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Political Analysts Discuss President Bush on North Korea, Connecticut Primaries

July 7, 2006 at 6:40 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

JIM LEHRER: David, President Bush, he celebrated his 60th birthday yesterday in Chicago, added to it today by having a nationally televised news conference. Is this a new way to get the message out?

DAVID BROOKS: I guess so.

I guess, first, I’m proud or — you know, I’m proud that he, at an advanced stage of 60, can still function. I’m sort of impressed by that. That’s really old.

JIM LEHRER: And, in Chicago, your…

DAVID BROOKS: In Chicago.

JIM LEHRER: Where you used to live and work.

DAVID BROOKS: And I spent this week there in Chicago.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: I think it is.

I mean, the White House said, first of all, it was an attempt to get out of the nothing Washington press corps. I’m not sure he avoided the Washington press corps. But it was an attempt, A, get to a city that’s actually doing very well, creating a lot of jobs. And Chicago does look fabulous, compared to when I lived there.

It was also an attempt just to, you know, get outside. And the message I took away from the press conference was, first, I was struck by the number of the times the president said, you got to have patience. This was mostly on foreign policy matters, on North Korea, on Iraq, on Iran. It was about all diplomacy and patience. And that was a theme that would have been unusual four years ago for President Bush.

The other thing was immigration. And he was very strong on immigration. And this is — I have been hearing around town that — I had thought a week ago that immigration was dead, that the chance of some sort of comprehensive reform was dead. But the White House…

JIM LEHRER: Because — because the House version and the Senate version couldn’t be reconciled.

DAVID BROOKS: … irreconcilable.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And I still wouldn’t bet on it.

But the White House has really redoubled their efforts. There have been signs of movement in the Senate from Arlen Specter, and even in the House. So, I think there is a chance that they are going to make a serious push in September to get something.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read what the president is doing now?

MARK SHIELDS: I think there’s always a certain appeal to try something different when things aren’t going well.

And the idea of getting out of Washington, get away from the beltway…

JIM LEHRER: But he was asked some really tough questions today.

MARK SHIELDS: He was asked some very tough questions.

And I was just — I was surprised. I mean, the Associated Press called the president’s performance rambling. And I thought the opening 15-minute statement was, quite frankly, rambling. It didn’t seem to be — have a — bring a laser-like focus to it.

And the president, at one point, said that’s the fourth time this week I have been asked about — fourth day in a row I have been asked about North Korea.

Well, you know, it’s kind of not a big surprise that you would be asked about North Korea four days in a row.

MARK SHIELDS: And I — like David, I was struck by his counseling patience and diplomacy. I mean, you would have thought you were listening to, you know, Adlai Stevenson or something…

MARK SHIELDS: … that we can — can’t we all work this out?

JIM LEHRER: How did you think he handled that? Because he was asked very directly — I’m paraphrasing, but the direct question was: Hey, wait a minute. You’re saying patience with North Korea and Iran. You didn’t do that with Iraq.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: And he had an answer.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, he did have an answer. He and — it’s a very good question, because if you had an absolute certainty about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons, or making, and we went.

Now, I mean, if anything, that axis of evil the president described, Iraq didn’t have weapons. We went after them. North Korea has, at least by all assessment, has that capacity, the capability. We have stayed away from them.

And Iran, following the lead of North Korea, is saying: They didn’t lay a glove on them, so, we’re trying to get them.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: I thought the president, particularly his exchange with Suzanne Malveaux of CNN, who asked that question about, gee, six years later, Mr. President, it doesn’t seem to be working, your policy, because they have strengthened their nuclear — well, where did you get that information? I mean, he really — it got pretty, I thought, tense there.

JIM LEHRER: He was talking about North Korea’s — policy toward it.

MARK SHIELDS: North Korea, that’s right. Exactly.

Confronting the press

JIM LEHRER: Well, how what was your take on that, how the president is handling this stuff?

DAVID BROOKS: I'm a dissenter from my journalistic colleagues on how to ask questions in these things.

