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Political Analysis with Mark Shields and William Safire

September 26, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now the analysis of Shields and Safire. First topic, last night’s Democratic presidential debate at Pace University in New York City. It was the first to include retired General Wesley Clark. Kwame Holman has our brief taste of what happened.

KWAME HOLMAN: Yesterday’s debate served both as a debut for General Clark, and as an opportunity for the other candidates to attack the frontrunner, Vermont Governor Howard Dean. Moderator Brian Williams began by asking Clark about a speech he gave in May of 2001, in which he praised President Bush and other top Republican officials.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Did you believe it then? Do you believe it now?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.): I think it’s been an incredible journey for me and for this country since early 2001. We elected a president we thought was a compassionate conservative. Instead we got neither conservatism or compassion. We got a man who recklessly cut taxes. We got a man who recklessly took us into war with Iraq. I am pro-choice, I am pro-affirmative action, I’m pro-environment, pro-health. I believe the United States should engage with allies. We should be a good player in the international community, and we should use force only as a last resort. That’s why I’m proud to be a Democrat.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Reverend Al Sharpton used his first speaking opportunity to welcome Clark to the party.

REV. AL SHARPTON: It’s better to be a new Democrat that’s a real Democrat, than a lot of old Democrats up here that have been acting like Republicans all along. (Laughter )

KWAME HOLMAN: Sharpton’s soft jab at his opponents was a prelude to harsher exchanges, all focused on Howard Dean. The sharpest attack came from Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: At our darkest hour, when I was leading the fight against Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America, he was shutting the government down. Howard, you were agreeing with the very plan that Newt Gingrich wanted to pass, which was a $270 billion cut in Medicare. Now, you’ve been saying for many months that you’re the head of the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party. I think you’re just winging it.

QUESTIONER: Governor Dean?

HOWARD DEAN: That is flat-out false, and I’m ashamed that you would compare me with Newt Gingrich. There is nobody up here that’s like Newt Gingrich, and I think we have to understand that.

KWAME HOLMAN: Massachusetts Senator John Kerry chimed in.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: Well, in defense of Dick Gephardt, I didn’t hear him say he was like Newt Gingrich. I heard him say that he stood with Newt Gingrich when we were struggling to hold on to Medicare. That’s a policy difference.

KWAME HOLMAN: Senator Joseph Lieberman also joined in the criticism of Dean, drawing this response.

HOWARD DEAN: You know, to listen to Senator Lieberman, Senator Kerry, Representative Gephardt, I’m anti-Israel, I’m anti-trade, I’m anti-Medicare and I’m anti-Social Security. I wonder how I ended up in the Democratic Party?

KWAME HOLMAN: When the focus wasn’t on Dean, the candidates sparred heavily over tax cuts for the middle class, global trade, and health care. They all agreed on one thing however: that President Bush is mismanaging the economy.

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: Everyone on this stage is against Bush’s tax cuts for the rich.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: There’s been a widespread loss of confidence in George Bush’s economic policies.

KWAME HOLMAN: Even General Clark, noting his late start.

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.): I’ve got a better job plan in eight days than George Bush had in three years in this country.

KWAME HOLMAN: The candidates will debate again in Phoenix in two weeks.

JIM LEHRER: And to syndicated columnist Mark Shields and William Safire of The New York Times. Mark, do you have a list of winners and losers from last night?


JIM LEHRER: What is that list?

MARK SHIELDS: I’d say this: As a general rule, if criticism is the highest form of flattery, then the other nine candidates really admire Howard Dean’s campaign because they went after him. To me, that was the most interesting aspect of the debate in the sense of how he took it because the charge has been he is prickly, he’s volatile. Once there, he started to get a little bit at the edge but I thought he pulled himself back.

JIM LEHRER: How do you think he handled it?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Imitation is the highest form of flattery.

MARK SHIELDS: It was until I said criticism was.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: I think these guys don’t really like each other. I mean it comes right across. And can you imagine a year and a few months from now, if two of them are running mates?


WILLIAM SAFIRE: You’ll be playing the tape, you know and saying, you see?

MARK SHIELDS: Like voodoo economics in 1980 with George Bush.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: You’re afflicted with total recall. But I think the great question was how would General Clark come out, would he put his foot in his mouth? No. He was a CNN commentator. He was smooth, slick. He didn’t hurt himself.

