MR. DAVID GREGORY: Our issues this Sunday: What now in Iraq? With public support for the war waning, another Republican senator calls for a change in the president’s strategy.
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: We need a new strategy for Iraq that forces the Iraqi government to do more or else.
MR. GREGORY: Our guest, one of the first GOP senators to say no to the president’s troop surge, the senior senator from Nebraska, Chuck Hagel.
And in our political roundtable, Bill and Hillary Clinton campaign together in Iowa. One-time Republican front-runner John McCain struggles to keep his campaign afloat. And the president commutes the prison sentence of “Scooter” Libby. Insights and analysis on a busy political week from David Brooks of The New York Times, Anne Kornblut of The Washington Post, Todd Purdum of Vanity Fair and Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post.
But first, the war in Iraq. And with us is Republican Senator of Nebraska Chuck Hagel.
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R-NE): David, thank you.
MR. GREGORY: Let me begin with a stark picture of reality on the ground in Iraq and show our viewers what some of the statistics are. U.S. troops killed in Iraq to date, since the start of the war, 3,601; since the beginning of the so-called troop surge, the president’s strategy announced back in February, 518. And this, this morning from The Washington Post about the administration, trimming, sort of shaving the yardstick for gains in Iraq, the reporting from The Washington Post: “The Iraqi government is unlikely to meet any of the political and security goals or timelines President Bush set for it in January when he announced a major shift in U.S. policy, according to senior administration officials.” What troubles you about this reality?
SEN. HAGEL: What troubles me most is the fact that we are not focused on the real issue here. We have been captive to a violent—continuous cycle of uncontrollable violence produced by a sectarian war, a civil war. As General Petraeus has said, he’s said it in a number of settings, committee hearings, others, there will be no military solution in Iraq. Well, of course there will not be. Our focus should be on a political accommodation. In order to break this cycle of violence, to stop it, and there will be no other way to do this, is to find some way to focus our resources and harness our energies and the energies of the region and the international community on that, that focused issue. Now, is there a role for our military? Of course there is. But we can’t continue to put our people in the middle of a civil war and think that this is going to get better or your going to improve the situation.
MR. GREGORY: But, senator, the president has argued that political accommodation, political reconciliation can only happen when there is a level of stability and security in the country for that to emerge. That still hasn’t been accomplished yet.
SEN. HAGEL: Well, I think we have inverted the process. Of course, security and stability that requires a military force is part of that. But parallel to that, but more central to that, is how do you get to the core issue here, and that is, how do you break the cycle of violence? And until we regionalize and internationalize this, and how—until we go after that accommodation, for example, we’re not only not making progress or seeing progress made by the Iraqis, but they’re going backward. There was a report last night that there may be a test vote in the 275-member parliament in Iraq next week about whether they have confidence in the Maliki government. If the Maliki government would not get a vote of confidence, that would be disastrous.
MR. GREGORY: Let’s provide some context here. Seventy-four members of parliament have boycotted, as you say, the 275-member body. There’s 12 ministers from the 38-member Cabinet no longer attending Cabinet meetings. There was an oil revenue law where they would share between Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites that was passed but without Sunni participation, which renders it virtually meaningless, and the agreement on the oil revenue part has still not been struck. So this is that fundamental question for the government of Nouri al-Maliki: Can he actually govern a unity government? Do you still have confidence in his ability to do that?
SEN. HAGEL: Well, it’s not so much do I have confidence; it’s not even so much does the United States have confidence. Those are uncontrollables that, that we can’t, we, we can’t control, we must factor in. But some things we can control, and we do also know that the, the political support for this war is gone. It’s eroding. It’s eroding in the Republican Party. That’s a reality. So we’re going to have to move towards some new strategy, some new policy that must be focused on political accommodation. And I don’t see any other way out of this. If, for no other reason, David, as the generals have told us, when, when we get to April of next year, the rotation cycle will be so damaged that we won’t have the manpower to be able to continue to extend these deployments, and we just won’t have the capability to be where we are today. Now, that’s a reality. That, that isn’t subjective, that’s a reality. We need to get out ahead of this. We need to bring in the regional justice—the Baker-Hamilton report noted—the regional formalization of, of a regional security effort, internationalize this, probably, as I’ve said, through a international mediator under the auspices of the United Nations. We’re not only not making progress, but we’re going backwards by every measurement in Iraq.
MR. GREGORY: That, that prescription that you talk about, you wrote about this week in the Financial Times in an op-ed piece, and in that you also say, “If there’s Iraqi resistance to the idea of an international mediator coming in trying to strike a deal on political reconciliation between Sunni, Shia and Kurd, that we should be clear with Iraq’s leaders,” you wrote, “that this initiative is a condition of a continued U.S. support.”
SEN. HAGEL: Mm-hmm.
MR. GREGORY: So take the American face off of this both militarily and politically, in your judgment, but really force their hand at some kind of political agreement.
SEN. HAGEL: Well, as I’ve said from the beginning, and I wasn’t the only one to say this, the outcome in Iraq will be determined by the Iraqis. It’s not going to be determined by the United States. We can help, we can support, and we have a role. Obviously we have an interest. We are where we are. We’ve got a mess on our hands in Iraq. We have done so much to undermine our own interests and influence in the Middle East, we’re going to have to find some new high ground here.
One thing we cannot continue to do, the American people won’t allow it, the Congress won’t, is to continue to put our men and women in the middle of a civil war. Our policies first, for the United States, should be worthy of the sacrifices our men and women make. It is not today. It is not a workable policy. So that means we’re going to have to shift. That’s what the Pete Domenici piece was about.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
SEN. HAGEL: That’s what Dick Lugar and George Voinivich and others have been talking about.
