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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks Discuss Campaign, New Bin Laden Video

October 29, 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.

Mark, how do you read in practical terms the possible impact on the presidential campaign in the Osama bin Laden tape?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jim, you really never know conclusively what voters will, how they will react to something like this.

I think there’s a couple of factors: first of all, it’s not the October surprise involving Osama bin Laden that people had discounted for or accounted for – that was to be his capture – and the trophy that would help the president.

But I think in the sense there’s two factors: One, it changes the conversation for the last weekend and brings it back to terror and security – which is where the president wants the conversation to be, and which has been his strongest suit in every measurement of public opinion.

The alternative or the other consideration is that it also reminds people that it’s three years; that he was wanted dead or alive but has never been found – that – perhaps the policies just haven’t worked. But I think the first one is probably, for the moment anyway, the most important.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read it, David?

DAVID BROOKS: I guess in the first point, I do agree. The one area where Kerry has not been able to damage Bush is on who do you trust more on the war on terror? Bush has sustained a solid lead.

But I think the most important thing is here is a guy we all hate trying to insert himself into the process, and so what you do not want to do is use it in any political way, and George Bush’s statement just there was just perfect.

He will not intimidate us; he will not influence us; I’m sure Sen. Kerry agrees. Sen. Kerry’s statement which we just saw was pretty good; we’re united, we’re going to hunt him down, but then he turned to ‘I will hunt him down,’ which I thought was slightly political.

He gave an earlier interview to a Wisconsin station where he did his – it’s been three years – we didn’t hunt him down in Tora Bora – he did his political riff — that was exactly the wrong thing to say. I just spoke to a pollster who has been doing focus groups on this issue for a year.

And what he said was that people do not want to see this politicized. That’s one thing they’re sick about and if Kerry or Bush or anybody in their campaigns tries to politicize it, that will be where the real penalty comes.

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s angels on the head of a pin, distinguishing between – look at those two statements – apply it before any focus group. I don’t think… people say, “oh, my God, that was a political statement.”

JIM LEHRER: The first in Wisconsin.

MARK SHIELDS: The one we just see, that will be the one pared. I think that Sen. Kerry did the right thing. He basically said there is no disagreement, disunity, that we are all Americans at a time like this.

JIM LEHRER: But whether it’s spoken about or not in public, that’s what you are talking about, is the possible effect of this.

You think– that initially, at least– it will probably help President Bush?

MARK SHIELDS: I think, Jim, Scott Reed who managed Bob Dole’s campaign for president, you know, put it very well. He said in a presidential campaign, you have to win every day of that campaign.

The day begins with the A.M. papers; it goes to the cable news all day and then goes to the evening news shows. He said you have got to win all three to win. Then you’ve got to win every week.

Well, I don’t think anybody… every Republican I’ve talked to concedes the president lost this week. It has been a bad week for him on conversation, on issues he didn’t want to discuss, I mean the whole munitions thing.


MARK SHIELDS: All the rest of it, Halliburton. You go right through the litany. And this all of a sudden stops that.

I mean, it brings it back, the subject, not to Iraq, which I think is increasingly seen as a mistake or certainly mistakes, serious mistakes in judgment but back to terror, which is where the president… and national security, where the president has enjoyed an advantage over his challenger.

JIM LEHRER: But the counter to that, David, just what Mark mentioned earlier, the possible downside for President Bush is this is a reminder.

Here’s this guy, not only is not only still alive, he looks good and he is talking on television in a way; that that could, here again without Kerry saying a word, without any politician or pundit saying a word, could in fact help John Kerry.

DAVID BROOKS: It could be. I think people will say look, here’s this guy. He wants to take down Bush. He wants to change American policy. I don’t know if he wants to take down Bush. He wants to change American policy.

JIM LEHRER: That’s why he did this.

DAVID BROOKS: He’s doing this. He wants to insert ourselves in the policy. As to whether it will affect the campaign, the essential fact is it will remind undecided voters, those few who are left who are not paying attention by and large, of terrorism. And that’s Bush’s issue.

We’ve got to always remember when we talk about the political effect of the munitions or this, 70 percent of voters do not know there has been a prescription drug bill. It is not like we are talking about voters who are watching this program when we are talking about undecided voters.

