Columnists Discuss Day Three of the Republican National Convention
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DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, I think it does. The polls show clearly the Kerry campaign stagnated a couple weeks ago, when it first started. And it’s been sort of dropping ever since, or slightly anyway. And I think there are a couple issues here. First, the ’71 testimony, which a lot of veterans feel offended by. I frankly don’t think that’s broad-ranging. I don’t think younger people particularly have a view one way or the other.
But then the deeper issue is not about Vietnam, it’s about authenticity. I happen to think the most damaging thing that’s happened to the Kerry campaign is when they said that he would have voted for the war in Iraq even knowing what he knows now. That seemed to many people artificial and it seemed to people over-clever.
And I think coming into this whole tradition, where a lot of people have doubted Kerry’s authenticity, a lot of the debate about Vietnam has fed into that. I have trouble believing without Kerry’s reputation as a flip- flopper anybody would be caring– aside from these 200 veterans who dispute him– anybody else would be caring about this issue.
JIM LEHRER: Mark, whatever you think about the issue itself, there’s been a lot of growing criticism about the way John Kerry has defended himself from this. This has been going on now for two or three weeks.
As David said, it’s hurt him. The criticism is, “hey, he should have fought back and done something differently.” How do you read that?
MARK SHIELDS: I think you could certainly make the case, Jim, that they did not respond forcefully and quickly enough. They weren’t sure whom to go after. But what’s remarkable about this as an issue is this is a war that took 58,135 American lives and hundreds of thousands of Asian lives.
We had four American presidents that could not adequately or successfully explain, defend or prosecute that war. It’s not surprising it’s still an open wound politically.
You would have thought the wound would have been between those who did go and those who didn’t, because it became an American… John McCain sat here the other night; it was a war fought not by the privileged or the well off– quite frankly they figured out ways not to go– and we saw in this hall the other night something absolutely remarkable. We saw mock purple hearts on some Republican delegates.
JIM LEHRER: Kind of a put-down of Kerry.
MARK SHIELDS: And a put-down of the purple heart. And Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker, was asked about this. He said, “weren’t you somewhat put off by this?” I mean Karl Rove, in fact, disassociated himself, condemned it. He said, “No, no, I thought it was funny.” So it’s an intriguing, intriguing issue to me.
The reality, I think, for Kerry is that– and I think David’s absolutely right on one crucial point– that is, Kerry should have, in my judgment, said, “yes, I would have voted against the war in Iraq.” I mean, there is enough information and intelligence, there was no connection between al-Qaida– the president said that– there was no involvement of Saddam and 9/11, there were no weapons of mass destruction.
Wouldn’t you vote against it? Geez, I hope the hell he would have voted against it. And I think for fear of being accused of being a flip-flopper, because that charge had been leveled earlier, there was a sense, “well, if I say that now, do I now look like a flip- flopper?” I think he stuck to it.
JIM LEHRER: So the Vietnam thing plays off of that.
DAVID BROOKS: I think it’s all part of Iraq. It’s not about Vietnam, but Iraq and reactions to it. I personally think if John Kerry was against the war, he’d be five points ahead or ten points ahead.
MARK SHIELDS: Ten points ahead.
JIM LEHRER: Is that right? Both of you think that.
DAVID BROOKS: Because that’s the debate the country wants to have. George Bush passionately argues for the war. The Democratic Party can’t passionately argue his case because he’s somewhere where he can’t figure it out.
MARK SHIELDS: John Kerry can make the case – I mean, there’s nobody who can be an anti-war candidate more effectively than someone who has faced combat and bears the scars of battle. I mean, when Dwight Eisenhower said, “I want to warn against a military industrial complex” that wasn’t some limp-wristed State Department alumnus or whatever, or think-tanker; this was a guy who had sent Americans into battle in the most devastating experience militarily that the country or the world had ever known in World War II, and been the winning general in it.
And I mean, for John Kerry now to stand up there and say, “let me tell you why I’m against this war, and why I wouldn’t fight it, and how I’m going to get you out of it, and how I’m going to make America stronger” – I think he has the credentials to do it.
DAVID BROOKS: That wouldn’t be the John Kerry we’ve known for 20 years because he has always tried to not offend anybody on either side. That’s been his problem.
