June 12, 1998
The tobacco bill and Clinton's upcoming trip to China were hotly debated on Capitol Hill this week. Our political pundits, Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot and syndicated columnist Mark Shields discuss why.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
June 11, 1998:
A look at arguments for and against President Clinton's trip to China.
June 10, 1998:
A discussion on the tobacco bill debate in Congress.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of Congress and Asia.
For more segments with Shields and Gigot, browse the Political Wrap Index Page.
MARGARET WARNER: We get our regular end of the week political analysis now from syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. Welcome both.
Paul, there's been a lot of controversy here in Washington this week about the president's plans to visit China. Yesterday he gave a speech defending his plan. Is this trip turning into a political problem for him?
Is the president's trip to China turning into a political problem for him?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I think the speech actually was a much needed attempt to address what had become a political problem for him. It was the best defense of his policy I've seen in a long time and heard from the president. And if his policy were actually what he said in the speech, he would probably have a better time sustaining it. It's been under attack, though, because of the appearance with the Loral satellite issue and then again with the campaign contributions. It's under attack because of motives. A lot of the Republicans take some of these facts and say, well, wait a minute, the president isn't pursuing engagement with China on the merits or for national security, but because it's his own personal political ambition or it's commercial interests that end up in campaign contributions. I happen to think the president's policy is the right one. But he's done an awful lot more to undermine it than some of his critics.
MARGARET WARNER: Is that how you see it, Mark, that he essentially created a political problem for himself on this trip?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, there's no question Paul's right. The allegations of campaign finance--illegal contributions from the Chinese sources--Chinese government--have raised questions, and now with the satellite transfer there appears to be at least some linkage. But I think, Margaret, that the president's policy was in trouble even before that. I mean, how-- when was the last time that a president of the United States had to give a major speech to justify a trip he was going to take in 10 days? I mean, it's really-- I think was an inoculation against criticism. Much of them were in his own party.
The criticism comes essentially from the two wings of the two parties. Conservatives-- Republicans and particularly on the religious right who are opposed and outraged by China's human rights and persecution of religion and liberal Democrats who are upset by the worker rights and the human rights. So you have those two. Now they aren't dominant within their party, but they are very influential in the nominating process, and it appears even though the president-- I think Paul's right-- the speech played to very good reviews-- the United States does not appear to have a national policy toward China. We have a commercial policy, and it is not driven by national interest as much as it is by commercial interests and the profits of corporations that are favored by both countries, the Chinese government and the American government.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, Paul, do you see an inclination or will in this Congress, whether from the two wings Mark described or other quarters, to actually try to force some policy change in the administration of handling of this relationship?
PAUL GIGOT: I don't, Margaret. I mean, it's very hard for Congress to force that kind of a change. They need a two thirds majority to override the president's veto on most favored nation status. That's not going to happen. There will be a sign, though, on that vote in the House. I think you'll probably lose at least a majority, which is the sign of a deterioration and support for the president's policy on China. But when Wang Dan, for example, the Chinese dissident released recently from China at the U.S. request really, when he says that Bill Clinton should go to China, should engage China, and go there and use that as an opportunity to speak up on behalf of human rights, when he says that, it's very hard for even human rights activists here to say the president shouldn't go to China.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree, Mark, that really the president's pretty much free here to pursue the policy he wants?
MARK SHIELDS: I think there's no question-- there is not a 2/3 vote. There were 173 votes in the House of Representatives against most favored nation the last time, and I think that there is a growing number. I'm not sure there is a majority against the president. And what's interesting, Margaret, is to watch the Republicans. The Republicans see this as a great political-- they've been far more supportive and far less critical of China and far more supportive of all commercial engagement with China than have the Democrats up till now. When the president proposed most favored nation renewal status for China, the first person to embrace it was Speaker Newt Gingrich, the speaker who had said the president should not go to China because of these lingering questions about the campaign contributions. So Republicans are kind of ambivalent. They see it as a great political opportunity to kind of roast the president and skewer him, but they have a lot of supporters who want most favored nation and want the president to go there. So I think that that's an interesting political biplay to watch it.
MARGARET WARNER: Go ahead, Paul.
PAUL GIGOT: Margaret, this isn't just over our commercial interests. I mean, we do have a national interest in making sure that a big emerging power like China does start to come out of the world and democratize and some of the--a lot of people argue-- and I would agree with them-- that commercial ties-- the opening to the world markets does an awful lot to make China a more open regime. And that's the bet we're making. It is a bet. Nobody knows for sure what's going to happen or how long it will take, but it seems to me a bet worth taking.
MARGARET WARNER: Mark, there was also a big controversy here about particularly-- and you heard Mrs. Chan just talk about it-- should he go to this official welcoming ceremony; should he agree to that in Tiananmen Square-- and the president defended it yesterday. Should he? What do you think?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, again, the Republicans are already calling it the Tiananmen Square Summit, because they see a great political advantage on this. But, Margaret, when President Zemin came here from China, they laid down the conditions of his visit. He had a 21-- gun salute; he had the--
MARGARET WARNER: The Chinese wanted this.
