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Analysts Discuss Iraq War Views, Upcoming Elections

September 29, 2006 at 6:35 PM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: Which brings us to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

And, David, early in the week, we had the release, the declassification — first the leak, then the declassification — of the intelligence estimate, which at its core implied the war in Iraq has worsened the terrorist threat. Does that have any legs as a sort of pole to build a debate around? Is that going to carry us through the next month or so?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, I’m not sure the NIE, the intelligence estimate, is going to do that. I think reality is going to do that.

I think most people understand that the war in Iraq has made us less safe. Frankly, I think most people in the administration now understand how badly it’s going. I think we’re learning that from the Bob Woodward book that’s coming out, that even within the administration there’s been a recognition of what’s going on.

The NIE, the report did make two other points which I think were important. The first is that Iraq, while going badly and hyping up the amount of terror in the world, is also the central battleground. And I think the report made clear we’re either going to give a lot of credence to the extremists or where they will be defeated.

And then the second thing the report makes very clear is that the only way fundamentally to defeat the extremists is through a process of democracy and pluralism. So, to me, which is the essential truth of all this, is that Bush was absolutely right in his understanding of the problem, the breadth and depth of it. He was right that democracy and the Middle Eastern culture and political climate is the only way to the solution, but that we’ve screwed up the implementation.

RAY SUAREZ: What do you take away from both the leak, the reaction to it, then the declassification, and the ensuing debate?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I thought the reaction to it among many of my colleagues was fascinating. “Well, there’s nothing new there.” I mean, that was sort of the — everybody who’s seen everything, including the Dallas fair (ph) twice, sophistication.

It was pretty blunt. These were the 16 basic intelligence agencies and entities that the president relies upon. And when the president released it — you know, I was struck by this, Ray — this president is the only one I can think of who will not and has never acknowledged any mistakes. I mean, Ronald Reagan, to his everlasting credit, Iran-Contra, he took full responsibility. He said this was wrong. Jack Kennedy at the Bay of Pigs. Even Bill Clinton, in that ill-starred interview on FOX, said, “I failed, I failed.”

But I think Bob Woodward’s book is perfectly entitled, “State of Denial.” I mean, there’s a state of denial about what has happened and where we are. I mean, yes, David’s right about the prescription for democracy, and just governments, and uncorrupt governments, and that that would be an antidote to this, but there we are embracing Kazakhstan, you know, which is just the antithesis of that, I mean, a destroyer of democracy and a corrupt place.

Preparing for Election Day battles

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
The Democrats does not speak with a single voice. I mean, there are many voices. I mean, but there's not a single leader of the party. That happens in presidential elections.

RAY SUAREZ: But we don't get the luxury of having a polite debate in an abstract setting. We are some 40 days away from Election Day, and the president went on the road and said the Democrats are the party of cut and run. Pretty tough stuff.

DAVID BROOKS: And it was. That is the language they're going to be using from here on in.

I think we essentially have a debate in this country between one party that does understand the breadth of the problem but has messed up the implementation of the central front in the war on terror. The other party, the Democratic Party, which is very quick to criticize, but so far has not really offered a strategy for how you deal with the terror, not only in Iraq, but around the Arab world.

And so, to me, these are two unpleasant choices.

RAY SUAREZ: But do they have equal responsibility? And will the voters think they have equal responsibility, when one group controls all the apparatus to make this thing happen?

DAVID BROOKS: Right, politically there's no question. It was the Bush administration and, more specifically, Donald Rumsfeld who messed up the fundamental implementation of the war. And as we're learning from the Woodward book, the president had many opportunities, with many people all around him, including apparently his wife, telling him to get rid of Donald Rumsfeld, and he didn't do it. And therefore, the buck stops with him. And that will be to his eternal discredit.

But the Democrats -- it seems to me it's not just enough to say, "They messed up, they messed up, they messed up." To really gain the trust of the American people, the Democrats have to eventually say something positive of what they would do.

