Analysis by Shields and Brooks Prior to the Final Debate
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JIM LEHRER: And to some pre-debate thoughts from Shields and Brooks — syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Mark, so, is the election literally riding on what happens tonight?
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, not to state it too dramatically, there’s no tomorrow. No, there is a tomorrow, actually. It’s Thursday. But this is a terribly important event. The debates have driven this campaign. I mean if you look at it, it’s less than two weeks ago that it all began in Miami and in that period of time, John Kerry, who was essentially, I think being written off by a lot of people, many in his own campaign, has come…
JIM LEHRER: How far behind was he? Four to six points?
MARK SHIELDS: Some would say double digits. Certainly the Gallup which had him eight points behind now has him even. So the gap has been closed. And more importantly for him, the personal qualities, that question of seeing him as a leader, someone they can trust and all that, that has improved for him as well. No president has been reelected, it has been pointed out, losing three debates. I mean, each succeeding survey of public opinion after the debates has solidified Kerry as having won. That happened after the first debate. Now the surveys this weekend after the second debate showed even more voters, by a three-to-two margin thought Kerry won. I think the president, there is a lot of pressure on the president tonight to do well. There is a lot of pressure on Kerry because frankly, domestic politics are not his bailiwick. He has been a national security foreign policy guy.
JIM LEHRER: You are talking about Kerry. But the conventional wisdom going into this whole thing, David, is where domestic policy is where Kerry had an advantage over President Bush.
DAVID BROOKS: I think that is wrong because the conventional wisdom was caused by the fact that Bush has spent so much time focusing on the war. They wanted to fight the debate on Iraq. But, you know, Bush ran in 2000 basically as a domestic policy president. He was a governor. I mean, he does know domestic policy. I do agree this is a crucial debate. My piercing insight into the last debate is that one of the features of the last debate is that it is the last debate. What I mean by that, after all the debates there was another debate and you could reverse whatever momentum happened after any given debate. After this, from now to the election, there is no obvious event where you could reverse whatever tide happens tonight. There might something exogenous but so that is one of the important things about this debate. I think there’s a momentum that builds up.
MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think – I don’t think there will be anything exogenous -
JIM LEHRER: He’s sorry he said that.
DAVID BROOKS: I should have said erogenous.
JIM LEHRER: He takes that back.
MARK SHIELDS: — that zone –
JIM LEHRER: But the question of course then, all right, if you divide it up, here what is John Kerry must do tonight. Here is what George W. Bush must do tonight. Let’s start with Kerry. What does Kerry have to do, keep it going, keep it moving?
MARK SHIELDS: Kerry, going into this debate, at the outset, before the Miami debate, there were the doubts the voters had — what they wanted to see in each man. They wanted to see in Kerry somebody that they could connect with and understand his values, have a sense that their values are his values or he has values that are not alien to their values. With Bush it was whether Bush could change, given new information, new changed circumstances, whether he could adjust. I think you could make the case that the president had — the decision, his campaign made the decision that resoluteness, showing resoluteness and firmness was more important than changing or acknowledging mistakes.
In Kerry’s case, the only place I’ve seen him really connect was on the names in St. Louis. I mean he remembered people’s names. I’ve had an awful lot of voters mention that to me – and he’d come back to somebody and remember their name — but he has yet to connect, in my judgment, in any sense that these are my values, this is what animates me — just touched on it very lightly. But he somehow has not… he has failed to connect there. I think he has to do that. The other thing that he has to do is to be candid with voters. This has been a free lunch campaign up to now. I mean, neither one of them has said… other than the people in uniform and their families and loved ones, Jim, they’ve asked nothing of any of us. And I think it is time for Kerry to step up on that.
JIM LEHRER: How do you see the missions?
DAVID BROOKS: I guess picking up on what Mark said, Kerry has to tell a story. He deals in abstraction, he deals, as I’ve said before, in Senate speak. Just tell a story about an individual. When have you a social problem, tell a story about how an individual, how it relates to a person, show that you relate to people one on one, you see them as individuals, not masses of constituents. For Bush I think it is consistency; the unexpected event that’s happened in this debate is Bush has not been consistent in tone. He has been sort of up and down even within the debates, let alone between the first two, show some consistency, which I think that has been the unnerving thing about his performance. The second thing, show what people liked about him in 2000, which was the compassionate man of faith. He really hasn’t shown that. He came out fighting in the second debate, whatever he was doing in the first debate, and to show some of that, you know, the way people related to him as a guy who could live, live next door.
JIM LEHRER: Both of you, beginning with you, David, there was a lot of conventional wisdom here that there is a great undecided vote and everybody can argue about how long it was… how large it was. But there are folks who were uncomfortable with George W. Bush based on what he has done as president. However, they were not prepared yet to turn it over to John… in other words, if the choice was between more of this guy they had some problems with and this guy who had even more problems with, and that is still at play. Do you agree?
