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Mark Shields and David Brooks Discuss the Republican National Convention

August 30, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks. First, the big picture question:

How would you rate the issue of Iraq and the issue of economics in terms of their importance for this election, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, you don’t have to ask me. You can ask the Democrats and ask the Republicans. You look at their conventions. The Democratic Convention was entirely about national security. The Republican Convention is largely about national security.

I think both parties have decided that while voters talk about jobs, that Iraq is actually the issue that correlates the best with those. The only amendment I would make to that, is there are a lot people who don’t care about Iraq, who don’t care about politics too much.

But if you promise them something specific in a specific policy, they will vote for you. And so I think there is a small swing group who are not very political who you can get to vote and neither party really has offered them much so far, but I’d say in general Iraq is the issue.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

MARK SHIELDS: Iraq defines this election, Jim. I mean Iraq — 9/11 defines this election. And 9/11 made George Bush the commander-in-chief. It closed the stature gap, which had afflicted him throughout his campaign and throughout the first nine months of his presidency, it made him a dominant figure, and made the presidency the central dominant issue and office in the land, and the parity that existed between Congress and the presidency was over and it enabled the president to go into war against Iraq. It gave him that kind of political clout.

The fact that John Kerry has been the nominee of the Democratic Party has nothing to do with the economy. It is solely because of Iraq and because of the commander in chief. So I think that the reality is that we are going to get job figures on Friday. Regardless what the president says Thursday night about the ownership society, if the job figures in August are not good when they come out on Friday, the economy has a reality of its own.

Iraq is what has energized the Democrats and what has really led to the unprecedented unity on their part to, some of which we saw yesterday in the demonstrations, to defeat the president.

JIM LEHRER: And the Republicans are unified, too, are they not, on this issue of Iraq for the most part?

DAVID BROOKS: I would say there’s a bunch of things; there’s a bunch of levels. On the popular level, I have talked to congressmen across the country in the past week, and they would say there are a lot of mixed feelings. The mixed feelings come in this form.

They’re not sure how the Iraq War is being waged right now, and especially six months ago, but in general they support the war on terror. They think because of 9/11, there was no choice but to do this. They believe in transforming the Middle East, they believe in the president’s grand mission. So I think on a broad level, there is mixed filings, but support for the overall project.

If you actually talk to legislators I think you get a slightly different and more sophisticated answer, and that answer would be since we handed over the interim government, we are in a lot better shape than we were in the earlier part of the occupation.

But then there is a great deal of concern among legislators about these cities that become sanctuaries for terror, cities like Fallujah and Samara. So I think the party as a whole: Supportive but anxious.

JIM LEHRER: In other words, Heather Wilson and Sen. Hagel pretty much represented what you believe to be the center beliefs of the Republican Party?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I don’t want to speak for those two –


DAVID BROOKS: — but if you talk to most members of Congress privately, they support the president, they admire him; they’re anxious about these terrorist sanctuaries.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s go back to yesterday, Mark. We talked about this Friday night on the NewsHour about what the potential impact of these protests could be.

Sitting here now, 24 hours after the big protests, one of the largest of its kind in history in New York, even in New York, what do you think the impact has been?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s interesting, Jim. Every description, every report beginning with the Republican mayor of New York, Mike Bloomberg played a prominent role of bringing the convention to the city. It was the peacefulness of them.

What struck me is the difference between the protests in New York in 2004 verses Chicago, in 1968, was those protests were against almost United States. There was a sense of, you know, they were alienate from their government.

These were directed against the president and his policies; almost a sense of, you know, “I’m proud to be an American. This is my country. I want it back. It’s George Bush to which I object, not the United States.”

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about the protests?

DAVID BROOKS: I was also struck by the feeling of good spirit, in general. I was stuck in the middle of them for an hour. A certain number of people noticed that I was a supporter of the war, and nobody threw a punch, which was always a good thing. It was gentle jeering. I think people were happy to be around each other.

What struck me was two things: First, they have no party. John Kerry doesn’t speak for those people. John Kerry has said even now he would vote for the war in Iraq knowing what he knows now. So when there is no logical party for them to support — they will support John Kerry, I suspect most of them.

The second thing– and this is something that bugged me– there are a lot of Spartacus – there are a lot of Maoists; there are a lot of real radicals out there. If I was marching in a group and I saw a fascist, I just wouldn’t want to be in the crowd. And I don’t know what the choices people have when they march in a mass really, but the number of real radicals in that march was striking to me, and would have made me quite uncomfortable.

I do think there is a silent majority in the country, there is a backlash to the radical, the Spartacus but to see Michael Moore, and people like that – there’s a silent backlash to some of that.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

MARK SHIELDS: I think there is backlash on both sides. I really do, but I think it has been remarkably contained. I think what David saw yesterday has not been visible and has not been vocal. And I do agree with David that these are people in many cases talking to pros — professionals in both the Democratic and Republican Party, they attribute the stumbling, the faltering, call it what you will, to John Kerry’s campaign to one statement: Would you still vote, given presidential authority, to go to Iraq? Kerry said he would.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s look ahead to the first night tonight, David. Why John McCain and Rudolph Giuliani as the leading speaker for the first night of the opening of this —

DAVID BROOKS: They’re stars. People think they’ll watch them because they like them; they’re among the most popular politicians in the country. The second thing is they exemplify courage. I think the president’s, his best argument is that, “I may have made some mistakes, but I have got the courage and steadfastness to carry this war forward,” and McCain and Giuliani exemplify political courage.

And I think the implicit contrast with John Kerry is clear that they’re somebody who never flip-flops; They don’t care if you don’t like them. They just go ahead and they go ahead and they go ahead. That’s how Bush likes to think of himself. That’s the aura they would like to create for the Republican Party.


MARK SHIELDS: Character witnesses for George W. Bush is what they both are — Rudy Giuliani was the closest thing we had in the United States to Winston Churchill after 9/11. He held the city together, this city that was under siege and was hurting and bleeding. He was a force of great stability, of great maturity and of great leadership. John McCain has become de facto, Jim, George W. Bush’s running mate.

He will leave the city with him tomorrow morning to campaign. He will leave after the convention Friday, not with Dick Cheney, but with John McCain. I mean, George Bush is kissing John McCain. He can’t get enough of John McCain. I mean, John McCain occupies a unique position in the American politics.

He is the only person in American history who lost an election and has shaped the next election. And at the same time, both parties want him as a running mate.

JIM LEHRER: What would you add to that about McCain? Why John McCain, why is he such a spectacular star?

DAVID BROOKS: Because he’s not a typical politician; he speaks his mind. I’ve sort of looked into the readership with Bush and John McCain because you know — we were there in South Carolina. They did not get along. Their organizations did not get along. So I’ve sort of been wondering how much of this rapprochement is really real?

I’ve come to think it is somewhat real. I’ve come to think they’ve traveled a lot together, and when McCain and Bush are together, they don’t talk politics. They talk sports. They talk about other stuff. They have a lot in common.

And so I think there has been a sort of emotional bonding that has gone on there. And at heart, John McCain is an independent, but he is also a Republican.

MARK SHIELDS: Let me just say on that — talking to John McCain and John McCain’s people, I get a different perspective on just how close and how much of a buddy…

JIM LEHRER: You know what – we’re going to continue this conversation later, and we are also not only going to hear from John McCain and his speech, but we’re also going to interview him at the end of our coverage tonight.

We’ll have plenty of opportunities to pursue this. Thank you. See you later.