Round Two

A year after they mixed it up in these pages over the president's job performance, loyal Bushie Mark McKinnon and die-hard Democrat Paul Begala step back into the ring to argue over tax cuts, the war on terror, and the prospect if Al Gore in '04.

June 2002By and Comments

Big Mac,

Well, here we are, nearly a year and a half into George W. Bush’s presidency—a good time to take stock. Because you and I cut our teeth on campaigns, let’s begin by judging W. by his own campaign promises.

In a time of peace, prosperity, and surplus, he promised change. Now we’ve got war and recession and deficits, so I guess he delivered. But like the man said, “Change is certain; progress is not.”

W. promised to “change the tone” in Washington, a not-too-thinly veiled reference to the savage politics of personal destruction his own party had practiced against Bill Clinton. But instead of ushering in a new era of good feelings, he personally ordered—according to the Bush-friendly Washington Times—a political hit on Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, trotting out Dick Cheney to essentially endorse ads that linked Daschle to Saddam Hussein. This at a time when Daschle had been targeted for assassination by terrorists with anthrax. Nice.

W. promised to cut taxes and cut them he did. He shifted hundreds of billions of dollars of projected surplus into the pockets of the wealthiest Americans while raising taxes on the middle class by slapping a 30 percent tariff on steel. For most working folks, the tiny Bush tax cut will be gobbled up by higher prices for cars, trucks, refrigerators, and everything else made of steel. Meanwhile, the Bush IRS has cut way back on audits of the rich and increased audits on the working poor. The bottom line is like that old country song: “They Got the Gold Mine. We Got the Shaft.”

Why on earth would W. want to reverse the single most successful economic policy in history? It seems to me that he’s obsessed with doing the opposite of Clinton on everything—and not just on taxes. Clinton insisted that corporate polluters continue to be taxed to help pay for the clean up of Superfund sites; Bush pushes for the elimination of the tax and generally retreats from the environmental agenda so radically that the man who enforces the environmental laws—someone first hired by his father—resigned in protest. Clinton engaged personally and courageously in the quest for peace and brought the Arabs and the Israelis closer than at any point in the past five thousand years; Bush walks away, disengaging from the Middle East as it erupts in flames, then belatedly flops around like a fish on a dock with a policy that even our friends say is incoherent.

Which brings me to what I hope to tease out of you in this exchange: Surely you don’t think Bush has been perfect, do you? Yet I’ve never heard the slightest admission from any of the Bushies about W.’s failings. Can it really be that everything Clinton did was wrong and nothing W. does is? There is a certain Stepford quality among the Bushies; y’all act like the stuff on his cowboy boots don’t stink. This is not good for the country or for the president. He needs criticism from those closest to him; instead, they brandish his approval rating, which we both know barely moved from his election until September 11. It’s more realistic to view it as Osama bin Laden’s disapproval rating than Bush’s approval rating.

If I expect you to be candid about your man’s faults and my man’s strengths, let me rise to my own challenge. I love Bill Clinton as much as you love W., but I publicly broke with him on the Mark Rich pardon and his lack of candor in the Monica Lewinsky affair. And I have applauded Bush’s policy in Afghanistan. Remember W.’s campaign claptrap about a hollow military, his stupid criticism of multilateralism, and his ignorant attacks on “nation building”? All that is out the window now. W. is praising our military, lining up allies, and sending envoys to help rebuild civil society in Afghanistan, and I could not be happier.

So there. I’ve criticized Clinton and praised W. It can’t be that hard for you to praise Clinton and point out W.’s failings. Hell, Mac, even a blind hog in a field eventually finds an acorn. And you’re in a damn orchard.

Yo, Pablo,

Man, you need a tractor to pull yourself out of the past. News flash, amigo: We ran against Al Gore, not Bill Clinton. Your goal in life may be to create and preserve a legacy for your former boss, but the rest of us have moved on to the future.

You’re not going to bait me into criticizing the president. That’s your job. But since you’re obsessed with Clinton and seemingly in desperate need of praise, I’ll be glad to offer some. Clinton had an enormous intellectual appetite and capacity. He did the Democratic party a great favor by moving it to the middle to embrace taboo notions like welfare reform. During his administration, the American economy prospered like never before. Clap, clap, clap. Give the man a gold watch. Now get him off the stage (and off the cover of Newsweek). It’s embarrassing.

If Al Gore had run half the campaign Bill Clinton ran, he might be president. But he didn’t, and he’s not. And speaking of Al Gore, I just heard music to my ears on NPR as I was grabbing my morning coffee. Al Gore is back, ranting at the Florida Democratic Convention. Gone is the hirsute Al Gore. Gone is the silk-shirt-unbuttoned-to-his-navel Al Gore. Gone is the John-Travolta-in-Grease Al Gore. Back is the good old Al Gore America came to know and reject. Back from oblivion to declare, “Never give up on what you believe in.”

