updated 7/1/2008 12:24:16 PM ET 2008-07-01T16:24:16

Guest: Eugene Robinson, Tony Blankley, John Harwood, Michelle Cottle

RACHEL MADDOW, HOST:  Tonight on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE, it‘s one of those days in politics when it feels like maybe left and right, Democrat and Republican, are losing salience as political terms before our eyes.  The Republican nominee finds his military experience under attack from a critic across the aisle.  The Democratic nominee gives a major address on patriotism in Independence, Missouri.  A line of attack against that Democrat is hurled simultaneously by the Republican in the race and by the most influential liberal blogs. 

It is down the rabbit hole time in American politics.  All change.  We live for days like this, as RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE rolls on.

Welcome to RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  I’m Rachel Maddow, in today for David Gregory. 

We‘re happy to have you here, your stop for the fast-paced, the bottom line and every point of view in the room. 

Tonight, American wars, present, past and possibly future, dominate presidential politics.  Obama distances himself from claims by retired general Wesley Clark that John McCain‘s POW ordeal in Vietnam was heroic, but not relevant as a qualification for the presidency.  The McCain campaign pushes back hard against Clark and Obama. 

President Bush signs into law another $160 billion for the current wars, along with a landmark new GI bill that John McCain had opposed. 

And Sy Hersh at “The New Yorker” drops another Sy Hersh-style bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bombshell about alleged American preparations for a war in Iran.  Does all this war talk benefit the Republican Party intrinsically, or are the politics of war and national security in flux? 

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

With us tonight, Eugene Robinson, associate editor and columnist for “The Washington Post,” and an MSNBC political analyst; Tony Blankley, syndicated columnist; John Harwood, CNBC‘s chief Washington correspondent and a political writer for “The New York Times”‘; and Michelle Cottle joins us.  She‘s senior editor of “The New Republic.” 

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

My headline tonight, briefly, “It is De Ja Swift Boat.”

General Wesley Clark‘s comments about John McCain‘s military experience, first on “The Huffington Post” Web site and then on “Face the Nation” yesterday, they stirred up a swarm of protests.  What Clark said was that he honored McCain‘s military service, that McCain‘s time as a POW made him a hero to Clark and to millions of other members of the armed services.  But, Clark said, nothing in McCain‘s military record indicated the kind of executive responsibility that should be relative experience—excuse me, relevant experience for being president. 

Controversial stuff, if only because McCain‘s military record has generally been seen as an off-limits positive for the candidate, at least in polite political circles.  So now the backlash. 

Obama distanced himself from Wes Clark‘s comments.  The McCain campaign created an Obama fight the smears style truth squad to respond.  But then, splat.  Giant and totally avoidable misstep by the McCain campaign. 

The McCain campaign surrogate they rolled out to counterattack the Obama campaign on what Wes Clark said about McCain‘s experience is one of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Medal of Honor recipient Colonel Bud Day, who attacked John Kerry‘s war record in 2004.

He told “The Sioux City Journal,”: “He has already pledged his allegiance to North Vietnam.  My view is he basically will go down in history sometime as the Benedict Arnold of 1971.” 

Thus swamping any moral high ground the McCain campaign might have otherwise easily claimed from this controversy by associating himself with the slimiest slime of the last election season, when he should have been doing that to his opponent.  A political own (ph) goal from John McCain‘s campaign today.  That‘s how I see it. 

Gene Robinson, you‘re up next tonight.  What do you have for us? 

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Rachel, my headline tonight is, “On Patriotism, Obama Goes Back to the Future.”

Today, in Independence, Missouri, Barack Obama gave a speech on patriotism.  And as he did a few months ago in his speech about race at the Independence Hall complex in Philadelphia, Obama tried to paint with a broad historical brush, talking about patriotism, how it developed over the years, what it meant to different generations. 

And let‘s pay particular attention to one era he talked about.  This is what he said today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  The use of patriotism as a political sword or political shield is as old as the Republicans.  Still, what‘s striking about today‘s patriotism debate is the degree to which it remains rooted in the cultural wars of the 1960s and the argument that go back 40 years or more.  Some of you remember this.  In the early years of the civil rights movement and the opposition to the Vietnam War, defenders of the status quo often accused anybody who questioned the wisdom of government policies of being unpatriotic.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBINSON:  This has always been part of Barack Obama‘s core message:

stop fighting the battles of the ‘60s.  He promises to take us beyond that.  He does so on patriotism, just as he did on race.  And we‘ll see if he manages to do it, but that‘s his pitch. 

MADDOW:  Thanks, Gene.

Tony Blankley, sir, your headline tonight? 

TONY BLANKLEY, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST:  My headline is, “Sy Hersh of ‘The New Yorker‘ Predicts a Bush Attack on Iran, Again.”

