Q&A With Ceci Connolly
"Levey Live" appears each Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time. It's your chance to talk directly to major newsmakers and to key Washington Post reporters and editors.
Bob Levey's guest this week was Ceci Connolly, a national political writer for The Washington Post. She covers congressional, gubernatorial and presidential campaigns. Her main interest, along with the intersection of policy and politics, is the 2000 presidential campaign.
Before joining The Post, Connolly was with the St. Petersburg (Florida)Times, where she served as a Washington correspondent. She has also worked for Congressional Quarterly, the Associated Press and two New England daily newspapers, the Concord (NH) Monitor and the Quincy(MA) Patriot Ledger. In 1997, Connolly was named one of Washingtonian Magazine's rising stars.
Here is a transcript of today's session:
Annandale, VA: The press seems to have dubbed GW Bush as the Republican front runner for the 2000 race. Is it because he is that good in his appeal to voters or does he benefit solely from having a famous father? Would you call him a political clone of his father?
Ceci Connolly: GW Bush is garnering a great deal of attention at this stage for several reasons: his famous name; an impressive fund-raising operation; his governance of Texas and a personal style that seems appealing. But he has not actively campaigned outside Texas so there is much we don't know about him. I would not describe him as a clone of his father. His upbringing differed from the former president's and some of his views differ somewhat from the father as well.
Bob Levey: A few days ago, you reported that Vice President Gore may pay politically for the Lewinsky scandal. But he's so-o-o-o clean as far as sex and family are concerned. Can't voters see that Gore isn't reponsible for Monica, that he was duped by President Clinton like everyone else?
Ceci Connolly: I don't know about the duped part, but it's certainly fair to say Al Gore has never been suspected of having a less-than-stellar family life. My sense from studying the polls and talking to voters all over the country is an overall exhaustion with the Clinton administration that goes far beyond Monica to some of the fund-raising controversies of 1996 and other questionable dealings by some cabinet members. I think if Gore can develop his own persona out there that may go a long way in helping him break free from the Clinton exhaustion factor we're seeing.
Arlington, VA: When I worked as a reporter for a small daily paper in Pa., I noticed whenever I interviewed a politician -- either a state rep or Congressman -- they simply never directly answered the questions I posed -- even the easy ones. I felt like if I asked a politician his name, he would skirt around the question! Do you find that to be a problem, or are you given more respect, coming from a large and influential organization like the Post?
Ceci Connolly: It can be a challenge to get straight answers out of the politicians, no matter what news organization you work for. The advantage of working for a publication such as The Post is that because of its reputation and resources we have the ability to sometimes push harder, probe deeper, interview more people until we feel satisfied we are getting something closer to the truth.
Bob Levey: If Al Gore is such a weak candidate, as so many people say, why does he have only one serious Democratic opponent?
Ceci Connolly: Excellent point, Bob. Gore's team did an extraordinary job of scaring away the Democratic competition, largely by demonstrating they would have a ferocious money raising effort. Clinton's willingness to help his vice president has also frightened some of the other Democrats. It's interesting though, because just in the last few days, I've had private conversations with people close to some of the men who thought about running and some of them are wondering if they made the right decision.
Buffalo, New York: Do you think that Elizabeth Dole is a serious presidential candidate in the 2000 election? She has never run for political office, has never been nothing more than a "staff puke" in several Republican administrations, and even in the cabinet posts she has held, she seems to hve been there largely for show. I recall her tenure as SECDOT when I served on active duty with the U.S. Coast Guard. It seems that the only attention she paid to the service was when there was a photo op on board a cutter or in the cockpit of a helicopter. Then she had the gall to take credit for modernization projects that already had been in the making years before she showed up! Harvard Law degree or not, do people realize that she is a lightweight and unqualified for the job of president?
Ceci Connolly: It's true Elizabeth Dole has not run for office, but that does not mean she doesn't bring formidable skills to the race. Most notably, she has been in public life for 30 years, including 2 cabinet posts, that has enabled her to become well known and quite experienced. She is also a very strong performer on television, a medium that has come to dominate American politics. Although she's gotten off to a slow start, I would not rule her out.
