Political Analysts Discuss Terrorism, Connecticut Senate Race
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MARGARET WARNER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Well, gentlemen, quite a week. Let’s talk about the domestic political ramifications of the thwarted terror plot, Mark.
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, I mean, certainly it works immediately to the advantage of the Republicans and to the Bush administration. Out of all the measurements, the president’s handling of Iraq, the economy, health care, foreign relations, he gets relentlessly negative marks. This is the one where he has been even and, in some cases, even got majorities giving him approval.
So this is where the Republicans would like to have the debate be rather than on all those other areas, especially the war in Iraq. And I think, Margaret, that the question is how long it lasts. I mean, it does have a relevance because it was going to be here. It wasn’t Spain; it wasn’t London; it was going to be here. There were identified planes and all the rest of it.
MARGARET WARNER: There would have clearly been a lot of Americans killed.
MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. But what we have not seen is the longstanding political momentum or traction gained from the capture of Zarqawi, from the elections in Iraq, and all the rest. So I think that’s the question that remains politically at home.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you see it that way, at least short-term advantage Republicans?
DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: I guess so. I guess, short term, disadvantage politicians. I mean, I think what struck a lot of people about what happened this week was that they had arrested the guys at 2:00 a.m., and by 2:05, the Democrats and Republicans are issuing highly partisan attacks on each other.
And it was just — you know, give it a day. Let people throw out their toothpastes. And so I think that was just over-political. Give us a break for a day.
But then an interesting debate has crystallized over the past 24 hours, which is Republicans are happier to talk about the arc of extremism, the broader problem of Islamic fascism. And then the Democrats are happier to talk about narrow — or not so narrow — but the problem of Iraq and the Iraqi civil war.
And so when the issue is on the broader problems, the Republicans are happy; when it’s on Iraq, Democrats are happy.
President Bush on terror plot
MARGARET WARNER: Would you put President Bush in the ranks of those who yesterday made political comments?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, I actually don't think he did as much. I think the usage of the phrase "Iraqi fascism," which he used...
MARGARET WARNER: Islamic fascism.
DAVID BROOKS: Islamic -- sorry, Islamic fascism. First of all, they did not have him give a major statement. He kept his schedule, which I think was the right thing to do. And then he used that phrase.
And I think that phrase is substantive, not political. It reminds people there's a contest of ideas and a broad contest, and that the people we're fighting are not organized by structure so much as by a coherent ideology which they share.
MARGARET WARNER: But he did also say, Mark, "It's a mistake to believe there's no threat to the United States of America, and that's why we've given our officials the tools they need protect our people." What was he saying?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, he was making the case for surveillance; he was making the case for the Patriot Act and I think it's going to be the question of this election, Margaret. And I think casting Iraq as a narrow question is a little bit...
DAVID BROOKS: I semi-retracted that.
MARK SHIELDS: Semi-retraction? I want it completely retracted, David, because, I mean, that is the dominant issue, and it has been the dominant issue. It's the major concern of Americans.
And the question is: Are we safer as a consequence of our invasion and occupation of Iraq? Is our military stronger? Is it more depleted? All of those questions: Are we more highly esteemed in the world? Do more people hate us as a consequence?
Domestic politics on terror plot
MARGARET WARNER: Now, Harry Reid, the Democratic leader yesterday, did try to turn around and say -- I'll paraphrase -- well, this reminds people that we've squandered our resources on the war in Iraq. He tried to turn it around. Do you think that's just a non-starter?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think you can make the case that the 9/11 Commission recommendations have not been implemented in part because resources have been diverted.
I think, whether our resources have been diverted, there's no question that that the resources that the president had in the last midterm election, where he had a three-to-one advantage over the Democrats on questions like handling terror and leadership, that's been squandered in the sand, the blood, and the human sacrifice that is Iraq.
DAVID BROOKS: The Republican argument will be, "We were attacked by it. We have this enemy, this big enemy of Islamic fascism. We were attacked, and our philosophy has always been: Let's take the battle to them."
