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Shields and Brooks Mull Campaign Rhetoric, Senate Indictment

August 1, 2008 at 6:25 PM EST
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Analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the week in politics, including the indictment of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, Sen. John McCain's campaign ads and Sen. Hillary Clinton's future role in the Democratic Party.
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KWAME HOLMAN: Barack Obama and John McCain took their campaigns to the swing state of Florida today with a new poll showing them locked in a dead heat there.

Obama was in St. Petersburg this morning, where he proposed giving families a $1,000 energy rebate, paid for by taxing the windfall profits of oil companies.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: So that rebate would offset the rising costs at the pump over the next four months. Or if you live in a state where it gets cold during the winter, it will help offset increased heating bills.

KWAME HOLMAN: Obama was interrupted in the middle of his remarks by hecklers holding a banner that read, “What about the black community, Obama?”

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: That’s all right.

KWAME HOLMAN: Later, one of the protestors asked Obama why he hadn’t stood up for the black community on issues such as predatory lending and racial profiling.

PROTESTOR: Why is it that you have not had the ability to not one time speak to the interests and even speak on behalf of the oppressed and exploited African community or black community in this country?

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: These are issues I’ve worked on for decades. Now, that doesn’t mean that I’m always going to satisfy the way you guys want these issues framed. And I understand it, which — which gives you the option of voting for somebody else. It gives you the option to run for office yourself. But those are all options.

KWAME HOLMAN: McCain, meanwhile, addressed the National Urban League in Orlando. He criticized the substance of Obama’s proposals, saying they fell short of his words.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: And if there’s one thing he always delivers is a great speech. But I hope you’ll listen carefully, because his ideas are not always as impressive as his rhetoric.

KWAME HOLMAN: After his speech, McCain engaged the conference in a lengthy question-and-answer session. One audience member asked McCain about his support for a ballot initiative in Arizona that would dismantle affirmative action programs at state and local institutions.

QUESTIONER: Why, in an America where there are disparities, alarming disparities in employment between management, between income wealth, health, would you want to eliminate programs that document that so we understand where we are and can plan for where we need to go?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Well, let me say that affirmative action is in the eye of the beholder. I think the United States of America has reached a point where we should provide equal economic opportunities for all Americans. And I do not — and Americans reject — have rejected a quota system. And that, frankly, is something that I don’t think helps anyone and has not helped anyone.

KWAME HOLMAN: Obama will speak at the Urban League conference tomorrow.

New campaign dynamic

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
It's not the campaign a lot of us were hoping for, especially a lot of us who, you know, admired John McCain a great deal.

JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, is it just my imagination or has this campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain turned personal, rough and racial, among other things?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, it's not the campaign a lot of us were hoping for, especially a lot of us who, you know, admired John McCain a great deal.

I wouldn't say the last week has been the McCain campaign we were hoping for. And that includes John Weaver, a longtime friend and former adviser to McCain. And so it hasn't been an elevated Teddy Roosevelt-style campaign.

The question on my mind is, is it an effective campaign? The fact of the matter is this is Obama's election to lose. The country wants a change. Obama is a change. If people feel comfortable with Barack Obama, then he will win the election.

So there is a good reason to think that John McCain should just go after Obama, should just raise doubts. I mean, he should say the guy has not achieved that much in life. He's very elusive on what he stands for. He has no experience. That's a legitimate case to make. I'm not sure I'd do it via Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, but that's a legitimate case to make.

My problem with what McCain is doing is not only that it's not elevated and doesn't please people like me; I understand that. But you have to -- you could raise doubts about Barack Obama.

But if you're not offering another version of change that people can quickly understand, then people will have the doubts about Obama, but they will prefer change with doubts over no change. And I don't think John McCain is doing that other thing.

JIM LEHRER: The other thing? How do you feel about that, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, I think the numbers prove David's point. The University of Wisconsin Advertising Project keeps track of all the television commercials that are run. Ninety percent of Barack Obama's television commercials never mention John McCain. One out of three John McCain commercials goes negative on Barack Obama.

I mean, that's the campaign. And David put his finger on it. They have determined that they cannot win an affirmative campaign, that this campaign is going to be about Barack Obama, and it is. I mean, voters have already made that decision.

It's 1980, Jim, in the sense that voters have decided they don't like the status quo. They want them gone. That was Jimmy Carter in 1980. The Carter campaign's entire strategy was to raise doubts about Ronald Reagan, doubts that he was not up to the job, that he was ideologically extreme.

And it was a close race until the debate. And at that debate, Ronald Reagan dispelled those charges.

I think the McCain campaign makes a major -- takes a major risk, because the Obama they're describing is not the Obama people are going to see in the debates. I mean, to use -- as David pointed out -- the Britney Spears and Paris Hilton...

JIM LEHRER: Yes, what was that all about?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, but, I mean, to say he's a lightweight.

JIM LEHRER: He's a celebrity, he's a celebrity.

