Shields and Brooks
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
RAY SUAREZ: And now, on to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and David Brooks of the New York Times. And there was a pause in the presidential campaign during the morning period for President Reagan. It’s over, the campaign started up again, how does it look to you, David?
DAVID BROOKS: I guess the main thing to me is Kerry’s weakness as a candidate. Right now the striking thing is if you compare Republicans and Democrats at the congressional level, the Democrats have a significant lead, just a significant lead. It’s debatable how big it is, but it’s big.
RAY SUAREZ: In this the question about which party you’d vote for?
DAVID BROOKS: Which party do you generally think is – do you trust, and the Democrats have this huge lead. And, yet, the head-to-head, Bush v. Kerry, even when you throw in Nader, it’s basically tied. In some polls, in many polls Bush has a one or two point lead. So Kerry is underperforming his party. The story, I guess, right now to some it up is people have doubts about Iraq clearly, the U.S.A. Today Poll showed that for the first time more Americans think it was a mistake to go in than not. They have still some fears about the economy but they somehow feel some connection with Bush still that’s quite residual loyalty. They don’t feel it yet with John Kerry.
RAY SUAREZ: What do you make of that, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: I disagree with David’s interpretation of it. I think that President Bush is probably in worse shape right now than any incumbent I can remember at this stage of reelection year, any incumbent president including those who lost, Jimmy Carter and George Herbert Walker Bush, the first President Bush. And I say that for a couple of reasons.
First of all, little noticed in the poll was the fact that in the Washington Post/ABC Poll they asked the question, Ray, “Please tell me which candidate the following statement applies to: George W. Bush or John Kerry. He is honest and trustworthy. Now, whatever you say about George W. Bush, straight shooter, you know, lets you know where he stands, and all the rest of it, by a 52 percent to 39 percent margin, American voters say it applies to John Kerry whom they really don’t know very well rather than to George Bush. It’s cumulative. You can see the erosion of the president’s credibility. It’s more than a crisis. It’s a growing gap.
DAVID BROOKS: But you would see it–
MARK SHIELDS: Let me continue. I think that that’s the first thing. The second thing is that George W. Bush is playing with a very reduced playing field, the electorate that’s available to him; 43 percent of voters, registered voters, adults in the country say under no circumstances would they vote for him. So he essentially is playing with 57 percent of voters, that’s all he has. I mean, so there’s very little margin, room for error there.
And just underlining what David said, the first time a majority of Americans say not only are they opposed to the war in Iraq going in but they also believe the war in Iraq has not made the United States less safe– more safe against terrorism but in fact less safe. And I think, you know, those combined– I just think– I really look at it and say it’s reaching the point where there’s an anxiety in Republican ranks. I can tell you among office holders and office seekers that I haven’t seen for a long, long time, even since 1992.
RAY SUAREZ: Go ahead, David.
DAVID BROOKS: I agree with that point, especially about the House and Senate. I think most Republicans would say “we think we’re going to hold on to the House, we’ll still probably keep the Senate” — but real doubts, real anxiety– a sense of anxiety because of these numbers of the two parties, the head-to-head match-up. Nonetheless, you know, there are one or two polls that show this lack of faith in Bush’s credibility. Nonetheless, when you take a look at the whole list of polls, the job approval ratings which is a key determinant, if you average the last six, Bush is up around 48, 49; that’s pretty good.
When it’s head-to-head with Kerry, he’s tied. He’s had the worst year imaginable and Kerry can’t pull ahead even in these circumstances? I think that shows you two things: One, it’s all going to be about Iraq but, two, there’s just not that many swing voters. We have right now an orthodox Republican southern conservative versus an orthodox liberal northeastern and you’re just not going to get many swing voters. And something will happen the last two weeks of the campaign that will just nudge one of them over the top and that will be the election.
RAY SUAREZ: Mark, I want you to respond to David’s original point that when you look at all these broken out variables: the economy, the war, right track/wrong track, Bush is either sliding or behind yet he’s right up there with John Kerry in the “who are you going to vote for” question.
MARK SHIELDS: Ray, I spent yesterday in York, Pennsylvania, with undecided senior– seniors, retirees. These people have no idea who John Kerry is and yet their disaffection with President Bush is real. John Kerry hasn’t made the sale. He hasn’t knocked at the door. I mean, people don’t know who he. You think — they’ve been spending now… they’ve spent somewhere around $75 million to say John Kerry is a flip-flopper. I mean, you know, that’s the biggest– hedger and all the rest of it. Yet he has a majority of Americans thinking he’s more honest and trustworthy than the president who is the straight shooter. I think that there’s no question– I mean, Kerry’s fate, fortune and future will be determined by his ability to make the sale.
