CNN Transcript, Post-Compassion Forum commentary (Michael Gerson, former Pres. Bush speechwriter)
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.