This starts the beginning of the third year in which Sy Hersh has been exclusively predicting based on secret information leaked to him that Bush is imminently planning to attack Iran.  He started these articles in I think the spring of 2006.  The most recent one is based on a leak presumably from senior Democrats in Congress when the president went to Congress end of last year for special authorization for covert activity in Iran.  Until the now secret plan now released, once again Hersh believes he sees in this the tea leaves, evidence that Bush is planning to attack. 

I don‘t think it‘s likely to happen, he‘s been wrong for three years. 

I think he‘s going to keep predicting it until Bush leaves office. 

MADDOW:  OK, Tony.

John Harwood, what‘s your headline tonight? 

JOHN HARWOOD, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, CNBC:  Rachel, my headline is “Clearing the Bar.”

Barack Obama can‘t match John McCain‘s credentials on national security, but he has to offer Americans reassurance beyond his opposition to the unpopular Iraq war that he can handle that part of the presidency.  His trip to Europe and the Middle East this week is a step toward doing that, but the opportunity comes with a risk. 

If he makes a mistake of imagery or rhetoric on the world stage, voters are likely to remember it longer than they would a mistake by John McCain.  And McCain has no intention of conceding this turf, which is why he leaves on his own foreign trip to Colombia and Mexico tomorrow—

Rachel. 

MADDOW:  All right.  The political travel log from Mr. Harwood. 

Michelle Cottle, what do you have for us as a headline? 

MICHELLE COTTLE, SR. EDITOR, “THE NEW REPUBLIC”:  I have a headline actually for John McCain, which is basically, “Give Up on the Immigration Issue.”  Or at least you better start downplaying it.

McCain has been running around this week trying to make nice with Latino voters who he‘s, you know, lost some ground with.  But I think that this is just going to remain a problem for him. 

John McCain is a peculiarly bad candidate in this area because, for one, his base knows that he‘s soft on this issue.  But, at the same time, the Latino population knows that he has been, you know, kind of wiggling on this when he was trying to win the primary.  And more broadly, they know that the Republican Party is a disaster for them on this issue. 

So I just don‘t think there‘s any way he‘s going to do very well on this.  And we‘re already seeing a big gap in the polls.  Originally, people assumed Obama would have a problem with this because he didn‘t do well, you know, compared to Hillary, and that McCain was kind of a non-hard-liner.  But already there‘s a huge gap there, and I just don‘t think it‘s going to get much better. 

MADDOW:  All right, Michelle.

Senator Joe Lieberman is reading his tea leaves.  The 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, he says, happened during Bill Clinton‘s first year in office.  The 9/11 attacks happened, he says, during George Bush‘s first year in office.  So, according to Lieberman, our next president should be prepared to be tested early on.

Really?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  Welcome back to THE RACE.

The war room, that deeply mysterious, sometimes daunting place where all of the decisions are made in a campaign, well, it‘s time for us to head inside that special place and decide which strategies are working and which are not. 

Back with us, Eugene Robinson, Tony Blankly, John Harwood and Michelle Cottle. 

OK.  First up, patriot games.

Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark fired this salvo at John McCain on yesterday‘s “Face the Nation.”  He‘s downplaying the idea that McCain‘s experience as a POW should be seen as qualification for the presidency. 

Check this out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.), U.S. ARMY:  He hasn‘t held executive responsibility.  That large squadron in the Navy that he commanded, it wasn‘t a wartime squadron.  He hasn‘t been there and ordered the bombs to fall.  I don‘t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  John McCain himself responded today with this... 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I think that that kind of thing is unnecessary.  I‘m proud of my record of service.  It certainly doesn‘t do anything to address the challenges that Americans have in keeping their jobs, their homes and supporting their families. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  OK.  Responding to the response, today the Obama camp put out this: “As he said many times before, Senator Barack Obama honors and respects Senator McCain‘s service.  And of course he rejects yesterday‘s statement by General Clark.”

So here‘s the question: Is Clark‘s criticism a bold move or a low blow, or both? 

Michelle, what do you think? 

COTTLE:  Well, you know, technically, it‘s true.  There‘s a difference between being a military hero and being a military leader. 

That said, it feels really icky just when you hear it.  And I think it‘s a very dangerous move for them to make.  I mean, this is a man whose campaign is built in large part on the idea of heroism and character and marshal sacrifice, and to go directly at it, they risk losing a lot of people, especially with a candidate who‘s supposed to be Mr. Nice Guy. 

MADDOW:  Tony, do you think this is a smart move? 

