TOPICS > Politics

Toning Down Partisan Rhetoric

January 22, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Vin Weber, is the crippling partisanship and animosity likely to disappear now?

VIN WEBER, Republican Strategist: There’s a possibility that it will abate but only a possibility, and there’s a lot of rocks in the road. I think there’s two signs though that say members of Congress seriously do want to enter a period of constructive bipartisanship. First of all, the conduct of the Gingrich debate in the House the other day, it could have been much more acrimonious. The Democrats could have drawn it out forever and protested that it wasn’t tough enough. Republicans could have gone the opposite direction. They consciously decided they were going to handle it with great civility and dignity and put it behind them quickly. The other thing I’d cite is in the Senate today we now have the first two members of the Clinton cabinet, the new Clinton cabinet, Madeleine Albright, secretary of state-designate and Bill Cohen at defense, approved unanimously very quickly, much more quickly than they usually do; that the Senate didn’t have to do that. But that says that they too want to try to find some common ground with this President. Now, there are a lot of rocks in the road, but those are two signs that say that there’s a possibility here, I think.

JIM LEHRER: But what was driving the animosity in the first place, Al From? Has that gone away, or is it just revulsion from the public that’s causing this?

AL FROM, Democratic Leadership Council: Well, I think what was driving the–there are a lot of things that are driving the animosity. We’ve had long, hard partisanship in this town for 15 years. I think we saw the first prospects, though, of bipartisanship at the end of the last Congress, when we got together on welfare reform and health care and immigration reform, and the minimum wage. But I’m a little more maybe optimistic than Vin. I think it’s in the interest now of both parties, of the President and of the Republicans in the Congress, to begin to work together. We had this very acrimonious fight over Newt Gingrich. That’s been resolved. I hope we’ve heard the last of it, to be honest with you, because I think we need now–now need to get on with the big challenges facing the country. The President has stated in his inaugural address and again in the state of the union in a couple of weeks will try to lift this debate onto the high road. I think–I was pleased to see Sen. Lott lay out a Republican agenda yesterday. It’s not everything I’d agree with, but there are areas there where we can get agreement on. I talked today to a senior member of the House on the Democratic side who said that he believes that when members go home for the next couple of weeks they’re going to find that the people are going to very much want Washington to begin to work together. And in the Senate, the Breaux-Chafee bipartisan centrist group, they got 46 votes on a budget last year, is already meeting, and they’re hoping to have new recruits as well. So there are some good signs.

JIM LEHRER: And yet, the first issue out of the box today is abortion and partial birth abortion, probably the most tumultuous issue there is.

VIN WEBER: Well, I agree with Al’s analysis, but the abortion issue just tells us one thing. Don’t–those of us that want to see bipartisanship in a constructive way don’t set the bar too high. There are some issues that are going to be acrimonious. The abortion issue has been an emotional, divisive issue for 20 years. And that’s not going to change, and this issue is going to come up with partial birth abortion issues specifically, and it will be hard fought. But my sense is that that’s not necessarily going to spill over into and affect the general prospects for the kind of bipartisanship we’re talking about on issues like the budget and taxes and entitlement reform.

JIM LEHRER: But specifically on abortion, there are many Democrats who believe that with the new increased majority, particularly in the Senate, that there’s going to be a concerted Republican effort to legislatively change the abortion laws in this country. Do you think that’s true?

VIN WEBER: Well, I think that they have pretty much said what they’re going to do. The central issue of the legality of abortion is really not subject to legislative change at this point. It might be changed by the Supreme Court–that’s not likely either–but it certainly is not going to be subject to change by the Congress of the United States, given what the courts have said. So the issues that are generating all this controversy are no more really the fundamental question whether or not abortion should be legal or illegal. It’s partial birth abortion in the eighth and ninth month of pregnancy and issues like that which are important. And they have strong moral connotations, and they will be hotly contested. But around the central issue of the legality of the vast majority of the 1.2 or 1.3 million abortions we have every year in this country, for better or worse, that seems to be settled law for the time being.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Bob Kerrey, Al From, Democrat from Nebraska, chairman of the Senate Campaign Committee, said on this program before the election that that was the crucial issue at stake in this election; that if the Republicans took too many votes in the Senate, it could change the nature of abortion law. Was that just rhetoric then?

AL FROM: Well, I don’t know whether it was just rhetoric then, but I think–I mean, I really agree with Vin. I think the central issue on abortion is settled. I also think the central issue on abortion is settled with the American people. There’s a much broader consensus on abortion among the voting public than you’d think by listening to the political debate. The advocates on both sides are very loud, but I think most people in this country have come to the conclusion that they don’t like abortion; that they’d like to see abortions as rare as possible, but that they ought not to be illegal; that they ought to be legal. And so the issue will be on things like partial birth abortion. President Clinton has said that he’s willing to talk about a bill on partial birth abortion. So I think, again, while the emotions run high, if there’s a will among the leadership, then I think there’s a real incentive on both sides to keep this partisan fight to a minimum. There might be some progress.

JIM LEHRER: But Vin Weber, many people have suggested that at the heart of this acrimony is on the Republican side some legitimate, serious dislike of President Bill Clinton and on the other side, on the Democratic side, some severe, clean, whatever, dislike of Newt Gingrich. And Bill Clinton is still the President of the United States and–

VIN WEBER: And the coming of Valentine’s Day isn’t going to change that.

