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updated 2/27/2005 3:19:22 PM ET 2005-02-27T20:19:22

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NBC News MEET THE PRESS

Sunday, February 27, 2005
                    
GUESTS: 
Senator JOE BIDEN, (D-Del.)
Ranking Member, Foreign Relations Committee

Senator RICK SANTORUM, (R-Pa.)
Chairman, Republican Conference

MAUREEN DOWD
Columnist, New York Times
                             
THOMAS FRIEDMAN
Columnist, New York Times              

WILLIAM SAFIRE
Columnist, New York Times

MODERATOR/PANELIST:  Tim Russert - NBC News

MR. TIM RUSSERT:  Our issues this Sunday:  The Bush-Putin meeting, the war in Iraq, the debate over Social Security.  With us for the Democrats, the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware; for the GOP, the chairman of the Republican Conference, Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.  Biden and Santorum square off.

Then our roundtable with William Safire, who retired from writing his op-ed column for The New York Times after almost 32 years.  He'll be joined by two current Times columnists, Maureen Dowd and Tom Friedman.  Safire, Dowd and Friedman only on MEET THE PRESS.

But first, Republican Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Democratic Senator Joe Biden of Delaware.

Welcome both.

SEN. RICK SANTORUM, (R-PA):  Thank you.

SEN. JOE BIDEN, (D-DL):  Good to be back.

MR. RUSSERT:  Here's the headline in today's Washington Post, Senator Santorum:  "GOP May Seek A Deal On Accounts," meaning private accounts, Social Security, saying that the president is being told by House Republicans, forget about private personal accounts out of Social Security payroll taxes.  Do something like Social Security plus, investment accounts outside of Social Security.  Are you open to that?

SEN. SANTORUM:  Everything's on the table.  That would certainly not meet my desire.  I don't think it solves the problem.  It doesn't solve the problem of making sure that younger workers have an opportunity to get the benefits that they are promised but Social Security under the current structure can't deliver.  And adding more taxes, which is what an outside account would be would simply be either a voluntary or forced tax increase to put that money aside, I don't believe solves the long-term problem and creates problems for current workers in our ability to compete with this globally competitive world we're in.

MR. RUSSERT:  What do you, Senator?

SEN. BIDEN:  Good idea.  Pat Moynihan is back.  He hadn't gone.  That was Pat Moynihan's idea and I think it's the correct idea.  And the presumption that Social Security can't meet its obligations rests on the notion that the federal government will default, something it's never done in 220 years, on an obligation, on Treasury notes, IOUs, just like the IOUs Japan has and other countries have in terms of buying our Treasury bonds.  And so I don't think we'll default.  And I think it's a good idea.

MR. RUSSERT:  The issue is the solvency of Social Security, and there's a real question as to whether or not accounts, personal or private, do anything to deal with the solvency problem.  Robert Samuelson wrote this in The Washington Post.  "The [Bush Social Security] plan doesn't address baby boomers' retirement costs.  Our central budget problem ... is the coming spending explosion in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, driven by aging baby boomers and rising health spending.  In 2004 these programs cost $965 billion.  ... The Congressional Budget Office projects that by 2030 their costs will rise to...more than $1.6 trillion in today's dollars. ...  Once you've done this math, you recognize that benefit cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are inevitable.  They're the only other way to limit massive tax increases or immense budget deficits. ...  The disagreeable reality is that the baby boom's sheer weight will sooner or later force cuts in Social Security and Medicare.  ... Personal accounts--like them or not--don't solve the real problem."

True?

SEN. SANTORUM:  Yeah, he--no, that is true that they don't solve the whole problem.  I think it solves a little bit of the problem, but Mr. Samuelson points out the exact point and that is there isn't one problem.  See, everybody is focusing on how do you bring the revenue line together with the benefit line?  But you create another problem when do you that.  If you bring it together by increasing taxes, then you're telling future generations that you're going to have higher taxes, higher costs of labor in a globally competitive world where that higher cost of labor is going to mean fewer jobs, or you're going to tell future retirees--and this is the third potential problem--that they're going to have 30 percent reduction in benefits over time, which means they're not going to have a secure retirement.  So the idea that Social Security's only problem is bringing these two lines together for solvency really belies the fact that by doing that you create other problems in the future.

That's what private accounts solve.  They give us the ability to have higher benefits without tax increases in the future because you pre-fund the liability and let the miracle of compound interest solve that problem in the future.

MR. RUSSERT:  But private accounts, personal accounts, Senator, alone do not solve the solvency problem.

SEN. SANTORUM:  No one's suggesting that.  The president's been very clear.

MR. RUSSERT:  You'd have to reduce benefits.

SEN. SANTORUM:  The president's been very clear that it's a combination of personal retirement accounts would solve the problem of retirement security for future generations and either a reduction in benefits or an increase in taxes--that combination.  But the combination will be smaller if you have personal accounts.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me show you more, Senator Biden, by Robert Samuelson.

"Bush wants it both ways:  He wants to appeal to younger voters by offering personal accounts; and he doesn't want to offend older voters, (including baby boomers) by cutting their benefits.  This may be smart politics, but it's lousy policy. ...  Democrats, like Bush, aren't acknowledging the unpopular choices posed by an aging baby boom generation."

Can you say today...

SEN. BIDEN:  I think he's right on both scores.

MR. RUSSERT:  So the Democrats should step forward and say, "We may have to..."

SEN. BIDEN:  No.

MR. RUSSERT:  "...reduce benefits, we may have to raise taxes"?

SEN. BIDEN:  No.  Or raise retirement age or raise the income of which is taxable, all of which relates to--there's--you know, the president of the United States--let's get one thing straight.  No matter how you cut it, this real debate on personal accounts is about the legitimacy of Social Security; it's not about the solvency of Social Security.  This does nothing not only to not make it solvent--the lines meet, as Rick says--it makes it less solvent. It makes it less solvent.  You've got to come up with $2 trillion in order to accommodate the president's plan that he put out there, about 4 percent.

