updated 8/27/2006 12:35:01 PM ET 2006-08-27T16:35:01

MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: One year ago Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. What is the state of the recovery, and could this happen again? With us: An exclusive interview with the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, and the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, David Paulison.

Then, how will Katrina and the war in Iraq affect the midterm elections? And John McCain and Hillary Clinton seek to refine their positions on the war.  Insights and analysis from Albert Hunt of Bloomberg News, Robert Novak of the Chicago Sun-Times, Kate O’Beirne of the National Review, and Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post.

But first, joining us now from New Orleans, the mayor of that city, Ray Nagin.

Mr. Mayor, let me show you the latest map from the National Hurricane Center.

As of 8 a.m., Ernesto is now strengthened to be classified as a hurricane.  Its track, as projected, seems to be veering a bit east of New Orleans. Are you prepared, is your city ready if, God forbid, Ernesto hits your city?

MR. RAY NAGIN: Well, Tim, we are ready from an evacuation standpoint. All of our plans have been updated. We’re not going to have a shelter of last resort in the Superdome or the convention center. We will be getting everyone out of the city. We’ve fined-tuned these plans, we’ve practiced them, and we are ready to go. Our infrastructure is still a bit fragile, but as far as getting people out to safety, we’re ready.

MR. RUSSERT: When would an evacuation begin if, in fact, you believed Ernesto was going to bore in on New Orleans?

MR. NAGIN: Well, normally everything cranks up at 54 hours before a storm is scheduled to make landfall. At 30 to 36 hours is when we would have to make the call for a mandatory evacuation. Everything’s in place, our emergency center is set up and we’re ready to go.

MR. RUSSERT: Are the police, are the bus drivers, are the first responders, have they all been designated start times? Are they ready to go? Will they show up?

MR. NAGIN: We have a complete plan that deals with all of our emergency responders. We also have coordinated with the state. There’s 3,000 National Guard troops that will descend upon the city if it’s imminent that the hurricane is coming to us, and then we will be ready to evacuate and to secure the city and hunker down for the storm.

MR. RUSSERT: So we would not see a replay of last year?

MR. NAGIN: You will never see that replay of last year as long as I’m mayor of the city. We made a strategic decision as we evaluated what we had done that we would not house people in the city. So we may use trains, buses, you name it, to get everyone out of the city in the event of a hurricane hitting us.

MR. RUSSERT: The head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said yesterday it was “unclear” as to whether or not the levees could perform or hold a level 3 hurricane. Is that your understanding?

MR. NAGIN: Well, it’s my understanding that they’ve rebuilt the levees much better than we’ve ever had in our history. But they’ve only had time to repair the levees that were breached or damaged. So the entire system is still not up to the standards of sustaining a Category 3 storm or better. So we still have some vulnerabilities. But if another Katrina came in the same direction, we would be much better protected.

MR. RUSSERT: But you would be flooded?

MR. NAGIN: We would have some overtopping. The thing that everyone fails to really focus on is, with a hurricane, it’s the storm surge that’s really the major concern. And when you have a storm surge of 25 to 30 feet and the Corps of Engineers has only built the levees up to 20 feet, you will have some overtopping. But we don’t expect the catastrophic failures.

MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Mayor, you said some things to “60 Minutes” late in the week which will air tonight, that has generated an enormous response from people, particularly in New York. Let’s just watch a little bit what you said.

(Videotape):

MR. BYRON PITTS: But you can’t get the cars out yet, you can’t get this demolished.

MR. NAGIN: That’s all right. You guys in New York City can’t get a hole in the ground fixed. And it’s five years later. So let’s be fair.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: “A hole in the ground,” referring to the devastation left behind by September 11. Peter King, the New York congressman, had this to say. “It’s really disgraceful and shameful. ... Ground zero is sacred ground. ... To refer to it as a hole in the ground, to me, is shocking and inexcusable. ... Especially considering Mayor Nagin’s own record. I mean, when Katrina was there, he was the one who had 500 school buses under water, he’s the one who wasn’t able to evacuate his city, he’s the one who lost his composure on national television several times.” You’ve now had several days to reflect on this. Will you apologize for calling what many believe is sacred ground, the place where thousands of Americans died, as a hole in the ground?

MR. NAGIN: You know, Tim, let me make sure that you understand the context of that discussion. You know, “60 Minutes,” we did that piece about two months ago, and I got a very direct e-mail from them saying that I shouldn’t do this interview because they thought they had an exclusive two months ago.  Then we started to see all these promos and what have you. The context of that discussion was about why has it taken so long for New Orleans to get back up to speed, and I was mainly using the comparison of the site. And I should have probably called it an undeveloped site as of yet. But I used the—a term that seemed to have gotten some people upset. But I think once people see the “60 Minutes” piece in its entirety, I think they’ll, they’ll calm down a little bit. I meant no disrespect for anyone. I have seen death, I’ve seen the destruction, and I was just using it as a comparison to show how difficult it is for people to rebuild after a major disaster.

MR. RUSSERT: But you are sorry for the families who lost loved ones on that ground, who...

MR. NAGIN: Absolutely. I’m—Tim, I am...

MR. RUSSERT: They believe it’s sacred ground, not a hole in the ground.

