updated 6/11/2006 1:33:03 PM ET 2006-06-11T17:33:03

MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is dead.What does this mean for Iraq, especially the 135,000 American troops still on the ground? We’ll ask NBC News analyst and retired General Barry McCaffrey.

Then, 1,000 political activists and readers of the liberal blogs hold a convention in Las Vegas, strategizing and listening to Democratic luminaries. What role will the blogosphere and the Internet play in the 2006 midterm elections and the 2008 race for the White House? With us, the founder of the Daily Kos and host of the YearlyKos Convention, Markos Moulitsas; and from National Review Online, Byron York.

And which issues will frame this year’s congressional election? With us, Jonathan Alter, senior editor and columnist for Newsweek magazine; and Amy Walter, senior editor of The Cook Political Report.

Then in our MEET THE PRESS MINUTE, Senator Robert Byrd makes history tomorrow in the U.S. Senate. We’ll look back at his first MEET THE PRESS appearance.

MR. RUSSERT: But first, General George Casey, commander of American forces in Iraq, was our announced guest this morning, but his appearance was canceled by the Pentagon for what they say was a scheduling problem. But with us to discuss the war in Iraq and the death of Zarqawi is NBC military analyst, retired General Barry McCaffrey.

Welcome.

GEN. BARRY McCAFFREY: Good to be here, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT: Before I get to Iraq, let me just talk about the three suicides in Guantanamo prison, alleged terrorists. What do you make of that, and how will that play around the world?

GEN. McCAFFREY: Well, Tim, I, I’ve looked at our detention facilities in both Afghanistan and Iraq. I think the problems of the first year—we had some real serious difficulties complying with, I think, our own national and international law—are gone. Firm, humane, professional way of handling it.

Guantanamo’s a special case. It’s become a huge political problem for us, in the Gulf region in particular. I don’t know how we get out of this. Some of these people are extremely dangerous. This was an act of political warfare by the three people that committed suicide, the same as a suicide bomber in downtown Baghdad. But we got a challenge trying to think our way through how to close down Guantanamo in the next two or three years and get these people into some other judicial system.

MR. RUSSERT: You think it will be closed eventually.

GEN. McCAFFREY: Oh, yeah. I think right now the payoff in propaganda for the international jihadists is, is enormous. But the question is how do we back our way out of it?

MR. RUSSERT: The death of Zarqawi. Is that a turning point in the war in Iraq or an interesting but not very significant event long-term?

GEN. McCAFFREY: Well, we can’t ever ignore good news. This fellow was ferociously dangerous. He raised a lot of money for them. He was very good at information operations. It’s a great blessing to the Iraqi people. He was slaughtering Shiite civilians by the thousands, literally.

Having said that, look, al-Qaeda in Iraq has turned mostly Iraqi Sunni Muslim. Lieutenant General Stan McChrystal and these special operations air-land-sea forces have decimated their ranks, not just in Iraq, but in Afghanistan. So I think the foreign jihadists were a terrible factor for the Iraqi people to deal with, but not the problem we’re working, which is how do you tamp down an incipient civil war and get Mr. Maliki and his Cabinet to create some governing mechanism?

MR. RUSSERT: You said this to Time magazine: “We are in trouble in Iraq. Our forces can’t sustain this pace, and I’m afraid the American people are walking away from this war.” Explain.

GEN. McCAFFREY: Well, if we had 10 years to work the issue, there’s a 99 percent probability we’ll achieve our objective. But I don’t think we’ve got that much time. So it seems to me, in the next couple years prior to Mr. Bush leaving office, it has to appear to the American people this thing is working. And therein lies the risk. Because—so we’ve got to hurriedly transfer security arrangements to a force that’s ill-equipped, the Iraqi security forces, and is yet probably inadequate to stand on their own.

Plus, I think the United States Army and Marine Corps, and elements of the Air Force—C-17 lift, special operations command—cannot maintain this pace of deployment. But we’ve got to draw down, and pretty soon, maybe 50 to 100,000 troops by next summer. But otherwise, we risk breaking the force.

MR. RUSSERT: Who has the strongest force right now, the more capable military force, the Sunni and Shiite militias, or the national Iraqi Army?

GEN. McCAFFREY: Oh, I think the national Iraqi Army, as badly equipped as they are. And I, you know, I made the argument on the Hill in the last week, we’ve got to do better. But they’ll be 300,000 by the end of the summer. The Mahdi and Badr militias, probably 100,000 people, the Sunni insurgents, who knows the number? I carry around in my head 15,000 or so. So the Iraqi security forces, to include the police, are a real factor. This guy, Lieutenant General Marty Dempsey’s done a superb job equipping and training them. But the problem is, you know, we’ve got to defend the electrical system, the oil industry, you got to protect the people. So the other side has—clearly has the initiative, and factional fighting is now the biggest problem an Iraqi mother has to deal with.

MR. RUSSERT: You made an observation about some of our allies who are beginning to leave, and this is what the Dallas Morning News reported: “It’s a civil war. The allies are going to leave. By next Christmas, we’re there alone. It’s over. We’re coming out. The American people are willing to sustain combat operations in the face of death. They are not willing to take the steady drain of casualties without a chance of achieving victory.”

