updated 6/22/2005 10:23:54 AM ET 2005-06-22T14:23:54

Guest: John Danforth, E.J. Dionne, Deborah Orin, Karl Rove

DAVID GREGORY, GUEST HOST:  Tonight, a HARDBALL exclusive. 

Karl Rove, the president's political architect and senior adviser, discusses the way forward on Iraq, the embattled nomination of John Bolton to the U.N. and whether the president has lost his clout in Congress. 

I'm David Gregory.  Let's play HARDBALL. 

Good evening, everyone.  I'm David Gregory, sitting in again tonight for Chris Matthews. 

The fate of John Bolton, the president's controversial choice to represent the administration at the United Nations, was a big topic again today on Capitol Hill and at the White House, where the president made it clear, he wants the Republicans to keep pushing the Bolton nomination, this after Democrats again blocked a confirmation vote on Bolton last night. 

That's where I began my conversation with Karl Rove today.  His reaction to the Bolton vote last night.  That's where I began my conversation with Karl Rove today.  His reaction to the Bolton vote last night. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KARL ROVE, SENIOR ADVISER TO PRESIDENT BUSH:  It is sad.  I mean, they're putting their commitment to politics above their commitment to doing what's right for the country.  And that is to send to the United Nations a strong reform-minded ambassador who can help change the United Nations at a critical moment for the international organization and its mission. 

GREGORY:  Why did the Republicans call for a vote in the first place?  It was clear that the leadership knew that not even all the Republicans were in town.  Why go ahead with it?  Was this a message vote? 

ROVE:  Well, look, there's—the Democrats, some of the Democrats keep changing the goal posts. 

I think they probably set the vote when they thought they were at a point where they thought they had satisfied the ever changing, ever morphing demands of the Democrats. 

GREGORY:  But if you know that you don't have enough Republicans to even match the vote totals you had before, was this an effort by Senator Frist to show off the Democrats as just obstructing his nomination?

ROVE:  This is an effort—this is an effort by Senator Frist to get a nominee an up-or-down vote.  It is clear that, if Mr. Bolton was allowed an up-or-down vote, that he would receive a majority vote in the Senate and be confirmed as our ambassador. 

And the Democrats, as I say, have a continual, ever changing set of demands with regard to him.  I mean, at one point, they—the Democrats had even pledged—their leadership had pledged no—no filibuster on Bolton.  Well, that quickly went out the window.

GREGORY:  Why not give the Democrats what they're asking for?  They're asking for names related to these NSA intercepts to answer the question whether Bolton retaliated against critics in the administration. 

ROVE:  Again, it is a constantly changing—the minority...

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  Has that changed?

(CROSSTALK)

ROVE:  Yes. 

(CROSSTALK)

ROVE:  No, it hasn't.  No, it hasn't.

The minority report issued by the committee led—in essence, has up to seven names, seven individuals.  That question was asked and answered last week.  There's a constantly changing set of demands.  I know, because I hear and see these.  The Democrats continually are changing the goal posts.  It is clear, their object is to obstruct.  Now, that's their right, if they want to obstruct. 

But, again, I say it shows that their commitment to politics is above their commitment for doing what's right for this country.  The United Nations is in trouble.  It needs a strong voice from the United States to help reform this vital institution and make it relevant and meaningful and powerful for the time that we find ourselves in. 

And the failure of the Democrats to allow an up-or-down vote on Bolton is a sign of weakness on their part and a lack of commitment to the reforms that need to be done at the United Nations. 

GREGORY:  Will the president now recess-appoint John Bolton? 

ROVE:  The president will continue to press for an up-or-down vote. 

He believes that that's the most—the best way to send somebody to the... 

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  You just said you think the Democrats are just changing the goal post.  He can't expect that they're going to...

ROVE:  Well, let's see.  Maybe they'll—maybe—you know, maybe—maybe, after—at some point, the Democrats will say, you know what?  We've had enough of this game.  Let's get—let's get an up-or-down vote. 

GREGORY:  Do you believe that? 

ROVE:  I'm an idealist.  I always hold out hope. 

GREGORY:  But, seriously, Karl, I mean, why not consider a recess appointment here?  You're coming upon that time when that would get him to the U.N.

ROVE:  Well, we've got lots of options.  Let's, though, stay focused on the main and most important option, which is best for the country and best for the U.N.  And that is to have an up-or-down vote on John Bolton. 

GREGORY:  Does the president still have confidence in Senator Bill Frist as majority leader? 

ROVE:  Oh, sure.  Absolutely.  Absolutely. 

GREGORY:  What does he point to as major accomplishments by Senator Frist? 

