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Analysts David Brooks and Tom Oliphant

March 12, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: And for an analysis of the week that was, David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times, and Tom Oliphant, columnist for the Boston Globe. Mark Shields is off tonight. Welcome, gentlemen.

President Bush went on the attack against Senator Kerry last week on the stump, this week in ads. Why go negative so early, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, there’s a couple of theories. The official theory is that there are certain points in the campaign when everybody is paying attention. They call it a window of opportunity at the beginning of the campaign to define the other side. In about three months we’re all going to move to Canada to get away from all this. But they think this is the time they think they have to attack Kerry because really in the Democratic field, the part of the Democratic Party is so unified, nobody went after Kerry, so a lot of people don’t know about it and the Bush people have been sitting there month after month after month, thinking when is somebody going to go after him? Nobody really ever did. So they’ve got to take this window to try to do that.

MARGARET WARNER: Kerry did come out of the primaries in pretty good shape, didn’t he, with public opinion?

TOM OLIPHANT: He did. I think President Bush was as shocked as Howard Dean was that John Kerry ended up the nominee of the party. And so much of the planning for the Bush-Cheney reelection had been predicated on another assumption, and I think the shift was not done smoothly or effectively at first. But this was a very sudden decision this week. I mean, the first round of ads went up just a week ago. It didn’t test very well over last weekend.

MARGARET WARNER: And you’re talking about the first round of positive Bush ads.

TOM OLIPHANT: That’s right. This may be the shortest positive campaign in mortal history. And as a result, to do this — I agree with David — it’s short-term. I don’t think we should read too much into it but it was made in considerable haste.

MARGARET WARNER: Now Kerry, of course, is fighting back with the new ad and it went up today in 16 states. Let’s look now at the two of them back to back, beginning with the Bush campaign ad.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH, campaign ad: I’m George W. Bush, and I approve this message.

AD SPOKESWOMAN, Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign: A president sets his agenda for America in the first 100 days. John Kerry’s plan? To pay for new government spending, raise taxes by at least $900 billion. On the war on terror, weaken the Patriot Act used to arrest terrorists and protect America. And he wanted to delay defending America until the United Nations approved. John Kerry, wrong on taxes — wrong on defense.

AD SPOKESMAN, Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign: Once again George Bush is misleading America. John Kerry has never called for a $900 billion tax increase. He wants to cut taxes for the middle class. Doesn’t America deserve more from its president than misleading negative ads? John Kerry will crack down on the export of American jobs, get health care costs under control and cut the deficit.

SEN. JOHN KERRY, campaign ad: I’m John Kerry and I approved this message because we need to do what’s right for America’s economy.

AD SPOKESMAN, John Kerry campaign: John Kerry, a new direction for America.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. First, the substance: Who’s right here? Are President Bush’s charges right or is Kerry right that he is misleading America?

DAVID BROOKS: It wouldn’t pass the standards Tom and I impose upon ourselves.

MARGARET WARNER: Even as columnists?

DAVID BROOKS: Even us, so you’re getting pretty low. I think the charge, for example, that there is a $900 billion tax increase in the Kerry plan: The way they calculate that is that they take the cost of the Kerry health plan, they deduct the amount of money you get back if you cut taxes on the very rich, and they say, well, he would have to raise $900 billion to pay for that health plan. It is not as if Kerry has a plan for $900 billion. It is sort of an assumption that he would have to do it if somehow the plan magically passed. It is iffy but it is true that the Kerry economic numbers don’t add up; that he doesn’t have the money to pay for all the stuff he has promised.

TOM OLIPHANT: There used to be an old Lyndon Johnson line about things like that, where it would be pointed out this was an outrageous thing to say, and Johnson would respond, “Well let him deny it.”

MARGARET WARNER: Well, speaking of denying it, how effective do you think the Kerry ad is in responding, counter-punching?

TOM OLIPHANT: It is effective in a superficial sense. But just as the Bush approach, I think, masks a current weakness, which is an agenda, so the Kerry response, while technically skilled, masks a weakness on his side, this is the challenger; you have to clear a higher bar to succeed. You have got to talk about what you mean by change and make people comfortable with it in detail. Kerry hasn’t even begun to do this with the country at large, so that any thrust and parry here almost misses the larger points that will decide the election ultimately.

DAVID BROOKS: I would say, if you looked at the two ads, you would think that John Kerry was president. He looked more presidential in that than Bush did in his. And I also think there is a danger, you know. Both campaigns say, “We are going to cut this off at a certain point. We are not going to do eight months of this.” I don’t know when the cutoff comes. I think it’s also true that voters, especially swing voters, they detest politics. They detest partisanship. So Kerry looks sort of positive here but in the same week he is saying Bush is the most lying, despicable coward in human history, whatever he said. Somehow this has got to end. I don’t see how the window closes. They may just keep on doing this kind of stuff.

MARGARET WARNER: We should point out that really only voters in 16 to 18 states are going to see if. If you are in New York or California, you won’t see this.

