May 14, 1999
Political analysts Mark Shields and Paul Gigot breakdown this week's Senate fight over gun control legislation.
MARGARET WARNER: For analysis of this Senate battle and other political goings on, we turn to Shields and Gigot. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul gigot.
Paul, explain what we just saw. All these contradictory votes. What are the politics behind hit? What really happened?
|Walking into a trap.|
| PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal columnist: Well,
Margaret Democrats set a trap for Republicans Wednesday night. The Republicans
saw it coming but they decided to dive into it anyway, then spent the
rest of the week getting out. In the wake of Littleton, the tragedy out
there, the Democrats have decided that gun control is a great issue for
them. They are going to try to play some symbolic politics for them. And
they are driving it in the Senate. And the big issue is the mandatory
background checks on gun shows. Republicans, some of the rank and file
I talked to thought they had an agreement even with the National Rifle
Association to go ahead and say this was something they could accept.
But for some reason, when Frank Lautenberg, the Democrat from New Jersey,
got going and got the passions going, kept pushing and pushing, and they
thought went way too far, I think the passions overran people and the
Republicans fell into this trap of trying to kill the whole thing. As
soon as they got in the cloak room afterwards, a lot of them were looking
around, saying wait a minute, what did we do because we made -- they wanted
to make it voluntary, the gun checks at gun shows, the background checks.
The next morning they came back and said we ought to do something about
this and that's what they spent the next two days doing, is having another
MARGARET WARNER: So definitely a political flip-flop, not an error in the language, as Senator Craig was saying.
MARK SHIELDS, syndicated columnist: A flip-flop, a shilly shally, a moral U-turn, all the things they've accused the Clinton White House of doing, the Republican Senate just put the spotlight directly back on themselves. I disagree -- I don't disagree with Paul's reporting, just his analysis in the sense of Littleton. Post-Littleton, what has happened, Margaret, is there has been a change in the audience of the Americans who are concerned about guns. When it is not a major national import and attention directed to that subject, then gun owners, especially those who feel besieged by regulation or the threat of having the weapons removed, really become a dominant force, especially in sparse western states where 100,000 votes wins you a Senate seat. But the key to this turnaround was, quite frankly, the election of 2000. The House control will be decided in the suburbs. Half of the swing districts are in suburban areas. What they learned in the Missouri referendum just concluded on concealed weapons, where the legalization of concealed weapons was defeated, was that urban voters and suburban voters namely St. Louis City and St. Louis County were the difference. And the Republicans can't afford to lose the suburbs and guns and gun control and gun safety are big issues in the suburbs.
|Has Littleton changed the gun debate?|
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think Littleton has changed the politics of gun control that much?
PAUL GIGOT: It has temporarily. But we've had these before. We've had these periods before going back to the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. There was a lot of talk then of the gun ban or the handgun ban. We've had these periodically and they tend to fade away. Now, remember, despite the intensity now, the most recent time when gun control really, really mattered in an election was 1994 where the Democrats lost an awful lot of seats by the president's own admission because of the assault weapons ban and the Brady Bill, the reaction to that. And I would say the Democrats are being a little cautious here. I'd say symbolic politics is what they are practicing because what are they really proposing here? We're talking about background checks at gun shows? We're talking about safety locks? We're talking about -
MARK SHIELDS: Safety locks, yes.
PAUL GIGOT: We're talking about very small regulation that a lot of Republicans are going to be able to support in those swing suburban districts.
MARK SHIELDS: Not if they listen to Larry Craig, quite frankly, and follow him off. They were lemmings the other night, the Republican senators were. Let me make one historical correction on Paul's point. In 1994, the only people voting on guns were people who really cared about guns. They were gun owners.
MARGARET WARNER: The single issue -
PAUL GIGOT: It was a factor.
MARK SHIELDS: In 1994 there was a sea change in American politics, it was a Republican sweep. I don't think guns were behind it, and I don't think Paul or conservatives and their postmortems suggested that guns were the deciding factor. Let's talk about a tax increase. Let's talk about a failed health plan. Let's talk about "don't ask don't tell". I mean, there are a number of factors. The only thing on this issue going on right now is Littleton, and Littleton, since 1994, we've had five different schools. I mean, we've had school children shot down. There has been a change in American attitudes. What Littleton is, Littleton is the Chernobyl of the gun control issue. Chernobyl and the nuclear accident there reminded people, drove home the fact that there were no safe sanctuaries; that if a nuclear accident happened, it didn't care how good your zoning was, how expensive your house was, it could still get you. And what Littleton did, Littleton is the town Americans want to move to, not move away. And this is the ideal. And all of a sudden if guns can get kids in a high school like that, then the Americans are concerned about their children's safety. And that's what I think the Republicans are playing the short side of the field.
PAUL GIGOT: Littleton is a Chernobyl of the broader cultural argument, of which guns is a part and only a part. And even Al Gore has said that and even Tom Daschle has said that.
MARGARET WARNER: Explain just one thing that happened this week, though; then when Larry Craig came out with his second bill, that time all the Democrats, other than Robert Byrd, didn't vote for it.
PAUL GIGOT: Aha.
MARGARET WARNER: And said this isn't strong enough. I mean, what's happening there?
PAUL GIGOT: Why do you think that is?
MARGARET WARNER: Why is it, Paul?
PAUL GIGOT: Because they want the issue.
