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Shields and Brooks Post-Debate: Obama, Romney Fail to Distinguish Policy Visions

October 22, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Mark Shields and David Brooks disagree a lot but the political analysts were united when they said the candidates, "felt they had to disagree, even when there wasn't any disagreement." In NewsHour's post-debate analysis, Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill review the highlights, remarks and gaffes from the last presidential debate.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And with that, this final debate between President Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney is done.

We watched them shake hands with the moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS. And I’m sure any moment now, their wives and families will come on stage to give them a hug and wish them well.

GWEN IFILL: They greet each other as if they like each other, even though, from watching 90 minutes of that exchange, it didn’t much look like it, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It sure didn’t.

Gwen, this was a vigorous debate over a — shall we say, a small list of countries, most of which are located in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and there at the end a little bit on China.

I think we did hear do two clear, direct-to-the-camera closing statements from these candidates. And I think we saw, Mark Shields, a more, shall we say, restrained Mitt Romney than we have seen in previous debates.

MARK SHIELDS: No, I thought Mitt Romney played the hurt, attacked party, and played it quite well.

And I thought the president went after him. He was quite aggressive right from the outset. You have got — you’re fighting Cold War policies of the 1980s, the social policies of the 1950s, the economic policies of the 1920s.

And I think that was the president’s strategy, to rattle him, and to expose the inconsistencies, the sort of the Etch-A Sketch that has been part of the litany of accusations against Mitt Romney.

GWEN IFILL: Mark Shields, syndicated columnist, is joined by David Brooks from The New York Times.

What did you think about the competing visions that the two visions that the two candidates laid out tonight?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, first, I wrote down, who is the challenger and who is the incumbent?

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Because, from the style, you would think that Mitt Romney was the incumbent and in the lead and that Barack Obama was the challenger and behind. He was much more aggressive, trying to upset the race.

So, stylistically, that was sort of the most interesting part. Substantively, if you actually listened closely, there is a lot of agreement on Libya, on Syria. I thought they were equally demagogic on China, and even on Iran…

GWEN IFILL: On Afghanistan.

DAVID BROOKS: … on Afghanistan, just tremendous amounts of underlying disagreement.

Politically, I guess I would have to say it was sort of a tie, maybe because Romney looked equally presidential. You give a slight edge to Romney if you were thinking about political polls. I can’t imagine it will have a tremendous effect on the polls.

GWEN IFILL: Did these candidates tonight have to — did they have different goals tonight? Mitt Romney, who came with the wind at his back, was trying to maintain that. And what was Barack Obama trying to do, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think Barack Obama was reflecting the reality of the polls, that it’s been slipping and heading in the other direction, trying to change the trajectory of the race.

And I thought he made a strong case against Mitt Romney. He was obviously not hesitating to go personal upon him. I agree with David. They felt they had to disagree, even though there wasn’t disagreement.

But one thing they didn’t disagree on was they argued over who cares more and loves Israel more. I got 22 mentions of Israel, zero of Europe, zero of Asia, other than China. Japan went unmentioned. India went unmentioned. You know, it was just…

GWEN IFILL: If you start the list, you to go to Mexico, every place in the continent of Africa.

MARK SHIELDS: The entire North American continent.

DAVID BROOKS: Mali — Mali had a very good night, though.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, Mali got mentioned.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mali came up several times.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, it did seem to me that Mitt Romney had a clear strategy of not trying to get rattled — not only not get rattled, but to be agreeable, to be, as you said a minute ago, presidential, above the fray.

I think I counted at least three or four times where he said stepping back here to take a bigger picture.

DAVID BROOKS: Partly, he’s got to distance himself, frankly, from the Bush administration, some perception, oh, he is Republican, he is going to get us into a lot of wars. He mentioned peace more than George McGovern probably did in equal debates.

Then, a lot of the swing voters are women. And he doesn’t want — he wanted — he doesn’t want to feel too aggressive and too hostile, so he wants to feel somebody who is secure, someone you can trust.

And then, finally, he just wants to seem presidential. And so those were obviously the three goals. And there is one thing. If you give Mitt Romney some goals, he will pretty much stick to them.

