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CNN CROSSFIRE

Can Anyone Beat George W. Bush in 2004?

Aired December 2, 2002 - 19:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE: On the left: James Carville and Paul Begala. On the right: Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson. In the CROSSFIRE tonight: who is in charge at the White House, the president or his political gurus? A former White House insider says in this White House politics rule.
Ready or not, the 2004 presidential race is set to go.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: I will be beginning the process of putting together a national campaign.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: Can Senator Kerry beat Bush? Can anyone?

And was 9/11 in the book? Is the date for Armageddon? The man who says he cracked the bible code is at it again.

Ahead on CROSSFIRE.

From the George Washington University: Paul Begala and Robert Novak.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Tonight, watch out. Here comes the stampede of Democratic presidential wannabes. We've also got the author of "The Bible Code II." Maybe he'll predict the Democratic nominee. But first, a prediction we're sure you can count on, our CROSSFIRE "Political Alert" is going to start right now.

Vermont Governor Howard Dean now is not the only Democratic candidate for president. He has been joined by Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. The senator announced on NBC's "Meet The Press" yesterday that he will file papers with Federal Election Commission this week. His policy stands were not surprising. "No new tax cuts," said Senator Kerry, echoing the line by his fellow (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Michael Dukakis and other unsuccessful Democratic candidates for president.

The last Massachusetts Democrat to be elected president proposed cuts for everybody who pays income taxes. His name was John F. Kennedy, but John Kerry is ignoring his example. PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST: Of course when John F. Kennedy ran, the top margin rate was around 90. Now it is about in the low 30s, because Bush cut it down fat (ph) low.

NOVAK: Still too low (ph).

BEGALA: Well I'm sure it is for you. But no, Kerry did not say no new tax cuts. He said no Bush tax cuts for the rich. He proposed a payroll tax cut, which 80 percent of us pay more in payroll taxes than income tax.

NOVAK: I think he said no new tax cuts. But we'll argue about that.

BEGALA: No, just not the Bush kind. We'll argue about that a lot later tonight...

NOVAK: When George W. Bush appointed -- I'm sorry, I'm reading your...

BEGALA: That's OK. That's OK, Bob. I didn't mean to -- when George W. Bush appointed this great Ivy League scholar, a guy named John Dilulio, to run his faith-based initiative. And at the time, Bush called Dilulio -- and I quote -- "one of the most influential social entrepreneurs in America." But now watch the Bush attack machine, because it's about to kick into overdrive to slam Dilulio.

Why? Well, in a new issue of "Esquire" magazine, Professor he says this, "There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus. What you've got is everything -- and I mean everything -- being run by the political arm. It's the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis. There is a virtual absence of any policy accomplishments."

Now, to be fair to President Bush, I'm going to disagree with John Dilulio. Bush has had some very important domestic accomplishments. He's reintroduced the peanut butter and jelly sandwich to the White House. He's presided over t-ball games. He's cleared a heck of a lot of brush there from that ranch in Texas. So that's something. A few accomplishments there for our president.

NOVAK: Paul, there are three lessons out of this. Do not appoint academics who voted for Al Gore in 2000, as Mr. Dilulio did. Number two, don't give interviews to Ron Suskind, who is the writer for "Esquire" with a notorious reputation who wrote the thing. And the third lesson is, listen to what Mr. Dilulio said when he apologized and backtracked from most of these accusations.

BEGALA: Well, we're going to get to that too. That was really creepy and spooky. He wrote much of this himself. He wrote a letter that they published in the magazine. Now he's trying to run away from it because the heat is on.

NOVAK: Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu, who campaigned to save her Senate seat in Saturday's Louisiana runoff election issued this pledge: "I most certainly would not hold a news conference to let Louisiana voters know I have been approved by some Washington, D.C. special interest group." Such a group, Senator Landrieu added (ph), would eagerly endorse her Republican opponent, Suzanne Haik Terrell.

Thanks to "The Washington Times," however, we learned that the senator on Wednesday is scheduled to be the honored guest and beneficiary of a fundraiser sponsored by the Washington-based winning margins PAC. Do you wonder that Mary Landrieu is in big political trouble in Louisiana?

BEGALA: Well, our friend, James Carville, was down in Louisiana for Thanksgiving and I asked him how it was going. And he said the only thing anybody is talking about is how LSU blew the game to Arkansas this week. He said nobody is even focused on that race yet. There's a whole week to go. I think Mary Landrieu will do the best she can, we'll see. I don't know if she has the right strategy, though.

NOVAK: Doing the best you can ain't good enough in politics. It is whether you win or lose.

BEGALA: That's right. And I think she would do better if she would take on Bush and the Republicans more.

NOVAK: She looks like a loser to me.

BEGALA: Me too, because I think she's not fighting the Republicans enough.

