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Shields, Brooks Reflect on Campaigns’ Defining Moments

October 31, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks recap the week's economic and political news, and recall significant campaign twists and turns in their last analysis before Nov. 4.

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

First, David, how do you read the importance of North Carolina, Georgia and the other southern states, what we just heard?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Especially in the Senate, really important. If McCain starts losing those states in the presidential, he’ll lose by a lot.

But to me, two things are going on here. The one which I associate a little more with Georgia is that this is just a tough year for Republicans, and so they’re going to be challenged in a lot of states they really shouldn’t be challenged in.

But then there’s a second trend which I associate more with North Carolina, which is really a long tectonic shift away from the Republican Party, especially in places like North Carolina, where, as we’ve heard, you’ve got the people moving from the north down to North Carolina, and then you’ve got the rise, especially around the Research Triangle area, of highly educated people and young people, and those people are fleeing the Republican Party in droves.

And so I’ve spent a lot of time in North Carolina, and people had a sense the Democrats were going to do a lot better year upon year. I think they were surprised it’s happening this year.

They thought it might happen four years or eight years from now, because there has been this long-term trend away from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party, because the Republicans are losing these sorts of people, highly educated people.

JIM LEHRER: And also the surge in the African-American vote, as well?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: The surge in the African-American vote is enormous. I do think, Jim, that the significance is more than just this election, because we’ve had a given of a solid South, really, for the past 40 years, that it’s been the most reliable, dependable, and homogenous Republican…

JIM LEHRER: Beginning with Richard Nixon.

MARK SHIELDS: Beginning with Richard Nixon — George Wallace in 1968…

JIM LEHRER: George Wallace, right.

MARK SHIELDS: … and then Nixon brought in the Wallace vote in ’72. And so the Democrats have really not been competitive there.

And I think that, when any area of the country becomes more competitive, it’s not only healthy for our politics, but it’s very healthy for the two-party system, that Democrats now have to think in terms of the support of and the encouragement and the re-election of Democrats who are elected from that region, if they’re going to, in fact, compete there in a real way.

Campaigns 'mirror' the candidates

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
Candidates' strengths and weaknesses are reflected in whom the candidate chooses to run the campaign, how the campaign's run.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Now, in a more overview question here -- we're on a Friday before Tuesday's election. Much is being said, Mark, about how well the Barack Obama campaign has been run.

How do you read that at this stage? Now, we don't know how it's going to turn out, but how well, just as a campaign?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, there's a dirty little secret in the press, and that is this, that if you win, you're a genius. If you lose, you're a...

JIM LEHRER: It's not a secret anymore. You just told everybody.

MARK SHIELDS: It's not a secret. I just told everybody. And -- but, I mean, you want to go through Hamilton Jordan being the greatest example. Hamilton Jordan was a very able political operative, the late Hamilton Jordan, ran Jimmy Carter's campaign.

One-term ex-governor of Georgia beats the face cards of the Democratic Party in 1976, steals the Democratic nomination, wins the White House, first southerner since the Civil War to win the Democratic nomination for president, an achievement of just towering magnitude.

Four years later, Jimmy Carter is unelected president by Ronald Reagan, who carries 44 states. Now, Hamilton Jordan, what did he lose, 70 I.Q. points in those four years? No, I mean, it's just -- it's part of the formula.

Has it been a good campaign? It's been superb. It's been very disciplined. Every campaign is ultimately, inevitably a mirror reflection of the candidate.

JIM LEHRER: Forget consultants and assistants...

MARK SHIELDS: Candidates' strengths and weaknesses are reflected in whom the candidate chooses to run the campaign, how the campaign's run. It's been disciplined. It's been harmonious. Winning campaigns are more harmonious than losing campaigns, which are civil wars and a leper colony.

Obama's moderate staff

David Brooks
New York Times
[I]n our business, you write something negative about a campaign, and you get a call often the next day, and they tell you you're a complete idiot.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read it, David, the Obama campaign?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it has been a smoothly run campaign. The thing that strikes me about the campaign is how nice it is. I mean, they're not always accessible, especially with the candidate, but they are nice people.