GWEN IFILL: Was it me, Mark, or was the president also trying to stick it to Mitt Romney on several different occasions, most notably the horses and bayonets line?

MARK SHIELDS: Horses and bayonets.

Mitt Romney — we’re basically ending two wars, and Mitt Romney wants to increase defense spending. And there is just — there is a certain disconnect there with — I think with most Americans that would seem to make sense.

And his complaint is that the Navy will be smaller. And the president, I thought, it was — depending upon how you feel, was it too mean, was it was too snide, or was it, in fact, a pretty devastating rebuttal of Romney?

And the fact the president understated the number of nations — I think Jane’s military guide is that we spend more than the next 15 nations.

GWEN IFILL: He said 10 nations.

MARK SHIELDS: He said 10.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

MARK SHIELDS: But, you know, I believe it’s 15 at the last count.

And Romney — the interesting thing is, Romney keeps saying government doesn’t create jobs, but if we cut defense spending by — it’s going to cost hundreds of thousands of jobs. So, apparently, government spending creates job if it’s in defense, but not if it’s in non-defense. I think that seems to be the…

DAVID BROOKS: I do think there’s a defense of the Romney budget, which is, we’re pivoting to Asia. That requires a fair number of ships.

We also — and Romney made this point, which is the Middle East is sort of going into, as they said tonight, tumult many times. Tumult came up a lot.

GWEN IFILL: Yes, it did.

DAVID BROOKS: So you can’t have it — you can’t be more aggressive in the face of really a deteriorating situation in the Middle East with a pivot to Asia with fewer ships. And so I do think it is intellectually defensible.

The interesting thing is how people will respond to the tone of that — the bayonets line. I found it a little condescending. It was tough, though. I suppose Democrats will like it. Some people may find it a little condescending and mean.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, are you saying the president should have been more laid back at that point or what?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, you know, I would have tried to equal the toughness. He is tough. He’s allowed to go on the attack. I would have tried to have a more positive forward vision.

I continue to think that is lacking.

GWEN IFILL: There was a big chunk in the middle of the debate, I counted it at least 15 minutes, where they weren’t talking about foreign policy at all.

MARK SHIELDS: No.

GWEN IFILL: They were talking about education and energy production.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. economy.

GWEN IFILL: And teachers and automobiles, you name it. They were talking about the U.S. economy. There is clearly a method to that madness, Mark.

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, no question. I mean, that is what the election is about. That is what is paramount in voters’ concerns, and that is where it is going to be decided.

And I think the president, at 15 minutes after the hour, said we can’t be strong internationally unless we are strong at home. And then he made his case. And we found out that teachers unions are — if you’re strong against teachers union, it’s going to upset the mullahs in Tehran.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right.

Also — also listening to this debate here with us in the studio in Washington is our colleague Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I am as, again, once again on debate night, I’m here with presidential historian Michael Beschloss and our political editor, Christina Bellantoni.

The long and short of it, Christina, the short of it, the quick — what did you — what did you get from social media and other places?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: It is exactly what Mark and Judy and Gwen and David were just talking about. Domestic policy ended up coming up a lot, and that was something that a lot of different people were responding to.

And it was also a little different in this debate, because video played so much of a factor. There were a lot of things that the president and Mitt Romney each brought up from the past, sort of fact-checking each other, where there is YouTube video of that example. So that…

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: … flying around.

JEFFREY BROWN: What kind of things? What kind of things?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Well, specifically what Mitt Romney said about Russia, what the president did when he went on that trip that he talked about in 2007 — or 2008, going to overseas to visit troops as a candidate.

So, video of that was surfacing where people could actually go back and fact-check that. It was less of the “let Detroit go bankrupt” question, which is an op-ed and you — sort of nuance there with the headline. This was an actual go watch the video.

JEFFREY BROWN: Michael, what did you hear tonight?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian: Well, I heard something that had a lot of resonance in history, which is that incumbent presidents debating, they usually try to disqualify their opponent.

