GOV. SCOTT WALKER (R-WI): It's not just about the budget now and into the future. It's not just about jobs or workers. This is ultimately about the future of our state.
MR. GREGORY: My guest, the man at the center of the storm, embattled Republican Governor Scott Walker.
Also, the future of the Middle East remains in doubt as Libya's brutal dictator cracks down on protesters.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: His actions violate international norms and every standard of common decency. This violence must stop.
MR. GREGORY: What's next? And has the administration done enough? Joining me this morning from the site of such unrest earlier this month, Cairo, Egypt, the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican John McCain.
Then, our political roundtable. What rising oil costs could mean to our own economy. Can Washington avoid a government shutdown over spending? And the rhetorical start to 2012: Leading Republicans exchanging blows and union activists mobilizing. With us, president of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka; Republican governor of Mississippi and former RNC Chairman, Haley Barbour; chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Missouri Congressman Emanuel Cleaver; host of MSNBC's "The Last Word," Lawrence O'Donnell; and editorial board member and columnist for The Wall Street Journal, Kim Strassel.
Announcer: From NBC News in Washington, MEET THE PRESS with David Gregory.
MR. GREGORY: Good morning. Protests grew in Madison, Wisconsin, Saturday after days of demonstrations there by pro-labor supporters. The standoff started two weeks ago after Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker proposed a budget-balancing bill that would severely limit the rights of most public workers to collectively bargain. The bill would also require them to pay for 12.6 percent of the total cost of their healthcare premiums, and contribute almost 6 percent of their pay toward their pension benefits. Walker's proposal is an attempt to close the $137 million deficit in this year's state budget, a shortfall that is projected to grow to $3.6 billion in the next two years. And here with us now from Madison, the man in the middle of all this, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
Governor, welcome to MEET THE PRESS.
GOV. WALKER: Good morning. Good to be with you, David.
MR. GREGORY: So that context is important because there's collective bargaining, which you'd like to limit, and there are those--the specific contributions that you asked the unions. They said they would do that, they would meet those demands. So the question that comes up again and again is, if you want to deal with the budget and the deficit, why not take yes for an answer?
GOV. WALKER: Well, because we've seen that actions speak louder than words. For us to balance the $3.6 billion deficit we have--but not only now, but to ensure we can continue to do that in the future so our kids don't inherit these same dire consequences--we've got to have assurances. And over the past two weeks, even after they made those promises, we've seen local union after local union rush to their school boards, their city councils, their technical school boards and rush through contracts in the past two weeks that had no contributions to the pension and no contribution to health care. And, in fact, in one case in Janesville, they actually were pushing through a pay increase. Actions do speak louder than words.
MR. GREGORY: But, Governor, you could have extended the bill--you could have extended the bill to those local government agencies. You chose not to.
GOV. WALKER: No, that's just the opposite. I was a local government official for eight years. This bill precisely helps local governments, and it's effective once it passes. In fact, we're, we're facing a $3.6 billion deficit. Like nearly every other state across the country, we're going to have to cut more than a billion dollars from our schools and local governments. You know, in New York and California, where there are Democrats for governors, they're doing that. The difference here is, with this budget repair bill, we give those schools and local governments more--almost a billion and a half dollars worth of savings. So the savings they get from our budget repair bill exceed the amount...
MR. GREGORY: But...
GOV. WALKER: ...that they're cut from the next state budget.
MR. GREGORY: All right, but let, let me be clear. If the unions, who, who it seems to me have been clear in saying that they would agree to those extra contributions, if they did that, and you say you're concerned about the budget shortfall, why not accept that?
GOV. WALKER: But what I--my point is they can't because they--the two people that suggested it are statewide union leaders. There are a thousand-plus municipalities, there's four--more than 424 school districts, there's 72 counties. I know--I used to be a county executive for eight years--I know that collective bargaining has to be done in every jurisdiction. They can't guarantee that. And the actions of those local unions over the past two weeks show that. If they were serious about it, they would have offered up contracts that, that paid something for health care and something more for pensions. But they're not. The, the reality is, even beyond the five and the 12, collective bargaining does have a cost. In Wisconsin, a great example of that is, we have, in many of our school districts, a requirement through collective bargaining contracts that they have to buy their health insurance from a company that's owned by our state teacher's union, WA Trust. Because of that, it costs them up to $68--$68 million more than if they could just buy it from the state employee healthcare plan. Those are real costs about putting real money in the classroom instead of into these collective bargaining agreements. And, for me, at the, at the county level...
MR. GREGORY: What's one--Governor, let me just stop you.
GOV. WALKER: ...I tried to avoid layoffs.
MR. GREGORY: But what, what's wrong with collective bargaining? Let's be clear. So unions organize public employees. They're able to bargain, not just about wages, but also about health benefits and pension benefits. What you're trying to do is say no, you can just collectively bargain when it comes to how much you make, but not those other benefits.
GOV. WALKER: Right.
MR. GREGORY: What's so wrong with that, collective bargaining?
GOV. WALKER: Well, our proposal is less restrictive than the federal government is today. Under Barack Obama, he presides over a federal government where most federal employees do not have collective bargaining for, for benefits, nor for pay. So what we're asking for is something less restrictive than what the federal government has. And, in fact, most federal employees...
MR. GREGORY: But I asked you a more specific question, which is what's wrong with collective bargaining?
GOV. WALKER: Well, for us it's, it's about the fact that, again, as a local official, I can tell you personally time and time again because of collective bargaining when we had tough budgets in the past, when I was at the county presiding as the CO there, I tried to do modest changes of pension, I tried to do modest changes in health care. In fact, one year I literally tried to do a 35-hour work week to try and avoid massive layoffs and furloughs, and the union said, "Forget it." Embodied, emboldened by the fact that they had collective bargaining agreements, they said, "Go ahead. Literally lay off 400 or 500 people." And to me, laying off people in this economy is just completely unacceptable.
