Detainee Deal and the Upcoming Midterm Elections

The wrangling over a terrorism bill has heated up as midterm elections near. Melissa Block talks live with political commentators E.J. Dionne, columnist for The Washington Post, and David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Now to our regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome back to you both.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (The Washington Post): Good to be here.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (The New York Times): Thank you.

BLOCK: David, let me start with you. An editorial in the New York Times today calls this compromise a bad bargain and here's what it says - "It's time for the Democrats to fix this bill or delay it until after the election." First, do you think this bill needs fixing?

Mr. BROOKS: You're asking me to disagree with my boss. Yes, I do.

BLOCK: We all do that.

Mr. BROOKS: I think it's a good balance. I mean, I think the thing Lindsay Graham was trying to get to has been achieved by this compromise, which is that evidence that's shown to the jury will be shown to the defendant. That seems fundamentally fair.

And then another big issue is who gets to define breaches of the Geneva Convention? The executive branch does have some leeway, but that's written in the Constitution that the executive does have leeway. But the leeway has been curtailed by some negotiated language. Moreover, if the president does announce certain things that he thinks are within the Geneva Convention, he's got to put it in the Federal Register. It's public. We can all debate it and Congress can override it.

So I think fundamentally, McCain - it was a compromise, no question. But I think the senators and McCain got the best of it.

BLOCK: And E.J. Dionne? Bad bill, good bill, where do you stand?

Mr. DIONNE: Oh, I think they could have gotten a better deal. I think Democrats are going to embrace it in the end and we can get to that. That's about politics. On the substance, I think Senator Levin raises a lot of serious questions, in particular a provision that would deny detainees a right to challenge their captivity in court, which strikes one as a rather fundamental right.

And so in general I think Bush got a lot out of it. McCain and Lindsey Graham won significant concessions. My guess is politically and you heard that Carl Levin did not begin with criticism, he began with praise.

BLOCK: Praise for the bill.

Mr. DIONNE: Praise for John McCain. It's sort of like these days among Democrats when John McCain talks, Democrats listen. And they don't want this issue on the table.

I think this actually went as well as Democrats could hope for. On the one hand, you had resistance to the president and a split among Republicans with McCain, Lindsay Graham and John Warner challenging the president so Democrats didn't have to go up front.

I think it's in their interests to get a bill passed before Congress leaves town, because they simply want this as an issue in the election. Even though there are legitimate, principled reasons to oppose this, they just don't want to talk about this issue. They'd rather talk about Iraq and the economy.

BLOCK: Well how could they do that, E.J., if they don't want to talk about it but they want to get changes in the bill? How do they make this something that they can stand up before voters and say here's my principle on this, here's what I'm standing for?

Mr. DIONNE: Oh, to be honest, I just don't think most of them want to talk about it at all. I mean, you will have very principled people like Carl Levin, somebody like Russ Feingold of Wisconsin will talk about it. I think a lot of Democrats simply don't want voters to go into the booth with the war on terror in their heads. They want them to go into the voting booth with the word Iraq in their heads, as my friend Bill Gauss(ph), a very smart Democrat has said.

And so therefore I think they'd like to get this thing out of the way even if that is not a principled position. And I don't think it is a principled position.

BLOCK: David Brooks?

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, I agree they're going to fold like a deck chair. They've been investing John McCain with all this moral authority on this issue. He says it's a good deal. Why shouldn't they say it's a good deal?

I mean, there will be some liberal and civil rights groups that will squawk for the principles that E.J.'s enumerated. But I can't imagine the Democrats will go along with it. In fact, I think they'd be smart to maybe criticize the ACLU just to burnish their support, the sense that they are strong on terror and security issues.

Mr. DIONNE: There's a good precedent here. John Sununu, the Republican from New Hampshire, a very libertarian Republican, was willing to challenge the administration on the Patriot Act. He got some real improvements from a civil libertarian's point of view into that. The Democrats knew they couldn't go beyond what Sununu could get, and once Sununu made a deal, most of them went along with the Patriot Act. I think similarly, they know they probably can't do better than what McCain, Lindsey Graham and John Warner got.

BLOCK: Yeah. David Brooks, do you think Republicans can use this, though, against Democrats in the upcoming elections as a way of saying they're soft on terrorism. We negotiated this thing, we've preserved some rights, but basically we're standing tough.

Mr. BROOKS: Only if Democrats object, and since I don't think they will. I don't think Republicans will be able to use this. The longer-term issue is how badly is McCain hurt in the New Hampshire primary. There's no question that among conservative base, there's been a rise in unhappiness with him. I can't imagine long-term he'll be hurt, but he has been damaged a little.

BLOCK: How do both of you read the recent poll numbers on President Bush? We're seeing a bit of a boost in his job approval rating. David Brooks, you first.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, there's been a whole series of polls, but the bottom line is he's risen maybe two or three points, because he doesn't necessarily have the ability to make himself appear popular, but he can shift the subject of discussion, and when it's on security and terror, it does help Republicans.

I still think it's a Democrat year. They still have, overall, an advantage, but if you look at some individual Senate races, I'm struck by some buoyancy in the Republican Party in weird place like New Jersey and even Maryland - pretty strong Republican candidates. And in other states where they should - you think they'd be losing, in Ohio, Missouri, they're pretty much dead even. So it's still a Democratic year, but not as bad as it was for the Republicans two weeks ago.

BLOCK: I think it wasn't too long ago in that chair you told me that the president was radioactive - was your word - out on the trail. Is that still the case?

Mr. BROOKS: That's true in blue America and that's why I still the Democrats will take the House, because it's in races in Connecticut, New York state. In those sorts of states, in the House races, which are a little less national, then I think Republicans will be suffering.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne, it does seem that some people are now not as sure as they might have been a few weeks ago about Democrats taking the House, as David Brooks just said. What do you think?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, I actually agree with David that it is fundamentally a Democratic year still, but I think the Republicans are a lot better off - or at least better off - today than they were a month ago. A month ago, they were looking at absolute catastrophe, so we're speaking relatively here. There were more voters saying that they're concerned about terror in relative terms to Iraq. Iraq has gone up, but terror has gone up more.

So that's good for the Republicans, and attitudes toward the economy are somewhat better than they were a month ago. In the New York Times poll, the New York Times/CBS poll, a few months back, people were saying by four to one that the economy was getting worse. Now it's only two to one. Now that's still bad for Republicans, but the ground is a little softer.

BLOCK: Is it something as basic - you know, I was driving to work this morning. Gas prices at my local gas station, $2.55 a gallon. A couple week ago it was over $3. I mean, it's something as basic as that.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, we analyze macroeconomic indicators and GDP and all this stuff. People see gas at $2 a gallon - that's good. You know, they respond to their own lives.

Mr. DIONNE: Who knew that $2.60 or $2.80 gas would help a party in power, but it does. I was speaking this week to a very smart Republican pollster called David Winston, and he said a few months ago, we'd give out good economic numbers, and then people would drive in the gas station and say what are you talking about? And so I think actually, you've got an oil state president who is rooting for gas prices coming down because I do think that is having a material effect, although the Democrats still in most of these polls have a 10 or 15 point lead in the race for the House.

BLOCK: Okay, E.J. and David, thanks. Have a good weekend.

Mr. DIONNE: You too, thank you.

Mr. BROOKS: You too, thanks.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of the New York Times.

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