Mark Shields and David Brooks Analyze the Vice Presidential Debate
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, Shields and Brooks: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks. No, it’s not Friday night yet. We are getting a little head start — 24 hours later, Mark, how do you read the evidence of what, if anything, the vice presidential debate last night did in any way to change things in the overall presidential race — long involved question but that’s it.
MARK SHIELDS: Okay. First of all, Jim, 24 hours later, these are good serious debates. These are not questions about were you arrested for driving while intoxicated or did you inhale. I mean, this is serious stuff, and they addressed it in serious fashion last night. I do think that vice presidential debates have made a difference in the past. No question ’76, the Dole slap against Mondale. In 2000, Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney, I think everybody could see, it’s acknowledged, beat him badly and in a very close race may very well have made the difference for George Bush.
MARK SHIELDS: In this race, I don’t think the vice presidential debate is going to be decisive for a very simple reason. And that is the passions are so high both pro and con, the two men on the top of the ticket, particularly George Bush, that it is going to take more than the vice president. It was an interesting race – it was an interesting debate, but it was not determinate.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think, David?
DAVID BROOKS: I think in this debate in particular it is stupid to ask who won in this debate. It almost doesn’t matter. They both made strong cases and it’s an argument. It’s one argument whether Cheney and Edwards are the spokesmen or the two guys on the top of the ticket are the argument. The issues are the same and the argument goes forward. So as the argument goes forward, people learn more about each side of the argument. And what strikes me is voters have to decide what is dispositive, those who are few who are remaining on this side have to decide which argument or which issue is strongest for them.
And it strikes me that as these arguments go along that reality carries forward, that Kerry and Edwards clearly have a stronger argument on are they describing the war accurately? Clearly the administration is not describing it totally accurately. So if that’s dispositive, well, then you go for them. I think Cheney and Bush have an advantage when they say what are we going to do forward, do we have a consistent record of sticking with a position and are we predictable in how we are going to behave, and if that’s dispositive for you, then you’re going to think their side. But I think, you know, reality matters; people pick out what is important to them.
JIM LEHRER: Mark, do you think it’s correct to say…as we sit here — and it could change tomorrow of course and of course we have another debate on Friday between President Bush and Senator Kerry but as we sit here tonight, is Iraq in all of its ramifications two of them that David just outlined, is it the issue?
MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think there is any question it’s the issue, Jim, and it’s the defining issue — the energy that it attracted on the part of the two nominees last night for vice president. That’s where they’re greatest… I do take issue with David just on the point that whether it’s dispositive, the very fact that the administration has a record which they trumpet as consistent. The flip side of that is what is think is the Achilles heel of the president in this race, and that is the sense of stubbornness that he will not listen to different points of view. That is a real problem for him. And David said who’s undecided – I’ll tell you – somewhere in the low 40 percent of the electorate believe George Bush has done a good job and deserves reelection. There’s another – a different 40 percent obviously – 40 percent plus – who believe that George Bush has done a terrible job and deserves to be defeated.
The people in the middle really don’t have particularly positive feelings toward either of these guys. As a consequence of last Thursday night, some of the fears they had about John Kerry were allayed. Some of the concerns they had about George Bush were exacerbated and aggravated. That’s where that race is between them right now. But I think you have to say that George W. Bush still remains the favorite, but Kerry has moved from the press writing him off as the all but certain loser into the fighting underdog going into Friday night’s debate.
JIM LEHRER: The new kinds of developments, in other words, news developments that impact what they debated about last night and could impact how voters decide this on Iraq, the Bremer, we talked about it here on the NewsHour last night, the Bremer statement that he wanted more troops at the beginning. How did you think Cheney and Edwards handled that last night looking at it from each of their perspectives?
DAVID BROOKS: I guess Cheney’s point of view is that we’ve made some mistakes but at least we have been consistent. These guys talk tough right now but they have got a long record of not being tough. I think if you are going to vote for Bush, you have to make this argument; you have to say there has been a lot of incompetence — that they’ve learned from it. At least I basically know they really want to kill the guys; they want to take the fight to the guys. I have got some basic sense about those people. And then the argument against Kerry and Edwards is that, you know, they’ve been all over a lot. Edwards in particular, this is something I responded to last night.
I have been incredibly positive about Edwards on this show dozens and dozens of times. But if you go back to what John Edwards was saying a year ago that Saddam was an imminent threat, that he was involved in terror, that he had biological weapons that he wanted to hand off to terrorists, that he had nuclear weapons that he wanted to develop maybe within a year that he wanted to hand off to terrorists; he was with Joe Lieberman on the hawkish wing of the Democratic Party. And now he is with John Kerry on the dovish wing that this was all a diversion. How do you get from here to there in a year? I’m a guy who’s admired this guy. How do you get from that John Edwards to this John Edwards? And that’s sort of a thing that raises doubts in people’s minds.
