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Analysts Consider Obama on Iraq, Legacy of Jesse Helms

July 4, 2008 at 6:05 PM EDT
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Columnist Mark Shields and Ramesh Ponnuru debate the potential impact of presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama's statements on Iraq and other news, including the death of former senator Jesse Helms.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Ponnuru. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru. David Brooks is away.

We want to turn first to comments that Barack Obama made yesterday in Fargo, North Dakota. At a news conference shortly after his arrival, Obama discussed his upcoming trip to Iraq. He said he could re-evaluate his thinking on the war based on what he hears from military commanders.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: I’ve always said that the pace of withdrawal would be dictated by the safety and security of our troops and the need to maintain stability. That assessment has not changed.

And when I go to Iraq, and I have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I’m sure I’ll have more information and will continue to refine my policies.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But later in the day, Obama called another press conference to clarify his position. He again pledged to bring home the troops.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: My first day in office, I will bring the Joint Chiefs of Staff in, and I will give them a new mission, and that is to end this war, responsibly, deliberately, but decisively.

And I have seen no information that contradicts the notion that we can bring our troops out safely at a pace of one to two brigades per month. And, again, that pace translates into having our combat troops out in 16 months’ time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark Shields, what’s behind what Barack Obama said yesterday? Is he seriously thinking about changing his position on withdrawing American troops?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, I think he’s taking what I guess his supporters would say is a realistic position. The situation has changed.

As far as being longer, stronger against the United States invasion, occupation of Iraq, Barack Obama owns that distinction in both parties in 2008. But now the question is — and the American voters are very practical — they say, “OK, what now?”

He’s already made that pledge that he would be out in 16 months, but he’s going to Iraq. And the reality has changed in Iraq, that more Americans died in Afghanistan this past two months than died in Iraq. The Taliban is resurgent, as al-Qaida is, outside of Iraq.

So I think it reflects that changed reality. He would look like a hopeless ideologue if he didn’t, Judy. But the charge is about flip-flop because it fits in both the narrative that the Republicans are using against him and some other changes, including on public financing, that Obama did change.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But on this question of Iraq withdrawal, Ramesh, do you see a material shift or a potential material shift here?

RAMESH PONNURU, National Review Senior Editor: Well, Judy, remember, in his initial statement, he did say he was going to refine his position. He just didn’t say that he was going to refine it a few hours later.

I think what is happening is — or he wants to create the impression that he wants to get out of Iraq, but he also wants to create the impression he doesn’t want to leave recklessly.

This is all, I think, part of a sort of sprint to the center that Obama is undertaking right now. And he, I think, understands he needs to reposition himself after the primaries, but he can’t do it so fast that he looks not only like an unprincipled opportunist, but I think even more damagingly like he’s weak and indecisive.

Obama shifts, garners criticism

Ramesh Ponnuru
National Review
[Obama] doesn't need to be a new and different kind of politician to win this election. He needs to be an acceptable Democrat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, he is taking a lot of flak, Mark, as you're suggesting right now, for what are perceived as at least shifts in his thinking on the so-called FISA bill, the warrantless wiretap, his comments he made on some Supreme Court decisions last week, campaign financing. Is he vulnerable on all this?

MARK SHIELDS: I think he's more vulnerable, Judy, not on the flip-flop charge nearly as much as the sense that his differentness is being compromised, his differentness.

He prided himself on being a candidate who was authentic and different and transparent and open, would say things to groups that they didn't want to hear, much like John McCain did in an earlier incarnation, and less so now.

And the perception that does get some traction, that he's calibrating and calculating his positions to offend the smallest number of voters, I think that's a bigger risk than the charge of flip-flop. The flip-flop, I don't think, it really takes nearly as much damage, inflicts as much damage upon him.

RAMESH PONNURU: Let me defend Obama here. I think actually that this is a very shrewd decision on Obama's part. He doesn't need to be a new and different kind of politician to win this election. He needs to be an acceptable Democrat.

And I think the calculation his campaign has clearly made -- and correctly made -- is that they can take a lot of criticism for being just another politician, if they realign themselves with public opinion, they'll be all right.

