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Shields and Brooks

December 9, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

And, David, the president came out counterpunching this week both on Iraq and the economy. The numbers seem to say that things are looking better for the Bush administration. Crisis averted?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, it’s all over. (Laughter) I think he rose from thirty-five to forty, so he’s clear sailing on to victory. No, look, they made progress. I think they made progress on two fronts. First, the economy really is fundamentally strong, the growth rate is strong. The productivity rate which is more important is strong.

So you know, and you are beginning to see job creation, and even a little hint, which is the problem we’ve had of some sign that wages may come up. That’s still a problem. But some sign of it.

But then on Iraq, finally, we have had this test, and this has really been the test of the Bush administration since his first day, how much are you going to level with the American people about what you are really thinking.

And the Bush administration has always adopted a strategy, we’ve talked about it hundreds of times, of giving the positive message, you know, just, you know, not being sophisticated but just a simple straightforward show of resolve: The theology of confidence, one writer described it.

Well, finally in the last two speeches they are projecting outward what they talk about inward, which is we’ve got problems. And we’re trying to deal with them.

And that is just a realistic way of talking it to the American people and I think that is why they are seeing rise because they are leveling with people, people basically think the strategy is plausible. And so they are seeing an uptick.

MARK SHIELDS: I think this speech that he made this week was far different from the one at Annapolis. The Annapolis one, the mantra, victory, victory, victory, I was talking to one Iraq expert who said that is a terrible word to use in Iraq.

The history of Iraq is solely about resisting foreign domination and that just sets off all sorts of unfortunate reactions.

But I thought the speech that he gave to the Council on Foreign Relations, that the fevered minds of the paranoid right always thought of the global conspiracy to dominate, good Republicans and bad Democrats; I thought that was an important one because it wasn’t before a preselected audience as his other ones had been, of uncritical party supporters or of uniformed military service families who are welcoming and cheering and respecting their commander in chief.

This is a group of people who have probably been critical of him more than they’ve been supportive. And he did admit mistakes. And I think — I think that’s an important first step.

One thing that the president did do, and has done, is that they’ve moved away from sort of these mammoth projects of Bechtel and Halliburton, run by Iraqi companies.

Now, if there had been any study of history, they love to talk about Japan. We rebuilt Japan. When Japan was rebuilt there was no Marshall Plan. Japan was rebuilt without an American gold rush; there were no American companies; no American consultants; no American corporations in that gold rush to make a part of it.

They move away from that. I think it is an important step in rebuilding of Iraq and as a society as well as an economy.

RAY SUAREZ: Does this retooling of the message from the Bush administration on Iraq, Mark, throw the ball back in the Democrats court? Do they have to have some sort of coherent answer that they don’t have as yet?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, that is the argument, the debate that’s going on among Democrats right now. Do they have to?

I mean, Richard Nixon won the presidency in 1968 with a secret plan, never divulged, never revealed. I think it is still secret this moment, to resolve the war in Vietnam then. There’s no question; there’s great division in the Democratic ranks.

I do want to say that the poll, I went back and checked historically presidents and their second terms. And the president did jump from 35 to 40 in David’s — the New York Times poll.

You take the six reelected presidents of the past 50 years, the average job approval rating at this point in their presidency is 60 percent, so the president is 20 percent lower.

I mean, I don’t think this is the time to break out the champagne, that he has gone from thirty-five to forty. I think it is a small baby step, probably in the right direction.

RAY SUAREZ: Could the Democrats easily over read that 20-point gap that Mark just described?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, they can make mistakes and I think they acknowledged they made a mistake this week. Howard Dean said on a radio program that they couldn’t win; that we’re not going to win in Iraq.

And that is sort of the implication of the Murtha policy, if we have to get out, it means we can’t win. And then Howard Dean went back and said no, no, what I really meant to say was we can win. I think it is important for Democrats to present that.

I don’t know electorally whether it is important, as Mark says, if the Republicans screw up bad enough Democrats will win. But just as a matter of policy and as a matter of seriousness, I do think it’s important for Democrats. And they don’t have to do it as a group but individual Democrats to have a suggestion for a series of policies. And some have; you know, Joe Biden has really been over there again and again and again and he has made concrete suggestions.

A lot of people have been over there and studied the situation in Iraq. I think that one of the things that frustrates a lot of people is people who are fixating on the opposition of Bush, and the things Bush has done wrong, but are uninterested and unknowledgeable in what’s happening to Iraq.

And once you get knowledgeable in what is happening in Iraq and you get really knowledgeable about the details of the Syrian border and the Iranian border, then you begin to come up with constructive proposals and you get a serious debate, a serious debate about the future and not what happened three years ago.

