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Meet the Press Transcript - April 20, 2014

DAVID GREGORY:

On this Easter Sunday, the president is confronted by a troubling question: Just how far will Russian President Putin go in Ukraine? And, what can be done to stop him? This morning, I have an exclusive interview with the prime minister of Ukraine, who warns that Putin is far from finished.

ARSENIY YATSENYUK (ON TAPE):

President Putin has a dream to restore the Soviet Union.

DAVID GREGORY:

Should America send weapons to Ukraine’s outgunned military? I’ll ask two key members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this morning. Also, the high-stakes politics in this midterm election year: health care and social issues. The author of a new book on the fight over gay marriage joins me to talk about whether the Religious Right has lost some of its potency. We’ll also hear from the chair of the Democratic Party, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, on whether this week’s good news on health care can turn the tide for Democrats this fall.

ANNOUNCER:

From NBC News in Washington, the world’s longest-running television program. This is Meet the Press with David Gregory.

DAVID GREGORY:

But first, on this holiday morning, we wanted to get the latest from Ukraine. There’s been more bloodshed: At least two people killed in fighting this morning in eastern Ukraine. Armed, pro-Russian separatists still refusing to stand down, ignoring the terms of a deal brokered in Geneva by the U.S. and others. Two key voices from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will join me in just a moment. But first, I spoke this weekend with the country’s prime minister, who joined me from Kiev.

(BEGIN TAPE)

DAVID GREGORY:

Prime Minister Yatsenyuk, welcome to Meet The Press. We thank you very much for your time, sir.

ARSENIY YATSENYUK:

My pleasure, sir.

DAVID GREGORY:

The West including Ukraine, the United States, and Russia struck a deal to calm the violence in eastern Ukraine. What's it going to take for this deal to hold?

ARSENIY YATSENYUK:

Well, much depends on the Russian Federation. As Russia triggered this violence and Russia supported these terrorists, and Russia was obliged to engineer a meeting to condemn terrorists and to condemn those so-called peaceful protesters with AK-74 in their hands, shooting into civilians and shooting into Ukrainian riot police. And if Russia pulls back its security forces and former K.G.B. agents, this would definitely calm down the situation and stabilize the situation in southern and eastern Ukraine.

DAVID GREGORY:

When you hear President Vladimir Putin talk about Novorossiya, “New Russia,” where he talks about Ukraine being part of Russia, does that tell you that Putin will not stop until Ukraine is part of Russia?

ARSENIY YATSENYUK:

President Putin has a dream to restore the Soviet Union. And every day, he goes further and further. And God knows where is the final destination. And he was very clear, saying this stuff in his state of the union two years ago. And I believe that you do remember his famous Munich speech saying that the biggest disaster of the former century is the collapse of the Soviet Union. I consider that the biggest disaster of this century would be the restoring of the Soviet Union under the auspices of President Putin.

DAVID GREGORY:

There is discussion that N.A.T.O. might even commit ground troops in the Baltic states to make it very clear Putin that he cannot go further. Do you think the Baltic States, even Poland have a reason to be concerned about Putin's intentions?

ARSENIY YATSENYUK:

The world has a reason to be concerned about Putin's intention. Because what Russian Federation did, they undermined the global stability. They actually eliminated nuclear nonproliferation programs. Just to remind you that Ukraine signed the notorious Budapest Memorandum when we gave up our nuclear arsenals in 1994.

And we got a number of guarantors of our territorial integrity. It was the United States, the U.K., and Russia. And actually Russia violated this deal. And Russia undermined the entire program of nuclear nonproliferation. And it's crystal clear that for today, Russia is the threat to the globe, and the threat to the European Union, and a real threat to Ukraine.

DAVID GREGORY:

Vice President Biden will be in Ukraine this coming week. My question to you, Prime Minister: Is Ukraine strong enough militarily to stop Russia in the east? If not, what specifically will you ask the Obama administration for? Do you need modern weaponry? Do you need advanced lethal weaponry to stop the Russians?

ARSENIY YATSENYUK:

We need a strong and solid state. We need financial and economic support. We need to overhaul the Ukrainian military. We need to modernize our security and military forces. We need the real support. You know, it's easy to answer the question you just asked me.

How can you stop the nuclear-powered state which is Russian Federation that spent billions of dollars to modernize their military instead of Ukraine? In the last four years, the former president, together with the Russian supporters, what they did, they just dismantled Ukrainian military and Ukrainian security forces. So we need to be in very good shape in order to stop Russia. And for this shape, we need to have and to get the real support from our Western partners.

DAVID GREGORY:

So you need weapons?

ARSENIY YATSENYUK:

We need financial, economic support. We need to modernize Ukrainian military and to overhaul all structures of Ukrainian defense system.

DAVID GREGORY:

Are you prepared to let eastern Ukraine become autonomous, which would effectively mean it would be part of Russia's orbit?

ARSENIY YATSENYUK:

Russia made a number of offers, starting with so-called federalization and then dealing with a new constitution. And they strongly recommend us how to govern Ukraine. My recommendation to Russia is that we believe that they need to change their constitution, too, and to make Ukrainian language as a state one.

Because we have a huge Ukrainian-speaking minority in Russia. And they need to empower their federal states with more autonomy, too. So the question is that they have their own country. We have our own country. And we can fix our problems inside with any kind of Russian support. The more Russia supports us, the more problems we get.

