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Political Wrap with Shields and Gigot

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot discuss the budget debate and the week in politics.

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  • MARGARET WARNER:

    That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. All right, gentlemen, first the McVeigh development. Mark, this is the first federal execution in 38 years. The government wanted it to roll out without a glitch and now this. What do you think is going to be the impact of this say on the public's trust and the FBI, law enforcement?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Margaret, it's another black eye for the FBI, which can ill afford it at this point, after espionage, after the allegations in the Hanson case, an agent selling secrets to Russia. And I just think for the Bureau it's a real body blow, and a serious one that's not going to go away, and your question about the government trust, it doesn't elevate it.

  • PAUL GIGOT:

    I don't know if it'll change — I mean, it is a black eye, but I don't know if it'll change the public's views about the justice of the death penalty in this case, unless there's real signs of prosecutorial or investigative malpractice, Margaret. I mean, what McVeigh did is something that was seared in the consciousness of the American public, and unless there is evidence here that was clearly covered up or is exculpatory in some major way, I don't know that it does change that much, even though it is – it'll damage confidence somewhat.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    The polls have shown, Mark, that the public's confidence in the fairness of the way the death penalty is applied have been growing in recent years, because, of course, some of this DNA evidence. Do you think that this will play into that at all?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    I think that there's no question that there's been a growing public skepticism about capital punishment and about the mistakes that can be made, as well as – I mean, several church leaders – Pope John Paul II has been quite vocal in his opposition to capital punishment, so I think there's been both a philosophical and a practical opposition building – nowhere near a majority of the country. I think in this case Timothy McVeigh is almost sui generous because of the magnitude, the enormity of the offense, and quite frankly, because of his own statements and his own attitudes and his sense of pride in what he had done. So I think it's an aberration from the public attitude toward capital punishment as a daily occurrence.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Well, in fact, the poll has also showed, Paul, that people who oppose the death penalty or have doubts still wanted to see McVeigh executed.

  • PAUL GIGOT:

    Well, he is a case where, as I said, that this is something that most people – was a crime against civil society and a normal ordered business – those innocents that were killed. So I think what's been building about the death penalty and changing is more practical than philosophical as I read the change; it's more rooted in the fact that we have DNA evidence which has been able to find people who were innocent and free them, and people do want that technology brought to bear on death penalty cases. But I don't see a real deep philosophical sea change that says we don't need this penalty as a society. Maybe that will change, but I don't see it happening yet.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    All right. On to this week in Washington, Mark, yesterday the budget outline finally passed the Senate. Now we're on to the tax cut battle. What's going to happen?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Well, I thought we heard the most imaginative appeal for the tax cut today, and that was the President saying that we get the tax cut, everybody in America will be able to fill up their gas tank. It was sort of a new pitch, and one that I guess that had intense marketing probably. I think that obviously the President's request to lower 39.6 down to 33 is not going to sail.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    The top tax rate.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    The top tax rate. And I think you know it'll probably be somewhere around 36, I think. You know, the particulars are emerging. In order to get the kind of support in the Senate needed to pass it Chairman Grassley had to go to not only the Democrats but also to members of his own party, Olympia Snowe of Maine, who insisted upon a child tax credit for those American families that pay taxes but don't pay income tax, pay a withholding tax. So I think you're going to see that sort of a compromise emerging and the – let's be very frank. This is in all the framework of a big victory for George W. Bush. That was a big tax cut. That was a big victory in the budget for him, and he's going to get it.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    How do you see the changes that are going to have to be made, trimming around the edges, or significant?

  • PAUL GIGOT:

    Significant. I disagree a little bit with Mark on this in the sense that the good news for Bush is he'll get a big tax cut. The bad news for Bush is he doesn't know what shape it'll be, and it's a test now of his clout and I think his dexterity, political dexterity, to see what kind of tax cut he can get, because that cut in the marginal rates is the economic heart and soul of that plan and – Mark doesn't agree with it – but I do – is that's the biggest economic bang for the buck in this whole tax bill. You take that out and a large part of its economic justification leaves. You don't get a very big chance as a President, well, once a generation really – Jack Kennedy did it in the 60's; Ronald Reagan did it in the 80's; and now Bush has another chance 20 years later – to cut marginal income tax rates. You can build a coalition to cut the marriage penalty or do targeted tax breaks because you can build up a lot of special interest, particular support for it, but an across-the-board tax cut is more difficult. And I think we're going to see – I thought Bush made a mistake today when he said pass the tax cut soon, to the Congress. He didn't say pass these elements of it; he missed – and I think that was a mistake because he's not guiding the Senate, and I think it might be in part because he knows he's not going to get a good Senate bill.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Does Bush has –

