Political Wrap with Mark Shields and Paul Gigot
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GWEN IFILL: That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. Paul, with her extraordinary paper trail, Linda Chavez’s extraordinary video trail, and this skeleton discovered in her closet –
PAUL GIGOT: On this program, the video trail.
GWEN IFILL: Was her nomination doomed?
PAUL GIGOT: Oh, I don’t think it was doomed. I mean, it depends on what you mean by skeletons. But certainly she wasn’t the favorite of the AFL-CIO for ideological reasons but it’s very hard to defeat a nominee for their ideas alone. You usually need some kind of other cover, political cover, something, the hint of illegality or some ethical problem. And that’s what got her in trouble in this case. So I don’t think it was doomed at all from the start.
GWEN IFILL: When she says that she became the victim of personal destruction, how much of this was mistakes she made and how much of it was she was a logical target for the groups you are talking about?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I think when you are somebody who has a strong point of view and you do come in with ideas on a track record and the other side opposes those, you will always make yourself a target so you have to be a proverbial Caesar’s wife. Otherwise, you do open yourself up – something like this was in the background, for example, of Christine Todd Whitman — it came out in her governor’s race in 1993 but it’s probably not going to be a big problem because people don’t see her as the same ideological foe. It becomes more of a problem when you pose a real threat intellectually or in terms of policy. That’s why I think Linda Chavez became the target in this case.
GWEN IFILL: Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: Gwen, the… I think that you could see the handwriting not only on the wall but on the ceiling or on the floor by last night when Governor Bush changed the tune to… from what I’ve heard to what I can tell and the strong support of Linda Chavez was starting to melt in Ari Fleischer, the Bush- Cheney spokesman. The vetting goes on, the vetting continues. Her problem here beyond the allegations was that she was a constituent. Paul’s right. She was a constituency-based selection. She was not someone who came out of a long, loyal, personal relationship with George W. Bush. She was chosen for the very reasons Paul… I mean, she drove the AFL-CIO bananas. I mean, as Barry Goldwater said when he chose Bill Miller as his running mate for vice president in 1964, the only reason I’m choosing him is because he drives Lyndon Johnson up the wall. That’s what Linda Chavez was. So, in fairness to her, she made a very classy exit today. I thought she put as good a case on the inevitable because her nomination was doomed. There’s no question about it. I don’t mean ideologically. Once this information was out, it was doomed in large part because too many Republicans in 1993 had taken the position, Larry Craig, for example, the Senator from Idaho, Republican leader of the Senate, said you can’t make the top cop a law breaker, talking about Zoe Baird.
GWEN IFILL: She had actually on this program been pretty tough on Zoe Baird.
MARK SHIELDS: She, Linda Chavez had. So it became a politically difficult if not impossible situation.
PAUL GIGOT: In fairness to Linda though there’s no suggestion right now that she was a lawbreaker. That story still had to be unfolded.
GWEN IFILL: So why step down aside then?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I think that she stepped aside because — it was her decision from my reporting — but I think she stepped aside — as Mark suggested — because she had a strong advice that maybe you should think seriously about the prudence of going forward from the Bush campaign. There’s no question about it.
GWEN IFILL: Is that stepping aside or is that being led to the ledge and being asked to use a step forward?
PAUL GIGOT: Another analogy that was used to me today, the pistol was put in the room and then they left the room with the full expectation of how she would handle it. I think this may be a mistake by the Bush team to be honest because the problem, I think, is that she didn’t get a hearing. This is only a three-day news story right now. The facts are still not clear. She insists that she didn’t break any laws. And you send a signal early in an administration here even before the inauguration about what the… your fortitude….loyalty. Are you going to stand with your nominees when they’re merely wounded? How strongly are you going to stand by those nominees? In this case, I mean, Ronald Reagan with the PATCO strike; Bill Clinton with the grazing rights concession early in his administration. I think there is going to be some thinking on the part of Republicans and some of his opponents that maybe George W. Bush can be had quickly.
GWEN IFILL: Zoe Baird in 1993 went all the way through the Senate confirmation process before….
MARK SHIELDS: Yes, she did. And actually Bill Clinton, the president, was meeting on strategy session with Paul Simon, senator from Illinois who was backing her and said, look, you have to make a decision on this woman. She’s hanging here all by herself. That’s when they made the decision to withdraw her nomination – Lani Guinere. At the same time the message is sent, I think Paul’s absolutely right. The political world, the political world exists in symbols and in messages communicated by a nod, a wink, and more. And in this case George Bush did… not the kind of guy you want to share a foxhole with. The first time of any incoming fire they cut Linda Chavez loose. One point of clarification: There are real strong conflicting reports. She said that she only learned that Ms. Mercado was an illegal, undocumented immigrant after she left in 1993. That was the initial report. Today she said she knew right from the beginning that she was. So I think that did leave the Bush people in a very awkward position.
