MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: The voters send a loud and clear message to the White House, and give the Democrats control of the House and the Senate for the first time in 12 years. What now for the Republicans? We’ll ask a man who is positioned to seek the GOP nomination for president in 2008: Senator John McCain of Arizona. What now for the Democrats? We’ll ask a man who lost a Democratic primary, but was just re-elected as an independent: Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.
Then, in our political roundtable, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is leaving. What does this mean for the war in Iraq? Joining us: Maureen Dowd of The New York Times and David Gregory of NBC News.
But first, joining us now, a man who criscrossed the nation on, on behalf of Republican candidates, 346 campaign events, he’s back on MEET THE PRESS.
Senator John McCain, welcome.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ): Thank you. Did a lot of good, didn’t it?
MR. RUSSERT: Landslide McCain. Leading up to Election Day you had been saying, “I will think about the presidency after the midterm elections of 2006.”
SEN. McCAIN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
MR. RUSSERT: They’re over.
SEN. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.
MR. RUSSERT: Will you run for president in 2008?
SEN. McCAIN: I’m going to sit down with my family over the holidays. I always said I would decide early next year, and I’ll sit down over the holidays with my family and make that decision. Are we doing the things organizationally and legally that need to be done to prepare for it? Yes.
MR. RUSSERT: Will you form an exploratory committee?
SEN. McCAIN: I, I think so. We’re doing—there are certain things legally you have to comply with in order to continue to raise money and set up an organization. I believe we are doing that, but the important thing is, we will not make a final decision until I sit down with my family. But we will be prepared.
MR. RUSSERT: An exploratory committee is the way, the vehicle you need in order to raise money to organize.
SEN. McCAIN: Yes. Yes.
MR. RUSSERT: And so that’ll be done this week?
SEN. McCAIN: I’m not sure if it’s this week or not. I haven’t got that detail, but that’s part of the process.
MR. RUSSERT: When, in May, you were asked, if the Democrats won control of the House and/or the Senate, how would that affect your presidential race, you said, “I think it depends on the message of the American people. Are they sick of us Republicans? Are they sick of all incumbents? You can tell when people go to the ballot booth what their priorities are and what their concerns are, far better than any other way.” What did you hear from the voters on Tuesday?
SEN. McCAIN: That we Republicans have lost our way, that we came to Washington to change government and government changed us. The spending, the ethics, the massive programs such as Medicare prescription drug program, that—our failure to address their priorities as opposed to our own, and there was a—obviously a reaction to it. The Iraq war obviously is very frustrating. I know we’re going to talk more about that, but there’s—very frustrating to the American people. But I would submit, if they were all against the Iraq war that you probably would not have seen my friend Joe Lieberman, who I’m sure will talk about it, re-elected. So they’re frustrated by the war, but I also believe that many of our, our spending, our—the scandals, the ongoing scandals, the large government programs. In, in other words, one of the pillars of the Republican Party is fiscal conservatives. They were alienated by the fact that we let spending lurch out of control.
And I think that that had a very significant effect.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me talk about Iraq. Here’s an article from today’s Newsday. “But on the single biggest issue in the campaign, the war, McCain’s position is out of step with much of the nation. Some analysts believe that it will take the shine off the self-styled maverick who fluttered Democrats’ hearts last time and expose the inner hard-liner come 2008. ‘I think John McCain is going to have a real problem because he’s been a staunch defender of the war. If there was anything clear from this election, it’s that that position is a losing position with the American public,’ said Bruce Cain of the University of California Washington Center.”
And let me show you the exit poll, senator, from this past Tuesday. The war in Iraq, do you approve it, voters, 43 approve, 57 disapprove. Look at independent voters, 35 approve, 65 percent disapprove. You can’t be elected president without those independent voters, and 2-to-1 they’re saying they disapprove of the war.
SEN. McCAIN: Well, first of all, I believe that a lot of Americans trust my judgment on issues such as this because of the experience and background that I have.
Of course they’re frustrated, they have every reason to be frustrated, I am frustrated. The question is, is what’s the solution? And I believe that a withdrawal, or a date for withdrawal, will lead to chaos in the region, and most military experts think the same thing. I believe that there are a lot of things that we can do to salvage this, but they all require the presence of additional troops.
Now, if you want to, to give up on, on Iraq, then fine, and take the consequences. I think there will be chaos in the region. But we need to control the—this insurgency, we need to embed people with the police and the military, we need to clear and hold—and “hold” is the important part—so we can expand areas of security. There’s a lot of things that we can and must do. But if we don’t want to do that, fine, but that is a decision that I think will have profound consequences. I’m not prepared to go to an American family and tell them, “Well, you know, we’ll—you just stay there for a while and we’ll delay this withdrawal and defeat for a year or two,” I’m not prepared to tell them that. I’m prepared to tell them that if we have the will to win, we will do what’s necessary to win. But I’m not interested in seeing a scene of the American Embassy on the, the roof of the American embassy in Saigon multiplied a thousandfold.
MR. RUSSERT: But John McCain is suggesting we get deeper into Iraq, send more troops; the American public is on the side of getting out. Look at this from our exit polls. Send more troops, 18 percent of the American people, 23 percent say maintain current level, 28 say withdraw some, 31 percent say withdraw all. Eighty-two percent have a different position than McCain. How can you go to the country after these elections and say, “Send more troops to Iraq”?
