TOPICS > Politics

Shields, Brooks Mull Democratic Race, McCain Media Flap

February 22, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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This week, Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama debated in Texas before the state's primary, questions surfaced in the New York Times about presumptive GOP nominee John McCain's ties to a lobbyist and Cuban leader Fidel Castro stepped down. Analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the week's news.

JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, did anything happen in that debate last night to change anything in the race substantially?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Probably not, Jim. I thought that last moment of Hillary Clinton’s may have been her best moment in any debate. I thought her debate performance last night was as good as it has been at any time in this entire campaign, in some 19 debates.

But he’s gotten better, as well, so there was no game-breaker. If you accept the fact that he’s ahead going in, that she’s got to catch him, and to do so he’s got to stumble, he did not do so.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see it, no game-breaker?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: I agree, and she didn’t really take any risks. When a candidate is losing and sort of sliding away, I always expect them to take risks, do something to try to change the momentum.

And 99 percent of the time when I have these expectations, they are dashed. The candidates do the same thing they’ve always done.

And she did the same thing she’s always done, which, as Mark says, was a pretty good performance, but she’s had good performances pretty much in 19 straight debates and it hasn’t helped her.

Evaluating campaign strategies

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
There was no plan B for the [Hillary] Clinton campaign after the 5th of February. Whether that was a misconception, a delusion in arrogance, overconfidence or what, but there's no doubt about it.

DAVID BROOKS: What strikes me about the two candidates is that his people really know why they want to win. They really, really believe in the cause. And it's not only the hope; it's the audacity.

Her campaign, they don't have that same audacity, that same commitment that, "We must win for the good of the country." They would like to win. They think it would be good, and they like Hillary Clinton. But that commitment, that audacity that, "We must win for the good of the country," they don't quite have that the way his people do.

JIM LEHRER: Do you detect the same thing, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I've seen equal amounts of passion on both sides. I don't question David's insight there. I do think that there's a formula in reporting American politics and that is, "Those who win are geniuses. Those who don't are dunces."

JIM LEHRER: It's just that simple, right?

MARK SHIELDS: I just think the Clinton campaign strategy, I think, is open to serious question. And I compare it, quite frankly, to the United States' policy in Iraq. There was no plan B after Baghdad fell. There was no understanding about the occupation.

There was no plan B for the Clinton campaign after the 5th of February. Whether that was a misconception, a delusion in arrogance, overconfidence or what, but there's no doubt about it.

And I would add to that the fact that Harold Ickes, one of her top lieutenants, acknowledges this, that they totally misunderstood and totally ignored the importance of the caucuses.

And as Dan Payne, the Boston political strategist, observed, caucuses are like field goals in football. They only count three points, but you win 11 of them and the other side only wins two, that's running up the score, and it's tough to catch.

And so I think, in that sense, that her campaign has made serious mistakes.

Obama takes front runner role

David Brooks
The New York Times
[Barack Obama] will not have enough delegates just on the elections to clinch the nomination. ... And so he wins simply with the argument, "I won the most elected. All the super-delegates have to come to me."

JIM LEHRER: All right, let's look from this point on. Mark said a while ago -- and I assume you agree -- that Barack Obama is the front runner here. And all things being equal, he looks like he's headed toward a victory, possibly, the nomination.

Show me a scenario, first of all, that fulfills that, and then show me one that would stop that.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I mean, the scenario that fulfills it is that he does OK in Ohio and Texas. And you have to remember he's narrowing in both states to a point of being even in Texas.

JIM LEHRER: The polls?

DAVID BROOKS: And maybe seven points behind in Ohio, where as he used to be 20 points behind not too long ago. So they basically tie the last two states, and then he has more elected delegates, and all the super-delegates swing over.

He will not have enough delegates just on the elections to clinch the nomination. There's no way that either candidate can do that. And so he wins simply with the argument, "I won the most elected. All the super-delegates have to come to me."

Her only hope, really, is Michigan and Florida, the two states whose delegates aren't being counted, and she hit that theme again, and the hope that the super-delegates will swing her way, both of which strike me as extremely unlikely, given the emotional momentum of the race.

JIM LEHRER: The momentum is -- you see that momentum, and you think it's real, too, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, he's won 11 straight. He won Democrats abroad this week, as well. The smallest margin of victory in those 11 wins is 18 percent. I mean, that's going to hit even some people, Democratic officeholders who sometimes aren't the most perceptive people in the world, that next November this guy changes the entire electoral universal.

