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Shields and Brooks on Early Voting, Preparing for the First Debate

September 28, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
NewsHour political analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the week's top political news, including the start of early voting, the challenge Mitt Romney faces in trying to recoup in the polls, and how the candidates should prepare for the first 2012 presidential debate.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Gentlemen, welcome back.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, David, early voting is under way, what is it, just a little under five weeks to go until November 6. What does the race look like?

DAVID BROOKS: First, that is an abomination, that people are voting already before the debates. It should never be allowed.

But the race is sort of current trends continue. And so they were pretty much tied going into the conventions.

America took a look them at the conventions and decided they liked Obama better, apparently, because things started to open up. And they have been pretty much opening, opening, opening.

And so the 47 percent comment that Romney made seems to have had some effect. And so that opened it a little wider. And pretty much it is just opening. And what is interesting to me is that the opening, the Obama lead, is bigger in the swing states than it is nationwide.

And I think the suggestion there is the Obama ads are better, because they are running in these swing states and people seem to think they are a more coherent storyline than the Romney ads, which are running less, but they are still running. And so it’s — the trends continue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you read this? And how do you explain the fact that the president seems to be doing better in the swing states?

MARK SHIELDS: I have a different theory.

And the theory is that Mitt Romney is the first presidential candidate in — certainly in the last 35 years who wherever he campaigns does worse. And I think that’s his real problem.

I mean, for example, in Florida, his personal unfavorable rating in January was 29 percent. It went up to 35 percent in May. It’s now at 48 percent.

In Ohio, the same thing. It went from 34 percent unfavorable in January, to 37 percent in May, to 49 percent in September.

The more they see him, the less they like him. And this is a real problem. It happened to Gerald Ford, the president of the United States, in 1976 in a marvelous campaign, a great campaign.

Stu Spencer, who was a strategist, met with the president in the White House with Bob Teeter and Dick Cheney, who was chief of the staff, said, Mr. President, you are a great president, but you are a terrible campaigner. Everywhere you go, your numbers go down. So that’s — they had a Rose Garden strategy.

I called Stu Spencer this week to talk about this. And he said, the problem that Mitt Romney has, he doesn’t have a Rose Garden. I mean, he can’t go back and be sort of in charge of the government. And I just think it’s a real problem.

I agree with David on what he said about the 47 percent, because it played into a stereotype that already existed, a negative narrative about Romney, that he was out of touch. My wife, Ann, drives two Cadillacs. You want to bet $10,000, he said to Rick Perry, I mean, all of that. That tied in.

And the 47 percent speech that he gave on tape just reinforced that about what people already thought.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you — how do you see that scenario?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

First of all, I think Mitt Romney does have a Rose Garden. It’s near the croquet fields somewhere in many estates.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: I do agree with that.

What is unique about the is, he is the first candidate whose unfavorable ratings are higher than his favorable ratings. And so even…

JUDY WOODRUFF: First candidate ever or just in a long time?

DAVID BROOKS: Since we have started polling this sort of thing.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

DAVID BROOKS: So, Al Gore had a plus-22 rating even in a losing campaign. John McCain, I think it was about plus-16.

And Mitt Romney, according to the Pew I saw today, was minus-five. And so that is — that is a problem. Nonetheless, Mitt Romney — Barack Obama is no walk in the park either.

And so his — do people think he deserves to be reelected? Is the country headed in the right direction? Those numbers are terrible too.

And so that doesn’t mean it’s out of reach for Mitt Romney. But — so I think what he has to do is shift it off the personal stuff and try to just get it on the policy stuff and try to run a very-policy heavy campaign.

That, by the way, is not what he did this week. He has done a much more “I’m compassionate too” campaign to try to move up his personal ratings. I think that is the wrong strategy. Just go to policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that how he turns it around, by what he talks about?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I think he’s in a difficult position right now, Judy, because he’s going into the debates right now. And you have been a little bit behind in this race all the way along.

