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Shields and Brooks Anticipate Calls for Unity at RNC

September 3, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Before the third night of the Republican convention, columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss what's likely ahead from speakers trying to rally the party.
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JIM LEHRER: David, it seems — particularly picking up on what Andy and Amy said — there’s a huge mission on the table of the Republican Party, not only at this convention, but generally between now and these next 60 days, correct?

DAVID BROOKS, columnist, New York Times: Well, as Amy said, the train is on the tracks and they’ve got to shift it. They thought they had a very good month leading up to this convention, or at least leading up to the Democratic convention.

They ran a series of ads lampooning Obama. They pulled very close or even or maybe even slightly ahead in the polls. And then Obama had his convention. It was successful for the Democrats.

And then they picked Palin, and they picked her because they thought the reformer would take them out of the left-right and make it a maverick ticket. That worked for about six hours. And then the story broke about her daughter.

And when it broke about her daughter, it became about reproductive rights, about reproduction. It became about mommy wars and culture wars. And within very few hours, what had been a maverick pick became a base pick, became a social conservative versus non-social conservative pick.

And so, in the last 36 hours, they feel they’ve been blown off-course. They want to get back so it’s more of a maverick pick, less pleasing to the Evangelicals here and more pleasing to the world at large.

And that’s really what they’ve got to try to do tonight, to shift it away from the reproductive rights stuff back to the stuff they want to talk about, which is taking on the Republican establishment.

Claiming independence within party

JIM LEHRER: And meanwhile, Mark, there's the economy, which, of course, also Andy and Amy were talking about. And as part of the theme we're going to hear later on at the convention itself, that's a huge thing, at least talking to what Amy and Andy says, about the differences that people feel about the Democratic Party versus the Republican Party on the economy.

MARK SHIELDS: Those numbers that Andy cited are staggering, Jim. I mean, they're just -- I mean, they're beyond anything I've ever seen before for a party's decisiveness.

David speaks about McCain folks having good months leading up to this convention. I had one of the smartest Republicans on national campaigns successfully say to me today that what astounded him was how John McCain could run on experience against Barack Obama as the central cornerstone for three months and then pick Sarah Palin.

And he said the three months' theme to the campaign was just sort of totally sabotaged by her choice, if you're going to go -- if you're going to go insurgent, going to go different. So there's a certain sense of, where are we going from this point forward? I think that...

JIM LEHRER: You mean more generally, not just on the economy?

MARK SHIELDS: On the Republican prose, it's kind of, where is this -- where is this campaign? And, you know, is there really a plan for the next eight weeks?

JIM LEHRER: David, is the problem on the economy specifically -- just to harp on this a moment more -- does it have to do with the reality right now in our country, and people blame George W. Bush, and there's not a thing in the world John McCain can do about that?

DAVID BROOKS: That's part of it, though it's part of the larger story that we're both talking about. Really, the fight for John McCain is, how much does he stick with the Republican orthodoxy? How much does he just shatter it?

And that's been true of the economy. I personally believe in his heart of hearts he's not thrilled with the top end of the Bush tax cuts. He certainly didn't seem thrilled years ago...

JIM LEHRER: I thought he was opposed -- yes, he was opposed.

DAVID BROOKS: ... against the whole, darn thing. But, nonetheless, he wanted to stay within the party orthodoxy on that, because he felt it necessary to establish his bona fides because the base and the people in this room were so hostile to him. He needed to be pure, at least on this issue.

And so he hasn't smashed the ceiling, and broken out of the mold, and said, "I'm going to break the mold on Republican economics." And he has a reasonable position to make that raising taxes now would be a bad idea.

But the party is so far behind I think it argues for breaking the mold. I thought it argued for breaking the mold and making picking a Joe Lieberman, breaking the mold in all sorts of ways, not inviting George Bush to address the thing. Have a fight. Have a fight within the party.

And they -- believe me, within the campaign, they thought about all these things. They decided at the end of the day it would be reckless to break the mold. And now they're trying to establish their independent bona fides, but within a frame.

