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Shields and Brooks on Economic Forecast, Mitt Romney Overseas, and Campaign Ads

July 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss the week's top political news, including the effect of decelerating economic growth on campaign politics, Mitt Romney's overseas trip to London, Israel and Poland and recent Republican and Democrat campaign ad strategies.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Gentlemen, welcome.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Together again. It’s been a couple of weeks.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

To me, the fundamental dynamic still slightly favors Romney, because I think it's much more likely we are going to see Romney's character image rise than that we're going to see the economy rise.David Brooks, New York Times Columnist

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, we’re going to talk about the Olympics and some other things.

But, Mark, let’s start with this growth, economic growth report out today. What is this going to mean for the campaign?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it’s bad news, Judy.

It’s not determinate. It’s interesting. There have been seven presidents reelected since World War II, and when they were reelected, the growth has averaged 4.7 percent, which now we are talking about an annualized rate of less than 2 percent or 2 percent right now.

But George W. Bush was reelected with 2.8 percent growth. And Dwight Eisenhower won a landslide with 0.3 percent growth. And Jerry Ford lost with 4.8 percent. But when the economy is the central determinate issue in the campaign, which it in this campaign, it can be nothing but bad news right now for the president and his campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nothing but bad news for the president?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I mean I agree.

Reagan started with 10 percent unemployment and — but he had growth going up to 6 percent. And now we are under 2 percent. And the dangerous thing for the president right now is the deceleration. And so we are still growing, but the rate of growth is going down. I can’t think of anybody who has won reelection with a decelerating rate.

And, as David Wessel and others said earlier in the program, it just makes us so much more vulnerable to anything else that happens. Europe, Iran, I think both those things have become slightly more likely before the election, which is not to say they’re likely. But there are so many black swans out there that it just makes it, you know, very fragile.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, as we heard David Wessel and Mark Zandi, they disagreed on what could happen. But there are things that could happen in Europe and in this country if Congress were to get its act together. Is that what the economy is hostage to at this point?

MARK SHIELDS: I’m not sure that anybody feels there is a single act or a single agreement.

It’s hard to make the case that if the president and the congressional leadership did come in a summit and did forge an agreement to take us back from the prospect of the fiscal cliff that everybody seems concerned about — and understandably — next January, in prospect, that that would have a stabilizing and confidence-building reaction in people.

I don’t know if that is doable in a campaign. I don’t know if there is enough goodwill. I don’t know if there’s a sense of anxiety and nervousness on the part of both sides at this point. But I think it would take something almost that dramatic.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I really don’t see it.

When you look at the data — and when they do these numbers, they go back and redo the historic numbers. And what you saw was that, in ’09, it went down further than we thought. But then in the third quarter of ’09, it went up further. And we had this V. which suggested you were going to get some growth. Then in the fourth quarter of ’09, it levels.

And so — and then it has just been scuffling along with the deceleration recently. So I don’t know what happened in ’09. Some of it, we were just baked in with the financial crisis. But even given a financial crisis, you don’t expect to see deceleration over the last couple months.

And so, I think this is sort of baked in from either the health care reform or the lack of confidence or the European thing, a whole bunch of factors all crashing together.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me just ask it this way. Is the president talking about it in the right way? Is there anything he could do? Does he just have to say this is the way it is and hope for the best?

MARK SHIELDS: I think what the president has to do — and his chance of being reelected — is to draw a contrast and comparison between himself and Governor Romney, this is what I — the course I have staked out, and I believe it’s the right course, and — but this is where he wants to take us. And if that is where you want to go, and especially if you want to go back, I think — to me, politically, that is the only avenue open.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I would say he missed a historic chance.

This was a couple of years ago. He could have said the stuff he is beginning to say, which is, when you have financial crisis, you have a lot of years of slow growth. And we are going to take advantage of this winter of recuperation to fix the structural things.

