updated 6/13/2008 1:54:31 PM ET 2008-06-13T17:54:31

Guests: Michelle Bernard, Rachel Maddow, Chuck Todd, Jonathan Harwood

DAVID GREGORY, HOST:  I‘m David Gregory.  Happy to have you here tonight.

From Guantanamo Bay to the war in Iraq, the Bush administration is under fire. 

Can John McCain escape the shadow of the president he hopes to succeed? 


Welcome to THE RACE.  I‘m David Gregory.  Happy to have you here, your stop for the fast-paced, the bottom line and every point of view in the room. 

Tonight, inside the War Room, more from the first comprehensive look at this general election, our new NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll.  What weakness does this survey expose on both sides? 

Later, in Three Questions, we debate the debate about Iraq in this campaign.  And this question: Are Americans really opposed to the war or simply opposed to failure in Iraq? 

The bedrock of our program, a panel that always comes to play.

And with us tonight, Michelle Bernard, president of the Independent Women‘s Voice; Rachel Maddow, host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America; both MSNBC political analysts.  NBC News political director Chuck Todd is here, as well as Jonathan Harwood, chief Washington correspondent for CNBC, political writer for “The New York Times” as well.

We begin as we do every night, with everyone‘s take on the most important political story of the day.  It‘s “The Headline.”

I‘ll begin here tonight.  My headline, “Tell it to the Judge.”

The Supreme Court, as you may have heard, has cleared the way today for suspected terrorists now held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to challenge their detention in U.S. courts.  It is an extraordinary ruling that rejects the administration‘s claims that military commissions are an adequate recourse, and it‘s a significant statement about the balance of a free society and the balance that should be struck between civil liberties and national security during war.  This was a passionate debate with Justice Antonin Scalia, in dissent, arguing that more Americans would be killed as a result of this decision. 

Senator McCain today joined the president in condemning the ruling. 


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  It obviously concerns me.  These are unlawful combatants.  They are not American citizens. 

But—and I think that we should pay attention to Justice Roberts‘ opinion in this decision.  But it is a decision the Supreme Court has made.  Now we need to move forward.  As you know, I always favored closing of Guantanamo Bay, and I still think that we ought to do that. 


GREGORY:  Obama reacted with this statement: “This is an important step toward reestablishing our credibility as a nation committed to the rule of law and rejecting a false choice between fighting terrorism and respecting habeas corpus.  Our courts have employed habeas corpus with rigor and fairness for more than two centuries, and we must continue to do so as we defend the freedom that violent extremists seek to destroy.”

You heard McCain, Obama.  They agree that Guantanamo should be shut down, but the decision has made a major campaign issue, which is, will the next president close Gitmo, and how will they do it?  And then the ultimate question—what then?

Many of their host countries won‘t take these prisoners back.  So what do you do with these prisoners who remain in a kind of legal limbo?  Where do you try them and for what crimes, based on what evidence and witnesses, both of which may be long gone?  When it comes to Gitmo, if you dig past the rhetoric and the debate, there are bad options and worse options, all of which will fall into the lap of President Obama or President McCain. 

Chuck, you‘re thinking about Obama‘s veep stake headache tonight. 

What‘s your headline? 

CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS POLITICAL DIRECTOR:  I am.  Well, “Should Voters be Worried About Obama‘s Governing Style?”

We‘ve seen with both the choices of the people he brought in, in Jim Johnson, the former CEO of Fannie Mae, and Eric Holder, the deputy attorney general who somehow approved the Mark Rich pardon back during 2000, in the waning days of the Clinton administration, there was some questionable judgment on who he picked to do the vetting.  And then when one of them got in trouble, on one day he‘s ready to stand by him, the next day he says, you know, that‘s it, the guy‘s got to go. 

So the question is, what kind of—are we learning anything about what kind of administration is he going to run?  How quickly will he stand by these folks?  How well is he going to vet? 

Granted, these are all sort of learning curve mistakes, and this is stuff that McCain is going to jump on him on.  McCain has already been jumping on Obama for the use of Eric Holder. 

GREGORY:  Yes, we had a panelist on this show a couple of weeks ago, Jeffrey Goldberg, who said, look...


MCCAIN:  ... recommended the pardoning of...


GREGORY:  We‘re watching McCain talk about Eric Holder here. 

But Chuck, you know, we know that a couple of weeks ago, Jeffrey Goldberg on this program made the point that McCain had trouble with lobbyists.  He dealt with it a few weeks ago, a long time before the spotlight was really on the process at this stage. 

TODD:  Well, and the bigger problem that Obama has is he is setting some guidelines when it comes to who he‘s going to put in the administration.  Forget the VP vetting process.  He‘s setting some guidelines about lobbyists and about what they‘ve done in their private business lives that he may not be able to put certain people in office.  He may not be able to appoint certain people, and it could be a government by academics. 

He is—you know, there‘s one thing, when you live by this rhetoric.  This is how Jimmy Carter got in deep trouble in those first few years of his administration, and frankly, it‘s what made the first year of Bill Clinton‘s transition very chaotic. 

GREGORY:  Right.  All right. 

Michelle, you‘re looking at an opportunity here for McCain to go after some Hillary Clinton supporters.  How is he doing it? 

