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Political Wrap with Mark Shields and Paul Gigot

March 3, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: For analysis of the debate and the rest of this political week, we turn to syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. So who got the better of last night’s debate, Paul?

PAUL GIGOT: I don’t think either one did, Margaret. I think they both looked pretty good. John McCain looked as he usually does, dignified, presidential…didn’t help him that he wasn’t in that room, that he was by satellite. He probably should have stayed in L.A. and had… It’s easier to confront someone when you’re in a room. It’s much harder when you’re down the line and you come in when you’re called on really, as sometimes happens on this show. And it’s just easier to interact that way. I think he should have done that. And Bush is a much-improved candidate in my view from two months ago. I mean the… One of the largest mistakes the Bush campaign made was not getting him into those debates earlier. It was clear by the time he first got in, he needed practice. Now he feels a little more comfortable. And I think he is a little more composed and looks more presidential himself.

MARGARET WARNER: How would you score it?

MARK SHIELDS: I think Governor Bush probably went in ahead and came out ahead, so for that reason, it worked for him. I agree with Paul that it was a mistake for John McCain not to be in the same room. The one thing — if you noticed at one point George Bush last night, as one of the other speakers was commenting upon him, gestured to the panelist, to Judy Woodruff, I think, and said “I want time.” You can’t do that if you’re down line here in St. Louis or something of the sort.

I thought the education difference was fascinating. Paul and I probably disagree. I agree with George Bush and you would probably agree with John McCain. I mean, Bush has a far more activist — that government has a role. If you are going to have federal money going into to low income schools, they better be tested, they’ve got to respond and the money is attached to that; whereas, McCain took sort of the orthodox conservative position that no federal bureaucrat is going to determine us what the school board does in Palukaville.

But the other thing was, I thought that McCain was very much on the defensive because of the character charge. Character has been his calling card in this campaign, candor. And he was on the defensive about that, about the calls, the calls in Michigan. And Bush was incredibly cute and clever. What Bush has done on the charge about Bob Jones, which he has apologized for going there and being mute, which was the charge against him — the charge was he went there and was mute. It’s an anti-catholic haven and all the rest of it. And he said you accused me of being an anti-Catholic bigot. That is not the charge. The charge is – the charge against him is that he lacked moral — he was a moral coward when he went there. That lacked the courage to speak truth to power while there and to say what you people do is wrong. But he has transformed this into you’re accusing me of being an anti-Catholic bigot and he has done it very cleverly.

PAUL GIGOT: What was he going to do, flagellate himself? I mean, he did say I missed an opportunity, I should have spoken up. I mean, I don’t know what else he can do.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s not a charge of his being an anti-Catholic bigot. It’s a charge of his lacking moral -

PAUL GIGOT: No, but the charge -

MARK SHIELDS: And not knowing.

PAUL GIGOT: — of those phone calls – the McCain phone calls run pretty close to the line on that. They are pretty tough. And they imply that he, if he doesn’t agree with it, he was at least willing to… he kind of agreed by not saying something.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s the implication.

PAUL GIGOT: And that’s not fair.

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, I think it is fair.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with Mark that in dealing with these controversies they’ve each had to, that Bush has done it more effectively than McCain?

PAUL GIGOT: I would say so. Yeah, I would think that — in part because of what McCain is running on. When you’re running on character, when you’re running on biography and the signature line “I will always tell you the truth no matter what” — the press is going to look for occasions when that doesn’t quite add up. And that’s what’s happened. He has been on the defensive on that the last couple of weeks.

MARGARET WARNER: Now he has not backed down — as we heard last night and heard him again today at this rally on Wall Street — he will not back down on his attacks on Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. What is that doing to his campaign?

PAUL GIGOT: I think it’s been an enormous blunder for him. What it has done, instead of campaigning against Bill Clinton and Al Gore — which is what most Republicans want to hear — he has been campaigning against Pat Robertson. It has taken him off the message, which is reform, and somebody who is strong enough to beat Al Gore. Instead, he’s picking fights with elements of his own… the coalition he would need to win. And maybe on Tuesday there will be some great backlash against this backlash and this week the statements, all kinds of moderates and others will turn out and it will prove to be smart but so far it really looks like a mistake.

MARGARET WARNER: It does seem to be drowning out almost everything else he is saying, don’t you think, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. For 14 months, Margaret, John McCain has been the best candidate in the race. He went from 58 percent to 2 percent margin. That’s where he stood last summer behind towering figures in the party like Pat Buchanan – who won the New Hampshire primary — Elizabeth Dole, Dan Quayle – I mean, Steve Forbes with deep pockets – he went by them all. He is still standing, one of the serious candidates for the race. He had the worst weeks of his campaign and it was self-inflicted.

He went down there and he made a speech, a challenged speech, a bold speech, but he made it on the eve of an election he’s about to lose. And it’s one thing if you make a speech like that and you’re going to win, and you can say, hey, what did I tell you, I had the guts to do it, and we won. He didn’t, and so immediately, all the post mortems, all the analysis goes, McCain did the wrong thing, McCain was stupid, McCain — self-inflicted wound. At the same time it was. It didn’t make sense politically because he already had the people who didn’t like Pat Robertson and the others — I mean moderates and independents and so forth. So the followership of Robertson and of the religious conservative… I don’t mean Robertson alone, feel besieged. They feel that the elite press and the dominant culture looks down upon them. So an attack upon Pat Robertson, if anything, makes them feel more defensive and, I think, separates them from John McCain, which they might have been available as voters.