Barack Obama, I think very few people would say tonight that he didn’t show himself more comfortable talking about foreign policy. He’s been doing it for four years. But Obama wanted tonight to disqualify Romney as commander in chief, as sort of an amateur, a warmonger. Couldn’t quite do it.

And he’s in a long tradition of that. Ford couldn’t. Jimmy Carter couldn’t. George H.W. Bush could not 1992. They lost an opportunity to stop an opponent who was really coming on.

And in Romney’s case, I think he felt that if he got through 90 minutes without — while holding his own, without doing himself any harm, it is sort of a tacit way of essentially gaining the upper hand in this debate.

I was amazed that it took until 9:43 for him to use the words apology tour or to accuse Obama of what Democrats had been accused of by Republicans for 40 years, too much weakness. Had he been more aggressive, you would have heard that probably in the first 10 minutes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, it was interesting. because this is the campaign where it was all about the economy. These are issues that rarely get much attention at all. So was there — how did that strike you, just as you hear them ticked off and how people were reacting to them?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Well, both of them were trying to relate them back to domestic issues, as we were just talking about. And, actually, we were paying attention to this group of — quote, unquote — “Wal-Mart moms,” a focus group that is happening out in the battleground states.

And most of the moms were responding to the domestic issues. And so this was again — you know, as they are fighting over female voters that we keep discussing, they’re trying to target those things. And I also know…

JEFFREY BROWN: So, that’s the 15 minutes Gwen was just talking about that just — targeting them.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Yes, exactly.

And Mitt Romney talked quite a bit about his tenure as governor of Massachusetts, which is not something he has talked about all that much in some of the other debates. It’s not something he talks about — much about on the trail.

One thing that I noticed in social media in particular tonight was both sides were doing spin on each answer, which makes me think that it was a little bit more of a draw than some of the other debates had been, a little more clearly for one man or the other.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, these are also incredibly complicated issues, you know, what do you do about Syria, what do you do about Afghanistan, to get — they don’t get into ads. They don’t get into the stump speech usually, and hard to get clear into a debate.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That’s right.

And so basically these candidates are trying to cast an impression, because exactly what you are saying is right. And Romney was trying to do, in a way, what Ronald Reagan did in 1980 against Jimmy Carter. There was about 10 percent undecided voters who were saying, we might vote for Reagan, we’re worried that he is a warmonger. He said things. When Obama said that Romney had been all over the map, it was just what Reagan was accused of.

So what Romney was trying to do, especially with women, was say, I’m not a warmonger. I’m not someone who you need worry about as commander in chief.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask just you, do you — because it is the last one of these things, right?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you have a sense, an overarching sense that these debates were more important or influential, perhaps, than debates past?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think in one sense.

And that is, when you have a challenger who is as little known as Mitt Romney has been — for instance, you know, it’s oftentimes the case that Americans have known a political figure who has been on the scene, sort of who is sort of familiar to them as a challenger. That’s not true with Mitt Romney.

So they have watched him three times, 90 minutes, three debates. He had a chance to essentially say, I am a worthy alternative to Barack Obama. Hard to argue that he didn’t do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, these are, as we have talked about from the beginning, the first ones to really be taken in with several screens at a time and social media.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Exactly. And that is where it is actually a very small-D democratic. You are opening this process up to a lot more people, and particularly those younger voters.

They are getting engaged in a different type of way by following along through their own social networks, whether that’s on Twitter, Facebook, or even and just watching YouTube clips later. It’s very different than that traditional sitting in front of the television right when you are at home at that one point of time.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Exactly.

And, of course, we have to mention that horses and bayonets joke that we were talking about a minute ago. That, of course — you know, no debate is complete without somebody starting Tumblr…

JEFFREY BROWN: That is the one, huh?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Right. And that is really what hit.

Also, the ’80s joke that the president made, you know, the 1980s called and they want their foreign policy back. The immediate joke on Twitter was, the 1980s called. They want their joke back.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

Christina Bellantoni, Michael Beschloss, thanks so much.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Thanks, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Back to you, Judy and Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Before we go back to the site at Lynn University, I want to talk to you guys a little bit about another interesting thing, which was that President Obama was — kept saying repeatedly, you are all over the place, that you are all over the place. Every time you have offered an opinion, you have been wrong.

