SEPTEMBER 20, 1996
The NewsHour's political experts, Shields & Gigot, respond to a discussion on the 1996 Congressional races and argue over the decision not to allow Ross Perot in the Presidential debate.
A RealAudio version of of this NewsHour segment is available.
Sept. 20, 1996:
Two Congressional watchers analyse the election races.
Sept. 17, 1996:
Reform Party vice presidential candidate Pat Choate and Co-chair of the bipartisan Debate Commission, Paul Kirk, discuss the decision to exclude Ross Perot from the Presidential debates.
JIM LEHRER: Now how the congressional story and other matters political look to Shields & Gigot, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, "Wall Street Journal" columnist Paul Gigot. Paul, how do you see the congressional races?
PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: Well, uh, theyíre very much up for grabs. In a way this is--you exclude the landslide of 1994 where Republicans came really from nowhere to take control--this is the first real contested fight for the House of Representatives since 1956, I mean, where it was really, really undecided at this stage in the campaign who would take control. And I think the Democrats do have a real shot at, at regaining those 19 seats they need. Itís by no means certain. Weíve got the bulk of the campaign, the really nitty gritty of the campaign to go, but I know an awful lot of Republicans who certainly donít believe their advertising that theyíre going to pick up 20 seats.
JIM LEHRER: Mark, what do you--what would you add to that?
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, Jim, I think that Charlie Cook and Stu Rothenberg put their, put their finger on it. If President Bill Clinton, uh, with a rather strong lead at this point and an increasing sense of inevitability about his own victory starting to grow in the political world, decides to devote time, energy, effort, and resources to helping Democrats, as he did yesterday in Yelm, Washington, when he called up Adam Smith, the Democratic challenger to Randy Tate, a first-term Republican, bottom up in the stage, let him speak, if he decides to do that in places across the country, in selected spots, that could make a difference. The other thing is, Jim, uh, no--neither Richard Nixon in 1972 nor Ronald Reagan in 1984 made that kind of effort Iíve just described that Bill Clinton might make. They preferred to run their own campaigns, and, in Charlie Cookís phrase, to run up the score. The other thing, though, is the American people are enormously ambivalent on this subject. They, they deplore gridlock but they love divided government, so theyíre sending this mixed signal that, my goodness, we hate that gridlock in Washington, but, boy, we like it kind of when thereís the political checks and balances.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah, Paul, I was fascinated by Stu Rothernbergís point on that as well, that if you ask the polling question, hey, Bill Clintonís going to be elected President now what kind of Congress do you want, you get an entirely different answer; you could reverse it the same way as well.
PAUL GIGOT: In fact, in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll this week, that question was asked, and if Bill Clinton is elected, 53 percent of the people said they wanted a Republican Congress, only 39 percent said a Democratic Congress. Thereís one other factor that is really--I think in the end may help Republicans here, and that is this general sense of buoyancy across the board. Uh, people, you know--it seems for the first time since 1988 maybe the public is beginning to take some happy pills. Theyíre not as angry. And thatís going to help incumbents across the board. For example, the approval rating for Congress, which was 25 percent in June, is now 40 percent in this weekís Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, and thatís very significant. Itís almost even with the disapproval rating, so you might end up with a situation where itís, itís a status quo election, not much changes.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. What about that, Mark? I mean, the Republicans--if they start claiming credit for the goodness in the country, along with the President, what happens then?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think optimism does help incumbents, Jim. The difference this time, though, is we have the presidential race, which is really the defining, activating, central act in this entire drama before us. Unlike 1994, which Paul mentioned, where you get a far better test in 1994 of how people, the generic congressional vote, who are you going to vote for, Democrat or Republican, that is influenced and shaped in a presidential race by how people are going to vote at President. If, in fact--and I think Bob Dole, plucky, and courageous, I think, in the face of enormous obstacles and bad luck this week--but if that race starts to take on that sense of inevitability, then that is going to have the effect, inevitably, of depressing turnout. Once you--once you sense that youíre going to lose--because Bob Dole--unlike either Barry Goldwater or George McGovern--doesnít have a true believer constituency who are going to continue to work around the clock till the very last moment because he is their guy. Uh, a lot of people like Bob Dole, but he doesnít have that kind of intensity of support, so that could--that could, in effect, change turnout. In 1974, when the Republicans lost 47 House seats, it was Republicans who didnít turn out. It wasnít that there were more Democrats that turned out and turned out in greater numbers, it was just Republicans who were depressed, discouraged, just didnít turn out.