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Political Wrap

February 15, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, some analysis by Shields and Brooks– syndicated columnist Mark Shields and David Brooks of The Weekly Standard. David, campaign finance reform. Let’s begin where we are now and work forward. Is it going to pass the Senate and will the President sign it if it does?

DAVID BROOKS: I think the likely answer is yes and yes. There is some muddle in the Senate whether they have 60 votes to prevent a filibuster. I think it is quite likely they’ll get the 60 votes and I think it’s quite likely that President Bush will sign it, sign it for a couple of reasons: One, a distraction. The guy is fighting a war. He doesn’t need this. Two, I think it massively helps him as David Broder wrote today in The Washington Post, massively helps him get reelected and three, it does help with independent voters.

JIM LEHRER: Senator McConnell was on the program last night, Mark. And he’s the guy who would lead a filibuster if there is one. And he kind of that an open issue. In fact, he backed off of it a bit. What do you hear?

MARK SHIELDS: He certainly did, Jim. And Mitch McConnell is running for whip. The Republicans in the Senate in their wisdom term-limited all their leadership positions except that of leader itself. And so he is running for the Senate Whip’s job. And I think he may have other fish to fry this time. He is not going to fall on his sword — just stand at the rams all by himself. I think President Bush made it very difficult for Republicans who have in the past, in any way supported campaign finance reform by sort of an indecisive stop and start position on the House Republicans. And so Senate Republicans look at it and say wait a minute, if there is going to be a Rose Garden ceremony anyway, as David suggested there would be, why should I just, you know, kind of stand here in the way of history and momentum and my own President at 85% approval — I think it is going to go through and I think a Senator like Gordon Smith of Oregon who’s up for reelection, doesn’t want to be in a position, Jim, with a company in Oregon owned by Enron where the employees lost their lives savings of being part of a filibuster to stop campaign finance reform.

JIM LEHRER: David, explain the President’s position on this. The word that was used all week or since this thing came back up to the House was ambiguous; that his spokesman kept saying ambiguous things. The President has his principles but he will probably sign it, but he may not or whatever. What was going on?

DAVID BROOKS: He forthrightly declared he would sign any law that was good and that would improve things but not laws that would not improve things. I think in some sense there was an internal debate within the White House. You know, they didn’t campaign on John McCain’s agenda. They campaigned against that agenda. So there was some emphasis, no, were not going to sign this. On the other hand, as I said, I think it is a distraction. A friend of mine came down from New York with an interesting observation. When you go into conservative circles, all people want to talk about is the war, Iran and Iraq. When you go in liberal circles, all they want to talk about is Enron and campaign finance reform. We are living in like two different universes. And I think from the White House perspective this isn’t going to matter in the long run. The war is what matters. And they just don’t want to get bogged down in any bloody fight over what they see as not the major issue.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Let’s talk about how this would matter. Let’s assume that both of you are right and this eventually becomes law. It can’t happen next week because Congress is gone but in a couple of weeks becomes the law of the land. What really changes, Mark, as a result of this?

MARK SHIELDS: I think first of all I have to disagree with David on the sense of what matters. This mattered, Jim, this matters to 535 men and women on Capitol Hill. I mean let’s be very–.

JIM LEHRER: Because they all take campaign–.

MARK SHIELDS: Sam Farr, a Congressman from California, put it to me once very well. He said there are two subjects in which every member of Congress considers himself or herself to be an expert: Education because they all went to school. And campaign finance because they’ve all raised money and ran for office and they’ve mastered it. You’re threatening people’s existence.

JIM LEHRER: How this is going to change their existence?

MARK SHIELDS: How is it going to change? It is going to change, Jim, in the sense that there is a narcotic dependence has grown up on the soft money. We’ve gone from $86 million in 1992 to over half a billion dollars in 2000 — both parties — soft money being the unrestricted six-figure contributions from corporations, wealthy individuals and labor unions to go to the parties. Then you talk about ambiguous, then just go right into the campaigns, all the way to the point where–.

JIM LEHRER: This would stop that.

MARK SHIELDS: Funding campaign television spots that attack your opponent, or whatever else. Yes, this stops that. It takes a lot of power away from people who have written checks. It is going to put a lot more influence upon people who raise money. Somebody can go out and put together an event whether with singers or athletes.

JIM LEHRER: At $50 a ticket or $1,000 a ticket.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s going to involve a lot more people. It is going to be good for politics in that sense.

JIM LEHRER: David, pick up on the point you made earlier that David Broder made with his column – that this actually helps President Bush. Explain that.

DAVID BROOKS: He thought in a massive way.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with him by the way?

