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CNN CROSSFIRE

Who's the Better CINC?

Aired August 18, 2004 - 16:30   ET

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


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE. On the left, James Carville and Paul Begala. On the right, Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson.

In the CROSSFIRE, the battle for president may turn on who convinces the voters he'll be better as commander in chief.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The president's vaguely stated plan does not strengthen our hand in the war on terror.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The other day, my opponent said if he's elected, the number of troops in Iraq will be significantly reduced within six months. That sends a dangerous message.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER: Fighting for votes while trying to win the war on terror. Today, on CROSSFIRE. Live from the George Washington University, Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson.

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST: Welcome to CROSSFIRE. John Kerry addressed the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention today in Ohio. In his speech, Kerry attacked the Bush administration's plans to lower troop levels in Germany, pointing out that American soldiers are the final bulwark against Soviet aggression. Wait, that was 15 years ago.

PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST: In fact, Kerry wasted little time before telling his fellow vets that he would make a better commander in chief. The question today, will veterans prefer a real leader like Kerry or a cheerleader like -- well, I won't say?

We'll debate this issue just ahead, but first the best little political briefing in television, our "CROSSFIRE Political Alert."

Republican Congressman Doug Bereuter of Nebraska is a senior member of the House International Relations Committee. He is the vice chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. The conservative American Security Council gives him a 75 percent rating while the liberal group Peace Action gives him just a 22. So Bereuter, of course, supported President Bush's invasion of Iraq.

But now Congressman Bereuter thinks invading Iraq was a mistake. In a letter to his constituents, Bereuter notes that quote: "Our country's reputation around the world has never been lower. And our alliances are weakened.

Quote: "The cost in casualties is already large and growing," Bereuter says, "and the immediate and long-term financial costs are incredible," unquote.

Although a loyal Republican, Bereuter says it is possible that, as he puts it, quote: "Intelligence was intentionally misconstrued to justify military action," unquote. Congressman Bereuter is to be commended for telling the truth.

Mr. Bush should try it just for once to see how it feels.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

CARLSON: You know, Paul, I have to say, I think I agree with every word that congressman wrote. I think every word he wrote is probably true. I don't think that the administration lied. But I do think it was a mistake to go to war in Iraq, in contrast to John Kerry who was asked the other day, knowing what you know now, would you have voted again for war? And he said, yes. That's insane. Can you explain this?

BEGALA: Well, insane is George Bush misleading us into a war and good for Congressman Bereuter. Watch the right wing hit squad go after him next.

CARLSON: Well, John Kerry has spent the last two decades in the U.S. Senate, but you would never know it. Kerry rarely even mentions his longtime day job, focusing instead on the fewer than six months he spent in Vietnam 30 years ago. Critics say Kerry doesn't talk much about the Senate because he hasn't done much there. But that's untrue.

For years, for instance, Kerry was vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, that's an extremely important job. Kerry's Web site touted this position, his fund-raising materials bragged about it. The only problem was it wasn't true. Kerry was never the vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee. Bob Kerrey was. As it turns out Bob Kerrey and John Kerry are not the same person. But this appears to be news to the Kerry campaign. As Kerry's spokesman actually put it, quote: "John Kerry, Bob Kerrey, similar names." That's pathetic!

BEGALA: So they made an error. It's a typo, so what?

CARLSON: It's not an error. It was on his Web site and it was not in his fund-raising materials, I misspoke, it was in press releases. But both of them put out by the Kerry campaign.

BEGALA: He was a member of the committee, not the vice chair. A guy named Bob Kerrey was the vice chair, who cares?

CARLSON: Who works for John Kerry!

BEGALA: George W. Bush said he got really good intelligence going into Iraq. He still think he did. I think that's the kind of intelligence we ought to be talking about, the president's lack of intelligence.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

CARLSON: Paul, the CIA came to Bush and told him out something that turned out not to be true. We can debate whether he should have believed it or not. But the fact is, this is this guy's own staff bragging about a job he never had. And you think it's not a big deal?

BEGALA: It's a typo.

CARLSON: It's not a typo.

BEGALA: Well, speaking of our president, President George W. Bush rolled into Wisconsin today for another of his very carefully staged photo-ops. You see, crowds at Mr. Bush's events are extraordinarily carefully screened. Katherine Meade (ph), a 55-year- old a social studies teacher in Traverse City, Michigan, was denied admission to a recent Bush event even though she had a ticket and presented her photo ID.

