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Analysts Discuss Campaign Ads, Gay Marriage, Iraq

October 27, 2006 at 6:30 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Lowry, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and National Review editor Rich Lowry. David Brooks is off tonight.

Mark, do you agree with Kathleen Hall Jamieson, that 10 days go, these negative ads will be pulled, and we’ll go back to positive advocacy advertising?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I’m not sure. I’m don’t think either side really wants to unilaterally disarm in a situation like this.

JIM LEHRER: And that’s what it is?

MARK SHIELDS: That’s really what it is. And, you know, there’s an old line that, when you run out of political ammunition, the rusty artillery of abuse is wheeled out. And I think that’s what we’re seeing.

The Harold Ford thing I find the most fascinating. I’ve never seen an ad where paternity was denied by so many people and such humility of authorship. “I didn’t do it.” “No, I didn’t do it.” Somehow the Republican National Committee authorized it, the money was found to put it on, but nobody could get it off. The candidate didn’t like it; the RNC didn’t like it, but they continued to run it.

I think, in Harold Ford’s case, Jim, listen, it puts an obligation upon him to address it, simply…

JIM LEHRER: Which he did.

MARK SHIELDS: I think I’d almost go further than that and say, “They think you’re dumb. This is Washington. This is a Washington ad. It was done by the same people who did the Swift Boat. They’d never say that, but I mean — they think the people of Tennessee are really dumb, and I don’t think you are.” I think he’s got to almost make a challenge to the electorate of Tennessee.

JIM LEHRER: Rich Lowry, what do you think of that, the Tennessee ad and the context in which it was run?

RICH LOWRY, Editor, National Review: Well, first of all, on the negativity, if top Republican strategists have their way, Republican candidates will not be closing positive this year. They’ll stay negative.

Because, look, it’s a sour mood out there. People aren’t particularly happy with Republican governance. It’s not a “morning again in America” type of time, as it was in 1984 when Reagan was running for re-election. So they want the contrast with Democrats. They want to do everything they can to discredit the Democrats as an alternative.

The Tennessee ad, I think, was very effective. I don’t think it had anything to do with race. I think, as Kathleen Hall Jamieson pointed out in Ford’s response, it had to do with God and church, because Harold Ford has been running a brilliant, almost flawless campaign in Tennessee, partly based on the idea that he’s a choir boy who wants to do nothing else but be in those church pews.

And the Republicans wanted to get him talking about going to a Playboy party, which is not a big sin in the scheme of things, but it complicates his message. And he has had to address it now. He has been on the defensive responding to an ad which is never a good thing in a campaign.

Are ads more negative this year?

Rich Lowry
National Review
It's politics as usual, more or less. And I think every two years we have this conversation. Is this election more negative than ever? And everyone always says it is, but this is just politics ain't beanbag.

JIM LEHRER: Is this politics as usual or unusual?

RICH LOWRY: It's politics as usual, more or less. And I think every two years we have this conversation. Is this election more negative than ever? And everyone always says it is, but this is just politics ain't beanbag.

MARK SHIELDS: Let me dissent. This was not about church-going. I mean, when you've got the blonde girl, and there's a second one where she's topless -- you can't see anything she has on -- and, "Harold, call me," that's playing to one of the atavistic, base fears of the Mandingo black man who's after our white daughters. And that is very much implicit in this ad.

RICH LOWRY: I just think that's reading way too much into it.

JIM LEHRER: What about Rich's general point that this is politics as usual, come on, get used to it. It isn't beanbag. It's no worse now than it's ever been, in general?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think that, when you don't have a message, you're going to go more negative. And I don't think there's any question -- I mean, the overwhelming context of this campaign is Iraq and President George Bush.

So if you're a Republican candidate, you don't want to talk about either of those right now. The only people putting George Bush in ads are Democrats. And so what you have, really, is, "I've got to change the subject, and the quickest way to change the subject is to denationalize the race by localizing it and individualizing it and going after the presumed or alleged defects of my opponent."

Bush's rhetoric vs. his policy

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
[Bush] decided to trade some of his own reputation for resoluteness into a language ether zone that nobody knows what he's talking about, benchmarks versus timetables.

JIM LEHRER: Rich, speaking of President Bush and Iraq, how does his news conference look two days later?

RICH LOWRY: Well, I think it's something he had to do. It was probably too late. Something...

