Brooks and Oliphant
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
JIM LEHRER: And some closing words tonight from Brooks and Oliphant-New York Times columnist David Brooks and Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant. Mark Shields is off tonight. David, what do you make of the reaction to the president’s speeches and plans, not only from officialdom from our program tonight and elsewhere l good text.
DAVID BROOKS: Well, on the program tonight two people right here in the studio, a woman named Alison Fraser from the Heritage Foundation, who really was offering a sort of a traditional small government conservative vision of what should happen — there should be tax relief, enterprise zones but not too much big government, $100 billion pouring in there. She was concerned about the spending. Sitting next to her was a guy named Bruce Katz from the Brookings Institution, a more liberal, or more democratic institution, and he was saying not enough, not enough spending, not enough emphasis on actually rebuilding communities.
And Bush, strangely enough finds himself in the middle of these two policies. He really from the beginning of presidency rejected the small government conservative policy partly because it is not politically doable in this country. People want the government to do stuff, and partly because he thinks the government should be active but not as active as Bruce Katz probably wants him to be.
So when you look at his speech and his programs, it is consistent with the philosophy he’s tried to develop but has not quite gotten there, which is to spend a lot of money and to try to give individual initiative to actual people, not to government agencies, and if you look at the spending programs, that’s what it is all about — skipping the government agencies and then giving it right to individuals. And I spoke to a senior White House official today and he was trying to say we’re just trying to work this through. There’s tons of more stuff we haven’t figured out. But the one good thing about this approach he said was that these governments tend to be corrupt. And if we just try to send money through governments down –
JIM LEHRER: Are you talking about local and state governments?
DAVID BROOKS: Right – it will never get there. And so they think this time you got to go straight to the people with these vouchers, with these training programs, with these Homestead Acts. If you go through normal government channels, it will never get to the people.
JIM LEHRER: And, of course, that is not consistent with the conservative view that she was saying; she was saying, hey, no big thing from the top. Go to the bottom.
DAVID BROOKS: And if you talk to a lot of conservatives on Capitol Hill and just around Washington anyway, they are upset. They think $100 billion, $200 billion. We have got no money. Where is this money coming from? To a lot of people this is big government – let go of big government conservatism — and there’s some truth in that.
JIM LEHRER: Where do you see the truths tonight?
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, Mr. Seaton, of course, is the first thing that I heard in the discussion — particularly, his reminder to those of us who are not there – that from his perspective virtually nothing is happening, which is a hard point to get through.
JIM LEHRER: It’s stunning to hear that right now, isn’t it, after all of these -
TOM OLIPHANT: That’s right. I ran into one today I have been following for a couple of weeks now — a working class suburb just to the northeast of New Orleans called Slidell.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
TOM OLIPHANT: And the mayor there needs trailers to house the first responders who have come to Slidell to help deal with a situation so horrible in terms of residential destruction it’s hard to describe. And he is still waiting. So this notion from the ground, that hardly anything is happening, FEMA today, only today, opened its office in Biloxi, Mississippi.
DAVID BROOKS: Just on the background of that, I was told by a government official today about an argument they’re having about where to put the trailers.
JIM LEHRER: Oh, please.
DAVID BROOKS: It is a real argument. The government of Louisiana wants to put them on Army or military bases, some of which are decommissioned. The problem the White House people see is those bases are — there’s plenty of land there but there are no jobs there. And if you stick people way out there, they just can’t –
JIM LEHRER: It’s just like a camp. It’s a camp and not a life.
DAVID BROOKS: Right.
TOM OLIPHANT: I understand the argument but we are still left with that bottom line of nothing. Now, here is what I heard in that discussion. And it happens to be what I have been hearing all day as I have worked the telephones. And it is that none of this is partisan or ideological to speak of. I didn’t hear anybody embracing the president’s speech. I didn’t hear anybody condemning it. But what I heard 24 hours later was some very thoughtful analysis that pointed up the holes in this program such as it is. And I thought they were summed up by the best source of all, President Bush himself off the cuff this afternoon. And here is how he described what he did last night. I started laying out an outline. I don’t think he did very much more than that. And everything else, it is still a passive response. And the danger -
JIM LEHRER: Passive response?
TOM OLIPHANT: Yes. In terms of there are ideas — I have encountered at least a dozen fully developed plans for the reconstruction of the Gulf coast and for some national responses to related problems.
JIM LEHRER: But it was thrown out here tonight here and there.
TOM OLIPHANT: Yes. And behind those outlines are some very detailed well thought-out ideas. The longer the president waits, the longer this will become a battle of competing wish lists. And that would be the worst way to proceed.
DAVID BROOKS: I don’t quite agree with that. First of all, I agree totally that it’s a start and everyone I talked to, even people close to the president said it’s a start and we talked about things they have not even thought about — or they thought about them but they haven’t concluded about them — family reunification, the offsets, which is the stuff to cut — whether New Orleans should try to be a San Francisco-like creative city, a cultural city with a small growth area more like Portland or should it be a big booming city like Houston with big expansion and a lot of growth? So there’s a lot of stuff out there and they are just walking along slowly.
But I do think two things need to be said. The first is the president didn’t lay out a full program but he did lay out the costs. And that’s unusual in politics. He said this is going to be a lot, a lot of money — $100 billion, $200 billion. He laid out the cost, which is implies a lot more to come.
And, secondly, I don’t think it is a mistake to be hesitant. Obviously there’s immediate need that has to get there. I don’t think it’s a mistake to take our time and think even fundamentally if we really want to rebuild this city. I think all those issues have to be on the table, and if we take a couple of weeks to figure out how to rebuild the whole area, that doesn’t seem to me a tragedy.
