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Political Analysts Discuss Lady Bird Johnson, Iraq Debate

July 13, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the analysis of Brooks and Dionne, New York Times columnist David Brooks, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne. Mark Shields is off tonight.

David, your thoughts about Lady Bird Johnson?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: As Michael was speaking, I was thinking about how married couples affect each other. And you can imagine the crescendos that LBJ went through and, as he went through that, Lady Bird getting calmer and calmer in order to balance what he was. And it’s a lesson that people don’t have to be alike to have a long, successful marriage. They can sometimes just be opposite and complementary.

The second thing is, who today is really a champion of the built environment? People are environmentalists for the national parks, places where Michael is lucky enough to be today, but what about highways? What about the places we live every day? There actually is no one who’s quite as prominent a champion of those places as she was of that time.


E.J. DIONNE, Columnist, Washington Post: Very few Americans had as much effect on our physical environment as Lady Bird Johnson. I was listening to the news reports about her death driving from a baseball tournament in Delaware, went by a sea of billboards, and then all of a sudden you get to the federal highways, and all you’ve got is the beautiful land around you. She insisted on that. That was a very — LBJ did that for her, and that was a very hard thing to get passed.

JIM LEHRER: To get the legislation that banned billboards.

E.J. DIONNE: That banned billboards near federal highways. You know, she created a whole new ethic on litter. And then, also, on substantive policy in other areas, she was a huge proponent of Head Start within the Johnson circle, which, when you look at civil rights, voting rights, Medicare, is one of the real monuments of the great societies. So she was a really consequential woman and first lady.

JIM LEHRER: So she deserves the attention of the country beyond the normal things, “Here is a former first lady dying at age 94.”

E.J. DIONNE: Oh, I absolutely think so. She was also very important in the Johnson financial empire. She was a tough, smart businesswoman on top of all of this.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, too, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, she was also an avenue back into the past. And LBJ is a fascinating figure. And that time, not only the Vietnam parallels, which some people draw today, by the civil rights, it was a crucial time. And so she’s an avenue for us to get back, think about those times.

Impact of the Iraq interim report

David Brooks
The New York Times
You can't just end a war. You have to have an understanding about how to end a war. And there is no consensus about that. And so there you can't beat something with nothing.

JIM LEHRER: All right, speaking of present times and parallels, this week on Iraq. Did the interim report change anything, in terms of the congressional debate in your opinion?

DAVID BROOKS: I don't think it really did. I spent a lot of time up on the Hill this week, and there are a lot of different factions on the Hill, but the basic conclusion I drew is that they're not going to pay us anything that will really change policy. And that's for a couple reasons, that a lot of people, maybe 80 percent of the senators, want to get out of Iraq, but they all want to get out in different ways.

You can't just end a war. You have to have an understanding about how to end a war. And there is no consensus about that. And so there you can't beat something with nothing. So I think, essentially, nothing is going to happen on the Hill that's going to change policy in Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, E.J.?

E.J. DIONNE: I don't quite agree. I think the report probably made not a huge difference, but what was important about it is it didn't help. And even when you look at the report itself, you know, one of the assessments that struck me, the government of Iraq, with substantial coalition assistance, has made progress towards reducing violence, but then the critical burden on the Iraqi government, unsatisfactory process toward eliminating militias. That tells you that really whatever progress is being made is being made largely on the backs of the American soldiers.

I think on the Hill, I agree with David that there are a lot of factions, but I thought it was very significant that Senator Lugar and Senator Warner put out their proposal today, which was, in some sense, other than Senator Hagel's joining with the Democrats and a couple of other Republicans, it was the strongest statement by very prominent Republicans that, "We want a pathway out of here."

That may not materialize in legislation in this round, this month, but I think it is a real sign of where this is headed. And I think you're just having a growing group of senators who eventually will act, even if they don't act this summer.

Debate in the Senate

E.J. Dionne
The Washington Post
Democrats [...] might think about considering going to Lugar, going to Warner, and saying, "All right, we tried to pass the real thing, but let's send a message by getting more than 60 votes for something else."

