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Democrats Playing Politics With Iraq?

Aired May 6, 2004 - 16:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE. On the left, James Carville and Paul Begala; on the right, Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson.

In the CROSSFIRE: More pictures surface of abused Iraqi prisoners.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I told him I was sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners and the humiliation suffered by their families.

ANNOUNCER: As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld comes under fire for what's been happening on his watch.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), MINORITY LEADER: I think that Mr. Rumsfeld should resign.

ANNOUNCER: Administration supporters say Democrats are just playing politics with the issue.

REP. TOM DELAY (R-TX), MAJORITY LEADER: They want to win the White House more than they want to win the war. And our enemies know it.

ANNOUNCER: What impact will all this photo fallout have on the presidential campaign?

Today, on CROSSFIRE.


ANNOUNCER: Live from the George Washington University, Paul Begala and Robert Novak.



President Bush today made it clear, for those who didn't understand, that he was apologizing for abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers. The move came as new photos of abuse surfaced. The president also dismissed calls by several Democrats for the resignation of Secretary Rumsfeld, and, would you believe it, even President Bush's own impeachment.

PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST: Well, the president was of course right to apologize. But it's interesting that he still refuses to take responsibility for what has happened on his watch.

He's a man who seems to love being commander in chief when he's playing dress-up on aircraft carriers and taking credit for our military's heroic successes, but he's AWOL when it comes time to taking responsibility for mistakes. We will debate all of this, but first, the best political briefing in television, our CROSSFIRE "Political Alert."

America is going in the wrong direction. Our president is not doing a very good job. He's not handling the economy very well. He's really not handling Iraq well, nor is he handling the rest of foreign affairs very well. Sound like the Democratic Party's talking points? No. That's the result of the latest Gallup poll. Mr. Bush's job approval is at the lowest level since the Supreme Court gave him the White House.

His approval for his Iraq policy, a record low. His handling of the economy, another record low, same with his handling of foreign policy, a record low. Overall, a whopping majority of 62 percent of us are dissatisfied with the direction of the country under Mr. Bush. It's clear that the American people want a new direction. So no wonder President Bush is spending $200 million savaging John Kerry. Mr. Bush can't attack problems, so he just attacks Senator Kerry.


NOVAK: You know, Paul, there's been a lot, in case you haven't noticed, there's been a lot of bad news for President Bush in the last month. It happens in campaigns when things go wrong.

And the poll that you didn't -- the little fact you didn't give there was, it's even, 47-47. There is something that the American people are not buying in John Kerry.



NOVAK: If in all of this...


NOVAK: Wait a minute.


BEGALA: Yes, by Bush. He's the incumbent.


NOVAK: Can I finish my sentence. If -- all of this bad news, he's still running even.

BEGALA: That's the part of the poll that doesn't matter. What matters are the internals. Bush is an incumbent. He's only at 47. History. Save this tape. Three words, Mr. President, history. (APPLAUSE)

NOVAK: John Kerry likes to talk about how distinguished his war record was in Vietnam, and, understandably, not his less than distinguished record as a war protester.

Just released FBI documents identify him as a major figure in the far left-wing Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the VVAW. The FBI has Kerry present at a 1971 Kansas City meeting which discussed killing American politicians supporting the war. John Kerry says he just can't remember whether he was in Kansas City that day. The FBI says he quit the organization there but volunteered to speak for this radical bunch.

The FBI also reports complaints by Kerry's comrades that he was using the peace movement to further his political desires. Did they ever have that one right.

BEGALA: Now, that's an outrage. John Kerry was a hero when he fought the war. He was a hero when he fought to end the war. And what was Bush in, the -- the -- the -- the former cheerleaders who are AWOL club? Was that his association during the war? The comparison of what the two men did could not be more clear, John Kerry a hero, George W. Bush, AWOL.

NOVAK: You know, any time we talk about Kerry, you always bring up Bush.

BEGALA: He's Kerry's opponent.

NOVAK: And the reason is, you cannot talk about John Kerry, who associated with these left-wing thugs who wanted to kill American politicians.


BEGALA: Hero, H-E-R-O, that's John Kerry.

Well, today is the National Day of Prayer. For the first time in history, our president's participation in a prayer service will become a prime-time television broadcast for Christian cable outlets. I suppose that's better than when Mr. Bush went to Bob Jones University, where they called the pope and Catholics the anti-Christ.

