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Shields and Brooks Mull Economic Woes, Delegate Showdown

March 14, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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More gloomy news emerged about the U.S. economy this week while Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama braced for a tight battle for delegates -- and debated whether Florida and Michigan should re-do their primaries. Analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks consider the week in the news.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, who joins us tonight from New York City, and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, first of all, on the economy, we heard what Jane Bryant Quinn and David Wessel said, that it is — the political system is going to have to respond better than it has to the economic situation. Do you agree with that?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: I guess so. What struck me as they said that is how far away I think the political system is from actually coming up with a response.

It’s clear — everyone says the economy is bad, in recession, maybe a very bad recession. And there was, of course, the stimulus package. But the discussion of actually what to do in this liquidity crisis, I don’t think we’re even on first base as far as that discussion goes.

And solving a standard recession is difficult enough. And the record for the fiscal policy for Congress is very poor and actually effectively addressing a regular recession. When you get in a recession where there’s a liquidity crisis and where house prices are reaching a new equilibrium, that’s much more complicated.

And so I really have seen nothing in Congress or let alone on the campaign trail — which is, believe me, miles away from this discussion — that would actually be effective, that would inspire some confidence. They are clearly going to have to come up with something, but they’re far away.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, far away, no confidence, Mark, that they will do something, assist them?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, I think David’s analysis is right, Jim. I’m not sure about his diagnosis. I’m not sure what the diagnosis is.

But I will say this, that the American voters know how bad things are, and that they’re getting worse, and that we have fewer than 1 out of 5 voters saying the country is headed in the right direction right now. But beyond that, for the first time since 1992, as a political reality, voters say they’re worse off than they were four years ago.

And this backdrop — I mean, if anybody who went to Ohio and covered that primary, I mean, really saw, I mean, a state that — it’s more than down at the heels, worn down at the heels. It’s got patches, and it’s hurting. And I think that’s true in several parts of the country.

And I’d just add one thing, and that is the context of this election, Jim, where we’re dealing with thorny, painful issues like immigration and like race, I would remind that when we dealt with it successfully in this country, in the decade of the 1960s, and ended official segregation, the nation’s economy — it’s gross national product was doubling in that decade.

At a time of deprivation, when people are scared, they become more self-absorbed and selfish, and so the chances of getting solutions to those social and keen and acute social problems become less.

Economy becoming a big issue

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
She said, really, the point is people don't understand how serious it is, because, unlike the 1930s, we had great migrations from large sections of rural America, you know, people just picking up stakes and moving to California.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, David, that the candidates are not going to come up with anything, it's not going to take over this campaign as the issue?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, first, on what Mark just said, there's a Harvard economist, Benjamin Friedman, who's written a whole book tracing through history how, when you have growth periods, you get social progress; when you have recessionary periods, you don't.

And I think Mark's absolutely right about that. I'm just struck by the discussion that Jane Bryant Quinn and David Wessel and Judy had compared to what I've been covering from the presidential race, which is about Geraldine Ferraro and Jeremiah Wright, Obama's pastor. They're just totally different.

JIM LEHRER: And that's -- you've noticed the same thing, right, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I do agree, Jim. And I spoke with Jane Bryant Quinn just after the -- I said, "Gee, thanks for the cheerful message," after her piece with Judy.

And she said, really, the point is people don't understand how serious it is, because, unlike the 1930s, we had great migrations from large sections of rural America, you know, people just picking up stakes and moving to California. We haven't seen those kinds of signs, but she said it is that serious.

JIM LEHRER: Well, she just said on the program, she was comparing it to the depression in the 1930s.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

JIM LEHRER: I mean, the similar kinds of things.

DAVID BROOKS: That maybe a bit -- I think that -- I don't have her expertise, but the business leaders I've spoken to said we might have a sharp recession like in the early '80s or we might have a shallow recession as we did four or five years ago. I haven't heard the 1930s.

MARK SHIELDS: I think we're beyond shallow, David.

JIM LEHRER: We're beyond shallow?