But we have to also recognize this, David, is there’s a difference between getting—continue to get bogged down in Iraq and taking our eye off the bigger issue here, which we have, in my opinion, last four years, and that, that is is extremism. That’s terrorism around the world. And the longer we stay bogged down in Iraq, it undercuts our ability to respond to this, and also it does great damage, as it is, to our Army and our Marines.
MR. GREGORY: So you talk about being bogged down in Iraq, you talk about key Republican voices, and a growing number of them, beginning to call for a different strategy. Do you now believe that it’s time to set a timeline for troop withdrawal?
SEN. HAGEL: Well, it’s going to be forced on us. We come back into session tomorrow, as you know, the fiscal year 2008, defense authorization bill’s going to be up. We’re going to have a number of amendments related directly to Iraq. One of those amendments is going to be withdrawal. I have not seen—and a phase withdrawal. I’ve said we need a phase withdrawal plan. We need a redeployment plan. But we also need, just as Baker-Hamilton said, engagement with Iran, with Syria.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
SEN. HAGEL: We need to have a special envoy. Hopefully, Tony Blair’s willing to put the time into it, and he’s got the mandate and authority to deal with the Israeli/Palestinian issue, internationalize Iraq. These are all factors that have to play out with a larger, wider scope of policy. We—we’ve not done that in the past. If we don’t do that, we’re going to find ourselves in so much trouble, in such a deep hole that our influence will, as it is now, is negligible because we’re seen by the Iraqis in the Middle East as occupiers.
MR. GREGORY: But, but you sound like you are getting closer to that fundamental judgment about trying to set some kind of timeline, a date to get troops either redeployed or withdrawn completely.
SEN. HAGEL: I’m open to that, I want to look at that. But it has to be more than just that. It has to be more than just withdrawal and timelines and phased withdrawals, responsible phased withdrawals. All these other things have to be dealt with as well. That, that isn’t going to fix it. Yes, you’ll pull your, your troops out, but the fact is we still have interests in Iraq. Iraq, the Middle East is more dangerous today, more combustible, more complicated than we’ve ever seen.
MR. GREGORY: As you know, Senator Salazar of Colorado is suggesting full implementation of the Baker-Hamilton report, which speaks to a withdrawal, a timeline, as well as engagement regionally. Is that something you’re prepared to support?
SEN. HAGEL: Well, I’ve said from the beginning—I may have been the first senator to say it—the president missed a, a tremendous opportunity when he did not use the Baker-Hamilton report late last year to build a new bipartisan consensus on Iraq. They, they chose not to do that. They have been drifting toward many of those 79 recommendations. I support those recommendations. I was a strong supporter. Still am. It’s a safe harbor for many senators to be. I mean I don’t know how you could not be for almost all of those recommendations. But I think you’re going to have to go beyond that for all the reasons I mentioned and more. We, we are not factoring in the larger arc of challenges and threats that face our country and the world today, and, at the same time, we’re weakening our military. Any general—and I’ve had a lot of them talk to me privately, some still in uniforms and many out—will tell you that we’re doing great damage to our Army and our Marines. I had three generals tell me two weeks ago it’ll take a generation to put that Army back together. Now I’m not an Army general, I didn’t spend 35 years of, of my life in the Army like many of these people did, but that’s one component. Counterinsurgency—David Petraeus wrote the manual on it. Counterinsurgency is all about hearts and minds. It’s all about relationships. It’s all about improving networks. It’s improving conditions for, for people. It’s trust and confidence.
Last point I’d make on this, David, the world wants America to lead. It does not want America to impose or dictate, impose its wishes or dictate the terms. The world knows when America is weak and has lost influence the world is very dangerous. We have got to recapture that. Iraq is within that horizon, but it’s, it’s bigger than Iraq.
MR. GREGORY: A top commander, Major General Rick Lynch, said this week it would be a mess in Iraq if U.S. troops were to, to begin to withdraw, that the enemy would regain ground, the insurgency would gain strength. How worried are you about a withdrawal timeline fortifying the insurgency and al-Qaeda elements?
SEN. HAGEL: Well, let’s, let’s be honest here. We have a mess now. I mean, who are we kidding? We’ve got a mess now. You’ve just put up on the screen before we started this conversation what the current casualty number is. We have no good options in Iraq now. There are no good options. That’s just a fact of life. So we deal with the facts as they are. We’re not going to get out of this alone. We’re going to require the regional component formalizing this in some way, as well as an international component to this. I don’t know how this plays out in Iraq. This thing may go on for a few years in the form of a civil war. I don’t know. If Maliki’s government goes down next week, that’s a whole new presentation to a, to a fact, a group of facts here that we’ve had to, to deal with that makes it far more complicated than what we’ve had in the past.
MR. GREGORY: You’ve thought a lot about Iraq and about the war. You served in Vietnam and thought about the history and where there are parallels. And this is what was written in the New Republic in a profile of you back in June. “The first public inkling of Hagel’s changed outlook [on Vietnam] would come in a [Washington Post] profile of him in November of 2004. Hagel described the learning process he was going through. ‘I read everything I could about Indochina, about the war, about the French, about Vietnam, about our policy, what got us there. ... And the more I read, the more I understood. ... I got a sense that there was just so much dishonesty in it.’” This is you speaking. “‘And it was chewing these kids up. ... So I started connecting all the deaths and all the suffering and the chaos and wounds. I started to sense a dishonesty about it all.’ Hagel now saw the war in Vietnam, like the war in Iraq, as a war of choice—one that had been built on an edifice of lies.” An edifice of lies. You believe that about this war as well in Iraq?
