June 18, 1999
Both House Democrats and Republicans rejected a controversial gun control bill that would have loosened some restrictions while tightening up others. Mark Shields of the Boston Globe and Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal examine the vote and other political events of the week.
JIM LEHRER: Some analysis of the House vote and other matters political now by Shields and Gigot, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. Mark, this was a unlikely coalition. It wasn't a formal coalition -- liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. Why were the Democrats so opposed to this final bill?
|Gun control remains on the table.|
| MARK SHIELDS: So opposed to the final bill?
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
MARK SHIELDS: They didn't want anything coming out of the House, Jim. They wanted to keep the issue alive. They -- the Democrats think it's -- in other words, if it had gone to conference, if they passed this bill, it would have gone to conference in its weakened condition and that would have meant that the House position would have been in support of the Dingell amendment and what has been weakened from the Senate bill. Thus the Senate leadership -- the House Democratic leadership concluded, and the membership agreed with them, that they were better off to keep this issue alive.
JIM LEHRER: With no bill.
MARK SHIELDS: With no bill, and the idea being at some point the Senate Democrats will try to put an appropriations bill, to send it over to the House, to force the House to deal with it again. Recall this -- that the Senate initially voted to reject this proposal, the strengthening of the bill, just last month, and then turned around when public pressure and public reaction to it, and changed its vote.
JIM LEHRER: All right, then Paul, explain the Republicans' opposition to it.
PAUL GIGOT: Well, the Republicans, about 80 of them or so who voted against it, they don't want any kind of gun control at all. They didn't even like the Dingell provisions which the National Rifle Association supported. Now a lot of the members of the leadership, the Republican leadership, did want this bill to pass finally with John Dingell's amendment because they want to get this issue off the table. I was in the Speaker's lobby today, which is right outside the floor, after the vote was over, and the members were filing out, some of them saying, these are NRA supporters, saying, "Oh, my God, what did I just do? I have to vote on this again and again and again." They wanted it done, but some of the conservatives wanted nothing at all.
JIM LEHRER: Well, the President said last night on the Dingell thing and it was repeated today by some of his supporters that the NRA had defeated this. Is that on the money?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I'm reminded of that photo of the NRA ad campaign where they have people saying, I'm the NRA. Well, in this case "I'm the NRA" was John Dingell, a Democrat. This was really defeated, if that's what it was, by John Dingell. He's the one who brought 45 Democrats with him on this bill. Now I happen to think ultimately he did a two step on the Republicans and did the Democrats a favor, because by offering that amendment, what he did is he gave an awful lot of vulnerable Democrats a covering vote on gun control. These are people from rural districts. These are people where guns are popular. And he gave them cover. Then he turned around today and opposed the final passage, creating chaos on this issue. He helped his colleagues on this, I think.
|Keeping it unpartisan.|
JIM LEHRER: Now, who -
MARK SHIELDS: Dissent. Dissent quickly. Every Republican -- I was on the Hill today myself up where Paul walked and every Republican I talked to cited one thing: John Dingell, John Dingell, John Dingell. John Dingell wasn't giving Democrats cover as much as he's giving Republicans cover. The Republicans don't want to this be a Democrat-Republican issue. I mean, Jim, let's be quite frank about it. 80 percent of the Democrats voted one way, 80 percent of Republicans voted the other. It is interesting to talk about the guys in the middle.
JIM LEHRER: The ones who decided it, but the fact is the majority -
MARK SHIELDS: The fact is the Democrats are overwhelmingly for this proposal, the Republicans are overwhelmingly against it. And I think that, to me, is the key here.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Now, what are the politics? Who wins, who loses on it? Who can go out and raise cane and votes on this one?
