TERENCE SMITH: That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and David Brooks of the Weekly Standard. David Brooks, something of a spectacle in the Senate this week, dredging up a-year-old energy bill and stalemate with the judges. Your reaction.
DAVID BROOKS: The Senate is in chaos but Bill Frist's hair remains perfect. He is perfectly meticulous.
It was disorganized and it was interesting to see Trent Lott just let it all hang out there. That was kind of fun. But he got what he wanted in the end, which was a Senate bill. They passed last year's bill. But it will go to conference and conference is Republican -- it's like there are three Houses of Congress now. There's the House, the Senate and the conference. And, that's all Republican. So the Republicans are reasonably happy about that.
TERENCE SMITH: As he said, we'll write it.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, it will be Domenici, DeLay and Billy Tauzin from Louisiana, so that will be Republicans.
TERENCE SMITH: Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: A lot of conservationists in exile.. enviros beware.
I think the best comment of the whole week was Jerry Taylor of the CATO Institute, the libertarian think tank, who said the original energy bill should be entitled Leave No Lobbyist Behind. Bill Frist was faced with having to do something and I think in a strange way Tom Daschle bailed him out.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. But what about the judicial nomination process, if you want to call it a process at this point? Where does it stand?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, where it stands is they're at 53 to 44. You can predict the vote before the vote's held. They need 60 to cut off debate. They're not going to get it. They're nowhere near.
And now we are into straight politics.
We are trying to appeal to Catholic voters, especially those most concerned in traditional moral and cultural values -- that the Democrats don't care about those things, because that's why they're stopping the nomination of the attorney general of Alabama, William Pryor -- ads are being run in that direction.
And so the civility and what has been historically senatorial courtesy -- that is that the White House checked with a senator of the state that found the senator did not object to a nominee -- now that's no longer being observed, certainly in the case of California, the case of Michigan. And ironically, Spence Abraham, the last Republican senator from Michigan, did exercise senatorial courtesy when the White House under Bill Clinton did, that this judge nominee was unacceptable. That was the case. So acrimony is real and it's permanent and it's not going to change.
TERENCE SMITH: An end to civility?
DAVID BROOKS: It went down another. This process has been in decline and I thought it was scuttling along the ocean floor but it went down another level with these ads charging Democrats being anti-Catholic.
And the thinking among Republicans is you guys have been calling us racists for the last 10 years, okay, you're calling us bigots, we'll call you bigots.
And the Republicans are actually divided because everybody knows it's not true. Everybody knows they don't oppose these people because they're Catholic. It's because they're pro-life. They could be Jewish, Muslim, Protestant. They'd oppose them for that reason. And yet there's -- some people just want to say let's give as good as we get. Other people say, no, let's not sink to that level. Let's try to have some -- you know -- let's not be Ted Kennedy here.
MARK SHIELDS: A 138 senators have been confirmed --
TERENCE SMITH: Judges.
MARK SHIELDS: -- judges, I'm sorry -- have been confirmed by the Senate and among them are several pro-life judges. So, I mean, it's not, you know, I don't think it's that alone.
But these high profile nominees are not objectionable and they are, you're absolutely right, they're all pro-life.
TERENCE SMITH: This week the president of the United States held a news conference, Mark. That's news.
MARK SHIELDS: That's news.
By this time in his presidency his father had had 61 solo press conferences. Bill Clinton, who was hiding from the press a good part of the time, had had 33.
TERENCE SMITH: By this stage in his presidency --
MARK SHIELDS: By this stage of his presidency, his first term, and George W. Bush just had his ninth.
We hope to hit double figures sometime before the term is over.
It enabled the president, first of all, to leave for a month-long stay at the ranch in Texas without being badgered -- you've never answered questions, you're continuing to avoid, you haven't had a press conference -- so it put that behind him.
It also it put behind him the best they could, what has been going on for three weeks. It started off the 16 words in the State of the Union speech; we went through serial suspects.
TERENCE SMITH: Sixteen words in which....
MARK SHIELDS: Sixteen words in which the president attributed the purchase, the attempt to purchase uranium for nuclear weapons to Saddam Hussein, relying upon British intelligence which the CIA had objected to and all the rest.
But we had George Tenet take the bullet first, the CIA Director, then Stephen Hadley. And while nobody was looking -- when Saddam's two sons were killed -- Michael Gerson, the president's speechwriter, took the blame but he kind of got knocked out of the headlines.
DAVID BROOKS: Condi Rice took the blame.
MARK SHIELDS: Condi Rice -- Condi Rice came out of this kind of bad. She talked about it, saying she didn't get a chance to read the memo. She is working for a president who doesn't read memos. I mean, you would think one of the things as a staff person you would do. So I think there was an attempt to put that -- it was three weeks that everybody was involved, was diminished by it politically -- a lot of finger pointing -- blame shifting.
