updated 7/15/2008 1:48:18 PM ET 2008-07-15T17:48:18

Guest: Richard Wolffe, Michael Smerconish, Joan Walsh, Pat Buchanan

DAVID GREGORY, HOST:  Tonight, have you seen this, “The New Yorker” cover cartoon that has the Obama campaign up in arms?  Is it satire with a political message, or does it only give a nod to Obama‘s harshest critics?

The RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE rolls on.

Welcome back to THE RACE for Monday.  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, as Senator Obama prepares to step on to the world stage this week with a trip to Europe and the Middle East, he‘s is staking out some new ground on the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  Just what would he do to end the war in Iraq? 

Who‘s winning the fight over the economy? 

And what the president did today that could bolster McCain‘s case for more domestic oil drilling and the argument that it‘s needed. 

Also tonight, the complication Obama sees in his search for a number two. 

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

And with us tonight, Pat Buchanan, MSBNC political analyst; Richard Wolffe, “Newsweek” senior White House correspondent who now covers Obama full time.  Richard is also an MSNBC political analyst.  Michael Smerconish, radio talk show host on WPHT in Philly, and a columnist for both “The Philadelphia Inquirer” and “The Philadelphia Daily News.”  And Joan Walsh, editor-in-chief of salon.com. 

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 get us started here tonight. 

My headline, “Trapped.”

Literary journal “The New York” sets up a new trap for Obama on the cover of its current issue depicting him as a Muslim in a turban, fist-pumping wife Michelle, who‘s decked out in Rambo-style Army fatigues and toting an AK-47, hearkening back to the radical ‘60s.  It clearly reaches into the realms of the ridiculous. 

And Camp Obama, needless to say, is not pleased.  Here‘s campaign manager David Axelrod this morning on “MORNING JOE.”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID AXELROD, OBAMA CAMPAIGN MANAGER:  I think it‘s a cartoon poorly executed.  And you know, I bet a lot of folks have gotten lots and lots of comments.  A lot of people very upset who found it offensive. 

Did we like it?  No.  Is it the focus of our attention?  No. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Obama spokesman Bill Burton on what “The New Yorker” staff told him. 

“‘The New Yorker‘ may think, as one of their staff explained to us, that their cover is a satirical lampoon of the caricature Senator Obama‘s right-wing critics have tried to create.  But most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive.  And we agree.”

Regardless of The New Yorker‘s intention, what‘s damaging about this cover potentially may not be damaging at all, but that it underlines the risks that voters have about Obama, they see with Obama.  Not the question of what he would do on, say, foreign policy, but who he is.  It‘s the question mark over his head that‘s captured in this cartoon. 

The campaign has obviously worked doggedly to answer this issue since the general election kicked off.  But a “Newsweek” poll out today shows the campaign has a lot more fighting to do on this front. 

According to the poll, 12 percent of Americans think that Obama was sworn into the Senate using the Koran.  Thirty-nine percent answered they don‘t know, 39 percent believe that he attended an I Islamic school in Indonesia.  Twenty-six percent say he was raised as a Muslim, and 12 percent believe that he is a practicing Muslim.  In fact, he is a Christian. 

Richard Wolffe, from “Newsweek,” what does all this mean, this cover mean?  Does it underlines a real issue for Obama?

RICHARD WOLFFE, “NEWSWEEK”:  Well, David, I was talking to Obama aides in campaign headquarters in Chicago today.  They are deeply unhappy with this.  They made it very clear this isn‘t some kind of head fake.  These aren‘t crocodile tears.

This is very real for them.  And, of course, it‘s real because it crystallizes what‘s out there, what people are talking about and what they are trying to work so hard to bat down here. 

All of those questions in that “Newsweek” poll are, of course, false in a way.  He was not sworn in on a Koran.

GREGORY:  Right.

WOLFFE:  He didn‘t go to a Muslim school.  And yet, I can tell you from my own experience, there are journalists that I work with on a daily basis who are convinced that he did go to a Muslim school.  In fact, he went to a state school, a government-run elementary school in Indonesia.  But the confusion is out there, even for people who are plugged into politics.

GREGORY:  And Pat, the issue here is risk.  What‘s risky about Obama? 

Hillary Clinton failed to make the case that he was a risky choice because of what he might do, that he couldn‘t measure up, that he couldn‘t hack it, that he couldn‘t make the right call.  But McCain, likely, and certainly opponents of Obama, will make the case, you know, he‘s a question mark.  You just don‘t know who this guy is.

Do you trust who he is and what he really stands for?  That‘s what the Reverend Wright business got out for a lot of people.  That‘s what maybe a lot of people think just because he‘s an African-American.  So bias may play a role, or even Independent voters who were polled by Peter Hart in some of his focus groups, said, God, we just don‘t know enough about the guy. 

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  That‘s exactly right.  He‘s risky because of what people suspect who he is. 

And let me say, “The New Yorker” cartoon, I saw it as just a caricature.  And I think the Obama people would like to see it go away.  But we have focused on it so heavily, that showed, one, the protective character of much of the media about the Obama campaign.

Secondly, the super-sensitivity of the campaign itself and its supporters about this—what they feel is a certain weakness, an area of vulnerability that the American people might come to believe, that they have got a radical leftist who is somewhat sympathetic to Islam, et cetera, and something of a militant wife.  And those are the things that can keep him out of the center.  And if Barack can‘t get into the center, he can‘t win. 

