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Shields and Brooks Debrief on the Town Hall Debate, George McGovern’s Legacy

October 19, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss the week's top political news, including how Mitt Romney and President Obama fared in the second presidential debate, the political fight for key demographic groups and the long career and legacy of George McGovern, as the politician nears death.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

So, David, three days after the second debate, how does it look?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, at the start of the first two debates, Obama had this huge personality advantage over Romney, personal likability.

Debate one, that goes away. Debate two — there’s a strong momentum toward Romney. It’s back.

It’s not back, but we have sort of hit the equilibrium, where they are both quite popular now. And so now it’s raw, who is going to be a better president? There is not a big personal difference. There is policy differences.

And so after the second debate, where people liked Obama’s presence, they liked his forcefulness, Democrats were cheered.

And so now he goes into the third debate and the final whatever it is, 19 days, with slight structural advantages. People are looking at every poll every 13 seconds. But that’s too much information. He’s got a slight structural advantage.

JEFFREY BROWN: It is interesting. Do you buy it, that they are both popular now? Because months ago, when we were sitting here, we would say there wasn’t much enthusiasm for either in a way, you know?

MARK SHIELDS: No, the enthusiasm is certainly up there for Romney at this point. And I don’t think you can overstate the importance of the first debate in the election of 2012.

By his unilateral disarmament or disengagement, call it what you want, the president enabled Mitt Romney to expunge all the negatives that the Obama campaign had put on the air about him and to establish himself, to make a dash for the moderate middle, to create the new old new Mitt, or the old new Mitt, with sort of an enlightened or progressive position on regulation, on health care, and all the rest of it.

And once that’s established, OK, and not contradicted, it just gives him an advantage. That was 70 million people. There have been 70,000 commercials run in Las Vegas, 70,000, but not — I mean, you don’t begin to approach the same number and the immediacy of content as you do in a presidential debate.

So Obama had a tough job in the second debate, Jeffrey. He had to, first of all, reassure his base of own supporters that he was the guy they remembered, that they admired, they had worked for, they hoped for. And I thought he did do that.

In Romney’s first debate, because Obama wasn’t even there, he was very even in disposition and tone. And I think in the second debate, Obama got under his skin, and he became peevish, he became waspish. There was a petulant side to him, a little garrulous.

And I think that and — that and sort of his outburst and certain hectoring of the president, I think it hurt him. I don’t think it in no way approached the decisiveness of the first debate. I mean, the first debate was a rout. But I think this was a solid Obama victory.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Well, so now we move to one more, Monday, on foreign policy.

Now, beyond a few areas, have we had much of a deep discussion about foreign policy? What are you looking for in this one?

DAVID BROOKS: We have had a discussion of Benghazi, and I suppose we will go over that ground again.


DAVID BROOKS: But what I am looking for is not a rehearsal last four years.


DAVID BROOKS: I think what each candidate is going to try to do and should try to doing is not so much define what are they going to do on Iran or what are they going to do on Benghazi or what are they going to do on China, how hard are they going to bash China.

It’s to lay out a vision that reflects their personality. Frankly, I think very few people are voting on foreign policy this year, but I do think they are voting on vision for the country and what policy reflects their personality.

Dick Morris, God love him or whatever God wants to do with him, did have a nice formulation, which is that character — or policy is as an illustration of character. And how you see America’s role in the world is going to be reflection of your character.

So, I’m actually looking for forward-looking broad vision, more than who said what about Benghazi on what Sunday show.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: I stand second to nobody in my admiration for Dick Morris and David Brooks. It is an interesting couple.


MARK SHIELDS: But I will say this. I think it’s more about values than it is about character.

And I think the principal value right now — or the principal temptation for Gov. Romney, as the newcomer, as the challenger, is to go in and try to dazzle with figures. Nairobi, of course, is the Kenya, and they have got a transportation problem. And the G8 nations, I will name them for you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Showing his bona fides.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. And I think that is a mistake.

I agree with David that a debate of Benghazi does neither of them any good at this point. And I think it particularly complicates Gov. Romney’s life, because in order — Hillary Clinton, who is the most popular public office holder in the country, OK, beyond anybody, even more popular than her husband — I mean, together they are off the charts. But 70 percent — and she’s more — exceedingly popular with women.

JEFFREY BROWN: A celestial couple, huh?


She took up — and she stood up and took up responsibility this week. Now for Romney to go after Obama on Benghazi, he’s got to go through Hillary Clinton.


MARK SHIELDS: That is tricky.

And I would say this about the president. Leaders don’t understand voters really admire and appreciate when someone steps up and says, it’s my responsibility. It happened on my watch.

JEFFREY BROWN: It doesn’t seem to have stopped them. Even today, we saw Paul Ryan talking more about Benghazi.

MARK SHIELDS: I know it. I know it. But I don’t think the president — I think the president, the other thing he ought to do is stand in defense of Susan Rice, not give the appearance — that she was operating on the information she had. Our information was wrong. This is it, but, I mean, to disabuse sort of conspiracy theorists, but also to stand up for one of his own.

I don’t think, quite frankly, he has done that.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think? Is this hurting the president, as it kind of drags on?

DAVID BROOKS: I personally don’t think so. I think the hardest argument — the argument that they could make, the Republicans could make of the president is, you spent four or eight years criticizing Dick Cheney for misleading the country based on false intelligence, and now you’re misleading the country based on false intelligence.

So, it’s obviously not the same size issue, but that’s basically what they did. They had bad information. It was politically convenient for them, and they repeated them. I don’t think many people really blame them. They were given what the CIA — David Ignatius is reporting the CIA told them, this is what happened. They repeated it. It was easy.

