JIM LEHRER: Now, the analysis of Shields, Lowry, and Beschloss: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields, National Review editor Rich Lowry, and presidential historian Michael Beschloss.
JIM LEHRER: Rich, do you agree with your fellow and sister conservatives that the Alito nomination is a really good thing?
RICH LOWRY: I do. Bush realized he made a real mistake with the Miers nomination, and the first thing you do when you've driven yourself into a ditch the way he did with that nomination is start climbing out. And that's what he did by shifting course last week and nominating Alito.
And the fact is when you're hated by so much of the left, as Bush is, there's no way you can govern effectively if your own base is divided. And that's what he was looking at if he had persisted in the Miers nomination, so just in political terms this was a very wise choice.
JIM LEHRER: Is it correct to say that what this is really about is abortion?
RICH LOWRY: It's not entirely about abortion. But it's part of it. I mean, that's part of the basket of issues that conservatives for 30 years have thought the Supreme Court has swerved off course on. And, you know, this is a key issue to the entire conservative coalition is having justices who they think can be trusted to interpret the Constitution as it was written and intended and not legislate from the bench one way or the other, whether it's from the right or from the left.
JIM LEHRER: Mark, how do you read this? This is being couched as the conservatives -- Rich is saying it's more to it than that. But others are saying that a simple case of the conservatives saying, hey, if Roe v. Wade comes before the Supreme Court and Alito is on that court, he will vote to overrule it.
MARK SHIELDS: I think that's absolutely true, Jim. I think with both sides --
JIM LEHRER: With Harriet Miers they weren't so sure.
MARK SHIELDS: They couldn't say that with Harriet Miers. With both sides what you have is the equivalent in popular conversation of saying it's not the money, it's the principle. It's the money. They say it's not a litmus test. It's a litmus test. It's a litmus test on both sides. It's a litmus test for the liberals and it's a litmus test for the conservatives.
I mean, I think in Judge Alito, the conservative and neo conservative punditocracy which collectively throttled the nomination of Harriet Miers and denied her the up or down vote, we've been told to cherish and the fair hearing we've been told everybody is guaranteed to, are thrilled. I mean, they're applauding. They're pleased because they have got somebody with gravitas, they've got somebody with a major mind and somebody that they feel very comfortable with, and all of which is understandable.
And in addition what he brings is something that Antonin Scalia does not have and that is he has got a personality and a judicial temperament that I think they're confident could persuade other judges to go with him.
JIM LEHRER: So where does this leave the Democrats, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: I think we're seeing just the total opposite. The Democrats, whose strategy was to rope a dope, go mute, when Harriet Miers was there, now they realize they have to come out swinging.
And so they came out today and realized that the only way they're going to raise any questions about this man is on substance. And they raised questions on some of the decisions that he had cast when he had been in the minority and been overturned by the Supreme Court.
He said that the Congress on the question of the Family and Medical Leave Act -- which he questioned whether Congress had the authority to extend that to states, whether Congress had the authority to outlaw machine guns.
JIM LEHRER: Rich, do you see this battle over Alito becoming the big fight that everybody was expecting first over Roberts and then over whoever the second nominee was going to be? Is it going to happen now? The Democrats are really going to come out and we're going to have a big fight?
RICH LOWRY: That's certainly the way it looks. Let me give a brief thought in defense of conservatives on Miers. You know, part of the White House spin, an attempt to sell Miers to the right, was she will vote the right way on Roe. I mean, they almost said that explicitly and publicly.
And you had conservatives saying, no, sorry, that's not enough. This is a serious institution. You need someone who has serious qualifications for it. And you also need someone who has a cogent and discernible philosophical approach to interpreting the entire Constitution so just a result is not enough.
But on the fight, yes, I think this is Armageddon that both sides have been gearing up for and how it plays out, hard to say. It looks as though Republicans will have the votes. If he is as impressive as he seems to be and if Mark is correct and he is a personable presence at the hearing the way John Roberts was, which will take a lot of that edge off the attacks on him on civil rights and abortion because he won't be so threatening.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Now, Michael, this comes -- this nominee today -- this nomination today comes in a context of the president having a lot of problems.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He's not had a great couple of months --
JIM LEHRER: He's not had a great couple of months. What does history show about the president in the kind of situation that he is in doing something like this, taking a step like this and in terms of digging out or whatever cliché we want to use?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That's a pretty good one.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think, you know, if you're looking at just this nomination, it gives you a big insight into George Bush. Other presidents in trouble might have said I've got to widen my appeal; I've got to get people believing in me again.
What he is saying is look at the two big political crises I've had in the last five, six years. One was after he lost the New Hampshire primary to John McCain in 2000 by 18 percent, he clung to his base. He revved them up, went into South Carolina and they saved him.
The same thing happened in the election just a year ago. In the fall of 2004 many people were giving George Bush up for dead. He said, you know, I don't have to have a big margin of victory but I have to get my conservatives out and voting and energized and they saved him.
So his natural instinct at a time like this is not to go for a more centrist nominee but to someone who's a name brand conservative like Alito.
JIM LEHRER: But is this, the politics of that aside, in terms of, what does history tell us about the ability of any president to reemerge from where -- from being as down as the president is right now in terms of the polls and Iraq and we've got -- and of course the leak investigation -- all kinds of other things.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: They bounce back. You know, Ronald Reagan is probably the best example of this, George Bush's hero. In March of 1987, he was really on the ropes. At the time of the Iran-Contra scandal he gave a speech saying-- it was a wonderful line -- he said to Americans, if you have lived your life properly, of course you'll make mistakes. You'll learn from them. You change and you go forward. And Reagan's poll ratings went up as a result of that.
