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Will John McCain Bolt the GOP?

Aired June 4, 2001 - 19:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST: ... absolutely nothing, said McCain, the visit with Daschle was purely social, the product of a bipartisan friendship. The White House was not taking chances. President Bush immediately began a charm offense. Bush called McCain at home on Saturday night. They two are said to be having dinner soon.

Are Bush and McCain suddenly friends, or is this simply the new political reality in Washington? With Democrats now in control of the Senate, Republicans cannot afford to alienate even one of their own. Either way, look for numerous Bush-McCain photo-ops in the coming days, but will the strategy work? Will McCain stay? Or is the bitterest feud in Republican politics just heating up? -- Bill.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: We hope it's just heating up. Thank you, Tucker.

Ralph Reed, good evening and welcome to "CROSSFIRE."

RALPH REED, BUSH ADVISER: Good evening, Bill. Thank you.

PRESS: Welcome back. Ralph, I want you to consider an unlikely scenario, but let say for a second I'm John McCain. OK? Now, the way I see things, I find that I agree with the Democrats on a lot of issues, campaign reform, gun control, global warming, patients' bill or rights.

I also find that members of my own party, leaders of my own party are opposing me, fighting me on all of those issues. These are the same leaders of my party who misrepresented my record during the Republican primary last year, and the Democrats are going to take control of the Senate tomorrow night. Why shouldn't I just become a Democrat and be with my friends?

REED: Well, Bill, I know that as a Democrat, you are desperate to try to become a majority party by winning with switches what you couldn't win at the ballot box...

PRESS: No, we already are. We already are.

REED: Well, in one chamber, maybe, but you are not the national majority party. I think the reality is that Senator McCain should be taken at his word, Bill. He said that he is not going to switch parties. He said publicly, he said that privately, he said it to the president of the United States, he said to the Senate assistant majority leader -- minority leader, and minority leader, and I think he should be taken at his word.

And -- look, I think the American people are focused on bigger issues. Inside the Beltway, the focus is on process. It's who's up and who's down. In the heartland of America, people went to know, am I going to get my tax cut? The answer is yes. Is my child going to be able to read and write? The Bush education plan is going to pass.

And the Bush agenda, Bill -- I got bad news for you -- is going to continue to move through this Congress unabated. It's good news for America, and I think people are celebrating it.

PRESS: And those are good talking points, but you know that what happens to those issues does depend on who is in control, and so it is important who is in control and what happens to John McCain.

So, let me give you my second scenario, Ralph. I'm John McCain, OK? I want to be president of the United States, because I think I would be a great president. I know I will never have chance as a Republican, because Bush is there in 2004, and I'm too old in 2008. So, I have got one shot. It's a long shot. One shot. Why don't I, as John McCain, run as an independent against George Bush in 2004 and win?

REED: Well, you know, again, I think you should take Senator McCain at his word. He said that he doesn't have any plans or intentions to do that. I don't expect him to do that. He is a Republican in the Senate now, was chairman of the Commerce Committee -- or will be chairman of the Commerce Committee until organization is complete later this week.

And I believe after the 2002 elections, by the way, Senator John McCain will be chairman of the Commerce Committee again, because we are going to retake the Senate in 2002, and I will tell you that while I certainly acknowledge that this is a temporary setback, I believe it's only temporary.

Tom Daschle and the Democrats are now going to have to share the burden of governing, and as the Bush agenda moves through this Congress, on education, on taxes, on energy, on military reform, on a missile defense to protect our country and its citizens, I think they are going to have to answer at the ballot box, and I think the Republicans are going to retake the U.S. Senate, and that is why John McCain is going to stay in the Republican Party, because he understands that as well.

CARLSON: Now, Peter Fenn, I want to answer one of the questions we set up at the beginning of the show, and that is will John McCain run for president in 2004 as an independent or a Democrat. He has been asked this question most recently a couple of weeks ago, here what's he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THIS WEEK")

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you setting yourself up to run against him, either in the primaries or change parties?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: No, I absolutely will not. And...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Will not what? Either? Or both?

