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Analysts Discuss Rumsfeld Resignation, Iraq Policy

November 8, 2006 at 6:35 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And now, how it all looks to Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, let’s start with an easy question, the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld. Would it have happened today if the results of the election yesterday had been different?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Not so easy a question. It might not have happened today, but it would have happened.

JIM LEHRER: You’re sure of that?

DAVID BROOKS: I’m pretty sure of that. There’s been widespread unhappiness, first at the Pentagon, but also in the White House. I’ve been picking up signs for a long time that there’s unhappiness with Donald Rumsfeld and the effect he’s had on the war and the administration. And I had begun hearing a week ago that he was going to go.

And the president, as he says, he thought his party was going to do fine in the elections. So I think he would have gone either way, and that’s because he is the symbol of the broken conversation, of the inability to have honest conversations about options, the inability to change policies when things are obviously going poorly. So I think he was gone either way; this certainly accelerated things, though.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Gone either way, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I don’t know, Jim. I do know that the death of 3,000 Americans — we were staying the course. He was pleased with the progress, gave a ringing endorsement, the president did to Donald Rumsfeld, and the election of a Democratic Congress, and Donald Rumsfeld was gone. So the election results were an intervening event and I think a decisive event in that decision.

Timing of Rumsfeld's resignation

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
Donald Rumsfeld very bluntly has been a very convenient target for criticism and abuse.

JIM LEHRER: If he were so unpopular and so much -- and even as David says, he wasn't even that popular within the White House, why was he not jettisoned before the election so it might even have helped the president and the Republicans?

MARK SHIELDS: I think that we've seen, after six years of President Bush, that he is somebody who prides himself on setting a course, sticking to it, not swerving. There's a certitude and certainty about the course that he does chart, and I think that partially explains it.

Beyond that, Donald Rumsfeld very bluntly has been a very convenient target for criticism and abuse. I mean, absent him, the only -- if you're a Republican and you're trying to get distance, the only person you can say is, "Let's get rid of the president." I mean, "Get rid of the secretary of defense" is kind of an -- you know, it's an easy way of criticizing the administration without ever criticizing the president.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. David, what's your answer on that? Was it even seriously discussed that maybe Rumsfeld should go over the side before as a gesture that might even have helped the Republicans yesterday?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. First of all, I would say he was a legitimate target of abuse, as anybody who's read Bob Woodward books, or Tom Ricks' books, or Michael Gordon's books can tell you. He was a legitimate target of abuse.

We know it was seriously discussed. We know Andy Card talked about it a long time ago when Bush won the election to get rid of Donald Rumsfeld. We know there's been unhappiness in the Pentagon and certainly among the retired brass who still have a fair bit of sway.

The reason they didn't do it, I think, are multiple: One, they didn't want to go through a confirmation fight for the next person because they thought that would be just a big hearing on the failures of the war; two, they thought that his resignation would be an admission that the war was going terribly, and, while they knew it privately, they didn't want to make that admission; and, third, I do think the president has an admiration for tough guys, and Rumsfeld is nothing if not tough.

Ex-CIA director Gates as successor

David Brooks
New York Times
Once you get down to the details of actually changing course, things become extremely unpleasant...Some people want to partition the country. Some people want to commit more troops in the short term to secure Baghdad.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Mark, what about Bob Gates? What do you think about him as the successor?

MARK SHIELDS: A surprise nomination. I mean, not a -- certainly a respected person in his own right. When he was nominated previously, Jim, having been national security adviser, to head the CIA, the Senate raised questions, much like they did about George Tenet, at least retroactively about George Tenet.

Is he going to be able to give independent counsel? Is he going to be too close to the administration? And that may resurface this time, but I think, in all likelihood, a speedy confirmation awaits him.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about the Gates' nomination, David?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it's an extraordinary pick. I think he's someone who's widely respected by Democrats and Republicans, has a good reputation in Texas A&M, even at universities.

And the thing that strikes me most is that people really do believe in public service. Believe me, coming in to be sec-def at this moment, when the Iraq situation is going to yield no good outcomes in the near future, is not a thing most people think is going to burnish their resume.

