BuzzFlash Interviews Paul Begala (Part One)
March 27, 2002
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW WITH FAMED DEMOCRATIC POLITICAL STRATEGIST PAUL BEGALA
Paul Begala is famous as a key architect of the Clinton war room strategy. Most recently, he and sidekick James Carville (now dueling partners on CNN's "Crossfire") authored (Click here to purchase) "Buck Up, Suck Up and Come Back When You Foul Up."
BuzzFlash interviewed Begala about the key strategy recommendations in "Buck Up, Suck Up" -- and, of course, about all things political.
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BUZZFLASH: Let me start with a question regarding what I consider the most important chapter in your book, certainly as far as the BuzzFlash perspective, which is "Rule Number Four: Frame the Debate." That seems to be, particularly at a national political level, key in terms of who owns the landscape of how the debate is framed.
PAUL BEGALA: Defining the terms of the debate generally dictates who's gonna' win it. Case in point: the current White House tells us and wants us to believe that the Enron scandal is, first of all, a business scandal. And they want to define it only in those terms. Secondly, to the extent it affects governmental policies, they keep telling us Enron got nothing from them, meaning Enron did not get a bailout as it was going under. But if they can limit the debate only to Enron's corporate practices and not the political influence that allowed them to have those unethical corporate practices, they will have won. I think more fair-minded people would want to expand the terms of the debate and frame it this way: How in the world did Enron get away with this? What did they give, when did they give it, and what did they get?
BUZZFLASH: BuzzFlash has contended -- and we wrote an editorial -- that the so-called Enron "distress" calls in the fall of 2001 were really a sounding alarm to the White House to get out of the way as the ship went under, not to be pulled down in the undertow. But they weren't really calls for help. The calls for help actually started on January 20th when the President, Mr. Bush, issued an executive order that helped Enron, and then continued full speed ahead until, in effect, everything the White House could do to save Enron didn't work. And so the date when the White House started to help Enron, from our perspective in framing the debate, really needs to be on January 20th, not the fall of 2001.
PAUL BEGALA: Actually I'd even go back earlier. Bush began helping Enron in the eighties.
BUZZFLASH: Well, that's true too.
PAUL BEGALA: Don't forget they were lobbyists for Enron. George W. Bush lobbied for Enron. In 1988, when his father was the Vice President of the United States, George W. Bush lobbied the Argentines on behalf of Enron. Now Bush, to be fair, has always denied this. Bush denied it then, but the Argentine minister has gone on the record and confirmed it. But he has no motive to lie when he said, "Look, the guy called. He was George W. Bush from Texas. His father was the Vice President." You don't forget a call like that.
So I think you're right that we need to define Enron in terms of just to what extent was George W. Bush a wholly owned subsidiary of Enron. And the answer is a hundred percent. He was in business with Enron in 1986, when he had a failed oil company. But all of a sudden, Enron wanted to help him out. Then in 1988, we know that he lobbied for Enron in Argentina. When he became governor in 1994, he set in place many of the policies that allowed Enron to metastasize in Texas. Then he became President.
First off, your point is right -- that the fact that they did nothing then is hardly meritorious. It's as if you were the fire department and someone said there is an arsonist in town, and the fire department's answer was, "Well, we didn't do anything." It's your job to do something. Sound the alarm. Warn the workers. Warn the investors. Get people out of it.
We know that Ken Lay interviewed and recommended -- in effect, de facto selected -- the "candidates" for FERC, which regulates Enron. We know that Ken Lay, according to the former chairman of FERC, a conservative Republican himself, that Lay called him and exerted enormous influence, and threatened him with his job if he wouldn't 100% support Enron's positions. The FERC chairman refused to support Enron, and he was summarily replaced with Mr. Wood, of Texas, who was a strong supporter of Enron.
Enron got 17 separate recommendations out of the Energy Task Force. And they got seven meetings with the Energy Task Force. You know, nobody else got that. They got to see their employees placed all over the administration, such as the Secretary of the Army, where there's been enormous allegations of conflicts of interest. Enron got so much out of the Bush Administration, it would be impossible to catalog.
BUZZFLASH: Certainly, Henry Waxman has been the bulldog champion trying to point these things out and get them more prominently recognized in the media. Indeed, Vice President Cheney, we recall, was threatening the states that if they didn't allow electrical grid lines to run through their states, and didn't give the federal government the power to decide where they went, that the Bush administration might assert eminent domain. And this was a key Enron goal: to be able to control where the grid lines went. And Cheney publicly tried to intimidate states, which, of course, we know is a very hypocritical stance for the Republicans to trample on states' rights. So the list goes on and on.
Well, why do you think the Democrats at this point are not successfully defining the issue in the manner we've just discussed? It seems the administration, at least thus far, has the upper hand on how the Enron debate is going and is being shaped.
PAUL BEGALA: I think too many Democrats are too wimpy. But I think they're beginning to toughen up.
