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As President Bush Slides in the Polls, Should His Top Political Adviser Take the Blame?

Aired July 3, 2001 - 19:30   ET



TERRY MCAULIFFE, CHAIRMAN, DNC: I think Bush is in real trouble. His poll numbers are down because he's not for anything that working families are for.



GOV. JIM GILMORE (R-VA), CHAIRMAN, RNC: The president doesn't govern on polls. He governs on doing exactly what he thinks is right, and I think he's doing a terrific job.


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight, as President Bush slides in the polls, should his top political adviser take the blame?

ANNOUNCER: In the CROSSFIRE: Democratic strategist Marla Romash and Republican strategist Ed Gillespie.

PRESS: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE. When all else fails, hit the links. That's what President Bush did today. Went out for his first round of golf as president. And, in the spirit of Bill Clinton and Bill Press, even took a mulligan. For Bush, it was not only a chance to relax, it was an escape from the mess back at the White House where, less than six months in, his popularity's at an all-time low.

Republicans have abandoned him on offshore drilling and a patient's bill of rights. And one of his top advisers, Karl Rove, is under fire for political miscalculation. No wonder he went golfing. Some insiders say, even this early, it's time for a major overhaul. But others insist these problems are no big deal, just part of any administration's shakedown cruise.

That's our debate tonight. Does the Bush White House need a fix? If so, how? And who's to blame? Bob and Tucker are already celebrating the 4th. That means we stuck agai -- I'm sorry, we're happy again tonight to welcome back retiring Florida Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough.


PRESS: Joe, good to have you there. Ed Gillespie, welcome to CROSSFIRE. Quick question off the top for you. have been around here for a while. Have you ever seen any administration fall apart so fast?


SCARBOROUGH: What kind of question is that?

ED GILLESPIE, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Actually if falling apart is passing a major tax relief package with bipartisan support through both chambers of Congress, launching a major initiative to reform our country's Social Security to save it for future generations and to pass through both chambers now, a bipartisan education reform package almost through the Senate, that's a pretty good way to fall apart in the first six months.

PRESS: I think that's a no.




SCARBOROUGH: But you know, Marla, I do understand Democrats. I really do. I understand you are bitter and angry, you are carrying around a chip on your shoulder the size of Florida because your guy lost last fall, but even you have to agree with what Ken Duberstein said on CNN this past weekend about George Bush's first six months.


KEN DUBERSTEIN, FORMER REAGAN CHIEF OF STAFF: He has to stay on message. He has had twin victories on his signature issues, on tax cuts, and he's about to have one on education. He says he wants to sign a patient's bill of rights. About 90 percent of the Senate bill is to his liking.


SCARBOROUGH: I mean, doesn't it irk you that this president has passed a tax-cut bill that his No. 1 priority, that everybody said he couldn't pass, first of all, and secondly he's about to pass his No. 2 priority, which is sweeping education reform. That has got to gall you.

ROMASH: No it doesn't at all. What is really kind of galling to me is that we are spending a half hour talking about why Bush's poll numbers are dropping. Let's face the facts. The guy came in without a mandate, pursued a far right agenda, out of touch with the American people. Shamelessly championed the interests of the special interest like the big oil companies and now we are sitting around talking about why his numbers are dropping? Every issue this guy touches turns to stone and then he drops like one. So there's really no mystery here. I mean, the tax cut is a really good example. He passes a tax cut and he still a loser. He wins on taxes and still loses because the American people don't want the kind of tax cut he passed. They are worried about Social Security. They are worried about Medicare.

SCARBOROUGH: Apparently they do.

PRESS: Let me pick up there, on the polls. Ed I want to be kind to you tonight I'm not going to tell you about "The New York times" CBS poll that showed Bush at 53 percent. I am not going to tell you about "the Wall Street Journal" NBC poll that showed him at 50 percent, nor the Zogby poll that showed him at 52 percent.

Instead I am going to ask to you take a look at the latest CNN- "USA TODAY" poll that shows that in the last -- now, his approval rating is 52 percent, but you will notice it's dropped since March by 11 points, 63 percent, 52.

Now, Ed, you get paid for giving people good advice and telling them the truth even when it hurts. You would have to say, Houston, we have a problem.

GILLESPIE: You know what I'd say, Bill, I'd say that where we are is basically in equilibrium. It used to be in this country, as you know, having run campaigns, you figure that there would be 30 percent of the public was pretty much to the left, 30 percent of the public was pretty much to the right and 40 percent in the middle.