SEN. McCAIN: I can only do what I think is best for these young men and women who are in the military. To do otherwise would be immoral and dishonorable. I believe that we have sacrificed enormously because of mistakes that have been made that were serious, which have been well-chronicled on this program and in many books. You have to make a decision as to whether you’re going to pursue a path that can bring to—about a stable Iraq and freedom and dem—for the people of Iraq, or you’re going to have some kind of, of situation where we either withdraw immediately or delay. And there are some who will say, “Well, we, we can stabilize the situation and withdraw gradually,” I don’t accept that, I think that what’s going to happen is that, as you withdraw, that you will see these—the sectarian violence increase, I think you’ll see involvement by Iran and Syria, and I think you will see a serious situation. I have to do what I think is morally right, and that’s been what has guided me throughout my life, and I do have some experience in some of these issues.
MR. RUSSERT: Bottom line for John McCain is if there’s no consensus to send more troops to Iraq and, “win”...
SEN. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.
MR. RUSSERT: ...then, rather than delay withdrawal for a year and let others die, bring the troops home.
SEN. McCAIN: I, I think you—it’s—I can’t say that specifically, but I certainly wouldn’t support a proposal that leads to eventual defeat—that I am convinced that would lead to eventual defeat. And, look, if you talk to most military experts, we’re in a critical and crucial time. We’re either going to lose this thing or win this thing within the next several months.
MR. RUSSERT: But, senator, people are going to make a judgment about your judgment.
SEN. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.
MR. RUSSERT: Less than a year ago, you were saying this, “Overall, I think a year from now,” which would be now, “we will have made a fair amount of progress [in Iraq] if we stay the course.” That’s proven not to be correct.
SEN. McCAIN: That’s proven not to be correct. And I also said three years ago if we don’t have more troops over there, and we don’t do what’s necessary, we are going to be doomed to failure. I gave a speech this—foreign relations—Council on Foreign Relations that said basically that. And I’ve been saying it all along, in every hearing, and I’ve been saying you are going to face this situation we’re facing today if we didn’t have a more robust presence, and a better strategy. And that’s—and I proved to be right in that respect.
MR. RUSSERT: Here’s Prime Minister Maliki. In the past three weeks, he has “rejected the notion of an American ‘timeline’ for action on urgent Iraqi political issues; ordered American commanders to lift checkpoints they had set up around the Shiite district of Sadr City to hunt for a kidnapped American soldier and a fugitive Shiite death squad leader; blamed the Americans for the deteriorating security situation in Iraq; and demanded speeded-up Iraqi control of its own military.” This is the prime minister of Iraq, who is supposed to be our ally, taking positions that are very much, it appears, against American interests.
SEN. McCAIN: The prime minister has to understand that we need to put down Sadr, and we need to take care of the Mahdi Army, and we need to stop the sectarian violence that is on the increase in an unacceptable level. And I think that the best way to assure that is for him to know that we will do what’s necessary to bolster the—train and equip the Iraqi army, etc. If we send the signal that we are leaving, of course he’s going to try to make accommodations with others, because he knows that—what is going to be the inevitable result. So most politicians in that part of the world are interested in survival, so I, I can understand why he took the position that he did, but I certainly disagree with it strongly.
MR. RUSSERT: This is what he said. “Last week, al-Maliki rejected a demand by a visiting administration official that he move to disband Shia militias by year’s end, saying it would be suicidal for him to move against the heavily armed militias.”
SEN. McCAIN: That’s because he doesn’t think he can do it. And that’s because we’re not able to bring them under control. If we do what’s necessary to try to bring them under control—and I would advocate, first, going in the Sunni areas and getting that area under control, so that we can show them that—the Shia—that they don’t need the Mahdi Army in order to protect themselves from Sunni attacks, that that’s probably the best tactical move that we could make. The present situation is unacceptable.
Americans are frustrated, we understand that. And again, I want to tell you, I’m not interested in telling some young person’s loved ones that we’re sending them over there in order to delay what may be an inevitable defeat.
MR. RUSSERT: Who should tell Maliki to get rid of the death squads, the militias? The president?
SEN. McCAIN: The president, and everybody else. But Maliki is going to go where he thinks his interests lie. And the best way to reassure him is to tell him we’re going to do what is necessary. And can I—am I sure that we can succeed that way? Of course I’m not sure we can cede that—can succeed that way. But I have said from the beginning, my first trip over there, that we needed more troops, because we didn’t have it under control—the looting, the—all of the things that have transpired. And we find out now that most military people felt exactly the same way.
So we’re at a decision point. We either set up a plan for withdrawal, or withdraw, or whatever it is that, that is going to prevail. And by the way, I think the Baker Commission is going to recommend a area-wide conference, which is fine with me. But there’s no Rosetta Stone here, there’s no magic formula for success. We’re paying a price for the failure of our policy in the past, and the question, then, before the American people is, are we ready to quit? And I believe the consequences of failure are chaos in the region, which will spread.
MR. RUSSERT: It sounds as if McCain is saying either send more troops in, secure the country and win, or make the decision and get out.
SEN. McCAIN: I think that that’s pretty much my position. Maybe it’s more nuanced than that. I’d be glad to hear what the Baker proposal—commission proposal is. I’ll be glad to listen to different ideas. But I know this, that unless we do something different, then obviously there is going to be failure in the region.
