JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Mark, last night, Gingrich was clearly the major target of just about everybody. How did he go through it?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jim, there's a great question. If it's a two-candidate race, all right, it's Shields against Brooks, Shields attacks Brooks, and either Brooks benefits from the attack or he's hurt by the attack.
But when you get Lehrer in and you get seven people, and the attack is made, then you don't know who the beneficiary is. In other words, Romney didn't go after Gingrich last night.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah, he stayed off.
MARK SHIELDS: He stayed off him. And he let Michele Bachmann, who I thought did it pretty adroitly, and Ron Paul.
So, how did he do it? He showed equanimity. He showed, I thought, a couple of flashes of what we've come to expect of Newt Gingrich's characteristic arrogance. But he didn't lose his temper. But I do think that she stung and hurt with her business on Freddie Mac. And the timing couldn't have been worse, given today's stories of the indictment of the leadership of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.
JIM LEHRER: What's your thought about that?
DAVID BROOKS: Yeah. I mean, if you want to judge the whole momentum of the race, you would have to say Romney is beginning to reassert himself.
I thought he had quite a good campaign performance -- or debate performance, especially after inferior performances the last couple times. Gingrich wasn't knocked out by any means, but he was bruised around a little.
And then the other big thing that happened was Ron Paul. Ron Paul was very aggressive on not being assertive about Iran. And that's simply not an acceptable policy in Republican circles.
JIM LEHRER: They want -- Republicans want the U.S. to be rough.
DAVID BROOKS: They want a strong foreign policy.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
DAVID BROOKS: And so there's a libertarian wing, but it's just not that big, especially in pretty socially conservative Iowa.
So I thought the big movement was Paul moving down, Gingrich getting hit a little, and then Romney reasserting himself. And the other thing that is happening simultaneously outside the realm of the debates is, there actually is an air and ground game in the primary states, which we don't see as much if you're not in Iowa.
But the fact is Romney and Paul and the others, they actually have money, they have organization, they have structure. And they're beginning to take control of the debate with ads and other things. And I think that's one of the reasons you're beginning to see Gingrich's poll numbers flat or even declining a little.
MARK SHIELDS: I disagree on Paul. I disagree with David on Ron Paul.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Yeah.
MARK SHIELDS: I mean, first of all, Iowa, it isn't a Democrat vs. Republican. Iowa historically is an anti-interventionist state, always has been -- H.R. Gross of Iowa, one of the great isolationists ever.
The real hotbed of opposition to America's war into World War II was centered in the Midwest in places like Iowa. Yes, the Democrats are more dovish, but I don't think the Republicans in Iowa, while they are socially conservative, are that gripped with war fever.
My one criticism of the moderators last night was their whole foreign policy and national security question was about Iran. They never once asked a question about Iraq, which was ending, or Afghanistan. It was centered totally on Iran.
And the Republicans just -- they can't stop themselves. They just start rattling sabers. They can't do it quickly enough. They don't want to pay for it. They don't want to be involved in it, but, boy, they love war.
JIM LEHRER: They love war, David? Republicans love war?
DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I think that's a little. . .
I do think it's true. I have said this before on the program -- and I think there are experts who agree with this -- that within a year, Iran will be a major story as they get close to some sort of -- not a deliverable nuclear warhead, but close to a step in their nuclear program. So I think it was appropriate to ask about Iran. That is the looming crisis, at least in the Middle East.
The Ron Paul thing is interesting, because, just speaking in political terms, Mitt Romney needs Ron Paul to do well. Ron Paul takes votes away from Gingrich and whoever the conservative wing is.
So, if I think -- and I still think Paul. . .
JIM LEHRER: How did Paul take votes away from them?
DAVID BROOKS: Because, basically, there's a moderate group which tends to go towards Romney, or, if you want to put it, a suburban group.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
DAVID BROOKS: And then there's a more rural, a more conservative group that is split among all these other conservatives.
JIM LEHRER: Perry, Bachmann, you could name them, yes.
DAVID BROOKS: Perry and all the non-Romneys.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
DAVID BROOKS: And if Paul takes a chunk out of Gingrich, well, that brings Gingrich down. And if Paul disappears, then Gingrich probably goes up a little.
