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Which Presidential Candidate Is Best-Equipped to Lead in an International Crisis?

Aired October 12, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight, a suspected terrorist attack against a U.S. Navy destroyer...


AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Any terrorist should know that whoever is responsible for something like this will be met with a full and forceful and effective retaliatory response.


PRESS: ... and stepped up violence in the Middle East.


GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Chairman Arafat must stand up and call upon the people he represents to put down their rocks and arms.


PRESS: With new trouble abroad, which presidential candidate is best-equipped to lead in an international crisis?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Robert Novak. In the crossfire, Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, member of the Foreign Relations Committee and a Gore supporter, and Senator Tim Hutchinson, Arkansas chair of the Bush campaign and a member of the Armed Services Committee.

PRESS: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

The day after the second presidential debate, a horrific day of death and violence in the Middle East, and suddenly the focus is back on foreign policy.

In Yemen, six American sailors were killed when a bomb exploded alongside the Navy destroyer USS Cole, in port to refuel: 11 more sailors are missing in what the Pentagon believes was an anti-American terrorist suicide mission.

And on the West Bank, renewed fighting today: After a mob of Palestinians beat at least two Israeli soldiers to death, Israel retaliated with helicopter strikes against targets in Ramallah and Gaza. Hopes for a quick end to the violence tonight are dimmer than ever.

At last night's debate, both Al Gore and George Bush expressed support for Israel, and today both urged swift retribution against those responsible for bombing of the USS Cole.

The two incidents underscore the important question, which consumed most of yesterday's debate: not just which candidate has a better plan for taxes or Social Security, but which candidate, Gore or Bush, is better equipped to become the leader of the free world. Who would best lead on foreign policy? -- Robert.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Senator Wellstone, at this moment when most Americans are really thinking of the national interest, there's a little politics being played. President Clinton called in Vice President Gore from the campaign trail at 5:45, canceled his campaign events to come in for this crisis.

Now, you're sophisticated enough, Senator Wellstone, to know that the one person you don't need around when there's a crisis is the vice president. I mean, he is absolutely an extra appendage. Don't you think it is just plain politics to play this game and not worthy of the president or the vice president?

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE (D-MN), GORE SUPPORTER: This is the first time you've ever said I'm sophisticated.


I'm grateful for that, Bob.

I don't think anybody is playing politics with this and nobody should. You know, we have moved from some hope for peace to what Bill described as a horrific day, and I think it's so important right now, in the Middle East especially, to try to call for a cease-fire, to try to get a cease-fire, to try to end the violence, otherwise the only future in the Middle East is we'll have Palestinian children killing Israeli children and Israeli children killing Palestinian children for generations to come.

And then we saw, you know, four, five, six sailors -- there may be more -- who have lost their lives on the USS Cole. And I think again right now we don't know. People are saying this probably was a terrorist attack. We don't know yet who did it and we're waiting to get that information.

But this is a kind of day where it's appropriate for the vice president to be with the president, and it's appropriate for all of us to figure out how we as a nation respond and what we can best do.

I don't see this as being a big partisan thing right now, I really don't, nor do I think it should be.

NOVAK: It shouldn't be a partisan thing, senator, and I'm sure you're quite sincere. WELLSTONE: Right.

NOVAK: But there's no doubt that Vice President Gore is slipping a little bit in the polls. Didn't have all that great of a debate last night. And they're just trying to give him a little boost by bringing him in. He's been -- excuse me. He's been detached from the federal government, as you well know, for many months. He hasn't anything to do with the government. He's been running for president full-time.

What do they need him sitting at that table for?

WELLSTONE: I think this is -- you know, I like you, but I think this is the Bob Novak mind at work, putting 2 and 2 together in a way that you shouldn't. I don't think it has anything to do with the debate, what happened last night. We'll talk about the debate. I think it has to do with how we as a nation respond to what has happened in the Middle East and how we as a nation respond to the loss of life of Americans.

NOVAK: Senator, I am delighted you're in such a mellow, nonpartisan mood, so I think I'll then ask you, since I'm sure you watched the debate last night.


NOVAK: I'm not going ask you who won or who lost it. But don't you really believe that Governor Bush, who has been absolutely battered by the Democrats as somebody who didn't know Australia from Austria, that he particularly in the first 42 minutes of the debate -- it was on foreign policy -- comported himself as somebody who knows what he's doing, knows what he's saying?

WELLSTONE: I think he did a very good job. I think -- I think you're right. I think he was very strong at the beginning of the debate. Give him full credit, and you'll be glad to hear that.