GEN. McCAFFREY: Well, it’s, you know, that’s a classic problem. Our—we require a long-term strategy to deal with the so-called long war with foreign jihadists. In the case of Iraq, though, we’re losing basically a battalion a month killed and wounded. It’s probably $10 billion dollars a month to prosecute this conflict. Many of us think it’s worth it, and we hope to achieve a satisfactory outcome. But I think we’re time-constrained. We ought to understand this. Our allies think Afghanistan is a good war to be engaged in. They think Iraq’s a problem. So I think we’re going to see most of them leave in the coming 12 months.

MR. RUSSERT: The New York Times reported this in terms of troop withdrawals. “Senior administration and military officials now acknowledge that there is little chance the United States can reach the milestone of reducing American troop levels in Iraq to 100,000 by December, a goal that earlier in the year had seemed within reach. ...

“Military planners in Iraq and at the Pentagon have been refining troop-rotation proposals that, in the best case, would reduce levels to 110,000 to 120,000 troops by the end of December from current levels of 130,000.” You think trying to maintain 110,000, 120,000 by the end of this year is not doable.

GEN. McCAFFREY: Well, I think it’s going to start having a huge impact on our ability to recruit and retrain—retain people. Look, General George Casey—the commander on the ground, is a very sensible, capable, experienced guy, he’s an operational commander—General John Abizaid, our brilliant CENTCOM commander, are operational people. The challenge is in the Pentagon, the civilian leadership. Do we have an adequate military to sustain this operational pace? And the answer is no. I’ve been saying the Army is 80,000 soldiers short, the Marines are 25,000 people short. SOCOM is under huge stress, and we aren’t resourced to continue this effort. We’ve got to make up our mind. Are we going to pay for the kind of strategy we’re prosecuting or not?

MR. RUSSERT: The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Khalilzad, had this to say to Der Spiegel magazine in Germany. “The next six months will be critical in terms of reining in the danger of civil war. If the government fails to achieve this, it will have lost its opportunity.”

GEN. McCAFFREY: Yeah, well, thank God we’ve got that ambassador on the ground. He’s going to be a huge part of our ability to coach this new emerging legitimate Iraqi government to achieve some...

MR. RUSSERT: But General, he seems to be saying that by the end of this year...

GEN. McCAFFREY: Yeah. I think so.

MR. RUSSERT: ...if we have not gotten control of this civil war, the Iraqi government will have lost its opportunity.

GEN. McCAFFREY: Yeah. I think between now and Christmas is the crucial time.

And look, by the way, there may be some good news here. That bombing of the Samarra mosque brought Iraq to the edge of civil war. Some of us—I’m one of them—think it may well have also inoculated the population. They saw the outcome. They’ve slaughtered thousands of both Shia and Sunni in the space of a few weeks, and they drew back from it. So Sistani urged moderation, the Iraqi Army didn’t crack, and we got through it. Now, having said that, again, I think the ambassador’s right on target. This window’s closing rapidly.

MR. RUSSERT: We will know by the end of this year whether we have won or lost the war?

GEN. McCAFFREY: Well, if Mr. Maliki can’t build some operative mechanism of government to which the Iraqi security forces can provide a legitimate support if we can’t disarm the militias, if we can’t go into Ramadi and Sadr City and Baghdad and, and confront open rebellions, then we’re in trouble and the outcome would be unknown. My guess is, though, Tim, these guys are actually going to pull their act together. It may be a weak government, it may be ineffective, but the prospect of turning Iraq into Lebanon is a frightening one to the Iraqis as well as their allies like us.

MR. RUSSERT: But your sense is within the next six to 12 months, we’re going to be pretty much out of Iraq.

GEN. McCAFFREY: Oh no, I don’t think so. I think we’ll start coming out. If Maliki can get this government to operate, if security forces can be better equipped, we’ll see a substantial drawdown, let’s say a third of our combat brigades—we’ve got 17 brigades there now—in the coming 12 months, six to 12 months. And I think we’ve got to do that. So the question is political primarily. Look, unemployment is a bigger problem than the AIF, the Iraqi insurgent force. I think that’s the other challenge. We spent 18 billion on economic reconstruction. There’s only 1.6 billion left in the pipeline. Tim, when that money runs out, in my judgment, we just lost the war. We’ve got to sustain the economic reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan, for that matter.

MR. RUSSERT: Even with significant withdrawals, you believe that in 2008 you say that both presidential candidates, nominees of each party, will be debating a better plan to withdraw completely from Iraq?

GEN. McCAFFREY: Yeah. I think that’s it. Again, I think we’re in a race against time. We’ve got a couple of years here to make it look like it’s going to work. If it isn’t, both the Republican and Democratic candidates are going to run for office saying, “I’ll get us out of there.”

MR. RUSSERT: What do we leave behind if it’s not a strong government?

GEN. McCAFFREY: Well, if it’s a government that works, we can probably sustain the U.S. troops, 50,000, 60,000, 70,000 troops there for 10 years and hope that Iraq turns into a responsible governmental entity that doesn’t attack its neighbors, doesn’t build WMD. I still think that’s a likely outcome if the political system can come together on the ground.

MR. RUSSERT: Afghanistan reports now that the Taliban, who had harbored Osama bin Laden, are now back to their strongest position since September 11, 2001, when we went into—after that period—into Afghanistan. Did we take our eye off Afghanistan in order to fight the Iraq war?

GEN. McCAFFREY: Well, I think initially we did. Certainly, we took these high-value special operations troops and jerked them out of Afghanistan to posture for the intervention in Iraq.