Well, speaking of fights, an angry Henry Kissinger lashed back at his critics this weekend, insisting that the numerous multinational corporations for which he works would present no conflict of interest whatsoever in his new role as chairman of the independent commission to investigate 9/11. Of course we'll have no way of knowing whether there is a conflict, since Mr. Kissinger won't even release a list of his clients' names, much less suspend taking money from them while he investigates the matter.

"The New York Times" says that two Kissinger clients are believed to be Exxon Mobil and Atlantic Richfield Petroleum. Two of the world's biggest oil companies. A comically indignant Kissinger told CNN, "I have served six presidents and I have never been accused of anything of this kind." Perhaps not, but Kissinger has been accused of war crimes, so a conflict of interest would be a step up.

NOVAK: You know one of the working definitions of a nut bag is somebody who accuses Henry Kissinger of being a war criminal. Are you one of those nut bags, Paul?

BEGALA: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)? I just read books. I never met Henry Kissinger.

NOVAK: You think he's a war criminal?

BEGALA: I'll tell you what, he's unfit to investigate 9/11 until he reveals who he's taken money from, from multinational corporations. I think there is a conflict of interest. That's what I think. They ought to expose it.

NOVAK: I'm glad you wouldn't join the nut bags on that.

In Jackson, Mississippi, today, Lieutenant Governor Amy Tuck switched from the Democratic Party to the Republicans. At her side were two prominent Mississippi Republicans, the presumptive U.S. Senator Majority Leader, Trent Lott, and former GOP National Chairman, Haley Barbour, who is running for governor of Mississippi next year. These are tough days for Democrats in the magnolia state. For the first time ever, the Democratic Party did not run a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Mississippi this year. It lost another Democratic congressman in the state, Ronnie Shows, and the state legislature has just enacted two tort reforms, hitting the Democratic Party in its trial lawyer bankroll.

BEGALA: Well, you can gloat about Republican gains in Mississippi and they are real. Frankly, I had no idea who the lieutenant governor of Mississippi was or what party he or she was in. But you can have Mississippi. My party, the Democrats, will take California, when we won every single race up and down the ballot. And it's a hell of a lot bigger state with a lot more electoral votes. So I'd take that trade.

NOVAK: You know, you concede enough southern states, and I detect a little hint of the south in your accent. You concede enough southern states like Texas and Florida and North Carolina and pretty soon, boy, you got them all lost.

BEGALA: I just said Mississippi, they made gains, they should be congratulated for them. I wouldn't give up Florida. I think Gore won Florida last time. He'll win it the next time if he runs.

NOVAK: Oh really?

BEGALA: Well, for the first time in his life -- this is astonishing news -- George W. Bush disagrees with the powerful corporate lobby. In this case, the business roundtable. But President Bush is not fighting the corporate lobby on behalf of ordinary folks. Amazingly, it is the business roundtable that is asking Bush to stop giving so much away to business.

The roundtable argues that giving tax breaks to lower and middle income Americans, such as Democrats proposed, would do more to boost the economy than more Bush tax breaks for corporate interests. Mr. Bush, of course, disagrees. So there you have it.

George W. Bush finally has found a fight with a corporate special interest. Of course, it is only because Bush is more pro corporate than even the business roundtable. Clearly, the folks at the business roundtable have been reading "It's Still the Economy, Stupid." And so I look forward to Mr. Bush perusing it as well. Perhaps when the cartoon version comes out this spring.

NOVAK: For the few of you who don't know it, "It's Still the Economy, Stupid" is Mr. Paul Begala's latest book.

BEGALA: Thank you for plugging it.

NOVAK: How much does it cost?

BEGALA: About $12.50. Nice stocking stuffer.

NOVAK: Yeah. You know, Paul, I'll give you a little history you may not be aware of. What John F. Kennedy cut taxes across the board, including upper-bracket tax cuts and business tax cuts in 1961, (UNINTELLIGIBLE), the business was against him. They were against Ronald Reagan when he made the cuts. They were not enthusiastic about the Reagan cuts.

The idea of cutting taxes is not the idea of corporate America. It is of the individual entrepreneurs, which are the bedrock of American private capital.

BEGALA: And we will continue this debate, believe me. But, in a couple of minutes, we're going to have some political veterans reminisce about what it was like back when presidents actually had a domestic policy. And they will discuss the shocking revelations from "Esquire" magazine that a high-level former Bush aide has made.

Later, ready or not, the 2004 presidential race is getting under way. And also, the man who says current events are foretold in code in the bible. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NOVAK: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. According to "Esquire" magazine, an article by Ron Suskind, the former director of President Bush's faith-based welfare initiative was shocked to discover that politics plays a central role in decision-making at the White House. Apparently he had never heard of the Clinton administration. But, wait a minute, John Dilulio is suggesting the article does not accurately reflect his criticisms and apologizes for what was published.

First in the CROSSFIRE tonight are former Clinton Press Secretary Joe Lockhart and Republican Consultant Charlie Black.

