On PBS, David Brooks and Liberal Agree: Obama's 'Defied Gravity,' Cain Can't Get to 'Kindergarten Level'

On the PBS NewsHour Friday, there was the typical agreement between "conservative" David Brooks and liberal Mark Shields on the sour state of the economy, and that despite that, Brooks said President Obama's "hanging in there reasonably well," and Shields agreed he's "defied gravity."

Brooks slammed Herman Cain's response to the incredibly vague Politico story: that he "didn't do kindergarten-level preparation for this story is just incredibly damning." Shields agreed, adding a slam on conservatives hating candidates with any experience: "Herman Cain's candidacy is a reflection, if not a direct product, of the feverish anti-government flavor, fervor of Republicans, because they really have so little regard, Republican primary voters, for government."

Brooks was "struck" by how well Obama is doing in the polls (tied at 47 with Romney in the Gallup poll, and his approval numbers in the Gallup poll at 42 percent approve, 51 percent disapprove):

DAVID BROOKS: I guess I'm struck by the fact that Obama is hanging in there reasonably well. If you look at the head-to-head polls, how he's doing against a generic Republican, slightly behind, how he's doing against Mitt Romney, pretty much OK, tied. Personal approval rating is about 43.

Considering the condition Mark talked about, the months and months of negative, the country is in the wrong -- the country is in decline, he's actually doing OK. And so there's a lot -- there's an aura of disappointment around him, but I would say in general it's just the disgust with everybody, but not so much him personally.

JIM LEHRER: You agree that he's not getting it as hot as he -- as a lot of people would have expected with these kinds of numbers?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think if I told you that by a 5-1 margin people thought the country was headed in the wrong direction, that 9.1 percent unemployment, an economy growing at whatever 1, 1.5 percent, you would say, where's the president, you would say in the low 30s.

So I think he has defied gravity so far, and I think that's because there is a -- still a residual reservoir of good feeling, people rooting for him to succeed. And -- but there is -- there is still a sense of -- a pervasive sense of disappointment about his presidency, and in part because hopes were so high and so many people invested that hope in him.

Brooks offered no critique of the Politico story or the anonymous accusers at the heart of it. The media is blameless. The only person to hammer for a lack of professionalism is Cain:

LEHRER: "Politico" magazine. The "Politico" magazine told him 10 days ago?

BROOKS: They were investigating and he knew they were investigating. So he knew it was coming out.

LEHRER: Yes. OK.

BROOKS: The fact that they didn't do kindergarten-level preparation for this story is just incredibly damning. And so he's charming, people are going to like him, but you have got to practice politics at the kindergarten level.

LEHRER: Mark?

SHIELDS: At some level, Herman Cain's candidacy is a reflection, if not a direct product, of the feverish anti-government flavor, fervor of Republicans, because they really have so little regard, Republican primary voters, for government.

LEHRER: For the pros.

SHIELDS: That's right, and for government, that it's a serious business.

LEHRER: ... people David was talking about.

SHIELDS: That David was talking about -- that a public policy credential, or a public record, or a serious interest in them, or involvement, is, if anything, a disqualification, that they found almost appealing, if is not irresistible, the fact that this is a man who sat with Judy Woodruff on this very set this week and said China, we found out, is seeking nuclear weapons.
China has had nuclear weapons since 1964.        

...David put his finger on it. They had 10 days notice. He could have gone over to the National Restaurant Association, sat down with the staff, sat down with the lawyers, gone over everything, so he had an answer. And I just don't -- I think that we have seen his high water mark. I mean, there's no doubt about it.

Then the discussion took a serious turn toward the maddening when Bill Clinton's scandals came up, and Shields said Clinton was "shrewd enough to lie" about his sex with college-aged Monica Lewinsky. So would Herman Cain score points with PBS if he lied with impunity? Is that how politics is practiced above the "kindergarten level"? Truth doesn't matter, only "professionalism" does?

BROOKS: Yes, one quick final thing is that the American public, as they showed with Bill Clinton, is not as upset with scandal as we are. And I personally think that's kind of a good thing.

LEHRER: We meaning we...

BROOKS: We pay a lot of attention to these scandals, we in the media, I guess.

LEHRER: We, the press, yes, the media, yes.

BROOKS: But people will say, well, a lot of people have scandals. And I think one of the reasons his poll numbers have stayed high, hostility to the media is part of it, but partly people understand there are scandals in people's lives. And as we have seen with Clinton and we have seen with others, it is possible to survive them, because people are willing to be tolerant, whether properly or not. But I...

LEHRER: Do you agree with that?

SHIELDS: Clinton was president. Clinton was president, and he was shrewd enough to lie at the outset and to say, "I didn't have sexual relations with that woman."  And then the idea of six months of Bill Clinton later, and his foes emerged and showed themselves to be in an overkill mode, and Clinton started to look reasonable. And I think he wouldn't have survived as a candidate if this had come out.

LEHRER: And if he had said right at the beginning, yes, I did do it.

SHIELDS: Yes, I did, right...

LEHRER: He would have had to..

SHIELDS: He had to -- I think he had to, for his own survival.

If PBS ever hired an actual conservative in this panel, Shields would have been shamed for such a bald-faced defense of lying about juvenile sexual behavior to the voters.

Cain is being judged by what NPR "Wait! Wait! Don't Tell Me" quiz show host Peter Sagal joked on Saturday: "Herman Cain  was always a long shot. He raised even more doubts about his fitness for the presidency when it became clear that he does not know the first thing about lying about a sex scandal." Lying effectively is what deeply impresses pundits, apparently.

Sagal mocked Cain's shifting responses to Politico, and then joked that Cain said, "I swear I was only trying to order a pizza when I told the ladies to hold the sausage. That's all."

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis