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Capital Gang

Sen. Paul Coverdell Discusses the Gore Campaign, the Budget Surplus and the Los Alamos Hard Drives

Aired June 17, 2000 - 7:00 p.m. ET



I'm Mark Shields with Al Hunt, Robert Novak and Margaret Carlson.

Our guest is Senator Paul Coverdell of Georgia, a member of the Senate Republican leadership and George W. Bush's liaison with the Senate.

Thanks for coming in, Paul.

SEN. PAUL COVERDELL (R), GEORGIA: Good be with you today, Mark.

SHIELDS: Thank you.

Former Congressman Tony Coelho, citing ill health, resigned as Al Gore's presidential campaign chairman. He was immediately replaced by Secretary of Commerce William Daley.


AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Bill will bring his own style to the campaign, and -- but as far as the direction and focus of the campaign, it will be the same.

WILLIAM DALEY, COMMERCE SECRETARY: I know most of the leadership. I've worked with most of them. They're doing a terrific job, and we're in a race that the vice president's going to win.


SHIELDS: The change came as new polls showed Vice President Gore falling behind Texas Governor George W. Bush. On Tuesday, pollster John Zogby had bush eight points ahead. On Friday, "The Los Angeles Times" poll showed a 10-point lead. The vice president campaigned this week with an upbeat tone, accompanied one day by the architect of the Clinton administration's economic success.


GORE: I'm here today to tell you, you ain't seen nothing yet.

(APPLAUSE) ROBERT RUBIN, FORMER TREASURY SECRETARY: I worked with the vice president for six and a half years. He was deeply involved in every major economic decision we made.


SHIELDS: Bob Novak, what will Bill Daley mean to the Gore campaign?

ROBERT NOVAK, "CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": Well, he would be an asset for any campaign. He's a good politician. One thing is he's not ethnically challenged, so he can go...

SHIELDS: Ethically challenged. He's Irish, he's not ethnically challenged either. Let's get that straight.

NOVAK: So he can go on television, and poor Tony Coelho couldn't, because they'd ask a him about all the investigations. But Bill Daley is part of I think the fourth or fifth remake of the Gore campaign, because they're in trouble. Obviously, the dogs are not buying that -- don't like to eat that dog food so far. And he's doing something really important -- he is deciding that he has to run as Clinton's successor, as the person who's going to keep the Clinton prosperity together, and that's something I think Gore in first place didn't want to do.


AL HUNT, "WALL STREET JOURNAL": You know, Bill Daley was the choice -- was Al Gore's choice about eight or nine months ago, and he didn't take it, and was the best choice back then, and he's the best choice today. Gore caught him at midnight the other night knew, and he knew he couldn't take no for answer. And Bill Daley said to him, he said, well listen, I'd love have who to have a cup of coffee and talk to you about it, and Gore said to him, well, fine, go get a cup, I'll wait. So he was determined. He knew he desperately needed Bill Daley. I think Bill Daley would be a tremendous asset.

I think that elections are won, Mark, by candidates, but it helps to have a well-run, well-directed campaign, which is what Bill Daley will bring.

Tony Coelho was good in the primary season. He thought that presidential politics was an extension of congressional politics. You add up all interest groups and constituencies and you get 51 percent.

I think Bill Daley, the son of Chicago machine, understands it's geometric, not arithmetic, and it's about things other than just adding up interest groups.

SHIELDS: Paul Coverdell, what's your own assessment of Bill Daley.

COVERDELL: Well, the vice president's reinvented everything except his campaign, and I think this is an attempt to do that. My own judgment -- and I want to say quickly, I hope that the health problems of Tony are OK -- but, that this is too late. This is a -- this is the end of a mistake, not the beginning of a change. This -- as Al said a moment ago, the Coelho decision probably should have never been made in the first place.

SHIELDS: Never in the first place, Margaret?

MARGARET CARLSON, "TIME" MAGAZINE: The five of us and Bill Daley's family are the only people talking about this who will remember it on Election Day, but, Bill -- he gets some credit. Bill Daley is this administration's 911 guy; he's always there when they're in trouble. He flew to New Hampshire when Bill Clinton had the Gennifer Flowers problem. He delivered Illinois. He helped with the convention. He came in for NAFTA. He cleaned up Commerce. And now he's got to come and do this.