SEN. HAGEL: Well, I certainly believe it was an edifice of distortions. And we are finding out more and more about how we got into this war—the distortions, the manipulation, taking certain intelligence pieces to fit your policy. There’s no question that this administration, certainly almost everyone at the top from the president and the vice president on down—I think Colin Powell was the only one that pushed back, and I had many conversations with all those leaders at the time—this administration wanted to go to war with Saddam. They were not prepared. They got us into a lot of trouble. They have done great damage to our standing in the world, to our military, to our own interests, to our influence. But we’re not going to go back and unwind those bad decisions. Yes, I see some parallels to Vietnam. And maybe the worst of all is, when Johnson continued to confide in his friend Senator Russell from Georgia saying, “I know we can’t win, but I don’t want to lose this war, be the first president to lose a war,” so every day more American casualties. That was immoral. That was wrong.
No one can lead—no, no one can ever accomplish anything in life without trust and without confidence. That is the only currency that counts. And when the American people have no longer the trust and confidence they need in their leadership—and that’s why the poll numbers are the way they are today, David—then you can’t lead, you can’t make policy. And that’s very dangerous for a country.
MR. GREGORY: Are you suggesting that George W. Bush is guilty of that same sort of immorality, that fear of being the first president to, you know, to, to lose a war? Although many thought that, that Johnson did at that time, but that fear of not losing this war?
SEN. HAGEL: Well, I think that the president—and I’ve said this many times—believes in what he’s doing. I, I don’t think there’s a question, at least in my mind, that he absolutely believes in what he’s doing. I happen to disagree with a lot of those beliefs. I have never accused him of duplicity. I’ve never accused him of immorality. We’ll see where this goes. I would say this: If we do not see this administration take some initiative to make some changes, significant strategic policy changes over the next 90 days, then, of course, it will be forced on them, and that will lead me to believe that they are just holding on, hoping that they, they, they can, at the end, resurrect something out of this, at a great cost of our American men and women. This country should always focus on, as I said earlier, a policy worthy of the sacrifices of these young men and women and their families. We—I cannot say that today, nor could I the last four years that we have that policy.
MR. GREGORY: You haven’t accused the president of duplicity, but you have leveled some pretty strong criticism at him, including this, back in the spring of this year. “‘The president says, “I don’t care.” He’s not accountable anymore,’ Hagel says, measuring his words by the syllable and his syllables almost by the letter.’” This is in Esquire magazine. “‘He’s not accountable anymore, which isn’t totally true. You can impeach him, and before this is over, you might see calls for his impeachment. I don’t know. It depends how this goes.’” Certainly got you some criticism from fellow Republicans. You still, still believe that’s the case? And, in fact, as situation—the situation has deteriorated, do you think there’s more momentum for impeachment?
SEN. HAGEL: Well, I was responding to a question in that interview, “What can the Congress do, what can the American people do if the president says ‘I don’t care’ or ‘I won’t listen’ and ‘I’m the president, I’m the decider, I’m the commander in chief’?” So I was responding, said, “Well, no, there are things we can do.” I talked about appropriations. We control appropriations. Lot of things. In the end, I said, “There’s always impeachment if there were articles drawn up that focused on him breaking the law or some clearly defined constitutional violation of the, of the, of our Constitution.” Where that goes, I, I, I don’t know. I don’t see any effort to do that today. But what I was doing there, David, was just responding to a question.
MR. GREGORY: But you don’t see greater momentum toward impeachment now?
SEN. HAGEL: Well, you can’t just arbitrarily impeach a president. There has to be a grounds for impeachment. There have to be articles of impeachment drawn up based on did the president obstruct or lie or violate something in the Constitution? It’s clear.
MR. GREGORY: Right. And to, to be clear, you would oppose that?
SEN. HAGEL: Well, certainly, I don’t see anything today. I’ve just said that I think the president believes in what he’s doing. I think he believes that, that this is the right course of action. I happen to disagree with him.
MR. GREGORY: All right. But if he holds on, you also said, then you see him moving into a different area, where he’s actually not leveling with the, the public.
SEN. HAGEL: No, I didn’t say that. No, I didn’t say that at all. I said, I talked about strategy.
MR. GREGORY: Yes.
SEN. HAGEL: I said, if, if they don’t make changes in the next 90 days, then, then the Congress will make some changes, then we will have to see where we are, and then you could see the parallels with Johnson holding on and holding on and holding on and just keep the same kind of strategy. But we’ll see. You know that the national security adviser for the president, Stephen Hadley, has been on the Hill. He’s been talking to a number of people. I spent an hour with him two weeks ago. He was up on the Hill to talk to members about where we go from here, where we, some of us, think we should go from here. Well, that’s healthy, that’s good. I appreciate that. But that has to be connected with a reality of some changes.
MR. GREGORY: Right. Let, let’s talk bout where Chuck Hagel goes from here politically. You’re a proud Republican and have been for years. You’ve also expressed some displeasure with the, the current state of the Republican Party. And I’d like to take you through a chronology of some statements you’ve made about your political future that have raised eyebrows among a lot of people. Back in February, on this program, your conversation with Tim Russert about your political future went like this. Let’s watch.
(Videotape, February 18, 2007)
MR. TIM RUSSERT: You said last month you would decide this month whether you were going to run for president in 2008. Will you?
SEN. HAGEL: I’ll make a decision within a couple of weeks.
MR. GREGORY: And then—that was February—then in March, you called reporters to the University of Nebraska for a press conference with a great sense of urgency. Your decision there, though, in terms of running for president, was not for now. This is how The New York Times described it. “Hagel said that he would not enter the 2008 presidential race for the time being, at least. Mr. Hagel did not extinguish the prospect of jumping into the Republican contest later this year. Aides said Mr. Hagel had no intention of seeking the presidential nomination as an independent or third party candidate.”
