SPARRING IN CONGRESS
APRIL 19, 1996
In their weekly look at current politics, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and "Wall Street Journal" columnist Paul Gigot discuss who won the week's political battles. They look at the current Senate fight over reforming health care and efforts to pass the anti-terrorism bill in the House.
MARGARET WARNER: Now to Shields & Gigot with political analysis of this past week. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and "Wall Street Journal" columnist Paul Gigot. Welcome, guys. With Congress back in town, this was supposed to be the week that Bob Dole showed us how you could be Senate Majority Leader and be a great platform from which to run for President, but it didn't pan out that way, did it, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: It may have been the Democrats' best week and the Republicans' worst week since the November '94 elections. Democrats are euphoric. A "Los Angeles Times" poll today showed the Democrats for the first time having a seven point lead over Republicans for Congress in 1996. Now, just to give an example, compared to the five point lead the Republicans had in October of '94 when they took control of the Congress, and Bob Dole came back to that arena which he has dominated as a legislator and was confounded. He's got a terrible position. He's got Democrats who were united. You can't--Dick Gephardt, the House Democratic leader and Tom Daschle, the House--the Senate Democrat leader, are joined at the hip. Every time you turn around, they're in a photo op together. He can't appeal with Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House, who's the least popular figure in American politics, so Dole is trying to dominate an institution that's unpopular.
PAUL GIGOT: I think it was the worst week for the Republicans in Congress not since 1994 but since Bill Clinton's inauguration because even when the Republicans were in the minority, they had a unity and an esprit and intellectual self-confidence. They might lose a vote on taxes, but they knew it was going to pay off for them in an election. They could make the arguments. They would hold together enough, and they had some coherence, and last year they were dominating the debate. Even if they made tactical mistakes, even if they made rhetorical mistakes, their agenda was controlling politics. Now what do we know about politics, is if you--one thing we know is you tend to win elections when you're controlling the agenda. What happened this week was the first whiff of the retreat. I mean, they could not resist the minimum wage. This isn't a new idea, Margaret. I mean, this is the oldest chestnut in the world. This is an FDR idea. There are millions of economists, including Bill Clinton's own chief economist, Joe Stiglus, who wrote that it's going to cost jobs, but instead of making this argument, Republicans didn't even make the case and then were astonished to find that they're losing the argument.
MARGARET WARNER: Why? Why did you have House Republicans defecting on minimum wage and obviously Dole believes, as we just saw in the interview, that some Senate Republicans would?
MR. GIGOT: That's right. I think there's a failure of leadership right now. I think that Newt Gingrich is demoralized. He's not leading. He's not just hunkering down. I mean, Republicans are going to think of putting his picture on milk cartons to see if they can locate him. I mean, it's not a question of whether he appears in public. It's a question of why isn't he leading the House, and Bob Dole doesn't seem right now also to be acting like the leader of the party in an intellectual sense to set an agenda. He's still talking about conferees and subcommittees, and without that leadership, what happens is everybody goes their own way. And when you go your own way, you end up with 20 Republicans who are worried about the AFL-CIO and the labor unions who say, jeez, I'd better cover my own, and, and head for the tall grass on minimum wage.
MARGARET WARNER: How do you explain, Mark, that the minimum wage, which as Paul points out, is an old chestnut, has suddenly mushroomed into this huge political issue?