Now, I'm ready, willing and able to listen to anything the president has to put on the table about the issue of how he's going to deal with the solvency of Social Security, and it will require a combination or one of all the things you mentioned.  But on private accounts, that only exacerbates the problem, exacerbates the problem, doesn't help the problem.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Santorum, it's interesting reading your comments about Social Security.  In 2000, you said, "There are three alternatives--raise taxes...cut benefits or...we could establish personal retirement accounts."

But in 1994, when you ran for the Senate, you said, "You can raise taxes, you can cut benefits or you can push back the retirement age in the future."  And went on to say, "It is ridiculous that we have a retirement age in this country at age 65 today.  ...Push it back to at least age 70. ... I'd go even farther if I could, but I don't think I could pass it."

Are you still in favor of raising the retirement age?

SEN. SANTORUM:  I think what Joe said was that that's one of the options on the table, and I think that has to be.  When you look at the fact that people are living substantially longer, I was speaking to a group of students at La Salle University at the time, and talking about them, and that for their retirement age, it was going to be 67, and I said that it probably in the future, as Joe mentioned, is going to be an option on the table to push back further.  But that's a benefit reduction.  I mean, let's be honest about what that is.  It is a reduction in benefits for future generations.

And where I would disagree with Joe is that I think that what personal accounts gets you--which I didn't talk about in 1994 because I wasn't that familiar with this concept, was that what it gets you is the opportunity to get better benefits in the future, and it's prefunding the liability.  We're at a $10 trillion shortfall over the life of this program.  And what we're talking about, instead of recognizing that and having to raise taxes, cut benefits or borrow more money in the future, is to prefund that now so we'll have fewer liabilities later.

MR. RUSSERT:  One of the other issues being talked about, Senator Biden, is raising the cap.  Right now, you pay payroll tax on the first $90,000 of your income.

SEN. BIDEN:  Right.

MR. RUSSERT:  Some are suggesting raising that to the first $140,000.

SEN. BIDEN:  The president suggested that as an option.

MR. RUSSERT:  It would be a tax increase for...

SEN. BIDEN:  Sure, it is.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...6 percent of high-income Americans.

SEN. BIDEN:  Sure, it is.  Absolutely, positively, it would be.  And if that's what the president proposes, I'll take a look at it.  But look, in terms of a crisis, let's get something straight here.  We're talking about 2018 being the year, which that's based on projections that are very modest in terms of our growth.  If, in fact,those projections are wrong, that number goes out further, number one.

So that's the point at which less money is going in than is going out.  Right now, we have this massive hemorrhage of more money in than out.  We're spending it all.  I don't know what happened to the lockbox.  Remember that campaign two years ago--I mean, two times ago, this lockbox?  Well, the lockbox went out with the tax cut.  The lockbox went out with 9/11.  The lockbox went out with a whole range of things.  There ain't no lockbox.  And so the problem is this is not--I am more concerned about Medicare.  That is the thing that's going to go bankrupt, really bankrupt quickly, and there ain't any IOUs in there for the government being obligated to turn around and be able to have to redeem.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me stay on this cap with Senator Santorum.  Could you support lifting the cap from $90,000 so that higher-earning-income Americans would pay Social Security tax on more income?

SEN. SANTORUM:  I think what the president said and I would agree with is that everything has to be on the table, with one exception in my case, which is that we shouldn't touch benefits for people at or over 55.  The president has also said we shouldn't have any kind of rate increase.  But I'm sitting down and negotiating with Democrats in the Senate, and what I've said is I can't expect them to come to the table with everything on the table unless I come to the table with everything on the table.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me show you what the House top two Republicans said.  They "swiftly rejected an idea floated by President Bush to raise the ceiling on wages subject to the Social Security payroll tax, with Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay saying that they would that a tax increase. ... `This Republican House didn't come here to raise taxes,' DeLay said.  ...`We can solve this problem without raising taxes.  ...To everybody that makes over $90,000 a year, it's a tax increase.'"

SEN. SANTORUM:  There is no question it's a tax increase, and it's a big tax increase.  It's a 12.4 percent tax increase on top of people at that level who are already paying 35 percent income tax.  And so the combined tax would be about 50 percent.  So, I mean, it's a significant tax increase, but it's...

MR. RUSSERT:  But it's on the table?

SEN. SANTORUM:  I--look, if you're going to try to solve a problem and you're bringing folks who don't agree with a lot of what you want to do, you've got to leave everything on the table to get them to the table.

MR. RUSSERT:  We've been talking about health care.  One of the things the president talks about in his budget proposal is Medicaid.  1.7 million people on Medicaid in your state of Pennsylvania, and the president wants to reduce funding significantly.  Do you support that?

SEN. SANTORUM:  Well, I'm certainly going to look at his Medicaid reductions. Look, if you look at the four biggest programs in Washington, D.C., first is Social Security, second is Medicare, third is defense and fourth is Medicaid. And three of those four are almost completely funding seniors.  And so we have a problem that Social Security alludes to, which is people are living longer and we have fewer people being born; birth rates are lower, and so we have fewer people paying in.  We've got to have-- we've got to figure out how we're going to take these systems--Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security--as Samuelson pointed out, over the long term and start doing some things to restructure those costs.  Otherwise they're simply going to get out of control, and the president's at least attempting to do that, and I give him credit for trying.

MR. RUSSERT:  Go ahead.

SEN. BIDEN:  Not restructuring; he's shifting the cost--shifting the cost to the states.  If he had a proposal to restructure the costs, I'd listen to it. This is shifting the cost, shifting the cost to those entities of less capacity and less resilience to be able to deal with the problem.

MR. RUSSERT:  So you think Delaware or Pennsylvania will have to raise taxes?

