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Political Wrap with Paul Gigot and Tom Oliphant

March 30, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And to Gigot and Oliphant; Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot and Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant. Mark Shields is off tonight. So, Paul, is it almost over in the Senate?

PAUL GIGOT: It is. I think so.

JIM LEHRER: Going to pass?

PAUL GIGOT: It is going to pass, it is going to pass Monday, I guess 5:30 or thereabouts — no question. I think they have the votes, and give the coalition that supported this credit. It hunked together – hunked together despite an awful lot of amendments thrown its way, despite a lot of private gnashing of teeth. Mitch McConnell — the chief opponent and I thought eloquent opponent this week — said I wish I could have gotten the Democrats who came up to me privately and said, can you stop this thing, to say it in public. We might have had — we might have been able to win. But of course you declare your votes in public and in public they said aye.

JIM LEHRER: Tom, is it probably going pass by a large margin because of the weekend wait for the dramatic moment on Monday, and all of that?

TOM OLIPHANT: One of the sort of subplots over the last two weeks is I think you’ve begun to see additional Republicans gradually come around to this. I think on final passage, if there were 13 on the key test vote last night, there could be a few more than that on final passage, which might help it a little bit in the House. The House is hard to figure because despite the fact it’s passed 252 votes the last time, if there is any difference with the Senate version, the necessary conference committee is something that the House leadership could fool around with a little bit.

JIM LEHRER: Come back to the House in a moment. But you two wise men, when this debate began two weeks ago, I remember each of you very specifically saying at various times that it could go either way. What was the dynamic over the two-week period that finally took off that has led to this obvious result?

TOM OLIPHANT: From my vantage point, I thought that what kept happening was the choice on the floor seemed to be do you want this soft money system in some way to continue, or do you want it to end? And every time the question was posed like that, on an alternative like Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, or on targeted issues like this question of whether to sever parts of the bill, most Senators really do want to end this system. And that’s why the votes kept going that way.

PAUL GIGOT: I see it a little differently. I see more of a combination between John McCain and Tom Daschle and their political situations. It couldn’t have happened without McCain — the force of his personality.

JIM LEHRER: This is a triumph for McCain.

PAUL GIGOT: Sure. Sure. No question about it. He is a media favorite — he could bring attention to the issue and embarrass people who didn’t want to be embarrassed necessarily if they voted against it or were seen to kill it. In particular Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader, having supported it for several years didn’t want his party to be seen as killing this. And give Daschle credit. There was a lot of angst in his ranks but he was for this; he stayed consistent and I think he drove… a very hard bargain with John McCain in a lot of areas. This is a center-left coalition. Make no mistake about this; this is mostly Democratic votes. Tom is right, there are some Republicans who are coming on board.

JIM LEHRER: There were seven or eight Republicans, right?

PAUL GIGOT: But Tom Daschle, he said $2,000 in hard money — that’s it. Fred Thompson, John McCain’s good buddy, had the votes for a bigger increase than that — which Republicans would have liked. He and McCain were not going to do it, were to agree with Daschle because they wanted it to pass.

TOM OLIPHANT: I completely agree with what Paul said. I would make one addition. There was a conservative Republican convert this time around in January. And inside the Senate, the influence of Thad Cochran of Mississippi whose conservatism cannot be doubted, was immense.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

PAUL GIGOT: I think it was symbolic. He was peeling off; he wasn’t just getting the northeast Republicans, but I think the big change was the fact that McConnell didn’t filibuster and they lost five votes – five Republican seats in the Senate.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. But what about McConnell? He said yesterday, “This is a stupendously stupid thing to do.” That’s not what you call grace under defeat, is it?

PAUL GIGOT: Well, I suppose it’s not, although I thought he performed ably on the floor. The teeth of a lot of cat calls from the media, he stood up and stood his ground, and made principled arguments, knowledgeable arguments. I agree with him. I think it is folly. I think it is an attempt to perfect politics. You tinker and tamper, you close off money here, somehow will emerge with a much more ethical politics. It almost never happens.

JIM LEHRER: So you agree with McConnell, stupendously stupid?

PAUL GIGOT: Maybe understated.

JIM LEHRER: What words would you use, Mr. Oliphant?

TOM OLIPHANT: I don’t think a journalist has the right to call anybody else’s work stupendously stupid, actually. But a historical point — McCain-Feingold emerged not as an attempt to perfect politics but actually as an attempt to do something about the worst abuses and to leave aside ideas like taxpayer financing for another day or perhaps never. McCain-Feingold is a change, a major change. But where I have had — I think McConnell had difficulty communicating even to his colleagues the idea that it is an enormous a change, as he has portrayed it I opposition.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s move on to the point that Tom made a while ago. What is your reading of the House? The word all over is that Speaker Hastert and Tom DeLay, the minority whip, are going to get together and kill this thing in the House because the president wants them to.

PAUL GIGOT: I haven’t heard that from them. You hear a little saber rattling from Tom Delay

JIM LEHRER: Do you believe it?

PAUL GIGOT: I mean, I think Tom Delay would like to. I don’t think he’s going to be able to.

JIM LEHRER: You think the momentum is there?

