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CNN SATURDAY MORNING NEWS

Democrats Look Ahead to 2003

Aired December 28, 2002 - 07:19   ET

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

CATHERINE CALLAWAY, CNN ANCHOR: Following a disastrous fall election season, Democrats can do nothing but look ahead to 2003. But lest we forget, the political changed dramatically in the final quarter of 2002.
Let's talk about that with CNN political analyst Ron Brownstein, political writer for "The Los Angeles Times."

Thanks for being with us today.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Good morning, Catherine.

CALLAWAY: Can you think of a better year that's -- well, maybe 2001. But 2002 sure had some stories, Trent Lott being sort of winding up the year with a bang.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes, I think Trent Lott's flameout ends up being the political dominant -- most dramatic, at least, political story of the year.

Look, Lott had been playing with fire, with matches, for years on race, praising Jefferson Davis, being involved with a white group in Mississippi that was very controversial, saying things almost identical to the comments about Strom Thurmond 20 years earlier.

CALLAWAY: Right.

BROWNSTEIN: Finally it caught up with him.

CALLAWAY: I know you say it caught up with him, but let me ask you, do you -- did -- you know, this time last year, would you ever have imagined this happening Trent -- to Trent Lott, him resigning like this?

BROWNSTEIN: No. In fact, it's still a little bit, it still a little bit of fascinating why this one comment tipped the scales, when he had, I think, done things like this before that to many seemed to be signaling speaking in code, using kind of the old politics of the '60s and '70s that Southern Republicans have largely grown beyond.

But for whatever reason, this caught fire, and he really couldn't put it out, largely because his career provided so much tinder.

CALLAWAY: Let's talk about a miscalculation here, and Tom Daschle and the homeland security measures.

BROWNSTEIN: Absolutely. You know, the -- people forget that the Homeland Security Department started off as a Democratic idea proposed by Joe Lieberman and opposed by the administration. By the end of the campaign, it was a cudgel that President Bush was using to beat down Democratic candidates, especially in Georgia in some of the other states that had voted for him in 2000.

What happened in the interim was that Democrats held up the bill in an effort to protect labor rights at the new department. And to many Americans, at least as the president presented it, that appeared to be a case of putting a narrow interest over the national interest, and basically missing the forest for the trees. An amazing turnaround.

CALLAWAY: Hey, Ron, you know, I know that you believe that President Bush's involvement in the midterm elections was one of the best political moves that we saw in 2002, but wasn't it a risky one?

BROWNSTEIN: Absolutely. I mean, the White House involvement in this was enormous. It really rolled up its sleeves to the point of recruiting candidates, discouraging other candidates from running, trying to clear the field, raising money, and then directly putting the president, in effect, in the line of fire by personally injecting him into so many campaigns.

If the election would have gone differently, we certainly would have reported it in the press as a repudiation of the president. Instead, he became the first president since Franklin Roosevelt in 1934 to win seats in the House during his first midterm election and also to regain the Senate. It really was a tremendous victory, especially in the states that he had carried in 2000. He showed a real depth of support...

CALLAWAY: Right.

BROWNSTEIN: ... in the places where he was popular to begin with.

CALLAWAY: You know, certainly the president has to be mapping out 2003, which would have to be difficult at this point. Is it going to be foreign or domestic policy that steers this ship?

BROWNSTEIN: I really think that as the critical variable, if we're asking ourselves, How is President Bush going to look, what is his standing going to be with the public eight months from now? you tell me whether we're talking about North Korea or an Iraq or the economy and health care. On the one hand, the public continues to have enormous confidence in him as commander in chief and as leader in the war against terror, gets very high ratings on that.

His approval ratings on domestic issues are much more equivocal, only about 50 percent of the economy, below that on some other issues, where you have problems mounting, continued -- you saw the reports that the Christmas season was very disappointing for retailers...

CALLAWAY: Right.

BROWNSTEIN: ... a lot of questions there. So where is the focus? What are we talking about? That will determine, I think, how vulnerable or not vulnerable Bush looks as the presidential election season begins by the end of the year.

CALLAWAY: And as you just mentioned, that can change in 24 hours on what the focus has to be.

But certainly health care is going to have to be addressed sometime during 2003.

BROWNSTEIN: I think that's going to be one of the big stories of 2003 is the return of health care. Eight years after Bill Clinton's attempt to restructure the health care system nearly capsized his presidency, a combination of risk and opportunity is forcing President Bush and the Congress back into that swamp.

The risk is doing nothing with a problem that is growing increasingly concerning to Americans. We're seeing double-digit increases, again, in the cost of insurance premiums. Over 1 million people lost health insurance in 2001, probably more than that in 2002. Prescription drug costs going up, increasing pressure for Medicare reform that would add that benefit to the program.

And then the opportunity, with the ascendance of Bill Frist as the Senate majority leader...

CALLAWAY: Hey...

BROWNSTEIN: ... a doctor who gives the Republicans a chance to reshape their image on this issue.

CALLAWAY: I'm trying to squeeze in the Democrats here.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes.

CALLAWAY: We're talking a lot about the Republicans. They're the ones looking for a new leader.

BROWNSTEIN: And they will get the opportunity, because the presidential race, Catherine, will begin earlier than ever. They're going to be voting in Iowa in about 13 months, less than 13 months, and New Hampshire. That means candidates are going to be out, visible and busy.

Hillary Clinton has led the last two polls...

CALLAWAY: Wow.

BROWNSTEIN: ... by national polls of Democrats. She's probably almost certainly not going to run. That's going to leave you with a field led by John Kerry of Massachusetts, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, and Dick Gephardt, the outgoing House minority leader.

So it could be a very active Democratic race by the second half of 2003. We could talk about it a year from now.

CALLAWAY: I was just thinking about what 2003 is going to be like for you political writers. What a year ahead for you, Ron!

BROWNSTEIN: Ahead to the Quality Inns of Iowa, here we come.

CALLAWAY: Here you come. All right, have a good day. Thanks for being with us this morning.

BROWNSTEIN: Thank you.

CALLAWAY: Better run. I know you got a plane to catch.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes, thank you.

CALLAWAY: Bye, Ron.

BROWNSTEIN: Bye-bye.

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