JIM LEHRER: Do you feel the same way about the Warner-Lugar amendment?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think they're frustrated, because there are a growing group of senators who want something different. And I think there are 60 or 70 senators who want something that's like the Iraq Study Group report.

But the Republicans, who are about 30 of those, are frustrated because they can't get the 30 Democrats in their side. And in their view, it's because Harry Reid wants to keep the Democrats together and force the Republicans to continually vote for the White House. So he sees this as a great political way to make Republicans suffer. And they certainly don't blame him. They'd do the same thing in his shoes, but they find it extremely frustrating.

The one other thing I'd say is, I spent the first part of the week on the Senate where, you know, people are talking about the mess of Iraq. This afternoon, I spent two hours with the president, and it's a different universe. And you can think ill or not, but he has self-confidence.

And the basic message I got from him this afternoon was that, if Petraeus comes back in September and wants more troops, he'll get more troops. If he wants fewer troops, he'll get fewer troops. But he will not do anything other than what David Petraeus wants, come August or September.

JIM LEHRER: Is that a good thing, E.J.?

E.J. DIONNE: I don't think it's a good thing. First of all, I don't know where those troops are going to come from at this point. We're going to run out of troops to send there by next spring.

But, you know, the thing that I think -- going back to David's point about the Democrats -- I think the Democrats actually face an interesting strategic choice. Their choice so far has been: the one vehicle to get out of there is the proposal by Senator Levin and Senator Reid, which has a fixed date. And if a Republican votes against that, the Democrats are saying, "They're really not voting to change."

What if that goes down but gets 55, 54, 58 votes? Democrats, I think, should consider, might think about considering going to Lugar, going to Warner, and saying, "All right, we tried to pass the real thing, but let's send a message by getting more than 60 votes for something else," because, as David says, there are way more than 60 votes to change course.

And I think it's an interesting challenge to them to figure out both the politics -- they obviously have figured out where they stand on that -- but, substantively, I think they want to show, they need to show some action.

JIM LEHRER: Now, back to the Petraeus point, do you think that it's right to put -- that the president is right to say, "I'm going to do what David Petraeus says no matter what"?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, I think it's peculiar, because the president put Petraeus there because he decided his old military commanders weren't doing what he thought needed to be done. And so when he now says, "Well, you've got to listen to the guys running the military," the generals in charge of the military, we did a lot of that in the earlier period in pursuit of policies that the president now says failed.

More than simply a military problem

David Brooks
The New York Times
It makes some coherent sense to me that, if you're going to be [in Iraq] at all, you might as well be patrolling the streets and making it safe for Iraqis, rather than sitting on some bases five mile away from genocide.

JIM LEHRER: General Casey, General Abizaid, there was a whole list.

E.J. DIONNE: List, and now the president says, "Well, those policies failed." So are you listening to Petraeus because he's doing what the president wants to do anyway? I don't quite understand how you parse those two positions.

JIM LEHRER: How do you explain it?

DAVID BROOKS: That's a good point. And as I was listening to the president today, I was remembering a past interview. And he said, "General Casey is a good man." You know, there have been a series -- and the president, when you hear him talk about world affairs, he looks at other people. And he sees it as, "Do I trust that man? And if I trust that man, he probably has the right views." Well, it could be you could trust somebody and they don't have the right views, so it is a bit of a crapshoot.

In defense of Petraeus, I will say, a, he is the best expert this country has on this sort of warfare; and, b, at least his view is Baghdad-based. And, again, in Washington, we have solutions that may be good for our politics, but they may not be good for Iraq.

I mean, in theory, we all want a middle ground or a lot of people want a middle ground. The middle ground here may make no sense in Baghdad. My colleague, Tom Friedman, says you're either all in or you're all out. You're either there defending the streets or you're going to be in the middle of a civil war, so you might as well get out. And I'm not qualified to say whether that's the right view or not, but it makes some coherent sense to me that, if you're going to be there at all, you might as well be patrolling the streets and making it safe for Iraqis, rather than sitting on some bases five mile away from genocide.

E.J. DIONNE: The difficulty is General Petraeus could be the best general we have, the best general in history. The problem isn't simply a military problem. As he himself has said, so much of the problem is the difficulty -- to put it gently -- that the Iraqis are having solving some of these problems. Petraeus could do a great job reducing violence by 30 percent, and it still wouldn't fundamentally change the situation.

