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Best Commander in Chief?

Aired May 28, 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: Memorial Day weekend. Washington dedicates the World War II Memorial, one of several summer events considered prime targets for terrorists. Who has the better plan for keeping the country safe, President Bush or John Kerry?

As the nation prepares to honor its war veterans, the White House may be poised to slash their benefits. Democrats ratchet up the rhetoric, calling the potential cuts alarming.

And John Kerry's speech on national security, home run or hot air?



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


It's Memorial Day weekend and the Bush administration remains on guard. Authorities are well mobilized for tomorrow's dedication of the new memorial to World War II vets. And politically, with all the bad news lately and under steady attack, President Bush is still regarded by voters as better able to cope with terrorism than John Kerry is.

PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST: But even as the president honors our veterans in public, a newly revealed White House document shows he plans to cut funding for our veterans right after the election. War hero John Kerry says that he can do better. The debate over who should be our next commander in chief in today in the CROSSFIRE.

But, first, the best little briefing in television, our CROSSFIRE "Political Alert."

When John Ashcroft issued a terrorist threat earlier this week, I praised him. The attorney general and the director of the FBI released new information about an al Qaeda threat. I have no reason to doubt them. I'm sure it's real. I'm glad that they released it. I hope everybody pays attention and does what they can to help out. Silly me. I trusted John Ashcroft. It turns out General Ashcroft was grandstanding. Administration officials tell today's "Washington Post" that Justice Department aides suggested that the latest information was new, when in fact, it was six weeks old. But the threat of al Qaeda is real. They've killed friends of mine. They would like to kill you.

I had hoped that at least on this life-or-death issue, the Bush administration would not play politics. Sadly, I was wrong. It's a shame for the attorney general to be doing that, Bob.

NOVAK: Well, you know, I will tell you something. You know, I'm no partisan. I'm a right-wing -- no, I'm not a partisan. I'm a right-wing extremist, but I'm not a partisan Republican.


NOVAK: And I -- that whole thing struck me wrong. I really believe that these warnings, I don't think they accomplish very much. And I thought that the homeland security secretary, Tom Ridge, kind of put it down, saying he didn't think there was a need to raise the threat level.


BEGALA: I think you're right. I will listen to Tom Ridge from now on, not John Ashcroft.

NOVAK: Opening this weekend at a movie theater near you is a ridiculous motion picture called "The Day After Tomorrow." It portrays the most fevered imagination of environmentalists extremists, global warming producing tornadoes, hail storms and tsunamis, finally ending with Manhattan frozen. That's not a bad idea.


NOVAK: It's -- it's part war movie, part action flick, part environmental propaganda. But Al Gore says it's just wonderful, the kind of global warming -- the king of global warming actually takes this movie seriously.

And Al gained credence with the huge lunatic wing of the Democratic Party this week when he did his imitation of Howard Dean, shouting. I've even heard Democrats express hope that John Kerry would sound more like the new Al Gore. Republicans can only hope that he will.


BEGALA: I'll tell you what.

When -- when the history books are written, Al Gore will be a prophet who was ahead of his time. He's been warning us about global warming for more than a decade. It is real. We are destroying the environment under President Bush. And we ought to do something to try to stop it. We have the technology to fix it, but President Bush doesn't want to stand up to the oil companies. And that's the problem.


NOVAK: This is a -- this is a Hollywood movie where the whole thing changes from heat to warm in five years.


NOVAK: It would take about five centuries. And Al Gore says, gee, that's a good movie.


BEGALA: Well, we should all watch it, watch it and see for ourselves.

Well, speaking of the environment, the Campaign For America's Future and the Detroit Project, which is an environmental group led by indomitable Laurie David and Ariana Huffington, has a new ad that captures our addiction to Middle Eastern oil and its real cost. And I think it does so brilliantly.

Take a look. And as you're filling up for your Memorial Day weekend drive, consider this. John Kerry has proposed making America independent of Middle East oil within 10 years, a good enough reason right there to elect John Kerry.


NOVAK: That's a -- that's a pretty exciting little movie.

BEGALA: It's a great ad.

NOVAK: I almost fell asleep in the 30-second commercial. As a matter of fact, this is -- as you know Paul, the gas prices are going down. It always does at the end of the summer. This is just a little hysteria that I wouldn't take too seriously.

And I have a question. Were you calling Ariana Huffington indomitable?

BEGALA: She is indomitable. She's wonderful. And so is Laurie David.


NOVAK: You used to hate her. You used to think she was...