(APPLAUSE)

BEGALA: Charlie, let's get right to it. This is -- it happens in every White House. We were talking to Lou Dobbs about this before. We remember David Stockman (ph) coming out and saying that Reaganomics was a Trojan horse to get the deficit back up. And Robert Reich in President Clinton's cabinet left and wrote a very disloyal and not very accurate memoir. It happens to every White House.

But look at what John Dilulio said. A top-level policy adviser to the president of the United States. Here is what he says in "Esquire." "There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus. What you've got is everything -- and I mean everything -- being run by the political arm. It's the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis."

Now you were a political adviser for Ronald Reagan. He did not put politics first, did he? He had principle first, didn't he?

CHARLIE BLACK, REPUBLICAN CONSULTANT: He put principle first, just like this president does.

BEGALA: That's not what his adviser says.

BLACK: Well, it is worth noting -- do I have to read the apology that Bob's already referred to twice?

BEGALA: Actually, I want you to.

BLACK: He said, unlike Stockman (ph) and Secretary Reich, he said, number one, he didn't say it. And number two, he apologized to Karl Rove because of the way this looked. Just understand about four real quick things.

Number one, President Bush sets policy in this White House. Number two, Karl Rove is a policy adviser. He's always been involved in policy for George Bush, going back to before he was elected governor. He's an expert in a number of policy areas.

Number three, to say that there is no policy apparatus also insults experienced policy hands, like Andy Card, Josh Bolton (ph), Larry Lindsey (ph), Glenn Hubbard (ph). Whether you agree with them or not, you know they're good experienced policy hands. Number four, the theme inside the White House not for public consumption is good policy makes good politics. Let's do the right thing and, if we do, we'll succeed politically. That's the way it works.

BEGALA: I'm curious as to why Dilulio, who worked there, didn't see that and he reflects differently. You mentioned an apology they issued, and I do want to talk about that because I find it stunning. The article came out and the White House press secretary trashed it, saying it was groundless and baseless.

Now I noticed that because I thought that was really foolish. You can say it is unfair or something, it can't be groundless and baseless. It is grounded in his experience in the White House. It's based on his own experience.

So wait a minute. Then Dilulio a few hours later issues his own statement -- or the University of Pennsylvania does -- using the same words. John Dilulio agrees his criticisms were groundless and baseless. This is Orwellian. What are they breaking bones over there?

BLACK: There you go. It is a short segment, Bob. Can we leave now?

BEGALA: That's thought control.

BLACK: What are you talking about? This guy -- he's a college professor, he's got tenure. Nobody can threaten him. He doesn't work at the White House anymore. So neither he nor the university would put something out he didn't believe. It was groundless and baseless and he's a big man to admit it. NOVAK: Mr. Lockhart, I've got to get personal, if I can. Not about you, about myself.

JOE LOCKHART, FMR. WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: That's scary.

NOVAK: Ron Suskind asked me for an interview. I declined because he has a very bad reputation. But he got me into the article anyway with one sentence. He said, "Sources close to the former president, George Bush, say Karl Rove..." -- who is the villain of this piece, the aide -- "... was fired from the 1992 Bush presidential campaign after he planted a negative story with columnist Robert Novak about dissatisfaction with campaign fundraising chief and Bush loyalist Robert Nossbecker Jr. (ph), who was smoked out and he was summarily ousted.

Now, in one sentence, it is very difficult to make four mistakes. Factual mistake one, he wasn't the source in the column, it was somebody else. I know, because I wrote the column. Number two, Nossbecker (ph) was not the champ -- the fundraising chief. It Nossbecker's (ph) father.

Number three, he was not -- Rove was not fired from the campaign. He was fired from a little Texas victory committee that this Rob Nossbecker (ph) ran. And number four, he campaigned all over the country for Bush in '92. Now if he makes four mistakes in one sentence about me, how can you take any -- have any faith in this whole piece?

LOCKHART: Well listen, Bob, I'm not here to defend the author of the article. I don't know the guy. But what I do know from the article is that the person in question, this college professor, wrote a seven-page -- what he called a manifesto. And no one sat with him -- he didn't make him write it. He wrote it himself, and in that he made stunning revelations about the White House, about how there is no domestic policy.

It is just a bunch of people looking at polls and making politically popular decisions. He wrote it. Now I think Paul is right here. Look at what happened today.

This morning, reporters called this professor and said, what do you think? And he basically stood by his comments. He took issue with two quotes out of a long story.

The White House has their briefing, and the next thing you know, he says "baseless and groundless." No one believes it. This isn't the Kremlin here. Nobody believes that. They believe what is in the story.

NOVAK: I don't know if you know John Dilulio, but he is a tough guy, who, by the way, he voted for Al Gore, which is one of the lessons. Don't appoint people who voted for the guy you defeated. But let me just say that it is full of mistakes. He was seven months at the White House, not 14 months. He's not a historian.

But the other facts are, Mr. Dulilio, in his statements, says that many of the things were not contained in his written statement and he doesn't remember saying them. And let's just look at the conclusion. Foreget get this baseless and groundless business. "In my opinion, the article is unjustly hard on Mr. Rove and over-the-top complimentary to me, thereby creating a too-pat contrast that, I feel, most unfair to Mr. Rove."

