Shields and Gerson on Bernie Sanders’ debate influence, gifts for Obama and the GOP
GWEN IFILL: Now, for our weekly political analysis of this week's news, we turn to Shields and Gerson.
Judy spoke with them earlier this week.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The presidential candidates and voters are enjoying a brief holiday break from the campaign season, but just before they left the trail, candidates were reacting to the final debates of the year.
And in just the last few days, a new war of words erupted between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
And that brings us to the analysis of Shields and Gerson. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson. David Brooks is away.
Gentlemen, welcome to you both at this Christmas week.
Let's talk first about the Democratic debate, Mark, of last weekend. Did it change in any way the arc of this Democratic contest?
MARK SHIELDS: Not apparently and not obviously, at least to me.
I thought all three candidates had, respectively, their best debate show — showing so far. I thought they did excellent presentations, seemed in command of the facts, seemed comfortable.
But if Hillary Clinton, according to every survey, entered as the dominant national leader, and she emerged, therefore, as the dominant national leader among Democrats.
The one question that I don't know is whether in fact it affected something in New Hampshire that is going to fester and reveal itself, or Iowa, but those are the only two contests right now.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Did you see anything in that debate, Michael, to change where things are?
MICHAEL GERSON: No, it did confirm the arc, but it's an interesting arc.
I think that Bernie Sanders is not going to be the nominee, but I think he's affected the debate and discussion. He's pulled Hillary Clinton towards the left, towards the progressive side on a number of issues. There wasn't much — she is not distinguishing herself the way her husband did by going to the middle. She's very conventional, conventionally — conventionally progressive in this debate. I think that shows Bernie Sanders' influence.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mark, so neither one of you mentions Martin O'Malley. I mean, is he just left out of this?
MARK SHIELDS: I thought Martin O'Malley was better than Martin O'Malley has been. I thought he was good.
For whatever reason, it has become — I mean, Bernie Sanders — I agree with Michael — Bernie Sanders has had an influence quite beyond anything anybody predicted when he came into this race, I mean, over two-and-a-quarter million contributors. The Clinton people are now sending out direct mail requests for money, complaining that — not complaining, but comparing the fact that they have fewer contributions than Bernie, and that Bernie's raised more money.
He has certainly influenced and shaped the debate. And he is ahead in New Hampshire. And I would just point out, for historical purposes, that no president since Dwight Eisenhower has been elected to the White House who didn't finish at least first or second in New Hampshire, not that that affects Hillary Clinton at this point, but it certainly affects the Republican race.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we appreciate the history.
MICHAEL GERSON: Yes.
Well, I think there were two minor gaffes that Hillary had, one of them on the glitches on Obamacare. There are more than glitches, what we're seeing. The other one is, we are where we need to be on ISIS, which even she doesn't agree with. She supports a no-fly zone.
Both of those kind of show the dynamics of a third term, where you're defending your immediate predecessor. Somebody like George H.W. Bush did that well in 1988. Al Gore didn't do this so well in 2000 dealing with the Clinton record and background. And she's going to have to deal with that as the case goes forward.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the other thing Hillary said that continued to get pickup after this debate, Mark, was her comment that ISIS is using video of Donald Trump speaking against Muslims as a recruiting tool.
He's come back and demanded an apology, said this is outrageous. Where does this go from here? I mean, we have got a war of words going on.
MARK SHIELDS: Well, you have to come down on Donald Trump's side, because he's so fastidious about facts.
MARK SHIELDS: I mean, this is somebody who has apologized so frequently for his own occasional misstatements.
Where it goes, Judy, it's something that Hillary Clinton didn't need. Hillary Clinton's strength, as a candidate, are that she's experienced, that she's strong, that she's smart, that she's in command.
Her weaknesses are that she is not particularly likable to the majority of voters and not seen as honest and trustworthy. She and Trump have almost identical scores on untrustworthiness, if that's a word, in the most recent Quinnipiac national poll.
And so she doesn't need anything that gives further fuel to that particular blaze that she's not candid and forthcoming, even though Trump is making the case. She did cast it that she is running against Trump, which is to her advantage.
JUDY WOODRUFF: I mean, she brought him up several times during the debate.
MICHAEL GERSON: Right.
Well, I think that Mark is a mensch, and that's the limit of my Yiddish on this. And I think we have all learned some Yiddish we didn't need to know here. Some of this is the normal back and forth of politics. But Donald Trump is an innovator in contempt, an innovator in the decay of American discourse when it comes to knocking the disabled or when it comes to comparing another candidate to a child molester or when it — or his raw misogyny.
This is not normal. This is getting rid of the guide rails, the guardrails of American politics and life. And then to complain when they're gone and they're not used, I mean, it's not credible in his case.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, is this — can he basically just say whatever he wants and get away with it? The polls out this week have him up again nationally.
Now, there was another poll. There was a — one poll that came out this week that showed that half of Americans said they would be embarrassed if he were elected president. But, meanwhile, the polls, when he's matched up with the other Republicans, have him out front.
MARK SHIELDS: Yes. No, he does. If anything, he has been strengthened.