And, you know, by all accounts, he still doesn't want to do it, but Gore really put pressure on him at midnight, and so now he will. And you know, he'll bring discipline. And he's a sunny guy. On his, you know, worst day, he has a sunnier disposition than Tony Coelho, yet he's very, very disciplined and very much the grownup.

So there will be fewer leaks, we won't have the curtain pulled back where all these aides -- one of the things Bush campaign never does is that you never get telegraphed what they're going to do, so you everyone backstage before you see the actor doing it. And so maybe they'll be less of that.

SHIELDS: I think the operative word in the discussion is "grownup." He is a grownup. There is no better test of anybody's character in politics than how they comport themselves in a losing campaign. I first became aware of Bill Daley in the Mondale campaign in 1984 when a lot of people were scurrying for the sidelines to distance themselves from the impending defeat. Bill Daley was just as stalwart, and as loyal and showed strong judgment, but I don't think that Al Gore is mishandling again. I mean, Bill Daley is in the most impressive bargaining position in the history of American politics. Al Gore can't have a fourth chairman. I mean, he just can't, so I mean, anything Bill Daley wants -- he wants a privates plane -- yes, you know, but he just can't, so Bill Daley is on for the duration, and I think, Tony, deserves credit, quite frankly, for having brought discipline to a campaign that was spending money like the Hapsburg Empire.

CARLSON: But they could use some more discipline.

NOVAK: But the curtain was really drawn back on Gore. He doesn't like to be open. He likes to operate behind closed doors. And they got some new people coming in. Mark Fabiani is coming in to do press, and they say they're going to have more press conferences, more availability, more interviews. But the whole problem is that when Al Gore is not attacking, he looks boring. And that's -- right now, he's trying to be a nice guy, and when being a nice guy, he's being a boring guy.

CARLSON: Bob, you're always bored by niceness, which is why you don't practice it. HUNT: I actually interviewed Al Gore yesterday. I assume yours is coming up soon, isn't it?

NOVAK: They haven't given me the time yet. I'm hoping. I'm hoping. I can always hope, can't hi.

COVERDELL: It still points to the fact, though, that an inherent and endemic problem and bad choices. And, I said a moment ago, Al is right, all the descriptions of Daley are correct, but this is awfully late. And was a ill-founded decision previously in my judgment.

SHIELDS: OK, I just say this in closing, and that is that ineptly handled, did not notify organized labor, the one group that Bill Daley has problems with, because of NAFTA and China trade, that needed to be -- always had a long relationship with Chicago and Illinois labor, but they never called organized labor to tell them it was going to happen, Gore didn't, I mean, just -- I mean, really inept.

That's the last word. Interesting one, too, Mark. Thanks. Paul Coverdell and the GANG will be back with spending the surplus, and later, losing the secrets.


SHIELDS: Welcome back.

Expected estimates are predicted to raise the federal budget surplus for the next decade by up to $1 trillion -- with a "t" -- dollars. Vice President Al Gore proposed using the surplus to create a lockbox for Medicare, free voluntary savings accounts and trust funds for education, health care and the environment. Next, he proposed a half-trillion dollar middle class tax cut. He contrasted that with Governor George W. Bush's deeper tax cut proposal.


GORE: I won't spend money that we don't yet even have on a huge tax cut our economy can't afford in ways that could end our prosperity and progress.

BUSH: I can't imagine the tax relief package changing much. I told you, this is going to be -- the plan I laid out in the primaries is the plan I was going to campaign on in the fall election. I'm not one of these people that are kind of trying to chase public opinion.


SHIELDS: Al Hunt, what will be done with this big surplus?

HUNT: Remember, Mark, Ronald Reagan said the budget deficit was big enough to take care of itself?


HUNT: A lot of people want to help take care of this surplus. There's not going to be any shortage of people. I think for George Bush it means that the numbers still don't add up when you take his tax cut, his Social Security transition, "Star Wars" and everything else, but it's not as egregious as it was before.

