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Q&A With Bob Levey
Tuesday, March 7, 2000

Bob Levey
Bob Levey
Craig Cola/washingtonpost.com
"Levey Live" appears each Tuesday at noon Eastern time. Your host is Washington Post columnist Bob Levey. This hour is your chance to talk directly to key Washington Post reporters and editors, local officials and people in the news.


“Super Tuesday” may make or break the presidential candidates. Can McCain attract more Republicans? Will Bradley revitalize his campaign? Will Gore and Bush secure their nominations? States participating include California, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York and Ohio.

E.J. Dionne
E.J. Dionne
Bob’s guest today is E.J. Dionne, Washington Post’s national political columnist since 1993. Before joining the Post as a political reporter in 1990, he spent 14 years at the New York Times covering national politics. His forthcoming book is “What’s God Got to Do With the American Experiment?”

In 1996, Dionne joined the Brookings Institution as a Senior Fellow in the Governmental Studies Program. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife and three children.

Below is today's discussion.

Arlington, VA: I'm curious about how long it would take for a insurgency within the political system to become a ruling organization. In the U.S., it took 16 years for the Bryan Democrats to come to power under Wilson and 16 years for the Goldwaterites to come to power with Reagan. Does this foretell that around 2016, the McCain followers would take over the GOP?

E.J. Dionne: Good question. It's worth remembering both the insurgencies that succeed (such as the ones you mentioned or the Goldwater movement that led to Reagan) and those that didn't. (The Progressive revolt in the G.O.P. in 1912 and 1924 had the result of pushing a lot of Progressive Republicans into the Democratic Party during the New Deal.

The problem with the McCain insurgency when it comes to changing the party ls that so much of the support for it comes from outside the Republican Party, from Independents and Democrats. It's not clear to me that these voters are prepared to enter the Republican Party to change it. It's possible the McCain revolt could change Democrats as much as the G.O.P. because Gore (and later Dems) badly need the moderate reform vote that McCain won.

Many thanks

Mt. Lebanon PA: How come the media megaliths that conduct the Presidential debates -e.g., Fox News, CNN, MSNBC] don't mix it up and have cross party debates during the primaries? Gore-Bush. Bradley-McCain. Or even better: all of them together? The same debate over and over again is putting me into snooze mode.

E.J. Dionne: Agree that more formats would be good. The problem is that debates with four, five or six candidates don't allow as much info to get through to voters as two or three person debates.

But here's a guess: The cross-over vote was so important this year that you may well see cross-party debates the next time. I always wanted to see a Bradley-McCain debate, since they were competing for some of the same voters.

All best.

Bob Levey: I usually start yawning real hard when I hear claims of media bias. And yet.... Yesterday's USA Today and New York Times both ran color photos of McCain over the fold, on a day when the polls showed him trailing in just about every state. Did this pass the E.J. Dionne smell test?

E.J. Dionne: Honest answer: I have no idea. My hunch: from the reports I heard, the McCain rallies seemed to be more raucous and may have made for better pictures. My experience is that picture folks care a lot more about the quality of the pictures than the content of the politics.

Silver Spring, MD: I am very displeased to see W pandering to the religious right, but there are some things in his past you don't hear much about. His miraculous entry into the Reserve, ahead of thousands of others who didn't have influential parents. Although he knew nothing of the oil drilling business, his father's friends were able to get him government loans. He paid himself a hefty salary, never found oil and defaulted on millions of dollars, sticking the taxpayer with the bill. Why doesn't anyone mention that? Won't this hurt him in November -assuming he gets the nomination-?

E.J. Dionne: Isn't it fair to say you know these things because they have been reported on in great detail? The Post ran a very long series of profiles on W that got into this, and many other newspapers and magazines have, too. In the heat of a campaign, the material that gets the most attention is the material candidates put into the dialogue. If McCain had wanted to go after any of these things, he could have.
Gore's people might.

I think you will be seeing many more profiles of W and more reporting on these and other aspects of his life.

All best

Arlington, VA: As I have said to you before on CNBC, you are the best at making predictions on coming trends but like l988, I don't see the voters in a mood to make a change, particularly with Al the streetfighter Gore so desperate to win. Do you think the Republicans can do it?