MARK SHIELDS: I think David has a point. I'd say this: The central point of this election is whether, in fact, we're going to go in a different direction or we're going to continue. This is a change in direction election. It's not a change in speed, as the White House would like to have it. It's a change in direction.

And do you want to continue in the direction that this administration has taken us? That's the question before the American people. I think that's where the Democrats are.

The Democrats does not speak with a single voice. I mean, there are many voices. I mean, but there's not a single leader of the party. That happens in presidential elections. But for a party to lose the Congress, as I think the Republicans are going to lose in November 7th, it only takes an unpopular war that's being badly managed.

It happened to the Democrats to lose 47 seats in 1966, didn't lose control, but obviously it was a major loss. It happened to Harry Truman and the Democrats in 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower was elected. And the Democrats lost more than three score House heats, in the middle of the unpopular Korean War.

'State of Denial'

David Brooks
The New York Times
One, the president likes Rumsfeld because he's a tough guy, and he likes tough guys. And, second, politically, every single day, they asked a question day-by-day, "Would today be a good day to get rid of Donald Rumsfeld?"

RAY SUAREZ: Now, the Woodward book, as has been mentioned by both of you, more is coming over the weekend, and then "60 Minutes" interview with Bob Woodward himself. Is this the kind of thing that just causes a lot of waves here or does this have national impact?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it has national impact for this reason, not simply that Bob Woodward stands alone as a reporter who gets people to talk. I mean, he really -- whoever those people are, they talked to Bob Woodward.

But recall, Ray, in 2004, anybody who went to the Bush-Cheney campaign site, there was the link to Bob Woodward's books. I mean, Bob Woodward has been criticized in his first two books for portraying George Bush as this heroic figure in very flattering terms. And this is just the opposite.

I mean, this comes through an administration -- I think as David said -- the war went wrong. But, I mean, if people like Andy Card, the deposed chief of staff, eased out, going to the president twice before he was pushed out himself, saying, "You know, you've got to make this change on Don Rumsfeld. Otherwise, this is Vietnam, and that's what you'll be remembered for. And that's the tragedy of it."

And he felt that somebody had to stand up. So I think any day that Iraq is on the front page of the papers is bad news for the administration.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I agree. The Woodward book -- when he had in his first book a couple years ago that George Tenet, the CIA director, said, "WMDs in Iraq are a slam-dunk," people in the White House think that won the election for them, because that inoculated them from the WMD. So a Woodward book can have an big impact.

And I think what we're learning from the book, which I had had glimmers of and all of us covered had glimmers, that a lot of the people in the administration understood the cataclysm that was in front of them. And they were complaining about it, maybe not as vociferously as they would, but they had a grip on reality.

And that grip on reality occasionally made it into the Oval Office, and yet nothing was done. And the question is: Why was nothing done? And I have two beliefs.

One, the president likes Rumsfeld because he's a tough guy, and he likes tough guys. And, second, politically, every single day, they asked a question day-by-day, "Would today be a good day to get rid of Donald Rumsfeld?" And no specific day was the good day, because it would have created a storm.

But they never stepped back and said, "Overall, what's the big problem here?" And they're going to live with that decision.

Choosing sides on detainee rights

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
I think, if you look at this, John McCain was in a unique position, is in a unique position in America, because of his personal history. He doesn't have to compromise, and I think he compromised on this. I mean, he didn't have to go 50 percent.

RAY SUAREZ: At the same time as approval ratings are dropping -- even on Afghanistan, which from the get-go has been a strength for the Bush administration, they're already pretty far down in Iraq, as well -- at the same time as that's happening, Congress voted to give the president more powers on the treatment of detainees from that war, those wars, and their trials. How was that handled this week?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think it's fair to say that it's become very much of a campaign document. In defense of the Democrats, I will say this: The easy vote would have been to vote with the president, no question about it. The popular vote politically, to inoculate yourself against this, that you stand against the terrorists. And, you know, at some risk to themselves, many members just stood up and expressed objections.

