ANALYZING THE STATE OF THE UNION
January 27, 1998
Jim Lehrer discusses the Republican response from Majority Leader Trent Lott with NewsHour regulars syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot, who are joined by Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
January 27, 1998
President Clinton reflects upon the state of the union.
January 27, 1998
President Clinton discusses America's role in international affairs.
January 27, 1998
President Clinton reveals his vision of America in the 21st Century .
January 27, 1998
Senator Lott issues the Republican response.
January 22, 1998
Presidential historians discuss the State of the Union address throughout American history.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the White House.
The official homepage for the White House.
The official homepage for the Republican National Committee.
The official homepage for the Democratic National Committee.
JIM LEHRER: And that was the Republican response delivered by the Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott of Mississippi.
Mark, big federal government still an issue between Republicans and Democrats, is that what Senator Lott is saying?
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Sen. Lott emphasized tax cuts and cutting taxes. Probably the most successful congressional hearings held in all of 1997 were those of the Senate Finance Committee on the abuses of the IRS. It's an issue Republicans have got, they're not going to let go of, and it's the one issue that unites all Republicans, there's no question about it, cutting taxes. But I thought, Jim, that in tone what was fascinating to me was Bill Clinton gave a speech that almost sounded like morning in America. He talked--self-congratulatory in part, to the Congress and the country about all we'd accomplished; crime was down. We had two Republican mayors in New York and Los Angeles win smashing re-elections this year, trumpeting their success of cutting the crime rate. Listen to Sen. Lott, it was almost five minutes to midnight; it was crime; it was drugs; things were bad, getting worse. Now, the out party always tries to put that spin on it.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
MARK SHIELDS: But it doesn't play to the public mood right now.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think, Paul, that, as a result of these--the president's speech and now Sen. Lott's response--that differences between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party were clearly defined?
PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: On several areas they were, no question about it. I think on taxes, as Mark said, there's one. I think you can see a big fight coming on health care regulation and on Medicare expansion. The fact that--the president's--a lot of what the president did, I thought it was rhetorically a very bipartisan, almost Republican speech. He was triangulating in that sense to the Republicans on rhetoric, but programmatically, if you look at it, there was an awful lot there for Democrats to like: minimum wage, health care expansion, a new tobacco tax, which he can spend on different programs. And there are going to be fights over all of those things.
JIM LEHRER: How did you see it in terms of really delineating the differences?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: You know, it was interesting, Bill Clinton gave a long speech with a lot of issues in it, but it was thematic. He talked about at the beginning an economy that offers opportunity--listed a series of programs--a society rooted in responsibility, a nation that lives as a community. Sen. Lott's speech was a congressional speech. There wasn't a larger theme. It was a kind of reactive, hunkering down, focusing on a few issues, emphasizing differences. The president was presidential, reaching out. The Senator reached out once or twice, but it really was trying to define those differences, and I think it's probably not a very wise approach to take. He did--he clearly focused on the one thing that Republicans want to dominate in this next year, and that is taxes. You know, it's going to be difficult for the president to get his issues to dominate. It'll be equally difficult for Sen. Lott to get the tax issue to dominate until we get this other issue behind us.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. We'll come back to that in a moment. But the president's thing with Social Security first--Sen. Lott didn't even mention Social Security.
MARK SHIELDS: No. The president was a preemptive strike to freeze both those in his own party who want to spend and Republicans who want to cut taxes. But--
JIM LEHRER: And the president, of course, didn't mention cutting taxes.
MARK SHIELDS: No. But I do think in defense--fairness to Trent Lott--it is an impossible assignment after the pageantry, after the majesty of any president addressing a joint session of Congress and all that that entails, to then give a speech when the audience has plummeted, when people stop listening, and the only rebuttal speeches that are ever remembered are the bad ones. I mean, Bob Dole, remember in 1996 gave a miserable speech and immediately fueled the opposition of his primary opponents, saying he wasn't ready to take on Bill Clinton.
JIM LEHRER: I went to a briefing that Sen. Lott had this morning for some TV correspondents, and he acknowledged--he said that he'd check--he had somebody in his office that checked that these responses--the audience fallout is usually 60 percent or something like that, so he--he didn't go into this thing with a lot of high expectations. But also, at the other side of this thing, in fact, we asked him about this, and I'd like to get your view of this Paul, is that for some Americans, and according to the polls most Americans, this was their first real big glimpse or look at Trent Lott; he had a lot riding on this tonight. Did he?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I don't know that I would say a lot.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
PAUL GIGOT: He had a chance to introduce himself to the American people--to a lot of American people who have never seen him before, don't know who he is, and he did that. But I don't think that a lot of them will say, boy, that was soaring rhetoric. I think the most notable thing about the speech, frankly, were the graphics, and that 38 percent of your family income that's taken out in taxes. I think that's the image a lot of Americans will take out of it.
