FOLLOWING THE FOLLOWER
MAY 24, 1996
This week, the nation was treated to some pre-Memorial Day political fireworks. Columnists Mark Shields and Paul Gigot debate whether President Clinton's strategy of pre-empting Senator Dole's agenda will prove successful. By the way, Happy Birthday Paul!
MARGARET WARNER With me now are syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. Hi, guys. Mark, the Presidential campaign I thought this week seemed to enter a very intense phase with Clinton and Dole, President Clinton and Senator Dole, really going at each other on welfare and on abortion. Why is it so fierce so early, and what is each side trying to accomplish, do you think?
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, I think first of all, it worked to the Republican strategy to involve President Clinton. The President had been very presidential, and he had been following what I call a follow-the-follower strategy, which was he's ahead of Bob Dole every poll, and so to avoid Bob Dole from getting traction closing that gap what Bill Clinton, the White House has done is endorsed everything Dole has endorsed. Most Favored Nation status, I'm for it; gas tax repeal, I'm for it, Wisconsin welfare, I like that too. And so what it does, it prevents Dole from getting any traction at all. It drives him bats. It can lead to two things: desperation, to the point where you got to try a Hail Mary pass, to do something to change this thing, tax cut across-the-board, whatever, something, you know--that's out of character--
PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: Something sensible like that.
MR. SHIELDS: No, something that's out of character for Bob Dole who's been a balanced budget guy his entire career. Second thing it could cause a certain sense of cynicism, skepticism toward the White House. I mean, if they just endorse everything that Dole endorses, what do they really stand for? But this week, I think with the partial birth abortion issue, which Sen. Dole delivered in a speech yesterday in Philadelphia and before the Catholic Press Association, that really, I think, evoked in Bill Clinton, the president, a legitimate anger, thin-skinned, call it what you want. He responded angrily and passionately, and I don't think that was on script.
MARGARET WARNER How do you see the sort of--the campaign unfolding, strategically, this week? Do you agree?
MR. GIGOT: Well, I think there's a lot to what Mark says. The President has been following a strategy, it seems, that is a shadow strategy. It's shadowing whatever Bob Dole does, and for Republicans, one leading Republican described Bill Clinton on a lot of these issues, he's like dropping mercury on a table. You drop it and immediately it goes off into pools in different areas. You can't pin him down. And I think Republicans feel rightly that he wants to take credit for endorsing a lot of these things but without actually having to make a choice and to have the details bear out that big principle he endorses. Welfare was a classic. He knows Bob Dole's going on Tuesday to give a speech--
MR. SHIELDS: To Wisconsin.
MR. GIGOT: To Wisconsin, where you have a fairly radical welfare reform, very aggressive. The President says in his speech on Saturday, his radio address, I think that's wonderful. Well, pretty quickly, the White House was backing off of that. Harold Ickes, the deputy chief of staff, said, I'm not so sure he agrees with all that, and in fact, he didn't promise to sign the 40 or so waivers, federal waivers that would be needed to have that welfare reform actually work. So what you see the Republicans trying to do is smoke 'em out, is pin 'em down, make 'em actually make a choice to see if he really believes what he claims to believe. That's what you've seen across-the-board. Welfare was really the first salvo.
MARGARET WARNER But I mean on partial birth abortion, of course, the President had already vetoed something so, therefore--
MR. GIGOT: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER --he's been pinned down. But how can the Republicans keep him really from preempting on welfare?
MR. GIGOT: Well, on welfare, I think, what they can do is they can point out that, in fact, he claims to support this, this state proposal, then why won't he actually sign a bill that eliminates the federal entitlement on welfare, that would allow Tommy Thompson to do what he wants to do?
MARGARET WARNER Do you think that'll work?
MR. SHIELDS: No. I think what the policy is one of general agreement with specific exception. Boy, I really like your ideas, Margaret, but there's a couple of things I'd like to change about 'em. That's basically the White House approach. I don't think there will be any welfare proposal signed into law this year. I think Sen. Moynihan probably said it right when we're going to avoid disaster by trying to enact a law in the middle, in the heat of a presidential campaign. But the issue will be debated, and I think we will come to some emerging consensus in the nation about what to do. The problem is in the final analysis in a substantive sense is that, you know, we're talking about 12.8 million people, Americans on welfare and AFDC, but 2/3 of them are children, and nobody--everybody wants the adults to go to work, everybody wants them to get off welfare, but what do you do about the kids? And that's--that, in the final analysis, I think is the sticking point.
MR. GIGOT: I disagree with Mark in this sense. I think that Bill Clinton is the one who put this on the agenda in 1992. He is the one who said we're--welfare--end welfare as we know it.
MR. SHIELDS: I agree.
MR. GIGOT: And if the President is faced with a choice of signing a bill and not--or vetoing it and not fulfilling a promise, it's going to be an excruciating choice for him.
MARGARET WARNER Now, meanwhile, the Dole campaign also seems to be trying to zero in on this character issue, and it's related to this. It's sort of the counterpoint, is it not, to Clinton's preemption strategy or follow-the-follower? The Dole people are trying to say this guy can't be trusted, he's not for real.
