Shields and Brooks Preview the Vice Presidential Debate
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JIM LEHRER: Now, some debate night analysis by shields and brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks. First, directly, David, what do you think of this Paul Bremer statement about not having enough troops on the ground post war Iraq?
DAVID BROOKS: I think it’s transparently true. I think a lot of us and many people who knew more than I did have killed a lot of force make inning case before the war but it reflects a debate that’s been going on in the administration between people like Bremer, people within the White House and Donald Rumsfeld.
Donald Rumsfeld had the strategy of transforming the military which relied on a lean, high-tech force. He wanted to try out that strategy in this war. He did. It’s a good strategy. You can rely on high technology to pinpoint your weaponry if you know where to shoot. But when you’re fighting people in cities or looters, that doesn’t work. You have to have troops on the ground.
So there’s been a shortage when we invaded Baghdad. There’s a shortage today as we go after these various cities. So I think what Bremer says is absolutely true and reflects some of the internal debates in the administration.
JIM LEHRER: It’s been a real debate day in and day out from the beginning between Bremer and the Pentagon?
DAVID BROOKS: They hate to admit it. There have been debates on every single step of the way within the administration as there should be in times of war. Now there’s a debate between two former bitter rivals, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell, who are now on the same side of a current argument about how quickly to go into these towns like Basra and Samarra and Ramadi and Baghdad versus some people in the National Security Council who want to go much more slowly and do things more politically.
That’s just symptomatic of the debates that have been happening all along which they don’t admit for obvious reasons but which have been written about in the press.
JIM LEHRER: What are the politics of this, Mark, the Bremer statement coming out here the day of the vice presidential debate and just a few weeks before the election itself?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jim, the politics are very straightforward. First of all when anybody says, as Paul Bremer did, that I thought I was off the record. That means I’m apologizing for having been candid.
JIM LEHRER: Excuse me.
MARK SHIELDS: I wouldn’t have said this if I knew there was going to be press here. So he did. He did spread the ugly truth. But I think reality of it politically is this is an administration that prides itself on speaking with one voice. When asked….
JIM LEHRER: That’s why when David is talking about this internal debate we didn’t know about it.
MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.
JIM LEHRER: At least we didn’t know a lot about it.
MARK SHIELDS: And never explain and never apologize are sort of the guide posts. What he essentially said was that the absence of troops led to this inability to impose a lawful situation in Iraq after it happened and led to this lawlessness which we have seen continue to this very day as we saw in a report tonight.
You know, this was playing right in because this is the playbook that John Kerry used in the first debate against George Bush and George Bush said it wasn’t true and when he brought up the question of General Shinseki and all the rest. So I think that’s the first thing. That it has that impact.
The second thing, Jim, is that Rumsfeld, you know, not only made his statement contradicting himself. He said yesterday that….
JIM LEHRER: Are you talking about the other thing now on.
MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.
JIM LEHRER: We’ll get to that in a minute. What do you think about the politics, David, talking about the troops thing?
DAVID BROOKS: I’ve made clear that I think Bremer is absolutely right but there’s a pathology in American politics and Kerry was indicative of it today which is that nobody ever takes a position on the current issue of the moment because you could be proven wrong.
But it’s very easy to take a position of the argument of two years ago when it’s easy to be on the right side of that issue. What — John Kerry has no position on Samarra, on a brutal debate that’s going on now about how quickly we should go after these towns. That’s the debate of the moment. John Kerry has no position on that because that’s a tough call.
But it’s an easy call to say we should have more troops. That’s part of the pathology of this whole campaign. People are intent on talking about the past where they can prove that so-and-so is wrong. They’re very hesitant to talk about the present because those are tougher arguments.
JIM LEHRER: What about that, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: I think that’s a legitimate point, Jim. What American people are interested in, Americans are very practical. They want to know how we’re going to get out of there. They want to know how this thing is going to be resolve.
They want it over. I mean they really aren’t into the details at the same level. I mean those are important questions that David has raised.
JIM LEHRER: You mean the Samarra, Ramadi –
MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think that’s part… I think it’s certainly if Dick Cheney wants to bring it up tonight and ask John Edwards, that’s fine. I’m not sure that’s where they want to be though. I’m not sure that’s where the administration wants the political debate to be going into this, the last four weeks of this campaign.