But, look, you know, I just got back from Afghanistan also—by the way, I posted both my reports as a West Point professor on mccaffreyassociates.com, if it interests people to read them—but Afghanistan’s in a strange situation now. Huge economic reconstruction, road network appearing, 50,000 Afghan national army battalions, 44 battalions out in the field. Lots of things going right. The Taliban two years ago were in 10-man units. A year ago in 100-man units. This year they’re in battalion-size units, 300, 400 people. There’s a huge offensive going on.

The last of November—I think we’re going to slaughter them in open warfare, but there’s a challenge. Mr. Karzai, a giant of a person now, there’s a parliament there. Things are starting to work in Afghanistan. We’ve got to push back. NATO’s coming in. We got to keep our fingers crossed. They got a brilliant commander: Lieutenant General Richards, NATO commander, taking charge of the—in the south. Canadians are down there in their first big fight since World War II, doing very well. But this is going to be a tough year in Afghanistan, also. Got a smart guy out there, Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry. He knows what he’s doing. He’s been in Afghanistan the better part of three years.

MR. RUSSERT: After your trip to Iraq and Afghanistan, you were brought into the White House with a small group to talk to the president. Do you believe the president of the United States is getting an honest, unvarnished view of Iraq from his advisers?

GEN. McCAFFREY: Well, I certainly think there’s a new effort. Steve Hadley, this brilliant national security adviser and Josh Bolten, I think, is going to be a very positive force. This is a smart, open-minded man.

The president knows we’ve got a challenge. Twenty thousand dead and wounded in the U.S. armed forces, $300 billion dollars spent and the situation’s in a perilous state. So I think he’s listening and I think his team now is looking for—very open-minded, looking for new answers. They’re in a race against time, too.

MR. RUSSERT: Has the Iraq war limited our options, vis a vis Iran?

GEN. McCAFFREY: Yeah, I think so, but I also think, you know, Secretary Rice probably got the right approach. You got to build some kind of a coalition. You got to build a coalition in the Gulf. You cannot threaten the Iranians with air attack or conventional ground attack. We’re more vulnerable than they are and they know it, so the threat is incredible. Our allies are scared. We got to build a new alliance with the Saudis, with the Kuwaitis, Bahrain, Iraq, and try and hedge these people in. They’re going nuclear, Tim. They’re going to have 20, 30 nuclear weapons five years from now.

MR. RUSSERT: We can’t stop them.

GEN. McCAFFREY: I don’t think so, no. Because our allies won’t stand with us. The Russians, the Chinese, the Indians are not going to respond to serious constraints on Iranian behavior because of energy access. So we got to take a different approach as we did with the Soviets.

MR. RUSSERT: But the president has drawn the line. He says Iraq will not be allowed to build a nuclear bomb.

GEN. McCAFFREY: Yeah.

MR. RUSSERT: Iran will not be allowed to build a nuclear bomb. How does he back down off that?

GEN. McCAFFREY: Well, I don’t think it’s a time for muscular rhetoric. I think you got to get international organizations and allies to try and hedge in Iranian options. That’s what Secretary Rice is, practically speaking, trying to do. But, you know, threatening an air attack doesn’t make any sense. The Shia population in southern Iraq sits on our 400-mile logistic supply route from Kuwait up to our military forces. All of our Gulf allies, their oil production facilities, are vulnerable to air and sea attack. They don’t have any coordinated integrated air and sea defenses. We don’t want to see the Iranians cut off—try and cut off the Red Sea or the Persian Gulf. So this is not a time for military threats. This is the time to build new alliances.

MR. RUSSERT: So it’s inevitable they get the nuclear bomb, in your opinion?

GEN. McCAFFREY: I think so. I think they’re going nuclear five, 10 years from now. We’ll be confronted. And that’s not a good outcome. That argues that perhaps Saudi money and Egyptian technology gets a Arab Sunni bomb to confront the Persian Shia bomb. None of us want to see proliferation in the Gulf. This is a time for serious diplomatic interventions.

MR. RUSSERT: General Barry McCaffrey, we thank you for your views, and your reports on Iraq and Afghanistan are also linked to our MEET THE PRESS Web site.

Coming next, the liberal Internet bloggers strut their stuff in Vegas. And a hard-headed look as to whether the Democrats can recapture control of the Senate or the House this November. That’s all coming up right here on MEET THE PRESS.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: The blogosphere, the Internet, Decision 2006 and 2008. Our political roundtable after this brief station break.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: Welcome, all. Markos Moulitsas, let me start with you out in Las Vegas. You’ve been hosting a convention of liberal bloggers and political activists. What do you think your convention has achieved?

MR. MARKOS MOULITSAS: Well, you know, there’s this perception of bloggers as being these anti-social people, typing away at keyboards in their parents’ basement. And I think what we’ve seen is that actually the people who read these blogs are a real cross section of the Democratic Party, a real cross section of America. We have all age groups represented; we have people that are blue collar, white collar. And at the end of the day, no matter how much they may love to be online and use the blogs to find each other, they crave that flesh-and-blood interaction, and that’s what they’re doing here today.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you think the blogosphere has become to liberal activists what talk radio is to conservative activists?

MR. MOULITSAS: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s a very apt analogy. The idea being that here, finally, we have a place where good, strong, progressive voices can get together, and we can talk, and we can motivate each other, and we can organize, and we can do and plan the kind of hard work that it takes to win elections. Republicans and conservatives learned this awhile ago—you know, decades ago—it’s, you know, it’s about time we learned that lesson as well.

