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Iraqi Election Win or Loss For President Bush?

Aired January 31, 2005 - 16:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE. On the left, Paul Begala; on the right, Robert Novak.

In the CROSSFIRE: the split over the historic elections in Iraq. President Bush called the vote a resounding success. And he wants to keep helping Iraq build its democracy.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's more distance to travel on the road to democracy. Yet, Iraqis are proving they're equal to the challenge.

ANNOUNCER: Leading Democrats say the vote opens a window of opportunity for the administration to lay out a plan for what's next in Iraq.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER: We need an exit strategy, so we know what victory is and how we can get there, so that we know what we need to do and so that we know when the job is done.

ANNOUNCER: Is the vote in Iraq an election win or loss for President Bush?



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


PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST: Hello, everybody. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

The White House is claiming vindication from yesterday's historic election in Iraq. And even as they applauded the election, Democrats are calling for an exit strategy. Meanwhile, the death of three Marines in Iraq today reminds us all of the terrible price Americans are paying for this occupation.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: The vote was a success. And, at the same time, other Democrats want even more -- yes, more -- U.S. troops sent to the region. Can't they get their own story straight?

Well, now the best little political briefing in television, our CROSSFIRE "Political Alert." Leader of congressional Democrats Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and Senator Harry Reid tried to be original today. They responded to President Bush's State of the Union address before he delivered it. And they coined a new word in doing so, prebuttal. But it was the same old stuff, deploring Social Security reform and demanding an exit strategy from Iraq.

When the president actually delivers his speech, how will the Democrats respond? Will they want to roll back the Bush tax cuts? Will they oppose restrictions on greedy trial lawyers? And will they oppose an energy program that includes for necessary new oil in Alaska?

They just didn't get around to any of this in their prebuttal.

BEGALA: Well, you'll be surprised to know I disagree with you. I think that Senator Reid and Congresswoman Pelosi are doing the right things. They are leading their party. They don't need to wait to hear what President Bush says to know what they believe in. And they believe in a Social Security system that guarantees benefits for seniors, not fees for stock brokers. And they believe in a foreign policy that has an exit strategy after every invasion. Why not -- what's wrong with that?


BEGALA: I think it's a good strategy.


NOVAK: Can I ask you, now that they've given an answer to a speech before he delivered it, can we now be guaranteed that they won't say anything after he delivers it?



BEGALA: Well, they probably will.

Oh. I was about to ask you a really (UNINTELLIGIBLE) question, but that will come later in the debate.

The special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction has issued a scathing report on alleged financial mismanagement of Iraqi reconstruction funds. The report says that, under Paul Bremer, the Coalition Provisional Authority did not monitor the spending of $8.8 billion, opening the door to charges of potential corruption.

The report, for example, claims that one ministry, which had just 602 guards, had enough money to pay 8,206 guards. Similarly, hundreds of millions were spent by ministries without even so much as a budget. Mr. Bremer, safe in America now while American soldiers die in Iraq, was given the Medal of Freedom by President Bush despite providing -- presiding, that is, over this debacle of an occupation. Perhaps Mr. Bremer reminds President Bush of one of his closest friends, someone who was accused of being a little funny with the money, former Enron CEO Kenny-boy Lay. So that's maybe why he likes him so much.

NOVAK: Paul, you know, the -- Mr. Bremer has said that you couldn't expect that, on the wake of this war, to have American standards of accounting in looking at what was going on. Nobody is accused of corruption. It just isn't perfect accounting. And there is absolutely no similarity, and you know that, to the Enron ripoff, not at all.


NOVAK: John Kerry went on "Meet the Press" to congratulation himself on coming close to being elected president, if you call close losing by 3.5 million votes that close.

Senator, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. He sounds as though he wants to run again, but he would not have the help next time of the leftist billionaire financier George Soros, who gave Democrats $23.7 million for the last -- in the last election cycle. Kerry made the mistake, Soros said, of campaigning as a war hero, instead of a war resister who libeled his comrades in arms.

