JIM LEHRER: David, what was your reaction to seeing Saddam Hussein yesterday?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, John Burns talked about the complicated emotional reactions that Iraqis have. My reaction is simple. Here's a guy who was one of the worst mass murderers of our lifetime, he's sitting before a young judge and the judge is reading his rights. I thought it was pretty fantastic.
I read a piece by Mark Bowden in The Atlantic a couple of months ago about what it was like to approach Saddam in the old days, how you had to get undressed, disinfected, waves of security. Now the guy is just sitting there on the dock. I just think it's fantastic. My reaction is uncomplicated.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Is your reaction uncomplicated, too?
MARK SHIELDS: Mine certainly was uncomplicated, Jim. I think it's – you have to say it's a real political plus for the Bush administration. No good datelines out of Iraq for them for months. This was a good one. I mean, the longer and the more the focus, the spotlight is on Saddam Hussein rather than the U.S. operation in Iraq , the better it is for President Bush.
JIM LEHRER: How did you feel, you, as you watched him yesterday? Did you have a reaction? Did you feel good, did you feel bad? Did you feel – you know?
MARK SHIELDS: I was curious. You know, I was curious about him. I was more interested, quite frankly, in how the Iraqis felt and, you know, their mixture. My feelings really have no bearing upon it and I agree with David that he is an evil despotic tyrant if justice can be visited upon him, you know, then good, and especially by this fledgling government.
But the mixture of humiliation, anger, you know, vengeance that the people of Iraq expressed and experienced according to John Burns and other observers, was really kind of fascinating to me.
JIM LEHRER: Let's go back to earlier in the week, David, the handover of power, end quote, to the Iraqi interim government. How did you think that went and the whole thing?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, I thought this was also another good story for the administration. I spoke with a bunch of the people in the administration. In the past year, I haven't seen them feeling so cautiously optimistic, let's put it that way. One administration told me the odds are now three to one; he thought that things were going to work out.
And I think that's because the political success has been significant. We now have a legitimate popular government of Iraq by an Iraqi who is well respected, who is effective and tough.
We now see the clerics rallying against the insurgency, Sistani saying it is sinful to cooperate with the insurgents, that he bans this sort of cooperation, so we now see a really pretty effective political transition.
Militarily we still have huge problems with the insurgency, and there's no clue we know what to do about that. But the political transition and the hunger for democracy and the process toward democracy seems to me going pretty well. And the administration deserves some credit for naming that June 30 deadline and then sticking with it through thick and thin, as many people told them to push it back.
JIM LEHRER: Not everybody but a lot of people did say, hey, as long as the security situation is so bad, why are you hanging in there, and they would not budge.
DAVID BROOKS: No. This was part of something called the November 15 Agreement, and when that came out, when they said June 30, I went back and read the press from that time. Everybody was saying this is Karl Rove; he just wants an exit strategy so we don't have to fight if the election with 130,000 troops there.
But, in reality, as administration people will say, this was not an exit strategy. This was the only way to stay there. You needed some sense of legitimacy to the Iraqi government in order to keep the troops there, to keep fighting the insurgency, and keep the rebuilding going. So they were very insistent on that, and I think they were consistent and it has paid off at least in the political world.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree it has paid off in the political world, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, I think the political decision has been made by the American people -- every measurement of public opinion, American people think -- they're out of there -- they're psychologically and emotionally out of there.
I mean, they wanted the turnover; they wanted it in spite of the fact that they don't believe the Iraqis can do it, that they can't handle it. Less than a third of Americans believe that the Iraqis are up to running their own government and making a go of it and then asked if it really dissolves into chaos, should the U.S. go back and a grand total of 12 percent think the Americans ought to return, so I don't think there's any question that it was reflecting public opinion in this country.
We have lost enthusiasm, zeal, whatever support the president had for his Iraqi policy, the presence of American occupation in Iraq -- that is dissolved and this is a recognition, an acknowledgment of that reality.
DAVID BROOKS: I don't know where you get that. The same poll that showed a majority opposing the war showed 53-40 they want to stay there, which is why John Kerry and George Bush think we can't get out because the majority have to say there.
MARK SHIELDS: Asked how you feel about them, whether they're going to make it, we've already made the decision we are out of there. David, nobody is going to run in 2004 -- George Bush did very well in 2002 on a pre-war footing for this country. Let's go into Iraq . Let's get tough. The other side isn't tough enough. He will not be echoing that same tune in the fall of 2004.
JIM LEHRER: What can they say? What can Bush and Kerry say?
MARK SHIELDS: It is a problem for George Bush because he identified himself as the war president. Any day, Peter Hart says, the pollster for the Wall Street Journal, the NBC News pollster – on this show – put it very well -- he said any day between Aug. 15 and Oct. 15 that Iraq is in the headlines of the American papers on the front page is a bad day for this administration.
And I think that's absolutely true because any day it's on the front page it's going to be bad news from Iraq . We had two Marines killed, Jim – you just announced that at the beginning.
If that continues, I don't care how many city council meetings there are or how many library boards have a quorum. That's really going to be a determining factor in this election.
DAVID BROOKS: I do think it's the most important issue in the election. I just don't think the American people want to get out, which is why George Bush wants 130,000 troops and John Kerry wants 150,000. He wants more troops there because I think they've both decided we're in there, we'll see it through; let's try to establish some legitimate government there and see what happens throughout the Middle East .