JIM LEHRER: Why did he have to do it?

RICH LOWRY: Because people had begun to conclude that Bush's resoluteness on the war and his relative optimism on the war were entirely a product of him being detached from reality, from not seeing what everyone else is seeing on their TV screens.

So as the entry ticket for any chance of people taking Bush seriously on this issue, anything he says or does on it going forward, he had to say very frankly, as he did in that press conference, "I see the same things you do. I know why you're dissatisfied; I'm dissatisfied, too. These are things I'm going to do to try to address it. I'm open to fresh ideas. And this is why it's important to win."

Now, that's not going to turn the issue around for him, but that was an important step.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think it made any difference, Mark, politically?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it marginally may have helped some Republican candidates. I think Rich is right, that he decided to trade some of his own reputation for resoluteness, I mean, into a language ether zone that nobody knows what he's talking about, benchmarks versus timetables. I mean, this sounds like goals versus affirmative action quotas or something. I mean, you know, it's all in the eye of the beholder.

But I think he had to do that. I think he had to acknowledge it. And then, at the same time, he was saying, "Look, if you want to blame somebody for this, blame me. Don't take it out on Congressman Lowry or Senator Lowry, who's running for re-election, has done a wonderful job back in Mudville. Instead, you know, take it out on George Bush and maybe even Dick Cheney."

JIM LEHRER: Did you read that the same way, he was saying, "Hey, don't blame Billy Bob in"...

RICH LOWRY: Yes, he's taking ownership of it. And, you know, I think his Iraq policy has, in some respects, been misserved by his Iraq rhetoric. And he believes very strongly it's his role as president never to show any doubt, and to be strong, and absolutely confident, because if he shows any wiggle, that gets magnified, it becomes Bush, you know, doesn't have confidence in this anymore, and the bottom will fall out.

And that's true; that's not a crazy theory. But he just took it too far. And the policy has been -- within certain bounds, obviously -- but has been fairly flexible. I talk to these people all of the time, and there's no one who is just, you know, putting their head under the desk saying, "Oh, Iraq is great." They're trying to figure out new ways to address it.

And there is some policy to go along with this change of rhetoric. We may finally see even more troops in Baghdad. General Casey is talking about that. There are these benchmarks which are, you know, deadlines to try to push Maliki and the Iraqi government. And they may end up, I think, using the Iraqi army rather than the Iraqi police to try to provide security in the city, which is a policy change. So there are things that are happening, but a lot of it has been masked under Bush's own rhetoric.

Removing U.S. troops from Baghdad

Rich Lowry
National Review
Is it Iraqi will that's lacking or is it Iraqi capability that's lacking? There's probably a little of both, but I would say most capability.

MARK SHIELDS: The highest ranking or certainly one of the highest ranking men in the United States military today has recommended that we remove all troops from Baghdad, all American troops from Baghdad.

JIM LEHRER: Who's this?

MARK SHIELDS: I cannot tell you.

JIM LEHRER: You can't tell me? Can you tell Rich?

MARK SHIELDS: I can tell our listeners, but I can't tell you. I just don't trust you.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, OK.

MARK SHIELDS: But this has been seriously proposed...

JIM LEHRER: Move all of the troops?

MARK SHIELDS: All of the troops out of Baghdad, secure the road to the airport, secure the oil fields and the borders, and say that the pacification and the maintaining of order in Baghdad is the responsibility of the Iraqis. That is the recommendation of probably one of the most -- probably the most respected man in uniform today.

JIM LEHRER: You mean in uniform, serving on active duty today?

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

JIM LEHRER: So who did he make this recommendation to?

MARK SHIELDS: He made it to the civilian leadership of the United States.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think of that, Rich?

RICH LOWRY: It strikes me as a formula for chaos.

JIM LEHRER: Why don't you ask him who did it? OK.

RICH LOWRY: Yes, you would tell me, Mark?

JIM LEHRER: What do you think of that? Does this sound real to you?

RICH LOWRY: It would strike me as a formula for chaos, because the problem we've had with this Baghdad security plan is it's been undermanned. We don't have enough American troops. We clear -- and we've always been able to clear throughout this counterinsurgency campaign -- but then we leave and hand it over to the Iraqis, and it goes right back again, and we have to come back and clear again.

And that's been the experience in Baghdad. And if you leave and just leave the Iraqi security forces, it'll be even worse.