MARK SHIELDS: The place I'd take an exception to that is that he has excited voters, especially younger voters, and people who haven't voted before by the fact that he's made the case that he is different, both on the war and in other issues, as well.

If they sense that that differentness -- the enthusiasm factor has been an enormous advantage for him and for the Democrats in this campaign against John McCain and the Republicans. Democrats are far more enthusiastic about voting. And if that's sapped or if that's enervated by the perception that he's just being calculating and calibrating every phrase, I think that could be a problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you're saying you don't see that as something, for example, that the McCain camp is going to gear up and go after him?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, I think the Democrats are going to be energized by the fact that Barack Obama is not a Republican more than they are by his differentness.

And I think the differentness is actually somewhat off-putting to some of the swing voters that Obama needs now. I think that tamping down some of that enthusiasm is a price worth paying for Barack Obama.

MARK SHIELDS: Just one thing. I think this election is going to be about Barack Obama. Voters have already made up their mind about the Republicans and their record. I mean, 80 percent think the country is headed in the wrong direction, and George Bush, few of them -- 1 of 4 voters think he's doing a good job.

So the question is, it's like 1980 with Ronald Reagan. The question is -- and to some degree, Bill Clinton in 1992. They've made their judgment on the party that's in power: They don't want them to continue.

But the question is, are they going to feel safe? And are his prescriptions for improving the nation considered wise and helpful to voters? I think that's what he has to resolve, and I think that's the concern that his campaign has to have.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So this tour last week, among other things, Ramesh, talking about patriotism, why he loves America, where he's coming from, is that all a part of this?

RAMESH PONNURU: That is all part of becoming an acceptable Democrat, meeting those threshold conditions. There was a lot of ammunition given to the Republicans over the last few years, with Obama's ties to the Reverend Wright, with Michelle Obama's comments about being proud of the United States for the first time in her adult life, and I think that Obama is trying to undo that damage by saying, "Look, I'm a patriot. Nobody can question that."

McCain's strengths and weaknesses

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
McCain's greatest strength is when he has appeared to be a politician of conviction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's talk about the McCain campaign, Ramesh, a shake-up, changes at the top. How big a deal is this? How important?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, I think that if you talk to campaign insiders, you get the impression that Steve Schmidt, who's been elevated, and Mark Salter, McCain's long-time aide, have really been in charge of setting the themes and message of the campaign, and Rick Davis, who looks as though he was demoted, has really already been in the mode of sort of just executing those decisions for a good long time now.

So I think a lot of the change is more apparent than real. But I think it is a response to a lot of Republican concerns that this campaign has been disorganized.

MARK SHIELDS: There have been. There's been really open and rather sustained Republican criticism of John McCain's campaign.

You can make the case, given the landscape they're dealing with, that John McCain has done very well in the campaign that he's even competitive with Barack Obama at this point. I mean, it's just a terrible, terrible political environment for Republicans.

But the knock that I hear more than any other is that McCain has laid out the case against Obama -- that's all that they do -- that they haven't made the case for McCain, how a McCain presidency would be different, how McCain would be different from Bush, as well as different from Obama, and change the country for the better.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But that's part of the message. And, Ramesh, you're saying the people who've crafted that message are the ones who are now in charge?

RAMESH PONNURU: That's right, and they're very intelligent people, but I wonder whether the message that they seem to in recent days have hit upon, which is country first -- McCain puts the country ahead of his personal ambitions, and Obama has never done, you know, never put his own interests aside -- I wonder if that's really going to work, because what they're doing is saying Obama is just a typical politician. And as I was trying to say earlier, I think that Obama can survive being a typical politician.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Smart for McCain, Mark, to go to Colombia, Mexico, over the last couple of days?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, you could say the case for doing it is that John McCain went down there as an advocate and champion of free trade at a time when free trade and free trade agreements are enormously unpopular in the country by a 2-to-1 margin.

The Wall Street Journal-NBC poll voters feel that trade policies have hurt the country; 3 million manufacturing jobs lost while George Bush has been president. So that, you could say, he -- it's hard to translate it, Judy, really into where it trends in this country.

I will say this, that McCain's greatest strength is when he has appeared to be a politician of conviction. You know, is he taking on his own party and his own interests?