BLANKLEY:  Well, interestingly, this is the seventh time that a major Obama supporter has taken a shot at McCain‘s military record—Jay Rockefeller, Senator Harkin, Ed Schultz, Tony McPeek, who is Obama‘s—one of his military advisers.  So, it begins to look like something other than the random decisions of random people.  It looks like it‘s an Obama strategy.  And he comes out and says, oh, I have nothing to do with it, but it begins to look a little dirty to me. 

MADDOW:  Tony, do you think though that it matters whether or not it‘s true?  Should it be debated on its merits, or is it the sort of thing that should be dismissed out of hand? 

BLANKLEY:  I think that everything that any candidate wants to debate on the merits is fair game in a presidential election.  See whether—you know, where it goes.

I don‘t think it helps Obama to make this case, because McCain is not arguing that the mere fact that he suffered and was tortured for five years qualifies him to be president.  I think the point that most people understand is it‘s a character developer.  That, added to 30 years of experience in the Senate on foreign policy and defense policy, might make him the man who you can trust to deal with difficult problems under difficult circumstances. 

I think McCain wins that hands down.  But nonetheless, I think the Democrats are free to take a shot at him. 

HARWOOD:  Rachel, I would just add that, look, in Wes Clark‘s case, I think you‘ve got some serious vice presidential fever going on.  And there‘s a little auditioning to say, you pick me in a general election, look how I can take on this guy.  But I agree with Michelle, it is a very dubious strategy.  There‘s a lot of risk associated with it. 

MADDOW:  If he‘s—if auditioning consists of grabbing the third rail with both hands, then it certainly is an audition. 

All right.

Next up, Obama goes on the offensive on patriotism.  Touted as a major speech by the campaign, Obama used his own life story to talk about his patriotism today in Independence, Missouri, which, of course, is Harry Truman‘s hometown.  But after General Wesley Clark‘s comment yesterday about Senator McCain‘s military service, Obama was also forced to play a little bit of defense. 

Listen. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  For those like John McCain who have endured physical torment in service to our country, no further proof of such sacrifice is necessary.  Let me also add that no one should ever devalue that service, especially for the sake of a political campaign.  And that goes for supporters of both sides. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  The campaign touted this speech as a major address designed to answer questions about Obama‘s patriotism.  Did the need to reference General Clark‘s comments even in that sort of oblique way that you just heard there, did that take the wind out of Obama‘s sails today? 

Gene, what do you think? 

ROBINSON:  No, I don‘t think that took the wind out of Obama‘s sails today.  I think it became a number two story instead of a number one story because of the meeting between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, which is the sexier political story.

But, you know, it was another speech like the race speech in that it‘s quite an interesting, apparently well thought out and certainly well written document, kind of charting ideas about patriotism and how they have evolved and what he thinks about patriotism.  He also gets in his life story, which he touts on that ad that has been running in the battleground states showcasing his mother and his grandparents. 

You know, it‘s another step in, A: dealing with the patriotism issue, and B: introducing himself to Americans who perhaps don‘t know him that well. 

MADDOW:  All right.

Well, moving on, Wesley Clark is not the only campaign surrogate stirring controversy right now.  Senator Joe Lieberman of the Connecticut for Lieberman party, an Independent Democrat who is campaigning for John McCain, he suggested that a vote for Barack Obama might welcome another terrorist attack. 

Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (I), CONNECTICUT:  Our enemies will test the new president early.  Remember that the truck bombing of the World Trade Center happened in the first year of the Clinton administration; 9/11 happened in the first year of the Bush administration. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  Lieberman also hit Obama on the issue of the Iraq war. 

Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LIEBERMAN:  If we had done what Senator Obama asked us to do for the last couple of years, today Iran and al Qaeda would be in control of Iraq.  It would be a terrible defeat for us and our allies in the Middle East and throughout the world. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  Maybe it‘s just me, but I think yesterday was crazy surrogate Sunday.  I mean, substantively, Iran and al Qaeda co-ruling something is like the Ohio State and Michigan football teams co-playing something. 

But John, politically, is Lieberman helping McCain right now?  I mean, who nods along when Lieberman says stuff like this?

HARWOOD:  Well, I don‘t see anything substantively wrong with the analysis that Lieberman was offering about the potential for a testing of the new president.  The way I read his comments, he wasn‘t ruling out the fact that John McCain might be tested as well. 

And it‘s part of this larger of, how much can you talk about the terrorist threat?  When are you exploiting the politics of fear?  When are you having legitimate contrast on national security?  I‘m inclined to believe, generally speaking, that it is legitimate for Republicans or Joe Lieberman, Independents, Democrats backing him, to raise the point that we‘d be better off and we‘d be safer if John McCain is the president, and I think that‘s part of the case he was making. 

MADDOW:  Michelle...

COTTLE:  But Rachel...