MR. NAGIN: I—Tim, I am very sorry for that because I have seen death in my own city. And New York and New Orleans has a special relationship. After 9/11, we sent trucks, we sent resources, we sent food. We prayed for New York. When we had Katrina, they reciprocated. So I understand what they’ve gone through, and I hope they understand that—what we’ve gone through.  Eighty percent of our city has been damaged and we are struggling with this disaster and it never goes away.

MR. RUSSERT: You wish you had used other words?

MR. NAGIN: Yeah, I wish I would have basically said that it was an undeveloped site, which it is. And you know, I’ve gotten some calls from New York, as I said. You know, no one has really said this and really pointed us to the fact that it’s five years after the fact. So maybe this will help us refocus on this because there needs to be a memorial to make sure that we treat that site with the respect it deserves.

MR. RUSSERT: One year ago, President Bush returned to New Orleans, Jackson Square, and uttered these words, this pledge. Let’s listen.

(Videotape, September 15, 2005):

PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: Tonight, I also, also offer this pledge of the American people: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes. We will do whatever it takes. We will stay as long as it takes to help citizens help rebuild their communities and their lives.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Has the president kept his pledge?

MR. NAGIN: Well, I think that it’s getting closer. One of the frustrations I have is that since the storm 12 months ago, we’ve been forced to operate on 25 percent of our original pre-Katrina budget. So we’ve had to scrimp and scrape to get things going, and we’ve stood up the city and put it into position. Now, the dollars are flowing from the federal government to the state, but they really haven’t gotten down to the local government and to the people to impact and accelerate this, this rebuild. So he’s moved the money closer, but I would just wish it would come directly so we wouldn’t have to go through another bureaucracy.

MR. RUSSERT: But Mr. Mayor, shouldn’t you have a plan in place? Where is your plan?

MR. NAGIN: Well, we have a plan. We have several plans that we’ve been working on. Right after the event, I commissioned a group to come together, and within 30 days we started working on the plan. You can go see it, you can visit it, it basically talks about everything that needs to be done in this city.

But Tim, I will tell you this: All the criticism we’ve had about not having a plan basically was a debate about whether we should shrink the footprint of New Orleans. I prefer a market-driven solution to this problem, because citizens with, with information will make intelligent decisions, and we’re moving appropriately.

MR. RUSSERT: You keep referring to the “powers that be” want to shrink our city, or that “they’re” using their money to have their way. Who are these “powers to be,” or “they are.” Who, who is this “they”?

MR. NAGIN: Well, there’s been lots of debate and discussion about this, Tim.  People from around the country have, you know, talked about this. Our own local business community has been talking about the shrinking of the debate, the local media. And, you know, I have just rejected that whole notion. I think citizens, once they get their information on the levees, and they understand the risk, they’re already moving to higher ground. They’re asking for permits, and they’re looking to sell their homes. So there has been some strong talk about, you know, redeveloping certain sections of the city and displacing homeowners. And I don’t think that’s appropriate right now.

MR. RUSSERT: But when you say the “powers that be,” or “they” want it this way, who are “they”? And what are they saying, or insisting, that you are resisting?

MR. NAGIN: Well, it’s the whole footprint discussion. You know, New Orleans has people, have people who have deep roots in certain neighborhoods. And there’s some, some talk and discussion about whether we should rebuild the lower Ninth Ward, or New Orleans East. And we have had great discussions about that. And I keep referring people back to these are people’s homes, and we should give them the information to make their decisions, and then the city will move forward, and we can do what we need to do to make it better.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe that New Orleans will ever come back to its old population that it once was, or will it be a smaller city?

MR. NAGIN: Well, that’s another source of great debate, Tim. You know, with the population is right now, based upon experts that I’ve talked to, we’re between 235,000 and 250,000 people. Pre-Katrina we were at 462,000. I think we will get back there, but this is a long-term process. It’s at least a five-year build cycle, where estimates are we’re going to spend $60 billion in the region to rebuild this city, but it’s going to take us some time.

MR. RUSSERT: You addressed the National Association of Black Journalists on—in August 18 of this year, and said some things, again, that raised a lot of eyebrows. Let’s listen to that and come back and talk about it.

(Videotape, August 18, 2006):

MR. NAGIN: The tragedy of Katrina was awful. It exposed the soft underbelly of America as it relates to dealing with race and class, and I, to this day, believe that if that would have happened in Orange County, California, if that would have happened in South Beach, Miami, it would have been a different response.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Who would have responded differently?

MR. NAGIN: I just think the, the nation would have responded, the federal government would have responded differently, the state would have responded.  I mean let’s be honest, Tim, the images that were on the, on the TV for those 12 days or so were primarily poor people. And for whatever reason, there was a slow response, and I am just trying to put the issue on the table that, regardless of who’s in jeopardy in the United States, it should never happen again that we have a slow response like that. And let’s talk about it, let’s understand the root causes of it, and let’s move on as a nation.

MR. RUSSERT: But if—you’re suggesting if it was white people in Orange County or Hispanic people in Miami, the federal government would’ve moved much more quickly?

