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Evans, Novak, Hunt & Shields

Sen. Chuck Hagel Discusses His Support for John McCain's Presidential Bid

Aired February 12, 2000 - 5:30 p.m. ET

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

AL HUNT, CO-HOST: I'm Al Hunt. Robert Novak and I will question one of Republican presidential candidate John McCain's leading supporters.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: He is Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice over): The contrast between Senator McCain and Texas Governor George W. Bush in next Saturday's potentially decisive South Carolina primary, this week turned into a bitter battle of negative ads.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, BUSH CAMPAIGN AD)

NARRATOR: McCain says he's the only candidate who can beat Gore on campaign finance...

NARRATOR: But these investigations reveal McCain solicits money from lobbyists with interests before his committee and pressures agencies on behalf of contributors.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, MCCAIN CAMPAIGN AD)

MCCAIN: I guess it was bound to happen. Governor Bush's campaign is getting desperate with a negative ad about me. His ad twists the truth like Clinton.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOVAK: And on Friday, Senator McCain signaled a change in strategy.

MCCAIN: Last night I thought about it and called in my staff and said we can't be involved in these kind of campaign activities no matter what. We're pulling our response ad off the airwaves. We will put up positive ads. We will run no attack response, or any other kind of negative advertising for the rest of this campaign.

BUSH: It's an old Washington trick. It's the bait and switch trick. He runs ads for 18 days defining me for something I'm not. Then all of a sudden says, OK, let's all quit.

NOVAK: Chuck Hagel is one of only four Senate colleagues who is supporting John McCain for president.

A highly decorated infantryman who was twice wounded in the Vietnam War, he was President Reagan's deputy director of veterans' affairs and was elected to the Senate four years ago.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NOVAK: Senator Hagel, after Senator McCain ran such an effective campaign in New Hampshire on a positive basis, did he make a mistake in going down to South Carolina and going negative?

SEN, CHUCK HAGEL (R), NEBRASKA: I think there was a mistake made. What John's campaign essentially did is engage in a fist fight in the swamp with Governor Bush and his team. I don't think that's what America wants to see. I think American wants to see some mature leadership. America wants to see candidates who define themselves, not the other guy, and tell America what they believe and how they would lead America.

We did make a mistake and I'm very proud of John for his actions to say no we're not going to do that and he's always said I'm not afraid to lose, but we are going to do this with some dignity and some class. And I would hope that Governor Bush responds in kind.

NOVAK: Well, as Governor Bush said, for 18 days Senator McCain ran this spot comparing him -- comparing Governor Bush to President Clinton, which we just ran in the introduction to the broadcast.

Senator, do you think that as Governor Bush says, that was going over the line to compare George W. Bush to Bill Clinton?

HAGEL: Oh, it was ridiculous. We made a mistake. And I think Governor Bush's people have made some terrible mistakes as well in trying to connect John to this muddiness about liberals and Al Gore's tax cuts and lobbyists and went before the FCC trying to do something special for a campaign contributor as chairman of the Commerce Committee.

No, what's happened here is that we have allowed ourselves to get into a brawl, this glancing blow nonsense of who's got the cutest, glibbest little sound bite.

We have to stop it and I hope Governor Bush does too.

But now, we made some mistakes. But we're going to get out of it. We're going to talk straight and that's what McCain is about.

HUNT: Senator, let me pick up on one of those. You were the chairman of a fund-raising dinner in Washington the other night that raised $500,000. Governor -- for Senator McCain -- Governor Bush claims that that's an example of the senator's hypocrisy, namely that the talks reform and then shakes down the special interests. I think he puts it -- he gives them hell and then passed the hors d'oeuvres. How do you answer that?

HAGEL: Well, first of all that's a new number for me -- a $.5 million. I think it's probably, the reality of it, it's closer to $200, $250,000, but that's beside the point.

First of all, John McCain has talked about cleaning up the campaign finance system on soft money -- unaccountable soft money -- money that goes into the system, flushes through the system, that nobody knows about, where it's coming out at the other end, what ads are being paid for. And that's what he's talking about. He's not talking about the right of lobbyists or a lawyer or a teacher or anyone else to give their $1000 or a PAC contribution. There's a big difference here.

And so why wouldn't -- or shouldn't -- an individual be allowed to make a contribution? They're buying into John McCain. When they give a $1000 or $200 or whatever it is, they know where McCain is on the soft money issue.

HUNT: But he's also talked about breaking the iron triangle of lobbyists, contributors and legislation. And yet, the campaign, the Bush people say is full -- the McCain campaign -- is full of lobbyists starting with the campaign chairman.

