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Clinton, Obama Enter Final Stretch in Pa. Primary Fight

April 18, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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For the first time in six weeks, Democratic voters will once again cast ballots in the hotly contested Pennsylvania primary Tuesday. Analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks consider the state of the campaign and assess the fallout from Wednesday's debate in Philadelphia.

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

Gentlemen, last week’s Democratic debate, the first one we’d had in seven weeks. It had the biggest audience of any of these primary debates, over 10 million people.

How did the candidates do, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, I think the first thing, Judy, is how did the debate go? And I have to say, right at the outset, I disagree with David, who has written rather glowingly and spoken glowingly about it.

I thought it was offensive. And I say this as somebody who admires enormously both Charlie Gibson, who did a great job in the New Hampshire debate, and George Stephanopoulos, who’s made the successful transition to journalism from politics.

But there was no more egregious example of sort of the macho-swagger, press-pass, take-no-prisoners prosecutor attitude than asking Senator Obama, “Why don’t you wear a flag lapel pin?”

And I’d just give you two quick examples on this, because this is the kind of question — the explanation to ask? “It’s all over the Internet.” I mean, so are theories about John Kennedy’s assassination and the United States government blowing up the Twin Towers. That’s no reason.

I mean, Jim Webb, Democratic senator from Virginia, who was a company commander in the — Marine company commander in Vietnam and won the Navy Cross, the second-highest award the country can give, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts, and opposed the war in Iraq, does not wear a lapel pin.

Dick Cheney, who during the 1960s sought and received five deferments to avoid military service and explained that he did so because he had other priorities than military service, supported the war in Iraq and wears a flag lapel pin.

So I guess the question then becomes: Why doesn’t — should it be that why doesn’t Jim Webb do it? I mean, this really bothered me. Now…

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re saying you think so much time…

MARK SHIELDS: I found that stuff, that “gotcha” questioning, and it really — it was offensive. I thought it was not one of Barack Obama’s great performances.

Democrats have an image problem

David Brooks
The New York Times
The reason Democrats have lost presidential elections in more recent years has not been because people don't agree with them on the issues... It's because they're not sure that candidate is like them...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me turn to David...


JUDY WOODRUFF: ... on the point of the conduct of the debate.

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Yes, I thought they were legitimate questions. The reason Democrats have lost presidential races...

JUDY WOODRUFF: And let's talk about what those questions were for Obama.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, they tended to be -- there was the flag lapel pin, but it tended to be about Jeremiah Wright, about Obama's quotations from San Francisco about being bitter and clinging to religion and guns, issues of that nature, which were not health care, education, jobs issues, but were about the campaign.

And the reason I think they were legitimate is this. The reason Democrats have lost presidential elections in more recent years has not been because people don't agree with them on the issues. They do tend to agree with them about health care and education, things like that.

It's because they're not sure that candidate -- John Kerry, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore -- is like them, shares their values, shares their basic life experience. The question is now asked of Barack Obama, "Is he like us?"

And whether you like it or not, the way people measure that question is through the use of symbols, whether it was Michael Dukakis sitting there in the tank, or John Kerry wind-surfing, or John Edwards' $400 haircut, people care about the symbols when they're saying, "Is that guy like us?"

So when they look at Barack Obama, the things he said in San Francisco, that raises the question, "Is he like us?" Going to the church...

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is the "bitter" comment.

DAVID BROOKS: ... the "bitter," yes. And going to the church, "Is he like us?"

So Barack Obama has to address those issues. And the way you do is through symbols that seem trivial in their nature, but do go to the essence of who he is.

And I thought he should have been grateful for the chance to demonstrate that he does share the same values. He gave, frankly, not-so-great answers to those questions.

MARK SHIELDS: Judy, we found out on the Rand report this week that one out of five veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome or depression, one out of five. That's over 300,000. We have no plan for them as a people.

Now where is the patriotism? I mean, the flag lapel pin, I mean, is so fatuous, is so absolutely silly. I mean, if one wears -- if one is an uncritical supporter of the United States' invasion and occupation of another country, that makes him a patriot and someone who opposes it isn't? And you wear a flag to show that?

I thought -- now, did Obama have -- I thought Obama's opening was not strong. I thought his close was not strong. Those are the two points of the evening that he really had control of. He had low energy; I don't think there's any question about it.

