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Shields and Brooks

November 28, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Now, to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks. Happy Thanksgiving. So, Mark, what did you make of the president’s stealth visit to Baghdad yesterday?

MARK SHIELDS: First of all, just as dramatic presentation it gets very high marks. I mean you could see almost Sean Connery playing the role of the president in the unmarked car with the national security adviser and the baseball caps on and the lights out on Air Force One. I think in that sense it was dramatic; it was bold; it was imaginative.

It did send a message to the troops, who did need their morale lifted. We’ve heard and read that morale is precarious. I think there’s nothing like a visit from the president to do it. Fred Greenstein, the presidential scholar at Princeton, said it was an act of presidential panache. But panache, in the final analysis, is no substitute for policy. And I saw President Johnson go to Vietnam. I saw President Nixon go to Vietnam. And eight years later, I saw 58,155 Americans dead, thousands of Asians dead, a war lost and Vietnam a communist nation. I think that’s the question. But as an act, I think it was a strong act, a bold act, a presidential act.

MARGARET WARNER: White House officials said, David, the president himself said that they wanted to send a message that the U.S. and he are committed to stay and finish the job. Do you think it sends that message?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it does. I think the best message it sends is to the bad guys in Iraq, who have sometimes gotten the signals that we are trying to pull out, sometimes you read between the lines and some of the things that the Defense Department officials say and you do get the sense that people are looking for an exit strategy. One has got the sense it is only George Bush standing in the way.

If there was ever a statement saying “we are not pulling out” it is George Bush putting his personal profile right on the line going there. I also think it’s great for the morale of the troops — we haven’t talked about this enough — are doing things no other troops are expected to do. They’re expected to be social workers by day, and warriors by night. They don’t get any sleep. They’re doing things they never expected to do. I heard a blog today from a soldier in Iraq who is trying to hand out toys. A mob of people trying to steal the toys and he has got his gun trying to protect the toys. He wants to help. He is angry at them. He loves the people he is with. It’s an incredible complex of emotions.

MARGARET WARNER: The polls continue to show that the American public is losing confidence in the policy; a new LA Times poll showing now a majority disapproves of the way the president is handling Iraq. Does something like this help stem that?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think too much. It’s sort of a great thing to do visually. But it’s just an incredibly complicated situation. There are good things, there are tremendously good things happening on the political level, humane level, local level, tremendously bad things happening. There’s no simple way to clarify this story. I read a great piece in the New Yorker magazine by a guy named George Packer– a 10,000-word piece. It takes 10,000 words to summarize what is going on there, it is so complicated.

MARGARET WARNER: How does the Bush White House or the Bush campaign handle the Iraq issue, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think it’s going to change public opinion at all Margaret, in this country.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean the trip. I’m talking about larger….

MARK SHIELDS: We began with the president’s first commercial, the Republican National Committee, call it what you want. We finally learned why the president was raising $200 million, to put this on the air. It was a piece of junk, to put it bluntly.

MARGARET WARNER: This was the ad that began in Iowa?

MARK SHIELDS: Among other things, the ad says that now the president is attacking the terrorists, they’re attacking the president. Now I don’t know who the Democrats are, they don’t name them. There is none of the candidates or none of the leaders or chairmen that I’ve heard.

What the Democrats have criticized the president for and I think legitimately is not attacking the terrorists but for going after, for invading, occupying Iraq and pretending you are going after terrorists at the same time. And I think this was just unpardonable and inaccurate.

And I think add to that the fact that the president, in this same commercial, said, “They want to turn our national security over to others.” I haven’t heard anybody seriously suggest that. If this is the kind of stuff we are going to look for for the next 12 months, I think we have to look forward to this campaign with dread, quite frankly.

MARGARET WARNER: The ad also ends with a line. This is the end saying, “Call your congressman and tell him you support the president’s doctrine of preventive self-defense.” So he is really wrapping himself in this, is he not?

DAVID BROOKS: I must say I’m a little surprised at Mark’s reaction. I have heard the Democrats attack the president. It has been full-bore. It has been pretty rough and I frankly thought the ad… you could quibble whether it was fair or not, but the ad was small artillery compared to what is being waged.

There are two substantive debates we are about to have: The doctrine of preemption, is that smart or not, and the second is the multilateral issue. Should we worry about doing this, only doing it multilaterally? Can we legitimately say we are going to do it alone if we have to? That’s the language… that’s a very difficult issue because if you poll people and say, “Should we get multilateral allies?” That’s very popular. On the other hand, you say, “Are we hemmed in by the French?” That’s popular, also. So the public is of two minds.

MARGARET WARNER: Can I switch to Medicare?

MARK SHIELDS: Sure, but one thing. This ad went beyond anything that has been said in the Democratic debates, David. I think when you are talking about our own national security being threatened and the preemptive doctrine, I mean we are still looking for those first weapons.

I mean, you know, we were told that Iraq represented a threat to us and to our national safety and it hasn’t and it didn’t. And so, I think this is a pretty sad rhetorical initiative — if this is a launch as to why George W. Bush ought to be reelected — boy, oh, boy, look forward to next October.

