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President Bush visits old Europe; Religious Shi'ite party poised to name Ibrahim Jaafari Iraqi prime minister; Some Republicans express reservations about Bush proposal to privatize Social Security

Aired February 26, 2005 - 19:00   ET


AL HUNT, HOST: Welcome to THE CAPITAL GANG. I'm Al Hunt, Mark Shields, Robert Novak and Margaret Carlson. Our guest, Republican senator John Sununu from New Hampshire. Thanks for coming back, John.


HUNT: It's good to have you.

President Bush, on his trip to Europe this week, met with Russian president Vladimir Putin and raised the question of democracy in Russia.


GEORGE WALKER BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think it's very important that -- that all nations understand the great values inherent in democracy.

He said yes meant yes, when we talked about values that we share.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Russia has made its choice in favor of democracy 14 years ago. Independently, without any pressure from outside, it made that decision.


HUNT: President Bush also described his relationship with President Putin in general.


BUSH: Vladimir said, When I agree with you, I will agree with -- I'll tell you, and when I disagree with you, I'll tell you. Then there was -- we have a very frank and candid and open relationship.


HUNT: Bush said he, Putin and the Western European leaders agreed on keeping nuclear weapons out of Iran.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BUSH: This notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is simply ridiculous! Having said that, all options are on the table.


HUNT: Margaret, was President Bush firm enough in pressing democratic values on the Russian president?

MARGARET CARLSON, CAPITAL GANG: Well, the good thing is that he pressed him at all, in that Bush has been very soft on Putin and very reluctant to criticize him, despite all of Putin's anti-democratic moves. But Putin is like "old Europe." He's just not taking lectures from Bush on anything. And it wasn't that it was "candid and frank," which is diplo-speak for, you know, in your face. I mean, Putin just said, you know, he's not taking anything from Bush on -- on those matters.

On the "no options are off the table" -- well, what table is Bush sitting at, the kids' table? He certainly isn't going to have anyone with him if he's considering invading Iran. And by the way, we don't have a military now capable of doing that.

HUNT: Bob, was it just sort of a meaningless Kabuki dance, or did it actually matter?


HUNT: Yes.

NOVAK: I don't think it mattered much. I'm not too much into this notion that the president of the United States can dictate the kind of governments that we should have in other countries. We certainly don't do it very much in Egypt, our friends in Egypt. We don't do it very much in Saudi Arabia. We don't even do it much in Israel. And the idea that this vast Russian -- Russia, which has nuclear weapons, and we're going to tell them exactly what kind of government they're going to have -- we don't -- I mean, this is a KGB guy. He's not a small-D democrat. But what do you -- how are you going to dictate to him? And he says, We had -- we decided we'd have democracy 14 years ago. Well, that's democracy Russian style, and that's about as good as you're going to do.

HUNT: Is there a disconnect, though, John, between that realpolitik that Bob talks about and the president's inaugural address five weeks ago?

SUNUNU: I don't think there's a disconnect, I think there's a discussion that's going on at different levels. The president was pretty direct in his -- in his keynote in Brussels. I think he laid it out. He talked about Egypt. He talked about Saudi Arabia, in particular, talked about the rollbacks of democracy in Russia. It was a lot more diplomatic when they appeared together, as you saw.

The real question is, What did they say in private, and how firm was he able to be in private? There are a few things that the Russians really do want: WTO, continued participation in some of the G-8 summits. So there are a few things on the table that I think can bring them in the right direction. But they have a lot of work to do -- freedom of the press, what Putin has done to take away the power of the governing districts in Russia, and of course, the confiscation of Yukos. Those are big problems.

HUNT: Yes, I think John's absolutely right, the record is pretty miserable, isn't it, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS, CAPITAL GANG: Well, the record -- but I think Brother Novak makes a very good point. I mean, I think the arrows in the president's quiver on changing the government of Russia are pretty -- pretty short, pretty limited, pretty finite, Al. I think the president was quite magnanimous on this trip. He -- he let the European leaders -- Chirac and Schroeder and Putin all apologized for having been right about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.


SHIELDS: But I thought -- I thought the most interesting thing was the whole question of Iran. And the -- you know, it's only a matter of three weeks ago that we had the vice president of the United States talking openly about, We would be powerless to in any way inhibit or restrict an Israeli attack upon the nuclear capability of Iran. And now we have the president apparently, at least for the time being, buying into the European approach on incentives and carrots and negotiation.

