MR. DAVID GREGORY: This Sunday, the showdown in Washington over taxes and spending.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): A tax hike cannot pass the U.S. House of Representatives. It's not just a bad idea, it doesn't have the votes and it can't happen.
MR. GREGORY: Budget talks break down as the president now steps up his involvement. Can a deal be reached to raise the debt ceiling, or will America fail to pay the bills? This morning, a view from outside Washington, the GOP's rising star, governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, who just this week took a major step toward closing his state's budget deficit.
Then, Obama's wars. The president announces a timetable to end the troop surge in Afghanistan.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: The tide of war is receding.
MR. GREGORY: Some Democrats say the withdrawal isn't fast enough.
SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D-WV): We can no longer afford to rebuild Afghanistan and America. We must choose. And I choose America.
MR. GREGORY: The debate inside the Democratic Party this morning, plus mixed messages from the House on the military campaign against Libya. With us, two prominent members of the Senate Armed Services Committee: Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Senator Jim Webb of Virginia.
Finally, our political roundtable weighs in on 2012 politics. Jon Huntsman makes it official, Michele Bachmann announces tomorrow, and the president taps the oil reserves to drive down gas prices for the summer. With us: The BBC's Katty Kay, chief political writer for The New York Times Magazine Matt Bai, and columnist for The New York Times David Brooks.
Announcer: From NBC News in Washington, MEET THE PRESS with David Gregory.
MR. GREGORY: Good morning. As high-level talks over raising the nation's debt limit stalled last week, the president himself steps directly into the negotiations with top Republican leaders, Senator Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, in a White House now set for tomorrow. A new poll out this weekend by the Associated Press shows a deeply divided American public: 41 percent opposed to raising the debt limit, 38 percent in favor.
Yesterday I sat down with New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christie, who is coming off a big budget victory this week in his home state. Late Thursday night, the Democratic-controlled New Jersey State Assembly passed landmark cost-cutting legislation to close the massive budget gap due to the state's pension and health benefit obligations to public employees. The victory came after months of a tense budget back and forth, and capped off a dramatic day in which union protesters gathered outside the Capitol to protest the legislation. The new plan will increase the amount public employees pay for their healthcare and pension plans, and end the ability for unions to collectively bargain for their medical benefits. It will also cut off automatic cost of living increases by giving authority over those adjustments to an independent board. In total, it is expected that the deal will save the state of New Jersey more than $120 billion over the next 30 years. Governor Christie is expected to sign the bill now Tuesday, and it's said that the approach in New Jersey should be a national model.
Governor Christie, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.
GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R-NJ): Happy to be here.
MR. GREGORY: I want to talk more about the pension victory in just a minute. But what you're dealing with in New Jersey is obviously the big battle here in Washington too. That is the debt, that is closing the budget deficit. And we have an impasse here in Washington. Now the president's going to have to step up his involvement. The battle, of course, between spending and taxes. What's the way out of this mess here?
GOV. CHRISTIE: The first thing is that the president had to get involved personally. And what I found in New Jersey, in our experience in dealing with what you just talked about, was there is no substitute for the three leaders in the room having to look at each other and having to hash this out. And everybody's got to put skin in the game, David. I mean, I gave on things that I wanted. Obviously, the Senate--Democratic Senate president in my state, and the Democratic speaker gave on things they wanted, and we came to a compromise that didn't violate our principles. And that's the key. You can't ask people to violate their principles. And so there has to be a way to find principled outcome where people are also compromising. And what the specifics of that's going to be are going to be up to the president, the speaker and Senator Reid. But they need to get in the room and finish this off.
MR. GREGORY: The president himself has a certain leadership style. You said yours is different.
GOV. CHRISTIE: Yeah, I said that.
MR. GREGORY: How so? And where do you think the president has gone wrong, particularly in this fight over the debt and the deficit?
GOV. CHRISTIE: Well, listen, here's what I did in New Jersey. I put out this pension and benefit plan first in September, and I did 30 town hall meetings across my state selling the plan, increasing the public pressure on the legislature that something needed to be done, and convincing the public that my approach was a reasonable one. Now, I compromised off my approach. But I think if you're the executive, you've got to be the guy who's out there pushing and leading. You can't lay back and wait for somebody else to do it. And I think if the president's made a mistake here, it's this laid-back kind of approach where he's waiting for someone else to solve the problem. Some people say it's a political strategy. No matter what it is, it's not effective in solving problems. I think what we did in New Jersey proves that's the effective way to do it. The executive needs to lead and then bring people to the table to forge compromise.
MR. GREGORY: Do tax increases of some stripe have to be on the table in these national budget talks, whether they're revenue increases that don't come from changing tax rates, but some other way to increase revenue at the same time that you're cutting spending back?
GOV. CHRISTIE: You know, I don't know, David, but I'll tell you this, those guys sitting around that table are the ones who are in the best position to make those decisions. They're the ones who've studied the federal budget and what's going forward here, and they're the ones who're going to have to decide what the elements have to be. But I will tell you that I get a sense in New Jersey, at least from our perspective, that our state is extraordinarily overtaxed. We're the most overtaxed state in America by all the calculations. And so I know there's not an appetite in my state for increased taxes because people think government spends too much in our state.
MR. GREGORY: You hear a lot of national Republicans and tea party Republicans, like Senator DeMint of South Carolina, he said this week, "Look, there's got to be a balanced budget amendment if we're going to ultimately raise the debt ceiling," which is what is at issue here in the debt talks, raising that debt ceiling so America doesn't default and can't pay its bills any longer. And without that, there'd be extreme political peril for Republicans, he warned. This is what he said to ABC this week.
SEN. JIM DeMINT (R-SC): I think based on what I can see around the country, not only are those individuals gone, but I suspect the Republican Party would be set back many years.
MR. GREGORY: He's saying if they don't vote for it, Republicans could be voted out of office and the Republican Party could really be set back. Is the tea party going too far? Is there too much of a purity test here?
