Political Wrap with Mark Shields and Rich Lowry
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JIM LEHRER: Ray Suarez is with Mark and Rich tonight.
RAY SUAREZ: And that’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and National Review editor Rich Lowry. Paul Gigot is on vacation. Well, we’ve had a little time to digest the news of the last 48 hours, see the outlines of the impact. What do you make of it?
RICH LOWRY: Well, it hurts. It’s a big blow to the White House and to Trent Lott. And it’s hard to finger exactly who specifically is responsible. But I think it would be refreshing change if actually someone voluntarily took the fall for it. And I think that person would ideally be Trent Lott. You know, it is his majority that was lost on his watch. You can argue that he is an adequate sort of steward of a majority. But it’s hard to see that he is well suited to engaging in the sort of long-running trench warfare that is going to have to go on with Tom Daschle. I think it would be refreshing if Trent Lott were to step aside. I’m not sure whether that will actually happen or not.
RAY SUAREZ: If that were to happen, is there an appropriate period of time that has to pass first?
RICH LOWRY: No. You know, leadership challenges are funny things; they’re always extremely unlikely until the moment they’re done deals. And at the moment this seems very unlikely because the mood in the Senate caucus at the moment among Republicans is to blame Jim Jeffords for this. I mean, he is the left most Republican in that caucus. There is no one to his left. And he has always been a bit of a quirky personality, a little mystifying to fellow Republicans. So at the moment Jeffords is getting the blame and not Lott, but look, when committee chairmen have to give up their chairmanships, have to maybe fire staff, there may be a whole new attitude.
RAY SUAREZ: Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think Rich puts his finger on it. The recriminations are yet to come.
RAY SUAREZ: They’re not starting already?
MARK SHIELDS: Who is to blame? What you can see is the two camps, it happens in every losing political effort. This was a losing political effort, to lose control of the Senate, which was terribly important; for the first time really since Eisenhower the Republicans controlled the House, the Senate and the White House.
Basically it splits in two groups: what I call the converts and the heretics. The heretics look and say, these people who don’t believe, be damned with them, let them go. Get rid of the Jim Jeffords of the world, the Lincoln Chafees of the world. We don’t need them. The converts are those who are always kind of reaching out to the other side to bring people in, to enlarge, say, look, we agree on more than we disagree.
It will be interesting to me to see which side prevails because if in fact it is blamed upon, I think George W. Bush has a magnificent opportunity right now which Democrats are terrified of — Democrats were scared stiff when Bush came in, Ray, that he would preempt the middle, that he would absolutely isolate the two wings of the party as he has done on education. I mean, that’s basically what he did with his education bill. Many conservatives are complaining about it, criticizing him for it.
But it was a masterful, we are not talking about it because this is Jim Jeffords’ week, but he started off the first five days in office by stylistically reaching out to everybody — Bob Strauss, the former Democratic chairman from Texas; and Kennedy, and other Democrats as well, and then he spent the next 95 days it struck me as mobilizing his own troops — the same way Bill Clinton did in 1993.
That’s how he passed his economic package, his tax bill. That’s how Bush decided to go on his tax bill. If in fact George Bush were to decide okay, this is the opening I need to really, you know, become the middle right candidate or President, I think he would be a formidable, formidable political force. Right now though, I don’t think that’s in the offing.
RAY SUAREZ: Earlier today Vice President Cheney was asked about this. He said it’s very easy to overestimate the impact of this because it’s the same 100 men and women who will be walking back into that chamber in a few days’ time. What do you think of that, Rich?
RICH LOWRY: Well, that’s certainly the silver lining perspective. And there is some truth to it. There is a natural but extremely tenuous George Bush majority in the Senate. We saw it on the Ashcroft vote where there are almost 60 votes to confirm. We saw it on the tax cut where there were 62 votes to pass a bill that was fairly close to George W. Bush’s original proposal. Something I think is completely wrong headed is the commentary we’re hearing that it was George Bush’s move to the right that somehow drove Jim Jeffords to this. I mean the press loves writing this story.
Prior to the Iowa caucus, George W. Bush was lurching to the right. In South Carolina he supposedly lurched to the right. Now he has lurched to the right even more. If this were true, he would be well beyond my right by now. It’s not true. And I think it would be a big mistake for Bush to give up his agenda in light of this because I think the biggest political advantage he has going for him is political character.
I think that’s the thing that matters the most– to voters and this environment. And that means delivering on your promise, promises, doing what you said you would do. And Mark, it’s interesting that you would highlight the education bill as the model for Bush because I think the tax bill is a better model because he racked up a pretty good bipartisan majority with the tax bill but didn’t have to give away nearly enough. And that’s because he stuck to his guns from the beginning and then he went over the heads of Congress and took his case directly to the people in the states of Democratic Senators.
