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Political Wrap

April 20, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Now our Friday night political analysis by Shields and Gigot, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot.

Paul, President Bush made several announcements this week that were interpreted as being heavily pro-environment. Why? What is going on?

PAUL GIGOT: It had nothing to do with the fact that Earth Day is this Sunday, Jim. No — just a sheer coincidence. What the White House was doing was something trying to dig itself out of a hole that in a way which is of its own making on the environment. One of the things this administration does well is focus on their agenda, taxes, education, trade, if they are pushing it, they do those set pieces well. They haven’t done as good at reacting, counterpunching. Taking something the other side is throwing at them and adjusting. And they’ve mishandled the environmental issue certainly from a public relations points of view. They have allowed the other side to define them as anti-environment particularly on some things like arsenic in groundwater which the previous administration took eight years to introduce, three days before they left office decided they would introduce this new standard. But instead of taking it, delaying it and doing it, pitching it in a way they could say we need to think about this, they let it leak out and they let the other people define them. Here they are now having a scramble back out of that.

JIM LEHRER: Does it mean that the old cliché or the old saw that being pro-environment meant being a liberal and being a Democrat really doesn’t mean that anymore, that the country is more evenhanded on the environment than it used to be?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t know if it’s evenhanded on the environment, Jim. I think what the president found out…

JIM LEHRER: Evenhanded politically.

MARK SHIELDS: Evenhanded politically. Yeah, I think what the president found out and — is that Kermit the frog once said it isn’t easy being green. It isn’t politically healthy being seen as being anti-green. Paul is right. They were stumbled; they first made the blanket statement about President Clinton’s announcements but the one that they shot themselves in the foot and other parts of their anatomy was the arsenic. Most people probably got up in the morning and didn’t think, I wonder what the level of arsenic is in my drinking water. That is not one you want to introduce into the public debate. You talk about arsenic, most Americans if they want to name a poison they would say arsenic. Arsenic is a poison, and I think in that sense they really, really blew it. They had to scramble back. That was… the one that they no longer could admit, argue somehow this had been misinterpretations or mishandlings. So the president did this week — I mean, he had a week that you would have sworn you were talking to the president of the Sierra Club. Every day was an announcement culminating with a Rose Garden ceremony with the secretary of state and Christine Todd Whitman, the Environmental Protection administrator, to endorse a treaty that was about as controversial as a mother’s day resolution. But, Lord, he was going to be there in front of the flowers and bushes.

JIM LEHRER: Is this real or is it show?

PAUL GIGOT: I think that when you look at some of the regulations that they are endorsing the people who’ll be paying for them think they will be very real. Some of the wetlands construction bans — for example — that was widely opposed. Some of the local communities — that if they do impose the arsenic standard — which the EPA’s own science advisory board said they exaggerated the risk or the danger of arsenic, appears naturally in groundwater. The standard is 50 parts per billion; Clinton said it should be 10. And the Bush administration has come back and said okay, we’re going to do 20. But somebody is going to have to pay for that and that is going to be a political cost.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of the politics, how would you answer my question about the politics of the environment now, how it breaks down among parties and conservatives and liberals?

PAUL GIGOT: I still think it’s a pretty sharp conservative-liberal split in the sense that the politics of environment is like education was ten years ago. Politics of education was how much money can you spend? You are either for education and you want to spend money — now it has become about accountability and choice. The environment, it’s about how much rules are there and what are the rules? Either you are for the rules or against them. Cost does not seem part of the debate. So until the Republicans can find a way to reframe that debate to a better way to get the same kind of results the public wants, because everybody wants clean water, clean air, I think they’re going to be on the down side of that debate. That’s why they have to think ahead on it and think creatively about it.

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, the debate, come back to the original question. The president was bleeding on this issue. I mean, the Washington Post-ABC question was do you think the president — President Bush cares more about large corporations or ordinary people. By a two to one voters said large corporations. In an environmental context voters asked in the New York Times-CBS poll do you think the president cares more about protecting the environment or energy, energy companies and production of it. By a 7-1 margin, 65 percent to 9 percent they said he cared less about the environment and more about energy. This is the problem. With the problem, it isn’t just George Bush; it’s the Republicans going into the election of 2002 and 2004. Where I disagree with Paul is the warnings about the environment, for years, by the anti-environmentalists didn’t turn out to be true. We were told in 1975 this was the end of the American automobile industry if we tried to remove 99 percent of the lead from the air. Labor and management both in Detroit, that’s the end of it — last time I looked the American automobile industry was doing pretty damn well. And we have removed 99 percent of the lead from the air. And we have turned around four fifths of the rivers and streams in the United States — are now swimmable and fishable, which weren’t swimmable and fishable

JIM LEHRER: Does he have a point?

PAUL GIGOT: In part we’ve been able to do that — not because of the government fiat but because we’ve been rich enough and we have had the economic growth that has been able to make us able to afford that. The problem with some of these rules, a lot of these rules, is they are paid not by the suburbanites — the well-to-do suburbanites, who live outside of Philadelphia and want to think well of the environment and want their… –but by people in rural constituencies and people who actually live in wetland areas. A lot of those states tend to be Western states. This arsenic problem isn’t something I get in rural Virginia. But it is in New Mexico. If you are Pete Domenici, the Republican Senator out there, you care a lot about that.