GREGORY:  Smerc, your take on this?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  My take on this is that the Obama campaign benefits from this entire kerfuffle.  And here‘s the way I get there. 

I am one who receives those telephone call that perpetuate some of these urban legends.  My in bin on a daily basis contains lies about Senator Obama.  And the issue is, how do you confront the whisper campaign? 

This visual image allows a program like this to intelligently refute the Internet lore that surrounds this campaign.  And I think it does world of good to have this kind of dialogue. 

GREGORY:  We‘re talking about Obama—and Joan Walsh, you look at the picture, it‘s both Obamas here.  It‘s Obama caricatured as being a Muslim.  There‘s half the picture of Osama bin Laden, a flag in the fire.  And there‘s Michelle Obama, I guess, you know, AKA, Angela Davis back in the ‘60s as some sort of ‘60s radical, you know, playing on some of those caricatured comments about whether she is a true patriot or is proud of America. 

How does all this measure up for you? 

JOAN WALSH, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, SALON.COM:  You know, I agree with Michael on this.  I think what “The New Yorker” has done is put out a kind of roadmap, a perfect picture of what the smears are. 

GREGORY:  Right.

WALSH:  And I think in the long run, it helps.  Now, as an editor, I saw it, and part of me winced and part of me was like, David Remnick, this is brilliant. 

GREGORY:  Right.

WALSH:  It‘s amazing editorial art.  It is satire.  And look, “The New Yorker” has a long tradition of controversial covers. 

And I want to speak also as, you know, kind of a coastal cosmopolitan.  If “The New Yorker” has to give up this kind of commentary and satire, then the terrorists have won.  We really need to have a bigger frame as we look at this, because this controversy is getting silly. 

GREGORY:  Richard, if you...

BUCHANAN:  David, I don‘t think...

GREGORY:  Go ahead, Pat.

BUCHANAN:  I don‘t think Barack Obama really wants us to be discussing this all day long. 

GREGORY:  Right.

BUCHANAN:  The picture and the Angela Davis and AK-47 and the flag burning. 

WALSH:  I disagree.  I disagree, Pat. 

BUCHANAN:  The whole discussion, it‘s a mass distraction from his general message.  And B, it re-raises and we are all talking about the greatest vulnerability.  He has got one that he‘s trying to put behind him. 

GREGORY:  But Richard, the political calculus on—let me just say, Richard, the political calculus on this is that you do hold this up.  Here is the caricature of the Obamas.  It is so replete with error and so far off the mark...

WALSH:  Right.

GREGORY:  ... based on objective truth. 

Do people see through it?  Do they see it for what it is?  Or do they say, yes, this is sort of ridiculous, but there are a lot of things that we just don‘t know about the guy, and that makes us nervous. 

WOLFFE:  Well, look, from the campaign‘s perspective, there are better forums, better ways to deal with these issues, and the substance of those issues, than with this kind of image.  I mean, for a start, as a piece of satire, it‘s not directed at the people who are being outrageous or excessive.  They are targeting what they think are the victims, especially they feel very sensitive about Michelle Obama being in the mix. 

So, it‘s a very subtle piece of satire.  And satire doesn‘t often deal with subtlety very well. 

I‘m with Pat here.  I think this is a diversion.  The campaign does not want to have to deal with this, at least in this way. 

On the other side, I mean, Pat is saying this is a media cocoon here.  We‘re talking about this on cable, it‘s everywhere on the Internet.  I mean, the problem is, it is being discussed and talked about widely.  There‘s no cocooning going on.

GREGORY:  All right.  We‘re going to take a break here.  We‘ll come back.

More on the RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.

Up next, gas prices rising, banks are closing.  Our bank accounts are shrinking. 

Voters want some relief.  So, who has got the edge when it comes to the economy?  Is anybody talking about this in the right way on the trail?

Later, your turn to play with the panel.  Call us, 212-790-2299, or send us an e-mail, race08@msnbc.com.

We‘re right back after this break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) 

GREGORY:  Back on THE RACE now, and talking strategy poll numbers, tactics.  Heading inside the campaign war rooms. 

And back with us, Pat, Richard, Michael and Joan. 

First up, who has got the “in” on the economy?  For the first time, Bush gets behind McCain‘s proposal to lift the offshore drilling ban, taking this swipe at the Democratic-controlled Congress today.  Watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  It‘s been almost a month since I urged Congress to act, and they‘ve done nothing.  They have not moved any legislation.  And as the Democratically-controlled Congress has sat idle, gas prices have continued to increase.  Failure to act is unacceptable. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  According to a new Pew poll, 47 percent of Americans support lifting the offshore drilling ban, up from 35 percent in February. 

If energy is McCain‘s big “in,” how does he take advantage of it, Richard? 

WALSH:  Well, he talks about the situation as much as he possibly can and gets practical about what he can do about it. 

GREGORY:  Right.

WOLFFE:  Tries to put Obama on the defensive, but what you have got here is Obama‘s economic package, the goodies he‘s offering, an extra round of rebates, a middle class tax cut, it‘s all general in the sense that it‘s designed to affect the household income, not specifically about gas prices right now. 

GREGORY:  Yes.

I mean, Pat, what I think that McCain has done well is he tries to own an approach on the energy issue that a lot of people think will not work, but at least makes sense at some level, which is, why not try to plumb the depths, or whatever resources we have domestically, and getting Bush—this is an area where Bush can at least try to help him by raising the volume on the issue. 

