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Brooks and Oliphant

August 29, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: And that brings us to the analysis of Brooks and Oliphant. That’s David Brooks of the Weekly Standard and Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe. Mark shields is on vacation. And the pot simmering nicely, the stew of California recall politics gets more interesting, more subtle flavors every week, David.

DAVID BROOKS: I hope they’re not going to degrade it from the high level it’s been at. Yeah, it’s become interesting. And to me, the most interesting thing that happened this week, first of all, the rise of McClintock and the rise of the conservatives, but we are getting a test of whether scandal will tarnish Schwarzenegger.

He gave an interview in the ’70s to “Oui” Magazine, a girlie magazine, and it was so vulgar it made the pictures look dignified. The question: Will people use that against him? The interview, it was so vulgar and so show-offy, it revealed such a vulgar state of mind that will conservatives say this guy is a creep? I don’t care if he can win? I just don’t feel comfortable voting for the guy, and we’ll finally get a test of that element of the campaign.

RAY SUAREZ: Now he has said subsequently after the “Oui” article came out, “I wasn’t running my life like I was preparing to run for public office.”

DAVID BROOKS: So, “I was a total jerk.” It is a window into the soul. The question is, if people say it was a long time ago, and whatever happened in the ’70s, you get a pass on. Reading it, personally, you’re creeped out by it.

TOM OLIPHANT: On the other hand, it might help him actually with Democrats that he has had some trouble appealing to up until now.

DAVID BROOKS: Only in Marin County.

TOM OLIPHANT: There are certain rituals in conservative politics, and where a misspent youth is involved, I think an act of contrition, some evidence of expiation is called for. It is interesting how the scandal machine operates in the United States. California’s ground-zero for scandal media, they’ve got you not necessarily for the content of the article.

But Schwarzenegger said one thing about the interview Wednesday night and something totally different on Thursday, and the media out there used that as the hook to then get into the interview. I still think it’s a minor story. What makes this race so fascinating this weekend, is that it’s like covering three campaigns at the same time, a Democratic party that’s basically coalesced, a Republican primary and the Schwarzenegger soap opera, whatever you can call it.

RAY SUAREZ: That bifurcation of the Democratic campaign is interesting because they’re really running two campaigns at the same time: the “no on recall, yes on Bustamante.” Yes, you mentioned it coalesced they agreed to do this split- brain kind of thing.

TOM OLIPHANT: I want to yield to David on cultural topics. But an essentially neurotic position is not something that Democrats in California are going to have trouble following and saying no and yes at the same time, particularly with party discipline. I think that’s the interesting thing that’s going on here, is you are seeing pretty standard party politics being played on the Democratic side. The piece that we just saw mentioned the coalescing reluctantly of the California Labor Federation — before that the teachers.

What’s coming in several days is going to be the Democratic Party in the state itself. They’re going to, Art Torres the chairman said they’re going to actually have a mini convention with balloons and all the rest of it. And I think one of the contrasts is that there can’t be a Republican Party convention right now, because they’re still having a contest to see who is the Republican.

DAVID BROOKS: The Democrats have to decide: Is there a best shot being the recall or beating Schwarzenegger after the recall? And you hear it from both sides. On the Republican side, there is now a primary going on on talk radio because there’s a lot, a ton of talk radio, conservative talk radio in California. And if McClintock can hold on to 15 percent and Ueberroth on to another 7 percent, that’s a lot of Republican votes, and Schwarzenegger has little chance if there are 22 non-Schwarzenegger votes.

He is fervently attacking that voter block at 22 percent. The conservative mind I think will be, “we can win with this guy.” But “a,” I think he is vain, not what he did in his sex life. It’s character, and do we feel comfortable with him as a humble and normal person? Secondly, when you look at McClintock, he is a real politician. You can see the program on the first day. With Schwarzenegger, he says there’s leadership. “I will provide leadership.” What is that? That’s not governing.

TOM OLIPHANT: There’s history here, too, because I don’t think there is a lot of evidence that California has ever looked to dramatic leadership. It has a very long tradition of finding relatively gray people, even boring people, from Goodwine Knight to Jerry Brown’s father, George Dukmajian, Cruz Bustamante, Peter Ueberroth, McClintock. They’re very much in the California tradition. Schwarzenegger is trying to do something unusual, not normal.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s take a look at Iraq and the president. Hard on the heels of the terrible bombing at the U.N. comes this new bombing at the mosque. American troops and British troops continue to die. The president went to the stump recently to say, “We do have a plan, this is what it is.” But the polls are looking a little soft.

