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Shields and Brooks Discuss Day Four of the Republican National Convention

September 2, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And we have arrived once again at the analysis of Shields and Brooks: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks. Just picking up on what Michael just said, Michael says we’re probably going to see tonight a wartime president establishing the fact that you must keep me because we are at war. Do you agree with that? That’s probably going to be….

MARK SHIELDS: That would be an attempt. I think that’s certainly a message of this convention. I mean, it was Dick Cheney talking about Rudy Giuliani thanking God that George Bush was president on Sept. 11, in his testimony to his police commissioner was that the vice president last night… it was John McCain making the case for the war.

I mean, it was that this man is a strong stalwart leader. And it… it’s intriguing to me that that has been the… it’s come back over and over again in spite of the moderate face we talked about to that.

JIM LEHRER: Now, David, you’ve said repeatedly this week that the president’s got to do more than that, you think he needs to go forward in other areas. Explain. He’s probably listening and he’s probably still got time to rewrite, so what do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: I know he’s probably thinking the way I am, great minds think alike; at least mediocre minds. Yeah, I absolutely do. He’s going to be a war president I’m told he’s looked at the 1944 Roosevelt speeches to see how he explained himself. But I really think domestic policy has to play a major role. In distinction to what Clark and Ken were saying, I think he has to get a little wonky.

Here’s a couple reasons why: First, as I mentioned last night when we were talking to Karl Rove, when we were leaving in Boston we saw the big democratic honchos after the Kerry speech and they were ebullient because they thought it had been a great convention. But the mood that you set at a convention fades away after the few weeks. But the policies that you recommend, that’s something people can latch on to.

I think it’s extremely important for this president to get a little wonkier than the speech writers want to get for a number of reasons. First, that’s a vacuum. We don’t know what he’s doing to do. He’s got to fill in that vacuum in the way John Kerry did not fill in the vacuum in Boston. Second, things are going to happen.

The next day on Friday there are going to be job numbers. If the job numbers are bad or any other problem comes up, he’s got to be able to say “I already have a plan to deal with this, I talked about it in New York.” So he needs to get a little wonkier than we need from a re-nominating speech and also from a war speech.

JIM LEHRER: Does that make sense to you?

MARK SHIELDS: Shields: It makes sense to me, Jim. But the president is in a different position than he was in Philadelphia four years ago. Then we had cascading budget surpluses. We had an economy that would… people felt the country was headed in the right direction economically.

So he could stand up there in 2000 and be a new Republican, a moderate Republican and say… you know, change the entire platform by saying “we’re not going to abolish the Department of Energy or the Department of Education. In fact, we’re going to keep the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities.

We’re going to expand medical research and diseases that afflict women in particular.” He doesn’t have that kind of latitude on spending in 2004 that he had in 2000. So I think his initiatives are limited more into the tax area, you know, call it the Ownership Society or whatever bad phrase they’ve come up with.

They ought to have a better advertising agency; that’s not a grabber. And, you know, I think the real big initiatives.

JIM LEHRER: When you say wonky, David, what do you mean? You’re not talking about the same thing Mark is talking about?

DAVID BROOKS: It should be the lease-to- ownership society. No, I really… do… Bill Clinton gave a wonky speech. His state of the union speeches were like that; I think this should be more than a state of the union speech. And I agree with Mark that the money the not there. So it restrains you.

JIM LEHRER: So what does he do?

DAVID BROOKS: I think there are a number of things he can do. One on tax reform. He can talk about simplifying the tax code in a way that’s revenue neutral that doesn’t cost you money. But the big thing is entitlement reform.

You are not a major party, an intellectually serious party unless you can talk about entitlements.

JIM LEHRER: Social Security, Medicare? And Alan Greenspan has said if you don’t do it soon, this whole thing is going to collapse.

DAVID BROOKS: Alan Greenspan? Pete Peterson, everybody who knows anything about this subject; and they have said nothing about that. So what he these say is I’m going to reform in the some significant way, and he can’t just say that, he has to show you the direction.

And I think what he’s going to do is say “I’m not Barry Goldwater. I’m not a libertarian type who wants to get rid of government. I believe in using government in a positive way and here’s how I’m going to do it.”

JIM LEHRER: Mark, whatever he says, is the target audience for him tonight… not talking about past presidents and past speeches, but this president on this particular night. Is he… is his base already energized? Can he forget about the people in the hall and just talk to the other folks out in television land?

MARK SHIELDS: I would say that, Jim, but, I mean, this convention has been about energizing the base. I mean, make no mistake about it. I mean, John McCain, we talked about Rudy Giuliani, talked about John McCain speaking and moderate faces and so forth.

But those speeches last night, I mean, Zell Miller who made Pat Buchanan sound namby-pamby, and Dick Cheney, those were base speeches.

JIM LEHRER: You don’t think they were designed to turn people off?

MARK SHIELDS: To get to the undecided voters in upper Darby, Pennsylvania? No, I think they were there to energize Republicans and Bush supporters. And I think you can say the Democrats… each one is going to be successful, we’ll know in November. The Democrats was all about a rush to the middle. I mean, you know, they would say “what happened to the Democratic left is they were kind of left out of the whole thing.”

The most intriguing observation that was made in the entire show tonight was made by my old friend Ken Khachigian. I’ve known him for a long time and I have great respect and affection for him, and he gave the most ingenious formulation. He said this is… the question is not are we better off than we were four years ago but are we better off four years from now? Which is an intriguing question for an incumbent to ask and it comes back to what David is saying.

He better have something about the future because absent that, absent something really riveting about the future, then you are left to the question: Are we better off than we were four years ago? And all you can say is we’re safer, and we’re safer because of George Bush.

DAVID BROOKS: I’m sure there’s a campaign about the middle. I mean… or that they’re ignoring for the middle and going for the base. They’re trying to show that John Kerry is a flip-flopper. That’s the core we’ve had up to now.

That’s why I think domestic policy will play a little less role… or a little greater role than you might expect. Because if there’s anything that Bush and the whole Republican Party have been clear about since Sept. 20, 2001, it’s the war on terror and what they want to do about that. I’m sure he’ll restate it all in stirring terms but I think he has to full in the domestic policy void.

JIM LEHRER: One other thing before we go, we can pick up on this later during the convention itself, but what former President Bush said in that interview plus what Karl Rove said sitting here last night, it’s clear that the Bush campaign has decided to go full blast against Kerry on the second part of the Vietnam thing, that what he said in 1971 etc. That’s become… that is rote now, is it not?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, they must have shown that it works. One of the speeches they’ve looked at is this 1944 Roosevelt speech and Roosevelt goes after the Republicans by comparing them to “Mein Kampf.” When you’re a war president you can be a little tougher, and they’ve decided this Vietnam issues works well for them.

JIM LEHRER: You agree –

MARK SHIELDS: I was astounded by President Bush, such a gentleman, a man who always… really, had friends across the aisle. I’m not talking about phony friends or window dressing friends. Danny Rostenkowski, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee is his personal friend. That Jane Fonda anecdote, that was right out of Karl Rove’s playbook. I mean, that was generated. That was not…

JIM LEHRER: Clearly they believe it’s working.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s what I mean. Now to put the president on and have him drop that little bomb —

JIM LEHRER: And Rove picked up on it with great enthusiasm last night.

MARK SHIELDS: Enthusiasm, high profile, close identification with the issue.

JIM LEHRER: We will continue this later, gentlemen. Thank you.