GWEN IFILL: There was a question mark about the vetting process. She was asked I guess whether she had told them about this, and she said she had come to tell them. I guess the question is when did that happen? Did it happen Sunday night or did it happen a week ago? Was the vetting process at issue here?
PAUL GIGOT: You have to fault Linda Chavez in this case, I think, for not telling them. She admitted today that she had not told them right away. Given the fact that she was… understood she would be opposed by some people, she should have made that clear. The other problem politically to reinforce what Mark said is that the opponents now have defeated a Bush nominee without really paying any political cost at all. I mean, they have not had to make difficult arguments. They have not had to vote, if you’re a Democratic senator, against a Hispanic woman.
GWEN IFILL: Would she have made a great secretary of labor, as she said today?
PAUL GIGOT: I think she would have. She is a very smart woman, she has a clear agenda, she has ideas, she has a track record. I think she would have made a fine secretary of labor.
GWEN IFILL: Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: I don’t know what kind of secretary of labor… she was a provocative choice. Past Republican presidents including George Bush’s father chose people like Lynn Martin, a former member of Congress, people like John Dunlop, Harvard professor, was chosen by Gerry Ford and Bill Usery, even Richard Nixon after initially picking Peter Brennan went back to picking more conciliatory people who represented small business. I mean Jim Talent, the Congressman from Missouri is mentioned as a possibility. Jim Talent was the chairman of the House Small Business Committee. He has great interpersonal skills. He’s not provocative. He’s not a red flag. In that sense probably you would be better off if you were Bush unless you decide to make a real fight. She was going to be somebody who was going to be a lightning rod all the time she was there.
GWEN IFILL: A bunch of liberal groups had a big press conference to go after John Ashcroft, gays, African-Americans, women’s groups — all of them. Does this embolden them now to go after John Ashcroft or have they drawn blood?
PAUL GIGOT: It’s the former, I think. The truth is when you… when they see that they can defeat one of your nominees, now they’re going to move on. There was an idea among some Republicans to continue fighting for Linda Chavez even if she couldn’t be confirmed because at least she would become the focus of the opposition. Now the opponents can move on to the next nominee, John Ashcroft, or perhaps Gale Norton and once you see a weakness in a president, you don’t stop if you’re the opposition. You continue. I think this puts a premium on George W. Bush to defend John Ashcroft and his other nominees and in his replacement for Linda Chavez to make sure that he’s not talking to John Sweeney beforehand of the AFL-CIO and clearing his choices with him.
GWEN IFILL: But as you mentioned Linda Chavez was not defeated on her ideas; she was defeated on something else, something that an unknown, undisclosed problem. Could that happen with John Ashcroft? Is there any evidence of that?
MARK SHIELDS: I think where this hurts John Ashcroft is not simply in the message that’s transmitted from the Bush camp. But I think it also… There’s a limited amount of press oxygen in coverage time. Linda Chavez had occupied that. And John Ashcroft had been pushed to page nine. Now I think if anybody is helped it’s Gale Norton, the secretary of interior, because I don’t think they’re going to be going after second woman. The environmental groups will, but I think if there’s going to be an effort, a major effort, it will be on John Ashcroft. The thing that John Ashcroft has to worry about is that this will not be a free vote for any national Democrat in the Senate. Anybody who thinks that he or she wants to seek national office in 2004, I think this will emerge as a litmus test vote. Where did you stand on John Ashcroft because of the very constituencies who are most angry about the results of the 2000 election, this gives them a chance to get galvanized again.
PAUL GIGOT: It would have been so much better for Bush, therefore, if he had made the Democrats vote in the Senate on Linda Chavez first because now this vote becomes the litmus test because they didn’t have to take that test on Chavez.
GWEN IFILL: How does George W. Bush recover?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, he has to make a… He has to, I think, demonstrate solidarity with his other nominees. And then he has to make, if he wants to send a reassuring signal to his constituents, he’s going to pick a replacement for Linda Chavez who is also very strong and also just as unpopular with the AFL-CIO, perhaps somebody like an Elaine Chou, Heritage Foundation officer, somebody who has experience and is…would be a sound leader as a choice but would also be somebody popular with his voters and not necessarily his opposition.
GWEN IFILL: Is George W. Bush wounded by this and, if so, how does he get back on track?
MARK SHIELDS: He’s wounded not in a larger political world. It won’t be a ripple effect in the Harris Poll or the CNN/USA Today Gallup Poll or any place else. Where it is is in the political community. The question is, people are taking their measure of George W. Bush. Republicans want to know, are their backs covered if they’re in a fight on his side that he’s not going to cut and run. Democrats want to know how far he can be pushed and if there’s any price to be paid for standing up to him. I disagree with Paul right now. If I were George Bush, I would want someone who is confirmable who is not necessarily John Sweeney’s God son by a previous life, but I mean at the same time someone who is confirmable and that’s why a Talent or a Jennifer Dunn, the congresswoman from Washington state, make some sense.
GWEN IFILL: We have a whole bunch of possibilities here after this conversation. Paul and Mark, thank you both very much.