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Shields and Brooks Weigh Facts, Fiction in Campaign Ads

September 12, 2008 at 6:30 PM EST
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Recent campaign ads have been criticized by political fact checkers for distorting facts and spreading falsities. Analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the debate over truthfulness on the campaign trail.
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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, where do you come down on the Obama charge that McCain is lying?

MARK SHIELDS: About the ads themselves?

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

Or that — yes, that — what Obama said. He accused — he used the word lying.

MARK SHIELDS: Lying.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

MARK SHIELDS: I think he was responding to a question.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Exactly. Right.

MARK SHIELDS: Judy is a lot more diplomatic and circumspect than I am. She said he was stretching the truth, or was guilty of stretching the truth.

Every single fact-check organization, news organizations, these objectively looked at this and have come up with a conclusion it is misleading, false, factually inaccurate, the AP calls it. I just think it’s…

JIM LEHRER: You’re talking about the two…

MARK SHIELDS: I’m talking about the two ads that…

JIM LEHRER: The kindergarten.

MARK SHIELDS: … that John McCain defended on “The View.”

JIM LEHRER: Right.

MARK SHIELDS: The kindergarten ad is outrageous. That is warmed-over — that is a left over from Alan Keyes’ campaign in 2004…

JIM LEHRER: He ran Obama in the Senate.

MARK SHIELDS: … which was embarrassing at the time.

It is a charge that Obama voted for, which he did, a bill in the Illinois state legislature that would — for age-appropriate sex education for youngsters taught to be — to warn them about adult sexual predators, and what they could do to avoid and to discourage and to resist those…

JIM LEHRER: And the other one had to do with…

JIM LEHRER: … which we saw in the tape, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, it was a total — just made up by the whole cloth that he — because he used an expression which John McCain had used, that everybody has used at different times, apparently trying to be folksy — you got a folksy audience, you want to be folksy — you know, that that was somehow a slam or a slur on Sarah Palin.

I mean, what is ironic is, they want to turn Sarah Palin into a — into a victim, which is, I think, unbecoming to her, because she doesn’t come across as a victim at all. But that’s been obviously part of the campaign strategy.

Just, finally, I would say this, Jim. John McCain said — and he meant it — that he would rather lose an election if it meant winning the war when he supported the surge. And, right now, I think that that the bargain he has made — and I hate to say this, because this — these are dishonorable acts. This makes — these are dishonest…

JIM LEHRER: Dishonorable.

MARK SHIELDS: Dishonest and dishonorable. And that’s not the kind of campaign that one expected from John McCain. It is certainly not John McCain’s lifetime. And one hopes that he is not going to trade his self-respect for political victory, because I will tell you, it will be ashes if he does win that way. It will be ashes. There will be no chance of bipartisanship.

You will think Bill Clinton had a rocky road in ’93. It will be awful in 2009.

JIM LEHRER: Tough words.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

Wallowing in non-truths

David Brooks
New York Times
The last 60 days of any campaign, even for those of us who love politics, tend to be depressing, because they get into the gutter.

JIM LEHRER: David, do you share them?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I would say depressing, rather than dishonorable.

The last 60 days of any campaign, even for those of us who love politics, tend to be depressing, because they get into the gutter. I think both campaigns have been misleading, exaggerating.

I think the McCain campaign has been more misleading and exaggerating. Obama has said things which I think are blatantly untrue, where he said John McCain said yes to -- when you make $5 million, you are rich. McCain never said that seriously. Obama ran an ad today saying John McCain hasn't changed since he join the Senate in '82, that he doesn't know how to use a computer. I don't any of us as journalists would that as the factual truth. Those things are just not true.

So, I think both campaigns are trading untrue charges. They enjoy their own lies. They get furious at the other.

JIM LEHRER: Enjoy their own lies?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

I mean partisan people -- this is the narcissism of partisan. You get furiously outraged at the other campaign's lies, and you love your own. Nonetheless, I do think it is fair to say that the McCain campaign has been more egregious than the Obama campaign.

JIM LEHRER: Dishonorable, do you use Mark's word?

DAVID BROOKS: No, you know, this is why I'm not a campaign guy.

I would not have run the sex-ed ad. The lipstick stuff was just stupidity on stilts. But, in this time, I think exaggerating what McCain said about the rich or wanting to fight a 100-year war in Iraq, he never said that. So, all those things are dishonorable, if you want to say being misleading is dishonorable.

