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Shields, Brooks on Romney’s Message, Gingrich’s Defense, Santorum’s Struggles

January 20, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss the week's top political news, including the impact of Mitt Romney's "stumbling" debate performances, allegations from Newt Gingrich's ex-wife, Ron Paul's chances and the real message behind the Obama campaign's first television ads.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Gentlemen, it’s good to have you with us on this evening before the South Carolina primary.

Mark, we just heard Gwen refer to it, in so many words, a wild week. How does the race look to you right now?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it looks exactly the way Gwen reported.

It began the week with Romney in good shape, but in a struggle. And I just think it’s been a terrible week for Romney. Romney — if you think about Governor Romney, all through the debates — and there have been 17 of them now — but he’d been the disciplined, the well-modulated, the well-prepared, spoke in full sentences — never, never wavered in his delivery.

And in two separate debates, as soon as the questions came about his personal income and the sources of it, what he made, what he paid, he — the part of Rick Perry was being played by Mitt Romney. I mean, he just started stumbling, mumbled.

The issue is personality, not social class. It's, is [Mitt Romney] comfortable in himself? Does he get people like me . . . The primary electorate down there wants Braveheart. They don't want the organization man. And, right now, Newt Gingrich is Braveheart.David Brooks, The New York Times

It was one thing on Monday night, Judy, but the same – to have him do the same thing on Thursday night, this wasn’t the same candidate who had gone to the head of the pack.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you explain it, David?

DAVID BROOKS: He can’t close the deal.

This was sort of true in Iowa, where, if you remember, Rick Santorum had a very strong late surge. It’s true in South Carolina, where Gingrich is having this incredible surge. It’s even a little true in New Hampshire, where Jon Huntsman had a surge.

In the last week, the people who are paying attention late, who are paying attention to ads and the debates, they are not going to Romney, and he’s losing every time. So I think he’s just — if you’re not going forward, you’re going backwards. And he doesn’t extend his argument. He is just sitting there playing it safe, talking about Barack Obama. And so he’s just not closing the deal.

And then the specific case which Mark talked about was the taxes. And I spoke to some campaign professionals not involved in this race, who said I can imagine what those meetings were like, where the aides go to Romney and say, we have to talk about your taxes. And the candidates, you generally say something like, I got it under control, don’t worry, because they’re uncomfortable about it.

The aides are uncomfortable. And they never get a script. They never figure how to turn it around the way Newt Gingrich figured out how to turn around the open marriage thing. And so he’s just not aggressive enough because he’s not just letting it all hang out there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re saying you don’t think he’s comfortable talking about how much money he’s worth?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah. We talked last week about the need — I think the need for him to give a speech about his business career and say, this is success in America.

I went down after we spoke last week to South Carolina and I asked dozens of people about Bain. And I asked people at Gingrich rallies, Paul rallies, Santorum and Romney rallies. I could barely find anybody who minded it. They all thought, no, that’s business. That’s the way it is. Sometimes, a deal works, sometimes it doesn’t. You have got to be efficient.

So that’s not the issue. The issue is personality, not social class. It’s, is he comfortable in himself? Does he get people like me? And is he — just got the momentum? The primary electorate down there wants Braveheart. They don’t want the organization man. And, right now, Newt Gingrich is Braveheart.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it’s not as if — Mark, it’s not as if Gingrich doesn’t have his own issues, the second ex-wife, Marianne, the story yesterday where she spoke about his wanting an open marriage. He has denied that. Why isn’t that more of a detriment, or is it?

MARK SHIELDS: I’m not sure it isn’t.

I’m not sure that it’s not going to be a voting booth issue come Saturday in South Carolina. But Newt Gingrich, faced with that question that you mentioned from John King last night in the opening of the debate, resorted to the most time-tested and reliable tactic that Republicans have.

