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Political Wrap with Mark Shields and Paul Gigot

May 4, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And to Shields and Gigot; syndicated columnist Mark Shields, Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot.

Whether it was last night at 2:00 in the morning, Paul, or next Tuesday, the president is going to get pretty much what he wants on budget and taxes, is he not?

PAUL GIGOT: Not everything. He is getting about 80 percent of what he wants on the quantity of what he wants; that is, this is a budget outline that sets the numbers. Doesn’t set the details of policy. Those are hashed out later in spending bills and the actual language of the tax cut provisions. But on the big picture, I think you’d have to consider this a pretty good victory, given that he asked for 1.6, getting 1.35. There’s a lot of room there for tax cuts and I think you see that. And they probably brought along 10, a dozen Democrats on the size of this.

JIM LEHRER: Anything likely to change between now and Tuesday?

PAUL GIGOT: There’s probably going to be some fighting over the amount of dollars on spending from some of the Democrats. But I think that will be worked out.

JIM LEHRER: Going to be worked out, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I’m not sure, Jim. I mean, the lead on this story is the three things that George W. Bush’s administration cares about, and it’s tax cut, tax cut, tax cut, because what they did was construct a budget built around the tax cut. Then everything else kind of followed after that, whether it was education or health or whatever — education being the prime example. And the question of education, Jim, what the Senate went on record was increasing President Bush’s request, which was a $21.8 billion over ten years.

JIM LEHRER: Wasn’t it an 11 percent increase….

MARK SHIELDS: 11 percent. That’s right. $21.8 billion. They went $337 billion over ten years. Voted five times — moderate Republicans and Democrats, in the conference committee, Jim Nussle was chairman, you just heard in Kwame Holman’s piece, the conference between the House and the Senate — they took not what President Bush asked for, the 21.8 billion. They took everything out. There is no money for education.

JIM LEHRER: What do you mean there is no money for education?

MARK SHIELDS: In other words, there is no increase.

JIM LEHRER: No increase.

MARK SHIELDS: President Bush made this the centerpiece of his campaign. Politically he had done masterfully, he had neutralized what had been a Democratic advantage politically. I mean, education had been a big Democratic advantage. Now there is no money and I just got off the phone with Senator Bill Nelson, a freshman Democrat from Florida; very moderate fellow. He is just irate. He is going to vote against the budget. I mean, he’s just got — because of education.

JIM LEHRER: Because of education. What’s going on, Paul?

PAUL GIGOT: I think this is — in terms of — this education debate is still going on. There is a simultaneous debate going on in the education bill where there is a fight over money, how big the increase is going to be. President Bush’s 11.7 percent. Ted Kennedy, representing the Democrats, wants a lot more. They haven’t been able to work it out, and I think a lot of this — will come out when that debate is settled. That’s an education debate — it’s going to be going on the floor in the next couple of weeks.

JIM LEHRER: Missile defense, which is another big thing the president said in his campaign and as Kwame said, as he made this speech on this week. Where is it going to go?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, that’s a great question. This is a great system that has never passed a test yet, but it has a strong constituency in the country. What was intriguing I think to watch this is the budget was put together, Jim and then miraculously, as soon as the budget was together, we learned that we are going to have a lot bigger spending not included in the budget: whether it’s missile defense, whether it’s $175 billion, somewhere between $175-300 billion in increased defense spending. That’s what the secretary of defense has already indicated this week. You know, plus….

JIM LEHRER: Where is that going to come from? It isn’t going to come out of the budget?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s not going to come out of the tax cut; that’s the one thing we know. I mean, that’s been inviolate; that’s been established.

JIM LEHRER: Paul wouldn’t let him do that.

PAUL GIGOT: No. Part of the tax cut is an anti-spending policy. It is almost a stated view of President Bush, which is, if I don’t get this tax cut, they’re going to spend it on other things. So he does want to take that spending off the table, and then let the Congress fight over his priorities versus other priorities. And defense will compete with education, will compete with health care, will compete for courthouses and Mark’s other, you know, precious commodities.

MARK SHIELDS: I think, Jim, that what the president runs a risk from this week is a certain credibility gap growing up about this budget. And I think that’s the biggest problem they face. I mean, all of a sudden, as soon as it’s submitted, we have a new Social Security Commission. There’s no mention anywhere in those and the costs of what it would require. They’ve estimated on both sides a trillion dollars just to go to privatization. That’s what the cost would be. Where is this money going to come from? It’s not going to come from the tax cut.

JIM LEHRER: Social Security Commission, Paul. The Democrats have said that the president stacked the deck. He has got 16 people and they all think privatization or some part of privatization is a really good idea. Is that a stacked deck?

PAUL GIGOT: They’re right, it is stacked but it’s stacked in a sneaky kind of way. It’s bipartisan — seven Democrats, seven Republicans — but it’s stacked with Democrats who agree by and large with President Bush. The Democratic Party — the Republicans have debated Social Security over politics. Don’t touch it, one faction says.

JIM LEHRER: The third rail.

PAUL GIGOT: Yes. President Bush says, yes, touch it. Democrats have had a debate over reforming policy, and there are people who say don’t touch it. It is FDR’s legacy, it’s inviolable, it’s great politics for us, don’t reform it at all. There is another group that says if we don’t reform it, they’re going to get broken, they’re going to lose support.

