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Shields and Gerson on the biggest political moments of 2015

January 1, 2016 at 6:35 PM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson join Judy Woodruff to review the year in political news and to look ahead to 2016.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, 2016 is finally upon us. And it’s an election year.

And we already have a little news in the presidential race, some eye-popping fund-raising totals. Hillary Clinton’s campaign reports a new record for a non-incumbent, raising $37 million for her primary bid in the past three months alone. Republican Ben Carson raised $23 million. And Ted Cruz has raised about $20 million. He has not released his official report yet.

To talk about the election, to look ahead to what is in store in 2016, we have the analysis of Shields and Gerson. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson. David Brooks is away.

And we welcome you both. Happy new year.

MICHAEL GERSON: Happy new year.

MARK SHIELDS: Happy new year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: 2016 is finally here.

So, Mark, a lot of money being raised, but I want to turn to something. We have spent a lot of time this year talking about Donald Trump. Let’s talk about some of the so-called mainstream Republicans who are trying to break through, frankly, to knock him off of his perch.

Jeb Bush has been trying. He’s had a tough week. They have redirected resources and staff. Where — do you see a way forward for Jeb Bush?

MARK SHIELDS: Jeb Bush’s only way forward — every four years, Judy, everybody who runs for president is an amateur at running for president. It is so unlike anything else, 50 different campaigns in 50 different states, all those demands.

But the iron rule of politics prevails. And that is, nobody has ever been elected president of the United States in the modern era who didn’t win the New Hampshire primary, at the very worst finish second, as George W. Bush did in 2000 to John McCain, and as Barack Obama did.

But everybody else has been a winner. And so, all of a sudden, you realize all the national headquarters I have, national support doesn’t mean anything if I can’t come out of New Hampshire as one of the two, or maybe at the very worst third. And, right now, it looks like, you know, Donald Trump has the lead. So they’re fighting.

Jeb Bush has directed all his resources. It only took 97,000 votes to win New Hampshire in 2012. So, you say to yourself, I have won Florida. John Kasich, I have won Ohio. Chris Christie, I have won New Jersey.

And so, all of a sudden, you’re saying, I can go in with effort, energy and time. I can persuade enough voters to my side, and I have to do it if I’m going to survive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so that is what he has got to do.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael, Iowa one month away. We’re exactly one month away now from the Iowa caucuses, and just a week later, it’s New Hampshire. What about Jeb Bush?

MICHAEL GERSON: That’s true. All of those candidates you’re talking about take comfort in the fact that 70 percent, according to the historical examples, of New Hampshire voters make their determination in the last 30 days of the race. It breaks late.

The problem for Republicans here is that they have four pretty strong candidates in that establishment or mainstream Republican space. Donald Trump has the blue-collar populists. Ted Cruz is really solidifying religious voters, some Tea Party voters.

But this mainstream lane has those four candidates we have been talking about, and all of them are good. You watch C-SPAN and see Chris Christie, who has been there 40 times. He’s on his game. He’s doing really well.

The Bush campaign has gone through the stages of grief, OK? They had a message problem, and they had performance problems. And they’re doing better. You’re watching them in town hall meetings. His message is very sharp. And he’s making the most principled criticism of Donald Trump in this field and wants to collect those voters.

So it’s a real showdown between talented candidates in this case.


Does one or another of them, Mark, have an advantage in some way, as you see it?

MARK SHIELDS: I think Christie is the best candidate. He’s the best natural candidate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As a campaigner.

MARK SHIELDS: As a campaigner, he’s the best.

But what all of them face, Judy, is — at this point is that they’re starting to get — as they pop their head up, whether it’s Marco Rubio and his absenteeism from the Senate, or it’s Chris Christie and it’s nine times the credit rating of New Jersey has been lowered, or if it’s John Kasich, and the Bush people are now — or the Bush PAC, at least, is raising the fact that, in 1994, John Kasich in the House, as a House member, voted for the assault weapons ban, and that this is now a disqualification, with all that has happened in this country.

But you start to see, they realize that only one of them probably can really survive New Hampshire and Iowa. And so the sniping at each other is going on. I would say Bush is just the anomaly. I mean, Bush had the best record going in. He was — he had the best peer review. He had a record as a conservative in a reasonably conservative party, a swing state, a Latino wife. He spoke Spanish.

You know, on paper — but he just hasn’t connected, basically. And he’s now down to he’s got to win Peterborough, he’s got to win Keene.


MICHAEL GERSON: Right. And he has the best ground game of any of the candidates. He’s got money in the bank.

You know, Chris Christie, if he wins, he’s running a single-state campaign. There are real questions of whether he could follow that up in the decisive races in March.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. I agree. I agree.

MICHAEL GERSON: Someone like Bush could do that, or Rubio. They’re building national campaigns. They are capable of doing that. So, they’re distinguishing themselves in various ways. And the choice will be fascinating.

MARK SHIELDS: I will just say that I think Bush acknowledges that he’s not running a national campaign now. He knows…

JUDY WOODRUFF: By saying he’s putting staff and money…


MARK SHIELDS: By putting all the resources — by taking the television money out of Iowa. He’s basically saying, New Hampshire is big casino for him.

I think what it proves to me, anyway, is that Chris Christie would have been Barack Obama’s strongest opponent in 2012.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we will see what…

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, he was really — he’s just a gifted campaigner.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to ask you both about somebody else on the Republican side who’s having — who has had an even more difficult time this week, Michael, and that’s Ben Carson.

