The State of the Union: Views from Around the Nation
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CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Our non-Washington reaction comes from our panel of regional commentators: Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune, Lee Cullum of the Dallas Morning News, Patrick McGuigan of the Daily Oklahoman, Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution, Mike Barnicle of the Boston Globe, and William Wong of the Oakland Tribune. And William Wong, let me start with you. You’ve been listening to the program tonight. You heard Speaker Gingrich and Leon Panetta. From out there in Oakland, how did all this sound to you, and what impact do you think the State of the Union Address had on it?
WILLIAM WONG, Oakland Tribune: (San Francisco) Well, with regards to the State of the Union Address, I thought that the President made a very politically smart speech. He cast a very wide net. But some Democrats might be asking when the President registered as a Republican. There are many elements of the speech that sounded more Republican than Democratic.
While he balanced some elements, he certainly embraced Republican values and small government, in family values, in, in mildly bashing the media, in his harsh language on crime. On the other hand, he did have some sort of traditional Democratic messages in there. What I, what I think that what he did with regards to his, his crime language was, was somewhat surprising from a liberal perspective, if you will.
He, he did mention prevention strategies, but he didn’t really emphasize that, nor did he mention how they should be funded, whereas, his language on crime was very harsh, and I thought he really didn’t acknowledge a–the growing middle class and middle age unemployment situation which to me is a politically explosive issue, with all the downsizing that’s going on, and I really believe he glossed over that point.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Patrick McGuigan, President Clinton embraced the GOP, registered as a Republican in a sense?
PATRICK McGUIGAN, Daily Oklahoman: (Oklahoma City) Well, you know if you listen to the speech in a vacuum, separated from the events of the last three years, once again, it’s Bill Clinton 1992, sounding not really Republican themes but middle American themes, mainstream themes, the kinds of themes that every successful national politician tries to capture.
But the problem is when you overlay the events of the last few years to look at the President’s actual performance, and particularly his performance in recent months, when we did have, as Panetta said, of all people, that we had a seven-year balanced budget plan within our reach, and it seems to me we’ve probably frittered that away. I’m a little bit critical of the “make nice” approach now because I think it is so essential to–for the Republicans in Congress and the conservative Democrats, for that matter, to stick to their guns and get this job done. I’m afraid we might not have the opportunity again.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So you saw last night as just a “make nice” thing?
MR. McGUIGAN: I saw the President reaching for those middle themes, speaking rhetorically, but it contradicts his actual record. You know, on welfare reform, he had a bill that was within hailing distance of the kind of thing he had once said he would since, but he vetoed it. The shutdowns, the President has never really had to share in a public relations sense his share of the blame, which is at least equal to that of Congress for both the original total shutdown and later the partial shutdown. Where do you want me to stop? You know, he–
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Okay. Let’s just stop right there and come back in a minute, but hear what Cynthia has to say. Cynthia, did you see it as a “make nice” speech and removed from reality?
CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Constitution: (Atlanta) I didn’t think it was removed from reality at all. I thought the President delivered a very good speech, clearly his best State of the Union speech and one of the better speeches I’ve heard him give. Yes, he certainly did reach out to middle America; that’s no great surprise. He needs middle America if he’s going to be reelected. He also reached out to the Republicans in a spirit of compromise, and I think that is exactly what the American voters wanted to hear.
They have made it clear that they are sick and tired of all the squabbling, all the gridlock in Washington; they want their politicians to behave like grown-ups, like leaders, and I think President Clinton was expressing his desire to move the process forward. He congratulated the Republicans for the things that he thinks that they have done well. He expressed the desire to work with them to get the budget balanced, to get the country back on sound fiscal footing, and I thought it was a strong performance.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Lee Cullum, what do you think, especially when you hear Speaker Gingrich as he was on the program tonight saying some of the things that Cynthia just said about the speech, spirit of cooperation, bipartisan?
LEE CULLUM, Dallas Morning News: (Dallas) Well, I never regret a little goodwill in politics. I don’t think it hurts at all. And I don’t object to the Speaker’s incremental approach. I, I understand what Mr. Panetta was saying. It means difficult votes in the House, but these are Republicans, and their leader says he wants an incremental approach, so maybe he can be instrumental in gathering support for it. As for the speech, I thought it was a virtuosic performance.
There is some skepticism down here. I think that Bob Dole’s remarks about his walking the talk resonate with people here.
The Dallas Morning News had an editorial this morning calling for the blue-dog Democrats program to be embraced by the President. It is a reasonable compromise. It would work, it seems to me. But you know, Dave Boehler had a good column last week in which he said that if the leader of a government doesn’t have any money to spend, he’s got to turn to broad themes of spiritual grace and standards of behavior, and I thought that the President did that rather successfully last night.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mike Barnicle, did you think the President did that rather successfully last night?
MIKE BARNICLE, Boston Globe: (Boston) I’m a very superficial person, and I have attention span of your average NFL quarterback, so, you know, I sat there watching him and he was saying we’re going to have a lower crime rate, lower taxes, stronger families, more jobs, and better schools, and I thought, hey, this sounds pretty good.
