JIM LEHRER: To Shields and Lowry: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and National Review editor Rich Lowry. David Brooks is off tonight.
Mark, does Tom DeLay deserve to be a target?
MARK SHIELDS: I guess you could make a case he does. I think for the first time this week Tom DeLay has been an enormous and formidable asset for House Republicans. He's been the guy who could raise money for you. He's the guy who took the heat on tough issues, made the trains run on time, would butt heads and knock heads to get votes to pass the party program. And he wasn't well known. The criticism was that -- by Democrats and liberals -- that he's the doing all these things. Nobody knew him.
JIM LEHRER: You mean publicly? The public didn't know?
MARK SHIELDS: Beyond Congress, that's right. For the first time this past week there was a sense that Tom DeLay, instead of being an asset was starting to become a liability to Republicans. And that, you know, we have to explain and defend him and you probably don't want him in your district to make many public appearances.
And I think that's changed and I think what changed, in Kwame's piece we saw it, was not -- his high profile, obviously, in the Schiavo case. I think an issue that has apparently boomeranged and backfired on Republicans according to every public opinion poll that the public resisted and resented their intrusion into the particular case. But also it was the Wall Street Journal.
The left wing liberal spots didn't mean anything. But the Wall Street Journal criticizing Tom DeLay is the equivalent of L'Osservatore Romano criticizing the pope. I mean, it really -- that's expected to be the House organ, even though it isn't. And when they did it, boy, I can tell you -- and they did in the a way, Jim, they talked about him being part of the Beltway, part of the problem, part of the Washington favors, loose ethics, easy rules culture.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with Mark that he's a liability to the Republican Party?
RICH LOWRY: I don't know whether he's a liability. He's definitely been hurt. I think the import of these ads that are running against him, they're not going to take down any of those particular congressmen in those district but they increase the sense that Mark is talking about, "Oh, gosh Tom DeLay again. He's a burden, he's a nuisance, we don't want to have to worry about defending one of our leaders."
And the Wall Street Journal piece that Mark mentioned has just fed the media feeding frenzy further. And what the dynamic we are all familiar with in these sort of scandals is there's an intense focus on someone and then what would have been in other instances run of the mill Washington unseemliness becomes, you know, the scandal of the century. And he's dealing a little with that now.
Now, the reason why I don't think he's in immediate jeopardy, is if you look at the two recent Republican leaders taken down, Newt and Trent Lott, Newt, it wasn't ethics necessarily; it was a near total loss of effectiveness embodied by losing those five seats in '98. That's when he was kicked overboard. Trent Lott, it was when the White House subtly said "it wouldn't be such a shame if someone kicked him over the cliff." And lo and behold someone kicked him over.
We haven't seen either of that yet. There's no -- if Republicans lose seats in '06, big problems; if the White House begins to distance itself, big problem. Not quite there yet.
JIM LEHRER: You wanted to --
MARK SHIELDS: Just two points: I agree with Rich's points. The first is, Jim, I'd say he'd be better off if you hadn't seen the president's own public opinion polls trending down and the Republicans being hurt on domestic issues.
I mean, when you see the president and the secretary of state and the first lady all talking about foreign policy and Iraq this week instead of talking about the problems here at home and the president's foundering Social Security, there's a nervousness in the Republican ranks about 2006, which wasn't there three months ago. And I think that's part of it.
The second thing is for the first time this week I got on the Hill talk about who would succeed him, whether it be John Boehner of Ohio, whether Roy Blunt, the whip would step up, whether it'd be Tom Reynolds, who's the chairman of the House Republican Campaign Committee. So, you know, the body isn't even cold yet.
JIM LEHRER: Have you heard that same kind of talk, Rich?
RICH LOWRY: A little bit. I think it's still very early. But the fear if you're with Tom DeLay is these things develop their own momentum and once any of those guys begins to think "I could be the next one," he has an interest in perhaps seeing you fail.
JIM LEHRER: I got you.
RICH LOWRY: Tough town, right, Mark?
JIM LEHRER: The Schiavo case specifically. Rich, what did you think of what -- we ran it a moment ago -- of what Tom DeLay said on the day that Terri Schiavo died about the courts and about et cetera?
RICH LOWRY: Well, it was pretty strong stuff. I think it is reflective of what a lot of Republicans think in this case. And I think one of the takeaways from this -- I don't think it has much long term political effect in the sense that 19 months from now people are going to be voting on this in congressional districts, but this is just going to make even more intense the battle we've seen over the role of the courts.
Because Republicans and conservatives believe very strongly this was another instance where the Judiciary was overstepping its bounds, neither willfully striking down laws passed by the legislature in Florida or ignoring a law passed by Congress so the nuclear option is even, I think, is more likely than it was before.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree? The nuclear option is to -- for the Senate to change the rules so you can't filibuster. So you can't filibuster. You can't filibuster a judicial appointment. Do you think it makes it more likely now?
MARK SHIELDS: I do. I do think it does. I think energy unleashed by this -- you have to understand, the president held together a rather tenuous coalition, religious and cultural conservatives, economic conservatives, traditional Republicans, anti-government groups and he had since the election, his total direction, all his effort, energy, and attention, had been with the economic conservatives, whether it was on tort overhaul of the laws, whether it was on making sure that tax cuts stayed, whether it was Social Security.