Here's the prayer that I hope will be in Mr. Bush's mind and in his heart as he piously poses for the cameras -- quote -- "When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to Father, who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you."

That's what Jesus said about prayer in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew.

NOVAK: You won't even grant that George W. Bush, who you disagree on, on a lot of things, you won't even grant that he's a man of God?


BEGALA: Of course he's a man of God.

NOVAK: Then, why do you -- why do you denigrate him? Why do you make of fun of


BEGALA: I'm denigrating his political posturing for the cameras, not his faith. I think he's a person of abiding faith. I admire that. But why does he have to pose for the cameras?

NOVAK: The idea that everything you've got to do is belittle the president, make fun of him, destroy him.

BEGALA: I'm not making fun. I think he's posturing for the cameras. I think he's using religion for politics.


BEGALA: And I think that's wrong.

NOVAK: The Center For American Progress has a secret report unearthed by CNN with this advice for liberal Democrats. Call me progressive, call me innovative, call me creative, but don't ever call me a liberal. Run like hell from the label, it says.

Now, this center is very liberal, hated by the liberal former Clinton White House chief of staff, John Podesta, Paul's buddy. The report claims a new idea it is urging on Democrats. Call yourself progressives. New idea? The communists who nominated Henry Wallace for president in 1948 renamed themselves the Progressive Party.


BEGALA: Democrats are progressive.


BEGALA: But I'm not big on labels. Here's why Republicans are. Republicans are rigid ideologues. They have two keys on the keyboard, cut taxes for the rich and invade Iraq. Neither has worked. The economy is in the tank. The deficit is out of control.


BEGALA: And we're stuck in Iraq. Democrats just want to do things that will work, that will actually bring us peace and prosperity, like we had under President Clinton.

NOVAK: Don't change the subject. Are you a liberal?


NOVAK: OK, well, why won't Kerry admit it?

BEGALA: It's a stupid label.

NOVAK: Why...

BEGALA: Because that's a stupid, useless, meaningless label. I'm for a balanced budget. That's conservative, OK?

NOVAK: You're for higher taxes. That's liberal.

BEGALA: On you, the rich, yes, not on working people.

NOVAK: That's liberal.

BEGALA: Higher taxes on Novak, that's something most Americans can agree on, couldn't they? Tax Novak.




NOVAK: When we started off on this statement, you said the Democrats wanted to impeach Bush. They'll get to that point. But all they're talking about is impeaching Rumsfeld.

BEGALA: Fair point, something we will debate in just a minute, because the fallout from the prisoner abuse scandal is growing. We'll ask, was President Bush right today to apologize and should he fire Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld? And have we lost the battle for hearts and minds of the Iraqi people?

Then later in CROSSFIRE, why is Ralph Nader crying foul over what he considers a bad pitch by Major League Baseball? Stay with us to learn why.

ANNOUNCER: Join Carville, Begala, Carlson and Novak in the CROSSFIRE. For free tickets to CROSSFIRE at the George Washington University, call 202-994-8CNN or visit our Web site. Now you can step into the CROSSFIRE.



NOVAK: President Bush today made clear he was apologizing for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers. And he reaffirmed his support for the secretary of state, Donald Rumsfeld.

Reporters asked the president about Rumsfeld's status in light of new photos of Iraqi prisoners abused by American soldiers and calls by several Democrats that Rumsfeld either step down or be fired. Aren't Democrats just playing politics?

In the CROSSFIRE today, Congressman Robert Wexler, Democrat of Florida, Congressman Eric Cantor, Republican from Virginia.


BEGALA: Thank you both for coming. I know you're busy on the Hill. So we really appreciate you coming.


BEGALA: Bob just pointed out our president today apologized -- actually, he apologized to the king of Jordan, which not at all in Iraq. But it was a nice gesture.

Here's the president today making his apology.


BUSH: I told him I was sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners and the humiliation suffered by their families. I told him I was equally sorry that people who have been seeing those pictures didn't understand the true nature and heart of America.


BEGALA: Now, I have to say, I think that's authentic anguish. I think it's wonderful the president did it.

I wish, though, he would follow Ronald Reagan's lead, who not simply said, I'm sorry, in fact never did, but he took responsibility. Even more important -- that's important -- but more important, he said, President Reagan said, "If there's to be responsibility for the Marine barracks bombings in Beirut, it doesn't lie with the military. It lies in this office and with this president."

