Jim Lehrer joins Shields and Gigot to take a look back at the gas tax, Senator Al D'Amato's comments about Newt Gingrich and the rest of the week that was in Washington politics.
JIM LEHRER: Now how the gas tax, the economy and some other matters appear to Shields & Gigot, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. Mark, on the gas tax, is that a winner for the Republicans?
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: It's better certainly than the minimum wage, Jim. They want to switch that debate. They were losing the minimum wage. Sure, any time you talk about cutting taxes, it's probably good for Republicans, but this is not what the election of 1996 is going to be decided upon.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Paul?
PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: Well, it's not going to be decided over a 5 cent--or 4 cent a gallon gas tax, but it maybe heavily influenced by the issue of taxes, and that's what this is really all about. This gives the Republicans a chance to remind people about the President's tax increase, the middle class tax increase that a gasoline tax represents. Any time historically and ever since the tax revolt in California reared its head in 1979, with Proposition 13, any election in which taxes are a dominant theme, Republicans tend to do well. If they're not, or if Republicans muddle that message, they don't do as well.
MARK SHIELDS: This is quite a step back though, I'd just say. Republicans came in calling a Clinton tax increase in 1993 the biggest in history, and they're going after a 4.3 cent a gallon gasoline tax repeal. That doesn't sound like the elimination of the capital gains tax and all the other things that were on that list of goodies.
JIM LEHRER: Mark, the Democrats were not inactive on this issue this week either.
MARK SHIELDS: No.
JIM LEHRER: I mean, the President did the $12 million worth of selling--
MARK SHIELDS: Petroleum barrels.
JIM LEHRER: Petroleum--yeah, right--was it 12 million--
MARK SHIELDS: Barrels.
JIM LEHRER: --barrels, not $12 million?
MARK SHIELDS: That's right.
JIM LEHRER: 12 million barrels. Okay. And there was the Justice Department investigation.
MARK SHIELDS: Right.
JIM LEHRER: What is it about a rise in the gas price that scares politicians so?
MARK SHIELDS: First of all, it's rife with all sorts of possibilities and perils. It is--the possibilities are, Jim, first of all, you've got big oil, and I don't have a villain in American politics. Your villain must be big, whether it's big business, big banks, big media, big labor. Nobody runs against little labor or small banks, and big oil has been a familiar villain throughout much of modern American political history. Sen. Henry Jackson in 1974 had the oil company presidents up there demanding answers that they couldn't give at the time as to why their prices were going up, even though the Arab embargo was on. Second thing is that it's a universal experience You, I don't care who you are, you know what the price of a gallon of gas is. You drive by, you bombard it with it everyday. You go by a station whether you're filling up or not. It's something that you can't substitute. The price of beef goes up, Jim, you can eat tuna fish or vegetable soup. You can't substitute gas, so--I mean, there's a universal experience, and I think that, that has an enormous political saliency, as all the pollsters and political scientists say.
JIM LEHRER: Particularly in an election year, right?
MARK SHIELDS: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: Paul.
PAUL GIGOT: Well, sure, I mean, there's also for some--the politicians and some of us who can remember it, there's some echoes of the 70's here--
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
PAUL GIGOT: --where when you had the great run-up in gas prices, you had such devastating effects.
JIM LEHRER: And President Carter waited a while to do something about that--
PAUL GIGOT: That's right.
JIM LEHRER: --and paid a price for it, right, Paul?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, he sure did. And remember the gasoline lines, which was really the ultimate nightmare for President Carter, and I think contributed to his defeat.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. All right, Paul, let's move on to the economic numbers. Today's on unemployment, yesterday's on growth, parse that politically for us.
PAUL GIGOT: Well, there's a lot of sleeping easier right now at the White House. There had been a lot of sweaty palms earlier this year because the President had come out of the State of the Union Address and said that we have the best economy in 30 years and then a few days later it turned out that the fourth quarter numbers were under 1 percent.
JIM LEHRER: Growth, you mean growth?