There is an attempt in all these press conferences to ask highly charged, highly challenging, and highly negative questions, which is a way to -- and this is done with both parties, and it's done in settings with five journalists or in a big televised press conference like this.

And you get the politician's back up, and he or she never actually gives you any information. I'm much more in favor of a conversational mode to get the person to relax.

And the one bit of information we got out of this press conference was when he was asked a very informational question: Were the missiles from North Korea aimed to us, could we have intercepted them?

JIM LEHRER: Yes. That was...

DAVID BROOKS: And he suggested we probably could have, though he sounded like he was talking off the top of his head.

JIM LEHRER: But that was -- interestingly enough, that was the only real news that came...

MARK SHIELDS: That came out of that.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JIM LEHRER: ... that came out of that. I mean, if you define news as something that we didn't know before...

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JIM LEHRER: ... he hadn't said before, that was it. And we put it in our news summary.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

And I -- that's why I think these press conferences, I always sit with my colleagues, and we try to have a conversation, and then somebody comes in with a "60 Minutes"-type question, and it kills it. And I think these things are just drama.

JIM LEHRER: The politics of this...

MARK SHIELDS: Some people...

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: Some people handle it better than others, though.

I mean, I think John McCain is quite good at handling a tough question. And some -- you know, some -- but you're right. I mean, a lot of them just -- that ends the conversation. They close down.

JIM LEHRER: Close down.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: And you -- yes.

The politics of this, is the president still welcome places? I mean, he was asked a question about that.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JIM LEHRER: There were some folks here, some Republicans who weren't keen on your coming, Mr. President. Does that upset you?

And what -- what -- what...

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JIM LEHRER: What's your read?

DAVID BROOKS: Here or there. I imagine, from what I have heard politicians make the calculation, he brings in a lot of money and he brings in some negative publicity.

So, Mark was more of a professional of this, but my calculation would be, if I was in especially a blue state, was, get the money early, and then give yourself a couple months to distance yourself toward the end.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

Are they still distancing themselves from the president, Republicans?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the statement you mentioned...

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: ... was attributed to -- the Republican nominee for governor's campaign staff said that this guy is, you know, a real liability, but we're going to take the dough; $1.2 million, he raised. That's the tradeoff.

Presidents can raise money. I don't care who the presidents are. But, you know, this president...

JIM LEHRER: But can they get somebody else votes?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, no. And this president is -- it's -- I can't think of a district where he would be a big help right now, or a state in a -- I don't think Arnold Schwarzenegger is knocking down the door for him to come in to California, or whoever the Republicans dredge up in New York, is going to say, please be our nominee.

DAVID BROOKS: Well...

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: Those are blue states.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: I would say, in red states, he has come back a little. I mean, if you look at his approval ratings, they have bounced back eight or 10 points from the floor. And that was not winning over centrists. That was winning back some conservatives, which I think he has done pretty effectively in the past month.

Connecticut races heat up

JIM LEHRER: The big race in Connecticut, Mark, on the Democratic side, Joe Lieberman being challenged by Ned Lamont, and for the Democratic senatorial nomination. They had a debate last night. That thing has really taken off, hasn't it?

MARK SHIELDS: It has, Jim.

And if Joe Lieberman had been as aggressive against Dick Cheney in 2000 in the vice presidential debate as he was last night against Ned Lamont, he would now be in his sixth year as vice president of the United States.

I mean, you recall that first debate against Cheney, he just -- it was -- he did the Rodney King approach: Can't we all get along?

And, instead, of raising the questions about Cheney's very controversial, very arch-conservative votes, one of the three House members to vote against Head Start, to vote against Nelson Mandela's liberation, just all these votes that Joe Lieberman just never brought up, and just kind of sat around and was avuncular.

Last night, he was anything but avuncular. He's in a tough race. And...

JIM LEHRER: But because he supported the president on the war.

MARK SHIELDS: Because he supported the president on the war. But it's more than the war. It really is. I have talked to people in Connecticut on this, and Democrats.

