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President Bush Holds First Primetime Press Conference in a Year; House Republican leadership Abandoned Changes in House Ethics Committee

Aired April 30, 2005 - 19:00   ET


AL HUNT, HOST: Welcome to THE CAPITAL GANG. I'm Al Hunt, with the full gang, Mark Shields, Robert Novak, Kate O'Beirne and Margaret Carlson.

With his approval ratings falling, President Bush held his first primetime press conference in over a year. He was asked whether he was frustrated by his troubles in Congress.


GEORGE WALKER BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're asking people to do things that haven't been done for 20 years. We haven't addressed the Social Security problem since 1983. We haven't had an energy strategy in our country for decades. And so I'm not surprised that some are balking at doing hard work.


HUNT: The president laid out more details of his Social Security revision.


BUSH: I propose that future generations receive benefits equal to or greater than the benefits today seniors get.

I propose a Social Security system in the future where benefits for low-income workers will grow faster than benefits for people who are better off.


HUNT: Mr. Bush also reiterated his proposal for younger workers to have the option of personal accounts.

Mark, did this press conference help or hurt President Bush?

MARK SHIELDS, CAPITAL GANG: It helped the president. I mean, I thought the president was confident. He seemed in control. And it got other stuff off the front page. I mean, the president right now -- you alluded to it at the outset, Al. He's at the lowest point in his presidency of any post-war president ever reelected. That's -- in popular support. So you know, it's -- it is a little bit of an uphill struggle right now, and I think the president probably had as good an evening as he's going to have for a while because the very same moment that the -- that the Republican Congress was struggling to pass a budget, that all it does is cut Medicaid, I mean, which is not big, for $10 billion over the next four years, it has $106 billion in tax cuts, by three votes in the House -- they're not going to vote for benefit cuts on Social Security.

HUNT: Bob, good stylistically and substantively for the president?

BOB NOVAK, CAPITAL GANG: Yes, I think it was. And all this business about him being lowest -- I guarantee you, Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman, after they were reelected -- I don't care what the numbers were, they were much lower than this president.


NOVAK: They were -- because I was around, and they were really unpopular. Now, as a matter -- matter of fact, I thought that this -- it was very interesting. What he put out was this so-called blended cut in benefits for the future, not anybody's -- it's just -- it's a cut in the increase in benefits. And the -- and the Democrats, terrible press coverage, made it seem like he was just cutting the hell out of everybody's Social Security benefits.

I also would say that the -- that the -- the budget that passed the House, passed only by four votes, Mark, because you had an absolutely blanket Democratic vote. I've never seen anything like it. There was not one Democratic vote for it. There were, I believe, 11 Republicans against it, so it passed by four votes. I think it was -- three votes. I think it was a -- it was a good budget, and it was -- for the first time, there were some cuts in entitlements. I think it was a good start toward getting some fiscal discipline.

HUNT: Margaret, his Social Security proposal's been heading south ever since he launched it in the -- in the State of the Union. Is it going to -- or excuse me, in his inaugural address. Did he rescue himself on that?

MARGARET CARLSON, CAPITAL GANG: Well, he got the Republicans to play ball with him. Bill Thomas came out and said he was going to have a plan by June, so you know, passing the hemlock over to Republicans in the House on this.

Bob, if he were doing to taxes what he's doing to Social Security, which is let us soak the rich and give to the poor, if he did that on the $106 billion tax cut, I think you'd be howling because you would not -- you would not like this. Ordinarily, I would embrace the idea of helping out the poor more than Bob's people. However, this -- this -- the benefit cut hits people earning $20,000 a year. That's working and middle-class people, and it's never going to fly. And it's never going to fly as long as you keep personal accounts in.

HUNT: Well, I think she is right on that point, though, Kate. Private accounts are dead, aren't they?

KATE O'BEIRNE, CAPITAL GANG: Margaret's number...

HUNT: For this Congress.

O'BEIRNE: Margaret's numbers are off, of course, on the benefit adjustment, but she's right when she says she would typically support this kind of (INAUDIBLE) progressivity in the Social Security benefits, except for George Bush is proposing them, is the answer there.

I thought -- I agree with Mark. I thought he gave a very strong performance. I think we saw a characteristic of the president's on full display. He -- he is more energized, it seems to me, and more determined when the nay-sayers' and critics' voices have really reached a fevered pitch. That's how he responds to that. I think he's probably where he wanted to be right about now. Polls show people think there's a problem in Social Security. Current retirees are beginning to appreciate it's not going to affect them. He proposes some very attractive things that certainly won't hurt getting Democratic support. And now you're hearing Democrats say that we ought to have -- there is a problem in Social Security, it should be addressed, but we should have a bipartisan commission. They weren't allowing that the first half of that was the case, and they weren't proposing anything, three months ago.