MR. RUSSERT: What role do you believe blogosphere and the Internet will play in the 2006 midterm elections, the 2008 presidential election?

MR. MOULITSAS: I think the role’s going to get bigger and bigger as the movement grows. I mean, we saw how powerful the movement was back in 2003 during the Howard Dean rise. And at the time, the blog world was about a twentieth of the size it is today. So it’s going to be influential.

Now, does that mean we can actually deliver an election? Probably not. But what we can do is we can generate the buzz, we can raise some money, and we can act as a rapid reaction force the way that conservative talk radio and conservative television like Fox News has done for so long.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me bring in Byron York of nationalreview.com, a conservative writer-blogger, a fish out of water out there in Las Vegas, covering the convention.

And, Byron, you wrote this: “There is no doubt that DailyKos, like the left-wing blogosphere in general, has lots of readers.

“Of course, so do blogs on the right. The difference is that bloggers on the right spend most of their time commenting on the news of the day, while bloggers on the left claim to be building a new political movement, one that is revolutionizing Democratic-party politics. ...

“At this moment, the left-wing blogosphere is not only the most energetic force inside the Democratic Party - it is also the most divisive. The question now is whether it will contribute to Democratic victories in midterm elections this November, or instead end up being the Republicans’ not-so-secret weapon as they fight off their own problems and try to keep control of Congress.” Why would you suggest that the liberal blogosphere would be a weapon to help the Republicans?

MR. BYRON YORK: Well, I think, I think for the very reason that Markos alluded to. There were a couple of themes that, that I saw at the convention out here. The first theme was, “We’ve arrived, we’re a force to be reckoned with, and they’re going to have to pay attention to us.” As Markos said in his speech on Thursday night, he said, “We’re turning the political world upside down.” But the other theme that you saw out here was, “People don’t pay attention to us. They think we’re crazy. They think we’re extremist, liberal bloggers.” And Markos actually kind of fuses those two ideas by saying, by kind of creating a classic populist appeal, which is, “Those elites in Washington, they don’t pay attention to us, they think we’re the riffraff. But you wait, we’re going to get together, we’re going to storm the gates, and we’re going to kick them all out.”

Now, the problem is, is that we don’t really know how representative they are of the entire Democratic coalition. For example, black voters are a huge part of the Democratic coalition, and Internet activists are overwhelmingly white, as were the participants at the convention out here, and what you would see at a number of meetings staged by moveon.org, the very big liberal Internet activist group. So whether they can actually put together a winning formula is just still unclear to me.

MR. RUSSERT: Markos Moulitsas, it’s also interesting that some of your fellow Democrats have made comments. The Iowa governor, Tom Vilsack, said that Democrats shouldn’t be banging each other around. Let me—Marshall Wittmann of the Democratic Leadership Council said this, and I’ll read it for you and our viewers. “[Left-wing bloggers] are an echo chamber that speaks to a hyper-partisan, very liberal slice of even the Democratic Party. As of yet, they have not produced any political results. Their most celebrated activity was the Dean (2004 presidential) campaign. The last time I checked, there was not a President Dean.” How do you respond to that?

MR. MOULITSAS: You know, Byron York talks about there being a kind of a populist clash, and, you know, it’s true in a lot of ways. You have people in D.C. that have these nice, cozy little realms of power, and they don’t want to give them up. They don’t want to realize that there’s a lot of energy and intelligence and passion outside of Washington, D.C. D.C. is a bubble. These people have lost touch with real America. They think they know better than anybody else, while we’re saying, “Look. The real action, the real excitement in the Democratic Party is happening in the states.”

And this isn’t a leftist movement. The first person to agree to speak at this conference was the House—the Senate Minority leader Harry Reid, who’s an anti-abortion, moderate-to-conservative Democrat. The second person, Governor Mark Warner of Virginia, who’s a moderate centrist governor of a red state. So these people aren’t coming here because they’re speaking to the far left of the Democratic Party, they’re coming here because they realize that the blogosphere actually is the big tent of the Democratic Party. We have people on the left, the center, the right and everything in between and up and down the party spectrum. This is what we are. We are a cross section of the Democratic Party.

MR. RUSSERT: Has Mark Warner, the governor—the former governor of Virginia, emerged as a popular figure amongst liberal bloggers?

MR. MOULITSAS: He is one of the top three choices in all the early straw polling that we’ve done ourselves for the 2008 nomination. And given that—the fact that he is, you know, perceived as a moderate to centrist Democrat, I think that speaks a lot to how pragmatic we are as a movement. A lot of people like Russ Feingold, a lot of people love Wes Clark and a lot of people like Governor Mark Warner because we are in a lot of ways looking for results. And whether he’s centrist or left—or rightist or whatever he might be—Governor Mark Warner in Virginia has delivered.

MR. RUSSERT: You didn’t mention Senator Hillary Clinton. Is she a favorite amongst liberal bloggers?

MR. MOULITSAS: Not, not really, not really. It doesn’t mean they hate her. You know, there’s a difference. I mean, we’re not necessarily Rush Limbaugh listeners and have it out for her. And I think most people in the, in the, in the net routes really appreciate Hillary Clinton as a senator. She actually has voted the right way on pretty much everything except maybe the Iraq war. So the disdain that people have for Hillary a lot, is not because she’s too liberal or too conservative or too moderate or anything else like that. This is the picture that a lot of people in Washington, D.C., want to paint. The reason Hillary Clinton isn’t necessarily well liked is because she’s seen as part of the establishment, as part of the people that brought us the troubles that the Democratic Party is suffering today.

