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Oliphant and York

August 22, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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TERENCE SMITH: That’s Tom Oliphant of The Boston Globe and Byron York of the National Review. Both Mark Shields and David Brooks are on vacation. Welcome to you both. Tom, President Bush, although he’s supposed to be on vacation, had a very busy week this week trying to focus the public’s attention and that of news organizations on domestic issues: energy, the environment, the economy. Did he succeed?

TOM OLIPHANT: No, not at all. And I’m sure Byron and I would agree, that from this desk anyway, you get no sympathy if you have to work in August. But the events abroad completely overwhelmed this and a number of other things that were going on politically in this country, and probably should have.

You know, what strikes me, Terry is how similar this atmosphere is to the atmosphere a year ago when President Bush was in the process of making up his mind to go to Congress for a war authorization, and to go to the U.N. for a last chance Security Council resolution. He is in the process of changing policy a little bit to try to see if an agreement is possible in New York on the very kind of fresh U.N. mandate that was just being discussed.

It is what the Democratic presidential candidates are recommending, what the international community is recommending, and what I think would probably shore up support for the American effort if he were to take the next step. He makes a speech on Tuesday in Missouri. We’ll see if he takes it.

TERENCE SMITH: Byron York, it certainly was distracting, the headlines not only out of Iraq but also out of Israel and Gaza.

BYRON YORK: Well, presidents don’t control events any more than the rest of us, and you know, a week ago we were talking about the electricity grid, and I’m kind of glad we’re not talking about that anymore, because I didn’t know very much about it. But it seems to me the bigger question is, viewed politically, what is this? Is this helping the president or hurting the president? There was an article on the front page of the Washington Post today that suggested that security, thought to be the president’s strong suit, might become a vulnerability next year.

It seems to me that that is right now a little bit far fetched as far as the Middle East is concerned. Americans are rightly a bit pessimistic with what is going on. I think that if it were to continue, still be happening this time next year, Bush would not be blamed for not solving a problem that no one else on the planet could…

TERENCE SMITH: Vis-a-vis Israel and the Palestinians.

BYRON YORK: Exactly. So a problem that no one else on the planet has been able to solve. As far as Iraq is concerned, clearly the Bush administration did not fully anticipate the kind of things that could happen after the war; neither did the United Nations. But I think it’s clear the administration is climbing up the learning curve on this. They, for example, tried to get the U.N. to accept more security at their offices. The U.N. refused for reasons that may have made good sense to them at the time.

I think if a year from now when we’re a little less than three months away from a presidential election, if the president can point to real progress in stabilizing Iraq and getting rid of the Baathist diehards and in bringing water, electrical power, stabilizing the whole place, I think it’s really, it will be a plus for him next year.

TERENCE SMITH: That’s a year from now. Tom, what about now?

TOM OLIPHANT: That’s the difference. In order to get to a year from now, we have to do some things now. And I think that’s the change in perspective that is detectable in the administration and in the White House in particular. I think they have seen, even before we have seen, a detectable change in American attitudes toward this situation — both an increase in the level of concern and a decrease in the level of support for an operation like the one we have now.

So in order for things to look good a year from now, it is probably necessary in the administration’s view, to make some alterations now. I think one of the tragedies about Mr. de Mello’s death last week is that he was working to stitch together a relationship between the U.N. and the American occupation so that it could increase incrementally, almost without requiring a new U.N. resolution. His death means that it’s probably necessary to negotiate a new mandate. That’s why Secretary Powell went to New York last week. That is a change, and it will probably, in the end, be a change for the better.

BYRON YORK: Well, the president has shown both domestically and in foreign policy that he can adjust to circumstances as things happen. And this very day he said that we need and welcome foreign troops. And it seems to me that there is a way to do this, not to have foreign troops in offensive positions working with what the president called hunter teams, American hunter teams, have them he talked specifically about having them guard the infrastructure, border patrol, border security is something that clearly needs beefing up.

That’s something you can do without too many of the kind of command fights you can get in multinational forces. So the president can adjust as he goes along. It seems to be that’s what he’s doing now.

TERENCE SMITH: While the U.N. was the principal target in Baghdad this week, and certainly the bloodiest and deadliest, American soldiers continued to die. Casualties continued. At what point does this become… I hesitate to use the phrase political problem….but at what point…

TOM OLIPHANT: It is a political problem right now, though the criticism I’d make, for example of the Democratic presidential candidates is that in effect, they’re urging the president to do something which logically you can expect him to do. So once he’s done it, then where are you? However, there is a moment coming, and many in the administration worry about this privately, and that’s when the number of kids that have been killed since May exceeds the number who were killed before May. That’s one of those….