Now, whether Kerry and the Democrats take the advice of George Soros will determine just how suicidal they are.

BEGALA: You know, they should take the advice of Bob Novak. Close does not count. It doesn't. You're right. Democrats lost, and they ought not delude themselves. They ought to get a better or how about any message at all the next time around, say what they stand for, and take on this president when he's wrong, instead of the kind of namby-pambyness that some Democrats had during Bush's first term.

So, I think you're right. Nobody should say this was OK for the Democrats because they only lost by a little. No, they lost by 3.5 million, as you point out. There's no comfort in that. Democrats ought to get their act together and stop deluding themselves.


NOVAK: George Soros says he shouldn't have said he was a hero. That was a mistake, he said.

BEGALA: Well, Kerry was a hero. Bush should not have denied -- well, Bush didn't, but anyway.


BEGALA: Speaking of our president, Margaret Spellings was sworn in today as our new education secretary. Secretary Spellings has already began pushing the agenda of whacked-out right, nutball, sex- obsessed lunatic right.

Spellings attacked the Public Broadcasting System for funding a program in which, get this, a cartoon character called Buster the Bunny visits a lesbian couple and their children in Vermont. This was too much for Ms. Spellings. She fired off a letter to PBS, which, sadly, caved and canned the offending segment. Spellings follows in the long tradition of Republican weirdos who see sexuality in all sorts of children's programming.

Reverend James Dobson think SpongeBob SquarePants is gay.


BEGALA: Other right-wingers have claimed that Velma from "Scooby Doo," Peppermint Patty from "Peanuts," Bert and Ernie from "Sesame Street" and even Tinky Winky from "Teletubbies" are all gay.


BEGALA: I'm trying to do this with a straight face, friends. It is not easy.

The cartoon characters themselves were all unavailable for comment, perhaps because they're all running for chairman of the Democratic National Committee.



NOVAK: Well, Paul, all right I know you like to be accurate. James Dobson is not a reverend.

BEGALA: Oh, thank you for correcting me. He's not a reverend.


BEGALA: He's a -- Dr. James...


BEGALA: That's right.


NOVAK: Now, the -- well, our time is up.


BEGALA: We'll come back to this gay cartoon. Thank you for correcting me, though.


BEGALA: Have the voters of Iraq delivered a political victory for George W. Bush? Up next, we'll debate the impact of this weekend's historic election in Iraq.

And they've come a long way since the brawl in Detroit. We'll show you how things went for the NBA champs during a team visit to the White House today.



BEGALA: Welcome back tour CROSSFIRE.

Yesterday's historic election in Iraq has the Bush administration jubilant. But is it too soon to break out the "Mission Accomplished" banner?

Today in the CROSSFIRE, California Republican Congressman David Dreier. He's also the chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee. And California Democratic Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey.

Good to see you both.


REP. DAVID DREIER (R), CALIFORNIA: Great to be with...


NOVAK: Congresswoman, nice to have you here.

Now, nobody has been more negative about the U.S. participation in Iraq than you. And I just want to know what you would say about this really spectacular performance by the Iraqi people.

REP. LYNN WOOLSEY (D), CALIFORNIA: Actually, I congratulate their courage. I congratulate every single person that went to the polls and voted. I represent a district where we had an 89.5 percent turnout this last election. We get it, how important elections are to having a real democracy. And I think now United States has a role.

NOVAK: So we're on the right path now, is that correct?

WOOLSEY: Well...

NOVAK: And it's important?

WOOLSEY: Well, we finished -- that was a stepping stone of why, I guess, we're there. And now I think we have -- we don't want to leave them, but I think we need to stay there as not militaristic, but as humanitarians.

NOVAK: Do you think -- do you think people around the world agree with you on this?

WOOLSEY: Oh, I believe around the world, they would like us -- I hope they will join us around the world.

NOVAK: I mean about the election, about the...

WOOLSEY: Oh, absolutely.

