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Obama’s Likely Running Mate, New Attack Ads Top Campaign News

August 22, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the suspense over Sen. Barack Obama's announcement of his vice presidential running mate and the latest ad war between the Democrat and GOP rival Sen. John McCain.

JIM LEHRER: The curtains are going up on Barack Obama’s vice presidential choice and the Democratic National Convention in Denver. And here to set the stages for that and more are Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks. Mark joins us tonight from Denver.

Mark, what’s the latest on the vice presidential thing? Have you got the scoop?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Jim, I have the scoop. I have conventional wisdom, which is a lot more conventional than it is wise. That seems to be the consensus that David recommended in his column today that it’s going to be Joe Biden.

But I will say this: The most tight-lipped campaign I have ever been around, including Richard Nixon’s, is the Obama campaign. Usually there’s one prima donna inside who likes to leak the information to prove what a big person he is and how influential. And this campaign is sealed.

JIM LEHRER: Sealed, and Biden?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: I hope so. It feels like “Waiting for Godot.” I don’t know what they’re waiting for. I mean…

JIM LEHRER: What is that all about?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t know. You know, John Kerry picked John Edwards, I think, 20 days before the convention. Traditionally it’s been four to seven. And now they’re apparently going to wait for the opening gavel or something like that, not quite, but almost.

JIM LEHRER: Well, they’ve got the big thing tomorrow morning in Springfield, Ill.

DAVID BROOKS: In Springfield.

JIM LEHRER: That’s a big news day, early morning in Springfield.

DAVID BROOKS: Saturday in Springfield. That actually makes me think it might be Hillary Clinton. I mean, if you’re going to wait until the end, it seems to me you’ve got to wait for somebody who’s already a big name, well-practiced in politics. You can’t introduce somebody like this at the very end.

And it also suggests that they’re going to have somebody — a sort of very big name, a sort of wow factor, and only Hillary really qualifies for that. I hope it’s Biden.

Obama's likely running mate pick

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
[Obama] said he is sending a signal by the way he's announcing it -- and that is text messaging supporters -- that this is something different, that he is new, that he's tomorrow, he's not yesterday.

JIM LEHRER: Why do you hope it's Biden?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think he -- he gives Obama a lot of things he needs. He gives him some working-class roots. Biden is from Scranton, Pa., Wilmington, Del. He's got a real family connection there.

He's still -- he's been in the Senate for, God knows, decades, but he still is an authentic guy from Scranton, from Wilmington. He's an authentic guy, and he connects with people. He gives them the experience.

He served in the Senate with Mike Mansfield, with Hubert Humphrey, back in the old days when the Senate actually still functioned in a relatively nonpartisan way. He could help him there.

He's also been through the worst life has to offer. He lost his wife and his daughter. He's had his own health problems, his own scandals. And I think somebody like that has perspective.

And when a president -- and I think I've heard Obama people say this -- when a president is in the Oval Office surrounded by people who want to please, surrounded by people with their own agendas, he needs a vice president with absolute loyalty. And Biden, God knows, can be a blowhard, but I do think he has that sort of loyalty.

JIM LEHRER: Somebody else has said, Mark, that Biden also did well -- even though he did poorly in the primaries and the caucuses, he did very well in the debates, as a participant in the dialogue. What would you add to that about Joe Biden?

MARK SHIELDS: I would agree. I would agree with that assessment. And I think there's a couple of things about this decision. And I echo what David said about Joe Biden. I think he has a lot to recommend him.

But it's more revealing about the candidate himself. And Tad Devine, one of the smartest Democrats I know, pointed out to me why he's doing it this way, and it's something generational. He said he is sending a signal by the way he's announcing it -- and that is text messaging supporters -- that this is something different, that he is new, that he's tomorrow, he's not yesterday.

And he said it's a very important message to be sending the way this has been handled and the way he's doing it.

And I'd say the other thing that you have to consider is whether, in fact, the decision made by Barack Obama, whether it's Joe Biden or whoever it is, is a decision that's made by the heart or by the head. That is, is it somebody that he really wants and likes and feels comfortable with or is it somebody they say, "This is going to be the best chance I have?"

I think that it's fair to say that, in 2000, Al Gore acted on his heart and chose Joe Lieberman. It was not a wise decision. Lieberman caved in the debate and did not do particularly well.

And in 2004, I think John Kerry made a head decision, that was in choosing John Edwards, who he didn't really feel that comfortable with, but felt that it was politically going to be advantageous.

You've got to think not simply about August in Denver. You've got to think about those four years of lunches with the vice president, as well as the counsel, and the sense of loyalty that David mentioned.

