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Shields and Brooks on the DNC, Platform Agenda and Firing Up the Democratic Base

September 3, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
NewsHour political analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the upcoming Democratic National Convention, including what Democrats will need to do to fire up the base, the Democratic platform, and whether Bill Clinton, a scheduled speaker at the convention, can influence the election.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And with us tonight and all week are Shields and Brooks.  Of course, that’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

It’s great to have you with us, guys.  Welcome back.  Hello.

MARK SHIELDS:  Thank you.

DAVID BROOKS:  Great to be here in a new place.  

JUDY WOODRUFF:  So, state of the race?  We have heard from the Republicans.  They’ve had their week.  We’re about to hear from the Democrats.  

Mark, what is the state of this contest?  

MARK SHIELDS:  The state of the race, Judy, is close.  

(LAUGHTER) 

MARK SHIELDS:  No, I think that the Democrats have a real — we heard Andy Kohut give a rather dreary and dismal portrait of where the Democrats are and the lack of enthusiasm and excitement among them.  

And I think that’s what, first of all, has to be done this week, is to drive up the positive feelings about this election and its importance to the Democratic faithful before you even reach out to the undecided.  

GWEN IFILL:  And yet we hear again and again, David, that there is enthusiasm lacking, that people are saying, yes, OK, whatever.  I’m not as excited as I was in 2008.  Whatever.  I will get around to voting or maybe not.  

DAVID BROOKS:  Well, you see it among the young, as Andy said.  You see it in certain key states.  Iowa — Obama crushed McCain in Iowa.  Tied right now.  Wisconsin, Obama crushed in Wisconsin.  Tied right now.  

So, you see that sort of thing in state after state.  And you also see the race incredibly close.  If you look at the polls of what we have seen so far post-Romney speech, maybe he got a slight bump.  There are two polls.  Rasmussen has put him up a little.  The Gallup poll, which is a tracking poll over a seven-day period, shows basically no movement.  So, they’re basically tied right now.  

What I’m looking for in this convention is, what’s next?  What is the agenda for the second term?  When he came in here — into Denver four years ago, he knew exactly what he wanted to do.  It was to heal the political mess in the country.  In 2009, we knew exactly what he wanted to do.  He wanted to ameliorate the fiscal crisis.  In 2010, health care.    

What’s the big answer right now?  What’s the big problem the country faces?  What is he going to do about that problem?  That’s the real thing I’m looking for this week.  

JUDY WOODRUFF:  So, Mark, we heard Stephanie Cutter say that they are going to — the president — we’re going to hear specifics this week, that they’re going to talk about what the president is going to do to carry out the themes, the agenda that he started in the first term.  

MARK SHIELDS:  Well, yeah, and she said, what, crystallize the differences?  So that means a little bit more comparative.  We can hear Mitt Romney’s name mentioned more than once, the Republican Party.  

But I think it’s absolutely necessary, Judy.  There has to be a second act.  There has to be — this is what it’s about.  I mean, if the president is going to have a victory — just as Governor Romney I think failed to be specific enough, if you want to turn a victory into any kind of a mandate or any kind of a summons for national action, you have got to lay out in advance to the voters what you stand for, and what specifically you want to do that is different from what you have done and from what the other fellow wants to do.  

GWEN IFILL:  I wonder whether you’re watching — or whether it even matters — who else speaks at these conventions, at a convention which is a renomination, other than the president himself, whether it’s Bill Clinton, it’s Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, people are waiting to hear.  

DAVID BROOKS:  I really think it does matter.  

I mean, the guy who is president right now is president because one of these early speeches.  So these early speeches matter.  I thought Ann Romney mattered.  I thought Clint Eastwood mattered.  I even thought the chair mattered.  

(LAUGHTER) 

DAVID BROOKS:  So they all mattered.  And so I’m glad these things are still three days.  

You know, Condi Rice mattered.  There’s an atmosphere that builds up.  If it was just one speech, it would be just be like a presidential address.  And we would all clue in, but we really wouldn’t get nearly the sense of the person or the party we get from having three days.  

JUDY WOODRUFF:  But when we hear that the — we’re going to hear from ordinary citizens, I mean, one of the things Stephanie Cutter, the deputy campaign manager, said, you know, we’re not going to have any surprise stars, surprise speakers.  Is that something that can make a difference? 

MARK SHIELDS:  I think just one speaker can make a difference.  And that’s Bill Clinton.  

Bill Clinton has passed into a different atmosphere, a different environment politically. 

He is above the pettiness and the fractiousness and the ugliness of contemporary politics.  And he now has a favorable rating in the 60s.  That’s acknowledged by Republicans as well.  

And I think he is a very, very forceful advocate.  I think he can make a stronger case, quite frankly, for Barack Obama than Barack Obama can for himself.  

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Really? 

DAVID BROOKS:  I’m a little dubious about that.

MARK SHIELDS:  OK.

DAVID BROOKS:  Here, I disagree, because people like Bill Clinton, very popular even among Republicans, they sort of wish he was still president in some sense.  

But he campaigned heavily in 2010 for Democratic candidates.  I didn’t notice a big bump.  He campaigned heavily against Scott Walker in Wisconsin.  

MARK SHIELDS:  Once.  

DAVID BROOKS:  OK, once.

MARK SHIELDS:  One day.

DAVID BROOKS:  I withdraw the heavily.  

(LAUGHTER) 

MARK SHIELDS:  All right.  

DAVID BROOKS:  He did a lot more than Barack Obama did. 

MARK SHIELDS:  That’s right.  He was in there one Saturday morning.  

DAVID BROOKS:  And if there is a big Obama effect — or a big Clinton effect, I think we have yet to see it to date.  

MARK SHIELDS:  We disagree.  

GWEN IFILL:  OK.  Wow.  

MARK SHIELDS:  Yes.  

GWEN IFILL:  Early on in these conventions, we’re always watching for the campaign platforms and whether they — what they tell us.  

At the Republican Convention, there were things in the platform that the Romney folks said, oh, that’s just what they think.  We don’t really buy into it.  

Here, they’re presenting a platform apparently where they are saying, this is Barack Obama’s vision.  What’s the difference in that?  

DAVID BROOKS:  Well, I guess the first thing to say is they — I think this is a unified party.  I think both parties are more unified than historically they have been.  And that is certainly true of this party, because this is famously a fractious party.  

The second thing — and this has pluses and minuses — Obama campaigned as stylistically a very different sort of candidate, different sort of president four years ago.  His policies have never been that unorthodox.  

So his policies have fit in reasonably well with the Democratic mainstream.  The people he hired in the White House have fit in reasonably well with the Democratic mainstream. 

And I do believe that’s one of the reasons he has failed to keep the enthusiasm among young people and among independents, because they look at the policies and they see, oh, that’s — I know what is.  That’s a normal Democrat, whereas they were hoping for something weird, unorthodox, something new.  

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Is it realistic, Mark, I mean, getting back to Gwen’s question earlier, to think that over a period of three days and with the president’s speech, that theDemocrats can fire up the troops, get young people energized and excited again, or is that just — I mean, is the bar too high?  

MARK SHIELDS:  Well, it’s a high bar, Judy.  But it’s an aspiration that they need to do.  They cannot come out of here with a sense lethargy or anomie about them.  

And as far as the platform is concerned, I think that the Democrat taking a position unequivocally on same-sex marriage is — especially in this state, where it was on the ballot in May, just four months ago, and went down by 61 percent, does show how the country has moved in the past eight years.  

Eleven years — 11 states in 2004, that was the decisive issue in the Bush-Kerry race.  It was organized by Karl Rove and the White House to put it on the ballot.  The country has moved enormously on that issue.  And I don’t think there’s any question which way we will eventually come down, in favor of same-sex marriage.  

GWEN IFILL:  If the president had not fully evolved in time for this convention, can you imagine this would have made it into the platform?  I guess that’s the connection…

DAVID BROOKS:  Right.  Thank God for Joe Biden.  He forced his hand.

MARK SHIELDS:  Yes, Joe Biden on a Sunday, you will recall, on the air.  

But, no, absolutely not.  I think it is, but at the same time, every platform is a result in some part of a group organizing passionately, intensely, and saying, look, this is important to us.  And occasionally there’s a non-negotiable point made by a particular element of the party that says, if you don’t do this, we’re not going to be engaged and involved.  

And I think that there’s no question that the Democrats, on gay rights matters, have become committed in a way that they never have been before.  

GWEN IFILL:  Final thought, David.  

DAVID BROOKS:  Yes.  
I think how it plays out, this — that issue plays out this term may help the Republicans a bit.  I think in the decades ahead, it will hurt — it will help the Democrats, for sure.  

GWEN IFILL:  Well, we have much more to talk about all week long, so we look forward to chatting with both of you about it.