E.J. Dionne: If I were a bookie, which I'm not, I'd tilt the odds slightly to Gore at this point, assuming -- which we should not yet do -- that Bush wins the nomination. (1.) Bush had a tougher primary fight and was pushed farther right than Gore was pushed left, at least in public image terms, and (2.) Good times will make people wary of change.

But a Democrat I was talking with last night made a good point: Four months ago, we overestimated Bush. Now, we're probably underestimating Bush.

If McCain pulls this off, the whole analysis is different. As I've written in the paper, McCain at least has the potential of drawing in that "radical Middle" that flocked to Ross Perot in 1992 and could create a different GOP majority. But he has to get the nomination, for which he is now the underdog.

Thanks for the kind words.

All best

Bob Levey: What's going on behind the Republican scenes? Is Bush getting calls by the ton from polls around the country who are nervous?

E.J. Dionne: They're a whole lot less nervous today than they were the day after the Michigan primary or the day after New Hampshire. The striking thing is how much the party rallied to Bush and stuck with him. Bush would have to do unexpectedly poorly tonight for that to change, I think

Silver Spring Maryland: If the primaries today really do decide it will be Gore vs. Bush in November, will the remaining primaries be conducted as precludes to November? In other words, who really will care about the rest of the primaries?

E.J. Dionne: As a DC voter who can't cast a ballot until May, I've been thinking about that question. Mainly, the candidates will spend what money they have left in key states and look toward the general election. People will vote in primaries to register either their support for the nominee or a protest. (In 1992, Paul Tsongas kept getting a rather good vote, even after he dropped out.)


Norman, Ok: Mr. Dionne:
What do you think of the influence that Al Sharpton has ostensibly had on the New York primary? Is he a positive influence? Thanks

E.J. Dionne: To put it mildly, I would not say he's a positive influence and clearly Gore and Bradley don't think so either, since they gave rather complicated, some would say convoluted, replies to a question about Sharpton in the last debate. Don't count on Gore spending a lot of time with Sharpton in the future. A hunch: Some top NY Democrat will tell Sharpton he needs to apologize for the more outrageous things he's said and done in the past and try, as best he can, to live up to his new image (or at least the image he's claiming). We'll see.

Thanks, E.J. Dionne

Mt. Rainier: I REALLY like the title of your new book - sounds like a must read! What influence do you think the religious conservatives will have in the future? I think GW should be a warning to them. Having hitched themselves to the GOP, they now have very little influence on someone who counts on their votes -they won't vote for Dems, sure- and gives their agenda only lip service.

E.J. Dionne: Many thanks. My sense has been that their influence was in decline, but that paradoxically, McCain's attack may have united them in a way they could not have been united otherwise. Bear in mind that a lot of religious conservatives are not part of somebody's machine but simply have conservative views on social issues (school prayer, abortion) and vote for candidates with those views.

Longer run: I think there's disillusionment in the Christian conservative movement and Bush, if he wins the nomination, will try to disentangle himself some from them. Gore will try to prevent his doing that. I've written a fair amount about this in the last year if you have access to past Post stuff.

Also: a key is turnout. In 1998, religious conservatives didn't;t boost their turnout thew way union and environmental voters did, one reason the Dems did well in '98.

All best

Beltsville, MD: Unquestionably, Bill Bradley is the visionary and Al Gore is the bureaucrat. Why hasn't Americans embraced Bradley's altruistic educational, social, and fiscal visions of inclusiveness, which, I feel, sorely need to be implemented in the continuing societal drama of the rich majority getting richer and the poor minority getting poorer?

E.J. Dionne: A column I wrote on the problems with the Bradley campaign is still on the website, and that may give you a fuller answer. Briefly, I think Bradley let McCain gain the upper hand as the reformer in New Hampshire, the bulk of the McCain/Bradley Independents moved to McCain and Bradley found himself just short of victory. It's worth remembering: Bradley only lost NH by about 7,000 votes. I think he needed to challenge McCain more directly. (I interviewed a lot of McCain/Bradley voters in NH and watched as they fell disproportionally to McCain.)

Then the political calendar just ground Bradley up, since Dems had no contests and McCain was the news.

Also, Bradley needed to reply strongly and much earlier to Gore's criticisms of the health plan.

