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Crossfire

Robert Novak's Gives His Vision for Victory in 2000

Aired January 19, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: One of the original boys on the bus, the star reporter/syndicated columnist has covered Congress, campaigns and elections for over 40 years for the Associated Press, "The Wall Street Journal," the "New York Herald Tribune," and "The Chicago Sun-Times," just to name a few.

Though he is neither a member of nor a spokesman for the Republican Party -- in fact, he's a registered Democrat, oh, horrors -- he remains a conservative icon. Why? Because he writes books like his latest, "Completing the Revolution: A Vision for Victory in 2000," also known as straight talk for Republican wimps.

He says the GOP has no courage, no convictions, no control, and little hope for any of the above ever, unless they follow his 10-point agenda covering money, society and power in campaign 2000. So the Corvette-driving conscientious conservative, Bob Novak, in the CROSSFIRE.

Simply put, is he right, Bill?

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: No courage, no convictions, no control -- I couldn't have said it better myself.

Mr. Novak, good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

I want to start with a quote from your book, which I think, Mr. Novak, will be on your tombstone when you die, couldn't write a better epitaph. Here's what Mr. Novak says -- quote -- "I have said many times that God put the Republicans on Earth to cut taxes. If they don't cut taxes, they have no overriding rational for existence." And knowing you, I know you're serious when you write that.

Now, believe it or not, I don't have anything against cutting taxes, but...

ROBERT NOVAK, AUTHOR, "COMPLETING THE REVOLUTION": Well, that's assumed.

MATALIN: Yes.

PRESS: ... I do -- I do question whether the number -- whether they should be the No. 1 priority. I mean, seriously, whatever you think -- educating our children, keeping America strong militarily, preserving the environment -- aren't all of those things more noble than cutting taxes as a goal?

NOVAK: If there's anything more onerous than the government taking money, hard-earned money away from people -- and in this country, they tax it three times, Bill. They tax it when you earn it, they tax it when you earn interest in it, and they tax it when you die. I can't think of any greater cause for government than to reverse this process, give the money back to the people.

It incidentally helps the economy to have lower taxes, but what it really is, is only fair that the government should get smaller and that the private liberties and freedom of people should get larger.

PRESS: Now, I hear you saying that, but if that's true, why don't you see that reflected more in the people?

I want to take a look at one of your favorite pollsters -- you quote him all the time -- John Zogby, up in New Hampshire polling independents. Last April he did three top issues. They said crime, foreign policy, morality. In August, three top issues: health care, education, Social Security. This month: education, health care, foreign policy.

Bob, where are taxes? Taxes don't even show up on the list.

NOVAK: It's because they're afraid they're going to give the wrong answer. They think they are...

PRESS: The people?

NOVAK: Yes, the people. It's what I refer to the book as the mental-health syndrome. When mental health was a big issue a long time ago, when you were just a little boy, Bill, they had -- people would say, do you care about mental health? They'd say, yes, that's a big issue. Well, they didn't care, but they thought they were supposed to say it.

People want to have their tax money back. It's enormously important to them, but they have been so terrorized by the media, by the academics and by the politicians, that they're afraid to say so.

PRESS: Well, if they're not truthful on one poll, it looks like they're not truthful on all of them. Let me show you another one.

NOVAK: Well, I didn't say that.

PRESS: CNN/"USA Today" just finished another poll. Most important issues -- I just want to read through the issues without getting into percentages -- here are the top 12, starting at the top: education, raising children, health costs, security. Next tier: taxes, moral standards, president's character, economy. Third tier: world affairs, campaign finance reform, trade, and gay rights.

Bob, I read your book, I know your ten-point agenda. Of your agenda, taxes makes the second tier, foreign policy, global trade and finance reform make the third tier. Term limits and abortion don't even make the list at all. So aren't you afraid you're a little out of step with the American people?

NOVAK: I don't give a damn. I am not a politician. But I would tell you this: I say in the book, the Republicans have been Clintonized. They are so terrified of Clinton, they have been beaten by him, that they are taking -- they are using the same techniques that Bill Clinton uses, and those techniques are polls, focus groups. And instead of having the courage to do what is the right thing -- they'll be better off if they do that.

Now, I'll tell you something else. Ronald Reagan, when he cut taxes against the wishes of many people in the Republican Party, he didn't look at the polls, I guarantee you, and he was elected and it saved the economy.