So if Russia pulls back, we will have Ukraine as one united, territorially integral, sovereign, and independent state. Any Russian ideas related to federalism or to autonomous status of southern or eastern Ukraine are aimed at only one thing: How to eliminate Ukrainian independence.

DAVID GREGORY:

Final question. There have been ghastly reports coming out of eastern Ukraine this week about some kind of forces forcing Jews in the eastern part of the country to register with local authorities. What do you make of this? Are these accurate? Are Jews particularly at risk?

ARSENIY YATSENYUK:

We got information that these so-called peaceful protesters with light ammunition in their hands, that they sent a number of bulletins saying that everyone who is a Jew to be indicated as a Jew. And today in the morning, I made a clear statement urged Ukrainian military and security forces and Ukrainian Department of Homeland Security urgently to find these bastards and to bring them to justice.

DAVID GREGORY:

Prime Minister, thank you very, very much for your time. We appreciate it.

ARSENIY YATSENYUK:

Thank you, sir.

(END TAPE)

DAVID GREGORY:

I'm joined now by two members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Ranking member, Republican member, Bob Corker from Tennessee, and the Democrat Chris Murphy from Connecticut. Welcome to both of you. Senator Corker, let me start with you. I know you'll be in the region this coming week.

Here's what you've got: You've got a deal that's been undermined on the ground as you've got more violence. And here's the Ukrainian prime minister saying that Vladimir Putin is still on the march. So what do you do now if you're the Obama administration? What do you want them to do?

SEN. BOB CORKER:

You know, the same thing I've been urging them to do by telephone and in other meetings, David, and that is to go ahead and put in place some of the sectoral sanctions that have been discussed. They signed an executive order. I don't think Putin believes we're really going to punish them in that way. We keep waiting to see what their next step is.

As I've said before, our foreign policy is always a day late and a dollar short because we're reacting. To me, unless they immediately begin moving the 40,000 troops on the border, which are intimidating people in Ukraine, unless they begin immediately moving them away, I really do believe we should be sanctioning some of the companies in the energy sector, Gazprom and others. I think we should hit some of the large banks there.

And certainly, we should beef up our security relationships with Ukraine. We have relationships with 138 countries around the world where we help them with hardware and other kinds of things. And for us to really have h-- drawn Ukraine out, the West drew them out in this way, we've helped in many ways create the problems that are existing there.

And to leave them alone in the manner that we're leaving them alone now to me is just unconscionable. So, again, sanctions, cooperation with them relative to strengthening their military. They only have about 6,000 troops, David, that are even trained and equipped to deal with Russia coming in.

But, again, I think Russia's going to do it over time the way they're doing it with black ops, intimidation. I think we're going to lose eastern Ukraine if we continue as we are. And I think it's going to be a geopolitical disaster if that occurs.

DAVID GREGORY:

Well, Senator Murphy, let me pick up on one piece of that. What I asked the Ukrainian prime minister: Do they need weapons from the United States? Maybe that's provocative with all those Russian troops on the border. But how do you send a clear message that the Ukrainian military is going to get fortified and it's not going to be outgunned the way it is now?

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY:

Well, I've met with Yatsenyuk a number of times, and he didn't say anything differently than what he said to you, that their focus right now is on trying to rebuild the Ukrainian economy. And so his first priority is making sure that the Ukrainian people, who now finally have control of their own government in Kiev, have an economy that can sustain them. And what he is interested in from a military perspective is the long-term rebuilding of the Ukrainian military.

Now, the United States has already provided about $10 million in defensive and military aid. We've provided MREs, we've provided equipment, we've upgraded their border capacity. But, in reality, it's really uncertain as to whether the sad state of the Ukrainian military is so deteriorated that it can't even handle things like--

DAVID GREGORY:

But we're talking about the here and now.

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY:

--anti-tank or anti-aircraft.

DAVID GREGORY:

We're talking about the here and now.

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY:

That's fine. And so--

DAVID GREGORY:

And the reality is that, as I talk to business leaders around the country, as I talk to former diplomats, you have to worry day by day the lessons that Putin is drawing from this. He wanted Crimea, he took Crimea. There was no penalty. He puts forces on the border, they're still there. He's already, it looks like, violated this agreement just after a couple of days. So how then do you have a strong, clear message that says to him, "Okay, we're done here. You can't go any further"? Senator Corker, first to you.

SEN. BOB CORKER:

David, I had some degree of difficulty hearing everything that you said. But, again, I think the administration is basically saying to Russia, "Look, don't do anything overt. Don't come across the border with 40,000 troops. Don't embarrass us in that way. But you can continue to undermine the sovereignty of Ukraine by doing the things that you've done."

And, again, I've urged in every way that I can for this administration to go ahead and, again, push back now. It's going to be too late. Just like we did in Syria, where in essence, let's face it, (I hate to say such a crass thing on Easter Sunday morning) the wisest thing that Assad did really was to kill 1,200 people with chemical weapons. Because, in essence, we said, "Don't embarrass us anymore that way. You can go ahead and kill another 60,000 people with barrel bombs and by other means, but don't embarrass us."

And I think that's what we're saying to Russia today by the actions that we're not taking: "Don't embarrass us, but you can continue the black ops activities. You can continue the other things that you're doing. We know that over time you're going to reach the goals that the prime minister so eloquently laid out before. You're going to reach those, but don't do it in a way that embarrasses us."

