updated 7/21/2008 10:28:03 AM ET 2008-07-21T14:28:03

Guests: Andrea Mitchell, Marcos Moulitsas, Susan Molinari, Rachel Maddow, John Harwood, Noah Oppenheim

DAVID GREGORY, HOST: Tonight, Obama overseas. Does he have the credentials to be the alternative to the Bush years?

The “Face-Off” tonight as the RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE rolls on.

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

Tonight, live from Iraq in a moment, the latest from Baghdad with Andrea Mitchell, on the ground, anticipating Obama‘s first foray overseas as the Democratic nominee.

Tonight in “Face-Off,” it‘s Noah and Rachel going head-to-head on whether Obama has the foreign policy cred to argue that he can outdo McCain on national security.

In a special “War Room” tonight, I go one-on-one with founder of The Daily Kos Web site, the leader of the Internet left, Marcos Moulitsas. He is not so happy with Obama these days.

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

And with us tonight, Rachel Maddow, host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America and an MSNBC Political analyst; John Harwood, CNBC chief Washington correspondent and political writer for “The New York Times”;

Susan Molinari, Republican strategist and former New York congresswoman; and Noah Oppenheim, co-author of “The Intellectual Devotional” series and former senior producer of “The Today Show” here on NBC.

We begin as we do every night, with the most important political story of the day. It is “The Headline.”

And tonight, we turn to NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell. She joins us from Baghdad tonight with the headline.

And Andrea, it‘s good to see you there in Baghdad tonight.

The new from here is about some agreement between the administration and the Iraqis about an eventual timeline for additional withdrawal of U.S.  troops. What are you learning on the ground there?

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, the headline is, David, that “They Fail to Agree on How to Agree, How to Have a Timeline.”

So, after Prime Minister Maliki here in Iraq last week embarrassed the administration, pressured the administration by saying he wanted a withdrawal by the end of the year, something that was repeated by his security adviser, in fact, in an interview with us, the administration got the president on a secure telephone—a teleconference yesterday with Prime Minister Maliki. And basically, they agreed to plug (ph) it up, to say, not a timeline, not a timetable, a time horizon.

Interestingly, similar words that Condoleezza Rice used to fudge over differences between Palestinians and Israelis. So, it‘s a term of art. It‘s basically a shift by the administration. It also gets Maliki off of demanding an instant U.S. withdrawal by the end of the year.

And I was able to ask General David Petraeus about that today, and asked him specifically about Barack Obama saying a 16-month timetable given the conditions on the ground. And this is what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS, COMMANDING GENERAL, MULTI-NATL FORCE: It depends on the conditions. It depends on the mission set. It depends on the enemy. The enemy does get a vote and is sometimes an independent variable.

Lots of different factors I think that would be tied up in that. And, you know, the dialogue on that and the amount of risk, because it eventually comes down to how much risk various options entail. That‘s the kind of discussion I think that‘s very important as we do look to the future.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MITCHELL: And what the military commanders are going to tell Barack Obama when he gets to Iraq, that any kind of definite timetable is too risky because it gives the enemy veto power. That has been the argument all along.

Of course, the Obama campaign said today that the shift by the White House is a step in the right direction. They think that it was predicated by his appeal and by his trip.

GREGORY: Andrea Mitchell in Baghdad for us tonight with the very latest.

Andrea, thank you very much.

Now I want to bring in our panel tonight to weigh in, in all of this.

Rachel, you‘re first up tonight. The test for Obama as he is headed overseas, to the Middle East. He will be in Iraq and Afghanistan during this trip.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: I think this headline as a sendoff to Iraq and Afghanistan couldn‘t be more dramatic. But we‘re left wondering whether or not this really is the Bush administration signing up for the kind of timetable that of course Bush has vetoed, and Bush and McCain both labeled a date certain for surrender, or whether this is, as Andrea suggests—I think it‘s fascinating—a sort of term of art diplomatically that implies that there is a general goal, but no real promise that any motion will be made toward it.

If that‘s the case, this seems to be just an effort to get the Iraqis to sign on to a sort of long-term agreement. It‘s likely that the Democrats in Congress will continue to reject that. And Obama is going to have to decide who he‘s going to go with on this.

GREGORY: Right.

It‘s interesting, Susan. Some of the spin that‘s coming out of team Obama and his supporters is that he is the one sort of driving the foreign policy agenda, and finally it‘s the Bush administration, whether it‘s troops in Iraq kind of following suit here.

Does it give him some momentum as he goes over to the Middle East now?

SUSAN MOLINARI, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I don‘t think so at all, because I think what General Petraeus and what the interview with Andrea Mitchell shows is that General Petraeus is saying this is not the way to go with regard to a timetable. So, I think what‘s going to be interesting is to see what Barack Obama or who Barack Obama is when he returns.

GREGORY: Yes.

MOLINARI: Is he the “General Betray Us” MoveOn.org guy that‘s going to say, regardless of what the generals on the ground or what the troops tell me, we‘re going to set a timetable? Or does he come back and does he continue to move more to the middle with regard to Iraq?

I think he is going to be in a very difficult spot, and it‘s going to be fascinating to see where he comes down in a week or so.

GREGORY: Noah, your take on the biggest test for Obama?