MR. GREGORY: Let me, let me ask you about...
GOV. WALKER: If we do not get these changes and the Senate Democrats don't come back, we're going to be forced to make up the savings in layoffs. And that, to me, is just unacceptable.
MR. GREGORY: I don't mean to--we have a satellite delay here, it sometimes gets us to bump up against each other. But I want to focus on inconsistencies in some of your argument. You do have exemptions here. You've said, "We're going to pass this bill, but if you're a cop or a firefighter you don't have to make those extra contributions and you can still collectively bargain." You seem to be picking winners and losers. Cops and firefighters don't have to join this. Are they more important than a teacher who spends six hours a day with children in Wisconsin?
GOV. WALKER: No, this is not a value judgment about employees, but it is ultimately about preserving public safety. We saw two weeks ago, when this debate first started, teachers here in Madison walked off the job for three days. Now, that was an inconvenience for a lot of parents. I know I've got two public--kids in public school. Anytime you have a disturbance like that, it's an inconvenience. But that, contrasted to the fact that even if there was one jurisdiction across the state where firefighters or police officers weren't on the job in full force, I can't afford to have a fire or crime committed where there's a gap in service. And it ultimately just boils down to public safety.
MR. GREGORY: Well, but again, if you're talking about austerity, and you want to deal with this budget deficit, doesn't there have to be a sense of shared sacrifice, that everybody gets hurt?
GOV. WALKER: Well, there is. I'm a--well, I'm affecting my family about this, the legislature, my Cabinet--in fact, as elected officials, we'll pay a higher dollar amount, a higher percentage because of these changes, to show that we're that serious about it. Now, the, the statewide firefighters union president has come out and said they'd take the five and the 12. I would suggest to every mayor out there that they take them up on that. But in terms of making that change, I can't afford to have a gap when it comes to public safety. I think that's the one thing universally, Republican and Democrat alike, liberal or conservative, that people know that we cannot have a gap in, and that's why we made that change in the bill.
MR. GREGORY: You were the subject of a crank call, a liberal blogger who was trying to draw you into, to a conversation about all of this.
GOV. WALKER: Right.
MR. GREGORY: And, and you had a serious conversation, not knowing who you were talking to. And you talked about Ronald Reagan...
GOV. WALKER: Right.
MR. GREGORY: ...and him taking on the unions and the air traffic controllers. And you talked about putting this moment in some kind of context. This is part of what you said.
(Audiotape, February 23, 2011)
GOV. WALKER: In Wisconsin's history--little did I know how big it would be nationally--in Wisconsin's history I said, "This is our moment, this is our time to change the course of history."
MR. GREGORY: "Change the course of history." And this is where critics say, you know, this governor is really more of an ideologue than someone who wants to solve a serious problem. You're going farther than other Republicans who have taken on pension and healthcare costs to really go active--after collective bargaining. And by your own admission, you're saying, "Well, there's some areas where we just can't afford that level of austerity." But if you're serious about austerity, doesn't it have to be a situation where everybody gets affected?
GOV. WALKER: Well, in the end, the reason I made that comment, I do believe that this is our moment in Wisconsin's history. It's one of those where, for year after year after year, not just the last governor, but governors before, legislatures before, have kicked the can. They've taken one-time fixes to push the budget problems off into the future. We can't do that. We're broke. Like nearly every other state across the country, we're broke. And it's about time somebody stood up and told the truth in this state and said, "Here's our problem. Here's the solution," and acted on it. Because, if we don't, we fail to make a commitment to the future. Our children will face even more dire consequences than what we face today.
MR. GREGORY: But, Governor, if you, if you say you're broke...
GOV. WALKER: So I, I make no apology for the fact that this is an important moment in time.
MR. GREGORY: Governor, if you're really serious about the state being broke, you have a deal that you could take to get the contributions you need to solve the problem at hand. Why not separate that out from your views about collective bargaining?
GOV. WALKER: But, but, David, my point is repeatedly, as a former local government official, I know that collective bargaining has a cost, and when I'm cutting out more a billion dollars from aid to local governments in this next two-year budget, I need to do what no other governor's doing across the country. They're all cutting. All but a handful are cutting. The difference is where we want to be unique in Wisconsin is we have to give those local governments the tools. And it goes beyond the 5 and the 12 percent. And as I mentioned repeatedly, I don't think we can take that 5 and 12 percent to the bank...
MR. GREGORY: Are you needless dividing your state?
GOV. WALKER: ...because unions have shown us the last two weeks that, that they're not going to do it. No. I think, in the end, the best way for us to move forward is for those 14 state senators--the state assembly did their job, Democrats in the assembly stood up, made their argument, made their case, did what they were elected to do. The assembly passed it. It is now at a point where we want to move forward. It's real simple. Those 14 state senators need to come back and do what they were elected to do, come back here--they don't have to vote for it, they don't have to support it, but they need to come back and do their job. And when we do, I have every belief that--the first four, five weeks we're in office, we passed an aggressive agenda that showed that Wisconsin is open for business. Many of those same senate Democrats voted with me on those measures. We can get back to that if they just come back and do the job they were elected to do.
MR. GREGORY: And if they don't--if they don't, Governor, how does this end?
GOV. WALKER: Well, I'm an optimist. I'm an eternal optimist. As much as I understand there's passion and that's--you know, in America, that's great. We can have passion and be civil about it. But, in the end, I believe that those--at least some of those state senators will come back. If we fail to pass this bill by Tuesday, we lose $165 million worth of savings. If we continue down that path, we start seeing layoffs. I know that was one of the most difficult decisions I ever had to make when I was a county official was considering layoffs. I would go to almost any ends to avoid that. My hope is at least one of those 14 state senators feels the same way.
