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Shields, Brooks Assess Primary Shuffle, Mukasey Hearings

October 19, 2007 at 6:20 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. Ray Suarez is in charge.

RAY SUAREZ: With me this week, Mark Shields, who joins us from New Hampshire, and New York Times columnist David Brooks, in his customary chair in Washington.

Let me start with you, since you’re on the road, Mark. Give us the latest on the primary calendar. What are they saying in New Hampshire about whether they can jump the New Year’s Eve barrier and actually move into 2007?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, there’s a lot of people talking, but there’s only one person who’s really speaking, and he isn’t saying a word, and that’s the secretary of state, Billy Gardner, who has under law the sole discretion and power of setting that date. And it has to be, by law, seven days before any state with a similar contest.

And that’s what’s in question right now. Iowa has moved to the — Iowa Republicans to the 3rd of January. Both parties, I think it’s fair to say, would like to have it up here on the 8th of January. But Secretary Gardner is really questioning whether that’s going to be enough of an interval under the law and whether he’s going to move it to early December.

And if he does so — the campaigns, Ray, as you can understand and the parties, are just absolutely perplexed, because the campaign decision is where you spend money, time, resources. And if you don’t know when the election is, you don’t know what to do.

RAY SUAREZ: Christmas in Concord. Aren’t you looking forward to it?

MARK SHIELDS: Somebody said to me, “How about a negative commercial in the middle of Jimmy Stewart’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ on Christmas Eve?” Is that going to be jarring?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: I was up there yesterday in New Hampshire. First of all, he’s sort of a hero. He is defending New Hampshire. The people who are unhappy, though, are the restaurateurs and the hotel owners. They’d like it to go as long as possible, deep into January, because that way a lot of us are staying in the Holiday Inns in various parts of the state up there.

Frustration in the campaigns

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
What New Hampshire has been in the past, the last 13 presidents elected, 11 of them won the New Hampshire primary before winning the White House. That's how influential it has been.

RAY SUAREZ: But aren't party people and the campaigns at their wit's end, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, they are. The campaigns, it's a joke at every single meeting you go to, whenever the primary is, because they can't plan all the volunteers. They can't plan their get out the votes. They can't do any sort of planning. And so they really want it set. It's probably not going to be set for a couple weeks now. And so they are at their wit's end.

The problem, as Mark indicated, is it's at the front end and the back end. They want to come first, but they want to make sure no one comes quickly thereafter, so they can have a long news cycle, where people are talking about New Hampshire.

And I suspect they'll wind up at the 8th. It depends on a lot of things. But I suspect they'll wind up there. It just makes too much sense.

MARK SHIELDS: Ray, there's just two points I'd make. One is, the question is, does New Hampshire going to be first? They could be in December. But what New Hampshire has been in the past, the last 13 presidents elected, 11 of them won the New Hampshire primary before winning the White House. That's how influential it has been.

So the relevance and influence of New Hampshire has been its position at the outset of the process, where the first time that they come in a secret ballot. Iowa is wonderful, but that's a caucus. It's a different experience.

This is secret ballot, where the polls and everything else, and where, finally and ultimately, an underdog, underfinanced candidate without party overwhelming establishment support, much like John McCain in 1999 against George Bush, was the overwhelming favorite, can spring the upset. Jimmy Carter can come out of nowhere in 1976. That's what New Hampshire and Iowa offer that big states don't.

DAVID BROOKS: I would differ with that a little. I think this year, if you look at where the candidates are traveling there in Iowa, much more than in New Hampshire.

MARK SHIELDS: I agree.

DAVID BROOKS: In part because New Hampshire is not as close, because Hillary Clinton has a huge lead and Mitt Romney has a lead. And Iowa is really neck-and-neck in both parties.

Bush's low approval ratings

David Brooks
New York Times
If anything, the danger is we turn the page too quickly on Bush and actually don't talk about what he's doing, what's still happening in the government.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, it's fun to talk about the upcoming presidential race, but we still have a president. His name is George W. Bush, and he gave a news conference this week, at which he said he is sprinting to the finish of his term, and insisted on his own continued relevance, even as record poll numbers came out for low favorability. What's going on?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it is certainly true that the country, by and large, has turned the page on George Bush, and he's never going to recoup his losses, his popularity. Nonetheless, I would say he still has a lot of influence around here, in part because I think his campaign -- his White House staff and the people who work for him are higher quality than ever before. I wish they could start over with the team they have now than the one they had six, seven years ago, in part because he still has power.

If you look at the Iraq policy, it's his Iraq policy. If you look at the SCHIP veto, it's still his veto. And I think, if anything, the danger is we turn the page too quickly on Bush and actually don't talk about what he's doing, what's still happening in the government.

And the people in the White House do say people -- it's become socially unacceptable to say anything good about us anymore, and we do have some things we can talk about. The deficits have come down dramatically in the last two years, which is a real accomplishment. There's been a sharp decline in the number of casualties in Iraq and things like that.

And there is a point where we move beyond Bush much too quickly, when he still has tremendous power, especially the people working with him.

RAY SUAREZ: But, Mark, is there a practical effect? Is it harder to be president if the latest Zogby poll has you at 24 percent?

MARK SHIELDS: It is, Ray. And I think the president's power at this point is essentially a negative power, a power to veto, as David mentioned.

I would argue that picking the SCHIP as the first children's health bill, that was going to cover 10 million working families' children, as your demonstration effort on showing your fiscal responsibility was not helpful to Republicans. And Republicans are quite candid about that in private, many even in public, like Pat Roberts of Kansas and Deborah Pryce of Ohio.

