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Partisan Reaction to President Bush’s Second Term Challenges

November 4, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Now some thoughts about the coming second Bush term; they come from: Former Republican Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire; Linda Chavez, director of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission during the Reagan administration, now president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a public policy research organization; Vin Weber, once a Republican congressman from Minnesota, now managing partner of the Washington office of Clark & Weinstock, a management consulting firm; Harold Meyerson, editor at large of the American Prospect Magazine and op ed contributor to the Washington Post; and the former Democratic mayor of San Francisco, Willie Brown.

Sen. Rudman, what do you believe is the most important thing President Bush should spend this new capital that he won in the election on?

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: Well, it should come as no surprise, in my view, the deficit is going to make everything very difficult to do, all the things that Democrats, Republicans would like to do, and the president has to deal with entitlement programs and the deficit and he’s got to recognize that that is going to be a very hard thing to do because with all of this talk about bipartisanship, not only is the country divided, but the political establishment is divided; that people hold very strong views on those issues; they’re going to be hard to deal with. But unless they are dealt with, then he will have a very difficult time getting a lot of other things done.

JIM LEHRER: And, Ms. Chavez, what would you put on top of the list?

LINDA CHAVEZ: Well, I was surprised that Warren didn’t say Social Security reform because I think that is the single most important thing that he has to deal with, and I think he has to deal with it quickly, he has got to deal with it in time not to have it be the big issue in the next election in 2006, and I think he will also be benefited by an economy that is coming back. I think that deficit will start to go down, but he’s got to get spending under control and he’s got to take on Social Security reform.

JIM LEHRER: Willie Brown, what would you say should be his number one priority?

FORMER MAYOR WILLIE BROWN: I think the number one priority, Jim, and to the rest of the members of this panel, should be how you stop the war in Iraq and how do you get the troops out of there, how do you get them home, and how do you do it in such a way that there’s no perception of weakness on America’s part and no perception of an absence of continued commitment to the war on terrorism? I think that’s what he needs to do, and he needs to spend his capital doing just that.

JIM LEHRER: Vin Weber, how do you think he should spend the capital?

FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: Well, I think the president throughout the campaign reminded voters again and again that all these other issues are important, but the global war on terror is the number one priority of his administration. I think that he was reelected for many reasons, but that was one of the main ones, and amidst all these other things and we have to do them all at once, maintaining and strengthening the global war against terrorism, which is not going to be ended probably within the four years that this president will be president, is his top priority.

JIM LEHRER: Harold Meyerson?

HAROLD MEYERSON: Well, I think the president needs to do and something he said very little about in his campaign is address the crisis in health care. Costs are just spiraling, it’s a huge problem for individuals maintaining their health insurance and maintaining at least the quality that they’ve had up to this point. It’s a huge problem for businesses, trying to provide health insurance as the cost goes skyrocketing up, and as drug companies manage to continue to reap tremendous profits at the expense of the rest of the economy. So I think that’s a huge problem the president should address himself to.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Health care, you said war on terror. Willie Brown, you said Iraq. You said reform Social Security. You said do something about the deficit and entitlements. All right entitlements. Now how does he do all of this?

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: Well, with great difficulty. I want to just say up front that I love all this talk about reaching out and bipartisan approaches and so forth.

JIM LEHRER: I haven’t mentioned it yet.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: I mean I know you haven’t, but you will, it’s been all over the press today. And the president has said he wants to do that and John Kerry said that we ought to do that. Having said that, this country is deeply divided on fundamental issues and, you know, you can compromise on an appropriations bill, you cannot compromise on things that people believe are fundamentally wrong about their opponent’s point of view.

Let me give you an example. On the whole issue of health care there is a huge difference between Democrats and Republicans as to the modus operandi that you apply to a health care program. Is it going to be a lot of government involvement or a lot of private involvement? On the issue of abortion, there are strongly held views. Now, it’s one thing to compromise on an appropriations bill, it’s quite something else to say, you know, you’re right, I’m going to go on with you. Let me just add one other point. The Democrats are going to have to be very careful in my view with how they use the filibuster in the Senate this year. The Democrats have used it –.

JIM LEHRER: It’s called a filibuster, but it’s technically the 60 vote –

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: It’s 60 votes to get a measure before the Senate to vote.