HUNT: Am I wrong? Am I missing -- is Kate right? It looks to me like if anything, he's in worse shape than ever on Social Security, particularly on private accounts.

SHIELDS: Well, I mean, it's -- support has dropped precipitously since he introduced it. Now by -- according to the ABC News/"Washington Post" poll, the most recent one, by a 2-to-1 margin, voters disapprove of his handling of Social Security, and support for the private accounts -- personal accounts, call them what you want -- has declined along with it, steadily, ever since he introduced them. So the 60 days haven't worked, and I think the president was...

HUNT: He extended the 60 days.

SHIELDS: He did. But I mean, he -- what he tried to do was to...

NOVAK: Let me -- let me explain to Margaret why I like this proposal, because it is the beginning of means testing on Social Security, and it -- if you had been listening to me, Margaret...

CARLSON: I try not to.

NOVAK: ... for years -- I know you don't, and you'd be better off if you did listen to me -- you'd know that I've been for means testing it all because that -- that removes the fiction that this is an insurance program. It's another government program. And once you start means testing, then you say, OK, it's a decision -- you get away from this absolute nonsense that there's some kind of a -- of a fund there that...

HUNT: Well, you don't like Social Security... CARLSON: I'd like to...

HUNT: ... anyway, do you, Bob?

CARLSON: I'd like to meet...


NOVAK: I like the check I get from it, but I shouldn't get it...

HUNT: You think it's a bad program...


NOVAK: It should be means-tested, yes.

CARLSON: Listen, if he's going to apply progressivity to the Social Security benefits, let him apply it to the tax code.

NOVAK: Look, the...

CARLSON: Listen, the president was able...


NOVAK: ... tax code is progressive! I'll give you...

CARLSON: The president was able...

NOVAK: ... a hint...

HUNT: Not the effective rate.

CARLSON: Listen, the president was able to merge the war on terror with the war on Iraq. He's not able to merge personal accounts with saving Social Security...


O'BEIRNE: ... view inside the Beltway has been that Social Security reform is dead. They've been saying that since January. I don't think we can quite say that yet...

CARLSON: Not reform, Kate.

O'BEIRNE: ... and I think the president...

CARLSON: Personal accounts.

O'BEIRNE: The president, I think, helped himself somewhat last night.

HUNT: OK. We'll see. Kate says it's barely hanging on.

THE GANG of five will be back with a change in the ethics rules putting Tom DeLay in the hot seat. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HUNT: Welcome back.

The House Republican leadership reversed itself and abandoned changes in House Ethics Committee procedures so that an investigation of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay could proceed.


REP. DENNIS HASTERT (R-IL), HOUSE SPEAKER: There's a member, especially on our side, that needs to have the process move forward so he can clear his name. Right now, we can't clear his name. The media wants to talk about ethics, and as long as we're at a stalemate, that's all that is ion the press today is the ethics stalemate. We need to move forward. We need to get this behind us.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), MINORITY LEADER: What I'm hearing them say is they may want to return to the old rules. That's like taking two steps forward, in terms of undermining the ethics process, and one step back, if they don't also change the staffing changes that they have made there.


HUNT: Majority Leader DeLay said, quote, "We will submit and ask the Ethics Committee to take a look at our actions as it pertains to trips that have been questioned. We will give them everything that we have, and we will ask the Ethics Committee to look at it and make a judgment," end quote.

Bob, will this change in tactics save Congressman DeLay, or is it the beginning of the end?

NOVAK: I think it shows that the Democrats really don't want an investigation, they just want to keep punching away at him and -- and calumnizing him continuously. DeLay is one of the most effective congressional leaders I have ever seen, and I believe that he -- a couple of things happened this week which were much more important than the ethics investigation. One was the president made it very clear -- he had the picture taken with him -- that he is for him. And I'll tell you something else. The Republican Study Committee, which is the conservative group in the -- it used to be called CATs (ph) in the Congress -- they are 100 percent for DeLay. And the -- you just have some fringe characters like Chris Shays from Connecticut, who voted against the budget the other night, who are against him. But I think he is in very strong shape right now with his own caucus.

HUNT: But Margaret, isn't this an endless spiral? The next thing is going to be -- there was an outside counsel for Jim Wright, Newt Gingrich. Got to be an outside counsel for this.


HUNT: They'll fight that for a while, then have to capitulate. CARLSON: Right. There's a -- there is a drama to these things, and we're in the second stage, where now the House Ethics Committee is being reconstituted. On that, I agree partly with Bob. Nancy Pelosi should have said, Well, that's a good idea. Thank you. So now they will have a functioning Ethics Committee.

When Bill Clinton finally said, OK, let's have an outside counsel in Whitewater, look where it led to. It's something that stops the drumbeat at that moment, but then drags it out and gets you in more trouble in the end. And I do think it's not going to stop with Ethics Committee. It is going to be an outside counsel, to which he'll agree, and then it'll go on and on. And everyone who was ever touched by Jack Abramoff is going to live to regret it.