And I think that’s going to be seen in large part whether he’s going to be successful in July. He’s got a name– he’s got to himself– he names a running mate. That’s the most important decision a candidate makes in terms of he’s making a decision, he is picking somebody, that person has to stand up to a test of scrutiny and all the rest of it, the quality of the person, he has a convention, whether he can manage that convention, whether it’s going to be– there’s going to be resistance or even riots or just rebellion among any groups that are dissident, whether he makes a speech that inspires people.
He’s being introduced to the American people. If he comes out of the convention, I would say given these numbers right now less than six or seven points ahead, I would be frankly surprised and I think then David’s argument would start to say maybe he can’t make the sale.
DAVID BROOKS: Just to go back to this question where all the issues seem to favor Kerry but the overall doesn’t seem to favor Kerry. Voters make two decisions, one is on policy and one is on person, to feel a sense of social bondedness with that person. Is that person representing my values? Is that person basically like me? And they clearly do not feel that about John Kerry. Just one poll out there showed from Time magazine — showed that only 7 percent of Americans think John Kerry is a man of strong religious faith. Most Americans are– do consider themselves of strong faith and if they don’t consider that person a man of faith, then there’s just not a sense of bondedness there.
RAY SUAREZ: On the “cares about people like me” question, Kerry is –
DAVID BROOKS: Kerry does okay. It’s more personal and visceral and I think that’s as yet lacking.
RAY SUAREZ: Let me move on because during the past week two very thick sheaves of documents have been released by the administration: First the communications regarding what would be allowed and what would be legal, legal opinions regarding the treatment of detainees in the war on terrorism; then responses from various people in the administration about what they think they’re going to do. What did you make of those, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, first of all, I found it disturbing that the underlying premise seemed to be whatever the president wants to do is unconstitutional from the Justice Department.
RAY SUAREZ: Whatever the president wants to do is constitutional?
MARK SHIELDS: Constitutional, sorry. The president determines by his actions what is constitutional. And, Ray, I think what was most revealing in those huge sheaves you described is what was omitted. I mean, the fact is, the people who objected most strenuously to the fact that torture is not only violative of our values, our principles but it is also counterproductive, it doesn’t help. The people who made the strongest arguments against them were the military lawyers, the lawyers for the Marine Corps, the lawyers for the army, the lawyers for the navy, the lawyers for the air force, the lawyers for joint chiefs of staff, the lawyers for Colin Powell, the State Department. And they are not even included.
Once they made the argument and made the case that this violates all U.S. and U.N. values and principles and treaties, that it not only doesn’t work but it’s a threat to the future American detainees and, third, there’s going to be a public uproar if and when this ever becomes public, all of which are absolutely true. I mean, I don’t know anybody in the military who thinks torture is right let alone successful — that you’re far more apt to get better information from rewarding someone who helps yourself rather than punishing someone and getting them to say what you wanted to hear.
DAVID BROOKS: Sort of the implication of your remarks is that there was a big pro-torture community out there in the administration which, I don’t think there was. I think when you take a look — step back and take a look at the whole body of work, what you see is an administration faced with a new kind of threat from al-Qaida. You see the possibility of… imagine a relative of ours, Paul Johnson sitting out there in Saudi Arabia about to be beheaded, the need to get human intelligence, to find out where somebody like that might be being held — so a new threat and an imminent threat.
So then the question becomes: what can we do? Does this raise new standards for us? And it seems to me what you saw in all these documents was a deliberation. The Bush administration is sometimes criticized for never deliberating. But here they had some memos saying some things that struck me as intelligent; some only a lawyer could have written, that it’s okay to inflict pain so long as you don’t intend to inflict pain even if you know you’re about to inflict pain. Some of the memos were just unbelievable; some about injuring body organs. But it was deliberation.
RAY SUAREZ: And you think they came down in the right place?
DAVID BROOKS: I would say when you look at the way Rumsfeld behaved there were some things he allowed and then he decided better of it, using dogs, for example, or there was a debate about whether you give prisoners hot food or cold food. But it’s still an evolving process. He did something which seemed too stringent, too tough, he pulled back a little. But it seemed to me in general despite some excesses– and I agree with Mark, I don’t understand how this torture could possibly work– but it seems to me you saw a basic process going forward and.
RAY SUAREZ: Time for a last response.
MARK SHIELDS: We don’t see any memos after April, 2003. Torture began after. But I think what emerges is, there’s an inconsistency, contradictory policy so you just can’t say to some young American reservists at Abu Ghraib that they were acting as freelancers. I mean, there was a confused contradictory policy being set for the treatment of– mistreatment of prisoners.
DAVID BROOKS: There was nothing like Abu Ghraib.
MARK SHIELDS: No, but they were contradicting each other each time and they brought the guy over from Guantanamo to get more information.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, there’s going to be an attempt to introduce just that point into the currently ongoing court-martials in Iraq. We’ll see how it all comes out. Have a great weekend fellows.