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Capital Gang

Sen. Paul Wellstone Discusses Campaign 2000, the Inheritance Tax and the Camp David Summit

Aired July 15, 2000 - 7:00 p.m. ET


ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, THE CAPITAL GANG.


I'm Mark Shields, with Al Hunt, Robert Novak and Kate O'Beirne.

Our guest is Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota.

It's great to have you back, Paul.


SHIELDS: Good to have you.

Four months after the Democratic presidential nomination was clinched by Al Gore, his unsuccessful challenger, Bill Bradley, embraced the winner.


BILL BRADLEY (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm here in Green Bay today because I believe what Vince Lombardi once said is true: Winning is a team sport. Today, I want to make it clear that I endorse Al Gore for president of the United States.

AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm very grateful to be here today with a leader who brought high purpose and high ideals to our contest for the nomination.


SHIELDS: Earlier in the week, both major party candidates addressed the NAACP convention.


GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I recognize the history of the Republican Party and the NAACP has not been one of regular partnership. But our nation is harmed when we let our differences separate us and divide us.

GORE: Talk doesn't cost much. The true test is standing up to those who say they want to eliminate affirmative action. I'm not asking you to read my lips, I'm asking you to read my heart.


SHIELDS: Bob, does getting Bill Bradley's endorsement and the NAACP cheers, which he received, mean this is a really good week for Al Gore?

ROBERT NOVAK, "CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": He has had a lot worse weeks than this one, I will say that. The interesting thing about this week to me, Mark, is that George Bush is very confident of his conservative base moving into areas where Bob Dole wouldn't even dare go in 1996, the NAACP -- I thought he made a gracious speech there -- while Al Gore is still worried about his base. At this late date, he really needed that Bradley endorsement after all the nasty things he had said about Paul Wellstone's candidate, Bradley.

And then I thought going to the NAACP convention and making a whole speech trashing George Bush, it's Gore's style but it really shows he is scared to death of any kind of erosion of that base.

SHIELDS: Did you answer the question?

NOVAK: I think I did.

SHIELDS: Paul Wellstone, what about this week for Al Gore? Was it better?

WELLSTONE: Yes, I think it was. And I think he needs to have better weeks. I think for some time the vice president has not really, you know, connected with people in the country and inspired people in the country, given people something to dream about. And I think he needs to get going, and I think this was a good week for him.

I think it was good to have Bill's support. And I don't think the speech at the NAACP convention was so much about, oh, I'm worried about my base. It had more to do with going and speaking for what he believes in and exciting people and galvanizing people.

One of the things I like about politics is that's still really important to do. And that's what he did.

SHIELDS: Kate O'Beirne, it strikes me that Al Gore has been more comfortable in the last couple of weeks than he had been at any time in this campaign. He seemed to be foundering, and he seems to have hit a theme which he's comfortable with. And that sense of the powerful on one side and I'm on the other side, whether its prescription drugs, a patients' bill of rights, I mean, he seems to be more comfortable and not quite as strident.

KATE O'BEIRNE, "NATIONAL REVIEW": Well, maybe back in a suit and tie he's feeling a little more comfortable. I almost didn't recognize him in that suit and tie. I haven't seen him dressed up in ages.

I still haven't seen that theme you seem to have spotted, Mark. It seems to me he's still flailing around, changing it every couple of days. And I do think it's striking that George Bush has spent the past couple of weeks traveling around to Hispanic groups and black groups and most recently appearing at the NAACP, and Al Gore is still flailing around trying to keep his base with him. Bill Bradley, of course, won't help much in that respect.

Bill Bradley has a lot of self-respect, which means the most he was able to say is, I'm a Democrat and I prefer Democrats to win. There was no personal endorsement of Al Gore. How could he, when during the primary season he spent the whole time complaining bitterly about Al Gore being so mean, divisive and untrustworthy. So I don't think the Bradley endorsement is even much of a boost to Al Gore.

SHIELDS: Al Hunt, refresh my memory. Did John McCain say as harsh things about George W. Bush as Bill Bradley said about Al Gore?

O'BEIRNE: Not quite, no.