Bob Levey: Lots of Democrats seem to love Arizona Republican Senator John McCain. Do any Republicans?
Ceci Connolly: McCain has made many enemies in his own party, partly because he can be a rather blunt character and partly because he has taken on issues that haven't sold well with his colleagues. Tobacco legislation, campaign finance reform are just two of the issues he pushed hard on despite strong opposition from GOP leaders. The real challenge for McCain is winning over enough of those Republican primary voters. The sense is he might sell better with the public at large than the smaller base vote that comes out for primaries.
Arlington, VA: Since April 15 just passed, my question is fairly timely -- do you foresee any change in the tax laws that will cut out the marriage penalty? Also, are legislators at all concerned with the fact that while they're encouraging us to save for retirement, they're hindering those of us without access to a 401K by limiting the tax-free IRA contribution to $2K a year?
Ceci Connolly: I don't profess to be an expert on tax policy. Bob will have to invite George Hager to come an answer those more detailed questions. From a political standpoint, I can say that the GOP has pushed hard for ending the so-called marriage tax penalty and they may have some success this year. Clinton too has proposed some targeted tax reductions, although with the escalating cost of the conflict in Kosovo there may not be much money left for tax cuts.
Bob Levey: Governor Bush has virtually zero experience with foreign affairs. Granted, that didn't keep Clinton from being elected (or re-elected). But isn't that a major handicap for a serious candidate? And won't it be even more major if Kosovo lingers as an issue?
Ceci Connolly: Rarely in recently memory has a presidential election turned on foreign policy. However, the Kosovo crisis may shift that dynamic some in 2000. It will certainly be a challenge for Bush if that conflict continues. I might add though that I see Kosovo as more of an issue for Gore (who is tied to the Clinton policy) and McCain (a former POW who has staked out a far more aggressive stance than the administration.)
Bob Levey: Here's the Bob Levey playbook for Elizabeth Dole: Recognize that women between 18 and 30 are least likely to vote, especially in light of Lewinsky. Pitch your campaign at them. Explain that you're different, sensible, sensitive in ways that male candidates are not. Win the nomination. Win the election. Am I onto something here, or am I deluded by stray coffee fumes?
Ceci Connolly: Sounds great, Bob, but I'm not sure the Dole team will hire you. There are some tricky issues in an approach like that. For one thing, women age 18-30 are not as impressed by Liddy's career because they themselves have been out in the workforce. In fact, some in interviews have said to me they find her somewhat syrupy approach a bit offputting. But she has done a good job of speaking on issues such as education in a highly credible way that could attract some of those voters you're talking about.
Bob Levey: The New York Times ran a long piece last month in which several major candidates said they would not run attack commercials in 2000. Could it be? A campaign on the issues for a change?
Ceci Connolly: A campaign on the issues? Hard to imagine. All kidding aside, I think like most campaigns the 2000 contest will be both. We'll have some downright nasty attack ads and there will be some very interesting substantive debates. I foresee serious conversations about foreign policy (because of Kosovo), about education, about race (if Bradley succeeds in pushing it to the front burner) and many more. But never in my wildest dreams can I imagine these guys giving up negative ads. They're addicted.
Sunny Bloomington, IN: For those of us who are transplanted Washingtonians, we are fortunate enough to read the <I>Post<-I> online to get our fix of politics and a small sense of home. Local Indiana papers and news stations seem to bury 90% of Washington affairs deep in their newspaper- broadcast. Granted, not all of Washington's affairs -the Metro congestion, for example- are relevant to Indiana, but do either of you find that non-Washington news services are doing its citizens a disservice for <I>not<-I> taking a greater interest in our nation's policies? Or am I just yearning to be back in the center of it all?
Ceci Connolly: A reader after my own heart. I would love to see more Washington coverage in out-of-town newspapers. But in fairness to busy readers who don't have a lot of time, we reporters need to do a good job of making the stories relevant to every day lives out there. Then I think you'll see more local papers include this stuff.