DAVID BROOKS: That's true. And Ryan Crocker, our ambassador in Baghdad, is also going to be reporting back at about that time. So we'll get both sides.

And I still fundamentally think that they will have a comprehensive platform. In Capitol Hill, in the White House, there is divided partial platforms. So come August or September, they're just going to have a huge advantage whatever they say, vis-a-vis everybody else.

Troubles for John McCain

E.J. Dionne
The Washington Post
I think [McCain is] in a terrible situation [...] When you lose some of the people closest to you, feel you've got to push them out or however that happened, you're in big trouble, it's a tragic situation.

JIM LEHRER: The John McCain campaign, the conventional wisdom, David, is that he's doing poorly. One of the reasons he's doing so poorly is he's been supporting the president right down the line on Iraq. Do you agree? First of all, do you agree he's doing poorly and that's the main reason?

DAVID BROOKS: There's sort of a pincer movement here. Iraq has hurt him with some people. Immigration destroyed him with a lot of people. And a third thing, a senator said to me, you know, the problem with John's campaign is that he was so busy with these two issues, he had no time to develop an issue for the next four years. He had no message going forward.

JIM LEHRER: What he would do as president of the United States?

DAVID BROOKS: Exactly, so he was stuck with these two issues. The thing I will say about McCain's campaign is he -- not only when running for president in 2000, but the past 10 years, has had this band of brothers, John Weaver, Mark Salter. They've been tight. They are tighter than staff. They are brothers. And that now is asunder.

JIM LEHRER: Now they're gone, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And that is shocking to all of us who've covered him.

JIM LEHRER: How serious is it, E.J.?

E.J. DIONNE: I think he's in a terrible situation, partly for that reason. When you lose some of the people closest to you, feel you've got to push them out or however that happened, you're in big trouble, it's a tragic situation.


E.J. DIONNE: I think John McCain's situation is tragic, and I say that because I -- you know, I have a lot of admiration for McCain in many ways. But what he did is, on the one hand, he went with politics that was totally against his character, at least as we came to understand it, where he shifted to the right on taxes, tried to make nice to the religious right.

So then he lost some of the standing he had among moderates and non-Republicans, but he gained no ground with them, it turned out. They went away from him because they don't like campaign finance reform. They disagreed with him on immigration.

And I think the other thing is, you would think that the candidate who supports the Republican president most on the war could gain some ground in Republican primaries. It makes you wonder: Do Republican primary voters actually support the war as much as they might tell pollsters? Rudy Giuliani doesn't talk about the war much.

DAVID BROOKS: Not as much. They do support the president.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read the other issues that are hurting McCain?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I mean, I think the big issue that's hurting him is partisanship. People, especially primary voters, like a team player. And they are not sure he's a team player. Nonetheless, I would not count John McCain out.

JIM LEHRER: You wouldn't?

DAVID BROOKS: I think he's a great campaigner, does a great town meeting. He's also the most stable and, I think, experienced of the Republican candidates. The others could falter. And believe me, he'll still be there, and he's still a solid presence, I think would make a very good president, personally, and so I wouldn't count him out.

JIM LEHRER: Would you count him out?

E.J. DIONNE: I think he's almost out. I think he is -- I think David's point from the politician he spoke to is very important. The 2000 McCain really was forward-looking. He really was a break from everything that had happened, and that's why he created such energy.

Now, even the issues we're talking about in relationship to him, Iraq is yesterday's issue that we're stuck with now. Immigration was something that's been floating around Congress forever. He's got to convey that sense of excitement. And as a lot of people have said, can you bottle lightning twice? And it doesn't look like it.

JIM LEHRER: Neither of you mentioned Fred Thompson, the possibility or the probability he's going to run as a factor in hurting McCain. You don't see that?

DAVID BROOKS: Oh, I do see that, and I especially see Giuliani. Giuliani was very similar to McCain, friends with McCain, but without some of the D.C. baggage, and that so far has been a big advantage.

JIM LEHRER: All right, David, E.J., thank you. Good to see you again.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to see you.