THE STATE OF THE RACE
MAY 10, 1996
Veteran Washington columnists Mark Shields and Paul Gigot join Elizabeth Farnsworth to discuss the week that was in the capital, including Congressional gridlock, Senator Dole's campaign problems and President Clinton's testimony at the Whitewater trial in Little Rock, Arkansas.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, how the Pennsylvania face-off and other matters political appear to Shields & Gigot, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and "Wall Street Journal" columnist Paul Gigot. Welcome. Paul, what do you make of this gridlock?
PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: Well, I think that the gridlock per se, the issues that they're debating aren't really about those issues. I think they're about bigger things. They're really about setting the stage for the Presidential campaign. Typically, your presidential campaigns where you have an incumbent are about the incumbent. The President doesn't want it to be about the incumbent. He wants it to be about the Congress. What Bob Dole is trying to do is trying to reframe the debate to remind voters what this presidency has been all about. That's what the gas tax is really all about, that debate. I mean, that's not a big deal in terms of motorists around the country, but it's a symbolic way Republicans feel they can begin to make taxes an issue, begin to remind people what the President did in his first year when he passed that first tax increase in the budget. The President, on the other hand, wants to make this issue, and it wants to make the election, if at all possible, about the Congress, so you're seeing that tension there as they try to maneuver.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think?
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I think Paul put his finger on it, that the Republican Congress is the problem for Bob Dole. Bob Dole has been thrashed, bashed by Republicans ever since he secured the nomination. The criticism has been rife. He's accused of being not conservative enough, not having a vision. The reality is that the most unpopular public figure in the United States is the Speaker of the House, who is the Churchill of this movement. Add to that the fact that there is nobody in the Republican Party as popular as Bob Dole, with the exception of Colin Powell, whom nobody is urging Bob Dole to get close to, at least on the right side of the equation is urging him to get close to, so this is the--this is the problem. As long as Bill Clinton can make it a referendum on the Republican Congress, Bob Dole is stuck. It is a Congress that, especially the House of Representatives, that is held in disrepute. It's now--if Bill Clinton had not lost control of the Congress in 1994, he would be in big, big trouble for reelection today, but the very fact that he has been able to position himself against Newt Gingrich and implicitly against Timothy McVeigh after, after the Oklahoma City bombing--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Explain that.
MARK SHIELDS: Well in this sense. I think two people secured Bill Clinton's political rebound: Timothy McVeigh and the blowing up of the Oklahoma City federal building. It drove an anti-government stamp of extremism. The Republicans found themselves unfairly, illogically, however you want to put it, identified just as anti-war Democrats had been with blowing up laboratories when the movement went too far in the 1970's. So Bill, Bill Clinton sort of became this reasonable alternative to the anti-government movement, and he positioned himself against Newt Gingrich, the threats, the perceived threats to the elderly, to education, to the environment, that Bill Clinton was going to defend the nation against this onslaught, and it's worked. It has worked to the point where he has an enormous lead.
PAUL GIGOT: Boy, do we have a different reading of 1995. As I read the, the polling data, I mean, the Republican Congress's unpopularity is--didn't start with Timothy McVeigh. It remained quite popular, frankly, right until late summer.
MARK SHIELDS: I said Bill Clinton's restoration after '94 began with Timothy McVeigh.
PAUL GIGOT: Well, he--well, that, to some extent, I agree with. He hasn't had to stand for anything. He has been able to play off of the Congress, but I mean, the association with Timothy McVeigh and all that I don't agree with. In fact, in the polling data, I mean, Bob Dole's behind by fifteen to twenty. The Republican Congress and Democratic Congress, the generic vote is actually only fair to close. It's only two to four points difference, so the other thing that's, I think, going on here is that the President has kind of got a great benefit from being able to be for Republican goals even as he opposes the Republican means of achieving those goals. What the Republican--you know, for welfare, for the balanced budget, whatever, and his vetoes have blocked it, but he hasn't had any blame for those vetoes. What the Republicans are trying to do is break out of the balanced budget, lock and key, and say, look, make 'em veto on taxes so we can see, the voters can see between our taxes, make 'em veto on welfare and so on, and that's what this skirmishing is all about.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Margaret reported on the rapid response operation in the White House. Do you agree with Vin Weber that it's quite successful?
