TERENCE SMITH: Mark, initially the Bush Administration was reluctant to get deeply involved in the Middle East. And yet now, just this week, we have a proposal that the U.S. will help arrange an ambitious international peace conference on the Middle East to try to finally solve the differences between Israel and the Palestinians. Does that raise the stakes for President Bush?
MARK SHIELDS: There's no question about it. I mean, the political capital invested now is considerable. And the presence and dominant role - central role of the United States in organizing if not hosting the conference, I think raises the stakes, and more importantly, raises the prospects of a resolution, because there is greater political stake involved, I think there is a greater chance of success.
TERENCE SMITH: David, what is your view of that?
DAVID BROOKS: I do agree. I have been sitting in on briefings all day about this thing - I've got talk of parameters and modalities coming out of my ears. What strikes me is how divorced it is from the reality on the ground that they're still in this long process of creating the parameters for this process that will lead to a conference, talk and yet it has nothing to do with the passions we see every night in the Middle East on both sides. And it doesn't ask the fundamental question of why Arafat walked out last time. So I really have begun to get pessimistic that there really is a possibility that you'll get the EU, the Soviet Union, or Russia as we now call it, the Saudis, the U.N., all on the table with Bush and the Israelis and they'll ask Sharon to make a compromise he doesn't feel he can make; then they'll tell Bush, okay make him. And then Bush will have to say, do I make him or do I bust up this conference that I've convened?
TERENCE SMITH: Those are the high stakes.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes, and it's incredibly high stakes, and if he busts it up, then our whole war on terrorism becomes much more difficult.
TERENCE SMITH: Given that reality, given the reality of the situation on the ground that David is talking about, what are the realistic goals for a conference like this?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, obviously David is right. There is an agreement on the outcome. That's the one thing we have. I mean there is agreement that Israel has to live free and safe with secure borders and in its own safety and integrity -- that there will be a Palestinian state that will be free and autonomous. I mean that's -- it isn't like we're trying to come to a conclusion. It's all about getting there. I don't mean to minimize the problems but I do think that the President is now committed. And I think that's important. And I think it's pretty obvious that the United States is key, indispensable to any resolution. I think that is seen by all the parties. And I remain, you know, hopeful that we can do it.
TERENCE SMITH: Is this an Administration that was dragged into it, in your view, by circumstances, by the reality?
DAVID BROOKS: I think by the reality of being the world's superpower, that you have to do something. You can't do nothing. That's never an option. And so I think they were dragged into it and I think as Mark says we all know what the solution is going to be. It is going to be something like the 1967 borders. The problem is that - the reality -- you can't have peace with a piece of paper and 12 guys in expensive suits sitting around a table.
The reality on the ground matters. And the other thing that I think we're really missing these next few months and will be missing is that we have a golden opportunity to reform the Palestinian Authority because it's been destroyed. And so there really is an effort to set in so that the Palestinian Authority is not just a bunch of competing militias competing to out-terrorize the other, so it's not corrupt, so you really have something pseudo democratic that really can be conducive to some sort of final agreement. And all the effort -- from what I can see -- is on this process rather than the reality on the ground, and that there are no carrots and sticks for Arafat to not do terror, to hold people back and stop the checks to the terrorists.
TERENCE SMITH: The Israeli Prime Minister, Mark, Ariel Sharon, is due in Washington next week, will be meeting with President Bush. This week the House and Senate passed non-binding resolutions supporting, basically Israel's position, its activity in the West Bank. And what does that do to the situation both in terms of President Bush's ability to put any pressure on Prime Minister Sharon and on politics?
MARK SHIELDS: It doesn't strengthen the President's dealings with the Israeli Prime Minister. I mean, the Congress of the United States -- unqualified political solidarity, out of belief, out of affection, out of affinity, and the Democrats side, out of a political reality that they, the Jewish vote in this country has been dependently Democratic. George Bush the first got 15 percent of the Jewish vote in 1992. George Bush the second got 19 percent in the year 2000 when he beat Al Gore. And Democrats felt I think a little bit on the defensive that because President Bush has been so strong and so supportive of Israel. There won't be anybody from the Congress at the conference table. They don't have a seat at it. But this was a vote, to nobody's surprise, I don't think politically, that the Administration has said without attribution that it is not helpful. It isn't helpful to their negotiating because it certainly strengthens the resistance or adamants of Mr. Sharon when he does come here.
TERENCE SMITH: No surprise, but what about the timing?
DAVID BROOKS: The timing is appropriate, I think. I think if you read those resolutions and I really ask people to go online and read them, everything in them is true. They call terrorists "terrorists," and I think the truth is never not helpful. One of the things we've had in the last few weeks is sort of this weird moral inversion where the U.N. wants to investigate a massacre that never happened but is totally uncurious about Arafat's role in the massacres that we know did happen, at the Passover Seders and things like that. There are murderers in the Church in Bethlehem. We know who they are; we know what terrorists acts they committed, and yet somehow the world is sympathetic to the murderers who are holed up in that church. To me what the Congress did -- Democrats and Republicans - is tell the truth. I think in this time of moral fog and double standards, it is useful to do that.
MARK SHIELDS: I would just add that I think if the United States is going to play an even handed role in this, I don't think the resolution was particularly helpful. It didn't-- there was nothing in it. It was just incomplete. It was incomplete in the sense there was nothing about the Palestinians and that the United States was committed as well to their freedom, to their identity and their independence. I mean it was essentially a cheerleading resolution, which is fine, but it's not really a statement of foreign policy.
