MR. DAVID GREGORY: This Sunday, the culture war over contraception and the church that sparked a political firestorm.
FMR. SEN. RICK SANTORUM (R-PA): It's not about contraception. It's about economic liberty, it's about freedom of speech, it's about freedom of religion, it's about government control of your lives and it's got to stop!
MR. GREGORY: And the White House compromise.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Religious liberty will be protected and a law that requires free preventive care will not discriminate against women.
MR. GREGORY: Is the fight over or new fuel for the election year debate about health care and the role of government in our lives? Here this morning the president's new chief of staff, Jack Lew, and later live from the campaign trail, the Republican with the hot hand in the hunt for the GOP nomination, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum on social issues, energizing conservatives, and his path to the nomination.
Finally, our political roundtable this morning on Decision 2012. Can Mitt Romney regain front-runner status.
FMR. GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R-MA): I was a severely conservative Republican governor.
MR. GREGORY: And competing views about President Obama. How will voters size him up as a leader vying for four more years? With us, host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Joe Scarborough; Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan; Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne; and former aide to President Obama who's now running a pro-Obama super PAC, Bill Burton.
Announcer: From NBC News in Washington, MEET THE PRESS with David Gregory.
MR. GREGORY: And good morning. A one-two punch for Mitt Romney yesterday in his fight for the Republican nomination. In Maine he eked out a narrow victory in that state's nonbinding caucuses. He got 39 percent; second place finisher was Ron Paul at 36 percent. And here in Washington the former Massachusetts governor won the support of conservative activists who had gathered for an annual event called CPAC, a gathering of conservatives. Results in their straw poll had Romney edging out Santorum 38 to 31 percent. It's getting a lot of traction this morning. We're going to talk to Rick Santorum live from the campaign trail in California in just a couple of minutes.
But first, the man at the center of two high-profile Washington battles, the debate over providing birth control coverage at religious institutions and the president's annual budget plan, which will be delivered to Congress tomorrow morning. With us, the president's new chief of staff, formerly his budget director, Jack Lew.
Mr. Lew, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.
MR. JACK LEW: Good to be with you, again, David.
MR. GREGORY: You're a veteran of lots of different kinds of battles in Washington, mostly about money, and here, religious freedom, social issues is the issue that's really taken the city by storm because of this birth control decision. Within the White House there were warnings this would be a political firestorm, this would be controversial. How did the White House botch this to the point where the president had to backtrack in such a high-profile way?
MR. LEW: You know, David, from the very beginning the president had two very important principles that had to be reconciled. One principle is that every woman should have the right to all forms of preventive health care, including contraception. The other is that we need to respect the religious liberties which are the cornerstone of American life. When the plan was announced at the end of January, it was clear that there was going to be a yearlong period for transition. With the ensuing controversy that was speeded up. The president gave a clear signal we don't want a year of debate on this. Get this resolved.
MR. GREGORY: But you knew this going in. You knew you had a year period, but within the White House the vice president, your predecessor Bill Daly, both Catholics, they said, "Look, if you do this you're going to end up taking on the Catholic Church. You're going to take on a huge social issue." Why did the White House do this with its eyes wide open?
MR. LEW: To be clear, what the president announced Friday was what was envisioned all along. It was coming to a way to reconcile these two values. We are now in a place where we can say with certainty that women are going to have the right to health care and we can say that religious institutions, including Catholic hospitals and universities, won't have to pay for or do the administrative work to provide benefits that they find objectionable. But the women will get those benefits through the insurance companies that provide for their health care. It's a good solution, it's a solution that brings together these two very important values and there are others who don't want to reconcile these values. There are some who just oppose that women should have the right to contraception. We don't agree with that. This is a plan that's a good plan, that's respectful of religious differences, respectful of a woman's right to have access to all forms of preventive health care and I hope that we can now move on from here.
MR. GREGORY: But was this political malpractice in an election year?
MR. LEW: I think that the, the issue of providing women all forms of preventative health care has been and remains very important. The, the importance of protecting religious liberties in this country has been important to the president and will always be. I think we've resolved this issue in a way where we can now go forward.
MR. GREGORY: But you say it's resolved. Here are some of the headlines this morning that seem to belie that description. "Bishops Reject White House's New Plan on Contraception," in The New York Times. The Washington Post, "U.S. Bishops Blast Obama's Contraception Compromise." From the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops they issued a statement on Friday that indicate that resolution is not at hand. "[W]e note that [the] proposal continues to involve needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions, and to threaten government coercion of religious people and groups to violate their most deeply held convictions. In a nation dedicated to religious liberty as its first and founding principle, we should not be limited to negotiating within these parameters. The only complete solution to this religious liberty problem is for" HHAs--"HHS" rather, "to rescind this mandate."
MR. LEW: Yeah, David, on Friday we had a broad range of groups endorse where the president's policy is. We had the Catholic Health Association, which understands health care extremely well and is true to Catholic beliefs. We had the Catholic Charities, we had Planned Parenthood. There's a broad consensus that this is the right approach. That doesn't mean that everyone agrees with it.
MR. GREGORY: So you can move forward without the church's hierarchy being on board.
MR. LEW: I think that we, you know, the fact that the Catholic Health Association, Catholic Charities support what the president announced on Friday reflects the fact that we hit that important balance between providing a woman the guarantee that she has access to the kinds of preventive health care that she needs and that we've respected the religious liberty of the institutions.
