Analysis from Shields and Brooks on Election Issues
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Brooks: Syndicated Columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.
First, how do you read the state of play in the presidential race this Friday night? David?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, if our emotions are running on the polls, then it’s haywire, because there was a Gallup Poll, USA Today/CNN Gallup Poll that had Bush up by 13 points.
JIM LEHRER: That was today.
DAVID BROOKS: That was today, and there was a Pew Poll I believe yesterday had the race essentially tied. So over the past week Democrats have been sort of in the dumps and in the glooms because they think their guy is down by five or six. Today they can be happy by looking at one poll or unhappy looking at the other. So it’s gone haywire in that sense.
JIM LEHRER: Well, how do you feel about it? What do you see?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, you can’t rise and fall from the polls. I would say if you want to look at the state of the race in terms of horse race, I would say… you look at the broad range of polls over the past two weeks and you’d have to say there’s a three to five-point Bush advantage right. And if you look at the key states, I think you have to say Bush is doing pretty well in Ohio, less well in Michigan, Wisconsin, some of the other states. But right now Bush is a little ahead.
JIM LEHRER: Little ahead, Bush?
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, in a campaign, a good poll is one that shows your candidate ahead. A bad poll is – it has bad methodology; it shows your candidate behind. And in this one, what the Kerry people have talked about today, they want to do a poll of polls. So they average out all of them and it comes down to a two-point lead, whatever — if you take out…
JIM LEHRER: By President Bush?
MARK SHIELDS: By President Bush — if you take out the Gallup 13-point, which is outside of that. Just on a technical point, there’s one thing to bear in mind. The only real disagreement on these samples is on likely voters. And that’s where the polls all make a difference. We just talk about registered voters, they all agree who’s a registered voter. You are either a registered voter or you’re not. But when it comes down to who’s going to be a likely voter, there are different screens they use and sometimes it leads to different results.
But I think what’s important is not necessarily who’s ahead, and I think the president is ahead, but what it shows. I mean, it shows the president with a lopsided edge over John Kerry on terrorism and it shows the president having been able over the last couple of months to merge in people’s minds terrorism and Iraq and that Iraq was a necessary stop on the road map of fighting terrorism rather than, as some of us would argue, a deadly detour and dead end in that war. And I think that’s really probably the most interesting to me development that comes through in those polls.
DAVID BROOKS: I’ve actually got a slightly interesting development out of those polls which is if you look at the 2000 race and you ask “what are you looking for in this campaign” people said they’re looking for issues predominantly. If you look at this race, what are you looking for, they’re looking for leadership and vision.
And the one thing all the polls agree on is when you ask people about the personal qualities the two different candidates have, if you say “who is a strong leader” whether it’s the Pew Poll or the Gallup Poll, I think you get a 26 or 28-point Bush advantage in terms of strong leader. If you ask other personal qualities like who relates better to you, Kerry has a slight advantage. That strong leader thing is I think the thing that’s held up Bush. It means that a voter can say “Bush has done a bad war running post-war Iraq but he’s still the best guy to clean it up.”
JIM LEHRER: And that is Kerry’s problem, is it not?
MARK SHIELDS: It is. Bill Clinton even before his hospital bed séances with Kerry formulated earlier, a year ago at a Democratic meeting, he said “in a time of crisis when Americans are afraid, they’ll choose someone who’s strong and wrong over someone who’s right and weak.” And Kerry’s job, obviously, is to say that George Bush is resolute, maybe stubborn, but he’s wrong — but that he himself is strong. I was in Ohio this week and it’s incredibly close and the Republicans I talked to are not overly confident by any means. But the pervasive attitude among Democrats– soft Democrats, even independents who don’t like Bush-was: I know the reasons not to vote for George W. Bush, but I’m not sure of the reason to vote for John Kerry. And I think that’s been the failure of the Kerry message up to now.
JIM LEHRER: Now, speaking of the Kerry message, David, my perception just reporting every evening in our News Summary and our stump speeches this week is that he came on a lot stronger. He’s taking the president on much more directly, criticizing him more directly about Iraq and all kinds of other things. Is that a wise thing to do? Does it appear to be effective or is it too early to say?
DAVID BROOKS: It depends on your theory of the electorate. I agree. He’s had three speeches, a commonly speech where he said Bush was really an irresponsible president; an Iraq speech where he said he was dishonest and then today he did a little Halliburton stuff. And it’s effective if you think there’s really not a lot of swing voters, you just have got to energize people on your side, which I think is what they’re doing. They’re going back to a lot of these primary season issues, a much more strident approach which I think is not winning over sort of the middle of the road voter who is not too into partisan attacks but is whipping up that side.
