RAY SUAREZ: Mark Shields and David Brooks are both off tonight, but here to supply insight and analysis are National Review editor Rich Lowry and Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant.
And, Tom, people may be wondering why they haven't seen you for a while. But since you wrote about it in the paper, I guess, I can say that you've had some really challenging health problems and it's great to have you back. How are you feeling?
TOM OLIPHANT: Much better and thank you, Ray, very, very much. It's a tough thing for a left-wing writer to go through because you have to satisfy the doctors five times a day that you know who the president is.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Rich, today the president, the self-same president, had a news conference with the new Iraqi prime minister (Ibrahim al-Jaafari). He's always made a virtue out of never modifying his Iraq policy in the face of changing circumstances. He stuck with that today. But do the poll numbers, the most recent ones, show that that idea is working?
RICH LOWRY: Well, the polls are obviously sagging and it's a concern at the White House. Part of the reason they're sagging -- not the only one - but part of it is that after the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq, I think the administration just wanted to move on and Bush wanted to talk about other things because he'd invested so much time and energy into Iraq during the first term. And that turns out to have been a mistake. There's still a live shooting war going on there and it can't be ignored. And he has to be constantly reminding the public of his case for the war there.
And -- but more importantly than anything that he's going to say, and there's definitely a PR campaign going on here that's going to culminate -- a big part of it will be the prime time speech on Tuesday, but the more important thing is to make the policy succeed on the ground, which is the difficult question.
RAY SUAREZ: Tom, what do you think?
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, I listened very closely to the president this afternoon and then studied the transcript and I was anxious to see if he was sounding more like Gen. (John) Abizaid on Capitol Hill yesterday sober, realistic concerned or hyperbolically optimistic like Vice President Dick Cheney. And I thought he sounded more like Gen. Abizaid.
And despite all that's happened in the polls, I think there's a number that people forget and that is that nearly all Americans want the good guys to win. And are concerned about the current situation and are looking for some changes in our approach that don't have a partisan tinge to them.
And the big question, I think, on Tuesday night is whether the president is just hortatory or whether he's also realistic and perhaps ready to announce some tweaking of our policy.
RICH LOWRY: He will be realistic. Those Cheney remarks where Cheney said the insurgency were in its last throes were a mistake. And the administration has always been at its worst in Iraq when it let its rhetoric become totally disconnected from reality. And the Cheney remark is the worst example of that since way back at the beginning of the insurgency when Don Rumsfeld was insist there was no guerrilla insurgency in Iraq. Again, it was a U.S. general, it may have been Abizaid who said "No, this has the classic hallmarks of an insurgency."
There are two big pieces in Iraq that have to happen: A counterinsurgency win through politics, not just through military means. So this is one thing that has been going right. The political process has been moving steadily ahead and there are signs that the balance of Sunni opinion now realizes it was a mistake to boycott the election and wants to join the legitimate political process. That's a big deal.
But what the U.S. Military is going to have to do is what they did against (Muqtada al-) Sadr a year ago, which is really pressure him, coerce him and ultimately co-opt him into the political process -- very messy, a lot of compromises, a lot of fits and starts. That's what they're going to have to do with the Sunni elements of the insurgency. The foreign Jihadists are another question.
RAY SUAREZ: Let's turn away from public opinion polls for a moment and look at the Hill. With the request from the administration in the recent spending authorization that measurable objectives, "measurable objectives" be set out by the administration, with bipartisan groups, bipartisan support now for a timetable, some indication of relation to the calendar about when we start to draw down, is that a sign that support is at least softening on the Hill for this adventure?
TOM OLIPHANT: Not necessarily, Ray. The first part I'm sure is correct. I'm not so sure about timetables though. The president was quite adamant on the subject this afternoon, and I don't think there's any irresistible pressure in Congress for timetables, withdrawal schedules, things like that.
I think the word -- the word that I prefer has been used by Sen. Joe Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is looking for what he calls benchmarks. Specific goals in -- that measure progress against the insurgency and in reconstructing Iraq that the president will report on with some regularity to the country so that we all get used to leveling with each other instead of yelling at each other.
RAY SUAREZ: What do you think?
RICH LOWRY: That's a reasonable idea. And I know within the Pentagon they try to quantify these things at least and they keep track of this stuff very closely. So I don't see anything wrong with sharing that more broadly with the public.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, the other day Karl Rove speaking to the Conservative Party of New York State said, "Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers, while conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war."
There's been a big flap ever since. What do you make of the statement and its aftereffects?
RICH LOWRY: Well, first of all the administration, the White House, is absolutely delighted by the controversy for two reasons: One, they think when Democrats go out and say, "We're not weak on terror. We're really, really not weak" it really puts them in a defensive posture and there's a little bit of "When did you stop beating your wife" aspect to the controversy.
