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Shields, Brooks on Cain’s Poll Surge, ‘Hunger for Something Else’ in GOP Race

October 14, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks weigh in on the week's top political news, including Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain's recent surge in the polls, how much religion is factoring into the GOP race for Mitt Romney and others, the lack of long-term economic fixes, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry's teetering support.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, what do you make of the energy jobs program that Rick Perry announced today.

MARK SHIELDS: If Herman Cain is 9-9-9, Rick Perry is drill, drill, drill. I think he was faithful to his own record and his own experience. But I think he also views it based upon his debate performance as sort of the panacea for the nation’s economic ills.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see it that way? Do you see anything in there that made you kind of sit up and say hey, wait, a minute, he may be on to something?

MARK SHIELDS: I didn’t. But I have to in all fairness say I didn’t scrutinize it. I just read the wire stories on it. I didn’t sit down in depth and think about it.

JIM LEHRER: What did you think about it, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I mean, energy policy…

JIM LEHRER: Did you sit down, unlike Mark?

DAVID BROOKS: I actually went down into the anthracite mines myself.

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: OK. All right.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Checked out the coal there right there.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: You know, energy has become like a lot of issues sort of a microcosm of polarization. On the one side, President Obama has tried very hard with this green tech, which has had some success in building our renewals. It has been a complete failure in creating jobs.

And it is not only Solyndra. It is program after program. They are withdrawing the loans now. They have had training programs that are leading to no jobs. So that’s been a big disappointment. And there is — then the Republicans, on the other side, at least Rick Perry is back sort of in drill, drill, drill territory. And so we have got two very partial answers.

And yet, in the meantime, it’s very clear over the long term we’re going to have alternative sources of energy. Over the short term, we’re going to have the fossil fuels. We’re going to have oil, natural gas, coal. And we have got all these new technologies. You go to Western Pennsylvania, you go to all around the country, they have discovered these reserves based on the fracking technologies.

And yet nobody has kind of put that together. And Perry had an opportunity. I think he was just too much, let’s drill offshore, which is part of the immediate short-term answer. But again, it’s not the comprehensive energy strategy we have been searching for since the Nixon administration.

JIM LEHRER: Meanwhile, on jobs, the president put forward, of course, his jobs program and the Senate said, no thank you. Is that an important development? Well, that was expected, was it not?

MARK SHIELDS: It was expected.

But I think the important development this week was in seeing that the Republicans felt compelled to offer their own jobs plan. They had been criticized since they took over the House that they have never come up with a jobs plan.

And we saw both in The Washington Post/ABC poll, as well as in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll this week that the president had widened considerably his margin over the Republicans in Congress as to who was better in providing jobs, who was more —  better on the economy. It expanded to 15 points in the ABC poll and to 2-1 margin in the Wall Street Journal poll when voters were told what the president’s plan was.

So Republicans felt they had to come up with something. The Republicans in the Senate came up with sort of a grab bag. But John Boehner, really, the speaker, took on the Tea Party to some degree by basically embracing a huge public works infrastructure proposal, which, you know, I think maybe might have some traction if he, in fact, really gets behind it.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see it?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, there has been a lot of Republican support for that over the years.

To me, it is pretense. The president’s bill, which may pass in parts, payroll tax…

JIM LEHRER: Yes, they’re going to divide it up.

DAVID BROOKS: They’re going to divide it up. And some of it may pass, a payroll — a temporary payroll tax. Not too many employers are going to hire a permanent position for a temporary tax break.

The infrastructure is a very good idea. And the way Obama structured it is very good, with an infrastructure bank. But that is sort of a long-term deal. So it’s not really a short-term thing. And on the Republican side, tax cuts and deregulation may be a good idea, but neither they are short-term job creators.

We are in a situation where short-term promises should be looked at with great deals of skepticism. National Journal just had a poll that came out today asking Americans how they feel about the economy. And a core theme was, they’re really suspicious of debt, primarily their own personal debt. They’re trying to get out from under this.

And when the consumers are like that, you just can’t expect for a surge of economic activity in the short run. And then businesses are completely hunkered down because of Europe. And so I would be suspicious of short-term fixes. I’m looking for politicians who can say, OK, we have got this winter of recuperation, but we’re going to fix the long-term thing so we can really have a recovery when the time comes.

And we’re not seeing that.

JIM LEHRER: May look for a long time for that one?

MARK SHIELDS: No. I think…

JIM LEHRER: It’s short-term because politics is short-term right now, isn’t it?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I agree.

But I think the campaign of 2012 really does make a serious debate necessary. I mean, one of the things that — just like drill, drill, drill, one of the other — or mantras has become regulation, regulation is a killer.

Well, Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps a record of what employers say. They layoff or don’t hire. Two-tenths of 1 percent of the reasons advanced is… governmental regulation.

So, I think it’s going to drive us — I hope it will drive us to some sort of a serious discussion, because lord knows we need it going into…

JIM LEHRER: All right, let’s go to the presidential race and the Republican side.

Perry — the debate, for instance, the debate this week, what did you think overall, and how did you think Perry did?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, stunningly bad. He knew this was make-or-break to some degree. And he just had nothing.

He kept referring to his jobs — his energy bill, which he wasn’t going to announce, because he was going to announce it later. And so he sort of faded into the distance. And it was, I think, a sign of lack of preparation, lack of skill. And I think a lot of people are getting close to dismissive of him.

I’m not quite there because he does have a ton of money. He does have a very good ad company. They put out very good ads. And the other — the thing that is striking about the polling right now is not only the rise of Herman Cain, but the ceiling on Mitt Romney, and that the guy has had a phenomenal month. He’s had Chris Christie…

JIM LEHRER: Romney has?