Again, the world is watching. Our allies in Europe are watching. Our N.A.T.O. friends and others know that this is where we are. And I think we need to step on out and do the things that we've threatened because I don't think Putin will respond to anything else, other than us overtly doing the things that we've laid out.

DAVID GREGORY:

Senator Murphy, part of the problem with being more aggressive on sanctions is that there's an assumption that the Europeans will stand fast with the United States. That may be a false assumption because they need the oil. They want to do business in Russia. And it could be American businesses that are hurt, along with Russia as well. So the same question of course to you, which is how do you send that message that enough is enough?

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY:

Well, I think this is where Senator Corker and I certainly agree. I think the time is now to rapidly ratchet up our sanctions, whether it's on Russian petrochemical companies or on Russian banks. And I also agree with Prime Minister Yatsenyuk that the Europeans need to look at this from their security perspective as well.

If Russia does get away with this, I do think that there's a potential that a N.A.T.O. ally is next. And, yes, there will be economic pain to Europe, but it's time for them to lead as well. And there are some things that the United States and Europe can do together to try to be able to remedy that pain to Europe.

For instance, we can look at targeted L&G exports that might not help in the next few months but will help over the maybe next six months, next year and a half to try to defray some of the costs that will come to the European economy from Russia doing reciprocal trade deals, like cutting off gas supplies to Europe.

DAVID GREGORY:

Let me ask one final question, Senator Corker, to you. The specter of Edward Snowden in the middle of all of this. During a lengthy question and answer session that Vladimir Putin had where he took a question from Snowden who was asking him about whether Russia is engaged in the kind of mass surveillance and collection of data that the United States is in. What did that exchange tell you about how Putin is using Snowden and the role that Snowden is playing as he's got asylum in Russia?

SEN. BOB CORKER:

Again, I'm having some degree of difficulty hearing. But, to me, it was a tremendous public relations stunt. You know, those of us who've traveled to Russia realize that the whole time we're there, we're likely being filmed and listened to. It's the one country that we go into knowing that every move we make is being watched and listened to.

And to make the kind of comments that they're not looking in on Russian people-- the Russian people know very well the government looks in on them constantly. We know that very well when we're there. So, again, in our face. I mean, again, what Putin is doing to embarrass our nation. And, again, we should only react to substance not words. But what he's doing in that way, to me, again, continues to undermine our credibility, and candidly, to show the air of permissiveness that we have created around the world since last August.

DAVID GREGORY:

All right. We're going to leave it there. Senators Corker and Murphy, happy Easter to--

SEN. BOB CORKER:

Thank you.

DAVID GREGORY:

--you both. Thanks so much for your time this morning.

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY:

Thank you.

DAVID GREGORY:

I've got the roundtable here, our political roundtable. Chuck Todd, our political director; David Brookes, columnist for The New York Times; and a couple of faces you have not seen here. Radhika Jones, the deputy managing editor of Time magazine, whose career has included work at The Paris Review and Moscow Times, and David Shribman is here who, for the last 11 years, has served as executive editor of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a big city paper that is thriving in tough times, thanks to you, no doubt. No stranger to Washington, of course. You've covered national politics for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Boston Globe. So welcome to all of you.

David Brooks, here is my take on where I see President Obama vis-à-vis Putin and Ukraine. He wants to go quieter in his foreign policy. He wants to get out of the business of drawing red lines. What he wants to do is diffuse conflict and think narrowly about where the United States can have an impact. He got a deal this week; it's already falling apart. He's got tougher choices ahead when it comes to Putin.

DAVID BROOKS:

Yes, you get the sense that he's stepping back from the conversation in the White House. It's not what's happening day to day in the Ukraine that they're reacting to. It's now like, "What are we dealing with here?" And I think they've decided, and I think it's the right decision, it's not that Putin's trying to restart the Cold War. He's more like the 19th century imperialists and expansionists.

He's going to relentlessly expand, both for reasons of his own theology, reasons of his own ideology, internal structural reasons. He needs to be on the offense all the time. And so how do you deal with somebody who's going to be perpetually expansionist? And I think if you go back to 19th century history, the answer's pretty obvious: You get a balance of power. You fill in vacuums around him.

And that's why I think we're hearing all the discussion about modernizing the Ukrainian military, filling them with economic aid. Just try to create buffer zones, what is basically an imperialist boundary.

DAVID GREGORY:

It's interesting, Radhika, you also hear David Ignatius writing this week in The Washington Post the idea that the president's trying to find some room to diffuse this crisis, give Putin a little bit of room to save face himself, instead of making this a mano-a-mano showdown that the president probably doesn't feel like he can prevail on. And of course, Ukraine is not as important here in the big picture to the United States as it might be to Russia.

RADHIKA JONES:

Right. The president's very aware of his own base and how much the American people care day to day what's happening in Ukraine. And the other thing is that Putin, as we've seen, is working on his own timeline and the West hasn't been all that successful in deterring him from doing so. We know Ukrainian elections are coming up on May 25th, and it's in Putin's interest to simply destabilize the region a bit before then, not necessarily to go in full force. So there is a little bit of window there.

DAVID GREGORY:

David Shribman, how do you see this from outside of our ecosystem here in D.C.?

