Assessing George Bush
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MARGARET WARNER: For a further assessment of the Ashcroft confirmation and the beginning of the new Bush presidency, we turn to four editorial page editors: Patrick McGuigan of the Daily Oklahoman, Susan Albright of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Rachelle Cohen of the Boston Herald, and Frank Burgos of the Philadelphia Daily News.
Pat McGuigan, beginning with you. The Ashcroft confirmation: Big victory for this new presidency?
PATRICK McGUIGAN: Well, of course. The president had to endure a lot more obstacles, if you will, on this nomination than President Clinton did on his Attorney General nominee. In fact, Janet Reno, even though she was quite liberal and inexperienced, got unanimous confirmation, 98-0. Ashcroft gained a 58-42 confirmation, even though he was quite experienced, prepared for the job but conservative. And that was the principal objection to him. But he’s there; he’s on the job.
MARGARET WARNER: Susan Albright, how do you see it in terms of both the process and also whether this is a plus for this new administration?
SUSAN ALBRIGHT: Yes, it’s a qualified plus, I would say. He certainly won, and that is good. But he also was subjected to a lot of criticism, and I think there are really two messages that came out of that process: One is that even the Democrats are willing to give the new president a little bit of free rein even on a nomination that they disagree with, many of them. But, two, that they can muster votes against someone, and I think it’s a signal for when he might be naming nominees for the Supreme Court, for example.
MARGARET WARNER: Rachelle Cohen, what is the process by which he was confirmed and the fact that he did make it finally, though a lot of– lot of Democrats voted against him. What does that say to you about this new presidency?
RACHELLE COHEN: Well, I agree completely that this wasn’t entirely about the Ashcroft nomination. The Ashcroft nomination was also about the Supreme Court and upcoming Supreme Court nominations. And it doesn’t necessarily bode well that the Democrats were indeed able to muster that magic number. They proved what they needed to prove, which is that they can marshal a filibuster against any future nominee, Supreme Court nominee, in this anticipated case, if they so chose, especially if it’s someone of the conservative leanings of an Ashcroft.
So yes, he got through, and he got through in reasonably short order, certainly compared to the Clinton debacle with Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood. But the Democrats also proved their case, that they’ve got an awful lot of clout and they have their agenda.
MARGARET WARNER: Frank Burgos, on balance, was this a smart choice, do you think, of President Bush to choose John Ashcroft?
FRANK BURGOS: Well, what would have been a very smooth transition, I think, or a very successful one has hit a bump here. They were only able to get eight Democrats over to their side in confirming John Ashcroft. And one of the Democrats, Chris Todd, it was a very muted endorsement. It was basically saying, “I’m not going to do to John Ashcroft what the Republicans have been doing to our nominees for the last eight years.” So I would imagine that the Bush administration is celebrating right now, but it must be a very muted celebration.
MARGARET WARNER: Pat McGuigan, what about that point that it is a bump in the road or that it did sort of fly in the face of this reaching out and this bipartisanship and this new tone that the president said he was bringing to Washington and, by many accounts, he’s been quite successful at in many ways?
PATRICK McGUIGAN: I think he’s made an excellent start, and in fact I’d probably give him a B+ so far. What George Bush is showing is that you can be civil and be conservative. Now, this is not a remarkable proposition to people who have watched him perform in Texas, nor is it a remarkable idea to conservatives in general. But apparently this is regarded as a concept, I think somewhat facetiously there in the nation’s capital. George Bush has made a good start. He kept faith with a key constituency by picking a strong, clear, committed, principled conservative as his Attorney General — the man has been confirmed by the Senate, and I believe he’ll make an outstanding member of the president’s team.
MARGARET WARNER: So Susan Albright, do you see this reaching out as simply a matter of style, or do you also see substance? Do you see a flexibility on the president’s part in substance ways, on priorities?
SUSAN ALBRIGHT: So far, I would say we have not seen much in the way of policies. Most of it has been rhetorical. In other words, his inauguration speech was quite good. Our page complimented him on it. But in terms of content, the only thing I would point to that I think shows some movement would be his backing off from vouchers somewhat and instead, moving toward deductions or credits for private education. So I think the jury is out on that. I don’t see a whole lot of movement in terms of being bipartisan in a policy sense.
MARGARET WARNER: But Rachelle Cohen, there’s been a lot of comment here in Washington that, if you look at the issues he chose to focus on, they’re all issues you’d think Democrats would focus on, education, charities, albeit it faith-based charities, prescription drugs for seniors. I mean how do you read all that?
RACHELLE COHEN: Well, I think that here is a politician, imagine this, a politician who campaigned on a set of issues and who is now actually rolling them out one by one. I really couldn’t disagree more with Susan. I think we’ve seen a remarkable two weeks. The education plan really is out there, and it’s quite comprehensive.
