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Weekly Analysis with Shields and Safire

October 31, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Safire, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist William Safire. Mark, the economy first; great growth numbers were out yesterday. How do you read the politics of that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jim, they’re fascinating in the first place. The president, who has frequently dismissed and disparaged economic statistics as the work of numbers crunchers was crowing that the Bush tax cuts were working, so the boom beginning yesterday is the Bush’s and the bust part of that was Clinton’s but there’s no question, it’s good news for the president; it is good news for the country and we hope the job loss recovery will be ended and that jobs will be produced, but certainly in a political sense for the president, it’s important to have good and improving economic news long before an election as his father learned in 1992 when the improving economic conditions were seen as too late by the voters to bail out his father against Bill Clinton.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see it , Bill?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Quite differently. I credit Mark with the courage to say good news is good news, and you’ve never seen so many depressed Democrats around Washington. With their issues gone… you remember Bill Clinton’s bumper sticker. James Carvel was the one who made it famous, and as a result of that….

JIM LEHRER: It’s the economy, stupid.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Funny you should remember that.


WILLIAM SAFIRE: And that, of course, is the Democratic mantra. And what they’ve done is banked so much on it that, you know, the deficit was too high and taxes had to be reversed and reimposed. Well, it turns out that Bush and the Republicans apparently were right, and what you have now is this surge. I mean there won’t be a seven percent ….

JIM LEHRER: Seven-point-two percent in the last quarter, yeah.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: But that can’t be maintained. That’s just a surge. If it goes along at 3 1/2, 4 percent , that means the country is cooking along toward real prosperity and that will bring down the unemployment rate.

JIM LEHRER: Eventually. Do you see… when you look at these numbers and the other numbers that surround it, do you see a permanent recovery coming now? Do you think this is just the beginning rather than a quick surge and back?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Yes. I’m an optimist. And I also believe there is such a thing as a business cycle. And we did have a Clinton recession in 2001, three bad quarters. And slowly we came back and the tax increase… the tax decrease helped, and also, frankly, the government really doesn’t determine what happens in the economy. It nudges, it helps. It sometimes restrains, but there is a great resilient animal spirit that goes on in the economy, and it comes back after a bubble pops and after a recession and that’s what we are seeing now.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with his analysis, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Of course not, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: I would be disappointed.

MARK SHIELDS: I love Bill’s rhetorical flights and when things are going, it’s the inevitable business cycle. But when the other party is in power, it is obviously bad policy. The reality is that this is good news. It is good news for the Republicans, good news for the country. And we all hope that it does produce those jobs. I mean that’s what we’re measuring here. That’s what we are talking about here, is not whether the market goes up or whether corporate profits are bigger. It’s whether, in fact, the loss of jobs is something we haven’t seen in 70 years under any president, and I don’t have to remind Bill who the last president that was who had such a record, is going to be turned around, and for the good of the American people rather than for the good of George W. Bush.

JIM LEHRER: What about Bill’s point that this is a depressing — good news for the country in this particular case is depressing news for Democrats?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think there’s no question that there are three enduring issues in American politics. They’re peace, prosperity and the subtext of race. And the party that takes credit for the sunshine cannot be surprised when it gets criticized for the rain as a wise man once said. I think George Bush has been through some pretty torrential showers. Now this ray of sunshine is encouraging to him, and it’s good for the country and it’s probably not as good for the out party, but there are other issues continuing — the unemployment, but also foreign policy which continues to nag him.

JIM LEHRER: Sure, let’s talk about that. Bill, the peace issue, as it relates directly to Iraq, the president had a news conference, to speak to this violence issue directly. How do you think he handled that?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: He was pretty defensive, as you would imagine when you’re under fire from essentially hostile questioning. I did not like his answer on that mission accomplished sign on the aircraft carrier, saying that it was really, you know, the navy that did that and not him. I’m sure somebody had that vision of Mike Deaver and the picture counts more than anything else, and the White House must have helped so that was not deserved. However, at the very end of the press conference, he tips his whole strategy for next year when he said the theme of my campaign next year will be peace in the world and security at home. Now, curiously, he did not say prosperity. That now becomes an additional plank in that thematic platform. But I think he will run on “we did the right thing in Iraq and we stayed the course, and we were frankly surprised by the shortness of the fighting of the war, and the length and ferocity of the guerrilla war that followed.”

