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Political Wrap

April 27, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: Now to Margaret Warner for political analysis of the week, from Shields and Gigot and Kohut.

MARGARET WARNER: And that’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields, and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. And joining them to talk about a new poll at President Bush’s 100-day mark is Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Welcome everybody.

Andy, how is he doing at this 100-day point with the public?

ANDREW KOHUT: He is doing very well with the public. There were a lot of polls this week. If you put them all together, the average is about 60 percent saying they approve of him — and that’s pretty good in absolute terms. If you look at our poll, we have a monitor there, 56 percent say they approve of George Bush’s job performance so far. Twenty-seven percent disapprove — very comparable to what his father got 12 years ago, to what President Clinton got eight years ago. In fact it’s better than President Clinton got eight years ago because the disapproval ratings are lower.

Not shown in that is a very important element in response to him and that is the approval is extremely enthusiastic because Republicans love him. Seventy-one percent of the Republicans that we polled said they approved of him very strongly. That compares to 39 percent of Democrats saying that about President Clinton eight years ago. He’s got his support of his base to the hilt.

MARGARET WARNER: So what does the public like about him most and what do they not like about him or not like about what he has been doing?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, a consistent thing in what people volunteer is they like this man personally. They like his style. They like his honesty, his integrity, his calm dignity. He is a low-maintenance president. And…

MARGARET WARNER: After a very high maintenance one.

ANDREW KOHUT: After a very high maintenance president. And now in this latest poll, we got more mentions of his policies and actions that they like because the good things that he has done or the things that people like are highly visible. We have a slide showing education spending; 57 percent knew that he is in favor of increased education budget. The China standoff was the number one story so far this year and he got strong approval there. And his tax proposal is being well recognized. And while there is approval, it tends to be thin but nonetheless it is approval.

Most importantly, the things that have been controversial and unpopular are far less visible and to use the hackneyed phrase, under the radar. When we ask voters what’s Bush’s position on carbon dioxide or that controversial arsenic thing that Jay Leno mentions at least once a night, only 20 percent could associate the right position. So he has — he is benefiting because these things, even among environmentalists, or people who are concerned with the environment, are not really resonating as much as the positives are.

MARGARET WARNER: So is that why you think that even though he is only about equal with Bill Clinton in approval, that his disapproval is milder or less intense?

ANDREW KOHUT: Absolutely. And another element of this is that while he’s getting bad grades for the environment and for some things, they’re not all that bad. People are evenly divided on the environment despite on his handling of the environment, despite the bad publicity.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Mark, how do you think he is doing?

MARK SHIELDS: I think he is doing fine. I think that we compare presidents to their predecessors. That’s what George W. Bush has going for him more than anything else. Gerald Ford benefited because he was not Richard Nixon when he came to office. George Bush the first suffered because he wasn’t Ronald Reagan, especially among Republicans and conservatives. They had doubts about him. George W. Bush is the beneficiary, especially among the Republicans the intense conservative support that Andy Kohut spoke about — because he is not Bill Clinton. He was the agent, the instrumentality of restoring the White House to pristine possession of the party of Lincoln and whoever else.

MARGARET WARNER: And, other than position, Paul, what do you think he has done in this 100 days to rate these ratings?

PAUL GIGOT: Well, partly I think it is tone. It’s a more business-like atmosphere after the chaos, often, of the Clinton years. I mean, the first three months with Bill Clinton, you had gays in the military; you had the tax increase; you had the travel office shortly therefore, and it was great for us, great for our business.

MARGARET WARNER: It is amazing that Bill Clinton held on to 55 percent approval.

PAUL GIGOT: But I think Republicans are happy partly because of that but they’re also happy because he stuck to his agenda. He is trying to do the things in office despite the very close contentious election that he said he was going to do. And he hasn’t compromised a lot so far. I think he is going to at some point but what they’re saying is, it looks like he believes what he is doing. He has changed the debate on taxes, $1.4 trillion it looks like or 1.3 million minimum tax cut. A year ago Democrats were saying 200, 300 billion, that’s all. On education he is reaching to the middle. Independents like that, suburban women like that. And he has changed the debate on that towards more accountability and choice. So I think those policy items are certainly serving him well.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think he is doing a good job governing, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Margaret, I think it’s too early to say on governing. Very bluntly, Paul makes a good point about his discipline on agenda. That’s been very impressive. He has been single minded. In that sense again he has disabused some of the doubts about him that conservatives harbored that he was his father’s son, especially on the tax cut. He has held strong on the tax cut.

