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State of the Union Aftermath

Aired February 3, 2005 - 16:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE. On the left, Paul Begala; sitting in on the right, Joe Watkins.

In the CROSSFIRE: the highs and lows of the State of the Union address. An Iraqi woman and a fallen soldier's mother embrace, as President Bush chokes back tears, but not all moments were as warm.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: By the year 2042, the entire system would be exhausted and bankrupt. If steps are not taken to avert that outcome...


ANNOUNCER: Rumblings of discord in Congress, as lawmakers break State of the Union etiquette, signaling a tough battle ahead.

President Bush hits the trail to pitch his proposals.

BUSH: I have heard all the complaints. And you'll hear a lot more, how this is going to ruin Social Security. Forget it.

ANNOUNCER: Will he make a successful case for Social Security reform and other controversial initiatives?



ANNOUNCER: Live from the George Washington University, Paul Begala and Joe Watkins.


PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST: Hello, everybody. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

As we speak, the United States Senate is voting on the confirmation of Judge Alberto Gonzales to be America's attorney general. When we have the final vote, we will bring the result to you live.

Meanwhile, we're talking about the president of the United States and his effort to rack up a few frequent flier miles today. He's off and running on a two-day, five-state tour to try to persuade Americans to replace guaranteed Social Security benefits for seniors with guaranteed fees for stockbrokers. Fat chance, Mr. President. But there were some very memorable moments in the Senate -- in the House chamber, rather, where the State of the Union address was given last night.

And that's where my colleague and friend on the right, Joe Watkins, will begin with the best political briefing in television, the CROSSFIRE "Political Alert."

Take it away, Joe.


For a moment during last night's State of the Union address, Congress sounded like Britain's House of Commons. When President Bush spoke a Social Security system in jeopardy:


BUSH: By the year 2042, the entire system would be exhausted and bankrupt. If steps are not taken to avert that outcome...



WATKINS: Did you hear it? Certainly not the polite protocol usually practiced when a president speaks to Congress. If a Democrat one day delivers a State of the Union address, I hope the Republicans won't lower themselves to such a disrespectful level. I hope last night's behavior by a few lawmakers doesn't set a new precedent, that both parties can agree to remain civil, even when voicing disagreements.

BEGALA: Good point. I'm with you. But let me correct you

WATKINS: Imagine if we did that here at CROSSFIRE. If I didn't agree, I started, if I just -- boo.


BEGALA: Let me correct your history; 1993, I was with President Bill Clinton in that House chamber when he addressed a joint session of Congress. And Republicans heckled him when he cited Congressional Office Budget statistics about the deficit.

The difference was, Clinton was smart enough and clever enough to ad lib. And he turned to them. He said, well, let me tell you something, my fellow Republicans. And the whole place fell apart. The Republicans fell in love with him. And the president should have responded with a little charm, a little wit.


BEGALA: He could have said, boys, that's OK, I remember my first beer, too. But now get control of yourselves. We have important things to discuss. (LAUGHTER)

BEGALA: And he would have slapped them down. But your fundamental final point is right.

WATKINS: Absolutely.

BEGALA: The Democrats should not have heckled our president.

WATKINS: Absolutely.

BEGALA: Well, President Bush, speaking of this, in that speech, after the heckling, made this promise about his private Social Security accounts last night.


BUSH: And best of all, the money in the account is yours and the government can never take it away.



BEGALA: But Mr. Bush was not telling the truth. In a story "The Washington Post" inexplicably buried on page A-13 today, ace economics reporter Jonathan Weisman reveals that, under President Bush's plan, workers with private accounts would be forced to give back to the government between 70 and 100 percent of what those accounts earned in order to pay back the Social Security trust fund for the money that set up those private accounts in the first place.

So, if your investments do poorly, tough luck. But, if they do well, the government claws back most or all of the profit. Apparently, all Mr. Bush really wants you to own in his ownership society is more risk.

Joe, you've got to admit, that's a ripoff.

WATKINS: Well, no, you know, I disagree, actually, Paul.

You know, first of all, these counts are going to be run conservatively. So we don't have to worry about wild swings in terms of value. Then, secondly, upon their retirement, workers are going to be given any money that exceeded the inflation-adjusted gains over 3 percent.

BEGALA: Right.

WATKINS: Over 3 percent.

BEGALA: So they claw back the first 3.5 percent. That's about all they're going to earn.

