updated 6/25/2006 12:34:28 PM ET 2006-06-25T16:34:28

MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: a heated debate over the Iraq war in the U.S. Senate.

(Videotape):

SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN): If we break our promise and cut and run, as some would have us do, the implications could be catastrophic.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV): Demanding a change of course is not irresponsible, it’s not unpatriotic, it’s the right thing to do.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: His resolution for a complete withdrawal of all U.S. troops by next year defeated 86-to-13. What now? With us: Wisconsin Democrat and potential 2008 presidential candidate Senator Russ Feingold.

And in our political roundtable: two other likely presidential candidates chart different paths on the war.

(Videotape):

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA): I believe we need a hard and fast deadline, not an open-ended commitment of U.S. forces.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY): I do not agree that that is in the best interest of our troops or our country.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: And Iraq emerges as a major issue for 2000 Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman in his Senate reelection bid.

With us: David Broder of The Washington Post, Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times, NBC’s chief White House correspondent David Gregory, and Anne Kornblut of The New York Times.

But first, joining us now is Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.

Welcome to MEET THE PRESS.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D-WI): Good morning.

MR. RUSSERT: The Iraqi prime minister today, Senator, unveiled a national reconciliation plan. He calls on the Iraqi legislature to set a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, but also urges the granting of amnesty for some insurgents. What’s your reaction?

SEN. FEINGOLD: Well, first, on the timeline, it appears to me that the American people understand it’s time for a timeline to withdraw the troops from Iraq. The Iraqi people and the Iraqi government understand it. It seems like it’s only here in Washington that people don’t understand it’s time to end this mistake, to end our military involvement there. And the votes in Washington don’t show it, but the people in this country and the people of Iraq want us to stop it.

As to the amnesty, I’m very troubled by it. The idea of amnesty for people that have either attacked or even killed American troops, I think that’s unacceptable and something that we have to make very clear to the Iraqis that we can’t accept.

MR. RUSSERT: If it was used as a vehicle to, however, accelerate the withdrawal of American troops, would you consider it?

SEN. FEINGOLD: I don’t think there should be amnesty for people who have killed or are trying to kill American troops, and I don’t think that has to be a part of the process. I understand that there might have to be amnesty for certain individuals have—who have committed some kind of criminal acts. It may be a different story for those who have done something to other Iraqis. I understand that. That’s a decision the Iraqis should be able to make. But we, as Americans, cannot tolerate the idea that people who have murdered American soldiers should get off scot-free. I don’t think any of us can support that.

MR. RUSSERT: As you know, General George Casey, the U.S. commander of ground troops in Iraq, met with President Bush and Pentagon leaders this week, and this is one of the news reports about his meetings. “The top U.S. commander in Iraq has drawn up plans that could lead to sharp reductions in American forces there as early as September and cut the number of combat brigades by nearly two-thirds by late 2007.

“Army General George Casey presented his plan to Pentagon leaders and President Bush in confidential briefings during a visit to Washington last week, an administration official said. ...

“Under Casey’s plan, the number of combat brigades could shrink to seven or eight by the middle of next year, and to five or six by the end of 2007. One military official said the reductions could leave the U.S. with 40,000 to 50,000 troops in the country by the end of next year, far below any previous estimates.” Make sense?

SEN. FEINGOLD: Not only does it make sense, but it short—sort of shows that all this talk about a timetable being unreasonable or ridiculous is just wrong. Even General Casey is talking about how realistic it is to bring the troops home, and our timetable that we proposed last week had to do with bringing the troops home within one year. I mean, how is this different? And of course, the claim is, if you tell the terrorists that you’re going to leave, that somehow they’re going to be able to wait us out. Well, apparently General Casey and the administration is allowing us to tell them this.

The fact is it is a public timetable, just of the kind that General Casey here is basically talking about, where everybody’s going to know about it, is the best way to transition so that the Iraqis know what’s going to happen, we know what’s going to happen, the American people knows what’s going to happen—know what’s going to happen. That is the way to have confidence in the process in Iraq and get us refocused on the broader fight against terrorism in those places in the world, Tim, where we’re losing ground. We’re losing ground in Afghanistan. We don’t have enough resources in Indonesia and Malaysia area in this regard. We have lost ground in Somalia. And the fact is that Iraq is draining our strength. I think General Casey knows that. And this plan is very similar to the type of thing that Senator Kerry and I actually proposed in the United States Senate this week.

MR. RUSSERT: What General Casey and others would say about your plan is that it limited his flexibility. You wanted a time certain for all troops out. What he says is, “I need flexibility. I need to be able to have a withdrawal plan on my terms, based on what’s happening on the ground.” And he would have 40,000 to 50,000 troops on the ground at the end of next year. You would be completely out.

SEN. FEINGOLD: When he gives—we give total flexibility to the Pentagon and to General Casey in terms of what order he wants to do this, what time frame within the year that we have proposed. And the fact is our amendment does not call for the complete elimination of all troops. We allow exceptions to protect American facilities, to conduct anti-terrorist activities, and to help in a limited way in terms of training the Iraqi military and the Iraqi police. So the fact is, we do provide the flexibility that General Casey needs. Our plan is so similar to what he’s talking about it makes me wonder what the Republicans of the United States Senate and others were talking about when they said a timetable was a sort of a crazy idea. It’s a perfectly reasonable idea.

MR. RUSSERT: So you’d be content with 50,000 American troops on the ground at the end of next year?

SEN. FEINGOLD: No, I didn’t say that. What I said was we’d give him substantial flexibility, and if there are some troops that are still needed for the purposes I just mentioned, that is something I can accept. Of course, the Congress would also listen. Of course, the Congress would also listen if General Casey and the president said, “Look, we’re almost there, we need a little more time.” We could obviously extend the deadline. But having a public deadline that the American people could see, that the Iraqi people could see, that the world could see, so that people couldn’t use the idea of a so-called “American occupation of Iraq” as an excuse to recruit terrorists, that would be good for us, it would help us in the fight against al-Qaeda, which should be our top goal, Tim, fighting al-Qaeda and its affiliates, not being bogged down in Iraq.

