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updated 12/11/2005 1:01:24 PM ET 2005-12-11T18:01:24

MR. TIM RUSSERT:  Our issues this Sunday:  On Thursday, the Iraqi people go to the polls to elect a new government.  What will this mean for an exit strategy for U.S. troops?  And the debate rages over U.S. treatment of prisoners of war.  With us for the Democrats, President Clinton's former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright; for the Republicans, the senior senator from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham.  Graham and Albright square off.

Then, President Bush's standing with the American people, the future of Tom DeLay and the Republican Congress.  And have we forgotten about the victims of Katrina? With us, Mike Allen from Time magazine, David Brooks of The New York Times, and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post.

And in our MEET THE PRESS Minute, former presidential candidate and Democratic senator from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy died yesterday at the age of 89.  He appeared on MEET THE PRESS in 1968 during his campaign for the presidency.

(Videotape, July 7, 1968):

SEN. EUGENE McCARTHY, (D-MN):  I think the system is under some kind of test in 1968.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  But first, the war in Iraq.  Joining us, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright.

Welcome both.


FMR. SEC'Y MADELEINE ALBRIGHT:  Nice to be with you.

MR. RUSSERT:  Madam Secretary, on Thursday, the Iraqis go to the polls.  What do you think will happen?  And two, what should the Bush administration do after the election?

MS. ALBRIGHT:  Well, first of all, I'm chairman of the board of the National Democratic Institute, and we have people on the ground in Iraq, and they have been training a lot of people to be poll-watchers, as well as working with a variety of political candidates.  I think that--I hope that it will be a very large turnout, that we will have other purple finger moments as we did in January.  What has to happen is that we have to move towards a political settlement.  And there are indications that there are going to be more Sunni participants.  But the important part is how to get a government that is representative and then is able to do something about amending the constitution.  So it's a very important moment.  And I think it's something that we want to see succeed.

MR. RUSSERT:  Last week, you said this in The Washington Post.  "The president was basically repackaging things and saying everything's fine, when every day, we read that things are not fine. ... I so wish I could believe him.  I like to believe an American president, but he's got such a credibility issue."

What don't you believe about President Bush?

MS. ALBRIGHT:  Well, it's a little bit like a split-screen here.  What we s--I just mentioned about the political evolution.  The military part is terrible. Every day as we see reporting on this, there are Americans dying, Iraqis dying, a variety of terrible things happening in terms of the security; no reconstruction.  And President Bush in his speeches is basically telling us something that I don't see.  And I'm very sorry about it.  And using words like "victory" that have been somehow part of some polling operation out of the White House doesn't work.  You can't just keep putting "victory" on the screen when there is no evidence that that is going on.  So that's my problem.

But I have to tell you, Tim, I really want to believe the American president. It's important for us to have confidence in his credibility.  And I--at this point, I think it's really hard for the average American to have that kind of a feeling.

MR. RUSSERT:  Joe Lieberman, the Democratic senator from Connecticut, the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2000, said that, "We undermine presidential credibility at our nation's peril."

MS. ALBRIGHT:  Well, I think Senator Lieberman has clearly spent a lot of time looking at issues, and he's somebody who's very serious.  But I must say, I disagree with him.  I think that Americans have to have the ability to talk about what's going on.  And the only way that we're going to get at this is by asking questions, and I don't think it undermines the morale of the troops.  I think that they want to know that we are able to exercise our freedoms.  And there's nothing unpatriotic about asking questions.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Graham, what's going to happen Thursday?

SEN. GRAHAM:  Well, I hope we have a larger turnout.  We're about to democratically elect a parliament.  We haven't done that yet.  These are people who actually are running for office that will write laws for the Iraqi people.  It will be a chance for the Iraqi people to chart their own destiny. That is a huge sea change in the Mideast.  I hope it goes well.  Speeches by the president have been helpful.  They've been long overdue.  Senator Lieberman believes there's been a change in the policy for the good.  I do, too.

But here's the problem.  When you tell people it costs $50 billion is all it's going to cost to rebuild Iraq, as Mr. Wolfowitz did, when you tell people that the insurgency is 1/10th of 1 percent and it still goes on after four years, there's a price to pay for underestimating how hard this is, and I think that's been the president's problem.  He has made some policy statements in speeches recognizing problems.  And as Senator Lieberman has found, we are doing better.  We're cleaning, we're holding and we're building cities that have been reoccupied by the terrorists.  And I don't think we're going to have any major troop withdrawals any time soon if we're really serious about protecting this infant democracy.

MR. RUSSERT:  You don't think any significant troop withdrawals in 2006?

SEN. GRAHAM:  Well, I hope it's not politically motivated.  I hope it's based on what's going on on the ground.  The Saddam Hussein trial is the best evidence yet of where we're at in Iraq.  You've got a dictator standing trial for the crimes against his people.  That's a wonderful thing.  But the trial is being conducted in an atmosphere that you can't run a country.  You can't have the defense attorneys assassinated, the judges attacked, the courtroom shelled.  So that shows two things, that we're doing better, the dictator is now facing his crimes, but the security environment in Iraq is so tenuous that there's no way, in my opinion, we can leave any time soon.  How can you have a legal system where people in the legal system are getting killed?

MR. RUSSERT:  Has the Saddam trial been a negative for the U.S.?

SEN. GRAHAM:  I think it's been a very positive experience for the people in Iraq because they can see the benefit of what happened with our involvement. They're getting to chart their own destiny by voting Thursday.  And they're getting to bring a guy to trial who's oppressed the people and killed their family members.  That's a good thing.  But for us to deny the fact that we're a long way from a secure Iraq needs to stop.  How can you have a secure Iraq when the defense attorneys and the judges are being killed?