JIM LEHRER: Right. And both sides have used it rather freely.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: All the time.

FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: Much more in recent years, though.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: Much more in recent years.

FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: Not throughout history. This is a relatively recent development.

JIM LEHRER: Okay.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: It came out of civil rights movements and trying to block civil rights reform -

JIM LEHRER: Right.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: — is when it was really used. But let me make an observation. If the Democrats do not use the filibuster surgically with this president, and I think he does have a lot of political capital, I think that there will be political consequences to pay. Obviously, if they use it on a Supreme Court nominee that they believe would be weather for the country that’s one thing. But they’ve used it for so many other things that I believe that you’re going to find coming out of the Democratic conference in this next month a whole new strategy on how to deal with President Bush.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s go specifically, Harold Meyerson, to the health care thing. You agree with Sen. Rudman. First of all there’s a huge gap between the two approaches to health care, just to use an example. Do you expect the president to reach out, to use the new term, or do you think he’s going to work very hard to get it done his way or no way?

HAROLD MEYERSON: I think he’s going to work very hard to get it done his way. The administration during its first term had a strategy based on mobilizing the right, more than I think almost anyone anticipated. And I’m sure one thing that Karl Rove and George Bush believe is that it worked. They managed to have the kind of re-election campaign that they envisioned they could have with an administration that was tilted towards the right, I think to the surprise of many other political observers, and why they would shift it at this point is not at all, is not at all clear to me.

JIM LEHRER: No motivation to shift is what you’re saying?

HAROLD MEYERSON: I think you have to make the kind of noises about bipartisanship, and I’m sure the majority of the American people, there’s some polling out today that suggests that they would prefer the president pursue a bipartisan agenda rather than a Republican agenda. But I just don’t see it in the cards -

FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: People like Linda would always be nice too –

JIM LEHRER: Linda Chavez.

LINDA CHAVEZ: You know, you think that health care reform is a very important issue, but if we look at the polls during the campaign it rarely got more than in the double digits in terms of what the American people care about. So it is an important issue. I don’t think that you’re going to see that issue emerge as the big issue. I think these other issues, certainly the war in Iraq, nothing matters if the war in Iraq goes badly.

JIM LEHRER: You agree with Willie Brown on that.

LINDA CHAVEZ: Absolutely.

FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: But not necessarily with the solution that Willie may embrace.

JIM LEHRER: We’ll get to that in a minute, but I want to ask you, Linda Chavez, about this reaching out thing. Where do you come down on that? Do you expect the president to do it and should he?

LINDA CHAVEZ: Well, first of all, I think bipartisanship is overrated. Bipartisanship usually means Republicans reaching out to Democrats. I think the reaching out that needs to be done is to the Democrats and I absolutely agree with Warren that the use of the filibuster particularly to block across the board a whole host of judicial nominees was disastrous, and Tom Daschle paid the price for that,. So I think there has to be some reaching out.

JIM LEHRER: You think that’s one of the reasons he lost the election?

LINDA CHAVEZ: No question.

JIM LEHRER: Willie Brown in San Francisco, you of course are the former mayor but also a former Democratic leader of the California legislature. Where do you come down on this reaching out thing, particularly now, what the president should be doing and how he should go about his business?

FORMER MAYOR WILLIE BROWN: I share Linda’s view. I think on balance it’s overrated. What you really need to do is to have a program and a series of options that you want to exercise, and then build a reservoir of goodwill among people on either side of the aisle to support that program, and that becomes clear evidence of reaching out.

Just talking about reaching out, in my opinion, will never work because of the serious committed views that people have on issues like abortions, on issues like same sex marriages, all those things so divide people that you can’t have a dialogue about those things and think you’re going to build a consensus. But you can have a dialogue about Social Security and build consensus. You can have a dialogue about the war in Iraq and build a consensus. You can have other kinds of things that relate to where people can in fact accept your view or you can accept theirs. That’s when you do the reaching out.

JIM LEHRER: Vin Weber.

FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: On most issues, we have to distinguish here, we’re not really looking for a consensus, which means virtually unanimity. You’re looking for a majority that includes some votes from the other side of the aisle and that is achievable. This president has already achieved that even in the highly polarized atmosphere of the last year — his education initiative had Sen. Kennedy as the author of it. The prescription drug had Democrats vote for it, particularly in the United States. And the vote to go to war in Iraq of course had Democrats including Senators Kerry and Edwards for it.

So it is possible to reach across the aisle on selective issues and get selected members of the other party to vote with you, and that’s got to happen. But let’s not set an unrealistic expectation level here that the lions are going to lay down with the sheep and we’re all going to agree with everything.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: If you want to pick up on the Social Security issue, which is a very important issue that Willie Brown has mentioned, there is room for compromise.

JIM LEHRER: And the president mentioned that today.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: He certainly did and there is great room for compromise and it’s essential that we do something with all these entitlement programs because in five or six years they can truly bankrupt the country. So look at that issue. The president says he wants to reform Social Security. One of the centerpieces of his program are so-called personal retirement accounts, a small portion of Social Security.

Now, the Democrats up to now, at least the majority of them, have opposed that and I’m going to simply say here flat out that if there is a chance to reach out, that’s a good place to do it. There ought to be a compromise possible in that area, even though there are some fiscal consequences that have to be dealt with.

JIM LEHRER: Harold Meyerson, what is the likelihood on that?

HAROLD MEYERSON: The thing is there are broader philosophic differences that underlie what to do with Social Security. The president’s plan is greatly premised more on self reliance and you sort of you’re on your own, at a time when pensions provided by employers are eroding, too. The Democrats look at the society and they say, look, if you’re not going to get your security on your job, the government has to step in and do it. That’s really hard to negotiate, as to which is the source of security for retirees, for health care, and so on.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: But you would agree that there are options, Harold.

HAROLD MEYERSON: Yes, there are options.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: For instance they can deal on that, where there are some issues I believe will come right down to a hard filibuster against the particular issue.

HAROLD MEYERSON: Right. On pro-choice, on abortion questions, there’s no compromise.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: Correct; that’s right.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s go to Willie Brown, back to the issue you raised, Willie Brown, which was Iraq. What must the president do and quickly, I assume you think it should be his number one priority what would you recommend that he do right now?

FORMER MAYOR WILLIE BROWN: Well, I said it should be the number one priority simply because there are a number of people that are dying, many Americans are losing their lives, and obviously a number of Iraqis are losing their lives. There obviously are some new people becoming terrorists and willing to make the sacrifice with car bombings and all of those things. That has to be blunted. It is in part, part of the war on terrorism — the worldwide war on terrorism.

I would guess that there are people in Iraq, lots of them, as a matter of fact, who would have some ideas on how best to do that, and it may not include utilization of American troops. There may be other nations that are not now a part of this that have some idea. That reaching out, I think he has to do, and he has to do it fairly quickly. Otherwise the war will go bad. And if the war goes bad, it will dampen the next four years of Mr. Bush’s second term.

JIM LEHRER: Linda.

LINDA CHAVEZ: I think this is one chance where he can reach out, the president can, and take a page out of John Kerry’s book; John Kerry said we needed more troops there. I think we do need more troops there. I think securing Iraq and making it a safe place in order to move forward to the elections is absolutely vital, and if he wants to reach out, I’d like to see him reach out to those Democrats who want more troops in.

JIM LEHRER: Did you hear anything today at his news conference or campaign a that made you think he was willing to do this in a major way and give it the priority Willie Brown is talking about?

LINDA CHAVEZ: Oh, I think – I think that first of all what we’re seeing happen around Fallujah right now is very important; I think that Fallujah is going to be a big test, if we fail in Fallujah, then it’s all over in Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: Let me ask Vin Weber about that.

FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: There’s good news out of Iraq, which is that the caricature of things painted by the Democrats in the last campaign was not entirely accurate. We’ve got a lot of problems in Iraq, no question about it, but it’s better than it was described by the Kerry campaign. We are moving toward the elections that Linda described in January, having enough security so that those elections can be conducted with a reasonable degree of efficiency is our top priority right now.

And when that happens, people are going to see that yes this is a difficult situation, but it is not the debacle that it was described as being in this election. We are moving ahead toward success in Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: Let me ask Harold Meyerson about that. What do you expect the attitude of Democrats to be now after the election toward Iraq with the president, whatever he does?