MATALIN: Tax cutting, of course, is about freedom, liberty, what our founders divined for us -- which is all in this wonderful book, which will soon be on the best-seller list, particularly after this show.

All right, I agree with that -- disagree with that -- but don't necessarily agree with many of the painful things you said about the Congress. Starting with, right at the beginning: "It is impossible to govern the country effectively from Capitol Hill." And then you go on to disparage those that were there, saying -- commenting on their inability to lead.

If it's impossible to govern from Capitol Hill, then why are they -- why are you so down on them for their inabilities to do it?

NOVAK: Well, they show it's impossible because they lack courage, and because they are professional politicians. They are much more worried about the next election, about keeping their majority, about keeping their seats, than they are about having the courage do right thing.

But there is no question that a strong president -- and I am not talking about George Bush Sr., I'm talking...

MATALIN: We'll get to that, we'll get to that.

NOVAK: ... I am talking about Bill Clinton -- can always dominate the Congress, particularly when you have weak and ineffective leadership such as the Republican Congress has had for the last five years.

MATALIN: So you don't think that this Congress particularly ascending to the majority, or their effort to ascend to the majority, and preparing and discussing nationally an agenda, in any way changed the frame of the debate? Democrats used to never talk about cutting taxes, paying for their programs, welfare reform -- that's a sea change in American politics brought on by Republicans.

NOVAK: What's caused the sea change was the defeat in the polls, 1994, of President Clinton -- of the Democrats after President Clinton's health care went down. And that is the greatest service to the conservative cause that Newt Gingrich had. He was a visionary who could look forward to winning the election, but once in the speakership, he was a miserable speaker because he was interested in his own aggrandizement, his own accumulation of his fortune, and he was not interested in the -- in combating and confronting Bill Clinton.

I say in the book when the -- when Clinton out-stared the Republicans on the shutdown of the government in '95, it was all over.

MATALIN: Well, we're not going -- we're just -- well, let's go to one issue you can ask, one issue because I do agree generally with that, but we have long disagreed on one of your ten points.

NOVAK: Only one you have disagreed with? You're really unusual.

MATALIN: This is about term limits. You have been forever for term limits, yet you conclude the book talking about your hero, Thomas Brackett Reed, of whom it was written by Barbara Tuchman: "Reed's whole life was in Congress and politics, in the exercise of representative government, with the qualification that for him it had to be exercised towards an end that he believed in."

Term limits treats the symptoms, not the cause.

NOVAK: Term limits is the silver bullet, Mary, because unless you have term limits, and not unilateral term limits, but term limits for everybody, you can't do the other things I talk about -- cutting taxes, ending the IRS system, privatizing Social Security -- because they're afraid they're going to lose their seat. And you know, we have term limits for presidents. Aren't you glad that Bill Clinton isn't running for a third term?

MATALIN: Well, that's an exception to the -- it's an exception to the rule.

Listen, the whole book is about freedom, and the cost of freedom is responsibility, and if you don't vote then you're abrogating your responsibility.

NOVAK: We have term (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

But I have another reform that might even do better than term limits, and that is to increase the size of the House of Representatives closer, closer to where it was...

MATALIN: Yes, let's have more of them.

NOVAK: ... to where it was when the Republic started with small districts where the Congressmen are closer to the people.

I want to have 2,000 members of the House of Representatives, paying the same amount would be annual salary of 27,000 a year. Let them make as much money, with full disclosure, on the outside. I guarantee you, at 27 grand a year, they are not going to stay around forever.

PRESS: On term limits, you and I agree, believe it or not. So let's get back to something...

NOVAK: Let me recheck that.

PRESS: Let me go back to -- let's go back to something we disagree on.

In your book, you suggest that the best course for taxes is to get rid of all federal taxes, and replace it -- that includes, to be fair, income tax, payroll tax, capital gains, the whole ball of wax...

NOVAK: And estate tax.

PRESS: ... and replace it -- and estate taxes -- replace it with a national sales tax, which you estimate would have to be about 23 percent. And of course your state and local tax would be on top of that. In California today, there are counties and cities that have seven-plus. So let's say 30 cents on the dollar. Do you really believe Americans would accept paying 30 cents sales tax on every dollar, Bob Novak?