So, you know, right now to me it's nip and tuck. You get a split majority saying, if you ask the question, was it worth it to go to war, you now get a slight majority saying no. If you ask, was it right to go to war, a slight majority say yes. So I think that shows it's about 50-50.
I do agree with Mark that this is the issue – the election. If there is a large majority saying it wasn't worth it in November, Bush will lose. But if there's political progress, if they're campaigning in Iraq , if the insurgency is somehow quelled slightly –
JIM LEHRER: And fewer U.S. casualties?
DAVID BROOKS: -- which there already has been. Actually an interesting question is, suppose U.S. casualties come down, as they have significantly, but Iraqi casualties have stay high, how do the American people respond to that, which is a likely scenario, and that's the tough one.
JIM LEHRER: Mark, another presidential election issue of course is jobs. And today there are new numbers out that I reported in the News Summary at the top. Where does that issue stand when compared to what we've just been talking about, the war and how we got in and why we got in and how things might stand in November?
MARK SHIELDS: This is a big election issue, Jim. It's about war and peace, and prosperity and not prosperity in this country. It won't be in the election as many on the right would like it to be -- about God, gays or guns. This is a big issue election. People know what they're talking about. This is not good news for the administration. They expected a quarter of a million...
JIM LEHRER: 115,000 new jobs, the expectation had been 250,000.
MARK SHIELDS: That's right. Here's the reality. I mean, David says it's good news. I think it was good news. Saddam was good news; the administration turnover was not as good news, but quite frankly is selling the wrong message in the economy. He is saying how great things are today.
The problem is voters are really worried about tomorrow. I mean you ask voters right now, do you feel middle class is getting squeezed on health care and college tuition and gasoline prices. 1.2 million jobs gone, are you worried about this, the jobs going overseas?
And Jim, you get an overwhelming response choosing that statement preferring it by the 4-1 margin. That's their anxiety. Bush is saying how good things are now. They are worried about the future. He is saying how great things are today and I think it's a problem for the president.
JIM LEHRER: A problem for the president?
DAVID BROOKS: I don't know. I think this election, the cliche was 9/11 changed everything well actually it did. This is a foreign policy election. When was the last time we had one of those? Maybe 1960s? '68 perhaps. I think it is unusual. How do you predict it? How does it go? 72 was in some sense a Republican president – with an unpopular war – he happened to win.
In some sense I think that the best way to predict how people are going to vote on issues if you ask them on issues, it's do you think it's worth going to Iraq, that's the number one issue; the economy is way down there. I think values are above that. Talk about God, does this person share your values is sort of a vague but important question.
JIM LEHRER: Why do you think the economy is so far down?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think there are a lot of reasons. It was down in 2000. Gore inherited a pretty good economic record. I happen to think the electorate is moving towards value issues and has been for 20 years and values issues and foreign policy in some sense, a values issue, have just taken precedence over bread and butter issues.
think that's an effective, more educated electorate who tend to vote on values less than working class people. I think it's just a shift in what the two parties stand for. Quite often it's values that differentiate people.
JIM LEHRER: Is it possible they no longer hold the president responsible?
DAVID BROOKS: I think there's a lot to that and certainly a lot of truth to that.
JIM LEHRER: Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: I disagree on what people think is important, David. And we are going to have a test on it. I mean, the Republicans are going to bring up the constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage, going to have a Senate vote on it.
You know, it gets a couple of edges and it maybe picks up a point here, but it's not going to determine this election. Jim, what I find fascinating from the conservative side is Bill Clinton had eight years of uninterrupted economic prosperity in this country, really a remarkable record.
When you ask him what happened, they say he was living off the policies of Ronald Reagan. George Bush had a miserable first three years.No president can really do anything about the economy. We're in a natural business cycle. Now as things improve it is obviously proof that George Bush is working. I exempt you from most conservatives.
DAVID BROOKS: I resent that. (laughter)
JIM LEHRER: Do you personally believe that -- professionally believe that a president can affect the jobless rate?
DAVID BROOKS: I don't believe, I know. And I know that a president has marginal effect. Some people say the Bush tax created 150,000 jobs out of one and a half million that have been created. You know, if you look at the economic growth rate over the past 30 years, you can't tell who is president. It sort of varies a little.
JIM LEHRER: Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: I obviously disagree. I think the president... it isn't the president's simply his economic policy Jim. Do you want to talk about what created the propsperity of this country? How about the G.I. Bill, it took Americans... less than 9 percent of Americans had even set foot on a college campus, and you tripled that in a generation because of government policy, because of a president's initiative and leadership; that changed the economy of America ; it changed the future of America .
JIM LEHRER: Before we go, quickly, do you have a opinion about the vice president's use of a bad word for Sen. Leahy?
DAVID BROOKS: When I was at the Chicago City Council if you had taken that bad word of the vocabulary, we would have a silent city council floor, so I don't care, I don't care about it.
JIM LEHRER: Do you care?
MARK SHIELDS: I do care. I care because of the people who have come to his defense. We now learn that regardless of how objectionable, how profane an administration is going to change the tone in Washington , you can find the most righteous conservative commentators say look, it was just like road rage.
I mean, the poor guy; he's under enormous pressure, and Pat Leahy, one of the most mild manner members of the Senate turnouts out to be an absolute tiger who provokes these kinds of outbursts and even even-tempered Dick Cheney –
JIM LEHRER: David.
DAVID BROOKS: He's going to use the word off the air. I can sense it. He is going to say it off the air.
JIM LEHRER: Thank you both very much.