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Shields and Brooks Look at Election Strategy, Financial Crisis

October 24, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks take a look at candidates' campaign strategies for the final stretch of the election season and the search for answers to the global financial crisis.
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JIM LEHRER: And that brings us to Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, the experts say it’s still volatile out there in the presidential campaign. What does that mean?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Do the experts say that?

JIM LEHRER: Yes, they do.

DAVID BROOKS: I’m an expert. I don’t say that.

JIM LEHRER: What do you say, then?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think it’s volatile.

JIM LEHRER: You don’t think it is at all?

DAVID BROOKS: I really don’t. I mean, if you look at the average of a whole number of polls, Obama has at least a 7-point lead, up to a 10- or 14-point lead.

If you look at the swing states, not even the swing states, the red states, the North Carolinas, the Ohios, the Floridas, Obama is leading in most of those.

And, you know, I’m — we pay attention to the day-to-day movement in the polls, the day-to-day tactics.

JIM LEHRER: That’s volatility. That’s volatility.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, the campaigns are driven by who’s won the day. Well, forget about that. Look at the fundamentals.

If you ask people, “Who do you trust in the economy?” well, Obama has a 21-point lead. “Who do you trust on taxes?” Obama has a 14-point lead. These are built into the structure of the race based on things that are happening over the last 10 years.

There is a fundamental structure to this race. And it took people a while, I think, to come to Obama because they were not comfortable with him.

But when the debates happened at the same time as the economic crisis, the people who wanted change began to feel comfortable with them. They moved over to him. And I personally think that’s quite solidly baked in.

JIM LEHRER: So it’s over, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: No, it isn’t over.

JIM LEHRER: So it’s volatile?

MARK SHIELDS: No, it isn’t volatile, either, Jim. There’s a second option.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

MARK SHIELDS: The reality is as David described it. What has happened, in one of the great ironies, is that John McCain, who everybody conceded, lone among the Republican candidates, in a very difficult year, had the best chance of reaching independents, moderates, and disaffected Democrats, for reasons that he’ll probably wrestle with for the rest of his life, not only moved to secure the base of his party and to resolve all problems with them, but stayed there with the choice of Sarah Palin, but then stayed there, and only now is he publicly doing — in sort of an awkward fashion — removing himself from — extricating himself from President Bush, which he could have done quite easily on substance last spring.

McCain avoiding correlation to Bush

David Brooks
The New York Times
... what (Sen. John McCain) had to do was scope out a different Republican vision for the country. And, you know, the party is very unpopular ... They've lost people under 30 in droves. So he had to show something different.

JIM LEHRER: I was going to ask you about that. Why is he doing it now? Why didn't he do it before?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think...

JIM LEHRER: Because, just for people who may have missed it, he did a really tough interview with the Washington Times...

MARK SHIELDS: Washington Times.

JIM LEHRER: ... and he said...

MARK SHIELDS: He basically went through a litany, Jim, of criticisms of President Bush that sounded like a keynote address at a Democratic convention. I mean, doubling the indebtedness of the country, being beholden to China, to avoiding global warming, to Medicare, the budget being broken, fiscal irresponsibility, you name it, I mean, to executive grab of power.

I mean it was just -- there was every possible grounds which the Democrats have criticized George Bush, he did it.

I think he did it probably some degree out of frustration, some degree, you know, just kind of declaration of independence of who John McCain wants to be and has always felt himself to be.

JIM LEHRER: Too late to do anything like that, do you think, David?

DAVID BROOKS: I think so. I think what he has to do -- and I'm glad he finally did this, and I think there's real substance behind that -- I mean, he is not George Bush.

But what he had to do was scope out a different Republican vision for the country. And, you know, the party is very unpopular. It's 15 points behind in party I.D. They've lost people under 30 in droves. So he had to show something different.

And I always thought the potential for him to do that was there. He's always considered himself a fan of Teddy Roosevelt, which -- and that sort of progressive Republicanism is very different than what George Bush was offering. Frankly, it's different than what Tom DeLay and Newt Gingrich were offering.

