October 20, 1995
President Clinton has no choice but to veto the giant deficit reduction bill known as "reconciliation", says syndicated columnist Mark Shields. Shields joins "Wall Street Journal" columnist Paul Gigot in a discussion with Jim Lehrer about the Capitol Hill budget battle, and Clinton's reversal of his own 1993 plan to reduce the deficit.
JIM LEHRER:What are the politics of this, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: The politics are enormous, Jim. I think that there's no question that--in my judgment, anyway--that the President came away weakened this week, weakened not only by what was going on in the, in the dealings and sort of the posturing imposing over the issue, itself, and what else was going on in his own political life. He did not look as someone's going into a foxhole, the other side, he did not look like a guy you wanted to be in a foxhole with. It's a fellow who went down--
JIM LEHRER: Are you talking about the--
MR. SHIELDS: I'm talking about the--
JIM LEHRER: We'll get to that in a minute.
MR. SHIELDS: Okay.
JIM LEHRER: But on this particular thing, you know, I had to ask Susan just now, okay, tell me again what reconciliation means. I have a hunch that--I was asking on behalf of myself as well as for the audience.
MR. SHIELDS: Sure.
JIM LEHRER: I've got a hunch that an awful lot of people don't know what this is.
MR. SHIELDS: Well, this is the whole ball game all wrapped together.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
MR. SHIELDS: This is welfare. This is--
JIM LEHRER: All--
MR. SHIELDS: --Medicare. This is tax cuts. This is everything put together. The President is going to veto it. All right. The President has to veto it.
JIM LEHRER: Because?
MR. SHIELDS: He has to veto it to show that, first of all, Gingrich has to show and Dole has to show they can do--they can get it through. All right. They get it--
JIM LEHRER: They have to put their version on the President's desk.
MR. SHIELDS: They put their version out there. The President then vetoes it. Then the moment of truth hits.
JIM LEHRER: That's when the dealing--that's when the dealing--
MR. SHIELDS: The moment of truth is: Does Bill Clinton then do what George Bush did in 1990, which was to move to the majority of the other party controlling the Congress and cut a deal there? Because he's not going to pass anything that Newt Gingrich isn't for.
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
MR. SHIELDS: Does he forsake his own party, as Bush did in 1990, as Richard Nixon did time and again during his own presidency? What Bill Clinton seems to have assumed is that there will never be a Democratic majority again in the Congress under his watch.
JIM LEHRER: So that--
MR. SHIELDS: That's how he's behaving right now.
JIM LEHRER: How do you see it?
PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: I think he's already made that decision, which is to abandon his own Democratic Party in Congress and to--
JIM LEHRER: Because they don't have the numbers in order to get something done.
MR. GIGOT: Because Gingrich has the most powerful thing under the American Constitution, the power of the purse. And we've seen that time and again, and we're going to have another lesson in it, that when you control the purse strings in Congress, you can make life awfully uncomfortable for a President who, who wants to resist your priorities but doesn't have the same levers. He can veto the whole thing, but when--if he vetoes the budget, the Republican strategy is to set it up, okay, Mr. President, we'll send you up a temporary budget six weeks or so, but it's a 10 percent cut across-the-board, and it's not going to have your favorite programs like National Service, and it's not going to have education spending. They're going to make life as, as difficult as possible for him as a way to induce him to sign the budget.
JIM LEHRER: Why? Why are they going to do that?
MR. GIGOT: Because they want to win. Because they think that they had a mandate in 1994.
JIM LEHRER: And this is all in this bill.
MR. GIGOT: This is all in this bill, and they're willing to negotiate on some of the details, but in the end, they want 70 or 80 percent of what they got.
JIM LEHRER: What is your reading of the public perception of what's going on on this thing?
MR. GIGOT: Well--
JIM LEHRER: I mean, politically I mean.
MR. GIGOT: I think that the Republicans, as Chris Shays, one of them Connecticut, told me, a moderate--
JIM LEHRER: House member.
MR. GIGOT: House member. "We burned our ships. There's no going back. We're going to do it. We promised"--
JIM LEHRER: They're on the beach, in other words.
MR. GIGOT: We don't know--we don't know--in 1996, we'll find out whether we win or whether we lose, but we're not going to stop and say, we didn't do it.
MR. SHIELDS: Not to rain on Paul's parade, but the problem that Gingrich has is he's a victim of his own success. Newt Gingrich did this week on Medicare, Jim, what people, many of his critics, including this one, had said was going to be impossible to do. I mean, he's done the impossible for the second time really in the past 10 months. He won the Republican majority in the House last November. He got through the Medicare and the cuts, enormous cuts in Medicare, basically to cover the cost of the tax cuts, but he did it, when it was supposed to be--the problem he has--what Paul's strategy has outlined--is that people see him in charge. If a thing really bogs down, breaks down, and people are inconvenienced or maybe even suffer from it, and there's a sense that things are not working at all in Washington, then inevitably, he will get some of the blame.
JIM LEHRER: Rather than the President.
MR. SHIELDS: It's not a zero sum game where all of the blame goes to the President.
