JIM LEHRER: Mark, Senator Reid says that the president’s been playing political games with war funding. How do you read it?
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, I mean, the president has rediscovered the fiscal sanity portion of the Republican brain, having put it on the shelf for seven years.
And I think we’ve learned a constitutional lesson this past year, and the Democrats came in after being out of power for 13 years. Senator Reid is brand-new as a majority leader, as is Speaker Pelosi. And it’s a lot tougher trying to keep it together in the majority.
And under a constitutional system, it’s always easy to stop things than it is to pass them. And I think the president has played that card and played it strongly.
JIM LEHRER: What about specifically, David, the issue that Senator Reid talked about, that the president wanted $196 billion for the war, Afghanistan and Iraq, ended up getting $70 billion, and that was OK. It seemed to be OK with everybody. Why was it suddenly OK with everybody?
DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, I think people just wanted to get it spent. There are actual reasons why you want to have some sort of stability. They wanted more. They didn’t want to have so many votes over in the near term.
But I actually thought the end of the Senate ended up a lot better than it could have. We could have seen some real conflicts on energy, on the AMT, the alternative minimum tax, and on Iraq. We saw a little bit of the parties coming together.
I thought we could have seen a lot more of that earlier in the term, and especially on the subject of Iraq. The Republican unhappiness with Iraq policy back six, eight months ago was high. And I thought Senator Reid and Mitch McConnell could have actually done something a little more of a bipartisan nature at the time, and they didn’t.
I think the big change since then has been the surge. And the surge has changed the circumstance. And I’m not sure either party has really adapted to what the surge presents as far as opportunities go.
JIM LEHRER: Senator McConnell said that on the program the other night, that what really changed the attitudes in the Senate, at least, on Iraq, among the Democrats, was the surge worked. Do you agree?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, the surge has worked in this sense, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: In a military way?
MARK SHIELDS: It has reduced violence. And, therefore, it has reduced the saliency and the urgency of Iraq as an issue to the American voters.
But I found it revealing that in the most recent Wall Street Journal-NBC poll unchanged where the judgment, the overwhelming majority judgment of Americans, that the war was a mistake to go into, and three out of five still want American troops out of there in one year.
GOP pays a price in Congress
MARK SHIELDS: The thing that Senator Reid didn't say that frightened me is, even after a bad session where the Congress is -- the White House loves to point out is even less popular than the president, who has been more unpopular for longer than any president in American history -- even after that, by a 48 percent to 34 percent margin, voters, according to the Wall Street Journal-NBC poll want a Democratic Congress in after 2008 rather than a Republican Congress.
So, I mean, that's a real -- it's a message to the Republicans that just being against is not enough of an agenda.
JIM LEHRER: Do you read the message the same way?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, I do think this is still a Democratic country. The party identification, all the signals indicate the Democrats are in the ascendant, the Republicans are not.
And that's essentially because the Republican Party is shrinking. The party has aged 10 years in the past few years, and that's because all the young people have left the Republican Party.
And that's hurt the Republicans in the Senate. It's affected the entire presidential race. And I essentially think Mark's right about that. The Democrats have not distinguished themselves, they're not proud, as we heard Harry Reid say, they're not proud of what they've accomplished in Congress, but the Republicans are still basically in worse shape.
JIM LEHRER: President Bush used the term "high point." He said he thought the Congress ended on a high point, and you kind of said the same thing, David.
Do you think that there was a kind of "Oh my goodness, we've got to do something here, or it's going to hurt both of us"? Or what do you think finally led to -- it wasn't just Iraq voting, the Iraq funding, but a lot of other things, energy, a lot of other things that the senator talked about.
DAVID BROOKS: Right, well, the energy issue is something both have talked about the same sort of thing, the fuel efficiency standards. Both parties have talked about that. So there was some meeting of the minds on that.
On the alternative minimum tax, you really had a sword hanging over people's heads which was that it was going to affect all these people. Now, the down side is -- and this is what made it so easy -- is they didn't pay for it. And if you don't pay for it, it's kind of easy to be Santa Claus.
MARK SHIELDS: They really didn't pay for it. I mean, Mitch...
JIM LEHRER: Fifty billion dollars.
MARK SHIELDS: Mitch McConnell said it would be offensive to pay for it. That, I just point out, failure to pay for it, $1.3 trillion it will add for the national debt in 10 years, the failure to pay for it. To just say -- where are we going to find the money to cover this, as David just pointed out, this gift that has saved our skins?
JIM LEHRER: Well, what's your reading of why we had this, quote, "high point"?
MARK SHIELDS: I missed the high point.
JIM LEHRER: Oh, you weren't there, huh?