MICHELLE BERNARD, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Absolutely, David.  My headline tonight is that “Carly Opens the Door to Senator Clinton on Behalf of Senator McCain.”

We are in full general election mode tonight, and the race for the women‘s vote, meaning, i.e., Hillary Clinton supporters, is on.  Senator McCain, I would say it is no mistake that he is in New Hampshire today, the state where Senator Clinton first found her voice. 

To help him out, Senator McCain has enlisted the powerhouse CEO Carly Fiorina to help him out, and Carly is reaching out to Senator Clinton‘s supporters through the women‘s FairVote Web site.  Let‘s take a look at this clip. 


CARLY FIORINA, MCCAIN SR. ADVISER:  As a woman, I take great pride in the fact that Hillary Clinton ran for president.  And I also watched with a lot of empathy as I saw how she was scrutinized, characterized, talked about as a woman. 


BERNARD:  And, you know, David, this is just the beginning of Carly.  This is a very important, and I think very strategic, move for Senator McCain to make. 

Carly Fiorina is not your typical stereotype of a Republican or of a conservative.  She really almost matches Senator Clinton tit for tat in terms of achievements and accomplishments.  And the smart Republican is going to go after the woman‘s vote right in Senator Clinton‘s camp. 

GREGORY:  Well, she faced a lot of scrutiny too at the end of her tenure at HP.  OK.  Thanks very much.

Rachel, your headline tonight? 

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  My headline tonight is that “John McCain Won‘t Blow the Whistle on Slime.”

This week saw the emergence of a nasty, over-the-top Internet ad asserting that Barack Obama can‘t be trusted when he says he isn‘t a Muslim.  This is obviously not from the Republican Party.  It is not from John McCain‘s campaign. 

It is an outside group.  In fact, it‘s being headed up by Floyd Brown of the Willie Horton ad fame. 

John McCain was asked about this by the “Boston Herald” today, asked about these sort of nasty ads by outside group, and his response, unlike previous election cycles where he said that he has denounced things like this, in this case, he said, “I can‘t be a referee of every spot run on television.”

He‘s deciding to stay on the sidelines of this, to not denounce the content of ads like this, even though he will be the beneficiary of it.  As the guy who was hit with the “John McCain has a black baby” tactic running against George W. Bush for the Republican nomination in 2000, I think it‘s a surprising sidestep from McCain, and we‘ll have to look if it stands up. 

GREGORY:  All right.

John Harwood, you‘re looking at the economy again and what it says in our new poll. 

JOHN HARWOOD, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, CNBC:  David, my headline is “Economic Storm Clouds.”

The new NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll documents just how gloomy Americans have grown about the economy.  That‘s bad news for John McCain. 

Four years ago, twice as many Americans thought the economy would be getting better than getting worse.  Optimism that helped Republican incumbent George W. Bush win a second term.  But now twice as many people think the economy is getting worse. 

The pessimists favor Barack Obama.  That‘s good news for him. 

Now, John McCain does well among the optimists, but they‘re only one in five voters, which means all the more important, David, for John McCain to come up with an economic turnaround message that could sell. 

GREGORY:  All right.

The issue is change, and the issue could very well be the economy as tops.  That‘s in our poll as well. 

We‘re going to take a break here, come back, go inside those numbers from the new poll from NBC News and “The Wall Street Journal” looking at President Bush‘s approval ratings, low approval ratings.  What does it mean for John McCain?  The two of them at the White House a few months ago. 

We come back on THE RACE after this.


GREGORY:  We are back on THE RACE.  We‘re going inside the War Room now, taking a look at these latest numbers from the NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll.

And our panelists are back tonight: Michelle Bernard, Rachel Maddow, Chuck Todd and John Harwood.

OK, topic number one, the president‘s job approval ratings.  How low can they go?  It continues to be a slog.

You look at the number, we‘ll put it up on the screen.  Bush‘s job approval rating at this stage, 28 percent approval.  Disapproval, 66 percent.

And you look at kind of a tangent to that, or a corollary to that, is who will bring real change to the country to follow up on that, and the result, 48 percent say Obama, 21 percent say McCain.

Peter Hart, one of our pollsters, says this: “The 200-pound ball and chain around McCain‘s foot is George W. Bush,” Chuck Todd.

TODD:  Absolutely, it is.  It is stunning.  It is Nixonian levels for Bush.

His approval rating keeps getting lower.  Even the last year of his presidency and previous two-year—you know, presidents leaving on their second term, you started to see some sort of forgiveness in the public as they sort of are looking ahead.  And instead, his personal rating is down, his professional rating is down.

It‘s bad.  The combination is just lethal.

When you look back, you know, Bill Clinton, at least there was a split decision for Al Gore to run on.  His personal rating was bad.

GREGORY:  Right.

TODD:  But the professional rating was good.  With Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush had both.  People liked Reagan and started feeling good again about the job that he did.  And what happened?  He won reelection.

This is—this is stuff that makes the task for John McCain very, very difficult.

GREGORY:  Well, and we know Ron Brownstein—John Harwood, Ron Brownstein has done this analysis, Brownstein has, where talks about the fact that it is so difficult if you have a very unpopular president for the other party—or rather for a candidate of the same party to stay in office—a third term.