MR. GREGORY: Well, let's talk about religious liberty. This is a social issue, this is now a hot issue in the presidential campaign. Rick Santorum, who you'll hear from in just a couple of minutes, talked about this with great passion on the campaign trail a couple of days ago and here's what he said in part.
FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: This is the kind of coercion that we can expect. It's not about contraception, it's about economic liberty, it's about freedom of speech, it's about freedom of religion, it's about government control of your lives and it's got to stop!
MR. GREGORY: So can you understand the view that some conservatives have which is beyond, you know, religious liberty, that this is what government does and this is what happens when government makes healthcare decisions for you. It's a role of government issue that's an issue that's going to live beyond this compromise.
MR. LEW: You know, David, I think that there are a lot of conservatives that don't think that we should guarantee that Americans have access to health insurance. There are a lot of people, maybe from that comment, the senator, who don't believe that women should have a right to contraception. We believe that the Affordable Care Act is meeting an important need because we had tens of millions of Americans who did not have access to health insurance who will. We believe women have a right to all forms of preventive health. We think we've done it in a way that's a proper balance.
MR. GREGORY: Is this an issue that the president will campaign on?
MR. LEW: I think the Affordable Care Act is something that's a big accomplishment and he will be campaigning on that. I think that the right of women to all forms of preventative health care is an important part of it.
MR. GREGORY: Will he veto any effort in Congress to abridge this mandate?
MR. LEW: I think that it would be a mistake for this to go forward in that way because the issue's been addressed. I think that...
MR. GREGORY: Would he veto any effort by congressional Republicans to abridge it, to change the mandate?
MR. LEW: I, I, I think the president's been clear that he is going to be insistent that we implement the Affordable Care Act. I spent a lot of last year making sure that we had the resources to implement the Affordable Care Act. But we're, we're...
MR. GREGORY: So he would veto it? He'd veto any effort to change this?
MR. LEW: ...we are going to proceed to implement the Affordable Care Act.
MR. GREGORY: He'd veto an effort to change it.
MR. LEW: We're going to implement the Affordable Care Act.
MR. GREGORY: Let's move on to the economy. I think a lot of people wonder what kind of recovery are we in. It feels like it's anemic and yet the jobs picture seems to be improving. I was looking at the stock market the other day as the Dow climbs closer and closer to 13,000, which is certainly important for a lot of investors and a sign of better times. What's a realistic unemployment or jobless number, do you think, by November of this year?
MR. LEW: You know, David, the unemployment situation's improved over the last few months. And it's actually improved so much so that it's better than we and all the economic forecasters thought it would be back in November. That's good news. The American people should be pleased that we now have a recovery that's taken root. The job growth is across all the sectors of the economy. It's not the result of people leaving the workforce, it's the result of private sector job creation. This is good. The thing that we have to be careful about is to make sure that Washington doesn't get in the way. Last year we saw an awful lot of instances where Washington's dysfunction became part of the uncertainty and the problem in the economy. Congress has a challenge from now until the end of February to extend the payroll tax cut so that we continue to get that boost that the economy needs. I hope Congress can do the job, get it done, and that we can start to keep the wind at our backs instead of becoming part of the problem, which was what happened last year.
MR. GREGORY: What do you think is a realistic unemployment rate?
MR. LEW: You know, I, I think that, that we are, we are certainly seeing unemployment come down. I'm always reluctant to, to do spot estimates of a tenth of a point here or there. We may see months that go up and down, but we're heading in the right direction. We're seeing unemployment come down in the low eights and we certainly hope it gets lower than that.
MR. GREGORY: So the leadership deficit in Washington has had an impact on what business does in America and certainly our economic outlook. Here's a stat that a lot of people may not know, but it's pretty striking. The number of days since Senate Democrats passed a budget is 1,019. Can you just explain as a former budget director, how do you fund the government when there's no budget?
MR. LEW: Well, you know, one of the things about the United States Senate that I think the American people have realized is that it takes 60, not 50 votes to pass something. And there has been Republican opposition to anything that Senate Democrats have tried to do. So it, it is a challenge in the United States Senate to pass legislation when there's not that willingness to work together. Congress didn't do a great job last year. It, it, it drove right to the edge of a cliff on occasion after occasion. I actually think it's unfair to blame the United States Senate for that. A lot of that was because of the extreme, you know, conservative approach taken by House Republicans.
MR. GREGORY: Your party controls the Senate, does it not?
MR. LEW: Yeah, but it--the positions that ended up tying the Congress in knots came out of the House. It came out of the tea party wing in the House.
MR. GREGORY: But can you just explain to Americans how it is that the government funds itself when there's no budget?
MR. LEW: So, the, the, the Congress has to appropriate money to run the government on an annual basis and actually last year one of the things that was part of the budget agreement was agreeing to the overall levels of funding for two years. So Congress will be able to continue to do its business. It would be better to do it in the context of an overall budget. The president tomorrow will be presenting a budget that does $4 trillion of deficit reduction over 10 years. It does it in a way that builds an economy in America that can last. It does it by developing manufacturing, the skills that we need in this country, energy independence and calling for shared American values where everybody, you know, has a fair shot, does their fair share and plays by the same rules. That's what we hope Congress will do and we're going to work towards that end.
