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President Bush Hampered by Democrats in Advancing His Agenda

Aired May 3, 2005 - 16:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE. On the left, Paul Begala. On the right, Robert Novak. In the CROSSFIRE, President Bush continues his nation- wide tour to sell Social Security reform.

PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH, UNITED STATES: I'm here to talk about the Social Security system. I've spent a lot of time working on this issue. I believe the job of a president is to confront problems.

ANNOUNCER: More than 100 days into his second term, the president is still trying to make things happen. But congressional Democrats aren't playing ball. They say if the president won't compromise, they won't either.

Stalemates on Social Security. Fights over the filibuster. Soaring gas prices. Rising interest rates and sagging job approval numbers. Has the Bush administration stalled or do Democrats risk becoming the party of no?


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


The president stopped in Mississippi today to pitch his Social Security reform plan, and House Republicans expect to have Social Security legislation drafted by June. The Democrats haven't come up with anything except complaints. They get the gold medal in whining.

PAUL BEGALA, THE LEFT: Well, even as Mr. Bush was in Mississippi today, the state's conservative Republican senator, Trent Lott, says he is, quote, "not overjoyed," unquote, about Mr. Bush's Social Security proposal saying, quote, "it does begin to move toward a welfare program," unquote. So, if President Bush can't win over Senator Lott, who can he win over?

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush's approval rating continues to sag in our latest poll, and before we look at all of that and why our president may be in a second-term slump, let's begin with the best little political briefing in television, our CROSSFIRE "Political Alert."

In the three-and-a-half years since the attacks of September 11, President Bush has blamed 9/11 on his every failing, pulling it out like a cheap handgun in a bar fight. The economy soft? 9/11. Deficits out of control? 9/11. Too much rain in the Midwest? 9/11. Well, despite all of that talk, though, Mr. Bush has not actually done very much to protect and you and me from terrorists. Today's "Washington Post" reveals that one Bush administration web site says that, if terrorists explode a nuclear weapon one block from you, all you need to do is walk around the corner to be safe.

The director of Columbia University National Center for Disaster Preparedness calls the information, quote, "disorganized" and "not confidence-inspiring," unquote. The Bush administration does boast that 2,200 first-responders have been trained in nuclear response, but two million more have not, and with Mr. Bush and terrorism, it seems to me that when it's all said and done, it's a whole lot more said than done.

NOVAK: You know, I have to remind you that the 2004 election has been held. You seem to think it's just around the corner. It's -- President Bush won it admirably by a large margin, and the American people thought that there hasn't been another terrorist attack since 9/11. They think he's doing a pretty good job on terror -- on fighting terrorism.

BEGALA: But, the evidence is that he's not. These people want to kill us. It is a serious threat, and he's not taking it seriously. He ought to do a better job.

NOVAK: The Democratic crusade to drive House Majority Leader Tom DeLay out of public life dredges up years of old records, especially any trips paid for by lobbyist Jack Abramoff who faces possible criminal prosecution. Abramoff paid for trips to the Northern Mariana Islands, taken by two DeLay aides, but the same records show Abramoff also paid for visits to the Northern Marianas eight years ago by two prominent Democratic Congressmen, Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, and Betty Thompson of Mississippi. Gardner said he did not know Abramoff paid for them. That's some defense, the same one used by Tom DeLay. It just shows how silly the campaign is against the majority leader.

BEGALA: It's not silly. There's a very serious ethical charges against him. We'll see if the ethics committee -- which DeLay himself has stacked with toadies and cronies of his -- will do a credible job. I have my deep suspicions. On the Marianas Islands, Mr. DeLay tried to push legislation to take away from that place, worker protections, minimum wage, 40-hour workweek. It's an American territory, and he tried to make it into a -- did make it -- into a sweatshop heaven. And he ought to be held accountable for that.

NOVAK: You just overlooked the fact that your buddy Jim Clyburn from South Carolina did exactly the same thing that DeLay did.

BEGALA: He didn't try to take away every workers protection in that place. We'll talk a lot more about Tom DeLay, believe me.