Obama's appeal to the people

David Brooks
The New York Times
I mark it to the day when [Obama] broke his pledge on the campaign finance, turned down the idea of having campaign events with John McCain, which would have been new. He became much more conventional.

JIM LEHRER: All right, speaking of August in Denver, David, what is the message that Barack Obama must deliver, not only to the hall, but to the whole country next week?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, Mark just talked about it. I think it's yesterday versus tomorrow. If you're a junior senator, you're 47 years old, you don't have the experience to match up against John McCain, it better be about tomorrow.

And I think that's what Obama started with in Iowa and New Hampshire. It was all chronology, new politics, new age. And, frankly, I think that's what he's lost in the last month. I think his campaign has become a much more conventional campaign.

I mark it to the day when he broke his pledge on the campaign finance, turned down the idea of having campaign events with John McCain, which would have been new. He became much more conventional.

And if you watch him on the stump, now he sounds a little like Hillary Clinton. He's giving a bunch of bread-and-butter promises on this policy, that policy, that policy. If they wanted Hillary Clinton's campaign, they should have nominated Hillary Clinton.

What Obama offers is tomorrow versus yesterday. And it seems to me he's got to re-establish that theme. And the theme is: We're in a global world. We're in a multicultural world. The frameworks of the old world don't apply. I am the new framework. My frameworks do apply. And that's why you should vote for me as opposed to the guy who has more experience.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Mark, he must return to tomorrow?

MARK SHIELDS: I think tomorrow is an important subtext. I do think there's a couple of things that Barack Obama has to accomplish in this convention.

One, the party must come out of it united. There can't be any lingering doubts or any postscripts about whether the Clintons are on board.

Right now, what is causing this race to be close, as much as anything, is that 11 percent of the voters who are Hillary Clinton supporters, who are voting Democrat for Congress and for the Senate, who think that George Bush and Dick Cheney are twin disasters, right now have a 2-to-1 favorable judgment on John McCain and a 2-to-1 unfavorable judgment on Barack Obama.

And that has to be reversed in this election. They are -- in this convention. And they are women, overwhelmingly, between the ages of 35 and 49.

In addition to that, the biography of Obama must get out. I mean, this is somebody, Jim, who really does have a log cabin background. You could say that Al Gore was the son of a senator, grew up in a hotel in Washington. John Forbes Kerry was born to, you know, comfort and pedigree.

Barack Obama is somebody who did it all on his own bootstraps. I think that has to be communicated.

And, third, I would say, finally, that he has to communicate a sense of he understands what people are going through right now, and that he is angry about it, and these are the three things he will do.

Candidates trade jabs in ads

David Brooks
The New York Times
The people in the upper middle class are perpetually thinking people in the middle class are really angry at people in the super upper class. They're not. And they don't mind richness.

JIM LEHRER: And that is a great cue for some tape I'm now going to introduce about some twinning attack ads that came out this week.

On Wednesday, John McCain was unable to answer, everybody knows, was unable to answer a reporter's question about how many houses he owns. And the Obama campaign seized that opportunity to make McCain seem out of touch.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: I'm Barack Obama, and I approve this message.

TV COMMERCIAL NARRATOR: Maybe you're struggling just to pay the mortgage on your home. But recently, John McCain said the fundamentals of our economy are strong. Hmm.

Then again, that same day, when asked how many houses he owns, McCain lost track. He couldn't remember. Well, it's seven. Seven houses. And here's one house America can't afford to let John McCain move into.

JIM LEHRER: And that drew a quick response ad, the McCain campaign criticizing Obama for his association with a convicted Chicago businessman.

TV COMMERCIAL NARRATOR: Barack Obama knows a lot about housing problems. One of his biggest fundraisers helped him buy his million-dollar mansion, purchasing part of the property he couldn't afford. From Obama, Rezko got political favors, including $14 million from taxpayers. Now he's a convicted felon, facing jail. That's a housing problem.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: I'm John McCain, and I approve this message.

JIM LEHRER: Now, what do you make of that, David, that exchange?

DAVID BROOKS: I think they're both ineffective, frankly.


DAVID BROOKS: I don't think people think John McCain is a decadent, rich guy. And I don't think they mind that he has seven million houses. We have had many presidents and many presidential candidates...

JIM LEHRER: He doesn't have seven million. He has just seven.

DAVID BROOKS: Seven houses. We haven't gone through Cindy's whole collection.

It would -- the housing price is high if he had seven million. It would be a good idea.

JIM LEHRER: That's called a slip of the tongue. Go ahead.

DAVID BROOKS: But the point is that we've elected plenty of rich guys to the White House, and some have been good and some have been bad. The people in the upper middle class are perpetually thinking people in the middle class are really angry at people in the super upper class. They're not. And they don't mind richness. And I don't think they're going to think John McCain is a rich, decadent guy.