SEN. BIDEN:  Absolutely, they will, in fact, if the president's proposal goes forward.  Absolutely, positively.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me ask you about another tough issue for both of you: Amtrak.  The president wants...

SEN. BIDEN:  It's not tough for me.

MR. RUSSERT:  You take Amtrak every day back and forth to work.

SEN. BIDEN:  No, I mean it.  This is absolutely bizarre that we continue to subsidize highways beyond the gasoline tax, airlines, and we don't subsidize, we don't want to subsidize a national rail system that has environmental impact.  Do you know what it would take?  It would take us $71 billion to be able to go and take--if you took Amtrak out of the Northeast Corridor from Washington to Boston, to build enough highway on 95 to go up and back.  This is the ultimate being penny-wise and a pound-foolish.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Santorum, your Republican colleague from Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter, said the president's elimination of federal subsidies for Amtrak is unacceptable.

SEN. SANTORUM:  Yeah.

MR. RUSSERT:  Do you share that view?

SEN. SANTORUM:  I would agree with--it's not...

MR. RUSSERT:  So you're going to fight it?

SEN. SANTORUM:  It's not acceptable to me, either.  I think what the president has suggested, you know, is not going to pass, number one.  Number two, I think what he has been putting forward is that Amtrak has to be more efficient.  And I would agree with Joe 100 percent on the Northeast Corridor and probably the West Coast.  The problem is, you've got a lot of other lines that are horribly unprofitable, and they're in a political conundrum, which is if you eliminate those lines and they don't have the support to get the money they need--as long as you keep that--lines, they run huge deficits.  So it's--somebody has got to start to make tough decisions at Amtrak, and I'm going to certainly encourage that to occur.

MR. RUSSERT:  But you're going to fight the president?

SEN. SANTORUM:  I'll fight him on that money, yes.

SEN. BIDEN:  This is worth coming to the show for.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me turn to foreign policy.  Senator Biden, how do you think President Bush did in his meetings and press conference with Russian President Putin?

SEN. BIDEN:  I think he did well.  Look, he didn't accomplish anything, but then again, in terms of any breakthroughs with Russia, they're still talking about selling missiles to the Syrians, they're still talking about continuing the Bashir reactor in Iran.  They're unwilling to make some of the fundamental changes they have to make in terms of their own circumstance.  But I think it's important.  For the first time of late, the president's spoken up and said, "Look, Mr. President, President Putin, you're becoming a problem. You're pushing back democracy.  It's contrary to everything I've been saying. And if you don't begin to get it straightened out, we're going to have some problems."

And--but the one place I was most disappointed is the breakthroughs allegedly on dealing with loose nukes, nuclear material, etc., was not nearly as much as I think could have been accomplished.  And I think the only way to break through the bureaucratic conundrum here of us helping the Russians do away with the tons of plutonium they have and all the unsafe areas they have is for President Putin and Bush to say, "This is what we're going to do."  Right now we're in a big conundrum about liability insurance and the like.  I'm disappointed that there wasn't more that came out of it, but happy that the president was as straightforward as he was.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Santorum, if you read about what President Bush has said about Russian President Putin over the last couple of years, that he looked into his eyes and saw his soul, he is honest, straightforward, he wouldn't mind being in a foxhole with him, he can do business with him, and as recently as this week said he trusts him in terms of keeping Russia on a democratic course.  Is that wise rhetoric for a president of the United States to use about a Russian president?

SEN. SANTORUM:  Well, you know, I think this president has shown that he's willing to stand up and say what needs to be said against any foreign leader who is doing things that is not in the interest of the United States' national security of what he believes is in the best interest of the world.  And I think the president, in spite of all of those positive things he said, had the courage to go there, and face to face and before the Russian press and before the Russian public, and say things critical of this president, President Putin.  I think that kind of courage is to be admired out of this president, courage both ways, to compliment him when things are going well and to call him to task when they're not.

MR. RUSSERT:  Where are we in Iraq?

SEN. BIDEN:  We're on the brink.  We have a real shot here, Tim, if, in fact, we don't think that the Iraqis can do it on their own.  We should be setting up an international sort of board of directors, made up of the president of the E.U., the secretary-general of NATO, the United States as the chairman of the board, essentially a clearinghouse for the Iraqis right now because they have some tough decisions to make.  They know they have to bring the Sunnis in.  It's very difficult for the Shia to do that and the Kurds to do that. They need somebody to blame it on.  They've got to be able to say "Look, you know, I don't want to do this to my constituency but in order to get the following help."

And we have to broaden--we have to give the Europeans a seat at the table in order to have--send them a bill.  And they now say they're ready to sign up, train Iraqi troops.  You know, all that fight about how many troops are trained or not, well, they sent up the supplemental, in the jargon of your listeners, additional money for Iraq, and in it they put the truth.  "We have trained 90 battalions, but only one--we have 90 Iraqi battalions, `Only one is trained.'"  We got a long way to go.  They finally figured it out.  They're working on it, and if we stay clear on this and provide this to--you know, bring in the rest of the community, the rest of the world, and set up, in effect, a contact group, we have a shot to help them navigate themselves through a very difficult period here.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Santorum, how concerned are you about the man who looks like he'll be the next prime minister, Ibrahim Jafari, a head of the Dawa Party, a that's been linked to terrorism?  What are we going to in charge in Iraq, an Islamist with potential terrorist ties?

SEN. SANTORUM:  I think that's one man.  I think you're seeing a lot of other players in this, and the fact that it was not an overall--overwhelming election on the part of that coalition I think will require what you're seeing, which is a lot of collaboration and cooperation, and that one man, as you know, will be just an interim president.  But working on that constitution will not just be him but a whole group of people.  The Kurds are beginning to exert themselves some more now, which I think is positive.  I think you--I don't see that one individual as being necessarily a stumbling block to this process.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Biden, judicial nominations.  Way back in 1987, you were talking about...

SEN. BIDEN:  How do you remember all these things?