MARK SHIELDS: He's just a celebrity. He's an empty suit. This is the fellow who, last week, just look at the schedule he had: Angela Merkel, Gordon Brown, Sarkozy, Olmert, Abbas, General Petraeus, King Abdullah, al-Maliki.

I mean, he met with every one of them and there was not a single misstep in any of the meetings. I mean, the idea that he is not, you know, a talented, able, and knowledgeable, exceptional leader, you know, just doesn't ring true.

I mean, you can raise doubts about his positions, and how constant he is, and how specific he is. And I think that's absolutely legitimate and it would be a disappointment if he didn't do that. But the idea that he isn't someone of substance...

DAVID BROOKS: I think that's legitimate. He's clearly a smart man, clearly gives a great speech, clearly has a firm grasp of policy. But has there been a major presidential nominee in 100 years or maybe in 200 years who has a slimmer record of accomplishment?

And that's what -- you can like a Barack Obama, but he was not particularly -- he was fine as a community organizer. As a law professor, he was not that accomplished. As a state legislator, he was OK. As a U.S. senator, not so good.

So as someone you can point to accomplishments, there's a thin record there. And I think that's perfectly legitimate to raise. As I say, I wouldn't do it through Paris Hilton.

And then you can raise doubts about whether he has the experience to actually enact change, as opposed to just promise it. These are all legitimate points.

I just wish McCain would go to the camera and say, "Listen, this is my argument against John McCain. I'm not going to"...

MARK SHIELDS: Against Barack Obama.

DAVID BROOKS: ..."against Barack Obama."

JIM LEHRER: Against Barack Obama.

DAVID BROOKS: "I'm not going to fuddy around here. This is my concern," and just say it straight.

Race and the campaign

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
This is an African-American man. He's running for president. That is there; that is a reality of this campaign. Barack Obama didn't raise it.

JIM LEHRER: Now, what about the specific issue of race? McCain accused Obama today -- I mean, not today, but this week -- of using the race card by saying that McCain is down on Obama because he doesn't look like everybody who's on a dollar bill.

MARK SHIELDS: I was out for three days this week. I challenge any of my colleagues, any citizen to talk to people about this race.

The misinformation about this race is so terrifying. And, I mean, I'm talking about not mean people, not bad people, not uninformed people. I mean, the Internet has done a job of savaging Obama.

JIM LEHRER: That's where they're getting the information?

MARK SHIELDS: That's where they're getting the information. And add to that, at the Texas State Republican Convention, a sanctioned vendor there, sanctioned by the party, was selling pins that said, "If Obama is president, will we still call it 'the White House'?"

Now, did he raise the race issue? The race issue is with him every day of his life. When you see his picture, the race issue is there.

The gender issue was there with Hillary Clinton. And when Hillary Clinton stood up, I mean, it didn't take a nuclear physicist to say, "That's a woman. She's running for president."

This is an African-American man. He's running for president. That is there; that is a reality of this campaign. Barack Obama didn't raise it.

JIM LEHRER: David?

DAVID BROOKS: That doesn't mean either side should talk about it. And I really don't think they should talk about it. We're in the midst...

JIM LEHRER: They shouldn't talk about it at all?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I mean, a grand speech the way Obama gave in Philadelphia I'm fine with.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

DAVID BROOKS: But what happened this week -- we're in the midst of a heated political campaign between two politicians who are running pretty nasty toward each other.

MARK SHIELDS: I disagree with that.

DAVID BROOKS: And -- well, and talking about race in this context, I think, is the worst thing. And I think both campaigns are extremely wary of doing that, and correctly so. It will -- whoever raises this issue, they'll raise it in a dirty way and they will hurt whoever raises the issue.

And so it's there. I totally agree with Mark it's there. It's obviously a major factor in the campaign. But to talk about it in the midst of this day by day, you know, YouTube to-and-fro is just going to demean whoever does it.

JIM LEHRER: What about Mark's point that there's some evidence at least that he's picked up in the last few days that this is working on Obama, in other words, the nastiness stuff is taking?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Well, if you look at the polls, it's narrowed.

JIM LEHRER: And you think that's the reason?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, well, the question is -- and this is hard to know. Why has it narrowed? Or let's put it a different way. Why is Barack Obama not 15 points ahead the way the Democratic Party is 15 points ahead?

And you could say -- and we all have our different answers -- you could say, "Well, it's race. People just don't want a black president." You could say, "It's age. People don't want a 46-year-old president." You could say, "The guy has -- you know, people don't connect to them."

And it's extremely hard at this point to figure out what are the strands leading to that phenomenon.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, that -- there are many things involved here, different strands?

MARK SHIELDS: I think there are doubts about him. I mean, I think the questions are going to be about Obama. And the race is the wild card. I don't know; I honestly don't know.

I mean, the charge yesterday that Obama had introduced and played the race card was so over-the-top by the McCain campaign. I mean, it was truly -- it boggled the mind. And it went beyond any concept of rationality.

But I do think that there are doubts about Obama, about essentially his background and his values. It is not the American story. It's a great American story, but it's not the traditional American story from which presidential campaigns, candidates have come.

