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Shields and Brooks Discuss the First Presidential Debate

October 1, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: And that brings us finally to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks. Well, gentlemen.

We were all together last night but after nearly 24 hours, Mark, what is your verdict on the debate?

MARK SHIELDS: Entirely different. (Laughs) no, before last night, Margaret, overwhelmingly every measurement of public opinion showed the support for John Kerry… were people who were against George Bush.

And last night I think because of his performance in the debate where he was more impassioned than he was patrician, maybe more commanding than continental, he gave people a comfort level. He raised the comfort level of his own supporters that they could be for him. And I think he energized.

And secondly, he moved from the very dangerous political position where I don’t think he was really, but there was the perception that the campaign was just going nowhere and if anything going backwards — of being a loser and now I don’t think there’s any question — everybody regards him clearly as the underdog. And Americans love underdogs.

They’re not very big on losers. And I think that was an important change for Kerry. It’s not a seismic change in the campaign, but I think it’s a real change.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think it changed the dynamic for Kerry in that way?

DAVID BROOKS: Exactly in that way just in conversations with people around town. The people who are Democrats who were for him, and now their morale is much lifted, whereas, you know, you’re down six, eight points week after week, your morale gets down.

Today they’re walking a little higher, a little prettier.

MARGARET WARNER: Also, going into the debate, wasn’t there the view that if President Bush… he could almost seal, cement his lead last night if he could absolutely put Kerry away and keep Kerry from reaching that threshold of commander in chief he could pretty much coast.

DAVID BROOKS: He could absolutely have coasted.

MARGARET WARNER: That didn’t happen.

DAVID BROOKS: I would say for a lot of people who you talked to on the Republican side, they saw George Bush in front of Tim Russert the other week or the other month now, and they thought a performance like that… and Bush is more likely to blow it because Kerry really is a good debater.

And there were little insecurities about Bush so I would say they’re a little relieved, too. I think the bottom line I thought on the merits, a draw, but as I thought, if you went into the debate thinking that John Kerry was a Swiss flip-flopper, well, you see he’s a little better than that.

So I thought all along he’d rise a little in until the polls, not transform the race, but rise a little and I still think that’s basically what’s going to happen.

MARGARET WARNER: David said that last night when we were previewing it that in a way… he didn’t use the word caricature, but Kerry had been so caricatured in all these ads and so on, that just standing on the stage in an equal fashion and performing adequately, he would probably….

MARK SHIELDS: Kerry was better than his campaign and he was better, certainly, than Kerry that had been presented by the Bush campaign. And I think he made the race a lot more about President Bush last night than it had been. It had been almost exclusively about Kerry.

Just one point, Margaret, and that was David’s touching on the perception of the two of them and how they… how President Bush handled himself compared to Tim Russert. I think one of the problems the president had is that he… since Tim Russert, he has been before only adulatory crowds — uncritical crowds, undemanding crowds.

And I think you saw it last night not simply in the caliber of his response but he’s used to just tossing out lines and getting guffaws and getting, you know, raucous applause. Well, I think, that’s in part, one of the reasons he kept returning to those buzz words last night. My God, it worked in Duluth, it worked in Lorraine, Ohio.

Why aren’t I getting the same response here? And it’s just bad habits, I think you get into rhetorically.

DAVID BROOKS: I have a slightly different view; if you look at the Bush events, the way they structure them, they’re very different from up on the podium with the audience in front of you. They’re all around.

There’s usually a couple stools, people on stage; he’s buddy, buddy with the people; that’s where he excels — the guy does not excel in straight oratory.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s right. In a way, the format, which was so stiff, he would be better served if he could walk around as he did with the mike kind of Oprah style.

DAVID BROOKS: I absolutely agree. He’s just not – he’s not a formal speaker. He’s a casual belly-to-belly guffawer, you know, towel snapper. That’s who he is.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, let’s put in a note of caution here. There were all these overnight instant polls and instant focus groups –


MARGARET WARNER: – and people said they thought Kerry quote/unquote won the debate more than they thought President Bush did. Mark, those have often not been very good predictors of who wins the election.

MARK SHIELDS: No, I mean, people thought that Al Gore won.


MARK SHIELDS: In 2000. There are two things that happen, Margaret. First of all, the person is less known usually if he puts himself well, he does well.

The biggest gainer ever in the debates was Ross Perot in 1992. But I thought what was interesting was that they saw John Kerry as much, much more positive towards John Kerry as a consequence of last evening than they had been.

MARGARET WARNER: The people in these groups?

MARK SHIELDS: The people in these groups. That’s right. People polled who actually watched the national poll, Gallup, by almost close to 4-1 they saw it; whereas the president was just awash. I mean, they didn’t see him more favorably or less favorably.

So I think that has to be seen as good for Kerry. But no, those are not… then the perception, again, as they energize his own supporters are terribly important. I’d be interested to see the crowds he gets. You know, whether, in fact, those crowds become bigger and more enthusiastic.

The great story is told after the first debate between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960, Richard Nixon flew into Nashville, Tennessee, and there Dick Tuck, a noted mischief….


MARK SHIELDS: Showed up and when security was less secure and backed up to him and had a little old lady present him flowers and said “honey, we don’t care if he killed you last night, we’re still with you.” Perceptions change.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, if Bush is up by six in a week we’ll be saying what a disaster the debate was for Kerry.

