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President Bush Prepares For State of the Union

Aired February 1, 2005 - 16:31   ET


ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE. On the left, Paul Begala; sitting in on the right, Bay Buchanan.

In the CROSSFIRE: President Bush comes off a triumphant inaugural and a successful election in Iraq and gets ready to deliver the first State of the Union address of his second term. He wants to make big changes to Social Security and win more support for rebuilding Iraq. But a contentious Congress is not lining up behind the president. Will the president be able to make his case to the country or will he fall short of selling his plans?



ANNOUNCER: Live from the George Washington University Paul Begala, and, sitting in on the right, Bay Buchanan.

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

The hype is almost unbearable, with two bitterly opposed teams squaring off in the ultimate televised showdown. The annual ritual that has millions of Americans glued to their TV sets. The Super Bowl? Nah, that's nothing. We're talking the State of the Union address. And today, we will pull back the curtain on President Bush's big show in the CROSSFIRE.

And joining us today on the right, the president of the American Cause, Republican strategist Bay Buchanan.

BAY BUCHANAN, GUEST CO-HOST: Good to be with you.

Presidents don't get second terms unless the American people have confidence in them. So, get ready for the president to make his case on Wednesday.

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

It looks like Howard Dean is closer to becoming the new chairman of the Democratic Party. Opponent Martin Frost, a former congressman, dropped out of the race today, and state party leaders now back Dean, as does the former mayor of Denver, who was also in the race himself. The chance that the screamer in chief will be running the Democrats is too good to believe. Republicans are celebrating just at the thought of it. Why?

Well, Democrats were hurt in the general election because they were perceived as too far to the left. They were the party of Ted Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, Michael Moore and, of course, the great anti-war crusader himself, Howard Dean.

If they want to rebuild their party, they must change their image to a party that stands for the middle America. But that won't be easy to do with the national leader who was nothing less than the darling of the left wing just one year ago.

BEGALA: I think your diagnosis is wrong. I think Democrats have big problems.

But the problem with the Democrats is not that people see them as too liberal, but that they see them as too weak and wimpy, that they don't stand for anything and they don't fight nor anything. And maybe Governor Dean is getting support because he actually stands up and fights for something. And I, for one, would love to have somebody in the Democratic Party stand up and fight.


BEGALA: Well, now they tell us.

"The Los Angeles Times" today reports on a classified CIA report that concludes Iraq had abandoned its chemical weapons programs back in 1991, 12 years before President Bush invaded Iraq to protect us from Iraqi chemical weapons. "The Times" says that future reports are expected from the CIA to revise the Bush administration's claim that Iraq had stockpiles of biological weapons and the claim that it was rebuilding its nuclear program.

In tomorrow's State of the Union address, President Bush ought to own up to this massive fib, this spectacular falsehood, this catastrophic and tragic fabrication. Fat chance. There was plenty of good intelligence before the war that Saddam Hussein had been crippled by the combination of bombings, sanctions and inspections. There was little evidence he posed any threat to America. But instead, now, with more than 1,400 Americans dead, more than $200 billion spent, the Bush administration is doing its impression of Emily Litella. Never mind.


BUCHANAN: Same old, same old.

Paul, you guys need a new, fresh thing, some issue to whine about. This one is an old dog that you have beat to death. Something new is what you need.

But what have -- have you all noticed what I've noticed? Is there a change in the rhetoric in some of our national figures as they position themselves for the White House run in 2008? It is sure happening on the far left, as liberal senator Hillary Rodham Clinton looks for a way to find herself more attractive to the religious voters in middle America.

She recently told a pro-choice crowd that opposing sides on this issue of abortion need to be looking for some common ground. And during a speech praising faith-based programs -- yes, Hillary -- she reminded the group that she's a praying person. One wonders how far her party faithful will allow her to move toward that center before they pull her back. But, then again, they sure gave her husband plenty of roaming room.

And, Hillary, though, is not the only one staking out the middle, in fairness. In his new book, former Congressman Newt Gingrich talks about reestablishing God in the American public life. Now, that's a new one for him. It's amazing how fast thoughts of presidential aspirations have brought newfound religion to these political odd fellows.

BEGALA: Actually, I don't know Congressman Gingrich very well, but I know Hillary real well for a long time. She's a deeply religious person and a faithful person. And I think it's great she brings her faith to the public square.

And the first thing that at least Jesus taught me is, care for the poor. And I wish the Republicans would learn that lesson from Jesus.


BEGALA: Well, at a news briefing yesterday, WTOP Radio's Mark Plotkin asked the White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, why President Bush supports voting rights for Iraqis, but not for Americans who live in Washington, D.C., who have no vote in Congress?


SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: And I think his views have been well known on the District of Columbia. And I think he's stated the reasons why the district was created, and his views are well known.


BEGALA: What? Huh? Could you clarify that, Scott?


MCCLELLAN: His views are well known. And, no, I don't draw the same contrast that you are trying to draw.


QUESTION: What's the difference?

MCCLELLAN: I've stated our reasons on Iraq, and I've stated -- and the president has stated his reasons on the District of Columbia, and there's nothing to add to it.


BEGALA: So the president's views are well known, I guess, Scott, well known for their hypocrisy. D.C. residents are fighting so that Iraqis can have a voice in their government. But President Bush doesn't want those same D.C. residents to have a voice in their own government.

BUCHANAN: Oh, Paul, come on. D.C. citizens have a -- they vote for their own city government. They vote for the president.

In addition to that, you know what they have? They have the ability to go to any state school in this country for in-state tuition. That's better than a congressman, thank you very much.

BEGALA: Well, we will debate that on another show. We should do a whole show on that.

President Bush, though, is said to be practicing his State of the Union address in the family theater at the White House. Republican members of Congress are rumored to be practicing applauding like members of the politburo at a Brezhnev speech.


BEGALA: And what about the Democrats? Will they oppose Mr. Bush's plan to privatize part of Social Security? Will they offer their own exit strategy for Iraq? We've got lots to discuss today in the CROSSFIRE.

And then, there's a hero of the far right who was worried that Bill Clinton is on his way to ruling the world. We will tell you all about that later on CROSSFIRE.



BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

It is Washington's version of the greatest show on Earth, complete with elephants, donkeys and some would say clowns. The State of the Union address is only a little more than 24 hours away.

And here to give us a preview of President Bush's big night, in the CROSSFIRE, Congressman Mark Foley, a Republican from Florida, and former presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich. He is the Democratic congressman from Ohio.

Good to see you both.


BUCHANAN: Congressman Kucinich, obviously, the president had a very good day on Sunday. And Iraqis even had a better day, you might add. Terrorists had a bad day. The president comes into this State of the Union feeling very, very good about his Iraqi policy. He's going to sell it, rally the American people behind it. Doesn't he have every right to be doing just that?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH (D), OHIO: Well, not at all.

I mean, when you look at the elections, they're not verifiable. There can be only one standard for transitional democracies, and it's a universal standard. And that is that there's independent monitors. That's what they had in Afghanistan, in Haiti, in Ukraine, in East Timor. And yet, in the United -- in Iraq, they didn't have independent monitors.

And, finally, if these -- if this election had occurred anywhere else under these conditions outside U.S.-occupied Iraq, the United States would be denouncing it.

BEGALA: Congressman Foley, first, good to see you again.

REP. MARK FOLEY (R), FLORIDA: Thank you very much.

BEGALA: Bay mentioned that the president is feeling pretty good about himself.

And I suppose that's important in the Dr. Phil world. I really don't care. The American people aren't feeling very good about our president. Let me show you where he stands in terms of job approval rating beginning his second term, in fact, at an historic low. No president in modern time has entered a second term this low.

Here's the comparisons. Eisenhower was at 73, Johnson, 71. Nixon, a criminal, was at 59.


BEGALA: Reagan at 62, Clinton at 59. And there's our current President George W. Bush, limping along at a generous appraisal of 50 percent approval.

That's pretty lame, isn't it?

FOLEY: I don't think it's lame. I think he's taken on some tough challenges, and obviously the public is not necessarily endorsing all of his proposals.

Social Security, Medicare, Iraq, these are tough issues. So, I don't think he's ever gotten into this game trying to be the most popular guy in Washington. I think he's trying to do a good job. And there's going to be controversy. But I will tell you, I'm proud of him because he stands behind what he says. And he's been very specific in Iraq.

There may not have been enough monitors there in Iraq for you, but there was enough media there to cover what I believe was a victorious election. I have people in Florida that won't come out to vote when it's raining.


FOLEY: And when they do come out, many people assume they didn't vote correctly. But, in Iraq...

BEGALA: Florida is a special case.



FOLEY: It is a special case.

BEGALA: It needs international observers of its own.

FOLEY: But, in Iraq, you have to say, this was victorious when you see people dancing in the street, risking their lives, having a mark on their fingers, proving they exercised what many of us take for granted.


KUCINICH: Let me say this. Mark -- if I may, to Mark.

BUCHANAN: Dennis, go ahead.

KUCINICH: First of all, I agree with you about the people of Iraq. They're very brave. But I disagree about the legitimacy of the election.

What you say about the president, that he stands by what he says, that's true, but I maintain that what he says is wrong. He was wrong in Iraq. There were no weapons of mass destruction.


KUCINICH: He was wrong, you know, when he said the mission was accomplished.


