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Political Wrap

February 2, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Now, some “what’s up” political analysis from Shields and Gigot; syndicated columnist Mark Shields, Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. The Ashcroft nomination and now confirmation; what should all of the players, each in his or her own way, take away from the experience, Paul?

PAUL GIGOT: Well, John Ashcroft survived. Now he gets the job. President Bush got his nominee through, and I think can take some satisfaction in that, and will get some support from the right from his base supporters for sticking by a tough nomination makes up a little bit for the Linda Chavez doubts that crept up after she was pulled or she pulled herself with some advice and consent from other people at the time. I think the Senate Democrats have done a wonderful job of spinning 42 votes into victory. I always thought it took 50 or 51 to beat them but they’re saying this is a warning shot. I don’t know. I don’t think this changes anything. I doubt that Senate Democrats would not have opposed say Antonin Scalia for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court with any less ferocity because of this. I think not much has changed on that point of view.

JIM LEHRER: Not much has changed?

MARK SHIELDS: I think a lot has changed, Jim. I think Paul is right, obviously that John Ashcroft becomes Attorney General and George Bush gets the cabinet he wanted, which most presidents do. John Ashcroft, understand this, was a personally popular, certainly not an unpopular member of the institution, unlike the last Senate rejection with John Tower in 1989 for Secretary of Defense. But I think -

JIM LEHRER: Meaning that Tower was not that popular within the Senate among his colleagues.

MARK SHIELDS: He really wasn’t among his colleagues there, so that there wasn’t that reservoir of feeling and a united Republican Party obviously for the new President on this one. But I think it is – I think it’s just a preliminary of what you can expect on the fight over Supreme Court nomination, and all reports in Washington are that there is going to be a vacancy very soon because of a voluntary retirement. And, secondly, Jim, I think more than anything else, Ashcroft proved, and I thought the Republicans were just absolutely open about this, that they brought out this red herring about his religion – that his religion was somehow a bar — I think that is a total farce. Mark Rascot who was in the running to be Attorney General is a practicing Catholic. It was not a factor. He is a conservative. Jack Danforth is an Episcopal priest. It was what John Ashcroft had stood for and fought for and what in conscience he believed that the doubts were expressed about him. They were public policy questions, not about personal convictions or personal faith. It is a little bit– the question is could John Ashcroft, and I think it is a legitimate one, a fair one– enforce laws that he fought tooth and toenail to stop and to oppose. It is a little bit like a liberal President appointing Gandhi as Secretary of Defense. You would really want to know if he was in favor of a larger Marine Corps.

JIM LEHRER: Paul, the point that you said, this doesn’t change anything….

PAUL GIGOT: In terms of the Supreme Court.

JIM LEHRER: The Supreme Court. Well, Tom Daschle said the other night on this program that he was very strong about it, that he wanted the message to get to President Bush that if somebody with similar views to Ashcroft is nominated for the Supreme Court, they have enough votes and are willing to use them to filibuster such a thing, and that-I mean, is that not a message that can be taken from this?

PAUL GIGOT: I had no doubt that they would have done that anyway if it were the wrong nominee. I think that was a foregone conclusion with the closeness of the election, with the division that the election showed about the culture, Jim. I mean the division… what this election showed, the country is divided beside culture. The economic divisions are not as severe as they once were 20 or 30 years ago. The divisions over entitlements even are not as great as they were twenty or thirty years ago. The divisions are sharpest over the state of the culture, morality, religious belief — that sort of thing. That’s what the Ashcroft fight exhibited. And if you look at the eight Democrats who voted for Ashcroft — six of them came from states that George W. Bush carried, and two of them from North Dakota. Now, Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, in particular, are very partisan Democrats for the most part, and usually reliable votes when the rest of the Senate lines up…the rest of the Senate Democrats line up. Bush carried North Dakota 66-33. That obviously was a factor in their thinking.

JIM LEHRER: Does the Ashcroft fight leave any scars that are beyond possible Supreme Court nominations and this new– the new climate between the President and the Democrats and the Congress generally?

