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Columnists Discuss What the Democrats Hope to Achieve at Their Convention

July 26, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, how it all looks to Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks. Mark, what do you think tonight is all about, the two former presidents and the former vice president Al Gore?

MARK SHIELDS: Well I think the historians put it well, Jim. There is a certain obligation to the party’s history and tradition. First of all, only two Democrats have won the White House in the past 40 years. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — they’re both speaking here tonight. A third some Democrats still licking their wounds in this hall and in the country won more votes in 2000 but did not win the White House. That’s Al Gore. So….

JIM LEHRER: He won more popular votes but not more electoral votes.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. He lost 5-4 as Democrats are fond to say in the Supreme Court.

JIM LEHRER: That’s another vote.

MARK SHIELDS: But I really think that it is again as was said well, it’s an attempt to put the party forward as a mature, harmonious, responsible group. Good conventions make great coverage. They don’t make for terrific results in November, whether it’s the ’68 Democrats.

JIM LEHRER: You mean great conventions in terms of conflict – disorder.

MARK SHIELDS: Republicans in ’76 in Kansas City with Reagan and Ford. ’64 at the palace. I think that’s what it’s about. In a strange way, the people who are speaking here tonight play a lot better in the hall than they do in the country. I mean, Bill Clinton is more popular in this room and among Democrats than he is in the country at large and probably not nearly as much help as John Edwards will be in reaching independent and undecided voters.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think tonight is about, David?

DAVID BROOKS: First of all it is about building tribal identity. Party identity is incredibly powerful. People are more connected to their party than to their ideas or convictions political scientists show. They have to show what kind of party this is and you have to go back through history. I wish they would go back to FDR, and maybe LBJ and civil rights a little more than they seem likely to.

JIM LEHRER: In other words when somebody says I’m a Democrat they want the folks to have something to say, and that’s what they are going to try give them.

DAVID BROOKS: How do people choose their party or their opinions? They don’t say what do I believe? Which party is most like me? That’s how people form party affiliation. And that’s about establishing the personality of the party. To me the fun about tonight is how unpredictable it might be. I think this is the most unpredictable night because Al Gore is going to come on. The last couple months he’s sort of been walking on the edge of a wall. You don’t know what he’ll say. And then Bill Clinton operates by his own rules. You don’t know what he’ll say. To me these two little events are sort of the most fun we’re going to have.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of fun or lack of, whatever, what is your thought about why they decided to open, literally open the convention, prime time, with Al Gore?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think, you know, they’re under the illusion that he’s the martyr. He won the election and it was stolen away. I do think that’s the wound that’s still to be healed. I think the other thing with Clinton and Gore is they’re going to have a little battle of the decades here: The ’90s, peace, prosperity, safer. 2000 is not so great. So I think we’re going to see that theme played up. The 1990s were just a much better time than we’ve had under George Bush.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read the Gore selection to lead off as a lead-off batter?

MARK SHIELDS: It is central to Democrats especially to the most partisan Democrats who still believe that Al Gore was deprived of the… and there’s a certain poignancy. The Gore people really believe that this would be his re-nomination convention. So there is that personal poignancy about this. I think the idea that the sense of impressing upon people and what Andy Kohut and others have told us is an intensely close election that every vote truly does count. There’s no more human and really emotional reminder of that to Democrats and Democrat-leaning voters than Al Gore.

JIM LEHRER: David, do you see the Democratic Party as unified as Dennis Kucinich and Norm Dicks demonstrated as Andy Kohut said?

DAVID BROOKS: When you see those two it’s like the North and the South embracing in the middle of Gettysburg. It’s emotionally unified. There’s no bad blood that I’ve detected. People on various wings of the party feel united against Bush and for Kerry. Intellectually it’s a little more complicated. The party is united but often against the positions that John Kerry stands for. There have been a series of polls of the delegates. 90 percent oppose the war. A large majority support gay marriage. 90 percent are in favor of rolling back the entire Bush tax cuts. The delegates are far more liberal than what John Kerry is. Nonetheless the he’s been able to finesse that. They’re will to go say you adopt the positions you need to adopt to get elected, then we’ll worry about ourselves.