GOP thugs promptly ripped up Ms. Meade's ticket and barred her from entering the Bush event because she was wearing a small John Kerry sticker. Isn't this a democracy? The visibly upset Ms. Meade asked a quaint question coming from a social studies teacher. After all, maybe you didn't notice, but "we the people" did not elect Mr. Bush, the Supreme Court appointed him. That's not in your social studies textbook, Ms. Meade.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BEGALA: And while John Kerry manfully spars with hecklers at his big open rallies, Mr. Bush doesn't exactly want critics to, as he would say, "bring it on." That just goes to show you an old rule, behind every swaggering, macho, fake cowboy bully, there's a timid little prep school cheerleader.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

CARLSON: You know, you've been pushing this homoerotic line since the very beginning, that John Kerry is this towering hunk of masculinity.

BEGALA: He's a tougher man.

CARLSON: You're attracted to him, you'll admit it. And then on the other hand...

(LAUGHTER)

BEGALA: No, I like the soft cheerleader types, I like Bush.

CARLSON: On the other hand, you're calling Bush gay, which is both homoerotic and homophobic! It's sick, Paul, stop it!

BEGALA: Every gay man I know is tougher than George W. Bush, believe me. (LAUGHTER)

CARLSON: You're giving me the creeps. You're giving me the creeps.

CARLSON: Well, if you ever watched Al Gore scream and foam into a microphone, you know how intense and intensely crazy Bush-haters can be. Now imagine hundreds of thousands of Al Gores converging on one city at the same time, shiver. Officials in New York are preparing for just such a scene when next week 200,000 anti-Bush protesters will arrive in the city for the Republican Convention.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg has a new plan to keep them under control and from setting fire to things. According to "The New York Times," protesters who promise not to commit acts of violence will receive a quote, "peaceful political activist" savings card which will entitle them to reduced rates at hotels, restaurants, Broadway shows, even the city's Museum of Sex. In other words -- and we're not making this up, Mayor Bloomberg is paying people not to commit crimes. It's not a bad gig if you can get it.

For instance, this morning I did not commit three armed felonies, a kidnapping and an involuntary manslaughter. Over lunch I passed up a felony embezzlement charge. It has been a long day but in Mike Bloomberg's New York, it has been a lucrative day. It's disgusting.

BEGALA: I'll tell you what, I'll offer George W. Bush a discount if he'll stop invading countries that aren't a threat to America. I think that's an incentive that Republicans...

(APPLAUSE)

BEGALA: ... that Republicans can understand.

CARLSON: No, but seriously...

BEGALA: Bloomberg is a Republican mayor...

CARLSON: I don't care if he's Republican or not, it's a ludicrous idea. He's a ludicrous mayor, he's a failed mayor in my view. I don't care what his party affiliation is.

BEGALA: He's a perfectly good mayor.

CARLSON: You shouldn't pay people not to break the law. You shouldn't set fire to things. Come on.

BEGALA: They're trying to create a peaceful time for the Republicans.

CARLSON: They're bribing these creeps.

BEGALA: I hope we have a fun and peaceful convention. We'll both be there enjoying.

CARLSON: Yuck! Yuck! All right! Military leadership has become a key issue in the campaign for president. As voters listen to the candidates, they will have to decide who will make the best commander in chief, not just the best braggart.

And even though we can't sing, find out why Paul and I joined the thousands lining up in Washington to try out for "American Idol". See if we made the cut. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BEGALA: Well, who would make a better commander-in-chief: President Bush or Senator John Kerry?

Today, Kerry went to the traditionally conservative Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention to make his case. The winner of the Bronze Star and the Silver Star took direct aim at President Bush's plan to redeploy American forces -- Bush says that will bolster the war on terror; Kerry begged to differ.

And as Kerry spoke, Capitol Hill was rocked when a senior Congressional Republican announced that Mr. Bush's war in Iraq, which he had supported, was a mistake.

In the CROSSFIRE to debate all of this, Republican Consultant Ed Rogers and Democratic Strategist Steve McMahon.

CARLSON: Steve, not to get too deep into history or anything, but D-Day -- the D-Day invasion was 60 years ago this summer. The Cold War ended 15 years ago. The Soviet Union disappeared 13 years ago this month, in fact.

The Pentagon has finally noticed that all these events took place, culminating in George W. Bush's announcement earlier...

STEVE MCMAHON, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Did Dick Cheney tell the president they had?

CARLSON: That's exactly right. Something -- through the chain of command, news filtered down, and the president suggested maybe moving some of the troops out of the countries we beat 60 years ago.

