SEPTEMBER 30, 1996
The NewsHour's regular group of regional commentators look back on the achievements and turmoil of the 104th Congress, and assess the coming elections. Elizabeth Farnsworth leads the discussion.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That views from our panel of regional commentators, Lee Cullum of the "Dallas Morning News," Patrick McGuigan of the "Daily Oklahoman,"Mike Barnicle of the "Boston Globe," and Clarence Page of the "Chicago Tribune. Joining them tonight is John Jacobs of the "Sacramento Bee." Thanks for being with us. Starting with you, Mike Barnicle, how effective in your view were the people, the four men in the debate last night, in presenting their respective party's views?
MIKE BARNICLE, Boston Globe: Well, Elizabeth, I was struck by the fact that they were all so civil with one another.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It seemed unusual to you, huh?
MR. BARNICLE: Yeah, it did, but, you know, it was like they had a playground monitor there-- Jim was there--in a school for unruly boys, and so they were going to be polite as long as the principal was present. And yet, when these debates conclude, they go out in the country and it looks like one of those Don King-Mike Tyson fight weigh-ins. They yell and scream and hurl epithets at one another and accuse each other and each party of doing ridiculous things. I, I don't really know how it came off in the country at large last night but you wonder. You're left with wondering why is it they can conclude so many bipartisan agreements in a few minutes with Jim Lehrer and yet, when they get going by themselves individually and as parties, nothing seems to get done.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: John Jacobs, what do you think? Were the differences between the parties highlighted?
JOHN JACOBS, Sacramento Bee: I thought they were highlighted. In fact, for someone viewing from outside of Washington looking in to see how the Democrats and Republicans differ on major issues and why one party or another should control Congress in the next session, I thought all four men managed to be quite eloquent about explaining their differences but doing so in a fairly civil and polite way, which I thought was beneficial.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Lee Cullum, do you agree with that? So far, two people have commented on the civility of the debate. Did it strike you the same way?
LEE CULLUM, Dallas Morning News: Yes, Elizabeth. It's unfortunate, isn't it, that we have to comment upon it as if it were some unusual phenomenal thing, but it is. And I thought it was wonderful, and I think that people watching the show last night appreciated it as much as I do. I can't imagine they didn't. You know, I sensed from that debate the parties moving closer together, each moving closer to the center. Both have been chastened, the Democrats two years ago, the Republicans by Dole's problems in the polls at the moment.
That certainly reflects on the Republicans in Congress, and it seems to me they are agreeing. They did pass a minimum wage bill together. They did pass a Kennedy-Kassebaum health care bill to allow you to take your health insurance with you if you moved to another job and to, uh, make it illegal for an insurance company to deny you coverage if you already have an illness. That was passed on a bipartisan basis. And we heard Dick Gephardt actually agree that we need a tax cut. He wants it allocated differently from the Republicans, but I thought I saw a new meeting ground in the center last night, and I think that bodes well for the country.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think about that, Clarence, a new meeting ground, or is it just because the playground monitor is there, and it's the debate?
CLARENCE PAGE, Chicago Tribune: I go with the playground monitor view. In fact, I'm in favor of electing Jim Lehrer President because he's the only one both sides trust. Not only do they--are both sides civil in his presence as far as the congressional leadership but now the presidential candidates want him to be their moderator at their debate too, and I can see why. The fact is, though, there are deep divisions between these parties. Watching again the tape of that debate last night, I was reminded of our past segment on the Israelis and the Palestinians. There are deep philosophical divisions here.
I heard last night--maybe I'm getting too cynical--but while--while everybody was smiling and the atmosphere was civil, they were really repeating the same political rhetoric they've been arguing for months. There was more political rhetoric than problem solving during that segment last night. Just one quick example. Newt Gingrich refers to the earned income tax credit as a government check like this is a handout, like it's welfare. The earned income tax credit is something that has gotten bipartisan support as a way for the working poor to be able to work the way off of welfare and, uh, make work pay. It's the kind of thing that should be getting bipartisan support but last night it became a low, rhetorical tool to make the other side look bad. The Democrats did the same thing.
They were talking about the government shutdown, getting all dewy-eyed, and the fact is I don't think they would have been nearly as contrite were it not for the fact that opinion polls showed the public overwhelmingly blames Republicans for the shutdown and, and then Newt Gingrich came back with his Dick Morris comment, bringing up the specter of Dick Morris. And there are a lot of little rhetorical tricks that were very good for bringing up positive and negative feelings in the audience, but there wasn't really a problem solving segment--section.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Pat McGuigan, what do you think, problem solving or mostly rhetoric? If people out in the country watched, did they get a really clear view of, of the two parties' approaches to governance?
PATRICK McGUIGAN, Daily Oklahoman: (Oklahoma City) Well, I'm always for civility and always for saying things in as kind and gentle, if you will, a way as you can to get your point across. I'm a little closer to Mike, though, when it comes to the political scene. I'd like to see some clarity and definition of views, and there was a little softening at the edges here; however, I must say the Democrats continued to push, however gently and civilly, class warfare rhetoric. It's as, almost as if the people who have managed to acquire some resources in this country, people who are already taxed at a high level, have become almost the enemy of the objectives of the Democratic Party.