"We are taking it to them. We tried in Iraq, and it didn't work. But we are still the pedal-to-the-metal guys when it comes to fighting these people. And we're the pedal-to-the-metal guys when it comes to surveillance, attacking. Everything, we try to do everything. And so trust us in the long run, because we're the pedal-to-the-metal guys."
And that will be their philosophy. And it's not automatic to me that, with a new candidate in 2008, that's not a winning argument, because people will say this is about the future and not about the past. Who's going to fight their enemies the hardest?
MARGARET WARNER: Ken Mehlman, the Republican chairman, was talking about the "Defeat-o-crats." I mean, that is definitely the theme, is it not?
DAVID BROOKS: Right. And that's the ugly part of it. I mean, let's face it. The bottom line here -- and this is the stupidity of the whole argument --is that as if both parties know exactly what to do.
We had 10 years where we did very little against terrorism; that didn't seem to work. We've had five years where we've hit them hard in Iraq, and that doesn't seem to work. What's the third phase?
That's actually a substantive debate of, how do you get -- if people are growing up in London and wanted to kill us, what do you do? And nobody's really certain about that.
MARK SHIELDS: The "Defeat-o-crats," I mean, that just can't pass. I mean, that is, "Dissent is disloyalty, and criticism is treason," by that definition, and that's what that's become.
And it was John Boehner, the Republican House majority leader who obviously is bidding for the speakership and is worried about his right flank, and it was Ken Mehlman. And it was an unnamed source on the president's Air Force One who sounded not like Josh Bolten but a lot more like Karl Rove.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, also trying to take political advantage of this was none other than Joe Lieberman.
MARK SHIELDS: Civil, gentlemanly Joe Lieberman. And I have to quote.
MARGARET WARNER: Remind us what he said.
MARK SHIELDS: He said, "The anti-war views of Ned Lamont," who defeated Joe Lieberman...
MARGARET WARNER: In the Connecticut Senate primary.
MARK SHIELDS: ... Tuesday in the primary said would be, quote, "taken as a tremendous victory by the same people who wanted to blow up these airplanes."
I mean, that is -- that isn't beyond the pale. I mean, that's just unacceptable. That is objectionable and unacceptable language, and it is totally alien to the Joe Lieberman that most of us have known and liked. I mean, it was -- it sounded like the desperate words of a desperate man who was really, you know, at the end of his rope.
MARGARET WARNER: You both did predict last Friday that Joe Lieberman would lose the Tuesday primary. But now that it's happened, David, what do you make of it?
DAVID BROOKS: First of all, I thought he'd lose by more than he did, four points. But nonetheless, I think the Lamont victory is a major event in American politics.
And I liken it to a victory that happened to a guy named Jeff Bell in 1978. He ran for Senate in New Jersey, defeated a moderate Republican named Clifford Case. Jeff Bell was the first of the supply-siders. He went on to lose narrowly to Bill Bradley that November, but that was the beginning of really what was the Reaganite supply-side revolution.
I think Ned Lamont's victory is a sign that the left and the peace movement is really strong. It is a strong part of the Democratic Party. Whether they will rise and have the Reaganite success the Reaganites have or whether they will turn into the McGovernites again is open. But it shows the party, where the energy, and the ideas, and the passion in the party are.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think the liberal wing of the Democratic Party is on the march across the country, Mark, or is -- you know, Connecticut Democrats who turn out in August, as I think you said last week, tend to be a fairly -- or maybe you said it, David, excuse me for confusing you -- tend to be a fairly liberal bunch.
MARK SHIELDS: Yes, it was a bigger turnout than any of us expected. It was 45 percent.
MARGARET WARNER: I mean, how representative is it, do you think?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, it's representative of any place. I mean, it's Connecticut. It's where Joe Lieberman had won election after election. I think what's significant about this election is that what is obvious is that the status quo, the stay-the-course Bush policy of the status quo in Iraq, is politically unacceptable to a vast majority of Democrats, to a majority of independents, and to a sizable minority of Republicans.
