debating Napoleon.

This debate will finally, I hope, get down to the key issue, which was: does Saddam have homicidal tendencies toward the United States?

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let’s shift gears now to the other big political story of the week, which was the New Jersey Senate race. Your thoughts, Mark, on first of all Senator Bob Torricelli and the way he left this race.

MARK SHIELDS: I never thought I would think of Richard Nixon’s 1962 concession speech when he lost the governorship in California when he said you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, and then stormed had out of the room as a particularly gracious political event.

Bob Torricelli’s — I thought — absolutely self-pitying, self-adulating soliloquy was an exit which I’ve seen better on the New Jersey turnpike. It was really a bad moment for him. I mean I know he is under tremendous emotional pressure, but grace failed him.

MARGARET WARNER: So, of course the Republicans are crying foul here because the Democrats now want to replace him. What do you think of those arguments, David? Is it unfair– or somehow dirty pool for a party at this close to the election, to switch candidates or try to switch candidates?

DAVID BROOKS: The law says that within 51 days before an election you can’t switch the ballot.

MARGARET WARNER: The New Jersey law.

DAVID BROOKS: The New Jersey state law, and no matter what the cause of vacancy that’s what the law says. But Republicans didn’t understand that New Jersey is the state of no deadlines. I guess dead lines don’t matter in New Jersey. If you don’t feel like paying your taxes April 15, pay in March. If you don’t feel like handing in your paper as a student, hand in your paper sometime later because the New Jersey State Supreme Court simply ignored that 51-day deadline.

Now, apparently there is some vagueness in the law and I’m not a legal expert on this but it is an absolute terrible precedent for this country because we test our candidates. That’s how we determine who is fit for office.

Over the long months of the campaign, we say you have got to stand up for yourself, you have to go in this circumstance and this circumstance and that circumstance. You can’t just parachute in like a relief pitcher in the ninth inning and suddenly because you’re famous, you can’t just get elected. That’s a lousy way of testing candidates.

MARK SHIELDS: Testing candidates — I think that is probably David’s weakest argument. First of all, you have seven judges all of whom unanimously agreed, six of them are Republican appointed judges to the New Jersey Supreme Court. So they’re not Democratic machine hacks or anything of the sort.

Secondly, the Democrats didn’t go down to central casting and said give us somebody who looks good, is a college president. They got a fresh new face — Frank Lautenberg who had three terms in the United States Senate. Yes, I believe the campaigns mean scrutiny.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think it is a bad precedent?

MARK SHIELDS: I think maybe what we should do is we should give each party one mulligan – I mean, in other words — one case. California, the Democrats have Gray Davis — an embattled incumbent Democratic governor who is unpopular, probably couldn’t be reelected except the Republicans nominated Bill Simon — the one person in captivity that Gray Davis can beat like a drum.

DAVID BROOKS: So on November 1, Arnold Schwarzenegger comes in and we’ll elect him.

MARK SHIELDS: Is he a citizen? (laughing)

MARGARET WARNER: All right. So, David, now, of course, the Republicans, as we’ve said, are crying “foul” – they’ve gone to the U.S. Supreme court to overturn this. People are drawing a lot of parallels with the Florida situation. Do you think the parallels are apt?

DAVID BROOKS: Some of them are apt – the rewriting of the election rules. Some of them are not apt. And the interesting question is a political question — is will the Supreme Court have the guts to take this up? They got torched — to use a bad word in the circumstances — over the Florida imbroglio.

Are they really going to want to wade in again? I suspect there will be three votes in the Supreme Court to wade in again. But there won’t be five. So I expect and Republicans expect they won’t win on this, that they will end up losing and there will be this Lautenberg – Forrester race.

MARGARET WARNER: Given, Mark, how close the Senate is, 50-49, given how important this race is, do you think this whole episode, however it turns out, is going to engender something of the bitterness that Florida did?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I think Republicans are trying to do that. They’re trying to make this into the Daschle-Torricelli-Lautenberg troika that’s trying to change America. It’s not rigging the results after the thing.

There is an election. I feel bad for Doug Forester. He was one of the few people in civilization who was willing to run against Bob Torricelli who is a human buzz saw, had the reputation. He gets in the race against him, makes his only case is “I’m not Bob Torricelli.”

His whole reason for running has ended when Torricelli leaves the race. So all of a sudden Forester has to put together a campaign and say I’m not Torricelli, I’m not Lautenberg. I don’t know who else he isn’t. He’s probably not Henry Clay, either. But that makes it a different dynamic.

DAVID BROOKS: If I could make a stupid moral point. The National Democratic Party was fine with Torricelli’s ethics when he was tied in the polls. Suddenly he is down 13 and there is a crisis of conscience running through the national Democratic headquarters leaning on him to pull out. This was so opportunistic. Maybe it is politics but somebody should at least attack the Democrats, criticize them for being so amazingly cynical.

MARK SHIELDS: Correction. Pressure did not come from out — the pressure from within. His campaign did a poll last weekend that shows him 20 points behind and he knew that the outcome, I mean if Daschle and the others tried to talk him out of getting out of the race — I’m not saying the Democrats are moral exemplars but you know, they want to hold on to it. I think the idea that Bill Frist is now a constitutional scholar, the senator from Tennessee, bringing the appeal to the Supreme Court is sort of just stretches my credulity a little bit.

DAVID BROOKS: Anti-doctor remark.

MARGARET WARNER: More later. Thank you both.