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Analysts Discuss Growing Republican Voices Against War in Iraq

August 25, 2006 at 8:50 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Now, to the analysis of Shields and Ponnuru, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru. David Brooks is off tonight.

Ramesh, at the beginning of the week, the president had a news conference, and the talking point seems to have shifted from, “We’re making progress,” to, “It could be worse.”

RAMESH PONNURU, National Review Senior Editor: Yes, that’s right. I think that the administration has belatedly moved away from a “stay the course” message, several months after it probably should have, for its own political health. And I think those months have taken a real toll on the administration’s credibility.

There have been too many corners allegedly turned, too many attempts by the administration to say, “Don’t believe what you’re seeing on TV, we’re actually making a lot of progress.” I think this is a more successful tact the administration is taking; it may be a little late in the game.

RAY SUAREZ: But is it also risky to, after having one basic message about the war for a long time, to just come up with a new one without making any remark about it, not saying, “We used to say this, and now we’re saying that,” but just say this new thing and sort of just go with it?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, it’s a little bit more of a transition since, you know, he’s always said that we are adapting our tactics to meet the circumstances of the moment. And, you know, he’s still saying we have a strategy in place for dealing with this threat, so it’s not a total 180-degree shift.


MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: No longer is it the press’s fault. That’s good to hear. I mean, we were told that there was a lot of good news, it was just going unreported. Things were getting better, except those nervous Nellies and negativists in the press failed to report it.

Now the president, you know, as you put it, has frankly confronted — I agree with Ramesh that the president is in a little bit of a problem. He faced a serious problem, and I think the damage may already have been inflicted, Ray, and that was he could look delusional or deceitful and not credible. And that was the problem that they had politically going into the fall of 2006.

President's strategy

RAY SUAREZ: Is there a difficulty for a president who has based so much of his public communications on optimism, being forward-looking, to say things like, "These are times that are straining the psyche of our country"?

RAMESH PONNURU: It is not a formulation one associates with this least therapeutic of presidents, but I do think that there's always been a measure of warning in the administration's rhetoric about national security from the very beginning.

I mean, it's a fear-based message, right? It's a message that, "Unless we stick with the president and his policies, bad things are going to happen to us." So I think it's a very natural progression on the part of this administration.

RAY SUAREZ: How does that fit with the strategy for the upcoming midterm elections?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, I think that it's a perfect fit in a way that, you know, the Republicans are going to succeed to the extent that they make people worried about the threat of terrorism and to the extent they make people think that Democratic policies would be less likely to protect them here at home.

And that's the negative message that they need to promote. It's not just a referendum; it's not just a question, "Do you like what's going on in this country?" Do you think the Democrats have a better plan than the Republicans for making things better?


MARK SHIELDS: It's not an option, Ray. On every single measure of public opinion, the administration, the president, the Republican Party, the Republican Congress get failing marks. They get failing marks on foreign affairs handling; they get failing marks on the economy; they get failing marks on the war in Iraq. The president's latest was 30 percent favorable, 65 percent unfavorable.

The only bright spot is the president's record, rating on terrorism. It's not the best card they hold; it's the only card they hold. So going into the elections of 2006, they have to make this election about terrorism.

They can't let it be about the environment; they can't let it be about health care; they can't be about No Child Left Behind. That's all it can be.

And I think the president was ill-served by the decision very early on when they went to war to say that there would be no sacrifice. You will pay no price; you will bear no burden. That was the message from this White House.

Make no mistake about it: I mean, we're going straight ahead with the tax cuts. Abraham Lincoln imposed the first income tax and inheritance tax to finance the Civil War. William McKinley passed taxes to finance the Spanish-American War. That's always been the American way.

But they made the decision that all the sacrifice would be borne only by those in uniform. And for those of us at home, it would be business as usual and let the good times roll. And I think now it's late in the game to go back and say, "Boy, sacrifice is going to be tough."

Views on Iraq

RAY SUAREZ: So, from what you're both saying, it sounds like it makes perfect sense that the president, for instance, got a bump out of the British arrests of the Pakistani conspirators who were working to put together a plan to bomb planes.

MARK SHIELDS: He did. And given the direction of everything else going south, it really must have been manna from heaven to those in the White House and the Republican National Committee.

