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Political Wrap

October 4, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: We now turn to some political analysis from Shields & Gigot. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. So, Paul, I see Bob Dole wants this not to be a confirming debate but to be a changing debate.

PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: Well, he, I think it’s the biggest event between now and the end of the campaign for him. He, he needs it badly, and I think he’s worked hard. He’s prepared–he spent a lot of time preparing for it. One hopes it’s not the same way Nixon did, getting all tense, and that he should relax a big the way he was in the Senate. I think their strategy is to try to nail the Jell-O of the Clinton candidacy to the wall. The Dole people have been so frustrated that Clinton presents a maddening target. He’s always hedging. He’s always shifting. He signs the welfare bill. But then he says to other groups, I’m going to change it if I’m elected. Dole is going to try to use issues like taxes and welfare and partial birth abortions, others, to try to show that Bill Clinton doesn’t mean what he says about a second term, and at the same time, he has to restore his–he has to try emphasize his own believability as a candidate and contrast that believability with Bill Clinton’s. I think that’s, that’s what they view as the big task.

MARGARET WARNER: Mark, do you agree with that, nailing the Jell-o to the wall? I mean, that implies that Dole’s strategy has to be more about tearing down Bill Clinton or raising a question about Clinton, Bill Clinton, than about building himself up?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Yeah. Nailing the Jell-o to the wall is a tough project. I’m fluent–and I’ve never seen anybody nail Jell-o to the wall.

PAUL GIGOT: That’s how hard it is.

MARK SHIELDS: Even Bill Cosby for that matter. So, you know, I think that Bob Dole gets 300 points, like the college board exam, you know, you get 300 points just for showing up, I mean, the expectations are so slow going in, and they’ve set this bar that Clinton is this master debater and all the rest of it. But I, I think that the most important two minutes of Bob Dole’s life for the opening two minutes of his statement. And that has be to why I want to be President of the United States because I think, quite frankly, given the numbers that Andy was talking about and the level of interest if he doesn’t engage people’s interest in his two-minute open statement, and say that’s what the stakes are of this election, that’s what it’s about. I think you’re going to see an awful lot of people flipping their cables.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, James Carville, former Clinton strategist, was quoted in Newsweek this week quoting you, Mark, this is a very typical Washington thing, but I want to ask you about it. He said, to pilfer a line from Mark Shields, Bob Dole has to be an underdog but not a loser. When did you ever say that, and two, what did you mean?

MARK SHIELDS: I wrote it, Margaret. If you read the Washington Post, you might have seen it, but that’s all right, I’ll be happy to get you a copy. No. Uh, I did say it. Americans like underdogs. Bob Dole is a loser right now. He has to transform himself from that category of loser to underdog. Losers are something that–losing is the only American sin, as John Artunis once wrote. And I think there’s truth to it. But for an underdog, people root for an underdog. It was like Fritz Mondale, after the first debate in 1984, for the first time became the underdog, rather than the doomed loser. After the second debate, that was changed. But I think that’s what Bob Dole has to, has to emerge from this debate as. The other thing, Margaret, if this race is going to turn around, I think Andy would agree with this, uh, it isn’t going to be a story that’s buried on page A 17 of the paper. It’s got to be something coming out of this debate that really engages people where the White House and the President in his campaign are on the defensive, explaining for the next four or five days, and the Dole folks are asking questions. That’s what you have to come out with.

MARGARET WARNER: So what can do that?

PAUL GIGOT: Well, it’s going to be very hard to do that because the President is going to try to bounce around the ring and not let Bob Dole have any punches on him. I mean, he’s going to act presidential. My guess is that he’s going to be effusive in his praise of Bob Dole personally, say he, he respects his service in World War II, honors that, and he’s going to be cheerful and upbeat. Dole has to come in with some good lines. He’s got to come in with a sense of humor. He’s got to come in with a certain wit and personal gravitas. You know, if you’re going to try to score in a debate, that’s the kind of tone you want to take, particularly if you’re going to be leveling some pretty tough charges against somebody, and I don’t mean personal charges but linked to issues, presidential character linked to issues. And if you’re taking that attack, which I think their campaign believes it has to take, then you have to do it with a smile, and with a rapier wit and not with a sledgehammer.