HAROLD MEYERSON: I think within Congress and the Senate there’s going to be some resignation, frankly, on Iraq. I think one of the problems with Iraq is that the president has made such a hash of it, there have never been any clear alternative policies either, which is a handicap that John Kerry labored under. He didn’t have a clear –

JIM LEHRER: The Kerry plan that –

HAROLD MEYERSON: There was no Kerry plan, there’s no Democratic plan and there’s no Bush plan. We’re there, we’re stuck.

FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: I’m trying to avoid scowling and sighing here.

HAROLD MEYERSON: You can scowl and sigh.

JIM LEHRER: We’ll get the camera on you, Weber.

HAROLD MEYERSON: Scowling and sighting is fine. But I see chaos, and I see no clear policy on either side of the aisle in Iraq. And I think divisions will come and the Democrats will be more muted now than they’ve been before, but if there are further debacles there, I would expect the Democrats to point that out vigorously.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: I want to make one observation more in response to what Willie Brown said than anything else. You know, presidents can’t control everything, they try. But there is something coming up in January this president cannot control, and the outcome could be very good for the United States –.

JIM LEHRER: You’re talking about the election.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: — or it could be disastrous.

JIM LEHRER: Elections in Iraq.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: And if the election turns out in Iraq with the wrong power group, with the wrong, quote, attitude about this country, and what our aspirations are, and what the Iraqi people aspirations are, at least we think they are, this could give the president enormous problems. And I believe that American policy in Iraq will be decided to a large extent by what happens in those elections.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with Willie Brown that whatever, you’re concerned about Social Security reform and the deficit, and Harold Meyerson is concerned about health care, et cetera, et cetera. But if this doesn’t get resolved properly in Iraq, the rest of it doesn’t matter?

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: No, I don’t agree, because –.

JIM LEHRER: I’m paraphrasing terribly there Willie Brown.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: And I’ll tell you why I don’t agree. I under his point — and it’s a good point. If you had both hands bleeding, you can’t fix just one, you have to fix two. If we don’t get the deficit and entitlement program fixed, then in the long term we’ll weaken this country so badly that we will have a difficult time in waging the war on terror. So I think -

FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: And there are other foreign policy challenges too.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: Exactly.

FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: Nobody is paying much attention to it’s, but we’re facing a very serious problem in Iran -

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: Exactly.

FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: — which is going to have to be dealt with very soon.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: And North Korea.

FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: And North Korea as well.

JIM LEHRER: Willie Brown, let me ask you this, based on your skills as a political person and getting things done in a legislative environment, et cetera. What do you think the chances are, forget Iraq for a moment, what do you think the chances are of getting some of these other things done, like Social Security reform, deficit reduction, even health care?

FORMER MAYOR WILLIE BROWN: I think this country believes that this president is capable of doing those things, Jim. I think when he got the overwhelming vote that he got on the popular vote side, when he got the response that he got from the collection of people, all age groups, all ethnicities, all genders, I think it was a clear indication that there’s greater confidence in this president’s leadership ability and his orchestration skills than the Democratic rhetoric gave him credit for. I share the view. I don’t think we’ve had a candid discussion about the war in Iraq.

Likewise, I don’t think we’ve had a candid discussion about all the other issues on which we are talking about on this program today. I think this president is frankly capable of dealing with the Iraqi issue, but there has to be candor, and there clearly has to be some reassessment, some of the things the Democrats said were in fact true. Some of the things that have been reported are true; they can’t be swept under the rug. And as soon as he does that and becomes candid and direct with reference thereto, puts together a plan with reference to Iraq, he can then begin to put together the plan for all the other things that are problems.

JIM LEHRER: Linda Chavez, do you agree with Willie’s basic point here that a lot of these issues that we’re talking about really didn’t get discussed, they got discussed in a political way but not in a real kind of core way?

LINDA CHAVEZ: That is absolutely right. And one of the things that is very different now is that that super heated rhetoric where people were pointing fingers and calling the president of the United States a liar is going to disappear, there are not going to be those 527 organization ads on there.

