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Is John McCain Thwarting George W. Bush's Agenda?

Aired March 26, 2001 - 7:30 p.m. ET


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight, George W. Bush may have won the White House, but is his former opponent keeping him from winning his agenda? Is it Bush versus McCain all over again?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Robert Novak. In the CROSSFIRE: in Miami, Florida, former McCain strategist Mike Murphy and in Austin, Texas, Mark McKinnon, former Bush media strategist.

PRESS: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE. In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, "It's deja vu all over again." Last year's New Hampshire primary lives.

Even though he won the White House, George Bush is still battling John McCain. Yes, on several key issues. It's not the Democrats alone who are driving Bush batty. It's the Democrats plus John McCain, joining Democrat Russ Feingold in pushing campaign finance reform, joining Democrat Joe Lieberman on gun control, joining Democrat Tom Daschle in criticizing Bush's tax cut, even teaming up with super-Democrat Teddy Kennedy on a patients' bill of rights.

Over the weekend, both Bush and McCain denied there was any real rift between them.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: John McCain and I are friends. He is -- we are not going to agree 100 percent of the time, but we are going to agree a lot more than we disagree.



SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: My relationship with President Bush and Vice President Cheney and my other friends in the administration are fine.


PRESS: But they did little to quiet the rumors that McCain might even challenge Bush again in 2004. So, does Bush have a McCain problem? Is McCain being a good soldier? Is it time to put the straight talk express back on the road? Tucker. TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST: Now, Mike, Republicans in Washington, as you know, are complaining that John McCain has not given Bush any chance to work out his agenda. Now, this is a talking point, but there's also some truth in it. You heard the litany that Bill just read: campaign finance reform, the tax cut, gun control, health care -- it seems to me that McCain is taking advantage of the evenly-split Senate to put his agenda above Bush's and also to throw a wrench into Bush's attempt to get his issues out there. He's clearly doing this because he doesn't like George W. Bush, not a gentlemanly thing to do.

MIKE MURPHY, FORMER MCCAIN STRATEGIST: No, no. Nice try, Tucker, but that's not the situation at all.

There are two things at work here: one, Senator John McCain has been a Republican maverick all his career. It's no surprise to anybody he's for campaign finance reform. In fact, he worked with the Republican leadership to come to a very amicable agreement to have the debate now, so it wouldn't get in the way of Bush releasing that tax plan that I think is wonderful policy, and I think we're all going to be for it. So, this thing has been overblown in the media. And I think people want a dog fight, so there's been a lot of hysterics.

The other thing going on is it's natural for the Senate to have a big impact on policy. It's the way Washington has worked for 100 years. President proposes, sets the agenda, and then there's a little good-natured wrestling with the Senate to try to get something that's passable, and that's what you see going on now with most of these issues.

McCain has been a strong Republican supporter and will continue to be, but he's got to put his own stamp on things.

CARLSON: But, wait -- first of all, it's the first 100 days, there's no way to spin this other than McCain is stealing attention away from Bush at a time Bush needs all the attention he can get, and McCain says, well, hold on, I have got a mandate here for campaign finance reform. Nobody has a mandate, George W. Bush didn't have a clear mandate! And it's obvious to everyone that there isn't a groundswell support for campaign finance reform, and this is, basically, grandstanding.

MURPHY: It's not central Soviet; it's not like the order comes down, "da!" and all the hands go up. This is the nature of the Senate. The senators are powerful, they put impact on legislation -- and what -- this campaign finance thing is not new. McCain has made it clear for years.

This is like the sixth time he's brought up McCain-Feingold, and the Bush administration, frankly, has been great about it -- we will have a debate, two weeks, we will see what happens. I will predict, actually, that President Bush will sign McCain-Feingold if it passes. That's the question now -- of course, we don't know how it will turn out.

PRESS: All right. Mark McKinnon, good to have you back on CROSSFIRE, by the way. MARK MCKINNON, FORMER BUSH MEDIA STRATEGIST: Thank you, Bill.

PRESS: So, the rumors are flying around Washington, and maybe we just have nothing better to do, but you know, the rumors are flying that these two guys don't like each other, they don't agree on the issues, and McCain, as Tucker just indicated, might be using all these issues to build himself a platform for 2004.

Yesterday, John McCain did his best to throw some water on the flames. Let's hear what he said first, then I got a question for you.