WATKINS: No. This really ensures that those who choose personal investment accounts don't have an unfair advantage over those who choose the traditional system. It's quite all right.

BEGALA: But the president says it's your money, the government can't take it. But the plan has the government taking between 70 and 100 percent of it. It's a lie.

WATKINS: Well, the good thing is that it's going to be fixed.

BEGALA: It's a lie. I hate to use that word, but it's a fib. It's a falsehood. It's a fabrication. We'll talk about it with this congressman when he comes out in a minute.

WATKINS: Before hitting the road on his post-State of the Union tour, President Bush joined American political and world leaders at this morning's National Prayer Breakfast. He used the event to stress the importance of faith-based programs, calling them leaders of the nation's armies of compassion.

Mr. Bush is a man of strong personal faith. He understands the importance of invoking his beliefs. His faith-based initiative is a great opportunity for those groups who are already reaching out to communities in so many ways, such as helping the poor and helping people get back on their feet. Why shouldn't these organizations have access to federal funds? It makes perfect sense for the government to look at groups who already have a long and proven track record.

BEGALA: It does.

The question is, do they then proselytize with that money.

WATKINS: Absolutely not.

BEGALA: In other words, I'm a Catholic.


BEGALA: Catholic Relief Services took the lead, really, in the whole world, more than President Bush did, on the tsunami relief.

WATKINS: Yes. Yes. They did a great job. They did a great job.

BEGALA: And they get federal funds. They do a wonderful job. But they've always gotten federal funds for years.

WATKINS: Absolutely.

BEGALA: Because they don't proselytize. The risk is -- look, you're a minister.

WATKINS: I am indeed.

BEGALA: I would be happy for you to get federal funding. I would.

WATKINS: Absolutely. Absolutely. BEGALA: But what do I do when Minister Farrakhan wants some? I don't support his ministry. What do I do if some Aryan Nation racist in Idaho wants money? I don't support their so-called religion.

WATKINS: These are only going to be faith-based organizations that have a track record, that have been -- that have done a good job of helping people get back on their feet.


WATKINS: Without regard to faith.

BEGALA: My friend Congressman Rahm Emanuel has asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to investigate why a professor who has been accused of anti-Semitic remarks was part of the U.S. delegation to the inauguration of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.

"The Forward" newspaper describes Myron Kuropas this way -- quote -- "a frequent critic of -- quote -- 'Holocaust industry.'" -- unquote. He has suggested at times that Jews played an -- quote -- "inordinate role" -- unquote -- in the rise of Soviet communism. And, in a 1998 speech, he declared that -- quote -- "the crimes of their people cannot be explained away easily" -- unquote.

"The Hill' newspaper on Capitol Hill reports, in 1994, Kuropas wrote -- quote -- "Jews helped Stalin engineer Ukraine's genocidal famine" -- unquote. Now, Professor Kuropas says he was taken out of context. The State Department claims the delegation was selected by the White House. House Speaker Dennis Hastert's spokesman says Kuropas was chairman of something called Ukrainians for Bush/Cheney. He should have been chairing "Bigots for Bush/Cheney" and he should never have been asked to represent our country.


WATKINS: Well, clearly, if he made those comments, Paul, you're right. We don't support any kind of bigotry. I know this president is opposed to any kind of bigotry.


WATKINS: And certainly to anybody who would make anti-Semitic comments.


BEGALA: Well, good.

WATKINS: Absolutely.

BEGALA: But we should find out who put them on that plane, because the speaker's office says it was -- is the White House. And they should have known better.

Well, the Senate is voting, as I mentioned before, on the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales to be America's attorney general. We will have a live update when the vote is completed.

Meanwhile, President Bush is on the road trying to persuade Democrats to cut Social Security benefits and borrow $2 trillion. Not surprisingly, there haven't been very many takers.

Next, we'll debate why a lot of people just ain't buying what our president is selling.

And then, have "The Simpsons" discovered family values? Well, we'll tell you how my favorite cartoon family may be in for a few changes.

Stay with us.

ANNOUNCER: Join Carville, Begala and Novak in the CROSSFIRE. For free tickets to CROSSFIRE at the George Washington University, call 202-994-8CNN or visit our Web site. Now you can step into the CROSSFIRE.



