October 31, 1997
The Thompson committee investigating campaign finances closes up shop, and the New Jersey Governor's race opens up. Margaret Warner talks with Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot and Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant about this week's political developments.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
October 29, 1997
The White House responds to the coffee tapes.
October 17, 1997
Shields & Gigot discuss the White House coffee tapes.
March 11, 1997:
Senate expands campaign finance investigation to cover all "improper" actions.
Browse the past Shields & Gigot segments.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the campaign finance investigation.
MARGARET WARNER: Mark Shields is not here tonight but NewsHour regular and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot is. Joining him, Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant.
Paul, how hard did Thompson push to get an extension on these hearings, and why wasnít he able to, if his work isnít done, as he says?
The end of the Thompson committee's investigation?
PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: He pushed, but I think he understood that it was a pretty solid wall he was pushing against. The Democrats obviously donít want a hearing to continue to look into the 1996 campaign for obvious reasons. And the Republicans--a lot of the Republicans donít either. They view the string having run on this, they donít see a lot more profit in it, and they also donít really have a lot of trust in Fred Thompson, to be honest. He has a lot doubters in the Republican Caucus who think that heís been more bipartisan than they would like, and theyíd just as soon see itíd over. So, I mean, he did ask for it, but I think he realized quickly that it wasnít in the cards.
TOM OLIPHANT, Boston Globe: I think he said at least pretty please with sugar on it when he asked for it. That was a letter he sent to Trent Lott. It was made public. He made the case in public as to why he thought he should go forward. And I think itís interesting also that he ran into a solid wall of opposition in the Republican Senate leadership, and that included one member of the leadership, Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, who was a member of his committee. So within the Republican Party this is a pretty sharp rebuff for somebody who was chosen, after all, by this leadership for this seemingly important task a year ago.
MARGARET WARNER: And do you agree with Paul that the reason is that they donít trust the way or they donít like the way heís conducted it, or something else?
TOM OLIPHANT: My understanding at least part of this related to where he wanted to go from here. The one explored area involved the transfers of soft money from political parties to supposed non-profit--uninterested independent organizations. And that part of the narrative is relatively bipartisan in terms of its evidence. And it tends also to support the case for those who want to change the law. So I think to an extent not only the way he handled the hearings but also where he wanted to go brought him up against a solid wall of Republican opposition.
Secretary Babbitt's testimony.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, now his last major focus this week, of course, was on allegations that somehow political contributions had influenced an Interior Department decision about denying, as it turned out, the permit for an Indian casino license in Wisconsin. Paul--and Bruce Babbitt, the secretary, himself, came to testify. Explain briefly, why was he himself on the spot, and how do you think he did?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, he was on the spot because it was his department that was overruled the decision to grant this gaming license to a poor Indian tribe in Wisconsin that had been granted by a regional office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Then you get up to the political level in Interior and suddenly, itís rejected. And there are a lot of memoranda going back and forth between the White House interior and between lobbyists and interior and testimony. That, in fact, suggests it was a political decision in return for political contributions, about $300,000 worth.
MARGARET WARNER: From tribes who didnít want this tribe together.
PAUL GIGOT: Exactly right. Who got their way ultimately. It looks, in other words, like a real quid pro quo. They got something in return for their cash. Bruce Babbitt was in the dock because he was in charge of that department and because there was conflicting testimony heís given about whether or not he was influenced by Harold Ickes. Heís in conflict with one of his oldest friends.
MARGARET WARNER: Former Deputy Chief at the White House.
PAUL GIGOT: The White House. Bruce Babbitt has had conflicting testimony now between himself this week--his assertion that he didnít operate under that influence and one of his oldest friends who happens to be a lobbyist, who was meeting with him the day the decision came down. I thought Bruce Babbitt looked terrible. He looked like his answers had been scripted by the same bad lawyers who had been writing Al Goreís responses. They looked technically evasive. This is somebody whoís been--itís suggested heís going to be on the Supreme Court someday perhaps. I think thatís ruined. But to be fair to Bruce Babbitt I donít think that this is only his scandal. I mean, heís a victim here in a sense I think of the attitude that you see in this administration, the voracious appetite for cash, that this played into, and if thereís anybody to blame, I think you have to go right to the top, to the President, and the ethic and the attitude that was determined from the White House.
MARGARET WARNER: How do you think this thing came out?
TOM OLIPHANT: To be fair to Bruce Babbitt--Iíd hate to see what unfair looks like. First off, I think in some ways Sec. Babbitt--itís almost a metaphor for these hearings because I think there was a gigantic build-up which Paul caught the essence of perfectly. But I think the evidence goes in the opposite direction and did last week. First of all there is no conflict whatsoever between Babbitt and his former friend, now lobbyist, on the question of White House influence. The friend only testified that he dropped Harold Ickesí name. Babbitt testified under oath directly that he had no contact with Harold Ickes or anyone at the White House or the DNC on this matter at any time and there is to date no evidence to--that assertion. Secondly, as to the decision, itself, there were two witnesses waiting outside that committee room last week who had been deposed by Thompsonís staff on this question--career employees of the Interior Department. The evidence that they gave is that, in fact, there were divided opinions at the professional staff level about this proposed casino at the failing dog track in Wisconsin, and that the decision to deny the casino application was made by a career Interior Department official, signed off on by a deputy assistant secretary, and Bruce Babbitt had absolutely nothing to do with this case. And there is no evidence on the record to the contrary. So I think at the end of the day youíre left with a dramatic interpretation of how the secretaryís face looked during his testimony and very little else. One other thing I think we have is a wonderful window in Washington. Lobbying is mostly hot air, people saying they have influence when, in fact, they have nothing.
