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Weekly Analysis with Shields and Safire

October 3, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: That brings us to the analysis of Shields and Safire. Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and William Safire of The New York Times.

Well, reaction is building to the David Kay report. We heard both Democrats and Republicans saying how disappointed they were. Bill Safire and these polls also suggesting the public’s wondering was the war worth it. What do you see as the political fallout from this?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: I think what we have seen is the missing word. There was one very short word missing in most of the coverage and certainly all the headlines of the Kay report. And the word was “yet.” Nothing found yet. And as you saw with Senator Kennedy, they don’t want to spend more money looking. They’re happy with the headline, no weapons found. And yet, if the reports in the papers are true, and I think they are, we’re talking about spending $600 million looking. There’s another small item that 600,000 tons of explosives need to be gone through and exploded.

MARGARET WARNER: Kay said that on this program last night in an interview with Jim, that there’s a lot…

WILLIAM SAFIRE: I should watch on Thursday.

MARGARET WARNER: You should watch on Thursday. There were a lot of things they haven’t been able to go through.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: The question is … not the question. My conclusion is don’t jump to could be collusions. We have plenty of time to find out. We see a scientist with a vial of botulinum toxin in his home, how many other scientists have it? And when will they start talking? Let’s wait a while.

MARGARET WARNER: What’s at least your premature conclusion, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: My premature conclusion is that it is a real blow to the administration and to the supporters of the president on his Iraq policy. There is no doubt — there is not a question of some day we’ll find it when the president went to the U.N. Or the secretary of state went before the U.N. We had pictures, we had aerial photographs, Margaret. And I think what we’ve got is we’ve got no smoking gun. We may have a smoking memo. To listen to David Kay –There’s the possibility that at some future point in time, he had substantial intent to return to nuclear weapons.

This was after the national security adviser to the president warned the American people she didn’t want this — a mushroom cloud to be the warning that we got from Saddam Hussein. The capacity of Saddam Hussein to deliver lethal attack upon the United States which was alleged is certainly totally unproven, in the Scottish term–

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Very good Scottish term.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. I just think when Pat Roberts, a very loyal Kansas Republican, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee — a former Marine, stands up there and says I’m not pleased by what I heard today, I think that was probably the most candid assessment with the least partisan garnishment.

MARGARET WARNER: And yet, Bill, the president took this report and essentially embraced it and said it proves what we were saying all along which was this guy, he is talking about intent and he’s talking about capability. Is that the right tact for the president to take?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Like with the bible or a Lincoln speech, you can read it and pick out what you want and make it work for you. Mark and I see the same report with different eyes. That’s what makes horse races. I think what we’ll see in the future is something different.

MARGARET WARNER: Mark, do you think there is any doubt — one, that the Congress will approve the money to continue the weapons search, and then more to the point, also, this great big supplemental spending request that the president has made for Iraq. There were a lot of grumbles on the Hill this week about that.

MARK SHIELDS: The grumbling… I think the money will be approved for David Kay to pursue the search because thus politically there is no strong side in opposing it.

But the $87 billion has really become a problem for the administration. It is not only the president’s eroding support in the country, and support for the war itself — but it’s also, Margaret, the reluctance on Capitol Hill, especially on the part of Republicans, but on Democrats, if you split it, split that $87 billion into two parts; that is, $20 billion for rebuilding of Iraq and the $63 billion or so whatever, $65 billion, for American troops, the $65 billion for the troops sails through, big majorities.

On the other side, there is great resistance, there’s resistance all over the board on the amount of money for the specific line items, whether it’s going to be a grant instead of a loan. Again, statements made by Rumsfeld, by Wolfowitz, on the eve of the war that the United States taxpayers won’t have to pay anything about this. It is going to be self-financing for goodness sakes. These people have so much money, they’re awash in money. And now we’re told that it can’t be a loan. If there were a way of splitting that, it would lose.

I think the fight is going to be that the Republicans understanding their own members’ skittishness on this will try to come up with a fig leaf loan program something that the president at a later date certifies they can pay it back. The question is, can the Democrats organize to beat sort of the ersatz bogus loan? I don’t know. But this military part of it is absolutely lock sure.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you think it will unfold?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Mark is right about the military part. A lot of us think, frankly, the $20 million in reconstruction should be a mortgage, and that we should have a way of getting that money back. And I’ve been rooting for that for sometime. And quite frankly, I think, Mark, you’ll see the administration doing more than a fig leaf, because politically, it would be terrible if the Russians were able to start getting money back from Iraq and Iraq’s oil before we got our money back from our reconstruction fund.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. The other big story this week was over the CIA Leak, the investigation into the leak of the CIA operative’s name. The poll suggests the public actually thinks it’s serious, 80 percent in a Washington Post-ABC poll. How serious do you think this is? Does this thing have legs politically?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Yes, it has legs. And the Democrats are eager to give it really powerful legs. And that’s why you see the push for an independent counsel, or even–

MARGARET WARNER: A special counsel.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: An independent prosecutor frankly what is I’ve been for all along, Republicans, Democrats, whatever. But now the whole idea of appointing a special counsel is to string out the story for months and months. You have to — who will it be? You finally announce it and somebody objects it to and then there is a fuss about him or her. And then appointing the staff, and renting the offices and moving it. You can really go at this until next spring, which is about what they want to do.