And as Paul Tsongas pointed out in the 1992 campaign, that's a very faulted view because, after all, you have to have people with resources in order to continue to have a tax base. I would like to have seen Gingrich, in particular, come back a little stronger on that. I do think that Lott spoke in English. I'm--like the President--it was nice to hear somebody in the debate that doesn't speak with a funny accent but speaks like a Southerner. It was good television, and it was productive for voters that want to get a little more informed, but I think there was almost too much softening of the very clear differences that exist between these philosophies.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Pat, judging from the local races in Oklahoma, does--how do Oklahomans view the 104th Congress?
MR. McGUIGAN: Well—
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: From what you know about those races so far.
MR. McGUIGAN: --Gingrich is a figure of controversy, and that's very easy to understand because of the pummeling that he's taken particularly in the television media; however, in our congressional races, the Republicans have a decent chance of on the morning after the election having an eight to zero, two Senators, six Congressmen, an eight to zero clean sweep in the delegation. Now at least a couple of the races are very competitive, so that might not come true, but the Republicans are doing pretty well at the congressional level in Oklahoma, and there's chances for decent gains by the Republicans in the state house, probably not in the Senate, because of the gerrymandering that's been done to the state senate districts. So that's a quick snapshot. The Republicans are continuing to increase their strength politically in Oklahoma, but the Democrats, who still have the registration advantage, are in a position to thwart some of their hopes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How about in your area, Clarence, is there any race that's a real microcosm of the issues that were debated last night?
MR. PAGE: Well, we certainly are looking closely at how Sen. Paul Simon's seat, where Al Salvy, the Republican conservative scored an upset against the organization endorsed candidate in the primary, he's been trailing Dick Durbin, the Democrat, now for the general election. Mike Flanigan, who scored an upset against Dan Rostenkowski two years ago, has been trailing now in the race to be reelected. Democrats were looking good in ‘90 and ‘94, Republicans took over the state legislature in Illinois this year--are looking at possibly Democrats taking back at least one House. So we're seeing a swing in the area in favor of Democrats right now. But of course, this is all if the election were held tomorrow, which it is not. We will see.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: John Jacobs, what about in your area, any swing?
MR. JACOBS: Well, there are a lot of contested congressional races, one on the North coast between Republican Frank Riggs, an incumbent, and Macala Aliota, a young Democrat challenger, another one on the South coast in the Santa Barbara area between Andrea Seastrand, a first-term Contract with America freshman, versus a man who almost beat her two years ago named Walter Capps, and there are others up and down the coast. I think one of the reasons why you saw so much civility last night is that the Democrats have a chance at picking up some seats, and the reason why they do is because people were put off by some of the rhetorical and legislative excesses of the 104th Congress.
You didn't hear a word in the debate last night, for example, about the Contract with America. And I found it remarkable that, that Gingrich even in the segment that you showed talked about how he has learned something in this process of being Speaker. This man is an historian of American politics, and the idea that he didn't know or it didn't occur to him that a President from a different party could veto his program and use it--a shutdown of the government I found kind of extraordinary. But it is those kind of obstructionist tactics and rhetorical excesses that I think has endangered some of his Republicans in California.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Lee Cullum, what about taxes, what are you seeing from the local races there? How's the 104th Congress viewed? We don't have a lot of time.
MS. CULLUM: Well, Elizabeth, a poll showed that 53 percent of Texans approve of the Republican Congress. Only 41 percent are favoring Dole at the moment. He's even with Clinton in Texas. The President came to Texas this last weekend to try to use those figures to bolster Democratic races, but I think there's pretty solid approval, at least 53 percent worth of approval in Texas at the moment of a GOP 104th Congress.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So the race is--it is--it has become--it affects everything in the local races too, the kinds of issues that were debated last night?
MS. CULLUM: Oh, yes, yes, without question. The two big issues that emerged last night are taxes and Medicare. I do think that Gingrich was courageous to bring up Medicare, given the way Republicans have suffered over that issue. But those are the two big issues. How to cut taxes, how to cut the growth of Medicare at the same time, that's the Republican challenge, and the Democrats, I think, are going to rise to that challenge in one way or another, and I think they're going to have to work at it together.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Lee, what do you think that the, the drama and the events of the past two years in Congress say about the way the American political system works at this moment? Does it show that the checks and balances work just great, or what does it show?
MS. CULLUM: Well, I think it shows a public that is paying attention, at least a voting public. The public got upset with the Democrats and made that very clear two years ago. They've been unhappy with Republicans. They're making that clear now in the presidential polls and in congressional polls around the country. I don't know that we know exactly what the public wants. I think the public wants stability. I think the public wants a gradual approach to change, and I--that's why I think we're going to see this move to the middle ground. I think it's being absolutely mandated by the voting public. They don't like the swings to the left and to the right, that, that the two parties have been advocating in the past.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mike Barnicle, what do you think? What is this--all the drama, everything that's happened in the past two years with the Republican Congress, say about the American political system at this juncture? A big question, I know.
MR. BARNICLE: That is a huge question, and, of course, I have an answer for it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I figured you might.
MR. BARNICLE: I think--you know, I don't think people change from congressional election to congressional election. I think people want stability in their family lives, they want health care for their, for their children and for their elderly parents. They want to be able to send their kids to the corner store without them thinking that they're going to be--risk getting mugged or perhaps kidnaped. They want all of those safe, sensible things, and they want these two political parties to be behave safely and sensibly, and perform like normal human beings, the way we have to perform in our jobs, and not just go ranting and raving and throwing rocks at one another, and, and bickering over the slightest political issue and turning everything into a huge fight. We can't live that way. We don't want our elected officials to behave that way in office.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Mike and all the rest of you, thanks for being with us.