MR. GREGORY: Governor, final question here, I want to clarify something. In the course of this prank, this crank call that you got.
GOV. WALKER: Mm-hmm.
MR. GREGORY: It was suggested by someone who was a liberal blogger that you might think about planting troublemakers into the crowd. And you said quote, "We thought about that." Is that right? You really thought about trying to bust up physically these protests?
GOV. WALKER: No, we thought, as the call continues and I've said repeatedly, we, we rejected that. But we have people all the time who contact us for and against this bill, and you can imagine people with all sorts of ideas and suggestions, and we look at everything that's out there. But the bottom line is, we rejected that because we have had a civil discourse. We've had, you know, a week ago, 70,000 people, we had more than that yesterday, and yet we haven't had problems here. We haven't had disturbances. We've just had very passionate protesters for and against this bill, and that's OK. That's a very Midwestern thing. But we're not going to allow anybody to come in from outside of this state and try and disrupt this debate. They can inform it, but we're not going to allow them to disrupt this debate and take the focus off the real issue here. And the issue is, the people in Wisconsin, particularly those 14 state senators, need to come home and have the debate here in the state Capitol.
MR. GREGORY: All right. Governor Walker, we will leave it there. Thank you very much.
GOV. WALKER: Thank you, David.
MR. GREGORY: And we'll have much more on this debate coming up in our political roundtable where we will be joined by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.
But first, to discuss the other big story this week, the unrest in the Middle East and the violence in Libya by the regime of Moammar Gadhafi. We want to bring in the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John McCain, who has been traveling in the Middle East this week, including stops in Tunisia, Lebanon, and Jordan. And he joins us this morning from the very busy Cairo.
Senator McCain, welcome.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ): Thank you, David.
MR. GREGORY: I want to ask you first about Libya and events that are moving very quickly, including the U.S. response. The president has made it clear that he wants Gadhafi to go. His ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, speaking after a vote in the Security Council in favor of sanctions against Libya, imposing an arms embargo, urging member countries to freeze assets of the Gadhafi family. And this is what Ambassador Rice said during that debate.
DR. SUSAN RICE: When a leader's only means of staying in power is to use mass violence against his own people, he has lost the legitimacy to rule and needs to do what is right for his country by leaving now.
MR. GREGORY: Senator, the question is how is that achieved?
SEN. McCAIN: Well, first of all, I agree with that statement, but I'd also like to point out that we could impose and could have imposed a no-fly zone. They would've stopped flying if that had been imposed. They're using air power and helicopters to continue these massacres. We should recognize a provisional government somewhere in eastern Libya, perhaps Benghazi. We should make it clear that we will provide assistance to that provisional government. And finally, we should make it absolutely clear that anyone who continues or is in engaged in these kinds of barbarous acts are going to find themselves on trial in a war crimes tribunal. We've got to really get tough.
MR. GREGORY: And, and by get tough, if you talk about a no-fly zone, would you stop short there? I mean, you're, you're certainly raising the specter of some kind of military intervention on the part of the U.S. and its allies to stop Gadhafi to force him to go.
SEN. McCAIN: Well, I think that providing the so-called provisional government, and there will be one, with the equipment and material that they could use, the no-fly zone, I think would be a very strong signal. I'm not ready to use ground forces or further intervention than that. Look, Gadhafi's days are numbered. The question is, how many? And how many people are going to be massacred before he leaves one way or the other? I think those measures that I just mentioned could hasten his demise.
MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about Egypt. We have an image of you earlier in the day in Tahrir Square where there are still protesters. The critical question is building--the building blocks of a democratic government there. How is that going?
SEN. McCAIN: I think it's going along. We met with some of the young opposition leaders, these real heroes. I was in awe to be in their company about what needs to happen. There are still significant divisions, but I think they are headed in the right direction. I think there are questions about how soon to have an election, whether to have a presidential election before the parliamentary elections. But I believe that there's every good chance they can succeed.
MR. GREGORY: Senator McCain, you're in the region. We're watching what could be called an Arab spring, an historic movement. It's also a game-changing movement for the United States and our interests there. It's my understanding the president has ordered a complete review of Middle East strategy. I know that our defense leaders have also called for instant contingency planning. As you survey the area, how do we reassess both emergencies there and our interests there?
SEN. McCAIN: Well, first of all, I'm not sure that this winds of change are going to be confined to blowing just in the Arab world and the Maghreb. I think it's going to be all over the world, to wit what's happening in China and in other countries around the world. Second of all, the return to our fundamentals. And that is that all of us are endowed with certain inalienable rights. Respect democracy, further it. Recognize that the longer there's a dictatorship, the bigger the explosion is going to be once that people become dissatisfied enough. Recognize that, that we have to assist these countries, and it is in our national interest to do so. And the economy is a vital and the most important permanent part of any successful transition to democracy and freedom. And, frankly, we should've done more in the past. I think we should all admit that.
MR. GREGORY: But what about contingency planning? Are there contingencies that may arise now that are particularly worrisome to you?
SEN. McCAIN: I think it's not clear where this revolution goes in, in all of these countries, and every country is very different from each other. I think we should understand that Iran can take advantage of this unsettling situations in these countries. We should be standing up for democracy in Iran. We should be backing their protesters with our moral support, which we didn't in 2009.
MR. GREGORY: I want to ask to get your reaction about something that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said this week about U.S. intervention into the Middle East and into Asia. This is what he said at West Point on Friday.