MCCAIN: I can assure you that I have been envisioning no scenario in which I would run for president of the United States.


PRESS: So, Mark McKinnon, are you worried and do you believe him?

MCKINNON: Well, you know, listen, I hate to throw a blanket on the conflict here, because I know conflict creates stories in your program, but I agree with Mike on this. John McCain has always been a maverick, we didn't expect him to change his ways because Bush was elected president. He's still a maverick senator, he still has his issues that he feels passionately about.

I think there's going to be a bill. The president himself says he's eager to sign a bill, he wants to look at a compromise. You know, I think the forces are moving forward on this, and I think there's a very good likelihood there will be a bill.

PRESS: But isn't the problem -- I mean, look, I would give you credit -- I mean, I don't think you won the election fair and square, but you won it. However you got there, Bush is in the White House, and yet it seems that every time McCain's name comes up, the White House staff just goes bonkers, you know, like a cat on grill.

Here's how Mark Salter put it, you know, McCain's a chief of staff. He said, speaking of the campaign finance bill: "Our impression is that the problem the White House has with the bill is not so much the substance of the bill as just the mere fact that McCain's name is on the bill."

And so, my question is, why don't the people at the White House just relax? Why are they so skittish about McCain?

MCKINNON: I don't think the White House staff is skittish, I don't think the president is skittish. I think the press is skittish. I think they love to create this conflict.

Listen, there are so many elements of this bill on which we agree, what the president believes in is a lot of what John McCain believes in, and that is balance and light. We want balance, and we want light, and you know, listen, I will tell you from my own experience in the primaries, we want to know, you know, when there's third party money spent, we want to know who's spending it.

You remember the Wiley brothers ad? Well, it took us 48 hours to figure out who was doing the ad, and if we would have known who was doing it, I guarantee you, we would have tried to stop it. But you know, that's part of the problem, and if you look at where we agree, there's more than we agree on than what we disagree on.

CARLSON: Now, Mike, as you know, Republicans in Washington are whispering that John McCain is secretly a liberal. Is this true? To answer it, we go, as I know you would, to Trent Lott of Mississippi. Listen to what he said this weekend on LATE EDITION.


SEN. TRENT LOTT (R-MS), SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: Senator McCain has joined with Senator Kennedy, clearly who has very liberal positions on health care issues, and Senator Edwards who is a plaintiff's lawyer, trial lawyer. Unusual company.


CARLSON: And not to mention Russ Feingold. Now, if all your friends are in the mafia, it doesn't mean you are a made member, but it does mean you are probably sympathetic to organized crime! So, in this case, all his buddies are liberals -- what does this mean, Mike?

MURPHY: Oh, that's ridiculous. I'm actually having a field day today, because my old pal McKinnon are having a great time killing the normal dog fight you guys are gunning for here.

The fact is, McCain is associated with known Democrats, you have a list of 49. Trent Lott may have an old beef, because during the primary campaign, we spent a lot of time beating up on him for the huge pork barrel spending that he stuffed into some bills. That's kind of a fiscal liberal as opposed to a fiscal conservative.

So, there is a little bit of tension between Trent and Senator McCain, but the bottom line McCain is a maverick, he's interested in health care reform issue, he's interested in campaign finance reform, but these guys will work it out, it's the nature of the Senate. And as President Bush said, on most things, they are together.

CARLSON: But wait a second, Mike. I mean, if you listen to McCain's speeches -- and that was you, written some, you will notice that he virtually never says anything nice about Republicans. It's almost always talking about him reaching out to the other side -- I mean, if he's -- name the issues on which he is in lock step with the party, because in the significant ones, he seems to be completely at odds with the Bush administration.

MURPHPY: I don't think that's right, Tucker. McCain went along with Phil Gramm and a few others -- Jeff Sessions -- as just about the toughest spending hog in the Senate. He time and time again votes even against Republican aprop bills because they spend too much. It's heart to find a tougher fiscal conservative than John McCain. On defense spending, on foreign policy, he's a tough conservative Republican. He's got a 100 percent pro-life voting record.

So, the idea you're going to make John McCain into some kind of a liberal is just not accurate. The fact is, he's tough, he's independent, and he speaks his own mind. But in the clutch, John McCain has been a pretty good party Republican, and I think 90 percent of the time, you see him there because that's what his record has been. But he has the courage to stand up to his leadership once in a while when they are wrong, and they are wrong on campaign finance reform. The senator leadership just doesn't get it on that issue.

