May 21, 1999
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot discuss the recent gun control bill that passed in the Senate.
PHIL PONCE: For our end-of-the-week political analysis, we turn to NewsHour regulars syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. Mark, yesterday the Senate passed what some people are calling the toughest gun control measures that have been passed in years. How is it that a Republican-controlled Senate passed a Democratic plan?
|A change in climate?|
SHIELDS: The issue was framed because of real life events. Littleton,
Colorado, followed by the Georgia High School yesterday, was the climate
in which this vote was cast. And I think that the Democrats were able,
in this instance, to cast their proposals, present their proposals as
sort of common sense. It was tough to argue against a trigger lock, a
childproof safety lock on a pistol. It was tough to argue that the purchases
of guns at gun shows shouldn't be subjected to the same kind of background
check that those who go to a gun dealer are. So there were small discreet
bites that it wasn't a cosmic global approach. And I think the climate
had turned against the fact that the suburbs had been the scene of so
many of these recent tragedies involving schoolchildren. The Democrats
-- it put the Democrats on the defensive and Republicans on the offensive.
PHIL PONCE: Paul, how do you explain it?
PAUL GIGOT: One of the secrets was the discreet nature, the small nature of the proposals, Phil, because unlike the Brady bill, which passed in 1993, and included a waiting period for handguns, Democrats in the Senate didn't try to even include that this time because that's since expired.
PHIL PONCE: And they stayed away from really controversial things like limiting the number of guns one can buy in the time period of a month, say.
PAUL GIGOT: Sure. Sure. That's right. And I think the Republicans thought and they are arguing that, look, none of this would have prevented Littleton - none of this would have prevented what happened in Georgia, so why is there going to be a great ground swell for this? But they misjudged the symbolism of it and, you know, to be fair to them, so did I and frankly so did Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader at first said we don't want to overdo this on gun control in reaction to Littleton. The other thing you can't, I think, ignore here is just some mismanagement on the part of the Republican leadership.
PHIL PONCE: What kind of mismanagement? What did they do wrong?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I mean, when you get a 50-50 vote that allows the Vice President of the United States, who is likely to be the nominee of the Democratic Party the next time, him to cast the deciding vote -
PHIL PONCE: -- which he did yesterday.
PAUL GIGOT: Which he did -- that's just bad counting. I mean Republicans, you know, couldn't they get to 49 or 48? Just throw a couple of their other people over the side if they are going to lose like that? Why give Al Gore the opportunity for basically declaring victory?
|A reason to celebrate?|
PHIL PONCE: Mark, Democrats are crowing about this. Should they be crowing?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, certainly for Al Gore, who has had a tough spring, no question about it. And the vice presidency is a derivative office, and it's tough to establish one's independence, strength, decisiveness, all of which were reflected in the vote yesterday. He cast the break vote. It's interesting, I think the Republicans -- Paul is right -- the Republicans misread it. They didn't see Gore emerging as a hero. I mean, I think there were some who were saying, well, not bad that he has to cast the deciding vote but I think there is no question that it gave him some political mileage and a real lift as looking like a leader in his own right. He's only cast a tie-breaking vote, I think, what, six times?
PAUL GIGOT: Four times.
MARK SHIELDS: Four times and those were on tax increases and budget votes that were a lot more controversial. I think this was a good one for him on the eve of a campaign.
PHIL PONCE: Paul, aside from the political implications of having given Al Gore a moment in the sun maybe at a time when his campaign really needed it, looking at the content itself, is this, as people are characterizing it, a turning point? Has there been a shift towards the center on issues of guns and violence?
