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Mark Shields and David Brooks Analyze the Political Events of 2004

December 31, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Now, for our end-of-the-week and end-of-the-year analysis by Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome to our last one for the year. Every disaster has political fallout and this one, Mark, certainly did for the Bush administration. Do you think the criticism has been fair or has it just been politics?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s been both, but I think, Margaret, the — we recall how comforting it was to us and what a consolation after Sept. 11 when people all around the world quickly said — offered their condolences, offered their support. The headline “Today We Are All Americans” and it’s understandable that certainly people as bereft as the people who were the victims of the tsunami.

And just to put in the some perspective, I mean, we lost 3,000 people on Sept. 11. The loss comparable today in Indonesia in United States terms would be 120,000 Americans. In Sri Lanka it would be 306,000 Americans. And was it political?

MARGARET WARNER: I guess my question is do you think that the Bush administration was too slow off the mark to offer condolences and money?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, we were. We were too slow of the mark; there’s no question about it — the fact that we’ve increased by 20-fold this past week our initial number. I mean, Margaret, Spain has 6 percent — GDP 6 percent as large as ours they offered twice as much as we did in the initial offering. We were like the storm.

We were invisible at first and but then picked up speed. I think by the end of the week the United States was shouldering its responsibility. Individual contributions of the United States have been impressive from individual citizens. But what we do collectively is a statement of what we are as a people and what our values are as a people and we’re moving — we have moved in the right direction now.

MARGARET WARNER: Yeah. But what do you think of, about the pace of the response and I want to ask you about something Sam Brownback, a Republican senator who was a bit critical of the early suggestion of $15 million, he said “Well, it was Christmas week, you have a Cabinet in transition.” What do you think was behind it? Why wasn’t the president right out there?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think that was essentially it. I’ve spoken to the people in the administration, they were on vacation. It took a few days to get ramped up. Was it important? I frankly — you know, this was one of the weeks when you want to leave punditry. There were 124,000 people dead.

There are religious issues to think about, there are culture issues, there are scientific issues, there are all these aid issues that we just heard about in the last segment and we have a tit for tat political pedantic debate over whether the president should have left Crawford and gone to Washington. Who cares? It’s not about us. And it’s not about red and blue America or Republicans and Democrats. It’s about something so much bigger. And yet in so many — already some of the pundits became a little — the normal political game. It was just the corrosiveness of political thinking. This was such a bigger story.

MARK SHIELDS: Margaret, I just have to add the White House was hardly blameless in this whole thing. When it was asked where the president was and why he had not and asked by Republicans as well as Democrats, the White House statement, official White House statement was “the president didn’t want to make a symbolic statement about we feel your pain.”

Now, if that isn’t just a cheap shot at Bill Clinton who’s now been out of office I think by five years, you know, there is something about feeling and identifying with people’s suffering and especially when it is the United States of America.

DAVID BROOKS: I agree with that. I wish they had done it more. It’s a Muslim country with all that’s going on in the world it would have been a great opportunity. But this is first of all the Bush administration that’s doubled the foreign aid budget. This is a country which… where private citizens gave multiple times more than any other people on earth in private aid. We don’t just have public aid in the country.

We have the Gates Foundation, all these foundations; you go to today, millions of dollars being given out. We have a different tradition. If you look at our total donation in disaster relief and development aid, it’s healthy. We got stuck in the stupid debate over stinginess over who was stingy. It took us longer than it should have. Believe me, compared to what’s happening over there, it’s trivial.

MARGARET WARNER: The president yesterday decided to send Secretary of State Powell, his brother Jeb Bush who has got some experience with disasters as governor of Florida to the region. Mark, do you think– whether it’s belated or not– is this a significant opportunity for the United States and for the Bush administration internationally?

MARK SHIELDS: No question it is. And David made the point. I mean, this is a Muslim country and the idea of…

MARGARET WARNER: Parts of Indonesia, the idea of responding there to the suffering the day after Christmas and there’s heavy symbolism all the way around. No question. But David’s right, we have increased the budget in foreign aid. It was $10 billion in 2000. It’s now $16 billion. But that aid increase has gone to Afghanistan and Iraq overwhelmingly. It has not been across the board development aid. It’s been primarily directed and pigeon holes to Iraq and Afghanistan.

DAVID BROOKS: But there’s aids, there’s other things going on. There’s the challenge accounts.

MARGARET WARNER: There are a lot of different things. But if you look at… what the Europeans like to say is well, the U.S. may give the most in gross terms but if you put in the per capita or percentage of GDP, we’re the lowest. Here’s my question, David: If you ask the American public how much of the U.S. budget goes to foreign aid, they say 10 percent or 20 percent. It’s a quarter of one percent. I mean, is there something really unpopular about foreign aid here, more unpopular than in other countries?

DAVID BROOKS: Two separate issues. One, do Americans have a vastly overrated sense of how much we give in foreign aid? Yes. They have no sense of what a tiny part of the budget. But second… there are different ways to list our donations. In some we’re 19th out of 21. But that’s (a) because they don’t take into account the fact that we give so much in private aid, so much more than anybody else. And they don’t account in-kind aid. They don’t account sending our ships over in cases like this. So there’s agent agency and we come in seventh or ninth. Not as great as it could be but not an outrage either.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s switch to the other big stories of this year, and I’ll start with you, Mark. What do you think, looking back on 2004, is the one story that will have the most significant… lasting political significance, if there is such a thing?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, obviously President Bush’s reelection is… has dominated the political scene of the year. And, you know, you can’t take that away. I mean, that preoccupied the entire political world here and especially in time of war and the war on terrorism.

