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Crossfire

Should There Be an Investigation of the RNC 'RATS' Ad?

Aired September 13, 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, HOST: Tonight, two United States senators call for a federal investigation of the Bush "RATS" ad. Is this overkill, or are they right to smell a rat?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington: CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Mary Matalin. In the CROSSFIRE, Democratic strategist Victor Kamber, and in Atlanta, Republican strategist Ralph Reed, a Bush adviser.

MATALIN: Good evening, and welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Democrats and the press remain in an uproar over the so-called "Republican rats ad." Though dropped as scheduled from the advertising rotation, Democratic senators Ron Wyden and John Breaux complained to the Federal Communications Commission. They are quote -- "deeply troubled" -- end quote by press reports that Republican sent subliminal messages about Gore's prescription drug plan. It illuminates the "rats" in a tag line "bureaucrats decide" for 1/30th of a second.

Trying to get out of the silly season and into substance, the candidates were in battleground states a continent apart. In Maine, Al Gore went to school today, emphasizing his education proposals and his fund raising tonight; in Washington state, Bush detailed a conservation program to prioritize national park maintenance, claiming gross neglect in the last seven years.

Lots of activity, lots of polls, a bevy of new ones show a still volatile match-up ranging from a dead heat to the CNN/"USA Today"/Gallup poll showing a 49-41 percent advantage for Gore. So with under two months until Election Day, two days on "rats"? And what about those bouncing polls? -- Bill.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Ralph Reed -- good evening, Ralph.

RALPH REED, BUSH CAMPAIGN ADVISER: Good evening.

PRESS: I want to start with the vast rat-wing conspiracy, see if we can get to the bottom of this. Now, Ralph, just in case there is somebody out there who still hasn't seen this ad we are going to play it again, Sam, and as we talk you'll see the ad, which of course, just goes for a few seconds and then the word "bureaucrats" comes up and "rats" -- R-A-T-S -- is on full screen. Ralph Reed, I've made a lot of TV spots in my career as campaign manager and candidate, not as many as you have, not as many, I'm sure, as my friend Victor Kamber has. But can't we all be honest that it is impossible for this ad to come out of a production studio, whatever the motive, whether it was meant to be silly or meant to be mean, impossible to come out of that studio by accident?

REED: Well, I think what we can agree on, Bill, is that this is a silly distraction that the American people don't care about. It's an old story, this story was first reported by Fox News on August 28. We are ready to move on. The American people are ready to move on.

And the reason why the Democrats want to continue to pound away on this story and want to keep driving it is, frankly, Bill, because they don't want to talk about the issues, they don't want to talk about the fact that Al Gore cast the deciding vote for the largest tax increase in American history, they don't want to talk about the fact that the current Clinton-Gore budget includes 88 tax increases totaling $128 billion, they don't want to talk about the fact that Al Gore's prescription-drug plan would herd 33 million seniors...

PRESS: OK, OK.

REED: ... into a federal government-run HMO...

PRESS: All right, we've heard -- we...

REED: ... where there would be price controls and where there would be long lines waiting for drugs.

PRESS: We have heard...

REED: That's what this is about, Bill, that's what the election is about.

PRESS: We have heard the campaign speech before and I'm sure -- I know you want to change the subject, George Bush does too. But nobody else did this to the Bush campaign except the Bush campaign. Alex Castellanos admitted today that he knew this was up there more than two weeks ago, he continued to run the ad. So you can't deny it, Ralph, your own campaign got you in this hot water. Should they have just pulled the ad right away?

REED: Well, I think what I can deny is that the American people care about this issue. You know, Bill, if you want to spend the next seven weeks talking about one frame in one ad that's no longer running anywhere in America, you let us talk about our plans to provide broad and deep tax relief for all of America's citizens, we'll talk about our plan to provide prescription drugs to America's seniors...

PRESS: Wait, we just heard that speech, Ralph.

REED: ... and you let us talk about our plan to improve education in schools...

VICTOR KAMBER, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: And no one is listening to that plan.

PRESS: Let me...

REED: ... and let me tell you something, Governor Bush is going to win this election.

PRESS: Let me suggest, Ralph, that the reason you can't talk about those issues is because for the last three or four weeks you've made a stupid mistake a week that has kept the candidate off message.

REED: No, I...