PRESS: All right, Mark McKinnon, back to you. And I mean, I got to tell you, between the two of you, I never heard so much spin in my entire life! I mean, number one, you are trying to spin that there's no conflict at all between Bush and McCain, and now, Mark, you are trying to spin that George Bush believes in campaign finance reform the same way John McCain does, and you know that is not true. The Chuck Hagel bill, John McCain says, is worse than no bill at all! So how -- why do you put that line out there?

MCKINNON: Well, listen -- again, I think there's a lot more than we agree on than what we disagree on. One thing that I think we believe in is that the hard money caps that were set in 1974, ought to be increased. That's part of the soft money problem. You know, you have got a $1,000 cap for individuals, and it's -- that's from 20 years ago, you just add in the cost of inflation, we ought to increase those caps.

PRESS: Well, I was wondering -- I mean, that McCain-Feingold is so popular and so right, as far as I'm concerned, wondering why George Bush opposes it.

I thought I might have learned in this week's "Newsweek," Mark McKinnon, where it talks about the fact that there's a new campaign going on. You're making the TV ads for this group called Tax Relief Coalition, paid for by big corporations to support Bush's tax plan. Isn't that why Bush is opposed to John McCain's bill? He doesn't want to turn the spigot off? He's too dependent on that big corporate cash.

MCKINNON: No, not at all. He thinks what we should have is the right for people to know where that money comes from.

PRESS: But, Mark...


PRESS: Wait, I just want to finish: doesn't this...

MCKINNON: He believes in advancing...


MCKINNON: By the way, Bill, he believes in an absolute ban on unregulated soft money for both unions and corporations. That's absolute reform. PRESS: But my point is, doesn't this illustrate the need for McCain-Feingold, because even in-between campaigns, you're still shaking down corporations for money to pay for political ads.

MCKINNON: Bill, we're for a bill. Bring it to his desk. He's anxious to sign it.

MURPHY: And, Bill, I'll make a challenge to you. If McCain- Feingold passes, and the president signs it, which I'll predict, if it passes, he'll do -- will you wear a Bush button for a whole show? And if it goes in and he vetoes McCain-Feingold, I'll wear some ludicrous Democrat button if you ever have me back on again.

MCKINNON: It's a deal.


PRESS: I will wear a Bush button for an entire show if George Bush signs McCain-Feingold.

CARLSON: Now, Mike, I just -- really, for my own amusement, I want to see you with a straight face say that there's no personal animus between John McCain and George W. Bush. They both pretend they're old pals, but they loathe each other. I know the McCain people loathe Bush. Is this not true?

MURPHY: Tucker, I think we're making a ratings attempt, here.


I'll tell you this...


MURPHY: No, I'll answer your QUESTION:. They remind me of two guys on a very, very, good professional football team that have a bit of a rivalry, but ultimately they're on the team. Like, McCain's the defensive captain, and he has certain views about how things ought to work. Bush has certain views, he is the quarterback, and so there is a little bit of tension between the guys.

But the idea that is a snorting personal hatred is just not true. I mean, you guys in the media love to work it up, but it's just not that -- I know John McCain very well. Are there some points of frustration? Sure. Is there a bit of anger in the McCain world that a lot of people who worked on our campaign can't get a job as a third- string messenger in the administration? Sure, there is.


MURPHY: But, fundamentally -- fundamentally, they're on the same team.

CARLSON: Yeah, but then why do you have John Weaver being quoted by -- the former head strategist for your McCain campaign -- being quoted in the "L.A. Times" the other day saying, "Actually, you know, on a good say we don't hate them as much as we do on a bad day." I mean, it's out in the open.

MURPHY: All you media guys get an electron microscope and try to blow the thing up. Look, John, we've all had days when we get a little bit gnarly in the inner working of all this. I'm just saying the ideas that it's World War III, and a big blood fight and need a metal detector at every meeting is just not accurate.

And the extent that there is some personal animosity -- and I don't really think there's personal animosity -- the extent there's stress, it's more on a staff level on both sides than the two guys.

MCKINNON: I can tell you -- well, know for certain that the president has absolute respect for Senator McCain.

