President Clinton's last State of the Union message, and to Gigot and Oliphant-- Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot, Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant.
JIM LEHRER: Paul, set the context.
PAUL GIGOT: Jim, think New Hampshire. Think election, think the year 2000, think Clinton legacy and Gore potential victory. I think that's the context for this. All state of the unions are political, no question about it, by every President by either party. This is going to be as political as we've ever seen.
JIM LEHRER: Political about President Clinton or political about candidate Gore?
PAUL GIGOT: It's both. I mean, in a way, you can think of this not as Bill Clinton's last state of the union, but Al Gore's first. The President, unlike any recent two-term President, unlike Eisenhower, unlike Reagan, he has decided he's really going to support Al Gore. He considers Al Gore's victory part of his legacy, his political legacy. So he's going to do everything he can to help Vice President Gore against Bill Bradley and against the Republicans. This speech is going to lay out an awful lot of... It's going to dovetail with the Gore agenda and it's going to try to give Gore and the administration an awful lot of the credit for the admittedly good times that we're in.
JIM LEHRER: Do you see it the same way?
TOM OLIPHANT: And that's only just for starters.
JIM LEHRER: That's only in the first hour.
TOM OLIPHANT: Exactly. In the second and third hours, it will get -- as a juggling act, I mean, this is worthy of the circus... setting the agenda for this year, that still happens in this speech and it will tonight.
JIM LEHRER: He still cares about that.
TOM OLIPHANT: Absolutely. There are some things that might be possible with the Republican majority still, as well as some things that he's perfectly happy to have as political issues. But then it's a speech that is aimed, as Paul said, directly at the Democratic primary contest involving Vice President Al Gore, also a little bit at the Republican contest. There will be some mischief here.
JIM LEHRER: In what way?
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, I think you will see some ideas that we've heard endorsed by everyone from Gary Bauer to John McCain. As they react to this tomorrow, up in New Hampshire, there will be plenty of opportunities for them, but also some pitfalls, and they're put in there by design. It's a general election document in an era of budget surpluses and prosperity, there's going to be an argument of national priorities in terms of what's next. This will be the Democratic case. History, I think, less so, because I think the President is more of a fatalist about that these days. I think what you'll really see from the length of this speech is somebody who may have to be carried out of office.
JIM LEHRER: They really are talking about a speech that could run... they never know, because you never know about the number of applause interruptions, but it could run as much as 90 minutes or even as long as two hours.
PAUL GIGOT: Much as probably 80 or 90 specific proposals, too, of one kind or another. It's a classic Clinton performance.
JIM LEHRER: What do - speaking of classic Clinton performance - what do you make of this $350 billion tax cut proposal that's in that speech? You're big on tax cuts.
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I think it shows that the administration and the Gore campaign both think that tax cuts is a potential issue that could work against them. So what they're trying to do here is to neutralize, to throw something out there that's small enough that it doesn't take away from a lot of the money they want to use the rest of the surplus on, but then maybe lure the congressional Republicans into cutting some kind of a deal later this year, where they can then sign it, sign the bill and take that issue off the table, where Vice President Gore doesn't have to argue about it with a Republican nominee.
TOM OLIPHANT: A perfect example would be the so-called marriage penalty. I think there's a possibility as the year unfolds, that many Republicans, who are concerned about their ability to hold the House and at least have a decent working majority in the Senate may want to talk about some of these tax questions. On the other hand, there will be elements of this proposal, I guess the expansion of the earned income tax credit would be a good example, where the prospect of Republican support would be virtually nonexistent. But it's about the right size so that it could be seductive. And in addition, here's an example of the President being a little mischievous as far as the Republican contest is concerned, rather McCain-like.
JIM LEHRER: What do you mean?
TOM OLIPHANT: It has as its target a little bit more the working poor than the middle class the way Senator McCain does, but otherwise the elements of it more closely resemble his proposal.
PAUL GIGOT: The Gore campaign still believes it's going to be running against George W. Bush, and, of course, Governor Bush has a much bigger tax proposal on table than McCain. So they'd like to kind of help their case now for making an argument later which they're going to make that this is going to be the end of fiscal responsibility as we know it.
JIM LEHRER: And a return to the days of the Reagan tax cuts and inflation and all of those things.
PAUL GIGOT: Well, inflation was the Carter years.
JIM LEHRER: Right, but that's what the President -- I'm giving you what the President says.
PAUL GIGOT: Right.
JIM LEHRER: Paul, finally, let me ask you this. Refresh my history on this. Is it... Have Presidents always kind of told you ahead of time before the speech... I mean, he spent the last two or three weeks, the President has, announcing these programs that he's going to put in his State of the Union. There's very little surprise element left, is there?
PAUL GIGOT: No, I think this is a method refined by the Clinton White House. They discovered over the last four or five years that they could get an awful lot of one-day stories in hits and publicity by releasing them piecemeal like this, and they've now got this down to... They know who they're going to leak it to and which TV stations are going to get this and which newspapers are going to get that and how you do them in tandem and roll them out. They do keep one or two surprises. The size of the tax cut, for example, wasn't released until today.
JIM LEHRER: Today.
PAUL GIGOT: Last year or two years ago they saved the Social Security piece until the speech itself, but an awful lot of it -- 90% of it is dribbled out.
TOM OLIPHANT: There's a new term in politics as a result called the roll-out.
JIM LEHRER: But then you sit down in front of your TV tonight to watch the speech, and there's not-- you already know what's going to be in it?
TOM OLIPHANT: I don't think the general public does, I think it's been very much an inside game until now. Now it's for the mass.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Good point.