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Shields, Brooks Discuss Sept. 11, Campaign Trail

NewsHour regulars Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the impact of Sept. 11 three years later, recent comments made on the campaign trail, and the latest flap over President Bush's National Guard service.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    And to our own two-man focus group, Shields and Brooks: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields. New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Quickly, what do you — where do you come down on the polls question, Mark?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    I think polls are enormously helpful, Jim, but they are not definitive. They're a guide. That's all they are. And I think Joe Klein put it well — unless you talk to real voters, unless you — over a conversation. All you get out of polls are a yes and no answer.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Mark, I mean, David. You're a one-man focus group.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    I try to read my own mind. It's amazing how powerful they are. They change the mood. Over the past week Republicans are now like they're on Prozac because the polls are swinging. Democrats are — I don't know what the opposite of Prozac is — they're all depressed. The mood shifts radically based on what we see on the Internet on any given morning.

    But, you know, I go back to this Iraq question, which I think was an interesting exchange between the two of them. I think (pollster) Andy (Kohut) has a point that the change in public opinion has shown something real, a change in support for the war, but then you look at your own mind, look at somebody like me, I support the war, I still support the war, but I go through periods like this week where I look at the pinprick bombings we're doing in Fallujah and Samarra, and there's a great story in the Wall Street Journal today about a soldier trying to get some intelligence on the insurgents, and you look at stories like that and you think, how is this going to work? And so if a guy called me today and said what do you think about the war, I would think, well, there are real problems, this is really not going well, but I would still support it. So, you know, this is complicated, and there is no one question that's going to get at what I think about Iraq.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    I just don't disagree with what David just said except one thing, and that is polls have no effect on voters. They do in the rarefied hot house of political journalism and political operatives.

    Democrats are panicky, Republicans are euphoric, or vice verse, but, Jim, if they did, then George McGovern would have got 10 percent in 1972 because he was trailing 2-1 throughout the whole campaign. Barry Goldwater would have got 10 percent in 1964. In other words, if they influence the way voters vote; they don't.

    Just one other thing. I was just reminded that Richard Werthlin, who was Ronald Reagan's pollster told me, years ago they never polled during conventions. I think you have to say John Kerry had a great week because he was 11 points behind last week. He's only seven points behind this week. At this rate he'll be 15 points ahead in three weeks. But he told me that the only two nights all year long of 1984 when Ronald Reagan carried 49 of the 50 states against Walter Mondale, the only two nights that Mondale led were the nights that Geraldine Ferraro was introduced and was nominated at the Democratic Convention in San Francisco.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Which means?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Which means, it's unrealistic. It's like measuring a tide during (hurricanes) Frances or Ivan.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    One more one more point, which is that they do become self-fulfilling. I know that Joe made the correct point that campaigns pay way too much attention to them. I think one of the things that's paralyzing John Kerry's campaign now is you look at polls of Democrats, I think if I have got the numbers roughly correct, 54 percent of Democrats wish he would emphasize that this is the wrong war in Iraq and we should get out. Something like 37 percent think he should emphasize this is the right war, we have got to fight it tougher. So that's two opposing positions within the Democratic Party. And I think he's gone to different audiences and emphasized different things because that poll is in his campaign's mind. If they would just ignore that poll, they'd probably be a little better off.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Tomorrow is the third anniversary of 9/11, Mark. How would you describe the impact 9/11 has on this presidential campaign?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Well, it's enormous, Jim. I mean, it's enormous. If you think about it for a second, I mean, it was a time obviously of national and human tragedy, but it was a time of remarkable opportunity for strong and mature leadership, I mean, unprecedented time of national unity in this country. The world — critics, enemies, allies, all sympathy and support for the United States — you know, a sense of great trust in the government. And what always intrigued me from all the literature — the 9/11 to Bob Woodward — was that the first impulse of President Bush was to try and tie it to Iraq and try and tie it to Saddam Hussein and 9/11. I just — you know, I really think the die was cast.

    Essentially what the president is running on right now is, and we saw it very well in the New York convention, was — we want you to remember those two weeks when he was a strong leader, comforting the nation, his words were comforting and his words were strong and kind of forget the other 206 weeks of the presidency where people lost health care and fell into poverty and children became poor.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    David.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    I think we — I think the exchange we are about to have on this does illustrate how one's conception of 9/11 determines how one thinks history should have gone afterwards. I see 9/11 I think the way Rudy Giuliani sees it, as the event where we woke up to the war we were already in. In Giuliani's – in his convention speech, you'll recall, said it started in 1972 with the Munich bombing, this ideological war against Islamic terror. And so I think what I and a lot of people sort of who agree with me would say that it woke us up to the fact that we're in the middle of what some people called World War IV, some event, some long struggle that is really comparable to the Cold War. And so I think this really shapes how you see the world and how you think we should behave. I think Bush and a lot of the people more on the right side of things really do see it as comparable to the Cold War. I really don't know if John Kerry sees it in those terms. I don't know if Mark does or as a smaller event or different sort of event.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Speaking of a smaller event related to this, of course, was Vice President Dick Cheney's remark this week that — I'll paraphrase what he said, but he said a vote for Kerry on Nov. 2 could increase the likelihood of another 9/11-type attack. Is that fair comment?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    I thought that was a little over the bounds in the way he expressed it. I thought what he said today was the right thing to say, which is this whole campaign is about which party is going to or which leader —