MR. RUSSERT:  But has Saddam manipulated it for his own propaganda successfully?

SEN. GRAHAM:  I don't think so.  I think every time he speaks and every time he fails to show up or make statements, it reinforces the fact to the people that he's on the way out.  I think it's a good thing for the Iraqi people to see it.  And I think if we misunderstand what's going on in Iraq, the level of security that we'll need to leave behind is not even close to being there.

MR. RUSSERT:  Secretary Albright, you just heard Senator Graham saying it's unlikely to have any significant troop withdrawals in the immediate future. Do you agree?

MS. ALBRIGHT:  Well, I think that we have to see the year 2006 as a year of transition.  And the point here is that the Iraqi people have to begin to take more and more responsibility for what they're doing both politically and militarily.  But the issue here is, and it's a paradoxical one, which is that our presence is both the solution and the problem.  I am very troubled when I see American forces under threat.  We all want our forces to come home safely as quickly as possible, but we also have to be very careful to get it right. The thing I've said, Tim, is that this was a war of choice, not of necessity, but getting it right is a necessity and not a choice.  And we cannot leave chaos, but we have to see 2006 as a year of transition.

MR. RUSSERT:  But you also said in June of '04, "The pessimists are wrong. We must stay the course because although the war in Iraq was not a war of choice, not necessity, winning the peace is a necessity, not a choice."  And you wrote in your book, "Militarily, we must show neither desperation to leave-- which would further embolden the insurgents--nor a desire to stay longer than needed--which would alienate all of Iraq."

Which is it?  Should we stay or should we leave?

MS. ALBRIGHT:  I think that what we have to do is work towards leaving, but at the same time, make sure that the Iraqis are capable of taking over.  And what we've seen is--and it's part of what Senator Graham was saying in terms of what we know has been going on--we were told that the Iraqi forces were being built up.  They are not.  There's very interesting article by Jim Fallows that explains that we have wasted time in building up the Iraqi forces and that the training hasn't been good and we haven't given them equipment. And so we are creating a situation where it's very difficult for us to leave.

I do think that it is very important for us to get this right.  And what has trouble me all along, Tim, is that while I understood that Saddam Hussein was a terrible person and that we're better off without him, I never thought that we were presented with a proper plan.  And that's the problem here.  There was no proper post-invasion plan.  And it makes it very hard for us to kind of pick up and leave at the moment.

MR. RUSSERT:  Should there be a fixed timetable for withdrawal?

MS. ALBRIGHT:  I personally am not for a fixed timetable.  I do think that--I agree with the president that there needs to be a set of benchmarks.  We need to know what they are.  The president needs to tell us that, and we have to have a discussion based on reality, on facts.  And that's what I think has been a very positive thing that's happened in the last couple of weeks, thanks to Congressman Murtha, who has really raised a lot of questions, a great patriot.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Graham, back in June you startled a lot of people with this comment.  "The public support in my state"--South Carolina--"has turned...in the most patriotic state that I can imagine, people are beginning to question.  ...And I don't think it's a blip on the radar screen.  I think we have a chronic problem on our hands."

SEN. GRAHAM:  You just have to be blind not to understand what's going on in the country.  The truth is that people in South Carolina are doing what they're doing all over the nation, they're wondering why it's taking so long. We've undersold how hard this would be.  Without violence it took years to get Germany and Japan from dictatorships to democracy.  Yet, at every turn we've underestimated how hard it would be.  We've underestimated the actual economic cost, how hard it would be to build an economy up after the fall of Baghdad. We've never had enough troops.  We've paid a price in the past for our missteps.  We've assumed the best and never planned for the worst and it's hurt us.  It's hurt us with our own people, it's hurt us internationally.

Things are changing for the better.  The worst thing we could do, in my opinion, is to leave this infant democracy behind, without the ability to have a reasonable chance to develop in the future.  It could turn into a regional war if they fail in Iraq.  It does matter what happens in Iraq in terms of our own national security.  Have we made mistakes?  Yes.  The biggest mistake would be to leave because of '06 politics.

MR. RUSSERT:  In terms of the tone of the debate, the Republican National Committee has put on its Web site a new advertisement and here it is in part. Let's watch.

(Videotape, RNC Web site):

DR. HOWARD DEAN:  The idea that we're going to win this war is an idea that unfortunately is just plain wrong.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Waving a white flag, is that appropriate?

SEN. GRAHAM:  The '06 election is going to come and go.  Iraq will be still a problem after '06.  I don't think it's appropriate.  Howard Dean is wrong when he says we can't win.  It doesn't mean he's not a patriot.  Murtha wants to leave the region and deploy outside of Iraq.  I think he's wrong, doesn't mean he's a patriot.  John Kerry wants to cut the force by two-thirds.  I think he's wrong, doesn't mean he's not a patriot.  Lieberman says stay the course.

The--there is no a political consensus in this country.  Democrats and Republicans are struggling.  We've lost our national unity when it comes to Iraq.  What happens in Iraq will matter to this country long after '06.  I wish we would quit running ads against each other and try to find consensus. Maybe this would be one of the things we could agree on.  What happens in Iraq matters to the region and to our own national security.  Come up with a plan that will allow us to leave honorably and give these people who are dying in droves in Iraq for their own freedom a reasonable chance to be successful.

MR. RUSSERT:  So it is your opinion that you would prefer the Republican National Committee to pull that ad down?

SEN. GRAHAM:  Yes.  I don't want to have a campaign about who's a patriot.  I want to have a campaign that would unite the country, find consensus on Iraq and talk about our political differences in terms that make us stronger, not weaker.  And we're going to drive a wedge among ourselves that will make the world less safe, including ourselves.