PRESS: Wouldn't you at least admit that your candidate has been off message for the last three weeks?

REED: No. What I'm willing to concede is that Democrats and some in the press would rather talk about process and would rather talk about meaningless, silly subjects rather than talk about the issues that are burning in the hearts of the American people.

KAMBER: Let me jump in -- let me just say one thing.

MATALIN: No, no, no. Let me...

(CROSSTALK)

REED: Let me just finish if I can, Vic. I won't interrupt you. I think it is to George Bush's credit that today while you, Bill, are talking about something like this he was talking about spending...

PRESS: Fish.

REED: ... over $4 billion to improve America's parks.

MATALIN: OK, OK, Ralph, dittos to you. Now, Vic, before you start spinning, Bill has made the point that we...

PRESS: Spinning? That was the biggest spin I ever heard.

MATALIN: Just a minute, just a minute, just a minute please.

We have all made a lot of ads. I don't -- have not heard anything, though, in this discussion that suggests a familiarity with this process whereby the tag line is computer -- the computer is destined to pull the tag line, go right to the middle of it and illuminate it and magnify. Here is the new -- just let me show you.

KAMBER: I haven't said a word.

MATALIN: OK, but you're about to. I have a husband like you, he starts talking before I'm done.

OK, here is the new RNC ad -- this is not a Bush ad, by the way -- it's an RNC ad which is out today, and this tag line is federal HMO, if we can take a look at this and we can see the same process where for 1/30th of a second the -- those letters "ral" occur. KAMBER: Mary, anyone who makes ads -- and to answer Bill's question, which Ralph was unwilling to do -- there's no way that ad could have been produce without someone knowing that word appeared there. Now, what's happened today, and this is what's wrong with this campaign and what's wrong with the Bush campaign -- I agree with Ralph, we should be talking about issues. We are not.

We are not talking about issues because like Firestone, like Nixon and Watergate, like everything else, when errors happen, politicians of either party -- when Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky -- they're unwilling to be truthful to the American public, stand up and say, we made a mistake here, we screwed up, let's get on with the thing. What they're doing right now -- Ralph will not admit to you and to the American public, to Bill, that they made a mistake in this campaign. They did something wrong. Whether it was nefarious, Mary, purposefully to subliminally get somebody's mind, or whether it was some prankster, some film editor who sat there and said, gee, I'm going to get something and all my friends will know it's -- it had to have been done purposefully. As Bill said...

MATALIN: To what end? OK, stop.

KAMBER: ... Alex knew two weeks ago. The filmmaker knew two weeks ago and they didn't...

MATALIN: Because Tony Snow reported it.

KAMBER: And why didn't they pull the ad and say, we made a mistake, let's get on with business.

MATALIN: Because also in the ads, these dancing -- these so- called "visual drums," these dancing letters also occurs the word "wit."

KAMBER: No, it does not. It's with, W-I-T-H.

MATALIN: No -- and the "H" is cut off just like the "C" was cut off.

KAMBER: The "H" is not cut off. The "H" is not cut off. Mary, you'd have to show it. I've seen the ad, and I've seen it a number of times, the "H" is not cut off, it's "with," W-I-T-H.

MATALIN: OK.

KAMBER: It's another spin by the Republicans.

MATALIN: All right, let me just go on, Mr. Multi-Year Ad Man. Everybody in the business knows that so-called "subliminal perceptions" don't do anything. To what end would Alex would be doing this?

KAMBER: What are you -- wait, what are you talking about? First of all, I didn't say -- I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt that it's a prankster and not necessarily a serious attempt to subliminally impact America. But I don't know what you're talking about. Study after study have shown that subliminal advertising is the most effective advertising for products, as well as potentially for candidates.

MATALIN: That whole study was a hoax.

PRESS: OK...

KAMBER: Which study? There has been hundreds of studies.

MATALIN: The study about popcorn and Cokes and all of that was a hoax.

KAMBER: There has been hundreds of studies that have shown subliminal advertising works.

PRESS: Ralph, let's come back to you and suggest...

REED: Yes.

PRESS: ... I think, if I may -- and it's been a long time since the Bush campaign has called me for advice, and hell will freeze over before they will -- but I think, if I may, the problem is that it's not just the staff that was playing games, but the candidate gets sucked into this. We know yesterday that the -- Governor Bush took time out of the news conference to deny that he was up to anything here. Let's listen first to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: You know, the idea of idea of putting subliminable (sic) messages in ads is -- it's ridiculous.

