Political Wrap with Mark Shields and Paul Gigot
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JIM LEHRER: And to Shields and Gigot: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. Mark, first, how do you read the politics of Vice President Gore’s decision on this, position on this?
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, I confess I am absolutely perplexed. Usually when a… Start with the premise that Florida is an important state, it’s a state that’s up for grabs. It has 25 electoral votes. Dade County, Miami, is a very important area and the Cuban-American community — is a very important voting block there. Having said that, and the intensity and the passion on this issue where Elian Gonzalez is involved, I don’t understand where it helps Al Gore to make this move now. First of all, the folks who really care passionately on this issue, who want him to stay here see Gore as a johnny-come-lately, as very close to Janet Reno and Bill Clinton, whom they don’t like on this issue. His natural allies are mystified by it. It looks like not only an opportunistic move but a dumb move because it’s not helping him. Now, there’s always the possibility that we have to allow for it even here in cynical Washington that he’s acting out of honest motives and convictions but politically, I don’t see where the help is. I don’t see, in other words, where the pay-off is in November.
JIM LEHRER: Do you see a pay-off?
PAUL GIGOT: Let me come to the defense of the Vice President. I think it was smart politics and he did the right thing. I mean, you’re talking about implying the rule of law here, the attorney general applying the rule of law to a country where the rule of law doesn’t apply at all; there isn’t one. So, asking Elian’s father to come here to make up his mind seems to be sound policy. In politics Florida is one of two states that Bill Clinton lost in 1992 but won in 1996. Why did he do it? He did better in the Cuban community in Florida. And Al Gore needs to win Florida or at least needs to make it competitive — in the case had danger of blowing that possibility completely away. He needed to do this to remain competitive in Florida.
JIM LEHRER: What about the idea that here’s a Vice President publicly disagreeing on a major thing with his President? Is that a problem, or is that a plus?
PAUL GIGOT: I think that’s a plus.
JIM LEHRER: Why is it a plus?
PAUL GIGOT: He needs to separate himself on some issues from Bill Clinton to show he’s his own man. He can’t do it every day of the week, but I think this is a perfect issue to do it on because it can help him in Florida, and it shows he can be independent, and as for the Democratic Party, frankly I don’t think that when Maxine Waters stands up and criticizes the Vice President of the United States or Charlie Rangel — for that matter — and says he’s wrong, that can help him with swing voters.
JIM LEHRER: Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, I have to say that he wants — the Vice President wanted daylight to establish his independence, his own identity as any Vice President does — from Bill Clinton and especially the downside of Bill Clinton’s administration absolutely. Is this an issue to do it on? No. Paul says a country that doesn’t observe the rule of law. I will assume that the next smuggled boat load of people from the people’s Republic of China that washes up that I can look for the Wall Street Journal and all the good folks in on the conservative side to say let’s keep them here, let’s bring them in because this is just the kind of policy where now the Vice President has associated with the mayor of Miami, who has made statements this week that have been nothing less in a totally volatile situation nothing less than publicly irresponsible, saying that he would not and the officials down there would not be responsible for associating and assisting the marshals of the United States in maintaining legitimate law and order there if there were revolt. They said it was going to be Bill Clinton and Janet Reno’s fault. I don’t understand, you know, this profile in courage that Paul describes, I don’t understand where this has any political advantage to Al Gore.
PAUL GIGOT: First of all you could count on the Wall Street Journal and me welcoming those kinds of people to America. We did it with the — boatlift, remember? The other question about the disagreement with Bill Clinton, this is something from Bill Clinton’s own playbook. I mean, in 1996 Bill Clinton endorsed and signed the Helms Burton Law which applied sanctions to foreign companies that did business with Cuba, said they couldn’t do business with us. He signed it. Then he didn’t enforce it after 1996. Bill Clinton understood in 1992 and then in 1996 the importance of Florida to the election.
JIM LEHRER: What about Mark’s point about what the mayor did down there and others have accused him of actually inciting his own people to riot — do you see it, Mark’s word was irresponsible. What word would you use?
PAUL GIGOT: I’d say civil disobedience. I’ve not heard everything he said. Maybe some of the things he said went over the line. But look, he is responding to the breadth of opinion within his own community. There’s no question about that. The people feel passionate. Most of these people or their parents came from Cuba would love to be able to establish links with that country and they can’t because of the dictatorship there. This is a fundamental difference about how you view the danger of that regime, and for those… and for this… and for Bill Clinton frankly to stand up at a press conference and say, “I hope everybody down there observes the rule of law,” I doubt that that carries a lot of moral authority with an awful lot of people anywhere but particularly in the Cuban community.
MARK SHIELDS: You know, a public official, a public-elected official carries with it great rights and enormous authority but there’s also responsibility. I mean, he’s not into… I wouldn’t call it civil disobedience. I’d just call it disobeying the law and encouraging others to do the same. That’s exactly what he did do. When you take that oath, you’ve got a responsibility to maintain law, and bring order to your community. That’s certainly what he wasn’t doing. That’s why I think that they’re playing right into the hands of the most zealous and irresponsible elements right now. And they’re encouraging civil and public rioting on this issue.
JIM LEHRER: You know, the polls, Paul, outside of Miami and Florida, show, the last one I saw, 75% of the American people think that this… that the little boy should be sent back to Cuba.