DAVID BROOKS: A little. I don’t want to disagree with the dean.

JIM LEHRER: Okay to disagree with this guy but not David Broder. Go ahead.

DAVID BROOKS: Because Democrats will be running under caps. They will have all this money to spend on the primary season and they will hit their spending caps in about February or March.

JIM LEHRER: The presidential. Candidates for president.

DAVID BROOKS: March to August normally they’ve run out of hard money. Normally soft money–.

JIM LEHRER: Hard money is money that goes directly toward the candidates. And that’s where there are all kinds of limits and those will remain in effect but just be a little higher.

DAVID BROOKS: Normally, in present circumstances, prelaw, the soft money that goes to the party is what keeps the democratic message alive between March and August to the convention when the federal money comes back in for the fall campaign. Broder argued that in that four or five-month period, the Democrats would be out of money. There would be no soft money. Meanwhile Bush, who will have no caps because he is going to ignore the whole system, but he will have plenty of money.

JIM LEHRER: He will not have had– he won’t be challenged.

DAVID BROOKS: He doesn’t have a primary.

JIM LEHRER: Right.

DAVID BROOKS: So for that five-month period, it will be Republican, Republican, Republican on the air, nothing on the Democrat. But the key point Broder was making, this is a world of unintended consequences. This is not a world of going from money corruption to non-money corruption. This is a world in which I think Republicans may benefit, the media benefits and I think the big change is that party leaderships suffer. And I agree with Mark on this, we’re moving into a different sort of money world in which there has to be a lot more entrepreneurial behavior on the part of the members because they have to raise their money. They have to form their own coalitions of interest groups. They have to attract their own media attention.

JIM LEHRER: So the national party loses power because if I’m a member of Congress and I want some money, I go to you as the head of the party, you’re going to say buzz off buddy — I don’t have any.

MARK SHIELDS: The party will provide other services to you but they can’t give money. I think David Broder is the dean and I will be appropriately deferential toward him.

JIM LEHRER: But you disagree with him.

MARK SHIELDS: I do disagree with him. I think Dick Gephardt might know almost as much about campaign finance as David Broder. Dick Gephardt and John McCain deserves credit and Russ Feingold deserves credit and Marty Meehan and Chris Shays because they took on their entire constituency, members– every member up there was made uncomfortable by what Meehan, and Shays, Feingold and McCain courageously did. They confronted the corruption these people live with and know they live with it but they’ve mastered it and they’ve accommodated it. And Dick Gephardt, who is an absolute wonder as a legislative technician, had finally reached the point where he had seen this money stuff, this soft money corrupt the very institution of which he was a leader. And he worked tirelessly to do it. He really, you, he said very simply.

JIM LEHRER: You’re using the word corrupt. What do you mean?

MARK SHIELDS: Corrupt in the sense that discussions never took place — issues that were never debated. Take the accountants thing two years ago. 13 Senators wrote down to the Securities and Exchange Commission saying we don’t want any rules preventing accounting firms from being consultants to the same companies. Jim, they didn’t know anything about this issue. This isn’t something that people discussed. It’s because there was a lot of money contributed.

JIM LEHRER: So if this becomes law, David, the system is no longer corrupt?

DAVID BROOKS: No, not at all much. I had dinner the other night with a big fund-raiser. He was the picture of being extremely sanguine. I ticked down the list of things in the bill and I said how will you handle this. He said we’ll go through the State Department, we’ll go to local parties here, we’ll go through special interest groups here. The guy hit figured out. There will be, you know, you’re damming a river. There will be other rivers. That doesn’t mean it’s not improved. It could be improved, but I think in some ways it’s worse off. Namely incumbents will have it much easier because only they have the networks of $2,000 donors. Challengers will not know 5,000 people to give money. In some ways the special interest groups will become much more powerful. The reason I disagree with the dean, he talked about the silence in the five months before the convention, all some millionaire has to do is give $5 million to the Sierra Club. We don’t have to know who the millionaire is. The Sierra Club runs the ads attacking George Bush during that five-month period. To me, that’s a worse system than we had because we have anonymous donors giving money that funnel through special interest groups that, you know, poison the atmosphere as much as the soft money.

JIM LEHRER: Well,–.

MARK SHIELDS: Cynicism. We changed the system in 1976, 1980, 1984. We had three consecutive clean presidential elections. This is going to make it better because the member Congress won’t be at the end of the day be able to get on the phone and call somebody, some powerful person for a six-figure contribution. That’s an improvement.

JIM LEHRER: The good thing about this from our parochial point of view is that the three of us will be here to see and monitor which one of you is right as the months go by. Thank you both very much.