NOVAK: That it's a good thing?

WOOLSEY: It was courageous. It's over. It's behind us.

DREIER: Elections are always good.

BEGALA: They are.


DREIER: Of course it's a good thing.

BEGALA: And this is important. And it's a very good thing. But let's be clear. It was at best a tertiary priority of the United States of America.

When Mr. Bush declared this war, President Bush, he said first it was to defend us from weapons of mass destruction, which didn't exist, second, to break up an alliance between al Qaeda and Saddam, which did not exist. Third, once in a while, he mentioned democracy. And, in fact, he was so poorly committed to democracy at the first that he opposed this election at first.

Let me take you to "The Washington Post" today, which reminded us of this. "Analysts noted that the Bush administration initially resisted the idea of holding elections this soon and only succumbed under pressure from Iraq's most powerful cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. 'It was Sistani who demanded one-person, one-vote elections. So, to the extent it's a victory, it's a victory for Iraqis. The Americans were maneuvered into having to go along with it,' said Juan Cole, an Iraq expert at the University of Michigan."

It's true that the president was very reluctant about democracy, wasn't he?

DREIER: Well, let me just say at the outset I painted my finger blue here because this is a very important symbol.

This president was not opposed to self-determination for peoples. He wasn't sure about the timing. No one was certain about the timing. But this is an amazing testament to our troops. Yes, when we look at the fact that Saddam Hussein did pose a threat to the existence of the United States of America, he was determined to do us in.


BEGALA: You don't still believe -- you still don't believe that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the existence of the United States of America?


DREIER: He was -- he was focused on destabilizing the region. And he wanted to do the United States in.

Remember when he threw that sword down and, time and time again, he saw us as the enemy? And I know many people are talking about the expansion of this into other countries. We all want to see self- determination. And people say, oh, the United States of America is imposing its form of government on peoples. I always scratch my head on that, Paul. How do you impose on people the ability to choose their own leaders?

And, so, yes, we have brought about an end to that threat. This is a great day. Our troops are to be congratulated. And I believe that you can go back to Ronald Reagan's days. And the whole notion of trying to expand self-determination, the rule of law and democratic institutions is right on target.

In fact, I'm going to be sending a letter to my colleague Tom Cole, who is a new member of the Rules Committee. He's going to be going over. And we in the Rules Committee here in the Congress are going to offer to help with a parliament building there. We're going to invite a delegation of the new 275-member transitional national assembly to come here.

NOVAK: Congresswoman Woolsey, do you think this was a turning point...


WOOLSEY: Well -- well, actually, what I think it was, in talking about the president not always being for the elections, he's changed why we're in Iraq how many times? First, it was weapons of mass destruction. Then it was, we don't like the leaders.


WOOLSEY: Now we're going to have elections.


NOVAK: I asked you a question, though. Is it a turning point or not?

WOOLSEY: It's a step. And it's a step that says to me that now it is time for the United States to have a nonmilitaristic presence.


NOVAK: I'll tell you somebody who thinks it's a turning point. It's a woman. And it ain't Condi Rice. Let's see who thinks it's a turning point.


SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: This is the first election ever. I can never remember an election held under these circumstances. And the bravery, I think, and courage of the Iraqi people, their delight after the election, I think it really is a major signal of perhaps a turning point.

(END VIDEO CLIP) NOVAK: That's a Democrat from California. I wish you were as positive as she is.

WOOLSEY: Well, I'm positive that we can help by not deserting the Iraqi people.

But we can help in a humanitarian way.


WOOLSEY: Help rebuild -- help rebuild their infrastructure, both economic and their physical infrastructure, help them train their security troops.

DREIER: And that's exactly what is going on.

You know, I see on Paul's blue card there he's got exit strategy written.

BEGALA: Yes, please. We want one.

DREIER: And Senator Reid's mention of that.

And you know what? We have an exit strategy that is under way right now.

BEGALA: What is it?