You say, we count on the cyclical stuff, but we are going to fix the structures, the tax system, the entitlement system, the middle-class jobs, the education. And so he could say to the American people, OK, listen, it’s going to be tough for a couple years, but we are going to get our house in order and fix the deep structural problems that plague this economy.

And if he had said that, I think he would have won himself a bunch of time. Remember, even in this time, the unemployment rate for college grads is around 4 percent. It’s the high school grads and not the college grads who are really suffering. And that suggests something deep and structural, not just cyclical.

And I think the president missed a historic opportunity to talk about those deep structural issues and show that you’re serious about them.

MARK SHIELDS: I just — it’s great to talk about entitlement reform in the abstract.

But, I mean, in a time of economic suffering and pain, when the maldistribution of that pain has been felt by those at the lower end of the income bracket, I really question just how plausible and acceptable that would have been at that time. I really…

JUDY WOODRUFF: For the president to…

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: For the president or anybody. There is no sense of universal sacrifice that has been talked — we are now talking about — just an example, we talked about the tax cuts of 2001-2003, and 10 percent of the population has gotten 67 percent of the benefits from those tax cuts.

That is what we are arguing with.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I’m going to change the subject….

MARK SHIELDS: OK.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … since we clearly need to get the Olympics, to London.

David, Mitt Romney arrived there a few days ago, and he has had a rough go of it. How do you size up the trip?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, he shouldn’t have gone. There is no reason for him to go. And I’m told there was dissension in the staff about whether he should go.

The election is here. And the issues are here. And so, I think it was mistake to go. And it was certainly a mistake to do a gaffe. And I think this — the gaffe, what he said was true, that there are some security issues. But you don’t say it.

And it underscores a deep anxiety in Republican circles that he is just not running a great campaign. If you look at the Obama campaign, it’s a professional campaign. You see the storyline they’re telling. He took people’s jobs away with Bain. They are going to turn to Medicare and they’re going to say, he wants now to take away your — he wants to voucherize your Medicare.

That is a progression. You understand how they’re doing their campaign. For the Romney campaign, the people in the campaign are saying, OK, we haven’t hit yet, but don’t worry. In a couple of months, we are about to really get on track. We are going to unveil who Romney is. We are really going to hit Obama hard.

Well, this is a faith-based strategy. Maybe they are going to start effectively campaigning, but not yet. And so this little gaffe was just icing on the cake to a deep anxiety that they are not running a coherent, effective campaign, and it’s the candidate who is overruling a lot of the things that need to be done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is your view of all that?

MARK SHIELDS: David is right in large part.

It’s been a gift to President Obama, this trip. It’s an unforced error. You expect somebody to go to the United Kingdom and to praise Judi Dench and the royal family. And what he was doing speculating about security, especially after he had run an Olympics at Salt Lake City, and the last thing in the world you want is a Monday-morning quarterback coming in on a Friday afternoon and telling you what could go wrong.

And so it made no sense — the trip makes no sense to me, except for domestic political consideration. I think it draws attention, quite frankly, to the dressage factor. That is Mrs. Romney and Governor Romney’s…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Her horse.

MARK SHIELDS: The horse, which is not Joe Six-Pack, let’s have a beer at the corner market, for a candidate who doesn’t relate.

And what he is doing, Judy, sadly for him, is he is filling in the blanks. This is somebody who can’t talk about his governorship. That was ruled out in the primaries. He ran away from that. The Bain thing has been defined in large part by the Obama campaign, just as it was by Ted Kennedy in 1994.

And David is right. When are we going to see who this mystery man is? Except, he goes over there and stumbles on himself. And we know he’s going to meet Sheldon Adelson in Israel and swear his unswerving loyalty to the Likud Party. I mean, that’s basically it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So just quickly to this idea that he went to highlight the difference in his foreign policy from what President Obama’s foreign policy is.

DAVID BROOKS: I guess that was the idea. I have no idea.