MARGARET WARNER: As Senator Hatch said?
PAUL GIGOT: Sure. They want to run against Republicans on the issue in the year 2000. It's one way that Democrats feel they can make the Republicans look extreme. They want to make Rick Santorum put him on the spot in Pennsylvania and if you get the accomplishment, if you get the mandatory background checks, the issue goes away.
MARK SHIELDS: Why do we have safety caps on aspirins? And these folks are against safety caps on guns? I just -- that just eludes most Americans' common sense. That's what House Republicans are saying. House Republicans this week were saying, we don't want to be anywhere near this. I mean they understand. They are not talking about two rural votes in a rural state from the Senate. They are talking about suburban districts where their majority hangs.
|Al Gore's campaign.|
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let's shift gears. Today on the front page of the New York Times, a very unusual story -- it seems the president of the United States called a New York Times reporter, Rick Berke last night to discuss with him his, the president's concerns about Vice President Gore's campaign and that it was getting off to a slow start. I mean was that all about?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, the New York Times was going to do a story that White House sources thought the Gore campaign were critical of it, were thinking it wasn't moving in the right direction and so forth. Legitimate story; probably would have been on page 19. Instead, the president was persuaded to pick up the phone on deadline and call the reporter and put on it page one. So, the president said some nice things about Al Gore but it highlighted the fact that all of a sudden there are people in Washington saying, Al Gore's campaign is in some trouble. There's some difficulties here to the point where you trot out the heavy artillery of the president of the United States to call Rick Berke, a political reporter, a very good political reporter but to say hey, listen, I think he is terrific. I think he's wonderful. I'm saying things about Al Gore said Bill Clinton basically that Ronald Reagan never said about George Bush that good or Lyndon Johnson about Hubert Humphrey or Dwight Eisenhower about Richard Nixon. He's my guy.
MARGARET WARNER: But he also told the reporter, Rick Berke, that he had had some real advice for Al Gore, which is go out there, I think he said, have a good time or enjoy yourself and leave the management of the campaign to someone else, your new campaign chairman.
PAUL GIGOT: Leave it to me, Bill Clinton, the de facto campaign manager in some respects. Yes. He said loosen up, Al, is basically what he said; be more like me.
MARGARET WARNER: Not new advice.
PAUL GIGOT: Learn how to drape your arms around the podium. I think it's just fascinating because it highlight the fact that Bill Clinton sees his vindication through Al Gore's victory. He sees a judgment on his presidency through Al Gore's election. He is going to do everything, even if he has to drag the guy over the finish line himself. If he has to campaign in lieu of Al Gore, he will do whatever it takes to do it. There is a glomer for Al Gore, which is while he wants Bill Clinton's style, he wants Bill Clinton -- he wants some of it to be associated with some of his ideas with a good economy, he doesn't want to be associated with the rest of it, with the scandals, the baggage of the Clinton years, where, frankly, a lot of Democrats even have a kind of fatigue, a scandal fatigue. So it's a double-edged sword, Clinton's blessing for Al Gore.
MARGARET WARNER: Now Al Gore made a big change in his campaign management in week. Was it smart? I mean, again the president was quoted as saying it was a very good move to bring in the former Democratic Whip, Tony Coehlo, in as the campaign chairman.
MARK SHIELDS: Tony Coehlo is a very able guy. He will bring discipline, he'll bring order, he'll bring structure to a campaign. But I don't think the campaign's problem, if there is a problem, is a structural one or one of an organizational chart. It is one, quite frankly, as the president talked about -- the sense of the candidate. Who is he? What's he about? What does he want to do as president? That's what he has, up to now, has been garbled or hasn't been communicated. Now in defense of Al Gore, we've never had this before in history - two candidates -- only two candidates for the nomination, an 11-month campaign. When Ronald Reagan ran against Gerry Ford in 1976, that was a campaign less than five months. So there is a certain rhythm to this but the problem for Al Gore is Bill Bradley is up in New Hampshire and Iowa flying under the radar only covered by reporters who go up and see him, whereas, Al Gore is right here and scrutinized on an hourly basis.
PAUL GIGOT: Tony Coehlo is an able skilled guy, tough partisan. That's what Al Gore wanted. But I think it was a tone deaf political decision, because if what you are trying to do is separate yourself, as Al Gore, from the Clinton scandals and say, a new year, a fresh start, and you go over to Tony Coehlo -
MARGARET WARNER: Who's now, we should say, a lobbyist.
PAUL GIGOT: Well, he's not a lobbyist, no, he's a Wall Street -
MARGARET WARNER: A Wall Street investment banker.
PAUL GIGOT: He has been out for ten years. He was in Congress as a staffer or member for 25 years. And he is the guy who invented the soft money loophole, more or less. He invented the ways of getting around the campaign finance laws to save the Democratic majority in the 80's. I mean, he's the mentor who returned the call of who was Bill Clinton's fund-raiser in '96. He reassociates Al Gore with all of those problems. The other thing is he is a creature of Congress. Bill Clinton ran against Congress in -- sort of around it and he triangulated against it in 1996. Tony Coehlo's upbringing, everything he was taught, learned, was in Congress as a Democrat in Congress. I think Al Gore needs an independent identity, something separate from that. I don't know that Tony Coelho is the guy to help him with that.
MARGARET WARNER: Thank you both very much. Have a great weekend.