MARK SHIELDS: You remove that possibility of, "Oh, well, they'll bail us out again, and they'll send in more." And with full understanding you're not pulling out and you are securing the borders, securing the oil fields, securing the oil lines, and securing the airport, but, I mean, we're not driving Humvees around to be set off by IEDs.

RICH LOWRY: Well, this is the key question though, whether -- is it Iraqi will that's lacking or is it Iraqi capability that's lacking? There's probably a little of both, but I would say most capability.

JIM LEHRER: That's what al-Maliki said this week.

RICH LOWRY: Yes, these people, they know their lives are on the line, Maliki and people in his government. You know, their relatives get killed all the time, so they know the stakes. There already is a gun to their head.

So, look, we can't be complacent. We have to continue to push them, but I'm not sure pulling the rug out from under them, how much that's going to help.

Gay marriage's impact on midterms

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
The next generation is just immeasurably, profoundly more tolerant of gay relationships than are their grandparents. And there's a movement that's inevitable.

JIM LEHRER: New subject. The New Jersey Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, is that going to have any ripple, national effect in the midterm elections?

MARK SHIELDS: I doubt it, but it may be in isolated states. I mean, there's a couple of states -- Virginia being one of them -- where the same-sex constitutional question is on the ballot this November. It may help.

But I'd like, first of all, the New Jersey court made a very wise decision saying it's a legislative issue. This is where it should be resolved; it's up to the legislature to do it. But it's the only good news the Republicans have had in several weeks, but this is an election about big issues, and this is not a big issue.

JIM LEHRER: Why is this big news for Republicans, Rich? Or do you think it is? Do you agree with him?

RICH LOWRY: I think it is big news. It's a big social question whether we're going to have gay marriage in this country. And I think the New Jersey decision, although it is more politically astute than some other decisions like this we've seen, is another sign that it is a dead certainty that eventually courts will mandate gay marriage in this country.

And they're saying to the legislature, "You have to give these couples the same benefits. It's your decision just to come up with the word." And eventually, the court will come back and say, "You know what? They need the word, too."

So this is an important question about socially and also about how we govern ourselves. Is it legislatures or is it courts? And that motivates Republicans, especially in those firewall Senate states where Republicans have to hold onto seats in Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia, if they're going to block a Democratic majority in the Senate. This will play among those rural social conservative voters.

JIM LEHRER: You don't see it that way?

MARK SHIELDS: Just like immigration, the Republicans are playing the short side of the field. I mean, for perhaps an immediate salvation or life preserver in a couple of congressional districts. I mean, the tide has turned on this issue. I mean, the next generation is just immeasurably, profoundly more tolerant of gay relationships than are their grandparents. And there's a movement that's inevitable.

JIM LEHRER: A quick, where's the ebb and the flow of the campaign, as we speak right now, Rich?

RICH LOWRY: Right now, Senate, three to six Democrat pick up. I don't think they get to the six. It's not inconceivable.

JIM LEHRER: That's what they need to get the majority.

RICH LOWRY: Yes, they need six for the majority.

In the House, they need 15 for a majority. If you talk to Republican insiders and just tally up the House seats that they consider already gone, because there are scandals, or it's a DeLay seat, or a Foley seat, you get to seven, eight, nine, 10, depending on how you count. That's close to the 15. So to hold, Republicans are really going to need to run the table on holding all of their vulnerable seats. So you have to -- the odds favor the Democrats in the House.

JIM LEHRER: Odds favor the Democrats in the House?

MARK SHIELDS: Democrats north of 30.

JIM LEHRER: North of 30?

MARK SHIELDS: North of 30. There's now...

JIM LEHRER: You mean win more than 30?

MARK SHIELDS: There's now 51 seats in play right now in the House.

JIM LEHRER: What about the Senate?

MARK SHIELDS: In the Senate, Democrats have four for sure.

JIM LEHRER: Four of their six?

MARK SHIELDS: And the question is the remaining three; Missouri, Virginia and Tennessee will decide who controls the Senate.

JIM LEHRER: OK, well, I wrote all of this down. We'll check it out.

RICH LOWRY: In the green room, Mark is going to reveal his source, I guarantee that.

JIM LEHRER: OK, great, great, and then you'll call me...

RICH LOWRY: Yes, exactly.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you both.

RICH LOWRY: Thank you.