NOVAK: I took a poll with John Zogby, and we indicated that when the people really understand what the issue is, that they control their taxes, Bill, they decide how much tax they're going to pay, because if they spend a lot of money, like Mary does and you do, they're going to pay a lot of tax. If they're prudent, like other people are, like I am...

MATALIN: Is Corvette driving prudent?

NOVAK: They don't spend that much tax.

And can you imagine that you don't have to tell the government how much you're making? You don't have anything at all. And as Bill Archer, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, says it's a tremendous boon for imports. We are going to really improve our trade.

PRESS: But Bob, for people at the lower end of the scale, there are necessities they're going to have to buy. I mean, you have no exceptions here.

NOVAK: Yes I do. I do. I have a rebate.

PRESS: You have a rebate, but no exceptions?

NOVAK: But we have a rebate.

PRESS: They pay for food, they pay for medicine, they pay on clothing, they pay -- couldn't they end up paying more in taxes under your plan than they do now?

NOVAK: Absolutely not, no way. No way, because they get a rebate of...

PRESS: Of $2,000. NOVAK: No, of $5,000, $4,000, $5,000. But there's one other thing, my income tax -- my sales tax plan is revenue-neutral, shouldn't be. There's going to be tax cuts. We can lower that as we shrink the size of government, reduce the amount of spending, and with this economy, you know, this is generating such huge surpluses, you don't need as much sales tax to bring in that revenue, so that rate will go down.

PRESS: Thirty cents on a dollar, you heard it here first.

OK, we're want to do this -- we're going to take a break. When we come back, we'll move into looking at 2000 a little bit. Are there any of the presidential candidates that walk on water? Are there any of the presidential candidates that Bob Novak would even vote for? We'll ask him when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Bob Novak seldom has a good word to say about Democrats, but in his new book, he doesn't have a lot of good things to say about Republicans either. So heading into the Iowa caucuses, what's his take on the current crop candidates?

In the CROSSFIRE tonight, our colleague and fellow co-host, famous for many things, most lately, famous for his new book "Completing the Revolution: A Vision for Victory in 2000" -- Mary.

MATALIN: All right, campaign 2000, this is -- just began today, the latest George W. Bush ad on taxes playing in those first and early pivotal states. If we can see that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, BUSH CAMPAIGN AD)

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't agree with leaving money in Washington D.C. And I darn sure don't agree with, you know, saying you're going to take $40 billion in employer-related benefits and have the people pay taxes on them. I think that's a mistake. If you abolish employer-related benefits, who could pay for a tax cut? It means that working people are going to have to pay those benefits.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATALIN: Now this is being called a negative campaign as the hotline said today, negative ads ain't what they used to be.

NOVAK: Nonsense. Nonsense.

MATALIN: But my question is this: If there's no courage, there's no convictions, the Republican Party stands for nothing. Here we are in our primaries fighting over taxes, not your preferred tax cut, but it is a tax cut. It's about shrinking government. The Democrats are fighting over growing government.

NOVAK: John McCain, who is ahead in the New Hampshire primary right now and as a respected Republican candidate, sounds like a Democrat. He sounds like Bill Press. He says we have to worry...

PRESS: That's why I like him.

MATALIN: We have to worry about too much taxes for the rich, plays the class warfare card. Now you know, Henny Youngman, used to say "How's your Wife? Compared to what?"

MATALIN: My own husband says that.

NOVAK: That's a story with George W. Bush. His tax plan is flawed. There's nothing to be done with the capital gains cut, no tax reform. This terrible system is there, but it's better than John McCain and better than we have. Mary, what happened was the Republicans had a failed Congress. You know as well as I do, after the '98 election, the members of the rank-and-file Republicans would like to kill the leadership of Congress, that's when Newt Gingrich resigned as speaker, and so what they did was they anointed somebody who they thought was attractive, had broad appeal beyond the Republican constituency -- George W. Bush -- and they said, this is the way we're going to get back to power.

MATALIN: Not just they, oh prince of darkness. How about you? Here's your list for the nominee. He should not be an incumbent senator. He should not come from D.C. He should have shown ability to win, preferably in a big state. He should be a governor, a former governor, should come from the South or California, should be able to attract women, and minorities, young people and union members, should be free of past controversy. That's the Novak list, that's George W. Bush.

