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Analysts Discuss Iraq, Poll Numbers, Obama in 2008

October 20, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And that brings us to Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, is the Florida story pretty much the national story, as well, when it comes to Iraq in this election?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: It is, Jim. The old maxim is all politics is local until it isn’t, and this year it isn’t. I mean, the two dominant central themes and bases of this election are Iraq and President George W. Bush.

JIM LEHRER: And, David, speaking of Iraq, what do you make of this new round of stories — there was even another one today — that President Bush is considering, if not changing strategies, at least tactics in Iraq? Is there anything to this? What’s going on?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, the big news was that this latest strategy to preserve some order within Baghdad, that seems to have failed militarily, and so it’s had a further ratcheting down. I don’t think there’s the fundamental change of the dynamic; there’s just been a continual series of pessimism about what’s going to happen.

And it’s hitting lower and lower thresholds, as more and more people see no good options and see, you know, catastrophic options. And so it’s had sort of this gradual effect on the country.

It’s interesting though, if you talk to voters in what I found, especially sort of normal office voters, the thing in Iraq is very complicated, but they know how to manage. They know what would work in their organization, and what would not work. And what they see is, if somebody messes something up in their organization, there are consequences for that person.

And when they see the president not firing Donald Rumsfeld, giving Tommy Franks and Jerry Bremer medals, they think, “That’s not the way we would do things here. I would not hire those people to run my company.” And so that has had a big effect. And when people say, “Those people are not like me,” even if they’re Republican voters, that’s a big — that has big political consequences.

JIM LEHRER: Big political consequences, as you said.

MARK SHIELDS: I do. I agree with David. There’s a subtext in this campaign about competence, and incompetence, and accountability, and the lack thereof, as voters do see it.

But, Jim, the thing that is sustained, the two pillars of President Bush on Iraq have been an optimism and determination. And the optimism, there was always something to look forward to. It was going to be an election or a turnover of authority, a new constitution, or whatever else.

And there’s nothing more to look forward to, and the optimism has been drained by reality, by events. And that’s in the part of the electorate — the Wall Street Journal-NBC poll showed this week that asked, “Are you more optimistic or less optimistic about events in Iraq?” In June, it was split right down the middle, 45 percent more optimistic, 44 percent less optimistic. Today, it’s 20 percent more optimistic, 68 percent less optimistic.

But there’s one thing that bothers me about it. I have to be very blunt. And that is all the talk — and you hear it from the administration here, from Republicans and Democrats, “Well, the Jim Baker-Lee Hamilton study group is going to come in, and they’re going to come in after the election.”

I mean, you know, it’s becoming obvious that we’re going to leave after the election, or we’re going to cutback dramatically, or go to a three-party sectarian division of Iraq. And, you know, I just look at the Gold Star mothers that are going to be created between now and then, until we get to that point, so we can use “cut and run” during the campaign, you know, as a recurring theme while we’re getting ready to cut and run when November 8th comes.

Many options, no concensus

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
[W]e're in the point now where the Mahdi Army is fighting the Badr Brigades, where you've got feuds within the Shia, where you've got feuds that we can barely understand that go back generations, we can barely control.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I don't think the Baker and Hamilton commission, as much as we both admire those two gentlemen, is going to come up with a policy option that nobody knows about. I mean, the options are reasonably clear. Do you divide? How quickly do you withdraw? Do you withdraw very quickly or very slowly? We're not going to send in more troops. So the options are all there before us. I just don't think there's a consensus. And to be honest...

JIM LEHRER: No consensus around any of these options?

DAVID BROOKS: No. I think you see people like Les Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations and Joe Biden talking about partition, and then there's a whole series of timetables for withdrawal, even within the Democratic Party. Some people wanting to get out quickly; some people not.

And so far, I don't think there's been a consensus, and there doesn't seem to be a consensus among the military so far, though there's clearly a tide, a tide toward withdrawal which wasn't there, I'd say, six months ago.

And then I would say even -- you know, we're in the point now where the Mahdi Army is fighting the Badr Brigades, where you've got feuds within the Shia, where you've got feuds that we can barely understand that go back generations, we can barely control. And to me, a lot of the discussion, frankly, about partitioning Iraq is abstract and is unrelated to the fact that we can't control Iraq any more, that they are controlling the country and there they're lost in their own world.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, have you heard anything that makes you think that there is some kind of consensus growing, as to everybody agrees things are not going well, to put it mildly, but is there any agreement on what to do about it?