MADDOW:  ... let me just ask you, Michelle, on that same issue though of Iran and al Qaeda somehow co-ruling Iraq, that‘s crossing the line beyond I think just what John is saying into kind of a fear scenario that actually makes no legitimate sense, at least to me. 

COTTLE:  Well, if you want to talk about somebody auditioning for the vice presidency, I think Lieberman is just spinning out as many horror stories as he can.  And while John has a point about, you know, it‘s legitimate to talk about these things, this also just smacks of the 2004 issue when we had Dick Cheney and everyone running around telling us how we were all going to die if we elected a Democrat.  I mean, you have to put it in the context of... 

(CROSSTALK)

HARWOOD:  Well, it‘s worth saying also, Rachel, that the thing wrong with what Lieberman is saying is, if Barack Obama had had his way, it wouldn‘t be Iran and al Qaeda, it would be Saddam Hussein controlling Iraq.  And the question is, would we be better off if he still was and if he was in a box because of the vigilance of the United States with him still in power? 

MADDOW:  Tony, did you want to jump in there? 

BLANKLEY:  I was just going to say, going back to the Cold War days, it was routinely said that the Soviets would test the next president when he came in.  So that part of the statement is just sort of boilerplate discussion of what—whoever our current enemy is going to do.  As far as Iran is concerned, I‘m not exactly sure where Lieberman was going on that one. 

MADDOW:  I‘m with you there.

ROBINSON:  He said politely.

MADDOW:  All right.

McCain and Romney in ‘08?  Could be.  Reports today that Mitt has made his way to the top of the Arizona senator‘s short list for vice president.  We‘re going to be vetting the former Massachusetts governor when we come back. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  We‘re back with THE RACE. And we‘re “Vetting the Veeps.”  It‘s our mini version of a veepstakes.  On the block today, Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton.  Yes, back again, Hillary Clinton.  Here again with us, Eugene, Tony, John and Michelle.  First up, Mitt Romney on top. 

Politico.com reports today that John McCain‘s former rival is the favorite on McCain‘s vice presidential short list.  Romney is a former CEO, a self-made zillionaire, a conservative Christian.  And in the wake of this presidential bid, he‘s a Republican household name. 

Family roots in Michigan could put that purple state in play.  He‘s a big fund-raiser.  Those are some of the advantages. 

But McCain attacked Romney as a flip-flopper during the primary.  No one‘s detecting any real signs of warmth between these two.  Would Romney really fit in on the Straight Talk Express?

John Harwood, what do you think? 

HARWOOD:  I think it‘s a clear collision between McCain‘s message on straight talk and the geographic emphasis he wants to place in his campaign.  He would be an asset in Michigan.  He‘s also be an asset in New England.  New Hampshire is a state that John McCain wants to take out of the Democratic column. 

So, I think John McCain has got to decide that.  But I suspect at the end of the day, and what my reporting tells me with McCain people, is the tie breaker in this case is going to be who he is really comfortable with.  That tells me that maybe these reports are a bit overrated right now.

MADDOW:  Gene Robinson, a quick thought on this? 

ROBINSON:  I think Romney would be a good choice for McCain for a variety of reasons, but I don‘t think the two of them get along that well.  I think he does set back McCain‘s “Straight Talk” message.  And so I think it‘s doubtful.

MADDOW:  All right.

Coming up, they broke their silence, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, fist bumps all around.  Well, not quite.  But they are talking as of today. 

So how did the conversation go?  We will hear from both sides when THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE returns. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MADDOW:  Welcome back to THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  I‘m Rachel Maddow, in for David Gregory today.  We‘re happy to have you with us.  We did it once; we‘ll do it again, head into that deep, dark truthful place we call the war room.  Back with us, Eugene Robinson, associate editor and columnist for the “Washington Post” and an MSNBC political analyst, Tony Blankley, syndicated columnist, John Harwood, CNBC‘s chief Washington correspondent and a political writer for the “New York Times,” and Michelle Cottle, senior editor of “The New Republic.” 

OK, first up, Obama and Bill break the ice.  The two spoke by phone this afternoon.  Camp Obama released this statement, quote, “Senator Obama had a terrific conversation with President Clinton, and is honored to have his support in this campaign.  He has always believed that Bill Clinton is one of this nation‘s great leaders and most brilliant minds.  He looks forward to seeing him on the campaign trail and receiving his counsel in the months to come.” 

That was the statement from team Obama.  On the other side, President Clinton issued this statement following the call, quote, “President Clinton continues to be impressed by Senator Obama and the campaign he has run, and looks forward to campaigning for and with him in the months to come.  The president believes that Senator Obama has been a great inspiration for millions of people around the country, and he knows that he will bring the change America needs as our next president.”

So, how does the Obama campaign best use Bill Clinton?  Does the former president, now dubbed the ambassador to rural America, get rolled out as part of Obama‘s southern strategy?  Tony Blankley, what do you think? 