MR. NAGIN: No, I’m not talking about race as much. This is more of a class issue, you know, as far as poor people being devastated and not having the resources nor the, the collective will to really move things forward. This is more a class issue to me. Race, obviously, was in play, because primarily most of the individuals that were—the images that you saw, were African-American.

MR. RUSSERT: But you’re suggesting that the president and others in the federal government reacted more slowly because it was poor people and black people?

MR. NAGIN: I think the situation overwhelmed everyone, number one. But I do think that the images of what you saw were necessarily those of individuals who were of a lower demographic class. It definitely had some impact on our ability to get the resources where they, where they needed to be.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me end with a discussion of a real issue confronting your city, and that’s crime. Mary Landrieu, the Democratic senator from Louisiana, said this: “The criminal justice system in Orleans Parish is broken. Violent crime is on a dangerous rise (and it) threatens the very foundation of our rebuilding efforts. It needs immediate attention. We need to do more than just get around a table and talk.” Seventy-two murders this year, 6,000 cases that has a backlog in your court system. How are you going to get control of crime in New Orleans? Otherwise, people simply won’t come to your city.

MR. NAGIN: Well, Tim, you know, that’s one of the main things we’ve been working on since the event. As I will refer you back to, we’ve been operating on about 25 percent of our original pre-Katrina budget with about 10 times the work. But be that as, as it may, we’re finding creative solutions. We are bringing all parties together in the criminal justice system, we’ve asked for the National Guard, which has come in to patrol the uninhabited areas. And we’re starting to have a big impact because it allows the NOPD, the New Orleans Police Department, to focus on the populated areas. In July, our murder rate spiked to 23. This August, we’re probably going to be somewhere around 10, so we’re starting to have a major impact in getting this under control.

MR. RUSSERT: Mayor Ray Nagin, we thank you very much, and if there is another hurricane, we wish you and the people of New Orleans the very, very best.

MR. NAGIN: Well, thank you, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT: And here in Washington is the director of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Director David Paulison is with us.

Ernesto. Are we ready for another hurricane in the Gulf region?

MR. DAVID PAULISON: We are ready for a hurricane, regardless of where it’s going to hit, whether it’s the Gulf Region or the Atlantic or the west coast of Florida where it seems to be heading right now.

MR. RUSSERT: You think Florida?

MR. PAULISON: That’s—the hurricane center’s predicting right now that Ernesto is probably going to make a right-hand turn as it gets past Tampa and move into—it’s somewhere between Tampa and the panhandle. That’s—of course there’s a wide spread there. That’s where the middle line is, but don’t forget there’s a lot of area of uncertainty there that this hurricane could go. So anybody in the Gulf Coast right now needs to be prepared for a hurricane and watch this thing very closely.

MR. RUSSERT: As you know, the American people are very doubtful. This is The Washington Post from Monday: “The country is in the heart of hurricane season again, and many Americans are not persuaded by federal assurances that the government is ready for the next big storm, according to the national survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Fewer than half said they thought the government is ‘very prepared’ to deal with this year’s hurricane season. Only half agreed that the federal government had ‘learned a lesson from Hurricane Katrina.’” Did you learn a lesson from Katrina?

MR. PAULISON: We learned a very, very significant lessons from Hurricane Katrina. We broke those things down, and I’ve looked at that just like I’ve done my whole career, whether it was the Mariel boat lift or Hurricane Andrew or flooding in, in Dade County or the ValuJet crash or civil disturbances we had. After every major event, you always go back and do after-action reports and look very carefully at what worked and what did not work, and then very quickly get on top of those things to fix them for the next time. And that’s all we did with Katrina. Communications, logistics, victim registration, having more contracts in place to make sure that we are going to be ready.  And this, this agency, this agency is going to respond in a proper manner.

MR. RUSSERT: What’s the single most important change you’ve made for Ernesto that was not in place for Katrina?

MR. PAULISON: I think if I had to pick one thing—now, there were several, but if I had to pick one thing, it was communications. And I mean communications by information sharing. Setting up a joint field office, setting up a unified command system where, no matter where information comes in, whether it comes in from the first responder or comes in from a senator calling the president, we all share that same information. I see that as the number one failure in, in what, what happened in Katrina. Having stove pipes, not sharing information, not knowing what was going on, a major breakdown in communications between the local community and the state, between the state and the federal government, and quite frankly, inside the federal government itself, between our agencies. We have been working for the last several months very hard to fix that issue, and I’m, I’m convinced we have done that.

MR. RUSSERT: You have 2400 people in your agency. You have 400 vacancies.  How can you possibly deal with hurricane season with so many unfilled positions?

MR. PAULISON: We have right close to 2,000 people on board right now. Those are full-time positions that we have authorized by Congress. But we have several thousand disaster assistance employees we bring on board. And right now, we have 6,000 or 7,000 of those working for us. What I’ve done mainly, I’ve focused on hiring the right people to bring in to run the agency.  Everyone we’ve brought in, our regional directors, our operations director, our response director, are all people with 30 and 35 years of emergency management experience. That’s very important. We’ve also focused on hiring people at the bottom, and we’ve started to do that. It’s been a slower process than I thought. It’s more difficult to get people on board in the federal government than at the local level, but we are doing it and we are going to fill this agency up. And I’m also looking to increase the size of this agency. I’m looking forward to working with Congress to, to increase the size of the—of FEMA to do the things they expect us to do.