Now fast forward to May of this year, and this headline in the Omaha World-Herald: “Hagel dines with Bloomberg,” the mayor of New York, a good dinner on the menu, but also perhaps conversation of independent politics. We know Mayor Bloomberg is exploring the possibility of an independent run for the president.
And then you spoke to CBS, to CBS News, in May, also in May. You were asked, “Could you see a ticket that had Mayor Bloomberg and Chuck Hagel on the same ticket?” Your response, “It’s a great country to think about—a New York boy and a Nebraska boy to be teamed up leading this nation.” So where is Chuck Hagel? Do you want to run for president?
SEN. HAGEL: Well, I’ll make that decision in the next couple of months, and I, I need to make that decision as to my political future. I’ve got to decide whether I want to ask the people of Nebraska to consider giving me a third term in the Senate. I also have said, and said this when I first ran for the Senate after I got elected in 1996, that 12 years, two terms, may be enough. And that’s another option. And then, if there might be a place for me along the presidential road somewhere, to try to have some influence and change the course of this country, then I’ll look at that. But that decision needed to be made soon, and I’ll make it soon.
MR. GREGORY: Were you to run, would you run as a Republican or as an independent?
SEN. HAGEL: Well, I have no intention of changing parties. And that doesn’t mean, by the way, that I don’t think an independent does not have some renewed possibilities next year to be president.
MR. GREGORY: Are you ruling that out, running as an independent?
SEN. HAGEL: For right now I am, and what the world looks like next year, I don’t know. But I have no plans to change parties or run for president as an independent.
MR. GREGORY: But you’re leaving both of those options open.
SEN. HAGEL: Well, I think...
MR. GREGORY: Both running and running as an independent.
SEN. HAGEL: I think anybody in this business, but anybody in life, and I’ve learned this in 60 years, David, that you try to keep as many options open for yourself in life for yourself as you can. And you try to be in a, a position where you’ve got some opportunities. I can’t say today what the world looks like in a year. I don’t know what, what this is going to—the political world in America’ll look like in six or seven months.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
SEN. HAGEL: But right now, I have no plans to change parties, I have no plans to seek the presidency as an independent candidate.
MR. GREGORY: What, what are you waiting for? Because you’ve been looking at this for some time. What dynamic in the race or in events in the world are you waiting to see before making that decision?
SEN. HAGEL: Well, two things. One, I do think some of us who hold real jobs now have some responsibility to focus on those jobs. I think this presidential race got started absurdly too early. And the media and others are concentrated on Bill Clinton walking in a parade with Hillary and will Bill overshadow Hillary. I think the country would like to know a little more about how Hillary, and the media would ask her the questions about how she would get us out of Iraq and some of these other questions. My friend John McCain, the media has just written him off because he didn’t raise as much money. John McCain is one of the most qualified candidates ever to come along to be president of the United States. Now, that’s a sad, sad commentary on our system when the focus is on who can raise the most money, not who is best qualified, who has the best solutions for the future of our country. I wasn’t going to put myself in that situation early on. I think someone should be paying attention to Iraq, should be paying attention to entitlements, to immigration reform, some of the things that we should be focused on. Now, I understand the political realities. I can’t change those. But what I do control in this business, which is very little, I’ll, I’ll keep that control. And so that—that’s essentially why I make the decisions I do.
MR. GREGORY: You raised Senator McCain.
SEN. HAGEL: Yes.
MR. GREGORY: You were obviously a stalwart supporter of his back in 2000. Do you still support him for the presidency?
SEN. HAGEL: Well, I haven’t thrown my support behind any—anyone yet. If I’m not a candidate, then I may, I don’t know. We’ll, we’ll see. But we’ve got many, many very good candidates, by the way, in both parties. You look at Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, two of the most experienced, qualified people to ever come along. Unfortunately, they’re not—at least according to the polls—not getting much traction. This is all about money and parades and so on. Well, that, that really debases the system. It’s not in the interest of our country.
MR. GREGORY: And, and part of why you think the country is ready for an independent candidate.
SEN. HAGEL: Well, I think that there’s a possibility that America—and look at the polls. Look at how lowly regarded Congress, both parties, the president, is in any poll in job approval ratings. Look at the question in your poll, by the way, The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll two weeks ago: Right way, wrong way, is America going in the right direction or the wrong direction? Eighteen percent, historic low, said America’s going in the right direction. That means America’s lost confidence in both parties and its leadership. Would there be room for a third party or an independent candidate? And there’s a difference—that, that’s different, by the way, and—as you know. I don’t know, maybe so. The question there always is how do you get to 270 electoral votes?
MR. GREGORY: Right. Before I let you go, big news this week, the president commutes the sentence of Scooter Libby, former chief of staff to the vice president. Was it the right decision?
SEN. HAGEL: I was disappointed in that decision. I, I don’t think it was the right decision. The, the president, in my opinion, needs to let that system work, especially in light of what he said, or at least reported that he said, that he supported the verdict. He thought the jury verdict was correct. And I don’t know if America wants to see a president get into selecting, like on a menu, “Well, I’ll pick a little of this and a little of this. I’ll kind of let that go,” as to how I would handle what our system of justice is all about. It’s not a selective system of justice. That’s not what our founders implied nor wrote nor meant when they wrote the Constitution. Does the president have the power to pardon anyone? Yes. I mean, look at Bill Clinton’s pardons. But I think it was the wrong decision, and I’m sorry he did it. But that was his decision.
MR. GREGORY: We’ll leave it there. Senator Chuck Hagel...
SEN. HAGEL: David, thank you.
MR. GREGORY: ...thanks for being here.