And what it comes down to is, it's George Bush more than the war. I mean, John McCain has supported George Bush on the war. I mean, John McCain is pretty blunt. He says: I have no confidence in Don Rumsfeld, secretary of defense. The mistakes these people have made could fill an encyclopedia.

Joe Lieberman never says that. Joe Lieberman continues to say: We're doing good. Things are better today than they were a year ago.

And he's -- it's not only the Iraq war that has Democrats in Connecticut mad, although that's the major focus. Make no mistake about the outside groups helping Ned Lamont.

It is, in fact, a whole host of issues, including judicial appointments, including the...

MARK SHIELDS: You know, including the religious issues, where Joe has been far more supportive of the president.

And, so, I think what you have is the announcement this week by Lieberman that he was going to go into the -- as an independent in November.

JIM LEHRER: If he loses, if he loses...

MARK SHIELDS: If he loses the primary. And I think that really makes it a national race.

JIM LEHRER: You agree it's a national race now, David, and there's more involved here than just Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. This is what we are going to have for two years. We're going to have independents, whether it's Joe Lieberman in Connecticut or, nationally, Hillary Clinton, or John McCain, or Rudy Giuliani, who are sort of centrist, heterodox members of their party, fighting the hard-cores. And Joe Lieberman...

JIM LEHRER: Some on the right, some on the left.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

And this is a precursor for what we are going to see nationally. This is Joe Lieberman, who has been bipartisan, but who has been a strong liberal, who has got the endorsements from the Human Rights Campaign, from Planned Parenthood, who has a Christian Coalition rating of zero, and he's being challenged as not a liberal.

And I think the reason he was so aggressive -- and I agree; he was tremendously aggressive -- I was surprised by how aggressive he is -- he's saying to himself: I have been a liberal for 35 years. I was in Mississippi marching 30 years ago. And this guy comes in and tells me I'm not a Democrat; I'm not liberal?

So, I think he's highly agitated and angry. He's also agitated and angry -- and anybody would be -- by the vitriolic and vicious attacks he has withstood for the past two or three years, which can't be repeated on television. He has been the subject of an Internet assault which is unprecedented. So, he is a guy who is pretty energized.

A schism among Democrats

JIM LEHRER: What has he done to Democrats who want to be the next president of the United States, in making a decision about whether they support him now, whether they support Lamont, whether they're going to support the nominee, if Lamont happens to beat Lieberman, and Lieberman goes as an independent?

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

Well, he has made life difficult, especially for Hillary Clinton, because, in my conversations -- we're talking about the netroots, who are the real problems for Lieberman, the people generated by the Daily Kos and the other Web sites, I find, privately, most of the Democrats despise those people, because of the way they practice politics so viciously.

But they don't want to get in the crosshairs. And they don't want to offend the liberal base of primary voters. So, they want to support Joe Lieberman, but they don't want to get in the crosshairs.

So, a few have come out, Barbara Boxer, Joe Biden, a couple others, have come out strongly for him. Others, Hillary Clinton has sort of been on both sides. Others just won't commit.

MARK SHIELDS: One Democrat who has been a Lieberman person a while said, you have to understand, Joe came into politics in 1970 as an anti-Vietnam War activist.

Then he became the Cold War senator once he was there. And he said, it's one thing to support the president's policies. But what Joe has done is really criticized Democrats who have criticized Bush. And that has really bothered a lot of Democrats.

The Democrats are hoist on their own petard here, the regular Democrats. They have an August 8 primary. Now, somebody said summer is a verb in Connecticut. I mean, the people are gone, you know.

MARK SHIELDS: You have an August 8 primary, because nobody is going to be there.

JIM LEHRER: Nobody is going to be there.

MARK SHIELDS: ... get renominated.

The other thing is, the Democrats will keep the Senate seat regardless of who wins the primary. This is about three House seats. If there's a disunited Democratic Party in Connecticut...

JIM LEHRER: Because there are three Republican...

MARK SHIELDS: ... three Republican House seats, Rob Simmons, Nancy Johnson, and Chris Shays, all of whom are vulnerable. Their chances would improve if the Democrats are disunited.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

We're now united in saying good night to one another.