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Political Wrap

February 27, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Safire: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist William Safire. Joining them to discuss in a moment with a history coda is NewsHour regular presidential historian Michael Beschloss. David Brooks is off tonight.

First, Mark and Bill, including last night’s performance on the debate, is Edwards making any head way at all on Kerry?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: The first television program I ever saw was the fight between Billy Kahn and Joe Lewis and I just saw it again last night. A light on his feet Billy Kahn or John Edwards was dancing around, tapping and making little criticisms and Joe Lewis, John Kerry, bored in there and won the fight. I thought that was more or less of a concession debate by Edwards. He could have gone to win, and he went not to lose.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t disagree. I think a couple things about it. Logistically, it did not work for Edwards. If you are in a debate, you don’t want to be sitting down at the table with the guy you are running against.

JIM LEHRER: Why not?

MARK SHIELDS: You want to have some distance. You want to be able to turn to him, dramatic effect. There is a gulf between us.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Like we do right here..

MARK SHIELDS: Right, just like that. He was emphasizing the differences between himself and Kerry. Kerry was downplaying the differences, moving right into it. That’s the first thing. Second thing, he should have confronted both CNN and the LA Times and said look, this is a two-man race. Let’s get the vanity candidates out of this; Al, why don’t you and Dennis go out and have dinner somewhere — that was his chance. John Edwards, because he doesn’t have the money, is dependent on free media. That was his best chance last night.

JIM LEHRER: He has got another one Sunday, another debate.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. But he still put as good a face, a human face, on the plight of people as anybody in shoe leather.

I thought last night he couldn’t quite make up his mind, while I don’t guess disagree with Bill, keeping open the option of being on the vice presidential list.

JIM LEHRER: All things being equal then, Tuesday should be pretty much another sweep for Kerry?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Yes. I think he’ll wrap it up decisively on Tuesday.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

MARK SHIELDS: Edwards needs at least two states to make the race… if he carried Georgia and Ohio, the inevitability express that everybody is getting on board, lining up to take a ticket with Kerry, might have some empty spaces.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Look at the way things have changed, very subtly in the last four or five days. The thrust, all the colors in magazines and all the talk on television was jobs and how they’re fleeing the country, and how we need to put up barriers to trade.

And then the liberal intelligentsia, as Ralph Nader likes to say, moved in and said wait a minute, free trade brings more jobs in than it loses them, and does Kerry really want to adopt the Edwards anti-free trade position, the protectionism?

You could see last night Kerry starting to say, well, of course I’m not a protectionist, and he started to back away from the extreme position he had.

JIM LEHRER: One other thing of course that came up last night, we just saw it in the clip in fact, was the gay marriage issue. Did President Bush, by endorsing the constitutional amendment this week, pretty much make that a presidential election issue, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: He did. Just one point to say….

JIM LEHRER: You’re not going to answer my question?

MARK SHIELDS: I will Bill… Jim. I do want to say there is a major disagreement between Bill and myself. There is no uncritical supporters of free trade in the election year of 2004 on either party whether it’s George W. Bush or any of the Democrats. As far as what… the Republicans succeeded.

Instead of talking about jobs — which we are continuing to lose and hemorrhage and which people are enormously concerned about — what did they debate last night? They debated gay marriage. Republicans, by introducing that, mentioning it, were able to change the conversation. So it’s going to be an issue, Jim.

I think the key voter group in this election is conflicted blue-collar voters in states like Ohio, and Missouri and Pennsylvania, who are economically populists who find themselves turned off by George Bush’s economics and by his failed record and by his tilt to the better off, and at the same time, who are traditionally and culturally religious and find themselves turned off by the Democrats’ endorsement of what they see as a libertine lifestyle and what they’re trying to do is impose some tension — take ’em away from their populist economics on this issue.

JIM LEHRER: Do you read the politics the same way, Bill?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: No. I think both Kerry and Edwards came out against gay marriage because, quite frankly, they see that the polls tell them that Americans two to one oppose gay “marriage.”

JIM LEHRER: Civil union being something else.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Yes. Semantics and words are important. The word “marriage” is the key here. Most Americans I think will go for civil unions because there should be equal treatment of partners. And when it comes to hospital visits or survivor benefits, things like that, and alimony and child support, that should apply to straights and gays equally.

