April 21, 2000
|Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot discuss the Elian Gonzalez case, trade with China and the flag in South Carolina.|
JIM LEHRER: And to some Friday night political analysis by Shields and Gigot; syndicated columnist Mark Shields, Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot.
Mark, John McCain's admission of guilt this week. He went to South Carolina and said hey, I'm sorry. I didn't take, didn't state my position on the Confederate flag in front of the state capital. I was opposed to it. I didn't say it because I didn't want to lose the South Carolina primary against George W. Bush. What do you make of that?
MARK SHIELDS: It has been festering for a long time, Jim. It was the one thing obviously. It's the pothole in the straight talk express. It was the one thing that bothered him. The only question he got in the whole campaign where every time he was asked about it he would bring out this little printed statement, so he wouldn't deviate from the answer. And each time he did it, it wore on him. I know that he had lunch a few weeks back with Colin Powell. This has been bothering him for a long, long time. And it required, I think, him setting the record straight. He wants to be proud of this campaign. I think he has a right to be proud of the campaign. And there's no question that he was trying to set the record straight. How often, Jim, do you get a politician who says I chose to compromise my principle. For one reason, I feared if I answered honestly, could I not win the South Carolina primary? Then he added honesty is easy after the fact. But John McCain is a Episcopalian but somewhere in his soul there's a Catholic-Jewish guilt because he is...
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of religion.
MARK SHIELDS: He is not... That's right. Following up on that last segment. He is not reluctant to make a public act of contrition.
PAUL GIGOT: We know guilt, we Catholics know guilt.
MARK SHIELDS: We know from guilt.
|Removing the flag|
JIM LEHRER: Has this hurt George W. Bush, Paul?
PAUL GIGOT: I think it does a little bit. It brings up an issue he didn't want to be raised, again. I think it was the best and worst of McCain really. The best is that he has these pangs of conscience and wanted to clear it and I'm sure he was sincere about it but it was the worst of McCain in that it has a willful quality to it and a selfish quality, frankly. I mean to do this now doesn't really help anything in South Carolina. Doesn't change much in South Carolina. They already moved, the state senate there has passed a law to remove the flag.
JIM LEHRER: Remove it to another building on the grounds but remove it from in front of the capitol building itself.
PAUL GIGOT: That's exactly right, and frankly, it's no risk to McCain now. I mean, he is going to get his ahs from the press core saying what a brave soul as Brother Shields just proved. Courage is when you do something, when you admit something when you have a chance to have it hurt you. And I think this doesn't do much for anybody concerned except for his own conscience. The politics for McCain is so personal. It's a matter of honor and integrity. That is the sum total of his politics.
MARK SHIELDS: Honor and integrity. Boy, oh, boy. We have got an abundance of those in American politics. He has put George Bush in a tight spot because George W. Bush is in the spot where nobody ought to be. And that is he is the defender of states' rights. He is the defender of states' rights which is a discredited stratagem and shorthand in this country for a long time on civil rights. He defended states' rights in Vermont on same sex unions. He's defending states rights in South Carolina on putting up the confederate battle flag over the state capitol. He might want to sit down with his own father who in 1968 was the only Southern Republican who had the courage to vote for the Civil Rights Act and then went home and faced his very posh Houston district and explained to them, an angry crowd, why he said that national law took precedence and national position and values took precedence over states' rights.
PAUL GIGOT: This is a symbol, though. This isn't Jim Crow, Mark. I mean, we're not talking about that kind of...
MARK SHIELDS: We're not talking about segregation, Paul...
PAUL GIGOT: It's very different. It's symbolic. I agree it should go down. I think it would be an act of leadership to do that. But the truth is, when a Republican governor tried to do that, David Beasley, bravely in his term, first term in office, his only term in part because he did this, he really took it very hard politically. The Democrats jumped on him and they financed a save the flag campaign against him for reelection. So there was a reason to stay silent on this politically.
|Rushing to swing voters|
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of Bush -- that's called a segue. Where we come from. Paul, he has been moving toward the center with these new programs, new proposals, the one this week had to do with low-income housing. What's going on?