Coming next, Bill and Hillary campaign in Iowa, McCain’s campaign in trouble, and fallout from the Libby prison sentence commutation that we were discussing. Insights and analysis from our roundtable—David Brooks, Anne Kornblut, Todd Purdum and Gene Robinson—all coming up right here on MEET THE PRESS.
MR. GREGORY: Our political roundtable with David Brooks, Anne Kronblut, Todd Purdum and Gene Robinson after this brief station break.
MR. GREGORY: We are back. Welcome to all. The president decided this week to create headlines, to commute the sentence of Scooter Libby, the vice president’s former chief of staff.
And, David Brooks, this is how you wrote about it in your column in The New York Times. “In retrospect, Plamegate was a farce in five acts. The first four were scabrous, disgraceful and absurd. Justice only reared its head at the end. [The President’s] decision to commute Libby’s sentence but not erase his conviction was exactly right. It punishes him for his perjury, but not for the phantasmagorical political farce that grew to surround him. It takes away his career, but not his family. Of course, the howlers howl. That is their assigned posture in this drama. They entered howling, they will all leave howling and the only thing you can count on is their anger has been cynically manufactured from start to finish.” First, why did Bush do it?
MR. DAVID BROOKS: Well, he did it—I, I mean, they did have an internal review within the White House, and he looked at the transcripts with his staff and they cut out the Department of Justice, and the decision was he was guilty, and they said that’s unavoidable, and they said that to themselves. But then they said, “Did he deserve this? Was it a political process leading up to this?” And they said “Yes, it was a political process. His career has been ruined, his reputation’s been disgraced. Did he deserve 30 months away from his family and they decided no.” So that was the essential political calculus within the White House.
MR. GREGORY: But Todd Purdum, this was second-judging the judge. This was not as anywhere near as strong a statement as David made in his column about the entire affair. The president didn’t go that far, and a lot of people on the right thought he should have in offering this commutation.
MR. TODD PURDUM: No, that’s true there were people in his base who weren’t happy, and the other interesting thing is, going forward, as my own colleague Adam Liptak of The New York Times pointed out, in terms of creating a precedent the president’s commutation may play in future cases in a way that a pardon wouldn’t. People would have said, “You pardon Mr. Libby out of political conviction,” but now he’s established his own judgment about whether the sentence was excessive, and every defense lawyer from here to who laid the rails is apt to cite the president of the United States in, in case, case after case.
MR. GREGORY: Eugene Robinson, this is how you wrote about the outcome of this case in your column this week. “What led us to this point ... was an abuse, or at least a misuse, of presidential power...
“Bush was under pressure from the Republican base to give Libby a full pardon. But most of that clamor was coming from inside the Beltway ... It doesn’t make sense that Bush, at this point, would start fretting about his popularity ratings.
“What does make sense is that the president would feel responsible for Libby’s plight. Libby’s criminal lies were about his part in discrediting claims that the administration’s rationale for invading Iraq was bogus. Bush might have decided that since this is his war, he, not Libby, should be the one held to account. Then again,” you wrote, “Bush might have worried that sitting in prison, with time on his hands, novelist Libby might turn his pen to a nonfiction memoir of his White House years. ‘High Crimes and Misdemeanors’ would have been a good working title.” The suggestion there, that in fact a pardon may still be in the offing to keep Scooter Libby quiet.
MR. EUGENE ROBINSON: Well, it’s kind of “The Sopranos” scenario, you know, he knew too much, or—I—who, who knows the specific reason for the commutation. I think it could be either of those. I think it was wrong. I mean, where, where was the politics in this process? This was a Republican prosecutor, this was a, a nonpartisan jury, this was a judge—the judge who threw the book at Scooter Libby was appointed by George W. Bush. So where, where was the partisan witch hunt in this? He lied to the grand jury, the sentence was not way out of line with what others have received for similar crimes. So I, you know, it, the—what was political here was, was the commutation.
MR. GREGORY: The campaign trail was obviously abuzz with this, Anne Kornblut, reaction coming very quickly, notably from the Clintons. Hillary and Bill Clinton campaigning in Iowa this week, and they both jumped into the fray on this. Let’s watch.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY): And what we saw today was elevating cronyism over the rule of law. And what we saw today was further evidence that this administration has no regard whatsoever for what needs to be held sacred. And when I’m president, we’re going to get back to cherishing the Constitution, upholding the rule of law, and putting forth the best values of America for the entire world to see again.
(Audiotape, July 3, 2007)
MR. BILL CLINTON: You’ve got to understand I think that this is consistent with their philosophy. They believe that they should be able to do what they want to do and that the law is a minor obstacle.
MR. GREGORY: Those responses raising a lot of eyebrows. Let’s not forget that it was President Bill Clinton who pardoned financier and fugitive Mark Rich after tax evasion, and his wife, of course, a big Democratic donor. And the Clinton administration, too, bypassed the Justice Department guidelines on the pardon procedure. Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, summed it up this way: “I don’t know what Arkansan is for chutzpah, but this is a gigantic case of it.” Anne Kornblut:
MS. ANNE KORNBLUT: Well, it was really remarkable on the campaign trail in Iowa, as you mentioned. When Hillary Clinton came out and said that in Des Moines, everyone was sort of—their eyebrows raised, and looked at one another, and the next day she instantly got questions from reporters about it. It was the one and only time she mentioned it, and aides on the campaign bus said, “Well, what were we going to do, not bring it up?” But it does really point to the double-edged sword of her campaigning with Bill Clinton, for one, and also looking back to the Clinton administration as part of her campaign strategy. He not only pardoned Mark Rich, he pardoned dozens of other people at the very end of his term. And rather than talking about her campaigning in Iowa, we were talking about his pardons and the downside of his administration, rather than the upside, which is what they wanted to talk about, the jobs and so forth in the 1990s.
