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Voters Expect to Hear Confidence at the Debate

October 7, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Amid the financial crisis, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama will likely use the platform of the second presidential debate to quell voters' anxiety. Analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks explain the strengths of appearing confident and the flaws of a negative campaign.

JIM LEHRER: And on this presidential debate night, some preview remarks from Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

I see that neither of you guys have any credit default swaps?

DAVID BROOKS, columnist, New York Times: Sixty-one trillion of those are actually mine and sitting in my basement.

JIM LEHRER: You just got some really bad news.


JIM LEHRER: Look, most pundits are saying that tonight’s debate is make-it-or-break-it for John McCain. What say you, Pundit Shields?

MARK SHIELDS, syndicated columnist: I don’t think it’s make-it-or-break-it. I think there’s a nervousness bordering on panic among some Republicans, in part because John McCain has always been more popular than the Republican brand.

He’s run ahead of Republicans in Congress this year. And Barack Obama conversely has been not as popular as the Democratic brand. That is, more people are going to vote for a Democrat for Congress and for a Democratic Congress than for president.

And if that ever gets into sync — and you’ve seen these numbers kind of go south on McCain recently, where McCain is running — instead of running ahead of the Republican Congress is running with them or thereabouts, they’re facing a blowout election.

And I guess the analogy I would use is this one, Jim. We’re on a subway train. We’re between scheduled stops. We’re going along. And all of a sudden, we get hit or we hit something off our train and knocks us off the track.

And there we are in the darkness. And that’s where we are. And we’re scared. And what we’re looking for most of all is a strong, informed…

JIM LEHRER: You mean — you’re talking about the big we here?

MARK SHIELDS: I’m talking about the we, the country, the voters, as we go into this thing tonight. That’s why the stakes are big.

JIM LEHRER: All right. OK.

MARK SHIELDS: A strong, informed, confident, reassuring voice who can tell us what happened, what’s being done about it, what we can do to help and when we’re going to get back on the track.

And if that voice comes on and says, “Let me tell you about David. He was arrested for stealing a watermelon in high school, you know, and he was really a bad actor with the girls.” I mean, voters are going to turn off.

And I think that’s, I think, the needle that John McCain has to thread tonight. He has to somehow come to voters and convince them that he knows what to do.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

McCain's jabs at Obama

DAVID BROOKS: Well, first on the reassurance, there was a poll today -- and I've forgotten the exact -- I think it was the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll -- it asked, who has reassured you most in the last few weeks? And Obama has I think it was like 39 percent yes, 26 percent no; McCain, it was like 26 percent yes, 32 percent no.

So Obama has been the more reassuring presence, not by doing a whole lot, but by just seeming stable. And so he has won the reassurance race so far. So that's one important thing that he has going for him.

Now, McCain's tactic over the last couple weeks or especially over the last few days has been, "I'm behind. I've got to go after his character."

And so he's been talking about Bill Ayers, the former...

MARK SHIELDS: Weatherman.

DAVID BROOKS: ... Weatherman or terrorist, or however you want to put it. He's been talking about all these other issues. And I sort of understand why he's doing this, because you're behind. Obama is still sort of undefined. Redefine him as somebody who's radical and dangerous and risky.

But in the context of this economic crisis, I just think it's a disaster. I just don't think you're going to persuade people Barack Obama is a risky terrorist and extremist. I just don't think people are going to buy that basic point.

He's misled people on his relationship to Ayers, fine. But you're not going to make that fundamental case.

And then when you get back to tonight, how are you going to go negative, harshly negative, the way McCain has been, when you're facing the man face to face and when you're in front of independent voters who hate that kind of stuff?

In 1992, there was this famous guy, the guy with the pony tail, who asked the first President Bush, "Why are you running such a negative campaign?" People who are selected to be in that kind of audience hate that stuff.

And I find it very hard to believe that John McCain is going to be able to push case and do anything really to radically re-change this case tonight.

MARK SHIELDS: The thing I'd add to that is that the questions you get at a town meeting are personal questions about public policy. "My daughter can't get a student loan. She's had to withdraw from college."

If I take that question and say, "Let me tell you what an SOB this guy is," I mean, not only it's bad television, it's unresponsive, but it's unhelpful to the campaign.

A financial focus

JIM LEHRER: If he is asked questions, I mean, would you not assume going in that most of these questions, wherever they come and however Brokaw goes about selecting them, are going to be about the financial thing? I mean, the market went down another 500 points this very day.

DAVID BROOKS: If you look at the polls, what do people care about? That's what people care about. There could be some -- there will be health care questions and all the other stuff.

Warren Buffett called this the economic Pearl Harbor. And, you know, I think of it as a defining moment for the next few years, as much as 9/11 was for the last few, because dealing with unwinding this recession, dealing with global capital flows, building the architecture we've been hearing about for the last 40 minutes, all that stuff is going to occupy the next president.

So you better -- if you're talking about Bill Ayers or something else, it's going to be like after 9/11 you're talking about the Chicago Cubs. I mean, you're just going to look irrelevant. And neither of these guys know that much about it, but they'd better have an explanation for basically where we're headed.

Obama's likely response

JIM LEHRER: What about Obama, if he does get hit by McCain on some of these -- on Ayers or Jeremiah Wright or something -- does he pop back or does he cool it?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, he's obviously done both so far. I mean, he's kind of come back with a 13-minute Internet on McCain and the Keating Five, which is a way of saying, "I'm not going to be 'swiftboated.'"

But the great appeal of Obama, I think, from right at the outset has been that he is different, that he is going to reach across the aisle, that he's going to have a bipartisan cabinet. And if he descends into "So's your mother. She wears Army shoes," I think it becomes harmful.

JIM LEHRER: In a word, you agree?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he's got to be substantive. He hasn't been very good on the Wall Street stuff. He's been all, "A lot of greed, a lot of greed." That's not really an answer. He's got to be a little more substantive than that.

JIM LEHRER: OK, well, we'll see what happens. Thank you.