MICHELE NORRIS, host:
We've had a big week for political news, and a big week to come. So it's a good time to check in with our regular political commentators E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times.
Welcome again to both of you.
Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, Washington Post): Thank to you.
Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Columnist, New York Times): Thanks to you.
NORRIS: Now we should begin with the big news of the weeks: This memoir by Scott McClellan, the former White House press secretary. He was seen as an ultimate Bush loyalist. And of course, his memoir is now highly critical of the Bush administration and many of his colleagues in particular. It had a high-shock value here in Washington and actually around the country, but how much do you think we actually learned? You've both have a chance to take a look at the book? And I'm going to begin with you David.
Mr. BROOKS: It was a shock value to see him do this, but as for learning, nothing. I mean, I read through not all the book but a lot of the book, and I think I learned no new facts, I saw no fresh observations; I saw a bunch of cliches. And to me, the problem with the Bush White House was not the spin which is his charge. The problem was there wasn't a climate of intellectual rigor where people were having big debates. And that's because, while 20 percent of the people in the White House were smart and were capable of having these debates, 80 percent were people like McClellan - incapable of having these debates. And so they just followed blindly, the leadership, without really challenging things. And to me, McClellan gets it wrong, he exemplifies what was wrong with the Bush administration, but his diagnosis is not quite the right one.
Mr. DIONNE: I have slightly different views than David does. And indeed, McClellan himself is very specific on this point that David made, that the White House didn't have debates. He writes the White House didn't have debates. He writes the White House forestalled any debate about the fundamental goals and the long-term plans for the Iraq invasion by pushing so hard on the WMD issue - reduced the larger issue of the future of the Middle East into a short-term emergency, didn't face a hard questions who would rule Iraq, how would the region respond, how long were the U.S. have to remain on the ground.
In other words, I think that this book is important because he is a witness. You know, the White House is coming out and questioning his motivation. They're saying all kinds of bad things about Scott McClellan, but they don't really want to grapple with the core questions he's raising, either about the president or the way the White House made these decisions.
I think in terms of, sort of, something new at least that I felt was in this book, it's the notion that there is this curious mixture in President Bush of public self-confidence over confidence in the eyes of his critics that may mask a certain kind of insecurity. And that came off at a number of points in the book, and I thought that was fascinating.
Mr. BROOKS: I was once in an interview with President Bush with a couple other columnists. And one of the columnists there - I think I can disclose this now - the guy named Max Boot was then writing for Los Angeles, and Max knows a lot about military affairs. And he really went at Bush on the troop levels in Iraq and a lot of the post-war planning, and Bush hit him back hard, and they really went at it. And if you have worked for him, you would have been afraid of Bush because he got so hot, his face got red. But in the middle of it, Bush kept saying I'm enjoying this, Max. I want you to know I'm enjoying this. And you got this sense he like the fight. But nobody in the White House ever had that fight with him, including the generals, by the way.
And so, you know, a lot of it, you'd walk through the White House after these interviews and you'd see people who were smart, you'd see a lot of mopes who are not smart and were incapable of having the debates even if they have the courage to do so. And I think it was that lack of exchange that Bush would have welcomed if somebody have had the guts to do it.
NORRIS: What does this mean for John McCain, this you know look at the White House that brings President Bush back into the spotlight in a very negative way, as John McCain is - he's in the most very delicate balancing act trying to distance themselves from President Bush, but at the same time trying to tap in to the Bush money machine, trying to tap into Bush machinery that got that president elected for two consecutive terms.
Mr. BROOKS: Well, McCain has not way to avoid Bush. He has no way, essentially, to avoid the Republican Party. But you'd have to say, so far, at the depths of everything the Republican Party is going through, and it's really in a complete meltdown, McCain is still even in the polls. And when you ask the American people, as Pew did recently, who do you trust to handle Iraq? McCain has a slight advantage over Obama. So the American people, A. do distinguish McCain from a typical Republican, and B. have observed apparently what's happened in Iraq over the last 18 months and do give McCain some credit for being for the surge.
Mr. DIONNE: And that's why...
