Week in Politics, from Gonzales to McCain

Melissa Block talks with our regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, and David Brooks of The New York Times, about the week in politics. Their topics include: Alberto Gonzales and the U.S. attorneys controversy, Sen. John McCain and other presidential hopefuls, and the Iraq war.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

I'm Melissa Block.

And we're joined as we often are at the end of the week by our regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome back to you both.

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

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

BLOCK: Let's look ahead to next week. We're going to be having the testimony of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the matter of the firing of the U.S. attorneys. E.J. Dionne, what do you think he can possibly tell Senate Democrats that would satisfy them?

Mr. DIONNE: Nothing - I think is the short answer. I think he's got a terrible job next week because this scandal over the firing of the U.S. attorneys is extended beyond the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. So there's a whole controversy of why was it that people in the Justice Department or in the White House were using Republican National Committee e-mails to send messages on this. They're stuck in Catch-22. They say we didn't handle this in an appropriately political way. Well, if that's so, why are they using Republican National Committee e-mails?

BLOCK: Separate accounts.

Mr. DIONNE: Separate accounts. There are questions about prosecutions by attorneys who have stayed. The prosecution of an aid to Governor Jim Doyle out in Wisconsin, the court just threw that out with great contempt and said why was this brought? And of course the suspicion is this was brought because right before the election, when Doyle, a Democrat, was running for re-election.

So this thing is kind of spinning out of control. And I am struck by how few conservative Republicans are coming to Gonzales' defense. I think an awful lot of Republicans I talk to - and Newt Gingrich has said this publicly - just can't understand why this was handled so badly. So his only base is George Bush. His only hope is that firing him probably wouldn't end the scandal, so maybe he can stay around for a while.

BLOCK: David Brooks, we read stories about Alberto Gonzales being holed up at Justice practicing his testimony for hours and hours and hours. What do you think comes out of this appearance before the Judiciary Committee?

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, I guess I agree with E.J., nothing good. And in part, it is, as E.J. said, the Republicans who are the key issue here, do they stick together? And there is a climate now among Republicans in the Senate and in the House which is extremely hostile to the Bush administration. The tone up there is more hostile than I've seen it in all these years.

And then the second thing is Gonzales himself, which most people - Republicans privately think he's in over his head. And this reminds you how smart Gingrich is. He was the one who had the guts to come out and say essentially the guy should resign. And that's where a lot of Republicans are, actually. And it reminds you that Gingrich will have his day in the sun because he understands how badly a lot of Republicans want to repair their party.

Now, as for the e-mails, I'm agnostic about whether they'll go anywhere. The fact is, we don't know what's in the e-mails. We don't know what happened to them. And I understand a lot of people think Karl Rove is the Lord Prince of Darkness and that every two weeks a scandal seems to erupt where Democrats salivate because they think they're about to get him. And so far the Great White Whale has gone ungotten. So maybe he'll get gotten this time, but I'll wait to see till we know what's actually in the e-mails.

BLOCK: David, do you think the attorney general survives this? Do you think that the president keeps him on?

Mr. BROOKS: I don't see why he does. I mean, first of all, he behaved I think shabbily but not criminally in this scandal. But more seriously, what's he going to do for the rest of the term? Is he going to be effective? I think one of the things we've learned over the second term is that when Bush appoints somebody new, like Gates at Defense, he comes off with a pretty good record. And so I think renewal is a pretty good theme for the rest of this administration, getting new people in there.

BLOCK: David, you said something that I need to ask you about. You said Newt Gingrich will have his day in the sun. What day in the sun are you talking about?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DIONNE: And which beach?

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. No, what I meant to say is, I think he'll run for president. He will emerge, he'll become first or second in the polls at some point.

BLOCK: You're talking about this time around.

Mr. BROOKS: This time around, because he's the best campaigner. He's really smart and the Republicans secretly want somebody like him. At the end of the day, they won't nominate him because when you talk to Gingrich for five minutes you get the whole Gingrich package. You get three really brilliant ideas. You get nine really loopy ideas, and nobody essentially is going to trust him with the White House after all that. But Gingrich is a figure to be reckoned with. And if you're following the Republican campaign, pay attention to Newt Gingrich.

BLOCK: And some personal baggage though. No, E.J. Dionne?

Mr. DIONNE: I agree with David on what he's saying in terms of Gingrich getting a day in the sun. Gingrich a long time ago positioned himself as the quietly anti-Bush candidate. He's been supporting him on some big things, but critical in many ways. And as the Republicans look at the unpopularity of the president, they're going to be open to Gingrich.

But I think you're right, Melissa, that there is the baggage. He recently confessed that he was having an affair while the Clinton impeachment was in process, but more generally he was blamed, in some ways unfairly, for the fact that the Republicans had a bad 1998 compared to what they hoped for and a lot of Republicans remember that. And then on the Democratic side, obviously, people didn't like his aggressiveness, but that sure won't hurt him in Republican primaries.

BLOCK: Let's talk more about the presidential campaign, and at least one candidate who is in - John McCain. You are seeing a lot of headlines now like this one: McCain's Meltdown. What is going on with John McCain, David Brooks?

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, I think that's completely wrong. I spent a full day with McCain this week and what struck me, A) is how much he is like he was in 2000. He's still got the same team around him, still a pretty free-spirited guy, considering the circumstances. He is, however, sliding in the polls. And he has adopted an attitude of fatalism, where I don't know what the future will hold for me but I'm going to do what I think is right. And he thinks if we withdraw from Iraq prematurely, it would just be a cataclysm.

And so he's going full bore. And I would say the results of the speech he gave at the Virginia Military Institute this week, in the short term, are quite good, a lot of conservatives rallying to him. In the long term, I think he also has a pretty positive outlook, and I personally think he's going to get the nomination.

BLOCK: But his fundraising numbers are lousy, his staff has been in turmoil. E.J. Dionne, what do you think?

Mr. DIONNE: I think that McCain has made a lot of moves trying to appease conservatives in Republican Party who have never liked him. I think the net results so far is that he hasn't appeased those conservatives; a lot of those conservatives still don't like him because he was for campaign finance reform. They still don't like him because he denounced Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson back in 2000. They still don't like him because he had been against the Bush tax cuts.

I think his efforts to court the right has only hurt him with independents and Democrats. And I think the card he always has to play with conservatives is, look, you may not like me but the other guys, these middle of the road people really do like me, so you need me. And I think there was one thing about that speech this week that I found very disturbing and unMcCain-like in my own understanding of this man, who has been often a non-partisan figure.

He went out of his way, basically, to say that Democrats in Congress were against this war for political reasons. Democratic leaders smiled and cheered as the last votes were counted, he said, in terms of the anti-war part of supplemental budget bill. And he doesn't accept the fact that a lot of Democrats are in fact against this war on principle no less than he is for it.

Mr. BROOKS: I was struck by the same sentence. It was harsh and it was pretty partisan for John McCain, and I certainly talked to him about that. And I guess the first thing to say was it was thoroughly considered; it was not an accident. He looked at the cheering, what he saw is the cheering as the vote for withdrawal finished and he thought they were really cheering a tragic moment in American history, and he was morally offended by that. And that's what caused him to make that, as well as seeing some Democratic candidates shift to follow the base of the Democratic Party. And whatever you may say about him, he is not shifting.

And I think, you know, frontrunners stumble but often they come back, and people with substance come back. And so I happen to think that at the end of the day he's still going to be there. He's still going to be the guy to beat in the Republican Party.

BLOCK: David Brooks and E.J. Dionne, thanks to you both.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

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

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