MR. RUSSERT: What about Al Gore?

MR. MOULITSAS: Oh, there’s a lot of love for Al Gore. I mean if he were to enter the race, I think it would turn everything upside down. I just did a straw poll that showed about 68 percent of my readers, you know, and I have several hundred thousand, about 68 percent of my readers would support Al Gore if he were to enter the fray. Whether he’s going to or not, you know, obviously, it’s a different story, but if he did get in, he’d have a great deal of support.

MR. RUSSERT: Jonathan Alter, your wrote in Newsweek magazine the following:

“Will 2008 bring the first Internet president? Last time, Howard Dean and later John Kerry showed that the whole idea of ‘early money’ is now obsolete in presidential politics. The Internet lets candidates who catch fire raise millions in small donations practically overnight. That’s why all the talk of Hillary Clinton’s ‘war chest’ making her the front-runner for 2008 is the most hackneyed punditry around. Money from wealthy donors remains the essential ingredient in most state and local campaigns, but ‘free media’ shapes the outcome of presidential races, and the Internet is the freest media of all.”

So your sense is that while Mrs. Clinton may be the front-runner in the polls, when you look at the energy that’s being observed this weekend in Las Vegas with the blogosphere, that there’s something that she’s missing.

MR. JONATHAN ALTER: Well, the polls just reflect name recognition, Tim, and that doesn’t mean very much when it comes time to actually selecting a nominee. So I think it’s time that we retire the idea that she is the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party or even a prohibitive favorite. It’s just not so when you go out and talk to Democrats. And her—as I indicated, her, her early money that she’ll be able to raise and the endorsements really do not mean very much in presidential politics. Both Dean and Kerry raised huge sums on the Internet in very short order and another candidate coming along can do the same thing. So I think we want to be careful moving forward about saying that money and endorsements are such an advantage. They may even be a disadvantage because Democrats like insurgents. They tend to like the underdog more than the Republicans do.

MR. RUSSERT: Amy, there’s an interesting poll this morning in the Des Moines Register. Iowa being the first caucus in just 18 short months for political junkies all over.

MS. AMY WALTER: Can’t wait.

MR. RUSSERT: And look at these numbers: John Edwards, who ran as vice president for John Kerry in 2004, 30 percent; Hillary Clinton, 26; John Kerry, 12; and Tom Vilsack, the governor of Iowa, 10; Russ Feingold, Tom Daschle, Mark Warner all had 3. Name recognition, certainly.

MS. WALTER: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: And John Edwards has been in Iowa five times this year alone.

What’s your look at 2008?

MS. WALTER: Well, boy, it’s—you’re right, we still are very early, and I agree with the point that Jonathan’s making, too, that these ideas that we have, these presumptive front-runners that we can just kind of anoint now and say this is what 2008 is going to look like, it—is, is certainly somewhat dangerous at this point.

But look, I think that the money piece, the organization piece, all of that becomes more and more important as these campaigns get more and more expensive. And the issue with the Internet, I think, in terms of its ability to raise money, there’s no doubt that whether it’s Howard Dean or even congressional candidates have found when the bloggers and the folks on the Internet get excited, they can raise a tremendous amount of money in a very short time. The problem, however, is we don’t know how many candidates they can support. One candidate, where they circle around the wagons and pour tons of resources in, that’s absolutely critical. But in order to, to find five or six candidates, is there actually enough money out there for all of them? I kind of doubt that.

MR. RUSSERT: Byron York, you’re a conservative writer, but a—an interesting, objective observer of American politics. Be counterintuitive here. Who do you think would be the strongest Democrat to run against the Republicans in 2008?

MR. YORK: Well, we haven’t had a campaign yet, but actually I do think that despite the misgivings about Mrs. Clinton, I think there’s a real possibility that, that she actually can go ahead and win the nomination.

But, you know, as far as the, the strength of the so-called net roots, a writer a while back called Markos Moulitsas a king-maker, to which another blogger, Mickey Kaus, replied, “Yeah? Name the king.” The fact is, is that they—Markos and the Daily Kos has lent its support to more than a dozen candidates in the past couple of years and none of them have won. I will say that the races that they, they seem most excited about right now are the race against Conrad Burns, Senator Burns in Montana, where they’re very happy with the victory of a candidate named Jon Tester, and also in Connecticut where they’re, they’re supporting Ned Lamont against Senator Joseph Lieberman. And if you were out here at the convention, you almost got the sense that they would rather defeat Lieberman in a primary than the Republican candidate in the fall. I mean, they’re very, very enthusiastic, and you have to remember, some of this net roots enthusiasm cuts both ways. It cuts against Democrats as well as for them.

MR. RUSSERT: In fact, let me show our viewers a commercial that Ned Lamont, who is challenging Joe Lieberman in the August 8th Connecticut primary, let’s take a look at that commercial.

(Videotape):

MR. NED LAMONT: As a small business guy, I can tell you it’s also key to keeping good paying jobs here in this country. I understand that running for U.S. Senate can be tough on a family, but Annie and the kids agree that...

MR. MOULITSAS: Ned, we saw the commercial, we love it, and we’re all here to volunteer.

MR. LAMONT: I’m Ned Lamont, and I approve this message.