MR. GREGORY: But really, there was no way to, to ignore it. And particularly on the left, you, you know, the liberal base wants to hear about this issue and wants to hear Hillary Clinton and the other candidates bash the president for it, right?
MR. BROOKS: Well, that’s the essential dilemma she faces. Listen, the bottom line of the Libby case was that it—whether you’re a conservative or, or liberal, it was politics as usual. Whether you think the slander at Libby was politics as usual or the commutation was politics as usual, the bottom line people are going to take away from this is that people in Washington don’t play by the rules the rest of us do. So for—Clinton’s essential problem is, is she politics as usual or is she a change? Obama is now the change, she’s politics in—as usual. And she’s somehow get a—got to get out of that politics as usual mold. I think Bill Clinton can be very effective for her when he does that, when he’s the post president, post ambition, sort of larger picture, big think, all that kind of crap. And—but, but when she’s just attacking, when she’s just in the mode of just another spin doctor, then she’s poison to herself.
MR. GREGORY: What—Michael Kinsley had an interesting point in The New York Times this week in his op-ed in which he said the lying really wasn’t the issue, when—whether it came to Bill Clinton lying under oath or whether it was Scooter Libby. The issue with Clinton was his sexual behavior or just Republicans looking for ammunition to take him down because they didn’t like his ideas, depending upon your point of view. And, and when it came to Libby, it was really about the prosecution of the war, the evidence they used, what they did to people who tried to prevent alternative information. Was this a kind of criminalizing of, of political beliefs?
MR. ROBINSON: I, I think, in political circles and, to a certain extent, in public opinion, it, it might have been. I don’t think it was, actually, in the, in the actual process that led to Scooter Libby’s conviction. Patrick Fitzgerald, the, the special prosecutor, just kind of plodded straight ahead until nobody, you know, he didn’t, nobody could tell him to stop. Nobody was supposed to tell him to stop. And he reached what was a, was a logical point. I mean, he put him in front of a grand jury. He didn’t tell the truth. He, he, he—so, you know, he proceeded with charges, and, and he was convicted. So I don’t think that what actually happened was political. I think everything around it was.
MR. GREGORY: David:
MR. BROOKS: But the—what people will take away from it is that a lot of people pretended to be outraged by the outing of the CIA agent until that turned out to be Richard Armitage and not Karl Rove, and then somehow they weren’t outraged by that fact. Then they’ll take away from it the fact that everybody who defended Clinton for lying under oath was suddenly outraged by Libby. People who were outraged by Clinton were unoutraged by Libby, and that basically your, your opinions were entirely determined by partisanship and that there was very little honest looking at the truth. And then you had the special prosecutor, who did as every special prosecutor does, which is to pick his little course and then just drive it beyond all reason. And, and it seems to me it’s appropriate to look at the whole mess that this encapsulates and to think Washington is screwed up. And I think that’s why, at the bottom line, it helps Obama, it helps Bloomberg.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MR. BROOKS: It helps anybody who’s totally non-Washington.
MR. GREGORY: Or Chuck Hagel, as we heard him telling...(unintelligible).
MR. BROOKS: Yeah, yeah.
MR. GREGORY: Anne, as you pointed out, this issue overshadowed the issue that was supposed to overshadow Hillary Clinton in Iowa, where she faces, according to polls, a very tough race. At this point, one, one poll has her at 20 percent, Edwards at 26, Obama at 21. So here comes the former president into Iowa, and this is how The New York Times wrote about it. “No matter how much he tries to blend in, Mr. Clinton is one Oscar-worthy supporting actor who can sometimes upstage his leading lady simply by breathing.
“[In Iowa,] Mr. Clinton mostly did what he could to keep the focus on his wife, literally ceding the stage to her at some rallies so she could speak unadorned.” What is the Bill factor in Iowa and beyond?
MS. KORNBLUT: Well, the calculation, of course, was that she’s in second, maybe third place in Iowa, and that she can’t possibly win the nomination if she doesn’t at least come in first or second there and then go on to come in first or second in New Hampshire, no matter how much of a behemoth her campaign may be. So they bring him in, at this point, hoping to bump her up in the polls. They’re going to take him to New Hampshire next week, hopefully to do the same, get his presence out of the way as a big question mark, and also rev up the activists and the, and the sort of base in Iowa that they really need.
But there is a flipside, which is that when you’re talking about him you’re not talking about her. For all they did to contain his radiance, he, you know, they put him in sort of suburban dad clothing, and they had him in cowboy boots at one point. They limited his time. He talked for five to seven minutes. He talked about her at the beginning. But it didn’t really matter because the focus—forget the stylistics of it, the substance was on him. The substance that we were talking about, hearing from them, rather, was what he did in the 1990s, what she did in the 1990s, and for all of his talk when he was running about campaigns being about the future, this was a campaign about restarting the 21st century. They actually used that language.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MS. KORNBLUT: “We want to go back and start over in 2000.” And that’s not forward-looking.
MR. GREGORY: And you, Todd—I know, Anne, you covered this as well this week—you see Barack Obama trying to seize on that by talking about the need for, for change and by also ratcheting up the criticism of her judgment on things like her vote for the authorization for war.
MR. PURDUM: Well, I think David makes a good point, and the proposition that’s really yet to be fully tested with the Clintons is whether the country is really ready for another full-fledged dose of Clintons in the White House and, and whether the country is ready for 20 successive years of two families having the presidency. And I think, no matter how much Mrs. Clinton may talk about her being ready to lead, she is the candidate of more of the same in a strange way. Not, not in contrast to the incumbent President Bush, but she’s not something out of the ordinary. And for better or worse, Senator Obama is really something different.