GOV. CHRISTIE: Well, I don't think there should be purity tests on people. I think we have to make commonsense judgments on things. However, as I said before, we got to stand by our principles. And I do think that the Republican Party here in Washington has said that they want some significant commitment to long-term deficit and debt reduction. And I think, just from a commonsense economic perspective, David, we have to have that. And so let's get to the table and decide how we do that. And I don't think there should be any litmus tests on it when you walk into the room. I think we have to trust Speaker Boehner and, and Senator Reid, president of the United States to sit around that table and make these determinations. But what I will say is if you're not going to have significant debt and deficit reduction, this country is careening into an economic crisis that none of us are going to be able to handle.
MR. GREGORY: Is it worth forcing the issue--you're a national Republican as well as governor of New Jersey--forcing the issue to ultimately risk America defaulting on its obligations?
GOV. CHRISTIE: If the president and these guys lead, we're never going to get to that point.
MR. GREGORY: But why are we so entrenched? I mean, what you achieved in New Jersey, pension reform that other states haven't been able to, to accomplish, you say it's a national model. But the--of course, the Democratic Party's in a different state, in New Jersey, the politics are different there. What, what's different where you are and how entrenched Washington remains?
GOV. CHRISTIE: Well, listen, because what we did in New Jersey was, you remember, Democratic-controlled legislature, conservative Republican governor, but we didn't demagogue each other. And I think what happens here, and what both parties have been guilty of over time, is demagoguing each other, so then it makes it almost impossible for you to sit across the table and bargain with each other. Listen, you've read some of the things I've said over time. I'm no wallflower, and I disagree strongly, bluntly. But I'm not demagoguing people. And I think that the difference in what we've done in New Jersey is I've said, "Listen, I'll sit down with the Democrats and discuss it anytime, any of the issues they want to talk about. But we've got to treat each other with some sense of fairness."
MR. GREGORY: Can you get back to where you were in New Jersey in terms of the promises made and promises kept to union folks who work throughout your state in terms of pension contributions from the state, or does this really mark a new day?
GOV. CHRISTIE: Sure. Now, in part, in part, David, part of the deal is that we say now the, the rights of those payments are a contractual right by those employees, which means they can now sue if the state doesn't make those payments.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
GOV. CHRISTIE: That was one of the things I gave on, to show them good faith. Also, I'm making the first pension payment this year that's been made in years, and only the third that's been made in 17 years. So I'm putting my money where my mouth is, as well, in making pension payments into the fund. This is not about hurting union workers. In fact, what this is, it's helping them because you know what? There's one independent study that said that our pension system could have been insolvent by 2018. That's unacceptable to me. And so we brought a bipartisan group together to say, "Listen, we got to fix this because those people earned those pensions and they deserve to get them." But we can't have this always on the back of the taxpayers of New Jersey. The middle class was suffocating in my state, and they needed some relief. And this is part of it.
MR. GREGORY: Let me get you to assess the president's performance in a couple of other areas. Afghanistan, do you think he's pulling troops out too fast?
GOV. CHRISTIE: You know, David, as the governor of New Jersey, I got to tell you, I'm not going to put my judgment in place of the president of the United States who is briefed on this much more extensively than I am. And so I'm just not going to go there with that. I will tell you...
MR. GREGORY: You said that you wouldn't have pulled troops out.
GOV. CHRISTIE: ...and I said--I'm not a nation-building guy. I'm not a nation-building guy. And I do think that we have achieved a lot of what we wanted to achieve in Afghanistan, especially after the murder of bin Laden. But he knows a lot more about this than I do. I'm not going to go down that road.
MR. GREGORY: What about gas prices? Do you think it was the right thing to do to tap the strategic reserves to drive down gas prices?
GOV. CHRISTIE: I'm concerned about that. I think the strategic reserves are for strategic purposes and not political purposes.
MR. GREGORY: You thought this was a political move.
GOV. CHRISTIE: Well, I think it looks like that. I don't know if it was. But I think it looks like that and that gives me some concern because it hurts the credibility of the program if it--if people feel that's the way it was used.
MR. GREGORY: What about the economy overall? You believe in cutting spending in your state and on the national level. What about the Fed chief this week who warned, "Look, if we're too aggressive about cutting spending, we're going to hurt recovery and restoration of jobs."
GOV. CHRISTIE: We're at no risk of being too aggressive in cutting spending. You see what we're doing down here? We're at no risk of being too aggressive in cutting spending. I think we have a long way to go before we have to worry about what Chairman Bernanke had to say this week. We have to prove we can actually do it. You saw the, the miniscule amount of money we were arguing over in the spring this year. This is not a large amount of money in terms of how much the overall spending of the federal government is.
MR. GREGORY: On taxes, you believe in kind of standard Republican fare: less taxes, less regulation. The reality, though, in terms of middle-class wage growth is that it's not growing, even in better economic times than we're in right now with tax cuts the middle class is still not making more. What are Republicans going to do about that?
GOV. CHRISTIE: Well, I think what we're trying to do in New Jersey is three of the last four months we've had private sector job growth, about 30,000 new private sector jobs over the last four months. And we're also seeing wage growth in New Jersey as well, and are e seeing our income tax revenue increase. We have a about $500 million more in income tax revenue than we projected for this coming year. And so we're starting to see that happen in New Jersey a little bit. I think one of the reasons why is because we're giving them certainty regarding taxes and regulation, and they're not concerned about it going up, so things are starting to bubble up and grow again. But overall for our country, there has to be greater economic growth. If we don't have greater economic growth the middle class is not going to see great wage growth at all. That's what we need to do is to grow the pie bigger, and we haven't been doing that of late.
MR. GREGORY: Let's talk a little bit about politics. The Hill newspaper has the, the most coveted political endorsements, and you're in the top 10. Will you endorse in the primary season?
GOV. CHRISTIE: Not necessarily. I'll...
MR. GREGORY: But you might. You'll think about it.