MR. RUSSERT: The vice president, Cheney, weighed in on the debate. He offered these comments: “The worst possible thing we could do is what the Democrats are suggesting. And no matter how you carve it, you can call it anything you want, but basically it is packing it in, going home, and persuading and convincing and validating the theory that the Americans don’t have the stomach for this fight.”

SEN. FEINGOLD: The worst thing we could possibly do is what Vice President Cheney and President Bush did, which was take us into an unnecessary war that had nothing to do with 9/11 on false pretenses. They have done the worst thing that’s ever been done in this regard. The question is, do we just keep making the same mistake over and over again? Do we just stay in Iraq so that Cheney and Bush can say that, that they were right? That appears to be why we’re there. That appears to be the only logical reason to stay in a situation that is draining our military, that is hurting our recruiting, that is allowing Osama bin Laden to have us exactly where he wants us.

Tim, the Iraq invasion has played into the hand of al-Qaeda. They use Iraq as a training ground, as a place where they can go after Americans and say to people, “Come into Iraq, and we will train you to go after America and the West.” And the evidence is all over the world, where there are attacks going on all over the world of, of terrorists. We have not addressed the real issue here, and it’s Cheney and Bush and the administration that have failed the American people by a policy that has essentially nothing to do with those that attacked us on 9/11.

MR. RUSSERT: Many Americans know your name, Feingold, because of McCain-Feingold, the...

SEN. FEINGOLD: He says that—McCain says people think my first name is McCain.

MR. RUSSERT: ...the campaign finance reform bill. John McCain, your partner in that effort, had this to say about the debate on, on Iraq: “When our country went to war, we incurred a moral duty to not abandon the people of Iraq to terrorists and killers. If we withdraw prematurely, risking all-out civil war, we will have done precisely that. I can hardly imagine that any U.S. senator would want our nation to suffer that moral stain.”

SEN. FEINGOLD: We have a moral responsibility to continue to be engaged in Iraq after our military mission is over. Our military mission should be over. I agree with John McCain. We need to support them economically. We need to help them militarily in terms of helping their military stand up, in terms of training. We need to make sure that we are engaged in that country and not abandon them. But I’ll tell you our number one moral responsibility. Our number one moral responsibility is to protect the American people, to focus on those who attacked us on 9/11, to not be distracted into a situation where even the administration did not have Iraq as one of the 45 countries that was connected with al-Qaeda. Our number one responsibility is to protect the American people from being killed by terrorists. Iraq has very little to do with that at this point. Iraq is obviously the place where they’re training people, but the idea of standing up and keeping a military involvement forever in Iraq will actually weaken the American people’s ability to go after terrorists who, frankly, look like they’re taking over Somalia right now.

You know, Tim, today it was announced that, that a guy named Hassan Dahir Aweys is now the head of the government that has taken over in Mogadishu, in Somalia. He is on the State Department’s terrorist list. He is known as an al-Qaeda operative or somebody that is connected with al-Qaeda. While we are asleep at the switch, while we are bagged—bogged down in, in Iraq, while we are all focused on Iraq as if it is the be-all and end-all of our American foreign policy, we are losing the battle to al-Qaeda because we’re not paying attention. I asked Ambassador Crumpton at a hearing the other day, how many people in our federal government are working full time on the problem in Somalia. He said one full-time person. We spent $2 million dollars on Somalia in the last year, while we’re spending $2 billion dollars a week on Iraq. This is insanity, if you think about what the priorities are in terms of those who have attacked us and who are likely to attack us in the future.

MR. RUSSERT: It just isn’t Vice President Cheney or John McCain. Senator Hillary Clinton, your fellow Democrat, had this to say on Wednesday.

(Videotape, June 21, 2006):

SEN. CLINTON: I simply do not believe it is a strategy or a solution for the president to continue declaring an open-ended and unconditional commitment. Nor do I believe it is a solution or a strategy to set a date certain for withdrawal without regard to the consequences.

(End of videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: “The consequences.” Are you concerned, as is Senator Clinton, that if we pulled out of Iraq completely by the end of next year, and it did tip into total chaos and become a haven for terrorists or for al-Qaeda, it would be a major threat to the United States?

SEN. FEINGOLD: Sure. If all those things happen. But, Tim, that’s what’s going on right now. This parade of horribles about things that might happen? What’s happening right now in Iraq is chaos. I’ve been there twice—two years in a row with Senator McCain and on one occasion with Senator Clinton. What’s happening right now is chaotic. What’s happening right now is that terrorists are using Iraq as a training ground. So this idea that if we leave, things will get worse, is not clear. What we know is that what’s happening now is really awful and is depleting America’s strength.

So I do agree with much of her statement, which is first of all, the idea of an open-ended commitment is the worst-case scenario. I don’t support a deadline for withdrawing the troops without considering the consequences. Our amendment very carefully outlines some of the ways in which we would have flexibility if necessary. But a public timetable that gives a vision of how we get out of Iraq militarily and focus on those that attacked us on 9/11 is entirely reasonable and in the best interests of the national security of the American people.

MR. RUSSERT: If things did get worse, would you consider going back in?

SEN. FEINGOLD: Sure. Look. You don’t just lock this down permanently. I’m trying to propose what makes sense at this point. My guess is that things would not get worse. My guess is that when the so-called American occupation, which the terrorists like to call it, ends, that the interest of the international terrorist community in Iraq is not so focused there anymore. It would allow us to pursue them and be on the offensive.