He's doing it, I'm sure, because he has a sense of service and a sense of commitment to the troops. And he wants to do his best. And so that's actually kind of common around Washington. It doesn't often get talked about.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, that's an interesting point, isn't it, Mark? Because I've heard and read that Bob Gates truly enjoyed being president of Texas A&M. This had to be a tough decision for him to make.

MARK SHIELDS: I think it did, and I think it is. It's one that is an important act of public service. I think, Jim, in all likelihood, he will play to good reviews, because he is stepping in, and there will be widespread sense of relief that Rumsfeld is gone, in both parties.

JIM LEHRER: And he has been on this Baker-Hamilton study group, so he clearly is already snapped in quite a bit on Iraq.

MARK SHIELDS: That's exactly right.

JIM LEHRER: And does that give him momentum to lead a change in policy?

MARK SHIELDS: I think he's the ideal person to do that, and seemingly to persuade the president, if persuasion is necessary, which up until now it has been. Maybe yesterday's results might have made that sale a little bit easier.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, that just bringing Gates in means there's going to be a change, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think there will certainly be a change. I do think...

JIM LEHRER: I mean in policy. I mean in policy. Yes, I mean in policy.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, I think in policy, right. But I think the idea that the Baker-Hamilton commission is going to come up with some magic plan that we haven't heard about is not true.

I think they're hearing -- and I know they're talking to a lot of people and hearing a lot of plans -- but these plans are all out there, and none of them are particularly pleasant. And so I think both parties are sitting around waiting for this magic plan and it's not going to happen.

And until that point, I have to say I find both parties absurdly vague in their discussions about realities in Iraq. We just heard Nancy Pelosi talking about a change of course. Fine. But if the most specific thing you say about changing course is we need to impress upon the Iraqi government their responsibilities to their people, well, what does she think Zal Khalilzad's been doing for a year?

The problem is that, once you get down to the details of actually changing course, things become extremely unpleasant. And somebody like Joe Biden actually does have a plan to create a federation. Some people want to partition the country. Some people want to commit more troops in the short term to secure Baghdad.

But those are real plans. Talking about changing course, staying the course is just vapid, and that's sort of characterized this whole campaign.

MARK SHIELDS: I think certainly that Jack Murtha has a plan. I mean, Jack Murtha gave the Democrats a vertebrae on this issue. I mean, he was the one that stood up and said, "We have to redeploy."

JIM LEHRER: Redeploy them in Kuwait, and let the Iraqis take over?

MARK SHIELDS: Exactly. And Jack Murtha, because he was a Marine combat hero, could do it and obviously get the slings and arrows from the other side, but couldn't be accused of being a peacenik.

So but, no, I think with the responsibility of governing comes the responsibility of planning. But historically foreign policy has been within the domain of the president. And, I mean, this has been George Bush's policy. I mean, you know, this has not been some bipartisan policy.

This isn't the post-Cold War period. This isn't the Cold War period, when there was a consensus in the country. And the consensus on Iraq was fragile to begin with and has totally unraveled. So, I mean, I think it's the president's responsibility to address that.


DAVID BROOKS: Well, I'm not quite sure. I think, obviously, the president runs the policy. This is his war; this is his policy.

But if you win an election, which the Democrats just have, with Iraq as the core issue of the election, and changing course is one of the cores of your campaign, it seems to me you've got to come up with something. And it could not be the Democrats' responsibility if Bush totally slaps them down and is unwilling to work with them, but if this what you've won an election, you've got to follow through, or else people begin to lose as much faith in you as they have already in the Republicans.

Rep. Pelosi's political positioning

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
This was not a Democratic victory; it was a Republican defeat. I mean, it wasn't, you know, an affirmative vote saying, "Boy, what the Democrats have proposed is terrific!" It's, "What the Republicans have done is unacceptable and objectionable."