BUCHANAN:  Oh, I think the Republicans are doing a fine job here.  Look, 82 percent think the country is on the wrong course, the economy is in a disaster.  So, you change the subject to gasoline prices, and McCain hits his strongest suit there, drilling for oil where you get half of the country, maybe more, agreeing with you. 

The president says we‘ve got to do it, I want to do it.  We need the help of Congress. 

I think the Republicans have handled this issue very well.  Go to the specific, the best suit you‘ve got here, and drilling for oil is one of them. 

GREGORY:  All right.

Next up, what‘s Obama‘s big “in” on the economy?  As MSNBC.com‘s “First Read” puts it, “Obama‘s ‘in” on the economy is twofold.  One, it‘s Bush.  Two, it‘s Bill Clinton.  The fact that perception is out there that this is Bush‘s economy, combined with the fact that the last time voters felt good about the economy a Democrat was in the White House, could give Obama more of a benefit of the doubt with voters on the economy than any new proposal he actually makes.”

Pat, we‘ll come back to you in a second. 

But Smerc, get in on this.  How much does Obama really have to do to show acumen, to show activism on the economy, or does he just say, look, these guys haven‘t gotten it right?

SMERCONISH:  I think very little is the answer to your question.  And eventually we‘ll talk about Missouri tonight, where Obama is up 16 points...

GREGORY:  Right.

SMERCONISH:  ... when folks are asked about the economy as one of the internal numbers.  He benefits by being the leader of the opposition party, and frankly doesn‘t have to do much beyond that.

I don‘t think either of them own the energy issue.  The guy who owns the energy issue is T. Boone Pickens.  And what he‘s doing on television and via the Internet is what they should both be doing. 

GREGORY:  Right.  Wind power.  Wind power is the answer, T. Boone says.

SMERCONISH:  Something, David.  Anything. 

GREGORY:  Let me ask you this, though, Pat.  You say do very little if you‘re Barack Obama on the economy.  But is he doing enough to own this, to be empathetic enough, to say to the American people, look, this is what I‘m going to focus on day in and day out? 

BUCHANAN:  No, he‘s not.  I think what he ought to be doing—look, there‘s all a matter of statistics which are terrible. 

Why doesn‘t he go after the 3.5 million manufacturing jobs lost, the collapse of the American dollar, what‘s happening to housing and all the rest of it?  Go on the offensive as some kind of populist that these rich Republicans have driven this thing into the ground.  And I don‘t think they are doing it, quite frankly.  And I commend Republicans for staying on taxes and drilling for oil.

GREGORY:  All right.

Finally, the latest “Newsweek” poll shows Obama and McCain in a statistical dead heat.  Obama leading McCain by just three points, 44-41.  That‘s down from Obama‘s comfortable lead of 15 points over McCain last month, 51-36. 

Why the big drop here, Richard?  What are you finding inside this poll? 

WOLFFE:  Well, a couple of interesting things.  First of all, the three-point gap is much closer to the other rounds of polls we‘ve been seeing from other organizations.

GREGORY:  Right. 

WOLFFE:  But what we also saw in the difference between these numbers 15 points was an outlier—is the makeup of a number of Republicans and Democrats.  So, there seems to have been, either through statistical differences, or because the country is changing in some imperceptible way, but more people Republicans, or more people identifying themselves as Republicans in this poll.  That counts for a lot of the change between the two numbers. 

GREGORY:  Yes, you know, see, this is something that I felt, Joan, was going to happen for a long while, which is Republicans are in the doldrums, Bush is unpopular, the war is unpopular, the country is off in the wrong direction.  You know, they‘ve had a nominee now for some time. 

Now that the engagement is starting, there‘s somebody to actually root for and root against.  I think more Republicans are going to step back up and go, look, let‘s get in there, we don‘t want Obama as president. 

WALSH:  You know, I‘m torn on that, David.  I really agree with Richard, that it‘s more likely to be a sampling problem for the “Newsweek” poll than a real shift, because McCain has had a very difficult week. 

You know, I agree, he sounds energetic on the energy issue, but, you know, he had major stumbles last week with Phil Gramm‘s terrible “nation of whiners” comment. 

GREGORY:  Yes.

WALSH:  I don‘t think McCain has fully found his rationale.  So I don‘t see a reason for people to be suddenly surging to him.  I think it‘s a problem with the poll and not a change in the American people. 

GREGORY:  A problem with the “Newsweek” poll, I think not, in defense of my friend Richard. 

WALSH:  Oh, sorry.

WOLFFE:  Thank you, David. 

WALSH:  Sorry, Richard.

GREGORY:  All right.  Let‘s go to the battlegrounds. A new poll out of Missouri.  Smerc mentioned it just a minute ago.  Obama ahead in this key battleground state.  And according to our analysis here at NBC News, still leans McCain.

A new Research 2000 poll for “The St. Louis Dispatch” shows Obama with a 48 percent lead to 43 percent over McCain.  And look at this, among Independent voters in Missouri, Obama leads McCain 47-43.  Perhaps most surprising among voters age 60 and older in Missouri, Obama leads 49-41 percent. 

Look, Pat, you know as well as I do, the key here is rural Missouri.  It‘s not the big cities.  He‘s got Claire McCaskill working out part of the state for him.  This is a test of whether Obama is going to be able to speak effectively to rural America. 

