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The "Evans & Novak" Interview: Sen. John Ashcroft

April 18, 1998

SPEAKERS: U.S. SENATOR JOHN ASHCROFT (R-Mo.)
ROWLAND EVANS, CNN
ROBERT NOVAK, CNN

EVANS: I'm Rowland Evans. Robert Novak and I will question a likely major contender for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination.

NOVAK: He is Senator John Ashcroft of Missouri.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NOVAK: Discord within the Republican Party is growing with social conservatives highly critical of the congressional leadership.

(UNKNOWN): In this Congress there is not much to point to right now on a whole variety of things. There is no major tax cut proposal on the table.

(UNKNOWN): I've got to be able to represent the fourth congressional district without Gary Bauer or anyone else telling me how to represent (OFF-MIKE).

NOVAK: Senator Ashcroft is emerging as a favorite of the social conservatives and the possible choice to lead them in 2000.

PAT ROBERTSON: I think he'd be a superb candidate. He's a two- time governor, he's a two-time attorney general. He's an extremely moral man, a very brilliant man. He's made an excellent job as senator.

NOVAK: Senator Ashcroft has been hitting the early presidential cattle shows with a strong message.

ASHCROFT: Let us stand with the people and not allow our rights and riches to be hijacked by Washington, D.C. Let us embrace the forgotten middle class and not allow the party of Reagan to become the debt collector for the nanny state. Let us fight those who would steal our freedom in the name of big government.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOVAK: Senator Ashcroft, in connection with being the debt collector for the nanny class, you and other conservative Republican senators voted for the budget resolution -- barely got it through -- on the grounds that you would be promised a $60 billion tax cut. Is Senator Majority Leader Trent Lott going to fulfill that promise?

ASHCROFT: I expect him to. I expect him to keep the agreement. There were about six or a few more of us who were prepared to vote against the budget if the budget just continued to be a tax-and-spend budget. We've got to do what the Republicans in this country and the people of America sent us to Washington to do, and that was to stop the tax-and-spend ran away growth of government.

And, frankly, Republican budgets haven't been very good at that. In the last three years, we've had spending go up 10.3 percent. In the three years prior to that under Democrat control, it only went up 9.7 percent. So we need to send some of this money we're collecting back to the people who earned it.

NOVAK: In all due respect, "expect" is a kind of a funny -- I've been around Washington a long time. When people are worried about something happening, they use the word "expect." Are you confident?

ASHCROFT: Well, I expect it to happen. If it doesn't happen...

NOVAK: You'll (ph) revolt (ph)?

ASHCROFT: ... we'll continue. And as a matter -- I do not -- I will not support a budget that does not come back and honor the agreement which we made with the leadership about substantially- increased tax relief for the American people.

NOVAK: So you're suggesting it may not be -- it may not happen, that's an option?

ASHCROFT: I expect it to happen. If it doesn't happen, then I'm not going to be voting for the budget and I'm going to lead -- let me just say one other thing about that. If it doesn't happen, it's not only a betrayal of the agreement. It's a betrayal of the American people. And it's the American people who sent the Republicans to Congress.

They gave us a majority expecting us to relieve some of this onerous tax burden, the highest in history. And we now work to May the 10th in order to satisfy government. If we betray them, that's what the betrayal would be. It cold threaten -- could threaten our ability to maintain control of the House this year and even the Senate. It could.

EVANS: But Senator, just to pin that down for the (OFF-MIKE). Doesn't Senator Lott have an obligation to Senator Domenici, the Chairman of the Budget Committee also? Is that not in conflict with your demand?

ASHCROFT: You know the obligation to the American people is the obligation that we ought to be respecting. The idea that we're obligated to Washington or Washington operatives, or people in the Senate, it's ridiculous. We don't come here to serve each other. We come here to serve the people of the United States. They sent us here to reduce the burden of government on them. That's why they sent the Republicans to power.

EVANS: Now, speaking of the -- of your majority leader, Trent Lott, the American Conservative Union, which has a recognized barometer of political activities by all politicians, shows in its recent survey that Senator Lott, who had a lifetime congressional record of 97 percent support of...

NOVAK: Ninety-three percent.

EVANS: Ninety-three percent in support of conservative issues, slipped last year to 72 percent.

Does that tell you something about the direction that he is taking the Republican party in?

ASHCROFT: Well, I'm concerned that the Republican party energized both the economic stream and the social conservative stream of the party. When we do that, we win. And if we don't have a clear agenda pursuing those conservative economic principles and social principles, we won't win.