But that's very much unlike George Bush. We know from seeing him as president, he is someone who does not like to admit mistakes, sees it as a sign of weakness, so it's hard to imagine him doing that kind of thing even if he felt that that would help.
JIM LEHRER: Mark, where do you see this as a recuperation move?
MARK SHIELDS: I think it shows the president is willing to have a fight, which I he's going to have one --
JIM LEHRER: You mean with the Democrats.
MARK SHIELDS: That's right. But it's a fight that he has a real chance of winning. So I think that he's picked this fight.
Just to pick up on what Michael said, I think the capacity of the American people for forgiveness is near infinite.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Yeah, amazing.
MARK SHIELDS: I mean it's not simply John Kennedy saying success has many failures and failure is an orphan, taking full responsibility after the fiasco and failure of the Bay of Pigs but it is Bill Clinton after a totally embarrassing episode, humiliating; it is Ronald Reagan after Iran-Contra.
But George Bush, I mean, this is an administration that the mea culpa has not been easily spoken -- or ever spoken. During the campaign, he was asked -- say one thing you would have done differently -- one mistake you have made -- no.
I just think that one of the problems a president has is that even Lyndon Johnson in the darkest, darkest moments of Vietnam had around him people like Clark Clifford and Mike Mansfield, the Senate majority leader and George Gall, the undersecretary of state, all of whom were telling him he was wrong on Vietnam, disagreeing with him, and making the case against him.
And this is not a White House that has welcomed or encouraged dissent.
JIM LEHRER: Let me ask Rich about that.
Rich, a lot of folks are saying, Mr. President, clean house, meaning the White House. This is terrific. Alito is terrific but you have to do more. Where do you come down on that?
RICH LOWRY: Well, it probably could use a freshening up. I think in any White House an ossification kind of sets in after four or five years, especially when you have the same kind of central players. But Bush certainly isn't going to do it in any way that looks like a panic move.
I think the most important thing is his agenda. And if you look at Clinton, he proved that substance trumps scandal. And Clinton was dealing with a scandal that had a lot more sex appeal I think than this leak scandal.
But the problem Bush has if he goes to substance, where is his substantive and popular agenda. It's very hard to see. And if you would generalize about Clinton after 1994 you'd say Clinton governed on the basis of small popular things.
If you look at the second term of Bush so far, you'd say he's trying to govern on the basis of big unpopular things. The Iraq war -- even if you think it's necessary and right, unpopular; Social Security apparently unsalable, very unpopular and now dead. So he really needs to retool his agenda and get whoever is necessary to help him do that on the inside.
JIM LEHRER: Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But, you know, another thing is that, you know, we look at the precedents: people like Nixon and Reagan and Clinton how they dealt with crisis and scandal. They were all dealing with Congresses that were owned by the opposition.
George Bush can fairly say, you know, I've got both Houses of Congress at least at the moment. That gives me some power that these other presidents did not have. So I think his temptation to do the kind of thing that Rich is talking about is probably fairly low.
The other thing that was fascinating today, Scooter Libby obviously resigned. Dick Cheney replaced him and he replaced him not with someone new from the outside as all the pundits have been saying but with two people who were already on the staff. It was almost his way of saying, this is what I think of all this advice to change my staff.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
MARK SHIELDS: One difference between Clinton and Bush in this sense -- and I agree with Rich's point -- is that Bill Clinton did the difficult thing in the first term. That was the budget balancing and he increased taxes. That's when he took the hit and that's when the '94 elections.
George Bush did the easy things in the first term. He had three tax cuts. Now -- I mean, Clinton in the second term could --
JIM LEHRER: Iraq was a difficult thing.
MARK SHIELDS: Well, but it was a mistake. We can say it was a mistake now. But it wasn't a difficult thing to do at the time.
JIM LEHRER: Oh, I got you.
MARK SHIELDS: It wasn't against public opinion. And I mean Clinton reaped the benefits of the balanced budget, the first balanced budget in 30 years in his second term so it gave him the latitude.
I mean, Bush doesn't have many resources right now to take many initiatives.
JIM LEHRER: That's your point too, Rich. There's no place for him to go and get something popular to get out there and hustle, right? RICH LOWRY: Well, he can find things. I mean one of them is following on from Mark's point is trying to clean up the fiscal house in Washington and get the spending and pork barrel projects under control in Congress. Now it's easier said than done but it's at least a project that would be notionally popular; simplifying the tax code -- something else that would be popular; reforming the immigration system in a way that controls the border better -- that's something that would be popular.
So he would have to try to position himself again as a reformer, which again is difficult when you've been in office for five years. And it will also be nice if he could find some upbeat kind of things to emphasize because the news, it's almost a biblical wave of bad news that he's suffered, you know, between terror attacks and floods and fires and now we have the pestilence covered with the avian flu.
You know, next it's going to be locusts. So if he could find economic numbers or something to be upbeat and positive about, that would be important as well.
JIM LEHRER: One second.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He can do all of this until the cows come home but what history says is unless Americans feel better about this war, he's going to have a ball and chain chained to his ankle.
Harry Truman, otherwise pretty popular, Lyndon Johnson the same, they were dragged down completely by unpopular wars.
RICH LOWRY: I agree with that.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Thank you all three.
MARK SHIELDS: I agree too.
JIM LEHRER: Do you really?