July 14, 2000
JIM LEHRER: Paul, what happened? The Senate finally decided to do something together. We were talking just a week or two ago about the do-nothing Congress.
PAUL GIGOT: They decided to have votes. I don't know that they decided to have all sweetness and charm with one another. I think the Democrats who had been hoping that they could keep some of these tax bills bottled up, decided that would it hurt them more do that than it would be to offer an alternative and have some votes. There were some Democratic senators, notably Chuck Robb of Virginia faces a very tough election this year, who wanted to vote for a repealing estate tax. And Tom Daschle said okay. And so they changed their strategy and decided to go to a debate over taxes and get some amendments out there. But in the end, give the Republicans the vote and passage that they wanted.
JIM LEHRER: See it the same way?
TOM OLIPHANT: Not quite. I think the deeper question is here is whether you think what was going on in the Senate this week was on the level, and I don't. This is a bill, many months in the crafting, without any chance ever of enactment as proposed given the opposition of President Clinton and the impossibility of reviewing. It's legislation to make a point not to have national policy. Democrats are co-conspirators. This business about amendments was to enable them to offer proposals like on health care and education that have no chance of passing -
JIM LEHRER: But simply to position Republicans to vote against them
TOM OLIPHANT: Clinton is in the middle of this too. He makes on the marriage business an offer that everybody can refuse to trade it for his prescription drug proposal so that then his eventual veto is put in a more statesmanlike way. And people wonder why the public looks at Congress and throws up their hands.
JIM LEHRER: Because the end result of this is zip, right?
PAUL GIGOT: I think the end result will be the ultimate repeal of the estate tax.
JIM LEHRER: Not based on this vote today.
PAUL GIGOT: Not based on the vote today although the vote today was certainly an assistance. President Clinton is probably going to veto this. That's why we have elections. This is all about framing the issue of taxes for the election in November. And I would remind Tom that in 1992, the Democratic Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act. It had no chance of being signed by President Bush . But it became law when the Democrats won the election in 1992.
TOM OLIPHANT: Remember, some of those votes were cast with the knowledge that it wasn't for real. I think a better analogy from 1992 is the passage by the Democratic majority of the campaign finance reform bill that was brought to President Bush simply so he could veto it.
PAUL GIGOT: Well, there are a lot of Republicans who thought that with the vote of 65 Democrats in the House, close to a veto market, very close, right on the veto...
JIM LEHRER: You're talking about the estate tax repeal.
PAUL GIGOT: That it put added pressure on the Senate. Who knows, I mean this is an issue that has surprised Washington, Tom. It's just been a grass roots support that people never thought would happen. And there's a lot of pressure on Senators to vote for this. Now they only got about 60 votes 59 plus one who was absent. So it isn't a veto-proof majority but this issue is not going away.
JIM LEHRER: So, as an issue then, the issue is for George W. Bush to, in his campaign, to say if I had been President, I would have signed this and I wouldn't have vetoed it and the estate tax would have been repealed.
TOM OLIPHANT: One thing that is missing from today's drama, you might notice. If this is a problem that Congress and a President are trying to solve, I mean if we had more time, I mean you could outline a way of dealing with a number of issues related to estate taxation where the parties could come together and you could make significant progress. If you say it's either or, I don't think an election resolves this given the possibility of filibusters and all the rest of it down the line. I don't think it's that simple.
JIM LEHRER: Let's go to the other issue, one of the other issues raised in Kwame's piece, and that was Vice President Gore campaigning on the issue of a do-nothing Congress, and is there mileage there for him?
PAUL GIGOT: I'm skeptical. I think he's trying do a little bit of what President Clinton did to Bob Dole did in 1996 which is wrap an unpopular institution around the GOP candidate. He could do that with bob dole because bob dole was a creature of Congress. Vice President Gore sees George Bush has been getting mileage of being outside of the imperial capital. He is from Texas. Bush will remind every audience, I'm from Texas. I don't even know the area code there. My dad might have been President but barely visited. He's scoring success with that and Gore is trying to somehow neutralize that by saying well, he is a Republican and these people don't want to do anything.
