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Shields, Brooks Mull the Democratic Party’s Identity Challenge

August 25, 2008 at 6:50 PM EST
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At the close of the Democratic National Convention's first night, political analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the demographic divide among Democrats, their ideological unity and the challenge for Sen. Barack Obama to represent them all.
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JIM LEHRER: And to some closing thoughts here now from Mark Shields and David Brooks.

OK, Mark, what is the Democratic Party? Is it the liberal party and the Republicans are the conservative? Where do you come down on this?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Richard just spoke a truth which Democrats don’t like to address. The class picture of the Democrats is demographically quite diverse. I mean, boy, you say, isn’t that terrific? I mean, the Latinos, and the African-Americans, and the whites.

But when it comes to toeing the line on orthodoxy and party platform, I mean, just as an example, the first five speakers at the Republican National Convention not named Bush or Cheney are Joe Lieberman, Rudy Giuliani, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Tom Ridge. What do they have in common? All four are pro-choice, OK?

Hey, listen, these people — the Democrats will say, “Oh, my God, the Republicans are very — they’re narrow. They never listen to a pro-choice — they’re not a big-tent party.”

The Democrats are being self-congratulatory, because on Tuesday night Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, pro-life Democrat…

JIM LEHRER: The lone pro-lifer.

MARK SHIELDS: … a lone pro-lifer — is going to be allowed to speak. I mean, for the many pro-life Democrats there are, he’s the only one — you know, 16 years ago, as we remember, in Madison Square Garden, his father was banished to Siberia and denied a chance to speak.

Democrats agree on policy terms

MARK SHIELDS: And, I mean, so it is intriguing that the Democrats congratulate themselves about their diversity, but on questions of ideological orthodoxy, they're fairly homogeneous.

JIM LEHRER: David?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, what's happened here is the Republican Party has collapsed. The Democratic Party hasn't really changed. To me, the interesting thing is, how liberal is this party?

Andy Kohut has a poll, which I have in front of me. If you ask Democrats, "When the government runs something, is it usually wasteful and poorly run?", 68 percent of Democrats say yes, kind of hostile to government. "Should government get involved in helping people establish basic needs?" Seventy-nine percent say yes.

So this is a party, at once, that wants government to get involved and, at the same time, is extremely skeptical of government. This is not the old-fashioned liberalism. It's a government that's sort of -- it's a party that's sort of divided amongst itself on that issue, like the American people, frankly.

JIM LEHRER: What about Richard's point, though, David, that there used to be -- he didn't say it quite this way, but there used to be Rockefeller Republicans and there used to be conservative Republicans. They were all in the same party. There used to be Tory Democrats and there used to be liberal Democrats, and they were all in the same party. Now, there were two diverse parties. And now he says, no, there is one of each.

Do you agree?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think -- or even more recently...

JIM LEHRER: In general terms?

DAVID BROOKS: ... there was a fight between the centrists, like Robert Rubin, and the liberals, like Robert Reich, in the Clinton years. And that has healed a lot.

So on ideological grounds, the party is a lot more unified than it used to be. On demographic grounds, as Michael said, it's much more divided.

If you went through the whole primary process, if you were in an area with a lot of high school-educated people, they were Clinton people; college-educated people, they were Obama people. They are two different sensibilities, but on policy terms they're sort of in agreement.

Virtues of a good leader

JIM LEHRER: Yes, but what about -- also, picking up on Michael's point that -- and we mentioned it earlier, one of you all did -- that they really shouldn't be fighting, these Democrats, because ideologically, you know, as you said, the class picture looks...

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, they're fighting over parking spaces at this point. I mean, they're really not -- they're not fighting over any -- there's no great plank. I mean, they talk about the platform. Both sides signed off on the platform. I mean, you know, usually...

JIM LEHRER: They just kind of gaveled down...

DAVID BROOKS: They are fighting over the core issue. To me, this is the deepest issue.

JIM LEHRER: What?

DAVID BROOKS: What virtues make for a good leader?

JIM LEHRER: OK. What virtues?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, what virtues make for a good leader? Yes, but, I mean, plus, I think part of it is nostalgia. I mean, I think there was a lot of good feeling toward the Clinton years on the part of Democrats.

I mean, Bill Clinton did something nobody had done since Franklin Roosevelt. He won a second term in the White House for a Democratic president.

And what everyone says -- I don't care what your politics are -- the Clinton economic years were far better to ordinary Americans than the past eight years have been. So I think she was tapping into that.

Challenges for Sen. Obama

Plus, I mean, it cannot be overstated, Jim. She was the first serious woman candidate for president of the United States. And that, for an awful lot of women who've been involved in this business, meant and still does mean an awful lot.

JIM LEHRER: So that's the leadership issue, as you say.

DAVID BROOKS: I do think -- one thing that strikes me over just the past two days, talking to Democrats here, is they're nervous about Obama's campaign. They're trying to fix the campaign. They're coming from all sorts of different angles, and it's going to be very hard for Obama to emerge as an identity with all these different angles coming after him.

JIM LEHRER: And we'll be there watching every moment of it.

And in addition to what we're doing on television, we have extensive convention coverage online. That includes interviews with delegates, as well as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and 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 top of the page.

And we'll see you here later this evening, Mark, David, and everybody, with our complete PBS coverage of the Democrats in Denver, and again here on the NewsHour tomorrow evening. For now, I'm Jim Lehrer. Thank you, and good night.