HARWOOD:  Exactly.  I was at a conference a couple of months ago, David, with a top Republican strategist who used to work for George Bush, who said critical for Republicans to get George Bush up to 40 percent job approval this year. 

If he‘s below 40 percent, extremely tough for the Republican nominee to win.  And look where George Bush is.  He‘s falling below 30 percent.  This is a very, very tough situation for John McCain. 

GREGORY:  OK.  Let me move on to topic number two here, the question of voter enthusiasm.  This is going to be a big one. 

Look at some of the numbers here in terms of Obama and McCain voters and why they‘re voting.  What‘s the real impetus for them to vote?  You look at the numbers here. 

Those voting for McCain, 38 percent is because it‘s for John McCain;

36 percent say they‘re voting against Barack Obama.  Flip it around.  Look at the Obama voter.  “Would you say your vote is for Obama?”  Fifty percent against McCain‘s 7 percent. 

Rachel, what does it tell you? 

MADDOW:  This is like the key that unlocks the election prospects for John McCain.  That‘s exactly what he needs to know. 

He needs to make himself the devil you know and make Obama the devil you don‘t.  He‘s got to run—if he runs an election that is about John McCain, that is not a winning strategy for John McCain to get to the White House.  If he can make this a referendum on Barack Obama, make Obama seem like a scary devil you don‘t know, change of the wrong kind of election, if he can make it a referendum on Obama, McCain very well could win. 

HARWOOD:  Wow, Maddow advocates slash and burn. 

MADDOW:  Yes.  Well, how else does he win?  If you‘ve got 7 percent of Obama voters who are voting against McCain, but you‘ve got it even with McCain voters in terms of how many of them are voting against Obama, that‘s his growth potential.  That‘s how he gets there. 

GREGORY:  Here‘s the question, Michelle, about the time spent so far for John McCain.  While the Democrats were fighting, he was able to set up his score for the general election.  How did he use the month head start? 

Look at the numbers in terms of his favorable and unfavorable ratings.  They‘re not very good.  In June, his favorable rating is 39 percent, down 10 points since March.  His unfavorable rating now at 34 percent.  In march it was 27 percent. 

What has happened here?

BERNARD:  Well, you know, it‘s interesting, David, because if you look at these numbers, they really—they track very closely to several Republican strategists that I‘ve talked to and asked this exact question:

Has John McCain used the time at the end of the Democratic primary process effectively?  And these numbers are showing that he most definitely has not. 

What we‘ve seen today, for example, with Carly Fiorina and the rest of the McCain campaign going headstrong for women voters probably should have started a long time ago.  Really going out and building coalitions, doing voter outreach, raising as much money as possible, and getting his message of change across, not only to Republicans who are disaffected, and a lot of people who don‘t feel that he‘s necessarily their candidate, but also reaching out to Independents and Reagan Democrats about the fact that he is the agent of change. 

GREGORY:  Yes.  But part of the issue, though, is that he wasn‘t getting any attention during the Democratic race.  That‘s the reality.  So setting up a lot of these things may not have been possible in a kind of news blackout. 

There has been a lot more scrutiny here, even in the past two weeks. 

Three weeks at the tail end of the race between Obama and Clinton. 

Let‘s look at the demographic breakdowns here, Chuck Todd.  Rather interesting if you look at some of the subgroups in this head-to-head match-up. 

It‘s a six-point lead right now for Barack Obama over John McCain.  Hispanics, it‘s Obama 62 percent to McCain‘s 28 percent.  That‘s particularly important if you think about those swing states in the Southwest. 

TODD:  Absolutely.  And in fact, probably the most disconcerting news for McCain in this poll—we‘ve talked about all of the negatives for Obama in our poll, but the negative for McCain is that he is performing so poorly among Hispanics, 28 percent.  He can‘t do that poorly. 

GREGORY:  Right.

TODD:  He has to win 35 to 40.  Forty is basically what Bush got in 2004, which may be a high watermark.  But 35 is the difference, you know, between carrying Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada, two of those three states, and losing them.  And very critical.

GREGORY:  Right.  It is also a test of whether he can separate from the Republican Party‘s position on immigration and say, no, I always stood apart from that.  I was a maverick on this question. 

TODD:  But don‘t assume it‘s just immigration. 

GREGORY:  Right.

TODD:  This is—I think this is a response on the economy. 

GREGORY:  Right.

TODD:  I think you‘re seeing Hispanics, just like, frankly, a lot of these voters now, worrying more about pocketbook issues and those things rather than immigration.  They‘re not even thinking about that debate, and they‘re thinking about the economy because, if they were thinking about immigration, I think McCain would be doing better. 

GREGORY:  All right.  I‘ve got to take a break here.  I just want to mention a couple of other things. 

Among blue collar workers, Obama 47, McCain 42.  It‘s not just white working class, though.  That could include African-Americans as well.  It‘s pretty close.

Among Evangelicals, McCain 69 percent to Obama‘s 21 percent.  We know that Obama reaching out to Evangelicals this week in Chicago. 

A lot of interesting poaching (ph) going on.