MS. ALBRIGHT:  Tim, there is not one Democrat who wants us to fail in Iraq. There's not one Democrat that doesn't want our troops to come home safely, or wants our homeland to be properly protected or let Iraq develop a democracy and operate within the region.  And I have to tell you, to be maligned as not patriotic, or undercutting the effort, I think is unacceptable.  And I very much appreciate what Senator Graham has said in terms of getting this ad off. It doesn't help anything.  And I do agree with him that it is very important for the American people and for the Iraqis to be able to see some consensus in the United States about what we care about.

SEN. GRAHAM:  Can I add this one thing?  It goes both ways, too, Madam Secretary.  Calling our president a liar, calling the vice president a liar, that everybody else in the world got it wrong in Iraq honestly, including the Clinton administration, that everybody was wrong about weapons of mass destruction, honestly accept two people, Dick Cheney and George Bush, is also part of the problem, and that needs to stop.

MS. ALBRIGHT:  Well, I think that it's very important for us to understand what was done with the intelligence and why certain facts were put forward when they weren't facts.  And there are enough people in the intelligence community that are saying that.  But I agree that I think what we need to be working on is a solution here.  This is a very serious problem.  It has hurt--the United States has been hurt in terms of our position internationally.  I loved representing the United States.  It was the greatest possible honor.  And I think now, our position in the world has been hurt and our moral authority has been undercut.

MR. RUSSERT:  But to Senator Graham's point, Secretary Albright, in 1998, the Iraq Liberation Act was passed by Congress, signed by President Clinton. "...It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein."

And then again from your book:  "...I could not question the goal of ousting Saddam Hussein.  As President Clinton said in 1998, the Iraqi leader threatens `the security of the world,' and the `best way to end that threat once and for all is with a new Iraqi government.'"

MS. ALBRIGHT:  Absolutely.

MR. RUSSERT:  You believed he had weapons of mass destruction.

MS. ALBRIGHT:  I said that I did, but I never thought that they were an imminent threat.  And what we did was to keep Saddam Hussein in a box by using diplomacy, sanctions and force, with bombing in the no-fly zone.  It worked. And what is evident from the CIA reports is that it did work.  The sanctions worked.  But I think...

MR. RUSSERT:  So the war was a mistake?

MS. ALBRIGHT:  I think the war was a war of choice and unnecessary at this time.  And...

MR. RUSSERT:  Was it a mistake?

MS. ALBRIGHT:  I think it was badly planned.  As I said, I understood the why, but I didn't understand why now, or what next.  And that is the position that I've always said.

MR. RUSSERT:  But if you knew today that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, would you vote to go to war?

MS. ALBRIGHT:  I would have--one, I was not a politician.  But I would have kept our attention on Afghanistan.  They are the ones who hit us on the World Trade Center, they are the ones that guarded Osama bin Laden.  And as the intelligence has shown, there has been no connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, until recently when, as a result, of even what Porter Goss is saying, there are more terrorists in Iraq than there were before.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Graham, I want to clean something up, from The Greenville News, February 24, 2003, this is Lindsey Graham talking.  "[Lindsey Graham] cited `direct, substantial and unequivocal evidence that (Saddam) is supporting the al-Qaida murderers who plotted the September 11 attacks ... Saddam is an imminent threat.'"

Do you still stand by both of those comments?  That Saddam supported the al-Qaeda murderers who plotted September 11th, and, two, he was an imminent threat?

SEN. GRAHAM:  I think the evidence that shows about the aluminum tubes, I authored a resolution before I went to the Senate, in the House, saying that he was an imminent threat.  And one of the pieces of evidence that was presented to me was the aluminum tubing.  And I can tell you about it now, we went to a secure room in the Capitol and they made the case, this could only be used for a nuclear centrifuge, to make a nuclear weapon.  I...

MR. RUSSERT:  But the State Department and the Department of Energy dissented.

SEN. GRAHAM:  Yeah.  I was wrong.  I think it's OK to say that you were wrong, as long as you-- something good comes out of it.  I think it's wrong to assume that the sanctions were working.  I think the U.N.'s effort to control Saddam Hussein was a joke.  I think they were being bought off.  I think he was going to get stronger over time.  And if we've learned nothing, let's don't turn our national security over to the U.N. until it's reformed.

MR. RUSSERT:  But you no longer believed he was an imminent threat?

SEN. GRAHAM:  Yeah, in terms of the weapons of mass destruction, they seem not to be available.  But here's what I do believe.  I believe within that dictatorship, that he thought he had them.  We've had generals tell us that they assumed the general across the way had the weapons, even though they didn't have it.  He wanted us to believe that he had these weapons of mass destruction.  And he probably believed it himself.

MR. RUSSERT:  But he was not an imminent threat to the U.S. at the time we went to war.

SEN. GRAHAM:  In the sense of possessing a weapon of mass destruction, that appears to be wrong.

MR. RUSSERT:  What about his support of the al-Qaeda murderers who plotted against September 11th?

SEN. GRAHAM:  That...

MR. RUSSERT:  Do you--is there a linkage between September 11th and Saddam Hussein?

SEN. GRAHAM:  That seems to have fallen apart, Tim.  It really does.  And in that regard, I'm glad he's in jail.  I'm glad he's on trial.  The world's better off without him.  It would be a huge event in the Mideast if this could become a functioning democracy, where a woman would have a say about her children based on a constitutional right, that you could enforce in a courtroom with a fair judge.  That's where the consensus ought to be.