MARK SHIELDS: I would say this, first of all, about the computer ad.

I agree. I thought the computer ad, suggesting -- John McCain said he is going to learn how to go online. I mean, so he is not computer illiterate. I mean, I think that is part of staff bondage. I think that is a whole other story. Staff likes to keep him not online, so they are then capable of being his only link to online.

But that aside, I will say that to raise that issue is not only, I think offensive. I think it's politically dumb. You are trying to reach voters, blue-collar voters, in places like Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, and Summit County, Akron, Ohio, and they are blue-collar and they are probably older voters, many of whom are not online.

JIM LEHRER: Online.

MARK SHIELDS: They're not Googling every other minute and seeing what seeing what Drudge is up to.

Appropriate response is unclear

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
[P]robably the most effective passage that Obama has spoken all year was in his acceptance speech, when he turned and said, John McCain, I'm not going to take this.

JIM LEHRER: What did you make, David, of what Adam reported and what has been reported today about the Obama campaign is going to -- is changing its approach, maybe not dramatically, or -- well, you heard what was said? What do you think about it?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, every week, they promise to get tougher.

I just don't think that is who Obama is. I just think it would be a mistake if he becomes just like every other politician. I think he needs to be aggressive. Listen, I don't think he's losing. I still think the McCain campaign is basically like a football team with a weak offensive line. They have pulled off some good razzle-dazzle plays to stay close, but the fundamentals are so terribly against them, I still think it's very unlikely McCain is going to win.

So, if I were in the Obama campaign, I would not be panicking. I would not be changing. I would be running the kind of issue-based campaign that they have a natural advantage in, because of where the country is. But they have to get tough, because all their donors are afraid that the country is going to go ballistic or something.

But I -- if I were them, I would not be changing strategy.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about that. Do you think they should change strategy?

MARK SHIELDS: I think probably the most effective passage that Obama has spoken all year was in his acceptance speech, when he turned and said, John McCain, I'm not going to take this.

I think his supporters were dying of, you know, you're not going to get away with this, and basically saying, I am going to take you on.

But I don't think -- I think Obama has a problem that nobody wants to talk about. And that is, he has gotten where he has gotten to, which is an anomaly, an aberration, a unique achievement in American politics as an African-American nominee for politics and favored to win -- I agree with David -- by never...

JIM LEHRER: You agree with David he is still favored to win?

MARK SHIELDS: I think -- I think the underlying reality of this campaign is such that it is going to take something big.

I mean, it is a close race, don't get me wrong. It is a very close race. And there is no question that John McCain comes out of this convention and the Sarah Palin with a lot more enthusiasm than he had. But he got there, Jim, by never being an angry black man.

He has always been controlled. He's always been incredibly disciplined. He -- Barack Obama. And I think there is a concern about his ever becoming an angry black man that would somehow be a threatening figure to some voters. And so I think that he has to show empathy to people who are suffering, and especially to those whom he is trying to reach on his message of change and economic change in particular.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think that is the natural Barack Obama that we're seeing?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, black, white, yellow, or whatever, he is just not an angry guy. And that was his original promise.

I mean, he started this campaign -- I think his early speeches were much better than his later speeches, because they were about not only changing the policies, which he has always been for, but they were changing the way politics is done. I think, if he really believes that, he should stick with it.

Palin interview had mixed reaction

David Brooks
New York Times
I thought [Palin] did fine for a very smart person who is involved in this. But she didn't show the comfort. And I thought she showed faulty instincts.

JIM LEHRER: What about Sarah Palin's interviews with Charlie Gibson of ABC, what did you think of those, Mark, from her point of view, not -- obviously not...

JIM LEHRER: ... Charlie...

MARK SHIELDS: I'm a practicing Catholic. I was brought up to learn the Baltimore Catechism, which begins, who made you? God made me. Why did God -- God made me to know, love and serve him in this world.

It sounded like the Baltimore Catechism to me. She had those answers down. I do think she went into it favorably. She probably came out of it favorably, because I think how you came out of that -- that interview and reacting to it was where you stood going in.

I mean, as FOX said, grace under fire in their report of it. And somebody said, she committed no gaffes, which is rather a low bar. But, you know, I would hope that Charlie -- Sean Hannity, I see, has the next one for FOX News. So, they are getting tougher all the time.