I don't think the American people are going to believe that Barack Obama is a Chicago sleazebag who hangs around with felons. I think both these things are ineffective.

I think people are going to take a look at these two ads and say, "That's conventional negative politics," doesn't really resonate, and it's going to demean both of them.

I think it may demean Obama a little more, because they think he has a little more riding on the breaking through to some sort of new politics, but I think people are going to look at these two ads and say, "Dumb, dumb, dumb."

JIM LEHRER: Dumb, dumb, dumb, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I don't think so.

JIM LEHRER: Don't think so?

MARK SHIELDS: I will say this. I think John McCain -- the fear of Republicans whom I talked to about John McCain is that he will pull a gaffe, that he will make a mistake, whether it's Sunni-Shias in a debate or in a public setting, which he's done already -- "the economy is not my strong suit" -- a remark like that, and this was one of them, "I'll have my staff get back to you on how many houses."

It's not a question whether he's rich. All great revolutions are led by aristocrats, I think it's fair to say, Franklin Roosevelt being prime among them. But it isn't a question of whether he's rich. It's whether he understands what fellow citizens who aren't rich are going through. And I think that's really the problem that this raises for John McCain.

As far as Obama is concerned, I think he scored on this one because McCain's campaign's tendency was to come back the way they've done very well, and that is to punch and counter-punch and keep punching and counter-punching.

I think they made a mistake by responding, because I think they kept the story alive for a second day.

JIM LEHRER: You mean the McCain...

MARK SHIELDS: I think it might very well have disappeared, absent the retort and response on the part of the McCain campaign. But I think that is the -- that's their modus operandi is, "We're going to bare-knuckle it at every opportunity."

Obama's message in Denver

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
I think [Democrats are] skittishly optimistic, is the way I would put it right now. There's not buyer's remorse, but there are questions.

JIM LEHRER: Well, so let's play that out, then, David. The next step is the convention in Denver. Should people expect the Democrats to keep punching McCain? Or is it likely to be, "Hey, let's talk about positive things and the future," as you suggested they should do?

DAVID BROOKS: I think they'll do more of the latter. There's always some of the former.

But if they're going to try to have a race of who's more out of touch with the American people, John McCain was part of the military because he's kind of out of touch. Barack Obama has not had a traditional American upbringing. It seems to me that's a battle that neither side can particularly win.

The Democrats may be more likely to lose the Republicans. Somehow people feel they're more like their suburban background. I would not go negative if I were Obama.

As we've said, the key thing for Obama is to get himself categorized, get himself identified in the American people. If it's conventional politics, conventional negativity like these two ads, that's not Obama's message. That cuts against his core message.


MARK SHIELDS: I disagree. I think that the race, Jim -- John McCain has come back into this race by making Barack Obama the issue. And I think there's -- he has been able to do so, unhobbled, really, by the 200-pound lead weight of the Bush-Cheney record.

And I think that my question is, who of the speakers at this convention -- I don't think it's Mark Warner of Virginia, the key note, or I don't think it's Hillary Clinton -- maybe Bill Clinton, maybe Al Gore, or certainly the vice presidential nominee, if it's Joe Biden -- will make the case that 77 percent of Americans now believe that John McCain will continue the policies of George Bush.

And I think that has to be part of the message that's delivered and understood from this campaign -- at this convention.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, are the Democrats you've talked to -- already there and others still to come -- are they worried about the double-Clinton situation this next week, where it could walk on Obama or hurt him in some way?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, they're worried about a lot of things. I think they're skittishly optimistic, is the way I would put it right now. There's not buyer's remorse, but there are questions.

Democrats have seen this movie before, where they had, you know, a substantial lead in the summer and saw it melt. They have been cheered by sort of the responding this week and a new feistiness on the part of Obama and his campaign.

But the Clintons remain a psychodrama, and in particular Bill Clinton, and I think the Democrats are holding their breath and hoping that he can do what he did so well for himself in 1992, and that is to introduce, and make the case, and cast the election in the right terms. And there's probably nobody more better equipped to do it than Bill Clinton.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think Democrats should be holding their breath about the Clintons, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Not really, no. I think this is about Obama. I think most Americans have moved beyond it, with the exception of sort of a group of maybe upper-middle-class women between 39 and 54. But it's a small, very angry group.

I think, in general, Obama has to categorize himself. He has to be adhesive. He can't be a blank slate anymore. He has to define who he is. And that's the core issue. I think people -- the Clintons...

JIM LEHRER: And the Clintons can't foul that up, is what you're saying, not unlikely to, and couldn't even if they wanted?

DAVID BROOKS: And I think they're not likely. They're professionals about this.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Thank you both very much. And we'll see you in Denver next week.