And when you get someone like our own Senator Ted Kennedy saying, “I may disagree with the Ashcroft nomination, but there is an awful lot to be said, we have a tremendous commonalty of interests on something like the education proposal.” I think that speaks well not just to the Bush priorities, but to the Bush priorities as they relate to this reaching out effort. I think you’ll see some of the same things come to bear on prescription drugs.
This may not end up as the Bush prescription drug plan, but I think he is certainly set the agenda on that issue. And he is playing both to his own constituency and to the pressing need of Democratic politicians who are also looking for some developments on things like education and prescription drugs.
MARGARET WARNER: Frank Burgos, what do you make of the way he’s put out these proposals and the fact that he, on all three of them, he’s hinted, “Well, this my idea, but I’m willing to listen to others?” How do you read that?
FRANK BURGOS: Well, he’s just facing reality. I mean let’s look at the sort of big things that have happened over the last two weeks: Prescription drugs, he’s getting a tepid response from Congress. Education package, he’s realizing now that there are some key Republicans and Republican supporters who don’t like vouchers, don’t like the idea of inner city kids going to big suburban schools.
And realizing that there are Republicans out in the rural areas who suddenly realized that vouchers aren’t going to help them because they don’t have private, you know, schools to go to. And on energy, California gave him an opportunity to take a real activist or a really good stance there, and basically what he told California is what Ford told New York, you know, “Drop dead, you’re on your own.”
So in terms of substance, I would have to give President Bush for the first two weeks just a C grade. In terms of style, though, it’s been a B. We’ve had guys who’ve been waiting to get into the White House for eight years, so it’s not surprising that you’ve got very experienced people coming in managing a very, very smooth transition.
MARGARET WARNER: Pat McGuigan, what do you make of the style question or his leadership qualities? And I know two weeks is awfully soon, but again, there are lots of… lot of comments on the Hill from people saying, “I got there for the meeting and the meeting actually started early.” There are a lot of comparisons being made.
PATRICK McGUIGAN: Well, I think several things. One thing to keep in mind is this is a guy who, when he became governor in Texas, inherited a pretty difficult situation in the legislature, dealt mostly with Democrats and to some extent that’s still true. The Democrats have a very strong presence in the legislature. Like many of the other of majority of American governors who are Republican, he’s dealt with an eclectic mix of issues, and education has been a top priority for him. So it’s no surprise that, just as he promised in the campaign, that’s one of his key initial policy thrusts.
I give Bush not only good marks for style, but also for substance. And I find some of the dismissive remarks about his education package in particular kind of surprising because this is a very solid set of proposals with broad support, and his commitment on vouchers is to have a mechanism that’s real to force accountability into the public system. I think it’s laudable. If anything, I think he’s put it off a little too long in terms of the trigger date being six years instead of earlier.
MARGARET WARNER: Susan Albright, it sounds as if some of your colleagues disagree with you about how much heft there is to all of this.
SUSAN ALBRIGHT: Well, I think it’s paying off very well for him that he has chosen establishment… experienced people with to work with him. There’s no question that this transition has been much cleaner, much neater than the last ones that Clinton had. And so I think he’s done fine in many ways, and I think a lot of it does remain to be seen.
Take, for example, the new initiative he has on faith-based and other community people taking over some of the social services. Our paper is not editorially inalterably opposed to this by any means, but it all kind of depends on where he goes with it. In the past, when we’ve had religious groups giving social services, they’ve followed clear guidelines under which they’re not actually preaching or trying to convert or using religion in the treatment of drug addiction or whatever itself. President Bush seems to have some interest in moving that line and in going to a kind of system in which perhaps the religious message is part of the treatment.
So I think a lot of it depends on where the proposals go. I think that’s true in education, in the tax cuts and so forth.
MARGARET WARNER: So Rachelle Cohen, back to the new president himself, does he strike you as a person who’s going to be able to not just roll out these ideas, but really make them happen, given the division of power in this city now?
RACHELLE COHEN: Well, that’s where the issue of style and symbolism comes in. And there is a lot to be said for his efforts to reach out. Tonight, for example, the Senator — Ted Kennedy and other members of the Kennedy clan are going to be munching popcorn in the White House screening room watching 13 Days. This may not be a great effort to bring one of the most liberal members of the U.S. Senate into line on a whole variety of issues on which there may or may not be agreement, but the style points, the symbolism of reaching out to the Kennedys in general, to other liberal members of the Senate, is… I think speaks well of the man and of his efforts to get a program through — similar effort with members of the Black Caucus on Capitol Hill and with a number of black ministers with whom he’s already met. This is what he needs to do. He knows that. He knows the margin in the Senate for his party is whisker thin and dependent on the continued good health of Senator Strom Thurmond, 98 years old. So he is making an effort to reach out, and I think he’s doing a darn good job of it so far.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, well, thank you, all four very much.