MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: Iraq. Will more U.S. troops stop the violence? Will the Iraqis ever be able to secure their own country? And what kind of country will the U.S. eventually leave behind?
With us, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York; Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana; former Bush speechwriter, now with the Council on Foreign Relations, Michael Gerson; and former Clinton foreign policy adviser, now with the Brookings Institution, Ken Pollack.
But first, the 2008 race for the White House has begun. Sixteen candidates have already formed presidential committees. And this morning, it’s decision time for our guest, the former Republican governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee.
FMR. GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE (R-AR): Thank you very much, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: Are you running for president of the United States?
GOV. HUCKABEE: Tim, tomorrow I’ll be filing papers to launch an exploratory committee, and yes, I’ll be out there.
MR. RUSSERT: Why?
GOV. HUCKABEE: I think America needs positive, optimistic leadership to kind of turn this country around, to see a revival of our national soul, and to reclaim a sense of, of the greatness of this country that we love, and also to help bring people together to find a practical solution to a lot of the issues that people really worry about when they sit around the dinner table and talk at night.
MR. RUSSERT: Let’s try to define who you are. The last time we talked it was on a—my CNBC show. I asked you about George W. Bush, and you said this, “I think the president has done a magnificent job. And generally, you know, I don’t find that many areas where I would disagree with him.” You still hold that view, Bush has done a magnificent job?
GOV. HUCKABEE: Well, I think he’s had a lot of struggles, particularly in managing the, the war in Iraq. We did a great job of going in and toppling Saddam Hussein. The tough part has been bringing some sense of stability there. And so it’s been a struggle for the president. I think the domestic agenda has also been something that’s almost been ignored and overlooked because we have spent so much of a time on Iraq.
MR. RUSSERT: If you were in the Senate or the House, would you vote to oppose the president sending more troops to Iraq?
GOV. HUCKABEE: I think that’s a dangerous position to take, to oppose a sitting commander in chief while we’ve got people being shot at on the ground. I think it’s one thing to have a debate and a discussion about this strategy, but to openly oppose, in essence, the strategy, I think that can be a very risky thing for our troops.
MR. RUSSERT: Is there one area you disagree with President Bush?
GOV. HUCKABEE: On Iraq or on...
MR. RUSSERT: On anything.
GOV. HUCKABEE: Well, I think we need to be very careful about the overuse of the Guard and the Reserve in our military. As a governor for 10 ½ years and commander in chief of our Guard, I’ve seen 80 percent of our Guard forces deployed to Iraq. Now we’re talking about sending them back yet again and again. These are citizen soldiers. They didn’t sign up to be gone all the time. They signed up to be soldiers called upon for extraordinary duty, and they’ll—they’ve done it. They’re willing to do their duty, but the toll that it’s taking on their families, their employers and their communities is—it’s beginning to really wear.
MR. RUSSERT: You were governor of Arkansas for 10 years plus. The Cato Institute, conservative think tank...
GOV. HUCKABEE: Mm-hmm.
MR. RUSSERT: ...analyzed your performance, and this is what they said:
“Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, Republican, final term grade: F. Mike Huckabee ... receives an F for his current term and a D for his entire tenure. The main reason for the drop was his insistence on raising taxes at almost every turn throughout his final term.” And The Club for Growth, another conservative think tank, wrote this: “About Gov. Huckabee, the Club for Growth ... is adamant. ... They say he raised taxes five times—a gas tax increase in 1999, the cigarette tax hike, tax increases in 2004, a tax on beer and a tax on nursing homes.” That’s a tough record to sell to a Republican audience in primary states.