I think the other thing it’s doing is, you know, with the polls going down, there was a great deal of moroseness in the Democrat ranks. I think it’s cheering those people up to see their guy fighting. Personally, I think it’s a little questionable. I think you really got to– at this stage that middle swing voter hates politics, hates partisan attacks, would like to see a self-confident, more positive image, more optimistic which was sort of the tone he was taking a couple months ago.
JIM LEHRER: Mark, what about his use, particularly yesterday– I’m talking about Sen. Kerry now– his use of this leaked intelligence estimate which has three scenarios for the future of Iraq, none of them terribly rosy. And that’s when he… that’s where he used the charge the president is misleading the country. Is the attraction there in that –
MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jim, it’s interesting. The best laid campaign plains, I mean, the most genius, whether it’s Jim Farley or Mark Kent, or Karl Rove or Ted Divine or whoever it is, it is always upset by reality. And what we’ve seen is that reality has intruded. I mean, you led this evening with the story in Iraq. And I mean, I was listening to 35 people killed in Hurricane Ivan, which is terrible. There’s 20,000 people that have been killed in Iraq.
JIM LEHRER: 20,000 Iraqis.
MARK SHIELDS: 20,000 Iraqis. And this has become an enormous story. I mean, just extrapolated, it would be the equivalent of 240,000 Americans. And there is… I don’t think any question that the president had benefited from the turnover in June. It pushed the story off the front page. In spite of the casualties, which continued to report here and elsewhere, and the fatalities, it didn’t become… this story is now back on the front page and I think it’s there in part not only because of the reality of events but because two Republicans– and two Republicans who are respected– Richard Lugar of Indiana, no one has ever accused of being a cheap shot, doesn’t have any national ambitions, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who is a man with ambition but is certainly a man who cares deeply about these issues and has been out front of them. I mean, both have said this week this thing is not going away… the way that the White House is saying it is; it’s going to wrong way and let’s not pretend that it’s a success.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think about that?
DAVID BROOKS: It’s not going the way the White House is saying, it’s not going the right way, it’s going the wrong way, I completely agree; the debate is over what to do. And that’s a debate that John Kerry doesn’t have a policy for; it’s a debate that Bush has a policy for but he’s not willing to talk about it on the stump because that would mean acknowledging the reality of Iraq. But the debate –
JIM LEHRER: Wait a minute. He can’t say “we’ve got a problem–” I mean, he’s got a solution to the problem but he can’t give us the solution because he has to acknowledge….
DAVID BROOKS: When he talks about the war on terror, it’s from the stratospheric level.
JIM LEHRER: I see.
DAVID BROOKS: But it never has to do with the events of right now, which are muddy and dirty. But there is a debate going on within the administration, within the military and within responsible Democrats to say “what do we do? Do we go into Fallujah right now and just take out these people?” And some people like John McCain want to do that. The administration by and large has taken a different route and saying: we can’t take them out; if we go in and take them out, we’ll just create such a turmoil that we’ll alienate everybody; then the insurgents will just melt away and they’ll come back when we leave. And we don’t have enough troops to occupy the whole Sunni Triangle.
So what we have got to do in and what you’ve got to do in all insurgency wars is get the locals on your side and to wait until there are a number of divisions from — of Iraqi military in December, wait until Allawi, the Iraqi prime minister, can rally some of the people in the Sunni Triangle to join us against the insurgents and just to go slowly, which is what they did in Najaf.
Now, the people who say… there are people on the – sort of the McCain side that say that’s ridiculous. While we go slowly, we’re allowing them to kill people; we’re allowing them to build their strength. There are no good options here. But there is this interesting debate going on in this, as in so many issues, not being covered in the campaign.
JIM LEHRER: On a new subject, Mark, the CBS National Guard story has created a serious problem for CBS. Is it a bigger problem for CBS now than it is the president?
MARK SHIELDS: I think so. I think there’s generally a consensus, Jim, among other than the president’s, you know, most uncritical admirers that George Bush got into the National Guard in 1970 or ’69 with family pull. He didn’t want to go to Vietnam. I mean, that was fairly obvious and after two years as a pilot, he did something that I’ve never known any pilot to do, and that was to give up his pilot’s license. I mean, I know pilots. I’ve heard Annie Glenn, John Glenn’s wife talk about flying at the age of 80 and that he shouldn’t be doing it. I mean, pilots love to fly.
JIM LEHRER: What about the CBS….
MARK SHIELDS: I think people know that. They know that about him and that he was young and irresponsible, whatever. They’ve discounted – they’ve discounted that in their evaluation of George W. Bush. I mean, they’ve counted it but… so I think the revelations…
JIM LEHRER: Whatever the heat he was going to take, he’s already taken?
MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. And the revelations don’t, I think, move people on this thing. The story has become… I mean, in spite of U.S. News and World Report coming out with a fairly well documented story, it’s getting lost in the whole thing because it’s become a CBS brouhaha and it’s become a 60 Minutes and it’s become very much focused on Dan Rather who many conservatives, especially hard right have long considered the Bette Noire of the conservative movement, from Richard Nixon to George Herbert Walker Bush; he had run ins with both of them on the air and that this proved to them Dan Rather was out to get the Bushes. And I think that’s where the issue is right now. There’s no question, I mean, that there are grave, grave doubts, open doubts about the documents that CBS used. There’s no doubt about it.
JIM LEHRER: Most people in journalism, David, take the position that CBS self-inflicted this wound. All they had to have done when the first question was raised was say, hey, we’ll look into this. You know, this is a serious problem if we have got some bad documents. Do you agree with that?
DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Santayana said: those who don’t recall history are condemned to repeat it. Rather recalled it and then repeated every mistake you can possibly make in these circumstances. Instead of just saying maybe these documents are false, let’s investigate, he attacked the bloggers who had unveiled the errors, he attacked everybody. It was hubristic; it was just a classic – it was every mistake in the book. In Harvard Business School we’ll use it as a case study someday.
But then he got into a war with these bloggers which is, a, a war you can’t win and b, it’s a war that it made him look like a snob. You have got all these people out there on the Web, some of whom are smart, some of whom are wacky but who are the people. And they’re out there; they’re blogging and some of them are picking apart stories and so it became a war between the establishment media and the Internet media. And my basic view of that is they’re amateurs and they’re amateurs in the best sense. They’re expressing their opinions, some of them know a lot, some of them know nothing but they want to express their opinions. One of the things they do to us is they make it impossible for us to get away with mistakes because if we make a mistake, there are ten thousand of them.
JIM LEHRER: They’re on us. You’re absolutely right. Quickly, before we go: The assault weapons ban was allowed to expire on Monday. Is there going to be any political fallout from this?
DAVID BROOKS: My basic view is I support the ban; I think it should have been much broader but politically history shows that gun issues tend to benefit Republicans because the people who vote on these issues who are not a majority do tend to vote on the Republican side, on the NRA side and in crucial states like West Virginia, it tends to benefit the Republicans.
JIM LEHRER: How do you read the politics of this?
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, the idea that John Kerry’s a flip-flopper has been a charge leveled against him. I mean, this is the classic ultimate flip-flop in this campaign. George W. Bush saying, I’ll sign it if it comes to me, I’ll be for it – and didn’t lift a finger, didn’t do anything, let it expire even though he pledged to keep it going. But I don’t think he’s — I’m not sure he’s going to pay for it. He may pay for it I’ll tell you in a strange way. Tragically if there’s an attack on police – I mean, because – the police –
JIM LEHRER: With one of these assault weapons?
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, these are not bows and arrows, they’re not tennis rackets; they’re not fishing rods; they’re not sporting equipment. They are made for one purpose and that’s to destroy bone and to destroy human beings and to leave big holes in them; that’s what they are. It’s not a sporting device.
JIM LEHRER: How do you explain the fact that the Congress wouldn’t even bring it up? I mean, what is the power… the polls show overwhelming support for this and 16,000, we had a debate here between the NRA and a police chief from Seattle and the question always comes “Why, then, didn’t Congress just rush and do this?”
DAVID BROOKS: The power of the vocal minority. You see it all the time. The people who vote on the issue are not necessarily the majority but they care about it passionately. I think you also have to say just on the merits of this particular piece of legislation, there were these banned weapons but then there were other weapons that did the same thing that were un-banned. And so the effect on crime, I think, you know, the Justice Department shows was minimal — so I think you either have… well, I would support a much broader ban, but in particular piece of legislation had holes in it….
MARK SHIELDS: I think statistics show that deaths were down. I think it’s more the intensity of the voters, Jim. The gun lobby is big. They’re going in, they’re going to endorse George Bush and they’re going to spend $400,000 a week against John Kerry.
JIM LEHRER: So what are you saying?
MARK SHIELDS: I think that’s as much as anything that that’s a campaign decision based upon hard cash as well as votes.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, it’s also a symbolic issue. For a lot of people, all gun issues, especially in rural areas, are you trying to dictate my life-style, you guys in the cities, are you dictating my lifestyle, and I think all gun issues sort of get abstracted from the merits and become “my lifestyle versus your lifestyle, are you trying to tell me what to do?”
JIM LEHRER: Okay. We have to leave it there. Thank you all very much.