PAUL GIGOT: Welcome to THE JOURNAL EDITORIAL REPORT. As many of you may know, this is our last broadcast on PBS. For the past 15 months we've tried to bring you a coherent, responsible conservative view of the news. On this final program we'd like to look at some of the major issues we've covered, and at how things have changed, or not.
Joining me are Dan Henninger, columnist and deputy editor of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL editorial pages; Steve Moore, our economics specialist; Kim Strassel, a member of the editorial board; and Rob Pollock, a member of the board who specializes in national security affairs.
First, of course, the war. More than a year ago we were trying to figure out how long the President could count on support.
DAN HENNINGER: I believe the president did get a mandate to pursue the war on terror, that's clear. Did he get a mandate to pursue his strategy in Iraq? It's not so clear to me. I think there was a lot of discomfort out there in the country about the way Iraq was prosecuted. And I think that this President is going to have to go in front of the people and explain in much greater detail than he did what he plans to do in Iraq.
PAUL GIGOT: How long, Dan, do you think the President has here to be able to convince the American people that we're on the path to success in Iraq, before we really start to look at erosion of public support?
DAN HENNINGER: I would say a year. I would say that he has got to -- and I think it depends a lot on the president interacting with the American people much more than he has on this subject, informing them, giving them details about the progress. Otherwise you default to the television images.
PAUL GIGOT: Dan, you sure looked prescient in that one. How do you explain the fact that public support for the war has fallen as far and as fast as it has?
DAN HENNINGER: Well, as the last line in that clip said, we defaulted to the television images and we got John Murtha. We ended up with a situation in which all of the bad news coming out of Iraq, which is mainly a story of violence and bombings and death, overwhelmed all of the good news. And you know, there's a real irony in this, I think. It is probably true to say that there is more honest political constructive dialogue going on in Iraq right now among the political parties than is happening in Washington, D.C. Truly.
PAUL GIGOT: My reading of history is that the American people will accept casualties in a war, even heavy casualties, as long as they believe that their leaders have a strategy for victory, a strategy of how we're going to get to achieve the goals that they have laid out. How do you explain, Kim, the President's failure to keep that strategy in the forefront of the public mind?
KIM STRASSEL: I think he just -- I mean, Dan actually said in a column today that it's one of the great mysteries out there. But he's changing that. This week the speeches that he gave, he finally came out, and I think he's doing what he's needed to do all along, which is to be honest with the American public, in which he's actually admitted that we've made some mistakes and he's said that this is what we need to fix them. But he's also said we're going to win this, and this is what Americans need to hear. And that hasn't happened over the last year.
ROB POLLOCK: And I think it's been a big mistake that he hasn't been over there for about two years now. I mean, look, great world leaders take ownership of their conflicts. Churchill was chomping at the bit to get over the shores of France after D-Day. Bush has been to Iraq once, and it was to visit the American troops.
PAUL GIGOT: Thanksgiving of 2003.
ROB POLLOCK: Yeah, and he needs to go there and force the media to cover the fact that about 80 percent of Iraqis at least think he's the greatest thing since sliced bread.
KIM STRASSEL: Well I mean, that's the incredible irony here, too, is that just as Americans are losing so much faith in this, and the politicians are ducking for cover, Iraqis have more faith than ever before. A recent poll came out that said that two-thirds think they're better off than they were a year ago, and 80 percent or more believe that they're going to be better off a year from now.
PAUL GIGOT: You know, I think one explanation for the president's failure is that the good news they got in January with the elections being as successful as they were, and then you had the breakout of Syria and Lebanon, you had the movement in the Middle East with Egypt and the kind of, at least small blossoming of democracy. And I think the White House said, look, this is moving well. Now we can turn our attention and our political capital to the domestic agenda, Social Security and things. Now I think that turned out to be a mistake, because wars are such big events, and the American public does not want to accept casualties unless they know that we're on the right course.
ROB POLLOCK: And let's not forget the disarming of Libya and the unraveling of the AQ Khan nuclear proliferation network and other important side benefits of the war that haven't been properly sold or reported.
PAUL GIGOT: Rob, we ran two articles recently, ones by James Q. Wilson, the political scientist, and the other by Joe Lieberman, democratic senator from Connecticut, saying that the war is going better than a lot of the reporting here has said. Are there reasons for optimism, looking ahead to 2006 in Iraq?
ROB POLLOCK: The reason for optimism is, they're going to go have an election in less than two weeks now. This is going to be the election that puts in a permanent four-year government. We're not talking about interim governments any more. We're talking about a government of unquestioned legitimacy that's going to be there, and it's going to have time to do things and make some tough decisions. We've got that coming along. And they're going to take over an Iraq army that's been built up by especially General David Petraeus and now Martin Dempsey, that has some 45 battalions that are able to operate in the lead in combat. There's really something to work with there.