He brings out young people. For generations, the Democrats ran, "The young vote we win." And the young didn't vote. Well, the young are voting. I mean, 1.5 million people voted in Wisconsin in five-degree temperatures.

Hillary Clinton, who got 41 percent of the vote, got more votes personally than all the Republicans -- John McCain, Huckabee, everybody else who was on the ballot, Ron Paul, everybody else who's still on the ballot out there. I mean, it's remarkable what has happened.

So, I mean, that's the case. That's the case that's going to be made for him. And I think it will even penetrate some people who occupy positions of power in the Democratic Party, that this guy could be good for the entire ticket, potentially good in November of 2008, by enlarging the electorate with pro-Democratic voters.

JIM LEHRER: And there's nothing Hillary Clinton can do about it that affects either Ohio or Texas at this point that you can see?

DAVID BROOKS: I really don't see it. And as Mark said, her organization has not been great, in part because of the people she picked were -- she trusted them, but they were not particularly fine managers, as it turns out.

There's really -- and Obama is a phenomenon. Nobody could count on that. And so it's more him than her, I would say.


MARK SHIELDS: I think that's important. I mean, she has not run a bad campaign. She's a good candidate. But in a change election year, he, as of now, is the change candidate. And, boy, that's a big plus.

McCain's response to Times story

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
But the other thing it did, Jim, in the first 24 hours, it did something that John McCain hadn't been able to do in 26 years in public life. That was it solidified conservative support behind him.

JIM LEHRER: All right, let's go to the John McCain lobbyist story. How does it look to you, David, 18 hours later?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, obviously, I don't want to comment on my colleagues' story. Whether it's true or not, I won't comment. But if you're just looking at politically, I would say you have to say that John McCain is ahead.

He had a press conference yesterday. It was a brilliant performance, and I think possibly a true performance. He was very blunt. He said there was no relationship with the woman, Vicki Iseman. There was no meeting. It was not complicated story. He said, "No, no."

He answered every question, and he answered it very straightforwardly. He held the conference at 9 a.m., I think before a lot of reporters were up to speed with their questions. So the questions weren't as challenging as they might have been, but he gave a very good performance.

Every reporter had this e-mail with all the facts from the McCain campaign on the various letters he'd written to the FCC. It was a full-court, very professionally, very effective, very simple response.

And let's face it: My newspaper is a bit on the defensive. If you looked at the online exchange my editors had with the public, a little defensive...

JIM LEHRER: They had a forum on this today.

DAVID BROOKS: A forum online, and the McCain campaign has shown no sign of any suffering. So, at least in the first day, he's ahead, if you want to put it that way.

JIM LEHRER: He's ahead, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: After 24 hours, 36 hours, no doubt about it. I think it shows a couple of things. One, you get professionals like Bob Bennett and Charlie Black to organize a response. Bob Bennett the lawyer, Charlie Black the political pro, and they made the case. They jumped on it, pounced on it.

The Times, for obvious reasons, did not want to engage them in a public debate about the merits of their own story.

But the other thing it did, Jim, in the first 24 hours, it did something that John McCain hadn't been able to do in 26 years in public life. That was it solidified conservative support behind him. You know, it became enemy of my enemy is...

JIM LEHRER: They're all gaining up on the Times now, right?

MARK SHIELDS: The New York Times, I mean, my God almighty, you'd think it was the Kremlin's L'Osservatore Romano or whatever. I mean, it's just incredible.

JIM LEHRER: The what? I'm sorry?

DAVID BROOKS: That was a mixed metaphor.

MARK SHIELDS: It was a mixed metaphor. Well, the Kremlin -- the L'Osservatore Romano...

DAVID BROOKS: That's the Politburo.

MARK SHIELDS: ... is the Vatican.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, the Politburo's...

MARK SHIELDS: The Politburo's newsletter.


MARK SHIELDS: I mean, that's how they react to the New York Times. John McCain has always been suspect in those quarters because he's been too close to the press. He likes the press. He calls them "my base," his political base, because the press has been so favorable to John McCain, and they like him.

