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SOTUpartisanship sends world a message

NBC  News’ Washington bureau chief and host of "Meet the Press" discusses President George W. Bush's 5th State of the Union address

MSNBC: Tim, what did you take most from Tuesday night’s State of the Union address?

Tim Russert: Looking at the view from the president's podium, it was like the Red Sea parted and the Republicans went eight feet up while applauding and the Democrats went below sea level. This happened on issue after issue after issue.

So, I think, there will be a lot of different headlines from this speech, through the prism of the viewer, based on their own ideology.

The interesting thing for me was the president's acknowledgement – recognition - that this is, in the words of one of his top advisors, “an unsettled country.” There's an awful lot of angst and anxiety, and he's aware of that. And he knows the war in Iraq plays a central part of that, as well as the lack of response to Hurricane Katrina.

And it's put us now in a situation where it’s difficult for either party to get their way.

The president suggested he wanted to reach across the aisle and do some things. But then, a few lines later in the speech, he talked about the domestic eavesdropping program, saying, “By the way, the members of congress sitting right there, who escorted me into these chambers, they all knew about this.”

MSNBC: Does the deep division we saw in the House chamber mean more than just partisan bickering?

Russert: There is a gulf between these two parties. Half the audience would stand, the other would sit. When president said, “You didn't enact my Social Security reforms,” that’s when the Democrats stood up and applauded. Even on the war in Iraq and foreign policy initiatives the Democrats and Republicans were saying to the country and to the world, “We just plain disagree on every fundamental issue that’s confronting America.”

MSNBC:  Were you surprised when the Democrats stood and applauded congress’ failure to act on Mr. Bush’s Social Security reform proposal?

Russert:  Not at all.

In terms of the reaction, Democrats take it as a matter of pride that they stopped the president's Social Security plan, which was largely based on the creation of private accounts.

The interesting thing when the president wagged his finger and said we have to do something about entitlements:  he is right, but neither major party put forward a credible plan to deal with the baby boomer generation. The number of people on Social Security will double in the next 15 years. We have to double the payroll tax or reduce benefits by a third unless we do something, together.

MSNBC: The issue of the war was addressed head-on by the president. But again, we saw and heard the division in the chamber.

Russert: We sure did.  The president said, “No matter what you may have thought about the war and the debate leading up to it, now is the time to come together.”

But the Democrats - many in the room who are very supportive of John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democratic congressman who spoke out about withdrawing troops - they believe that the president will draw down troops significantly in 2006. Congressman Murtha said it will happen by November of 2006 for the mid-term elections.

There are a lot of suspicions on both sides as to how the war of Iraq will play out and the decisions that are made, which are labeled as military decisions, but may be political decisions by both sides.

MSNBC:  Anti-war protestor Cindy Sheehan, who lost her son in the Afghanistan War, felt passionately enough to make her point by wearing a protest t-shirt to the address.  Is her resulting arrest at the start of the State of the Union going to create a problem for the Democrats who criticize the war in a, perhaps, more sophisticated manner?

Russert:  There’s no doubt Cindy Sheehan has become a lightning rod.   But that’s a very important point.

She gave her son to this country. He died. And so a lot of people, I think, understand that and deeply appreciate her sacrifice.

On the other hand, she appeared Monday with Ramsey Clark Saddam Hussein’s lawyers, here, in D.C., talking about evicting George Bush from the White House and impeaching President Bush. So clearly she's been radicalized by this whole experience.

There are many Democrats who would prefer that this form of protest and her persona not exist.

On the other hand, there are a lot of activists Democrats who believe passionately that she is the one, with her demonstrations down in Texas, that galvanized support against the war and against the president and she's a real heroine.

It's very analogous to me about the debate that played out Monday in the Senate about Judge Samuel Alito Supreme Court nomination.  25 Democrats said, “We have to filibuster, we have to close this place down, in order to make the point.”  And 19 other Democrats said, “Wait a minute, we run in ‘Red State districts’ - Republican districts.  We have to be more centrist… more moderate.”

It’s a real debate within the Democratic Party.

MSNBC:  Mr. Bush is known to be very frustrated when he sees a large part of the population in the country that doesn't seem to agree with his message that this is a nation at war.  Last night’s partisanship couldn’t have helped that.

Russert:  No.  And his critics have responded by saying, “Well, if that's the case, Mr. President, ask people for sacrifice.”

Democrats have pointed out it's the first war we've been involved in a war where the president hasn't raised the revenue or taxes in order to pay for it. The deficits have gotten bigger.

I think one of the things that was most dramatic for me was the president walked into the hall flanked - escorted by the congressional leadership. It was that same leadership, he said, that had been informed about the domestic eavesdropping. And they, of course, will say that they did not know all the details.

MSNBC:  One side calls it domestic spying, the other, terrorist surveillance.  Either way, Mr. Bush was adamant in his defense of it Tuesday night.  Did he succeed?

Russert:  There is a real debate as to what happened in those meetings. Democrats saying, “We told them he had to come to congress to get new legislation.” The administration is saying, “No they told us not to do it. It would jeopardize the plan.”

This is going to be an issue that is going to play out, not only in this legislative body, but I think in the courts - all the way to the Supreme Court.

How that court decides whether or not the president had the authority for domestic surveillance, will have an enormous impact on the Bush presidency. Not only in his final two or three years, but I think in the history books.

If the court rules on the president's side, the American people will accept it. If the court rules against the president - that he violated the law - this will be a big story.

MSNBC: Among all of the president’s State of the Union proposals, what gets passed this year?

Russert: One thing I think will happen is lobbying reforms, because both sides need it.

The Democrats want to show they're cleaning up Washington. The Republicans want to show that they are participants on that and don't want to be tagged with that kind of image.

And everything else, I think, is pushed to the sidelines with bitter partisan bickering.  And the war in Iraq goes on, and the events on the ground cannot be controlled by either house of congress or either party.

MSNBC:  Did you see any other interesting consensus?

Russert:  When the president mentioned “earmarks.”  There are 15,000 earmarks in congress - tens of billions of dollars for congress’ pet projects back home.  The president said, “I know you're going to deal with that,” there's one member of congress - John McCain - clapping furiously.

That was it.  What sound did you hear? John McCain clapping.  And that was it.

That is a reform measure that a lot of people on both sides of the aisle don't want to be a part of because, it affects the pork they bring home.

MSNBC:  The president said Americans are addicted to oil and proposed a new initiative called the “Advanced Energy Initiative”. What do you make of that, coming from a president with a reputation as a “Texas oilman”?

Russert:  It's interesting, because there is the possibility it could work. We believe we are on the verge of research that could have hybrid cars that are affordable and attractive to consumers. Both parties are now saying the same thing - the president says I need 20 years, the Democrats say they can do it in 10. But it looks as though America is waking up to the reality that the dependency on foreign oil is not only an economic problem but a national security problem.

MSNBC:  Final question:  What is the president trying to accomplish when he talked about the “climate of criticism in Washington”?

Russert:  He wants patience to buy time for Iraq. He bet his presidency on Iraq. He can't control the situation in the ground. He knows it will be the issue in the mid-term elections in November. He is trying to silence the critics in Washington and around the country – on the Democratic side – so he can wake up in November and say, “We have victory.