ROVE:  He's been a great ally in all of our domestic agenda and all of our international agenda.  He's a—he's a valuable ally.  He's been a great leader in the Senate. 

It is a tough place.  It is the toughest job, I think, in Washington, in many respects, because you have so much in the way of responsibility.  And yet the authority is not as—what people might think.  For example, I gave you the example just a moment ago of—I mean, the first vote on John Bolton was scheduled at a point when the Democrats had said, we will not filibuster him.

And between the time that they gave that commitment and the time that Frist scheduled a vote and the time that they actually voted, they changed their mind.  Now, there's nothing that Senator Frist can do about that, except persevere.  And he will persevere.

GREGORY:  Let me turn now to Iraq.  Why does the president think the public support is falling for the war? 

ROVE:  The president believes that this is a vital, in the vital interests of the United States and the free world that we have a successful and democratic and stable Iraq. 

And polls are going to go up and polls are going to go down.  Just as there was euphoria after the capture of Saddam Hussein, as there was euphoria in the polls after the time that the Iraqi elections were held, polls are going to go up and down.  But we need to stay focused on the goal, which is the creation of a stable, democratic Iraq at the heart of the Middle East. 

The—let's—let's step back for a minute and just remember what the goal of the insurgents is.  The goal of the insurgents is to derail the process of Iraq becoming a democracy.  They weren't able to stop the transfer of power a year ago.  They weren't able to stop the elections.  They're not able to stop the move towards the creation of a constitution this summer and fall. 

Each time that the insurgents have sought to derail the process, they've failed.  That's what Americans need to know and that's where we need to keep our focuses, on moving this process along in an orderly fashion. 

GREGORY:  Do you think the president has sort of lost his step with the American people?  Do you think that there's fallen support because he is not doing a good enough job talking the American people through what is an unsettling time? 

ROVE:  Look, Americans don't like war.  I mean, nobody likes war.  And waking up and seeing on the screen people dying is something that—that Americans don't like to see., whether it is American men and women in uniform or whether it is Iraqis in uniform or Iraqi civilians. 

But we need to remember, that's part of the goal of the—of the insurgents.  Their goal is to weaken our resolve by being so violent and so dangerous and so ugly that they hope that we will turn tail and run.  They have misjudged the American people, though.  And they have certainly misjudged this president. 

GREGORY:  A majority of the country opposes the war.  More Americans now are calling for...

(CROSSTALK)

ROVE:  I'm not certain I agree with your assumption.  You know, you can find a poll and ask any question you want. 

But I believe that, if you say to the American people, is it in the interests of the United States to see a stable and democratic Iraq arise at the center of the Middle East and should we do whatever is necessary to make that happen, that Americans would say yes. 

GREGORY:  You don't think there's majority opposition to the war?

ROVE:  Look, I think there's—I think Americans are concerned about war.  It is ugly.  It is dangerous.  Anybody who has got a family member who has gone over there, I know it. 

I've had—I've had family members in the Mideast.  I know how Americans who have loved ones abroad feel.  I can—I—I read, like you, the newspapers and watch the television.  And it is not a pleasant sight, seeing people die, whether it is an Iraqi civilian standing in line at a market or an Iraqi policeman whose goal is to serve his country—his—his—his nation, or a U.S. military personnel who is there on behalf of us, so that we can fight the insurgents and the jihadists in the Middle East, rather than facing them here. 

But, having said that, that's not the real question.  The question is, is it in America's interest, will the world be safer, will the world be more peaceful if America and our coalition partners stand with the people of Iraq in a move towards a democracy, or will we be better off if we turn tail and run? 

I know of only a handful of people in the United States Congress, and I suspect a relatively small number of Americans, who say we ought to pull up stakes and pull out, regardless of what the consequences are, because I think most Americans understand how vital it is for our interests that we have a stable and democratic Iraq...

(CROSSTALK)

ROVE:  ... Middle East.

GREGORY:  You're talking about the goal.  There's also a question about the way the war is being run, the prosecution of the war. 

And you're hearing from both sides of the aisle more calls for an exit strategy, this week, Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Republican, quoted as saying America is losing in Iraq.  And he says the White House is—quote—“completely disconnected from reality about the war.”

(CROSSTALK)

ROVE:  I respectfully disagree. 

This president talks every week with the commanders in the field via video link.  He gets briefed by the people who are on the front line every single week.  He meets virtually every single day with the secretary of defense or talks with him about the progress of the war in Iraq. 

