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Analysts Discuss Recent Polls, Reactions to Kerry Remarks

November 3, 2006 at 4:26 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, does Howard Dean or Ken Mehlman have more reason to be optimistic on Tuesday, about Tuesday?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Howard Dean has a lot more reason to be optimistic, Jim. And as I listened to them and Margaret’s question to Ken Mehlman about where the president was going this last week, he is concentrating in red states. He’s gone…

JIM LEHRER: Red state, meaning Republican states?

MARK SHIELDS: Republican states, Republican. And he’s defending districts that were considered overwhelmingly safe. I mean, one district, the 3rd District in Nebraska, where Bill Clinton got 23 percent of the vote in 1992, and the Republicans are fighting tooth and nail to hang onto it.

But I say that because Howard Dean took a lot of abuse — and still does, from a number of Democratic leaders — for his theory that the Democrats just couldn’t try and win the 15 seats in the House, they had to have a 50-state strategy. They had to go out…

JIM LEHRER: That was Dean’s…

MARK SHIELDS: That was Howard Dean’s — and he’s still taking a lot of criticism for it. But if anything, this election…

JIM LEHRER: And they’re contrasting — the people who opposed him within the Democratic Party — said, “No, let’s keep on key races”…

MARK SHIELDS: Everything, all the resources on these 15 or 20 targeted districts and these six Senate seats or whatever, and to heck with the rest of the country. Howard Dean goes, “Look, if you’re going to be a national party, you’ve got to have a national presence.” And events up to this point really make him look good and vindicate him.

The other thing about the race that I think we’ll look back upon is, for a year and a half, this race hasn’t changed. You go back to the Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll of April-May 2005, and the same lack of confidence, the same dissatisfaction with the Republicans, with the president, with Iraq was there. And we’ve had two changes only since: One was the State of the Union — he got a little bit of a lift from it — and the other was the ceremonies on the anniversary of 9/11. Other than that, it’s been a Democratic lead, a Republican rejection, and that’s the way it’s going into Tuesday.

JIM LEHRER: David?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: I agree with that. That’s why Howard Dean isn’t vindicated. I mean, one of the lessons in this election is that political strategy didn’t particularly matter very much and all the stuff the political scientists talk about is that the Democrats have to win over left-handed church-goers in the far-flung suburbs.

None of that matters; issues matter. And the issue of Iraq has driven this election. It continues to drive this election, which is why Howard Dean, you know, if you look at the wise heads around here who follow House elections, the predictions range from like 25 to 40 House pickups.

Now, there has been a more interesting set of movement in the conventional wisdom on the Senate seats, that if you looked at the conventional wisdom around Washington, you’d have to say that the Democrats will do well in Virginia. Jim Webb much more likely to win than he seemed a week or two ago. In Tennessee, the Republicans.

JIM LEHRER: His opponent being George Allen, incumbent Republican, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And in Tennessee, the Republican, Corker, more likely to defeat Harold Ford. And so there’s been some movement. And then you’ve got some just genuine toss-ups, like Missouri.

Big issues or smart campaigning?

David Brooks
New York Times
The Democrats are going to have a lot more moderates. They're going to have people like Heath Shuler, maybe, from North Carolina, Jim Webb, a senator. They're going to have a much more diverse Democratic Party.

JIM LEHRER: But you don't give Howard Dean any credit for the Democratic...

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I don't think this election has been driven by strategy or tactics. I think this election has been driven by the big issues, which is why, as you look out, the question will be, is this election a reaction to Iraq, a one-off election, and we'll go back to some former pattern, or will Democrats be able to build on the gains that they've made here?

MARK SHIELDS: No, this is why I disagree with David. You can have a national tide, but if you're not prepared to take advantage of it, if you don't have any kind of party presence, party structure, party encouragement in an area, it doesn't happen. It just goes by, and the incumbent who's there goes essentially unchallenged.

There have been challenges mounted. Barbara Cubin in Wyoming is right now in a neck-and-neck race in a state where Bush-Cheney got 70 percent of the vote, for goodness sakes. And she was considered unbeatable.

JIM LEHRER: She's a Republican member of the House.

MARK SHIELDS: She's a Republican member of the House. I mean, you've got ranking Republicans all over -- I agree with David, there is a national tide, but you have to have some sort of a structure to take advantage of it.

JIM LEHRER: To capitalize on it?

MARK SHIELDS: To capitalize on it. And the other argument that was made was -- and this was the wise men -- that, look, I don't care if you had a Category 4 storm and a big sweep. Because these are computer-drawn congressional districts, there will never be a switch of more than 10, 12, 15. We're going to see that repudiated.

