July 8, 2004 | Broadcast

CNN Live Today

O’BRIEN: The Bush administration is warning the public of possible plans by al Qaeda to disrupt the November elections again. At a news conference held late this morning, homeland security chief Tom Ridge said credible information suggestions plans for a large scale attack are moving forward.

There’s some Democrats who believe it is the November elections that serve as the prime motivation for the announcement which offered really little new detail on the threat of terror. Joining us to talk about whether the tail may be wagging the dog her, Democratic strategist Robert Zimmerman in New York. And in Washington, Cliff May, former communications director for the Republican National Committee.

Cliff, let’s begin with you. Did you hear any news in the news conference?

CLIFF MAY, FRM. COMMUNICATIONS DIR., REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CMTE.: No, not a lot. It was largely a vigilance warning. But I think what’s important to recognize here is there was, as you reported, a closed door briefing for congressional leaders. And the congressional leaders who attended that, including Senator Schumer, a Democrat, as you reported, said what he heard was troubling and worrisome.

I think it’s fair to suppose that certain information was given to congressional leaders that the general public couldn’t have at this time. But it was important not to brief the congressional leaders and tell Americans nothing.

So it was a warning to Americans to be vigilant. We still have enemies out there. They’re still planning to get us if they can, any time they can.

And I think it’s in a way to answer your question overall, it’s helpful but it is also frustrating at the same time.

O’BRIEN: Robert, would you agree? A little bit frustrating? And would you say that there’s perhaps a political motivation here?

ROBERT ZIMMERMAN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well what’s particularly frustrating is at the same time that this briefing is going on behind closed doors to the senators — and let’s assume Cliff is correct — still the Republican leadership of the Senate and the Bush administration wants to bring to the floor of the Senate and focus debate on same sex marriage as opposed to addressing how they woefully underfunded Homeland Security.

An internal White House memo just recently announced that next year’s budget, the Bush administration plans to cut funding for homeland security by a billion dollars on top of the cutbacks they already put in place. So that we’re only inspecting roughly 3 percent of cargo containers coming into American shores. So these are critical issues.

O’BRIEN: You’re biting off a lot more than we can chew in this time. What about just the specific issue though, Robert, of, you know, here we are two days after the announcement or the Kerry-Edwards ticket, and they come out with a warning that captures our attention. But is it justified?

ZIMMERMAN: I must tell you, I want to believe and I do believe that an issue such as grave as homeland security warning would not be the subject of partisan politics.

But I must tell you the White House doesn’t do a lot to reassure us when, in fact, they made the 9/11 issue, and, of course, the war in Iraq such a blatantly partisan game. Whether it’s Bush selling pictures of himself in action during September 11 at Republican fund raiser, or the fact that Karl Rove has said the war in Iraq will be a principle political issue. It doesn’t give much reassurance to Americans.

And I do believe the issue of homeland security funding is going to be a very important debate between the both candidates.

O’BRIEN: Cliff, is it perhaps true, as is stated on the Democratic side quite a bit, that the Republicans are trying to scare people into voting for them?

MAY: I don’t think that’s true. I mean, I don’t understand why that would even be the case. We need a strong policy on national security and on terrorism.

I think right now Senator Kerry’s policies are pretty tough and pretty close to those of President Bush. The difficulty is that many people in his party, Senator Kennedy, for example, Howard Dean, Michael Moore (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Senator Daschle on the trim of the Democratic National Committee literally embracing recently.

They don’t want to fight the terrorists in Iraq or anywhere else. And so you do have this split within the Democratic Party. But, by the way, I haven’t heard it from…

ZIMMERMAN: That’s the kind of…


ZIMMERMAN: But you see, Cliff, that’s exactly the kind of scare tactic that is resulting in Bush once again falling in the polls.


ZIMMERMAN: The scare tactic is this. If you vote for Democrats, they won’t fight terrorism.


ZIMMERMAN: … have the integrity to discuss the issues and not play these sort of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) tactics.

MAY: What I said and the way you’ve characterize it are entirely different. There are Democrats, Senator Lieberman is one of them, Senator Schumer’s one of them, who I think are as strong as they can be on the issue of terrorism and understand what’s going on in Iraq.

But if you think Michael Moore…

ZIMMERMAN: Who is not a Democrat.

O’BRIEN: All right, gentlemen, I hate to do this because we’re just — we’re working up a head of steam. We need to take a break. But we went you to come back. All right? So just stand by and we’ll just pick it right up there in just a moment. We’re going to read some e-mails too. A lot of folks skeptical about this whole thing today.

Stay with us for more LIVE FROM… in just moment.


O’BRIEN: All right, let’s continue our debate now with Robert Zimmerman and Cliff May. And I want to bring some e-mails in. Let you kind of weigh in a little bit here.

Randy in Deluth, Georgia has this for us — I should tell you, gentlemen, by and large, we got a lot skepticism from our viewers.

“The announcement today had no real information in it. It was simply a statement of the obvious that al Qaeda wanted to attack us and disrupt elections but that things were in good hands in with the DHS charge. It sounded suspiciously like a tax-payer paid political ad to me,” says Randy.