He meets with the national intelligence director every single morning to receive a briefing.  With all due respect to Senator Hagel—I understand he has strong feelings about this, but this president is in connection, is in touch with the men and women who are on the front line of this war who are making the decisions and making the recommendations about our policy. 

GREGORY:  The vice president said recently that he thinks the insurgency in Iraq is in its last throes, its final throes.  Do you agree with that?

ROVE:  Well, we know that in—we know that when a movement like this, a jihadist movement, a terrorist movement, is most dangerous when it is running out of options. 

We saw—you saw earlier this year Zarqawi and some of the other leaders of al Qaeda and its affiliates talk about the dangers and about the struggles that they were in. 

They were complaining about the circumstances which they found themselves pressed by, on all sides, by U.S., coalition and Iraqi forces.  And, yes, so, I do believe the vice president is correct.  We will find—we will find these jihadists in the al Qaeda most dangerous when they are at the moment of greatest danger for them. 

GREGORY:  The president talked yesterday about the training of Iraqi troops.  That's a major area where the administration is looking to see progress.  And there are still mixed reviews.  What do you think the president has to do more of in terms of communicating with the American people about the exit strategy? 

ROVE:  Well I think more Americans—we need to do a better job of letting Americans know what is going on there. 

We have a fantastic, one of the most able members of the United States military in charge of this training—training effort, General Petraeus.  We are systematically both expanding the number of people being trained and increasing the level of training for each unit. 

We've gone—I think there are three units now, three brigades that are at the absolute highest level.  There are larger number of brigades that are meeting—that are coming into a lesser, but nonetheless improving status.  And that ought to be our object. 

We've—look, we've been—the Iraqis have had sovereignty for less

than a year.  It's been merely a matter of months since elections, but we -

·         they have reason to be proud of what they're doing.  Think about this. 

You know, every day, if you are wearing a police uniform or a border patrol uniform, or a military uniform, you're the target in Iraq of jihadists.

And yet there are plenty of people standing in line to take those jobs and to assume those responsibilities because they understand how important it is to the creation of the democratic and stable Iraq.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GREGORY:  When we come back, more from Karl Rove on the Downing Street memo and what he says about those who have criticized the detainee center at Guantanamo Bay. 

You're watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Coming up, White House senior adviser Karl Rove on the Downing Street memo and the criticism of the U.S. detainee center at Guantanamo Bay.

HARDBALL returns after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

I'm David Gregory, in tonight for Chris Matthews. 

And we have more now on my exclusive interview today with White House senior adviser Karl Rove.  I asked him about what is being called the Downing Street memo and British concerns that the United States was not thinking hard enough about what would happen in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was removed from power. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROVE:  First of all, that is the British—a Brit making a comment about what he perceived to be U.S. policy. 

But remember the time frame.  It is months and months and months and months and months and months before the balloon goes up in Iraq. 

In those intervening months, there was plenty of time and plenty of effort spent by a large number of people inside the administration on planning for postwar efforts, I mean, vast amounts of planning.  Now, the only trouble is, you never know exactly how a war is going to play out.  Nor, does a plan—Napoleon once said that a plan barely—barely survives its first contact with the enemy.

But there was planning done.  That's why things like—remember, there were great claims that we were going to have vast numbers of refugees.  Didn't happen.  That there were going to be enormous problems with food aid.  Did not happen.  That we would see a vast uprising by hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.  Didn't happen. 

I mean, look, a lot—war is ugly, but a lot went very well with this effort.  And in part it was because the United States government and our coalition partners used the months, those months, to plan for any and every eventuality.

GREGORY:  But if you talk about the number of troops necessary, the level of American casualties, the force and intensity of the insurgency, did the president mislead the American people about the cost of this war or was he simply surprised by what happened?

ROVE:  I would go back to the president's statements over the last several years and I would—I would defy you to find one speech in which he talked about Iraq in which he didn't say there would be difficult times ahead, that we had a long road to hoe, that a great deal of sacrifice was going to be called for by both the American people and by the Iraqis to achieve this goal. 

Look, we do not underestimate the ferocity and the anger and the viciousness of the people that we face.  We are in a war.  Some people may treat it as a law enforcement matter, to be—and worried about indictments from the U.S. attorney from the Southern District of New York. 

But we recognize—this administration and the American people recognize we are in a war.  And the only way that you have a successful outcome in a war is to aim for complete and total victory, which is exactly what we're doing.

GREGORY:  What is it about Guantanamo Bay?  You said after the Abu

Ghraib scandal that it would take a generation for the U.S. image to

recover.  When you hear the accusations about what's going at Guantanamo,

you hear how enemies of the United States are using Guantanamo Bay against

the United States, do you worry that the same kind of damage could be done

·         being done?