MR. RUSSERT: Many people are looking very closely at these election results, and what it means for bipartisanship in Washington. And people are scrutinizing you very carefully. The last time you were on, we talked about your relationship with Jerry Falwell, who you had called an agent of intolerance, and then went to his university and tried to make—reconcile with him. You...
SEN. McCAIN: After he came to my office and said he wanted to put our differences behind us.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me ask you about John Bolton, ambassador to the United Nations.
SEN. McCAIN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
MR. RUSSERT: The president wants to reappoint him, renominate him.
SEN. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.
MR. RUSSERT: He does not have the votes. Lincoln Chafee, the former—the Republican senator said he’d vote against him. So now the White House is toying with the idea of making him a deputy United Nations ambassador or a, a, a—using a, a mechanism that is outside of the confirmation process of the U.S. Senate—U.S.—United States Senate. Would that be a wise thing to do now that the Democrats have control?
SEN. McCAIN: First of all, I think John Bolton has done a fine job. I think he’s been a good rep, fine representative. I think he deserves to be renominated, including the fact that the president should be able to appoint his team, unless there’s some overriding reason not to. There’s no overriding reason not to appoint—reappoint John Bolton. I strongly support him.
I don’t think I would do that, because I think that many in the Senate would view that as, as flaunting the process that is reserved to the Senate. But I certainly hope that my Democrat colleagues would agree that this, that this man has done a fine job and deserves to be renominated.
MR. RUSSERT: But the president...
SEN. McCAIN: To be reconfirmed. To be confirmed.
MR. RUSSERT: The president should avoid using a loophole in order to keep him in position?
SEN. McCAIN: I don’t think he should, to be honest with you. It wouldn’t be the first time that it happened, but I, I’d like to see us have, at least the Democrats allow us an up-or-down vote. He deserves that.
MR. RUSSERT: One of the first thing the Democrats are going to do is pass a bill to increase the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25.
SEN. McCAIN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
MR. RUSSERT: Will you support that?
SEN. McCAIN: If there are some protections for small business. It’s a fact that small business people have to be able to sustain increase in payrolls, and it’s—we should be able to sit down and work that out.
MR. RUSSERT: In Arizona this Tuesday, you raised it from $5.95 to $6.75 without any of those protections for business.
SEN. McCAIN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
MR. RUSSERT: Did you vote for that?
SEN. McCAIN: I did not, because I didn’t see that they had protections for small business people. But I think it’s something that can be worked out. One of the problems you have with, with ballot initiatives is that they’re either yes or no. And I think most Americans, because small business—most Arizonans, because of our strong base of small businesses, would, would approve of some kind of relief for small business people.
MR. RUSSERT: Now that you’re running for president, perhaps, it’s difficult walking this balance, where in order to win the Republican primary, you have to move to the right, and then to win the general election, move back to the center. Is that a problem for you?
SEN. McCAIN: No, I, I—people know me too well, my friend. I’m not moving any way. We just had a discussion about where I should move to or not. I, I have been pretty steadfast in my views. I am a proud conservative, both economically and socially. And I am a conservative Republican, and I will remain so in the school of Ronald Reagan—who, by the way, brought our party back after a defeat in 1976 and gave us hope and optimism. And I believe this party will rebound. I believe that we will get our bearings straight and we’ll get back on course, because I believe America is still a conservative right-of-center nation, and our message, our Republican message, is best.
MR. RUSSERT: For example, ethanol. In 1999, the Iowa presidential debate, I heard you say, “I’m going to tell you things you don’t want to hear.”
SEN. McCAIN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
MR. RUSSERT: And now John McCain is embracing ethanol.
SEN. McCAIN: I’m not embracing ethanol. I said when oil is $10 a barrel, ethanol doesn’t make much sense. When it’s $40 a barrel, it does make sense. I do not support subsidies for ethanol and I have not supported it and I will not. But ethanol makes a lot of sense, particularly our dependence on foreign oil, and my believe that—my belief that climate change is real and is part of the solution to this climate greenhouse gas emissions problem.
MR. RUSSERT: But that is a profound change, senator. You did say here—I’ll read it to you. “‘Ethanol is a product that would not exist if Congress didn’t create an artificial market for it. No one would be willing to buy it,’ McCain said in November 2003. ... ‘Ethanol does nothing to reduce fuel consumption, nothing to increase our energy independence, nothing to improve our air quality.’” And when oil was $60 a barrel, you issued a press release saying that ethanol would result in higher gasoline prices for your constituents. You’ve changed your mind, which...
SEN. McCAIN: No, I, I, I don’t, I don’t think I said that at $60 a barrel. I said it when it was $10 a barrel or $9 a barrel. But I think it has a profound influence when, when oil is as high as it is.
MR. RUSSERT: In 2000, you avoided the Iowa caucuses, by and large, and focused on New Hampshire. This time, will you go all-out in Iowa, if you run?
SEN. McCAIN: We haven’t decided to run or not, but we’d have to—that would have to be a consideration. I understand that, that it becomes of some more importance. But that’s some—that’s a tactical decision you make after you make the initial decision to run or not.
MR. RUSSERT: People listen to things that you say very clearly because you may be a presidential candidate. When John Kerry made his comments about troops...
SEN. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.
