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Analysts Weigh Bush-Obama Spat, Democratic Race

May 16, 2008 at 6:35 PM EST
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President Bush's comments about "appeasement" of dictators touched off a firestorm on the presidential campaign trail. Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the remarks, as well as Hillary Clinton's West Virginia win and recent GOP losses in state contests.
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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.

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It started with President Bush. It moved to Barack Obama, Mark. The White House said officially the president wasn’t targeting Senator Obama, but privately they said it was, and it’s ending with Senator McCain.

What do you make of all of this?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Judy, I’d say, first of all, it’s a gift to the Democrats. You have to understand that the six times since World War II when a party holding the White House for two terms has sought a third term only twice has that party won a majority of the popular vote. That was in 1988 when Ronald Reagan’s vice president, George Bush, did and in 2000, when Al Gore, Bill Clinton’s vice president.

Both cases, the president was at 65 percent favorable job rating. George Bush today is at 28 percent. He is toxic politically.

Any day that he is the face and the voice of the Republican Party on national television is a gift to the Democrats. They’re going to engage him.

What was most revealing, I thought, in the whole piece was that Hillary Clinton, rather than let Barack Obama have the exclusive franchise to engaging George W. Bush, she did herself.

I don’t think there’s any question that this accrues to the advantage — even though national security is the one place where McCain has an advantage over Obama — I don’t think there’s any question that this is where the Democrats want it to be, is George W. Bush against them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A gift to the Democrats, David?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, we’ll see. At least initially, I guess that’s true. It’s just general election season.

I mean, Bush mentions appeasement. It’s a traditional argument. He’s used it a million times. I think the Munich analogy is probably a flawed analogy to today.

Obama is happy to seize on it, because he lost West Virginia by 41 points and he lost it among people who don’t think he’s tough enough. So any chance he can have to throw a temper tantrum is a good day for him. So he’s going to throw a bunch of temper tantrums, and I see why he took advantage.

There is a core debate here, which we really didn’t get to today. It’s how you should talk to Iran. Obama said he would talk to Ahmadinejad and he personalized it, without preconditions. McCain would probably talk to Iran, probably not to Ahmadinejad, but he would talk to Iran. The question is, under what circumstances?

And you can get to a substantive debate, and I suspect over the next month we will get to a substantive debate, when would you talk to Iran? Under what circumstances? And under what conditions would you put pressure on Iran?

And even the Bush administration has said — Secretary Gates has said we will talk to Iran under the right circumstances.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He said that this week.

MARK SHIELDS: He did.

DAVID BROOKS: So that — the question, there is the substantive debate over here, but we’re not even close to it. It’s lobotomy season.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, do voters — does this help voters figure something out about these two? I mean, again, Barack Obama doesn’t have the nomination yet. Hillary Clinton is still in there.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

National security as campaign issue

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
I think what John McCain is trying to do is establish daylight, as he did in two speeches this week, a speech on global warming, his speech on where he wants to be in 2013.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We've got Kentucky and Oregon voting next Tuesday. But does this help the voters figure out who's the better candidate here?

MARK SHIELDS: It's a start. I don't think it's the key. It's not the Rosetta Stone to figuring out this election, Judy.

But I think what John McCain is trying to do is establish daylight, as he did in two speeches this week, a speech on global warming, his speech on where he wants to be in 2013.

He was laying out a different view of the country from George W. Bush. He was trying to move from George W. Bush. And the Democrats don't want that to happen.

They want the question to be: Tell me this, is Israel safer and more secure than it was the day that George W. Bush was elected president? Is Iran less dangerous than it was the day George W. Bush was elected president? Is the United States stronger and more respected in the world than it was the day George W. Bush was president?

And that's a killer. And McCain has to move away from that.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And his argument is: Do you really think sitting down with Ahmadinejad, giving this guy equal status with the president of the United States, is wise policy? Doesn't this show Obama maybe is not a seasoned politician?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, is this -- so do we expect to hear more on -- I mean, is this election going to be fought over national security?

