JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Brooks and Marcus, New York Times columnist David Brooks, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus. Mark Shields is away.
David, speaking of Afghanistan, public opinion polls in the United States show support for that war is diminishing. What's going on?
DAVID BROOKS, columnist, New York Times: Right. Well, politically here at home, this is going to be a tough -- I think quite a flashpoint issue. Right now, the majority of Democrats think the war is not worth fighting. The majority of Republicans think the war still is worth fighting.
But when you get into a political tussle, what's going to happen, you're going to get the left of the Democratic Party wanting to pull back. You're going to get the right of the Republican Party not wanting to support Barack Obama's war. And you're going have a left-right coalition against people like Jack Reed, Senator Jack Reed from Rhode Island, John McCain, Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, sort of a center group that's going to support the president, but this will be very tight and I think one of the big flashpoints of the fall.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, a flashpoint of the fall?
RUTH MARCUS, Washington Post: I think it could be a big flashpoint of the fall. It depends on how things develop there. But if it goes badly, if the troop levels turn out not to be adequate, if they ask for more troops, this could really be a flashpoint on the left, because what you have now is unhappiness with much of the administration's policies from the left in terms of Guantanamo detainees, the civil liberties issues of the war on terror. You have unhappiness with the way the health care fight has unfolded, with abandonment or seeming abandonment of the public option.
And now to have ousted, from the point of view of the left, one president and dealt with his war only to have another -- and President Obama is doing exactly what he said he was going to do during the campaign in Afghanistan, but I think there's not a lot of, well, patience for that on the left.
DAVID BROOKS: Right. And General McChrystal is going to come back in a few weeks and maybe not officially put the Obama administration in a corner by listing troops that he wants, but it's clear that they're going to ask for an increase of either 12,000 troops or up to 45,000 troops, in addition to the 60,000 there. That will be a very tough call.
JIM LEHRER: What about Richard Haass, Richard Haass's piece -- op-ed page piece today? He's a former Bush I administration official, now head of the Council on Foreign Relations. He says Afghanistan is not a war of necessity. Do you agree with him?
DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I don't know what the jargon "war of choice, war of necessity" -- I mean, to some extent, Abraham Lincoln had a choice before the Civil War. I mean, that's what they had an election about. So there's always war of choices.
But he is right in that op-ed piece to point out that it is a tough call, because it is going to be extremely expensive. The military people want to stay there a long time.
On the other hand, he comes down on the side that it is still a choice worth making, because we abandoned Afghanistan once. There is a high likelihood, near certainty that the Taliban would take over, because they're so rich now, if we left now. And what would be the repercussions of that?
So it's worth reminding us that we have a choice, but to me the choice is still one worth making.
RUTH MARCUS: I think it was a war of necessity that has now morphed into a war of...
JIM LEHRER: Going back to 9/11, you mean?
RUTH MARCUS: Yes, exactly. I mean, it was necessary to oust the Taliban. It was necessary to respond to the attack. I think the quintessential war of necessity is the Second World War, where you -- whatever it takes to defeat that menace is required.
Here, it's a much, much tougher choice. Afghanistan has consumed many, many different invaders, occupiers, liberators, whatever you want to call them, and public patience with it could be running quite thin. Yet the risk of abandoning it once again is also very -- it's a very unpleasant set of choices that are going to confront the president.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of the president, pick up your broader point. The polls show overview -- overall approval rating for the president is going down. How do you explain that? Is it all those things you mentioned before, or is there more to it than that?
RUTH MARCUS: I think there's more to it than that, because I was talking about the concerns that people on the left have. I think where he's really losing people...
JIM LEHRER: And the public opinion polls are across the board, not just the left.
RUTH MARCUS: Exactly, across the board, and actually even more among the independents, who had formed, you know, the core -- an important part of his victory among Republicans, who had given him some more of the benefit of the doubt.
I think some of this decline was inevitable. After the euphoria, there's going to be a letdown. People yearn for change, and then they become unsettled by it. It's human nature.