HUNT: Look, I think the Bradley endorsement is a small plus. I spoke to Senator Bradley for about a half hour before that endorsement, and I think it's safe to say there still is resentment from some of those tactics that Gore used in the campaign that Kate alluded to. They're not close. But he really does believe that Bush is an empty suit, and I think he is going ton do more for the Democratic Party in the fall and for Al Gore.

I thought the NAACP was a fascinating political exercise. The support for Gore is genuine, but, you know, he suffers compared to Clinton, who is a genuine here to most African-Americans. And Gore ain't Clinton in their eyes. And George Bush, who really has a pretty miserable record on African-Americans, compared to Bob Dole who had a good civil rights record, Bush was smart to go, because he got credit for going and particularly among white moderates, maybe more important than blacks. Whereas Dole, who, as I said, a pretty good record, I think was blamed for not going last time.

NOVAK: You know, I must say that the idea of a good record is, if you are for the left-wing kind of proposals my friend Paul likes, that gives you a good record, it might be the worst thing in the world for the best interests of African-Americans.

But one thing -- you know, I love politics. And I just love these guys after they have called each other the worst things in the world, particularly Gore, the nasty things he said about Bradley, just coming out there and saying what a wonderful guy he was. But that's politics. People have been doing that for years and years.

WELLSTONE: How about if I be positive-positive. First on the Bush end, I think it was very important that he went to the convention. I think he communicated a message to the country. Look, I'm about bringing people together. That's what he did, and he accomplished that. That was good. About the vice president, I think Bill Bradley's endorsement matters. But you know what? More than endorsements, it's got to be you. It's got to be the chemistry between you and people in the country. And I think he's starting to stay with what he believes in and getting it out there rather than zigging and zagging. That doesn't work well. SHIELDS: Just one quick point, and that is that Bob Dole supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which public accommodations was allowed, black Americans that served in the military or any other black Americans to go to movies and restaurants and so forth. He supported the Voting Rights Act of 1965...

WELLSTONE: Voting Rights Act.

NOVAK: I don't think George W. voted against that, did he?

SHIELDS: No, but I mean, that's what Al was talking about in his record.

WELLSTONE: His good record.

SHIELDS: But the other thing is, I think that Al Gore is in a position right now that George Bush Sr. was in 1988. He's being compared to Bill Clinton and just as George Bush then was being compared to Ronald Reagan. And that's why this convention is going to be so important for him to emerge as his own person and key to this campaign is the very fact he's got to make the case himself.

Paul Wellstone and THE GANG will be back with repealing the estate tax: fairness or favoritism?


SHIELDS: Welcome back. The Senate approved by a 20-vote margin the House-passed bill to repeal the estate tax. Nine Democratic senators voted yes, four Republican Senators voted no.


SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D), WISCONSIN: The bill leaps far beyond any common sense definition of modest estates and provides massive tax relief to the extremely wealthy.

SEN. DON NICKLES (R), MAJORITY WHIP: If someone works their entire life and they have enormous success and they build up a company, and let's say that company's worth $100 million -- great. Is the government -- and somebody dies. Uncle Sam's entitled to 55 percent of it? I don't think so.


SHIELDS: President Clinton promised a veto.


WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This week, they passed a fiscally irresponsible plan to repeal the entire estate tax. Its costs would explode to $750 billion after 10 years, and every year fully half its benefits would go to just 3,000 families.

SEN. PHIL GRAMM (R), TEXAS: The good news is that Congress has repealed the death tax. The bad news is the president says he's going to veto it. But the good news is Bill Clinton is not going to be president next year.


SHIELDS: Kate O'Beirne, will a presidential veto be an issue in the election of 2000?

O'BEIRNE: I think the issue, the overall issue of taxes, will be a central issue in November. It's the biggest issue confronting Washington. There's a projected $4 trillion surplus over the next 10 years, and the big central question is: Will this $4 trillion surplus, which amounts to $56,000 for every family of four, be returned to the public in what Republicans call, because they're tax overpayments, or will Washington, D.C. spend this money? So the issue of taxes, I think, which benefits Republicans, will be a big issue.