KUCINICH: He was wrong when he said the Iraq reconstruction would pay for itself. So, this president is wrong on Social Security. He's been wrong on health care. It's surprising that he has 50 percent.


BUCHANAN: Yes, you know, but, Dennis, this is what -- what -- you want to talk about yesterday. Let's talk about today.

We are at war. We're over there now. We had -- you are the first person I've heard that suggests that this was not an enormously successful election. They had media there. They were raving about it. I mean, the national media was not ready to praise the president's Iraqi policy, but everybody, even the French, are saying, my gosh, the terrorists have been set back by this.



BUCHANAN: That's a good thing.

And yet, how -- you weren't there. The Iraqis aren't complaining about the legitimacy of it.

KUCINICH: Listen, listen, first of all, let's talk about the standard for international monitors. You have to have people there to verify whether you have enough ballots, whether people who are registered are voting.

BUCHANAN: They don't verify ours.

KUCINICH: Wait a minute.

BEGALA: That's the problem.

KUCINICH: That was the standard.


BUCHANAN: Even in the U.S., they don't verify. And the Iraqis aren't complaining.

KUCINICH: Do we really want to go there, Bay?


KUCINICH: Or do we really want to go to Florida and ask how many votes Pat Buchanan had?


KUCINICH: But, anyhow -- who I like very much, by the way.

FOLEY: Good comeback.

BUCHANAN: More than you had, Mr. Kucinich.


FOLEY: Good comeback.

KUCINICH: That's right. I should have had a butterfly ballot. I would have done better.


KUCINICH: Anyhow, there were no independent observers.

And that's a big problem, because you have to find -- you're going to find -- I think you'll find very soon reports coming out that there were tens of thousands of Iraqis who really didn't have access to the ballot, that there were insufficient ballots. And so we have to wait and see where this goes.

But I'll tell you, unless you have and subscribe to this universal standard, Bay, we're sweeping away 20 years of verified voting in transitional democracies.


FOLEY: A first election in Iraq, I think, has been hugely successful.

BEGALA: I'm sorry to interrupt.

I want to come back, though, to the speech, rather than debate Iraq policy.


BEGALA: It seems to me, on Iraq, the president's got to walk a very fine line. I've had the privilege to work on an awful lot of these speeches, and tone is everything.

And I want to show you two different sound bites of the president talking about Iraq that are remarkably different in tone. Here's first President Bush I think trying to be a realist about the war.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No question about it. The bombers are having an effect. You know, car bombs that destroy young children or car bombs that indiscriminately bomb in religious sites are effective propaganda tools.


BEGALA: That's a pretty dark, but I think accurate assessment of what's going on.

Now, here's the same man, President Bush, being a cheerleader about the same war.


BUSH: The Iraqi people are making steady progress toward a free society in a partnership with the United States of America and many other nations. And we will not let thugs and killers stand in the way of democracy in Iraq.


BEGALA: That befits the former Andover cheerleader that he is.

Do you think the president tomorrow night, though, will be a cheerleader or a real leader on Iraq?

FOLEY: I think he will be a real leader.

BEGALA: Will he tell us the truth, that this is a debacle and a quagmire and we're stuck?

FOLEY: He doesn't gloat about the loss of lives. He hasn't belittled the crisis. He was talking to his troops.

BEGALA: He was talking to the cameras. Please. Troops were props for him. He was talking to the cameras.

FOLEY: But they're people who are risking their lives for us.

And I think what he was trying to do was give them credit for the hard work. The bellyaching from the other side of the aisle, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry continually asserting that this is a failure, demeans the sacrifices these young people have made. And I would suggest to you I think the president grieves over the loss of lives. I don't think he thinks this is at all funny.

And I think he's coming to the Capitol tomorrow night prepared to lay out not only the success we've achieved, but what we're going to do to disengage ultimately from that theater. It's not going to happen overnight. We're still in Bosnia. We're still in Korea. We're still in...


BEGALA: We're not getting shot at in any of those places.

FOLEY: We're still in Germany.

BEGALA: We're not losing any troops in any of those places.

BUCHANAN: We've got to take a break. When we get back, we'll continue this discussion.

Next, we know everything the Democratic Party is against. But we'll try to find out something they're actually for.

And, right after the break, Wolf Blitzer will have a remarkable new video of people reacting to the earthquake and the oncoming tsunami in South Asia.


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

Coming up at the top of the hour, is the U.S. government doing enough to help the families of U.S. troops? We'll ask Senator Chuck Hagel why he's pushing for an increase in military death benefits.

More than a month after the tsunami struck, the death count is still growing. We have dramatic new pictures.