Shouldn't President Bush be the man that Ronald Reagan was and take responsibility?

REP. ERIC CANTOR (R), VIRGINIA: Paul, I don't see where you think he's not.

BEGALA: Really?

CANTOR: The president has gone on Arab television, apologized to the Arab peoples for the conduct of these few soldiers who committed these abhorrent acts, as he said in his own words.

He met with the king of Jordan today and said that as well. This president is taking responsibility. We have got Rumsfeld and Myers going to the Hill tomorrow in full view of the public talking about what they knew, when they knew it, what's being done. These were acts that were done by a few soldiers. And the fact is, we have got hundreds of thousands -- 100,000-plus soldiers there who are doing their job, fighting for our freedom, defending our homeland, as well as trying to liberate the Iraqi people.

(CROSSTALK) BEGALA: I'm sorry to cut you off, but when did he take responsibility for that, though? I missed it. Because I've seen him apologize. I admire that and support it. But he hasn't said, I'm in charge here, the way that Ronald Reagan did.

CANTOR: Well, I mean, this president has been up front and direct as far as his leadership on foreign policy issues, on the mission in Iraq, and certainly has been playing a very visible role after this incident this week in the abuse of prisoners.

There's absolutely no indication whatsoever that President Bush is backing off of this. He's taking responsibility, standing by the secretary of defense. Look at the incredible record that Donald Rumsfeld has had since 9/11 in all that he has done in leading this country. There is no question that the president is in charge and taking a leadership role.

NOVAK: Congressman Robert Wexler, you're one of the toughest guys in Congress, liberal Democrat, tough guy. And so, naturally, you want Rumsfeld to resign. But there's a guy who is a lot tougher.

Yes, you did. Your staff said you wanted him out.

REP. ROBERT WEXLER (D), FLORIDA: No, no. I don't think Secretary Rumsfeld should resign. I don't think General Myers should resign. I think the president ought to fire both of them.

NOVAK: OK. All right. All right.


NOVAK: All right. All right. So you're -- you're -- you're -- you're a tough guy. But I want to tell you, there's a guy tougher than you. And that's Charles Rangel, Democrat of New York.

And let's see what Charlie has to say about this.


REP. CHARLES RANGEL (D), NEW YORK: If the president doesn't fire the secretary, if he doesn't resign, I think it's the responsibility of this Congress to file articles of impeachment and force him to leave office.


NOVAK: Now, I just want to know, are you joining the lunatic fringe...


NOVAK: ... and saying that you want to impeach Don Rumsfeld?

WEXLER: Well, you can't impeach Don Rumsfeld.

NOVAK: Well, that's what Charlie Rangel said. WEXLER: You can impeach the president.

NOVAK: Do you want to impeach the president?

WEXLER: And if -- I haven't called for the impeachment of this president. However...

NOVAK: Have you considered it?

WEXLER: If you compared it to the standard of impeachment that was used with respect to Bill Clinton, the lies that have been told...



WEXLER: The lies that have been told.



NOVAK: No booing, no booing, no booing. I know it's hard to take.


WEXLER: The issue is not impeachment, though.


WEXLER: The issue is the fabrication that Secretary Rumsfeld has brought upon this country.

NOVAK: So you're saying that...

WEXLER: The shame that he has brought upon because his lack of leadership in the Pentagon on the hundreds of thousands of very braves troops that we have.

NOVAK: I think you almost committed news there. Did you -- are you saying that Charlie Rangel doesn't know the law about impeachment, but you do, and you think that the impeachment of George W. Bush should be considered? Are you saying that?

WEXLER: Well, what I am saying is, the president ought to fire Secretary Rumsfeld.

NOVAK: Oh, all right.

WEXLER: The president ought to have accountability. If we find that the president of the United States failed to tell the truth about actions in Iraq, then that would, in fact, in my mind, be a very serious matter that ought to be considered.

NOVAK: For impeachment. WEXLER: But unlike the Republicans...

NOVAK: For impeachment.

WEXLER: Bob, unlike the Republicans, I don't just knee-jerk and say impeach the president.


NOVAK: You're dancing around it, Robert.



BEGALA: It's a moot point, of course, Congressman Cantor, because it's abundantly clear that in six months he's going to be out of work anyway, so no point in worrying about that.