RAY SUAREZ: Everywhere Condoleezza Rice traveled this week, David, she was asked about how the United States treats people it has in detention from the war on terror.

And there’s one version that has come out of the Senate for a defense appropriations bill that has strict anti-torture language in it. The House bill doesn’t have that yet. Are they working toward a compromise?

DAVID BROOKS: I think they are. One of the things you see is internally the administration is shifting. And that also came out of Margaret’s discussion earlier.

It seems from the outside that Condoleezza Rice does not, as I’m told she said in her private meeting, want this to be a torture presidency. She seems to be lobbying to get toward McCain. Now, other parts of the administration apparently, you know, have different views: The CIA and apparently Vice President Cheney. But one gets the sense from the whole gestalt of the administration that they are moving more toward McCain that is political. And that’s political. They just can’t veto a bill, their first veto be a torture bill. It is partly the needs to be friends with their allies in Europe which they have really improved in the past ten months.

And I think it is finally the merits of the thing. One thing every military person I talked to, including Israelis and everybody else is that physical torture doesn’t work. So what exactly are we fighting about, a policy that doesn’t even work?

RAY SUAREZ: So why did it take this long if what David says is true, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it took so long because of ideology, I think, and because the vice president’s insistence. I mean, he had been the advocate; he was representing certain elements within the CIA.

Two things, first of all she was playing defense all over Europe. I mean, here is her first meeting with the new leader of Germany. There is hoping to have a new start. And the entire discussion is preoccupied and understandably, about America’s torture policies. What the administration was hoping was to head off with a policy decision the need for legislation.

And I talked to Republicans this week who said if it goes to a vote on the House floor, it will be at least six to one, and it could be an eight to one vote. It was a ten to one vote for McCain in the Senate. And what gave McCain’s cause and position greatest sustenance was we find out on the front page of The New York Times on Friday that bad information, misinformation obtained under torture, under a subcontracted torture agreement with Egypt that the United States had, because we didn’t have our own capacity at that point, in 2002, produced information that went into the president’s speech for the case for war.

He said that al-Qaida and Iraq were moving hand-in-hand; that Saddam Hussein was training al-Qaida in terms of bombing, and poisons and gases, all of which was a fabrication, just exactly what John McCain said. If you are tortured long enough, you tell your torturers what they want to hear and that is what had happened.

DAVID BROOKS: There is one other element of this story which is the rise of Condoleezza Rice. I mean, this European tour was a tremendous success, came very much on the defensive, left all of European foreign ministers saying okay, I buy her argument; there is clearly a desire to want to heal the relationship. She’s a star abroad. And she’s a star, I would say, at home.

I was with conservatives in Michigan a couple weeks ago, she was the only star, the only person they really like in the administration any more; it’s a phenomenal rise.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark, this week some of the charges against Tom Delay in Texas were thrown out, some were retained. Where does that leave the table set for January and a possible leadership election?

MARK SHIELDS: I think that Chris Shays, the moderate Republican from Connecticut, said that he has no doubt there will be a new leadership election in February. Tom Delay –Texas is not Tom Delay’s principal problem. The Abramoff scandal is metastasizing.

Republicans are very open about this, that it is — in order of magnitude it is going to go beyond the bank scandal and the number of people involved. And there is already stories that his coconspirator, defendant arranged a plea bargain next week on the 15th of December, that Abramoff himself might – that’s in the Florida part of this case.

Tom Delay, the consensus of my own reporting is he will not be — ever return as a party leader, and that his situation right now is terminal, politically as far as leadership and the Republican Party is concerned.

The USA Today poll showed in his own district, a poll in his own district, showed him losing badly to an unnamed Democrat. Of course you have to name a Democrat and Nick Lampson, who was redistricted out of office by Delay, has already volunteered and raised a lot of money.

RAY SUAREZ: Can you be as categorical, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, I thought this for a long time and what I heard from Republicans I completely agree. I think he will never be back in leadership. I agree that the Abramoff scandal is a bigger scandal. The problem so far is nobody stepped up to run against him. And that takes a little guts because there is still Tom Delay sitting out there.

RAY SUAREZ: Still trying to hang on.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Oh, he’s campaigning, absolutely. He thinks and he is trying to use the immigration issue and a couple other issues to come back and be the party leader. He hasn’t accepted defeat. But no Republican I have spoken to is eager to run in this election with him as a leader.

MARK SHIELDS: And the argument is that here we are in session all the way to Christmas Eve and the Delay people will say if Tom Delay were in charge you would have been out of here before that.

That’s the only case they can make for him, is that the trains at least did run if not always on time.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark, David, thanks a lot.