NOAH OPPENHEIM, CO-AUTHOR, “THE INTELLECTUAL DEVOTIONAL” SERIES: Yes.  I mean, you know, Rachel says that this idea of a timeline is a general goal. She says general goal derisively, as if that‘s not a good thing. But, I mean, of course we want a general goal and not a firm timetable.

I mean, the notion that we would go in there, as General Petraeus says, and say, on this date we‘re leaving, you know, every military expert you talk to say that‘s preposterous and ridiculous. So, alternatively, if we want to say we want to, generally speaking, be reducing our commitment and our troop presence over there, over the course of the next X number of months, I think that‘s something that George Bush would agree with, I think it‘s something John McCain would agree with.

Of course we want to stabilize the country and not be there in the same way that we‘re there now. That‘s what we‘ve all wanted from the very beginning.

GREGORY: Harwood, bigger picture here, there is so much hype surrounding this trip. It‘s as if it‘s his first trip as president for Barack Obama. A lot of people are going to be watching him over there, and he‘s got a lot to measure up to, a lot of potential, a lot of pitfalls as well.

JOHN HARWOOD, CNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, the pitfalls are if he makes a mistake, if he does something that causes people to doubt his fitness to serve as commander in chief. I think that is not likely.

The guy is certainly in a more cautious phase of his campaign right now. And I expect that what he‘s going to do, do a lot of listening while he‘s in Iraq. Probably not say anything while he‘s there that indicates any significant shift in his position.

And do I think that—a couple points. One is that Susan is right.

Barack Obama is not driving this debate, the surge is driving the debate. The success of the surge. And Obama‘s going to have to react to that and figure out how he does refine his policy.

And I do think that the two sides are converging, however, because John McCain himself is talking about bringing most combat troops out by 2013. He‘s actually counting on some of the savings from that to balance the budget and also to get troops over to Afghanistan. So I think both sides are moving closer to one another.

GREGORY: All right. More on this ahead.

Coming up, with Obama in the spotlight on this trip, McCain tries to tread water back home. He‘s going to the swing states, talking about the economy and offering some criticism of Obama‘s foreign policy judgment.

We‘ll go inside the “War Room” next and talk about it.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY: Back now on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE. I‘m David Gregory.

We‘re going inside the War Room now with our panel.

First up tonight, the Bush administration pulls up a seat at the negotiations table, sending a top diplomat to Tehran to discuss Iran‘s nuclear program. “The New York Times” editorializes it this way—to the quote board.

“It is very late in the game, but we hope this means that Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are learning the lessons of seven years of failed foreign policies built almost completely on isolating (or attacking) America‘s adversaries. There is little chance of solving major international problems so long as this country refuses even to have a seat at the table.”

Susan, take it on. This is sort of the backdrop of this trip by Obama, sort of the argument that he‘s going to be making overseas.

MOLINARI: Right. A big MSNBC news alert: “The New York Times” attacks a Bush foreign policy decision. I mean, you know, this is not surprising.  “The New York Times” has always been very difficult and very hard on President Bush.

GREGORY: Right, but that‘s fine. But deal with the substance of it here, because this is really what the left is arguing here about the Bush years, and offering Obama as an alternative.

MOLINARI: But if I understand from the position of Iran, they have been working in a multinational fashion to try and deal and put pressure on Tehran. This is not, you know, one of those states where we‘ve gone at it by ourselves.

We have constantly been in contact with a multitude of other states that have in fact been working behind the scenes. So I really disagree with the whole premise. And clearly, history has shown that the Bush administration has stayed very engaged. Maybe talked tough, but has stayed very engaged in this.

GREGORY: Right.

Rachel, is this a defensible position for Democrats to take, to take on seven years of failed policies, and that‘s really the platform that Obama argues on?

MADDOW: Well, I think that the Bush administration is really changing a lot at the very end of their time in office. And I think they saw that not engaging with North Korea led to North Korea setting off nuclear weapons tests. Engaging with North Korea led them scaling back their nuclear program.

Not engaging with Iran, refusing to have a seat at the table—as Susan says, other countries are doing it but we were refusing—led Iran, in addition to our invasion of Iraq, to becoming more powerful, more influential in that region, and more dangerous than they‘ve been in quite some time. So now we‘re saying that we will engage with them diplomatically.

GREGORY: Right.

MADDOW: They seem to be learning their own lessons from this, so it seems like it‘s their own critique as much as it‘s “The New York Times.”

GREGORY: All right.

Now hear this from McCain. The McCain camp launches a new ad attacking Obama on foreign policy. It‘s called “Troop Funding.” Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NARRATOR: Barack Obama never held a single Senate hearing on Afghanistan. He hasn‘t been to Iraq in years. He voted against funding our troops.

Positions that helped him win his nomination. Now Obama is changing to help himself become president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY: A lot in there, but after hammering Obama for failure to hold a subcommittee hearing on Afghanistan, ABC News reported that McCain attended even fewer Afghanistan-related Senate hearings over the past couple of years than Obama did.

