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Shields and Brooks on Democratic debate strategy, Trump’s N.H. win

February 12, 2016 at 6:25 PM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to the discuss the week’s news, including takeaways from Thursday’s PBS NewsHour Democratic debate, Donald Trump’s victory in New Hampshire and how the first primary re-scrambled the GOP field.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The Democrats faced off on the debate stage last night, and now the focus of the race for the White House turns to South Carolina and Nevada.

With that, we turn to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

And welcome, gentlemen. Some of us are back from Milwaukee, and glad to be back.

Mark, Tuesday — it was only three nights ago — Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire primary big time. How did that change the race, how did it change the dynamics, do you think, in last night’s debate?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, it changed the race, Judy, by guaranteeing that we will probably have a race in June, that there will be a Bernie Sanders/Hillary Clinton competition in California.

It guaranteed Bernie Sanders $6.5 million in the first 19 hours after the polls closed. He’s got a national following. He’s got a national treasury. It puts her at a disadvantage. It gave him credibility.

So, going in last night, Hillary Clinton, on the heels of a thrashing 48 hours earlier, was in a position of trying to bring him back down to earth as they head South. And I thought she arrived, surprisingly, with her poise and confidence intact.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How did you see the dynamics going into the debate last night?

DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times: Well, going into the debate, it was a question of how aggressive she would get, and would she get overly aggressive or not?

I thought her demeanor, especially in the first half-hour, 45 minutes, was quite good. She can be sometimes lecturing. But she was more explaining, because — you were there, Judy, so you might know this.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: I know this.

DAVID BROOKS: That they were — it was a debate over pragmatism vs. vision.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

DAVID BROOKS: And she was saying, well, you know, that’s not reality. You can’t start the health care system as if we don’t have a health care system; 100 million people have their employer health care. You just can’t do that.

And so she was trying to explain reality to them. And I thought she was quite effective. I think, toward the end, one of have the central facts in the structure of the race, the first is pragmatism vs. his radical vision, but the second is, on what ground is this debate being fought?

And because he has such a strong narrative and his campaign is built around that narrative, his life is built around that narrative, it’s always fought on his ground. And she has no narrative. And she’s trying to create one with Obama, but that’s Obama’s narrative.

And so I think, as the domestic part went on, he sort of gained strength just by the structure of the way the argument is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Mark, she does keep hammering — and she did it last night — it’s just not practical to say you’re going to completely have the government take over health care. It’s not practical to have all college paid for by the government.

MARK SHIELDS: She did. She did. And I agree with David on her tone. Her tone was far better than it had been previously. It was well-modulated. It wasn’t adversarial or confrontational.

Judy, this is the 13th presidential campaign I have either worked in or covered. And there’s a first question that every potential White House aspirant has to address. Some of them don’t. It’s revealed.

And that is, why do you want to be president and what real difference is it going to make if you’re president, rather than anybody else who is running?

Bernie Sanders, as David said, has a compelling reason, that the deck is stacked against people by the rich, by the powerful. They do it through the campaign finance system. The top 1 percent, it tilts in their favor, and working Americans have gotten the short end of the stick.

Hillary Clinton doesn’t have a theme. Her campaign lacks a theme. So, it became last night, and it seems today, that the argument is not why Hillary Clinton should be president. It’s why Bernie Sanders shouldn’t be president.

And that seems to be now the — but it’s still a campaign that doesn’t have an overarching theme. There’s nothing there to say, let’s march.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, when she says, “I’m not a one-issue candidate,” David, is that half-a-theme for her or…

DAVID BROOKS: Well, that’s half-a-theme, but sometimes when someone gives you nine explanations for why they did something, they have got no real explanation.

And when you’re writing a book, for example, weirdly, a book is about one thing, and a campaign is the same thing. It’s about one thing. And she doesn’t have that one thing. What she is trying to do now is make Obama her one thing. But she’s trying to borrow Obama’s narrative.

And it’s sort of popular. There was a YouGov poll of Democratic primary voters as if Obama was running against these two. And the results were Obama 56, Clinton 20, Sanders 17. So, he’s popular. So, that is a good thing. But it’s a substitute for her own explanation.

