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Political Analysis with Shields and Safire

October 10, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of shields and Safire: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and William Safire of The New York Times. Bill, the Democrats, Wesley Clark, was a major target last night, how did he do?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: I think he did fair. I never thought I would say this but Al Sharpton is looking good to me these days in comparison to the rest of the panel. Clark is the target now. Last time around it was Dean was the target. What’s happened is they’ve focused on his flip-flop on the war resolution. And what he has come down with is, it’s simple: I would have voted for going to the U.N., and I would have voted against the war.

But that wasn’t the way it was. He knew what the resolution was, and the resolution gave the president the power to go to war. Now, he says he necked it down. I don’t know what “necked down” means. I’ll look it up and perhaps if any of your viewers know what necking it down means, they’ll let us know.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel Clark did?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, Jack Germand, the legendary political reporter had a great phrase when the candidates started complaining about the sharp elbows being thrown their way or the cheap shots directed at them. He said politics ain’t beanbag. Well, Wesley Clark saw last night politics is a contact sport.

JIM LEHRER: How did he handle it?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I thought if you turned the sound down, he looked terrific. He really did. There was never a look on him that he was looking away or averting a glance. The jaw was jutted. The shoulders were squared, there was never the deer in the headlights look about him or anything.

I didn’t think the words — I think Bill is right. I think the words he was trying to make a distinction that really isn’t there. That was not the way the resolution was presented. You had an up or down vote on both, and I guess the thing about it is what Joe Lieberman did to him was to make it into not a policy disagreement, but a character difference.

And that this showed a certain defect in character. He commended Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley-Braun and Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean for being consistent and even though they were different from him. He accused Clark of just the opposite.

JIM LEHRER: On Dean, Dean went into this more or less the front-runner. How did he come out of this, do you think?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Well I think he was more comfortable not being the focus of everybody’s attack. He was a little bit on the attack because he sees the whole Clinton crowd around General Clark beginning to make a move. Now, he has the security of he’s raised a lot of money in the last quarter, more than anybody else. And that speaks loudly to every politician.

JIM LEHRER: Did you feel he did well last night?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: He did fairly well, yeah. I think he came away with it. He didn’t blow up at anybody.

JIM LEHRER: How did you feel about Dean?

MARK SHIELDS: I didn’t have a strong impression of Dean, which I guess in that case he didn’t come out of it badly. I thought that Lieberman showed a feistiness. If Joe Lieberman had shown that feistiness against Dick Cheney in 2000, he would have been vice president today.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of Cheney, we’ll get to what he said in a moment. But how do you think the Democrats are doing framing their case on the Iraq issue?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean they’ve got a one size fits all case, which is the stewardship of the post-war period because they obviously disagreed on the run-up. Howard Dean wants to make the case that the others… that I was brave, I stood alone, and took on George Bush, and now look I’ve been vindicated and validated by events. I was a prophet. The others are trying to get daylight. You have to understand….

JIM LEHRER: Daylight between….

MARK SHIELDS: Themselves and Bush.

JIM LEHRER: Those who supported and those who didn’t, whatever they did, yeah.

MARK SHIELDS: We’ve got a policy now with no international support, with spiraling costs and severely shrinking political support at home. So they want to get away from the scene of that accident.

JIM LEHRER: Now, how did Vice President Cheney — we ran excerpts a while ago of his speech today — what kind of grades would you give him in making the administration’s response?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: He is a sober sided speaker. He doesn’t rouse any rabble. I think he made the basic case that when it comes right down to it, we did the right thing. And you don’t hear Democrats saying we should not have done that. You hear some Democrats saying that, but not the presidential candidates; with the exception of Clark who says it was a reckless war, I wouldn’t have done it. Now he says that. So I think Cheney’s position is we did the right thing with the country and the world is better off without Saddam, and now we have to face these problems we have now.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of problems, what is your reading of the problem they face in presenting their answer right now? I mean are they on the defense? Are they running a defense now?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Sure. Generally speaking, this is the three-year blahs that the administration is going through. The fact is we’re taking casualties. That’s why, when we see right in that Sunni Triangle, that’s where all the casualties are, and here we have the opportunity now of a major Turkish element coming in.

JIM LEHRER: As you predicted on this very program…

WILLIAM SAFIRE: I wasn’t going to bring that up.

JIM LEHRER: A couple weeks ago.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: But those are Sunni Muslims. They’re not Americans. I think that would be an important addition.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, speaking of all this, there has been the story about tension between Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Rice over a memorandum, over a new group at the NSC that’s going to coordinate the Iraq situation. How do you read that? Is that a serious –

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, this is an enormously disciplined administration. It has been remarkably leak-proof with the exceptions of planted leaks, which are now being investigated, but it has been really disciplined. Tight-lipped. And the tensions that have been there — it’s been an open secret in Washington that the tension and hostility between Colin Powell’s State Department, Don Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, is open, bitter and full of recrimination.