MR. ROBERT GATES: In my opinion, any future Defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa, should have his head examined, as General McArthur so delicately put it.
MR. GREGORY: How do you respond to that, Senator?
SEN. McCAIN: I have the highest regard for Secretary Gates. I think he's one of the finest secretaries of Defense in the history of our country and a great patriot. I think there are times, however, and I'm sure he would say this, where it does require U.S. military intervention. Afghanistan was the genesis of 9/11, as you know. We had to stamp out the situation--get the situation there under control so that it would not continue to be a base for attacks on the United States and our allies. But I also understand the implications of the needs of a new kind of warfare to counter this radical Islamic extremism wherever it rears its head, particularly in those continents that he referred to.
MR. GREGORY: Finally, Senator McCain, I just wanted to get your reaction to something that came out of Rolling Stone magazine that I'm sure you're aware of this week. Here was a picture with you in Kabul with Lieutenant General William Caldwell, and this is the piece by Rolling Stone featuring him. It says this: "The U.S. Army illegally ordered a team of soldiers specializing in psychological operations to manipulate visiting American senators into providing more troops and funding for the war, Rolling Stone has learned. And when an officer tried to stop the operation, he was railroaded by military investigators."
As you know, General Petraeus is now investigating this. What happened?
SEN. McCAIN: Well, you know, that's been tried on me in the past, David. I don't know what's happened. I do know that the--General Caldwell is a great leader and has done a great job in leading the Afghan army. I also know that these briefers are briefed, "You know, Senator X is interested in the following: A, B, C, D and E." And, and that, and that I think is perfectly legitimate.
Now, if it went any further than that, I don't know. General Petraeus will make a full investigation. General Caldwell has steadfastly denied it, but I don't see how it could have affected my positions in any way. And so we'll see what happens. But I've, I'm--put me down as skeptical.
MR. GREGORY: Senator McCain, we will leave it there. Thank you very much and safe travels.
And coming up next, as a government shutdown looms, budget battles front and center in the Capitol and in statehouses across the country. Ground zero for it all this week? Wisconsin. What is at stake there? What will it mean for the rights of workers? And how will it all impact the 2012 race for the White House. Our political roundtable weighs in. We'll be joined by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka; Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour; the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Emanuel Cleaver; MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell; and The Wall Street Journal's Kim Strassel.
MR. GREGORY: Coming up, what will the budget battles taking place across the country mean for the race for the White House in 2012. Our roundtable weighs in. It's up next after this brief commercial break.
MR. GREGORY: We are back now with our political roundtable. The president of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka; the Republican governor of Mississippi, former RNC chairman, Haley Barbour; chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Missouri congressman, Democrat Emanuel Cleaver; editorial board member and columnist for The Wall Street Journal, Kim Strassel; and the host of MSNBC's "The Last Word," Lawrence O'Donnell, who spent a long time on Capitol Hill in the early '90s, including several years as the chief of staff to the Senate finance committee, so he's seen some of these fights before. Welcome to all of you.
Mr. Trumka, welcome to the program. You heard Governor Walker. This is an important moment for unions, and as he says it, for taxpayers. How do you respond to what he says?
MR. RICHARD TRUMKA: Well, first of all, this isn't about the budget crisis. Let's look at how this--his arguments migrated. First he said it was--the budget crisis was caused because workers were paid too much in Wisconsin. We now have studies that show they're not overpaid, they're underpaid. In fact, people with a degree in Wisconsin get 25 percent less than their private sector things. Then he said it was about the pension. Now we find out that his pension plan, unlike a lot in the country, is almost fully funded. The assets match the liabilities. And then the employees said, or the members out there said, his workers said, "We'll accept your cuts." And he said, "No. We won't accept your accepting our cuts." And the most outrageous thing that he did, and he talked about this, was he's now saying to them, "You either have to accept a loss of your rights or I'm going to lay you off." Now, no person should have to face the right of their loss of their job or the loss of their rights. I know Governor Barbour would never say to his employees, his people down there, "You either have to give up your rights or you have to give up your job."
MR. GREGORY: Let me, let me follow up on one point. A lot of people who are following this may be confused but certainly have questions about the role of public sector unions. And there does something that seem, seem to be distorted. You raise a lot of money from public employees. That goes, goes to finance campaigns to try to get somebody in office that you can do business with. And ultimately you're supporting someone, in some cases, that you're ultimately negotiating with. They also know that political employees, rather public employees are politically active because they're organized by the unions. And so they make concessions on things like pensions, on health care, knowing that the promises don't come due to well down the road. Isn't this the cycle that we've gotten into that public unions have to take some responsibility for?
MR. TRUMKA: Well, public employees do take responsibility for it. And those governors that are willing to sit down and work with their employees can actually work out problems. They--we can solve them. But that's not what Governor Walker is doing. He's saying, "I won't talk to you. I'll talk to all my, my big contributors." He talked to the Koch brothers, he thought. "But I won't talk to employees."
Look, the five countries--or the five states in this country that prohibit collective bargaining by state employees have a collective debt right now of $220 billion. This isn't about employees. This is about the economy.
MR. GREGORY: So...
MR. TRUMKA: What we need to do is create jobs, and that's what we should be doing.
MR. GREGORY: All right. And we'll get to that.
MR. TRUMKA: Working together.
MR. GREGORY: Governor, Governor Barbour, this is the question that I posed at the beginning of the program. Is this, is this an ideologue? Is this just about ideology? Is it about union busting? Or is it about really getting serious about shared sacrifice?