And, invariably, Mitt Romney’s response, Mark, has been to say, you know, attacking me is not a policy, is not a policy.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. That’s right.

And I thought the president made the charges. I didn’t think he followed up on them. And I think, in order to do that, you have got to say, you did on this date and you did on that date. And Romney just kind of deflected it by, as I said earlier, sort of the hurt approach.

I did think that Romney’s strongest argument, whether it was substantive or not, was on the — on China. That is the fight for the Midwest. That’s the fight for Ohio. And, China, play by the rules really does resonate with an awful lot of Americans. And the president was wrong when he said the Iraq-Iran war was 20 years ago.

It was 32 years ago. And, finally, I would just say that the theme that Washington’s broken was used by Bill Clinton in ’92, George Bush in 2000, Barack Obama in 2008. And now it’s being used by — again and resonating by Mitt Romney.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we’re going to back now to the debate site at Lynn University, where Gwen and I are joined by Ari Shapiro and Scott Horsley of NPR.

Ari, you have been following Mitt Romney. What did he want to do tonight, and did he do it?

ARI SHAPIRO, NPR: He felt like he had the momentum going into tonight’s debate. And so I think he wanted to be a little bit more cautious than President Obama, who was a bit more aggressive this evening.

Mitt Romney, as you remember, had had a few missteps on foreign policy, whether it was his summer trip overseas or his initial response to the Libya attack. And so he seemed to me to be a little more cautious this evening, and also de-emphasizing the sort of neoconservative aspects of, you know, going to war, aggression, things like that, instead saying, we can’t just kill our way out of these problems and we’re going to be out of Afghanistan in 2014 somewhat more definitively than he had been in the past, to deflect the attacks that might have portrayed him as a warmonger.

GWEN IFILL: And, Scott, the same degree to which Mitt Romney was being, as Ari described it, was holding back some, it seemed like the president wasn’t holding back at all. Was that part of his strategy?

SCOTT HORSLEY, NPR: No, he wasn’t holding back at all.

And it was interesting. Even when Governor Romney was talking, the president was staring straight at Romney and just looking daggers at him, almost contemptuous of his opponent here. And I think what he was trying to do was remind people of those missteps that Romney has had during the course of this campaign.

He said over and over again that whenever Romney has expressed an opinion on foreign policy, it has been the wrong one. Wrong and reckless was his refrain.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Scott, the other thing is, I noticed the president, at one point, when Governor Romney accused him of the apology tour, the line that we have heard a lot from Governor Romney, he came back forcefully, I think in a way that we had not heard from him.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Well, you know, at first, he just sort of shrugged it off and said, look, the fact-checkers have all looked at that and said there was no apology tour.

And then, when Romney persisted, that is when the president opened up with both barrels and said, look, if we are going to talk about tours, if we’re going to talk about overseas travel, when I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn’t bring my campaign contributors along. I didn’t hold fund-raisers over there. I went to the Holocaust museum. I went to people who had been victims of missile attacks.

It was very powerful. I thought it was akin to the moment in the second debate when again the president turned on Governor Romney when they were discussing Libya and said, that is not how we behave, just a level of contempt from the president.

To some people, it will look strong. To others, it may look condescending.

GWEN IFILL: Ari, I wonder whether the Romney folks went into this debate deciding, because they would be sitting next to each other, because he had done so well in the first debate and at least, in many people’s respects, in many people’s opinion, did well by holding his own in the second debate as well, I wonder if they came into this deciding they were going to lean back a little bit and make this less, just look presidential and walk away from the fight.

ARI SHAPIRO: You know, I think the Romney staff, they knew that they — the — the recipe for success for them wasn’t going to be in fighting President Obama on every foreign policy issue.

In fact, there were a lot of issues where Romney said, I agree with President Obama on drones, on Iran, on the approach to Syria and so on and so forth. Instead, they believe that this election will be won or lost based on the economy. And so you saw Governor Romney at every possibility pivoting back to the economy, back to the unemployment numbers, back to, you know, college-educated students who can’t find jobs that fit their education.