There's almost no way to argue against this, and yet John Kerry in this kind of partisan tizzy gave a speech against it. That's indefensible.

MCMAHON: Is that so he can move them over to Iraq so they can sit there for another 10 years when they shouldn't be to begin with?

CARLSON: I don't know, you tell me. You tell me -- you explain to what his problem with moving troops out of Germany, which we defeated 60 years ago, might be, because I honestly don't understand it.

MCMAHON: Well, we also -- we had made a commitment to the region and to the countries in the region called NATO, which we still are committed to. And if, you know, President Bush wants to move these troops around so he can move them to the Middle East, perhaps to invade Iran next or some other country that Dick Cheney might have on his list.

But John Kerry doesn't really feel that's appropriate. He thinks that we need to -- we need to, you know, respect our commitment to the NATO alliance.

CARLSON: Just if I can understand you -- your reasoning, such as it is, we need to keep American troops -- tens of thousands of American troops 60 years after the end of the Second World War just so they won't be available to invade Iran. That's what you just said.

MCMAHON: No, no, no, no, no.

CARLSON: Then what is the point? I honestly don't understand. Help me.

MCMAHON: The point is why does President Bush feel like he needs to move these troops? It's because we're going to be in Iraq...

CARLSON: It's because they're not needed there.

MCMAHON: ... for a long, long time. And he'd like to bring some troops home, in spite of the fact that he has no plan to do so. And so, his view is if he just moves them over from Europe to Iraq, then maybe he won't have to continue using the National Guard as a back- door draft.

CARLSON: Isn't that good?

BEGALA: Ed, let me ask you...

ED ROGERS, REPUBLICAN CONSULTANT: Sure.

BEGALA: ... about another aspect of this, which Senator Kerry focused on, and that is the withdrawal of thousands of troops from the Korean peninsula, where is there an indisputable threat.

Here's Senator Kerry today talking to his fellow veterans.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KERRY: Why are we withdrawing unilaterally 12,000 troops from the Korean peninsula at the very time that we are negotiating with North Korea, a country that really has nuclear weapons?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BEGALA: This is not a partisan attack? John McCain said much the same thing yesterday. This is reckless, isn't it, for the president to pull troops out of North Korea when they threaten us?

ROGERS: Well, the notion -- the notion that troops are a bargaining trip is not good foreign policy, it's not good military policy. But look, the notion -- the notion that -- I'm answering your question.

BEGALA: ... against an evil regime...

ROGERS: The notion that...

BEGALA: Why don't we stand against them?

ROGERS: The notion that over the next 10 years we're going to bring 70,000 troops home is probably long overdue. But the fact of the matter is Kerry has lapsed into being opposition for opposition's sake. And he's so desperate to burnish his credentials from a military standpoint and being tough on national defense and being -- for a strong military position...

BEGALA: ... but not on this point because John McCain has said much the same thing, though. I mean, John McCain, certainly not a partisan, he was in a disgusting display -- he was hugging George W. Bush the other day.

ROGERS: We learn that from the Kerry...

BEGALA: I don't like anybody hugging anybody, OK?

ROGERS: There's a lot of hugging going on out there.

BEGALA: I'm old school, man. I'd rather slug than hug.

ROGERS: No, but -- no, but -- well, just let me finish the point, is Kerry is opposition for opposition's sake. No matter what Bush says, he's going to be against it, even when it doesn't make good sense. In this case, common sense suggest it's time for these troops that were arrayed for the Cold War to come home.

That makes good sense.

MCMAHON: ... not going over to Iraq?

CARLSON: ... Iran, because Dick Cheney's invading probably next week.

Now Steve, in the news today, a Republican member of Congress leaving, retiring, coming out against the war in Iraq, which he supported because no weapons of mass destruction were found, no significant links to terrorists groups, and because of the effect the invasion has had on our relations with out allies in -- with the Muslim world.

He's against it. He's -- all over the world. He's against it. Interesting. I think it's a fair position. I sort of agree.

John Kerry, by contrast, does not agree. He was asked the other day by a reporter, knowing what you know now, would you still have supported the war? And he said yes. That makes no sense to me. I think it's kind of a demented answer, honestly. MCMAHON: Well, that's -- obviously...

CARLSON: Can you explain -- why would he say that? He's against the war...

MCMAHON: I can explain it. I don't think it's that complicated.

CARLSON: It is.

MCMAHON: We were in a primary campaign against John Kerry, and we pounded him on this subject. And he cast his vote...

ROGERS: And he came around to your point of view.