GOV. CHRISTIE: Listen, I'm under no legal obligation to. How about that? And so we'll see. I'm not--you know me, I'm not a halfway kind of guy. So if, in fact, I feel really strongly about someone, that that person would be the best president of the United States, then I'm going to get out there and go full force for that person. If I don't feel that way, I won't.
MR. GREGORY: Do you have a Chris Christie out there? By that, I mean is there somebody who's not in the field that you think should be in?
GOV. CHRISTIE: No. No. I think at the end of the day I don't make decisions about who should be in the field or not. Having gone through that, that's a very personal decision.
MR. GREGORY: What about Michele Bachmann? She'll announce tomorrow, early part of the week. Is she a viable candidate in your, in your mind?
GOV. CHRISTIE: Oh, listen, you know, I think that she's a person who is serious about what she believes in. I don't know her all that well. I only know what I've seen on TV and, you know, that sometimes isn't the most reliable in the world. So I'm going to wait to watch her and make my judgment as to whether I think she's someone who can win. I don't know her all that well. I've met her a couple of times. Let's see how she performs. She's put herself out there, so now let's see how she performs.
MR. GREGORY: So what are you looking for? I mean, you, you talk about, you know, the bigness of politicians in terms of loftier politics, it's something that you'd like to see, it's something that you're trying to bring to New Jersey. Who represents that?
GOV. CHRISTIE: Listen, I think what--anyone of them could if they're willing to be authentic. You know, I think what the American people want more than anything else right now is someone who's just going to look them in the eye and tell them the truth, even some truths that they don't like. And--but they have to believe the person's speaking from their heart and are authentic. And I think that's what allows you to do the big things like we're going in New Jersey. It's not that I'm universally loved. We know I'm not in New Jersey. But what they do say in New Jersey is, "We like him, and we think he's telling us the truth." I think we need to have that type of politics on the national level.
MR. GREGORY: A couple of questions about social issues. There's been some questions raised about an abortion pledge within the Republican field. Is that something that you would sign?
GOV. CHRISTIE: Listen, I haven't seen the abortion pledge, I don't know what it says. Here's my position.
MR. GREGORY: Basically all pro-life candidates--only pro-life people working for you, a promise to back anything, you know, that, that, that, that coincides with the life agenda, you know, defunding public payments for abortion across the board.
GOV. CHRISTIE: My name's--listen, here's my position on it. My name's the name on the ballot. I am pro-life, I believe in exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. That's my position, take it or leave it.
MR. GREGORY: What about same-sex marriage? New York, of course, has passed this. Historic for the state. Do you think states like New York should have the right to do what they did, or do you believe in a constitutional amendment that would bar states from passing same-sex marriage.
GOV. CHRISTIE: Let's--I'll tell you, in New Jersey we have a civil union law. And we had a very vigorous debate in late 2009, early 2010--before I became governor--about same-sex marriage, and it failed in the state legislature under a Democratic legislature with Democratic Governor Jon Corzine. And so my view on it is, in our state we're going to continue to pursue civil unions. I am not a fan of same-sex marriage. It's not something that I support. I believe marriage should be between one man and one woman. That's my view, and that'll be the view of our state because I wouldn't sign a bill that--like the one that was in New York.
MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about your own political standing. You've made some tough choices. That doesn't always make you friends. This is your standing in terms of your public approval in February. You were up over 50 percent. You're down now, more disapproval at 47 percent. And if your critics could grasp at some things to build a narrative against you, they would say, "Look, yeah, this guy's tough talking, no nonsense. You know, he is who he is." There's been a number of incidents that, that make you to some come across as not somebody who, who likes to be questioned. You've been asked about this repeatedly. Here's one example.
GOV. CHRISTIE: Do you feel that way? You're sitting here questioning me. You feel like I don't like to be questioned?
MR. GREGORY: Well...
GOV. CHRISTIE: I mean, I'm happy to be questioned.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah. No, I think you are in a unique format like this. But there have been examples, the question of having to do with why you send your kids to parochial schools. You did a recent show. Here's a portion of it.
(Videotape, June 16, 2011)
GAIL: You don't send your children to public schools, you send them to private schools, so I was wondering why you think it's fair to be cutting school funding to public schools?
MR. STEVE ADUBATO: Talk to Gail.
GOV. CHRISTIE: Hey, Gail, you know what, first off it's none of your business. I don't ask you where you're sending your kids to school. Don't bother me about where I send mine.
MR. GREGORY: Now, I'm familiar with the substance of what you said, which is you're a taxpayer, you pay property taxes, you're the governor of everybody, you're working for the best public schools for everybody. For religious reasons you and your wife decide to send your kids to parochial schools. My question is more about your temperament. Should the chief executive speak to people that way?
GOV. CHRISTIE: Damn right he should. You know why? Because this is who I am, and the public knows they get it straight from me. And so what I said to her was, "Don't question my wife and my, and my parenting decisions." That's the most personal thing that you can say to someone. You're a father, you know this. These parenting decisions from the heart. There's no one more precious in my life than my wife and my four children. And when we make those decisions, that's not appropriate for public inquiry. I made that decision because I believe, David, in my heart that's the right thing. And so you know what, I am very blunt, I am very direct, and you know what, so is she. And you'll get her tone and her demeanor in that question. So was she. She's questioning my ability as a public officeholder to make decisions about every child in New Jersey and their public education because my children go to parochial school? Well, I went to public schools in New Jersey. I'm a product of the public schools. And so your--you know what, absolutely. I wish more people in public life would respond just that way.
MR. GREGORY: But authenticity is one thing, but we all can be better in the public square, how we interact with people. Are you too abrasive, are you too stubborn, are you too tough when it comes to people questioning you?
GOV. CHRISTIE: I'm huggable and lovable, David. I am not abrasive at all. Listen, I'm honest, and I wish we had more of it in politics. You know what people are tired of in politics? They 're tired of blow-dried, tested answers that are given by political consultants to politicians and everybody sounds the same, (makes talking hand motions) "Rahr, rahr, rahr." Everybody sounds the same. I don't sound the same, and you know why? Because I say what I believe from my heart. And if some people are offended by that, I'm sorry. I really am. But you know what, I think more people in New Jersey and around the country who have seen that are going to say "You know what, I'm glad he stood up for his rights as a father and his wife's rights as a mother to decide what they want to decide and not to be questioned about it by anybody. It's not costing anybody anything for me to send my kids to parochial school. And you know what, at the end of the day, I think every parent should have the right to decide that most important decision, how their child should be educated.
