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Political Wrap with Mark Shields and Paul Gigot

June 8, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And that brings us to our Friday night American political analysis by Shields and Gigot: syndicated columnist Mark Shields, Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot.

Paul, President Bush’s number one priority was tax cuts, a tax cut bill. He signed it into law this week. Was it as easy as it seemed?

PAUL GIGOT: Well, it sure wasn’t easy if you look back to when he first proposed it in December of 1999, Jim. A lot of people, including a lot of Republicans, said it was a bad issue, it wouldn’t work, voters didn’t want it. It would hurt him and if not in the primaries, at least the general election. And, you know, now it’s a reality. So he made the promise. He kept the promise.

And particularly when it comes to taxes, that’s important because I think that voters had come to believe that — disbelieve the promises the politicians had made about tax cuts because they had never seen one. Really the last big one was the Reagan tax cut of 1981. So it was very important for Bush to be able to fulfill this promise and pass it into law.

JIM LEHRER: It’s one thing to make a promise but it’s another to keep it when have you the two houses of Congress to deal with and a lot of other things to deal with. Was there any particular magic moment for him that opened it up so he could do this?

PAUL GIGOT: Oh, I think that probably after the election when the economy turned, looked to turn somewhat sour, this gave added impetus, I think, to the tax cut bill. And then probably when he got the bill out of the Senate finally. You know, ultimately he passed this bill with 12 Senate Democratic votes. Six of those Democrats are up in 2002, and one of them, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, is the protégé and ally, home state, fellow state senator of Democratic Leader Tom Daschle. So there was an awful lot of political pressure, it would seem, on them to do this. And I think you probably have to give Bush credit for going around and stumping in some of those states and making it, and ratcheting up that pressure.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, how would you describe the route the president took to get what he wanted?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think, Jim, the president got his own party behind him. When a new president of your party comes in, there is a rallying to the banner. Bill Clinton had the same thing on a lot tougher sell in 1993. Bill Clinton was selling a tax increase, which is infinitely less popular in Washington, regardless of who is in the White House, than a tax cut. And there was no question that George, his predecessor, had lost in large part, George Bush the first, because of his tax increase.

JIM LEHRER: After saying no new taxes.

MARK SHIELDS: After breaking his word. So I think Paul is right. The president had the advantage of having run on this right from the beginning. I mean, it was the crown jewel of the Bush platform. It is what distinguished him from John McCain. I can remember John McCain, his principal opponent, saying I don’t think Bill Gates needs a tax cut. Charging that this was going to tilt to the rich, picked up by the Democrats to… ultimately to no avail. But I think the unified party behind him was awfully important.

And the president was able to go with that. And the flexibility of the argument for the tax cut was impressive. It started that we had this enormous surplus and we were going to return the money to the people. Then Paul pointed out, as soon as the economic news went bad, we had a rough patch, it became no, no, we need this to stimulate the economy even though the stimulative effect, I think, remains far off in the future.

JIM LEHRER: But that message did work, you think Paul?

PAUL GIGOT: I think it did because I think a lot of the Democrats, knowing — not knowing as none of us know where the economy is going to really go. They didn’t want to be on the wrong side of a tax cut vote and watch the economy then go sour later. So there was some pressure on them to come around.

MARK SHIELDS: One other thing. The proof of the popularity of it was seen yesterday at the White House. When you see elected members of the House and the Senate jockeying, elbows and knees to get in the photo with the president….

JIM LEHRER: You could see that in the black and white. It was really funny.

MARK SHIELDS: Incredible. I’m going to be there. When you get a losing candidate, Jim, people spread out to the edges of the platform. They were crowding in.

JIM LEHRER: Meanwhile, this week Democrats took over control of the Senate, Mark. There has been a lot of talk of how it happened, et cetera. Now the Democrats have control. What are their problems? What are their dangers as they go into this new era?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I would suggest there are two groups that are a little scared right now. One is liberal Democrats and the other is conservative Republicans. Why are they scared? Because of the political precedent of President Bill Clinton when the Democrats lost control of the Congress, what did Bill Clinton do? The adroit political operator that he was, he embraced a good part of the Republican program. Welfare reform, balanced budget, the era of big government is over, a tax cut. And what did he do in the process? He made himself in the public eye, an effective president who could cooperate in a bipartisan way, got things done. He reelected himself and he reelected a Republican Congress.

JIM LEHRER: George Bush might do the same thing.