We‘re going to take a break here, come back with “Smart Takes.”  James Carville has a few ideas for Obama about who he might want to consider for his number two.

We‘ll get into it when we come back.


GREGORY:  We are back on THE RACE now with “Smart Takes,” the interesting, the provocative and sharp thinking and insights into the ‘08 race. 

Here again, Michelle, Rachel, Chuck and John.

“Smart Take” number one comes from Mark Halperin on TIME.com‘s “The Page.”  He‘s talking about how this Obama campaign is running, how it‘s operating.  So far it‘s been pretty smooth.  Look at some of his points as we go to the quote board. 

“Number one, the Obama campaign, in contrast with the Democratic presidential nominees.  Number one, how does their default position to respond rapidly to the opposition‘s errors?”

“Number two, have no trouble reaching internal consensus about how to respond.”

“Number three, have no reluctance to deviate from their planned message of the day to let the attack become the message of the day while still executing the planned message, at least for local coverage.”

Number four, have the tactical skill to leave most of the attacks to staff and surrogates, only involving the candidate as needed.”

“Number five, have the ability to get allies of the DNC in Congress and elsewhere to echo the attack message.”

John Harwood, just a sign of a well-run campaign? 

HARWOOD:  Well, I think Mark Halperin is right.  And that‘s the flip side. 

You know, Chuck pointed to the vulnerabilities in Obama we learned from this.  Some of the questions about why he picked those people when they were subject to attack.  But the positive for Democrats is how quickly he moved to sort of put this issue behind him and say, later, you‘re gone yesterday, and, you know, move on and try to limit these problems from festering. 

John McCain has been dealing with the same thing.  You know, one of the reasons why he may not have taken advantage of the three-month period between wrapping the nomination and now is he spent half that time firing lobbyists associated with his staff.  So Barack Obama did it pretty quick. 

GREGORY:  You know, but, Rachel, the other side to this, though, is what‘s important about candidates is to learn how they make decisions, how they arrive at decisions.  And whether it‘s Jim Johnson, whether it‘s Reverend Jeremiah Wright, we do have a little bit of a track record here with Obama to scrutinize in terms of how he reaches these decisions. 

MADDOW:  Sure.  And when it comes to getting rid of high-profile staffers that are causing embarrassment, I think that the big difference that we‘ve seen between McCain and Obama, in terms of political skill around that, is that John McCain did it the Friday before—the Thursday and Friday before Memorial Day Weekend, and that is a political skill, to know how to bury bad news like that. 


MADDOW:  So I do think that both of them are showing a lot of—showing us a lot of detail about how they deal with stuff like this, but it may just be a matter of, again, Obama‘s learning curve here. 

GREGORY:  All right.  “Smart Take” number two, James Carville, the analyst and adviser extraordinaire on the Democratic side giving Obama a little bit of VP advice.  Listen. 


JAMES CARVILLE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  If I were him, I would ask Al Gore to serve as his vice president, his energy czar, in his administration to reduce our consumption and reliance on foreign energy sources.  And that would send a signal to the world, to the American people, to the Congress, to everybody, that America‘s getting serious about this horrendous problem that we face. 


GREGORY:  Michelle, it goes back to that question, where‘s Al Gore? 

BERNARD:  I‘ve got to tell you, I take a look at that clip and I wondered if James was just telling us a joke and was looking for a laugh tonight.  It does beg the question, where is Al Gore?  When is he going to come out and endorse Barack Obama, if that is what he‘s going to do? 

But also, it makes us really have to think—you know, it makes the public think about what really is the most important issue for Americans today.  And it‘s not the environment.  It is the economy. 

GREGORY:  Rachel, do you think this is a serious consideration in Obamanation? 

MADDOW:  The idea that Al Gore is sitting there going, wow, always a bridesmaid, never a bride thing, it really fits me to a T, and I would love to get back in there and be second fiddle again, I just—I can‘t imagine it. 

GREGORY:  And the other aspect of this...

HARWOOD:  It would be torture like the recount to go back to the vice president‘s office. 

GREGORY:  Right.

TODD:  David, Look, Carville is half right.  Carville is half right.

The fact is, Obama is going to be—excuse me, Gore is going to be Obama‘s energy czar, but the last thing he‘s going to be is vice president. 

GREGORY:  Right.

TODD:  But I can tell you this, that they‘re getting close to having an event pretty soon.  I think we‘ll see a Gore/Obama event sometime in the next couple of weeks. 

GREGORY:  And as you say, he could be that environmental czar, he could negotiate the follow-up to the Kyoto Treaty, but he could do it as part of the cabinet, part of the administration, but not necessarily VP. 

We take a break here, come back.

General election War Room continues after this.



GREGORY:  Welcome back to RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE. I‘m David Gregory.  Happy to have you here in the back half.  We‘re going to go back inside the war room to look at what‘s happening inside these campaigns as this general election heats up.  Later, three questions, the debate about the debate over the war in Iraq.  What are Americans really opposed to, the war or failure in Iraq? 

Back with us now, Michelle Bernard, president of the Independent Women‘s Voice, Rachel Maddow, host of the “Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America, both MSNBC political analyst, NBC News political director Chuck Todd is here, as well as John Harwood, chief Washington correspondent for cNBC and political writer for the “New York Times.” 

