updated 6/23/2005 10:26:24 AM ET 2005-06-23T14:26:24

Guest: Cindy Sheehan, David Frum, Bob Shrum, Robert Bennett 

DAVID GREGORY, GUEST HOST:  Tonight, is the president retreating on Social Security, giving up the private personal accounts most Americans oppose?  Tonight, we'll talk to a key Republican who has his own ideas about how to move Social Security reform forward. 

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

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

It has been a deadly day in Iraq.  More than 20 Iraqis have been killed in a string of car bomb attacks around Baghdad.  In a moment, we'll talk to the HARDBALL war council about whether the insurgency is gaining momentum. 

But, first, President Bush continues to push his plan to revamp Social Security.  But the signature element of that plan, creating personal private savings accounts for younger workers, is still meeting with resistance, not just from Democrats but also from fellow Republicans. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States. 

GREGORY (voice-over):  The president today again making a hard sell, trying to beat back critics who have pronounced his version of Social Security reform dead. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  They tell me, well, you're not making much progress on Social Security.  Well, I'll tell you one thing I am making progress on.  The overwhelming number of Americans understand we have a problem. 

GREGORY:  But is the president in retreat on his signature idea, using payroll taxes to create private personal savings accounts for younger workers?  Democrats today insisting those accounts are a nonstarter. 

SEN. MAX BAUCUS (D), MONTANA:  I cannot and I will not support a plan to weaken Social Security. 

GREGORY:  It's not just the Democrats.  In a blow to the White House, Republicans are now pulling away from the president, reflecting the public's opposition to Mr. Bush's plan. 

House Republicans outlined a plan today that would create private accounts using surplus revenue, not payroll taxes.  Bottom line, the accounts would only be temporary, far less than Mr. Bush wants.  Key Senate Republicans, too, going their own way.  Bennett of Utah has put forward a plan without savings accounts at all, dealing only with the program's long-term solvency.  He said, after meeting with the president yesterday, Mr.  Bush encouraged him to move forward. 

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT ®, UTAH:  We have a lot of hope that we can use this bill to break the logjam and move forward on Social Security. 

GREGORY:  Former Democratic Senator John Breaux says the president should acknowledge defeat. 

JOHN BREAUX (D), FORMER U.S. SENATOR:  My exit strategy would consist of saying, look, I tried very hard to do what I think is necessary and essential.  But if Congress is not ready to accept my recommendation, I'm willing to look at something that is not quite as good. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GREGORY:  Senator Robert Bennett of Utah joins us now here in the studio. 

Senator, welcome. 

BENNETT:  My pleasure. 

GREGORY:  You just heard Former Senator Breaux, your former colleague, who said, look, the president has given this a good shot here, but it is time for an exit strategy.  He needs to tell the American people:  I tried.  I can't get private accounts through, but we should do something. 

Is it time for an exit strategy for the Bush administration? 

BENNETT:  I don't know what the president feels about that.  And I won't try to speak for the president.  I will speak for myself.  I think it is time to get this issue moving again.  It seemed to be dead in the water.  The Democrats were saying, it will not move as long as there are personal accounts.  I said fine.  I will take personal accounts out of my bill.  Put it forward and see if I get any Democratic sponsors.

GREGORY:  Your bill, no personal accounts. 

BENNETT:  That's correct.

GREGORY:  No personal private accounts.  You just deal with the solvency issue.

BENNETT:  Right. 

GREGORY:  Slowing down benefits for the future. 

BENNETT:  Right. 

GREGORY:  How does it work? 

BENNETT:  Well, there are two ways that we deal with it.  Number one is what I call blended indexing.  And this gets a little technical. 

But, right now, your official benefit is calculated entirely on the basis of wage inflation.  There are some people who say it should be calculated entirely on the basis of price inflation.  I say, let's blend the two, keeping the most generous benefits for the people at the bottom 30 percent and then gradually phase out to full price indexing for inflation for the people at the top. 

GREGORY:  All right, the bottom line, to put that into English, is that you will slow down benefits for some. 

BENNETT:  For some. 

GREGORY:  For higher-income Americans. 

BENNETT:  Right. 

GREGORY:  Higher-income retirees.

BENNETT:  Right. 

GREGORY:  And that's a way to ultimately help the solvency of the program. 

BENNETT:  Right. 

GREGORY:  Let me ask you a more basic question.  Why is the president losing Republicans on Social Security? 

BENNETT:  Well, as the president has taken his case to the country, he's had two mountains to climb.  He has successfully climbed the first one.  He's having trouble with the second one. 

The first mountain was convincing everybody there was a problem.  Think back.  January, February, the Democrats were all saying, there's no problem.  Social Security is in great shape.  Now, what is it, 80 percent of Americans recognize there is a problem.  So, the debate is taking place on the top of the first mountain.  And the second mountain the president has to climb is:  My idea about personal accounts is the way to fix it. 