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Mark doesn't disagree with Paul.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Feel free to express that, and does Bush have the power to essentially insist on getting this larger cut in the marginal rate from 39 to 33, the top tax rate, or is that basically politically impossible?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    It's politically impossible. What we have right now in the Senate Finance Committee, the tax writing committee in the Senate, is that last year Chairman Bill Roth of Delaware, the Republican, lost his re-election. Democrat Pat Moynihan, the former Chairman and the ranking Democrat, retired, so we had two rookies in the top position, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the Republican Chairman, and Max Baucus, the Democrat, ranking Democrat from Montana, and what Grassley did was he went to this Republican Caucus and he said what is inviolate here, and they said exactly what Paul said, 39 to 33, top rate 39.6 – down to 33 percent; and repeal the estate tax – except for two of the Senators — and Senator Jeffries and Senator Snowe, who said no, that was not theirs —

  • PAUL GIGOT:

    And they're both on the Finance Committee.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    And they're both on the Finance Committee. And the Democrats just wouldn't go for the 39.6 to 33 – so he was faced with the reality, Margaret –

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Just to get it out of committee.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Just to get it out of committee and to get it to the Senate floor on condition that it might pass. I think that's what it's about; I think the President understands that. I think that's why he didn't say today specifics; he wants to be able to claim victory.

  • PAUL GIGOT:

    Well, you have to wonder at what stage there's any kind of victory – a couple of people in the Senate that we have to know George Bush's bottom line. What won't he accept – and there's still a good chance – with a 33 percent rate in the House bill already – that he could come out of a conference with the Senate bill at 36, present that bill at a conference and really make an up or down vote in the Senate, and that – that's when it really becomes difficult for a lot of these people to say, no, I'm against a tax cut altogether. Are you really going to do that? That's the kind of decision that Bush is going to have to make.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    All right. Final story this week or a big political story, Mark, Bush sent – President Bush sent 11 judicial nominations for the Court of Appeals to the Senate. Now are we going to see a huge battle over these?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Probably not over these 11. I mean, there will be one real fight, and that's in North Carolina. Judge Terry Boyle, district judge – Senator Jesse Helms, who originally sponsored him 11 years ago and didn't get a hearing at that point – and his revenge for the past eight years was not to approve any North Carolina judges that Bill Clinton nominated. So that's the only one. But I think you look at this list and it's one that the ABA I think would have approved –

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    In terms of qualifications.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    They have followed the ABA process, but I think this is one that would have – they were credentialed conservatives; they were pretty politically adroit. The White House, which is staunchly against any quotas, was giving out briefing papers, saying six of the eleven nominees are either women or minorities. That isn't supposed to be said by conservatives. But it was an interesting group and I think they touched all the bases with home state senators, except that one in North Carolina, where John Edwards, Democrat, will earn his bones and make his reputation, I think.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    That's still a pretty conservative group. I mean, if Bush were to get ten of these eleven, wouldn't he consider that an important first step?

  • PAUL GIGOT:

    I think he would; I think he would. But there was the news that wasn't reported or was reported in some places, but the people who work behind the President – and those are three judges – two from California, including highly regarded Rep. Chris Cox, and Peter Keisler, who was going to be nominated for Maryland but was basically vetoed by the two Maryland Democratic Senators, and Bush as an olive branch withheld those nominations and we'll see if he gets repaid by the Democrats in a similar conciliatory gesture, but he did make an enormous concession by pulling back those nominees.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    So, Mark, though, does that mean then that the Democrats really are going to have the power to shape, as all of these appointments, all of these nominations come down the pike, actually shape what the White House sends them?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    I think certainly at the opening salvo here – I mean, the President went with a high quality group – that I think Democrats are fighting hard to oppose – but they did touch bases with all the Democrats and Paul's right. When Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes said no to the President's choice in Maryland, he was not nominated. I will add this, Margaret, it's going to reach a real political boiling point for a very simple reason. We talk about unelected judges. We had unelected judges in the year 2000 who elected the President by a five/four decision. We had the Elian Gonzalez case, which was a judicial case. There is the consciousness of the importance of the Judiciary has been raised in the public at a level I think unsurpassed in recent experience.

  • PAUL GIGOT:

    I think Democrats are trying to do something extraordinary, though. They're trying to make a single Senator from a home state give that Senator veto power over nominees. That hasn't happened before, but in the case of one exception I can think of, is Jesse Helms, who really did – was able to do that – but across-the-board Bill Clinton got almost all the nominees he wanted. He got 377 over eight years, which is almost as many as Ronald Reagan got over his eight years, but they're trying to do that, and that's very, very unusual, and I think Bush has got to at some point fight back.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    We have to leave it there. Thank you both.

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