And so you say, OK, well, wait until we pick a vice president. Now you pick a vice president, they get a little flurry, and nothing happens.

Then they say, well, we will pick up at the convention. And now we are going to the convention. And then, you know, after the conventions, Obama opens up a little gap.

So now it is the debates. So the pressure builds. You are going to go in and do a Hail Mary pass. Everybody has got a trick play they want to use. You do the Statue of Liberty, and do we charge them with this, let’s do that.

So I think it becomes more difficult for him. I agree with David on the substance. I agree with him that the president is just barely at 50 percent. He’s not — or 49 even — an incumbent who is known by everybody, who is there, is certainly no lock for reelection.

But the problem is the gap is widening. And it’s McCain — it’s McCain.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: It’s Romney dropping, rather than Obama opening up a big margin.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see what Romney and the president have to do in the debates? What is the task — or let’s just talk about the first debate, which is next Wednesday.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

So, Obama, I think his task is reasonably clear, just be calm, stay calm, whatever that British slogan we’re all repeating now, stay calm and in control, whatever it is. And so he just has to be calm.

And somebody made a good point today. He had a pretty bad week in the Middle East or a pretty bad two weeks in the Middle East, but he reacted with calmness. And so he sort of gets a pass on really what is sort of a chaotic administration policy.

Romney is the one with the burden. And so I do think he says — he has to say, listen, I haven’t been a great candidate, but if you elect me, there are four organizations I’m going to fix. I am going to fix the tax code.

MARK SHIELDS: Three.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Do you think — I think Romney can remember four.

MARK SHIELDS: No, no, I don’t mean that. It is just too many for people to remember.

MARK SHIELDS: If you take three, three are believable.

DAVID BROOKS: OK, I defer. Three. OK, so do the tax code, do energy policy and do the political system. Or go say, hey, this guy won’t talk about the fiscal cliff. I’m going to cut a deal. I will cut a deal to — so we don’t go off the fiscal cliff, so business can have some confidence.

That would be the sort of unusual thing that I think would be a practical thing that would be believable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so is that right? What Romney needs to do is go in and talk about — you know, name four things he is going to fix?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, three, not four.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sorry, three things he’s going to fix.

MARK SHIELDS: Maybe two or three, no more than three.

Judy, he has to understand this, first of all. The first debate helps the challenger, OK, because for the first time the challenger is standing on the same stage with the president.

And the fact that he is not blown away or there is not an enormous stature gap between the two, the challenge, whoever the challenger is, benefits from that.

And he’s got to stay within himself. He can’t be somebody he isn’t. The problem that Mitt Romney has, in addition to being — the relatability, or that terrible word of somehow being too rich and not understanding ordinary people, is that he — that he doesn’t seem authentic.

So I think he’s got to be absolutely within himself and natural and in control. And remember this. This is an open window for voters. This is the only time we’re going to see the two of these people standing side-by-side.

We’re the employment agency. We’re deciding which one of these people we want. And one of the things we are going to decide is, who do we want in our living room 250 times a year for the next four years? Which one of them is more comfortable with himself?

But, basically, neither one of them has answered the question that voters have. And that is, where do we go from here? How do we get there? We know we’re stalled. We’re still out on the lake and the weather isn’t good. But, you know, maybe the boat hasn’t capsized, but where do we go? Do we go to a safer harbor? How do we get there?

And Romney hasn’t answered that. And because he hasn’t, and because his campaign has stumbled so much, Barack Obama has been spared from answering it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And — but what about David’s other point, that all the president has to do is remain calm?

MARK SHIELDS: I think the president has a real problem.

I mean, the president cannot appear to be taking it too easy, can’t appear to be at any point condescending.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean overconfident.

MARK SHIELDS: Overconfident, patronizing, not that that is his natural public demeanor.