MARK SHIELDS: I thought it was "Get out of Dodge." I agree with David. I mean, I think it was really -- that sense of self-congratulations I thought was a little over the top.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. Quick thing here, and then we want to get to the presidential campaign. You heard the news of the day about the judge and the CIA videotapes. Anything new? Any new development that casts any further clouds or light?
DAVID BROOKS: I don't see a big political shift. It will depend on who was lied to and what we find out from the internal investigations, if they're really serious internal investigations.
MARK SHIELDS: I agree with that. I do think it's interesting that they said that the tapes apparently were not done, the interviews. The tapes came into the possession of the CIA, and so now we're getting into the parsing that we always expect in these investigations.
Candidates release holiday ads
JIM LEHRER: OK, now the presidential campaign, some politics here. The Iowa caucuses are now less than two weeks away, and the candidates will take a short holiday break from campaigning. But several candidates, as many of you know, are on television airing holiday greetings. Here are five, in no particular order.
FORMER GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE (R), Arkansas: Are you about worn out of all the television commercials you've been seeing, mostly about politics? I don't blame you. At this time of year, sometimes it's nice to pull aside from all of that and just remember that what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ and being with our family and our friends.
I hope that you and your family will have a magnificent Christmas season. And on behalf of all of us, God bless and merry Christmas. I'm Mike Huckabee, and I approve this message.
MICHELLE OBAMA, Wife of Sen. Barack Obama: We'd like to take a moment to thank you and your family for the warmth and friendship that you've shown ours, for sharing your hospitality and your stories.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: In this holiday season, we're reminded that the things that unite us as a people are more powerful and enduring than anything that sets us apart and we all have a stake in each other and in something larger than ourselves.
So from our family to yours, I'm Barack Obama. And I approve this message.
MALIA OBAMA, Daughter of Sen. Barack Obama: Merry Christmas.
SASHA OBAMA, Daughter of Sen. Barack Obama: Happy holidays.
RUDY GIULIANI (R), Former Mayor of New York: There are many things I wish for this holiday season. I wish for peace with strength, secure borders, a government that spends less than it takes in, lower taxes for our businesses and families, and I really hope that all of the presidential candidates can just get along.
SANTA CLAUS: Oh, I was with you right up until that last one. Ho, ho, ho, ho!
RUDY GIULIANI: Can't have everything!
I'm Rudy Giuliani, and I approve this message. Merry Christmas, happy holidays.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: Where did I put universal pre-k? Oh, OK. Ah, there it is.
I'm Hillary Clinton, and I approve this message.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: One night, after being mistreated as a POW, a guard loosened the ropes binding me, easing my pain. On Christmas, that same guard approached me, and without saying a word he drew a cross in the sand.
We stood wordlessly looking at the cross, remembering the true light of Christmas. I'll never forget that, no matter where you are, no matter how difficult the circumstances, there will always be someone who will pick you up.
May you and your family have a blessed Christmas and happy holidays. I'm John McCain, and I approve this message.
JIM LEHRER: Well, David, those were five of the messages, the Christmas or the holiday greetings. What do they add up to, to you?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, I thought the Giuliani and Clinton ones were cringe-making, frankly.
JIM LEHRER: Cringe-making?
DAVID BROOKS: They're trying to humanize their candidates. And if you're going to do that, you've got to do humor that works. And I just thought it made them look un-human. So I had that view.
I thought the Obama and McCain ones were fine, and I thought the Huckabee one is the one we're all talking about. He didn't do it in Aramaic, so that he was not just purely religious as he could have, but a lot of people are talking about (a), he mentioned the word "Christ," and (b), there's a lot of talk about the floating cross, if you looked in the background.
JIM LEHRER: The window of the cross that...
DAVID BROOKS: There was a book shelf in the background which had the sign of the cross. And I'm completely fine with this. I think Christmas -- I'm not Christian, but I understand Christmas has something to do with the birth of Jesus Christ, so I'm fine with mentioning that.
And a lot of people were upset by that. But I think it's a perfectly fine reference, and I'd be curious to see if a Democrat would mention the word "Jesus Christ" in a Christmas ad.
JIM LEHRER: Hey, what about that?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, let me just say, as a Christian, I agree with David. The last time I checked, Christmas is a Christian feast day commemorating the birth of Jesus and a legal holiday in most of the Western world. So, I mean, you know, Mike Huckabee mentioning it was a stroke of genius.
Huckabee and McCain enjoy surges
JIM LEHRER: Genius?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, here's a man, Jim, who was at 1 percent in the polls last summer, 1 percent. He has less money than any candidate in either party. He has no establishment backing, either from the religious establishment of his party, the economic establishment, or the political establishment.
He is now vying for the lead nationally. He's not only simply ahead in Iowa. Today in Michigan, he's now effectively tied, in Florida. These aren't Bible Belt states.