BLANKLEY:  Look, this is the most expected event in politics.  The former Democratic president of the United States talks with and will endorse the current Democratic nominee for president.  Of course Obama should use him.  He‘s a vastly popular man around the country.  I think he will probably use him roughly the way Hillary used him, working in the rural white vote, not just in the south, but around the country.  He‘s a tremendous asset.  All the talk of him being a detriment to the Democratic party is just nuts. 

MADDOW:  Michelle, do you think this as a dog bites man story?  Do you there are any important strategic decisions that the Obama campaign has to make here? 

COTTLE:  Well, this is a well, duh story, as far as the meeting and pledging that they are all going to be in love and be very helpful.  But I think also, they do have to decide where he would be best used.  In addition to possibly going to the rural communities, he‘s good making deals behind the scenes, dealing with the Democratic players.  He still has a lot of establishment people in the party that he can help out with, mayors here, governors there, that sort of thing.  He‘d be very useful to help with. 

MADDOW:  It will be interesting to see if they use Bill Clinton in a way that tries to repair Clinton‘s image among black voters, if damage was indeed done to that image during the primary campaign.  It will be interesting to see where they deploy him first. 

HARWOOD:  Rachel, I don‘t think Barack Obama‘s campaign is worried too much about Bill Clinton‘s image.  They are worried about how they can get elected.  I think, as you suggested at the beginning, the potential for using him with southern white voters, in particular—Bill Clinton got more than a third of the southern white vote.  That doesn‘t sound like much, but it‘s oftly high for recent Democratic nominees.  If he can do that and pare some of that progress with what Barack Obama is going to do with the black vote, some of the border south will be in play, and Democrats will like to take their chances with that. 

MADDOW:  John, as straight political strategy, that‘s absolutely right.  You know the big question here is whether or not Bill Clinton gets some of his legacy needs served, as well as Barack Obama getting his electoral needs served.  That‘s what I think we‘ll have to be watching for. 

Next up, Barack Obama‘s summer travel.  He‘s scheduled to visit Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and the United Kingdom.  No trip to Iraq on the official itinerary.  McCain today went on the attack against Obama again for not visiting the region. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  Again, I extend my invitation for both of us to go together and the sooner, since it‘s now coming up on 900 days since he last visited Iraq, since before the surge.  I hope he goes as quickly as possible, with or without me. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  Not having Iraq on the itinerary doesn‘t necessarily mean that Obama won‘t make a surprise stop in Iraq on this next over seas trip.  With or without Iraq, Gene, what does Obama gain from going abroad now? 

ROBINSON:  He gains pictures of him being abroad being presidential.  These images will be considered invaluable to the Obama campaign going forth, because the criticism is that John McCain has all this foreign policy experience and Barack Obama doesn‘t.  So, he‘ll be able to say, look, look at it.  Here it is.  I would bet that he does go to Iraq, if not this time, certainly before the election, because that‘s the set of pictures he would really like to have, I think. 

MADDOW:  John Harwood, you have been writing about this, talking about potential pitfalls or at least risks for Senator Obama on a trip like this. 

HARWOOD:  Well, we all remember Mike Dukakis when he pulled that helmet on when he rode in the tank.  He ended up looking foolish when he was trying to get a good picture too.  It helped him in the same way Obama is looking for this trip.  If Barack Obama confuses Sunni and Shiite, as John McCain did when he was over seas not long ago—McCain faced a little static for that, but Barack Obama would face a whole lot, as somebody who‘s much younger, much newer to the international stage, much newer to American voters.  So he needs to do things that reassure people he handle that part of the job. 

MADDOW:  John McCain is also planning some summertime travel, some unusual summertime travel.  While Obama campaigns in red states, McCain is heading to Columbia and Mexico tomorrow, because he‘s discovered an obscure constitutional provision that allows South Americans to vote in our elections—not really.  But the McCain strategy may not be as bizarre as all that.  McCain is down 33 points, 62 to 29, with Latinos, according to a new Gallup Poll, 33 points.  We can surmise that his Latin America trip will be covered by Spanish speaking media markets.  One theory is that the trip will translate—ha ha—into a boost for McCain among Latino voters.  Tony Blankley, do you buy it? 

BLANKLEY:  Not particularly.  By the way, the 62 number doesn‘t dazzle me.  Of Obama‘s numbers in the primary, his actual number was about the same as the poll.  There‘s 19 percent undecided there.  A lot of that may go to McCain.  McCain may get to the 35 to 40 percent the Republicans get.  I think McCain‘s better time would be spent campaigning in Akron, Ohio, and in the suffering United States, rather than going down to Latin America. 

I think Obama has a tremendous advantage in campaigning abroad.  I don‘t see it for McCain. 