MR. GREGORY: It's probably fair to be cynical about whether people should pay too much attention to a budget outline when budgets don't get passed in Washington for 1,000 days, but I do want to ask you about the president's blueprint because it's seen in some ways as an election year document. This is how The New York Times described it in part and I want to have you react to this. "`President Obama pledged to cut the deficit in half by the end of his term,' said Stephen Miller, he's a spokesman for Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee. `Their optimistic projection is that next year's deficit will be almost a trillion dollars--after four straight trillion-dollar deficits. So the White House is bragging about a broken promise?' But deficit reduction may be beside the point. Mr. Obama appears to be laying out a campaign document that pits jobs programs paid for with tax increases on the rich against the deep spending cuts that will be the heart of the Republican Party's economic program, rebuilding vs. austerity."
I want to ask you this, I asked New Gingrich this last week, why shouldn't austerity be a centerpiece of what the United States government is about these days given how high the budget deficit is and how much economic uncertainty that fiscal insanity contributes?
MR. LEW: You know, David, I think that there's pretty broad agreement that the time for austerity is not today. We need to be on a path where over the next several years we bring our deficit under control. Right now we have a recovery that's taking root and if we were to put in austerity measures right now, it would take the economy in the wrong way. So The New York Times, for example, has very much argued that 2012, 2013 is not the time for austerity.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MR. LEW: The challenge is how do you do two things at the same time. How do you put money forward for things like the payroll tax holiday, for things like getting a jump-start on infrastructure, for building schools, and make the decisions for long-term deficit reduction. The president's proposed a plan that would do that. He was willing over the course of last year to negotiate a bipartisan agreement that would do it.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm. But cutting the deficit should not be the number one priority.
MR. LEW: We've seen, we've seen from, we've seen from Republicans in--particularly Republicans in the House, but with Republicans generally, that they don't want to be part of any plan that raises taxes at all. The president's budget has $1 of revenue for every $2 1/2 of spending cuts. This can be done, but it can only be done when we work together.
MR. GREGORY: But just to understand you, cutting the budget should not be the number one priority when you've got a slow economic recovery. That's your message.
MR. LEW: I think that...
MR. GREGORY: Cutting the deficit, I should say.
MR. LEW: I think that for, for the next short period of time...
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MR. LEW: ...our number one priority is Congress needs to do its work and extend the payroll tax cut. They have two, two weeks now to do the important business that they don't get in the way of our economic recovery. Congress should take seriously long-term deficit reduction. The president takes seriously long-term deficit reduction. That's why he's putting out a plan that has serious long-term deficit reduction. I hope that we can get to work on that this year, but it's not because it should take effect right now.
MR. GREGORY: Jack Lew, thank you very much.
MR. LEW: Good to be with you, David.
MR. GREGORY: Coming up next here, he came in a strong second in a straw poll among prominent conservative activists this weekend here in Washington, scored a string of primary victories this week. But can Rick Santorum go the distance against Mitt Romney's money and political machine? He's going to join me live from the campaign trail next.
Later, our political roundtable, Bill Burton, head of a super PAC supporting President Obama along with MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan, and The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne. After this.
MR. GREGORY: Coming up, does Rick Santorum have a realistic chance to win the Republican nomination? He'll join me next to talk about it after this brief commercial break.
MR. GREGORY: Joining me live this morning from California, former two-term senator from Pennsylvania, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum.
Senator Santorum, good to have you back on the program.
FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: Thank you, David, it's good to be on.
MR. GREGORY: Let's talk about this birth control fight and the direct question. You just heard the White House chief of staff. Is this a debate that you want to have in the course of the campaign as he would frame it, to deny women access to birth control in this country?
FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: No one's denying them access to birth control. This is, this is outrageous. I mean, the, the bottom line is that you have the federal government now saying we're going to give you a right and then saying, by the way, we're going to tell you how to exercise that right. We're going to control you, a religious, a church-affiliated group as to, you know, what you provide to your employee. And if you don't like it, tough, because our rights, our right to tell you what to do trumps your deeply held convictions about what your dollars should be spent for. And the idea that you can have the insurance company, and by the way, many and--of--a large number of Catholic social service providers are self-insured, and so the self-insured is the insurance company, they're going to be forced to still provide. So there's no compromise here. They're forcing religious organizations, either directly or indirectly, to pay for something that they find is a deeply, morally, morally, you know, wrong thing. And this is not what the government should be doing.
And this is not just Rick Santorum talking. You've got a lot of Democrats, you've got a lot of liberals who are, who are just aghast that this president's going to take on a fight of saying government will force you to do things that are against your conscience.
MR. GREGORY: Do you think this is a public health issue for women? I've heard you say before you think contraception is dangerous.
FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: Well, I--what I've talked about it with respect is my Catholic faith, which, you know, I, I agree with the Catholic Church on the issue of contraception. But as you know, I mean, I--that's, that's a different position than I have with respect to public policy. You know, public policy, women should have access to contraception. I have no problem with that at all. The question is whether some religious organization should be forced to pay for something that they believe is a moral wrong, and the issue is--the answer to that is no. And under the Obama administration policy they are continuing to be forced to do so.
MR. GREGORY: You talk about this in broader terms, as I brought up with Mr. Lew, the idea that a lot of conservatives have that this is beyond the religious freedom issue but this is what happens when government makes healthcare decisions. That's your argument and the argument of others. You've talked about this in terms of why you believe the president is dangerous, that re-electing the, the president would unmask some sort of hidden plan that he has for the second term. This is what you said recently on Fox News.
FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: I suspect that it will be backed down here rather shortly, but it's a lesson learned of what this president would do if he's got another term and he doesn't have to worry about re-election.
MR. GREGORY: What is that secret plan that you're, you're so worried about? And is that not just hyperbole and demagoguery?
FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: It's not secret at all. I mean, the president went out and, and promoted, at the time he was promoting Obamacare, a program of cap and trade where he wants to control and literally control people's availability to, to use energy in this country and, and charge you for that energy in a, in a way that, again, that the government decides the allocation of these resources. The president's agenda is very, very clear. He believes, as, as someone who's, who's smarter than everybody else, that they should make decisions for you and that whether it's health care, whether it's Dodd-Frank and having this consumer protection board that's going to go out and tell people what kind of loans they're going to get, who's going to qualify, who's not, this is government taking over choices from people.
Even if you look at the Medicare system, which we may be talking about. I mean, the idea that, you know, Ron Wyden and, and Paul Ryan come together and say, look, we're going to give Medicare recipients choices as to what is best for them. And President Obama says, oh, you give people choices, that's throwing people off a cliff. We need to make those decisions for them. We're the ones who should decide what kind of health care everybody should have. It is a top down, I--that government knows best attitude, and it's, and it's reaching more and more places in people's lives.
MR. GREGORY: I want to stay on some of the social issues that have come, I think, to define your campaign, that certainly give a lot of energy to your campaign and to your supporters. Let me ask you about gay marriage, an issue you've talked a lot about. Proposition 8 out in California became an issue this week. If the Supreme Court decided that gays and lesbians had a constitutional right to marry, what would President Santorum do? Would you respect that decision by the judiciary?
FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: Well, first off, it's not what's defining my campaign. I, I would say that what's defining my campaign is going out and talking about liberty, talking about economic growth, talking about getting manufacturing jobs back here to this country, trying to grow this economy to make sure that everybody in America can participate in it. I, you know, went after, as you know, Governor Romney very hard for this idea that he's not concerned about the very poor or the very rich. I'm concerned about everybody. And if you look at my track record, it's one that does reach down and make sure that everybody has an opportunity, whether it was the work that I did on welfare reform or the work that I did on creating all sorts of, you know, opportunities for people who are lower income, whether in my state or through economic, you know, enterprise opportunities for lower income people.
So my campaign isn't defined by social issues. I understand the media wants to focus that, that--on those issues, but I've been talking about the issues of economic growth. I've been talking about opportunity for everybody. I've been talking about freedom being at stake. And I have been talking about, to get to your question, I have been talking about the overreach of the judiciary. The judiciary has, has, not, not just in this case, but here, here you have the Ninth Circuit saying that a constitutional amendment is unconstitutional. I mean, that's just on its face almost absurd.
The people of the state of California can decide what kind of Constitution they have. There's a constitutional process and they can, they can create in a, in a Constitution rights so they can create responsibilities. That's, that's how the constitutional process works. And what the judges tend to do is say, nope, we're going to bypass the people and we're going to decide what new rights and responsibilities are in, in the Constitution.
MR. GREGORY: So what would President Santorum do?
FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: That's not the role of the judiciary.
MR. GREGORY: Well, what would President Santorum do?
FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: Well, I would the same thing with Roe vs...
MR. GREGORY: Would you respect the decision?
FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: I would so the same thing I'd do with Roe vs. Wade, which I would seek to try to overturn it. I think judicial tyranny is a serious issue in this--in this race and in this country, and we need judges who respect the people's voice. Let the people decide with respect to what the Constitution, you know, what the Constitution says if, in fact, they're going to go through a constitutional amendment process, which is what they did. The judges should respect that.
MR. GREGORY: There are other issues, social issues, the role of women in society that you've spoken out about and you've written about and, and you've been scrutinized for, but maybe not everybody is aware of some of the things you've said. You've been asked about women in combat, which is an issue that came up this week. You've also talked about, you know, your view of feminism, and it's something that you wrote about. I want to show something that you wrote in your book "It Takes a Family." "The radical feminists," you wrote, "succeeded in undermining the traditional family and convincing women that professional accomplishments are the key to happiness." Now, Senator, everything I've learned about feminism from my working mother, my working sister and my working wife is that it's about respecting the choice of working or not working, not somehow the choice of working undermining the, the traditional family.
FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: Well, I would agree with that if that's what it was about, but I can tell you as talking--I had a working mother, too, and working mother actually made more money than my dad throughout her career, and that was somewhat unusual back in the 1950s and '60s. And my wife is a working, working woman. We had children and she decided to, to take a career, take off time in her career and raise children. And I can tell you this section was written in large part in cooperation with her as a mother, who as a lawyer and neonatal intensive nurse, someone with a great amount of professional experience, who felt very much like society and those radical feminists that, that I was referring to, were not affirming her choice. We're looking--we're looking that as a choice that was not, in fact, the right choice. And, and there are a lot working--a lot of moms out there who did, who did step away from the workforce who feel that their choices are not as respected as those who continue in the workplace. All I'm saying is, and what I said in that book and what I've continued to say is we should affirm both choices. They are both very, very important things and, and, and women should have the, have the right to make those choices and should be affirmed completely as to whether the choice they make. That's what the book says.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: And, and I stand by what I said.
And with respect to the, to the issue of women in the military, you know, I understand that women in the military right now do serve in very hazardous positions and are, in fact, subject to--and we've seen a lot of injury, even serving, serving in front line positions. What I was referring to is women in infantry, in combat in the front lines.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: And that, that to me is a fundamentally different issue than the great work that women are providing in the military today.