PAUL GIGOT: Sprint, rush, head long rush back to the middle -- back to those swing voters. No question about it, Jim. I mean he's doing some things here to try to re-show that compassionate conservative side.
JIM LEHRER: And put South Carolina behind him in a way?
PAUL GIGOT: That's for sure. But he's even, I think, substantively changing some things on his tax policy, for example. I mean, he came out with a tax cut that I really liked. And I thought it was a big advantage for McCain, it was intellectually consistent and good for the economy, across the board, treated everybody alike in reducing taxes for everybody. Now he is coming up with a tax credit a week. It's Clintonian in the way it's kind of designed for specific voter groups: This thing for the uninsured on health care, this thing for teachers, this thing for housing. And, you know, it may be good politics in the short-term, but I wonder what it does to his credibility and in the end I wonder what it does to the difference between him and Al Gore when you need to have that difference come October and November and say I represent something different.
JIM LEHRER: Mark.
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, for years the Republicans ran against the tax-and-spend Democrats. And Dan Balz of the Washington Post, frequent appearer on the NewsHour has coined the phrase that George Bush is a tax-cut-and-spend Republican. We are seeing evidence of that. I agree he is running in the middle. He runs no risk of alienating his base. This is an election where all the Republicans are voting for George Bush and all the Democrats are voting for Al Gore. There is not going to be a major Republicans for Gore group or a major Democrats for Bush group. The lines are drawn.
JIM LEHRER: So everybody is fighting for the folks in the middle. Speaking of Gore, he had a low profile this week, to put it mildly. Is that related to the Elian Gonzalez thing, do you think, still?
MARK SHIELDS: Yes. Yes, it is. I don't think there is any question. Everywhere he goes, if he wants to have a question, he's going to get it on that. I mean it's not an issue that his position on has served him at all well politically. And it's not one that he wants to be further publicly identified with.
JIM LEHRER: And that issue is still there. I mean it gets a little tougher every day now.
MARK SHIELDS: It's still there. Now it's reached the point where the sport is to criticize Janet Reno, the attorney general. Now, I haven't noticed, I think Janet Reno has shown remarkable restraint. I questioned her tactics on a certain point but I haven't seen anybody at the White House or Capitol Hill really vying to be the quarterback on this particular issue, not the Vice President, not any of the leadership, any of the Democrats or the Republicans, or in the White House. So I think that there is no question that this is not an issue that anybody expects to win politically big on.
JIM LEHRER: Paul, speaking of that, whenever anybody thinks about how we got here, how in the world is Janet Reno get out of this? Here's that little boy, surrounded now by demonstrators. They need to get the boy out of there to be consistent. The President has said there is no argument for not reuniting the boy with his father. How does she do this now?
PAUL GIGOT: I disagree with Mark. I think she has painted herself into this corner where now she is getting beat up by liberals for not enforcing the law, for being too timid and not going ahead but I can sympathize with that since we have the memory of Waco and the lines of people down there. I mean, you know, if there is any violence that happens, it's -- people are going to remind her of that precedent. And on the other hand, you know, if she does go in, we don't know what is going to happen. So she is in a very tough spot and I think frankly she, the way she is handling this, sort of the stubbornness and not trying to take, think about some, what Al Gore offered, which is the residency status or maybe rethinking some of this, she has gotten herself into a fix.
JIM LEHRER: She is staying right on course. Do you think it's time for her and the President to kind of rethink this, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: I think they have rethought it, Jim, and I think they think their options are limited. It has been suggested to get a federal district court order for - then the family in Little Havana would be in violation of the court order.
JIM LEHRER: Right now they only in violation of the ruling by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which is different.
MARK SHIELDS: That's right. But I think part of it is, Paul's right. It's the memory of Waco. But it's also the fact that she is from Miami. This is her hometown, which is both an advantage and somewhat of a cross for her to carry because she doesn't want bloodshed to come to this hometown of hers. And at the same time, she feels she probably understands it better than anybody else in the administration, which may or may not be true.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with Mark there is no good politics in this for anybody?
PAUL GIGOT: It's hard to see what, no matter what happens, that it's going to help Al Gore and the administration.
JIM LEHRER: Thank you both.