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Democrats Debate Health Care; Senate Weighs Iraq Measures

September 21, 2007 at 6:25 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Lowry, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, National Review editor Rich Lowry. David Brooks is off tonight.

Rich, why can’t the Senate get anything passed on Iraq?

RICH LOWRY, Editor, National Review: Well, the key here, for a long time, has been the moderate Republicans who are discontented with President Bush’s strategy in the war, but aren’t willing to go over to where the Democrats are, mandating a timetable for withdrawal or even a cutoff for funds.

So unless Democrats get those Republicans, nothing is going to happen. And that’s why we’re supposed to have this cataclysmic debate over the war in September, and it’s ending in a whimper, exactly where we were earlier in the year.

JIM LEHRER: In fact, the Democrats — do you read it the same way, Mark, that, actually, the Democrats are losing steam rather than gaining steam on this?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: They certainly are not getting any momentum at all, Jim, and probably their hope, the highest hope Democrats had, was in the amendment offered by Jim Webb, the freshman Democrat from Virginia, himself former secretary of the Navy and company commander in combat Marine Corps in Vietnam, which was that the dwell time had to be — that is, the time away from the deployment into combat zone — had to be equal to the time in combat.

Contrast that, for example, the British, where their troops are six months in Iraq, two years, 24 months out. And that’s historically been the case with the Americans.

And it’s not just being away; it is obviously retraining, it’s refurbishing, it’s restoring. And it had gotten 56 votes in the summer, in July when it was up. And it comes to vote this time with Tim Johnson, the Democrat returned to the Senate from a hemorrhage, and John Warner, his colleague who had supported him in July, five minutes before the vote, says he can’t be with him, responding to an entreaty by the secretary of defense that this would screw up — might screw up the troop rotation of the troops who are already there, even though Webb had put in 120-day enforcement provision that would take us up to Christmas.

But, you know, when you don’t get it on this one, which strikes me as totally reasonable, and I think struck probably a majority of the Senate, then I think that…

JIM LEHRER: And then you lost the next two…

JIM LEHRER: Feinberg and then today, the Levin thing.

MARK SHIELDS: Feingold. Feingold.

JIM LEHRER: Feingold, right.

Rich, analyze this, as to, why is it that more Republicans won’t go with the Democrats on this?

RICH LOWRY: Well, first of all, specifically on the Webb amendment, I think that key Republicans found the Pentagon’s objections persuasive onto how hard this would be to manage. And also, if it passed and became law, the likeliest way a commander on the ground would deal with it, if it was pinching him, and if he needed more troops, wouldn’t be to say, “OK, forget about this war, we don’t actually need those more troops,” would be either to extend the tours more or to call up National Guard units, and no one relishes either of those prospects.

But I think the key thing here is, conditions improved somewhat in Iraq, and I think that’s always been the key to the debate. Now, you can argue about how much they’ve improved, but it’s certainly stabilized the political state of the war.

And I compare it a little bit, if you go skydiving, you go in a freefall, you know, you’re falling, I don’t know how fast, extremely fast, and then when your parachute goes up, you feel as though you’re being yanked up. You’re not really being yanked up. You’re just falling less quickly, but the rate of change has changed, and you feel that sharply.

And I think that the Iraq debate is a little bit like that. It’s stabilized. You know, it’s not going up for the Republicans; they’re not happy where they are, but it’s stabilized. And that meant the downward trajectory stopped and Democrats who were trying to force a date for withdrawal just are stuck.

Senate impasse over Iraq

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
There is nobody in the United States military, in the Congress, in the administration who could answer the question: Tell me, how many troops is it going to require for us to achieve a U.S. victory in Iraq? Because there is no number.

JIM LEHRER: And they're stuck because of what's going on, on the ground, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I don't know if it's what's going on -- I mean, I think what -- I've come to the conclusion, Jim, that there is nobody in the United States military, in the Congress, in the administration who could answer the question: Tell me, how many troops is it going to require for us to achieve a U.S. victory in Iraq? Because there is no number. There is no number that can be given, because there is no victory to be achieved.

So I think what we're really talking about is there's -- neither party is going to ever boast, "We won Iraq." And I think that the president's made the commitment and made the decision, which Republicans obviously have gone along with, and I think have accepted, that there's going to be 100,000 American troops in Iraq on January 20, 2009, and that George W. Bush may have started the war, but he hasn't lost the war.

JIM LEHRER: And haven't they specifically, by remaining stagnant, this whole -- to pick up, that's a different analogy than you use, but no movement -- also, can it also be seen as an endorsement of the Petraeus approach, that it's going to have to happen up or down on the ground, but right now it's on hold?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it did. Yes, what it did was it froze people in place.

JIM LEHRER: Froze people.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, I think that there were no conversions. There was no great number that said, "Gee, Petraeus makes sense. I'm going to go over to that side." But it stopped the hemorrhaging, and it stopped, I think, the potential defections that Democrats were hoping for to get to that magic number of 60, which isn't -- you know, it seems so attainable, yet after this week seems even more remote.

