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Shields and Brooks Wrap on 2012 Republican National Convention

August 31, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Political analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks digest the top political news of the week, namely the 2012 Republican National Convention. They discuss the tone of RNC political rhetoric and how it targeted small business, the lack of any mention of the military in Romney's speech and Clint Eastwood's appearance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And with us once again, as they have been every night this week, are Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome, gentlemen. You made it back. As I was just saying, you drove all the way from Tampa to Washington.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Not quite, not quite. You flew.

So, we just heard from these undecided voters. They are still undecided. They are not yet sold after listening carefully, Mark, last night. Does that tell you anything about what Mitt Romney was able to do?

MARK SHIELDS: No, these are the gold mine. Both campaigns, these are the people they are trying to reach. I mean, that’s where the battle will be fought.

But I guess if you are the Romney campaign, you hope that there would be three or four battlefield conversions that stand up and say, that does it for me, I’m willing to join.

But I think it makes us stay tuned for next week and find out what happens after Barack Obama. If they’re still undecided, then we’re probably on to the debates.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. And I have got to say, there’s obviously a high degree of skepticism. I heard it in that audience. You hear it in the country.

And I think it makes you think when you go back to Romney’s speech that the policy lightness was probably a little excessive. That is to say, there wasn’t enough policy. They had to humanize him. And people in interviews, especially on camera, will always say, policy really matters. But personality really matters too.

It is just historically documented that people want to vote for somebody they like. But I think he had to have a little more policy. He had five points which were very generic and not particularly his cutting-edge points.

Tax reform, simplifying the tax code, lowering the rates and cutting some loopholes, that wasn’t there. And that is a keystone of his campaign. Entitlement reform, changing the structure of Medicare, that wasn’t there.

And so, you know, just as the families that were most compelling were not the professional politicians, so in presenting himself maybe to be less professionally political, and a little more corporate, to be honest, here’s what I’m going to do, you may not like me, but here is what you are going to get, I think that might have worked a little better.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What was your main takeaway from the speech?

MARK SHIELDS: From Mitt Romney’s speech?

The end of the convention, Judy, is a little bit like a heavyweight championship fight. We’re between rounds right now. And you see each candidate kind of goes back to his corner and say what — assess the damage and what they have accomplished.

And I think what they accomplished, and both in the speech and in the week, was to inflict some doubts upon Barack Obama, that there’s no second act. What is it? I think that is something that certainly has been raised by Paul Ryan, was raised by other speakers, that how would a second Obama administration be different?

And I think that’s a real problem that has to be addressed in Charlotte. As far as — in addition to that, I think that the case that the president has made against Mitt Romney has been just relentlessly negative, and rather than — which is companion to that first point.

And I think Mitt Romney, he’s not a great speaker. We get very few transformational speeches at conventions. Gerald Ford gave one in 1976, when he unexpectedly gave — just electrified a crowd in Kansas City and jumped in the polls and kind of started his comeback against Jimmy Carter with the remarks that, you are the people who obey the laws.

You are the people who go to work every day and make America work. And it’s from your ranks that I come, it’s from your side that I stand.

And it kind of gave a new Gerald Ford. Bill Clinton did the same. Ordinarily, it doesn’t happen. And Mitt Romney didn’t do it, quite honestly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much does that matter, if he didn’t?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he didn’t do that.

But he did — I think it’s hard to portray him as an unfeeling, corporate rich guy. He had a sort of Richie Rich image that came out of a lot of the ads run against him. And I do think he has overcome that to a significant degree.

I think you have to say it was a successful convention. I thought he comes across as a more rich and complex human being. I thought one of the strongest points in the speech was the indictment of Obama, are you better off, the line that, was the day you felt best about President Obama the day you voted for him?

MARK SHIELDS: That was the best line, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And then even Ann Romney’s, this man will not fail, that he does seem to succeed, he works hard, he does what he needs to do to succeed.

And, frankly, I thought Paul Ryan’s line that the — Obama is sort of sailing — I forgot the exact line — sailing on spent winds, that is actually a true point so far. Maybe that will be proved incorrect next week in Charlotte.

But I do think that hits at something that is real, that the Obama administration, they know they really don’t like the Republican plans. They’re not quite sure what they’re supporting. And I even think in Paul’s piece, what Jared Bernstein said was a bit of that too.

And so I thought they made some real progress in making some strong arguments.

What about, Mark, the rest of last night? David touched on this, the ordinary folks who testified, gave testimonials about what Mitt Romney had meant to them decades ago?

MARK SHIELDS: I thought they were quite moving. I thought they were quite affecting. It was part of Mitt Romney that we had never see testimony given on before. There were acts of just enormous kindness and generosity.

The one question that was raised — and it is a legitimate one — is that he was — is enormously kind to people he can see in acts of personal kindness and generosity of time. But policies affect all kinds of people you don’t see, millions of people that he will never come in contact with.

And so acts of personal generosity and thoughtfulness, while totally admirable and a source of great admiration and appreciation, really don’t affect public policy. I mean, some of the nicest people I know have voted for some of the meanest legislation. And some of the really selfish people I know have voted for legislation that has touched and changed and been compassionate in changing people’s lives.

So, I think it did — David is right. It did present him in a different light. But it didn’t give us a sense of the public policy that he would implement.

DAVID BROOKS: And I think they do have to make a stronger case that their policies, which will increase jobs and will help the poor people who — you know, a 22-year-old kid, as Paul Ryan says, living in the basement.

I do think they have a problem of talking too much to, as if everyone in America was a small business person.


