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Shields and Brooks Preview High-stakes VP Debate

October 2, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Vice presidential candidates Senator Biden and Governor Palin meet in St. Louis Thursday for a highly-anticipated campaign debate. Political analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks preview the meeting and the stakes for the candidates.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, some special analysis by Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

First, the Senate vote, Mark, on the financial plan. What happened? Where did those 74 votes suddenly come from?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, Jim, I was up there covering it, and I have to say I don’t know the merits of this. I know two things: It was a tough vote to cast this close to an election.

We saw that in the House earlier in the week, where a lot of people did a Dixie. They went south. You’re asking people to inconvenience themselves, put themselves at risk. It was enormously unpopular. There was a great populist radio organized uprising against it.

And I just — you know, as a citizen, taking off my journalist hat, I felt good watching people, quite honestly, like John Sununu of New Hampshire, who’s in a tough race for re-election, probably trailing at this point Jeanne Shaheen, the former Democratic governor, and he voted for it.

I mean, it would have been easy for him to do it. But I think there was an acknowledgment. Arlen Specter said to me — he said…

JIM LEHRER: Senator from Pennsylvania, Republican.

MARK SHIELDS: Senator from Pennsylvania, Republican, who said to me, he said, “Look, we were goaded by the House action and 778 points on the Dow Jones.” I mean, that did it.

JIM LEHRER: Did you think that was it?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, they also added some sweeteners, $150 billion. It used to be $150 billion was like a whole bill. Now it’s just a little sweetener off on the side.

But I agree with Mark. The culture of the Senate is different than the culture of the House. There’s less of the populist — either on the left or the right — in the Senate.

And, listen, you’re a senator or even a House member, you know a little about Wall Street, but you don’t know a lot. You don’t really understand. But you look at the array of expertise that says the same thing: This is not a great bill. We have to do it, what the two economists here said just now on the program. And you say, “OK, I trust them. We’ve got to do it.”

To me, the amazing thing is you have so many House members who say, “I may not understand this, and all of expert opinion may be on one side saying we’ve got to do it, but I still say no.” I mean, that’s sort of arrogant. And senators have a tendency to be arrogant, but not that arrogant.

JIM LEHRER: So what’s going to happen with the House now?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I don’t think twice in the same week the House leadership is going to bring up a bill if they don’t have the votes.

JIM LEHRER: Well, Nancy Pelosi said, no way we’re going to bring it up if we don’t have the votes.

MARK SHIELDS: Absolutely. No, I mean, I think that was stunning for all involved. I think they will pass it on Friday, and I think that that will do the Congress’s work for the year, and they’ll go home and campaign, where they’ve always wanted to be.

Crisis' affect on campaign's focus

JIM LEHRER: How is this whole financial rescue thing affecting the presidential campaign now, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think it's actually been surprisingly ineffective in affecting them personally, because both of them have been basically saying the same thing and both of them have been pretty responsible.

There would have been a great temptation, especially for John McCain, to come out against this. It was the temporarily popular thing to do, but he resisted the demagogic urge.

I think so, in terms of their policy, it's had a limited affect. But what it has done is has shifted the focus of attention, shifted the focus of the attention to two things, first, the economy, and, second, to the idea that Washington is really screwed up.

And so those two things -- even though Barack Obama has not been far out front of this, he has benefited from that shift of attention. And all you have to do is look at the polls in the last week, and there has been a strong current for Obama.

I'm really -- I expected there to be a switch to Obama at some point in this month, but that it's happening so early and he's now maybe got a 6-point lead, if you take all the polls, I'm surprised it's happening this early, and it has to be because of this crisis.

MARK SHIELDS: I think it's -- I think, Jim, that it's hurt John McCain in this sense. The doubts about Barack Obama that people have asked all throughout this campaign is, "Am I safe with him, my children, my family safe with him? As a commander-in-chief, are his values my values, where he comes from?"

I mean, he's not from Abilene, Kansas, or Hope, Arkansas, or Hyannis Port. I mean, you know, he's Hawaii and Indonesia.

And I think what John McCain did last week with his mercurial, if not erratic behavior, in changing positions and intervening, not intervening, saying he wouldn't do anything until he was going to deliver votes, and the entire Arizona Republican delegation -- all of whom are supporting John McCain -- every one of them voted against it.

I think what he did was he introduced flappability into his public personality. And Barack Obama, by simply being sort of cool and diffident and unflappable, benefited from it.

And so, all of a sudden, John McCain looked a little bit more risky last week than he had before. And I think, in that sense, it's hurt him.

DAVID BROOKS: I'd say he also looked a little more solitary. McCain was alone going to Washington, going here, going there. Obama, the smart thing he did right away, he had a press conference surrounded by economic expertise. He had Bob Rubin there. He had Larry Summers there. He had Gene Sperling. Paul Volcker he's spoken to, Warren Buffett..

