Weekly Political Roundup

Robert Siegel talks with our regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times, about the latest developments in politics. They discuss the parliamentary battle brewing in the Senate, John Bolton's confirmation hearings and the president's recent trip abroad.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In some other political developments this week, conservatives gathered in Washington to celebrate House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. The Senate inched further toward parliamentary Armageddon. President Bush returned from Europe, and his nomination of John Bolton advanced after an astonishing display of ambivalence by Republican Senator George Voinovich of Ohio. Senator Voinovich first skewered the nominee...

Senator GEORGE VOINOVICH (Republican, Ohio): I believe that John Bolton would have been fired, fired if he'd worked for a major corporation.

SIEGEL: ...but then proceeded to vote out the nomination without recommendation. Senator Voinovich said this.

Sen. VOINOVICH: We owe it to the president to give Mr. Bolton and up-or-down vote on the floor of the United States Senate.

SIEGEL: So let's take up the Bolton nomination first with our regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Georgetown University; and David Brooks of The New York Times.

Welcome back to both of you.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, The Washington Post; Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution): Thank you.

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

SIEGEL: What do you make of what the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did yesterday, E.J.? They sent the nomination onto the floor without a recommendation.

Mr. DIONNE: Well, it sounded like George Voinovich came under enormous pressure, 'cause if you listen to what he said, almost everything he said was, `Lord, do I not want this guy to be at the UN,' you know, `To those who say a vote against John Bolton is a vote against reform of the UN, I say nonsense.' He sounds like a Democrat in saying that. This, I suppose, will be interpreted as a victory for the administration, 'cause they'll get a vote on him, and the Republican Senate is likely to approve him.

But what a way to go into the UN. It cannot be a good way for the president's representative to represent us to the rest of the world. So I think Voinovich sent a very, very strong signal. And I think it reflected the views of others like Lincoln Chafee and perhaps even the chairman of the committee in having great qualms about this nomination.

SIEGEL: But isn't this signal equally, David, that, `When the chips are down, we'll vote with you, Mr. President'?

Mr. BROOKS: I think that's it. I think two weeks ago, there were four or five senators, and maybe even more if you take the whole Senate, who were really wobbling on Bolton. So when the committee went back and interviewed 29 more people and all those transcripts were released, I think most of those people took a look at those transcripts and said, `Hey, I'm not wild about this guy. Maybe I wouldn't pick him, but the president wants him on as spokesman, and there's nothing here to disqualify him.' Voinovich was the one person who said, `Well, there is something here.'

But I think the crucial thing here was the standards were different. The standards for every other senator was, `Is there anything here to disqualify? Let's give the president the benefit of the doubt.' The standard that Voinovich kept using was, `Is this the best man for the job?' Now if that's really going to be the standard for any senator, then nobody gets confirmed.

Mr. DIONNE: Well, what's really critical here is that this was the first occasion on which you could have a real debate over whether the administration shaped, misused, pressed to far the evidence for--the intelligence evidence for going into the war and a lot of other issues. And so I think there is going to be a very vigorous debate on the floor of the Senate, even though Bolton may well be approved, sort of pushing it to the administration in a way that Democratic senators certainly have not had the opportunity to do before.

Mr. BROOKS: It sort of is the larger issue. I would say the transcripts, the interviews with these people who worked with Bolton, showed two things. One, he pushed really, really hard. But then when he lost, he gave up. The second thing--and this is crucial to this whole debate--is that there's some idea here that intelligence is this gospel truth and that anybody from the political side who questions it is somehow questioning the truth. The fact is, intelligence is interpretation. Policy people and political people have just as much right to their interpretation of this guesswork as anybody else. And the tension that Bolton exemplified more than anybody else is natural to the process and productive.

SIEGEL: On to another subject. Tom DeLay, House majority leader, was feted last night by conservatives in Washington. A lot of them came. A lot of Republican members of Congress didn't. Is this the twilight of the age of DeLay?

Mr. BROOKS: I think it's part of the long, slow twilight. He'll fight, and there's some loyalty to him. What struck me about the dinner is--there are many different factions in the Republican Party and the conservative movement--the people who feted him were the American Conservative Union, people like Paul Weyrich. This is very much the old right. And they are not the Bush administration.

SIEGEL: How are they different politically, though? What are the ideas that are big...

Mr. BROOKS: Right.

SIEGEL:...among this group that wouldn't be big among today's pro-Bush conservatives?

Mr. BROOKS: They certainly do not believe in promoting democracy abroad. They do not believe in using armed forces abroad. Tom DeLay was violently against using armed forces under Clinton in Bosnia and the Balkans. They also do not believe in compassionate conservatism which they call big-government conservatism. They believe in cutting agencies, eliminating the Department of Education, eliminating the Commerce Department, really shrinking the size of government by, say, 25 percent, they would say. This is all very different from what George Bush has tried to do.

Mr. DIONNE: I think David is cleverly trying to separate the Bush administration from Tom DeLay. I mean, President Bush went out of his way recently to express his support for Tom DeLay in the hopes that DeLay will help him on a number of legislative issues. I think the administration is in a terrible position on this, 'cause they don't want to hitch their star to DeLay, because his star is probably falling. On the other hand, they're not willing to come out against him.

SIEGEL: The political scientist Ross Baker said on this program yesterday that the parliamentary crisis--presently it seems scheduled for next week in the United States Senate--says a lot more about Bill Frist, the majority leader, the White House in 2008 and the Republican right wing than it does about the Senate. Is he right?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, he's half right. There's also the Democratic left wing. I think it says a lot about Bill Frist who is now solidified with the Christian right as the leader because of this fight, but it says something else about the groups. The right right-wing groups and the left-wing groups want this fight. The senators, by and large...

SIEGEL: This over filibusters and judges.

Mr. BROOKS: Over filibusters and judges, because they live for this, and they believe in it. Most senators privately do not want this fight. They love the Senate. They love the way it works. They don't want to see the Senate gridlocked. They would love to get out of this. And that's why I think there's a decent chance there'll still be a deal.

SIEGEL: Really? E.J., do you think it's possible they can compromise their way out of a crisis next week?

Mr. DIONNE: I think it's highly unlikely that this gets settled in a peaceable way or a compromised way, although I think it would be better if it were. I think Bill Frist has lost a lot here, because I don't think he is going to get the support of the socially conservative right when he runs for president in 2008. I think George Allen of Virginia, a senator, or Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas are more likely to get that support. But he picked a fight that's not going to be good for his leadership.

SIEGEL: After President Bush won re-election, he said that he'd earned some political capital on the election. He intended to guard and spend some. I'd like you guys to play the auditor right now. What do you think his political bank account looks like several months after that election, David?

Mr. BROOKS: I don't believe in political capital. If the guy leads, he leads, and Bush is somebody who never doesn't lead. He never trims. He just goes out and does it. When you talk to people in the White House about what they hope the legacy of the administration will be, they always mention transforming the Middle East first. But judges is always one of the top three. They never mention Social Security, interestingly enough.

SIEGEL: They don't mention that, no. It was a quiet week on the Social Security front this past week. E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: Not surprisingly, the president is in deep deficit on his political capital. He overestimated how much he won in the election. He didn't have a mandate to privatize Social Security. The Terri Schiavo case came up which, I think, caused a great depletion in his political capital. So I think he has a big problem from overreading an election where he won on the margins because of terrorism and for reasons having nothing to do with the issues he is pushing now.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, David Brooks of The New York Times, thanks to both of you.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

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