MR. GREGORY: You--your team has produced a Web video talking about the accomplishment on, on pension reform, and I want to play a portion of it.
GOV. CHRISTIE: Step by step we are putting ourselves on a better more sustainable path at pushing ahead on the road to growth. That is the model for the way forward.
MR. GREGORY: That looks like a campaign ad you could run in Iowa, and you're going to be in Iowa in July.
GOV. CHRISTIE: I am. July 25th I'll be in Iowa with Governor Branstad to talk about the last of the three big things, David. In January, I said three big things for New Jersey: Keep our budget under control, and I will do that by June 30th; pension benefit reform will be done on Tuesday when I sign it; and the last bit, education reform to improve our educational system for every kid in New Jersey. That's what I'm turning to next. And then we'll be able to do one of those that says, "All three big things are done."
MR. GREGORY: So you, you said you will not run for president in 2012. You won't rule out 2016. If they came to you and said, "Hey, be on the ticket," I know you've said in the past you're not a V.P. kind of guy, but you still feel that way?
GOV. CHRISTIE: David, can you imagine? I mean, think--the person who picked me as vice president would have to be sedated. Seriously, forget it.
MR. GREGORY: What role--yeah, right. I thought you were huggable and lovable.
GOV. CHRISTIE: Come on. I am, but you know, I think I am, but you also saw the answer I gave to Gail. I mean, that's who I am, and I don't think that's vice presidential material.
MR. GREGORY: But that's actually an interesting point. Temperamentally, do you think you are not somebody who, who could weather the kind of scrutiny you'd get in that position as a V.P. candidate or presidential candidate well?
GOV. CHRISTIE: Oh no. No, listen. I, I--David, I think I've been scrutinized as much as any governor across America. I've had plenty of criticism thrown my way and a lot of scrutiny thrown my way. What you're misunderstanding about that piece is that was personal. That was about my children. You ask me about taxes, about spending, about all the other issues--you asked me about a lot of tough issues this morning. You didn't see me react in any way. I gave you my answers that I feel from my heart. But my children are different. I'm a father first. And I'm not going to let people question my parenting decisions in public.
MR. GREGORY: So final question, what would you like your role in the campaign of 2012 to be?
GOV. CHRISTIE: To try to help whoever the Republican nominee is to become president of the United States so that we can make our country a better place for our children and grandchildren. Whatever I can do to help and contribute to that, that doesn't interfere with my primary duties, which are as governor of New Jersey, a husband and a father, I'll be happy to do.
MR. GREGORY: And then we'll leave it there. Thanks very much.
GOV. CHRISTIE: Thanks, David.
MR. GREGORY: And coming up, President Obama announces a timetable for withdrawal in Afghanistan. Was it too much or too little? Plus, the House vote to formally authorize military intervention in Libya fails, but so does the vote to defund the operation. Mixed messages. What does it mean now for President Obama and his strategy? We're going to get reaction from two prominent voices on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Democrats with differing views: Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed and Virginia Senator Jim Webb. Then, our political roundtable weighs in on the race for the White House 2012: the BBC's Katty Kay, The New York Times Magazine's Matt Bai, and David Brooks of the Times. Coming up.
MR. GREGORY: Coming up, a debate over the role the U.S. should continue to play in Afghanistan and in Libya. Joining me, two members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senators Jack Reed and Jim Webb. It's up next after this brief commercial break.
MR. GREGORY: We are back, joined now by two military veterans and members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Democrat from Rhode Island, Senator Jack Reed, and Democrat from Virginia, Senator Jim Webb.
Welcome to both of you.
SEN. JIM WEBB (D-VA): Thank you.
MR. GREGORY: The debate on Afghanistan continues, and this is what the president announced this week in his speech. I'll put it up on the screen so our viewers can see. In terms of the drawdown, nearly 100,000 there now. Due to be withdrawn by the end of this year is 10,000. And then those surge troops in total will be out by the end of next summer. Public opinion certainly on the side of a faster withdraw. The latest Pew poll shows that rather clearly with a majority, 56 percent, saying remove troops as soon as possible.
Senator Reed, did the president simply make a political decision here and say, "It's time to get out"?
SEN. JACK REED (D-RI): No, I don't think so. He made a very difficult decision in 2009 at his speech at West Point about a strategy taking down al-Qaeda, building up the Afghani army, and beginning to reduce our forces in July of this year. And he's following through on that strategy. And I think the pace is appropriate. It recognizes that we do have to maintain a presence there, but that presence is changing very quickly to an Afghan-led presence.
MR. GREGORY: The, the problem, Senator Webb, is that, in the view of many, he rolled the military here. The military made a recommendation, don't pull out so fast. General Petraeus, our commander on the ground, is going to become the new head of the CIA, spoke on Capitol Hill this week, and he talked about that disagreement. Watch.
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: The ultimate decision was a more aggressive formulation, if you will, in terms of the timeline than what we had recommended. Again, that is understandable in the sense that there are broader considerations beyond just those of a military commander.
MR. GREGORY: What are those broader considerations for the president?
SEN. WEBB: Well, first of all, I have met very few generals in my life who didn't want more troops. And the president is the commander in chief, as the Republicans are so often quick to point out when he makes decisions that other people get upset with. When I look at this, first of all, I don't want to second guess decisions that were made with a great deal of, of consultation with military leaders, with, with political leaders, and with diplomats. My concern on this is that we, we do have to get back to rebuilding our country, and this model, per se, is not the model of the future. Secretary Gates said that a couple of months ago.
MR. GREGORY: Big land army.