There was a business thing; the same-sex marriage, back burner. So was stem cell research. This issue gave religious conservatives their head and the president maybe not totally in the front, forefront, but I think it energized them in a way they hadn't. I think it also showed the divisions and deep fissures within the Republican Party on this issue, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, it's rallied the religious conservatives but it's also showed -- former Sen. Danforth wrote -- had an op-ed page piece in the New York Times about this, this week. What do you think about this division?
RICH LOWRY: Yes, there's a division. But if you have a coalition that seeks to be a majority coalition at any time in American politics, it's not going to make sense and there are going to be fissures and divisions and, of course, the classic example of that is FDR's governing majority which, you know, had progressives in the North and southern conservatives down South, who didn't agree on a lot of things but they agreed on enough.
And I don't think the Schiavo case is by any means going to be the crackup of the Republican coalition. And I thought the Danforth piece complaining about the influence of religious conservatives -- look, if Randall Terry represented every religious conservative in the country...
JIM LEHRER: He's a big antiabortion leader.
RICH LOWRY: And he's close to the family down there, he's on TV everyday, and there's an air of fanaticism about him and every time he opened his mouth, my guess is the Republicans rating plummeted. But he's not representative of all religious conservative and it's kind of odd for Danforth to be complaining about this when Republicans have won three straight national elections partly based on their strong appeal to these kind of voters.
JIM LEHRER: New subject, the big intelligence commission report yesterday on weapons of mass destruction and the state of the U.S. intelligence. What kind of job do you think they did?
MARK SHIELDS: Not very impressive. I think any time you've got a report reporting after an investigation of an administration and you present it to the president himself and you do it in the president's home court with the president's own press operation totally in charge of it, they cut off all questioning after 36 minutes and bar any questions of the commissioners, hustle them out so the press can't get near them it's pretty good indication that it's probably not going to be Martin Luther tacking the theses up on the door in violation of established authority.
Jim, what strikes me most important about this report beyond unanswered questions about how the policymakers did, two important factors. One is Saddam Hussein did not mislead the American people about weapons of mass destruction. He did not have them, chemical, biological, nuclear, or the ability to deliver them even if he did have them. And who misled the American people into this war were the American leaders relying upon American intelligence. And, you know, we've made the scapegoats the intelligence community. We've just exempted the policymakers from any analysis, and I guess the thing that distresses me the most as I look at this is that happened eight months into President Bush's first term.
So, hey, listen, this was thrust upon him. We are now in the 53rd month of the president's administration. And this report says our intelligence in many instances is worse off than it was five to ten years ago. And we haven't made any progress to repair it.
JIM LEHRER: What did you think, Rich?
RICH LOWRY: I thought it was a stinging and appropriate indictment of the state of our intelligence agencies and I think it was important just on those terms. And I also think it was useful in knocking down one myth that has been afoot since the debate over the war, which is that Dick Cheney and other hawks went into the CIA and sort of stalked the hallways and intimidated people into saying that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, which is not what happened.
The commission said there was no evidence of that whatsoever. In fact, if you look at the details of a lot of this, the estimates became more dire before Iraq became a big issue for the Bush administration. Early 2001, the CIA began to change and say "look, we think he has -- is reconstituting his nuclear program." In 2000 they changed their estimate of his bio weapons capabilities and went from saying "he might have them" to "he definitely has them."
Now this was all a mistake and that's a scandal and it should be fixed. I think this is a step towards fixing it. And if I could respond to one thing Mark said, I would disagree. I think Saddam did deceive us. And the whole point of his seeming irrational commitment to not coming clean on these weapons is because they were so important to preserving himself in power. It's because if he thought he no longer could wield the fear of having these weapons within his own country against the Kurds and the Shia, it might be the end of his regime. So that's why he refused to come clean and ever just say, "Look, I don't have it."
JIM LEHRER: What about Mark's point, also, the point of the commission that things are still not in very good shape in the intelligence community and makes you wonder about North Korea and Iran and other places?
RICH LOWRY: Absolutely. I mean, it's a serious worry. My biggest complaint when it comes to the Bush administration in this regard, it should have happened Sept. 12, 2001. It was clear we had a dire intelligence failure and instead they really dragged their feet on this thing.
But also -- sorry, Mark, one last thing. Intelligence is inherently an uncertain business and it's always going to be built to some extent on assumptions and in Iraq the assumption were much too aggressive. The next mistake, I guarantee you, will be that in exactly the opposite direction.
MARK SHIELDS: Two quick things: Defense intelligence agency relied in 100 separate reports on a man whom his own handlers called unreliable and insane, all right. Second, Jim, Zbigniew Brzezinski sat at this very table with you and told the story about Dean Acheson at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis going to Gen. DeGaulle, as an emissary from President Kennedy, and telling him about the Cuban missiles there and offering him photographic evidence, the president's eyes only, and Gen. DeGaulle said the word of the President of the United States is all that I need. I don't know if that would ever be the case again.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. We have to leave it there. Thank you both very much.
RICH LOWRY: Thank you much.