He has done something. He just got $15 million dollars worth of free discussion about this spot. How many times have we seen this spot? I mean, you can't turn on cable news without seeing the Mike Huckabee spot.
And if you're in Iowa, as I have been recently, and Mitt Romney comes on with attack, saying, "Here he is, getting rid of all these prisoners, and letting them go free," and everything else, along comes this guy that looks like Perry Como, to put myself in a different generation. He's easy-going. He wishes you a merry Christmas. It's not political.
I agree with David on the Hillary Clinton thing. I thought it was so bad, it was so inauthentic -- I mean, authentic is the word this year. I thought Huckabee was authentic.
I thought McCain was authentic. It came out of McCain's experience. It projected, yes, his courage, his toughness, rather than his maverick impulses.
I thought that the Obama thing was a wash. It was sort of a Hallmark Hall of Fame -- it was nice. I mean, it didn't touch anything. But Rudy and Hillary were synthetic. They were both synthetic.
JIM LEHRER: So where are we now, David? We've got all these raft of polls, just as Mark said, just in the last 24 hours. It's all -- McCain, who was supposed to be a goner not too many weeks ago, Huckabee who never even came, now these two guys are one and two or one...
DAVID BROOKS: Well, they're both surging. McCain is surging in New Hampshire and is now a clear second behind Romney. If you average up the latest polls by about 8 percent, he's second.
Rudy is falling back, quickly, and Romney still remains strong. A lot of us who look at all the punishment and all the attacks Huckabee has taken from Rush Limbaugh, from the entire Republican establishment, expect to see him fall back.
So far, there's been no actual evidence of that. And I think that's for a couple of reasons. One, he's got a network of pastors who communicate in a more intimate way than even Rush Limbaugh with a lot of Republican voters, and then he does have a populist message.
The only populism that sells in the United States is William Jennings-style populism, which combines social conservatism with a sort of economic middle-class populism, and Huckabee has got that.
Huckabee, Obama vs. establishment
MARK SHIELDS: He's doing the Republican Party, in my judgment, an enormous favor. I mean, he is reminding the party that it has lost touch with its base, its electoral base, at a time of economic anxiety, where the majority of Americans are convinced there's going to be a recession that we're facing, that the Republican Party's policies on economic matters are seen as tilting to those at the very top of the economic ladder.
He's a man that preaches we have to be for helping the poor, so even if it means increasing taxes as I did down there. I mean, I just think that it's a remarkable message.
And David is right. The economic leadership of the party, K Street, the lobbying arm of our politics in Washington, doesn't have a piece of Mike Huckabee, and it's driving them bats. I mean, he's done this without any support from the establishment.
It's a little bit like Obama's relationship, in a strange way, with the African-American political establishment, most of whom have endorsed Hillary Clinton, OK? And here comes Obama, and they've all had a place at the table. White candidates had to come negotiate through them.
All of a sudden, up comes Obama, and he represents a threat to the established order. Mike Huckabee represents a threat to the established order right now. And I think, like Barry Goldwater in '64, he's sending a message to his party that they'd be well-advised to listen to.
JIM LEHRER: Quickly on the Democratic side, where do you see the shifts, if any, any major way going into these last few weeks?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, it's still very tight with Obama and Clinton. To me, the crucial argument is between those, some of the people think we're in the midst of sort of a domestic civil war. The Republicans are so tough. We've got to be so tough. And those people tend to side with Hillary.
The people who think, no, we can get rid of this civil war. The country is actually more unified than sometimes it seems. Those people tend to side with Obama. I think that's basically how it divides, not on policy, but just on how you view the issue of toughness.
JIM LEHRER: Agree, toughness, not policy?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I hadn't thought of it that way. The way I look at is, I mean, when they asked voters in Iowa, are you more concerned with a candidate without represents real change, a break with the past, a new direction, new ideas, or do you want someone who's experienced, by better than three to two they say they want new ideas, new direction.
And you saw Hillary Clinton's campaign respond to that by trying to transform her from the experienced, ready to take over on day one to this agent of change this week. I mean, they went through several incarnations, which tell me something about the Clinton campaign, I mean, that she became the warm, cuddly Hillary on Monday, with her mother and her daughter.
JIM LEHRER: Likeability, they call it?
MARK SHIELDS: Likeability, we're going to raise the likeability. Then she became the change agent. Then she wanted to talk to real people. And then, the end of the week, they open up a couple of Web sites dedicated to attacking Obama. She was the first candidate to do that. So there seems to be a scurrying after strategy there.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of likeability, I have enjoyed very much being with you tonight, both of you.
MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Jim. And speaking for David, I agree.
JIM LEHRER: OK.