MR. RUSSERT:  Well, we work hard at this, Senator.  And you said, "I think the advice and consent responsibility of the Senate does not permit us to deprive the president of the United States for being able to appoint that person or persons who have a particular point of view, unless it can be show their temperament does not fit the job, they are morally incapable or are unqualified for the job; they have committed crimes of moral turpitude."

People who don't have a particular point of view?  If someone has a conservative view, then why would you try to block him from being voted on in the Senate?

SEN. BIDEN:  I don't think we should try to block him from being voted on in the Senate.  Here's the deal.  The question is the people I voted on--against in some of the nine nominees the president sent back up--not all of them I didn't vote against, but some of them I did--is because I thought they did not have a judicial temperament, like the justice out of Texas.  Now--but to make it clear, I also sort of set the standard people don't like having been set, saying that for a Supreme Court justice it's a different deal because they're not bound by stare decisis.  If a district court judge or a circuit court judge says, "I'll be bound by--even though I have a different view on this issue, that I'll be bound by what the court has said," I'll take them at their word even though they may have a different personal view because they can't go beyond what the Supreme Court judgment is.  Supreme Court justices, different deal; de novo, they can come along and say, "I disagree with the past rulings of the Supreme Court."  So it's a different standard for Supreme Court.  For the district courts, that's the standard I've applied.  That's why I voted for all but I think--think there's been somewhere over 1,250 judges I voted for and I've only voted no I think 16 times.

MR. RUSSERT:  If the president decided to elevate Antonin Scalia to chief justice, would you vote for him?

SEN. BIDEN:  No.  I would spend a lot of time making the case he shouldn't be chief justice.

MR. RUSSERT:  You voted to confirm him for the court.

SEN. BIDEN:  I did.  I voted to confirm him to the court.  He's turned out to be everything that everybody said he would be, a brilliant guy with a view of the Constitution and how to read it fundamentally different than I think it should be read.  He thinks...

MR. RUSSERT:  But on your standards, does he lack judicial temperament?

SEN. BIDEN:  No.  Remember what I just said about the Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court's a different deal.  At the time we voted for him, he was a blank slate.  Nobody knew.  Including old Mario Cuomo was pushing hard for Antonin Scalia.  He went overwhelmingly through.  Dennis DiConcini, I think, was the only one who voted no, but...

MR. RUSSERT:  So you would oppose him because he's a conservative?

SEN. BIDEN:  I would oppose him because of his methodology, the way he interprets the Constitution; i.e., he thinks there are no such thing as unenumerated rights in the Constitution which fundamentally alters the way in which you read the liberty clause of the 14th Amendment and a whole range of other things.  I think he's a brilliant, decent man who I think misreads the Constitution, in my view.  I would vote no.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Santorum, would you support a constitutional amendment to allow people who are citizens for 20 years to run for president?

SEN. SANTORUM:  No, I probably wouldn't.  I think the Constitution probably has it right.

MR. RUSSERT:  Natural born.

SEN. SANTORUM:  Yeah, I think natural born is fine.  I'm not...

MR. RUSSERT:  So Arnold Schwarzenegger is out.

SEN. SANTORUM:  Look, I don't see a great need to change that area of the Constitution.  I think there's a lot more pressing issues to change than allowing people who are born overseas to come here, so I don't see any reason.

MR. RUSSERT:  How about you?

SEN. BIDEN:  I want to help Arnold any way I can, but I'm incredibly reluctant to amend the Constitution for any purpose.

MR. RUSSERT:  2008, are you going to run for president?

SEN. SANTORUM:  I have no intention of doing that.  I'm running for re-election to the United States Senate.  That's what I'm working on.

MR. RUSSERT:  No intention?

SEN. SANTORUM:  One of the things I learned and Joe will probably back me up on this, you never say never in politics.  And so I'm not going to put myself where Russert's going to put something up on the screen with me a couple of years from now, you know, whatever that is.  What I've said is it's a great honor to represent the people of Pennsylvania.

MR. RUSSERT:  Well, if you were re-elected to the Senate by the voters of Pennsylvania...

SEN. SANTORUM:  I'm going to be running for the whip's office in the United States Senate.

MR. RUSSERT:  Would you pledge to serve a full six-year term?

SEN. SANTORUM:  One of the things I've nev--again, I never do those kinds of things.  My sense is that the people of Pennsylvania are--I'm running for re-election and that's all I'm going to say.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator, how about you?  Running for president?

SEN. BIDEN:  Thank you.

SEN. SANTORUM:  Is that a prayer for me, Joe?  Thank you.  I appreciate that.

SEN. BIDEN:  The answer is there's a lot at stake and I might.

MR. RUSSERT:  When will you make a decision?

SEN. BIDEN:  I think I have to make that decision by the beginning of the next congressional election cycle.  Practically I think--personally have to decide whether I'm serious about it by the end of this year.

MR. RUSSERT:  In 1988, you ran for president, withdrew from the race after accusations you borrowed words from other politicians.

SEN. BIDEN:  Yeah.  Yeah.

MR. RUSSERT:  What did you learn from that?

SEN. BIDEN:  I learned that you've got to be a lot more careful.  You've got to stand up and take responsibility for what mistakes you made.  And it doesn't matter whether what you're accused of is what you did.  The fact of the matter is I was lazy.  The fact of the matter was I was arrogant about how I went about it.  And I hope in the last--it will be 20 years if I do it again.  I hope I've learned something from that in the last 20 years, but...

MR. RUSSERT:  Could you beat Hillary Clinton in a primary?

SEN. BIDEN:  Oh, I think she'd be incredibly difficult to beat.  I think she is the most difficult obstacle for anyone being the nominee.  And by the way, I shouldn't be saying this, an admission against interest.  I'm one who doesn't believe that she is incapable of being elected.  I think she is likely to be the nominee.  She'd be the toughest person.  And I think Hillary Clinton is able to be elected president of the United States.

