Political Wrap with Mark Shields and Paul Gigot
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JIM LEHRER: Shields and Gigot. Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. Produce Mark, President Bush has been criticized this week for going back on a campaign pledge having to do with carbon dioxide. Does he deserve to be criticized?
MARK SHIELDS: He does, Jim. Any time you’re politician office holder and there is a sentence that says in the headline, retreat, renege, reverse, flip-flop — it’s not a plus; you want to change the subject. And when somebody changes his mind, an office holder, and comes to your position, you basically say he grown, he’s flexible, matured — ability to grow. When he does the opposite and leaves a position that he has held and you’ve supported, he is Benedict Arnold. He’s Judas Iscariot; he’s worse. So what the President did, I think, is not that widely known at this point. I don’t think it is a killer.
I don’t think his numbers are going to plummet but Democrats completed a nationwide poll; Republicans in the White House, I’m sure, have access to very similar numbers, and they show that the biggest vulnerability, the Achilles Heel of George Bush’s presidency and the party he leads, is that this thing is too close to the well healed and the well connected, and agree that this is seen as his position on carbon dioxide has been influenced by big oil, big coal, big interests — that is a potential problem for him politically — as well as for the lungs of America’s children and the world’s children.
JIM LEHRER: How do you read it, Paul.
PAUL GIGOT: Industry was divided on this. Big natural gas, if you will, was on the other side of it, so there is no question that this wasn’t just an industry versus right thinking, good honorable people; this was a real debate about policy. And I think he did the right thing because if he hadn’t, his energy policy was dead, Jim, it was over. They’ve got the lights going out in California. They’ve got brownouts predicted in the East Coast and New York and I’ll tell you when summer comes around and it’s 90° and the air conditioning doesn’t come on, that’s a lot bigger problem than whether carbon dioxide may or may not, in fact, be causing global warming. That’s what he had to focus on.
JIM LEHRER: What about just the politics of saying one thing as a candidate and then doing another within a couple of months after you’ve been elected — is that a problem for him? Forget the issues of carbon dioxide for a moment.
PAUL GIGOT: Remember the furious debates Mark and I had about the carbon dioxide policy?
JIM LEHRER: It seems like only yesterday.
PAUL GIGOT: We never even mentioned it. In fact, it was two lines in a speech, Jim. In fact, the biggest divide in this election was over the Kyoto Treaty where Bush was clearly against it.
JIM LEHRER: The global warming treaty.
PAUL GIGOT: The global warming treaty. Gore was clearly for it. The classification of carbon dioxide as a pollutant really contradicted what was Bush’s rhetorical position throughout the campaign. I think it is much less of a real flip-flop.
MARK SHIELDS: Let me disagree. George Bush carried the burden politically of a miserable environmental record in Texas, by any standard. I mean, Houston’s air, all the rest of it, he wanted to move away from it. The 29th of September, major promo, as a major statement on the environment, they trumpeted the fact, the Bush folks did that he was going to impose mandatory reduction targets on carbon dioxide as opposed to Al Gore’s voluntary, that he was tougher on these carbon dioxide production than was Al Gore, the noted environmentalist. This was not a casual line dropped at the end of the day like Bill Clinton’s gays in the military. This was all out policy.
JIM LEHRER: We ran that the other night, but that’s a never mind kind of thing.
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I don’t think it was all that central – I really don’t. I mean, I read that speech. It was billed as an energy speech as much as anything. It balanced energy and environmental speech. In fact, I spent all week trying to find out who put it in. And there was nobody who took any responsibility for putting it in.
JIM LEHRER: I see. Well, that doesn’t surprise you now, does it?
PAUL GIGOT: No. I suppose not.
JIM LEHRER: The Democrats have also been on the President this week, Paul, for accusing him of talking down the economy, saying that first of all it was Vice President Cheney who said there was going to be a recession and then President Bush followed up saying things are kind of grim. Are the Democrats on to something?
PAUL GIGOT: Yes. I think it is a clever strategy by Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader, Jim, because he knows that in the long run, a slow economy, doldrums, recession is very bad for Bush, certainly if it extends through 2002. But in the short-term it’s an asset. Why is it an asset – because it makes it more likely that Democrats are going to feel pressure to do something about the economy, and right now the doing something about the economy, the only plan on the table is George W. Bush’s tax cut. And in fact what’s happening is some Democrats are now beginning to talk with the White House, even some surprising liberal Democrats in the Senate, John Corzine of New Jersey, Bob Graham of Florida have had talks with the White House about speeding up the implementation of the tax cut, doing it this year because the Bush plan was designed in good times. It was designed for a surplus. And so it’s phased in and back loaded and they’re saying let’s get more bang for the buck. Even Robert Rubin, the former Treasury Secretary, said if we’re going to have a tax cut -
JIM LEHRER: Do it now.
PAUL GIGOT: — do it now. And I think what Daschle is trying to do is he’s trying to slow that down a little bit and blame Bush for whatever slowdown there is, try to bring some of these Democrats back.
JIM LEHRER: But what about the specific charge, Mark, that the President has actually been talking down the economy in order to justify his tax cuts, and say see, I told you we needed tax cuts because look what the economy is doing?
MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think there is any question that is a developed strategy. It was born in the campaign, you recall. Trying to rob Al Gore of any advantage he might receive as the Vice President of Bill Clinton during the greatest boom — eight-year boom in the nation’s history — both Vice President Cheney, the nominee then, and Governor Bush warned about this signs of recession out there. I think the President walks a very dangerous line. I think it makes sense for him politically. Paul makes an argument that it probably does give a certain argument in the case for his tax cut, Jim, but what a President has to be in addition to being candid, is a President has to be reassuring. That’s what a leader is. If you think that the economy is bad, the only analogy I can use, you are in a stopped subway car between stations, you want at that point an authoritative voice to come in and say this is where we are — this is what’ being done, this is how we are going to get out of here. And I don’t think – I think there has been enough of that — very little reassurance in the President’s rhetoric.
JIM LEHRER: That’s an interesting point, isn’t it, Paul, that what a President’s job, when times are bad, not to say they’re going to get worse but maybe… what do you think about that?
PAUL GIGOT: I do. I mean, I think there is a line you have to walk. You don’t want to say that– to put– to make people frightened or hurt consumer confidence. There is no question about that — but it’s pretty clear this downturn started last autumn — I mean — 1.1 percent growth in the fourth quarter, 2.2 percent in the third quarter….
JIM LEHRER: It was a real slowdown and Bush didn’t cause it by his words is what you’re saying.
PAUL GIGOT: No, I think that that’s just not a plausible case at all. But you do want to draw a fine line and walk a fine line; and I think that when I talk to the people in the White House, that’s what they admit that they’re trying to do because there is no great benefit in just saying we’re all going to hell because then it can hurt.
JIM LEHRER: But what is your own view? Do you think he stepped over the line?
PAUL GIGOT: No, I don’t think so. I mean, you know, he did say, I think rightly, this week when the stock market is down is that he is concerned. But look if he said everything is sunshine, what would be the argument? Like they made against his father — he doesn’t care. He’s oblivious. He’s out of touch.
JIM LEHRER: Another subject. Not always interested in talking about polls but the New York Times/CBS Poll this week, Mark, was fascinating; it showed that more than 60 percent of the people like the job President Bush is doing but barely 40 percent think he’s in charge. How do you, plain that?
MARK SHIELDS: I think there is a way of explaining– I mean people do like President Bush. His unfavorable has dropped considerably and his favorable ratings are comparable to those of Bill Clinton at this point, not as high as his dad’s or Mr. Reagan — or Jimmy Carter. But, you know, they’re certainly more than respectable. But I don’t think it is a real problem in March of 2001 that half the people don’t think that George Bush is running the administration. For two reasons: One, the people they think are running it whether it’s Dick Cheney or Colin Powell and his area, or whatever, are seen as competent, responsible people. If they were anonymous sort of non-entities, I think that would be a problem but they have their own independent reputations Jim, however, going back to the CO-2 and going back to the tax cut to the degree that George Bush is not seen as a strong and forceful figure and that other forces and other interests large, well healed, well connected interests are influencing policy, that becomes policy. If a year from now the numbers are the same, then George Bush’s presidency is in trouble.
JIM LEHRER: How do you analyze it?
PAUL GIGOT: It is only a problem if it lasts I think a long time or people do get the sense somehow that he is not in control. Everybody — every President does have to look in command and in control. You know, I think this White House has been pursuing a strategy which is we’re not going to put him out very often, and if you look at what Bill Clinton did in his first few months, contrasted with George Bush in just terms of number of public appearances, number of TV interviews, bringing people — the anchors — through the White House, the first lady and so on — it has been a really much different strategy. Maybe it’s time to ratchet it up a bit if people don’t think he is in control.
JIM LEHRER: Last subject. Campaign finance reform gets its big moment or two weeks at least in the Senate sun beginning on Monday. The news stories say, oh, wait a minute; it may suddenly be in trouble. What is your reading of it?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, suddenly it might pass, Jim, and when something might pass, the charade that we have been having the last few years here where all the reformers, boy, this is just a terrific idea, we’re going to vote for this and that it would pass completely except for Darth Vader, Mitch McConnell, the Republican filibuster. Suddenly now McConnell has removed his filibuster threat. We’re going to get a real debate, which is encouraging and good, but a lot of people for reform are suddenly discovering….
JIM LEHRER: A lot of Democrats.
PAUL GIGOT: Particularly Democrats…maybe it wasn’t such a good idea…the AFL-CIO notably has come out against half of the McCain-Feingold reform and a lot of Democrats, John Breaux broke this week, the Louisiana Democrat, because – you know what — in soft money now they’ve caught up to the Republicans.
JIM LEHRER: What is going on, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, I think there is skittishness; I think there’s some nervousness. I think Paul makes a reasonable point here about you vote for something as a symbol and you get all the pluses and it never becomes law and you never have to live by it. John Breaux, let’s get one thing straight, I like John Breaux enormously – John Breaux five times voted for McCain-Feingold in the past. When the hearings began, Fred Thompson chaired on the abuses of the 1996 Presidential campaign that Senator Thompson of Tennessee chaired, John Breaux said we’re going to have hearings like this unless and until we abolish soft money. Now I think that John Breaux of Louisiana, special case, but I think the Democrats will stick. Mitch McConnell’s argument that this is going to somehow help the Democrats I don’t think is borne out by what Paul just cited. The Democrats caught up in soft money. I think that the soft money has become so total, so dominant in our system when, Jim you have 800 individual institutions giving two-thirds of the $296 million in soft money last year, that is outrageous.
JIM LEHRER: We will resume this conversation next week. Thank you both very much.