Obama attempts to reassure voters

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
[I]t's made sense for Obama to try and reassure people that he shares their values this week.... That's what this week has been about. It's been a week of reassurance.

MARK SHIELDS: I think Obama did that this week on the faith-based, by taking on strong interests in his own party, especially the liberal left of the party that is against that, by endorsing a policy that was initially supported by George Bush...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Basically saying he would pick up some of President Bush's faith-based organizations...

MARK SHIELDS: .. picking it up, and that people who live on the outskirts of hope in the shadows of American life, that church-based, faith-based institutions are the ones that feed them and take care of their children.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How does McCain counter that, Ramesh?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, I'll tell you one thing that he probably shouldn't be doing, and that is taking the July 4th week to travel abroad to make the case for a policy which, while eminently defensible in its own terms, is not all that popular. If ever there were...

JUDY WOODRUFF: You're talking about trade?

RAMESH PONNURU: That's right. If ever there were a Fourth of July candidate, it's John McCain. And he cedes the field this whole week, where Barack Obama has been the one who's been -- it's been God-and-country week for Barack Obama. And John McCain has been in Colombia and Mexico talking about trade deals.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do those kinds of things really matter in a campaign, do you think, those pictures? I mean, we just showed pictures of Barack Obama, you know, at the Fourth of July parade in Butte, Montana, and that's another whole question, in sort of a red state, Republican state.

RAMESH PONNURU: I think they matter more than people would like to think that they matter.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I think that it's made sense for Obama to try and reassure people that he shares their values this week. And I think Ramesh is absolutely right: That's what this week has been about. It's been a week of reassurance.

Jesse Helms' legacy

Ramesh Ponnuru
National Review
[Helms] was a throw-back to an older era of conservatism, a much more combative type of conservatism than you have today. And there's no question.... He was wrong on civil rights.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's talk, finally, about really a giant figure in the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Jesse Helms, Ramesh, died today at the age of 86. I guess his nickname was "Senator No" for a long time.

RAMESH PONNURU: That's right, because he was willing to stop a lot of things that had a lot of bipartisan support. For, you know, just one small example of that, William Weld, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, had been nominated late in the Clinton administration to be ambassador to Mexico, had huge bipartisan support. He was a Republican, after all. Jesse Helms said no and single-handedly blocked it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You were telling us a story about that. I don't know if you can -- maybe you don't...

MARK SHIELDS: No, Jesse Helms did something quite historical. He saved Ronald Reagan's political career. Ronald Reagan would not have been president of the United States, I think, but for Jesse Helms.

In 1976, Reagan had lost a series of primaries to President Ford. He was dispirited and without funds. And in North Carolina, he took on the Panama Canal, proposed Panama Canal treaty of President Carter, and really crystallized support behind him, became the conservative champion and popular at that point, and kept him alive to run in 1980.

But I think it's important to remember, as well, about Jesse Helms, that he called the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which ended official-sanctioned segregation in lodging, and restaurants, and movie theaters in this country, the single most dangerous legislation ever introduced in the United States Congress.

And I think that's -- you know, that's a part of Jesse Helms. He was an anti-communist who embraced every dictator, regardless of how ruthless that dictator happened to be, as long as he had anti-communist credentials, whether it was Pinochet in Chile, or Marcos in the Philippines.

But he was a phenomenal influence, and he was incredibly effective in the United States Senate for the simple reason that, even though he was courtly and pleasant in all his dealings, he did not care, ultimately, what his colleagues thought of him. He was willing to risk their dislike and displeasure in order to take a position and to stop an action that he found objectionable.

RAMESH PONNURU: And he was also to work with people, like Paul Wellstone and Madeleine Albright, who actually became quite...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wellstone, the late senator from Minnesota, Democrat.

MARK SHIELDS: Late senator, that's right.

RAMESH PONNURU: That's right. He was a throw-back to an older era of conservatism, a much more combative type of conservatism than you have today.

And there's no question. You're right, Mark: He was wrong on civil rights.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ramesh Ponnuru, thank you for being with us. Mark Shields, happy Fourth of July to both of you.

MARK SHIELDS: Happy Fourth to you, Judy.