updated 4/21/2010 4:00:08 PM ET 2010-04-21T20:00:08

MR. DAVID GREGORY:  This Sunday, a shakeup on the Supreme Court.  Liberal Justice John Paul Stevens retires after more than three decades on the court. After a bruising battle over health care, will the president's second Supreme Court vacancy, this one in an election year, mark his next big fight with Republicans?  We'll speak exclusively to the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, and Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama.

Then, America's role in the world, how will this week's agreement on nuclear disarmament make the country safer?  And why are so many friends and foes alike defying the United States?  Our conversation with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

Finally, the roundtable takes on the growing left-right divide over the president's leadership, the congressional elections, and the politics of the court:  Columnist for The New York Times David Brooks; chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times David Sanger; syndicated Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker; and former Democratic Congressman from Tennessee and chair of the Democratic Leadership Council Harold Ford Jr.

MR. DAVID GREGORY:  But first, the politics of the Supreme Court.  The president has another big decision to make, the second court vacancy in two years.  How are the White House and Republicans weighing the confirmation battle ahead?  Joining us now to talk about that exclusively, the two members at the heart of the debate, the Senate Judiciary Committee who will oversee the confirmation hearings, Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont and ranking member Jeff Sessions of Alabama.

Welcome both of you back to MEET THE PRESS.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT):  Thank you.  Good to be here.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R-AL):  Thank you.

MR. GREGORY:  Senator Leahy, you've conferred with the president, with the White House, how is he approaching this decision?

SEN. LEAHY:  I think that he's doing it in a very responsible way, he's doing it very methodically.  He wants somebody who is going to be a solid member of the court.  He has made it very clear he's not looking for somebody who'll be there to represent just Democrats or just Republicans but to represent Americans, to give a voice to Americans who are affected, everyday Americans who are affected by court decisions.  And in many cases, the court decisions have hurt ordinary Americans.  He wants somebody who has a sense of what real life is in America.

MR. GREGORY:  Has he worked out whether he wants someone with political experience as opposed to somebody, as you often say, who's in that judicial monastery like a judge?

SEN. LEAHY:  Yeah.  Well, I--I've often said I wish we could have some more people outside the judicial monastery.  I think Justice Sotomayor came closest to that, having been a prosecutor and in private practice and a trial judge. But I'll let him, I'll let him speak to that.  I know that he has several extraordinarily good names before him, any one of whom would make a good justice of the Supreme Court, among the names he's considering.

MR. GREGORY:  Senator Sessions, when the president spoke about this on Friday, he, he said replacing Justice Stevens would be somebody who, in his mind, had to have an independent mind, who would have all the qualifications to be a judge.  And at the end of his statement he said this, let me play it for you.

(Videotape, Friday)

PRES. BARACK OBAMA:  It will also be someone who, like Justice Stevens, knows that in a democracy powerful interests must not be allowed to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  That was described as a fight for the little guy, sensibility to the job.  How does that sit with you?

SEN. SESSIONS:  I'm not sure exactly what he meant by that.  I would say that any judge that faithfully follows the law, who respects the Constitution and understands that he or she is subordinate to that document really serves the average American.  It's when an unelected
lifetime-appointed judge, or five of them use their power, unaccountable power, to redefine the meaning of the Constitution to effectuate some policy agenda, some empathy, some ideology that they have, that's what threatens the average American.  And, and I'm hearing a lot about that, frankly, all over as I travel my state and in airports, that people believe that we are losing our constitutional respect, that our government is overreaching, and they're concerned about it.

MR. GREGORY:  Senator, as you think about the political climate that this is happening, you've got a bruising healthcare battle that has just been waged, Republicans have said they are not interested in cooperating with the White House or with this president. Do you think this is going to be a big fight with Republicans and the White House?

SEN. SESSIONS:  You know, the answer to that is in the president's hands. I think Senator Feinstein said it well the other day, she said that she believed the president should nominate somebody that would get a very strong vote, 70-plus votes, bipartisan, that they were a proven and confident professional. That's the kind of nominee I hope that he nominates and that we can support. I would like to be, be able to support this nominee.  But if we have a nominee that evidences a philosophy of "judges know best," that they can amend the Constitution by saying it has evolved, and effectuate agendas, then we're going to have a big fight about that because the American people don't want that.

MR. GREGORY:  Senator Leahy, isn't it important that the president select someone who unites the country?

SEN. LEAHY:  Well, I think that there is--right now, as Justice Stevens himself has said because of some of the decisions of the Supreme Court, they are beginning to lose credibility with the American people. Actually, and not for the reasons you may think, I agree with what Jeff Sessions has said, they have rewritten the law.  This is a very, very activist court, the most activist court in my lifetime.  They rewrote the law to say that--so they said that women could be paid less than men. They rewrote the law to say that age discrimination laws won't apply if corporate interests don't want them to. They rewrote the law to give ExxonMobil a $2 billion windfall.  And they rewrote the law to say that corporations could come in and meddle in elections in this, in this country.  All of those things went against the precedent...

MR. GREGORY:  OK.

SEN. LEAHY:  ...and went against the laws of this country.

MR. GREGORY:  Senator, the question I asked is whether you think a nominee should unite the country?

SEN. LEAHY:  I think a nominee--if, if Republicans and Democrats want to set aside politics, stop listening to the single-issue groups of either the far right or the far left, they can.  Remember, John Paul Stevens was nominated by a Republican president who was facing election.  He was a conservative Republican, and a Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed him in two and a half weeks overwhelmingly.  What has happened between then and today?

