Brooks and Marcus Discuss Health Care and Afghanistan

By The NewsHour, The NewsHour - August 21, 2009

JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Brooks and Marcus, New York Times columnist David Brooks, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus. Mark Shields is away.

David, speaking of Afghanistan, public opinion polls in the United States show support for that war is diminishing. What's going on?

DAVID BROOKS, columnist, New York Times: Right. Well, politically here at home, this is going to be a tough -- I think quite a flashpoint issue. Right now, the majority of Democrats think the war is not worth fighting. The majority of Republicans think the war still is worth fighting.

But when you get into a political tussle, what's going to happen, you're going to get the left of the Democratic Party wanting to pull back. You're going to get the right of the Republican Party not wanting to support Barack Obama's war. And you're going have a left-right coalition against people like Jack Reed, Senator Jack Reed from Rhode Island, John McCain, Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, sort of a center group that's going to support the president, but this will be very tight and I think one of the big flashpoints of the fall.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, a flashpoint of the fall?

RUTH MARCUS, Washington Post: I think it could be a big flashpoint of the fall. It depends on how things develop there. But if it goes badly, if the troop levels turn out not to be adequate, if they ask for more troops, this could really be a flashpoint on the left, because what you have now is unhappiness with much of the administration's policies from the left in terms of Guantanamo detainees, the civil liberties issues of the war on terror. You have unhappiness with the way the health care fight has unfolded, with abandonment or seeming abandonment of the public option.

And now to have ousted, from the point of view of the left, one president and dealt with his war only to have another -- and President Obama is doing exactly what he said he was going to do during the campaign in Afghanistan, but I think there's not a lot of, well, patience for that on the left.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And General McChrystal is going to come back in a few weeks and maybe not officially put the Obama administration in a corner by listing troops that he wants, but it's clear that they're going to ask for an increase of either 12,000 troops or up to 45,000 troops, in addition to the 60,000 there. That will be a very tough call.

JIM LEHRER: What about Richard Haass, Richard Haass's piece -- op-ed page piece today? He's a former Bush I administration official, now head of the Council on Foreign Relations. He says Afghanistan is not a war of necessity. Do you agree with him?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I don't know what the jargon "war of choice, war of necessity" -- I mean, to some extent, Abraham Lincoln had a choice before the Civil War. I mean, that's what they had an election about. So there's always war of choices.

But he is right in that op-ed piece to point out that it is a tough call, because it is going to be extremely expensive. The military people want to stay there a long time.

On the other hand, he comes down on the side that it is still a choice worth making, because we abandoned Afghanistan once. There is a high likelihood, near certainty that the Taliban would take over, because they're so rich now, if we left now. And what would be the repercussions of that?

So it's worth reminding us that we have a choice, but to me the choice is still one worth making.

RUTH MARCUS: I think it was a war of necessity that has now morphed into a war of...

JIM LEHRER: Going back to 9/11, you mean?

RUTH MARCUS: Yes, exactly. I mean, it was necessary to oust the Taliban. It was necessary to respond to the attack. I think the quintessential war of necessity is the Second World War, where you -- whatever it takes to defeat that menace is required.

Here, it's a much, much tougher choice. Afghanistan has consumed many, many different invaders, occupiers, liberators, whatever you want to call them, and public patience with it could be running quite thin. Yet the risk of abandoning it once again is also very -- it's a very unpleasant set of choices that are going to confront the president.

RUTH MARCUS: I think there's more to it than that, because I was talking about the concerns that people on the left have. I think where he's really losing people...

JIM LEHRER: And the public opinion polls are across the board, not just the left.

RUTH MARCUS: Exactly, across the board, and actually even more among the independents, who had formed, you know, the core -- an important part of his victory among Republicans, who had given him some more of the benefit of the doubt.

I think some of this decline was inevitable. After the euphoria, there's going to be a letdown. People yearn for change, and then they become unsettled by it. It's human nature.

And Barack Obama's vision of a sort of post-partisan, post-special interest Washington was never going to be seen in the reality of governing in prose. And so some of this was inevitable.

In addition to that, they made the decision to take on, to use their capital, to spend, if not all of it, a big, big chunk of it not only with the big stimulus package, with the big bailout package, to do health care writ large rather than a more contained version of health care, and I think they underestimated and then misplayed the Republican opposition to all of this.

JIM LEHRER: What would you add to that or subtract?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I'm not sure it was inevitable.

JIM LEHRER: You don't think it was inevitable?

DAVID BROOKS: No, I mean, he's lost the independents, a group I don't think he had to lose. If he had taken a stimulus package of $400 billion instead of $787 billion, I think he would have held the independents, held a lot of the Republicans.

If he had taken sort of a more moderate version of health care reform, I think he could have held on to -- there's a Wyden-Bennett plan that he, I think, would have held on to some of those independents.

I mean, the major reason he's falling down now -- the secondary reason is the economy is still not -- you know, unemployment. But the major reason is health care reform. His major domestic initiative is unpopular. The majority -- a slight majority of the American people disapprove of it, and there's no sign that that's let up.

And so he really is in a sort of not freefall, but a serious slide. You know, Charlie Cook, who knows more about congressional elections than just about anybody, has a memo out today saying there's as much of a chance the Democrats will lose more than 20 seats in the next House elections than fewer than 20 seats, and that's a pretty serious thing. That's a terrible climate in which to try to enact health care.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think it has some serious problems, some of which I've enumerated. To me, the problem I care about is costs. It doesn't control costs. And I think there's an element of the American people that are objecting to that.

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