LOCKHART: I understand why you and the brethren are so upset here. Because...

NOVAK: I'm always upset.

LOCKHART: You're always upset. That is true. Listen, what's happened here is we revealed that the emperor has no clothes. There is no domestic policy apparatus.

I got this thing, which another thing that I think is stunning. The White House accomplishment list that was put out the day before Thanksgiving. And let's look at what they took credit for. Creating a Homeland Security Department, something they opposed for nine months until the heat really got turned up.

(CROSSTALK)

NOVAK: ... come on.

LOCKHART: This is the White House. This is the -- you can read it. It is there.

NOVAK: You were giving me...

(CROSSTALK)

LOCKHART: How about this one, maintaining fiscal discipline? Oh, surplus to deficit, that's good. But this is my favorite -- these are my favorite two: cracking down on corporate corruption, something that he resisted for four months until he finally had to put out I'll sign anything you send, and then this, campaign finance reform. Strong supporter of campaign finance reform. There is nothing.

BEGALA: I don't carry a brief for this author, but I do know that he won a Pulitzer Prize. He can't be a very bad journalist.

BLACK: Not for this stuff he didn't win a Pulitzer Prize.

BEGALA: So let's not look at something then that Ron Suskind wrote in a current issue of "Esquire," let's look at what John Dilulio himself wrote in "The Weekly Standard" two weeks ago. Let me read to you from Dilulio.

Now maybe he's had some kind of a thought conversion again. The North Koreans in the Bush White House have gotten a hold of him on this. Here's what he wrote in his own hand.

"The administration's domestic policy record is almost non- existent. Not counting policymaking through speech-making in related communications adventures, no White House in recent memory has focused so little staff energy on thinking through and proposing meaningful social welfare initiatives. As a result, the Bush 'compassion agenda' in all but rhetorical terms has virtually disappeared."

The same thing he wrote to "Esquire," which Ron Suskind used, he wrote weeks earlier in "The Weekly Standard."

BLACK: Well, I don't know what he's talking about. But let's look at the facts.

(CROSSTALK)

BLACK: Well let me tell you what they are. George Bush...

LOCKHART: Now that we found that he isn't sorry, that maybe he's for real, now...

BLACK: President Bush ran for president on six big major issues: rebuilding the military, tax cuts, reforming education, entitlement reform, allowing faith-based institutions to deliver social services, and reformatting energy. He's tried to act on every one of those. He got a budget passed that helped rebuild the military, that got his tax cuts.

He worked with the Democrats to get fundamental education reform. He got through the House -- where we had a Republican majority -- he got a good energy bill, prescription drug bill. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) reforms haven't happened yet. Bold policy initiatives, a lot them passed. And even some of the things Joe named, for example, homeland security...

(CROSSTALK)

LOCKHART: I never thought I'd try to interrupt someone to hear from Novak, but let's go.

NOVAK: Joe, you used to be a press secretary. Can't you see what happened? Here is a guy who is trying to get dirt on Karl Rove. Most people won't talk to him. I won't even talk to him. And he finds this one professor who is giving him off-the-record comments and he hits a gold mine and the whole piece is this panegyric -- you know what panegyric means -- for John Dilulio. Isn't that the fact?

LOCKHART: That depends on (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

BEGALA: I've got to say I don't know that one.

LOCKHART: Listen, you were getting upset because it gets at the truth. I mean name me -- Bob, name me something that he's done on the domestic agenda where he's actually gone against public opinion, a tough decision he's made?

BEGALA: On that question, I have to...

(CROSSTALK)

LOCKHART: He hasn't done anything on Social Security reform. He's run away from it.

BEGALA: Joe Lockhart, my old pal from the Clinton White House, thank you for joining us. Charlie Black, Republican political strategist, who, by the way, was right about the North Carolina Senate race I was wrong, I made a mistake on that.

Coming up, a Democratic war hero gets ready to take on the president, who reportedly failed to show up for his National Guard duty. We will look at what Senator John Kerry brings to a possible race against George W. Bush.

Later, a man who says our bibles tell us more than we think they do if you know the right code. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts was sounding a lot like a presidential candidate today. In Boston, he gave a speech blasting President Bush for signing a billion-dollar bailout for big insurance companies last week, while allowing benefits for millions of jobless workers to run out at Christmas time. Tomorrow, Senator Kerry, who is getting ready to form a presidential exploratory committee, will outline his economic policy.

Joining us to talk about presidential politics, Democratic Strategist Peter Fenn and Republican Strategist Alex Castellanos.

NOVAK: Peter Fenn, actually, John Kerry announced his candidacy on "Meet The Press" yesterday.

PETER FENN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Are you jealous?

