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Shields and Safire

November 7, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Safire. Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist William Safire. Bill, the Democrats’ confederate flag flap this week. What’s the end result for Howard Dean, do you think?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: I think that it shows a little bit of character. Everybody recognizes that it was a blunder, a gaffe. Even the Dean people say so. But it was how he mishandled it afterwards that was revealing. He countered everybody who complained about it, and he took on Al Sharpton, and, I didn’t make a mistake. You’re all reading things into it. And then he realized that … he must realize that there would be a man with a confederate flag showing up at every one of his rallies from now until he’s finished. And his people must have gotten together with him and said look, every now and then you have to admit you made a mistake. It kills him to do this. But he did it finally. That’s what it revealed.

JIM LEHRER: Any damage to him, do you think, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I look at it a little bit differently, Jim. I first heard Governor Dean use this expression when he said he was going to campaign in the south and discuss race in the South February 21 at a Democratic National Committee meeting –

JIM LEHRER: February 21. We are sitting here not quite a year later but close.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. Expressly used, the phrase he used and used it several times in speeches. White folks in the South who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals on them ought to be voting for us because their kids don’t have health insurance either and their kids deserve better schools. In other words, that he would emphasize…

JIM LEHRER: When you heard it, did you say oh my goodness, he just made a gaffe?

MARK SHIELDS: No, because he got a standing ovation at this speech. It was a big applause line, more than a representative African American audience. The difference was he was at 3 percent in the polls then. Now he’s the front-runner, the overwhelming front-runner and this was a case of a consensus among John Kerry, his principal opponent in New Hampshire, Dick Gephardt, his principal opponent in Iowa, and John Edwards who doesn’t like the fact that he is ahead and Al Sharpton who Bill mentioned. Al Sharpton is a different case. They got together and they said look, we have to stop this guy. They made a big brouhaha about this. It was … a plot line here. They want to deprive him of the Service Employees International Union endorsement.

JIM LEHRER: Which is about to happen.

MARK SHIELDS: Which is about to happen and the Service Employees International Union, Jim, is sort of a fixed image of American labor in people’s minds. They think of big, brawny muscular guys who work on auto assembly lines, steelworkers, machinists. That’s gone. That’s a different … Lisa Lynch said to Ray, 39 months of losing manufacturing jobs continues. The biggest of union in the country, the Service Employees International Union, 1.6 million members; there are more members in it than there are in steel unions, auto and machinists combined.

JIM LEHRER: Very diverse union.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s a very diverse union. It’s 56 percent women and it’s only 58 percent white. They were kind of hoping if they get this out about Dean and the confederate flag and all the rest of it, it might make them a little bit nervous about endorsing him. The fact is they’re the biggest union in New Hampshire, very politically sophisticated union, they’re going to endorse him and AFSME [Federation of State, County and Municipal Employee] is going to endorse him.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: This wasn’t a plot to do him in. You should have, back in February, said confederate flag? That’s a red flag in front of a bull in politics. And it’s a big issue in the South, and to just use it as a symbol shows a certain lack of understanding of big symbols. And I think what he did was made a big mistake. Certainly everybody jumped on him. And the fact that he’s out there in public now and people are watching him means you watch very closely. But it’s the same thing with George Romney talking about being brainwashed. Boom, everything happened and he was finished.

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think it’s the same. It’s a way of saying I’m going after votes in the South that somehow we’ve written off in the past. This is part of the Dean shtick. Dean said if Al Gore had my position on gun control, he would have been running for reelection in 2004 because he wouldn’t have lost West Virginia and Tennessee.

JIM LEHRER: You just said — you used the Romney analogy and you said Romney was finished. You’re not suggesting…

WILLIAM SAFIRE: I don’t suggest he is finished because frankly I’m all for Dean. I want to see him become the Democratic nominee because I think that would be a McGovern candidacy. I think that would lead to a Republican landslide. So I’m not knocking Dean for any nefarious –

JIM LEHRER: But your analysis is, your preferences aside….

WILLIAM SAFIRE: This was one stupid mistake. And worse than the mistake itself was his refusal to back off it which showed that he is an aggressive, angry man, who, somewhat arrogantly, will not admit he is wrong.

JIM LEHRER: What about Mark’s point that the endorsement by this union kind of counter balances that and could wipe it off? Wipe it away as an issue?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: The position of labor in the Democratic party is kind of interesting here. Gephardt is supposed to be labor’s favorite because he has been protectionist from the word go, anti-NAFTA and he’s been labor’s friend. And there used to be a saying that labor rewards its friends and punishes its enemies. Now you have oh maybe five million member unions signed up for Gephardt now. And now you’ll have three million members between this one and the next week they’ll have the government workers….

JIM LEHRER: Yeah.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: So you have a split among labor. And there’s Gephardt who has been the champion of labor all along being tossed over in Iowa where he desperately needs labor’s help.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read the labor….

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, the division in labor that Bill has eluded to is the industrial unions, unions that have lost the jobs. Dick Gephardt has been their champion. And for the most part, other than auto, they’ve endorsed him. Steel has endorsed him, machinists.