The McCain campaign shot back by first saying they shouldn‘t even respond to the report, followed by this: “John McCain has been to Afghanistan four times to evaluate conditions on the ground. And Obama has never been once. Despite leading and chairing the relevant committee, Barack Obama has never held a single hearing on the mission in Afghanistan.  It‘s a leadership test and Barack Obama has consistently failed.”

And yet, Noah, Obama‘s supporters argue it‘s Obama who is now setting the agenda and the president now following his lead when it comes to troops in Iraq or meeting with the Iranians.

OPPENHEIM: I don‘t necessarily agree with that. And you know, this question of who has attended more committee hearings, I mean, I‘ve watched committee hearings on C-SPAN. They don‘t seem all that informative to me.

(LAUGHTER)

OPPENHEIM: So I‘m not going to blame anyone for not being there.

But I think what it is—what it does come down to is a question of leadership. And I think what you can say is that John McCain has been sort of actively engaged and sticking his neck out politically for what he believes we should do overseas.

GREGORY: Right.

OPPENHEIM: He was one of the first Republicans to criticize the way Don Rumsfeld was running the war. He risked his entire political life on the surge. You know, whereas in the meantime, what the Clinton campaign said throughout the primaries is all you could say about Barack Obama, you know, is he gave a nice speech in 2002 saying he was against the war but didn‘t do much subsequently.

So, I do think there is a real debate over who has displayed more leadership and who has a better track record on the foreign policy arena.  That has nothing to do with committee hearings.

GREGORY: John, assess how team McCain right now is trying to deal with the foreign policy question with Obama as a judgment matter. Because the difficulty is, if a lot of voters think Obama got it right on the war in Iraq, what they have to do in the McCain campaign is say, look, whatever success there is because of the surge is in spite of Obama, because he opposed all of it. He opposed the surge, said it was never working. He can‘t have it both ways, he‘s tacking around now just for politics.

HARWOOD: It‘s exactly the same thing that Hillary Clinton tried to do in the Democratic primaries, say the issue is not, was he right or wrong on the war initially, it‘s what does he want to do now and what is his present day judgment like? John McCain is trying to do the same thing, say it‘s about whether you were right or wrong on the surge. And that‘s the key judgment. It‘s also an effort with this ad for them to scuff up Obama just as he‘s going overseas and trying to display some foreign policy credentials.

GREGORY: All right.

HARWOOD: I do have to say, Noah is exactly right. It‘s as silly as you can get to start arguing over who attended more hearings with the name “Afghanistan” in the title. Nobody cares about that.

GREGORY: All right. Obama is out of the picture. He‘s overseas. But here at home, McCain is trying to seize an opening.

He plans to hit the heartland, talk about the economy. Today he praised General Motors workers in battleground Michigan during a town hall meeting. It‘s a gap McCain needs to seal up.

Looking at the poll numbers on the economy right now, according to “The Washington Post”/ABC News poll, McCain trails Obama 35-54 on who voters trust more to handle the economy.

All right. So, think about it a little counterintuitively here, Rachel. What does McCain do here, as they say, to mop the floor while he‘s the only candidate in the country?

MADDOW: I think that we‘re once again seeing a smart move from the McCain campaign, paired with another move that undercuts it at the same time, because while he‘s speaking to General Motors workers, he‘s also bringing Phil Gramm back into the campaign, saying Phil Gramm had his timeout after saying that the recession is all in our heads and America is a nation of whiners and we ought to stop complaining about the economy.

GREGORY: Right.

MADDOW: To have both of those things in the news on the same day, it‘s once again just a bad messaging day for McCain. You can‘t really say this is my “I feel your pain” economy day while you‘re bringing Phil Gramm back on board.

GREGORY: Susan, should Phil Gramm have remained in the wilderness after what he said?

MOLINARI: You know, I think that what they basically said is that he‘s on the campaign, but he‘s not going to be the spokesperson anymore.

But what I think is really going to be telling is next week is going to be a very interesting test for the media. The media is sending all their major anchors overseas to cover Barack Obama, like you said, as if he is the president of the United States. And if they do not pay ample attention to Senator John McCain as he tries to deal with one of the number one issues that American voters are telling him are going to be decisive in how they vote in November...

GREGORY: Yes.

MOLINARI: ... they are going to have to have a lot of fallout from the voters and the American people. So I think the networks are going to have to totally step up their coverage of John McCain and give him a perfect opportunity to talk about his solutions for this ailing economy.

MADDOW: Susan, I just—do you really think that TV producers are going to think John McCain‘s speech on the economy, we‘re going to give as much time to that as Barack Obama‘s first trip abroad as the nominee?  Really?

MOLINARI: I think they are going to have to be pretty fair about this.  And I think there‘s a lot of people out there that think that, you know, the TV has gotten so overboard with their coverage of Barack Obama.

GREGORY: Right.

MOLINARI: I mean, let‘s face it, if he gets any better press, he‘s going to be Rachel Maddow, for goodness sake.

MADDOW: That‘s very kind of you to say...

(CROSSTALK)

MOLINARI: Very well deserved press these days. Very well deserved.

MADDOW: Fairness has to be newsworthiness, though, to a certain extent.

GREGORY: Right.

MADDOW: And Obama‘s trip aboard, honestly, it‘s a newsworthy thing.

Even if it‘s negative coverage abroad, there‘s going to be more.