And the first lady, Laura Bush, offers a preview of her husband's State of the Union address tomorrow night. All those stories, plus, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, he's just spoken to our Jamie McIntyre at the Pentagon.

All those stories only minutes away on "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS." Now back to CROSSFIRE.

BUCHANAN: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

The president has some ambitious goals for his second term. Let's continue our look at what's coming up in tomorrow's State of the Union address.

Joining us is Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, as well as Florida Republican Congressman Mark Foley.

BEGALA: Congressman Foley, CNN's John King, talking to some White House aides, say, no surprise, Social Security will be a centerpiece of the president's speech tomorrow night. I'm going to put you on the spot as a member of Congress. Do you pledge now to your constituents to oppose any effort by George W. Bush to reduce Social Security benefits today or in the future?


BEGALA: You want to cut benefits?

FOLEY: We have to look at everything. Everything must be on the table. We will not save Social Security if we tinker around the edges.

Now, it may involve cutting benefits for people 20 years old today when they retire at 72, maybe not 68 or 67. It may include raising the cap from 90 to some other number. But I don't like this game...

BEGALA: That would be a tax increase.


FOLEY: I don't like this game in Washington just saying, I'm not going to talk about that. I'm not going to do this.

BUCHANAN: Exactly.

Dennis, we know you are against and Democrats are against the presidents's proposal on Social Security. But what are you guys for?

KUCINICH: Well, first of all, I'm guessing that the president won't be dishing up yellow cake at the State of the Union this time.

But if he dishes up the -- a plan to privatize Social Security, he's going in the wrong direction, for this reason. Social Security doesn't have a crisis. The crisis is a political one, not an economic one. Social Security, according to Social Security Administration actuaries, is rock solid through the year 2042.

BUCHANAN: So let's punt and let someone else worry about this? KUCINICH: According to the Congressional Budget Office, rock solid through 2052 without any changes whatsoever. It can pay 100 percent of benefits. This idea about Social Security


BUCHANAN: So you have no plan, no plan? Do nothing?

KUCINICH: Wait a minute. My plan is to make sure that it isn't privatized.

You know what this is like? This is just like WMDs. They said there were WMDs. The sky is falling. They're doing it again. They're trying to take away the American people, the one program that has never failed the American people, never missed a payment. I'm saying that we're going to save Social Security by stopping the Bush administration's plan to privatize.


FOLEY: But this is the verbiage they used when we were talking about tax cuts. You guys, save Social Security first. If it's not in crisis, why do you use the word save?

KUCINICH: Mark, $1 trillion in tax cuts that went mostly to the wealthy. Maybe that helps some of your constituents, but I can tell you, most Americans did not benefit from those tax cuts.

Now we have a $447 billion deficit, and they want to take more money out of Social Security to finance that deficit? I don't think so.



BEGALA: One last quick issue. The first lady will have in her box, we're reporting, voters from Afghanistan and Iraq who have cast free ballots. Don't you think Republicans should support people in D.C. having a free ballot and having a member of Congress, too, if it's good enough for Iraq and Afghanistan?

FOLEY: No problem with it.

BEGALA: God bless you. Voting rights for D.C. from a Republican.

Mark Foley, Congressman from Florida, thank you.


BUCHANAN: As long as it never gets through right, Mark?


(CROSSTALK) FOLEY: I pay taxes here, too.

BEGALA: Thank you very much.


BEGALA: Well, one of the things I love about my old boss Bill Clinton is that he still has the ability to drive right-wingers stark- raving mad.


BEGALA: We'll tell you about one conservative icon's latest charge against the former president when CROSSFIRE continues.


BEGALA: The United Nations is naming former President Bill Clinton as a special envoy for tsunami relief. And that is probably giving former Senator Jesse Helms fits today.

Helms has sent out a fund-raising letter for his senatorial library in which he claims President Clinton might replace Kofi Annan as secretary-general of the United Nations. Senator Helms writes that one Clinton in power is enough -- quote -- "With Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton already serving the interests of the socialist- dominated U.N., conservatives like you and I cannot afford to sit back and allow Bill Clinton the chance to corrupt the rest of the world" -- unquote.


BEGALA: Well, not to be a stickler for grammar, Senator, but it's conservatives like you and me, not I. It's me.

Other than that, perfectly good letter. I thought it was fine, Bay.



BUCHANAN: Listen, Bill Clinton was the Republicans' best fund raiser, conservatives' best fund raiser. We miss him. So we're trying to bring him back in any way we can.

BEGALA: Well, I'm going to the Helms Library opening, because most libraries collect books. At Jesse's library, they will burn them.



BEGALA: From the left, I am Paul Begala. That's it for CROSSFIRE. BUCHANAN: From the right, I'm Bay Buchanan. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

"WOLF BLITZER REPORTS" starts right now.



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