SEN. WEBB: The Afghan--yes. It's not the model of the future. And we, right now, are in a situation where we have to look at this in terms of our broader national security interests in addition to the nation-building questions. We still have 45,000 troops in Iraq. They're supposed to be out by the end of the year. I'm not holding my breath. We have this new situation in Libya where the president made a unilateral decision, which I, among others, have serious problems with. And most importantly, because this is something that does not get discussed, as we have focused for the last 10 years on this part of the world, our situation in East Asia with respect to China and China's expansionist military activities has deteriorated. We are at a point in the South China Sea right now where we are approaching a Munich moment with China, and it's not being discussed.
MR. GREGORY: We'll get back to that, but I want to also keep the framing here about what's going on inside the Democratic Party. You're both Democrats, of course. We spoke on our weekly conversation that we call Press Pass, which is available on our blog and our Web site, with Barbara Lee, the California Democrat in the House. And I asked her about whether there was that political will among liberals to keep funding the war in Afghanistan. This is how she responded.
MR. GREGORY: You would vote to end funding now.
REP. BARBARA LEE (D-CA): Oh yes. I'm going to offer an amendment to do that. That doesn't mean I do not want to--and I'm going to make sure we have enough funding to protect our troops and provide for what they need and to bring them home safely and orderly. But we need to cut the funding, and as an appropriator, that's my job. That's Congress's job. We have to use the power of the purse strings to do what we need to do to ensure our national security and the economic security of our young men and women in uniform, and the economic security of our country.
MR. GREGORY: Senator Reed, there's a lot of people, particularly in the Democratic Party, that say, "Look, bin Laden is dead. Al-Qaeda is not a presence in Afghanistan. We have got to draw this down much more quickly than we're doing now. There is still something that's vague about what the mission remains."
SEN. REED: No, I think there's a great deal of frustration in the country, not just the Democratic Party. And particularly on Afghanistan because it's been 10 years, but it's been 10 years of literally starting and stopping. I think the president has laid out a very clear strategy. We are coming out of Afghanistan. We are shifting our--the emphasis and, indeed, shifting the, the, we hope, the requirements to support the troops there to the Afghanis. He's done the same thing, as he pledged in the campaign, to bring our troops out of Iraq.
MR. GREGORY: But is it really that clear? I mean, Senator Webb, the mission, what we're actually still doing there, seems a bit unclear. Gene Robinson wrote the following in his column on--in The Washington Post on Friday: "Perhaps most disheartening thing," he wrote, "about Obama's speech was the absence of fresh thinking, or even clear thinking. It was hard to tell whether he was sticking with his counterinsurgency strategy or switching to a counterterrorism approach - or, perhaps, doing a little bit of both. There was no evidence he had considered the possibility that the war is being perpetuated not by rational pursuit of our national interests but by its own inertia." Is it too much compromise here that leaves us with an unclear way forward?
SEN. WEBB: Well, I, I think there is a legitimate question about what the endpoint could be or should be. On the other hand, we don't want it to be a negative endpoint in--given what we have put into it. So I think this is a, sort of a very careful process that has, has resulted in the president's decision, and it's time based. Let's--or it's time and circumstances based. I mean, that's one thing that Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen have been very clear about. So it could be quicker. We just don't want to be in a process, from my perspective, of sending the wrong signals to people like the Taliban, who we are asking to become part of the, the endpoint in the negotiating process.
MR. GREGORY: Well, and that's a really important point. I mean, I've been saying all week, "Keep your eye on the diplomacy here." The Taliban, our enemy there, is really the key in many ways, Senator Reed, to the future. They're going to have to come back and be part of some sort of government in Afghanistan with a central government. Pakistanis have to be involved. Where does that rank on our priority list right now?
SEN. REED: Well, that should be at the very top of our priorities. As we shift out of, of a military-led presence, we have to have a strong diplomatic-led presence, and it has to be regional. It has to re-engage the Taliban, who are willing to reject the, the radical theories and come back and, and be partners in a government in Afghanistan. It, it has to involve the Pakistanis. And, in fact, one of the reasons why we have to be, I think, somewhat measured as we do come out, and we are coming out, is because you have great instability not just in Afghanistan, but Pakistan. And you have a country that has nuclear weapons, you have long-term animosities between the Pakistanis and the Indians. So we do have to pursue a much more aggressive diplomatic approach.
But I think the key here is within Afghanistan we're no longer, I think, talking about nation-building. We're talking about stabilization. We're talking about creating a military force that can stabilize that country and, and take the lead from us, and continue--and I think we have to continue to have some type of presence there, slim down, so that we can strike any type of extremist group that has threatened the United States.
MR. GREGORY: But--and that--we--but we don't have stability yet. Senator McCain and other Republicans warn about withdrawing and what the consequences of that could be. David Rohde with The New York Times, who was held captive there in Pakistan and, and wrote a book about that experience, also talked about the consequences of leaving without stability, Senator Reed, to your point. And this is a portion of what he writes: "At the same time, simply walking away from Afghanistan and Pakistan and hoping for the best is not an option in an increasingly interconnected world. ... Based on my experience in the tribal areas, a sweeping Taliban victory in Afghanistan would embolden hard-line militants who hope to forcibly impose sharia law across the Islamic world. Their belief that they can defeat Westerners who fear death and are unwilling to endure sacrifice will be reaffirmed. It will also send a signal to moderate Muslims that the United States will not stand by them. No clear answer has emerged to the question ... how can religious extremism be countered?"
Senator Webb, in, in our war weariness in this country, do we risk not stabilizing the country and getting this kind of result, where ultimately the Taliban wins?
SEN. WEBB: I, I don't think, I don't think, I don't think very many people are, are willing to accept that result. At the same time, that doesn't mean that the model we're using is an appropriate model even, even in the future in Afghanistan. And one of the key points, because I, I would--this is an area that Senator Reed and I may, may disagree on--I don't believe we need a permanent presence in Afghanistan or in Iraq. I think it's counterproductive to what we are trying to do strategically. It's enormously costly. And again, we are ignoring--excuse me--we are ignoring the realities of a very serious emergence in Asia that has--will have more impact on our strategic future than anything going on in this region.
