David Gergen and Mark Shields on Bill Clinton’s 100 Days
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JIM LEHRER: All right. Now into the mix come Gergen and Shields: David Gergen, editor at large of U.S. News & World Report, who’s in Lincoln, Nebraska, tonight, and syndicated columnist Mark Shields. Mark, generally, how did Clinton fare in all of these assessments, these massive 100-day assessments that we’ve all been reading?
MARK SHIELDS: Pretty badly. He actually was hurt by Leon Panetta, his management and budget director, who this week spread the ugly truth and basically confirmed what most of the analyses were. And only in Washington after somebody spoke the truth would the question be: why did he speak the truth, rather than what did he say. Did he have a plan? Was this a billiard shot or something? But that really hurt. I mean, there’s no doubt about it. …
It hurt because Leon Panetta has a reputation for candor. It hurt because he is the management and budget director, and it hurt because he said it. And it did confirm independently what had been written in most of the assessments that this was an administration that was trying to do too much. It was a pretty pessimistic assessment.
JIM LEHRER: David, as a practical matter, do these assessments in and of themselves have an effect, or are they an accurate reflection of what is already there, and the world moves on, or does somebody sitting out there say, “Hey, wait a minute, Clinton’s not doing very well,” so then everybody [says], “Hey, Clinton’s not doing very well,” or “Clinton’s doing great.” Whoever you hear, do they have an effect in and of themselves? Are they important?
DAVID GERGEN: I do think they have a ripple effect, Jim, and I think the assessments have been very rough. They’ve been very harsh this week. My sense is that the country is still much more hopeful about Bill Clinton. Yes, there’s some disappointment but people want to give him more time. In Washington, there’s been almost, there has been this rush to judgment, and I think that those assessments do spread around the country. It’s like throwing a rock into a pond. The ripples, you know, the waves go out, and I was in Chicago earlier today and people were asking me, is he really in that much trouble, as if they’d been reading assessments, are now wondering to themselves, “Gee, I didn’t realize he was that bad,” so I think this has been very rough for the president. Mark is absolutely right, but Leon Panetta’s comments only seem to validate the roughness of the assessment.
JIM LEHRER: Well, why do you think there is such a huge difference between what the pundits in Washington are saying and what the public is telling the pollsters?
DAVID GERGEN: Jim, in part, I think that the press has had, been in and out of love with Bill Clinton, and it’s on the outs right now. And it’s — I think there’s some extra degree of toughness to some of the articles in part because of that. I think there’s some generational difference between some of the older members of the press and this younger president. I think the older members are not quite on the same wave length, and in general, I would have to tell you I think Washington has become a caldron in the last few weeks. I think it’s been very devastating to the president.
It’s not just the press. The Republicans have been tough on him and within his own party the Democrats, some of the many Democrats who are voting for him in public are saying in private to members of the press, “Gee, he’s starting to look like another Jimmy Carter.” I have to tell you I feel some measure of sympathy for him. I was thinking as I heard some of this Democratic criticism of him that, that Clinton must be recalling a comment by Lyndon Johnson in a vexing moment of the 1960s, when Johnson was president, Johnson said, “You know, the difference between liberals and cannibals is that cannibals don’t eat their friends.”
JIM LEHRER: Mark, is David right, that the, that it isn’t just the press that’s doing bad things to Bill Clinton right now in this 100-day assessment?
MARK SHIELDS: There’s a nervousness on Capitol Hill, Jim. I think it’s important to put it in perspective. Eighteen months we have to go until the next national election, which is in November of 1994.
JIM LEHRER: I can hardly wait.
MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. Eighteen months before the national election in 1992, George Bush, in the glow of the post Persian Gulf era was 80 percent plus and was invisible — invincible. So invincible was he that President Lloyd Bentsen, President Al Gore, President Richard Gephardt, and President Bill Bradley all decided to spend more time with their family, thus leaving the field to people like Bill Clinton and Bob Kerrey and Tom Harkin and Jerry Brown and Paul Tsongas.
