NBC News
updated 1/26/2006 2:35:41 PM ET 2006-01-26T19:35:41

MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: This United States senator has just returned from a fact-finding mission to Iraq and the Middle East and has now become the Democrats’ point man for lobbying reform. With us: an exclusive interview with Illinois’ junior Senator Barack Obama.

Then, two men who helped elect Bill Clinton president of the United States have a new blueprint for Democrats: “Take It Back: Our Party, Our Country, Our Future.” They’ll be joined by someone with very different views. Our political roundtable with Paul Begala, Mary Matalin and James Carville.

But first, joining us now is the Democratic senator from Illinois, Barack Obama.

Senator, good morning and welcome.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL): Great to talk to you, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT: You just came back from Iraq, and I noted this comment in the Chicago Daily Herald: “...everything's up for grabs.” What does that mean?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, first of all, one of the impressions that I got was what a great job the troops were doing. You know, we have a military that is unsurpassed in its ability to execute a mission, and so we’ve got troops who are building roads and hospitals and schools. And I was extraordinarily proud of their service.

But you have a political situation that I think is still undetermined, how it’s going to play itself out. We just got the results from the recent election. It’s promising because we have more Sunnis participating in the legislature than we had last time. We don’t yet know, though, whether or not the Shias and the Kurds are going to accommodate Sunni interests or ignore them. And we don’t yet know whether the Sunnis are going to recognize that they are in fact a minority. And one of the key points I came away from, talking both to military officials as well as civilians, is that there’s not a long-term military solution to the problem there, that political accommodation is what’s going to determine the future of Iraq.

MR. RUSSERT: The question is, here at home what are the politics, and you said this according to the Chicago Tribune. “It is arguable that the best politics going into ’06 would be a clear, succinct message, ‘Let’s bring our troops home.’...It’s certainly easier to communicate and I think would probably have some pretty strong resonance with the American people right now.” Why do you think that’s the best political message?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, one of the things that I think in politics you’re always looking for is contrast, and obviously that gives a sharp, clearly-defined contrast to administration’s policy. Keep in mind, though, that that quote was presented in me explaining that that’s actually not the approach that I’m pursuing. My position has been that it would not be responsible for us to unilaterally and precipitously draw troops down regardless of the politics, because I think that all of us have a stake in seeing Iraq succeed. We need to get the policy right, and it’s inappropriate, I think, to have politics intrude at this point in such a critical stage in the development of the Middle East.

MR. RUSSERT: When you ran for office back in September of ’04 you said this about Iraq. You-and I’ll read it on the screen from the Associated Press: Democratic senator candidate Barack Obama who "opposed invading Iraq, but pulling out now, he said, would make things worse. A quick withdrawal would add to the chaos there and make it 'an extraordinary hotbed of terrorist activity,' he said.  It would also damage America’s international prestige and amount to a ‘slap in the face’ to the troops fighting there.” Is that still your position?

SEN. OBAMA: It remains my position that we have a role to play in stablizing the country as Iraqis are getting their act together. But I have to emphasize that there is a cost for our presence there. We are an irritant, and we help spur the insurgency even as we're defending a fledgling Iraqi government against that insurgency. And so, we have this difficult balance that has to take place, but the critical point is that Iraqis have to take responsibility now that the final election has taken place. They have a legally constituted government. It is time for them to arrive at the peaceful accommodations that can drain away some of the impetus behind the insurgency, and it’s time for Iraqis to take seriously institution-building.

You know, when I was there, there were reports that the ministry of the interior, which is headed by a Shia, part of the religious Shia party there, that the minister of the interior, which is in charge of the police, was rounding up Sunnis-prominent Sunni leaders-in ways that were abhorrent. And that kind of behavior and irresponsibility on the part of institutions like the police, like the various ministries is the kind of thing that helps spur the insurgency, and we can’t solve those kinds of problems militarily.

MR. RUSSERT: When you say we’re an "irritant," who we are-who are we an irritant to?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think we are an irritant primarily to certain portions of the Sunni population that still feel disenfranchised. And they may feel that, in fact, the United States is the guy with the club standing behind the Shias and putting them in a position in which they have no power. You know, when you go out to some of the western provinces of Iraq that are predominantly Sunni, you’ve got 50, 60 percent unemployment in these areas. There’s a great sense of disaffection. And if American troops are the face of the occupation, then the perception at least is that there is no interest on the part of the Shias to accommodate Sunnis, that they have the United States backing them up. And we need to get ourselves out of a position where it’s perceived that we are giving Shias and Kurds an excuse not to negotiate with the Sunnis, and we also have to let the Sunnis know that they’re in fact a minority within Iraq, and they’re not going to have the same power that they had under Saddam Hussein’s regime.

MR. RUSSERT: I want to talk a little bit about the language people are using in the politics now of 2006, and I refer you to some comments that Harry Belafonte made yesterday. He said that Homeland Security had become the new Gestapo. What do you think of that?

SEN. OBAMA: You know, I never use Nazi analogies, because I think that those were unique, and I think, you know, we have to be careful in using historical analogies like this. I think people are rightly concerned that we strike the right balance between our concerns for civil liberties and the uniform concern that all of us have about protecting ourselves from terrorism.

MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Belafonte went to Venezuela, as you well know, some time ago and met with the Hugo Chavez, leader of that country, and said some things that obviously were noted in this country and around the world. Let’s listen, and come back and talk about it.

(Videotape, January 8, 2006)

Mr. HARRY BELAFONTE: And no matter what the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world, George W. Bush, says, we’re here to tell you not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of the American people, millions, support your revolution, support your ideas, and we are expressing our solidarity with you.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Is it appropriate to call the President of the United States "the greatest terrorist in the world"?

SEN. OBAMA: I don’t think it’s appropriate. That’s not language that I would use. But keep in mind that, you know, one of the great things about the United States is all of our citizens have the right to, you know, speak our mind about what’s going on politically.

What I do think we have to focus on is-in the context of the Middle East and Iraq, Iran-is the fact that we are at a very delicate time right now, which requires not just military might, but also diplomacy. And there’ve been times where we have not used all the tools in our tool kit. There’s been a tendency on this part of this administration to talk tough, to act first and plan later. And coming back from Iraq what was clear to me is is that we have a six- to nine-month window in Iraq in which things can either turn out much better or turn out much worse, depending on how effectively we apply pressure to the Shia-dominated government to make sure that they’re bringing everybody into the fold.

MR. RUSSERT: Should we negotiate with the insurgents to try to bring about a political solution?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think that what we want to do is we want to reach out to Sunni leadership that clearly has connections to the insurgency. And there are potential accommodations that can be made with the Sunni population that will drain away support from the insurgency. It is critical, for example, who gets placed in cabinet positions in various ministries. If there’s no significant Sunni representation, then that’s going to send a signal to that population that they should continue, maybe surreptitiously, tacitly, to support the insurgency.

We want to divide the foreign jihadists-which will brook no compromise, and we essentially have to hunt down-and those elements within the Sunni population that are resistant right now of what’s happening, but I think potentially recognize the possibilities of becoming involved in the political process.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to the political situation here at home. Your colleague Senator Hillary Clinton said some things that have been talked about all week long. Let’s listen to that and come back and talk about it.

(Videotape, Monday)

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON, (D-NY): We have cronyism, we have incompetence. I predict to you that this administration will go down in history as one of the worst that has ever governed our country.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Do you agree with Senator Clinton that the Bush administration will go down in history as one of the worst?

SEN. OBAMA: I agree that, with her remarks about cronyism and incompetence. I don’t think that anybody who’s been watching the news over the last year who’s seen what happened in New Orleans, who’s seen some of the botched planning that took place post-war in Iraq would not think that there is a competence issue when it comes to this administration. And I think that with respect to cronyism, we have seen, I think, consistently, a tendency on the part of this administration to appoint people on the basis of their politics as opposed to their abilities and their merits, and that has real consequences for the American people. We saw that it had consequences with respect to Katrina. But it also has competence up and down the line in terms of how well we’re regulating our environment. How well are we, you know, prosecuting all sorts of issues that have deep concern to the American people?

MR. RUSSERT: Will George Bush be considered one of the worst presidents in history?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, that’s a tough standard to meet. We’ve had some pretty bad ones. So, I, you know, I don’t prognosticate in terms of where George Bush will place in American history.

MR. RUSSERT: But in terms of the dialogue and the civility in Washington, is it appropriate to be talking in these terms?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, here in Chicago we’ve got a saying that “politics ain’t beanbag.” You know, and sometimes I think that we get overexcited, or we fasten on remarks that people are making in the heat of political battle. I agree that generally we need to improve the tone of civility in politics. I think that that starts, by the way, with the White House and some of those closest to George Bush. I’m always happy if we can tone down the rhetoric and focus on the problems that the American people care about.

MR. RUSSERT: You’ve been appointed, selected as the Democrats’ point man on lobbying reform in the Senate. I want to talk about Jack Abramoff and the scandal now in terms of lobbying and potential reform. According to the Center for Responsive Politics and The Washington Post, Mr. Abramoff and his clients and his associates gave about $3 million to Republicans, about $1.5 million to Democrats. Is this a bipartisan scandal?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think the problem of money in politics is bipartisan. I think that all of us who are involved in the political process have to be concerned about the enormous sums of money that have to raised in order to run campaigns, how that money’s raised, and at least the appearance of impropriety and the potential access that’s given to those who are contributing. That’s a general problem with our politics. The specific problem of inviting lobbyists in who have bundled huge sums of money to write legislation, having the oil and gas company companies come in to write energy legislation, having drug companies come in and write the Medicare prescription drug bill-which we now see is not working for our seniors-those are very particular problems of this administration and this Congress. And I think Jack Abramoff and the K Street Project, that whole thing is a very particular Republican sin.

