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Shields and Brooks Wrap on 2012 Democratic National Convention

September 7, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks talk to Judy Woodruff about the dreary August jobs report, how undecided voters may have perceived the Democratic National Convention and whether the Republican money advantage will affect the presidential race.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And with us once again, as they have been every night for the last two weeks in Tampa and in Charlotte, are Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

So, gentlemen, I promise not to talk about your — the circles under your eyes, if you promise not to talk about the circles under my eyes.


JUDY WOODRUFF: So these undecided voters, David, what do you make of all that?

DAVID BROOKS: I thought they made a lot of good points.

I sometimes have little patience for undecided voters, but I thought they hit a lot of issues that are absolutely crucial, lack of agenda, who can get things done, certain betrayals.

And I guess my advice would be focus on the two things we’re certain — or three things we’re certain of.

First, we know there’s a fiscal cliff coming in December. Which of these two gentlemen is more likely to control the Congress to getting a deal? Because there’s a real possibility they will not get a deal and we will have a recession in December. That’s a real possibility.

The second thing is health care. We know that, if Romney wins, he will repeal. We know that, if Obama wins, he will not. So that is a concrete thing. You don’t have to be fuzzy about that. You know.

And then, third, growth agenda, who is offering one?

And I guess my own perspective on that is the Republicans have a skewed growth agenda and the Democrats have no growth agenda. So you’re picking between imperfections.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, the comments they made were striking. He didn’t answer how to fix the economy. There wasn’t much policy there. What did you make of what they said?

MARK SHIELDS: I found it fascinating, and it’s a great reminder to all of us who opine on politics that elections are about voters. They’re not about candidates. They’re not about Barack Obama, Mitt Romney. They’re about voters.

And voters can’t be pigeonholed. I mean, those are complicated, interesting people. They don’t fit in to, oh, this is where my left-handed independent will break on the issues. They’re going to be strong on defense, and, therefore, they’re going to be anti-tax, whatever.

They were just — I thought what they had to offer — I thought the most interesting observation to me was the young man who said that Barack Obama is just bruised and wounded after four years. I mean, one way to look at it is that he’s gray, he’s seasoned, he’s survived. But that’s another way of looking at it.

And the woman who felt betrayed because the president made his reassurance that, on religious freedom, religious liberty, and that he wouldn’t encroach, and certainly the convention celebrated, celebrated loudly and continuously, a woman’s right to choose, and with no reference made…

DAVID BROOKS: Notice nobody said, well, he had Clint Eastwood. Oh, no, he had Mary J. Blige.


DAVID BROOKS: These sort of things which we talk about a lot.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The things that we end up talking about, because…


JUDY WOODRUFF: But when you hear them say, I wanted more detail, is that — are they going to get that on the campaign trail?


And I have sort of been a broken record on this. I don’t think you have to lay out 59-point plans. But I do think there has to be a road, say on growth. What creates growth in the economy over the next two years or year? What do you believe creates growth?

Romney, I guess, believes tax cuts will create that growth. Obama, I think he believes that stimulus spending creates growth. I think he’s a Keynesian.

But there’s no mention of that. And he’s not offering that, probably because it’s politically not that popular right now. But if he does believe stimulus spending creates growth — he has talked about his jobs bill, though, before that, to be fair.


DAVID BROOKS: But I didn’t hear that in the convention or in the convention speech.

So he should say, I believe in more stimulus spending.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I actually think…


My dissent would be this, that this election is Bill Clinton’s third term. That was — the most interesting speech we heard in the two conventions by a factor of four was Bill Clinton’s.

Bill Clinton made, I thought, the most persuasive case for growth, which was that discrimination and ignorance and poverty are a dampener, are an antidote to growth, and that, therefore, the investment in education and social services was a growth — was it in a year or two? No.

But, I mean, that’s — that’s a distinct and profound difference, I think, between the two parties.

DAVID BROOKS: A., I don’t think it’s a difference. Everyone is trying to reform education. And a lot of their policies are pretty similar, frankly, charter schools and merit pay and things like that.

But — and I — believe me, I completely agree with that, but that’s a 30-year proposition. It’s really important, but it’s a 30-year proposition, the kids who are 5 and 6 now.

But, in the next two years, we’re in a potential of a lost decade, of a Japan or a European-style lost decade. What are we going to do about that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I guess we’re going to increase defense spending and cut taxes. I mean, that seems to be the growth agenda.


MARK SHIELDS: I mean, that — which is a bizarre growth agenda.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I have my problems with that as well.

I would — I think we need to cut the corporate tax. I’m not convinced the income tax, if we cut that, that will make a big growth. I think we need to fix the regulatory environment. We really need to fix sequestration, what is about to happen in December. There is probably bipartisan agreement about that.

I think we need to fix immigration. There are a lot of things floating out there that we could do. And I think you could get a pretty bipartisan agenda. And you could list nine things we’re going to do right away.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But is either candidate talking about that? And I want to ask you both about — burying the lead here — we got new jobs numbers today. The unemployment rate went down, but only 96,000 jobs were created, Mark, last month.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, and Jared Bernstein was very candid. It’s a weak jobs report. It’s down from July.