GOV. HUCKABEE: Well, it shouldn’t be if they look at the real record. I—I’ve said, and I think one of the reasons they’re mad at me is because I said I gave them an F on their grading capacity. I was the first governor in the history of my state to ever lower taxes, the first one in 160 years. We lowered a total of 94 different taxes and fees. We did things that streamlined and made government more efficient. But we were under a Supreme Court order to raise revenue for our schools. We did it, but with the insistence that we wouldn’t just raise money, we would raise standards and expectations, and we did. And Education Week now says that we have some of the most improved schools in the nation. That’s real progress, Tim, and I make no apology for wanting to improve education for the kids of our state. Did we raise taxes on fuel? Yes, but 80 percent of the people voted on it because it was on the ballot. So it wasn’t that I raised it. I joined with 80 percent of the people in my state to improve what was the worst road system in the country. Now we’re rated as having one of the best. Those are the kind of things that I’m being criticized for, but no one can question the conservative record over 10 ½ years when you look at what we’ve done in terms of not only restructuring but also in, in trying to bring some level of responsibility, except for those areas we couldn’t control: Medicaid, prisons and, and, and then education funding that was court ordered.
MR. RUSSERT: And if need be, because of the war in Iraq, because of the deficit, because of health care, because of infrastructure, would you keep raising federal taxes on the table?
GOV. HUCKABEE: I don’t think taxes is, is really where we need to go. It’s not that our taxes are too low, it’s that our spending is too high. Arthur Godfrey once said that “I’m proud to pay taxes in American, but I could be just as proud for about half the money.” I think that the real issue is getting our spending under control, making our priorities where they work for the American people.
MR. RUSSERT: So “read my lips, no new taxes”?
GOV. HUCKABEE: I think you got to be very careful. I, I wouldn’t propose any new taxes. I wouldn’t support any. But if we’re in a situation where we are in a different level of war, where there is no other option, I think that it’s a very dangerous position to make pledges that are outside the most important pledge you make, and that is the oath you take to uphold the Constitution and protect the people of the United States.
MR. RUSSERT: I was reading a lot about you, an ordained Baptist minister.
GOV. HUCKABEE: Yes.
MR. RUSSERT: I want to ask you a couple things that you said earlier in your political career. “Huckabee ... explained why he left pastoring for politics. ‘I didn’t get into politics because I thought government had a better answer. I got into politics because I knew government didn’t have the real answers, that the real answers lie in accepting Jesus Christ into our lives.’” And then this: “I hope we answer the alarm clock and take this nation back for Christ.” Would you, as president, consider America a Christian nation and try to lead it as—into a situation as being a more Christian nation?
GOV. HUCKABEE: I think it’s dangerous to say that we are a nation that ought to be pushed into a Christian faith by its leaders. However, I make no apology for my faith. My faith explains me. It means that I believe that we’re all frail, it means that we’re all fragile, that all of us have faults, none of us are perfect, that all of us need redemption. We are a nation of faith. It doesn’t necessarily have to be mine. But we are a nation that believes that faith is an important part of describing who we are, and our generosity, and our sense of optimism and hope. That does describe me.
MR. RUSSERT: But when you say...
GOV. HUCKABEE: I’m appalled, Tim, when someone says, “Tell me about your faith,” and they say, “Oh, my faith doesn’t influence my public policy.” Because when someone says that, it’s as if they’re saying, “My faith isn’t significant, it’s not authentic, it’s not so consequential that it affects me.” Well, truthfully my faith does affect me. But it doesn’t make me think I’m better than someone, it makes me know that I’m not as good as I really need to be.
MR. RUSSERT: But when you say “take this nation back for Christ,” what does that say to Jews, Muslims, agnostics, atheists? What...
GOV. HUCKABEE: Well, I think I—I’d probably phrase it a little differently today. But I don’t want to make people think that I’m going to replace the Capitol dome with a steeple or change the legislative sessions for prayer meetings. What it does mean is that people of faith do need to exercise their sense of responsibility toward education, toward health, toward the environment. All of those issues, for me, are driven by my sense that this is a wonderful world that God’s made, we’re responsible for taking care of it. We’re responsible for being responsible managers and stewards of it. I think that’s what faith ought to do in our lives if we’re in public service.
MR. RUSSERT: South Dakota had some proposed legislation to outlaw all abortion except saving the life of a mother, no exceptions for rape or incest. You said you’d sign that. Why?