MR. RUSSERT:  Who do you think will be the Republicans nominee?

SEN. BIDEN:  I don't know.  What I understand is--other than Rick, who probably is the most likely nominee, I guess, is probably Frist you hear most about.  But, look, as you know better than I do, Tim, four years is a lifetime.  It's three lifetimes in American politics.  So this is a long way. I've learned that, too.  And there's a lot of time between here and there.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Joe Biden, Senator Rick Santorum, thank you both.

SEN. SANTORUM:  Thank you, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT:  Coming next, three Pulitzer Prize-winning columnists from The New York Times are here:  William Safire, Maureen Dowd, Tom Friedman together coming up right here on MEET THE PRESS.

                               (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  Our MEET THE PRESS roundtable:  William Safire, Maureen Dowd and Tom Friedman all from The New York Times altogether, after this station break.

                               (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  And we are back.  Welcome, all.

MR. WILILAM SAFIRE:  Morning.

MR. RUSSERT:  Remember when Bob Dole saw three former American presidents, he said, "Hear no evil, see no evil and evil"?  Take your choice.  Mr. Safire, let me start with you.  Busy week for the president, went to Europe, met with Russian President Putin.  Give him a grade.

MR. SAFIRE:  I was disheartened and dismayed by the way he went eyeball to eyeball with President Putin and Bush blinked.  Here is a president who has been talking eloquently about extending freedom and fighting for democracy around the world in his inaugural address and the State of the Union.  And as soon as he comes up against the man who is doing more to stop the extension of freedom than anybody else, he wimps out all of a sudden.  I think this was as big a blunder as his father made when he gave the chicken Kiev speech, saying, "Stay within the Soviet Union."

I think most accommodationists and certainly everybody in the State Department is delighted with the way Bush poured praise on Putin, and I think it's terrible.  This was the time to stand up to him and say, "Hey, you're providing arms to Syria.  You just sent 100,000 Kalashnikovs to Castro's friend who runs Venezuela.  You're helping Iran develop nuclear bombs, and you ought to stop it.  And worst of all, you're rolling back democracy in Russia." And so what does he do?  He talks about my friend, Vladimir.

MR. RUSSERT:  Maureen Dowd, Mr. Putin responded by talking about the Electoral College, suggesting to President Bush that "The majority of American voters in 2000 may have voted for the Democratic candidate, but you became president," trying to have some kind of comparability between American democracy and so-called Russian democracy?

MS. MAUREEN DOWD:  Well, the subtext of the press conference was fascinating, because when Putin said that, what he was really saying was, "Look, your daddy's friends on the Supreme Court made you president, and the guy who won the most votes didn't, so don't tell me I shouldn't be appointing governors instead of letting them be elected."  And on this trip, Bush learned the old Murray Kempton thing about "the evil of lesser evilism," because I was with him in 2002 when he met Putin, and he was so happy to get to Putin after being condescended to by Chirac and Schroeder, and he thought he had a soul mate and a pal, and he called him--"Puty-Put" and "Ostrich Legs" were his nicknames for Putin.  And he thought that the former evil empire would help him with the axis of evil and the evildoers, but, you know, now the former evil empire is looking more evil.

MR. RUSSERT:  Tom Friedman, but it is a delicate balance, because we do need President Putin's help on the war on terrorism.  We need his help if, in fact, we can turn Iran around.  We need his help with North Korea.  How do you handle that balance?

MR. TOM FRIEDMAN:  Well, it is a delicate balance, Tim.  I think the criticism one could level at the administration on this issue is, given the slack that the president has cut Putin now for four years, basically, doesn't seem he has a lot to show for it.  Iran is that much closer to a nuclear weapon.  We still have the whole issue of the disposal of Russian--Soviet-era nuclear weapons.  They're continuing to sell arms to Russia.  The question that the administration really has to answer is:  How has this kind of conciliatory approach actually delivered for American interests?  It's not clear to me it has.

MR. RUSSERT:  One interesting development is what is happening in the Middle East.  After the Iraqi election, other Arabs looked upon that and said, "Hmm." Egypt looks like it may have, for the first time in 50 years, a second political party or perhaps more running for president of Egypt.  We have to see in the fine print.  Saudi Arabia, Mr. Safire, said that, "We are going to make some changes, perhaps even allow women to vote, but for God's sakes, leave us alone."  Is there something going on in the Middle East because of what happened in Iraq?

MR. SAFIRE:  Well, having zapped the president just a moment ago, I've been a big believer in the rightness of the cause of going into Iraq and changing the regime.  And with Tom--sometimes we agree, and on this one I think we do agree that the noble motive of changing the whole dynamic of the Middle East seems to be working.  I mean, it didn't work as well as we had hoped, but it's catching on.  Now, look at the role that we're on electorally.  The Afghan election surprised everybody.  Eighty percent of the people turned out, against all intimidation, and we had a democratic election there.  I'm looking at a cheat sheet here.  Australia came up with an election supporting the government that supported us in Iraq.  The USA, clear victory for Bush. Ukraine--suddenly the democrats won and threw out the Putin appointee.  Iraq, we got a real election despite the al-Qaeda and Ba'athist, fascist insurgency. The Palestinians had a somewhat democratic election, and now in Lebanon we may just next month have a democratic election.  And as you say, Egypt has begun to talk about it.  Talk is cheap but we'll see what happens.

So we are on a roll, and it happened when this president started it all with Iraq.

MR. RUSSERT:  Maureen Dowd, "on a roll"--there were no weapons of mass destruction, which was the primary rationale for the war, but would you now accept the fact that, because of the invasion of Iraq, there is a possibility of democracy in Iraq and perhaps that may spread through the Middle East?