JIM LEHRER: What do you make of the -- David mentioned it. There have been some kind of fragmentary polls today saying, oh, maybe the surge, the Gingrich surge is over.
Do you sense anything like that?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, what I have sensed is first of all, how publicly Republicans have gone in denouncing him, I mean, in very scorching terms, whether Joe Scarborough, who was a class of '94 Republican in the House, now an MSNBC host, saying he's a bad man, and Peter King, congressman from New York. . .
JIM LEHRER: National Review magazine really. . .
MARK SHIELDS: . . .megalomaniac, and National Review.
But this is -- National Review did it editorially. These are people who are in office or in public life, and they're just standing up there and saying, don't do it, and many of whom voted with him and supported him when he came in, Susan Molinari of New York, Jim Talent of Missouri.
So, I think is that there's a sense that the electability question of Newt Gingrich has really been opened and. . .
JIM LEHRER: No way he could beat Obama?
MARK SHIELDS: Yes. As you sit right now, we have the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. The president is even or slightly behind a generic Republican. He's two points ahead of Mitt Romney. And he's 10 points ahead of Newt Gingrich.
And while Romney leads the president by 18 points among voters over the age of 65, Gingrich is barely three points ahead of the president. Now, that's got to be a big Republican. . .
DAVID BROOKS: Right.
And there was a poll out of the 12 swing states that has Romney beating the president handily in those swing stakes, with Gingrich just barely marching by.
Among Republicans though, it's interesting. They think Gingrich is as electable or more electable.
JIM LEHRER: Why? On what basis?
DAVID BROOKS: They're living in an ideological cocoon.
DAVID BROOKS: The fact is, the reason a lot of people who worked with him, like Molinari and Talent and such, are so angry is not because it's electability, I don't think. I think it's because they worked with the guy.
And I have said it before. All the people who worked with Romney like him and want him to be president. All the people who worked with Gingrich want Romney to be president. It's just the fact of working with him.
And there were stories of just inconstancy, sort of a rhetorical overload, which gets you the bad press, and then you don't back it up with a strong policy. You back it up with weak policy. That's the worst of both worlds.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of working together -- this is called a segue in television -- the Congress of the United States is -- is not still up to it, is it?
DAVID BROOKS: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: I mean, they're on another one of these brinksmanship addiction trips, aren't they?
DAVID BROOKS: Yes. They're going to resolve it.
JIM LEHRER: Are they?
DAVID BROOKS: They are. I think -- I have spoken to people and they're all quite -- pretty confident they are going to resolve it one way or another.
What's been interesting to me is the structure of the whole thing. The Democrats want to give the Republicans a tax break -- tax cuts for the American people, and the Republicans are saying, no, no. We want more.
It's a bit like a parent going to a kid and saying, we're going to take you to Disney World. And the kids say, we will agree to go to Disney World if you give us an Xbox and an iPhone. And the parents say, no, but you will love Disney World. Give us the Xbox. And then they say, okay, we will give you the Xbox and Disney World.
And that's sort of the structure of this thing. It's a little weird, but this is why the Republicans always win. They're getting concessions for things they already want.
JIM LEHRER: You see it that way?
MARK SHIELDS: I don't see it the same way.
I think that, first of all, the -- we're stuck in this morass until voters decide that one party is going to be accountable. I mean, as long as you have the rule in the Senate that 40 senators can stop anything, prevent anything from happening, whether they're Democrats or Republicans or a combination thereof, you're going to have this deadlock.
And what we have now in 2011, for the first time, we are going to have appropriations that will take us all the way through the next fiscal year. That's the end of September. So there won't be any recurrence of what we have been through in 2011 in 2012 of the stop and the threat and everything else.
JIM LEHRER: You mean, we're going to close the government down. No, we're not going to close the government down.
MARK SHIELDS: There's no debt ceiling.
MARK SHIELDS: In that sense, there's no chance for the Republicans to kind of hold hostage in the non-negotiable demands again.
