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Shields & O’Beirne Political Wrap

March 28, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: And we get that analysis from NewsHour regular and syndicated columnist Mark Shields. Paul Gigot is off tonight. In his place is Kate O’Beirne, Washington editor for the National Review. Welcome both of you. Let’s start with Vice President Gore’s trip to China this week. How well do you think he handled himself, Mark, and the whole set of issues he had to cope with?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the Vice President had a tough assignment. What he had hoped to be and I’m sure his supporters looking forward to the year 2000 and the potential Gore candidacy had hoped to be this, striking out, on the world stage, couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Besieged with reports about Chinese influence and American politics, going over there to try and explain the American position and not be too tough on human rights but not be namby-pamby, try and stand up on trade, and the Chinese problems in the huge balance, trade deficit, and keeping out American products, and doing even worse things. And the Chinese selling arms, weapon systems to Pakistan and Iran. As far as I could see, it was zero for three on the trip. I mean, I don’t think he scored on any of the three.

MARGARET WARNER: How much do you think the whole fund-raising scandal affected him, made it really awkward for him.

KATE O’BEIRNE, National Review: That’s the adjective, unfortunately. Awkward is the word most used to described how his trip went in China, and it’s not a welcome adjective to Al Gore. But the planning of it was awkward. It was as Mark said an opportunity to show him flying solo as a statesman, and yet there seemed to be an impulse on the part of his staff to have a news blackout.

Well, how can we all admire him getting into international waters, if most of the events are going to be closed to the press? And what people are looking to do with the campaign finance scandal is connect the dots. So he’s in a very awkward position. People want–are leaning towards impugning the administration’s position which is a switch from 1992; they were criticizing George Bush for coddling dictators in China. Does their switch in position have anything to do, or anything they do with China have anything to do with possible illegal funds coming from the Chinese?

And then, boy, did the dictators show themselves to be–ruthless–reputation well deserved–when they handed him a champagne glass. How ruthless do you get? And there, of course, are photographs that he was–that are bound to come back to haunt him, and while he’s in China toasting the butcher of Tiamenan Square–

MARGARET WARNER: You’re talking about Li Peng, the premier.

KATE O’BEIRNE: Yes. Yes. And Gore knows better than anybody how easy it is to demagogue on that; they did it to George Bush. Dick Gephardt’s in Iowa and New Hampshire at the same time. It was a bad week for Al Gore.

MARGARET WARNER: Are year 2000 politics a sub-text of all this, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Sure.

MARGARET WARNER: China policy.

MARK SHIELDS: Sure, they are, Margaret, and there’s no question that the Chinese issue is going to be around a long time. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York says today in an interview today on PBS, on David Frost, that this was an attack by the Chinese upon the American political system–the American political system. It’s a pretty serious charge from a very respected senior legislator, and I think we’re going to get most favored nation, the question of turning over Hong Kong to the Chinese–we postponed the most favored nation vote until then– Bill Paxon, the Republican leader from upstate New York, past chairman of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee announced this week he would not support most favored nation for China again.

That means that you can see the Republicans trying to take a little political advantage on the squirming and the awkwardness the Democrats are going through, but the Republicans have to answer to their business community and say, green light, go ahead to China, and there’s restlessness there on their side. Gary Bauer, the former head of President Reagan’s Domestic Policy Council and a leading conservative activist, is teaming up with Gov. Bob Casey, Democratic governor of Pennsylvania.

They’re going to try and join hands with Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic liberal congresswoman from San Francisco, and Chris Smith, Frank Wolf, Republican Congressman from Virginia and New Jersey, and try and put together a group opposing the Chinese on their religious intolerance and mistreatment, their human rights abuses. So this issue is going to be–is going to be from 1997 through the year 2000.

KATE O’BEIRNE: Both sides have, as Mark rightly says, have a really awkward time because pro-family grassroots are now seeing the religious persecution as an issue that they ought to be much more involved in. Many members who are free traders and voted to extend MFN last time now think it’s time to “send the Chinese a message and MFN is going to be the vehicle to do that. And on the other side, labor, of course, on the Democratic ranks, are totally opposed to MFN, and Dick Gephardt will oppose it on their behalf, and Al Gore’s stuck with the administration position of extending MFN.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now put what Newt Gingrich said and did in China and Hong Kong last night–he’s in China today. And I know we have sketchy reports, but explain what he’s saying and put it in context for us, in that political context.