MS. DOWD:  I think Bill and Tom are right.  It's so 20th century to go to war because you have to.  Now, we go to war because we want to.  But the problem with that is that kind of moral absolutism gets you into a lot of ends-justify-the-means traps.  And that's what we saw in Europe and with Putin, because Putin can also say, "Well, our ends justify our means."  And look at us, and we're torturing people and we're outsourcing torture.  The administration is trying to throw journalists in jail and basically trying to replace the whole press crew with ringers, including male escorts.  I mean, even Nixon hated the press, but he never tried to actually do an "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" thing with them.  So as Tom has pointed out, it's a Pandora's box.  There are good spirits and evil spirits that we've unleashed.

MR. RUSSERT:  But in hindsight would you say that perhaps the war was the appropriate course?

MS. DOWD:  Well, I am old-fashioned.  I think you actually have to tell the American people the truth before you go to war.

MR. RUSSERT:  How do you see Iraq?

MR. FRIEDMAN:  I think it's a big deal, and I think that we are at a tipping point in the Middle East.  I think it's going to play out over a long time but, Tim, the necessary things have happened in Iraq, in Lebanon, and in the Israel-Palestinian theater.  In Iraq we've had eight million Iraqis come out and basically say, "We want a different future."  In Lebanon, we've had Lebanese stand up for the first time and shout something they've only whispered before:  "Syria, we want you out of here."

In Israel-Palestine, we have a decent Palestinian government and we have Israel getting out of Gaza.  The Palestinians are going to have a place in the sun.  It's a miserable place, but if they turn it into something decent, it's going to completely catalyze that frontier.  So I think we're at a major tipping point.  The necessary things but not the sufficient things for me to feel that this tipping point won't be a teeter-totter.  But I'm very optimistic.  I think this is a big, big deal.  This is--has has the potential to be as big as Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in terms of fundamentally reshaping that part of the world.

But we still got to finish the war in Iraq.  It's not done.  We've still have to get the Syrians out of Lebanon and we've still got to consolidate an Israeli-Palestinian peace.  So there's a career in all three of those things, and it's going to take a huge amount of baby-sitting and involvement.  But what's happened is really, really big and I think really, really good for America and the world.

MR. RUSSERT:  Tipping point, could it tip back into a potential civil war if the Sunnis continue to stay out of the government?

MR. FRIEDMAN:  Absolutely.  Right now in Iraq the big question, Tim, is can the Shiites, who will dominate the next government basically, will they reach out and share power?  The key thing to watch for, for me, is will the Sunnis get either the national security job, ministry of defense, ministry of interior or ministry of intelligence?  I think that'll be part of the bargaining but I'm rather optimistic.  I don't think the Shiites have come this far to inherit an ungovernable Iraq.

MR. RUSSERT:  Don't we need 200,000 Iraqis, plus, to step forward and say, "I want to be a soldier, I want to be a policeman or policewoman and I'm willing to die for my government"?

MR. SAFIRE:  Little by little, we're getting there.  When it looks better, more people come.  I think there is a wave of optimism now developing.  We've got to be a little cautious about that because just as you asked about the Middle East, immediately Islamic Jihad sends a suicide bomber in and kills four Israelis and claims responsibility for it.  That's a direct challenge to Abu Mazen in Palestine.  Will he respond to that challenge?  Will he crack down or will he continue to try to co-opt, as he says, the militants, the terrorists?  So a lot depends on what goes next.  In Iraq, I think we're on the right track, and these things have momentum.  I think we're beginning to build up some momentum and we'll get more Iraqis volunteering.

MR. RUSSERT:  Maureen Dowd, you watched the president very carefully.  Tom Friedman, Bill Safire saying we have a real potential for success in Iraq. How will the president respond to that success?  "I told you so" or "You know what?  This is a long, hard, difficult slog.  I'm going to keep reaching out to European allies and others and try to make this right."

MS. DOWD:  Well, I think that the whole point of the trip was to reach out. But you know, it's hard to have a charm offensive when your message basically is we were right, we ignored you, we blew off everything that was important to you and now we're going to allow you to help bail us out of Iraq.  So it's a tough message.

MR. RUSSERT:  You're nodding your head.

MR. SAFIRE:  I'm still thinking of what Tom said about...

MS. DOWD:  He's nodding his head for Tom.

MR. SAFIRE:  ...the importance of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt.  And...

MR. FRIEDMAN:  You know, we do c--Bill looks into my office.  This is how we used to do columns sometimes, and he'd say, "What position are you taking on X issue?"  And I'd say, "I think I'm going to do this."  He'd say, "Good.  I'll write the opposite."

MR. SAFIRE:  Although--now that corridor that we work in, all three of us, or me until last week...

MR. RUSSERT:  This is murderer's row.

MS. DOWD:  Yeah.

MR. SAFIRE:  Yeah, as...

MS. DOWD:  You're an honorary murderer now.

MR. FRIEDMAN:  Right.

MR. SAFIRE:  I would go out into the hallway there and I'd be writing a piece about the Middle East.  And I can get through to Eric Sharon because I believe in comebacks and I used to buy him breakfast when he was on the APs.  And so Tom and I would meet and we'd negotiate.  You know, "How much of the West Bank?  How much of the Jerusalem?"  And we'd reach an intelligent solution. And he'd go and write his column.  I'd go and write mine.  And if only the Israelis and the Palestinians approached it the way we did, they'd be three or four years ahead.

MR. RUSSERT:  Are you surprised that Sharon is making the compromises, concessions that he's making?

MR. SAFIRE:  Not really because five or six years ago, he was saying, "I know Abu Mazen.  He's been to my farm.  We've talked, and it could be that we could do business some day."  And he also at 76--and he's a patriarch, and he's looking at another patriarch in Abu Mazen, and the two of them could make the arrangements leading to a final settlement some day.

MR. RUSSERT:  Is this Nixon goes to China?

MR. SAFIRE:  It's the surprise of the de Gaulle and Algeria, the Nixon and China.  The man you'd least expect to rip up the settlements in the West Bank, the last man in the world, the guy who put them there, is the one who can use that as a device to make a final peace.