But when they use the word “marriage,” that moves the debate from tolerance — which is the whole idea of civil unions — to approval and perhaps encouragement of homosexuality. And that use of that word, the gay community knows it, and so does the straight community. And that word is a passionate word.

JIM LEHRER: Is it politically… the president has been accused, as you know, because of what he did this week, of launching a culture war that will now be fought during this election year. Do you see it that way?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Who wants the war? The Massachusetts court? The mayor of San Francisco, or the reaction to it?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, conservatives, historically, including Mr. Safire have argued that states’ rights, local option, local preferences are preferable.

What is the immediate response to George W. Bush trying to save the country from the blight of gay divorce is his reaction to have the nuclear response of a federal, the ultimate federal act, which is a constitutional amendment, to amend the Constitution. This reaches the same level of seriousness politically that the flag burning constitutional amendment did which his father sponsored so famously to stop that epidemic of flag burning.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: I don’t think there will be a constitutional amendment, certainly not now. It will go up to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court will make its decision. And then if you disagree strongly with the Supreme Court decision, the avenue to handle that is to overrule the Supreme Court with a constitutional amendment, which frankly is very hard to pass. So that’s not going to happen.

JIM LEHRER: So it was just politics by the president?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: It could also be that he believes it.

JIM LEHRER: Everything’s possible. Okay. (Laughs)

JIM LEHRER: Let’s bring Michael into this now. Ralph Nader, running as an independent rather than as a third party candidate, Michael, as he did four years ago, he ran on the Green Party. What can we learn from history in terms of looking at third party candidates and independent candidates?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: One thing is that they have in effect often times as great or greater as major party candidates. If you like the fact that Abraham Lincoln was able to bring an end to slavery in this country, that was because he and the Republicans, which was a third party just started four years before 1860, were able to do it.

You look at something like 1912, Theodore Roosevelt broke off from the Republicans, said my party has abandoned me: It is no longer progressive enough. I’m going to run as a third party candidate to move my party back in the right direction. He didn’t win but he came in second and Republicans thereafter said we have to pay a little more attention to progressive reform.

So Nader is very much in that tradition.

JIM LEHRER: Also when they don’t go in or they don’t win or anything, they can change the issues, can they not?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Sure they can. Even the Socialist Party, they were some of the first who said there should be Social Security and the 40-hour work week. Those things came into law later on.

And Ross Perot in 1992 got 19 percent, but he was the first candidate really in a big way to float the idea that the deficit was a bad thing. He went on TV and said it is like the crazy aunt in the basement that everyone ignores. By the time Bill Clinton was elected that fall, if he had not done something about the deficit he would have been in big trouble and that was largely Ross Perot’s doing.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think that Nader… the fact that… of course the Democrats claim that George W. Bush is president of the United States today because Nader ran four years ago as a Green Party candidate.

Is there any parallel… let’s just assume for discussion purposes, that that is correct. Has there ever been before in history where a third party candidate, an independent candidate got enough votes to actually throw the election one way or the other?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 got 88 electoral votes, he made it possible for Woodrow Wilson to become president with only 43 percent of the vote as a Democrat.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think Nader’s chances are fitting into any of the patterns this time?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: I don’t think we’ll get that big a vote this time. And I don’t think it is going to be razor close the way everybody else seems to think. I think this election will go one way or the other with a good 5 to 7 percent swing because I believe that we are not totally polarized; that there is a substantial swing vote, and that the events of September and October will dictate which way this election goes.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about Nader this time?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, I think for Ralph Nader or a third party to make head way — certainly Michael’s point about 1992 with Ross Perot — neither party wanted to talk about the deficit in 1992. The Republicans because they had been there for 12 years, happened on their watch. Democrats — because they’re dying to get back in to get the keys to the Treasury and they didn’t want to talk about the deficit. You have to say there is not a dime’s worth of difference between the two parties: George Wallace in 1968… Then, nobody believes that in 2004. They think there’s big differences between the two parties.