NOVAK: And he passes all the tests. I'm saying that's the test that the Republicans put up. I think those are good tests. Those are not my tests. Those are the tests that the party leaders put up. But I will also on top of that like him to take my 10 points and say, this is my platform, and including a radical reform of the tax system.

PRESS: Bob Novak, you've been covering politics for a long time.

NOVAK: Yes, I have, Bill.

PRESS: A long time.

Bob, I'd like to show you how long you've been covering politics. Could you please look at the screen here and -- now this...

(LAUGHTER)

NOVAK: Who is that guy?

PRESS: There you are with your partner -- that's Roland Evans. I'm not sure I recognize that dapper guy on the right. But, Bob, one thing I want you to notice is even back then -- what was it, about 1910? -- you were wearing a pinstriped suit, but no vest. When did the vest start, Novak?

NOVAK: Well, the vest was an attempt to deal with my new growth. It just became a habit.

PRESS: I want to go back to something else in the book you said about George W. Bush -- quote -- "The early anointment of George W. Bush is not only a tremendous gamble for the Republicans, but a decision that minimizes -- in truth, neglects -- what the Republican Party needs to do to survive in the new century. The party leaders lining up behind Bush are placing all hope on an untried champion who may or may not share the philosophy needed to transform the government."

Roll of dice for the Republicans, Bob?

NOVAK: That's right. They're rolling the dice on what he'll do in office, whether he'll be as disappointing as his father. I trust that he won't be, because he was much better as governor than his father was as president. But the other gamble is, you know, everybody is on pins and needles in his first debate -- is he going to fall on his face? He didn't. He's getting better in the debates. I talked to Republicans. They're very much worried is he going to stand up to somebody as mean and unpleasant as Al Gore? And nobody really has the answer. So it's a double leap of faith: how he functions as a candidate and how he functions as a president.

PRESS: On one issue, John McCain has challenged the governor to say, he will support a permanent moratorium on Internet taxes, which McCain is for. No taxes on the Internet. Bush won't say that. He says he'll just extend the current moratorium. Isn't he, by saying that, leaving himself open to raising taxes?

NOVAK: I don't believe that. I don't think that the taxation of the Internet compares to these larger issues of this huge tax system, which is spilling out $2 trillion, it's now estimated, in income-tax surpluses, not the Social Security tax surpluses. And the idea that this isn't going to be used for tax cutting just makes me weak. The president of the United States, Bill Clinton, said today, with these surpluses, we can spend it all on health care. He -- they'll find a million things to spend it for.

PRESS: And Dennis Hastert yesterday said he's going to spend it to pay off the national debt.

NOVAK: Terrible.

PRESS: Has he read the book, Bob?

NOVAK: I guess he hasn't, because I say in here that Dennis Hastert -- who I like, my fellow Illinoisan, three of us all from Illinois, northern Illinois -- and Dennis wants to make the trains run on time, but there has to be something more for the Republican Party to do than that.

MATALIN: And here's what it is: freedom, liberty, tax cuts. You've got the right message.

We need the right message. Bill and I will be right back with our closing comments. Before we break, here's a tour of CNN's Web site, your first stop for the latest news from the campaign trail.

ANNOUNCER: Get on the campaign trail online. See live and on- demand video of major candidate debates and speeches, plus, get exclusive online analysis from all politics insiders. It's all at cnn.com/election2000.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: Tomorrow night, New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman steps into the CROSSFIRE with her take on this hot political season; again, that's tomorrow night, 7:30 p.m. Eastern. And this important programming note: Don't forget, we hit the road for a special edition of CROSSFIRE on Sunday night, live from Des Moines, Iowa, where the caucuses will be held on Monday. That's 7:30 p.m. Eastern, Sunday.

Mary, I have to tell you, I have never read a stronger indictment of this hapless GOP leadership in this Congress. You said it, no courage, no conviction, no control -- this is not Novak speaking, but me. The strongest argument for why Democrats will get control of the House back this year.

MATALIN: Don't chew up the clock. That's enough.

PRESS: That's it, that's what I have to say.

MATALIN: You know why he's a conservative icon? Because he has courage, he has convictions, he's been consistent over time. He's a direct descendant of those Jeffersonian principles of limited government and individual freedom. That's us, not you.

PRESS: And Bush is a roll of the dice.

From the left, I am Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: And from the right, I am Mary Matalin.

Join us again tomorrow night for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

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