JIM LEHRER: Even more remote now?

RICH LOWRY: Well, I think at least Bush is good in terms of waging the war on his terms until March, when Petraeus comes back again. Petraeus has effectively shifted the cataclysmic debate from September to March, and it's probably not going to be cataclysmic then, either.

My guess is, absent something really terrible happening in Iraq to change the dynamic again, that President Bush will be able to wage this war on his own terms without serious restrictions from Congress until he leaves.

MARK SHIELDS: Let me take a quick exception to that. And I think that, as of March, there will be a new face of the Republican Party. It won't be George W. Bush. The Republicans will have their presidential nominee.

And, believe me, you see the Republican retirements these past weeks. They say the war doesn't play a part. I'll tell you the part the war plays: They know right now that the prospects of the Republicans remaining in a minority status in the House and in the Senate and reduced minority status is real. And that's no inducement to come back for another term, to be in the minority again.

So you're seeing these surprising number of retirements from people you didn't expect to retire. And come next March, with the election within over the horizon, Republicans will not want to go into another national election with Iraq as the centerpiece issue. They don't want to be on the defensive.

MoveOn.org's anti-Petraeus ad

Rich Lowry
National Review
I think that ad was a mistake. And the thing that gave it so much oxygen, I believe, is just top Democrats should have right out of the bat just said, "This is wrong. They shouldn't speak of a general in this way."

JIM LEHRER: Do the Republicans and some of the Democrats who voted for it get any points for voting for the resolution attacking MoveOn.org for attacking Petraeus?

RICH LOWRY: Well, this is the most extraordinary thing. I think the ad is outrageous; they shouldn't have run it. And I thought it would be a one-week story going together with Petraeus' testimony. We're now in the third week...

JIM LEHRER: Still talking about it.

RICH LOWRY: ... of this being a story. And, you know, Rudy Giuliani has made brilliant use of it by, you know, running his own ad, pushing back in the New York Times, attacking Hillary Clinton over it. And then MoveOn.org is now attacking him in Iowa. The fund they're spending on those ads might as well go directly into Rudy Giuliani's treasury, in terms of how much this helps him in a Republican environment.

But I think that ad was a mistake. And the thing that gave it so much oxygen, I believe, is just top Democrats should have right out of the bat just said, "This is wrong. They shouldn't speak of a general in this way." And that would have, I think, stopped it.

But, instead, it's gone on and on. And Hillary voted against condemning the ad, which is, I think, a sign just of how important that antiwar left constituency is in the Democratic Party.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see it?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it's an embarrassment to the United States Senate that they cannot decide anything about Iraq. They can't come to any conclusion, and they can stand up there and berate an ad, which I found and have said was, I thought, tasteless and counterproductive.

First of all, Americans do not like to have people's names made fun of. Everybody has had the experience, him or herself at one time, having their own name made fun of. And to do it in this unflattering, unfair fashion was beyond the pale.

But for Republicans who've been on the defensive, put in a defensive crouch on Iraq, been pummeled about the shoulder and head, now all of a sudden they can come out and they can go on the offensive. And, my goodness, now they're not going to ever let go of it. They're just going to continue.

The Democrats -- I agree with Rich on this point, Jim. The Democrats should have taken a leaf out of Ronald Reagan's playbook. Ronald Reagan, when he was running for governor of California, the big issue -- some big issue, we always have big issues -- was the John Birch Society and whether Reagan would accept their support or their endorsement.

Reagan had a very simple, straightforward statement: I welcome the support of all law-abiding, freedom-loving Californians, because anybody who endorses me doesn't mean I have endorsed them. And they should have done the same thing.

You know, I welcome the support. That does not mean I'm endorsing MoveOn. That is not my platform; that is not my party. But, quite frankly, they did -- enough of them didn't do it well.

Democratic debate in Iowa

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
There's no question there's been a sea change in American attitudes and values on the subject [health care]. It's the number-two issue. Even among Republicans now, it ties immigration as the number-two issue behind Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: All right, speaking of the Democrats, I want to ask a question or two about the Democratic nomination race. Last night in Davenport, Iowa, five of those candidates participated in a debate which was sponsored by AARP and Iowa Public Television, and Judy Woodruff was the moderator. Here's a little taste, beginning with a question to John Edwards about Hillary Clinton and her health care proposal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You have been very critical of Senator Clinton's acceptance of lobbyists' money and what you call her ties to corporate America. Well, you've now had a chance to look at Senator Clinton's health care proposal. Do you think that that it was influenced by her association with these lobbyists?

FORMER SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D), Presidential Candidate: No. No, I don't. I think her health care proposal is actually a very good health care proposal. It's very similar to mine, so it's very hard for me to be critical of it.

