Better Off Under President Kerry?

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," February 15, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: We'll never know for sure, but John Kerry (search) says we would all be "far better off" — "far better off" — if he had won in November. Kerry saying his plans for the military in Iraq were dead-on perfect and President Bush is still trying to catch up.

Just sour grapes or something to consider? Joining me now from Washington, President George H.W. Bush's 1992 Campaign Manager Fred Malek and former Democratic Congressman from Texas, Martin Frost. Mr. Frost, I'm confused, is John Kerry taking credit for the Iraqi election? What was the idea that we would all have been better off had George Bush fallen?

FORMER REP. MARTIN FROST, D-TEXAS: Well, it's a question of priorities. We have people being killed over there every day. I think if Kerry had been elected president, he would have been devoting a great deal of his personal attention to resolving the matter, trying to find an orderly way to bring this to a conclusion, rather than running around the country trying to sell a flawed privatization of Social Security (search) scheme.

I think what you have is a question — Iraq should be the number one priority of the president. And I think if Kerry had been elected it would have been the number one priority.

GIBSON: But Mr. Frost, what the president said during the election, "We're going to stand up security forces, so they can do their own security; that's what's going on now. And we're going to have elections so the Iraqis are running their own country and we'll get out when we're ready."

What's wrong with that plan? And what do you see that's not happening according to that plan right now?

FROST: First of all, I think the elections were a success. And I think everyone's to be applauded for that.

President Bush is the first president not to visit the troops in the field during wartime. Johnson went over to Vietnam during wartime; our president made a cameo appearance a year and a half ago to pass around a little bit of turkey at Thanksgiving. I think it would be helpful if the President would go over there...

GIBSON: Mr. Frost, I'm sorry, but this doesn't sound like the reality I live in. Do you recognize it, Mr. Malek?

FRED MALEK, CAMPAIGN MANAGER, 1992 GEORGE H.W. BUSH CAMPAIGN: Well, I don't. I think Martin Frost, who I have a lot of respect for, frankly has been dealt a weak hand to talk about because Senator Kerry's statements were poor substance, really lousy politics and atrocious timing.

Let's face it, whether you agree or disagree with going into Iraq and the president's policies there, the progress since his inauguration have been remarkable. The elections, as Congressman Frost points out, were a huge victory for democracy; went better than anybody would have expected.

This was followed in the Middle East by the talks between President Abbas and Prime Minister Sharon, which for the first time in many years, give us real promise for peace and progress in that key area. I think we are making incredibly good progress.

And I think for Senator Kerry to second guess at a time like this when the commander in chief is making such progress is just really, really poor timing.

GIBSON: Mr. Frost, is the overall problem is that the Kerry and Kennedy wing of the Democratic Party actually don't believe they lost?

FROST: Oh, no, now that's not the issue.

The issue is whether this president will devote his full attentions. Obviously there have been some successes. But we have difficult days ahead.

And I want to go back to the point I was making. It would be helpful if the president would take a little time, go to Iraq and visit the troops in the field and find out firsthand how things are going and what needs to be done.

GIBSON: Secretary Rumsfeld's gone there.

FROST: But that's not the same thing. That's not the same thing as the commander in chief.

GIBSON: You were taking away the credit for the president for actually visiting the troops in the field. You just want him to go more often and you say...

FROST: No, he hasn't visited the troops in the field. He made a cameo appearance at the mess hall at Baghdad International Airport. That's not the same thing as actually talking to people.

GIBSON: Are you suggesting the president has to go out in the streets of Iraq and get shot at?

FROST: No, of course not. Of course not. Lyndon Johnson went to Vietnam during those hostilities. If Rumsfeld can go over there, they can protect the president. I think it would be helpful for the president to spend a little time...

GIBSON: Fred Malek, is that a legitimate complaint?

MALEK: If that's all they have to carp about, let them carp because that is getting into tactics at a very arcane level. This president is conducting a war...

FROST: It's not arcane.