TERENCE SMITH: Before the day when the president declared major combat to be over.

TOM OLIPHANT: That would be one of these watershed moments where people, with some justification ask, what are we doing? What’s the cost? Hello. There is a flip side to this discussion, I think, that needs a moment’s attention, and that is that people in the defense community close to the administration are urging the president to step forward and give a more detailed series of comments about how long, how much money, how many people, what is the nature of our commitment.

TERENCE SMITH: And he has that opportunity next Tuesday.

TOM OLIPHANT: On Tuesday.

BYRON YORK: Just so you know I think it has been about 110 days since the president declared an end to major hostilities; I think about 60 Americans have died as a result of hostile action in Iraq. So the war itself, I think was, what, twenty-five, twenty-six days, and maybe ninety or a hundred. So I think the president could argue that, especially if the number of Americans being killed is going down, which is very, very important. He could argue that it is getting better.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. Let’s turn to the domestic schedule, and the domestic entertainment we have. Everybody’s favorite summer story: the California recall. What happened there this week?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, there were major changes, particularly on the Democratic side of the equation, though I still think the biggest question of all is unanswered, and that is what are we watching here: A popular uprising or a farce? And how that question gets answered will have a lot to do with the size of the turnout, the nature of the vote later on.

But in the Democratic world, it has gradually become apparent that the position that, as far as I can tell, is only held by two northern California Democrats now, Senator Diane Feinstein and Willie Brown, the mayor of San Francisco, namely no on recall period — no voting for replacement candidates or whatever, is not holding. And the congressional delegation changed its mind this week.

TERENCE SMITH: The Democrats.

TOM OLIPHANT: That’s right. Led by Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader – but what was much more interesting than that is that Gray Davis himself is changing his mind. And that suggests that on one side of the ledger going into October there will be a somewhat divided but nonetheless, at least purposeful Democratic Party. The same process is going on, on the right, sorting this out. Who’s the real conservative?

I think it’s become much more of a problem because of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s difficulties in defining himself, which continue. There are still arguments going on, on the right as to where he stands on this or that, so that even the landscape is unclear. But behind it all is this question of whether, from the voters perspective, you’re looking at a farce or an election.

TERENCE SMITH: Arnold Schwarzenegger had met with reporters finally to lay out some positions. How did he come out of that? There was this sense that when he first announced that he was inevitable, is he inevitable today?

BYRON YORK: Actually, I think he came out very well. The news cycle is going so fast. He announced, seemed inevitable. Then for a while people were harping about where’s Arnold? He’s not out. We need to see him. We need specifics. He comes out and I think he does much better. His big challenge at the moment was to unite the conservative base in California. He had been getting a lot of criticism. There were three other Republicans running, and he had been getting a lot of criticism, especially when we brought Warren Buffet on his economic team. Buffett suggested that some property taxes in California might be too low.

TERENCE SMITH: Heaven for…

BYRON YORK: That did not go over well at all with his conservative audience. Schwarzenegger comes out – he says no taxes, no taxes, no taxes. He refuses to completely draw the line but makes his message very, very clear. Then the latest poll that’s just come out from the Public Policy Institute of California, he’s leading Bustamante 23 to 18 and I think the more important thing is that the three other Republicans, McClintok, Simon, and Ueberroth together have 13 percent; that number appears to be shrinking, which means that I think Schwarzenegger is going to succeed in uniting Republicans for him, which I think is going to bode well for him in the election.

TOM OLIPHANT: In my judgment, particularly where California is concerned, I think it is way too early for those kinds of judgments, particularly because of margins of polling error. I don’t think you can see any daylight between the two top candidates at this point given margins. The other ones had Bustamante up slightly. It doesn’t really mean anything. You can’t tell.

And with a different turnout model, you get an 18 percent combo with the two conservative candidates with still another model like this one, and it changes. It is yet to be determined. Arnold Schwarzenegger is campaigning to the right, but both polls show the opportunity for him, where he is ahead two to one is among people who have no partisan identification at all. And he is not really talking to them.

TERENCE SMITH: And that’s a mistake from your point of view?

TOM OLIPHANT: I think so. I think the opportunity here is to be something that Ross Perot never quite managed to be when the exit poll showed him winning both parties’ primaries in 1992 and that’s a middle of the road.

TERENCE SMITH: Tom Oliphant, Byron York, thank you both very much.