PAUL GIGOT: And the U.S. is now, instead of taking the lead on a lot of these exercises, is embedding American soldiers and officers into a lot of the -- into every unit, so that they can help and force the Iraqis to take the lead. It's going to be a long road though, isn't it? We're still going to be there in force at the end of next year.
ROB POLLOCK: We're going to be there in force, but I think it's not inconceivable we could be there in significantly less force.
PAUL GIGOT: All right, Rob, thanks very much.
Next subject. The state of the economy, spending and taxes, and Social Security reform -- once the president's major domestic goal.
STEVE MOORE: If there were any more of a bull on this economy, I'd have horns coming out of my head right now. It's hard to see virtually any negative signals. This is about as good as it gets.
PAUL GIGOT: Well all right, then if things are so good, why do people feel so lousy, Kim?
KIM STRASSEL: I think there's a lot of stuff that are dragging down, that are weighing on people's minds. We've got 60 dollar a barrel oil, which is certainly, I mean, has made all energy costs much higher. People are living under a constant threat and worry of another terrorist attack, there are questions of rising interest rates ...
BRET STEPHENS: What this really comes down to is a choice for the Republican Party. Do they want to be the party that is of government, which is to say, getting re-elected year after year by sending pork back home the way the Democrats did for 40 years? Or do they want to be a party that's in government, and that can continue to sell itself as a tax-cutting party? It's becoming very hard to do if they can't get the spending under control.
JASON RILEY: That is the point exactly. This spending could lead to higher taxes. Republicans are in control. They could get blamed for those higher taxes.
PAUL GIGOT: The simple fact is, the political math here is that the President could get something passed, needs five, maybe six Democrats to get 60 votes in the Senate.
DAN HENNINGER: The only way this is going to happen is if George Bush goes into the country and sells this idea, and if the country responds. Then Congress will feel it's under some pressure to do something. Absent that, I don't see the Democrats -- if Bush proposed Hillary Clinton's first health care plan, they'd oppose it.
PAUL GIGOT: Steve, a year ago Republicans took over the Congress and the White House again. Congress for the first time with big majorities since 1954. I want to read you a list of their very small accomplishments: bankruptcy reform, class action law suit reform, basically a venue change from state to federal courts, Central American free trade agreement, and I know your favorite, the highway bill. Whatever happened to the big Republican reform agenda, and their ability to govern?
STEVE MOORE: Yeah, it's hard to imagine how euphoric conservatives and Republicans were feeling exactly a year ago versus the gloom today. I think there were a couple of problems. Number one, the Republicans have done a lousy job of selling the fact that their policies have been working, especially the tax cut. I mean, the economy is booming, and just as you said, Dan, that President Bush has done a lousy job of selling the war, he's done an even worse job of celebrating his strong economy.
Second of all, I think they underestimated how hard it would be to reform the biggest entitlement program. I give Bush a lot of credit for going out there and trying to reform the thing, with Social Security, but that fell flat. And then I think finally, and most importantly, the Republicans have now become defined as a big government party. And that has, I think, deflated the base of the Conservative movement, and it has basically stood in the way of achieving any policy goals.
PAUL GIGOT: You know, Dan, our former boss, Bob Bartley, had a phrase he liked to use, a concept he liked to refer to, called Occam's Razor, which is that the simplest explanation is usually the right one. And I think the Occam's Razor explanation for the Republican failure to govern is Bush's approval rating. Presidents aren't really strong, particularly on domestic issues, in the American constitutional system. The power of thepresidency is the power to persuade. And when you're at 38 percent approval as president, it unites Democrats, it divides Republicans.
DAN HENNINGER: And you can't get to 38 percent if only Democrats are being polled. That's a bipartisan rating. And the eight trillion dollar gorilla in the room is that prescription drug benefit. I mean, we were ...
PAUL GIGOT: That they passed in 2003.
DAN HENNINGER: Yeah, I mean we were visited by about 40 conservative think tank leaders here in the past week. And that spending problem is the single biggest thing on their mind. And you know what? At the end of this week we have this terrific jobs report -- 215 thousand new jobs over the past month. Alan Greenspan went up before Congress and he said, the economy is going very well. And then he started talking about this entitlement outlay, and how in 2030 it's going to consume about 13 percent of gross domestic product. And they were talking about the prescription drug benefit. We're talking about this horrible commitment they made that people know about.
