|WAR OF WORDS|
May 13, 1999
Presidential hopefuls are beginning to take stands on the Yugoslavia conflict. After a background report, two journalists covering the campaigns discuss the candidates and their positions.
MARGARET WARNER: We're joined by two reporters who've been out covering many of the candidates since the Kosovo conflict began: Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times, and Dan Balz of the Washington Post. Dan, how much impact do you really think the Kosovo conflict is having on this early stage of campaign?
|A defining issue.|
DAN BALZ: I think that what we can see is where voters are beginning to pay attention or where voters are seeing candidates, it's having some impact. And we can see that in New Hampshire where John McCain, who has been perhaps the most outspoken of all the candidates on this subject, has actually moved demonstrably in the polls. He's doubled his numbers. It's a small move -- seven to 14. But it shows that among people who are looking and listening to the candidates, they are weighing this as part of it.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you find when you're out on the campaign trail, Ron, that voters are asking about it, asking the candidates?
RON BROWNSTEIN: I think along with the tragedy in Littleton, it's one of the two things that is shaping the environment in the early stage of race. And I think you are seeing - as the polls tell us -- both parties divided, both in their leadership and at the grass roots. On the Republican side, John McCain is moving up more out of a sense that he is being decisive and demonstrating leadership, rather than broad-based support in the party for an escalation of the conflict. There's a lot of division there. And on the Democratic side, I think you are slowly seeing a reassertion of this traditional reluctance to use military force abroad on the left that was largely suppressed at the outset of this conflict. And Bill Bradley is sort of beginning to reflect that.
MARGARET WARNER: Dan, there's been a lot of articles talking about well, this is showing a fault line in the Republican Party. I mean, there's so many candidates, it's hard to keep them all straight. But is there kind of a clear division that you can see?
DAN BALZ: There is. I mean, there is a clear division between what you would call the internationalist wing of the party and the isolationist wing of the party. And, on the internationalist side, what McCain has had to say he puts in clearly in that camp. George W. Bush is in that arena, as is Elizabeth Dole. Pat Buchanan is clearly the leader of the isolationist wing. But there are others involved in that as well. So, there is a clear division among the Republicans. And you've also seen it in Congress in the votes in the House two weeks ago or three weeks ago when the House wouldn't even endorse the air war that was already ongoing. You could see that there were divisions among Republicans there.
|Candidates of the center and the right.|
RON BROWNSTEIN: You know, there is a point of view, a pretty widespread point of view in the Republican Party that there are almost parallel primaries going on -- a primary of the center and a primary of the right, where each side -- each wing is trying to produce a champion that will meet sort of like the NCAA playoffs in the ultimate final. And this is almost a litmus test, this really has become a litmus test within those individual primaries. Every one of the major conservative candidates, except for Steve Forbes has opposed the bombing. And every one of them, without fail, opposes ground troops. On the other side, almost all of the centrist candidates have supported the bombing and the three leaders - McCain, Dole, and Bush -- are talking about ground troops. So you really have two separate competitions going on in the Republican Party right now on this.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, George W. Bush was criticized for his initial reaction. Explain that. We ran a little bit of it. But what was wrong in the view of many in the party about his early statements?
DAN BALZ: There are two criticisms of Governor Bush from the beginning. One is that he was slower than other Republican candidates to stake out his position. His people say that's not quite fair. But most Republicans believe it to be the case. Second, he was somewhat tentative about being very clear in terms of his views. The ground troop issue is a good example of that. When he first talked about ground troops, he did it in the context of being very cautious about it, said he had real reservations about it. Since then, he has toughened progressively. In recent weeks, he has said very clearly that it was a big mistake to rule out ground troops from the beginning. But he was not that clear about ground troops in the first couple of days.
MARGARET WARNER: But maybe not a total surprise since he has no experience in foreign policy.
RON BROWNSTEIN: Well, I think the real reason it caused a problem for Bush was partially what you say, that he does not have experience in foreign policy. And that's one of the areas where people are going to be looking at him very closely, is to see if he can perform at this level, but also because earlier in the primary season, he had some trouble answering questions about abortion. And this sort of became another in a list of issues in which he seemed to be stumbling a little bit, raising some questions really, the big question, is he ready for prime time? So, it was more on that line than on the specifics of what he was saying, that this raised a problem. As Dan said, he has moved very much toward the McCain position of, if we are in this, we have to win.
|A leadership question.|
MARGARET WARNER: So, in other words, as with McCain, it's more how assertively and confidently you assert a position and look like a leader than your position that seems to matter.
DAN BALZ: I think that's right. I mean, a lot of what people are doing at this point is looking at these candidates, not for all the policy positions or all the details of their policies but what kind of a leader are they. How strong are they? How decisive are they? How much do they know their own mind? And I think that those are the kinds of things that come through in this. There's a lot of gradations of this policy and a lot of confusion about it for the average person to figure that out with 11 or 12 candidates, it's impossible. But they can get clues to these candidates by looking at those leadership questions.