TOM OLIPHANT: That will be true all the way until November, by the way. I think also, factually, the Bush purchase of time this weekend, while it’s roughly the same number of states, the concentration of time is much greater on the Bush side. People in those states will see the Bush ad much more than they will see the Kerry ad.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s right. I mean, does Kerry possibly have the resources to match Bush if the Bush campaign puts up attack ads to really be able to match it?

DAVID BROOKS: He doesn’t if you measure it strictly. I would say the Bush people would say they have had $100 million over the past six months and all those Democratic candidates were dumping all over us.

MARGARET WARNER: Which is true.

DAVID BROOKS: Which is true.

MARGARET WARNER: A lot of the ads were anti-Bush.

DAVID BROOKS: There wasn’t too many anti-Kerry ads out there. The other thing that I think always has to be said at the national level is that paid media is less important at this level than any other level because there is so much free media and people know so much about President Bush. They don’t yet know about John Kerry, but they’ll get to know the major candidates. I really think the ads just make the rebel bounce at this point.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s go back to a point, Tom, you were making. Were you saying essentially that Kerry is a blank slate? Most people in the country, unless they had a hard-fought primary in their state, they don’t really know who this guy is?

TOM OLIPHANT: Even if they did and they’re not Democrats….

MARGARET WARNER: They weren’t paying attention. So what the Bush campaign is trying to do is fill in that blank before the Kerry campaign.

TOM OLIPHANT: That is the traditional effort. But as I say, the challenge facing Senator Kerry, I think, goes even beyond that traditional hurdle. When you are offering a change in direction, it is very important that in some way you supply a great deal of detail over time. The best example I can think of is what Governor Bush did immediately following his defeat of John McCain in 2000. He went through a couple of months where he one by one, he rolled out … he established this notion of compassionate conservative in depth and in some detail. It humanized him and it gave shape to the idea that after eight years of Clinton-Gore, it was okay to change. Kerry has not even begun to do that with the country at large.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with that?

DAVID BROOKS: I absolutely do. If you look at the programs, it is a mystery to me what John Kerry’s trade position is right now, which is a major issue. It’s a mystery what his foreign policy is on Iraq. How is the future of Iraq different under John Kerry or George Bush? I really do not know the answer to that question. He hasn’t really laid it out.

MARGARET WARNER: You mentioned trade. They did go at it, the two candidates, over trade, particularly outsourcing this week. Who do you think got the better of that argument?

DAVID BROOKS: I thought Bush gave about as good a domestic policy speech as he has given on trade this week. First of all, let me say — this is another subject — in their heart of hearts, do they disagree? I really do not believe they do. They’re both at heart free-traders, but, nonetheless, the emphasis is now different. John Kerry now emphasizes reviewing the trade deals; he emphasizes slowing down the growth of trade.

Bush went out and did something I thought was kind of brave and unusual. He came out as a full-bore free trader. He said, “We are going to accelerate trade. We are going to make our country more competitive, we’re not going to try to slow things down.” He emphasized — he went to Ohio and emphasized there is $2 billion of foreign trade that Ohio does, that they send out in exports, and that produces jobs in Ohio. Honda employs this many people in Ohio. He really became a champion of free trade. It was quite a stark thing to do.

TOM OLIPHANT: He also went negative. There is a new phrase now in the White House, in the administration. People who have my point of view on this issue are now called economic isolationists, God forbid. And it’s being used constantly now.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think effectively?

TOM OLIPHANT: No, not yet. And that’s because this is a phenomenon that you cannot praise because every time a community is hit with one of these events, we don’t celebrate the triumph of economic forces. We grieve at the loss to that community. You will notice in John Kerry’s ad, one of his sentences in there was that he will crack down on the export of American jobs. This stuff is all tested, so you can bet that the Democrats know that this stuff resonates. There is a program behind all these ideas. I’m not going to say it for him. His job is to convince Americans that he can make a difference in this area.

MARGARET WARNER: And the president did back off, did he not, when he tried to appoint this manufacturing czar and it turned out this man had just built a new factory in China?

DAVID BROOKS: And he did try to say, the president did try to say, “I understand there is a creative destruction — that jobs are lost, that mills close, jobs move overseas.” The president will have to make this case, I think it’s an eminently makeable case, that on balance, over the past 200 years, this country has been better off in trade. And I think the other point to be made is that outsourcing is not a major problem. It’s a, the number of outsourced jobs is in the hundreds of thousands in an economy with tens of millions of jobs. There are reasons jobs are not being created, but it has nothing to do with outsourcing by and large.

TOM OLIPHANT: One polling number from Gallup this week, 41 percent, “I fear that myself or one of my close friends will lose a job.” Fifty-eight percent, “This will be a very important issue this November.” Hubert Humphrey used to say, “When the economy is wrong, nothing else is right.” And in this case, when the net job creation is not healthy, things like this are huge irritants.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, just briefly, the attack, the horrible attack in Spain, it really is a reminder that in this eight-month campaign anything could happen to completely scramble the deck.

DAVID BROOKS: And I would say when the economy was generally wrong but now we know that terror could happen any day, so terror remains a huge issue.

TOM OLIPHANT: It’s no longer just in the back of people’s minds. It actually came closer to the forefront this week, and that’s a sobering reminder.

MARGARET WARNER: Tom, David, thank you.