MR. GREGORY:  But I just want to pin you down on this point because back
in 2005 on this program after Sandra Day O'Connor retired, this is what
you--this was your advice to, to President Bush.

SEN. LEAHY:  Right.

(Videotape, July 3, 2005)

SEN. LEAHY:  That's why we're going to meet with the, with the president in about a week.  We're going to urge that he put somebody who would unite the country, not divide the country.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  So yes or no, does that same standard apply...

SEN. LEAHY:  Yes, of course.

MR. GREGORY:  ...to President Obama now?

SEN. LEAHY:  Of course it does.  And, and--but it also requires people to not take a knee-jerk reaction.  One Republican leader's already said, "Well, we may, we may filibuster." He doesn't even know who...

MR. GREGORY:  All right, I'll...

SEN. LEAHY:  ...who this is going to be.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.  I'll--we'll get to that in just a moment. Let's put some of the names who are on that short list.  There may be other names that are added, but this is what's thought to be the short list of names so far.  You have Judge Diane Wood, she's on the 7th
Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals; Elena Kagan, the solicitor general of the United States; Judge Merrick Garland, who sits as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in the D.C. Circuit; and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.  Senator Sessions, I want to make a disclosure, my wife Beth worked for Judge Garland at the Justice Department, he also performed our wedding ceremony.  That said, as you look at that list, is there any nonstarter there for you?

SEN. SESSIONS:  Well, I think that it's premature to say that.  We have a big responsibility to examine their background.  This is the only time in, in the entire process that the American people, through their elected representatives, have an attempt--have the opportunity to confront the nominee who could have a lifetime appointment for 30 or 40 or even 50
years...

MR. GREGORY:  But, Senator, you know these jurists, you know these
figures.

SEN. SESSIONS:  So I--I'm not going to prejudge that.

MR. GREGORY:  But you know these figures.

SEN. SESSIONS:  Yeah.

MR. GREGORY:  They came up when Judge Sotomayor was nominated.  You know these figures.  Are you prepared to say that they are all well-qualified to be on the Supreme Court?

SEN. SESSIONS:  I think we better look at that.  I'm not prepared to make an announcement before we get into the background on it.  No, I'm not.

MR. GREGORY:  The issue...

SEN. SESSIONS:  Let me just say...

MR. GREGORY:  Yeah.

SEN. SESSIONS:  ...I disagree with Pat's analysis and criticism of the court, I don't think this court is an activist court.  I think they've attempted to faithfully follow the law, and just because they reach a decision that he may not like does not mean it's an activist court.

MR. GREGORY:  Let me ask you about procedure.

SEN. SESSIONS:  Sometimes Congress wrote the law badly.

MR. GREGORY:  Senator Sessions, the only...

SEN. LEAHY:  So they--so Jeff's--we wrote it badly.  What you're saying is OK, that they rewrote the law?  That's not what the court's supposed to do. They're supposed to interpret the law, not make law.

SEN. SESSIONS:  You're exactly right, the court should interpret the law, not make the law, and should interpret it in a way that's faithful to the Constitution.

MR. GREGORY:  Senator Sessions, can you promise an up or down vote on the president's nominee?  Is a filibuster possible?

SEN. SESSIONS:  I promise a fair hearing, and I, I promise that the nominee will have a chance to explain any criticisms that are raised. But if a nominee is, is one that is so activist like Goodwin Liu that's just been nominated, who's written that, that the Constitution requires
welfare and health care to individuals, if it's somebody like that, clearly outside the mainstream, then I think every power should be utilized to protect the Constitution.  We'll not confirm somebody like that.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.  But, Senator Sessions, you're on record, you're on record in the past as saying...

SEN. SESSIONS:  I just hope that doesn't happen.

MR. GREGORY:  OK, you--you're on record in the past as saying filibusters should not be used against judges.  And yet--I want to be clear here--you are not taking a filibuster off the table in this particular case.

SEN. SESSIONS:  We had a big fight over that debate, and Senator Leahy and his side won.  And they set a standard that says that if you have a, a nominee that under extraordinary circumstances a filibuster is appropriate to use against him.  I hope we do not do that.  I voted
against Sotomayor, but that was not a filibuster, and I think we'll just see how it plays out.  Depends on the quality of the nominee.

MR. GREGORY:  But...

SEN. SESSIONS:  I think that's the standard the Senate has adopted in recent years.

MR. GREGORY:  Senator Leahy, for all the sound and the fury related to Justice Sotomayor--she was called a racist by some on the right, conservative commentators--she was still confirmed handily, and yet it is significant that your colleague here is not ruling out a filibuster.
That's the only area of uncertainty here because, as you know, the election of Scott Brown, Democrats don't, don't have a bulletproof majority.

SEN. LEAHY:  The--they're not--look, the Constitution says that 51 senators can confirm somebody.  It doesn't require 60 senators.  I don't think there's going to be any kind of a filibuster.  You know, this last year we had about 100 and some-odd filibusters that--totally
unprecedented.  Actually, that's the lazy person's way out.  The American people pay us and, and elect us to vote yes or no, not to vote maybe. Every time you have a filibuster, you're saying, "I'm not going to vote yes or no, I'm going to vote maybe." That's irresponsible.

MR. GREGORY:  All right, final, final point, Chairman.  When?  When are we going to hear a nomination?

SEN. LEAHY:  I think you're going to hear a nomination very soon because we'd like to get this wrapped up this summer.

MR. GREGORY:  Within weeks?

SEN. LEAHY:  I think we're going to hear it soon enough so that we can wrap this up this summer.

