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Shields and Brooks

December 23, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight, analysis from our team of Shields and Brooks: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

So first let’s go to the drawdown announced drawdown of U.S. troops. Is this a big deal in political terms, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s a deal. How big it is I think we won’t know immediately. But I mean it’s interesting because some of the president’s strongest supporters including among them John McCain have urged more troops be sent to Iraq. That was politically, obviously, not sustainable as a position.

And already today some Democrats are saying finally the president is seeing the light and moving in the right direction. But it is — it’s a statement and a challenge to the Iraqis. In the final analysis, it’s your ball game. You better be able to defend your own country and handle the insurgency.

MARGARET WARNER: David, do you think as Col. Hammes, one of Ray’s guests said just now, that it is partially driven in his view by domestic political concerns.

DAVID BROOKS: I think that is probably it: there are also military concerns, the strain that’s been on the military. Donald Rumsfeld has never been interested in having a lot of troops there, as Col. Hammes also said.

MARGARET WARNER: Right.

DAVID BROOKS: So there is a whole series of factors.

I think the whole drawdown issue is sort of a substitute issue. People want to know are we making progress and the language for that has been are we drawing down, but the progress has to come before the drawdown, so to me what happens is what John Burns was talking about earlier on the program. If the government can get together, that’s progress. I think then people will give us some credit and then we’ll be able to –

MARGARET WARNER: You mean then the American public will say okay, things are on the right track?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And I think one of the things that happened this week was that the president’s approvals went up a bit but the approvals on Iraq went up significantly, so there is more, a little more patience there in the public.

MARK SHIELDS: Nobody really knows what the Iraqi situation is, that seems to be all domestic consumption; we had Gen. Casey saying there was one Iraqi battalion that was -

MARGARET WARNER: Fully.

MARK SHIELDS: — fully on its own and the president moved from 45 to 80, between November and December. So that will be a test, no doubt about it.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes. I think the American public is probably looking at the situation on the ground.

Let’s go to the eavesdropping controversy. And David, this came out last Friday. You on this program said the White House ought to come clean; Saturday morning the president did.

DAVID BROOKS: See, he listens to me.

MARGARET WARNER: What was the strategy behind it, and how well do you think they’ve done now defending it?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, first the reason they didn’t come clean on the interview that Jim Lehrer did with the president on Friday was they didn’t have time.

It was taped in the morning and they didn’t learn about until late, so they only had a little while and they didn’t have enough time, but they knew they had to come clean.

They have been much more aggressive and they’ve been aggressive first constitutionally where I think they are dubious but also substantively. And they have been hampered a little by the fact that they can’t really describe what is going on.

But it is easy from the experts to speculate what is going on, that maybe they capture this as hypothetical, but not atypical, that they capture a laptop with say 6,000 names, e-mail addresses, stuff, and they catch it from al-Qaida and they need to find out all the contacts and all the chains of contacts.

That kind of circumstances and the new technology we use makes it hard for the FISA process. So they wanted –

MARGARET WARNER: That is the court that usually they are supposed to go to.

DAVID BROOKS: That issues the warrants. How do you issue a warrant of 6,000 names and numbers? So that is their problem. And that is a real problem. And I think they are on firm ground in saying we need to figure out a way to investigate all this stuff.

Constitutionally, as Tom Daschle said today, it is a little murkier. But I think they have done a reasonably good job in pushing hard on saying we are doing everything we can to fight terror.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think they have done a good job at least on the merits of why it’s needed?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think they have been persuasive, Margaret. I mean, if you think about it in historical terms, the modern conservative movement had as its moral and philosophical imperative the curtailment of executive power in particular and the power of the presidency to shrink the size, scope and spending of the federal government.

And what is happened to conservatives is they now have gone to a definition of the presidency that approaches as a monarchy. I heard the Secretary of State of the United States, the Attorney General of the United States basically say the president isn’t above the law, the president is the law.

And the idea that there is still no possible explanation as to why, when George Bush was at 90 percent in the polls, when Americans rallied to his cause, when he was the unifying agent in the country and he could have requested anything in a change of this law that he wanted — or felt was necessary, why he didn’t come to the Congress there was total disdain.

MARGARET WARNER: That is the question. Why didn’t he go to Congress — and maybe an executive session, but say look, and describe the problem just as you did — we need to update FISA, perhaps with a secret codicil, why didn’t he do that?

DAVID BROOKS: I think we have three reasons: The first of which was say you have 6,000 names, to fight the process a judge would have to issue 6,000 warrants. How is a judge supposed to make up his mind?

MARGARET WARNER: No, but I’m asking, why didn’t they go to Congress –

DAVID BROOKS: If we are sticking within FISA and reform FISA -

MARGARET WARNER: Right.

DAVID BROOKS: — it just makes the judges rubber stamp.

The second reason — and I think this is the crucial one — is they weren’t sure they could trust Congress because their mentality was it’s so bipartisan (partisan) up there, somebody will leak it and that will destroy the process.

There is some merit and it’s also fair to say that, you know, they have stories they tell about so-and-so senator leaking this and that to justify that. And I think they tend to exaggerate, they dwell on these few stories. But you know, it was not illegitimate concern to think maybe 20 years ago the Senate would not leak, but now it has become so partisan that we just can’t trust these guys.

MARK SHIELDS: I disagree completely. George W. Bush — and history will be harsh here — after Sept. 11, he had an opportunity, a real opportunity to be — to be a coalition leader of this country, to bring four or five Democrats into his cabinet and say I’m going to govern as a center right Eisenhower Republican.