That’s the Bob Kerrey, former Senator Bob Kerrey position and that’s Pat Moynihan, the new chairman, the Democratic chairman, his view. John Breaux, a lot of the Democrats — what President Bush did — he picked those Democrats for his commission and he left off members of Congress which I thought was interesting. Trent Lott, Senate majority leader, isn’t thrilled with this. They don’t like the idea that maybe they’ll have to cope with this in the 2002 election.

So he left off the Republicans from the Congress; he also left off the Democrats from Congress because he figured if Tom Daschle, if I do name Democrats from Congress, Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt are going to name the Democrats. They’re going to be from that part of the party, the Democratic Party, which doesn’t want any change. We get a split commission, gridlock.

JIM LEHRER: Nothing happens. How do you read it?

MARK SHIELDS: Nothing happens. Paul mentioned John Breaux, senator from Louisiana. He said today the chances of anything happening on this is somewhere between zero and none.

JIM LEHRER: Because of the commission?

MARK SHIELDS: No, not because of the commission, Jim. There’s no money there; there’s no will. I mean, talk about 2002 and Republicans are a little nervous. They’re nervous on a couple of scores. One is prescription drugs is going to be a big issue in 2002, and there’s not the money there to pay for them in the Bush budget. And now they’re talking about Social Security and there isn’t the money there for the transition.

So they don’t need to go into an election in 2002, they, the Republicans, trying to hold on to the House and the Senate, there are a couple of places where they’re really vulnerable, where they’re just playing defense. And I predict right now that this commission will be an interesting and thoughtful. Pat Moynihan is enormously provocative; he’s an intelligent, cerebral man. But as far as the political application of their findings, don’t look for it before January 2003.

JIM LEHRER: Will the Democrats pay any attention to it? I’m sorry.

PAUL GIGOT: Go ahead.

JIM LEHRER: Will the Democrats pay any attention to this commission?

MARK SHIELDS: They have to pay attention to it. I mean, if the president makes it an issue, he did run on this in the campaign, to his credit, so this is a fulfillment of a promise of a pledge of the campaign. But I don’t think there is going to be any follow-through.

PAUL GIGOT: I agree with Mark that I don’t think much is going to happen in the next two years on this. I think it’s politically very difficult to get that done in an election year and it looks like….

JIM LEHRER: Why? There’s nothing to be gained politically from reforming the Social Security system? Is that the bottom line here?

PAUL GIGOT: It’s very risky to do. The Republicans….

JIM LEHRER: Someone is going to get hurt no matter how you do it?

PAUL GIGOT: The results of the last election were ambiguous on the point. And the real news of the last election on Social Security was that a Republican brought it up and lived to tell about it, but barely. It was close. In Florida, it was, what, a break-even issue if you look at the votes among seniors. Florida seniors are a little bit more well-off than some of the others. They tend to be retirees, who have some cash and can move down there.

In Pennsylvania, where the senior population is not as economically well off, President Bush won the population under age 65, but he got wiped out in 66 and older. And that cost him the state. So the politics of this is still a little dicey. That’s why I give President Bush credit for taking this on. But it means it’s probably…. This commission is going to educate the public. That’s one of its roles.

JIM LEHRER: Finally before we go, the flap at the Pentagon this week. A memo came out, or an announcement came out, from the secretary of defense’s office saying they were going to sever all military contact with China. Then they said no, no, no, no, we were wrong about that. What happened?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, this is the surefooted, seasoned administration. These are the guys….

PAUL GIGOT: Fish in a barrel.

MARK SHIELDS: No amateur hour, Jim. This isn’t like the Clinton years. We have gray beards like Don Rumsfeld. I’ll tell you, Don Rumsfeld, here is a word that is no longer politically correct. What he did this week was unmanly — unmanly. He fingered and used as a scapegoat Chris Williams, a really conscientious staffer with absolutely no reputation and no evidence that he has ever been a self-promoter or a freelancer.

What happened was the administration got caught at loggerheads between the State Department and the White House on one side and Don Rumsfeld on the other. This thing had been around for two weeks, going around; it had moved around the Pentagon. He met with John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee on it. It was a lousy performance by a very able man and a guy with a great reputation until this, Don Rumsfeld.

PAUL GIGOT: I don’t know who to believe on this. There were a lot of different stories about who ultimately was responsible. No question the White House pulled the rug back from the Pentagon on this. And they really ought to get their story straight for a week here on China. They seem to be… Ever since the end of the China plane incident, which was handled reasonably well with discipline, they have been all over the map. They probably do need a consistent story.

JIM LEHRER: You think it is a real policy difference, both of you do — this is not just somebody kind of freelancing.

PAUL GIGOT: Sure. I think the Pentagon was moving ahead saying, look, we are going to do something to limit U.S. and China military ties, and that ended up sending a message that somehow the White House or the State Department thought, seemed in this case, both of them, thought was a little more aggressive towards China than they wanted. So they yanked it right back.

JIM LEHRER: Your point is whether it was policy or not, Rumsfeld…

MARK SHIELDS: Rumsfeld didn’t look like…

JIM LEHRER: He didn’t do like Jim Nussle did on the floor of the House last night.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s exact right. That was a good example of that. The other thing about this, Jim, is on the sort of semi-apology, apology, we’re sorry, we’re sorry to the Chinese on the plane — there was a real restlessness in the right wing of the Republican Party, especially among conservatives…. There was a sense that maybe this would be a way of signaling them they’re going to be tough on China and that’s even hurt them more.

JIM LEHRER: We have to go and I have to segue to a horse story now. Thank you both very much.

MARK SHIELDS: It ought to be easy after this.