Er, what is it exactly that Al Gore believes in? Besides himself, that is? And even then, which himself is it that he believes in? Isn’t that why America rejected him? Rejected him when he was running on the strongest economy in this century? (See, I’m giving your man Clinton credit again.) When the issues voters cared about—Social Security, health care, education—were associated with Democrats? He had every advantage a presidential candidate could hope for and still managed to claw his way to the bottom.

Round two? We’re all for it.

As for your rant about campaign promises? Well, first of all, we never mentioned the word “change.” In fact, we aggressively avoided it. But we did campaign on a few clear ideas. Taxes: President Bush cut ‘em. (And any economist worth noting says those tax cuts kept us out of a much deeper recession.) Education reforms: President Bush just signed ‘em into law—the most radical federal education reforms in a generation. Stronger support for the American military: Well, just find any man or woman in uniform and ask ‘em. And he proposed Social Security reforms to preserve the system and allow citizens the option of investing their own money (so far the Democrats have successfully blocked ‘em). Not yet halfway through his first term, the president has already delivered on three out of four of his big-ticket campaign promises.

And what of the Democrats? For the first time in history, they’re so lost in the wilderness they can’t even write a budget resolution that defines their position on taxes, spending, and fiscal policy—basically anything that matters in government.

George W. Bush currently enjoys the highest sustained job-approval ratings in presidential history. That’s not my opinion, Paul. That’s the opinion of the heartland. And that’s the opinion of a whole lot of Democrats. He must be doing something right.
Carry on, regardless,

Big Mac,

It’s stunning and scary. You’ve failed my sanity test. You know Bush, you work for him, and you even presumably voted for him, yet you can’t think of anything about him or his policies with which you disagree. Wasn’t it William Wrigley who said that if two people agree on everything, one of ‘em ain’t necessary?

You’d think that if Bush would be good at anything, it would be inheriting things. Apparently not. He inherited the strongest economy in history. Now 2.2 million Americans who had jobs on the day W. stole the election are out of work. He inherited a Middle East peace process that brought the parties to the brink of lasting peace. Today, the Holy Land is ablaze. He inherited a Western Hemisphere that had turned squarely in the direction of freedom and democracy. Then he backed an anti-democratic military coup in Venezuela, with one administrative official actually saying it was okay to depose a freely elected leader because “legitimacy is something that is conferred not just by a majority of the voters.” I have to hand it to you, Mac. You guys have chutzpah. I suppose winning the vote of a Supreme Court your daddy helped pick is more legitimate than winning a free election?

Still, as you well know, I was pulling for him, rooting for him, supporting him after September 11. Like most Americans, I turned a blind eye to his frighteningly shaky performance that day. While some pointed out the stark contrast between Rudy Giuliani’s courage in risking his life to rush to the Twin Towers and Bush’s panicked public statements, his hiding in a bunker in Nebraska, and his staff’s lying that Air Force One had been under attack, I bit my tongue. But when you and your gang brandish Bush’s poll numbers like a bloody shirt, when Karl Rove tells Republicans to make political hay out of the deaths of thousands of Americans, I have to call you on it.

In those quiet moments when you’re honest with yourself, you know that more than half a year since W. bragged we’d drag bin Laden to justice “dead or alive,” Osama is laughing his tail off and W. is too embarrassed to mention him anymore. (Is there something in the Bush genes that makes them incapable of finishing off the bad guys? I seem to recall Poppy telling us Saddam Hussein was another Hitler.)

W. was right to tell the American people about the evil of Al Qaeda. And when he finally found his voice reading the speech y’all wrote for him to the joint session of Congress, I cheered as loud as anyone. But Bush has squandered his moral authority by refusing to stand up to the Saudi oil sheiks who some believe fund terror; he’s shifted his focus away from the long twilight struggle to cripple Al Qaeda in favor of finishing what Poppy started in Iraq; and he’s systematically alienated every ally we need to win the war.

So you can bash Al Gore all you want. He is a highly qualified man who ran a bad campaign. Bush was an unqualified man who ran a good campaign. If Gore had had you on the payroll, he’d have won by so much that even Thief Justice Rehnquist couldn’t have gotten away with stealing it.

Scientists at UT are working on an antidote for your Bush Kool-Aid, Mac. Until then, hang on.


I love your passion, but you need some medication. Is it cable television that’s responsible for your hysteria? (By the way, congratulations on the Crossfire gig. No offense to Bill Press, but he was a little like watching a human Quaalude. On the other hand, you and Carville may turn the show into a pundit version of the WWF. That would probably be good for CNN’s anemic ratings.)