Well, the army reports today for the third straight month it is failed to meet its recruiting goals. Given the quagmire in Iraq, low pay, lack of armor and a Bush administration that stabs our brave troops in the back by cutting their healthcare when they come home, who can blame young people? In fact, would you want to put your kid and his life in the hands of George W. Bush? I don't think so. So desperate are army recruiters in the age of Bush that the "New York Times" says they are covering up criminal records, teaching potential recruits how to fool drug tests, falsifying high school diplomas, even signing up young people straight out of the mental hospital. Far cry from the Clinton administration where our widely admired commander in chief inspired young people to serve in the military even though the economy was booming.

NOVAK: You know, I was going to say...

BEGALA: We need Clinton back.

NOVAK: can you keep a straight face when you say that...

BEGALA: We need Clinton back.

NOVAK: ...but, you didn't keep a straight face. If you'd had...

BEGALA: I'm fondly recalling those days.

NOVAK: You had a smile when you said they signed up to serve under that -- some commander-in-chief. The reason it's hard to sign up people -- it's not so difficult -- if you were not such a political hack, if you're a reporter like I am, you would know that it's hard to sign up because there's a war going on. People don't like to be shot at. When President Clinton was in, they weren't getting shot at.

BEGALA: Well, maybe we shouldn't be having this war.

NOVAK: President Bush visited an auto plant in Canton, Mississippi, today, to boost his Social Security proposals, and Mississippi Governor Haley Barber was at the president's side. That renewed speculation about Haley as the next Republican presidential candidate. Haley Barber for president? Haley himself says he's too fat and too short. Besides, he wears the scarlet letter L, across his chest as a former million-dollar-a-year Washington lobbyist.

Still, nobody is a smarter politician and the field is absolutely wide open for 2008. Ed Rogers, Barbar's ex-lobbyist partner, has registered two web addresses, www.haley2000 and Don't laugh, the Republicans could do worse than Haley Barber and they undoubtedly will.

BEGALA: I would love to see Haley Barber run for president. He would be the perfect embodiment of what the Republicans stand for. He's a tobacco lobbyist, a pharmaceutical corporation lobbyist, an insurance company lobbyist, lobbied for the polluters, and he allowed a photo of himself to be placed on the racist web site of the Council of Conservative Citizens where there's an article called "In Defense of Racism." This is the Republican party of 2008. Haley Barber embodies it perfectly.

NOVAK: (INAUDIBLE) Haley's a good guy. I'd love to see him run against Hillary.

BEGALA: I would... NOVAK: He would beat her like a bad piece of meat.

BEGALA: Oh, she'd beat him like barn mule. Hillary would beat Haley like a red-headed step-child. Bring it on, Haley.

From Social Security to judicial nominations, though, our president seems to be in a bit of a slump these days. Next, we'll debate why the president's agenda is stalled and why his popularity is sliding.

And, President Clinton, a popular president, is back in the campaign trail later. We'll find out what he's weighing in on, in the CROSSFIRE. Stay with us.


NOVAK: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Democrats in Congress are showing a complete willingness to try and prevent any progress from being made on nearly any issue. And when they get mad, when they think the Republicans are trying to go around them -- that's what can happen when you're being really obstructionist.

"In the CROSSFIRE" today, Congressman Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and Congressman Peter King, Republican of New York. (Applause.)

BEGALA: Gentlemen, good to see you. Welcome back. Peter, Bob wants to couch this as sort of Democratic obstructionism or partisan politics. The problem with that is, think of what happened today. Our president goes to Mississippi. There's no redder state. It's as strong a Republican state as it could be -- the home of Trent Lott. No stronger Republican than Trent Lott.

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: And Haley Barbour.

BEGALA: And Haley Barbour.

Trent Lott though today said he's not happy with the president's Social Security program, and he said it moves it towards a welfare program, which clearly nobody wants.

Here's what a think tank said about the president's proposal. This is The Century Foundation. Its vice president for programs took a look at what the president proposed the other night, and he said this, "Someone who earns 60 percent above the average wage -- that would be somebody making about 58,000 today -- would face a 25 percent cut upon retirement and a 42 percent reduction later on in his retirement. For a worker at that income level who opens a private account with the maximum contribution, the guaranteed benefit from Social Security would be reduced by 87 percent, to just $3,750 a year in today's dollars."

