In true Independence Day spirit, every seat in Chautauqua Institution's amphitheater was filled for the culmination of the lecture platform's second week, leaving only standing room for those unfortunate late-comers. Despite the oppressive heat of high noon, political enthusiasts of every age sat (or stood) at attention to hear political writers Michael Gerson and Mark Shields discuss current issues under the direction of retired PBS "NewsHour" anchor Jim Lehrer.
The lecture was the last installment of "The Lehrer Report," in which the presidential debate monitor led discussions on the national climate regarding important issues such as health care, jobs, taxation, the financial state of the U.S. and the upcoming presidential election.
Gerson, a nationally syndicated columnist appearing twice weekly in The Washington Post, was a top aide to President George W. Bush as assistant of policy and strategic planning, as well as director of presidential speechwriting. Some of his other accomplishments include writing two books and serving as a senior editor at U.S. News and World Report. Shields possesses a similarly extensive resume, a few highlights of which include working in the administrations of nine U.S. presidents, writing a column nationally distributed by Creators Syndicate and being an editorial writer for The Washington Post.
Pictured, at left, is Mark Shields with fellow columnist Michael Gerson on the Chautauqua Institution amphitheater stage. The two spoke with Jim Lehrer in the last installment of “The Lehrer Report.”
P-J photo by Nicholena Moon
After Lehrer opened the lecture by asking the guests their opinions on the impact of the Higgs Particle discovery, an amused Shields assured the sweating audience that the talk wouldn't take all day.
"As Henry VIII said to his wives, I won't keep you long," he joked, eliciting a ripple of laughter from the audience.
Despite the light-hearted introduction, the panelists soon got down to business and began discussing a rather serious subject: the faltering economy.
"This is now the third disappointing summer where expectations of an economic turnaround were raised, and it becomes harder and harder to return to confidence once you disappoint expectations again and again," Gehrer noted.
When asked what presidential hopeful Mitt Romney needs to do to demonstrate that the job situation will improve under his watch, Gerson maintained that more than just standard economic policy talk is needed.
"If [the Romney campaign] represent[s] mainstream, non-controversial, generic Republican economic ideology, I'm not sure that's enough. He needs to offer some hope to the people that are struggling in our economy right now, not of equality, but of social mobility. There is a deep skepticism in America about the applicability of the American dream."
Gerson pointed out that Barack Obama's campaign has begun to exploit some of the weaknesses in Romney's public appeal, citing immigration as a touchy issue for Romney.
"Mitt Romney has a tremendous weakness on this topic," Gerson said, "he has now run two elections on an anti-immigrant tone that's coming back to haunt him."
Discussing what Romney could do to fire back at the Obama campaign, Gerson named Catholics and suburban women as two social groups the current administration has had trouble connecting with.
"But there doesn't seem to be that element of strategic boldness," said Gerson.
The subject then shifted to how both candidates were preparing for their respective campaigns.
"There is no preparation for running for president," Shields observed.
He described being torn between both campaigns, noting a lack of a clear choice.
"I look at this campaign and I look at the economic numbers and I say, 'There's no way Barack Obama can be re-elected.' Then I look at Mitt Romney, and I say, 'There's no way Barack Obama can lose," he said jokingly, to laughter from the audience, but quickly became serious, adding, "And that really is a problem."
The talk turned to the upcoming presidential debates. The panelists looked to the past for guidance, recounting how Ronald Reagan legitimized his run for the presidency through a humanizing performance in his debates.
"That's one of the few moments where everyone's watching, everyone's grading, and you can make a real break-through," said Gerson.
Both experts agreed that debating skill is instrumental for anyone running for office, and that debates can make or break campaigns, noting that Obama's performance has not been up to par as of late.
"Obama has some of his own challenges here," said Gerson, "Romney has not been spectacular but hes been very solid."
Another critical campaign cornerstone is the vice president. Chris Christie, Republican New Jersey governor, was favored by both Gerson and Shields for Romney's VP choice.
"He is the most talented Republican candidate in the party right now," said Gerson, going on to describe the office, "Having the best vice presidential skills is like being the best butter carver in the world, it's a very narrow skill set."
Lehrer then shifted the focus to the state of politics in America, noting an increase in polarizing bipartisanship. Both guests agreed that partisan media is largely to blame. Amid approving applause from the audience, Gerson elaborated.
"The fact that people can now get all of their information about the world from people that agree with them and reinforce their prejudices" is a negative, he said. "We've segregated ourselves into deep divisions."
"People tune in not for information, but for ammunition," he said.
"One of the things you need for stability is a little humility," Gerson said. "The idea that there is truth in your opponent's error, and error in your own truth."
Although many in the audience rose to take their leave at the end of the discussion, those Chautauquans who wanted to ask a question of the experts began scribbling enthusiastically on the comment cards distributed amongst the audience. The questions ranged from the origin of the divisive state of American politics and ways to solve the debt crisis to whether or not the decreased attention span of the public caused by technological innovations was to blame for the lightning-fast news cycle.
When the question-and-answer period came to a close, the audience thundered applause, and turned their minds ahead to the next event on their schedule at the Chautauqua Institution.