PAUL GIGOT: Temporarily, there's no question there is a ground swell for more gun regulation. It shows up in the polls. I think some of the Republicans in suburban states, states with big cities, big collar counties, suburban counties like Illinois, and New Jersey, that has increased. I don't know, though, that it is a turning point. And I say that because I've been around long enough to have heard three or four turning points, most especially after the Brady Bill passed and the Assault Weapons Ban passed in 1993. What happened there was a backlash. As part of a congressional Republican takeover in '94, guns was a part of that, the backlash against it. And for three or four years right after that, the Democrats, the White House was very skittish about proposing any new regulation. And it is only now that they are getting more confident about doing that. So I don't know how long this really does last.
PHIL PONCE: Mark, how long do you think it will last?
MARK SHIELDS: I think it's stayed longer and deeper than the Republicans thought it would. I don't think there is any question that Columbine High School, Littleton, Colorado has seared the American psyche. How permanent that searing will be I don't know but it has lasted already, its duration and its depth has been greater than the Republicans ever anticipated to their political detriment. I mean, Paul mentioned earlier this questions the Republican leadership. There are deep divisions in the Republican Party in the Senate today and I think this exacerbated them and I think there is no question that Trent Lott is not a leader with undivided and unified support within his own caucus.
|The Republican leadership question.|
PAUL GIGOT: Just to expand on that, I think if you build on the problem last fall with the budget, where it was seen as a Republican defeat before the election, the strategy of not having an agenda for the election in the Senate, which is the Senate's problem. You had some disagreements over the supplemental bill this year, the Kosovo spending bill. Now you have this. I wouldn't be surprised if there is another episode like this if Don Nickles from Oklahoma doesn't challenge Trent Lott for the leadership, if not in this Congress perhaps at the beginning of the next one.
PHIL PONCE: And briefly, explain why it is that Trent Lott's leadership is being called into question because he could have done what?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I just mentioned those four examples. I mean, when you build up a record of losing --
PHIL PONCE: But, I mean in this instance. What could he have done differently?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I think he could have changed the -- when he brought it up, for example, I mean did he have to bring up the Juvenile Justice Bill this early? That was part of this. He could have done that. Could he have arranged it so Al Gore wasn't -- didn't cast the deciding vote? There is some doubt in the rank and file about whether Larry Craig, who is a member of the leadership and a board member of the NRA, should have been the floor manager of the bill if you are trying to declare your independence from the NRA. So I think there are some real questions about Senator Lott's leadership. One point about Al Gore, though, I think he did cast the deciding vote and he was pleased about it. He was so pleased he almost overdid it. He was pumping his fists. He reminded me a little bit of like one of those NBA stars who dunks the ball and then sort of looks at the crowd and stares at the crowd and said "I got one." I thought he almost gloated too much when he did that. I understand he needs the victory because he has had a rough spring but I think he overdid it.
PHIL PONCE: You mean, given the nature of the topic?
PAUL GIGOT: Sure. You're talking about something that is passed in reaction to a tragedy. And he reacted to it as if it was a kind of a game.
PHIL PONCE: Mark, at this point what happens in the House?
MARK SHIELDS: The Democrats will push next week to bring it up, the leadership will say we'll bring it up later. In June, Democrats will raise holy whatever and --
PHIL PONCE: Holy heck.
|Prospects in the House.|
|MARK SHIELDS: Holy heck -- and then will bring it up in June. And that's
when it will be brought up in the House.
PHIL PONCE: What do you think the prospects for it in the House?
PAUL GIGOT: The Republicans wanted to delay the vote until after the Memorial Day recess, thought they had a deal with Speaker Gephardt -- excuse me. I'll catch flack for that.
MARK SHIELDS: Stop the presses.
PAUL GIGOT: Leader Gephardt, and he went back to his caucus and they said no way; we want to do it next week. I think Republicans are going to roll on this like the sidewalks at Sheboygan at 9 o'clock. I've been there. I've closed a few taverns.
PHIL PONCE: Mark, is this going to be an issue? Is this going to continue, is it going to have legs as an issue in the 2000 presidential race?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think, Phil, with the wild card, there is no question about it, in the suburbs. And I think that's where the skittishness and nervousness is among the Republicans, especially those vaunted soccer moms or suburban moms or whatever. We're talking about control of the House, Speaker Gephardt, Speaker Hastert or a speaker we don't know. We are talking about the swing vote in a dozen or fifteen districts right now.