My point is that it’s crazy to talk about this thing being over, but these people are nervous because they’re up in 1994. Bill Clinton is not on the ballot again until 1996. He does have, I think, it has to be said to the man’s credit that Bill Clinton, most of the elections in this country are change-of-speed elections, that is, it’s an argument like… between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, 1976 between Jerry Ford and Jimmy Carter, 1960 between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. You’re really arguing about little calibrations. Are we going to go a little bit to the left, a little bit to the right, a little bit faster, or a little bit slower? We’ve had change-of-direction elections in 1932 and 1980. We changed the relationship of the federal government to the people of the country and the people to this government, and that with Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt.
What Bill Clinton is trying to do after 1992 is to make that election a change-of-direction election. He is trying to change the relationship. That’s a tough thing to do, and I think the failure, if there has been one, was he did not prepare people for the campaign of 1992 by talking about sacrifice.
JIM LEHRER: But my — but the point that I think that David is making and that we’ve raised here is that, is it the people who weren’t prepared, or is it the Washington establishment, Democrats, Republicans, and the press that wasn’t prepared for this? In other words, where is Clinton’s major problem tonight?
MARK SHIELDS: Clinton’s major problem, and the two aren’t separable really because there is hope in the country, the hope – – optimism has slipped dramatically, make no mistake about every measurement shows that. But the hope is still there. Hope is with him. People want change. They see him as the best chance for change. Republicans, while their attacks on Clinton have hurt themselves, they haven’t helped him, they’ve hurt him. The only winner of the first hundred days is Henry Ross Perot. He’s the only person in the country whose numbers have improved over the past hundred days.
JIM LEHRER: You’re nodding in agreement, David?
DAVID GERGEN: My sense, Jim, and it’s been somewhat to my surprise that Ross Perot is a much stronger figure in the country today than he was in November of last year. Not only are his approval ratings up, but there’s one poll that’s floating around in Washington that showed in contrast to last November when he got 20 percent of the vote, if another election were held now, he would get as much as 40 percent of the vote. You know, I think that if a real election were held it wouldn’t be true, but I think Mark is right. I think Ross Perot has moved up because the Republicans, while they’ve stopped Clinton on the stimulus package, for example, have not come forward with a positive program of their own, and Ross Perot’s moved into the breach. I think it’s a tough time for the president. I think the president is perplexed by this. I think he’s, you know, he’s trying to figure out how to get out of it. It’s very clear to people in the White House that they cannot afford another hundred days like the first hundred days.
JIM LEHRER: Peter, you were shaking your head about Ross Perot.
PETER HART (Democratic pollster): Well, Ross Perot has made Bill Clinton’s life a lot more difficult, as have the Republicans in the way in which they’ve structured themselves. But the Republicans haven’t helped themselves, and I agree with Mark that, yes, Ross Perot has probably climbed up; the idea that somehow people will vote for him think again.
JIM LEHRER: Yes, go ahead.
PETER HART: The one point I want to make is that Bill Clinton isn’t playing for the first hundred days, and it is a change of direction, and I think over the long haul he does just fine, and the one thing that’s still there and we see it, and I was out doing focus groups all this week, is when you ask, people are still optimistic, they still have hope, and that there’s a sense that this person brings a lot of energy and youth to what’s going on.
JIM LEHRER: David disagrees with every word you just said.
PETER HART: Sorry, David.
DAVID GERGEN: Just one point. While I do disagree about the optimism, I think there’s a lot of hope here. I think you’re absolutely right about that, and you’re much closer to the focus groups than I am, but I do feel, to defend the press, to go back to something Jodie Allen was saying, you know, it’s true that the press has covered this, it’s been like covering the campaign, but, Jim, the fact is presidency, the White House has been running this like a campaign. It’s been running the presidency like a permanent campaign. You know, they have their own focus groups; they take their own polls. You know, they even measure what words have what impact, you know, what do you call health care, do you call it managed competition or do you call it something else?