JIM LEHRER: Did he help himself?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: By not hurting himself he helped himself, yeah. The question was how badly does Dean get roughed up? Certainly both Kerry and Gephardt…

JIM LEHRER: I’ll give you a list of names.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Gephardt has to beat Dean in Iowa and Kerry has to beat him or at least run close to him in New Hampshire. So these guys really have to go in there. And they’re cutting down his lead a little bit. Now in comes the muddy water man General Clark, to kick everything to the [inaudible] all the pollsters are looking at each other, saying who knows? And as a Republican and as a conservative, I say have at it, fellahs.

JIM LEHRER: As somebody who is not a Republican or a conservative, what do you say?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, it was interesting, both debates this week, the California one which we’ll discuss, and this one were conspicuous by the fact that the two people who went unmentioned — essentially was George W. Bush, his policies were, but they went after each other more than they went after Bush it seemed yesterday — the Democratic presidential candidates. And in California, the same thing happened, they went after each other. I thought Dick Gephardt’s strategy is pretty clear. He does have to win Iowa, the expectation.

JIM LEHRER: He can only win Iowa, you agree with Bill, that he can only win Iowa by doing in Dean, right?

MARK SHIELDS: He has got to beat Dean, that’s right, and the thing that is interesting is that Iowa has the fourth oldest population in the country. So his selection of Medicare as an issue where Howard Dean is vulnerable or questionable makes excellent political sense given the demographic make-up of Iowa.

JIM LEHRER: This issue about President Bush, yes the Democrats criticized each other, but they also criticized, all of them, every day, criticize President Bush. Is there any evidence that that’s having any effect in the way people think about the president?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: The polls are very strange. They’re saying that the approval rating of the president has gone up, is doing fine, near 60 percent, while the job approval has gone down. So if you like your polls, you don’t know which way to go.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. But do you think with the Democrats beating up on him all the time. For instance, Clark came on very strong in his first statement. And there are all kinds of criticisms of the president. You think that is being reflected in the polls? You think it is having any effect at all?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Sure it is. You listen to people zapping the president and you discount part of it as politics. But at the same time, you’re hearing this stuff and you’re saying to yourself, feet of clay.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: I think most people discount it. I think most people who are watching are the partisans at this point who probably have their minds made up on President Bush.

JIM LEHRER: Except the people of New Hampshire maybe and in Iowa and maybe South Carolina.

MARK SHIELDS: Yeah, who probably are not a terribly sizeable sample in a national poll. But I’d say this, Jim: where the polls reflect the president’s trouble. The Democrats make the mistake if they go after George W. Bush personally. Americans like him. They like his leadership, they like his personality. They’ve lost confidence that he has any plan for getting us out of Iraq. They’ve lost confidence in his stewardship of the economy. They’ve lost confidence or don’t agree with him on his domestic policy. And where it has been most, the hemorrhaging of the president’s support politically has been among Independents. That’s where he lost. He is holding 91 percent of Republicans.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: If you watch the whole two hours of the show….

JIM LEHRER: I watched all but ten minutes of it.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: If you watched the whole two hours, you really need to get a life. But the thrust of it was who can raise taxes faster? It was a class warfare pitch right through, and we’ve got to soak the rich and pay for the reconstruction of Iraq by raising taxes. And if that’s what they are going to run on ultimately, Mark, I think they’re going to lose.

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t. I think it’s not irrational. The reality is that Americans who like George W. Bush oppose the $87 billion. And when given the option in the “Wall Street Journal”-NBC News poll which is a pretty damn good poll of how you should pay for it, they say the overwhelming majority, I don’t see any other option of three to four to one, says repeal the tax breaks for the top 1 percent.

JIM LEHRER: Okay, let’s talk about Iraq specifically. The president…and the president – he made his major address to the U.N. on Monday. And he is out looking for help, international help, troops, all kinds of things, everything on a resolution. As we sit here at the end of the week, there is not a lot of progress, Bill. What is happening?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: I think we are missing a lot of the progress. One of the great stories to come out, talk about polls, was the Gallup poll of the people of Baghdad. A serious long poll. And it turns out that two out of three Baghdadis say all the power failures, all the casualties is worth it. They’d rather have it happen this way and Saddam out than not. Now as you know, and you know, the business of news is changed. And when we were surprised when the resistance continued after the war, after major conflict was over, that was the news. Now, I think you’ll see the pendulum swing and the coverage will be, hey, this is coming along.