GOV. HALEY BARBOUR (R-MS): Well, it's about budgets. It is about the fact that Wisconsin, like many states, is broke. And the idea is, "OK, let's make a very narrow agreement over wages and, and--for one year is going to solve the problem." Governor Walker understands, as every governor understands, it is not enough just to kick the can down the road to next year because these problems snowball. They cascade. And that's why it's critical to get ahold of this. For most states the, well, the pay...
MR. GREGORY: But he--but his argument is that the unions are so unreasonable, they won't ultimately make concessions. They've made the concession.
GOV. BARBOUR: For a year.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
GOV. BARBOUR: That's the whole problem. They've got to change the system. About half the states in the country don't allow or limited--limit collective bargaining. The federal government doesn't have collective bargaining for wages, for health benefits. I mean, this--people act like this is some right, you know, that these are collective bargaining rights. There's no right to this under the Constitution.
MR. GREGORY: Lawrence O'Donnell, how do you read this?
MR. LAWRENCE O'DONNELL: Well, you know, one of the things I was struck by in your interview with the governor is, just to go back to a point, is that he said that he rejected, rejected the idea of sending in troublemakers to the demonstrations. That means the idea was discussed. That means someone in the governor's office said, "How about we send some people in there to cause physical trouble in these demonstrations?" And this governor thought about it, discussed it, rejected it. OK, he rejected it. But to say he rejected it and think, "Well, that's the end of it, that's a noncontroversial moment," it's quite shocking to think that there was a governor thinking about that.
GOV. BARBOUR: Well, Larry, you added the word physical. Nobody ever--you could talk about should you send people out there to talk to the employees?
MR. O'DONNELL: OK, let's, let's just--OK, I'll, I'll retract that. Let's just say troublemakers. This--it's, it's shocking to think the governor, among the things they were discussing was, "Should we send in troublemakers?" How long did you--would you have to discuss that?
MR. GREGORY: Let met bring in Congressman Cleaver. I mean, you were on this program last month after the shooting of Gabby Giffords. We talked about tone. We talked about inappropriate public discourse. And I want to show you some of the placards that have been used by demonstrators, pro-union supporters out there. They have cast the governor--this one here, "One dictator to go, one dictator down," talking about Hosni Mubarak. He has been compared to Hitler. We spent time on this program talking about the nonsense about Obama being a Muslim or not being born in America and asking Republicans if they reject that. Should that kind of discourse be rejected in this fight?
REP. EMANUEL CLEAVER (D-MO): Absolutely. It's inappropriate. It should be condemned, not only by people close to the governor, but by those of us who are observers. I think that's something that we've got to squash in, in this country. We've come to a, a, a, a point in this government discussion where, you know, one side says, "Anything goes to get my point across." And I, I think it would be certainly something that I would condemn. But, but, but it goes even further than that. We're not even involved in trying to solve the problems. One side proposes, the other side opposes. That's why we're not making progress. The--you know, the, the governor is saying here, you know, you know, "You come back, let's, let's prevent me laying off employees." If you--when, when the lion and the lamb lie down, if you look closely, when the lion gets up the lamb is missing. When the governor says, "Come back home," he's not saying, "Let's negotiate." He's saying, "Come back home so I can do what I want to do to the unions."
MR. GREGORY: Kim Strassel, I want, I want to bring you in on this. And the president said this was an assault on unions.
MS. KIM STRASSEL: Mm-hmm.
MR. GREGORY: He's then gone quiet. Back in 2007 on the campaign trail, this is what he said, if this were to ever come to pass.
(Videotape, November 3, 2007)
PRES. OBAMA: And understand this. If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I'm in the White House, I'll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself, I'll walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States of America. Because workers deserve to know that somebody's standing in their corner.
MR. GREGORY: So here he said it was an assault on unions. In the past he said, "I'll be out there walking with you." He's now gone silent. Meantime, he's trying to move to the center politically and try to create jobs. He's put himself in a difficult political situation here.
MS. STRASSEL: Well, as the governor says, he needs to have a pair of shoes on picketing around Washington, D.C., because federal workers are not allowed any of these collectively bargaining rights that he's talking about there.
Look, one of the problems here is that I think the problem for Democrats and unions in this is that it's not necessarily a winning issue here. What's going on in the states is a microcosm of the federal debate, and that is about fiscal responsibility right now. What these governors are saying--and it's Chris Christie in New Jersey, it's Scott Walker in Wisconsin, it's John Kasich in Ohio...
MR. GREGORY: But they're not going as far on collective bargaining, not in New Jersey, not in Indiana.
MS. STRASSEL: Right. But we're talking about the bigger issue about budgets...
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MS. STRASSEL: ...and how you deal with budgets. You even have Democrats like Andrew Cuomo in New York saying, "When we look at these budgets, huge ballooning areas of these budgets are due to public sector union benefits, and we cannot touch them because of collective bargaining, because of these things. We need the flexibilities and tools to fix this." And so that's a, that's an argument that resonates with Americans. People are talking about trying to cast this as the middle--an assault on the middle class. It was middle-class taxpayers who elected these guys.
MR. GREGORY: Well, Richard Trumka...
MS. STRASSEL: They campaigned on it. They elected them, they put them in office to do this.
MR. GREGORY: ...is, is, is President Obama doing enough? Is he satisfying you?
MR. TRUMKA: Look, it's important for the president--for middle class voters to know that the president is on their side.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. TRUMKA: But this isn't about President Obama.
MR. GREGORY: No, but I'm asking you whether he's doing enough.
MR. TRUMKA: This is about a governor--wait.
MR. GREGORY: You heard what he said in 2007.
MR. TRUMKA: This is about a governor...
MR. GREGORY: He'd be out there with you. He's not out there with you.
MR. TRUMKA: David, this is about a governor who's taken on nurses and EMTs...