“The announcement itself doesn’t really affect my overall vigilance given the situation of the world today. However I find it curious that these announcements usually come on the heels of the Bush administration’s popularity rating take a dive. It’s just another example of the administration running the country and hoping to get reelected on the basis of fear rather than facts.” That’s from John in D.C.

I’ll share with you a counterpoint in just a moment. But, Cliff, when there’s skepticism out there, that reflects a certain level — well, you know, there’s a lot of people that have a lot of skepticism about a lot of things these days.

MAY: Yes.

O’BRIEN: You know, the Grassy Knoll Factor. Whatever you want to call it. I would assume Republicans get nervous, though, when they see that kind of reaction to an announcement from a secretary, a cabinet-level person in the Bush administration.

MAY: Well it’s unfortunate. As you say, there’s a lot of that kind of thing. There’s a lot of hyper-partisanship right now which is too bad.

I mean in a way as Americans we should be proud of the fact that we can fight a war, we can carry on an election, we can have people like me and Bob come on. And, Bob and maybe I could, you know, do our talking points on various policies and bills that are before Congress. That’s probably a good thing that we can manage to do all that.

I would just remind you and I’d remind Bob, that, you know, a few years ago, during the whole Monica Lewinsky thing President Clinton shot cruise missiles into Afghanistan. and the Sudan and people like me did not say he was trying to distract anybody. We were glad he did it, wished he had done it before, wished he would do more…


ZIMMERMAN: Unfortunately the Republican leadership did attack Bill Clinton.


MAY: Let me say this. Those who said that were wrong. And you should say that those who say it now are wrong. And you should also repudiate people like Michael Moore who thinks that even Afghanistan was about corporate interest, not about getting the Taliban…


MAY: And I wish you would do it on this show right now.

ZIMMERMAN: Cliff, I give you credit for trying to make Michael Moore the issue of the 2004 presidential election.


O’BRIEN: I tell you what. Robert, before you go on, I want to inject this other e-mail just so we have a little bit of balance here. Richard in Brentwood, Tennessee. Although he really is the only one that we’ve gotten on this line.

And he says this: “They,” referring to the administration, “cannot win. If they don’t say anything, something happens, then the news media and the Democrats will attack. If they do say something about their threats, they you question their motives. I believe they’re doing their best to keep us informed without causing any problems. I would rather know,”

Richard living in a kinder, gentler world, I guess, Robert, than some of the skeptics out there. But, you know, that is a good point.

ZIMMERMAN: It’s a very valid point. And, Richard, I agree with you, if you’re watching, because I would certainly hope and I would like to believe that our government would not use homeland security warnings for partisan purposes.

But it doesn’t change the fact clearly this White House, whether it’s through the advertising campaign or whether it’s through their failure — there was a commercial that morphed Tom Daschle’s face into Saddam Hussein and Dick Cheney refused to denounce that.

And those type of tactics, saying John Ashcroft did it, if you don’t support John Ashcroft you’re supporting the terrorists. Those kind of tactics are destructive and contrary to the American public’s spirit of public service and (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

MAY: Now that you have vented your hostility, let me just say this. That Richard is right in his comments, particularly this. Imagine the administration had information and didn’t share it with Congress. Imagine if they had information and shared it with the congressional leadership but said nothing to the public. In each of these cases there would be criticism from you, Bob, and from you, Miles. And rightfully so.

So what they’ve done instead is to share information they have with Congress, share a little less information, but heightened vigilance with the public…


O’BRIEN: You know, as the secretary pointed out, these are serious times. And while we all can appreciate the desire to cover one’s 6:00 position, shall we say, it is dangerous, isn’t it, also, to play with people’s emotions? And there could be an accusation in here about that.

ZIMMERMAN: Miles, I think it’s a very critical point, and if I could just make that point. Because it’s such an important time and we have to stay united as a country, I think it is woefully dangerous when we have our leaders in government try to attack the our patriotism of those who disagree with them.


MAY: How dare you start with that again, Bob.

ZIMMERMAN: I’m referring to John Ashcroft’s comments. I’m referring to Dick Cheney…


MAY: … you can show me anybody saying that the patriotism of John Ashcroft is in question.


O’BRIEN: I want to inject a quick e-mail here. This is from Steve because it’s right on point. Wherever it comes from that is a feeling that’s out there.

Steve has this for us: “How ironic after Kerry picks Edwards to be his running mate, get a bump in the polls,” that’s a misspell, obviously, there, “we seem to have a new security threat. If anyone should question the current administration’s motives, they are immediately accused of being un-American and unpatriotic.”


ZIMMERMAN: How about John Ashcroft when he testified in front of the Senate and said those who don’t support the administration are aiding and abetting the terrorists? Plain and simple…


MAY: I don’t think you have that quote right.


ZIMMERMAN: Do you denounce it?

MAY: I want to see the quote.


O’BRIEN: I tell you what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to have the guys back.


O’BRIEN: We’re obviously getting into a point where we don’t have our facts together.


MAY: Bob is a patriot. Bob is an American. He’s also misinformed.

O’BRIEN: All right, you want the final point, Bob?

ZIMMERMAN: I’m hoping to educate you and enlighten you.

O’BRIEN: All right, gentlemen. Thank you for batting this around. I appreciate it. Thank you for the e-mails, as well.

ZIMMERMAN: Good to be with you, Cliff.