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Shields, Brooks Discuss Obama’s Fundraising Shift, McCain’s Energy Proposal

June 20, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Tensions between the presumptive presidential nominees escalated over Sen. Barack Obama's refusal of public funds and Sen. John McCain's call to lift a ban on offshore drilling. Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the political news of the week.

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

Gentlemen, good to see you both.

Presidential candidates, both of them this week changed their position on two pretty important things.

Let’s start with Obama, Mark, deciding that he is going to opt out of public financing after saying a year ago that he was going to take public financing for his campaign. What do you make of the argument?

MARK SHIELDS, syndicated columnist: Judy, Barack Obama made history this week. He became the first presidential nominee since Richard Nixon in 1972 to state that his campaign will be funded totally by private donations with no limits on spending.

It was a flip-flop of epic proportions. It was one that he could not rationalize or justify. His video was unconvincing. He looked like someone who was being kept as a hostage somewhere he was so absolutely unconvincing in it. It could not have passed a polygraph test.

I mean, coming up with this bogus argument the Republicans have so much more money — the Republicans don’t have so much more money. He’s raised three times as much as John McCain has.

He has every possible committee, except Republican National Committee, Democrats at the Senate level, congressional level have this lopsided edge over Republicans. They spent three times as much, did Democratic leaning 527s, in the last election as did Republicans.

So what Obama didn’t admit was, up until February of this year, when he told Tim Russert that not only would he aggressively seek an agreement on public financing, that he personally would sit down with John McCain and work it out, then, all of a sudden, they realized that all these small contributions were coming in and he was going to have a financial advantage in the fall against the Republican, and they grabbed it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, David, would it have helped Obama if he had just come out and said, “Look, I think I’m raising more money, and I’m raising small contributions, and I’ve just changed my mind?”

DAVID BROOKS, columnist, New York Times: It would have at least been honest, as opposed to sort of operatic, which that video was. He treated it as if some noble decision to finalize democracy. It was ludicrous.

I do think it’s the low point of the Obama candidacy, and I think it for this reason. His entire career he has put political reform at the center of it. In the Illinois legislature, in the Senate, political reform has been the essence of who he has been. And so for him to betray this, to sell out this issue, what won’t he sell out?

And it really reveals something about his conscience. It reveals that he has this idealistic side, which is a serious policy side, but he also has a tough Machiavellian side, a political hack side, and he wants to win.

And so, in some ways, this is terrible because it’s epic hypocrisy. In some ways, if you want a tough SOB to be your president, he’s shown he is a tough S.O.B.

Obama forgoes public financing

David Brooks
New York Times
From here on out, he will be able to spend gobs of money in Georgia, all over the country, and force McCain to campaign with money he doesn't have.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So does this hurt him politically?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I do think it's a window into his conscience. Now, if I was a political consultant without a conscience and I was advising him what to do, I suppose I'd advise him to do this, because, from here on out, he will be able to spend gobs of money in Georgia, all over the country, and force McCain to campaign with money he doesn't have.

So, in a narrow political sense, it's a smart thing to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does this register with voters?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Judy, put it this way, just to enlarge on David's point. It gives him a tactical advantage in this campaign.

Right now, Barack Obama's campaign is advertising in Georgia, and North Carolina, in Indiana, in North Dakota, in Colorado, in Georgia, David mentioned, in states -- Virginia -- where the Republicans have nearly owned the states politically and presidentially for the past quarter-century. And it forces John McCain with limited resources to try and defend those states. So it gives you a real big advantage.

Historically, voters have not said on campaign financing -- they haven't been nearly as interested. It's probably one of the arguments against it on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. Voters don't care. It's a reform issue.

But I really do think that Obama has made this so central to his mission, which is, "I'm going to change Washington, and you can't change Washington until you change the money, until you change the way we raise the money and who we raise it from." And he just basically went back on that.

And I think, in that sense, it can become a character issue against him, and I think that's potentially a problem.

John McCain is no plaster saint on this issue. McCain opted into public financing to get a bank loan, private bank loan for his campaign during the primaries, and then, as soon as money started to come in, he pulled out of public financing.

DAVID BROOKS: But McCain wouldn't have done this. When the chips are down and McCain faced the crucial issue of his career, which was backing the surge, he backed the surge thinking it would cost him the presidency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Troops in Iraq.

DAVID BROOKS: On a core issue of character, I do not believe McCain will bend. He'll bend on all this other stuff he doesn't care about, but Obama did bend on a core issue of his conscience.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, bending is...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Obama...

MARK SHIELDS: ... You tell me what the core issues of character, what they bend on. I mean, John has been quite flexible. And I do think John McCain has got a lot more political capital fighting for campaign finance reform than the Democrats have, because their constituency is far more disposed to it than is John McCain's.

McCain's offshore drilling support

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
John McCain was against the tax cuts when the country was running a budget surplus. Now, all of a sudden, he's a born-again tax-cutter and preservationist of tax cuts, ones he called tilted to the rich.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Obama criticized McCain this week, David, for changing his position on drilling for oil offshore. Now, how big a deal is that?

DAVID BROOKS: This is a bit of a flip-flop for sure. I don't think it's as big as the Obama flip-flop, but it is a shift.

And it's a problem in two ways. First, the general point about the McCain candidacy, he is for everything any Republican has ever been for. He's for some ideas that are good, some ideas that are old, some ideas -- every Republican idea, he touches it and he's for it. And there's no focus to his campaign.

The second thing -- and this is, I think, the second problem...


DAVID BROOKS: He's not against anything that's vaguely Republican. He's for it all.