Topic number one, the Obama campaign launching a website to fight the smears.  How to look at it, it‘s called FightTheSmears.com.  It‘s extraordinary.  It‘s an attempt here to really fight against those things that are not even in the press.  It‘s just stuff that‘s floating out there in e-mails and on the Internet.  They want to try to nip it in the bud.  Marc Ambinder on the Atlantic.com writes this about it, “the site represents a shift in tactics for Chicago.  In the past, the campaign refused to talk about the smears because they didn‘t want to give them credibility.  Now they‘ve surrendered to the reality that silence only perpetuates the rumors.”

John Harwood, I think about his problems in the Jewish community in particular, fueled in large measure by these kind of e-mails. 

HARWOOD:  I don‘t think they have any choice but to respond, David.  That stuff is going to be out there.  You don‘t make it go away.  You remember John Kerry, initially in 2004, decided he wasn‘t going to escalate the Swift Boat thing.  He was going to play it low key, hope it didn‘t have an impact.  Not happening.  That was not a good decision.  And I think Barack Obama‘s decided to be very aggressive from the get-go.  Smart thing to do. 

GREGORY:  Rachel, is it just a response—go ahead.  Who‘s that? 

BERNARD:  It was Michelle.  If I could just add, also, I think it‘s important to look at the use of the Internet in this campaign cycle has been unprecedented.  And Obama‘s campaign has done something just incredible.  Whether it‘s fund-raising on the Internet or now this, what he continually does and what we see in his message is he‘s saying to his supporters, I want you to be a part of this campaign.  I want you to be a part of America.  Now he‘s saying, I want you to be a part of finding out who‘s behind these lies, who‘s behind destroying my campaign and trying to destroy our nation.  I think it will get his supporters revved up, and I would suspect we‘ll see even more money coming to the campaign as a result of it. 

GREGORY:  And a new round of conference calls maybe, just to deal with the smears that aren‘t really part of the campaign, because that‘s all we need. 

TODD:  I think this is one of these monumental things that we will look back on and say, this is the moment that not only did campaigns decide to sort of handle the rumor mongering part of the Internet, which everybody seems to hate.  But I‘ve been waiting for the media—when were we going to see more media watchdog sites and the big media in general say, you know what, we have to debunk stuff that is reported elsewhere.  There used to be this line that you would say you would not report something—if you didn‘t report it—the “New York Times” didn‘t report it, the “New York Times” would say it never happened.  That‘s not the case anymore. 

I think that‘s what the Obama campaign is realizing.  I think you‘re going to see media organizations—

HARWOOD:  Wait a minute.  “New York Times” is different. 

TODD:  Of course. 

MADDOW:  Can I just make one quick point here?  I think the website is great.  I don‘t think it‘s enough.  I think that if John McCain beats Barack Obama, this is going to be the stuff he beats him on.  I think that Obama needs to do more than just rebut the factual errors.  I think he needs to go on the offense on this.  He ought to make Floyd Brown and the Willie Horton ad controversy a national scandal.  He ought to make John McCain‘s willingness to benefit from this sort of stuff and stay on the sidelines and not denounce it as a political scandal. 

I think they need to go on the offense.  Stop pretending this stuff is anonymous.  It comes from real people who have done this for a long time and can be named and shamed. 

TODD:  Rachel, I think the power of the Obama echo chamber—This is a point that Halperin made—that I think we do not really appreciate.  The power of the Obama echo chamber is something that is greater than what we saw with Bush in 2000 and 2004 with talk radio.  We have seen a sea change in that.  And I think that this site is yet another step in the domination of the echo chamber. 

GREGORY:  Let me move on to another topic here.  It‘s amazing.  Barack Obama is running a campaign of change.  He wants to turn the page.  He wants to usher in a new era of politics.  And yet his campaign tactics are listed from the Bush campaign of 2000.  Stumping today in Wisconsin, he draws the contrast between himself and McCain on tax policy using a tax family.  Those of us who covered the 2000 campaign with George W. Bush would try to keep track of all these tax families across the country.  We started to laugh after a while.  Here they are in the Obama campaign.  Watch this from Wisconsin today. 


OBAMA:  At kitchen tables like Ryan and Jenny‘s, it‘s easy to feel like that dream of opportunity that should be the right of all Americans is slowly slipping away.  While you‘re paying four dollars -- 4 bucks a gallon of gas at the pump and your children‘s future is being mortgaged under a mountain of debt, Senator McCain wants to give billions of dollars in tax breaks to big oil, and opposes a windfall profits tax on oil companies like Exxon to help families struggling with high energy costs. 


GREGORY:  Bottom line on this, Chuck Todd, he‘s trying to connect here.  He wants to use real faces, real people to connect on policy, speaking to one of his vulnerabilities so far. 

TODD:  Look, Ronald Reagan started this in State of the Unions.  Bill Clinton did it well on campaign trails.  And the Bush campaign perfected it.  It‘s not the first tactic, by the way, that Obama‘s borrowed from the Bush campaign in general.  Obama hasn‘t connected yet to these folks on the economy.  Lucky for him, his opponent‘s John McCain, who also struggles to personally connect.  I‘ve had this theory that, of these two candidates, whichever one feels the pain of the average voter here right now, when it comes to the economy, is going to end up winning.  Both are not good at it yet. 