KATE O’BEIRNE: Well, now he’s under pressure from his own side. There are–there are vote switchers now. People have supported MFN in the past and think they no longer want to. Newt is also having problems with conservative supporters. So it appears that his intent is to speak out more publicly than Al Gore did about Chinese human rights abuses.

MARGARET WARNER: And that’s what he said last night in the–in Hong Kong.

KATE O’BEIRNE: Exactly. I’m saying it in Hong Kong, and when I meet the leaders in Beijing, I intend to say the same thing. So he clearly will be more public in his–in his condemnation of Chinese behavior which Al Gore didn’t do very much of. Now, will it make it easier for him to support MFN when he has spoken out at least right in Beijing criticizing leaders? I assume he hopes it will because he has not announced that his position has changed any on extending MFN.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s go on to Newt Gingrich in other ways, Mark. There were several news reports this week suggesting that now Republican members of the House are beginning to attack him. How serious a threat do you think he’s under to his leadership?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, beginning with Congressman Peter King of New York, moderate conservative, blue collar Republican, took to the pages of the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, and said Newt Gingrich is political road kill, that he’s a liability, he can’t lead, isn’t leading, and now we have a report of human events, leading conservative weekly paper coming out this week with a report of 40 Republicans restless in the ranks, ready to have a vote of confidence. It’s tough. I mean, a leader in order to be an effective leader has to either be loved, ideally both, loved or feared, and right now in terms of this kind of–I think it’s pretty indicative that nobody’s afraid of Newt Gingrich, and there’s very little perceived political downside in opposing, criticizing, or even publicly denouncing him.

MARGARET WARNER: Kate, these are, most of these members stuck by him in the whole ethics scandal. And what has happened to flip it around?

KATE O’BEIRNE: Well, I think they’ll explain themselves. Mark is right. There is alot of dissatisfaction. They felt that the ethics charges against Newt was a partisan attack, but they really didn’t see any merit to those charges. They did stick by him… MARGARET WARNER: So they circled the wagons then? KATE O’BEIRNE: Absolutely. Why let David Bonior through these phony charges, you know, 75 out of 77 have been dismissed; we can’t let this happen. It’s a terrible precedent. Now what Peter King points out is there are issues that are more important to Newt Gingrich that it appears Newt Gingrich was not willing to fight for, and he highlights raising gender–raising gender preferences, defunding the NEA. Tax cuts was a major strategic gaff of Newt Gingrich’s; giving the impression that he was willing to put aside tax cuts. So these more conservative members are saying now, “Hey wait a minute. Newt when we re-elected him in January promised to fight for this agenda that got us here in the first place…” There’s some evidence now that they think he’s backing off on the agenda and that’s raising questions on whether he ought to be speaker.

MARK SHIELDS: Just one other point on dissatisifaction. Newt Gingrich had insisted all the way through the ethics charges he would route them. He would he put his accusers and his critics and embarrass them, and what did he end up doing? He ended up saying nolo contender and a $300,000 fine, and a lot of people who walked up and stood with him feel, from that point forward, they felt they’d been let down.

MARGARET WARNER: But replacing a Speaker’s tough.

MARK SHIELDS: Very tough, and it’s awfully tough when you don’t have a logical heir. I mean, Jim Wright, when he was in trouble in 1989 had the great disadvantage of having Tom Foley, a very popular consensus figure, as his heir apparent. And that made it a lot easier for the Democrats to move to Foley as a replacement. There is not a natural consensus successor, in my judgment, to Newt Gingrich at this point, which serves Gingrich’s purposes.

KATE O’BEIRNE: You have to consider Dick Armey, the Majority Leader, No. 2 in the House, the front-runner, but as more talk about the notion that Newt Gingrich might not survive this Congress surfaces, I assume there will be a lot of discussions to try to figure out whether or not they can rally around somebody. I think it’s safe to say the clock is ticking. I don’t think Newt Gingrich can afford too many more gaffs.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you both very much, Kate and Mark. Happy Easter!