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Shields and Brooks on Mitt Romney’s Faith, Ann Romney’s Speech

August 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss 'Day Zero' of the Republican National Convention, how Mitt Romney's Mormon faith may factor into this election, and what David calls "the most important speech of the convention," the upcoming remarks by Ann Romney.
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GWEN IFILL:  And with us tonight and all week long are Shields and Brooks.  That’s syndicated columnist, Mark Shields and “The New York Times” columnist, David Brooks.  We’ve been waiting for your to tell us –

MARK SHIELDS:  Yes.

GWEN IFILL:  – follow through on what Andy (ph) just said about who these conventions are for and whether everybody’s just here to see the roll call and Paul Ryan.

Mark?

MARK SHIELDS:  Well, I think there’s a lot of energy with — for people in the room toward Paul Ryan.  There’s no — and they feel a lot better about Mitt Romney since then.

But it’s really for Mitt Romney and the Republicans, I mean, to make their case to the president, to the people of the country unfiltered. It’s their best chance — there will be some 40 million Americans watching, the biggest crowd by a factor of 100 that Mitt Romney’s ever spoken to probably, and so it’s a very crucial moment in his quest for the presidency.

DAVID BROOKS:  Yes, I defend these things to the death.  You know, if you look, how many things actually change the polls?  We’ve had a year of campaigning.  Nothing has changed the polls.  I almost guarantee it, almost, that this event will change the polls.  Peak (ph) candidates typically –

(CROSSTALK)

GWEN IFILL:  You guarantee it?

DAVID BROOKS:  – get a 4 — well, I said almost.  I gave myself a hitch.

Almost — usually score a 4- or 5-point bounce, and the Democrats will get their bounce.  And so that has an effect on public opinion.

And the thing we forget is all these other candidates who are going to be speaking tomorrow, who are down-ticket candidates.  That’ll play back home, and that’ll affect their own races.

So I think we — think it should be two weeks, three weeks.

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL:  What message — aside from just the down-ticket races and the people who want to be here forever, what are the — what are the messages that these candidates are trying to send to — at home — to home, but also on this floor?

We heard Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Bob McDonnell talk about it.  What did you pick up from that?

MARK SHIELDS:  Well, I think they’re trying to speak beyond the room. They’re trying to speak to the nation now, and they’ve been through an intramural food fight, the nomination of the presidential candidate, during which some really ugly things were said about Mitt Romney, especially by Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich in particular, Rick Perry, and the only one of whom has a speaking spot I think is Senator Santorum.

But you know, and I think just to get all of that behind them and to try and tell America that Mitt Romney, who we will learn, has a marvelous gift for private charity and personal generosity to those in trouble in his parish or his congregation, whether in fact that extends to people he doesn’t know in Lima, Ohio, and Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Eureka, California. 

And I think that’s — I think that’s the question that’s demanding an answer and somehow is going to be — (inaudible) beyond acts of personal kindness and charity, which are part of his record.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, some of us read a briefing this morning with senior Romney advisers, David.  I know you were there; Gwen was there.  What — you know, they’re talking about for — this is rare that Mitt Romney’s going to talk about what his faith means to him –

DAVID BROOKS:  Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  – this week.  What’s the significance of that?

DAVID BROOKS:  Well, there’s sort of a debate going on inside the head of Mitt Romney, it looks like.  On the one hand, they know they have to be more open.  And they know they have to talk about his faith. There’s high suspicion of Mormonism, if you talk to people, how many Americans are concerned about Mormons, that’s a number that’s reasonably high and it’s reasonably stable over the decade.

So among evangelicals, it’s about 36 percent are concerned; among seculars, 41 percent.  Those are high numbers.  And so they’re going to actually bring out Mormons to talk about the community service and things like that.

And so Romney knows he needs to do that.  At the same time, you see in the interviews, he’s saying I’m not a piece of meat.  I’m not that hopey-changey guy.  I’m not Mr. Open-It-Up.  I’m Mr. Reticent.  And so he’s trying to rationalize a policy which is, OK.  We’re not going to — we’re going to open up a little, but not too much, because I’m Mr. Reticent.

GWEN IFILL:  I am what I am, why I act (ph) is what they keep saying.

DAVID BROOKS:  Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Is there — are there — is there risk in doing that, Mark, or is this just as a — whatever he can do to tell more about who he is, is all to the good for him?

MARK SHIELDS:  No, I think he has to be authentic.  I mean, he can’t — he cannot be — come off as contrived, I mean, because that’s one of the real concerns about Mitt Romney, given his political journey, philosophically speaking, that — whether there’s authenticity, what the core of the man is.

I would not be concerned if I were Mitt Romney or anybody in his campaign about the evangelicals, who are the most suspicious.  They don’t believe that Mormonism is a part of Christianity.  But they are the most vehemently anti-Barack Obama.  So they will vote for him.