MR. RUSSERT: What do you—how do you respond to the mayor’s suggestion that the response by the federal government was different for New Orleans than it would have been if a hurricane hit Orange County, California, or South Beach, Florida?

MR. PAULISON: With all due respect to the mayor—and I do have a lot of respect for him—that is simply not accurate. Those are American citizens, that we will respond regardless of what the race is, regardless of what the income is. We don’t know what that is when we set up our, our stuff to, to respond to these types of things. So to blame it on race or to blame it on class is simply not accurate. This agency will respond anywhere in this country regardless of what the disaster is, regardless or what type of people we’re responding to.

MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Director, as you know, there’s been a lot of postmortems about Katrina, particularly the federal response, and frankly, the corruption.  Here’s a piece from The New York Times, and let me read it to you and our viewers.

Headline: “Breathtaking Waste and Fraud in Hurricane Aid.” “Among the many superlatives associated with Hurricane Katrina can now be added this one: it produced one of the most extraordinary displays of scams, schemes and stupefying bureaucratic bungles in modern history, costing taxpayers up to $2 billion. ...

“The waste ranged from excessive loads of ice to higher-than-necessary costs on the multibillion dollar debris removal effort. Some examples are particularly stark.

“[There was] $7.9 million spent to renovate the former Fort McClellan Army base in Anniston, Alabama, ... but when the doors finally opened, only about 10 people showed up each night, leading FEMA”—your agency—“to shut down the shelter within one month.

“The mobile homes, costing $34,500 each, supposed to provide temporary housing to hurricane victims. But after Louisiana officials balked at installing them inland, FEMA had no use for them. Nearly half, or about 10,000, of the” mobile homes, of the “$860 million worth of units now sit at an airfield in Arkansas, where FEMA is paying $250,000 a month to store them.

“The most recent audit came from the Government Accountability Office, which estimated that perhaps as much as 21 percent of the $6.3 billion given directly to victims might have been improperly distributed.”

Taxpayers watching that are outraged by the bungling.

MR. PAULISON: Well, first of all, they should be outraged, and we are taking each of those issues one at a time and fixing those. Let me cover a couple of those. One: the most—the one that got the most visibility was the expedited assistance program where we gave $2,000 to families who quite frankly were transported in every state in this country. People were taken off the rooftops, out of their homes, swam out of—through their attics, moved to different states, had—barely had the clothes on their backs. We gave them money to, to, to buy clothing, to, to take care of their children, to get clothes, shoes, and food for their children, to make sure that, that they’re going to have what they do to survive. They had no access to identification, they had no access to their bank accounts. It was the right decision to make.

A lot of people took advantage of it. I don’t think it was as much as what the GAO said, and we’re having our, our inspector general actually go over those—that process they used and the methodology they used to determine that.  However, it was the right decision to give the money out. People needed the money and I’m sorry that a handful of people took advantage of that.

What we did not have was an identity verification system in place that would allow us to deal with that many people. Normally, we would go to your house with an inspector, inspect your house, decide what the damage is and give you a check. These people were scattered all over the country, hundreds of thousands of them. We know where the damage was. We knew that Ninth Ward was under water. We knew that East Orleans Parish was under water. So there was no reason to do individual inspections. However, what we have done, we’ve, we’ve hired a company, a company called Choice Point, very good at initial verification, so the next time this comes around, we will know who you say—you are who you say you are and you live where you said you lived.  That’ll stop a lot of that fraud.

Now let me address the, the trailers. The—when I went back and questioned staff, “OK, why’d you buy all these mobile homes?” They bought the mobile homes in the same percentage that they normally buy them, generally 25 to 75 percent mobile homes to travel trailers. Travel trailers are easy. So we bought probably 100,000 travel trailers and 25,000 mobile homes. We were not able to use the mobile homes as we thought we were going to. They’re not going to go to waste. We have probably over 150,000 families around this country in FEMA-provided travel trailers and mobile homes. Having 8,000 or 9,000 as reserves, particularly with the predictions of the storms we’re going to be having this next year, is not an unreasonable number. The trailers are not being wasted, they’re in reserve, they’re there to use instead of waiting for a manufacturer to build them. So we’ll have them immediately. Having ice in storage, having MREs in storage, having all of other supplies in storage does cost money, but if you don’t do that, if you don’t do that, you won’t have the supplies you need immediately to respond like this country expects us to. So what—we are doing the right thing.

MR. RUSSERT: So the money will get directly to the people, but when they get it they won’t be able to use it on tattoos or guns or condoms-to-go, as was evidenced with Katrina?

MR. PAULISON: I don’t have any control once we give people money. Normally, we put money—either give them a check or wire directly to their bank account.  Once they get that money for, for issues the Congress has allowed us to give people money for, how they spend it is out of our control. You know, that’s an individual choice. So if they take that money, waste it on something else and don’t rebuild their home with it or don’t replace a car or don’t pay medical expenses, you know, that’s, that’s a personal decision they have to make. We simply give them the dollars they’re allowed under law, and then they should be spending it on what it’s given to them for, but we don’t have any control once we turn those dollars over to them.