MALEK: Look, this president is conducting a war right now and he's doing it very successfully. He's doing it with resolute intensity and it's working.

We had free elections, we're making progress over there. And to second guess him because he hasn't made a field trip over there recently I think is just ridiculous.

GIBSON: Well, Mr. Frost, it's just...

FROST: I don't want to dwell on the fieldtrip, I don't want to dwell on this.

GIBSON: Well, but you did dwell on it and here what it sounds like Senator Kerry has not given up the fight. It almost sounds like he's still running against President Bush. Is that what this is all about: an '08 candidacy in its latency?

FROST: No, not at all. In fact, I believe that Senator Kerry pointed out the idea of increasing the death benefits, which we apparently now are going to do, they're having a national security intelligence chief in place.

Moving forward and focusing strongly on Iraq, not having your attention diverted, as I said, by running around the country trying to sell a Social Security privatization scheme that even people in his own party don't support. Let's bring...

GIBSON: But what is it you're complaining about? Is it because of the president's conduct of the war or his Social Security? You're mixing apples and oranges up here it sounds like.

FROST: I'm saying the president should make this his number one priority. Look, we've had some progress, let's move forward as quickly as possible. Let's figure out exactly how good the training has been and what additional training needs to be done.

GIBSON: Fred, is it a correct assessment at this point to say the United States is in relatively good shape in Iraq compared to, let's say, during the campaign when the insurgency was in full bloom and before an election? Aren't we in decent shape in Iraq right now?

MALEK: We're in better shape; we have a long way to go. I think everybody knows that, the President foremost.

This is the President's top priority, there's no question about that. He is not going to rest until this is successfully concluded. But you know, you can do two things at once, Martin. I think if he were to pursue the war in Iraq and be distracted from all these important domestic initiatives you'd have a legitimate complaint.

I think the fact that he's got the perseverance to go after victory in Iraq, and at the same time some major initiatives here in the U.S. on the domestic front, point to leadership and that's what we elect the president about.

GIBSON: Mr. Frost, the U.S. election was on the issue of national security, the voters decided. Haven't the Democrats decided it's time to reorganize and regroup and not re-fight the election campaign that they lost?

FROST: Well, in fact, as you know, the Democrats actually have taken strong positions on national security.

We were the ones that advocated the creation of the Homeland Security Department (search) a year before the president finally came around to doing that. We were the ones that wanted to create the 9/11 Commission (search) before the president did. We were the ones that wanted to vote for the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, and Republicans in the House resisted that.

No, I don't think you're re-fighting those issues. But I think that the American public wants us to succeed in Iraq, and they want it to be done as quickly as possible. No one's going to set an exact timetable, but we need to make sure that the proper training is being given to the Iraqi police and to the Iraqi military so that they can, in fact, take over so, they're ready when the constitution is written and when they have full elections.

This is a very difficult situation to have...

GIBSON: I'm confused, Mr. Malek.

Mr. Frost, I hate to interrupt you, but I keep reading in the papers that we are training them, that they are going out. They took over Haifa Street a week ago, that the Iraqi forces are standing up. Where are we falling short here?

Mr. Malek?

MALEK: I think the conduct of the war is going on at a very, very strong pace and a successful pace. I think it's really a mistake for the Democrats, Martin Frost included, and Senator Kerry included, to second- guess the commander in chief at a time like this.

This war is going very well: we've had the free elections, we're making progress, we're training troops. The generals, I think, over there have confidence in this commander in chief and the troops have confidence in him. And I think he is doing absolutely the right thing.

So I think it's the wrong thing for the Democrats to be coming out, it's bad politics. They should go after something else, but not the Iraqi war.

GIBSON: Last word, Mr. Frost.

FROST: We continue to lose people every single day.

MALEK: What do you want him to do?

FROST: I was at Fort Hood last and met troops coming home, and this president wants to cut Veteran's benefits at a time that we're trying to tell people that we have to keep troops over there for an indefinite period of time.

GIBSON: Martin Frost, Fred Malek, thanks both of you. Appreciate it.

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