JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.
I assume I didn’t miss anything while I was gone the last two months?
DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, I guess the most important thing you missed was that Democrats and Republicans actually learned to work together, and they solved most of our problems: health, energy, and independence.
And Mark and I have gone off to Tibet, because there’s really nothing left to talk about.
JIM LEHRER: I didn’t miss a thing, right?
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: You didn’t. You did miss that two of the most constant figures in American politics, Barack Obama and John McCain, have reversed their positions on off-shore drilling and campaign finance funding.
But the Democratic race, the long, twilight struggle for the Democratic nomination, finally did come to a…
JIM LEHRER: It did? It’s over?
JIM LEHRER: It’s over? That’s OK. I didn’t know about that.
Look, the Supreme Court, we just heard what the experts said. What are the politics of this? What the court has done, particularly in the last two or three major decisions, do you think it will have any effect at all on the presidential election?
DAVID BROOKS: It could. I think the big question is whether Barack Obama has inoculated himself sufficiently. There were early statements his campaign made that he supported the D.C. gun law. Since then, he’s walked away from that and has said his position — his real position has always been that supported the individual right to bear arms, the Scalia position.
And he reiterated that yesterday. As the general election has started, he’s become Senator Scalia this week. And he said — and they’re pretty aggressive — saying gun-owners will feel very comfortable with Barack Obama.
Obama's policy shifts
DAVID BROOKS: And this is part of what we've seen over the last week, his move to the center. And the issue is not so much guns, but for rural voters, especially Democrats who don't respect gun rights, they see them as snobs or it becomes a cultural issue.
And the question is: Has Obama moved enough? I'm not sure, but he's moved pretty effectively to try to quell the criticism, so at least it's not an issue, and I suspect he's probably done that. It won't be a major issue in the fall.
JIM LEHRER: Not a major issue, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: No, I think, Jim, that Obama's reaction, particularly to the D.C. gun law and the courts overturning it, was measured in nuance. It was a march. It is part of a march to the middle; there's no doubt about it.
And the only really voices in opposition that were raised were liberals, who opposed this and have supported gun control measures in the past, and some of the leading liberal editorial pages. But there's very little complaint, few complaints among Democrats.
I mean, and I think, in part, that's because of their memories, unhappy memories of 1988, when Michael Dukakis in his debate with George Herbert Walker Bush was asked by Bernie Shaw what he would do if his wife, Kitty, were raped and murdered and gave an answer that was bloodless, and sort of formulaic, and policy-driven, rather than human.
And I think that's -- the idea they're going to -- Democrats are going to cut a lot of slack for a nominee, especially one who's ahead in most polls, on the issue of gun control.
DAVID BROOKS: On a whole range of issues, Obama has really moved. And I think it underlines what Mark just said. He's moved on FISA. He's moved on NAFTA. He appointed a guy named Jason...
JIM LEHRER: FISA is the electronic surveillance, right, right...
DAVID BROOKS: ... the surveillance. He appointed a guy named Jason Furman, who's sort of a centrist Democrat or a more moderate Democrat, as his chief economic and policy adviser, as a key economic and policy adviser.
And there's been some nervousness on the left, but relatively little. And I think that it's a sign of what Mark just said, that the party is willing to overlook this move to the center just so desperately because they want to win.
The question is: Who is he really? Is he the guy he was three months ago, or is he the guy he is today? And that still, to me, is a very open question.
Court's balance may change
JIM LEHRER: But moving to the more general issue about the Supreme Court and this presidential election, Mark, is it going -- do you think it could become a major issue between McCain and Obama about selecting -- assuming that the new president may eventually have to nominate some new members of the Supreme Court?
Everybody always says, "Oh, hey," not everybody, but a lot of people say, "That's really what the president does, and that's really important in a presidential election." Is it likely to be in 2008?
