updated 2/24/2010 1:41:10 PM ET 2010-02-24T18:41:10

MR. DAVID GREGORY:  This Sunday, facing down the threats to America across the globe.  A top Taliban leader is captured in Pakistan amid a large allied push against insurgents in Afghanistan.  How will it impact the war?  In Iraq, troop levels are down to the lowest point since 2003, but when will U.S. servicemen and women finally come home for good?  And Iran, it continues to defy the West and may be closer to producing a nuclear warhead.  Can anything be done to stop it?  Our exclusive guest this morning, the man overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, General David Petraeus.

Then, the future of the Republican Party playing out at a gathering of conservatives here in Washington.

(Videotape)

FMR. VICE PRES. DICK CHENEY:  I think Barack Obama is a one-term president.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  Joining us this morning, an often-mentioned GOP contender to challenge President Obama in 2012, Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota.

Finally, Washington gridlock.  Is the problem petty politics or leadership? Insights and analysis from our roundtable:  The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne; The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan; chairman of the House Republican Conference, Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana; and chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Congressman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.

But first, General David Petraeus joins us live from U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida.
General, welcome to MEET THE PRESS.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS:  Thanks, David.  Good to be with you.

MR. GREGORY:  Let's talk about Afghanistan.  This NATO-U.S. offensive in southern Afghanistan is entering its second week with reports of resistance from the Taliban that our forces are facing.  How formidable are the Taliban forces that we're confronting now?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, they're formidable.  They're a bit disjointed at this point in time.  The way the operation was conducted leaped over some of them. But there's tough fighting going on, without question.  If I could, David, in fact, I'd like to put this into context, because this is just the initial operation of what will be a 12-to-18-month campaign, as General McChrystal and his team have mapped it out.  We've spent the last year getting the inputs right in Afghanistan, getting the structures and organizations necessary for a comprehensive civil-military campaign, putting the best leaders we can find in charge of those, helping with the development of the concepts, the counterinsurgency guidance General McChrystal has issued and so forth.  And then now, with President Obama's policy announcement in December at West Point, the resourcing of that effort with the additional 30,000 forces that have now begun flowing, about 5,400 on the ground already, the additional civilians, the additional money, the additional authorization of Afghan security forces.  So the inputs, we think now, are about right, and now we're starting to see the first of the output.  And the Marja operation is the initial salvo, the initial operation in that overall campaign.

MR. GREGORY:  The fight is going to be tough.  As you have said, there are questions about how long the U.S. will be there in the fight, whether the Afghan army is capable enough to take over that fight.  What should Americans expect as there's more engagement, as there's more fighting, in terms of U.S. losses?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, David, the same as in the surge in Iraq.  When we go on the offensive, when we take away sanctuaries and safe havens from the Taliban and the other extremist elements that we and our Afghan and coalition partners are fighting in that country, they're going to fight back.  And we're seeing that in Marja.  We will see that in other areas.  But we are going after them across the spectrum.  We have more of our special, special operations forces going in on the ground, and you've seen the results, you've heard some of the initial results of that with more Afghan shadow governors, the Taliban shadow governors being captured, more of the high value targets being taken down. Then, through the spectrum of providing additional security for the people, supporting additional training of Afghan security forces, as I mentioned, 100,000 more of those over the course of the next year and a half or so.  And then also, out on the local defense and even the reintegration of reconcilables effort that will be pursued and is being pursued with the Afghan government.

MR. GREGORY:  But U.S. losses, significant?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  They'll be tough.  They were tough in Iraq.  Look, I am--I have repeatedly said that these types of efforts are hard, and they're hard all the time.  I don't use words like "optimist" or "pessimist," I use realist.  And the reality is that it's hard.  But we're there for a very, very important reason, and we can't forget that, David.  We're in Afghanistan to ensure that it cannot once again be a sanctuary for the kind of attacks that were carried out on 9/11, which were planned initially in Kandahar, first training done in eastern Afghanistan before the attackers moved to Hamburg and then onto U.S. flight schools.

MR. GREGORY:  As the offensive is taking place in southern Afghanistan, a major development in Pakistan, in neighboring Pakistan, as U.S. and Pakistani authorities captured a major Taliban figure, Abdul Baradar.  What are you learning from him now that he's in custody?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, David, if I could, what we've learned, actually, in working with our Pakistani partners, who have done some very impressive work over the course of the last 10 months in particular, is that it's sometimes not best to talk a great deal about intelligence operations.  And that's what I'll do here this morning.

What I will say is, again, I'd like to put this into context as well.  Some 10 months or so ago, the Pakistani people, their political leaders, including major opposition figures and even the clerics, all recognized the threat posed to the very writ of governance of Pakistan.  They saw this as the most pressing existential threat to their country, and they supported the Pakistani army and Frontier Corps as it went into Swat and the Malakand division of the northwest frontier province and then expanded its operations into the federally administered tribal areas.  They've made some significant gains. They know they can't just clear and leave.  They have to clear, hold, build and, over time, transition to local security forces.  That's indeed what they're endeavoring to do.  They are carrying out this fight.  This is their fight against extremists internal to their country, threatening Pakistan, not them fighting our war on terror.

MR. GREGORY:  Can I ask it a slightly different way, if you don't want to talk about what specifically is being learned?  Presuming that both U.S. forces and Pakistani officials are doing the interrogation, do you wish you had the interrogation methods that were available to you during the Bush administration to get intelligence from a figure like this?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  I have always been on the record, in fact, since 2003, with the concept of living our values.  And I think that whenever we have, perhaps, taken expedient measures, they have turned around and bitten us in the backside.  We decided early on in the 101st Airborne Division we're just going to--look, we just said we'd decide to obey the Geneva Convention, to, to move forward with that.  That has, I think, stood elements in good stead.  We have worked very hard over the years, indeed, to ensure that elements like the International Committee of the Red Cross and others who see the conduct of our detainee operations and so forth approve of them.  Because in the cases where that is not true, we end up paying a price for it ultimately.  Abu Ghraib and other situations like that are nonbiodegradables.  They don't go away.  The enemy continues to beat you with them like a stick in the Central Command area of responsibility.  Beyond that, frankly, we have found that the use of the interrogation methods in the Army Field Manual that was given the force of law by Congress, that that works.  And...