MARK SHIELDS: It's been successful. Republicans are totally unprepared to run against a popular Democratic incumbent President. Most Democrats, Presidents that have paced in the past, have been reeling from either a fight within their own party, from an unpopular war or something of the sort, and Bill Clinton has--not only has a big lead, but he thrives in the campaign environment, and so do his people. So they're just totally unprepared for this, but just--one point on Paul's point--the gas tax--I mean, I just think tactically the Republicans have just been caught at every turn this past week. I mean, Charlie Rangel, the ranking Democrat in the House Ways & Means Committee, or soon to be, offered yesterday a very simple amendment on the gas tax, and that was that the gas tax repeal, the 4.3 cents a gallon goal, be cast directly to the consumers, and the Republicans in the Ways & Means Committee voted against it. Now, this is the kind of thing that I mean, you don't have to be a political scientist, you don't have to be the chairman of the party in California to understand, oh, oh, got you, and that's exactly what happened to the Republicans yesterday. And this is, this is the sort of thing where I think they just haven't got their footing. They do not know, quite frankly, what to do. Paul's point about only being two to four points behind, the last poll I saw was the "LA Times" poll, they were 7 points behind, which is a bigger margin in, in the congressional vote than there was when the Republicans took over control, in other words, in 1994. So I mean, they're hurting badly.
PAUL GIGOT: That's an outsider--out-rider poll--I think they're a lot closer.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about Mark's other point, the committee vote?
PAUL GIGOT: The committee vote. I think that any time Republicans are talking about taxes, any time we can remind voters in this election that Bill Clinton raised them when in 1992 he promised to cut them, they are going to talk about that from here to November every single day, and, in fact, if the gas tax were such a great idea, the President wouldn't have decided--said he's going to sign its repeal. I mean, essentially, he's already done what the Republicans have done on the minimum wage, which is essentially roll over for it, so there has to have been a good initiative.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what do you think about the rapid response operation? Do you think that the Republicans are as far behind as Mark does?
PAUL GIGOT: Tactically, the Clinton administration has it all over the Dole team right now.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How do you--
PAUL GIGOT: There's no question about it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: --explain it, right now, I mean, besides the fact that he's in the White House, he has the executive power?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, part of it's been there, done that. I mean, they learned a lot from 1992, and they've got some of the same people in place, partly they didn't have a primary challenge, so they were able to plan all of this as soon as they could see Bob Dole. They've expected Bob Dole to get the nomination for a long time, so they have been ready for him. Their opposition research is ready. The Dole campaign came off a very spirited, close-run primary, and then you had this long trough. So they weren't--they have been up to speed and prepared. I think you'll see that turn around, and it had better, because this election is going to be close enough that the Dole campaign will have to run at least even on the tactics if they're going to win on a much bigger strategy and direction for the country.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. We just have a little bit of time left, but what's most significant about President Clinton's testimony yesterday in Little Rock, or the taped testimony that was played in Little Rock?
MARK SHIELDS: That there wasn't a major story saying there was a discrepancy, a contradiction. Probably the fact that on many newspapers around the United States today it was inside. It was on page 12 or page 6. It wasn't a front page, screaming story in a number of major newspapers, so I think they feel they dodged that bullet. It's not a good thing when you're the first President in the nation's history to testify in a criminal case where there's even a tangential relationship to one of the defendants. That, that is not helpful, but I certainly think that the bullet was dodged yesterday.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think?
PAUL GIGOT: The President was trying to do himself and the defendants down there a favor with crocodile tears that we really didn't want to be there. Sure, it's not a great sound bite, but the one thing the White House desperately wants is acquittals in these cases because they feel if they can get acquittals, that will essentially end independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation. And the President--it's interesting--the defense called two witnesses down there. One was Jim McDougal, one of the defendants, and the other was the President of the United States. That's it. They folded up their case right after that. They were hoping he could be a character witness for the defendants and impugn the testimony of one of the prosecution witnesses, David Hale. And if he can get the jury to believe him, they feel this is going to put Whitewater to bed politically right through the election. On the other hand, if you get a conviction, then it's a different story. So it's a high risk, but I think he wants--he wanted to do himself a favor.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How about Travelgate? It reared its head yesterday. What do you think about that? A House committee voted to cite some couple of White House officials for contempt, three officials, or one current and two ex, and it has to, of course, be voted on by the House, but is that going to be a bigger issue in the next couple of months?
MARK SHIELDS: I don't know. I think it's, it's an unhelpful issue because it does--it involves the unfair sacking and unceremonious publicized cruel firing of, of career public employees, and I mean, I think that's the kind of thing people can identify with, and that it was an act of hubris and exercise of power that was I think most people find not at all attractive and quite unappealing.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Just very briefly on that.
PAUL GIGOT: I don't understand why the White House would allow the Republicans to be able to make the case of--remind people of an issue called executive privilege. U.S. V. Nixon would not seem to be a good precedent for a White House trying to defend that principle, and yet--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay.
PAUL GIGOT: --they've opened it up.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Got to go. Thank you both.