MARK SHIELDS: This is, I guess a point of disagreement. I think that if there’s one major shortcoming that President Bush has shown in his first four months in office, it’s an ability to reach to the nation. He has not made a single persuasive message to the nation on any issue. And I think the case on the tax cut, a tax cut is not the toughest thing in the world to sell. You know that, on Capitol Hill. I’m going to ask to you do one things Rich, as a patriot, I ask you to stand up there and cut taxes. The major contributors will be displeased enormously.
I think the Democrats are terrified he will follow something like the education model, I’m not talking about specifics; I’m talking about a sense of preempting the middle politically, beginning with the Republican base. But I mean reaching over across the aisle, if he did that, I mean, on other issues, faith-based, on the environment, where I think he has tacked a very hard right, I think that he would be formidable. I haven’t seen any indication that he is going to do that.
RAY SUAREZ: But wouldn’t that, that move to the center that you are talking about, bring some comfort to Republicans who are representing states that Al Gore won last November?
MARK SHIELDS: I think you put your finger on it, Ray, in the sense that Jim Jeffords basically was coming from a state, all politics is local as Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. once observed and everybody has quoted him. He comes from a state that the Democrats have carried by an average of 16 percent in the last three presidential elections — just as conservative Democrats and moderate Democrats in the South and border states when the Republicans became the dominant party at the presidential level felt themselves more and more uncomfortable with the national party that was too liberal for them, Jim Jeffords is obviously — has not changed over the 27 years he has been in public life.
He is a lot more moderate, liberal than his national party. So it becomes a matter of survival. There is no doubt about it. The other thing that’s going to hit sooner or later just as it hit the Democrats in 1993 and 1994 is this: That the guy in the White House isn’t up for three and a half years. I face reelection a year from November. And that’s when they start to get nervous.
RAY SUAREZ: We’re having this conversation in what, by all accounts would have been George Bush’s week if not for Jim Jeffords. Talk a little bit about taxes and how that got kind of lost in the sauce this week.
RICH LOWRY: Well, it’s a big victory for Bush. You know, he had the education bill passed with about 350 votes in the House. And he had the tax bill pass with 62 votes in the Senate. And the tax bill is watered down some but the fact is the ten-year number is close to what Bush wanted, minus $300 billion or so thanks to Jim Jeffords and others. And it’s also the first rate cut, major rate cut since 1987.
But in some ways it’s too early to tell when it comes to the tax cut. We’ll really have to discuss this in 2007 I think when a lot of the major provisions actually are supposed to kick. So it is extremely back loaded, which I think is a political and economic peril for Bush. The political peril is that a lot of people won’t feel the major benefits anytime soon. The economic peril is if the economy continues to soften and perhaps go into a recession, there is nothing in this bill that serves as an economic incentive. So Bush will have sold this as prescription for an economic downturn and it actually has nothing that will do as it’s sold.
MARK SHIELDS: Rich is absolutely right. It would have been an enormous story that George W. Bush began his campaign with a tax cut, carried it through to an indifferent public, through a campaign where he was criticized in his own party primary for it, by his principal challenger, and prevailed. I mean that would have been a big story. It was stepped on by Jim Jeffords.
Your question about Dick Cheney — Dick Cheney is so wrong with the Senate. As we all know, we just went through with the previous panel with Margaret on the new committee chairs. The agenda is set, the hearings are held. Just think if there were Democratic Senate committees holding hearings on the California rate increases in electricity. And they were bringing in the tomorrow gas companies, the electricity suppliers and questioning the rate increases and the profits. That’s the kind of thing that who controls the Senate determines. They set not only the terms of the legislative agenda, they set the terms to a considerable degree of the public debate. And that’s what the loss of that means to the Republicans, a lot more than just Jim Jeffords.
RAY SUAREZ: For the record, Rich did say that Dick Cheney was putting the silver lining on it.
MARK SHIELDS: He did. But I think Dick Cheney knows better, too.
RICH LOWRY: Well, there is a big strategic choice ahead for the White House here. Do they in effect make Tom Daschle their partner in power, which will isolate the congressional Republicans and really move George Bush off his agenda and ensure that he passes a sort of a new Democrat agenda? Or does he take a more confrontational approach, does he try to out Tom Daschle as a liberal obstructionist and take his agenda over the heads of Congress to the public?
RAY SUAREZ: We’re going to have to leave it there. Rich Lowry, Mark Shields, thank you both.