BEGALA: President Bush last night mentioned several difficult options for Social Security, including raising the retirement age and cutting benefits. Then the president punted, refusing to endorse any of those painful choices and, instead, asking Congress to make all the tough calls. So, has Mr. Bush made the sale on Social Security?

Joining us today in the CROSSFIRE, Representative Vito Fossella. He is a congressman from New York. He's a Republican. He sits on the House Financial Services Committee. And Democratic strategist Mark Mellman.

Take it away, Joe.


WATKINS: Mark, you draw the first question.

You know, clearly one of the most powerful images last night was the image of the mother of that fallen soldier hugging that female Iraqi voter. I mean, it just moved everybody in the place and everybody watching, I'm sure. And for me, you know what it did? It confirmed the fact that those brave men and women who have given their lives in Iraq have not died in vain. And more than anything else, I think it underscores that the painful sacrifices we're making really are paving the way for a democratic society in Iraq.

Do you agree?

MARK MELLMAN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, I will have to see what happens in Iraq. The reality is, we did have an election. A lot of folks voted.

(CROSSTALK) WATKINS: A lot of folks, a lot more than the naysayers, I might add.

MELLMAN: Except hardly any of the Sunnis voted, it now comes out.

WATKINS: But the Sunnis are saying that they are going to support this new government.

MELLMAN: Well, we'll have to see.

WATKINS: And they want a hand in it.

MELLMAN: We'll have to see.

The reality is the administration needs to have a plan to deal with Iraq and to get us out of Iraq. So far, they don't. We'll see if Iraq...

WATKINS: Are you talking about a timetable?

MELLMAN: If Iraq emerges as a democracy, that's a great thing. One election doesn't make a democracy. The Soviet Union had elections every week.

BEGALA: Congressman Fossella, first, thanks for coming on. Good to see you again.


BEGALA: Making the time.

FOSSELLA: Thank you.

BEGALA: Joe is right about the symbolism of that moment. It was real and it was moving. And I thought the president was evidently moved. And I was proud of him. And my heart goes out to Janet and Bill Norwood from Pflugerville, Texas, just north of Austin, where the president lived for six years.

And I thought that the contrast between that very real moment and the family's spectacular sacrifice and the cheap stunt from some of your colleagues in the Republican Party dipping their little fingers in a little inkwell, as if they somehow were heroes, you know? The Norwoods are heroes. They laid down their son.

Bobby Jindal, who is a freshman congressman, been a congressman for about 15 minutes now, runs around telling people to dip their finger, like that's a sacrifice for freedom? Let me show you the picture. Here's the two women hugging. And if you see -- put it up there on the screen. Right next to them was Staff Sergeant Norbert Lara. Staff Sergeant Lara is circled there.

He couldn't dip his right index finger in an inkwell because he lost his right arm in that war. That's a real sacrifice. Don't you think that some of the things your colleagues cheapened and disrespected that sacrifice?

FOSSELLA: Well, I -- let me just say this. I happen to think that embrace, for those who didn't see it, should see it, because it is emblematic of what this country is all about and what freedom is all about.

Here, we have a mother who gave her son for the cause of freedom and a human rights activist from Iraq who also lost her father under the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein embracing...

BEGALA: And who risked her life to get that purple ink on her finger.


BEGALA: It wasn't a stun stunt for her.


FOSSELLA: And I think it is at matter of distinction. I am not going to comment on what other members of Congress did. I think the core issue and I think what most Americans will take away, not just Americans, but Iraqis will recognize that this country still stands and represents and will pay the supreme sacrifice, as our brave men and women in the military do, for those people they don't even know often.

And that is what I think people take away. As far as dipping a finger in ink, I think that was a good-faith intention to stand in solidarity. But, to me, this embrace is much more representative and emblematic of what this great country is all about.

BEGALA: Good point.

WATKINS: There was a poll that came out right after the speech last night. I thought it was a terrific speech. Whether you're a Democrat or Republican, what the president said and the way he said it was so powerful; 74 percent of those who saw and heard the speech said that the president convinced them, made a convincing argument on the issue of the need for Social Security reform.

Now, Democrats, of course, don't seem to agree with that, even though the polls show that the American public is convinced that the president has made a strong statement about the need to reform it. Why are Democrats so opposed to any forward movement in restructuring Social Security?

MELLMAN: Well, the fact is Democrats are in favor of forward movement. What we're not in favor of is cutting benefits. The president's plan cuts Social Security benefits.