DAVID SHRIBMAN:

Well, the question really is how much of lessons of history apply here, and whether history's lessons might be some kind of a distraction. But we've seen this movie kind of in two incarnations; David mentioned the 19th century. Then we also mention 1938 and 1989. The difference between now and 1938 and 1939 is that the guarantors of Poland's integrity were continuous to the aggressor to Germany. France was continuous to Germany. We're 5,000, 6,000 miles away from Ukraine.

I worry not only about that, but I worry about the increase of Soviet iconography in modern Russia, and the threat that might not only be to the former Soviet republics but also how about a recreation of the Warsaw Pact? That's something that is kind of something we should worry about down the line as well.

DAVID GREGORY:

It's interesting, I mentioned Snowden, Chuck Todd, and the role he played this week in the middle of everything with Ukraine. I want to show a bit of the question that Snowden asked and then read Putin's response. We'll show that now.

EDWARD SNOWDEN (ON TAPE):

Does Russia intercept, store, or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals? And do you believe that simply increasing the effectiveness of intelligence or law enforcement investigations can justify placing societies rather than subjects under surveillance? Thank you.

DAVID GREGORY:

Putin didn't seem surprised by the fact that--

CHUCK TODD:

Yes.

DAVID GREGORY:

--Snowden was there asking the question. He said, "Mr. Snowden, you're a former agent, a spy," in his response through a translator. "Our intelligence efforts are strictly regulated by our law, so how special forces can use this kind of special equipment as they intercept phone calls or follow someone online. And you have to get a court permission to stalk that particular person. We don't have a mass system of such interception and, according to our law, it cannot exist. Our special services, thank God, are strictly controlled by the society and the law and regulated by the law." What's going on here?

CHUCK TODD:

Well, that was obviously a PR stunt and Putin, every moment that he can stick a finger in the eye of the United States, I think he takes it. But to go back to sort of where the White House believes they are here, they're desperately just trying to get to a containment strategy of not just containing Putin--

DAVID GREGORY:

And isolating Putin.

CHUCK TODD:

And isolating Putin, but also just sort of containing this issue, because there is this fear, as you know. He doesn't want this to become the rest of his presidency, you know. But in many ways, he is being tested here in some way on how he handles Ukraine.

So, for instance, I'm about to hop on a plane in two days. We're going on this Asia trip. And, oh, by the way, Japan has an issue with islands with China; Korea has some territorial issues. There are a lot of countries in Asia that have territorial issues with China. Where is the United States going to sit when this decides to raise its head and become an issue there? So that's why this does matter globally, sort of how the White House responds to this. And they have no interest right now in doing sectoral things.

DAVID BROOKS:

I mean, basically since Yalta, we've had an assumption that borders are basically going to be borders. And once that comes into question, if in Ukraine or in Crimea or anywhere else, then all over the world, you know, the tokens--

CHUCK TODD:

All bets are off.

DAVID BROOKS:

All bets are off.

CHUCK TODD:

It is open.

DAVID BROOKS:

And, let's face it, Obama, whether deservedly or not, does have a (I'll say it crudely) but a manhood problem in the Middle East: Is he tough enough to stand up to somebody like Assad, somebody like Putin? I think a lot of the rap is unfair. But certainly in the Middle East, there's an assumption he's not tough--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

By the way, internally, they fear this. You know, it's not just Bob Corker saying it, okay, questioning whether the president is being alpha male. That's essentially what he's saying: He's not alpha dog enough. His rhetoric isn't tough enough. They agree with the policy decisions that they're making. Nobody is saying-- but it is sort of the rhetoric. Internally this is a question.

DAVID GREGORY:

I've been waiting years to actually say that in a transition. Let's talk about health care, and the president facing the press this week, meeting the press, you might say, and was answering a question about health care. Here's what he said.

PRESIDENT OBAMA (ON TAPE):

They still can't bring themselves to admit that the Affordable Care Act is working. They said nobody would sign up; they were wrong about that. They said it would be unaffordable for the country; they were wrong about that. They were wrong to keep trying to repeal a law that is working.

DAVID GREGORY:

A law that is working. I mean, Radhika, he's talking about Republicans there. He's telling Democrats, "This is the argument you should go make when you're campaigning this fall."

RADHIKA JONES:

He's so happy not to have to talk about the website anymore.

DAVID GREGORY:

Right.

RADHIKA JONES:

I think that's a big part of it. Yeah, the president suddenly is very happy to talk about the A.C.A. It doesn't seem likely that Democrats will be as happy in terms of their local elections. Even if the law is working, and let's remember this is a law that passed four years ago; the constitutionality of it was confirmed almost two years ago; it's been around. And it is not going anywhere. But it remains unpopular, even among people in states where the signups have been plentiful. It remains unpopular sort of as a general policy.

DAVID GREGORY:

Right. And David, in Pittsburgh, as you talk to people, do they understand the law? Do they think the law is a good thing?

DAVID SHRIBMAN:

No and maybe. They don't understand the law, they don't know how it applies to businesses. They don't know how it applies to themselves. They still think the website is a symbol of government incompetence and of artificial barriers.

But I do wonder, if you think back to the Reagan years when everybody called it Reaganomics, and then it started to work a little bit and the president was pleased to call it Reaganomics. This president hopes to get to a place where he'll be pleased to call it Obamacare.