I have real trouble — maybe he wanted to see the horse in dressage. Most Americans care about steeple chase, but not the…

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: But, no, I really don’t know why he did it.

He goes to Israel. And I can see why. Obama has never been to Israel, or not as president. And you highlight that, but that is not what people are voting on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, bringing it back home, while he’s overseas, his campaign and the Republican National Committee still very much running ads on television, the Obama campaign running ads.

We are going to look at two of them quickly, 30-second spots, right now, and then we’re going to talk about them. Here they are.

NARRATOR: President Obama came to the White House with big plans. He would halve the deficit, strengthen the economy, lower unemployment. What did we get? National debt over $15 trillion and climbing, unemployment above 8 percent for 40 straight months, an ongoing economic crisis with no end in sight.

He tried. You tried. It’s OK to make a change.

The Republican National Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are a nation of workers and doers and dreamers. We work hard for what we get.

And all we ask for is that our hard work pays off. I believe that the way you grow the economy is from the middle out. I believe in fighting for the middle class, because if they’re prospering, all of us will prosper.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

PRESIDENT OBAMA: That is the idea of America. And that is why America is the greatest nation on Earth.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I’m Barack Obama, and I approve this message.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, we are told that that Obama spot is going to run tonight during the Olympics.

Is that an effective spot? Is it an effective way of getting a message across?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it’s the president — it is more positive than the president’s campaign has been running, which has been filling in the blanks, by their judgment, on Mitt Romney.

And it’s again to draw contrast with Mitt Romney. And I have never heard the expression we build from the middle out. I have heard from the bottom up. But I have never heard — the Democratic Party is now officially the middle party.

JUDY WOODRUFF: From the middle out.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, the middle out. It does sound like a weight problem, more than anything else, from the middle out.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: But hard work and values and putting himself in the mainstream.

And there had been criticism — and polls have reported, the Wall Street Journal/NBC, that they have been too negative. And I think this is — can’t be accused of being negative. It’s a positive message.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think…

(CROSSTALK)

DAVID BROOKS: The middle out is Columbus, Ohio, out. Maybe it’s a Midwest sort of thing.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: The basic dynamic of the campaign is, Romney has the economy, and Obama has…

MARK SHIELDS: Romney.

DAVID BROOKS: … character — has Romney, yes, exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: They each have each other.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: It’s like an odd couple. And so, Romney…

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Not like the two of you.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. No, no, no. We’re the sweet-talkers.

Romney is going to say, hey, you don’t mind this guy, he’s not a bad guy. He just can’t do the job.

That is the strongest argument. And Obama is going to say, I get you, I get your values.

And, to me, the fundamental dynamic still slightly favors Romney, because I think it’s much more likely we are going to see Romney’s character image rise than that we’re going to see the economy rise. But they are both hitting the right spots. I think they’re both good ads. And they’re hitting their core features.

MARK SHIELDS: The Romney ad, I thought, was a better ad conceptually than it was in execution, because the tone was good at the first.

What they’re trying to say is if we get 10 percent of the people who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 — we are trying to give them permission who are disappointed that they can now vote for Romney or not vote. And I just thought they had a nice tone at the outset. Then, in the middle, it kind of became a Republican talking point, and he did this, he did that, he did that, instead of saying, he tried, we tried…

JUDY WOODRUFF: More in sadness.

MARK SHIELDS: More in sadness than in anger. And I thought it got a little bit 96 pieces in the middle.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

And I would say, quickly, the best Obama ads are not the ones where he is speaking, which sounds like second-rate 2008 ads, on the stump, but there are some good ads where he’s talking directly into the camera.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

DAVID BROOKS: And I think those are really quite good ads.

MARK SHIELDS: That is a good ad where he talks about the contrast in the two messages. I agree.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we will show that one next week…

DAVID BROOKS: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: … as well as another — as a Romney ad.

All right, sweet talk, David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Judy, thank you.