BUCHANAN:  It really is.  And that‘s a real bellwether state, Missouri.  It‘s just about a 50/50 state. 

I think what you see in Missouri is probably what is in the national polls, something like a five-point lead for Obama.  But I really believe Obama has got a serious problem here. 

He faded away in the last 10 primaries, and Hillary Clinton basically won them.  And he‘s got a tendency to be a slow closer. 

If I saw a 15-point lead in “Newsweek,” and in two or three weeks, it dropped three points, something is wrong there.  He‘s not closing the deal, because Joan is right, McCain has not had some great month of campaigning.

GREGORY:  Yes.

BUCHANAN:  It‘s been one stumble after another. 

GREGORY:  All right.  We‘re going to take a break here.  More on that as we come back.

Hillary Clinton for VP?  Maybe that‘s Pat‘s answer to Obama‘s troubles.  Well, if you ask Obama, it could really happen—well, as long as Bill Clinton stays far away. 

We‘ll explain it all.  We‘re going to vet the veeps when THE RACE returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  We are back on THE RACE, “Vetting the Veeps.”

Just when you thought that she was out of the running, it appears Hillary Clinton is actually still on Barack Obama‘s list of potential running mates.  According to whom?  Well, Obama himself.

Back with us, Pat, Richard, Michael and Joan.

Today, Obama‘s Clinton calculus.  Obama tells a donor that he‘s considering Hillary Clinton for VP, but says her husband is “a complication.”  Late last week, Obama reached out to Jill Iscol, a top Democratic donor, an ardent supporter of Hillary Clinton.

The “Los Angeles Times” reported it this way: “Iscol turned their phone conversation to the vice presidency—something the Obama campaign has refused to discuss publicly.  She said that she told him that Clinton would be his best running mate.”

“Obama replied that she is on the list, Iscol recounted, and that it would be a mistake not to have her on such a list.  But he also explained that he was thinking through a potential complication—Bill Clinton.  He said once you‘re a president, even if you‘re a former president, you‘re always a president.  Still, Iscol hung up believing Hillary Clinton had a shot.”

What do you make of that, Richard? 

WOLFFE:  Sure, she has a shot.  This is the period where we‘re in the long shot list, not the short, short list. 

GREGORY:  Right.

WOLFFE:  And so, these vetters, Caroline Kennedy, Eric Holder, would not be doing their jobs if they excluded Hillary Clinton at this stage.  Now, that doesn‘t speak to the feelings of the inner circle around Barack Obama or even what‘s in his head...

GREGORY:  Yes.

WOLFFE:  ... and how they feel about Hillary Clinton.  But Bill Clinton is an easy excuse, an east out, if you want to exclude Hillary. 

GREGORY:  Absolutely. 

And by the way, the idea that he‘s a complication, that‘s not exactly revelatory.  But it is interesting, Joan, to hear it from him.

I am a little bit more conspiracy-minded about this.  Do you think he might have been sending some sort of message here? 

WALSH:  Yes, I do.  I actually think that that is probably what he was doing. 

He knows that Jill Iscol is going to talk to the press.  He knows she‘s a very well respected, prominent Clinton supporter.  So, you know, I think he had to know she would talk about it. 

You know, and I think it‘s—it is a fair consideration for Barack Obama.  I think it‘s going to be a  complicated equation, but I think he probably wanted that out there, because to say, oh, he was a president, it‘s a lot.  It‘s crowded in the White House when you have a vice president and a former president, I‘ve got to think this through.  It sounds like she‘s being considered, but also prepares people for him to say, I just couldn‘t do it. 

GREGORY:  Patrick, I suspect you think this is a copout on Obama to give this complication to much credence when you believe he needs her. 

BUCHANAN:  Well, I think Barack Obama will not select Hillary Rodham Clinton unless he does need her to become president of the United States.  He says what a problem Bill Clinton is, a complication, if you‘re a president. 

Well, first, you have got to become president.  And I still think, despite all this talk of Biden and Bayh and everyone, she brings an awful lot more to the table, 18 million votes, all those women. 

GREGORY:  Yes.

BUCHANAN:  United party, enthusiasm.  She brings problems, yes.  But if he needs her, I think he‘s enough of a politician to go over and do just what Jack Kennedy did. 

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

Coming up, Barack Obama takes on the world.  So what does he stand to gain?  What does he stand to lose in this upcoming tour of Europe and the Middle East?

We‘ll break it down when THE RACE returns. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

GREGORY:  We are back on THE RACE.  I‘m David Gregory, happy to have you here.  Heading back inside the war room.  This round, we‘re talking about Obama‘s upcoming trip abroad, and what he stands to gain, what he stands to lose.  Back with us, Pat Buchanan, MSNBC political analyst, Richard Wolffe, “Newsweek‘s” senior White House correspondent who now covers Obama full time—Richard is also an MSNBC political analyst—

Michael Smerconish, radio talk show host on WPHT in Philly and columnist for both the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and the “Philadelphia Daily News,” and Joan Walsh, editor in chief of Salon.com. 

First up, Obama prepares for his world stage debut tomorrow, delivering a major speech on Iraq and national security in Washington tomorrow.  Today, in the “New York Times,” he outlined his plans for Iraq, quote, “only by redoploying,” he writes, “our troops can we press the Iraqis to reach comprehensive political accommodation and achieve a successful transition to Iraqis‘ taking responsibility for the security and stability of their own country.” 