The question is, of course, how long it lasts. I mean, will it be like the Zarqawi capture or murder, that it's just a blip, or even the capture of Saddam Hussein? We don't know that, but that's their only hope, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, this week, also, Ramesh, we heard John McCain in almost scornful terms throwing out some of the phrases that had been used early in the war and in the run-up to war. Also, Christopher Shays who's got a very tough re-election campaign in Connecticut backing off of his previous support of the "stay the course" approach. What do you make of that?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, I'd make a distinction between Shays on the one hand and McCain on the other. McCain has been a hawk who's consistently supported the Iraq war, and he's been consistently critical of this administration for not taking the steps that, in his view, are needed to succeed there, including replacing Secretary Rumsfeld at the Pentagon and increasing our troop levels in Iraq.

Shays is a different story. Shays has actually now advocating withdrawal from Iraq, which is different from McCain's point of view. In some ways, they're complete opposites on this.

You know, with Chris Shays, Chris Shays is something of an outlier in the Republican Party, and I don't think that anybody in the administration or the Republican National Committee are concerned that he's doing this. If other congressmen who are more persuasive to their Republican colleagues and are thought of as being more down-the-line conservatives in more conservative states than Connecticut start echoing him, then that would create a real problem for this administration across the board.

RAY SUAREZ: I didn't mean to suggest that they were saying the same thing, but they were definitely training their fire in some ways on the Bush White House.

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, you know, there is a temptation on the part of everybody in the Republican Party right now to distance themselves from a president whose ratings are low. The danger for them is that they would then help drag him lower.

And I think that any sensible Republican strategist who looks at this would say, "At the end of the day, whether you like it or not, your fate is tied to the president if you're a Republican congressman. You need his numbers to go up."

Political agenda

RAY SUAREZ: Were either of those developments a surprise, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: They were in this sense: John McCain was campaigning for Mike DeWine in Ohio, his Senate colleague. Mike DeWine was one of four United States senators who backed John McCain for president in 2000 against George W. Bush. He's one of the 14 in the Gang of 14, the bipartisan group to break the impasse on Senate judicial nominations.

So it's a personal thing. He was trying to help Mike DeWine, I think, quite frankly, because Mike DeWine is saddled not only by an unpopular administration in Washington, but a disastrously unpopular Republican administration in Ohio. He's running behind Sherrod Brown, the Democratic congressman, in most recent polls.

And McCain could feel the anger boiling up in him. And look at it straightly. Politically, from McCain's point of view, John McCain's strength, has maverick strength, call what it you want, is not his eloquence, is not his towering intellect or his charisma personally. It's his integrity, and I think that -- he had to make that known.

He was very -- I think he took the president to task for "mission accomplished," which was made before 2,600 Americans were killed. Dick Cheney said the "last throes." That was 16 months and 1,000 American deaths ago, Ray. So, I mean, there was -- I mean, he feels overly optimistic, unrealistic, and ill-preparing the American people.

On Chris Shays, I have to say this. He's been to Iraq 14 times. There is nobody in the Congress of the United States who has more conscientiously devoted time, resources and energy to try to understand what's going on in that war. He has been a staunch, stalwart supporter.

Yes, he's in a tough to race, no doubt about it, in a state that has demonstrated its anti-war credentials, Connecticut. But it's heartfelt, I believe. I mean, you know, maybe it's a battlefield conversion on the eve of election.

But I spoke to a Wednesday Group, a group of moderate Republicans, a few months ago. We all do it from time to time. And I said at the time I thought the war was lost and irretrievably lost and we would end, you know, in retreat.

Chris Shays called me afterwards, and we had a conversation I could only call heartfelt. I mean, he went through and, why did I believe that? Did I really believe that? And he hoped it wasn't true.

I mean, this has not been a position that has helped him at all in his congressional district to have been a supporter. I think the jury is out on whether it will help him in his re-election. He's in a very, very tough race against Diane Farrell in that race, in that district, but I think it's significant. I think it's as significant almost, because he's been such a strong supporter, as Tip O'Neill was when he broke with Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam.

RAY SUAREZ: Quick response, Ramesh?

RAMESH PONNURU: I don't disagree with what he was saying about the reason Shays has adopted this position. I was just making the political point that the administration would be more worried if there was somebody else.

You know, one thing about McCain, I don't think that his comments are going to cost him anything because I think a lot of conservatives would agree with what he was saying now. You know, especially in retrospect, a lot of that rhetoric was misguided. I mean, do you really think the administration would have the "mission accomplished" banner if they could do it over again? I don't.

MARK SHIELDS: They wouldn't try and blame it on the Navy again this time, would they? I don't think.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, have a good weekend.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.