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Presidential Debate Preview

September 30, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Now, on the eve of the first presidential debate, some preview thoughts from our political regulars, Shields and Brooks: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks. Welcome, gentlemen — for a long evening. It’s said that some 50 million people are going to watch tonight’s debate. How much do you think is riding on this, Mark, in terms of the dynamic of the race?

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, I think an awful lot is riding on it, especially for John Kerry. I mean, over the last six to eight weeks the dynamic of the race has been changed by — effectively by the Bush campaign, they’ve made it a referendum on John Kerry rather than a referendum on the incumbent. And debates historically have made enormous difference. I think you could say in 1960, 1976, 1980, 1992, 2000, in every case they helped the lesser known candidate, and it was usually the non-incumbent who benefited from the debate. So I think Kerry has to look upon this as maybe not his last best chance, but certainly his best chance to correct the drift of this campaign.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think it has that potential to alter the dynamic of the race?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, I expect it to. In part because John Kerry’s approval ratings are so low right now that he can’t help but surpass them as far as I’m concerned, because he’s really in terms of leadership, personality things like that, he’s very, very low. People will see him and say, oh, he’s not so bad, so I expect there to be a tightening, I think the Bush people – I expect there to be a tightening. I’m sort of ambivalent about the debates, I think they’re a short cut for people who have not been paying attention the last year. It’s one good 90-minute shot to get a look at these guys. But if you know something about their careers, if you’ve been reading the papers or watching this program, you know what you know and anything you might learn tonight is misleading because it’s a freak of whatever happens on this particular night.

MARK SHIELDS: Can I disagree? I really do, and I’m not, certainly not recommending people make this their sole and exclusive source of information. But, Margaret, this is the only time, the rest of the time they’ve all been before, you know, either pre-approved or drummed up audiences in Chillicothe, Ohio, Solo, Kenosha, Wisconsin, Duluth. All of a sudden they’re in the same place, okay, side by side, unfiltered, okay, and a chance for people, the only time for voters to have a job interview with these people. You’re applying, okay, who is this fellow, and to get a sense of what they do in the presence of the other. It’s one thing for me to kick the daylights out of David when he’s not here, which I do on a regular basis, but when he’s here, you know, it does change the dynamic.

DAVID BROOKS: That’s my feeling -

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s awfully important, I really do.

MARGARET WARNER: You know, David, there’s been a lot of grousing about the rules of this debate. How much engagement should viewers expect to see between the two men?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, if looks could kill, there will be multiple homicides. I think what John Kerry is going to do as Mark suggests he’s got the main opportunity and the main burden tonight, and I think he’ll go on the offensive. And he’ll say this guy is, a, made the wrong choices, b, has made the world unsafe, and c is not up to the job. So he will be the aggressor, and the term of personality thing, to me this is all about character, not policy, they want to get a sense of the man. So he’s got to be tough without being condescending and Bush has got to be tough in return without seeming lost, or without getting cranky. So it’s that personality test, I feel like I’m bowing to a little of Mark’s sense that this is a valuable evening. But again it’s a show.

MARGARET WARNER: Sliding that way.

DAVID BROOKS: I’m sliding that way. He persuades me sometimes. But it’s a show — not this day, these guys will not persuade each other.

MARK SHIELDS: No.

DAVID BROOKS: But it’s a show. But Kerry really has to show a personality that’s a little better than what he’s shown.

MARK SHIELDS: Kerry has a tougher task. I mean, voters right now are not sure who John Kerry is, and not exactly what a President John Kerry would do. So, I mean, he’s really, I don’t want to say introducing himself, but he has to convince people that he is a forceful person, who understands issues and whom they can repose confidence and trust in a difficult and dangerous world and this is what he would do. Gee, that makes sense.

MARGARET WARNER: The other image people have of him is that he’s a flip flopper or vacillator. How can he deal with that if President Bush raises things that he said, say about the Iraq War that appear contradictory to the average voter?

MARK SHIELDS: I think he has to do it on the basis of this is a referendum on George W. Bush, first of all, that he was elected four years ago when you could say we were choosing a class president. We really were. I mean, George Bush was more likeable than Al Gore, he was more comfortable, easier to be with for four years; the country was at peace. Now the country is at war, Americans are dying, we’re in a war and what Kerry has to do is say look, is the battle for Iraq, was it a necessary indispensable part of the war against terrorism as the president alleges or was it an unwise imprudent and perhaps disastrous diversion that has sapped our resources, our will and our energy as well as our allies from fighting the more important battle against terrorism? Whoever comes out with that view of Iraq at the end of this debate will have won the debate. If more people lean toward that, that Iraq has been a mistake rather than the president’s point that it’s part of an indispensable step in the war against terrorism, then I think you could say Kerry wins.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you see it that way, that that will be the crux of both the disagreement and the decisive disagreement, which way viewers end up feeling at the end?

