David S. Broder
Washington Post Columnist/Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 2, 2001; Noon EDT
On the campaign trail and during his first 100 days in office, George W. Bush pledged to make education his first priority, cut taxes and change the tenor of debate and rhetoric in Washington. Meanwhile, he's faced a sticky foreign policy situation with China, conceded that his tax cut will be scaled back and made controversial calls on environmental policy, from CO2 emissions to arsenic levels in drinking water.
How has he done? Do the first 100 days of any administration reflect anything about the rest of a president's tenure? Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist David S. Broder was online to talk about President Bush's first 100 days Wednesday, May 2.
Broder has written extensively about primaries, elections, special interests and the business of politics. His books include "Democracy Derailed: The Initiative Movement & the Power of Money," "Behind the Front Page: A Candid Look at How the News Is Made" and "The System: The American Way of Politics at the Breaking Point."
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control
over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
New York, N.Y.: Why do you think the media have assumed the role of defenders of the status quo? I ask this question because of the inanity of reporting on the non-event of Bush's first 100 days, in which it was repeatedly asserted that "the voters chose Bush" because of his "compassionate conservatism" or his pledge to cut taxes. The plain fact is that the voters did NOT choose Bush. Why do the media have such difficulty with this fact?
David S. Broder: A good question, but not one I can answer. I avoided the 100-day journalistic orgy by going to London for a week to report on British politics and policymaking. The facts are undisputed: Bush received fewer popular votes but more electoral votes than Gore. That is simple enough even for us journalists to understand.
Chicago, Ill.: Mr. Broder,
First off, thanks for participating in the Q&A forum. Kudos to you and the OnPolitics site.
How do you think public opinion will play out regarding the Bush administration's energy plans, alluded to by VP Cheney in Toronto recently?
There is already loud grumblings here in Chicago over once-again skyrocketing gasoline prices. In your opinion, will the public back the supply-oriented, bully-pulpit supported Bush/Cheney strategy of increasing production and drilling in the Alaska Wildlife reserve, or will they defend a more pro-environment, conservationist approach, even if it means trading in precious 15 mpg SUVs from sea to shining sea? Methinks the former will win out. Thanks!
David S. Broder: People want low energy prices and high environmental standards, and are understandably reluctant to acknowledge that there may be a tradeoff between these goals. In the short run, it is the price runups and shortages that drive people crazy, but over the longer time, I think it is possible to develop public support for conservation measures consistent with the time pressures most people feel in their lives.
Brunswick, Maine: Is there really a "new tone in Washington" because of President Bush? Or is this some false political slogan, where the truth is that the instigators of the former "tone" are now in the majority party, meaning this change is more about party politics than G.W. Bush as president?
David S. Broder: In my view, the credit for any change in tone in Washington goes to the American people. They made it plain, not just to President Bush but to the others running for office in 1998 and 2000, that they were sick and tired of the rampant partisanship they saw in the capital. I do think that message got through, and there has been a reduction -- a very welcome reduction -- in the personal bitterness. But there are substantial policy differences between Democrats and Republicans on many issues, and with a government so closely divided, it will not be easy to resolve those policy debates.
Portland, Ore.: It may be difficult to judge yet, but how would you rate Bush's response to the energy problems in the West? Here in Oregon, I'm wondering if we'll be facing "rolling blackouts" in the summer and it seems to me that the federal government has basically punted the problem back to the states so far. Also, do you think the Democrats will oppose what Bush puts forward to keep it, perhaps along with the environment, as a campaign issue?
David S. Broder: I was in Oregon last month and I share your sense that the administration has tried to distance itself from the energy concerns so apparent on the West Coast. But those issues will land on Washington's doorstep this spring and summer, with confirmation hearings for the Bush appointees to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, with the issuance of the Cheney report on energy policy, and with congressional debate on energy and environmental bills. There is no way the administration or Congress can avoid the issue. It's just too big and important.
Duluth, Minn.: David S. Broder: As a fellow journalist, I thought you might appreciate the words of Eric Sevareid, when, after returning from Europe after World War II, he was asked, "I suppose this is the first time you saw the face of Facism?"
"No," Sevareid replied. I first time I saw the ugly face of Fascism on the streets of Minneapolis in 1934 when workers were striking for better working conditions...and the heads of those companies hired thugs to beat up and shoot the workers, while the 'Minneapolis's finest,' those boys-in-blue, stood by and cheered."
Now I do wonder how Sevareid would view the first 100 days on Pennsylvania Avenue; possibly in the light of Bush's Supreme Court and recent decisions handed down, etc.?
David S. Broder: I share your admiration for Eric Sevareid, whose commentary was an important part of my own political education. But I hesitate to guess how he would judge the current administration. For myself, I see no "face of fascism" threat in anything that has happened -- or is likely to happen. The actions of Congress, the courts and the administration all seem to me to be well within the bounds of normal politics.