What Democrats are opposed to is adding to the national debt. The Republican plan adds $4.5 billion to the deficit. What Democrats are opposed to is...

(CROSSTALK) WATKINS: You have got to fix it. You have got to pay some money now to fix it, don't you?

MELLMAN: Letting the government steal money from our grandparents. The truth is, they will let them steal money from our grandparents and bill it to our kids. That's a ridiculous proposal.


WATKINS: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Something has got to be done now, so that our kids have the chance of a future.

MELLMAN: The question is, what is the something? And the something the president proposes is cutting benefits and adding $4.5 billion to the national debt and letting the government steal people's Social Security money. That is a way to deal with the problem. It's just not a good way to deal with the problem.

WATKINS: Absolutely not. The president has talked about cutting benefits for the wealthy, perhaps.

MELLMAN: No, he hasn't.

WATKINS: About extending the retirement age. That's what he's talking about. He said all those things are on the table.

MELLMAN: Well, those are cuts in benefits. And the majority of Americans oppose raising the retirement age. The majority of Americans oppose cutting benefits.

If the president wants to stand up there and say he wants to cut benefits, that's great. The truth is, he hid that. The truth is, the president last night didn't even make the case that you're making.

WATKINS: Seventy-four off Americans disagree with you.


MELLMAN: The president refused to say last night that his plan would help the long-term health of Social Security, would not say that. And you know what? His senior advisers admitted during the day that it wouldn't. It has nothing to do with saving Social Security.


MELLMAN: The White House says that themselves.


BEGALA: I mentioned at the top of the show the remarkable story in "The Washington Post" today, where their economics reporter went through the guts of the plan with Bush administration aides and found out that whatever profits you make in these private accounts are going to be clawed back. That's their word. It's a claw-back, taken back by the government. Now, the president said the government can never touch it. That's not true. Here's what "The Post" reported. "If a worker sets aside $1,000 a year for 40 years" -- this is under the Bush plan -- "and earns 4 percent annually on investments, the account would grow to $99,800 in today's dollars. But the government would keep $78,700 or almost 80 percent of the account. The remaining $21,000 would be the worker's." Good for you. "With 4.6 percent gain, a little better gain, the government keeps 70 percent. With the Congressional Budget Office's more realistic growth rate of 3.3. percent, the worker is left with nothing."

This is a ripoff, isn't it, Congressman?

FOSSELLA: Well, if I can take a step back.


FOSSELLA: First off, I think Social Security is a sacred trust that when created in the 1930s was an intergenerational compact, where younger workers willingly, voluntarily support retirees. I think that is a fundamental. That should change.

I also think that a given is, there is no real plan, neither a Democrat or Republican. There are some proposals out there, but I think if you really read what President Bush said last night, he said all options are on the table. I don't know. It sounds to me like he's keeping all his options open. And I think it's the responsibility...

WATKINS: Absolutely...


FOSSELLA: I think what's not leadership is just to say no to everything, as some would say.


BEGALA: I'm sorry to...


BEGALA: But believe me, we have plenty of time in the second segment. We are going to have to go to a vote -- to a break.

WATKINS: To vote?


BEGALA: The Senate is still in a vote on Judge Gonzales to be attorney general. When we have the final total, we'll bring it to you.

And our guests will return. We'll show you post-speech footage of President George W. Bush kissing another man. it might even make me rethink my views in support of gay rights, hideous, the footage. Hide the children.

And, again, they're voting on Judge Gonzales. We'll let you know about his confirmation as soon as the votes are in.

Stay with us.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting from Washington.

Coming up at the top of the hour, how close are security forces to capturing the terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi? One Iraqi official says they may have missed him by as little as an hour.

Is the Bush administration considering military action against Syria or Iran? I'll talk with former Pentagon official Richard Perle.

And if you think sports brawls are confined to pro games in big cities, wait until you see what happened at a girl's basketball game in Alabama.

All those stories, much more, only minutes away on "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS."

Now back to CROSSFIRE.

BEGALA: Thank you, Wolf. We look forward to your update at the top of the hour.

Meanwhile, here at CROSSFIRE, we're talking about fallout from the State of the Union address and about the vote which is going on right now on the floor of the United States Senate on whether or to not affirm Alberto Gonzales, the White House counsel, former Texas Supreme Court justice, as the attorney general of the United States.