Bob Levey: The Vice President made a couple of pretty glaring mistakes in recent weeks. He (more or less) claimed to have invented the Internet. And he waxed eloquent about his farm upbringing, when in fact he was raised on the top floor of a luxury Washington hotel. How could a man who has been through so many campaigns be dopey enough to provide such enduring sound-bite material for his opponents?
Ceci Connolly: What the Gore folks will tell you is that Gore is a shy guy who has difficulty bragging on himself (as they say in the South). They also observe that after spending so many years in the shadows behind Clinton he is not used to stepping out front and selling himself. Still, there is something curious about such an experienced politician (remember all those years in the House and Senate) who cannot find a way to concisely, compellingly and ACCURATELY telling his story to voters who want to look him over.
Burke, VA: Will Hillary run for the NY Senate seat? It seems that all of the hype has died down, or has it?
Ceci Connolly: I guess I'd say the hype continues at mid-level. Mrs. Clinton spent several days in New York last week doing very campaign-like things. It perhaps did not get quite as much attention because of Kosovo and the killings in Colorado. Will she run? If I knew the answer to that I would not be working here. I will note that she and Harold Ickes are certainly taking all of the necessary steps to run if that's her decision. But it is still hard to picture a first lady, with her husband still running the country, going out to run for office.
Bob Levey: About Dan Quayle: Can he ever escape his dodo-bird image? Can he raise any dough?
Ceci Connolly: Quayle had a decent fund-raising effort in the first quarter, although he spent a good bit of what he raised which will have to stop if he wants to have any to compete in the primaries next year. Quayle should not be underestimated at this juncture. His experience in Congress and as vice president could come in handy in the rough-and-tumble of this campaign. He is also very attractive to many conservatives in the party.
Half an hour remaining with our guest, Washington Post national political reporter Ceci Connolly.
Gaithersburg, MD: Is the Bradley campaign for real? If so, it seems quite stealthy.
Ceci Connolly: A lot of these campaigns seem pretty stealthy at this point because we are still 10 months from the Iowa caucuses and 17 months from Election Day. What most of these candidates are doing, including Bradley, is raising money. And "Dollar Bill" has been fairly successful at that. He raised more than $4 million in the first quarter of 1999. I'd say his campaign is very much for real. He is a thoughtful former senator who is in position if Gore stumbles. But that may be the key; it is very difficult to knock off a sitting vice president absent some outside forces or grievous errors by the vice president.
Bob Levey: Vice President Gore made quite a ringing speech to the memorial service in Colorado this week. But why did he go, and not the President? A cynic might say it was all about Gore's campaign, and not about the mourners and their feelings.
Ceci Connolly: I'd say it was both. In all fairness, it's my impression the shootings in Colorado have deeply touched the Gores like all other Americans. But you are right that the entire White House knows how badly Bill Clinton wants Al Gore to succeed him and we will see many more instances where an important speech or announcement is given by the vice president in an effort to bolster his campaign. Gore, for instance, was also tapped to make the announcement last week that the U.S. will accept 20,000 refugees. Not a coincidence.
rockville, md: Do you think that future presidents will conclude from the clinton presidency that polls should drive decisions or will they conclude the opposite, i.e., the administration's emphasis on polls has lead to incoherent policies? [edited for space]
Ceci Connolly: That's a really tough one. I could easily argue both sides, so perhaps I will. Certainly polling data has helped Clinton tap into several popular proposals (school uniforms come to mind) but the excessive polling has also added to a perception that this president vacillates with the political winds an awful lot. From what we've seen from the presidential campaigns and congressional candidates so far, polling remains a central element to campaigning and even governing in America today.
Bob Levey: Why does Bill Bradley keep talking so much about his sainted basketball career? Most American citizens (and many voters) were not even alive when he was plying the hardwood. At 55, he looks like what he is: a balding former jock. Shouldn't he can the Glories of Yesteryear stuff and talk about the glories of tomorrow?
