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With Texas and Ohio on Horizon, Shields and Brooks Assess the Race

February 29, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Amid worsening economic reports and tightening poll numbers, the primary race between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton entered a critical weekend ahead of primary votes in Texas and Ohio. Analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks provide their take on the week.
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JIM LEHRER: And that brings us to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, who joins us tonight from Columbus, Ohio, and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, what do the polls — you’re in Ohio. You’ve been there recently, now. What do the polls and your own reporting show you or tell you about what’s going to happen on Tuesday?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, Jim, in many respects, it’s following a similar pattern we’ve seeing elsewhere where Senator Clinton opened up the contest with a double-digit lead — in some cases, 20 points — which we’re now seeing narrow.

But she is clinging to a single-digit lead in virtually every poll. I think there’s been one that showed Senator Obama ahead, but basically a close contest with Senator Clinton still ahead.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with what the congresswoman and the mayor just said, that it really isn’t issues that separate them, it’s something else?

MARK SHIELDS: It is something else. And, no, there aren’t any great issues, although each of them tries to emphasize from time to time differences.

And Barack Obama constantly returns to the vote for the war in Iraq, and Senator Clinton supported that. And Senator Clinton likes to emphasize the difference in their health plans because she thinks that’s to her advantage. And I think most people would agree it probably is.

But there are not great divides here; this is not a great ideological strife.

Difference in style, not policy

David Brooks
The New York Times
[W]e're faced with a whole series of transnational problems that are not going to be addressed by traditional politics but are going to be addressed through mobilization. And I think Obama adopts that language.

JIM LEHRER: You agree with that, do you not, David? We talked about this last week, as well, that this is more than just about checking off issues one way or another?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Right, it's not about that. It is about philosophy, though. What strikes me is they really do have two different theories of how change happens.

Obama has a loose, decentralized, bottom-up theory, as you'd expect from a community organizer, that it's not really top-down organizations, that you build a base in the country and you activate people, and then they create change at the top.

I think Clinton has a much more traditional theory of change: You gather the smartest people in the room, union leaders, business leaders, government leaders. You create a policy that you then can spread around the country. So one's a much more bottom-up theory of how change happens; one's much more top-down.

JIM LEHRER: But do you think that's being understood and acted upon at the voter level?

DAVID BROOKS: I do. I mean, Obama talks about it quite a lot, about two different theories of change. And I think for young people, I think that's one of the attractions.

If you grew up in the age of the Internet, which is a decentralized, self-organizing system, you do eBay, you do "The Sims," you basically have that sense. You have a sense that Bono communicates, that you do social change through social action.

And in the world, we're faced with a whole series of transnational problems that are not going to be addressed by traditional politics but are going to be addressed through mobilization.

And I think Obama adopts that language. I think it's a lot of language that especially people under 40 is their natural way of talking about politics.

JIM LEHRER: You read it the same way, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I do. There's a little difference, Jim, and I think it seen in the structure of the two campaigns.

Barack Obama just set a record. He has a million individual contributors to his campaign by the month of February. In the month of January alone -- we don't have his figures for February yet -- he raised $28 million online in individual contributions.

Ninety percent of those contributions were under $100 each, which is just remarkable. It's exactly the group David was talking about, people not of great income. It's what we've always wanted to have in politics, where there aren't just a few big money guys, that people are contributing.

But they take those contributors, and it's not simply the passive act of making a contribution. You are then enfolded into a community. You're encouraged to go to meetings, to events.

You're regularly communicated with. You're urged to canvas, to make phone calls, to become part of an activist political company, if you would, of like-minded citizens. And that's what's been remarkable.

And, ironically, this is a state, Ohio, that's had nothing but presidential attention the last eight years. It's been the battleground. So these are people, voters, who are -- they've seen presidents. They've seen presidential candidates.

They've had them on their doorstep for eight years, and yet the Obama campaign somehow has been able to get crowds that nobody in this state has ever seen before. And I think it's through that same organizing mechanism.

