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Political Analysts Discuss Iraq, Anti-Wal-Mart Strategy and Allen Comments

August 18, 2006 at 6:35 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: Now to the analysis of Shields and Ponnuru, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru. David Brooks is away tonight.

Welcome, gentlemen.

RAMESH PONNURU, National Review Senior Editor: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Mark, some pretty deadly statistics out of Iraq this week. First of all, July had the highest number of civilian deaths ever since the occupation began among Iraqis and, secondly, highest number of IEDs directed against the U.S. and Iraqi troops. Is this kind of news having any perceptible impact on the campaign, and in particular on the Republican strategy and message?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Yes, I mean, the Republicans don’t see any tunnel, let alone any light at the end of the tunnel, or the beginning of the tunnel. I mean, it is getting worse. Somewhere between three out of five and two out of three Americans have concluded that the war was a mistake.

And the problem that Republicans are dealing with, Margaret, is this, that not only have the attacks or the number of Americans wounded doubled since January, but the last good day of news was June 7th. That was the capture of the leader of al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, Mr. Zarqawi, and he was killed. And since then, attacks are up 60 percent.

So it is a political albatross. Every Democrat I’ve talked to believes firmly that the president will withdraw some measure of American troops before Election Day, but on what pretext and on what justification, I have no idea.

MARGARET WARNER: So if it’s a political albatross — first of all, do you agree with that, Ramesh? But, secondly, what do Republicans do with that? If you’re running for re-election, and you voted for this war, and you’ve never called for a pullout, you’ve stuck with the president, what do you say?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, one of the things that I think we can really see over the last few months — now, it used to be that Republican congressmen would go to Iraq and then they’d come back and say, “Well, you know, there are some signs of hope, more signs of progress.” That’s just not happening anymore.

The White House used to be able to count on a sort of echo chamber effect among its allies that just isn’t there anymore. And increasingly that leaves them alone and isolated.

Speaking out against the war

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
This is not 1968. These are not Walter Cronkites changing the direction of the country. The country has changed, and the dinner parties at Washington are finally catching up with it.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, also some noted conservative columnists, your own Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, George Will, have written some rather gloomy columns. I think George Will was called "the new unrealism," and Rich Lowry's was, what, "another Vietnam"? What is going on there?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, I think they represent -- I mean, George Will, of course, sort of bailed out on support for the Iraq war some time ago. But my colleague, Rich Lowry, has been a supporter of it for a long time. And amongst serious and thoughtful supporters of this war, there is more gloom now than I've seen at any point during this war.

MARGARET WARNER: And where does...

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I'd say -- just to add to that -- that Rich had one line that struck me in his piece. He said, "Republicans are trying to win the election in November in this country on the war while they are losing the war in Iraq."

And I just have to say, with all due respect to Rich, whom I like enormously, and George Will, who's certainly a respected columnist, they're just catching up with the people. I mean, the politicians, the public opinion they're not leading it; they're following it.

This is not 1968. These are not Walter Cronkite changing the direction of the country. The country has changed, and the dinner parties at Washington are finally catching up with it.

MARGARET WARNER: So are they counting, though, on the fact that the Democrats don't have -- and we hear this all the time -- a unified position on what to do about the war? Plus a lot of them voted for it themselves.

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, you know, you can go back to the Vietnam analogy. The public did turn against the Vietnam war, but it didn't toward an anti-war Democratic Party.

And I think that what a lot of Republicans are counting on is, even if this war is unpopular, even if the president's edge on terrorism has really declined, the public does not trust Democrats to handle national security issues. And their own inability to come up with a unified message and a unified convincing message is making that situation worse.

MARGARET WARNER: Let's shift gears to another...

MARK SHIELDS: Just one thing quickly on that, Margaret, and that is, this is an election where the Republican position has become one of, "We have to stay the course." It is not a status quo election; it's an election about change. They're not crazy about the Democrats, but they know they don't want more of the same. And that's all the administration is offering right now.

The anti-Wal-Mart strategy

Ramesh Ponnuru
National Review
There's no question that Wal-Mart-bashing and Wal-Mart criticism have become a very popular cause on the left.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, explain now -- a new phrase entered the lexicon this week among the Democrats. It was the Wal-Mart strategy or really the anti-Wal-Mart strategy. Explain it. What's this about?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, historically, Wal-Mart is an awfully important institution. We've always had great institutions in this country. And General Motors was probably the dominant one in post-World War II America, where it set the standards for American workers and how they were treated.

They provided health insurance; they provided pensions. As Henry Ford, when he started his company, said, "I'm going to pay my workers enough that they can buy the product they build."

Wal-Mart is just a contrary of that and the contradiction of it. Wal-Mart provides no health insurance, unless you're there for 18 months. It provides no pensions and pays people just above minimum wage, and so they pay them so little they could shop at Wal-Mart.

And the reality is that they are setting standards in American business today. The country, in spite of the macro good news on economics, Americans are very anxious. There's been a 1 percent increase in the median income in the last six years. And the reality is that the average CEO, who was paid 25 times as much as the average worker in 1965, is now paid 262 times. The skewering to the top, there's an anxiety in the economy, and the Wal-Mart has become the symbol of it.

Finally, Americans judge companies two ways: with product and the service they get and how they treat their employees. That's why Southwest Airlines is so popular with people. A great product, and the people are happy who work there.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Ramesh, you've got these presidential candidates -- I think six of the Democratic presidential candidates -- they're out bashing Wal-Mart at rallies, and there has been this bus tour across Iowa, yet they're talking often to people who like to shop at Wal-Mart. Why do you think the Democrats have decided this is a winning strategy this time?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, I mean, in the case of the presidential candidates, because they're trying to appeal to the party's left. And there's no question that Wal-Mart-bashing and Wal-Mart criticism have become a very popular cause on the left.

