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Political Analysts Discuss President Bush’s Inaugural

Jim Lehrer speaks with regular NewsHour political analysts about President Bush's ambitious plans for Social Security reform, Vice President Dick Cheney's comments about U.S. policy towards Iran and Secretary of State nominee Condoleeza Rice's confirmation hearings.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    David, the inauguration ceremonies are over. How do you view the prospects for the second term of George W. Bush?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    I guess I'd say the president has meticulously ruled out the possibility that he might be a mediocre president. He is either going to be a great president and get a lot done, or he is going to be a complete failure; either Iraq is going to be a success and foreign policy will be a tremendous triumph for him, or else chaos. And on domestic policy, either he succeeds in passing Social Security and tax reform, which means he will have remade the welfare state and he will be FDR II, or else he fails and doesn't get that stuff passed.

    And I think the challenge for him in the domestic policy is that he really needs to change politics in this town if he wants to succeed because he does need Democrats.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Do you agree, Mark, that the president has really rolled the dice; he is going for it all; he's either going for a huge success or a huge failure?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Jim, disagree with George Bush which I certainly have more than once. I have to say this is a guy who got elected in 2000, a 50-50 nation and he governed like a 60-40 president. He has always been a president of big ideas. It hasn't been midnight basketball or V-chips or sort of those incremental popular initiatives that don't really change things profoundly, but the second term is different.

    The second term, Jim, John Kennedy after he was elected in 1961 was asked what surprised him most. He said what surprised me most was things were really worse than we said they were during the campaign. And the deal is when you come in fresh for the first time, you can discover problems.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Right, 'oh, my goodness. I didn't know about that.'

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    That's exactly right. George Bush can't discover the deficit; they're on his watch. He can't discover other problems at this point. And what was most revealing, I think probably is true of every reelected president, the Wall Street Journal asked this week, does George Bush in his second term have a clean slate or will you now evaluate him through your past knowledge and judgment of how he has performed. By 70 to 20, people don't think he has a clean slate; no new president does. I think what we saw on Social Security is the unraveling of the domestic agenda –

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Yeah. Let's talk about Social Security for a moment, David. Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Bill Thomas says it is a dead horse, the president's plan for Social Security reform. What's he mean? What is a dead horse when it comes to Social Security?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    He means the president's plan cannot pass the House, which I believe. He means it because the Democrats are united, no personal accounts. The Republicans are divided in many different ways.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Some are in favor of it.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Some of them are in favor; some are not. Some don't want to do anything. Some —

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Let's explain that this is the president's plan to take part of the Social Security money and put it in your own account and you can invest it the way you want to more or less. That's very much oversimplified.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    The other part has to do with the indexing which would mean a real wage cut — or benefits cut of 40 percent over 60 years.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Right.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    So these are the two major components, and you've only got two major components and the problem with that is if both are unpopular, then your plan doesn't pass. That's mathematics. Two minus two is zero. And so what Thomas wants to do, incredibly smartly, I believe, is to broaden the picture. Let's throw in some tax reform, let's throw in some other ideas, payroll tax reform. And that way we have got a lot of moving parts and that way we can do some stuff that will help get some Democrats; we can do some stuff to counterbalance the things people don't like. So he is saying let's broaden the picture. And I think that's absolutely the right advice — to do some tax reform, mix it in with Social Security reform and then you can really start to deal.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    What about the Democrats, what are the Democrats going to do about Thomas's view of what the president wants, et cetera? How are they going to play this do you think?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Well, to say the president will be without one of the great Democrats that he could have relied upon for counsel and real help in this election because of the incredibly short sightedness of the White House and Tom Delay — Charlie Stenholm, Democrat from West Texas, blue dog Democrat —

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Explain what a blue dog Democrat is.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    A blue dog Democrat are Democrats — the moderate to conservative Democrats in the South mostly, border states, who believe in things like fiscal sanity, who oppose tax cuts but oppose big liberal spending, but continue to be Democrats. And Charlie Stenholm of West Texas was a ranking Democrat, respected on both sides of the aisle, Jim. And he was in favor of privatizing part of Social Security, one of the principal advocates. If Charlie Stenholm was in the House of Representatives today, he would get a minimum of ten or a dozen Democrats to join.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Because of the blue dogs —

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    — Blue Dogs, or even others —

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Or even others– right —

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    But in just a power grab, a naked power grab, Tom DeLay and the Republicans of Texas, with Karl Rove's complicity, wrote Charlie Stenholm out of Congress. So, they picked up another vote.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    That's the redistricting —

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Redistricting and just gave it to him; they abolished his congressional district. I say that because the Democrats understand that that's the first thing, even if you are with them, it is not going to do you any good with this White House. I mean, Charlie Stenholm has been an open, not supporter, but a guy who has been certainly open to all the initiatives. If that's his fate, then why should we cooperate on something like this?

  • JIM LEHRER:

    I was just going to say how do you read the cooperation possibilities with the Democrats on this kind of thing?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Well, there are sort of two Democrats as I've spoken to them.