Laurel, Md.: Isn't it true that Clinton ran up $1 trillion in debt to the Social Security system? It's hard to imagine anything proposal from the Bush commission making matters worse.
David S. Broder: I would want to check carefully the assertion about a trillion-dollar increase in the Social Security system's debt during the Clinton years. Social Security is fully funded for now -- the FICA taxes coming in exceed the annual benefit payments. The issue is what will happen when the large Baby Boom generation retires and benefits go up, while the revenues may not. But the date of likely deficits in those accounts has moved back in recent years, not up, so I doubt the $1 trillion debt figure is correct.
New York, N.Y.: I read that President Bush is appointing members to another Social Security commission, but with the mandate to come up with a plan for private investment of some Social Security money. I am in my 20s and very supportive of this idea, since the money isn't there to pay me the benefits promised to me upon my retirement. Is there ANY chance for this type of plan to become law? Or will the Democrats kill it no matter what?
David S. Broder: It's much too early for any sensible judgment about the prospects of converting some of Social Security to private savings accounts. Polling indicates considerable public skepticism toward the idea at this time, but this is an issue where the information and arguments people will receive over the coming year can either harden the opposition or change people's minds.
Germantown, Md.: What do you think of Bush's Missle Defense Plan? As an engineer by trade, I think the system will be very difficult to create if not impossible. As a taxpayer I think it is a waste of money.
David S. Broder: I do not consider myself any kind of expert on weapons systems, but the tests so far suggest that an effective anti-missile defense will be very difficult to develop or to verify. I think there is a heavy burden on the advocates to prove that it is a sensible investment.
New York, N.Y.: I'm reading Peter Merkl's book, "A Coup Attempt in Washington?" about the European perspective on the Clinton impeachment. Have you read it? In a nutshell, Merkl says Europeans were shocked by Starr's "unprofessionalism" and the rabidity of Republican partisanship, which many on the left and right in Europe, thought endangered American democracy by injecting personal invective into political conflict. You were just in London. Did you get a sense how Bush is playing abroad? Do they still think we've gone mad?
David S. Broder: I have not read the Merkl book, so I cannot comment on it. I heard little discussion of Clinton while in London. The British press has been very dismissive of Bush and negative on his performance -- almost across the board treating him as a figure of fun. By contrast, officials in the Labor Party and government who were briefed by Tony Blair on his meeting with Bush uniformly report that Blair found Bush more direct, tough-minded and personable than expected.
Alexandria, Va.: What do you think will happen to campaign finance reform in the House?
David S. Broder: My guess is that the House will pass some kind of a campaign finance bill this year, different enough from the Senate measure to require a House-Senate conference. That will be the maximum moment of peril, when the lobbyists take their shots at it. But in the end, I would guess something is going to the White House and Bush will likely swallow his doubts and sign it.
Falls Church, Va.: Do you have any opinion on the Bob Kerrey story? Would this prevent him from making a political comeback, if he wanted to?
David S. Broder: I was astonished by the Bob Kerrey story and have difficulty sorting out what really may have happened there. It certainly changes the public perception of him and may explain in part why he has been so ambivalent, throughout the last 30 years, about whether he wants a political career.
Dallas, Tex.: I think Bush and his political advisors understand that staying out of the news (when possible) is one way of avoiding the adversarial nature of the national media. I think in some respects, no news is good news for the president's approval ratings. Americans are ready for a boring president. This is the opposite tack of the Clinton folks, who tried to be a part of every story. What do you think of this analysis?
David S. Broder: I think Bush has shown admirable restraint in not injecting himself into some situations, such as the repatriation of the downed Navy surveillance plane crew. But Americans want the president to be part of the conversation on matters of importance to them, and I hope Bush becomes more comfortable in that part of his job. It's not as important as his decision making, but being able to persuade people to support your policies -- and just building goodwill -- is important to a president.
Marietta, Ohio: From the earliest days of the Clinton administration, misstatements or changes in direction were often characterized as lies by the Republicans in Congress and often were picked up by the media and portrayed in a similar light. George W. Bush has in many large and small ways made misstatements, changed his position on issues from those he portrayed in the campaign, and maintained a veneer of civility while putting forward an ultraconservative agenda. Considering the fact that he has zero legitimacy, why has he received such favorable coverage by the media?
David S. Broder: Wow. I do not share your view that Bush has "zero legitimacy," nor do I think he is getting a free ride from the press. Certainly there was controversy over the outcome of a very close election, but that would have been the case whether Gore or Bush ultimately prevailed. The debate about his policies has been very vigorous -- in Congress, the country and in the press, exactly as it should have been. I disagree with a number of his policies, but that is the case with every president I've ever covered.