That has changed over the past decade. We have about 40 percent of the public who's pretty much to the left and 40 percent pretty much to right. That leaves only about 20 percent in the middle. Bush is getting better than half of those folks right now. This is where we were at the end of the election and it's where we are now. Things have settled and he got a great bump in his first six months, the honeymoon period. He handled the China crisis with great aplomb and got credit for that, but we are settling now to where the voters are. And this is where we are.

ROMASH: I need a calculator to follow.

PRESS: I think you may be in denial, Ed Gillespie. But fortunately not everybody at the White House is in denial. Mary Matalin, God bless her, sat right here for a couple years, did a great job, now in the White House advising Dick Cheney.

Here's what she's quoted as in this morning's "New York Times," quote, "We're not so inflexible or blind that we are like Stepford wives and husbands marching like lemmings over a cliff. What we're doing now is recalibrating."

Mary is at least honest enough to admit that they know they've got a problem and they are redefining, recalibrating, reorganizing, whatever. It's kind of early for that, isn't it, Ed? GILLESPIE: Six months into an administration this is not uncommon. Remember what Bill Clinton had in his first six months. You had the gays in the military, you had the health care blow up. The fact is that it's natural in any administration after the first six months to recalibrate.


ROMASH: Wait a minute. What is so incredible about this is that here's a president who passes his signature tax cut, here is a president -- you guys were just bragging about all his victories and he's still dropping like a rock. Let me give you two other numbers which I think are interesting.

Democracy (UNINTELLIGIBLE) poll a couple weeks ago: 63 percent of Americans believe that George Bush is on the side of big business and not average Americans; 56 percent believe he's a president of big oil. The American people don't agree with his issues and they don't believe he is there fighting for them. They believe he is fighting for his rich special interest friends.

SCARBOROUGH: You know, to listen to Democrats -- this is absolutely fascinating -- listening to Democrats you would think that locusts were descending on the White House when the fact is...

ROMASH: Republicans are saying that.

SCARBOROUGH: ... not this Republican. The fact is -- let's take a trip down memory lane. Eight years ago here we have Bill Clinton at this stage in his presidency, you know what his approval ratings were? Thirty-nine percent. Now why don't Democrats just admit George Bush is doing 15 points better than Bill Clinton was at that stage of the game. It's a landslide victory. So was your boss, Bill Clinton, a failure?

ROMASH: Is this a stretch -- is this a stretch -- I would remind you though, and with all due respect in terms of the Clinton record, and I'm as strong a supporter of Bill Clinton and Al Gore that you are going to find anywhere, but remember in '94, Bill Clinton managed to succeed in winning his reelection but in '94 we lost the Congress.

And one of the interesting things we ought to look at today. is not just look at 2004 and what this means for George Bush, but all of the surveys that Bill mentioned also show Democrats with enormous advantages on all of the issues. You start thinking about the 2002 election and what's going to happen in Congress, I think Republicans have a lot to worry about.

There is a reason Republicans in the House are publicly wringing their hand and saying, and I'm quoting Republicans in the newspaper saying that, "George Bush is appearing to be the servant of big business." The Democrats have an advantage on the economy, on Social Security, on Medicare, on a range of issues that the American people consider primary. SCARBOROUGH: But the bottom line this is though, there may be one or two Republicans wringing their hands, this is an orchestration on the Democrats part saying, oh, my god, it is the end. The end is here for George Bush. Bottom line is this though, Bill Clinton was sitting at 39 percent six months into it, he didn't recover until after the government shutdown 2 1/2 years later.

It's way too early to be throwing in the towel on the Bush administration.

ROMASH: I'm not throwing in the towel. I'm suggesting that George Bush's numbers are dropping like a rock. And here's the other point I'd make: When you start thinking as a Republican about how to recover, and I know he's as smart as they get and it's been very helpful to the Bush Administration, but when you start about how you recover, his numbers have been dropping, dropping, dropping.

He now finds himself in a very difficult political environment in an issue environment where the Democrats have the advantage. So it's also hard to figure out how this guy turns it around.

SCARBOROUGH: Bottom line, he's doing 13 points better than Bill Clinton was at this stage.

PRESS: Ed, just to show that it's not just all the Democrats who are saying -- this is yesterday's headline in "The New York Times," "Crew of listing -- listing -- Bush ship draws Republican scowls."

Now the point is anytime, as you know, no matter Democrat or Republican administration, if something goes wrong somebody has got to get the blame, and a lot people are saying Karl Rove, chief political adviser.