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of intensity and the presidential race, Paul, what do you make of the fight over excluding Perot from the debates?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I think the Presidential Commission on Debates did the right thing. It was--it was a good decision. It was the same commission that last time said Ross Perot should be in. Uh, but Perot this time is a diminished figure. In a way, heís diminished himself by some of his behavior. Heís right around 5 percent in the polls. Frankly, he doesnít have much more chance of winning than the Libertarian candidate or the Natural Law Party candidate. So what is his claim to really be in the race? That doesnít mean heíll be out--in the debate--that doesnít mean heíll be out of the debates, though, because Bill Clinton very much wants him in. Bob Dole wants debates, and he wants Ďem one on one because he wants to go head to head with this President whoís supposed to be such a fabulous talker and show that he can--
JIM LEHRER: And Dole keeps saying that every opportunity--
PAUL GIGOT: Every opportunity he can get, and this guyís supposed to be so old he can barely stand up and heís going to--
JIM LEHRER: Right.
PAUL GIGOT: --show that heís not. Uh, Perot would add a completely different dynamic, and he has the potential to divide the anti-Clinton vote and make it more difficult, I think, for Dole to score some points. So Clinton wants--desperately would like Perot in, whereas, Dole needs the debate. So I think in the end itís going to be very hard if--for Dole to get a debate with Clinton if he doesnít have Perot in at least one of them, maybe two.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Mark, whatís going on from your perspective?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think itís--Iíll make the case for including Ross Perot, and I think that first of all, heís on all 50 ballots. Ross Perot alone, of all Americans, got more votes as a third party candidate than anybody in our nationís history. He changed American history in 1992. Neither party, uh, both parties had paid lip service to the deficit, but he put it on the national agenda. The fact that weíre dealing with it seriously and that Bill Clinton is trumpeting his own accomplishments in that score are testimony to Ross Perotís influence and impact. Heís getting federal money, uh, some $29 million of it. I think the taxpayer is entitled to see what theyíre paying for, get a look at this guy, and I, I think itís a very dangerous precedent when we get into can somebody win, and using polls. Peter Hart, the pollster whoís been on this show so many times and is so enormously respected, really thinks itís a bad use for polls when you start saying that so and so has a chance to win.
JIM LEHRER: Why?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, first of all, polls are not predictive, Jim. Theyíre a measurement.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
MARK SHIELDS: In 1992--
JIM LEHRER: Theyíre a measurement of what--what exists on that given moment.
MARK SHIELDS: Exactly.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
MARK SHIELDS: And itís over as soon as itís taken.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
MARK SHIELDS: And in 1992, youíll recall what Ross Perot did. Ross Perot was shrewd in Ď92. When he was thinking about getting back in, he said, cheated both candidates to--
JIM LEHRER: Letís remind people of what happened.
MARK SHIELDS: In 1992, he was in the race--
JIM LEHRER: He was up there. He was moving.
MARK SHIELDS: He was leading both Bill Clinton first time in our nationís history, third party candidate--either of the two--he was leading in both of them. All right. Then he starts to take some hits as the front-runner does, in June, July of 1992, pulls out of the race, uh, and, and absolutely dispirits all his supporters. Then in September he realizes that boy, heís, you know, got himself the "quitter" label thatís going to be with him in perpetuity and so he brings the state coordinators together in Dallas and, and says to both George Bush and Bill Clinton, you know, Iím thinking about getting back in the race but, you know, Iím being pressured to, but why donít you send some people down here, and they did, they responded, and you talk about a guy who really suckered these guys in the way back in on a foolís errand, they sent Jim Baker, Jack Kemp, Lloyd Bentsen, Ann Richards, uh, Ron Brown, Mickey Kantor--oh, weíre going down to elevate him in importance. Thatís how he got into the debates. They, they acknowledged how important he was, and thatís what got his score up. He was just about where he is or within the margin of error where he is today. Then before he got back in the debates in September of Ď92, and thatís what elevated him.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah, Paul.