MARK SHIELDS: They kept Bob Dole–I agree with Paul there–they’ve kept Bob Dole and Bob Dole, himself, kept his wit very much under wraps. I mean, this is a man that is, that is authentically funny, spontaneously funny. I’ve seen in the debates with Republicans where he’s been really funny and carried the day with his humor, and he’s been about as funny as a heat rash in this campaign. And I just–I think unless he does, unless he comes across as a likeable guy–and I think that’s the best way for him to carry the case to the President–it’s a tough case to make, Margaret. Unemployment, I mean, is down a third from where it was. We’ve got the lowest rate of African-American poverty in the country in its history, the lowest over 65 poverty in its history, down, I mean, it’s a tough–it’s a tough uphill fight in this environment, but I’ll tell you–the key to me in the debates and why I think they’re important and I think historians are right is that what you’re talking about is somebody applying for a job interview with the American people. That’s what this is. There’s a hundred million, seventy-five million sitting out there. If you want to be President of the United States, you have to apply, you come up there in an environment not of your own making, with questions not preselected, without your media adviser whispering in your ear, and you’re out there, and, and I think that’s the marvelous thing about presidential debates and why they work.

MARGARET WARNER: What are the pitfalls, what are the pitfalls for Bill Clinton? I mean, he does have this brief, as Mark said, but there have got to be pitfalls.

PAUL GIGOT: Well, I think if, if he gets mad. If Dole gets under his skin, if–and if he looks as if he is trimming. If he looks as if he is, he is dodging and weaving–and Andy’s polling shows this, and your interview last week showed it–there isn’t a great love for this guy. There’s–even the people who are voting for him or say they are, are saying it with a caveat with reservation, we don’t really believe him. If he starts to bite that lip and looks like he is conning you, then he’s going to expose–that’s exactly what Dole wants him to do.

MARK SHIELDS: There hasn’t been a single verified sighting of the lip-biting. (PAUL GIGOT laughing) I say that–if Bob Dole opens up, however, in his two minutes and says, liberal, liberal, liberal, Medicare scam, Medicare–you know, say good night, switch to HBO.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s true, isn’t it, Andy–it is often style as much as substance?

ANDY KOHUT: Yeah, and part of the problem is Bob Dole’s style has kind of scolding is coming through. The one change in September is that Bob Dole has come to be seen as being too personally critical of Bill Clinton. 53 percent had that view–only 20 percent thought that Clinton was too critical of Dole. I mean, if you look at the advertisements and the things they’re saying, Clinton’s being critical of Dole, but Dole has this style of, of appearing to be too negative and to be not the underdog, unfortunately, perhaps but the attack dog. If he’s an attack dog, he’s in big trouble.

MARGARET WARNER: People don’t like attack dogs in their front yard. And that raises another issue. How should each one of them handle attacks on the other? I mean, that’s–

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, obviously it’s the nature of the attack, and I don’t think Bob Dole is going to attack Bill Clinton. I think he will try and use humor and say, could you tell us, which is the real, what is your real policy here, you’ve done this Mr. President, and I think if the President says, gee, Bob, if you’d been listening, and you hadn’t been out traveling the country and you hadn’t left the Senate, you might be aware of what’s going on in Washington., I think it has to be sort of, you know, deflecting and, and good-natured banter, but obviously you can’t–you can’t cave to the attack and if either one loses his temper, he’s in trouble. Talk about debates changing perceptions. Ross Perot went into the debates in 1992 two to one unfavorable. He came out two to one favorable. I mean, that’s what a debate can do, and it can really change the entire campaign. It made him into a plausible presidential contender in 1992.

MARGARET WARNER: Before we go, I do want to ask about the one big news event that took place in Washington this week, which was this emergency Mideast summit, and we have discussed on this show all week substance of it, but in terms of just domestic political impact, Paul, what, what impact, if any, do you think it had?

PAUL GIGOT: Well, there are a lot of–some people have suggested this was a great risk for the President, a great risk for him to act presidential and stand in the Oval Office and look like you’re working hard for peace between two people who most Americans believe in an intractable problem anyway. It was, it was a perfect opportunity for him. It wasn’t a risk. It was, it was a great opportunity to look presidential and to, to freeze public discussion basically for three or four days in this race. I mean, Bob Dole couldn’t get a sound bite on the television the first part of the week, which is why I think Bob Dole decided later in the week to take a little shine and a little gloss off that by saying that Bill Clinton is somebody who declares victory a little too soon in his foreign policy discussions, and his foreign policies, and that’s why he went after him to knock him down a peg, and, and I think Dole did that effectively and got back in the news by linking his attack to, to the news of the week.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you see it, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I, I think that the President did take a risk. I think there was a risk in doing it and a risk in not doing it because it wasn’t like most of these are, orchestrated. We have got the pre-digested statement that’s going to be made and everybody’s going to do the same thing, and I think he took a risk because peace is involved, and it’s very, very important, and I think we left here with Arafat as the underdog, uh, and with Netanyahu trying to explain why he opened the tunnel in the middle of the night to help tourism because tourism in Jerusalem is not good right now.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. We’re going to have to close this tunnel, this segment. Thank you all very much.