He was on the defensive in the first 45 minutes. Did he blow? No. Did he show temperament, even temperament? Yes.

What has happened to Obama since the San Francisco event and through this week was he lost his message. His message is one of hope, and his signature image is that of a smile. Just like JFK or Tiger Woods or Ronald Reagan, Americans like leaders with smiles. His smile was gone.

I don't argue -- go ahead.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes, I just want David to respond, though, on this sort of basic point that Mark is making, that if you're going to talk about your loyalty as an American, do it with something -- do it on a subject that is more substantial than whether you're wearing a pin.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, on the question -- on the narrow question of the flag lapel pin -- I could care less whether somebody wears it -- I agree with Mark. It doesn't mean anything. That particular question I thought was the weakest of all the possible questions.

But as I say, the larger issue is, what kind of guy is Obama? Is he someone who bowls a 37 and doesn't know anything about the way American people actually live, or does he actually get the way we live?

Candidates 'dishonest' on taxes

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
There is a fundamental dishonesty on the part of Obama and Clinton on taxes... They've locked themselves in and they were dishonest, because let's be very frank about it... the federal government needs more resources.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about this other point about whether Obama hurt himself, helped himself?

DAVID BROOKS: I thought he did poorly throughout. I think he was less adept than Hillary Clinton about talking about policy, which was, you know, two-thirds of the debate. I thought he made a series of promises which I think were reckless, vowing never to cut taxes, a "read my lips pledge" never to cut taxes...

MARK SHIELDS: Not to increase taxes.

DAVID BROOKS: Never to increase taxes on people making under $200,000 or $250,000. That means he cannot address entitlements. You can't address entitlements if you say 95 percent of the American people will never face a tax cut.

Vowing two years ahead of time to absolutely get out of Iraq in 16 months, maybe that's what he wants to do, but who knows what the situation will be in 16 months or in two years? He should have left himself some flexibility there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see that?

MARK SHIELDS: Let me address the tax thing first. I agree. I mean, there is a fundamental dishonesty on the part of Obama and Clinton on taxes when they say they're only going to increase it on those earning over $200,000, $250,000.

I mean, as Russell Long, the great senator from Louisiana, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, used to say, "Don't tax you, don't tax me, tax the man behind the tree." This is -- there's no sympathy for people making over $250,000 or $500,000.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you're saying they've locked themselves...

MARK SHIELDS: They've locked themselves in and they were dishonest, because let's be very frank about it. Judy, we've seen this week the FAA is not working. The Food and Drug Administration says that they can't even begin to test medicines and medical devices. We've had, in addition to that, we've had, today, the Wall Street Journal reported we can't inspect meat that's going into our children's schools.

You know, the federal government needs more resources. It needs more money to do its job. We need to rebuild bridges. We need to rebuild roads. Everybody says that.

John McCain was even more dishonest than either of them. He introduced a tax cut bill that, according to Brookings, Brookings Institution, is going to increase the debt in the country $5.7 trillion in the next eight years.

I mean, you know, he said he's going to balance the budget by getting rid of earmarks? I mean, come on. That's like literally throwing a deck chair over the Titanic.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I do want to come back to the Democrats, David, but what about McCain? McCain came out with an economic, set of economic proposals.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I agree. It's the same problem that they've all had. They're caring about politics more than actually governing.

I thought some of McCain's ideas were good; I thought some were weird. The idea of a moratorium on the gas tax during the summertime months? That's just a weird idea. That's not good government.

And what they're doing is they're caring, "What can I say to get you to agree with me at this moment?" They are not thinking about how they're going to behave when they're in a White House.

And that's why these rock-solid pledges, whether it's a Grover Norquist "no new taxes" pledge that a lot of Republicans are taking, or the Democratic pledges, they're just bad ideas.

Win a battle, lose a war

David Brooks
The New York Times
For all the bad week or bad month that Obama has had, I really think that Democrats have made up their minds... In Pennsylvania, if you look at the recent polls, he's still gaining a little ground or at least holding relatively even.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, next Tuesday -- it's just four days from now -- people in Pennsylvania go to the polls to vote. It's either Obama, Clinton. What are the expectations right now?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, if you look at the polls in Pennsylvania, they're still narrowing. For all the bad week or bad month that Obama has had, I really think that Democrats have made up their minds.