MR. RUSSERT: But then the government has to house them, so how, how could that possibly be fair or responsible?

MR. PAULISON: Well, we don’t give rental assistance and also a housing, like a travel trailer or a mobile home. You get one or the other. If you get rental assistance, then you should be renting money with it, otherwise we’ll give you a travel, travel trailer or mobile home if we have the opportunity to do that.

MR. RUSSERT: You are absolutely confident that you can talk to this nation this morning and say if Ernesto or any other hurricane hits this country, the FEMA response will be quicker and more thorough and more professional than it was during Katrina?

MR. PAULISON: I can absolutely say this: We are going to make this a very nimble, very agile organization, but we are still going to stay compassionate.  I am comfortable we are where we need to be right now, and ready to respond to, to any type of disaster in this country.

MR. RUSSERT: And at the end of the first meeting, the president turns to you and says, “Pauli, you’re doing a heck of a job.” What would you say?

MR. PAULISON: Well, first of all, the—I don’t—hope that doesn’t happen, consider what happened last time he said that. But I’m, I’m confident in my abilities to run this organization, I’m confident in my credentials that I have to run this organization, and I’m very comfortable with this organization, and what we’ve done—the changes we’ve made in the last nine months have been significant.

MR. RUSSERT: We all hope, and we’ll be watching. Director Paulison, thanks for joining us.

MR. PAULISON: Thank you, sir.

MR. RUSSERT: Our viewers should note that NBC’s Brian Williams will have an exclusive interview with President Bush in, in New Orleans on the “NBC Nightly News” Tuesday night. Brian Williams interviewing President Bush Tuesday night, an exclusive interview on “NBC Nightly News.”

Coming next, are the midterm elections a referendum on the policies of George W. Bush, or a choice between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party?  Our roundtable: Al Hunt, Bob Novak, Kate O’Beirne, Eugene Robinson. They are all next, right here on MEET THE PRESS.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: Only 10 weeks to the midterm election. Our roundtable—Al Hunt, Bob Novak, Eugene Robinson, Kate O’Beirne—after this station break.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: And welcome, all. Some very good news this morning. Olaf Wiig and Steve Centanni, two FOX journalists who had been kept in captivity in Gaza, are free. They have been released. Welcome home, guys, and we hope you’re safe, and your families are certainly thrilled and excited, and your news organization, to have you back. Good luck to both of them.

Let’s turn to the midterm elections. This was George W. Bush on Monday throwing down the gauntlet on the issue of Iraq for the upcoming elections.  Let’s watch.

(Videotape, August 21, 2006):

PRES. BUSH: Any sign that says we’re going to leave before the job is done simply emboldens terrorists and creates a certain amount of doubt for people so they won’t take the risk necessary to help a civil society evolve in the country. And this is the campaign; I’m sure they’re watching the campaign carefully. There are a lot of good, decent people saying, “Get out now! Vote for me, I will do everything I can” to, I guess cut off money, is how, is what they’ll try to do to get our troops out. It’s a big mistake.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Albert, “embolden the terrorists” and “the terrorists are watching this election”?

MR. AL HUNT: I really don’t think the terrorists are watching MEET THE PRESS today, Tim, as, as, as much as other people are. And I—and Gene’s paper, The Washington Post, reported this morning that actually most Democratic challengers in really contested races are not for immediate withdrawal. I don’t think the issue of Iraq can do anything but hurt the Republicans in the, in the fall election. Terrorism, on the other hand, which is, which I think the people—the American people draw a distinction, is the one issue that still slightly helps them. But it’s a terribly tough environment for Republicans.

MR. RUSSERT: Bob Novak, the president then talked about “imagine.” And he created that scenario. Let’s listen to that and come back and talk about it.

(Videotape, Monday):

PRES. BUSH: Imagine what Iraq would look like if the United States leaves before this government can defend itself and sustain itself. A, you know, chaos in Iraq would be—it would be very unsettling in the region. Leaving before the job would be done would send a message that America really is no longer engaged nor cares about the form of governments in the Middle East.  Leaving before the job was done would send a signal to our troops that the sacrifices they made were not worth it. Leaving before the job is done would be a disaster, and that’s what we’re saying.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Does that resonate?

MR. ROBERT NOVAK: Tim, the people that that would have an effect on are already decided. They’re going to vote Republican. They like the president’s program. I don’t think that wins any new votes and I don’t think it brings back the disaffected conservatives who may stay home on Election Day. That’s the real problem. Not that they’re going to vote for the Democrats, but they may stay home because all my, my reports indicate that there’s two, two issues. They’re still very unhappy with the president about immigration and government spending, and they see no improvement on, on those scores. And so, consequently, Tim, there’s enormous pessimism in Republican ranks about losing—definitely losing the House of Representatives and possibly losing the Senate.

MR. RUSSERT: Gene Robinson, you’ve been listening to the president and others. It’s clear that the Republican message is going to be, “If you cut and run, you create a haven for terrorists, another Afghanistan, and from that could be, perhaps, another September 11.” Democrats are saying, “Wait a minute, Iraq’s a distraction.” In fact, you wrote it in an interesting way.  Let me share it with our viewers and come back and talk about it.

