TOPICS > Politics

Brooks, Dionne, Woodruff on Campaign Strategy, Outsourcing and Gun Control

July 20, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
New York Times columnist David Brooks, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Judy Woodruff and Jeffrey Brown discuss positive-versus-negative campaign strategy, the future of American capitalism and whether gun control will become a campaign issue in light of the mass shooting at a Colorado movie theater.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that brings us to the analysis of Brooks and Dionne, New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, filling in for Mark Shields.

And joining in for the first part of our discussion is our own Judy Woodruff, who’s in Florida tonight covering the campaign.

And, Judy, I will — I want to start with you and go back to the top story of the day, the shootings in Aurora. You were at that event in Florida this morning, where the president spoke about it. Tell us about that, what administration officials were telling you and what the reaction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Jeff, as soon as I heard about it this morning, I reached out to the Obama campaign officials who were traveling with the president.

They had already decided at that point that they were going to shorten the president’s remarks here, that it was going to change the complete nature of what was supposed to be in Fort Myers, Fla., and the southwest part of the state, a campaign event. They said, it is going to be very different, it will be much shorter.

An then soon after, they announced they were completely canceling his appearance in Orlando. This was to be a two-day swing. So, it was significantly cut short.

What happened with regard to the people who came to see him, though, Jeff, this all happened so fast. People had waited in line for hours on Wednesday to get tickets to see the president. They had waited for hours this morning, wrapped around the block in very hot weather here in South Florida to see him.

Many of them didn’t know about the shootings in Aurora until they got inside the auditorium there. And an announcement was made. They were, of course, shocked, and they groaned when they were told the president’s remarks would be cut short.

But very quickly after that, the president, himself, appeared, explained what had happened, why he was going to make only brief remarks. Of course, they all understood. He asked for a moment of silence. He referred to his own family, being a father. He said the first thing I thought about was, what if my own daughters, Malia and Sasha, had been there? And I know every other parent feels the same way.

I talked to a number of people afterwards. He only spoke for about eight minutes, but, afterwards, one of the people who were there, Jeff, a woman, said to me, she said: “I came here so excited to see the president. But I left, frankly, thinking about the things that matter in life.”

So it was an understanding crowd as he left. And, as you know, and you have already reported, both the Obama camp and the Romney camp canceled all advertising in Colorado. They are continuing advertising, though, around the rest of the country, most of it negative.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, David, one of those moments when politics stops, at least momentarily, and the candidates have to shift quickly.


I think they’re both doing the right thing. I hope it has a long-term sobering effect. I don’t really expect it will. But one of the features, I think, of this campaign has been it’s an extremely consequential race, but, as Peggy Noonan wrote in The Wall Street Journal last weekend, it hasn’t always a compelling race, because sometimes they have been migrating toward the most trivial issues.

This sort of brings it a little back to earth. I don’t know if it will have any effect, but one can hope.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, E.J., it does come after a week of — a particularly loud and negative week, to shift tones like this.

E.J. DIONNE: Right.

Well, I think it was inevitable. Today, they both sought to look presidential and nonpolitical and comforting. And they both succeeded in that. I think after an event like this, there is nothing a politician can say that is in any way related to politics that is going to look good.


And I think they felt the same sense of shock and horror as everybody else because they’re human beings, too. I think there will be an interruption. I doubt it will change the tenor of the campaign in the long run, but I think they both reacted as candidates and presidents are supposed to.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Judy, tell us a little bit about what you were hearing there before all this happened, the tenor of the campaign that we’re talking about.

The president has certainly been keeping up the pressure on Mitt Romney, very forcefully staying on offense. Is that a strategy that they’re telling you?

JUDY WOODRUFF: It absolutely is a strategy, Jeff.

But when the president — we did hear the president speak late yesterday in Palm Beach, Florida. He spoke to a group of seniors, a largely Jewish group, so the president reaching out to those voters, very important for him to win if he’s going to win Florida, the swing state of Florida, in November.

But, overall, the campaign feels it must continue to keep trying to define Mitt Romney, the ads they are running about Bain Capital, about his not releasing his taxes. They say they feel this is a strategy that’s working and they’re going to continue it.

They also say they understand that this may — the president’s own favorability ratings may take a hit, a small hit, they hope. But they believe that the damage they’re doing politically to Mitt Romney is even more significant.

They’re pointing to polls that show people look less favorably on his background at Bain Capital, which they say is the central rationale for his candidacy. What he did at that company, they say, is what he wants to do for the country, so what they are doing is entirely appropriate.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so let me ask you two at the table here, is it having an effect, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, not an entirely positive effect for the president.