RON BROWNSTEIN: Of course, given the divisions in the party on this, it's not clear that will play out that way all the way through the end. If this turns sour, more sour than it is already, it's entire likely that some of the conservatives will attack the McCains and Bush for the substance of their position by the time the voters actually go to the polls next year.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, now, what about Elizabeth Dole, speaking of leadership? It's a truism - and it's borne out in the polls -- that when voters are thinking of a commander in chief, they don't usually think of a woman unless you're Maggie Thatcher. How has Elizabeth Dole thought about that?
DAN BALZ: Well, the first thing she did was she was the - she was over there very quickly to the refugee camps to show herself in the middle of the refugees. The second thing she did was she gave speech at the Naval Academy in which she was very tough in her rhetoric about winning the war, the use of ground troops if NATO commanders said that was the right thing to do, she said by all means, we should do it. She has taken a fairly hawkish position to overcome doubts that a woman can handle that.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let's turn to the democrats now. I mean, is this Al Gore's war, as much as it is President Clinton's war? In other words, is he completely tied to this policy?
RON BROWNSTEIN: I think absolutely. I mean, if you look at a general election, if you can get that far, certainly, the most important thing for Al Gore is voters wanting to basically maintain the same direction that the country has been moving in under Bill Clinton -- anything that causes that into question, and obviously a bad result in Kosovo would very much call that into question, is very harmful for him. In the primary, it is emerging as one of the distinctions between him and Senator-- Former Senator Bradley. As on many things, Bradley has not entirely specified his position here in all the detail. But as you saw in his original reaction, using a very charged, very specific Vietnam-era word of quagmire, he is mostly reflecting doubt. He criticizes President Clinton for not ruling out ground troops and also says we shouldn't have ground troops in there. He said the other day on the Don Imus program that you might consider a bombing pause. And he has talked about the need to move toward a negotiated settlement. So, he is reflecting some of that traditional skepticism here that is gradually bubbling back up after being quite suppressed at the outset o this conflict.
|The reluctant candidate.|
|DAN BALZ: My sense is that Bill Bradley has a lot more to
say than he has said. He's thought a lot about it. When you talk to him,
you can't quite draw him out, but you know there's something there to
get. When I talked to him a few weeks ago about it, it was clear that
he was very worried about what this will do the US-Russia relationship
which I think he believes is much more important in the long term than
the US in the Balkans.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think he -- is he trying to use it - for instance when he's out on the trail - is he trying to use it to really define himself against Vice President Gore?
DAN BALZ: No, and in fact, quite the opposite. That's one of the frustrating things for reporters who are trying to get more information from Bill Bradley about position on something like this. I asked him why he would not say more about it and he said "Look, I don't have a vote. I'm not a policy maker at this point."
RON BROWNSTEIN: He says "I don't have the intelligence information."
MARGARET WARNER: George W. Bush said himself -
RON BROWNSTEIN: But I think Dan is absolutely right that Bradley-- it's not that he's out there leading with this. You really have to pull it out of him. And it's almost entirely from questions from the audience and from reporters where he talks about it at all.
MARGARET WARNER: So, what do you think it will take to have either Kosovo or foreign policy really be a defining issue when 2000 rolls around?
DAN BALZ: Well, if we are still involved militarily in Kosovo, it will be an issue. If we have ground troops in Kosovo at that point, it will very much be an issue. If it has gone terribly sour, it will be very much an issue. There are very few outcomes at this point look like they're going to be triumphant in the way the Gulf War looked at the end of the Gulf War. The question is how long this involvement goes on and how quickly if we get a resolution to this, we can move on from it.
RON BROWNSTEIN: I would not be surprised - as I said before -- to see the substance of the positions of the internationalist and the Republican Party become a point of debate before it is over if there is anything but a triumphant outcome. I think there is a lot of conservative antipathy toward this whole action - a lot of resistance to it, sort of a resurgence of America thinking in which there's an argument that we need to build up our military and simultaneously use it less. And I think that there are a lot of people in the Republican Party itching for that argument against George W. Bush, Elizabeth Dole, and John McCain.
|Foreign policy in a post-Cold War world.|
|MARGARET WARNER: But it's been a truism since the end of
the Cold War and the 1992 election-- with the Cold War over, foreign policy
is not a voting issue.
DAN BALZ: I think that's right. In most elections, it has not been. And it's only when we are in a difficult foreign policy environment, when it becomes an issue, Vietnam being the most obvious example of that. If we are in that kind of situation, obviously, it becomes significant.
RON BROWNSTEIN: And, certainly, Al Gore very much wants this to be over, wants people's attention to turn back toward the good news and the economy, crime, welfare, some of the social trends, and push back that sense of general satisfaction with the direction of the country, which ultimately is the most important factor in his ability to get elected President.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thanks, Ron and Dan.