MADDOW:  There‘s a specific policy thing here, though.  I think that people have not connected, the media has not connected yet with the fact that Obama is offering this 1,000 dollar middle class tax cut.  Carly Fiorina was out in the past week saying, Barack Obama hasn‘t proposed a single tax cut, and he has.  So by attaching a story, a memorable story, Ryan and Jenny, to that tax cut, he can maybe get people to latch onto the fact that he has made the cut. 

TODD:  This is bigger than taxes.  This is about the average person seeing their mortgage go upside down, their house value go down, their cost of commuting to work go up.  It‘s much bigger than a tax break.  I think, if the two of them start arguing over taxes, neither of them is going to win this fight. 

GREGORY:  Let me move on here and talk about the debate over Iraq and some of the comments that John McCain made about a long-term American commitment in Iraq.  Wesley Clark, retired general, once a presidential candidate, said this about John McCain and the back and forth, it got so heated yesterday—this is just a clip of it—“the truth is that, in national security terms, he”—talking about McCain—“is largely untested and untried.”

Michelle, is this a smart argument from the Democrats in this debate to say about a former P.O.W. that he‘s untested and untried? 

BERNARD:  I‘d say I‘d have to vote down on that, absolutely.  This is one issue where you really cannot beat John McCain, and quite frankly, I wouldn‘t test him on the issue.  We‘re going to repeatedly see those campaign ads showing John McCain, showing the pictures of him when he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.  This man is an American hero, and this is an issue the Democrats should leave alone and find another way.  There are other ways to beat John McCain, and this is not the way to do it. 

GREGORY:  Let me move on really quickly.  We talked about Eric Holder being part of the VP team for Barack Obama after Jim Johnson has left, and McCain has now spoken out about Eric Holder, of course, who was in the Clinton Justice Department and handled that pardon of Mark Rich.  This is McCain today. 


MCCAIN:  I think that it is a matter of record that Mr. Holder recommended the pardoning of Mr. Rich, and all of those things will be taken into consideration by the media and the American people. 


GREGORY:  Rachel, he‘s not leaving it to the surrogates.  He wants to get involved on this himself, keep the pressure on. 

MADDOW:  Which is a glass houses problem for him.  The guy who‘s running his vice presidential selection committee‘s lobbying firm was the lobbying firm for Enron.  You can absolutely take on people for the associations of the people who are in their campaign.  John McCain has already started to pay a price for this with the lobbyists, as we discussed earlier.  But this does—if you start attacking one another as holier than thou on these issues, I think you let your surrogates do it because it‘s too embarrassing for McCain to be saying that, preaching that from the podium, and then have to come back, inevitably, and explain the associations of the people he‘s got working for him. 

HARWOOD:  Maybe it‘s a strategy for John McCain to end up in that mano a mano town hall format with Barack Obama, because neither of them are going to have anyone working for them anymore. 

GREGORY:  Right, exactly.  We‘re going to take a break here.  Coming up next, three questions.  Are Americans opposed to the war or simply opposed to the failure in Iraq?  Part of our debate over Iraq when we come back after this.


GREGORY:  Time now for the big picture here on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE, today‘s three biggest questions of the ‘08 race.  Still with us, Michelle Bernard, Rachel Maddow, Chuck Todd, and John Harwood.  First thing, this is all about the war in Iraq, and the debate that is now pretty fierce on the campaign trail over this.  Look at our new poll and voter attitude sentiments about the war and whether troops should come home.  The statement, should they withdraw by early 2009?  In June here, 49 percent say yes.  Should troops remain in Iraq until the country is stable?  45 percent say yes; 49 percent to 45 percent, pretty tight. 

This is what Joe Klein reports on his blog on Time.com about Iraq:

“daily attacks,” Klein writes, “continue, but at a fraction of 2006 levels,  indeed, at levels not seen since before the Sadrist and Fallujah rebellions began in 2004.  Al Qaeda in Iraq still has the capability to ignite the occasional car bomb, but it has been weakened to the point of defeat.  The real estate market in Baghdad is beginning to blossom.  And on a broader front, as reported in the “New Yorker” and the “New Republic,” al Qaeda‘s wanton butchery is facing an intellectual challenge from within its own ranks.” 

Our first question here tonight, are Americans more patient about progress in Iraq?  Rachel, take it on. 

MADDOW:  I think what‘s difficult about the framing of the question—and I don‘t think it‘s wrongly framed.  But I do think what‘s hard about it is that John McCain has said that he wants Americans to stay in Iraq upon their being stability.  That whole hundred years in Iraq, thousand years in Iraq, 10,000 years in Iraq thing, it‘s predicated on the idea that there won‘t be any casualties—

HARWOOD:  Cheap shot.

MADDOW:  No, I‘m saying, he says there won‘t be any casualties among Americans in Iraq and that‘s why we should stay that long.  So he‘s arguing there that, if it is stable, Americans should then stay.  That‘s a hard thing to say because it‘s not about us winning them.