And whether it tells us where he's gone or what he's doing, I'm concerned that the party doesn't repudiate its mandate. The American people want us to come here to take government out of their lives and take the government hand out of their pockets. As has been said eloquently, the only handout most Americans want is the government hand out of their pocket.

EVANS: Now you have a tax reduction program called the pro- family overhaul, which would take $1 trillion in 10 years out of the tax debt of the American people. What is the number one part of that tax program?

ASHCROFT: It's to take the marriage penalty out of the system.

EVANS: And how much would that cost?

ASHCROFT: Well, the way I want to do it, it costs about $30 billion a year. It's amazing to me that our government is at war with our values. We have here a $29 billion-a-year fine on the core element of the American family -- marriage. And we cannot have a system where our policy is at war with our principles. So the first thing we ought to do is stop penalizing people for being married and for having the durable, lasting relationships of marriage which support the kind of families that are essential to the future of this country.

NOVAK: Senator Ashcroft, you were the only member of the Senate Commerce Committee to vote against Senator McCain's tobacco bill but not -- not -- you did not vote against it, you said, because it was a massive tax increase. Does that mean that you, if the other parts of the bill you object to are cleaned up, are willing to have a massive tax increase on the middle class Americans and lower middle class Americans who smoke cigarettes?

ASHCROFT: Well, first of all, I didn't say that I didn't vote against it because it was a tax increase.

NOVAK: Well, did you?

ASHCROFT: One of the things that I despise about the bill is the way it increases taxes. You know, they say if it walks like a duck and squawks like a duck and looks like a duck, it's a duck.

NOVAK: So you would vote against it just because it's a tax increase?

ASHCROFT: This measure, which imposes on 28 percent of the people below $20,000 a year in income a very substantial tax, is the most regressive tax measure, a massive tax increase. And it amazes me that the Congress is leaping for it.

This is part of big government. Seventeen new boards, commissions and agencies spending half a trillion dollars, $500-plus billion, and it does it by saying to the very lowest of income people, we know you're addicted. You can't stop, so you're going to keep buying these things. And you know what that means. It means that instead of spending money on their kids and their clothing and on their food, these low-income individuals, addicted -- the bill is presumed, is on the presumption of addiction -- we're going to tax those people. That's outrageous.

NOVAK: Senator, you're very critical of your fellow Republicans. Not as critical, however, as Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council and Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, who have been hinting that they may just leave the Republican Party if it doesn't straighten out. Is that a danger?

ASHCROFT: Well, it's a danger if people leave the Republican Party. If we don't energize both the economic conservatives and the social conservatives, that's what is the formula for victory in our party. Ronald Reagan did it. He energized both the social conservatives and the economic conservatives. And we can't abandon the tax cuts and the reformation in government, the regulatory re- organization so that we have reasonable regulation instead of radical regulation. And we can't abandon the social conservatives. We must respect the family. We must bring into alignment our policy and the principles in this country. If we do, we succeed.

EVANS: Senator, on the social conservative side, are you ruling out -- let's say, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, a good Republican, who happens to be pro-choice. Are you saying that she should not or could not, or any pro-choice Republican could be on the 2000 ticket? Are you saying that, sir?

ASHCROFT: Well, I won't decide who's going to be on the 2000 ticket.

EVANS: Well, what's your, what's your general, what's your feeling about that?

ASHCROFT: My feeling is that the president of the United States should be pro-life and that the vice president of the United States should be pro-life.

EVANS: If she was a candidate, you would make that a litmus test for a running mate.

ASHCROFT: I believe that the person who is the presidential candidate of the Republican party should choose a pro-life for vice presidential candidate.

NOVAK: So, again, my partner mentioned Senator Hutchison has a 90 -- we were mentioning conservative rating -- she has a 92 percent rating. She's a staunch conservative. But because she is wrong in your opinion on the one issue, she's blackballed for higher office by you?

ASHCROFT: I'm not blackballing anybody. I've already indicated the people will decide who's the vice president. The presidential candidate will select the vice president. But I believe that the president, the person who is the presidential candidate should select a pro-life vice presidential candidate.

EVANS: Senator Ashcroft, we've got to take a break for messages. And when we come back, we'll talk about other exciting issues in Washington with Senator Ashcroft in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

EVANS: Well, it looks to me like Lott and Ashcroft are in prefect harmony.

NOVAK: At least when they're singing.

(LAUGHTER)

EVANS: When they're singing.