But I do think that the closest thing I can compare where we are now in this country is to 1952. Then you had a president with equally -- Harry Truman -- with equally bad poll numbers. You had a war that was unpopular, apparently unwinnable and a stalemate, with casualties still being inflicted on Americans. You had, as well, an administration with a political Washington with the stench, or aroma anyway, of corruption.

And you had a country ready for change after a period of that party holding power and with no apparent logical successor, a consensus successor for the president to take over. And I really think that the one thing, the bright spot for the Republicans is that the Democrats do not have a war hero like Dwight Eisenhower who they could nominate in 2008. And that may be their last best hope.

Helping the Republican party

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
I do think that there's a chance that the Iraqi war will not be as much of a political liability for President Bush's successor and the Republican Party in 2008.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, David, given the state of play and Election Day 13 months away, what can George Bush do to either help with those Republicans seeking re-election to the House and Senate, Republican governors looking to hold their seats, and the presidential aspirants of his own party?

DAVID BROOKS: He could stop vetoing SCHIP. That would be a nice start. I mean, for him and I think his administration from here on out is foreign policy. And primarily, it's about Iraq.

And if -- you know, I was not a big fan of the surge. Nonetheless, when you take a look at the civilian casualties, which I think are down something like 77 percent, U.S. military deaths are down, there are stories that al-Qaida in Iraq is being decimated, you know, you wouldn't want to say you've turned a corner, because we've been through that before.

Nonetheless, there's some possibility that things are not deteriorating the way they were. They are stabilizing, maybe even getting a little better in Iraq. And that's his primary job. And whether it's for the good of the country or for the good of the party, I don't know, but that's what he's going to be focusing on.

And, whatever else happens, and he's going to be president. You know, we've been talking about Pakistan today. There are a lot of people in Washington who are in a panic about what might happen in Pakistan. And he will be president if something happens in Pakistan, and he will have to deal with it, popular or not.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Mark, briefly, what do you think about the president's possibilities for neutralizing the harm the war can do to his own party's candidates? The election is not today. The numbers are very bad today. But if things go well for the next year?

MARK SHIELDS: I don't know how things go. I agree with David on the statistics, but, remember, Ray, the purpose of the surge was to establish the political climate that enabled reconciliation and secured the blessings of liberty and orderly government for the Iraqi people. I think we're still -- that's removed.

I do think that there's a chance that the Iraqi war will not be as much of a political liability for President Bush's successor and the Republican Party in 2008 because I think there's a good chance, by the summer, spring of 2008, that there will be American troops coming home. And I think the number there will be reduced.

And I think, with that reduction, it will become less of a political albatross for Republicans.

Mukasey's confirmation hearing

David Brooks
New York Times
He's an example of what I think has been a good trend in the Bush administration. A lot of the Texas cronies, a lot of the people who were incompetent are being replaced by professionals.

RAY SUAREZ: David, this week saw the confirmation hearings for Attorney General-Designate Mukasey. What did you make of him?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he's an example of what I think has been a good trend in the Bush administration. A lot of the Texas cronies, a lot of the people who were incompetent are being replaced by professionals. And I think that's true at the Treasury Department, at the Defense Department. I think it's now true of the attorney general.

I think we saw a man who is much more honest, much more comfortable, much more a master of the issues, and who is a strong defender of executive privilege. So I think he's someone everyone respects. He's going to be confirmed.

But he is still a conservative, and he's conservative on the two issues that I think matter quite a lot to this administration. The first is executive privilege, defending from the legislative encroachments. And the second is the issue of national security, which is where most of the controversy was, to the extent there was controversy, on the issue of torture and the FISA.

RAY SUAREZ: So he didn't tell senators on the panel what they wanted to hear?

DAVID BROOKS: No, he did not. He told them what the Bush administration wanted them to hear, which I suspect is why he was picked, because he actually believes it. But, nonetheless, he's not a liberal. He's not a change in course ideologically, but he is a significant step up in terms of confidence and a guy you could actually trust.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, first of all, I want to bail David out from offending the Lone Star State. The secretary of defense is a Texan, the newest secretary of defense. He replaced a man from Illinois, Mr. Rumsfeld. So it wasn't all Texans who were routed out of town.

But I do think he makes a good point, that Mr. Mukasey looks a lot better, I think, than maybe he would have from the beginning by the fact that he's not Alberto Gonzales. And there was a sense, almost a relief, it seemed, in the Senate hearing room.

I remain amazed at his inability or unwillingness to condemn waterboarding. I mean, I don't know how many more people who've been through it, it takes. I mean, whether it's how many Joint Chiefs of Staff, how many combat generals, to say that -- whether it's Colin Powell or John Vessey or Hugh Shelton, you know, how many it takes to say, this is, a, not helpful, and, b, it is hurtful to what America is? But I think he will be confirmed.

RAY SUAREZ: And he was given, David, a lot of opportunities to come out against waterboarding and used a formation, used a way of answering the question that I think left some senators unsatisfied, but you feel he had to answer that?

DAVID BROOKS: I think he had to. First, let me pick up and thank Mark from saving me from the Texans. I'm going to Dallas next week. I hope to return from there. And the ghost of Tom Landry, I salute. I think on the torture issue, he can't go down procedure by procedure saying, "Yes, no, yes, no," at a public hearing. He just can't do it. So his private views may be something. His views of what the law allows may be something.

But you can't have a White House official or any federal official doing that in public view, procedure-- because once you talk about one procedure, you've got to talk about everything. And so I think he did the right thing. I hope they do make waterboarding-- they do make it unacceptable. But I think he had to do what he did at the hearing.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, David, Mark have a great weekend, gents.