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Political Wrap

August 6, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And now, the analysis of Brooks and Oliphant: New York Times columnist David Brooks, and Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant. Mark Shields is on vacation.

David, what do you see in today’s job numbers?

DAVID BROOKS: Bad news for the Bush administration. They certainly expected more. John Kerry lit on it– they have been saying all week we’ve turned the corner — well, from two hundred thousand jobs created to thirty thousand, that is not turning the corner.

JIM LEHRER: From one month to the other.

DAVID BROOKS: From one month to the other. So they’ve already begun to adjust their rhetoric. And what they’ve got to do is say okay, we’ve got an economy that’s strong but the job growth and the wage rise are not good enough. They have to face up to that fact, which they have not yet done, and they have to say here is one, two, three, four things we are going to do to correct the situation.

There’s one other political consideration here is locally, where are the jobs strong and where are they not strong? That’s the way we think, in Electoral College terms, and they’re extremely weak in two states, Michigan and Ohio. Those are the states really getting hit. And those are swing states. There are swing states where the job growth is pretty good: Pennsylvania, I think Minnesota, Oregon, West Virginia, so it’s local that you have to think about these terms, but Ohio, which is a crucial state for Republicans is one of the bad states.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read it?

TOM OLIPHANT: It is — I agree with David that it’s serious. I think it underlines though an interesting…

JIM LEHRER: Serious politically or just serious, period?

TOM OLIPHANT: Serious politically. In a political economy like ours I think the direction of things during the election years, is what is most important. If you think back, Ronald Reagan’s reelection was made so easy by the fact that by then, the recovery just took off like a rocket. Clinton had a tougher first term but that fourth year was from heaven as far as he was concerned. This is much more mixed.

And it’s interesting also that it is occurring in a time when the Bush administration representing the government has run out of options or more accurately, I think, has used all of the tools that there are in the arsenal. We have just gone through–

JIM LEHRER: For instance–

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, we have had a stimulus on the government side for the last three years that is without precedent in modern times: Three gigantic income tax cuts, spending surges for both domestic programs and the military, and an unprecedented amount of monetary policy stimulation by the Federal Reserve. Cupboard’s empty.

JIM LEHRER: Lower interest rates.

TOM OLIPHANT: That’s right. The cupboard is empty. And that creates an interestingly difficult position for an incumbent administration, namely, what do you do?

JIM LEHRER: Between now and Election Day.

TOM OLIPHANT: That’s right. And it’s a conundrum that I’m not sure is resolvable because there are no ideas on the shelf right now that I’m aware of.

DAVID BROOKS: I would also say it’s conundrum for both parties because both parties have this vision how you create jobs, spending, tax cuts, monetary policy. They’ve all been used up. If you look at what John Kerry talks about when talks about creating jobs, he talks about shifting the tax policy so there’s less of a tendency to outsource. Outsourcing is a trivial problem; 2 percent, 5 percent of the job losses during the recession were caused by outsourcing, and his solution is a trivial response to a trivial problem. So that’s not really much of a solution either.

I would say neither party has the wherewithal to deal with what could be a structural problem that we see growth without job growth.

JIM LEHRER: So you think John Kerry has got just as big a problem on this issue as George W. Bush?

DAVID BROOKS: I’d say we all have a problem. I mean, it could be all we are seeing is an oil shock, which has dampened down growth which would be fine, but if there is a structural change in the economy, and only an economist would know this and they don’t even know it, which suggests you can have real growth without job growth, then that’s a structural problem.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree Kerry has got a problem too?

TOM OLIPHANT: No, no. He has got a problem unless he deals with it in terms of communication. The raw material in terms of ideas I think is there for an alternative policy. Stimulate consumer demand by changing taxes so that you concentrate a new round of tax cuts on Americans who depend on their paychecks for a living at the cost of the upper end.

Secondly, to have a long-term strategy to really cut this historic deficit in half so that a recovery can proceed without hitting a wall later on. There is an alternative to be articulated. I’m just impressed at this point that Kerry hasn’t put it all together in the form of an alternative policy. He is reacting to what has just happened. But it’s somewhat like Iraq. I can identify the components of a different policy but I don’t count. He counts and he doesn’t do it.

DAVID BROOKS: I would just say it doesn’t add up. You mentioned a payroll tax cut which would cost a lot of money. You mentioned bringing down the deficit. Well, how do you do those things at once unless you have ruinous taxes on the upper end which would have a depressing effect? All of these are tricky things to add up. I would think if you want solutions, the only coherent solutions and I think they’re wrong, come from the quite radical left and the quite radical right — a flat tax — or a real shift to some sort of entirely different sort of–

JIM LEHRER: Which is never going to happen in a presidential election.

TOM OLIPHANT: I still believe there is room for a change that, at the cost of the higher income, income tax cuts, transfers some more consumer spending power down the income scale to re-stimulate what is, after all, two-thirds of our entire economy.

JIM LEHRER: New subject. Tom, how do you, what kind of marks would you give for the administration and for the way they’ve handled this terror alert, new terror alert?

TOM OLIPHANT: I hate this story. I hated covering it because I hate stories that change on me — not where the circumstances change, but where what people say changes. Last Sunday afternoon, if you listened to Secretary Ridge’s public statements, or talked with these “senior intelligence officials” who were made available all day long, you would have thought you were dealing with a current threat; there was not a syllable in what anybody said that indicated anything other than that. The next day other people in the government who were disturbed that the dated nature of some of the information had not been pointed out starting leaking–

JIM LEHRER: The surveillances that had taken place before 9/11.

TOM OLIPHANT: Exactly. Precisely. At which point the very same people who had done this talking on Sunday started fessing up–

JIM LEHRER: You know that for a fact?