There's no way in the world what we have watched is going to double the approval rating of Congress to 18 percent. I mean, make no mistake about that. But I do think what we have, quite bluntly, is a case that the Democrats have finessed the tax deal with the Republicans on the -- for the tax break -- that Republicans don't want to be on record -- the majority in both parties don't want to be on record opposing. . .
JIM LEHRER: Tax cuts.
MARK SHIELDS: ... tax cuts for 160 million people.
And I think that's it. And I think what we may see is a showdown then to the extension of the Bush tax cuts, eventually.
JIM LEHRER: And about -- what about the pipeline -- and the pipeline thing?
DAVID BROOKS: Yeah. Well, the Republicans see that as an excellent issue, because it's an issue that splits the Democratic Party. The unions tend to want the pipeline. Environmentalists tend not to want it.
But I'm still struck by the overall -- I don't know, the overall atmosphere of the thing. Republicans are willing to risk something extremely unpopular, like shutting down the government or not getting this payroll tax thing, in order to get what they want.
And I don't know whether it's conviction, ideology, or just really tough politics, but again and again they have been willing to risk things that are really unpopular.
JIM LEHRER: All right. We have got a couple of minutes left.
MARK SHIELDS: Okay.
JIM LEHRER: And I don't want to make the same mistake that you said the moderator made and not talk about the Iraq war. It came to a conclusion. What are your thoughts about it? Was it worth it in cost to Americans first in terms of lives and money, and also, of course, in lives of the Iraqis?
MARK SHIELDS: No, it was not worth.
This was a war that the generals opposed, generals like Brent Scowcroft, and Anthony Zinni, and Joe Hoar, and Norman Schwarzkopf, and Eric Shinseki, people who had seen combat and tasted it. It was a war favored by civilians who had never experienced combat, whether it was Richard Perle, or Paul Wolfowitz, or Don Rumsfeld, or George Bush, or Dick Cheney.
And the reality was that we went into war under false pretenses. We went into a war that was not paid for. We went in for a war on a go-it-alone policy. And 4,500 American homes will not have a son, daughter, husband or wife this Christmas or any Christmas in the future, see their children grow up as a consequence of it. And 33,000 are wounded, many in a disabling way.
I think it's left us weakened. I think it's left us with less influence. I don't think Iraq is. . .
JIM LEHRER: We, the United States of America?
MARK SHIELDS: We, the United States of America.
And, strategically, the greatest advantage has gone in that neighborhood to Iran, which now has an influence disproportionate to what it had before this war began.
JIM LEHRER: David, how would you see it?
DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, I don't know whether it was worth it. The cost was obviously high in lives, treasure and national morale.
But we have this -- we're left with this thing. We basically had centuries of stasis and stability and stagnation in the Middle East, which produced terrorism, but also produced the crushing of human capital for century after century -- 9/11 happens, the Taliban is thrown out, Saddam is deposed, people are voting with purple fingers.
And now we have a moment of turmoil. We don't know this turmoil -- it could be worse, it could be better. But it's a moment of turmoil. I think the Iraq war and the deposition of Saddam Hussein was part of the things that encouraged, instigated the turmoil. It's very messy, very complicated.
But, in 100 years or in 50 years, we will look back and see where the turmoil went and maybe we will have a better sense of how the Iraqi elections, getting rid of Saddam, getting rid of the Taliban helped lead to maybe getting rid of Mubarak, Gadhafi and all the rest.
JIM LEHRER: So, your sense of it now is that it's possible if -- that it could turn out very positive?
DAVID BROOKS: It's possible it could turn out badly. I say that with no confidence. But I would say we have moved from a period of stagnation to a period of turmoil. Whether that's good or bad turmoil, history will judge.
MARK SHIELDS: It's a terrible, terrible policy to go to war, the most serious decision a country can make, with absolutely no justification.
I mean, let's be very blunt about it. Al-Qaida was responsible for 9/11. Iraq had nothing to do with it. Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and no ability or capacity to deliver those weapons that were nonexistent.
JIM LEHRER: And you don't dispute that, David?
DAVID BROOKS: No. Well, we obviously thought what we thought back then.
But I always thought that the need to disrupt the Middle East was one of the reasons why it was necessary.
MARK SHIELDS: Unstated.
JIM LEHRER: Unstated.