And so I think the Obama moment, to me, was one of the crucial moments of the night, but it’s still not a justification for herself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the Clinton campaign, Mark, is saying, well, we’re going into these states, South Carolina, Nevada, that are much more diverse. This is going to be much more friendly territory for us.

Is that something that could work in her favor?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it certainly should be. And it is an explanation for her. She’s the only candidate in history who has been the wife of one president, and yet she is surgically joined at the hip with the incumbent president.

And President Obama is enormously popular among democrats everywhere, especially among minority Democrats, particularly African-American Democrats. And she’s not only got his back. She’s got his side. She’s got his foot. She’s got — she really is running as not simply Barack Obama’s — his defender, his apologist, his protector against Bernie Sanders’ occasional criticism of him.

So, no, I think these are — no, these are — demographically, these are territories which should be more welcoming and more friendly to her. But we don’t have any measurements of the states prior to sort of the earthquake of New Hampshire and the standoff of Iowa.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re basically saying that this theme problem that she has may override any advantage she could have, David, the fact there are more African-Americans in South Carolina, they’re more disposed to vote for Clinton than for Sanders.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it’s obviously getting harder for Sanders. There’s no question about that.

As many people have said on this program, Iowa and New Hampshire were his best states. Nonetheless, does he stop? I don’t think he does. You know, if there’s an African-American — the first African-American president is running for president, obviously, there’s going to be a surge of pride and affiliation in the African-American community.

But most people, whether they’re Latino, African-American, white or anybody else, pocketbook issues matter. And so if Bernie Sanders comes in and is compelling on pocketbook issues — I personally don’t think he’s compelling at all — I think he’s completely unrealistic — but if he is compelling to them, then I think there will be some spanning of he will win Latino votes, he will win African-American votes.

And he doesn’t have to win all of them, but he will win a chunk.

MARK SHIELDS: That is Tad Devine, his principal strategist’s point, just as David said.

Bernie doesn’t have to win a majority of African-American votes. He just has to win enough to join the coalition of whites. Judy, his strength among young voters, everybody in the political world just marvels at, this 74-year-old grandfather, kind of crotchety and all the rest of it, but it’s remarkable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Eighty-some percent.

MARK SHIELDS: Eighty percent. And he’s leading in one national — established national survey 35 points among voters under the age of 35.

That is impressive. And these are people who, if you talk to people who have surveyed them, who really do feel that it’s stacked against them, so his message is resonating across the generational divide.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, let’s talk for a minute about the Republicans, David.

Donald Trump came — talking about New Hampshire, came roaring back in New Hampshire, disappointed in Iowa. Is he now the man to beat? It looks like we’re just looking at one candidate shooting at another, shooting at another, shooting at another right now on the Republican side.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, you would have to say he’s the man to beat because he did well in every group.

And so he did well among moderates, among conservatives, among people who are pro-immigration, people who are anti-immigration. So if you’re looking for a lane to get at him, he did well in all the groups. So you can’t find a lane.

Having said that, South Carolina has a couple of things that New Hampshire doesn’t have, tons of evangelical Christians and tons of people who call themselves extremely conservative. So, Ted Cruz is looking — he’s looking much more promising, not only in South Carolina, but in the SEC primary states a little while later.

And so, for the next little while, it wouldn’t be surprising if we’re talking about Cruz and Trump, Cruz and Trump, Cruz and Trump.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you see?

MARK SHIELDS: I think Trump’s victory in New Hampshire was enormously impressive.

It was disappointing in Iowa. He was knocked off-stride. He really didn’t have his game going for the first few days, and yet then he started building the rallies. The rallies translated into enthusiasm, translated into votes. He carried men. He carried women. He carried — he carried every age group.

He has got 35 percent. We have always said he had a lower ceiling. The ceiling is getting higher. He got 35 percent basically across the board. I think — and it couldn’t have turned out better for them. John Kasich, who did the traditional New Hampshire thing, 106 town meetings, won one out of six votes, and emerged to fight another day, but not with any great strength in the South.

