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Shields and Brooks on RNC Lineup and the Bush Factor

September 2, 2008 at 6:45 PM EST
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As the Republican National Convention resumes with its first full night of prime-time speakers, analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks assess the Sen. John McCain's vice presidential pick, the speeches ahead and the issues at play within the Republican party.
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JIM LEHRER: And now we’re going to get some final thoughts from Shields and Brooks.

Mark, we’ve got Joe Lieberman, Fred Thompson, that’s in the hall, main speakers coming tonight. And then, by satellite, we have President Bush.

Now, my understanding, just looking at everything, is that their main topic is going to be John McCain. Is that what you understand, as well?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Yes, it is, Jim. These are character witnesses for John McCain. Fred Thompson endorsed John McCain in 2000 and ran against him in 2008, but was key to John McCain’s nomination by remaining in the race in the South Carolina primary, where he took enough conservative, Southern votes away from Mike Huckabee, who was John McCain’s principal challenger, to enable John McCain to win that crucial primary.

So this is a recognition of Fred’s TV power, his past friendship, and probably a debt of political gratitude.

JIM LEHRER: Now, David, you’ve said sometime in the last seven or eight years, I’m sure, but that Joe Lieberman was really on the shortest of John McCain’s short list. He really did want to pick Joe Lieberman as his running mate. Why and, then finally, why not? And what part does he play in this whole operation now?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Jim, I’ve said everything at some point in the last seven or eight years.

JIM LEHRER: Well, I know. I know.

DAVID BROOKS: John McCain is the sort of guy who likes surrounding himself with people he admires. He admires people who buck their parties. And Joe Lieberman has certainly bucked his party.

And so he wanted Joe Lieberman. And I think he didn’t choose him because five of the delegations here would not have walked out, but they would have put up rival slates, which would have made the convention really a mess. And so he didn’t pick him for that reason, but nonetheless…

JIM LEHRER: That was because of the choice issue, right, because of the abortion issue more than anything else?

DAVID BROOKS: You know, I spoke to a Democratic senator yesterday. Democratic senators genuinely like Joe Lieberman because he’s with them on every issue except foreign affairs. And he’s still at his heart a liberal Democrat on all domestic issues, including the social issues. So that’s why he didn’t choose him.

But what he’ll talk about today is the surge. You know, tonight, we’re going to have a whole litany of John McCain courage moments. And there’s going to be a lot of POW moments, but also the surge, a subject that really wasn’t talked about in the Democratic convention.

But Joe Lieberman will talk about McCain’s putting his career on the line in support of the surge to make life a little better in Iraq and turn things around in Iraq.

Bush speaking at convention

JIM LEHRER: Now, Mark, also, we're going to hear from George W. Bush himself via satellite. And it's interesting, of course, what Amy and Andy were talking about, that whatever anybody says about the polls in the rest of the country, George W. Bush remains a very popular figure among the people who have come to St. Paul, Minnesota, correct?

MARK SHIELDS: Correct. Absolutely. You get criticism. They will criticize the shortcomings of the president's record of spending, of government getting a lot bigger on his watch, even criticism on his record of his failures as a communicator and someone who's been unable to make the case for his cause in Iraq, for example.

But there is a great reservoir of affection for George W. Bush in this room and a certain defensiveness about his record that you could see, as Amy cited them, and Andy, the high marks they give him that is not the norm in the rest of the nation.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

And, David, would you not agree -- or I'll just ask you cleanly -- does Gustav having turned out better than expected on all kinds of levels help kind of at least mitigate the Katrina after-effects that would affect anybody connected with George W. Bush and the party right now?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I don't think it's compensated, because it wasn't -- the challenge wasn't great enough to show that we actually could do something competently.

But I think the McCain campaign was certainly feeling the loss of the first day, the day to make the case. I thought they privately would be happy not to have to put Bush and Cheney up front there for that first night. But, in fact, they're genuinely upset they lost a day to make the case.

And McCain now in the polls is down 6 points to 8 points, to the extent that means anything. And they want to make anti-Obama case, but they really feel they need to make a pro-McCain case, because if they're not making the case, then it's all about Bristol Palin's pregnancy. And they've had enough of that for 24 hours.

McCain-Bush friendship on display

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

Well, how does McCain play the Bush issue, Mark, at this stage of the game? In other words, what is he going to say, maybe not tonight, but the next couple of nights, and then when he speaks himself on Thursday, to the Republicans and to the country about the George W. Bush administration?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, he is on the horns of a dilemma, which was spelled out in the earlier discussion. That is, he has to acknowledge his affection, admiration for George W. Bush briefly, and then establish daylight, Jim.

I mean, there's no question he will not be his running mate. He will not be his co-pilot in this race. And the choice of Sarah Palin, as controversial as it's turning out to be, was a bold stroke on John McCain's part to try and reclaim the change side of this debate in 2008, to show himself to be decisive, perhaps impulsive, but decisive, and to be somebody who really stood for change. And that change is from George W. Bush.

DAVID BROOKS: I would say..

JIM LEHRER: Yes, go ahead.

DAVID BROOKS: I would say it's even broader than distancing himself from Bush. What McCain has to do is show what's happened to the Republican Party.

Andy mentioned the loss of support for the party. And I know the people working on the McCain speech are writing passages on what's happened to the whole party, diagnosing what's wrong, and in that diagnosis there is recommendations for the future.

But I don't think we've been to too many conventions where the nominee gets up and says, "Here where our party has gone wrong, gone off-track." But I suspect John McCain is going to do that. It'll be interesting to see what people in the hall, how they react to that passage.

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, I think...

JIM LEHRER: All right, David, Mark, thank you both very much.