I’d guess the story that bothers me the most is Abu Ghraib because I’m afraid it… for an awful lot of people in the world it creates the impression of the United States which I don’t believe is a valid impression but where they have strong photographic evidence. And, I mean, to me that is the most unsettling permanent story of this year and because of… because we did it on our watch to people, again, who are overwhelmingly not of our faith.

MARGARET WARNER: What are your nominations for the stories or developments of most lasting impact?

DAVID BROOKS: To me, the transformation of the Middle East. It’s really reaching the peak right now. If you talk to people just come back from Iraq or watch the Iraqi press, the insurgency is still strong and it may be gaining strength. So the bad guys are getting stronger. At the same time, you look at the Iraqi press and it’s filled with democratic flowering. You look around the region, there’s never been so much democratic reform bubbling up.

There was a good story in the Times about Syria or somebody said Iraq is like a stone thrown in a pond. There are these ripples across Syria, across Egypt, across Saudi Arabia. So the bad things are getting more bad; the good things are getting more good. The stakes are just tremendously high. And a lot of the bad people understand how high the stakes are. And I have no clue how it will play out next year. But that development, both good and bad, that, to me, is going to shape the world for decades to come.

MARGARET WARNER: Political winners and losers. Let’s alternate in the time we have left — political winner.

DAVID BROOKS: My political expertise, since I’m trained at this, George Bush is more of a winner than John Kerry. I would say to avoid the totally obvious, Denny Hastert, Speaker of the House of Representatives for two reasons.

One, because he now has a permanent Republican majority there, but second because the Congress has just become much more important than it was vis-à-vis the White House, really beginning to assert themselves and Denny Hastert is a beloved man in the House, among House Republicans. So he’s a big win they are year.

MARGARET WARNER: Big winner other than President Bush?

MARK SHIELDS: Big winner, I’d give you two. I’d give you Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton who by their judgment, example, maturity, the fact they were grown-ups.

MARGARET WARNER: Chairmen of the 9/11 Commission.

MARK SHIELDS: Chairmen of the 9/11 Commission that they showed mutual respect and mutual trust. They gave an example that Washington hadn’t seen and it was so refreshing and not only did that, they accomplished and made an enormous difference.

The other big winner I have to say was Karl Rove, who was absolutely right that the president could run as a wartime president and win even though the war was going disastrously. And that that was… that he could do so not by converting wayward democrats or reaching out to independents, but by galvanizing and energizing Republicans at a level never seen before. That was impressive.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Political losers. Your nominations?

DAVID BROOKS: Another winner having to do with Rove is the excerpts. We understand how many people who are out there. As for losers, George Soros didn’t have a great year. But I would say campaign finance reform.

MARGARET WARNER: Explaining that George Soros put a lot of money into these Democratic 527 groups.

DAVID BROOKS: And he’s got a lot left to solve his wounds. But campaign finance reform was passed. I have no clue what it did. I don’t think it affected the election one way or the other. It changed the money flowing here and there but I really do not think it reshaped anything in part because, as we learned this year, having a lot of money doesn’t necessarily guarantee much. You can waste a lot of money, too.

MARGARET WARNER: And the money always finds a route.

DAVID BROOKS: What happened this year was they put some barriers and the money found a route.

MARK SHIELDS: I could not disagree more. I think campaign finance was an enormous success. It brought more people in, it minimized the influence of big money. All the six-figure contributors whether corporate, labor, wealthy individuals found themselves essentially not players at the presidential… in the presidential race or in the Senate and congressional races. But I’d say the biggest loser, Margaret, is the Vietnam credential.

We’ve had three presidential candidates, Bob Kerrey in 1992 is a Democrat, medal of honor winner. McCain, five and a half years of POW; in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 as a Democratic nominee; every one of them, the Vietnam experience has been used against them by their opponents and effectively. Bob Kerrey was accused of being a baby killer by other democratic operatives in 1992.

John McCain, there were questions and more than questions, allegations, is his temperament because anybody that’s been in that long. John Kerry, who went to Vietnam twice volunteered to do so, saw combat, killed people, his Vietnam experience held against him while, you know, George Bush who said he believed in the war, didn’t want to go, chose not to go and signed a document to that effect and Cheney had other things to do were the beneficiaries in a strange way.

I contrast that, if you would, to the civil war. Every Republican elected after 1865 had served in the civil war. The waving of the bloody shirt was the credential for the election. I wonder if anybody who’s served in Vietnam however honorably will be elected president.

DAVID BROOKS: You know, one thing I noticed, when you talked about people, especially on the Democratic side, what they long for it was not the late ’60s, it was the early ’60s. It was John Kennedy. I think people hate the violence of the late ’60s but long for the early ’60s period.

MARGARET WARNER: David, Mark, thank you both and happy New Year. Happier New Year.