JIM LEHRER: Now, the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields; New York Times columnist David Brooks. David what do you think of this debate over the war, in light of the new developments, the Libby indictment, the drop in the polls of the president, Iraq, with the Iraq issue being one of them, is this something that's going to go on and on and even intensify?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, certainly the Iraq debate will. There are a whole bunch of issues in the Iraq debate. One is did the administration plan well after the war? And they're guilty of planning horribly.
I say now in the past three weeks, really, they really have begun to have a good anti-insurgency strategy. I think now in Zal Khalilzad we have a good ambassador; now we're beginning to get our act together.
But certainly there were two years wasted, and they're guilty there. Are they guilty of manipulating intelligence on WMD? That, I think, is the thing they are least guilty of. I think Randy Scheunemann mentioned the Robb report, which showed there was no political pressure --
JIM LEHRER: This was a commission that looked at the specific issue --
DAVID BROOKS: And there was a Senate intelligence report; there was a Butler report. There were all of these reports. None of them found manipulation of intelligence.
If you go back and look at what Clinton administration was saying about WMD during those years and what the Bush administration was saying, it was very similar.
The Clinton administration thought that Saddam was about five years away from having nuclear weapons, the Germans thought three years. Everybody thought he had WMDs, like biological weapons. So on that charge, which insanely the Democrats are focusing on, I think that's where they're the least vulnerable. They're most vulnerable on the post-war planning where they are guilty of real malfeasance.
JIM LEHRER: Mark, how do you see this debate?
MARK SHIELDS: I disagree wholeheartedly with David on this. I mean, we have now reached a point -- first of all, George W. Bush won the White House in 2000 largely on the pledge not that he would take the nation in a different direction -- because by a two to one margin voters felt the country in 2000 was headed in the right direction. He said, I will restore dignity, integrity and honor to the White House.
Today, by a nearly three to one margin, they believe that the White House under George Bush and his administration is less ethical and less honest than it was under --
JIM LEHRER: New polls that came out.
MARK SHIELDS: New polls. A big majority of people believe that the administration deliberately misled the American people. It makes no difference to any American whether Bill Clinton thought they had weapons or whether the French did or the Israelis or the Germans or anybody else. There was one man who made the decision to go to war.
None of them said we're taking this nation to war. That is the most awesome decision any president can make. And the idea that Silverman-Robb report looked at it, nobody has seen the 48-page memo that Scooter Libby prepared for Colin Powell when he made the most important speech of that whole debate, the most important speech of his life, which he now says is the biggest mistake of his life at the U.N., that persuaded this nation to go to war, and he rejected just enormous parts of that report.
JIM LEHRER: David?
DAVID BROOKS: If you want to judge President Bush wrong for making a bad mistake about going to war that's fine. If you want to say he lied us into war, this really is Joe McCarthy territory. This really is accusing a man of lying and killing people. This is the most heinous charge that you can make. You had better have firm evidence about that. There is no evidence that he lied.
Larry Wilkerson himself said that everything that was in Colin Powell's speech, he believed, the French believed, the Germans believed, the British believed. These were things that were believed. Did they turn out to be true? No. But it was not a lie campaign to somehow get us into war. This is really Oliver Stone territory to say that he lied us into war; to say we conducted the war badly, that's true. But to invent a conspiracy is insane.
MARK SHIELDS: I don't think there's any question that the decision had been made long before there was any evidence to go to war. I mean, we have it on Sept. 11; we have it in Paul O'Neil; we have it in Trent Lott's book now, in the summer of 2002, being told that we were going to go to war against Iraq.
They had made a decision and then they started cherry picking, looking for reasons and whether they wanted to believe it, whether they convinced themselves, they were selective in that information, and why aren't they forthcoming?
Jim, during the Clinton years, we had Republican oversight. We had hearings on everything from double parking to lost library cards, to land deals and Buddhist temples and travel records at the White House. The Republican Congress and shame on them -- they have not had a single hearing on the war that has cost this nation $200 billion, that has killed thousands of Iraqis, left more than 16,000 Americans crippled and more than 2,000 dead -- not a single hearing.