But there is a real concern — David’s absolutely right — over the past 45 years in the country, as Americans have grown more supportive of a woman being elected — 90 percent — or a black — voting for a black or a Catholic or a Jewish nominee that they  felt was qualified by their own party, 90 percent, only 4 or 5, 6 percent would be opposed.

There’s been a constant, almost 1 out of 5 who’ve had a resistance to Mormonism.  It’s — hasn’t changed.  And it’s — it is a problem and I think it’s something that he has to address.

GWEN IFILL:  You know, there seems to be — there’s a new “Washington Post” poll out today, showing everything neck and neck again, nobody breaking through.  But one of the Romney advisers told us this morning, if I were a White House adviser, I would — to put this delicately — go and throw up in a trash can, is what he actually said.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Memorable line.

GWEN IFILL:  Memorable line.

But you wonder if –

MARK SHIELDS:  (Inaudible).

GWEN IFILL:  – the text is telling us who Mitt Romney is at this convention.  Is the subtext telling us who Barack Obama is not?

DAVID BROOKS:  Well, they are clearly defining themselves as the opposite of him.  They — the hopey-changey stuff, the vague grandiloquence, they are definitely trying not to do that.  And the scary thing is, in that poll — and in a lot of the recent polls — you’ve seen this sort of shift in demographics.  So shift along racial lines.

So Mitt Romney could conceivably get 60 percent of the white vote. And when you take the white male vote, that’s significantly higher. That’s a much higher percentage — I think George W. Bush got about 55 percent.

On the other hand, the Latino vote could go 80 percent toward Obama. And so the divides along  demographic lines within that poll and in all the polls, much sharper than anything we’ve ever seen before.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  What does that say about our country, Mark, when — I mean, have we seen this before where the politics was so divided, so clearly, among ethnic and racial lines?

MARK SHIELDS:  Well, there was a time when the Democrats won presidential elections with a solid white South when no African-Americans voted, up until the Civil Rights Movement, and that’s when the changes really — since 1964, we’ve seen the two parties change.

I mean, the Democratic Party is — was the party of white working class voters.  Now the strongest constituency for Republicans is non-college-educated whites.  And the problem is they were 62 percent of the electorate when Ronald Reagan got elected.  They’re now 38 percent of the electorate.

But David is right.  I think you have seen overtones of racial appeal in some of the commercials in the last couple of weeks that I think are disturbing.

GWEN IFILL:  You mean on the part of the Romney –

MARK SHIELDS:  On the part of the Romney campaign, I really do.

GWEN IFILL:  Gentlemen, as we start our long weeks together here in Tampa and next week in Charlotte, we want to hold you to some things.  One of them, what are the big speeches you’re listening for, what are the big issues that you think are going to play out in the next week or two?

Start with you, David.

DAVID BROOKS:  I’m going with Ann Romney.  I think she’ll –

GWEN IFILL:  Really?

DAVID BROOKS:  – be the single most important speech this convention. She’s, A, a better speaker than her husband and, B, if any of us –

GWEN IFILL:  Aren’t they always better speakers (inaudible)?

(CROSSTALK)

DAVID BROOKS:  – I — it is a interesting — psychologists should study this.  They’re always better speakers, they’re smarter and they’re usually better politicians.

GWEN IFILL:  Yes.

DAVID BROOKS:  Ah, those spouses.

And so I’m looking — if anybody can humanize him, it’s her.

GWEN IFILL:  How about you, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS:  I am — I am looking at the Romney speech, because this is — this is the moment.  I mean, Americans, are they going to be comfortable with him?  Are they going to have a sense that he understands what we’re going through and what my name is and kids are going through and my family’s going through.

And at the same time, does he really have a plan?  I think that’s — the other — I think potential star is Marco  Rubio.  But the guy I’m not going to take my eyes off is Chris Christie, just another pretty face.  I mean, anybody that has a weight problem has to look at Chris Christie and say, I’m fascinated by this guy.

DAVID BROOKS:  You literally can’t take your eyes off him.

MARK SHIELDS:  You can’t take –

DAVID BROOKS:  (Inaudible).

GWEN IFILL:  Ah –

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Oh –

All right.  David, Mark, thank you.  We’re looking — Gwen and I are looking forward to spending a lot of time with you guys –

GWEN IFILL:  Yes, we are.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  – this week and next.

And you can catch more from Mark and David on “The Doubleheader.” That is just one of many beyond the Skybox features available only online.  You can find six live stream channels on our website, including all of the official proceedings every day this week.  Also there are interviews with newsmakers, with delegates and others who are here attending.

We’ve asked elected officials and NEWSHOUR regulars for their favorite convention moments, memories that stand out from conventions past.

We’ll also be live streaming a PBS breakfast panel.  I’ll be talking with Republicans about the future of the party.  That’s tomorrow morning at 9:45 am Eastern time.  All that and much more is at newshour.pbs.org.