MR. GREGORY:  And you expect the justice to be in place by the start of
the term?

SEN. LEAHY:  Oh, there's no question.  It'd be irresponsible to do otherwise.

MR. GREGORY:  All right, to be continued.

Senators, thank you both very much this morning.

SEN. LEAHY:  Thank you.

SEN. SESSIONS:  Thank you.

MR. GREGORY:  Coming up next, America's role in the world.  How will this week's nuclear treaty make the country safer?  And why are so many friends and foes alike defying the United States?  A conversation with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Plus, our roundtable and all the week's political news:  David Brooks, David Sanger, Kathleen Parker, and Harold Ford Jr.  Only here on MEET THE PRESS.

(Announcements)

MR. GREGORY:  Nuclear disarmament, the threat from Iran, and America's role in the world.  My conversation with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates after this brief commercial break.

(Announcements)

MR. DAVID GREGORY:  And we're back.  Last week President Obama traveled to Prague to sign a treaty with Russia to reduce each nation's nuclear stockpile by nearly 30 percent; and this week he will host the leaders of more than 40 countries for a global nuclear summit that begins tomorrow right here in Washington.  On Friday I sat down with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at the Pentagon to talk about nuclear security, the Iranian nuclear threat, and America's role in the world.

Secretary Clinton, let, let's talk about the nuclear issue.  So you've got critics on both sides of this decision--those who think that it goes too far, weakens America; those who think it doesn't go far enough.  So if this nuclear disarmament decision represents middle ground, is it
enough to make the world safer?

SEC'Y HILLARY CLINTON:  It certainly is.  And I, I know that this is a, a very important issue that I thank you for discussing with us, because the president's position is very clear.  We will always protect the United States, our partners and allies around the world.  Our nuclear deterrent will remain secure, safe and effective in doing so.  But we also think we will ultimately be safer if we can introduce the idea that United States is willing to enter into arms treaties with Russia to reduce our respective nuclear arsenals, and that we're going to stand against nonproliferation in a way that will perhaps deter others from acquiring nuclear weapons.  And so you have to look at the entire package:  Nuclear Posture Review, the “New START” treaty, and the nuclear security summit.

MR. GREGORY:  But, Secretary Gates, this is not about the U.S. and the USSR anymore.  It's not about the U.S. and Russia anymore.  And critics, what they've seized on is this idea that American nuclear power, muscle, is ultimately what has deterred aggressors in the past.  So, as you look at this posture review, disarmament decision, how does this deter a country like Iran or North Korea from, you know, a--going away from their nuclear ambitions?

SEC'Y ROBERT GATES:  Well, first of all, we have still a very powerful nuclear arsenal.  The Nuclear Posture Review sets forth a process by which we will be able to modernize our nuclear stockpile to make it more reliable, safer, more secure and effective.  We have, in addition to the nuclear deterrent today, a couple of things we didn't have in the Soviet days.  We have missile defense now, and that's growing by leaps and bounds every year; significant budget increase for that this year, both regional and the ground-based interceptors. And we have prompt global strike affording us some conventional alternatives on long-range missiles that we didn't have before.  So, believe me, the chiefs and I wouldn't--the Joint Chiefs of Staff and I would not have wholeheartedly embraced not only the nuclear posture review but also the START agreement if we didn't think, at the end of the day, it made the United States
stronger, not weaker.

MR. GREGORY:  But it still doesn't answer the question of if you're in Iran or North Korea and you've been proliferating even after disarmament started between the U.S. and Russia, what's to stop them from continuing down that path just because of this posture?

SEC'Y GATES:  Well, first of all, I think it puts us in a much stronger position in terms of going to other countries and getting their support for putting pressure on the Iranians and the North Koreans.  I think it also has, potentially, a deterrent effect on other countries who might be
potential proliferaters as they look at North Korea and, and Iran.

MR. GREGORY:  What is, Secretary Clinton, the bottom line threat of all of these missiles around the world getting into the hands of terrorists?

SEC'Y CLINTON:  It's a serious threat, David, and that's why the president has convened this nuclear security summit starting Monday.  We often say that the threat of nuclear war, as we used to think about it during the Cold War, has actually decreased, but the threat of nuclear
terrorism has increased.  And by that we mean that there's a lot of nuclear material that is not as secure.  It hasn't been destroyed.  It isn't under lock and key in many places in the world, particularly in the former Soviet Union, but not exclusively there.  We know that terrorist
groups, primarily al-Qaeda, persist in their efforts to obtain enough nuclear material to try to do something that would cause just such mass havoc and terror and damage and destruction that it would be devastating. And we know that a lot of countries haven't, until relatively recently, seen the threat as we see it.  You know, remember, we've been working for
18-plus years to diminish the threat in a partnership with Russia; and we've worked--when my husband was president, we started working with some of the nation's that were part of the Soviet Union to get their nuclear material out.  But this hasn't been a high international priority, and that's what we intend to make it starting this week.

MR. GREGORY:  Let, let me talk to a related topic, and that is trying to deter Iran from building a nuclear weapons program.

Secretary Gates, is the notion of Iran becoming a nuclear power inevitable at this point?  Is the strategy of the U.S. government becoming more and more containment?

SEC'Y GATES:  No, we have not, we have not made that--drawn that conclusion at all.  And, in fact, we're doing everything we can to try and keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons.  We have--we're probably going to get another U.N. Security Council resolution, and that's really, I mean, it's important, but it's all--in it's own, in it's own right, in terms of isolating Iran, but it's also important in terms of a legal platform for organizations like the E.U. and individual countries to take even more stringent actions against Iran.  At the end of the day, what, what has to happen is the Iranian government has to decide that its own security is better served by not having nuclear weapons than by having them.  And it's a combination of economic pressures, it's a combination of more missile defense and cooperation in the Gulf to show them that any attack would--we can defend against and react against.  So I think it's a combination of, of all of these different options in terms of trying to convince the Iranians that, that they're headed down the wrong path.