DREIER: That exit strategy is one that's designed to ensure that we train the Iraqi military, and, as Condi Rice pointed out, 120,000 Iraqis who have been trained.

And we just got the word in Najaf, where one of the worst battles took place. Not one member of the U.S. military left their base. The Iraqi military, during the election yesterday, in fact, provided that security. We all want to get out just as expeditiously as possible.

I want the people whom I represent to be able to come back here. I want the entire coalition force to be able to return as quickly as possible. But we don't want the very positive things that have taken place to see -- we don't want to see those things reversed.


BEGALA: But what we're looking for in an exit strategy is, though, something a little more concrete, I think, than as open-ended -- what the president has said, well, if the new Iraqi government asks us to leave, we'll leave.

How about American interests? You mentioned the training. Let's take a look. The Center for American Progress, which is a think tank.

DREIER: Right. Right. Right.

BEGALA: Has Democrats mostly, but some Republicans.

NOVAK: It's a Democratic think tank.

BEGALA: Lawrence Korb is there, who served...


NOVAK: Well, he's not a Republican.


BEGALA: .. in the Reagan administration. He was a Defense Department official under President Ronald Reagan.


NOVAK: Oh, please. They're attacking the Republicans all the time.

BEGALA: They analyzed and here's what they say.

"The administration claims that over 120,000 Iraqis have been trained as of January 19. Others estimates show the real number is closer to 14,000, with only a third ready for battle. Even taking the administration's number at face value, however," they note, "that would mean the White House is only treading water. Today, the Pentagon says it's achieved 46 percent of its goal. That's about the same ratio six months ago, when it said it achieved 45 percent of the goal."


BEGALA: We're treading water at best.

DREIER: Paul, last May, the president outlined five points that he had for his plan for Iraq. And it's amazing. John Kerry continues to talk about that.

They were a handover. And it was done two days earlier, June 28 of last year. We all know that very well. Making sure that we rebuild the information. That's schools, hospitals, the water facilities, tremendous improvement there. And we've played a big role.

And that's the humanitarian aid, Lynn, that you're talking about. And the third point was making sure that we build up the international support for this. And we've seen countries like Jordan and Yemen indicate support as part of this coalition, two Arab nations.


BEGALA: Sending how many troops?

DREIER: I don't know how many troops. They're supportive.


DREIER: Well, let me just tell you, only the United States of America can do what's been done. Only the United States of America can provide the kind of leadership that we've seen over the past couple of years in Iraq. And that's why...



BEGALA: We're going to have a quick break. I'm sorry, Congressman. Keep your seat.

When we come right back -- just a minute. When we come back, we'll ask our guests a little more about just how long they think American troops will continue to occupy Iraq.

And Wolf Blitzer has the latest on the condition of my friend Senator Hillary Clinton after today's fainting incident.

Stay with us.


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

Coming up at the top of the hour, Iraqi voters have spoken. Now the ballots must be counted. We'll discuss the Iraqi election and its implications with the former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Senator Hillary Clinton faints during a speech in Buffalo, New York. We'll talk to a witness and to CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

And jury selection begins in the Michael Jackson trial, a live report from Santa Maria coming up. In fact, let's go to Santa Maria right now.

CNN's Sean Callebs is standing by as well. That's Michael Jackson's car.

They've been in recess, Sean, I take it. Michael Jackson now returning to the courtroom following a recess -- Sean.


The recess was about an hour and 45 minutes. Jackson, his entourage pulling up now. You can hear the strains of the demonstrators outside the gates here at the Santa Barbara County courthouse.

It's been an interesting morning, choosing the prospective jury selection. The judge has a very ambitious plan to go through some 750 prospective jurors in two and a half days. They went through 150 this morning. Now, out of those, close to 85 said they would be willing to wait the four to six months that a trial is expected to take.

And, by all accounts, from court observers, from legal experts, that is an extraordinarily high number. Usually, it's about 10 to 15 percent. So, there's a great amount of interest in this trial here and abroad.