BEGALA: I've never hated her. I'm not a hater.

NOVAK: Yes, you did.

BEGALA: I disagree with people, but I don't hate.

NOVAK: You said she was terrible.

BEGALA: I'm not a hater, Bob. I'm all about love. That's what Democrats are all about.



BEGALA: And I love that ad because it tells us the real cost of our dependence on Middle East oil.



BEGALA: We should be independent of Middle East oil.


NOVAK: You would like Arianna. She has been on every side of every issue.


NOVAK: Who is the most popular public office holder in America? No doubt about it. It's the former body builder, former action movie hero Arnold Schwarzenegger, now the Republican governor of California. The new Field poll shows that the governor Terminator has a phenomenal 65 percent approval rating, that in a heavily Democratic state where his Democratic predecessor, Gray Davis, was so unpopular, the voters recalled him and replaced him with Arnold.

How could this be? Here are some suggestions. Schwarzenegger is holding the line on both taxes and spending. He doesn't attack his political enemies and he wants to reopen California's doors to business. Could that be what America wants?


BEGALA: He is very popular. He is also pro-gun control. He is pro-gay rights. And he's pro-abortion rights. Now, that should be in the Republican platform, then, too, right, Bob?


BEGALA: You're a Schwarzenegger Republican.



NOVAK: I'll tell you something. If a guy doesn't -- if a guy is a tax-cutter and he holds down spending, I'll vote for the devil.


BEGALA: I think Republicans could learn a lot from Schwarzenegger's success, though. I think...

NOVAK: And maybe Democrats could, too.

BEGALA: I think so. He's a very pleasant guy. You know what else he did? He admitted mistakes that he's made, something our president has never done. Schwarzenegger was on "Meet the Press." Tim Russert asked him if he made mistakes.


BEGALA: And he said yes. And he talked about what they were.


BEGALA: I admire that.

NOVAK: The question for America, who will make the best commander in chief for this new war? We'll debate who can best lead the nation against terrorism, George Bush or John Kerry.

And later, John McCain shares the real reason he doesn't want to be John Kerry's vice president.


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.



BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

In less than 24 hours, President George W. Bush will formally dedicate America's World War II memorial. It's one of the great things about being our commander in chief, presiding over such wonderful national events. But John Kerry and his fellow Democrats charge that a recently revealed White House budget memo shows that, even as he's praising the greatest generation, Mr. Bush is planning to cut the budget for veterans if he wins reelection.

In the CROSSFIRE to debate the war over our warriors, Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. He joins us from Irvine, California, where he's changing diapers on his newborn triplets. And here in our studio, the Democratic delegate for the District of Columbia, Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Good to see you both. Thank you for joining us.

NOVAK: Congresswoman Norton, I thought I was going to fall asleep in this debate between Senator Kerry and President Bush over Iraq and foreign policy. And then, of all people to wake me up, Al Gore.

Let's just give you a tiny tidbit of his absolutely remarkable imitation of Howard Dean. Let's listen to him.


AL GORE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: How dare they subject us to such dishonor and disgrace? How dare they drag the good name of the United States of America through the mud of Saddam Hussein's torture prison?


NOVAK: Now, Ms. Norton, is this the voice of the Democratic Party trying to have a cogent discussion on a very serious question of what our policy in Iraq should be?

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON (D), WASHINGTON, D.C. DELEGATE: Well, I noted that the only thing louder than Al Gore was the applause of Americans saying, right on.

And what I think Al Gore is doing is screaming for millions upon millions of Democrats, I'm certain independents, and by now, given what's happening in Iraq, probably even some Republicans, in the hope that he will be heard by this president and by this Congress.

NOVAK: Well, the people who were applauding were the left-wing extremists of I suppose they're some of your friends. And I don't mean to insult any of your friends, Eleanor. But can I...

NORTON: Not to worry.

NOVAK: Of course not.

But can I ask you, because I've always thought you were a serious person. Do you think that's the way to address public issues, by screaming?

NORTON: Oh, I think that's precisely the way to address a rally, where you are trying your level best to say what people have been trying themselves to say and want to hear a leader say for them.


BEGALA: Congressman Rohrabacher, there's a report in "The Washington Post" about a heretofore secret White House budget memo. And it targeted a whole lot of domestic agencies for cuts after the election that is.

But I want to focus on the veterans. Here's what "The Washington Post" reports. The Department of Veterans affairs is scheduled to get a $519 million spending increase in 2005. -- that's the budget for the election year -- and a $910 million cut in 2006 that would bring its budget below the 2004 level.