MR. GREGORY:  But, Secretary Clinton, it raises to me a larger question about the U.S. role in the world.  This president tried engagement as he came into office--engagement with the Iranians, engagements with the North Koreans.  It hasn't worked.  They don't want to talk.  They don't want to dance with this president.  So what is the next phase then?  What is America's influence in the world?

SEC'Y CLINTON:  Well, David, I would argue because the president was willing to offer engagement, we actually have more support vis-a-vis North Korea and Iran than was certainly present when he became president. The fact that Iran and North Korea have not responded makes our case, in a way.  And if you look at North Korea, for example, we now have a very
clear understanding with the other members of the six party talks, led by China, that North Korea cannot be permitted to just go on its own course, that it has to be pressured to come back into this framework to try to get to the denuclearization of the peninsula.

With Iran, a lot of countries were on the sidelines.  Their attitude was, "Well, you know, the United States, you know, they're just hurling insults. They're not really, you know, willing to have any diplomatic engagement." We said, "OK, fine.  We're willing." We, we stretched out
our hand.  The president made extraordinary efforts.  It was the Iranians who refused.  That has brought more people to the table.  We have unity in what's called the P5-plus-1, the permanent members of the U.N. plus Germany.  They are meeting in New York as, as we speak, to begin the hard process of coming up with the language of a resolution.

MR. GREGORY:  So you don't think the U.S. would have to go, go it alone on sanctions before bringing others?

SEC'Y CLINTON:  No, not at all.

MR. GREGORY:  Before going to the United Nations?

SEC'Y CLINTON:  No, I think...

MR. GREGORY:  Because you don't have results yet.  You say there's been all this unity, but there's been missed deadlines and you still don't have results.

SEC'Y CLINTON:  Well, but, you know, David, I have--I'm a big believer in strategic patience.  I mean, you know, if we, if we could wave the magic wand and get everybody to move like we could.  But that's never been the case in the world.  You, you work through persuasion.  You present evidence.  We have been consistently doing so.  And, as Secretary Gates just said, the Security Council resolution will not in any way forestall us or the E.U. or other concerned countries from taking additional steps. But it will send a really powerful message.  The Iranians have been beating down the doors of every country in the world to try to avoid a Security Council resolution.  And what we have found over the last months, because of our strategic patience and our willingness to keep on this issue, is that countries are finally saying, "You know, I kind of get it.  I get that they didn't, they didn't cooperate. They're the ones who shut the door, and now we have to do something."

MR. GREGORY:  Is a nuclear-capable Iran as dangerous as a nuclear state of Iran?

SEC'Y CLINTON:  Well, clearly, weapons are more dangerous than potential. Potential is troubling, too.

MR. GREGORY:  Are they capable now?

SEC'Y CLINTON:  They're, you know, that, that's an issue upon which intelligence services still differ.  But our goal is to prevent them from having nuclear weapons.

MR. GREGORY:  Secretary Gates, I want to ask you about...

SEC'Y GATES:  I'd say it's our judgment here...

MR. GREGORY:  Yeah.

SEC'Y GATES:  ...they are not nuclear capable.

MR. GREGORY:  They are not nuclear capable?

SEC'Y GATES:  Not yet.

MR. GREGORY:  And is that just as dangerous as being a nuclear state to your mind?

SEC'Y GATES:  Only in this respect:  how you differentiate.  How far, how far have they gone?  If they--if their policy is to go to the threshold but not assemble a nuclear weapon, how do you tell that they have not assembled?  So it becomes a serious verification question, and I, I don't actually know how you would verify that.  So they are continuing to make progress on these programs.  It's going slower, slower than they anticipated, but they are moving in that direction.

MR. GREGORY:  We've been talking about our foes.  I want to talk about our friends because I think a lot of Americans are troubled by some of our relationships with our friends in the world right now.  Hamid Karzai, who is the leader of Afghanistan, has done some things recently.  He's tried to establish control over what was supposed to be an independent election commission.  He invited the Iranian leader to Afghanistan in a move that seemed to try to embarrass the U.S.  He talked about the U.S. trying to dominate Afghanistan.  And now he made threats, apparently, to join the Taliban.  I think a lot of people are, are, are fair in
wondering why the American forces should fight and die for people represented by a guy like this.

SEC'Y GATES:  Well--oh, go ahead.

SEC'Y CLINTON:  No, go ahead, Bob.

SEC'Y GATES:  I, I, first of all, I think you have to see this guy as, first of all, the president of Afghanistan and of a sovereign country. And when there are attacks on him, on his family, and what he perceives to be on Afghanistan itself, or insults to the sovereignty of Afghanistan, he's going to react and he's going to react strongly.  The fact is, on a day-to-day basis, speaking from our perspective, he has a very effective working relationship with General McChrystal.  He has cooperated with General McChrystal in going down to Kandahar to begin to
set the stage as the Kandahar campaign gets under way and talking to the local tribal leaders and, and so on.  So I think, I think we have to understand the pressures he's under, but, at the same time, understand their sensitivity.  This is a country that has been at war for almost two generations.  They have had armies come in and leave and, and--who have paid no attention to Afghan sovereignty.  We are working very hard at that.  We have to work as hard in our rhetoric as we are in our actions.