And Barack Obama's vision of a sort of post-partisan, post-special interest Washington was never going to be seen in the reality of governing in prose. And so some of this was inevitable.
In addition to that, they made the decision to take on, to use their capital, to spend, if not all of it, a big, big chunk of it not only with the big stimulus package, with the big bailout package, to do health care writ large rather than a more contained version of health care, and I think they underestimated and then misplayed the Republican opposition to all of this.
JIM LEHRER: What would you add to that or subtract?
DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I'm not sure it was inevitable.
JIM LEHRER: You don't think it was inevitable?
DAVID BROOKS: No, I mean, he's lost the independents, a group I don't think he had to lose. If he had taken a stimulus package of $400 billion instead of $787 billion, I think he would have held the independents, held a lot of the Republicans.
If he had taken sort of a more moderate version of health care reform, I think he could have held on to -- there's a Wyden-Bennett plan that he, I think, would have held on to some of those independents.
I mean, the major reason he's falling down now -- the secondary reason is the economy is still not -- you know, unemployment. But the major reason is health care reform. His major domestic initiative is unpopular. The majority -- a slight majority of the American people disapprove of it, and there's no sign that that's let up.
And so he really is in a sort of not freefall, but a serious slide. You know, Charlie Cook, who knows more about congressional elections than just about anybody, has a memo out today saying there's as much of a chance the Democrats will lose more than 20 seats in the next House elections than fewer than 20 seats, and that's a pretty serious thing. That's a terrible climate in which to try to enact health care.
JIM LEHRER: But on health care reform specifically, is it the president's failure to sell it, or is it just a bad idea to begin with that he has latched on to?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think it has some serious problems, some of which I've enumerated. To me, the problem I care about is costs. It doesn't control costs. And I think there's an element of the American people that are objecting to that.
There's a very large element, a larger element objecting to the fact that it's government takeover, and that comes -- or at least perceived government takeover on the heels of the takeover of AIG, on the heels of the takeover -- perceived takeover of the auto industry.
JIM LEHRER: Too much government?
DAVID BROOKS: And then the final thing -- and this, I think, the administration is doing the right thing -- is in some of the Medicare cuts and taking benefits away from people. There are a lot of people who say, "I don't want my Medicare cut to pay for universal health coverage." And so they're doing the right thing, but it costs them with seniors.
JIM LEHRER: How do you see that, the way the president has handled the health care?
RUTH MARCUS: Well, I think that he's allowed -- and especially in August -- the debate to really get out of his control. First of all, it's been what the Democratic proposal is. First of all, we don't have an administration proposal, so it's sort of hard to sell something which people aren't really sure what's inside the box.
Second, it's been completely mischaracterized by some of the opponents of it, you know, all that we've talked about with death panels and things like that. And it's just scared people. And the administration has spent all of its time responding to that instead of explaining what people have to gain.
And then there's the sort of conundrum of the fact that the president has spent most of his time telling people that, with health care, nothing that they like will change, which raises the question, well, then, what's in it for me and why do I need it? And so there's a paradox.
JIM LEHRER: What does reform mean, then?
RUTH MARCUS: Yes. And so -- and I think that the question that you raise about Medicare and seniors is going to come up even more. We're going to -- if you look at the polls, the seniors are the most concerned about health care changes. There are some serious changes, needed changes in Medicare, but they will affect seniors, some of them, in terms of seniors' benefits. And I think you're going to see a big Republican push on that in the coming weeks.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of the Republicans, Charles Grassley, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, very much involved in the big bipartisan thing with the Senate Finance Committee, Chairman Max Baucus, Montana, now suddenly he's gone away, it seems like, or has he? How do you read that?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, there are two Chuck Grassleys. There's the one who -- he was here in Washington, who's negotiating some deal, but then there's the one who went home. And I gather some of the town hall meetings that are happening in Iowa, and Iowans are good at this sort of thing, are triple the size of normal.