However, I think at the end of the debate, where the vice president talked about the record in Texas, that was of key importance, because for me...


No, but let me just say one thing.

NOVAK: We'll talk about...

WELLSTONE: The only way we can judge people is by their actions, and I think that's where the vice president said your record on children and education and health care is abysmal.

NOVAK: That doesn't have anything to do with foreign policy.

PRESS: Senator Hutchinson, let me ask you about this first part of the debate, which did have to do with foreign policy. And you know, Governor Bush at one point called last night's debate a "love fest." I mean, I thought these two guys were going to kiss at the end of the debate, you know, they agreed on so much.

In fact, that was the theme all through the beginning of the debate, Bush agreeing again and again and again.

Let me remind you, senator -- let's listen to this little clip from last night's debate.


GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And I appreciate the way the administration has worked hard to calm the tensions.



BUSH: I thought that the president made the right decision.



BUSH: I supported the president.



BUSH: The administration deserves credit for having made it work.



BUSH: I thought they made the right decision not to send U.S. troops into Rwanda.



BUSH: I'm pleased the president made the decision he made.


PRESS: Senator Hutchinson, the obvious question, if this administration has been doing such a great job on foreign policy, that George Bush is saluting it, why change horses?

SEN. TIM HUTCHINSON (R-AR), ARKANSAS CHAIRMAN OF THE BUSH CAMPAIGN: Well, you know, it's funny, Bill. When George W. Bush disagrees with the administration, he's accused of undermining the foreign policy of the country. When he applauds where he can the administration's decisions, you say it's a love fest. I think he took opportunities to disagree on several of the foreign policy decisions of the president, including Haiti, including Russia, and there were some clear differences that he pointed out: certainly his belief that we're overextended, that we have been deployed too often, and that we have not adequately given resources to the military.

PRESS: Well, in some cases, he did try to point out some differences, but I think that's where he fell flat. For example, let me talk about the Balkans. On the Balkans, George Bush said: You know what we ought to do? We ought to talk to the Europeans and get them to send troops in. Now, that sounds very good if you don't know what you're talking about. But the fact is, senator, as I'm sure you know, there are 50,000 troops in Kosovo, 8,000 of them are from the United States. The others are from 30 different countries.

So either -- what is it, senator? You tell me. Did George Bush not know other countries are already there? Did he just forget? Or was he just bluffing?

HUTCHINSON: You know, I think most Americans concluded from his -- from his performance last night that he's very adept and very qualified to lead the foreign policy of this country. And in fact...

PRESS: But he knew nothing about the Balkans, senator?

HUTCHINSON: ... what he -- Bill, what he was calling for was the eventual removal of all of our troops in the Balkans, not just...

PRESS: He said -- he said the Europeans should send in forces. They're already there.

NOVAK: To send in more forces.

HUTCHINSON: Precisely.

NOVAK: Senator -- Senator Wellstone, Bill is very good at taking little snippets of tape -- you know, they used to do that in making composite photographs in the smutty newspapers. But I take a whole statement, because I'm a very honest person, and I want you to listen to something that you can say I agree with you that George Bush last night said this. Let's listen to it.


BUSH: I'm worried about overcommitting our military around the world. I want to be judicious in its use. You mentioned Haiti. I wouldn't have sent troops to Haiti. I didn't think it was a mission worthwhile. It was a nation-building mission, and it was not very successful. It cost us billions -- a couple of billion of dollars, and I'm not so sure democracy is any better off in Haiti than it was before.


NOVAK: Isn't that right on, Senator Wellstone? Haiti was a disaster and the people of Haiti are just as bad off today as they were under the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) dictatorship?

WELLSTONE: Well, I agree with the first part of what Governor Bush said, that we should be judicious in the use of our military abroad, but I think the vice president agrees as well. I think with Haiti, look, I'm not going to say it has been a complete success. The question is, if we had not been involved at all and if we had played no role, what would then be the situation in Haiti?

It's been a tough challenge, no question about it.

What I disagree with George W. Bush is on the whole question of nation building. Look, I think the vice president was right when he talked about NATO. He was right when he talked about the Marshall Plan. And frankly, when I look at the poverty in the world and I look at the importance of somehow making sure that children have a diet and that they don't die at a young age and we can help countries rebuild their nations, I think there's a real role for the United States to play. And I think that's the greatness of our country.

NOVAK: That's...

WELLSTONE: I think George W. -- I really don't think there is a close call when it comes to who has the knowledge and who has the experience and who has the command in foreign policy. I think the vice president...

