POLITICAL WRAP: THE RISE OF STEVE FORBES
FEBRUARY 2, 1996
PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: Well, I was just listening to Margaret's very good piece, and I think you can explain it in some of the comments of the people, the--Washington is a disgrace, he can't be bought, he has the charisma of the awkward, he seems like he's sincere--
MR. LEHRER: Hasn't been there and hasn't failed.
MR. GIGOT: Hasn't been there, hasn't been in sin city USA corrupting, you know, the place by buying things in the tax code and doing deals. Andy Kohut of the DePew Research Center did a poll of New Hampshire voters and found that 71 percent of those voters want a new direction; they're unhappy with the direction of the country. Steve Forbes comes in and says, I want to set that new direction. He comes in with a plan, the flat tax, that has appeal, populist appeal, because it seems to be putting a handcuff on politicians. It would take, as he says, the source of meddling and corruption of the tax code and say to the politicians you can't touch it, leave it alone, because the average Joe can't buy a lobbyist, can't pay a lobbyist to come in and fix it. I think it's a very powerful message, and it overcomes some of his weaknesses as he's a son of a rich man and the old rich-poor populist dichotomy, which we're really familiar with, this is a different sort of populism.
MR. LEHRER: Is it a different sort of populism, Mark? Is that what this is all about?
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I think I'll reserve final judgment on just how much of a populist Steve Forbes is. Most people grow up in houses with names on them. You don't call populist, I mean, Timber Wood, or whatever else. I think that Paul put his finger on a good part of the deal. It is not a novel appeal. As we watched Margaret Warner's piece on New Hampshire and Steve Forbes, we were reminded that Jimmy Carter in 1976 used the theme that he had never met Tip O'Neill or Howard Baker, leaders of the Congress, he had never taken the law school aptitude test, therefore, he ought to be President. Ronald Reagan was still talking about the puzzle palaces on the Potomac seven years into his Presidency, and the people he had appointed were already there. I mean, it's not a new theme.
MR. LEHRER: Yeah.
MR. SHIELDS: The argument goes like this. You want a neurosurgeon, go down to the Christian Science reading room and hire one. I mean, get someone who doesn't do neurosurgery, and that's basically the pitch. And this is--and Bob Dole's is the other side--
MR. GIGOT: Politics isn't neurosurgery.
MR. SHIELDS: Well, I mean, the question is, is effectiveness, is leadership, is it demonstrated over, over a lifetime? And I think that's the argument that Henry Hyde made against term limits and the House of Representatives so persuasively, so compellingly, it's what to some degree this campaign is about, but his appeal is real.
MR. LEHRER: That's what I was going to ask. At first, everybody said, ah, well, he's just gone to all this TV stuff and all that, and as soon as people get used to him and see him, he's going to go down the tubes, but that's not what's happening at all.
MR. SHIELDS: No. Tom Rath, the former attorney general of New Hampshire, in the piece put it very well.
MR. LEHRER: The Alexander guy.
MR. SHIELDS: That's right.
MR. LEHRER: That Margaret talked to.
MR. SHIELDS: Bob Dole's co-chair there in '88. I mean, he and Warren Rudman, former Senator Warren Rudman is still with Bob Dole, but he made the point. It is like being stalked. I mean, it is wall-to-wall when you go in there. There's no question about it. And he--
MR. LEHRER: What do you mean?
MR. SHIELDS: Every station you turn to, every set that's on--
MR. LEHRER: I see. I see.
MR. SHIELDS: --I mean, you get it. I mean, he said four times on the ESPN--the sports center-- at 11 o'clock. The thing about it that is, that is--I think, remains fascinating is this is somebody who didn't introduce himself. Ordinarily, if you've got somebody who is an unknown candidate, they come in with a biographical piece, this is who I am, this is what I've done, this is, you know, here I am, in basic training, here I am in the first job, and driving the first car and all the rest of it, he didn't do that, and his message, Paul's right, is optimistic in person. We heard it in the piece. It's growth, it's pro-growth. It's upbeat. The television spots, themselves, are pretty emphatically and stridently negative. Bob Dole's negative score in Massachusetts, because he's buying Boston TV, has up to 63 percent.
MR. LEHRER: That's because of the Forbes--
MR. SHIELDS: Because of the Forbes television ads.
MR. LEHRER: What about--what does Bob Dole do about this, Paul? What has he done, and what can he do?