Gore is going to go and add some more. He's going to double the size of his tax cut -- it's still about one-fifth as big as Bob would like -- targeted tax cuts, going to move more for education, a little bit more for health and everything. But what it really does, Mark, is just take -- it doesn't change the dynamics. It goes up to a slightly higher level. And you have what former Congressional Budget Office Director Bob Reischauer says political cross-dressing.

You have the Democrat who's talking about prudence and caution here and don't spend too much, and the Republican who's talking about stimulating with tax cuts.

SHIELDS: Well, that cross-dressing was apparent in Friday's newspaper. Here's George W. Bush calling for more Americans for Disability Act spending and Al Gore coming for a bigger tax cut, Bob. How...

NOVAK: It's all deceptive. You know, Al...

SHIELDS: Is it deceptive?

NOVAK: ... Al -- I have admired Al for years as one of the shrewdest political analysts in Washington. It saddens me when you get something completely wrong, because what Al Gore had this week was he virtually told you, I'm going to spend the entire surplus. I'm going to have a trust fund for this and a trust fund for that and a trust fund for the other. He laid it all on table: We are going to spend the surplus.

There is only one of two things that could happen to the surplus.

SHIELDS: What are they, Bob?

NOVAK: There's not going to be the reduced debt. They're either going to spend it or give it back in tax cuts. And the sad part of it is that the Republican Congress, Paul, is nearly as bad as the administration in wanting to spend this surplus. This is a huge- spending Congress, not as bad as the Democrats but almost as bad, and the question is: Will George W. Bush be any better? That's the only question. Al Gore laid it on the line. He'll spend it all.

SHIELDS: Defend yourself, Paul.

COVERDELL: Well that's...

CARLSON: Let me.

COVERDELL: No, let me do this. The first test is going to be this year. In fact, it's going to occur in 90 days. You all are off dreaming about the next 10 years. We're going to have a hard, in-the- trench test in the next 90 days. And I can tell you what's happening. We're going to have a figure that's about $40 to $50 billion unanticipated surplus in the 2001 budget, and the Clinton administration is going to do everything it can to spend it. And we'll be arguing and trying to find barriers to that, which are Social Security, Medicare and tax relief.

And I would contend, Bob, on your point, that the problem we've had is you know, of shut down at end of the road has always been a leverage. It's very difficult for our Congress to deal with.

NOVAK: And you've got an election year up. Everybody's scared to death of a shutdown in October if you don't go along with the president.

COVERDELL: That's why I say Social Security first, Medicare and tax relief. The last thing we want to do, and which this administration will argue for, is to spend it.

NOVAK: I'll bet you spend it.

SHIELDS: Margaret Carlson.

CARLSON: Bob, that's the first time I've ever heard you talk against trust funds. You love the private trust fund.

NOVAK: I like private better than I like government trust funds.

CARLSON: Right. Here's what happened. Gore is in a celebrity sound-alike contest. And this week, it's Clinton. The problem is that George Bush got their first. And there's no room for him. So he's coming out with these things that now sound a lot like George Bush. Social...

COVERDELL: Are they still listening?

CARLSON: Yes -- and a casino economics? The Social Security Plus, you have to be a political junkie and an actuary to kind of understand what Social Security Plus is, but it's a little bit like George Bush, you know, trimming around the edges and trying to privatize Social Security. And the tax cut sounds a lot like George Bush. And he's a new -- the new Republicans and the new Democrats are both squarely here, and Gore came to it too late. And now he sounds like he's copying George Bush.

SHIELDS: Al Hunt, I think Margaret makes a very good point. And I ask you, they're fighting over such narrow ideological turf in this election, aren't they?

HUNT: No, I think they really are, Mark. There are no big -- you know, so far at least there are no big stakes. But let me tell you something, I want to say I hope we spend some of it, Paul. There are a whole lot of children in America who don't have health insurance. I hope during flush times that we can take care of poor kids that don't have health insurance, not like this...

COVERDELL: Al, we can't even get the people...

HUNT: ... not like... COVERDELL: ... to take advantage of the program we passed.