NORRIS: And E.J. - David's assessment - excuse me - E.J.'s assessment of the Republican Party, assured by many party insiders, you say this is a party that's in complete meltdown - I mean some have likened the party to a plane crashing into a mountain - and yet John McCain continually does very well in this match-ups against Senator Obama and Senator Clinton. To what do you attribute that?
Mr. BROOKS: Well, first of all, I just want to get to the question about the book. The reason I think this book will come as unfortunate news to John McCain is because it brings us back to the original decision to go into Iraq. How was it made? What were the assumptions? That's the Obama's strong suit in this election. That he wants to say to McCain, you may have this experience but I had the right judgment on the war. I think McCain has built an image, over the years, of being independent of the party.
The real fight here is who - what is John McCain's first name going to be in this election.
Is it going to be John McCain or is it going to be Bush McCain? And that this history that McCain has, has helped him avoid the Bush-McCain label to some degree. And there are questions about Obama's experience that people will have that McCain is trying to play on. The question is, will the melt down of the Republican Party - is it so profound that no matter how far ahead of the ticket McCain runs, he still loses? And, I think that's the question for the year. How deep a problem now the Republican's in?
NORRIS: Now we don't have a lot of time, but I want to turn to the other big story this weekend, the DNC Rules on By-laws Committee meeting. It's have said to be quite a scene here in Washington. Lots of people, protesters actually, coming in from all the over the country. The committee is scheduled to vote on what to do about those delegates from Florida and Michigan. A lot of proposals are actually on the table. And the interested to hear from both of you, what do you think is the likely outcome come inside and outside the room? E.J.?
Mr. DIONNE: Well, I think Obama has the votes. There are about, there were 13 Clinton people, eight Obama people, seven neutrals. The neutrals, I think, are all going to vote with Obama. So, it's now up to Barack Obama about what to do. And, I think he is going to try to make the most generous offer that he can, that you know - the proposal on the table basically is seat Michigan and Florida with half votes. If Hillary Clinton says, that's not good enough; I think it's hard, under the rules, to give her more, but I think Obama is going to try to do that. I think he is going to make as difficult as possible for her to walk away from the deal because he wants to shut this down. He figures he can get the superdelegates. The outside, I have no idea how many people are going to show up. There is real anger among the - particularly among women about Hillary Clinton losing the way she was treated in the campaign. So they could rustle up a pretty big crowd.
Mr. BROOKS: He could shoot or he can offer a things. But its defeat, she's going to lose. And I agree with E.J. every - I think if it was in the room everything is going to go Obama's way. And the question is to me, it's her. How she accepts defeat? She's got a group of people who really militantly for her, she's got her husband who's militantly for her. But is she really going to go on for another couple of weeks? I think if she does not drop out, if - in the next week - then Democratic opinion, which is already impatient, will turn increasingly hostile. And there will be a real sourness.
NORRIS: Is there a question about her supporters, also, because she can appeal the decision made tomorrow. And the question is, whether her supporters, what's their state of mind? Are they up for this fight?
Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, and I would say the sound out of this supporters is enthusiasm for her, and out of Clinton camp, so far, is enthusiasm. There's no sign of weakening or looking for that exit strategy, so far in the comments that have been made by people on her staff.
Mr. DIONNE: I think a lot of Clinton people even don't want this to go all the way to August, because that's the recipe for defeat for the party. So that if she really pushed it hard and said no I'm not leaving, I think she begins to see some defections in her own ranks. Even as another part of her camp says no way she should ever leave the race.
NORRIS: And just quickly, is there a star chamber that are sitting on the seven so she could perhaps shut this down? Harry Reid? Nancy Pelosi?
Mr. DIONNE: They've already signaled they want people to make decisions quickly, and that's really saying, go with Obama and shut this down. At least that's how I hear it, even though that's not what they are saying.
Mr. BROOKS: That's what they want, I don't think that they're strong enough to force her.
NORRIS: Good to talk to both of you again this is E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times. Have a good weekend.
Mr. DIONNE: You, too.
Mr. BROOKS: You, too.
NORRIS: At our Web site, you can read more about why this Saturday's meeting of the Rules and By-laws Committee is generating so much excitement - that's the Political Junkie column. You can find that at NPR.org/elections.
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