ROVE:  You use the right word, accusations. 

And what we've seen about Guantanamo is by and large accusations from dangerous people who were picked up on a battlefield in Iraq or Afghanistan.  And it is appalling to me that some public figures seem to take—put more credence in the—in the views and statements of a jihadist, who has been in many cases instructed by his training to attack the United States and to attack his treatment.  They put more credence in those people than they do in our men and women in uniform.  

And I frankly believe the men—our men and women in uniform.  We are a compassionate country that has taken people who do not fight by the rules of warfare, who never signed the Geneva Convention, and we treat them with great dignity and respect and care.  And we ought to be proud of the men and women who are manning the barricades at Guantanamo.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GREGORY:  When we return, more with the architect himself, Karl Rove. 

You're watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  I'm David Gregory, in for Chris Matthews tonight. 

My final question tonight to White House senior adviser Karl Rove was about President Bush's second-term agenda and whether Mr. Bush is losing his way with the Republican-controlled Congress. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROVE:  First of all, on everything that we have done, there has been bipartisan support and bipartisan opposition. 

We didn't pass the No Child Left Behind bill with every Republican supporting it and every Democrat opposing it.  We didn't pass the resolution on Iraq with every Republican supporting it and every Democrat opposing it.  That's the nature of a Congress in which you have 535 members.  Not all of the Republicans will agree each and every time.  Not all Democrats will disagree every time.

So, we're going to have a—we're pursuing a bold and ambitious agenda of reform.  I'm confident that most, if not all, of the agenda is going to be achieved.  It's going to take a lot of hard work.  There are some Democrats who, for example, on the issue of trade—for example, there are many free trade Democrats who are trying to find a way not to vote for something that, in their hearts, they know is right. 

But, at the end of the day, I'm confident people, and particularly in Congress, will put the best interests of the country above pure partisan politics.

Now, it might take some time.  It took some time on judges.  For four years, we were told we were never—you know, some Democrats said we will never, ever accept an up-or-down vote on Priscilla Owen or Bill Pryor or Janice Rogers Brown for the appellate courts.  And yet they did.  For years, we had people say there's no way that we're going to have judges, these Michigan appellate judges for the Sixth Circuit, approved by the United States Senates.  They got approved 99-0. 

So, at the end of the day, I think when people sort of put aside the partisanship and think about what's in the best interest of the country that we'll have a lot of success.

GREGORY:  Karl Rove, thanks for your time. 

ROVE:  Great.  Thank you. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GREGORY:  In a moment, more on the White House, the Bolton nomination and the war in Iraq. 

You're watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  I'm David Gregory, filling in for Chris Matthews tonight. 

E.J. Dionne is a syndicated columnist with “The Washington Post” and Deborah Orin is with the Washington bureau chief for “The New York Post.” 

I want both of your reactions now to my conversation with Karl Rove and his answer when I asked him about sagging poll numbers on Iraq in the face of a growing insurgency.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) 

ROVE:  polls are going to go up and down.  But we need to stay focused on the goal, which is the creation of a stable, democratic Iraq at the heart of the Middle East. 

The goal of the insurgents is to derail the process of Iraq becoming a democracy.  They weren't able to stop the transfer of power a year ago.  They weren't able to stop the elections.  They're not able to stop the move towards the creation of a constitution this summer and fall. 

Each time that the insurgents have sought to derail the process, they've failed.  That's what Americans need to know and that's where we need to keep our focuses, on moving this process along in an orderly fashion. 

I know of only a handful of people in the United States Congress, and I suspect a relatively small number of Americans, who say we ought to pull up stakes and pull out, regardless of what the consequences are, because I think most Americans understand how vital it is for our interests.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  E.J., is the president, is the White House in trouble on Iraq? 

E.J. DIONNE, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  I think they are. 

I think Karl Rove's seersucker is very cool, by the way. 

(LAUGHTER)

DIONNE:  But I think the—I think the problem is that, A, the White House didn't prepare the American people for a long struggle.

When we started this war, the assumption of the White House was that this is not going to be this difficult.  The Iraqis will welcome us as liberators, as Vice President Cheney said.  And now we're confronting some very difficult problems.  Americans look at people getting blown up all the time.  They look at bickering among Iraqi politicians.  They look at sectarian violence and they say, why is Iraq such a mess? 

And I think what's striking is, you're beginning to see some Republicans, Walter Jones, who—North Carolina—who became famous for changing the french fries in the House to freedom fries, in protest to what the French were saying about our policy, has now turned on the war and introduced a resolution to say we should set a date for getting out of Iraq. 