HUNT: Kate, my old colleague, Jeff Birnbaum, in "The Washington Post" this week quoted a number of Republican ethics experts, like Yan Baron (ph), who said, Hey, this is going to be a real tough one for DeLay to escape.

O'BEIRNE: Well, based on the stories I've seen reported in the paper, Al, what Tom DeLay's being criticized for seems to be a fairly common practice. Let's not forget he asked to go to the Ethics Committee, so he certainly feels as though when they look at all the paperwork -- some of these trips are eight years old, but when they look at everything, he's expecting a clean bill of health.

I think where it's leading is here. In the past five years, there have been 5,400 privately funded trips for members of Congress. It is not an uncommon practice, I think we're going to learn, for lobbyists to pay the immediate expenses on trips and get reimbursed. We now find out that's against the rules.

A whole bunch of members could be caught in the same situation. I think there's a fair chance that where it doesn't stop is with Tom DeLay. I think there's a fair chance that all private travel is going to come under an awful lot of scrutiny. He'll have a lot of campaign, Tom DeLay. And we might see the end of privately funded travel for members of Congress.

HUNT: Sounds like the House banking so-called scandal of 15 years ago, Mark.

SHIELDS: Well, I think it is. I think if Tom DeLay, it was only travel -- I mean, he did live big. He lived like, you know, the leaders of a junta, for goodness sakes. He -- 10 days, $28,000, as David Rogers (ph) reported in "The Wall Street Journal" on a trip to London and Scotland, $400 a day on meals -- I mean, even Novak, in his most epicurean days...

NOVAK: I have done $400 a day.

HUNT: You can't -- you can't spend that much in a year in Sugar Land, Texas.

SHIELDS: No, that's exactly right. I mean, he spent -- he spent half of the income, median income, of a family in Sugar Land, Texas, on that one trip.

But it's far beyond the travel. Travel is double parking. He has other problems, serious problems. And Al, there's not a single Republican House member who's asking Tom DeLay to come into his district to campaign for him today.

NOVAK: Let me -- let me...

HUNT: Bob, can I just...

NOVAK: That just is not -- that is not...

HUNT: Let me -- let me get you (INAUDIBLE) I just want to ask -- no, no. I want to ask you a question, seriously, because it seems to me what Tom DeLay has effectively done has made this an ideological or party litmus test issue. Some -- I've talked to some moderates who would like to strike some distance between themselves and Tom DeLay...

NOVAK: Al...

HUNT: ... but they say the base won't allow that. That'll get them in trouble with Republican core members.

NOVAK: Absolutely -- he is -- he is enormously popular in the caucus, in the constituency. It's just not true that nobody wants him to come in their district. There's a lot of -- a lot of them that want him to come into the district. But the interesting thing is this is -- here is a guy who got five extra seats in the state of Texas. They just -- Democrats just hated that. He has -- he has had -- been amazing in mobilizing that small majority. You make fun of the budget they passed, but they couldn't have passed that without Tom DeLay on Thursday night. There's no way they could have kept the -- he only lost four conservative Republican votes on that. And so there is a -- there is a finely calculated plot to destroy him by the left! It is -- it is the politics of personal destruction!

O'BEIRNE: Al, the House members I talk to...

HUNT: You mean like Bill Clinton?

O'BEIRNE: The House members I...


O'BEIRNE: The House members I talk to think it is a bad rap on Tom DeLay. No sooner is it supposedly travel than everybody realizes, Uh-oh, a lot of us are in the same bad. Then all of a sudden, Mark tells us it's not really travel after all. And look, when Democrats supposedly claim, Oh, we don't want him to go anywhere, we'd rather he be there as a target, don't you believe it. They want nothing more than him out of office because they know how effective he is.

HUNT: Mark, a final note.

SHIELDS: I mean, it's always been a lot more than travel. I just think travel is -- travel is -- the -- it's the closeness to Abramoff and that Abramoff was picking up the tab. And you're right. I mean, the reality is that lobbyists have always been prohibited from picking these up in the past, and they've broken that rule. And Tom DeLay is going to be...

O'BEIRNE: And Democrats take more trips...

HUNT: Everybody will wait...

O'BEIRNE: ... than Republicans!

HUNT: Everybody will wait to see whether Mr. Abramoff -- whether Jack talks.

Next on CAPITAL GANG, the fight over filibusters of judicial nominations.


HUNT: Welcome back.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist proposed changes in guarantees on treatment of judicial nominees, intending to break the deadlock on confirmation of judges.


SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN), MAJORITY LEADER: The committee, whether controlled by Republicans or Democrats, will no longer be used to obstruct judicial nominees. When a judicial nominee comes to the floor, we will set aside up to 100 hours to debate that nomination. These proposals will apply only to appeals court and Supreme Court nominees. The filibuster, as it existed before its unprecedented use on judicial nominees in the last Congress, will remain unchanged.


HUNT: The Democrats rejected the proposal. At his press conference, President Bush rejected making judicial confirmation an issue of faith.


BUSH: I think faith is a personal issue, and I get great strength from my faith, but I don't condemn somebody in the political process because they may not agree with me on religion.


HUNT: Margaret, why did the Democrats turn down Senator Frist's offer?

CARLSON: Because it was a lousy deal. There was no reason to accept it. I hope that Reverend Frist was listening to the president at his press conference. Listen, why would you accept -- why would -- the thing you need the filibuster for are the judges that are going to serve for life on the appeals court and maybe go up to the Supreme Court. On lesser things, you need it less. You certainly don't need it on legislation as much, when legislation can be overturned by another bill.

You know, Frist is running in the Christian evangelical primary, and he wants to win this for that reason, because it's very important to the base. But on judges, you need somebody like Solomon. You don't want anybody too liberal or too conservative. And Democrats are right to hold out on this one.

HUNT: Kate, who's winning this one?

O'BEIRNE: Two weeks ago, Al, I would have told you that I thought the Republicans were -- were losing, losing sort of the public relations battle, not effectively making their case. I don't think that's any longer the case. They sure now feel a lot better than they did two weeks ago. They're making some fundamental arguments. Polls show, if they ask the questions worded correctly, if they're not push polls, that the public's with them. It's awfully -- it's impossible for the Senate to give its advice and consent if it doesn't permit votes.

The (INAUDIBLE) polling this week that show, understandably, the public doesn't think you ought to block a judge. If you don't like a judge, vote no. They don't think that -- they don't think that these judges are going to be right-wing maniacs. They're all -- they all get "well qualified" ratings by the ABA. They are voted on by large majorities back home. Now I think the Democrats are losing the public relations battle, and they're both positioning -- both Frist and Reid -- to try to tell their moderates, You know, I tried to compromise, but it didn't work, because I think they're going to have a showdown in a couple of weeks, and I think when Mitch McConnell says, We will have the votes, I think he's probably right. I think they will have the votes.

HUNT: Republicans in the ascendancy, Mark?

SHIELDS: Well, I'm not sure of that, Al, because I honestly don't know. There's too many people keeping their own counsel. But I will say this, that non-partisan polling shows that -- a contradiction, that, should the Republicans be able to change the rules so the president can get his judges? No. But should there be an up-or-down vote on everybody? Yes. OK, the Republicans say there should be an up-or-down vote.

Al, there have been 10 people denied an up-or-down vote, OK, 200 approved. (INAUDIBLE) up-or-down vote (INAUDIBLE) maybe they want to give the up-or-down vote to the 62 people in Clinton's -- who were nominated who were never given one. They never got a vote. They never -- they never got an up-or-down vote. Up-or-down votes apparently only...


O'BEIRNE: They weren't filibustered!

HUNT: They were buried in committee. O'BEIRNE: They weren't -- they weren't filibustered!


HUNT: One can argue it's much worse than a filibuster because no one's on record.


O'BEIRNE: Frist was willing to give that up this week, though.


SHIELDS: I just want -- let me just finish. I do want to -- I just do want to identify with what Margaret said. I think the person who's been most hurt in this is Bill Frist. I mean -- and I didn't know the doctor in Bill Frist was doctor of divinity. I mean, when the president has to distance himself from him, it's really kind of tough.

HUNT: Well, you're going to pick up on all of this, I know, but also address -- I thought -- I thought George Bush very, very shrewdly disassociated himself on arguing this was a matter of faith, and said it's a matter of ideology.

NOVAK: Well...

HUNT: I thought he looked pretty good doing that, don't you?

NOVAK: Well, he looked good to the religion bashers, I'm sure.


NOVAK: I tell you very frankly, that whole -- that whole thing bothers -- interests me much less than it apparently does everybody else around the table. I'm interested in the judge thing, and it's very interesting that the Democrats turned down what was a very reasonable plan and a guarantee that they won't be able to lock up any -- any judges in the -- in the future. I thought that was a -- I knew, however, they were going to reject it.

Now, I want to just say what's really interesting is I think there are the votes to -- I'm pretty sure they are -- all you need is 50 votes to sustain the point -- the vice president's ruling on the point of order. And once that is done -- I have talked to a lot of Democrats -- they don't have any recourse! All they can do is -- is raise hell and cause problems and slow down the Senate, but they can't stop these judges from getting confirmed!

HUNT: I am surprised that all of a sudden, this question of whether Democrats are opposing people because of their faith is irrelevant, according to Brother Bob. I thought earlier, that was the reason, we were told, that a lot of these people were being opposed, because they were...