NOVAK: No. I just think it's an interesting venue. Nelson Rockefeller in 1964 announced it on the "Today" show, so it's nothing new. But let me just give you a sound bite from "Meet The Press" yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KERRY: I'm for universal healthcare for all Americans. And it is long since time that we put such a plan on the table.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOVAK: Now, the reason it is long since that they (ph) put a plan on the table was it was rejected by the American people in 1994 in one of the great Republican landslides in American history. And then Bill Bradley tried to put it on the table against Al Gore in the Democratic primaries and Gore said it just wouldn't work. Isn't this something that -- this is the kind of dog food that the dogs just won't eat?

FENN: You know that's you folks said about Medicare in the 1950s and '60s. It was, oh, we will never pass that. We can never have Medicare. It is one of the key programs for our senior citizens. Look, under this administration, the number of people who are not insured has increased again. Every time the Republicans get in, seems there are more people who don't have health insurance. And our health system, you talk to everybody who is writing that check for health insurance is a mess. We have to do something.

NOVAK: Peter, I'm talking a subject that you know something about. You don't know anything about healthcare, but you know something about politics. And...

FENN: I admit, you wouldn't want me writing the healthcare plan.

NOVAK: No, I sure wouldn't, or any other plan. But there was no campaign ever run on Medicare, as the Democrats -- just a minute -- as the Democrats ran the 1994 campaign. Why do you think that the American people would say, absolutely no, we don't want Hillary care, and eight years later they want it?

FENN: I'll tell you why. Because the insurance industry put in $16 million in paid ads with Harry and Louise (ph) saying it was going to be a big government program. They never got to the point where they were discussing the issues. That's what we have to do, is discuss this in a way where we can get healthcare for the 43 million Americans that don't have it.

BEGALA: First, let me congratulate you on your many victories this November. Success agrees with you. You look better, too. You were looking a little haggard last time I saw you, but now you're flush with victory.

But let me ask you, as maybe the best strategist in your party, how are you guys going to go after Kerry? Seems to me Bush has four lines of attack that he uses on everyone. He says you're a liberal, you're a liar, you're a crook and you're a kook. He did all four against John McCain and then he turned and did all four against Al Gore. Is this going to be the strategy against Kerry, or which ones will they pick?

ALEX CASTELLANOS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well that does seem to cover a lot of the Democratic Party. But Kerry...

BEGALA: For McCain too.

CASTELLANOS: Kerry is an attractive candidate, and I don't think the president needs to deal with him. I think it's Gore, Kerry, there are a lot of Democrats who are going to have to slug this out. The Democratic Party is a party right now in tremendous division looking for it's soul. They don't know who they are.

They tried running as Republicans this past election. They got decimated. Now they're contracting, they're becoming, you know, the liberal party that they are. And I think this is a race to the left.

Gore has outflanked Kerry already with -- you know, for universal healthcare. We're now going to pay for healthcare for everyone in the universe. Good plan. And it's going to be a race to the left to see who can get there. If you think Ted Kennedy should be president of the United States, but you'd like it slimmer, than John Kerry is your guy.

BEGALA: Well let's take a look at one thing that he said on "Meet The Press." He took the fight not to Al Gore and the Democrats. Straight to George W. Bush on the issue of taxes, Bush's signature issue. Look at John Kerry talking about taxes on "Meet the Press" with Tim Russert.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KERRY: What I would not do is give any new Bush tax cuts. I would propose major tax reform effort. People are sick and tired of the tax system that they know favors people who can play the loopholes, and play the games. The average worker in this country feels oppressed by taxation. We need to give, I think, a tax break now, today, now to move our economy forward in the form of a payroll tax.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BEGALA: There we go. You know who ran on saying no new tax breaks for the rich but a tax break for the middle class? Bill Clinton. And he beat the last Bush like a bad piece of (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

NOVAK: And then he didn't give the tax cuts to the middle class.

BEGALA: Yes, he did. Yes, he did.

NOVAK: Oh, come one.

BEGALA: Sure, he did.

CASTELLANOS: One of the many promises he kept, I'm sure. Look, either you're for higher taxes or lower taxes. Kerry, we just saw, is the higher taxes candidate. He thinks the problem with Washington, the problem with Washington -- doesn't have -- we don't have...

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: A tax break for working people.

CASTELLANOS: Wasn't that the Gore tax plan? Excuse me, Peter, wasn't that the Gore tax plan, that we were going to give tax cuts to the right people, and we in government -- we in Washington, we're so smart, we'll decide who the right people are.

FENN: The right people are hard working -- this is why the Democrats haven't lost their soul, because they stand up for hard- working people, and right now they're paying 6.2 percent in the payroll tax...

CASTELLANOS: And you're going to decide who the right people are. FENN: And I'm going decide who -- listen, when 40 percent of the Bush tax break goes to the top 5 percent, there is a problem. When the average working stiff is getting stiffed on health care and getting stiffed with a Bush tax plan...

(CROSSTALK)

CASTELLANOS: ... cut taxes for people who don't pay taxes.

FENN: No, that is wrong. They pay sales taxes and they pay a whopping section of their income in payroll taxes.