MR. GREGORY: Are they physically--I guess there's...
FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: And doing so in harm's way.
MR. GREGORY: Are they physically up to the job of serving on the front lines?
FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: Well, there are obviously different physical requirements. I mean, you go to the--to any of the academies, there are different requirements, physical requirements for men and women. Why? Because there are physiological differences between men and women.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: And that's, that's one of the things that we have to consider in, in deploying them in an infantry position out there on the front line. And I don't--you know, I don't know of any, you know, any real discussion candidly that's talking about doing that.
MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you one more question about women. If you are president of the United States...
FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: ...and women want to work in your administration, do single women without children only need apply? Are you going to respect the decision of women to come work for you if that's the choice they make, or would they be somehow held by, by radical feminists?
FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: Well, as--I think if you go back and look at the people who have worked for me, we've had single women, we've had married women, we've had all sort of folks. We don't--I don't, you know, those are decisions, again, I affirm...
MR. GREGORY: Right.
FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: ...that, that if women want to come into the workplace, great. If they don't, that's great. You know, we're going to look at the best qualified people and there will be plenty of working moms who will be in our administration who will be adding greatly to the conservative cause that I believe in.
MR. GREGORY: Got a couple of minutes left. I want to talk about pure politics with you. Let me show the primary calendar right now and have you take me through what you see is your path to the nomination. Later this month is Arizona and Michigan. You've decided to, to really stake your claim in Michigan. Then onto Washington and Super Tuesday. Where's the path, Senator?
FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: Well, I mean, if you'd have asked me that question two weeks ago, I would've said, well, I'm going to win Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado, there would've been some chuckling, you know, behind the cameras. The fact of the matter is we've done pretty well in, in going out and making our case to the public generally. We've had a great week. We've raised over $3 million this week alone and the money continues to pour in. We feel great that some of these polls have come out in Michigan that show us ahead at this point, show us closing in Arizona, and we're going to work. I mean, I'm going to be in Washington state tomorrow, Idaho the next day, North Dakota the day after that, and then giving a speech at the Detroit Economic Club in Michigan and we're going to go out and again, make the case that we're the best candidate to contrast with Barack Obama. We've got the boldest plan to help everybody get to work in America, particularly in the state of Michigan. We're going to talk about the Made in the USA plan that, you know, creating an opportunity for manufacturing jobs. We're going to talk energy in North Dakota. Obviously, the Bakken up there is a key element for us to, to increase our energy supply here in America as...
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: ...very clear that the more energy and the cheaper it is here in this country, the better the standard of living, the quality of life and the economy's doing. So we're going to talk about energy and manufacturing this week and we think that's a great and positive message for the country.
MR. GREGORY: Is it going to be hard, as Newt Gingrich said, the longer conservatives stay split, the harder it is to beat Romney and then ultimately Obama? Is that your view as well?
FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: No. I mean, I won three races this week. That--I didn't, I didn't--you know, and I beat Governor Romney by 30 points in Missouri, almost 30 in Minnesota. And in a, in a place in Colorado, which he got 61 percent of the vote and worked hard, campaigned there, spent money there, more than I did, I was able to beat him in Colorado by 5. And so I, I feel very good that, you know, this is a two-person race right now. That's how we're focused on it. If you look at the results from Maine, I mean, we did--you know, we didn't spend any time there, we did much better than we expected. CPAC, again, we felt very good that it's, you know, a two person race and the other two, the other two candidates were pretty far behind. And I think Michigan and Arizona are going to show the same thing. We're going to stay focused on presenting the best plan, the best ideas to defeat Barack Obama and I think the people of this country are looking for someone who's going to focus on the issues, focus on Obama, and not play the kind of petty politics that we've seen in this campaign to date.
MR. GREGORY: Is there an area, a decision that you would take as president, or position that you might adopt even in the course of the campaign, that would make conservatives uncomfortable that you think you could take and still get the nomination?
FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: Well, look, I'm a conservative. I mean, I'm someone who believes in the founding principles that, you know, we have--we're a great country because we were built from the bottom up, one family, one church, one community organization, you know, one civic organization, one small business at a time. That's, that's what made America the greatest country in the world. That's, that's who I am. And I don't believe in government taking control of things and, and ordering things from the top down. So you're not going to see, you know, the, the October surprise, oh, Rick Santorum's for government doing something. It's just not what I believe in. I believe that government needs to be there as a referee on the sidelines, but they shouldn't be out there playing quarterback and running the offense. They have to, they have to be on the sidelines and let the American people, free people, believing in the opportunities that, that America creates, you know, build a great and just society.
MR. GREGORY: Finally, Senator, you know, I'm sure like me, you get offended when people say that Washington is not cool and doesn't have a fashion sense because at this conservative gathering, look what I found. If you've contributed nothing else to this campaign, you have brought back the sweater vest. And here is a Rick Santorum...
FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: The sweater vest.
MR. GREGORY: ...sweater vest that will certainly endure whatever the results of this campaign. True enough?
FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: Well, I hope so. I mean, you know, it's--you know, people have referred to me as the Richie Cunningham candidate. You know, a little bit, a little bit too clean and upstanding. But you know what, you know, contrasting that with what's going on out there in the popular culture, a little bit of Richie Cunningham wouldn't be a bad thing for our society right now.