HUNT: Well, Bob, you know, you hear that some of the -- some people in Cheney's office and the Pentagon want to take a tougher stance on Iran. We don't have any tougher option, really, in Iran, do we?

NOVAK: I don't believe so. It's very difficult. They did war gamings when Colin Powell was chairman of the JCS on the possibility of a military attack against Iran. It's just not a feasible operation.

No, I think the whole -- I don't think there's any change in our policy toward Europe. I don't like the president calling these people by their first name -- Jacques. I mean, Winston Churchill didn't say Joe when he met with Stalin, did he? I don't believe so.


NOVAK: I don't believe so. But I do believe that it doesn't cost you to be polite and not to say, Oh, that's the old Europe. So I think he was just polite, but I don't think the policy's changed.

HUNT: Do you agree with Mr. Novak?

SUNUNU: Well, I don't know that there's a lot you can do in Iran, although the Europeans are obviously determined to move forward with negotiations. I think there are some trade and political concessions that the Europeans could make, and if that can open up Iran to verification of the nuclear program, that would be a step in the right direction. But the verification -- the quality of the verification and getting the Europeans themselves involved in that verification process would be the key to success.

Second thing we can do is to continue to move forward with a more open, democratic process in Iraq and some of the neighboring countries around Iran, and I think that does have a subtle influence on the politics there.

HUNT: Can we trust the Russians to help us out?

CARLSON: Well, I was going to say, you know, Bush just can't manage being polite to "old Europe." When a reporter asked the question, Are you going to invite Jacques Chirac to the ranch, the only answer to give to that is, Sure, and then never do it. And he was -- he said no.

HUNT: They could have "freedom fries."

SHIELDS: The other thing was -- the real point of disagreement was a question of selling technology to the Chinese, and the Europeans were intransigent. They're not going to change on this. And you know, the United States is alone. And I don't -- I don't -- I think there are no options


HUNT: ... and desperately needs China's help on North Korea, which...

SHIELDS: Totally!


NOVAK: I don't think they much care anymore if they sell technology to China. I think they're going through the motions on that.

HUNT: Going through the motions? OK. Bob, that's the last word.

When we come back, Iraq takes another step towards self-rule.


HUNT: Welcome back. The Shi'ite United Iraqi Alliance endorsed Ibrahim Jaafari as its candidate for prime minister. Veteran exile leader Ahmad Chalabi dropped out of the running.


AHMAD CHALABI, IRAQI NATIONAL CONGRESS: ... decided that unity is more important than winning, and we proceeded in this direction, and I think it's a great result for Iraq and for the allies.

IBRAHIM AL JAAFARI, IRAQI PRIME MINISTER CANDIDATE (through translator): What is left is the Sunni position and the Kurdish position. If they take the positions of presidency and (ph) parliament, we will be very happy. And we are now in the process of making this happen. We would be very happy if our Sunni brothers would take one of the leading positions in the government.


HUNT: Bob, the Jaafari suggest Iranian domination of the new government in Iraq?

NOVAK: No, the Iranians would like to -- (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that the Shi'ite Alliance, if they have control of it, they don't. This Jaafari has spent 20 years in exile from the Saddam Hussein tyranny. He's...

HUNT: Wasn't it in Iran most of the time?

NOVAK: Not -- yes, I think he was in the West a lot of the time. He was -- he was a -- he believes in democracy. But the interesting thing is, the way they got this set up, they don't have a majority. So they -- he is not even sure to be prime minister, and there's a -- the Kurds and the -- and the secular Shi'ites and a few Sunnis they have, have a -- have a leverage on him. This is a very interesting amount of inside politics going on. And the people who -- the people who always want to think the worst of anything that's going to happen there since the military attack are saying this is going to be an Iranian dependency, and I don't think that's the truth.

HUNT: Boy, I'm glad you're here to reject that negativism. John Sununu...

SUNUNU: Well, Jaafari will be prime minister, but he needs to put together a coalition. He will be prime minister because the Shi'ites control a full majority of the votes. But you need two thirds, and that means we're going to see a period of coalition politics. I think Talibani, the Kurdish leader, will be the president, and they'll find opportunities for both the more secular Shi'ite party, Prime Minister Allawi, and a number of Sunnis in the cabinet. So it will be interesting to see how that coalition forms itself and where there are Sunni and secular Shi'ites are placed in the cabinet.