MARK SHIELDS: My reporting this afternoon in talking to pollsters of both sides and what they found since the Senate acted, what we're seeing is a sea change in suburban areas, particularly among one demographic group, which is crucial to the election of 2000, and that is women in the suburbs with children. We are seeing margins of up to 9-1 women with children saying anything at all. Now this is obviously a consequence of Littleton, of Georgia, of Kentucky, of Arkansas and the schools, and the schools no longer being safe to a lot of people in a lot of people's minds. And that is a crucial critical element in the politics of this. The question remains there is no doubt that the National Rifle Association has been an effective and efficient lobby. I think I've got to give it credit. It has been enormously effective. And its membership has been single minded in its voting. They've voted against any candidate who supported any gun control. The question that's in people's minds, even though the numbers are with the gun control people, whether the intensity's there, whether that same sort of passion and conviction where people who were for gun control will say, "Damn it, I'm going to vote on this issue because candidate X whom I've always voted for in the past is soft on this issue or weak on gun control. I'm going to vote for the challenger."
JIM LEHRER: How do you read the fallout?
PAUL GIGOT: I met with a Republican woman member, very prominent woman member who has kind of a split district. And she said that -
JIM LEHRER: Split in what way?
PAUL GIGOT: Rural - half of it -- suburban - half of it.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
|A sea change in the body politic?|
PAUL GIGOT: So she gets crosscurrents. And her argument was that the intensity used to be all on the gun control - on the NRA side. Those were the people who had 4,000, 5,000, that will come out and hurt you. But she said there is a sea change, like Mark said, and there is something of a change in the intensity from the gun control side. And that's influencing some of the suburban Republican districts. There is no question about it. And what is fascinating - the bigger picture here - and I think this is behind the scenes what was going on with a lot of the Democrats is Al Gore. He was calling up on Capitol Hill, I'm told. He really wants this issue. And he wants to use it against George W. Bush in the election. He wants to keep it alive. So you had the President today and the Vice President denouncing the whole House for killing this bill when 197 Democrats helped to kill it.
JIM LEHRER: But you think it's not over yet. I mean, it will come back in some form - the issue after all?
MARK SHIELDS: This issue -- and Tom DeLay was boasting the fact that - the House Republican Whip -- it was over but I don't think it is over by any means.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Speaking of Al Gore and George W. Bush, both of them got out in their campaigns this week. Let's take them one at a time. George W. Bush. How -- what kind of opening act did he have this week do you think?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I was up in New Hampshire with Governor Bush and covering him. And I'll say this, Jim: Ordinarily when a candidate starts running for President, he works the Rotary Club in Mason City, Iowa, or the Kiwanis Club in Merrimack, New Hampshire; 55 people in the room, you work the act. You burnish your speech, you see what lines work. Nobody is watching you. George Bush came out. There were 29, count them, 29 television cameras and 200 reporters. And he was very sure-footed. He handled himself well. I know it's a word that they don't want to hear. But he is Clintonesque. He is that good in retail politics -- the retail politics, the kind of politics we - the voters one-on-one, one on three. He is terrific.
JIM LEHRER: You think he is going to remember your name the next time.
MARK SHIELDS: I got to tell you. I walked behind --
PAUL GIGOT: Mark -
JIM LEHRER: Retail politics.
|"Clintonism without the character flaws."|
MARK SHIELDS: I walked behind him and this little fella in sort of a polyester jacket, very diffident, man 75 or so, "Excuse me, Governor, I'm Eddie," I couldn't hear his name. He reaches out in a bear hug and says, "Eddie, I'll never forget what you did for my dad." And I'm telling you, this guy's life was made. So he is --he had a good, good week. There's no question about it.
JIM LEHRER: How do you read the Bush thing?
PAUL GIGOT: It's almost like an incumbent campaign, Jim. This is not a challenger's campaign. This was not an off-Broadway show. And it was very impressive, the organization, the slickness of it. And the candidate was impressive, I thought, in his being relaxed. You know, he could have gone up there and said, "Boy, look at all those cameras, I'm on the big stage." He wasn't. He did extremely well. He is affable. I would say he was Reaganesque in one sense. I think that's an adjective I think he would prefer -
JIM LEHRER: To being Clintonesque. Okay.