Now, I know you to be a patriot first and a partisan second. Please tell me you oppose President Bush's efforts to cut our veterans. REP. DANA ROHRABACHER (R), CALIFORNIA: Well, first of all, I don't know if that report is accurate. It might be just somebody's suggestion on how we handle the $500 billion deficit, and I doubt if it has already been approved through the policy process in the White House. So to bring it up now, obviously "The Washington Post" just wants to hurt our president.

I will say that,, at any time when we try to tackle this $500 billion deficit, I will have to imagine that the veterans, being patriotic, as they have proven themselves, are going to be willing to be part of that solution if everybody involved has to suffer a little bit in order to get rid of that deficit. Now...


BEGALA: What do we have to sacrifice?


BEGALA: These are men and some of them women, these are men and some of them women who have served our country. Why can't we ask rich people who are sitting by their pools just to write a check and pay their damn fair share of taxes, Congressman?



ROHRABACHER: Well, I'm sure that's so much hyperbole.

The bottom line that we have a $500 billion deficit. And I think all of us, including the people you're referring to, are going to have to do our part in order to try to get rid of it. And the sooner the better. Now, this report that you're talking about, obviously, "The Washington Post" doesn't want to do any favors for President Bush. So I doubt if it's accurate in that it's something that is planned.

NOVAK: Eleanor Holmes Norton, I don't have to tell you that a lot of people in the huge left wing of the Democratic Party are not happy with Senator Kerry on this war, because, as far as I can see, he wants to continue the war until we win it, until we -- keep the troops there.

But an organization called Win Without War issued a statement. And I'd like to read it to you: "There is no military solution in Iraq. We therefore call upon our government to commit to ending the military and economic occupation of Iraq and withdrawing our troops by a date certain. There is no justification for letting any young American be the last to die for a mistake."

Yes or no, do you agree with that statement?

NORTON: Let me tell you where Democrats really stand. In my lifetime, no Democrat has wrapped up the Democratic nomination in a shorter time with a larger gathering and consensus of Democrats than John Kerry. I think he speaks for all of us. NOVAK: Well, you didn't quite answer my question. I asked you if you agreed with Win Without War, who wants to get the troops out now. Do you disease with that? Do you think that's a bad idea?

NORTON: I want to elect John Kerry because I know he will get the troops out a lot of faster than this president.


NOVAK: You're punting on fourth down on that, right?


BEGALA: Congressman Rohrabacher, one of the architects of



ROHRABACHER: They'll be willing to get the troops out. They'll be willing to get the troops out, even if it means, in the long run, America is going to be put right behind the eight ball and we'll suffer more 9/11s in the future.

The reason why President Bush is a real leader is, he's willing to do what's necessary for our security and he has the steadfastness enough to set down a policy and stick with it, rather than to cut and run and to beat the drums of defeat, like the Democrats.


BEGALA: In point of fact, Congressman Rohrabacher, Senator Kerry spoke to that very issue today. And he said that, no, while there's a lot of pressure within his party to call for pulling troops out, no, he is not for that, that he wants to see it through, but he'll actually succeed, instead of fail, as President Bush has done.

And here's one of the reasons why. He spoke today about one of the civilian so-called leaders in the Pentagon. We'll play this piece of tape from Senator Kerry and then ask you to comment on it.


SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Paul Wolfowitz, one of the chief architects of this war and a deputy secretary of defense, testifies before Congress and they ask him how many troops have we lost and he doesn't know. He's several hundred below the number, which is just stunning to me, because you would think that every day, they'd be conscience of exactly what the cost is.


BEGALA: Now, Senator Kerry is right, isn't he, Congressman, that people who don't even know how many lives are being lost are unfit to lead a great nation into war, aren't they?

ROHRABACHER: I think that's just so much grandstanding and polemics.

The bottom line is, the people we want to lead this country are the people who are going to do and set down the policies that will make us safe in the future, not whether you can play some sort of game and catch them on a number that they may or may not know. It's the Democratic Party and of course it's Al Gore, who knows a lot about incompetence, I might add, that got us into this mess; 9/11 was on the way; 9/11 was on the way by the time President Bush was inaugurated.

And the fact is, the Democrats put us behind the eight ball. This president has a long-term strategy in Iraq to make sure we can turn the situation around.


NORTON: Dana, this president owns this war. For goodness sakes, how are you going to blame this on Bill Clinton?


ROHRABACHER: I will you something.