PAUL GIGOT: Sure. Well, it has passed a couple of times. The dynamic in the House is going to be similar to the dynamic in the Senate, which is its fate rests with the Democrats. Republicans have shown the last two times this came up they didn’t have the votes to beat it. So if it is going to change, it is going to happen to be the Democrats, and you’ve seen some rumblings that they don’t really like a lot of the bill, either. But again the pressure of this McCain coalition, all of this attention. Any Democrat who stands up and opposes this thing is going to have every editorial page except my own in “The Wall Street Journal” in this country basically saying, you are Darth Vader. You are joining Mitch McConnell-the forces of darkness.

JIM LEHRER: That’s what happened to Wellstone.

TOM OLIPHANT: No. I think that what’s going also to happen, as evidenced by Tom Daschle’s behavior in the Senate, is that any Democrat who does that is going to have his party leadership on his neck. And that’s the big change. Also since last year, John McCain has campaigned in 80 House districts, for the most part successfully. So, if anything, I would say the coalition is somewhat stronger in the House than it was this time a year ago.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Tom, about the likelihood of the president signing this bill if it passes the house?

TOM OLIPHANT: At some point you sort of get the idea somebody is trying to tell you something. Two congressional figures have come out of that White House in the last week to say he’s saying you can’t count on a veto or any backdoor….

JIM LEHRER: McConnell said that, too.

TOM OLIPHANT: At some point you believe it. There is a little finger pointing going on inside the White House. Karl Rove, President Bush’s principal advisor, had him positioned publicly in support of the principal alternative.

JIM LEHRER: That was the Hagel alternative.

TOM OLIPHANT: That’s right. He had six principles, the president put out, most of which he’s going to be walking away from in the next couple of days. So there is a feeling that President Bush was put out on a limb without the support for that posture having been created

JIM LEHRER: How do you read the president on this?

PAUL GIGOT: Well, there is one school of thought that says it’s a bluff. He wants to put the pressure, the onus on the Democrats not to take this on. So he is saying all right, if you want to pass this, I’ll sign it. But if you look at the principals, as Tom said, I mean, they’re the big losers here; individual soft money – he said don’t ban, it’s going to be banned. Don’t undermine or weaken the parties; it is going to be weakened, at least in the money raising capacity. Paycheck protection, that isn’t in there.

TOM OLIPHANT: Severability.

PAUL GIGOT: So if he is consistent with his principles, you would say, well, he’d probably veto it. But, the thing is, what you get from the White House, though is the sense this isn’t an issue they want to spend political capital. They don’t want to take on McCain. They want to get this behind them. They have bigger issues, tax bill, other things to worry about.

JIM LEHRER: Some of your colleagues in the pundit corps are positioning this as a big thing between George W. Bush and John McCain. Should it be seen that way?

TOM OLIPHANT: Only up to a point. I think what happened in the last two weeks is that it’s clear this is bigger than that. On the one hand, the issue is bigger than the two of them. There was momentum here that cannot simply be explained either by John McCain alone or by opposition to the president’s position on this issue. Secondly, in terms of President Bush and John McCain, there are bigger things coming. There is a reform agenda that John McCain supported or advanced as a presidential candidate that is still alive. There are issues he still feels deep — bigger ones involving health care, possibly the tax bill as well, that may put him in much more substantive conflict with the White House than has been the case up to now.

PAUL GIGOT: A couple of Republicans told me one of the reasons McCain did as well as he did on this is the timing of this – coming the week before there’s going to be a big Senate vote on the budget, a big Senate vote which Republicans don’t have the votes for yet. And one of their own members, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, is probably going to vote no. Now, if that means that Tom Daschle gets all the Democrats, it goes down and that really would mean I think a huge blow to the Bush domestic agenda.

They didn’t want to get John McCain upset, because if they lose Lincoln Chafee, they can’t afford to lose John McCain. And then I think there’s also a factor – subterranean here, but I think it’s real in the mind of some people in the White House — we don’t want to give John McCain an issue for 2004. If he was going to go out to New Hampshire and go out in a blaze of glory or do a Ross Perot or something like that. Now, McCain says he has no such intentions, but we all know in politics things change and I think there is a sense in the White House… let’s get this by.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking — talking about the budget now, the Bush plan passed the House this week. Is that a big thing?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, yes, but for those who like theater of the absurd, this budget business is right out of Brecht, Ionesco. The budget Bush wants passed the House in large part because there is no budget. The Senate, I think, Paul, is likely to approve a budget Bush wants basically because there is no budget. The withholding of detail, the president’s detailed recommendations keeps opposition….

JIM LEHRER: Who cuts cut, who doesn’t get cut, we don’t know that yet.

TOM OLIPHANT: …keeps opposition from forming; the basic contours of this will pass. I think McCain will back the president on this.

PAUL GIGOT: I think he will now. This is always what a budget outline is. I mean, it is no details. Details to be filled in later. But it nonetheless sets the parameters. If Tom Daschle could beat Bush on this, the tax cut would not be $1.6 trillion and I think it would send a signal on every major issue, George W. Bush can’t form center-right coalitions. He has to — would deal directly with Tom Daschle. You get Tom Daschle being co-president.

TOM OLIPHANT: Last week Vice President Cheney gave the Republicans a pep talk in the Senate. I think the essence of the message is you cannot let him lose this and I don’t think they will let him lose this.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you both very much.