You don't support those kind of cuts in Social Security for middle class Americans, do you, Congressman?

KING: I wouldn't consider them cuts. And we can debate this and dissect it, if we can get to the table. For instance, Senator Moynihan, when he introduced his legislation back in 1998, he was also calling for a 1-point cut across the board for all Social Security recipients, whether they were low income or upper income.

BEGALA: One percent in the cost-of-living adjustment.

KING: Right, yes.

BEGALA: Which I happen to not support.

KING: Which is significant. Okay. I'm just saying --

BEGALA: That's a big difference from 87 percent cut for a guy making 58-grand a year.

KING: No, no, no.

NOVAK: There's no way he --

KING: No, they factor that in with --

BEGALA: Yes it is. If you take the private accounts -- if you take the private account --

KING: No, they factor that in -- factoring that in with the personal account -- (applause) -- factoring it in with the personal accounts -- you can play games. In fact, also Joe Klein, who was, you know, one of yours, almost --

BEGALA: He's a journalist. He's a great guy, but you know --

KING: That's right, you're not a journalist. I forgot. Bob's a journalist. Any event --

BEGALA: He is; I'm not. Don't tar me. I'm an American. (Laughter.)

NOVAK: All right, this is going downhill fast.

KING: No, Joe Klein said in Time magazine, this is a thoughtful proposal. I'm just saying, let's put it on the table. Let's go to the table. The president deserves credit for bringing personal accounts. He's trying to make it progressive, which you should like.

BEGALA: So you don't close the door on --


KING: (INAUDIBLE) -- as James Carville said, if you guys keep saying no, people are going to turn against the Democrats. I'm just saying, put it on the table. What are you afraid of? I support Carville.

NOVAK: Mr. Menendez, you're a member of the leadership and chairman of the caucus, and you are so smug, you think you're really winning this fight on Social Security. But I want to show you a couple polling results, new polling results just taken the last few days from the CNN/"USA TODAY"/Gallup poll. "Worried that Democrats will not go far enough in changing Social Security?" Yes, 61 percent. No, 37 percent. That's not even close.

And then "Bush is mainly trying to help Social Security," 55 percent; "dismantle it," 41 percent. That's after you people have been throwing the kitchen sink at him. You think the American people are pretty stupid. They're pretty smart, aren't they?

MENENDEZ: I think they're exceptionally smart, which is why they're not buying the president's proposal.

Look, Bob. He came to New Jersey and tried to sell snake oil, and New Jersians knew it didn't make any sense whatsoever. Paul mentioned one set of statistic. How about 36,500. You get a 28 percent benefit cut if you're a future retiree who makes 36,500. You get, under the president's latest proposal, a 28 percent benefit cut.

The question is, long-term solvency of Social Security. The question is not to be ideologically driven at any cost on privatization. And then yes, we can come to the table, and we can help, as we did with Ronald Reagan, when he was president, achieve greater viability for Social Security.

But I look at the other poll number that just came up, the CNN/Gallup poll -- 58 percent of Americans say that they rejected the president's plans, and that was after his address the other night.

NOVAK: You know, the interesting -- and you talk be about benefit cuts, and that's so deceptive. It isn't like they're cutting the present benefits. They're cutting for certain people what the benefits would be into the future.

MENENDEZ: That's a benefit cut.

NOVAK: That isn't a benefit cut.

MENENDEZ: If I worked all the years. I contributed to Social Security --

NOVAK: It's more money than they are getting now.

MENENDEZ: -- and I have an expectation of what it will be, you're cutting the benefit that I have worked for all along.

NOVAK: It's more money -- it's an increase, though.

MENENDEZ: You know, Bob, the problem is, you come from the point of view, like the Club For Growth, which says that Social Security is the soft underbelly of the welfare state. If we can drive a spear through it, we can end the welfare state.

NOVAK: That's what you said. I didn't say that.

