Political Analysts Reflect on the Week’s Events
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Kristol — syndicated columnist Mark Shields and William Kristol of the Weekly Standard. David Brooks is on vacation.
First in general terms, Mark, did you detect any movement in the presidential race this week? Is anything happening out there?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think if you read the numbers, Jim, the numbers are good for Kerry in places like Florida and Michigan and Pennsylvania, Ohio — those polls are very encouraging — some daylight between him and the president.
But what I found most fascinating this week was that at a time when Iraq is… remains a very, very dubious political proposition for the president, when the big majority or solid majorities of Americans say it wasn’t worth it, he has decided to take John Kerry on directly on that issue. And it’s a bold strategy. You could say it’s one perhaps driven by necessity, but it is a bold strategy to make the case, look, I’m a man of principle and conviction says the Bush folks. And I’m decisive. Now you may question the decision, a lot of people do. But the other guy is indecisive and to make it almost into a character test between the two of them.
I think that’s dictated in part by the reality of the numbers but also the fact that at the Democratic Convention, that John Kerry did succeed in closing the national security gap, which has worked for Republicans over the years and the commander in chief gap that he has got a parity now with the president.
JIM LEHRER: Do you see it the same way, Bill, that this is what the president is up to, has been up to this week?
WILLIAM KRISTOL: Yeah. I think the Bush White House thinks they had a good week and I rather agree. The last two national polls show Kerry up two points and Bush up two points, so a pretty even race. And they do feel like they’re now on the offensive.
They have challenged John Kerry on the issue that the president wants to go to the country on. Who will be the stronger commander in chief in this post-9/11 world? Who will be stronger in fighting the war on terror? Who has the character and consistency to lead us through the difficult times in Iraq and lead us out the other end and take on this global war on terror? I think — the people I’ve talked to in the Bush White House are in a much better mood today than they were a week ago.
JIM LEHRER: Is this flip-flop thing, of course, that has been an overreaching complaint about Kerry, that it applies… the president is trying to apply it specifically to the vote on going to war in the first place. Is that getting traction on Kerry, against him?
WILLIAM KRISTOL: I think so; I have been a little skeptical of it in the sense that I don’t think people care much if he voted one way in 1987 and changed their mind in 1995.
If there is a sense, though, that he is not strong in facing up to the fundamental threats facing the country, I think it could have an effect, and the president mentioned this Yucca Mountain issue, which is the nuclear waste –
JIM LEHRER: In Nevada.
WILLIAM KRISTOL: Which basically everyone realizes has to be done and Sen. Kerry and Sen. Edwards voted for in the Senate and now Sen. Kerry has gone to Nevada and said, well, as president, I’m not going to ship the waste to Yucca Mountain.
I’m going to leave it in 103 different places around the country where it is much more vulnerable to terrorist attacks, et cetera, et cetera. The New York Times – The Washington Post – so I don’t think this is a terribly controversial thing. Kerry has gone to make a bid for Nevada’s five electoral votes in Nevada.
Needless to say, they don’t want all the waste, nuclear waste in the country in Yucca Mountain even though there are scientific studies showing it is safe. It is a trivial issue in a sense except in Nevada. And maybe Kerry has made a smart move in going for Nevada’s five electoral votes. But I wonder if that kind of thing, that the Bush campaign can’t use pretty effectively to say this is a guy, Governor Bush ran for president in 2000 – he had every incentive to get Nevada’s electoral votes. He didn’t say I’m not going to send the waste to Yucca Mountain. Sen. Kerry has pandered really to Nevada in this instance. And I wonder if that kind of thing won’t have an effect.
JIM LEHRER: What about the taxes thing, Mark? We just ran a clip of Kerry today picking up on the CBO report, the Congressional Budget Office report, saying that the tax cuts benefited the wealthy more than the middle class. Is there traction in that issue for Kerry against the president?
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, I think there is not only traction; I think there is open field.
JIM LEHRER: Open field?
MARK SHIELDS: Open field. I really do. And I don’t think Bill disagrees with me on this. The only test… there are only two tests for an economic policy, a tax policy in a democracy. One is does it work? Does it extend prosperity? And two is, is it just, is it fair? The Bush policy fails on both grounds. It’s not producing jobs.
Its 32,000 jobs is just abysmal after turning the corner, after three tax cuts, after he got everything he wanted from the Congress. And reality is it turns out it is not fair; that the people at the very top, the top 1 percent get $78,000 back this year.
And the reality is, Jim, that it has gone disproportionately. Two-thirds of all the tax cuts have gone to the top 20 percent. And that hasn’t worked, the trickle down just hasn’t worked.
JIM LEHRER: As a matter of politics, how do you see it, Bill?
WILLIAM KRISTOL: There’s a policy defense which I won’t bore people with here… I mean, the top 20 percent also pay more than two-thirds of the income tax. It’s hard for them not to get that back on the tax cut.
No, I think Republicans I’ve talked to are happy that we’ve had a debate over the war on terror and the war in Iraq over the last week and over Sen. Kerry’s alleged flip-flops and not on economic policy.
Remember a week ago last Friday, David Brooks was here with you. What were the headlines? Very bad job creation, gas prices at the pump heading back up to $2 and a sense that the economy may be stalling out. The Bush campaign managed to have this last week, as we’ve just been discussing, focus more on the war than on the economy. So whatever the merits on the economy, I think it has been a political mistake by Sen. Kerry not to be able to focus in on that issue and really hammer the president on it.