MR. GREGORY:  So do we--is the message here, don't overreact to some of this?

SEC'Y CLINTON:  Absolutely.  You know...

MR. GREGORY:  Did you not overreact when you spoke to him on the phone?

SEC'Y CLINTON:  I certainly didn't overreact.  You know, I think, David, some of what is said is, is not true, and a lot of others who make claims are, you know, short on evidence and very long on rhetoric.  This is a, a, a very difficult situation, and we are working very closely with, not only the president, but there's a whole government that is there.  I mean, we work well with a lot of the ministers who are, you know, dealing on a day-to-day business with our civilian and military leadership.  We have an international presence that each of our allies are working in different parts of Afghanistan.  And I personally, you know, have a lot of sympathy for President Karzai and the extraordinary stress he lives under every single minute of every day.  And, you know, I, I have a little experience in what it's like being, you know, in the political arena.  And in our country, you kind of know it goes with the territory. You put your toe out there.  This is new, this is something that Afghans don't have any experience with, a lot of countries around the world. He's not alone in wondering that if he's attacked by some newspaper in the United States, "Is our government behind it?" And that's not unusual for us to encounter.  I see it all the time in leaders that I deal with.

MR. GREGORY:  So if there's a--if there's--people who get worried about our allies, frankly, not listening to the United States, take Israel for example. Was the United States blindsided by the fact that the Israeli prime minister abruptly decided not to come to this nuclear conference?

SEC'Y CLINTON:  No.  I mean, that's, that's a decision for a head of government, a head of state.  You know, Gordon Brown is not coming from Great Britain, Kevin Rudd is not coming from Australia, King Abdullah's not coming from Saudi Arabia.  There are many things.  It's like when President Obama had to cancel his trip to Indonesia and Australia.  There are all kind of things.

MR. GREGORY:  This seems abrupt, though.  I mean, this seems there were a couple of abrupt things.

SEC'Y CLINTON:  Well...

MR. GREGORY:  At a low point in the relationship with Israel.

SEC'Y CLINTON:  I'm sure that--well, the Indonesians and the Australians thought it was kind of abrupt when the president called up and said...

MR. GREGORY:  Right.

SEC'Y CLINTON:  ..."Oh, by the way, I'm not coming on this long-planned trip." But the Israeli government will be represented at a very high level.  And, you know, they are--they share our deep concern about nuclear terrorism, and they want to be at the table as we try to figure out how we're going to make the world safer.

MR. GREGORY:  This doesn't make the relationship even, even more difficult at a difficult time?

SEC'Y CLINTON:  No, not at all.  I mean, we have a deep and, and very close relationship between the United States and Israel that goes back many years. That doesn't mean we're going to agree on everything.  We don't agree with any of our friends on everything.  We have a special relationship with Great Britain; we have close relationships with France, our oldest ally.  Doesn't mean we agree on everything.  And I, I think that somehow since we're living in a 24/7 news cycle with, you know, things popping every minute, a lot is made of a little instead of trying to step back and see the forest instead of the trees.  And that's what, you know, I try to do every day.  What are the long-term consequences of what we're doing?  And, you know, you just can't react to every little event that some, you know, media outlet wants to blow up, you can't do that.

MR. GREGORY:  Final point, a domestic matter.  There is this image, which I'm sure you've seen, of, of you embracing President Obama when health care was accomplished.  And, as you might imagine, people in the media could read in a lot to that given the history between you and the president and your history with the issue of health care.  And I just wonder, at the end of that process of healthcare reform being accomplished, whether you viewed that and said "This is what I, this is what President Clinton ultimately hoped to accomplish, that healthcare reform in this form." Is that how you feel?

SEC'Y CLINTON:  I was thrilled that we finally got healthcare reform passed. I mean, it's been a high priority of mine for many years, I often say I have the scars to show for it, and it was a wonderful historic accomplishment for the American people and I was thrilled that...

MR. GREGORY:  It's what you would have wanted back in '93, '94?

SEC'Y CLINTON:  Well, you, you know, everything that was done up until this time added to it.  You know, we--a lot of people made contributions going back to President Johnson and President Nixon and, you know, certainly my husband, and even, you know, the--President Bush.  There, there were building blocks, but getting it across the finish line with the kind of comprehensive reform that our country deserved to have didn't happen until this year, and I'm thrilled by it.

MR. GREGORY:  We'll leave it there.  Thank you both.

SEC'Y GATES:  Thank you.

SEC'Y CLINTON:  Thank you.

MR. GREGORY:  And up next, our roundtable takes on the questions of presidential leadership, the upcoming congressional elections, and the politics of picking a new Supreme Court justice.  With us, David Brooks, David Sanger, Kathleen Parker, and Harold Ford Jr., after this brief
station break.

(Announcements)

MR. DAVID GREGORY:  We are back, joined now by our roundtable with David Sanger of The New York Times, former Democratic congressman and chair of the Democratic Leadership Council Harold Ford Jr., David Brooks of The New York Times, and syndicated Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker.

Welcome, all of you.  So much to get to.  Let's start with the politics of the Supreme Court.

David Brooks, you, you heard Senators Leahy and Sessions.  News here this is going to happen fast, they said this morning, and you've got Republicans who are not taking a filibuster out of the equation, which is really the only level of uncertainty in all of this.  Size this up for me.