Did we make mistakes?  Yes.  Did we poorly plan the fall of Baghdad?  You'd better believe it.  Shinseki was right.  We should have had more troops.  We need more troops now, in my opinion.  This idea that it's a bunch of dead-enders is totally wrong.  The insurgency's got to be larger than 1/10th of 1 percent because Zarqawi's been able to survive this long.  So, yeah, we've made tons of mistakes.

MR. RUSSERT:  Will we win the war in Iraq?

MS. ALBRIGHT:  I hope so, because I think that there isn't anybody that wants us to fail there.  It is very serious, and it has destabilized the region. And I'm very, very worried about it.  So I hope very much.  But it has to be part of--there has to be a political settlement.  The fact that the Iraqis are beginning to buy into the political aspect of this, I hope that spills over into the military part, too.  There has to be a way that we get this right...

SEN. GRAHAM:  Absolutely.

MS. ALBRIGHT:  ...that the peace plan works here.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me turn to the issue of the treatment of prisoners of war in this war on terror.  Secretary Rice went--Secretary of State Rice went to Europe.  This is how the Associated Press reported it.  She "gave the Bush administration's most comprehensive accounting yet of U.S. rules on treatment of prisoners in the war on terror.  Cruel and degrading interrogations are prohibited for all U.S. personnel around the world, Rice said.  `As a matter of U.S. policy,' ...the United Nations Convention Against Torture `extends to U.S. personnel wherever they are, whether they are in the U.S. or outside the U.S.'  However, she gave no examples of banned practices, didn't define cruelty or degradation, didn't say whether the rules would apply to private contractors or foreign interrogators and made no mention of whether exceptions would be allowed."

Senator Graham, you're working very much in this process.


MR. RUSSERT:  You support Senator McCain's legislation.


MR. RUSSERT:  Intense negotiations with the House side.  Duncan Hunter of the--Congressman Hunter said they're close to an agreement.  The White House involved.  What are you asking for?  And is the White House asking for a blanket immunity, so that anything that may have occurred in the past would be absolved by Congress?

SEN. GRAHAM:  Well, we're not close to a deal.  I've been involved as deeply as I want to be involved for the last three days, trying to find a compromise that we can live with.  The McCain language was passed 90-to-9.  What does the McCain amendment do?  It requires that all interrogation techniques be standardized and put into the Army Field Manual.  Why?  Our interrogation policy--interpretations of interrogation policy has been confusing, misleading, and our own troops have suffered because they don't know what's inbounds and what's not.  So the McCain language attempts to put it all in one spot, so that we'll understand what they can and can't do.

Second part is the most important part.  This detainee issue is a defining moment for this country in the war on terror.  Senator McCain says it will be the policy of this country, not just for the Department of Defense, but for every agency in the federal government, to treat detainees without cruelty, and cruel and inhumane and degrading treatment will be off the table.  That's what we've been for for 60 years.

We've got a problem here.  How do you protect the operative in the field who's making snap, quick decisions under stressful circumstances, to protect our own freedom?  I'm willing to provide a defense to an operative who's acting reasonably and responsibly, following the law, making hard judgment calls.

What we cannot do, what Senator McCain cannot allow to happen, or our country cannot allow to happen, is to create immunity or exceptions in the law that has protected us for 60 years.  Because if we start allowing American political figures to waive the law, grant immunity or create exemptions from existing law that the international community has signed up to, what stops the next country from doing the same thing to our own people?  This is a very important decision we're about to make.

MR. RUSSERT:  Is the administration asking for immunity for events that may have occurred?

SEN. GRAHAM:  There is a breakdown along how to best protect the troops. There's a philosophical difference here.  I don't want to divulge.  It's honestly held differences.  The vice president is not the vice president of torture.  He is trying to create exemptions, in my opinion, to protect our people that go too far because the way you protect your people is to adhere to the rule of law.  The way you win this war is to embrace a value system different than your enemy.  The Israelis are under siege.  They don't engage in torture.  The British at the House of Lords passed a resolution or a court case said that the U.K. will not engage in torture.  If we're going to teach the Iraqis ethics and values and close down these secret prisons, we've got to practice what we preach.  And if we exempt our own troops from the application of international or domestic law, then we will set in motion forces that will hurt our troops in future conflicts.

MR. RUSSERT:  The bottom line, your position is that there should be no cruel and inhumane, degrading treatment of prisoners of war by U.S. personnel or contractors now, in the future and in the past?

SEN. GRAHAM:  Because if we allow such activity, what happens to the airmen that's downed in some foreign country and they torture that airman, wanting to know when the next air strike is coming?  Under our theory here they would be justified.  I don't want our people to be treated in a way that we would find unacceptable.  And what we do as a nation sets in motion forces that will change the world for the good or for the worst.  And for 60 years, we've adhered to treating people humanely.  The president has said it.  The Congress is trying to say it.  And if you exempt certain groups of the country or agencies of the government from that standard, then you're setting in motion forces that will hurt your own troops.

MR. RUSSERT:  The president would still have the right of pardon?

SEN. GRAHAM:  The president can pardon anybody that he believes is unjustly accused.  But we can't let the president, the attorney general or any political figure waive the law, be bigger than the law, make a declaration that statutes we've agreed to for 60 years no longer apply.  No one political figure can be the judge and the Congress.  You can't give them that much authority because it would be duplicated throughout the country.  The president of Syria or the president of Iran, under this theory, could waive international law to defend his own country, and that's not what we want to happen.

MS. ALBRIGHT:  I completely agree.  And it would be very nice if the president would call the secretary of state, the vice president and the attorney general into his office and told them that they should be saying approximately the same thing, which is why the McCain amendment is so important to get it into law.  And I am so troubled by what all this has done in terms of the moral authority of the United States.  And when a secretary of state has just spent all her time explaining a position instead of dealing with the problems of terrorists that were in London, Madrid and in Jordan, then it is a stunning problem.  And it makes me very concerned.  And I totally agree with what Senator Graham said here.  And he is an expert on the issue. And it's absolutely essential that the United States, while an exceptional country, not ask for exceptions for us from law.