KIM STRASSEL: You actually are onto something. Right now, all the Republicans in Congress are looking at the President's approval rating and their own rating, and it's become every man for themselves. They're looking at next year's election. And there's no more unity. And that has had a huge effect on a couple of really big issues. Like, for one, extending the tax cuts that have been so important to actually making this economy going.
PAUL GIGOT: This gets to this issue of what are the real -- you were right about the economy, Steve, but this gets to the issue of what are the threats to the continued expansion. Because without that strong economy, boy, what would Bush's approval rating be? Twenty-five?
STEVE MOORE: Well, the tax cut has worked. And this is my biggest frustration with the administration, and the Republicans. They haven't been out there selling the fact that their policies have worked. Now President Bush, when he ran for president last time around, the one concrete promise he made is, we are going to make these tax cuts permanent. And I believe one of the fundamental legislative mistakes the Republicans made was not, as soon as they took office in January of last year, putting that through. Look, we have more jobs, as you said, more economic growth, and more tax revenues coming in. The tax policies have been working.
ROB POLLOCK: Nobody wants to be the skunk in the parlor, but I think if you look at the fundamentals, I see two particularly worrying signs, one of which is the price of gold, the other is asset prices generally, particularly ...
PAUL GIGOT: You mean economically?
ROB POLLOCK: Particularly the ... yeah, the price of housing. And I think that there's some uneasiness out there that the economic expansion could be a function of too much money floating around.
PAUL GIGOT: Let's talk about a couple of other domestic issues: immigration and energy. Kim, you'd think with 60 dollar oil, three dollar gasoline, this was a time when we'd be able to get drilling in Alaska, drilling on the outer Continental Shelf. And yet, no. What's happening?
KIM STRASSEL: I think every time Congress meets on energy it gets a little bit uglier. They passed a bill that if anything is going to raise prices for Americans. This was back earlier in the year. And now they've had a couple of opportunities. The House got together and finally passed something that would expand our refinery capacity, went to the Senate, and one Republican managed to hold that up. And meanwhile, the Senate for the first time in years manages to pass authorization to drill in ANWAR and the House, which had passed it five times previously, couldn't manage to pass it. So we are no closer to having higher but greater energy supplies than we were years ago.
PAUL GIGOT: And Republicans are divided on immigration.
STEVE MOORE: Boy, are they. This is a really tough issue for the president. But I think he's finally got it right, Paul. In a speech last week he basically said what we need to do is more border enforcement, which is very popular, a guest worker program so that businesses can get the workers that they need, and then something that would be a sort of pro assimilation, because Americans want the immigrants to become Americans and to assimilate into our culture. If he can pull that off, this would be quite a political coup.
PAUL GIGOT: I'll tell you, I think none of that's going to happen, however, until the president -- nothing serious on the domestic side is going to happen, particularly with anything that the president wants, unless he can get that approval rating back up to 50 percent, or close. And that means he's got to win, or be seen by the public to be prevailing, in Iraq.
The Supreme Court -- we thought the president would face his toughest fights here. We even said Republicans might have to use the so-called --nuclear option -- of changing Senate rules to defeat a filibuster against the president's nominees.
JASON RILEY: The big picture that I see here is this is all evidence of the left trying to push their agenda through the courts, because they've been unable to do so through the legislature, because they can't win elections. And if the left really has a problem with who Bush is nominating, they should start winning elections.
MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: What does the election mean last November if it doesn't mean that the president has the right to appoint his own judges, and the Senate, a Republican Senate, can't confirm them?
PAUL GIGOT: What happens if, down the road, as inevitably will happen, Republicans are in the minority, they decide they want to filibuster a liberal president's nominee? They won't have the filibuster to use, will they?
DAN HENNINGER: No, they may not. I think they have to make that calculation, whether the stakes here are high enough to take that risk. And I personally think the stakes are high enough.
PAUL GIGOT: Dan, John Roberts confirmed 78 votes. So far at least Sam Alito looks like he is going to be confirmed, albeit with fewer votes. No more talk of filibusters. Why the relatively easy time?
DAN HENNINGER: I think, you know, I do have a theory about this, and it has to do with what Sam Alito and John Roberts represent in public. They go before these Congressional committees, and they talk about their judicial philosophy, the way they arrive at opinions. And the way they arrive at their decisions is to look at the law, this is called originalism, reason through it, and arrive at a decision. The Democratic philosophy has been to identify a result and find a way to that result. It's kind of result first, logic later. And I think Alito and Roberts are such articulate guys that when they go up there in public and describe the way they practice from the bench, that it strikes the American people as eminently reasonable. It's a hard thing to oppose.
PAUL GIGOT: Yeah, I think there's such strong and superbly qualified nominees, also, that you really can't bring into doubt their credentials -- in contrast to Harriet Miers, who was challenged immediately by the president's own base on precisely those grounds, credentials.