MR. RUSSERT: No sin for the Democrats?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, with respect to how Tom DeLay consolidated power in the House of Representatives, invited lobbyists like Abramoff in to help write legislation, leveraging those lobbyists and telling them that they can only hire Republicans, manipulating the rules of the House and the Senate in order to move forward legislation that was helpful to special interests. There is a qualitative difference to what’s been happening in Washington over the last several years that has real consequences. It means a prescription drug bill that doesn’t work for our seniors. It means an energy policy that does nothing to help relieve, you know, high gas prices at the pump. These aren’t just abstractions, these are problems that have very real consequences to the American people. And my hope is is that, on a bipartisan basis, we can come up with a solution that returns some semblance of responsiveness to Washington.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you see a direct quid pro quo between contributions and government action?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think in the case of people like Duke Cunningham, obviously there have been-and that’s why there have been criminal prosecutions. But, you know, there’s a wonderful saying that the scandal isn’t what’s illegal, the scandal is what’s legal. And I think that when you have, for example, the chairman of the House committee that is responsible for putting together the Medicare bill at the same time as he’s negotiating with the big pharmaceutical companies to head up their lobbying operation, then you have to assume that the interests of the pharmaceutical companies are being better represented in the halls of Congress than the interests of the American people.

MR. RUSSERT: You talked about money being a political problem and a bipartisan problem. This was in the St. Louis paper the other day, “Senator Obama has served as a money magnate for his party and for himself, easily raising loads of campaign cash for Senate Democrats, filling the coffers and his own political action committee. ‘I have a lot of fund-raising capital,’ Obama acknowledged. He headlined an Arizona Democratic Party event that raked in $1 million, wrote an e-mail that helped raised more than $800,000 dollars for Senator Robert Byrd, set up a special leadership PAC called Hopefund Inc. so he could raise even more money, collecting more than $850,000 so far this year.”

This is the very thing that you warned about, Senator, back in 1996. And we talked about this before, but let me talk-raise it on the screen again. This is Obama in 1996. “You got these $10,000-a-plate dinners and Golden Circle Clubs. I think when the average voter looks at that, they rightly feel they’re locked out of the process. They can’t attend a $10,000 breakfast, and they know that those who can are going to get the kind of access they can’t imagine.” Isn’t that a necessity of your job right now, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for yourself and your colleagues, the very thing that you criticized in ‘96?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, a couple of points. In terms of the fund-raising that you put up on the screen-for example, $800,000 that was raised for Senator Byrd was through moveon.com, and those were contributions that were coming in from ordinary citizens at $100 a pop.

But the larger point you’re making is absolutely true; this is the part of the job I dislike the most, which is having to raise money. It is something that none of us are immune from because of the amount of money that has to be raised in order to get on television and run campaigns. It is a problem that I have to deal with, it’s a problem that John McCain has to deal with, it’s a problem that Russ Feingold has to deal with. It’s something that all of us wrestle with.

My belief in terms of moving forward on the ethics legislation is that we’ve got some low-hanging fruit that we should take care of right away. For example, it shouldn’t be tough to say lobbyists can’t buy you a fancy meal. I saw one of my colleagues remark in the paper the other day, “How are we going to be able to meet with lobbyists? Where are we going to eat, at McDonald’s, if the limit is only $20?” Well, the truth is most Americans spend less than $20 for lunch. But more importantly, there’s no law that obligates you to get a free lunch from lobbyists.

So there are some easy things that we can do that hopefully will build momentum for some of the tougher stuff, which involves, how do we reduce the enormous amounts of money in politics generally? And those are going to be some tough questions, because they might involve, for example, asking the question, “Why don’t we have free television time, for candidates, to reduce the amounts of costs?” My suspicion is that NBC, just like ABC and CBS, wouldn’t necessarily be wild about those approaches, but that’s the kind of conversation over the long term we’re going to have to have. This is a starting point.

MR. RUSSERT: Would you consider public financing of campaigns?

SEN. OBAMA: I think that we should consider all approaches that would reduce the amounts of money that are required for campaigns.

MR. RUSSERT: Fred Wertheimer, who’s been covering this issue for a long time for Common Cause, Democracy 21 project, said the problem is as follows, and let’s listen to Fredh Werthheimer.

(Videotape, Wednesday)

Mr. FRED WERTHEIMER: The bottom line here is we’ve been operating in Washington and in Congress without a sheriff. And that leads to a Wild West where anything goes, and now that has to change. You can’t just change the rules. You’ve got to add real enforcement of those rules if you’re going to get compliance from the members.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Should there be a new enforcer of lobbying and ethical rules?

SEN. OBAMA: I think so. And I think that one of the differences between the Democratic proposals for reform so far and the reform proposals that have come out from the Republican House is setting up an office of public integrity that has the capacity to track and monitor what’s taking place more effectively than we’ve seen over the last several months. There’s got to be some mechanism that is not subject to politics that can oversee how we are operating.

MR. RUSSERT: There’s been enormous speculation about your political future, Senator. The man you succeeded in the Senate, Peter Fitzgerald, a Republican, said this recently. “I think there’s a very good chance that Senator Obama is on the Democratic ticket in 2008 as the vice presidential nominee.” Do you agree?

SEN. OBAMA: No.  You know, I can’t speculate on those kinds of things. What I have said is that, you know, I’m not focused on running for higher office, I’m focused on doing the job that the people of Illinois just sent me to do.

MR. RUSSERT: But there seems to be an evolution in your thinking. This is what you told the Chicago Tribune last month: “Have you ruled out running for another office before your term is up?” Obama answer: “It’s not something I anticipate doing.” But when we talked back in November of ‘04 after your election I said, “There’s been enormous speculation about your political future. Will you serve your six-year term as United States senator from Illinois?” Obama: “Absolutely.”

