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Obama, McCain Plot Campaign Strategies as Clinton Exits

June 6, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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With the Democratic primary race in the rear-view mirror, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain are trading the opening shots of their general election campaigns. Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks assess the political road ahead.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Gentlemen, so Barack Obama, David, made three — those stops yesterday in Virginia. Last night, he had a secret meeting with Hillary Clinton. He’s three days into sealing this nomination. How’s he doing so far?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: So far you’d have to say pretty good. He’s gotten the sort of what you might call the Martin Luther King bounce, people sort of appreciating the historic moment. You have an African-American nominee, and then him taking it right to Virginia.

And to me, that visit underlines, first of all, the math has changed. Places like Virginia are in play. Places like out in the Rocky Mountain West are in play in the way they didn’t use to be, because the Democratic Party is sort of on the march.

But it underlines the importance of social identity. Kaine and Webb, the two Virginia politicians he saw there, won in Virginia as Democrats because they were clearly socially conservative on a character level, military, on other issues, talking about faith.

And if Obama can come across as socially conservative, the sort of person — I don’t mean on abortion and things like that, I just mean on his values, on the way people perceive his morality — if he can do that, he’ll win places like Loudoun County, which is out near Dulles Airport, an incredibly fast-growing county.

And if you win places like that, he really will do extraordinarily well in the fall. But it’s about how people perceive — do they understand this guy? And so far they still really don’t.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, so he’s gotten off to a smart beginning, or is it too early to know?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I think it’s a little too early to know, but I do think that going into Virginia makes sense. It makes the Republicans and John McCain have to immediately begin to play defense, and that is defending territory that had been considered solidly Republican for the past 44 years.

The truth is, Judy, that the Democrats have won a number of states where they have not been competitive presidentially. They’ve either the governorship and/or Senate seats in states like Kansas, and Montana, and Arizona, and Oklahoma, and Wyoming, and Virginia, and North Carolina.

It’s a little jump to move to the presidential level, less so in Virginia, I think, because of Jim Webb’s victory there in 2006.

I think that the stumble that Obama had was at the AIPAC speech, where he went before a skeptical group of strong Jewish, pro-Israel supporters, and was probably over the top, I think, in his uncritical endorsement of Israeli policy, to the extent that he had to back off having said that Jerusalem would remain the undivided capital of Israel, and then had to back off later, 24 hours later, and say that, in fact, that would be open to negotiation between the two parties, after criticism from many in the Arab world and others in this country, and the Palestinian liberation authority, in particular.

Obama planning economy tour

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
David's absolutely right. When you have falling home prices across the board and no end in sight, in the sense of when that's going to change, that is a depressant upon the electorate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Was that a misstep, David? And then we know that, starting on Monday, Obama is going to North Carolina. They say it's a two-week swing to stress the economy. Is that what he ought to be...

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think it is. It is a misstep, first on Jerusalem. Second, he said that the Quds Force in Iran is a terrorist force, though he'd voted against that resolution, a Lieberman-Kyl resolution saying that exact thing, and that underling a weakness, which I think a lot of people perceive in Obama, does what he say on the stump, no matter how eloquent, does it have anything to do with reality?

And if people begin to perceive him as a politician, then that's what I'm talking about, people not understanding the core. Does he really get me?

Now, the economy is -- the economic news today, I think that's the big story here. I mean, terrible news, but not only terrible news. Existentially terrible. Gas prices shooting up; unemployment rising; the stock market falling. House prices, I saw a statistic that 1 out of every 10 homes built since 2000 is now empty.

And so you've got a sense of loss of control. People are asking, "Who's at the rudder? Where is the rudder?"

And so that is the big issue. And I think it's, for both these gentlemen, it's a question of, "I can take control of this country."

We just had a piece of legislation today on climate change which didn't even come close to passing, another example of Washington not even coming close to doing anything about our problems.

So the question of, "Who can grab the rudder? Who can create a rudder so the country is actually steerable?" And to me, that is the crucial question for the entire campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, do you have a sense that Obama is set to say something about the economy that's going to resonate with voters at this point?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think, Judy, that he did make the pivot in Virginia in his speeches yesterday to the economy and health care, to sort of provide some muscle to what had been the rhetorical skeleton of hope and change, which had carried him very well. Don't get me wrong.

But that's what voters do want to hear. David's absolutely right. When you have falling home prices across the board and no end in sight, in the sense of when that's going to change, that is a depressant upon the electorate, in addition to the price of oil, and the rising unemployment rate, and increasing inflation.

It's a depressant, in the sense that, for most Americans who do own a home, their home is their fortune. Their home is their inheritance. Their home is their sense of economic security.

And when that's under siege, there's no doubt that the party in power is going to pay. And that party in power is the Republicans right now, in the voters' judgment.

Looking to unify the party

David Brooks
New York Times columnist
I thought what happened over the last couple days was important, because it revealed something about Hillary Clinton's character, something, frankly, a lot of Democrats didn't like.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, before we leave, the Democrats -- we mentioned this secret meeting that he had, private meeting he had with Hillary Clinton last night. She is set formally to endorse him tomorrow. What does she need to say? What does he need to hear from her? And how much will that matter?

DAVID BROOKS: "You're the nominee. I admit it. You actually did win this thing."

I think she'll be fulsome. She's a politician. I think there were probably some negotiations over her debt. She's got a huge debt. And while he can't give her money, he can help her with his lists. She wants some help, and I'm sure there are negotiations.

