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Shields and Brooks on Campaign Cash, Juan Williams Firing, Early Voting Pitfalls

October 22, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks give their takes on the week's top news, including tight midterm races, the likelihood of Republicans making major gains in Congress and NPR's firing of analyst Juan Williams.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Getting a taste of Halloween there in a tough congressional district in Northeastern Ohio.

David, what do you take away from that? And what does that say about the rest of the state of Ohio and the rest of the Midwest?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, my first impression is all the people at the end there who said they were not sure who they were going to vote for, they are probably not going to vote.

The people who are energized have decided who they are going to vote. And that’s a sign of a couple things. One, Ohio has been in this situation for a couple decades now. And the Industrial Midwest has been losing these jobs.

And what is interesting politically is that it has shifted. It has shifted quite dramatically, Ohio has, from Sherrod Brown, who’s one of the more liberal members of the Senate. Now they’re probably going to vote for, on the Senate side, Rob Portman.

And Portman is a pet project of mine, because people focus on Christine O’Donnell so much and some of the wackier Republican nominees. Portman is a very responsible, very serious person who is running for the Senate, doesn’t say any stupid things about witchcraft. And he’s got a huge lead, like a 15-, 20-point lead.

And what’s particularly interesting about that, especially concerned with the joblessness there, is Portman is an ardent free-trader. And Sherrod Brown, the senator from Ohio, is not. And — but Portman seems to be cruising to victory, even though he is for free trade and globalization.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that means jobs could leave.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think, well, what all this means is that people want jobs, but nobody has a recipe for how to get them. And so they are trying different things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see it?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I would say a couple of things. First of all, historically, when times are bad, voters, especially in the Industrial Midwest, have turned to the Democrats. And this year, that’s not the case. Democrats hold the statehouses in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan. And the — and Minnesota is held by a Republican.

The only state where the Democratic candidate for governor has consistently led in the polling has been Minnesota, where there is a Republican. It is a change election. This is a “Groundhog Day” election, I mean, the Bill Murray movie where the same day — this is 2006, 2008, 2010. It’s a change election. They’re throwing people out. For the Democrats — it was the Republicans who were in office in 2006, 2008. Now, unfortunately for them, they are in office and they’re feeling the wrath of the voters.

I would say, in that particular district, the 16th District of Ohio, the Stark County mess along Canton, that John Boccieri…

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you know that state well.

MARK SHIELDS: Boccieri — well, Boccieri, the freshman Democrat, if he does survive — and he is a superb candidate — and Democrats hope that he does — it will be — and David Rogers of Politico made this point — it will be in large part because the Democratic leadership in the House made the decision to let the House members out 30 days earlier.

He’s a brilliant one-on-one campaigner. And if he does survive, it will be because of his effective retail campaigning.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, broadening it out a little bit, early voting has begun. I guess there are 32 states where people are already voting.

David, are we seeing any patterns here?

DAVID BROOKS: We’re seeing some patterns.

We’re seeing, in general, Republicans are voting early in greater proportion than their registration numbers. But I’m struck by, it’s not a huge effect. So there are more Republicans voting than you would expect district-by-district, but it’s not like it’s 2-1. It’s slightly above.

So I’m not sure what — we can tell any tea leaves. If you look at the polls, I think what has been striking to me is consistent building of momentum, at least on a national level, for Republicans. So, on the generic ballot — “do you want a Republican or Democrat?” — the Republicans continue to gain, and especially among independents.

In the Pew poll, Republicans have an advantage 49-30 among independents. In the Gallup poll, it’s 59-31. So, even though people have continued to be angry and the Democrats are getting more active, among independents, Republicans are still continuing to gain nationally. I’m not sure we see too much from the early voting, though.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You see a change in the dynamic with this early voting?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I don’t. I mean, basically, the same people who voted early vote late. I mean, there really isn’t — in 2008, the Democrats made a great effort among African-American voters, and they did increase their turnout considerably, and among Latino voters.