SEN. OBAMA: I will serve out my full six-year term. You know, Tim, if you get asked enough, sooner or later you get weary and you start looking for new ways of saying things. But my thinking has not changed.

MR. RUSSERT: So you will not run for president or vice president in 2008?

SEN. OBAMA: I will not.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator, thank you very much for your candor and for joining us and sharing your views.

SEN. OBAMA: Had a great time, Tim. Thank you.

MR. RUSSERT: Coming next, Paul Begala and James Carville with their new book, “Take It Back.” And we’ll be joined by someone who’d like to set them straight. Her name: Republican strategist Mary Matalin, in between Begala and Carville, right here on MEET THE PRESS.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: Can Republican Mary Matalin hold her own with Democrats Begala and Carville? We’ll find out after this station break.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: And we are back. Welcome all. James Carville, Paul Begala, “Take It Back,” the new blueprint, the bible for Democrats. And here’s what it says: “George W. Bush and the Washington Republicans have presided over the most corrupt reign since Richard Nixon and his Watergate crooks were driven from Washington in disgrace.”

Mr. Carville, substantiate that.

MR. JAMES CARVILLE: Today, Friday, the Department of Defense high-ranking Bush appointee plead guilty 12 years. We got two people in the White House that are under indictment. We have a Republican congressman who’s convicted. I don’t know how many more indictments are coming. We have a prescription drug bill that was written by, for and of the pharmaceutical industry. I really don’t-it’s going to be hard to imagine that that is not going to be substantiated, and we’ll have to wait and see, but I think we’re in for more. Now we find out today in Time magazine that five pictures of Bush and Abramoff together. We find out that there are numerous contacts between the White House and Abramoff and his clients. So we are-hang on. We got a long way to go. A long, long way to go.

MR. RUSSERT: Mary Matalin, response?

MS. MARY MATALIN: Oh, lord. Take it back, give it up. I mean, this is-I bet there’s five photos of you and President Bush. That’s doesn’t mean there’s any-you had any impact on any of his thinking. Look, you know, they have been trying to demonize, and their latest iteration of demonization is this culture of corruption. That dog doesn’t hunt any more. It’s not fair.

The American people reject guilt by association. Some priests are pedophiles, some journalists are plagiarists, some husbands cheat. Americans judge people as individuals, and they punish wrongdoers, and the wrongdoers in these cases will be punished. It’s also not in any way effective. In all the years that they’ve been demonizing from Reagan, he was a dope and he was a delegator;

Bush is a liar and a loser. In 25 years they’ve been doing this, calling Republican and conservatives names. And conservatives have been making gains. So, if you want to take it back, you better give it up.

MR. RUSSERT: Paul Begala, The Washington Post and the Center for Responsive politics investigated this whole Abramoff situation, and there’s a pie chart which breaks up this-explains how the money was distributed, if you will: 66 percent, 2.9 million, went to Republicans; 34 percent, 1.5 million went to Democrats. Senator Reid, Patrick Kennedy, Patty Murray, a lot of prominent Democrats received money from-associates, clients of Jack Abramoff. Two-to-one Republican, but is it not fair to say it’s not just Republicans that have to be cleaned up, it’s the whole process?

Mr. PAUL BEGALA: Well, yes, to the latter, absolutely. And Democrats are having an internal debate, which they are resolving now. They’re coming out for reform. I have to say, when we were writing this book it was still a big debate. There were a lot of Democrats who didn’t want to clean up the system, quite candidly. They, I think, were hoping to sweep out the corrupt Republicans lobbyists and bring in corrupt Democratic lobbyists.

But on Abramoff, that’s misleading. This is a Republican scandal. Mr. Abramoff is a movement-partisan Republican. There’s no evidence in all of the indictments, in all of the e-mails, in all of the investigations that any of the money that went to Democrats from Indian tribes was directed by Mr. Abramoff. You know, the Indian tribes mostly gave money to Democrats who had Indian tribes and casinos in their states. There’s no evidence at all that it was directed by Mr. Abramoff, and if there were, I’m sure we’d have it by now because it’s coming out.

So I think it’s unfair to say Democrats are part of the Abramoff scandal. They have been part of the Washington problem, but to their credit now, they have decided they want to become the reform party that puts some serious reforms out there. We’d like them to go further. I mean, in the book we’ve got, like, 19 things that go beyond what either party has proposed. But I do think it’s a hopeful sign for Democrats that they seem to be serious about cleaning up the system.

MR. RUSSERT: Mary Matalin, Jack Abramoff, a pioneer in terms of Bush fund-raising, very active in Republican politics, very close to the White House, very close to Republicans in Congress, isn’t that all fair to say?

MS. MATALIN: Isn’t it fair to say that this is a Republican scandal? No. It is-if there’s anything that's corrupt in Washington, as Madison knew from the “Federalist Papers,” it’s that we are not-men are not angels. The government is not run by angels. And if you want to reduce corruption in Washington, then you take the power out of here, you take the money out of here, you leave it in the states, you leave it closer to the people, which is what the Republicans have been running on and winning on for a quarter of a century now.

