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Hot Story: Who's President?

Beltway Boys

FRED BARNES, "WEEKLY STANDARD": Coming up on "The Beltway Boys," from sharp exchanges over funding the war in Iraq, to a tidal wave of criticism over eight fired U.S. attorneys, Democrats are out for blood.

MORT KONDRACKE, "ROLL CALL": An aide to Virginia Senator Jim Webb is caught carrying a loaded gun on Capitol Hill. And Webb insists he has a right to defend himself.

BARNES: A determined Tony Snow says he'll fight his cancer head on, and the White House is right behind him.

KONDRACKE: And a side of Karl Rove you've never seen.

BARNES: That's all coming up on "The Beltway Boys." But first, the headlines.

(NEWSBREAK)

BARNES: I'm Fred Barnes.

KONDRACKE: I'm Mort Kondracke. We're "The Beltway Boys."

BARNES: "Hot Story": "Who's President?" Now this is a - a serious question. You know, it sounds a little like `Where's Waldo?' or something. But it's a very serious question. I think this is a moment of crisis, both for the presidency in general, and the Bush presidency in particular, because Democrats want to slash what I think are the fundamental constitutional rights of a president, and they want to do in two ways.

One, of course, is to deny the president getting confidential advice from his aides at the White House. If they have to blurt it out on Capitol Hill, it's no longer confidential.

And secondly - and this is even more serious, I think - and that is, they really want to cut back on the president's authority to conduct foreign policy, and actually, as commander in chief, to make important military decisions. I mean, they are really - I mean, this would - these are real problems for the presidency.

Now I - I - I hope you saw that - that clip of what Richard Durbin, the number two Democrat in the Senate, said to Lynn Sweet a couple weeks ago of "The Chicago Sun-Times." Here's what he said:

He said, "If and when Rove" - Karl Rove, of course the political adviser - "is sworn in as a witness, Durbin said it would be `reasonable' to go beyond the eight who were dismissed" - those U.S. attorneys - "and ask about his relationship with those who were retained, whether any political pressure was put on U.S. attorneys who did not lose their jobs."

And this important: "Added Durbin, `What else what Karl Rove doing when it came to other activities, departments of the government."

In other words, they want to get Karl Rove up there to say every - and demand that he tell them everything he's told the president, and probably what the president told him. Now Bush can't allow that. OK.

Then there's the whole question of the supplemental, you know, paying for the troops in Iraq, and - and Afghanistan. And Democrats adding on to it these binding timetables for withdrawing American troops.

Listen to these bytes. First Bush, and then Nancy Pelosi.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The House and Senate bills have too much pork, too many conditions on our commanders and an artificial timetable for withdrawal.

(APPLAUSE)

BUSH: And I have made it clear for works, if either version comes to my desk, I'm going to veto it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Calm down with the threats. There's a new Congress in town. We respect your constitutional role; we want you to respect ours.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNES: Calm down? I - I - I think she's over the line on that.

But the fact is, the Democrats don't respect the president's constitutional role, because they want to deny him the right to carry on foreign policy. But also, to make, as commander in chief, strategic and even battlefield decisions in the war in Iraq. And so I think - and I'm - I - I don't mean to be melodramatic, Mort, but I think is a - an ominous moment for the presidency, and - and for the country.

KONDRACKE: Look, I - I've said for weeks I think that - that it was perfect - that vital U.S. aide to the troops in - in Iraq could be delayed, dangerously delayed, by this - by this confrontation. Bush is going to veto the - whatever bill emerges from a House-Senate conference. The Democrats are going to then have to decide how far to back off, or whether to back off at all.

Now what's happening is that both sides are using the parallel to the 1995 government shutdown controversy you remember, between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich.

BARNES: I do remember.

KONDRACKE: .as a parallel for how they stand. And the Republicans say, `Ah ha.' You know, Bill Clinton came back from the doldrums - political doldrums - by fighting with Newt Gingrich, beating him on the issue of - of - of the government shutdown, and - and - went - went on to be triumphantly re-elected, et cetera, et cetera. And the bully pulpit of the presidency will prevail here.