MARGARET WARNER: And how ridiculous – and I noticed, David, even in the instant polls and the focus groups, the same people who said they thought Kerry won the debate didn’t necessarily change their vote.

DAVID BROOKS: And the particulars they thought Bush was stronger and more likable and they didn’t change their vote.

So you can see a lot of Bush people saying “my guy got beat but still I’m going to vote for this guy.”

MARGARET WARNER: Going into the next… we’ve got twelve days now with two more presidential debates and a vice presidential debate. What does, first of all, Sen. Kerry have to do to try to capitalize at least on this perception?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, obviously stay on offense. But I would say there was sort of a tonal difference between the two. Reading the transcript you learn… after seeing it then when you read it you learn more.

One of the things I noticed reading it, I lost my pages on the floor of my study, and I couldn’t tell who said what. But if you read one sentence, it’s clear. You know immediately. If somebody’s saying “I have a four-point plan” or “I have a series of things we should do” that’s Kerry.

Sort of technocratic, managerial, here’s what we should do, bing, bing, bing, bing. If somebody’s talking about honor or duty, we have to stick up for what we believe in, personal morality, that’s Bush. I think they could both use some of the other.

Although I would counsel Bush to go even more Reaganesque, you might say, more person-to-person, more talking about the war widow, which he did which I thought was a good moment for him.

Not try to compete on wonky terms but go more “I’m relating to you person to person.”

MARK SHIELDS: I didn’t think Kerry was wonky. I mean, I thought he was a lot more concise than he had been in all the charges and caricatures about him being… a great advantage for Kerry was the time limits. There’s no doubt about it.

MARGARET WARNER: Looking ahead, I mean, you said it will be interesting to see if the crowd swells, but in the end now we’re going to have, what, I don’t know how many days before we have another presidential debate. He’s out there campaigning.

MARK SHIELDS: One week from today.

MARGARET WARNER: Does any dynamic shift or does it just stay frozen until the next presidential debate?

MARK SHIELDS: I think, Margaret, it’s no accident the campaigns cut back on their advertising this period because this is a time when voters take over the campaign. Damn it. They’re doing it.

So, they’re making decisions. The vice presidential is a decision-making point. It’s probably not decisive but it’s a point in which people get further information and I think that what George Bush has to do is he has to look at those game films.

And George Bush, the irony is, was a great beneficiary of 2000 from the fact that his opponent, Al Gore, just failed totally in non-verbal communication with his sighs. And his father suffered from looking at his watch and appearing indifferent. George Bush last night appeared like he was put upon. I mean, what… you know, that is not the George Bush who’s the more likable of the two in every measurement.

He just seemed like a very unpleasant and petulant guy last night and he can’t do that again. I mean, I think he saw him as a great advantage that he has in the whole likeability in the sense that he is and I think in fairness to him, you have to understand, this is the first president in 35 years, 30 years, who’s been there while Americans are in combat and dying. And I think maybe he does feel put upon.

DAVID BROOKS: I’d just like to point out my reaction shot during that was just disgust and contempt.

MARGARET WARNER: We got it on the air.

DAVID BROOKS: You did? With split screen. One thing I think we talked about before was the people who watched the debate on split screen had a much different opinion, a much more pro-Kerry than those who watched without the split screen.

MARGARET WARNER: That is important because we showed some cutaways but we didn’t have the split screen. Even CSpan did a split screen.

DAVID BROOKS: You think TV is a weird medium, you think expressiveness is supposed to be good but in every case minimalist non-expressiveness is good.

MARGARET WARNER: But are you both agreeing that essentially for the next two weeks the only thing that counts are these next debates?

DAVID BROOKS: Also and what happens in Iraq.

MARK SHIELDS: The reality of Iraq trumps all the great rallies and events and visuals that either campaign has.

DAVID BROOKS: And one other crucial event is the Oct. 9 Afghan vote. If there are happy Afghans, as we learn to say, voting, that’s just a big event. If it goes terribly, that’s also a big event.

MARGARET WARNER: But do you agree with Jim Fallows who said that he thinks it will be the Bush camp that will be back… well, you said he should be looking at the films.

MARK SHIELDS: He really should. You don’t want to have two back-to-back performances where the president appears to be just there out of some duty and getting on to a root canal and cold showers.

DAVID BROOKS: I want to push back a little there; this was not a slaughter by any means, I thought this was a tight, close debate, where they both did well.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s what I meant.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean body language?

MARK SHIELDS: His body language hurt him. I think if you read it, if you read the transcript, you might not think that it was a clear-cut Kerry victory. But if you saw the split screen and watched it, I mean, people I think came away with a far more positive attitude toward Kerry than they did toward the president.

MARGARET WARNER: Last quick question and it picks up on Spencer Michel’s group. A lot of these people want an exit plan from Iraq.

You heard Jim Fallows say he didn’t think either one of them were bold enough. Is there something to that?

DAVID BROOKS: There is no exit plan. They both have the same exit plan which is to train the Iraqis and then eventually get out.

Realistically it’s just going to take a long time and I think they both secretly know that; insurgency wars are not won overnight.

MARGARET WARNER: So voters were looking for that will wait in vain?

MARK SHIELDS: Whoever wins will be out of Iraq within a year and neither one of them has the guts to say it.

DAVID BROOKS: I’ll buy you dinner if that’s true.

MARGARET WARNER: Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you both.