MR. GREGORY: Mr. Trumka, but answer the question. I asked a very specific question. The president, in 2007 as a candidate, said, "If this ever happened, I'd be with you." Do you think he's with you?
MR. TRUMKA: I think, I think he's doing it the right way. He's not taking on workers like Scott Walker is...
MR. GREGORY: Hm.
MR. TRUMKA: ...and trying to take away their ability to come together and negotiate a middle class way of life. He stands for that. He's doing that.
MR. GREGORY: Could he be doing more?
MR. TRUMKA: He could--everybody could be doing more.
MR. GREGORY: Well, that's--but in this particular case.
I mean, Lawrence, I want to go back to the politics here. It is very difficult for a president who wants to move to the center to, before the cannon--you know, after it fired initially he said it's an assault on unions, then he's gone quiet. And now he's, he's, he's got unhappiness on the left and on the right, and he just wants to be more of a centrist guy right now.
MR. O'DONNELL: It would be interesting to see what his choice would be if he was in a second term.
MR. GREGORY: Hm.
MR. O'DONNELL: This is someone who won Wisconsin. He has to win Wisconsin again. There is chaos there right now. Politically, he doesn't know how this is going to play three months from now. If a large majority or significant majority of Wisconsin likes the outcome, whatever it is, a few months from now, that's where the president wants to be going into his re-election there.
MR. GREGORY: And, you know, talking about...
MR. O'DONNELL: So that's why he's staying out of it.
MR. GREGORY: Well, and I want to talk about the politics some more. Howard Fineman, in The Huffington Post, had an analysis about this and how, in many ways, this is about the GOP's attempts to win more governor seats around the country. He talks about it, "The Real Political Math in Wisconsin. What happened?" Why did Republicans only get 12 this last go-round? "Well, according to GOP strategists and Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi - who chaired the [RGA] in 2010 - the power and money of public-employee unions was the reason. ...
"The GOP strategic aim is simple enough. If they can abolish union collective-bargaining rights, they can undermine the automatic payment of dues to the public-employee union treasuries. Shrinking those treasuries and reducing the union structure and membership will make it harder for Democrats ... to communicate directly with workers."
MR. TRUMKA: There it is.
GOV. BARBOUR: Now, that's what Howard said.
MR. GREGORY: Right, that's...(unintelligible).
GOV. BARBOUR: That's what Howard said.
MR. GREGORY: No, no, but...
GOV. BARBOUR: That's what Howard said.
MR. TRUMKA: Do you disagree with him?
GOV. BARBOUR: Look, this is about--this is a state issue in a state where they've got serious budget problems because payroll pensions are such a huge part of the budget you got to deal with it, and you can't deal with it for one year. I have some...
MR. GREGORY: This is a national movement, I thought. I thought it was a national movement. OK.
GOV. BARBOUR: Let's talk about--you asked about the president.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
GOV. BARBOUR: The president is one of the greatest politicians in the history of the United States, and he--and he's quiet because he understands that most Americans know this has to be done.
MR. GREGORY: Congressman, where--hold on, let me get Congressman...
REP. CLEAVER: Let's sue him for breach of promise and move on. I mean, let's--you know, the reality is that the, the, the president needs to be in Washington dealing with a plethora of issues around the world, not the least of which is Libya.
But I want to go back to something that, that you said actually twice, Governor, and, and that is you said, you know, this is--would be a one-year agreement. The governor was just elected. He'll still be governor in a year. And, you know, the, the, the agreements that we have were not made by Gadhafi. They were made by people who sat down in a room and worked out a, worked out an agreement. And I think labor unions are saying, and, and public sector employees are saying, "OK, you know, maybe things have gotten out of balance. We'll, we'll, we'll reduce some things." The governor is saying, "I don't care." You know, "I want to crush the union."
MR. GREGORY: I want to, I want to get to a break. Richard Trumka, I want to ask you one thing, again, about the tone of the debate. You're one of the leading labor voices in the country. Do you condemn the hyperbole, the overstatements, comparisons to Hitler and dictators? Do you think that's wrong on the part of pro-union supporters?
MR. TRUMKA: We want to--I--look, we ought to--pro, anti-union, it doesn't matter.
MR. GREGORY: It's inappropriate.
MR. TRUMKA: We should be sitting down trying to create jobs. When--and look, if you think that the argument that you're doing in Wisconsin is winning, as you said, Kim, the polls show that every--Wisconsin, vast majority of the people think this governor has overreached. His popularity has gone down. They're saying to him, "Sit down and negotiate. Don't do what you've been doing." So he's losing. If that's the argument you're going to do this year or next year, it's a loser for, for anybody who advocates it.
MR. O'DONNELL: And I don't know why you fear democracy so much. You're saying that this is a temporary agreement. It's a, it's a result of democracy in Wisconsin. Republicans won Wisconsin, and, and the, and Republicans ran on this. And now they're doing this. If the idea remains popular, and if it has democratic support in Wisconsin, meaning support of the democracy of Wisconsin, why would you worry about leaving this agreement out there so that it--and allowing collective bargaining so that the--Wisconsin can democratically express itself in the future as being in favor or opposed to more or less government spending on workers?
GOV. BARBOUR: Well, Larry, it, it is precisely because I do believe in democracy. We had an election in 2010, and Wisconsin voted for a Republican governor, a Republican senator, two Republican Houses of the legislature, and they have determined this is the best way to go forward to get the budget of that state, in effect, which they were elected to do. Look at Indiana. In Indiana this was done six years ago by the governor. It has been very popular. Nobody put Mitch Daniels' picture with a, with a crosshair over his face like they're doing in Wisconsin. You know, if Sarah Palin, did that, you know...
MS. STRASSEL: Well...