We’re on the defensive in many of the places in the world. We’re on the defensive in Afghanistan right now in some ways. And President Karzai said that he’s very concerned. He said it just yesterday, apparently. He’s very concerned that our strategy in the fight against terrorism isn’t working. He’s concerned that we’re not dealing with the financing of terrorists. We’re not dealing with the—with the recruitment of terrorists. So even in Afghanistan, which was, of course, an intervention that I supported, we don’t have our eye on the ball, and we need to win that battle. You notice I’ve never called for leaving Afghanistan. I’ve never called for a timetable to leave Afghanistan. That is a situation that we have got to prevail in, and we have lost ground in Afghanistan because our resources have been diverted to Iraq. That is well known, that our ability to succeed in Afghanistan has been hampered by the bad decision to go into Iraq.

MR. RUSSERT: Several Democrats who voted for the war—John Edwards, John Kerry, Joe Biden, others—have said knowing what they know today they would have voted no, as did you voted no against the war.

SEN. FEINGOLD: Originally, yes.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator Clinton has not done that. Do you believe that for a Democrat to be nominated by the Democratic Party for president that he or she will have to say, “My vote in favor of the war was a mistake”?

SEN. FEINGOLD: I don’t think it’ll be necessary. I think people should say what they truly believe. If they truly believe it was a good idea and that their vote was right, they should say so. If they think they made a mistake, they should say so. People are looking for a candidate, whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican, who they perceive as being honest and straightforward.

MR. RUSSERT: You said...

SEN. FEINGOLD: So that, to me, is the key.

MR. RUSSERT: You said some Democratic senators told you privately they felt intimidated to vote for the war. Why?

SEN. FEINGOLD: They may not have used that exact word, but they certainly indicated that they felt that there was enormous political pressure. Because the White House has done a terrible job of running the fight against terrorism. A terrible job in Iraq, but they’ve done a brilliant job of intimidating Democrats. Somehow Democrats are afraid to say, “Look, not only was this a mistake, but it continues to be a mistake and it’s being run in a mistaken way.” And I cannot understand why the structure of the Democratic Party, the consultants that are here in Washington, constantly advise Democrats not to take a strong stand. This election could turn on this Iraq issue, in fact, the 2006 election, and maybe even 2008. The party that says we have a reasonable plan to bring the troops home by, by this date and to refocus on the anti-terrorism issue is the party that will win. And I believe that my political instincts tell me...

MR. RUSSERT: But Senator, you only have 13 votes for your resolution.

SEN. FEINGOLD: Yeah, that’s not the American people. The 13 votes...

MR. RUSSERT: But that’s the Democratic Party.

SEN. FEINGOLD: No, it’s not.

MR. RUSSERT: It’s less than a third of the—in the Senate.

SEN. FEINGOLD: The Democratic Party of this country is the people of this country. And I have been all over Wisconsin, all 72 counties, to 12 different states. I can tell you, the one thing I’m sure of, Tim, is the American people have had it with this intervention. They do want a timetable for bringing home the troops. And the fact that the United States Senate doesn’t get it shouldn’t surprise you.

MR. RUSSERT: So the majority of the Democratic Senate is out of touch with the American people?

SEN. FEINGOLD: Yes, it is at this point. Those who vote against bringing the troops home don’t get it. They’re not out there enough. They’re not listening to the people. Frankly, they’re not even looking at the polls. I saw two or three polls, Tim, in the last week that showed that a majority of the American people favor a timetable. So it is to our—you know, we lost in 2000, we lost in 2002, we lost in 2004. Why don’t we try something different, like listening to the American people?

MR. RUSSERT: Back in 2002 and 2003, you voted against the war, as I said, one of a handful of senators who did. But you did say that Saddam possessed weapons that were capable of unimaginable destruction. That you believed in regime change, that he had biological, chemical and potentially nuclear weapons, that he’s a dangerous and brutal person, and you agreed with the president on that. Why were you so wrong about that description of Saddam?

SEN. FEINGOLD: Well, I don’t think any of that was necessarily wrong. If you, if you look at the whole speech, of course, I concluded that the imminence of any threat of that kind was not there. I thought three things had to be true for us to go into Iraq, and I said it at the time. Number one:

Did he really have weapons of mass destruction? You know, I think most of us were briefed properly that there was some possibility of the chemical and biological weapons, but the case on the nuclear weapons, which was sort of the lynch pin for saying we should do it, was very weak, and you notice I didn’t indicate that. Secondly, he had to have the ability to deliver those weapons;

I thought the case on that was very weak. And the weakest of all was the third thing: Would he do it? Was that the analysis of Saddam Hussein? And almost uniformly we were told they didn’t think he would do it.

So on all three counts, I didn’t think there was a justification for an invasion. Of course we should deal with weapons of mass destruction, but in intervening, invading, when we had this whole other issue of fighting al-Qaeda and the terrorists, it was one of the worst mistakes in American foreign policy, and I have been 100 percent consistent in opposition to the idea of intervention over there.

MR. RUSSERT: But you no longer think he possesses weapons capable of unimaginable destruction?

SEN. FEINGOLD: Well, he certainly doesn’t possess them now.

MR. RUSSERT: Or did he before the war?

SEN. FEINGOLD: I think there’s a possibility that he had some chemical and some biological, but there’s no way he had the capacity to deliver it, there’s no real reason to believe that he was going to be able to—that he wanted to sort of attack us at the time. And so the whole idea was, was bizarre. And, and there are many countries, Tim, that have these kinds of weapons, and some of them aren’t very friendly to us. That doesn’t mean we go around invading every country that might have such weapons.

MR. RUSSERT: You have called for the censure of President George W. Bush.

Why?

SEN. FEINGOLD: Well, unfortunately, when the illegal wiretapping program was revealed, instead of the president indicating that he might have gone too far, instead of giving us a statutory basis for doing this, instead of giving us some legal basis, he basically said, “You know, I know this is against the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, but I can do it anyway. I can just, under Article 2 of the Constitution as the commander in chief, make up whatever law I want.” Tim, that’s unacceptable. This is our system of government to have checks and balances. The Congress is supposed to make the law and the president is supposed to follow the law. I support wiretapping people we think are terrorists, but it should be done under the law. And I’m very afraid that we’re just going to have a blank page on the—in, in terms of the history of this country that when the president asserted an outrageous grab of executive power, that we did nothing. So I propose a censure resolution to simply say, “The president broke the law here and he needs to be accountable for it.”