MR. GREGORY:  Well...

GEN. PETRAEUS:  And that is our experience...

MR. GREGORY:  In terms of recruitment threats...

GEN. PETRAEUS:  ...in, in the years that we have implemented it.

MR. GREGORY:  In terms of recruitment threats, do you consider the prison at Guantanamo Bay in the same way?  Do you consider it to be related, or do you think, in other words, should it be closed, or do you believe it was short-sighted to set a deadline certain for its closure?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  I've been on the record on that for well over a year as well, saying that it should be closed.  But it should be done in a responsible manner.  So I'm not seized with the issue that it won't be done by a certain date.  In fact, I think it is--it's very prudent to ensure that, as we move forward with that, wherever the remaining detainees are relocated and so forth, whatever jurisdiction is used in legal cases and so forth, is really thought through and done in a very pragmatic and sensible manner.

MR. GREGORY:  One more question about--on the subject of terrorism.  You often say when it comes to politics, you like to go around the minefield rather than go through it.  But this is a question, really, related to your experience and your expertise.  In the past couple of weeks, there's been a big debate about what kind of threat al-Qaeda poses directly to the United States.  Vice President Biden considers another 9/11 type attack unlikely. Former Vice President Cheney, who you served under as well, said that he disagrees with that, that 9/11 is indeed possible again, this time using a nuclear or biological weapon.  Again, appealing to your expertise, where do you come down on that question?  What is the specific threat that al-Qaeda poses now?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, let me just express how we assess al-Qaeda in the Central Command area of responsibility, which happens to be where the bulk of al-Qaeda is located; although, certainly, the network extends beyond our area. And our assessment is that over the course of the last year or so, al-Qaeda has been diminished in that area, that Saudi Arabia and the other Arabian Peninsula countries have continued to make gains with the exception, obvious exception of Yemen--we can talk more about that if you want--that the, the progress has continued against al-Qaeda in Iraq, although, again, there are certainly remaining threats there.  And we see those periodically shown in the form of horrific, barbaric attacks.  There's been progress against al-Qaeda's senior leadership in the federally-administered tribal areas as well.  So, as a general assessment, again, diminished.  But, having said that, al-Qaeda is a flexible, adaptable--it may be barbaric, it may believe in extremist ideology, as it does, but this is a thinking, adaptive enemy, and we must maintain pressure on it everywhere.

MR. GREGORY:  But...

GEN. PETRAEUS:  It is a network, and it takes a network to keep the pressure on a network.  And that is, indeed, what we're endeavoring to do.

MR. GREGORY:  But, general, my question is do you think they want to pull off another 9/11 or smaller bore attacks?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well I think al-Qaeda is assessing to pull off any kind of attack.  I mean, you saw the Abdulmutallab attempt on--the, the would-be Detroit bomber.  Again, this is an enemy that is looking for any opportunity to attack our partners and, indeed, our homeland, and we have to keep that in mind.  There's no question about its desire to continue to attack our country and our allies.

MR. GREGORY:  Let me ask you about Iran.  International inspectors think that, in fact, that country is moving toward production of an actual nuclear warhead.  How close is that regime to going nuclear?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well it's--it is certainly a ways off, and we'll probably hear more on that from the International Atomic Energy Agency when it meets here in the, in the next week or so.  It has clearly--its new director has expressed his concern about the activities.  There's no question that some of those activities have advanced during that time.  There's also a new National Intelligence Estimate being developed by our intelligence community in the United States.  We have over the course of the last year, of course, pursued the engagement track.  I think that no one at the end of this time can say that the United States and the rest of the world has--have not given Iran every opportunity to resolve the issues diplomatically.  That puts us on a solid foundation now to go on what is termed the "pressure track." And that's the course in which we're embarked now.  The U.N. Security Council countries, of course, expressing their concern.  Russia now even piling on with that. We'll have to see where that goes and whether that can, indeed, send the kind of signal to Iran about the very serious concerns that the countries in the region and, indeed, the entire world have about Iran's activities in the nuclear program and in its continued arming, funding, training, equipping and directing of proxy extremist elements that still carry out attacks...

MR. GREGORY:  But...

GEN. PETRAEUS:  ...in Iraq, albeit on a much limited basis, but still do that there, and also pose security challenges in southern Lebanon, Gaza, and elsewhere.

MR. GREGORY:  But over the span of now two administrations so much has not worked in terms of the pressure option on Iran.  Can a single country, be it the United States or Israel, deter Iran from going nuclear without a military strike?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, again, I think we have to embark on the pressure track next, but certainly they're, needless to say--you know, I was asked a couple of Sundays ago on another show, "Well, tell me, General, about your plans to take down Iran's nuclear program." And the way I answered was to, to note that it is the job of combatant commanders to consider the what-ifs, to be prepared for contingency plans.  I'm not saying this in a provocative way.  I'm merely saying that we have responsibilities, the American people and our commander-in-chief and so forth expect us to think those through and to be prepared for the what-ifs.  And we try not to be irresponsible in that regard.