“President Bush said that the uncovered [United Kingdom bomb plot] conspiracy is ‘a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation.’ If only the president would fight that war. If only he hadn’t turned away from the hunt for bin Laden to chase his neocon advisers’ delusions of spreading pro-American democracy at the point of a gun.” Is that the debate?

MR. EUGENE ROBINSON: Well, I think that’s becoming the debate. I think the American public is beginning to make the separation between terrorism, 9/11, Osama bin Laden on the one hand and Iraq on the other hand. Which, you know, the administration really tried to conflate for several years, but I think the division has been made. I think that it’s bad politically for Republicans.  And, and when the president talks about leaving before the job is done, not cutting and running, it, it’s unclear to a lot of people, I think, what the job is. How do you define the job? How do you define the end point? Given that there’s going to be a withdrawal at some point from Iraq, what’s the difference between leaving Iraq the kind of mess it is now or leaving Iraq the kind of mess it’s going to be when the job is declared finished? Because nobody thinks it’s going to become an Athenian democracy anytime soon.

MR. RUSSERT: Kate O’Beirne, hearing Bob Novak and looking at the cover of your magazine National Review, “Last Chance for Iraq,” and looking at the comments that the founder of your magazine, William F. Buckley Jr., who said, “One can’t doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed.” And then listening to George Will, conservative commentator, who said, “It is not perverse to wonder whether the spectacle of America, currently learning a lesson - one that conservatives should not have to learn on the job - about the limits of power to subdue an unruly world, has emboldened many enemies.” This is remarkable. Conservatives saying that Iraq has failed and that perhaps it may be emboldening our enemies.

MS. KATE O’BEIRNE: Tim, it’s, it’s actually not so that there have been all these uncritical cheerleaders who support the war for years. We had at—National Review had an Iraq—a cover on Iraq before the November ‘04 elections called “What Went Wrong?” And most recently, of course, we have a collection of, of people, very sympathetic with the aims and goals in Iraq, answering the question of whether or not it’s lost. The administration hasn’t done a very good job of addressing those concerns on the part of conservative supporters of the war. The symposium we have in this, in this issue, the first thing they reject, unanimously, is the administration line that things are better than they look. They’re not buying that argument, and yet the administration keeps making it.

They all recognize and agree things are deteriorating. Some conclude we’re losing, some say we will without doing some significant things differently—maybe more troops, certainly address Iran’s role. Even this Monday when the president talked about Iraq, he talked about the fact that—he expressed his resolve. His resolve’s not in question. He talked about the fact that we won’t pull out of Iraq as long as he’s president. I think that’s the wrong way to state it. That sounds more stubborn than strategic. I think there’s a certain percentage of people who are now disenchanted with progress in Iraq who are persuadable, but they fear we’re losing this war and they don’t see a clear plan on the part of the administration to win it.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you see Iraq as the major issue for the midterm elections?

MS. O’BEIRNE: Absolutely. Absolutely. Not, not only in and of itself—it’s an unpopular war—but I think it sours the public’s overall mood.

MR. RUSSERT: Albert Hunt, you mentioned The Washington Post, how Democrats in close races are not calling for an immediate pullout. It’s interesting what’s going on within the Republican Party. Chris Shays, who called me from London, he just finished his 14th visit to Iraq. AP characterized it this way: One of the—he’s locked in a tough race, it says here. “The U.S.  should consider setting a time line for troop withdrawals from Iraq. ‘Our troops cannot be there indefinitely,’” he said “after visiting Iraq for the 14th time.” “‘We need to have a sense of when our troops can withdraw.’” He’s in favor of the war. But he now believes you need a timeline to put pressure on the Iraqis to get their act together.

MR. HUNT: Well, Tim, making that statement from Chris Shays all the more remarkable, he not only has been a supporter of the war throughout, but he really was attaching himself to Joe Lieberman, the Independent candidate now in the state of Connecticut, who of course is most identified as being probably the staunchest Democratic supporter of the war.

Just a couple weeks ago, this was Chris Shays’ campaign strategy in this very tough election. Now he’s distanced himself from what has been Joe Lieberman’s position. I think you’re going to see a number of Republicans on Iraq and other issues try to distance themselves from, from George W. Bush over the, over the next couple of weeks. And the, and the—I thought the Shays move was really rather dramatic.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you agree?

MR. NOVAK: I do. I think it’s very interesting that so many of these people on the Republican and the Democratic side who were so eager for this war, and attacked me when I said it was a bad idea to intervene in Iraq and we couldn’t spread—turn Iraq into another Iowa, that—now that—they’re cutting and running, and the idea that the administration didn’t do the job well, that they made mistakes. Not that it was a bad idea in the first place. Maybe that’s for the historians to decide. But I think the, the question, the real question, I believe, maybe journalists ought to consider—reconsider, is not whether they—we’ve done such a terrible job but whether it was an impossible job in the first place and shouldn’t have been started.

MR. RUSSERT: John McCain, who was a staunch supporter, is a staunch supporter, of the war in Iraq, went to Ohio to campaign and said this: “One of the biggest mistakes we made was underestimating the size of the task and the sacrifices that would be required. ... ‘Stuff happens, mission accomplished, last throes, a few dead-enders.’” Those are all quotes of the president or the secretary of defense or the vice president. “I’m just more familiar with those statements than anyone else because it grieves me so much that we had not told the American people how tough and difficult this task would be.”