The column says more, but thanks for the question.s

Bob Levey: I was surprised to read your column in late January--the one where you said that Gore can now embrace Clinton more closely because the country doesn't hate Old Bill quite as much as it did. Really? What happened to Clinton Fatigue and Clinton Disgust? And won't Gore be pummeled by the Republican nominee with TV clips about the Clinton-Gore fundraising mess?

E.J. Dionne: I said that though it goes too far to say so, Clinton Fatigue now has a competitor in Clinton nostalgia. Key to understanding public opinion on Clinton, I think, is this: About 35, perhaps 40 percent of the country can't stand him. They are mostly Republicans. Another 35 to 40 percent is deeply loyal to him, mostly Democrats. Democrats vote in primaries, which is why attitudes toward Clinton were helping Gore.

For people with more complex or mixed views, I think distance from impeachment means that people look just a little less at the things they dislike about Clinton--we know what those things are--and more at what they like, including, of course, the economy.

Fairfax, VA: Mr., Dionne,
I am a big fan of your writing, in the Post and the Sunday Post Magazine. I have a radical suggestion for campaign reform, to help eliminate negative campaigning.

Every time a candidate spends more time talking about his opponents record and or views, they should get smacked upside the head. Literally smacked upside the head. That should keep them focused on THEIR OWN records & views, as they should be.

E.J. Dionne: Corporal, though not capital, punishment, eh?

Don't know how we'd adjudicate when the smack would come, but I love your submission and want to pass it on to everyone else.

Many thanks for your kind words.

Herndon, VA: What are your thoughts about a national primary day, an outgrowth of Super Tuesday, on which all primary states would hold their elections? On the one hand the primary season would be foreshortened, but on the other hand lesser-known candidates -like Jimmy Carter in 1980- wouldn't have the chance to make their cases, thus increasing the role of money and the influence of wealthy donors.

E.J. Dionne: I'm not a fan of national primaries because I think too much of the campaign is just about the media and airport rallies, and a national primary would make that problem worse. Money would also play an even bigger role. Ideally, I'd love a rotating group of smaller states up front, giving some group of voters a chance to see the candidates up close and the media a chance to do the same. New Hampshire an Iowa now serve that purpose, and I still think they play a valuable role.

Probably the best thing would be to keep New Hampshire and Iowa upfront (they won't give up) and have regional primaries. But here's the problem: I don't think there is any good solution to this. The race will get decided fairly early as long as there is a big block of states that votes together, as they do today. McCain, of course, could make that statement wrong by winning New York and the popular vote in California today. We'll see what happens.

Annandale, VA: The title of your new book sounds interesting. Could you provide some additional details about it? Thanks.

E.J. Dionne: It's a collection of essays from many different points of view on the subject. (I'm the editor with my friend John DiIulio and have a piece plus an introduction.) I think you can find out more at the Brookings Institution web site (www.brook.edu). All best.

Laurie: What is going to hurt more? McCain slamming the Virginia God Squad or W jumping into bed with them?

Did the fact that Bill Bradley did not want to talk about his religious beliefs add to his unglamorous "image"?

Even as a Democrat, I am not sure that I can bring myself to vote for Al Gore. There is something about him that bothers me and I cannot explain it.

Have a great day.

E.J. Dionne: On Bradley: I think most people, including very religious people, respect a candidate who decides he won't talk about his religion in public. He got some criticism for this, but not much.

McCain hurt himself in the short run. If he loses New York and the popular vote in California tonight, you can say he hurt himself in the long run, too, by getting off his reform message. If he wins one or both, people will start saying maybe it was a smart thing to do after all. (Punditry follows the election returns.) As for Bush, he has a general election problem with moderates that he'll have to solve.

As for your last point, only Mr. Gore will be able to resolve it. I've heard this from some other Dems, though I think he's better off today than he was in October.

Thanks, E.J. Dionne

Mt. Rainier : Mr. Dionne, didn't I once read that you were born Canadian? If so, why did you ever leave such a sensible, polite country for this zoo? -Better writing material, perhaps?-

E.J. Dionne: I do love Canada, but I was born in the US of French-Canadian/Quebec stock. (I say both not to raise a big issue up there.) My people started coming down to New England as far back as the 1850s or 1860s and the last one in, my mother's mother, came in 1898. French was my first language (so please forgive my writing!) and I spent summers when I was 5 or 6 on my cousins' farm in Quebec.