MENENDEZ: Most Americans believe that Social Security is something they worked for, contributed to and expect to have their -- and expect the government to keep its promise. (Applause.)

KING: And that's what George Bush believes, which is why he's trying to save it.

BEGALA: Let me move to another topic if I could. The president, laudably, wonderfully, had a primetime news conference last week on Thursday night. It was the first time in a year that he'd met with the press in primetime. He's been doing it more this term, and I really do applaud that. I think it's good for the country. He said something -- he was asked about America's military capabilities given our commitments in Iraq. Was he concerned that that would -- that our commitments in Iraq were degrading the Army's ability to do other things. Here's what the president told our country.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The person to ask that to, the person I ask that to at least is to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, my top military adviser. I said, Do you feel that we've limited our capacity to deal with our problems because of our troop level in Iraq? And the answer is, no. He doesn't feel like we're limited. He feels like we got plenty of capacity.


BEGALA: Well, now let's see what General Myers actually says. A classified report that he delivered to Congress yesterday leaked, thank goodness. And here's what the "New York Times" reports from that classified report.

"In a classified report, General Myers cited reduced stockpiles of precision weapons, which were depleted during the invasion of Iraq, and the stress on Reserve units, which fulfill the bulk of combat support duties in Iraq, as among the factors that would limit the Pentagon's ability to prevail as quickly as war-planners once predicted in other potential conflicts."

The president misled the country again, didn't he, Peter?

KING: No, he did not. No, he did not, and he never has. The fact is --

BEGALA: Never has? When has he told the truth? It's a short list.

KING: Actually, that's -- you know, you're trying to refight the last election, which you lost, and you lost it because --

BEGALA: It's not about the election. It's about lying to the country about our men and women who are risking their lives for us, Congressman.

KING: (INAUDIBLE) in the last election. You lost in that, and you're going to lose again. What General Myers went on to say is, there is no doubt that we can do whatever mission we're asked to do. Of course when you're in a war -- BEGALA: But he said it would be longer and bloodier and more casualties with more Americans dead. That's what he said, wasn't it, Congressman?

KING: But he said we can -- he said we can definitely do it. And any time --

BEGALA: But with greater -- more American boys dead.

KING: Any time there's one war going on, it always makes it more difficult in the other.

BEGALA: That's not what Mr. Bush said, is it?

KING: Yes he did.


KING: Yes, of course he did.

NOVAK: Congressman Menendez --

KING: What, do you expect him to tell our enemy exactly every deficiency we have? The bottom line is, we can do whatever we have to do, and we continue to do it. Of course it's difficult. That's what war is about. That's what life is about. (Applause.)

NOVAK: The governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, would like to be president. If not that, vice president. He said, "We just can't be negative. We can't just attack the president at every turn. We've got to stand for something." You disagree with that, I take it.

MENENDEZ: Oh, absolutely. We have stood for time after time on energy policy. You know, the president's policy is just to give the oil and gas industries about $22 billion -- 93 percent of all the benefits in the energy bill. I guess Mr. Cheney, Vice President Cheney was part of that. We have a different vision. Our vision is renewable energy sources. Our vision is to make sure gas prices go down. Our vision is to make sure that the world understand that we have helped them dramatically.

NOVAK: We've got to take a break. (Applause.)

Next I'll ask whether Democrats really consider conservative ministers to be the anti-Christ in the continuing fight over judicial nominees.


Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

President Bush's approval rating is an anemic 48 percent just 100 days after his second inaugurate. By comparison president Ronald Reagan was over 55 percent at this point, President Bill Clinton nearly 60. Is it Mr. Bush's unpopular Social Security privatization plan or is his inability to do anything about gas prices, or perhaps the high deficit of the unpopular war in Iraq. Maybe all of the above is driving him down.

Here to debate it in the CROSSFIRE, New York Republican Congressman Peter King and New Jersey Democratic Congressman Robert Menendez.

NOVAK: Mr. Menendez, one of your bright new rookie senators, Senator Salazar of Colorado, you don't have many new rookie senators, says that Dr. Dobson of Focus on the Family, who's been trying to get confirmation of judicial judges is the anti-Christ. Do you think -- do you agree with that? Even if you don't agree with that? Do you think that's a proper political discourse?