Richard, where did he make news here in this piece in the Times? 

WOLFFE:  Well, the extra combat brigades going to Afghanistan is a big deal.  It shows that he is serious about beefing up the military there.  This isn‘t some sort of peacenik approach, where the troops just came home from Iraq.  That‘s an important point he‘s got about Iraq, not just about ending the war, but that it‘s been a diversion from job number one on al Qaeda. 

GREGORY:  Also, when he talked about Iraq, Pat, the idea here is that, yes, he could still end the war, he could still begin a phased withdrawal, and in concert with Iraqis who want their own deadline for troop withdrawal, that would not be surrender.  He took on that argument head on. 

BUCHANAN:  I think the whole Maliki challenge to Bush that we want a deadline for them to get out has helped him.  Basically, what this is, David, is a very defensive move initially.  McCain was beating him up.  You haven‘t been to Iraq in two years.  You don‘t know what it‘s about.  The surge has worked.  You don‘t go there.  He‘s moved and he‘s turning a negative, I think, into a positive.  He knows foreign policy and also the traditional Democratic weakness on national security and foreign policy, their problems.  He‘s addressing them directly.  He‘s making a virtue out of necessity. 

GREGORY:  You talk about Afghanistan, Smerc, you‘ve been talking about this in recent days.  The same op-ed piece, Obama refocused the US mission in Afghanistan, writing this, “as president, I would pursue a new strategy, and begin by providing brigades”—about 10,000 troops, as Richard said—

“to support our effort there.  We need more troops, more helicopters, better intelligence gathering and more non-military assistance to accomplish the mission there.” 

Again, he‘s talking about Afghanistan.  Here‘s the issue: Democrats have been saying that Afghanistan is, in fact, the central front on the war on terror for a long time.  But at this stage of the game, with McCain defining himself as the Iraq strategy campaigner and candidate, here‘s Obama saying, no, the central front is not Iraq; it is indeed Afghanistan.  That‘s where I want to draw my marker. 

SMERCONISH:  He said it‘s not now and it never has been.  I don‘t even like to put it in the context of saying Afghanistan.  Here‘s the big unspoken word, it‘s Pakistan.  David, I‘m having difficulty rationalizing two competing headlines from over the weekend: Nine soldiers dead in the Kunar province in Afghanistan, right in the Hindu Kush, in that border with Pakistan; another headline where the Pakistani foreign minister says we will not allow foreigners to come into the country and hunt bin Laden or the al Qaeda leadership. 

Nobody is talking about it.  Maybe now, finally on this trip, Barack Obama will. 

GREGORY:  Besides traveling to Britain, France, Germany Jordan and Israel, with possible stops in Iraq and Afghanistan, news out today that Obama plans to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah next Wednesday, after visiting with Israeli leaders.  Richard, what is the thinking besides this here?  He‘s getting himself in the middle, in terms of meeting with both sides in a tricky area here. 

WOLFFE:  Well, first off, there‘s a domestic message, which is, in going to Israel, he‘s reassuring himself with Jewish voters, who have had their doubts about him.  Of course, what he‘s showing here by going to the Palestinian territory as well that he wants to reengage with whatever is left of the peace process.  He‘s handling himself on the foreign stage here, showing that he can be pseudo presidential. 

Of course, it‘s fraught with pitfalls here.  I‘ll be travelling with him.  He‘ll have a press corps looking for any sign of mistake or hesitation.  Who knows how these foreign governments are going to play.  Several of them, especially in Western Europe, are favorable to President Bush and may not want to play ball. 

GREGORY:  Joan, when you just talk about the Israeli/Palestinian dispute, meeting with the Mahmoud Abbas, Obama is going to face question after question while he‘s in Israel about whether he‘s approaching this in an even handed way, which to a lot of people, a lot of Jews in this country, means a pro-Palestinian way, in other words, giving equal weight to both sides.  There will be a lot of voters who will be looking to him from that point of view.  There, in Israel, there will be Israelis who are looking for him in all kinds of ways, in tone and in substance, to get a sense of where he‘s going to try to reengineer this peace process. 

WALSH: Well, he‘ll be under a lot scrutiny, David.  But I think it‘s important that he do it.  Look, President Bush supports a Palestinian state.  There will be a two state solution.  So on one basic level, it‘s not controversial at all.  I‘m not stupid.  I‘m not going to say it‘s not controversial.  It‘s something he had to do.

He went before AIPAC.  Some people on his left were kind of upset.  He had to correct himself about a divided Jerusalem or an undivided Jerusalem as the capital.  He‘s still learning how to finesse these things.  But to go there and not visit the West Bank I think would be cowardly, and that‘s the worst thing. 

GREGORY:  Pat, pull back for just a minute here, what does he achieve or not achieve, overall, in terms of this broad picture of him being on the world stage? 

BUCHANAN:  I think it‘s more risk than it is benefit.  I agree with Richard.  He‘s got a lot of land mines over there, in particular in Israel.  Look, Ehud Barak is coming here this week.  The head of Mossad was here last week.  The head of the Israeli military is coming next week.  There‘s a full court press on Bush to do something about Iran before this election.  I think they will corner Barack in Israel to see what is his stand on Iran right now, would he favor some kind of action.  So I think this has a lot of problems for him, a lot of difficulties.  But he had to do it, because they were hammering him for not going to Iraq. 