MR. RUSSERT: ...he said it was a botched joke at the president’s expense. Matt Dowd, someone who polled for the president, who you know well, said clearly John Kerry made a mistake. He was not in any way trying to denigrate American troops.
SEN. McCAIN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
MR. RUSSERT: And yet you denounced Senator Kerry. Very strong words. He owes an apology for...
SEN. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.
MR. RUSSERT: ...because of suggesting that there are deficiencies in the education of our soldiers.
SEN. McCAIN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
MR. RUSSERT: Did you really believe that John Kerry, a man who thought about having you on the ticket in 2004, was criticizing American Troops rather than simply botching a joke?
SEN. McCAIN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. I read his statement. I read it carefully. I saw no reference to the president of the United States. Even though if it was—had something to do with the president of the United States, it was in bad taste. He said he’d botched a joke. I said he should apologize. I’ve made misstatements in, in the past and I have apologized. After he apologized, I said that it was over. It did not make our troops and the men and women in the military happy to read that statement, either.
MR. RUSSERT: But did you seize on that in order to help bolster yourself with conservative Republicans?
SEN. McCAIN: I felt that it was insulting to the men and women in the military, particularly those who are serving in Iraq. I said that they deserved an apology. They got one. And then I said, it was over.
MR. RUSSERT: What now? What does John McCain spend his time on? Will there be an attempt to once again have a vote on an office of public integrity in the Congress? Independent, to take ethics out of the Congress into an independent board?
SEN. McCAIN: We need an independent board, in my view, to decide whether the Ethics Committee should take up and investigate charges or allegations. I think we all realize the dissatisfaction that many of us have with the Ethics Committees in Congress. And so I feel that to have an outside board that when an allegation’s made, they say this deserves to be investigated by the Ethics Committees, then I think that’s an appropriate way to go. I hope we’ll pursue that. I hope we’ll pursue lobbying reform, other ethics reforms, earmarking—elimination of earmarking. The system of earmarking is corrupting. There’s sufficient proof of that now to—for anyone’s satisfaction. And we need the kind of leadership in both the House and the Senate that will address those.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator John McCain, we thank you for joining us and sharing your views, and we look forward to your decision—final decision in January.
SEN. McCAIN: Thank you.
MR. RUSSERT: Coming next, in August, he lost a Democratic primary in his home state of Connecticut. But on Tuesday, he was re-elected to the United States as an independent Democrat. What now for Senator Joe Lieberman and his Democratic Party? We’ll be right back after this.
MR. RUSSERT: Even though he won as an independent, will Joe Lieberman stay loyal to his fellow Senate Democrats of the past? We’ll ask him after this station break.
MR. RUSSERT: And we are back with Senator Joe Lieberman. Welcome.
SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN (I/D-CT): Tim, good to be back.
MR. RUSSERT: The Economist magazine, here is the headline. “Stuck with Joe:
Suddenly the most influential man in the Senate.” And what that refers to, senator, as you well know, the Senate is now 51 Democrats and independents; 49 Republicans. If you caucused with the Republicans rather then the Democrats, the Republicans would be in charge of the Senate.
SEN. LIEBERMAN: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: You will caucus with the Democrats?
SEN. LIEBERMAN: I will caucus with the Democrats. I said that to my constituents throughout. I’m going to caucus with the Democrats both because it’s good for my constituents in Connecticut, because I retained my seniority, I become a committee chair, but also I want to continue to work to bring the party back to its historic traditions of, of strength on national security, foreign policy and innovation, and progress in domestic policy—the, the Harry Truman/John F. Kennedy Democrat that, that I was raised to be.
But, but I’m going to be an independent because that is how and why I returned to the Senate. I was elected as an independent, I was elected, I believe, because I said to my constituents in Connecticut, “I’m, I’m as fed up with the partisanship in Washington as you are. I promise you I will put progress and, and patriotism ahead of partisanship and polarization.” So I’m going to—I am now an Independent Democrat, capital I, capital D. Matter of fact, the secretary of the Senate called my office and asked, “How do you want to be identified” and, and that’s it. Independent Democrat.
MR. RUSSERT: So you’ll be Senator Joe Lieberman, I/D, Connecticut.
SEN. LIEBERMAN: Yeah, we checked with history and actually in the late ‘70s Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia listed himself as an Independent Democrat. You got to go back to the mid-19th century to find the last Independent Democrat.
MR. RUSSERT: If you look at the exit polls for Connecticut in your race, it’s quite interesting. Here they are: Republicans--70 percent of Republicans voted for Lieberman; 8 percent voted for Democrat Ned Lamont and 21 percent voted for the Republican candidate Alan Schlesinger. Democrats: you got 33 percent. Lamont got 65 percent, Schlesinger—two out of three Democrats in Connecticut voted against Joe Lieberman.
SEN. LIEBERMAN: Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: And yet you’re caucusing as a Democrat.
SEN. LIEBERMAN: Well, it’s, it’s for the reasons that I’ve—that I’ve stated. But it also explains why I consider myself to be an Independent Democrat, and why I said to my constituents on Election Day in Connecticut, “I am going to Washington beholding to no political group except the people of Connecticut and of course my conscience.” If you look at the vote, and this is another reason why, why I’m an Indepen—why I say I’m an Independent Democrat, a majority of my votes came from independent and Republican voters in Connecticut. But of course I couldn’t have won without that Democratic support, either, and I—I’m glad we held a third of it. In the primary we almost got 50 percent. But I wasn’t the Democratic candidate this November.