New York, N.Y.: The punditocracy seems to be rushing to Sen. Bob Kerrey's defense, even though the facts about what happened at Than Phong are not well known. How can anybody defend -- or prosecute -- Kerrey with so little information? Why is Kerrey, and not Klann, given the benefit of the doubt? What if it turns out that Klann's story is accurate?
David S. Broder: As I said in answer to a previous question, I have had a difficult time figuring out what really happened on that Kerrey mission in Vietnam, so I am withholding judgment. I saw a very critical column by Michael Kelly this morning, so the press is not unanimous in rushing to Kerrey's defense.
Reston, Va.: The Republican Party led by Bush has accomplished some important victories. They've eliminated the memory of John Sununu's leadership in the first Bush administration and won back the White House on a pledge of bland leadership, to which they seem to be vigorously delivering upon.
That a man could win the highest office in the land on a promise of boring leadership says yet even more about Clinton's historical legacy. But in a few more years the country will have become sick and tired of having grown sick and tired of Bill Clinton.
What issues are showing potential for keeping the incumbent the center of political life in 2004?
David S. Broder: I have no idea what issues will be uppermost in 2004, but every incumbent running for reelection has to defend his record, and I am confident that there will be much in the Bush record he will want to defend--and much for the Democrats to criticize.
New York, N.Y.: Mr. Broder:
You just wrote:
"The actions of Congress, the courts and the administration all seem to me to be well within the bounds of normal politics."
Is it "normal politics" for a president with no mandate to act as if he had a mandate, especially when his actions are radically opposed to the will of the voters, according to both the election and current polls? Wouldn't it be more normal if he bent himself to American opinion rather than trying to force American opinion to bend toward him?
David S. Broder: No. I think a president's job is to lead opinion, not bow to it. Government by polls is not what the Founders had in mind; they expected the Executive and Congress to make judgments based on many factors, including public opinion, and then to be held accountable at the next election. I think we have a pretty fundamental difference of opinion on what constitutes normal, healthy politics.
Annapolis, Md.: Why do you think the press lets Bush get away with "talking Middle and running Right"? At nearly every turn, his rhetoric is moderate and his action conservative -- disingenuous, yet he gets away with it.
David S. Broder: Excuse me, but I find Bush's rhetoric conservative -- at least as conservative as his actions. Whether it is missile defense or taxes or energy, he is following what I would call a conservative course and is arguing strongly for his views. I do not see the inconsistency you do.
Portland, Ore.: I've read that President Bush will be proposing a Social Security commission to come up with some privatization proposals. Do you think the Democrats will embrace anything they come up with? My thinking is that the Democrats won't accept any Social Security reform before the 2002 elections and that some Democrats are essential to enacting any real reform. (I think a partisan-based reform of Social Security would get a negative public reaction.)
David S. Broder: I agree with you that any major change in Social Security will have to have bipartisan support, and at this point few Democrats are inclined to do that. But the discussion is just beginning and it would be a mistake to prejudge the outcome.
Ann Arbor, Mich.: Wow, is there a Republican at all willing to post a question? Well, I for one am thankful that Bush is doing what he campaigned on doing -- cut taxes, address energy with supply-side thinking, focus on education and partially privatize social security. No surprises. Why doesn't the broad media report the big picture but instead focuses on minor issues (e.g., $1.6 trillion vs. $1.35 trillion tax cut). It seems to me Bush is getting the lion's share of his agenda on the table.
David S. Broder: I agree with you that Bush has been very disciplined and largely consistent in the policies he has put forward. But in the political configuration of Washington, he will have to accept some defeats and more compromises, and that too is part of the story we in the press need to tell.
McLean, Va.: Hello Mr. Broder,
Surely this "is simple for [you] to understand." Your recent dispatch from London questioned why Brits undoubtedly will reelect Tony Blair and the Labor Party this month. Here's why: The people clearly remember (and are suffering still from) the ruthless, disastrous public policies of the conservative Thatcher era. They NEVER want to return. Once again, the American people will take a sad lesson away from our current Reagan II regime.
David S. Broder: You may well be right. I have no idea what will happen in the elections of 2002 and 2004. But I would remind you that the Tories were in power for 18 years before Blair led Labor back into office.
Park Point, Minn.: Mr. Broder: Have you purchased a pair of snakeskin cowboy boots in the last 100 days (or is it alligator)? If you have, I will read you with some degree of apprehension. If not I will listen more intently.
David S. Broder: I have to make this the last question, and I thank you for asking. I have not purchased snakeskin or alligator cowboy boots at any time in a long and misspent life. But I'm not prepared to say it will never happen. Regards.
That was our last question today. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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