The administration is in a lot of trouble.  And I think it needs to be candid about the trouble we're in, in Iraq and present a different approach that persuades people that we can actually get somewhere in Iraq.  I don't think Americans are persuaded that we're on that path right now. 

GREGORY:  Deborah Orin, there's a sense out of the White House, which we both cover, that they need to do more to help an American public which is deeply unsettled about where things are going, what the goals are and essentially the way out at a time when this insurgency continues to gain strength. 

DEBORAH ORIN, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, “THE NEW YORK POST”:  Yes. 

And I think, I mean, this is a difficult war.  And in fairness to Bush and to Karl Rove, they said it from the beginning, that things will go up and things will go up and down.  And we've got to keep our eyes focused on the goal.  Otherwise, you pull out of Iraq.  The terrorists move in and we're back where we started from.

And I would also say to E.J., let's remember that, in northern Iraq, they did welcome us as liberators.  The Kurds did.  What's interesting to me is that there's an amazing progress toward freedom in the Middle East.  And the White House has really not done a very good job of communicating it.  I mean, we had free elections in Afghanistan, in Iraq, more or less in Palestine. 

The Lebanese, with a little help from Bush, kicked out the Syrians, more or less, and have had real elections.  There's push for democracy in Egypt.  And they have to do a better job of communicating the fact that the Iraq war has accomplished major goals, which is helping to democratize and stabilize the region, despite the mess in Iraq right now. 

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  And that's a point, E.J., is that stability is not going to come out of such a messy situation in Iraq. 

The Downing Street memo, which a lot of people in Washington are talking about, critics of the war have seized on it.  And we heard Karl Rove address—Karl Rove address it earlier on.  One of the major points that you write about today, E.J., is not so much this question of whether the intelligence was fixed around the policy, but the fact that the—that British officials were really worried about what the United States was going to do after Saddam fell. 

They had a sense even then that it's the postwar period that would be so dangerous. 

DIONNE:  And I think this is very important, because, here, we're talking about an ally.  The British backed us up.

And the British officials in another set of memos that came out, which, in some ways, I think are more important than the Downing Street memos, they said, the Americans don't have a plan for nation-building after the war.  And the implication is, we did not take as seriously as we should how difficult this was going to be. 

We underestimated how many troops we were going to need.  We underestimated the sectarian problems.  Deborah is absolutely right.  Kurdistan—well, it doesn't exist yet, but the Kurds are very happy with what happened.  If this were the war for Kurdistan, we would be fine.  But this is a war for Iraq.  And so you've got the Shia and the Sunni problems.

We underestimated the cost of the war.  We underestimated the idea that a lot of Iraqis would be perfectly happy to see Saddam go.  Who can't be happy that Saddam Hussein is gone?  And yet they would be uncomfortable with an American occupation.  And we underestimated how hard basic things were, how to get the oil flowing, how to get the electricity working, how to get the water flowing. 

And so I think it's this problem.  If we had done this war right in the first year, we might not be confronting these problems today.  And I think that's why Americans are worried and impatient. 

GREGORY:  Deborah Orin, does—is this a communication breakdown or is it simply that there's no news to latch onto?

One of the big areas that the president is going to be talking about in the coming days is, whatever progress there is or is not in training Iraqi troops, the truth is, the president has said for months, well, there's mixed results.  It's slow-going in some areas.  There's some areas where it's going well.  But there really is not much change.  And that's the key to an exit strategy.  It's the only way U.S. troops are going to come back. 

ORIN:  But, you know, part of this is also, we all as a nation have attention deficit disorder.  We want everything fixed instantly. 

This country, meaning Iraq, has been in very difficult straits for decades.  You cannot fix it overnight.  I would disagree with E.J. when he says we didn't foresee this.  I know senior administration officials who all of us know telling me before the war, when I said, are we going to win, aren't you worried, not worried about the war.  We're worried about the aftermath. 

And, you know, there's a difference between saying—somehow this idea that there was a magical solution, that, if only we had found it and done X, Y, Z, it all would have worked out perfectly, that's not the problem.  It is a messy situation.  Solving it is messy.  You know, kind of look back, as a comparison, to our last successful war, really successful war, which was World War II. 

The war took much longer.  It cost many more lives and it had a somewhat messy aftermath as well.  So, to expect that, within one year after the Iraqis take over, everything is going to be perfect reflects a problem.  You know, we need patience.  But it is absolutely true the president has not done a good job of explaining that. 

DIONNE:  But, right on the record, Dick Cheney was on “Tim Russert,” on “Meet the Press,” and Tim pressed him on all of these questions.  He pressed him on the sectarian problems.