HUNT: Paul, the Senate Appropriations Committee is trying to cut back on the state children's health insurance program. That is an outrage.

NOVAK: I've just got to say there is a huge ideological difference here between what the Republicans say -- what they do is another thing. They don't want to spend this surplus. But of course there's always good things to find the government to spend on. They take the money, the highest rate of taxation ever, and they spend it on children and health and environment and everything in the world.

HUNT: Oh, those silly things.

NOVAK: Well, if you like that kind of government, that's fine. Vote for Gore.

CARLSON: You know, last time it was an out-of-control deficit we had to worry about. Now it's this out-of-control surplus...

NOVAK: Exactly.

CARLSON: ... that seems to drive people like Bob even crazier.

SHIELDS: You get a choice: You can feed children or you can build "Star Wars" -- Bob Novak.



SHIELDS: Welcome back.

Computer hard drives containing nuclear secrets were found missing from the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson skipped a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing and was blamed by Republican senators for the security collapse.


SEN. RICHARD SHELBY (R-AL), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE CHAIR: If he had been doing his job as secretary of energy in all aspects and not out running for vice president of the United States or trying to get on the ticket, then we might not be here today.

BILL RICHARDSON, ENERGY SECRETARY: I am outraged at what's happened, but we have dramatically improved security. We need some more time to investigate what happened.


SHIELDS: On Friday, two hard drives were found behind a copier machine in a room at the lab that had been previously searched.

Margaret Carlson, is Bill Richardson a scapegoat or a problem? CARLSON: Well, a little bit of both. You know, the problem is systemic at the Department of Energy, but he's in charge. And so he's got to come to grips with the new technology, how to protect it, and, having had one problem, this the second one, he's now a target. And, you know, his vice presidential aspirations I think are over.

He must wake up in the middle of the night and say, what am I doing here? I was jetting to world capitals, I had an apartment at the Waldorf-Astoria, I was somebody when I was U.N. ambassador. And now I'm at the Department of Energy, hoping that I was going to get my domestic politics and be on the short list for vice president, and now, look at me.



SHIELDS: But this is amazing, Bob, if you think about it. The Cold War really is over, because if this happened 10 years ago, I mean, this would be screaming headlines.


SHIELDS: I mean, it's a big story, don't get me wrong. But, I mean, somehow there isn't that sense of urgency in the country.

NOVAK: Well, the level of stupidity is incredible. They had 26 people who could walk in there and take the hard drives without signing for it. I mean, that's just amazing.

But poor -- the truth of it is, Margaret, that Bill Richardson thought he was going to be better off for vice president from the Energy Department than he did from the U.N. But he's in for a world of trouble right now, because there's all kinds of committees -- Dan Burton's House committee is going to call up and testify on physical security. He won't have a lot of fun there. The Intelligence Committee did not like him not showing up. So I would say that his 10 percent chances of the vice presidency have just dramatically, shrunk.

SHIELDS: Dramatically shrunk, Paul?

COVERDELL: Oh, without a doubt. But on the point, it would be harder to get in my apartment complex than to get in a vault with our most treasured security. You have to sign in. I am absolutely stunned, and I think it's frightening. And to your point, I think the American people are numb about it. I -- it's just inconceivable that this kind of security lapse could occur. And you could only call it chaotic and wonder -- I think Secretary Richardson's problem emanates from the fact that he had such a warning of the problem...

CARLSON: First problem.

COVERDELL: ... and then to say it's been fixed. And then we have something that's actually worse than what happened before.

SHIELDS: Al. HUNT: His vice presidential prospects have sunk now probably somewhere between Bob Novak and Dr. Laura. I mean, this is a guy...

SHIELDS: An interesting couple, I might add.

HUNT: Exactly. It really is an interesting couple.

CARLSON: They're pals.

HUNT: Mark, I think you're absolutely right. If this was during the Cold War, it would be a huge story. I think now it's only going to be a political embarrassment.