I can easily think of policies on which the president and I disagree. But you know what? Unlike so many folks in the Clinton administration, I don’t air my disagreements in public. What little counsel I have to offer the president is shared privately with him, not the media. And he is always an open and honest audience. In fact, he likes to hear contrary opinions, and I believe I was hired in the first place because I often bring a different perspective to the discussion. But when my commander in chief makes a decision, I salute and shut up.

Anyway, Paul, you have selective amnesia. One of the major differences between this administration and the last one is the degree of loyalty between the president and his staff and friends. Clinton was not loyal to those who served him (think Zoe Baird and Webster Hubbell, to name just a few). And, not surprisingly, Clinton had few true loyalists. You were one of the only ones, Paul. It was you who stood up on television and defended President Clinton throughout the Monica Lewinsky affair. When everyone in the country knew the truth, you stood your ground and defended the indefensible, even after you discovered the president had lied to you. Why? Because you were loyal. You put his interests above yours. A rare and admirable quality, Paul—a quality worth emulating, and I’m trying. So if you want to criticize me for being loyal to the president, look in your own rearview mirror.

On the Middle East: What is your tidy solution to a problem that no one has been able to resolve for more than fifty years, including your ex-boss? I won’t point out his failings in this department because I think he made a valiant effort, as I believe President Bush is doing now. There’s no magic wand that any American president is ever going to be able to wave over the Middle East.

Your interpretation of Karl’s remarks is totally inaccurate. I was there. All he said was that if the president was doing a good job on the war on terrorism, Republicans should use the issue in their campaigns. Odd that you would criticize this rather obvious strategy, because to be morally parallel, you’d be compelled to argue that it would be wrong for Democrats to use the war as a campaign issue if it weren’t going well. And yet in the same breath you proceed to attack the president on the war on terrorism! You didn’t even let a paragraph break get in the way of your collision in logic.

Here are some late-breaking poll results about which there is little disagreement: Sixty-two percent of the country believes Al Gore looks better without his beard. Ninety-two percent believes the beard looks better without Al Gore.

Big Mac,

We’re talking past each other. Nothing makes me prouder than for you to see me as the gold standard for loyalty. I’ve never regretted my loyalty to President Clinton, and I’ll be there for him until the end. And so I respect and admire your loyalty to your man.

But there’s a difference between blind loyalty and just plain blindness. I’m not talking about picking a public fight with your boss or undermining his agenda. I’m talking about admitting mistakes, acknowledging faults, and taking steps to correct flaws. Can it be that in a year and a half Bush has made no mistakes? There’s a steep learning curve in the West Wing, and if you pretend you’ve never made a mistake, you’re not exactly on the right side of that curve. Nothing could be more arrogant than to assume the most difficult job in the world and refuse to admit you’ve made even a single mistake. And Bush has never acknowledged that he’s made even a single mistake as president. Stunning.

Let me help you out. Perhaps the cardinal sin of the Bush Era has been a slavish devotion to corporate America. When the big money boys say, “Jump!” W.’s in the air before he asks, “How high?” Well, it was a mistake for Bush to endorse handing back fifteen years worth of taxes to corporate America. Enron alone would have pocketed $254 million of our money from this bailout of big bidness.

Speaking of Enron, it was also a mistake for Bush to stock our government with Enron executives, Enron consultants, and Enron stockholders. It was a mistake to give Enron six meetings with the vice president’s energy task force; a mistake to let Enron dictate seventeen specific provisions in the energy plan; a mistake for W. to lie to the country about how well he knows Kenny-Boy Lay.

It was a mistake for him to cave in to special interests and unwind workplace safety rules, to give in to the insurance industry and overturn medical privacy rules, to obey the demands of the agribusiness conglomerates and backtrack on food-safety rules.

It was a mistake to spend all of the Medicare surplus and $2 trillion of the Social Security surplus on a tax cut for the rich, especially after he promised not to.

It was a mistake for him to tell the good people of Nevada (in an ad that ran just before Election Day; did you make that ad, by the way?) that he would not dump America’s nuclear waste in their state—and then do the nuclear industry’s bidding and locate the nuke dump in Nevada anyway.

It was a mistake to call for oil drilling in the Arctic wilderness, and then, when the Senate rejected his plan, to call for drilling in Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, and Colorado, all the while refusing to tell carmakers that energy independence requires greater fuel efficiency.

It was a mistake for W. to promise Ted Kennedy that he’d fully fund the education-reform bill you bragged on and then decide not to fund a training program for 18,000 teachers and after-school programs for 33,000 kids, as well as an education-assistance program for 6 million needy children.

How about his foreign policy mistakes? It was a mistake to abandon the Middle East to the terrorists who targeted Israel for fifteen months, and it was a mistake to expect Colin Powell to make up for fifteen months of Bush’s neglect in six days.

It was a mistake to abandon the moral clarity of the Bush Doctrine and criticize Israel for going after Palestinian terrorists, especially when the Israelis used less force than we used to go after Al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan.