JIM LEHRER: And that's happening also in Texas, as well, is it not, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Well, especially there in Texas where Obama seems to be ahead.

And the irony, of course, is that we thought Clinton had this fierce political machine and Obama was a newcomer, where he has a much better organized campaign.

And one thing, though, people talk too much about the cultish following. And I've done my share of it. And there is the element of the cult.

But we had a poll in the New York Times-CBS poll this week which asked people, "Do you have some doubts about the person you support?" And, actually, Obama supporters have more doubts about their candidate than Clinton supporters do.

And so there are a lot of people who take a look at the guy and say, "I like him, but I do have some doubts about his inexperience or this and that, but I still basically like him."

So what strikes me about that is it's not all a fever that could fade away in a couple of weeks. There are people who have much more ambivalent and I think a much more realistic sense of what he can actually deliver.

Clinton campaign nearly beaten

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
I think, quite honestly, that if Obama wins Texas -- and I think it looks good for him there -- if he comes here and wins Ohio, then I think it's over.

JIM LEHRER: Well, let's talk just some horse-race issues here now. Let's say that Barack Obama does well in both Ohio and Texas -- and use any definition of what "well" is -- what could that mean?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think if he wins one of the two -- and it's likely now he'll win Texas. And he could be...

JIM LEHRER: He's now six points ahead.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, I think it will be over. Bill Clinton has said his wife has to win them both.

And, again, the thing that struck me -- I said this last week, but I met with some more people this week and had the sense confirmed -- that within the Clinton camp, the fight just isn't there among the donors and the staff. They like her, but they've almost got one psychological foot out the door.

So I have trouble seeing her, in a case of a disputed results post-Tuesday, I have trouble seeing her fight against the will of the party, essentially, and that is staying in and making this a long, bloody fight. I don't think the will is there for that.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about that, Mark? How do you see this post-Tuesday possibility?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it depends solely on the results.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

MARK SHIELDS: The Clinton campaign, yes, David's right that Bill Clinton said she had to win both Ohio and Texas. James Carville said the same thing. So, too, did Ed Rendell, the governor of Pennsylvania, one of her strongest supporters in that state.

But today the campaign, Mark Penn and Howard Wolfson, changed the standards, Jim. They said that Barack Obama would not be the logical candidate nominee for president if he didn't win all four contests next Tuesday, if he didn't win Texas, Ohio, Vermont and Rhode Island.

So I guess, you know, you could call that moving the goalposts, if you want. But I think, quite honestly, that if Obama wins Texas -- and I think it looks good for him there -- if he comes here and wins Ohio, then I think it's over.

And I think at that point you're in a very sensitive political time frame. There's going to be a stampede of super-delegates to Obama. Obama has to hold that off so it doesn't look like Senator Clinton is being stampeded or forced out of the race.

It's got to be her decision. She deserves 36 hours or whatever is necessary after that, if this does happen, to make up her own mind, to do it on her own terms. It's very much in Barack Obama's interest to do that.

Democrats eager to forget primaries

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
most Democrats like both candidates, so you don't find that animus. And I think there will be very little schadenfreude on the part of the Obama people, if and when Senator Clinton does lose and is forced to resign, or vice versa.

JIM LEHRER: It's going to be a difficult thing, if that happens, is it not?

DAVID BROOKS: But, you know, I sense a lot of people who are fervent Obama supporters, at this stage, they have some sense -- they feel a little sorry for Hillary Clinton, because they like her, and they don't want to see her hurt, and they feel she's hurting now.

So I don't sense -- and Mark has been around more of these fights than I have -- but I don't sense any degree of animosity with a few exceptions, but in general. And I think there will...

JIM LEHRER: You mean, from the Obama people toward Clinton?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, or even vice versa, with a few exceptions. But I do think they will go out of their way to be kind.

And Hillary Clinton, if she does go on to lose, has a big future in politics. I mean, everyone who's seen her as a senator will say she's a great senator. She could become majority leader some day. And I don't think she would want to spoil that possibility.