(CROSSTALK)

FENN: No, you're getting plenty of tax cuts. So have I.

NOVAK: I love (UNINTELLIGIBLE) this debate. It beats the Gore/Bush debate -- we have to take a break, and in just a minute, we'll ask these two gentlemen about the Democrats' hunt for fresh faces and a new poll that shows the most stale face of all way ahead of the pack.

Later, we'll ask the man who claims he cracked the Bible code what will come first, the Democrats recapturing the White House or the end of the world?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NOVAK: A new CNN/"TIME" magazine poll cannot be very encouraging for Democratic Party leaders. It shows Al Gore with 36 percent. Yes, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton with 20 percent. And the rest of the pack in single digits. Can anybody beat George W. Bush? We're talking presidential politics with Democratic strategist Peter Fenn and Republican strategist Alex Castellanos.

BEGALA: Alex, the polls notwithstanding, one of the things at least I'm looking for is some toughness. And I think American people are looking for strength, particularly on national security. One of the things I was struck by in Kerry's interview with Russert yesterday -- he went right at Bush on military issues, and very politely suggested Bush wimped out in Tora Bora by not going in and getting bin Laden. Here is what he said. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KERRY: We had al Qaeda and we had Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Tora Bora. I think we made a bad decision in how we fought that particular encounter.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BEGALA: There is a war hero who is saying that Bush was not hawkish enough in Tora Bora.

CASTELLANOS: George Bush is being criticized by Democrats for not being tough enough on defense? NOVAK: That's the line.

CASTELLANOS: OK, if you guys want to go there, I don't know how that is going to advance you at any point. Kerry's challenge is not to out-tough Bush right now. First of all, I think it's a really hard to believe that the president who stood on that hill of debris at September 11 and...

BEGALA: And let Osama bin Laden escape. Sending rag-tag Northern Alliance troops in (UNINTELLIGIBLE) finest fighting force in the world.

CASTELLANOS: And defeated the Taliban and liberated a country, has cleaned up their...

(CROSSTALK)

CASTELLANOS: And has kept us safe for over a year since September 11 in this country, at least, that's not being tough enough?

But you know, Kerry, look, Kerry is a very attractive candidate, a very left wing candidate. He's the supermodel of the Democratic Party, sexy hair and thin on ideas.

FENN: We wish we had his hair, right, Alex?

NOVAK: I'd like you, Peter, to commit to candor. I know it is hard but I want you to do it. I mean, how do you feel about the fact that after two years of lying (UNINTELLIGIBLE), that Al Gore is still far ahead of anybody, that nobody attracted the attention of America? Isn't that depressing?

FENN: I think it's not depressing at all. I think, first of all, you're talking about the man who won the election with a 515,000 more votes.

BEGALA: Amen.

FENN: The second thing you're talking about is you're talking right now very early in the game with folks, name recognition, and, of course who is going to be up there? This is just testing name recognition.

But let me make a point about John Kerry. Let me make a point about John Kerry. You're talking about a guy, who is a war hero, who's going out strong on this. And you know what else -- he's the guy that helped put 100,000 cops on the street. That was one of his ideas that he (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

(CROSSTALK)

CASTELLANOS: I think Democrats -- Republicans know how tough Al Gore can be. I think Democrats underestimate Al Gore. He is a tough, tough candidate.

NOVAK: (UNINTELLIGIBLE). CASTELLANOS: And this Al Gore is much more life-like than the last one.

FENN: We have a lot of tough candidates, that's the key point. We have got a lot of tough candidates.

BEGALA: Well, we have two terrific guests tonight. Peter Fenn from the Democratic Party, thank you very much. Alex Castellanos for the Republicans, thank you very much, guys.

You know, the Book of Ecclesiastes says there is nothing new under the sun. But coming up, a man who says he's found lots of new revelations in the good book, using a computer to crack God's secret code.

Also, our "Quote of the Day." It's a progress report that could serve as a prediction. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NOVAK: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. We're coming to you from the George Washington University in Foggy Bottom, D.C.

In 1997, former newspaper reporter Michael Drosnin created a best-seller of biblical proportions. His book the"Bible Code" claimed that if you analyze the ancient Hebrew text correctly, the bible can predict modern day events including the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Now, Mr. Drosnin has written a follow-up, "Bible Code II the Count Down" and it starts with the September 11 terrorist attacks and counts down to Armageddon.

Michael Drosnin, joins us now from our New York Bureau.

BEGALA: Mr. Drosnin, thank you for joining us.

(CROSSTALK)

MICHAEL DROSNIN, AUTHOR: Good to be here with you.

BEGALA: Thank you, sir.

Before we get to the end of the world, let me go to something that for a lot of us was politically catastrophic and that was Bush versus Gore and the recount. You say that the Bible predicted that in the code that you say you have cracked. Let me read to you from your book, so the audience can see exactly what you say.