He hasn't been able to climb the second mountain.  I'm coming and saying, as long as we're on top of the first, let's find another way to get to the top of the second. 

GREGORY:  But, Senator, that doesn't quite answer the question, which is, we know Democrats are opposed to private accounts. 

BENNETT:  Right. 

GREGORY:  For a host of reasons.

BENNETT:  Right. 

GREGORY:  Philosophical, political.

BENNETT:  Right. 

GREGORY:  Oppositional.

BENNETT:  Right. 

GREGORY:  Etcetera. 

BENNETT:  Right. 

GREGORY:  His own party is bucking him on this in the House and in the Senate.  Why is he losing Republicans on Social Security reform? 

BENNETT:  I think if we were to have a straight partisan vote in the Senate, he would probably get 51 votes for private accounts.  I'm in favor of personal accounts. 

But we legislate at the highest level at which we can attain a majority.  And on this issue, a majority is 60.  So, I am abandoning it simply because I think we ought to get something going. 

GREGORY:  Do you think you can get Democrats on board with this plan?  In some ways, you would like to get them on the record and say, let's get into the game here; let's start negotiating. 

BENNETT:  Yes.  Well, we'll see.  I've had conversations with a number of Democrats.  I will keep the confidentiality—confidentiality of those conversations.  A number have said to me, we like your approach.  It was actually originally put forward by a Democrat.  We think this is the thing to do. 

I've said OK.  Now you'll have the opportunity.  We'll see in the next week whether any of them come forward. 

GREGORY:  I spoke to White House officials who said the president is not backing down at all from private accounts. 

BENNETT:  I think that's probably correct. 

GREGORY:  Not yet.  You talked to him yesterday. 

BENNETT:  Yes. 

GREGORY:  He said, go ahead.  Senator, go ahead with your bill that doesn't include private accounts. 

BENNETT:  Yes. 

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  Isn't that a shift? 

BENNETT:  No.  No.

GREGORY:  Were you surprised that he said go ahead, that he blessed the idea? 

BENNETT:  No, because the president has always said to Republicans, bring forward your ideas.  Let's have a variety of ideas on the table. 

And my attitude towards blended indexing is, frankly, exactly the same as the president.  He has endorsed it. 

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  But that—and that's—and that's fine. 

BENNETT:  Yes. 

GREGORY:  And that may be a good idea, although there are some in the White House who wonder if there is even enough support for progressive indexing, for this idea of benefits cuts over time, which is what we're talking about.

BENNETT:  Yes. 

GREGORY:  Is there even support for that? 

BENNETT:  Well, as I say, I've talked to a number of Democrats.  I find there is support for that.  They look at it and say this is the logical way out of the problem. 

Back again to my main point.  The first thing is president had to do, which he has successfully done, is convince the majority of Americans that there is a problem.  So, now the question is, how do we deal with it?  and I find there are some Democrats, at least privately, willing to say to me, your way of dealing with it makes more sense than some of the others we've seen. 

GREGORY:  You're convinced, are you, that Social Security reform in 2005, 2006, or even in the balance of the Bush second term, will not include private accounts? 

BENNETT:  Oh, I don't want to predict the future that hard.  Right now, there are not the votes there for personal accounts. 

GREGORY:  Not this year.

BENNETT:  Not this year.  There may be next year.  The political landscape may change.  I am going to introduce the second bill that has personal accounts in it. 

But I'm separating the two to give the opportunity to my Democratic friends who say, I like your proposal, but I could never go for personal accounts.  I say, OK.  I hear you.  I will separate the two bills.  And I will come forward with a bill.  And right now, I think that's the thing that has the best chance of passage. 

GREGORY:  The debate continues. 

Senator Robert Bennett, thank you very much for joining us. 

And when we come back, as support dwindles in Congress and around the country for the war in Iraq, should the Bush administration start thinking about an exit strategy there? 

I'll ask the HARDBALL war council, General Barry McCaffrey, General Bernard Trainor and Colonel Ken Allard.

You're watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Coming up, should the Bush administration set an exit strategy in Iraq?  We're joined by the HARDBALL war council, General Barry McCaffrey, General Bernard Trainor and Colonel Ken Allard when HARDBALL returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

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

Today in Iraq, more than 20 Iraqis were killed in four different car bomb attacks around Baghdad.  Retired Army General Barry McCaffrey is just back from Iraq.  General Bernard Trainor is retired from the United States Marine Corps.  And Colonel Ken Allard is retired from the U.S. Army. 

Welcome to all of you.

General McCaffrey, let me start with you and the most basic question that I've wanted to ask and like to ask anybody who has been there.  What is it like today in Iraq? 