But I would -- I would hope that Charlie doesn't have to become the surrogate of the entire press corps, because that is what this took on. It was like Barbara Walters with a get for somebody who had never been on television before.

JIM LEHRER: What did you think?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I thought she made no gaffes. You know, I thought she did fine.

I guess my view was changed a little, not for the better, to be honest. I don't think it was a disastrous performance. But the sticking to the talking points just shows a lack of comfort level with a lot of the issues. I thought -- I thought the Bush doctrine question was illegitimate and unfair.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes..

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that?

MARK SHIELDS: I agree with that.

JIM LEHRER: I mean, who knows the Bush doctrine?

DAVID BROOKS: I know it well. There are four different Bush doctrines. Well, anyway. But then...

JIM LEHRER: OK.

DAVID BROOKS: So there is a lack of comfort level you want in a leader.

And then the desire, the intense desire to show toughness on every single issue. No one is going to out-tough her. So, she is going to be mean. We are not going second-guess the Israelis, no matter what the circumstances. We are going to declare war on Russia, blah, blah, blah. The intense desire for toughness, in a position where John McCain is fully capable of nuance, that did unnerve me a little.

So, I thought she did fine for a very smart person who is involved in this. But she didn't show the comfort. And I thought she showed faulty instincts.

MARK SHIELDS: The one place I thought her instinct really did fail her was, did you blink at all?

I mean, that was the time for a little humility, to say, are you ready to be president?

Hey, you know, Harry Truman said it was like the Earth, the moon, the stars all hit him at once. And, you know, it is an enormous job. I hope I would be. I pray I would be. I have worked every day to be.

But, you know, that was, I thought...

DAVID BROOKS: But, as a political consultant, you say you can't leave window room on that question. But, again, that's her getting fed a message.

MARK SHIELDS: I don't -- listen, I have never seen any candidate in 150 campaigns ever do anything that the consultant recommended the candidate didn't want to do. I have never seen an ad run in a candidate's name that the candidate objected to. I never heard them stand up there and give a speech.

These are consultants. They aren't with strings and these guys aren't puppets. They hire these people. They pay them a lot and they listen to them.

Palin brought enthusiasm to McCain

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
We may be seeing [Palin's] highest point right now.

JIM LEHRER: Is the Palin charm, the Palin movement, the Palin bounce going to continue among conservatives and thus keep the base electrified, or is this...

DAVID BROOKS: I think so.

JIM LEHRER: What is -- you think so?

DAVID BROOKS: I think, and the more intense scrutiny there is in, and the media attacks will only revive that, but I do think it goes beyond the base.

I do think it is the base. It solidified a lot of states, like Missouri, that they may have lost. But there are independent women who are going to these rallies, 15,000, 20,000 in Fairfax, Virginia. And they are not political. They -- it's personal with her.

And, so, I do think its remains politically an outstanding -- a very good pick. And we will see if it lasts, but, so far, it has been outstanding.

JIM LEHRER: It's triggered a tremendous number of debates among women, some who are all over the political spectrum.

MARK SHIELDS: And a total inversion. The traditional conservatives have said, a women's place is in the home. You know, they think it is terrific this mother of five is out running for national office.

The feminists, who said you can have it all, are saying, why isn't she home with her baby? You know, it is just -- it's a rather remember remarkable transformation of positions.

She has -- she's done this with him, John McCain. She has brought enthusiasm into John McCain's campaign. Twelve percent of John McCain's voters were enthusiastic about voting for him prior to her selection, according to the "Wall Street Journal"/NBC poll. That tripled after her pick.

And I would say, it is women. It's Southerners, and it's particularly people in small towns. That is where her pitch is. The woman thing is fascinating. It is almost an identification in many cases of women who have children, who are working, who are trying to do the balancing act. And it's not ideological. It is really identification.

JIM LEHRER: But it's a -- you think it a permanent change in the campaign?

DAVID BROOKS: I think so. I think the old-line feminists say, she's not a woman. And those sorts of attacks are just over the top.

And a lot of us are not much pro-Palin. We are anti-anti-Palin, because the attacks have been so feverish. But I think her -- her political skills are not make-believe.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

MARK SHIELDS: I think -- I would say this. We may be seeing her highest point right now.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Well, on that point of disagreement...

MARK SHIELDS: OK.

JIM LEHRER: ... thank you.