Let me ask you about a couple of things that people are talking about. No. 1 is the ethics problem. So he owns over $100,000 of stock in Intel. He meets with the Intel officials in the White House who are there to seed White House approval for a merger. He didn't do anything illegal, maybe not even a conflict of interest, but it certainly smells and it looks like a conflict of interest. Wasn't that just bonehead dumb on his part?

GILLESPIE: No, it wasn't, Bill, they came in, they said, we've got this issue, what do we do. He said, you need to talk to someone over here. It's not my issue go talk to them. If I came in and I said, Bill Press, I want to talk to somebody about CNN about something you have stock in, you say you need to go talk to Wolf Blitzer. That is not a conflict of interest.

PRESS: I'm not in the White House. I'm not bound by those conflict of interest rules, why did they even schedule the dumb meeting?

GILLESPIE: Because he had a meeting with these people and they said where do we go to talk about this, and he said go talk to these folks over here. He steered them in the right direction.

SCARBOROUGH: It's not a dot-com startup. It's Intel.

PRESS: All the more reason.

GILLESPIE: You know what Karl Rove did wrong for as far as the Democrats are concerned? For 30 years he's run campaigns against them and he's won the lion's share of them and that's why they're upset with Karl Rove and that's why their targeting Karl Rove, and that's the only reason. He's above reproach when it comes to his ethics and everyone knows that for a fact.

PRESS: You mentioned the politics, how about the fact that Florida Republicans are upset over the fact that Bush goes down to the Everglades and doesn't invite the members of the Florida delegation. Instead he invites the Democrats like Peter Deutsch who had been his chief critic. How about the fact that in Vieques, Jim Inhofe, who sat right where you did, blamed Karl Rove for making that decision without consulting members of the Senate.

It's Republicans, Ed, who are saying this guy is politically tone deaf and arrogant. Doesn't he have a political problem -- Rove, I'm talking about?

GILLESPIE: Rove has no political problem at all. Rove is the one who helped engineer a very close election and won as well as well as many other elections over the past 30 years. The fact is when it comes to Vieques people have differences of opinion on this. Some Republicans disagree, some Republicans agree. Some Democrats agree, some Democrats disagree. That's just a fact. That's just the way policy works.

Just because you have political acumen doesn't mean you should be precluded from discussing policy issues. That's unfair that you should being a good political strategist, you ought to be able to express your opinion on policies and Karl does that for the president.

SCARBOROUGH: Let me ask you a question, Marla, really quickly. If you are Karl Rove you have to be laughing about this.


PRESS: Laughing?!

SCARBOROUGH: He's underestimated time and time again. After New Hampshire Karl Rove was going to be fired. And after Al Gore licked Tipper at the convention and the poll numbers spiked, oh, Karl, he was -- it was a lick -- they were going to throw Karl out.

Now they are doing it again. Even Republicans, Jim Davis, this is what Jim Davis told "The New York Times." -- Tom Davis -- "Karl's got to understand that he's a target. If people can't get to Bush, they are going to get to Karl. These are lessons you learn the hard way."

Now my question is this: How long are people going to continue to underestimate Karl Rove's political genius? ROMASH: Political genius doesn't sit down with people at the White House. I think whether what he did is criminally wrong, I don't know, I'm not a lawyer...

SCARBOROUGH: Did you say criminally wrong?

ROMASH: No, no, no. Let me finish my statement, Congressman. I think it was criminally stupid, and don't know if it was criminal or not, but here's the issue. I think Karl Rove has done a lot of things for George Bush. But I don't think anybody can Blame Karl rove for George Bush's sinking poll numbers.

Let's be clear. Karl Rove did something stupid, he shouldn't have done it. But George Bush's poll numbers are going down because of what George Bush is doing. And you've go to understand whether it's the Clinton White House or the Bush White House, the big guy at the top is making the decisions and he's the guy who's got to be held accountable.

GILLESPIE: Talking about criminality and all that stuff. The statute is clear and Karl was nowhere near in violation of the statute. In fact he was nowhere near in violation if the ethics rules. Henry Waxman is making a political issue out of this. This is a guy who, when the Clinton Administration changed missile policy and allowed a transfer of technology to the Chinese after the People's Liberation Army, said, we don't need to be looking into this.

And now he wants to investigate a meeting in which Karl had no substantive discussion at all and steered somebody to the right person to talk to.

ROMASH: He should not have done that.

PRESS: Politics and policy. More of it coming up when we come back. Are Republicans in Congress abandoning President Bush on some key issues? Back with more CROSSFIRE.