And Cheney said, no, they're going to get along.  He pressed him on whether we would need troops there for a long time.  He said no, no, no.  That's all overestimating.  So, where I disagree with Deborah is, I don't think anybody pretended this was going to be easy.  But the administration itself, when it was selling the war, seemed to think—and I actually don't think they were lying.  I actually think they believed this stuff. 

And, in the end, I think they deceived themselves.  They thought this was going to go a lot more smoothly than it did.  And, as a result, I don't think they planned the way they needed to. 

GREGORY:  Do you think the president will announce at some point, or do you think he believes that, by next year at this time, there will be an actual drawdown of U.S. troops?

ORIN:  No.  I think the president has said over and over again, all we have to do is say, by X time, we're going to start pulling out, and the terrorists will pull back and say, OK, we'll—that's fine.  We'll take a pause and come back whenever next time is.  So, I don't think that can happen.

I think it's going to be a hard slog.  But, you know, the basic thing about law—war, battle plans don't survive the first battle and peace plans don't survive the first move toward peace either. 

GREGORY:  We're going to take a break here with Deborah Orin and E.J.

Dionne.

And when we come back, more on the Bush agenda, John Bolton and Social Security.  Does the president still have the sort of clout he needs in Congress?

When we come back on HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Coming up, when will the Senate vote on John Bolton's nomination as U.N. ambassador, or will President Bush put him on that job without Senate approval?

HARDBALL returns right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

GREGORY:  And we're back on HARDBALL with E.J. Dionne of “The Washington Post” and Deborah Orin of “The New York Post.” 

Deborah, an interesting moment here in Washington today.  Last night, John Bolton, the embattled nominee to the United Nations for the president, was again blocked by Democrats for a confirmation vote.  This morning, Majority Leader Bill Frist, the embattled Bill Frist as well, he says, that's it.  I throw up my hands.  I am not going to push for another vote.  It is up to the president to decide what he wants to do. 

He goes down to the White House.  He has lunch with the president.  Afterwards, he says, actually, we are going to push for another vote because that's what the president wants to do.  What happened in that meeting? 

ORIN:  Well, the president said to him, you are going to push for another vote.  And he said yes, sir, I am.  And the question is, why? 

I think there's two issues there.  I mean, remember that John Bolton has a clear majority of the Senate.  The issue is whether a filibuster can stop him.  And has mustered up to 57 votes, so three short.  So, one thing is, it puts a lot of pressure on Democrats in pro-Bush red states to shift over.  And if they don't, it also helps make the case for Bush doing a recess appointment, meaning an end-run around the Senate, when it goes into its July 4 recess.  He can say, hey, we tried and we tried. 

GREGORY:  Right. 

ORIN:  I give up.

GREGORY:  We had vote after vote and we got... 

(CROSSTALK)

ORIN:  And he has a majority and Democrats are obstructing.  So, I'm just going to do it. 

GREGORY:  E.J., you know what? 

It seems to me, as this process has gone forward, that, when you think about John Bolton, controversial guy, blunt-spoken guy, Democrats don't like him.  He's also a real favorite of Dick Cheney's, that anti-war Democrats are going to say, you know what?  We've been rolled by this administration before.  We're not going to do it.  We've got the votes.  We will block this guy and it won't hurt us politically.  Do you think that's where they're thinking about this? 

DIONNE:  I think their assumption is, this doesn't hurt them politically. 

And I think the White House, the White House has been off in the last six months, because they've picked the fights almost guaranteed to unite the Democratic Party.  In proposing the privatization of Social Security, they picked the one issue where there appears to be a majority in the country on the side of the Democratic position that says, no, we don't want Social Security to be a privatized program. 

GREGORY:  Right. 

DIONNE:  In the case of Bolton, they pick a fight over not giving the Senate, at the request of the Democrats, information about these intercepts, these intelligence intercepts. 

And if there's one thing that unites Democrats, even red state Democrats, it is a frustration with this White House at constantly taking them for granted and saying, you know, you want that?  Too bad.  We're not going to help you out.  And so the Democrats can say, look, maybe we can vote for Bolton, but we're sick of the White House stonewalling us on information.

GREGORY:  And here's Karl Rove earlier today.  I asked him about what the president might do next on Bolton.  Might he consider a recess appointment? 

This is what he said. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROVE:  The president will continue to press for an up-or-down vote. 

He believes that that's the most—the best way to send somebody to the... 

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  You just said you think the Democrats are just changing the goal post.  He can't expect that they're going to...