MARK SHIELDS: No, but I think the verdict is in. I think they're going to use it to hang a solution on. I mean, I don't think there's any question that we'll start to get very serious about considerations and options. Those options -- David's absolutely right -- are there now.

JIM LEHRER: They're there now.

MARK SHIELDS: And why not at least put it on the table instead of pretending, "It's in my pocket, and I'll bring it out on the 8th of November"?

JIM LEHRER: Well, Tony Snow, the president's press secretary, said two days ago that these were all nonstarters. All the options that you all just mentioned are nonstarters.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, David's right. I mean, there are certain people -- many of whom were the biggest cheerleaders for the war, including Senator John McCain, who said, "We need more troops." The military say we need more troops.

You talk about nonstarters. There is no political support for that in the country. And after November 7th, there'll be zero political support for that in the country.

But I don't think there's any question: There's a verdict that the war is a failure. The United States is not going to prevail. We're not going to create this democracy that was envisioned and all of rest of it that became the rationalization after we didn't find weapons of mass destruction.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree the verdict is in on this like that? Would you say it strongly as Mark just did?

DAVID BROOKS: I wouldn't say it as loudly, but it's hard to dispute the fact. Yes, no, I wouldn't dispute the fact. But, I mean, none of this has changed the fundamental debate that we've had for the past year, that we all want to get out, but if you get out and there are 200,000 people killed in a genocidal civil war, what does that leave you with? And so that's always been the series of bad choices we have, and that hasn't changed in the past month.

Comparisons to Vietnam

David Brooks
The New York Times
When you talk about withdrawing from Iraq, you're talking about a highly motivated set of Sunni insurgents throughout the world who could come to America... So the aftermath of Vietnam... will be nothing like the aftermath here[.]

JIM LEHRER: What do you make of the president's willingness to comment on the Tet Offensive analogy on ABC this week?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, this was the analogy my colleague, Tom Friedman, made, and it raised people's eyebrows because it was the first time he's publicly acknowledged a comparison to Vietnam.

JIM LEHRER: He, the president.

DAVID BROOKS: The president, not Tom, though maybe Tom, too. I would say, though, that the president meant it in a narrow sense. And the narrow sense he meant it in, that we're running to an election. The enemy is aware of the political situation.

JIM LEHRER: In our country?

DAVID BROOKS: In our country, and they're launching this offensive to create casualties in order to affect our election.

JIM LEHRER: What did you make of that?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it was a slip.


MARK SHIELDS: A slip on his part. I mean, the White House has been very careful -- and the staff was very upset, because they don't want any analogy, any comparison to the "V" word. They don't want that entering the conversation. I mean, you know, that Baghdad is Arabic for Hanoi, I mean, is really what the reality has become politically.

So I don't know. I'd be hard-pressed to think that George Bush knew when the Tet Offensive was. It was January of 1968. I mean, that was 11 months before the election of 1968. It sure did; it had an effect on this country. But, you know, I think the idea of the historical bookend is a little bit of a reach.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think, though, that it's going to start a discussion, if not a debate, in this country about, "Hey, hey, hey, this is beginning to have the small of Vietnam"?

MARK SHIELDS: I think that genie is out of the bottle, Jim, rhetorically speaking. I think it will be.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, Vietnam was mentioned, I think, in the first week of the war.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. But then it went away. Then it went away.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, I guess so, but, again, it doesn't change the fundamental situation. We could get out and withdraw, and the North Vietnamese were not coming to America. And that's the difference here.

When you talk about withdrawing from Iraq, you're talking about a highly motivated set of Sunni insurgents throughout the world who could come to America, who could come, spread throughout the region. So the aftermath of Vietnam, what everyone thinks of the war, will be nothing like the aftermath here, and it should be said the aftermath of Vietnam and Cambodia was bloody enough.

Backlash against the administration

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
[W]hat really sealed the bargain was the Foley thing. I mean, it's staggering: 83 percent of Americans in the Wall Street Journal-NBC poll know who Mark Foley is and have a rating on him...But 70 percent of them have a negative feeling toward him.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of the elections, Mark, were you stunned at this new poll that showed that the Congress of the United States is not held in very high regard, in fact, a 16 percent approval rating?

MARK SHIELDS: I tell you, I went back and compared it to the '94 numbers. In '94, when the earthquake took place and the Republicans picked up 50 seats and took over control, the Congress was at 24 percent approval.

JIM LEHRER: But '92, it was two years before the...

MARK SHIELDS: That's right. In the middle of the bank scandal.