PAUL GIGOT: You know, ideologically there is not that much difference between John McCain and George Bush. But one of the great ironies of this race is that John McCain has pushed George Bush and a lot of the conservatives, economic and social, into each other’s arms almost despite themselves. I mean two months ago Republicans were voting for George Bush because they said he could win. Now a lot of them are voting for him because of conservative values.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let’s look ahead to next week and to Super Tuesday — 13 states for the Republicans. What do you think McCain has to do, Mark, to remain a viable candidate after Tuesday? And how do you think things look? You were in California. Tell us about that.

MARK SHIELDS: I’d say California he has got a shot in the beauty contest — where everybody votes. I think George Bush carries the delegates. I don’t think there is any expectation that he is going to be threatened where only Republicans vote. I think McCain — McCain to stay alive and viable and vital and vibrant — there’s three “Vs” — has to win New York, I think Vermont, I think he wins Rhode Island, I think he wins Connecticut and I think … But the New York victory would be a big victory. And I think it’s probably become more plausible because what I consider to be a self-inflicted wound by the Bush campaign — which is the idea of spending $2 million in “independent expenditures” paid for by a major Bush backer — charging John McCain of having a bad environmental record — he’s not the Sierra Club’s pin-up boy — but praising George Bush’s — which nobody has had the nerve to do in a state where Houston has become the dirtiest city in the country under his governorship.

MARGARET WARNER: Just to explain – there’s a new ad that’s gone up in New York and a couple of other states – by a group called “Republicans for Clean Air.”

MARK SHIELDS: A phony group, and a group that has no Web site, no post office box, no existence prior to this ad.

PAUL GIGOT: There is no evidence that there has been illegal coordination but I do agree… There isn’t. There just isn’t. But I do agree with Mark that it probably is stupid. Why give the McCain campaign a talking point like this — this close to an election when you’ve already been gaining, when McCain has had a self-inflicted wound because he has been picking fights with other Republicans — so we’ll see if it’s a mistake. It looks to me like it might be.

MARK SHIELDS: Just one thing and that is – you know, in a week, Margaret, where Maria Hsia, principal fund-raiser and friend of Vice President Al Gore is convicted of violation of election laws, George Bush, disables himself to use this issue by coming out for unlimited soft money expenditures.

MARGARET WARNER: Which he did last night.

MARK SHIELDS: Which he did last night in the debate – and using these very, very questionable, sketchy and probably illegal tactics.

PAUL GIGOT: Maria Hsia broke laws that already exist. There’s no evidence that -

MARK SHIELDS: This is the same — Wall Street Journal editorial wrote beautifully about that.

Before we go, the Democrats next Tuesday — now they had a debate this week, too, and it was incredibly civil. How do you explain the change in tone?

PAUL GIGOT: I think Bill Bradley was mailing it in. The most poignant moment in politics is not when you lose or win. It’s that moment when everybody else knows you’re going to win and you’re the candidate…

MARGARET WARNER: You’re going to win or lose?

PAUL GIGOT: You’re going to lose rather — if you’re going to lose, and you’re still fighting, you’re still slogging onward – and that’s kind of where Bill Bradley finds himself this week. And I think he wants to go out with some grace, he wants to go out putting up high-minded principles and say this is what I stood for — and hope that the numbers are not embarrassing on Tuesday.

MARK SHIELDS: I was with Bill Bradley at UCLA — at a rally of 3,000 people, Margaret, in the dusk, a crowd brimming with affection and admiration – not much passion. There is very little passion in Bradley crowds. But his message was the same. I mean, it was — in the midst of this incredible prosperity, we have an obligation to each other, to the future. He talks about the voice for the voiceless. I mean, it’s the same message he began with. It’s a campaign he can be proud of. But I agree with Paul, it was his valedictory and he wants to be able to look at his grandchildren and say this is why I ran for president.

MARGARET WARNER: You see no scenario for him being able to continue after Tuesday?

PAUL GIGOT: Well, unless the pollsters have been interviewing Martians, I mean, there’s just – he’s lost ground. I mean, he’s showing up near Alan Keyes in some of these polls, unfortunately.

MARK SHIELDS: The Los Angeles Times poll showed him running behind John McCain among Democratic voters in California, which is really hurtful.

MARGARET WARNER: Before we go, Mark, you were also out with the Republicans in California…

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, one of the most poignant moments, there is Bradley and McCain who did note have a very good week. He was in Little Saigon in Orange County where the Vietnamese refugees came and built a remarkable community. And a nighttime rally at 9:00 at night, it was one of those rare emotional moments in American politics. I mean, we’ve all been to Greek-American or Israeli-American or Irish-American rallies. This was… I mean the passion and the intensity and the feeling and the sense of gratitude toward McCain I think lifted him up after a couple of very bad days.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you both very much. See you Tuesday.