DAVID BROOKS: I agree that it’s framing Iraq in the war on terror: is it a crucial part, which we have to stay and win or should be we getting out as fast as we can? But again I go back to the character thing. When we remember the debates it’s about the personalities, and the Kerry staff has said that he did his debate prep last week, he gave speeches in Temple University in Philadelphia, NYU in New York, and that was basically what he’s going to say. And those two speeches were incredibly tough speeches but they were devoid of personality. It’s not like I’m a nice guy, I’m charming, it was he’s wrong, he’s wrong, this is a mess, he’s wrong, very prosecutorial. To me that’s the choice they make, am I a nice guy or am I just going to rip the tar off…

MARGARET WARNER: So using Mark’s analogy of the class president Mike McCurry was giving a briefing to reporters yesterday and he said in 2000 then George Bush was more likeable and affable, but we’re not electing a class president, but you think those qualities are still very important.

DAVID BROOKS: I think if you look at the polls, what do you want in a leader this year, they want character, they want to feel a connection, and so far that’s been Bush’s advantage.

MARK SHIELDS: Yeah. I do think, I’m not saying that he’ll never be able to compete, John Kerry will, on likeability. And it would be silly to try to do it; I think it would be good to show some humor. This has been a humorless campaign. Neither one has had a self-deprecating phrase, let alone paragraph — so I think it is important that Kerry — that people have a sense of who Kerry is, but it’s going to be in terms of resoluteness rather than warmth and clarity rather than being pro licks.

MARGARET WARNER: So now what does President Bush have to do?

MARK SHIELDS: I think President Bush’s task in a strange way is less than, I mean, than Kerry’s; I mean, he’s ahead going in.

MARGARET WARNER: And people know it.

MARK SHIELDS: They have a sense of who he is, I think the president has to explain Iraq better. Let’s be very frank about it. The LA Times poll today out, a well respected national poll shows by a margin of two to one Americans believe that George Bush’s economic policies have made the country worse rather than better; a majority think the war wasn’t worth and don’t feel that there’s a sense of how we’re going to get out of there. So I think, you know, the president has to provide that sense. I mean Americans don’t, you can’t say gee we’ve been in Germany for half a century, we’ve been in Japan for half a century, because it hasn’t been the Americans being killed on a daily basis in either of those countries, or South Korea. He’s got to give a sense of we’re not going to, and an endless basis of American coffins coming home with flags over them –

MARGARET WARNER: He really, he has to play some defense here?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah. He’s never been really pressed to explain the images we saw earlier on the NewsHour, the explosions, the car bombs; he’s got to do some of that. But he has also just got to restore basically why he’s up to 52 in the approval, that he’s a man of faith who has been confronted with this challenge, had tribulations but is resolute in moving forward. I would emphasize that man of faith business. That’s the under played part of this campaign because we in the media don’t talk about it so much. But it’s a huge advantage that he has, it’s the way people related to him at first and I think it’s the way they relate to him now and I expect him to talk about that.

MARK SHIELDS: Kerry has not been comfortable in talking like that, make no mistake about it. But I think what undermines and sabotages the president’s whole stature on that issue is the kind of mailing they send from the Republican National Committee last week to voters in Arkansas and West Virginia saying if the Democrats are elected, the bible will be banned. I mean, that just shows such contempt and disdain for people of faith when you send a mailing like that.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let’s just return to tonight briefly. What is the pitfall that George Bush has to avoid and the pitfall that John Kerry does?

DAVID BROOKS: John Kerry has to avoid appearing condescending and snobbish. George Bush has to avoid appearing lost. That he doesn’t have an answer to something, that he’s fumbling around, the way he did with Tim Russert a few months ago. When I look back at the history of these debates, usually it’s the mistakes we remember more than advantages.

MARK SHIELDS: I think the president, three times, four times returns to his mantra, you know, we’re better off without Saddam, he thinks we’re better off with Saddam. I think people will say, does this guy think in terms of bumper stickers. There has to be something that goes beyond just these wall poster aphorisms that he evokes all the time.

MARGARET WARNER: The Kerry pitfall?

MARK SHIELDS: The Kerry pitfall is wandering. The light — one of the things is the light that says how long you’re over and how long it goes, if there’s a sense that Kerry is going beyond, that he’s getting senatorial, giving the legislative history of the semicolon, it’s a problem.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Mark and David, we’ll see you later tonight for our special. Thank you both.