I personally have grave reservations about early voting. I mean, I think…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Really?

MARK SHIELDS: I think that Election Day is the closest thing we have to a civic sacrament, when people meet their neighbors at the firehouse or the school and they vote at the same time.

I think it’s important that campaigns be aired all the way through, that people aren’t voting three weeks before, before debates are held. I just think there’s a lot — I mean, we have gone now from one out of 20 voting early — and there is a reason that people vote absentee, obviously, people in the military, people who are bedridden, people who have to travel.

But now it’s become sort of a — you know, just sort of a casual thing, and you can vote any time at all. It doesn’t increase turnout. It hasn’t increased turnout, really. And I don’t think it’s a healthy development. I sound like an old fogey here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Curmudgeon.

DAVID BROOKS: I’m a young fogey. I completely agree with that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Really?

DAVID BROOKS: A campaign is an argument. It’s a drama. It has different stages. And you should see the whole drama before you make your decision.

MARK SHIELDS: Election Day now has become the last day to vote.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, right.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s what it is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But making exceptions for those people who can’t get to the polls.

MARK SHIELDS: Sure, absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We are getting close. We are now, what, 11 days away, 12 days away. What kind of predictions are you feeling about the House and the Senate? It’s not too soon now.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, if I had to put it an over/under — I’m fearless about this. No one will remember. I would have to say the Republicans will pick up 52 seats in the House, which would easily give them control. And that is about where Charlie Cook…

JUDY WOODRUFF: They need 39.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. They need 39.

And if you just extrapolate from where the polls are, you could easily get up to 65. I think that is a little unrealistic. But I would say 52 is the over/under. It could be 39. It could be 49 or 69. But I would put it there at 52, which would be a big win, about ’94 size.

On the Senate, I’m completely befuddled, because what you are seeing on the Senate side is races tightening in both directions. So, in Pennsylvania, where Republicans had advantages, the Democrats are catching up. In California, where the Democrats had advantages, the Republicans are catching up.

So, you are seeing this tightening against either party in the Senate. And so now you have like eight seats which are really razor-thin. And it is very hard to tell how those are going to shake out. But I guess — I would get like seven, eight Republican pickups in the Senate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But not — but not a majority?

DAVID BROOKS: Probably not. Ten is hard to see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, I’m going to put you on the spot — the House.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, if you talk to Democrats in public, they maintain an upbeat manner and a brave face, but, in private, they’re quite pessimistic.
And I’m reluctant to put a number on it until next week, I will be honest with you, because I think campaigns do matter. And I think what happens in the last week can affect a whole — dozens of races.

But I will say that about the Senate races. Senate races are different from House races, in the sense that they are more candidate-driven. The higher the office — that is, I mean, governor, senator, president — the more important the candidate.

And, you know, so, those races — David’s absolutely right — they are — I mean, Joe Sestak has closed the gap with Pat Toomey, the Republican, in Pennsylvania. And yet Barbara Boxer, who had an early and stronger lead over Carly Fiorina in California, that race is tightening. That doesn’t have a political or partisan pattern to it. I think it is candidate-driven.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. But why should — candidate-driven, I agree with that. But why should candidate-driven tighten? And my only theory about that is, people are sick of both candidates, and so it sort of shakes out evenly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, speaking of being sick, there are a lot of ads being run, in some of these states, just a phenomenal amount of ads.

MARK SHIELDS: Absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mark, more stories today, The Wall Street Journal had one, that said of the out — the money being spent by outside groups, that it is a union, the government employees union, AFSCME, that is spending more, by millions — and you can look at some numbers here — over the course of two years.

But just look at that again. And how much does all that money, how much difference does it make in the final analysis?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, David and I have a serious disagreement here.

It makes a serious difference, and let me tell you why. AFSCME is — AFSCME stands for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The reason they can spend this money is now they — because of the Roberts court decision, they can spend their treasury money.