GOV. HUCKABEE: Well, I always am going to err on the side of life, Tim. I believe life is precious. But I think the issue for many of us who are in the pro-life camp—and I have been since, you know, I was a teenager. This is not something that I’ve been all over the board on, it’s consistent. It’s because of my view that God is the creator and instigator of life. But I think those of us in the pro-life movement, we have to do also some growing and expanding. We have to remind people that life, that we belive it begins at conception. It doesn’t end at birth. And if we’re really pro-life we have to be concerned about more than just the gestation period. As a pro-life person, as a governor, look at my record. Yes, did we pass pro-life legislation? We did. But we also did things that improved the environmental quality and the conservation issues that would affect a child’s air and water. We also made sure that he had a better education, that access to affordable health care would be better. So I think that real pro-life people need to be concerned about affordable housing, we need to be concerned about safe neighborhoods, access to a college education. That, for me, is what pro-life has to mean.
MR. RUSSERT: But if you outlawed abortion, what would happen to the doctor who performed an abortion? What, what would happen to the woman who had an abortion?
GOV. HUCKABEE: Well, I think the question is, would I sign the bill in South Dakota? Do I think it’s the best only bill that ever could be signed? The question still comes back to this is a debate that’s been so divisive, and what we really need to be doing is having the discussion center around how can we create a culture where people value and celebrate life. The fundamental difference between the United States and our enemies in terror is that, regardless of whether one is considered pro-life or pro-choice, the one thing that—that is unique to America, or certainly characteristic of America, is that we celebrate life. We believe in it; we cherish it. We may have different definitions of it, what it means and how extensive we want to protect it. But the enemy on the other hand celebrates death. That’s where we need to bring this debate, is to remind ourselves that we still are a nation that elevates the concept that life is precious and important. And I hope that we can center on those topics rather than on the, the fine points that sometimes separate and divide.
MR. RUSSERT: But, as president, you would seek to ban abortion.
GOV. HUCKABEE: I would seek always to promote the view that life is precious and should be protected. Would I be able to singularly do that? Of course not. But I think it has to be won on, on a battlefield of one heart at a time rather than pieces of legislation at a time.
MR. RUSSERT: You said this to the Des Moines Register: “Let’s face it. In our lifetimes, we’ve seen our country go from ‘Leave it to Beaver’ to ‘Beavis and Butt-head,’ from Barney Fife to Barney Frank.” Why, why include Barney Frank, a gay congressman, in that reference?
GOV. HUCKABEE: I think it was a matter of a rhetorical device to talk about the different cultural shift that we have, and it wasn’t any particular attempt to be derisive of him. But, but there has been a huge cultural shift in this country, Tim. And I think that’s why many Americans are seeking leadership that has a positive and optimistic spirit, that wants to take this nation—what I call vertical politics rather than horizontal.
I just completed a book in which I talk about the difference between horizontal politics, where everything is left or right, everything is liberal or conservative, everything is Democrat or Republican. I think the American people are hungry for vertical politics, where we have leaders who lift us up rather than those who tear us down.
MR. RUSSERT: But some would suggest by including Barny Frank in that
reference you are tearing a gay man down. You’re against gay marriage, you’re
against gay civil unions. Is—do you have a problem with gay people?
GOV. HUCKABEE: No. I have a problem with changing institutions that have served us. And I, I think I would rather characterize not what I’m against, but what I’m for. Before we change the definition of marriage to mean something different, I think our real focus ought to be on trying to strengthen heterosexual marriages because half of them are ending in divorce. That’s a real problem in this country. There are a lot of kids who are growing up in a very, very confused and conflicted world because—not because we have same-sex marriage, but because we’re seeing a real failure in the tradition heterosexual marriage. That’s where our focus needs to be. Because if we want to end poverty, get a kid through high school, let him grow up in a stable, two-parent home and make sure that that child doesn’t have a child before he’s 21 and has a full-time job. That’s a 93 percent chance that child will never grow up in a single day of poverty if those are the criteria.
MR. RUSSERT: Should...
GOV. HUCKABEE: So we ought to be working more to build strong families rather than just to create new versions of them.