Democrats think there are big differences that George W. Bush — in 2000 we had an election where George Bush was a compassionate conservative in the middle; Al Gore was the new Democrat. This year there are stark defined differences and I think virtually everybody in a non-comatose state recognizes them.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think that’s true but you are also going t have Nader saying you have two candidates, Bush and Kerry, both were for the Patriot Act. Other areas where the parties do seem too centrist — also something we just mentioned — gay marriage — Ralph Nader on Monday said that he is in favor of gay marriage going forward. There may be a lot of American voters who feel strongly about that who may cast a vote for Nader and it ends up being decisive.

JIM LEHRER: And they would be assume… you could assume they would be mostly Democrats rather than Republicans.

MARK SHIELDS: They would and I understand this one who was impressed by Nader’s role in 2000 – I mean, I saw Ralph Nader in city after city from Portland to Seattle to Minneapolis to Boston fill arenas, 20,000 people at $20 a crack and passing the bucket once they got inside. Neither Bush nor Gore could have done that.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: These people tearing their hair and saying what a terrible thing it is for Nader to run again, they were clapping their hands with glee when Ross Perot….

MARK SHIELDS: Sure they were. Are you looking for virtue and consistency? (Laughs)

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Ross Perot is the guy who talked about the great sucking sound of American jobs going to Mexico.

MARK SHIELDS: Have you been to Ohio or Wisconsin lately, pal?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: There are more jobs that come in than go out. (Laughs)

JIM LEHRER: I want to ask Michael: What is the evidence, the non-partisan evidence of what influence, in terms of the results Perot had on the ’92 election?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He probably did help Clinton. The Perot voters were later found in exit polls to be largely voters with Republican histories. And also especially at one moment, remember that Democratic Convention, summer of 1992?

The afternoon just before Bill Clinton is going to give his acceptance speech, Perot announces I’m pulling out of the race and I’m doing it because this week has shown me the Democratic Party has revitalized itself. That was an invitation for the Perot vote to move to Clinton, which it did almost wholesale overnight. From that moment to the election day, Clinton was never behind.

JIM LEHRER: You agree with that history, do you not?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: I would not challenge that, for a change. (Laughs)

MARK SHIELDS: It’s hard to argue after 2000 that a vote doesn’t make a difference. I mean if the Democrats went through the agony of Florida and 527 votes and all the rest of it.

But one Republican friend of mine pointed out that Pat Buchanan actually cost George W. Bush Iowa and he got more votes there than Bush lost Iowa by. He got more votes, I think, in Minnesota than Bush lost the state by, so Wisconsin… so, in other words, third party candidates cut both ways, it wasn’t just Nader.

JIM LEHRER: A legacy question, Michael. One of the hits that really been done on Nader is not so much the political impact but that he is ruining his legacy. What does history fell us about that, that somebody who has stayed too long or tried one more time too long and ruined the good, at least as far as historians are concerned, ruined some good things he or she had done before?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I guess as a cynical agent in Hollywood might say when Harold Stassen ran, it may not have been a good career move but it depends what happens. What Nader said this week was I’m helping the Democratic Party to achieve its ancient unfulfilled aspirations, save it from the special interests.

If after this election year people in the Democratic Party feel, yeah, we got far too far from our mores, which are civil liberties and clean government and not too much money in politics, if it moves in that direction, Nader’s legacy will actually be….

WILLIAM SAFIRE: He sat on this program Monday night and on Meet the Press on Sunday. And he was excellent and articulate. There he was again. And woke up a lot of people, hey this guy is still alive.

JIM LEHRER: But did you think, as you were watching, hey, you’re hurting your legacy, Ralph Nader, go away?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: I’m a Republican. I was not terribly upset about it.

JIM LEHRER: I know. (Laughs)

WILLIAM SAFIRE: (Laughs) But, no, I think he not only has a right to run, he is an articulate man and I would like to see him out there doing his duty.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with Michael, quickly, Mark, that he could actually end up helping Democrats? It’s possible at least?

MARK SHIELDS: I hope Michael is right. I have never questioned his judgment before. I don’t see it right now as helping Democrats unless he moves Democrats and certainly makes somebody — Kerry the likely nominee — to become more sensitive on the very issues that Ralph Nader talks about.

JIM LEHRER: We have to go, thank you all three very much.