You talk about subliminable.

"U.S. Daily's" story about subliminable messages.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PRESS: Now, Ralph, let's forget the fact that he can't pronounce the word "subliminal," but wouldn't he have been better off just to say, that was a stupid mistake, I apologize, and let's move along, instead of defending it?

REED: I -- you know, Bill, I have to say in response to both you and what Vic said earlier, we have done that. I mean, Alex Castellanos and the RNC said that it was an inadvertent mistake, it was not deliberate, the ad is off the air. And I would say let's move on, let's talk about the fact, for example, that Al Gore today says that he wants to crack down on Hollywood and regulate it out of Washington after this year sucking $13.6 million out of the wallets of Hollywood.

KAMBER: And Republicans are unwilling to say the same thing when they suck (UNINTELLIGIBLE) money in.

REED: And by the way -- Vic, I didn't interrupt you, could you just let me finish?

KAMBER: No, but you have to be truthful to the audience, Ralph.

REED: I will be truthful if you don't interrupt me. But what I'm -- in addition to that, by the way, tomorrow night Al Gore is going to be hobnobbing with Hollywood glitterati, picking up another $7 million, and the problem is on...

KAMBER: All right, Ralph...

REED: ... issue after issue, Bill, he says one thing and he does another.

PRESS: Here...

REED: He says he is going to provide prescription drugs, he doesn't do it.

PRESS: Let me just -- I can interrupt -- pardon me -- I can interrupt the spin machine, because it's the the third time we've heard the same spin.

REED: No...

PRESS: But let me just show you again, Ralph, why...

(CROSSTALK)

PRESS: Let's -- let me just show you again one more time -- we are not going to away from this so -- walk away from this so easily. I was at lunch today, a very energetic Democratic campaign consultant, thinking fast, moving fast -- walks up to me and hands me two buttons, Ralph. I just want to put them on the screen. You can take a look there.

The first one shows "R-A-T-S: Republican Ads That Smell," with a big rat. And the next one shows: "The New Republican Party Logo," with the rats on it.

Ralph, again, isn't your campaign in trouble when this is what we are talking about on national television two days in a row, and your candidate is still talking about rats instead of fish?

REED: What it shows is that Al Gore has got a problem.

(LAUGHTER)

REED: And the problem is that if -- Bill, if his prescription- drug benefit becomes law, bureaucrats -- and not pharmacists and doctors -- are going to decide what kind of drugs seniors get. That's what the message of that ad was. And the difference between the inside-the-Beltway crowd and the heartland, is the heartland of the country got that message.

You may not have, but the American did, and it's why George Bush is going to win. PRESS: All right. All right. Ralph, you know what? You know what, Ralph? We are going to find out. We are going to take the pulse of the American public right now, as we take a break. Because if you think that you're seeing rats in a Republican video -- is it an accident or something else -- we want to know.

And you can cast your vote -- this is something new -- cast your right now in our chat room at cnn.com/crossfire.

We'll take a break. When we come back, we'll -- we will get away from the rats. And we'll take a look at the polls. The polls show a real horse race, or is Al Gore running way ahead?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

By most indications, it's a different race for president today than it was just a month or so ago. Before, it was George Bush ahead by double digits. But CNN's latest poll today shows Al Gore ahead outside the margin of error for the very first time. So, is it time for Gore to gloat or for Bush to panic?

We debate the latest campaign twists and turns tonight with Ralph Reed, GOP strategist and adviser to the Bush campaign -- he is in Atlanta -- and with Democratic strategist Victor Kamber here in our Washington studio -- Mary.

MATALIN: Let me big pick it up on these polls, Vic, because this is true. The -- that Karl Rove was at the Republican Convention with his charts and his maps, and he said: Here is what's going to happen. At this convention, we are going to get a small bounce, because we are receiving Reagan-level Republicans. At the Democratic Convention -- where, at that time, Gore was getting 75 percent of the Democrats -- he is going to get a good bounce.

He did. Then he had three great weeks. And lets say Bush had three not-his-best weeks. He has a good economy. He has a popular president. He has a good vice president out there stumping for him.

KAMBER: That's why he's going to win. You're giving me the reasons.