GREGORY:  John this is a separate question.  Do we see a shift in voter attitudes about Iraq?  Most people think the war has not been successful, if you look at the polling, but in terms of the patience level about U.S. troops, is that changing? 

HARWOOD:  Absolutely it‘s changing, David.  It‘s responding to events on the ground.  Iraq was a throbbing migraine headache for the Republican party, for President Bush, for John McCain not too long ago.  That‘s lessened considerably.  That‘s good news for John McCain.  To Chuck Todd‘s point earlier, that just increases the onus for him to come up with an economic message.  Clearly, he is benefiting from the reduction in the level of anxiety from Americans.  Even though they‘re sick of the war, it‘s simply not the same situation as it was a year ago. 

GREGORY:  What accounts, Chuck, for the fact that in our poll, in terms of a priority, Iraq jumped up in the last two months?  I think from 18 percent to 24 percent. 

TODD:  I think part of that is you have both campaigns desperate to engage on it.  Let‘s remember, both of them got their nominations because of Iraq.  And without it, they wouldn‘t be where they are today.  Of course, now—so they both want to debate the issue.  But to what John just said, look, McCain is winning the argument.  It doesn‘t mean he‘s won it yet, but there is definitely some more patience there.  The country seems to be evenly split on withdrawal versus stability. 

Now, the bad news for McCain is what John pointed out.  Iraq isn‘t the number one priority.  And the other thing is it is still seen as a failed idea.  As long as McCain is sort of seen as siding with a failed idea, it still makes it a tough position for him to defend.  The good news is he‘s preaching—

GREGORY:  Go ahead.  Finish your thought. 

TODD:  The good news is he is able to at least buy some patience. 

GREGORY:  Let me get to the second thought here, which I want to set up with this quote from a “Foreign Affairs” piece that was authored by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.  She makes this argument about Iraq:

“it is very hard to imagine how a more just and Democratic Middle East could ever have emerged with Saddam still at the center of the region.” 

I use that to set up this question, which is something I thought about for a long time: are Americans opposed to the war, or are they simply opposed to failure in Iraq?  Michelle, the predicate of that is that a lot of people thought that taking out Saddam Hussein, whether he had weapons of mass destruction or not, was a good idea.  It‘s when the policy began to experience such terrible difficulties that people soured on the war.  So how do you answer the question? 

BERNARD:  Well, you know, David, I don‘t know how to answer the question because really most Americans will tell you—and I‘m in agreement—that the reason that we went into war in Iraq were the wrong reasons.  But when you start—when you sit down and talk with the many Iraqis, who frankly are promoting democracy and want the Middle East to change and they want their country to change, and you look at the many, many horrific things that Saddam Hussein did in that country—he was a tyrant.  He was a despot.  I think it‘s very important to the American public that we do not lose. 

We have gone into that country.  We‘re there now.  Things are changing.  They‘re looking better on the ground.  I think the American public will not stand for a failure at this point in time. 

MADDOW:  What counts as success, though?  When John McCain gave a speech on this on April 10th this year, he defined success in Iraq as this, and I noted it because I knew we were going to be talking about this, as peaceful, stable, prosperous, Democratic state that is religiously tolerant, that allows international entities to operate, that isn‘t a threat its neighbors, and that fights terrorism. 

GREGORY:  That‘s Bush‘s formulation, by the way, as well. 

MADDOW:  That is McCain says counts as success.  Therefore, we will stay there until that success is obtained.  It is unlikely that that will be obtained even in the next 100 years.  The question that is difficult in framing the success versus failure is whether or not having Americans there helps Iraq become that.  That‘s the big problem with the whole idea that Americans being in Iraq brings us closer to success there.  Success is defined in a way that is guaranteed to keep us there forever, no matter what the impact. 

GREGORY:  Hold on with that.  This is the third question.  This is also a big idea and a big debate in this campaign.  Either we‘re going to change the way we do business in terms of our energy in this country completely and reject foreign oil, close the door on foreign oil, or we‘re going to recognize that it is a major source of energy and then—this is question number three—isn‘t McCain right?  Don‘t we need a long-term military presence in a country like Iraq if we are going to be doing that much business and getting that much oil as a source of our energy from the Middle East, Michelle? 

BERNARD: Based on the way the question is framed, there‘s a good possibility that Senator McCain is right.  Now, the American public wants to get out of Iraq, and probably the sooner, the better.  But if we‘re going to be pragmatic, and we‘re going to be realists about that, the bottom line is we have gone in and we have virtually destroyed that country.  And no matter what any politician tells you before election day in November, the United States is going to be in Iraq, and they‘re going to be in Iraq for a very long time.  And it would behoove us to find a way to get that country as peaceful as possible so that we don‘t suffer any more losses or casualties in the country. 

MADDOW:  Is the premise here that Iraq is our colony?  And that by having our troops there, we have their raw materials?  We get access to their natural resources?  I mean, that‘s—

GREGORY:  I don‘t think that‘s what‘s suggested in the question at all.  

MADDOW:  Since we‘ve been there, oil has gone from 1.47 to four bucks a gallon.  So having our troops there hasn‘t exactly given us free access to all that oil and leveled out the supply. 

HARWOOD:  American military power backs up U.S. policy and U.S. access to oil in the region without being in Iraq.  So I‘m not sure it‘s linked specifically to Iraq. 