ROBINSON:  Rachel, let me point out one thing.  Cartagena  in Columbia, where I guess McCain is going, is one of the most beautiful cities you‘ve ever seen.  One of the treasures of this hemisphere.  I think he may have a better time than Obama does on his summer vacation. 

MADDOW:  Up next, three big questions.  The McCain campaign accuses Obama of being just a typical politician.  Is Obama at risk of losing some of his luster?  Stay right here.  THE RACE comes back right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  We‘re back with THE RACE.  Much as we would love to cross examine today‘s politics news until it breaks down and cries on the witness stand, we‘ve been advise to stick to just three questions, the three biggest in the ‘08 race.  Still with us, Eugene Robinson, Tony Blankley, John Harwood and Michelle Cottle. 

OK, first up.  Today‘s “New York Times” takes a hard look at the big picture in the war on terror; quote, “after the September 11th attacks, President Bush made the destruction of Mr. bin Laden‘s network the top priority of his presidency.  But it is increasingly clear that the Bush administration will leave office with al Qaeda having successfully relocated its base from Afghanistan to Pakistan‘s tribal areas, where it has rebuilt much of its ability to attack.”

I love these Mr. bin Laden‘s in the “New York Times‘” anachronistic style rules.  But more substantively, what does the Times say about the reason for al Qaeda‘s success at rebuilding?  Back to the article, quickly, quote, “it‘s a story of American accommodation to President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, whose advisers played down the terrorist threat.  It‘s also a story of how the White House shifted its sights beginning in 2002 from counter-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan to preparations for the war in Iraq.” 

That, you might recognize, is Senator Obama‘s main explanation for why he thinks Iraq was a wrong turn in the war on terror.  It‘s true that the United States has not suffered another terrorist attack after 9/11 and the Anthrax attacks of that year.  But a non-partisan Rand study says the threat today is as great as it was on 9/11.  In the big picture on terrorism and national security, is Obama cutting into traditional Republican turf? 

Our first question today, and we‘ll give this to you first, Michelle:

Is national security really a winning issue for John McCain? 

COTTLE:  Well, it depends.  He has to walk a fine line.  This Republican administration has been a disaster as far as Homeland Security goes and long term planning for that.  That said, Republicans have a built in advantage on this issue.  People automatically think daddy party, they will take care of us.  McCain has to split the difference.  He has to pint out that he‘s in the party that always keeps you safe, but make sure he‘s got enough distance from this particular president. 

MADDOW:  John Harwood, do you think that built in advantage Michelle is talking about is still built in?  Do you think it still holds?  

HARWOOD:  Well, Miss Maddow, I‘m anachronistic too.  Yes, I think John McCain does have an advantage.  I don‘t think this is where Barack Obama wants to fight this campaign, especially with events having to seemed to have gotten better on the ground in Iraq because of the surge.  I think what Barack Obama wants to try to do is make his judgment argument, try to neutralize that issue.  But there‘s no way that Democrats are going to come out ahead on terrorism and national security in November. 

MADDOW:  Tony, do you think that‘s true?  Do you think the Republicans are essentially, forgive the phrase, but bullet proof on national security, that there‘s no real toe hold for Democrats here? 

BLANKLEY:  I think McCain is going to hold well on that issue.  I think the Republican party has been damaged because of President Bush‘s seeming incompetence.  And Republicans have a long reputation, going back to Eisenhower, for being competent.  The combination of Iraq‘s post war planning and Katrina has really undercut that.  I don‘t think this is going to hurt McCain.  This is still a strong issue for McCain.  He‘s played it well and continues to. 

MADDOW:  Gene, does that threat on the issue of competence on the Republican side rebound to the issue of terrorism in some ways, the fact that bin Laden is still out there, a competence issue for the administration? 

ROBINSON:  I think, clearly, it does.  I think, Obama has to kind of try to limit or neutralize McCain‘s advantage on this issue.  I think that‘s why he‘s tried to take it on head on and not duck a national security discussion.  He can‘t be seen to run away from it. 

BLANKLEY:  An important point for Obama, he doesn‘t have to be seen as qualified, he merely has to be sufficiently qualified in the eyes of the voters to be president. 

HARWOOD: Bingo.

BLANKLEY:  That‘s a different standard.

MADDOW:  Specifically on the issue of Obama and Iraq, he has said that the U.S. must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in, of course, with the emphasis on getting out.  But McCain supporter Senator Sam Brownback said he believes Obama will ultimately backtrack on the issue of troop withdrawals in Iraq.  On a McCain campaign conference call on Friday, Brownback said, quote, “I want to put a marker out there.  I think the next thing you may watch and see Senator Obama move on is going to be on Iraq with the news coming out about the surge and its success.” 