MR. GREGORY: I think that's a headline. Thank you very much. Senator Santorum, appreciate it.
FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: Thank you.
MR. GREGORY: And coming up, will the return of social issues on the campaign trail benefit Rick Santorum? Will it pose a problem for Mitt Romney? Plus, five years ago, then Senator Obama launched his campaign by criticizing failed leadership and the smallness of our politics. Five years later, how will voters size up his leadership? Our political roundtable previews the fall campaign, head of the super PAC supporting President Obama Bill Burton, MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan, and The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne. Coming right back.
MR. GREGORY: We are back with our political roundtable. Joining me, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Joe Scarborough, and former deputy White House press secretary now senior strategist and co-founder of Priorities USA Action, Bill Burton. That's not a, that's not like a front company, that is actually, that is a super PAC that is supporting President Obama and that's why I wanted to have you here. You have experience being an aide to President Obama and now working on the, on the outside on some of these issues and we talk a lot about money and politics. So we'll get to that. But I want to start with everybody on a week, as I said at the top, the culture wars are suddenly back...
MS. PEGGY NOONAN: Hm.
MR. GREGORY: ...over this birth control decision. So where does it leave all the players in this race? E.J. Dionne, you've been outspoken about this issue in terms of how the White House handled it. Is this an issue that the president wanted?
MR. E.J. DIONNE: Well, if he didn't want it, then he acted in exactly the wrong way. I mean, I found this a remarkable sort of moment in the White House where they had warning for months and months and months that they had to be careful about this because even liberal Catholics like me, who are not against contraception, felt there was a legitimate religious liberty argument here and that you could find ways of providing contraception for women without having church-based institutions pay for them. They came to the right place, but this solution was available to them months and months ago and they seemed to reject it. And I think they hurt themselves in the process, even if I'm glad he finally came around to the right decision.
MR. GREGORY: The new cover of Newsweek, Peggy, is "The Politics of Sex." And you heard from Jack Lew, A, they're not backing down on this. They think this is a done deal.
MS. NOONAN: Yes.
MR. GREGORY: Even if the hierarchy of the church does not and other conservatives don't think it is. Is this a public health issue that they want to run on or something else?
MS. NOONAN: You mean why has all of a sudden this come forward? It's interesting to me that it is being portrayed as the, "contraception story." It is a story about more than that, as we all know. It is about contraceptive devices, a board of facients and sterilization procedures that the Catholic Church found unacceptable and, and wanted a conscience clause for itself and its agency. So it's about a First Amendment case, about religious freedom. It, it, it seems to me an odd and mischievous subject to, to be put forward at this point in America, which is already a country that is torn apart by so many things. I don't get the higher strategy, I simply thought the administration was wrong. I'm not convinced the president's accommodation will work, but I think it will probably take it to some degree out of the public sphere and into legislation and the courts.
MR. GREGORY: Well, let me--yeah.
MR. DIONNE: Just very quickly, if I could. I think that as long as this was a religious liberty argument, the church and its allies, the bishops and their allies, were--had a very good chance of winning the argument, and in effect I think they did. There is some conservatives in the church who seem to now want to move it to a contraception argument and the Obama administration would love that.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. DIONNE: If this is a fight about contraception and the availability of contraception Obama can win that.
MR. GREGORY: Well, but let's, let's talk about the, the...
MS. NOONAN: That's what the church thinks. Can I just note, by the way...
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MS. NOONAN: ...as Catholics it was so great for three weeks that we all got along. We were all in agreement.
MR. DIONNE: Yeah.
MS. NOONAN: I mean, this is a church that...
MR. GREGORY: Yeah, exactly.
MR. DIONNE: Persistent Obama united Catholics.
MS. NOONAN: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: All right, but beyond the Catholic Church, Joe Scarborough, the larger playing field here, which is Decision 2012...
MR. JOE SCARBOROUGH: Yeah. Right. Mm-hmm.
MR. GREGORY: ...I mean, this is in many ways much more about role of government, government making healthcare decisions. That's how it seems to me the conservatives will argue this.
MR. SCARBOROUGH: Right.
MR. GREGORY: That's what you heard from Senator Santorum.
MR. SCARBOROUGH: Right. you know, before the Friday deal everything was breaking conservatives way, united conservatives not only at CPAC but at even--economic conservatives that didn't like to talk about social issues saw this as a great overreach. And you had Democrats, you had the sitting Democratic vice president, you had Lieberman, a former vice presidential nominee for the Democrats, Kerry, a former presidential nominee for the Democrats, on and on and on saying that the president overstepped his bounds. Listen, at the end of the day, substantively there was no change. You have a president saying, "You don't want to pay for health care? Fine, we'll give it away for free!" There's a free lunch. All you're doing is shifting the burden to all Catholics now who are all paying for these contraceptive devices that they may--they may find to be immoral. But at the end of the day, this is all the president needs politically because now we have--we have sisters debating bishops, and we've got liberal Catholics debating conservatives Catholics. You've got Peggy and E.J. now once again where they should be, on opposite sides of an issue. For the president that's all he needed to do. He had a unified Catholic front against him, he split that in half now and now he can move on. And I agree with E.J. If this debate moves on and stops being about religious freedom and starts being about contraceptives--contraception, then Republicans lose in a very big way.
MR. GREGORY: Bill Burton:
MR. BILL BURTON: Well, I think that on the politics of this, the president was actually in an OK place before he made that compromise. Nothing indicated that broadly his numbers were going down, and in fact the Gallup daily track had him at the highest point since he's been in June.
