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Analysts Debate Deal on Terror Suspects, Congress Approval Ratings

September 22, 2006 at 3:15 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, is this deal on detainees going to hold?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I think it is, Jim. Last week, it was great news for the Democrats. As long as the Republicans were involved in this brawl…

JIM LEHRER: Like this.

MARK SHIELDS: Absolutely, Democrats stood aside, uncharacteristically were silent, incredibly circumspect and discreet. But they, as a consequence, they lose any standing, really, to enter into the argument, I think, at this point. I mean, I heard Congressman Ed Markey today say that…

JIM LEHRER: Democrat from Massachusetts.

MARK SHIELDS: … Democrat from Massachusetts say it was unacceptable. But very few of the Democratic leadership have been heard from to question this deal.

JIM LEHRER: In the deal between the White House and the senators, the three main Republican senators, were there winners and losers, from your point of view?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: I think on balance the senators were the winners. I mean, they got the Geneva Convention. It’s going to be not reinterpreted by the United States. The president does have the right to decide to interpret it to some extent, but that power is granted to him in the Constitution. And if he makes anything specific, it has to go into the federal register and Congress has the right to oversee.

Lindsey Graham certainly won. The evidence that’s going to be shown to a jury is going to be shown to the defendant, which is the one thing he was worried about.

And then there were a whole series of negotiations about what constituted grave breach and things like that. And I think the bottom line is that water boarding, a lot of that stuff will not be allowed. Now, there will be some rough stuff allowed, I mean, sleep deprivation for a certain period of time, but I think on balance the Senate won.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

MARK SHIELDS: I do. I think it’s a close edge, and I think it probably helps John McCain, who was caught in a very difficult and awkward place politically.

JIM LEHRER: Why? Why? Explain that.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, because conservatives, who rallied to the president, who see the president’s leadership on the war on terrorism being part and parcel of the holding of the detainees in Guantanamo, and the CIA prisons, and all of the rest of it, saw this as an insubordinate, if not in many cases treacherous, act toward the presidency. And John McCain has spent a lot of time at least trying to tamp down their all-out resistance to any campaigning in 2008.

But having said that, I’d add this, Jim. I think a week ago we saw the president — and I commented on it, I think somebody else did, as well — that he looked…

JIM LEHRER: Was it David Brooks?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it was David. It might have even been you. You said he looked energetic, vehement.

JIM LEHRER: Vigorous.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, he looked really intent — vigorous, OK — in that press conference. And it played so badly, and that contrasted with the Colin Powell, General John Vessey letters playing so positively. I think the administration turned on a dime, sent Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, out Sunday on the talk shows. And then negotiations began.

John McCain and the Republicans

David Brooks
The New York Times
And I think [McCain] has done the right thing. And, you know, he did make some compromises, but overall I think he carried the day.

JIM LEHRER: Do you have any information on that, David, as to what caused them to see what they didn't see before?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, there was a lot series of process, beginning three and four weeks ago -- I had heard from White House sources that they were going to reach a deal three and four weeks ago. And then the two principals really buckled down.

And then they thought they had a deal last week, but then the White House sort of backed out, maybe because some people at the CIA didn't like it. And then, at the green room, in one of the Sunday shows, Hadley and McCain said, "We can reach a deal." But it still took them from 9:00 one morning until 2:00 in the afternoon of furious negotiation.

JIM LEHRER: Where do you come down on the point that Mark was making about the possibility of McCain being hurt within the Republican Party because he resisted, pushed back on the president?

DAVID BROOKS: He actually gets hurt both ways. And, believe me, his staff was discouraging him from this fight.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, is that right?

DAVID BROOKS: Politically, it's a bad fight, but he fervently believed in it. And the reason it hurts him both ways, the first stage it hurts him because they think he's insubordinate to the president. And the "Manchester Union Leader" and lots of conservative organizations were hammering him hard.

Now, he cuts a deal, and other people are saying, "Oh, he wants to run for president. He's compromising on his principles." So he's getting it coming and going, and yet he still stuck with it. And, you know, his philosophy -- anybody who's talked to him knows his philosophy. Do the right thing. Every time you try to cave to political principle, as he did in South Carolina with the Confederate flag, it ends up backfiring, so do the right thing.