HAGEL: Well, what do you want people to do if they believe in John, but if they have a job that has something to do with the government or a corporation -- disqualify themselves and not participate?

The point of it is what John is talking about and many of the lobbyists themselves are responding to and there is a great cheer that went up last week when John talked about fund-raising and breaking that hold on the iron triangle, the blackmail that essentially is being used over these corporations by both parties -- Democrats and Republicans -- you give that $.5 million in soft money or a $1 million, or $250,000 or there will be consequences.

If anybody doesn't believe that's happening, that's nonsense. It does happen. That's what John is talking about.

HUNT: Final quick question is, are these Bush people privately, and a few publicly, are saying if McCain is nominated, the Keating Five episode 10 years ago will come back to haunt him. How do you answer that?

Well, that's an issue that has been thoroughly aired. John's background is going to be thoroughly aired, as it should be. He has answered every question and he is prepared to answer every other question. And that's part of his background. So, bring it on, whatever the issue is.

But I might also say Al, that surely as the polls have now started to indicate, John McCain would be far the stronger Republican candidate for president against Al Gore in November. And that's what's starting to set in around here, what's making a lot of the Republicans very uneasy about John McCain's strength against Al Gore, or any Democrat.

NOVAK: Senator, to just follow up Al's questions. There is a fund-raiser in Atlanta tomorrow tonight for the McCain campaign by TransAir, which is the successor of ValuJet. It's a company that has business before his Commerce Committee. Does that bother you at all?

HAGEL: Well, not really. First of all it's all open. The press has been invited; it's all accountable. Eighty percent of America's business interests come before John's committee. So, again, are we going to ask 80 percent of America to disassociate themselves from John, if they support John?

They know exactly where John is on these issues. And so I think it's a lot of nonsense and again I would hope that the team of Governor Bush would stop some of this Chairman McCain nonsense and all the rest because what America really wants to hear and see -- for both of these people -- is what they would do about Iraq, Iran, prescription drugs. And the nonsense that we're all getting ourselves sucked into here doesn't elevate the debate in this country.

NOVAK: Senator, Senator McCain has implied that Governor Bush is not really prepared for the presidency. Do you think Governor Bush is prepared to be president?

HAGEL: Well, I would say this that campaigns are about defining the differences between two candidates. I have said that I think John McCain is better prepared to be President of the United States than George Bush. And the reason I say that is if you look at the experience base, you look at where John McCain has been. So, I think between the two he's better prepared.

Does that mean that George Bush couldn't be president or shouldn't be president? If he's the nominee we're all going to support him but I think you also have to find yourself in some reference Bob. Which other presidents have we had, that have had the same tag on them, if Bush if the nominee, not prepared?

NOVAK: Just for the record, I would like to have you listen to yourself, something you said to us a year ago -- just about a year ago. Let's take a look at it.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HAGEL: I think that those two probably are the preeminent candidates for President of the United States on the Republican side.

I would be very comfortable with either one...

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NOVAK: Do you still stand by that? You would be comfortable with either one?

HAGEL: Well, I would be comfortable with either one being our nominee sure. But as I said, I think as we're defining this, what a primary is about, is that John McCain is better prepared. HUNT: Senator, as you know, a supporter of Governor Bush, a self-styled veterans leader in South Carolina last week, criticized John McCain while he was standing right next -- the supporter was standing right next to Governor Bush -- that John McCain had forgotten about veterans when he came back from Vietnam. You and four other Vietnam combat veterans in the Senate -- all of the others are Democrats -- blasted that assertion and called on Governor Bush to apologize.

But the chief Bush strategist Karl Rove last weekend, not only didn't apologize, but he said there was really something untoward about John McCain getting aid and comfort from Democratic senators.

(LAUGHTER)

HAGEL: Well, that's part of the problem with the Bush campaign. They have allowed the parochialism of a campaign to overtake the honesty and goodness of what this effort should be about, and that is making America better, and recognizing the fact that where some acknowledgement is due, that both Bush and McCain have done good things for their country and their party. But to capture -- to try to capture the essence of their own campaign by being better or better prepared by downgrading of all things...

HUNT: Do you think McCain would be...

HAGEL: ... veterans, is silly.

HUNT: ... would be appreciably better on veterans' issues than George Bush?

HAGEL: Well, it is complete folly, absolutely ridiculous, to take John McCain on veterans' issues and say he has not been an advocate of veterans' issues. You can measure that my any means.

I would say this and part of the problem that we have here and it has incited some of us -- the party which you belong to -- Republican or Democrat -- is not more important than service to your country.

