ASSAULT ON WEAPONS BAN
MARCH 22, 1996
Washington pundits Shields and Gigot discuss the political ramifications of the House vote to repeal the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban legislation. Elizabeth Farnsworth moderates.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, Shields & Gigot with analysis of the assault weapons vote and other things political from this past week. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and "Wall Street Journal" columnist Paul Gigot. Welcome to both of you. There's a lot of emotion connected to this assault weapons issue, but isn't the vote somewhat beside the point, or futile, because the President has said that he will veto anything that comes to his desk on this that repeals the, the ban?
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: There's no way the ban is going to become law. It was a, it was a free vote you could vote on.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: There's no way the repeal is going to become law.
MARK SHIELDS: The repeal, that's right. It was a free vote for everybody involved in the House today. The Speaker was not serious about it. He brought it up with two days' notice for a very simple reason. He did not want what we just saw in the end of Kwame's piece, police officers, decorated survivors of urban combat and protectors of public safety, standing up there on the Democrats' side. There's--this is a proposal that most police officers, most police departments have opposed. It's opposed by 2/3 of the people in the country. It does have regional appeal, and it has most of all fund-raising appeal. The National Rifle Association--it wasn't even for their membership. It was for the National Rifle Association leadership is what this vote was about today.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think that? Do you think it was for the National Rifle Association leadership?
PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: I think I agree with some of the things Mark said but not that point. This is--there's something in politics that's called intensity. You can take a poll that shows that 70 percent of the people support something, but not 70--those 70 percent don't vote on that issue. The people who oppose gun control really vote on it. They vote with passion, and I think there are a lot of Democrats--I've talked to many of them--who think that the assault weapons vote last time in Congress in 1994 was one of the main factors in costing them control of the Congress because it cost several important seats in Georgia, Texas, and elsewhere. It was a big-- the NRA went all out against 'em and so did some of the other groups, and it wasn't just the leadership. It was also the rank and file who vote on that issue. This is--this is one of those issues that isn't strictly a partisan issue. It's, it's an ideological regional one, as Mark said. It's urban versus rural, suburbs divided up, but, you know, Henry Hyde is from suburban Chicago. He voted for the gun ban, but there are a lot of other Democrats, 56 of them, in fact, who voted, voted for repeal.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This was just one of the skirmishes this week in this odd campaign event that's happening between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and the new budget from the Clinton administration was certainly an opening salvo in the campaign, wasn't it, Paul?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I think what we're talking about here is an extrication strategy on the part of the Republicans. They ran into that morass last December where the President refused to sign their budget. And what they're trying to do now is pivot out of that, frankly, disaster to get the business behind them, because Congress has to pass a budget, and they have to pass this debt limit.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now you're talking about--I was talking about the Clinton 1997 budget, but you're talking about right now.
PAUL GIGOT: Well--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Somebody said it's like a three-ring circus there's so many different budget events happening, but you're talking about right now.
PAUL GIGOT: We still haven't got the '96 budget done, and we're still debating that, and there's this question of the debt limit, of whether the federal government will go broke, that has to be passed and negotiated, and there's Republicans up there who never voted for that because they've never been in control before. So the Democrats always had to jump off, jump off that cliff. To get them to vote for it, the rank and file Republicans, they have to put something that gives the Republicans an excuse to vote for it, and that's why they're talking about the line-item veto and things like that. So the very thing that the Republican leadership thought would be a leverage against Bill Clinton has now turned around and become almost leverage against them.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what about the Clinton budget, did you find any surprises in the Clinton budget as it was released?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think you have to acknowledge that the conservative tone of our national debate is permanently established as of now. I mean, we've gone from a budget that was $200 billion in deficit to one that now is the President says will be balanced. I mean, there is a consensus in the country, at least in the political community, that a balanced budget is desirable, necessary, and not really open to much partisan bickering. I thought that is really revealing about it. The other thing about it, though, that has to be acknowledged, and I think Bill Clinton's critics have been slow to do so, is how the deficit itself has come down and come down dramatically. It's gone from $292 billion, a record just four years ago under President Bush, to half of that today. And as a percent of the nation's economy, it was 4.9 percent then. It's 2 percent now, so we are heading in that direction I think inevitably, and especially after all the dire predictions that Communism was going to collapse after the Clinton economic package and tax increase of 1993, certainly the deficit is, is not proof that that happened at all.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Let's talk about the product liability bill. The Senate passed-- approved legislation to limit damages. A judge could override these limitations in egregious cases, but basically if you're injured by faulty or dangerous products, there will be--if this makes it all the way--there will be real imitations on what you can get. The President has said that he would veto this. He was really taken to task by members of his own party for that, wasn't he, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: He has been. This is--this is a battle that continues. The trial lawyers are an important political constituency. They care deeply about it. They've got deep pockets. They have contributed handsomely. The President's party had been the principal beneficiaries of the trial lawyers, and he has two--a couple of Democratic Senators, including Chris Dodd, if I'm not mistaken--
PAUL GIGOT: Yeah.