Judy, this is a year that has repealed every rule that I have known about politics. Before they vote for you, they have to like you. Donald Trump is not liked. In New Hampshire, you have to go there. You have to be there. Whoever is there most often — they expect to see candidates. He's been there less frequently than either Scott Walker or Rick Perry, both of whom have withdrawn from the race, and yet he's ahead by a commanding margin in the polls.
And his language — I mean, Harry Truman was roundly roasted in the editorials of the country for saying "damn." And Ike used "hell." I mean, and he is — this is the "Jersey Shore" version of reality TV politics. I mean, it's the mad housewives of whatever city you want to name who are being just sort of verbally abusive.
I mean, it's — the other thing is, all candidate — every presidential candidate, it's about capturing the future. And Donald Trump is solely about sort of the restoration of this earlier America, where America was dominant, America could do whatever they want, where America strode the earth and didn't have to pay attention to anybody else, economically, or politically or militarily.
And I don't know. I mean, as of now, he's defied gravity.
MICHAEL GERSON: Yes.
And it does express something deep and disturbing about American life. And that is contempt for institutions. We have had a lot of institutions come under attack. For a certain segment of the public, when Donald Trump shows disrespect, that's an advantage. That actually appeals to them, because they have such disrespect for the system itself.
And that, I think, is dangerous and sad.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there something to be said, meanwhile, Michael, about the rest of the Republican race? I mean, we do spend a lot of time talking about Donald Trump. But what — do we see any new shape? Ben Carson's been slipping in the public opinion polls. What do you see?
MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I was in Iowa recently, and you could feel some gains for Cruz.
He's solidifying movement conservatives and kind of religious right people in — and that's a broader coalition, say, than Huckabee had. His was more narrow. I think Cruz has a real chance in Iowa, a very good chance in Iowa. You could sense that Carson is slipping.
I don't know about Trump. The big question is, does Donald Trump's poll number translate into caucus-goers and into voters? Normally, his group, blue-collar voters, non-college-educated, vote the least of many groups, OK. Will he be able to get them out to the polls, through Twitter, through other methods that we don't know?
That's, I think, what Republicans are really wondering.
JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see the rest of the Republican…
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, I think the Cruz surge has been documented. There's no question about it, Judy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And how do you explain it?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think that there are three groups that he's really done well with, the Tea Party conservatives — he has obviously run up the score there — among religious and cultural conservatives, especially evangelicals, who had been leaning very strongly to Ben Carson, and have appealed away from Dr. Carson, and, third, with the very conservatives.
And while that will serve him well in Iowa and presumably in the South and Southeastern states on March 1, it's not much help in New Hampshire. Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum all did very well in Iowa, two firsts and a second among them, and all foundered in New Hampshire, which I believe — you can check this out, Judy — is 46th in church attendance.
All those beautiful — all those beautiful congregationalist churches, those white churches on the town green make great paintings, but they're pretty empty on Sundays.
JUDY WOODRUFF: There are a lot of churches in New Hampshire.
MARK SHIELDS: There are beautiful churches.
JUDY WOODRUFF: I have been there enough to notice them.
But I'm writing this down. And I'm going to check it out.
MICHAEL GERSON: I think another big question is, who can solidify the Republican establishment vote? It's about four people now.
There was some expectation that Rubio had some traction here. But Chris Christie could do very well in New Hampshire and complicate Rubio's plans here. And Governor Bush is still significantly back.
So, that is the open question. Will that lane be filled by a strong candidate that can contend for this nomination?
MARK SHIELDS: And, in this atmosphere, is there is a lane? Is it a viable lane, where you have got so much insurgent anti-establishment support already wind up with — with Cruz and Trump and Ben Carson?
JUDY WOODRUFF: Last question.
And, Mark, you get your own chance.
First, let's talk about the president. What would you give him?
MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I don't think any Democrat deserves anything in their stocking this year, because they already got Donald Trump.
MICHAEL GERSON: That is Christmas gift, birthday gift, Valentine's Day. I think anything more would be greedy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, for the president?
MARK SHIELDS: Grecian Formula.
MARK SHIELDS: I mean, the president — the president, who is not unvain, I would say, about — and certainly careful about his appearance and everything else, mentions more than once his graying hair.
And it obviously bothers him. So, let's — at least if we can't give him 60 percent favorable job rating, we could give him black hair again.
JUDY WOODRUFF: We love gray hair on this program.
All right, the Republicans, what gift, Michael, for them?
MICHAEL GERSON: Well, you wouldn't normally want this, but I think a lump of coal, because Republicans love coal, right?
MARK SHIELDS: Very good.
MICHAEL GERSON: And it would drive Al Gore crazy, so…
MARK SHIELDS: Very good.
MARK SHIELDS: That was good. I can't…
JUDY WOODRUFF: You're going to have a hard time topping that one.
MARK SHIELDS: I am going to have a hard time topping it.
MARK SHIELDS: I would say the recorded speeches of Abraham Lincoln, just to remind them from whence they came.
MICHAEL GERSON: Better gift, yes.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Ah, OK. Coal. Abraham Lincoln.
MARK SHIELDS: I didn't record the speech. They weren't recorded, but I'm sure we could get somebody to record — maybe Morgan Freeman.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we wish both of you a merry Christmas…
MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.
MICHAEL GERSON: Merry Christmas.
JUDY WOODRUFF: … and the best of holidays.
Thank you, both. And we will see you in the new year.