MR. RUSSERT:  What's your sense?

MR. FRIEDMAN:  I think it's for real, but I think it's not driven so much by the relationship with Abu Mazen but the fact that we were heading for a point where if Israel did not divest itself of the Gaza Strip, there would be a Palestinian majority very shortly in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, and to preserve the Jewish majority in Israel, this was a necessary move by Ariel Sharon.  He said in an interview earlier this year--people asked him, "Why did you do this?" and he said, "You know, I could see things from here that I couldn't see from there."

And he had the responsibility.  He stepped up to it.  He risked his political career and his life in doing this and is still risking his life.  I think it's a total game changer because what the Palestinians make of Gaza, Tim, what the people of Dubai made of their little sand strip, which is the Hong Kong now of the Persian Gulf, if they make of it, we're going to get a deal on the West Bank.

MR. RUSSERT:  You mentioned to me the security ring around Sharon is just unprecedented.

MR. FRIEDMAN:  Yeah, it's like a rugby scrum, you know, and it's not for Palestinians they're afraid of.  It's for crazy Jewish settlers, the very people who killed Yitzhak Rabin.

MR. RUSSERT:  We're going to take a quick break.  A lot more of our roundtable with Maureen Dowd, Tom Friedman and Bill Safire right after this.

                               (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  And we are back.  Maureen Dowd, Hillary Clinton was on this program last week, and she said, "No matter what you may have thought about the war in Iraq, the fact is now we have to stay, and we have to win," in effect, and that to look back is the wrong way to go, and that to have a timetable for troop withdrawal would be a green light to the terrorists. There was not any room between her view and that of John McCain.  What's going on with Senator Clinton?

MS. DOWD:  Tim, I know you're salivating for a Hillary-Condi 2008 race, and it's interesting, because Hillary's nickname is "The Warrior" with her staff. And Condi obviously is the warrior, as she showed when she reviewed the troops in Wiesbaden this week in a "Matrix" dominatrix outfit that is going to put the Oscar women to shame in the high black stiletto boots...

MR. RUSSERT:  Wait, who called it that?

MS. DOWD:  The Washington Post did a analysis of it and said it was the epitome of female power dressing, a very laudatory analysis.

MR. SAFIRE:  You never wear boots?

MS. DOWD:  Yes, but it was the stiletto black boots reviewing the troops that showed female power.

MR. RUSSERT:  You've never seen Safire's stiletto black boots?

MR. SAFIRE:  Oh, I tromp around in them all the time, but not in the office.

MR. RUSSERT:  But what's going on with Senator Clinton?

MR. SAFIRE:  Hillary the hawk and...

MS. DOWD:  Well...

MR. SAFIRE:  ...it's the way to go.  It separates her from Howard Dean and the Democratic left, which she's gotten in her pocket anyway, and she's running for the middle, which is what, frankly, Bill Clinton did.  I think she's being advised secretly by Bill Clinton.

MS. DOWD:  Well, she voted for the authorization of the war, you know.

MR. SAFIRE:  Right.

MS. DOWD:  She got on the Armed Services Committee.  She...

MR. SAFIRE:  Yeah.  So...

MR. FRIEDMAN:  But this is the biggest liberal project in the world going today, building democracy in the Middle East.  And if you have a Democratic Party that is indifferent to it--this is a really important project that any party that doesn't think it's important--I'm not saying it's going to succeed, but it doesn't think it's important, that party is not going to be important in American foreign policy terms.  I think Hillary understands that.  I think Joe Biden understood it from the very beginning.  And I think Hillary, as Bill and Maureen have suggested--she's got a pretty good political adviser who understood it from the very beginning, too.

MR. RUSSERT:  So no matter what people may have thought about the war and the lead-up to the war or the management of the war or the absence of weapons of mass destruction, now that we're there, there's so much at stake that it's a political risk to oppose it?

MR. FRIEDMAN:  I think so.  You know, having not believed there was WMD there in the beginning and not believed that that was what the war should be about--I always thought it should be about this project of building democracy there--I don't have any problem with that, but I understand certainly Maureen's point.  I wish the administration had told the truth from the beginning, but the fact is we are where we are, and where we are is really important because the war on terrorism, Tim, is a war of ideas.  And the only way you win the war of ideas is when the people over there--it takes a village--when the people there say, "This is shameful what you are doing, this fascism, this jihadism, this suicidism"--and the Iraqi election was the first step toward that, and that's a big deal.

MR. SAFIRE:  I don't buy what my colleagues, both of them, have said about telling the truth.  I think that the administration--and I know that I, in writing about this impending war in 2001, 2002--were telling what we believed to be the truth about weapons of mass destruction, and what the French and the British intelligence agencies believed to be the truth.

MR. RUSSERT:  But did you want to hear any contrary view?

MR. SAFIRE:  Of course not.  But how could, they help it?

MR. RUSSERT:  I rest my case, Your Honor.

MR. SAFIRE:  But...

MR. FRIEDMAN:  You see how difficult it is in that hall, so...

MR. RUSSERT:  Who else do you see running for the presidency in 2008?  Are you serious with Condoleezza Rice?

MS. DOWD:  No, I just think that that would be...

MR. SAFIRE:  I am.

MS. DOWD:  ...a fantasy ticket.  Of course, the parties aren't going to let two women run against each other.

MR. SAFIRE:  But who will be the vice president?  Larry Summers?

MS. DOWD:  I know.  Larry Summers--well, in part of the clips you gave me backstage, Time magazine this week has a piece saying that--quoting neuroscientists saying the brain is a sex organ, and he was right that men and women look at everything in a totally different landscape, but that women don't have...

MR. RUSSERT:  What are you reading backstage?

MS. DOWD:  ...limitations--you gave it to me.  And that's the most interesting movie news, actually, more than the Oscars, that Larry Summers went with his daughters to see "Hitch," the romantic comedy about how men can appeal to women, so he's trying.