To me the voters of Iowa, when they made the decision, “we’re going to go with somebody who is electable,” they should have gone with their guts. And that’s the lesson of politics: Go with your guts because you might as well. You don’t know what’s going to happen down the line.
JIM LEHRER: Tonight Dick Cheney will be heard and re-nominated, et cetera. You heard what the numbers are from Andy Kohut and, et cetera, on Cheney. What’s your view of Cheney now, in terms of his negatives and his positives vis-à-vis November?
DAVID BROOKS: Politically, when he speaks, very… he’s not a guy who has buffed his image. I wish he would have a little more. I think he’ll speak pretty well. He spoke very well four years ago. He spoke quite well in the debates against Joe Lieberman. He’s capable of buffing his image. The administration’s attitude toward the press is quite often hostile. They’re the bad guys. And Dick Cheney has proved his mettle to the administration by saying, “I’m not worried about my reputation. I’m going to give the press the back of my hand.
I’m going to serve the president and give the press the back of my hand. I’m going to take all the heat.” It’s hurt his popularity, but it’s proved his loyalty to the president. I think, in truth, inside the administration there are a number of issues– Libya, the Pakistani proliferation– where he has been very useful. But it’s that adversarial attitude towards the press which has prevented him from ever appearing like a nice guy.
JIM LEHRER: What’s your readout on Dick Cheney?
MARK SHIELDS: Dick Cheney is a mystery to me. It’s a mystery, first of all, that he’s on the ticket in 2004. I mean, he was a great source of strength and political help to George Bush, and I think substantive help to George Bush, who had no…
JIM LEHRER: In 2000 he was.
MARK SHIELDS: In 2000. Next to no Washington experience — he gave gravitas and legitimacy and a whole area where Bush was a total novice, a neophyte in foreign policy and military security, and so Dick Cheney brought that. And dick Cheney, you heard Andy Kohut, it was at 65 percent approval. He was at 65 percent approval a year ago. It really is only in the last year. But he’s a different figure, Jim.
Maybe it’s a consequence of Washington. When dick Cheney was on Capitol Hill as a member of Congress, conservative Republican of Wyoming, he had friends across the aisle. I mean, he and Tom Foley, the Democratic speaker of the House, were good friends. They’d see each other socially and they would kid with each other.
I don’t think dick Cheney– I’ve checked on this– I don’t know a single Democrat on the Hill who has had any relations with Dick Cheney. Maybe Zell Miller, who is going to speak tonight.
JIM LEHRER: What about Zell Miller? What do you think of him as a choice for the keynote address tonight, David?
DAVID BROOKS: A good choice. We’ll see how he does, but… this has been a party, this was a party that a generation ago was way behind the Democratic Party in terms of how many people were Republicans versus how many people were Democrats. This is a party that’s been growing while the Democratic Party has been shrinking.
So this is a party that is growing because people like Zell Miller have joined the party. So he represents people who are joining the Republican Party. He joined because he first sided with President Bush on education policy. He was, as governor, they worked together on education. Then he joined on taxes.
Then he joined on homeland security. So it’s a series of issues drew him closer and closer to Bush.– Bush cultivated the relationship. So he symbolizes people who have joined the party. So he’s a good person for that.
JIM LEHRER: I would think his symbol would be different within the Democratic Party, Mark.
MARK SHIELDS: If you want to talk about the old Zell, Zell Miller was a fellow who campaigned for the most liberal member of the House, John Lewis, a bruised and battered and honored veteran of the civil rights movement.
I mean, he was hospitalized at Selma, and at the same time a man pledging to repeal George’s –Georgia’s anti-sodomy laws, pledging to preserve pro-choice in Georgia. I mean, these are things that are not going to be mentioned here tonight, I can assure you. But, you know, Zell is a guy who has had several incarnations. I mean, he came to prominence, you recall, as the chief of staff to Lester Maddox, the last segregationist governor of Georgia.
Then of course as governor he tried to knock the confederate symbol out of the Georgia flag. So he’s a man who has brought great passion to positions. You might call him a flip- flopper, but… ( laughter)
JIM LEHRER: What an interesting phrase. Look, we’ve touched on several things, and we’ll touch on them again. We’ll continue all of these dialogues and the convention coverage itself. Thank you.