JIM LEHRER: Another President Bush question, Mark; he made an interesting style decision last weekend and that was to not go to Whidbey Island in Washington state and welcome home the 24 crew members of that surveillance plane — unlike President Clinton, would have probably been there. President Reagan would probably have been there. Even his father, the first President Bush would have been there. What does it say about George W. Bush?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it says something good. He didn’t have to be there. That he didn’t feel my gosh this is the fix I have to have. I mean, Theodore White, the great American political journalist, said too many politicians are like heliotopic flowers, in the sense they turn to the sun; they turn to the TV camera. I think if you think of — it’s hard for me to believe that Bill Clinton wouldn’t have been. But at the same time, the ceremony was a better ceremony because there wasn’t a president there. I mean it was families greeting people who have been separated and whom they are worried. At the same time, Jim, it was not an unalloyed American triumph diplomatically. There was not a time for triumphalism. And I think the president made a prudent decision as well.

JIM LEHRER: It wasn’t just style?

MARK SHIELDS: No, we don’t have the plane back. We don’t have — results of China, I think, if he had gone there and it had been sort of celebratory, and he had been standing there, it might have roiled the waters and I think finally the president has shown himself already, president Bush, as somebody who likes his time on weekends. He had planned for a family Easter Sunday weekend with his family and his folks and Mrs. Bush’s folks at the ranch and I think he, I think that probably took a little priority.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read it?

PAUL GIGOT: I applaud that — spending Easter Sunday rather than grandstanding at an event. Part of what Bush is thinking is he is redefining… when he says will change the tone in Washington. What he means… part is a little more presidential modesty. Bill Clinton was in everything; he loved to talk; he loved to see himself in the center of things. I think Bush is saying I don’t want to do that. The challenge for Bush though, there are two jobs for the presidency. You are the head of the government but you’re also the head of state. You are the prime minister and you’re the queen in essence of this country. There is a ceremonial role for that. There is a role for the president has to play and the best presidents always have played to speak to the sentiments of the country, to speak for the country, on behalf of it for in moments of grief like the Challenger, which Reagan did; Oklahoma City, the funeral that Clinton did, moments of peril. And we don’t know yet where George W. Bush is going to pick his spots to do that. But every successful president, every loved president, did that and did it well.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right, let me just add to that one other thing. The test of a president is not in the moments of triumph. The test of a president is the moments of greatest grief. The president goes to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware when dead Americans returned. I can remember Ronald Reagan not being available when 241 Americans were blown up in a barracks in Lebanon and brought home in caskets with flag drapes. Their families were there but he wasn’t there. I think that that is the test. Whether a president can do it at that moment and define — give meaning to what has just taken place.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of tests and the president we’ll talk about it next Friday after it’s all over, but this summit in Quebec, what is at stake for him?

PAUL GIGOT: It’s his first big group event. So he want to put on a good show — look presidential and meet a lot of the fellow leaders but he also wants to use them. He wants to use their support for free trade to help him back home — to help him make the case for a hemispheric trade agreement. What he needs to pass that here would be trade promotion authority. That is one of his big agenda items this year in Congress. He wants to get the prime minister of Canada and the leader of Mexico and the fellow world leaders saying, look, we need this, help George W. Bush and that’s what he wants.

JIM LEHRER: So it’s important?

MARK SHIELDS: He raised it on the campaign. There is no question his commitment on this issue is long and strong. But here, Jim, he will be compared again perhaps not happily to Bill Clinton who what everyone said about him at these meetings emerged… and increasingly comfortable… and emerged as dominant figure at each one. The other element — not to be overlooked –.

JIM LEHRER: Regardless of what the issue is, regardless of where the meeting is or what is going on –

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right — there is that sense but I also add that there is a very important domestic political component to this — the growing, burgeoning Latino population in the United States. Hemispheric politics, good hemispheric relations has a political dividend to be played at home. And what Governor Bush and the campaign learned and President Bush has to deal with is that this is an important constituency and one that he would like to feel that he is offering something important too.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree…

PAUL GIGOT: Much in the way that Eastern European constituencies in Chicago and big urban places, there was a reason that presidents went over to Poland… or, then I think President Bush may end up going there in a couple of months. You could see that. That played a big part in terms of Cold War politics…. I agree with Mark. You are seeing that in trade politics and Bush is reaching out to Mexico; that was his first visit.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about Mark’s point about the need for George W. Bush to show a dominant quality as well, the way that Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan and others in the past have done?

PAUL GIGOT: Well, I don’t know. It’s a fairly I think arbitrary standard, how you know if he is dominating or not. He certainly as the head of –.

JIM LEHRER: Just being president of the United States.

PAUL GIGOT: He is going to have a big footprint on it, but I think he has to look competent and in command. Then he has to get some things done more than anything else. When you get things done you look like you are dominant.

JIM LEHRER: I got you. Gentlemen, thank you both.