MR. RUSSERT: And yet when you go back to the Senate, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Barack Obama, Barbara Boxer, Russ Feingold, Tom Harkin, Chris Dodd—your fellow senator from Connecticut, did a commercial for your opponent—all of them campaigned or gave money. Is it going to be awkward for you?
SEN. LIEBERMAN: Oh, it may be a little awkward, but look, they, they did—they played by the traditional partisan political playbook. And I can’t say I enjoyed it, but we’re all grownups, we’ve got a job to do, and I’m going to do my best to get that job done. But of course I’m going to continue to do what I’ve always done, and even more so, which is to work across party lines with my colleagues to get things done for my state and country. To me, that is my singular mission. And I’ll work with anybody I agree on. I’m not going to—agree with on a matter. I’m not going to look at party labels, I’m going to look at, at what can we get done for our country and my state.
MR. RUSSERT: If in fact they ask for discipline in the Democratic caucus, and you start to feel uncomfortable with it, would you consider crossing across the—going across the aisle, and joining the Republicans, if they gave you the same chairmanship that you had, and respected your seniority?
SEN. LIEBERMAN: Yeah. Well, that’s a hypothetical, which I’m, I’m not going to deal with here. I’m going to be an optimist, and take some encouragement from the fact that this was an election in which, in the House and Senate, Democrats came to the majority of both chambers by electing moderates mostly. This was an election that might be called the return of the center of American politics. And I think that my colleagues and leaders in the Democratic caucus get that. The fact is that this was not a major realignment election in my opinion. This was the voters in Connecticut and elsewhere saying, “We, we, we’re, we, we’re disappointed with the Republicans. We want to give the Democrats a chance.” But I believe that the American people are considering both major political parties to be in a kind of probation, because they’re, they’re understandably angry that Washington is dominated too much by partisan political games, and not enough by problem solving and patriotism, which means put the country and your state first.
MR. RUSSERT: Jim Jeffords of Vermont crossed over and joined the Democrats.
SEN. LIEBERMAN: Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: And they gave—they gave him his committee chairmanship.
SEN. LIEBERMAN: Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: You’re, you’re not ruling that out at some future time?
SEN. LIEBERMAN: I’m not ruling it out, but I hope I don’t get to that point. And, and I must say, and with all respect to the Republicans who supported me in Connecticut, nobody ever said, “We’re doing this because we, we want you to switch over. We want you to do what we think—what you think is right, and good for our state and country,” and I appreciate that.
MR. RUSSERT: Harry Reid, who will be the new majority leader, have you spoken to him?
SEN. LIEBERMAN: I have. We had a very good discussion, and I think Harry—I appreciate Harry’s initial statements here. He’s talked about bipartisanship, he’s talked about getting things done. And he has the ability to do that. And I think if he does, he’ll strengthen the Democratic Party. If we fall back in a partisan conflict, Democrats are going to be, be rejected by the public next time, just like Republicans were this time.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you think the voters talked about corruption and special interests on Tuesday?
SEN. LIEBERMAN: I absolutely do. I mean, you can look at these exit polls in a lot of different ways, but I can tell you in Connecticut that I believe voters were really angry about the failure of the status quo in Washington. The, the, the federal government, the people feel—and I agree with them—is broken, and it’s going to take both political parties to fix it. That includes corruption, that includes partisanship.
Incidentally, I think one of the best things that we could do in this lame duck session of Congress is to take the, the lobbying reform bill that passed the Senate, get it through the House and adopt it. It wasn’t perfect, it didn’t include the office of public integrity that John McCain and Susan Collins and Barack and—Obama and I wanted it to contain, but it, it is, it has total disclosure—excuse me—for lobbyists, a ban on gifts of all kinds. It would be a signal to the people that we heard them. Let’s, let’s clean up our own house.
MR. RUSSERT: But you are in a position now to exert a lot of influence. Here’s The Wall Street Journal from Friday. “Scandals Have Touched Some Key Democrats. Senator Harry Reid, who is expected to be elected to majority leader in the Senate, has come under attack for his relationship with Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a profitable land deal, and whether he inappropriately used campaign funds to give Christmas bonuses to employees at his condo complex.” Why not use, as a condition for your vote for majority leader for Mr. Reid, that he support the office of public integrity, and lobbying reform now? Would you consider that?
SEN. LIEBERMAN: Well, I, I’ve already given my commitment, and I said to my constituents during the campaign that I would organize with the Democrats for the reason I said. I want to continue the battle—bring the Democratic Party back to its historic role as a, as a progressive party at home, and a strong party abroad. And because I’m able to maintain my seniority, which will help me do more for my people in Connecticut.
So—but I’m going to push real hard on this lame duck session for that Office of Public Integrity and at least for the lobbying reform bill that passed the Senate that got stopped in the House. If, if the House Republicans want to show that they got the message of the election last Tuesday, they’ll, they’ll let that bill go, bring it to Conference Committee, and we’ll get it to the president before, before the lame duck session is over.
And incidentally, Tim, I’m going to fight with McCain and others for Office of Public Integrity. That office ought to investigate any—independently investigate any charges or corrup—of corruption or ethical wrongdoing by any member of Congress of either party...