RET. GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY, NBC MILITARY ANALYST:  Well, I think it is violence, complex.

The U.S. forces are very aggressively trying to back up the creation of the Iraqi security forces.  That is their prime mission en route to hopefully a referendum and then an election in December.  Economic life is surging back.  The city is packed with cars and TV antennas and economic activity.  And yet, throughout all this is chaos and violence. 

So, it is a pretty tough place. 

GREGORY:  As—you were over there with some pretty heavy artillery. 

But just moving around, a sense of the city.  Danger lurks everywhere? 

MCCAFFREY:  Well, I think it depends on who you are.  If you're a Bradley platoon leader in the famous 3rd Infantry Division, you're not in too much danger, because screwing around with a U.S. military unit, a Marine combat patrol, is a lethal thing to do. 

If you're a contractor, a journalist, for that matter, if you're an Iraqi citizen going to an open market, you might be struck by a suicide bomber.  Last month, they were running 60, 70 a month.  So, it was—it has calmed down somewhat.  But it is still an unpredictable, dangerous place with lots of energy, though, from the political and economic process. 

GREGORY:  General Trainor, you follow, as many people do, public sentiment on the war.  The latest polling indicates that six in 10 Americans disapprove of the way the war is going.  You get more Americans who want to see U.S. troops return. 

What is the problem with the big picture that you think American people are picking up on right now? 

RET. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR, NBC MILITARY ANALYST:  David, essentially, this is a battle of wills on both sides. 

And we're not doing too well right now, because the American people, just by nature, tend to be impatient.  And they expected to see this come to an end a lot earlier than that.  And, day by day, they see the casualty counts come in and they are becoming disillusioned about the war and they're questioning its legitimacy, particularly after the WMD fiasco and the Abu Ghraib fiasco and things of this nature. 

The public confidence in the administration and its goals, I think, is eroding.  We saw the same thing in Vietnam also.  The people started to turn the war—against the war after initially supporting it.  Then they say, OK, Mr. President, we supported you.  Now tell us why we're supporting you.  And this administration has not been able to articulate the answer. 

GREGORY:  And, Ken Allard, again, your thoughts here on the big picture, where things stand today at not only an important military juncture, but political juncture for the Iraqis. 

COL. KEN ALLARD, NBC MILITARY ANALYST:  Well, David, I think one of the most important things is that we really did not resolve an awful lot of these issues back last November, when we had our own election.  That was the perfect time to ask some of these fundamental questions about strategy, about sticking power, most of all, the critical question about manpower, because, when you're engaged in fighting the insurgency, that is literally the coin of the realm. 

It is not so much the high technology, as much as it is the kind of very, very tough Marines and soldiers you have to have to prevail.  Right now, we find that force extremely strained at the moment.  And it's going to take that supreme act of will that General Trainor was talking about before the American people are willing to commit to the sustainment of that force over the period of time that it is going to take to win. 

GREGORY:  General McCaffrey, we talk about the violence today against civilians, against U.S. troops as well.  Where are our soldiers losing their lives?  How is it happening? 

MCCAFFREY:  Well, first of all, I've been debriefing people around Washington.  The casualty rate, in my judgment, is a fraction of what it ought to be given the level of violence. 

Some of these infantry battalions, one of them I visited had encountered 30 IEDs last month and gets rocketed every second or third night. 

GREGORY:  Improvised explosive devices. 

MCCAFFREY:  Yes, exactly.

GREGORY:  On the roadside.

MCCAFFREY:  All over the roadsides, 19 detonated, only three wounded.  So, the unbelievable credibility and talent and experience of sergeants, lieutenants, captains and the battalion commanders...

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  Are vehicles better armed than they were a few months ago? 

MCCAFFREY:  Oh, absolutely.  Absolutely.

So, again, the preferred target is the Iraqi security forces, 600 dead, 1,800 wounded since the election.  They're who the insurgents are really going after. 

GREGORY:  And, General Trainor, the president is going to be giving a big speech next week.  And I'm told he'll speak in more detail about how Iraqi troops, forces are actually coming along.  As one official said, when they stand up an army, U.S. forces can stand down.  What's the president going to tell us? 

TRAINOR:  Well, I think he'll probably tell us that the development of the Iraqi security forces in on track.  And I think that is arguable. 

They're probably better now than they were.  But that is the key, the key to this whole solution.  And we are, in a certain sense, irrelevant to the battle, because it is a power struggle taking place within what we call Iraq as to who is going to run Iraq at the end of the day.  And the point is that there must be some sort of a political solution that is strictly of Arabic nature. 

And in addition to that, the security forces have to be able to provide this stability within the region for that political solution to flourish.  So, we kind of are outside of it.  But he will say that we're going to get the Iraqi forces to stand up and do their part in providing the stability and security in the area. 

