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Congress Elects New Leadership, as 2008 Campaign Begins

November 17, 2006 at 4:40 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

And something caught my eye in the president’s visit to APEC. He was asked if there was any lessons from Vietnam that could be applied in Iraq. And he said, “We tend to want there to be instant success in the world, and the task in Iraq is going to take awhile. Yet the world that we live in today is one where they want things to happen immediately.”

David, was he suggesting that, if we just stayed longer in Vietnam, we could have won there, too?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: I don’t know if I — I doubt he’d say that. I mean, that was a long debate, which I am not qualified to comment on, on the military possibilities of Vietnam. There’s certainly a theory that the insurgency campaign turned around at the end and they became waging it more successfully. I don’t know about that; I doubt the president has studied that.

I do know that, within the White House, there is a lot more discussion, a lot more openness to various options in Iraq than ever before. There are some people who want more troops; there are some people who want less; there are some who think that a civil war is inevitable and we should just pick a side; there are some people who think the Maliki government is something they can have confidence in; there are other people who have no confidence in it; and then there are a lot of people who want to talk to Iran.

And all that is new, and all this has come about, I think, since the election. It was like a shock through the White House. Steve Hadley went over to Iraq, the national security adviser, and they’re having a real, open debate. And I think it will all settle down in about 10 days.

But this is sort of new within the White House, where they’ve had constricted debates. Now it’s pretty wide open. And I don’t know if they’ll come up with any good solutions. Probably not. But the debate has changed in there.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark, you ask the president whether there’s lessons about Vietnam for Iraq, and he says, “We tend there to want to be instant success in the world.”

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, Ray, the Iraq-Vietnam comparisons are as inevitable as they are unwelcome at the Bush White House. I mean, we were lied into both wars. There was official deception — intentional, historians can argue about, but there was no question we were lied into both wars. They were both characterized by overly optimistic predictions and projections on the part of the administration.

And as George W. Bush goes to Iraq — goes to Vietnam now for the first time in his life, he goes having not unlike Lyndon Johnson facing the political realities of 1968, when public support for his war in Vietnam had eroded, just as the support here at home for the war in Iraq has eroded. And the president has demonstrated in the elections, he’s changed his secretary of defense, just as Johnson did, and brought in realists who are talking about new policy.

And I just think the comparisons to the quagmire are inevitable, and I think they’re not inaccurate.

DAVID BROOKS: There is one interesting phenomenon that’s always interested me about Iraq. Liberals were basically right about Vietnam, and yet it de-legitimized their foreign policy standing with the American people for a generation afterwards. And I think that’s in part because people are focusing on — they say, “Maybe you were right about the last war, but are you tough enough about the next war?”

And that sort of is the issue that’s coming up. One of the things that’s happened, as Democrats advocate withdrawal, is they begin going against a lot of the generals, like General Zinni they’ve been quoting for the past couple of years, who now say, “You know, we can’t withdraw. As bad as it is, we can’t withdraw.”

And so Democrats, too, have to think about their long-term reputation on foreign policy, and it becomes just much more problematic.

Republicans on reducing troops

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
John McCain has obviously staked out a different position. John McCain has staked out a position consistent with, "If we're going to have victory" -- and I don't know if anybody can define what victory is in Iraq -- "we have to send more troops."

RAY SUAREZ: Isn't there also an emerging difficulty on the Republican side, with the argument about fewer troops-more troops? It's just been announced 2,000 more troops are heading for al-Anbar Province. General Abizaid testified on the Hill this week. He said, "Well, there aren't more troops to send. And it's inadvisable to cut the number of troops we have now."

MARK SHIELDS: And General Abizaid basically said, if we did send any extra troops, we can only have them there for a couple of months, because then we'd have to go into the Reserves again and in the National Guard.

But politically -- I mean, the president said, "We'll succeed unless we quit." That's what he said today in Vietnam. That really is the revisionist view of Vietnam held by many on the right that, "Oh, the war wasn't lost. It was lost in the political will at home." And I think that it was a military disaster, as well as a political disaster.

John McCain has obviously staked out a different position. John McCain has staked out a position consistent with, "If we're going to have victory" -- and I don't know if anybody can define what victory is in Iraq -- "we have to send more troops." And he has broken, really, with the established administration policy, as expressed by General Abizaid.

I mean, it has a political implication to it, because if, in fact, Iraq does end as the failure it looks like it's going to be, John McCain at least will have the consolation of saying he did not simply endorse blindly the Bush policy.

But right now what we're basically asking is people to die for a stalemate. I mean, there is no victory. There's not going to be any signing on the Battleship Missouri or Appomattox or anything of the sort.

John McCain on Iraq

David Brooks
New York Times
[McCain] goes to every audience and says things that are unpopular. So given that he has a pretty legitimate record of sticking to what could have been a quite successful strategy, it would be foolish now to walk away from that.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, David, continuing with John McCain, he's also announced the formation of his exploratory committee. Is being the best-known advocate for more troops in Iraq a tough road to walk when you're also getting ready to run for president?

DAVID BROOKS: In some ways, yes; in some ways, no. No, because he's always said that. He's said that from the beginning. And I think one of the lessons -- and every conversation I have with people who have served there and with people who are experts -- is that we needed more troops. And McCain has been right on that, and Rumsfeld was wrong on that from the beginning. And he was extremely critical.

And his argument, I think, still remains somewhat the correct one, which is that there's no magic third way. Either you put in more troops, which as Mark said we don't have, or you get out. And so he is sticking with what he thinks is the best prescription, and it's a prescription that generals tend to agree with him on.