MR. SHIELDS: Well, Paul is right. Those who set the terms to political debate usually dominate not only the dialogue of the campaign but dominate the campaign. The problem is that setting that debate is easier when conditions are favorable to you. Right now, conditions are unfavorable to Republicans. They're unfavorable in this sense--it's not only what Pat Buchanan tapped but the restlessness in the country, the growing income disparity, the sense of CEO abuse that--the layoffs and all the rest. I mean, Bob Dole today at a speech this noon referred again to corporate layoffs, and he understood what that meant to people. And you've got the Republican leader of the, of this party and the presumptive nominee for President talking about corporate layoffs and not in a favorable fashion, then you've really got a condition that is propitious for the Democrats to raise this issue. There is any time you're talking about income disparity in the United States, it favors the Democrats. The Republicans' only hope is when somehow you're talking about economic growth that is plausible and they have not been able to make that case, and I just came back from California and in California, the Democrats have not won the governorship since 1978, and one reason the Republicans have been able to win the governorship is they've been adroit and shrewd in introducing what they call wedge issues. Wedge issues are issues that unite your side, energize your voters, and divide the opposition. Tom Bradley, Democrat, Mayor of Los Angeles, lost for governor in 1982, on handgun control, brought out a whole bunch of kind of hunters and gun owners.
MARGARET WARNER: Which was on a referendum.
MR. SHIELDS: Was on a referendum question in California. California has a unique system, of course. Then in 1994, Pete Wilson won a big reelection on illegal immigration.
MARGARET WARNER: It was also on the ballot, separately.
MR. SHIELDS: And what it does, it shapes the debate of the campaign, and it also influences the turnout. People vote--but they won't vote on that. Just as in 1978, the Proposition 13, the anti-tax revolt was spawned there. This year, the Republicans thought they had a great one with an anti-affirmative action initiative--California civil rights initiative. It's been talked, it's been trunked by a minimum wage idea that Republicans in California are scared stiff about. It has three to one backing. It's going to raise the minimum wage to $5.75 an hour by March 1, 1978, and Republicans are scared stiff that it is going to turn out low income voters, women voters, minority voters, and that the Democrats are going to dominate the dialogue for the 1996 campaign. So that's what--
MR. GIGOT: If you don't make an argument against something, how can you defeat it? And that's the central problem that I think the Republicans have had on the minimum wage. Mark makes it sound as if, well, only Democrats can talk about the economy. Well, I mean, you can speak up about it. I mean, you know, Felix Rohatyn, the Democratic financier on Wall Street, a big Democrat, the President nominated him unsuccessfully to the Federal Reserve. He wrote a piece in our newspaper called "Economic Growth," telling Democrats, look, you ought to shed talking about the economy as redistribution. We have to think about raising growth in this country--says we've got to pick up the growth agenda. Instead, Felix--they let it slide, and Felix Rohatyn goes meeting today with the House Democratic Caucus to talk about this and who knows--the President, who's very nimble with these things, as we know, could end up grabbing that issue in a way that hurts the Republicans.
MR. SHIELDS: But it's also a question--it's really a question of fundamental justice that is being made here, and that is hurting the Republicans. The argument is being made in California, is, look, you're asking people to work 40 hours a week. They say we honor work, we value work, and these people at the same time, what the voters of California, the taxpayers of California, are subsidizing profitable employers who are paying their workers less than a living wage. Their workers are then forced to go to food stamps to feed their families. Everybody else is paying for that, not the profitable employers--wouldn't be the case. It would actually be less a burden on the state, and that, I tell you, the Republicans, the Republicans, when they come in and say it's going to cost poor people jobs, that is not believable. It's no more believable than it was when Democrats came in and said we have to increase defense spending. Republicans aren't believable on helping poor people save their jobs.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let's turn to another issue.
MR. GIGOT: So they'll lose their jobs and then it'll be believable.
MARGARET WARNER: Let's turn to another issue that Dole had obviously a very hard time with this week which was his attempt to put this medical savings account on Nancy Kassebaum's bill for portability of health insurance. Why, Paul, did Dole--I mean, he's a good vote counter--why would he got to the mat for something like this and then be defeated and have Republicans defecting and have a humiliation like this yesterday?