McCain on Bush's tax cuts

JIM LEHRER: Did they consider -- do either one of you know whether they considered breaking the mold with a well-known Republican economist or somebody who had huge knowledge of the economy, where they could kind of take that heat off of McCain, because he apparently -- that's not his strong suit?

MARK SHIELDS: No, that was the argument for Mitt Romney that was made.

JIM LEHRER: OK, that's right. He was a businessman.

MARK SHIELDS: That Romney had been the business guy. Jim, I interviewed John McCain in the 2000 campaign. And he sat right across the table on a televised interview, where he said, "I have to oppose the Bush tax cuts; 36 percent of the benefits go to the top 1 percent. And that's just unacceptable."

That was in a Republican primary he said that. And, I mean, that's going to come back -- that footage is there. It's on the record. That will come back.

And, you know, I just -- I think John McCain would be a lot more comfortable running as a maverick. I really do. I mean, just saying, "OK, this is who I am."

He's got to run as John McCain. He's not running as a Republican nominee for president. He has to run as John McCain. And that's his only hope.

DAVID BROOKS: Bush did win that election, though. I mean, he did run on that tax cut, and he won, and he won again.

MARK SHIELDS: But he voted against it when it was proposed.

DAVID BROOKS: But I'm saying the tax cut -- the argument -- I mean, Al Gore, we sat wherever we were around the table, Al Gore hit him, top 1 percent and all the benefits go to the top 1 percent, and the fact is, Bush won.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with David, Mark, that McCain was trying to go the maverick route in selecting Sarah Palin and it kind of didn't work, at least right now it's not working, because of all these other things? Now, of course, we'll see. She may hit this thing out of the park tonight, and we may be back to a maverick thing.

What do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Dan Bartlett, George Bush's counselor, told the Los Angeles...

JIM LEHRER: Dan Bartlett, right, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: ... told the Los Angeles Times she'll either be a wild success or a spectacular failure. I think -- I think....

High-risk, High-reward VP

JIM LEHRER: You mean you think it's that dramatic one way or the other?

MARK SHIELDS: I think she's a high-risk, high-reward. I don't think tonight is going to be destructive. I don't think she's going to self-immolate tonight.

It's a very controlled setting. She's giving a speech that she's rehearsed, that she's presumably -- she's been sequestered more than any capital case jury I can remember since she's been chosen. I mean, she hasn't even talked to her own delegation.

I mean, when Fred was down there talking to the Alaska delegation, they haven't seen her since she was chosen.

So, I mean, she's ready for tonight, but I think it is -- I think it is a big risk. I think he did -- I think he did choose her in part -- the problem, you know, the stories keep coming out, by the fact the McCain folks saying, "We're not going to talk about it anymore," that they didn't get to a personal interview with her until last Thursday.

JIM LEHRER: You mean the campaign didn't?

MARK SHIELDS: The campaign didn't. The candidate didn't. And, you know, John McCain won the nomination on the 4th of March. That's six months ago. When he won the Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont primaries, that was it.

So, I mean, six months, and you come down to, "OK, we have to have one by tomorrow." Well, let's talk to somebody.

JIM LEHRER: OK, we're also going to get some red meat tonight from Romney, Huckabee, and Giuliani.

DAVID BROOKS: Especially Mitt Romney. I think the transformation of Mitt Romney may be eye-startling for people from the guy who used to be governor of Massachusetts.

JIM LEHRER: OK, so a trifecta is in the works?

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

JIM LEHRER: Hey, hey, hey. All right, thank you both.

And as always, our coverage is online, as well as television, as you know, and that includes a daily Ray Suarez convention report at 2 p.m. Eastern time on our Web site. Just go to PBS.org, where you'll find us at the very top of the page.

And we'll see you later this evening for our complete PBS coverage of the Republicans in St. Paul and again here on the NewsHour tomorrow evening. For now, I'm Jim Lehrer. Thank you, and good night.