I see no evidence that it's helping Hillary Clinton. Some of the national polls do show a tightening. But in Pennsylvania, if you look at the recent polls, he's still gaining a little ground or at least holding relatively even.

And for Hillary Clinton to survive with any kind of momentum, I really think she has to get double-digit victory. And maybe she'll get it, but it looks a little less likely than it did.

MARK SHIELDS: I think the expectations is a little unfair. I think winning is coming in first. And I think, right now, that Pennsylvania is a good fit for Hillary Clinton.

It's the third oldest state. Only Florida and West Virginia have an older population. It's 46th in growth. There's fewer young people. It's 43rd in the number of people under the age of 18.

It's really a state that's lost -- since George Bush has been president, it's lost 237,000 manufacturing jobs.

So this is not a place where change as a theme is welcome. Change has not been friendly to Pennsylvania; change has not been good to Pennsylvania.

And they are a meat-and-potatoes -- it's a state with more union members. She's done well with older voters and Catholic voters, all the groups that she's done well with. I think Pennsylvania is a good fit for Hillary Clinton.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And her campaign is saying but -- they're basically saying all she has to do is win and that that's the bar for her.

MARK SHIELDS: I think David's right. I think David's right that, in order to go on and to impress super-delegates, she probably has to win impressively, but I still think a win is coming in first.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, what about standing back and looking at this race nationally? Super-delegates, we're hearing a couple more -- a couple more that were announced today, Senator Nunn, Senator Boren, former Senator Nunn, former Senator Boren.


JUDY WOODRUFF: For Obama. Is there any sense that we're getting closer to a decision on the part of these super-delegates.

DAVID BROOKS: I really think so. I hope Sam Nunn is the vice presidential candidate personally.

But I don't think there's any sign that Hillary Clinton has a better chance today than she did a month ago of being the nominee. I think it's still increasingly likely that Obama -- almost near certainty -- that Obama is going to be the nominee, though what's changed is his prospects going forward in the fall.

And there both of them have been diminished, but especially Obama. And if you look at the general election match-ups and other ratings, he's been diminished as a candidate by the exhaustion of this struggle.

Fall election still uncertain

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
The fundamentals of this race so overwhelmingly favor the Democrats that you just can't begin to say John McCain is even in the race at this point in an awful lot of states, even though he's the most appealing candidate... they have.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're basing that on the polls and on...

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think -- I mean, obviously, it's early to look at general election polls. He's behind in Pennsylvania against McCain; he's behind in Ohio; he's behind in Florida. He's tied in a lot of states he absolutely has to win, like New Jersey.

So the Democrats should be crushing the Republicans this year. The fact that it's basically tied in the national polls is not great signs for the fall.

MARK SHIELDS: In March of 1980, Jimmy Carter was 37 points ahead of Ronald Reagan. He lost 44 points. I mean, a lot of races have been won and lost.

The fundamentals of this race so overwhelmingly favor the Democrats that you just can't begin to say John McCain is even in the race at this point in an awful lot of states, even though he's the most appealing candidate and the strongest candidate they have.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about David's point that Obama is a weaker candidate today than he was a month ago?

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, he is, but the attacks have done two things. The attacks on Obama have raised his negatives, as David points out, but they've always raised Senator Clinton's negatives.

The problem when there's only two candidates, Judy, is when A attacks B, B's negatives might go up, but so do A's. What you're looking for is that C, that third candidate to be attacking B, and then A standing aside.

But she has been -- I saw this week in the Washington Post-ABC poll that her own negatives, questions of her likeability, or lack thereof, her questions of honesty, or lack thereof, have risen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So nobody has really come...

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I agree. They've both been diminishing. But the thing that's permanent here, despite all the permutations in the polls that could go, if Obama does not do a lot better than he's done so far with high school-educated, white voters, he's in trouble.

And he hasn't been able to solve that problem, and that's been the problem that was highlighted by the San Francisco comments. And so that's one core thing that is permanent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that's one thing people are going to be looking for in these Pennsylvania results.

With that, that's it.

MARK SHIELDS: That's it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But we will have you back next week. In fact, we'll see you on Tuesday, the night of the primary, to talk about it.

MARK SHIELDS: OK. Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Shields, David Brooks, have a good weekend.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you both.