So there’s no establishment figure around whom they coalesce. The candidate whom the establishment most favored and Democrats most feared, Marco Rubio, got caught in the debate, where Chris Christie, looking like an 18-wheeler coming down the highway with his high beams, Marco Rubio looked like Bambi caught in those headlights.

And I just think whether he can recover from that, I’m not sure, because everybody knew it was going to happen. It happened, and he didn’t handle it well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you Rubio right now? And let’s talk just quickly about Jeb Bush.

He’s bringing in his brother, the former President George W. Bush, on Monday. Could that make a difference for him? And how do you see Rubio?

DAVID BROOKS: I think Rubio can recover. I don’t think this is a recurring moment, because Rick Perry was genuinely not a great communicator.

But Marco Rubio genuinely is a good communicator. So, as he performs well in future debates, I think he can cover over that very bad moment he had. Not saying he will, but it’s possible, just because that’s his natural strength.

As for George Bush, people like George Bush, but he’s not of the moment. The moment is an angry moment. And so I don’t think he will help Jeb. If Jeb wants to run, as he seems to be doing, as the anti-Trump — and maybe — let’s hope there is an emotional recoil — then George W. Bush can help him, because he is sort of a genial, good guy.

But I’m not sure it will — I just don’t feel a lot of excitement building around George W. Bush.

MARK SHIELDS: I want to say something good about Jeb Bush.

In that debate last Saturday night, the Republican debate, Donald Trump made one of the more reckless statements of all he’s made about, I’m not going to bring back water-boarding, I’m going to do worse than that.

And Ted Cruz was slippery. He wouldn’t take him on. Marco Rubio went mute. Jeb Bush was the one person who stood up and said, that’s against the law of the United States and that is — it’s a dishonor to our troops, it’s a dishonor to our values, and I would uphold it. And for that, I give him credit.

But I agree. This is not a surrogates year, I don’t think.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, one other candidate I want to ask you about on the Republican side is John Kasich.

Here’s somebody who didn’t do well, didn’t even compete, really, David, in Iowa, but he came in decently, what, third or fourth, in New Hampshire. And now he’s really trying to carve out a lane for himself.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, he faces the Southern problem, that we go South, where he’s naturally going to be the weakest. But if he can hang around to the Midwest maybe, he can do well.

But, again, the Trump thing is so much about manners. And if you can have somebody with the opposite manners, I have to feel there is a group of Republicans there who want that, who want civility, who want decency, someone who won’t be wearing on a dinner party.

We used to say this about Chris Christie. For the first 30 minutes of the dinner party, you’re like thrilled he’s there, and then the last 45, really like time to go, Chris. And so I think — I still think that may happen with Trump. People will just get wary of the act. I have been wrong about this for eight months. I realize that.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: But if there’s going to be an alternative, it would be somebody with Kasich’s manner, which is genial, and then also, substantively, pragmatic. It’s not been a great year on either party for pragmatism and for actually getting stuff done. But maybe that will kick in. It normally does.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But is it — quickly, how do you read Kasich? And, Mark, how do these guy knows who they need to destroy in all this? Should they all be shooting at Trump or should they go after one…

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I do think that the debate in South Carolina will be different, because…

JUDY WOODRUFF: The debate tomorrow night, thing Republican debate.

MARK SHIELDS: Tomorrow night.

In New Hampshire, Trump sat at the head of the table eating his prime rib while the others were having food fights among themselves. Now, in South Carolina, Cruz understands, Rubio understands they have got to take on Trump. Jeb Bush has taken on Trump.

I think that will be — the problem is that everybody who has taken on Trump has paid dearly for it up to now. But I — Ted Cruz’s problem is very simple. He won 8 percent of nonevangelical voters in New Hampshire. That’s all. And he’s got to do better.

David’s right. There are more conservative voters in South Carolina, but he’s got to engage Trump and be willing to go toe-to-toe with him. And Rubio seems a little bit liberated since on election night he did take full responsibility for what happened, which in itself is refreshing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There is so much to look at, look for. And we can’t wait to see it all and we can’t to have you back next Friday.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you so much.

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

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