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New Hampshire Debate Analysis

January 23, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And to some analysis by Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks. Okay, David, how is the repair of Howard Dean going in your opinion?

DAVID BROOKS: The electability factor is up. He seemed very nice with his wife, he was funny there during the debate, he had a full body epidural, so he was nice and calm. But the repair, I think it’s too late. The debate did nothing to shift the momentum. Howard Dean says there’s a sign of rebound. I’ve seen no evidence of a rebound, I’ve seen continued slides.

And it wasn’t as if this — yeeow — “I Have a Scream” speech, as they’re now calling it, was an isolated incident. It followed 40 or 50 different events where he said something that put people off. The most disturbing to me was when he was talking about George W. Bush and he said George Bush is not my neighbor.

Well, he’s a fellow American, you may not agree with him, he may not like him — that was a few weeks ago — but that’s symptomatic of all the things that happened and Howard Dean has very high negatives. If he’s going to turn around he has to fundamentally alter the campaign. And that hasn’t happened.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, specifically on last night, how did you feel he did first of all in the debate?

MARK SHIELDS: I thought he did well, Jim. I thought his job — his task last night was to stop the hemorrhaging that David has referred to, he’s hemorrhaged support. He was the front-runner up here a couple weeks ago in New Hampshire, and he’s been tumbling.

I think it was to return to reminding people as to how he was different, what he stood for, what his candidacy was about, and I thought he did well in the debate toward that end last night.

JIM LEHRER: What about the Diane Sawyer interview?

MARK SHIELDS: I thought the Diane Sawyer interview was a ten strike, would have been anyway a month and a half ago. Theodore White, probably America’s premiere political journalist had an operating maxim, and that is the higher the political office, the more important the candidate.

That is people when electing a governor or a president want to have a sense of who that individual is. That they have a comfort level; in the final analysis that’s probably why George W. Bush is president today and not Al Gore. With Howard Dean a very private person, never subscribed to that, never dealt with it, and last night Mrs. Dean, who turned out to be enormously appealing, I mean, gee, she’s got terrible priorities, she wants to raise her son and take care of her patients in her medical practice, instead of gazing adoringly at her husband at Rotary dinners. So I thought it worked well. The question is, it’s still back to, is it stopping the slide, is it reclaiming some of the support that he had lost?

JIM LEHRER: The slide and stopping the slide issue aside for a moment, David, how did you feel about that particular thing, the two Deans in that interview together with Diane Sawyer?

DAVID BROOKS: I want to concede the fact that sitting in a studio or in a living room even with Diane Sawyer or Barbara Walters is a genuine intimate experience, they seem like very nice people. But Howard Dean has been with members of the media for two years, 24 hours a day almost, that is Howard Dean. A televised interview for 20 minutes — I mean the pretext of all these shows is fundamentally a bogus one to me that somehow you’re getting to see the real person because Britney Spears cries or Monica Lewinsky cries or Hillary Clinton has her arm around her husband, that’s bogus, that’s show business.

Now I’m perfectly prepared to suspect that they are very nice people and she is a wonderful doctor and a good person and they’re both in love with each other. But the idea that out of 20 minutes with Diane Sawyer we can form that judgment is to buy into something that is just bogus.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Now the other people involved in the debate last night Mark, Kerry the front-runner, did he do anything to in the debate now, did he do anything to solidify his front running status or hurt it, or what do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: I think the debate probably helped John Kerry. The decision, the collective decision of all the candidates to keep it positive and not to go after him –

JIM LEHRER: Did that surprise you? Did that surprise you, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Probably not. I mean each of them was trying to make his own case. And we already addressed Dean’s problem. It was Wesley Clark for the first time who really had a look in this kind of setting, and I think the others probably had their own reasons for staying positive, certainly it served John Edwards very well thus far. So there’s no reason for him to switch. And Joe Lieberman was there to make his case.

So I think they figured, look, there’s very little point in it, and I think based on the Iowa experience of what we call the demolition derby between Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean in the last week out there, reducing the support for both of them, it was a cautionary note. But I thought the tone of many of the questions was adversarial and a little “gotcha” almost, I mean, that question about John Kerry, “How would you feel if somebody threw medals over…?” I thought he hit it out of the park. It may have intended to be sort of a tough question. I mean John Kerry teed it up. And I thought he did well in that debate.

JIM LEHRER: How did you feel about Kerry in the debate, particularly on the question, David, of the one that Mark just mentioned about the medals?

DAVID BROOKS: That’s one of his best moments of the campaign, for him, I agree with Mark, it was a great performance. The debate placed his strength, because you can only talk for a minute. His first minute is always great, it’s his seventh and eighth and tenth minute of every answer that’s the problem. So thought if you had to rate how they did, I thought he and Joe Lieberman did very well. I thought Howard Dean and John Edwards did quite well, did fine. I thought Wesley Clark did very poorly.

JIM LEHRER: Why?

DAVID BROOKS: As Mark said the questions were adversarial and you had to be ready for things, and Wesley Clark was not ready for them. He read some lavish praise that he wrote in London Times about the Bush war effort and the liberation and the possibilities for democracy, totally fumbled how he could square that article with his current position.

He was presented with something Michael Moore, his supporter, had said in front of him that George W. Bush was a war deserter; why didn’t he object to that, which is untrue. Why didn’t he object now, and he didn’t do it at the debate, he didn’t do it then and he came off seeming to me like a hater. Then the final thing was –

JIM LEHRER: A hater?

DAVID BROOKS: A hater. I think there are two kinds of candidates in this race: There are the ones who oppose Bush and want to get him removed from office, that’s most of the candidates. And then there are two who take it to an extra level, and who are always assigning bad motives to the Bush administration and that’s Wesley Clark and Howard Dean. I think what we’re learning over these two weeks is the Democratic Party prefers the first and not the second.

JIM LEHRER: How did you feel about Clark last night, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t know if I subscribe to Dr. Brooks’ assessment there on the motives involved. But I don’t, quite frankly. But I do think that Wesley Clark showed flashes of some eloquence, but I think he stumbled on the Michael Moore question. Jim, I’ve been around politics too long, I guess, but I remember in 1966 when a rookie candidate from California named Ronald Reagan was running for governor and the major issue in the Republican primary for governor, where Reagan was actually an underdog, was whether the candidates would accept the support of the John Birch Society, the kind of loony tunes anti-Communist group then prominent in California politics.

And Ronald Reagan had a wonderful answer, he said, “I seek the support, welcome the support of all freedom loving law abiding Californians, but because somebody endorses me means in no way that I endorse them.” And, you know, that’s the answer. You couldn’t rebut it, you couldn’t argue with it. And Wesley Clark stumbled on the Michael Moore question last night, no doubt about it.