Campaign hits a low point

David Brooks
The New York Times
This is a tough business. They're in the midst of a very heated campaign. And I think, in the last week, the Democratic Party has verged on going crazy with bitter attacks over trivial issues.

JIM LEHRER: OK, speaking of shallow, let's go to some of the things that have been -- you mentioned a couple of them, David, and that is, of course, the Geraldine Ferraro thing. What's your take on that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think what she said was, essentially, that Barack Obama wouldn't be here if he wasn't black. And the short answer to that is he wouldn't be himself if he wasn't black. I mean, being black is a factor of who he is, but it's not the whole factor.

And what she said was incredibly crude. Should she have been forced to resign? I'm a little disgusted by all the aides who are now being forced to resign from campaigns. There's like an avalanche of aides.

This is a tough business. They're in the midst of a very heated campaign. And I think, in the last week, the Democratic Party has verged on going crazy with bitter attacks over trivial issues. And so people are shedding aides left and right.

It's time to really get this under control. And I will say one thing that I think Barack Obama did today, which was fantastic -- there's been these little contretemps about his pastor, Jeremiah Wright...

JIM LEHRER: This is Jeremiah Wright, the pastor in Chicago.

DAVID BROOKS: ... who said some remarkably offensive things, I think. And Obama this afternoon gave a statement denouncing that, explaining why he was a member of the church. It was a statement of dignity and it was a perfect statement.

And it was the first moment in this week where we've seen one of the candidates, instead of getting in the mud, actually rise above it and remind us why most Democrats, especially, like these two.

And so Obama's statement today was the first segment in the whole week where we haven't seen just a nasty back-and-forth, calling someone else a racist, someone else to resign, 3 a.m. call, there's a racial undertone. It's just been at that level, and we had a glimmer of hope, I think, this afternoon.

Race issue in the spotlight

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
The irony is this man began the campaign -- the question was, is he black enough to win black votes? Now, is he too black to win white votes has become the question.

JIM LEHRER: You saw the same glimmer, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I did see the glimmer, Jim. I do see it a little bit differently. I thought what Geraldine Ferraro did was of a piece with what Governor Rendell said in Pennsylvania, that certain whites will not vote for a black candidate, similar to what Bill Clinton said after the South Carolina primary, comparing Barack Obama to Jesse Jackson.

And there was -- obviously, as David points out, the acknowledgement that there are two realities here. We have people who are voting for Barack Obama because he is black. And he's the first black candidate to have a serious chance to be elected, nominated and elected president of the country. There are people voting against him for the same reason.

The question we don't know is how many of each and which is greater? There are blacks who are voting for him. Are they voting for him in such remarkable numbers that he's going to be designated the "black candidate" and therefore cause fear on the parts of some white voters?

I mean, the irony is this man began the campaign -- the question was, is he black enough to win black votes? Now, is he too black to win white votes has become the question. But I think the race is a reality.

And Tom Davis, the incredibly shrewd and astute Republican congressman from Virginia, explained that Obama was leading in a poll that he had taken earlier in his congressional district over John McCain while Hillary Clinton was losing. And I asked him why.

And his explanation -- while a little flip -- had some great political insight. He said, "With one vote, you can eliminate 400 years of guilt with that vote."

I mean, so I think there is a sense there that there are some white people who are voting for him. And there is a generational difference. You can see younger voters far more inclined to his candidacy. And perhaps the race thing is more generational.

JIM LEHRER: And is it not correct to say, David, that from day one, from -- by the time -- from the moment that Barack Obama announced that he was going to run for president, he didn't want to talk about race, and said he didn't want to be known as the "black candidate," and went out of his way to avoid it. But now it's there.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Well, for really a year, we had discussions about health care, about NAFTA, about Iraq. And for most of the primary season, the debate was not on this.

But now we're getting into a tougher part of the season, as the two candidates really wail at each other, and the racial issue has come up. And it strikes me that when so many people have so many varied perspectives on this -- I think most white people in this country think it won't be an issue or will be maybe a slight plus for him. And I happen to think that.