I want to ask you...


BEGALA: I want to show you, rather, a contrary example of presidential leadership. I'm deeply disappointed of this president passing the buck and not taking responsibility. Let me show you what the next president, John Kerry, how he showed taking responsibility today.

Here's John Kerry, what a contrast to President Bush.


SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Today, I have a message for the men and women of our armed forces. As commander in chief, I will honor your commitment and I will take responsibility for the bad as well as the good.



BEGALA: He sounds an awful lot like Ronald Reagan to me, Eric Cantor, doesn't he?

CANTOR: It is unbelievable that you even give that statement credibility.

Look at what the Democrats on the House floor did today.

BEGALA: They're not running for president. I asked you about Senator Kerry.

CANTOR: They stood up -- they stood up -- they stood up on the floor, as well as in a press conference today, and said that this is an unwinnable war in Iraq. What kind of message (CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: It is under George W. Bush. But the question I'm asking


CANTOR: What kind of message does that send to our troops? What kind of message does that send to our troops who are risking their lives day in and day out for all of us here in America? That's a terrible thing.

BEGALA: Are we winning the war?

CANTOR: Absolutely, we are winning.

BEGALA: Are we winning the war?


CANTOR: Absolutely. Absolutely, we are winning the war.

BEGALA: It's going great.

CANTOR: Listen. There are problems that may not have been anticipated. But there are -- Iraqis are free. There's an interim Constitution in place. They have freedom of religious, freedom of expression, freedom of the press. The lights are on. The schools...

BEGALA: They're expressing it by blowing up our soldiers, who are the good guys over there, Congressman. That's not progress.


CANTOR: This is what's being portrayed. You look.


CANTOR: Kids are going to schools. They have got new textbooks. Of course, it's -- of course, it's a better situation in Iraq.

WEXLER: It's a rosy picture. With all due respect to my friend, Mr. Cantor, the Republican leadership in Congress has abdicated all responsibility in terms of providing oversight to this war in Iraq. We haven't had one single critical debate since this war began.


CANTOR: We had the debate on the floor just an hour ago.


WEXLER: We owe it -- we owe it -- we owe it to our men and women to provide them with the kinds of material they need. We owe it to them to tell the truth.

CANTOR: We owe it to them be responsible. You have to be accountable for the words that you use.


WEXLER: Exactly right.


CANTOR: Let me tell you, the message that is going out to our troops is not a responsible one.

WEXLER: Accountability. Secretary Rumsfeld.

NOVAK: Mr. Wexler, if you could sit -- for a moment. There's one honest Democrat I know. That's Jane Harman of California. And she told what this is all really about. Let's listen to her.


REP. JANE HARMAN (D), CALIFORNIA: Ultimately, the buck stops at the president's desk. This is going to be an election issue. These pictures are going to frame this election unless this president as commander in chief acts decisively now.


NOVAK: That's what this is all about. This is -- Jane said, this is about election politics. You're trying to use this to -- you got a flawed Democratic candidate and you're trying to get this to win the election. Can't you agree with Jane?

WEXLER: No, because, Bob, actually, I was listening to you about 15 minutes ago on CNN tell the whole world that when you spoke to Republicans in Congress today, they said they wanted -- they wouldn't be named, but they say they wanted Rumsfeld to resign.

It was only when Democrats started saying it, you said they backed off. So, what, are you saying that Republicans only want what's good for the countries when Democrats don't say it? I'm confused.



NOVAK: You have a Begalian habit of not answering or changing the subject. Jane Harman said this is about presidential politics. Is it or isn't it?

WEXLER: It's about the president of the United States and his failure to lead.

NOVAK: All right.

WEXLER: And the quagmire that we're in Iraq. It's a huge problem.

NOVAK: All right.


NOVAK: Next, in "Rapid Fire," we will ask our guests if more people than just Don Rumsfeld should be put on the chopping block.

And reporting from the front lines in Iraq are CNN correspondents, up close view of the combat in Najaf. Wolf Blitzer has details right after the break.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Coming up at the top of the hour, President Bush voices support for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But there are calls in Congress for Rumsfeld's resignation, ouster or even his impeachment.

U.S. troops seize the governor's office in Najaf, but Iraqis launch a counterattack, fighting going on right now. We'll have an eyewitness report from CNN's Jane Arraf.