(CROSSTALK) O'BEIRNE: It's not the reason. I think it was the reason...


O'BEIRNE: I think it was the reason in the case of Bill Pryor...


SHIELDS: That wasn't the reason.

HUNT: Well, let me just say on Bill Pryor -- I'll tell you why it's not the reason, Kate. I think Bill Pryor's a terrible appointment for one reason. There has been no -- no attorney general or judge that I know who's worse on people with disabilities. He has -- he filed a case saying that a man who had to go up two sets of stairs, it doesn't -- isn't covered under the ADA. It has nothing to do with his faith. Has nothing to do with his faith. It has to do...

O'BEIRNE: That's not what the senators said! That might be your argument, Al, but it's not...

NOVAK: That wasn't the reason they...


HUNT: There are 50...

O'BEIRNE: ... strongly held personal beliefs, is what Chuck Schumer said!

HUNT: I just want to say to my two dear friends there are 53 million disabled people in America who might feel that's offensive. Mark, I'll give you the final word.

SHIELDS: I just want to say that what we're doing is we're heading down a very, very dangerous path because what -- (INAUDIBLE) a senator -- as long as we got 51 votes in the Senate and we got a president of our party, we can get anybody confirmed, regardless...

O'BEIRNE: Elections matter, Mark!

SHIELDS: No, no. But I mean, we -- there was -- there is a tradition in this country that judges are nominated and they're confirmed overwhelmingly. And Al, I'll tell you, there's going to be tit for tat. The next time there's a Democratic president (INAUDIBLE) we're going to see the ideological polarization of the bench...


HUNT: I'm afraid that's the final word...

CARLSON: The American people were content to (INAUDIBLE)

HUNT: ... because we have run out of time, Margaret Carlson.

Coming up next in the second half: gas prices skyrocket, but where's the energy plan? Elections in Great Britain next week. Will Tony Blair get a third term? And our "Outrages of the Week," all after the break.



HUNT: Welcome back to the second half of THE CAPITAL GANG. With gas prices rising, President Bush met with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah in Texas, and called for Senate passage of energy bill.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It feels a long time in coming. The vice president and I suggested they pass this bill in 2001. And nothing happened. Now is the time for something to happen. Looking forward to get back to Washington and continue to talk about energy.

ADEL AL-JUBEIR, SAUDI FOREIGN POLICY ADVISER: Saudi Arabia believes that the price of oil should be at least at the levels that do not harm consumers, nor harm producers. We believe that long-term, that high oil prices in the long term hurt consumers by stalling economic growth, and they also hurt producers by slowing demand growth.

There is no shortage of crude oil in the world today. What we see is a shortage of refining capacity.


HUNT: Democrats rejected the president's energy plan.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), MINORITY LEADER: It was more of the same. More nuclear plants, more oil refineries, an increased reliance on old energy sources. Gas prices are soaring, and American people are demanding relief, and now, not within the next decade.


HUNT: Kate, is the president offering any hope for lowering gas prices in the near term?

O'BEIRNE: No, he's not, Al, which I think is refreshing candor, unlike Nancy Pelosi. The government, in fact, can't just flip a switch and lower the price of gas at the tanks, which I think is really playing a very large role in the polls. I think it puts the public in a sour mood. They might not be paying that much attention to arguments over judges or John Bolton or Social Security, but they sure can't ignore what the price is of gasoline at the -- at the pump, and my family is filling up four cars, as so many other families are in America, and of course it puts you in a foul mood. But the president's right, there is nothing the government can do in the short time. HUNT: Unlike Bob, I drive a car that takes low (INAUDIBLE). This afternoon, I filled up, $2.42 a gallon, Margaret. Boy, that hurt.

CARLSON: I know. You should have a VW like me; at least it only takes 10 gallons. You know, one of the things the president could have done was try to change the rule on putting SUVs as -- getting them out of the truck category, and into having mileage standards. That would do a huge -- that alone would do something. He has no interest in changing energy policy for the better. I didn't hear the word "conservation"; I heard the word "coal." And there was -- there is much less in what he said in his speech or in any of his comments this week than in that picture with the Saudi prince. They were hand in hand. And I think that's the policy that the president is pursuing. Hand in hand with the Saudi oil princes.

HUNT: You must have to use a big chunk of that tax cut to fill up that Corvette.

NOVAK: Little (INAUDIBLE) like Margaret, they want -- they don't want people driving cars. They -- I don't know if you go on fairy wings around, instead of cars. But I would say this -- of course, this is a good chance to attack the Saudis. There's a lot of Saudi bashing from all parts of the political spectrum, when in fact, Saudi Arabia has very little to do with the whole question of what the price of gas and oil is. And I just love the fact that the president says we have to build oil refineries. We haven't built any oil refineries in this country in what, 30 years? And so we can build the oil refineries, but Nancy Pelosi says it's not good. So it's all demagoguery, I think, from the left wing conservationists.