GREGORY: I want to move on.  I want to get one other item in here in the War Room and that is a new ad circulating on the web from Washington State Republican Party targeting Michelle Obama.

Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHELLE OBAMA, WIFE OF BARACK OBAMA:  And for the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Hello, my name is Lori Sotowo (ph) and I‘m proud to be an American because we live in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  My name is Melody Lio (ph). I have always been proud to be an American.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Hello, my name is Rose Strong (ph) and I‘m proud to be an American because no matter what your background, race or religion you have, you can do or be whatever you set your mind to.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  In an interview with “Glamour” magazine, Obama—Senator Obama blasted those attacking his wife saying—quote—“it‘s infuriating, but it‘s not surprising. I don‘t have a thick skin when it comes to criticism of my wife. And you know the problem is that rarely do these folks have the guts to say it to your face.”

We‘ve got to get a break in here. But the real question is whether Michelle Obama becomes the real issue, or whether Senator Obama‘s reaction to people raising issues about his wife has more resonance in the minds of voters.

To be continued.  We‘re going to come back here.

In “Smart Takes,” is the liberal left in sync with Team Obama? And if not, does it really matter in the fall?

RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE right comes back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Back now with “Smart Takes” on the race and a look at the state of the liberal left.  A preview of my interview here in just a couple of minutes with Margos Moulitsas of the liberal blogosphere‘s Daily Kos.  What “Smart Takes” do we expect to hear from him about the ‘08 race? 

Here again, Rachel, John, Susan and Noah.

I‘m going to be interviewing Marcos live from Austin where he‘s taking part in an annual convention of progressive bloggers.  The so-called liberal blogosphere has exploded in the past four years.  They galvanized behind Howard Dean‘s presidential bid in ‘04, and in 2008, they have grown into a virtual online army for Barack Obama. 

Howard Dean, now the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, gave the keynote address at the bloggers‘ convention last night.  Dean talked about their power, even giving them credit of the Democrats ‘06 takeover of the House.  It was recorded and posted by a blogger on the Daily Kos Web site.  Watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOWARD DEAN, DNC CHAIRMAN:  You all picked  a lot of winning candidates in 2006.  In fact, if it wasn‘t for the Netroots Nation we would not have the majority in the United States House of Representatives.

(APPLAUSE)

DEAN:  This is new politics where ordinary people get to say what‘s going on from their perspective.  There‘s no spin, you go down there and write whatever you want and blog what you want.  This country needs you desperately and the world needs you desperately. 

I thank you for—not just what you have done, I thank you for what you are about to do. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Rachel, the question about the Netroots—they‘re the liberal left now on the Internet.  Are they a complication for Barack Obama or an engine for his victory? 

MADDOW:  That‘s the crossroad that the liberal Netroots are at in terms of deciding what they are going to be.  The Netroots by and large have been supporters of Democratic candidates and they have not been giving their candidates ideological tests the way the right—the conservative base really has in the past. 

And that may be changing right now.  You saw a lot of anger over things like the FISA Bill and Barack Obama not doing what the left really wanted him to do on FISA and the left is now deciding whether or not it‘s going to be more like the right, pushing for ideological purity, or whether they‘re essentially going to be fundraisers for Democrats.  I think that‘s happening right now in Austin.  That‘s why it‘s such an exciting time for them right now. 

GREGORY:  Yes, John, it was interesting, Howard Dean in an interview on one of the sites said, look, the Netroots, the liberal left on the Internet, not just an ATM for the Democratic Party, but an important engine for the party‘s growth in a kind of 50-state strategy for Obama. 

But do they have any other real place to go?  Are they going to sit out the race like some conservatives might do if they are unhappy with the purity of their candidate? 

HARWOOD:  David, I don‘t think this is a close call.  I think they‘re going to be a huge asset for Barack Obama, they‘re going to get past their disagreements with him.  We‘ve seen that in some of the quotes from people at that convention.  They are going to be just fine in providing both money and manpower. 

I have to mention one other thing on that Michelle Obama ad, which is something I‘m sure a lot of the Netroots are upset about, I don‘t see anything wrong with it.  Where did she make that comment?  She made it at a public campaign rally.  It seems to me this idea of the candidates chivalrously standing up and saying, oh, nobody can talk about my wife, is a little bit passe, given the role that spouses now play in our politics. 

GREGORY:  Yes, Noah, I think you wanted in on that as well. 

OPPENHEIM:  Yes, I absolutely agree.  If a spouse or anyone is going to campaign, publicly on behalf of a candidate, they absolutely are fair game to criticism.  Otherwise, it‘s just like people out there with a free pass who can say what they want. 

The thing with the Michelle Obama—the thing that struck me this past week, “New York Times” Poll on Race she has a 24 percent favorability amongst white Americans. 

GREGORY:  All right.  We have to take a break. 

Marcos from the Daily Kos coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE.  I‘m David Gregory.  Time now for the back half.  We‘re happy to have you with us tonight.  Bloggers and ‘08; we want to look at the role the blogosphere has played in the rise of Barack Obama, his defeat of Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, and The power the Net Roots, the liberal left in this country, could wield in November.  This, are they really changing the Democratic agenda?  Joining me now is Marcos Moulitsas, founder and publisher of “The Daily Kos” blog.  He‘s in Austin, where he‘s taking part in Net Roots Nation, a yearly convention of progressive bloggers, inspired by “the Daily Kos.”  Marcos, good to have you here, thanks. 