First off, the press is against us on this. The press tried to paint this as if it were a bipartisan scandal. Do the math. I've done it. Go to the website of the Center for Responsive Politics -- crp.org -- and do the math yourself. By my calculations, all of the Democrats running for every federal election, every federal office, since 1994, combined, received about $550,000 from Enron. For the entire Democratic party, in all fifty states, in every candidate for federal office -- about $550,000. George W. Bush -- alone, one man -- received over $800,000 -- $840,000 by my count. That's 68% higher. For one man to get 68% more than the entire Democratic party did over a seven-year period . . . you can't tell me that this is a bipartisan scandal if Bush alone got 68% more than every flipping Democrat in America combined. So Democrats ought to fear not.
BUZZFLASH: Well, let me ask you about another issue that I think the Republicans have framed the debate in a way which is not truthful, but nonetheless have managed to fix this false perception in the public mind. And Senator Kerry poked a little bit of a hole in it the other day, which is this: the Republicans tend to frame the Democratic leadership as somehow having lost the war in Vietnam, and as being weak on Vietnam, and generally weak on military issues. And that the Republican party is really the party of the military and, of course, the party that fought for its country when the Democrats ran the other way.
But if you look at almost all the Democratic leaders, they almost, to a person, either served in Vietnam or served in military service in non-Vietnam years. But almost to a person, the Republican leadership, including the President, the Vice President, the Attorney General, the Majority Leader in the Senate, the Speaker of the House, the former Speaker of the House, and the infamous Tom DeLay -- they all avoided service in Vietnam in a period when they were eligible for service in Vietnam.
PAUL BEGALA: Of course. Dick Cheney got five draft deferments.
BUZZFLASH: But how do you explain that the Democrats have, I think, let the Republicans portray themselves in completely the opposite fashion, as though they're the patriots. But in fact, all these chicken hawks ran the other way from Vietnam. Mr. Bush had a chance to volunteer in Vietnam on his National Guard application, and we know, of course, he was missing the last couple years of his Guard service. Bush chose to avoid service in Vietnam. Mr. Ashcroft got a deferral for teaching business law at a small college in southwest Missouri, I believe. Trent Lott avoided military service. Tom DeLay, when asked about his service and why he didn't serve in Vietnam, gave a bizarre story that he went to the recruiters and they said all the positions for Vietnam had been filled by minorities.
PAUL BEGALA: He was a victim of affirmative action then. (Laughter)
So here is an example to BuzzFlash of how the Democrats have let the Republicans
get away with this false image -- that somehow they were the ones who
served and were patriotic, when it's the Democrats who were the courageous
ones. Now, Senator Kerry, the other day, as you know, when Senator Lott
and Tom DeLay criticized Senator Daschle for making some very mild statements
questioning the direction of where we were going with the war on terrorism
. . . Kerry shot back at him that Lott and DeLay didn't serve in Vietnam.
You know, by the way, they have more cheerleaders than military veterans in their leadership. Bush was a cheerleader andů
BUZZFLASH: Trent Lott was a cheerleader.
PAUL BEGALA: I always liked going to the games and watching the cheerleaders. They played a vital team spirit function. But, you know, Al Gore, John Kerry, Bob Kerry, Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt -- every one of them was a military veteran. And except for our Secretary of State, who served with the highest distinction at the highest levels of the military, I can't think of very many others. I'm sure I'm forgetting a few. But I can't think of very many others in the Republican leadership.
BUZZFLASH: Well, Rule Two and Three in your book are "Kick Ass." And I think many readers of BuzzFlash would wish that Democrats and independents, progressives of all stripe, would kick some more ass.
I want to bring up another framing issue, and certainly one you had experience with going back to the Clinton era. Obviously the Republicans couldn't beat Clinton on the issues. They kept losing on the issues. And they decided -- as is chronicled in several books, most notably in Joe Conason's and Gene Lyons' book, The Hunting the President -- to go after him on the character issue, using every means possible -- including the media, The American Spectator, and even hijacking the judicial branch of the government when David Sentelle appointed Ken Starr after Robert Fisk was ready to close up the independent counsel's office.
In essence, they entrapped him on what was essentially a character issue, and then claiming that he technically violated the law. I mean, this was a very premeditated effort to dislodge the popularly elected president of the United States -- reelected president of the United States -- through any means possible, including hijacking the democratic process. It didn't work, but it almost worked. And certainly you, as a key part of the Clinton team, knew there was a lot of hands-on work on the part of the Clinton administration to counterattack, but nonetheless, the Republicans were almost successful. And some would argue that it was Larry Flynt who prevented the impeachment by, in essence, outing Mr. Livingston and he was about to out Mr. Gingrich. And I think, you know, some people would argue the Republicans finally -- that the steam went out of their pants at that point because they were wondering who's next. And I think, at that point, it's possible Trent Lott and others finally said, you know, we can't afford for this to go through because we might be next.