At the same time, the decision between Don Rumsfeld and the civilian leadership in the Pentagon and the uniformed military is almost open warfare, Jim. There is almost a revolt on the fact that the United States Army is totally overextended, exhausted. So what you have now is a policy that is not working. It has been with the Defense Department. Rumsfeld got it in January. I think that the president understands that it’s a political problem and that they’re trying to get… what they’re trying to do is they’re trying to repackage, they’re trying to, you know….

JIM LEHRER: Change.

MARK SHIELDS: I think that’s basically it.

JIM LEHRER: I don’t think Safire agrees with you.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: I worry about that. I think the war that’s going on is not in the Pentagon. It’s going on in the CIA. But in the Pentagon, you have the operational responsibility for what’s going on in Iraq. Now there’s a tendency in administrations to try to, whenever there’s friction, to try to pull it all into the White House. And that, on a bureaucratic box looks fine and Condi Rice is now the chairman of the coordinating committee.

The last time I remember it all being pulled into the White House was under Admiral Poindexter and it led to something called Iran-Contra. So have you to be careful how you rearrange these things. I think you, mentioned Rumsfeld and Powell and the bureaucracy. When the two guys are in a room together, they can work things out. They like each other.

I mean they compete and all that but they like each other. And we’ve seen situations in the past when secretaries of defense and state didn’t like each other and it was personal. Here, you have that ability to work together. But the great bureaucracies of the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom, the State Department, they’re clashing.

JIM LEHRER: But you don’t think this is driven by bad things happening on the ground in Iraq and the president wants that to stop, and that’s why he’s putting it together under Condi Rice?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: He wants it moving faster. And look, so do we all. And so does the Pentagon. And if he can work out something where he can watch it more closely and make it move faster, great.

MARK SHIELDS: Let me just dissent from Bill. It isn’t the bureacracy. I mean charges at the State Department, the eighth floor of the State Department, Dick Armitage and Colin Powell has more combat experience than the entire civilian leadership of the Pentagon. It’s not the bureaucracy. It’s not the GS-14s.

It’s the neo-cons in position of influence and power in Don Rumsfeld’s Pentagon. That’s where it is. I mean yes Rumsfeld and Powell can do it, but as soon as they go back and they’re being accused of being limp wristed cookie pushers or whatever else and worse at the State Department, and I think, Jim, what they’re trying to do….

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Who is accusing them of that? Limp-wristed cookie pusher?

MARK SHIELDS: Sure for goodness sakes. That they’re not tough enough. We’re the tough guys. Jim, the reality is this. They’re trying to sell something trying to repackage dog food that ain’t selling. You can’t go out and sell the idea that we’ve built school rooms, that we’ve completed three stop signs and put up seven traffic lines when you’ve got nine people being murdered, you’ve got a terrorist bomb going off, a Spanish embassy attaché being assassinated and American troops being shot.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: At the same time we’re seeing on television all the violence and all the terrible things happening — that’s what television covers. At the same time, the more you hear reporters coming back from the area, the more they tell you hey, look there’s a lot of good things going on, too. They are building schools and they are putting power plants back and normal life is beginning.

JIM LEHRER: Is there a national message — in three or four sentences — is there a national message from the California recall result, Davis out, Schwarzenegger in?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Big interesting thing is the Hispanic vote. The Republicans got over 42 percent of the Spanish, the Hispanic vote against a Hispanic who was running. Now that augers very well for Republicans all over.

JIM LEHRER: That would be the big thing to you?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: This group is reachable.

JIM LEHRER: What big thing came out…

MARK SHIELDS: This is the year, Jim, where in the governor’s race in Louisiana, a 32-year-old Republican son of Indian immigrants sprang an upset over the established political order, the lieutenant governor and the attorney general. This is a year when voters are looking for leadership skills rather than for political skills, when they’re discounting if anything, political experience.

Arnold Schwarzenegger represented leadership, represented optimism, and I asked one of President Bush’s most trusted and savvy political advisers, the implications of this race nationally. He said I’m just glad John McCain isn’t running because this is the year the environment is perfect for John McCain.

JIM LEHRER: Somebody said Dean could also be considered part ever that same movement.

MARK SHIELDS: I think Dean and Clark.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: You can’t interpret this as good news for the Democrats, there is no way you can do that.

MARK SHIELDS: I disagree. I think the defeat was about Gray Davis. There is no two ways about it. And I think even Gray Davis would concede that.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: I think it was a plus for Schwarzenegger.

MARK SHIELDS: It was a big victory for Schwarzenegger.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you both very much.