MR. GREGORY: Talk about Senator Obama, here he is on the cover of Newsweek. “Black and white: how Barack Obama is shaking old assumptions.” And Gene Robinson, if you, if you look at the fund-raising figures for the second quarter, there is excitement behind Barack Obama. He’s outraising Hillary Clinton by about $10 million. But look at the Newsweek polling. Asked to choose between the two, this is how it came out. Among all voters, Mrs. Clinton with a sizeable advantage, 56 to 33; whites, 56 to 34; nonwhites, 58 to 29 percent. A clear, across-the-board bounce for, for Hillary Clinton. What’s at work here?
MR. ROBINSON: I’m not quite—you know, I think the experience factor, or the lack of experience, really works against Obama, or really has worked against him so far, in, in polls, in your last poll, he, he scores really, really low on that point. And now as he—as time goes on and as people become more familiar with him and as he comes to, to seem—I think political figures kind of, kind of grow the longer they stick around, and I think the longer we go into that, maybe, maybe that will start to change and maybe that will move the needle. But, you know, the fund-raising totals are just astonishing. The amount of money he’s raised, the number of donors he has, the really innovative ways that his campaign’s been raising money, especially through the Internet. But, you know, Howard Dean had a lot of that the last time.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. ROBINSON: And, and we know what happened to his campaign. So I, I, I think—I think the Obama campaign is—they can’t help but be happy with the, with the money and I don’t think they’re, they’re unhappy at kind of being in second place right now, letting, letting Hillary Clinton kind of take the, take the heat and drafting off of her. But...
MR. GREGORY: Right. And they would argue that—for instance, in South Carolina one poll has them ahead and Mrs. Clinton...
MR. ROBINSON: Right, and they’re ahead in...
MR. GREGORY: Right. But still, they...
MR. ROBINSON: But they would like to start moving up, I think,
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. ROBINSON: ...a bit and get a little closer.
MR. GREGORY: But isn’t it—but, but the Clinton campaign will write this off and say there’s plenty of money to go around and there’s just so much money in the Democratic Party and so much enthusiasm in the Democratic Party to regain power. But why is he outraising her?
MR. BROOKS: She has a—I mean, it is a little like four years ago where it’s enthusiasm vs. calculation.
MR. BROOKS: And last time it was Dean/Kerry, now it’s Obama/Clinton.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. BROOKS: The last time, calculation won. I think Obama’s a zillion times better candidate, and I’m glad to see he’s getting a little ink finally from Newsweek. It’s just a shame that he gets no media attention.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah, right.
MR. BROOKS: You know, but his essential problem is, is that, for a lot of people, he’s not partisan. He is a uniter. He, he never takes the cheap shot at his enemies. But a lot of people want the person who leads their party to take the cheap shot at their enemies. So he has been a little disappointing at a—at debate after debate because he doesn’t, he doesn’t take that cheap shot. And so, somehow he’s got to find a way to wow people, which he hasn’t done oftentimes.
MR. GREGORY: Todd Purdum, let’s talk about the Republican field. The big story this week, of course, is John McCain. He’s got $2 million left in the bank after a poor showing in the second quarter. There’s talk of him trying to recast his candidacy, get back to that maverick feel of 2000. But he’s clearly been pinched in between his, his stance on the Iraq war and the immigration bill that has failed. This is what you wrote in, in an excellent cover story of him in February of 2007, a Vanity Fair profile. “Given his popular status as a maverick war hero, John McCain has a good shot at winning the 2008 presidential election - if he can get his party to nominate him. But one minute he’s toeing the conservative line ... and the next he’s telling someone what he really thinks...
“John McCain has spent this whole day, this whole year, these whole last six years,...trying to square the circle that is, trying to make the maverick, freethinking impulses that first made him into a political star somehow compatible with the suck-it-up adherence to the orthodoxies required of a Republican presidential front-runner.” This week his aides argued, “Well, at least we can try to put to rest these pandering stories because through all of this pandering we’re really suffering.”
MR. PURDUM: I mean, the one saving grace for him is that positions that got him in trouble most recently—his support for the Iraq war and his support for the immigration bill—were absolutely consistent points of principle that he’s not wavered from. He wasn’t trying to suck up to Jerry Falwell, he wasn’t trying to impress the base, he was doing what he believed in and it hurt him. So that may be liberating for him. He’s a better insurgent candidate than he is a front-runner. I mean, a year ago now who would have thought we’d be having this discussion? Last fall when I was traveling with Senator McCain, they’d already spent $1 million on air charters. Someone spotted him in row 29 of a coach commercial flight the other day. So he’s definitely got his work cut out for him, but maybe there can be some liberating factor. How much lower can he go? So he can start climbing back up.
MR. GREGORY: Is this a time to start asking about the viability of his candidacy?
MS. KORNBLUT: I, like Todd, I was surprised that we were actually asking that question. We were obviously asking it of Senator Hagel earlier. His campaign hopes actually to take advantage of the insurgent role they’re going to now find themselves in, being the outsider once again as he was in 2000.
MR. GREGORY: Big behind.
MS. KORNBLUT: Being very far behind at this point. What the question is, has he crossed some kind of tipping point where he can’t recover? They’re going to hope this week they’re going to go to New Hampshire this next weekend and he’s going to talk about his trip to Iraq that he did over the Fourth of July week. And interestingly, he’s not going to stop talking about immigration. He’s going to keep talking about it. They’re going to tweak their message—they haven’t told us how yet—but they’re hoping to really capitalize on what’s seen as his, you know, stick-to-itiveness on the issues that have hurt him.