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  But, General McCaffrey, is it happening?  You were there.  How are their troops?  Are they learning anything from U.S. troops?  Is it coming along?  Is there real progress? 

MCCAFFREY:  Well, you know, I took as objective a look at it as I could.  I listened very intently to this brilliant lieutenant general, Dave Petraeus, who is charged with these duties. 

It's my impression—you know, the numbers, 170,000, 100 battalions, who knows?  My gut instinct was, there were at least 60,000 who were out there armed and trying to regain control of Iraq.  So, I saw a lot of police units, a lot of army units that are actually engaged with counterinsurgency operations and are strongly embedded with U.S.-supporting Marine or Army advisers.  I think it is moving in the right direction.  And since they vanished on us twice in the past, that is sort of a surprising conclusion on my part. 

GREGORY:  Colonel Allard, there's a lot of talk among the president's critics that there are still not enough U.S. troops in Iraq today.  There's also not enough of our allies who are committing troops there to try to secure the border.  What is your best judgment on our troop strength right now and whether it needs to go up before it comes down? 

ALLARD:  I would certainly say the only way that I know of winning an insurgency is to make sure that you have got enough troops in there, so that you have to say to yourself, well, that is demonstrably too much.  And we're no place close to that. 

I mean, all these things that you keep hearing about that road of death that goes out to the airport, I mean, that thing has become an absolute disgrace.  We simply cannot control that.  We cannot control the borders.  And every time we send these troops out on an operation, it sounds to me like Vietnam, because we go out.  We clear the thing and suddenly we find that those troops get pulled back to the base camps. 

It is like we never did anything.  The only way I think to win that is to simply make sure that you've got enough troops on the scene.  And what is very clear to me right now is that until that Iraqi force gets stood up, right now, there is a gap there.  And unless that is filled somehow in a way that I don't right now understand, we're going to continue to have the problems that General McCaffrey has been talking about. 

GREGORY:  General, enough troops? 

MCCAFFREY:  Well, I think we have got all the troops there are.  I think the U.S. Army and Marine Corps are staggering toward the edge. 

Half the troops there right now are National Guard and Reserve.  They're doing a terrific job.  And the morale of the people in country is unbelievably high.  Having said that, the Army and the Marine Corps, in my judgment, are starting to unravel.  They're too small to sustain a foreign policy of this nature. 

GREGORY:  More with General Barry McCaffrey, General Bernard Trainor and Colonel Ken Allard when we come back.

And tomorrow on HARDBALL, NBC's Tom Brokaw will be with us.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

And we're back with the HARDBALL war council. 

General Trainor, let me ask you about foreign fighters.  How many are there?  Are they sustaining the insurgency, helping to it gain momentum at this point? 

TRAINOR:  David, nobody has an idea of how many foreign fighters are there, except we know that they are there.  And they're coming in through the very porous borders with Syria. 

And these are the guys that are usually the zealots that are willing to blow themselves up as suicide bombers.  And there are some indications that there's a friction between the nationalist insurgents and the foreign fighters, the ideologues.  And they—particularly out in the west, apparently, there have been some firefights reported between the two of them. 

But there probably could be a political solution worked out with the nationalist insurgents, but not with these zealots, these ideologues, who are of the Taliban and al Qaeda nature.  There's no dealing with those people.  The only way you're going to deal with them is to kill them. 

GREGORY:  Ken Allard, what do we do about them?  What do we do about the fact that Syria, as the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, said today, are major a stumbling block for the United States' effort there by not doing more to prevent these fighters from coming into Iraq? 

ALLARD:  I think we're very close, David, to the crunch bone on this thing, because we have—we have basically said to the Syrians, you're kind of cooperating with us in the war on terror and you're doing some other stuff.  And they've tried to satisfy us, to get alone with what they think they know they want us to do.  That simply has not been enough. 

And I think the administration is confronting the fact that all the jawboning they tried has simply failed.  And you can talk all you want to, to these guys.  Until you can put more chess pieces on the board and do something about how that border is actually defended, you really are not going to do very much good with the diplomacy.  This is a classic case in which whatever it is that you're telling these guys has got to be backed with military force. 

GREGORY:  General McCaffrey, is this a U.S. military problem?  Is this an area where our allies can help us?  Or is it an area where Iraqi soldiers have to begin to protect their own border? 

MCCAFFREY:  Well, principally, it's going to be Iraqi border patrol, police units.  I think we're going to see those reestablished this winter.  They're being trained.  We're going to put back in, recapture the border. 

The Marines are up there very aggressively right now trying to do that.  But let me underscore something.  The principal threat to the next government of Iraq is not from foreign jihadists.  There's a few hundred a month coming in.  They're frightfully dangerous.  They're suicide bombers.  As far as we can tell, 100 percent of them are foreigners. 

