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Shields and Gigot

February 27, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Now, some speech preview words now from Shields and Gigot: Syndicated columnist mark Shields and “Wall Street Journal” columnist Paul Gigot. Paul what’s at stake for the President tonight?

PAUL GIGOT: His agenda.

JIM LEHRER: Everything?

PAUL GIGOT: Not everything — one speech. I do think it is more of an opportunity for any President but especially for this one in the opening bid. This is a chance to go over the heads of Congress – speak to the American people in order to move the Congress. He’s had this charm offensive with individual members and groups of Democrats, Republicans, and that’s fine. It’s good to be liked, but more important to be feared, to have that sense in the minds of Congressmen and women that, you know, “if I go against this… this guy, it may cost me.” And I think that this is the beginning of the process where he can show the members of Congress that he can move the country and then help his agenda along.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Mark, that he must demonstrate his strength as much as charm tonight?

MARK SHIELDS: I think so, Jim. I think that Paul is absolutely right that every President want to be able to go over the heads of Congress at least have Congress know that he’s capable of doing it in and marshaling public opinion behind him and there is some political cost to be paid for opposing the President. The problem with President Bush is that facile with language he is not and command of facts has not been his strong suit. He’s given two – I think — really good speeches. I thought his acceptance speech at the convention was superb. I thought his inaugural speech was more than adequate. He has worked hard on this one. It is important, it is not decisive, but it’s the first time American people have seen him in all the panoplies. Bush people have said this is a state of the union.

JIM LEHRER: We should explain that. A state of the union is reserved for Presidents after they have been in after the first year. This is just an address to a joint session of Congress.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right, but for all practical purposes — if you turn on the set tonight, it’s “ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.” Mrs. Bush will be in the galleries. For the first time, Jim, in 50 years, it will be an all- Republican setting. There will be a Republican Vice President, a Republican Speaker of the House, a Republican President. So it’s important in that sense as a table setter for this administration, because George W. Bush, I think, tonight has to make the case that he’s in command.

JIM LEHRER: You would agree with that?

PAUL GIGOT: I do. I do. He has to lay out, I think, a philosophy of government. What he wants as a different kind of….

JIM LEHRER: Beyond what he has already said?

PAUL GIGOT: Well, no, I think be thematic and lay it out, and put some meat on the bones as well for the agenda and set priorities and make good arguments that can carry that agenda — in particular, find a consistent argument to sell the tax cut.

JIM LEHRER: You don’t think he has done that?

PAUL GIGOT: No. I think you’ve had different ones. You’ve had Larry Lindsey say, “it’s a stimulus.” He’s Bush’s chief economic advisor. Paul O’Neill, Secretary of the Treasury, said, “I don’t buy the stimulus.” Others say deny the money for Congress to spend and others say it’s immoral. I think he needs to focus on three or four ideas and drive them home in a persuasive fashion and stick on that from now until the tax bill pass.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, is there a special target audience for the tax cut proposal that he must speak to tonight? Who has the power to keep from getting it?

MARK SHIELDS: I think the power… That Paul is right in the sense he hasn’t made a defined argument. I mean, the President has been talking up a recession. You know things are really bad. There has been a certain gloomy Gus. That has been sort of the Keynesian argument. I don’t think Larry Lindsey would like to be called a Keynesian. Stimulate the economy– that’s what the tax cut is about. The prediction of the Federal Reserve Board is that unemployment will go to 4.5% this year. That’s serious for the unemployed. During six of eight years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency– the golden era according to most Republican legend– unemployment was over 7%. He didn’t want to be in the position of saying things are really bad and awful, talking a recession. I think what he has to reach… He starts off ahead of Clinton. Bill Clinton in 1983 with his package didn’t have a single Republican vote. Zell Miller of Georgia is onboard and a sponsor of the tax cut. But he has to persuade people this is not a favorite of the wealthy. By a six to one margin in the “Washington Post”/ABC Poll, people think the tax cuts benefits the wealthy more than middle class.

JIM LEHRER: And you think that target audience is more out in the country than it is in the hall tonight; he’s got to make that case to the folks and then they will help make the case to the folks inside?

PAUL GIGOT: I think that’s right. I really do. I don’t think that the class war argument the wealthy argument is selling as well from the Democratic point. I think their ultimate argument is going to be, “there is not enough money. He’s going to take it from Medicare and Social Security.” I think Bush’s more important task, specifically on the tax cut, is to inoculate Republicans and himself on that argument and say, in fact, “there is enough to do both” — I plan on having both of those things as priorities, that is, entitlement changes and reform and security and a tax cut.

JIM LEHRER: How does he handle the argument that the Democrats throw back, which is, hey, “wait a minute. We need to spin down the department”? That’s a number one priority before we do tax cuts. Isn’t that a good thing? What does he say to that?

PAUL GIGOT: I think particularly they’ll spend it first. The second thing, the surpluses have been coming in so large, that by 2006, according to Congressional Budget Office, the surplus is so large, you won’t be able to pay down the debt any particular year because it is going to exceed in the year the debt that comes in and repayable in that year.

JIM LEHRER: Is it improper for the average person to be skeptical about these surplus figures?

MARK SHIELDS: Of course it is. Any time you’re out beyond a couple of years there is great skepticism. You recall, Bill Clinton came to office with predictions of the budget office of his predecessor of his own Congressional Budget Office they were going to have deficits as long as the eye could see. In the space of seven years, a surplus was achieved. That’s a testimony to not only why stewardship, as Clinton would argue, but to the United States economy. I think, Jim, as you look right now at President Bush’s position, he has to be not only the preacher in chief – which a President has to be — but the teacher in chief. I think Paul made the point he must explain this. I don’t think the case has been made to people as to why this is important and urgent. And most of all, every Republican prays that doesn’t happen to George W. Bush what happened to Bill Clinton on September 22, 1993 when he gave his defining signature speech of his presidency on health care and he looked… he did not have his reading glasses in his pocket and he looked and the teleprompter didn’t have the speech. For seven minutes he had to give his own speech from memory and did almost seamlessly.

JIM LEHRER: I remember, we were on the air that night. It was an astonishing performance.

MARK SHIELDS: It was a remarkable performance.

PAUL GIGOT: Well, I can tell you what George W. Bush would do; he’d say, “somebody get my speech.”

JIM LEHRER: “You all take a break. Send me… you bring me my speech.”

PAUL GIGOT: He doesn’t have that arrogance, and then to think he could pull it off.

MARK SHIELDS: There was more than arrogance. That was mastery at exact detail and knowledge of the subject matter.

JIM LEHRER: George W. Bush, you both said at the beginning, that he has to show he’s in command. How does a man do that?

PAUL GIGOT: I think he did it… He’s done it on two occasions I think quite well. Mark mentioned the inaugural and acceptance speeches. Those were set speeches where he would work on it and practice it and get comfortable with delivery and work over the language. This is one of those speeches. This isn’t an off-the-cuff exercise. So he ought to be able to put together the language and arguments. I know they have been working on them for sometime. He ought to be able to do that. The presentation and delivery– I don’t think he’s ever going to… at least for a few years, remind anybody of Ronald Reagan with that command of a stage. Ronald Reagan was doing that 30 years before he was President of the United States. He showed in the speeches, the kind of speeches he can still do pretty will.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Well, we’ll see, and on most public television stations we’ll be back. I’ll mention that again at the end of the program and Mark and Paul will be back at that time as well. Thank you both.