MR. RUSSERT: But if you said to the Democratic leadership, “I will stay in caucus with you as long as you support this,” you’re in the driver’s seat.
SEN. LIEBERMAN: Well, I’m, I’m not going to start by threatening. I’m going to start by making clear what my priorities are, and I’m going to seek the support of, of my leadership and of members of both political parties.
MR. RUSSERT: The comment that caused a lot of difficulty for you in the Democratic primary was this: “It’s time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that he will be commander in chief for three more critical years, and that in matters of war we undermine presidential credibility at our nation’s peril.” Many Democrats interpreting that as your—an attempt by you to muzzle their criticism of the president.
SEN. LIEBERMAN: Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: In hindsight, wasn’t the criticism of the president and the war in Iraq one of the primary reasons Democrats won on Tuesday and why Donald Rumsfeld is no longer secretary of defense? That, in fact, it was those very words that you tried to silence that brought about change in this country?
SEN. LIEBERMAN: Yeah. Of all the millions of words that I’ve said during my public service career, that sentence was probably more unfairly taken out of context than anything I’ve said before, and my opponents know it. It was part of a speech I gave when I came back from Iraq last December. The whole speech was about the necessity of, of dialogue, discussion, debate about what’s happening in Iraq. I wouldn’t have criticized those who were criticizing the president on Iraq because I’ve criticized the administration on its execution of the war after Saddam Hussein was overthrown.
But the, the whole speech was aimed at saying, “Colleagues, fellow Americans, we are at war. We have 140,000 Americans over there in uniform. Stop the partisanship.” And, and I had a sentence before the one you read warning Republicans, pleading with them, “Involve Democrats more.” That was a sentence to say to Democrats, “If you take a shot at the president rhetorically about the war, make sure it’s based on substance and not on an attempt to gain partisan advantage. Because every time you do that, you do weaken the president as commander in chief.”
Let me just say this, Tim: I think we’ve got a window of opportunity here. Yes, the, the voters were saying to us they’re not happy with the way things are going in Iraq. How could they be? I’m not. I don’t know anybody who is. But we’re not going to fix this and succeed in Iraq without working across party lines.
Incidentally, I’m intending, when the, when the new session convenes, to introduce a joint resolution to establish a bipartisan working group in Iraq composed of the chairs and, and senior Republicans, and the relevant security committees to, to monitor and work with the administration on a bipartisan basis to bring Iraq to a success. The voters spoke on Tuesday that they’re unhappy with the status quo. I don’t believe that they, they want us to pick up and leave Iraq, because they know that that would have disastrous consequences on Iraq, the Middle East, and on our security against terrorism.
MR. RUSSERT: But, senator, you evolved on the issue. In ‘04, about Rumsfeld, you said, “Donald Rumsfeld’s removal would delight foreign and domestic opponents of America’s presence in Iraq.” A few days before the primary, you said Rumsfeld should go. But less than a year ago, you said we were making progress in Iraq.
SEN. LIEBERMAN: We were.
MR. RUSSERT: But now, today, in ‘06, do you share Senator McCain’s view that we should send in more American troops and either win the war or, quote/unquote, “win the war” or withdraw?
SEN. LIEBERMAN: Let me go back real briefly on Rumsfeld. I said in October of 2003 that I thought the president should bring in a new secretary of defense because our policy in Iraq was collapsing then and somebody had to be held accountable. When I made that statement, it was a time around—I think it was around Abu Ghraib, and I said “This is the wrong time to pull out the secretary of defense.’”
MR. RUSSERT: But should we send more troops in?
SEN. LIEBERMAN: I think we have to be open to that, as, as a way to succeed, to achieve a free and independent Iraq, which would be an extraordinary accomplishment. But it’s got to be tied to a, to a new strategy, and it may be that it should be tied to commitments from the Iraqi government to, to disarm those militias and to bring more Sunnis into a national unity government. But, but I wouldn’t send more troops just for the sake of sending more troops. But I would if it’s tied to a success strategy.
MR. RUSSERT: I think the concern a lot of people have is that what have we created in Iraq? And you’ve been a strong proponent of the war...
SEN. LIEBERMAN: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: ...all the way. This was a photograph Wednesday. That’s the Prime Minister Maliki with the Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament Mahmoud al-Mashhadani. And this is what the speaker of the Iraqi Parliament said. He “accused ‘Jews’ of financing acts of violence in Iraq in order to discredit Islamists who control the parliament and government so they can install their ‘agents’ in power... Some people say, ‘We saw you beheading, kidnapping and killing. In the end we even started kidnapping women who are our honor,’ [Speaker Mahmoud] al-Mashhadani said. ‘These acts are not the work of Iraqis. I am sure he who does this is a Jew and the son of a Jew. ... No one deserves to rule Iraq other than Islamists’” Speaker of the parliament.
SEN. LIEBERMAN: Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: Have we created a fundamentalist Islamic regime?
SEN. LIEBERMAN: No. Those are hateful, stupid statements and all of us should reject them, but that, you know, this is a Democracy now and what we’re fighting—see, if we pick up and leave, Iran and the terrorists, the, the extreme Islamist terrorists, will surge in and dominate most of that country. Then we’ll have a real hell in Iraq that will affect the security in the entire Middle East and the United States of America in our war against the Islamist terrorists.
