JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, what to expect on and from tonight’s third and final presidential debate, as seen by Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.
How many times have we heard that, “Oh, this is it for John McCain”? Is it really it for John McCain tonight, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS, syndicated columnist: Hey, it was it for John McCain last summer. Last fall in New Hampshire, it was it for John McCain.
Jim, we’re running out of times for John McCain. And I think what John McCain has to do — first, he has to win tonight. It can’t be a question of, you know…
JIM LEHRER: What is win? What…
MARK SHIELDS: Win is if there’s a consensus, not simply of the voters who watch it, the independents, but that he comes out of it with a second-day story for this debate.
JIM LEHRER: So the pundit class has to see it, as well?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, that’s right. But I think that it has to be — he has to have a theme tonight from this debate that carries him for the next two weeks. He can’t be retooling come next Thursday or retooling again this weekend.
And I think the most compelling story he’s got is that John McCain is a fighter. I think it’s believable. I think he has to tell you why he’s made those fights, not simply he’s fought with his party and Obama hasn’t, but why he made those fights, why he disagreed, what difference it made in people’s lives, and what difference he would make in people’s lives.
I think he’s exhausted mining, if you would, the anti-Obama stuff. I don’t think there’s anything left there for him. He’s got to make the case for John McCain.
McCain needs to be himself
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, it's got to be for himself?
DAVID BROOKS, columnist, New York Times: Yes, I'm not sure about that. I mean, I think he may end up doing that, but I think the electorate is settled on Obama. And so I think he's got to knock some of those people off Obama.
I think maybe I'd agree three weeks ago or a month ago the fighter thing, the positive, "Here's why I'm doing this," was the right thing to do. But at this point, we're very late in the day. Obama has got this highly significant lead, 7 or 8 points, 14 points, according to my newspaper's poll. And all the fundamentals are running against him.
And it could be he's got to knock something off Obama. And that's a very tough thing to do, because that would mean he'd have to be very harsh, pretty negative, kind of unattractive, and so there's the impulse to do that, to try to knock something off Obama.
At the same time, he's got to be thinking about his long-term reputation and how he wants to be remembered. And so that's the dilemma.
MARK SHIELDS: Eight years ago, John McCain was the most popular political figure in the country. And, boy, I would -- I'd spend the next two hours looking at those films as to what made him that.
And there was just one vignette from the town meetings in New Hampshire in 2000 that I haven't seen in 2008, when John McCain would be asked then, "What about a patient's bill of rights?" He'd turn right to the questioner, and he'd say, "We're not going to have a patient's bill of rights as long as my party is owned by the insurance companies and the Democrats are owned by the trial lawyers."
And people -- a light bulb would go on over people's heads.
JIM LEHRER: They could understand that.
MARK SHIELDS: He was telling the truth. He was a truth-teller. And I just think -- I really think that's important.
I think David is right. You've got to understand how -- and appreciate how you want to be remembered. And he doesn't want to be remembered for demolition derby.
Economic news plays out in debate
JIM LEHRER: What about the bad news again today on the economy on the day of this debate? I mean, the economy was already there. Does this increase McCain's problems?
DAVID BROOKS: I think so, well, A, because it's the party in power, and that's just unavoidable. He's a Republican. The Republicans are in power. You get blamed.
But the second thing -- and this is something I think he can solve -- is that there's an expectation out there that this was part of the free-market system. We have had the 20 years of deregulation. What are these people who are free-marketeers, what do they have to say to get us out of this?
And I think he's got to say, "Here's what we say. Here's where we think government should act, and here's where we think it should not act." And there is a narrative that he could form.
It would be challenging to form it in a debate format, as opposed to a long, 40-minute speech, which would get us talking, but I think he's got to somehow not have plans. Believe me: They've all had plans coming out of their ears. They've spent all the GDP six times over in the last month.
But just having a philosophy, "Here's where the government needs to get involved, but here's where we're going to stay out. That's why we're conservatives."
JIM LEHRER: It goes back to one of the questions from the first debate, in fact, which was, which one of these two men is more likely to be able to lead the country out of the financial problems and the economic problems, right?
MARK SHIELDS: The problem for both of them, Jim, is that the country has confidence in neither one. Even though Obama does have the lead -- and the Gallup poll had a question that was in USA Today yesterday that, boy, it ought to be sobering for both of them as they go in tonight and start talking about their promises and their pledges.
They asked, "Do you have confidence in Barack Obama, John McCain, President George W. Bush to fix the economy?" There's Obama with a 52 percent to 43 percent lead, a 44 percent lead in their poll. And 44 percent said, yes, they have confidence in him; 50 percent don't. McCain, it was 31 percent had confidence, 63 percent don't.
The president of the United States, 16 percent said they had confidence, 80 percent no confidence.
