Shields and Brooks on high stakes for debate moderators, a dead heat in the polls

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JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first: the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome to you both. It’s good to see you again.

Let’s talk about the presidential campaign.

David, we saw the two candidates together at the same place this week, but not at the same time, at this televised forum that NBC sponsored. What did you make of it, of their performance and what they had to say?

DAVID BROOKS: I thought they both lost. I thought America lost. Humanity lost. A little piece of my soul died. I thought they…

JUDY WOODRUFF: That bad?

DAVID BROOKS: I thought they both did poorly.

I thought she was evasive and cross and looked like she was imperious and was angry to be challenged. She had plenty of information, but not a lot of relatability and not a lot of humanity and not a lot of vision for foreign policy.

He, if anything, was a little worse. He is, and as he has wont to do, said about six ridiculous things. The admiration for Putin is of long standing. But to me, the thing that really made me think was his claim that in Iraq we should have left a core of people to take the oil.

Now, that is — first of all, it’s impractical, but it’s also moral idiocy. Maybe you’re selfish and you think, oh, I got some oil and I got some guns, I should take it. But if you go through any realm of education, which is what we try to do with people, you learn that that’s called imperialism, that’s called plunder. It’s morally wrong. It ruins your credibility.

The idea that a big country is going to go out and send troops into some country to take their resources, and then the rest of the world is going to somehow trust us is just a ridiculous notion.

And so he says things that are just plainly ridiculous. But — so that’s why was so depressed.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, humanity lost as a result of this encounter or this performance this week?

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: Judy, I wasn’t — it wasn’t Lincoln-Douglas.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: And most importantly of all, I think David’s point about the oil is well-taken. I think it’s valid and I think it’s true.

That is not the United States. That is pillaging. That is the worst form of imperialism that he’s describing. It would mean leaving thousands of Americans there to protect the oil drilling. I mean, it just is — it’s indefensible on logistical, moral and political grounds.

But that aside, I think what it did — and you have moderated debates. I have never moderated a debate, Judy, for good reason. But I think it’s raised this — Wednesday night, partially because of the unflattering press reaction to Matt Lauer’s performance, has raised the stakes for the moderator, who is now put on notice, all of them, that they are not entitled in 2016 to sit there while somebody makes a statement that is factually untrue and is — can be proven false, as Mr. Trump did when he, in fact, said that he had always opposed the United States’ war in Iraq.

And I just think that — it’s tough to be a moderator. But I think that, given this campaign and the questions about the integrity and honesty of the candidates, and the great doubts about them, I think that is now part of the job description.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see that question about the role of the moderator, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I watched the debate, and I didn’t think Matt Lauer did that terribly. I thought a lot of people who were Clinton partisans saw that she did bad, and they decided to blame him, which is what normally happens when one candidate does badly.

As for the role of the moderator, I guess I would say in moderation. If the moderator corrects a fact or two, that would be fine. If it turns into an argument between the moderator and the candidate, that is not what we want.

And the final point to be made, just in terms of cognitive science, the idea that when you correct a fact, you erase that fact from people’s memories is the reverse of the truth. When you correct a fact, what you do is you further lodge that fact into people’s minds, and they remember the error.

And we have had all these fact-checking services on TV in the print, three Pinocchios, liar, liar, pants on fire award, and we have not entered a more factual era of American politics. We have entered a less factual era. So, there’s just that blunt fact that it doesn’t work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, is this really all about the fact that Hillary Clinton didn’t do as well as her supporters wanted her to do?

MARK SHIELDS: No.

I mean, I think there are people, obviously, who criticized Matt Lauer on that basis. And I’m not trying to pile on Matt Lauer.

But I think the difference, Judy, between a debate and what we saw Wednesday night is that a debate, as you know and our viewers know, is a simultaneous occurrence, when the two are there at the same time, and they can respond in real time to each other.

And I think that, you know, we get 90 million people at a presidential debate. There is no question that, in 1980, Ronald Reagan had been portrayed as a war-monger, somebody who couldn’t do anything off a script. And the one debate with President Jimmy Carter, he stood toe-to-toe and reassured people that he wasn’t bound and determined to start World War III on the spot and could make a coherent statement.

So, I mean, there is a lot more to a debate than there was on Wednesday night. And, in 2004, I think it’s pretty obvious that John Kerry won the three debates on debating terms, but in the final analysis, George Bush was reelected because voters chose “I like” over “I.Q.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

MARK SHIELDS: And that’s what one gets, is a sense of their personality, the character, how they treat each other, how they treat the moderator.

So I think that’s why — I think it upped the audience for the next debate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, what about — in this race, the polls have tightened. What do you attribute that to?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t know.

After the stock market drops 300 points, then the stock market analysis invents some story to go along with it, oh, there was a correction. And so what we tend to when the polls tighten is, we invent a story to go back for it.

And they have tightened. They have tightened from maybe a seven-point Clinton lead to a maybe a two- or three-point Clinton lead. And so they have tightened. But I have not seen Donald Trump run a better campaign. I have not seen Hillary Clinton run a worse campaign.