They thought he needed to sort of pass the commander in chief test today. President Obama, as he reminded the audience again and again, is the sitting commander in chief. But the Romney staff thought that if people in the audience could perceive Romney as a potential commander in chief, that would be enough for them to get through this debate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Scott, finally, just quickly, we did hear the president try several times to pivot to the economy and talk about how we need to have a strong America in order to do these other things. That had to be part of a strategy on their part.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Absolutely.

I think they — they understand that foreign policy is not going to be the decisive issue for a lot of people. And they said, look, if you’re going try to balance the budget, you don’t start by adding $2 trillion to the military budget.

GWEN IFILL: Ari and Scott, very quickly, where do they go after this? Where do they go? Are they all just going to set up camp in Ohio, or are they traveling to other places?

Ari?

(LAUGHTER)

ARI SHAPIRO: Surprisingly, Mitt Romney’s schedule for the next few days doesn’t include Ohio. Tomorrow, he’s in the Las Vegas area. And then he overnights in Colorado, in Denver. Then he’s back to Nevada for an event in Reno, before going to Iowa.

GWEN IFILL: And, Scott?

SCOTT HORSLEY: And the president has a cross-country trip that is going to take him to six states in three days, including two visits to Ohio.

GWEN IFILL: Sounds exhausting.

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: For you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Scott Horsley and Ari Shapiro, we thank you both for that, for being with us from Lynn University, the site of this debate.

So, as we wrap up here, David Brooks, where does this leave the campaign?

DAVID BROOKS: You know, Michael Beschloss made the point that a number of incumbents have tried to disqualify their challengers.

And it occurs to me, you can try, you can push hard, but if the challenger doesn’t help you, if the challenger doesn’t self-disqualify, then it is hard to make that stick. And so you look to see, did the challenger makes mistakes?

GWEN IFILL: So, if Romney wouldn’t fight back tonight…

DAVID BROOKS: If he doesn’t fight back, if he doesn’t make any blunders, if he doesn’t liberate Central Europe or that sort of thing, then I think he survives and he does reasonably well. You count this as a moderate good night for him.

And I do think he said, I’m peaceful, I’m secure, you don’t have anything to fear from me. So, he at least rose to the level of being presidential.

GWEN IFILL: What do you think about that?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

No, I thought the key point was that he wasn’t — there was nothing neocon about him. He is not talking about going to war. And, strangely enough, he had a variation of the president’s strategy in the first debate, which was a little bit rope-a-dope. In other words, I’m going to clench, I’m going to agree, I’m going to cut down the differences, except when he felt that obligatory — had to make some rhetorical differences on Libya and Syria earlier.

But there really weren’t any substantive — then he emphasized the agreement — he, Romney. And I think, in that sense, the clench worked for him and his manner worked for him. I mean, he was steady. In the second debate, there was moments at which I thought his petulance — he was about to lose his temper. There were physical interchanges between him and the president.

And tonight, boy, he was a lot more disciplined.

GWEN IFILL: Win, lose or draw?

DAVID BROOKS: Draw, with maybe a tint of Romney advantage, just a tint.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it does raise the question if there’s anything the president could have done to draw Romney out. And it sounds like the answer is no. He came not to be drawn out.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, no.

In other words, the only thing I think he could have done was to do what Romney does from time to time, which is to question and say, now, wait a minute, Governor. You said this on this date and you said this on this date. Which one is the real Mitt Romney?

I mean, and that — I think that was the only thing he could have done further. And Romney just didn’t go for the bait.

GWEN IFILL: Mark Shields, David Brooks, I hate to cut you off, but we have got to go.

With that, we end our special report of this final debate between President Barack Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney.

The “NewsHour” will have extensive coverage both on air and online in the last two weeks of this closely fought campaign, including reports from key battleground states and our usual in-depth analysis of the issues shaping election 2012.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And speaking of online, our analysis of tonight’s debate continues with Christina Bellantoni on our after-hours live-stream.

We are going to see you again here tomorrow night at our regular “NewsHour” time.

For now, I’m Judy Woodruff.

GWEN IFILL: And I’m Gwen Ifill.

Thank you, and good night.