JIM LEHRER: Right. And Gingrich is still Speaker of the House.

VIN WEBER: Right. I think you’re right. I think that the Republicans viewed President Clinton for many reasons as not a legitimate President in his first term because they thought that he shouldn’t have been elected. Democrats had somewhat the same view of the way that Gingrich took control of the House, but the elections have changed that, in my view. President Clinton was re-elected. The Republicans did retain control of the House, and I think those personality issues are not going to poison the well irretrievably, if I can say so. In fact, I can say the chance for bipartisanship, interestingly, is between congressional Republicans, perhaps particularly House Republicans, and President Clinton much more so than between House Republicans and House Democrats, other than some House Democrats. Well, I don’t think–if you’re looking for bipartisanship, it’s not going to be Gingrich and Gephardt. It may be Gingrich and Clinton.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

AL FROM: I agree wholeheartedly. And I think your question is an interesting one. When Vin was in the House, I was–for part of that time I was director of the House Democratic Caucus. And these animosities go back a long way. Newt Gingrich has not been popular among Democrats since the early 1980’s, when he used to go to the floor and attack the Democrats every night. In fact, Tip O’Neill once put the cameras on the empty chairs just to show that Gingrich was posturing to an empty chamber.

VIN WEBER: I have to confess. I was with him once or twice.

AL FROM: I’m sure you were.

JIM LEHRER: There were two there, right?

AL FROM: And that was intensified obviously with the effort to get Jim Wright. I think that actually there are some people on both sides who would like to annul the last election, but the fact is we did elect a Democratic President, we did elect a Republican Congress, and it’s time to put all that behind us. And I think we can.

JIM LEHRER: What do you say to those who would suggest hey, wait a minute, bipartisanship to accomplish what? I mean, we don’t have a crisis in this country, so what in the world is it that we want everybody to do?

VIN WEBER: First of all, I think that is a legitimate question. Sometimes bipartisanship means we’re going to cover each other’s behinds because we’re going to do something people don’t like very much. I remember the largest congressional pay increase in history was a great act of bipartisanship not very popular with the people, however, but I do think that there are some issues on which the country wants to see progress that we can have bipartisan agreement. They want to see progress toward a balanced budget and responsible reform of entitlement programs. I think that’s possible. They want to see us do something about the inner cities and maybe particularly about our capital city where both the President and Speaker Gingrich have spoken eloquently. I think that’s possible. The drug problem I think is another area, and if we see positive movement on some of those key areas, which is definitely possible, in my judgment, that would be good bipartisanship.

AL FROM: I agree. The President in his inaugural address laid out a new definition of government. He said government wasn’t the problem, and it wasn’t always the solution. He called for a government that–a different kind of public activism that reflected mainstream values and was fiscally restrained, that was decentralized. I think our challenge is to modernize big public systems, including welfare, education, our programs to the cities, entitlements. So they’re appropriate for the century in which we’re entering. And whenever you have major reform taking place in the country it is important to have members of both parties support it so you have the political underpinnings to make sure it actually gets carried out.

JIM LEHRER: The argument over the role of government and the size of government and the power of government is over?

VIN WEBER: No, no. It’s not over, but it is changed. Al is exactly right. The country, I think, on the one hand has said we don’t like the way that the traditional liberal welfare state has worked to centralize expensive bureaucratic. On the other hand, we don’t like those Republicans that say there is no role for government in dealing with some of these problems that we’ve been talking about. So they’re saying find a different way. We want the government or the public to attack these issues, but we don’t want them done in the old bureaucratic centralized and expensive way, and if you politicians can’t figure out how to do it, we’ll elect somebody else. That’s what we’re trying to invent here. And that’s the course of bipartisanship that could be very exciting.

AL FROM: President Clinton today was out in Illinois talking about standards for schools. They would be national standards, but they’d be imposed at the state level and carried out at the state level. One of the ideas that we have proposed and that he has talked about is the expansion of charter schools, a new way to manage schools where parents and teachers are in control. I think there are a lot of new ideas for modernizing public systems, for delivering services like education. And I hope we build a new system to help welfare recipients get into jobs. All those kind of things have to be done, and they’re going to have to be done at the local level in a non-bureaucratic way within reasonable fiscal constraints.

JIM LEHRER: Meanwhile, the kind of competing scandal problems, ethics problems, the kind of mutual destruction, in other words, both sides are going to lay low and go on with the country’s business?

VIN WEBER: Well, it’s a mutual problem both for the President and for the Speaker. Maybe that’s the best reason why we might be able to avoid having it derail everything we’ve been talking about here because in my judgment, it clearly is still the biggest looming cloud or shadow over the potential that we’ve been talking about here tonight. It was, indeed, poisonous over the issue of Speaker Gingrich, and it could get just as poisonous quickly over some issue surrounding the President. That’s unfortunate. I mean, it’s not for us to pass legal judgment on either of these folks, but it really is too bad for the country if the potential of this particularly important moment in history to forge a new way of governing the country literally is lost to the ethics issues.

AL FROM: I want to underscore that. We don’t have a national crisis that is forcing us to get together. What we have is a challenge to figure out a new way to govern the country. That’s where we really need to work together, and it would be a tragedy if all of this rancoring in the politics of destruction overtook the opportunity to build a new governing structure for the 21st century.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you both very much.