Most Iraqis, from every indication I’ve had, from talking to our troops, still want to live a better, freer life. If we can build a free and independent Iraq, it will be a significant victory in the larger war for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. We’ve got to try to create an alternative path to the future in the Arab-Islamic world than the one that al-Qaeda offers. And I’m not ready to give up on Iraq, certainly not based on ridiculous statements by one official.
MR. RUSSERT: General Thurman, the ranking commander on the ground for the U.S., said “The problem is we want it more than they do.”
SEN. LIEBERMAN: No, from everything I hear, the majority want it. And here’s the problem. We were making great progress last year, three elections, a unity government formed. We were, we were moving forward against the terrorists who exactly went the opposite, and the Iranians, from what we want. And then al-Qaeda in Iraq—Zarqawi claimed credit for this—blew up the holy Shiia mosque in Samarra, and that began this terrible cycle of sectarian violence. We cannot yield to it.
Look, there—in every war, the second World War, there were moments when we could’ve pulled out, when we could’ve set a deadline, but we didn’t because we believed the consequences of doing so would be much greater and worse than what was happening on the ground. I believe that’s where we...
MR. RUSSERT: But a vast--60 percent of the American people say they don’t support this war.
SEN. LIEBERMAN: I—they, they don’t support what’s happening.
MR. RUSSERT: You, you...
SEN. LIEBERMAN: Two things I’d say, Tim. They don’t support what’s happening in the war now. They don’t, I, I believe, want us to just pick up and leave. But most important of all, and I, I appreciate what John McCain said earlier on this; as elected leaders, we cannot conduct our defense and foreign policy, our national security policy, by public opinion polls. We’ve got to do what we sincerely...
MR. RUSSERT: But can you keep a country at war that doesn’t want to be there?
SEN. LIEBERMAN: You can’t, and that’s why we need to form a bipartisan consensus for victory in Iraq, for success in Iraq, which is still attainable. And, and this is the, this is the great problem, the terrorists cannot defeat us on the battlefield in Iraq, but we can lose the war here at home if we don’t begin to be bipartisan about it and, and regain the confidence and some hope for the American people. I do think that the president bringing in a new secretary of defense is a significant move which will now reopen the discussion with the American people, with our allies, with the American military, and I, and I hope it will lead to some progress in Iraq.
MR. RUSSERT: Well, we shall see and we’ll be covering that. We thank you for joining us with your views.
SEN. LIEBERMAN: Thank you, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: And our viewers should know we extended invitations to the new Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Harry Reid. Both declined our invitation, but we hope they’ll be here on a future Sunday.
Coming next, insights and analysis from Maureen Dowd of The New York Times and David Gregory of NBC News.
MR. RUSSERT: And we’re back. David Gregory, Maureen Dowd, welcome both. Democrats take control of both houses of Congress. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld is—exits. What happened on Tuesday? What message was sent?
MS. MAUREEN DOWD: Well, I think the American people are tired of belligerence, and a kind of moral crusade based on a war that wasn’t waged in a moral way, either in how it was ginned up, or in how it was presented truthfully to the American people.
MR. RUSSERT: David, Karl Rove says this: “Iraq mattered. But it was more frustration than it was an explicit call for withdrawal. If this was a get-out-now call for withdrawal, then Lamont would not have been beaten by Lieberman. Iraq does play a role, but not the critical, central role. ... The profile of corruption in the exit polls was bigger than I’d expected. Abramoff, lobbying, Foley and Haggard [the disgraced evangelical leader] added to the general distaste that people have for all things Washington, and it just reached critical mass.”
MR. DAVID GREGORY: You know, I think that latter point is important. Yes, there was a sense of incompetence among Republicans, that they just can’t run anything, even the important things, like Iraq. But I think that, that Karl, in the view of a lot of Republicans, is underselling the impact of the war.
First of all, in Connecticut, there was more at play than just Iraq. The exit polls show that a majority of the voters didn’t think Lamont had the experience to be senator, and he was a hard left position: “Get troops out now.” I think that made a lot of the Republicans who voted for Lieberman nervous. But make no mistake, six out of 10, according to the exit polls, Americans who voted said Iraq was the big issue, and they weren’t happy with how it’s going.
MR. RUSSERT: Maureen Dowd, here’s the cover of Newsweek magazine. “Father Knows Best.” With Bush 41, Bush 43, and it’s subtitled “With Congress Lost, Iraq in Chaos, Bush Calls In His Dad’s Team. Can James, James Baker and Company Save the Son’s Presidency?” Very similar to a column you wrote on Thursday. You think there’s truth to that?
MS. DOWD: Well, I think the best way for me to describe it is that, remember when parents would have their teenagers kidnapped by a Moony cult, and they would try and, and get him back, and deprogram him? That’s what’s—the, the 41 group is doing. They’re trying to get W back away from the cult of the neocons, as they see it, and reprogram him in the family tradition of internationalism, diplomacy, nuance. And Baker’s the deprogrammer.
MR. RUSSERT: You say this: James “‘Baker’s no fool,’ a Bush 41 official said. ‘He wasn’t going to go out there with a plan for Iraq and have Rummy shoot it down. He wanted a receptive audience. Everyone had to be on the same page before the plan is unveiled.’” That James Baker was involved in the dismissal of Donald Rumsfeld?