NOVAK: Senator Ashcroft, Pat Robertson, who began this program, has this absolutely terrific praise of you. He's given you $10,000 for your PAC -- he and his wife. Are you Pat Robertson's choice? Can we safely that you are Pat Robertson's choice for president in the year 2000?

ASHCROFT: Well, I'd like to be Pat Robertson's choice. I'd like to be the choice of economic conservatives and the choice of social conservatives. As I indicated, no one's going to win the presidency without energizing both the economic base of the Republican Party and the social conservative base of the Republican Party.

NOVAK: Yes, but I'd like an answer to that. You said you'd like to. I know you'd like to -- a lot of people. But are you his choice now do you think?

ASHCROFT: Well, I would like to be. And you know, Pat Robertson would be the individual who will make an announcement about any choice...

NOVAK: He hasn't made it yet.

ASHCROFT: ... that he makes.

NOVAK: OK.

Now, his former number one lieutenant in the Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed, now a political consultant, has signed on with you. Is that for the duration of the campaign?

ASHCROFT: Well, I have hired Century Strategies to assist me...

NOVAK: That's Ralph Reed's firm.

ASHCROFT: That's right -- and to assist me with some items in terms of the way I present ideas and the like. And that's the extent of our arrangement. And I've been grateful for the help.

David Kuo, who is a part of Century Strategies, spent a year as an employee in my office. And it's been primarily with David Kuo that we've been working in terms of the Century Strategies operation.

NOVAK: There's a speculation that Ralph Reed has not committed to you but he is trying to get the Christians away from Alan Keyes and Pat Buchanan and maybe Gary Bauer into you without really making a commitment to you. Do you that's a fair analysis?

ASHCROFT: I really don't know what -- how to assess that. I have asked them for advice about the way I present ideas and they've been very helpful to me in getting that done.

EVANS: But don't you think it would be odd if Ralph Reed does work for you for pay to hire himself out to some other presidential candidate? Wouldn't that surprise you?

ASHCROFT: Well, you know, I'm not a presidential candidate and I'm considering it seriously, but I'll make a decision about that based on the extent to which the American people encourage me and embrace the vision which I express.

EVANS: Now, let me turn to what you have described as the moral crisis that afflicts this country.

How do you explain that at the heat of all these allegations of sexual depredations in the White House by President Clinton, despite what you call the moral crisis, the American people give him a 66-65 percent approval rating?

ASHCROFT: Oh, that's their rating of the way they think the country is going. If you'll look beneath those figures, you'll see -- I think it was in March 17th, the ABC poll -- I hope it doesn't hurt to mention other letters than CNN...

EVANS: Not at all, not at all.

ASHCROFT: ... 55 percent of the people thought if the president did what Ms. Willey charged him with doing, that 55 to 39, they thought he should leave office. That's a vastly different number than the so-called approval rating.

So the approval rating, in my judgment, just reflects where people think the country is right now. And they understand we've got low unemployment, and we've had substantial growth and they feel good about America.

EVANS: Do you expect that number to change as this investigation continues?

ASHCROFT: I think the continuation of the investigation is unlikely to change numbers, but the announcement of facts can have a substantial impact. So the pendency of the investigation may not be the defining moment. But I think when the American people feel that the facts are in and that they can make a judgment -- not just based on things said in the news programs and in these countercharges and in the spin operation -- but when they see facts, then I think they'll make some serious judgments.

EVANS: So you can't be very happy, Senator, at Judge Starr's announcement this week that the end is not yet in sight of his investigation.

ASHCROFT: Well, you know, I have to say that I believe Judge Starr is a person who is a strong person of great capacity and I would not want him to direct his investigation for political purposes. I want him to do the job that he thinks he can do well.

It's notable to me that the only administration official that has the ability to oversee his activities and know intimately what he's done is the attorney general. She has the right to fire him. And yet she has said not one word of criticism. And she has in fact consistently expanded his arena. So, I want Judge Starr to do a good job. I don't want to politicize it. I don't think members of Congress...

EVANS: No matter how long it takes.

ASHCROFT: Whatever he feels is necessary. I think we've got a three-judge panel supervising that. Politics should be aside there. This is an item which is important to the country based on the facts, not based on politics.

NOVAK: Senator, do you think the Republicans have been a little bit too slow? Not John Aschroft, but other Republicans in criticizing the president?

ASHCROFT: Look, you know, I haven't said that the president is guilty of the things he's been alleged to have done. But I have said that the president is guilty of not leading.

NOVAK: Yes, I know what you've said. But my question was, do you think the other Republicans, the party as a whole, has been too cautious?