MR. GREGORY: What about Libya, Senator Reed? Can I get your opinion on that?
SEN. REED: Well, let me just, quickly...
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
SEN. REED: I join--I don't think we need a permanent presence in Iraq, and I think we need a presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India. But that presence, hopefully, one day is going to be diplomatic more than military. But if we need military options to go in, we have to have those options.
MR. GREGORY: Can I ask you quickly about Libya? Mixed signals being sent to the president about the mission there. Are you concerned about what we're doing?
SEN. REED: I think the president would have been better served to more thoughtfully come up and ask for a resolution in favor of his activities. Now, with the House vote, it's so confused. The--no support, but they're still going to fund the operation. I hope in the Senate we can pass a, a Kerry-McCain resolution. But...
MR. GREGORY: That would give another year for operations as they now stand.
SEN. REED: It would give, give certain, give approval for the continued limited operation. We have no ground troops, no intention to put ground troops in. We're supporting NATO. We're doing that because there are two U.N. resolutions, there's an Arab League resolution. This is a very unusual moment where the Arab League, the United Nations, the European community are all committed to trying to get rid of Khaddafy. And...
MR. GREGORY: Is, is this the right fight? We're still there. This was supposed to get him out sooner.
SEN. WEBB: We--nobody wants to see Khaddafy remain in power, but that's totally--a totally different question as to how the United States should be involved. With respect to the United Nations resolutions, the, the Security Council vote was taken with the abstention of Brazil, Russia, India, China and Germany. This wasn't the U.N. saying this is a great thing to do. And the president did not come to the Congress, and he also--the, the reasons that he used for going in defy historical precedent. We weren't under attack, we weren't under a imminent attack, we weren't honoring treaty commitments, we weren't rescuing Americans. So, on the one hand, there's a very serious issue of precedent here. And on the other, we need to be clear that once Khaddafy's gone we won't have Americans in there as a peacekeeping force. We, we've got to stop this addiction. We've got to start focusing on our true strategic interests.
MR. GREGORY: And would you vote to, to cut off funding for the operation if it came to that?
SEN. WEBB: Senator Lugar, Senator Lugar is putting a series of amendments together on the, on the Kerry-McCain legislation which I'm going to support. I think he has had the wisest brain on this problem in the Senate.
MR. GREGORY: And what would be the bottom line of that?
SEN. WEBB: Clearly say no ground troops. There's like six or seven amendments that are be--still being worked up. But I think his approach is, is rational, and the one the Senate needs to take.
MR. GREGORY: All right, we're going to leave it there. Senators, thank you both...
SEN. REED: Thank you.
SEN. WEBB: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: ...very much this morning.
And coming up, decision 2012. Jon Huntsman's first week on the trail, and rumblings that Texas governor Rick Perry may throw his hat into the still unsettled Republican field. Plus, Michele Bachmann officially announces her candidacy tomorrow. The latest on the race for the White House, including results of a new poll in the key state of Iowa. A political roundtable coming up with the BBC's Katty Kay, The New York Times Magazine's Matt Bai, and David Brooks of The New York Times, right after this break.
MR. GREGORY: We are back, joined now by our political roundtable: Washington correspondent for the BBC, Katty Kay; columnist for The New York Times, David Brooks; and chief political writer for The New York Times Magazine, Matt Bai. He's got a big piece on Jon Huntsman in today's magazine.
Welcome to all of you.
David Brooks, there is criticism mounting towards the president about leadership style--whether it's the debt ceiling talks, whether it's Afghanistan--trying to have it always, compromising too much. You heard Governor Christie say, "Look, he can't wait for other people to solve these problems. He's got to do it." Is this a fair rap?
MR. DAVID BROOKS: I--in some cases, yes. So Christie's like the big man theory of government, literally, actually...
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. BROOKS: ...which is he wants to be in every room. He wants to be doing the town meetings. He wants to be in there negotiating little itty-bitty details. Obama's very different. He's like convener in chief. "You guys take care of that. You guys take care of that." As president, he's like sort of privy--he can be a really good Senate majority leader. He's like, OK, you guys do that. I'll hang back and then when the time comes, I'll like tweak it a little. I'll bring you together at the end. And that has some advantages because it gets a lot of people to the table. It has a lot of disadvantages. It's like being trumpeted into battle by Miles Davis. It's like, "Huh?" You think about it, "Oh, that's good." You sort of appreciate it, but you're not charging. And so a lot of Democrats in particular think, "Lead us on a damn charge once in your life." But that's just not who he is. He's more of a convener.
MR. GREGORY: The idea, Katty Kay, Afghanistan is a good example where, again, the, the search for consensus and compromise leave some people saying, "Well, what exactly are we doing now?" The Economist wrote something that caught my eye this week. I'll put it up on the screen. "Mr. Obama tried to give everyone something. To his political strategists, worried about re-election, his message was that nation-building should start at home. To his generals, worried by any withdrawal, he can still claim that he will end his first term with many more troops in Afghanistan than were there when he began it. The middle ground is often good politics; it is less comfortable in warfare. In this case, history will probably judge that Mr. Obama took out too many soldiers too early.
MS. KATTY KAY: Yeah. And when you ask the White House whether the surge in itself, which almost was another form of compromise--because remember, the generals had asked for more and Obama game them something in the middle--was that actually worth it? Was that a compromise that didn't pan out? They kind of aren't clear that this has been the last two years of having extra troops that have been something that's actually won them very much. And you have to think, if President Obama had either gone with the Biden strategy and not added surge troops, we could've actually ended up in exactly the same position pretty much that we're in today. And would that have been a more effective use of American resources? And I think, again, you do have a situation where the president was caught between, back then even before the surge, between his generals and between those in the White House who said, "Don't push this too far," went from middle path. And has it really gained us very much?
MR. GREGORY: Now, Matt Bai, now apply this to these debt ceiling talks.