And that is, it unites the party from the flat taxers to the Flat Earthers. Whatever their disagreements, you attack the media, attack the liberal media, the elite media, the mainstream media, the Eastern media. And that’s what he did. He never — he just shot the messenger.

And he really never, other than sort of a quick denial, addressed it. I mean, character is important in the president. And the closer you get — I thought the debate winner of the debate, quite frankly, last night was Rick Santorum. I thought he presented the issue very effectively to Republican voters. Do you want to wake up in the morning and hold your breath as you read your newspaper of what your candidate has said that day, or do you want me, who can make the issue a referendum on the incumbent, President Obama, rather than a referendum on the Republican nominee, Newt Gingrich?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, but there’s no evidence that it’s working for Santorum.

MARK SHIELDS: No.

DAVID BROOKS: . . . 11 percent.

And I was down there, and I saw him the day after 150 senior evangelical leaders from around the country united around him. James Dobson has united — has supported him. And it’s just not adding up to anything.

It’s sort of significant that all these big social conservatives not helping him at all. And he’s run quite a good campaign. I just think it’s the star power and the fire and brimstone that Gingrich is bringing to it that makes it all about him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this is even with the Iowa victory coming a couple of weeks late, which Santorum clearly very happy about, but it hasn’t mattered.

But, David, how do you see the Gingrich issue, the charge that his former wife made? Is that a problem for him, or not?

DAVID BROOKS: I think, at the end of the day, it is.

The guy has, I think, a 27 percent national approval rating. He’s just unelectable. And when you talk to people down there, they disagree. And maybe I’m just an elite pundit out of touch, but I can read numbers. And if the vast majority of the country doesn’t like somebody, and they form a very negative opinion about somebody, it’s very unlikely that person is going to be elected president.

So I still think, at the end of the day, that he probably will win in South Carolina. I think it’s hard to see Gingrich running the table.

MARK SHIELDS: One of the drawbacks to the Romney candidacy has been electability only carries you so far.

And electability carries you — it’s a sustaining argument when you’re winning. Well, this week, we saw his Iowa victory sort of at least tarnished, and his expected three in a row, triple crown of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina not to become a reality.

What Romney doesn’t give you is a reason. There’s not a core to this campaign. And I remember when Fritz Mondale got whomped in 1984 as a front-runner for the Democratic nomination by Gary Hart, and Gary Hart was on a roll.

Mondale went out and gave a speech on what he stood for, what he believed. And it was classic New Deal, American Democratic liberalism, but it was: This is why I’m running.

And I don’t think it’s ever been revealed by Romney. I mean, if you listen to him — I had one of his lieutenants complain when he starts quoting the stanzas of “America the Beautiful.” And they said, that’s one thing — if it’s Oct. 31 and you’re 15 points ahead in the general election, you can get away with that. But it’s tough when you’re trying to win a competitive primary.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, that falls flat every time I see it. I don’t know why he continues to do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But he does talk about his business experience, even if the — Bain is not the negative that I think both of you have said maybe it won’t be.

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s more — I don’t think Bain is — I think private equity is — in a time of income inequality, someone who says, I didn’t make much in speeches, $374,000 last year, it turns out — I’m sorry — that’s somebody who is out of touch who is not understanding what people are going through.

I mean, it just shows a tin ear.

DAVID BROOKS: There’s a consistent tin-ness to his talk about money on a whole range, whether he felt he was about to be laid off and get a pink slip. Come on. That’s not real.

Just one thing. The reason this campaign is different from all the others, it’s almost — it’s 90 percent a debate campaign. It’s not about the ads. I really don’t think the money is making a difference. It’s really not about the appearances.

Newt Gingrich is up because he attacked Juan Williams and he attacked John King. There were two moments in two different debates, and that’s what did it for him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You think the audience is really — eat that up?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

Well, I think — I would only add to that he began his comeback by attacking Chris Wallace for a gotcha question. And then he attacked Maria Bartiromo of CNBC. It’s his modus operandi.