We are talking about people who are going about their daily lives and are tuning in. And so in the last few days because of this, and I think it is a significant event, they’re going to be thinking terrorism. And it’s just that simple.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Now, what about the munitions issue? That has been going on now for a week. What impact do you think it’s having?

DAVID BROOKS: Again, if you look at the polls, nothing is moving; nothing has moved for four years. I made the point last week, so why should this story?

As for the justice of the story, I think it points to what is a real mistake the Bush administration made, not enough troops to guard these and other sites and that was a real problem.

As for these specific munitions whether it was 350 million tons or maybe the U.S. destroyed 250 so there were 100 million tons, as many people pointed out, there were between 650 million and a trillion tons sitting out there. We destroyed at least 400 million tons. So this is 0.1 percent of the munitions sitting out there in that country.

So it is not the thing we should all be pinioned about. And to me the story has been vastly overblown.

And if you actually try to pin down the timeline of who destroyed what, when it was moved, what was moved, we are still in a mystery land about all that.

JIM LEHRER: Is the issue here less about the numbers than it is about the ongoing charge that John Kerry has made about competence? Is that where… why this thing has taken off so?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it’s competence, I think it’s errors in judgment at every turn. I think David is right, the inadequate number of troops sent in there. I mean that has been a recurring part of the debate.

Secondly, overestimating what the response and the welcome would be, the cooperation, the total cooperation we expected from the Iraqi population, which didn’t develop, the underestimating the opposition, and at the same time really spending so much time, energy and effort looking for weapons of mass destruction which did not exist, and the failing to secure conventional….

JIM LEHRER: How does this fit in there?

MARK SHIELDS: I think — first of all, talking to Republicans, they will be very frank about it. The failure of the president to respond for two days to this story and then coming back, you know, they thought was a mistake.

They thought it was a mistake because it continued to fester, and the ABC story from Minneapolis with the footage and the comments of people like David Kay, you know, just kind of seal the bargain and raise, I think, the doubts about the errors in judgment of the policy.

JIM LEHRER: Now, David, another issue here. You talked about this before, so it is not fresh, but the other thing that can… that is part of this is… so the question is this: Why wouldn’t President Bush and Vice President Cheney say, “hey, that’s terrible if these weapons are missing; we’ll get to the bottom of this,” like that?

Next question. Instead, they acted like nothing went… without even knowing, they acted like nothing happened. Is that a problem?

DAVID BROOKS: This has been their strategy since January whatever 2001. We don’t admit mistakes.

And, by the way, they’re not entirely wrong about that because especially this late in the campaign, once you admit a mistake, then it’s exploded.

JIM LEHRER: It would have been all over.

DAVID BROOKS: And the other thing which has to be pointed out is we don’t know what happened. The U.S. could have destroyed those weapons.

Some may be carted out in pickup trips. We have no idea. Every day that goes by, the more you look into the story, the more you realize it is an evolving story and we don’t know what happened and what the timeline is.

JIM LEHRER: No, no, my point is not necessarily admitting a mistake but saying let’s find out if there was in fact a mistake made rather than immediately saying there wasn’t a mistake.

DAVID BROOKS: The campaigns are just in war zone. I think the thing to remember is they’re all sleepless at this stage. They hit back or they don’t hit back when they don’t know what to say.

And so the idea that we are going to have a reasoned discussion at this point in the campaign is just not going to happen.

MARK SHIELDS: I disagree with that. Well, I disagree with the idea that what the American voters were looking for, I think we’ll look back and say the first debate quite frankly was seminal, was the key event in establishing Kerry as the authentic challenger and perhaps the eventual winner.

What they were looking for going into that debate and what they were looking for from George Bush, the majority of people began this campaign believing the country was headed in the wrong direction; the majority of people believed that even the president was not doing a good job as president, favorable job as president.

And so the president had to give them some sense that he was going to change, and he has just never given that. Now if that means admitting a mistake…but there has never been a sense that, you know, “I hear you and we’re going to go in a different direction.”

Overwhelmingly, every measurement of voters’ opinion, every voter you talk to doesn’t want more of the same in the second Bush term even if Bush is reelected.

Even Bush voters want changes made, and I just think that was a missed opportunity for the president in this instance as well as the others.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that basic premise?


JIM LEHRER: That it’s about change, whether it’s Bush or Kerry.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, all elections are about change and we hope things will get better and we will have perfect leaders. I basically agree with what Mark just said.