MR. MATT BAI: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: I mean, the game right now, in terms of people I talk to in the White House, is the president's willing to give on Medicare some, how big that some is, is--matters.
MR. BAI: Right.
MR. GREGORY: And would that create some space for Republicans to give something? Not on tax rates, but on revenues, to get some sort of grand bargain? But now it looks like it's time for the president to actually lead this charge.
MR. BAI: It does. And I think a lot of the problem here--I think they're probably going to get a deal. I think a lot of the problem here is that they haven't had this debate in public. You know, the president or his--they've tried to do a lot of this in secret, in sort of a backroom negotiation. And that's what, what dislodges this kind of disagreement. What builds compromise is public opinion. I mean, if you look back in 1996, say, in the budget crisis, right, what made Republicans sort of fold up the tent on President Clinton is the obvious polling that showed they weren't going to survive it politically. I think when you do everything in secret and don't have--don't take your case to the public and plead it out, what happens is both sides right now think they're politically viable. They both think they can get away with their positions. Until one of them knows they can't, it's going to be very hard to get a deal.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah. I mean, it looked like we were just moving towards this final phase for a long time.
MR. BROOKS: Right. And I think the public opinion thing is key. Christie went out there and he held those 30 town meetings.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. BROOKS: Obama has not done that. He's not gone out with the pie charts and said, "Here's what we've got to do, people." And so they've got a deal, even if they come up with it, I doubt they'll be able to sell. So I'm very pessimistic about what's going to happen here over the next couple of months. The second thing that makes me pessimistic is both sides think the political advantage is with them with going to the wall.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. BROOKS: The Republicans think, "Hey, if the economy crashes, people are going to blame Obama. Let's take it to the wall." The Republicans say--or the Democrats say, "Hey, if they shut down the government, we'll just send out letters telling every Social Security recipient, `Sorry, you're not going to get your checks because of those Republicans.'" They think they have the advantage. So both parties think they have the advantage of taking it to the wall. That makes me think it's going to go to the wall...
MR. GREGORY: Right, right.
MR. BROOKS: ...and maybe a little beyond.
MS. KAY: I'm going to pile in on the pessimism here because I think there's a broader issue about the value of having this debate in public. And you, know, the financial markets have just come out of their biggest electroshock in 80 years. They are feeling very skittish at the moment. Now, this may well be political brinkmanship. They may come up with a deal by August the 2nd, but if you're the markets, you're looking at what's happening in America at the moment and you're thinking, "Are American politicians seriously even talking about the prospect of this country defaulting?" And they could impose some sort of financial penalty on the states for that. They could raise rates. That would pull us right back into recession again. I mean, this is a--this is an extremely dangerous debate...
MR. GREGORY: And, and...
MS. KAY: ...for American politicians to be having.
MR. GREGORY: ...I spoke to a CEO this week who said, "Yeah, you go around the world, in Asia and Europe, there's this sense that pax Americana is over." But even in a more positive way, David, that American influence is waning because our politics is not up to the task of some of the challenges we face.
MR. BROOKS: Yeah. We've got a government problem. We don't have a country problem. We still have an entrepreneurial country. We'll still have the only country in the world, only big country, where people can come in from all over the world and magnify their talents. But we have a government problem. We have to do three things. We have to be fiscally sustainable, we have to do it in a way that increases growth, and we have to do it in a way that reduces inequality. Those are three things that are in tension with each other. So if any of us who watch Washington think that our political system is capable of doing two--three things in tension with each other all at once? It means borrowing from column A, column B, I haven't seen that level of borrowing.
MS. KAY: You also...
MR. GREGORY: Yeah. I just want to get to politics here for a moment on the Republican side and go to our cork board that we show each week, notable in terms of who's in, who's in is that Michele Bachmann is going to announce in Iowa tomorrow. And those still on the fence is also interesting: Palin, she's going to make a trip to Iowa coming up; Giuliani; Rick Perry, still buzz about him. But look at the poll from the Des Moines Register. First polling that we've gotten out of that important state and look there. Romney and Bachmann neck and neck. This is, Matt Bai, good news for Bachmann. She had a strong debate. She's from Iowa. She's announcing tomorrow. Bad news for Pawlenty, who really needs to show strong there.
MR. BAI: Yeah. I mean, how many times can a person announce? There's just a lot of--if all of them are going to announce three times...
MR. GREGORY: Right. Right.
MR. BAI: ...we're going to be going through this a lot.
MR. GREGORY: It really helps.
MR. BAI: You know, it reminds me when I think about it, David, you played these games like at amusement parks where you squirt the water through the hole and the horse moves two lengths. We're about two squirts into this.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. BAI: And, and the first poll at this point, it started later than usual. This is the first poll out of Iowa. You know, obviously, if you're somebody who's down at 3 and 4 percent, you have cause for concern. If you're Michele Bachmann, that's a great start. But, you know, we need something to all talk about, and we talk and write about polling data that I think is largely meaningless at this point. These folks have to get out there and introduce themselves, make their case, and that process just has to unfold.
MR. GREGORY: All right. But speaking about making the case, Jon Huntsman, who you write about in the Times Magazine, as I said, was there in front of the Statue of Liberty this week, although you couldn't actually see it in the camera shot of him announcing. This is in part what he said.
MR. JON HUNTSMAN: And today I'm a candidate for the office of president of the United States of America. My kids can't believe I just said that.
MR. BAI: David Copperfield made the statue disappear.
MR. GREGORY: Right. Katty, there were not rave reviews for this and a lot of questions about where Huntsman actually fits in this race.
MS. KAY: Yeah. Particularly in this primary process. Look, you can paint a plausible scenario for him giving President Obama a good run for his money if he manages to get the nomination. But whether he can get the nomination with some of his past positions he's supported--civil unions for gays, he has been in favor of cap and trade. Cap and trade seems to be the kind of new litmus test of conservatism. So it's hard to see him winning over primary voters. I think there's something else about Huntsman. He's running as the kind of self-styled thinking man's Republican. I think amongst grass roots for the Republican Party, that comes across as almost defensive. I mean, the rest of the Republicans aren't...