  • JIM LEHRER:

    His clarification today was —

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    In Cincinnati – in the Inquirer – in which he said, this campaign is about which leader is going to make you safer, and he expressed it too crudely the other day, but that really is a legitimate issue.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    What do you think of what Cheney said? And what do you think of this —

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    The fact he took two days correcting it, amplifying it, and rewriting the White House Web site on what he said, which I found revealing for a straight shooter like Dick Cheney. Logistically, Jim, politically, it shows one of the great problems of the Bush-Cheney campaign. When you only appear before pre-filtered, pre-approved audiences, you develop a certain — he would never say this on Meet the Press. He would never say this at a press conference. Just us folks, we can talk, it's us. I think that's a mistake. And I think it made the atmosphere in which something like this could be said.

    I think it gives John Kerry an enormous opportunity. Rather than say, I'm offended or this or that, say, look, I'll tell you how I'm going to make this country safer, while I am concerned about the well-being of the United States, I'm going to make it safer in a concrete, specific way and it would be safer under my presidency and I think that's the opportunity that Cheney has given to Kerry.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    So you would agree that the issue is valid; it's just that Cheney went over the top in terms of the language he used to state it?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Yeah, I mean — Cheney — whatever points Cheney earned for moderation by his state's right argument on gay marriage in defense of own daughter was certainly squandered in this – yeah, I mean, it was basically, it was McCarthyism.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    McCarthyism?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Yeah.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Let's not read into the statement — it was an impromptu statement. He expressed himself a little more crudely than he might have; I'm sure we have both done it in the past five minutes. You don't always say what you ideally would mean to say. But he said, you know, what he basically said, if we make the wrong choices, there is a risk that we will be attacked. What he should have said is what he said today, there is always that risk. Our side will probably make you a little safer. That's both candidates —

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    I would ask David — I would ask Vice President Cheney this, Jim, and that is there has been much speculation about an attack before the election. We say that al-Qaida is an informed, shrewd, wise group. I don't think anybody would argue that if an attack comes in October, it helps President Bush. Now, if an attack comes in October, why would al-Qaida want to help President Bush? So you can make the case, who is safer? If that's the case, and we've been warned there is going to be an attack between now and Election Day, that really seems to me to — for Dick Cheney to say, afterwards they're going to come in and bomb, why would they bomb then if they think that John Kerry is sympathetic to them?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    I'm not sure they're going to bomb. I can't read their minds. I think we both fundamentally agree that the argument should be over who would make you safer. I happen to think that it was a misstatement.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    All right. Do you fundamentally agree on this new information this week on President Bush's National Guard service? What do you think about this? Is this a legitimate line of inquiry?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    It's stupid season. You know, the guy has been president for four years. If you want to judge how he is going to be president, look at the last four years. Don't go back to whether he reported or not or whether this document is a forgery or not. You have got four years of data in front of you; debate the last four years. You don't have to go back. I wasn't high on the Swift boat stuff. I think this is even stupider. We've entered the stupid season, which usually comes in the last week of the campaign where only the stupid issues make the top of the agenda. But we're there already. And it's kind of depressing.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Stupid, Mark?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    I think that the president's credentials as commander in chief do not rest upon, and the Republicans are grateful, for his on again/off again service in the Texas Air National Guard – I mean, they are. It's the last four years, there's no doubt about it. But I think what's not in dispute is that the president, you know, did not obey the direct order to show up for a physical, a mandated physical for all pilots. It's always been an area of curiosity. I mean, I have never known any pilot who voluntarily gave up his or her license to fly. I know people in their 70s, 80s who are still flying. That's just intriguing. I mean, what was it in the physical he was afraid of that might show up? I just think that the only potential political fallout is one of candor. That's all. Whether, in fact, the president has been candid.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Candor is what they also said about Kerry. I mean, that's why they went after Kerry's Vietnam record because he wasn't – DAVID BROOKS: I'm just not going there. I tried to focus attention on Kerry's Senate record. Your political record is what is predicting what you're going do as a politician. George Bush's political record is going to determine what he's going to do in his second term. I just am not going to get into the morass of what happened when I was 10.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    But whether David is going to get there or not, is that where the campaign is now, Mark?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Well, I think the campaign — Jim, every day the campaign is a fight every day for who wins and who loses. You can say that the Bush campaign had a couple of setbacks this week, but the Cheney correction, back-off, qualification and the president playing defense.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Okay. All right. We'll leave it there. Thank you both.