So, look, you cannot just-and I’ll say again: the American people reject this guilt by association. It-for every Republican you want to talk about, there’s a Congressman Jefferson who’s top aide was just convicted, or plead guilty to bribing him, there’s $90,000 in his freezer. There’s 39 out of 44 Democrats have received Abramoff-related money, however they got it. So this is all fine and good to talk about cutting out lobbyist lunches. I prefer to think that our elected officials are not going to lay down for a $20 lunch. But the real corruption and the real answer is to make earmarks transparent, to reform the budget process, to term-limit appropriators. That’s-and if we dance around the edges here, the people are going to become more cynical and feel more left out of the process than they were before.

MR. RUSSERT: I want to get to earmarks in just a second, but let me just stay on the rhetoric. James Carville: The leader of the Democrats, Harry Reid, said this on Tuesday: “The idea of Republicans reforming themselves is like asking John Gotti to clean up organized crime.” And he put out a lengthy release from his office, replete with comments about his colleagues. The very next day he issued this statement: “I am writing to apologize for the tone of this document and the decision to single out individual senators for criticism in it. ...I regret the current political climate in which policy disputes escalate too quickly into personal condemnation. The document released by my office yesterday went too far. I apologize and am sorry for the content and tone of the document.”

MR. CARVILLE: I’d like to think that’s refreshing. And you know, it’s not the crime-we all make mistakes-the crime is, when you made a mistake, not to acknowledge one. And I think that Senator Reid that-and my hat’s off to him. And so many times this happens and people shout a whole lot the next day. He did that. It doesn’t take away from the central point: this Congress and this administration has a record, and what Abramoff has done is something that goes right to the heart of it.

And it is true, the Democrats need to be more reform-oriented. We argue that extensively in the book. As Paul pointed out, there’s some evidence that they are. The fact is, Senator Reid said, “A document that came out of my office went too far,” doesn’t detract at all from the real problems that are being faced in this Congress, the real corruption that really exists, the number of indictments that have come down already, the number of indictments that are getting ready to come down. The numerous and extensive contacts between Abramoff and the White House-all of this is going to come out. And I’ve got to commend Senator Reid, and I wish more politicians would do that. Again, we all make mistakes, he went out and acknowledged it the next day; my hat’s off to him. I thought it was a refreshing move he made.

MR. RUSSERT: Mary Matalin, many are questioning whether or not the Republicans or the Democrats are serious about reform. Trent Lott back in November said this about John McCain, who had introduced legislation dealing with this: “John McCain needs to relax. He needs to focus on national security and issues critical to our country. We don’t need a new law on lobbying.” Have the Republicans been born-again on reform?

MS. MATALIN: You know, James is right, Harry Reid has been refreshing. He refused to give back his Abramoff money, because it’s not illegal to petition the government, it’s not illegal to give money to the government. What is unethical and what is illegal and what the people want-not illegal, but what people want to be focused on is where is all-where are our tax payers’ dollars going. Not where are the contributions going, what are they doing with our money? And in the middle of night, under cover of darkness, without legislation being read, across the board, both sides, they’re putting it into their pet projects. That’s what needs to be reformed.

MR. RUSSERT: Well, let’s talk about that, because that’s an important point. In the Wall Street Journal, which is hardly an organ for the Democratic Party, wrote this, “When Republicans took control of the purse strings in 1995, the federal budget was $1.5 trillion. It’s now $2.55 trillion, or $5 million a minute. And the latest Treasury data reveal that fiscal 2005 federal outlays grew by another $179 billion, an 8 percent increase, and more than twice the rate of inflation.” And then they added this to the editorial, “The smell of bacon.” In ‘95, when Republicans captured both houses of Congress, there were 1,439 earmarked projects, the special projects you talked about, they cost $10 billion. Ten years later, nearly 14,000 specific earmarked projects by individual congressmen and senators, $27 billion. Republicans control both houses of Congress.

MS. MATALIN: They control both houses, but they’re not the only earmark appropriators.

MR. RUSSERT: But who are the chairmen, who are the chairmen of the committees?

MS. MATALIN: That’s what I-and I-and that’s what-if there’s any impact of this, it is conservatives re-energized over why they were elected in the first place, which is to be fiscally conservative. Of course these earmarks are done by both sides, and they shouldn’t be done, and appropriators should be term-limited, the budget process should be reformed to sunset or do away with programs that have no performance standards, aren’t resulting, or producing results or are redundant. And we are doing that, and we will continue to be doing that.

But we also have a record in this tenure, in this majority of 31 consecutive months in growth that exceeded the growth in their peak years. We’ve had four years, most importantly of not being hit by terrorists, and we’ve had all sorts of reforms from tort reform to health care reform, and we’re going to keep working the problem and they’re going to keep working their mouths, as they do-how-I will say about this book, if you can get over their signature pyrotechnics, there are some policy ideas in here, and I don’t agree with all of them, but let’s debate on the issues, let’s quit calling each other names, and let’s have some civil discussion like Barack Obama just had.