"This is page 189 to 190. You say where Al Gore was Encoded with President Gore, the Hebrew letters that following his name clearly stated a different outcome. 'A judge will rule now evil will be done to you." I looked again you write "at the Bible code table that originally predicted Bush victor. By mistake and in error appeared just above President Bush. But the most important encoding foretold the decisive moment in world history the new president would face. G. W. Bush was encoded with president where the plain text of the Bible stated 'in the End of Days"

First off, I don't know how to unpack all that. Just tell me how you figured ought that out.

DROSNIN: Let me start by telling you I'm only a reporter. I didn't figure it all out. A very famous mathematician in Israel is the man who discovered the Bible code. I'm only the reporter who is telling his story and who is using the code that he created to see what is predicted. And it is indeed very frightening.

BEGALA: But god is really pissed about the Supreme Court thing. That's what I want to get to, right -- Michael.

NOVAK: Aggravated.

BEGALA: Aggravated. Now god will strike me down because I said pissed. He's hacked-off about this, isn't he?

DROSNIN: I can't say god created the bible. I'm not religious. But whoever or whatever intelligence did encode the Bible clearly foresaw 3,000 years ago the outcome of the closest election in American history and knew that Bush would be (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and how it would happen.

NOVAK: Mr Drosnin, as far as I can see all the experts, scientists, Judaic scholars, think you're out to lunch on this book. And let me quote one of them now Dave Thomas in "People Magazine," this is not the late Dave Thomas from Wendy's, this is a mathematician and physicist. And he says, he wrote in 1997, "Hidden messages can be found anywhere provided you're willing to invest time and effort to harvest the vast field of probability. He, Drosnin, underestimates the power of chance combined with the brute force of computers. He says these messages are beyond the power of chance, and I've proven they are not."

What is your response to Dr. Thomas here?

DROSNIN: It's really silly. In fact, the great scientist who discovered the Bible code who is the world's leading expert in group theory, the field of mathematics that underlies quantum physics, told me just the other day that the evidence for the Bible code is stronger than ever.

There is no question that the Bible code is real. And there is no question that it does foretell events that happened thousands of years after the Bible was written. Sometimes before they happen. And when one of the critics can find encoded anywhere except in the Bible the assassination of a prime minister a year in advance then we can listen to them. Until then, they are the ones who are just making a lot of noise.

BEGALA: Well, Michael, let me rise to the challenge. Barry Fagan, a senior fellow at the independence institute and in the "Denver Post," a couple of years ago, when your first book came out, this is what he had to say, he took up your challenge. He looked at another book, here is what he said, "Unfortunately for Drosnin, and others easily amazed, there is nothing astonishing about it. Using a computer, as he did, you can find similar results in just about any large text you care to try. 'Mobby Dick,' for example, contains interconnected ELSs of 'Kennedy,' 'head,' 'shot' and 'had been so killed.' 'War and Peace' predicts last year's NBA championship interconnecting 'Jordan,' 'Chicago' and 'Bulls.' I'm even running a code analyzer on this article as I type it. So far I've found 'Coke adds life' and 'Love Boat hit show."

Your response?

DROSNIN: Paul, you can find nonsense anywhere you look for it if what you're looking for is nonsense. But if you're looking for the truth, then you to look in the Bible code. It is true that if you take a long enough text, I don't care if it is "Moby Dick" or the Manhattan telephone directory, you will eventually find encoded President Kennedy with an equal skip sequence. But you will not find in the same place as you will in the Bible in the same skip sequence "will be killed" and "Dallas" encoded in the same place.

You will certainly not find in advance the assassination of a prime minister as I did. I warned Rabin a year ahead of time. Nor will you find in advance the exact dates of the Gulf War as Dr. Rips (ph) and his colleagues did in Israel before the war started. None of the critics can do that. They can place silly games, but they cannot do what the bible code consistently does, tell us in advance events that actually do happen.

BEGALA: Mr. Drosnin, I want to thank you. We've run out of time.

The book is the "Bible Code II the Count Down". The author is Michael Drosnin. Thank you very much, for joining us, sir.

We predict in a little while you'll get a chance to fire back at us. One of our Canadian viewers is still giving Bob Novak the cold shoulder and you'll find out why next.

And then our quote of the day, may turn into the prediction of the big story of next year. Stay Tuned.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BEGALA: Next Sunday, Iraq faces a deadline. Saddam Hussein's regime has to provide U.N. weapons inspectors with a full inventory of its nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs. It is a deadline President Bush takes very seriously.

Before signing the new defense spending bill today, our president served notice that any act of delay or deception or defiance will prove that Saddam Hussein has not adopted the path of compliance and has rejected the path of peace.

So has Saddam Hussein decided to cooperate willingly and comply completely? The president's assessment is our Quote of the Day. Quote -- "So far, the signs are not encouraging."

NOVAK: You know, Paul, the inspectors, Hans Blix, the Swedish diplomat who heads them, and his team, said so far they have been very cooperative. So I think there is a -- the president's attitude gives an indication that he doesn't want to take yes for an answer there.