MCCAIN: Will not -- either. But -- either.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CARLSON: Now, that's categorical. He said he's not going to. He is not going to switch parties. He is going to stay a Republican, and yet the Democrats, pathetically, circling around him like vultures! This is not what a real party does. They don't try to get people to switch. They articulate a vision, and try to get voters to vote for them. That's all the Democrats are doing.

PETER FENN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Look, he invited Tom Daschle out to his ranch and Bruce Reed. They didn't invite themselves out there.

But I'll tell you this. He is trying to change the Republican Party -- maybe not change parties but change the Republican Party, and he is not having much success at it. The fact is, is what we are seeing now is the marginalization of the Republican Party.

If this tent gets any smaller with the Republicans, it's going to be a pup tent, and you are going to have in there -- you're going to have Trent Lott sleeping next to Dick Armey next to George Bush, and that's about all they are going to get...

PRESS: Tom DeLay!

FENN: ... into that tent -- and Tom DeLay in the tent.

Listen, because what you have got here -- what have you got here is the extreme right wing taking over this party. John McCain is going to be angrier and angrier if there is not serious votes on campaign finance reform, if there aren't votes on his health care plan, if they continue to sic the NRA at him for having a reasonable position on gun control -- stopping the gun show loopholes...

CARLSON: But wait a second, Peter! First of all, I'll point out that campaign finance reform is opposed by organized labor, hardly an element of the extreme right wing, you point out. But it strikes me that moderates have never had more power, because it's such an evenly- divided deal, that of course, (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

But let me ask you this question: there are a lot of Republicans who are sympathetic to Democratic ideas, a lot of them are from New England -- Lincoln Chafee from Rhode Island, Susan Collins from Maine, Olympia Snowe. But you don't see outreach to them by Democrats. No, you see it to John McCain, purely because he's restless. It's a crime of opportunism that Democrats are committing here.

FENN: We have a big tent. We will reach out to anybody. But the point I'm trying to make here, Tucker, why folks like you should be very nervous, is because the tent is shrinking.

This business of compassionate conservatism, great slogan, it's a ruse. What we've got here is they have come into office with what I would call a Trojan horse, and inside that horse...

CARLSON: And inside is something dangerous.

FENN: ... well, what's happened is you come and open up the doors, and out come all these well-armed right-wingers. And you know who is going to take over in the leadership positions? The hard-core conservatives, and they are driving the moderates out of the party, and they will drive those New England moderates out of the party, you watch.

PRESS: And for the record, Olympia Snowe and Lincoln Chafee are welcome!

FENN: They're welcome, absolutely!

PRESS: Ralph Reed, here is what gets me. I'm curious about the response of the Republicans in the Senate to this change, first on the part of Jim Jeffords, and now these rumors about John McCain. As you know, over the weekend, Senator Trent Lott, still the majority leader, soon no longer to be, sent out a memo to -- he called them Republican opinion leaders.

Among other things he said in a memo was this, quote: "We must begin to wage the war today for the election in 2002. We have a moral obligation to restore the integrity of our democracy, to restore by the democratic process what was changed in the shadows of the back rooms in Washington." Waging war? Ralph Reed, is that what the American people want from their senators in Washington?

REED: I think what they do want, Bill, is they want a spirited debate about the issues and the philosophical differences between the two parties, and the fact of the matter is, as Senator Zell Miller said the other day, the true minority in the Senate is not Republicans, it's liberal Democrats.

I mean, if Republicans are the minority, and if we are shrinking, and if our tent is getting smaller, then explain to me why 20 percent of the Democrats in the Senate voted for George Bush's tax cut? Explain to me why probably a third to half of them are going to vote ultimately for George Bush's education plan, to make sure we leave no child behind?

This inside-the-Beltway game of process, and who's chairman of this subcommittee, and who is marking up this bill on which day is irrelevant to the broader issue, which is the Bush agenda is moving through Congress because it has the support of the American people.