And he goes home and listens, and he gets threatened we're going to defeat you in 2010. He's up in this coming election. And he doesn't want to get defeated.
And that's been, I think, the overall effect of this August, which is a lot of people -- in parts of the country, the health care reform is reasonably popular, but in the Midwest in particular, and some areas of the South and places like Florida, it's quite unpopular.
And so he has to face the fact, do I really want to lose my seat over this? And so I just think it's, in some sense, a democratic process that's creating the other Chuck Grassley.
JIM LEHRER: Do you...
RUTH MARCUS: I think there's -- I'm sorry to interrupt you -- but I think there's even another Chuck Grassley, which is...
JIM LEHRER: He's got three Chuck Grassleys?
RUTH MARCUS: Yes, exactly. You know, it's some horrible science fiction movie.
JIM LEHRER: All right.
RUTH MARCUS: The way I think of Chuck Grassley, it's like Whac-A-Mole. He's inside the room with Max Baucus and the other members of the gang of six negotiating, I think in reasonably good faith, and then, when he pops his head up, first he gets whacked by the Republican leadership that really don't want him to come up with a sensible compromise. They see the opportunity to really go after the president on this. So he's getting whacked that way. And then, when he pops up his head, he's getting whacked at the town hall meetings.
And so, while I think that when he says these things about how we need to cut back and the staff sends the message that, no, he didn't really mean to be so negative, he's still really interested in getting to an outcome, it gets very, very difficult.
JIM LEHRER: Where do you come down on the, quote, "bottom line" that is now being thrown out there? It's going to be a Democratic package. There isn't going to -- forget the Republicans. Forget Chuck -- all three of the Chuck Grassleys. Just work with the Democrats and forget it. What do you think about that?
RUTH MARCUS: I think that's where things are almost certainly going to be. We're in this sort of Kabuki theater, "Waiting for Godot" phase, where they go through the motions of waiting to see if there is some magical agreement, but everybody understands, come September 15th or probably before that, it will appear that there's only a Democratic package. And then we're going to all be watching the Senate parliamentarian to figure out what can and can't be done in reconciliation.
JIM LEHRER: The 60 votes versus...
RUTH MARCUS: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes.
RUTH MARCUS: And it's going to be awfully messy.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, it should always be said that only in Washington can the word "reconciliation" mean a polarizing ramming through of something without any reconciliation. But that is the phrase we use.
It will be mostly Democratic, but that doesn't solve your problems.
JIM LEHRER: Why not?
DAVID BROOKS: I mean, the public plan -- there are many -- there are many Democrats in the Senate and in the House who hate the idea of a strong public plan. There are many Democrats who love the idea of a strong public plan. So the split has always been within the Democratic Party.
And I really feel -- and when it's unpopular, how do you pass the major Democrat domestic initiative of your administration when the American people don't want it, even if you do have 60 votes? That's just a tough thing to do, especially when you're split six different ways. It's not an easy split.
There are a million different issues floating around here. And for the first time, I've really begun to think it's at best a 50/50 proposition that something passes, something major passes.
JIM LEHRER: Fifty-fifty?
RUTH MARCUS: I think more than 50/50. And I think it depends on what your definition of "major" is. The reality is, is that there is a broad consensus that insurance reforms, getting rid of the ban on pre-existing conditions, requiring insurance companies to cover everybody, stopping them from dropping you when you get...
JIM LEHRER: Check that off and go on, huh?
RUTH MARCUS: All of that. You know, if only that passed, plus an expansion, say, of health care for children, plus some expansion of Medicaid, without a huge, trillion-dollar plan, that would be a huge achievement. But it's now been defined as a huge loss without, you know, a public option.
JIM LEHRER: OK, so it's Vietnam all over again. Somebody has got to declare victory or defeat at some time. Thank you all very much. Good to see you, Ruth.
RUTH MARCUS: Thanks.