Now some of my fellow Republicans don't believe that or don't accept that, but I will always go to the common denominator issue whether they be Independent, Democrat or Republican, the service to one's country is more important than the party. And that's where we should stay focused and I think the Bush people made a terrible mistake in trying to degrade John McCain's service indirectly by saying that he hasn't served veterans.

HUNT: Senator Hagel, on that note, will take a break now and we will be back to talk to Chuck Hagel about campaign finance reform, and taxes.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NOVAK: Senator Chuck Hagel, your candidate Senator McCain says he is against any reduction in the top marginal income tax rates which were passed in the Clinton tax bill of 1993. George W. Bush says he would cut them. If a bill to cut those tax rates came before the Senate, would you vote for it?

HAGEL: Yes, I would. I have some disagreement personally with that. But I think we should step back and frame this in the totality of where you have to come out. McCain's basic point is responsible leadership. That means paying down the debt. That means Social Security reform, Medicare reform and tax cuts. And let's not forget these are projected surpluses.

I used to have a real job. I was in business. And there is not a businessman in the world that I know of who would stake anything for the future of his country on 10-year or five-year projections. So we're not sure -- also the other thing that's not getting any play in this, Bob, is spending. Nobody wants to talk about spending.

NOVAK: But you would still vote for the...

HAGEL: Well, it depends on how much it would be. I mean, what's the total and complete. But -- I know you want to get through this quickly -- but let me add one other thing.

Where we're missing -- the generalists are missing this, we're all missing this -- is we take pieces of it and then we seize that one piece. And you can't do that in this business. It's got to be the completeness of the package...

NOVAK: Well, Armey sees 30 pieces in the package. There are 30 so-called loophole closures proposed by Senator McCain, and coincidentally, every one of them has been proposed by President Clinton. Does that give you heartburn at all?

HAGEL: No. I mean, are we saying here that President Clinton has never done anything responsible or has never done actually in eight years anything good? No, there are some things that I agree with, with Clinton, and some of those loopholes I think do need to be closed. And I think we are living through this defining time in American politics -- responsible governance -- when we can do it.

So I think John is exactly right.

HUNT: Senator, is that projecting $1.9 trillion non-Social Security surplus over 10 years, of course, assumed spending caps which Congress has already broken, Clinton is going to ignore. What do you think the surplus really is more likely to be over 10 years? And what effect would the Bush tax cuts have on that?

HAGEL: The Bush taxes -- the Bush tax cuts would be disastrous. My sense, and I've looked at these numbers and projected them out. I'm not an expert, but I think realistically we could look on budget to $1.9 trillion that you're talking about here over the next 10 years would be more like a half a trillion, $500 billion over 10 years. I think that's the realistic number that you're talking about.

Are you kidding me? We're now going to continue to spend on education and health and all the other discretionary areas? We're going to break the caps this year. We're going to have to amend them. We broke them last year. We were just dishonest about it. This flow of funding and all the nonsense that we came up with. That's what McCain has drilled on. That's why, by the way, some of his colleagues up here are a little upset with him thinking about the possibility of him being president.

HUNT: The other issue is you're on his campaign finance reform and the abolition of soft money. And yet every time there was a chance, you voted against John McCain on that, and I think you've taken soft money in your PAC. Isn't there a great contradiction between you and John McCain here?

HAGEL: No. We both agree that the system needs reform. My approach is different. I don't think that constitutionally you can disallow so-called soft money. I have a bill, and I hope my bill makes some good progress. It, I understand, will get a hearing in Rules Committee in the Senate in March. But what I do is limit soft money to $60,000 a year as we limit hard money. But more to the point, I think the real issue in campaign finance reform is disclosure.

These nutty ads that are going on down in South Carolina against John McCain, we really don't know much about who put them on, why they were put on, who's spending, where the money is coming from. That's where you need to get to, the disclosure.

NOVAK: Senator Hagel, you are one of only four Republican senators who are supporting Senator McCain for president out of 55 Republican senators. And in fact, several of your colleagues took time off from the Senate this past week to come down and campaign against Senator McCain. What is John McCain's problem with his colleagues?

HAGEL: Well, I might add I'm very proud and honored to be a member of that...

NOVAK: Quartet?

HAGEL: ... that band of four merry caballeros who are tilting our lance and doing good.

You would have to ask each individual senator what...

NOVAK: What's your feeling?

HAGEL: I think a couple of things. Number one, let's understand the dynamics of this. Governor Bush got into this two years ago. I mean, this thing was being put together by his dad and a lot of people two years ago. John McCain was winning his third term for re-election in November of 1998, by the way, by 70 percent of the vote, third term.

He didn't get into this until March of last year. By then a lot of the Republican establishment, leadership, all -- many of my colleagues -- had already been committed.