I generally think, don’t get in that. Obama’s weakness on foreign policy — his strength is that he does what’s politically astute and he is always cautious. He’s not throwing the U.S. into anything big, whether it’s Syria or Iran. He’s trying to do enough, but not to commit resources.

And so it’s a bit of a passive foreign policy, I would say somewhat realistic, but passive. And so Romney has some room there to say, here’s my vision. Here is what America is going to look like in the 21st century.

And I think that is where he should go, rather than re-litigate.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me switch gears a little bit to the targets of the campaigns, because this was a week where we just heard over and over again women, women, women, women. The first — the debate, of course, we heard about women in binders.


No. Well, in the second debate, that’s right. And I would say this, that because of the first debate, it gave Mitt Romney a chance to appeal to particularly suburban women, who have been an awfully important constituency of the Democrats.

How important? I would just point out this to you. In neither debate did the president mention minimum wage, collective bargaining, union, working poor, the economic bread-and-butter issues of the Democratic Party, the New Deal and post-New Deal Great Society were based upon.

What did he — five times, he mentioned Planned Parenthood. I mean, there was a sense that there is a cultural divide now in the Democratic — that this is a cultural constituency on social issues you are going to pick up on, whether it is abortion or same-sex marriage or contraception.

And so it is a real difference as they go after the women and I think the women’s vote and particularly the sense that they were relying upon this. And whatever — whether it’s even, as some polls have suggested, a couple of polls, but there’s been a loss of support. And I think there will be a major, major, almost frenzied effort to recapture women from the Obama campaign.

JEFFREY BROWN: And are they both appealing to the same group of women or what do you hear and who do you hear them getting through to?


We should say that women are more likely to vote Democratic, but it is still going to be like 53-47.

JEFFREY BROWN: Women are more likely to vote, period.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And they’re more likely to vote — decide later than men.


DAVID BROOKS: But these are generalizations in their splits. But within — if you are going generalize about women as a group…


DAVID BROOKS: And why not?

JEFFREY BROWN: Because here we are.

DAVID BROOKS: It’s easy for us to say.

There are a couple of different demographics. It seems to me all that talk about Planned Parenthood appeals more toward college-educated, upscale suburban women, where it seems to me the core of this electorate is what the pollsters call waitress moms, who are high school-educated moms making, say, $38,000, $40,000 in Ohio, maybe with a kid.

And so those women have slightly different concerns, a little more concerned about economic security, a little more concerned about education.

But Clinton was the master at talking to this demographic. And basically he painted a picture of, you’re trying to do your best, you’re trying to raise your family, but you got all these hostile forces coming into your home and trying to mess up what you are creating. And so I’m going to protect you from that.

And even things like the V-chip, if you remember that back in Clinton’s days, that was part of this strategy, school uniforms. I’m helping you get the order that you have built. It is not going to be messed up.

That was a great strategy because that appealed to real anxieties. I’m not sure either of these candidates have that sophisticated an understanding of what is driving so much anxiety, especially among that demographic.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, last couple minutes, and I wanted to save a little time to talk about George McGovern. He’s in hospice care. His family has put out a statement that he is no longer responsive. He’s at the end stages of his life, was the statement.

Mark, your thoughts.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I should acknowledge that I was an admirer of George McGovern. And I worked in his 1972 campaign. But I think what’s misunderstood about George McGovern — and to define him by that loss is to really be unfair.

He went off to war as a 22-year-old from South Dakota. He flew the B-24, which is a big lumbering four-engine craft. It was vulnerable to German aircraft. He did 35 combat missions.

And Stephen Ambrose, the poet laureate of American military heroes, said George McGovern was as great a patriot as he ever knew, that he had the trust, confidence and love of his crew. And his acts of courage were just enormous.

And I think that we owe him an enormous debt. Stephen Ambrose said, I just want to show you that don’t have to be a hawk to be a great patriot. And George McGovern was that. He was a great patriot.

He devoted his energies and time to feeding the hungry and to trying to stop the United States from two wars we shouldn’t have gone into, Vietnam and Iraq.

And I just think he should be remembered for that leadership, rather than just the 1972 race.


And some of the descriptions of the planes he brought back home after they had been shot up were incredible descriptions of things he did. He was an incredibly decent man throughout his Senate and even the presidential runs, just incredibly nice.

If I could make a cheap political point, he wrote a piece in 1992 for The Wall Street Journal. After he retired, he bought a B&B, a bed and breakfast, in Connecticut, Stratford, Conn.

And he wrote a piece saying, you know, if I had been a small businessperson before I was in the Senate, I would understand what a pain all these regulations are.


DAVID BROOKS: And he said, I would have been a better senator if I understand what happens when you are trying to live under all this.

So that is maybe a political point.

JEFFREY BROWN: But is there a political legacy that either pro or against — reacting against still or that comes down to liberalism today?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I would say a lot of the people he brought into the party in 1972 went on to reshape the Democratic Party to this day. And…


MARK SHIELDS: Bill Clinton among them.

DAVID BROOKS: Exactly, and Gary Hart and other people.

And, so, I think he had a huge legacy within that — within the party.


You would agree?


No, I would agree. I mean, he proved that you could be peaceful and a patriot at the same time, and that the two weren’t in any way mutually exclusive.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mark Shields, David Brooks, thanks, as always.

And Mark and David keep up the talk on The Doubleheader, recorded in our newsroom. That will be posted at the top of the online Rundown blog later tonight.