GREGORY:  What, Richard—in the minds of Obama advisers, what‘s the counter photo-op here to the time McCain has spent in Iraq, in particular?  He goes over there, he says in the piece today, not to negotiate anything. 

There‘s only one president, he made it clear.  But he‘s there to listen. 

He‘s going to make a big statement by showing up. 

WOLFFE:  That‘s right.  Him talking to the troops, responding to the troops is going to be an important picture for him, and important gut check too.  Remember, he has a staffer who was deployed in Iraq recently as well.  Showing that he‘s listening or responsive and in touch with whatever is going on in Iraq is important.  Of course, he got into trouble last time that he said he was refining his policy based on what he was going to hear.  He‘s got to strike a balance there between sticking to his guns, but also showing that he‘s in touch with what‘s going on.   

GREGORY:  Smerc, real quick, what‘s the big picture here?  You talk to people every day calling into your show.  What do they think about him marching onto the world stage like this, going to get a lot of attention doing it? 

SMERCONISH:  I think some people say he should concentrating his efforts at home.  But I really think, deep down, Americans want to know that the individual who may be elected president of the United States is going to have the respect of world leaders.  Respect is the key word, relative to what Richard just said.  That photo image that you‘re playing for is one where the troops appear to be respecting a potential future commander in chief. 

GREGORY:  Let me make a different observation too.  Obviously, McCain is so well traveled all over the world.  It‘s different.  He‘s been around a long time.  He‘s already defined himself.  For Obama, in a way, in my way of thinking, it‘s like a first presidential trip, like Bush made in July of 2001, going to Europe.  Obama is including the Middle East here.  There‘s a lot of nuances, a lot of ambience that comes with a trip like this, to watch how the candidate in this case performs on the world stage, how he‘s perceived, the tone that he strikes.  That‘s going to define a lot about his world view as president. 

WOLFFE:  Remember—I totally agree with you, David.  Remember, he has got an opportunity here to really dominate coverage for a good two weeks while we‘re still paying attention before the Olympics.  It‘s going to be hard for the McCain campaign to breakthrough, because we will all be fascinated by his body language, how he performs, how people react to him, whether there going to be these big crowds at an open air event in Germany.  It‘s very rare that a campaign, before a convention, can really take ahold of the news coverage like this.  In that sense, it‘s worth the risks, but there are risks, serious ones. 

GREGORY:  We‘re going to take a break.  Coming up, Obama and Clinton.  If they were Facebook friends, there status would be the it‘s complicated scenario.  Obama reportedly told a donor the former president is a complication to the dream ticket.  Is it a problem that Obama wants to solve?  Does he want to solve?  The big picture and three questions next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  We‘re back on THE RACE and we have some questions to pose, the biggest questions of the ‘08 race today.  Still with us, Pat Buchanan, Richard Wolffe, Michael Smerconish and Joan Walsh. 

First up, it‘s the cover everybody is talking about.  We‘ve talked about it here tonight.  The newest issue of the “New Yorker” shows a cartoon Barack and Michelle Obama dressed like extremists doing a fist bump in the Oval Office as a portrait of Osama bin Laden hangs in the background.  Today, “New Yorker” editor David Remnick defended the cover saying, quote, it holds a mirror to the hateful and absurd attack that define the politics of fear.” 

First question, is the “New Yorker” cartoon bad taste or an uncomfortable reality for Obama?  Joan, take it on.

WALSH:  I think it‘s an uncomfortable reality for Obama, but one that needs to be scrutinized.  I think it‘s great satire.  As an editorial decision, I defend it.  It‘s not David Remnick job to think about what‘s best for Obama.  That‘s David Axelrod‘s job.  But it could even help Obama by exploding these crazy, crazy myths that we all know have been out there, and making us look at them and dispel them.

GREGORY:  Richard, it‘s interesting, as a test for Obama nation, you know, all the people out there on the Internet and who are e-mailing, it can generate a huge response.  In some ways, Axelrod should be thankful that it‘s testing Obama Nation to see how quickly and effectively they can respond and mobilize to something like this. 

WOLFFE:  You‘re right.  Maybe they should be writing fund raising e-mails on the back of it.  I have to say, I just don‘t think it‘s very funny.  If this cartoon was supposed to be humorous, it just doesn‘t hit the funny bone. 

WALSH:  I thought it was hilarious. 

GREGORY:  Is the point to be funny here, Smerc, or is it to hold the mirror up, to say this is absurd, but sometimes the absurd is the stuff of political reality that you have to overcome.  Talk about absurd, the idea Michael Dukakis on top of the tank, it was a defining moment politically.  Was it really accurate to say he couldn‘t be a commander and chief?  It was just an image.  Sometimes image matters.

SMERCONISH:  I‘m with Joan.  When I looked at it, the first thought I had was one of—this will reveal my sophomoric perspective—I thought of “Mad Magazine.”  I mean, this to me was Alfred E. Newman.  You know what I said, David?  I said, this is all asinine, all this garbage that they are throwing at this guy.  I think that‘s a message that they need to get out.  I stand by my opinion; it‘s a step up for the Obama campaign to have people talk about it. 

GREGORY:  Pat, final point. 

WALSH:  There‘s another point. 

BUCHANAN:  No, I think it‘s an uncomfortable reality.  I think it‘s supposed to spoof the right wingers, but they‘re ripping out the “New Yorker” now, framing it and putting on their walls.  This is exactly what we are up against.  You know, I think it‘s unfortunate for Obama.  It‘s a very effective cartoon. 

