DEBATING THE DEBATES
OCTOBER 16, 1996
On the eve of the final debate between the major party candidates for the 1996 Presidential election, Mark Shields and Paul Gigot discuss strategies for both players. This follows excerpts from speeches by Bob Dole and Vice-President Al Gore regarding the GOP candidate's tougher campaigning style.
SEN. BOB DOLE: This election will help determine the nature and integrity and dignity of the presidency, itself. Can it be trusted? Should it be respected? Yes, the stakes are high, and the differences run this deep. In his acceptance speech four years ago, Bill Clinton stated, ďResponsibility starts at the top,Ē just as it does in your business.
And when he took office, he promised, in his words, ďthe most ethical administration in the history of the republic.Ē And he criticized the ďcorrupt, do-nothing values of the 80's,Ē in other words, the Reagan and Bush years, and pledged a superior ethical standard. But we have seen something very different, though not heavily reported by the mainstream media.
We have seen more than 30 Clinton officials investigated, fired, or forced to resign due to ethical improprieties. We have seen four independent counsels at work, three investigating members of the cabinet, and one look at the President, himself. We have seen the FBI tricked into handing over more than 900 confidential personal files to the White House into the hands of the director of office personnel security, a former bar bouncer who had worked in the Clinton campaign.
We have seen the Justice Department abused to investigate innocent workers at the White House Travel Office--as a cover for putting political friends in charge of it. And we have seen attempts to conceal subpoenaed Travel Office records from congressional committees.
We have seen the resignation of a cabinet officer taking illegal gifts. We have seen Marine helicopters used for a staff golf outing.
We have seen the President abuse the principal executive privilege to suppress an FBI report critical of his failed drug policy the last 40 some months, and we have seen similar stonewalling on the composition and health care task force--remember that task force--it was secret, cost millions of dollars. Nobody was ever consulted on the outside and also on the issue of billing records, how they show up one day in the White House living quarters.
And we have seen the President dangle the prospect of a pardon for a convicted felon who might be able to implicate him. Now this is not a tough call. Before the election, he should shut the door on this improper interference in an ongoing investigation. He should clearly promise there will be no pardons in legal cases that personally concern him.
And now if we see new charges, if you read the paper or watched television last night, that this administration has allowed a wealthy Indonesian family to buy presidential access and play a role in foreign policy and trade policy in exchange for contributions to the Democratic National Committee. Now when the ďL.A. TimesĒ blew the whistle, they had to send back $250,000 because it was an illegal contribution. I donít know of any administration thatís ever been more self-righteous. But few administrations have been more self-serving.
No administration has shown more arrogance, but few have displayed more ethical failures. And among members of this administration there is a growing gap in integrity. No one will take responsibility for their actions. But as the President of the United States, the President should be different. He should say things like the fault is mine alone. But I think the administration believes that itís bigger than these basic rules of openness and honesty and ethics, the rules which we live our lives and raise our children by. It expects a blanket pardon for all its failures because they say their intentions are always good. They didnít intend to do this, but it happened. It wants our forgiveness without the inconvenience of admitting itís wrong.
Now, call this character a character issue if you wish, but it makes a difference to every American because every vote should be an act of trust. You should be proud of the vote you cast for whatever office, for whatever office, and these things do matter to our citizens, particularly younger people, who could only make informed choices in election when there is some connection between the rhetoric and reality between words and actions, between promise and performance. And I think in this case in this administration that connection was broken a long time ago.
MARGARET WARNER: President Clinton had only a brief response yesterday to Sen. Doleís speech. He told reporters that Doleís attack was just politics. Vice president Gore anticipated the attack in a speech he made yesterday morning. Here are excerpts of his remarks to a group of senior citizens in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
VICE PRESIDENT AL GORE: Sen. Dole is saying that he would like this campaign to be about integrity. Well, ladies and gentlemen, here is a man who for the last 15 years has been the most vigorous and articulate Republican critic of supply-side economics. Suddenly, after he announces his candidacy for President, indeed, after he obtains the Republican nomination, he meets with his pollsters who tell him, youíve got to throw a Hail Mary pass, youíve got to gamble everything on a risky scheme even though you have criticized it for 15 years. And he flip flops 180 degrees and embraces the same risky scheme that he has condemned for 15 years and then says to the American people trust me, it will work. Well, ladies and gentlemen, someone who is willing to put at risk the entire American economy by betting it on a risky scheme that he, himself, has condemned and then refuses to submit it for verification to the same body that he insisted verify our plan has no business talking about integrity as an issue in the campaign for the presidency of the United States of America. (applause) Bob Dole has been on the wrong side of all the issues that the American people really care about. And with this kind of record itís very hard to run for President. No wonder then that in recent days weíre seeing Bob Dole adopt a set of desperation tactics. He cannot talk about the things that matter to Americaís families. So, instead, he is choosing the low road for the final three weeks of this campaign.
