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Shields, Brooks on Michelle Obama’s ‘Home Run,’ Bill Clinton as Advocate

September 5, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks talk to Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill about the critical consensus on the success of Michelle Obama's speech, and how Bill Clinton, a "brilliant advocate," knows how to crystalize an argument.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And with us tonight once again are Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, we’re looking ahead to Bill Clinton tonight. But people, meanwhile, are still talking about the first lady last night.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. And it seems to have been unanimous. Mark and I were not in a minority in our view of that. Pretty much a home run, everyone considers that.

I read some very conservative websites, FOX. It was bipartisan. American united. They thought she did a fantastic job, as did I.

GWEN IFILL: The fact that she did a fantastic job, Mark, assuming we all agree with this, what difference does that make in the long run for the president?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it makes a difference, Gwen, in the sense that one of the great advantages that Barack Obama has had over Mitt Romney is that one of likability, of personal qualities, Americans identifying with him, thinking he cares and understands more of their problems, what they’re going through than does his opponent.

The degree that that reinforces that is to Obama’s advantage and to Romney’s disadvantage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now that we have heard from the first lady, how do they continue to move this message ahead that this president has the right answers for the next four years?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think the big one — the big dog tonight is William Jefferson Clinton, and I think he makes the case, I think, for the bridge to the — at least for the next 20th of the — next fifth of the 21st century.

And I think he is good. But the key is the president. I mean, the president has to do it himself. He’s the one that has to acknowledge the disappointments, explain it, and at the same time, lay out what he intends to do different and better in the second term.

GWEN IFILL: Is it fair to assume, however, that Bill Clinton, part of his job here tonight is also to focus, in the way that a lot of the Democrats who spoke last night did in very overt ways, in less overt ways on Mitt Romney?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he crystallizes — I actually think the Clinton speech is a little overblown.


DAVID BROOKS: Because he’s not a great speaker. He’s very popular. But you can remember a great speech he gave while president or a great phrase?  I frankly don’t think…

GWEN IFILL: Oklahoma City, David.

DAVID BROOKS: OK. That was a nonpolitical speech, but I give you credit for that one.

I think what he does — and he did this in the ad, which has been super effective for Obama — is crystallize. And so he takes issues which we all are familiar with, but he puts it into phraseologies. And so I’m curious to see how he does that.

The second thing is that Clinton changed the Democratic Party, temporarily, I would say, towards a centrist direction. He did Robert Rubin’s fiscal policy and really balanced budgets and produced surpluses. It is not clear to me — and this is a question for me on this convention — is that does the Rubin strategy, does that apply to today’s Democratic Party?  I see very little sign that it does.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, Mark, how much of Clinton’s popularity can really be transferred to President Obama?

MARK SHIELDS: It isn’t transferable.

I think David is right. He does crystallize, but he makes the argument for Obama better than Obama does. He is a brilliant advocate, and I think he’s a far better advocate when he’s speaking for somebody else in another cause than he is on his own behalf.

He is not eloquent, but he is crystallizing. You’re right. And I didn’t hear a lot of crystallizing at Tampa. Maybe I missed it. But I think crystallizing is in rare, rare supply this campaign season.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we know what to listen for tonight from both of you.

Thank you, Mark.

Thank you, David.