But I just — you know, I do remember — I think Al Gore lost the 2000 — David and I disagree on this. I think he lost the 2000 campaign in the three debates, the first time when — his audible sighs when George W. Bush was talking. He kind of — how did I happen to end up on the same stage with this guy?

And then when he stalked him in the third debate and walked over and invaded his airspace, people said, I’m not comfortable with this fellow, because he doesn’t seem comfortable with himself.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

See, I would say he hurt him — he hurt himself, Al Gore, in that case, but I do not — do not believe that any campaign has really been turned on debates. I think if you look at the pre-debate polls, the person who was ahead in those pre-debate polls has won just about every election.

And so people hurt themselves. They go up and down a little. George Bush lost at least two, probably three debates to John Kerry, still beat him in the general. So I am a little less persuaded that debates are foundational to any election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One other thing I want to ask both of you about, more attention this week to international news.

MARK SHIELDS: Sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We had the U.N. General Assembly, the speech by the Iranian leader, the speech by Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel. The president spoke.

That’s now in the air. Today and yesterday, Romney’s campaigning in sort of a military setting. Could foreign policy suddenly rise up and be a bigger issue in this campaign?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s going to be less of an issue after Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech yesterday.

I think there was a concern, and a real concern, that if Netanyahu thought that Obama was going to be reelected, that the likelihood or the possibility of Israel attacking the Iranian reactor before the election with the expectation they wouldn’t get as good a deal in the second term of Obama increased. And, yesterday, I think he took that off the table.

I think that now he’s talking about next spring. And I think — so there is likelihood of that.

But, sure, it can happen at any time. Foreign policy can intrude. The problem that Mitt Romney has is he just hasn’t risen to the commander in chief level, where people believe that he is. And when he chose Paul Ryan, he didn’t fill out his resume. He chose not to go in that direction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Foreign policy?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I do agree that what Bibi said was the key thing, which is that we have got several months until next spring.

And so that means, if there is ever going to be a military attack, it will not be pre-election, it won’t be any time soon. And so, that lowers the temperature on that issue.

Whether the administration has a plausible strategy, they have a good principle, which is that we cannot tolerate containment. We can’t contain a nuclear Iran. They will not get the bomb.

But how we get there, that’s — they have always left vague. The Israelis have been incredibly frustrated: Why are they so vague? Why won’t they lay out a strategy? And so, that is a concern, but it’s more a policy concern than a political one.

JUDY WOODRUFF: OK.

Very different subject, but I have to ask you. The NFL lockout of the pro football officials, they resolved it all after that Monday night game, Mark, which, shall we say, was controversial. What lessons to be learned from this whole experience?

MARK SHIELDS: The myopia and greed of NFL owners is beyond, beyond comprehension.

I mean, these are people who have a $10 billion enterprise. And basically, for chump change, for walking-around money, were willing to put the integrity of it in jeopardy.

And they united, Paul Ryan and, what’s his name, Scott Walker and David Brooks as union supporters. They’re backing the union.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: Now, that is an amazing achievement on the part of the NFL owners.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Twenty seconds.

DAVID BROOKS: I was so furious. I was in a bar in New York watching the Green Bay game. It was not only the last call. There were a bunch of calls. They were giving everything to the home team.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: But I think a lesson for viewers — I mentioned this earlier today — is that if, you think we’re bad, the replacement pundits would be even worse.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: So, you should love us — you should love us…

MARK SHIELDS: I disagree with him, Ruth.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: We don’t want any — we don’t want — all right, and now we know where David spends his Monday nights, in bars in New York and other places.

MARK SHIELDS: Bars in New York watching NFL.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, David, thank you both.

And Mark and David keep up the talk on The Doubleheader. That’s on our website coming up after this program.

And a reminder: Our own Jim Lehrer, who is moderating the first debate, is going to appear in a segment with CBS’ Bob Schieffer on the program Sunday morning this weekend to talk about the history of presidential debates.