MR. GIGOT: Well, he probably can't compete on the flat tax, except to attack the flat tax. One of Steve Forbes's rivals, a campaign strategist, told me this week, you destroy the plan, you destroy the man, and they're going to go right at the flat tax, and they're going to try to challenge it as risky. Some of them--Bob Dole's direct mail in Alaska, which didn't work very well, but they're going to try it, linked Steve Forbes with Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, saying two other people we elected who we didn't know very much about--and--and--
MR. LEHRER: Oh, my goodness. And that's going to come from Dole's people?
MR. GIGOT: That's coming from the Dole campaign. So far, though, they have not handled it very well. First they tried to attack him as a rich guy; that didn't work. Then this week they tried to bring in finally a good strategy, Gov. Steve Merrill, very popular, who's endorsed Bob Dole, to say, go after the flat tax, but they did it based on a flawed study that even the guy who wrote it said was quick and dirty and was done for the realtors.
MR. LEHRER: Yeah.
MR. GIGOT: So that's going to give Forbes a chance to come right back at him and say, you know, tell the truth, Sen. Dole, you know, you're just distorting the truth.
MR. LEHRER: Is the reaction within these various camps, the Dole, Alexander, the people who are--Buchanan, the people who are opposed by Steve Forbes, are they stunned about what's going on? Did they expect this guy to go boom, quick?
MR. SHIELDS: There is a sense of being stunned. There's a sense of really reeling from a punch, though. I can't--the spending really does give him an enormous advantage in a small state. He's spent four times as much as the legal limit. Okay. Everybody else is playing by the same rules. The only person--
MR. GIGOT: On television ads.
MR. SHIELDS: That's television ads.
MR. GIGOT: The organization, they've spent a lot.
MR. SHIELDS: But the only person--but television ads is the principal--where money is mostly spent in state campaigns, they're 2/3 of the budget. The--the fact is, Jim, what they're dealing with right now is this sense of my God, what can we do, I mean, we're just overwhelmed, this thing just keeps coming at us, and I've heard a number of Republicans this week say, because of the front-loading of the schedule this year, the compression of it, if, in fact--
MR. LEHRER: Explain that.
MR. SHIELDS: Okay. We will have 75 percent of the delegates chosen by the first week of April.
MR. LEHRER: Okay.
MR. SHIELDS: And it's just that quick.
MR. LEHRER: All right.
MR. SHIELDS: California's moved up. New York's moved up. All the big states have moved up. Texas and every one of them. If Steve Forbes finishes a close second in Iowa, or maybe even wins Iowa and wins New Hampshire, all right, that there would be no catching him, I mean, that he would be on such a roll, and--
MR. LEHRER: Do you see that too?
MR. GIGOT: I think that's too optimistic from the Forbes' point of view. I think that there are still a lot of Republicans who have grave doubts, particularly social conservatives, the cultural right hasn't been heard from now, they're divided. I think--
MR. LEHRER: About him?
MR. GIGOT: But they're divided among the candidates.
MR. LEHRER: Yes, right.
MR. GIGOT: They're divided among Alan Keyes, and Pat Buchanan, and Phil Gramm and Bob Dole, and if Forbes does emerge as the major challenger, I think you will see the party regulars, a lot of the party establishment, and other parts that say, look, we cannot turn over our nomination to somebody like this, and you have them rally around somebody else, and that's--
MR. LEHRER: And not Bob Dole?
MR. GIGOT: It could be Bob Dole.
MR. LEHRER: Could be Bob Dole. I see.
MR. GIGOT: It certainly could be Bob Dole.
MR. LEHRER: I see.
MR. GIGOT: Absolutely.
MR. LEHRER: You're shaking your head.
MR. SHIELDS: The idea of rallying around somebody else, I mean, to stop Steve Forbes. Maybe we can stop the popular wilt--this guy's on a roll, and he's leading in all the polls and everything else, I mean, there are things he's done that are going to come back to haunt him. I mean, he's saying--challenging the other candidates not to take federal matching funds. Now, for a guy sitting on $400 million, that's a pretty easy challenge to issue. And he scolds them as typical politicians taking matching funds. The gipper, Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of the conservative movement, took $93 million in public funds, and Steve Forbes, of course, wouldn't like to answer questions like that. And this kind of drives them in a sense of frustration.
MR. LEHRER: Okay. Yeah.
MR. GIGOT: Phil Gramm in response to that says, well, is he going to take them in the general campaign if he runs against Bill Clinton, you know, the $50 million or something--
MR. LEHRER: This story isn't over is what both of you all are saying. Right. Look, a story that is over is the election of Ron Wyden, Democrat, U.S. Senate, Oregon, replacing Bob Packwood. Are there national political wins to be read from this?