MR. NOVAK: Well, of course, he—what he wanted was more troops in there. He wanted hundreds of thousands more troops. I cannot understand the logic. I mean, if, if it was difficult to defeat the Iraqi Army, you’d need a lot more troops. But it wasn’t. We beat them easily. I can’t understand the logic of Senator McCain, from the very beginning, in saying more troops were going to solve this problem. Because I—because nobody, I believe, who really has followed it, believes that that, that is the difficulty.

MR. RUSSERT: He said it last week on this program.

MR. NOVAK: I, I know.

MR. RUSSERT: But initially, he said—McCain said we would be greeted as liberators and that it would not be as difficult as it seemed, the initial military invasion. But, Gene Robinson, you hear these sounds, these drumbeats, these different themes, variations of a theme being played out within the Republican Party. What are we hearing?

MR. ROBINSON: Well, where else are Republicans who supported the war going to go? They have to create some distance, I think. They have to—they feel they have to create some distance between themselves and administration policy. And so where they go is not that the war is a mistake but that it has been waged incompetently, or, or the way it has been waged. It’s been lacking in some way. And to varying degrees of strength I think you’re just going to hear that more and more and more unless there’s some, you know, sort of unexpected and really impossible turnaround in the Iraq situation between now and November.

MR. RUSSERT: Has the White House given a green light to fellow Republicans saying it’s OK to criticize us on the management of the war?

MS. O’BEIRNE: Well, well, Tim, they’re, they’re certainly giving that latitude to, to members who, who are really very few, like Chris Shays running in the climate he is in Connecticut. Unfortunately, when politicians look at the, the polling and see how popular the war is in Iraq, they tend to not want to talk about it, they sort of distance themselves from it, which of course is exactly, for Republicans, the wrong thing to do. Nothing would boost their chances more in November than George Bush’s approval rating being higher, than former hawks—that’s who’s persuadable, they don’t have to persuade Michael Moore or Cindy Sheehan. If they could persuade former hawks in the kind of terms John McCain uses, the stakes involved. He distinguishes, as you know, Iraq from Vietnam by reminding us that when we pulled prematurely out of Vietnam, they didn’t come after us. More Republicans ought to be doing that, but all their instincts are not to be doing that.

MR. HUNT: Kate, the problem, however, is that look, Bob, I, I somewhat disagree. You can make the McCain case—we might agree or disagree—but you can make the case that we need to really escalate over there. We need to send more troops, not just take troops from Mosul and send them to Baghdad, but really go and, and, and cut off the Iranians, and, and make a full-fledged effort, and say, “We’re going to be there for years, folks.” Or you can say we’re going to be in a staged withdrawal. We’re going to go to an enclave period and try to create some kind of partition in that unnaturally created country.

The one thing that’s not credible, as the National Review pointed out, is stay the course. Bush’s policy is the one policy that’s absolutely not credible.  So I think that makes it very tough for Republicans today.

MR. ROBINSON: (Unintelligible)...

MS. O’BEIRNE: Right. Well, they are, they are changing that to “adapt for victory” sort of stuff, and it is true that public opinion is closer to the former. Despite all of the bad news and how pessimistic the public is, they do not support leaving prematurely, and a timetable to do so.

MR. ROBINSON: But this has to get better. Things have to get better in Iraq, though.

MR. NOVAK: What they—what they support is leaving, see. They’re—you want to leave prematurely? No, I don’t want to leave prematurely, but I want to leave.

MR. RUSSERT: But it is interesting, also, watching the Democrats. Thus far, John Kerry, John Edwards, Joe Biden have all publicly apologized for their vote. One person who has not apologized for her vote is Hillary Clinton.  Time magazine had this cover story on the senator from New York, and added this: “Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) ... is not as insulated as she once was on the left, which is far angrier than it used to be. Some liberals say they will not forgive her support for the Iraq invasion or, even worse, her refusal to recant that vote. When Hillary addressed the liberal group Campaign for America’s Future in June, she was booed. And everyone there knew whom Kerry meant when he said, at the same conference, ‘It’s not enough to argue with the logistics or to argue about the details. It is essential to acknowledge that the war itself was a mistake.’ Hillary of late has made a point of stepping up her criticism of the Bush administration, to the point of calling for the ouster of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.” This weekend, she met with Ned Lamont, the Democratic anti-war candidate in Connecticut.  Bob Novak, why are you shaking your head?

MR. NOVAK: Because she’s just so mechanical. I mean, I mean she’s so late in calling for the ouster of, of Rumsfeld. Everybody was doing that, and she had this, this staged confrontation with him, where she had this, this script of, of saying what a mistake he had, he had made, it took her about five minutes to get through it. To me, she is, she is—whenever she has a tough situation, she gets that staff together and they program her. And, and, and what they seem to be deathly afraid of is a heavyset guy from Tennessee named Al Gore, who, who, who she hates, and he hates her, and this is, this is the nightmare of the Clintonians, that Gore is going to come over the hill and vanquish her.

MR. HUNT: And you love it.