MARK SHIELDS: They are nice.

DAVID BROOKS: When, in our business, you write something negative about a campaign, and you get a call often the next day, and they tell you you're a complete idiot.

With the Obama campaign, they'll call you up and they'll say, "You know, David, we love you. You're a great guy. We really respect your work. It's so sad that you're a complete idiot." And so they make you feel better about it while they deliver the message.

And that niceness, I think, is a reflection from Obama. It's been a smoothly run campaign. They haven't taken a lot of chances, but they've made practically zero mistakes.

Does that mean he'll be a great president? Not necessarily. I think the best campaign I've seen in recent history was the George Bush 2000 campaign, which I thought was a masterpiece of a campaign in a very hostile environment.

Did it mean he would turn out to be a great manager and president? Well, viewers can decide.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, but what about the people around Obama? They're the same people who were around him when it began, right? Does that mean something?

DAVID BROOKS: It does. And it means, as somebody who came from the Clinton world and entered the Obama world, this person said to me, "They're in it for all the right reasons," which is to say, "It's not a notch on their career to move up. They're in it because of Obama." And that's important.

And, I mean, from my point of view, they're moderate people. They're not flaky. Personally, they tend to be very even-tempered and I think even ideologically they tend to be moderate Democrats and not off on any fringe.

MARK SHIELDS: David Axelrod is about to go into the Cooperstown of political operatives, consultants. He's very good. He's been a major, major indispensable force.

JIM LEHRER: His title is?

MARK SHIELDS: Chief strategist.

JIM LEHRER: Chief strategist...

MARK SHIELDS: Senior strategist.

JIM LEHRER: ... former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: Used to be. Used to be -- you know, trusted senior adviser, whatever...

JIM LEHRER: Right, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: ... quote, unquote. But David Axelrod worked for John Edwards in 2004. You know, his genius was somehow not clearly as visible in a losing campaign.

So, I mean, is David Axelrod good? Sure. But, I mean, there's a great Russian proverb that says, "Winning has a fragrance all its own."

JIM LEHRER: The Russians said that?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, the Russians said that. And I just -- I think it's important to bear that in mind. It does have a fragrance. Boy, you know, and you start to believe you've got an I.Q. of 200 and you're seven feet tall.

But I do think that it's been -- David's point about the -- they are -- the campaign itself, the people in it, have never been taken with their self-importance.

Contrast it with the Giuliani campaign, which was -- it made Dale Carnegie's book required reading for everybody in politics. It was the most abrasive I've ever dealt with.

Key campaign moments

David Brooks
New York Times
I do have to say, about Obama, there were very few turning points. McCain has a lot of them.

JIM LEHRER: Another overview question, David. When you look back -- this has been a very long campaign. Let's face it, almost two years for everybody concerned.

Do you look back now and see some really turning points, major turning points that really caused this thing to happen, that we're now sitting here, John McCain versus Barack Obama, two years later?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. I would say, for McCain, it was the surge, the decision of the surge, and the success of the surge, which made him a viable candidate. That was the good one.

And then the bad one I think was about the same time, the depths of the campaign, when they shook up the campaign. They got people who were more organized, but also more conventionally Republican. And I think he's run a more conventional campaign than he should have, because of those people that surrounded him then.

And that's why he picked Sarah Palin, because he's run a much more conventionally Republican campaign.

So I think the key moments were way back then, which was sort of set in stone what would happen afterwards.

For Barack Obama, I'd say it was the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in Iowa last winter where he discovered that voice, the hope message, which really electrified people for a long time and then which set him off on the trajectory.

And then I think it was in the middle of the Clinton fight, where she ran that 3 a.m. ad, and he sort of shifted from hope and the effervescence and became much more reassuring and experienced and became, I think, a much more prosaic candidate as a result, but I think those were the two trajectories.