MR. SHIELDS: The, the problem with the Dole strategy is twofold. First of all, Bill Clinton won in 1992, and most Americans knew in 1992 that his had not been an Ozzie and Harriet marriage, that he had probably not been among the first rank of volunteers to serve in the military and all the rest of it. They knew that. So that, that is, a lot of that's old news, unless you come up with something new, and the second thing is that the Washington Post survey today revealed much to my surprise, I have to confess, that 77 percent of Americans would prefer someone who understands my problems to someone who has strong character in the White House, and that is, I mean, it's empathy vs. Mt. Rushmore, but apparently that's part of the job description in 1996, Americans, voters are looking for a leader who understands what they're going through. And Bill Clinton has communicated that probably better than anybody in recent presidential history.
MR. GIGOT: If it's only character, by that I define personal mores or good marriage, bad marriage, war records, that sort of thing, it won't work. What the Republicans are trying to do is link the character issue--in other words, can you trust Bill Clinton, to his assertions that he is this moderate, this centrist, this center right figure who agrees with everything Republicans want to do, who's running on a, on a Contract With America, except for, you know, 10 percent of the details. If they can link his trustworthiness to those issues and to put doubt in the minds of people that you really--he's, he's selling a bill of goods, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Then, then they might get somewhere. And that's where I think you get the link between the character issue and a lot of these, these public policy issues.
MARGARET WARNER Do you think that could work?
MR. SHIELDS: Well, at the risk of incurring my colleague's enmity, especially on this, his birthday, I do, I do want to make this point, that what Bill Clinton has going for him, and he understands it better than anybody, is that there is no resistance to him within the Democratic Party, no organized resistance. There was no challenge to him, and that is because Newt Gingrich and the Republicans took over the Congress. And Newt Gingrich has been the greatest unifying force the Democrats have had, and Bill Clinton understands that, and I mean, he's got enormous latitude and license on the part of the Democrats. I am frankly surprised when he endorsed the Wisconsin plan that there weren't organized Democratic protests saying, my goodness, Mr. President, how could you do this, but it was pretty mute, wasn't it?
MR. GIGOT: Well, there's no question that when Bill Clinton endorsed the, the bill to--that would essentially make it possible for other--for 49 states to ignore Hawaii if it endorses same-sex marriage, Barney Frank was nowhere to be heard from. He was very--
MARGARET WARNER Actually, we had him on the show last night here, and he, he was to be heard from. He basically said he understood it was politics.
MR. GIGOT: He certainly wasn't as loud as some of the people from the human rights campaign and somewhere else.
MARGARET WARNER No.
MR. GIGOT: And, and--when he--there's no question that a lot of the Democrats fear Newt Gingrich more than they mistrust Bill Clinton, and that is a defining element of this race. It gives him enormous latitude, but there's a--but liberals have to wonder, I think, have to ask if Bill Clinton is running to the right so much, how is he going to be able to govern the way we'd like him to govern if he actually wins? And I don't know if that will set in, for example, if the President signs a welfare bill. What would be the reaction of a Pat Moynihan or a Marian Wright Edelman? That's something the President has to think about.
MARGARET WARNER Let's turn to the Republicans on the Hill before we go, and that is that they had sort of a rough week, didn't they, Mark, that 77 of them, of the Republicans defected to the Democratic side on the minimum wage bill?
MR. SHIELDS: Ninety-three on final passage, 93 House Republicans. Yes. I think it was a big think. I mean, not only collectively, Margaret, when you look at specific instances, I mean, the Northeastern part of the country was a wipe-out for the Republicans. Everybody in the New Jersey delegation and the New York delegation, save one Republican, voted against the leadership and for the increase in minimum wage. 10 of the 14 Florida Republicans. I mean, hardly moderate to liberals, two things emerged from this: one was that the fight in the House was essentially between Republicans, I mean, that was the debate on the floor yesterday, it was fascinating, it was how moderate Republicans like Gipsy--against sort of the true believers. And secondly, I thought there was a coalition that emerged yesterday that if the Democrats are to win back control of the House in 1996, which is not out of the realm of possibility, it will be very, very close. If they have any chance of governing, they can't govern the first--the way they did in the first two years of Clinton by just whipping everybody in a fashion and getting 218 votes. They're going to have to build coalitions across the aisle. And I think yesterday in the minimum wage fight you saw the beginning of that sort of coalition, not certainly its final fruition, but finally it was a vote which Republicans needed and felt they needed to establish their independence from a party leadership that has been a political liability.
MARGARET WARNER Do you think this is a one-time thing, or are we going to see this through this election year?
MR. GIGOT: Well, I think you're going to see it on one or two more issues. You saw a little bit emerge last year on the environment, but I don't think you're going to see a lot of issues. What Newt Gingrich did on this--I mean, this was lost a month ago--what they tried to do was if you're going to lose, make sure it's an organized surrender, not a route. And what they did was they gave two or three amendments which allowed people who didn't want to vote for this the chance to vote for it with some things to protect their constituencies and small business, the restauranteurs, people who are big supporters of Republicans. They could show that they tried to do something for them, even if it couldn't pass. And in the end, Mark is right, the Republicans, a lot of these Republicans were doing this, wanted a vote that they can go back in November and they can say, I'm no clone of Gingrich, I'm independent, look at this vote, and that's particularly in the Northeast, it's particularly in union districts. It's particularly in a lot of districts where there are swing voters who are of, belong to unions or work for low wages.
MARGARET WARNER We have to leave it there. Thanks, guys. Have a great weekend.
MR. SHIELDS: Thank you, Margaret.