MR. RUSSERT: You went further in GQ magazine that’s coming out this week, “Problem is, George Bush has committed a more clearly impeachable offense than Clinton or even Nixon ever did.” George Bush committed a more impeachable offense than Richard Nixon?

SEN. FEINGOLD: Oh, I think so. I mean, you could debate that if you want. But I think the claim—and although Nixon made some, some similar claims, the extreme claim that under Article 2 of the Constitution the president can make up whatever laws he wants is one of the greatest threats to our system of government. I even heard George Will describe it as monarchical at one point. So I do think it is the greatest threat to our republic.

You know, when the founders wrote the words “high crimes and misdemeanors,” they weren’t particularly interested in, in break-ins at the Watergate Plaza or, or, or presidential personal misconduct. What they wanted was a different system of government than they had, had under King George III. And that’s what this is all about. The president is asserting claims that have, frankly, I don’t think ever been made in the history of this country.

MR. RUSSERT: So, logically, you’re suggesting that George Bush deserves impeachment?

SEN. FEINGOLD: No. You—the, the—I think he’s committed an impeachable offense, in other words, something that could be within that category, but that doesn’t mean we should do it, that doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing for the country to say, “It’s in the best interest of America to actually remove him from office,” I question that. That’s specifically why, Tim, I propose censure. I think it would be disruptive to America to have an impeachment proceeding. I think it would be sufficient to say, “Mr. President, you broke the law. I would hope you would take that censure resolution”—that he would say, “I did this to try to protect the American people sincerely. I got carried away, and I’m sorry. Let’s get back to work.” That’s what I want to happen. That’s a moderate approach.

MR. RUSSERT: Should we end this wiretapping program until it is approved by a court?

SEN. FEINGOLD: Well, how are we going to end it? I think the, the only way to, to deal with it is to have it brought within the court, and, and that’s what we should do. Of course, we...

MR. RUSSERT: It should not go forward unless it’s approved by a court?

SEN. FEINGOLD: It should be brought in front of—it should be brought before the law, before the statute. It’s very simple to do that, and that’s what the president should do. We should not have an illegal program, it should be brought within the law.

MR. RUSSERT: And if the court approved it, you’d go along with it?

SEN. FEINGOLD: Well, I think that—surely. I mean, I am not against wiretapping terrorists, and that’s the whole point of having this foreign intelligence surveillance court. So I, I think this is a very simple thing. The president—see, he has to give up the—his goal here, which is, which is not consistent with the interests of the American people. His goal is to broaden the power of the executive beyond all reason, it’s an abuse of power. His goal should be to go after the terrorists, not to try to broaden the power of the president beyond all reason.

MR. RUSSERT: The Washington Post asked the American people about your censure resolution, whether it is something that you believe is right or whether you’re using it for political advantage. And this is how the American people came down on that question: Believe it is right, 35 percent; using for political advantage, 56 percent. You, you cited the American people’s view towards the war. Do you agree with that analysis?

SEN. FEINGOLD: Well, of course I don’t agree that I’m doing it for political purposes. That same poll, Tim, showed that a very substantial number of Americans supported the censure resolution, regardless of what they thought my motives are.

As to my motives, Tim, I came here to Washington to stand up for the Constitution and for the Bill of Rights. I believe this is an historical affront to the Constitution. I guarantee you, that is the reason I proposed it; that is what I believe. And if somebody doesn’t to this, we’re going to have a very sad chapter that our children and grandchildren are going to look at where, where were the—where are the representatives of the American people? Where were the congressmen, where were the senators when the president of the United States made a power grab that was almost unprecedented in American history? That’s my motive, believe it or not.

MR. RUSSERT: Another threat to our nation potentially may be North Korea and its developing of not only nuclear weapons, which they have, but the long-range delivery systems. President Clinton’s former secretary of defense, William Perry, co-authored this article in The Washington Post. “North Korean technicians are reportedly in the final stages of fueling a long-range ballistic missile that some experts estimate can deliver a deadly payload to the United States. ...

“If North Korea persists in its launch preparations, the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched.” Would you support a pre-emptive strike on that missile?

SEN. FEINGOLD: You know, I think it’s good for the North Koreans to hear this, that it’s a possibility, but I don’t think it’s a good idea. I actually agree, believe it or not, with Henry Kissinger on this rather than William Perry, who seemed to feel that this was a—when I saw him interviewed the other day—that this was not a great idea. There are issues about how effective it would be. There are dangers involved. But I do think the North Koreans have to understand that, in the end, all options are on the table. We need to get back to an aggressive approach to bring the North Koreans into active participation in the multilateral talks. There has been far too little attention paid to both North Korea and Iran as we’ve been bogged down in Iraq. It’s not just the question of not paying attention to the al-Qaeda threats, which is number one, but we’ve also suffered in our ability to deal with the North Korean and the Iran—the Iranian threat because of the obsession of this administration with Iraq.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me ask you about the Supreme Court. Like many Democrats thinking about running for president, you’ve been to New Hampshire several times. Here was an article from November of last year. “Throughout Feingold’s weekend in New Hampshire, one question that dogged Feingold like a nagging cough: Why did you vote for John Roberts? ...

“At a time when other potential 2008 contenders...said they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Roberts, Feingold did, saying Roberts was well-credentialed and the best Democrats could expect from Bush.” Having now watched and read John Roberts’ decisions in terms of the expansion of police power, wetlands in terms of the environment, are you still comfortable with your vote to put him on the Court?