ASHCROFT: Absolutely. I believe that for anyone who's in a leadership position to stand mute and silent in the face of the kind of conduct that's been described here is to implicitly endorse that conduct.

We should make it clear, unmistakably clear, that that kind of conduct is to be rejected. It's inappropriate, it's unacceptable and we will not tolerate it. And the first person that should have said that about that kind of conduct should have been the president of the United States. We ought to have that kind of leadership in the presidency.

NOVAK: Senator Ashcroft, I want to just go back to the presidential picture for a moment. You've been going to Iowa off and on for a while now. You're going to be there this weekend. The latest poll on probable caucus goers in Iowa, the first state to pick delegates, shows you with a round (ph) number of supporters, a zero. You've only got two percent in the national polls, while George W. Bush is way ahead of everybody. Dan Quayle is way ahead. Is this a daunting task to try to get some name identification?

ASHCROFT: Well, I believe that anyone who considers running for the presidency obviously is considering a very, very serious and challenging task. And in my consideration, I'm going to share the vision I have for the future of America, which is a vision for strong families, for a compassionate culture, for low taxes; taking less government impact, especially at the national level; protecting the sovereignty of the United States. And to the extent that people warm up to that idea, then I'll be encouraged to run. If not, I won't continue.

EVANS: We got to take a break in one second -- five seconds. You would include Senator Lott in your description of party leaders needing to take a stand, a moral stand on these charges against the president. Would you not?

ASHCROFT: I believe that we should condemn the kind of conduct that's been described here.

EVANS: Has Senator Lott done that?

ASHCROFT: I have seen him do it. I would like to have seen him do it more often.

EVANS: All right sir, we'll be back after these messages with the big question for Senator John Ashcroft -- in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

EVANS: The big question for Senator John Ashcroft.

Senator, considering the chaotic state of the Republican Party today, is there a real danger that you could lose either the House or the Senate in November?

ASHCROFT: There certainly is. I think that we were sent to Washington to reduce taxes, to lighten the load of government on the backs of the citizens of America, and we haven't done a good job of that. Our commitment should be reinforced with a strong agenda to strengthen families, to harmonize the values of America with the policy of America.

EVANS: You mean you think the Republicans might even lose the Senate? Are you saying that?

ASHCROFT: Well, we're a long way from the election. I would like to see us have the kind of tax relief that clearly identified the Republican Party as the party that wants to let families keep the money they earn.

NOVAK: Could you set the odds on that? What the odds are for losing either House or Senate?

ASHCROFT: No.

NOVAK: OK. What do you think of the strategy of some Republicans of running out the clock and not doing anything on the Hill? Isn't that a strategy that many of the Republican leaders have?

ASHCROFT: To go with the flow is to make a big mistake. We should advance the agenda of the American people. That's why they sent us here. That's why 1994 was a watershed. They didn't make the change so that there could be no change. We must not be the custodians of big government just awaiting the return of Ted Kennedy.

We must do what the American people sent us here to do.

NOVAK: Senator John Ashcroft, thank you very much. Have a lot of fun in Iowa this weekend.

ASHCROFT: I look forward to it.

NOVAK: My partner and I will be back with a comment after these messages.

EVANS: Bob, whatever Trent Lott may think, Senator Ashcroft has it very straight in his own mind. He has a pledge to take the $60 billion tax cut figure out of the House Budget Committee and put it on the Senate floor. If he doesn't get it, there's going to be trouble in the Senate.

NOVAK: And Rowlie, if anybody had any doubts that there's a lot of turmoil inside the Republican Party, they would listen to that interview because it's clear that John Ashcroft was saying -- a former governor of Missouri, a prominent figure -- that the Republican Party is not doing what it was sent to Washington to do.

EVANS: And I think John Ashcroft is stronger on the question of -- should the Republican Party attack on this issue of morality in the White House? He doesn't think the Republican Party leadership has done its job. He wants it to do more and he says Judge Starr can take as much time as he needs.

NOVAK: John Ashcroft should be taken seriously as a candidate for 2000, not only because Pat Robertson is for him, but he has really been energized and improved as a television personality -- wholly different than the kind of button-down governor of Missouri. Keep an eye on him. I think he's serious. I'm Robert Novak.

EVANS: I'm Rowland Evans.

And that's all for now. Thanks for watching.

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Poll:
Good News For Republicans In Election Year

Transcript:
The 'Evans & Novak' Interview: Sen. John Ashcroft


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