JIM LEHRER: You said you thought he was too defensive on that issue. Did he handle… do you think he acknowledged what he should have acknowledged about what’s going on there now? People are dying at a rate, well as you know, we report it every night.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: I’ve worked on press conferences with presidents in preparing them, a president.

JIM LEHRER: President Nixon.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Not President Hoover as Mark was —

JIM LEHRER: Was about to say.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Right. But he came back from a trip to Asia, pretty much exhausted and without really the time to prepare answers to all the questions. I think, frankly, I’m pro press conferences. I think he ought to have more of them and I think he ought to be better prepared for them.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, what do you think about the news conference, how the president handled this specific issue on Iraq and the violence?

MARK SHIELDS: Not well, Jim, the president was defensive, Bill is right. But the president had to have a press conference. I mean this is an administration that, in spite of the fact that so many supporters of the administration were trumpeting the candor of Donald Rumsfeld and the leaked memo last week, it was reflective also of a wide gulf, a widening gap in credibility because the administration had been saying on one hand how well things were going and admitting in private that things were anything but. You could see a growing lack of confidence. I’ve been talking to voters for the last two weeks. Voters don’t feel more secure. Their confidence in the president’s leadership and his candor has been shaken.

There is no doubt about it. And whether it was a consequence of bad intelligence or intelligence… intentional misinformation, whatever, there is no question in people’s minds that we went into Iraq on causes and a case that was not fully developed or fully made or compelling and at the same time we’re totally unprepared for the aftermath of that war.

And so he has to do it. He has to somehow reconnect with the American people. Bill is right in the sense that the president is not a rhetorically gifted man. I mean I was thinking how other presidents had used adversity, and had used the tragedy of death in battle to reaffirm the cause that was served by these fallen heroes as the president was the comforter in chief as well as the commander in chief. As President Reagan did so brilliantly after the “Challenger” tragedy. When President Clinton did so well after U.S.S. “Cole”. It is a very important part of the presidency of, the president is not comfortable doing it and does not do it well and as a consequence, I think he has lost a certain point of connection with the American people.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Bill?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: No. Particularly after September 11 he made a brilliant speech and delivered it with great sincerity. But I think right now looking at Iraq, people are rightly getting a little tired of the arguments that should we have gone in, do we have the right intelligence, did we evaluate it properly. What arguments did we use to go in. They’re saying all right, what do we do now — and looking at the Democratic candidates and saying, okay, you talk about where is our exit strategy. Where is your exit strategy? Would you just pull out now, or would you say turn it over to the U.N. or coalition or somebody else? I think they don’t have an answer there. I think what we’re doing now, frankly, is adjusting to this war that the Saddam followers are conducting not so much against the Americans as against the Iraqis.

JIM LEHRER: People are cooperating with the Americans.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: But they’re also Iraqis who have to live. And it’s not a Vietnam situation with a huge country to the north supplying the guerrilla fighters and the guerrilla fighters are not the popular way. And that’s what’s going to make a big difference, I think, in the next few months.

JIM LEHRER: But you believe, Mark based on what you said earlier, that this is resonating as an issue with the people, right? People are… you think that there’s politics here, good politics for the Democrats on this issue?

MARK SHIELDS: Let me say, Jim, I think that the president has suffered considerably. The president had a reputation as a straight shooter, direct, whatever you want. Maybe wasn’t the most clever, most witty, most eloquent guy, but he gave it to you straight. That has been undermined. Bill is right. Americans are among itself most practical people on the face of the earth. The only two two-term presidents we’ve had since Dwight Eisenhower were Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan, in his first year cut taxes and the economy approved and he got reelected. Bill Clinton increased taxes, the economy improved and he got reelected. Americans are far more interested in results. Bill is right on that point. That’s a legitimate question to put to anybody who seeks to be president of the United States. I think for the first time we may be seeing that on the part of voters, that America’s plummeting in popular appeal, support and respect from the world could become a political issue because there’s no question the isolation of the United States under this administration has led to an isolation of the burdens and the bearing of sacrifice in Iraq. That’s one of the reasons we haven’t been able to put together an international effort there.

JIM LEHRER: Look, I hate to interrupt, Mark, but we’ll pick this up maybe next Friday night because we have to go now. Thank you both very much.