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The Political Analysis of Brooks and Oliphant

November 14, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the analysis of Brooks and Oliphant, which means David Brooks, fresh and refreshed as a New York Times columnist, has returned. Joined tonight by Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant, because Mark Shields is off. Welcome back, David. We knew you could do it.

DAVID BROOKS: I missed you guys. I had my kids wearing Jim Lehrer masks to the dinner table.

JIM LEHRER: Congratulations on the debut of your column. It has been terrific. Mark wanted me to say that his absence tonight has nothing to do with your return. He had a longstanding commitment at his alma mater Notre Dame, so that’s why he is not here. Welcome back to you, Tom.

Let’s get right to the Senate’s talkathon. Was there a political winner to come out of all of that?

DAVID BROOKS: No. I don’t think anything was achieved any more than the Battle of Verdun achieved anything. It was just two sides in their trenches battling to each other and I think the message to the American people to the extent they were paying attention will not be about judges or the substance of it but will be that these two parties are fighting each other.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Tom?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, I think Robert Caro was actually a secret winner in that his book about Lyndon Johnson in the Senate was cited much more in the 39 hours than I expected it to be and portions of it were read out loud.

JIM LEHRER: Actually read out loud on the floor.

TOM OLIPHANT: And also there was a very learned dispute about the meaning of a hold on a nomination as opposed to a filibuster, a distinction if I could use Senator Frist’s words, I’m sure riveted the international audience. It hardened the positions on both sides. It was Ben Nelson and Zel Miller on the Democrats joining them before. That’s what it is now. But it’s less likely to change because of what happened.

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, the shouting was unbelievable.

JIM LEHRER: Never seen it quite like that.

DAVID BROOKS: Rick Santorum, Harkin. My memory, it was like one of these Eugene O’Neill plays where people shout all through the night except for without the booze. It really was; I think it did ratchet up the personal animosity, if that was possible in the Senate.

JIM LEHRER: What about David’s point, Tom, was anybody listening? Do you think this really matters outside of the C-span audience –

TOM OLIPHANT: I have a deep respect for the C-span audience. Where I think this is a problem is that it shows the extent to which people in Washington really are beholden, on the left and the right, to these issue groups that mobilize around the things like judicial nominations and they demand a certain intensity that I don’t think is felt by many of the senators doing the shouting. There’s a certain forced nature to this.

DAVID BROOKS: I agree with that. Though my big question is does this represent the American people? There’s polarization on the Hill. And everywhere one goes, people are sick of this, so you think it doesn’t represent the country. But when you look at the studies done in the American electorate, there is incredible polarization.

There is much more straight ticket voting now in the country than there was 20 years ago. And the paradox is as people get better educated, you would think they would vote more independently. In fact, they vote straight ticket, much more often as we get more college grads. And so in some ways the country is polarized and that’s producing this polarization in the Senate.

TOM OLIPHANT: What I think is new, however, David, is this concept of judges, almost more as people who vote than as people who judge. And I’m not sure that that is a view that is shared in the country at large, that I think we have an ideal of a judge who really does go like this, whereas in politics today, the way, if you listen to the debate, people are referring to judges as if they’re automatic this or automatic that.

JIM LEHRER: No matter what their job is, this is….

TOM OLIPHANT: Exactly –

DAVID BROOKS: Though in truth, [inaudible] did a study of judges and Democratic appointed judges and Republican appointed judges behave very differently.

JIM LEHRER: Iraq, David. The president and his administration clearly have decided it is okay to go ahead with an interim government without a constitution, et cetera. What caused the change?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah. They almost admitted they made a mistake. Came close.

JIM LEHRER: You’ve talked about that before — willingness of others to do the same.

DAVID BROOKS: What happened was that they had a plan, and the plan was this Governing Council, then you go to a constitutional assembly, and then to elections.

But the security crisis just made the problems that slow pace of democratic reform untenable. So they had to speed up handing over power to the Iraqi authority — to some sort of Iraqis. And the fight now is which Iraqis? Will it be the Governing Council; will it be a broader governing council, or will have you elections right away, some sort of hodgepodge elections, which is what the most important man in Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani wants. I suspect he’s going to get his way because the Governing Council is not legitimate and the fact of having elections will change the whole dynamic there. That’s the fight over how to give it to the Iraqis.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about that?

TOM OLIPHANT: I’m thinking it is elections at least for a portion of the people who are going to be making these decisions.

Jim, what I think happened last week is that there was a confluence of two political developments: One, a growing body of evidence inside Iraq — that the Iraqi people are not just restive, but to a certain extent, resentful of the nature of the occupation they see around. It is not materially affecting their lives, and that this information has been accumulating for weeks, and it was very jarring when received in Baghdad. And it was interesting to me that Ambassador Bremer seemed to embrace it as accurate. The second development….

JIM LEHRER: Excuse me. Senators Lugar and Biden were on this program last night, embraced it as well in the context of the CIA report that everybody knows about that is top secret.

TOM OLIPHANT: I’m told that the CIA report included the work of other agencies as well that have had people on the surface.