DAVID BROOKS: Romney has.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: He’s had all these great debate performances. Everyone is jumping on ship, except for the voters.

And maybe they will get to him after they have their fun. But there — it is astonishingly — how little he has risen and how there still is this hunger for something else.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read that, Romney specifically?

MARK SHIELDS: OK.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think he has got a cap on him?

MARK SHIELDS: Sure. Well, you would have to say he has got a cap. You look at the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, he was at 23 percent in June. He bumped up to 30 percent in July, back down to 23 percent in August, and now he’s at 23 percent.

This is after four what one could only say were polished, professional performances at the debates.

JIM LEHRER: The consensus was he won every one of those debates.

MARK SHIELDS: Absolutely, and great campaign, a lot of money, improved candidacy.

And it isn’t that they are against him, because 80 percent of Republican voters say that they will vote for him against Barack Obama, and it probably will go higher. But what it comes down to is, he doesn’t excite them.

And it’s almost like a play. And they come out before the curtain goes up and they say the part of the dependable leading man, the beau, will be played tonight by Mitt Romney. The part of the less dependable and less reliable second man will be played by Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and now Herman Cain, and possibly coming up Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and who knows, maybe even Jon Huntsman at some point.

JIM LEHRER: Jon Huntsman, yes, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: But, I mean, it’s almost like there is a second role that Perry filled in August, and now today it’s Herman Cain.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read the Cain thing? Is that real?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: It said he — the new poll said he’s the front-runner.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I would be a little dubious of that.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: People are not going to like the 9-9-9 plan when they get to it. I like the idea. It has a consumption tax.

But if you are a middle-income earner, the 9-9-9 plan raises your taxes 32 percent. That’s just not going to fly. But that’s not what they are reacting to. He’s — as we have spoken about, he’s a nice guy. He’s a smart guy. He is a very dramatic guy. He’s happy.

And he’s not a normal politician. And, you know, I tend to think it has more to do with the season. And Mark has talked about this in the past. In primary season, you go for the fun. And then you go for the guy you like. And I think we are in the fun season, and he is certainly a fun guy to watch.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see it, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it was interesting.

When they found he was leading in the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, Peter Hart and the other people conducting the poll went back and actually interviewed the people who had been interviewed and asked them why they were for Herman Cain. And, surprisingly, the reasons they gave were all well-informed. They knew exactly who he was.

JIM LEHRER: Did they know about 9-9-9?

MARK SHIELDS: Nine-nine-nine was sort of the hallmark. But what they liked about him was that he had no political experience, that he had never held public office, that he didn’t talk like a politician.

And that just tells you something about the anti-political fervor that grips Republican primary voters right now, and probably the electorate at large.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with David’s reading on Rick Perry that it may — a lot of people are dismissing him, but he thinks it’s a little early to do that?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s early to dismiss him.

But what struck me was the brimming self-confidence, the swagger that he brought into the race when he came in, in August. You know, he was ready to take on this whole world. And he was walking in the town and he was the new sheriff.

And, boy, he was a tentative figure in Hanover, N.H. And David’s right. He is not — he’s teetering right now where the narrative sets in, is he another Sarah Palin, “I can see Russia from my front door”?

When he says that, you know, the American Revolution, of course, in the 16th century — I mean, two more of those and he’s going to slip into that point where Letterman and Leno, it just becomes a punchline.

DAVID BROOKS: And I actually think he was hurt — one of the people who introduced him, endorsed him, a pastor, attacked Mitt Romney for being a Mormon, not — being a member of a cult.

And I heard strong counter-reaction from evangelicals, from conservatives: It is not what we do.

And Perry has not denounced this guy. And that’s speaks very ill of him. There were comments about his wife, saying she heard the burning bush that he should run. He didn’t see the burning bush. There is a lot of weirdness going on.

JIM LEHRER: She also talked about how abused he’s been by — just by entering the race and how the politicians, his fellow — even his own party, she said, have hurt him terribly.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Yes. If he is going to jog around with firearms, he shouldn’t whine about being criticized. He’s supposed to be a tough…

JIM LEHRER: Yes. But also wouldn’t you think — wouldn’t you all agree that one thing it does prove, beyond anything else, just as a matter of process, these primary debates do matter?

MARK SHIELDS: The primary debates do matter and the preparation for them does. I mean, it’s obvious to us that Rick Perry made the decision late. He wasn’t thinking in February or March to get into this race.

And, boy, failure to do that and to acquaint yourself with the issues, the nomenclature, to develop a comfort level for the issues, and that’s what is saying — people said, oh, he wasn’t participating. There was a tentativeness. He didn’t want to make a mistake. That is what is out there. I mean, they’re talking back and forth, and sort of this nomenclature goes back and forth, green jobs and whatever.

David knows it all, and the other — Mitt Romney has mastered it. He knows all the nuances and the sub-phrases and everything else. And I just think that there is a reluctance on his part. And his self-confidence, I think, has been shaken.

DAVID BROOKS: And for all people who criticize the system and the way we elect our presidents…

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: … I forget how many decades ago, probably four decades ago, that “Selling of the President” was written.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, by Joe McGinniss.

DAVID BROOKS: And we talk about how you are just a box of soap.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: But, in fact, ads are important, and money is important. But if you can’t debate, if you can’t go to New Hampshire, if you can’t go Iowa and actually meet people, you just won’t thrive.

You have to have a threshold before the soap-selling can kick in. And so far, he hasn’t hit that threshold.

JIM LEHRER: OK. We will leave it there. Thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.