PAUL GIGOT: They think if it’s reuniting the father.
JIM LEHRER: That’s right.
PAUL GIGOT: But the whole issue is not, I mean, I don’t know anybody who would say don’t put the boy back under any circumstances if his father comes here and has some time to think about it and then can make what people think is an informed decision, consensual, not under pressure from Fidel Castro, which, let’s face it, in Cuba he is. Then if he makes a decision, I want to return, then I think most people would say, okay, that’s fine. And that’s all the Vice President is asking — is have him come here and make a decision in a country where the rule of law does apply — not in one where it has no basis at all.
JIM LEHRER: Let’s move to another aspect of the presidential campaign. Governor Bush made two major education speeches this week. Is he co-opting the Democrats on the education? One of them was on illiteracy, one had to do with teachers.
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, Republicans in the last two elections, certainly the last election were guilty of terminal stupidity, suicidal political behavior. Their entire education platform was let’s abolish the Department of Education. That was it. And people who were concerned about the schools and teachers and their kids learning said, wait a minute, that really isn’t an answer unto itself. Maybe they don’t like the Department of Education but that really isn’t a solution. George W. Bush is comfortable with this issue. He’s comfortable with very few issues. He doesn’t want to talk about foreign policy, doesn’t want to talk about a bunch of other things, but he is very comfortable on education. He believes in it. He believes that what he’s done in Texas and is doing in Texas is right. He has cut down the Democrats’ advantage. He is contesting the Democrats. This has been a lay-down hand for the Democrats, education has, in the past. And he is contesting it and it’s competitive.
JIM LEHRER: Do you see it the same way?
PAUL GIGOT: Yes, I do. And I think it’s smart. The old Republican issues, presidential issues, crime, welfare, to some extent foreign policy, they just don’t cut anymore. Bill Clinton has done a brilliant job of neutralizing them and taking them off the table. George Bush is taking a page out of the Clinton playbook and saying, okay, I’m going to take a Democratic issue and I think I can play on a level playing field with him; I can make it a Republican issue. He can do that in part because he’s a governor. It’s harder for somebody in Congress to do that because there aren’t that many issues where Congress plays on education. But he has a record. Governors are education… that’s one of their major responsibilities.
JIM LEHRER: Paul, how does he handle the conservative Republican momentum on education, which is don’t spend more money? Illiteracy is $5 billion he’s advocating.
PAUL GIGOT: Over five years.
JIM LEHRER: Over five years and the teacher thing is also several million dollars.
PAUL GIGOT: He can’t… He can never outspend Al Gore. I mean on think Al Gore figures $115 billion over five years and George W. Bush’s adds up so far to about 13 (billion dollars).
JIM LEHRER: Is that what it does?
PAUL GIGOT: That’s a comparison. George Bush cannot beat Al Gore if he’s just trying to outbid him. And I think he recognizes that. He’s got to talk about accountability and choice. He has got to change the nature of the debate. If this debate is about how much you spend and how much you spend on education, Al Gore is going to win. Mark is right that that’s the way the debate has always been — and particularly in 1996. Bush is saying, wait a minute, it’s not about inputs, it’s not about putting something in. I care about education. It’s about outcomes and results and accountability. If he makes that debate on that, he can make some ground.
MARK SHIELDS: He can make some ground, Jim. The other smart he did this week for the first time in two weeks he did not give an interview either to the “New York Times” or the “Washington Post” kicking the daylights out of John McCain or Al Gore. So he didn’t step on his own story. Quite frankly, he dominated the news with his education this week.
JIM LEHRER: But Al Gore did have his proposal too, which was the endowment to help fund campaigns. What did you think of that idea?
MARK SHIELDS: Each of them… it was interesting…each of them was trying to claim territory that they hadn’t… that did not belong to them. I mean, Bush in the case of education which had been a Republican issue and Al Gore was trying to fight a defensive war that this had been an issue that had hurt the Democrats in post ’96 and the end of the ’96 campaign — campaign fund raising. I thought it was an interesting idea. I think it is violating human nature. What he is suggesting is a trust fund and that the three of us as big fat cat contributors are going to write checks into this trust fund. Most fat cat contributors give money to Billy Bob who is running for lieutenant governor. They want Billy Bob to know they’ve given them the money.
JIM LEHRER: That’s the whole point! (laughing)
MARK SHIELDS: That’s the whole point. They want to have breakfast, they want a picture, a handshake. You don’t get that out of a trust fund. Maybe there are all sorts of altruistic dot-com people out there that Paul knows that I don’t know who want to write big checks.
PAUL GIGOT: Many of them. (laughing) Al Gore is against tax cuts for the rich — unless you’re writing a check to the trust fund for politicians. Then he’s giving you 100% tax credit. This has no chance of happening. The other problem with it is that it’s basically a back door taxpayer financing of elections. That’s less popular than a Congressional pay raise. I mean most Democrats abandoned that position about five years ago because it’s so unpopular. The other problem I have with his speech is it’s no good for him to talk about campaign finance reform. If George Bush in 1992 had said I’m for cutting your taxes after raising them in 1990, nobody would have believed him.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. We have to go. Thank you both very much.