SEN. FEINGOLD: I am at this point. I think it’s still an open question. And, Tim, those comments in New Hampshire were last October. When I went back to New Hampshire in June, not a soul criticized me or said anything to me about that vote. I think we’re all waiting and seeing on this. I’ve been disappointed with some of Chief Justice Roberts’ votes, but I’ll tell you something, I was very excited by what he said about trying to bring a consensus approach to the Court, to try to have narrow decisions that don’t go too far. Some of the real right-wing conservatives weren’t happy with that. So I think he’s talented, I think he’s qualified. I think he’s the best we were going to get from this Bush administration, so I stand by my vote.

MR. RUSSERT: The New Republic in November of last year had an update of the classic David vs. Goliath. Here’s the cover picture. There holding the sword is Senator Hillary Clinton. Holding the slingshot: Russ Feingold, the Hillary-slayer. Would you like to defeat Hillary Clinton in the Democrat primaries?

SEN. FEINGOLD: I have no interest in defeating anyone, including Hillary Clinton. I admire her. I think she’s a talented person who is ready to be president. If I decide to run, I’m going to run because I think I’m the person that can do the job, and I would try to win on my own merits. In fact, Hillary came into the caucus when we saw that picture, and she kidded me that we looked pretty good on that cover, although I’m not sure I did.

MR. RUSSERT: But in all seriousness, could you emerge as the more progressive, the more liberal alternative to Hillary Clinton on issues like the war?

SEN. FEINGOLD: Oh, sure. There are issues where there would be a clear difference. We would have—if I decided to run a spirited debate where I think I would have the majority of the Democrats on my side on that issue. Of course, we agree on many other issues, but Iraq and the war on terrorism would probably be the most important issue, and I’m confident that on that issue I would be able to prevail.

MR. RUSSERT: How about the issue of censure?

SEN. FEINGOLD: I think that’s also an issue. When people listen to my discussion of this, how I haven’t proposed impeachment, how we have a responsibility not to just let the president aggrandize power beyond all reason, I think that is also an issue that would—clearly resonates well with Democrats and many other Americans. I mean, the poll that you mentioned, and others, show surprisingly to many people’s minds that there is a very substantial belief in America that a president has to be held accountable, and I’ve been the first person to call for that.

MR. RUSSERT: When will you decide whether you’re running?

SEN. FEINGOLD: I’m going to look at this, Tim, after the elections in 2006. I need to look at what happens in the congressional races, how are the ideas I’ve been presenting been resonating with the American people, and decide whether this is something that makes sense or whether it’s better for me to remain in the United States Senate.

MR. RUSSERT: Your colleague Joe Lieberman in Connecticut in a tough primary battle. If Senator Lieberman asks you to come to Connecticut to campaign for him, will you?

SEN. FEINGOLD: I have a lot of admiration for Joe. He’s a fine guy. He helped me a great deal in campaign finance reform. I think Ned Lamont’s positions on the issues are much closer to mine on the critical issues. I think that this is going to be something decided by the people of Connecticut. I’m not going to go up there, but I’ll tell you this, Tim. I will support the Democratic nominee, whoever that is.

MR. RUSSERT: So if Lamont beats Lieberman, you’re for Lamont.

SEN. FEINGOLD: That’s correct.

MR. RUSSERT: And you will not campaign for Lieberman if they ask you?

SEN. FEINGOLD: I’m not getting involved in the primary. If Joe Lieberman wins the primary, I campaign for him. If Ned Lamont wins the primary, I campaign for him. I’ll be supporting the Democrat.

MR. RUSSERT: Russ Feingold, we thank you for joining us here on MEET THE PRESS.

Coming next, two key Democrats stake out different positions on Iraq: Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. And Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, Joe Lieberman, locked in a tough Democratic primary for his Senate seat in Connecticut. Topics for our roundtable next, right here on MEET THE PRESS.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: Our roundtable—David Broder, Rob Brownstein, David Gregory, Anne Kornblut—after this brief station break.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: And we are back. Welcome, everyone.

Let’s start with a debate in Iraq in the Senate. Here’s how NBC’s First Read described it: “Thirteen Democrats voted for the Kerry-Feingold amendment. Among those voting for it: two Democrats running for president (Kerry and Feingold); one in a competitive Senate race (Menendez in New Jersey); and one facing a tough Democratic primary (Akaka in Hawaii).

“The Levin-Reed amendment,” which was for a phased-out withdrawal, “was rejected 60-39. All Senate Democrats running for president voted for it (Bayh, Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Feingold, and Kerry). All Senate Republicans potentially running for president voted against it (Allen, Brownback, Frist, Hagel, and McCain).”

What does this tell us about this issue of Iraq, David, in this campaign year and the next presidential race?

MR. DAVID BRODER: Well, in this campaign year, it’s probably as clear-cut a difference between the parties as we’re likely to find. For 2008 it depends entirely on where the war is at that point. If we’re very fortunate, it may not be an issue at all.

MR. RUSSERT: Ron Brownstein, let me show you a poll that—of the American people: A 2006 candidate who favors pulling all troops out of Iraq within the next 12 months: more likely to vote for, 54; less likely to vote for, 32.

MR. RON BROWNSTEIN: Yeah.

MR. RUSSERT: In key races like New Jersey, like I mentioned, and in Tennessee, where Harold Ford Jr.’s running, just look at these two ads, or portions of them, that are now running.

(Videotape, Bob Menendez Senate ad):

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ (D-NJ): My opponent supports George Bush’s war. I couldn’t disagree more.

(End videotape)

(Videotape, Harold Ford Senate ad):

REP. HAROLD FORD JR. (D-TN): Over 2500 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq, and their prime minister just said he wants to give amnesty to the terrorists who killed them.