Ceci Connolly: I've been wondering about that myself. In fairness, he doesn't talk about his Knicks career nearly as much as some (male) political reporters too. This is my chat so I figured I get to toss that pet peeve in. Kidding aside, I am struck by how many people around the country know not just his Knicks career, but his ball playing at Princeton and in the 1964 Olympics. Use what you've got, I suppose.
Bob Levey: About turnout: Clearly, this will be the biggest casualty of Lewinsky. Do the pros expect turnout to fall as low as 40 percent of registered voters?
Ceci Connolly: Let me be a bit contrarian here. I'm not sure we can blame Monica for low turnout. Voter turnout has been declining steadily for many years. In reality, I think there's a good bit of evidence to suggest that the Lewinsky scandal mobilized certain voters--namely African-Americans who felt Clinton was unfairly attacked by Ken Starr. Democrats were pretty pleased with the election results in Nov. 1998 because they felt there was a galvanizing force to tap into. I might also add, Congressional Republicans blew a good opportunity with their last-minute ad blitz on the scandal which generated a pretty strong backlash.
San Jose, Calif: I'm playing the devil's advocate here. A lot of people seem to think polling is a bad thing. Sure, it's important to have strong leaders. But I could make the argument here that a government of, by and for the people SHOULD have lots of public opinion sampling.
Ceci Connolly: Very good point. That's why we call it representative democracy. The tricky part comes in terms of leadership. What do you do if a poll tells you you're constituents are evenly divided on an important issue? Sit on your hands? Keep your mouth shut?
Newington, CT: In your estimation, how long will the honeymoon that Bradley currently enjoys with the press last? Ditto George W.
Ceci Connolly: I'm glad you described it as honeymoon because that's what it is at the moment. These campaigns tend to roll up and down for a while, then settle into more of the hand-to-hand combat. With the early primary schedule next year, my guess is late fall and of course next January will be the real testing periods for these guys (and gal, excuse me).
Bob Levey: My pet wacko theory of the week: Texas Governor George Bush is doing so well in the polls because many voters think he's his father. Possible?
Ceci Connolly: Not such a crazy notion, Bob. There was an interesting survey Zogby did recently that showed George W.'s support fell and McCain's rose when the names were taken away and voters were read descriptions of each candidate. Still, the governor of Texas is not a totally invisible post and he's gotten a good bit of coverage lately so I don't think you can attribute his strong showing in the polls entirely to Daddy's name.
McLean, VA: About polls running the president's "style", I think more of us would like to see a president lead from a coherent vision of his -or hers- philosophy. Who are the "heavy" thinkers out there on the campaign trail ?
Ceci Connolly: Not sure who you are asking about. If you mean in terms of candidates, I guess I'd give credit to Bradley for being in the thinker category, though he has been a bit short of specifics to date. Gore has a cadre of "thinkers" many from Harvard who help him develop policy proposals. Bush has recruited a big team of advisers to help with substance.
Bob Levey: Lamar Alexander seems a bit sad, doesn't he?--chasing the brass ring year after year, never lighting a serious fire. Does he have any chance in 2000, especially now that he has parked his flannel shirt?
Ceci Connolly: Alexander's prospects at this point look slim, although I never like to make predictions this far out. The most troubling thing for Lamar at this stage is his very poor financial situation. He is actually in debt, a stark contrast from his fund-raising in the first quarter of 1995 when he had about $4 million. What do you think Bob, bring back the flannel shirt?
Springfield, VA: It seemed after Monicagate that America had had enough of Washington "sleaze". The stink isn't even completely gone and Post columnists are already comparing candidates like Dole, Bush, and Quayle unfavorably to Gore based on Gore's vast "experience". Why NOT someone who hasn't spent much of his life in Washington? What "experience" is needed that can't be more than compensated for by honesty, integrity, good decision-making, and the ability to choose and to listen to good advisors?
