Political Wrap with Mark Shields and Paul Gigot
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TERENCE SMITH: For analysis of last night’s debate and the Democratic exchange the night before, we turn to syndicated columnist Mark Shields, who is in Iowa tonight; and here in Washington, Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. Welcome to you both. Paul, it is a little more than two weeks to the Iowa caucuses, a little more than three weeks before the New Hampshire primary. Tell us how this race is shaping up, particularly on the Republican side.
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I think that in this sprint now, which is really what it is before the votes, George Bush had his best week in a while, Terry. I think he had the strongest performance, the strongest debate performance yet. No question about that. John McCain didn’t do as well, his chief rival yesterday. And I think that George Bush finally has an issue: Taxes — an old reliable Republican issue: Taxes. As long as this was a character contest between John McCain, a biography contest between John McCain and George Bush, it was going to help John McCain. John McCain has a fabulous biography, a fabulous personal history, a strong presence. He opened up a vulnerability when he decided he was going to attack George Bush from the left on taxes. That’s been the problem for an awful lot of Republicans in New Hampshire. And George Bush is fighting back and saying I’m the tax-cutter in this race.
TERENCE SMITH: Mark, what about the Democratic side, how does it look to you?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, Terry, on the Democratic side, historically the first two states, Iowa and New Hampshire have winnowed the field down to two candidates on both sides. The winnowing occurred long before this race began. So we have two candidates, Bill Bradley and Al Gore, and I think it’s fair to say that it’s comparable to the Republican race in this sense: that if the establishment-backed frontrunners, Governor Bush on the Republican side and Vice President Gore on the Democratic side, win as expected here in Iowa and then follow that up with victories in New Hampshire over John McCain and Bill Bradley, then the race for all practical purposes could be over before midnight on February 1st.
TERENCE SMITH: Short stuff. Paul, in the debate last night, we saw… we saw Governor Bush raise his right hand and take the pledge to enact tax cuts. Smart politics?
PAUL GIGOT: I think smart politics. I think he surprised some of his own people by saying a ‘no new taxes’ pledge. They didn’t want to touch on that language necessarily with echoes of Father Bush. I think in his enthusiasm to take the pledge to cut taxes, he kind of slipped that in there. But, no, it’s a great issue for George Bush. There’s no question about it. I mean, the Bush campaign thought that they were going to have wonder about… to prove their tax-cutting bona fides against Steve Forbes from the right. They geared their whole campaign to that. Now they suddenly find out they’re in a campaign against John McCain running as the Reagan tax-cutter. I mean, John McCain is saying, he’s taking the Bob Dole position from 1998 — 1988 which didn’t help him; the George Bush Sr. position from 1980 which didn’t help him against Ronald Reagan. New Hampshire Republicans like cutting taxes. The McCain campaign is arguing, well, prosperity. It doesn’t cut the same way it does. The Bush campaign is saying throw us in that briar patch. We like that. We like the idea of being able to say we’re the tax cutter. I think it’s very smart politics.
TERENCE SMITH: Mark, do you think it’s smart politics?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I thought first of all that Governor Bush overdid it a little bit. Americans aren’t used to candidates for President saying so help me God. They usually reserve that for their inaugural oath. And I thought his emphasis was perhaps a little extreme. And maybe Sigmund Freud would have a field day figuring out where dad ends and son begins on this whole issue. But I think Paul is right in the sense that this is the cardinal virtue of Republicans. I would point out, however, that there have been tax cutters who have not done as well. I mean, if you’re recall Pierre Dupont, the governor of Delaware with the backing of the Manchester Union Leader in that same campaign, Jack Kemp didn’t score as well. I don’t think it’s only tax cutting. I think John McCain had a hit. John McCain has been the most interesting candidate in this whole race on both sides. Outspent, outraised by seven to one on the Republican side with a total establishment backing of the party against him, he did make a candidacy interesting on several things. Most of all it was his differentness — his differentness was his personal history, as Paul pointed out, but also his differentness, his accessibility to voters, his willingness to tell voters what they didn’t want to hear, to tell the press what they didn’t want to hear but yet to talk to them and the fact that this man had a record, a personal history, that was just breathtaking. And I think his differentness was hurt this week, not so much on the tax thing but on the federal communications case. I think that John McCain looked, in his defense, like just another Senator.
TERENCE SMITH: So you think he was damaged by that? He becomes part of official Washington?
MARK SHIELDS: It eroded his differentness. I mean, it enabled Governor Bush to say yesterday rather adroitly John McCain is chairman of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee. He’s been there long enough to be a committee chairman. You know, he’s part of Washington. I’m not. I’m an outsider. I’m just a barefoot kid from Austin.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. But, Paul, he also said he accepted Senator McCain’s answer and explanation.
PAUL GIGOT: Which was shrewd. And then he turned around and attacked his campaign policy, which allows him to take the high ground because he knows the press is going to pick on John McCain.
TERENCE SMITH: But has it damaged John McCain?
PAUL GIGOT: If it has, it’s not because of the issue itself, which I think is business as usual in this city. And it’s a bum rap. I mean, somebody… Washington and these agencies have a lot of power. Somebody has got to oversee them and act as the ombudsman. That’s the job that Congress men and women do. And John McCain was just doing that job. But he acted defensive, as Mark said. I mean, he canceled the fund-raiser with the fellow, which gives the appearance that somehow you feel guilty even if you aren’t guilty. And I think that that’s a problem. He probably should have stood up and said, you know, I’d do it again tomorrow because I think somebody has to stand up to these regulators and these bureaucrats in Washington. Republican primary voters aren’t thrilled with bureaucracies — stand up for conservative principles and liberty and he might have scored some points.