TOM OLIPHANT: Perhaps. Perhaps. But in the absence, particularly of a financing plan, the danger is that ideas are going to be stacked on top of ideas without the kind of conceptual framework that not only conveys a sense of purpose, but that also enforces a set of limits.
So that this horrible situation we find ourselves in, where the government is essentially broke with figures, a lot of people on Wall Street don’t believe anyway, the need to put this in a box is enormous.
JIM LEHRER: In other words, say we’re going to spend a certain number of billion dollars, and that’s it, and now let’s figure out how to spend it?
TOM OLIPHANT: And also, here is how we’re going to do it.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
TOM OLIPHANT: And I was struck today, one idea that surfaced, everybody is talking ideas. That’s good. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House was only talking of one suggestion that happens to be what Bush’s dad did with the savings and loan bailout and that’s pick a number and sell long-term bonds. Well, if you can do it for the S&L’s, why can’t you do it for a program like this one, and nobody paid any attention.
JIM LEHRER: Let me ask you the question — the three of us were sitting here last night when the president made this speech and one of the questions beyond the specifics, beyond the plan, beyond the cost, is did he make it — did he take charge of it, 24 hours later is there now there a Bush idea, a Bush plan to do whatever needs to be done on the Gulf coast?
DAVID BROOKS: I think he did turn a corner. From everything I have heard it was a very well-received speech. People in the region, people around town, Republican and Democrat, seemed to say it was a good speech, even the editorial page praised him, which is not often for my paper’s editorial page, so I do think it took us out of the hapless, I don’t get it, problem which he had for a week or two, in to which I get it, we’re working on ideas, we’re taking charge; we’ve committed a lot of money to this; we’re going to solve it. That doesn’t mean, as Tom and I were saying, he knows exactly what he’s going to do, but that’s fair. I think he turned the corner with the speech.
JIM LEHRER: He is in charge?
TOM OLIPHANT: I absolutely agree on turning the corner. I’m not clear – there’s an idea being discussed in the White House this weekend that might make me a little bit more positive and that is to pick somebody to be in charge of this. It is so big that somebody needs to be in charge of it. And there are some ideas, even a couple of -
JIM LEHRER: Is that under serious consideration?
TOM OLIPHANT: As I understand it. David may know better than I.
JIM LEHRER: David, would you mind – (Laughter)
DAVID BROOKS: It is not that easy to get these people on the phone.
JIM LEHRER: But you think it requires that?
TOM OLIPHANT: It is so big.
JIM LEHRER: It is not enough to say we will do it and cabinet officers are going to do –
TOM OLIPHANT: Tommy Franks, the guy who retired from General Electric, Jack Welch, maybe Lee Iacocca is too old, but it is too big for somebody not to be in charge of it. And right now if you ask the question of who is in charge of rebuilding the Gulf coast, you can’t get an answer to that question.
JIM LEHRER: We also spent some time together this week with the John Roberts hearings. What are your thoughts about that? There is going to be a vote next Thursday. Was that — was the exercise of the hearings good for our democratic society?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, my thoughts were quite along that line. You look back on the whole week. If you were a Martian that came to Earth, you would think the United States had a functioning democracy. You don’t often get that impression. We had a guy come up, a nominee. He was a fantastic witness. He spoke clearly. He explained things as I think as clearly as he could have. Then we had the committee and the risk of these things turning into a fiasco is more likely to be on the Senate side than on the nominee side. And as I look at the members of the committee I see a lot of them who performed very well. Chuck Schumer from New York, who can be quite partisan, I thought the week was quite serious; Russ Feingold who can, you know, who pressed the case, the critical case quite seriously; Sam Brownback from Kansas made the pro-life case quite seriously. I thought we had a number of senators — Arlen Specter, above all, the chairman, who ran a very fair hearing. A number of people stepped up and it was quite a good exercise all in all.
JIM LEHRER: Good exercise?
TOM OLIPHANT: Absolutely. And let me add one more name in the interest of bipartisanship. Orrin Hatch who twice in the 1990s voted for President Clinton’s nominees, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Steve Breyer saying as he did last week that he knew he would disagree with virtually all of their decisions but believed that their temperament, their qualifications and their characters made them suitable for the Supreme Court. And that’s the pitch that has so many Democrats really wrestling with this one over the weekend. And I think a number of them are going to vote for him.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of wrestling. Do you all find it — is this not an extraordinary time? We not only have the selection of a person who could, for 40 years, hold one of the top positions, some people, they say could even affect our way of life, the chief justice and we have this extraordinary devastation and rebuilding now in the Gulf, and we also have a war going on in Iraq — 200 Iraqis have died this week; 600 have been wounded.
DAVID BROOKS: And the president met with Vladimir Putin, who is in town. You think of American Soviet summits, the way they used to be so big.
JIM LEHRER: He kind of slipped in and out.
TOM OLIPHANT: The Iraqi leadership came here.
JIM LEHRER: That’s right. Well, we had eight minutes with the president of Iraq last night – Ray Suarez. Under normal circumstances that would have been a huge, huge event -
TOM OLIPHANT: At a very critical moment, too. It’s amazing to me how stuck we are. There are no alternatives being offered. The violence is escalating. We’re supposed to, I guess, wait around for the October referendum that any ideas are being brushed aside and we are stuck.
DAVID BROOKS: There are ideas out there.
TOM OLIPHANT: There are.
DAVID BROOKS: There are ideas to establish safe havens so you can drive to the airport without getting killed and then sort of expand those out. But so far, there’s no strategic movement or tactical movement.
JIM LEHRER: Meanwhile, meanwhile, meanwhile, something else happens. Thank you both very much. It’s been an interesting week.