Second, John unnerves a lot of people. I mean, he is sincere when he says I will upset the status quo in this town.

NOVAK: Quickly, because we've got less than a minute to go before we take a break, can you name one reform that Senator McCain has passed in the Senate?

HAGEL: Sure, the line-item veto.

NOVAK: That was unconstitutional, though.

HAGEL: Well, you didn't ask that question.

(LAUGHTER)

Line-item veto -- what the court does is -- I mean, poor John McCain, you're going to blame that on him, too. He was the one who forced that. You can take Y2K liability, you can take Social Security reform, gift ban reform in the Senate, he led that.

HUNT: Let me...

HAGEL: And then he led 10 or 12 or them...

HUNT: Just for a second. You just got back from Russia. And we only have a few seconds left. Do you think that Putin is -- the former KGB agent -- is a real democrat with a small "D" and reformer, or are we going to go back to the old days?

HAGEL: Al, I think we will see within six months after he elected next month, and I suspect he will be, what kind of a leader Putin is going to be.

HUNT: Are you optimistic?

HAGEL: I am optimistic about him -- careful, very careful -- we have to be. But there are some signs out there that I think are very troubling, but there are also some positive signs. But I don't think it's going to take as long to find this guy out. I think within six months we will know what he's about.

HUNT: OK, we will be back in a moment with "The Big Question" for Chuck Hagel.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HUNT: And now "The Big Question."

Senator, you politicians hate to jump ahead with answering conjectural questions I know. But if John McCain wins South Carolina, wins Michigan, wins California and gets the nomination, there is already talk about the ideal running mate: Texas Governor George W. Bush. What do you think of that ticket?

HAGEL: I think it would be a great ticket.

HUNT: So, it's kind of an endorsement? Would he be the first choice if McCain is the nominee as McCain's running mate? HAGEL: Well, it's not my choice to make, it's John McCain's. But I think that would be a very strong ticket, a McCain-Bush ticket.

NOVAK: Let me put the shoe on the other foot. What if Senator McCain doesn't win the nomination and George W. Bush won it? Senator McCain has said absolutely, he would not accept the vice presidential nomination from Governor Bush. Would you, as his friend, urge him to reconsider that flat rejection in the interest of party loyalty and party unity and a strong ticket?

HAGEL: Yes, I would ask him to reconsider for the interest of -- not about party -- our country.

NOVAK: Now our colleague Mark Shields has said that the ideal ticket is a McCain-Hagel ticket. Are you actively campaigning for the vice presidency?

HAGEL: Well, the standard answer we all give is, are you crazy? No, who would want that terrible job?

No, I'm just a modest United States senator from Nebraska trying to do the best I can and that's the end of that story.

NOVAK: Chuck Hagel, thank you very much.

Al Hunt and I will be back with a comment after these messages.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HUNT: Bob, what a refreshing man of candor. Chuck Hagel really, more than almost any other politician, tells it like it is. He said John McCain made a mistake going negative. He shouldn't have compared George Bush to President Clinton. But he also tossed the gauntlet down to Governor Bush, and said he's not going to get away with this nonsense of 18 days of negative campaigning. Bush ought to pull the negative ads too he says.

NOVAK: Al, I think part of that candor is that Senator Hagel said that he as a senator would vote to cut the Clinton tax rates of 1993 which opposes his own candidate but at the same time he says, the Bush tax cut is too deep.

But of course this is the problem, if I might add editorially, when you make tax policy based on the deficits and how much revenue you lose, rather than the need to cut tax rates.

HUNT: Chuck Hagel knows that debt reduction is a bigger issue with voters, including Republicans.

And I tell you John McCain may only have four senators, but I'd rather have Chuck Hagel, than Trent Lott, Mitch McConnell, Phil Gramm, and a lot of the others combined.

NOVAK: You know I thought it was -- part of the candor also Al -- was very interesting, in which he says he would be a for Bush- McCain ticket or a McCain-Bush ticket. That's what you hear a lot in the Republican Party today, people saying these two guys should be on the ticket together.

And I also thought it was very interesting that Senator Hagel said he would ask his friend and his candidate John McCain to reconsider his flat denial of any vice presidential prospects at all.

I'm Robert Novak.

HUNT: And I'm Al Hunt.

NOVAK: In one-half-hour, on "RELIABLE SOURCES," the McCain media cave in and the battle over negative ads.

And at 7:00 p.m. Eastern, "CAPITAL GANG" looks at how next week's race is shaping up for Bush and McCain in South Carolina and President Clinton's role during the final months of his presidency.

HUNT: Thanks for joining us.

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