MR. GIGOT: Well, I was told that they believe they had the votes, that some of the Senators who had promised them that they would be on board were not in the end and, in fact, six or seven Republicans, uh, did defect on this, including--and this is the thing that points out I think--an anecdote that points out the difficulty Bob Dole has. Bob Dole's Senator friend from Kansas, Nancy Kassebaum, went out after having rolled their--her presidential nominee and friend, Bob Dole--had a press conference, an impromptu press conference with Al Gore basically celebrating this defeat by her nominee. That's how difficult it is for Bob Dole to be able to run as Senate Majority Leader. I mean, the Democrats don't want him to pass anything. If you get these disputes over this or that pork barrel item, this or that personal peccadillo, this thiefdom, he, Bob Dole has to twist arms and rally these votes. He sounds like a Majority Leader. It's a trap. It's not--it's not a platform. It's a trap, and it's proved to be this week. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he cedes more responsibility to Trent Lott, his deputy, and begins to step out and try to, to, I think, to make the case the only way he can win this election, which is to start saying what it is about what's at stake.
MARGARET WARNER: How do you see the medical savings account thing? I mean, I still don't understand why when--I mean, Nancy Kassebaum knew the President has said he'd veto it. She wants to have this legacy. She's retiring. Why would Dole go up against her?
MR. SHIELDS: I honestly don't know, and whatever Bob Dole has been he's been a superb legislative strategist and an almost flawless counter. He counted wrong, and he did it in a way that could very well jeopardize--what they're doing is playing chicken with the President. They're saying that the President will not veto this if medical savings accounts are included because the President needs a health bill. This is the portability of, of health coverage for workers, and I--it alludes me. I honestly don't have an answer for you.
MARGARET WARNER: So you do think, Paul, that Bob Dole is going to rethink this whole strategy? Are you saying he should?
MR. GIGOT: I think that the results of this week ought to--will certainly cause some rethinking, already is among Senators. There are a lot of Senators who told him, Bob, come back into the fold, we can help you--a lot of Republicans, John McCain told him that. Bob Bennett of Utah told him that. We can make you--we can give you this platform that is going to help you. We can send bills to the President. Well, there's something called the filibuster. Democrats aren't going to let him get very much. It looks this week--based on this week on the minimum wage on health care that a lot of his fellow Republicans won't seem to mind making life very difficult for Bob Dole. If that's the case, then, then step out of that trap and begin to make a broader case which is going to help you a lot more than, than headlines in the "Washington Post" saying Bob Dole can't deliver when part of his argument is I can.
MARGARET WARNER: Now you went out, Mark, today and watched Bob Dole give a speech, a campaign type speech. What was that like--to the newspaper editors?
MR. SHIELDS: To the newspaper editors. Well, Bob Dole does not give a good speech. I mean, you start with that premise. I mean, he doesn't use a teleprompter. Bob Dole is one of the few national candidates--the only one in my experience--who is more engaging, more likable, and more conversational and, and verbal in private than he is in public. I mean, most candidates come out there and they've got the big smile, the glib, and they've got the speech down. Bob Dole doesn't. Uh, and the substance of the speech was on judges. It's a way of getting in the crime issue. I think it's an admission on the Republicans' part that Bill Clinton has cut 'em off on cops because of Clinton's cop stuff, and putting police on the street, and that's--so that's been the traditional Republican avenue, so now they've got to come in--I think Bob Dole believes it--but any time you come into a room and get a bigger hand of applause on the way in than you do on the way out, it's not a good sign, and that's what happened to Bob Dole today.
MR. GIGOT: Well, I disagree with Mark on this. I think actually the speech was the best thing Bob Dole did this week because I think the judges is a good issue for a lot of reasons, not just crime, although that helps. But there's a lot at stake in the courts. It's also a way into the values agenda. It's a way of energizing Bob Dole's case. A lot of people who care about the courts and--are Republican voters who aren't very enthusiastic right now about Bob Dole.
MARGARET WARNER: Yeah. His voters are less than enthusiastic, aren't they, than Democrats are about Clinton?
MR. GIGOT: I think so, I think so. The Democrats are--and I think giving speeches like this, where you lay out the stakes in the election outside of the Senate and the Congress is Bob Dole's better strategy.
MARGARET WARNER: We'll have to leave it there. Thanks.