MR. BEGALA: Well-and I thank you for that. I think-we agree about this earmarking congressional reform and the way the congressman in both parties hide the way they spend their money. But I got the most important reviews for the book yesterday: Diane and I went to Houston, our friend Ana Lee Sanchez was getting married. We went to lunch with my dad. I said, "OK, Dad, what did you think?" And it was interesting-he picked up on something that I’d forgotten was in the book, he said, "The thing that troubles me most"-and this is a guy who voted for Ronald Reagan and spent his career in the oil business in Texas, he’s no liberal-he said, "What bothers me the most was that President Bush hired a lobbyist from the mining industry to be the number two guy in the Interior Department." And that he says, in the book, he says, "My goal is to turn out the lights on the mine safety agency." That’s just, you know, one guy’s real world response. This is the problem of the culture of corruption. Lord Acton was right, absolute power corrupts absolutely. And that’s what, I think, Madison was looking for in the checks and balances. We don’t have that right now. In part, because Democrats have been too feckless and ineffective in campaigning. That’s why we wrote the book, though.

MR. RUSSERT: Hillary Clinton jumped into this whole discussion about management of the House of Representatives. This is what she had to say.

(Videotape, Monday)

Senator HILLARY CLINTON: When you look at the way the House of Representatives has been run, it has been run like a plantation, and you know what I’m talking about.

(End videotape)

MR. CARVILLE: When that happened, Paul called me, and, you know, of course I was going to defend her, she’s like one of my favorite people in the world. But we both said, ‘You know, the thing that really bothers us is that when politicians say something to a different-one thing to a white audience and a different thing to a black audience. And then some of Hillary’s people called and they said, ‘Well, we have this Gingrich quote that he said the same thing.’ And OK, that’s helpful, but we really hold Hillary to a higher standard than Speaker Gingrich.

Then as the day progressed, we found out that she said exactly the same thing on CNN to a white host and a white audience. At that point, I felt completely relieved and enthusiastic in sort of defending this, is that-and I think it’s so true, it comes out as something big, and then we find out that it’s something that she’s been really consistent on. Whether or not it’s the best-a lot of people may not know the plantation metaphor, what she was doing-the other thing is is the clip, right after she said that, explained that she meant that dissent was not allowed, and it was not a racial overtone. The next sentence qualified exactly what she was talking about.

MR. RUSSERT: But as Senator Obama said, that he doesn’t use references to Nazi Germany, like Gestapo or Nazi, because it is a singular and unique and terrible event in our history. So, too, with slavery. Is it appropriate to use slavery metaphors, "plantation," to talk about the House of Representatives.

MR. CARVILLE: You know, again, I think that if you said a totalitarian system in the House, no dissent. The point she was trying to make and that she had made both to a predominantly, overwhelmingly white audience and to the black audience was that she was searching for something that showed that dissent was not allowed. And she qualified it. Again, if that is the best metaphor, I don’t know. But I’m certainly not troubled by it because it was the thing that she used in both instances. And I think a plantation, by the way, was a place where dissent was not allowed.

MR. RUSSERT: Mary Matalin?

MS. MATALIN: Well, if anyone thinks there’s no dissent in the Republican party they're not watching the leadership race right now. We are not afraid of dissent. We're not afraid of debate. And this was much to do about nothing as inconsequential bit of pedestrian pandering. But what is the problem for Mrs. Clinton, she is held to a higher standard. This really illuminated some difficulties or vulnerabilities in her race. She’s a, she has front-runner status. She’s a brilliant and hard working senator, to hear them say it. They have raised the bar for her. She’s going to have to get over 70 percent in her re-elect. She can’t do this pedestrian kind of business of pandering.

MR. RUSSERT: I think you just raised the bar.

MR. CARVILLE: Yeah.

MR. BEGALA: Very smooth, though.

MS. MATALIN: Why? She’s got. She's, she's going to have to exceed 70 percent or it's going to be...

MR. BEGALA: Ninety, ninety percent.

MS. MATALIN: Well, she’s got no opposition. She’s in a Democratic state and she’s brilliant. She has all the money and she’s a super star.

MR. RUSSERT: Laura Bush, Paul Begala, said Mrs. Clinton’s comments were “ridiculous.”

MR. BEGALA: I think as my old pal and one of our mentors Zell Miller used to say, “A hit dog barks.” There’s a reason that they’re going out and trying to attack Hillary this way. Because they fear her. OK? If it was just some clown like me, you know, they’d probably just let it go. But she’s someone that they fear. They’re terrified of the notion of a President Clinton Two. And I think maybe Democrats should take a lesson from that.

MS. MATALIN: We are terrified.

MR. RUSSERT: Mary Matalin, you raised the House race for majority leader amongst Roy Blunt, John Boehner and John Shadegg. Howard Dean, the chairman of the Republican party weighed in and said this, “If you like Tom DeLay, you’re going to love Roy Blunt.”

MS. MATALIN: You know, in the words of Peggy Noonan, Howard Dean is a human helium balloon. He is completely ungrounded in rational talk. He’s a completely incompetent party chairman. He can’t raise money. He can’t make out a message because he says ridiculous things like that. So, this is a very interesting race and it is highlighting again, what conservatives came to Washington to do in the first place. And it’s all about fiscal issues and real reform and budget reform and not this, you know, $20 for lobbyists.  I want to pick up on something Paul suggested.  We are terrified of another Clinton presidency. But we’re not terrified of Hillary. We would love to run against Mrs.