HUNT: Mark?

SHIELDS: Demagoguery? Listen to (INAUDIBLE). God love him. He's just something very special, Al. He's (INAUDIBLE). He's -- Bob is on the dark side of the moon tonight, and I mean, the reality is that known oil reserves in the world are held by five Gulf principalities, OK? I mean, that's where it is. It isn't here (INAUDIBLE). So don't say the Saudis are blameless.

The reality is, you have not seen a photo op of George W. Bush, our president and esteemed leader, in his pickup truck in Crawford filling the tank, as we used to see. Why? Because of the price, because of the sticker shock. And so he says, well, I got to say something about it.

This snuck up on the White House. They really weren't aware of any -- Matthew Dowd, to his credit, blew the whistle on it. Said, look, forget all this Schiavo stuff and everything else. You've got -- we're really paying a price...

NOVAK: What is he supposed to do?

SHIELDS: Because -- well...

(CROSSTALK) SHIELDS: You might start by saying, people who insist on driving six-mile-an-hour cars are going to pay dearly for it...

NOVAK: But why? Because -- because you're...

SHIELDS: And you ought to be penalized because it's bad public policy and you're hurting people (ph).

NOVAK: You're a sadist. You want to tell me I shouldn't drive my sports car?


NOVAK: You'd go to hell on that one!

SHIELDS: I'm a communitarian.

HUNT: The head of the James Baker Institute in Houston, Texas says the single most effective thing we can do to lower gas prices in the short time is to increase fuel efficiency standards.

NOVAK: That figures, that figures. The James Baker Institute.

HUNT: Oh, they're left-wing too?

O'BEIRNE: And they make cars less safe, and what about families? People actually have a number of children they're driving around with, Al. Not everybody is living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.


CARLSON: People had large families, even larger families before, and managed without mammoth SUVs getting six miles to the gallon.

HUNT: Once again, Margaret Carlson, a wise last word.

Coming up next, THE CAPITAL GANG Classic. The presidential P.R. stunt of all time. Did it backfire?

ANNOUNCER: Here is your CAPITAL GANG trivia question of the week. Which country exports the most crude oil to the United States? Is it, A, Canada? B, Saudi Arabia? Or C, Venezuela? We'll have the answer right after the break.


ANNOUNCER: Before the break, we asked: Which country exports the most crude oil to the United States? The answer is answer A, Canada.

HUNT: Welcome back. Two years ago this week, President Bush performed a landing aboard the aircraft carrier the USS Abraham Lincoln. He later addressed the nation in front of a banner that read "mission accomplished."

THE CAPITAL GANG discussed these events on May 3rd, 2003.


CARLSON: It was so well done, and even though we knew that everything was choreographed down to, you know, catching that fourth hook on the ship, it was still a pretty stirring tableau. Cecil B. DeMille couldn't have been done better.

NOVAK: that was a great photo-op on the aircraft carrier, and the Democrats I've talked to tried to think of Joe Lieberman in an Air Force jumpsuit, and they can't quite make it.

HUNT: It was fantastic political theater. I mean, it was as good a photo-op as I have ever seen. If things are going well in Iraq a year from now, if the war on terrorism's going well, that will make a powerful television commercial. If things aren't going well, they'll have to drop it.

SHIELDS: As political theater, the only thing that could top the "Abraham Lincoln" on Thursday night would be George W. Bush giving his renomination acceptance speech at Ground Zero in New York.


HUNT: Mark, we've all said it was great PR. Were we wrong?

SHIELDS: Well, to your credit, you did temper it by saying that, in fact, a year from now, things aren't going well. And of course, the only people who used that footage was one of the liberal organizations opposing President Bush' reelection in 2004. So I would say that we were perhaps just a little bullish on the president.

HUNT: You weren't too bullish, were you, Bob?

NOVAK: We were very bullish, and we all said it was great -- great PR. We all were unanimous, really (INAUDIBLE) unanimous verdict -- what?

SHIELDS: Well, I just...


NOVAK: It was an unanimous verdict, and the four of us who were on, and the fact of the matter, it was a disaster. It was something that was used against him time and time again. So although we're almost always correct on everything, we're not perfect, we're not infallible.

CARLSON: It was such a...

HUNT: Cecil B. DeCarlson?

CARLSON: I know. It's such a disaster. I think that Bush has now gone in the opposite direction. He's, you know, hugging and kissing John McCain and Joe Lieberman, and holding hands with...

HUNT: Prince Abdullah.

CARLSON: ... Saudis. He's now a metrosexual instead of the big flyboy.

NOVAK: What's a metrosexual?

CARLSON: I'll explain later.