JIM LEHRER: Isn’t it inevitable, Mark and David, that when you have an incumbent president that what happened on his watch is fair game and that whether or not it’s in the past or not, that’s the real world of a political campaign.
MARK SHIELDS: That’s exactly it, Jim. I mean, John Kerry or no challenger has ever been asked to come up with what should we do tomorrow, Wednesday? What would you do then Thursday? Because he can legitimately say I do not have access to the same level of information and intelligence that the president does. The only time that that decision… that’s what a president is paid for. As Jack Kennedy said during the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis that’s when we earn our salary.
DAVID BROOKS: He has a position on how we should act in North Korea and in Iran. He has positions on every other part of the world except for Iraq. I interviewed Don Rumsfeld yesterday and he has a very clear position of how we should proceed.
There are other people in the administration who have a different position where right now Bush seems to be adopting the Rumsfeld position.
JIM LEHRER: Your impression is we’re following the Rumsfeld way.
DAVID BROOKS: Two weeks ago the argument was we have to move very slowly from town to town because we have to wait until we have Iraqi troops to lead these insurgencies.
It’s become clear that the administration has shifted and decided we can’t allow towns like Fallujah to remain as safe havens for terrorism. Allawi, the interim prime minister has weighed in very heavily saying let’s get more aggressive.
JIM LEHRER: Threat get them out of there. Today 3,000 Iraqi and U.S. troops were involved.
MARK SHIELDS: We don’t know what the political component was in that decision, Jim because the decision initially explained by friends of the administration was they were going to wait until after the election because they didn’t want bloodshed and mayhem.
Now, you know, was the decision made solely on the basis of non political considerations? Or was it made as well with political… they have to have some better news coming out of Iraq going into this election.
JIM LEHRER: We will talk about this again. We’ll pick this up on Friday night. What kind of cheat sheet would you give the viewers tonight… cheat sheet – that’s not a good term. What kind of dope sheet would you give our viewers tonight for this vice presidential debate tonight?
MARK SHIELDS: I mean in terms of what each has to do.
JIM LEHRER: What to look for, what’s important. You fill in the blanks. What is it that’s important. What’s there tonight on….
MARK SHIELDS: The vice presidential debates are important not in the ultimate decision but in what happens to the dynamic of the campaign as the vice presidential debate is held. For example, in 1984, President Reagan not unlike President Bush but probably more disastrously than President Bush had a very disappointing first debate performance against Vice President Mondale.
It was anticipated that vice President Bush had an almost impossible task debating the first woman in American politics, Geraldine Ferraro. He was going to lose. He held his own. As he said afterwards, I heard from all kinds of people saying you stopped the bleeding. In other words, he changed the subject. The focus switched off to Reagan’s really miserable performance — the question of geriatrics.
I think what Dick Cheney’s task tonight is to try and make the argument that George Bush couldn’t make not only against John Kerry but in favor of the administration and to try and get that back there. What John Edwards wants to do is to get the… I assume….
JIM LEHRER: Keep the bleeding going.
MARK SHIELDS: Keep the bleeding going and the momentum going — going into Friday’s debate and try to shift as much as he can to the economic record of the administration which again is not one that they trumpet.
DAVID BROOKS: I would say the conventional wisdom around town that I’ve heard is that Cheney will do pretty well because his reputation is as Dr. Evil so when he comes off as Mr. Normal, that will surpass expectations which is always an advantage of a debate to have a lousy reputation because you come out as sort of normal. So I’d say that the conventional view around town is he’ll beat John Edwards. I’m not quite so sure about that. I think he won’t have the facial expressions that George Bush has. Cheney doesn’t do facial expressions but I do think it’s a disadvantage for Cheney and Bush that they haven’t faced hostile questioning for a year or two or four years. And John Edwards has been debating for two years on these subjects. I just think that’s a huge advantage that Kerry had the advantage of and Edwards did.
JIM LEHRER: We’ll talk about this after the debate tonight. We will talk on Friday about the Rumsfeld statement about al-Qaida…. you bring it on Friday night. Meanwhile, I’ll talk to you later tonight. Thank you.