They used to have spend voluntary contributions of their members. That is all they could spend in federal elections. Now corporations can reach into their treasuries, which are a lot deeper than labor unions. But the point is that you know what the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees want. They want better benefits, better pay, better job security for their workers, who are public employees. OK?

If they back a candidate, you know why they are backing a candidate, because that candidate is probably sympathetic to their cause. The real explosion, Judy, is in these groups that we don’t know that have “liberty” and “freedom” and “prosperity” in their name, that have formed just for this election, that have six and seven figures from anonymous givers, that go in and attack candidates and hit candidates.

And that’s the lack of accountability. That’s the lack of transparency. We don’t know what their agenda is. We don’t know who is giving. And that really does change the dynamic of a race.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, we don’t disagree about that. What we disagree about is how much it affects the election.

And so you have all these outside givers. The first thing to remember is, the outside giving is only one-tenth of the total giving. Most campaign spending is still given to candidates and parties. All these outside groups, they are a tenth. So, that is the tail, not the dog.

The second thing to be said is that the Democrats are vastly or significantly outspending the Republicans. In the tightest 100 races, the Democrats are spending 66 percent more on…

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is candidate money and party money.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. This is candidate and party money. But since that’s the big — that’s 90 percent of it. That is the big share.

And then, among TV ads, the Democrats are spending $1.50 for every $1 the Republicans are spending. So, how much good is that doing them? I think very little. Because I think, if you have got a state like Colorado, where the Senate candidates are each throwing 5,000 ads at each other, if one candidate throws 7,000, as opposed to 5,000, I don’t think it makes a dime’s worth of difference.

So, I think we have reached such saturation levels, the money at this point doesn’t swing election. It has corrosive effects in Washington in other ways, but it doesn’t swing elections.

MARK SHIELDS: It changes the dynamic of the race, Judy. If one of the great reforms, very simple reform, was, I’m — the candidate’s requirement to appear on his or her own ad. “I’m Judy Woodruff, and I approve of this message.”

What these people do, these hit-and-run people, they can whole dynamic of a race and the debate of a race by attacking you on grounds that are totally baseless, and force you to address that.

I mean, in other words, you’ve — they have taken the campaign out from the candidates. David and I both believe the candidates should be accountable for their campaigns. They change the campaigns by changing the dynamic by attacking one candidate. And I would just point out that the spending of these independent groups is by 8- and 9-1 in favor of Republicans. And it’s not in favor of…

DAVID BROOKS: Not if you throw in AFSCME’s $87 million they’re spending.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s attacking — it’s attacking — I’m talking about the anonymous ones.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you are saying it is not a smaller…

MARK SHIELDS: No. And it is attacking — it is attacking Democrats. That is where they are spending their money is attacking Democrats.

DAVID BROOKS: NEA $40 million, AFSCME $87 million, that — a lot of that is attacking Republicans. What you do get when you are in these districts is constant attack ads. I frankly think most people tune it out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thirty seconds left. The firing of Juan Williams, the analyst, by National Public Radio: the meaning of it and what is the fallout going to be?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Juan Williams is a former colleague of mine on the Washington Post editorial page and a friend for 30 years. And I think that NPR made a serious mistake. He is an analyst. And he wasn’t a correspondent. And I think they did it in a terrible way, by telephone call, without a personal chance to explain himself. And, you know, I think it has given the right wing a tremendous opening to attack NPR, which I hate to see happen, because I think it is a valuable public institution.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I work at NPR somewhat. And I’m friends with Juan. I’m friends with the people who fired him.

But I think they did it in a bad way. I agree with Mark. I think what he said was perfectly within the bounds of debate. And the damaging thing to me is, NPR has really worked hard over the past 10, 20 years to become a straight-down-the-middle network. I’m not sure they always were decades ago. But now they really are.

And now, because of this unfortunate episode, they begin to get some ideological baggage again. And that is damaging.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, gentlemen, we are going to leave it there. David Brooks…

MARK SHIELDS: … not damaging.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: … Mark Shields. And you are not damaging, neither one of you. Thank you.