MARK SHIELDS: Probably not, because I can't recall where it has been a decisive or determining issue. I think it may -- John McCain's rush yesterday to re-establish and re-affirm his own support of gun owners' rights, which has been in question by the NRA and others because of his gun show provisions and his reform proposals -- I think maybe helps him to energize part of the conservative base.
But, I mean, we're finding out in the McCain candidacy right now is a lack of enthusiasm. And, I mean, Republicans talk openly about it. So anything that can give a sense that this is urgent or that we really -- that it brings some passion into the McCain effort of the Republican side is probably welcome.
JIM LEHRER: What about on the liberal side, David? I mean, people say, "Hey, there's a Roberts court. There's a conservative court. And if you want to get rid of that, you've got to vote for the Democrat. You've got to vote for Obama." Do you hear that resonating?
DAVID BROOKS: You hear it all the time, especially from both sides and especially in liberal quarters. For people who would definitely vote for Obama, the court is another issue they would definitely vote for him. And the same is true from Republicans.
I think the court is an issue that appeals to the bases. Among swing voters, I think it's very rarely an issue that swings their votes. It's been displaced.
And talking to politicians this week, energy prices have just displaced everything, even health care, in the last month. And so I think it gets displaced by more immediate issues.
Though just on McCain and guns, he has some cause to be a little cautious and not just be a pro-NRA politician, because we are looking at a significant gender gap in this election.
And among the people who are nervous about handguns everywhere, there are a lot of suburban women. And some of his advisers are saying, "You've got to cool it. You've got to show you're sensitive to those concerns. You can't just be Mr. NRA."
MARK SHIELDS: People have argued about the difference, the gender difference. And a real scholar went back and pointed out to me that the two issues over the 20th century where women differed significantly from men were, as David pointed out, gun control and prohibition. They were in favor of prohibition.
And the point was made that both of them are a threat to the family, violence in one case that would be visited upon the family, and, in the other case, alcoholism, as well.
But the other thing is, on a practical, political level, Jim, think about Colorado, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, maybe Montana, Pennsylvania, I mean, all of the states that Obama either is counting on or is targeting, and I think that may account for his nuanced, measured, however you want to call it...
DAVID BROOKS: Flip-flop.
MARK SHIELDS: ... on...
JIM LEHRER: Whatever anybody wants to call it.
MARK SHIELDS: ... on the gun control. No, but he does it in a way that doesn't -- even though David can make the case, it doesn't sound craven, because he does it in this sort of Harvard editorial Law School Review-type, and it sounds, "Gee, that sounds interesting," but maybe it's different from what he said in February.
Sticking to party lines on energy
JIM LEHRER: OK. On the energy issue, how do you read McCain versus Obama and how their playing this issue right now?
DAVID BROOKS: I guess I'm a little disappointed, because I do think they're taking pretty much the standard orthodox positions of their parties. We've had an energy debate for 30, 40 years. And it's always pretty much the same.
Republicans are sort of pleased with America's ability to harvest nature, and they're always in favor of expanding existing energy sources, whether it's drilling off the shelf, whether it's nuclear power, whether it's coal technology. They tend to want to expand the existing.
The Democrats are always innovation. They want some new, clean, pure, plentiful source of energy that's always just over the horizon, and these are the two positions. These are pretty much the positions.
McCain has broken out a little. He wants some innovation. But these are pretty much the standard positions.
And the scary thing is these positions, which are really based on different views of nature, never seem to come together in energy bills that are effective. They either come together in pork energy bills or in energy bills that don't pass.
And so I'm a little nervous that we're in one of the biggest energy crises of our history, and I'm a little nervous that nothing is actually going to get passed even with the next president.
JIM LEHRER: Either one of these candidates making any hay on this, though?
MARK SHIELDS: I think there's a beachhead for McCain.
JIM LEHRER: Big edge for McCain?
MARK SHIELDS: A beachhead. A beachhead.
JIM LEHRER: Beachhead. Beachhead.