With us, Congressman Vito Fossella, Republican from New York, and Mark Mellman, an ace Democratic strategist from -- where? Here in Washington, I guess, right?

MELLMAN: Now. Formally of Ohio.

BEGALA: Formally of Ohio.

MELLMAN: Originally of Ohio.

BEGALA: Congressman, it looks like Gonzales will be confirmed. When it goes over 51, we'll tell you and tell our audience. But why do you suppose he had such a difficult time. Usually, presidents get their way with important Cabinet choices.

FOSSELLA: I don't know. I'm, frankly, a little surprised. I do, obviously, support his nomination. I think he has served not just this president well, but this nation well.

And I'm surprised that the other party is making such an issue out of it.

BEGALA: Well, the particulars are, not to put too fine a point on it, that he wrote some very controversial memos that Democrats argue were very tolerant of torture and very dismissive of the Geneva Convention. I mean, that is a problem for the American attorney general, isn't it?

FOSSELLA: I think, at the end of the day, most Americans realize that we're at war. We're at war with an enemy that knows no bounds and that has taken to the airwaves and the Internet of beheading innocent people as if it's a game. And I do think that we need...

BEGALA: By the way, I'm sorry to interrupt. I can just hear in my earpiece that Senator Joseph Lieberman, Democrat from Connecticut, the vice presidential candidate for the Democratic Party in the 2000 election with Al Gore, just voted aye in support of Alberto Gonzales.

MELLMAN: The reality is, our enemy knows no bounds, but we ought to. We're different than they are.

FOSSELLA: I agree. I agree with that.


MELLMAN: And the difference is -- one of the differences is, we don't believe in torture.


MELLMAN: And we shouldn't have attorneys general and we shouldn't have White House counsels trying to justify torture.

FOSSELLA: I think, in all fairness, I think, of all the hundreds, if not thousands of decisions we make, clearly, nobody is condoning that this should be taking place. But...

MELLMAN: Well, that's not clear. That's the issue.

FOSSELLA: I think we -- I think most people of reason and Americans can see what's going on and understand that this is a changing dynamic, that these, as I say, I can't repeat enough, to take an innocent person, put him in front of a TV camera and shop the person's head off, but for just effect -- we need to figure out who we're dealing with and give our men and women in the military as much latitude as possible without crossing the line of American decency.



WATKINS: Mark Mellman, real quickly, aren't the Democrats reduced to just hoping that the president doesn't succeed? I mean, after all, the elections last Sunday in Iraq was such an enormous success. Aren't Democrats reduced to just hoping that we fail so they have can something to rail against?

MELLMAN: Absolutely not.

Democrats have plans and programs to give the American people -- you heard it from Harry Reid last night -- you heard it from Nancy Pelosi last night -- programs to give the American...

WATKINS: How about Bobby Rush? Bobby Rush had all kind of good things to say about the Pentagon said. He's a Democrat.

MELLMAN: To give the American people the tools they need to succeed in this world, to succeed in this economy. What Republicans are all about is making sure that big business, corporations succeed, even at the expense of American workers. Democrats are about making sure that everybody succeeds.


BEGALA: I'm sorry to wrap it up.

Mark Mellman from Washington of the Democratic Party, Vito Fossella, congressman from Staten Island, New York, thank you both for joining us. And please come back again soon.



BEGALA: Well, are "The Simpsons" getting religion? We'll explain right after this.

And they're voting in the Senate right now, as we've told you, on the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales to be attorney general. We'll keep you up to date on that as well.

Stay with us.



BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

So-called moral values have been a linchpin of the conservative agenda for years. Now proponents may have a new poster boy. It's a character, believe it or not, on "The Simpsons," the long-running cartoon on the Fox network.

It's not Bart Simpson. No, the underachiever is not it. It's not Homer. It's Ned Flanders, the Simpsons' next-door neighbor and a zealous instrument of God. Ned used to be just a part-time player on the show. But because of shifting public tides, perhaps, viewers are seeing a whole lot more of Mr. Flanders. Ned even joins forces with Homer this Sunday to co-produce the Super Bowl halftime show.

So, who knows? Maybe if Flanders really takes off, President Bush will nominate him for the Supreme Court.

WATKINS: I'm a Ned Flanders Republican.


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

WATKINS: From the right, I'm Joe Watkins. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

"WOLF BLITZER REPORTS" starts right now.



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