JIM LEHRER: There’s just not as important…

MARK SHIELDS: They’re not as big as they were, but the reality this is: That if you work at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, or you work at St. Joseph’s Hospital, they’re not going to leave and go to Indonesia or Mexico with their jobs. Okay. So trade and loss of jobs that way isn’t as big an issue to the Service Employees International Union or to AFSME. That’s the division in labor is between the industrial and the service employees. The service employees and the white collar unions, government unions are the fastest growing. And there is a political sophistication, but Bill is absolutely right. I’ve written it and I believe it. Dick Gephardt has been the longest and strongest and most loyal advocate and champion of labor and its positions….

WILLIAM SAFIRE: And they’re selling him out now.

MARK SHIELDS: This time it looks like they want a winner.

JIM LEHRER: You mentioned, Bill, the Sharpton thing and all of this happened in the debate this week at CNN and rock the vote had. A lot of people have questioned the goodness and mercy of these debates. In fact, Mrs. Kerry, John Kerry’s wife recently called them silly. What do you think? Are they helping the process? Are they helping the electorate make choices among these things?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: When you have a sitting president who doesn’t have a primary and you have a bunch of Democrats who are going to savage each other to get the nomination, it’s kind of unfair. We’re looking at these debates on television and lapping them up. When Kerry and Gephardt close in on Dean…

JIM LEHRER: When you say we, you mean you Republicans.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: We right-wingers.

JIM LEHRER: Right wingers, okay.

MARK SHIELDS: Right-wing conspiracy.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Vast.

MARK SHIELDS: Vast.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: So we’re delighted to see everybody clobbering each other because that will be then used in the general election to say you see, even Kerry or even blah, blah, or even Dean said about the guy who won, if somebody else wins?

JIM LEHRER: What do you left-wing conspiracy people think about that?

MARK SHIELDS: …Jim, Jim two, things. First of all, the debates are terrific for the candidates who don’t have — who are dark horses, for Carol Moseley-Braun, for Dennis Kucinich, for Al Sharpton. It’s their campaign. But because they’re on the same stage with plausible presidential candidates like Joe Lieberman and Dick Gephardt and John Kerry and Howard Dean and John Edwards, the debates are therefore taken less seriously. And Bill’s right. They’re watched more for ammunition than they are for information. I mean, we watch ‘em, people in our business in our business; Karl Rove watches them and tapes them and I’m sure looks at the films.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: More important than the debates in the long run, I think, are the major speeches. Bill Clinton made a big impact with his Georgetown speech on foreign policy.

JIM LEHRER: Back when he was a candidate.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: When he was nobody. And here the president, as you reported today made a major speech, an idealistic Woodrow Wilson democracy speech just at the right moment. And that’s, frankly, what I would hope the television would cover more and not just the conflict of personalities, but sometimes people think big and make you stop and think.

JIM LEHRER: That’s a good point.

MARK SHIELDS: Can I just make one point about Al Sharpton, and that is that Al Sharpton attacked Governor Dean for having an anti-black agenda. The anti-black agenda turned out to be a position on gun control that was not castigated by the NRA, support of the death penalty, and an endorsement of affirmative action based on class rather than race. I think an argument which has considerable merit and certainly is a lot more sensible.

But the reason is, Al Sharpton, I think it’s fair to say, was hoping to be the Jesse Jackson of this campaign. Jesse Jackson won a string of primaries in 1984 and 1988 and became essentially the president of black Americans and guaranteed himself a prime time spot at the national conventions and a place at the table when it came to developing strategy or anything of the sort. And Al Sharpton had his political … hopes cut off by the endorsement of or the news of the endorsement of Howard Dean by Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr. So he was lashing out at Dean. He was ready to go after Dean on that basis alone because I think he saw his own hopes of becoming a major national figure through the primary system, as being dashed.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see it the same way?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: He’ll make a good speech at the Democratic convention, I think, Sharpton will, and surprise a lot of people unless Dean gets the nomination and doesn’t let him speak at all at the convention.

JIM LEHRER: Do you both agree that as we speak tonight, that Dean remains the front-runner — whether you prefer it or not prefer it?

MARK SHIELDS: Dean is clearly the front-runner and, Jim, in the effort to gang up against him this week was the consensus and acknowledgment on the part of his challengers that he has to be stopped. If he wins Iowa and New Hampshire, there’s probably no stopping him and the worst thing in politics is to get what you wish for.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: On the other hand, look how everybody was all hot and excited about General what’s his name Clark. And he sort of disappeared from the scene. So things change pretty fast around here.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of disappearing from the scene, you’re going to disappear from our scene.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Yes. I’m becoming a pencil again.

JIM LEHRER: You’re becoming a pencil again. David Brooks will be back next Friday. And thank you very much, Bill, for filling in for him. We’ll still see you from time to time when David is otherwise occupied.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Glad to.

JIM LEHRER: I really appreciate your doing this for him.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: Well, this gave him a chance to get his sea legs at The New York Times where he’s going to be a columnist and he is already a columnist. It is a pleasure to have another conservative voice on that page.

JIM LEHRER: Say something nice now, Mark.

MARK SHIELDS: I never realized that The New York Times was a ship.

JIM LEHRER: A right-wing ship.

MARK SHIELDS: A right-wing ship. But it’s great to go toe to toe with two dominant leading respected conservatives in American journalism, Mr. Safire and Mr. Brooks. I’ve enjoyed being with Bill and going knee to elbow.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: I like the way you keep saying I agree with Bill and then you clobber me.

JIM LEHRER: Thanks again, Bill. Thank you both very much.