MARK SHIELDS: Because American voters have a bias in favor of action. And I think the Democrats, given the fact that McCain has you can say flip-flopped, whatever you want to say, he has at least come out for off-shore drilling, which has support in the country.
I mean, Democrats do oppose it, but independents are for it. And don't forget. It's a geographical-sensitive issue. I mean, he's probably...
JIM LEHRER: It's where they're drilling that matters.
MARK SHIELDS: That's exactly right.
JIM LEHRER: Not if they're drilling.
MARK SHIELDS: If you're a landholder in Santa Barbara -- and chances you aren't -- you're against it.
But, Jim, if you live in the center of the country, and you're looking at oil going to $150, $175 a barrel, then you don't care where it comes from at this point.
So I think the sense the Democrats are finding themselves a little bit in the position of, "Oh, not now. Oh, no, it's going to be 30 years from now. We're not going to get enough."
I mean, if I were McCain, I'd come all-out. I'd go for ANWR drilling and just say, "Look, this is a crisis. We're in a tragedy or an American crisis. We have to do something."
JIM LEHRER: What do you think?
DAVID BROOKS: We'll be able to see the oil derricks from the beachheads...But I agree. I think, you know, we all want some pure source of energy. That's great, but it is decades away.
And if you want to address oil prices now -- which is probably impossible -- but you do got to at least develop the stuff we have sitting around. I've actually begun to waver on ANWR. And so I wouldn't mind if a...
JIM LEHRER: What about oil prices? I mean, that is what everybody is talking about...
DAVID BROOKS: Right, and nobody...
JIM LEHRER: ... but that's the one thing nobody can do anything about, right?
DAVID BROOKS: Right, no one can do -- I mean, you can't refine it. You can't drill it in time. I mean, in terms of the next couple of years, no way. Nobody is going to do anything about it.
But we got here on a long, slow-motion process, which was sort of a disgraceful process, and it would be nice to see the government actually address a problem.
Does Obama have the lead?
MARK SHIELDS: I've talked to Republicans in the last week, and quietly, I mean, not for attribution. They'll say, "This is the best break we've had, really." I mean, because this is a new issue.
Across the board, Jim, on every single issue, Obama has a double-digit lead in who's better over McCain, whether it's taxes, or budget, or health, or education, any other issues of concern, the economy, jobs, Obama has this big edge over McCain.
This is one where -- the only edge McCain has is sort of in Iraq, which is no place you want to have an edge, quiet frankly, and energy is kind of a jump ball at this point. So, in that sense, it does give him a certain sense.
I'd like to see somebody acknowledge that there was a president of the United States who took a lot of abuse and ridicule some 35 years ago, close to 35 years ago, Jimmy Carter.
I mean, Jimmy Carter warned us, told us what was coming, told us what we faced, and we said, "Oh, come on." And, you know, we elected a president who said there was more oil under second base at Yankee Stadium than we could use for 25 years.
DAVID BROOKS: He could have expanded nuclear power. I mean, Nixon tried to -- he created Project Independent or an independent -- energy independence.
Every president has done this. When you go back to the rhetoric, it is the same. It is Groundhog Day. It's the same thing over and over again, and we never actually take the measures.
JIM LEHRER: And it's not going to happen this time on oil prices, either, you're saying?
DAVID BROOKS: Not in the near term. That we can all agree on.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. And you agree on that, as well?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I don't see how they can get down. I just don't see how you get them down.
JIM LEHRER: But if the public is saying that's the one thing that matters the most to us now...
MARK SHIELDS: And they blame oil companies and they blame the Bush administration. And so that's -- I mean, that's the point where McCain has to -- he has to get daylight, and he has to do something different.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes, but most of the things that are out there, blaming speculators, a summer gas tax holiday, a windfall profit tax, that's all chimera. None of that is going to work, but that's what they're offering in the short term. And it's completely useless. It's pure politics.
JIM LEHRER: OK, pure politics. Thank you both very much. Good to see you both.
DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.
MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.