DAVID BROOKS:

Maybe, but, look, there are three different ways to grade this thing: Is it going to increase the number of people who have insurance? The answer seems to be yes, and the White House deserves a lot of credit for the way they turned that around. The second is what the president just mentioned, is affordability. Much worse news this week.

It seemed like health care inflation was trending down; the latest news is it's shooting back up. And so that trend down might have been caused by the recession and not Obamacare. And so if health care inflation goes up then we've got a gigantic problem on our hands. So you've got an "incomplete" on that. And then, does it actually help the health of Americans? Still huge "incompletes."

CHUCK TODD:

Look, politically, I think Democrats ultimately have to make this decision: Do they ignore it and try to have another conversation with this election, and let the Republicans own the health care debate? I think it's a long-term mistake. They may lose the battle on health care again this fall in these elections, but they have to start figuring out how to make this a political winner for them, and have to start fighting on this in the campaign. Because if they don't, then they're going to be running away from health care another election after this, another election after this, another election after this. I think they need to start confronting this in a more aggressive way.

DAVID GREGORY:

Hillary Clinton is out talking this week. She was talking about immigration. What really has people talking are a couple of things: 1) the cover of her book. Her memoir is coming out: Hard Choices. And the news that Chelsea, her daughter, is having a baby. So I wonder, Radhika, whether the hard choice she might be referring to is: Is she going to run? Is this still a real question? Does the fact that she's going to become a grandmother, on top of some of the other considerations, factor into this question?

RADHIKA JONES:

I think Hillary Clinton has juggled so many jobs in her life that adding grandmother to her bio would not deter her from running. And I think, in a way, this might be one of the easier choices she has to make. But it remains true that she doesn't really have to make it in the foreseeable future. I mean, her whole strategy has been to wait, and she has, you know, the fame on her side, the name recognition on her side. She has the fundraising on her side. And in her interest to let it play out a little longer.

(OVERTALK)

DAVID SHRIBMAN:

David, I think that's--

DAVID GREGORY:

--expectation for her?

DAVID SHRIBMAN:

--she's been enormously successful running for president by not running for president. And not until September or October does she have to become a little more aggressive politically. But right now, this strategy is winning. It's one of the great winners of political history, and she should stay with it.

DAVID BROOKS:

Can I be the first to speculate on when the granddaughter might run for president?

(OVERTALK)

DAVID BROOKS:

2054 I think is the year.

CHUCK TODD:

Is that the year?

DAVID GREGORY:

That's right.

(OVERTALK)

DAVID SHRIBMAN:

Versus which Bush?

DAVID BROOKS:

Which Bush, yes, one of the-- I guess it would be George P.'s children.

VOICES:

Right. Yes. Right.

DAVID BROOKS:

You know, let me just say one quick thing on Hillary. At some point, though-- you're right about September/October. She's essentially the de facto leader of the Democratic Party now, going forward, in the future. She's going to have to start showing up on the trail. Democrats kind of need her. The swing vote in America is Hillary Clinton's demographic. It's older white woman. That is the swing vote. If Mark Pryor wins or loses, it's older white women--

DAVID GREGORY:

And it's interesting that--

DAVID BROOKS:

They're going to need Hillary, particularly--

DAVID GREGORY:

--Elizabeth Warren, very much the kind of liberal populist, is filling that void, and she's on the campaign trail right now. We're going to take a break. We'll have more from the roundtable as we move ahead. Coming up next, the president, as we've been talking about, went on the offensive over health care this week. But is it a winning issue for the Democrats in the midterms or is it still something they have to deal with going uphill? I'm going to discuss the challenges facing the party with the chair of the party, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, coming up after this.

***Commercial Break***

DAVID GREGORY:

We are back. The president's approval ratings are casting a deep shadow on the prospect for Democrats in this year's upcoming elections. To discuss the challenges facing the party, I'm joined by Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee. Welcome, good to have you.

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ:

Thank you. Good to be here.

DAVID GREGORY:

We've been talking about health care, and here's the challenge. The president's out there making the case that, "Run on this. Make the argument. Accuse the Republicans of trying to take this away." But you have vulnerable Democrats who are saying something else. They're basically saying, "The law is flawed and we should fix it."

This is Jeanne Shaheen in a radio news interview in New Hampshire. She said, in part, the following: "I think there are important things about the Affordable Care Act that are working, and working very well. I think we need to fix the things that are not working, and that's what I'm committed to. I would have designed it differently if I had been designing it; unfortunately I wasn't the person who was writing the law. I think hindsight is always 20/20. You always know that you could have done better." To me, that's not a ringing endorsement to get people out there to vote.

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ:

Well, that's Legislation 101. I mean, that is how we have handled laws and their evolution throughout American history. The president is right, and Jeanne Shaheen is right. We have a law that is working: 8 million people have gained health care coverage as a result of signing up for the Affordable Care Act plans. 129 people with pre-existing conditions no longer have to be worried about being dropped or denied coverage; I'm one of them, as a breast cancer survivor. You have millions of seniors who are paying lower costs on their prescription drugs.

And these are the things that Republicans are obsessed with taking away, and focused on doing everything they can to block President Obama at every turn, even if it means hurting the middle class. While, at the same time, you have our candidates, our incumbents, like Jeanne Shaheen, like Mary Landrieu, who understand that this is a law that's working for millions of people. And as we discover there are problems, we should work together--

DAVID GREGORY:

But you're making an argument--

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ:

--to solve those problems.