And what should the U.S. be doing to diffuse the fallout from the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal? I'll be live with Senators Bob Graham and Pat Roberts.

Those stories, much more, only minutes away on "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS."

Now back to CROSSFIRE.

BEGALA: Thank you, Wolf.

Time now for "Rapid Fire," where we ask questions a whole lot faster than President Bush can apologize for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners. Our guests, Republican Congressman Eric Cantor of Virginia, Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler of Florida.

NOVAK: Congressman Wexler, why do you stop with Rumsfeld? Why don't you ask for the resignation or the firing or the impeachment of Colin Powell, General Myers, Condoleezza Rice, the whole gang? Why don't you just get rid of all of them?

WEXLER: Well, I think it ought to be Secretary Rumsfeld and it ought to be General Myers. Those are the two people that have had responsibility for this debacle, that failed to show leadership. And it would show the world that we're serious about freedom and democracy in Iraq and it's just not words.

BEGALA: Congressman Cantor, in the last segment, you said -- and I quote -- you have to be accountable for the words you use. Rush Limbaugh says what happened over there was no different than fraternity initiation. He said these guys were just blowing off some steam, having a good time. Do you endorse or condemn Rush Limbaugh's words? CANTOR: I do not take lightly the incidents that occurred in Iraq. No question the individuals responsible need to be held accountable. The president said as much.


BEGALA: Do you condemn Limbaugh?

CANTOR: I do not necessarily agree with what was said, no.

NOVAK: Congressman Wexler


WEXLER: I condemn Limbaugh.


NOVAK: Senator -- Senator -- Senator Joe Lieberman of Kentucky says there's not evidence to convict Secretary Rumsfeld of the kind of wrongdoing that would lead somebody to fire him. Is Joe Lieberman just too fair and even-handed?

WEXLER: What has occurred with Secretary Rumsfeld, this is the last straw. This is the same secretary that told Pentagon officials we're going to keep the troops in Pentagon -- in Iraq a much lower amount. He told us the wrong amount of money that it's going to cost to do this. His deputy, Wolfowitz...

NOVAK: So, clearly, he doesn't know what he's talking about?

WEXLER: His deputy, Wolfowitz, said, oh, the occupation and the rebuilding will pay for themselves. This is a series of mistakes.


BEGALA: One quick question. Should there be an independent investigation or do you trust the Pentagon to investigate the Pentagon?

CANTOR: The Pentagon and Secretary Rumsfeld will be perfectly capable of conducting the investigation. And we'll get to the bottom...

BEGALA: Oh, so the Pentagon and Secretary Rumsfeld.

CANTOR: And we'll get to the bottom of it. And the people who are already -- there are some who have already convicted in a court. And they will continue to be held accountable. There's no question. There's no question that they can manage this investigation.


BEGALA: Congressman Eric Cantor of Virginia, thank you very much. Congressman Robert Wexler of Florida, thank you very much for a fun debate. (CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Well, how has Major League Baseball managed somehow to anger both Ralph Nader and a Republican congressman? We'll tell you how they pulled that off next.


BEGALA: What's the world coming to? America's pastime being corrupted by the greed of Major League Baseball.

In the first weekend of interleague play next month, ads for the new "Spider-Man" movie will adorn bases and on-deck circles. Republican Congressman and former minor league team owner George Nethercutt of Washington state has written a letter of protest to baseball commissioner Bud Selig. Now presidential candidate Ralph Nader is weighing in. Nader lashed out at Selig for allowing the placement of ads on uniforms during the season opener last month, calling it an obscene embarrassment. Obscene?

BEGALA: Absolutely. What they've been corrupted by is the Republican gospel of corporate greed. That's what has happened here. It's even infected Major League Baseball. It's disgusting. It's sick.

NOVAK: Oh, it's Republican.

BEGALA: It's Republican equals corporate equals greed, absolutely, Bob. That's what those people stand for.


NOVAK: Everything bad is Republican. And everything dainty is Democrat, right?


BEGALA: From the left, I am Paul Begala. That's it for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak.

Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE. Gordon G. Liddy -- G. Gordon Liddy will be sitting in, in the chair right here tomorrow night as guest host on CROSSFIRE. That will be mean. Be sure to tune in.

"WOLF BLITZER REPORTS" starts right now.


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