MR. BROOKS: It should be mentioned, the GOP race is much more fluid than the Democratic race. People are much less committed. And then the second thing to be said is the GOP is collapsing. I mean, the party is in terrible shape. I mean, I really think it’s in the prospect of just getting wiped out in two years, and that has two ways to play for McCain. The first way could be that the GOP that he used to do OK in eight years ago doesn’t exist any more. Those independent voters, those independent Republicans, moderate Republicans they’re all Democrats now...
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. BROOKS: ...or something else. So those people are gone for him.
MR. GREGORY: Particularly in New Hampshire, a state where he once...
MR. BROOKS: Particularly in New Hampshire, but also in South Carolina, Michigan, other states he did well in.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. BROOKS: The second prospect is that, at some point, the Republicans start acting like er—rational human beings, and say, “We’re in trouble here, we need a change.” And he still could offer that change.
MR. GREGORY: You talk about the fluidity of the, of the Republican race. What role is Fred Thompson playing kind of being in, kind of being out? Is he detracting from, from McCain’s level of support?
MR. ROBINSON: In, in a way he kind of puts everything on hold temporarily. I mean, everyone has a sense of the race really—the dynamic of the race changes when he, when he gets fully in and fully engaged, and, and the longer he doesn’t quite do that, you know, it, it, it kind of leaves everything in this, this, this kind of limbo. But the Republicans still haven’t found anybody really to love, and, and I wonder if, you know, they’ll—the, the same process will happen with Fred Thompson, that he’s, you know, first he’s the next Reagan, and after a while, you know, he might wear thin the way the others have.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm. Todd Purdum, at what point do Republicans get confident again, or get excited about the race again?
MR. PURDUM: I think they, they have to maybe go a little lower still and, and, as David said, get unified around a pragmatic approach. I mean, the Republicans have always been the party that nominated the person who, whose, whose turn it was, who was the establishment person, who had the early money, who had the support, and, and they, they just are all over the lot this year. And I think each of the potential candidates has vulnerabilities. Rudy Giuliani has vulnerabilities with the Republican base, and with the general electorate. Fred Thompson’s starting to get the kind of scrutiny. The New York Times had a story the other day about his son’s lobbying business. That’s the typical kind of scrutiny that a person gets once he or she is, you know, edging into the big time. So I think they have a, a difficult road. That being said, the Democrats also have to articulate, you know, a consistent alternative.
MR. GREGORY: Anne:
MS. KORNBLUT: One thing I would say about the Democratic field, though, is that it’s quite the opposite. Having just been out in Iowa this past week, it’s incredible the level of enthusiasm. Senator Hagel was complaining earlier about the media whipping up this election too early. It’s, it’s—in Iowa, it’s not the media. It’s the voters. And if anything, they’re paying far more attention than we are. The newspapers out there are like movie listings, you can go see any candidate you want on any day. And people are turning out to see—I went, I went out with Chris Dodd, there are dozens of people turning out to see Chris Dodd, who we never hear about here. So I would say that, especially on the Democratic side, this is a real election, and it’s quite the opposite of the Republicans.
MR. GREGORY: In our remaining moments, I want to talk about Iraq, something that I, I raised with Senator Hagel, and where things will stand, not only this week with an important group of test votes, but by September when Commander David Petraeus is going to report to Congress on how the surge is going.
David Brooks, by the fall will Republican support collapse and will there be consensus with the Democrats on a, on a withdrawal for troops?
MR. BROOKS: Privately it’s collapsed already. The question is whether they talk about it publicly. And so what the White House is trying to do is head all that off at the pass.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MR. BROOKS: I think by September they’re going to have a new plan, and that plan will probably involve getting out of Baghdad, withdrawing to some of the bases, reducing U.S. casualties, we’re trying to tamp down on al-Qaeda. So I think the White House will change the dynamic by September.
MR. GREGORY: Eugene:
MR. ROBINSON: I think there may be a new plan, I don’t think there will be a new overall strategy from the White House. I don’t think—I think George Bush is going to be very stubborn on Iraq, and I think he’s going, going to play for time and run out the clock, basically.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm. Todd:
MR. PURDUM: I agree with Gene. I mean, the president’s already said it will be solved by the next administration.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. PURDUM: He’s, he’s just not budging.
MR. GREGORY: This week do you see more Republicans swinging over to the, to the Democratic side, at least on articulation of a timeline?
MR. PURDUM: I think Senator Hagel’s point about the significance of a senator like Senator Domenici, whose been a stalwart on this question, he’s a more interesting figure in motion than Senator Voinovich or Senator Lugar, who’d expressed qualms earlier. So I mean, I think the, the watch is on. Everybody’s waiting to see.
MR. GREGORY: Anne, on that question, but also the issue—you and I have covered George Bush for a long time, since he came into office—his view of the war at this point, and as I talked about with Senator Hagel earlier, does he think about the war as, as Johnson thought about Vietnam? Does he believe in it deeply? And how, how long does he let that go before he makes a real change?
MS. KORNBLUT: Well, it’s hard to see him shifting from his essential paradigm, which has been that history will judge him 50 years from now, 100 years from now, we’ll know whether it’s a success, to the extent that he starts drawing down troops, that there is some kind of other strategy in place in September, or they start lowering the expectations. I’m not in a position to say, but I do think we will hear, even as he leads off—leaves office in 2009, his saying this will be judged down the road.
MR. GREGORY: All right. Anne Kornblut, Todd Purdum, Gene Robinson, David Brooks, thanks to all of you. We’re going to leave it there, and we’ll be right back.
MR. GREGORY: Our thanks to Senator Hagel and a great roundtable today. That will do it for the program. Tim Russert will be back next week at our usual time. If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.