This has to be a consensus process, one, because you need the two thirds that Bob mentioned to get a government formed, but also, you're going to need 16 of the 18 provinces to approve a constitution. And that's why I think a lot of the worries about a straight theocracy are a little bit overblown because it has to be a constitution that reflects -- or respects minorities, and it has to be one that reflects and respects different religions, as well.

HUNT: Margaret?

CARLSON: How about a semi-theocracy? You know, what we are sure of is that the United States candidate, Chalabi, is completely out of it now, unless he makes some kind of maneuver no one can imagine. And Allawi is not going to have the kind of power we would like. Listen, the -- Iraq and Iran are now going to be better friends than they've ever been because these are the two countries with Shia majorities. And the Iran and Iraq war was with a Sunni Iraq. I think there is an alliance. We don't know how it's going to play out. But we've spent all this treasure of money and men and women to create what we'd spent all that treasure and money not to have, all the way through Bush I's administration...

SUNUNU: Well, that's not...

CARLSON: ... and Clinton's administration.

SUNUNU: The goal wasn't to remove Saddam Hussein and to ever prevent a Shi'ite majority from having an influence in the formation of the government. If it's a Shia majority...

CARLSON: A secular -- a secular Shi'ite...


CARLSON: ... not a clerical Shi'ite, not a pro...

SUNUNU: It needs to be a representational government, which so far it is, to the great consternation of many who said we should delay the elections. It has to be a representational constitution, and because of the way that it's designed -- you require a majority vote in 16 of the 18 provinces -- it will be a constitution that reflects and respects those other minorities.

HUNT: Well, let me bring Mark Shields in here. Amid all of this maneuvering, Mark, it also was a bloody, violent week.

SHIELDS: It was a terribly violent week, and the violence has not abated, it continues. It's Iraqi upon Iraqi. It's Americans, as well. Just to set the record absolutely straight, the reason the elections were held when they were held was because of Ayatollah Sistani, who insisted that we have the early elections, when many were counseling that we delay on them.

Let's be very blunt about this. I think it is remarkable -- for someone who opposed the war and continues to oppose the U.S. occupation, it's a remarkable development when you're going to have a transfer of power in that region without political exile, without imprisonment of the loser and without execution. I mean, that -- that in itself is -- is remarkable.

But at the same time, don't forget he's the leader of one of the two major Shi'ite parties, and up until recently, their -- their creed -- their dogma held that Islam should be the basis of all public law and all civil law. And so it is -- it is going to be a difficult period...


NOVAK: ... have to work out. It's their country, Mark.

HUNT: Yes, there's going to be a lot to work out.

And for us next on CAPITAL GANG, Republican rebellion on Social Security.


HUNT: Welcome back. Members of Congress campaigned for and against President Bush's Social Security's plan during the President's Day recess, with opposition from some conservative Republicans, including Congressman Virgil Goode of Virginia, who said, quote, I am negatively inclined toward the private personal accounts paid for out of Social Security employer and employee taxes, end quote.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid seized on the Republican opposition to predict defeat of the Bush proposal, saying, quote, "Now that it's clear that the Republican privatization plan actually makes matters worse, it's no wonder that so many Republican politicians are running away from it as fast as they can," end quote.

Republican congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, campaigning for the plan, said, quote, "I think the feeling in the Republican conference is to either hit the brakes and stop now or hit the gas pedal and get it done. I'm obviously a gas-pedal guy," end quote.

Mark, do Republican reservations doom the Bush plan?

SHIELDS: I think "doom" is too early in the ballgame to say that, Al. But certainly, the early returns are not encouraging for the White House. First of all, they haven't got a single Democrat to identify -- they understand -- they've stated publicly, they believe privately, it has to be -- a change of this enormity has to be bipartisan. Too many Democrats got burned the first time around -- the Mary Landrieus, the Max Clelands, who supported the president on the tax cut of 2001 and then had the full artillery of the Republican machinery go against them in 2002, that supporting the president, being his ally, didn't pay off.

But I think there's another factor here, Al, that is starting to emerge, and somebody like Virgil Goode's district and places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other -- and that is that for an awful lot of people, for one half of the people on Social Security, Social Security is the one check that keeps them out of poverty. In John Sununu's own state of New Hampshire, I think the people over 65 have the lowest percentage of people in poverty -- live in the poverty -- of any state in the union, 4.6 percent. You take out Social Security, and it's 43.6 percent would be in poverty. And that -- the divide, Al, is between the haves, who say, Oh, let's have these private accounts, it's wonderful, and people who are striving to get by, barely making it, and they look at Social Security as terribly important. And the idea of cutting those benefits is terrifying to them.