TERENCE SMITH: Mark, the other issue that, of course, has come front and center into the campaign this week: Gays in the military. It came up in both debates. How is it playing in your view politically?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think a couple of things have happened. First of all I think it was a stumble by Vice President Gore. You don’t say I’m against litmus test for the appointment of judges and for litmus tests the appointment of Joint Chiefs of Staff and especially I think General Chuck Krulak, the former commandant of the Marine Corps, pointed out today, what you’re going to do is you’re going to find out an awful lot of general officers will just refuse to even be interviewed. You’ll find a lot of early retirements if there are going to be litmus tests applied. Bradley’s answer on it was more adroit politically. But I don’t think this is where the Democrats need to be. I guess where I would question George Bush’s wisdom is that one out of four Americans think the Republicans tilt too much to the rich, and in the last Wall Street Journal/NBC poll and to big corporations. And that’s a liability for the Republican Party. It remains that. And there is a vulnerability on that charge. But the Democrats, one out of four union households according to the Wall Street Journal poll, think Democrats are too liberal on matters of gay rights and abortion. Democrats don’t need to come off as the party that sort of is anti-military and pro gay rights at the same time on an issue that really is not of transcendent importance. We’re not talking about people being deprived of rights or tormented, which is unacceptable and against the law.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, of course some say it does involve that. But politically, Paul, for the Republicans and within the Republican primary, how does it play?
PAUL GIGOT: They couldn’t wait. All six of them were raising their hands and jumping forward to try to get in on this issue and make a point that their military commanders are going to have one goal, which is to deter and win wars. It’s easy. I mean, I’m surprised one of them didn’t say, what — what Al Gore and Bill Bradley are saying is that Colin Powell was not qualified to be their chairman of the Joint Chiefs because he opposed… he would have opposed their policy. One of the great….
TERENCE SMITH: He would have opposed the open policy.
PAUL GIGOT: That’s right. He was for the don’t ask, don’t tell. That was his policy, his compromise in a way. One of Bill Clinton’s great political achievements in 1992 and 1996 for Democrats was to mute the perception that Mark talked about that Democrats are too far to the left on cultural values. You know, he changed the Democratic perception on crime, the perception of the party on welfare, the perception of the party with things like school uniforms and symbolic cultural issues, matters of faith. This drives that perception right back to the left. It was a problem for Bill Clinton in 1993. Cultural liberalism is not popular in America, particularly when it’s seen to be something that is dealing with the military, which is something that we take very seriously. So this is going to hurt them, I think, in the general election.
TERENCE SMITH: In the general?
PAUL GIGOT: Sure.
TERENCE SMITH: We’ll see about the primaries. Mark, did you think there was a discernible winner or loser between Gore and Bradley the other night?
MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I think Al Gore has a very serious problem in his campaign and one which he has yet to address. And that is, because it’s a two-way fight, the Republican race is full of animation and sort of goofiness, the Democratic race is filled with animosity and some real harshness at this point.
TERENCE SMITH: Increasingly so.
MARK SHIELDS: Increasingly so, Terry. And I guess the thing that bothers Gore supporters is uniformly when you’re asked about…when you’re covering politics, as you know or Paul knows, people say to you, what’s so-and-so really like? Is he smart enough? Is he tough enough – because people when they’re voting for president it’s a very, very personal choice. They want to know that the person they’re putting in as commander in chief, chief executive, has the sense of judgment and character and tenacity and qualities of temperament that you need in a President and the crises that are unforeseen. Al Gore, who is just widely admired and liked by virtually all people who know him, once he gets in front of a microphone on a public stage somehow becomes self serious, becomes ponderous and becomes pedantic. And I think it comes through in just the two of them. He’s got to find some means… Before town meetings, Terry, he’s quite natural and effective. But in the final analysis, the Bob Cheater rule of politics holds that everything else being equal, voters vote for the candidate they like. I think in this case, Al Gore did not come through as a more likable figure. Every measurement of public opinion after the poll suggested that.
TERENCE SMITH: And Bill Bradley did, you think?
MARK SHIELDS: I think Bill Bradley showed flashes of wit, even a little poetry. He did show condescension. They were both condescending toward each other. Bradley showed a certain flash of sarcasm — “let me explain the private sector to you, Al” — which I don’t think serves him at all well. But it’s interesting. He came across better to the people who had watched the debate in the follow-up surveys than did Gore.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. I want to ask both of you very quickly, both… we’re in a state here where both the so-called challengers here in the sense of Senator Bradley and Senator McCain are in very strong position in the polls in New Hampshire.
PAUL GIGOT: Right.
TERENCE SMITH: How real? How serious? Tell me quickly.
PAUL GIGOT: I think the polls are real but I think right now the Bradley challenge to Gore is stronger than the McCain challenge to Bush. In particular, I think that John McCain may have punched a hole in his own boat this week on the….
TERENCE SMITH: Over the tax issue.
PAUL GIGOT: On the tax issue. And what the Bush campaign is planning to do is now spend a lot more time in New Hampshire than they would have earlier because they think they can do well in Iowa. And they think that they can knock him out now in New Hampshire.
TERENCE SMITH: Mark, what do you think very briefly? The lead, is it real?
MARK SHIELDS: I think both the challengers are more than competitive in New Hampshire. And both know that they have to win. I mean, McCain all but acknowledged it. He said yesterday if he doesn’t win New Hampshire, it’s over. I think the same thing is true for Bradley. But I think that the momentum up until this week had been very much with McCain. The question is, can he regain his footing and regain the momentum.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. That’s great. Mark Shields, Paul Gigot, thank you both very much.
MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Terry.
PAUL GIGOT: Thank you.