Margaret, yesterday I was in Independence, Missouri, at Harry Truman’s Presidential Library. The first 100 days of Harry Truman’s presidency was the Potsdam Conference with Stalin, the victory in World War II in Europe, the A-bomb, the creation of the UN, and Russia comes into the war. With all due….

MARGARET WARNER: Hard to top.

MARK SHIELDS: With all due respect, banning snowmobiles from national parks really doesn’t rise to the same historical order of magnitude. I think the president has benefited from that.

PAUL GIGOT: Sure. I’ll take the comparison if is there no Joe Stalin walking the earth.

MARK SHIELDS: Whether in fact, a president governs, a president leads, those were challenges that tested a president’s mettle and ability to lead.

PAUL GIGOT: Along that point a little bit anyway I think the one thing he hasn’t demonstrated so far that could hurt him if he reaches a crisis of some kind is he hasn’t demonstrated that like Ronald Reagan, he is a really great communicator. He has not dominated the political debate in a way that Reagan did where Democrats and liberal Republicans felt, you know, I really better think twice about voting against him because my political future is in jeopardy.

He is liked, Bush, but he is not feared. You saw that in the Senate vote on the tax cut where two members of his party, northeast liberal Republicans said sorry, not going to vote with you. Only one Democrat in the Senate would go along. So I think he has a ways to go before he is the commanding leader that the really great presidents have been.

MARK SHIELDS: Because Bill Clinton and the brouhaha, the controversy swirling around with all the pardons and the leaving of the White House, and reluctance to get off stage, he has not yet been compared to Clinton on the grounds where I think he suffers most and I think even his admirers do, and that’s competence, that’s a sense of command, it’s a sense of information, it’s a mastery of the job.

His folks are doing a very wonderful job of kind of spinning that. That no, no he’s not “Washington.” He’s not bureaucratese — he doesn’t talk that way. When he stumbles on a Taiwan as he did this week in a statement on Taiwan, with an interview with the network, he wasn’t changing policy. If you want to change policy on Taiwan, you call your allies, you do it in a major setting. You establish a context of seriousness. He didn’t. He made a misstep. Well, you know, this is a guy, a different guy, talking direct and all the rest of it. And I think that at some point could become a serious problem for him.

PAUL GIGOT: He stumbled into the truth. I mean, he said basically what everybody’s believed — that we are going to come to the defense of Taiwan. I guess with diplomatic niceties you’re not supposed to say that so candidly. But it is the truth.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s go back – go ahead –

MARK SHIELDS: Then why did they hustle so much to say we haven’t changed our policy? Within two hours that was a full court press and it’s now “we haven’t changed our policy”.

PAUL GIGOT: The State Department trying to take… He should get control of that.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s get back to how well he laid the groundwork when the rubber hits the road on the issues that you said he’d emphasized – the tax cut, holding spending to a 4 percent increase and of course education reform. Now, Andy, you found that for instance the tax cut is very popular but what does the public think whether they’re told, or where do they come down if they’re told, well, it also means a cap on spending? Do they support the cap on spending or are they just talking about, well, I like the tax cut in abstract?

ANDREW KOHUT: They want it all.

MARGARET WARNER: What a surprise.

ANDREW KOHUT: What a surprise. But the real surprise in this poll is how consistently the public is saying spend more, spend more, on a whole range of social spending. It’s not only education. It’s also health care, it’s Medicare, energy, support for increased spending on the military. And what the real problem for, potential problem for Bush is many of the concerns that are latent that the public has about him that he wants to cut government too much, that he is too much of a– too pro-business — could come into play if we get contention on this tension between spending and cutting taxes.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Mark, wouldn’t you say that that’s where really his leadership is going to be tested. In other words, can he get at least the basic building blocks of these three items, pretty much the way he wants them? Do you think he is going to be able to?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s going to be tough, Margaret. And I think Andy is right. You look at the numbers and compare it to where it was in public appetite for spending. The public is conditioned to the fact that we had deficits for a long time. Those restrained the impulse to spend on Capitol Hill and in the public. Now with the president’s mantra is: we have a surplus unending. If we can afford a $1.6 trillion tax cut, then my goodness we can afford $50 billion more for AIDS research; we can afford a billion more for children’s literacy. That’s the fight he is going to fight. It isn’t just – he’s going to find out it isn’t just Democrats versus Republicans; it’s Republicans and Democrats and all bets are off because there is a surplus and there is no deficit.