HUNT: John, you are central to this debate, and you are a prime advocate of the personal or private accounts. Do you agree with Mark, though, that things are going against you?

SUNUNU: Well, no, the suggestion Mark makes is that you're not going to have a guaranteed minimum benefit for retirees, you're not going to have some sort of a guaranteed benefit for those that may have no other source of income, and that's just not the case. Of course you're going to have a guaranteed minimum benefit. The real question is, Can we make a system that works better, given the fact that we've gone from 16 workers supporting each retiree to just 3 workers supporting a retiree today, and it's headed to 2. And those demographics aren't going to change.

And that's why you want to have an option for younger workers to be able to set aside some money in an account that'll be there for them when they retire, earn a higher rate of return, and when they put it in that account, the government can't spend it. And I think that's really why a lot of liberals don't like the idea, is because it gives the individual the power and the control, and it takes that power, money, control out of Washington. But you're still going to have a guaranteed benefit. You're not going to change the system in any way, shape or form for people who are 55 or older.

And it's going to be an option, a choice. It's a better system. Of course, it is more sustainable in the long run because of the demographics. But it's better because it empowers the individual and creates more economic opportunity.

HUNT: Margaret, you, of course, represent the under-55 generation.


HUNT: So tell us your take on it.

CARLSON: No, it -- I mean, Republicans could have the Al Gore lockbox and not spend that money now, if you had a little discipline about it. Listen, every new fact that comes out about this, people are less supportive of Bush's claim that there's a crisis that's going to be solved by personal accounts. Personal accounts are going to turn the whole economy into a crisis, not just Social Security with a problem down the road.

Rick Santorum, out this week, ran into a public at his forums, which is not the, you know, Bush in a bubble, where you have to sign a blood oath before you can get into the hall -- he had real people in there, and he was left to say, Hey, I see a lot of old hands up there. Let's have some young hands, because Republicans have not been able to scare young people into thinking that this is a such a great idea, and old people don't want it. And I'm not just talking about the ones over 55, who are protected, but no one -- there's no groundswell for this.

HUNT: Well, Bob -- Bob, I'm not going to personalize this, but do old people not want it?

NOVAK: I want it. But the idea -- it's irrelevant what the old people want. They're not going to change. You know, Margaret, you're -- you're a little behind the curve, not -- not for the first time, but the Democratic line that this isn't a problem -- Howard Dean gave a speech at Cornell on Thursday of this week in which he said that 80 percent of the -- over the years, 80 percent of the Social Security benefits will lost. There is a problem. So Howard sometimes tells the truth. He doesn't -- doesn't get the exact line.

I don't care what these -- these Republicans in the House say right now, they're going to -- they're going to line up with the president. I'll bet you Virgil Goode lines up, and I will be you that there's going to be some Democrats in the Senate...


CARLSON: I didn't say problem, I said crisis, Bob.

HUNT: I'm going to give John Sununu the last word here. And tell us. You're right in the middle of it. Is Social Security going to pass this Congress? And will it pass with significant bipartisan support?

SUNUNU: Well, it has to get bipartisan support to pass the Senate. I think the place to look is the Senate Finance Committee. The president has left room for the Finance Committee, Chairman Chuck Grassley, Senator Max Baucus, to work together to try to find some compromise. There are three or four senators, Democrat senators, on that committee that have been very thoughtful about this, kept their powder dry -- Kent Conrad, Senator Baucus I mentioned, Senator Ron Wyden, Blanche Lincoln. If they can form a consensus, you'll see a bill pass that committee and get to the Senate floor.

If not, we'll keep pushing this issue because the politics are voters under the age of 30 or 35 are for this 2-to-1, and that's the only demographic left that still votes Democrat in this country.

HUNT: OK. John has given us the key. Those four senator, we'll watch them in the weeks and months ahead. John, thanks for being with us.

SUNUNU: Thanks very much.

HUNT: As always, you're a great guest.

SUNUNU: A pleasure.

HUNT: Coming up next in the second half of CAPITAL GANG: our "Sidebar" story of the week, secret Bush tapes revealed. We'll go "Beyond the Beltway" as Governor Mitt Romney moves right. And our "Outrages of the Week" all after the break.


