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Commentary Following Compassion Forum

Aired April 13, 2008 - 21:36   ET


CAMPBELL BROWN, CNN HOST: I'm Campbell Brown in Grantham, Pennsylvania. Thanks for watching. Our coverage continues now on CNN with my colleague John King.
JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Thank you, Campbell. And I am John King on the campus here of Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. Outside of the forum. You just heard the Democratic candidates for president discuss faith and values in the so-called compassion forum. A lot to discuss in the next several minutes.

And to do so let's bring in our senior political correspondent Candy Crowley. She is here with me on the campus. CNN contributor Roland Martin as well as Michael Gerson. He is the author and former speechwriter for President Bush who has written repeatedly about faith and values and their role in politics.

A lot of sound to discuss tonight. A lot of issues to discuss tonight. You are still watching Senator Obama there inside the hall signing autographs and speaking to some of people attending this forum. We covered this campaign back and forth. It's about taxes, it's about the war in Iraq, it's about the economy.

But it was an interesting conversation tonight. We'll play more of the sound and discuss it in the moments ahead. But I want to ask each of you first just your overall assessment. Candy, you track these candidates every day. And again, it's about the war. It's about the economy. It's about John McCain. Tonight it was about when does life begin. Does god have a role in issues like AIDS? What do you think?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I actually, my first thought was, how far the Democrats have come on this issue of faith and politics. I'm even, trying to imagine Al Gore at a forum like this and talking, really so easily, as the two of them did. They seemed pretty comfortable. They didn't have a problem talking about their own faith to a point.

So I just really thought, here's the Democratic Party. They've gotten the message. You cannot ignore faith because it is such a part of the fabric of America. And, therefore, they are here and they are talking in real terms on very specific religious issues.

KING: Well, Michael Gerson, you helped elect George W. Bush on the very point candy is making. He spoke publicly about his faith. Jesus Christ was his favorite philosopher. I know when you works for the president in the campaign you had the belief that Democrats simply don't get it. They don't talk to people of faith especially in small town America. What did you make of tonight? MICHAEL GERSON, FORMER BUSH SPEECHWRITER: I agree. I thought it was a big change for the democrats. I think Obama in many ways was more fluent talking about the role of religion in informing his own policy views. I don't think that Senator Clinton did that quite as well. But I do -- I think the other point, though, is not just how much the Democrats have changed but how much the evangelicals in the audience when you listen to the questions had changed. Because there was abortion but there were also questions on torture and the environment, which was a consistent theme and HIV/AIDS in Africa and Darfur was mentioned. And I think you've seen a broadening of this social justice agenda among religious conservative. That's also an important point.

KING: And Roland, if the agenda has broadened among social conservatives, we're in the state of Pennsylvania tonight. They're important here. President Bush tried, just failed twice in this state. They are important in many other states. What did you make of the conversation tonight in terms of how we look forward in this campaign. One of these candidates will represent the Democratic Party. As Candy noted, John Kerry and Al Gore simply failed.

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: First of all, it was a phenomenal conversation. Candy is absolutely right. I would have loved for Al Gore, somebody who actually went to seminary to have had a faith conversation with George W. Bush. I think the real issue here, John, that this was candidate driven and not party driven. These candidates, Clinton and Obama, both recognize the Democratic Party must begin to speak to people of faith. People like myself who are independents but who are strong believers of faith. People out there who say, look, we must go beyond issues of abortion and homosexuality.

But I think what you saw tonight, you certainly saw Obama who is a lot more comfortable as Michael said in speaking about his faith but even Senator Hillary Clinton. In her answer when she said it's a lot more private. She she spoke more from a political standpoint. He was able to weave it in a lot more so. I think that also speaks to the individual. People have to recognize that individuals see their faith in a much different way. Some see it as a very public issue, as the essence of who they are. Others prefer to be very private. A phenomenal conversation and it should not be the last time that Democrats begin to deal with this because it certainly gave me a much better understanding of both candidates and their views on issues facing America.

KING: Roland, Michael and Candy. I want you all of you to stand by. As you can see, the forum is breaking up in Messiah College. The Democratic candidates talking about the role of faith in their life but also talking about their current dust-up on the campaign trail. Whether Barack Obama is somehow insensitive to blue collar workings facing economic anxiety. Stay with us, we'll be right back.



SEN. HILLARY CLINTON, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I do think it raises a lot of concerns and we've seen that exhibited in the last several days by people here in Pennsylvania in Indiana where I was yesterday and elsewhere. Because it did seem so much in line with what often we are charged with. Someone goes to a closed door fund- raiser in San Francisco and makes comments that do seem elitist, out of touch and frankly, patronizing.


KING: Back live now on the campus of Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. That was Senator Hillary Clinton discussing the current big dust-up on the Democratic campaign trail. Her assertion based on in some comments Senator Barack Obama made at a fund raiser a few days ago out in California campaign trail that he is somehow condescending or elitist when talking about the plight of blue collar workers in this state and others facing economic anxiety.

I want to reintroduce our panel. Roland Martin our CNN contributor is with us in Houston. Michael Gerson, the former Bush speechwriter and author is with us in Washington, DC, and joining us here for a few minutes on the campus, one of the moderators of tonight's forum, CNN's Campbell Brown. I want each of you to weigh in on this controversy in a moment. But first when Senator Obama was introduced to the forum a bit later, he of course was quick to respond.


SEN. BARACK OBAMA, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And I think it's unfortunate that in the political process, presidential campaigns, that people have been trying to misconstrue my words. To understand that, you know, I am a devout Christian, that I started my work working with churches in the shadow of steel plants that had closed on the South Side of Chicago. That nobody in ...