MARCOS MOULITSAS, “THE DAILY KOS”:  Thank you, good to be here. 

GREGORY:  Let me ask you for starters, is the liberal left squarely behind Barack Obama?  Or is there a feeling that some of the bloom is off the rose? 

MOULITSAS:  Squarely behind.  I sort of giggled.  When you hear a lot of media talk about how there‘s a rift and how can we heal this rift, as though there‘s actual real danger that we are not 100 percent fully behind Barack Obama.  We‘re like any family.  We‘re going to argue.  We‘re going to disagree.  Obama is always going to know where we stand on any issue.  We‘re not going to hide things.  We‘re not going to be blind supporters. 

We‘re not going to pretend things don‘t matter.

Of course, at the end of the day, he‘s our nominee and we‘re behind him 100 percent. 

GREGORY:  What impact does that have?  You made a point of saying this week, you‘re not going to carry water for Barack Obama.  You‘re going to be rather in his face about areas you disagree.  Number one, where are those biggest disagreements and do you think you are getting any traction through your activism on it? 

MOULITSAS:  You know, there‘s surprisingly few disagreements at this point.  Obama is really running a campaign based on themes and values and not specific policies.  Right now, we‘re behind him, say, on universal health care.  Once we review the details of his plan and it starts going through Congress, we may disagree on certain points and we may actually fight back.  But that‘s sort of healthy.  This is what democracy looks like, a bunch of people who are really interested in what politics looks like and what policy should like. 

We‘re going to want to have our say, as well.  We‘re not going to leave it to the pundits.  We‘re not going to leave it to the professional politicians to decide.  We want to have a say too.  Ultimately, at the end of the day, thematically, we‘re very much in sync. 

GREGORY:  Do you think that Obama can win without the left? 

MOULITSAS:  Well, he‘s not going to have to win without the left. 

Barack Obama is running a campaign that appeals to a lot of people.  There‘s very little, if anything, that he‘s running on, whether it‘s the economy or health care or Iraq, where we disagree.  Again, the details may provoke some debate, but there‘s no broad themes.  Whether we agreed with his vote on FISA—we didn‘t.  But we have moved on.  We‘re going to keep moving on.  If FISA comes up again, we‘ll let him know once again that we disagree with him.  Or hopefully, next time, he‘s with us on that issue.  That‘s obviously our ultimate goal. 

GREGORY:  What does he represent as the Democratic nominee in terms of the direction of the Democratic party?  What does his nomination say about the liberal left, about the blogosphere and the Net Roots, and their impact an the actual path of the party? 

MOULITSAS:  Look, when we started this primary campaign, we wanted somebody who wanted to get out of Iraq.  We wanted somebody who didn‘t have a role and responsibility in getting us into Iraq.  We wanted who was for universal health care.  We wanted somebody who wanted a role of government that was designed to help people, rather than the disaster we‘ve had under George Bush.  In all those issues, we‘ve had—Obama is really, really behind is. 

That wasn‘t the case with a lot of other candidates.  I think it‘s clear—Iraq is probably the defining issue on that.  We got the candidate that we wanted. 

GREGORY:  Is he tacking to the center in a way that creates a credibility gap for him on the left? 

MOULITSAS:  He‘s not tacking to the center.  Decisions he‘s made, policy decisions, like FISA, I don‘t think are ideological decisions.  There‘s no big clamor from the masses out in the United States for government surveillance of their communications and retroactive immunity for telecommunication companies that spy on us.  There‘s no popular support for this stuff.  That‘s, to me, the center, where the American people are. 

GREGORY:  Is Iraq really the test?  If he talks about refining his policy, or if he goes to Iraq and if gets into office and he speaks to General David Petraeus, and he says, look, we can get our troops out of Iraq, but the time line you suggest is not feasible; we have to have a longer term presence.  In other words, do you fear, at some point, that he does backtrack on his commitment to end the war on the kind of schedule that you and others would like to see. 

MOULITSAS:  Like you quoted me earlier, I said I‘m not going to carry water for Barack Obama.  I‘m not going to be like the Republican that excused George Bush time and time again.  Things may have turned out better for the Republicans had they been a little more forceful in pushing Bush to be a better president.  We‘re going to basically do our part to keep Barack Obama honest. 

Now, we want out of Iraq.  The details need to be worked out.  Some people may say, we want out in two weeks.  Right?  I‘m a military guy.  I was in the Army.  I served my nation in uniform.  I know you can‘t move out that number of people in two weeks.  The military people, the Pentagon is going to have to come up with a way and a plan to get us out.  It may be six months.  It may be a year.  It may be 18 months.  Those details need to be worked out. 

GREGORY:  If it‘s not 16 months, you won‘t consider that a betrayal? 

MOULITSAS:  We might.  Again, it‘s all in the details.  Right now, there‘s been no indication that he‘s going to go back on the that word.  I know the media has made a big deal out of supposedly him flip-flopping on that.  He has not.  The details may change next year, when he‘s president.  Then, of course, we‘re going to do our part to keep him honest. 