MR. DAVID BROOKS:  Well, I think you--first of all, you've got a guy, you've got--what you see in Justice Stevens is the change in the way America's changed.  This was a guy--my favorite story about him, he was in Wrigley Field when Babe Ruth called the shot and hit his home run.  So he's from a different era.  He gets nominated at a time when he's sort of a moderate and he sails right through, and then the conservative establishment rises, we get a polarized era.  And so we get a period where everything is fought over.  And my sense this time is that they're--what the administration is doing, and we heard it here today from Senator Leahy, is cutting--trying to cut through that left-right by going "man of the people" vs. "the powerful." And so you're going to have a Supreme Court where every single member is Harvard or Yale, and a lot
of the people talked about for the court are Harvard and Yale.  I wouldn't be surprised at all if they went outside that fraternity and tried to get somebody who reflects where the country is right now--extremely hostile to Washington, extremely hostile to the power establishment--and that will make it hard for Republicans to filibuster.

MR. GREGORY:  Do you think--Harold Ford, you've heard a lot--the president say, "Well, maybe I need somebody with some political experience." He's somebody who's got a very well-developed sense of the Constitution and, and judicial philosophy, but does he want to move in
that direction where you get somebody who can really build consensus as a politician?

FMR. REP. HAROLD FORD JR. (D-TN):  He'll need to.  I think David's points are right.  I think, in addition, I heard Senator Leahy, the chairman, say that they--look--looking for someone with a broader set of experiences.  When you consider the kinds of cases--the business cases,
regulatory cases, cases involving patents and technology--I think it's likely that the names we've heard, all spectacular candidates, are not the complete list.

MR. GREGORY:  Mm.

Interesting, Kathleen Parker.  If you look at where Republicans are right now--as I said, the only uncertainty has to do with the use of the filibuster. That's why elections matter, and Scott Brown's election matters again here. This is how Politico describes some of the strategic
thinking on the right right now:  "Conservative activists say they won't ask their Republican allies to go to the mat over the president's nominee to replace Justice Stevens by pressing for the ultimate weapon - a filibuster.  Instead, they say the nomination of a Democrat to the court will be an opportunity to cement the support of the tea party movement, broaden their base, and motivate supporters to turn out to support Republicans in the mid-term elections in November." So how?  How do they do all of that?  How do they accomplish that?

MS. KATHLEEN PARKER:  Well, the Republicans are in a real bind because, you know, they, they are now established as, as the party of not "no," but "hell, no." In fact, that was played up in New Orleans again just recently.

MR. GREGORY:  Right.

MS. PARKER:  And, you know, they, they want to appear to be open-minded and, and accepting of somebody who would be mainstream.  And yet, you know, their, their base is fired up, and they are very angry right now. And so you've somehow got to harness that anger and direct people to the polls.  So they're, they're, they're really in a, in a, in a bind.  I don't think they're likely to do the filibuster.  I think that's a very unlikely event.  But they're also--they've--there are some other little complications that come into play for them.  The 29 who voted against Sotomayor...

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

MS. PARKER:  ...are now kind of stuck with, "Well, now if we vote for this one, are we going to look like we didn't vote for Sotomayor just because she was Latina?"

MR. GREGORY:  Hm.

MS. PARKER:  So it all gets very complicated.

MR. GREGORY:  You know, the question of judicial philosophy, David Sanger--and we covered the White House together, and these questions came up all the time with, with Roberts and Alito.  There is--and you heard it from Senator Leahy--among liberals, a sense that this court has moved far to the right.  Indeed, Justice Stevens said that he didn't change, the court changed. And they want a progressive pushback here.  Is that where the president's heart is?

MR. DAVID SANGER:  You know, it may be where his heart is, but it may not be where his mind is by the time he's done making this selection.  He's thinking that this is going to be the dominant domestic political issue between now and the November elections, and he's got to decide how big a fight he wants.  And I think that's why you heard him lay out his four criteria yesterday for who the next Supreme Court justice should be, but also why he played up what David pointed out, which was that Justice Stevens really does come from a different era where ideology did not seem to be the dominant issue in a, in a confirmation battle.

MR. BROOKS:  Right.

MR. SANGER:  And I think he'd like to get back to that.

MR. GREGORY:  Well, and just to return to that point, David, you, you recall back during the State of the Union when the president references the Citizens United vs. the FEC case.  This was a 5-to-4 decision.  The court rules that the government can't ban spending by corporations in candidate elections. More money can, you know, get into the political system.  And this is what he said during the State of the Union to really take that on.

(Videotape, January 27, 2010)

PRES. OBAMA:  With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the flood gates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  That was a striking commentary from, from that particular position, but also gets to this idea of what the president thinks the court needs and what a justice ought to have beyond being qualified.

MR. BROOKS:  Listen, there's a social context here.  We have become a divided society based on college education and non-college education. People without high school--without college degrees, much lower incomes, much higher divorce rates, much less social trust.  They take a look at people running Washington and running corporations, and they say, "Those people don't get me." And that's behind a lot of the anger we see in the country.  And every single issue reflects that in some way.  And so what the White House is doing right now is saying, even on the court, which is sort of an elite, highfalutin organization, "We somehow want to tap into that.  We somehow want to play to that anger and that anxiety of people don't get us, and so we're going to maybe nominate somebody who will at least reflect the common experience."

MR. GREGORY:  Let, let me move on to the question of foreign policy now. And the president this week in Prague, he signs this disarmament agreement with the president of Russia.  So we see the president on, on the world stage at an important time with an important agreement.  I want to get to some of the particulars about nuclear strategy, about Iran, and even relationship with allies.

But, David Sanger, let me ask you the larger question, which is how is this president trying to recast America's role in the world and how is that working?