MARK SHIELDS: Laura Tyson.

DAVID BROOKS: ... Laura Tyson. People, basically, if you pay attention to this, you trust those people, even if you're not sure who this Obama guy is. So he had a team.

And for all the cult-like status around Obama, this week and I think in the last couple of weeks he seemed more like a guy representing a group and a movement who you basically have some confidence in.

It's not quite clear -- McCain has a good domestic policy adviser, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, but he hadn't projected that same sort of, "I've got a group of people. We're going to handle this."

Prospects for VP debate

JIM LEHRER: All right. Tonight, the vice presidential debate. What's at stake, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, what's at stake for each of the individuals -- unless the possibility that one of them becomes president, 1 out of 3 vice presidents has become president in our history -- is that this is going to be the impression they leave with the American people. It's going to be this debate tonight.

And if John McCain does lose -- I'm not by any chance ready to write him off at this point -- Sarah Palin's hopes or expectations, which were pretty strong maybe four weeks ago being the leader of the conservative movement, are very much at risk, I think, going into tonight.

What's happened, Jim, is that Sarah Palin has had a bad four weeks. And it's people like her. They think she's natural and authentic and real. They find her appealing.

But the problem is that of qualification. And we've gone from a majority, in Andy Kohut's Pew Poll, of thinking she was qualified, now we're down to a majority, a solid majority who don't think she's qualified. So I think she's got a lot at stake tonight.

Joe Biden, by contrast, no smiles, no smirk, no diminutives. I mean, Joe's got to make up his mind that what he wants voters to come out of this debate with tonight is Joe Biden's a good guy and Barack Obama would be a good president, not Joe Biden's the smartest guy in the room. I mean, and that's, I think, a temptation.

DAVID BROOKS: It's Sarah Palin's night. There's Sarah Palin speaking, and then you can go to the fridge and get a beer.

If she does well, it will be fine for the McCain campaign, but there's probably relatively little upside. There is a downside.

If she speaks tonight the way she spoke to Katie Couric, there will just be a collapse for McCain. It will be just terrible news.

So she's got to show: A, she can speak in paragraphs; B, she can speak with some authority; and, C, she can be herself. They're trying to turn her into the wonk of the century, and she's never going to be that.

But if she can speak as herself, just as a person, she'll have some authority, because it will be genuine. But she's been over-prepped and over-prepared in the last couple weeks, and she's hopefully, for her sake, going to break out of that and just be herself.

But there's real danger here, I think. And Republicans are going to look at this debate hands-over-their-eyes nervous.

Preparing and posturing for debates

JIM LEHRER: You think the whole shooting match is at stake, not just Sarah Palin's future or whether she has a -- could be the leader of the Republican right?

DAVID BROOKS: Most vice presidential debates you get two professional politicians. They know how to dodge questions; they know how to answer questions. With Sarah Palin, you're not quite sure what you get.

And she's got two kinds of inexperience. One I sort of find endearing: She doesn't know how to dodge a question. She's not a very good bluffer. You could ask most politicians about quantum mechanics, and they'll fill you with a paragraph, even though they don't know what they're talking about.

But she's got the bad kind of inexperience, which is there are some policy areas of expertise she doesn't seem to know. And that's when you get into the dark hole.

And so, you know, will we fall into that hole tonight? That's the question.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, yes. The issue of prepping for one of these debates -- you've been around this before, Mark. I mean, what do you think? Do you agree with those who say they've over-prepped her in general, trying to shove a lot of information at her, and it's changed who she is?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it's come to the point, Jim, where she's talking in talking points rather than the naturalness. I mean, I think her great appeal that opening night -- which was a smash opening night performance -- was that she could deliver a zinger, a needle of the other side with a great smile, a natural.

She can't do that in the debate, OK? I mean, that's -- she tries to do that tonight, that would be almost worse than stumbling around.

But I do think that she's come across -- that the answers have been rehearsed and programmed, and I think it's awfully tough then. She brims with self-confidence, but it has to have been shaken, and she knows this is the biggest day she'll ever be on.

We'll find out, I think, tonight not only the depth of her knowledge, but the dimensions of her self-confidence.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Biden, you've said nice things about Joe Biden on this program in the past. How do you feel about -- what concerns or lack of them do you have about him going into this?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, as Mark indicated, the danger for him is he'll be condescending. He'll want to show how smart he is. He understands every little tribe in Iraq. And that's his danger.

But I will say, I thought he was an excellent debater during the primary season. He was to the point. He was witty. He was relaxed. And if he is a relaxed, experienced old hand, he'll be fine tonight.

JIM LEHRER: OK, all right.

Well, look, we'll see you -- we'll see each other, the three of us together, later tonight after the debate on most of these PBS stations. And then, of course, we'll be back here.

This was Thursday night, by the way. That means you have to come back again tomorrow night. So we'll talk about all of this and pick up on some of the things we talked about, OK?

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.