GREGORY:  Marcos, today, a column asked, what is Obama willing to die for.  The point was, what idea, what position, what belief will he never compromise as president?  What do you believe that is? 

MOULITSAS:  You‘d have to ask him that question. 

GREGORY:  But as a supporter, somebody who advocates for him? 

MOULITSAS:  Right.  I don‘t like people talking for me and I‘d hate to talk for him.  As far as I can tell, the safety and the health and the well being of the American people.  I think anybody who is in politics and anybody who loves their country, like I know Barack Obama does, will make sure that the health of the American people is paramount and something that won‘t be compromised. 

GREGORY:  When the right attacks Obama, as is happening now, on his foreign policy judgment, on the fact that he didn‘t back the surge, that, they will say, he never owned up for that fact that he has never given credit for the surge, do they score when they attack?  Are they scoring? 

MOULITSAS:  There‘s an assumption they are making that the surge is somehow successful.  Our troops are still there.  The bottom line is we want the American troops home, safe and sound with their families.  You have Republicans saying, things are bad, our troops need to say.  Now they‘re saying, what, things are good, we need to stay?  Our troops need to come home. 

You have situations on the ground.  You have more troops there.  Can we get them home?  We were promised they were going to come home.  They still aren‘t home.  You have segregated neighborhoods.  You have the insurgency laying low, knowing that at some point, the United States is going to have to back out.  I don‘t think we have anything remotely resembling victory.  We certainly don‘t have political reconciliation, which was the point of the surge.  Remember?  We were supposed to create a breathing space for the government to reconciliate and come up with a new constitution and all these other things. 

It hasn‘t happened.  There‘s still complete strife and division within the government.  It‘s paralyzed.  I‘m not seeing the sort of victory that would make me happy and comfortable with declaring victory.  In fact, things are getting worse in Afghanistan.  We‘re actually taking a step back. 

GREGORY:  To be continued.  Marcos Moulitsas from the “Daily Kos” website, thanks very much.  Good luck as your convention continues. 

Coming up here, face off; does Barack Obama have the foreign policy clout to convince voters that his White House will be different than President Bush‘s?  Our panelists will take it on when we come back. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Back now on THE RACE.  Time for the face-off.  Tonight, ahead of Obama‘s trip to the Middle East and Europe, we are debating Obama‘s foreign policy credentials.  Today, “Washington Post” columnist Charles Krauthammer skewered Obama for his reported desire to speak in front of Germany‘s Brandenburg gate, accusing Obama of the audacity of vanity.  To the quote board, “Barack Obama wants to speak at the Brandenburg Gate.  He figures it would be a nice backdrop and picturesque way to bolster his foreign policy credentials.  But Obama does not seem to understand that the Brandenburg Gate is something that you earn.  What exactly has he done in his lifetime to merit appropriating the Brandenburg Gate as a campaign prop?  Obama is a three year senator without a single important legislative achievement to his name.  His most memorable work is a biography of his favorite subject, himself.” 

Obama claims that when it comes to foreign policy, it‘s not about experience or resumes.  It‘s about judgment.  Case in point, Iraq.  But picking sides in another president‘s war is a different challenge than being commander in chief of the military, or trying to make progress in Hatfield and McCoy conflicts that have been raging for generations.  So, our face-off tonight, does Obama have the foreign policy credentials to support the case that he‘s the best alternative to the Bush years? 

Facing off tonight on the left, Rachel Maddow, host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America and an MSNBC political analyst.  And on the right, Noah Oppenheim, co-author of the “Intellectual Devotional” series and a former senior producer of the Today program here on NBC.  Noah, your opening argument, your case? 

OPPENHEIM:  My case is this: Barack Obama is the first African-American nominee for president from a major party.  He‘s an extraordinary human being, an extraordinary historic figure.  There‘s no doubt about that.  He‘s also an extraordinary politician.  There‘s nobody better in recent memory, in terms of giving speeches, rallying crowds, inspiring public support, inspiring feelings of hope, et cetera.  But your last guest, Mr. Daily Kos himself, said it best; Barack Obama is running a campaign based on themes, not specific policies.  He‘s become like this test where people project their greatest aspirations on to him. 

So when it comes to the actual world of concrete foreign policies, the most rough and tumble arena imaginable, I‘m not sure what he can point to suggest that, besides being this inspiring figure—that would convince me that he‘s going to be able to navigate this incredibly chaotic world that we live in. 

MADDOW:  I would say, Noah, in response is that inspiring figure is exactly what he‘s bringing abroad.  I think the reason that he ought to go to the Brandenburg Gate, even though it looks like he might not now, is because he has at least a 50/50 chance of being the face of America to the world after George Bush.  The rest of the world, just like many Americans, are looking for America to be restored the standing in the world that this country had before the presidency of George W. Bush. 

Neo-conservatives look back on the Brandenburg Gate and us winning the Cold War, and they like to say it‘s because Ronald Reagan spent the Russians into the ground, that he bankrupted them with our massive military build up.  I think the rest of us in this country look back at the Brandenburg Gate and the fall of the Berlin Wall and we say, you know what, the Soviet Union had a pretty stupid economic system.  That was a pretty fragile country.  They were minting dissidents faster than they could jail them. 