I've traveled around Canada a lot and look forward to bringing my kids there.

Thanks for your sensible, polite e-mail. All best

Monterey, CA: What happened to wooden Al. Isn't it true that although he now shouts louder and frequently appears personally "disappointed" in his opponent's tactics, this is still the same Gore at heart, not a great campaigner and extremely vulnerable to Bush's much more personal style. Burning his tie does not make Al, Betty Freidan.

E.J. Dionne: That will be in the eye of the beholder. Here's the competition as I see it: Most people think Gore is smart, well-versed on issues. Bush seemed for a while to have a nice guy, easy-going image going, and he may recapture it. Gore will try to prove he's the smarter candidate, more capable, and that his personality is not so bad. Bush will try to look like the easier guy to live with for four years and that he's smarter than he's given credit for.

In general: Gore does look better today than he did four months ago, but he has a way to go--which I suspect he and his campaign know.

Thanks for writing.

Bob Levey: Where did this nonsense about McCain being a liberal come from? As you wrote on Feb. 11, when you asked Sen. Paul Wellstone about this, he broke up laughing. Yet lots of bedrock Republicans are starting to believe it. Why?

E.J. Dionne: It's the enemy of my enemy is my friend theory. (Or the friend of my enemy is my enemy theory.) It comes mostly, I think, from McCain's strong stand in favor of campaign finance reform and the fact that many Republican politicians and many organized Republican groups fear what McCain's reforms would do. Such groups (the National Right to Life Committee or the Christian Coalition, for example) have gone after McCain and he's responded, looking even less like a conservative.

Also: McCain's position on taxes is much more moderate than Bush's, who is an unapologetic supply-side tax cutter.

Mt. Rainier: I wonder if the problem many of us have with Gore is that he appeared to be such a Boy Scout four years ago. And definitely the image is smudged with fundraising tactics. Falling off the pedestal hurts more than never being on the pedestal, I think. Bet nobody thinks GW is anything like a Boy Scout.

E.J. Dionne: That's a good analysis. I do think Gore was hurt because his Boy Scout image as you put it clashed with the fund-raising mess. The Gore campaign is hoping that if Bush is his opponent, it will be harder for the GOP to make fund-raising a central issue. We'll see. many thanks

Warrenton, VA: Assuming that Al Gore will wrap up the Democratic nomination today, do you think there could be any major surprises on the Republican side? McCain has provided some unpredictability in earlier races. Could that happen in any of these states?

E.J. Dionne: Possible surprises:

Bush wins Connecticut (McCain now favored)
McCain wins Ohio (Bush now strongly favored, but one poll puts McCain closer than the others.)

Less surprising, but possible: McCain wins New York and California. popular vote.

Bear in mind, these are surprises, not predictions!

Thanks for writing.

Pendleton, Oregon: While the world will little note nor long
remember the various candidates, who would be
some possible, even useful, running mates for
Gore and Bush? Who are they likely to pick?

E.J. Dionne: Names that float around:

For Bush: McCain, Hagel, Ridge, Mrs. Dole and lots of others.
Gore: Hunt, Bayh, Kerrey, Kerry, Richardson, Feinstein.

For McCain: one Bush or the other.

Best EJ

E.J.>Bob Levey: If I were a headline writer (I once was), I'd call it "Turnout After Turnoff." In other words, everyone was worried that Clinton's escapades would make people run screaming away from politics. Yet we've seen record turnouts in Michigan and elsewhere in 2000. Why so?

E.J. Dionne: It shows we should all be wary of predictions of all sorts. Here are the factors that I see: 1. McCain has an appealing personal story that turned some people on. 2. His reform message drew out some of the disaffected voters. 3. Many conservatives takeover of GOP and turned out for Bush. 4. People know this is an important election and an open one. (And we'll see what happens to turnout after the primaries are over.)

Bob Levey: Many thanks to that peach of a pundit, E. J. Dionne. Be sure to join us next week for a discussion of D.C. area real estate with The Post's new real estate editor, Maryann Haggerty. Meanwhile, no life is complete without "Levey Live: Speaking Freely," the anything-goes version of this show. LLSF appears Fridays from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern time.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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