MARK SHIELDS: George Bush, a patients bill of rights. Since the turnover of the Senate or overturn, however, he has been all over the patients’ bill of rights like a cheap suit. He has been sending people up to talk to John McCain and he is really interested in this. So conservative Republicans, liberal Democrats and House Democrats are concerned they could lose this issue, you know….

JIM LEHRER: Why would the liberal Democrats be upset?

MARK SHIELDS: They’re fearful that this could make Bush look good and bipartisanship look good. They’d like to have some hard tough issues going into the 2002 election where they start to think things are heading their way, heading the Democrats’ way.

JIM LEHRER: You see it the same way, Paul?

PAUL GIGOT: Well, the difference is that when Clinton turned, as Mark described, he had lost both houses of Congress in a rather convincing fashion in the ’94 election. Bush has lost the Senate but he’s only lost it by a single vote. He retains the House. I agree that it makes Bush’s life more difficult. But he can still — I think he doesn’t have to do the wholesale embracing of the other people’s agenda. He has to work hard to frame the issues.

For example on the patients’ bill of rights, I talked to John Breaux, the Democrat from Louisiana, this week, who said that right now if you took a head count in the Senate, the vote ,the bill, the version that Ted Kennedy, Tom Daschle and John McCain support, would pass because most Democrats would support it. But he said if George Bush decides to say he is going to veto that version and he has got a better version which is supported by, among others, Jim Jeffords and John Breaux, some of those Democrats, hoping to get something done, will begin to peel off and go over to his bill. So a lot of what happens now depends upon the skill of President Bush in framing an issue, using his veto power, much the way Bill Clinton did to shape legislation.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Paul, of the way the president — the president had John McCain over — of course he had Tom Daschle last night. But the John McCain, John McCain John McCain, that’s all we’ve been hearing about the last several days. How do you read that? What is that all about?

PAUL GIGOT: Well, I think he should have reached out to McCain earlier than he did. They had a perfunctory meeting in February, I think, where they just sort of shook hands and said okay. There wasn’t much camaraderie there. I think… Bush won. He beat McCain. When you do that, I think, the burden is on you to reach out a little more than he had. Now when it comes to McCain, boy, he hasn’t been doing President Bush any favors on issue after issue, tax cuts, patients bill of rights gun control, campaign finance reform. Looks to be… that he is moving decidedly towards the middle or the left. And some people think, some of his own supporters think, possibly an independent challenge in mind for 2004. Now McCain denies that. And a decision like that is a long way off, but that possibility does seem to exist.

JIM LEHRER: Quick thing on McCain and I want to go to another subject here.

MARK SHIELDS: First time George W. Bush had talked to him since the inaugural. I mean, it eludes me. John McCain on gun control, just to take it, Jim, last fall there were referendums in Colorado and Oregon on closing the gun show loophole, requiring gun show sales personnel to meet the same tests that gun stores had to face. And it was a public vote — NRA on one side, John McCain, American gun safety on the other. He won it by two to one. Both Oregon and Colorado, two pro-wildlife, pro-hunter states. I mean, this isn’t something new.

John McCain has not gone out of his way to avoid controversy but that’s John McCain. I mean everybody on both sides of the aisle; that was what made John McCain special as a politician. But I think it is time the president to make the overture. I think it is time for John McCain to receive it. I would say the wild card in this whole thing is the House Republicans. The House Republicans are a real problem potentially for the Bush White House in the sense that they’re seen as obstructionists and oppositional. It could be a problem for the president.

JIM LEHRER: Don’t go away because here’s what’s called a new subject introducer, and it’s about media coverage of those reports about the departing Clinton White House staff having trashed the White House and the Old Executive Office Building. Kwame Holman reports.

KWAME HOLMAN: Amid the January firestorm over Bill Clinton’s last-minute pardons and questions about the gifts the Clintons accepted before leaving the White House came allegations that outgoing Clinton staffers vandalized White House offices. They were touted on the front pages and over both local and national airwaves.

TV SHOW HOST: More pranks at the White House when we come back.

KWAME HOLMAN: Unnamed sources in the Bush White House told of widespread damage such as cut phone lines, graffiti, and the letter “w” missing from many computer keyboards. While diminishing the importance of the story, the White House press office nonetheless said incidents were being catalogued. The president himself downplayed the allegations.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: There might have been a prank or two, maybe somebody put a cartoon on the wall. But that’s okay. It’s time now to move forward.