MR. GREGORY: Then why did he rush to compromise?
MR. BURTON: Well, because he saw that some leadership was required here to bring the Catholics together with the progressive community and figure out a way to actually move forward on this issue. But I think that before the compromise the opponents were separated into three different camps. The folks who had a legitimate religious liberty concern, the folks who are actually just against contraception, and the people who were just playing politics. And what the compromise did was it isolated those folks who are just against contraception and who are just playing politics. It left the Mitt Romneys and Rick Santorums out on a, out on a limb outside of the mainstream of, mainstream of American...(unintelligible).
MR. GREGORY: Is it really outside the mainstream, though? I mean, that goes back to this point about it gets you into a debate about health care, about what health care represents in a, in a debate that is going to be pretty heated on that subject.
MR. SCARBOROUGH: But, David, it didn't just happen in a vacuum. You had three things happening in rapid succession. I guarantee you the Obama White House, from what I've heard, didn't like it...
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MR. SCARBOROUGH: ...and Mitt Romney, it's a nightmare for Mitt Romney.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah, talk about that.
MR. SCARBOROUGH: You had, you had the Planned Parenthood dust-up, then you had the HHS decision exploding, and then you had the Ninth Circuit deciding to overturn the, the constitutional amendment out in California, 14 million people voted in that. All of that lined up badly for the president, but much worse for Mitt Romney...
MR. GREGORY: Do you...
MR. SCARBOROUGH: ...who doesn't want to talk about social issues and now they're front and center and Rock Santorum is the big winner.
MR. GREGORY: Well, that's the question. I mean, have social issues gotten into this Republican race, E.J., in a way that leaves Romney already struggling with conservatives without a big enough voice?
MR. DIONNE: I think it's a real problem for Romney for the reasons Joe said, that he does not want this to be about social issues, he's been on various sides of important social issues, and in the larger narrative it goes to the question well what does Mitt Romney stand for?
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MR. DIONNE: Whether you like or dislike Rick Santorum you know what Rick Santorum stands for and that helps him. But if...
MR. SCARBOROUGH: Well, but E.J...
MR. DIONNE: ...can I just go back to something Bill said?
MR. SCARBOROUGH: ...E.J., he's a severe conservative. Did you not hear the speech? He's a severe conservative.
MR. DIONNE: I like compassionate conservatives better. But the--just on something Bill said. He was very--I agree where the politics are now, but I think he was very charitable to the president on this. You know, he--the president should have seen this coming a long time before he did. And I still think the administration has to look back and say, how did it lose track of that Obama who was so open on religious questions in 2006 and in the 2009 Notre Dame speech...
MS. NOONAN: Seems sophisticated about it.
MR. DIONNE: ...and was very sophisticated. They got to find that guy again.
MS. NOONAN: I have to tell you one of the things that is I think will be very damaging for the president long term on this, social issues aside, this whole argument we've been having for the past three weeks once again puts what had been a dormant issue, Obamacare, the president's healthcare plan, forward once again as the controversy it started out as. It is once again having--forcing people to think, God, this sort--this planned kind of forces people, it has dictates, it's decided on high in Washington and we have to go along with it even if it hurts our conscience or, or shows disrespect for our church. It's not good for the president if we go back to looking at Obamacare as that bullying and confusing entity that is 3,000 pages long and they sort of make it up as they go along, its meaning and its application.
MR. GREGORY: Well, let me interject something here because you're getting to something that I think is important, which are as the president campaigns for re-election these competing views of what he is, what he represents, what he wants to do. And Mitt Romney spoke about this at CPAC a couple of days ago and I want to play this tape about this one view of the president. Watch.
FMR. GOV. ROMNEY: I'm convinced that if we do our job, if we lead with conviction and integrity, that history will record the Obama presidency as the last gasp of liberalism's great failure and a turning point for the conservative era to come.
MR. GREGORY: So here's the counterpoint to that, Bill Burton. Ezra Klein, we were talking about a few minutes ago, writes for The Washington Post. He writes this about Obama. A different view. "Obama [is] a moderate president in an immoderate time. For progressives that moderation has been repeatedly frustrating. For conservatives it's been obscured by a caricature of the president as free-enterprise-hating socialist. And for the White House it's been a calculated strategy. We'll know in November whether it was the right one." Ideologue or moderate?
MR. BURTON: I think the president has governed exactly as he campaigned and exactly as the kind of guy he was even back in the state Senate where he avoided huge controversies and tried to be a leader and bring folks together. And I don't think anybody should be surprised at the kind of president that he's been given the kind of campaign that he ran. And if you look at Andrew Sullivan's piece today I think that that's actually a good snapshot at who the president is. He's done a great job of trying to push his opponents into the--into territory that leaves them outside the mainstream while the president can chart a course towards the middle.
MR. SCARBOROUGH: Well, let me just say Andrew Sullivan's piece is preposterous because, because he claims...
MR. GREGORY: This is in Newsweek.
MR. SCARBOROUGH: ...Andrew Sullivan claims that Barack Obama saw this coming all along and he was just setting his enemies up into a trap.
MR. BURTON: Well, I don't, I don't buy that part of it.
MR. SCARBOROUGH: Which--no, well, but which means that he was trying to set Joe Biden up in a trap and John Kerry up in a trap.
MR. GREGORY: For the larger--no.
