TOPICS > Politics

Shields, Brooks on Voter Volatility, Obama vs. Romney Over ‘Big Visions’

April 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 President Obama's and Mitt Romney's differing "big visions" for the country, how the campaigns are working on appealing to Latino voters plus Republicans' and Democrats' standing with the U.S. electorate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: First, an update on the Secret Service story.

A short time ago, the agency announced three more employees have resigned and one additional has been implicated. Another was cleared of serious misconduct, but will face administrative action.

And now to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Gentlemen, welcome.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Different subject, David.

I think that the Democrats, when they pick a presidential nominee, they basically have to fall in love . . . Republicans, by contrast, fall in line.Mark Shields

Flurry of new polls this week in the presidential election. What did you take away from what you saw? It showed — all of them virtually show the race is tightening.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, a little Obama edge.

But — well, why don’t I give you my meta-theory of where we are going to go in this election? Usually, there is like a dominant majority, a majority, or what they call a sun party, the Democrats in the ’30s, the Republicans in the ’80s.

In my view right now, we have two minority parties. We have two parties that have a minority of voters, in what they call a moon party, sort of two moon parties. And then the electorate swings reasonably volatility between whichever party they hate least at that moment.

And so I think we are at a moment of pretty strong volatility in the electorate. And so we enter the race with both parties with a reasonably fervent 43 percent and then a lot of people who are disgusted with both. So when you enter the race, when you look at the polls, Obama may be ahead, he may be slightly behind, they may be tied, but I think it’s going to be more volatile than the last couple presidential elections because of the extreme alienation of the electorate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you see that kind of volatility?

MARK SHIELDS: The moon-sun galaxy?



MARK SHIELDS: I see a star, Judy.


MARK SHIELDS: No, I think it’s a lot more like 2000 and 2004 elections, which were both close, both fiercely fought, right now than it was like 2008, where there was a breakout winner in President Obama.

I think right now, we have got the — no clear favorite. The president is better off than he was six months ago, sense of the improvement in the economy. But — and he is far better on all the personal qualities of cares about people like me, and more likable, more approachable than is Gov. Romney.

But it’s an election about the economy. And when the economy is bad, the economy is the only issue, and that’s the one place where Mitt Romney has an edge in the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll that came out today and the other surveys as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, a few weeks ago, the polls were showing the president had a little bit more of a lead than he has now. So is that the economy? Does that explain?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think what you have got, Republicans have consolidated. I mean, after a rather bitter primary in many respects, they have all come home to Mitt Romney right now.

So I think that ups his numbers. His own numbers have improved. My theory is a little bit different about the two parties. I think that the Democrats, when they pick a presidential nominee, they basically have to fall in love. They like somebody who is an underdog, unknown, and running for the first time.

Witness Jimmy Carter. Witness George McGovern, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton. Republicans, by contrast, fall in line. And you can see that. They like somebody who has the endorsement of party leaders, who leads in the polls and basically has run before, Ronald Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush, Bob Dole, and Mitt Romney and John McCain.

So Republicans have — I think have come together more quickly. The one thing Republicans have going for them that the Democrats had going for them in 2008, there’s more enthusiasm among Republicans by about a 10-point margin over Democrats right now. That’s the reverse, almost the reverse of where it was four years ago, when President Obama won.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, David, what do you look for in the months to come? We’ve talked about the economy. We talked about the level of enthusiasm. What do you — you look at everything?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, a couple things have to be decided by the candidates. As Mark mentioned, in the polls and especially in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Romney has a slight edge on who you can handle the economy, but huge deficits on can he relate to people like you on the personal stuff.

And so does Romney try to build that up. And I guess he does, but I think he’s probably not going to win a popularity contest, an elegance contest with Barack Obama. So I think what he has to do is say it’s not about me. First of all, it is about Obama, but mostly it’s about, I’m going to offer you these four things and I’m going to deliver as president.

And he really hasn’t told the story of what the next four years will look like. And so he can’t just say, I’m abusinessman, trust me, I know how to run a business. I think he says, I’m going do A, B, C and D, and you may not like me, but hire me to do these things and I will do them for you.

And I think that’s really the gap he has to fill. And the Obama people have to decide if they are going to attack Romney as an extremist or a flip-flopper. You can’t do both. And so they have to make that decision. These days, they seem to be heading in the extremist direction, which I think is the wrong direction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that right? Because the reporting you are seeing now — or the analysis is that they were focusing on Mitt Romney, the flip-flopper. Now it’s Mitt Romney, extreme conservative.


And I think that is, A., less true, and just not going to sell with people once they see Romney in the general election campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think about that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I don’t know which tactic the Obama campaign will eventually move to.

I think the — by calling him an extremist, I mean, which you can certainly do from several positions he’s taken — he’s a man who calls for a 20 percent tax cut for everybody right now, as he is talking about fiscal responsibility, which would lower the top rate to considerably where it was below when Ronald Reagan was president in the really festival days of the Republican resurgence.

But where he is on immigration, where he moved on immigration, praising Arizona and all the rest, I think he’s vulnerable because he can’t change. He is in a very difficult — he can’t flip, he can’t flop, I mean, because that is — that is the rubric of Republicans right now. And it’s the great misgiving about Republicans that they have for him is whether in fact — what does he believe? Who is Mitt Romney?