Two, I think although Rove over generalized, the remarks are broadly defensible. If you look at the sort of things that moveon.org or Michael Moore or George Soros or (Noam) Chomsky have said about the war on terror and these are people who are important pieces of contemporary liberalism, they've said the things that Rove accuses them of saying - maybe not therapy.
But Peter Beinhart, the editor of the liberal New Republic, wrote a widely-hailed essay several months ago saying that the problem Democrats have is liberals are not showing a passion for rising to the totalitarian challenge of this age, which is defeating al-Qaida, and Peter Beinhart was correct when he said it and I think Karl Rove was correct when he said it.
RAY SUAREZ: Tom, what do you make of that remark?
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, I sat here at this table with one of the conservative movement's best spokesman, Bill Kristol, on the afternoon and evening of Sept. 11, and one of the first things we agreed on was that this is war. The invasion of Afghanistan was supported unanimously in the Senate and with one dissent in the House.
I think that Karl Rove's poor judgment in New York sort of levels the playing field with Dick Durbin's poor judgment several days before. But I think the more harmful political effect of this kind of stuff, again, is that it drowns out the voices in both parties who have a lot of positive suggestions to make as to how the battle against the insurgency in Iraq and the war on terrorism more generally can be fought more effectively.
And at some point, I still believe quixotically perhaps that those voices are going to triumph because I think people are going to get tired of these shouting matches.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Rich, if you look at the Congressional Record there was just about no opposition to going to war in Afghanistan. Was Karl Rove conflating Afghanistan with the war in Iraq?
RICH LOWRY: Well, one, he was not saying Democrats. He was contrasting conservatives with liberals and moveon.org is a liberal outfit; Michael Moore is a liberal movie person who's welcomed as a conquering hero at the Democratic National Convention; George Soros is a liberal funder.
So these are liberals, and so you can say they over generalized, but there is truth to what he said. And I think you see a slightly complex relationship that Democrats have with the word "liberal" -- is when a Democrat runs for president they insist, "I'm not a liberal." John Kerry: "I'm not a liberal, don't smear me that way." But then Karl Rove attacks liberals, for some reason, Democrats are very offended.
RAY SUAREZ: Well there was a similar storm, Tom, after Dick Durbin made his remarks, reading some of the things from FBI reports on what happened in Guantanamo and saying, "if I read this to you and didn't tell you that it was an FBI report on American activity, you might think it was the Nazis, the Soviets in their gulags or some mad regime." Again, the same thing: Calls for apologies, denunciations, thunder from the left, thunder from the right. Does any of this have any lasting effect?
TOM OLIPHANT: There's no doubt in my mind that it is a turnoff for the country and that it reflects an inability of political leadership, especially here in Washington, to exercise minimal amounts of self-control.
I understand the rationale that's made on Karl Rove's behalf. I understand the rational that was made on Dick Durbin's behalf. What I felt was interesting about Durbin is that it led to introspection on his part, and he honestly believed after studying that he could see how people would make the interpretations they did. And that is why he apologized. And the reason I don't think he's hurt by the episode is that he has so many friends on both sides of the aisle who basically trust his good character.
Now, picking at the scab of national unity from the other side, I don't think it matters whether he says he's sorry or not. Apparently he's not going to. But the deeper damage is to the possibility of the consensus arising that I believe President Bush needs if we're to prosecute this involvement in Iraq to something resembling a successful conclusion.
RAY SUAREZ: I want to quickly touch on John Bolton's repeated inability to get a final vote in the Senate. Where do things stand now?
RICH LOWRY: Well, it was really mishandled this week by the Senate leadership and by the White House. They needed the first cloture vote a week or so ago. Bolton effectively had 58 votes. That wasn't the vote count for various technical reasons, but he had 58.
And the White House needed to get two more Democrats and they never had a strategy for how they were actually going to do that. I think they thought it was just going to happen through alchemy or something. So they held a cloture vote on Monday with very little purpose or very little hope or strategy toward victory, and they actually went a little bit backwards.
And there's a dispute over documents that the Democrats want. At this point, it's absolutely clear the White House either has to deal with the Democrats on those documents, which is actually what Trent Lott has been advocating now for a long time. And if they do that, the cloture vote will be winnable, and Bolton will get a Senate confirmation. If they're not going to do that, it'll have to be a recess appointment.
RAY SUAREZ: Tom.
TOM OLIPHANT: Just before the vote, Andy Card, the White House Chief of Staff called Joe Biden, one of the leaders of the Democrats here, and offered to talk about some documents relating to a speech Bolton didn't give about Syria. And that was it.
What I thought was new this week was that the Republicans in the Senate and the White House were saying different things. You started to hear this, "Hey, we've done all we can, there's nothing more we can really do." Bush calls them down to the White House, pep talk, "We're going to keep trying, but without any clear strategy." This is a stalemate.
RAY SUAREZ: Great to see you both, especially you, Tom.
RICH LOWRY: Welcome back, Tom.
TOM OLIPHANT: Thank you.