(CROSSTALK)

REED: And all Senator Lott was referring to, Bill, was we ought to take that spirited debate and that philosophical difference to the polls. And I would remind Peter of this: there have been over 500 Democrats who have switched and joined our party since 1994, 28 this year. They are moving in our direction, not the other way around.

FENN: Then why was everyone so upset with Jim Jeffords? Listen, I think the reason...

REED: I'm not upset.

FENN: ... is because you know the issues...

REED: I'm not upset.

FENN: ... are going our way. The fact of the matter is...

REED: If they're going our way, Peter, why are Democrats voting for the Bush agenda?

(CROSSTALK)

PRESS: Ralph, you know the rules, one at time, please.

FENN: Let me just finish. The fact is, that on health care, on prescription drugs, on issues that the American people really care about, they will be siding with Democrats, as they always have. And I think that, you know, when you talk about a tax bill, which I personally believe is unbelievably irresponsible, and I think there's enough holes in that tax bill to drive a truck through them and you're going to see it -- you're going to see folks changing their minds as we move through the next decade on that.

REED: Well, can I respond to that?

PRESS: Yeah.

FENN: Regardless of that, this is a right-wing jihad on the part of Trent Lott.

REED: Can I respond to that?

FENN: Sure.

PRESS: You go, Ralph.

REED: Somehow or another, in spite of those criticisms of the Bush tax cut, which, by the way, is supported by the vast majority of the American people, 12 Democrats in the Senate voted for it. And the overwhelming majority of those 12 Democratic senators are on the ballot next November. So if that agenda is not supported, then why are they voting for it? Why are they turning their back on Tom Daschle and their own national party and supporting...

(CROSSTALK)

FENN: If you think Democrats...

PRESS: I'll answer that -- because those 12 Democrats were wrong. But I want to...

(LAUGHTER)

REED: What about the 28 in the House, Bill? Twenty-eight in the House.

PRESS: They were wrong, too. I want to pop your optimism, Ralph, about how well Bush is doing very quickly here. ABC News just released their poll tonight looking at the Bush plan. On energy, 58 percent of Americans disapprove of what George Bush says about energy. That's up 15 percent since he announced his plan. Overall, he's got an approval ratting of 55, which is pretty mediocre at this point. That's down 8 percent over the last two weeks. Forty-one percent of Americans say it's great that the Democrats are taking control of the Senate.

Ralph, your guy is sinking like a rock!

REED: No, not at all. As a matter of fact, the president's approval ratings remain very strong. If you look at what, for example, Governor Gray Davis, the Democrat governor of California, whose poll ratings are plummeting and he's now very vulnerable, has been saying -- he's been calling for price caps. Eight percent of the people in California support price caps, according to a recent field poll.

FENN: You're changing the subject big-time here, Ralph.

REED: No, I'm not. I'm just saying...

FENN: Yes, you are.

(CROSSTALK)

REED: On the substantive issues, the Bush agenda is moving through Congress.

FENN: Ralph, you wish. Fifty percent of Americans say they would not vote for George Bush in the next election already. Now, that's not a very good start. I don't think he's in good shape. I think he's going to be in worse shape as the issues get put forth, finally having the Democratic proposals out front. That's where we're going.

PRESS: All right, Ralph, Peter, Tucker, everybody, hold on. We're going to take a break. When we come back tomorrow, big day, change of leadership in the United States Senate. Does it really amount to anything or are they just rearranging the chairs on the old deck of the Titanic? We'll be back with more CROSSFIRE, and Peter Fenn is going to be around after the show to take your questions in the chat room at cnn.com/crossfire.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE! The spotlight may be on John McCain, but it's another senator, Vermont's James Jeffords, who's the key player this week. The full impact of his recent decision to bolt the Republican Party and become an independent will be felt tomorrow night when Democrats, with Jeffords' vote, take over control of Senate and Tom Daschle becomes the new majority leader.

What difference will it make? Can we expect more bipartisanship or less? That's our debate tonight with two top political strategists, Ralph Reed, chair of the Georgia Republican Party, who joins us from Atlanta, and Democrat Peter Fenn here in the studio.

Tucker Carlson.