JIM LEHRER: How do you read that, whether or not running against Congress,
Harry Truman did it in
TOM OLIPHANT: Governor Bush made the slight mistake of using Strom Thurmond who ran against Truman that year...
JIM LEHRER: Tell that story.
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, as a white separatist, segregationist at the time, Strom Thurmond was one of the minor party candidates. They put out a statement in his name, investigation will have to find out whether he in fact wrote it, that's the old Lloyd Bentsen line of I knew Harry Truman and Al Gore is no Harry Truman. Paul makes a couple of excellent points, Jim. I think they would be more valid if this were simply about a do-nothing Congress. That's not really the strategy. The idea is to take issues that put the Congressional Democrats and Gore together, and apparently some bits of public opinion: Prescription drugs, HMO reform, patients' bill of rights would be two examples. Where Gore is saying I'm for this. You're for this. I'm on your side. He's on their side. Congress...
JIM LEHRER: Their mean can the Republican Congress.
TOM OLIPHANT: That's right. And I think in that context -- if you look at this messy election scene that we see right now, Democrats obviously have been slower to come around to Gore than Republicans have been to Bush . I think the evidence is that this does work in the sense of consolidating that base -- remembering that voter intensity may be more important than high turnout when people actually get around to voting in November.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of they messy election process, to end quote, both Gore and Bush went to the NAACP this week, Bush first and then Gore. A lot of people had a lot of things to say about how Bush went and how he went and the fact that he went and what he said. What did you think about it?
PAUL GIGOT: I think it was important that he do it. I think you don't have to take my word for it. Listen to Al Gore, the President and the First Lady who all spoke and all, not so implicitly criticized Bush by saying he doesn't mean it. He's got them a little bits scared because he's got, Bush does, because he's making a salient in into what is the Democratic strong hold. He is saying I can appeal to you. Listen to my message. Bob Dole, remember, notably, didn't show up at the comparable convention four years ago. And I don't know that it was all Dole's fault. There was some miscommunication. It was a mistake. Bush has, from the beginning of this campaign, made it his strategy to appeal to blacks and Hispanics and to go not just in this one time, but he went to the Congress of Racial Equality for their diner in New York a few weeks ago. He has been going to black Chamber of Commerces, to Hispanic groups. He has been saying look, and he has been doing it with an interesting message, not just a me too message. The phrase he uses is very powerful, there's another kind of bias, he said, which is the soft bigotry of low expectations. And that ties very much into his education message. I think it has a strong appeal to opportunity and education, and possibly, possibly can get some African Americans.
TOM OLIPHANT: I went after Bush went, and I was struck by the very warm personal
JIM LEHRER: You mean to that convention in Baltimore.
TOM OLIPHANT:. Yes. I was struck by the warm personal reaction -- people
who were there to Bush 's
JIM LEHRER: In Texas, he has more experience with Latinos.
TOM OLIPHANT: And as a result... But it's part of... It is part, and this is more than image, because I think a central part of Bush is that he's not... the entirely partisan animal that you think he is. And it's not just that he wants the NAACP to listen to his message. He'll... He is willing to listen to theirs.
JIM LEHRER: Does it have more to do with party than Bush versus Gore?
Gore was there the next day.
TOM OLIPHANT: I think you're absolutely... That's the nub of it. That this is a party relationship. I don't think Bush and Gore are the kinds of figures that President Clinton is in the black community.
PAUL GIGOT: Tom made a good point about intensity of vote. One of the things that drives intensity, and I agree it is going to be very important, is fear. George W. Bush is saying to African Americans, you don't have to fear me. And that is...
JIM LEHRER: I know you're not going to vote for me but you don't have to be afraid of me.
PAUL GIGOT: Whereas, in 1996, there was after the 1994 election, a genuine fear of Gingrich and the Republicans taking everything. I think Bush is saying look, I'm not that kind of threatening figure. And that has Gore worried, because he needs a very big black vote to win.
JIM LEHRER: That's your energy.
TOM OLIPHANT: The energy can come positively. And there is an agenda that has enormous appeal in the black community and has a way to go in terms of going presented.
JIM LEHRER: Sure. Thank you both very much.