TOM OLIPHANT: Yes, I do. I experienced it.

JIM LEHRER: In other words, you were at both briefings? TOM OLIPHANT: Well, there were —

JIM LEHRER: — multiple —

TOM OLIPHANT — conference calls and people who you could talk to on the telephone. There was material that was made available for people who inquired. And it was one of those stories where the same people said different things on different days; that is not clarity. It hurts credibility. And I think it hurts the underlying purpose of last weekend, which was to warn Americans about a threat that I think we should all take seriously.

JIM LEHRER: Seriously. What do you think, David?

DAVID BROOKS: I basically agree. I’ve heard slightly different versions —

JIM LEHRER: What is your version?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I wasn’t at the briefings. People — a reporter I spoke to who was at the briefings said he thought there were some scintillas of hints that there were some current and some dated evidence at the first, but I’ll defer to Tom on that. I wasn’t at those briefings, and I think it is clear that the communication strategy, I opened the paper, I forget, it was Sunday, and you learn some of the stuff is three years old and you think, what is going on here. And I mean I think what they had was a real threat with some vague current information, some more specific dated information, which they then mis-sold and so you have questions about the whole threat and what we should do about it.

You have questions about do these people know what they’re doing and it operates in an environment where you have some fundamental factors. One of them is that since we got WMD wrong and since we’ve had a 9/11 Commission report talking about the failures of intelligence, you begin to doubt the whole system. And so then that creates this era of suspicion and you have got sort of the Michael Moore people out on this side who think, you know, they’re practically in black helicopter land thinking there is a vast conspiracy hidden somewhere anyway, so that the entire homeland security policy is being conducted in an atmosphere of legitimate skepticism and to me illegitimate skepticism but just skepticism across the board.

TOM OLIPHANT: Yes, and you know, for those of us who are trying to push back against what I still view as irresponsible statements by former Governor Howard Dean, making allegations about politicization in the absence of evidence, which I think is the worst thing one can do in a situation like this, the task is not made easier when people are changing the story.

DAVID BROOKS: To be fair, John Kerry did get a briefing and he behaved very well.

JIM LEHRER: He sure did. In fact, he disassociated himself with the– you mention the 9/11 Commission, David, what did you think of Chairman Tom Kean’s statement where he said in no uncertain words, it’s okay to cast your presidential election vote in November based on which one of these candidates, President Bush or John Kerry’s positions or what they do about our recommendations?

DAVID BROOKS: When you talk to the 9/11 Commission members, they’ve seen the threat and they’re obsessed with it. Like a lost people, once you study this thing, you get obsessed. And so to me that was the statement of a man who is obsessed with the danger. His hair is on fire as we’ve learned to say.

To me, there are two legitimate sides to this issue: Congressman Hagel (sic), Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, and Porter Goss, a member of the House, the chairman of the Intelligence, they have different interpretations of what we should do. So to meet their two legitimate sides to how we should reform intelligence — and I wouldn’t base my vote on this particular issue — I would base my vote more on what is the general focus of the 9/11 Commission — that this is a super, super serious threat we are faced, and if you see a candidate that is not obsessed with it, then maybe you cast your vote. Whether you cast your vote on whether the intelligence community should be headlined by one super bureaucracy in or out of the White House, to me that’s losing focus.


TOM OLIPHANT: I don’t think that was Gov. Kean’s precise point, but still I take yours. I have never seen a group of people have public clout like this.

JIM LEHRER: It’s amazing, isn’t it?

TOM OLIPHANT: I mean, I experienced the early period of the Warren Commission after President Kennedy was murdered; they had it for a little while. Former Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois had a moment after the riots in the 1960s. I have never seen — during the convention in Boston, I hung out for an afternoon with Bob Kerrey on the street with veterans groups —

JIM LEHRER: This is Sen. Bob Kerrey, former Senator from Nebraska.

TOM OLIPHANT: Not John Kerry.

JIM LEHRER: Not John Kerry.

TOM OLIPHANT: We’re now calling him “E,” because he has an “e” in his name.

JIM LEHRER: Okay, but he was a member of the commission.

TOM OLIPHANT: That’s right and people coming up to him on the streets, you could feel this political clout — it has changed the political equation in Washington. For years, the status quo, multiple heads, Pentagon control of the budget or 85 percent of it, nothing disturbed that status quo. Watching those hearings up on Capitol Hill last week, you could just feel the atmosphere has changed. Maybe David is right, that there is a case for the status quo. But now the people who favor status quo have got to come up with a reason because the force is with the other side.

DAVID BROOKS: I mean, the broader point is that here you have a group of people who did a very good job with their report, but who didn’t behave like politicians. They broke the bipartisan gridlock. They were the conspicuous exception to the way things are done in Washington, and that has given them moral aura they possess.

JIM LEHRER: David, how does the impact of the Democratic Convention look to you a week later?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, the bump is, as we say, bump is not great. The percentage of people who have shifted over to Kerry has been small; people like him better but they don’t seem to be willing to vote for him more, at least judging by the polls. And I think what that suggests is that he presented himself very well, came across a likable person. But the failure of the convention was that he did not give people concrete policies of why you should vote for me. When you go into a job interview, you don’t say I’m wonderful, I’m wonderful. You say here’s what I’m going to do for you.

TOM OLIPHANT: Fair point. In fairness to Kerry, the strategy is to incrementally sell this guy and the evidence is that there was considerable success last week: War on terror now Bush approval/disapproval almost down the middle. Interestingly, Kerry is now the more optimistic figure after all those campaign things last month, and also strong leader, no difference. So it changed the public’s perception of Kerry in a way that moves him forward. The sale isn’t made, but they really did take a step or two in Boston.

JIM LEHRER: We must now move forward and I will say good night to both of you. And thank you both.