SCARBOROUGH: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. I'm Joe Scarborough sitting in on the right. Less than six months into his presidency, George W. Bush has already signed his No. 1 priority of tax relief into law and is on the verge of passing his sweeping education reforms through both houses of Congress.

The White House even expects to do something in the next few months that Bill Clinton failed to do in eight years, that is sign a patient's bill of rights. Still, Democrats are carping at the President's poll numbers despite the fact that they are 13 points higher than Bill Clinton's were at this stage of his first term.

With a snapshot of where George Bush stands on the eve of independence day, Republican strategist Ed Gillespie and Democratic strategist Marla Romash. Marla, let me ask you another question here about the state of Bush presidency. Of course everybody's carping about oh, Jeffords, who really is to the left of Ted Kennedy, left the party. And they say this proves that the Bush Administration is going downhill and it's amateur hour over there. But you know what, "The Baltimore Sun" wrote today...

ROMASH: I knew you would find one newspaper...


SCARBOROUGH: They are left of center, I have got toe tell you, but even "The Baltimore Sun" was quoting Democrats in the Senate who were saying off the record now that they are concerned that taking control of the Senate is actually going to hurt Democrats in the 2002 election because Tom Daschle and Ted Kennedy -- surprise, surprise -- they are actually going to have to do something.

Aren't you concerned that the obstructionist tactics they used before the Jeffords switch actually going to blow up in their face in 2002?

ROMASH: Congressman, I appreciate your introduction into the segment talking about Bush and the patient's bill of rights. Because Bush in fact has been fighting a patient's bill of rights and there are Republicans in Congress who are very concerned about it and even Karen Hughes, his own adviser had expressed a concern about it. "TIME"magazine reported that this week.

The Democrats took control of the Senate and what's the first thing they did? Pass a patients' bill of rights, a real patient's bill of rights. I think it's a sign that the Democratic control of the Senate is going to mean that the American people are going to finally have somebody in there pushing for them and pushing for the issues they care about.

SCARBOROUGH: But let's talk about the Democratic control of the Senate and let's talk about the do-nothing Democratic Senate.

ROMASH: Do nothing Democratic Senate? They just passed a bill of rights. Congressman, where have you been?

SCARBOROUGH: I have been right here and I've been reading in the press...

ROMASH: That's right, you haven't been in Congress.



SCARBOROUGH: ... already talking about a growing confirmation gap. Look at these numbers. They are historically low numbers of confirmed appointments: 132 have been confirmed of 315. That is historically low and the Democrats, what are they talking about? Holding up even more nominations. When is Tom Daschle going to stop obstructing and start doing the people's business?

ROMASH: Tom Daschle has made clear that he's not going to obstruct those nominations, but the people's business?

I don't think there's an issue the American more about than real protection from HMOs. The patient's bill of rights is not the people's business? That's probably why George Bush has a problem!

SCARBOROUGH: Are they talking about Ted Kennedy's view of socialized medicine, are they talking about middle Americans view of civilized medicine?

ROMASH: Congressman I think you need to go back on the hill and leave the CNN studio a little bit.

SCARBOROUGH: Don't get bitter already.

GILLESPIE: Let me set the record straight on something real quick which is that the fact is that President Bush is for patients' bill of rights, he's for a good patients' bill of rights, not one that lines the pockets of trial lawyers, drives up the cost of insurance, and drives 1.2 million to 1.6 people out of their insurance coverage.


PRESS: I want to set the record straight. Joe is right, that the Democrats now that they are in charge are going to have to deliver. You are wrong, they have delivered. They have delivered a patient's bill of rights that allows people to sue their HMO which is the only real thing which John McCain agrees with Ted Kennedy on.

But my question to you is, on that vote, Ed, on that bill, nine Republican senators abandoned Bush and voted with the Democrats. That bill is going to be on his desk. Wouldn't you have to agree that he's lost control of issue, and No. 2, it's impossible -- politically impossible -- for him to veto that bill?

GILLESPIE: Bill, you know the legislative process has two chambers of Congress and the House of Representative is going to pass a better patient's bill of rights and there will be a patients' bill of rights that comes out somewhere in between. Hopefully it will be a good bill and it will be good policy that President Bush can sign.

If it's bad policy he should veto it and the fact is that he has been pushing for a bill that does not benefit trial lawyers but benefits patients and consumers.

ROMASH: Republicans have been singing this song for so long I'm tired of hearing it. I was intrigued to hear Karen Hughes, the president's alter ego, top adviser, you know, in the news magazines this week really expressing concerns that the president had been out flanked on this issue and had been left in a place where he had no alternative.