GREGORY:  Joan, go ahead. 

WALSH:  There‘s another silver lining, which is it‘s totally obscuring Ryan Lizza‘s fantastic and somewhat disturbing portrait of Obama‘s Chicago years, which really depicts him as a very calculating politician, not a revolutionary, not even a major reformer, but somebody who has thrown some people under the bus in his progress to his Senate seat, and that contains some unflattering stories about him.  I think we would all be sitting here talking about Ryan Lizza‘s piece if it wasn‘t for the cartoon.  They may be lucky. 

BUCHANAN:  We‘ll take the cartoon, Joan. 

WALSH:  All right. 

GREGORY:  I think Obama wants to get on a plane to the Middle East where he can control the story line a little more. 

WALSH:  It‘s all easy.

GREGORY:  Next up, Obama and faith.  In the latest edition of “Newsweek,” our own Richard Wolffe explores Obama‘s spiritual journey from Catholic school in Indonesia as a child to his search for community as a young man, and finally his embrace of Christianity.  Second question, what does Obama believe?  Richard, start it off. 

WOLFFE:  You know what‘s interesting here?  For those of us like you and me, David, who have been covering Bush, this is a different version of Christian belief than we‘re used to with President Bush.  It‘s not about his certainty.  It‘s more about the doubts that he has that took him to faith.  This wasn‘t a blinding revelation.  It was more of a process, an intellectual process. 

He actually avoids the idea that there is an exclusive path to heaven for Christians and true believers.  He says, for instance, his mother, who didn‘t believe in any one religion, would certainly not be going to hell.  So I‘m interested in the nuance and the complexity of his faith.  It‘s a practicing Christian faith, to be sure, as opposed to what we‘re often seeing in the media, and in terms of politics as well, which is a definite, single path towards evangelical Christianity. 

GREGORY:  What do you think his relationship with God is or what does it mean to him? 

WOLFFE:  Well, he prays regularly.  He said prays pretty much every day, and he prays for his wife and his daughters, rather than praying for some sort of political goal.  He carries his bible with him.  He reads it.  He thinks his redemption is through Jesus Christ.  So, this is a personal and a Christian relationship.  But, again, I don‘t think he sees it as being exclusively the prerogative of Christians to say what does and doesn‘t work in terms of God‘s views. 

He says he likes to align himself with what god would want not because of some sort of self-importance, but to try and do what‘s best for the country and for his family.  

GREGORY:  I‘m interested in this, and then I want to get the view of the others; but the notion of being on a journey, on a spiritual journey, as he described it in your piece, something that he still grapples with.  There isn‘t a rock bottom certitude.  He‘s a practicing Christian and believe in Jesus Christ as the lord.  But this has been something of an intellectual journey, in a not totally dissimilar way from Bush, who was on his own journey and became, effectively, a born again Christian.  There was some certitude in that.  Critics of Bush would say that interfered with his governing.  He would dismiss that, of course.  But certainly that relationship with Christ, in Bush‘s mind, very, very strong. 

WOLFFE:  Yes, I think what‘s interesting about the way Bush has approached it is, again, this question of certainty and that‘s just not something that you see when Obama talks about his faith.  It‘s an important guide for him.  Just take his church going.  He isn‘t going to church regularly now.  He doesn‘t even belong to a church since he left Trinity.  His faith is just fine, thank you very much.  It‘s much more personal, and, you‘re right, intellectual.  

GREGORY:  Pat, just one closing thought on this.  Let me ask you the political question.  Being on an intellectual and spiritual journey is fine.  It‘s very interesting.  It‘s very meaningful to people who are engaged in it.  Politically, what is the impact of his beliefs and his approach to religion at this stage? 

BUCHANAN:  What Richard describes is a form of Christianity which, of course, is rejected by traditional Catholics and evangelical Christians who say, I‘m the way, the truth and the light.  No man comes to father except through me.  That‘s the one road to salvation.  He obviously rejects that.  He accepts the social gospel.  He‘s been going to basically a black liberation theology church.  I think there‘s a considerable gulf between Barack Obama and the Evangelical Christians and many traditional Christians.  I think he‘s doing a good job of trying to bridge it.  I don‘t think on a theological level he‘s going to be able to do it. 

GREGORY:  Finally, Obama and the Clinton‘s.  The “LA Times” reports that Obama recently told a Democratic donor that yes, Hillary Clinton is being considered for VP, but Bill Clinton is a, quote, complication.  Why?  Obama reportedly told the donor, once a president, always a president.  Is that really the obstacle to the so-called Democratic dream ticket?  Third question then, does Obama want to overcome the Clinton complication?  Smerc, what do you say?

SMERCONISH:  Only if he believes he needs them, not her, them to win.  The news here, and I think we‘ve made this clear, is that he said it.  It‘s not that he thought it.  We would all agree that Bill Clinton does present complications.  By the way, let‘s not undervalue what he brings on the trail.  I still think he‘s a tremendous asset.  But I believe that he selects the two of them only if he thinks he needs them to win. 

GREGORY:  Joan, is this a complication on the campaign trail or governing?  How does Obama look at this as a complicating factor? 