GREGORY:  All right.  We‘re going to take a break. 

BERNARD:  I don‘t think anyone is promoting we go in and colonize Iraq or any other country.  The days of colonization are long behind us. 

MADDOW:  But if we‘re saying we need to be there because we need their natural resources, that‘s the definition of having a colony.  That‘s what colonial politics are. 

BERNARD:  That‘s not the argument.  The argument is we need to be there because we have destroyed their country and we need to repair what we‘ve done. 

MADDOW:  That‘s not McCain‘s argument. 

GREGORY:  We‘re going to leave it there.  We have provoked the discussion I was hoping we would.  We‘ll take a break here and let everybody play with the panel, coming up right after this.


GREGORY:  A few more minutes here.  Your play date with the panel.  Back with us, our panel tonight, Michelle, Rachel, Chuck, and John.  First up, Vail in Colorado writes in with this follow up to a discussion we had here yesterday, “I was in the Air Force for six years and my wife is still serving.  She was recently deployed to Afghanistan and served in Iraq before that.  We‘re staunch Democrats and support our candidate, Barack Obama.  There are more progressive, Democratic families in the military than people think.  The number is growing rapidly.  The current administration‘s mishandling of the war has left a sour taste in the mouths of many service members, and they, in turn, are changing their party affiliations.  John McCain‘s service to this country is admirable, but even with his military credentials, he‘s seen out of touch with some service members, especially those deployed to the Middle East for multiple times.”

No question, John Harwood, for those in the military who have been stressed out, tested in all sorts of ways through deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, politically, this could be a wakening for many, and could be difficulty for John McCain. 

HARWOOD:  David, are we sure that Vail is not Wes Clark‘s email alias there?  Look, clearly, John McCain is out of step with some members of the military.  But I dare say that if you did the Journal/NBC poll among military families, John McCain would do just fine. 

GREGORY:  I suspect that‘s right.  Go ahead, Rachel. 

MADDOW:  It‘s interesting to note that early on in the primary campaign, the candidates that raised the most money during the primary campaign on the Republican side, it was—most money from members of the military; on the Republican side, it was Ron Paul.  On the Democratic side, it was Barack Obama.  The two overt anti-war candidates raised the most money from members of the military early on. 

GREGORY:  Interesting.  Margie in Florida writes this, “this 2008 campaign is about one thing and only one thing, race.  We can spin it all kinds of ways, but it has not changed the fact that we have Americans who refuse to cast their ballot for a candidate because of the color of his skin.  It‘s all about race.”

Chuck, I see that both ways.  Yes, there may be voters who simply won‘t vote for Obama because he‘s black, but as this thing gets down to the wire, there may be a lot of Americans, black, white, or otherwise, who think, what a historic moment, because he is an African-American, to make history with this vote.   

TODD:  Look, I completely agree.  I think it cuts both ways.  At the end, it will split, and, if anything, allow Obama to get more of the popular vote, do a little bit better in places you would normally do.  I want to twist the question a little bit.  I agree in this respect, this is a referendum on Barack Obama because the country wants change.  They want to change administrations.  They would like to change parties.  But is Obama ready?  It‘s a referendum on Obama‘s readiness, I don‘t think his race. 

GREGORY:  Michelle, comment? 

BERNARD:  I think I completely agree with Chuck.  I actually agree with all the arguments that have been made today.  I think just as many voters that we see that will not vote for Barack Obama because he is a black man, we see a lot of people out there that recognize the historic importance of his candidacy and will vote for him for that reason and because they think he is a candidate of change.  I think, if Barack Obama loses the presidential election this year, it will not be because he is a black man.  I will always say, look at what happened in Iowa.  We know that white people will vote for a black man in the United States today.  If he loses, it will either be because of some horrible disaster that has happened with regard to terrorism and national security, or because people are scared that he‘s just not ready yet. 

HARWOOD:  Pretty hard to say it‘s all about race, David, when the African-American candidate just won the Democratic nomination. 

GREGORY:  Right.  Bob in Maine writes with this idea, “why doesn‘t Barack Obama say that he is running for Bill Clinton‘s third term?  He could remind voters that we had peace and prosperity and a budget surplus.  He should take Bill Clinton with him on the campaign trail.  Lots of voters still like him, and this would give him a chance to refurbish his legacy.”

Maybe he could run with Bill Clinton as his number two.  Rachel, the serious point here, it‘s a tricky one, again, with Bill Clinton because he wants to move beyond that sort of politics, turn the page ,he says, and yet there a lot of people who do remember Bill Clinton and his administration fondly. 

MADDOW:  He might have to tranquilize Bill Clinton, the person, to bring him out on the campaign trail.  We‘re seeing him run on economic terms.  He just appointed an economic adviser who is an acolyte of Bob Ruben, upsetting some on the left of the party and some labor voters, but definitely pitching himself down the middle in terms of Clintonian economics. 

GREGORY:  Thanks very much to a great panel tonight and spirited debate.  That‘s going to do it for us on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE for tonight.  We‘ll be back here tomorrow night at 6:00 Eastern.  See you then.  Now it‘s time for “HARDBALL.”  Have a good night.



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