They have put an awful lot of stress on the White House in these first hundred days. Not only did the president promise the most productive hundred days in history but that’s the way they’ve been trying to run the White House, to convince people that this was an important measurement and they were going to produce, so I don’t think it’s unfair for the press to make measurements at this time. I do think the measurements have been overly harsh.
JIM LEHRER: Linda, do — you heard what Mark said that the Republicans have hurt the president but they have hurt themselves as well. As a Republican, do you agree with that?
LINDA DIVALL (Republican pollster): No, I don’t. I think we were hurt in the first couple of weeks of Clinton’s presidency. I think that we were a little bit slow, off the dime, trying to figure out what the new role was. Since then, with John Kasich’s budget alternative, with what Sen. Dole and Sen. Domenici fashioned in the Senate in terms of their own deficit reduction plan, cutting the deficit by $460 billion without raising taxes, and the way they were able to reframe the economic stimulus package, which is we don’t need more wasteful spending, went back and reminded people what kind of change are you voting for.
People thought they were voting for change in terms of trying to get this deficit under control and cutting spending. People don’t mind contributing their taxes if they think it goes towards deficit reduction. If it does not, then there’s another problem. So what the Republicans have been able to do, specifically the Republicans in the Senate, is to go back and redefine themselves on terms that people are very comfortable with what Republicans can do best, and that is protect the taxpayers. And I think that is the ground that they’ve been able to stake out for themselves at this point.
JIM LEHRER: And it’s worked, you think it’s worked?
LINDA DIVALL: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: Mark.
MARK SHIELDS: Let me dissent.
JIM LEHRER: One at a time.
MARK SHIELDS: Every measurement of where you have more public confidence in creating jobs, American prosperity, controlling crime, health care, providing education, all of these standards, Bill Clinton has considerably higher marks than do the Republicans in the Congress. The sole exception is on protecting taxes, which is initially his attack.
I mean, let’s be very blunt about this. This is a guy who has changed the national debate. He has changed the agenda. We are talking about things in 1993 that we haven’t talked about in this country. 1935 Franklin Roosevelt talked about national health insurance. Harry Truman mentioned it in ’47, Lyndon Johnson in ’65.
Here we are in 1993, Bill Clinton serves by it. Did he appoint a blue ribbon commission? No. He put his wife in charge of it. Usually the blue ribbon commission is a nice insulation. You put some college presidents, CEOs, and then they come in with a tough thing, you say, “Hey, that’s what the blue ribbon commission recommended.” He put his wife in charge of it. He is absolutely accountable. I mean, he is trying to do things. I think the failure, if there was one, was the failure to prepare people for the kind of sacrifice that was going to be required.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
MARK SHIELDS: But as far as changing things, he is about change.
JIM LEHRER: Kathleen Jamieson, let’s go back to this point of the connection between Washington and the public. Do you believe that pundits like Mark Shields, David Gergen have an obligation in some way to make their assessments jive with the public assessments? I mean, is there, are they out of whack when their assessments are different say than what Linda and Peter say the polls show?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON (Dean, Annenberg School of Communications, Univ. of Penn.): Only when they pretend to speak for the public. But I think the more important role of Gergen and Shields is to say these are, in fact, things that we can learn from history about what the possible is within the available resources of a president and a Congress. And these are the issues we ought to be discussing, rather than the issues — for example, if the public may think we ought to be discussing, the public will be discussing them on their own, or the journalistic community thinks we ought to be discussing, somebody, some place in the process has to hold the focus on those things that ought to be in the national debate. And I can’t think of two people better qualified.
JIM LEHRER: But Jodie, do you agree with Mark then that wherever you come down on any one of these issues that President Clinton is in charge, he really has at least set the agenda for the discussion? Do you agree with that?