In this country I think also there is a political problem surfacing that goes way beyond partisanship. It involves the question of whether the American people support a long-term reconstruction commitment. It is a very interesting survey published last week by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania on the question of money for Iraq. A quarter of the sample wanted no money for Iraq, and a third of it wanted less money and when you have… so if you have a political problem with the Iraqi people and the American people about this occupation, you really do need to change course.

DAVID BROOKS: I’m not sure I agree with that. There is always going to be a large chunk of people against any sort of foreign aid. So if you ask them, should we send money overseas, there is always going to be a large chunk of people who say no, no, no.

I’m actually frankly impressed by how the American people have basically said we have got to finish this to the end. Maybe we don’t think it is being handled very well but we can’t just cut and run. I think there is a wide consensus about that.

As far as the Iraqi population, I would only add one amendment which is geographic. I think in the north and the south of the country, there rally are these local governments that are doing quite well. The U.S. administration has produced real results and is much more admired than it is in the center, in the Sunni Triangle, and I think one of the reasons, as the administration weighs what to do, they have to respect first Sistani and the Shias who he represents, but also all these local governments that have sprung up and those people are afraid that the Governing Council, if given more power, will trample on what they’re trying to do. And they’re sort of already a political dynamic growing up within Iraq to not have too much centralized authority, either from the CPA, Paul Bremer’s outfit, or from the Iraqi governing council, the central national government.

JIM LEHRER: Back to you point about not admitting a mistake, how does your administration pull this off without saying the Governing Council thing didn’t work?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, the good news about them is that they won’t admit mistakes but they are ruthlessly pragmatic when forced to be. A couple times already in Iraq they’ve had to say we’re going to try something new. And that’s what happened last week. They said we’re trying something new and it sent ripples of concern through Congress and I think through the body politic as people became afraid, are they trying to bug out.

JIM LEHRER: To the Democrats. John Kerry today decided he would not take public funding, joining Howard Dean in doing so. What’s going on here?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, of course this will be a very different type… this is a different type of decision than Governor Dean’s. In Governor Dean’s case, it’s because he has astonishingly developed this ability to tap small contributors en masse –

JIM LEHRER: He isn’t going to write any checks himself..

TOM OLIPHANT: No. But in this case we are talking about the family money.

JIM LEHRER: In John Kerry’s case.

TOM OLIPHANT: That’s right. And in a week where John Kerry has fired his campaign manager but I think also streamlined his campaign, what this gives him is one last chance to communicate in Iowa as well as New Hampshire, not just New Hampshire.

And if a streamline Kerry campaign can begin to tell people how he might make a difference in their lives, I think he has one more chance to communicate. And I think he does because I don’t think the conventional wisdom about Dean is correct. I think he’s trailing in Iowa and Kerry is closer to him in Iowa than Dean is to Dick Gephardt.

JIM LEHRER: David, what’s your analysis of what happened to the Kerry campaign? He went into this as the conventional wisdom’s front-runner and now he is anything but that. What happened?

DAVID BROOKS: Two things. First, he didn’t know why he wanted to be president. I think that’s a core problem. The second problem is 49 people have run for president having served in Congress, while serving in the Congress in the last 40 years. All 49 have lost. They’ve done it because they think, I’m really close to the presidency. If I’m cautious, I’ll just get that extra step. They don’t realize if you’re running from Congress, have you to be radical because the odds of you getting there from Congress are so minimum. But, Kerry was not radical. He was cautious; he was too nuanced and it is falling apart for him.

Though I do agree with your point that the press is way overselling that Howard Dean is inevitable. When I read the press sitting here in Washington, I think Dean is inevitable. And then you go out cover a campaign, and it’s not true at all.

JIM LEHRER: But Dean’s lack of inevitability doesn’t make Kerry inevitable.

TOM OLIPHANT: And that’s very important. The thing that I would add here is that I think John Kerry’s campaign up to now shows the limit of campaigns based on biography and resume. That gets you in the door. It doesn’t make the sale.

What I think is working this year for Democrats is when you offer ideas that have a chance of changing people’s lives, it is economic issues that really cut in this campaign. We talk about Iraq all the time. But this is what makes the sale in the living room. And what Kerry has to do now is talk about these domestic concerns and less about himself.

JIM LEHRER: What about the campaign staff issue of consultants and all of that? There has been an awful lot about that written as it relates to Kerry as well.

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah. I think that’s because the race is relatively immobile and reporters need to focus on something. I really think the fact that he doesn’t have a core message — and when Howard Dean took off, instead of differentiating and going off in the other direction, offering alternative, he mimicked Dean. So, he became a second rate Howard Dean. Who needs that? You’ve got the real thing.

TOM OLIPHANT: Worse, he concentrated just in the last month or so, just on attacking the guy. Again, in this dynamic in Iowa and New Hampshire, that is a route to nowhere, and I think that’s what you are going to see change.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. David, again, welcome back. Congratulations on your column. Again Tom, welcome back. Congratulations on your column.