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Economy Dominates Campaigning as Race Enters Final Stretch

October 17, 2008 at 6:15 PM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks evaluate the candidates' renewed focus on the economy and the likely strategies at play as the Obama and McCain campaigns enter the final stretch.

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

Mark, the candidates remain very much on the attack, but it’s about issues now, is it not?

MARK SHIELDS, syndicated columnist: It is. It is on issues. Barack Obama very heavy on health care, going on issues that he feels work — do work for Democrats, no question about it, work for him. John McCain going on taxes, which has been the strong suit for the Republicans.

JIM LEHRER: David, Obama has said from the beginning that he sees health care as part of the overall economic issue. Do you agree with that as a principle?

DAVID BROOKS, columnist, New York Times: Well, I guess if you include the economic issue as uncertainty. It is true when you go out on the campaign trail, health care has been sometimes every other question, especially earlier in the year, less the last couple of months.

And people see it, I think, especially middle-class people everybody is going for, as part of the uncertainty of the times.

Now, I must say, I mean, the two issues they’re talking about are issues they could have been talking about six months ago, and they’re very safe issues for each of them. I’m not sure either have really adapted to the issues of the last month.

JIM LEHRER: You mean the financial and economic…

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And that’s a tougher issue. And it seems to me both of them are tested by it.

Say, the health care thing, I mean, Barack Obama’s health care plan, which costs a lot of money, even accepting his cost savings, which are dubious. Is he going to still have such an ambitious health care plan given the new fiscal reality?

It seems to me that’s the crucial question that Democrats are debating. They’re almost debating the governing decisions he’s going to have to make. Do you blow a hole through the deficit because of the recession? Or do you pay attention to the deficit and try to restrain spending?

MARK SHIELDS: In fairness to Obama, the corporate argument that’s made, that United States’ business, to be competitive internationally, that there has to be — the burden that is now shouldered by American corporations for health care of their workers under contracts, that that has to be — that burden to be lifted by a national health plan, that they feel the American economy and American corporations can be more competitive internationally.

Fiscal crisis affects polls

David Brooks
The New York Times
I don't think Barack Obama knows all that much about the financial world and credit default swaps more than John McCain does, but in a time of stock market volatility, you probably don't want presidential volatility.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, let me ask you this. The conventional wisdom and the polls show that, when it comes to the economic issue, the fiscal crisis, the financial crisis, whatever, John McCain does not do well on this. He doesn't do -- in fact, it's costing him tremendously in the polls.

Why? Why is it that he's not seen as a leader of these kinds of issues?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think, Jim, first of all, it's never been John McCain's strong suit. Second, he's carrying the brand of the Republican Party, which is blamed by most voters for the condition of the economy right now.

I mean, Tom Davis, a very prominent and respected Republican member from Virginia, said, if we were a dog brand, if Republicans were a dog brand, it would be removed from the grocery store shelves, I mean, it had fallen in such discredit. And I think John McCain himself has no particular strength in that by his own admission.

And I guess the third thing is that John McCain's own performance in the time of the financial crisis, when the spotlight was on, suspending his campaign, coming back, and did not -- he talked about a steady hand at the tiller, but he did not project that to voters.

JIM LEHRER: Didn't demonstrate it.

Do you agree with that, David...

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, and especially that final point. I don't think Barack Obama knows all that much about the financial world and credit default swaps more than John McCain does, but in a time of stock market volatility, you probably don't want presidential volatility.

And that's partly the decisions McCain has made over the past couple of weeks. Partly it's just their nature. Obama is a relatively -- in fact, remarkably unvolatile personality.

And McCain, especially in the debate performances, has been wound tightly, and you showed a bit in the -- earlier in the show about the Al Smith dinner.

And when I watched the McCain performance -- the whole performance is really worth watching on YouTube or wherever -- it's the old McCain. It's the McCain enjoying himself. It's the McCain relaxed, gracious toward Obama, very funny, very personable.