CARLSON: OK. Well, we will try to get both of you to mix it up. Mark McKinnon and Mike Murphy when we return on CROSSFIRE.


CARLSON: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

The official line is, they're not feuding. But you'd never know it from the way John McCain and George W. Bush have been acting lately. Since the primaries, McCain, the war hero, has refused to play the good Republican soldier, opposing the new administration on at least three high-profile issues, including health care, gun control and campaign finance reform. "McCain's a sore loser," whisper Bush allies. "He must be running for president again."

"Not so," says McCain -- sort of. What is John McCain up to? We'll ask two people who know: in Miami, former McCain strategist Mike Murphy, and in Austin, former Bush media consultant Mark McKinnon -- Bill?

PRESS: Mark, I want to get away from the family feud for just a second here to ask you about another issue we've all been following. In Austin, your former office manager, Juanita Yvette Lozano, has been accused by a grand jury of mail fraud, perjury, and lying to the FBI about sending those debate materials -- prep materials to Tom Downey, Gore's friend. You supported her initially, Mark. Do you now believe that she did it?

MCKINNON: Well, listen, Bill, I really don't know, the indictment was a pretty strong indictment. And I still hope that there has been some terrible mistake, and I want to let her have her day in court. But the indictment was a pretty strong indictment. It was and very disturbing.

PRESS: Do you have any opinion on whether or not, f she did it, that she acted alone? Do you think she was capable of that strong of a Democrat to know what to do and who to send it to?

MCKINNON: Well, you know, that's a big question, is the why. And I just don't know. Hopefully through this process, we'll find out just what the motivation might have been, if, in fact, she was involved. PRESS: All right. We'll be watching -- Tucker.

CARLSON: OK. Now, Mike, I want to be a conduit here for what people are saying about our pal, John McCain.


CARLSON: And as you know, one of the things people always say...

MURPHY: You're working had. Yeah, go ahead.

CARLSON: Well, thank you -- is that John McCain loves the limelight. I want to read you a background quote from a Republican senator, not named, in "The New York Times" this week. And the feeling is that John McCain got a taste of the national limelight, he loves the adulation of the national press, and that drives him.

In other words, being on Tim Russert is like crack, and McCain is the Morton Downey Jr. of the Senate. He needs rehab, and that's why he's doing things like McCain-Feingold, which really has no chance of passing. He's just doing it to stay in the press. Respond to that.

MURPHY: Oh, it's baloney. The funny thing is, every time John goes out and gets some media attention, you can almost fry an egg on the head of some of these jealous colleagues.


MURPHY: You know, the Senate is composed of 100 would-be presidents and 100 would-be television stars. I think if it's anything, there is some jealousy about it. But, no, McCain's interesting. McCain stands up and McCain says what he believes. And McCain is not afraid of a little conflict once in a while. So it makes him great copy, and he's accessible to the media.

We ran a campaign, it was ultimately pretty transparent to the media all the time. Remember, you were there, Tucker. We were pretty much 24/7 right in front of you and all the other guys, And, so he's a good source in the media flak.

CARLSON: Well, he's a wonderful source. And as a member of the press, I'm required by Federal law to say I love John McCain. But you must admit there is some truth in this. The issues that McCain is interested in, starting with campaign finance reform, are the issues that the press by and large is inordinately interested in, far more than the average person.

You don't think that his great relations with the press have anything to do with his agenda?

MURPHY: No, I think the fact that he is in a position where some of the leadership in the party is beating on him all the time because he does what he believes, I think that's attractive to the media. There's no doubt there's a big media fan club for John McCain. It's obvious. But I think they think he has backbone and he does things that they approve of. I mean, I think they -- when they see a Trent Lott or somebody going after him and knowing he's kind of a maverick in the caucus, they respect that. He's a tough guy.

PRESS: Mark McKinnon, you know, during the campaign, George Bush, your candidate, promised to change the tone in Washington. He promised that he was going to be a different kind of Republican and reach out across the aisle.

I want to read you just a couple of lines here from a recent op- ed piece in "The Washington Post" authored by John McCain and John Edwards. This is back February 8th. Quote: "There's been a lot of talk on Capitol Hill lately about bipartisanship and finding common ground on issues of great importance for the American people. It's time to turn such talk into action."

So wouldn't you have to agree that by joining Democrats on gun control and patients' bill of rights and tax cuts and campaign reform that John McCain is really doing what George Bush promised to do?

