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Brooks and Oliphant

September 9, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Brooks and Oliphant– New York Times columnist David Brooks, Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant. Mark Shields is off.

Tom, what would you add to what Andy said about his numbers?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, up until now the three most important arrows in President Bush’s quiver, have been essentially personal, a belief in his credibility, the sense that he is a decisive and strong leader, and then his handling of the war on terror. I think Andy showed dramatically how credibility and leadership have suffered not just in Katrina but, frankly, since the election.

The war on terror is also interesting. I looked at some numbers this week, kind of an amalgam of polls. In January, 66 percent of the American people thought we were winning the war on terror. Last week, that number was 34 percent with corresponding increases of people who think it is a draw or terrorists are winning, whether they are right or wrong.

The result, therefore, is when you don’t have strong leadership perhaps like Rudy Giuliani in New York after 9/11, if you do not grab a problem by its throat and show that you’ve taken charge of the response to it, you can receive a very harsh judgment from the public.

And I think in Bush’s case what is especially damaging is that there has been erosion ever since last November because of Iraq, because perhaps of the Social Security proposal, some weaknesses in the economy as they affect ordinary families. And erosion is much harder to erase than a sharp plunge.

JIM LEHRER: And this was a sharp plunge.

TOM OLIPHANT: This was about five points, I think, –

JIM LEHRER: Yeah, yeah -

TOM OLIPHANT: — on top of everything else. But if you look at the situation last November when he was re-elected and look at the situation today, you are looking at mirror images.

JIM LEHRER: Not only the Bush numbers, David, but generally speaking what did you think of what Andy’s numbers showed?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, my first reaction was that there are a lot of people like me — that is good, I guess, for the country, yes, oh yes — people who support Bush generally but who are angry with him now.

I actually think he may be able to come up again. I mean President Reagan in ’82/’83 was way low, 20s and 30s. Carter, Clinton went way up and down in the way this president hasn’t. But the crucial question to me is something frankly I’m not quite clear sure about, do, — you know we’re in an emotional period, a passionate period and things are going to be moving around.

Do, in two months, — do we snap back to essentially the political structure of the past six years, really, which is this big hunk of Republicans, this big hunk of Democrats and very few people in the middle — in other words, the polarization that we’ve seen – and if that is the case than the parties will continue to play their base — or has something fundamentally reshaped and we really begin to see a center?

I begin to think that something has been fundamentally reshaped. That is my instinct but so far you wouldn’t say there is a lot of evidence for that.

JIM LEHRER: David, you don’t find any evidence of that in what Andy’s turned up?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I mean, when I look at what has happened with Iraq and with this, what I see is people flaking off from Bush because of Iraq and because of this but not going over to the Democrats. The ratings for the Democrats has not risen. So they are sort of stuck there in the middle.

JIM LEHRER: The readings for all, Andy said also, as well as Ray said in the introduction, the ratings for everybody are down — not just Bush.

DAVID BROOKS: And that is why I think it is a bit like the ’70s when you saw a massive erosion of faith in institutions across all sorts of institutions, the media, the governments, the military, even. And I think we are seeing a little of that too.

TOM OLIPHANT: You know — to buttress David’s point, the disapproval number on Congress right now is in the mid ’60s, about ten points higher than the disapproval of Bush. But I would also point out that there were a couple of things that did not happen on Capitol Hill this week that may indicate some rethinking.

For example, the Senate could not stomach taking up repeal of the estate tax this week given what had happened. There is a budget bill pending very soon in the House that has both tax cuts in it, and reductions in programs like Medicaid that are going to be central to the maintenance of the victim populations in the Gulf Coast.

This may be one of those moments where the cost of reconstruction in the Gulf Coast may require, not force, but require at least a new discussion about our national priorities.

JIM LEHRER: What about — we had Sen. Collins and Lieberman on this program last night and they discussed this idea of how the American public is going to view how Congress is handling whether or not to have a joint committee to investigate this or not, the Democrats saying they are not going to participate.

There is a story today that Congressman Davis, Republican, has his own committee. He’s going to go ahead and have his own hearing. Sen. Collins, Sen. Lieberman are going to go ahead and have their committee. How do you think that is going to affect opinions about Congress?

DAVID BROOKS: Hey, get out of nursery school, boys and girls. No, you have got a catastrophe like this and they are squabbling. I think that will be the reaction. You know, as we say, institutions got hit after hit.

To me one of the most damaging things I’ve done this week is read through the New Orleans preparations for what was going on — the plan that they set out where you had agency after agency specifically designing responses to this sort of event, and those responses on the first crush of reality were blown away.

So how can you not lose faith in an institution, whether it is local government, federal government or Congress? That is happening.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about what Congress has done so far just as — on the hurricane reaction?

TOM OLIPHANT: I think it is very deceptive. And I would throw the administration in with Congress on this one. Incremental financing of a gigantic national need is always a bad idea. I think it has undermined support for our mission in Iraq, those of us who still believe there’s a purpose there.

You bleed out the truth in terms of what it really costs and what it really — $10 billion last week for the hurricane, another $50 billion this week.

JIM LEHRER: And who knows what it will be next week and the week after.