HUNT: Kate, give it -- give it a spin.

O'BEIRNE: Al, had I...


O'BEIRNE: Al, had I been with you that evening, I would never have predicted that it would be a problem. My mistake would have been, silly me, I thought politics stopped at the water's edge. We're at war. I never would have predicted that liberal Democrats would so exploit this for cheap political points. So I would have been wrong too.

HUNT: Oh, Kate O'Beirne, you shock me with that.

Next on CAPITAL GANG, we'll go across the pond to London for a preview of next week's British elections with CNN's Robin Oakley.


HUNT: Welcome back. With the elections coming up in Great Britain next Thursday, Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq is a major campaign issue.


TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: Worked my socks off to get a second U.N. resolution. Obviously, it would have been better to have it. But I was faced with the situation where France said we will accept no resolution with an ultimatum in it, and therefore I had to decide, did you then back away, leave Saddam immeasurably stronger, or remove him?

Now, I took the decision to remove him. And you know, these decisions are tough. And that's what leadership is about. You've got to take those decisions.

MICHAEL HOWARD, CONSERVATIVE PARTY LEADER: The one thing on which Mr. Blair has taken a stand in the last eight years, I'm going to war. No more important decision can a British prime minister take. And he couldn't even tell the truth about that. So yes, of course, character is an issue with this election.


HUNT: Joining us now from London is CNN European political editor, Robin Oakley.

Robin, does anybody give the Tories a chance to score an upset next Thursday? ROBIN OAKLEY, CNN EUROPEAN POLITICAL EDITOR: Absolutely impossible. They need a 10-point lead in the polls. They haven't had anything like that for 10 years. All they can seriously hope to do is to cut the level of Tony Blair's majority. And if they cut it enough, he could be in trouble through the next parliament, because there's plenty of rebels on his own side, who could make it difficult for him to get legislation through.

HUNT: Robert?

NOVAK: How much is he suffering as a result of his decision to go to war with the United States in Iraq?

OAKLEY: He's suffering big, really, because two-thirds of the British public say they don't trust the prime minister anymore. Basically, people believe that he lied in making the case for the war, in making the case to go to war in Iraq.

But of course, the elections are all about choice. And while 56, 60 percent of people may say that Tony Blair lied, over 50 percent of people believe that Michael Howard, the leader of the Conservative opposition, is himself willing to tell lies to help him win the election. There is a basic distrust of politicians. And at the end of the day, it's a choice between two men whom the electors basically see as capable of running the country. Tony Blair is well ahead in those leadership polls.

HUNT: Margaret.

CARLSON: Robin, as ugly as elections get here, politicians are reluctant to use the word "liar" about each other. But I've heard it in this campaign, and the Conservatives put up an ad in which they accuse Tony Blair of being a liar, lying about the war and he'll lie to you about everything. Is the election particularly nasty over there, or is this the way it always is?

OAKLEY: Elections always get pretty rough. But Michael Howard is playing it in a very direct way. No, we don't usually get the l- word, the liar word used. In the House of Commons, it would be banned by the speaker. They all have to call themselves honorable members there, though you remember the old tag about the louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted the spoons.

It is a rough election. Michael Howard is gearing for the man rather than the bull. Basically, the Conservative opposition, and the Liberal Democrats, the other opposition party, want to turn this election into a referendum on Tony Blair, rather than a verdict on what the Labour government has achieved in office, which is where Mr. Blair wants to keep the focus.

HUNT: Kate.

O'BEIRNE: Robin, what about that third choice, the Liberals? They, unlike the other two choices, always opposed the war with Iraq, remain opposed to the war with Iraq. Given the state of public opinion in Great Britain, are there many votes for the Liberals to win this time, on that issue?

OAKLEY: Potentially, there are, particularly in seats where there is a large Muslim vote, particularly in seats where there are a lot of students, and the Liberal Democrats have also opposed a plan by the government to boost tuition fees.

The Liberal Democrats always have this handicap of people thinking, well, they're not likely to form a government, therefore are they wasting a vote? But at each of the last three elections, they have boosted their number of seats in Parliament. They're looking more credible all the time, and they are, as you say, the only party who opposed the war in Iraq.

There aren't going to be many people switching from Labour to the Conservatives, because they don't like what Mr. Blair did in Iraq. Charles Kennedy and the Liberal Democrats will pick up some of that protest vote on Iraq, and I would expect them to put on another 15, 20 seats maybe in this election.

HUNT: Mark Shields.

SHIELDS:: Robin, Tony Blair is that rare political figure who's had a chummy, cordial relationship with our last two presidents, George Bush and Bill Clinton. And yet, he has a spot or a television commercial with Bill Clinton endorsing him. What's the ripple on that, and is the Bush identification a serious liability?