And finally what we're going to see repudiated on Tuesday, I believe, is the theory of Karl Rove. Karl Rove believed that, with a permanent Republican majority, which he thought was in the offing, you could govern the nation only with Republican legislation, written by Republican leaders, passed by Republican followers, and just be totally disdainful...

JIM LEHRER: And signed by a Republican president.

MARK SHIELDS: ... Republican president -- and be totally contemptuous of the minority legislators in the same institution with you. This election will be the revenge of the independent and the moderates; it really will.

JIM LEHRER: Wow.

DAVID BROOKS: That I completely agree with.

JIM LEHRER: You do?

DAVID BROOKS: That I completely agree with. If you look around the country, if you look at the ads that are really damaging, it's when Republicans are called rubber-stamps, party-regulars. People hunger for independence. And now you have all these Republicans who are party-line voters, like J.D. Hayworth in Arizona, pretending they're mavericks, like Jeff Flake or like Mark Kirk in Illinois, who are genuine mavericks.

JIM LEHRER: They're real mavericks.

DAVID BROOKS: Those are real guys who step out and represent their district and are not party uniformists, but everybody is pretending to be them. And that is one of the -- there are a couple of lessons of this, but one core lesson is the Republicans have to pay a lot of attention to the moderates suburbs. They have to try to rebuild the moderates who are about to be destroyed and the Democrats, too.

The Democrats are going to have a lot more moderates. They're going to have people like Heath Shuler, maybe, from North Carolina, Jim Webb, a senator. They're going to have a much more diverse Democratic Party. Dealing with those people is going to be a challenge.

Sen. John Kerry's remarks

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
Democrats have nationalized this election, Jim. I mean, Ken Mehlman can talk all he wants about it's local, 435. This is an election about Iraq, Iraq, Iraq and the leadership and stewardship of this president and his administration.

JIM LEHRER: Let's talk about some of the events of the week. The Ted Haggard thing is the most recent that -- and Margaret just asked them about it, the Denver evangelical. Having any effect on this election?

DAVID BROOKS: I really don't think these events have any effect. Mark mentioned how steady the polls have been. I think we've had a lot of effect in the media world and in the blogger world. A lot of events that have come and gone, come and gone, but it's very little effect on the electorate.

The exception would be Foley. That actually did have an effect, but most of the other day-to-day news stories have had very little effect.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about the Haggard thing?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it may have a ripple in Colorado. I mean, that Colorado Springs district where he is, is a competitive...

JIM LEHRER: Strictly on a hypocrisy issue?

MARK SHIELDS: Hypocrisy issue. And I think that the president is going in there. His presence is going to be dominated by controversy over this issue, but it will not be decisive in the nation.

JIM LEHRER: All right, the John Kerry flap over what he said, and corrected, and then apologized, and then he was jumped on. What do you think about that?

MARK SHIELDS: What do I think about it? I think John Kerry...

JIM LEHRER: Well, what effect do you think it's going to have...

MARK SHIELDS: Did John Kerry -- oh, was it going to have a ripple in the election? No, it will not. I mean, it gave the Republicans two news cycles that they could kind of beat up on John Kerry.

Democrats have nationalized this election, Jim. I mean, Ken Mehlman can talk all he wants about it's local, 435. This is an election about Iraq, Iraq, Iraq and the leadership and stewardship of this president and his administration. That's what it is. They've made it a national election.

You know, so making it -- the Democrats, having done that, suffered somewhat by they're having a national face put on them in John Kerry with his remark.

John Kerry's timing was terrible. He reacted in 2006 the way he should have reacted in 2004 with the Swift Boats. I mean, it was kind of, "If this ever happens again, this is what I'm going to do," and that's what he did. And it was totally tone deaf and wrong.

And anybody else -- and I don't care whether John Kerry or anybody else -- said, "If I offended anybody." You have offended somebody, and you don't give the other side the opening.

But the idea that George Bush says, "Words have consequences." George Bush said that. This is a man -- this is a man who, with his false braggadocio and his swaggering macho stood up and probably put more American troops in danger with a taunt to the insurgents of "Bring 'em on." I mean, so the idea that he was offended and outraged by Kerry was a little bit of an overreach.

JIM LEHRER: David Brooks, would you like to say a few words about this?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I mean, the whole thing is a soap opera. He flubbed the joke. It was widely misunderstood as an attack on the troops. The Republicans reacted...

JIM LEHRER: Was it intentionally misunderstood? I mean, the words...

DAVID BROOKS: I don't think so. No, Democrats ran away from him just as quickly as Republicans ran away from him. Everybody thought he'd offended the troops. It was not unheard of for John Kerry to say something untoward, and so the Republicans took advantage.