GOV. BARBOUR: ...it would be the world coming to an end.
MR. GREGORY: All right, quick--Kim, quick point, and then I want to get to a break.
MS. STRASSEL: Well, actually, in fairness, I mean, Governor Daniels was--did get some blow-back when he did this six years ago.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MS. STRASSEL: And his approval ratings did go down, but the problem--the question is, what happens in the end? People want to see balanced budgets. And what's interesting is, Governor Daniels is one of the few states, because he ended up with that flexibility in his budget to negotiate, he's had--been in the black for the past five or six years, even when other states have not.
MR. GREGORY: All right. Let me get a break in here. I want to talk a little bit about the budget woes here in Washington, as well as what's going on in the Middle East, right after this.
MR. GREGORY: We are back with our roundtable.
Congressman Cleaver, I want to talk about the president's budget and the spending showdown here in Washington. We're actually not talking a great deal about the budget yet because there's this prospect of a government shutdown because Republicans, Democrats can't seem eye to--see eye to eye on spending for just the rest of this fiscal year. This is a statement that you put out about the president's budget. And I'll put it up on the screen.
"Rebuilding our economy," you wrote, "on the backs of the most vulnerable Americans is something I simply cannot accept. ...
"I understand that now is the time for us as a nation to sacrifice in order to protect our children from a certain amount of debt; however, I'm struggling to understand how this budget helps us best to achieve this critical goal. Cutting funding to programs that assist hardworking Americans, help families heat their homes, and expand access to graduate-level education seems to conflict with the notion of winning the future. We cannot win the future by leaving our most vulnerable behind."
Do we have the balance wrong as we approach spending this year and look ahead to the president's budget?
REP. CLEAVER: Absolutely. Let me, let me preface my comment on that by, by just saying, you know, disagreement does not equal disassociation or disaffection. And disagreement among friends is the insignia of a healthy relationship. We've, we've got to disagree with the president when we think that he's moving in a direction that's disturbing. But, at the same time, I do think that real cuts needs to be made. But, but let's keep in, in mind, you know, I think we're dangerously cutting. Ben Bernanke has warned Congress in, in a hearing that cavernous cuts could hurt what is a rickety recovery. And Goldman Sachs, in, in, in an analysis released last week, said that even if the proposed cuts are reduced to 25 billion for the first year and 50 billion for next year that it would still create a, a 1 percent cut in economic growth of the GDP.
MR. GREGORY: But, but, Lawrence, there is a stop-gap measure that looks like it'll head off a shutdown. But then the president's still going to have to engage on the fact that Republicans, Democrats are far apart on these huge cuts Republicans want for this year.
MR. O'DONNELL: They are. It looks like they're going to avoid this Friday's possible shutdown and, and have a two week extension. They seem to have agreed on that by John Boehner basically taking the cuts the president has identified in the future and saying, "Let's start doing them now." That, that's the cut package that they will include in their ongoing resolution. But the problem with this dialogue is, it all begins after our failure on recognizing what the top tax rate burdens should really be. And, and keeping them down has created this much more serious deficit situation going forward. We've been ignoring for years the reality of what has happened in the super rich level of income in this country. We should have several higher top tax brackets. It shouldn't stop at a couple of hundred thousand dollars. We have incomes, we have short-stops making $15 million who are paying the same tax rate as, you know, two UCLA married professors. This is outrageous. We have people on Wall Street in deals making $300 million in a day and they pay that same top tax rate as people making a couple of hundred thousand dollars. And so we're ignoring this massive revenue possibility in the high end of incomes in this country.
MR. GREGORY: And as this debate goes on, Kim, you can respond to that, but I also want to talk about another threat to the economy that is coming from the events that we're talking about in the Middle East. I thought this cartoon by Jim Margulies captured it, a syndicated cartoonist. "The price of liberty," he says in the cartoon, "is $5.00 a gallon." And we're talking about Libya, only 2 percent of the oil market, but very important in Europe.
MS. STRASSEL: Mm-hmm.
MR. GREGORY: And it's the speculation that causes folks to pay more for gas here. How does this imperil this economy?
MS. STRASSEL: No, that, that is the real problem, is speculation, at the moment. As you said, Libya is 3 percent of the oil market and you've already had the Saudis come out and say we can replace the oil that's not coming out of Libya. What you're seeing here is, is traders worried that this Arab revolt is going to spread to places like Saudi and they are building in some of that worry into the price. That's why you've seen the spike. This acts as a tax on the economy. You know, every time we--I think we import 7.5--or we use 7.5 billion barrels of oil a year, every time $10 a barrel price hike, that's a huge new tax on the economy. Now, some of this, by the way, I should point out, isn't just Libya and speculation. We're also seeing in here part of Ben Bernanke's quantitative easing and inflation working its way into oil prices as well.
GOV. BARBOUR: We're also...
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
GOV. BARBOUR: We're also seeing, David, the administration's energy policy, which is driving down American oil production. I mean, the shutting down of the Gulf of Mexico, taking lands in Alaska off, the, the issues that they are raising. America's going to produce about 13 percent more domestic petroleum this year. Now, how is that in our interest at a time like this or at any other time?
MR. GREGORY: You, you talk about that in terms of energy policy as someone who may run for president. And we'll talk more about politics after the break. As you look at the Middle East, what concerns you about U.S. posture toward that region?
GOV. BARBOUR: Well, look, I'm one of these guys who believes, as Senator Vandenberg used to say, that in politics, it should stop at the water's edge when it comes to foreign policy. I'm not going to be critical of the administration, but I do think on their domestic energy policy, it is greatly compounding this problem. We're blowing past $3 a gallon, on our way to $4 a gallon, maybe Jim Margulies is right. Four dollar gasoline brought my state and a lot of places to their knees in 2008 before there ever was a meltdown on Wall Street.