JODIE ALLEN (Washington Post opinion section editor): I think more than the average president. I mean, this is a very media oriented president and has been, and he’s used it very successfully but you know, I mean, that means that sometimes it’s going to boomerang on you and if you, if you play that game, you won’t always win. I think you’ll see them adjusting their strategy somewhat in that regard, but this administration too though has its eye on the public and thinks that it can bypass, and have successfully on some occasions, the normal punditry of Mark Shields and David Gergen.
I mean, they, that has been a very clear emphasis that it has too, that we will reach out to the people, which of course then makes us more interested, as we always are interested in polls, but yet more interested in polls and focus groups, and yet, and we’re getting a message that supports the conclusion that not that things are terrible but that they are kind of rocking along. I mean, I don’t know how you’d come to another conclusion.
JIM LEHRER: Peter and Linda, has there ever been a really good poll on this question about the connection between what people hear from pundits like Gergen and Shields and what they then decide they feel about a given issue, and is there, where is the chicken and where is the egg, or are there, or where are they both, or whatever?
PETER HART: I don’t know I have an answer. I measured Mark many years ago. His rating was way down.
DAVID GERGEN: He’s improved since then.
PETER HART: By a long stretch. But I — clearly it has some effect. More importantly is how they read the president, and you have to recognize that they watch these things directly. It’s no longer – –
JIM LEHRER: That’s the new wrinkle.
PETER HART: That’s right. No longer indirect. So they see everything directly with no filter, and in that case, by and large, I’d say Bill Clinton’s getting through pretty well.
JIM LEHRER: And that’s what you’re, would you agree with that, Linda, that because of C-Span and all the other media outlets that are now available the public is in a better position to make their own judgments without the help of people like us?
LINDA DIVALL: Unfortunately, I guess I would have to agree with that. That’s absolutely right. There are so many other options available to receive your news, to talk to friends about it, that, you know, the so-called major stations and major reporters are no longer holding the position that they once did. I mean, I think that’s been confirmed in survey data as well.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. And your studies bear that out too, do they – –
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: And I think it’s healthy. Unlike the journalistic community and the punditry, the community that consists of the pundits, I think it’s healthy to say that the American people now have direct access and that we have sufficient confidence as people in our own ability to judge, to make intelligent decisions. I’d like to abolish pundits, experts, including myself, and move programs like MacNeil-Lehrer away from this sort of discussion toward discussion of the issues that face the country and the alternative solutions.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah, yeah. Do you feel this is a major change from the way — do you do your business differently, Jodie Allen, as a result of that, knowing that the people are more involved in the receiving end than they used to be in a direct way?
JODIE ALLEN: Probably, but things are marginal. It isn’t a watershed event, or whatever; we probably look more at C-Span than we used to and CNN to watch the actual event, and we listen to call-in shows too to hear what people are saying. I mean, there is more interactive democracy. But there is still a need for a filtering mechanism. Remember, there’s a lot of self-selection in who calls in and whatever, and you try to, you try to get as much input as you can. But there is clearly a role for people like Mark and David who see a lot of elections, who’ve seen a lot of elections, who’ve seen a lot of Congressmen and seen a lot of people too. And I’m always interested to hear what they have to say.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Yes.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The weakness in a model in which one assumes that the electorate gets what it needs from Bill Clinton is that our system doesn’t institutionalize the oppositional voice, and one needs to be able to hear the exchange of the debate in order to create an informed electorate.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. That’s what we do on MacNeil-Lehrer the other four nights of the week. Okay. Yes. Quickly, David.
DAVID GERGEN: It’s like watching football. Yes, you can see it directly on your screen, but I think a lot of people want to have some understanding of what’s happening, why the play is unfolding the way it is, and I think that’s where it can help them, not to render judgments but to help people make their own judgments in a more informed way.
JIM LEHRER: I hear you, David. So do we all, and thank you all very much.