DAVID GREGORY:

--on the merits, as the president is doing. But what you've got is something that's opaque, as David Shribman was saying, the publisher in Pittsburgh. A lot of people simply don't understand it, and they don't understand fully what the impact is going to be. Jonathan Martin, writing in The New York Times this morning, writes this: "Democrats could ultimately see some political benefit from the law. But in this midterm election, they're confronting a vexing reality: Many of those helped by the health care law, notably young people and minorities, are the least likely to cast votes that could preserve it.

"Even though millions have gained health insurance and millions more will benefit from some of its people, provisions, quote, 'The angry opponents are more mobilized than the beneficiaries,' said David Axelrod, long-time advisor to Mr. Obama." Midterm fall off, sixth year of his presidency: This has got to be an urgent issue for you, as the chair of the party, making sure Democrats get out and vote, who are excited about this law.

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ:

Well, there are millions of people who understand the benefits of the health care law, particularly women who I've spoken to who are breast cancer patients, who no longer have to choose between the chemotherapy or the radiation.

DAVID GREGORY:

You're arguing the merits, Chairman--

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ:

No, I'm--

DAVID GREGORY:

--which I understand. But do you not have a turnout problem that you're worried about?

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ:

Every election it is critical that we turn out vote out. And I would, and will, match up ground game and our turnout operation, which ran circles around the Republicans in 2012 and in 2008, any day of the week. We have senators across this country, House members-- there's 14 open seats in the House, 11 of which Democrats have an advantage; only three of which you would lean more to the G.O.P. in terms of advantage.

You have the Republican Party who is strangled by the Tea Party. They are weighed down by Republican primaries in which the Tea Party candidates are the likely winners. And we have countless elections now that Democrats have won because the Republicans have nominated extremists that their voters reject.

DAVID GREGORY:

Do you--

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ:

And that's the advantage we will have going into this election.

DAVID GREGORY:

Right. But do you have an historic disadvantage? Because a president in his second term, in midterms, historically has a difficult time. You have a president with a low approval rating. And, let's be honest, you have vulnerable Democrats who are, in effect, running against this White House.

Let's talk about the issue of our energy future, the Keystone XL pipeline. The president, the administration again delayed a decision on whether this pipeline should be approved going from Canada down through the United States into the Gulf of Mexico. And Mary Landrieu from Louisiana issued a statement on Friday saying this, critical of the administration: "Today's decision by the administration amounts to nothing short of an indefinite delay of the Keystone pipeline. The decision's irresponsible, unnecessary, and unacceptable.

"By making it clear that they will not move the process forward until there's a resolution in a lawsuit in Nebraska, the administration is sending a signal that the small minority who oppose the pipeline can tie up the process in court forever. There are 42,000 jobs, $20 billion in economic activity, and North America's energy security at stake." Isn't it true that, because the president can't get a big law to combat climate change, he doesn't want to upset those environmentalists who would really be upset with him if he approved Keystone?

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ:

What's true is the decision over the Keystone pipeline is complex, and it's one that has to be examined very carefully. It affects multiple states. What's also true is that incumbent senators, like Mary Landrieu, understand the issues that are important on the ground in their state to their constituents.

And, I mean, just take a look, David, at the 2012 U.S. Senate results. You have, in almost half of the Senate races that we had an open seat, the Democratic candidate won even though Mitt Romney won that state. So, you know, the predictions that, you know, we are headed for the minority in the United States Senate really don't line up with the historical situation on the ground in those campaigns.

DAVID GREGORY:

Will the president approve Keystone in the end? Should he?

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ:

I think he has to continue to take a close look at it. The environmental concerns are legitimate; the economic concerns are legitimate.

DAVID GREGORY:

Are you worried, as the party chair, that this shouldn't be resolved before the election because of the potential impact it could have on vulnerable Democrats?

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ:

As a member of Congress who represents hundreds of thousands of people in south Florida, I want to make sure that the right decision is arrived at. And that the president makes that decision carefully and he doesn't factor politics into his decision, which I don't think he is.

DAVID GREGORY:

Is the issue in the fall a referendum on President Obama?

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ:

No, absolutely not. The--

DAVID GREGORY:

It's not?

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ:

No. In a midterm election, and even like I said in 2012, these elections, particularly the Senate elections, are referendums on the candidates running. I mean, if they were not, you would have seen the states where Mitt Romney won--

(OVERTALK)

DAVID GREGORY:

But these Democrats seem to know the issue. They're critical of the administration, they're critical of his law. They're not running on specific needs in their states. Shaheen and Landrieu, you just mentioned. They're targeting their fire on their fellow Democrat president. They understand that a midterm race is really about the president and his policies. It's about President Obama and health care.

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ:

They have to run--

DAVID GREGORY:

Is that not the case?

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ:

What's the case is that each of these candidates have to run their own race. They have to talk about and focus on the issues that are important to their constituents. And what's also true is, if you look at the success rate and the track record of these incumbent members, Mark Pryor, Mary Landrieu, Mark Begich, they are all ahead of any of their Republican opponents.