MS. DOWD: Well, I think—you know, I went to Texas A&M right after W’s presidency started, and the 41 group was already really worried about the belligerent attitude, the linear approach to foreign affairs. Black and white, having to inflate villains, and demote diplomacy. And, and they were worried about them blowing up the world, getting rid of international agreements, and that was before 9/11 and Iraq. So they have, you know, thought this team was on the wrong course, making things up as they go along, for a long time.
MR. RUSSERT: Robert Gates was Bush 41’s director of the CIA. He also worked on national security staff. His, his deputy was Condoleezza Rice, now secretary of state.
But, David, back to the Rummy thing. Newt Gingrich is saying that the president should have fired Rumsfeld two weeks before the election, and they would have held the Senate—the Republicans—and probably saved 10 to 15 seats.
MR. GREGORY: Well, look, I—there’s a lot of debate about this. The reality is that there was an ongoing debate, we now know, led by Andy Card and others within the administration, to fire Rumsfeld right after the re-election in 2004. I think there was also a feeling, in the run-up to the election this time, that to send that kind of signal would have been to say, basically, “We’re losing the war and our policy is a failure.” Now, a lot of people have concluded that anyway. But they thought it would’ve hurt, hurt the base. You know, Newt Gingrich also saying if he had done it longer out, two weeks, maybe two months, maybe it would’ve had some impact, could’ve helped them keep the Senate. So it’s a close call. The choice that the president made was to stick by him as early as a week before the elections.
MR. RUSSERT: A week before the election, he told the wire services that Rumsfeld was doing a fantastic job...
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: ...and he would be there through the end of the second term. The president had a news conference on Wednesday, was asked about that. You were there. Let’s watch.
(Videotape, November 8, 2006):
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Thank you, Mr. President. Last week you told us that Secretary Rumsfeld would be staying on. Why is the timing right now for this, and how much does it have to do with the election results?
PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: Right. No. You and Hunt and Kyle came in the Oval Office and you asked—Hunt asked me the question, and one week before the campaign. And basically “Is he going to do something about Rumsfeld and the vice president?” And my answer was, you know, “They’re going to stay on.” And the reason why is I didn’t want to inject a major decision about this war in the, in the final days of the campaign. So the only way to answer that question and to get you onto another question was to give you that answer.
MR. RUSSERT: An inoperative choice of words in terms of...
MR. GREGORY: Right, well, he deliberately misled those reporters, and he said he did it because he didn’t want to inject politics in the campaign. You have to wonder why—how he could—was there a way to, to get around that question in some fashion so he didn’t have to give that ammunition to people who thought the policy was a failure. And that’s what he did right at the end.
Look, Republicans were worried that the president was talking about the war at all within the last couple weeks of the campaign. He’s saying that he was frustrated, that, you know, that we have to adapt. A lot of people thought, A, that that was too late to realize that, and B, he shouldn’t have been injecting that in the last couple of weeks.
MR. RUSSERT: Does that hurt his credibility with you and the press corps?
MR. GREGORY: Well, I—look, you know, you like to get a straight answer out of the president. He laid out his case for, for why he did it, and there’s no question that would’ve injected politics. So I think people see it different ways.
MR. RUSSERT: Maureen Dowd, we’re hearing a lot about bipartisanship. The president saying, you know, he came to Washington, he was a uniter, not a divider. This has been a very polarizing administration, playing to the Republican base. Is the Bush White House capable of now pivoting and being truly bipartisan, working with the congressional leadership, and are the Democrats in a receptive mood? Or is it time for payback?
MS. DOWD: Well, I think that Bush is going to try to, at first, go back to his persona that he had in the Texas legislature of someone who could work with the other side. But I think it’s going to be very tough for him because he and Rummy and Cheney have basically had this “Who’s your daddy?” attitude to the world and the Congress, and they’re used to the executive branch getting more and more and more power. And now they have Nancy Pelosi saying to them, “Who’s your mommy?”
MR. GREGORY: But, but, look, Rumsfeld’s gone. There’s going to be some targets of opportunity here, whether it’s immigration or the minimum wage. But this is still all about Iraq. And here’s what in—what’s interesting to me about what Senator McCain said on this program today. That is, you either send more troops or you get out now. He recognizes there aren’t going to be more troops. So if it’s get out now, that’s a consistent message, in some ways, with the Democrats, who say “We’ve got to put more pressure on the Iraqi government, tell them we’re not here forever. ‘You either clean up the militias, do something about the violence, or we are going to get out.’” I think the president’s going to get closer to sending that message himself and he may use that—the Baker commission, to do the same.
RUSSERT: You may have the candidates for president in 2008 of both parties overseeing a withdrawal strategy as opposed to a victory strategy. Calling it victory.
MS. DOWD: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: Fair?
MS. DOWD: Mm-hmm.
MR. RUSSERT: Yeah!
MR. GREGORY: Well, you know, right. But I think that’s right. And I think that’s what—for—if you look forward to ‘08, both Republicans and Democrats want to be debating an exit strategy instead of debating the level of violence and what to do next.
MS. DOWD: Well, the fascinating thing is James Baker’s the ultimate fixer. He’s fantastic. He even survived an interview with Sacha Baron Cohen. But can he fix Iraq, or is it too late?
MR. RUSSERT: We will find out. Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, we’ll read your columns. David Gregory, we’ll watch your reports on NBC News.
And we’ll be right back.
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