And when you saw the debate performance and then you saw that Al Smith dinner performance, you're reminded that he doesn't seem to be enjoying himself. He seems to have a different personality from himself and sort of the attack personality, which he feels constrained to put on.

And you wonder, why is there such a big difference between these two performances? And I think it's the campaign has surrounded him with a series of arguments and a posture that's not really him. And someone, after this is all over, is going to have to figure that all out.

Candidate strengths and weaknesses

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
[E]very campaign is inevitably a mirror reflection of the candidate, the strengths and the weaknesses of the candidate.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think accounts for it, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I think every...

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, first of all, there are two John McCains?

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, I do. I mean, the John McCain at the Al Smith dinner was winning and wonderful, and more than even the lines he delivered, such as, "I have a pet name for Sen. Obama. I call him 'that one.' He has a pet name for me. He calls me 'George Bush.'" I mean, it was just -- it was sort of a nice, you know, self-deprecating line.

JIM LEHRER: And he delivered every one of those lines dead-pan.

MARK SHIELDS: He delivered them well. But the key, Jim, was when Obama was delivering his lines, and Obama did quite well, too, McCain was laughing uproariously at the funny lines.

JIM LEHRER: As was Obama...

MARK SHIELDS: Obama was, too, but, I mean, it was -- that was just sort of -- I mean, for example, Mike Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, did not laugh uproariously when Obama took a needle at him for his seeking a third term, trying to repeal term limits in New York, even though it was a shot at Bill Clinton, as he did it. He said, "When Bill Clinton found out that Bloomberg was trying to kill term limits, Bill Clinton said, 'You mean you can do that?'"

But I think David's right. I think that every -- we have to remind ourselves, every campaign, every campaign is inevitably a mirror reflection of the candidate, the strengths and the weaknesses of the candidate. And I think we're seeing the strengths and the weaknesses of John McCain, I mean, and part of it has been the mercurial nature of his candidacy.

DAVID BROOKS: See, I wonder if that's really true in this case. I mean, people used to say it was not true of Al Gore, he didn't run his kind of campaign.

You know, John McCain I don't think of as a standard-issue Republican. And yet, you look at a lot of the things he's done over the last couple of weeks, the Bill Ayers thing, sort of re-fighting the '60s, he never cared about the '60s, I mean, those kind of culture war fights until this campaign. He wasn't around for the '60s. He was in Vietnam.

It just wasn't the thing that bubbled up naturally in him. The tax cuts, the Republicans all use tax cuts at this time in a campaign, but I'm not sure that's really what he'd prefer to be talking about.

And I just think a decision was made early on in the process, they decided to run this as a reasonably conventional Republican race. Why they wanted to do that this year of all possible years is beyond me, but they can't change now. They're down this path, and they've got to continue.

MARK SHIELDS: But they didn't decide.

JIM LEHRER: Who's they? Who's they?

MARK SHIELDS: John McCain decided. John McCain. Barack Obama decided. I mean, that's the decisions that are made.

Al Gore decided not to mention the environment. I mean, he was counseled not to do it, but he decided. And I think there's something deeper here that's bothering the John McCain candidacy this time and that's working very much for Obama, and we saw it in the debates.

And that is, Jim, take the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, two of the most knowledgeable and experienced men, both had been vice presidents, Senate, congressmen, in both tragedies, Vietnam and Watergate.

And as a consequence of their presidencies, Jimmy Carter was begat, in a biblical sense, that his lack of experience became a positive virtue. His no knowledge of Washington as a one-term governor of Georgia became an asset to voters.

JIM LEHRER: He wasn't tainted by Washington.

Personalities of the candidates

David Brooks
The New York Times
[I]f he played on experience with safety -- and I mean foreign policy safety, but also domestic safety, fiscal discipline, which is certainly in his nature -- he could have played that up.

MARK SHIELDS: He wasn't tainted. And he was honest. And he said, "I'm never going to lie to you."

American voters go looking for what was missing in the president who's disappointed them. George Bush has been a guy who says, "I speak from the -- I decide from the gut." He's been proudly undeliberative. He's been, you know, almost disdainful of intellectual presentations or ideas.