PAUL GIGOT: In his optimism. Reagan made conservatives seem optimistic, forward looking. George W. Bush has some of that same quality to him. And that's one of the things he seems to be trying to do is a way to separate himself from the congressional Republicans, is to say, look, there's a lot of good going on. Let's make it better. And he has that cheerful tone, I think it very effective.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Al Gore, what kind of -esque did he do this week?
PAUL GIGOT: Gore-esque. (laughter) In fact, what was noticeable about - I thought -- first of all, I thought he did very well, too. But what was noticeable to me, it was hard to tell who was trying to contrast himself more with Bill Clinton this week: George W. Bush or Al Gore -- because Al Gore was very much trying to I'm my own man; I'm not Bill Clinton; my agenda is Clintonism without the character flaws, Clintonism without the perjury; all that stuff, all that character stuff, you're not going to get that with me. So Tipper is front and center, his daughter, his pregnant daughter front and center. He went out of his way to try to...
MARK SHIELDS: His married pregnant daughter.
PAUL GIGOT: Yes. I didn't say she wasn't. Family values.
JIM LEHRER: Never mind.
|Running ahead of the others.|
|PAUL GIGOT: If he mentioned family values one more time you could close
your eyes and think it was Dan Quayle.
But I thought that was effective. I think he has to do that. It is going
to be hard because he six months ago he was telling us he was the greatest
president of all time, Bill Clinton, comparing him to Washington and Lincoln,
but he has to try.
MARK SHIELDS: Al Gore -- it perplexes me, Jim -- Al Gore is somehow faulted and found wanting for his campaign performance, his lack of charisma as a candidate. I don't know who is he being compared to, President George Bush, President Gerry Ford, President Richard Nixon, President Jimmy Carter. No, the problem is, he is being compared to Bill Clinton, who was gifted and is an enormously gifted candidate. I think this about Al Gore: The race in 1988 and the race in 2000 are very similar. You had a governor, major industrial state, popular, sort of submerged his issues, with a big lead and a lot of money. And he was running against a vice president who hadn't established his own identity, people weren't sure of, weren't sure of his own independence and strength. The part of Al Gore in 1988 was played by George Bush. The part of George W. Bush in 2000 was played by Michael Dukakis with the big lead. So I think, you know, we are an awful long way from the voting in New Hampshire and Iowa. I don't -- I think Gore has a difficult task. There is no question about it. He has to convince people that they want a third term of Bill Clinton.
JIM LEHRER: Ceci Connolly of the Washington Post said on this program last night that Al Gore and George W. Bush operated this week like it was already the general election campaign. Do you agree with that?
PAUL GIGOT: I do. It's striking to me. They are both running almost as if they've won the nominations in the general election campaigns.
JIM LEHRER: Hits against each other?
PAUL GIGOT: Oh, yes. And the ridiculous -- it got ridiculous when Al Gore started speaking Spanish in his speech, which is one of George W. Bush's kind of campaign ticks. But, you know, it was almost as if they've already won the nomination.
MARK SHIELDS: You didn't know there was a barrio in Carthage, Tennessee. Nobody else did. I think this, that George W. Bush was trying to pick a fight with Pat Buchanan. In other words, the fight on the Republican side is a different fight from the Democrats. The fight on the Republican side is to who will be the Republican equivalent of Bill Bradley. Bill Bradley, by the fact that nobody else ran against Al Gore, is the only alternative. He is - I mean, he's their number two. There are only two choices. Everybody else on the Republican side is fighting right now, whether it's John McCain or Mrs. Dole or John Kasich or Steve Forbes, is fighting to be the Bill Bradley of the Republican side. That's the kind of support and enthusiasm that George W. Bush has had in this first week.
JIM LEHRER: Okay, thank you both very much.