    First, the Clintonites, and Rahm Emanuel, the Clinton aide who is now a congressman from Chicago is one of them. And they don't support private accounts; they do not support the Bush plan, but when they talk, they talk as let's have some ideas that we can get some bipartisan support at. So there's a group who want to transcend the normal partisan divides and to get at something. Then there is another group who have begun to learn from all of people, Newt Gingrich, and saying what Gingrich did to Bill Clinton with health care, we are going to do to George Bush on Social Security; this is our chance.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    In other words get him?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Just get him, obstruct, win. Now I think that's a mistake and I think it's a mistake because the Democrats now are not in the same position the Republicans were in, in 1993 and 1992. Bill Clinton only got 43 percent of the vote. There was a natural conservative majority in this country. The problem for Republicans then was they weren't voting for Republicans. They were voting for Democrats. And so they only needed to win conservatives to the Republican side to win a majority.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Jim, Bill Thomas acted for good reasons — Bill Thomas is the guy, the Ways and Means Committee chairman who gets things done. He has a reputation. He's proud of that reputation of being effective. He knows this can't pass. All right. He knows that what the White House might very well do is try and pass something in the Senate first. Okay. If you pass something in the Senate, it has to be bipartisan. What he doesn't want —

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Because you just can't do it.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    You just can't do it.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    You've got to have 60 votes.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Talk about passing it with Republicans in the House, we've already had Republicans announce, Rob Simmons of Connecticut, moderate Republican, say no, not in your life. They're all trying to be the first, we can get the first dozen to get permission, we are not going to be with you, boss, says the leadership. That's what they're all scurrying to be the first that they can say that leadership has been warned that they are not going to be there on this one. And so Bill Thomas is saying look, you want to pass something through the Senate, if you are going to force that, don't ask us now to vote for something tough because these Republicans in the Northeast and in the Midwest didn't get elected promising to cut the benefits of Social Security —

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    And there is just one other moving element which makes it even harder for the White House, which is that if you raise the payroll tax, the taxes on people earning over $90,000 in the Senate, that gets you some Democratic votes maybe. That's what Lindsay Graham of South Carolina is trying to do. The problem is you might get ten votes in the Senate among Democrats. You lose 60 Republicans in the House because they don't want any tax increases. And this is the logic I think we are going to see over and over again this year. If you build a majority in one of the house, it destroys the majority in the other house.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Interesting.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    So it's just a big problem.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    All right. Back to foreign affairs. Mark, what did you make of the vice president's remarks to Don Imus yesterday about Israel and the possibility of Israel taking out Iran's nuclear capability if they think it can be done and then let the rest of the world deal with the diplomatic fallout, et cetera? I'm paraphrasing but that's what he said.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Sure. It was a remarkably well orchestrated week. I mean, the president spoke in sort of the grand phrases and verbal flourishes and laid out a master plan. Condoleezza Rice testified in the Senate and said these are the six rogue nations and the terrorism included I think Iran, and Burma, and Cuba and Belarus and the others.

    And then Dick Cheney comes out as the bad cop and basically says, you know, the Israelis, we might not and we might not be able to stop the Israelis from going in and taking out the nuclear plan or project in Iran.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    What is he doing?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    We don't think war… we don't want war in the Middle East, but he didn't… he gave it almost a conceivable option. And I think it's probably playing U.N. politics, playing international politics. But boy, it was sobering.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    How did you read it?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Imus. I've been on the Imus show; the guy is cool. And you want to be as cool as he is. You want to let your inner Gonzo out. You know, and so Dick Cheney was just playing along; he was just trying to be as cool as Imus; he was speaking a little loosely.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    You don't think it was a big policy thing?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    I do not. I think U.S. policy all along has been all along we do not want Israel going into Iran and messing the whole Middle East up — blowing up the whole Middle East. No, they really do not want that. And from what I understand of the Israelis, they don't know where these nuclear programs are. It's not like some of them they know where they are. Some of them are spread throughout Tehran and other parts of the country. They couldn't hit every one of these little program labs and things like that.

    So it is impractical, it's undesirable, it's a guy going on Imus and having a little fun. But he's the vice president.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Boy, I mean, that's Dick Cheney that some of us might have known 25 years ago but haven't seen him in a long time.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    He doesn't go on the Imus Show to have fun?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Jim, look at this, I mean, Sy Hersh who broke the Abu Ghraib scandal, Pulitzer Prize winner, who broke the My Lai massacre, in the New Yorker this week had reported that U.S. commandos are in Iran looking for —

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Which has been strongly denied by everybody.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    They have been denied but….

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Those are the kinds of things you cannot confirm.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Denied generally but not in the specifics. I would say this: that one of the unstated arguments for going to war among advocates of this war in Iraq were that it would diminish the threat to Israel. I mean that was one of the… it was never publicly made. It was privately made. This is going to be to remove Saddam Hussein and, you know, that's —

  • JIM LEHRER:

    You don't buy David's thing at all?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    I want to buy David's — part of David's because I think he is a very decent person and has an inner Gonzo.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Speaking of decent person, David, what do you think of the Democrats' decision to not have a vote this week on Condoleezza Rice and put it on off until next week so they can have a debate about it?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    I think it's fine; I think debates are fine. It gives Colin Powell — he gets to work in two terms, helps his pension.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Helps his pension?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    I don't know. I don't know.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    On the Imus Show?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    I'm letting my inner Gonzo out. Well, you keep your Gonzo under control; I'm trying to induce it out of you. I don't think a major thing. I'm for senatorial debates, basically.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Jim, Condoleezza Rice was an advocate, an architect, an apologist for the war in Iraq which is the defining moment of George Bush's presidency; that she is not going to get questioned and scrutinized about it is unthinkable.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Gotcha, thank you both very much.

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