MARGARET WARNER: You get the first word on Medicare. The big story of the week was the passage of the Medicare bill. Why, David, were so many Democrats, the champions of Medicare historically, so against it? And if they were against it why couldn’t they stop it?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t know why they were against it, frankly. In the next two decades there is going to be over $2 trillion spent on this prescription drug benefit. It is a new huge entitlement program. It seems to me it went a long way away from fiscal discipline, limited government, things Republicans stand for and big government spending programs.

There are problems in the details, and both sides, the Heritage Foundation is against it, and the liberal groups are against it because of details. But it seems to me the smart things for the Democrats would be to take this big chunk of money and work on the details later on. I think they were against it for a number of reasons.

One, sincere opposition to the details and two, they didn’t want to give the president a signing ceremony in the Rose Garden on what has been the core Democratic strength, Medicare. The one issue we know people vote on and often vote against Republicans on.

MARGARET WARNER: The Democrats complained, Mark, that the Republicans used hard ball tactics to get it through the House and even in the Senate but particularly in the House. Do they have a right to complain?

MARK SHIELDS: They have a right to complain. It took the Democrats 40 years in power to reach the zenith of arrogance in 1974 to pass the crime bill; they kept the House vote open for little over an hour.

MARGARET WARNER: 1994.

MARK SHIELDS: In less than a year… in 1994, I’m sorry, you’re right. And then they lost the Congress. It took the Republicans, with less than a year, in control of the House, the Senate and the White House, to do three hours to bully the weak-kneed, to browbeat….

MARGARET WARNER: Because they were down two votes.

MARK SHIELDS: And then give them arguments that they couldn’t even use to defend why they switched. I mean the congressman from Idaho said, “the Democrats are going to bring up something far worse.” Of course, the Democrats can’t bring up anything in the House because they don’t have a majority.

So I think in that sense, Margaret, there was an argument to be made that they did go too far, and this is the kind of thing that will leave a bitter harvest and acrimony in its wake. They looked at it the same way the Democrats looked at welfare reform with Bill Clinton, that they can neutralize what had been historically a great opposition party advantage, that they can show that they can govern at the same time, so I think in that sense… I do think the opposition to it is based on a couple of simple premises.

One is the strength of Medicare has been that everybody was in it: The rich, the poor, the well, the sick, they’re all in it.

MARGARET WARNER: And everybody paid the same.

MARK SHIELDS: And everybody paid the same. All right. What this does, is it takes away the universality. What it also does in my judgment is make it very selective for insurance companies to grab the well-off and the healthy, thus leaving behind, to be discredited as the universal program, the poor and the unhealthy and the sick in what we would call Medicare. That and I think the fact that when… under Medicare we bargain with hospitals and doctors to get the best rate for patients– the only exception is pharmaceutical companies– and so I mean, I guess the Republicans could say they were drugged by cutting this deal, but, I mean, you know, absolutely no price limit on what pharmaceutical companies can pay.

MARGARET WARNER: So how do you think it plays politically in the election next year? Do you think the Republicans have successfully neutralized an issue?

DAVID BROOKS: I do, in a word, yes, clearly, especially in the 2004 election. They… they look at this 2004 election. They have the war on terror, they have got the economy, they have got a big welfare program which they’re supporting hundreds of billions of dollars for the elderly, there is no doubt about it.

They have become the majority party. They are the party that controls the purse strings and can deliver. If you want to get something done in this country or in Washington, if you are AARP or you’re Max Baucus or John Breaux, Democratic senators, you have to work with the Republican senators. In this week they established their dominance over the entire federal budget. They did it at some cost to their principles, which is the principle of small government.

MARGARET WARNER: As a whole, how would you rate….

DAVID BROOKS: I think the Republicans had a successful session because they really did control it. And they did it in some ways through thuggery, no question about it. They got the $37 billion for Iraq through, partial birth abortion through, got this through.

Over the past two years, they have shown they can get major pieces of legislation through. The strongest thing George Bush has going for him when you look at the polls is not issues, it’s leadership– the feeling that he is a leader– and that’s because he can win. And, you know, like Bill Parcells of the Dallas Cowboys, you may not like him but the guy can win. That sort of aura surrounds Bush right now.

MARGARET WARNER: How would you rate the Democrats, Mark, in this past year in their ability to head off some of the things they consider beyond the pale?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it was a tough session for the Democrats any way you look at it. I think David is right — 2004 gets you probably through Medicare for the Republicans because none of it kicks in until 2006.

Therefore, it is just a prospect and promise, a promise upon which the Republicans have delivered. As far as other than Medicare and tax cuts, and partial-birth abortion, there wasn’t an awful lot done in this Congress. At the same time the Republicans did establish themselves as the governing party. But I recall covering election night in 1982 — that’ll tell you how old I am — and I was in Speaker Tip O’Neill’s office. It was election night, the first year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, running in the mid-term elections, Republicans lost 26 house seats there.

There was only one seat that Tip O’Neill cared about that night, Bob Michael, the Republican leader of the House. He wanted him to win because he liked him so much. The reality is that all that comedy, all that sense, David Breaux calls it the most bitter feeling he has ever seen on the hill, and I think it’s true.

MARGARET WARNER: We have to leave it there. Mark, David, thanks.