MCMAHON: He cast his vote; he stood his ground. He voted to give the president the authority to go to war if it was necessary, if it was a last resort as the president promised it was. Instead, we found out it was the first resort.

The president promised he would involve other nations. He didn't except for six or eight soldier...

CARLSON: No, he didn't bring in France, which you're obsessed with.

MCMAHON: And the president promised that he would go in there with a coalition. That he would have a plan to win not just the war, but the peace. And it's clear that he didn't have any plan except to go to war, to rush to war.

CARLSON: But Kerry would do it again?

MCMAHON: Kerry said he voted to give the president the authority to go to war. He wouldn't probably have gone. He certainly wouldn't have gone without other nations. And he was going to give the weapons inspectors time to do their job.

Now, don't you think that would have been a better outcome than the outcome that we have today?

CARLSON: Elect Kerry, be more like the French.

BEGALA: Ed, let me tell you what Congressman Doug Bereuter actually said, the Congressman...

ROGERS: Sure.

BEGALA: ... that Tucker referred to. Here's what he wrote to his constituents.

"I've reached the conclusion, retrospectively, now that the inadequate intelligence and faulty conclusions are being revealed, that all thing being considered, it was a mistake to launch that military action. Our country's reputation around the world has never been lower, and our alliances are weakened." Now, again, this is not partisan thing. I know you keep saying -- that's your talking point. But just as John McCain is criticizing the president on cutting and running from Korea, now here's a House Republican on the Intelligence Committee attack the president for misleading us into war.

ROGERS: Doug Bereuter, first and foremost, is a big-time, good, committed, Bush supporter. He supports Bush over Kerry.

BEGALA: He loves his country more than the party, which I respect.

ROGERS: Hey, the fact that he has said this just acknowledges there's a legitimate point of view if people want to play this sort of retrospective game. Bereuter's a good man, a thoughtful man. He is a Bush supporter. And what he has done is set Kerry's vague, uncertain, un-surefooted, try-to-have-it-all-three-ways kind of position in stark relief.

Kerry needs to be clear...

BEGALA: You don't think this is a problem...

ROGERS: ... he wants to ask...

BEGALA: ... a thoughtful and loyal Republican has stood up to tell the truth.

ROGERS: If nothing else, Doug Bereuter has embarrassed Kerry here, not Bush.

BEGALA: That is a level of spin, man. That is a level of spin...

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: Now, Steve, Kerry needs to be as clear as Doug Bereuter.

BEGALA: Bush needs to be as...

CARLSON: ... Steve...

BEGALA: ... which will never happen.

CARLSON: Tom Harkin -- quite a volatile character, as you know -- he endorsed Howard Dean during the primaries. He came out the other day and said Dick Cheney is, quote, "a coward for not fighting that unjust war in Vietnam."

That's over the top, don't you think? Don't you -- aren't you appalled by that level of rhetoric, calling another man a coward?

MCMAHON: What I'm appalled by, frankly, is the Republicans going out and calling Max Cleland a coward, a man who left three limbs...

CARLSON: That's just not true!

MCMAHON: Hold on a second. Hold on a second, Ed.

And now questioning John Kerry's service in Vietnam, when in fact, when you explore the record, it appears that President Bush either didn't show up or used his family's name to avoid service. And Dick Cheney was off doing something else that was far more important. They're very brave.

Senator Harkin said something else...

CARLSON: I'm afraid I have to cut you off before you quote that character yet again, because we have to take a commercial break. Not limiting your free speech, I promise you.

When we come back, next in "Rapidfire," should John Kerry just come clean on how many Intelligence Committee meetings he bothered to show up for.

And there may be a break in the military standoff in the Iraqi city of Najaf. Wolf Blitzer will have the latest in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, HOST, "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS": I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Coming up at the top of the hour: Will radical Islamic cleric Muqtada al-Sadr keep his word? He says he'll disband his militia and join the political process. We'll have a report from Iraq.

Residents are finally beginning to be allowed to return to Sanibel Island in the wake of Hurricane Charley. We'll report on what they found when they got home.

And high technology becomes a tool to help troops disabled in Iraq get their lives back.

Those stories, plus my interview with Condoleezza Rice, just minutes away on "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS." Now, back to "CROSSFIRE."

CARLSON: Welcome back. Time now for "Rapidfire," where the questions are unusually short. We hope the answers are, too.

Our focus: The man who commands American military forces around the world. Who would do a better job as commander-in-chief: the current president or Senator Kerry?

With us today, two of our favorite guests: Democratic Strategist Steve McMahon, formerly of the Dean campaign; and Republican Consultant Ed Rogers.