MR. RUSSERT: Should gay couples be allowed to adopt children?
GOV. HUCKABEE: That’s a question that, that I think, again, goes back to the heart of what’s best for the child. Unfortunately, so much of this argument has been framed about what, what the same-sex couple wants. But the real question needs to be child-focused, not couple-focused. And, Tim, that’s true for whether the couple is same-sex or whether they’re heterosexual. In our state, as in most, the criteria for adoption is always what’s in the best interest of the child. That ought to be what’s front and center.
MR. RUSSERT: So is it in the interest—best interest of the child to have a gay, gay parents?
GOV. HUCKABEE: That’s a question I’m not sure that, that we have a positive answer to. And until we absolutely could say it, then, then I—I’m always hesitant to change those institutions.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe that you’re born gay or you choose to be gay?
GOV. HUCKABEE: I don’t honestly know. I really don’t. I think there are—there are people who would argue vociferously on both sides of that. But I think that the point is, people are, are who they want to be, and we should respect them for that. But when they want to change the institutions that’ve governed our society for all the years of recorded human history, then that’s a serious change of, of culture that we, we don’t just make readily or, or hurriedly. It has to be done with some, some deep thought.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me ask you about a controversial aspect of your governorship. Wayne Dumond...
GOV. HUCKABEE: Yes.
MR. RUSSERT: ...a rapist who was convicted, sentenced in Arkansas, the parole board voted not to parole him in September of—in August of ‘96. You announced that you were going to commute his sentence, and then the parole board reversed course and agreed to parole him, and you supported their decision to parole. He was, was freed, left the state, killed and raped someone else in Missouri. Do you regret supporting that parole?
GOV. HUCKABEE: You know, looking back, certainly I wish that I had known more than I knew, but here’s what I knew: I never commuted his sentence; his sentence was commuted by my predecessor. When he was parole elibigle, he had not yet made parole. And I supported that he was parole-eligible. Later, the parole board did, in fact, give him their parole, supervised.
MR. RUSSERT: Did you talk to the parole board?
GOV. HUCKABEE: I did. But it wasn’t about Wayne Dumond. I went there, even though there are some tabloid reports that tried to make it that I did, I went there to get acquainted with them because I hadn’t appointed any of them. Out of all...
MR. RUSSERT: You never mentioned Wayne Dumond?
GOV. HUCKABEE: No, they brought it up to me. And, of course...
MR. RUSSERT: So you did talk to the board about him?
GOV. HUCKABEE: Only thing I said was this: They asked me did I think that he should be paroled, or something to that effect, and I simply said, “I think that his case has got to be given, you know, a serious look.” What he apparently did when he left was horrible, Tim. But, you know, the issue is, he is a person who did a horrible thing before and after. I think all of us regret and have deep, deep, painful thoughts that someone could do something like this.
MR. RUSSERT: You or your staff did not pressure or try to convince the parole board—parole board in any way shape or form?
GOV. HUCKABEE: No, we didn’t. And, in fact, here’s the, the part that never gets really pointed out. That parole board had all been appointed by either Bill Clinton or Jim Guy Tucker, my predecessors. I don’t think I had that kind of power. If I’m that persuasive, I’ll be the next president of the United States.
MR. RUSSERT: But, in hindsight, you regret announcing that you were going to commute his sentence.
GOV. HUCKABEE: Sure. I, I—of course I do, because it, it turned out not to be as we thought, that he had an exemplary prison record. And he’d been commuted by Jim Guy Tucker while he was acting governor, and Bill Clinton knew all about it.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me ask you about the lead right now in the Republican primaries, one of them, John McCain. You said this: “I have a hard time seeing [Sen. John McCain] being elected president, just because I think, at times, some of his views have alienated very important segments of the Republican Party. I’m not sure he can mend the fences with the evangelical wing of the party, the pro-life part of the party.” You stand by those words?