MR. GREGORY:  In our remaining moments, I want to cover a couple of other areas.  Iraq:  Of all the countries within Central Command that you oversee, 20, would you consider Iraq to be the most democratic?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  It's interesting.  I've actually posed that question to think-tankers and others, and I think it actually may be.  Now, we hope that that is sustained through the elections and beyond 7 March.  Right now it--I don't think there's any question right now that the Iraqi government, however imperfect--and this is "Iraqracy" at work, not necessarily Western democracy. But this is a government that is representative of all of the people, it is responsive to the people, it, its leaders know they are facing the electorate on 7 March.  There's a fierce campaign, there's high political drama that's gone on.  Some of it is of concern in, in a substantial way to elements to the Iraqi population and leadership.  But we hope that this will move through, that the elections will be, as were the provincial elections in January 2009, deemed free and fair by the United Nations, which is very much supportive of this effort, needless to say; and that, indeed, the process of selecting the next prime minister, the next government and the other leadership will be a smooth one.  Although, frankly, we expect that it is going to take some time. And, again, we do expect that there's going to be considerable drama and emotion that accompanies it, and it will be a period of months, at the very least, before that second election, if you will, the election of 7 March, which selects the parliament, the council of representatives; and they then will do the wheeling and dealing and the maneuvering to select the next prime minister and the key ministers and president.

MR. GREGORY:  General, with the, the military engaged in two wars, with a country fighting terrorism in other forms as well, is this an appropriate time for the military to revisit the "don't ask, don't tell" policy?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, there's a process at work here now, David, and I, and I think that it is a very sound and good process.  The secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs announced, when they were testifying, the creation of a review be headed by General Carter Ham, U.S. Army four-star, and DOD General Counsel Jay Johnson.  I don't think this has gotten enough prominence frankly.  It is very important to this overall process.  It will provide a rigorous analysis of the views of the force on the possible change. It will suggest the policies that could be used to implement a change if it, if it does come to that, so that it could be as uneventful as it was, say, in the U.K.  or the Israeli militaries or, indeed, in our own CIA and FBI.  And then it will assess the effects, the possible effects on readiness, recruiting and retention.

MR. GREGORY:  What do you say?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Very important for that process to move forward.  We'll hear from the chiefs, the Joint Chiefs on this I think, probably their personal assessments and personal views in the course of the next week or so...

MR. GREGORY:  But...

GEN. PETRAEUS:  ...when they're on Capitol Hill.  And then the geographic combatant commanders, the other combatant commanders and I, will have our turn on Capitol Hill in a few weeks.

MR. GREGORY:  But what, but what, what do you say, General?  Should gays and lesbians be able to serve openly in the military?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Well, I'll provide that, again, on Capitol Hill if, if asked at that time.  I, I know you'd like to make some news here this morning.  I support what our secretary and, and chairman have embarked on here.  I will--I'm fully participating in that process.  And I think it's very important, again, that these issues be handled and discussed and addressed by this review that will be so important in informing decisions as we move forward.

MR. GREGORY:  Do you think soldiers on the ground in the field care one way or the other if their comrades in arms are gay or lesbian?

GEN. PETRAEUS:  I'm not sure that they do.  We'll see.  Again, that's why this review panel.  You know, all we have are, are personal soundings to go on, and I've certainly done some of that myself.  I mean, you've heard General Powell, who was the chairman when the policy was implemented, had a big hand in that, who said that, yes indeed, the earth has revolved around the sun a number of times since that period 15 months (sic: years) ago.  And you've heard a variety of anecdotal input.  We have experienced, certainly, in the CIA and the FBI, I know.  I served in fact in combat with individuals who were gay and who were lesbian in combat situations and, frankly, you know, over time you said, "Hey, how's, how's this guy's shooting?" Or "How is her analysis," or what have you. So--but we'll see.  Again, that's the importance of this review that will be conducted by General Hamm and also by the DOD general counsel.  I think it is hugely important that we have the answers from the questions that they'll be asking in a very methodical way, something we've not done before because of the emotion and the sensitivity of this issue.

MR. GREGORY:  All right, we'll leave it there.  General Petraeus, thank you very much this morning.

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Great to be with you, David.  Thanks again.

MR. GREGORY:  And up next, the future of the Republican Party and the man some say will make a run for the White House in 2012.  Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is here live for an exclusive interview.

Plus, our roundtable weighs in on why Washington can't seem to get anything done.  It's only on MEET THE PRESS.

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MR. GREGORY:  Our exclusive interview with potential 2012 presidential contender and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty on the future of the Republican Party right after this brief commercial break.

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MR. GREGORY:  And we're back.  He has spent the past seven years as Minnesota's governor, introducing a long list of conservative initiatives, but many of those, including a constitutional amendment to cap state spending and an effort to reinstate the death penalty did not come to fruition.  In 2008 he was on John McCain's vice presidential short list, and now he is considered a potential presidential contender in 2012.  He made what some considered his national debut of sorts at this week's CPAC convention, a gathering of conservatives here in Washington.

GOV. TIM PAWLENTY (R-MN):  I have a message for President Obama, and my message is this:  Mr. President, no more apology tours and no more giving Miranda rights to terrorists in our country.

MR. GREGORY:  And he joins us now.
Welcome, Governor Tim Pawlenty, to MEET THE PRESS.

GOV. PAWLENTY:  Good to be with you, David.

MR. GREGORY:  At that gathering of conservatives this week in Washington, Vice President Cheney said that he considers President Obama a one-term president.  Do you agree with that?

GOV. PAWLENTY:  Well, I sure hope so.  You know, you never know.  I think the statistics on that is when you have a president who has been elected after the other party was in power, they tend to get re-elected, but I think the forces that are at work now favor the Republicans and conservatives very obviously.

MR. GREGORY:  Do you think that the Republicans stand to gain the majority again in Congress this fall?