Ceci Connolly: Those are certainly the themes you will hear from candidates such as Bush, Dole and Bradley, though I could make an argument Dole and Bradley are pretty much Washington creatures too. It's always an interesting debate in political campaigns, whether we value experience (such as Gore's) or whether we are desperate for an outside (say, Ross Perot). Ultimately, that's what campaigns are all about. You get to decide.
Bob Levey: One more about Monica (I can't resist): Is it really possible that the scandal will not be discussed at all during the 2000 campaign, after eating up so much time and attention during 1998? Yes, I know that everyone seems to want to "move on." But wouldn't it be useful to debate how much of a politician's sex life should be private?
Ceci Connolly: I think the scandal will be discussed but I can't yet predict fully how it will play out. Gore, for example, is already being criticized by Republicans such as Quayle for praising Clinton throughout the controversy. Remember the day of the House impeachment vote when Gore stood at the White House and declared Clinton as one of the greatest presidents of all time? Bet we see that in a TV ad. On the broader question of a politician's sex life and how much of that, if any, belongs in a campaign debate, hard to say. So far, McCain and Bush have both attempted what I would call a modified acknowledgement policy. They have owned up to some mistakes in their personal lives (Bush drinking too much and McCain for the demise of his first marriage) but they've also said, "That's it, that's all you get." We'll see if that works.
rockville,md: Ms. Connelly responded to the idea of polling as part of a representative democracy by asking what a poll driven politician would do if constituents were evenly divided. I want to add by saying that being a real leader means that you may have to take unpopular positions. Abraham Lincoln led the country in an unpopular war because it had to be done. He expected to lose the election of 1864 but did what he knew to be right. Are there any politicians out there with the same amount of guts? Doubtful..
Ceci Connolly: That's a hard one and I can see why so many voters feel so disillusioned. I guess in defense of these pols I have to say the vast majority of them spend the vast majority of their time trying to do what they think is the right thing, even if we don't agree.
Bob Levey: In a story this past Sunday, you reported that Kosovo presents a looming problem for Al Gore. You quoted an expert as saying it may snag him in the same way that Vietnam snagged Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1968. But the two military situations are so very different--and every voter knows that a vice president doesn't make war policy. So how can Gore really be hurt by the bombing?
Ceci Connolly: You are right to note the differences in the two wars. Kosovo is in its second month, Vietnam was years. But if this drags on and even claims the lives of American soldiers, Gore will suddenly be associated with an unpopular war. In talking with the analysts, it is perhaps the starkest example of the bind vice presidents face politically. They don't get to make the policy or call the shots but they can easily be held accountable.
Bob Levey: Will President Clinton campaign for Al Gore? Will Al Gore want him to?
Ceci Connolly: I would say yes and yes. Clinton's public appearances for Gore may be limited to base Democratic audiences (depending on the president's popularity at the time) but I am certain both Clintons will do their part for Al Gore.
Bob Levey: I say Steve Forbes will keep spending billions in search of an issue, and will ultimately excite very few voters. And you say?....
Ceci Connolly: You know it's funny, the flat tax actually did excite some voters. Forbes' problem was twofold: he didn't have any other issue and he seemed like a quirky fellow voters couldn't warm up to in 1996. Forbes' money alone makes him a critical factor in the 2000 campaign and with his efforts to hire some very talented advisers and broaden his message we'll have to wait and see if he can translate that money into popular support.
Bob Levey: Gore leads Bradley in Democrats-only polls by 65 to 22 percent, according to recent coverage. Has any previous candidate ever held such a wide lead and FAILED to get the nomination?
Ceci Connolly: That is a wide gap, although I've seen polls that show the Democratic nomination a bit tighter than that. I'm not aware of too many candidates blowing that big a lead in the polls, but strange things happen every election season. That's why my job is so much fun.
That'll do it for today. Many thanks to our excellent guest, Ceci Connolly. Be sure to join us next Tuesday, May 4, when politics will again be the order of the day. Our guest will be Joe Andrew, newly named national chair of the Democratic National Committee. And don't forget the anything-goes version of our show. It's called "Levey Live: Speaking Freely." It appears each Friday from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern time.