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January 21, 2005

Transcript

BRIEFING & OPINION

PAUL GIGOT: So, the second term is under way, with the president optimistic about making fundamental changes abroad and at home. How will it end? History is not encouraging. James Taranto has prepared a brief essay about second term presidents.

RICHARD NIXON: I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.

JAMES TARANTO: They call it the curse of the second term.

RICHARD NIXON: I, Richard Nixon, do solemnly swear...

JAMES TARANTO: Richard Nixon won a landslide re-election in 1972. Two years later, he resigned in disgrace.

MAN: Fifty senators have pronounced William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States, guilty as charged.

JAMES TARANTO: Bill Clinton was impeached. And although he survived, he accomplished little by way of policy or legislation in his final four years in office.

BILL CLINTON: We have important work to do.

JAMES TARANTO: He tried and failed to win fast-track trade authority and campaign-finance reform, both measures Congress passed during George W. Bush's first term.

Ronald Reagan was a partial exception. Under his leadership, Congress passed sweeping tax reform legislation in 1986, and when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, Reagan was able to change his approach to the Soviet Union.

RONALD REAGAN: My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true.

JAMES TARANTO: But Reagan's second term was troubled, too. He lost a big political battle with the defeat of Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court.

MAN: .. could lead to coercion of ...

JAMES TARANTO: And the arms-for-hostages scandal was a distraction and a blot on his administration.

MAN: Then, you destroy yourself.

JAMES TARANTO: Why do second terms go bad? Part of it is just the law of averages. It's hard to avoid problems altogether for eight years, and when presidents have unsuccessful first terms, they don't get a second term.

In his second term, George W. Bush may be able to beat the odds. He has two advantages that his predecessors lacked. First, his party controls both houses of Congress. Nixon and Clinton faced Congresses of the opposite party, while Reagan had only a Republican Senate, which he lost in 1986.

Bush's second advantage is that there's no more independent counsel statute. That was the law that gave prosecutors the power to conduct open-ended investigations of Reagan and Clinton, with no limits on their resources. Even when they did not actually produce any prosecutions, such investigations consumed officials' time and energy and generated bad coverage in the press.

HILLARY CLINTON: I'd be happy to answer the Grand Jury's questions.

JAMES TARANTO: Bush may also benefit because his second term is starting off so much better than his first, when the disputed election left the opposition particularly bitter. Will his clear victory the second time around calm the waters and make it easier to get things done? There's no historical precedent here. Though other presidents have won disputed elections, Bush is the first to be re-elected.

MAN: ... the President of the United States. [APPLAUSE]

PAUL GIGOT: Jason, one other fact to put on the table. President Bush starts his second term with an approval rating that's just above 50 percent, which is relatively low for re-elected presidents. So how do you see his ability to defy the odds of history and succeed?

JASON RILEY: Well, first you have to be impressed that he won a second term with what they call "coattails." I mean, he increased the Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate. But I'm also impressed with his agenda to take on big issues, like Social Security, which is not something he necessarily has to do. The meltdown is not expected to happen on his watch, not until 2018 or so. But it's something that he wants to take on. And it's a big deal. He's taking on one of the biggest and most powerful lobbies in this country, the AARP -- 35 million members who, unlike my generation, actually vote. So you have to give him some credit for wanting to do the right thing, even though he doesn't necessary have to do this.

PAUL GIGOT: But behind all of this, this domestic agenda, is Iraq. And that is out there, it's being fought, it's difficult. How much of his success, James, is going to be determined by what happens in Iraq?

JAMES TARANTO: Boy, I don't know. That's a good question. It's hard to point to a historical precedent here. We had Richard Nixon, obviously, facing cleaning up Vietnam, but he had a hostile Congress to begin with.

PAUL GIGOT: Or LBJ in Vietnam, was -- in the end it was his first term where he was elected, but it meant he couldn't run again.

JOHN FUND: He has a honeymoon of about a year because he won election on his Iraq policy, and there will be elections. And of course, I think the terrorism will subside a little bit once there's a democratic elected government.

PAUL GIGOT: So, but if his approval rating a year from now, if Iraq stays the way it is, is down in the forties, that's going to hurt his domestic priorities.

PAUL GIGOT: No question about that. What about the state of the Republican party here, and their mentality? They have this unique opportunity, first opportunity I think since 1954, really, where they've got both the House and the Senate, and the White House, and a president who's willing to lead for them. Are they willing to follow?

JOHN FUND: The revolutionaries of 1994 have decided that Washington makes a very good hot tub. And I think that if you look at what the Bush administration did the first term, where they basically dictated the details of almost every legislative program, the Republican Congress is going to assert itself now, and say, "we want a seat at the table now, to dictate the terms of how Social Security looks."

There's something very interesting that happened, Paul. Half of the Republican revolutionaries in 1994, they were elected to the House, met in Scottsdale for a reunion a couple of weeks ago. And Haley Barber and Tom DeLay came back to give speeches, and Newt Gingrich. Interestingly, the support for the president's Social Security program as of now, before the details are out, was almost non-existent. People very worried -- why rock the boat? And the Democrats are going to take that attitude, like the Republicans did in 1993 with the health care plan. If it's not broke now, why fix it now?

PAUL GIGOT: Well, I think that's absolutely right. But the president is making his Social Security plan the number one priority. Details aren't out yet, Jason, but it's the number one priority. Is that smart, given this degree of uncertainty among Republicans?