(End videotape)

MR. BROWNSTEIN: You know, Republicans precipitated both of these debates—by and large the House debate earlier this month and a resolution supporting this war—and encouraged these Senate debates on the theory that it would give them an advantage by showing Democrats to be divided and in a position where Republicans could paint them as cut-and-run. But there was this, I think, surprising outcome of this debate, which is that Democrats lurched toward what seems to be a concensus position. They voted more than 2-to-1 against the Feingold-Kerry approach, which was a mandatory removal of all the troops by the end of next year. And they voted more than 6-to-1 in favor of this alternative from, from Levin and Reed that said that we will begin pulling out but be flexible.

Now, what that allows them to do is basically argue, as they did in the Senate debates, that Republicans are offering you more of the same, status quo, and we are saying, “It’s not working; we need to change course.” It does—both parties, I think, came out of this with something they wanted, and Democrats ended up, I think, in a more unified position that it seemed possible going into the debate, and one that sets up a clear contrast, as David said, with Republicans for this election.

MR. RUSSERT: Anne Kornblut, you’ve been spending a lot of time covering Senator Hillary Clinton of New York. How difficult is it for her to deal with this Iraq issue? She voted against a specific timetable of Kerry-Feingold, voted for the more transitional timetable, if you will, from Carl Levin, gave speeches before some activist liberal groups where she heard some cat calls. How is she dealing with it?

MS. ANNE KORNBLUT: Well, in terms of her 2006 midterm re-election, it’s not much of an issue at all. She has nominal opposition from the left, although she does have an opponent there. I think what they’re counting on is taking a long-term view of this where she can appear consistent, be consistent, in fact, that voted for the war in the first place, as you pointed out in the earlier segment. She has not come out and said that she regretted it. That’s quite the opposite of what John Kerry did. He’s been—he’s been opened up to the accusation that he’s a flip-flopper. That’s not something that she’s, at this point, in the position to be accused of.

At the same time, I think that when she went to the floor this week, the Clinton camp—the Clinton camp is very proud of the fact that she’s able to elaborate on her views, say, “We shouldn’t be in this forever, it shouldn’t be open-ended.” And, in fact, after she gave that floor speech, some of the activists, including moveon.org, came out and said, “OK, she’s got more of a nuanced view than we’ve said. She’s not totally in line with the president, she’s certainly not as far as Lieberman is out there in support of the war.”

MR. RUSSERT: It was interesting, though, that Russ Feingold said if, if he did get in the race, he would not be shy in challenging Hillary Clinton on the issue of her support of the war.

MS. KORNBLUT: Well, absolutely not. And I think that for, for Russ Feingold and certainly now for John Kerry, there are going to be Democrats that make that their entire issue. I think the question in 2008 is, “Is that a—is that a general election campaign strategy for Democrats?”

MR. RUSSERT: David Gregory, the White House that you cover took the offense on this issue. Karl Rove, the architect of the Bush campaign, the architect of this counteroffensive, if you will, said, “This is the war that you supported, the president encouraged and directed and managed, and we can’t back away from it. Let’s take the fight to the Democrats.”

MR. DAVID GREGORY: Right. “Let’s, let’s find a reason to be optimistic about Iraq.” The president flew there right after they killed Zarqawi, there was reason for some optimism, even though that’s still belied by facts on the ground. And I think the, the view was from the White House, “Look, Republicans are starting to get against us on this war, too. Let’s give them a way to argue this war. Let’s go back to a strategy that worked for us in ‘04, which is to capitalize on division among Democrats. Use the national security argument that was successful in, in ‘02 as well and basically run that same play.” They really don’t have a lot of other options here, they want to get troops out as well, and so there’s not a lot of difference in that regard. But it has to be a question of tone and a question of commitment now.

MR. RUSSERT: This amnesty issue is interesting, however. If the Iraqi prime minister thinks in order to heal the divisiveness in that country, he has to grant amnesty to people who are in prison...

MR. GREGORY: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: ...people who may have been involved in violent acts against Iraqi citizens, some say violent acts against American troops...

MR. GREGORY: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: ...you heard Senator Feingold, foursquare, Senator Schumer, Democrat of New York, has called it vile. How does the White House deal with that?

MR. GREGORY: Well, it can be tricky. And here’s something else. Harold Ford in Tennessee is using that ad, as if to say, “This is George Bush’s government, this is his team.” When the president stands up and says, “Look, this is their choice, it’s a new government, they’re running the show,” they’re really not. We—the, the United States government’s been involved in midwifing three governments now, and this is the only one they have real confidence in. They are saying, in no uncertain terms, “No, this is not acceptable to us. And we run the show because we run the security in the country still.”

MR. BRODER: But I think the flip side of that is also significant, David, that, increasingly, the decisions that are being made in Iraq—and therefore, the decisions that will drive the domestic political debate—are being made by people that we do not completely control. And if you talk to Republican members of Congress, what makes them more nervous than anything else is that a man named Allawi, that they barely know, is now largely in charge of their political fate.

MR. RUSSERT: Maliki.

MR. BRODER: Maliki. Excuse me.

MR. RUSSERT: The prime minister.

MR. GREGORY: Yeah.

MR. RUSSERT: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

MR. BRODER: Beg your pardon. Thank you. Thanks for the save.

MR. BROWNSTEIN: You know, the, the, the basic political pivot here, the, the basic framework that, that, that the two parties have been trying to impose on this election is the, the, the Republicans, as much as possible, want voters to go into the booth this fall in a forward-looking frame of mind. They want—they want people to be asking the question, “Who do you trust more from this point forward? Who has the direction on Iraq and on domestic issues?” Democrats, by and large, have been attempting to make this a retrospective referendum, “How do you feel about the way things have gone in, in the first two years of Bush’s second term in Iraq and at home?”

What’s interesting about the Iraq debate, I think, is that for the first time since the 2004 election, you saw Democrats trying to go in that forward-looking frame themselves, basically trying to say to the public, “Look, if you’re happy with the way things are going, stick with the Republicans. If you think there needs to be a message for change, you have to vote for change.” I mean, all of this in the Senate was—and, and in the House—was just simply making a statement. George Bush is still going to make the decisions. But they are, they are—basically arguing to the public, “If you want to send him a message, you have to vote for change.”

