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Shields and Brooks on Close Congressional Races, Obama’s Debate Performance

October 5, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Judy Woodruff talks with NewsHour political analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks on the top political news of the week, including the tight Missouri senate race, as well as other close contests; the latest, more optimistic jobs report; and what factors may have contributed to President Obama's performance at the first debate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that brings us to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Gentlemen, good to have you with us.

Let’s — we will talk about the jobs report in a minute.

But, Mark, what about that Missouri Senate race?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s — it’s a remarkable race.

Roy Blunt, the Republican colleague of Claire McCaskill, has broken ranks and endorsed Congressman Akin, and so did Kit Bond, the former governor and senator. And so did Jim Talent, whom Claire McCaskill defeated, former senator, in 2006.

So Republicans had expected to do a lot better, Judy, this year than they are doing right now, according to most estimates. The seats that they took for granted, Dick Lugar’s in Indiana, Richard Mourdock, the Tea Party candidate, is now behind centrist Democrat Joe Donnelly.

In Maine, where Olympia Snowe was going to walk to reelection, that, the Republicans are trailing badly against Angus King, who is going to organize with the Democrats.

So, all of a sudden, Republicans are looking, well, maybe we have got to figure out a way to help Congressman Akin, even though we don’t want to get close to him, because we could face a loss of seats.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you make of it?

DAVID BROOKS: Even in Arizona, Jeff Flake…

MARK SHIELDS: Jeff Flake, that’s right.

DAVID BROOKS: Connecticut is close, though the Republican is doing a little better there.

So, yes, it’s coming very close. It will be interesting to see the polls starting around Sunday, when the post-debate polls — because whether or not Romney was able to turn it around against Obama, there is some expectations that he may have helped some down-ticket Republicans. And so we will see.

It is kind of amazing Akin is hanging in there, given the record, and, you know, within five, and that could get a little closer.

It’s sort of a lesson. If you just want to be Machiavellian about it, the whole party was desperate for him to get out. He stuck it out. He is still hanging in there. If he had left, his career would be over. Now he has some chance of being a senator.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I mean, everybody was writing him off not very long ago, weren’t they?

DAVID BROOKS: Absolutely.

MARK SHIELDS: No, they were.

Now, there is a libertarian who is getting 9 percent. So that — but what is interesting, Jennifer Duffy, the Senate expert at The Cook Political Report, pointed out that the Democrats won three Senate seats, including Missouri, Montana and Virginia in 2006, their great year, with 4.8 million votes cast, by 66,000 total.

So, I mean, and all three are contested again. Tim Kaine is running in Virginia to succeed Jim Webb. And Jon Tester is running for reelection in Montana. So races that were considered pretty good shots for the Republicans now all of a sudden are in play.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s talk about that jobs report, David. Unemployment rate dropped to 7.8 percent, 114,000 jobs. What does that mean for the campaign?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, obviously, the line that Romney has been using all these months of 8 percent, he can’t use that line anymore.

I’m frankly a little skeptical that it makes a huge difference. There was a bad jobs number, actually a falsely bad jobs number a month ago. Now it’s been revised upwards. And I didn’t notice it had any big effect.

I’m generally a believer that people feel the economy around them much more than they pay attention to the numbers that are on TV or in the paper once a month. But what’s interesting is that the perception of the economy among Americans has actually been going upward in the last six weeks.

So, in some ways, the people are ahead of the numbers. And so we have seen the steady progress. But they see it around them more than they read about it. And so I do think there is sort of an upward trend that people are feeling. I’m not sure any individual job number has a big impact on the race.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think it has much of an effect?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Diane Swonk said that, statistically, it’s not significant.

I think, politically, it is significant in this sense, that the — after — 48 hours after the debate, the Democrats and President Obama needed good news. And remember the stimulus promise to keep unemployment below 8 percent? Stimulus worked. OK?


MARK SHIELDS: But, I mean, politically and psychologically, the difference between 8.1 and 7.8 is significant.