PAUL BEGALA: On that I do have to disagree. I have much more faith in the American people. I'm not a fan of Larry Flynt. But I don't believe in outing people -- Republican or Democrat, gay or straight. I kind of leave people and their private lives alone.
But I think what happened was that Clinton knew how to fight back. And the way he fought back was on the issues -- being tough in staying on the things that mattered to people in their lives. See, I think if it just became who's sleeping with whom, then there's no reason to prefer one party over the other, 'cause the truth is we're all sinners. I thought Clinton's great genius was in saying they -- all they want to do is, you know, sniff around in my underwear drawer. Clinton said, "I want to help you get a job, feed your family, send your kids to school, get some health insurance" -- you know, the kind of things that matter in people's lives.
Let's go back over the last couple years of political history. In 1988, George Bush had no business being elected president of the United States. He was tarred with Iran Contra. The country was limping out of the lame last days of the Reagan administration, and Dukakis should have beat him. But Democrats didn't fight that year. The Republicans impugned Dukakis' patriotism. Reagan himself challenged Dukakis' mental health, one of the sleaziest things we've ever seen. And Dukakis never fought back, and we lost.
In '92, we had a Democrat in there who knew how to fight. And they hit Clinton with everything in the wide world. I mean, he had scandal after scandal thrown at him -- much worse than Dukakis -- but he knew how to fight back and he won. Well, you know, by '94, we were rocked back on our heels again. People weren't fighting. We were apologizing for ourselves and what we believed in, and we got swamped. Then in '96, in '98, we fought like hell. And in '98, the first time since in ages the president picked up seats.
So hey, look at 2000 once again. Gore sits there passively, acting as if he was in the witness protection program these last few years. Allows them to paint him as a phony and a fraud, because he is pretending that he didn't ever know Bill Clinton. So, I mean, to me, the lesson is very, very clear. I have some hope though, and this is just in the last week. If you'd talked to me a week ago, I would have been much more down. But I'm watching Senator Kerry. I'm watching Senator Lieberman. Tom Daschle has been a pillar of strength. He has been as tough as a bar of iron. I think he's beginning to rally more Democrats to his cause. So actually I think that we're beginning to fight back. But by God, if we can't beat this guy, we ought to find a new country to run in.
I mean, good Lord, he couldn't even get more votes than Al Gore. The only thing George Bush won was the 5 to 4 vote of the Supreme Court where his daddy got to pick the members of the court.
BUZZFLASH: What do you think it is in the character of Democrats and progressives that tends to shy away from a fight, for the most part, and just sort of let the brute brazenness of the Republicans, who have no compunction about really anything, prevail. You know -- Dick Cheney appointing his son-in-law to a position in the Labor Department, his daughter to a position in the State Department, that sort of thing. I mean, you've got nepotism rife in the Bush administration above and beyond everything else. And they simply sort of barrel ahead like a steamroller. And I think many Democrats think, "well, we should respect due process and this and that." But it's kind of hard to do that when you're getting mugged.
PAUL BEGALA: There's the great line: the definition of a liberal is someone who's afraid to take their own side in a fight. And that's my problem with my fellow liberals. I mean, it does tend to be that way. A generation ago, the leading Democrats in America were Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. And while they hated each other, they were feared by the Republicans. And they were described as ruthless.
Well, you know, a little ruthlessness might not be so bad today in some of our politicians in the Democratic party. Or at least, if not ruthlessness, at least a little toughness. Bill Clinton had that. He was just too tough. They couldn't kill him. And he won again and again, and he's gonna' win in the last analysis in history.
I do think though that little by little, led by grassroots Democrats -- the people who are reading BuzzFlash and acting on the things that you run -- Democrats are beginning to show a little spine. And as they do, we need to support them and we need to encourage them. Because the Bush people will come after them just as viciously, no matter what.
Look what they've done to Daschle. Tom Daschle is a man, as I pointed out earlier, an Air Force veteran, the leader of the United States Senate, who passed Bush's airport security measure. He passed Bush's U.S.A. Patriot Act, which many people are worried about in terms of civil liberties. He has been so helpful to Bush on these nonpartisan issues that Bush hugged him on the floor of the Congress. Yet despite that, Bush gives the personal order to put out a political hit on him. And Dick Cheney goes on television and says it's okay to run ads that compare Tom Daschle to Saddam Hussein, knowing, as they do, that somebody is trying to kill Tom Daschle, the target of an assassination attempt via anthrax. They don't care. They don't care if their attacks enrage some psychotic out there and make him send anthrax in the mail. They just don't care. And that is the level of ruthlessness that we ought not to tolerate. We at least ought to stand up for our people when they are literally under attack.
End of Part One.
Part Two of the Paul Begala Interview: http://www.buzzflash.com/interviews/2002/03/29_Paul_Begala.html
"Buck Up, Suck Up and Come Back When You Foul Up" by Paul Begala and James Carville, is available as a BuzzFlash Premium.
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