And this is made to order for Barack Obama. His coolness, his calmness, his confidence, his reflectiveness is really, I think, cherished by the electorate, whether it's conscious or unconscious, in 2008, because the Bush model has been found wanting.

JIM LEHRER: Do you buy that?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, though, there are ways which McCain is opposite of Bush.


DAVID BROOKS: McCain is not a party person. A lot of his friends are in the Democrats; a lot of his enemies are in the Republicans. That's one distinction.

The second is experience. And to me, if he played on experience with safety -- and I mean foreign policy safety, but also domestic safety, fiscal discipline, which is certainly in his nature -- he could have played that up.

He also could have played up -- and this would have been riskier, but I think the right thing to do -- played off Bush's confidence, super self-confidence. That is something Bush and Obama share, extreme personal self-confidence, a feeling, "I can take care of the problems as they come at me, whatever comes at me."

If you say, "You know, I've seen enough of the world to know how wrong I can be," which is something McCain actually does pretty well, I think he could have played off a little sense of humility.

But, again, that's an atypical campaign. The normal formula is super-confidence, no doubt, in the middle of a campaign.

JIM LEHRER: But you buy into part of what Mark was saying, is that the time also fit Barack Obama's temperament?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, no, in a million different ways, not only for the issues -- the Democrats have been down and now they're rebounding -- but just for the -- and I keep coming back to this.

I was so impressed when the financial crisis hit and Obama doesn't know all that much, but he had a wall of people behind him, the Paul Volckers, the Warren Buffetts, the Robert Rubins, the Larry Summers, Gene Sperlings, all these people. You could trust those people.

And he not only has those people standing behind him -- anybody can do that -- but you really get a sense from him that he would know how to talk to them and learn from them.

JIM LEHRER: Listen to them, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: I think John McCain's performance -- I think you'll go back and you'll look at a couple of decisions that were made in this campaign. And, obviously, the economic crisis just changed the entire dynamic.

But the performance of the two men during that economic crisis I think, in a strange way, McCain seemed more Bushian. He seemed more, "I'm operating from the gut." And Obama did seem cool, detached, deliberative.

And sometimes that might be almost -- people say, "I want someone who feels more," as they did in 1992, when Bill Clinton -- when George Herbert Walker Bush didn't seem to understand the economic anxiety that voters were going through.

JIM LEHRER: He was too cool.

MARK SHIELDS: He was too cool and detached. And Bill Clinton said, "I feel your pain." So I think the times, you know, really do matter, in that case.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think -- yes?

Bold gestures

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
[I]f a Democrat tried to do that, they'd say -- I mean, the Wall Street Journal editorial page would be running extras. "This is not creeping; this is galloping socialism, if not communism."

DAVID BROOKS: I would just say that the risk is -- and for Obama, as we think forward, if he is elected -- what Paulson has done and what Bernanke and Bush has done, it's a huge step. It is a bold gesture.

Now, is Barack Obama the kind of guy who would make that kind of bold gesture? He is a very cautious person. And you could say, would he do that? And I think that's an open question.

MARK SHIELDS: How about the resistance to it? None. I mean, you bring in the seven biggest banks and you say, "OK, sign this piece of paper."

JIM LEHRER: We now own you.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, if a Democrat tried to do that, they'd say -- I mean, the Wall Street Journal editorial page would be running extras. "This is not creeping; this is galloping socialism, if not communism."

Instead, we've had it done by the proudly conservative president from Texas, the man of the ownership society, has just given us socializing of our national economy. It's a remarkable, remarkable shift.

DAVID BROOKS: The question is, Bush is, for better or worse, the master of the big gesture, whether it's Iraq or anything else. I'm not sure Obama has ever shown that in the history of his life.

MARK SHIELDS: Other than running for president.


MARK SHIELDS: ... which is rather a bold act for somebody with that kind of a background.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Mark, David, thank you both very much.