And, Judy, 10 of these 17 debates have been sponsored by party — co-sponsored by party or political organizations. That just changes the whole chemistry of the room. It becomes a pep rally.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Republican Party.

MARK SHIELDS: Republican Party or Tea Party or whatever, I don’t care — the Democrats, same thing.

When Jim Lehrer of recent and fond memory, a great colleague. . .

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: . . . used to do these debates, he would go out beforehand and tell the audience, no yelling, no screaming, no this, no applauding. And if it happens, I’m going to put the camera right on you and humiliate you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And they knew better than to disobey.

MARK SHIELDS: They did. But I will tell you, that really makes for a debate.

This becomes you’re playing to the audience, and it changes everything. And nobody’s better than Gingrich at that. He’s a great first date politically. He really is.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quick. . .

DAVID BROOKS: Not for his wife.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quick question about the fourth man still in the race, Ron Paul. How much of a factor is he in South Carolina?

DAVID BROOKS: Not in South Carolina. He has just to try to get through this.

He has got some opportunities when there are some caucuses out West, when he gets really fervent believers. And I think he will rebound and he will stay in it, because he’s in it for the long term.

MARK SHIELDS: South Carolina is perhaps — and I don’t say this critically — the most bellicose state in the union when it comes to foreign and defense policy.

His brand of noninterventionist American and foreign and defense policy falls really on deaf ears there. Even — even — when Rick Perry stood up Monday night and said South Carolina’s at war with Washington, it showed a great sense of history, 150 years ago. But there is a sense that South Carolina really does prefer the military option. And I think it’s not receptive at all to the Paul message.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s turn finally here to the incumbent.

President Obama ran — started running this week first television ads in a handful of swing states. Let’s just take a look at part of the ad the president’s campaign is running.

NARRATOR: In America’s clean energy 2.7 million jobs and expanding rapidly. For the first time in 13 years, our dependence on foreign oil is below 50 percent. President Obama kept his promise to toughen ethics rules and strengthen America’s energy economy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, what does that tell you the Obama campaign is thinking about right now?

DAVID BROOKS: They’re not doing a lot of fact-checking, because that 2.7 million jobs includes bus drivers, garbage collectors. It’s kind of a bogus statistic.

But they’re trying to get out there. And I guess they’re trying — I guess he’s going to run on clean energy. I think it’s a little dubious thing to run on. But he wants to show some sort of forward-looking job creation.

I’m not quite sure why they’re out there with this particular ad at this moment. But, you know, I guess, if the Republican Party is going to look backwards, at least he can try to look forwards. And that’s probably a good, decent strategy.

MARK SHIELDS: I didn’t know that we were down less than 50 percent imported. So, that was kind of — oh, that was addressed to me.

The ad, which we didn’t see the beginning of it, is in response to criticism of the president by particularly the Koch brothers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We were trying to save time for the two of you, so we didn’t run the whole ad.

MARK SHIELDS: Unnamed Koch brothers, but, I mean, that’s basically it.

So, I mean, to me, it was surprising because it had a little defensive quality to it. And that’s an interesting way to begin a campaign, is defending and explaining.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Speaking of energy — and this has to be very brief — the president did turn down the Keystone oil pipeline this week.

Now, it looks like it’s a temporary decision, Mark, but smart move, what?

MARK SHIELDS: Totally a political move — basically said, we’re turning it down, “wink,” and we will revisit it after the election.

I think it gave the Republicans the rhetorical, as well as the political advantage on jobs.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

It could lose — if they really did it — 10,000 to 20,000 jobs. It’s bad for the environment, because that oil will just get shipped over to China, so I think, substantively, a disastrous decision, but a politically cynical one.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you both.

RAY SUAREZ: On Saturday night, visit our website for coverage of the South Carolina Republican presidential primary. We will have a map with live results, video of candidates’ speeches, and insight from NewsHour staffers.

You can find it all at NewsHour.PBS.org.