I do have to say, about Obama, there were very few turning points. McCain has a lot of them. Obama, he's not a turning point kind of guy. It's just pretty steady.

Potential election outcomes

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
[Obama] was true to himself. He was cool. He was confident. He never tried to step outside of that.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Jim, first of all, nobody chooses the environment in which he runs. It was an unfriendly, unforgiving environment for John McCain.

He was running at a time when he was seeking a third time -- White House term for his party, a singularly unpopular president of his party, an unpopular war, a sluggish economy that turned into crisis. So, I mean, that's a factor beyond his control.

And so, if John McCain runs close on Tuesday -- I'm not making predictions, but I will make a prediction -- if he does run close, he's done well in that sense. But the reality is the deck was stacked against him.

I think the most important thing was he made a faulty decision at the outset to try and run a George Bush-clone campaign, a big, national campaign, a lot of money, big budget, and it came a cropper. It absolutely imploded.

And at that point, John McCain returned to what John McCain had been. He became the John McCain of town meetings in New Hampshire. He went back. New Hampshire was his venue to rescue that campaign. And it was quite impressive. And he did it almost single-handedly.

If John McCain had run...

JIM LEHRER: But that was to get the nomination.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. If he had run the John McCain campaign of 2000 in 2008, the guy who took on tobacco, the guy who'd taken on soft money, the guy who stood independently of his own party, who took on -- who stood for middle-income tax cuts and low-income tax cuts, and wanted to make Social Security solvent, not to give money to -- tax cuts, as he put it, to the millionaires, I think John McCain would have been a far more competitive candidate.

He became...

JIM LEHRER: In the general election?

MARK SHIELDS: In the general election, he became a far more conventional Republican, and as David pointed out.

In Obama's case, Obama, I think, to his credit, understood -- the definition of leadership to me, politically, is that a leader know and understand himself or herself and know and understand the times in which he lives.

Obama understood both. He always stayed within his own game in the sense as a candidate. He was true to himself. He was cool. He was confident. He never tried to step outside of that.

JIM LEHRER: And be somebody else?

MARK SHIELDS: Be somebody else. And it served him very well, especially in the crisis.

And, finally, Jim, he was the anti-war candidate in an anti-war party. If Hillary Clinton had done what John Edwards had done and changed her position on the war, she would have been very competitive. And he was gifted that she ran as an incumbent candidate, as a candidate who was ready, in a year of change, when people weren't looking for continuity.

JIM LEHRER: Looking for change, yes. Look, we're not in the prediction business here, but where does the race stand right now? I won't hold you to it.

DAVID BROOKS: It's tightened a little, but John McCain is behind in all the key swing states by a little. And he would have to really win them all to win the presidency.

So he's gotten some traction last week, I think by calling Obama a liberal spender, but it hasn't changed the momentum basically.

MARK SHIELDS: The most admirable thing John McCain did was not to play the race card in this campaign. And for that, he should be -- he deserves some credit. He did some other things that he's not going to feel good about, but certainly not doing that.

I think it's -- the over-under, I'd say, is 5 points, as say they in Las Vegas. I mean, I think he'll win by -- he, Obama -- will win the popular vote somewhere between 4 percent and 5 percent. And I think his...

JIM LEHRER: Electoral College?

MARK SHIELDS: ... Electoral College between 340 and 350.

JIM LEHRER: Does that make sense to you?

DAVID BROOKS: I'd put it a little higher. I actually think it's going to swing Obama's way a little more, 6, 7, 8, 9 points. I think it'll be a pretty convincing win. And I think...

MARK SHIELDS: Well, if that's the case, it will truly be historic, because, other than Franklin Roosevelt, only Lyndon Johnson -- all the Democrats ever elected -- got more than 50.1 percent.

DAVID BROOKS: Absolutely. But I don't think the Democrats will get 60 votes in the Senate, which to me is right now the key thing.

JIM LEHRER: OK. David, Mark, we'll see. We'll see how wrong or right you are. Thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.