ROHRABACHER: This president knows that we are in a war. We are in a war with radical Islam, and we've got to give the world, the Islamic world, an alternative, a democratic alternative. If that's -- if we do it in Iraq, it's going to make it a more peaceful world in the years ahead. Democrats never think in the years ahead.

NOVAK: I want to get Eleanor's opinion on something.

There's a lot of people around town who are saying that it doesn't matter what John Kerry says or does. This is all a referendum on George W. Bush. But Doug Sosnik, who was the very able political director in the Clinton White House, says: "I don't think anybody in their right mind is going to run for president on a strategy of, people hate the other guy and that's enough for our guy to win."

Do you agree with Doug Sosnik, that just hating Bush is not enough to win?

NORTON: Absolutely.

And you know what? There's so much out there. Hating George Bush is only a small reason to want to take this president and send him back to Texas.



BEGALA: We'll come right back with Congressman Rohrabacher.


BEGALA: ... Norton, hold your seat just a moment.

And when we come back, both of our guests will face the "Rapid Fire." And I'm going to ask Congressman Rohrabacher why so many military men are unhappy with our commander in chief.

And who's the man expected to lead Iraqi's new government? Find out why he was chosen after the break.

Stay with us.



MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Miles O'Brien at CNN Center in Atlanta.

Coming up at the top of the hour, a former Baath Party member with CIA ties is named to head Iraq's interim government. We'll tell you about Iyad Allawi and how he was chosen.

Thousands of travelers converge on U.S. airports for Memorial Day trips. Is the Transportation Security Administration ready to handle them?

And a new disaster movie about global warming hits theaters around the country. Food for thought or Hollywood hype?

Those stories and much more just moments away on "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS."

Now back to CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: It's time for "Rapid Fire," where the questions come as fast as Al Gore can demand that everybody in Washington get fired.


NOVAK: Our guests, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Democratic delegate from Washington, D.C., and in Irvine, California, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, Republican of California.

BEGALA: Congressman Rohrabacher, General Anthony Zinni, General Joseph Hoar, General John Shalikashvili, General William Odom, they and many more generals and admirals have bitterly criticized this president and his war. Why is this president so strongly opposed by so many great military leaders?

ROHRABACHER: I would say that probably his record is a lot better than the last president and would certainly be much better than President Kerry. So you can't list a couple and think that they represent the military. The military people love this president. He's willing to command. He doesn't have to go to the Germans or the French or the United Nations to make decisions about our national security.


NOVAK: Eleanor Holmes Norton, how is how is it that, with all the bad luck and all the trouble that the president has had lately, he still has got a substantial edge over Kerry in the opinion of the American people as to who is best equipped to deal with terrorism?

NORTON: You know, and Karl Rove sitting in the White House now wondering what to do about the fact that this president's favorables with the American people, his -- the notion of whether the United States is headed in the right direction is at the lowest point it's been for any president at this point in his presidency. If I were on George Bush, I'd be on my knees praying.



Congressman Rohrabacher, the VFW called the Bush budget for veterans a disgrace and said -- quote -- "Veterans are no longer a priority for this administration." Are the VFW a left-wing group, like all those generals I mentioned before?

ROHRABACHER: I'm sorry. I miss the first part about it, what they're complaining about.


BEGALA: That he -- because President Bush is cutting veterans funding. That's what they're complaining about. It's disgraceful.

ROHRABACHER: Well, obviously, we don't know that. Obviously, this is a based on a story from "The Washington Post."

BEGALA: No, sir, this was actually February 2 of this year. No, this was for last year's budget


ROHRABACHER: Well, as you know, last year's budget of the veterans went up. So, obviously, this is based on misinformation.

NOVAK: We're out of time.

Dana Rohrabacher, thank you very much. Eleanor Holmes Norton, thank you.

Next, John McCain makes himself clear when he takes to the late- night airwaves and discusses the ridiculous story of him taking the No. 2 spot on the Kerry ticket.



NOVAK: It's a question everyone keeps asking: Will Senator John McCain, a Republican, jump ship and join Democrat John Kerry as his running mate?

Last night on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," Senator McCain hopefully put the ridiculous notion to rest once and for all.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I spent several years in a North Vietnamese prison camp in the dark, fed with straps. Do you think I want to do that all over again as vice president of the United States?




NOVAK: Not bad. Maybe not vice president, but Senator McCain might have a calling as second banana to Conan O'Brien.

BEGALA: And it must kill George W. Bush that John McCain is the most popular and beloved Republican in America, and a veteran at that.


BEGALA: Happy Memorial Day, everybody.

And 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.



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