So, they collapsed because Americans were a beacon of hope to the world, and because American values are more attractive to people when given the option.  So what Barack Obama represents is an America that once again represented respect for the rule of law, that respects a non-bullying approach to the rest of the world, and that represents the abandonment of the authoritarianism that was rejected by the world when we won the Cold War.  I think he does offers a lot of hope.  And I think he‘s the post-Bush face of America and he ought to speak there.  He ought to do it and I think it would be good for us. 

OPPENHEIM:  Rachel, I don‘t want to reargue who won the Cold War or how it was won.  The bottom line is you‘re right, we need to do a better job of selling American values over seas.  There‘s no doubt about that.  But Oprah Winfrey and Tony Robbins are also inspirational figures, and no one would argue that they have the credentials to run American foreign policy.  The point is that foreign policy is more than just inspiration and values.  It‘s concrete practical decisions. 

Barack Obama likes talk a lot about it‘s judgment.  It‘s all about judgment.  Well, Barack Obama is talking about bombing the tribal regions of Pakistan, no matter what President Musharraf says.  Many people would argue that doesn‘t demonstrate a lot of good judgment.  In fact, Senator Chris Dodd, one of the people who is being mentioned as possible VP choice for Barack Obama, said, back when he was running against him in the primary, that it represented a dangerous and irresponsible attitude to suggest that we would bomb a country, a nuclear power, just because we want to, because we want to go after bin Laden, despite what the leadership of that country might want. 

When we get into these concrete issues, the inspiration is great.  You have to get into these concrete points and look at what Barack Obama has actually said and done with regards to specific policy. 

MADDOW: Noah, when it gets down to concrete issues and when it gets down to making a judgment call, I think if people are looking at Bush and McCain, and deciding to go after Osama bin Laden by invading and occupying for five years a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 or actually going after Osama bin Laden where he is, probably in Pakistan, I think people would go with the latter judgment. 

OPPENHEIM:  You are advocating an invasion of Pakistan? 

MADDOW:  He hasn‘t said he would invade Pakistan.  He said he would go after Osama bin Laden instead of outsourcing the fight against al Qaeda to General Musharraf, who happily took our billions of dollars worth of military aid and then gave al Qaeda and the Taliban safe haven in the tribal regions.  Go after bin Laden or fight Iraq.  I take the former. 

(CROSS TALK)

GREGORY:  Go ahead. 

OPPENHEIM:  I was going to say it‘s not an either or proposition.  It‘s not that clear cut of a choice.  It‘s not fair to connect John McCain to George Bush that tightly, although the Democrats would like to do that.  John McCain was one of the first people who said that the war in Iraq was not being prosecuted effectively and responsibly.  He was one of the first people to say, hey guys, we‘re a little off course here.  His support of the surge has paid off in terms of concrete results.  John McCain does not want to give up on bin Laden. 

MADDOW:  When I think back—John McCain‘s first statements on Iraq I think about him talking about us being greeted as liberators.  I think about John McCain saying what an easy fight it would be for us.  I think about the responsibility that you have when you‘re an American leader talking about putting American troop in harm‘s way.  He actually said it would be a relatively easy fight.  I think about that kind of judgment coming from somebody who served in the military and I‘m astonished that he‘s seen as having foreign policy credentials. 

GREGORY:  Let me broaden this out and ask a couple of political questions.  John Harwood, to you, first, the issue here of whether this is a referendum on the Bush years, the Bush foreign policy and whether McCain gets swept up in that, or whether it‘s, in our focus, in this debate tonight, a narrower focus on Barack Obama‘s credentials.  Does he have what it takes. 

We know what Obama wants.  He wants voters to just think about the Bush record and consider change.  To Rachel‘s point, there is a different face to an Obama foreign policy.  He‘s a Democrat.  It would be a different course. 

HARWOOD:  The election is dominantly a referendum on the Bush years.  That‘s John McCain‘s Problem.  That‘s Barack Obama‘s opportunity.  I got to say, Rachel has the high side of that argument.  If you get to the question of whether we should have gone to war against Iraq, there are a lot of people in this country who argue that that is a colossal strategic blunder.  That‘s pretty concrete.  Barack Obama was on one side.  John McCain was on the other. 

Now, George Bush and John McCain hope that history vindicates their judgment.  Maybe they will be right.  Right now, that is a fair debate and Barack Obama has the advantage on that question. 

GREGORY:  Susan, your comment. 

OPPENHEIM:  Being forward looking, you could argue that bombing Pakistan would be an equally horrific strategic blunder. 

(CROSS TALK)

HARWOOD:  I think most Americans are going to be quite in agreement with Barack Obama when he says, if we have information that tells us where Osama bin Laden is, I‘ll go bomb wherever it takes to get him.  I don‘t think the American people are going to have much of a quarrel with that. 

MADDOW:  What do you call it when we‘re sending Hellfire missiles into Pakistan right now, shooting al Qaeda guys, is that not bombing Pakistan? 

OPPENHEIM:  It‘s sending Hellfire missiles into tribal regions with the permission of the Pakistani military and intelligence services.  He‘s going to do it no matter what. 