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening. I'm Carol Lin. More of CAPITAL GANG in just a moment. But, first, a look at what's happening right now in the news.

Police in Wichita, Kansas, have announced an arrest of the notorious BTK serial killer case. They plan to file ten counts against 59-year-old Dennis Rader for homicides dating back to 1974. He was arrested yesterday. Now, BTK stands for "Bind, torture and kill," something police say the BTK killer did to most of his victims.

Hundreds of volunteers are helping Florida police search for a nine-year-old girl who's been missing for three days. Jessica Marie Lunsford disappeared from her house in Homosassa sometime after going to bed Wednesday night. Atlanta Braves pitcher Mike Hampton, who's from Homosassa, is offering a $25,000 reward for information on Lunsford's whereabouts.

And California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger says he does not regret using steroids when he was a champion bodybuilder years ago. Schwarzenegger tells ABC News steroids were legal at the time he took them. And he did so under a doctor's supervision.

That's what's happening right now in the news. I'm Carol Lin. Back to the CAPITAL GANG.

HUNT: Welcome to the second half of CAPITAL GANG.

Douglas Wead, who has been the emissary of Christian conservatives to both President Bush and his father, revealed he secretly recorded nine hours of conversations with George W. Bush. In one tape, George W. Bush told why he'll never respond to questions about past drug use.

Quote, "Well, Doug, but it's not -- it doesn't matter" -- cocaine -- "it would be the same with marijuana. I wouldn't answer the marijuana question. You know why? Because I don't want some little kid doing what I tried," end quote.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan characterized the recordings as, quote, "casual conversations that then-Governor Bush was having with someone he thought was a friend," end quote. Wead denied he was revealing the tapes to sell his book.


DOUGLAS WEAD, FORMER BUSH ADVISER: My publicist said I lost a million dollars by delaying the book after the election.


HUNT: Twenty four hours later, Wead backed down.


WEAD: My initial hope was to record something that would have historical value, but this has become too much. I think I should get the tapes back to him. He was the other person on the line, and they can do whatever they want with them. History can wait.


HUNT: Mark, had these tapes come out before the 2000 election, would they have made any difference?

SHIELDS: It's entirely possible, Al, because the president's position then, of course, was, "When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible," whenever he was asked about drug use. And this obviously suggests the use of marijuana or admits the use of marijuana.

There are a couple of things in there I found most fascinating. First of all was the president's obvious resistance, reluctance, opposition to gay bashing, that he had fought this. And so he obviously was talked into it in 2004 that this was going to be important in the campaign so he backed a constitutional amendment.

Doug Wead has promised to turn over all the tapes. We can be sure of one thing if he does do that, and that is they will never become part of the library of the George W. Bush Presidential Library. And nobody will ever hear them again. So I'm reluctant to have him turn them all over.

HUNT: Hey, Bob, I've heard two different theories from Republicans, two conflicting theories. One is that actually it makes Bush look pretty good and they probably weren't that unhappy that it was put out. The other was this is just a self-promoter trying to sell a book.

NOVAK: I think I take the latter part, that it backfired. I do believe this was -- as I remember, 2000 was a very close presidential election, so it might have defeated him. Who is to say not, that if he looks he's smoking marijuana and...

HUNT: The drunk driving thing hurt him at the end.

NOVAK: It hurt him a lot.

I think this is a pretty good lesson for politicians in this town. In the first place, you never know who you're talking to, whether they're going to turn on you, so be very careful whatever you say. This is a very vicious place. And your best friend may turn out to be somebody who turns out to be your worst enemy. And maybe he was just a naive governor of Texas and not a savvy president of the United States at that time.

HUNT: Margaret, I promise I'll never reveal the Carlson-Novak tapes.


CARLSON: Yes, I know, we wanted to assure Bob that I'm not going to tape any longer. And I won't give away anything I already have.

You know, as I was reading this, I was picturing, you know, George Bush smoking marijuana and then listening to recordings of John Ashcroft singing, "Let the Eagle Soar."


But you're so right about the gay thing, because, you know, I think Bush actually -- he's able to convey that he's a good guy and he isn't a gay basher. And then he goes and does it. And you know he's kind of being pushed. And you sort of forgive him in a way because you know that's not who he really is. So he gets it both ways.