MARGARET WARNER: And that plays into, Paul, your point that Bush can’t really command through fear to get even all his Republicans to go with him on this.

PAUL GIGOT: He can’t and, boy, there’s a lot of them out there that just can’t wait to spend. I mean, just about anything that moves, a lot of the Democrats and Republicans will throw money at. The surplus has been a disaster for believers in small government, there’s no question about that. It makes it very hard to make– you have to make the case against spending on a philosophical basis and there are not a lot of politicians who are really prepared to do that. They say, well, we can’t spend because of the deficit; that was the great –

Bush has one thing in his hip pocket, though, when it comes to compromising on these things, which he’s probably going to have to do — 94 percent approval in Andy’s poll among conservative Republicans right now. That means that you have the trust of your political base. And it means you have some room to move. And I think that Bush is probably going to call upon that here in the coming weeks. And there’s already some people in Congress on education, Republicans are saying, I don’t like this bill. But he is going to call upon that support to cut some deals in the coming weeks.

MARGARET WARNER: Before we go, there’s a big controversy this week, Mark, over revelations that former Senator Bob Kerrey led a combat mission in Vietnam 32 years ago that killed women and children. And there is a dispute between Senator Kerrey and one of his comrades about whether this was inadvertent or intentional, which of course we can’t settle, but what do you make – Senator Kerrey had a press conference yesterday. There have been editorials. I mean, this has not been a one-day story. This has been a three or four-day story that’s going to go on for a while. What do you make of this whole controversy?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think, Margaret, in an act of moral arrogance rarely seen, the New York Timeseditorially yesterday said some Americans will question his long silence and his candor about this episode, about Bob Kerrey. And I have to say anybody who has known Bob Kerrey, best of my knowledge, no one has ever heard him talk about his military experiences.

MARGARET WARNER: He doesn’t boast.

MARK SHIELDS: He doesn’t talk about it. I mean, for people who have been in combat, that is not something that they visit, the idea that he had to somehow get confessional on Oprah about what happened and what had to be a painful, powerfully painful memory. I think it’s truly revealing of the sense that this is an unresolved Vietnam; that Bob Kerrey went, unlike most people of his age and station, he did not seek a friendly family physician’s notice to defer him from military service. He did not go to graduate school to do it. He did not say that the sons of cops and waiters and waitresses and cabbies ought to go.

And I just think that there’s an awful lot of explaining that has to be done first by those who are pointing the fingers at Bob Kerrey as to what they did. This is a man whose conscience is conflicted. He refuses to dishonor the courage and the bravery of the men with whom he served and yet at the same time he’s obviously anguished about what happened and his role it in. And he refuses to deny his own responsibility for it. I mean, you can delegate authority, but you cannot delegate responsibility in the military and Bob Kerrey refuses to do it and that’s what makes it special.

PAUL GIGOT: Mark stole my thunder beating up theNew York Times. I think this says more about Bob Kerrey’s critics, frankly, than it says about any guilt that Bob Kerrey himself might have. Vietnam is still a polarizing event, and will always be probably as long as the people who, for whom that was an important event are alive, but especially so on the American left and within the Democratic Party I think. That’s where the real divide goes.

We’ve seen every couple of years there’s a catalytic event that brings it back to the surface. Last time I remember it was Robert McNamara’s memoirs, the former defense chief, he was Defense Secretary under Johnson when the war was going on. And this catalyzed a whole big fight. Again it was on the left, the left criticizing each other, because they’ve never been able to agree about whether it was a really worthwhile endeavor. The right — on the other hand — said, “It wasn’t executed well but it was a morally right effort on our behalf.” And that’s, I think, why it’s so contentious now.

MARK SHIELDS: A morally right effort that virtually every conservative leader in the country avoided when he had the chance to serve. You go through from Hastert to DeLay to Gingrich, to Lott, to all of them. Now it was morally right and they were cheerleaders; they decided to watch from it 10,000 yards offshore through heavy power binoculars. I mean, John Kerry, Max Cleland, and Bob Kerrey all went and served — and thank goodness for Chuck Hagel or Republicans would be bereft. And John McCain.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Mark and Paul and Andy, thank you all three very much.