MR. GREGORY: The reality is, though, that the news from General Casey that’s being reported this morning about the fact that, that there could be withdrawals by September and then get significantly down by the end of ‘07, there’s not a lot of distinction between the parties on the way forward. The question for Democrats is do they want to point to the president’s record and say, “He says he’s running on a record, and so are Republicans. Great, look at that record, look at how they managed the war, give us a chance to provide a different kind of oversight.” Instead, I think they are doing what you’re suggesting, which—offering alternative vision which is to get out. It’s not really that different, ultimately.

MR. RUSSERT: So many elections turn on intensity, intensity, intensity, and Joe Lieberman, Connecticut, gave an interview to David Broder, and this is from David’s column last Sunday. Let me read it. “I...made a judgment [says Lieberman] I would not invoke partisan politics on this war. ... I know I’m taking a position that is not popular within the party, but that is a challenge for the party - whether it will accept diversity of opinion or is on a kind of crusade or jihad of its own to have everybody toe the line. No successful political party has ever done that.”

August 8th, a primary in Connecticut, a tough holiday season, intense voters turn out. How difficult is this challenge for Lieberman?

MS. KORNBLUT: Well, it’s not only a challenge for Lieberman, but it’s really a test of if taking a principled stand can work in a Democratic primary. Lieberman, as I said earlier, has been further out there than some of the other Democrats who initially voted for the war. But at the same time, his unwillingness to move at all is really what’s on the ballot here, and it’s actually—I think it will forecast something for Hillary Clinton moving into 2008.

MR. BROWNSTEIN: Well you know, he—what Lieberman said to David is right in the broad sense, that, that no party can be about purity. Democrats are not in power in the House, the Senate or the White House. This should be a time they should be focusing on addition not subtraction. But having said that, Lieberman may not be the best test case of his own proposition. I mean, he seems to have gone out of his way through this process to provoke the Democratic base. He—you know, the entire idea of a primary had really wound down in Connecticut until he went out last fall and said the Democrats undermine—that—he criticized Democrats for criticizing President Bush.

The other day, moveon.org, the powerful online liberal group, was holding a 24-hour online primary to decide whether to enter the Democratic race, whether to join in against Lieberman. And Lieberman, on that evening, went—was in Washington receiving an award from the Committee on the Present Danger, which is a conservative foreign policy group. Last week he was the first speaker on the Republican time against the John Kerry amendment. So in the broad sense he’s right, but he has provided a kind of a special case by seeming to revel in kind of putting a stick in the eye of his—of his Democratic base.

MR. RUSSERT: But six, six years ago he was the Democratic nominee—Al Gore’s hand-picked choice for vice president of the United States.

MR. BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, but it is—well, first of all, it’s a sign of what’s happened under Bush is the parties have clearly gotten more polarized. There’s a lot more energy on the left in the Democratic Party. But Lieberman, I think, has also moved himself...(unintelligible)...

MR. RUSSERT: And David Broder, I’m going to give you a chance to get in on this. Here’s John Dickerson from Slate magazine on this subject. “Democratic Senate candidate Ned Lamont ...[is] doing so well that [Democratic Sen. Joe] Lieberman has had discussions with political advisers about running in the general election as an independent. Lieberman enjoys higher poll numbers among Republicans and unaffiliated voters than among Democrats. ... ‘He is really in a tough spot,’ says one who has talked to him recently about his political predicament. ...

“If Lieberman runs as an independent, Lamont and his online supporters will face a stiff challenge - selling their message outside the liberal and anti-Lieberman wing of the Democratic Party. Can they get a mass of people energized who aren’t already with them? If they can’t, the Connecticut Senate race may be the place where Democrats learn first about the promise of blog politics, and then learn second about its limits.”

To Ron’s point, how the liberal Internet blogs are very much against Lieberman. If they knock him off in the primary, and he decides to run as an independent, can he win in such a race, and what does that mean for Democratic politics?

MR. BRODER: Well, what he told me, Tim, was that he has no effort at this point to move to an independent status. He’s focused on the primary. But he’s also said, “I want to put my whole record before the whole population—voting population of Connecticut,” clearly implying that he’s ready to run as an independent. Timetable is very tricky. He has to file 7500 names the day after the primary.

MR. RUSSERT: So he has to start the process before the primary.

MR. BRODER: Exactly so.

MR. BROWNSTEIN: And that, that will send a clear signal. I mean, that’s a very dangerous position for him.

MR. GREGORY: Can I just say, I think there’s two issues here. One is an ‘06 strategy, one is an ‘08 strategy. The mood in the country, particularly among Democrats, liberals, is that Bush is wrong and, “Don’t roll over anymore. Go after him, and, and, and buck him on the war.” By ‘08, those kind of playing like Senator Clinton may think, you know, just like after ‘04, Democrats are saying, “Look, we have to find a way to tap into faith and force in this country. We have to be a strong party.” I don’t think that’s the mood right now in ‘06 amongst progressive voters, but it may be the mood among some like Senator Clinton and others who are thinking about how to run in ‘08 in a, in a general election.

MR. RUSSERT: What happens to Senator Clinton, Senator Barack Obama, Senator Chuck Schumer, others who have been supporting Lieberman? He loses a Democratic primary potentially, and then runs as an independent. That puts them in a tough position.

MS. KORNBLUT: A very tough position. I think, though, that they have made the calculation that it would be more dangerous to take, take the cut-and-run position. They are bracing incredibly for the Karl Rove cut-and-run accusation.

MR. GREGORY: Right.

MS. KORNBLUT: And in fact they’ve already started to come out and pre-emptively say this is what the 2006 campaign is going to be about. So from their perspective, there really is no choice.

MR. RUSSERT: David Broder, in 2002 after September 11th, we saw the Republicans portray themselves as tough on national security; 2004, the same thing in the presidential race; in 2006, portraying the Democrats as cut-and-run. But if that is in stark contrast to events on the ground in Iraq, does that carry the debate, that kind of rhetoric?