DAVID BROOKS: That’s still at play. The last time we had two close presidential races in a row was I think in the 1880s. It’s not normal to have two close in a row. But I think we are almost guaranteed to have two in a row. I’m just struck by everything — the changes in America in the last four years; we’ve had 9/11, recession, corporate scandals, we’ve had all this stuff going on but basically we are still a 50-50 country. And I think that is still the case and we are still going to come down to some very tight 50-50 race.
MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think that’s the way the Republicans read it. I think that what they’re reading it right now, you are absolutely right, if you are undecided at this late date, you are not undecided about George Bush. You’re undecided about John Kerry. I think they’ve made up their minds they can’t get the undecideds. So they’re trying –
JIM LEHRER: Who?
MARK SHIELDS: The Republicans. The president can’t so they’re trying to drive down turnout; that’s what the negative about Kerry – I mean, that’s what the president has picked up in tempo since the first debate….
JIM LEHRER: Since Tempe.
MARK SHIELDS: In tempo, then relentlessly – has been relentlessly negative on Kerry.
DAVID BROOKS: Why is the Republicans being negative driving down turnout but the Democrats being negative is not driving down turnout?
MARK SHIELDS: No. I think one is record and the other is… i mean it’s “liberal, liberal.” It’s all personal qualities about Kerry. I think that’s the first thing, Jim, and I think the second thing about this race that is – that is overlooked is that a president — what is fascinating about those polls — a president always gets what he gets in the last poll. In other words, he doesn’t – it is not the margin between the two. It is not the spread between Kerry and Edwards or between any president and his challenger. The president is getting 52 in the last poll; he gets 52 on Election Day. If the president is getting 46, he gets 46 and the undecided all break the other way. It happened to his father, it happened to Jimmy Carter, it happened to Clinton, it happened to Reagan. There really isn’t any wiggle room of growth for the incumbent president.
JIM LEHRER: David, what do you think of this, I guess the term Mark would use is bashing, whether it goes both sides but particularly the use of “liberal.” President Bush really hadn’t used it until debate in St. Louis, and now he uses it every other sentence, and so does Vice President Cheney. Is it working? Is that –
DAVID BROOKS: I think it’s too soon to tell. You’ve got a guy from Massachusetts. He is not the most liberal senator in the Senate as the administration claims but he is in the mainstream of liberal senators on a whole range of things. You might as well use that. Whether it works, you know, the Republicans used it very successfully in the ’80s. Then I think the charge lost some of its salience and you began to see Wellstone and other people who really were liberal winning reelection even though they were tarred with that label. I think it is less likely to work because John Kerry made the pledge not to raise taxes on the bottom 98 percent. The thing that is restraining him or will restrain him from being a liberal no matter what he has in the soul is that there is going to be no money for any of this stuff. I mean, this is the dominant factor of this debate as far as I’m concerned – that these guys are not talking about the reality they’re facing; it’s just there is going to be no money for the plans they’re talking about.
JIM LEHRER: But you think calling John Kerry a liberal is an attack, right, a personal attack?
MARK SHIELDS: I think it is intended to (a) energize conservatives, even conservatives who have trouble about Bush because of deficit spending or foreign policy, because of whatever reason, to say look it, I’m not the liberal and kind of work up that fever again and play a melody that worked. David’s right. 1988, this is right out of his father’s campaign. And I think…
JIM LEHRER: Against Dukakis.
MARK SHIELDS: Against Dukakis. I really think this is to depress turnout, though. I think it’s to say, look, John Kerry, he’s no good. Maybe you got problems with my guy, but he’s no good. And I think – you know, I really think that’s a calculated decision. It is not the wrong decision. It’s not an unethical decision. I think you can see it in the efforts in places like Ohio, secretary of state there, to discourage registration. I think there is an attempt they want to control this electorate. They don’t want it to explode after the last debate.
JIM LEHRER: You don’t see it.
DAVID BROOKS: I just don’t see it at all. You call him a liberal, he has got a moderately liberal voting record. People have doubts about liberals when it comes to tax-and-spending and they have doubts about liberals on social issues. There are almost twice as many conservatives in this country as liberals. So it is a legitimate point of view — I see why you’re suppressing votes by saying something about the guy….
MARK SHIELDS: All you’re doing is running against the other guy. And there is nothing about running in America – I mean, there’s nothing about — haven’t we done a wonderful job, don’t we deserve another term? It’s simply this guy has to be stopped.
JIM LEHRER: But it is in fact evening in America, and later this evening we will continue our conversation after the debate. Thank you all very much.