And I think he has done the right thing. And, you know, he did make some compromises, but overall I think he carried the day.

JIM LEHRER: In strictly political terms, Mark, to come back to something you said a moment ago, do you think the Democrats were right to remain underground on this?

MARK SHIELDS: Probably. I mean, if, in fact, it was going to be a prominent -- this is an issue, Jim, as we go into the 2006 election, there are only two arrows left in the Republican quiver: taxes and terrorism. That's it.

And terrorism is one that, obviously, the president played hard to on the fifth year anniversary of 9/11, stayed to on this. And what they want to do is draw the dramatic, profound contrast between the two parties on this issue, and they were unable to do this, in large part because of the resistance and objections of Lindsey Graham, and John Warner, and John McCain.

Congress approval ratings

David Brooks
The New York Times
Though there's a Democratic tide, there are an odd number of states where Republicans are doing pretty decently. And I'm most struck by New Jersey and Maryland, Democratic states, where Republicans may actually pick up a seat.

JIM LEHRER: David, what do you make of the New York Times-CBS poll which showed only 25 percent of those questioned approve of the job that Congress of the United States is doing?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. I interpret is, finally, that Congress isn't that popular. Now, that's my general rule.

JIM LEHRER: Well, moving right along...

DAVID BROOKS: No, I mean, it's -- and I think, on balance, it's a Democratic year. Nonetheless, there's no question, the last two weeks, there has been some good news for the Republicans, not in the Times poll, but in the L.A. Times poll, and the USA Today-Gallup poll. The president's approval has rose to 44 percent, 45 percent, and in some the Republican Party's rose.

And I would say, if you look at it in the states, though there's a Democratic tide, there are an odd number of states where Republicans are doing pretty decently. And I'm most struck by New Jersey and Maryland, Democratic states, where Republicans may actually pick up a seat.

And it leads me to a hunch that I've had for a while, which is that a lot of Republicans will lose their seats, but some Democrats will lose their seats, because there's an anti-incumbency fervor that could cut both ways.

JIM LEHRER: So the 25 percent disapproval or 25 percent approval affects any incumbent in Congress?

DAVID BROOKS: It's a tide. And you always have to say that there's this general pattern of holding we've seen in issue after issue: Congress is always terrible. My guy, on the other hand, is pretty good. So it's not a total wipeout.

JIM LEHRER: And that was reflected again in this poll. How do you read it?

MARK SHIELDS: There was an exception in this poll, I mean, whether my guy deserves re-election. I mean, that was, to me, the most aberrational finding in the Times-CBS poll, as far as Congress is concerned, Jim, 25 percent for the institution.

It's always been, "Those other guys would steal a hot stove and go back for the smoke, but, boy, when my little Sally Sue's class went down for high school graduation, he was there, the congressman was, and he got a flag for Aunt Nellie, and found Grandpa's Social Security check, so he's a pretty good guy. It's the other 434 who would, you know, do anything under the sun."

And this time, it showed that, "Do you think your own member deserves re-election?" And that was, for a first time, a plurality against that. And...

JIM LEHRER: But it was still much higher than the 25 percent, huge...

The President's popularity

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
There's three four-letter words in that race, and that's Iraq, Bush, and Taft, the governor, who's at 16 percent.

MARK SHIELDS: Than the 25 percent, no, I agree. I agree with that. I think that it's unlikely that we're going to get five more consecutive days like we did with the president over the 9/11, where he could dominate the dialogue, dominate the debate the way he did and, understandably so, with the ceremonies commemorating that. I think that undoubtedly gave a lift to him.

JIM LEHRER: Go ahead.

DAVID BROOKS: I would just say the president can't necessarily make himself popular, but he still can control the subject of discussion. And he can lift terror at any time.

And then there's the actual issue of the issue itself. And with some regularity, whether it's the pope saying something, or something happens in south Lebanon, or a Danish cartoon, the issue comes up. And it will probably come up in late October, and it could be there's a raft of terror in Baghdad, which will send things sharply Democratic, or something else could send things sharply some other way. I do think those few days will have some event.