The issue of eliminating the estate tax is clearly helping Republicans. Witness all the Democratic defections. Oprah Winfrey's with them on this one. The public are not the class warriors that Bill Clinton and Al Gore wishes they were. They think it's grossly unfair for any American to have over half their assets seized upon their death.

SHIELDS: Democrats on the defensive on this issue, Paul?

WELLSTONE: I don't think so. I mean, I think, at that time risk of being called left wing by my friend here, Bob, I think the choice is pretty clear. You've got a break for the top 2 percent of the population, or the 2.5 percent of the population, or you're going to take the $850 billion that you erode from the revenue base over 20 years, and you're going to put that into affordable child care, tax credits for families for child care, affordable prescription drugs for elderly people and other citizens in the country, affordable higher education.

It's really -- and you can have the tax breaks. I mean, if we're going to continue to have surpluses, yes. But I think you focus on middle-income, working-income families. You don't focus on a giveaway to the richest 2 or 3 percent of the population and erode the revenue base and make it impossible for us to do well for families in the country.

I think it's a great issue to draw the differences between the two parties.

SHIELDS: Is it a good issue to draw the differences, Bob?

NOVAK: No, it is a good issue for the people who want to have the American system work instead of a Marxist system, because...

WELLSTONE: A Marxist system.

NOVAK: Right -- because -- see, most Americans want to be in the 2 or 3 percent. And everybody but a few Democratic senators and a lot of journalists in this town understand they want to be in that 2 or 3 percent. This is the most noxious tax we have, because the money -- this is the third time the money has been taxed. And it's been taxed when you make it, it's taxed on your investment, and it's taxed when you die. And when you find really astute politicians, like your Democratic campaign chairman, Paul, Bob Toricelli of New Jersey, voting yes on this bill, when you find the two Louisiana senators voting yes, Patty Murray in Washington state voting yes...

O'BEIRNE: California.

NOVAK: Dianne Feinstein voting yes, there's something really going on there.

One other thing...

WELLSTONE: I agree, there is.

NOVAK: ... when they say this thing is going to explode, when the president says it's going to explode in the out years, one of the reasons it's going to explode is a lot more people are going to get rich with 401(k)s. A lot more people are going to be eligible for this. And, Mark, everybody wants to be eligible for it.


HUNT: I've never seen Bob Torricelli vote against a campaign contributor yet. And that's what this is, a payoff to campaign contributors, Mark. We ought to get this clear.

Sure Oprah Winfrey's for it. So is Bill Gates, so is Steve Forbes, so is Bob Novak. All rich people are for it, because it is a giveaway to the rich, Mark.

I happen to think you shouldn't have a 55 percent rate. But to totally do away with this -- again, I talked to Bill Bradley this week, who, as you know, Bob Novak, has been a great champion of lower tax rates. And he said, this is the worst message to send. This is picking up what Paul said. We have a big surplus. Now it's not $4 trillion, Kate. You know, over half of that is Social Security, which both parties say is off bounds. But whatever it is , $1.5 billion, $2 trillion, the top priority is not prescription drugs, not child care, not earning credit, we're going to give a tax break to the wealthiest Americans.

NOVAK: See, one of the interesting arguments against this bill is they say that if the estate tax were repealed, people wouldn't give to charity. And that's the liberal view of America, that people only give to charity so they won't give it to the government. That's not true.

O'BEIRNE: Look, if the majority of Americans in polls support the elimination of this tax, even those who never dream -- although they hope they could -- never dream they'll actually ever have to pay it because it strikes them as grossly unfair.

It also distorts people's financial planning. It inhibits capital formation. It's a boon to accountants and lawyers when you try to avoid the estate tax, and that money can be so much better spent by investing.

HUNT: Why are we doing so well? Why are we doing so well?

NOVAK: It's unfair.

HUNT: And this is not the same tax, Bob...

O'BEIRNE: Why don't we cap...

HUNT: ... the majority of this is untaxed capital gains, Bob.

WELLSTONE: Here's what you all are saying -- and I trust the American people on this -- you're saying, listen, we can't afford, even with this booming economy, to provide a good education for every child or affordable child care...

O'BEIRNE: Yes, we can.