And these Republicans are mired in a civil war where the Tea Party has won, and they are consistently nominating the most extreme candidates. And we're on offense in states as well. So you've got Georgia, and Kentucky, and even Mississippi, where we have a very good chance to pick up those seats. So--

DAVID GREGORY:

You do--

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ:

--this election is going to be quite competitive all the way to the end. But we have to return our voters out, that's the bottom line.

DAVID GREGORY:

Would you like to see Hillary Clinton campaigning down the final stretch here? Could she make a difference in the fall?

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ:

I'm confident that Hillary Clinton is going to be helpful to our candidates across the country. That's something that I'm entirely comfortable.

DAVID GREGORY:

All right. Thank you, Congresswoman.

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ:

Thank you so much, David.

DAVID GREGORY:

As always, nice to have you here. Coming up here on the program, Russell Crowe's big screen portrayal of Noah has generated controversy; well, now the construction of a life-sized Noah's ark is dividing opinion in a small town in Kentucky. We'll tell you that story, coming up.

***Commercial Break***

DAVID GREGORY:

And we are back. A Hollywood take on the story of Noah's ark starring Russell Crowe has grossed tens of millions of dollars over the past few weeks. And in northern Kentucky, a huge replica of the ark is due to be built, along with a Christian theme park. In today's Meeting America segment, Kevin Tibbles tells us why there's a great deal of excitement about the project, but also skepticism about such a large display of faith in the public square.

(BEGIN TAPE)

KEVIN TIBBLES:

The season of renewal has arrived in the foothills of the eastern Kentucky mountains. Here, in Williamstown, with its 4,000 people and two dozen churches, they like to call it city close and country quiet. But there is a buzz in the air about a proposed construction project of Biblical proportions just up the road.

KELLY ISLER:

I think it's huge. I think people would definitely come to see that.

KEVIN TIBBLES:

As she studies her Bible over a morning cup of coffee, Kelly Isler is clearly enthusiastic.

KELLY ISLER:

We kind of think it's like, "Oh, this never happened." And so the fact that they're actually making it into something that is real life for us, it kind of opens up, you know, that imagery of, like, "Wow, this actually happened."

KEVIN TIBBLES:

"It" is Noah's ark. Not a scale model like this one, but a massive, life-sized replica, part of an attraction planned by Answers in Genesis, a Christian organization that believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible.

ANNOUNCER:

Make yourself an ark.

KEVIN TIBBLES:

Noah's quite a popular figure these days. The ark also appears in the Hollywood blockbuster starring Russell Crowe and many pairs of animals. Estimates suggest the Ark Encounter Park will cost some $150 million to build. In the kitchen, Bill Gregg readies for the Easter rush. He's a fan of the ark project. It's expected to employ as many as 900 people.

BILL GREGG:

There is a separation of church and state, but they've not presented it as a church. They've presented it as a thematic park.

CHRIS BAXTER:

It's kind of a sucker punch to know that my tax dollars are, like, helping to prop this up.

KEVIN TIBBLES:

Chris Baxter's not sold. He balks that tax incentives Kentucky has granted Answers in Genesis to build the ark park.

CHRIS BAXTER:

I pass over a lot potholes; I know a lot of schools that could probably use some bonuses for teachers. Instead, we're going to build the Mickey Mouse version of a Bible story. And that is a little depressing to me.

KEVIN TIBBLES:

Commotion reigns just across the Ohio River in Dale Myerenke's pet shop. He says he doesn't often think about the separation of church and state, but he believes in it, as he does in God.

DALE MYERENKE:

Tomato, tom-ah-to, what is it? Okay, if it's a theme park, that's an acceptable reason to give incentives. If it's strictly religious then I don't think you can give money.

KEVIN TIBBLES:

For Meet the Press, Kevin Tibbles.

(END TAPE)

DAVID GREGORY:

A reaction from our roundtable. David Shribman, how does this sit with you? We see debates all over the country about faith in the public square; small town and big town alike face it.

DAVID SHRIBMAN:

We have public meetings in Pittsburgh four or five times a year, and one of them every year is on the role of religious in the public square. And we get double the attendance that we get through anything else. It's the most vital issue, or at least the most tumultuous issue, I think, in civic life beyond what the newspapers say.

DAVID GREGORY:

How do you resolve it?

DAVID BROOKS:

Listen, you know, I don't think the earth is 6,000 years old, I guess like the builders of this park do. But we do need reminders of the moral drama of everyday life. And some of the Biblical stories are reminders of that. Today's Easter. Easter has a trajectory of that story, of love, sacrifice, and rebirth. You don't have to be a Christian to learn a lot from that. And so I'm for anything that can introduce some of the moral reminders of the moral currents in life.

DAVID SHRIBMAN:

My only worry is if we go two by two, we have three Davids here.

(OVERTALK)

DAVID BROOKS:

There's another story here, of this is small cities, big towns. That's also the story of the economy. And that's a story of what's wrong with the economy. There's no manufacturer there anymore so they're debating about, "Hey, let's build this ark. Maybe it becomes a tourist attraction. Maybe this is a way to generate some dollars." And, you know, that's another part of this story. This is what's taking place all across middle America right now.

DAVID GREGORY:

All right, we're going to take a break here. We're going to come back; we'll hear from Radhika and others when we're joined by the author of a new book on the fight for marriage equality in a discussion on whether the influence of the influence of the religious right in politics is on the decline as we look at it through the lens of the marriage debate. More on that in just a moment.