So, it could just be — and one — as one travels around the country, one is just constantly barraged with the upsetness. People are just dispirited. And it could be in that general air of dispiritedness, you settle toward parity, because they’re dispirited about everybody.

And that would be my only theory. But I have not noticed one candidate or the other radically altering their performance that explain a loss or a rise.

It should finally be said, Trump’s numbers are pretty flat. The variation tends to be in the Clinton numbers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, how do you see that? Do you have an explanation for what’s going on?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I do. I have an explanation, because I think that’s part of our responsibility, to come up with explanations, whether they’re valid or not.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: No, I think, Judy, Americans don’t like powerful figures who punch down, that is, who pick on someone less powerful and less able to speak for themselves than they are.

And I think Donald Trump was guilty of that on a sustained basis after the convention, the time of the Democratic Convention, on his abuse of a federal judge whose parents had emigrated from Mexico, and in particular his picking on and really abusing Mr. and Mrs. Khan, the Gold Star parents.

He hasn’t done that recently. And that reaches the bar of presidential in behavior. But the problem is, this is a change election. Americans don’t like the way Washington operates. They don’t like Washington. They don’t like the way things are going. They like the president, but they do not like Washington, D.C.

And Hillary Clinton has become the status quo. By a 2-1 margin, voters believe that Donald Trump would change business as usual in Washington, but by almost as large a margin, they believe that Hillary Clinton would be better in a crisis and less of a decisive margin she cares about people like them.

So, you have got this change election where he is a change — represents change that is really unappealing, that is threatening to people. And I think that’s the election.

But there’s no question that she has not come across, as thus far — she started to open up this week with the press and letting them in. But if you think about personal Hillary Clinton, you have got to go back to the primary day in 2008, when she showed such vulnerability, appealing vulnerability, and when she reached out to the girl who was being bullied during the Iowa caucuses this year.

Other than that, she’s been a private sort of issues paper and position paper. And I don’t think that’s going to be enough.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, just quickly, character issues or questions, David, thrown back and forth between these two candidates almost on an hour-by-hour basis.

Yesterday, The Washington Post editorialized it’s time for the press to lay off Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. What about that, A? And, quickly, B, the story this week about Donald Trump’s foundation giving money to the Florida attorney general that was looking at whether to investigate Trump University? How do we assess all of this?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, for him, there is a virtue in shamelessness. He admits that he’s in the influence-buying game. And he was clearly trying to buy influence.

So, at some level, since he’s so shameless, he gets less of a rap than Clinton, who denies she’s in the game, though she clearly is.

I happen to think those — the e-mail story and the other stories are sort of baked in the cake. It actually would be interesting at this point if they actually talked about something that the next president is going to do, like health care reform will have to be done.

There are actually a whole series of policy issues. It would be interesting if one of them came out and said, well, the health care, the Obamacare has to be fixed, and here’s exactly how I’m going to do that, and they made that an emphasis. I actually think that would go over big because people are — as I said, are so dispirited by the contentless post-policy tone that has marked this campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Would that make a difference, Mark? The candidates have been talking — they have been giving a speech here and there about policy and putting some papers out. I certainly — I know Secretary Clinton has.

MARK SHIELDS: No, Secretary Clinton has, Judy.

I think Mr. Trump’s are in the works, and we can look for them before Halloween.

But, I mean, David put his finger on it when she said Donald Trump is shameless about it. He said — he was asked why he contributed to both Democrats and Republicans, said, when I want something, I get it, and when I call them, they kiss my ass, which is not found in Bartlett’s under most presidents’ famous quotations.

And I just think that does belie a cynicism and probably comports with the cynicism that voters feel right now. They don’t believe Washington. And he’s not being punished for it or paying a penalty for it.

And, you know, I think that remains a problem. Whoever wins, you have got to give a sense of what two things you’re going to do specifically to make things better. And I don’t think even the partisans of both candidates could say right now what two specific things their president would do in his or her first 90 days.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just in the last 45 seconds, David, a passing this week of someone who was an icon in the conservative movement, Phyllis Schlafly, 92 years old.

She left an important mark, didn’t she?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

She came of age and personified the era when the cultural war and the Sexual Revolution issues rose up and dominated American politics, whether it was issues of gay rights or gay marriage, abortion.

And she sort of exemplified that and created a new right that really fueled the Republican Party. I happen to think she passes at a time when those cultural wars, Sexual Revolution issues are fading from the scene, and the coming generation has basically settled them, and not necessarily in a Phyllis Schlafly direction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Shields, in 10 seconds a word about Phyllis Schlafly?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, she — Phyllis Schlafly was that, and she was more. She almost became a political kingmaker.

I mean, her endorsement, her support was sought eagerly and coveted by the leading Republican presidential candidates. And she had an enormous influence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Shields, thank you very much.

David Brooks, have a great weekend, both of you.

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