PRESS: I want to move to another issue which is on the environment. I don't want to talk about arsenic tonight, Ed. I want to talk about offshore drilling. The president came in and said -- with Dick Cheney telling him what to say, of course -- we need to drill off the coast of Florida. Brother Jeb says no. This guy, Joe Scarborough, put a bill in the House -- saying we're not going to drill in that part of the...

SCARBOROUGH: This is low -- this is really low!


SCARBOROUGH: For your information that was NIMBY, "Not in my backyard," OK.

PRESS: Exactly. You are proud of it and that bill passed -- this is repudiating the Republican president past the Republican- controlled House 247 to 164. My question to you: On the environment, Ed, you have to admit they have been tone deaf over there.

GILLESPIE: I don't think they have been tone deaf. Bill, you can't meet a 25 percent increase in demand for energy that we are going to see over the next decade by simply mandating down consumption which is what the liberal would do. They would require us to consume less.

And we are going to have to do some conservation. That is smart economics. It's good policy. The president has 105 proposals in his energy initiative, 40 of them, the lion's share are for enhancing conservation. But we are going to have to increase production somewhere along the way.

The fact is that there are going to votes in the Congress in both chambers where Democrats side with the president, 42 of them in the House on the education bill and 12 in the Senate on the tax cut and there are going to be votes in the Congress where Republicans go the other way. That's the nature of this tight Congress.

PRESS: So you are telling Joe Scarborough they are going to have to drill off the coast of Florida -- too bad.

GILLESPIE: They are going to have to drill somewhere.

SCARBOROUGH: And let me ask you this, Marla -- and first of all I can't believe you brought me into this -- but first of all, I have been talking to Karl Rove in the White House for six months about this. This is something that Jeb and George have been talking about for a long, long time.

Doesn't what happened yesterday prove that George W. Bush is sensitive to environmental needs in Florida and other areas? And secondly, I have another question for you...

ROMASH: Congressman, you are spinning so fast that your head is turning around.

SCARBOROUGH: You want to talk about spinning? The best spinning I have heard, and if I am going to be critical of the White House I will do it for one reason: For not hammering home the fact that every time they are attacked on Kyoto by people like you, you don't admit the other side of the story is that when the Kyoto went before the Senate they fell 99 to nothing.

That is radicalism. It's extremism, and isn't true that Democrats are being extreme just for political purposes?

ROMASH: George Bush has so mishandled the environmental issue it is astonishing. First it was more arsenic in drinking water, then it was more drilling when the American people said conservation.


ROMASH: Let me finish. Then it was turning his back on CO2 emissions, turning his back on Kyoto and now an energy policy, 56 percent of the American people believe George Bush is the president of big oil.

SCARBOROUGH: Should Democrats support Kyoto?

ROMASH: Democrats support real reduction in greenhouse gasses.

SCARBOROUGH: Ninety-nine to nothing they disagree with you.

PRESS: Guess what, I've got to be the cop here. I'm sorry to end it. More fun, but no more time. Ed Gillespie, thanks so much for coming back and Marla Romash, good have you here. And when we come back, Mr. Florida and Mr. California will have some closing comments about how well George Bush is doing. We will be right back.


SCARBOROUGH: Bill, I love listening to Democrats. Six months after Bush gets in they are still bitter. They still are carrying a chip on their shoulder about George Bush winning. They can't face facts. The fact is, he's doing 15 points better than Bill Clinton was six months into his administration and he's passed his top two legislative goals.

This is an incredibly successful presidency and he's doing better than Clinton or Reagan at this stage.

PRESS: I will tell you this, Joe. I'll admit this. He doing better than Slobodan Milosevic. I'm not sure I will go beyond that. Here's the problem, it's not that people disagree with him on policy. He doesn't look presidential. He doesn't fill the shoes. And I think that's why his poll numbers are down.

Fast-track to a one-term president, don't you agree?

SCARBOROUGH: That's what they were saying about Bill Clinton at this stage in 1993.

PRESS: But Bill Clinton's numbers went up. George's are going down.

SCARBOROUGH: George's will keep going up.

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

SCARBOROUGH: From the right, I'm Joe Scarborough. Join us tomorrow night for a special Independence Day edition of CROSSFIRE.

PRESS: We're going to debate who was the greater founding father: John Adams or Thomas Jefferson. And Thursday, here's a big one, you won't want to miss, Interior Secretary Gale Norton brave enough to step into the CROSSFIRE Thursday night.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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