DAVID BROOKS: It's a core difference. I mean, it is a core difference about...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because we thought the economy was going to be the...

DAVID BROOKS: Well, believe me, they'll all be fought, but national security is a core difference.

And I spoke to Obama this week. He's quite happy to have this debate. And it's a fundamental debate about the uses of diplomacy.

MARK SHIELDS: And, Judy, I'd just say, I mean, if you're the Republicans, it's the only hope you have. They go through the laundry list of all the other issues, from health to education to the environment, you know, you name it, to which party is better for Social Security, to which party is better for creating jobs and balancing the budget, the Democrats have a lopsided edge.

The one place where the Republicans -- and particularly John McCain, given his personal history -- have credibility and some traction is on national security.

West Virginia contest

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
I think the nomination fight is over. Francisco Franco is still dead, and Barack Obama is still going to be the Democratic nominee.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, it seems like a long time ago, but it was just on Tuesday that Hillary Clinton won West Virginia, David, the one primary this week, lopsided margin, 41-point victory. Does that say, though, as much about Barack Obama and what he lost there as it does about her?

DAVID BROOKS: Right, I mean, I think the nomination fight is over. Francisco Franco is still dead, and Barack Obama is still going to be the Democratic nominee.

But a 41-point defeat? That is significant.

Other nominees have lost. Reagan lost at the end to George H.W. Bush. I think Jimmy Carter lost. But to lose by 41 points when you should be gathering up the glow of victory, that's a sign.

And it's a sign of the Democratic story we've been talking about for the last several months, which is the white working class, the Scots-Irish, he just doesn't do very well among those people.

And so that's what I think that what he's adapting to today, trying to show he's tough, trying to show he's a fighter, trying to rally those people. I think it's going to be extraordinarily hard for him now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is he making headway on that, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: No.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He got John Edwards' endorsement this week.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, he did. He did get John Edwards, and I think that's a plus, but, no, he's got a real, real problem, does Barack Obama.

I went -- 41 points is an enormous margin of victory. And let's be very blunt about it. West Virginia has voted Democratic in five of the last eight presidential elections.

In 1980, when Jimmy Carter lost 44 of the 50 states to Ronald Reagan, he carried West Virginia. Michael Dukakis only carried 10 against George Bush I in 1988. One of them was West Virginia. I mean, so if you're getting whomped like that in West Virginia, you've got problems.

I went to a focus group held by Peter Hart for the Annenberg Center this Monday night at Charlottesville, 12 independent voters who hadn't participated in the primaries.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Virginia.

MARK SHIELDS: At the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. And they -- I have to tell you, Judy -- they don't know Barack Obama. The information they have about him is inaccurate and it's terribly unflattering.

When he asked, "What do you know about this election, one or two things?" Seven of them mentioned Reverend Wright, and seven of the voters in the room or the dozen thought that Barack Obama was a Muslim. There's questions about whether he's really an American.

He has no time to waste in introducing himself to these people and establishing that his values are their values. And, boy, I mean, I would be -- I'd be going to a different Christian church every single weekend, twice a weekend. I mean, I really would.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And his campaign said today he's not even campaigning in Kentucky. He won't be visiting there before the primary.

DAVID BROOKS: And these have, so far, been durable areas of suspicion. He's made no gains among these people.

Republican losses

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
These aren't New England districts or Upper Midwestern districts that were switching from Republican to Democrat. These are solidly Republican districts.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, the Republicans have some problems of their own. They lost, David, this week, what, the third special election in a congressional district this year. Republicans are going around with their heads hanging down.

DAVID BROOKS: Barack Obama has got problems, but the Republicans have a cataclysm. I mean, to lose there is just a disaster.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is Mississippi.

DAVID BROOKS: In Mississippi. I was up on Capitol Hill with the Republican troops this week. And I told them, hey, when the Democrats get 100 senators and 435 members of the House, at least they'll extend unemployment benefits for you people, because you're going to need them.