GOV. HUCKABEE: Well, sure, I said them. I, I have a lot of respect for Senator McCain, he’s a great American hero. But I do think that there’re going to be some challenges that he’ll face, and some of them have to do with issues that, that really have alienated many conservatives. But I also think that they’re going to be issues in, in relationship to even campaign finance reform and how that’s really affected the whole election process.
MR. RUSSERT: Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat, has announced for president, the former first lady of Arkansas.
GOV. HUCKABEE: Yes.
MR. RUSSERT: Will she be a formidable candidate?
GOV. HUCKABEE: Absolutely. You know, I think people underestimate her at their own peril. She’s a very strong, capable, brilliant person, and she will most certainly be a formidable candidate.
MR. RUSSERT: You’re from Hope, Arkansas. So is Bill Clinton.
GOV. HUCKABEE: Yes.
MR. RUSSERT: Are you similar?
GOV. HUCKABEE: We both came from Hope, Arkansas. We both came from humble origins. I think there are a lot of differences in us politically and philosophically, but the one thing that I’d say that we do share is that we share the sense of coming out of roots that really are, are poverty. I was the first male in my entire family lineage to even graduate high school. I—I’ve lived the American dream, Tim. One of the reasons that I’m running for president is because I think that America needs folks who understand what it is to start at the bottom of the ladder and climb their way to the top. We’ve got a lot of people who are born on third base and think they’ve hit a triple. America loves an underdog. America loves people who’ve had to struggle and for whom every rung of the ladder has been sometimes three rungs up and two back down. Thank God for the one you’ve gained and, and keep climbing.
MR. RUSSERT: David Broder of The Washington Post wrote this column in 2005:
“Huckabee ... is part of a bewildering variety of networks. A preacher for 12 years, he headed the Arkansas Baptist State Convention before being elected lieutenant governor and succeeding the scandal-tainted Jim Guy Tucker as governor in 1996. But at 1 a.m. last Sunday, he could be found wearing a Hawaiian shirt, playing bass guitar and leading his rock band of fellow Arkansans, called Capitol Offense, at the [National Governor’s Association] staff party at Raccoon River Brewing Co., a downtown beer hall.” And we have found this footage, governor.
GOV. HUCKABEE: Uh-oh, I’m in trouble now.
MR. RUSSERT: I believe—let’s take a look.
GOV. HUCKABEE: OK.
(Videotape of Governor Huckabee playing guitar)
GOV. HUCKABEE: This is from Memphis, by the way, yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: Now, I believe that song is “Born To Be Wild.” Is that your inner self?
GOV. HUCKABEE: It probably would be born to be mild would be a better one for me. I love music. One of the things that I’m very passionate about is music and art and education because it was life-changing for me. I think in a creative economy we’ve got to have a whole group of kids coming up and a generation whose left and right brains are stimulated. It’s something I pushed for as a governor in Arkansas where we are one of the few states that required both music and art education. I’m a musician, I’m passionate about it, but I think this, this country has made a huge mistake in cutting music and art out of school budgets. And it’s something we’ve got to address because the future economy is dependent upon a creative generation.
MR. RUSSERT: Governor Mike Huckabee, he’s announced for president. Thank you for sharing your views, and we’ll be following your campaign.
GOV. HUCKABEE: Thank you, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: Coming next, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, Republican Senator David Vitter, former Bush adviser Michael Gerson, former Clinton adviser Ken Pollack—they are all here. The Iraq war, what now? Where do we go from here? Only on MEET THE PRESS.
MR. RUSSERT: Senators Schumer and Vitter, Ken Pollack, Michael Gerson, the war in Iraq after this station break.
MR. RUSSERT: And we’re back joined by Senator David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana; Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York; Michael Gerson, the Council on Foreign Relations; Ken Pollack, the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution.
SEN. DAVID VITTER (R-LA): Thank you.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Schumer, let me start with you. We’ll talk about your book, “Positively American: Winning Back the Middle Class Majority One Family at a Time,” in a little bit. But let me start with Iraq.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: This was the scene yesterday down in Washington on the Mall, tens of thousands of Americans protesting the war, calling for a withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Senator Schumer, with that kind of anti-war fervor in the country and within the Democratic Party, do you believe that it’s inevitable Democrats will cut funding for the war off?