The real thing I fault Kerry for is the second day, when he could have said, "OK, I flubbed the joke, I'm sorry," which he said on the third day, the second day, he came back and decided he was going to be Howard Dean, he was going to be tough and fight. And he attacked Rush Limbaugh for being doughy and fatty, attacked Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, for being a stuffed suit, or something. He'd attacked despicable Republicans.

And it's the idea that people on both parties have that, when you're attacked, the way to rile up your base is to go viciously and attack everybody else. So he tried to be more vicious.

But, you know, this is just a soap opera. I think most of us are paying attention to the real issues. Let the bloggers have this one.

Republican spin on the remarks

David Brooks
New York Times
I've become more disillusioned with the Iraqi leadership now than ever before. And it makes you think the Iraqi political class just was incapable of running a country.

JIM LEHRER: So you would give a free ride, though? The president and everybody on the Republican side for jumping on Kerry for saying something he didn't really mean?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I mean, I would. The way this story was reported that first day -- and Democrats thought this, Republicans thought this. They thought he had attacked the education levels of the troops, which is bad and factually inaccurate. And then the second day, he didn't clear that up. The third day, it came out that he had just misread a joke.

JIM LEHRER: What about John McCain? John McCain also, who is a friend of Kerry's, also criticized Kerry.

MARK SHIELDS: No, I have great respect for John McCain. John McCain does not believe that John Kerry was disrespecting. I mean, whatever he said in the heat of the campaign, he said. But John McCain, in the privacy of his own soul and conscience does not believe that John Kerry was disrespecting, nor does George Bush believe that.

I mean, let's be very blunt. It was inept; it was bad; it was dumb. His reaction was bad. But nobody seriously thought that.

And I'll be honest with you. It wasn't just Republicans, although, I mean, George Bush, I think, was the leading instigator, and his language is just out of bounds at this point. I mean, he's gone kind of around the bend.

JIM LEHRER: You mean George Bush's?

MARK SHIELDS: George Bush's language, I mean, a vote for the Democrats is a win for the terrorists? I mean, this is going to be awfully tough when he has to deal with a Democratic majority in the Congress.

But, no, I don't think that -- I think what Kerry did -- George Allen and John Kerry have done irreparable harm to their presidential aspirations in the campaign of 2006, I think that's fair to say.

MARK SHIELDS: I think it's fair to say.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. The other development today -- or some people thought as a major development -- was your New York Times colleague-columnist Tom Friedman very strongly urging people to vote for Democrats on Tuesday for all kinds of reasons. What did you think of that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, we have a rule, columnists. We have a couple of rules. One is we never criticize each other. But one of the rules is...

JIM LEHRER: Particularly ones that work for the same newspaper.

DAVID BROOKS: They're our friends. But we have a rule that you can't endorse, but Tom found a loophole, I think, which he announced earlier in the year, which is that he did think you could say nice things about a party. And it's clear Tom thinks the Republicans would do well to lose and deserve to lose. And without endorsing, I think the Republicans deserve to lose.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. But you remember, he was a big supporter of the war...

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, of course.

JIM LEHRER: ... all from the very beginning and all the way through. And he did it -- there were a lot of things in his column. We could put up some of the words, but basically it was the competence issue that he is really upset with the Bush people about.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think there's no question about that. If you look at the way this war was fought, it was fought incompetently. There is an important debate to be had about whether it could have -- if they had fought it well, and if they had planned the occupation well, would it have been different?

And this is an issue I personally go back and forth on. I've become more disillusioned with the Iraqi leadership now than ever before. And it makes you think the Iraqi political class just was incapable of running a country.

Tom Friedman's column

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
I mean, we sent American troops into battle -- and pray God that the next Congress would look at this -- without adequate body armor, without armored vehicles.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about Tom Friedman's approach?

MARK SHIELDS: I think Tom Friedman was eloquent in what he wrote today. I do think -- I would differ and take it in a little different direction.

The apology that is owed is owed to American troops. It's owed to the American troops, not only for the incompetence of the leadership and the post planning, it's owed to them for the kind of arrogance that said you go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you wish you had.

I mean, we sent American troops into battle -- and pray God that the next Congress would look at this -- without adequate body armor, without armored vehicles. And we sent them into situations where they were at death's door because of the inadequacy and the incompetence of the leadership. And that's the apology that's really owed to American troops and American families everywhere.

DAVID BROOKS: I will say when, as I have been going around the country, most people at some point supported the war, 29 Democrats, most Republicans did. But when they talk about the war being fought -- and they talk about Iraq as a place in this election. It's not an ideological thing. It's, "We know how to do things in my company. They don't seem to know how to do things."

And so it is very much a competence issue when they talk about it, whether in Ohio or California or other places.

JIM LEHRER: OK. And speaking of Ohio and California and other places, we're going to find out what they both think on Tuesday. And we'll see you all then. Thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.