You know, but cosmetically, he had a huge, huge evening. It wasn’t the state of the union. It was the state of his campaign, and he was followed by Sen. Dole, who maybe couldn’t read the teleprompter or maybe had a bad night, but came off looking like the co-star of “Grumpy Old Men,” and you know, so I think Bill Clinton had a big, big night last night.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Was it the state of the campaign? Is that the way you see it?
CLARENCE PAGE, Chicago Tribune: Mike’s absolutely right. The one thing nobody’s mentioned here so far is that Bill Clinton does not have an opponent in the primaries so he is giving his acceptance speech. I got the sense of what Yogi Berra called deja vu all over again. His speech reminded me of a speech he gave when he accepted the Democratic nomination in ’92 at a New York convention. And that’s where he is right now.
He is the ’96 Democratic nominee. So now it’s time for Bill Clinton to reach out toward the middle, and that’s what he did. He seized the center again as he did four years ago while Bob Dole was still out on the campaign trail and has to slug it out on the right with these very hungry opponents of his, so what happened was Clinton grabbed the middle, looked very conciliatory and Mr. Outreach and I mean, when he walked out, Charlayne, and said, era of big government is over, I was shocked, shocked to hear him say that; not that it’s not true, just to hear him say it.
I mean, he’s always been one who said we must have a more efficient government, blah, blah, blah. But for him to say it like that was almost a declaration of not surrender but a concession to his opponents. I think he’s getting a payoff in that Newt Gingrich now is talking about having some kind of incremental movement toward a balanced budget. He too is making concessions.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you see it as a payoff, Patrick McGuigan?
MR. McGUIGAN: You know, I’m intrigued by Clarence’s remarks because I’m reminded of the old story about the Tamany Hall politician arrested outside a brothel where there was also gambling going on, and he said, “I’m shocked, shocked to learn that there was gambling going on in this establishment.”
And certainly it was a shock to a lot of us, pun intended, to see the President give a very political speech. It was a brilliant speech politically, but when you overlay the substance of the last few years, I don’t buy it. I think a lot of Americans will not buy it in the long run. It was a good virtuoso performance in and of itself outside of context.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Out in Oakland, Mr. Wong, let me ask you, how are the people–what’s your reading of how the people were buying it?
MR. WONG: Well, my sense is that people saw it as a political speech, as a first, first volley in his Presidential campaign, and that’s not greatly surprising, and Clinton has been moving toward the middle all along because he doesn’t have an opponent and he, he’s, he’s ready to do battle against whomever the Republicans put up.
In contrast, Dole was unfortunately I think he looked very bad and he showed his years. One hates to say that, but Clinton’s performance was much more energetic and Dole sounded mean and really is fighting a right flank battle with his opponents, and I think that he is very wary now of, of Steve Forbes and that’s what showed.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Lee Cullum, what did you think of Sen. Dole’s response? Do you think he looked real mean, or–
MS. CULLUM: I thought that he was in a most unfortunate position, Charlayne. You know, last year, if you recall, the Republicans invited Gov. Christine Todd Whitman to make the reply, and she did it from the legislative chamber in New Jersey, and it was very effective. I’m sorry that people working for Sen. Dole didn’t think to take him out to Kansas to the legislature there. He might have talked about returning power to the states.
He would have had an audience. It would have been not a dead setting, which is what he had. So I, I think he may have lost ground last night. It was not–he was in a very, very unfortunate situation, no doubt about it.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Cynthia, do you think that more than Sen. Dole lost ground, I mean, do you think the Republicans generally, I mean, because listening to Gingrich today, he was sounding very conciliatory on this program, what do you think? How do you see that?
MS. TUCKER: Well, Charlayne, I think that President Clinton put the Republicans in a position where they had to start thinking about making some concessions. The Republicans have been taking more of a beating over this budget battle than the Democrats have. Once the President came out last night and was so conciliatory I think that the Republicans had to start at least thinking about making some concessions.
Now it is also true that there are many viewers here in Atlanta, in Georgia, who also viewed the President’s speech with a great deal of skepticism. This is a conservative region. I think that the President will have a hard time carrying Georgia next time, but I think the best thing that will happen to him, if it does happen, is to have Bob Dole as his opponent, as the GOP nominee.
The tip-off for me this morning was when I heard a conservative talk show host criticizing Bob Dole’s performance. I thought that that suggested that many of the Republican faithful are beginning to lose faith in Bob Dole.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you think that’s true, Patrick McGuigan?
MR. McGUIGAN: That’s a very intriguing remark, and I think there may be something to it. Dole has a little bit of a reality gap himself, not to the extent that the President does, but going back, we’ll all remember to when Dole took that special vote on the floor that kind of undercut the ground that the freshman Republicans in particular were standing on when it looked like a seven-year plan was within reach, so I think Cynthia may be on to something. If I could make one other remark–
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, I’m afraid we’re on to something now, and that is to move on. But anyway, thank you all for joining us.