But I think, quite honestly, that having said that they won the first round, I think today's story in the Washington Post hurt John McCain badly. John McCain's claim, his most convincing claim as an agent of change, is that he has been this foe of money and lobbyists and entrenched power and influence in Washington.

And today's story in the Washington Post following up on that showed that lobbyists were not only continuing in their lobbying positions on payrolls, in many cases, in running John McCain's campaign on a shoe string, but also leading bundlers in raising money. He had three times as many lobbyists bundling donations for him as Hillary Clinton did.

Changes in McCain's inner circle

David Brooks
The New York Times
If you look at the McCain campaign over the last two months, he's been very strong on the normal Republican issues, but some of that reformist zeal has not been as strong, not been as evident ... which is an authentic side to him.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I guess I'd say two things. First, a lot of those -- there are lobbyists on his campaign staff.

JIM LEHRER: All these people he just mentioned were lobbyists, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: Are lobbyists. A lot of them work for no pay. They are truly committed, deeply committed to John McCain. They happen to be people who can run a professional campaign.

And I don't object to them on lobbying grounds as long as they're running a professional campaign and are committed to John McCain, which they have been. Every candidate has professionals.

The problem for McCain and the thing that has to be completed is he's always had another side to his personality. He's always liked the professionals in Washington who can do things professionally, but he's always had this other side to his staff and his personality, people who are more insurgent, more reformers, will push the reform policy agenda, which he also likes.

And I would say, if you look at the McCain campaign over the last two months, he's been very strong on the normal Republican issues, but some of that reformist zeal has not been as strong, not been as evident in the McCain campaign, and that's -- which is an authentic side to him.

And I think, as the campaign goes forward, if he wants to win the independents, he's got to really pump up that reformer side.

JIM LEHRER: Your column this morning was about this very thing, the conflict within his -- you want to expand on -- you think that is what's behind some of this, right?

DAVID BROOKS: I focused on these two figures, Rick Davis, who's a lobbyist, who's a campaign manager; John Weaver, who has been ousted, but who has worked for McCain for a long time, but who always was the bit of the outsider, always was the bit of the insurgent, and brought that reformist zeal to McCain.

And I would say that Weaver role is now in a bit of a downscaled, and it needs to be brought up, because that's part of McCain, too. But it's just been a little more Bob Dole-ish than he has been the old, you know, maverick fire-charger. And he's going to have to rediscover that, and I suspect he will.

JIM LEHRER: Do you expect this story to continue, Mark? Or do other shoes have to drop for it to continue, I guess, is really the question?

MARK SHIELDS: I think they do. I think the Times -- I think the Times is a great newspaper. I think it's a well-edited newspaper. I think the reporters who worked on that story are good reporters.

I think if you're going to make a charge of that magnitude, you don't lead with blind quotes and anonymous sources. You lead with a real -- they had one person on the record, John Weaver.

You don't kind of dangle out "romantic," if there's absolutely no proof, if you don't have any evidence to confirm that. I mean, a 32-year-old lobbyist, blonde -- if it had been a 250-pound white male, would it have made it from page 16 to the front page?

JIM LEHRER: Because you're saying they needed evidence?

MARK SHIELDS: They needed evidence...

JIM LEHRER: They needed to prove that or forget it?

MARK SHIELDS: Or forget it, that's right. You can report it, I mean, because the chumminess and John McCain's -- John McCain, whom I have great admiration for, as David knows, suffers from a little bit of the same problem that Hillary Clinton suffers from.

And that is, because he is convinced -- and I think legitimately so -- of his own rectitude and his own integrity, he doesn't worry as much about appearances, I mean, flying on those planes, because, "I know who I am." And I think Hillary Clinton has a little bit of that, as well.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that?

DAVID BROOKS: A bit, though I will say I've hung around the McCain office, almost wrote a book about the guy. They are paranoid about certain things.

They're paranoid about violating what is his core message. And when they write letters to the FCC, when they do all that, they do pay a lot of attention to avoiding the appearance of impropriety.

And one of the best explanations for why John Weaver had this meeting was Vicki Iseman was not that there was any relationship, but that there was an appearance of impropriety because of what she was saying about her relationship, not romantic, but just professional with John McCain, and he was afraid of the appearance. And that's what Weaver's story is.

JIM LEHRER: OK. And we will all continue to follow it, that whole story, as everybody will, and see what there is to follow. Thank you both.