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GWEN IFILL: For more on the presidential race and what the candidates themselves are talking about, we’re joined by three veteran political journalists: David Broder of the Washington Post, Elizabeth Arnold of National Public Radio; and David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register.
David Yepsen, one of the big issues which kept coming up in our survey — the people who wrote us — was campaign finance reform, yet in conventional polls it really doesn’t register at all. Where is the disconnect there?
DAVID YEPSEN: Well, I think you hear a lot about campaign finance from activists, from people who have an agenda in this game. Secondly, I think candidates do talk a fair amount about campaign finance reform. You may not like what they have to say, but they do talk about it. And the third thing is, I don’t think any of us really believe these politicians when they do talk about the issues. So, even though they’re talking about the issue, I think they may have some credibility problems on it.
GWEN IFILL: You’re talking about the candidates having credibility problems, not the people who are bringing it up?
DAVID YEPSEN: Yes. The candidates do. I mean, we’ve all seen Newt Gingrich and President Clinton shake hands, and I think there’s an underlying feeling here that voters and I know reporters have that nothing is going to happen on this issue. Money has been around politics for a long time, there are some serious First Amendment questions connected with campaign finance reform. So the frustration that I think a lot of people feel is that nothing is really going to happen on this question.
GWEN IFILL: Dave Broder, you saw that list of things that people say they find important. What is missing from that list in your mind?
DAVID BRODER: The biggest thing that’s missing, I think, although it may be implied, is the question of the character of the next president. This election is taking place in the shadow of a great White House scandal. And one of the things that all of the candidates, I think, are attempting to do, Gwen, is to convince the people that they would not embarrass the country, would not embarrass parents again by their behavior if they are lucky enough to win the White House.
GWEN IFILL: Elizabeth, you’ve been traveling with all of these candidates, and one of the things that comes up in polls as well as face to face is this issue of education. But everyone is not talking about education in exactly the same way, are they?
ELIZABETH ARNOLD: No, they aren’t. I would add, though, that just as the piece showed, there’s really no one salient issue. There’s no one overarching, decisive, determining issue that would make a voter choose Candidate A over Candidate B. If you had to lump them altogether, I’d say education, family issues, education and health care. And in education it’s about quality, it’s about safety in schools, it’s about the cost of secondary education. Under health care, it’s about who makes the decisions, and also, I would really stress the importance of the cost of prescription drugs. That just comes up wherever you go. But, as David said, there really is no overarching theme, just as important and just as salient as this wide array of issues that we heard tonight, is this notion of the people bring up of wanting a leader who has candor, who has character, who has integrity, the things that people see missing in President Clinton. That comes up quite a bit.
GWEN IFILL: What about, Elizabeth, what about abortion? That is one of those issues which we write about a lot and which we hear about a lot, and which candidates feel they have to answer the questions about. But that doesn’t seem to come up when you ask voters.
ELIZABETH ARNOLD: Well, just as important as the issues that do come up are the issues that don’t come up. And Republicans, Governor Bush in particular, have done a very good job of not bringing up these sort of hot-button divisive issues within their party — gun control I’d add as well. Abortion is another one. Interestingly, Gwen, when I talk to women, particularly elderly women, they’re pleased that Governor Bush is not talking about abortion. They don’t want to know specifically where he is in abortion. They’re happy that he is not making abortion a political issue.
GWEN IFILL: David Yepsen, this idea of economic insecurity that one of the people we talked to brought up, at a time of an economic boom, is that something that resonates in Iowa?
DAVID YEPSEN: Yes, it is. I think the question about rural America is — it was brought up by one of your viewers in South Dakota — it is very relevant. The country is in an enormous period of prosperity — that is not true in much of rural America. So there is economic uncertainty there. Having said that, though, Gwen, I think we’re having this election against the backdrop of a great amount of prosperity. The country is at peace. Americans are very cynical and — about politics, thanks to Watergate, and Vietnam and now President Clinton’s conduct in office — that there are just enormous numbers of people who are simply tuned out of the whole thing entirely. It’s either irrelevant to their lives or they’re disgusted by the whole process.
GWEN IFILL: So, they’re not paying attention to either horse-race issues or issue-issues.
DAVID YEPSEN: No, unfortunately not.
GWEN IFILL: David Broder, today in — I believe in Des Moines and in New Hampshire, George Bush kind of trotted out his latest big-time endorsement — that’s Elizabeth Dole, who said he was her kind of conservative Republican. Endorsements being what they are, what difference does this one make?
DAVID BRODER: I think it’s helpful, but only on the margins. I had lunch today with somebody that I guess we should call a senior Bush strategist here in New Hampshire. And the point that he made is that the voters in this state and in Dave Yepsen’s state of Iowa have so much personal exposure to the candidates that they make their own judgments. I would say, however, and Dave Yepsen can correct me on this, I would guess that endorsement that Governor Bush received today from Senator Chuck Grassley in Iowa may be more important in Iowa than the blessing from Elizabeth Dole.
GWEN IFILL: Is that true, David Yepsen?