GOV. PAWLENTY:  Well, it looks good.  We don't want to be, you know, projecting ahead and taking things for granted.  But, obviously, the country is saying, through Massachusetts and all the elections since the president's been in office, this isn't what we bargained for, this is a destination that we weren't planning on going, it's overreach by the federal government.  And the American people are saying, in Massachusetts and across the country, "Enough." So I think the Republicans are going to do well in 2010.  But anyone who tells you they can tell you with certainty what's going to happen in 2012, people really don't know that far ahead.

MR. GREGORY:  You've actually been critical of the Republican Party, and you gave an interview this week to Esquire magazine.  Here's a portion of it, I'll put it on the screen.  "The Republicans had their shot not long ago to address the real needs and concerns of everyday Americans, and they blew it.  ... Over the time that they were there and had the leadership opportunity, they blew it.  We got fired for a reason." So what makes you think that the Republican Party has turned itself around?

GOV. PAWLENTY:  As I travel the country, I talk to Republicans, I talk to conservatives.  Everybody acknowledges we've learned our lesson.  And if we are given the privilege and the opportunity to govern again and to lead again, I think everyone's committed to learning from those lessons and doing it right.  You know, the last eight years when Republicans were in charge, the spending was not where it should have been.  We had a number of opportunities to change that and they--it didn't happen.  And also, when you look at the real problems of this country, these are serious times with serious challenges.  There is a Republican or conservative approach to fixing the healthcare system.  It's needed.  There is a conservative and Republican message on growing the economy, and it's needed.  And down the list.  So we need to be not just the party of saying, "We hope President Obama continues to kick it in the dugout." That's not a strategy, that's not a plan, that's not a vision for the future.  We also have to offer our own ideas and alternatives to solve and address these needs.

MR. GREGORY:  You've talked about running for president.  You're exploring that.  When will you make a decision?

GOV. PAWLENTY:  Well, I don't know what I'm going to do after I'm done being governor; but, as to my future, I'll probably sketch that out and decide that in early 2011.

MR. GREGORY:  And what will go into that?  Under what circumstances would you not decide to run?

GOV. PAWLENTY:  Well, I haven't decided to or not, David.  But what I'm going to do is use 2010 to help the cause, try to help candidates who have similar views and values as I do.  So I've started a PAC, and I'm traveling and speaking to these issues as time allows.  But, as to the future, I don't know. We'll see what that holds.

MR. GREGORY:  You have said that a lot of people don't know you around the country, and they're, they're beginning to learn your views, and you're, you're making high-profile appearances to become better know.  You spoke at this gathering of conservatives this past week, and one of the things you said raised some eyebrows.  You were comparing the federal government's performance to Tiger Woods and, and his troubles on the very day that he had a press conference.  This is what you had to say:

(Videotape, February 19, 2010)

GOV. PAWLENTY:  Now, I think we can learn a lot from that situation.  Not from Tiger, but from his wife.  So she said, "I've had enough." She said, "No more." I think we should take a page out of her playbook and take a nine iron and smash the window out of the--big government in this country.  ...  We've had enough.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  With that kind of rallying cry, do you really expect people to take you seriously?

GOV. PAWLENTY:  Well, I think people still enjoy a little sense of humor, and if we've gotten to the point where you can't make a joke, you know, I think we're in trouble.  But we do have serious problems, and I think the country is saying this isn't a matter about just doing business as usual.  There is the, the verge of a great movement rising up in this country saying, you know, this is not a matter of being right or left, it's a matter of math.  The country is in a position where we are precariously close to not being able to meet our obligations.  We're borrowing massive amounts of money from China, from sovereign wealth funds.  It weakens our country.  And when they own our debt, they also own parts of us in other ways, as Peggy Noonan wrote this morning in her great article.

MR. GREGORY:  Well, let's talk about some of the ways that you would lead the party and the country.  First of all, on economic recovery, do you think the worst of the economic crisis is over?

GOV. PAWLENTY:  Well, I think we, we are going to see a stabilization of the economy for a while.  But I worry, David, greatly, that in 2011 and 2012, if the private economy doesn't start to pick up, you're going to see the possibility of this double dipping.  I hope that doesn't happen, but I don't guarantee or assure that the worst is over.  I think there's still a possibility of a double dip.

MR. GREGORY:  What about the stimulus program?  Do you think it worked?

GOV. PAWLENTY:  Well, you know, if definition of the stimulus program is, "We're going to take a dollar from you in the private sector, bring it into government, spin it around, take five to 20 percent for overhead, and redeploy it into the private economy and call that growth." Economists call that transfer effects.  So we need to be about real growth.  We need to be growing the private economy.  The stimulus bill was outsourced by this president to the United States Congress.  It came back in an incoherent fashion.  We could have gotten much more bang for the buck for much less money if they would have focused on those things that would have targeted at growing small businesses and growing jobs.  For example, cutting the payroll tax.  It was an incoherent, large, largely waste of money that is now sustaining government at a time when we need to be shrinking government.

MR. GREGORY:  But my question is do you think it worked?

GOV. PAWLENTY:  As measured by the administration's own goals and objectives, no.

MR. GREGORY:  Right.

GOV. PAWLENTY:  You know, they said they were going to...

MR. GREGORY:  What about the 12,000 jobs that were created in your state as a result of it?

GOV. PAWLENTY:  Well, these are mostly government jobs, you know.  So what we're doing is...

MR. GREGORY:  So you didn't need those?

GOV. PAWLENTY:  Well, we appreciate every job.  But the idea that government grows the economy when all they really do is extract money from taxpayers, bring it into the bureaucracy and put it back out into the economy on a political agenda is not growth, that's transferring money.

MR. GREGORY:  But would the economy have been in worse shape without the stimulus?

