TOPICS > Politics

Ethical Meltdown

January 31, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: We explore all this now with syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. Mark, what do you make of the way the President handled these ethics questions this week?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Margaret, first of all, I know it’ll surprise some people that in a presidential campaign a president is involved in fund-raising, and after sort of the false shrieks of surprise on the part of his critics, a couple of things do come through. First of all, Bill Clinton sounded Ronald Reagan in the Iran-Contra. Mistakes were made. When you start using the passive structure, it’s a distancing. American people are yearning, yearning for a leader with responsibility, to accept that responsibility, to acknowledge that responsibility. We have two leaders of government right now of the executive and the legislative, both–neither of whom seems to willing to do it. And while the President did say he had a responsibility after that, and then he said I’d have to leave it to others to judge, and just, you know, it smacks of blame shifting and finger pointing.

MARGARET WARNER: Paul, blame shifting, do you think?

PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: Well, it certainly was the passive tense. I think the two different scandals, if you will, are at very different times and periods. Newt Gingrich and his problems are over in the sense that the Ethics Committee has spoken. He took a plea bargain. He was punished by the Congress, and I think a lot of Republicans now want him to say not very much more; just let it lie. Just get it past you and go on with something else. The thing the president has with the financing problem is just beginning, and I think people want him to say more, to be more forthcoming. And he made some progress from last week where he was very defensive. And now he said mistakes were made. The next stage, I guess, is whose mistakes were they, how far did they go, how was the President or his key people in on them, that sort of thing, so I think there’s an awful lot more that’s going to have unfold in this, and the key point is, is he going to go about this differently than he did in the first term with some of the Whitewater problems where as The Washington Post put it they let things out in dribs and drabs in a way that created a cloud over them for a couple of years. If the President treats this problem differently and is more forthcoming, I think he can get probably get it behind him faster.

MARGARET WARNER: Mark, do you think, picking up on what Paul said, that the President is taking the right approach when he says, look, it’s up to other people to figure out whether the mistakes were made inadvertently or deliberately?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I don’t. I think it’s bad politics, as well as bad policy. I mean, the President is an enormously interested, insatiably curious man, and now here there’s an uncharacteristic lack of curiosity it seems to me, and I think he’d be well served and the country would be as well to take a person of the stature, independence of an Elliot Richardson, from a Republican attorney general and say, okay, look into the whole thing, tell me, report back to it. Margaret, what we have now is a scandal that’s inevitable. It’s inevitable for a very simple reason. We now spent four times as much in 1996, raised the Democrats and the Republicans, Republicans raised more and spent more, than we did in 1988. We spent 73 percent more, was raised, shaken down, in 1996 than was raised in 1992. By contrast, in the past four years the cost of college, higher education, went up 17 percent. The cost of–the wages earned by Americans went up 13 percent, and the cost of campaigns went up 73 percent. I mean, it is a scandal. It’s inevitable. It’s going to hit–it will hit both parties, and that’s why I think Fred Thompson is probably the key and central person in this whole drama.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Paul, that was one of the points. In fact, the President said, wasn’t it in his own defense, he said, look, really the problem is we’ve got a campaign finance system that’s just gone haywire.

PAUL GIGOT: Well, look, Margaret, the President and the Democrats are desperate to change the subject from the rules that are currently in place that were broken this election to the new rules they want to pass that they promised not to break the next election. I mean, how can you pass new rules, how can you say we need new campaign finance reform, when we can’t abide by the current system we have? And that’s the thing that really has to be the focus. That’s what Fred Thompson said. We can’t try to deflect attention from what’s happened this time. Otherwise, we’re just going to end up piling new law on new law without any accountability.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Paul, where is the Senate investigation going? What do you think is going to be the scope of it?

PAUL GIGOT: Well, it looks to me like Fred Thompson is laying out an investigation that is going to be quite broad and quite extensive and maybe quite long. $6.5 million is a lot of money, and he’s not going to do it right away. He’s not going to make the mistake of starting out just for the sake of headlines and getting some headlines in February and March and having it trail off. I think it’s smart to–to try to build up and get as much information you can and build an argument, tell a story, and then I think he’s also smart if he tries to bring in some of the Democrats here, so that it doesn’t look as if this is going to be just a partisan exercise. And, you know, that would help if he can make it, if he can bring in somebody like John Glenn to really go over the books of the DNC.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you see for this investigation?