MR. GIGOT: Right. You can construct a kind of a partial budget that does the essential things government needs to make sure it has--Social Security checks are going out, to make sure that the essential business is going on, but the President's priorities, discretionary priorities, the things he'd like to have, are in there.
JIM LEHRER: Well, let me ask a simple-minded question. Forget all of the complicated stuff that's in that reconciliation bill. Let's say that it does get to a point where the government of the United States shuts down. Who takes the heat for that, Mark?
MR. SHIELDS: Well, I think--I think at that point, the President, whoever the President is, has enormous advantage. The President has the bully pulpit of the office. The President has the right to go on the networks and make the case that I am the one person elected by everybody. And I think in that case he probably does. But I think it's a very high-risk strategy. I think it's in the interest, that you can make the case that it's in the self-interest of all three--of Bob Dole, who's a Presidential candidate, of Newt Gingrich who'd like to be one if Colin Powell doesn't run, and of Bill Clinton, who obviously is one, to make sure that it works, to show that they're not part--and their fingerprints aren't all over something that's really a tragedy.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree that nobody wins if the government shuts down?
MR. GIGOT: Well, it depends on how long it lasts and under what circumstances. It could go either way. But I agree with Mark. Everybody has an interest in doing a deal, which is why I think there will be one.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Susan, that the likelihood of the government shutting down is remote?
MS. DENTZER: I don't think it's even going to happen at all. I think that clearly we've come to this brink many times in the past and walked away from it. We'll do that again this time around. It's fairly obvious that we'll have another continuing resolution which, in effect, will extend the expending ability of the government for maybe another month or so while negotiations continue to take place between the Republicans and the White House and will probably extend the debt ceiling, at least on a temporary basis, so we can get past this fear of the government defaulting on the federal debt.
JIM LEHRER: History--
MS. DENTZER: It's the kind of thing that goes on again and again in Washington and will happen this time as well.
JIM LEHRER: You can change the names of the players and the faces but history does repeat itself on this--
MS. DENTZER: And the rhetoric switches from side to side.
JIM LEHRER: Okay, Mark. Let's go to the flip-flops. There were two of them. You mentioned the one that President Clinton did on taxes.
MR. SHIELDS: Okay. The President, for the second time in a week, went before a group of big rollers, high givers, big givers, however you want to put it, Democratic Party. He's raised, to his campaign's credit, $20 million, raised every nickel. He's kept everybody out of the race. But with the irresistible urge that has beset him on many occasions that has afflicted more politicians than not, he wanted to endure himself to the group in front of him. And to a group of big givers, he said, millionaires, I feel your pain, I feel your pain. Let me tell you, you poor guys, I had this tax increase in 1993, and you know, some people think I tax too much. I do. Now, Jim, this is a guy who fought tooth and toenail for every vote. He won it with a single Republican vote on Capitol Hill. Understand this. Understand this first of all, that the easiest vote in Washington in 1993 was the Republican vote, their vote not to cut any spending and not to impose any tax increase. Every vote had to come from the Democrats. He had to bend. They had to deal. Democrats, I mean, people who used to be on this program, I mean, Marjorie Margolis-Mezvinsky--
JIM LEHRER: A lot of them are home now.
MR. SHIELDS: They're now in private life because, because of that vote.
JIM LEHRER: Karen Shepherd, who was one of our freshmen--
MR. SHIELDS: Karen Shepherd, one of our people, and a terrific member from Utah. And so what happened was that everybody on the Hill now as they're going in this foxhole that Susan was describing, the Democrats against the Republicans, they're looking to say, wait a minute, where is this guy going to be? I mean, we walked the plank for him. We stood there, and out of nowhere this guy stands up and says, you know, the biggest thing in my administration where I cut the deficit three years in a row, where we kept inflation down, where we really did this, hadn't happened since Harry Truman they cut the deficit three years running, he said, you know, it really was a mistake.
JIM LEHRER: Paul, do you want to defend the President?
MR. GIGOT: I do as a matter of fact, sort of. Mark broke the code when he said these people are in private life. I mean, it may have been the tough vote, but it was also not the smart vote.
JIM LEHRER: Politically.
MR. GIGOT: The President does not want to be in private life in 1997, and he has to think about ideologically repositioning himself with a body politic which is taxophobic. It does not want tax increases.
JIM LEHRER: And he is just saying, I'm not one of those, meaning I'm not one of those Democrats.
MR. GIGOT: He's saying--he's saying--he's offering an explanation to the voters as he's leading up to '96 of the first two years that says, you know, remember that Bill Clinton who ran in 1992 on a middle class tax cut? I got into Washington, the Democrats were in Congress, they made me do it, I didn't have any Republican votes to help me on the spending side, so I had--I had to raise taxes more than I would have liked.
JIM LEHRER: Politically, is this a serious gaff the President has made, or is this a one-week story?
MR. GIGOT: No. I think it's going to show up in television ads right up to 1996.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of that, that's a cue. The Republicans, in fact, made an ad already about this. It's 15 seconds long, and they put it out this afternoon, and we're going to look at it right now.