MARK SHIELDS: I'd just add one thing to David's point about the races. I just came back from Ohio, and, I mean, you know, the fat lady has sung in Ohio. It's over.

JIM LEHRER: And what has she sung?

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, she's sung -- I mean, Ted Strickland, the Democratic six-term congressman, is 21 points ahead for the governorship, a state where the Republicans have held the statehouse for 16 consecutive years.

JIM LEHRER: Well, they've had a little bit of a scandal out there...

MARK SHIELDS: They've had real...

JIM LEHRER: Well, it's been a huge scandal.

MARK SHIELDS: There's three four-letter words in that race, and that's Iraq, Bush, and Taft, the governor, who's at 16 percent.

DAVID BROOKS: But in that DeWine...

MARK SHIELDS: But DeWine's in a race. He's in a tough race.

JIM LEHRER: He's the incumbent Republican senator.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right. The only Senate race I have found...

JIM LEHRER: And Sherrod Brown, a Democratic congressman who's running against him, right.

MARK SHIELDS: A Democratic congressman who's running against him and running a very strong race. The only race I've found where the Democrats are playing defense in a Senate seat is New Jersey, and that's Bob Menendez, the appointed senator, running against Tom Kean, Jr.

But every place else, the Democrats have a lead, including the state of Washington, where Maria Cantwell was concerned to be in problems and now has opened up a considerable lead. So the Republicans are very much on the defensive.

Immigration reform

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
The long-term strategy, the vision of Karl Rove and George Bush, to make Latinos part of the Republican constituency has been dealt a lethal blow.

JIM LEHRER: David, why -- speaking of that -- why did immigration reform fail so soundly, and quickly, and easily?

DAVID BROOKS: Because the party's divided. And I'm struck by...

JIM LEHRER: The Republican Party?

DAVID BROOKS: The Republican Party is firmly divided, and the political impact of the issue varies tremendously from area to area. There are a lot of people who are in the Tancredo, the really just-build-a-wall movement who simply would not compromise. And I'm struck by how tough the White House hung. I've seen...

JIM LEHRER: On the other side. They wanted...

DAVID BROOKS: On the other side. They wanted the comprehensive plan, the McCain-Kennedy plan. And a lot of pressure...

JIM LEHRER: Meaning they wanted enforcement at the borders, but they also wanted to do something about those who were already here...

DAVID BROOKS: Guest-worker program...

JIM LEHRER: ... guest-worker, right.

DAVID BROOKS: ... a path to citizenship. And, believe me, the mood among the staff on Capitol Hill was grim, because they were hearing -- I heard one Senate staffer say, you know, the mood -- and they were pro-comprehensive, pro-Bush -- they said, "Our letters are coming 19 to 1 against us." And then another staffer from another office said, "I wish we had the one. We got nothing. They're all against us." But the administration hung tough, and it was a deadlock at the end of the day.

JIM LEHRER: And it's a real deadlock, do you think, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: It's a real deadlock. In a strange way, it could help the Republican Party in the election of 2006 by generating some enthusiasm among a very dispirited Republican base, among conservative voters for whom this is a very -- say, the illegal aliens -- even though the fence to be built does nothing about the alleged 11 million aliens who are already here. But it could help to get them to the polls, because they're kind of turned off by a whole number of other factors.

The long-term strategy, the vision of Karl Rove and George Bush, to make Latinos part of the Republican constituency has been dealt a lethal blow. I don't have any question about that, because, Jim, there are 11 million American citizens who were born elsewhere who vote in this country. And if you're one of them, this debate, which has taken a very ugly, nativist tone to it, has to make you feel uncomfortable as a new American.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

DAVID BROOKS: It's a blow, but not a lethal blow. And I think one of the reasons Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman, the head of the Republican Party, are fighting so hard is they see the long-term prospect. But I don't think it's a lethal blow, because they have had some champions. And the next rung of presidential candidates who will really set the tone for the future of the party are people like John McCain, who have been ardent champions for this sort of comprehensive approach.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Well, we're going to leave it there. Thank you both very much.