PHIL PONCE: And according to the polls, Republican women, for example, overwhelmingly are in favor of gun control.
MARK SHIELDS: That's right. So I mean it's an issue where if you're fighting a defensive struggle like the Republicans are, you're trying to hold on to your side, you can't risk losing too many seats.
PHIL PONCE: Paul, an issue for the year 2000?
PAUL GIGOT: It may be - I think this whole disarray in the Congress shows that Republicans desperately need a presidential candidate. They've lost their self-confidence in Washington. They've lost the leaders -- there is no clear leader. What they need is a party leader who can set the direction again and say this is where -- sit down with the NRA and say this is what I'm going to do -- this is what we are going to do on gun control, gentlemen. Work it out so you can set a clear direction on the policy and you don't have everybody running either way. I don't know if it will be an election -- an issue in 2000 if the Republicans gain a candidate who can actually speak to it.
PHIL PONCE: Mark, let's switch to the issue of Kosovo and public opinion polls. It shows a drop in a -- a softening in public support for the NATO campaign in Kosovo. How do you explain that?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think there are several factors. I mean, first of all, the war -- we weren't prepared for a long war this. This was a war, don't forget, that the American people supported and expressed support for more strongly than their leadership -- their leadership in the White House and their leadership in the Congress, where there has been very little leadership. And the images that really drove American public opinion on it, and I think legitimacy so, were those people being brutalized or dehumanized and dispossessed of their homes and their families. And there are times when the hottest place in hell is reserved for those in a time of moral crisis who remain neutral. And we moved. And I really don't think the President or the administration or the leadership of the country has made the case. And there is no question that after seven weeks, there is a certain restlessness and restiveness and the images have shifted, Phil, from the refugees to civilian casualties. And I think that the leadership of the country, beginning with the President, who is the commander in chief, who has sent these Americans into harm's way, has a responsibility to daily to make the case over and over again that the quickest, surest way to end a war is to lose it, and that we were there for good, moral reasons -- our civilian casualties for which we mourn and for which we are sorry, but they were not intentional and Slobodan Milosevic, there is no moral parity here. I mean, Slobodan Milosevic, all the civilian casualties of his were deliberate, intentional. So I think that there has been, quite frankly, because of the lack of concrete success, but also the failure of this administration, this President, to make the case to the country of why we're there.
|The NATO conflict.|
PHIL PONCE: Paul, a failure to make the case on why we're there, why the United States is there, why NATO is there?
PAUL GIGOT: I'm stunned. I agree with all of that. I think it is not surprising that the country is uncertain because the President seems uncertain. You know, we have clear splits in the NATO alliance about the use of ground troops, Prime Minister Blair is in the John McCain camp - we ought to at least mass them to be able to demonstrate to Milosevic that we might use them. The President says -
PHIL PONCE: The McCain camp being --
PAUL GIGOT: The McCain camp being we ought to -
MARK SHIELDS: We're in it - let's win it.
PAUL GIGOT: If you're in it, let's win it, and use ground troops. We don't have to use them necessarily but show that we are willing to reduce them and the prospects of Milosevic standing down are then improved. Bill Clinton says, well I never ruled it out. Well, that's not really a clear message to Milosevic. He's never been willing to, I think, to risk a lot of political capital, as Mark suggests. The Senators I talked to have been in briefings with him say that there is no way that he wants to go the full distance. He just wants to bomb from 15,000 feet. This is something that Milosevic can sense. Presidents -- a President who follows the polls -- Milosevic knows he's a President who follows the polls, and I think that that increases the likelihood that the President himself is going to look for a way out.
PHIL PONCE: Paul that's all the time we have. Mark, thank you too, have a good weekend, gentlemen.
MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.