And then the other issue is, this energy debate has been so utterly conventional. McCain has now adopted, with the exception of ANWR, the utterly conventional Republican position that's been there for 20 and 30 years, which is more drilling, more nuclear power, not so much conservation.

Obama has taken the utterly conventional Democratic position, which is conservation, and then we're going to invest a lot in some magic technology that will come in the future and solve all our problems.

This is the same debate we've been having on energy since Nixon, and it's led to nothing so far.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So does either candidate have any sort of an advantage coming out of this oil?

MARK SHIELDS: I think McCain has a slight advantage, and I agree that he has backed and flip-flopped, I mean, no place more conspicuously than on taxes. John McCain was against the tax cuts when the country was running a budget surplus. Now, all of a sudden, he's a born-again tax-cutter and preservationist of tax cuts, ones he called tilted to the rich.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you're saying he has advantage on the oil drilling?

MARK SHIELDS: We have a huge deficit.

On the oil thing, here's the point, Judy, in my judgment. The conservationists', the environmentalists' side of the argument has prevailed for the last quarter-century and the producer side, the Republicans, basically have been very much on the defensive.

With gasoline approaching $5 a gallon, Americans, a relentlessly non-ideological people, said, "OK, what are you going to do about it?"

And I think the risk that Obama and the Democrats run is that everything that's proposed they say no. They say no on a gasoline tax suspension; they say no on drilling.

And I think if McCain this weekend goes and has a moment and says, "I'm going to drill in ANWR, as well," he's hoping to get some issue where he's got an advantage. He doesn't have any at this point, other than you could say terrorism, very slightly.

I mean, he's getting murdered on education, on health care, on the economy, on taxes, on budget spending. So he's got to find some issue where he can go on the offensive.

Divisions on prosecuting terrorists

David Brooks
New York Times
I expected more out of these guys. On issue after issue, we talked about the economy maybe last week or a couple weeks ago, utterly conventional issues. I expected something creative out of them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, in fact, he did go after Obama this week, David, on terrorism. Obama was talking about legally prosecuting the terrorists who went after the World Trade Center, the first World Trade Center attack. And McCain pounced on that and said, "Oh, you're being naive, and this is a dangerous position."

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Well, continuing my theme of the day, is that we are seeing an utterly conventional Republican versus Democratic debate.

In 2004, when Bush was running against Kerry, the Bush argument was you can't treat terror as a criminal issue. It's a war. The Kerry issue was, no, you're overreacting. We can respect habeas corpus and all these other rights.

That was the debate they had then. It's utterly the same debate that McCain and Obama are having now. Now, John...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does that surprise you?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I expected more out of these guys. On issue after issue, we talked about the economy maybe last week or a couple weeks ago, utterly conventional issues. I expected something creative out of them that would break the mold of conventional Republican and Democratic issues.

Mark said, on oil, McCain has a slight advantage. I think on terror, which has been the traditional Republican advantage, I think there's been more of a shift toward the Democratic side of this argument because 9/11 has recessed further into the history.

MARK SHIELDS: And as the United States is being seen by Americans as increasingly isolated, and less respected, and less popular in the world.

I mean, Americans like to be liked. They're proud of their country. And the fact that the actions under this administration at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib has somehow discredited the United States, I think, in a way, strengthens the argument that the Democrats are making.

Congress compromises on new bills

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
[Republicans] didn't want to be against extending unemployment benefits. And Democrats didn't want to be in the position of not funding the troops, so there was an incentive in both cases.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Two other quick things. One is this Congress reached agreement on a couple of things, wiretap legislation, David, but also finally reached agreement on funding the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan. Is that making a ripple anywhere?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I don't think so, but I think they're actually reasonable compromises on both sides. They're a sign that something can get done.

Now, on the funding thing, it helps when you're just throwing away money. They're really good at passing bills where you just throw out money you don't actually pay for.

On FISA, I think it's quite a good compromise. I don't think -- if you're a phone company executive, the government comes to you and asks you to do stuff, I think you should be protected. And then there are these series of gestures.

So I think, actually, it was pretty good week for Congress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Although, I guess, in the Senate they're talking about taking this out, but we'll see.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think Barack Obama, if he hasn't already -- I was told today -- is going to endorse what passed the House. So I think that will probably solidify Democrats and encourage Senate Democrats. Maybe it will discourage Republicans from supporting the FISA.

But I do agree. I mean, I think there were certain disadvantages for each. Republicans did not want to be, Judy, in that funding bill against funding veterans' G.I. Bill. They didn't want to be against extending unemployment benefits.

And Democrats didn't want to be in the position of not funding the troops, so there was an incentive in both cases. Democrats obviously never got their termination date for the withdrawal...

JUDY WOODRUFF: For withdrawal.

MARK SHIELDS: ... and they haven't been able to do that for two years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quickly, one other thing, the revelations that several members of Congress, David, received favorable treatment from this big mortgage lender, Countrywide.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, this is, I guess, the way it works in Washington at a higher pay grade than I operate at. They seem to have taken these trivial, in some cases, mortgages at lower interest rates and reduced closing costs and such just as a matter of course.

And it's sort of a petty corruption. They apparently assumed it wasn't even worth thinking about, but I guess this is what happens, Chris Dodd, Richard Holbrooke, others.

MARK SHIELDS: David is obviously not a friend of Angelo. I'm sorry that...

JUDY WOODRUFF: The man who leads...


JUDY WOODRUFF: ... who led Countrywide.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right. And I'd just say, Judy, what it does is it communicates a sense of entitlement that those in Washington and those in power have that is unavailable to ordinary citizens. And I think it builds a resentment and a distrust.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nothing ordinary about the two of you, Mark Shields, David Brooks. My apologies. Thank you both.

DAVID BROOKS: Can you get a mortgage for us?