SEN. SCHUMER: Well, we’ll certainly ratchet up the pressure against President Bush. The bottom line is that this escalation, for instance, is so poorly received, not just by Democrats, but by all of the American people. Our first step will be this sense of the Senate resolution. But it’s only the first step. I believe, Tim, that that resolution will not only get a large number of Democrats—most Democrats to vote for it, but a large number of Republicans, close or even a majority. And that will send shock waves through the White House and through the country.
MR. RUSSERT: The secretary of defense, Robert Gates, says to vote for that resolution would embolden the enemy.
SEN. SCHUMER: I don’t think that’s true, and, you know, that kind of talk has led us into the problems in Iraq. When General Shinseki said something, they didn’t debate the issue, whether we needed 200,000 troops, they just kneecapped them. And right now 70 percent of the American people want a change in policy. That’s democracy, and Democrats and American people are not going to be intimidated by that kind of talk. We have to debate the issues. We haven’t had enough of a debate until now. The election in 2006 said debate those issues. We will not be intimidated.
MR. RUSSERT: You said this to Don Imus on Wednesday about the prime minister of Iraq. “Here’s a guy we know is incompetent. He’s controlled by our biggest enemy, Sadr. He can’t do even the execution of Saddam right, in a dignified way. And we’re putting more troops to back him?” If you have no confidence in the prime minister of Iraq, then why not stop the war now and cut off the funding?
SEN. SCHUMER: Well, the problem with just an immediate withdrawal is that it would create huge problems, as Ken outlines in his report. One, you’d have huge loss of life. Two, you might very well bring in other countries—Iran, Saudis—and have a huge conflagration. And worst for the United States, you might create grounds where terrorists would go. So we are for a rational, careful withdrawal. We’d like to see the troops reduced by a great amount by the end of 2007, and we are going to put pressure on President Bush not just in this resolution, but particularly in the upcoming funding resolution, to make that happen.
MR. RUSSERT: So you will cut off the money for some troop assignments.
SEN. SCHUMER: Well, we have some good ideas out there. It’s a difficult thing to do because you cannot legislate and say, “We will not fund this battalion, but we’ll fund that battalion.” And even if you do, the president could then move the other battalion in. But, for instance, Chris Dodd and Ted Kennedy have a good idea, which is we will—any new troops above have to be voted on by Congress. Hillary Clinton has a good idea. No new troops unless certain benchmarks are made. It’s a difficult thing to do because you want to protect the troops that are there and not allow an escalation. But in the upcoming funding resolution in the next month will be our second step. We think this first step, this resolution, nonbinding, will send a real message because close to a majority or even a majority of Republicans will vote for it. But we will not stop there.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Vitter, Chuck Hagel, who serves on the committee with you...
SEN. VITTER: Yes.
MR. RUSSERT: ...he’s a Republican senator from Nebraska...
SEN. VITTER: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: ...offered this warning to his fellow senators and challenges—well, let’s watch.
(Videotape, Foreign Relations Committee, Wednesday)
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R-NE): There is no strategy. This, this is a ping-pong game with American lives. ... They’re real lives. And we better be damned sure we know what we’re doing, all of us, before we put 22,000 more Americans into that grinder. We better be as sure as you can be. And I want every one of you, every one of us, 100 senators, to look in that camera and you tell your people back home what you think. Don’t hide any more. None of us.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Vitter, 68 soldiers from Louisiana have died in Iraq, 484...
SEN. VITTER: (Unintelligible)...actually, but significant.
MR. RUSSERT: ...484 have been wounded or injured. What would you say to the people of Louisiana today why more soldiers should be sent?