It is bringing down Mitt Romney’s positives. It’s really bringing down Barack Obama’s positives. Reelection races are referenda on the incumbent. It hurts more on him. And if you look at, say, the New York Times polls this week, you see those presidential numbers coming down slightly.

To me, it’s probably all overshadowed by the fact that the Spanish bond, 10-year bond went up to 7 percent, that the European crisis continues to be pretty bad. The economy is pretty bad.

JEFFREY BROWN: Things we haven’t really talked much about this week.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And that’s probably — it’s always worth emphasizing that has a much bigger effect in this race than whatever these two men do.


DAVID BROOKS: I think they are bringing Romney’s negatives down. I don’t think they — people are less likely to approve of Romney, but they’re more likely to vote for him because of the overall economy.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think, E.J.?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, if the choice in November is 8 plus percent unemployment or something else, something else is likely to win.

If it is a choice between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, Barack Obama has a decent chance of winning the race. And I think that, combined with miscues on Romney’s part, the combination of miscues on Romney’s part and the aggressive tone of Obama has really given people second thoughts about Romney.

I think the most striking thing about the Romney campaign is they have done very little to no work trying to paint a picture of Mitt Romney as an attractive person. They haven’t put forward much of a positive campaign. They spent the whole primary running down their opponents in order to eke out those victories.

And I think Romney’s refusal in a very sort of tough way to release more income tax returns is hurting him. And I think the larger narrative about Bain, offshore accounts, outsourcing jobs actually is a link to a larger debate about what kind of economy we want to have and what Romney’s real view of the economy is vs. Obama’s view. And, again, on that fight, Obama can win.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. I want to come back to that discussion.

But, Judy, one more question before I let you go. Who is Obama talking to? Who do you get the sense that he’s addressing so far in the dog days of July here? Is it the people, the supporters? Is he reaching out to so-called independents?


They’re trying to do everything they can to get those folks who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 to stay with him. They know there has been some drain-off of support. And they say they’re prepared to accept that. But they’re going to do everything they can to go back and, as they put it, touch everybody who voted for — if they can find them, who voted for him four years ago, until that person says, I’m absolutely not going to vote for him again.

They’re still working it. But at the same time, Jeff, yes, they are reaching out to any new voters, to converts. And particularly here in Florida, I will tell you they are looking at immigrants who came to the United States from either Puerto Rico, which is a major source of new residents here in Florida, Puerto Rico, other Caribbean — Caribbean countries, South America.

They see there a small, but significant number of new voter registrations that they think they can pick up. So they’re working both sides of that street. They know they can’t take it for granted. They understand the enthusiasm is down from what it was four years ago. And they’re — so they can’t count on that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Judy, we’re going to look for your report on Monday.

Have a good weekend, and thanks a lot.


JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so let’s continue here.

I want to pick — and pick up on what Judy was saying, but also what — the point you were just making. There are a lot of things being thrown around this week, outsourcing and who creates businesses and what is infrastructure and the role of government you were putting in that.

But there is sort of the makings of a serious discussion. But are we having those?

DAVID BROOKS: No, I absolutely agree.


DAVID BROOKS: There is the makings of a serious discussion of what sort of role of government, what sort of society, what sort of capitalism we want to have.

And I do think there is — that’s implied in a lot of these arguments. Barack Obama’s really attacking Romney on all the things people don’t like about capitalism, the high — the high creative destruction involved, especially in private equity.

Will we actually have that discussion? I’m extremely doubtful, in part because what they’re targeting are people who don’t pay attention to politics. Everybody who pays attention has already decided.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s who they’re speaking to now?

DAVID BROOKS: And so they want a very simple message.

So, for example, Barack Obama has not been an enemy of outsourcing. Throughout his whole campaign, he understands that — I think outsourcing — people, companies that outsource do create more jobs domestically. He understands it’s part of the global economy, it’s part of the things that make countries abroad grow, that make us grow.

He’s got a very simple-minded ad attacking Romney for being a guy who ships shops overseas. But to actually have a debate about capitalism and about the role of government would require more nuance than I think we’re going to from either side, precisely because they are paying attention to people who don’t pay attention.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think?


E.J. DIONNE: Well, I do think that you are talking about a rather small part of electorate.

I mean, if you look at polls, 53 percent is what Obama got the last time. He is hovering around 47, 48 percent. You’re talking about he needs some share of the difference, the 6 percent or — 5 percent or 6 percent of difference.

I agree with David that there is a real debate underlying this. I don’t entirely — I don’t agree with him that the outsourcing issue is as clear-cut as he says. There was a presentation this week by an economist who talked about the costs in increased unemployment, lower labor force, participation in parts of the country from Chinese imports, and that outsourcing really does have a cost to a significant share of the American population.