CARLSON: Now, Peter Fenn, if I can bring you back a couple months, you'll recall that many irresponsible Democrats -- and it pains me to put you in that category, but I have to -- said: Look, George W. Bush didn't get the majority of popular votes cast in this election, therefore he has no mandate, therefore he's not truly a legitimate president.

OK, so now you have United States Senate in Democratic hands, but the majority of Americans didn't vote for a Democratic Congress, for a Democratic Senate. They got one because one man, Jim Jeffords, decided to change his vote. So I think you'll have to agree, logic will compel you to agree, that the Senate, the Democratic Senate is not a legitimate Democratic Senate. It's a little coup that took place.

FENN: I guess the best -- a coup? Well, now you're using Trent Lott's word.

CARLSON: I'm using a term that you used.

FENN: A coup of one. Well, I never said we had a coup. I said that we, you know, we got more votes than the other guy, and it's too bad we didn't get more...

CARLSON: Oh, maybe it was Al Sharpton that said that.

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

CARLSON: But anyway...

FENN: But listen, you know, I think what you've here is a line which you guys throw at us all the time, which is "get over it." You know, the Senate is going to be controlled by Democrats. We're going to put forth programs on minimum wage. It will be nice, won't it, to be able to vote for minimum wage. I don't think the Republicans want to do much to put that one out there.

CARLSON: Lots of issues from the '70s will be coming back, I bet.

REED: Yeah, exactly.

FENN: Like prescription drugs, and like health care reform -- yeah, a lot of those...

CARLSON: Go solar.

(LAUGHTER)

FENN: Well, maybe we can add a little bit more into our...

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: Well, then if we're going to throw lines back and forth, let me just throw this back at you, then. When Bush was elected, the line from "The New York Times" editorial page was he ought to go lightly. He has no mandate, he ought to be always aware of that. So here you have Democrats, haven't even taken control of the Senate yet, already talking about how they're going to block judicial nominations that Bush sends up. Pat Leahy, the new head of the judiciary committee, incoming, said that today.

He said: We're not going to -- just rubber-stamp this business. We're going to give them a hard time.

FENN: You had under -- in the last eight years, you had what we call the secret veto, what Orrin Hatch put in there. And what that means is that if you were...

CARLSON: Secret veto.

(LAUGHTER)

FENN: No, I made that up today, but it's a good one. No, it's right. What you can do is if you're a senator from a state and you put in -- you didn't have to tell people you were doing it -- put a hold on that nomination. Didn't make any difference what the other 99 senators would do, they'd stop it. They had 11 people who never were allowed a hearing. They had people who got hearings. They had five people who got hearings and passed, and they didn't even come to a vote.

CARLSON: This is part of the right-wing conspiracy, I see.

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: This is the Arkansas Project, we call it.

FENN: My point on this is that he didn't say we were going to block nominations, but they want to change the rules now, the Republicans. They would love to say, oh, we're going to be kinder and gentler.

Oh, good. I mean, we're all for kinder and gentler. But let's look at who they propose. I think if we get moderate judges, of course, you know, we'll take a look at him. You get qualified judges, great. You get the ABA to look at it, great.

PRESS: Ralph Reed, let me ask you to chime in on this, because this morning I'm sure you did not have the pleasure, being in Atlanta, of reading "The Washington Times" this morning. If you had, on the front page there's the headline -- quote -- "GOP Threatens Filibuster to Get Votes on Nominees." It's Senator Rick Santorum, who's in the leadership, who says that if they don't get a floor vote on every judicial nominee that George Bush sends up, that they're going to filibuster. Basically, it's our way or the highway.

Ralph, I want to ask you again, is that the attitude these Republicans ought to take? I mean, don't they get it, that they're no longer in control?

REED: Well, Bill, I think that -- first of all, I didn't think that's a fair characterization of Rick said yesterday. I read the transcript. I didn't see the show, but I did read the transcript. What he said was -- and I think what is an irrefutable fact, is that given the closeness of the match-up in the Senate, that organization is going to be a difficult process. It was difficult in January when it was 50/50, and we had it with Dick Cheney's vote, and it will be difficult now.