***Commercial Break***

DAVID GREGORY:

Here now, some of this week’s images to remember.

(“IMAGES TO REMEMBER” SEGMENT)

DAVID GREGORY:

Some of the week's images to remember. Coming up here, the author of a new book about the fight for marriage equality in America, and how an appearance on this very program by Vice President Joe Biden created a little bit of a stir in the White House. We'll talk about it after this.

***Commercial Break***

(BEGIN TAPE)

DAVID GREGORY:

And you're comfortable with same-sex marriage now?

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN:

Look, I am Vice President of the United States of America. The president sets the policy. I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying, are entitled the same exact rights. All the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And, quite frankly, I don't see much of a distinction beyond that.

(END TAPE)

DAVID GREGORY:

That was a pretty newsy answer on this program a couple of years ago by the vice president who appeared here. And according to my guest who's here, and her new book, Biden's statement created a little bit of chaos within the White House after he got ahead of President Obama and endorsed gay marriage, essentially, here. The book is Forcing theSpring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality by Jo Becker, who joins us now. Welcome. It's good to have you here.

JO BECKER:

Thanks.

DAVID GREGORY:

So take us then beyond what happened on Meet the Press to what the reaction is inside the White House because the White House said afterward, "No, no, no. The president was going to endorse gay marriage before the election anyway."

JO BECKER:

Sure. Well, you know, the president and his advisors had been debating this for months. There were sort of two countervailing political forces going on. They were quite worried that it would hurt him among Latinos, Catholic white voters, and repress turnout among socially conservative African-American voters.

On the other hand, they were starting to see data that said that his refusal to endorse was a huge impediment among 18- to 30-year-old voters who they really needed to turn out in the same numbers. So there was this debate. And the president said if he was asked about this, "I'd like to be able to answer it honestly." And even so, there was no plan put in place. It's a measure of how scared they were of this issue.

And so the vice president had actually, shortly before coming on your program, had been at the home of a gay couple in California, and out playing with their children. And he had been asked about it privately there, and he sort of said something similar to what he told you.

But when he came on your program, that encounter, playing with those children, an aide said it was like his hard drive got erased. He had been answering this question the same way over and over, but you asked him question in this encounter was still ringing sort of in his ears. And he gave you the answer that he did. And when the transcript hit the White House, I mean, chaos erupted.

DAVID GREGORY:

It's interesting. If you put the gay marriage debate into the wider political context of the power of the religious right on our politics, on this Easter Sunday, and we look at this chart that shows views about gay marriage and that shift. I mean, you don't even have to put-- look at the red and green arrows and you see a complete shift, going back to 2003, where support has completely overtaken it. Is this symbolic of the social issues being less important in our elections?

JO BECKER:

Look, I think certainly what we saw in the last election was that same-sex marriage was not a driving force for Republican voters. Abortion was still up there, was still a priority. But this is an issue that the country is just changing. And, you know, I think one of the most interesting things is if you look at young evangelical voters, almost half are supportive of the right of gays and lesbians to marry.

DAVID GREGORY:

But it's still a question Karl Rove was asked, and he said he could see a presidential candidate who was a Republican endorsing gay marriage. You think, again, that hold of what we call the religious right is loosening?

RADHIKA JONES:

I think it's so generational. I mean, you know, that question of if Obama didn't make that declaration, was he going to lose the millennials? I remember when he made his statement to Robin Roberts, you know, one of the most authentic parts of it was saying, "I've spoken to my children and Sasha and Malia don't understand why the gay parents of their friends would be treated differently." That, it seems to me, is a very powerful force. And as that young generation grows up and takes that kind of equality for granted, it seems to me like it will, you know, become widespread.

DAVID BROOKS:

What struck me about especially the book and the reporting you did was what a strategist culture we now live in. Like, this is an issue of civil rights, this is an issue of morality, and the president has one view. And to shift the view, they've got to get this whole apparatus, they do focus group testing and strategizing. You report about a Ken Mehlman lunch -- Mehlman was the former head of the Republican Party -- with Obama. And this whole apparatus has to move inch by inch as opposed to just a guy saying, "This is what I believe."

DAVID GREGORY:

Right.

CHUCK TODD:

But we live in a strategist culture.

DAVID SHRIBMAN:

This has happened before, David; sadly not on Meet the Press. But 51 years ago this spring, Vice President Johnson, alienated from the entire Kennedy administration, went up to Gettysburg. He was the son and grandson of confederates. He gave a speech answering Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail. He moved the administration far beyond where it expected to be on civil rights. And by the next Tuesday, he was included in meetings and the president, President Kennedy, went further than he thought he was going to go at the time.

CHUCK TODD:

Look, it was brazenly political, what they did, on how they handled gay marriage. They were worried about a floor fight at their own convention. That's why they had to make this change when they did. But I don't think the Republican Party 2016, the nominee will not be able to be for same-sex marriage. But I bet by 2020.

DAVID GREGORY:

All right, we're going to leave it there. Jo Becker, good luck with the book. Thanks for being here, appreciate it. Thanks to the roundtable as well. Happy Easter to all of you. Before we go, I just wanted to show you pictures of Pope Francis giving his traditional Easter Mass before a crowd of thousands in St. Peter's Square. He prayed for peace in Syria and Ukraine, and an end to all war and every conflict. We'll be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press.

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