GOV. PAWLENTY:  Well, they said if they didn't pass the stimulus bill, unemployment could go as high as 8 percent.  It went to 10 percent.  They promised four million jobs at one point, created or saved.  You know the math around that is fuzzy, everybody agrees on that, and they have failed on that objective as well.  The economy and government is going to need to focus on growing the private sector, and what the stimulus bill mostly did is sustain government.

MR. GREGORY:  But you don't disagree with economists, including an economist who advised the McCain campaign, which you vouched for and could have been on the ticket of, which has said, indeed, you know, there is somewhere around two million jobs that have been created by the stimulus, that it could have been a lot worse without it?

GOV. PAWLENTY:  David, I don't disagree that we need to do things to stimulate and grow the economy.  But the way to do that is to take the tax code and extend the Bush tax cuts, cut the payroll tax, encourage growth in the private economy by reducing capital gains burdens.  Don't put more burdens on the economy like this grotesque healthcare bill, bill.  Don't put on cap and trade legislation.  Don't do card check.  The--so the stimulus bill as a concept, you know, stimulating the economy is a good idea, but they did it the wrong way.  They should have done it through things that would stimulate private sector growth.

MR. GREGORY:  We've got a huge deficit, $1.4 trillion.  You've talked about spending caps as you talk about dealing with a deficit like that.  Let's look at your own record in Minnesota, balancing the budget.  This is what your hometown paper said in Minneapolis about your efforts to deal with the budget. "Governor Pawlenty's budget is bad news for low-income Minnesotans who rely on state health care and for mayors already struggling to balance their own budgets, but good news for corporations paying high taxes." Is that your vision for America?  Social service cuts, but lower taxes on businesses?

GOV. PAWLENTY:  My vision for America is people have jobs.  And the way that you create jobs in this country is get businesses who provide the jobs to have--make it more likely that they're going to start a business, grow a business, buy equipment, build buildings, conduct research, commercialize the results of that research and grow jobs; hopefully, in my state, but all across this country.  So we need to do those things that are going to make Minnesota and the whole country more pro-jobs and more competitive.

MR. GREGORY:  So what's the priority, jobs or deficit reduction?

GOV. PAWLENTY:  Well, they go hand in hand.  If you grow the economy and you have the opportunity to grow revenues, that will help with the deficit, both in my state and nationally.  Now, that's not going to solve it.

MR. GREGORY:  So what would you cut in the federal government today to bring the deficit under control?

GOV. PAWLENTY:  Well, I'd cut a lot of things.  But, you know, the fact of the matter is we're going to have to come to grips and tell the truth with government spending, particularly as it relates to entitlement programs.  But nondefense spending is going to have to be reduced.  David, in Minnesota...

MR. GREGORY:  Wait a minute.  But the biggest drivers are the entitlement spending on the deficit.

GOV. PAWLENTY:  That's right.

MR. GREGORY:  So would you be prepared to cut entitlement benefits, cut Medicare, raise the, the, the age for Social Security or cut benefits for Social Security?

GOV. PAWLENTY:  Here's the math.  The federal government takes in $2.2 trillion a year revenues, all sources for all purposes.  Their total unfunded liabilities, including entitlements, including pensions, including the whole bill, is $65 trillion.  There is no way you can make that math work.  So the truth of the matter is, is we are going to have to reform entitlement programs.  I've done this in Minnesota, for example, with our bus drivers in the Twin Cities.  They had post-retiree health insurance benefits, and the premise was this, if we made a promise to you, we'll keep it.  We're not going to cut people off in terms of their pensions if we've made a promise to you. But for people who are new to the system, who are coming on, where we can fairly give them notice and fairly change expectations, the system's going to change.  And we did it.

MR. GREGORY:  Let me ask you just about a few issues, and I'll try to get you to give short answers here...

GOV. PAWLENTY:  Yeah, sure.

MR. GREGORY:  ...so we can move through a few of them.  Is America winning the war on terror?

GOV. PAWLENTY:  Great progress has been made.  And I think if you look at the progress just in Afghanistan in the last month or so, if you look what's happened in Iraq over the last few years since the surge, great progress has been made.  I don't think we're at the point where we can say we have won, but I think you can say we've headed in the right direction and we're making progress.

MR. GREGORY:  Is climate change real?

GOV. PAWLENTY:  The climate's obviously changing, David.  But the real question and the more interesting question is how much of that is manmade, how much of that is the result of natural causes and patterns?  And, of course, we've seen a lot of data manipulation and a lot of controversy or at least debate within the scientific community...

MR. GREGORY:  But three years ago you said, strongly, anybody who questions it is just not right.

GOV. PAWLENTY:  There's no question the climate is changing.  But the more interesting question is how much of that is manmade vs. natural causes?  And the way that you address it is we should all be in favor of reducing pollution.  But we need to do that in ways that don't burden the economy.  Cap and trade, I think, would be a disaster in that regard.  And the real breakthrough here is transformative technologies, moving forward with nuclear, moving forward with the technologies that give us the batteries to move forward with fuel cell technology or, or hybrid technology for battery-powered cars.  And we also need to have an appreciation for clean coal.

MR. GREGORY:  What about "don't ask, don't tell"?  Should it be repealed?

GOV. PAWLENTY:  I support "don't ask, don't tell." And, you know anecdotally--I saw the general's comments in response to that.  Anecdotally, I know there's still a great number, a great portion of the military community that is concerned about that.  They believe "don't ask, don't tell" worked. If it's not broke, don't fix it--or if it's not, it's not in need of fixing, you don't need to repair it.  So I'd leave it alone.

MR. GREGORY:  What about healthcare reform?  Do you think it's necessary? And what would be your specific proposal?