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: (Republican Ad) Probably people are still made at me at that budget because you think I raised your taxes too much. It might surprise you to know that I think I raised them too much too.
AD SPOKESPERSON: Republicans agree. That's why we intend to keep our word and give middle class families a real tax cut.
JIM LEHRER: That's tough stuff, Mark.
MR. SHIELDS: Jim, I disagree, respectfully, with Paul. Bill Clinton's problem has never been ideological. It has always been one of character, reliability, dependability. That's why this hurts.
JIM LEHRER: That's why that commercial hurt him.
MR. SHIELDS: That's why it does. I mean, in other words, he said he believed it. He's the one that came up with the $359 billion in tax increases and then backed off on the BTU, but then--so here he is. He's vulnerable on the character--
JIM LEHRER: British Thermal Unit.
MR. SHIELDS: British Thermal Unit. He's vulnerable on the--he's vulnerable on the character issue, on the constancy, whether he's a guy to be counted on, and so you got Bob Dole to run against him, 36 years in the Congress. Whatever you say about Bob Dole, he's old shoe, he's an old suit. You know who he is. So what does he do? He seeks $1,000 from the--
JIM LEHRER: I was just going to get to that.
MR. SHIELDS: I got to tell you. I mean he made Clinton look like Mount Rushmore this way. He seeks $1,000 from a gay Republican group, Log Cabins, thanks him for it, then returns it after the Iowa Caucuses, where he runs neck and neck with or straw ballot, where he runs neck and neck with Phil Gramm and scared stiff the right wing is going to take him over. Now, he's apologizing for returning the money, and what does he do? A classic leadership position--blames it on his staff. I mean, these guys, don't they ever learn?
JIM LEHRER: Paul, what do you think about what Dole did?
MR. GIGOT: Well, he pulled a Clinton, to quote Don Quayle from the 1992 campaign. There's no question about it. I mean, the original decision was a campaign staff decision made--
JIM LEHRER: You mean to return the money?
MR. GIGOT: To return the money, and it was made for a strategic reason. They have long believed that the race for the Republican nomination will be a two-man race between Bob Dole and Phil Gramm, that Phil Gramm would use the gay issue in the South. I'm not saying whether it's smart enough. I'm saying that's what they thought, and they would use it in the South against Bob Dole. Now, you know, unfortunately the timing on that return of the check was awful in the summer, because it came after a series of moves that looked like he was moving, trying to pander to the right. But to turn around now, as Bob Dole did, on his own, with--the staff was not delighted with this--the campaign staff--kind of reinforces the pandering because it points more attention to him.
JIM LEHRER: And this blaming things on a staff, you know, that, that--that's kind of wearing thin on--when anybody does that--
MR. GIGOT: Well, he's going to take the heat for it, there's no question about it.
JIM LEHRER: Serious heat?
MR. GIGOT: Well, I mean, I don't think it reinforces--Bob Dole's biggest problem in the campaign right now with a lot of Republicans is, answer this question. Why do you want to be President? What is your reason for being President, other than that you think you're the next in line? Give us some vision. Give us some constancy. And this really underscores that, hurts that, because it makes it look as if he's just slip sliding, whatever direction the current votes are.
JIM LEHRER: Serious problem?
MR. SHIELDS: Serious problem, Jim, because what Washington has come to represent is finger shifting--finger pointing, blame shifting, and that's what this is. These guys, you know, there's no sense of history. Bay of Pigs, 1961, terrible botched invasion of Cuba by--as supported by the United States. It totally goes wrong. John Kennedy, new President, three months, comes out and says, my responsibility, it happened on my watch, success has many fathers, failures, and orphans. He goes to 83 percent in the polls. And Americans say, hey, finally--
JIM LEHRER: Well, look what happened to Janet Reno!
MR. SHIELDS: Janet Reno, same thing. Finally, somebody's willing to take responsibility, be accountable. And here you have Bob Dole. You think he'd know better. I mean, he just--you know, it really looked bad, and it looks worse, and a technical point for the campaign, Bob Dole in 1988 micromanaged his campaign. I mean, he'd get on the plane in the morning, he'd decide where they were going to fly that day. It looks like he's micromanaging his returning.
JIM LEHRER: Just politically, does it, in fact, hurt him with the Christian right and the people that Gramm is trying, trying to get from Dole?
MR. GIGOT: Oh, I think it does. I think it does, because it leads them to believe, well, you weren't serious before.
JIM LEHRER: Oh, I got you.
MR. GIGOT: And now when you get some other pressures, you just turn the other way. In the words of Marvin Olasky, Bob Dole is a walking political tactic, not a serious--
MR. SHIELDS: Paul Gigot, Paul Gigot wrote today that Phil Gramm couldn't beat Hillary Clinton, I mean, and that--I think that may be the most insightful thing I've ever heard out of Paul Gigot in at least 72 hours.
MR. GIGOT: One side of my brain is speaking, Mark.
MR. SHIELDS: The reality--the reality is they're basing a campaign about running against Phil Gramm. I mean, they ought to rethink that strategy.
JIM LEHRER: The reality is that we have to go. Susan, gentlemen, thank you very much.