MR. GREGORY: All right. Let me, let me get another break in here. We'll come back, talk politics for 2012 and what Wisconsin means for that and a couple of other topics, when we come back with our roundtable right after this.
MR. GREGORY: We're back with our final moments with our roundtable. Everything has political implications. Let's talk about the politics. The news this week for 2012, Senator Thune has decided that he will not run for president, John Thune, from South Dakota. And you look at the Gallup Poll and here's the list, this crowded field. Huckabee and Romney look to be at the top. And there's Governor Barbour at 3 percent. And, Governor, as you look at this, and this--the field continues to be unsettled, how will you make the calculation about whether you'll run.
GOV. BARBOUR: I didn't know my family was that big, 3 percent. It's a, it's a very critical decision. It's a family decision in many ways. In fact, in most ways. But I'm not going to make a decision until April. I'm going to finish my legislature, get my job done, get my budget passed.
MR. GREGORY: But how do you decide--but how to make that calculation based on what you're seeing?
GOV. BARBOUR: Well...
MR. GREGORY: Because there seems to be a lot of late entries here.
GOV. BARBOUR: Whether or not anybody else runs is irrelevant to my decision. I'm going to make the decision based on things that I think. And I don't want to take everybody else's time going through all the things that I would have to think...
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
GOV. BARBOUR: ...that I am thinking about.
MR. GREGORY: Richard Trumka, how do you assess that Republican field right now, who you'll be organizing against?
MR. TRUMKA: Well, they'll be a lot of them, probably.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. TRUMKA: But...
MR. GREGORY: Is there a front-runner?
MR. TRUMKA: I, we'll...
MR. GREGORY: Do you, who's most formidable in your mind?
MR. TRUMKA: I don't know. I wouldn't go there. I wouldn't go there on either side, the Democrats or Republicans. That's a debate that needs to take place. But, you know, Governor Walker what he's done and people like him, governors like him, they've energized the working class voters. And that momentum that we've picked up, the demonstrations that you're seeing in Madison isn't just in Madison. They're around the country. And that momentum is going to continue on.
And, Haley, I hope you don't stake your whole campaign on taking away the right of workers to be able to earn a middle class income, because I don't think that's a winner for you at this time.
GOV. BARBOUR: Well, I want to stake my campaign on the right of taxpayers to be able to pay so that the state employees can keep their jobs and don't have to be laid off.
MR. GREGORY: Let, let, let me ask you...
MR. TRUMKA: Those state, those state, those state workers are taxpayers.
MR. GREGORY: Let me ask about, about, about health care, Lawrence O'Donnell. As Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, who has taken on Mitt Romney, this is what he said in the Associated, Associated Press, as they covered it. "Huckabee said Wednesday that potential White House rival Romney should offer an apologize for healthcare overhaul that he oversaw as Massachusetts governor." Quoting him, "I think it's not a killer for him, but he has to say either 'I love it,' `I hate it,' or, `Hey, I tried it, it didn't work and that's why I should say to you let's not do it nationally.'" He goes on, "He's got to figure out how he wants to deal with it. It's the 800-pound elephant in the room for him." Now, Romney has stood by it, but said it's something that the states should work out.
MR. O'DONNELL: Well, Huckabee is right in identifying this is what's wrong with the Romney candidacy. And, in fact, you can go down through the list and do that with pretty much every one of the possible Republican candidates, with the exception of Tim Pawlenty, who I think is the one who is going to start moving ahead because he has no serious negative. You have thoughtful Republicans starting to support him. The ideal candidate is a Midwesterner, and that usually is true for both parties because that's where the battleground states are. With Thune dropping out, Pawlenty becomes more important in the field. But Romney has the same--this is identical, virtually identical politically to the problem Hillary Clinton had going into that primary field, where she had to disown or own the vote in support of the Iraq war. This is much more serious. The, the, what, what Romney did on health care is much more difficult thing to overcome in the primaries. I don't think he can.
MS. STRASSEL: I think that's not, not alone. I actually, that's not the only issue. And I actually agree with Richard here that what is happening in Wisconsin is going to have very big implications for the, the primaries on both sides, and in particular in this case, because the other 800-pound gorilla in the room, besides health care, is fiscal responsibility.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MS. STRASSEL: You see the president entirely focused on it at the moment. And this is going to play into Republican governors...
MR. GREGORY: And, Congressman...
MS. STRASSEL: ...in particular who are running and their record in the states.
MR. GREGORY: ...are, are Republicans running circles around Democrats and the president on the issue of fiscal responsibility, from the states to cutting in Washington? Is that how you view it?
REP. CLEAVER: No, absolutely not. The--what, what the Republicans are mistakenly doing is pushing cuts that will hurt the very people who voted for them. And when people realize what is happening to them and their families, there will be, I think, a great deal of buyers regret, and we'll look up and see that President Obama is surging again. To, to beat somebody, you got to run somebody. This is the only person that I'm endorsing to run against Barack Obama at the moment.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah. Really? You'd endorse Governor Barbour.
REP. CLEAVER: To run against Barack Obama.
MR. GREGORY: To run against him, OK.
REP. CLEAVER: You know, David...
MR. GREGORY: We're going to, we're going to have to leave it there. We're out of time. Thanks to all of you.
I just wanted to make sure I didn't miss an endorsement there.
Before we go, a quick programming note. You can watch the rebroadcast of today's program this afternoon on MSNBC at 2 PM Eastern, followed by a re-airing of Chris Matthew's special "President of the World: The Bill Clinton Phenomenon." That's at 3 PM Eastern time.
That is all for today. We will be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.