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How It Played: The President’s Address to a Joint Session of Congress

February 28, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And now the thoughts of Brooks and Oliphant– David Brooks of the “Weekly Standard” and Tom Oliphant of the “Boston Globe.” Those in Denver seem to understand what it’s about, do they not?

TOM OLIPHANT: Indeed there is more of that in our polity today than I think politicians in Washington realize. The reality is that the strongest sense that I get from listening to a group discussion like that is this desire to kind of talk this through… the proposals are sort of… and not have one side trying to ram it through, the other side trying to block it. There really is a desire to have a national conversation.

DAVID BROOKS: I think in this group, it divides really neatly along party lines. We have… Democrats really understand this issue. Republicans really understand tax cuts. These are issues, a bigger issue than we have had in five or six years and much more ideological really.

TOM OLIPHANT: One of the things I hear is that from each side there are recognitions that the other side has a point, and I think that’s where the tone is different compared to, say, 20 years ago or one year ago.

JIM LEHRER: How close are we then to having a tax cut, a $1.6 trillion tax cut?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t know if it will be 1.6 (trillion dollars), but I think we are pretty close. I’ve been trying to characterize the cleverness of this budget. The only phrase is principled Republican Clintonism.

JIM LEHRER: Wait a minute, say that again, slowly.

DAVID BROOKS: “Principled Republican Clintonism.” It starts with this Clintonite gambit by saying as Bush said last night we’ve got to leave behind the old debate about small government versus big government. And then he boasts about the big spending programs– record spending in the Department of Education, spending on character education, spending on something called the federal compassion fund — $700 million. Why don’t we have a federal jealousy fund – a federal tax credit for politeness? So that is in there, but then married to a pretty traditional Republican tax cut plan. So it is sort of Clintonite in its reconciliation of right and left, but with a big principled tax cut when you wrap it up a clever way to redefine and capture the political center in a way that I think last night left the Democrats looking a little strident, a little partisan, the way the Republicans used to do when Clinton did it.

TOM OLIPHANT: I don’t think we are that close.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think of his terminology, by the way?

TOM OLIPHANT: Warm and generous and civil and indication that things really have changed. That is right. No, because, one thing, those of us who hit from the left side of the plate need to recognize is that in some ways this proposal comes out of a big hole in the Democratic Party thinking last year. I mean, Al Gore never really saw these surpluses coming or didn’t really react to them quickly enough. The economy did slow down; at least we know that — so there is a need right there. There is a void out of which a proposal that even though Bush made it way back in 1999, that makes it seem fresh. However, in making policy, tax policy, process and details, the inside game, ultimately becomes the outside game if there is trouble with the arithmetic or trouble with the math. We’ve seen that with Clinton’s health care plan, we saw it with Reagan’s budget 20 years ago. And that is why I think despite the misleading things that will happen in the House in the next ten days to two weeks, this thing has a way to go before the political system can deal with it.

DAVID BROOKS: I would say the weakness of Bush so far in the presentation, he almost presented the Democratic tax plan better than the Republican tax plan. He had that family from Pennsylvania. Well, the Democrats can hold those people – the waitress making $25,000. The Democrats can help those people. The things he basically avoided last night was why the top rate for the richest people should come down 39% to 33%. There are good reasons, but he didn’t articulate them very well or why we shouldn’t have a target to make sure the money is there. And he really needs to give, get into the nuts and bolts and give Republican arguments on those points.

JIM LEHRER: Meanwhile, what do the Democrats do? I mean, you heard what David just said. They came over a little strident last night. Do you agree with that? Is that the way they must go now?

TOM OLIPHANT: David is absolutely right in terms of the contrast between Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle on the one hand and President Bush on the other last night. I think, however, though, a certain partisan tinge to this discussion has permeated all of Washington today. I think you noticed it a few minutes ago in Mitch Daniels, who certainly had his Wheaties this morning. I think again, despite what is about to happen in the House, they are going to ram this thing though.

JIM LEHRER: They really are. That is moving.

TOM OLIPHANT: Not only that. They are going to cut off amendments. There won’t be any discussion to speak of. It will tend to inflame the atmosphere. But everything we have heard from the Senate in the last three… virtually everything indicates not no, not roadblock, but caution. Les see. The Republican reactions interest me more than the Democratic ones. Pete Domenici wants to do more on the spending side than George Bush does. You can’t attack Pete Domenici as a liberal. John McCain is about to weigh in on taxes. He is an agnostic on size. And pretty much…

JIM LEHRER: He doesn’t care whether it’s 1.6…

TOM OLIPHANT: He is not sure the case has been made. And he has the same concerns he expressed in his campaign about the distribution of the benefits.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s step back from the specific proposals for a moment. Generally what did you think of the way the President handled himself as the President of the United States, the new President one month in talking to the country and the joint session?

DAVID BROOKS: He was good. These events are like dual pep rallies, with who is going to applaud, who’s going to applaud – you know, Bush was a cheerleader. He is good at the playful aspect. The presentation was very good. We know over two years I’ve been wrong about Bush, underestimating him all the way along. I like to think I’m only wrong two years at a time, so I’m sick of underestimating him. We know when he prepares for a speech, and can prepare, practice at the teleprompter, he gives a good speech. He has never not given a good speech at a big event like this, and Republicans are feeling extraordinarily good.

TOM OLIPHANT: I think the success was even greater than that for another reason. One of the things that this knew White House has shown is that you can take the square peg of conservative government and fit it into the round hole of centrist rhetoric, and you can also take President Bush and have him sound presidential delivering presidential thoughts, and having crossed that threshold… I mean, you can’t have the expectations on the floor anymore, but clearly he is in the game.

JIM LEHRER: Do you, either of you or both of you feel the spirit of cooperation and bipartisan and civility disappearing? Or what is your reading? I’d like a prediction please.

DAVID BROOKS: It’s going to last six and a half more days. It’s strong in the Bush approach. There really is, you know, this Clintonite reconciling of left and right. Although I watched it at a party with a bunch of Republicans… shows how sick Washington is. We have parties for this kind of thing. And I must say they stepped lightly through the Federal Compassion Fund, so when the tax cuts were mentioned, it was cheering. And I think on the Democrats, there was the same sort of submerged partisanship.

TOM OLIPHANT: This process stuff is going to destroy the bipartisan mood in the House very quickly, but I think it’s very alive and very real in the Senate because of the 50/50 split and because there is no way either side can get everything.

JIM LEHRER: Also, the point you made in the very beginning — those folks in Denver– if they are representative of the folks in the rest of country– they are sick of partisan bickering and they are ready to talk, and so maybe their representatives are, too.

DAVID BROOKS: Ultimately, there is a real issue, is the money there. That is, what we saw from Kent Conrad and Mitch Daniels.

JIM LEHRER: Is there?

DAVID BROOKS: My opinion in 1995 productivity shot up. It’s going to shoot up for ten years. The money is there.

TOM OLIPHANT: I found it right here.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you both very much.