PAUL GIGOT: Itís very rare in Washington that you get a situation where you get a document or you get a tape recording of somebody who said, yes, I am doing this in return for the campaign contribution.
MARGARET WARNER: Hereís the money.
PAUL GIGOT: Hereís the money. You donít get begs of cash video tapes, exchanged in alley ways. It doesnít work that way. People understand what the preferences are. People understand what the White House wants. You have the President on record saying, look, look into what this lobbyist is saying. You have Harold Ickes saying I canít recall if I ever talked to anybody, but you have his aides having talked to people in the Interior. The people who make these decisions understand what happens, and thereís an awful lot of circumstantial evidence suggesting that this--that what happened in Interior was what the White House wanted. Thatís why a lot of Republicans say get somebody independent to look into it.
TOM OLIPHANT: The problem with this, though, just as a fact-finding exercise, though, is that you do have to take the evidence to the decision-maker and at some point somebody has to say the person who made this decision had some kind of contact that can constitute influence. And the trouble with this case is that while one can infer all one likes in the absence of evidence, what was presented to this committee and what would have been presented to this committee if these two other witnesses had had a chance to testify is their sworn statement that they had no contact whatsoever. You can say theyíre lying, but at this point you have no evidence to support an assertion to the contrary.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Now, the Justice Department does have a preliminary inquiry into this, right? So--
TOM OLIPHANT: One of those 30-day things.
MARGARET WARNER: So you would think--you would think theyíll come up with nothing and you would think theyíll proceed?
PAUL GIGOT: Given the Justice Departmentís track record I donít know but I will say this: that is the real political liability here because once you name an independent counsel, even if itís for a cabinet member, the tendency is to widen the scope. And thatís what the White House is really afraid of. So it could broaden to other things.
TOM OLIPHANT: Though it does, as a factual matter, require a specific charge against Bruce Babbitt, and my understanding is that as of tonight there is no such charge.
The New Jersey Governor's race.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. The New Jersey governorís race, we just saw Betty Annís taped piece on that. Whatís your take on that. How could Christie Whitman, who was considered, you know, the poster child for moderate Republicanism be in trouble?
PAUL GIGOT: --favorite kind of Republican--well, I think sheís made a couple of mistakes. One is she didnít tend to her base, her own supporters on the right, and in particular the Reagan Democrats. If youíre going to win in New Jersey as a Republican, youíve got to get support from Democrats, and you do--a lot of those Democrats vote for Republicans on cultural issues, not just economics. They donít live in the fancy suburbs. They live in middle class suburbs, and they vote on things like abortion. And her veto of the partial birth abortion ban passed by her own Republican legislature is one of those cultural statements a lot of Reagan Democrats think of as a thumb in the eye. It was one thing to be pro-choice. Itís another thing to be--to veto that. The other problem she has is she hasnít given voters--at least until the last couple of weeks--a second act. I mean, she passed her tax cut, and sheís been running a re-election campaign on itís morning in Passaic. Itís fabulous here; itís wonderful, vote for me. Well, McGreavy, her Democratic challenger, is saying, Iíll do something about auto insurance; Iíll do something about property taxes, and sheís on the defensive.
TOM OLIPHANT: At the last minute, though, I do think that while Paul is absolutely right about the vulnerabilities here, I donít think I have ever seen a weaker challenger--forget the party for a second. I mean, in this case youíve got--
MARGARET WARNER: And Mr. McGreavy--
TOM OLIPHANT: Youíve got a local official who first of all voted for the tax program of the former Governor, Jim Florio, that in so many ways was responsible for Christie Whitmanís election in the first place, then turns around and votes for her income tax rate cuts, and now is running a campaign where he is only the empty vessel into which this sentiment is supposed to collect. And that may not be enough without a clearly articulated alternative; however, what covers the margin in this race is this Libertarian fellow, who for anybody who carries a notebook for a living is just a delight as a candidate--
MARGARET WARNER: Why?
TOM OLIPHANT: Mischievous, outspoken, clear, direct.
PAUL GIGOT: People have no chance to--
On the Libertarian candidate: "If you were from Mars, I think you would call him the Republican candidate for governor."
TOM OLIPHANT: Absolutely. Principles--if you were from Mars, I think you would call him the Republican candidate for governor.
MARGARET WARNER: But what does this say about the whole strategy that Republicans believe in about tax cuts being the key not only to getting elected but remaining--I mean, Gov. Thompson and others out in the Midwest have said you give Ďem this tax cut and theyíll come home to you.
PAUL GIGOT: Tax cuts work. They worked for her to get elected the first time. People arenít down on the tax cut.
MARGARET WARNER: But they donít seem to give her any credit, as we saw that guy at that football game.
PAUL GIGOT: The Newark Star Ledger had a piece talking about the tax cut and the property taxes and saying that local officials are really responsible for the property tax increases, but she didnít do a good job of explaining that, and one thing she did--for three years the Democrats said this is robbing the pension fund, tax cuts--robbing the pension fund--robbing the pension fund--robbing the pension fund--the fourth year, what does she do? She has a bond issue that says weíre going to shore up the pension fund. Even if you think thatís a good idea, it played right into the Democratic argument.
TOM OLIPHANT: Deeper problem though, I wouldnít use income taxes at the state level; they donít attract that many ordinary people.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, gentlemen. Weíve go to go. Thanks both.