MR. GIGOT: Well, Republicans won't like to here this, but Ron Wyden owes that Senate seat to Bill Clinton. The polling numbers changed dramatically right after the State of the Union. Bill Clinton's State of the Union Speech was so effective in Oregon that his favorables popped up, the President's, and he boosted Ron Wyden right with it, and it had a big effect, and as narrow as this victory was for the Democrat, that was a big part of the explanation.
MR. SHIELDS: Okay. Challenge, how could I challenge Paul's analysis of that? Two things: One, when you've got a race this quick--this close--19,000 votes--
MR. LEHRER: Out of a million.
MR. SHIELDS: Everybody takes credit. I mean, the left-handed agnostics say, we made the difference, we were the key, you couldn't have won without us, and he probably couldn't have, but Ron Wyden was out-spent by Gordon Smith, who's an attractive, congenial, plausible candidate.
MR. GIGOT: A good candidate.
MR. SHIELDS: Articulate, very good candidate. He was out-spent. And I look at it and I say, what was it, and I think the Republicans have to take the warning from this, that the environment was a serious mistake for them in 1995. Being on the wrong side of the environment, when you start tampering with environmental regulations, people start to get antsy and nervous about water, and air and breathing and lungs and kids and--
MR. LEHRER: And there's even a Republican--Linda Duvall, Republican pollster, had a poll that said that very thing, right?
MR. GIGOT: She's not the only one. I mean, Newt Gingrich will tell you that the environment was the single most mishandled issue of the last year for Republicans. The rhetoric was too strident, and the problem for Republicans on the environment, I think they can still do better on this issue than they've done, but it goes at suburban voters who on fiscal issues and so many other issues might be more naturally Republican.
MR. LEHRER: Finally, a story that may be only known as we speak by readers of the "Washington Post," front page story, Dick Morris, the President's political adviser, gave some polling results to, according to the story, to one of Dole's people and said, hey, look, the Senator should make a deal on the budget because he's going to get hurt politically if he does not. Why was that on the front page? Why is that a big deal, Mark?
MR. SHIELDS: It's a big deal, Jim, because you heard Margaret's piece. You can't trust anybody in politics. You can't trust anybody. You know, nothing is on the level. Here you have a guy who's a Republican pollster, forgot he was a Republican pollster--
MR. LEHRER: Did I paraphrase that story correctly?
MR. SHIELDS: Yeah. What he was doing--the President's pollster, adviser--
MR. LEHRER: Okay.
MR. SHIELDS: --was polling Republican primary voters.
MR. LEHRER: Yeah. I left that out, right.
MR. LEHRER: Now, what's he polling Republican primary voters for? He's the pollster for the-- the President isn't in the Republican primary. So is he somehow meddling in the Republican process? Is he trying to manipulate the process? Is he doing it with federal funds that are provided to the Clinton campaign? Is he being reimbursed? Are the American people providing funds for him to do this? I mean, the whole thing is on the level. This thing, I'm telling you, has the shades of manipulating echoes, of manipulating the process, of tampering with the other side's election. The thing that amazed me for than anything else was that Bob Dole didn't come back and say, you know, I'm telling you, Bill Clinton--
MR. LEHRER: Make it public.
MR. SHIELDS: Absolutely. Go public and take it right on. Because he's got to change the conversation in this race.
MR. LEHRER: But the story said that the information never got to Sen. Dole, that it just kept his-- what do you think of this story? Were--I--as I was reading this story this morning, I thought, why is this on the front page?
MR. GIGOT: The Morris story is bigger than this because Dick Morris had a back channel--
MR. SHIELDS: Back channel--
MR. GIGOT: --from the White House to the Republicans to Trent Lott, who he used to represent, who's the No. 2 man in the Senate, on the budget for months.
MR. SHIELDS: The 1994 campaign he was his adviser.
MR. GIGOT: And, and I have talked to senior Republicans in the House and in the Senate who thought Dick, hey, Dick Morris was telling us the President wants a deal, the President wants a deal, he's going to do a deal. He just has to make sure it's positioned properly.
MR. LEHRER: But his chief of staff and other people might be saying something else.
MR. GIGOT: They feel--
MR. LEHRER: Okay.
MR. GIGOT: They feel burned.
MR. LEHRER: Hey, guys. I now understand why it was on the front page. Thank you both very much, and we'll see you next week.