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Shields and Brooks

January 28, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And now, again as always how it looks to Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks. Impossible question, David, but set the stage now for the rest of this race for the Democratic nomination.

DAVID BROOKS: Kerry is the front-runner. Actually coming off that interview with Howard Dean he laid it out pretty clearly: He’s the outsider and John Kerry is the insider, and to me we had a two state referendum on that question and the Democratic primary voters seem to want the insider. That’s his challenge.

There are all sorts of strategic challenges; to me one of the most interesting is John Kerry, does he attack John Edwards in South Carolina? Lee Atwater, the Republican charming analyst of a few years past said in the situation you have got to shoot the wounded and John Edwards is wounded. And I think Lee Atwater, if he were alive today, would say go to South Carolina, spend a lot of money; just finish him off. The danger of that is then it’s a one-on-one race really with Howard Dean and then Dean really can unload and attack John Kerry with all he has got.

JIM LEHRER: Would you add or subtract in a general way on that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, first of all it was a terrific interview with Gwen and Howard Dean and I thought Howard Dean was quite candid, more candid more than virtually any of his rivals are in such interviews. But he made the mistake that John Edwards did in his speech; he started talking tactics. Nobody is interested in tactics and strategy except us. Candidates should not waste precious time talking about, we’re going to do a media buy there and ads didn’t work, our direct mail did. That’s not what you’re looking for in a president. But that said, Jim, John Kerry right now has no natural rival for the nomination. He is the front-runner. He is out front.

JIM LEHRER: Who has the best chance of beating him?

MARK SHIELDS: The best chance of beating him and I agree with David; I would go to South Carolina if I were John Kerry … tomorrow morning he’ll get the endorsement from every report I have of Jim Clyburn, the most important African American leader in South Carolina, who had previously endorsed Dick Gephardt. And I would just go all out, because if he doesn’t beat John Edwards in South Carolina, John Edwards is going to be around.

JIM LEHRER: But John Edwards has to win in South Carolina.

MARK SHIELDS: John Edwards has to win and John Edwards has already said that so if John Kerry beats him there then John Edwards has not met his standing. Otherwise John Edwards is going to be around for a long time. He may not be able to win the nomination, but he’s going to offer a sort of a statement and testimony that Kerry can’t win in the South. And that becomes a problem as the nominee of the party when border state Democrats start distancing themselves. So what John Kerry needs, in my judgment, is a Southern victory and South Carolina is his best opportunity.

JIM LEHRER: What did you mean a moment ago David when you said if Kerry doesn’t knock off Edwards, and it’s a one-on-one with Dean, what does that mean? What kind of race would that turn this thing into?

DAVID BROOKS: If it’s a three-person race; you can’t really run what we call comparative ads or negative ads.

JIM LEHRER: And Dean said he isn’t going to do it.

DAVID BROOKS: In a three-person race. Because the person who isn’t in that little tug of war benefits, which is, as you said, what happened in Iowa. If it’s a two person race, you could run them because you’re dragging both of yourselves down, then one of you has got to win.

And there’s a lot of fodder out there for Howard Dean. He could say all of us Democrats attacked the No Child Left Behind Act; all of us attacked the Patriot Act. John Kerry voted for both those pieces of legislation: Not only did he vote for them, he called them ground-breaking pieces of legislation. There’s a lot of comparison that can be done there. But you’ve got to wait till it’s a two-person race or else John Edwards sneaks in from the side as Mr. Happy Face.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s exactly what John Edwards did do in Iowa because of the demolition derby and the destructive murder/suicide pact between Gephardt and Dean on the advertising out there. Voters were searching; they were dying for a positive voice. John Edwards offered it; they go to New Hampshire, the whole tone turns positive because of the Iowa experience and John Edwards gets lost in the background and ends up behind Clark.

JIM LEHRER: Twenty-four hours later, you looked at the exit polls and what the voters have had to say and what all of those awful pundits and reporters that Howard Dean was just talking about have said; what do you think the message of the New Hampshire results — is there one message, a simple one? You heard what David said — inside Washington beats the outside Washington.

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think inside Washington beats outside Washington; I think electability trumps everything else. When one out of three voters said the most important factor in their decision in New Hampshire was experience beating George W. Bush and three out of five of them voted for John Kerry — and I’d just add to that when you talk about shaking things up in Washington which Democratic voters would like to have done and enough of them think it’s important, John Kerry finished last in that respect — and Howard Dean didn’t win. But Kerry won across the board. Kerry won Democrats, he won independents, he split liberals and won moderates two to one.