It's not a question of left-right. I mean, this is a majority position in the country. And as I said before, the politicians are scurrying to catch up with the voters. I mean, trying to demonize Ned Lamont, who looks like a junior high assistant principal, I mean, not exactly, you know, a terrifying figure, as some people have tried to do, you know, it just doesn't work.
I mean, it was a victory not of the bunting, or the balloons, or the anything, the bands, or the blogs, it was a victory because...
MARGARET WARNER: Of the message?
MARK SHIELDS: ... he came down on this policy, and Joe Lieberman -- he put Joe Lieberman on the other side standing with President Bush as a defender of President Bush. And that's how the election was decided. That's how the voters made their decision, and I think that's the message.
Implications for November
MARGARET WARNER: So do you think that really has implications for November?
DAVID BROOKS: I do. I don't think it's a single-issue thing. I think it's on the trail of the Howard Dean campaign, on the trail of MoveOn.org, on the trail of a lot of organization that has gone on in that part of the party. And they've beaten other people in the center of the party.
At the same time, centrist Republicans are getting defeated. It seems to me we're in this further polarization of the electorate. And we saw Joe Schwarz in Michigan, who's a moderate Republican, get defeated. That was the parallel to the Lieberman defeat. It's just hard to be in the center these days.
MARGARET WARNER: Vice President Cheney did an unusual thing Wednesday. He had a conference call with reporters, and he weighed in on the Lieberman defeat.
DAVID BROOKS: Right, well, a lot of Republicans see this as an opportunity. They're going McGovernite. You looked at Ned Lamont there Tuesday night. He had Al Sharpton over this shoulder, Jesse Jackson over that shoulder. That's Republican heaven.
They say, "Those are the Democrats. If you're a moderate, if you like Joe Lieberman, that's not your party anymore. You better get out of that party." So they're going to take advantage of that. Whether it will succeed, I think it probably will.
MARK SHIELDS: It's amazing that the vice president, who avoids the press like the plague, bestirred himself from his Jackson Hole resting spot to come out and comment on a Connecticut primary.
And David's right: He's hoping to get a little political edge off it. The problem for Joe Lieberman is the only people that have said good things about him since Tuesday have been Karl Rove, who called him, Ken Mehlman, who spoke glowingly of him, and the vice president of the United States. That isn't what he's looking for right now, in terms of support.
DAVID BROOKS: And to me one of the significant things was that 80 percent of the people who voted for him thought they would vote for him again. So he'll lose a fifth.
MARGARET WARNER: Lamont?
DAVID BROOKS: No, Lieberman.
MARGARET WARNER: Lieberman?
DAVID BROOKS: Lieberman, if he gains 80 percent, he picks up a lot of independent Republicans, he has a decent shot in November. I would certainly not count him out.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, now, are we just counting out the Republican candidate in that race? How do you think this is going to shape up?
DAVID BROOKS: Basically, yes. I think most Republicans will shift over to Lieberman. And remember: There many, many independents in Connecticut.
MARK SHIELDS: I mean, every Democrat in the state holding office, I mean, any significant statewide Democrat and congressional federal has already endorsed Lamont and stood with him, including Chris Dodd, who campaigned long and hard for Lieberman.
MARGARET WARNER: Excuse me...
MARK SHIELDS: Sure.
MARGARET WARNER: ... but, Mark, explain why -- I mean, even the Republican National Committee types here are saying great things about Lieberman, and they're completely ignoring their own candidate. What's the strategy?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, what happened, Margaret -- and why I say it wasn't the blogs -- this race, Joe Lieberman entered this race ahead 65 to 13, all right? As recently as two months ago, he still had a 25-point lead.
And so the Republicans said, "Hey, this is going to be it. It's going to be a typical Joe Lieberman blowout. Who wants to run? Is there anybody who isn't under indictment or detox?" And so this guy came forward, and now they're saying, "My god almighty, we might have a shot," and this guy doesn't have a prayer.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you, gentlemen.