SEN. GRAHAM:  And we can protect our own troops.  We can give them defenses that are fair and reasonable and will protect them in hard situations without abandoning the rule of law.  And if we don't, if in the name of winning this war, we've set aside the laws that we've adhered to for 60 years, we will lose our way as a nation, we'll lose the moral force that we've been and we can't win the war if we do that.

MR. RUSSERT:  The White House has hinted the president would veto the defense bill if this language was included.

SEN. GRAHAM:  I'm optimistic that won't happen.  Duncan Hunter has been pretty good to work with here.  I hope we can find a consensus providing a good defense to our troops without granting immunity, which would do more harm than good.  We're still trying.  We're still working hard.  People of good faith are involved.  And we've got to get it right.  If we get this wrong, it will be a huge setback.  If we get it right, we can go to the world and say, "We're cleaning up our act.  Now, you help us."

MR. RUSSERT:  To be continued.  Senator Lindsey Graham, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, thank you both very much.

MS. ALBRIGHT:  Merry Christmas and happy holidays.

MR. RUSSERT:  And to you both.

Coming next, the political fortunes of George W. Bush and Republican leader Tom DeLay and the plights of the victims of Hurricane Katrina.  Our political roundtable is next, right here on MEET THE PRESS.


MR. RUSSERT:  The political future of Jordan, Bush and Tom DeLay; Mike Allen, David Brooks, E.J. Dionne are next, after this station break.


MR. RUSSERT:  And we are back, Allen, Brooks, Dionne, great law firm, welcome all.

MR. MIKE ALLEN:  Morning.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let's start with the latest polling we have.  President Bush approve, 40 percent, disapprove, 53 percent.  Look how this breaks down by party.  Republicans, 79 percent approve George Bush, 12 percent of Democrats, but only 1:3 Independents, 34 percent.  And look at Iraq.  Handling Iraq, 36 percent approve, 59 disapprove.  And this one has to concern the White House: Clear plan for victory in Iraq, only 1:4 Americans, 25 percent, say yes, 68 percent say no.

What do you make of it?

MR. E.J. DIONNE:  Well, I think the president's had a problem on Iraq ever since the elections in January.  It's just been going straight downhill.  And I think Americans sense that there were a lot of mistakes made.  Senator Graham was really striking in saying very forcefully how many mistakes were made to this point.  And I think it's those mistakes that have deprived the president of credibility.

I think what's really interesting is that it's not just that Democrats are largely united at the grassroots, if divided at the top, on the need to pull back troops.  Republicans at the grassroots in that same poll were split in half.  There were over 40 percent of Republicans want to reduce troops, including 10 percent who want to leave altogether.  So the president has a problem, not just with Democrats, and not just with Independents, but also within his own party now.

MR. RUSSERT:  David Brooks, the president and, as he attempts to recoup his popularity and deal with Iraq, what do you see?

MR. DAVID BROOKS:  Well, he's surging.  He's gone from 35 to 40, almost in landslide defeat territory.  No, I think he actually is picking up, first on the communication level.  The first two speeches in this recent offensive have been successful.  You know, I used to go to the White House for White House briefings, and they talk intelligently about what was going on in Iraq.  The Interior Ministry is a mess but the Foreign Ministry's pretty good.  The training of troops is going good; the police force is not going good.  You get these intelligent discussions.  Then they'd go out and it was like, the five-year plan is on course.  And they were just not being fair to the American people.  They were insulting the intelligence of the American people.

These last two speeches, they've stopped insulting the intelligence of the people, and I think they've begun to see little pick-up.  And then in Iraq we actually have begun to see progress.  Madeleine Albright said the military situation is going terribly.  I don't know anybody who think that's true. Anthony Cordesman, no friend of the administration, said the training of the troops is going better.  So we're beginning to see some progress.  Whether the bad guys are improving, we don't know.  But I think, you know, there's some signs for optimism and they've finally begun to communicate a little better.

MR. RUSSERT:  Mike Allen, you're doing a piece for tomorrow's Time magazine about inside the Bush White House.  What do you see?

MR. ALLEN:  Well, Tim, someone told me the president's trying to avoid being a lame duck.  They say he's trying not to limp and quack at the same time. For looking ahead to '06, a very modest agenda.  Everybody thought a lot of Republicans both inside the White House and outside, thought the president needs some big issue, something to rally the country, something to rally his own people.  And the White House told us that they hoped to in 2007, 2008, at the end of his presidency, do a grand fix of entitlement programs, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, altogether.  And I said, "Wait, you couldn't get to first base with Social Security by itself.  How do you do that in '06?" They hope to have some small victories, almost it's going to be some flashback to the Clinton years, to the issues they were most excited about telling you about.  One was bipartisan issues, there is using more technology with medical records.  The president has asked his staff to look for ideas how they can help Catholic schools.  They saw the benefit that they had for Katrina refugees.  He looks at them as one of the last refuges for people in inner-city schools; and helping workers have their health care with them.

These are not grand issues.  But what they say is we need some singles. They're looking forward to in January, a quick victory on Judge Alito.  And they say then that will give them the opportunity to get some more things. The biggest possibility for next year, immigration.  Obviously that would be a huge achievement if the president did that.  There hasn't been an immigration overhaul since 1986.  The one before that it was in the '50s.