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, they’re bifurcated. There is still general support of we did the right thing and have the come out with a victory, but there is an increasing sense that (a) the U.S. is not in control of the situation and increasing sense that things could be getting worse. I don’t think you can get a majority to believe things are getting worse, but you can see it coming if things go the way they are, which is why I think the president really has to give some major speeches in the fall and this is why we are here for the long-term. There is, however, a broad consensus that we cannot walk away.

Howard Dean said that on the left. Bush certainly believes it. The argument is how we stay. But I think Bush can make a strong case and persuade people one way or the other we have to stay. You have begun to see people in the administration admitting error which is an incredible rarity in this administration. We didn’t understand the security problems, underestimated the extent to which the Iraqis would be mentally scarred, would not show initiative to take over the country, would have some problems with the town meetings. So there is finally some sense that we’ve got to start over.

TOM OLIPHANT: One of the toughest questions you can get in polling, Ray, is when you ask people do you think so-and-so has a clear plan for dealing with problem “X.” And Bush comes out about ten points negative on this question. Question: Do you think he has a clear plan for dealing with Iraq? And that’s dangerous because it’s often a precursor of negative sentiment. David is absolutely right.

That’s not what you have right now. Most people, and I mean most people, believe we did the right thing and believe staying there is the right thing. But this is very dangerous. It’s tied to another issue that I think is very problematic down the road, and that is at some point, the president must ask congress for a supplemental appropriation to pay for all this. There is going to be enormous sticker shock when that moment comes. And the reason I think David is right about the need for speaking and explaining in more depth than the president displayed last week in Missouri, is that the sticker shock I think is going to be so huge on this money figure; that even if politicians aren’t calling for American withdrawal, the public is not supportive of this kind of commitment without results.

RAY SUAREZ: The American administrator started to soften the ground and say this is going to cost a lot of money. He started to use some very tentative figures. Is Tom right? Is money… can money scotch this thing in public opinion?

DAVID BROOKS: No, I think people have decided, certainly the administration has decided, this is what it’s all about. This is the most important thing the administration is going to do to attempt to turn the Middle East around. Before they go to the money issue, they have to settle what are we going to do issue. There are debates within the administration, within the world at large, the way to secure Iraq put more troops and more police on the beat or pull out hoping you pull away the provocation. That’s one debate. The second debate is, do we admit some defeat and bring in the U.N. and give them some power, or do we just try to bring in other countries individually, one at a time? These are all big debates. You can’t have the money debate until you settle on how you are going to do it.

TOM OLIPHANT: Three figures is what we are talking about in terms of billions. And I think Bremer did what he did in part to get the attention of the budget people in the administration to make sure that people understand that we are running out of options for other ways to finance this. And I think… it’s kind of like when the casualties post-May 1 exceeded the casualties pre-May 1. It’s a watershed moment. And this amount of money, with these fiscal problems that the country has right now, will be a watershed moment in politics.

RAY SUAREZ: Want to weigh in on Howard Dean, who is showing some real spunk on the trail there?

TOM OLIPHANT: My columnist philosophy is “Kick them when they’re up,” Ray. And, okay, so this is real. It’s gone national, there’s momentum, money, all the rest of it. Here’s what I see that is wrong with it. It is very upscale. It is very white. It is mostly about attitude, as I experience it and less about substance and alternative.

And some of the other candidates may have started a new issue this week, which is Dean’s advocacy of the complete repeal of all the tax cuts enacted from day one of this administration, that it throws out the baby of middle-income tax cuts with the bath water of upper income tax cuts. So great beginning. This is for real. But there are some questions and weaknesses.

DAVID BROOKS: My philosophy is to cravenly jump on any bandwagon. I have become much more impressed with dean. In part, it is white, it is liberal, it is upscale. But it is not just George McGovern. He is tapping into hostility towards politics, hostility toward the Democratic Party. They’re very careful to say this is not a campaign.

It’s a movement, a crusade. That’s the entire philosophy. And I think there is a potential to have a marriage between the normal lefty circles which he already has and the Perot and McCain anti-politics circles which are non-ideological, which are not classifiable on ideological grounds. If he has that, then he has a winner. The final thing to say is 49 members of Congress have run for president in the last 40 years. They’ve all lost. Governors do well. Why this is a surprise that the governor is doing well in this race?

TOM OLIPHANT: Jimmy Carter will be the best example. I think there are also been other examples of dean’s type of politics. Paul Tsongas, flames and then burns out. Bill Bradley four years ago would be another one. I think what he needs to do more than anything else is to give people some kind of a sense of how his presidency would make a difference in their lives. That’s what makes the sale.

RAY SUAREZ: We are going to end it there. Have a great weekend, fellows.