He chose instead to follow a very narrow, conservative, to win with 51, only with Republican votes, to win re-election with 51 percent, I mean so the trust, and trust is not something you just say you demand; it has to be earned.

MARGARET WARNER: But Mark, he did now, how does the Hill look in this? They did inform the leadership, there seems to be different versions or views or memories of what they were told, but the leadership of the top committees — intelligence and leaders are their hands totally clean here?

MARK SHIELDS: No. I don’t think they are. But that is one reason that we do need — we need full hearings on this, and we are going to get them ironically because of the renewal of the Patriot Act, it is going to be right in the middle of this, it’s going to be the maelstrom that’s going to be the focus once we get by the Alito hearings that will dominate Congress in January.

DAVID BROOKS: The core issue is: does the president have the flexibility to act? And I think, I wrote this, this week, he should have called in the Democrats and the Republicans and said I’m going to do everything I can to beat these guys; you’ve got to trust me but I will tell you everything.

And then if we have a difference over the power of the presidency then we hammer it out in private, which is essentially what Lincoln did.

MARGARET WARNER: Bring into this now what Cheney had to say this week because he seemed to react by saying, you know, the power of the presidency and the executive branch has been too diminished over the past quarter century.

How much of this really reflects that deep philosophical belief on the part of Bush and Cheney, that they do have -

DAVID BROOKS: Well, listen, that predates 9/11-

MARGARET WARNER: Very much so.

DAVID BROOKS: — that predates coming to the White House. They’ve always believed the power of the presidency in the Carter years, post Watergate has been weakened and for national security precedent you have to do that.

And Mark was talking about conservatism being limited government conservatism; well, there are two branches of the conservatives. There is Jefferson but there is also Hamilton who believes in energy and the executive. And the Hamilton tradition went on to Lincoln and it is really the Lincoln model, the wartime presidency that they are going back.

MARK SHIELDS: Sen. John Sununu, New Hampshire, you know, who is hardly a card carrying liberal, said Dick Cheney is the only person in America that thinks the presidency, the power of the presidency has been diminished in the last 30 years.

I mean we had this week the chief judge on the FISA court resign, okay. We had –

MARGARET WARNER: Over this.

MARK SHIELDS: Over this. We had his successor convene because the other judges wanted to know why, when the law specifies for warrants, why the president is tapping Americans without warrants. I mean, this is really –

MARGARET WARNER: How much do you think that the eavesdropping sort of controversy and the fact that it didn’t all week – because as you said, Mark, every day it was a drip, drip, drip, something new – affected — that there was kind of a blowback that affected the Patriot Act debate?

MARK SHIELDS: No question. I mean the timing last week, the Times broke it last Friday. That was the vote in the Senate. You could see it. I mean, there was a skepticism. I was up on the Hill this week as the Senate went to its culmination in a rather stormy session. But you could feel it. And listen, the key votes were conservatives. I mean John Sununu of New Hampshire, Larry Craig, a member of the National Rifle Association, board of directors from Idaho, I mean, these were people who had real reservations and doubts about civil liberties.

And again, they paid a price for only dealing with Republicans. I mean that has been the modus operandi of passing, and that is what came unglued and un-frayed this past session.

DAVID BROOKS: They also paid a price for when they consulted on this eavesdropping thing, they didn’t consult with the Judiciary Committee, which they should have.

MARGARET WARNER: Or the Intelligence Committee.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. They know they should have and that hurt them. But, you know, congressmen are Republicans; Democrats are also congressmen or congresswomen, and there was a sense the White House went around them so there was a sense of anger. Whether that legitimately should translate into opposition to the Patriot Act I don’t think so.

MARGARET WARNER: But you think it did, whether it was legitimate or not.

DAVID BROOKS: They negotiated this new Patriot Act; they negotiated it, and to weaken the country because you are angry over this, it strikes me as irresponsible, and, by the way, politically I’m becoming more and more convinced that the public six months from now when they think back on all this they are going to think Republicans are really tough on terror and it won’t hurt the Republicans at all.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, this was the Republican strategy, we all started I’m sure you all did too, getting e-mails mid-week from Ken Mehlman, the head of the RNC, saying this is a replay of the 2002 debate over homeland security, the Democrats are weak on security.

Why if they were so sure that in fact this would damage the Democrats did, in the end, they quote, unquote, blink and agree to this extension whether it was six months or five weeks?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think that was probably because there are two issues, one is the electoral issue which I think they are sure that it will benefit for them. But then there is the congressional issue, and as Mark said there are Republicans who are nervous about this; civil liberties has always been an issue that Republicans and Democrats have been keen on. And so they have the congressional hurdle to get over to get simply the votes. But long-term politically I think they are pretty confident this is a winner for them.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what does it say briefly to both of you that on whether it was on the budget, whether it was on Patriot Act or even on ANWR, I mean, we can’t get into all of that, but that the Democrats all stuck together but there were enough Republican defections to either make a filibuster succeed or in one case that Cheney had to fly back from Pakistan to cast a tie-breaking vote?

MARK SHIELDS: They lost five Republicans on the budget vote. What it is as is that the Democrats are unified; the Democrats know what they are against. The test of the Democrats has to be as they lead in the polls to determine and announce what they are for going into 2006. And I think that is the test. Republicans on the other hand, you can feel it coming unglued — the unity.

DAVID BROOKS: I wouldn’t say that but if you are an Ohio Republican or a New York Republican or a Rhode Island Republican, you are nervous and need to distance yourself from the president and from Dick Cheney.

MARGARET WARNER: So you think this will continue at the beginning of next year?

DAVID BROOKS: I think second terms are congressional terms, they are much more independent.

MARGARET WARNER: David, Mark, thank you, have a great weekend.