MCKINNON: Oh, listen, I think where we're seeing a lot of bipartisan support and cooperation is on the signature issues, the tax cut. I think we're going to have a tax cut bill and a big one. I think we're going to have an education bill that we campaigned on. I think we're going to have a military bill.

I think on all the signature issues we're seeing terrific bipartisan support.

I've got question for you, Bill, if I could ask.

PRESS: OK. Back to the button. Go ahead.


MURPHY: I wrote that down.

MCKINNON: What we're seeing on the campaign finance reform bill that's interesting is a lot of the Democrats peeling off with the notion that somehow now that they think that because they're raising -- they're getting the parity in soft-money fund raising that suddenly they're starting to peel off. What's happening with Tom Daschle and Paul Wellstone and all the Democrats who were supposedly for campaign finance reform?

PRESS: Well...

MURPHY: Yeah. Can I interrupt?

PRESS: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa! One at a time. No, no.

Let me just say, I just say the Democrats are all there except for John Breaux, and they'll be there as long as it's a good bill. But I want to follow up -- I don't want to let you off the hook on this reaching out, because, you know, again Bush promised to do this. It looks like the only people, Mark, that he's reaching out to are the conservatives. They have never been more deliriously happy in Washington.

It was -- Grover Norquist just said the other day, talking about the Bush administration: "They is us, we is them." There's no difference between them. The president of the Heritage Foundation said that Bush is more Reagan-like than Reagan.

I mean, the only people that George Bush is reaching out to are the right-wing conservatives.

MCKINNON: Well, I just -- I respectfully disagree, Bill. And I think that again on the issues that are -- the American voters stood up and voiced their opinion about, what their priorities were are the issues that Democrats and Republicans are coming together on.

CARLSON: Now, Mike, really quickly...

MCKINNON: The fact that George Bush is a conservative shouldn't surprise anybody if they watched the election.

MURPHY: I'm sorry, I've lost -- I'm not hearing your question.

CARLSON: Oh, you're not hearing my question? Well, I'm going to -- my question will be -- and you can respond to it by mail, Mike. But John McCain says I can envision no scenario in which I would run for president. That's not...

MURPHY: Well, the truth is I can't hear, but I'm willing to blather on about something else and even disagree with McKinnon. One is Democrats out there believe in campaign finance reform. Watch Daschle, because it's possible if this severability, which John says is French for killing campaign finance reform, there could be a Democratic vote against this without fingerprints. They're the guys to keep an eye on.

PRESS: All right. We are -- Mike, I know you can't hear us, but we're out of time. It's the first guest we've ever had who rattled on even though he couldn't hear the question. Not surprising it was Mike Murphy.

Mike Murphy, thanks for joining us on CROSSFIRE. Mark McKinnon, great to have you back on CROSSFIRE.

Thanks, guys, and Tucker and I will be back. We'll tell you what's really going on between George Bush and John McCain in our closing comments, coming up.


CARLSON: You know, both sides on this, Bill, are adamant that it's not personal, the rivalry between McCain and Bush. Totally untrue. Of course, it's personal.

A year ago this month, the day before California primary, Super Tuesday, McCain staff was going around with buttons that said, "W Stands for Wuss," even though they knew they were going to lose. They didn't care. They hated him, and the Bush people don't like McCain.

PRESS: Let me tell you, Tucker, I say roll out the Straight Talk Express. I want to get back on board. I'm sure you want to get back on board. I do think it's real, and I think George Bush is making a big mistake.

You know, he could -- he could side with John McCain or he could side with Trent Lott and Jesse Helms and Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, and he chooses that gang over John McCain. He's crazy.

CARLSON: Oh, Bill, fundamentally George Bush is president, John McCain. Bush is going to win this fight, and McCain really has the capital to lose. He's, I think, wasting his political capital, unless he intends to run as an independent in 2004, which I don't believe he plans to do.

PRESS: No, look, he's president, but the Republican Party would have been better off with John McCain as the nominee. They'd be better off with John McCain in the White House. They'd be winning on these issues.

From the left, all right, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE. Hey, we'll see you later tonight in "THE SPIN ROOM."

CARLSON: With Phil Donahue, the Bill Press lookalike, two for the price of one.


I'm Tucker Carlson. Join us again tomorrow night for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



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