GOV. PAWLENTY:  Well, healthcare reform is a great issue for this country. It's--the system we have is currently broken.  We need to fix it.  But the answer isn't to have the federal government take it over.  So there's a great opportunity for our country to do this in a way with consumers in charge and markets in charge.  The premise in Minnesota has been this, people spend money differently when some of it's their money.  We need to pay for performance, not volumes of procedures.  We do need medical malpractice reform.  We do need some limitations on pre-existing conditions.  We do need portability.  But what we don't need, what we don't need, David, is having the federal government take over this much of our economy and have them run our healthcare system.  They will goof it up just like they do almost everything else that they take over.

MR. GREGORY:  Finally, a more personal question, I, I heard your remarks this week and something caught my attention.  You're an evangelical Christian.  And when you talked about the conservative movement, you said what comes first for you is that God is in charge.  Describe your relationship with God.

GOV. PAWLENTY:  Well, the founders of this nation embraced, also, that same perspective.  They said that we were endowed by our creator by certain rights. We're not endowed by Washington, D.C., we're not endowed by the state government or the local government.  And so I believe that there is a divine power, I believe there is a God, that God is in charge.  And if it's good enough for the Founding Fathers of this country, it's good enough for me.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.  Governor Tim Pawlenty, thank you very much.

GOV. PAWLENTY:  Thank you.

MR. GREGORY:  Up next, Washington's gridlock.  Is the problem petty politics or a lack of leadership?  Our roundtable weighs in:  E.J. Dionne, Peggy Noonan, Republican Congressman Mike Pence and Democratic Congressman Chris Van Hollen, after this brief station break.

(Announcements)

MR. GREGORY:  And we are back with our roundtable.  Joining us, the chairman of the House Republican Congress--Conference, rather, Congressman Mike Pence; and the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Congressman Chris Van Hollen; also, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post; and Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal.
Welcome to all of you.  So much to get to.

REP. MIKE PENCE (R-IN):  Thank you.

MR. GREGORY:  Here's a couple of magazine covers that caught our attention this week.  Time magazine, "Why Washington Is Frozen," and it's not just about the snow, which still causes us great trouble.  Or The Economist magazine which is, "What's Gone Wrong In Washington?"
Evan Bayh, senator from Indiana, surprisingly decided he would not run for re-election this week.  And here's what he said during one of his interviews. "I've indicated to you and others, there's just too much brain-dead partisanship, tactical maneuvering for short-term political advantage rather than focusing on the greater good and, also, just strident ideology.
"The extremes of both parties have to be willing to accept compromises from time to time to make some progress because some progress for the American people is better than nothing.  And all too often, recently, we've been getting nothing." Congressmen, a little constructive engagement here, beyond the partisanship. What is going on?

REP. PENCE:  Well, I think what Evan Bayh was talking about was a Democratic Congress, and I agree with him very strongly that, under Democratic leadership in the House and the Senate, Congress has been failing the American people.  The American people are tired of the borrowing, the spending, the bailouts, the takeovers.  But they're also, David, I think tired of the, of the, the really "take-it-or-leave-it" approach the Democrats have taken.  I mean, it's unthinkable that a massive healthcare bill, a massive energy bill was actually brought to the floor and the minority party was allowed one amendment on those bills.  I think people are tired of the backroom deals, I think they're tired of the leadership the Democrats have brought to Capitol Hill, and I think that's why, as Tim Pawlenty said, I honestly believe the American people are going to take back the American Congress and put Republicans back in control this fall.

REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-MD):  David, let's just flash back for a moment. The first nine months of the Obama administration, one of the most productive periods in recent legislative history, according to all independent outside observers.  We passed an expansive children's health care, paid for; we provided the opportunity for women to have their day in court on equal pay; we gave the FDA authority to protect our kids from tobacco use; we passed a very important public lands protection bill.  We passed a credit card billholders bill of rights.  We passed a whole lot of things.  Then we came to the healthcare debate.  Senator DeMint famously said, "We're going to use this to break the president.  It's going to be his Waterloo." Just last week we had seven Republican senators, who had their names on a bill to create a deficit reduction commission, vote against it for purely partisan reasons.  There's been a calculation by the Republican leadership that getting nothing done, to try and prevent the majority from working its will, as it did for the first nine months, is to their political advantage.  And there's no other explanation for that vote we saw.
REP. PENCE:  There's...

MR. GREGORY:  And here's, here's part of the problem, though.

REP. PENCE:  ...been no calculation like that.

MR. GREGORY:  Let me, let me turn it to this side of the table, and I want to frame it this way.  You know, a lot of people will look at this back and forth and say, again, "Nobody can agree." Two different versions of that.  John Podesta, who was the chief of staff to Bill Clinton, of course, and advises this administration, said this during an interview with the Financial Times this week.  He said, "I think the president is trying to re-engage with Republicans, but, quite frankly, he's not dealing with the party of [Abraham] Lincoln.  He's dealing with the party of [Sarah] Palin."

On the other side, The Economist magazine write this in its issue this week. "It's not so much that America is ungovernable, as that Mr. Obama has done a lousy job of winning over Republicans and independents to the causes he favors.  ...Once President Clinton learned the advantage of co-operating with the Republicans, the country was governed better."
Where are we, E.J.?

MR. E.J. DIONNE:  You know, I thought it was very revealing this weekend that in that CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Poll, who won.  It was Ron Paul, the Libertarian, with 31 percent.  By the way, Mike Pence and Tim Pawlenty were very close to Sarah Palin, so they deserve as much TV time as Sarah Palin gets.  But, you know, this is--the--Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff of the president, likes to say, "The small government wing of the Republican Party is shrinking and the no-government wing of the Republican Party is growing." You do not have a Republican Party anymore that had moderates in it willing to work with Democrats.  Now, that's OK if that's their position.  It's a more conservative party.  What we've got now is a parliamentary system without the structure of parliamentary government.  In parliamentary systems, the majority passes things, the opposition opposes, then there's an election and people decide.  Our--the kind of politics we have doesn't match the structure we have, and we got to bring the two together or else we're going to continue to have gridlock, as you heard these two gentlemen.  They disagree, fundamentally.  That's what's happening.