But, you know, I totally agree with Mark that there's a lot of economic anxiety out there, but I think that the problem for people following the strategy is that a lot of people whose wages haven't been increasing are grateful to Wal-Mart because it means their low prices mean that those dollars go further.

Racism vs. ignorance

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
[Allen] tried to isolate and humiliate another person, and especially a younger person who obviously didn't have the same resources of confidence and stature that Allen did.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let's turn to the story that was really pre-occupying the political insiders this week, and that involved George Allen, the campaign of George Allen.

He got a lot of attention this week, a lot more than he wanted, and it had to do with something he said when he made some impromptu remarks to a young man who was filming -- who was attending and filming a campaign appearance in southwest Virginia. Let's watch.

SEN. GEORGE ALLEN (R), Virginia: This fellow here over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca or whatever his name is, he's with my opponent. He's following us around everywhere. So welcome. Let's give a welcome to Macaca here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the person George Allen was welcoming to America, talking to and about, was S.R. Sidarth. He's an American of Indian descent, a lifelong Virginian. He's now a University of Virginia student and a volunteer for Allen's Democratic opponent, James Webb.

And, Ramesh, the blogosphere went wild over this. Legitimately so?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, I think so. You know, partly it's because George Allen is considered a presidential hopeful for 2008, and partly because of just the weirdness of the entire incident and the fact that it was captured on tape. I mean, Indian-Americans, we've really been taking it on the chin from senators lately, between Joe Biden talking about the 7-Elevens, and Hillary Clinton about Gandhi having run a gas station. I don't know what it is with the senators these days.

MARGARET WARNER: So do you think it was a racist remark?

RAMESH PONNURU: I think at the very least it indicates a certain lack of political judgment on the part of George Allen and a certain kind of vindictiveness. To go after a 20-year-old, you know, who's working for the other campaign, just it makes you wonder whether this guy is really ready for primetime.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that Allen's -- tell us what Allen's explanation was. And was it plausible, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I know. I mean, Macaca, he said, was a term that meant "Mohawk" haircut. And you saw the fellow's haircut. It was not a Mohawk haircut. Macaca and Mohawk have nothing there at all. Then he meant nothing, then if he did mean to hurt anybody feelings, he pleaded no malice, then ignorance.

And it was really a bizarre -- and at one human level, it really bothered me, and that was you've got 100 Caucasian faces in the room and there's one non-Caucasian there. And he singles him out. I mean, it was a bullying tactic; it was not appealing human way of treating somebody else.

He tried to isolate and humiliate another person, and especially a younger person who obviously didn't have the same resources of confidence and stature that Allen did.

MARGARET WARNER: And it's -- well, go ahead, Ramesh.

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, I mean, you know, George Allen wants to position himself as the Reaganite candidate in the 2008 race. Reagan would never have done anything like that.

MARK SHIELDS: That's absolutely true.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, and we should point out it's not unusual these days for each campaign to send volunteers out or staffers to videotape the opposition.

MARK SHIELDS: And to tape every word. I mean, I can recall interviewing Ronald Reagan speaking 32 years ago -- at every word, you know, was recorded. And you were on notice.

And this makes campaigns a lot more accountable. What you say in Roanoke is going to be heard in Richmond, and Raleigh, and Richland, Washington. And that's why has become an enormously political institution. Everybody can sign on and go see George Allen and make their own judgment on what kind of a fellow he is.

MARGARET WARNER: So the Internet -- would you say this lasted a lot longer, Ramesh, than it would have, say, four or eight years ago because of the Internet?

RAMESH PONNURU: I think probably it did. And, you know, as Mark was saying, it may not have even become a story in the first place if not for the Internet.

A different standard

Ramesh Ponnuru
National Review
Allen's numbers have dropped this week, I think clearly as a result of this incident. I think, in the end, he's going to comfortably get re-elected, but his 2008 chances for the presidency have dropped significantly.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, there were some defenders of Allen who noted, as you did, that other senators have made remarks about Indian-Americans, about African-Americans, but that southerners are held to a different standard. Do you think that's the case?

RAMESH PONNURU: Southerners are held to a different standard. Republicans are held to a different standard. Presidential candidates are held to a different standard. I mean, so what? I mean, George Allen ought to know these things if he, you know, wants to be the kind of public leader that he's trying to be.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think southerners are held to a different standard?

MARK SHIELDS: Probably so, I mean, especially a southerner like George Allen, who, as Trent Lott made the terrible mistake of saying at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday the country would have been better off if, in 1948, as an arch-segregationist for segregation of the races, that Strom Thurmond had won the presidency.

And George Allen initially defended him, then turned on him. And his sister reports in the book she wrote of the family -- not a particularly flattering portrait -- that he was addicted to all sorts of -- even though he grew up in southern California, all sorts of Confederate memorabilia, and pins, and in his lapel, and all the rest of it. So there were questions already raised...

MARGARET WARNER: It's not just that he's a southerner, you're saying? There's a history there.

MARK SHIELDS: So I think Tom Rath, the respected Republican operative in New Hampshire, said, "It is not a way you want to be introduced to the national political stage."

MARGARET WARNER: Bottom line, Ramesh, is this race in Virginia competitive against Jim Webb?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, Allen's numbers have dropped this week, I think clearly as a result of this incident. I think, in the end, he's going to comfortably get re-elected, but his 2008 chances for the presidency, I think, have dropped significantly.

MARGARET WARNER: Ramesh, Mark, thank you.