I thought what happened over the last couple days was important, because it revealed something about Hillary Clinton's character, something, frankly, a lot of Democrats didn't like. It made it extremely unlikely she will be the vice presidential pick, that she'll sort of poison the atmosphere yet again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean by being unwilling...

DAVID BROOKS: By being so slow to embrace him. But I think, at the end of the day -- and if I were a Democrat, I wouldn't worry about it, frankly. I think the party will come together. I think they'll have a great convention.

I think the Republicans fully expect -- and I know they fully expect Obama to really shoot upwards in the polls, which we're beginning to see, but shoot up to a significant lead, and then McCain try to close in the last three or four weeks.

But Obama is going to have a big lead within a couple of months because the Democrats will unify.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, do you think Obama is going to get what he needs from Hillary Clinton, not just tomorrow, but for the rest of this election?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it depends on how they schedule that debt repayment reimbursement, if it hinges upon, you know, an all-out effort and, you know, concrete specific appearances on behalf of, no, just, I mean, I think that's a test, just how deep her commitment is.

I think there's no question, since Tuesday night, she has made efforts, a serious effort to remedy what was a mistake on Tuesday night. I think that decision on her part was aided or encouraged in large part, Judy, by the results of the reaction of her supporters.

I mean, leading Charlie Rangel, probably her key supporter, the man who had been the public advocate of her running for the Senate in the first place, and sort of her ambassador to the African-American community as an endorser, running against Barack Obama, basically pulling the rug out and saying, "Look, this thing is over, and I'm going to endorse Obama."

And I guess I'd add to that that the stories, lead by Jackie Calmes in the Wall Street Journal, about the score-settling, the feuding, the dysfunctional Clinton campaign. That had to be painful to read that for Hillary Clinton. But that really, as much as anything, sent the message that it was over.

Foreign policy and wiretapping

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
I think, just as Obama could be accused of a flip-flop on Jerusalem, I think that McCain can certainly be accused of a flip-flop of his position on warrantless wiretapping, something that he had opposed publicly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And let me quickly turn to John McCain here. How do you size up his campaign, David, as the Democrats pull themselves together? I mean, he put out a television spot today talking about he's the one who's going to keep this country safe.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And that is his strength, I think. If people decide on foreign affairs, they'll decide for John McCain. He's got an advantage on national security; he's got an advantage now on Iraq, because people have seen what's happened in Iraq over the past month.

And while they didn't like the fact we went in, they do seem, by a small margin, seem to trust McCain more on that issue. But he really -- you know, the economy is going to be the issue. I think everyone concedes that. And he really has to develop that message.

He developed the message a bit in a speech this week -- beautifully written, horribly delivered speech -- which emphasized reform, which emphasized Teddy Roosevelt, reforming the institutions of government to get the economy rolling.

He's got to flesh that out, but that's the right theme for him, because that is who he is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There was a little bit of news, David, today, that he -- maybe bigger than that -- that McCain agrees with the president that this wiretapping of Americans on their international phone calls and e-mails is legal. Was this a surprise? Some say this is a switch from where he was earlier.

DAVID BROOKS: Some people thought it was a switch, because when he was more in the Senate, he was respecting the congressional priorities over the executive branch.

Now he's running for the presidency. He's a little more assertive on the executive side.

Politically, I think it won't hurt him. And his second point is there's law, I'm going to enforce the law. But, politically, people want -- the FISA program, frankly, has been always been popular politically.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that something, Mark, that could have an effect on this campaign? And you also have -- I just want to throw this in, I realize these are two different things, the Senate Intelligence Committee coming out yesterday after five years of investigation and saying that they believe -- Democratic majority -- saying they believe the president misled with information before going to war with Iraq.

MARK SHIELDS: I think, just as Obama could be accused of a flip-flop on Jerusalem, I think that McCain can certainly be accused of a flip-flop of his position on warrantless wiretapping, something that he had opposed publicly.

And John McCain, I think, this is part of his tough guy, as David described it, on foreign policy and national security, that he's going to be a give-no-inch, take-no-prisoners sort of commander-in-chief. And I think that's part of the campaign strategy, more than anything else.

But, I mean, bluntly put, Judy, you can still wiretap without a warrant, given an emergency, and more than 99 percent of the requests for wiretapping are granted by the FISA court. So this seems a little bit too much for the administration.

As far as the intelligence report from the Senate committee, I think it weakens even further the position that those who supported George W. Bush and the invasion and occupation of Iraq, strengthens the hand of those who opposed it.

What comes across most specifically in a report, the 2-to-1 majority of the committee, with Chuck Hagel and Olympia Snowe voting with all the Democrats, was that the president, and the vice president, and the secretary of the defense, in this case, Don Rumsfeld, had really created this bogus connection between Saddam and al-Qaida, which led to the misperception -- publicly polled by American voters -- that Saddam and Iraq had been involved in 9/11.

So, I mean, the...

JUDY WOODRUFF: I just want to quickly give David a chance to weigh in on that before we...

DAVID BROOKS: Well, if the election is about Donald Rumsfeld, Republicans are going to lose.

If it's about the fact that Iraqi troops now control Basra, now control Sadr City, that we just had the lowest casualty rates for the U.S. troops in four years in the months of May, and that we actually have an opportunity to build a decent future, then it's a much more complicated picture.

And, frankly, if Obama's advice on the surge had been taken, we'd be in a lot worse shape there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sober stories all around. David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you both. We'll see you next week.