BEGALA: There have been a couple of bumps in the road but I wonder -- it seemed to me that statement was overly bellicose too. I mean, I think he's right to say we have to have absolute compliance, but there hasn't been anything yet to cause the kind of outburst we saw today. I was surprised by it.

NOVAK: OK.

Coming up next, proof that the Begala for president bandwagon is picking up steam!

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BEGALA: Welcome back. Time now for "Fireback," where you get a chance to fire right back at us. That's why we call it "Fireback."

Bill Ganner in Palm Harbor, Florida, writes: "Sorry, Paul. It's not about the economy, stupid. It's about bringing respect, dignity and honor back to the White House and to the American people. Thank you, W."

Yes, I would like respect, dignity and honor back to the White House. Bush has driven it off by his conduct, trashing the economy and lying to us about the war.

NOVAK: That's not what the American people think, Paul. I hate to tell you.

BEGALA: That's why they voted for Gore.

NOVAK: The next question is from Paula Salmon -- Salmon of Huntsville, Ontario, Canada, who writes: "Mr. Novak doesn't like Canada sharing the continent, apparently. Is it the cold chill of our weather that bothers him or the cold chill of our logic? Feel free to move."

Now, Paula, that is a typical example of Canadian logic. I don't like our neighbors to the north and I'm supposed to move.

BEGALA: Well, Mexico is nice this time of year.

NOVAK: Yes.

BEGALA: Tom Lialios writes from Norwalk, Connecticut about some comments...

NOVAK: Is he any relation to John Dilulio?

BEGALA: Yes, I have no idea. Perhaps. From Norwalk, Mr. Liallios writes about some comments I made about Rush Limbaugh, the rotund radio host: "Paul, Paul, Paul. Fat boy Limbaugh? When was the last time you saw Rush? Blind and hateful. What a combo! Have you figured out why the Democrats lost the election?"

Gee, I don't know that Rush is blind. He is hateful, but I don't know that he's blind. And I know he's lost weight. He's actually written me about this. But, you know, they still don't have liposuction to get the fat out of his head. And as long as he's a fat head, I'm going to keep hammering...

NOVAK: I'll tell you what, he's able to carry on a political commentary without person aspersions.

BEGALA: Are you kidding? He can't go five minutes -- he's as bad as I am. He can't can't go five minutes without attacking somebody.

NOVAK: You know, we -- as bad as you are, we have been -- started -- we launched -- last Tuesday night was a historic night. The Paul Begala for president campaign on the Democratic ticket and the results are starting to roll in.

Sean O'Casey of Orlando, Florida says: "Considering all the potential turkey candidates the Democrats seem to be offering, I'm more impressed with Paul Begala than any of them. Paul, don't reject the thought. You've got my vote and I have a huge family."

You know, the longest journey starts with a single step.

BEGALA: Starts with the O'Casey family. If I win, because of Bob's help, I'll make him the head of the Fed. Then we can all move to Canada.

NOVAK: Go ahead.

BEGALA: Yes sir?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My name is Philip Hoaun (ph) from Nairobi, Kenya. And my question is: given the apparently endless war on terrorism, how can Senator Kerry win against a war time president?

NOVAK: The answer is he can't.

BEGALA: I think he certainly can.

First off, my heart goes out to everybody in Kenya for the bombing that happened in Mombasa. But I think Senator Kerry this weekend showed a lot of thoughfulness and courage in talking about the war on terrorism. He, in fact, was even tougher than Bush and said he would have used U.S. forces to go get bin Laden instead of...

NOVAK: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

BEGALA: No, no, no. I'm not for anybody. I'm for whoever comes on our show.

NOVAK: You're for any Democrat, but I'm for Begala. But go ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hi. My name is John Turbin (ph) from Austin, Texas. And my question is, does Mr. Dilulio (ph) feel slighted by the bush administration because he was given a task the faith-based initiative that was so politically difficult to accomplish?

NOVAK: I think so. I like Dr. Dilulio. But there are certain things certain people should do. I think he's a fine academic. He should not be in politics just as I should not be in politics. I just like to be a humble reporter.

BEGALA: This would have been a much better response -- if the White House were as smart as Novak, that's what they would have said today instead of trashing Dilulio and breaking his arm to make him disavow things that he himself wrote.

Yes, sir?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hi, my name is Christian De Luigi (ph). I'm from West Windsor, New Jersey. And I was wondering whether or not you think the Democrats should nominate a candidate from outside of the Northeast considering that they had those states pretty well locked up during the past election.

NOVAK: What they should nominate is an obscure governor from Georgia or Arkansas or some place -- there is only one problem. The governors of Georgia and Arkansas now are Republicans. So the Democrats can't nominate them.

BEGALA: I think it is not about geography. I think it's about message. And I'm looking for somebody strong, somebody tough who can take these guys on.

From the left, I am Paul Begala. Goodnight for CROSSFIRE.

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

"CONNIE CHUNG TONIGHT" begins right now.

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