PAUL GIGOT: The growth of the economy was under 1 percent in the fourth quarter, and they were fearing, oh-oh, we're going into a recession. It looks like that's not going to happen. We're popping out of it, out of the trough, and 2.8 percent is right on that line between where you can say if it gets above 3, 3 1/2, you can start saying morning in America, a little below that, and you start--you have some ambivalence about whether you want a run on the economy. I mean, this is right on the line. I think what still gives some Democrats pause is that in 1994, the economy was growing by 4 1/2 percent, and that really didn't seem to help Democrats much in that election, so I think a lot of this depends upon how the average person perceives these abstract numbers. How they really feel in their own security will depend, I think, how this cuts in the election.
JIM LEHRER: Mark.
MARK SHIELDS: The Republican pollster Bob Teeter, who was President Bush's pollster and continues to do work, said once that it takes a full quarter, three months, for people's perception of the economy to change. In other words, there has to be an improvement, particularly because in 1982 in the middle of the recession, and if they hadn't turned around by that third quarter, that whatever--on the second quarter--that whatever happened after that wasn't going to help the Republicans and Ronald Reagan and the White House. And I think--I think, Jim, this is more bad news for the Republicans than it is necessarily good news for the Democrats. Good economic news in the spring do not guarantee good November political results, as Paul just cited.
JIM LEHRER: Why not?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, we had the experience in 1994, and other factors can intrude or there can be a change. What it hurts is the Republicans' message. The Republicans started the year by running against the Clinton crunch, and, and the Democrats' message at the time seemed to be quite mixed. It was things have never been better, and Bill Clinton is the only guy that can get us out of the mess we're in. I mean, it was sort of a mixed message that we were sending.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
MARK SHIELDS: Now, they can stand there, as they did today, and point out that unemployment is, is down two full points, since four years ago in April of 1992, that the deficit's cut in half, as Sen. Moynihan said in Kwame's piece, and so there is real economic news, and probably the most important thing was that the biggest increase in wages in five years was reported this week, and that of course has been a continuing problem.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Paul, that politically this hurts the Republicans more really than it helps the Democrats, because it's hard to run against this sort of thing?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, if I, if I were advising the Republicans, I would say still run on it. We don't know what--
JIM LEHRER: What do you say? What do you say?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I think you say we can do better. You say--you look over the whole course of the Clinton years, and you say, we're in the--we've had one of the slowest recoveries by historical standards that we've had. I mean, this is not the recovery of the 80's, this is not the recovery, for example, the Kennedy years in the 60's, and you say we could do a lot better and we could have done a lot better if we had pursued better policies. Now, maybe if, if this, if this economy runs out through the end of the year and is terrific, that argument is not going to work, but you have to at least make that argument, because if Republicans give up the economic argument, you know, they're giving up one of the centerpieces of, of any election campaign. They've got to at least begin to make that case. And if it works out, you know, it'll help 'em. If not, well, then it'll help the President.
JIM LEHRER: What is--what is the political up and down about unemployment figures? How--has anybody ever traced that as to whether or not it really affects the way people vote?l
MARK SHIELDS: I think it's direction, from what I have seen. In other words, if it is improving or of it is getting worse, I mean, we've had this sort of low level fever in the body politic called anxiety.
JIM LEHRER: Anxiety.
MARK SHIELDS: About the future.
JIM LEHRER: And, again, a figure like this today, Paul, then this would say, hey, well, wait a minute, maybe there's no reality to my anxiety, and it in that way would help the Democrats, right?