JIM LEHRER: That was at 15.

MARK SHIELDS: But the president was at 46 percent, Bill Clinton was. I mean, the Republicans would kill to have George Bush at 46 percent approval right now.

And, no, I think, Jim, what really sealed the bargain was the Foley thing. I mean, it's staggering: 83 percent of Americans in the Wall Street Journal-NBC poll know who Mark Foley is and have a rating on him.

JIM LEHRER: Now, that is not...

MARK SHIELDS: And this is -- presidential nominees don't reach this point.

DAVID BROOKS: Especially Democrats.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

But 70 percent of them have a negative feeling toward him. And it just -- it almost crystallized everything. It was Cunningham, it was DeLay, it was the economy, it was Iraq. It was all the things that had gone wrong, the health care. And this guy just kind of put it right in perspective that maybe it is time to go.

DAVID BROOKS: I covered the end of the Tory government when Thatcher and then John Major were in. And they, at the end of those 12 years, whatever it was, they had scandals popping out all over, some financial, some sexual. This feels like that. It feels the same to me.

And so I do think we are at the end of a big exclamation point at the end of a certain sort of conservative rule, and the Republicans you talked to now, where before they were thinking, "Maybe we'll lose 10 seats," now they're thinking 25, 30, 35. So there's clearly been this massive tide.

And the tide is in old line suburbs around New York, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Columbus, Ohio, and the people who are being wiped out are the moderates. Moderate Republicans are about to be destroyed, because they can't differentiate themselves from the national Republican brand which was the base-oriented brand that the president and Karl Rove created.

Obama in '08?

David Brooks
The New York Times
First of all, he's the only person maybe in American politics with McCain who generates real excitement, real, real excitement. And Hillary Clinton, to all her credit, does not generate that excitement.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Let's move -- let's look to 2008, Mark. Barack Obama on the cover of Time this week. He's on everybody's television program. And David Brooks said, "Run, Barack, run," in his column. What's going on?

MARK SHIELDS: I would echo what David said. And if Barack Obama has ever thought about being president and wants to be president, he ought to run in 2008.


MARK SHIELDS: Well, as a personal anecdote, before he died, Lee Atwater, who had run George Bush's 1988 campaign, confided that they were terrified in 1988 that the Democrats would nominate Dick Gephardt, because the match-up against Gephardt for George Herbert Walker Bush, Yale, Skull and Bones, silver spoon in his mouth, against Dick Gephardt, the son of a truck driver...

JIM LEHRER: From Missouri, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: ... being from Missouri, kind of heartland guy, he said, "We were dead." And he said, "When they nominated a Massachusetts liberal who taught at Harvard, it was a godsend to us."

And it only comes around once. I mean, people say, "Gee, Barack Obama, he's young. He ought to wait." You know, well, either a Democrat is going to get elected in 2008 -- and that means, for eight years, he's out of the business. And all I'd say is, if you think eight years in the Senate is going to be helpful to becoming president, ask President Bob Dole and President John Kerry how helpful it was.

DAVID BROOKS: I always tell senators, since 1962, 55 senators have run for president and their record is 0-for-52. So they haven't won any. So, no, I agree with Mark, and I even agree with my own column.

JIM LEHRER: But summarize why you think this man is so extraordinary, at this stage in his...

DAVID BROOKS: First of all, he's the only person maybe in American politics with McCain who generates real excitement, real, real excitement. And Hillary Clinton, to all her credit, does not generate that excitement. So that's important.

So why does he generate excitement? It's because he has a deliberative mind. Whenever he sees an issue, he sees all sides of it, and then he works his way through.

And, you know, I've had many conversations with him, and we disagree on most things. But you have a conversation with him, and you feel like he really understands your point of view. And he may differ, but he has a deliberative process that goes on in his mind.

And I think it's because of his background. He comes from Kansas. He lived in Chicago. He lived in Hawaii. He lived in the Pacific. He's got all these things coming through him in his life story, and he's had to negotiate between them -- poverty, Harvard Law School -- and so he's about negotiation.

And he may be young, but if you have that process going on, I think you'll be able to magnify the knowledge you have. There, I've just done my pay on (ph) to Obama. I mean...

MARK SHIELDS: Where are the bumper stickers?

JIM LEHRER: Save a lot of time.

MARK SHIELDS: When he walks into a room, you know he's there. I mean, that's the other -- that's the imponderable and intangible. I mean, he really does. I mean...

JIM LEHRER: Yes, yes. OK, thank you both very much.