WELLSTONE: ... or health security. No, no, no, you're saying, instead what we're going to do is we're going to give a tax break to the wealthiest 2 or 3 percent, you know, the Feingold amendment was a $100 million. He was saying, OK, why don't we target it. Let's say that we'll give people protection under $100 million. Maybe over $100 million we don't need to give any tax breaks. Now I'm angry because I'm well over $100 million, so that was a big sacrifice.

NOVAK: Well, I'm not...

HUNT: And Don Nickles said, no way.

WELLSTONE: I'd rather put it in education and kids...

O'BEIRNE: Right.

WELLSTONE: ... and give the tax breaks to the families that need them. Help the middle-income people, low income.

NOVAK: I must say, that argument, Paul, about education, the problem with education in this country...

WELLSTONE: What's the problem?

NOVAK: ... is the teachers and the schools...

WELLSTONE: Oh, my god.

NOVAK: ... and the Department of Education, which ought to be abolished.

SHIELDS: OK, let me say just one thing. I disagree with Bob Novak on this issue. You know, and we sit here week after week and argue, and it's kind of easy to take up the cause of the underprivileged and the dispossessed and the working poor, and -- because it's not that tough to do so. And I sometimes find myself on that side. But week after week, Bob comes in here and he's the champion, the tribune, of the powerful, the well-off and...

NOVAK: See, you don't understand.

SHIELDS: .. I just think it takes some courage.

WELLSTONE: I do, too. I do, too. I do, too.

HUNT: And he's consistent.

SHIELDS: It takes some courage.


SHIELDS: Let's hear it for Bob Novak.

WELLSTONE: I am moved by this.

SHIELDS: Next on CAPITAL GANG, showdown talks at Camp David.


SHIELDS: Welcome back.

An Israeli-Palestinian summit began at Camp David with President Clinton as mediator.


CLINTON: There can be no success without principled compromise. The road to peace, as always, is a two-way street.


SHIELDS: No progress was reported under a news blackout, but both sides conceded the stakes are high.


AVRAHAM BARG, SPEAKER, ISRAELI KNESSET: It's a moment of truth. If we won't exploit this opportunity, there will be a next round of violence.

HANAN ASHRAWI, PALESTINIAN SPOKESPERSON: The moment you reintroduce occupation under a different guise, then you will provoke the proper response to occupation, which is resistance.


SHIELDS: Al Hunt, would failure at Camp David really mean a return to violence in the Middle East?

HUNT: Mark, it very well could. But the pattern here is there usually is a last-minute, face-saving compromise to avoid that.

But there's a conundrum in this right now. Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister, really has laid the groundwork among his constituents for a sweeping final agreement on the West Bank, on refugees, even on Jerusalem. And the Likudites would yell, but I think 60 percent of the Israeli public would support it.

Arafat has not, however, and so what he wants is just some sort of partial agreement right now. And the difficulty for Barak is, whereas he could get support for a final deal, a partial agreement could really topple his government.

Final point I make, Mark, is we frequently criticize Bill Clinton for not expending political capital. I think rightly so. On this one, he is, and he is very good at this. He has the trust of both sides, and that stands in stark contrast to George Bush's foreign policy adviser Richard Perle, who outrageously has tried to sabotage these talks by warning the Israelis not to compromise.

SHIELDS: Paul Wellstone, what's the assessment?

WELLSTONE: I think I agree with Al. I mean, I'll go in reverse. I've been plenty critical of the president on any number of different issues, but I think he's doing the right thing. And I think he's made for this. I have a little bit of intelligence report from some of the Israeli delegation. Some of us met with them. But they're very committed to making this work.

For me, I think the alternative to some kind of a settlement is Israeli children and Palestinian children killing each other for generations to come. And that's not a future. Whether or not all of it can be done now or not, especially the whole question of Jerusalem, or whether or not -- I think it almost -- it has to be part of an ultimate agreement. But whether or not maybe you get a good piece of it done now and they come back yet again, they'd have to before the fall, I'm hopeful.

SHIELDS: Bob Novak, Mr. Barak is really rolling the dice, isn't he, politically? I mean, this is big-time casino for him?