That‘s prediction has been echoed by conservative Bill Kristol, but also by “The New Yorker” magazine, where George Packer recently wrote this, quote, “Iraq, despite myriad crisis, has stabilized.  With the general election four months away, Obama‘s rhetoric on the topic now seems out dated and out of touch, and the nominee apparent may have a political problem concerning the very issue that did so much to bring him this far.” 

Our second question—and John Harwood, we‘ll give this to you—does Obama have an Iraq problem? 

HARWOOD:  Well, I don‘t think he has a huge Iraq problem, but I do think Sam Brownback is on to something.  We‘ve seen on a series of issues, security with the terror surveillance bill, economics, on social policy, as well, Barack Obama has tacked toward the middle, to try to assure people that he‘s not going to stay in a box on the far left.  You can‘t fail to recognize, if you‘re Barack Obama, that things have shifted on the ground.  And you‘ve got to signal to Americans that you get that.  You recognize that, and you adjust your policy accordingly, without making people on the left, who have provided tremendous amount of energy for him on this issue, without making them think you completely sold them out. 

MADDOW:  Michelle Cottle, do you think this is more than just the issue of whether we fight over how we got into Iraq, versus how we leave Iraq?  Or do you think that there are real strategic issues that have political salience for the presidential race, in terms of how we go forward in Iraq today? 

COTTLE:  Well, I think almost certainly, Obama will have to shift, as we‘re talking about, towards the center.  The surge, by all accounts, has done more than the Democrats were predicting it would up front.  He‘s going to address that, or, yes, he risks as being seen as defeatist and not willing to adjust to the facts on the ground, so to speak.  I don‘t think - this will not be the first political candidate who has tacked toward the middle once the primaries were over. 

MADDOW:  Right.  Finally, Barack Obama is taking heat from both the left and the right today; 4,000 Barack Obama supporters have signed a position on MyBarackObama.com urging the senator to vote against the new FISA legislation because it includes immunity for telecom companies.  He‘s also taking big time heat on FISA from influential bloggers on the left, including Glen Greenwald at Salon.com, and some bloggers at Huffington Post.  This, of course, is a bit of a family feud between the Democratic nominee and lefty civil libertarians.  But the McCain campaign has seized on it too, adding FISA to its laundry list of alleged Obama flip flops, which includes a reversal on public financing and the unfulfilled promise of joint town hall meetings. 

The “Washington Post” reports it‘s part of the McCain campaigns, quote, “new and aggressive line of attack, casting Obama as opportunistic and self-obsessed as a politician, who will do and say anything to get elected, which reflects a growing belief among McCain strategists that the campaign for the White House will be won or lost based on voters‘ views of Obama‘s character.” 

So our third question tonight, Tony, can Obama keep from being tagged as just a politician.  Is it more dangerous for him when the same attack come from the left and the right simultaneously?   

BLANKLEY:  I don‘t think he has any problem on the left.  They‘re going to vote for him.  He does potentially have a problem with independents, soft D‘s, soft R‘s, if he turns out to look like just another cynical politician.  That‘s his selling point.  It‘s his selling point with the youth and with a lot of disgruntled Republicans and independents.  If he continues to look cynical and calculating, he runs the risk of losing some of the enthusiasm and perhaps some of the votes.  The danger is in the center, not on the left for him. 

HARWOOD:  Rachel, incoming from the left on terror surveillance looks like a very happy Fourth of July fire works display to Barack Obama.  He would love that kind of attack, to be able to say to people in the middle, that Tony‘s talking about, I can be reasonable on this, in their point of view. 

MADDOW:  But Gene, do you think there‘s a risk that he will lose some of the enthusiasm that he has among the liberal base? 

ROBINSON:  No, not much, actually.  I think Tony is right.  I think they will vote for him.  On the war, for example, I don‘t think he can go too far in backing away from his point that I will withdraw the troops.  Now, do it carefully, et cetera.  On FISA—you know, what FISA really illustrate is why it‘s difficult to run for president from the Senate.  You have to make these inconvenient votes.  You have to take these inconvenient positions.  You have to make deals.  That‘s what the Senate does and sometimes they are not your pure philosophy. 

COTTLE:  Rachel, more on the specifics, you know, these issues add up.  That‘s the problem.  I mean, FISA and the public financing.  Public financing is not something that many Americans would get exercised about.  What he has to really be careful about, Barack Obama cannot tarnish the brand, so to speak.  His candidacy is based on this image of hope and change and a different kind of politician.  This is not a guy who‘s being elected because he‘s a policy wonk. 

So while the specifics may not matter in individual cases, if they add up, there‘s problems for them. 