MR. SCARBOROUGH: No, but the larger picture--one thing that Andrew Sullivan did say, since we just knocked him around, let's defend him. He did say you can't have it both ways. Barack Obama can't be Joseph Stalin and Jimmy Carter at the same time. Pick your poison. Is he an incompetent moderate, according to the right, or is he a dangerous ideologue? The fact of the matter is, look at his last State of the Union address. He is now in Clinton territory because he understands, like Bill Clinton, he got a lot of big things done on--from the left for the first year and a half, and he's going to spend the rest of his time, whether it's the next year or the next five years, compromising with the Republicans. He's not going to be...
MR. GREGORY: And compromising with himself, right? What happened to the, you know, the guy who stood up in front of the country during the State of the Union in 2010 and criticized the role of the super PACs? Now he's encouraging people to give to your super PAC.
MR. SCARBOROUGH: Yeah. And that's your fault, Burton.
MR. BURTON: Well, I just--I don't take all the blame. But the president--from what I read, the president has not changed his position on whether or not campaign finance ought to be reformed. I mean, the difference here is that Republicans look at campaign finance the way it is now and say, yeah, that's how we want it. We want unlimited donations. We want nondisclosure. We want all those things. Democrats, the president, all of us think that there ought to be disclosure, there are to be different rules. Our view is that we're not going to let one team of the field while we stand on the sidelines. Look, Major League Baseball can say, we're going to move baseball to 10 innings.
MR. DIONNE: Yeah. I...
MR. BURTON: That doesn't mean I'm not going to put a team out there for the 10th.
MR. GREGORY: Wait a minute, let me get Peggy in here.
MS. NOONAN: As a conservative, as I look at the administration, here's one thing that I think is kind of new the past few years. The leftist, if you will, part of the president's base seems to me to be, A, more leftist and, B, more powerful. When you have a White House, in the past month, E.J., that says, NARAL, National Abortion Rights Action League, and Planned Parenthood are here, the Catholic Church and I would argue the First Amendment are here, Who wins? NARAL and Planned Parenthood, that, to me, is the kind of politic calculation, just politics that is kind of mad, and that suggests a certain sort of, I hate to say extremism, but something rather extreme. Bill...
MR. DIONNE: But keep in mind that the American people...
MR. SCARBOROUGH: I think...
MS. NOONAN: May I say, Bill Clinton wouldn't have done it. This is not a traditional Democratic Party thing. This was a break with recent history.
MR. GREGORY: All right. Respond, E.J., yeah.
MR. DIONNE: We agreed there was overreach on this contraception rule. But I know the left. The left is not to the left of where it was, number one. Number two, Barack Obama is a moderate progressive with the emphasis on moderate. Most socialists are insulted when Barack Obama is called a socialist. It's absurd that this man is a socialist. And I think most of the country...
MS. NOONAN: I wasn't saying that. What I mean is he's being tugged.
MR. DIONNE: Oh, no, I mean, you weren't saying that, but I was--right. But--and--but I don't--I think right now what you have is that the left is very happy he is raising the issue of economic inequality which Occupy Wall Street pushed him toward. A lot of the country agrees with him on that. And so actually I think the pressures to move further left, and there isn't that much of a left in America to begin with, are really minimized.
MR. GREGORY: All right. Let me get a break in here. I want to come back and talk about trends and takeaways, some of the big points made in the course of our discussion today, and also the hot political stories trending this morning, right after this commercial break.
MR. GREGORY: We're back with more from our roundtable. I want to check in with our trend tracker, the big stories this morning. Romney winning Maine, giving him a little bit of new momentum. He also won that straw poll for CPAC, which is the conservative gathering in the Obama budget. I remember they haven't passed a budget in about a thousand days so I don't know how much discussion there's going to be about that. Number four was that E.J. didn't know Richie Cunningham from "Happy Days" when Rick Santorum said we need more Richie Cunningham in the race.
MR. SCARBOROUGH: Oh, my gosh.
MR. GREGORY: That's all people are going to be talking about.
MR. DIONNE: That's--I am sometimes culturally deaf and my children are the only people who can bring me back.
MR. GREGORY: Who can save you.
But the birth control controversy, is it over, is it not? That was a big debate at the top of the program.
(Videotape, earlier this morning)
MR. LEW: I think that the, the issue of providing women all forms of preventative health care has been and remains very important. The, the importance of protecting religious liberties in this countries has been important to the president, will always be. I think we've resolved this issue in a way where we can now go forward.
FMR. SEN. SANTORUM: The idea that you can have the insurance company, and by the way, many and--of--a large number of Catholic social service providers are self-insured, and so the self-insured is the insurance company, they're going to be forced to still provide. So there's no compromise here.
MR. GREGORY: Is it over? Is it not over, Joe?
MR. SCARBOROUGH: It's not over because Republicans are going to be pushing it on the House floor. They need to be very careful. They were winning when this was a First Amendment issue. When suburban women start thinking that they're attacking the rights of contraception, that becomes very dangerous for them politically. They need to tread very lightly.
MR. GREGORY: All right. We'll be watching it.
Before we go here this morning, a programming note. This week for our Press Pass conversation online I spoke with a leader in the Christian conservative movement, Tony Perkins, about the birth control controversy, also the 2012 race, specifically about Romney. It was very interesting. You can find that on our blog presspass.msnbc.com.
Thank you all for a great discussion this morning. That's it for today. We'll be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.