NOVAK: Well, it didn't look that way last night. But that isn't nation building.

But I want to give you another thing that Governor Bush said that I think was very interesting. Let's listen to it.


BUSH: Take Russia, for example. We went into Russia. We said, here's some IMF money. It ended up in Victor Chernomyrdin's pockets and others. And yet we played like there was reform.


NOVAK: There's no question that Chernomyrdin, whether he took the money from the IMF or from other government sources, international sources, was a big crook, and he is Al Gore's buddy. Now, what kind of confidence do you have in your candidate, Vice President Gore, senator, when he has been -- he stuck -- he staked his reputation on this corrupt ex-communist, Victor Chernomyrdin?

WELLSTONE: Well, again, I think when it comes to the question you asked about nation building, we have a different definition of nation building. I don't -- I don't link the vice president to any one person in Russia.

NOVAK: You don't link him to Chernomyrdin?

WELLSTONE: No, but -- well, I don't -- I don't argue that because there's a question of corruption that the vice president somehow should be implicated. I don't think any -- I don't think our government has been perfect in its policy toward Russia at all. But I will tell you this: What happens in Russia, whether that country succeeds, whether it's able to build a nation, whether it has a successful economy, whether it has a democracy, is going to crucially affect the quality of lives of our children and our grandchildren. And again, I think it's important to be involved in the international arena, and I think the vice president has that kind of knowledge and expertise. I don't think George W. Bush does.

NOVAK: OK, we're going to have to take a break. And now for tonight's audience vote, who would better handle an international crisis: Bush or Gore? Tell us at, and we'll give you the results a little later.

After the break, we'll come back, and believe it or not, we'll talk about some non-foreign policy that were discussed last night at Wake Forest University.


NOVAK: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. A little more than half of last night's debate was not on foreign policy, but issues like racial profiling, gay marriage, health care in Texas, and global warming. Who won here? We're asking Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and Republican Senator Tom -- Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas -- Bill Press.

PRESS: Senator Hutchinson, I want to move on to domestic issues, but fist, I just have to ask you, because you didn't have a chance to comment on this term "nation building" -- I mean, I just want to ask you the basic question, senator. If the United States can help build democracy, whether it's in Haiti or whether it's in Bosnia or whether it's in Kosovo, what's more important than that and what's wrong with it?

HUTCHINSON: Nothing's wrong with it except it's not the purpose of our military. And let me just say, talking about nation building, because I didn't get to respond about Haiti, Haiti has been an unmitigated disaster. We spent $2 billion in economic aid, $1 billion in the military operation, and anyone who looks at Haiti today will say it's less democratic, more repressive, with higher drug trafficking than when we went in there. It has been a disaster. And that, I'm afraid, will be the legacy of many of these deployments of this administration.

PRESS: I don't think anybody claims that Haiti was perfect, but it was an area where there was a military dictatorship left there by the Bush administration, the Clinton administration tried to do something about.

Moving on to domestic issues, one of the things talked about last night was hate crimes legislation. I'd like to show you another entire clip of something George W. Bush had to say about it, please.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BUSH: We've got one in Texas. And guess what? The three men who murdered James Byrd, guess what's going to happen to them? They're going to be put to death. A jury found them guilty, and it's going to be hard to punish them any worse after they get put to death.


PRESS: Now, first of all, senator, unlike the Republicans, we just don't -- Democrats don't jump on every mistake and pummel a guy to death. But you will agree that George Bush made a mistake. Two of them have been sentenced to death, one of them sentenced to life imprisonment, right?

HUTCHINSON: Well, I don't think that's -- you know, you're one to talk about details looking at Mr. Gore. But the point was you've got severe penalties that are being...

PRESS: Well...


PRESS: Well, I know. My point is George Bush made a mistake. I'm just saying he made a mistake.

HUTCHINSON: I believe he was the first to admit he has mangled syl-labels or whatever last night.

PRESS: But the more important question is on the hate crimes legislation that Governor Bush alleged that there was -- no, he stated there was already hate crimes legislation, they didn't need anymore. The fact is it's a very weak bill. It was passed under Ann Richards. The fact is that there's new legislation that was proposed by the James Byrd family with tougher penalties, training for police, and included coverage for homosexuals, which was not in the original bill, and George Bush opposed that legislation.

He can't really say he's for hate crimes legislation, can you, senator?

HUTCHINSON: No, and I think the point was that he's for the swift and sure penalizing of those who violate the law. And that was the whole -- I mean, you can't enhance the ultimate penalty. And if somebody violates the law, they've committed a crime, they should be penalized and they should suffer the consequences.