GROUP: (In unison) And so do we!

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Now, the man waving that T-shirt is one and only you, Markos. Why are you so in favor of Ned Lamont against Joe Lieberman, who was Al Gore’s choice to be the vice presidential Democratic nominee in 2000?

MR. MOULITSAS: Well, we’re looking at a lot of races, and a lot of them are primaries. I mean, Byron York kind of makes fun of the fact that we’re going after Joe Lieberman, I guess, and not realizing that actually we played a fairly big role in Barak Obama’s primary victory in 2004 in Illinois. I mean, one of the things that we’re learning is that if we want the kind of Democrats that we think we need to have in Washington D.C., not left, not right, but the kind of Democrats that don’t undermine the party, that work up—the have—that, that maintain party unity and work for a stronger Democratic Party, that we’re going to have to use the primary process in order to start to help on that selection.

Connecticut is no different. We have Joe Lieberman, who has consistently undermined Harry Reid and the Senate Democrats’ efforts to remain unified on issue after issue. He is basically caught up in the fiction that things are still going fine in Iraq. And long-term, I mean, even on the issue of Social Security, Social—when Bush tried to privatize Social Security last year, Joe Lieberman was the last Democrat to fall in line. He consistently undermines the caucus, and we understand, just as the Republicans do, that a strong, unified party will be much better in opposition and much more likely to actually win and take over the Senate, and the House, for that matter, than having a party that has its members constantly undermining it.

MR. RUSSERT: But John Kerry, John Edwards, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton all voted for the war in Iraq.

MR. MOULITSAS: Right. That means that this is not an issue about Iraq. People try to paint it as—well, Joe Lieberman, the reason we’re attacking him, the reason we’re, we’re helping generate excitement for Ned Lamont is because of the Iraq war. It’s one issue out of many. Hillary Clinton doesn’t undermine the Democratic Party. Nother—neither does John Kerry or Edwards or any of these people.

They do not undermine the Democratic Party. That’s the litmus test. It’s a very easy litmus test for most Democrats to, to follow, because if they had that D next to their name, usually they’re working for the benefit of the Democratic Party because they believe in the strong, progressive principles that drive Democrats like, like myself and Kerry and Hillary Clinton.

Joe Lieberman does not share those values, hence he’s suffering a primary challenge. And you know what’s interesting, too, is he’s angry. He feels as though—Joe Lieberman is angry. He feels as though he has the God-given right to this seat when this is what democracy is all about. He needs to make his case to the American—to the people of Connecticut, and they will decide, ultimately, whether he deserves another six years.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe that, that bloggers like yourself would prefer to have a Republican senator from Connecticut rather than Joe Lieberman?

MR. MOULITSAS: Absolutely not. If Joe Lieberman wins the primary, we’re all going to get behind Joe Lieberman. Because at the end of the day, having a Democrat in—holding that seat is going to be far better than having the Republican alternative. Now in Connecticut, the Republican candidate’s fairly—pretty much a fringe candidate. This is a very, very blue state. I don’t think that if Ned Lamont wins the primary that we’re going to have any trouble holding onto that seat.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to some recent polls on the president from the Research Center about George W. Bush, contrasting where he was in December and where he is now—in ‘04 and where he is in May of 2006. In December of ‘04, the president had a 48 percent approval rating, 89 percent of Republicans approved of him, 17 percent of Democrats, 45 percent of independents. Last month, approval down to 33, a drop of 20 points amongst Republicans, 8 points amongst Democrats, 19 points amongst independents. Amy Walter, what does this tell you?

MS. WALTER: Well, the, the two numbers—and you’ve highlighted those two—the drop among Republicans and the drop among independents. Here’s a real concern for Republicans in this midterm election. It’s an intensity issue, it’s an enthusiasm issue. It’s not that Democrats—I’m sorry, it’s not that Republicans are going to go out, necessarily, and vote for Democrats. That’s not the concern among Republicans. It’s that their folks aren’t going to turn out at the rate that Democrats are, that their enthusiasm is not there, their support is not there. And that independents, instead of breaking maybe 50-50 for a Republican vs. a Democrat, now are going to break maybe 70-30 for a Democrat. So even if the turnout is lower all across the board, Democrats will make up a bigger slice of the pie and independents will break disproportionately for Democratic candidates.

MR. RUSSERT: Jonathan Alter, you have a book out called “The Defining Moment,” about Franklin Roosevelt, his first 100 days. You see some parallels between some of the challenges that Roosevelt confronted and George W. Bush now confronts, in dealing with a war, trying to mobilize, galvanize a country. What do you think George W. Bush can do between now and the midterm elections to try to recoup the support from the American people?

MR. ALTER: I don’t think there’s a tremendous amount that he can do, actually. You know, even Franklin Roosevelt, who was a tremendously popular president throughout his 12 years in office, in the sixth year of his presidency, in the midterms, the Democratic Party lost 71 seats in the House. So it’s not going to be that much this time because of the gerrymandering and everything, but there is a fatigue that sets in on second-term presidents. And it even happened to FDR. But I think if he were trying to act more Rooseveltian at this point, what he would do would to be more supple, flexible, responsive, not dig in his heels, not play to the base. FDR did not do that, actually, very often—even on Social Security. When he got that through in 1935 he worked with Southern conservatives, not Northeast New Deal liberals to get that through.