MARK SHIELDS: You get there, Jim, from facts carrying you. I mean, I don’t know how much more evidence we need, how many more reports; how many more investigators? They did not have weapons of mass destruction. The rationale, the central rationale the president had for going to war, they’re still denying doesn’t exist.
JIM LEHRER: New report today.
MARK SHIELDS: There’s a new report today, but they’re saying, well, no, I mean, Ted Stevens, is on the floor of the Senate, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, all I know, we keep looking, we’ll find them. You know, we can look until kingdom come and we are not going to find them. I mean, now it’s down to, well, he had intentions, you know, somewhere he was harboring fantasies about this. He didn’t have that. There was no connection to al-Qaida. There was no connection to Sept. 11.
They encouraged the misperception that somehow Saddam was involved in Sept. 11. For the vice president to say last night as he did, you know, that I’ve never said this, and then to be confronted and refuted with television evidence of his saying just exactly that, I mean, it’s just — it’s amazing to me.
DAVID BROOKS: I agree with you there were no WMD’s, and the administration was wrong about that but John Kerry and John Edwards were also wrong. The reason Iraq is a central issue in this campaign is because — not only because people are dying and it is important what happens over there but it has become the symbol of judgment and character. That’s why everyone is so upset about it. And for them to go back and especially for John Edwards to go back and say they diverted us from the war on terror and that it was an error of judgment, well, that’s a fair argument but it was an error in judgment for John Edwards, if that is the case; they were all wrong if Cheney and Bush were wrong.
MARK SHIELDS: I think there’s a higher level of responsibility for a president. The president is the commander in chief. The president is the one that says we’re going to war. You know, and Norman Schwarzkopf says it doesn’t take a hero to order men into battle. But it is an awesome responsibility, and it was the president’s. I don’t care how many votes the president seeks; the president chose, the evidence, and all the rest of it — it’s ultimately his decision. It was the wrong decision. Now I don’t think the argument is going to be about the past in this.
JIM LEHRER: You don’t? I was going to ask you.
MARK SHIELDS: No. I think this campaign, I think people, Americans are enormously practical. I think the fact that they were wrong then hurts their case but I don’t think it disqualifies Cheney and Bush. I think that Americans want to know is what is going to happen now, and I think what they’re afraid of right now is that Bush is going to continue more of the same. And Kerry and Edwards have to offer a believable case of change and a different course that the Americans feel is going to get them out of there.
DAVID BROOKS: This is the argument we had last night which is me saying Cheney and Bush, the administration has a policy now in Samarra and Fallujah and in Babil; they have a policy. What is the Kerry and Edwards’ view of that policy, we don’t know; what is the Kerry and Edwards’ view of how to win this war, how to move elections, how to guarantee all that; we don’t know. They don’t have a policy about that.
And I said that the strong part of their case is (a) the incompetence of the Bush administration in postwar Iraq, and (b), the fact that they’re not honest about it. That’s the strongest case for the Democrats. The weakest case is, and I think it was evident last night; they just don’t have a policy. They don’t have anything to go forward that makes you think it is going to be different.
JIM LEHRER: Did you disagree with David? Do you think the ordinary person is going to say, here’s what the Kerry-Edwards people would do to get this war over with and here’s what the Bush-Cheney people would do, that there’s a clear division in people’s minds?
MARK SHIELDS: No. I think there is a sense right now that they don’t know precisely what Kerry wants to do. I don’t think and as I said last night, I don’t think that it’s Kerry to talk about tactical decisions right now as far as Fallujah is concerned. I mean, he can – if asked about that — he has to answer that question. That isn’t his responsibility. His responsibility is to say where we go from here. He did lay out in the NYU speech where he intended to go, that it was different from Bush; that al-Qaida is in 60 countries — the idea that we don’t have diplomatic relations; we don’t have coalitions, the coalitions have been fractured.
Jim, this is – and so I think what we are really talking about is Kerry has to make the case for change that is an intelligent and reasonable change. People want change. They don’t want the status quo. They don’t want – they really don’t want the policy that’s gone on in Iraq. I think that’s the case that has to be made and I think that’s why tomorrow night’s debate –
JIM LEHRER: Friday night.
MARK SHIELDS: — Friday night’s debate is important and the following one -
JIM LEHRER: It’s going to be important, right?
DAVID BROOKS: It will be hugely important if — I really think if Bush has a night like he had the other night, it’s over, that he will lose the election. If he trumps him, then we’ll keep going on, but if Bush has two bad nights in a row -
MARK SHIELDS: Jim Fallows made a very good point in his piece with Terry. He said there had been four principles up there. Three have been really quite eloquent and whether you agree with ‘em – and a command of facts and information. George Bush has to show on Friday night that he wants the job, that he is engaged.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of Friday night, remember, this is Wednesday night, so please come back on Friday night. Thank you both.