I know the whole world changed on September 11, but W. surely made a mistake in barely uttering the word “terrorism” in his first nine months in office and only then to argue for Star Wars. It was surely a mistake for him to abandon President Clinton’s high-alert submarine operations, which were preparing to go after Osama bin Laden. It was surely a mistake for Bush to undermine Clinton’s crackdown on money laundering, which could have tracked Al Qaeda’s financing. It was surely a mistake for Bush to abandon the Uzbek insurgents the Clinton-era CIA had trained to hunt for bin Laden.

It was surely a mistake for Bush, at Donald Rumsfeld’s urging, to threaten to veto the defense budget when Democrats tried to shift $600 million from Star Wars to anti-terror defenses.

It was surely a mistake to so underestimate the threat of terrorism. Don’t take my word for it. Lieutenant General Donald Kerrick, who served both Clinton and Bush on the National Security Council, told the Washington Post that Clinton’s seniormost aides met “nearly weekly” to plan their strategy against bin Laden. By contrast, he said, “candidly speaking, I didn’t detect” that kind of focus from Bush’s high command.

There’s no doubt you can and will marshal a strong defense against my characterization of these mistakes. Indeed, through a different ideological prism, you may not view some of them as mistakes at all. But even you have to admit that a few of them, if not all of them, are Texas-size screwups.

Not that the idea of Bush screwing up should surprise you. After all, when he ran the Texas Rangers, he traded Sammy Sosa.


Please, please check the dosage on the Ritalin bottle.

First, let me point out how you’ve ignored my simple question about the Democrats and their agenda. I know why you didn’t answer it. Because there isn’t a coherent agenda. No vision. No leadership. No nothing. Total disarray. And I’ll tell you, Paul: You can criticize all you want, but it’s awful hard to beat something with nothing. Allow me to quote from one of your own people, Bill Keller, of the New York Times, who wrote about the recent Democratic beauty pageant in Florida: “‘Never, never, never, never, never, never give up,’ said Al Gore, mauling a line of Churchill’s. (Mr. Gore presumably had not yet taken that sentiment to heart when he gave up on seeking a statewide recount in Florida in the endless November of 2000.) But if the Democrats insist on speaking up, isn’t it fair to ask that they have something interesting to say? I read the speeches of the various early contenders in Florida and they consisted mainly of recycled themes from campaigns past.”

No, Paul, I did not write the Nevada ad. I don’t even know what ad you’re talking about. But I will tell you this: Like it or not, we have a lot of nuclear waste in this country, and it’s crucial that we store it somewhere safe. A whole lot of smart people who have studied the subject for decades decided the site in Nevada is the best place for it. Of course, the politics out there are difficult; politicians and jurisdictions have been passing the buck for years. And now, finally, someone, this president, had the cojones to make the decision final, even though it could very well cost him Nevada’s electoral votes in the next election. That’s called leadership, amigo.

Here are a few facts about President Bush’s environmental record, which I suspect you would say is his most vulnerable policy area. He may well be the first president ever to propose a multi-emission strategy that would cut power-plant emissions of three of the worst air pollutants—nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and for the first time ever, mercury—by 70 percent. His clean-air proposals will help protect everyone’s health by reducing pollutants such as smog and acid rain. He has committed to cutting greenhouse gas intensity by 18 percent over the next ten years. His 2003 budget provides $4.5 billion for activities related to global climate change—a $700 million increase. That’s more than what any other country in the world is budgeting.

And his tax cuts? A recently released report by the Council of Economic Advisors provides hard evidence that the tax relief signed into law by the president last year is creating jobs, has provided a powerful economic stimulus, has softened the recession, and has laid the foundation for long-run economic growth. According to the report, the tax cuts will have helped the private sector create 800,000 more jobs than there otherwise would have been by the end of 2002, and they’ve raised the prospects of a solid recovery this year by lifting the economy’s expected growth rate from 2.2 percent to 2.7 percent.

You may disagree with the president’s plan, but I still haven’t heard yours—and neither has David Broder, of the Post. “When the House was debating its budget resolution a few weeks ago,” he wrote, “the Democrats didn’t propose an alternative of their own… . But the budget resolution, though lacking the force of law, is designed to be the clearest statement of a party’s policy priorities. As long as they are silent, the Democrats cannot be part of serious political debate… . The result is that the public views the Democrats, according to polls, as being incoherent on economic policy. Their vagueness is effectively surrendering this vital policy field to Bush and the Republicans… . What’s the use of a party that won’t give voters a real alternative on something as basic as the budget?”

So, Paul, you can keep barking and coming off your chain. But until you can articulate an alternative vision for the future, you ain’t going to have much bite.

Okay, okay, I give. The Sammy Sosa trade? Big mistake. Happy now?

Vaya con cuidado,

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