President Bush is taking the opposite tack by going to the base again on issues like gay marriage and, and even on immigration, he’s making some noises about playing to the base. So they’re going to the well again. I don’t think it’s going to work for them this time, and that he would be much better advised to be the kind of supple, responsive, open-minded politician that Franklin Roosevelt was.

MR. RUSSERT: As to the war on Iraq, it was quite striking, after the killing of Zarqawi, we did not hear any notion of “mission accomplished” or “bring it on” or “wanted: alive or dead.” It was much more, “the war’s far from over, there are difficult days ahead.”

MR. ALTER: Yeah, I mean there’s a sense that he is learning that gloating does not help in these situations, and he’s moderating his rhetoric. It seems like he’s getting some better advice. And this may well be good news for him because if you know, leadership is important for good or ill. I mean, my argument in my book is that it made an essential difference in saving the country in the 1930s, the right kind of leadership. But evil leadership is also critical in Iraq. And by cutting out this tumor, it may give them a shot on the ground here. And in fact, the level of violence might come down now some, between now and the election, which obviously would help Bush. The problem is, to continue the cancer metaphor for a moment, it may be too late. It may be that it already metastasized and that even cutting out Zarqawi at this point is not going to do enough good.

MR. RUSSERT: Byron York, how do you see the 2006 midterm elections, and what can George Bush do between now and then to try to influence, affect the outcome?

MR. YORK: Well, actually, I would disagree a little bit with what Jonathan was saying about Bush and the base. If your support goes down as low as Bush’s has gone, it means you are losing some of your core supporters. And he’s done a number of things over the past several months to anger the base, going back to the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, then the Dubai Ports deal, and now he’s angering many, many members of the Republican base over immigration. They feel that he is, is simply not listening to their wishes on this. And there are members of the Republican base who’ve said this out loud. They see something like his support for the federal marriage amendment to be kind of a transparent ploy to attract the base.

So, so right now, the president has real problems with the, the Republican base. They’re still loyal to him, and progress in Iraq, like the killing of Zarqawi, is something that they desperately want to hear. But, but the best thing that he could do for Republican candidates here in 2006, according to what the strategists tell me, you know, is get his own approval ratings up. And the way to do that at the beginning is to regain the support of the Republican base.

MR. RUSSERT: And you think issues like coming out against gay marriage is a way to get his base energized and his approval ratings up?

MR. YORK: Well, I think that, that White House strategists believe that it is, but, but here again, I think that there’s a certain number of people who see through this and they think it’s a transparent effort to energize the base when, in fact, he’s defying the base on what they view is a more important issue like immigration.

Now, there are parts of the base for which it’s very important. I interviewed Jerry Falwell a few weeks ago and he said, “Look, there are just two deal-breakers for evangelical Christians, one is abortion and the other is marriage.” So certainly it’s important to some members of the base, but not as important as an issue like immigration.

MR. RUSSERT: Markos Moulitsas, as you well know, there was a special election in California for the vacant seat of Duke Cunningham, the congressman who had to resign for corruption. This is how the Los Angeles Times characterized the outcome of that race: “Throughout Washington, GOP officials Wednesday shared a widespread sense of relief after Republican Brian Bilbray defeated Democrat Francine Busby in Tuesday’s vote to succeed former GOP Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who resigned after pleading guilty to corruption charges last year. ...

“The outcome may have demonstrated the limits of Democrats’ ability to parlay President Bush’s unpopularity and the public’s disdain for a scandal-racked Congress into concrete gains in districts that had leaned toward the GOP.

“Bilbray’s victory denied Democrats what they had been seeking most from the race - evidence that the bleak poll numbers for Bush and Congress will translate into the same sort of voter backlash that gave the GOP control of Capitol Hill in 1994.” Do you share that assessment?

MR. MOULITSAS: Well, this was—sorry—this was a very heavily Republican district. The fact that it was even competitive says a lot about the position of the Republicans this coming fall. Now, I don’t think that the Democrats are probably going to make as many gains as a lot of people think they might because of the gerrymandering and other factors, but the fact is that Republicans had to pump in $11 million dollars to the Democratic 5 million in order to save and rescue a seat that was heavily theirs to begin with. And they can’t afford to do that throughout the country. They don’t have that kind of money. They have advantages but not enough for that kind of disparity. So I’m, I’m—I mean, I’m hopeful for that reason.

Now, I’m also a little miffed. Democrats didn’t really compete for the seat the way that they could have. I mean, they—the Republicans went all out, they put in all this money. They made sure that they were going to keep this seat. I think back to people like John F. Ken—you know, JFK and Bobby Kennedy and the way they fought these battles. They fought to win and they would have put everything they had into this race to try to win the race. Democrats did not, Republicans did, and when that happens, more often than not, Republicans are going to win.

MR. RUSSERT: Amy, the Democratic candidate for Congress got 45 percent of the vote in that district. John Kerry got 44 percent.

MS. WALTER: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: What did you learn from that district, and how do you see the congressional race for the House in the midterm elections?

MS. WALTER: Well, that is a very good point, and this is the point that Republicans are making, which is she did not expand into the Republican voter base, all right? She got basically every vote that John Kerry got. And this made them feel a heck of a lot better going into 2006 because they say there’s not an appeal that Democrats have right now to Republican voters. At the same time, if I’m a Republican who sits in a less Republican district—remember, this is a district where Republicans had a 15-point registration advantage—I would not take too much comfort in these results. Brian Bilbray also underperformed the president. He took 49 percent of the vote. The president got 55, 56 percent of the vote here. Now, Brian Bilbray could afford to lose a lot of those Republicans.