The administration has gone in from day one and it’s continued up until today, no concessions to a lead opinion. We want debate; we want deliberations; we want interaction. They say, “We are not going to get in that mess because you’ll just tear us up from the inside.

We’re just going to shut you out. We’ll talk right over your heads to the American people who are not thinking about this that much and we’ll show them resolution.”

I think that’s a mistake. I think that’s been a mistake in this strategy, but it’s characterized their reactions to all this as well as everything else.

JIM LEHRER: The outside events, like Osama bin Laden tapes and all of that stuff we have been talking about, just the politics of the weekend, what should people look for?

What do you think President Bush and Sen. Kerry are going to try to accomplish in this weekend between now and Election Day on Tuesday?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think there is any question that everything is geared right now to Election Day itself.

JIM LEHRER: Getting the people out?

MARK SHIELDS: Getting people out, get the key states, the constituencies. What I found most remarkable this week was the president’s efforts to reach out, albeit belatedly, to Democrats.

JIM LEHRER: He did it again today.

MARK SHIELDS: I think it was an acknowledgment that the Karl Rove’s strategy of just absolutely organizing the base and getting them out wasn’t going to be enough to win, wasn’t going to be enough to get you to 50 percent.

I think that maximized everybody they could get. As far as….

JIM LEHRER: David clearly disagrees with that.

MARK SHIELDS: David’s body language is almost like Bush in the first debate. Are you getting signals? Is there a hump in his suit? (Laughter)

DAVID BROOKS: Just a second, Karl is talking to me.

JIM LEHRER: I think you disagree with what Mark just said –

DAVID BROOKS: They’re doing it because they’ve doubled their share of the African-American vote and they see the possibility of winning Michigan for the first time. So there’s an opportunity. That’s why they’re doing it.

MARK SHIELDS: They will not win Michigan, I’m sorry. That’s okay.

JIM LEHRER: They’re not going to win Michigan?

MARK SHIELDS: They’re not going to win Michigan.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. You made a prediction. So what does John Kerry do?

MARK SHIELDS: John Kerry, I think, has to give a positive message. I think….

JIM LEHRER: Knock off attacking President Bush?

MARK SHIELDS: I think voters, especially in the closing week… I think neither one has given voters what they are looking for, which is a sense of we are a better people, we can be a better people.

We can make this a better and fairer and more humane land for those who have been left out, for our children, for our grandchildren.

I just don’t think that has come through, and I think that’s important for Kerry to do. I think it’s important for the president to do.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think they’ll do it, David?

DAVID BROOKS: No, I think they’re going to stay negative for whatever reason; it goes against conventional wisdom. But Mark talks as if the Bush campaign is Richard Nixon running for a third term, like he’s way behind. His approval is like 50 percent.

Basically, though, what strikes me about this weekend is how it’s all focused on the Big Ten Conference.

JIM LEHRER: You bet.

DAVID BROOKS: I was just in Iowa and across the Midwest this week, and it’s Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio, Penn state, Pennsylvania. It’s that Midwest. And one of the things that has run through the campaign is the regionalism of this country.

You’ve got a Boston Brahmin and a Texas wildcatter. They’ve sewn up those regions; and it’s the upper Midwest that is sort of stuck in-between these two guys. And the Midwest is a fascinating political region; they have a lot of states there with very liberal senators and very conservative senators.

And they vote for both of them. And so, it is that, the fascination of the upper Midwest that sort of what gets me.

MARK SHIELDS: I think if there is a Kerry Achilles heel, I think Kerry is going to surprise most of the battleground states next Tuesday, surprise positively from his perspective. But I think the focus….

JIM LEHRER: Is that a partisan hope? Or is that —

MARK SHIELDS: No, it’s based on reporting, it’s based on following the campaigns. I’d say this: The states of Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin are a reflection, in my judgment, of John Kerry’s problem of communicating on values to voters. These are conflicted voters.

They are Democrats basically in foreign policy and their economic attitudes and their social attitudes as far as government is concerned. And I think that’s the one failure of Kerry is to connect on a values level with them.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, I’m so sorry we are out of time because I wanted to give you a moment to say something about the Red Sox. We’ll do that next year. We’ll do that next year – and we’ll see you next week, many times next week. Thank you.