But I agree with David. I think, to a greet degree, Judy, the economy is already baked into people’s political equation. A trifling — a number, an insignificant number probably isn’t going to change the political equation that they have made.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What does it do, though, David, to the Romney sort of central argument at one point of his campaign, which was the president has failed on the economy?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I don’t really think it changed that.

I mean, we’re gaining 114,000 jobs a year — I mean a month. You know, at this time in many recoveries, we’re gaining 200,000, 300,000, sometimes even 400,000.

So if we are at a healthy recovery, then, you know, then it would hurt his argument. But we’re not a healthy economy.

And it’s still basically true, though only by a slimmer margin, that 2012 has been worse than 2011. So, he can still make that argument. And he will continue to do so.

MARK SHIELDS: I agree with David, generally.

But I think, today, Gov. Romney, he fell back into losing his touch. He didn’t have the right sound. And instead of sounding sympathetic to people who lost a job, it was a little bit like, well, I don’t care if it is getting better. It really isn’t getting better.

And you can’t come across as rooting against — you know, oh, it’s actually 11 percent. There’s got to be a sense that — you know, that you are happy that people are — that things are better. You can’t come across as, cheer up, eventually things will get worse. That can’t be part of your message.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, and you mentioned the debate. To the two of you, here we are 48 hours afterwards. David, does it look any different as you look backward through the lens?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I have two questions. One, first on the Romney side, he established a much more moderate persona I think than he has at any time.

And so the question to me is how does he develop that? Does he sort of flesh out that moderate persona and try to hit the people he really has to hit, which is white working-class women in places like Ohio, to show how government can help them out and how he has a plan to help them out using government?

So I thought — I think he did very well. And he really broke the Tea Party spell. A lot of mainstream moderate Republicans didn’t want to sound anti-Tea Party, because he was afraid there would be a backlash on the right. He did it and conservatives loved it because it was effective. And so we will see how he develops that.

On the Obama side, you know, I think a lot of it, the fatigue of being in office — I was trying to think of the last time Obama gave a good political speech. And I think it’s been a couple years. He gave a very good non-political speech after Gabby Giffords. But I can’t think of a good political speech he’s given.

And, you know, it’s tough to be president. You get fatigued. And if you are sort of only peripherally engaged or not the super-engaged person — Ronald Reagan wasn’t engaged in every detail — he could have the stamina to do it. But Obama is engaged in everything.

And I do think there is a sense of fatigue that one senses around the White House and one senses around him. And so to get the passion that he had in 2008, I think, is just hard given everything he’s been through for four years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think that explains, Mark, partly what happened?

MARK SHIELDS: It may well, Judy.

What — 48 hours later — first of all, just a personal note, I speculated on election — election night — on debate night that the president’s passive performance — and it was quite passive, listless — may have been attributed in part to John Kerry, his sparring partner in the prep sessions, who is a leading contender to be secretary of state, maybe not going tough toe-to-toe to him.

My subsequent reporting has, in fact, contradicted that. John Kerry, I was told by two eyewitnesses, was actually tougher inside than Mitt Romney was with Barack Obama in the debate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So that’s not an explanation.

MARK SHIELDS: So, that’s — no, I don’t think that — I do think what we concluded before — at least I heard several wise people say presidential debates don’t matter.

This one mattered. The Republicans were heading for the lifeboats before Wednesday. I mean, there was a sense of inevitability, that Romney was slipping, that he was going to lose. And that was totally turned around by what happened.

He wiped the slate clean of what had been a bad, bad month of stumbles and gaffes and everything else. And the sense that the president was the inevitable winner, I think, was pierced. I don’t think it was broken, but I think it was pierced.

And I think — most of all, I come back to what Bryce Harlow, one of Washington’s great wise men, an adviser and consular to both President Eisenhower, every Republican president from President Eisenhower to Reagan, told me once about the bubble at the White House.

And he said, it’s the terrible thing. It’s the office itself that happens to the president. Presidents don’t get candid criticism.

