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Shields and Brooks Preview the State of the Union

January 28, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, some state of union preview thoughts from Shields and Brooks: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields –David Brooks of the Weekly Standard. David, an important speech at an important time?

DAVID BROOKS: Potentially, especially on the downside. If he doesn’t deliver a good speech, it could really be a disaster for his administration. They have a history, this administration, of letting the kibitzers have their field day for a few weeks, letting them control the debate, and then the president comes in, in one of these set speeches at the bottom of the ninth, and he hits a home run. Suppose this time he doesn’t hit the home run? Support for the war is declining. Support for Pres. Bush is declining. If he doesn’t hit a home run, then that decline accelerates.

JIM LEHRER: What constitutes a good speech?

DAVID BROOKS: Getting far from the maddening crowd. There’s all this crowd debating something. What Bush has done is gone beyond them. Remember, a year ago, Korea, North Korea and Iraq and Iran, the axis of evil– people were not talking about that, but bush went far beyond them. If Bush can go beyond what the current kibitzers are saying on Medicare, domestic policy, and Iraq, and talk grandly about what America’s call is in the world, then I think it will be a success.

JIM LEHRER: How would you define a good speech tonight, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: First, Jim, I think the point David makes is a very important one, because George Bush, the adversaries and critics of George Bush, have historically, to coin a phrase the president himself he used, mis-underestimated him. He’s benefited from exceeding expectations. Expectations are not low tonight. He’s being compared not to just George Bush against Al Gore in the debate; he’s being compared to Ronald Reagan at the time of the Challenger crisis and tragedy. He’s being compared in people’s minds… not consciously, but they’ll be comparing him to John Kennedy at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

This is a president where there’s the first crisis of confidence in his leadership since September 11. He’s addressing the nation tonight. I mean, so that is an entirely different challenge for him. I think that he will get… state of the union speeches are catnip politically. They give a lift to whoever gives them, regardless of what condition the president is in politically. And the president will get a lift tonight. But I think the test has to be that tomorrow people say, “well, he did make sense on Iraq.” Iraq is the central test of the speech tonight. It’s not Medicare. It’s not even his non-starter economic tax package, which is foundering already. It’s Iraq. It’s American blood, and it’s America going to war.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

DAVID BROOKS: I basically agree. There was a debate about whether they should release actual intelligence data in the speech tonight. For weeks, the administration has been promising us they would do it. It’s been a fan dance the burlesque singers would do, where I’m going to show you the goods, and then they never show it. They’ve decided apparently not to do it tonight. I think that’s because they know there’s another speech coming in about three weeks, a prime-time war speech which presumably the president will make before we have the attack. That’s where they’re going to lay it out, and maybe next week Colin Powell. I think what he’s going to do is say, listen, America is the number one power in the world. This is fundamentally why he threatens us without any details. This is what the world will look like if we don’t act. We’re preserving the peace, not challenging it.

JIM LEHRER: Does he have to put a new oomph to it tonight? Everything you just said he has already said before.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. He can’t say Saddam is running out of time. He can’t say he gassed his own people. He can’t say all the things he said a million times, because that’s just where we’ve been. He has to address the fundamental issues, which is why act now and why act alone if necessary.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s a real test of his leadership, Jim. I don’t think there’s any question that support is diminished. The sense of fear about Saddam has been circumscribed by the presence of inspectors in his country and by the presence of American troops in the area. So the president better have a different argument to present tonight. I think David is right. They’re not going to present the evidence — at least my own reporting tells me tonight. But there is a cry for evidence. I mean, seven out of ten Americans say the president has to present evidence to get allies aboard and to get the American people aboard.

JIM LEHRER: But isn’t the word from the White House that tonight is a state of the union speech? This is not a war speech. This is not about, you know, making the case for specific… I mean, specific case and all that sort of stuff for war. It’s more of a rallying thing. That’s not going to work?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think it’s going to work, Jim. What the state of the union is, is not particularly terrific. I mean, by any earthly indicia. You know, if you take….

JIM LEHRER: What was that word?

MARK SHIELDS: Earthly indicia.

JIM LEHRER: David understood that.

DAVID BROOKS: It’s actually Greek.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it’s Greek to you. No. So, I mean, but the central… I mean, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is not the economy, which is bad, but it is in fact Iraq. It’s American troops going into battle.

DAVID BROOKS: We’re sort of stuck in a law-and-order situation where the Sherlock Holmes or Inspector Clouseau or Hans Blix is out there looking for a murder weapon. That’s not why you’re going to war because you’re punishing a crime. That’s not why Churchill would have gone to war and Roosevelt would have gone to war. Tonight he has to elevate it just above what the inspectors happened to find or not find.

JIM LEHRER: What about the additional issue that, okay, we may have to fight a war in Iraq, but we also have this economy problem, and we also have to protect the homeland security, and we also have to fix Medicare, and we also… all these other things. Does he have a problem to say, hey, we can do it all?

DAVID BROOKS: He can wrap it up. If I were to say one historical speech he could go back to and look at a model, Teddy Roosevelt gave a speech called the “Strenuous Life” speech, saying individuals have to live lives that are not modest but strenuous and vigorous. We have to adopt this and that challenge. We can’t put off our problems any longer. I would think that’s the sort of model for the speech he has to give tonight.

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t disagree with that, but the problem that George W. Bush has is, in order to do that, he has to celebrate the successes we’ve already accomplished. That’s antithetical to his political philosophy, because the successes we’ve already accomplished have been through the instrument of government, whether it’s the G.I. Bill, whether it’s building the country, whether it’s the land grant, colleges. They’re all part of a large public enterprise. The president’s whole predilection is to respond to public problems with private solutions, as he’s going to do in Medicare tonight. That’s going to be a tough sell for him, just because of his own personal convictions and philosophy.

JIM LEHRER: What about David’s point that this isn’t really about specifics tonight? This is more than usual, this state of the union is… it’s got to go another level.

MARK SHIELDS: If it does, I don’t argue with that. But if it does, Jim, it has to include some sense of sacrifice, some sense of mission which has been totally absent from the president’s rhetoric and reality since Sept. 11.

DAVID BROOKS: Teddy Roosevelt made a very daring argument. He said suppose peace had been the primary value for Lincoln and the Republicans of 1861? We would have saved a lot of lives and dollars, and yet, as Roosevelt said, they would have exposed themselves as weaklings and shameful. Peace is not the highest value. There are things worth fighting for and things you have to fight for. That’s the kind of daring speech he has to give.

JIM LEHRER: We’ll find out shortly whether he makes it.

MARK SHIELDS: Even higher than the tax cuts.

JIM LEHRER: Even higher than the tax cuts?

MARK SHIELDS: Yeah.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you both very much. We’ll see you later.