MARK SHIELDS: Let me correct, Paul. Fred Thompson is committed to writing new laws. He was one of the half dozen Republicans and a very stalwart Republican in the Senate who supported the McCain-Feingold bill in 1996 before all of this came out. And he is just as strong and a co-sponsor of that legislation now which would change the way we raise money and limit severely what campaigns and candidates and committees can do. I think Fred Thompson is approaching it in a very thoughtful and serious way. His statement this week was a shot across the bow, not only the White House but of Democrats, as well as Republicans. He is not going to be a partisan figure. I would be astounded if he were. I mean, he knows that what happened in the Watergate hearings was legislation came out that affected all of politics. They didn’t simply limit it to the abuses of Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign. We knew that it was endemic to the entire system, and the entire structuring was changed, and it lasted, and it worked very darn well for a generation.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Mark, is Alexis Herman, the secretary of labor nominee, is she going to take a fall here? Is she in serious trouble?

MARK SHIELDS: Alexis Herman’s nomination as secretary of labor is in trouble for several reasons. I do not think she’s going to take a fall for the following reasons: First of all, I think the Republicans, especially Trent Lott, the Senate Majority Leader from Mississippi, do not want to have the one Clinton cabinet nominee they oppose be an African-American woman. That is bad politics there. They would just as soon have her confirmed, hobbled, limited, apologetic, and a very muted secretary of labor, and it’s also the politics inside of president politics. Al Gore, the Vice President, pushed very hard for her nomination figuring he wasn’t going to have labor’s support–labor did not support Alexis Herman–in the year 2000, so he would pick up some chits elsewhere. So she’s a person without a base, but I think she will be confirmed.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree, Paul?

PAUL GIGOT: I don’t think we know yet whether she’ll be confirmed. My guess is she probably will. I don’t think the Republicans decided that they’re going to kill this nomination. I think what they’ve decided is they’re going to use her nomination and her hearings as a chance to educate people about what went on in the last campaign. And that’s a pretty good opportunity. That’s a role for confirmation. The President in most cases deserves the nominees that he wants, but in this case you can also use it to instruct the public. And I think that’s what this is going to be used for.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Mark, let’s turn to Newt Gingrich. What did you make of what he said last weekend?

MARK SHIELDS: Newt Gingrich left Washington, went down. Being Newt Gingrich means having to say you’re sorry. I mean, he went down, he went down to Georgia, to his home district, and departed from reality. I mean, this is a man who’s blamed the following: He’s blamed a staff person; he’s blamed the lawyer; he’s blamed the committee; and now he’s–now he’s blaming a conspiracy, a massive leftist conspiracy where 200 members of his own party were dupes, and he was–every point he made was rebutted very effectively in a NightLine broadcast on Tuesday night which was embarrassing. And I just–I just really think that he’s fast approaching the outskirts of being beyond redemption. This is not helpful. He’s not putting it behind him. He’s taken the people who stood with him and embarrassed them further, and charged that they were part of some vast conspiracy. And I just question whether, in fact, he understands how precarious his political position is right now.

MARGARET WARNER: Paul, why do you think he reacted as he did and said what he did?

PAUL GIGOT: Because I think he believes what he said. I think he feels aggrieved. I think he does think that there is a double standard; that Republican figures in Washington are treated more harshly than Democratic figures on ethics charges. I think he believes that. But the reason he shouldn’t say that is because we just had the end of this process. I mean, if he wanted to fight this, he should have fought it. He shouldn’t have copped a plea, and he shouldn’t give Mark and other people a chance to whack him for the 10th week in a row, which is what we’ve got here. I mean, you know, this thing ought to be over, and if he wants to get back to being Speaker and in charge, he ought to just to say, that’s over, I took my licking, and now let’s move on with the business of governing.

MARGARET WARNER: And how do Republicans on the Hill feel about it, that way?

PAUL GIGOT: I think that that is the almost universal feeling among Republicans on Capitol Hill. The decision to fight on this should have been made by the time when the Ethics Committee was doing its deliberations. And once he made that choice, he was basically saying I’m going to make a gamble that I can keep the speakership if I cop a plea. He won that gamble, but now he’s got to act like a speaker and not like somebody who is going to drag this out. I mean, I have some sympathy for him on the point of double standards. I think it does exist, but I think in this case that’s all over.

MARGARET WARNER: You wanted back in here?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I do. Stop the whining, Newt. Accept responsibility, accept accountability. You stood up there like a man and said I was guilty. Double standards, Paul? How about Dan Rostenkowski, how about Jim Wright? I mean, you know, there’s no double standard. This is victimology, is what it is. That’s what Newt has ranted, railed against.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Got to leave it there. Thank you both very much.