JUDY WOODRUFF: So are you saying maybe the extreme conservative line may be effect for the Democrats?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think that if you tie him, Judy, I mean, by his positions to values — in other words, he doesn’t care about the middle class because he has endorsed the Ryan budget plan — I mean, I think that’s — I’m not endorsing it, but I think it’s a logical campaign approach.

I think what we have — you asked what the campaign is about. Right now, I am pessimistic about this campaign. I mean, I don’t see us coming out of this campaign, given the current status of both candidates and their positions, with any kind of an improved feeling about the country, where we’re going.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean pessimistic as a citizen?

MARK SHIELDS: Pessimistic as a citizen, exactly. Yes. I just don’t — I don’t see a sense that there is going to be an endorsement for Obama’s position or whatever his second term is going to be like, or for Romney’s.

DAVID BROOKS: I’ve gotten a little more optimistic about it, not that you see it yet, but it is in embryo form, that they’re heading toward a big debate.

They really do have different views of what has brought us here.


DAVID BROOKS: Obama says we have had the business resurgence, deregulation, it led to a crack-up, and now I’m trying to put the pieces together in a balanced way. Romney says we’ve had decades of really growing federal leviathan, stagnated the economy.

That is two different visions. They haven’t yet told the story of where those visions go. But that is a pretty fundamental debate. And we could — in theory, if we drag them that way, could have a debate where they confront what those two big visions mean. It’s equally likely, of course, that the super PACs and trivialities will distract them away from those big visions.

And the reason the candidates want to get away is because when you talk about what is going to happen in the next four years, it is probably pretty nasty choices that have to get made, health care spending, budgets, tax. And they would rather not talk about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, you were a part of — you sat in on and watched — the Democratic pollster Peter Hart put together a group of, I guess, what, 12 voters, Republican voters down in North Carolina this week.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Oh, is it Florida? I’m sorry. Florida.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Looking at — I guess the goal was to look at what does Mitt Romney need to do? Tell us what. . .


Well, these were Republican voters that voted for John McCain, Marco Rubio, or Rick Scott, the governor of Florida. So — and they were basically Romney, although they hadn’t all been for Romney in the primary. And — but what was amazing, Judy, is they have no idea who Mitt Romney is.

And part of it is — you could see it — Romney’s strategy in the primaries was to disqualify Rick Perry, to disqualify Newt Gingrich, to disqualify Rick Santorum. He made the case on why they shouldn’t be president. He’s never made the case on why he should be president.

And that comes through. I mean, people say, look, he’s not a regular guy. I don’t feel — he fails the would you like to have a beer test, completely. Barack Obama is seen as far more approachable and regular, and natural than even — and these were Republican voters. But, as I say, they don’t know where he stands, what he really believes.

They admire the fact that he’s a good husband, good father, good values and has been a success in business. But there isn’t any personal or philosophical connection with him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do we take away from an assessment like that, David, at this stage in the campaign, when you have still have got seven months to go? He’s got time to answer some of these questions.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. On the other hand, he has been running for president for five years.

So to me, the difficulty he faces — and I think he’s going to just have to over-leap this hurdle — he doesn’t want to take on Mormonism, and therefore he doesn’t want to talk about the two things that I think are core to his life, his faith and his family.

And I think you have just got to leap that over and say, I’m going talk about my family. I’m going to talk about where we have been from, what we have been through over the generations, being beaten back to poverty and building it up. I think that is who he is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Family meaning his ancestors.

DAVID BROOKS: His ancestors, but including his dad’s family and then his own family. It’s a pattern.

MARK SHIELDS: It is an interesting thing, Judy.

A couple — two or three of the voters mentioned their concerns and doubts about his Mormonism and what influence it would have upon him. And these were people who are supporting Romney. So I think it’s imperative that he have a Houston ministers speech moment, where he does address it, how the values have animated him or have defined him, and to make Mormonism more American mainstream in its values that are comparable with American values.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, these are Republican voters that were interviewed.

MARK SHIELDS: These are Republican voters, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, both campaigns, finally, rolled out a big initiative, effort this week, David, to appeal to Latino voters. Where does that stand?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I actually think the Obama administration did a reasonably good job on this. The tendency is to go speak Spanish and then do a bunch of ethnic cliches which you have piled up.

But one of the things they did intelligently was just do it straight policy, and they emphasized Pell Grants and other college scholarships. And they said, here’s the policies. You know, you’re — some of are you middle class, lower middle class, whatever. Here are policies that have helped you.

And that’s probably the right way to do it. I’m not a huge fan of breaking the electorate up into teeny-tiny niches, or even in the case of Latino voters, a pretty big niche, because Latino varieties themselves are an incredibly diverse population.

Just tell your story, tell your story. And if it works, it will work with Latino voters, white voters, black voters. And so they told just a version of their story, but in Spanish.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s a good point. I would add this.

Judy, half the growth in the country between 2000 and 2010 were Latinos. If you had — if voters had voted the same proportion demographically in 2008 they did in 1984, John McCain would have beaten Barack Obama. The country has changed that much to the point where we are looking at an election where maybe 71, 72 percent of the electorate is white, which is a drop of better than 15 percent over a generation.

So Republicans don’t have — I mean, you can’t get enough white votes to win by themselves. And Republicans have to come up. And this is where Romney is in a terrible dilemma, because he moved so hard on immigration and what was seen as anti-Latino in the primaries.

And, you know, I think he is trailing by 69 to 29 in the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll among Latinos, so it is a real problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s not a problem having the two of you.

Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you both.