DAVID BROOKS: Listen, Bill Clinton said Saddam has weapons. If we don't keep the pressure on him, he's going to use them. Secretary of defense, secretary of state, everybody in that administration said that he had weapons of mass destruction. We had a 98-0 vote in the Senate to get rid of Saddam because of the belief that he was a menace to the world. Now, what changed? Sept. 11 changed. Sept. 11 said, okay, now -- the change in attitude was we now can't sit back and wait for him to use it. The threshold of tolerance changed.
And so we had a big national debate. We were all here for it. A lot of Democrats supported it. Almost every single senior member of the Clinton administration supported the resolution to go to war. A lot of people like Harry Reid and Hillary Clinton voted. It was a big national debate. They all saw the same evidence.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of evidence, how do you interpret the still-falling polling numbers of the president? How much of that do you think is Iraq? How much of it do you think is the integrity issue and all these other things? Are they all woven together?
DAVID BROOKS: I think it's all woven together. You know, I think the falling credibility of the administration is just a big deal, and the White House has a mentality, we're in a valley, we'll get out of it. That's wrong. If they don't do anything to change, they're not going to get out of it.
And it's a reflection the war in Iraq has not gone the way the people thought it was. But I don't think it's the WMD; I think it's the fact that people were being killed that we have to go into Fallujah six times because we can't fight the war credibly.
I also think it's Katrina; it's oil prices; it's a whole series of failures of institutions, and really a sense that the country is not in control, that we have fiscal chaos; we have chaos in Iraq; we have chaos in the Gulf; we have chaos in energy. There's a sense that things are not in control.
JIM LEHRER: What would you add to that, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: I'd say, Jim, that right now, three out of five American voters doubt and question George Bush's integrity and his honesty. Brace Harlow, one of the great Republican wise men in Washington who worked starting with President Roosevelt all the way through President Eisenhower, President Nixon, President Ford, and counseled Democrats as well, and a great patriot, said something that's so profoundly true: Trust is the coin of the realm. Once you lose trust, whether in relations with the Congress, in relations to the American people, you've lost your chance. You've lost your ability to communicate and lead.
And I just -- I just think that has happened to the president. I mean, we used to kid in 2000 about three great American presidents: George Washington, who never told a lie; Richard Nixon who never told the truth, and Bill Clinton who couldn't tell the difference. I mean, that was a big line.
And George Bush was to be this pillar of integrity. He is now seen as morally and ethically inferior to Bill Clinton.
DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, but it's not irreversible. I mean, Clinton was much lower than Bush is now. Reagan was lower in Iran-Contra --
MARK SHIELDS: Not in the job rating.
DAVID BROOKS: They were in the 20s. But the point is, you have got to make some changes. When you go back and read about the Reagan administration, you realize how fluid it was. They really did make big changes.
JIM LEHRER: They had people coming and going all the time. This guy made a mistake -- outta here.
DAVID BROOKS: There is a war over who was really responsible for saving the administration. But the point is you look at this administration; it's built in cement. And there's an attitude that if we just ride this thing out, it will be fine.
JIM LEHRER: Well, let's be specific, the president said today -- he was asked about Karl Rove, and he wouldn't even discuss it. How long can he continue to do that?
MARK SHIELDS: I think Karl Rove -- I mean, first of all, this is the most tight-lipped administration I've ever been around certainly since World War II. And yesterday, front page of the Washington Post, above the fold, lead story, quoting high White House sources -- read either Andy Card or Dan Bartlett -- giving a green light to those quotes, whether they made them or not --
JIM LEHRER: You believe it goes that far up?
MARK SHIELDS: No question. I don't think the editors of the Washington Post --
JIM LEHRER: Would have put it above the top of the fold -- the top of the page --
MARK SHIELDS: To lead the paper unless they had from their reporters assurance who these people were, and maybe even George Bush's, not giving it a red light, that Karl Rove had become a liability and might very well have to leave.
