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Interview with Sen. Tom Daschle

Aired November 6, 2002 - 07:28   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: For Democrats, it's time to head back to the drawing board, especially in the Senate, where Republicans are taking control. Jean Carnahan's early morning concession turned the tide for the GOP and then, of course, we had the announcement in the Minnesota race just moments ago, with Norm Coleman, the former St. Paul mayor, the winner.
What is next for the Democrats? Let's go to Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who will soon give up his role as the majority leader.

Thank you very much for joining us this morning, sir.

I know you have just spoken with Jonathan Karl and you told him you were very disappointed in these results. And you also told him that you bore some responsibility for what happened last night.

What went wrong in these midterm elections for Democrats?

SEN. THOMAS DASCHLE (D-SD), SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: Well, Paula, I think that the president deserves good credit. He campaigned hard in the states that he largely won two years ago. He had some coattails. He focused more on the war on terror, on Iraq, North Korea. People were concerned about national security and that precluded us from having the opportunity to break through on the issues that we cared most about -- the economy, education and health care.

ZAHN: Let's talk about the economic issues for a moment. I know there was much schizophrenia in the Democratic Party when it came to the tax cut. You had a number of Democratic candidates actually aligning themselves with the president on that issue with ads. How much did that hurt the Democratic Party that you weren't speaking in a unified voice there?

DASCHLE: Well, I think it's fairly common that on issues relating to taxes and some of these questions that you don't always speak with one voice. And clearly that was a factor, I think, in that we had to talk about other economic parts of the question. I think that there's no doubt that as we go into the debate over the course of the next two years, that will continue to be the issue.

Do we make these tax cuts permanent? Our view is that it's a big mistake to do so and on that issue I think we're going to be very unified.

ZAHN: House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt just told me about 10 minutes ago that you really have to see these Republican gains through the prism of the post-September 11 environment and, of course, through the prism of Americans being so concerned about national security. Do you think the results would have been any different if the Democrats would have mounted more of an opposition front to the president on the issue of Iraq?

DASCHLE: Well, I don't think so. I think that when you look at the states where these Senate races were playing themselves out, there's no question that the president's position was very popular, very strongly supported. And we made the decision that in many cases it was important for us to be as supportive as our candidates and as our incumbent senators would have us be.

We wanted to unite. We felt that it was important to ask the tough questions. We did. But at the end of the day we felt that supporting the resolution on Iraq was the right thing to do. And I have no regrets or misgivings about that.

ZAHN: I know that Tony Blankley, a former GOP strategist, said that you guys should have basically headed to the White House with pitchforks to take down the gates of the White House, that he felt that the economy was such a vulnerability for the Republicans. And yet even Democrats conceded you all didn't come up with your own economic plan.

How much did that hurt you?

DASCHLE: Well, we felt we did have the economic plan, we just weren't successful in getting you to cover it. I think it is important that we go back and talk about some of those specific issues economically. It's very important for us to focus on the economy. The economy's soft. We've got two million people that are unemployed that weren't unemployed two years ago. We've got more long-term unemployed than we've had in a long, long time. So clearly this is going to demand a lot more attention than it's gotten so far.

Without a doubt, that is still the issue regardless of the coverage it got or how much it might have been outshone by the issues relating to Iraq and the war on terror.

ZAHN: When you talk about our coverage, are you referring to collectively as -- I'm hoping...

DASCHLE: Collectively...

ZAHN: The print and television?

DASCHLE: Correct.

ZAHN: Oh, good. I didn't want to take that personally, sir.

DASCHLE: Right. No, no.

ZAHN: How is this going to affect your plans down the road?

DASCHLE: Well, I will have to take a look at all of the options and look at what makes the most sense down the road. I'm not going to be in that position for a while. I think what we've got to do now is go back and finish up the lame duck session and prepare for the 108th Congress. We'll be doing that. I'll be talking to Senator Trent Lott and we'll begin making those plans, probably this week.

ZAHN: Are you able to tell us whether this will change your mind about any presidential ambitions you might or might not have?

DASCHLE: Well, Paula, I think it's way too early to come to any conclusion at this point. I want to make sure that we close out the 107th Congress as best we can and regroup and start thinking about the 108th. But we'll make some decisions at some point in the not too distant future. But it won't be, it won't be today or this week or maybe even this month.

ZAHN: I know you said you're going to be talking with Trent Lott. Do you have any predictions to make on what might get passed in this lame duck session?

DASCHLE: Well, clearly the most important thing is to pass the appropriations bills, which are all outstanding. That's essential. We can't leave without having done that. It would be nice if we could clear up the nominations that are still out there, and there are a lot of them. Homeland security is still something we could address, port security. Those are issues that I was hoping we could resolve before the end of the year and I still hold that hope. I think that there may be that possibility, even though we know time is short.

ZAHN: As you were speaking, we were just looking at some of the returns coming out of South Dakota, still showing John Thune with a razor thin lead over the incumbent, Tim Johnson. Do you have any insights as to the way that's going to go? Does it look bad for the Democrats right now?