KING: Senator Obama there saying how can he be called an elitist, someone that work on the streets in Chicago. Campbell, you were in the room. Obviously, he's much more angry out on the campaign trail earlier today. Both subdued in there. But Senator Clinton thinks there's something to be gained here. Senator Obama said that he was inarticulate, said he said things he wished he hadn't said them and he's trying to make this go away.

BROWN: I don't think it's going to go away. I was struck by the fact they were far more subdued in this setting than they were on he campaign trail. And I think clearly, given the audience and given the subject and the audience matter didn't want to bring this into this room. They aren't done with this. Senator Clinton has certainly made it clear she intends to use this issue. There is, I think, strategically, a little danger with her possibly overplaying her hand on this issue as her being someone far more in touch with rural working class people given that we were still digesting the news she and her husband have made $100 million since they left the White House.

It's hard to make the case that you really are one of the people when you've made $100 million in the last eight years. But, that said, I do think there is some danger in those comments. And I don't think he's fully explained it enough to the satisfaction of a lot of people either. So I'm not sure whether -- how this is going to play out. But I don't think either of them put it to rest in their comments tonight. It was just something they didn't want to take quite as intensely into the forum as they have on the trail.

KING: Roland, you know the senator well and you also know the pitfalls Democrats have had in the past when they do seem out of touch, not understanding of blue collar working Americans. President Bush benefited from it in states like West Virginia in 2000 and Al Gore's home state of Tennessee even. You know Obama well. He didn't choose his words right. Shouldn't Democrats have learned their lessons? He went to a fund-raiser in one of the wealthiest areas of the country and he said you have these white (SIC) working class voters and they cling to their guns or their faith when they are facing economic anxiety. He should have known better.

MARTIN: Well, obviously, it's all a matter of first of all what you say and the setting. Very interesting how Senator Clinton made it perfectly clear he was speaking in San Francisco. I think what Obama has to do, though, is, look, he said it. The comments were recorded. He has to be able to say, wait a minute. And don't just focus on my work as a community organizer. Take it back even further. Look, I am not someone who is an elitist. That's the real issue here. To framing him as an elitist, somebody who went to Harvard, wife went to Princeton. He has to be able to say, wait a minute, my dad left home when he was two. My mom took food stamps to feed our family. My mom died at an early age. I had to live with grandparents. I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth. He has to be able integrate that language in there. To say I can connect with you as a blue collar worker.

But as long as he allows them to frame him as a Harvard educated elite upper middle class person, that's where he'll always get beat on this issue.

Michael Gerson's take in just a moment. But first we need to take a quick break. You are watching our coverage, our post coverage of the "Compassion Forum" here on the campus of Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania.

Please stay with us. We'll be back in just a moment.


KING: Back on the campus of Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. We discuss and analyze the compassion forum held on the campus of this small, rural religious school. Michael Gerson, I promised to give you a chance on the other side of the break. Jump in if you want on the blue collar issue or any other issue tonight that struck you. Including Hillary Clinton saying she believed the potential for life begins at conception. And Senator Obama trying to acknowledge look, there is disagreement in a room of ministers about abortion on both sides. GERSON: On the bitterness issue, I do think his initial response to that was positively strange. To argue that people are bitter and they cling to God and guns. And that's a good thing. That's an odd response to that kind of debate.

The fact of the matter here is it's a dangerous statement that he made for his political future. Because it really does represent a kind of almost crude academic Marxism that says somehow religious faith is rooted in economic anxiety. And that's not the way most Middle Americans experience their religious faith. So I think there's a problem there.

On the abortion issue, I'm not sure the Democrats offered that much. They have serious moral reasonings. They presented their views well. But the problem for many Americans, religious Americans, this issue of abortion is not just a moral issue. It's also an issue of human rights and protecting human dignity. And they didn't offer much on that side on issues like partial birth abortion or other things that concern religious Americans.

KING: And in our final couple of minutes here, Campbell, to you first then Roland and Michael, hopefully we can fit you in. How much does it matter that in this campaign they aren't running against George W. Bush. Regardless of which Democrat runs here, they'll be running against John McCain. A man who says he has a deep personal faith but who does not talk about it publicly as openly, as often as George W. Bush did and still does in many ways.

BROWN: He was invited to participate in this as well and declined our invitation. We're hoping to do something again with him in the future.

But that's what I think is so striking about this. Especially when you compare it to 2004 where it was the Democrat who struggled to talk about faith and to talk about religion. It's the opposite. There was certainly, whether you agreed with what they said or not, Michael, I think it was striking that the language from Democrats, from both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in their ability to talk about religion and faith and to embrace that before this audience. You didn't see that in 2004.

Whereas John McCain, we haven't had a real conversation with him or really heard him go into depth on this issue at all. Especially coming off of this -- his biography tour he had last week where he was sort of going back to his party days when he was a soldier as part of the military. But nothing about faith and religion. That will probably change, one would assume.


KING: Roland, do you want to jump in there?

MARTIN: John, the Democrats have an opportunity ...

KING: Hold on. All right. MARTIN: I wrote about this on They can really do something here if they are more aggressive on the issues of faith. But they have to keep going, keep talking, not ignore it.

KING: Roland, I lost your microphone there, Roland, at the very end but thank you for your contributions. Michael Gerson as well and Campbell Brown here on the campus of Messiah College. We thank you for watching the compassion forum tonight and our discussion of it afterwards. Please stay with us. We'll be back in a few minutes and we'll discuss this issue and many other issues on the Democratic campaign as we go across Pennsylvania. I've logged quite a few miles in this state over the past few days. We'll share some of our experiences with you. The Catholic vote, the evangelical vote, the race for the suburbs, competition for the suburbs here. Much more of our special coverage just ahead. Stay with us.