The irony is that there were more jobs created in July, and the percentage went up, and fewer jobs created in August, and the percentage of unemployed went down. But the reality is, it’s bad news. It’s bad news for the country and it’s bad news for the president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How does it change things?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, you know, it’s part of 43 months of that we keep hearing, oh, we shouldn’t react to one jobs report. We have had 43 of them.

And, to me, the worst part about it is, if we were scuffling along slowly, moving uphill, then you could say one thing, but 2012 is worse than 2011. We’re not moving uphill. We’re moving gradually downhill.

And so that is bad. And so that’s why — that’s really the — I thought the president’s — my problem with the president’s speech was incrementalism, the idea that we have got these policies in place, and, incrementally, we’re moving forward.

I don’t think, incrementally, we’re moving forward. I think, incrementally, we’re — we’re either staying the same or scuffling a little downhill. And, so, to me, that’s the significance of the jobs number, that not — not only no slow progress, lack of progress.


MARK SHIELDS: Yes. I think — I think you can point to areas of progress, but the progress is certainly not as fast or intense as you would hoped.

The message really came down to one that President Reagan used, which is stay the course. I mean, that is essentially the president’s message coming out of the convention in Charlotte.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, if that’s the case, then where does this campaign stand right now?

MARK SHIELDS: This campaign is a total anomaly to my experience.

By every measurement, President Obama should be 10 points behind. I mean, no president has been reelected to the White House since 1967, when the Conference Board began its confidence, consumer confidence index, with a consumer confidence figure lower than 95.

And, right now, it’s at 60 — 60 — and the president is tied or ahead. You have got unemployment at 8.1. No president has been reelected with those numbers since Franklin Roosevelt and the Great Depression. And yet the president is tied or ahead.

I mean, it’s either a great tribute to the personal support and enthusiasm and intense following that he has personally, beyond the issues, the weakness of Mitt Romney, and the Republican message, or whatever. But he is defying political gravity right now.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I completely agree with that.

You look not only at these numbers. You look at the wages for non-supervisory personal, sort of working-class, middle-class wages, plummeting, plummeting over the last two years. And yet he’s hanging in there.

And I think it’s for the reasons Mark describes. I also think we’re much more locked into our party affiliations and, therefore, there’s just less movement. And then I guess I think he’s running a better campaign right now. And what we’re seeing, the early polls out of the convention, the Democratic Convention, they seem to have gotten a bounce.

It was very hard to see one out of the Republican Convention. But the polls that concluded after the Clinton speech show, so far, maybe there will be a three-point bounce. But it’s not historically big, but it’s better than what the Republicans got.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But we keep hearing now the Republicans have, what, a $60 million advantage going into the rest of the campaign. Is that — at what point does money become determinative?

MARK SHIELDS: Money becomes determinative when states become in play and you can force your opponent to defend his turf.

That’s exactly what Barack Obama did in 2008 against John McCain by spending and outspending him in states like Virginia, which had not voted Democratic since 1964, North Carolina, which had not voted Democratic since 1976.

You go into states like that and start spending money, which Republicans, with limited funds then, didn’t expect to defend. And now you have got President Obama. If you — do you go into Wisconsin and spend a bundle? Do you go into Michigan, whatever, to tie up the president? I mean, that’s what it does. It gives you more — more tactical latitude.

DAVID BROOKS: I’m more skeptical that money makes a difference.

When you look at the evidence, what — when you — people do a big ad, all the Bain ads against Romney, it did drive his personals down, but it didn’t really affect his vote. And so I do think, when you look at the door, you see effect at a presidential rate. You can drive personals down or up, but the vote has been remarkably stable.

And then think of the independents we just saw, the comments we just heard. Do we really think any of those people are going to be affected by an ad? I’m a little dubious about that. There’s a lot of information they’re processing, and ads I think go through an extremely thick filter in those kind of voters’ minds.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, in less than a minute, to both of you, what does it take to shake this race up? Or do we just look at this steady slogging ahead, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: No. I mean, we have several interactions. We have got four debates.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Three presidential.

MARK SHIELDS: One vice presidential debates, and three presidential, where they’re going to stand on the same stage. It’s not going to be a matter of money or competing advertising terms.

And people — I think voters…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Our own Jim Lehrer is going to moderating the first one.

MARK SHIELDS: Our own Jim Lehrer has the first one, which is probably the most important one, because you’re going to — that’s when we’re all personnel directors or human services chiefs.

And we kind of look at them. And are these the qualities we’re looking for?


And I guess I would say that they’re really good at campaigning against each other. They’re both pretty good at negativity. So, either one of them will hit a knockout blow, or else somebody will actually come up with something positive. And it will be one of those two things. I would love to see one of the candidates come out with something positive. I really don’t expect to see that.

MARK SHIELDS: The first one that shows a flash of humor will surge, and especially — and self-deprecating humor. And I’m not sure that that’s a natural…

JUDY WOODRUFF: I’m writing that down right now, first one to show…

MARK SHIELDS: There’s at least…

DAVID BROOKS: I’m humble. I’m humble, just like Abraham Lincoln.


MARK SHIELDS: Yes. That’s it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, next time I see you both, you’re going to get some rest between now and then.


DAVID BROOKS: Guaranteed.

MARK SHIELDS: That hurt.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You look good, but I know you want some rest.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.