MATALIN: He's only -- what I'm telling you is, after all of that, he's only tied in these polls. CNN is the only one that has out...

KAMBER: No, no.

MATALIN: NBC, ABC, my husband's own poll -- I think he knows what he's doing -- the Battleground Poll has it at dead heat.

(CROSSTALK)

KAMBER: The polls don't mean anything except bragging rights for the moment. When we were down as Democrats -- I don't want to be a hypocrite -- I denounced the polls. Now that we are up, I will denounce the polls. The fact is -- the reality, however, today, the momentum is with Al Gore, as it was all summer with George Bush. You cannot deny when Bush was up in the polls, the momentum was with him.

Today, the momentum is with Al Gore. The interesting thing about the CNN poll today -- and some other polls -- tracking polls -- is that for the first time, not only is Bush slipping, but Gore is actually personally moving up. That's the big difference. He was stagnant after the convention. He reached his peak after the convention, and for 10, 12 days was stagnant.

Within this week, Al Gore has started to move up, while Bush continues to slip. And the slippage is Bush's own problem. He is off-message. It's that simple.

MATALIN: Well...

KAMBER: For three weeks, we have nothing but gaffs and guffaws and problems by George Bush.

MATALIN: He's also doing incredibly stronger amongst men, in the Midwest, in the South. You denied -- let me just -- you denied this point that is a dead-heat race.

KAMBER: I do deny today it is a dead heat. Today -- if the election were today, Al Gore would be our president -- today.

MATALIN: All right. Well, it isn't today.

(CROSSTALK)

KAMBER: That's correct.

MATALIN: But let me go to Gore's remaining problem. And it's the one that Ralph alluded to before the break. It's not just that he's taking money from Hollywood. It's this -- this endless hypocrisy. After Tipper launched the attack on Hollywood 20 years ago -- wait a minute -- 1888, he and Tipper went to Hollywood.

KAMBER: Yeah.

MATALIN: Prostrated themselves, all on tape, saying...

KAMBER: Yeah. Wait, wait. Where's the -- where is the hypocrisy? No, no. The hypocrisy...

(CROSSTALK)

KAMBER: If you denounce Hollywood and they still give you money, what's hypocritical? I'm taking money after telling you what I'm going to do to you, Hollywood, when I get into office.

MATALIN: Because...

KAMBER: I happen to disagree with Al Gore on Hollywood, and what he says. But the bottom line is, he's up front saying: I'm going to do "x."

And they're still giving him money.

MATALIN: And here's the hypocrisy. Because they have this -- they have been trotted out on TV to say: We know Al Gore isn't really going to do this, because he came to us a year ago and said: This is Clinton's idea.

KAMBER: I haven't heard one person say that.

MATALIN: Well, did you -- try to watch the news tonight.

KAMBER: I do watch the news. I haven't heard the Spielbergs, the

(CROSSTALK)

MATALIN: We know Al Gore is not going to do this to the industry is what they're saying.

PRESS: Ralph Reed...

REED: Yes, sir.

PRESS: Believe it or not, I want to talk to you about an issue.

REED: All right.

PRESS: And Ralph, I want to ask you about an issue that you mentioned earlier in the show, an issue that Governor Bush raised today in the state of Washington, where, of all things, he went after Bill Clinton and Al Gore on the issue of the environment and said they're not doing enough.

Here's a little clip from your candidate today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: For eight years, this administration has talked of environmentalism while our national parks are crumbling.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PRESS: Now Ralph, I know that Bill Clinton and Al Gore are vulnerable on some issues. But on the environment, the facts are Bill Clinton has increased spending for national parks. The facts are that Bill Clinton, under executive order, has put three million acres of new lands under preservation, has national monuments, which is more than any president in history has ever done.

Isn't it safe to say George Bush doesn't know what he's talking about on this issue?

REED: No, absolutely not. First of all, let me point out that under this administration, we currently have a $22 billion backlog in maintenance and natural resource financial needs at our national parks. In addition to that, the current budget of Clinton-Gore actually cuts spending for national parks. And this administration has not done the kind of job that it should have done in this area.

PRESS: Well...

REED: In addition to that, as you know, Bill, today Governor Bush also announced a plan to save the salmon in Washington state without having to breach the dams. And that's a very important issue, in terms of balancing economic development against the need to save the salmon. It's one of the reasons why we are going carry Washington state.

