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Shields and Brooks Assess New Dynamics of ’08 Race

September 5, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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With both national party conventions now complete, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama hit the ground running as the race begins to Election Day. Analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the road ahead.
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TRANSCRIPT

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

David, did the Republicans have a good convention, a successful convention?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Yes. They had a slightly worse convention than the Democrats, but did better out of it. I’m speaking in ironies.

And I think that’s because they were so far behind, people had an image of what the Republican Party was, that was so negative that if they got up there and showed they were not a bunch of Tom DeLays and Jack Abramoffs, people said, “Oh, yeah, they’re not so bad.” And I think they did that.

And it was a tight convention, because I thought some of it was harkening back to the past with the DeLay-Bush era, but they got enough into the future. Palin is just new. Whether you like her or not, she’s new. With John McCain, what you got was the integrity, the intention to change.

As Mark pointed out last night, I think there was a mismatch between the policy, which was not transformational, and the passion, which was transformational.

But people got to see a great man, and I think they’ll respond to that. I think the danger for the McCain campaign, it’s Dole all over again, somebody people admire, but don’t necessarily support.

Expectations of the convention

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
I think that Sarah Palin and her performance, her pick, first of all, then her performance, gave them some energy, some spark that had been sadly missing.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Mark, from the Republican point of view, a positive event, this whole convention?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Oh, I think so, Jim. I mean, I think the Republicans went into it with their dobber down. I mean, they weren't expecting...

JIM LEHRER: You agree with David.

MARK SHIELDS: They weren't expecting a win, and there was an enthusiasm gap. There was really -- and I think that Sarah Palin and her performance, her pick, first of all, then her performance, gave them some energy, some spark that had been sadly missing.

JIM LEHRER: And you think that, without Sarah Palin, what would this convention have been like? Do you think -- let's say it had been Tim Pawlenty.

MARK SHIELDS: Tim Pawlenty, OK, Tim Pawlenty, an appealing, attractive governor of Minnesota, I think they'd come out of it with a sense of resignation. I mean, I really do.

I think -- she's a wild card. I mean, let's be very blunt about it.

Two things I think that we're overlooking in the concentration of the discussion on Sarah Palin. In 40 years, we've had two presidential elections where the vice presidential nominees were so dominant on one side that it was a mismatch.

I mean, 1968, Ed Muskie, the Democratic senator from Maine, over the Republican, mediocre, corrupt Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon's choice from Maryland. In 1988, Senator Lloyd Bentsen, gifted legislator, later secretary of the treasury, against an unprepared Dan Quayle on the Republican side, chosen by George Herbert Walker Bush.

In both cases, Jim, the party with the better vice presidential candidate lost.

JIM LEHRER: So the theory there...

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I mean, people vote for president. And in 1988, George Herbert Walker Bush, you know, with the albatross of Dan Quayle, seemingly, in the vice presidential debate, if it had been a professional prizefight, a responsible referee would have stopped, you know, just thrown in the towel, carried 40 states of the 50.

Sarah Palin's atmosphere change

David Brooks
The New York Times
... the fact that (Palin) didn't raise Ronald Reagan, the fact she's not fighting the fights of the past I think is tremendously important, especially for people, you know, under 50.

JIM LEHRER: How would you -- what do you think, David, that -- forget the convention itself -- do you think that the choice of Sarah Palin and what she did at the convention changes the dynamics of the race in a major way?

DAVID BROOKS: Not in a major way. I essentially agree with Mark, unless something terrible or something great happens. But she did intensify the connection to the convention.

She really got people excited. The Republicans and the Democrats both raised a lot of money off her. She's a polarizing figure. And so she created this atmosphere of intensity, which is important.

The other thing I think she did -- I think she did make John McCain a little younger. And I think...

JIM LEHRER: Younger, made John McCain younger?

DAVID BROOKS: Because for most people, McCain is an old guy. Does he understand what I'm feeling when I walk down the supermarket aisle? And for some people, they look at Sarah Palin and think, "She's awful."

I got a lot of e-mails today. "I just hate that woman. Her voice grates on me. I hate that kind of person." I heard a lot of that stuff.