JIM LEHRER: Wow.
MARK SHIELDS: I mean, the deficit in public trust cannot be overstated, the loss and the hemorrhaging of public confidence. And that's got to be restored. And the only way you're going to restore that is with candor. It's not with more -- no more programs...
JIM LEHRER: No more numbers?
DAVID BROOKS: They've thrown programs at people, most of which are nonsensical and extremely expensive. McCain had a cap gains cut. It seems like a tick every time something goes wrong, the Republicans suggest a cap gains cut.
Obama wanted a moratorium on foreclosures. When Hillary Clinton suggested that, he said it was a stupid idea, and he was right then, but he's wrong now in endorsing it. So they're just giving away the candy store, and it's not fooling anybody.
'We're in terrible, terrible mess'
JIM LEHRER: David, back to Obama, specifically in the debate, is there anything Barack Obama could do tonight to lose this thing?
DAVID BROOKS: Yes, my view was that, if he swore allegiance to al-Qaida, he could lose a few swing states. He might still win the election.
But, no, I think he'd be -- he speaks calmly, he'll be fine. And that's something he does very well.
JIM LEHRER: And appears presidential?
DAVID BROOKS: He appears presidential. And, listen, the guy -- one thing we've learned about the guy is his limbic system is on low. He's not that emotional. He doesn't lose his cool. He acts presidential. He acts reassuring.
And, you know, he's like a golfer. It's the 17th hole. He's up by six strokes. Hit it in the middle of the fairway; lay it up before the green; putt it in; go for par. And he'll be fine.
JIM LEHRER: Go for par?
MARK SHIELDS: Go for par. I like the analogy.
JIM LEHRER: But you golfers...
MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I think he has to go -- at least he doesn't have to do a Hail Mary. If there's an overworked...
MARK SHIELDS: ... an overworked phrase in this -- this year.
JIM LEHRER: It's a different sport, Mark.
MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I understand that, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: OK, all right.
MARK SHIELDS: No, I just think -- I think that voters understand the next president is going to have a very, very short honeymoon.
JIM LEHRER: Or maybe none at all.
MARK SHIELDS: Or none at all. And you can't come in and discover that there's a problem, because everybody in the country knows there is a problem.
I mean, Ronald Reagan in 1980 offered the country -- he was quite honest -- that he was going to double the defense budget, cut spending by a third, cut taxes by a third, cut taxes by a third -- take one-third tax cut, and balance the budget, which was sort of the political equivalent of a hot fudge sundae diet. You know, eat four or five of these a week, and, you know, you're going to lose weight.
And this is not the time for that. This is not the time. And that's what I think both of them are doing, is just kind of the hot fudge sundae diet.
I mean, one of them has got to come forward and say, "Look, folks, we're in a terrible, terrible mess. And it's not -- all the old promises, forget them. They are rescinded."
Big challenges for next term
DAVID BROOKS: That's the question. I honestly don't know where either would come down on this. It could be next year, if you believe the first 20 minutes of our program, you could have a 9 percent unemployment rate within a couple of years or within a year.
MARK SHIELDS: That's right.
DAVID BROOKS: You could have a steep recession. At the same time, my New York Times colleague David Leonhardt estimates the federal budget deficit they will inherit will be $750 billion, 5 percent of GDP.
So what choice do you make? Do you say, "OK, we're going to blow the budget deficit. We'll go to $1.2 trillion deficit, 7 percent or 8 percent or whatever percent of GDP, because we've got to spend money to get that unemployment rate down"? Or do you say, "We're constrained. We're going to shelve some of these programs"?
That's a basic, fundamental choice the next president is going to face. And, frankly, I have guesses about how each one would respond, but I don't really know.
JIM LEHRER: Meanwhile, the issue is, who is the calm hand on the tiller or not the tiller? Just use another analogy.
MARK SHIELDS: Steady hand. Steady hand.
JIM LEHRER: Steady hand.
MARK SHIELDS: Yes, steady hand, who sails by the fixed star. And I think Obama has come across that way.
In contrast, I mean, it's just like tonight. John McCain is going to be better off sitting at the table than he was in the town meeting, because he won't be eclipsed physically by Obama. And I think he'll probably appear more steady. He has not appeared to be a steady hand.
JIM LEHRER: Same rules apply to this debate that were from the first debate, although they'll be seated. It's each candidate gets two minutes for each question and then there's a five-minute discussion period afterward. But they will be seated. Do you think that will influence the way they act?
DAVID BROOKS: I'm struck in talking to people about the middle debate, the town hall meeting, how many people talked about the physical, McCain walking around, taking notes, always in the background of the shots. And people pay attention to that stuff. And this, I think, will probably help him.
JIM LEHRER: All right. David, Mark, we'll see you later. Thank you.
MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.