NOVAK: I don't think he's a gay basher.

CARLSON: I think he gets it both ways.

NOVAK: I don't think he bashes gays. I don't think being against same-sex marriage is bashing gays.

HUNT: To write it in the Constitution, though, is a little bit...


NOVAK: If you want to be a great supporter of the homosexuals, as you are, Al, it's one thing. But just to say because you don't think they should marry that you're a gay basher, I don't think that's...


CARLSON: And during his last campaign, he said he wouldn't hire any openly gay people.

HUNT: To set the record straight, I just don't think you should put sex in the Constitution. That's what I'm troubled with.

Do you want to put sex in the Constitution?

NOVAK: Well, I don't care one way or the other.

HUNT: Well, OK.

SHIELDS: Al -- oh, go ahead. I'm sorry.

CARLSON: I was just going to say -- but it was almost as if -- you know, Doug Wead is an evangelical Christian and that it was like a priest-penitent kind of thing...

NOVAK: He's a weird priest.

CARLSON: Very strange. And it just seems to me that it's so wrong for him to have done it.

SHIELDS: Hey, George Bush gave him a lot of time. Let's get that straight.

CARLSON: Nine hours.

SHIELDS: The other thing is, do you think he still feels that way about John Ashcroft? I mean, "this man is Supreme Court," "he's presidential"...

CARLSON: Oh, I hope not.

SHIELDS: ... "he's the best," and "John McCain won't wear well"... NOVAK: How fast did he get rid of him?

SHIELDS: Yes, he was all over John McCain like a cheap suit last...

HUNT: Just quick, Mark, do you think Bush looks good or bad in those tapes?

SHIELDS: I think it's a mixed bag, Al. The one thing that he said that distressed me was when he says to Wead, "That's part of my shtick, to say that we all make mistakes." That was obviously the pre-40-year-old Bush, because since he's been president we know he hasn't made any mistakes. He wouldn't admit to any during the whole campaign.

NOVAK: Well, I think it's very difficult though, when you're not -- I hate to see all the things you've said when you didn't think anybody was taping it. Now suddenly it's put on the public record, not that you're running for anything.

HUNT: Thank goodness that Bob Novak can stand that scrutiny.

Coming up next, the CAPITAL GANG shtick, it's "Classic": Bush gets a sense of Putin's soul.

ANNOUNCER: Here's your CAPITAL GANG trivia question of the week: Which president secretly taped some of their conversations, A) Richard Nixon, B) Lyndon Johnson, or C) John F. Kennedy? We'll have the answer right after the break.


ANNOUNCER: Before the break we asked, "Which president secretly taped some of their conversations?" The answer is all three, Nixon, Johnson and Kennedy.

HUNT: Welcome back.

President Bush said this after his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul. He's a man deeply committed to his country and his best interests of his country.


HUNT: CAPITAL GANG discussed it on June 23, 2001. Our guest was Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) HUNT: I think what Bush said was just silly. Putin was equally silly when he said that the one thing -- the question about George Bush that this is a man who studied history. I don't think we can be happy that this ex-KGB apparatchik is a man who our president calls "trustworthy."

O'BEIRNE: It was a little wince-inducing, but I certainly understand the impulse for him to have such an openly friendly meeting with Putin. He was very firm on missile defense. So I can see why he wanted the atmospherics of a meeting with Putin to be so friendly because he didn't give an inch on policy.

NOVAK: They were saying this is an important country and we have a lot less problems with them than we have with China. And we're going to make an arrangement. And President Bush went a little bit overboard.

U.S. SENATOR CHRISTOPHER DODD (D), CONNECTICUT: Here we are going after the Europeans on Kyoto, on missile defense, disagreeing with them. And then we go with Mr. Putin and all of a sudden we have words that go -- they're a little excessive.


HUNT: Bob, did President Bush's remarks about Vladimir Putin back then turn out to be as inadvisable as your CAPITAL GANG suggested?

NOVAK: I don't think they had any impact at all. I think they were overboard and a little bit silly. I've got to believe that, four years into the presidency, he wouldn't quite phrase it that way about this KGB guy's soul. But I really don't think it had any adverse consequences.

HUNT: Soul looks a bit blacker today, doesn't it, Margaret?

CARLSON: Yes. I think when he first looked into his soul, Bush saw himself. And we see in Putin this week a kind of stubborn guy who's not all that friendly when you disagree with him or when you have -- when you are trying to tell him what to do about his country.