JIM LEHRER: In more general terms, Mark, what did you think of Nancy Pelosi and the way she handled herself and her position in the interview with Margaret and other things she said since last night?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I mean, I just think -- I mean, she's got some tough quotes out there about George W. Bush.


MARK SHIELDS: I mean, she started to question Margaret, and Margaret apparently had the information there to satisfy her that she had said it. But, no, I think Nancy Pelosi is a fascinating figure, not simply because historically she's the first, but she comes...

JIM LEHRER: The first woman.

MARK SHIELDS: ... first woman -- she comes from a very safe district. She represents the only congressional district in the country, Jim, that is represented not by an African-American or a Hispanic where George W. Bush got less than 15 percent of the vote.

JIM LEHRER: Less than 15 percent?

MARK SHIELDS: Fifteen, fifteen. So she's got a solid district.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, that's in San Francisco.

MARK SHIELDS: In San Francisco. And I think it's fair to say, up until this point, that she has kept the Democrats from, you know, doing their usual "Let's have Transvestites Day" or, you know, going off on, "Let's have a resolution that's going to satisfy some narrow group within the party that wants to do a direct mail campaign, but is going to cost us with Middle America."

And, you know, I think that's going to be the test. But the test is you win an election, and it's an opportunity. This was not a Democratic victory; it was a Republican defeat. I mean, it wasn't, you know, an affirmative vote saying, "Boy, what the Democrats have proposed is terrific!" It's, "What the Republicans have done is unacceptable and objectionable." So this is an opportunity for the Democrats.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, David, this was more of a defeat for the Republicans than a win for the Democrats?

DAVID BROOKS: Right, I would say this is the end of the era, not the beginning of something. It was the end of the era of Rovian-based politics. It was the end of the era of conservative dominance, but it was not the beginning of something yet. That's to come.

And to Nancy Pelosi, I give her credit from her statements in Margaret's interview and other statements in the past day, she does seem to understand that. She does seem to understand what Andy Kohut was saying, that this was an election driven by the muscular middle, that it was moderates who voted for the Democratic Party in a landslide majority. They got a third of the white evangelical vote; they got 20 percent of the self-described conservative votes.

This is really the end of the polarized electorate, at least for a little while, and the emergence of a center. And she seems to be respecting that. The first words out of her mouth were about bipartisanship, and so she's continued that today.

So at least for the moment, she's respecting that. And she certainly has smart deputies in Rahm Emanuel, and Chuck Schumer, and Steny Hoyer. And they ran a very smart campaign and made sure, with the exception of the John Kerry incident, that it was never about them. It was always about the president.

So Dan Quayle once said, "People who run smart campaigns tend to govern pretty well." That doesn't always work out, but at least it's hope.

President Bush's handling of events

JIM LEHRER: Reverse the question. What did you think, Mark, about the way the president handled himself at a low moment of defeat today?

MARK SHIELDS: I thought he was enormously conciliatory in his statement, and then he kind of gets a little bit contentious. It comes back. He's a very, very competitive guy.

I mean, if he would have issued the statement, made the statement about Don Rumsfeld with Don Rumsfeld, and, "We look forward to having lunch tomorrow," I think it probably would have been better than going into the Q&A forum. I don't think -- you know, that kind of gets his Irish up, as we used to say.

JIM LEHRER: But you didn't hear the same conciliatory message from him that you did from -- that David did from Nancy Pelosi?

MARK SHIELDS: I did hear it in his statement, in his opening statement. I just didn't think -- I just wanted to add to what David said, Jim, about the...

JIM LEHRER: Very quickly.

MARK SHIELDS: ... about the results. The Democratic Party has always prided itself on being this inclusive, big-tent party. It became a lot more so. It's not a coastal party, as of yesterday.

I mean, those victories in places like Georgia, and Indiana, and Kentucky, and the Middle America, and that's really the test of governing. And Nancy Pelosi understands that, I think, better than anybody probably in her party.

JIM LEHRER: In the interest of bipartisanship, I'm going to say good night to both of you at the same time...

MARK SHIELDS: Good night, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: ... David, Mark.