JIM LEHRER: This is unique time in Democratic Party history if that’s true.

MARK SHIELDS: You could say it’s Howard Dean’s convention and John Kerry’s candidacy.

JIM LEHRER: What do you mean?

MARK SHIELDS: I think that the delegates do reflect what Howard Dean stood for. Howard Dean was the catalyst who defined the year of 2004 for the Democrats. I mean, the Democrats really were, I think, terrified of being accused of being soft on terror. The president stood astride the planet and Howard Dean was the voice who stood up and was heard and millions of Democrats got behind him, sent dollars and dimes in. Oh, my God this candidacy took off like a rocket. I think it sort of paved the way for others to say, well, maybe I disagree.

DAVID BROOKS: That’s a weakness because the core values of the people in this room are not being represented by the candidate; the core passions. So this is a part of the candidacy really run by a professionalized elite that is taking certain positions to go towards the center and be elected but it’s not the passion of the party. So the party has almost hired Kerry in a prudential way. Win this for us. Then we’ll worry about what you really believe.

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think it’s quite that cynical, Jim. Let me just say one thing. I think the Democratic voters in 2004 made a decision like I had never seen Democratic primary voters make in my experience. And that was they made a calculated decision that they wanted somebody who could beat George W. Bush, who could compete with him on commander-in-chief credentials. John Kerry because of his own biography and because of his own personal heroism met that test. I mean, they made a decision not based on emotion and not based on sentiment. They said, look, this guy has the best chance of beating the fellow who is in there which is of paramount concern to them.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, that’s what I really meant; I used the word prudential; you said calculated. But it’s just a mood, a mood of thinking of thoughtfulness rather than pure crusade let’s go out there.

MARK SHIELDS: Okay.

JIM LEHRER: Were you struck as I was about Kucinich really would not criticize John Kerry. He said what we want to do is get John Kerry elected and then we’ll worry about our differences.

MARK SHIELDS: George W. Bush deserves enormous credit. Norm Dicks, Washington state, one of the strongest, most hawkish Democrats in the House and Dennis Kucinich one of the most dovish joining arm in arm with Margaret Warner, in front of Margaret Warner on the NewsHour tonight proves that George W. Bush is a uniter. I mean, if he can unite Dicks and Kucinich he’s doing a hell of a job.

DAVID BROOKS: I agree with that but I think it’s Margaret’s influence. The other thing is that this… people are different in parties now. They get a message from the… this is the message of the day. And they’re much more likely to think as media players than people who I think delegates were before. You go to any delegate and they’ll tell you the same thing. It doesn’t matter whether… where they’re from. You don’t know if it’s their heart or the message they were told to tell you.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with what Jamie Rubin said in that same discussion that much of what this week is about is telling the American people what John Kerry can do to make this country more secure, from terrorism, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera –

DAVID BROOKS: This is what I want to know. Do they understand the nature of al-Qaida and the attack? I think what they want to show is there will be no Dukakis guy in a tank moments in this campaign. This is a strong candidate, strong party, manly macho men. They’re going to be quite tough, much more tougher than the audience would like to hear but this isn’t the audience. The audience is through the camera.

JIM LEHRER: So they’re introducing him as well.

MARK SHIELDS: Making the case for John Kerry and the Democratic party. Slight stumble at Fenway Park. John Kerry should not have thrown out the ball. I mean it’s a cardinal rule of politics, no politician ever gets introduced at any athletic event. Guaranteed boos. He got them in his hometown and then didn’t even reach home plate with his throw. Of course that will be contrasted with George W. Bush in the third game of the 2001 World Series in Yankee Stadium after 9/11 standing there on the mound and firing a strike.

JIM LEHRER: Right down the middle.

MARK SHIELDS: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: Gosh, Mark, that’s really profound.

DAVID BROOKS: Now we’re getting to the core of politics.

JIM LEHRER: Don’t go away. Thank you for now.