HUNT: Cold guy, isn't he, Mark?


HUNT: Talking about Putin, not...

SHIELDS: Hey, listen, Putin did not rise to the position he did by being Dale Carnegie, for goodness sake's. This is a tough guy. But all I can think of watching that, that great classic, was there's like an "Ebert and Roeper" review, "Bush silly, says Hunt of Bloomberg," and -- what did Novak say...

NOVAK: Overboard.

SHIELDS: ... "Overboard, says Novak." Those were pretty good reviews. And they stand the test of time.

HUNT: Oh, boy, that's a rarity for us.

Next on CAPITAL GANG we'll go beyond the beltway. Is there a new Mitt...


HUNT: Welcome back.

Republican Governor Mitt Romney in Massachusetts redefined his position on abortion in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Quote, "I do not personally favor abortion. I am, if you will, personally pro-life," end quote.

He also strengthened his stand to restrict embryonic stem-cell research.


GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R), MASSACHUSETTS: Creating new life for purposes of experimentation and for research is something I think Americans recoil at and recognize that's a new boundary we're just not willing to cross, don't create new life to help cure our issues.


HUNT: He also declared, quote, "Number one, I oppose gay marriage. Number two, I oppose civil unions. I've said that time and time again," end quote.

Joining us now from Boston is Tom Keane, columnist with the Boston Herald.

Thanks for being here, Tom.


HUNT: Tom, are the governor's remarks interpreted in Boston as a turn to the right to help his presidential aspirations and thus a sign that he won't run for reelection for governor next year?

KEANE: Well, they're certainly the first. I think everybody interprets these remarks as an effort by the governor to establish himself on the national plane.

Now what we're seeing from him is a rhetorical shift, I think, not a substantive shift. Everyone knows that these have been mixed positions. He's always been sort of a lukewarm pro-life guy. He's always been anti-gay marriage and anti-civil unions. But, when he ran a few years ago for governor, those weren't the issues that motivated his campaign. Today, I think we are seeing a new Mitt.

And as a consequence I think the second part of your question is very possible. I think people now are re-looking at Mitt's pledge to say that he was going to run for reelection and wondering whether that really is as iron-clad as they thought it was.

Recently, he was interviewed by one other columnist in the Boston paper. And he wouldn't give an iron-cinched pledge that he's definitely going to be running for governor. Given where he is rhetorically right now with an emphasis, a very conservative emphasis on social issues like these which do not play well in Massachusetts, I think there's a good possibility he won't be running for reelection. He's going to be completely out there looking to run for president.

HUNT: Bob?

NOVAK: Tom, the issue that has created a lot of attention in the social conservative community is how strong he's come out against cloning and against the stem-cell research legislation, saying clearly that he is going to veto the bill that would permit this so-called therapeutic cloning. Would you think however that he would be overridden in the Massachusetts legislature on something like that? Aren't there still some socially conservative Democrats in the legislature who would support him on something like that?

KEANE: There are some socially conservative Democrats, more of them in the House than in the Senate. I think the Senate clearly would override him. I think ultimately the House would as well, in part because the former speaker of the House, Tom Finneran, who is one of those more conservative Democrats, now heads up the biotechnology council in Massachusetts and will probably be lobbying to override any veto by the governor.

HUNT: Margaret?

CARLSON: Tom, the head of one of the pro-life groups said, you know, when we've heard this before, when you hear a politician say, "I'm personally pro-life," you know that they're squishy. How do you think...

KEANE: It sounds like a Mario Cuomo position.

CARLSON: Right, exactly.

HUNT: And John Kerry.

CARLSON: And Romney's going to go to Notre Dame...

KEANE: Or John Kerry.

CARLSON: ... or Brigham Young University and explain it. How is this going to play in a presidential election?

KEANE: I don't know. Because Mitt really has been a squishy kind of pro-life guy. When he ran for governor, he made it clear that he was pro-life but he also said that he was not going to fight to change the laws in Massachusetts, which means that he really didn't want to change any of the parental notification laws or anything like that that are out there that plainly pro-life people would have loved to see him battle to change. I don't think he can go out on the national level now and start to contradict himself. And I think potentially it's an area of weakness for him. He's going to sound like, you know, he is like John Kerry or Mario Cuomo, personally pro-life, but it doesn't really mean that he's going to try to change the Constitution or overturn Roe v. Wade.