MARK SHIELDS: Yeah, I mean, I just think it’s there. I mean, this is one that is made to order for John Edwards. If there is anybody, this is the time….
JIM LEHRER: The two Americas?
MARK SHIELDS: You’d want to have John Edwards on every talk show, you’d want to have him on — from Larry King to Dance Party. I mean just talking about….
JIM LEHRER: Dance Party?
WILLIAM KRISTOL: A favorite of Mark’s fifty or sixty years ago. The sound bite we had, you just had…
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
WILLIAM KRISTOL: John Edwards — they’ve fallen for the bait again. John Edwards is attacking Dick Cheney because he didn’t fight in Vietnam. Are we seriously now going to have a little Vietnam — I’m not sure that’s a good issue for Sen. Kerry, either, for that matter. I think it is a mistake to go for that bait with the Kerry campaign.
MARK SHIELDS: I disagree with you. I disagree with you. I think the one mistake… I agree with you when John Kerry was asked would you have voted for it, still voted for it, and went to the president’s bait and said yes I would. Even J. Rockefeller, vice chairman — co-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said, look, if I had the information, I wouldn’t have voted to give the president that authority.
JIM LEHRER: On weapons of mass destruction.
MARK SHIELDS: On weapons of mass destruction, and John Kerry has a very nuanced answer. I’m giving him the authority to put together a coalition and so forth. But he was — he was very much on the defensive, but I really think – I mean, the irony is, as my friend John Carr puts it, is that Bush and Kerry seem to be in total agreement on Iraq and total disagreement about Vietnam.
I mean, I don’t think… I don’t want to go there if I’m — wanted George Bush to look for the records of my dental visits to Alabama.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Major story at the beginning of the week, Bill, of course was the nomination of Porter Goss to be the new head of the CIA. What are the politics of that after a few days? How do they look to you?
WILLIAM KRISTOL: I think it looks good for Bush. He can’t be accused of leaving the CIA directorship vacant. I think Goss will be confirmed by the Senate. I suspect Sen. Kerry and Sen. Edwards will vote to confirm Porter Goss as CIA director in the middle of September.
You know, they can be critical of Bush’s management of the war on terror but, on the other hand, there they are confirming his new CIA director. So I think Bush – Bush is president; he has a lot of disadvantages being president. You can blame him for everything that happens — one bad job creation number and suddenly it’s Bush’s fault. But there are advantages to being president. One advantage is that when you’re a challenger, when you’re the candidate, you can talk about a lot of things; when you’re president, you can do things. And here he did something.
JIM LEHRER: The Democrats in a bind on this?
MARK SHIELDS: I think they are. I think the administration wanted to change the subject on the 9/11 Commission, but the lack of preparation and all that that involved and the failed intelligence, and this is the way of changing that subject. We are now… we don’t have to… we had Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld both making critical assessments and knocking the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.
This is a nice way of postponing that, Jim. Now the focus becomes Porter Goss and throwing down the challenge to the Democrats that just not unlike 2002, you recall when the Homeland Security Department was being created and putting in the poison pill that there be no union contracts for the workers and making Democrats – oh, they’re not real patriots.
I think Bill’s right – they’re not going to go for the bait but I think the hearings will be interesting because it looks quite frankly Porter Goss is an able guy and backed by both Bill Nelson and Bob Graham, two Democratic senators from Florida. It kind of switched. He sort of went from being a cheerleader for the CIA, where….
JIM LEHRER: Where he used to work.
MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.
JIM LEHRER: Worked there for eight years…
MARK SHIELDS: Once it looked like there was a job opening, he became a vocal critic. It is one thing to criticize candidate Kerry as he has done. How is he going to work for President Kerry in January if that’s the eventuality?
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. There was some suggestion even on this program, the night it was… the night the nomination was announced by a former CIA man and others that just the fact that Porter Goss being a Republican member of Congress politicizes this situation immediately.
WILLIAM KRISTOL: I don’t know how it could get much more politicized than it has been given the last couple of years. Look, I myself might prefer someone who might be more of a reformer at the CIA, but maybe Goss will turn out to be a reformer.
But he is a decent person. I think he will be supported, as Mark says, by Democrats and Republicans in the Senate. So I don’t know that that charge really goes anywhere.
JIM LEHRER: Do you accept the premise, though, that most people suggest that if Kerry wins, Goss is out?
WILLIAM KRISTOL: Yeah.
JIM LEHRER: So ipso facto, it’s a political appointment.
WILLIAM KRISTOL: Yes, but I think that’s appropriate, incidentally. Aside from the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, which I don’t agree with entirely, that the guy be a cabinet member would suggest to me that of course the new president, and any new president is going to able to support, to announce, to nominate a new director of central intelligence or national intelligence if that’s what it becomes.
But look, I think it is good for Bush politically to look as if he’s confident that he’s going to be president for another four years. He is governing the country. He wants Porter Goss there to help him. He is not worried about losing the election in November. That’s the impression that’s conveyed I think.
MARK SHIELDS: I don’t know if that’s the impression if we’re talking about perceptions rather than reality. I think acting director McLaughlin, by most lights and most sources, is fully competent on handling the job for the next three months and that somehow there isn’t a vacancy that has to be filled by Porter Goss overnight. I think it’s an obvious political move but I think it’s one that worked for the president.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Well, we’ll leave it there. Thank you both very much, Bill, delighted to have you sit in for David, and we’ll see you next week here as well.