Mark Shields: "China is getting credit from the administration for dampening down the tensions between India and Pakistan... It's kind of like praising the arsonist for helping putting out the fire."
MARK SHIELDS: The Chinese wanted that. The Chinese insisted on it. He went to Independence Hall. I mean, he had the whole nine yards. And for the president to somehow suggest he couldn't go to Tiananmen Square-- he had to go to Tiananmen Square, otherwise it would offend his hosts, raises a question. I think what it does is it raises the ante for the president to make a strong statement on human rights, on workers' rights, on China's-- I mean, China is getting credit from the administration for dampening down the tensions between India and Pakistan. Now, the only reason Pakistan had the technology to build the bomb is that China gave it to them. It's kind of like praising the arsonist for helping putting out the fire. So I think the president has to now make a strong statement in China to show that he is not afraid to be critical.
MARGARET WARNER: Your view, Paul, on this Tiananmen Square thing, issue.
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I don't know that he can refuse to be received in Tiananmen Square, but he can make up for that, if that's viewed here as controversial, he can make up for it by following the Ronald Reagan model from 1998 at the Moscow summit, where he went to Moscow University and gave an eloquent, moving speech to Moscow students about freedom, the requirements of freedom, why it was inevitable that it would come to the Soviet Union, and I think on that same trip Reagan met with dissidents. He met with-- he invited them to American property over there-- the embassy or one of the-- Spozzo House-- and told the Russians basically I'm going to do this. And if Bill Clinton does something like that, I think that he can speak up for American principles and make an impression in China and it will help both there and here.
The tobacco bill.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, Paul, staying with you for a second, let's switch to another issue that was front and center this week, which had to do with the tobacco bill. Now last week Sen. John McCain's tobacco bill looked dead. This week the Republicans voted for a big tax cut to be part of it. What's going on here? Explain the politics behind what we saw this week.
PAUL GIGOT: Phil Gramm, who is one of the great tax cutters around anti-tax increase Republicans, made a conclusion I think that he couldn't count on Trent Lott to kill this tobacco bill. So if the bill was going to pass, he wanted to make sure that some of those revenues-- and it's a gargantuan number-- $516 billion-- some of those revenues-- I think he ended up with about a third of it-- is going to go to tax cuts to allay the tax increases on smokers that are going to raise money here. So it seems to me that the Republican Senators, themselves, are saying Trent Lott wants to pass this bill.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think, Mark, that including these tax cuts does breathe new life into the bill and make it likely something will emerge, at least from the Senate?
The tobacco bill and Bob Hope: both very much alive, thank you.
MARK SHIELDS: Yes. Every journalist dies for a good lead. The best lead of the week was in the Wall Street Journal by Jackie Kams and Jeffrey Taylor, who wrote that "Bob Hope and the tobacco bill now have this much in common-- declared dead by Republican congressional leaders-- both turn out to be very much alive." And it's absolutely true. It's alive in the Senate, but Speaker Gingrich has laid down the marker. In a very friendly venue, the Washington Times, he announced that this is dead; it's dead because we won't take it up. So regardless of what the Senate does, this is going to be the fault line not only between the House and Senate Republicans but Democrats now see this-- Sen. Tom Daschle puts it-- as a win/win situation for Democrats. They'll either get a bill that will be tough on tobacco and anti-smoking and all the rest of it, or the Democrats feel they'll have an issue for the fall campaign that Republicans were too cozy with the tobacco companies.
MARGARET WARNER: Is that how you see the strategies of the two parties, Paul?
PAUL GIGOT: I think that's exactly what the Democrats are counting on. It seems to me, though, that that only becomes possible if the Senate passes a bill, and that's why the White House, which normally doesn't agree with Phil Gramm on the time of day, quietly supporting him on his tax cut language-- because they want to get that vehicle out of the Senate. They figure that will put more pressure on the House and then they can put all of the blame on Newt Gingrich if the thing fails and they hope take over the House. What puzzles me is why Trent Lott is playing right into this strategy, which would seem to increase the odds that Trent Lott will be dealing with a Speaker Gephardt next year.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think this tobacco bill, Mark, has that much political potency?
MARK SHIELDS: Well-
MARGARET WARNER: As an election-affecting issue.
MARK SHIELDS: This is an election-- I mean, politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. This is not an election with big issues just jumping out there. I mean, you take the roster of naming public buildings after the 42nd president of the United States and after that I don't know what else we do. So I think that this certainly is front and center, and I think it could be made into-- and I think what Paul didn't mention-- just an oversight-- was the marriage penalty, which Phil Gramm is arguing for, the repeal of the marriage penalty, is enormously popular. And Democrats understand that, as well as do Republicans.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Go ahead, Paul, quickly.
PAUL GIGOT: Well, there's enough revenue to cut the marriage penalty from the booming surplus we have. You don't need an additional tobacco tax.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Thanks. We have to leave it there. Thank you both.