KIM STRASSEL: Yeah, no, and the president, that was a classic example of him not listening to his base, and Alito now has incredible support. But this is also an issue of Democrats realizing that this isn't necessarily a political winner. They certainly managed to gain a lot of headway on some of the appeals court nominees, because Americans by and large don't pay as much attention to that. But the Supreme Court is a different issue. And when it came down to it, there were a lot of red state Democratic senators who were looking at the elections next year, and they know that their voters were paying attention to this, and did they really want to vote against the president's nominee for the Supreme Court? They decided "no" in the end.
PAUL GIGOT: Yeah, I think there are a lot of red state Democrats who understand that they don't want to fight over cultural issues, because they thought that the election in 2004 -- one of their lessons of that election was that it was settled in large part, in part at least, in their state, on these cultural matters: gay marriage, abortion.
STEVE MOORE: The difference is that we've been talking about some of the things Bush has done wrong, but it may very well be that of all the things that we've talked about in this presidency, that the legacy 20 or 30 years from now are going to be Roberts and Alito. And that's a pretty good legacy if they turn out as well as we think they are.
PAUL GIGOT: Well ...
ROB POLLOCK: This is going back to the Miers pick. I would say the mistake the president made there is, while he has wide latitude in making appointments, the pick at least has to be plausible. And what he did was make it impossible for his strongest defenders to go out and make the case that this is the best person. I assume that's a lesson learned now.
DAN HENNINGER: And on the very positive side, he adjusted, he changed, and he responded to the base for the first time. It was a wake-up call. And I think that, going forward, is going to be a good thing.
PAUL GIGOT: Okay Dan, last word.
And finally, an issue we raised several times, because we think the president will have to face up to it before he leaves office.
PAUL GIGOT: Rob, is there any doubt among serious analysts who follow this issue, that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon?
ROB POLLOCK: No, I don't think there's really any doubt, and I have that straight from officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency
PAUL GIGOT: How close do we really think Iran is to developing a nuclear weapon?
BRET STEPHENS: Well, the conservative estimate is that Iran is about three years away. But we have a history with these estimates in that we tend to err on the side of comfort and think, well, it's that much farther away.
DAN HENNINGER: The real question on the table is, what are we going to do to stop them from acquiring it?
ROB POLLOCK: The president is tired out by Iraq. The Iranians know that. And I wish I could be more optimistic about this, but so far the White House has been asleep at the switch.
PAUL GIGOT: What do you think the chances are that before President Bush finishes his second term, we have used military force against Iran?
BRET STEPHENS: I think the chances of diplomacy working are zero, and the chances of us using military force I'd say 95 to 100 percent.
DAN HENNINGER: I would say 50/50.
PAUL GIGOT: Well I don't know if you're in the Stephens camp or the Henninger camp there, Rob, but are Iran's nuclear ambitions any closer to being contained now than a year ago?
ROB POLLOCK: In a way, I wish I could be in the Stephens camp, because I think we need to do something about this. But look, I mean, honestly, I said the Administration was acting tired on Iran, I still think they're acting tired on Iran. What are we seeing now? We've got a deal whereby the U.S. is apparently going to trust Russia to monitor Iran's nuclear enrichment activities. This is the same Russia that the Oil for Food investigation has exposed as being, well, totally susceptible ...
PAUL GIGOT: The U.N. Oil for Food investigation into Saddam Hussein?
ROB POLLOCK: Yeah, right, has exposed as being totally susceptible to the bribes of totalitarian regimes to do their bidding at the Security Council or elsewhere. This strikes me as just an utterly crazy idea.
PAUL GIGOT: They keep pursuing the diplomatic option, Dan, and making concessions, and when the Iranians say "no" making another concession, and the Iranians say "no." Where do you think that leaves us?
DAN HENNINGER: It leaves us at a dead end, really, and there's got to be a better way. Diplomacy is not going to work. The one alternative is the one we've discussed here, is bombing them. Which, you know, with Iraq up and running, it's really hard to see how the president does that. I think there might be an alternative way " which is not going to happen -- and that is, to turn this problem over to John Bolton at the United Nations. Bolton ran the Proliferation Security Initiative, which contributed to shutting down AQ Khan network. Nobody knows more about this subject than John Bolton. And if they allowed him to take the lead, I think it would be possible to organize a movement against the Iranians.
PAUL GIGOT: Mark that one down. Dan Henninger is looking for a United Nations solution -- albeit led by Bolton, but ...
DAN HENNINGER: Bolton first, U.N. second.
PAUL GIGOT: You'll surprise some viewers there, Dan. Okay. Thanks.