I think that's been the record of George W. Bush in Texas, and that's a good and noble record. That's a good thing to run on. And I think the American people from all the polls since that debate last night indicate that they responded well, that what he was saying resonated well.

NOVAK: Senator Hutchinson, you just ran into my question. Could you mention the polls?

You know, Senator Paul Wellstone, you're a great populist. You believe that the people are always right, the people can't be wrong. And let me -- let me read what the Gallup poll taken for CNN/"USA Today" right after the debate said: Who did the best job in the debate? Bush, 49 percent, Gore, 36 percent. And every poll by every other network had just about the same results.

People ain't wrong, are they, Paul?

WELLSTONE: I told you, I thought that George W. Bush did very well, especially during the first part of the debate, and I think it's very important for the vice president to focus on the second part of the debate, because in the second part of the debate -- you know, the way that people should judge us is by our record. You know, in the case of the vice president, his record as a senator, representative and vice president. The way you judge George W. is by his record as a governor, and it's not the words.

And when you look at the record, it's really a pretty deplorable record when it comes to health care for children, when it comes to protection of the environment, when it comes to really being right there with a lot of the special interests, oil interests and others, and not -- you use the word populism, Bob -- and not be in there for a lot of regular citizens. And I think that's going to become the focus of the debate in the next weeks and it should be the focus.

NOVAK: Senator, let me...

HUTCHINSON: Can I respond?

NOVAK: Go ahead.

PRESS: Go ahead, senator.

HUTCHINSON: Well, Paul has mentioned a couple of times the health care record of George W. Bush in Texas. The fact is the statistics that Al Gore used were '98 figures, when he kept repeating them and kept repeating them, and that this year alone they have enrolled over 130,000 children in the CHIPs program under the leadership of George W. Bush.

NOVAK: We're almost -- we're almost out of time. I want to give a question, because I don't think that Vice President Gore did that well in the second half, particularly when it came to presenting his position on gay marriages. Let's just listen to this.


BUSH: I feel strongly that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

JIM LEHRER, MODERATOR: Vice President Gore?

GORE: I agree with that, and I did support that law. But I think that we should find a way to allow some kind of civic unions, and I basically agree with Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman, and I think the three of us have one view and the governor has another view.

(END VIDEO CLIP) NOVAK: Isn't that the real problem with your candidate? I remember on a cold night in Des Moines on a Saturday night at Drake University you said that he was a very tricky guy. He started that sentence saying he agrees with him, he ends up saying he doesn't agree with him. What's going on there, Paul?

WELLSTONE: Well, this tricky guy -- I don't exactly remember that quote. Look, I always believe you should be straightforward, and I think what the vice president was trying to say -- you know, maybe could have said it better-- but I think what he was trying to say was on the mark.

What he said is that he did not believe in same-sex marriage, but when people were in a durable, loving relationship, you don't want there to be discrimination. You don't want people not to have insurance coverage. You don't want people not to be able to visit each other in the hospital.

PRESS: Senator, I'm sorry to interrupt, senator, but we are out of time. Senator Wellstone and Senator Hutchinson, thank you both...

HUTCHINSON: Thank you.

PRESS: ... for taking time out from the Senate. I know you've got votes there tonight. You're good to join us, and we'll see you again on CROSSFIRE very soon. And you'll see Bob Novak and me back in just a minute with closing comments.


PRESS: Tomorrow night, "The Drudge Report's" Matt Drudge and "Washington Post" media critic Howard Kurtz join us to talk about journalism and the Internet: regular time, 7:30 p.m. Eastern.

And now for our audience vote results. We asked you earlier if Bush or Gore would do a better job handling an international crisis: 60 percent of you said Bush, 40 percent of you said Gore. I hate to say it, Bob, but our viewers have it backwards. There may be two views on tax cuts, on Social Security. On foreign policy, there's a clear choice: Gore is equipped; Bush is not, and he proved it again last night.

NOVAK: It was a disaster for Gore last night, and I'll tell you: because it made Bush look at least his equal if not his superior on foreign policy. And I'll tell you something else, Al Gore may win this election, but he's not going to win it on trashing Texas. That is not going to be the way people vote, to say, gee, we don't like Texas, therefore, we're going to vote no. If they vote for Gore, it'll be for other reasons.

PRESS: No. The message is lousy job in Texas. He would do a lousy job in Washington.

NOVAK: Won't work. Didn't work with president and Arkansas, and it won't work now.

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

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



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