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Brooks and Oliphant

December 15, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Some final words tonight, from Brooks and Oliphant: New York Times columnist David Brooks and Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant.

David, in any context that you want to put it, to you, what’s the most important thing about the capture of Saddam Hussein?

DAVID BROOKS: That the tension is gone. I think there had been a sense that justice had not been done in Iraq because Saddam was out there. And I think when this… when he was captured, there was a huge moment and I think even I was shocked by talking to people in furniture stores and such what a great sense of relief that the tension that he was still out there was gone. And I would only add that this sense of relief is small compared to the sense of relief that will be felt and the earthquake that will be felt when Osama bin Laden is captured

JIM LEHRER: What’s the most important thing to you, Tom?

TOM OLIPHANT: I have been struck by how tempered and measured the reaction has been in the first 30 hours or so. This is a wary country, a chastened country in a way. We’ve been through the end of desert storm, and the fall of Baghdad, and the appearance on the aircraft carrier in May. And I think Americans are wary of saying, “well, now it’s over because clearly it isn’t.

JIM LEHRER: “It’s going to be okay now.”

TOM OLIPHANT: In the last two days, I have not heard a Bush administration official who hasn’t openly acknowledged that it’s the situation next spring that matters politically.

JIM LEHRER: Getting to a…

TOM OLIPHANT: This gives time, room to gather support abroad, in this country, to do more things to make further progress. But as an end in itself, I’m struck by how that is not what it is.

DAVID BROOKS: But at the same time, I think the debate has been jerked and even we’ve seen in the last few minutes here, the talk of quagmire, the talk of Vietnam, I think maybe it’s only temporary, but at the moment that talk is in the past.

I think now there’s a greater sense that there’s a level of competence in the way Iraq is being… that war is being fought and a level that things are not totally out of control and that we’re not slipping into a swamp.

JIM LEHRER: As long as Saddam Hussein was on the loose, competence was an issue, right? If we can’t find him, what…

DAVID BROOKS: Or impotence, a sense that we can’t even top the big guy.

TOM OLIPHANT: Americans have a special ability of shifting the reason for their dissatisfaction. And clearly the casualties among our soldiers have to go down.

The cost may have to go down. There may need to be now some light at the end of the tunnel, an indication of more support abroad. We will move on to other demands being a demanding country.

JIM LEHRER: Much has been said since yesterday morning, Tom, about what this does to the presidential race and most particularly was it does to the Democratic nomination race. Would you like to add your comments, sir?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, we have at least two main answers tonight: One, we might call the Howard Dean answer, not very much. His people spent most of the night rewriting a foreign policy speech he gave in Beverly Hills today. Let me be clear, my position on the war has not changed. And the view is that it hasn’t… this hasn’t changed the situation politically in the primary states either.

JIM LEHRER: That’s what he says.

TOM OLIPHANT: Joe Lieberman would disagree with that and used a rather… I think the quote of the day, he said that he thought Dean had fallen into a spider hole of denial.

JIM LEHRER: He also said yesterday on “Meet the Press” “if Howard Dean had his way, Saddam Hussein would be in power today, not in prison.”

TOM OLIPHANT: This is the question that has to be answered before Democrats vote. Dean had a fascinating construction this afternoon where he said “clearly the capture of Saddam makes our soldiers safer, but it has not made America safer.” And perhaps David could explain to me how you can have a distinction between safer soldiers and a safer country.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he has gone back and forth on the issue, was Saddam a threat to the United States and I guess he was saying he’s not so it doesn’t make any difference if he’s captured or not.

The Lieberman comment that Saddam would be in power and not only would Saddam be in power, but Uday and Qusay would presumably about to be in power for the next several decades, that’s a strong argument against Dean. And I think…

JIM LEHRER: But is it a fair argument?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, I think so. Saddam would be in power if Dean had been listened to. I think what has happened, this may be a little too little too late, along with the gore endorse the, this following upon that has rallied the anti-Dean forces to be angrier, more aggressive and to say this guy was running on an anti-war platform, that’s going to be terrible for us.

JIM LEHRER: Who does it help?

DAVID BROOKS: It helps Lieberman, primarily I would say it helps Edwards and Gephardt. Gephardt I think is the primary alternative to Dean right now.

TOM OLIPHANT: Here, however is how Howard Dean may be right. You’re talking about four other candidates of similar views splitting the center — whereas Dean holds on to the left. But to understand the political change, can you imagine Al gore delivering the lines he delivered just seven days ago tonight? It would be unthinkable.

DAVID BROOKS: The worst mistake in American history he said.

JIM LEHRER: Somebody mentioned today that to me last night; if Gore had waited with a week, who knows what he might have said. President Bush’s news conference today, David, he said that– this is almost a direct quote, but that in 2003, the year we’re in now, we have become a safer, more prosperous and better nation, end quote. That leapt out at me as when what this 2004… when you get to the general election, that’s what it’s going to be about, right?

DAVID BROOKS: Oh, absolutely. And if you compare the Dean speech in California with the Bush speech, it’s very interesting. Bush is a moral person, he said, you know, God endowed freedom, Saddam took the freedom that God endowed away from the Iraqi people. It was a very moral way of tacking. The Dean speech was almost Dukakis-like in its competence and pragmatism. There’s no moral vision there. It’s just we will rally the people of the world together in international organizations and we’ll solve problems — very un-moralistic, very multilateral, whereas Bush is more unilateral and sees a grand vision for America.

JIM LEHRER: Go ahead.

TOM OLIPHANT: I think the president’s choice of words I thought was very revealing because this is a re-election election that we’re about to have, and obviously, peace and prosperity are the best themes for any incumbent president. In this case, however, you’re seeing the case made for, well, we have less war and less hard times. It’s still a difficult sell, depending on the situation six or seven months from now.

JIM LEHRER: But the point you made earlier that Dean talked about said today our troops may be safer, but the country’s not safer. And the president says, yes, we are safer. I mean that could be… that could have many strings during the political…

TOM OLIPHANT: Indeed. Before Iowa and New Hampshire vote, I think once Howard Dean has to explain to all of us why he would have countenanced Saddam Hussein’s continued stay in office. And after he’s dealt with that question, we’ll see whether the non-Dean vote coalesces with one of these people, or whether it stays split.

JIM LEHRER: Finally David, back to Tom’s initial point, do you agree and were you the least bit surprised by this kind of muted response generally in the body politic to the capture of Saddam Hussein?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, people are smart. They know if you pull some guy out of a hole in the ground, it’s not going to stop a few hundred or a few thousand suicide bombers, that that is a process that’s going on by itself.

I think the American people, if you look at the polls, tolerance for the casualties, there was a hit when we started losing people in large numbers every week, but that it solidified and even gone up a little. I think people have decided or at least a slim majority of people have decided this is worth it, we’ll stick it out. I don’t know if they’ll want to do that for another six months or a year, but for the time being there’s a solid base that the president can rely on.

JIM LEHRER: As you were saying, the capture of Saddam Hussein is a step on the road not the end of the road.

TOM OLIPHANT: Absolutely. It gives time more than anything else.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Well, gentlemen, thank you both very much.