MR. RUSSERT:  Who else do you see running for president?

MR. SAFIRE:  Well, we're talking here about the president of Harvard University...

MS. DOWD:  Right.

MR. SAFIRE:  ...who exhibited academic freedom in saying something politically incorrect and the roof fell in on him.  But good for you, Larry. What was your question?

MR. RUSSERT:  Who else do you see running for president--not of Harvard, of the United States?

MR. SAFIRE:  Oh, John McCain, I think, will be the front-runner on the Republican side.

MR. RUSSERT:  He'll be age 72.

MR. SAFIRE:  I'm not a hundred--well, what was Reagan when he ran?  He was...

MR. RUSSERT:  Sixty-nine.

MR. SAFIRE:  OK.  So we're moving it up, like Social Security.  I have a problem with John McCain.  He's been very weak on privacy issues as the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.  He just didn't think it's important.  I think privacy, not just the government poking into your private life but all the corporations doing a fantastic job of marketing and snooping on everything you do, that's a big issue.  I think it will be a big issue in the next presidential campaign, and McCain is weak on that.  But he's not weak on anything else.  So I think he and Condi Rice will make a heck of a ticket.

MR. RUSSERT:  How about Rudy Giuliani?

MR. SAFIRE:  Both Giuliani and Schwarzenegger, who's not a potential candidate, are on the moderate side of the Republican Party.

MR. RUSSERT:  Bill Frist?

MR. SAFIRE:  And they're libertarians and have a tough time getting the nomination.  Bill Frist--I think he's going to get beaten up a little bit in the next year trying make compromises, and he may not last.

MR. RUSSERT:  Tom Friedman, you're suggesting that the Democrats have to be very careful not to be perceived in 2008 as a party that in any way contributed to losing Iraq, if that were to happen.

MR. FRIEDMAN:  I don't think they could possibly be blamed for losing Iraq. We're at a stage now in Iraq, though, Tim, where all the issues that we were debating before--Do we have enough troops on the ground?  What is the pace of training?--all the issues related to the Pentagon's performance here are still very much alive.  Look what happened just in the last week--I mean, the number of American soldiers killed, the number of Iraqis killed.  As much as I want this to succeed, as important as I believe this is, this is not over.  It's not over for the Bush administration.

But I do believe that it is so important, and precisely because it's so important, it's too important to be left to the Bush administration alone. Democrats need to be in there.  Joe Biden, who was here, gave a lot of good advice during the last two years to Rumsfeld that was ignored--OK?--about troop levels.  And I believe that Democrats should be not only participating in this with their enthusiasm but with their ideas, and embracing it and trying to shape it.  This is the biggest democratization project in the world going, and one that is fundamental to our national interests.  The idea that the Democrats would just sulk on the side and basically put them in a situation where they only succeed if the country fails--that, to me, is as dumb as the day is long.

MR. RUSSERT:  Do you think Iraq may be an issue in 2008?

MR. FRIEDMAN:  I don't--I'm hoping it won't be.  I'm hoping that we'll be beyond it.

MS. DOWD:  What about Iran?

MR. FRIEDMAN:  Iran will be an issue.

MR. RUSSERT:  Who lost Iran?

MR. SAFIRE:  That's a toughie.

MR. FRIEDMAN:  Yeah.

MR. SAFIRE:  Nobody has an answer there.

MR. RUSSERT:  And North Korea building nuclear weapons on the watch of this administration.

MR. SAFIRE:  Right.  Some of us have been banging our spoon against the high chair talking about missile defense and it still isn't properly funded.

MR. RUSSERT:  Now, Maureen Dowd, when you said Hillary vs. Condi, was it Hillary Clinton or Hilary Swank?

MS. DOWD:  No.  I'm eager for you to ask these guys if they've seen a movie this year.

MR. RUSSERT:  All right.

MS. DOWD:  Although Tom did run into Angelina Jolie at Dawber's, so that counts.

MR. RUSSERT:  And he's in love.  Look at him, he's blushing.

MS. DOWD:  Yes.  She's a brilliant economic mind, isn't she?

MR. FRIEDMAN:  I was at a dinner, OK, in a large room.

MS. DOWD:  Yeah.

MR. FRIEDMAN:  She wouldn't have any idea she ran into me, I guarantee you that, so--and I saw "Hotel Rwanda" last night with my wife, which was...

MS. DOWD:  Oh!  Very good.

MR. FRIEDMAN:  ...which was phenomenal, yeah.

MS. DOWD:  And Bill interviewed Mae West once, so...

MR. SAFIRE:  Yeah.

MR. RUSSERT:  All right, Mr. Safire, the Academy Awards, who's going to win?

MR. SAFIRE:  Clint Eastwood, I think.

MR. RUSSERT:  And what's his movie?

MR. SAFIRE:  "Mystic"--what is his movie?

MR. RUSSERT:  "Dirty Harry."

MS. DOWD:  "Mystic River," no, no.  "Million Dollar Baby."

MR. SAFIRE:  "Million Dollar Baby," right.  You know, with Hilary the hulk...

MR. RUSSERT:  Swank.

MR. SAFIRE:  ...or whichever Hilary you want.  I think--but of course, ever since "Sunset Blvd.," Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood, old Hollywood.

MR. RUSSERT:  You're the expert, Ms. Dowd.  Who's going to win?  Tick them off.

MS. DOWD:  Oh, I'm like everyone else.  I have the Oscar blahs.  I think, Give me an impudent Pinot Noir and sultry film noir and I'm happy.

MR. RUSSERT:  On that note--I'm going to analyze those comments for some time.

MR. SAFIRE:  You are.  Right, right.

MR. RUSSERT:  Bill Safire, Maureen Dowd, Tom Friedman, New York Times Murderers Row, thanks so much.

Be right back.

                               (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  That's all for today.  We'll be back next week.  If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.  Peggy Dowd, I hope you enjoyed it.

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