Clinton. She’s got all kinds of vulnerabilities.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me stay on Congressman Roy Blunt, however. Do you think that his ties to K Street, the lobbying street and to fundraising and to other issues of that nature are sufficiently independent? That it will be perceived by the Republicans and by the American people as turning a new leaf? Or turning the corner on this issue?

MS. MATALIN: Tim, even before this race, conservatives were getting restless about these fiscal issues and about the earmarks. This race is not going to turn on that. And if you look at any of the polls which is the lifeblood of my brothers here. They love these polls. People really aren’t paying attention to that out there. But conservative activists are paying attention to the issues that Boehner and Shadegg are raising. Which are these budget reforms. These earmark reforms. This transparency in spending. That’s what the leadership race is going to be over.

MR. RUSSERT: But you didn’t mention Blunt. Is Blunt raising those issues?

MS. MATALIN: Well, if he doesn’t raise those issues he’s going, he's going to have a heck of a race. He has a heck of a race on his hands. I don’t have a dog in this race. I want to be clear about that. But this is a really good fight for conservatives to be having right now.

MR. RUSSERT: James Carville, are you disappointed that Tom DeLay, the poster child that you’ve been whacking at for all these years is suddenly no longer going to be leader of the Republicans in the House?

MR. CARVILLE: Well, I was, but I see that Boehner and Blunt are the two most connected people to the lobbying community and K Street that are in all of Washington. Somehow or other I think that they’re going to, they'll get us somebody just a good. I’m glad to see that we’ve got a DeLay-esque replacement coming. I would’ve been sort of distraught if I thought they would try to clean this thing up. But that’s not going to happen, so they’re not going to take it back. They’re going to go it the old ways.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me go back to the book and quote some of the reflections that you had on the race of 2004, Paul Begala. “So why did Democrats lose in 2004? We believe that the lack of a clear, simple, consistent message was the greatest shortcoming of Democrats in 2004. The Bush message was everything ours wasn’t. One of President Bush’s top strategists told us after the election, ‘From day one we talked about three things: strength, trust and values.’ In their story, Bush embodied all of those things and John Kerry had none of them.”

"Our friends...who ran the Kerry campaign...continue to insist they did have a message. Here’s what they called a message: J-HOS. That’s right, J-HOS. It stands for jobs, healthcare, oil, security. ...They talked and they talked but voters weren’t listening or more accurately, couldn’t hear any message in the laundry list of issues. Without a message, Democrats were, if you’ll pardon the expression, J-HOSED.” Ouch.

MR. BEGALA: That was incredibly painful experience to write it. You know, it-we were performing an autopsy on a cause that we believed in. You know, I like Senator Kerry, I supported his campaign. And the people who ran it-as you know, it’s a small town-they’ve been friends of ours for decades. And yet there’s no getting around it. It-we have to be candid as Democrats. And look at why it was that that President Bush was able to prevail even though most of the country thought we were moving in the wrong direction. Part of it is because he ran a strategically brilliant campaign and we talked to many of his strategists-I will say I don’t reveal my sources-but we did not talk to Mary. She was one of the few people who would not talk to us...

MS. MATALIN: Because I don’t talk to either of you guys.

MR. BEGALA: ...about that campaign. But the-the Democrats blew it, let’s face it. They blew it, and it’s not that people think that we’re too liberal. It’s that they think we’re too weak, because we don’t stand up and say clearly and plainly what we stand for. And that’s really the thesis of the book. It’s that our problem is not ideological, it is anatomical. We need a spine. And a party that allows someone who has won five major medals, who three times has shed blood for our country, and won the bronze star and the silver star to be positioned as weak and waffling and weird is-it’s a sin. It’s awful. And Democrats have got to learn from that if we’re ever going to take it back.

MR. RUSSERT: You have in the book comments, reflections, observations by former President Bill Clinton on election night of 2004 that I had never seen anywhere else. Tell us what he said.

MR. BEGALA: Yeah, this is something I’ve never done before and James has never done before, but I thought it was so powerful. I called him up at 11:30 on election night, as returns were coming in, and I was sure John Kerry was going to win. And I was just dead wrong. So I called him and I said, “Sir, what did I miss here? What did I get wrong?” And right away before the exit polling had been digested or anything he said, “you can’t ignore those social, cultural values voters. You don’t have to switch on their issues, but you have to talk to them.” He said, “You can’t go around and just ignore them. People are concerned about the moral direction of the country. We should be able to address that with equal credibility with the Republicans, but when you simply ignore it,” he said, “you’re going to lose.” And he used as a contrast on that night your first guest this morning.

He said, “Look at Barack Obama. He traveled around the state with his preacher and talked about a very progressive agenda but did it in terms of his faith and his family in a way that resonated with middle class voters in downstate Illinois who probably don’t have a lot of friends named Barack.”

And I thought it was a very impressive conversation.

MR. RUSSERT: James Carville, many observers of the 2004 race said the issue was terrorism, September 11th.

MR. CARVILLE: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: Who’s best equipped to conduct the war on terror and they decided to continue with George Bush rather than change for John Kerry.

MR. CARVILLE: There’s extensive evidence that that’s really not-the reason that they did not vote for Kerry is, is not because they thought he was too liberal or they thought he wouldn’t protect America. It was they were more concerned it looked like his stands were one way and another and were not definitive.