SEN. VITTER: I would say I’ve looked at it very, very carefully. I didn’t reach this conclusion easily at all. But I do think it’s the best alternative, particularly if we add on to the plan certain provisions that I’ve talked personally about with the president and Secretary of State Rice and others. I agree with Chuck that we need a very full debate. Part of that full debate we’re not getting, in my opinion, is a clear discussion of the alternatives. The resolution that my colleague Chuck Hagel was talking about is not a plan. It is not an alternative. It is a vote against the president’s plan, which is his right, but it is not an alternative plan. And I think, to have a responsible debate, we need to compare plans side by side because there is no easy answer.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you have an alternative plan?
SEN. VITTER: Well, I’m supporting the president’s plan, and I’m strongly encouraging some add-ons, specifically, I think we should be stronger and clearer about benchmarks. And John McCain’s working on a resolution about that that I expect to support. Secondly, I think we should embrace and support a regional diplomatic conference which would include Iran and Syria. Those aren’t—that’s not bilateral talks with them directly with us, but a regional diplomatic conference. And third...
MR. RUSSERT: Well, the Iraq Study Group, you have the book in front of you, called for reaching out, and the president rejected it.
SEN. VITTER: Well, they called for, among other things, those bilateral talks. I agree with the administration that that isn’t a good idea. But the regional diplomatic conference and talks I’m talking about is not that. They also talk about that activity, and the administration is very open to that activity. And I’ve been pushing them and prodding them to move more aggressively in that direction. And then third, I certainly agree with Chuck Hagel about one thing. We need to go over and over and over the issue of is this new troop level enough to make a difference. Because I think, clearly, we’ve been wrong in the past about the adequacy of troop levels.
MR. RUSSERT: You may recommend more?
SEN. VITTER: I’m, I’m open to that. I’m for getting the job done, turning the corner in a short period of time. I’m not for throwing a, a few more troops at it if that can’t turn the corner. I trust David Petraeus, who says we can turn the corner. I’m putting my trust in that. But I think we have to constantly re-examine that issue.
MR. RUSSERT: If this surge doesn’t work by the end of the summer, early fall, would you then consider withdrawal?
SEN. VITTER: Yes. I think this is clearly, as a practical matter, and in my mind, in my heart, this is clearly the final shot. And I’ve said that very clearly to the president and others.
MR. RUSSERT: Ken Pollack, let me show you the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. If the resolution against more troops passes the Congress, should the president proceed? Yes, 30; no, 65 percent. Two out of three Americans say if Congress says to the president, ‘Don’t send more troops,’ he shouldn’t do it. Any chance of that happening?
MR. KEN POLLACK: Well, I think that the administration has made up its mind. It seems like the administration has decided that they’ve got a plan, they believe the plan can work. They also believe that the additional troops can make a difference, and it seems like they’re, at the very least, going to give that plan a shot, regardless of what the American people or the Congress may, may want.
MR. RUSSERT: Can you continue to wage a war without the support of the American people?
MR. POLLACK: It’s extremely difficult, but certainly the Constitution gives the president a whole variety of powers that’re going to make it possible for him to do so, at least in the short term. The bigger question is over the longer term.
MR. RUSSERT: Michael Gerson, you wrote in Newsweek this, and I’ll share it with our viewers, “[Tuesday] General David Petraeus testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. When asked if he could get his job done in Iraq without additional troops, he replied, ‘No, sir.’ When asked if a congressional resolution of disapproval of the ‘surge’ could encourage the enemy, he said, ‘That’s correct, sir.’
“Under these circumstances, it is hard to imagine what impulse of arrogance could cause Republican senators like Warner and Collins to actively undermine the operational judgment of a skilled commander in the field, at the beginning of a decisive military campaign. The next week or so will test the proposition: does the military chain of command end in the Oval Office or on the Senate floor?”
MR. MICHAEL GERSON: Mm-hmm.
MR. RUSSERT: You’re taking on your fellow Republicans?
MR. GERSON: Yeah, I think this is clearly a case—it would be unprecedented for—to—for the Senate to undermine the operational judgments of a new commander in a very, at the beginning of a very decisive military campaign, where there are some early signs of hope, in, in this case. And, you know, the Senate is not going to conclude, I don’t believe, in March, when they consider the supplemental, that this is over, that it will pass the point of no return. The president’s made a case that we have to give this a chance.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Schumer, the president has said give this a chance.