PAUL GIGOT: He has a higher negative rating than Newt Gingrich, a negative rating that Mark likes to celebrate. I mean--
MARK SHIELDS: No.
PAUL GIGOT: Ross Perot, Ross Perot, and his, in his passion, his great sense of indignation for debates, his indignation at being excluded, I mean, this is somebody who wouldnít debate Richard Lamm--
MARK SHIELDS: Youíre absolutely right.
PAUL GIGOT: -when they were competing--
MARK SHIELDS: Youíre absolutely right.
PAUL GIGOT: --for, for his own--
MARK SHIELDS: Yeah.
PAUL GIGOT: --coronation, if you will. So itís hard to really feel too bad for, for Ross Perot.
JIM LEHRER: But what about this idea, the point that Mark made and a lot of people have made, this is not a good use of polls, that you shouldnít use polls to make a decision as important as this?
PAUL GIGOT: It should certainly not be the only factor. I, I absolutely agree with that. But it wasnít the only factor they used. I mean, they also used--they talked to a lot of people in the media and said, well, what--
JIM LEHRER: Does that make you uneasy?
PAUL GIGOT: Not at all. They sent me truth in advertising. They sent me--the commission sent me a form to fill out and asked me what I thought. I sent it back. I mean, I would have done it--
JIM LEHRER: Did you get a form, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: I did not get a form, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: Donít be hurt. Donít be hurt.
MARK SHIELDS: Okay. Did you get one, Jim?
JIM LEHRER: No, I didnít.
MARK SHIELDS: Okay. (laughing)
JIM LEHRER: But you think thatís legit?
PAUL GIGOT: Yeah, I do, and I think it is, and I think that thereís other factors. I mean, how is he, how he is participating? Whatís his support like? He doesnít have--he doesnít have really his entire party behind him. Richard Lamm is not supporting him. And then where do you draw the line? I mean, do you draw it at the Libertarians? Why not? Whatís their claim to being out? Whatís so special about Perot?
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Finally, just quickly, because weíll get back to this, Mark, Dole has really been hammering on this drug issue this week against President Clinton, essentially accusing him of--he doesnít accuse him of intentionally but unintentionally allowing the drug use rate to go up, particularly among teenagers in this country. Is that a good issue for the--for Dole against the President?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, itís not an effective issue according to Paulís poll which he mentioned earlier, the Wall Street Journal/NBC Poll. People do not believe that Bill Clinton is responsible, can be blamed for the increase in teenage drug use. But I, I do think--I mean, that excerpt from the MTV interview--
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
MARK SHIELDS: --is the kind of thing, that, that if the Dole campaign had been organized earlier, they would have been doing in the spring and the summer, I mean, laying the predicate that, you know--
JIM LEHRER: Then come in with the other stuff now.
MARK SHIELDS: Thatís right.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Okay. What do you think, Paul? PAUL GIGOT: Well, if theyíre going to go after the drug thing, they have to link it to Bill Clinton personally and his record, and thatís a much better ad, the second one they rolled out now, that does mention the MTV clip.
JIM LEHRER: They show it. They actually show that.
PAUL GIGOT: Theyíve been running. Um, the drug issue is a classic example of how this administration, this President has re-made himself. I mean, he came in and he appointed Joycelyn Elders, and he had the ďI didnít inhale,Ē nonchalance about drug use, and now he sounds like Nancy Reagan. You know, heís got Barry McCaffrey for the--you know, bring in the Marines. I mean, itís, itís a classic example of saying one thing and doing another.
MARK SHIELDS: Jim.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, the Republicans have really lost the advantage they had on issues such as crime, welfare, and drugs. They had that, and the amazing thing of this campaign is there is no Republican edge, and that now Bill Clinton is seen as better on the economy, heís--obviously Democrats are much better on the environment, on health care, and education, so there really isnít much left for Bob Dole to try and work. Thereís very little turf thatís friendly to his candidacy at this--the 20th of September 1996.
JIM LEHRER: We have to leave it there, gentlemen. Thank you both very much. See you next week.