And he said, I don’t care who it is, whether it is the most powerful committee chairman or captain of industry or president of the university, comes and say, if I could just have five minutes with the president, I could turn him around and say — and once they step into Oval Office, whoever the president is, the same thing happens.

They melt and say, Mr. President, you are doing a wonderful job and our prayers are with you.

And I think that he wasn’t — the president wasn’t prepared for that kind of a — and Mitt Romney, to his credit, did a dash to the middle, a smiling dash to the middle, not a mad dash to the middle, and made the case, I thought.

DAVID BROOKS: I would say they had a bad theory, which was that Romney was going to come out as sort of a very conservative, more extreme figure. When he comes to the middle, that — they have got the wrong theory for the wrong debate.

And, you know, I read the transcript again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean they didn’t realize how much he was going to move to the middle.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. I think they were unprepared for what was about to happen, and they sort of left Obama without the lines that he probably had prepared.

Also, I re-read the transcript yesterday. And I actually thought, on paper, Obama looks a little better. There is one section which is worse, which was the closing argument, the two-minute closing argument, which is just terrible, just really as bad a two minutes — for a closing argument, that is something you can script and you can really think about.

And they have really got to have a concise argument, here’s what I’m going to do in the next four years. Here is why you need me.

When you look at the Romney closing argument, there was a very contrast. He will do this, I will do that. He will do this, I will do that.

The Obama thing was just a muddle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But if he didn’t do what he needed to do before 60 million or, what, 70 million people, Mark, can he make up that ground? I mean, you have got the vice presidential debate coming up next week. How does he make up for what he — the missed opportunity?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, we have seen staircase humor since the debate.

He’s kind of saying, well, I should have said then, I should have said — and Mitt Romney, you are right, he has not appeared before 60 million or 70 million people.

The president didn’t play either offense or defense Wednesday night. He didn’t defend himself against charges that Mitt Romney made of his administration that have been fact-checked time and again on the president’s side.

And he didn’t play offense. He didn’t give a sense of where he wanted to go. Judy, the vice presidential debate does matter, because the Democrats can’t lose two in a row. They really can’t.

I think Joe Biden is in a stronger position, because he has spent a lot of time, four years, defending, explaining and making the case for Barack Obama, whereas Paul Ryan is in an awkward position.

He’s got to defend, make the case for Mitt Romney, whom he has basically been joined to the hip at six weeks ago. And, you know, he’s got a whole independent political identity himself. I mean, Biden-Obama is a team at this point.

But I think that the president, he has just got to forget that first debate and be ready in the second one to make his case and to engage. He wasn’t engaged.

If you turn down the sound on Wednesday night and just watched those two people, he didn’t look happy to be there, and Mitt Romney did.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the vice presidential? Are the expectations now raised, as Mark says?

DAVID BROOKS: I think so.

In part, there is a little more pressure on Joe Biden, because, as Mark said, he has to do well. And a hyperactive Joe Biden is a high-risk proposition. It could turn out very well. And I happen to think he’s a pretty good debater.


DAVID BROOKS: He did well, I thought, against Sarah Palin. He did well when he ran for president. He’s an eloquent guy who in the big debates has always been a very controlled figure.

But Paul Ryan has what Mitt Romney had, which is the ability to reel off number after number. And again I’m struck by the fact that you can get wonky this year. People somehow seem to want that.

And Ryan certainly has that capacity to just go through, here’s why our position is right, number A, B, C, D.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just very quickly, 30 seconds, this notion you said a minute ago that Romney has moved to the center, is that something he continues on the campaign trail?


JUDY WOODRUFF: The Obama folks are saying it is a different Mitt Romney.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, they had a big decision to make six, eight months ago, which was, do we attack him as a right-wing ideologue or as a flip-flopper? They went ideologue. Now they’re trying to switch to flip-flopper.

But I think he will have to continue that. It’s working for him.


Well, the two of you are working for us.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Shields, David Brooks.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And we will see you next week. We will see you…


JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s right, Thursday night, vice presidential debate.

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