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GOP petrified by ports, Iraq and corruption

Tim Russert, NBC  News’ Washington bureau chief and host of "Meet the Press," discusses the politics of port security, Iraq and corruption.

MSNBC:  Tim, how much was the White House involved in the Dubai port deal pullout?  Who made this happen?

Russert: The White House was deeply involved. What happened was the Republicans, particularly in the House, just said, “No.” And the White House came back and said, “No, no. We’re asking you to do this. Give us a 45 day review and then some of you may vote for it but we’ll have enough votes to override a veto.” And they said, “No. We’re blocking this deal now. Our constituents are outraged.”

Then Republicans in the Senate and the White House went back to the company and said this is not going to happen. And the leaders in Dubai said, “You know we could go to the brink on this thing and cause a real showdown, or we could pull back gracefully.” And they decided to cut their losses.

MSNBC: With the Dubai company's decision to sell its rights to a “United States entity,” do you think the turmoil surrounding this issue will be quieting down now or will it continue?

Russert: It all depends on what they mean by “U.S. entity.” The Democrats will watch that very carefully to make sure it is a truly independent company.

But the political fallout will continue for some time. Republicans are petrified. They believe that eight months from now they could lose control of Congress. This was an attempt by them to assert their independence — to show they’re not a rubber stamp of George W. Bush. When you talk to Republicans and their pollsters, they will tell you if you ask voters about Republican congressman, three things come up — Iraq, corruption and the port deal.

They’ve dealt with the port deal; they still have to deal with the corruption issue. Iraq is pretty much out of their control. But they’ve demonstrated to the president they will not lose this election by being too closely identified with him.

MSNBC: Aren’t there are other parts of the U.S. relationship with Dubai that could be threatened by this? They are, after all, the biggest friendly port of call outside the United States.

Russert: Absolutely.

That’s the point the president tried to make. But Congress wanted to hear none of it.

There’s an anxiety in the country right now that somehow we’re not up to the task; that we’re outsourcing everything.

There’s a toll road in Indiana that the governor wanted to lease to a Spanish company, and the people are up in arms about it.

It doesn’t make sense to them.

It’s a small event, but when they see the United States losing to Canada in baseball, people ask, “What is wrong with us? This is the United States of America. Why can’t we manage our ports? Why can’t we beat a hockey country in baseball? Why can’t we manage our own toll roads?” There is so much anxiety.

When the president thought he could hold on to a third of each house to override a veto, the Republicans, panicked and petrified about the mid-term elections, just said, “No.”

This issue struck a nerve, and the president paid a big political price.

MSNBC: Has this also demonstrated that the president has lost the leverage he spoke about after his re-election, when he talked about having political capital he was going to spend?

Russert: That’s a very serious issue. On Thursday’s actions, on taxes, on Medicare and on Social Security, congressional Republicans pulled away from the president.

There was a headline in the Financial Times newspaper and Web site which said the United Arab Emirates had concluded the president was no longer in control of Washington. That has profound significance.

We have a president who has to deal with the difficulties in Iraq, with Iran, with China and Russia.

There’s a grave concern that his standing in the polls is so low, with his own party so nervous about the upcoming election and the Democrats dug in in opposition, it’s going to make it very difficult for him to conduct his role as president in a serious and meaningful way.

MSNBC: Wasn’t that very same article questioning not just the president, but the U.S. position in the world?

Russert: The president was very pointed in this whole debate, saying, “We can not do this. W can not embarrass an Arab nation, and I will veto such legislation.”

And Thursday, they just said, “No.”

We now have a situation where these problems, like Iraq and like Iran, are going to take thoughtful bipartisan solutions — a united country, if you will. And we are so far from that right now.

MSNBC: This setback comes to the president on the one thing that was his big strength – national security. Does he have anything left?

Russert: That’s the one issue President Bush always had the advantage over the Democrats. In 2004, on a whole variety of issues, John Kerry’s position was held in more favor by the voter than George W. Bush’s. But President Bush had the trump card — national security.

The Democrats now believe that issue is in play and that’s why they’re feeling so emboldened when it comes to these midterm elections in 2006.

MSNBC: Will you be talking about this Sunday on "Meet the Press"?

Russert: Absolutely. We’re going to have two men who want to be president - Candidate A and Candidate B. 

Candidate A is George Allen, a Republican from Virginia. Candidate B is Joe Biden, a Democrat from Delaware. They’ll square off.

Then Michael Jordan, the chief military correspondent of the New York Times, and retired Gen. Bernard Trainor have a new book called, "Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq."

All Sunday, on "Meet the Press."