But the bulk of this insurgency doesn't depend upon guns and ammunition coming in from outside the borders.  This isn't Vietnam.  So, it is Baathists.  It's Republican Guard.  It is intelligence agents.  It's Sunni Muslim.  It's not an external threat that will knock this off track. 

GREGORY:  And let me ask you a political question.  How do you rate Prime Minister Jaafari?  He will meet with the president here on Friday.  How is he doing? 

MCCAFFREY:  Well, I think the good news is, the Shia have showed enough moderation, including Sistani, so they haven't created the conditions for a civil war. 

They are trying to bring the Sunni into the process.  And all the indications, surprisingly, are that the Sunnis want back in.  It looks as if, overwhelmingly likely, they're going to vote in December, if somehow the Iraqis, as General Trainor suggest, can piece together a constitution that isn't malignant to the whole process. 

GREGORY:  As we study the president—present, General Trainor, you're also working on a new book, which will be the inside story of the war as well.  Tell me about that. 

TRAINOR:  Well, Michael Gordon of “The New York Times” and myself did a book on the first Gulf War called “The Generals' War.”  So, at the end of this one, we decided, we'll take a crack at this one.  It is due out in March on the third anniversary of the war.  It will be called “Cobra 2,” which was the secret code name for the operation in Iraq.  And it's the inside story.  We look at the political, diplomatic and the military aspects of the war. 

GREGORY:  We will look for it.  Thank you to all of you, General Barry McCaffrey, General Bernard Trainor and Colonel Ken Allard.

And, up next, former Bush speechwriter David Frum and former Democratic strategist Bob Shrum will be with us. 

And later, reaction to the war in Iraq with the mothers of two soldiers who served there. 

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

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

Bob Shrum is one of the Democratic Party's most renowned political strategists.  He is currently a senior fellow at New York University's Graduate School Of Public service and a HARDBALL political analyst.  David Frum, a former speechwriter for President Bush, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. 

More now from my interview last night with President Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove.  Here, he responds to public opinion on Iraq and suggests Americans must look past the immediate violence. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KARL ROVE, SENIOR ADVISER TO PRESIDENT BUSH:  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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Rove also answered charges by Republican Senator Chuck Hagel that the administration is disconnected from reality with respect to Iraq. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROVE:  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. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  David Frum, Karl Rove says polls go up and down on Iraq. 

Why are they down? 

DAVID FRUM, FORMER SPEECHWRITER FOR PRESIDENT BUSH:  They're down now because the news isn't so good. 

But polls are very powerful tools.  And they serve well.  But you have to handle them carefully or they will cut you.  And I think there are a lot of Democrats right now who are looking at these polls and drawing conclusions that they don't support.  The American people are anxious.  They're worried.  But, as Karl Rove said, that does not mean they're going to reward people who advocate cutting and running.

And that doesn't mean they're going to reward the kind of anti-war hysteria that's penetrating even relatively level-headed senators, like Dick Durbin of Illinois. 

GREGORY:  And we'll get to Dick Durbin and his comments about Guantanamo Bay and his subsequent apology. 

But, Bob Shrum, is it that Democrats are just responding to the polls?  Or is the president also responding to the polls?  He came out this week and felt it was necessary to tell the American public that he thinks about Iraq every day.  What's going on? 

BOB SHRUM, FORMER KERRY CAMPAIGN SENIOR ADVISER:  Well, the problem is, you listen to Karl Rove's description.  And what he is describing is kind of a safe room, where everybody is locked in.  The president is talking to the same people every day.  It is kind of an echo chamber. 

And I think he is out of touch with a lot of people.  He probably ought to talk to Chuck Hagel.  This is the same kind of thing that was happening with Lyndon Johnson for a period of time in Vietnam, where he was being told what people thought he wanted to hear.  And, in this administration, you get punished if you say something the president doesn't want to hear. 

I don't know who could or would go to the president and say, look, we have more problems here.  I mean, your last segment, your war council laid out some very serious problems that I'm not sure are being discussed with the president. 

GREGORY:  Do you agree with that?        

FRUM:  I'm sure that's not true.  I'm sure, if there are problems, he hears about them.  But he hears...

(CROSSTALK)

SHRUM:  He just doesn't do anything?

(LAUGHTER)

FRUM:  Well, well, you know, I think that there are very few people who actually have strong disagreements with what the president is doing today. 

I mean, there are a lot of people who want to relitigate the original decision to go to war.  There are people who want to score points off him in the particular—particular decisions he made vis-a-vis other Arab governments.  A lot of people get advice from other Arab governments that say the United States should have been more pro-Sunni, should have been more pro-Baathist at the beginning. 

I think the United States tended to get those things right.  But if the president is not going to listen to his secretary of defense and is ahead of the National Intelligence Service, who is he going to listen to? 