JIM LEHRER: Where do you come down on the animosity thing?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, I think David's right. I think you saw it in Ray's interview with Congresswoman Tubbs and Mayor Coleman here in Ohio. But I think that's true throughout.

I mean, there are people -- there are zealots in both cases sometimes at leadership positions in the campaign who really have tried to turn this into a holy war.

But for the voters themselves, because there aren't these great ideological differences, and most Democrats like both candidates, so you don't find that animus. And I think there will be very little schadenfreude on the part of the Obama people, if and when Senator Clinton does lose and is forced to resign, or vice versa. I just don't think that happens.

I do think, Jim, there is a test that Barack Obama does face, and it's a moral test, and it's a test of his differentness and uniqueness, and that is if he's going to honor the pledge he made to abide by public financing.

He's under enormous pressure from within his own campaign that he's got this incredible fundraising capacity. He could probably out-raise John McCain 4 or 5 to 1 based upon their ability at this point, their capacity at this point.

Obama did pledge that he would abide by the public financing rules, which is that each candidate gets $85 million once he's a nominee to run that campaign in the fall, in September and October. And I think this is a real test for Barack Obama.

And if he starts to wiggle and waffle and flip-flop on it, I think it calls into real doubt the question of whether he is a change agent, whether he is sincere.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Do you think that's going to be a big deal, could be?

DAVID BROOKS: It could be. He's already begun wiggling. He wasn't ruled out the possibility...

JIM LEHRER: He was asked about it.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, but I agree with Mark. I mean, the temptation to have that money has got to be there. But if he does this, it really -- he looks like a normal politician.

Buckley's legacy

David Brooks
The New York Times
Conservatism was somewhat cranky, somewhat sour, somewhat anti-intellectual. [William Buckley]made it intellectual and fun... he took ideas seriously, and he asked the audience to do so, and they did.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, David, William F. Buckley, Jr., he was a big -- in fact, played a big part in your early life as a pundit, as you are now. Tell us the story.

DAVID BROOKS: When I was a baby pundit.

JIM LEHRER: Tell us about your relationship with him and what it meant to you and...

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he wrote a book in 1982 or '83 called "Overdrive," which was a little bit of name-dropping about his lifestyle, which was this grand lifestyle of skiing and...

JIM LEHRER: It was a terrific book. Came out first in the New Yorker. It was a great, great...

DAVID BROOKS: Right, riding in long limousines. So I was a smart-alecky college student, so I wrote a parody of his life, making fun of him. And I said, you know, he wrote three memoirs while he was in infancy, he founded two magazines, one called the National Buckley and one called the Buckley Review, which he merged to form the Buckley Buckley.

And so I made fun of him. And he came to campus at the University of Chicago where I was then a student. And he said, "David Brooks, if you're in the audience, I want to give you a job."

And that's how I became a journalist. And I went to work for him and when he...

JIM LEHRER: What did you do for him?

DAVID BROOKS: I was an editorial associate, writing small editorials and things like that. And when you work for him, even if you were 22, 23, 24, he welcomes you into his home. He takes you sailing; he asks your opinion; he really edits you hard, so he teaches you how to write.

And he brings you into this incredible lifestyle, which was overwhelming for any young person. And it was the big break of my life. I wouldn't be sitting here today if he hadn't done that.

And how many people of that stature take somebody who's made fun of them and said, "I want to give you a job"? We know a lot of people who aren't quite that secure who would never have done that.

But Buckley did that because, a, he was secure, but also because he had the capacity for friendship and bringing people in. And even if it wasn't the politics, he didn't care about it. He saw someone who might make a living as a journalist, and he wanted to hire me for that reason.

JIM LEHRER: What did you -- is there a simple legacy statement to be made about him?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he redefined conservatism, the personality of conservativism. Conservatism was somewhat cranky, somewhat sour, somewhat anti-intellectual. He made it intellectual and fun.

And you go back to those early "Firing Lines," the level of debate on those shows is really astounding. And that's because he took ideas seriously, and he asked the audience to do so, and they did.

JIM LEHRER: OK, David, Mark, thank you both very much.