He’s now had five staffers, two very senior people leave the campaign. Where does he stand?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, this is the problem of campaigning as a candidate with no experience. You have no experience.


MICHAEL GERSON: I mean, he has not run a good campaign. It’s imploding. He had broad resignations on people, because he had two power centers in the campaign that were obviously being played off against one another.

And all this redounds to the benefit of Ted Cruz, particularly in Iowa, who is, I think, picking up a lot of that ground that Carson is conceding.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it’s a reminder that money may not make the difference. As we just said, he raised $23 million in the last quarter.

MARK SHIELDS: But they spent a lot of money to raise the money, Judy.

The key number in all of those figures is cash on hand, how much they have — how much they have spent to raise it. And Ben Carson, it comes back, that campaign has become a civil war in a leper colony.


MARK SHIELDS: He has basically acknowledged all of it.


MARK SHIELDS: And the recriminations back and forth.

And the old saw, bromide, whether it’s or not, if you can’t run a campaign, how can you run the country? And I think that is coming to…

MICHAEL GERSON: Some truth to it, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: 2015, ask both of you.

Michael, I will start with you. What were the moments that are going to make a difference, do you think, as we look to this campaign going forward?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, the event is the obvious one, which is, Donald Trump has found a new way to run a presidential campaign.

I have been part of three of them. You put out policy papers. You give speeches. You get endorsements. You raise money. He has tweeted his way to dominance in this new media environment. It is a new way to conduct a campaign, the reality television version. I think that it’s many times vulgar and shallow, but it has an audience, and that’s clearly true.

And the moment, though, that I think is the most important is the leading Republican candidate referring to the Japanese internment, this historical example, in December as a positive example in the context of the war on terror.


MICHAEL GERSON: It is the — for me, personally, that was a really terrible moment in modern Republican history. And, you know, I think it’s going to have consequences going forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about for you, Mark, moments in 2015?

MARK SHIELDS: I would say the Trump phenomenon.

First of all, I have to say that Bernie Sanders — the idea that Bernie Sanders could emerge to the point where he is, with 2.5 million contributors, with, you know, actually having changed the terms of the debate for the Democratic nomination, the dialogue, I think, is a real surprise.

But, to me, the Trump — the Trump model, where the unscripted sort of off-the-cuff, no teleprompter, speaking, and making, Judy, what could at best be called reckless statements, at worst be called divisive, but have to be called untruths, whether it’s, I saw thousands of people in Jersey City on the day of September 11 dancing in the streets at the prospect or the reality of the…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nine-eleven.

MARK SHIELDS: … World Trade Center falling.

But each of them is reckless in its own way. When he said that 81 percent of whites who are murdered in this country are murdered by black Americans, when, in fact, it’s the opposite, I mean, the reality is that 80 — 16 percent of whites are killed by black Americans and 82 percent of whites are killed by whites.

But — and then, when called on this, he pays no price. That’s — I guess that’s — if it’s our fault, if it’s the voters who are just fed up, I don’t know.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that something, though, that endures into this next year? Do you see that phenomenon of being able to say what he wants to say and having it stand lasting and having an effect?

MICHAEL GERSON: I think it’s raising a very fundamental issue in American politics, which is, what is the meaning of authenticity?

Is it this kind of, you know, offhand comment that Donald Trump engages in, or is it crafted rhetoric? Is it careful policy? Is it seriousness? And right now, we have a model, a presidential model of authenticity that means thoughtlessness. And I think that that’s going to have to be retaken in the Republican Party.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You know, Michael, you mentioned immigration, or at least what — part of what Trump said, but what — Mark, what issues do you see shaping this next — these — this next phase, the election, and leading up to November?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think there’s two that really work against the Democrats, basically, a third White House term.

The first is the revelation in surveys, in Wall Street Journal/NBC poll in particular, that 73 percent of people want to change policies from President Obama. So, every election is either change or continuity. We’re going to continue or we’re going to go in a different direction.


JUDY WOODRUFF: … 50 percent, but 73 percent…


MARK SHIELDS: Seventy-three percent want to change the policies.

That’s exactly the same number, Judy, as it was in the summer of 2007, when President Bush was in his seventh year, which, remember, 2008 was very much of a change year. And I would say the other one is the Paris and San Bernardino, when the emphasis and the focus switched in America, which hurt Ben Carson, obviously, but switched to terrorism and sort of a fear and war on terror.

And I think that helps Republicans have — who, over the past generation, are seen as better than the Democrats on national security. Whether they should be or not, they are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What issues do you see?

MICHAEL GERSON: I will tell you one hopeful issue for 2016.

With the right lineup, with, say, President Rubio and Speaker Ryan, both of them have tried, from the Republican side, to engage the issue of poverty. Paul Ryan has traveled the country looking at examples of community-based efforts. Rubio has put out serious policy on EITC and other things.

I’m hoping that, under certain circumstances — it would be different from Cruz, for example, or Trump — but under certain circumstances, you do have the groundwork laid for a debate about social mobility in this country that I think could be very productive and is necessary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And on that hopeful note, we will end it and once again say happy new year to you both, 2016.

MARK SHIELDS: OK. Happy new year.

MICHAEL GERSON: Happy new year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Gerson, Mark Shields, thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: Judy Woodruff, happy new year.