TERENCE SMITH: Let's turn our attention here at home. The House passed a big ticket farm bill -- big numbers on it and a different policy. David.
DAVID BROOKS: A complete reversal of the policy we just had. We are learning from our successes not to repeat them. I think when we talk about farm policy, we have to acknowledge that people are really hurting in the farms. Sometimes when us big city types talk about it, we don't acknowledge that fact. That is a true reality wherever you go in rural America. On the other hand, this bill to my mind is as bad a bill that has come down our purview in the last year surpassing the House stimulus package, which I thought was unsurpassable in its awfulness.
TERENCE SMITH: Bad -
DAVID BROOKS: Bad in that it leads to over production; it will cost American families a lot of money - about $4,000 over ten years in higher food bills and higher taxes. It will lower prices because we are going to be growing all this stuff we don't need. It subsidizes things like mohair, reintroduces all these old things, and then it funds all this money not to family farms but to the politically connected. I mean, it's just corporate pork on the soil.
TERENCE SMITH: Mark.
MARK SHIELDS: It is corporate pork but I think it's a political statement as well. We've had three elections in a row, Terry, in this country where the winning presidential candidate did not get a majority, where the majority party in the House of Representatives did not get a majority of the vote. And we have a Senate 50/50. This is public financing for the Senate campaigns of the year 2002. If you look at the battleground states, they are South Dakota, they are Minnesota, they are Missouri, they are Iowa, they're Arkansas, they're all along the -- and toss in Georgia with peanut farms as well with Max Cleland and basically what you have are Senators in tough races, Republicans and Democrats, mostly Democrats, whoever captures a majority of those farm belt seats will probably have the next majority in the Senate. It also signals the end of the Republican Revolution because David is right. The Republicans did come to power, vowing to break the dependency to wean American farmers from this federal largesse and that's gone. Two-thirds of all the benefits go to 3 percent of the farmers.
TERENCE SMITH: The big farmers.
MARK SHIELDS: Just to reinforce David's--.
DAVID BROOKS: A TV station in Houston went around to the neighborhoods to mansions pointing out who was getting all the money. Ken Lay gets farm subsidies. All these big Texas guys who have their ranches -
MARK SHIELDS: The city of Houston is the biggest beneficiary of any political subdivision.
TERENCE SMITH: Also here at home, it's 30 months to the presidential election and there should be a law against discussing it this early but a news magazine had it on the cover this week and we read about Al Gore and Joe Lieberman. Would Gore run? What would that do to Lieberman? What would it do? How do you read that?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, Al Gore is -- two things have to be said on behalf of Al Gore. First of all, in the 33 elections when the Democrats have run against the Republicans there have been 66 presidential candidates. Al Gore gets up and brushes his teeth in the morning and looks in the mirror and says I got more votes than anyone who has ever run except Ronald Reagan. I got more votes than Bill Clinton; I got more votes than either of the Bushes, all those guys are President and I'm not. So the idea that he doesn't want to run, that there isn't something in him saying you've got to run, is just, I think, foolish. It is understandable, it's legitimate. And as Mo Udall, the great Democratic Congressman from Arizona once said the only known cure for the Presidential virus is embalming fluid. I think that's it. I guess the other thing about Al Gore is that he looks at George W. Bush and says, my God Almighty, he is at 75 percent. I would have been just as good. I would have been just as good as he is. I think it is awfully tough. The problem is you detect, at least in my travels, I detect precious little enthusiasm for his running again. There is a sense the guy has a right to run again but I don't get a groundswell of natural enthusiasm.
TERENCE SMITH: What do you hear, David?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, I hear he is going to run. There are rumors all around town that Joe talked to Mary who talked to Gore and Gore told here he was going to run and Mary is telling you and telling Joe. Nobody is telling Joe Lieberman, though, who is sitting, waiting around, who is not going to run. I do detect more enthusiasm for him out in the country than here in Washington. In Washington there is precious little but fortunately the Washington Democrats can be bought and when Gore gets the nomination, they'll be enthusiastic.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Very briefly and finally, is President Clinton going to be the next Oprah, a talk show?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, you know, we've never figured out what to do with ex-Presidents and now we find out ex-Presidents haven't figured out what to do with ex-Presidents, the fact that he's thinking about it. Our old friend David Gergen once said every President once he leaves office decides whether he was a failed President or a successful President and his post-Presidency is defined by that. Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, Herbert Hoover devoted enormous amounts of time, effort and energy to rehabilitate what they perceived to be their failed presidencies. I didn't know where Bill Clinton figured himself to be, but this sure as hell ain't Habitat for Humanity.
DAVID BROOKS: I think it is all because Gore is getting good press and Clinton -- when Gore gets good press, Clinton feels the urge to sort of emerge as the Ghost of Christmas Past and just to ruin Al Gore's life. And I think he is going to do it, though I don't doubt that he was born to do this. I think he will just be fantastic at it, if he does it. I mean, just the reaction shots alone.
MARK SHIELDS: I think it will be a terrible mistake. I think Maury Povich who has a show said, please don't do it, Mr. President. I mean there is something unelevating about it.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. And for us, thanks both very much.