MR. SANGER:  You know, David, he came in recasting it on the issue of engagement, which you raised with secretaries Clinton and Gates.  And he spent the first year basically saying, "I am not George Bush.  And as a result, I'm going to reach out with a policy that suggests that America does not necessarily have to be the exceptional nation where everybody does it our way." What's happened a year later than that?  The North Koreans and the Iranians, as you pointed out in the interview, have not exactly reciprocated. The Obama administration has not been able to get a U.N. resolution yet--I think eventually they will--against Iran.  The
Bush administration at least did get three in its second term.  So I think that the next few years for President Obama are going to be all about how does he deal with irreconcilable states that the rest of the world doesn't want to take on?  And that's what makes Iran such a fascinating test case.

REP. FORD:  We have picked off more--I would agree with David.  We've picked off, under Obama's leadership, more terrorists in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border than we did--in the last year than Bush was able to in his last term. So if you think about George Bush and Condi Rice, he sent Condi Rice over to meet with her counterpart in Russia to say, "We're going to build that big radar system with or without your approval." This president decided to go a completely different tack, as David has laid out.

You can't underestimate the power of engagement.  I think Secretary Clinton's point is--needs to be taken in context and should be amplified. The fact that you're able to go and sit with allies and erstwhile allies and say, "We're doing things differently.  I'm not George Bush," would
sound simple, but really is a powerful statement on the global stage.  I would agree with you fully.  Israeli-Palestinian talks, what happens this week with regard to nuclear proliferation, the talks on that front, and clearly the success we have in Afghanistan.  I thought the comments
around Karzai were most fascinating between--with your interview with both Gates and Clinton.

MR. GREGORY:  Well, but...

REP. FORD:  But I think the engagement issue cannot be, cannot be understated.

MR. GREGORY:  But talk more specifically now, Kathleen, about the nuclear disarmament questions related to proliferation.  There'll be this summit here in Washington.  So the president's really putting this on, on the agenda. What does this really mean in terms of safety in the world, in terms of America's power, and, most importantly, America's influence?

MS. PARKER:  Yeah.  Well, I'm not quite as optimistic as, as the folks on that side of the table.  I think engagement is very nice.  It's lovely to sit down at the table and chat.  And--but engagement is, is a tool, it's not a foreign policy.  And I think that is where the concern comes in among conservatives, and, and particularly when you talk about this, this issue of exceptionalism.  We're not, we're not the last word.  But most Americans do think that we are exceptional, and, and we have operated traditionally and historically and successfully from a position of strength.  And I think the concern is that we're compromising our, our role as--and, and that profile, particularly in the eyes of weaker nations who have always relied on us to, to be the big dog and to...

MR. GREGORY:  Right.

MS. PARKER:  ...and, and to be someone they can count on.

MR. GREGORY:  You, you have a situation with foes, as I said at the beginning, where we're simply not being listened to.  Secretary Clinton said, "Hey, this--we've tried our best now, and so now we have more unity in being able to act." But how much unity really?

MR. BROOKS:  Well, I mean, it's--you--Obama has a great presence.  He's pretty good at engagement.  But it's--that is, as Kathleen said, that's a process, that's not an end.  And so you can, you can engage people, but if they are stuck in their views the way the Iranians are, the way the Hamas is, the way North Korea is or the Pakistanis are, you're just not going to get very far.  So you have to have a further view about what end state you want, some ideal vision.  And so I've always thought the problem with our Iran policy, we focus too much on the nuclear regime and the weapons, which everybody in Iran sort of wants; we don't focus on
the nature of the regime. And the nature of the regime is a lot more fragile than, than the weapons system.  That day--the day that woman Neda was shot, that was the day the regime lost its legitimacy.  And everything we should, we should be doing in a careful way is to undermine the legitimacy of that regime.

MR. GREGORY:  David Sanger, what, what are the big questions, though, about disarmament, about this question with Iran that came up, you think, in the course of the interview and in the course of what you've talked to the president about recently?

MR. SANGER:  Well, what I thought was interesting about what Secretary Gates said to you and, and what President Obama said when we went in to interview him last week on, on this issue was that the distinction between an Iran that builds itself right up to the edge of having a weapon and an Iran that declares itself to have a weapon may not be all that big.  Most people think the Iranians are, at this point, way too sophisticated to come out and say, "We've got a weapon," which is what the North Koreans did.  But instead, to do what Israel, what Japan and others have done, which is assemble all the technology so the world simply knows that they have the nuclear power.  And Secretary Gates said to you we wouldn't know, necessarily, when they had actually gone and assembled a weapon.  Well, this raises a really hard question, to the point that David raised before, which is what's your plan B? Because if
you get to the moment where the Iranians have all the pieces together, do the Israelis feel that they have to act at that moment?  Do the--does the U.S. feel that they have to step in and help the Israelis act? Is that the moment when engagement ends?  And the president has not yet said what his red line is out here.  And I'm not sure that this administration yet knows what its red line is.

MR. GREGORY:  Kathleen, you, you write in a column this morning about this, this complicated relationship with allies like Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan. And, again, you saw that exchange.  What was noteworthy is a shift in the administration.  Here you had the secretary of Defense and the secretary of State saying, "We're not going to react to some of these things.  We're going to be more sympathetic toward Hamid Karzai.  He's the guy that we have to deal with." That was, that was a significant change.