GREGORY:  Bob Shrum, the Democrats have said that the problem with this administration is that they didn't plan well for the postwar period, among other problems, and that they insist on looking at this war through rose-colored glasses today. 

Does the Democratic Party, do Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill today have a credible alternative, a policy alternative in Iraq? 

SHRUM:  I think there's always been a policy alternative in Iraq.  Senator Kerry expressed it last year.  I think it wasn't heard because of the controversy about his own vote on the war.  Senator Biden expressed some of it yesterday. 

And I think it is that we have to—and, by the way, I don't agree with everything Bush is doing in Iraq.  And I don't, David Frum, think the majority of Americans do.  I think it begins by acknowledging that we went to war for a reason that wasn't war.  We then say, but now we're in a situation in Iraq where it's a terrorist haven and we have to do something about it. 

The papers this morning report that CIA says it is the number one terrorist magnet and training ground in the world.  Number three, you then have to, after having cleared the air, go to your allies and then ask them for at least what Senator Biden is talking about, which is help in accelerating training, border security. 

And if these things don't happen, it won't matter if we have a constitution, an election in December.

(CROSSTALK)

SHRUM:  If everybody is still getting—if everybody is still getting bombed and blown up, none of that will matter. 

FRUM:  This is not an alternative.  Bob Shrum's alternative, if I heard him right, was, number one, the president should apologize for his policies and then...

SHRUM:  No.  Tell the truth. 

FRUM:  Then what he should do is, he should go ask a bunch of allies who don't have armies, don't have troops to give, to give some troops. 

SHRUM:  I didn't say that.  I didn't say that. 

FRUM:  Well, then, that was point three, I think. 

(CROSSTALK)

SHRUM:  I said they should help with training.  I said they should help with training.  And I think Senator Biden suggested 3,000 to 5,000 people to help with border security. 

FRUM:  Well, that—I don't know that you're going to go find that the French or the Germans have 3,000 or 5,000 deployable troops to be sustained half a world away to spare.  There are not a lot of countries in the world that have that kind of—that have that kind of force. 

And I think that the difficulties that the United States is having, some of them may have arisen from bad planning.  Some of them arose from the situation being an evolving one.  And some of them have arisen from the inherent nature of the problem.  The question is, is this game worth playing?  Are the stakes in Iraq high enough?  Are they important enough? 

And I think most Democrats, including Senator Biden for sure, would agree that they are.  And since the stakes are so high, it is important that the United States not divert itself with illusions like maybe the French could help and focus on winning. 

GREGORY:  Is there a way, Bob Shrum, to form an exit strategy on Iraq that may be premature for this administration, that you could still have success at the other end?  Could you bring home troops more quickly than you had anticipated and still save the overall policy goals? 

SHRUM:  Well, your war council says we need more troops.  I don't think there are going to be more troops for the reasons that General McCaffrey outlined. 

Beyond that, I think the real illusion here is the administration's.  You can't say that there are reasons to stay in Iraq, therefore, we will stay indefinitely, whether it is working or not.  We have to make it work.  And I think that's the implication of what Senator Biden is saying.  It's the implication of what Senator Kerry is saying.  We can't just conduct a P.R. exercise, where we have milestones that don't really mark progress and 20 people are getting blowing up every day. 

GREGORY:  We're going to continue this after the break.

And when we return, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld responds to Senator Dick Durbin's controversial remarks about Guantanamo Bay, the prison there.

And don't forget, sign up for HARDBALL's daily e-mail briefing.  Just log on to our Web site, HARDBALL.MSNBC.com.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  And coming up, former Bush speechwriter David Frum and former top Democratic strategist Bob Shrum fight it out over Social Security, the Bush agenda and the war in Iraq.

HARDBALL returns after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS:  I'm sorry if anything that I said caused any offense or pain to those who have such bitter memories of the Holocaust, the greatest moral tragedy of our time.  In the end, I don't want anything in my public career to detract from my love for this country, my respect for those who serve it and this great Senate. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  That was Democratic senator Dick Durbin Tuesday night apologizing for his remarks.  He compared the U.S. treatment of terrorist detainees at Guantanamo Bay to the Soviets and the Nazis. 

We're back now with David Frum and Bob Shrum.

In an interview on FOX News Radio, “The Tony Snow Show,” taped yesterday before the apology, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld commented on Durbin's remarks. 

This is what he had to say. 

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, “THE TONY SNOW SHOW”)

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE:  Nobody's perfect.  Some people always in their lives say something they wish they hadn't said.  We've just watched Jane Fonda run around trying to recover from the things she did and said during the Vietnam War.  And I just think that that's about all I have to say about him, is that he said some things and he's going to have to live with them.  And I'm—I think that that's not a happy prospect for a person. 

(END AUDIO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Bob Shrum, let me start with you.  Jane Fonda, Dick Durbin, are they in the same category? 