But then I also got a lot of e-mails -- the former e-mails came from deep blue states, I would say. The other e-mails saying, yes, she's -- and we just heard that today, just now...

JIM LEHRER: In the discussion with Judy.

DAVID BROOKS: ... I know who she is. And so for McCain, who seemed old and sort of maybe removed from day-to-day life, she does bring him down to that.

And I think her mood is very much reflective of the national mood, which is fed up, but which is cheerful and not bitter, but fed up and angry, but not harkening back to the past.

And I mentioned this before, but the fact that she didn't raise Ronald Reagan, the fact she's not fighting the fights of the past I think is tremendously important, especially for people, you know, under 50. That stuff is old history.

JIM LEHRER: All right, let's go to the cosmic question here, Mark, the cosmic question.

MARK SHIELDS: You know what? Can I make a phone call?

DAVID BROOKS: The Dalai Lama on line one.

McCain-Palin versus Obama-Biden

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
John McCain 2000 is a very serious challenger against Barack Obama 2008. John McCain 2008, I think, is a less formidable challenger against Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

JIM LEHRER: OK. McCain-Palin versus Obama-Biden, what is this actually going to turn on, right? We don't know exactly what could happen tomorrow, whatever. But what is the issue between these two tickets right now that you think that could decide it?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think the fundamentals of this election, Jim, tilt very heavily against the Republicans. I have never seen a playing field more unfavorable to a party holding the White House, including 1992, with President George Herbert Walker Bush, when Bill Clinton...

JIM LEHRER: You're talking about the party?

MARK SHIELDS: I'm talking about the -- I'm talking about a set of realities that John McCain had to deal with at that convention. He had to try and kind of get a little leg from George Bush, never mentioned his name, said "the president" had done a wonderful job after 9/11.

Bush wasn't mentioned. Cheney wasn't mentioned by the nominee of the party.

You know, today we had 84,000 more people unemployed. We had 610,000 people in this country who had a job to go to on January 1 who didn't have a job to go to on September 1.

All of these are really -- make it very difficult, in a time when people are demanding change, want change, John McCain, to me, what Sarah Palin served for him, she became his proxy for change. He didn't have a program for change. He didn't have a policy change. She became his proxy for change.

And she is -- I mean, she is change. David's right. It's a generational change. It's a stylistic change. And it's a demographic change. Let's be very blunt about it, not simply from Alaska, from a different -- off the continent, but a gender and all that that represents, and sort of, you know, the Mike Huckabee school of the Republican Party to some degree.

But I would say right now that -- I mean, it's tough. It's an uphill struggle for McCain and Palin against Obama and Biden.

DAVID BROOKS: Sure. I mean, it's obviously an uphill struggle, but still the issue is change, and it's over a definition...

JIM LEHRER: It's going to be a change no matter who...

DAVID BROOKS: But whose definition of change wins? That's the crucial issue of this election. If you're definition of change...

JIM LEHRER: People unhappy with the way things are now, and they want it to go better.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. So if your definition of change is we've had one set of policies, we need another set of policies, if it's left-right change, then Barack Obama is going to win.

If it's more existential change, the system is terrible, we need someone who knows the system, who has a history of fighting the system, who will fight the system, and who is in his nature to be an insurgent and a system-fighter, if that definition of change carries the day, then John McCain will win.

And so it's about change, but two different views of change.

JIM LEHRER: What about the ideology? Is this going to shape up? Do you think it's going to shape up as a simple liberal-versus-conservative struggle?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, there's an element of that. And I'm struck by how traditional that is. And I think the McCain campaign is insane for trying to -- they think they can win a traditional left-right.

I understand why Barack Obama has come back and become a more conventional liberal. I do not understand why John McCain has not broken out and become a very untraditional Republican, just the way -- Andy Kohut all week was telling us these numbers on, do you favor the Republicans or Democrats on health care, education, and so and so? The numbers are hugely in favor of the Democratic Party.

And still, again, the major disappointment with the McCain speech, it was not the way he delivered it, though that was not great, and the conviction I thought was good, the story was good. It was the policy that was not there.

