Here’s how I wish Tim Russert had led off the domestic section of his interview with President Bush yesterday:
ROLL TAPE . . .
[Footage from the Second Presidential Debate] Texas Governor G.W. Bush: ‘ . . . no, Al, my proposed tax cuts DON’T go mainly to the top 1% or 2%. By far the vast majority of my proposed tax cut goes to people at the bottom end of the economic ladder . . .’
Tim Russert: ‘Mr. President, what proportion of the taxes people are saving from your cuts does go to people at the bottom end of the economic ladder?’
President Bush: ‘Well, Tim, I certainly never meant to imply that much of the actual MONEY would go to those people. But by far the vast majority of the PEOPLE are not in the top 2% or 3%, so most of the people getting cuts are not in that group.’
Tim Russert: ‘But most of the money goes to people in the top 2% or 3%?’
President Bush: ‘No, Tim. It starts there, but then it trickles down. By far the vast majority of the benefit goes to people at the bottom, because the vast majority of the people ARE at the bottom. That’s just simple math, Tim. The Democrats can promise all they want to, but most people will always be in the bottom 90%.’
Tim Russert: ‘But Mr. President, when you say that ‘by far the vast majority’ of what will ultimately be a multi-trillion-dollar tax cut goes to people ‘at the bottom end of the economic ladder’ . . . but it actually mostly goes to people at the very top . . . isn’t that a multi-trillion dollar lie?’
President Bush glowers.
Russert waits silently for an answer.
President Bush: ‘Certainly not, Tim. Millions of families had their income tax bill reduced all the way to zero. It was THEIR MONEY, Tim. We think people can spend THEIR MONEY better than government can.’
Russert ROLLS TAPE of then Governor Bush saying, no, he CAN cut taxes dramatically and not risk having to dip into the Social Security trust fund or run a deficit.
Tim Russert: ‘But you have dipped deep into the trust fund and have added $1.3 trillion to the National Debt – about $10,000 more for each American household – with loads more projected. What happened?’
President Bush: ‘We were within 45 minutes of chemical or biological attack from Iraq, Tim, THAT’S what happened. Wars are expensive. That’s how you finance them: tax cuts for the rich. Just ask my former Secretary of the Treasury, Paul O’Neill. I know there are those who say we could have waited a few months while we did more inspections and got more of the rest of the world to share the cost. But we had intelligence from the British that Saddam Hussein was buying yellow cake from AFRICA. And don’t forget, Tim, Saddam Hussein was a madman. He gassed his own people.’
Tim Russert: ‘But didn’t he do that while your father was President, and while Rumsfeld and Cheney and Wolfowitz were in his Administration? And didn’t they all just look the other way and double his trade credits the following year? If we waited this long, why not a few more months of inspections and planning and diplomacy? Was the timing of the war geared to the mid-term elections, dictated more by Karl Rove than by true necessity?’
And so on.
Instead, no tape was rolled; the toughest questions were not asked. The interview – normally live, and on Russert’s home turf – was taped in the Oval Office.
Even so, here’s how Peggy Noonan, a strong Bush supporter, characterized it:
The President seemed tired, unsure and often bumbling. His answers were repetitive, and when he tried to clarify them he tended to make them worse. He did not seem prepared. He seemed in some way disconnected from the event. When he was thrown the semisoftball question on his National Guard experience – he’s been thrown this question for 10 years now – he spoke in a way that seemed detached. ‘It’s politics.’ Well yes, we know that. Tell us more. . . .
Tomorrow: Your Further Thoughts on Taxes