SHRUM:  Well, no, they're obviously not.  And let me return the compliment to the secretary of defense.  He said some things he's going to have live with them.

In fact, he's really, to return the compliment, the William Westmoreland of this war.  Westmoreland, our commander in Vietnam, said he saw the light at the end of the tunnel.  I mean, Rumsfeld and his nest of neoconservatives led us into this war on the basis of faulty or false information.  They didn't plan for the postwar period, which has actually become a continuing war.  And, even now, they don't seem to have any sense strategically of where we go in the long term. 

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  Those might be fair criticisms.  But let's talk about trying to win the political argument over the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, which is a very serious issue.  Are Democrats winning the argument when this kind of incident happens and then you have to go down to the Senate floor and apologize...

SHRUM:  No.

GREGORY:  ... for comparing U.S. forces to Nazis and the Soviets? 

FRUM:  It needs to be said...

SHRUM:  Of course—of course not.  And it violates the first rule of American politics and something I think is substantively correct, too.  You don't compare anything to what happened under the Nazis. 

Dick Durbin is an honorable guy.  He's apologized.  I wish Donald Rumsfeld would apologize for the false insurances he gave the country before the war.  And I wish he was as good at shutting down the insurgency as he is at shooting off his own mouth. 

FRUM:  The Guantanamo detainees are not from Iraq.  It has got nothing to do with the Iraq war.  It's got to do with the war in Afghanistan and the global war on terror, which people like Dick Durbin say they support. 

And one of the things that is so remarkable about what happened to Dick Durbin was, it is a sign to which—I mean, he is a level-headed, relatively level-headed person.  It is a sign to which this anti-war craziness that is boiling on the fringe of the Democratic Party has infiltrated the minds of people like him. 

I mean, the point is, this is not—that this was not a gratuitous slur against the memories of dead people.  This is a slur against the actions of living American troops, living American commanders.  And you have to wonder, what has happened when this way of thinking can arise—I don't know whether he was scripted or off the cuff—but it can come out of the lips of a man like Senator Durbin?

GREGORY:  Bob Shrum, I want to follow with one more question to you on a different issue.  And that is Social Security, something that you heard Senator Bennett talk about earlier on this program. 

Is the president now at this critical impasse on private accounts?  Is he beginning to retreat, in your judgment? 

SHRUM:  Well, he is not going to win private accounts.  He has to retreat. 

Senator Bennett's bill would be a first step.  But I think the president would have to explicitly retreat and he would have to adopt the model that Ronald Reagan adopted in the early 1980s, which is put together a bipartisan commission to deal with these issues.  I think everybody would have to give a little bit.  Both parties would have to walk down and cast those votes. 

And I think that's the way to deal with Social Security.  But you're not going to get it just bypassing the Bennett bill, letting it go to conference, and the Republicans stick private accounts back in the bill.  Democrats aren't going to trust that.  We need an organic and bipartisan process. 

GREGORY:  We're going to leave it there.  My thanks to Bob Shrum and David Frum. 

When we return, we'll be joined by the mothers of two soldiers who served in Iraq to talk about the mission and whether the Bush administration should set an exit strategy. 

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Sue Russell and Cindy Sheehan have suffered pain and loss in such a personal way because of the Iraq war.  Sue Russell's son, Lance Corporal Joshua Doyle (ph) was ambushed while on patrol in Iraq July 19, 2003.  His thy bone was shattered, his sciatic nerve severed.  And he was shot through the knee.  He is still recuperating from the physical and emotional trauma of that attack. 

Cindy Sheehan's son, Army Specialist Casey Sheehan, was killed in action in Baghdad on April 4, 2004, five days after he had arrived there.  Since then, Cindy has become an outspoken critic of the administration's actions in the war.  Both of the soldiers' mothers join me now.

And I thank you both of us—for being with us. 

And I don't think any American can say it enough.  Thank you for the service of your sons and for their sacrifice. 

SUE RUSSELL, MOTHER OF SOLDIER WOUNDED IN IRAQ:  Thank you. 

GREGORY:  Cindy, let me begin with you.  Tell me something about your son Casey. 

CINDY SHEEHAN, MOTHER OF SOLDIER KILLED IN IRAQ:  He was an amazing man.  And he was a wonderful person. 

He was an Eagle Scout.  He was an altar boy for 10 years.  He just wanted to serve his community and serve his country.  And he was very obedient.  He was very funny.  He was sweet.  He was kind and he was gentle.  And we were surprised when he joined the Army and not too surprised when he got killed in the war, because he said that he couldn't kill anybody. 

GREGORY:  And, Sue, we talked about your son being injured.  What is his progress like?  And tell us a little bit about how the injury happened. 

RUSSELL:  His progress is slow, but continuing, which is always a good thing. 