But I noticed a lot of my African-American friends think, "You guys are crazy. It's going to be a big negative." And they say that with complete confidence, and I say my view with complete confidence.

It strikes me we do -- from our different perspectives and our different sorts of life experiences -- there are two radically different perspectives on how it's going to play out. And in some senses, Obama's race will be a test -- his campaign will be a test of how big a factor race does play in American politics.

JIM LEHRER: Is it correct to say, Mark, quickly, that you don't think it's going to go away, it's there, and it's going to stay there until this thing is resolved?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it is there, Jim, and we saw it just this week in Mississippi. And I think David's point is well-taken. One out of four of the voters, the white voters who voted for Hillary Clinton, said they would not vote for Barack Obama in November if he were the nominee. And Barack Obama got 91 percent of the African-American vote.

So it's there. It's a reality. And the question is: Who is right? Are the African-Americans David knows or David and the white voters? I happen to lean in David's direction. I think, on balance, it will be a plus.

Clinton's chances for victory slim

David Brooks
The New York Times
I think it's pretty clear Michigan seems likely to re-vote, and I suspect Florida will re-vote. A lot of big states, people want to have their voices heard. I don't think it will make any difference.

JIM LEHRER: Quick, let's go through a couple of things here quickly, beginning with you, Mark, on this issue of Michigan, Florida. Is that going to be resolved or is this going to get worse before it gets better?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it's going to get worse, Jim. I mean, Florida, obviously, is not going to be resolved.

You know, we had 55 jurisdictions who agreed to the rules that there would be no contests other than Nevada and South Carolina, Iowa and New Hampshire, four states where retail politics is available, where an underdog, underfinanced candidate can compete against a frontrunner with deep pockets. And all but two of them abided by those rules and didn't go before the 5th of February.

I think it's absolutely indefensible to say to Florida and Michigan, "You broke the rules. Now you're going to have a decisive voice in who the nominee is." Split the difference, cut their delegation in half, let their super-delegates vote -- Senator Clinton will have an advantage among the super-delegates in both states -- and let them come to Denver and go the parties.

JIM LEHRER: David, do you see any developments?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think it's pretty clear Michigan seems likely to re-vote, and I suspect Florida will re-vote. A lot of big states, people want to have their voices heard. I don't think it will make any difference.

The fact is, when we get to the -- at the end of the primary process, Barack Obama will have more votes nationally and he will have more delegates. Hillary Clinton's shot is to somehow bring him down enough so in the national polls she's leading him by 5 points, 10 points.

And we already saw one poll today, the Wall Street Journal-NBC poll, which had her up nationally. And right now, they're basically tied.

And I think the only way she can get the nomination is for all the super-delegates to look at the national polls, sort of ignore the whole primary season, and say, "She's ahead. She's stronger. We'd better go to her." I think it's a slim shot, but it's really her only shot.

So she's really got to change the emotional climate of the country more than relying on the results of any primary.

JIM LEHRER: OK, we...

MARK SHIELDS: David is right, Jim. And I think if she wins North Carolina, and Kentucky, and Oregon, and Pennsylvania, and Indiana, all these states, then she does have a shot.

I'd just point out that Wall Street Journal poll, she was 16 points ahead the last time they took it. And I think she was just -- that had fallen to just a handful of points, single digits now.

But I think that's her only available -- but my problem is, if you give both Florida and Michigan special status now, that's just going to be an incentive for states in 2012 to just ignore the rules and say, "OK, we'll hold our primary in August or July." And, you know, I don't know how you sanction these places unless you tell them they're going to lose half their delegations.

JIM LEHRER: Well, the bad news is we have no more time to talk about these other things. And I was going to ask you all about Eliot Spitzer. Now NewsHour viewers will not know what you think about that. I was going to ask you about the resignation of Admiral Fallon. The NewsHour viewers will not know about that, so they're just going to have to imagine what you all would say.

DAVID BROOKS: We'll blog it for them.

JIM LEHRER: OK, thank you both very much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.