But I agree with Paul. This is absolutely inexcusable. This is the second time. Four years ago they had it, and happened again. And as Bob said, there are these people there's no -- you don't check in, you don't check out. The director of Los Alamos labs wasn't notified about this until some three weeks after they knew about it. This is absolutely unconscionable. The only good news that I have heard for Bill Richardson is that Danny Burton may hold hearings. And, you know, he used to go out there shooting watermelons to find out who killed Vince Foster.


HUNT: That may rescue Bill Richardson. Otherwise, he's in deep trouble.

NOVAK: Well I'll tell you something right now. One thing that all the liberals hate Dan Burton is he sticks to it. And he has had..

HUNT: I like it.

CARLSON: All journalists love him.

NOVAK: ... And he has had these hearings going on about the chaos at the Justice Department. So I think the Americans owe Dan Burton a big favor.

HUNT: I love his hearings, Bob. I love his hearings.

COVERDELL: I think this is going to build into a bigger issue than you suggest, Mark, because when you measure the scope of the secrets that are on it and you combine it with proliferation of weapons, we are...

SHIELDS: No, it may...

COVERDELL: ... this is very serious.

COVERDELL: It may very well, Paul. It's amazed me that it's been sort of a whole (ph) number up to this point...

NOVAK: I'm amazed, too.

CARLSON: Yes. SHIELDS: ... and that's just direct, because the potential is catastrophic.

HUNT: And putting Howard Baker and Lee Hamilton in charge of an inquiry into it, though, is a very good move, two incredibly respected people.

SHIELDS: Respected people -- Al Hunt, last word.

Paul Coverdell, thanks for being with us.

THE GANG will be back with -- what? "The Outrage of the Week."

ANNOUNCER: The viewer "Outrage of the Week" is from Bob Belinke. He writes:

"It is an outrage that our government has not issued a postage stamp or named a space shuttle after Bob Hope. Hope has given so much of his life to our country and is probably the most respected entertainer of his time. He truly represents the best in the American spirit and citizenship. Let's do something for him now and honor his lifetime achievements and contributions to the United States."

If you have an "Outrage" for next week, our e-mail address is Or call the toll-free number at 1-888-847-8660. We'll choose one "Outrage" to air at this same time next week on THE CAPITAL GANG.


SHIELDS: And now for the "Outrage of the Week."

During this year's ugly South Carolina Republican presidential primary, Arizona Senator John McCain was demonized by Christian Coalition supporters backing Governor George W. Bush, because McCain had broken with his 17 year pro-life voting record to support fetal tissue research for Parkinson's disease. But now Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson says that he would support pro-choice Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge as George Bush's running mate. Is that hypocrisy I smell?

Bob Novak.

NOVAK: The good news is that the House last week passed the repeal of the noxious estate tax with 65 Democrats abandoning class warfare to vote yes. The bad news is the Marxist rhetoric used by its opponents in politics and the media. They asked if only 2 percent of Americans now are hit by the death tax, why do over 60 percent of Americans support its repeal? Because they want to be in the 2 percent select few. That's the American way, even if it's a mystery to liberals inside the Washington Beltway.

SHIELDS: Margaret Carlson.

CARLSON: Bob's in this 2 percent select few. Gary Graham is about to be executed in Texas on the basis of one witness's shaky I.D. Graham's attorney put on not one witness in the case and did no investigating. There was strong evidence that the deceased was the victim of a drug hitman, and Graham's gun did not match the murder weapon. A new study shows a 68 percent reversal rate in capital cases that are appealed. Shouldn't Governor Bush be a little less sure of himself in his 134 executions and in a case as flimsy as this one?


HUNT: And, Margaret, Bob is a lot higher than just 2 percent, I want you to know.

Russian media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky was arrested and temporarily detained in Moscow this week. His apparent offense: tough criticism of the Kremlin and Prime Minister Putin. Anatoly Chubais, the leading advocate of privatization and heretofore an ardent Putin supporter, called the action a power play by those who would, quote, "like to turn Russia into a semi-fascist state," end quote. How Mr. Putin responds to this outrage is going to tell us a lot about the future of Russia.

SHIELDS: This is Mark Shields saying good night for THE CAPITAL GANG.

Next on CNN "SPORTS TONIGHT" tracks Tiger Woods at the U.S. Open.



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