JASON RILEY: I think it's smart. John's right. The Republicans have to decide that they're going to be more interested in holding onto power, or if they're going to be more interested in getting things done. They have a president who wants to get things done. His job is going to be to convince his party that it's in their interest. In terms of the electorate, want to keep them in office to get things done. And I think leading with Social Security will help him on one of his second priorities, which is the tax code, and reforming that. I think if he comes out of Social Security with some momentum --

PAUL GIGOT: Well, with a victory.

JASON RILEY: With a victory and some momentum, it will help him tackle the tax code as well.

PAUL GIGOT: James?

JAMES TARANTO: There's another reason it might be smart for the Republicans to get serious about Social Security reform. And that is, if you look at the exit polls from 2004, Bush led Kerry among every age group except 18-30 year olds. Kerry got 54 percent of that group. And this is something that's very appealing to younger voters.

PAUL GIGOT: Do you think Republicans really understand that the voters now think that they're in charge? They are in charge. But the voters now understand that they're in charge and are going to hold him accountable if they don't do anything.

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: Not the five or six of them that are running for the next presidential election, led by Mr. Hagel. But if I could just say that Bush's heart and soul have been implanted in the war on Iraq. And whatever happens there, I think, shadows all of his other priorities. If he does not do well in advancing this battle for Social Security change, but we see success in Iraq, I think this is where you see his real goal.

PAUL GIGOT: He's going to need 60 votes in the Senate to pass Social Security. That means he's going to have to get at least five Democrats and maybe more, if Republicans aren't united. What are the Democrats going to -- how are they going to react to the Bush victory? Are they going to change their strategy, John?

JOHN FUND: Well the Democratic party has changed, Paul. It is now driven not so much by the labor unions, in part, but by MoveOn.org, and all of these activists who fuel the party with hundreds of millions of dollars. A mixed blessing, because now they're demanding total war on the Bush administration. And you saw that with Barbara Boxer and a bunch of House Democrats actually questioning the legitimacy of Bush's election -- which is extraordinary. That was driven by those activists.

I think the critical point is going to be on the judges. The Republicans are going to move forward with an end to a filibuster on judges.

PAUL GIGOT: Do you believe they're going to do that?

JOHN FUND: They will do it.

PAUL GIGOT: They will do it?

JOHN FUND: And the Democrats are going to --

PAUL GIGOT: Does Bill Frist, the majority leader, have the votes to get that accomplished?

JOHN FUND: Well actually, as of right now, the Senate rules don't have filibuster rights in them, the ones that have just been promulgated. That means they have to be put back in. That's what the problem area you fight is going to be in. The rules, the filibuster rules will be put back in, but only partially, not including judges.

PAUL GIGOT: Yeah.

JAMES TARANTO: I think that some of the Democrats in the Senate are secretly hoping that the Republicans get rid of the filibuster, because they face conflicting pressures, right? There are a lot of Democrats from red states. Tom Daschle lost his seat from South Dakota, basically because of obstructionism on judges. But there is also this angry left activist core of the party, MoveOn.org and so forth, that wants total war. I think the Democrats, or some of them, at least, would rather not have to make that choice.

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: I think a lot of Republicans are secretly -- or maybe not so secretly -- happy if the filibuster would continue. We need just a few more frames of Barbara Boxer taking on and carrying on in the way she has last week during Condoleezza Rice's confirmation.

JAMES TARANTO: Barbara Boxer will carry on, filibuster or no filibuster.

JASON RILEY: Well, that's a mixed blessing. We were talking about the Republican majorities. Now that you have Republicans in the executive office and controlling the legislature, the pressure is on for them to get something done. And the Democrats can, with some legitimacy, play obstructionist and then turn to the public and say, "We're not the ones in charge. Don't blame us."

JAMES TARANTO: It'll be interesting to see how the Republicans react to that.

PAUL GIGOT: I think the Democrats internally, especially in the Senate, are having a debate. You have Ted Kennedy laying out one side of the debate, which is let's keep with the strategy that we tried in 2002, 2004 -- try to oppose the president on just about everything. And you have others, like Joe Lieberman, who are saying, "That didn't work too well for us in 2002 and 2004. We lost some seats. And we're going to do well in 2006, given the inertia of the auspice of the sixth year of a presidential cycle. Let's see if we can cooperate and get some credit from the public for trying to solve some problems."

JAMES TARANTO: A lot of them on Social Security are looking to the example of 1994, and the Clinton health insurance scheme that the Republicans succeeded in killing. The problem with the Democrats for this is, the only way that might work for them is if they focus on that, and make the issue the Social Security plan. If they go around obstructing everything -- which they look like they intend to do, the issue is going to be their obstructionism.

JOHN FUND: I think in a few weeks they will focus on it. I think that George Soros and all of the people who tried to defeat George Bush want revenge. They will come back and spend as much money defeating Social Security as they did trying to defeat Bush.

PAUL GIGOT: All right, very quickly, and just you, John -- we don't have much time. What do you think the Republicans have to pass this Congress to consider it a success?

JOHN FUND: I think they have to make the tax cuts permanent. I think they have to extend -- even if they don't get Social Security -- I think they have to extend the individual retirement accounts. I think they also have to cement the medical savings accounts. And I also think they have to address the spending issue, because their base had one qualm: why are you spending so much money? They have to ratchet down spending in some areas.

PAUL GIGOT: That is spent less, and I think they have to go ahead on the judges. All right, we've got to leave it there. Next subject.