MS. PEGGY NOONAN:  Well...

MR. GREGORY:  And--but here's--one of the big questions that came up this week is what is--do Americans listen to these two congressmen and say, "This is petty politics," or do they say, "This is sincere ideological division. What you really need is better leadership in Washington to cut through all of that."

MS. NOONAN:  Well, I think it probably would have helped if the president, when he came in so strong having won by 9.5 million votes just more than a year ago, if he had come forward with more centrist ideas and very bravely reached out to Republicans, even to the point of alienating or frightening or putting off a little bit of his base.  I think that didn't happen.  Overall, though, I think Washington is not broken.  Bipartisanship is very possible, but we see too much bipartisanship in terms of passing bad things.  There's always--the bastion of unity in Washington is the Appropriations Committee, also.  They're always coming together to spend.  Other issues that are not so easy spending have less unity.  And, look, overall we need more seriousness. Both parties have to remember they are here during a crisis, an ongoing crisis for serious reasons.  They all get together, the Republican conference and the Democratic conference, once a week for lunch, and I know from people who are at those lunches that they spend 98 percent of the time talking about how to trip up the other guy and 2 percent of the time on policy.

REP. PENCE:  David, that's right, though.  We do need more seriousness in Washington, D.C.  This economy's struggling, we have challenges abroad.  This is a very serious time in the life of this nation.  But the, the reality is, and I think Peggy reflected on this, is that, you know, what's passed for bipartisanship in this Democratic Congress and under this administration is giving Republicans an opportunity to vote on big government, liberal Democrat bills.  That's not bipartisanship.  The president yesterday called for us to, to look for common ground.  He's challenging Republicans to present a, a bill at this so-called summit that's going to take place on Thursday, all the while Democrats are in some backroom, as we speak, cooking up another healthcare bill...

MR. GREGORY:  But before we get to health care...

REP. PENCE:  ...that they're going to reveal next week.

MR. GREGORY:  ...you say big government bill.  The stimulus bill had $288 billion worth of tax cuts.  That was for you guys.

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  Dave...

REP. PENCE:  Well the stimulus bill, as I told the president, the stimulus bill that he brought to the floor did not include one single Republican proposal that had been offered on the floor.  We were completely--we were completely excluded from the process...

MR. GREGORY:  Two hundred and eighty-eight dollars of tax...

REP. PENCE:  ...David.  And the stimulus bill has failed.

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  Let, let me respond to that.  It did include one-third tax cuts, including bonus depreciation and many small tax cuts that the Republicans had proposed.  Mike, the other day in Baltimore at the Republican conference, referred to the tax cuts that went to 95 percent of working Americans as, "boutique tax cuts," and then turned to the president and said, "Why aren't you going to do across the board tax cuts?" Meaning, "How about the 5 percent of the wealthiest who were left out?" What you're seeing, and I actually appreciate the fact that the Republicans have now said they're not the party of "no" and they're putting their ideas on the table, because what you're finding out is what their proposals are, are warmed-over Bush economic policies, including a tax cut for the wealthiest Americans.  So we welcome what is now clearly a debate on the issues.

MR. GREGORY:  Well, what, what, what about health care, E.J. at this point? There is going to be this summit meeting live on TV.  Is there a chance here it's revived?

MR. DIONNE:  I think there's a good chance it's revived, but it's--I, I doubt it is going to be a bipartisan bill.  I mean, you have the Republicans who fundamentally disagree with the government playing a substantial role here. If the Republicans had really wanted to do this, they could have done it when they had the majority and President Bush was in office.  I think what is going to be useful about this is that people are going to look and say, instead of saying "What's wrong with these various Democratic proposals," they'll have a chance to say, "Here are the problems we're trying to solve.  Here's what the Democrats are--want to do, and here is what the Republicans propose.  Whose ideas match up here?" I think, in the end, what the president is really trying to do is give heart to Democrats to say, "I've reached out to Republicans, we'll see what we do.  We're going to point out ideas like--good ideas like letting kids stay on their parents health insurance until they're 26," which is in the Republican bill.  It's also in the Democratic bill.  And if they don't want to play with us, we still have to act.  I think the worst thing for Democrats to do would be to walk away from this, because they got all the bad votes, so-called, on these bills--Republicans say they're bad votes--and they produced nothing.  That gives nothing to anybody, and they look gutless.  So I think they've got to pass a bill.

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

MS. NOONAN:  Quickly, it, it--if what is produced after the big Thursday meeting is an--a comprehensive omnibus bill of 1,000 or 2,000 pages it's not going to work again.  The past year, I think, has told us two things.  One is that this omnibus comprehensive stuff is yesterday, it's over, the public doesn't trust it.  If you can break health care down to proposals, agendas and then a few pieces of the agenda, say "This small thing, can you do it?" Republicans and Democrats might be able to do some business.

MR. DIONNE:  You know what the problem--could I just say quickly...

MR. GREGORY:  But E.J., E.J's--but, but...

MS. NOONAN:  Republicans and Democrats might be able to do some business that way.

MR. GREGORY:  But E.J....

MS. NOONAN:  They will not trust this 2,000-page thing.  They also don't trust the tinkering in stimulus bills where you can always claim, "We have 475 tax cuts." Nobody ever sees those tax cuts.

MR. DIONNE:  But if you can't tinker and you can't do a comprehensive bill, what do you do?

MR. GREGORY:  Yeah.