Among those demonstrators we heard screaming out there, some were from France. Some were from Sweden. A couple of scuffles out there today between those who support Jackson and those who clearly here do not.

Now, we expect this afternoon another 150 prospective jurors will go through. The judge will do the same thing, ask those who have some kind of hardship and wouldn't be able to wait the four to six months for a trial. They would be excused. Those who wouldn't will out a seven-page questionnaire.

And, Wolf, on Thursday and Friday, the attorneys will begin going over those questionnaires and begin the process of trying to seat a 12-person jury panel, one that has not been tainted by all the pretrial publicity.

BLITZER: Sean Callebs reporting for us from Santa Maria at the courthouse, where this Michael Jackson has begun, jury selection, day one. Much more on this story coming up during "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS" at the top of the hour.

Let's go back to CROSSFIRE right now.

NOVAK: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

There's a justified sense of optimism in parts of Iraq today, after so many people stood up to fear, exercising their right to vote. So why in the world are so many Democrats unhappy about it?

Joining us, Representative Lynn Woolsey, Democrat of California, and Republican David Dreier, Republican congressman from California, chairman of the Rules Committee.


DREIER: Yes. And my chair just dropped.


BEGALA: Mr. Chairman, sorry about that.

WOOLSEY: We lost him.

BEGALA: You're just too darned tall for us.

DREIER: You didn't do that to me, did you?


BEGALA: Mr. Chairman, will there be more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq one year from today?

DREIER: I can't tell you that with absolute certainty, Paul.

I hope very much that we see enough Iraqi troops take over and handle the security. That is our goal. That's the exit strategy that people keep talking about.


DREIER: Once we see that, combined with humanitarian aid, I think we can have success. And we want to spread democratization and self-determination throughout the region.

NOVAK: Ms. Woolsey, you are one of 24 House members, I would say just editorially, the most 24 left-wing members of the House of Representatives, called for immediate withdrawal.

But Senator Joe Biden, Senator Carl Levin, Senator Jack Reed, Senator Evan Bayh all said this is a bad idea to have an immediate withdrawal. Why -- doesn't this create chaos if we get out of there?

WOOLSEY: Well, actually, we have four absolute standards that we want to put in place while we're doing this.

We don't want to leave the Iraqis, but we want to make sure that we pull the international world together, so we can have cooperation to help them get where they need to go. And so -- because our goal is to have Iraq for the Iraqis, not for the American people.


DREIER: And that's exactly what we're doing.

NOVAK: Lynn Woolsey, thank you very much.


DREIER: Congratulations again on the big Horn win.

BEGALA: Thank you.

NOVAK: Thank you very much, David Dreier.

BEGALA: That's right, David Dreier, who got me tickets...

DREIER: To the Longhorn...

BEGALA: To the Longhorn victory in the Rose Bowl. I paid for them, but I will endorse you for reelection.


DREIER: Oh, I want to win. Please don't do that.

NOVAK: The Detroit Pistons showed up at the White House today. And next, we'll tell you if things went a little better with the president than they did with the Indiana Pacers a couple of months ago.


NOVAK: President Bush had to look up to his guests in the East Room today, welcoming the NBA champion Detroit Pistons to the White House. The Pistons were on their best behavior, as they were greeted by the president of the United States.

Last November, the Pistons game with the Indian Pacers was disrupted when players from the Pacers got into a brawl with fans in Detroit.

BEGALA: Well, I hope the Pistons stop by my Democrats to teach them how to fight. I'd like to see a few fists flying from the Democrats once in a while.



BEGALA: Toughen them up.

NOVAK: Well, I think that you notice that, since -- they've been playing very badly since then. So good manners means good basketball.


BEGALA: Well, I don't know about that.

They're in town, by the way, to play the Wizards, the Washington Wizards, our Washington Wizards, who are 26-17. And I'll bet the Wizards kick their butts. So, go Wizards.


NOVAK: We hope so.

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.

"WOLF BLITZER REPORTS" starts right now.



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