And that has always been within him, to offer that kind of different Republican vision. Remember, George Bush said, "I'm not Newt Gingrich." He had compassionate conservatism to define himself as not Newt Gingrich.

You've got to reform your own party before people trust you to reform the country. And he, for reasons having to do with internals in the campaign, I believe, never took that step away from the straightjacket of the Republican brand and really reform his own party.

He had to have done that probably months ago.

Obama continuing reassurance

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
[Sen. Barack Obama] is not limited in his spending. But it translates into this, Jim: You don't have to make hard choices.

JIM LEHRER: So what do we look forward to? We've got 11 days before the election, Mark. What happens in the next 11 days?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, I think Obama is, obviously, about reassuring, continuing that reassurance, which he has done quite well in the last, I'd say, five weeks.

He's made people more comfortable with him, not only on the issues that David described, but comfortable with him as commander-in-chief, that his values are people's values. He's got to stay positive in his own heavy advertising.

And I think this is -- this is something that, for some reason, has gone unremarked upon by many in the press and that is the enormous financial advantage that Obama has had and what it gives as a strategic advantage in the campaign.

JIM LEHRER: Explain that. How?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, he raised -- Obama reneged on his pledge to negotiate with John McCain, which he made earlier in the year, on working out public financing.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. But what does it mean to have this -- so much money?

MARK SHIELDS: OK, so he -- that means that he is not limited in his spending. But it translates into this, Jim: You don't have to make hard choices.

It means you can run an advertising campaign that is positive -- which he has done -- about his own tax plan, for example, 95 percent of people getting tax cuts, to the point where it does have an impact on people's attitudes toward Obama on taxes, where, at the same time, he doesn't have to make choices on what state he goes into, and it always lets him stay on the offense.

He can go into North Dakota if North Dakota looks encouraging. He can expand and open up headquarters in Georgia. He can do the same thing in Indiana, run a full-fledged campaign.

McCain, who is limited by the public financing amount he took, has to ration this money over several states and is always playing defense. He's outspent on television. He's outspent in organizational. Obama has the enthusiasm thing.

But the point I want to make is, this is not a one-time thing. Anybody who thinks the genie is not out of the bottle when it comes to money in American politics -- politics is the most imitated of all human activities.

The next time out, it won't be nice little people writing checks on the Internet, you know, or sweet mothers and grandmothers. There's going to be a lot of people with a lot of money, and we're looking at a trillion-dollar campaign.

DAVID BROOKS: It's not that way even now. I mean, Obama has raised hundreds of millions of dollars. There was a story in the Washington Post pointing out that, if you take the people who've contributed to him $200 or less, the small donors, George Bush had a larger percentage than Barack Obama.

He's now -- I mean, he had those people. There are a lot of people giving a lot of small donations.

MARK SHIELDS: Absolutely. Absolutely.

DAVID BROOKS: But there are also a lot of big money donors. And so the campaign is now this huge operation.

And, you know, Mike Allen sends out this daily e-mail for political junkies on what's going on, on the campaign. And one day a couple weeks ago, he said in a certain period, I think in a week, in northern Virginia, Obama had 1,400 ads and McCain had 8. Now, that's out of proportion.

JIM LEHRER: You mean television ads?

DAVID BROOKS: Television ads. But I have...

JIM LEHRER: Well, the television stations in Washington, they have nothing but Obama ads, it seems like.

DAVID BROOKS: That's true.

JIM LEHRER: Since that's northern Virginia.

DAVID BROOKS: I happen to think that -- I don't know if Mark agrees, and he knows this better than I -- but I happen to think the get-out-the-vote operations, the headquarters, the number of offices you can open up in a state, it may be more effective in actually affecting voter outcomes.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, that that's a big deal?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think we'll know that. I don't think there's any question it's generated enormous activity and enthusiasm.

And make no mistake about it: Barack Obama is a superb candidate. He had the issues going with him. He's run a superb campaign.