He was ambushed in Iraq.  And I got the call saying that he had been injured, which of course, is not a call you want, but what I tell people that say, didn't that make you mad?  Well, no, because my son got to come home.  He shattered the thy bone.  He got fragments, shrapnel, whatnot.  The sciatic nerve has been severed.  Luckily, it is something that regenerates, so that that has been regenerating.  He is getting use back of the leg.  They figure at least another couple of years of rehab to get movable. 

GREGORY:  Cindy, you their debate about the war.  You follow its progress.  Do you still believe in it? 

SHEEHAN:  Do I still believe in the war?  Is that what you just asked me? 

GREGORY:  Yes.  That's my—that's my question. 

SHEEHAN:  I never—I never believed in the war.  I never believed that Iraq was a threat to the United States.  I didn't see why we were rushing to invade a country that posed no threat, was no danger to the United States. 

My son didn't believe in the war.  My entire family don't believe.  We didn't believe in it then and we certainly don't believe in it now, with all the proof that has come out about the lies and betrayals that our government led us into this war.  And the newest thing is the Downing Street memo that just confirms what we already suspected, that this administration wanted to invade Iraq at all costs. 

And they would even fit the intelligence around that, around the policy of invading Iraq.  My son didn't believe it.  He didn't want to go.  But he said, mom, I have to go.  It's my duty and my buddies are going.  And it makes me very angry to look and see that my son's death was premeditated, that before—before the president went before Congress to ask for the War Powers Act, they already had plans. 

In fact, they were already bombing Iraq to provoke Saddam into attacking us.  I am very angry.  And I don't really like being called an anti-war crazy, like your previous—previous guest did.  I think everybody should be against war, especially wars that have no basis in reality. 

GREGORY:  Sue, do you think it is—it is the wrong time to criticize the war while we're still in it? 

RUSSELL:  Absolutely.  We have the right to criticize whatever we want whenever we want, and that's our freedom in America.  And, thankfully, we have that. 

But I think now is the time to be united with our president, with our country, with our troops, to support them.  Whether we believe in what is right and what is wrong, we need to support our men and women that are order there fighting, whether you believe in what they're fighting for is just or unjust.  They're there.  That's a fact.  They're going to stay there until the president and the Congress brings them home.  Whenever, that that's their decision. 

As an American, I'm going to support my president, the country, the troops in whatever means they need. 

GREGORY:  But do you get a sense that Cindy or anybody else is really criticizing the troops?  Certainly, her son sacrificed himself.  He was a proud soldier and felt a sense of mission, even if he had some real differences about the war. 

RUSSELL:  Oh, no, not at all.  I don't think—I would never—I would never sit here and try to tell Cindy that—how she should think or what she should think.  Her son gave the ultimate sacrifice.  She has every right to feel however she feels. 

I get to hug my son every night.  She doesn't.  And I would never want to walk in her shoes.  I couldn't imagine telling her that what she feels is wrong. 

GREGORY:  What do you think criticism of the war at this point is accomplishing?  In other words, do you think this is an important point to keep the pressure on the administration? 

SHEEHAN:  Well, we need to.  This war was...

RUSSELL:  I don't...

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  This one is for Cindy. 

Go ahead, Cindy.

SHEEHAN:  Oh.

This war, nobody should have been there in the first place.  Not one person should be killed.  And I don't believe that we support our government when they're wrong.  It is wrong.  There's innocent people dying.  There's innocent Iraqis dying.  And Americans should never have been over there.  We don't support our country when it is wrong. 

We try and fight and make it better and make it a better place.  And we need to keep pressure on the administration.  They don't support the troops.  You know, my son was killed doing a job he was not trained for.  He was not wearing the proper body armor.  He was not in an armored vehicle.  And he was killed in a political mess, a political mess that our leadership made.  That's not supporting the troops, as far as I'm concerned. 

They have to pay for their own laundry when they're over there.  They're getting killed guarding mercenaries who make $1,000 a day, when they barely bring home $2,000 a month.  They're losing their homes here in America.  They're not being supported by their government.  I think the only way we can support our troops who are only there doing their jobs and doing the best they can to stay alive and doing their duties is to bring them home, because it is a lie. 

And we're building permanent bases there.  And our government doesn't intend on bringing our troops home.  So, we have to put pressure on them.  And we have to tell the American people that this war is wrong. 

GREGORY:  All right. 

SHEEHAN:  And we don't support—we don't support something like that. 

GREGORY:  Cindy Sheehan and Sue Russell, thanks to both of you, a much more personal part of this debate over the war and its costs.  Thanks to you both. 

SHEEHAN:  Thank you. 

RUSSELL:  Thank you. 

GREGORY:  And tomorrow on HARDBALL, NBC's Tom Brokaw will be with us.

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

Good night, everyone.

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