MR. RUSSERT: There were two other conservative candidates here.

MS. WALTER: There were, and they picked up those votes. But even—he could even afford to lose them to the third-party candidate. There are a lot of Republicans right next to...

MR. RUSSERT: Bilbray broke with Bush on immigration.

MS. WALTER: On immigration. Well, and that’s the interesting thing about the money here...

MR. ALTER: That’s true.

MS. WALTER: ...which is that, and this is where I think Republicans do have an advantage where we’re talking about the 2006 election, the structural advantages. We’ve mentioned redistricting, fund-raisingwise. Democrats are catching up, especially at the committee level, with Republicans in terms of the money that they have to go in to campaigns. But at the same time, what this race showed was that with enough money, what Republicans can do is insulate themselves from this national political environment, make it about the issues they want to talk about. In this case, it was immigration.

MR. RUSSERT: We may know that hard-core Republican voters in a special election may not go over to the Democratic camp.

MS. WALTER: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: But in a general election with a bigger turnout, what about softer Republican voters, moderate Republican voters and independent voters? Do they align themselves with the Democrats?

MS. WALTER: And that’s exact—and that’s exactly the point, which is if you’re in a district that maybe the president carried by one or two or three points or lost by one or two or three points, you’re a Republican, you’ve counted on your Republican base coming out, that independents are going to stick with you, what happens when that shifts? What happens when Democrats are turning out at a rate that’s higher than Republicans normally do, and where independents, instead of splitting, are going really much more solidly with the Democratic candidate? It’s not going to take a 15-point swing. In some of these districts it’s two or three points that can be politically fatal. That’s a real danger place.

MR. RUSSERT: Byron York, you expect a lot of House Republican candidates to now begin to break publicly and loudly with President Bush on immigration?

MR. YORK: I think it’s entirely possible. They’re very, very worried about it. And one, one thing about this race is that we, we certainly know that the number of Republicans are in danger in the House. But there are other Republicans, conservative Republicans who are in relatively safe seats have told me that their own polling in their own districts show that it’s closer than it used to be. They’re not afraid of losing, but the margin that voters prefer them over a Democratic candidate is significantly smaller than it used to be. So you have a situation in the House Republican caucus where, where there’s certain people who are in great danger, but everybody is, is nervous right now. And, and they—and as far as the, you know, the gerrymandering is concerned, yes, that’s a significant factor. But if there is a sort of tidal wave that crests in November, they do fear that there could be significant turnover in seats. And remember, they don’t need the kind of 1994 tsunami where Republicans picked up 50 seats. They need 15, which is significantly smaller.

MR. RUSSERT: Markos, what’s the most important thing liberal progressive bloggers can do to influence the 2006 midterm elections?

MR. MOULITSAS: Well, a lot of it is what we’re already doing, which is talking about these races, talking—making sure people in Washington, D.C., and outside of Washington, D.C., know what’s happening out in the states. We’re identifying Republican misinformation and dirty tactics and talking about those, acting as a rapid reaction force, motivating people to get active and to get involved in campaigns and to help fund campaigns and do the hard work that it takes to do these elections. I mean, this is the stuff that the right-wing noise machine has been doing for decades. Now we finally have a vehicle. And we’re very small, comparatively. We’re a very nascent movement, very nascent medium. So we don’t have the kind of influence that, say, a Rush Limbaugh does on, on talk radio, but we’re growing and we’re becoming more and more sophisticated as we mature as a medium and as a movement.

MR. RUSSERT: To be continued. And you can learn more about Markos and his views in his book, “Crashing the Gate.” And as I mentioned, Jonathan Alter, “The Defining Moment.”

We’ll be right back. Coming next, a record-breaking day in the U.S. Senate tomorrow. Robert Byrd, our MEET THE PRESS MINUTE.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: On January 3, 1959, 17,326 days ago, Robert Byrd was sworn in as United States Senator representing West Virginia. Tomorrow, he will pass the late Strom Thurmond as the longest-serving U.S. senator in history. Senator Byrd first appeared on MEET THE PRESS on December 31, 1972, and discussed something near and dear to his heart: the United States Senate.

(Videotape, December 31, 1972):

MR. LAWRENCE E. SPIVAK: Senator, in a television broadcast shortly after you won your election as majority whip you said, and I quote, “I just don’t think that there is the feeling of respect for the Senate as an institution.” Why do you think that?

SEN. ROBERT C. BYRD (D-WV): Well, I think the Senate has, through inattention, through failure to exercise its own powers, has from time to time, and certainly in recent years, created a vacuum into which a strong executive has moved. This, in the main, was what I had in mind.

MR. SPIVAK: Well, what do you think the Senate can now do to win back the respect that you think it once had and lost?

SEN. BYRD: I think our own people ought to work harder. We ought to stop getting around over the country and turn down some of the speaking engagements that we accept and stay in the Senate and work and get down to business and give our full attention and not have too much partisan bickering. Take a partisan stand when necessary, but try to show statesmanship and get back the powers that we’ve given away and take our rightful place in the constitutional system.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: At age 88, Senator Byrd is currently serving his eighth term and is running for re-election this November against Republican businessman John Raese.

And we’ll be right back.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: That’s all for today. We’ll be back next week at our regular time. If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.

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