HUNT: Mark Shields?

SHIELDS: Tom, every governor who runs for president, even the ones who are successful, whether it's Bill Clinton, there's always something in their home state that the national press corps eventually finds out. Clinton was very soft, very bad on the environment, for example. Michael Dukakis had Boston Harbor when he ran in '88. What is, would you say, based upon Mitt Romney's four years in office, what turns out to be his political Achilles' heel when he tries to go national?

KEANE: I think there's a couple of them. One is that he's never been very attentive as governor. He never really liked the job. And it's going to raise questions about his ability to like any job that he's in.

I think from the policy point of view, he brags a lot that he was able to solve Massachusetts' budget deficit without raising taxes, but that's technically not true. He raised a lot of corporate taxes, closed a lot of loopholes, raised fees. Many people would think of those as taxes. True, the state income tax didn't go up. But a lot of other payments that people make did go up.

HUNT: Tom, we have less a minute. Let me ask you this.

Mitt Romney is a Mormon. That has apparently been a non-issue in heavily Catholic Massachusetts. Do you think that would be a non- issue if he runs for president?

KEANE: I don't know. It was slightly an issue when he ran for governor in Massachusetts, but it was quickly stomped on because of the perception that it was religious bigotry. And everyone hearkened back to the days of John Kennedy when you had the anti-Catholic bigotry.

Whether that plays on a national level, I don't know, though. I mean, obviously, there are going to be some states where being a Mormon will be terrific, such as Utah. I can certainly imagine though that there's going to be some areas in the South where Mormons are not regarded as Christians, and that is the position that a lot of fundamentalist Christians take. And Mitt will find himself under attack for his religion.

HUNT: Tom Keane, thanks for joining us in this really interesting topic.

The gang will be back with our outrages of the week.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) HUNT: Now for the outrage of the week.

There are 435 House seats up for election next year. Today, right now, we know confidently which party will win 400 of them. That's because of a bipartisan districting scam that protects incumbents in most every state. Conservatives want to change this in California where the boundaries tilt Democratic. Fair enough. But then let's also undo the scandalous redistricting that Republicans perpetrated in Texas last year and change the situation in a couple other dozen states, too.

NOVAK: The most unique part of Academy Awards broadcast tomorrow night is that the film of the year, "The Passion of the Christ," was not even nominated, except for three minor nominations, totally snubbed. That's more proof that Hollywood is anti-religious, anti- Christian, anti-Catholic and anti-traditional Catholic. "The Passion" was a box-office hit and well-reviewed by people without a bias. And just the other night it won the best picture Movieguide award from the Christian Film and Television Commission. That's better than an Oscar, anyway.

CARLSON: There's a lot to criticize the AARP for: Making nice to Bush over a pro-industry prescription drug bill, for celebrating my 50th birthday, but being pro-gay marriage, even if they were, which they aren't, below the belt.

A front-group for Bush's Social Security privatization plan put up an ad showing two men in tuxedoes kissing in hopes that an anti-gay slur would wound AARP enough to kill its argument that Bush's plan is bad for seniors and everyone else. Bush instead should slam yet another GOP group playing the gay card.

HUNT: Mark?

SHIELDS: Al, Congress has a constitutional responsibility to conduct oversight to check the abuse of power by the executive branch. During the Clinton years, the Republican Congress spent 140 hours -- that's right, 140 hours -- in depositions and in hearings to determine whether President Bill Clinton has mishandled his Christmas card list.

But where is congressional oversight of the executive branch's deliberate withholding of accurate Medicare cost from the Congress, the responsibility of senior officials in the abuses of detainees at Abu Ghraib? You didn't miss the oversight hearings. This Republican Congress has failed to investigate any abuses by this Republican administration.

HUNT: Guys, this a special day. This is the 35th anniversary of Robert Novak's 39th birthday.

You don't look much different than 1970.

NOVAK: I'm 74 years old today.

HUNT: Happy birthday.


HUNT: Happy birthday, young guy.

SHIELDS: So's my sister.

HUNT: This is Al Hunt saying good night for the CAPITAL GANG.

Coming up next, "CNN PRESENTS: IMPACT OF TERROR," at 9:00 p.m., "LARRY KING LIVE, and at 10:00 p.m. on "CNN SATURDAY NIGHT," today's top stories with Carol Lin.

Thank you for joining us.


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