JIM LEHRER: Did he win a lot of the undecideds?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, he did. He did get a bounce and his last week’s campaigning obviously changed some people’s minds about it.

DAVID BROOKS: There’s something creepy to me about electability. It’s not going in to vote for the person you think is best on the issues; it’s going in to say how would someone in New Mexico who’s a swing voter look at the fall. It’s not what I want. It’s what that guy might want and what you eventually get is who seems like the most cliché version of the best candidate? Because they have their image in the head — what’s a strong candidate look like? Well, he’s got some military experience, he’s got a big head of hair; he’s quite tall. Well, John Kerry, you know, he’s the senior figure on the field.

I think that’s — there’s something cool about that. I mean, Democrats definitely want to get rid of Bush but nonetheless I think there’s something cool about their support for Edwards; it’s prosaic; it’s strategic, and therefore I think it’s not passionate support the way Dean generates passionate support and therefore it’s more fragile.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of getting rid of Bush, let’s go back to the first segment tonight that Margaret did with Senators McCain and Levin and this issue about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. She talked to them about the politics of it. How do you see the politics of this as it might affect President Bush in November?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think because of Howard Dean in large part, the Democrats are — now their position is yes we voted for the war — the candidates — but we were misled. That George Bush always had this intention of going to war and that seems to me … and certainly that’s a strong indictment of the entire postwar policy and planning and lack thereof, and the failure of postwar Iraq.

And I think part driven by Dean’s popularity on that issue early and moved other Democrats to it and I think this just gives further fuel in support to those Democrats.

The irony is Howard Dean’s candidacy appears to be fading at a time when his case is being strengthened. The fall back position has become, aren’t we better off with Saddam Hussein? That was not the proposition offered to the American people as the central premise for a unilateral preemptive war and it was that they were 45 minutes away from launching — that they had aerial capacity to drop biological and chemical weapons upon American troops. They didn’t, they didn’t have either. This is I think going to be part of the debate of the election of 2004 and should be.

JIM LEHRER: Should be, do you agree David?

DAVID BROOKS: There should be a debate but I think people are going to be politically disgusted about what happened politically to David Kay. He said three things: we were wrong about the WMDs, but the CIA was not pressured and they did not mislead anybody to thinking it. They made an honest intelligence mistake and we have a big intelligence problem, but it was not a willful error as the Democratic candidates have all been saying. Nobody misled anybody else knowingly.

And so Kay made this serious set of conclusions, which suggests we’ve got a serious intelligence problem and instead of talking about the serious intelligence problem, instead of accepting this testimony which is supported by the Hutton testimony in Britain by the way, that nobody misled anybody, that it was a honest mistake, what we had on Capitol Hill today, led by Carl Levin and Ted Kennedy, was a series of unsubstantiated charges: still, regardless of the evidence, they must have been misleading, must have leaned on the CIA and I think David Kay found there is just no evidence. We have serious intelligence problems but they’re playing politics with it up there.

JIM LEHRER: What about the issue that came up between Levin and McCain just now that even as recently as a week ago the vice president was saying this thing about vans and Kay said there was nothing to do with it?

DAVID BROOKS: I think both parties have to give something. The Republicans have to give an investigation. For some reason the administration is stonewalling an investigation into what is a serious intelligence problem. And what Cheney said about the vans is part of it. But the Democrats have to give something, which is when Kay says that Saddam may have posed a more serious threat than we thought because of the whole corrupt nature of the regime and that would be the nonpolitical giving and that would be a serious response.

JIM LEHRER: Is that going to happen?

MARK SHIELDS: The president said, OK, on October 2002 we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun to come in the form of a mushroom cloud. Now that’s about as dire and serious and grave a threat as you can give to the American people. And why isn’t the president or anybody at the White House angry or upset if they got this defective intelligence and they gave the defective intelligence to the American people and we went to war based upon it and we’re looking at 3,000 American either dead, wounded, crippled or disabled — as a consequence of that? Now, I mean that’s really … where is the outrage?

DAVID BROOKS: Well they were wrong about the WMDs but they were right in their estimate of Saddam’s regime that it was a radioactive regime as David Kay said, more dangerous than we thought because there was no telling what was going to happen.

JIM LEHRER: I’ll tell you what, we will have our own debate between you all every Friday night from now on, whether anybody else debates it or not, OK?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think we’ll persuade each other.

JIM LEHRER: I know, but we’re off to a good start, though. Thank you both, very much.