JIM LEHRER: What about… specifically though, why are the other countries of the world not lining up the way the president asked them to do?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: They don’t like a superpower doing what the U.N. should have done. And that’s why there was a cool reception to the president’s speech at the U.N. He wasn’t saying I’m sorry we did it. We should have left Saddam in. I made a mistake. He was saying we did the right thing and now come along and help us rebuild.

JIM LEHRER: But they’re not doing it.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Well, I sat next to the Turkish foreign minister at lunch a couple days ago, and I put it to him. Are you going to send troops in? Because last time you didn’t help at all. And he said next week parliament meets. And if the government decides to ask for troops to go on occupation and duty in Iraq, I think public opinion has changed in Turkey, and we’d do it.

JIM LEHRER: That would be a major –


JIM LEHRER: What is your reading on the president’s speech and reaction to it internationally?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think, Jim, the president couldn’t decide whether it was one of accommodation or one of confrontation, and so the speech didn’t come really down to satisfy either constituency. He was… there was no crow on the president’s menu, Bill is right. He didn’t even nibble at a slice of humble pie. I mean, he stood up there and admitted no fallibility, no misstep in the prewar rationale or in the post-war occupation, and basically said to the allies on this rebuilding part, you can share in the burden. None of the influence, and none of the power. I think, you know, he left his audience…the second speech in really two weeks. And the presidential speeches are important events.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: He is not running for secretary-general.

MARK SHIELDS: No, no, but it’s the second speech where I don’t think he has connected with the American people. Last year he did move public opinion when he was trying to get congressional action in support of the resolution in Iraq in his own behalf. I don’t think he has moved public opinion in the speech Sunday night where he went one-on-one to the nation from the White House, or in the U.N. speech. It just sort of dropped and was over and I haven’t heard any echoes.

JIM LEHRER: You’ve heard echoes but only from Turkey, right?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: But I watched the speech with a lot of people, and I was pleased that he was resolute, and he wasn’t wavering. And that’s what American presidents should do.

JIM LEHRER: Before we go, let’s, for a few minutes, a couple of minutes, California. You heard what Mark said, Bill. What would you add or subtract from that? Let me just ask you. Do you think McClintock is going to get out and let Schwarzenegger have it alone against Bustamante? I think that’s the question of the night, is it not?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Right. I would quote Mark a couple weeks ago when he startled us both by saying “I don’t know.” I’ll go along with him on that. But I think Gray Davis won the debate, that you watch that show and you say well, maybe we shouldn’t recall the governor.

JIM LEHRER: The alternatives available were not that terrific.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Schwarzenegger did what Wesley Clark did. Which is he didn’t embarrass himself. He was okay. So that was a plus for him. But on the whole, my feelings still don’t recall the governor. But if you do, Schwarzenegger is your best bet.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: I thought it was a great debate.

JIM LEHRER: To watch?

MARK SHIELDS: The debate of that nature is really a job interview with the American people, the people of California, and I have to say, Jim, that I thought the winners were three. I thought Gray Davis was a winner because he probably looked more gubernatorial than he had looked….

JIM LEHRER: By not being there.

MARK SHIELDS: By not being there, and sort of an abstract alternative. I thought Tom McClintock was the only one I could imagine, the conservative, actually being in the governor’s office and taking over.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Yeah, he knows his stuff.

MARK SHIELDS: He knows what he believes. He presents it knowledgeably. What is interesting, just a political subterfuge and a conspiracy, the establishment Republicans are trying to get Tom McClintock out of this race. He ran for comptroller two years ago in California and they cut him off, the established Republicans, because he was too conservative. He lost by 20,000 votes state-wide in California. That’s like losing by a vote in Massachusetts. In other words, without any establishment money. They supported the rest of the ticket. So those entreaties for him to leave on the part of establishment Republicans are falling on the most deaf of ears.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: You want him to stay in, right?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I think Schwarzenegger is really probably consolidating Republican support. I don’t think Bustamante helped himself. I think Peter Camejo, the Green Party candidate, for somebody with control, passion and intensity made a good case; those were the three winners, I thought, and Arianna Huffington, I have to admit, her charm eludes me totally.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: She helped Schwarzenegger.

MARK SHIELDS: They looked like the Bickersons, for goodness’ sakes.

JIM LEHRER: Well, on that wonderful note, we’ll leave it. Thank you both very much.