Now the Democrats - I talked to Rahm Emanuel, who you saw standing behind Nancy Pelosi there in that picture - and he says he was in the White House at the time. He said the situation is very different. Bill Clinton, 53 percent approval rating; George Bush, 33 percent approval rating. Bill Clinton defending a popular program like Medicare; George Bush defending an unpopular war. Bill Clinton willing to talk to - to the opposition, holding meetings with Gingrich and Bob Dole at the White House; George Bush making speeches and threatening - and threatening vetoes and so on and so fort.

So, I mean, we're at loggerheads here. Now the troops don't need the money this minute. You can probably, you know, reprogram funds for awhile. But eventually, the money's going to run out, and the troops are going to need the money, and they're not going to have the bullets, they're not going to have the reinforcements, and it's going to be dangerous for them.

BARNES: You know, look, there is nothing for - that can be negotiating on one part of - of this whole measure passed by Congress, and that's the binding withdrawal dates, where - where troops have to come out. The president just can't agree with that.

Now he can - you know, they can talk about - about the $20 billion in pork, and - and the so-called benchmarks that would require the Iraqi government to do something. But - but on - on the binding timetable, the Democrats will have to back down. There's no question about that.

Now, the whole U.S. attorneys flap would - in which Democrats would love to have the head of Karl Rove presented to them on a platter - a still-talking head so they could question him. They did get Kyle Sampson, who was the chief of staff to Attorney General Gonzales. And he said, `Well, I had had discussions with Gonzales about this whole case of firing these eight U.S. attorneys,' and of - of course Gonzales had said earlier he didn't have discussions.

They're arguing over words like "discussions" and "involvement" and so on, when in fact, they're - they're talking about the same thing, and - and - and the fact is, I don't think Gonzales ever denied making the final decision on the eight U.S. attorneys. I mean, you have to sign off on it. There's nothing here, but Democrats are out for blood.

KONDRACKE: Yes.

Well, look, Gonzales first said he could not recall being involvement in any discussions about these U.S. attorneys. Now, this - his - his former aide testified the - the other day, said, `Oh no, he was involved in discussions. And not only that, but he made the final decisions.'

Now this is a conflict that - that is going to get - get Gonzales in a lot - it - it has him in a lot of trouble with - with the Senate. And you've got - wait a minute - you've got eroding support for Gonzales, even among Republicans. The White House - the president stood up the other day and said that he was behind Gonzales. The White House said the other say, `Well, he can speak for himself.' It sounds like, `You're on your own, buddy.'

BARNES: I know. But there wasn't much support for him in the first place.

KONDRACKE: Well, OK.

BARNES: .at least in Congress.

KONDRACKE: But - and as to Rove's testimony, they're not going to get Rove - they're not going to get Rove's testimony before Congress unless and until a court approves a subpoena for him. So that's the way it is.

I - you know, I wish that the Senate would - would stop just trying to get heads, and would prove one way or the other whether anybody tried to fire these attorneys because they were - they were either defending corrupt Republicans, or trying to stop - or trying to advance investigations of - of Democrats. In other words, that would be - be a serious charge of interference with U.S. attorneys in their - in their - in their duties.

There - there's no evidence of that yet. There are all kinds of allegations. The - the Congress has barely begin looking into that. You know, that's what I - that's what I want to see. If they don't - if they don't move on to that and prove something, this is all nothing but politics.

BARNES: Well, of course, that's all it is, is politics. And I - and I wish the press would - would jump on the charge that has been made by Arlen Specter, the Republican - the ranking Republican on the committee, of - about the conflict of interest that Chuck Schumer has as a member of that committee, raising all these charges, and then - and then putting on a - a - using him in his role as the Democratic Senatorial campaign chairman, you know? Asking questions about Pete Domenici, and then putting all these charges on his Web site. A huge conflict of interest there.

KONDRACKE: Is that a punishable conflict of interest?

BARNES: Yes.

KONDRACKE: It's political. It ought - it ought to be elevated; I agree with you. People should take note.

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