NOVAK: He is getting a lot of praise -- I think justifiably. He just about lost his vote of confidence in the Knesset -- for taking this risk, and saying, boy, look at all the concessions he makes. Arafat won't give up a thing. If Arafat would agree to Barak's concessions, he'd be finished. What he would be saying is that the half of the Palestinian nation that lives in exile would continue in exile forever. The Muslim claim to Jerusalem would be gone. It's an unacceptable situation.

And so I want peace more than anybody, but I don't see how Arafat can agree to the conditions that -- I think this is the toughest thing that Bill Clinton has ever done. I say if he can come out of here with a big solution, I'll be surprised and I'll give him credit.

O'BEIRNE: Well, because...


O'BEIRNE: Yes, the -- he hasn't taken too much of a risk, though. Of course, Bill Clinton deserves credit -- I don't know if he deserves credit for this try because the expectations are so low. The public has seen so many celebrated optimistic signing ceremonies, and then the parties go back home and seem unable to deliver on many of the commitments they made, and both are very much, I think, in that same position.

The majority of people on both sides desperately want peace, but the definition of peace is different between them. And an awful lot of observers think both sides are getting ready for a resumption of an armed conflict come September. So the stakes are terribly high, but the expectations are pretty low for these talks, I think.

SHIELDS: What political fallout? Any?

NOVAK: I think it's zero political fallout.


NOVAK: I think we're awfully interested, but -- you can see by the level of energy here how interested we are -- but I think most American people are just not very interested in this...

HUNT: And the...

NOVAK: ... except the Jewish minority.

HUNT: I do think we...

WELLSTONE: But do you know what? Oh, go ahead, Al.

HUNT: Paul, go ahead.

WELLSTONE: Just real quickly, I think the only reason the tone of voice changed among us wasn't lack of interest. It's just that it's...

NOVAK: It's the gravity.

WELLSTONE: It's such gravity, absolutely.

SHIELDS: That's exactly right.

HUNT: Ehud Barak, who the Likudites accused of selling out, is the most decorated war hero in the history of Israel.

SHIELDS: Yes, exactly right.

NOVAK: Would you want Arafat to sell out? You want him to sell out, don't you?


SHIELDS: No, he doesn't. OK, that's it, Bob.

Paul Wellstone, thank you for being with us.

THE GANG will be back with the "Outrage of the Week." (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHIELDS: Now for the "Outrage of the Week."

The video of the controversial arrest of Thomas Jones shows 10 Philadelphia police officers kicking and stomping Jones, who has been charged with attempted murder, aggravated assault, car theft and reckless endangerment. The Department of Justice has launched an investigation, but this is not -- this is not -- another Rodney King episode. Yes, both men arrested are African-American, but Rodney King, who was unarmed, was hit 56 times with billy clubs by Los Angeles cops, all of whom were white. In Philadelphia, the arresting cops belonged to no single race. Let's not make everything in the country a black and white issue.

Bob Novak.

NOVAK: You might not realize it from reading this morning's newspapers, but the nation's top appellate court ruled yesterday that former Republican National Chairman Haley Barber did not break the law in the 1996 campaign. The U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia said, quote, "What RNC" -- that's Republican National Committee -- "and its officials are accused of is not criminal," end quote. The outrage is thjat for years, Democrats and a few journalists have pointed to Barber as the Republican version of massive Clinton campaign signals. Think they'll admit they're wrong now?

SHIELDS: Kate O'Beirne.

O'BEIRNE: This week provided the latest chapter in the old story of this administration's lack of candor. Yet again, there's a paper trail that refutes the administration's public position. Vice President Al Gore and others have blamed oil companies' price gouging for high gas prices. But an analysis by their own Energy Department had found government regulation and pipeline disruptions responsible. Lying to the public must become easier with lots of practice.


HUNT: Speaking of candor, lets give Governor Mike Huckabee an A, Last weekend, in soliciting Republicans to give $1,000 apiece to George Bush's presidential quest, the Arkansas governor said, quote, "With George Bush as president, your tax savings alone will more than exceed that," end quote. Finally, a rationale for the big upper- income-oriented Bush tax cut. It engenders more campaign contributions.

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

Next on CNN, "SPORTS TONIGHT" reports on the heavyweight title defense by champion Lennox Lewis.



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