MARK SHIELDS: John McCain 2000 is a very serious challenger against Barack Obama 2008. John McCain 2008, I think, is a less formidable challenger against Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

I mean, along the way, I mean, however you want to put it, he's not -- he's not the insurgent he was. He's not -- I mean, he really isn't, I mean, whether...

John McCain's 2008 stance

David Brooks
The New York Times
That's the difference between 2000 and 2008. (John McCain has) built on another layer of things he's actually done.

JIM LEHRER: But what about the ideology thing?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, on the ideology thing, I think it's crazy. I mean, John McCain stood up and said he's for deregulation. I mean, he kind of goes through this mantra of, "We've got to get rid of the bureaucracy."

Jim, the American taxpayers right now, a beleaguered group of people, according to all measurements, are now bailing out because we've had a deregulated financial industry in this country, and we've had collapses and crises, and we've had continuing collapses and crises, and the bailout of Wall Street and banks is being paid for by American taxpayers because of deregulation.

Any time there's a financial crisis, the impulse in American voters historically has been for more regulation. So, I mean, ideologically, he's fighting a losing battle there.

But when he said it -- you know, that wasn't said with the passion and conviction that he ended the speech with. I mean, that was just sort of a throwaway line that, well, this is Republican talking points.

DAVID BROOKS: Just on the 2000-2008 point, I mean, I'm just sitting here for five seconds. The things that John McCain has done between 2000 and 2008 that come immediately to my mind, fighting Jack Abramoff, taking on and destroying a very corrupt Boeing contract, fighting immigration, campaign finance reform, Gang of 14 on judges, earmarks, voting against the Bush energy policy.

These are all policies where he substantively has taken on either his party or the normal Washington way of doing things and has changed things. That's the difference between 2000 and 2008. He's built on another layer of things he's actually done.

Now, has he run the kind of campaign that reflects that in the primary season? Not to my satisfaction, not to a lot of people's satisfaction.

So I understand where Mark is coming from. But, you know, I don't want to sound like I'm talking the Republican talking points. But you compare this to voting present, on the substance, he's got a decent record.

MARK SHIELDS: On immigration, backed off. Agents of intolerance, which was a big thing in 2000, when he stood up and took on the right wing of his party, the religious -- what he considered to be the religiously intolerant, he then spent the following year...

JIM LEHRER: Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson.

MARK SHIELDS: ... Jerry Falwell, becoming Jerry Falwell's new best friend. On torture, John McCain took a very principled stand, has backed off on it.

His principal promise in the Iowa caucus was, "I will close Guantanamo." That was the first act of president. He has not mentioned it since. I mean, you know, you can go through where he has -- he has changed. He has trimmed, to say nothing of tax cuts.

You know, so there is a backing and filling.

DAVID BROOKS: This is fair. I mean, this is a fair question, because I've had a Democratic senator, and he says to me, "You think the McCain you saw in the Senate is the real McCain? I have news for you. This McCain on the campaign trail, that's the real McCain. You are stupid." I still think the McCain I saw in the Senate is the real McCain.

JIM LEHRER: And he is...

DAVID BROOKS: ... and will be the president. If he's elected president, he'll be that guy and not necessarily the guy which Mark accurately describes.

MARK SHIELDS: The guy in 2000, I've got to tell you, I was ready to put his bumper sticker on, you know, I mean, and risk domestic harmony. But, I mean, I just -- if something happens, whether it's Icarus and, you know, getting so close to that flame, whatever it is, you know -- and I think you can see it with Obama.

I mean, they just -- they just start to pull back. And someone's whispering in their ear, and I think that's what's happened to McCain.

George Bush happened to McCain. If John McCain loses, it will let history record George Bush twice deprived him of the presidency, in 2000 in South Carolina and in 2008 with his record.

JIM LEHRER: I want to thank both of you for being here tonight and being here every night for the last two weeks. It seems like a lot longer.

DAVID BROOKS: To especially the viewers.

JIM LEHRER: No, no, no, no. Thank you both very much for all you've done.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.