MARK SHIELDS: But Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who are on the other side who have fashioned what they consider to be a compromise, and the President is, has been slow to, to endorse that. In fact, he's been resistant to it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But business interests poured in millions too, didn't they?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, sure. I mean, the business has been something. This is a hardy perennial affair in politics, and what's happened is, is that finally Republicans took over control and have put higher on the agenda. In a way, it puts to test the President's pledge for bipartisan government because here you have a bill that 12 Senate Democrats support, including very prominent, liberal members of the party, and, and the President still says he's going to veto it, and I think that the problem he has, I think this can be summed up in the name Ralph Nader. What this really is about, I think, ultimately the veto is Ralph Nader, the consumer activist, who's joined at the elbow and the hip and the ankle with the trial lawyers--they've been partners for a long time--he's going to run in California.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For the Green Party.
PAUL GIGOT: For the Green Party, which potentially, if he runs an active campaign, if he gets a lot of attention, could take important blocks of votes away from the President. Now, I think the President wants Ralph Nader, if he's not going to go away completely, to run a muted campaign.
MARK SHIELDS: I'd just add to that, not to debate Paul on it--I just came from California-- Republicans in California right now are terrified over the prospect of Bob Dole writing off the state. I think this week we saw an effort by the Speaker by bringing up the immigration bill and to go to the floor, himself, and gun control, to, to try and bring California back into play. Bill Clinton's leading Bob Dole by 21 points. With Pete Wilson running with him, he's leading by 24 points. And they're fearful--Republicans in California I talked to--that Dole will write it off and just give it to Clinton. So I think what we're seeing is, is an effort by the Speaker, in particular, because he's concerned about the number of freshman Republicans who are vulnerable out there, to gin up national interest. They don't want to write it off. It's happened--it happened to the Democrats in Florida in 1988, when Michael Dukakis wrote off Florida. It hurt the Democrat ticket there, and it hurt the Republicans badly in 1992 in California when, when George Bush withdrew.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Speaking of immigration, an immigration bill passed yesterday in the House. How important will immigration be as an issue this year, do you think, in the elections?
PAUL GIGOT: I don't think it is going to be as important this year as it has been in the past principally because everybody's for it, at least on illegal immigration. Everybody is against rather illegal immigration. They're for the, the change in the law. Pete Wilson made some progress with it in his presidential--in his gubernatorial race in 1994. And I think the--a lot of the Democrats got the message on illegal immigration. The big fight, though, this time was between legal immigration reform and illegal. And a bipartisan interesting, fascinating bipartisan coalition of ethnic groups on the left, Howard Burman, the liberal from Southern California, and conservative Libertarians, Sam Brownback of Kansas, put together a coalition to strip out a bill, that part of the bill that would really have been the most onerous crackdown on legal immigration in 70 years, since the 1920's, and it's--and frankly, after a lot of heat of the Buchanan campaign, it was refreshing to see.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Got to go now. Thank you both very much.
MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.