ROVE:  Well, let's see.  Maybe they'll—maybe—you know, maybe—maybe, after—at some point, the Democrats will say, you know what?  We've had enough of this game.  Let's get—let's get an up-or-down vote. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Deborah, isn't this a huge distraction right now, whether they want—if the president wants Bolton or not, this is really spending and wasting a lot of time for them. 

ORIN:  Well, that's certainly true, but we're where we are now.  You might have done it differently if you could go back. 

GREGORY:  Right. 

ORIN:  And the other problem you have, as Norm Coleman, who is one of the leaders in the U.N. oil-for-food scandal, said, let's say Bush were to withdraw the nominee and put another one up there.  You can bet the Democrats would find something to go after him on, because they see—you see blood in the water, you go for a double whammy. 

And then we go on and we don't have a U.N. ambassador.  And I think it seems to me pretty clear—famous last words. 

GREGORY:  Right. 

ORIN:  That they are setting up that, if they don't get it by July 4, they will do a recess appointment. 

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  Let...

DIONNE:  Which is a problem, because sending a guy to the U.N. without the Senate confirmation weakens him before he goes to the U.N.  So, it's a real tricky situation.

GREGORY:  We've got about a minute left.  I want to turn quickly to Social Security.

A meeting today at the White House.  Senator Bennett of Utah comes out and says, the president has blessed me, in effect, to put forward legislation on Social Security reform that includes progressive indexation, but, E.J., no private accounts.  The White House insists they're not abandoning their support for private accounts.  Is this an important step? 

DIONNE:  When you're behind 72-0, you try another play. 

And I think that's what's going on here.  The way the Congress has worked these days, you can send a bill into conference with the Republicans controlling both ends of it and, suddenly, private accounts could appear miraculously at the end of the process.  Bush just wants to get the process moving.

(CROSSTALK)  

DIONNE:  But I think the White House knows that it is not where it wanted to be.  The—I think they've lost the argument on private accounts. 

GREGORY:  Deborah.

ORIN:  Well, you know, the funny thing is, a little while ago, we were talking about how, ironically, Bush was doing better on domestic policy than Iraq.  And now we have him sort of having problems on both ends.  And he has got to find some way to get things moving. 

GREGORY:  But he at least wants to get legislation started, it seems.

ORIN:  That's right.  Let's get—it's exactly what E.J. said.  Let's try a different strategy. 

GREGORY:  Right. 

ORIN:  Let's see if we can get to the same goal. 

GREGORY:  We're going to leave it there. 

Deborah Orin, E.J. Dionne, great conversation.  Thanks for coming in. 

DIONNE:  Thank you. 

GREGORY:  When we come back, John Danforth, the former U.N. ambassador and former Republican senator, says it is a bad trend that his party is so closely associated with Christian conservatives. 

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

John Danforth is an ordained Episcopal priest and former Republican senator from Missouri.  He recently wrote his second op-ed piece in “The New York Times” this year today expressing concern about the influence of religious conservatives on American politics today.  And he joins us now from St. Louis.

Senator, welcome. 

JOHN DANFORTH, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UNITED NATIONS:  Thank you. 

GREGORY:  Let me ask you straight out when and why do you think this change happened?  You said recently in one of the op-ed pieces that the Republican Party has become an arm of Christian conservatives.  When and why did it happen? 

DANFORTH:  Well, I think it's happened in the last, I don't know, two, three, four years, something like that.  It's been a growing phenomenon.  It's—it's shown itself, for example, in the Terri Schiavo case and in debate right now over stem cell research, over the issue of a proposed constitutional amendment on homosexual marriage. 

It's all part of a religious agenda.  Why do I think it happened?  First, I think that there are some very devout religious people who believe that it's their obligation to try to advance the kingdom of God politically and to do it as a matter of law, to do it through the American political system.  Secondly, from the standpoint some of people in the Republican Party, they think that this is a very positive thing for the Republican Party, that people who perhaps were not traditional Republicans have been brought into the Republican Party because the Republican Party has been—has become the party of the Christian conservatives. 

GREGORY:  And is it—is it—is there a feeling that Christian conservatives, social conservatives can be energized in a way that can give them the kind of political force that other constituency groups don't have? 

(CROSSTALK)

DANFORTH:  Well, I think that that's right. 

I think that there are people in politics who think that this is a good thing.  On the other hand, there are innumerable Republicans, many of whom have gotten in touch with me since that first op-ed that I wrote, who've said that they're very concerned about this.  They style themselves as traditional Republicans.  They have all of the traditional Republican views relating to keeping taxes and spending and government regulation low and strong national defense and an engaged foreign policy, all the things that are basic Republican policies they agree with.