MARGARET WARNER: For analysis of Doleís new approach and a preview of tonightís debate, we have Shields & Gigot. Thatís syndicated columnist Mark Shields and ďWall Street JournalĒ columnist Paul Gigot. Paul, was this (last minute attack strategy) something Bob Dole had to do?
PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: Well, I think he did it well. He--it was an eloquent speech. I thought it was a persuasive speech. Certainly it was the most telegraphed punch in recent political history. Theyíve had a public debate for 10 days, Bob Dole almost having a debate in public with himself about whether or not heíd do it. And that was, that, I think, diminished the impact of it. But it was, it was actually for a speech about character, it was a fairly high-minded speech about character, the politics--the conduct of his presidency, the use of the police powers, the FBI, executive authority, didnít get into personal matters. All of that is legitimate. I think, though, it would have had more impact if it had been done earlier in this critique of the Clinton administration, put into a Dole stump speech four or five months ago, rather than coming at the end of the campaign.
MARGARET WARNER: Mark, how do you see it?
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, I think, Margaret, first of all you have to fee a little bit sorry for Bob Dole. History has not dealt him the best of hands. Heís run twice for national office--in 1976, he was on the wrong side of the economy, he was trying to defend Gerry Fordís economic policies, and when we had double digit inflation and unemployment. Now heís trying to argue that the 6,000 stock market price and all the other good economic news donít matter. And heís really kind of driven to this, this policy late in the twilight of this, probably his last national campaign. Uh, Margaret, on the issues that matter to people, the economy, education, Medicare, Bill Clinton has a big, big advantage. On questions of personal empathy, of warmth, of understanding the future, of understanding the problems people are going through today, Bill Clinton enjoys a big advantage. Where Bob Dole has an advantage over Bill Clinton and has throughout this campaign have been on questions of consistency, standing up for your beliefs, having high qualities of personal ethics, and morality. So what the Republicans have to try and do in this last remaining less than three weeks is to convince people that these are the most salient and important issues upon which to pick the President.
MARGARET WARNER: Is this speech, Paul, if Bob Dole keeps it up, is this enough to turn this election more into a referendum on, on the ethical character of the Clinton administration?
PAUL GIGOT: Thatís part of the strategy and the thinking, Margaret. Typically, elections are--where an incumbentís in the office--are referendums on that incumbent. This campaign so far hasnít been that referendum. Uh, it hasnít focused as much on Bill Clinton as Bob Dole would like and on the Clinton record. And thatís what theyíre trying to focus on. But just to--to add to what Mark said on one point, it is not just a question of, of morality in a personal sense. What theyíre trying to do, what Dole is trying to do is cast doubt about whether you can believe Bill Clinton on these issues like the economy and taxes and a variety of other things that are central to how he might conduct himself in a second term.
MARGARET WARNER: Mark, what did you make of the administrationís response? How effective do you think that was?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think obviously Vice President Gore wants to switch the discussion. I mean, if, Margaret, itís going to be made, the choice is going to be made on November 5th on the basis of which one of these men do you trust more, which one stands up for his beliefs more consistently, then Bill Clintonís administration is not in the best of shape by all, all the polling data available. But, Margaret, if itís on the basis of are you better off than you were four years ago, is the country headed in the right direction for the first time in seven years, questions like that, thatís where Gore and Clinton want the, want the choice to be made. But one other factor that canít be overlooked in this decision is that what have been historically and traditionally the great Republican advantages on crime, on taxes, on drugs, on the budget deficit have all been neutralized. Those are no longer available to Bob Dole, or to the Republicans, not simply his fault, because Bob Doleís credentials on the budget deficit are second to none throughout his Senate career, but I mean, the Republicans no longer have that edge and that advantage they enjoyed for so many years on those key issues, therefore, you are driven to the character issue as the only recourse.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Paul, what did you make of the administrationís response, I mean, to basically try to turn it around and attack Doleís trustworthiness?
PAUL GIGOT: Itís fairly--you could expect it. I mean, they were just trying to turn the tables and say that itís all politics, desperation late in the game. Um, Dole still has the tax issue if he would still make it and stick with it. I think that this is one thing that heís really undersold. The polls still show him with somewhat of an edge but not nearly enough for what you would expect from a Republican versus a Democrat over the last--really since Ronald Reagan--theyíve always had that big historical advantage. And I think that Markís right to the extent that he--Dole may be showing not the faith in being able to make that case when he now moves to character late in the game. But he still did it well, and it will help him.
MARGARET WARNER: Mark, are you saying that you donít think any of the issues that Dole raised, as well as the overall, you know, character or ethics issue, have legs? You just think itís, itís just not going to play or resonate at all?