MS. PARKER:  Yeah, that was a shift as of right  his minute, right? We've been pretty hard on him, and he is the guy that was elected and he is the--he is our man.  We, we created Karzai.  And he's been under siege from everyone. I mean, Obama pretty much came out swinging during the--during his campaign, and he's had, you know, every European parliamentarian's coming after him. Everybody is on Karzai's back.  And, and naturally, he's going to react.  This is the testosterone axis of the world, and you don't insult a leader in public and then expect  him to just sit back and take it.  So he's...

MR. GREGORY:  And, in fact, Karzai met with General McChrystal today, and Secretary Gates made a point of saying that that's the level of cooperation that's important and that exists.  I mean, this is our commander on the ground leading our forces...

MS. PARKER:  Right.

MR. GREGORY:  ...and you've got Karzai...(unintelligible).

MS. PARKER:  Well, it's hard on our troops as well.

MR. GREGORY:  Yeah.

MS. PARKER:  Let's just throw that in.  I mean, this happened in Vietnam. I heard from a, a Vietnam vet a couple days ago saying, you know, we--our morale was very badly hurt when we felt like we were fighting for a loser.  So if the United States is not supporting Karzai, then how do we expect our troops to feel enthusiastic about what their mission is?

MR. GREGORY:  Hm.

REP. FORD:  And clear articulation probably is needed, and I would expect the White House to get closer to that.  But let, but let, let's be, let's be clear.  The engagement issue is not a bad thing.  If you look at where we are with China, it is likely in the coming weeks, if not coming
months, we will get closer to market forces determining the the true value of their currency, which will have a direct and immediate impact on our economic stability and growth here in our country.  We can make the point that there's, again, on the Iranian front, we may not have all that we want, but President Sarkozy was here last week declaring his support for our positions for sanctions or positions for further steps.  And even president--he has made clear and the Chinese leaders made clear, that he's more open to these ideas.  Deputy Secretary of State Steinberg last week articulated again our support for China in a, in a one China policy, our support for them vs. Taiwan, not vs. Taiwan, but Taiwan and Tibet not having greater force and credibility in the United States government, or for that matter the Congress.  So I think, as much as I'd like to have the clear articulation, the reality is what would that be?  That we're
going to go to war?  That we're going to take steps beyond where we are today?  I think the way they're going about this may not be ideal, but I think we're making steady, steady progress.  It's...

MR. GREGORY:  I...

REP. FORD:  It's likely, David, they're going to have to be clearer to, to--there's so many Davids on this set here--Sanger, Brooks...

MR. GREGORY:  Yeah, right.

REP. FORD:  ...and Gregory here.

MR. GREGORY:  Well...

REP. FORD:  It's likely they'll have to clear.  But to suggest that this engagement thing is not working to some extent, I think, I, I think slights them somewhat.

MR. GREGORY:  Well, let me, let me go a little bit larger here and talk about presidential leadership and put it in, in the political context, because there is an opposition party, and the Republicans, and they're trying to figure out how to mount that opposition, as we are in an
election year.  And there was a gathering of Republicans that got a lot  of attention, the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.  And you heard two prominent Republican voices, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, talking about how, again, Republicans position themselves to  counter President Obama.  Let's watch that.

(Videotape, Thursday)

FMR. REP. NEWT GINGRICH (R-GA):  What the left wants to do is say we're the party of "no." ...  And so here's what I want to ask you to encourage every candidate you know, every incumbent you know, every staff person you know, every consultant you know, I think we should decide that we're going to be the party of "yes."

(End videotape)

(Videotape, Friday)

MS. SARAH PALIN:  There is no shame in being the party of no if they're proposing, the other side, proposing an idea that violates our values, violates our conscience, violates our Constitution.  What's wrong with being the party of no.  ...  Or better said by the good governor of this state, he said, "The party of `no'?  Nah, we're the party of `Hell, no!'"

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  David Brooks, assess the GOP right now in terms of mounting this challenge, figuring out where it's going to be in 2010 and 2012.

MR. BROOKS:  You're turning to the party of "maybe" over here.  So this is a bad move for you.  Listen, Palin is great TV.  She's really attractive. Gingrich is sort of great TV.  He's got a billion ideas, 600 of which are really good.  But the fact is the, the Republican Party is
not Palin and it's not Gingrich.  The Republican Party is Rob Portman, who's running for Senate in Ohio.  It's Mark Kirk, who's running for, for Senate in Illinois.  It's Governor Christie in New Jersey.  These are the people who are actually governing.  And I happen to feel we pay a
little too much attention to people like Palin, who's sort of a sub reality figure on some TV show.  But these are the people that are actually running, and they've actually got it figured out. They're against a lot of what Obama's doing, but they're the party of "yes." They've got a whole series of policies.  Paul Ryan from Wisconsin has--can wonk your ear off.  And so that's the real party.  Palin, the tea parties--listen, the tea party movement is a movement without a
structure, without an organization.  No, no party, no movement like that lasts.

MR. GREGORY:  Kathleen, about 20 seconds here.  Is, is President Obama a different figure for the Republicans to try to challenge after health care? Is he changed in some way?

MS. PARKER:  I don't think so.  I mean, I think he has presented himself as someone who is not afraid to fight.  And I think the Republicans now have recognized that they have a true foe in, in Barack Obama.  They're not going to be able to run over him, and he's formidable.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.  We'll leave it there.  Thank you all very much. We'll be right back.

(Announcements)

MR. DAVID GREGORY:  Before we go, a sad note.  Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Poland this morning as the bodies of the Polish president and his wife and other top officials who died in that terrible plane crash in Russia were returned home to Warsaw this  morning. President Obama issuing a statement yesterday saying it was a tremendous loss for Poland, the United States, and the world.

That is all for today.  We'll be back next week.  If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.

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