BEGALA: Ed, a new Quinnipiac poll today out of Pennsylvania, they asked the question: Do you think the war with Iraq was the right thing? Among most voters, it was basically tied.

Among military families it was 54-41, no.

This war is a huge loser among the people who know best, isn't it?

ROGERS: That was a long question. Ignore all polls until September 15th .

CARLSON: Steve, there was a huge controversy last week -- I think it's totally fair point.

A new Bush ad makes the point that Senator Kerry didn't even bother to show up for some of his Intel Committee hearings, even after the first attack on the World Trade Center. His campaign says it's inaccurate. The only way to solve this mystery is by releasing his attendance records. But he won't. Why?

MCMAHON: I don't know. Tucker, you know, you don't show up a lot of times. Novak's here, right?

CARLSON: That's true, but I'm merely a talk show host. I'm not trying to be president.

MCMAHON: So, listen, I think if he releases the records they'll find that he was there when he needed to be there.

CARLSON: So, why doesn't he release them?

MCMAHON: You'll have to ask him.

ROGERS: Because they're embarrassing, that's why.

BEGALA: Ed, why do you suppose this plan -- which you seem this military plan is based on years of study, it's a 10-year plan -- why do you think it's released 78 days before the election in the key swing state of Ohio? Could that be maybe political?

ROGERS: I don't think it drives any votes in Iowa. And I don't think there's the notion that, gee, we're going to redeploy 70,000 troops over 10 year, therefore I'm going to vote one way or another.

I think it's irrelevant politically, and I think the Kerry campaign ought to acknowledge that and let's not be in this hand-to- hand combat in gratuitous opposition for opposition's sake to everything Bush says here in August. That's not what the campaign is about.

CARLSON: I think it's an excellent -- more good points, Ed.

Finally, Steve, Senator Joe Lieberman -- who ran as vice president under your party, I think you remember, four years ago -- he says this is a good idea. Do you think he's secretly working for the Bush people?

MCMAHON: No, I think he's always been a hawk on military matters, and he agreed with Bush on Iraq and he was wrong then and I think he's wrong now. CARLSON: So did John Kerry.

ROGERS: And Edwards.

BEGALA: Steve McMahon, ace Democratic strategist, my friend Ed Rogers from the Republican party, thank you both very much for a fun debate.

Up next, Tucker and I paid a visit to the thousands of Americans who were lining up here in Washington to try out for "American Idol." Found a couple of potential stars who wanted to serenade John Kerry and President Bush. Stay with us to hear those songs.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CARLSON: We're back with the CROSSFIRE mobile cam outside the Washington Convention Center, where thousands of contestants have gathered to have a try at "American Idol."

BEGALA: You know, Tucker, Washington's been the scene of many disastrous debuts, mostly for politicians, though. Hopefully, these folks -- I like to say politics is show business for ugly people. There are some beautiful people ready...

CARLSON: Show business is politics for beautiful people.

Our two contestant have spent the last two days on the floor, sleeping at the Washington Convention Center. Crystal, Wesley.

You going to sing for us?

CRYSTAL STYLES, "AMERICAN IDOL" CONTESTANT: Yes. My name is Crystal Styles, and I'm dedicating this to George Bush.

(sings): War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Say it again!

CARLSON: And a powerful statement from Crystal Styles.

BEGALA: Coming up from North Carolina.

CARLSON: That's exactly right.

Now Wesley, you ready?

WESLEY DUFFIN, "AMERICAN IDOL" CONTESTANT: I'm ready. John Kerry.

(sings): Livin' on a prayer. Take my hand, and you'll make it a prayer. You're living on a prayer, John Kerry. You're living on a prayer, John Kerry.

You're not going to get that vote.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BEGALA: You know, I don't think -- they don't even have that contest now. It's over.

I think Crystal and Wesley are clearly going to be the champs.

CARLSON: I think they're excellent, and I don't think anybody benefits when you put the camera right up into his face like that.

BEGALA: It was a little -- little...

CARLSON: It was a little intense. I'm glad they didn't...

BEGALA: You know, there are some singers here in Washington -- John Ashcroft, a fine singer, Orrin Hatch.

I say a nice thing about a Republican...

CARLSON: That's true.

BEGALA (sings): From the left, I'm Paul Begala. That's it for CROSSFIRE.

CARLSON: I'm not even going to try. From the right, I'm Tucker Carlson. Join us again tomorrow, Thursday, for another musical CROSSFIRE. See you then.

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