PRESS: Wait a minute. I want to come back to this question of preservation of lands. No. 1, the fact that the president has done more than any other president in history you still say is not enough. What do you want is my first question. The other one is, let me tell you, Dick Cheney is out there and Dick Cheney has said that if elected, he and George Bush might rescind all of those executive actions taken by Bill Clinton.

So you've got Bush saying we haven't done enough and Cheney says we're going to give it all back. Who's got the message, Ralph?

REED: Actually, Bill, that's not a fair characterization of what Secretary Cheney said at all.

PRESS: I could read it word for word if you want.

REED: What he said -- I saw it. I saw it when he said it. It was on "Meet the Press" a couple of weeks ago.

And what he said was is that rather than working with Congress, and being uniter and not a divider, Bill Clinton did this all unilaterally by executive order, by executive fiat.

PRESS: But he did it. But he did it.

REED: What Secretary Cheney said was, I want to work with Congress to set these lands aside according to what the statutes allow instead of bypassing the will of Congress. That's all he said.

(CROSSTALK)

I wanted to mention one other think about Hollywood.

PRESS: Pardon me. Let me just follow.

He also said that they may rescind those. Didn't say they would, he said they may rescind those actions. But Ralph, you know, the No. 1 environmental...

REED: I don't think that's a fair characterization of what he said at all.

PRESS: I quote (UNINTELLIGIBLE). The No. 1 environmental issue today for all environmental groups is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, which President Eisenhower created back in the '50s. Al Gore wants to preserve ANWR. George Bush wants to open it for oil drilling.

I ask you again, how can you claim the environmental mantle when he's so bad on the No. 1 issue?

REED: I tell you how we can claim the environmental mantle: We can claim it because Texas has led America in the last five years under Governor Bush...

PRESS: In dirty air.

REED: ... in the reduction of toxic emissions. Texas was only the third state in America to grandfather in public utilities and make them abide by environmental laws. And as a matter of fact, under GOVERNOR BUSH he has removed enough toxic waste from the air to equal removing 5 million automobiles from the highways. And if we had had that kind of leadership (UNINTELLIGIBLE) president, we'd be a lot further along with clean air and clean water.

(CROSSTALK)

PRESS: All right. Hold it, Ralph. Quick last word.

KAMBER: To me it's just ludicrous to consider George Bush environmental -- environmentalist. If anyone is an environmentalist, it's Al Gore, and frankly, what Clinton and Gore have done, and what you've said, Bill -- I mean, this is a crazy conversation we're having.

MATALIN: No. Of course, it (UNINTELLIGIBLE) if you don't consider the facts, which Ralph just laid out.

Thank you very much, Ralph. As always a stellar performance. Thank you, Vic.

KAMBER: Mary, always a pleasure.

MATALIN: A nice advocate for your campaign.

When we come back, Bill and I will have our closing comments on CROSSFIRE.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: Well, Mary, I just am going to put my button on here, my big "RAT" button, but I'm not going to say anything. I just am trying to send you a "subliminalable" message.

MATALIN: You know, that's really funny for all the times you have...

(LAUGHTER)

... bobbled reading a script, OK. (LAUGHTER)

To make fun of malaprop.

PRESS: Four times in once press conference.

MATALIN: He -- I mean, I just can't believe all the, literally, the times you can't even get through a script.

(LAUGHTER)

And listen, you must have -- Democrats must be resuming these three martini lunches. If you think this is the way you're going to get from here to the end of this campaign, go for it.

PRESS: Then explain -- explain this to me: Why is it a good idea for George Bush to spend last week debating the debates and this week defending the "RATS"? Tell me why that's good when you're running for president of the United States.

MATALIN: The debate over the debates proves that Al Gore is a chicken. He doesn't want to go on with Tim Russert, who cleaned his clock last time he was on. He doesn't want to go on with Bush and have a debate like we're having here. He wants to go on there and be an automaton: 60 seconds here, 30 seconds here, the kind of ridiculous high school debates that only happen in high school.

PRESS: I say please keep talking about these issues and not the real issues. I feel a lot better.

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

MATALIN: And remember it's they who are raising these issues.

From the right, I'm Mary Matalin. Join us again tomorrow for more CROSSFIRE.

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