I do think that, as much as I respect her, I do think we have some difference about the most effective way to do this. I don't believe you can take money from health insurance, drug companies and insurance company lobbyists, sit at the table with those people, let them pay to play, and negotiate and compromise your way to universal health care. I think, if that worked, we would have universal health care today; I don't believe it works.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Clinton...

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: Well, been there, done that. Fifteen years ago, I was advocating for universal health care. And I think it's tremendous that we have unanimity here, that what was a lonely struggle all those years ago is now the accepted set of convictions for the Democratic Party.

Compare that to the Republicans. They don't have a clue or a willingness to talk about or move toward what we are committed to. Will it be hard? I know that better than anybody; it's going to be hard.

But I also know that, if we are smart about building the political coalition, which I think was not possible 15 years ago, because not enough people understood that this was not just about the uninsured -- of whom there are now many millions more -- this was about everybody, people with insurance who were being denied coverage by the insurance companies.

JIM LEHRER: Rich, as they say in another sport, how would you score that?

RICH LOWRY: I think she had a very good week, and I think she's very well-spoken. And a big story, I think, in the Democratic race is the way Hillary Clinton is dominating it without doing anything that's really going to hurt her in the general, putting aside a few things on Iraq, including that vote we just talked on about with MoveOn.org.

But there's very little room between her proposal and John Edwards', as they mentioned there, and between Barack Obama's. And it's something that she can sell in a general election.

And if you looked at her rollout this week, I think there are two key things. If you read about the 800-word synopsis on her Web site the day she gave the speech, I've never seen "choice" used so many times in one 800-word piece of writing. It was almost like a typo.

And the other key thing that she said this week right out front is that, if you like your health insurance plan, you get to keep it. And that immediately politically puts off the table and lessens the potential opposition of all those people who are satisfied with their health care, and there are a lot of them out there.

JIM LEHRER: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I think that what Senator Clinton is doing -- I think you saw her strategy very well-exhibited in the exchange with Judy and with Senator Edwards -- that is to mute all differences among the Democrats. She did...

JIM LEHRER: "We have one position."

MARK SHIELDS: She tries to do the same thing in Iraq. "There's no real difference among us. We get along terrifically."

RICH LOWRY: "Nothing to see here."

MARK SHIELDS: "No, but it's those other guys, those no-nothings on the other side." And she did it on Iraq. She's doing it on health care.

You know, it's always good to review the bidding on health care. There's no question there's been a sea change in American attitudes and values on the subject. It's the number-two issue. Even among Republicans now, it ties immigration as the number-two issue behind Iraq. So it is an issue that's ripe, and it's one where the Republicans really are nowhere. I mean, they're right on that.

I think it showed that she had been through it before, Jim. I think that she's learned from it. I thought it was sure-footed. I thought John Edwards was right. He's been the pacesetter on all these issues, on the war and on health care.

But I thought one thing that's important to remember is that that was killed in 1992, '93, '94. And the person who killed it was a friend of -- an old friend of this show and mine, Bill Kristol. Bill Kristol set about as his mission to kill health care, even before it appeared.

And he was very open about it. Rich, he remembers this. And the idea was, Jim, that if the Democrats put an entitlement on that was popular, it would be to their credit and the Republicans would be in the minority permanently.

Mukasey as attorney general

Rich Lowry
National Review
On all the key issues that are in play now and hot in the political debate, from FISA to the Patriot Act to all the war on terror stuff, he's a rock-solid conservative who's right where the Bush administration is so I think it's a pretty shrewd pick.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Quickly, before we go, the attorney general nominee, Michael Mukasey, what do you think, is he going to make it?

RICH LOWRY: Yes, he'll definitely make it. And it was a nomination that had the confirmation fight in mind. They wanted to win it and have it go relatively quickly, as it probably will.

The other top candidate was Ted Olson, who Democrats were really going to kick up a stink over, because they haven't forgiven him, among other things, for representing Bush in the Bush v. Gore Florida case.

And lot of conservatives don't know a lot about this guy. He's not a movement conservative by any means. But on all the key issues that are in play now and hot in the political debate, from FISA to the Patriot Act to all the war on terror stuff, he's a rock-solid conservative who's right where the Bush administration is, so I think it's a pretty shrewd pick.

JIM LEHRER: A shrewd pick for the Democrats?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I mean, I think Chuck Schumer, he was one of Chuck Schumer's four -- Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee chairman -- one of his four nominees that he suggested to the White House. So, I mean, it guarantees that he's got home state support. And you had Mary Jo White, the former U.S. attorney from New York, on this show speaking very glowingly about him.

I think it is to avoid a confrontation. They want someone who's confirmable. I do think that the Democrats in the Senate will exact as their price for confirmation some documents from the firing of the U.S. attorneys. And I think that Fred Fielding will be in a mood to accommodate.

JIM LEHRER: He's the White House counsel.

MARK SHIELDS: Counsel.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Rich, Mark, thank you both.

RICH LOWRY: Thank you very much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.