Terry McAuliffe I think will probably not be at the DNC too much longer and he’s not going to be out there. So you’re going to see a sort of toning down, and then you can begin to talk about differences in a meaningful way, rather than just making accusations and accusing and screaming at each other.

JIM LEHRER: But what does that say, Harold Meyerson, about the fact that we just went through a two-year exercise in electing a president of the United States, including the Democratic primary and then the campaign itself, and now we’re all saying, hey, we never really discussed the real issues in a very open and candid way?

HAROLD MEYERSON: Well, I’m glad Linda thinks that the swift boat attacks on John Kerry are going to be over, too.

JIM LEHRER: She meant to mention that.

HAROLD MEYERSON: I’m sure she did.

LINDA CHAVEZ: It slipped my mind.

HAROLD MEYERSON: I’m sure you did. There are all kinds of imperfect fictions with the American electoral process, but I have to say just in terms of our discussion here, we haven’t said the words tax cuts. And I appreciate all the concern for deficit reduction. But it seems to me that many of the things that some of us are talking about around this table have fallen prey, Senator, some of the things you favor, and some of the things that I favor, to tax cuts as kind of the cement of the Republican domestic agenda.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: Let me tell you, I would agree, I am convinced about one thing. George Bush has some very firm strong ideas about the tax cuts. He believes them deeply, I don’t think they’re a political pose.

HAROLD MEYERSON: I agree.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: He believes them deeply. He may be wrong, but he believes them deeply, and we’re not going to see any movement towards changing these tax cuts in the coming years, and that is a legacy he will have to deal with.

FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: I just want to add, before we leave the discussion, about not having enough of a discussion in the last campaign, which I agree with — but I wouldn’t want to leave the record unclear. The president was very clear throughout the entire campaign about what it is that he wants to do. Every single speech he gave for months and months and months he talked about tort reform, talked about tax reform, talked about Social Security reform, talked about the war on terrorism. He’s not springing this agenda on us out of a whole cloth if you will. He talked about it again and again and again.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

HAROLD MEYERSON: Neither does that known that he was elected entirely on all the particulars of that agenda. You know, people have been noting the 22 percent of the people who responded to the exit polls said they, the main issue for them were moral issues and these people overwhelmingly favored George W. Bush; that doesn’t mean they’re buying into the privatization of Social Security. I think the Bush campaign in many ways raised a kind of identity politics campaign, real Americans are with us and take a look at John Kerry. These folks aren’t real Americans. I think there’s a bit of a price to be paid in the clarity of your mandate, not that that’s deterred the Bush administration at any time.

JIM LEHRER: But your point, Mayor Brown, was that the president has displayed skills that the American people have bought into, they may not have bought into his agenda, bought they’ve bought into his skills to get some of these things done, correct?

FORMER MAYOR WILLIE BROWN: There is no question. How about the unemployed people in Ohio, they’re just hundreds of thousands of people who are in that category and they voted for George Bush, not just in Ohio, but in the other states. And they voted for George Bush because they had confidence that even though they had lost their job, they didn’t blame him for that. They do, however, have the optimistic attitude that his skills and his ability will eventually get them their job back. If he destroys that belief, he will lose the ability to exercise and spend properly the political capital which he’s gained. I think he’s skillful enough to reward that hope, and that optimism.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with him, Linda?

LINDA CHAVEZ: Yes, and in fact what Harold see was very important as well which is that unemployed worker in Ohio knows that he can get another job, but he won’t be able to get his family back, and he feels that the attack on the family, some of the cultural divide in the United States, the values of Hollywood, which they associate with the Democrats, were more threatening than losing a job.

FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: That’s right.

HAROLD MEYERSON: I do want to point out that people in Ohio who lost a job tended to go two to one for John Kerry. I don’t want to overstate this, but you’re right, for many Americans the –

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: I want to make one point here since we’re close to the end of time, and that is that it seems to me that the president has demonstrated to the American people, they’ve accepted he’s a strong leader. If he wants to take those leadership skills and attempt to make compromises on some of these issues which can be compromised, I believe he can do it.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Well, it’s too bad we didn’t –

HAROLD MEYERSON: Let me say that, I think only someone like George Bush could do that.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. It’s too bad we didn’t have this discussion earlier, we could have resolved all these problems and saved everybody a lot of time, thank you all five very much.