TOM OLIPHANT: More people know about this than are saying. There is a lot of work under way in the budget office on the executive branch side. I watched a hearing on the Senate side this week where higher education officials from the region were able to site very specific estimates of what it will take to support their student bodies, get their institutions going.

And people know, and as I said a second ago, whatever the number is, two hundred, three hundred billion dollars, who knows — but the minute if somebody honestly put forward a program for reconstruction, it would require this country to re-examine decisions it’s been making.

JIM LEHRER: In other words, just go ahead and say how big it is. Just go say right now how big it is.

DAVID BROOKS: Right now, you know, to me just the underlying thing that happened because of Katrina, is that the disaster has shown us how much we need government. It’s also shown us how ineffective government can be. And we’re –

JIM LEHRER: That is a bad combination.

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, it is.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of government, et cetera, do you have any thoughts about bringing Michael Brown back to Washington to run FEMA?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, you know, I guess they found somebody from the thoroughbred association they could put in his place. No, I — he was just as ineffective and hapless. I begin to get a little cautious because of the piling on.

There is sort of a jackal-like mentality – the poor guy — he shouldn’t have been in the job. He should get out. But there is sort of a going after his past, what he promised to do in college, you know, okay fine, he’s gone.

To me the crucial thing again and I mentioned this the other day, people in New Orleans, and Louisiana and the federal government were for ten years holding commissions, conferences working groups on how to prepare for this. These people were experts. Forget Michael Brown.

These people — this was the most anticipated natural disaster in American history. And we still had a failure. So you didn’t have to be a tyro or a beginner to fail. A lot of people failed who knew a lot about what they should have been doing. And maybe it is just the nature of government. Maybe it is the nature of natural disasters but people with experience didn’t do great either.

TOM OLIPHANT: The first rule I believe of columnists should be kick them when they are up, not down. And in this case, I think what David just said is particularly relevant because we are still reporting this afternoon on precisely what the lines of authority between Washington and Thad Allen of the Coast Guard down there are.

It’s not quite clear who really is in charge. The neglect, the shame and outrage of last week has been replaced this week instead not with clarity and decisiveness, but with confusion.

And so it isn’t clear to me at all that Michael Brown’s recall back to Washington, I mean my God, he wasn’t visible last weekend when Bush went down there the second time — it’s not clear at all what has changed. And until that is clear, I have a little example that I have been following all week. Gov. Blanco in Louisiana has requested on an emergency basis additional radio communications devices and portable generators. Last I checked still hasn’t got them.

JIM LEHRER: Is there any reason, anybody — does anybody have a reason?

TOM OLIPHANT: The last time I checked FEMA, this thing, had not located the request.

JIM LEHRER: I see. Hadn’t located the request much less the –

TOM OLIPHANT: No.

DAVID BROOKS: You’ve got bureaucracy, you know, it is just not fast. The other thing you’ve got is democracy. We have in a system of power, separation of powers. We diffuse authority; that’s why we don’t have a dictator. The downside of that is you get fights over the Army Corps of Engineers, what they should be spending their money on; you get fights over the 82nd Airborne versus the National Guard, who should going in there.

You get diffusion of power and that makes a fast response impossible as well.

JIM LEHRER: I thought a dozen years ago the essence of the reform in the government was that there was an agency created and given the authority to coordinate everybody else during an emergency. And that reform was allowed to lapse and at a minimum –

JIM LEHRER: And that was FEMA.

TOM OLIPHANT: That’s right. And at a minimum, I would think that we have seen enough evidence for a reconstitution of that clear authority.

JIM LEHRER: Meanwhile, I can’t imagine how much time we have devoted to a discussion of the oncoming confirmation hearings of the chief justice of the Supreme Court if Katrina had not come along. Those hearings do begin on Monday. They begin at noon. We are going to be broadcasting them live on most PBS stations, the two of you are going to be there along with Marcia Coyle for commentary and whatever.

Do either of you have any reason to believe there is going to be — is there any — are there any fireworks coming — anything that we should be looking for that we don’t know about?

DAVID BROOKS: This not the way to build ratings. But no, I don’t think so. I think the chance of him getting confirmed went from 95 percent to 99 percent, because, a, there is just no public energy for a big fight about that because Katrina is so dominant. Secondly, because there are now two openings on the court I think the Democrats are going to shift their focus on the other opening.

JIM LEHRER: Let Roberts go, do you agree?

TOM OLIPHANT: Oh, no, I think the suspense is going to — (laughter)

JIM LEHRER: Thank you, Tom. But you’re not able -

TOM OLIPHANT: There will be one fight at least for the record, trying to fill in the blanks of his service as a policy-making official in the Solicitor General’s Office 12 years ago. The Democrats will probably lose most of that. But I think they will make their case that this guy is the proper replacement for Rehnquist, maybe not the right one for O’Connor.

JIM LEHRER: And that is where the game is going to go?

TOM OLIPHANT: Yes, sir.

JIM LEHRER: And all the energy is going to go on. But that is going to be really exciting watching that next week right, Tom?

TOM OLIPHANT: The suspense here will be even greater (laughing).

JIM LEHRER: Absolutely. Well, I’ll see you next week, and thank you both very much for tonight.