It's not Bill Clinton in Hope, Arkansas. It's not Dwight Eisenhower in Abilene, Kansas. It's not even John Kennedy in Hyannis Port.

I mean, this -- it's Indonesia. It's a Kenyan father. And there's a question, Jim, that voters really have. And it's, are his -- given his background, are his values my values? Can I feel comfortable with him and confident with him?

And I think that's what his campaign is about. And that's what the McCain campaign is about is sabotaging that.

JIM LEHRER: I take it you agree with that?

DAVID BROOKS: I agree with that completely. But I would just say McCain -- Obama I don't think is going to make a big mistake. And I don't think he's going to justify the attacks McCain is now waging.

And in that case, what McCain has to say, "You want change, but I'm giving you safe change, and here it is." And he hasn't really done that, because it's so much day-to-day stuff.

Clinton's role, Stevens' indictment

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
You never saw [Sen. Stevens] on the Sunday shows. I talked to him, he said he didn't like going on the Sunday shows. He didn't want to influence the debate. He wanted to bring stuff home.

JIM LEHRER: Well, still on Obama, what do you make of the decision for Hillary Clinton to be the keynote speaker at the convention in Denver?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think it's a sign that they had this remarkably close race. She still has a strong following. And that following is in the white working class, which is, you know, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, all the states that she won. He needs those people, and she'll help to some extent.

JIM LEHRER: And that's, of course, being read as a signal she's definitely not going to be his running mate, right?

MARK SHIELDS: I think they've kind of done this...

MARK SHIELDS: ... sort of on a serial basis for me. You know, there was speculation that even came up at their initial meeting at Senator Feinstein's home right after the 3rd of June, the primaries, the last primaries, that they didn't ask for the financial disclosure forms that would ask about where, for example, President Clinton's donations to the library came from and all of that. So they've never gone through that.

But I think it's a good political move by the Obama people. I mean, it's an acknowledgment of her importance, of her leadership. It gives her an entire night. It's the night before the nomination. You know, I think it's -- and it's bringing her very much into the tent. I mean, she can give a great speech, but that speech will include a ringing endorsement of Barack Obama, which is to his advantage.

JIM LEHRER: What are your thoughts, David, about the indictment of Senator Ted Stevens?

DAVID BROOKS: He was a spoilsman, or is a spoilsman. Some people...

JIM LEHRER: A what?

DAVID BROOKS: A spoilsman. He brings the spoils home.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, a -- OK, got you.

DAVID BROOKS: Some people go into politics, I think Obama and McCain (inaudible) policy and global policy. Some people go into politics, "I go with the girl who brought me. There's money in Washington; I'm sending it home."

And that's the kind of guy he was. You never saw him on the Sunday shows. I talked to him, he said he didn't like going on the Sunday shows. He didn't want to influence the debate. He wanted to bring stuff home.

And a lot of the time the people who do that, they blur the line between bringing stuff home and, in his case, literally bringing stuff home to his house, to his chalet.

JIM LEHRER: Raise it up a little bit.

MARK SHIELDS: Between 1995 and 2008, there was 1,452 pork-barrel projects directly to the state of Alaska, more money per capita than any state in the union the last nine years. And Ted Stevens -- that was Ted Stevens.

I mean, West Virginia is envious tonight. I mean, we'll hear from Senator Byrd's office Monday. But, I mean, that's the reality. That's what he's done.

And I really -- I think, in a strange way, Jim, Democrats, if they had their druthers, would prefer he had not been indicted, because the winds of change are blowing very strong in Alaska. Sarah Palin, the Republican governor, has said change is...

JIM LEHRER: In other words, Democrats might have won without the indictment?

MARK SHIELDS: Mark Begich, the Democratic mayor of Anchorage, is leading in the polls. Now they're afraid that the Republicans will have a chance to choose somebody else or that he may become a sympathetic figure.

JIM LEHRER: Quick thing from both of you, starting with you, Mark, about this deadlock over off-shore drilling. Is that a big deal? I mean, why is it so, so hard and so party-oriented? I mean, the Democrats are one way, the Republicans are another.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the Democrats in the Senate were ready to vote on it this week. I mean, the Democrats in the House...

JIM LEHRER: Stopped it.

MARK SHIELDS: ... led by Speaker Pelosi had been a lot stronger. I think you'll see a phrase emerge in the next five weeks. I would call it "environmentally sensitive drilling."

JIM LEHRER: Environmentally sensitive?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I think that, when they go home for five weeks, as they are, I think particularly the freshmen Democrats in the House will hear...

JIM LEHRER: We'll have a piece of wire copy right now that said Senator Obama said that late today, that maybe there is another way to drill other than the way they want to drill. Do you think they'll work this out?

DAVID BROOKS: I suspect so, because, you know, we all wish there were some magical energy source that wouldn't pollute and wouldn't do all these problems, but the fact is there isn't. There's not going to be for a long time. We're going to drill because we might as well drill there. Better that than Saudi oil.

JIM LEHRER: OK, thank you both very much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.