But what you hear is, you talk to Republicans at Christmas parties, they think he still has the makings of Reagan.  There's still great promise in this administration.  But nobody sees a clear plan to achieving that promise.  A lot of friends of the president thought he's going to be one of the greats. They thought it was a given that he was going to be a Roosevelt, a Lincoln. Now, they're not sure.  They think he still has it in him.  If you talk to his friends, the president has not changed.  They talk about a sort of Zen- like quality that he has, that folks came up from Midland.  They thought they were going to have to buck him up for Christmas.  He was fine.  He was reading military history, taking comfort in what happened to other commanders in chief who were underestimated in their time.

MR. RUSSERT:  But there is a cloud over the presidency and it's called Iraq, and people within the White House will acknowledge that.  The elections on Thursday may be some good news.  But, David Brooks, isn't everything that happens on the ground going to determine the fate of George Bush's presidency?

MR. BROOKS:  Yeah.  He's ruled out, you know, being a Lincoln.  You know, he's ruled out being a mediocre president.  You know, he's either going to be a great president if Iraq works, or he'll be a terrible president if it fails. So what's going to happen in Iraq is, first of all, with--will the insurgency be crushed?  Will the--in the western Iraq where his--will the Iraqi troops be trained well enough to be able to hold the insurgents?  But then we're going to have this election, which is really the last milestone for a long time. And the question for me there is:  Are they going to be able to get a government together that attracts some degree of Sunni support?  And so we're having this debate here about whether this is-- whether we should get out or not.  We should wait six months.  We should see if they can get their act together.  If they can get their act together, things will look a little better there.  If they can't, then we'll really have a big debate here, because then it will be hard for Republicans to stay the course.

MR. DIONNE:  And that's why this sound bite that everybody is using, 2006 is the year of transition, I just think that's factually true.  It's factually true for the reasons David says, which is either these elections produce a government that can attract Sunni support and begin to put some political pressure against the insurgency, or that doesn't happen.  The American people have largely run out of patience.  I think there is--there has been a turning point in this war--Senator Graham again said that pretty flatly himself--and that Americans don't want to lose this, whatever that means, but I think that if things don't improve by the end of 2006, the pressure for withdrawal is going to become overwhelming.  John Murtha is a strong wind if things don't improve in the next six months.

MR. RUSSERT:  Whether or not enough Iraqis stand up and defend their country, if things do not improve, we'll get out?

MR. DIONNE:  I think so.  I think it's like Richard Nixon in Vietnam.  Is that Richard Nixon decided he--what--he wouldn't say he was going to cut and run, but at a certain point, as a friend of mine likes to say, Vietnam was sucking all the energy out of American foreign policy, and at a certain point, it just wasn't worth staying.  And I think by the end of the year, if it's not substantially better--by the end of next year--that's where most Americans--and I think a lot of people who are now still willing to give the president the benefit of a doubt, are going to be...

MR. BROOKS:  I would just say quickly that George Bush is willing to lose the '06 election for Iraq.  I firmly believe that.

MR. RUSSERT:  So that if Iraqis do not step forward in the numbers necessary, he will not withdraw American troops?

MR. BROOKS:  If he thinks it's going to lead to a civil war and a regional war, he won't get out, no.

MR. DIONNE:  I agree with that, but I think it's--there's one question of what President Bush wants to do; it's another question of how much support he's going to have from the American people by the end of next year.

MR. ALLEN:  Taking David's step one step further, you talk to the president's friends, he's happy to look like a bad president in '08, '09 if he looks like a good president in 20 years, 30 years.  He has always said, "You know, I'm fine"--you know before the election, he said, "I'm fine with going back to Crawford," and I think that that's very much true with him.  But the--if you look at--you heard Senator Graham saying the president's speeches are long overdue.  What you're hearing here is him defining victory down.  If you read these speeches carefully, what you're seeing is he wants achievable terms for victory, and the short-term victory as they define it in their own documents, we're almost there.  He talks about being on a path to democracy.  In the medium term, being an example to other reformers.  And in the long term, way past him, talk about the vision that they originally had for Iraq, which is a stable government and promotes peace in the Middle East.

MR. RUSSERT:  David Brooks, there seems to be some recognition in the president's speeches of an acknowledgement of reality.  That some of the things that were tried have not worked.  But you heard Senator Graham today, a fellow Republican, acknowledge that the fundamental judgments made by the administration going into the war:  We would be greeted as liberators, that it would not take hundreds of thousands of troops for years to come, that the war would be self-financing by oil and would never approach the $250 billion that it's already cost.  Inside the White House, inside the president's mind, is there a recognition that judgments, misjudgments were made?

MR. BROOKS:  Yeah.  And that's why I talked about the difference between inside and outside.  Outside, they were practicing what one writer called the theology of confidence, "We're in control, we understand.  We all"--you know, they do a 180-degree turn and said, "We always planned on doing that."  They couldn't admit they were human beings.

You go back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's fireside addresses, he admitted he was a human being.  But now, they're beginning to do that.  And what's so important about what's happened in the past two weeks, it upsets the whole communications strategy of the Bush presidency.  The whole Bush presidency, in the first days of Karen Hughes, has been, "We don't deal with those elites. We talk simple, straightforward messages," repeated endlessly to the American people.  But now, they're beginning to change that.

I once had a guy, a senior administration official, interrupt an interview I was doing.  He said, "You know, I just got back from the Oval Office.  The president was really subtle.  Then he goes out in public and he's like a cartoon figure.  What's going on here?"  And so they're finally getting over that communications strategy, which has been so blunt in public, but reasonably intelligent in private.

MR. RUSSERT:  Then why the Webcast ad by the Republican National Committee, waving the white flag, accusing the Democrats of retreat and defeat?