DASCHLE: Well, Paula, I think if you look at where the outstanding precincts still are, there are precincts that Tim Johnson has done well in in the area, the general area, the county. And so we're still holding out the hope that Tim can pull this out. There's no reason why at the end of the day he couldn't be ahead at least a couple of hundred votes. We're in for a long recount. I've been through one of those myself so I know that those things aren't resolved quickly.

But nonetheless, given where the precincts are we still think that Tim Johnson will win this before the recount begins.

ZAHN: No matter which way this goes, in closing this morning, do you still view that race as the Bush-Daschle referendum?

DASCHLE: Well, I never really wanted to view it as that. I think you've got two people that are well known in South Dakota, respected. This was much more an issue involving those two members of Congress. We'll see how it all shakes out. But I feel very good with this tidal wave we've seen around the country that Tim Johnson is still the last man standing.

ZAHN: Senator Daschle, thank you very much for your time this morning. We really appreciate it.

DASCHLE: Thank you.

ZAHN: I know you didn't pull the all nighter for us, you were up all night anyway. But we do appreciate your spending a couple moments with us this morning.

Lest you think we're not going to talk with any Republicans this morning, soon to be Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott will be joining us, as well as the head of the RNC in this half hour.

We'd like to balance that in a different order. That's just the way the interviews came through this morning.

Let's quickly turn to Tucker Carlson and Bill Schneider.

I specifically wanted you to react to the criticism that Tom Daschle had of the media for not covering the Democratic economic plan. We have seen Democrats themselves conceded there was no economic plan to effectively challenge the president.


ZAHN: What's the truth here?

SCHNEIDER: The truth is there was a pretty strong complaint. And I remember covering Tom Daschle standing on the Senate floor about a month ago with lots of charts and graphs, which he talked about two million jobs lost. He talked about the deficit, the surplus turning into a deficit. He talked about the trillions of dollars in wealth lost from the stock market. That was all shown.

But when it came to the bottom line, I don't know what it was that he was proposing to do. Of course, a lot of that did get buried by the president, who obviously has a lot of standing in this country, when he talked about Iraq and the Iraq resolution and he talked about his plans and even his campaign.

But Daschle was there. We covered it. But I can't say that I can recall what the bottom line was.

ZAHN: So you're saying it's not the media's fault that the message didn't get out there to the electorate?

SCHNEIDER: I don't think so. And, of course, he's not the only Democrat. There are lots of Democrats there and they just weren't all singing from the same hymn book.

ZAHN: Just a reaction to some of what you have heard this morning from Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle and how they are characterizing these losses last night.

SCHNEIDER: I think that they are remorseful. They want to avoid recriminations, which I think at this point are kind of inevitable. The Democrats are really going to be split over this. You had -- the criticism you hear of Democrats, which they didn't share because they're responsible for, in many ways, for the loss, and they're accepting that responsibility. We just heard that. They're sorrowful over it. But they're going to be the subject, the target of charges that they were too timid.

And you're hearing it from Democrats all over the country. If they had only stood up to Bush on Iraq. If they had only taken a stronger position on corporate responsibility. I mean this is an administration run by corporate executives. Why couldn't the Democrats make an issue of corporate responsibility? What about the economy?

ZAHN: Even if they had made an issue of corporate responsibility, would it have had any resonance with the American public when you look at the polls leading up to the election here? It seems that both parties were evenly split on the issue of the economy.


ZAHN: If you were to sort of munch them altogether.


ZAHN: And corporate malfeasance wasn't anywhere at the top of the chart.

SCHNEIDER: No, it wasn't, because the administration acted very fast to get a bill through Congress, and the president targeted the wrongdoers. People never blamed him or the system for what went wrong. And I think the administration responded very adroitly on that issue. The fact is I think if the Democrats had gone to a leftward lurch and come out against the president's tax plan and had taken him on on Iraq, they would have revived the most damaging negative stereotypes of the Democratic Party, that the Democratic Party attacks lovers and defenders haters, and that would have been even more disastrous.

ZAHN: And Tucker Carlson, wouldn't that have risked the criticism that they were alienating the centrists out there had they gone that way...


ZAHN: ... with a leftward lurch...

CARLSON: I think they could have...

ZAHN: ... which I'm sure would have warmed the cockles of your heart.

CARLSON: Well, I like a good vigorous debate, working on "Crossfire," as I do. I think there are two completely distinct issues. You know, the essence of the economic argument is the tax cut, whether to make it permanent, whether to repeal it. And Democrats really couldn't come to a consensus on that. Iraq, I think, they could have done pretty well. In the end, it's a Bush election. Everybody in this election, almost all the Democrats, except for Bill McBride and maybe a few others, ran with Bush, put him in their ads. This election was all about Bush and so I think it was inevitable that Republicans essentially swept it.

ZAHN: Thank you, Tucker Carlson, Bill Schneider.


ZAHN: You'll be sitting here throughout the morning. You have no choice. We're not letting either one of you leave here this morning.

CARLSON: That's right, we're trapped.


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