And I think, worst of all, it gave Democrats, from the Republicans' perspective, a sense that wait a minute, this could be the gang that couldn't shoot straight. Maybe we do have a chance in 2004.
TERENCE SMITH: What did the president mean, David, when he said, I take responsibility for what I said -- those famous 16 words? What does that mean?
DAVID BROOKS: It doesn't mean anything. Everyone is taking responsibility. As Mark said, Steven Hadley, Mike Gerson, the pastry chef is going to take responsibility; they can all take responsibility.
We all know what happened; they made a mistake. That claim was illegitimate apparently, but he still is very proud of the justification for the war and he then went on to say I still did the right thing. The other thing that happened on that particular issue was David Kay came out this week, the arms inspector and gave some strong indications of their stuff that he's finding.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. The president asserted that all would come out well in the end. Did he add any evidence to support his justification of going to war in the first place?
MARK SHIELDS: No. What he did was, we have shifting rationales as recently as Friday and in The Washington Post we had a high ranking administration official say it was now stability in the Middle East was the underlying purpose rather than weapons of mass destruction or imminent threat.
The president, I think the other thing that should not be overlooked, he wanted to be optimistic; he wanted to be upbeat about -- both about weapons of mass destruction and about the economy. They had advanced notice that the economic growth is 2.4 percent. And they wanted to get up on that and wanted to make the pitch that it's working, that both his foreign policy... and I think there was an attempt to sort of emulate Reagan there, the idea that we can be upbeat and optimistic.
DAVID BROOKS: I just don't care if there are more press conferences, though. You know, there's sort of a prejudice that somehow you see the true Bush at these press conferences like it's going to be Barbara Walters and he's going to spill his guts. But it's never happened in press conferences. You never learn anything that -- reporters ask these stupid gotcha questions. The president evades them. What's the point?
TERENCE SMITH: There was one thing that might not have been in the playbook at the beginning, which was a question about gay marriage to the president.
DAVID BROOKS: That was the one time where he actually gave a pre-prepared policy statement, which was two steps: One, I feel for homosexuals, but I am against gay marriage.
And, something amazing has happened in the last couple of weeks, which is that since the Supreme Court sodomy decision, the percentage of people who even say gay relationships should be acceptable has, the people who say it should be unacceptable has risen 10 percent, which is basically erases a 10-year evolution of increasing acceptance, all of that gone in the period of a couple of weeks; it may come back, who knows, but there is clearly a sense in the public that if gay marriages come, wait a second, I've been quiet about it but I'm against it, there has been a sharp shift in public sentiment.
TERENCE SMITH: What did you make of the politics of the president's statement?
MARK SHIELDS: I think the president wanted to get on record. I mean, you're absolutely right; that was a prepared answer.
I didn't know if he was going to find the word codified. He looked long and hard at his notes, and it did pop up on the screen, but I think the president wanted to get on record as being both personally tolerant and politically traditional, which he did. He said the barriers with which he would fight to maintain the barriers against gay marriage.
I think what we have here is the word marriage. I don't think there is any question. It is a buzzword. It suggests a religious sanction; it suggests churches deciding who among its communicants or members can be married. And that...
But when you individually ask, don't you think a couple that has spent 25 years together and one of the partners is an extremist and facing death's decision, that the surviving partner (a) should be able to see that person and help in the final resolution of their health? People overwhelmingly agree with it.
But David is right. The numbers have changed dramatically and we don't know if it is an escalator going down or if they're stopped and they'll start going up again.
TERENCE SMITH: Speaking of numbers -- and very briefly -- the latest polls this week showed some shift in terms of approval of the president's performance. Your read briefly.
DAVID BROOKS: My read is it is coming down to 57. He is reasonably high for a third-year president. I don't pay too much attention to these ups and downs. To me the fundamental figure is the Democrats still have the security problem. They're still 30 points down. Who do you trust for security? And that's a long-term problem.
MARK SHIELDS: Whoever the Democratic nominee is has to meet the threshold test on national security.
But the most cheerful note there in all surveys for The Wall Street Journal and NBC News poll that asked would you vote to re-elect George W. Bush, that number is down to 46 percent; would you vote for his Democratic opponent -- that's up to 36 percent.
That's a major change in the last three months. And those 17 percent who are undecided at this point, are quite negative on the president's performance, especially on the economy. And that remains certainly his Achilles Heel.
TERENCE SMITH: So some shift is going on.
MARK SHIELDS: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: Mark, David, thank you both very much.