MARK SHIELDS: Oh, no. I think that the character issue, if he does it well tonight, if he casts it in terms of policy and public positions, taken and then abandoned positions, categorically endorsed, and then trimmed upon or equivocated, I think thatís absolutely legitimate. I think it has a saliency. I think itís important to people. I think youíve got to make the distinction, though, if youíre Bob Dole, that anything prior to 1992, people are going to turn off of. I think that, you know, for that reason, I donít think the Whitewater stuff really washes. I think anything since 1992--I think the FBI file story--I mean, Margaret, it is impossible to believe that 800 FBI files are sitting around the White House dunning Republican appointees and that people have been through campaigns--although I have resented personally Bob Dole criticizing someone having been a bouncer in a bar--people have done all kinds of things to put themselves through school--but, nevertheless, that people have been through campaigns, didnít recognize Jim Bakerís name, didnít recognize a lot of Republican names. I mean, that--that really does beg any plausibility. But I, I do think, uh, that his options were severely limited by the reality. I think heís trying right now, uh, with, with understandable commitment to his party, to energize the Republicans. One thing the Republicans do agree upon is they donít like Bill Clinton. Heís trying to make sure that Republican voters turn up on November 5th to vote for Republicans for the House and the Senate even though it might not change the ultimate resort and probably wonít of the presidential campaign.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay, Paul. Letís turn to tonight. What does Bob Dole have to do? How does he use this 90-minute debate tonight?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I think he should strike some of the themes from yesterdayís speech. I donít know that he will be able to do that or be willing to do that as easily. He was speaking from a prepared text yesterday. Today, itís a town hall format, where youíve got a bunch of citizens who might stand up and say, I donít like negative campaigning.
MARGARET WARNER: Which is what they did in Ď92.
PAUL GIGOT: Butó
MARGARET WARNER: In one debate.
PAUL GIGOT: Thatís right. And you can hope that Bob Dole can handle that well, deflect it, and say, well, wait a minute, this is important and hereís why, and then direct the question back to Bill Clinton. I think he ought to drive the wedges on taxes and continue to do that. I still think that that is a winning issue. Republicans have traditionally won that. And it will--that is something that will get out Republicans to vote. I would drive those two issues: taxes and whether you can believe this President.
MARGARET WARNER: Mark, what do you think he needs to do tonight?
MARK SHIELDS: I donít argue with what Paul said. I think that he has to be ready to make the case, uh, most strenuously and early as to why character is important, why it comes up at this point in the campaign, rather than four or five months ago, as Paul said, and become what had become part of the dialogue, the rhetoric, and, and the basic campaign speech. Uh, it does, when youíre looking a dozen, fifteen points behind with less than three weeks to go, do look--does look like an act of some desperation. Heís got to be able to defend that and make the case as to why people should base their decision on this issue, rather than on the economy or Medicare or education and the environment.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. And then how should President Clinton respond, if these--if Bob Dole raises these issues face-to-face?
PAUL GIGOT: My guess is heíll try to respond by seeming above it all, seeming slightly wounded, probably not attack Bob Dole, himself--left that to Al Gore, which is a real benefit for Bill Clinton, you know, something that Jack Kemp, Bob Doleís running mate, refuses to do. Um, so I think heíll try to act presidential and perhaps say now in the third week--three weeks before the campaign describe it as an act of desperation.
MARGARET WARNER: Can he do that, Mark, rather than actually defend the honor and integrity of this administration?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think it comes down to way the attacks are made. I mean, if there does--and I think yesterday was carefully crafted, carefully drawn, it did not get personal. If at some point it does stray over that line into the personal or into a suggestion about Mrs. Clinton, uh, I think that the President will respond with, with some anger and some fury, but Iím sure it will be controlled. The last thing in the world that the Clinton folks want is for the President to lose his temper, and thatís the first thing in the world the Republicans want to happen.
MARGARET WARNER: But is there any danger, Paul, that the President might appear flip or, or too dismissive of, of--if itís a well-grounded attack?
PAUL GIGOT: Thereís one thing Bill Clinton rarely seems is too dismissive. I mean, heís got that solemnity that he brings to it, whether mock or real. He does tend to focus on those things. I think if, if Dole brings up a particular issue, he should defend himself, and I would expect that he will. But he, he shouldnít be angry. He shouldnít be flip, and I suspect he wouldnít be.
MARGARET WARNER: Mark.
MARK SHIELDS: I think there is a danger in being dismissive. I thought his statement yesterday was a little dismissive. I think he did not want to leave is game in the locker room. I think he wants to have his, his statement tonight, well, you can be sure heís worked upon after the first charge comes and I think will be something that will probably be part of the, the media highlights of this debate.
MARGARET WARNER: Absolutely. Well, thank you, Mark. Thanks, Paul. Weíll see you again this week.