But they do not agree that the Republican Party should get somehow entangled with the Christian right or be an extension of a religious movement. 

GREGORY:  Right. 

And what consequences do you worry about?  Are you concerned about political consequences?  Are you concerned about moral consequences? 

DANFORTH:  Well, you know, I just think it's wrong. 

It's a basic principle of our country that we keep church and state separate.  It's the establishment clause of the First Amendment to our constitution.  The so-called wall between church and state has been kept strong.  And I think that there's a real problem when we break that down, and whether for the benefit of one political party or whether it serves the cause of one particular religious movement.

I think that the point of the United States is to try to keep together as one united country various, diverse elements.  This has been the longstanding tradition of the United States.  We have people of all different kinds of religions and no religions at all.  And what we've seen in other parts of the world is, once religion and government become entangled with each other and once government makes itself the extension of religion, there's all kinds of hostility, even to the point of bloodshed.

GREGORY:  But why—let me—let me...

DANFORTH:  So—so, we in the United States have done a very good job of keeping all of these different people together.  And I don't think we're going to do a good job of that if one political party, particularly the dominant political party right now, is seen simply as the Christian conservative party. 

GREGORY:  Let me challenge you on one point and use the Terri Schiavo case as an example.  Why isn't it appropriate for leaders in Congress, even a Republican president, to put that issue at the top of the agenda for the country, to say, you know what; we ought to take the side of life; we ought to stand for life; that ought to be a value that we force the American people to debate, to consider?  In other words, how do we define life?  What is a life worth living?  Ultimately, who decides? 

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  Why isn't that a value that should be part of our public discourse? 

DANFORTH:  Well, the Schiavo case became more than a debate.  It was an extraordinary intervention by the federal government, putting itself in place of state government, putting the federal courts in place of the state courts, and intervening to keep this poor soul hooked up to a feeding tube. 

So, it was really an extraordinary matter for that to happen.  Usually, the values of our country aren't determined by fiat from Washington.  There's no special wisdom in Washington that empowers people in Congress or people in the White House even to intervene in something like this.  So, this was really highly unusual, and I think that it was done at the behest of one particular religious movement. 

GREGORY:  Right. 

Senator, I was struck by something the Reverend Billy Graham said recently.  And he said that he didn't like to get involved in politics because he felt that it divided the audience and that it somehow diluted his message, which is that God loves you and Jesus Christ will forgive you for your sins. 

Do you think that religious conservatives in this country will ultimately suffer politically, that their agenda will not get as far because they may be dividing the audience? 

DANFORTH:  I think religious people have a right and maybe an obligation to be involved in politics.  I'm one of them. 

You know, I served 26 years in elective politics.  And I'm ordained in my church.  And I think religious people feel a commitment to do that.  The problem is when one political party presents itself as the extension of one particular religious movement.  That is a problem.  It's a problem for our government.  It's a problem for our country.

And from the standpoint of religious people, a lot of religious people, including a lot of Christians, are saying, wait a second.  This is not our view of Christianity, and yet the government seems to be putting it in place in the form of legislation. 

GREGORY:  Senator, final question. 

This relates to a very important matter of the president's decision-making.  And that is a vacancy on the Supreme Court.  Do you think President Bush will name a strong social conservative, religious conservative to the high court? 

DANFORTH:  What the president has said many times in the past, including in the presidential debates just last fall, was that he wanted to put on the court people who are judicial conservatives. 

Now, that's different from a political conservative.  A judicial conservative is somebody who is going to apply the law, not his philosophical or political beliefs.  I think that that's what we need on the Supreme Court.  I don't think we need somebody who is a policy-maker, but somebody who will apply the law.  It's a basic Republican concept.  It is certainly championed by President Bush. 

There's no problem with that at all. 

GREGORY:  But the religious right certainly looks to the courts for a big part of their agenda. 

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  Don't you think they'll bring a lot of pressure to bear on this White House? 

DANFORTH:  It would be—it would be a terrible mistake if somebody were put on the court because that person has prejudged a particular legal matter that might come before the court.  I mean, that really, really would be a very bad precedent for our country. 

GREGORY:  I'll leave that as the final word. 

Senator John Danforth, thank you very much, sir. 

DANFORTH:  Thank you. 

GREGORY:  Tomorrow on HARDBALL, Bob Dole will be with us.  That's tomorrow night, 7:00 p.m. Eastern time, right here on HARDBALL. 

Right now, it's time for “COUNTDOWN WITH KEITH OLBERMANN.” 

Good night, everybody. 

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

END   

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