MARGARET WARNER: So is that why you think so far the administration has not embraced that?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Right. They’ll resist it and then they’ll have to cave in.

MARK SHIELDS: I’m against an independent counsel. There is a rare moment of consensus in this town in 1999 when the Democrats and Republicans came together and said this had become a partisan bludgeon, a political bludgeon.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: I wasn’t part of that consensus.

MARK SHIELDS: No, you weren’t. I’m sorry. I should have told you about the meeting. They voted to repeal it. And I think Antonin Scalia, the Justice of the Supreme Court had argued for 20 years it was a bad idea and I think he was validated and vindicated.

But I think what we have here, Margaret, is for the first time, a problem for the White House, the first time for an allegation of a scandal, first time the smearing of somebody who took another position, however you want to do it, exposing an agent. That’s to be determined but this is — the president came to power and won the election in 2000, in my judgment in large part by saying look, these days are over. There won’t be any more investigation. It is going to be integrity and decency and dignity.

I think the president would do well to heed the advice of the editorial page of the Washington Times where the columnist and chief editorial writer said get on this immediately. Don’t string it out. Don’t let it be six or eight months. Mr. President, it’s up to you. The president is now very passive about this. If anybody has information, let them come and put it in the suggestion box. There is only a couple dozen people who are eligible to have filled the role in this White House.

MARGARET WARNER: Bill, today Howard Dean said the similar thing. He said the president should stand up and ask the people who did this to resign right now. Do you think the president should get more involved?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: No. I think there’s a back story here that will develop later on, and that is the great division within the CIA and the intelligence community. And they are leaking and the leakers leak on the leakers.

MARGARET WARNER: The story wouldn’t be out but for leakers.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: And they’re fighting like elephants underneath this tarpaulin, and all we are seeing is the outward movement.

MARGARET WARNER: Is this really part of even the larger running battle between not only within the CIA, but between the CIA and the White House, particularly the vice president’s office, over the whole question of intelligence about Iraqi weapons?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: You got it. That’s exactly it. Don’t you think so, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it is a major fight back and forth. I mean, there may have been an attempt to prove — why didn’t you get somebody who came back with better information. The damn CIA, that’s why Joe Wilson went. The CIA was involved. I think there might be … There may have been a neo-con explanation as to why we weren’t being tougher in the white house.

MARGARET WARNER: I quick question for both of you as journalists, then I want to get back to Bush. Should Bob Novak and the other journalists who were called, if this really was a crime, should they say or tell investigators who called them or who they talked to?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: First of all that’s a big if. Second, no you don’t reveal your source. The freedom of the press is undergirded by there semi-privilege that we have.

MARK SHIELDS: I disagree with Bob Novak. He is a very good friend. I know him to be an absolute patriot. I don’t think any circumstances he would divulge the name of somebody he thought was an agent and put at risk that individual or that individual’s contacts. So no I don’t think he should. The statutes specifically exempted journalists. The law itself was written in 1982.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s talk briefly about President Bush and The New York Times poll. Today the poll said that even in what’s been a strong suit since 9/11, foreign policy, his approval rating was the lowest its see ever been. Down to 44 percent . I think the disapproval was 45. Should the White House be trouble beside this?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Take a look at that poll. In January ’03, the approval rating was 45 percent . Now here it is eight months later with all the brouhaha and it’s still 45.

MARGARET WARNER: 44, yeah.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Call me a liar for 1 percent .

MARGARET WARNER: I acknowledge statistically it’s insignificant.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: On the broader question, Clinton, in this part of his first term was what, way down. So was Reagan, and so was Nixon.

MARGARET WARNER: Sort of the third year blahs.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Then they came on to a huge landslide victory.

MARK SHIELDS: You’re not suggesting we go through another Nixon reelection campaign.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: No, no. I was thinking Reagan (laughing).

MARK SHIELDS: Bill’s right, similar point. The problem was the trend lines. The trend lines for the president is not good. He has just been a through a successful war, a winning president in the war. His numbers jumped back up again; now he is back to where he was in his overall job rating, Margaret, on September 10, 2001. So all the restorative strength that he won with the electorate for his leadership after September 11 has been eroded.

MARGARET WARNER: We have to leave it there. Thank you both.