DAVID BROOKS: And if — everyone sort of admires entrepreneurs and small business people. Fine, but we’re not all small business people.

And I think a point I tried to make over the week is, you are a 22-year-old waitress, maybe with a kid, what exactly did you hear last week that is helping you? You’re a guy in a warehouse making nine bucks a hour, and you made nine bucks an hour 10 years ago, what exactly did you hear?

And I think there are a lot of people in America who, you know, they are not going to be small business people, and they probably didn’t hear all that much. Maybe they will get some benefit as small businesses grow, but nothing that immediate, the immediate problems of paying for a kid’s college or wage stagnation. You didn’t hear that immediate help for you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, I think I remember when you posed that question to Sen. McConnell, to Mitch McConnell.

What do Republicans say in answer to that point?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, Haley Barbour had the best answer of what the obligation was, the former governor of Mississippi, when he said this convention was about Mitt Romney establishing that he wasn’t a practicing plutocrat married to a known equestrian.

I mean, that had to come across, and that is both programmatic and personal as well. I mean, and that — David is absolutely right. I mean, it was like a meeting of the National Association of Federation of Small Businesses. I mean, you know, nobody is — is anybody a social worker? There was no mention of the military at all.

DAVID BROOKS: Except for Condi and…

MARK SHIELDS: No, but, I mean, I’m talking about the presidential acceptance speech.

Iraq and Afghanistan went absolutely unremarked upon. And this was after we…

JUDY WOODRUFF: He said a strong defense.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. But, I mean — but, no, it was — so, I mean, those who would stand at freedom’s watch tonight, I mean, it just — you know, it seemed to come down, if you had a business, you were to be elevated and acknowledged.

DAVID BROOKS: There is a supposition in there which is questionable, frankly, which is that if GDP goes up, if productivity goes up, everybody will benefit.

And that is a supposition, we’re going to get growth going, we’re going to get business going and everybody will benefit. Frankly, you look at the history of the last 20 or 30 years, that’s not necessarily so.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

DAVID BROOKS: Productivity has risen. Wages have not necessarily risen because the reward to skills is so much greater than it used to be. And the penalty for lack of skills is so much greater than it used to be.

And Republicans, frankly, didn’t address that problem, and I do think that remains a problem for them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But isn’t that much of the premise that they base that argument on, that growth…

DAVID BROOKS: Well, their basic supposition is that capitalism is basically functioning the way it has and frankly the way it has for hundreds of years, that as the economy grows, everybody gets a piece of it.

But there — we have to have some doubts about that because of the structure of the information age economy.

MARK SHIELDS: We are in a new century, where the median income for a family has gone down since the turn of the century, beyond — prior to the recession.

The other thing that you — we didn’t mention with, of course, the testimonials was Clint Eastwood.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I was going to say the person there who wasn’t a small business man was Clint Eastwood.

MARK SHIELDS: But he was there for a specific constituency, older white males.

And that is a target group. I mean, it’s one that is very anti-Barack Obama and one that — and it was — I have to say, as affecting and touching as those testimonials were about his personal generosity from people at his parish or in his church, I just thought it was a change of tone. It was — there were tasteless aspects to it.

I thought there was a discomfort factor with all of the Romney grandchildren there present. And it just — it just didn’t work. As much as I — and I stand as an absolutely uncritical fan of his work, but, boy…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Of Eastwood’s…

MARK SHIELDS: Of Eastwood’s work, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … work as an actor and a director.



DAVID BROOKS: And I would say Mitt Romney is a manager, and they have had a successful campaign and a successful convention.

But they have had two monumental mess-ups. Not having those families out beforehand — and I ran into a journalist who wanted to interview those families for a documentary for another network, and they were not letting them go out there. What on earth were they thinking?

And, then, secondly allowing an 82-year-old guy to get up on a national audience with no history of giving political addresses unscripted, just to vamp, that is also political malpractice. And so there are some serious managerial issues in the campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how does all this change — or does it — what President Obama needs to do, what the Democrats need to do at their convention?

MARK SHIELDS: I think President Obama has to have a positive, definite, specific message about how the second administration would be different, and what — affirmatively.

You would hope that President Obama would go in and think in these terms: I’m not going to even address Mitt Romney. If I were just running for reelection on my own, what is my case? What is the case I want to make on what I have done, why I have done it, how it has succeeded, and what I have learned from it, and what I will do differently and better in the second term and how America and your life will be better?

And — I mean, and not just we have to stop Mitt Romney because he’s the Visigoths at the gate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think he needs to do?

DAVID BROOKS: Completely agree.

He has got to prove he is not intellectually exhausted. He has got to prove his administration is not run by the political team, that there is a policy agenda there. And you go back and you look at some of the policies they’re talking about, infrastructure bank, green energy, they’re fine, they’re small.

They’re also exactly the same thing he was talking about when he was a United States senator. Has there been a new idea in Obama world in the past three or four years? I have trouble, frankly, thinking of that thing.

But they have got to unveil something to — and, you know, “The Economist,” the cover is of the future issue, the coming issue is one little question: Mr. Obama, what do you want to do?

And that is the question.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, they’re saying — they had a conference call today with reporters, and they said, we’re going to talk about the second term.

So I guess we will find out.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. No, better have something pretty specific, I think.


Well, we are specifically glad that the two of you made it safely back to Washington.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And we know you are heading to Charlotte with all of us for next week.

David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just a post script: We have a week’s worth of highlights from the Republican National Convention online including all of Mitt Romney’s acceptance remarks and all the other speeches.