Politics: Libby Sentenced, and Immigration Stalled

The week in politics included the Senate's derailment of immigration reform supported by President Bush, the sentencing of former White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby and presidential debates among candidates of both parties. Robert Siegel talks with E.J. Dionne, columnist for The Washington Post, and David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

It's been a busy week in politics and in law. And joining us now to sort it all out are our regular guest observers, columnist E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times.

Welcome to both of you.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, The Washington Post): Thank you.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Columnist, The New York Times): Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: First, immigration. Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican said this today. He said, when it is recognized by the American people that the Senate has not acted, I believe there's going to be a wave of support for what we've been trying to do.

What do you guys think? First, E.J. A big issue, obvious problems, no action. What kind of public response would you anticipate?

Mr. DIONNE: I think what you're going to have is people who were against an immigration bill - who felt much more strongly about this than people who supported this bill because it was a hodgepodge necessarily - are going to be very happy. And so I think the pressure is still coming, primarily, from the anti-immigration side.

This was a brilliant compromise that was completely unlovely. And it was very hard for conservatives to - who were tough on immigration to rally behind it because they're not comfortable with legalizing the situation of 12 million people. They call it amnesty, whether that's the right word or not.

And on the other side, people who are open to legalizing their situation found a lot of things in this bill that they didn't like. This is a very hard issue to find an actual governing center on because we really haven't formed a full consensus about what we want to do and people don't trust the government to enforce whatever law that we put on the book.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, what do you think the public response is going to be to inaction or failed action on immigration, so far?

Mr. BROOKS: I guess I agree tepid. I like E.J.'s description of the compromise brilliant but unlovely, which sounds like a lot of my college classmates.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: We'll be getting (unintelligible) after the break.

Mr. DIONNE: I will tell you…

Mr. BROOKS: You received Chicago, folks. No. I think, you know, E.J. has it right. The people who supported, which I - certainly it included me, where ambivalent, there was a lot of hemming and hawing. The people who opposed it we're in fury. And a vocal minority will be a silent majority every single time. And you know, the irony, of course, is the Lou Dobbs will get to be furious for another five years. He's been outraged about the current system, but he and the people who agree with him have basically guaranteed that the current system will go on for another five years.

SIEGEL: Well, another thing…

Mr. DIONE: I actually think the bill…

SIEGEL: Yes, E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: I just wanted to say I'm still not sure it's a hundred percent that - that I'm not sure about that great rallying that Senator Specter predicted, but I don't think Ted Kennedy, Senator Collins and others are going to just let this go. I think they're going to try one more time and it's going to be hard.

SIEGEL: Well, another big event this week was the sentencing of Lewis Libby, Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff. And instant calls from conservatives for a presidential pardon. David Brooks, can Libby or should Libby be pardoned?

Mr. BROOKS: I don't know if he should be pardoned. I thought the sentence was way out of line for what he did. You know, I remember when this was supposed to be about the outing of a CIA agent. Well, we now know that Fitzgerald knew that, well, who committed that crime or alleged crime or wrongdoing at the very beginning of the investigation. He went on for another two years, putting reporters in jail, et cetera, et cetera.

So in my view, Libby should not get off the hook for lying under oath. Nonetheless, the two and a half years seems to me wildly out of proportion.

SIEGEL: What would be in proportion do you think?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, I mean, what was recommended was 12 months or something like that. I do think, you know, there has to be some sense of proportionate. We - this…

SIEGEL: But actually served in time, actually some prison time served, you think is proportionate.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, I do. You know, I was one who was upset when Bill Clinton, well, I think lied under oath, and it would be hard for me to turn around and say that lying under oath is not punishable sin after that.

SIEGEL: E.J., what do you think?

Mr. DIONNE: David is one of the first conservatives who I've run into who's actually consistent on that issue. I think if you believe that the prosecutor brought a legitimate case and that the jury made a legitimate decision, then he's got to do some kind of jail time. And I think this puts the Republican Party and the president in a very difficult position. I think it's going to be very hard for the president not to pardon Libby because the only people who still support him, particularly the only people who are still enthusiastic about the war are overwhelmingly in favor of pardoning Libby.

But this becomes a stand against the rule of law that the Republicans have talked so much about especially during the Clinton period. It was very interesting in the Republican debate that Governor Jim Gilmore of Virginia who doesn't stand a great chance of winning the nomination, nonetheless, insisted that Republicans and conservatives had to stand with the rule of law.

I think this whole trial was one of those great symbolic trials we get periodically where a whole group or a whole generation of people are put in trial. And in this case, it was not just about "Scooter" Libby, it was about the administration's way of selling the war and knocking back opponents. And that's why this debate over Libby is so polarized.

Mr. BROOKS: It wasn't about the war. I think that's a bit overblown. It was about an out of control prosecutor and a guy who lied under oath. And, you know, scandals are never about themselves in Washington. When a Democrat lies under oath, people say, well, he had - the Democrats say it's an out of control prosecutor, now the shoe is on the other foot. It is so partisan either way.

SIEGEL: Well, talking about partisan politics. Last week, there were two presidential debates sponsored by CNN. And in another political development, it was announced that longtime career prosecutor Jack McCoy will take over as New York County district attorney from Arthur Branch next year. He's on the TV show, "Law and Order." Branch has been played by Fred Thompson for the past couple of years.

What, if anything, important have you guys seen on the presidential campaign front? David?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, I think what we saw was Hillary Clinton. I think, on both parties, we've seen the frontrunners explain why they're frontrunners. I thought the top three in each party did splendidly well and cemented their leadership. Hillary Clinton, I think, had a quite good debate. I mean, she basically embraced the whole party. She poses as the leader of the party.

John Edwards is trying to knock her down some by saying she's legislating and not leading. Well, she is a legislator and she's dealing with the reality. And so I thought in particular she helped herself the most.

SIEGEL: E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: I broadly agree with that. I think that Obama showed he can actually fight back, which people didn't - weren't sure of when John Edwards said he's a legislator and not a leader and Obama pointed out that he had opposed the war four and a half years earlier than Edwards. So Edwards is four and a half years late.

I don't know if I'm the only person in the universe. I think Joe Biden had a very good, a very strong debate talking about Darfur, talking about gays in the military and defending his position on Iraq.

What's fascinating about both races - and David Winston, a Republican pollster, points this out as -it shows that the base of each party is not as dogmatic as people expected. Because a lot of people said Rudy Giuliani would get knocked out because he's pro-choice on abortion. Hillary Clinton would be pushed back because she voted for the war, turns out they are still the frontrunners in this race.

The other part is on the Republican side. McCain had some great moments in that debate. McCain is standing alone on a lot of things. That's very good for character and press clippings, I'm not sure it's going to get him votes.

SIEGEL: And David Brooks, any observations about the Republican debate?

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. What - I mean, McCain is actually still hanging in there despite the fury(ph) about immigration, despite the war. He's hanging in there because he's rooted. You know throughout his whole life where he comes from. Mitt Romney, by contrast, he's got a great story. He's a very good candidate. He's very optimistic. But he's sort of detached from his own past, in part because of the Mormon thing.

SIEGEL: Well…

Mr. BROOKS: And so McCain has that quality, which will last.

SIEGEL: Well, thanks to both of you, David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution for talking politics with us once again.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

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