MR. RUSSERT: I think the, the news media has a bias for a Clinton-Gore race.

Is Hillary Clinton trying, Hillary Clinton trying to get herself right on the war with the Democratic primary base?

MR. HUNT: Well, look, Tim. There, there—I think there’re two realities for Hillary Clinton. Number one is that she is going to be attacked, maybe effectively from the left, if she runs in ‘08. I suspect from a John Moore, more likely a John Edwards or a Russ Feingold than a, than an Al Gore.  It’s—her vote’s going to hurt her. But if she were to do a 180 now, it would be the functional equivalent of ‘I voted for the war, and—before I voted against it.’ I mean, that, that would be, I think, even, even dumber.

MS. O’BEIRNE: In this—the reality of the Democratic Party, I mean, this war has never been popular, was never supported by a large majority. A majority of House Democrats voted against authorizing it. So there’s a particular problem there, and far more disarray than Republicans are over this. And then her particular problem of course is that the rest of the ‘08 field either wasn’t in the Senate or have already said, like Edwards and Kerry, it was a big mistake. She can’t say like they can, it seems to me, “If I knew now what I knew then,” because what we all knew then was what the Clinton administration knew then. There was no dispute over that intelligence. The Clinton administration officials saw it the same way.

MR. ROBINSON: I think it’s just going to be a continuing problem for her throughout this campaign. It’s a very difficult position for a Democratic office-seeker to have held, to have been so pro-war for so long. And it’s also an illustration of how it really is difficult to run for president for a sitting senator, it really is, who’s had to cast these votes.

MR. RUSSERT: None of us have a crystal ball, but educated hunch, 10 weeks out, House, Senate, what do you see?

MR. NOVAK: Well, if the election were held today, I can’t tell you what’s going to happen on Election Day, I would say that the Democrats will win 25 to 30 seats in the House. All they need is 12. I don’t think it’s—my hunch is they’re not going to be that bad, but that’s—they start, they start way ahead.

It’s hard for them in the Senate to pick up the six seats. You can even count to five and not get to six, but Senator George Allen of Virginia is doing his best to try to, try to make that sixth seat viable for a Democratic win.

MR. RUSSERT: Albert Hunt:

MR. HUNT: I, I am in the incredible position of agreeing with almost everything Bob Novak said. Look, there’s an anti-Republican political storm out there. It’s a level two now, that’s 20, 25 seats and three or four Senate seats. It may, by Election Day, be a level four, which point they’ll win this—the Democrats will win the Senate and they’ll pick up—there will be members of the House looking up bios on November 8 to see who they are.

MR. RUSSERT: Gene Robinson:

MR. ROBINSON: A long time between now and Election Day. I, I actually think it probably tightens up a little bit from what it looks like now. I think maybe the Democrats do get the House. I’m not sure about the Senate despite all of the macaca in Virginia. We’ll see.

MR. RUSSERT: Kate O’Beirne:

MS. O’BEIRNE: Given the historic trends and the, and the mood and the president’s ratings, you’d certainly rather be a Democrat right about now, but the Republicans hope to devote September to talking about national security, which has benefited them in the past. Unclear if it’ll be enough, and they’ve got to turn out disenchanted conservative voters.

MR. RUSSERT: Before we go, Robert Novak, the story that will not go away.  Newsweek today has a story that on the morning of October 1, ‘03, “Secretary of State Colin Powell received an urgent phone call from his No. 2” Richard Armitage.

“Armitage had been at home reading the newspaper,” a column by one Robert Novak. “Months earlier Novak had caused a huge stir when he revealed that Valerie Plame, wife of Iraq-war critic Joseph Wilson, was a CIA officer.

“Ever since, Washington had been trying to find out who leaked the information to Novak. ... Now in a second column, Novak provided a tantalizing clue: his primary source, he wrote, was a ‘senior administration official’ who was ‘not a partisan gunslinger.’ Armitage was shaken. After reading the column, he knew immediately who the leaker was. On the phone with Powell that morning morning, Armitage was ‘in deep distress,’ says a source directly familiar with the conversation.” “‘I’m sure he’s talking about me.’”

The article goes on to quote State Department Intelligence Chief Carl Ford as saying Armitage said, “I’m afraid I’m the guy who may have caused all this,” and that he had met with one Robert Novak on July 8, Mr. Armitage did. Are you now prepared to say, confirm Newsweek that Richard Armitage was one of your sources?

MR. NOVAK: I told Mr. Isikoff, the investigator—he’s a very good investigative reporter, by the way—but I told him that I do not identify my sources on any subject if they’re on a confidential basis until they identify themselves. I don’t say that somebody was or wasn’t. I’m going to say one thing, though, I haven’t said before. And that is that I believe that the time has way passed for my source to identify himself.

MR. RUSSERT: Stay tuned. Robert Novak, Albert Hunt, Eugene Robinson, Kate O’Beirne. Thanks very much. We’ll be right back.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: That’s all for today. We’ll be back next week as we kick off the return of our MEET THE PRESS Senate Debate series. One of the most closely watched Senate races of the year, Pennsylvania; incumbent Republican Senator Rick Santorum vs. State Treasurer Bob Casey. Santorum vs. Casey.  The debate, right here, next Sunday. If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.

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