That is the price that you pay if you don’t have a central unified message. You get J-HOSED because you allow them to define you. But I checked on our polling on the way over here this morning and it is absolutely true that the reason that the biggest doubts about Kerry were not that he wouldn’t protect America-he was too liberal-but that he was too wobbly. And that’s what we do in this book, Tim, is it’s not the same prescription. A prescription for Democrats always is, “are we too liberal or where do we adjust ourselves on the ideological scale?”

As Paul said, we believe the problem is anatomical, not ideological. There’s no reason that if you’re for an increase in the minimum wage that you have to be for gun control. I mean, that’s a typical ideological approach and that’s the kind of stuff that we argue against. I think we argue very, very hard and I just keep pounding the table on this energy independence thing. I mean, Tom Friedman’s...(unintelligible)...absolutely right about that. And I don’t know why the Democrats don’t take it up.

MR. RUSSERT: In fact, let me quote exactly again from the book on that subject of transplant. “Democrats have failed on the basics, defining their message, attacking their opponents, defending their leaders, inspiring their voters. The problem with the Democratic Party isn’t-is not ideological, it’s anatomical. We lack a backbone. Consider this book an attempt at a spinal transplant.”

You agree with that, Mary?

MS. MATALIN: Well, they're waffly because they’re not on-they have no firm ground to stand on. There is no Democratic foreign policy, there is no Democratic security policy, there is no Democratic economic policy, there is no Democratic energy policy. Bush has laid out policies on all those things. You can disagree with him, you can debate on them, but this is not about attacking him or Kerry’s medals. It’s about putting out some policies. So if they’re waffly, put something out there and we’ll debate on it.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you think Senator Clinton’s position on the war in Iraq’s been clear, unambiguous, firm?

MR. CARVILLE: Yeah, I think so. I think she supported the resolution, she did not support kicking the U.N. inspectors out when they were there, and she’s, you know, trying to get some kind of a solution that works. She was one of 40 Democrats that said it was time to put Iraq on a timetable. Look, it’s a very difficult thing that we’re going through in Iraq, you know, I suspect that this president’s going to start pulling troops back, and they’re going to do exactly the same thing that they’re accusing the Democrats of urging them to do.

MR. RUSSERT: Who runs in '08 for the Democrats, Mr. Begala?

MR. BEGALA: Well, let’s see if the senator from New York gets re-elected. I’ve been very public in saying I want her to run, but there are a whole lot of other good candidates out there.

MR. RUSSERT: John Kerry runs?

MR. BEGALA: I suspect he will.

MR. RUSSERT: John Edwards runs?

MR. BEGALA: I suspect he will. I always think everybody’s going to run, you know. Vice President Gore may make-there’s some pretty impressive governors out there: Warner, Richardson, Vilsack; maybe Napolitano, the governor of Arizona who’s a former prosecutor.

MR. RUSSERT: How about the Republicans, Mary Matalin? Who’s the front-you said that Hillary Clinton is the front-runner on the Democratic side, who’s the front-runner on the Republican side?

MS. MATALIN: Well, the insider front-runner is George Allen.

MR. RUSSERT: In all the polls, it’s John McCain and Rudy Giuliani.

MS. MATALIN: Yeah, I said the insiders, who have to run these campaigns and can look at the map and look at what philosophy plays in our primaries, the part that it plays, and how it incentivizes activists like George Allen. But we have a deep and a very good bench too, McCain and Giuliani.

MR. RUSSERT: Could Hillary Clinton win?

MS. MATALIN: It would be catastroph-I can’t really see how she could get there. I could see some other cand-well, she’s going to be in a pincer move with Feingold, who’s a very accomplished liberal, is going to come at her from the left. And out-going governor Warner, who’s a very accomplished moderate’s going to come at her from the right. And she’s the front-runner, and she’s going to have to break 70 percent to just get to the-back to the front of the pack.

MR. RUSSERT: James Carville, before you go I understand that politics may be part of your past, that you’re going to go on XM Satellite Radio and do sports?

MR. CARVILLE: Well, Mr. Russert, I can’t talk about that too much, but I think there going to be a story tomorrow’s paper. Tomorrow night I’ll be on the Jay Leno show on NBC, and we’ll be talking about some exciting new developments and maybe a new twist on an old career.

MR. RUSSERT: With anyone I know?

MR. CARVILLE: Maybe you would be familiar with someone I’ll be teaming up in this, but let’s just say it’s going to offer a generational look at sports and the culture of sports and things like that, and we’ll be joining Bob Dylan.

MR. RUSSERT: Mary Matalin, think it this way: if this book sells, it’ll help the Democrats. But it also may pay your daughter’s tuition.

MS. MATALIN: It provides a revenue stream. I want to give something to the person that’s going to be joining James in this new endeavor, because prolonged exposure to James requires an antidote. it’s called, “Think.” Give that to your son.

MR. RUSSERT: Carville, Matalin and Begala. We’ll be right back.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: That’s all for today. We’ll be back next week with an exclusive interview with Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. The Sunday before the State of the Union message, Bill Frist, right here on MEET THE PRESS. Because if it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,