REP. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: Well, I don't agree with it. I will say that what happened to Senator Salazar in his state where those entities attacked his wife was totally uncalled for and is not Christian in any way. The reality is that the importance of the question of judges goes to the very heart of what our country is going to be like, because federal judges appointed for life make decisions that have greater impact than Peter and I as members of Congress. And the fact of the matter is to change 200 years of history is absolutely wrong. It doesn't provide for checks and balances. And is about Republicans changing the rules so they can get their way, that's unAmerican.

BEGALA: Congressman King, let me ask about that topic. One of those radical right wing preacher, Reverend Pat Robertson a pillar of the Republican Party, ran for president, did very well. Surprised a lot of people in the Iowa Caucus when he ran for president in your party, was asked this weekend by George Stephanopoulos...


BEGALA He was asked by George Stephanopoulos, just two days ago this question. Why -- he asked him why did he write in his book that liberal judges were the greatest threat America ever faces. And George said surely not as great a threat as al Qaeda, the terrorist who attacked us just a few years ago. Here's what Reverend Robertson said.


PAT ROBERTSON, CHRISTIAN BROADCASTING NETWORK: You look over a course of 100 years, I think the gradual erosion of the consensus that's held our country together is probably more serious than a few bearded terrorists who fly into buildings.


BEGALA: A few bearded terrorists. They killed friends of mine and friends of yours, I'm sure. That's outrageous isn't it.

PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: Pat Robertson is totally wrong, unequivocally. And he should retract everything he said. But the issues that Bob raised on judges is important. Because it's not really a 200 year tradition. In fact, if you went into what tradition, for the last 200 years, there's only one federal judge that was really filibusters and that Abe Fortas. And that you can discuss whether it was a real filibuster or not.

NOVAK: He didn't have the votes to pass any ways.

MENENDEZ: (INAUDIBLE) Republicans, wasn't it.



KING: And Bob (INAUDIBLE). I was saying -- is the only one in the last 200. The unwritten rule was that you let these nominees come to a vote. So, I -- while ordinarily reluctant to for the nuclear option. I think in this case where you have for the first time in 200 years a party systematically blocking judges...

NOVAK: I want to get a question in.


KING: That was on the committee. That wasn't done by a filibuster. There's a difference.

MENENDEZ: The Republicans stopped 60 of Clinton's judicial nominees through the equivalent of filibuster using -- over 200 nominees. No, no, they didn't bring them to a vote so many times. And so the bottom line is they want to change the rules of the game. And it's tomorrow you know, Republicans could be in the minority.


NOVAK: That has to be the last word. Thank you...

KING: The rules of the Senate have always been changed.


NOVAK: Congressman Menendez, Congressman King, thank you very much.

KING: I couldn't (INAUDIBLE)

NOVAK: Next, find out why former President Clinton is teaming up with the Republican governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee to talk about their shrinking profiles.


BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. A political odd couple is getting together to launch a long-range effort to help kids live better lives. Former president Bill Clinton, my old boss, and his former Arkansan from across the political aisle Republican governor Mike Huckabee, announced a 10 year initiative to fight childhood obesity. Former president said his recent heart surgery made him think about the problem. I bet it did. And Governor Huckabee says dropping more than a hundred pounds in one year convinced him of the -- the weightiness, I guess I should say, of the issue. Both men are working with the American Heart Association on the project. And good for them, Bob.

NOVAK: Yes, I wonder if President Clinton and the Governor Huckabee are both competing for the big mama award of the year, to tell us how to eat, how to live, what we're supposed to drink. I rather have the government and the politicians stay away from the way I eat and drink.

BEGALA: It's not about big mama, it's about big booty. And America's too darn fat. And Mike Huckabee and Bill Clinton are leading by example. By the way, so is President Bush. He's out there exercising every day.

NOVAK: Ah, they all ought to mind their own business.

BEGALA: From the left, I am Paul Begala. That's it for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

"WOLF BLITZER REPORTS" starts right now.



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