WALSH:  I think it‘s governing.  David, listen, I‘m not going to pretend that Bill Clinton is not a complication.  On the other hand, my fantasy about Barack Obama is that he is person enough, man enough to be chief executive.  If you‘re an executive, you know that you hire the smartest people for the job.  You hire people who are smarter than you.  You hire people who are better than you. You hire people who can be troublemakers, if they are the right people.  So, there‘s an element about this conversation about Hillary and Bill Clinton that I think puts him in danger of seeming weak, like he doesn‘t know if he can handle them.

I‘m not saying I think he should do it.  There are other candidates who might bring more.  When the conversation comes to what to do about Hillary, he needs to be very careful tough and like I will do it if it‘s the right thing for me. 

GREGORY:  Look, Richard, I think a big consideration here is that he wants to establish that this is his party now.  I think what‘s revealing about once a president, always a president is a way to say look, I am going to think about not only campaigning, but governing.  If I have a vice president in Hillary Clinton and then another president sort of lurking out there without much of a portfolio, it may be a headache I just don‘t want.  I want to make this break with the Clinton‘s.  His campaign is as much about breaking from Bush as it is breaking from the Clintons and that era. 

This is a guy with considerable ego as well.  He wants it to be his party now. 

WOLFFE:  Right, and that would be a more significant reversal than anything we‘ve seen talked about over the last several weeks.  I do think Joan make as very, very good point.  Hillary Clinton—I think he has a lot of respect for Hillary Clinton.  He knows that Hillary Clinton can deliver a message and can fulfill a very important criteria for him, which is to take over the presidency if can case of some disaster.  That‘s important.

But Bill Clinton as a free agent, as someone who has presidential aura around him, who may be making up policy on the fly; that‘s a troublesome factor, because it speaks to indiscipline.  That‘s the one thing Hillary Clinton doesn‘t have.  It‘s very, very important to have a disciplined campaign and disciplined White House for Barack Obama. 

BUCHANAN:  I think it would be a big move on Barack Obama‘s part if he reached out and took Hillary Rodham Clinton, even with the Bill problem.  What it says, I‘m a big man; I‘m going to run the White House.  I have no problem with having the Clintons as vice president and this.  I think it‘s a big move.  I remember Nixon bringing John Connally right into his cabinet, Democratic governor of Texas; he used to talk about as the big move.  I think Kennedy made it in 1960.  I think it would be dramatic at that convention if he surprised them with Hillary Clinton as VP. 

GREGORY:  Look, we have all kinds of room now in the Obama administration.  We could have Schwarzenegger in there.  You could have Al Gore there.  We have Robert Gates who is going to be staying on.  Pat, you may have a role in this administration. 

WALSH:  They are talking to Pat. 

BUCHANAN:  Some of them have to be dragged out from under the bus before they get in the administration.

GREGORY:  We‘re going to take a break.  Coming up next, your play date with the panel.  Don‘t go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Final thoughts here, you play date with the panel.  The panel is back with us.  Tonight, Pat, Richard, Joan and Michael.  Lynn in Alabama writes this: “Yes, I‘m thinking about the economy, but I don‘t want my candidate to tell me what he thinks.  I want to hear—I want to know that my candidate is not going to get elected and continue to pander to the oil companies and car companies.  I want real solutions.  I don‘t want to hear about off-shore drilling.  I want to know just how close our technology is to making us independent of oil companies and I want the funding to get us there.”

Pat, that is an approach by some voters who are willing to wait for some real solutions.  That‘s the calculus here, which is how much empathy do you show and what do you do to try to get something moving in the short term.  The truth is, people‘s attention spans are not that long to wait for some of these longer term solutions. 

BUCHANAN:  That sounds like an Obama voter, if she doesn‘t like the off shore drilling and she doesn‘t like the oil companies.  They‘re some of the best friends of the American right.  I‘m not sure what a neutral voter she is.  I think McCain is on the right course, as I say.  The Republicans have lost the economic issue.  If you‘re talking about off shore drilling, it‘s an even contest. 

GREGORY:  Richard, the opportunity for Obama is to really swing hard for some long term solutions, if he can bank on the idea that all he has to do is argue, you like what‘s going on now?  Stick with McCain.  You want a change?  Stick with me.  He may not have to do a whole lot more than that. 

WOLFFE:  Yes.  Remember that it was President Bush who came out today on the off shore drilling thing.  Anytime Bush and McCain are together, the Obama folks think it‘s a good thing.  The other piece of this is that they are trying to position McCain as a typical gimmicky position, the same trick they tried to pull with Hillary Clinton when it came to off shore drilling.  The question is whether the American people understand now, if high prices—gas prices are here to stay, does that mean that temporary fixes aren‘t good enough?  That‘s a kind of subtle economic judgment that could go either way right now.  I don‘t think people are expecting a quick fix now. 

GREGORY:  Jim in New York writes this: “both of these candidates are coming from a Senate with an approval rating of 9 percent.  I believe that if you added the category of none of the above in the voting booth, this would get the majority of votes.”

What do you think, Joan?  They‘re both insiders in that respect, even though Obama is running for the change mantle. 

WALSH:  Right, you know, the truism about those kinds of polls is that people hate Congress, in general, but they love their congress person, or they at least like him or her.  McCain and Obama are both very popular people.  Their campaigns haven‘t been perfect.  I think this is a good choice for the American people.  There really is a choice. 

GREGORY:  All right, we‘re going to leave it there.  Thanks very much to a great panel tonight.  You can play with them every night here on MSNBC.  Send your emails to RACE08@MSNBC.com or call us at 2120790-2299.

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

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