I think, if you look at this, John McCain was in a unique position, is in a unique position in America, because of his personal history. He doesn't have to compromise, and I think he compromised on this. I mean, he didn't have to go 50 percent.

And he's hopeful, he said, that they will keep -- the president and the CIA will abide by the regulations. But they broke it once on terror. And I really do think that this is a chapter that will be looked back on and say, "This was not the best of America."

RAY SUAREZ: Does the sizable Democratic vote against the president on these new rules signal that, at least in the Senate, they're not afraid of the GOP advantage on national security anymore?

DAVID BROOKS: There's some of that. Nonetheless, I think it's a politically dangerous vote.

And everyone is struck by this whole debate, the passion. Chris Dodd gave an incredibly passionate speech against. John McCain and Lindsey Graham gave incredibly passionate speeches in favor. I think both sides are motivated by a sincere emotion.

Nonetheless, I think politically, as Mark implied, the smart vote for Democrats would have been to go with the president. And if you look at some of the Democrats in tough races -- Harold Ford is running in Tennessee, Sherrod Brown is running in Ohio -- quite liberal members, anti-war, but voted with the president on this.

And I think politically that's the smart thing, in part because it becomes much harder -- it will become very easy for Republicans to run ads against them.

RAY SUAREZ: Even in a situation like now, are people inclined to give the president more power over various component parts of the war, even if they don't approve of that president and his presidency?

DAVID BROOKS: I think absolutely. I think the NSA story, a lot of Republicans have run very effective ads on that story. They want the president in time of war to have power, even if they don't like Bush himself.

MARK SHIELDS: I think it's losing a lot of its traction. I really do. I'm not arguing that it's not there, there isn't some advantage to the president.

This is, Ray, the only issue they've got left is fear itself. I mean, I'm being very blunt about it. We passed last week a milestone, where more Americans have now died in Iraq than died in 9/11.

I mean, the idea that somehow we're containing them over there, sure, we're containing them with American casualties every single week. As Bob Woodward points out, 900 attacks on Americans every single week. That's four an hour.

And I think that, you know, that weighs with the idea that this president has plunged us into this situation, and the country is not safer.

Sizing up Republicans, Democrats

David Brooks
The New York Times
And you can look at it both ways. Even despite the horrible political climate, Republicans are hanging in there. But the Democrats are hanging in there, too.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, we're entering the lightning round. We've sprint through the last couple of weeks here. There's been more emphasis on the Senate and less on the House as a possible Democratic capture. What do you make of that?

DAVID BROOKS: Right, I think somewhat the Republicans are slightly better in the House, but there are a whole bunch of Senate races that are just toss-ups. And whether it's Ohio, whether it's Missouri, whether it's Tennessee, there are a lot of states where you just can't tell who's going to win.

And I don't think that's changed. And you can look at it both ways. Even despite the horrible political climate, Republicans are hanging in there. But the Democrats are hanging in there, too. And it's just hard to make generalizations, which gives a lot of us in the media a chance to divine trends that probably aren't really there. There's a lot just up for grabs.

RAY SUAREZ: Isn't the math still pretty daunting for the Democrats though? Don't they have to, in effect, run the table?

MARK SHIELDS: They have to run the table, draw the inside straight, whatever sports cliche we can come up with. But right now, I think Democrats take some comfort, Ray, from the fact that Republican incumbents are trailing in Pennsylvania, in Rhode Island, in Ohio, and in Montana. And the Democratic seat that was supposed to be threatened in Minnesota is now basically closed off. They think Klobuchar is going to win; Mark Kennedy is going to lose there.

The Missouri race is very much of a tight one. The Washington State race, which was supposed to be a barnburner -- if we're going to all these neck-and-neck...

MARK SHIELDS: ... you know, Maria Cantwell has opened up a substantial lead there. So there isn't a single Democratic incumbent -- there is a Democratic officeholder, Bob Menendez in New Jersey, who is either even, or slightly behind, or slightly ahead, depending on which poll, but other than there's not a Democratic incumbent senator who's trailing a Republican.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, have a great weekend, guys.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.