OAKLEY: Yes, indeed. When Mr. Bush came to Europe a couple of months back, he went around to a lot of other capitals; he didn't come to London to see his friend, Tony Blair, and I'm sure that there was one very clear reason for that: The more Tony Blair is seen alongside George Bush, the lower his poll ratings drop. So he -- the last thing he would have wanted was for Mr. Bush to drop in shortly before the election.

And interestingly, a lot of Labour people in Tony Blair's own party aren't using pictures of the prime minister on their election literature, but the Liberal Democrats are using pictures of Tony Blair on their literature, but it's always Tony Blair with George Bush.

HUNT: Robin, let me pick up on something that you briefly mentioned earlier, which Blair -- which was that Blair might win, but with a reduced majority in Parliament. If that were to occur, could he face a challenge within his own party, say from his top economic official, Gordon Brown, in the next -- in the next couple of months or a year?

OAKLEY: The most striking feature of this election campaign has been the closeness with which Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have worked. For the last two or three years, they've been strapping like rats in a sack, because Gordon Brown thought he'd had a deal with Tony Blair to have handed over the leadership of the Labour Party and the prime minister's job to him by now. But I think Gordon Brown has come to realize that if he's going to have a legacy from Tony Blair, and he's expected to follow him as the next leader and prime minister, then he's got to help Tony Blair win this election. There's a lot of trust in Gordon Brown. He's had a very good record as chancellor, and he has pitched in, worked very closely with Tony Blair. The other day, he was asked would he have taken the country to war in Iraq? And he turned to Tony Blair and he said simply, "yes."

NOVAK: Robin, we just got time for a quick answer. Do you think the economy is a big plus for the Labour government and Tony Blair?

OAKLEY: Yes. Really, they've set out to show that Labour governments can be trusted to run the economy. That was the big question when they came to power in 1997. Tony Blair, I've heard him say that, that people have got to learn to trust us to run the economy. They don't believe we can. I think what they have done over the past eight years is prove they can be trusted to run the economy. Inflation and interest rates are low. Employment is high. Growth has been steady and very much better than all the countries on the continent of Europe.

HUNT: Hey, Robin, thanks for giving us great insight into the British election. THE GANG will be back with our "Outrages of the Week."


HUNT: And now, for the "Outrages of the Week."

Over the past two years, members of Congress and their staffs paid a discounted, $2.2 million for 1,346 trips on private jets, Bloomberg News revealed. This is the equivalent of first-class air fare, but only a fraction of what it really would cost to fly on these jets.

Ohio Congressman Michael Oxley, of good corporate governance fame, alone took 44 such trips.

This is an outrageous loophole that lets special interests pay for expensive favors for politically connected lawmakers.


NOVAK: The extended Senate Foreign Relations Committee investigation of John Bolton's fitness to be ambassador to the U.N. gets curioser and curioser. At the request of Democrats, committee staffers this week interviewed 16 people about a 1994 incident in which a partisan Democratic woman alleged Bolton, a private citizen at the time, was mean to her.

Bolton's personality is a smokescreen to cover the real source of opposition to him -- his hard line on Cuba, North Korea and Iran. Will enough Republican senators fall for this phony ploy to block a dedicated public servant's confirmation?

HUNT: Margaret.

CARLSON: Imagine the horror of backing over your own child in the driveway. There's been a spike in such horrors -- 14 in the last three weeks; 120 last year, as SUVs and their blind spots get every larger.

There is an easy fix: Add tiny cameras to parking sensors on the rear bumper, but auto makers aren't willing to add it, and the government isn't willing to mandate it.

Representative Pete King, a Republican, introduced a bill to do so, which failed.

This is the best of many possible reasons to ameliorate the damage of these gas-guzzling mega-cars.

HUNT: Kate.

O'BEIRNE: The House easily passed a bill to make it a federal crime for an adult to take a minor girl across state lines for an abortion to evade parental notification laws. Polls show that large majorities, some 73 percent to 82 percent, favor laws requiring minors to notify a parent before getting an abortion.

Senate Democrats are blocking Texas Supreme Court Judge Priscilla Owen's nomination to the federal bench because she's extreme, for having upheld Texas' law on parental notification. Just who are the extremists here?

HUNT: And Mark Shields.

SHIELDS: Al, a front-page report by Michael Moss in "The New York Times" told of E Company of the 1st Marine Division, and how during its six-month tour in Ramadi, more than one-third of the 185 troops of E Company were wounded or killed, the highest casualty rate of any unit in Iraq.

These Marines endured 26 firefights, 90 mortar attacks and more than 90 bombings. And they were ordered by their superiors into deadly combat in unarmored humvees.

No word of outrage heard from the Congress, none from talk shows. Did these Marines' lives not matter? Where is our outrage?

HUNT: This is Al Hunt saying good night for THE CAPITAL GANG. Thanks for joining us.


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