MR. BROOKS:  Because political consultants are so stupid.  You know, the reality in Iraq is contradictory.  There are good things happening.  There are bad things...

MR. DIONNE:  This is their administration, though, David.  This doesn't happen without the administration.

MR. BROOKS:  No.  But, no, I'm not absolving them.  I'm just saying the reality in Iraq is very contradictory.  But we have a debate in Washington where nobody can admit even some scintilla of truth on the other side.  And you've begun to see Lindsey Graham and people like that do that, talk like intelligent adults.  But we've still got the polarized debate which Bush is part of and which, you know, Howard Dean was part of.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Graham said that ad should be pulled.

MR. BROOKS:  Yeah.  Well, I certainly agree and I bet it's part of tune with the times.  We're in war, let's not treat this as a political campaign.

MR. ALLEN:  Yeah, but, Tim, that ad speaks to the two tracks of the communications strategy.  David was talking about the more subtle part, acknowledging mistakes.  The desire in these speeches was to get people who are critics, skeptics, to take a second look at policy, make them very fact-based.  Of course, they're missing a few facts.  But there's a very separate distinct track that's just as important to them, and that's keeping Republicans.  And that's why you see the White House, for the first time in this presidency, putting out campaign-style documents at the top of this, setting the record straight, attacking Democrats by name.  And that is to try to keep Republicans on board, partly because of those poll numbers that we saw earlier.

MR. DIONNE:  The problem, Tim, is I don't think the administration has fully made the transition that David so devoutly wants them to make and for good reason.  I think what you're seeing here are the makings of the 2006 campaign, which is on the one side, the administration is going to try to figure out a way to draw down some troops by way of saying, "See, we're on the road, we're going to get out of there eventually," and at the same time, they're going to attack Democrats for not supporting the troops and all of that, as you saw in that ad.  It reminds you of what they did on the old homeland security bill back in 2002.  When they--first, they were against it.  Then they decided they were for it.  But they drew a political line in which they could attack Democrats for attacking the administration version of this bill.  I think you're seeing the makings of the same kind of politics here.

MR. ALLEN:  And, you know, the way they lured Democrats into this, before the president's Annapolis speech, one of the strategists told me, "Every time we give an aggressive speech like this, the Democrats do something stupid to further box themselves in," and that's immediately after that is when you saw the bifurcation of the Democrats.  Democrats are trying to find someone to respond to the State of the Union address.  A lot of people obviously wanted Congressman Murtha.  Democrats have decided that he can't because he doesn't speak to everyone.  So now I would look for a new face, like Governor-elect Tim Kaine of Virginia to give that response.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let's talk about the elections of 2006.  The latest polls show that 65 percent of Americans disapprove of the job of Congress; 88 percent think there's ethical problems in Washington.  The resignation of Republican Congressman Cunningham; Congressman DeLay's indictment down in Texas, where he has a 34 percent approval against an unnamed Democrat--he loses 49-to-33. Two moderate Republicans, Chris Shays of Connecticut and Sherwood Boehlert of New York, say that DeLay should not seek re-election as leader.  What is going on in the 2006 elections?

MR. DIONNE:  First of all, I think you're seeing a Republican Party as many Republicans I've talked to said do in 10 years what it took the Democrats 40 years to do when they controlled it the last time which is move to a situation in which they are seen as a gigantic political machine and money-raising machine.  And I think there's a revolt against that machine going on.  And the revolt is extending to inside the Republican Party.

The second thing I think you're seeing is a real split among House Republicans.  I see them split in three camps.  There are the real hard-core conservatives, probably about 100 members, led by Congressman Pence and others.  There is a whole group of kind of mainstream moderate conservatives who are uncomfortable with that right wing of the party.  And then you've got a couple dozen moderates.  And I think once DeLay left, those splits became more obvious to us.  You're seeing it in their difficulty in creating a budget.  So the combination of public corruption and increasing difficulty in governing is going to be a real problem for them in '06.

MR. RUSSERT:  David Brooks, in '94, the Republican revolution, Newt Gingrich, Contract for America, throw the bums out, put us in.  In 2006, are we going to see the Democrats nationalizing congressional elections and saying it's time to throw out the ethically-challenged Republican majority?

MR. BROOKS:  They're going to try and they may be successful.  I don't think we're going to see the swing we saw in '94, just because the country is not quite the same.  But a lot of Republicans are going to stay home.  And so Democrats could conceivably do it.  Personally, I hope they do and I think a lot of Republicans hope they do because I think it would be good for the Bush presidency, it would be good for the Republican Party and it would be good for the Democratic Party to have the Democrats have some control.  Power corrupts as we see in the Republican Party and powerlessness corrupts, and it's made the Democrats fundamentally unserious...

MR. RUSSERT:  The most important thing a party gains if they control just one House is the ability obviously to affect legislation but also to have hearings.

MR. BROOKS:  To hold hearings but also to have some responsibility for what's happened in the country and that sobers you up.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me talk about responsibility around the country, particularly in New Orleans and Mississippi.  This is The Washington Post and it's breathtaking.  "This city of [New Orleans] grapples with its new realities:  More than 100,000 homes and businesses remain uninhabitable.  More than three out of four residents live elsewhere.  More than five million tons of storm debris is still on the ground.  The power company is bankrupt. Workers are in short supply.  Its first and so far only public school [just] reopened.  The police force is in disarray.  Scientists are recording alarming mold levels.  Suburban suicide rates are spiking.  Local doctors are operating out of tents."