KWAME HOLMAN: From the outset, former Clinton administration officials cast doubt on the story.

JOE LOCKHART, Former Clinton White House Spokesman: The so-called vandalism in the White House, the trashing of the White House that we now read in the paper this morning was something that was made up by White House staffers to cover up something else.

KWAME HOLMAN: As the stories mounted, one congressional Republican, Bob Barr of Georgia, asked Congress’ investigative arm, the General Accounting Office, to look into the allegations. On April 27, the GAO reported to Barr that the federal agency responsible for upkeep of the White House, the General Services Administration “had found no damage to the offices in the White House’s East and West Wings or the Executive Office Building that it had examined.” However, stories about the lack of direct evidence of vandalism mostly appeared deep inside many newspapers and got only short mentions on the evening news. For his part, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer continued to say the White House had sought to downplay the story all along.

ARI FLEISCHER: And those things that took place as this administration entered office were not things that this White House was ever focused on.

KWAME HOLMAN: But the White House refocused on the issue late last week, responding to recent press inquiries by releasing details of damage based largely on the recollections of staffers. This week, finding the truth became the focus of a new GAO inquiry, which is expected to take several months.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Mark, we talked about this at that time on a Friday night, almost like it was a given. We were a part of that, that this trashing happened, et cetera, et cetera. What do you make of this?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jim, to me it was in the context of Mark Rich’s pardon and Carlos Vignali’s pardon and all the rest of it. I don’t think there is any question that this was unidentified sources, unattributed smears, and first it was Air Force One had been trashed. The president himself said nothing had happened to Air Force One. Then it was the White House had been… this American sanctuary. And it turns out that nothing was done in the White House. Apparently, now they’re down to the Executive Office Building. To me it was a serious mistake by the press — I mean no question about it. The tenuous relationship of trust between readers and those of us who write….

JIM LEHRER: We all took it as a given.

MARK SHIELDS: We did. It was wrong. But Jim, the White House deserves blame here. Ari Fleischer tried to have it both ways. He basically said these things happen. We’re not going to look, yes, these things happen. The things we found were terrible. We’re not going to talk about them because the president wants to look forward. The president’s a bigger person than that. The president knows the emotions of transitions and defeat and so forth. So there was a sense of a wink and a nudge. We know it happened. It was terrible but we’re bigger than that.

JIM LEHRER: Paul, what do you think? Does it say more about journalism today than it does about politics and how things happen? What do you think?

PAUL GIGOT: Yeah. I think it says more about journalism than it does about the White House. I said on that Friday night if I remember properly, that I thought the story was overplayed. I mean, there was some damage done, no question about it. Maybe even more than the routine stuff that happens in some instances but there was nothing systematic about it. There was no orders from anybody to do it — no question about that. But some of the people now are saying… on the other side are going too far and saying that nothing happened.

Well, there was some damage. I don’t share Mark’s view that Ari Fleischer here is the villain in this. I mean I think that there were some people in the White House talking on background off the record, spinning the story, overplaying it. But I think Fleischer handled it fairly well. He said look, some things happened but we want to move on and so on. Bush himself just stayed completely away from it.

JIM LEHRER: Well, for the record, I was the one who brought it up that Friday night. I brought it up in such a way that it was a given. You all were just asked to comment on it. We have not mentioned it again until tonight. But the question about this kind of thing happening, it is a little bit of a red flag or a caution light for all of us, is it not?

MARK SHIELDS: It sure is, Jim. To this day we don’t have a single name on a single allegation. We don’t have a picture. We don’t have anything. There is no evidence. This was all just on the basis of unattributed sources. I mean, you know, if you look at it, if you want to look at why the public doubts the press and is skeptical about us, I mean this is a textbook case on how it happens.

JIM LEHRER: A textbook case, do you agree with that, Paul?

PAUL GIGOT: Well, it shows the degree to which the press, all of us, play into stereotypes we form in our own minds. We formed a stereotype with some element of truth, some basis in truth, about the Clinton administration, White House, in some sense from the earliest days, kind of a fraternity. And we treated this story like this was senior week and toga parties and beer bashes and whatnot. And this played into that. And I think we overplayed it.

JIM LEHRER: You agree with Mark that it was also part of the last-minute pardons and all of that, it was kind of the going away of the Clinton administration, we all piled on.

PAUL GIGOT: Yeah, I think that’s right.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah, ok. Thank you all very much.