Charlie Cook, the political analyst, describes him politically as a mountain goat, that is that, you know, he is so sure-footed, even in the narrow rocky crevices of the highest peaks. He's made one mistake.

So I'm not saying he's winning because of the money; I'm simply saying the money does give you an enormous strategic advantage.

Greenspan was honest, telling

David Brooks
The New York Times
Greenspan relied on quantitative models of risk analysis, where (economist Nassim) Taleb is the product of behavioral economics, which talks about the psychology of perception and the perception of risks ...

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of money, another subject, David. Alan Greenspan's testimony this day before yesterday before Congress, what did you think of that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, first of all, I admired him for saying that. We often are in a political culture where nobody admits a mistake, and he admitted a mistake. And the question is, why? What did he get wrong about the economy?

And I think what he got wrong is -- Paul Solman had a guy named Nassim Taleb on the show not long ago who got it right, who picked Fannie Mae, who talked about the banking collapse.

And the difference between the two worldviews is Greenspan relied on quantitative models of risk analysis, where Taleb is the product of behavioral economics, which talks about the psychology of perception and the perception of risks, and the biases we make in assuming the future will be basically like the past, and the way we look for evidence that confirms our prejudices.

And if you looked at the risk analysis through the frailty of human perception, as Talib did, you can say this risk was out of control. People did not understand what was happening.

And all these bogus economic models that the quantifying people believed in just were bogus. And I think that's the two mental frameworks that allowed some people to understand what was going to happen and so many, so many experts not get it.

JIM LEHRER: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I was struck by the bluntness of his economic philosophy, relying on the self-interest of companies and corporations to protect their stockholders, that there really wasn't a larger -- it struck me.

I mean, he's very faithful to that philosophy, and that that by itself denied any need, really, for regulation.

I think there are two people, two individuals, Jim, who really have gone unheralded, who did warn us about this. And I'm not faulting Chairman Greenspan any more than other people involved in it, including many in the press.

But Ned Gramlich was a Federal Reserve governor who died too early, University of Michigan economist and scholar, who wrote a book on the subject of what subprimes did and sounded the warning. And Alan Greenspan has been quite candid about this.

And Brooksley Born, who was the chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission in the Clinton administration, took on not only the Federal Reserve chairman, but also the Clinton administration's Treasury Department and the White House. She wanted to -- she wanted greater regulation.

So, I mean, and John Dingell, the senior member of the House, when the wall came down between banks going into securities and he voted against it in 1998, predicted exactly what would happen 10 years later.

So there were some voices. And, you know, it was -- David's right. Alan Greenspan was candid in admitting and didn't dodge and duck like so many of the corporate types up there have.

Rolling success to crashing despair

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
Twenty-six years we had -- from 1982 forward, we had low unemployment, low inflation, and pretty good economic times. A lot of people were hurting, but, you know, so there was that reason, that expectation that things were going to get better.

JIM LEHRER: And he -- what did you think of his explanation as to what -- his part of it, too, but the rest of the other parties who were involved in this terrible, terrible tragedy?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, everyone was thinking along the same way. I mean, there was groupthink.

I mean, and, to be fair, it's one of the things that economists rarely do is think of human beings in a web of relationships. They think of us as individualist, just risk calculators.

But we get in these webs where we all look at risk the same way. We look at the culture of debt the same way. And to me, it's not only Wall Street.

People took out these loans. People assumed house prices were going up. It's a contagion all across the world in highly regulated economies in Europe, less regulated economies here. And to me, it's this social contagion that has sort of transcended all the other barriers.

JIM LEHRER: Well, as Alice Rivlin said on this program the other night, what nobody counted on was the possibility even that home prices wouldn't always go up, they would eventually go down. Nobody considered that as a possibility.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, remember this. I mean -- and I think we're now on the cusp of a very serious economic recession.

Twenty-six years we had -- from 1982 forward, we had low unemployment, low inflation, and pretty good economic times. A lot of people were hurting, but, you know, so there was that reason, that expectation that things were going to get better.

JIM LEHRER: And home values were always going up.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. OK, gentlemen, thank you both very much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.