The New York Times today, "Death of an American city.  We are about to lose New Orleans," which led me to this editorial by Jim Amoss, the editor of The New Orleans Times-Picayune.  In his headline, "Do Not Forsake Us."  And let me just share with the American people, "President Bush flew into New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city.  His staff had to fire up giant generators to bathe St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square in floodlights, as a backdrop for his promise that he would `do what it takes' to rebuild New Orleans.  `There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans,' he said, `and this great city will rise again.'  Then the lights went out, and the president left.  Vast swaths of the city have been in darkness ever since.  President Bush was still smarting from the embarrassing federal response to Katrina when he stood in the heart of our city and made his promise to rebuild.  It would be a greater embarrassment to an entire nation if that promise went unfulfilled."  Well, Mike Allen, the president, the Congress, what must be done to save New Orleans?

MR. ALLEN:  Tim, I'm going to tell you something that's going to amaze you because it amazed me when I looked it up yesterday and I lost a bet on this. The last time the president was in the hurricane region was October 11th, two months ago.  The president stood in New Orleans and said it was going to be one of the largest reconstruction efforts in the history of the world.  You go to the White House home page, there's Barney-Cam, there's Social Security, there's renewing Iraq.  Where's renewing New Orleans?  A presidential adviser told me that that issue has fallen so far off the radar screen, you can't even find it.

Now, the White House told me that a lot of administration officials are going down there.  More than 110 of them have made trips down there.  They say they're still assessing how much they're going to spend.  They're soon going to announce an initiative about communication during disasters and then there's an internal debate about how many mistakes to admit when they do that, but the other thing that was in the president's speech that's not mentioned there is remember how we thought that we had learned a lesson about race and poverty from what happened in New Orleans?  One of the most memorable oratorical passages of this presidency, the White House put out, you know, bound books of that speech, talking about what he was going to do in that area.  I go to speeches every day, we don't hear that.

MR. RUSSERT:  The American attention span, of--Katrina victims are still there, suffering.

MR. DIONNE:  You know, it's remarkable, one month and the war on poverty was over.  I mean, it's the shortest war on poverty on record.  All kinds of columnists, David and me included, were writing columns about different approaches to deep problems that Katrina unearthed.  Lobbyists--the poor don't have K Street lobbyists.  They're not in the center of our politics.  And I think with the president, what you saw is that he spoke obsessively about New Orleans in the period when Katrina and the reaction to Katrina was a huge drag on his presidency.  Now, it's obvious that they see any mention of Katrina will remind people of those bad old days, and so they just want to shove it aside.  But it seems that the entire political system is allowing them to do it, which is why that cry of alarm from New Orleans that you showed up there is so powerful.

MR. BROOKS:  Look, I don't want to absolve Bush; Bush should be leading more. But let's get to the core issue here which is that when we looked after Katrina, we thought we've got a blank slate here, the city's been wiped out. Let's do some real experimentation.  And the core problem is in New Orleans right now, where a lot of us from outside, frankly, thought, let's experiment. But people in New Orleans want their city back.  They want the city they had. And so it's made it very difficult to talk about innovation.

The Urban Land Institute came up with a plan to develop some neighborhoods, but not others because they said we just can't do it all at once.  But that's politically impossible down there, because people say, "No, we want it all." So part of the problem is, we don't have a plan.  We haven't developed priorities, because the people--there are still taboos on talking about how we're going to innovate.  And before we can get to spending, there's got to be a plan, there's got to be people to administer the plan and there's got to be a set of priorities, and that hasn't been achieved yet.

MR. RUSSERT:  But the one thing that can be done is that the levees can be rebuilt in a way to protect those people.  Otherwise, it's all going to happen again.  We have to leave it there.

Mike Allen of Time magazine, David Brooks of The New York Times, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, thank you all.

And we'll be right back to remember former senator and 1968 presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy.  Our MEET THE PRESS minute is next.


MR. RUSSERT:  And we are back.

In 1968, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy challenged the incumbent Democratic president, Lyndon B. Johnson.  McCarthy's primary issue was his opposition to the Vietnam War which attracted tens of thousands of young, new volunteers to American politics.  On March 12, 1968, McCarthy received 42 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary.  Less than three weeks later, President Johnson startled the world with this announcement.

(Videotape, 1968):

PRES. LYNDON B. JOHNSON:  I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  But by July, McCarthy recognized that L.B.J.'s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, was going to be the Democratic nominee.  McCarthy appeared here on MEET THE PRESS, and addressed the disillusionment of his young supporters.

(Videotape, July 7, 1968):

SEN. McCARTHY:  I think the system is under some kind of test in 1968 and people who are new in politics and especially young people in politics, have had a pretty severe baptism in politics this year.  I mean, those of us who have been in it for 20 years can't remember a year like this in which the issues stirred as much emotion and which especially young people were as deeply involved.  And most of them came into presidential politics instead of starting, you know, with a state legislature, or running somebody for Congress or the Senate.  So it's been a hard and difficult year for them.  And I don't think that they're understood, really, their problems are understood by some of the Democratic leaders in the way in which they should be understood.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  In November, Vice President Hubert Humphrey lost to the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon.

Eugene McCarthy died this week at age 89.  He and his family are in our thoughts and prayers.


MR. RUSSERT:  Watch "NBC Nightly News" tomorrow as Brian Williams spends the day with President Bush, and interviews the president before and after his speech on Iraq.  That's tomorrow night, "NBC Nightly News," Brian Williams' exclusive interview with President Bush.

And starting today, our entire MEET THE PRESS broadcast will be available throughout the week, on the Internet, free of charge.  Look for the show every Sunday afternoon online, beginning at 1 p.m. Eastern.  Just go to our Website, mtp.msnbc.com.  MEET THE PRESS, whenever and wherever you want it.

That's all for today.  We'll be back next week.  If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.

The Bills are starting their comeback today.

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