JIM LEHRER: Now, let's go to the point that you raised, Norm, which is the overriding issue that influenced this tonight, which was the unspoken thing. Except when Sen. Lott said, "Let me make one thing clear--Saddam Hussein or anyone else who needs to be told--despite any current controversy, this Congress will vigorously support the president in full defense of America's interest throughout the word," what do you make of that?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, of course, the president also addressed Saddam Hussein directly in this case. We know that we're heading towards a potential of a military action in Iraq, and we know that basically everybody's very nervous that the controversy over the president could undercut that action. We have the movie Wag the Dog that's being talked about all around the country probably but certainly in Washington a satire about a president caught up in a kind of sex scandal who takes a military action as a diversion. So clearly both sides wanted to send a clear signal out to Saddam Hussein that we weren't going to be divided by this. I think that's all that Senator Lott had in mind. I think he tried--
JIM LEHRER: Did he do it effectively, with those words?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: --very carefully otherwise--yes. I think basically he did not dwell on any part of controversy here. That's going to take over in other ways tomorrow, and it was a signal of another sort.
JIM LEHRER: How do you read that?
PAUL GIGOT: I read it the same way. I thought it was smart politics for the Republicans because they seemed to be rising up above near partisanship. They do help the nation by sending a message to Saddam Hussein, and I think Bill Clinton, as president, in fact all of us are lucky that if there is a foreign crisis here, it is against Saddam Hussein because he is something that we all know. We fought a war against him. We all know he is somebody who is opposed to American interest, so it's not a controversial domestic political issue.
JIM LEHRER: Easy to be opposed to Saddam Hussein and the IRS, right, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: Not necessarily in that order.
MARK SHIELDS: Traffic jams and appendicitis. But I think one thing, the Republicans paid dearly in the past for being overly zealous in their pursuit of scandal in the attacks on Bill Clinton. They've been very circumspect, very restrained in his current travails. I think, quite frankly, that the first lady's broad side delivered on the Today Show against the right-wing conspiracy, the right-wing however you want to put it, was at least in part in defense of her husband but also an attempt to provoke Republican response to get sort of the loonies on the Republican side out, making their statement. It'll be interesting to watch in the next 24 hours. I mean, certainly Trent Lott did not go for the bait. He's--
JIM LEHRER: He sure didn't.
MARK SHIELDS: He's too able and too restrained.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think is going to happen in the next 24 hours as a--assuming there's no new revelations or no resolutions of the other--of the sex scandal story and what we have is what the president said tonight and what Trent Lott said--how do you expect this thing to play out?
PAUL GIGOT: I don't think much will happen at all here until Monica Lewinsky decides what to do; until she and Ken Starr have some kind of an agreement worked out--if there is an agreement worked out--where she is cooperating with him or she is not--I think everybody's in abeyance here, because nobody wants to really act. The Republicans are reluctant to go out because they don't know which way this is going to go, and the president obviously doesn't because he's decided he's not going to talk. He's taken his lawyer's advice not to talk until there's some resolution.
JIM LEHRER: And meanwhile, all this long list of things that the president talked about and then that Sen. Lott talked about go completely ignored?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, Congress is back, and they're actually doing some work today but everybody's going to be distracted. I do think, though, that the larger message that will emerge from tonight that will be the talk tomorrow is here's a president who shows no intentions of doing anything other than focusing on the things that brought him here in policy and being president. And that will carry until events such as the Starr/Lewinsky discussions push it away.
JIM LEHRER: What about the president's thing on the U.N.? There were several things where he challenged the Republicans directly: the U.N. debt, which is being held up by the Senate; the judges, he even quoted Chief Justice Rehnquist. I mean, what's going to happen as a result of--
MARK SHIELDS: I think, Jim, he was addressing two primary audiences tonight. The Republicans had nothing to do with it. It was his own Democrats, to unite his Democrats behind him. I thought that probably worked, or it seemed to work in the hall. You don't know what they're saying now back in their offices or over a cup of cheer, and to the public. And we'll know how the public reacted. But I thought the biggest response he got was on the HMOs.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. Managed care.
MARK SHIELDS: That was--if I were HMOs, I'd be a little nervous.
JIM LEHRER: Paul, we went into this thinking everybody was told this could be the most dramatic--should be the most dramatic State of the Union evening in recent political history. Was it?
PAUL GIGOT: For the first 10 minutes.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It's hard in an hour and fifteen minute speech to keep the drama up. But once we settled the question of whether Bill Clinton would be in command it lost a little bit of that.
MARK SHIELDS: I thought it was, especially this segment. (laughter)
JIM LEHRER: All right. That is really it. Thank you, all three, very much. .