MR. BRODER: An interesting conversation with John Edwards, last time’s vice presidential candidate, running again in 2008. He thinks that it has been completely redefined because of the Iraq experience, that it is no longer sufficient to say, “I’m strong.” You’ve now got to say, “I’m strong and I’m smart about where I will use America’s strength and where I will stand back.” And I suspect, coming out of Iraq, that he is right.

MR. BROWNSTEIN: Two quick points. First, the, the risk that Republicans took in trying to get to the position of being able to accuse Democrats of cut-and-run is to wrap themselves around President Bush’s strategy in the war and basically say to the American people, “We are offering you a stay-the-course message” at a time where, in your last NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, you have a majority of the people saying the war wasn’t worth it, it was—it was the wrong decision and that we are not on track for success. So that’s the danger.

Secondly, more important than what the Democrats in Washington are saying to the outcome of this election is really what the Democratic challengers are saying, because that is where the, the results, the winner on election night’s going to be determined by if some of these Democratic challengers can knock off Democratic—Republican incumbents, especially in the Senate. And I think you’re beginning to see several of them—whether it’s Jon Tester in Montana or Sheldon Whitehouse in Rhode Island or Sherrod Brown in Ohio—move somewhat beyond even the party leadership here in an anti-war position. I mean, they seem to be betting that there is—that a stay-the-course—that a change-the-course message is one that can sell in November.

MR. RUSSERT: David Gregory, we had the White House out foursquare for Social Security reform. Insurrection within the Republican Party pretty much tabled that, as well as lack of support from the Democratic side. Immigration. The speaker of the House now said, “Well, we’re going to have hearings” after the legislation passed. It appears the president’s plan to reform immigration is on respirator, if not dead. What’s left seems to be this debate about Iraq.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT: Is this White House determined to make the midterm elections a referendum on the war in Iraq? Or do they probably prefer a referendum on weakness on national security?

MR. GREGORY: Weakness and division vs. commitment, staying the course. I think—I think it’s what’s been successful for this group, frankly, and they haven’t got a great case to run on. In, in this instance, in Iraq, they can try to make a more forward-leaning argument about how do you approach terrorism? It’s still a very dangerous world. And the idea of being, you know, tough but smart, what does that mean, exactly? And there aren’t a lot of alternative visions about how you—how you prosecute the war on terror. So I think that’s what they’re left with.

I think you’re right. I think issues—you know, the Republicans don’t really want to associate with this president on some of these other major domestic issues. He’s lost a lot of political capital. At least he can try to build momentum, which he uniquely can do, about the war and help and help Republicans argue the case.

MR. RUSSERT: Hillary Clinton, one of the first assignments she sought out was the Armed Services Committee, has been very conscious of her image in terms of national security. Is she under extra scrutiny and more pressure as a woman to be seen as tough on national security?

MS. KORNBLUT: I think all sides would agree that that’s the case. Her, her camp would say that she was—she joined the committee after the September 11th attacks, that, as a New Yorker, that being on the Armed Services Committee, there’s a lot of substantive work for her to do there. But certainly, they look at the Thatcher model as one that—the Margaret Thatcher—Great Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, as a—as a model of toughness in the role of a woman leading a country.

MR. RUSSERT: Your paper had a front-page story about the relationship between Bill and Hillary Clinton. David Broder weighed in that. When you interview 50 people about their relationship and put it on the front page, it’s a statement of some kind. Yeah. Is the issue of what role would Bill Clinton play in a Clinton—in a Hillary Clinton White House a legitimate one? Is their marriage a legitimate issue?

MS. KORNBLUT: Well, I think people are going to be endlessly fascinated with his role—he’s a former president—certainly, with their marriage. As a political issue, it’s not one you hear Republicans wanting to run on. They would rather define Hillary Clinton as angry, talk about her susceptibility as a woman. You have to remember at the height of impeachment, which is what we’re talking about when we talk about their marriage, her numbers actually rose because she was seen as a sympathetic character. So I don’t know that it would be the core political issue, but it certainly is interesting to people.

MR. GREGORY: But you know, back in 2000, I remember Governor Bush using that line against Gore, “the shadow returns.”

MR. RUSSERT: Hmm.

MR. GREGORY: You know, the shadow of Bill Clinton. And of course, just as it was argued against Bill Clinton at the time that there was a co-presidency with his wife leading major policy initiatives, I think here, too, it could be not only the personal drama of the relationship, but also does he play a more substantive role?

MR. RUSSERT: We did hear initially in 1996, David, “Two for the price of one.” I don’t think we’ll hear that in 2008.

MR. BRODER: No. I got hammered so much for writing about this subject, I ought to just keep my mouth shut. But I’m afraid it—the marriage will be an issue.

MR. RUSSERT: But certainly—but certainly his role in any administration would be legitimate, but is scrutiny of the marriage legitimate?

MR. BRODER: I think his role is legitimate, and for Democratic politicians, the notion of having to relive all of those stories about what is the nature of their relationship is really a nightmare.

MR. BROWNSTEIN: You know, it’s a subset of a bigger—of the bigger trend that really lies through ‘06 and ‘08. I mean, unless things improve a lot for Bush, what you’ve got is a desire for change in the country that is very real in all of these numbers. And the question is whether Democrats can make themselves an acceptable, you know, vehicle for that change. The Republican mantra for this election is choice, not a referendum. Even if you’re unhappy, that doesn’t mean you think Democrats will do a better job. Democrats face the same challenge in ‘06 and ‘08, convincing voters unhappy with this direction that their direction would be the—would be better. And whether Bill Clinton helps, puts a thumb on the scale, yes or no, I think is a relatively minor consideration.

MR. RUSSERT: To be continued. David, Ron, David, Anne. Thanks very much.

We’ll be right back.

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