MS. NOONAN:  Break it all down.

REP. PENCE:  But E.J.'s, E.J.'s, E.J.'s talking about a--E.J.'s talking about kind of an idyllic...

MS. NOONAN:  Do it small and simple and clear.

REP. PENCE:  E.J.'s talking about kind of an idyllic approach to this summit. And quite frankly--let me be clear on this, and I'll say this with Chris in the room.  House Republicans would welcome a good faith effort to start over on healthcare reform.  We've had our bill online for months.  We welcome--the Democrats are going to put their latest bill online tomorrow.  If, if we were talking about really starting over with a clean piece of paper, scrapping the bills that have passed the House and the Senate, and also renouncing the abuse of the legislative process known as reconciliation, Republicans are ready to work.  But what we can't help but feel like here is the Democrats spell summit S-E-T-U-P.  And all this is going to be is some media event...

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  Come on, Mike.  Come on, Mike.

REP. PENCE:  ...used as a preamble to shove through Obama care 2.0, and we're not going to have any of that.

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  Come on, come on, Mike.  The status quo is broken.  We've seen in the last three weeks huge increases in premiums.  In Anthem health insurance out in California, 39 percent.  In Mike's state of Indiana, 25 percent average increases.  We need to address this issue.  Now, when the president gave his speech on health care back in September to a joint session and he said we need to prohibit health insurance companies from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions, both sides of the aisle got up, both sides were clapping.

MR. GREGORY:  Yeah.

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  But the Republican plan that Mike is talking about, he said, "Go look at it," it doesn't prohibit insurance companies from discriminating based on pre-existing conditions.

REP. PENCE:  But we provide...

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  You...

MR. GREGORY:  Hold on.  I want, I want to get in here...

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  You have to bring in these people.  You can't...

MR. GREGORY:  ...because we've just got a couple minutes left.  Finish your point.

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  But, but, but, you know, you have to have the comprehensive piece.  Senator Grassley, way back, said we need everybody into the pool before he dropped that idea when he said he wasn't going to work in a bipartisan fashion.

MR. GREGORY:  Right.  Let me move from policy to policy.  I just want--a couple of minutes left, and I want to, I want to get you on the record on the midterm election.  Congressman Van Hollen, back in October, this is what you said about the prospect of losing the House.  "Anyone talking about a Republican takeover of the House is in la-la land." Would you like to revise those remarks now?

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  No.  I don't--I think it's--I've, I've always said, David, way back a year ago, in fact, right after the election of Barack Obama, this was going to be a very tough political cycle.  But this idea that they are going to be popping the champagne corks prematurely and measuring the drapes, I think is clearly--they are, they are high on their own hype these days.

MR. GREGORY:  Congressman Pence, you spoke at the, the gathering of conservatives this week.  Dick Armey spoke there as well, then the leader of this tea party movement.  Is the tea party movement, an--as an anti-government movement, is it part of the Republican Party?

REP. PENCE:  Well, I don't know.  You know, E.J. did that anti-government thing.  Look, and the president said this week, he said something about, "You've got these people who are against government," you know.  In...

MR. GREGORY:  Well, they're not pro-government, that's fair, right?

REP. PENCE:  Right, no.  The American people aren't against government, they're against big government.  They're, they're tired of borrowing and spending and bailouts and takeovers.  And the people that you characterize...

MR. GREGORY:  But my question is about are they part of the Republican Party, do you believe?

REP. PENCE:  The people that you characterize, the tea party movement, are a group of--I was there at 9/12 on the National Mall.  I've spoken to tea party rallies and town hall meetings.  David, I'm telling you, these are decent, God-fearing, hard-working, everyday Americans...

MR. GREGORY:  Right.

REP. PENCE:  ...who just know we can't pile this mountain range of debt on our children and grandchildren.

MR. GREGORY:  Do you think they're part of the Republican Party?

REP. PENCE:  Well, I think that all depends on the Republican Party.  I think if we hold the banner of limited government high, of fiscal responsibility and personal responsibility, if we offer positive solutions and if we provide the loyal opposition to the big government schemes on energy and health care and budgets and deficits, you bet.  They'll know what to do this fall, and Republicans will win back the majority of the House in 2010.

MR. GREGORY:  E.J., how do you see the political landscape on both the House and the Senate side?  Evan Bayh out now, another prospect where Republicans could look to take over the seat.

MR. DIONNE:  Well, you know, Congressman Van Hollen is the head of the Democratic committee trying to keep the Congress Democratic.  He's got expectations for Democrats right where he wants them right now because everybody thinks they're going to lose the House.  I think if the election were held now, it would be a very tough election for Democrats.  They would lose a lot of seats.  I think--they lost two of the big debates in terms of public opinion.  The stimulus actually worked in many ways, but the Republicans have succeeded in persuading people it didn't.  Health care, clearly, that debate's in the wrong place for Democrats.  They've got eight months to fix it.  I don't think what, what happened today is going to happen in November.  I think they have a chance to fix it.

MR. GREGORY:  We have to leave it there.  So much more to discuss.

MS. NOONAN:  Oh!

MR. GREGORY:  I'm sorry.  I thank you all.  Thank you all.

REP. VAN HOLLEN:  All right.

MR. GREGORY:  But before we go, we remember General Alexander Haig, who died Friday at the age of 85.  He served under two Republican presidents:  as chief of staff to President Nixon, and secretary of state to President Reagan.  Over the course of his career, General Haig appeared right here on MEET THE PRESS five times.  His family is in our thoughts and prayers this morning.  And we'll be right back.

(Announcements)

MR. GREGORY:  That is all for today.  We will be back next week to discuss the president's healthcare summit and get Republican reaction from Senator John McCain of Arizona, our guest next week.  If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.

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