JIM LEHRER: Mark, what about the Democrats and some of the interest groups who were really disappointed that there was no filibuster on this; that Ted Kennedy pretty much got talked out of doing that, et cetera. Could this turn out to be a mistake for the Democrats not to have gone all the way?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think so because I don’t think even if they had gone all the way, I don’t think they would have switched the Republicans. I mean, once they had the 50 Republicans, and you had Zell Miller, the Senator from Georgia, and Russ Feingold, there was– both Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad are very close to Tom Daschle. They might have been able to bring them back in, but I don’t think the votes, the majority votes were there to stop them. I think what was fascinating about the hearings and nobody commented on, first what he wasn’t asked about – I mean, eight years ago Bill Clinton was pilloried and banged around for ducking service in Vietnam, and boy, just being an absolute lack of a patriot, maybe even a little soft on America. John Ashcroft sat there with seven different student deferments and some that were really just kind of a stretch. Nobody asked about why — because the members of the Senate themselves had exactly the same situation. They had just as many deferments in most cases, with the exception of Kennedy and a couple of others. The other was the money. John Ashcroft used soft money, had gone right up to the edge of the law just like virtually everybody does, and nobody asked about it. Why? Because in their own campaigns, they’re using soft money as well.

PAUL GIGOT: Mark, it is Attorney General, not brigadier general. I don’t know that military service is required to be Attorney General before. I want to answer your question, though, about the Democrats. I think there were some– a lot of the liberal interest groups in this case made Democrats from some of the Bush states pretty uncomfortable with their votes. I don’t think that Jean Carnahan from Missouri is real thrilled with having had to cast this vote against John Ashcroft. The only reason she has this seat is because her husband died and Ashcroft was graceful enough not to contest the result on her appointment when he could have – and he didn’t. And her act now to oppose him is not going to help her in Missouri.

MARK SHIELDS: Quickly, John Ashcroft lost to Jean Carnahan by 51,000 votes. Nobody has in the history of the United States….

PAUL GIGOT: Lost to the deceased husband.

MARK SHIELDS: Nobody has challenged a result in an election by 51,000 votes. There has never been a recount – overturn or anything of the sort. He did – I mean, necessity made him very, very graceful and he was, and gracious. Secondly when you talk about observing the laws of the country, the Republicans cheered at their convention in 1992 when they said Bill Clinton sat in the dormitory at Cambridge instead of serving his country. John Ashcroft said I would have gone if I was called and yet every chance he denied the chance to accept the call.

PAUL GIGOT: I don’t think so, at least as I’ve been able to get from the White House, they’re determined not to let that happen. I think if it… if he had been defeated, that might have been the case but as long as they thought they were going to win, they’re very much in the mood to move on because they think they have bigger issues to tackle and they’re going to need some Democratic votes.

JIM LEHRER: In a word do you agree?

MARK SHIELDS: I agree Jim. When the President met this week with the Congressional Black Caucus as part of his charm offensive or personal diplomacy, he was a little bit surprised with the intensity with which they brought up Ashcroft; that this was so important. It is very much there.

JIM LEHRER: Terry McAuliffe, according to all reports, is tomorrow going to be elected the new chairman of the Democratic Party; is a great fund-raiser; a great friend of President Clinton. What do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think Terry McAuliffe is the symptom rather than the cause. There was a time when national chairs of the two parties were people like Bob Dole and George Bush and Larry O’Brien, and Paul Kirk and Bob Strauss, and kind of leading politicians, major figures who were major spokesmen for their party, who could stand up for their party and they organized their party and they went out and recruited candidates. You want to know what politics is about now? It’s about raising money. I mean, Jim Nicholson, whom I like very much, the Republican chairman, I don’t think he was ever on “Meet the Press” –maybe he was, speaking for his party. He was a fund-raiser. Terry McAuliffe is a fund-raiser. That’s what it has come. Jim, the time was when you’re going to run for Congress, you’d come here, they’d say, Jim what are your credentials? What’s your background? Who is supporting you? How are you going to win this race? There’s only question that’s asked now -can you get a million dollars.

PAUL GIGOT: He has a point. The money is important for McAuliffe. That’s how he has made his reputation in politics. But there’s one other thing that McAuliffe represents and that is former President Bill Clinton and now Senator Hillary Clinton, he really is I think is their pick, their representative on their committee. He was put on their, he requested it but they really worked it – overruling the current Jo Andrew, who wanted to re-up and couldn’t. And there is no question. I think he is an illustration of their continuing influence within the Democratic Party, maybe even– I mean really the most prominent Democrats and the continuing desire to play that role and to set the agenda within the party.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. We have to leave it there. Thank you both.