MADDOW:  They could create the character issue, indeed.  When we come back, you get to play with the panel.  We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  Welcome back to RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  The show is in your hands now.  It‘s time for you to play with the panel.  Back with us, Eugene, Tony, John and Michelle.  Jeannie in Seattle has a question about Wesley Clark‘s comments on John McCain; “if Michelle Obama‘s participation in the campaign makes her a fair target for criticism, wouldn‘t the fact that John McCain himself has made his military experience a part of his campaign make that a fair target?”

John, you said earlier that the Wes Clark criticism of McCain here may have been a vice presidential audition.  Do you think that McCain‘s experience will be seen as a fair target for criticism? 

HARWOOD:  As one of my colleagues said before, anything is a fair target in the campaign.  The question is, is it a smart target?  I think, in this case, it‘s a very stupid for Democrats to try to go after John McCain on his military service. 

MADDOW:  Gene, what do you think?  Do you think there is a question that can be raised here that will not be seen as disrespectful of McCain‘s service, but rather substantive on the issue of whether or not he‘s qualified to lead? 

ROBINSON:  No, I don‘t think so.  I think what Democrats, if they are smart, will do is acknowledge McCain‘s war record, his service, his heroism while in captivity by the north Vietnamese and leave it at that.  That doesn‘t mean you would make a great president, necessarily.  But to attack him on that I think is dangerous. 

BLANKLEY:  Rachel, let me make a different point.  While it‘s a stupid thing for a guy who wants to run for vice president to do, it may be a shrewd thing to nibble and chip away at the strong point of an opponent.  You know, win some votes.  You‘re going to win a lot, but you‘re going to win some.  You‘re going to raise some doubt.  It‘s a nasty business.  That‘s what presidential campaigns are about. 

MADDOW:  You would expect, I think, that would come from outside groups, people who couldn‘t be linked to the campaign. 

HARWOOD:  Remember, Barack Obama‘s brand is not to run a nasty campaign.  Obviously, there‘s going to be attacks from his side.  The more he follows that strategy that Tony was describing, which is sort of the usual course of presidential politics, there‘s some risk there too. 

MADDOW:  He‘s not the one who‘s following it.  That‘s what I‘m saying.  I would have expected this from outside groups, but not people with any link to the campaign. 

One of our international viewers, Scott in Vancouver, has a question about Obama‘s upcoming trip abroad; he says: “Obama is hugely popular outside the USA.  He can expect to be greeted by crowds of sign waving supporters wherever he goes in Europe.  Will this impress the American electorate?  If so, how can he capitalize on this?  Will he need a different strategy if he is similarly greeted in countries like Jordan?”

Michelle, do you think a positive international welcome for Obama would be anything other than a plus for him? 

COTTLE:  I think Obama has to work on showing that he can operate on the international stage.  He needs to look presidential.  I guess there are some people out there who will see him being greeted warmly in Middle Eastern countries or turn up their noses or see it as proof that he‘s not one of them.  But I think, on the whole, this is a great photo opportunity for him to do an almost Rose Garden strategy of sorts. 

MADDOW:  Finally, we wanted to share this from Tom in New Hampshire, who was at Obama and Hillary Clinton‘s unity event last week.  He sent up this ground report.  He said: “I was in Unity today, and anyone who claims the affection between Obama and Clinton wasn‘t genuine is a cynic.  They were comfortable, genuine and showed that they are two most intelligent and compassionate politicians in America today.” 

Michelle, let‘s go back to you on this.  You‘ve been locked into Clinton campaign dynamics for much of the year.  Do you think Clinton might be back on the VP short list? 

COTTLE:  I‘m sure Clinton would be fine being asked.  They have made it clear they are not opposed to it.  I just don‘t see it happening from Obama‘s perspective.  There‘s a lot of strategic reasons.  There‘s some personality reasons.  It just doesn‘t add up in the final analysis. 

HARWOOD:  Miss Cottle is correct. 

MADDOW:  You think it‘s not going to happen? 

HARWOOD:  I think it‘s not going to happen and I think both sides know it. 

MADDOW:  Gene, one last thought on this? 

ROBINSON:  The fact that both sides know it‘s not going to happen might be why they were so comfortable together. 

MADDOW:  Takes the pressure off.  I guess that‘s right.  We love reading your ground reports and your e-mails.  If you have been to a McCain or an Obama event, let us know, RACE08@MSNBC.com, or call us at 212-790-2299.  That just about does it for RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE tonight.

A quick programming now, retired General Wesley Clark will be Dan Abrams‘ guest on “VERDICT” tonight at 9:00 PM Eastern, right here on MSNBC.  I‘m Rachel Maddow, thanks to a great panel and thanks to you for watching.  See you back here tomorrow, same time, 6:00 PM Eastern.  Stay right here, “HARDBALL” with Chris Matthews is next.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

END   

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