And they are scared. They know there's a sense of real doom, the sense of the party is in real trouble. It's going to take years and years to recover. McCain might be OK, but the Republican Party as a brand is contaminated.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do they think went wrong?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, they're blaming campaign strategy; they're blaming this and that. But fundamentally they know it's a long-term problem, that the Republican Party has been in slow decline for years. Iraq and the unpopularity of Bush have just dropped it off a cliff.

And I think they understand, or at least they should understand, that it's going to be a long, slow climb. And right now, a lot of people in the Republican Party are looking at the British Tory Party, the Conservative Party, which was out of favor for a decade-and-a-half before they slowly came back.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, if the Republicans are so worried, are the Democrats confident then about these House races?

MARK SHIELDS: The Democrats are more than bullish. Judy, these three victories in a row the Democrats have won, not simply Denny Hastert's seat in Illinois, the former speaker, but then the 6th in Louisiana, and the 1st District in Mississippi David just mentioned, are the heart and soul of the Republican movement.

These aren't New England districts or Upper Midwestern districts that were switching from Republican to Democrat. These are solidly Republican districts. So they're losing those.

The Democrats right now have not only pulled ahead of the Republicans in money, where the Republicans were getting 2-to-1 advantage from major business groups, but the Democrats have forced the Republicans to spend in the House races, these three House races, half the money they had for the 2008 elections.

So they're not only -- they're broke. And they've got resignations. They've got a weak field. And the Democrats are bullish.

They have ripped up the playbook this week, and they're going into more. They're going on the offensive in more districts around the country. They're looking for targets of opportunity. They're very much on offense, and the Republicans are on defense.

GOP and the Reagan era

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
I mean, they really haven't adjusted to the post-Reagan era. It's still, who's the next Reagan? What would Reagan do? And I think it's just mental blindness.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What can the Republicans do?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think what they should do is just totally re-brand themselves, but they haven't done that. I mean, they -- and I was struck. I've been meeting with Republicans for years. Five years ago, they knew the problem was coming. There's some immobility there that they're not adjusting to.

And they've tried to -- maybe the problem is we weren't conservative enough. But if they were more conservative, they'd be in worse shape. I mean, they really haven't adjusted to the post-Reagan era. It's still, who's the next Reagan? What would Reagan do? And I think it's just mental blindness.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That ended quite a few years ago.

DAVID BROOKS: And this...

MARK SHIELDS: Quite.

DAVID BROOKS: It took the British Conservative Party a while to realize, "We're not distinguishing ourselves only from Labour, but also from Margaret Thatcher. That was good for that era, but now it's new."

And I don't think they've done it. Frankly, I don't think the conservative think-tanks have done it. I just think it's a fundamental problem. It's not a short-term problem.

MARK SHIELDS: I don't argue with that. I think what really hurts is, in Mississippi and Louisiana, they attempted to nationalize the races, which has always been their winning formula. "Look, our opponent"...

JUDY WOODRUFF: They brought Nancy Pelosi and Obama...

MARK SHIELDS: Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama, that, "Look, they're going to be nothing but servants to them, puppets to them." It didn't cut; it didn't move voters in those districts.

One other thing it did do -- and I think Republicans -- Merle Black, and others have pointed this out, so did political scientists -- is it's generated African-American turnout to the point where Republicans are now getting nervous about statewide races where the African-American vote, they feel, could turn out in record numbers and give Democrats...

JUDY WOODRUFF: To South Carolina, Mississippi...

MARK SHIELDS: ... the South Carolinas, the North Carolinas, and, you know, and the other Southern states. They just could really make a difference in other races, as well as the presidential, in addition to the House races. So there's just a lot of bad news out there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Maybe we're looking at a different electoral map? Something else to talk about.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, they'd better be. The Democrats better be, because every state that's going to lose seats in the 2010 census is basically a blue state, so they'd better figure out a new map.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. We're not blue having the two of you.

MARK SHIELDS: Oh.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Brooks, Mark Shields...

... thank you. Have a good weekend.