Now, the difficulty will be, of course, that he did support the war. And the question will be: Will that hurt him, first, in the Republican primary and then hurt him in the general election? I think it will to some extent, but on the other hand he will emerge as someone who is a tough foe of America's enemies and who will stick with an unpopular position.

And his great appeal for years has been that he sticks with unpopular positions. He goes to every audience and says things that are unpopular. So given that he has a pretty legitimate record of sticking to what could have been a quite successful strategy, it would be foolish now to walk away from that.

MARK SHIELDS: John McCain is hostage to -- and I agree with David's assessment -- but he's hostage to what the revelations are from official oversight for the next two years of how we got into Iraq and what went on once we did get into Iraq.

And, I mean, I'm talking about corporate excesses, I'm talking about corporate abuses, I'm talking about ripping off the Treasury, I'm talking about Americans being sent into a no-win situation unarmed, un-armored, unprepared. And so I think, in all of these cases -- I mean, John McCain, his independence and his integrity won't be questioned. His judgment may be questioned and the judgment of the Republicans in the Congress who were there when this happened and didn't exercise oversight.

Republican 2008 possibilities

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
And where Rudy Giuliani stands tall is, if Katrina was the domestic disaster, the bookend to Iraq, then 9/11, Rudy Giuliani, in a time of crisis, performed. He showed that government could act.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let's extend that point out from John McCain to the filling-out field of Republican hopefuls: Mitt Romney, Bill Frist, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani, Duncan Hunter, and others. Following a two-term Republican president, is anybody going to be running as the successor of George W. Bush? Or are they really running without anything at their back?

DAVID BROOKS: They'll be running with Ronald Reagan at their back. John McCain gave a speech -- I think it was just last night -- and he mentioned Reagan a lot and George Bush barely at all. And, to be fair, Bush and McCain were hostile, and McCain was an internal dissident quite often.

And they will be running -- and I think this is why McCain and Giuliani and Romney are the most likely nominees -- they all are pretty much -- they have stuck out on an independent course. They will all be running as independents, as different kinds of Republicans. And that's their core strength.

RAY SUAREZ: Is that more or less plausible depending on who you're talking about? I mean, it seems to me that Rudy Giuliani has been a forthright supporter of the Bush foreign policy.

MARK SHIELDS: He's been an uncritical and enthusiastic supporter. What we look for -- and if one accepts that the Bush presidency is a failed presidency, and I will lay out that premise according to 2008 -- but what we always go looking for is what was missing in the president who failed.

And where Rudy Giuliani stands tall is, if Katrina was the domestic disaster, the bookend to Iraq, then 9/11, Rudy Giuliani, in a time of crisis, performed. He showed that government could act. He showed that he could be in command and control and give confidence to a people who are beleaguered and anxious at the time. That's his greatest moment; that's probably his greatest strength.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, it will be interesting to see -- it will be more than seven years since 9/11...

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: ... when Election Day 2008 comes along.

MARK SHIELDS: That's exactly right.

Congress leadership elections

David Brooks
New York Times
Well, things actually weren't going great before Abramoff and Foley. There's been a long, slow decline, a lack of a positive agenda. So I thought they should have made the change.

RAY SUAREZ: It will be interesting to see what effect that has. I don't want to leave you guys without getting your take on the party leadership elections in the House and Senate, most recently the Republicans who stuck with their team. And this was over demands from some quarters that they switch, because they lost.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, only in American politics would you see the Democrats have their greatest victories in over 30 years and then go into a blood battle over changing their leadership team that just orchestrated and engineered this victory. The Republicans, having suffered their worst defeat in almost half a century, say, "Well, hey, this is a hell of a ball club. Let's keep it together." So that's where the Republicans kept their team; the Democrats had their civil war in the leper colony again.

DAVID BROOKS: No, I agree. There's something weird about it. I mean, the methodology of the Republican Party now has become, "Things were going great until the Foley scandal, or things were going great until the Abramoff scandal, and therefore let's just rediscover what we were doing."

Well, things actually weren't going great before Abramoff and Foley. There's been a long, slow decline, a lack of a positive agenda. So I thought they should have made the change.

But, you know, I remember meeting with House Republicans a year ago, more than a year ago. They knew they were going to lose; they did nothing. There was sort of a weird paralysis that is still overcoming the party, because I just don't think they've really factored in what they have to do about it.

RAY SUAREZ: What I don't understand -- and since I don't cover this for a living, help me out with this.

MARK SHIELDS: OK.

RAY SUAREZ: The chattering class's idea that leadership elections are somehow bad or signs of internal dissent, now, I'm a Cold War kid. I grew up watching pictures of the Supreme Soviet, with everybody raising their hands. They didn't have any leadership elections, and no problem about it. But nobody endorses that model, I don't think, do they?

MARK SHIELDS: No, it wasn't. It wasn't. But I think, in the case of Steny Hoyer, there was never a compelling case, at least made publicly, as to why he should be replaced. And, I mean, it was a very smashing victory scored.

And I think Jack Murtha, whom I'm a great admirer of and acknowledge that, suffered from the fact that 41 freshmen came in, all having run against corruption, and the Abscam tape, grainy though it may have been, was YouTubed everywhere. It was available.

I don't think we should mention the thing without giving credit to Trent Lott. There are o second acts in American politics, and this son of a gun has overcome it and come back.

RAY SUAREZ: Quick final comment?

DAVID BROOKS: There are always second acts in American life; that's the most untrue truism. He is really good. That is why he got back in. He's a good legislative person. They needed somebody like that.

RAY SUAREZ: Thanks, fellows.