DAVID YEPSEN: I think so. I think they’re both important, because one of the things I asked him was, what are they going to do this with endorsement? And both the Bush campaign — Governor Bush told me and Senator Grassley told me — that Elizabeth Dole and Chuck Grassley are going to be in here working for these candidates. Elizabeth Dole can do George W. Bush some good if she comes back all over the country and reaches out to particularly those young women who weresupportive of her candidacy and says, look, it’s important to stay in this process. I think the same is true with Senator Grassley in this state. He is a political icon. And David Broder is correct, it is worth a lot to have Chuck Grassley in your corner in an Iowa Republican primary fight.
GWEN IFILL: Elizabeth Arnold, we undertook this project of Agenda 2000 as a way of trying to find out what people actually wanted to hear candidates talk about. Do you see the evidence out there on the campaign trail that they are listening and talking about these issues? Or are they deciding whatever it is they want to talk about and forcing it down the voters’ throats?
ELIZABETH ARNOLD: Well, I talked to a lot of voters, and low flow toilets hasn’t come up. So maybe I haven’t been doing my work.
GWEN IFILL: We’re actually deeply relieved to hear that.
ELIZABETH ARNOLD: And there are certainly no 10-point plans out there for them yet. The candidates are choosing. They’re talking about some things that are of concern to people and choosing to talk about — it depends on the constituencies — in South Carolina, for example, Governor Bush and Senator McCain are talking a lot about military pay, military preparedness. Foreign policy comes up a lot there, the Panama Canal, those kinds of things, not necessarily issues of importance to New Hampshire voters or Nevada voters. You know, they pick and choose based on their constituencies. I think a lot of the issues that use to really resonate and work for Republicans — crime, drugs, those kind of things — candidates aren’t talking about them, people aren’t that concerned about them.
Campaign finance reform, though, I would suggest is a little different this cycle, Gwen. I think that candidates — McCain, for example — have done a good job in making the connection between this issue and voter concerns. In other words, voters — the concerns that they have, they are realizing that special interests and money, they’re making that connection — that that’s the obstacle to politicians and Congress addressing their concerns. And I would say that is really something that you hear about in every town hall meeting.
GWEN IFILL: Dave Broder, let’s talk a little bit about John McCain, who according the this New Hampshire poll that came out today, is in a dead heat with George W. Bush in New Hampshire, as are Bill Bradley and Al Gore on the Democratic side. You, I believe, wrote that you wonder what it is about John McCain that is so attractive because he only talks about three things: national security, campaign finance reform and himself. I like that line. What’s so appealing exactly about John McCain to so many voters at this point?
DAVID BRODER: He is independent, he has a wonderful biography, and he is beginning to persuade people that because of the courage and character that he demonstrated in those years in the POW camp that he might actually mean what he says about his campaign promises. Let me give you an example of — on their last point about whether the candidates are responding.
I was with Senator McCain this morning at one of his town meetings. And a young woman said to him, “You know, Senator, you politicians are always talking about single mothers and the problem of single parent families.” She said, “I was raised by a single mother; my sister is now finishing college. I have a job here. I think you ought to show some respect for the job that single mothers are doing and can do.” And McCain’s response was, “You make a very good point that has not been raised with me before. And I will try to be respectful as well as helpful in terms of what I’m suggesting that we can do to aid those single mothers in their struggles to raise their own children.” I think the learning experience these candidates are having, particularly in the early states, like Iowa and New Hampshire, is not to be underestimated.
GWEN IFILL: Dave Yepsen, if John McCain who has not campaigned, virtually not set foot in Iowa at all, were to come in even as high as third in that election, we would basically never go to Iowa to visit you again, would we?
DAVID YEPSEN: That is entirely possible. People weren’t coming here before Jimmy Carter, so it’s entirely possible something like that could happen. It is not likely, but he is showing up in those polls as you mentioned. And if he turns in a third place showing in this state without campaigning very much here, I may not see you for awhile.
GWEN IFILL: No, we’ll still come visit. Elizabeth Arnold, about electability — this is the question with both John McCain, Bill Bradley, Al Gore and George W. Bush. People want to know can they be elected even if they get their party’s nomination. Do you hear that?
ELIZABETH ARNOLD: You know, you hear that later on. You hear people say, well, can he win? I’m not hearing that at this point. I’m hearing right now especially with regard to McCain, the word refreshing. Despite all the time he spent in Congress, people see him as — and the same with Senator Bradley, see them as refreshing, different of candidates, candidates who aren’t afraid to say I don’t know, or as David pointed out, candidates who aren’t afraid, for example, on prescription drugs, when McCain was asked about prescription drugs and why they cost so much, he said, “You know, I don’t really know, and I’ll go find that out.” And people love that. And I think that those kinds of sort of immediate personal connections at this point are more important than can he beat the other parties’ nominee or can he win the White House.
GWEN IFILL: Dave Broder, a brief final word. Do you think that all in all, that these candidates this year are listening to what these voters are saying?
DAVID BRODER: Yes, I do. And I think that the focus on particularly on the family issues, health, education, particularly reflects what your poll found as well Gwen.
GWEN IFILL: David Broder, David Yepsen and Elizabeth Arnold, it’s good to see you all three. Stay safe on the campaign trail.