Obama is talking about how tax benefits go to companies that ship jobs overseas over companies that create jobs here. He’s talking about the need to restore American manufacturing.

I think the debate Obama wants and that Romney should want to engage in from his side is whether this new kind of capitalism, where so much money is made in the financial sector, is the kind of capitalism that builds up our country and that we have much more emphasis on finance, much less on manufacturing, and, lord knows, much less on labor.

And I think that that is the fight that underlies this. And I think we’re going to get there eventually.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh. Well, that’s optimistic.


DAVID BROOKS: We will see.

One thing I do agree with E.J. on, if Romney is going to be a personification of capitalism, he does have to say what kind of capitalism he’s for. He does have to say too much resources have been going to finance. He does have to say some of these things these bankers are doing makes me sick. He has got to distinguish that from the part that he has been part of, which is the creative destruction part, which is — does involve — sometimes involves job losses, but it involves making companies more efficient so they thrive in the long run.

So he has to give a speech saying, this is the capitalism I believe in, or else he is going to get tarred with the LIBOR scandal.

JEFFREY BROWN: That is a hard argument to make. I mean, it’s easy to sort of intellectually, but it is. . .

DAVID BROOKS: In elections past, people gave serious speeches. Barack Obama gave a serious race speech.

It used to be, if you ran for president, you trotted out all these serious policy speeches that people like E.J. and I paid attention to.


DAVID BROOKS: Now that is all gone. They don’t care about us anymore.


JEFFREY BROWN: So you will have to talk to each other, right?


E.J. DIONNE: I enjoy talking to David.

But that is a very awkward case for Mitt Romney to make. I agree. He’s got to make it. And I would love to see a debate over the future of American capitalism and what kind we want. But it is awkward for him to talk about the problems with finance and the shift of resources towards finance, when obviously that’s how he has made his money.

And the problem with his Bain story is, yes, he can tell some good stories about companies like Staples and others that he put money into that thrived. But he wants to evade all the stories where they made a lot of money even when the companies tanked, when they piled companies with debt.

There are kinds of capitalism that he’s been involved in that I think raise some legitimate problems in the eyes of voters.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, I want to shift back to where we started, with Aurora, in our last couple of minutes here.

It’s always interesting to think about that — we were just talking about — the subjects that don’t come up in a campaign. Does something like this, when there is a mass killing, and everybody pays attention for a day or so, or maybe weeks, does it have the potential to shift into a kind of legitimate issue in the campaign, in the culture?

E.J. DIONNE: I wish it did.

I am struck by the fact that every time something like this happens, the gun lobby runs along and says anybody who wants to raise fundamental questions about the kind of laws we have on weapons is somehow exploiting the crisis. They don’t say that when people say FEMA didn’t handle something right. They don’t says that’s exploiting hurricane victims.

But, in this case, we can’t even have the debate.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, you mean over gun control.

E.J. DIONNE: Over gun control, national gun regulations. Why don’t we restore the assault weapons ban? Why don’t we have effective background checks and do other things to try to keep weapons out of the hands of people who might be dangerous or have mental illness?

And that conversation gets just totally shut down. I don’t pretend that every tragedy would be avoided if we had more rational gun laws. But, if that’s your test, you’re never going to pass any laws anyway. But we do need a debate on the fact that we are the country with the loosest laws on this, and we see the consequences.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, in the last minute, do you think this. . .


When these things happen, liberals say, we should have tighter gun controls. Some conservatives say, we should shame the people who make violent movies that inflame these lunatics. I think the causality between both is extremely weak between these kinds of things.

You look at the gun laws, there is really no correlation between tighter gun laws and lower crime. The lower the — the cities with the tight gun laws do not have lower crime. Crime has been going down even as guns have been going up.

And so I think, when you got a guy like this who dresses himself in body armor, who has sophisticated incendiary devices, he’s outside the realm of normal policy. He is off in his own world of danger. And I’m not against gun control, but I’m extremely dubious that this is the right occasion to have that argument or that it would make any effect on a case like this.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, it is unlikely to come up again in the campaign as a continuation. . .

E.J. DIONNE: Both parties are afraid. Both parties are afraid.

The Republicans are allied with the gun lobby and Democrats are intimidated by the gun lobby. And I obviously disagree with David. I think some of these laws, like the assault weapon ban, could have a very concrete effect, maybe reduce the level of violence. I think we need to be able to talk about it. And I think most politicians are afraid to talk about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We have to leave it there.

E.J. Dionne, David Brooks, thanks.

E.J. DIONNE: Thank you.