GREGORY:  Let me get Susan‘s comment.  Get in on this, Susan. 

MOLINARI:  I think this is going to be a bigger issue, obviously, which is why Barack Obama wants to travel to Europe also.  Charles Krauthammer also went to the point to say, in the year the man who voted 130 times present in the Illinois state Senate, because he didn‘t want to take major positions.  So maybe he would never be called authoritarian by some of our allies around the world, because he‘ll never take a position.  We‘re going to see next week just how many firm details he fills in.  That‘s right.  He‘s great on themes and the inspiration and the nice photo ops.  But that‘s not governing in foreign policy.  He better start dishing it out.  

GREGORY:  I got to take a break here.  Here‘s my prediction, we‘re not going to get any details.  I think he wants to set the tone when he‘s there next week.  We‘ll take a break here.  When we come back, how could John McCain not choose Mitt Romney as his running mate? 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  We‘re getting you caught up on your Veep Stakes.  Back with us again, our panel, Rachel, John, Susan and Noah.  First up tonight, who is still in?  That is the question.  Vetting Romney, he was on “The Today Show” this morning.  He was heaping praise on former rival John McCain.  Watch this. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY ®, FMR. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I think, in the final analysis, sweet talk is going to give way to straight talk. 

MATT LAUER, “THE TODAY SHOW”:  Why have you changed your mind on that? 

Why the change from January? 

ROMNEY:  Well, Barack is very tough.  There‘s no question about that.  When I was running in the primary, I thought I was the right guy to run against Barack Obama.  When it comes to comparison between John McCain and Barack Obama, I know who I think America should choose and I think, in the final analysis, they will choose the guy whose been there, who has the experience, who has demonstrated that he was right on the surge. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Exchanges between Romney and McCain have not always been so sweet.  Remember this. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY:  If you get endorsed by the “New York Times,” you‘re probably not a conservative. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Senator McCain, is Governor Romney ready to be military commander? 

MCCAIN:  I‘m sure that he‘s, as I say, a fine man.  I think he managed companies and he bought and he sold.  Sometimes people lost their jobs, that‘s the nature of that business.  The fact is time tables.  Time tables was the buzz word for withdrawal. 

ROMNEY:  Why do you say I‘m not using the actual quote? 

MCCAIN:  The actual quote is, we don‘t want them to lay in the weeds until we leave.  That is the actual quote.   

ROMNEY:  What does that mean? 

MCCAIN:  It means a timetable until we leave. 

ROMNEY:  Senator—

(CROSS TALK) 

ROMNEY:  Is it not fair to have the person who‘s being accused of having a position he doesn‘t have be the expert on what his position is?  How is it that you‘re the expert on my position, when my position has been very clear? 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Susan, this was the back draft of all this.  Now, we‘ve got this chumminess.  Obviously, the primaries are over.  Do you think this is a marriage, a political marriage that is actually shaping up?  Would you like to see it? 

MOLINARI:  I think it actually could be a decent marriage.  I think when you look at—first of all, Mitt Romney announced today that he‘s writing off his personal loan, and we love that, that he made to the campaign.  That‘s all good.  Really, what we‘re going to see—look, the Republicans have finally figured out, we can‘t out-change, inspire, fill the arena of 45,000 and become Elvis.  That‘s not who John McCain is going to be. 

At the end of the day, when voters go to bed the night before the election, do they want Elvis in the big arena who provides hope and inspiration, but they‘re not really sure what he stands for.  Or do they want somebody like John McCain, who they know can lead this country, lead this world, and also somebody like Mitt Romney, who has led successful business and can really deal with the economic issues that are facing this country. 

They may not be inspirational, but they may give the security that American voters need, at the end of the day. 

GREGORY:  Al Gore, who has been in the news this week, has also talked about the potential of a third term at VP.  He made a little news on this as well.  Let‘s listen to that. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  What about the VP slot?  Help me make some news here. 

AL GORE, FMR. VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  No.  I have many times said—you know, I have a personal term limit. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  John Harwood, do you think that extends to being in an Obama administration as a kind of green policy czar, the guy who renegotiates a global warming treaty with the rest of the world? 

HARWOOD:  I would doubt that Al Gore would go back into government.  He will not be on Barack Obama‘s ticket.  I think he could play a role supporting Barack Obama, maybe as somebody outside the government who is leading the charge. 

GREGORY:  Rachel, how do you see Mitt Romney?  To me, for John McCain, it may come down to a one issue decision as he gets closer to his convention.  He says, it‘s the economy.  Here‘s a guy who can sure up that weakness. 

MADDOW:  I think he means the personal economy.  Susan is totally right.  When he wrote off that 45 million dollars and said, he doesn‘t have to worry about my debt; I‘ll take care of it.  He‘s never done anything to make himself more lovable than that action today. 

GREGORY:  We‘re going to leave it there.  Thanks to the panel.  That‘s THE RACE for this Friday as we head into a busy over seas weekend for Senator Obama.  Look for a complete wrap up on “Meet the Press” Sunday with Tom Brokaw on NBC.  We‘ll see you Monday.  Have a peaceful Friday night and a restful weekend.  I‘m David Gregory.  Stay right here.  “HARDBALL” 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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