And I think as long as there is a show of fairness and openness and inclusiveness by Tom Daschle, we will be able to organize by the end of this week. I'm not that worried about that.

I'll tell you something else. Jim Jeffords voted with President Bush 55 to 60 percent of the time, and that will continue. So I think the Democrats may want to be more careful before they start uncorking the champaign and celebrating as if they are going to run anything. They can't even hold their own caucus on a tax vote.

And Max Baucus, the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee gave credit to George Bush for the tax cut.

PRESS: Ralph, we have heard four times now tonight that Democrats voted for the Bush tax cut. We got the point.

But I'm glad you mentioned that Jeffords voted so often with the Bush White House. Which gets me to this question, I want you to make history tonight. I want you to be the first Republican willing to say on this show, that the Bush White House was so singularly focused on the tax cut that they allowed themselves to lose one key senator, to push him off a cliff, and lose control of the Senate. The Bush White House blew it, didn't they? Admit it.

REED: No, the opposite is true.

In fact, The Bush White House was moving so aggressively with both chambers on education, and by the way, the vote on the final passage of the Bush education bill -- which increases accountability, enforces standards, mandatory student testing, and more funds with local control -- is going to be even more of a bipartisan vote and an even more overwhelming vote in both chambers.

I think the fact of the matter is the Bush agenda continues to move unabated through Congress. Those Democrats who vote against that agenda in either chamber will do so at their peril when they go to the polls in November. PRESS: No!

CARLSON: Let me ask you real quickly about "those Democrats." It strikes me that the joke is on you, because the party that brought you the Carter presidency now running the Senate. The group that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) described as an adult day care center, the Democratic caucus in the Senate -- so, you will have a ton of Democrats running for president.

You have John Edwards, you've got Joe Lieberman, you've got Mr. Kerry from Massachusetts. There's no way, that Daschle will be able to keep them together. It will be a disaster!

FENN: Tom Daschle will be an extraordinary leader. He'll be a Mike Mansfield mode, if we can go back that far -- he will be well- respected, a strong backbone. And you know something: this guy isn't going to be a pushover to the Republicans in the right wing.

He will be able to bring a lot more people into that tent than Trent Lott will bring into his tent. Trent Lott is a person who is really in jeopardy here. Ralph likes to spin this with the tax bill and the education bill. But let may tell you, that ain't the whole ball game. And when we look at what is going to go through those committees, it will be Democratic proposals. This time, the Senate will propose, and the president is going to dispose.

CARLSON: Unfortunately, we have to leave it there. We do have Tom Daschle to kick around for at least some time. We are excited. Ralph Reed, Peter Fenn, thank you very much.

Bill Press and I will be back in just a moment to predict what a Daschle leadership will mean for the Senate in our closing comments. We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CARLSON: Bill, you know, the more I think about it, the more I think the joke really is on the Democrats. Now that they have taken the Senate, they will have to run things, never a Democratic strong suit.

Worse, they will be on television all the time, reminding Americans that actually Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd are all Democrats. This is not good news for your party, Bill.

PRESS: First of all, I was glad to hear you admit tonight that George Bush was an illegitimate president. I think you...

(LAUGHTER)

But let me say: I'm glad to have those people on television, I'm particularly glad to have Tom Daschle on television. He is a great...

CARLSON: What about Ted Kennedy and Fritz Hollings?

PRESS: Absolutely, I said all of them. CARLSON: They will bring a lot of new votes to the party!

PRESS: Especially the leader, Tom Daschle. You watch. The Democrats could blow it. But the Republicans are definitely going to blow it with Trent Lott acting...

CARLSON: Ted Kennedy, all jowls, yelling into the camera, head of the Education Committee. He is going to scare people!

PRESS: Ted Kennedy on health care, Ted Kennedy on medical (UNINTELLIGIBLE). The American people want it. You watch!

CARLSON: Frightening.

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

CARLSON: And from the right, I'm Tucker Carlson. Join us again tomorrow night for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

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