PAUL GIGOT: Yeah. I think that if you get, you know, three, four, five months of good economic reports, it would tend to have people say, well, maybe the anxiety that I feel in my circumstance is not shared generally. I mean, you know, even if you don't lose your job, if your neighbor does, you feel anxious, and if that kind of thing isn't happening, then it's going to make people a lot more, a lot more sure. I mean, in some parts of the country, there's no question about it, you can't find somebody to work in McDonald's at the minimum wage. You know, it's 7 bucks an hour. So, you know, in a 5.4 percent unemployment situation, there are going to be some places where they don't need to increase the minimum wage, they've already done it in the private market.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, one thing that this does, though, it robs the Republicans of an awful lot of their argument, and their argument going in was that Bill Clinton's economic policies, his tax increase in 1993, his regulations, his administration's regulations, strangled economic growth. And to see the country and to hear the piece--the voices in Margaret's piece and to hear the further news today, the sense that there is economic growth really puts the lie to that argument, or weakens that argument enormously. So it becomes tougher for them to say, gee, what he did in 1993 really killed you.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Do you agree, Paul?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, it's tougher to say it really killed you, but I mean, the question is, how well could it have done? I don't know too many economists who say the economy has, has been--has prospered because the President raised taxes. Umm, I, you know, taxes are not a stimulus, so it does hurt the Republican argument, but I don't think--I don't think it eliminates it.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Speaking of the Republican argument, what do you think about today's D'Amato news, Sen. D'Amato saying that Newt Gingrich misread the 1994 election results, no revolution, only evolution, and he must moderate or he will hurt Dole's campaign, what do you think about that, Paul? What's going on?
PAUL GIGOT: I think maybe Republicans should form a circular firing squad to save the Democrats ammunition. I don't think this helps Republicans. I don't think it helps Bob Dole, frankly, because that played right into the Democratic strategy, which is to link Sen. Dole with Newt Gingrich, who knows himself he's unpopular right now. But I, I also think D'Amato's wrong on the merits when he says that Gingrich didn't change the agenda in this country or misread the--
JIM LEHRER: Misread the results.
PAUL GIGOT: Yes. I mean, Bill Clinton's revival strategy, his reelection strategy, has been to run a kind of kinder and gentler Contract With America. It's been to sound like a Republican but not be one in an awful lot of areas. If Gingrich hadn't set the terms of debate that the President has so skillfully coopted with sort of, except for certain things, Al D'Amato wouldn't be chairman of that committee today.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Mark? What's going on?
MARK SHIELDS: Even Sen. Al D'Amato's severest critics acknowledge that he is constantly taking the temperature and the pulse of the voters of New York. And I think that's what he's reflecting here.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
MARK SHIELDS: I mean, the areas he cited where he criticized Speaker Gingrich and the House Republicans were anti-environment and anti-education, and I think he's absolutely right. I mean, there's no question that the Democrats have exploited those openings. He didn't run against a balanced budget or tax cuts or, or that--or welfare reform, but he said that the Republican--House Republicans' emphasis on those had given Democrats an enormous opportunity and opening, which it did. I think you can't argue with that, but as far as his being helpful, I think Paul is right. It isn't. I mean, I don't know, the Republicans have learned the worst habits of the Democrats and are repeating them on a daily basis.
JIM LEHRER: D'Amato--go ahead.
PAUL GIGOT: That's the nicest thing Mark has ever said about Al D'Amato.
MARK SHIELDS: He gave me a ride one day.
JIM LEHRER: D'Amato is one of Dole's campaign's co-chairmen so he isn't talking as--
MARK SHIELDS: I agree.
JIM LEHRER: --just as an independent Senator from New York.
MARK SHIELDS: I agree. I mean, it is not helpful, it really isn't. And he is--he is doing the Democrats service because every time Newt Gingrich is linked to Bob Dole, it is unhelpful to the Dole candidacy.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
PAUL GIGOT: Jim, I think this reflects how unpopular D'Amato is in New York, himself, and, and he's--if he's going to run for reelection in 1998, his numbers are terrible up there, and I think he's--he understands Newt Gingrich's are too, and he maybe can separate himself a little bit from Gingrich. He can help himself.
JIM LEHRER: So we shouldn't put too much on this, that this is a Dole strategy. This may be D'Amato trying to protect himself.
MARK SHIELDS: I think it's very much Al D'Amato. All politics is local, and with Al D'Amato, it is acutely local.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Mark, Paul, thank you both.