MR. GREGORY: He doesn't even call himself a conservative.
MS. KAY: ...self-thinking people?
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. BROOKS: Yeah. I actually think there's a big market here. I think Matt's sort of write--wrote this. People think of the tea party is the entire Republican Party.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MR. BAI: Yeah.
MR. BROOKS: John McCain just won the nomination. There are a lot of moderates out there. There are a lot of independents. In New Hampshire there will be no Democratic primary, so all the independents are going to vote in the Republican primary.
MR. GREGORY: The thesis of your piece was his theory of the case at the moment is trying to fill a vacuum. In other words...
MR. BAI: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: ...a lot of Republicans unhappy with the choices.
MR. BAI: Yeah, and as David says I just--I reject the view--I have no idea how it's going to turnout or how viable he's going to be, but I reject the view that the Republican Party and its grass roots is so monolithic and unenlightened that nobody can come in and disagree with them on any core issue and have an impact. History proves that's not true. I mean, look, again, not to, you know, not to beat on the same dead horse, but this is about making your case in a sense. I mean, we talk so much about the math and the path and the numbers and how's he going to get there and, and does he get this constituency or that constituency. He's yet to go out. Tim Pawlenty's yet to go out. Mitt Romney to a large extent is yet to go out and go to rooms and tell people compellingly what it is they intend to do for the country. If you have a compelling message, you can get there.
MS. KAY: Did--but didn't Jon Huntsman need to do that when he announced? If he is going to be coming out as the guy who has the policies...
MR. BAI: No.
MS. KAY: ...and thinking, I'm not sure, I'm not sure what Jon Huntsman stands for.
MR. BAI: No, I don't think he did.
MS. KAY: And that's what he's running on.
MR. BAI: I mean, it would be better if he did. And I'm not saying he can get there. I have no idea whether he can, but I think if you look back at presidential campaigns, Barack Obama in the summer of 2007 had not figured out exactly what he wanted to say, what his pitch was. There is an evolution that goes on with presidential candidates. I think the problem for Huntsman is that he's behind the curve having been away.
MR. BROOKS: And he's also helped by the fact that the other rival to be the non-Romney, Pawlenty, has sort of fumbled it. And the way he's fumbled it, his biography is, "I'm the working-class guy. My dad was a truck driver, my mom died when I was young. I'm the working-class candidate." Unfortunately his agenda is the Silicon Valley agenda, corporate tax cuts. It all--it's all for entrepreneurs. So Pawlenty does not understand his own campaign, and that leaves room open for Huntsman to say, "Hey, I'm unusual."
MR. GREGORY: And what about, what about Palin now going--she's going to go into Iowa for the documentary about her that's premiering. She's doing that this week when Michele Bachmann is making her announcement. I mean, is she--is this just the spoiler role? What is she doing?
MS. KAY: I think it's the, you know, the multimillion dollar question of this campaign, and has been over the last six months. But increasingly a Palin candidacy looks less plausible, right, rather than more plausible. I mean, her negatives have been rising, she has--there were a couple of key events she hasn't handled particularly well. And it's harder to see her now, I think, running successfully.
MR. GREGORY: All right, let me get a break in here. We will take a quick break. We'll come back with our Trends and Takeaway segment, a look at what was said here today, and what to look for in the week ahead. Plus, what are the hot political stories trending this morning? That's coming up right after this.
MR. GREGORY: Final moments with our roundtable. And also wanted to show you our MEET THE PRESS political trend tracker, show you the big stories on this Sunday morning in the political world. Number one there is one of the things we've been talking about, Romney and Bachmann leading in the Iowa poll. Also the New York gay marriage vote, debt ceiling talks continue to round out the top three. On this program, one of the things that strikes us as news this morning, Senator Webb talking about Libya and being quite critical of President Obama on the strategy. Listen.
SEN. WEBB: The reasons that he used for going in defy historical precedent. We weren't under attack, we weren't under an imminent attack, we weren't honoring treaty commitments, we weren't rescuing Americans. So, on the one hand, there's a very serious issue of precedent here. And on the other, we need to be clear that once Khaddafy's gone, we won't have Americans in there as a peacekeeping force.
MR. GREGORY: David Brooks, this fight over Libya is, is far from over after the House sent mixed messages. What's the next step?
MR. BROOKS: Well, there's a lot of fatigue in the country. The Obama administration did not help itself by not consulting anybody. But the fact of the matter is, we're in a historic moment with the spring across Arab world, a lot of potential there. No president is not going to want to do something good. And so any president, Republican or Democrat, is going to lean forward and try to depose people like Khaddafy because this is a unique moment.
MR. GREGORY: We have been also monitoring the conversation that's going on online this morning. And as to our debate about Afghanistan, TweetDeck, the conversation there about Afghanistan included this observation. "David Rohde, quote, on MEET THE PRESS was spot on." That was about the end game in Afghanistan. "Taliban would come back emboldened. I worry about the welfare of Afghan women if Talibs [ultimately] do come back." A big concern.
Spend a moment looking at the week ahead here for Decision 2012, and a few important things on the calendar coming up this week. Monday, of course, Michele Bachmann is announcing in Waterloo, Iowa. Tuesday, the president continuing to talk about manufacturing and the economy. We mentioned Sarah Palin's going to be in Iowa. Tim Pawlenty with a foreign policy speech. And on Thursday--this is important Matt Bai--second quarter fundraising deadline. We are going to get another barometer at who's doing what on the Republican side. Quickly.
MR. BAI: Yeah, it's something to look at. Obviously, Mitt Romney's been solidifying front-runner status. I assume he's going to do that in the fundraising numbers as well. But, again, I just think it's super early and a lot of that money's been sitting on the sidelines and waiting around.
MR. GREGORY: We will be watching. Thanks to all of you.
That is all for today. We're going to be away next Sunday during NBC's, NBC's sports coverage of Wimbledon, but we will return the following week. If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.