I think when you have got a three to one margin, voters thinking you're less ethical, it's less ethical under you than it was under Bill Clinton, and less honest, that Karl Rove becomes really necessary.
I think what you could see yesterday was the brilliant Rove strategy at work; it just exactly how Rove would have handled Rove, which was, first of all, you get daylight between yourself and him and then second you smear him. It was the Rove treatment of Rove.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think, should Rove get out of there?
DAVID BROOKS: Frankly, it's hard for me to imagine because Rove is involved in everything. It's like tearing the guts out of things. I don't know.
JIM LEHRER: Does it matter that much?
DAVID BROOKS: You know, the essential problem is deeper than that. The core thing that people forget is the core Republican strategy in the second term was Social Security reform. That was built on the entire philosophy of how you should use government in the second term. When that failed --
JIM LEHRER: And to make the tax cuts permanent.
DAVID BROOKS: Right. Okay, when those things failed, they lost an agenda, and now it's a question of rediscovering an agenda. If Rove could come up with a new agenda, I'd be fine for keeping him. But the question is are they going to come up with a new agenda, a new approach -- something that --
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, for the president to reclaim his integrity, the president said during the 2000 campaign. We'll do not only what is legal; we'll do what is right. And then when the Victoria Plame thing came out he said anyone involved in this, the leaking of the CIA agent's identity, would no longer be in this administration.
He's laying down the predicate and premise as to what the standards will be -- as long as Karl Rove, having been involved in open discussion, talking to reporters about Joe Wilson's wife, then you can't say he was uninvolved. And so George Bush is reneging on his high moral principals.
JIM LEHRER: Where does the Sam Alito Supreme Court nomination fit into all this right now, if at all?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think there are actually some bits of good news for the administration. The Bernanke appointment was a good one; Roberts -
JIM LEHRER: Bernanke is head of the Federal Reserve to replace Alan Greenspan.
DAVID BROOKS: So you know they're not totally collapsing. That's good news. And so I think this was a good appointment. And I think he's in --
JIM LEHRER: You're talking about Alito.
DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, Alito. He's a mainstream conservative. I've read a bunch of his opinions, they're kind of boring but they're responsible. And so I think he's in decent shape. Is this enough to reverse the decline of the administration? So far, from the Washington Post poll today, no.
JIM LEHRER: What about Alito, are the Democrats going to filibuster this? Are they going to make a big fight, or is it just the interest groups are going to have a fight?
MARK SHIELDS: I think the interest groups are ginning up the Democrats to do it but I think a lot of the wind went out of the sails this week when two of the Gang of 14, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Mike DeWine of Ohio, two Republicans, said they couldn't imagine a filibuster in this case. So I think Alito's had a good first week. I think he's an appealing figure with a compelling personal story. Yes, he's conservative. Hey, George Bush won the election. He wasn't going to nominate Barney Frank. I mean, let's be very blunt about it.
JIM LEHRER: So you don't think the Democrats are going to make a major effort to --
MARK SHIELDS: I think some will, Jim. You know, I think, I said, when they talk about no litmus test, I mean, Karl Rove called Jim Dobson to assure him that Harriet Miers was good on abortion. The Democrats say that, you know there's no litmus test. Abortion is the litmus test. Let's be very frank about it and that's the central divide between the two parties.
JIM LEHRER: David, should too much be read -- should a lot be read into the fact that Leahy and Specter said the president wanted this thing resolved -- the Alito thing resolved before Christmas and they're not going to even have the hearings until January? What does that say?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, senators are not shrinking violets and they think they are an equal branch of government, which they are on this thing, and I think one of the things that was interesting when Miers resigned was Specter was really angry that it was his show; how come he wasn't running the show? He's going to run the show.
MARK SHIELDS: And I think it's interesting, Jim, that the president said when he nominated Harriet Miers, that she was the most qualified person he could find, so I guess Sam Alito is second or third most qualified.
JIM LEHRER: Okay, I think we'll leave it there. Thank you both very much.