Why not give him a chance?
SEN. SCHUMER: Well, we’ve given him so many chances. We’ve had nine plans on Iraqization. We’ve had so many different alternatives, and no change in strategy. Here’s the reasons, Tim, very simple. We’re still policing a civil war. No one bargained policing a civil war between the Sunnis and the Shiites, that’s a large basis of the president’s plan. The Sunnis and Shiites are going to be fighting with each other where our—whether our troops stay in three months or three years. And it’s our prerogative as a Senate, our obligation as a Senate, hearing the message of the electorate, to try and get the president to change. This plan is going to be—we believe it’s going to be a flop. Lots of people gave the president the benefit of the doubt in 2003, but there have—but there have been mess up after mess up after mess up. People are not willing to give him the benefit of the doubt again.
MR. RUSSERT: If you believe the plan is such, such a flop, then why did you vote to confirm General Petraeus, who is one of the architects of the plan?
SEN. SCHUMER: Because General Petraeus—the buck stops with the president, and our relationship is with the president, not in the line of command. And we will ratchet up the pressure on the president to change the course, to come up with a strategy different than the one they’ve had, which just about everyone, Tim—large numbers of generals, the American people, a majority of the Senate...
MR. RUSSERT: But General Petraeus is for the...
SEN. SCHUMER: ...even General Maliki.
MR. RUSSERT: General Petraeus is for the plan, why vote to confirm him?
SEN. SCHUMER: Because our job is not to interfere with the president’s chain of command. I voted for Gates as well. Our job is to send a message in our constitutional prerogatives. Not just a message, but take some action and change the course when we deal with the president. That’s how our Constitution works.
SEN. VITTER: Tim, I think it’s an important point. The Senate voted to confirm David Petraeus 81-to-nothing. More than that, everybody who has spoken about him has expressed supreme confidence in his ability. He says directly this resolution can hurt our troop morale, can embolden the enemy. I think for the time being we need to respect that judgment. He has also said, “If this plan is not working, cannot work, I will say so. I will report that not just to the president, but to the Congress.” Again, this isn’t an open invitation forever, this is a final chance. And I think, in that very constrained context, we should give General Petraeus what he needs for the next few months.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you regret your vote for the war?
SEN. SCHUMER: I don’t regret it, Tim, because I always believe in giving the commander in chief the benefit of the doubt. After...
MR. RUSSERT: But knowing what you know today?
SEN. SCHUMER: Knowing what I know today, of course. He has botched it.
MR. RUSSERT: You’d vote no?
SEN. SCHUMER: I will never—right, exactly. I would never give him—the whole point is, I don’t give him the benefit of the doubt again given how he’s botched this policy so dramatically. Even if we can limit our damage right now, the damage will be there for decades.
MR. RUSSERT: Michael Gerson, the logic of voting for General Petraeus but voting against the troop surge?
MR. GERSON: Yeah. I, I think ultimately it’s not responsible to say—which I think many Democrats do—this is the president’s war, he’s failed, and he has to live with the consequences. In fact, we all have to live with the consequences, moving forward here, and there’s a plan on the table, a realistic plan on the table which General Petraeus calls hard but not hopeless, and I think it needs to be given a shot.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me show you another poll number from The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. When the U.S. leaves Iraq, what will we leave behind? A stable government, 27 percent; no stable government, 65 percent. And look at this party breakdown: Republicans, 42 percent believe we will not leave behind a stable government; 70 percent of Independents; 82 percent of Democrats. That looks like a real erosion in Republican support for what the president promised would be a democratic shining city—country in the Middle East.
MR. GERSON: Yeah, I think there is a real Republican decay in support, there’s no question. And I think it is a last chance. And there’s a real tension for the administration here. A successful counterinsurgency strategy doesn’t have a lot of immediate results. It involves a lot of getting to know local leaders, living in the neighborhoods, drinking tea, you know, with, with local officials. So there’s—that’s the approach they’re taking. But the political situation, their timelines are much shorter, so there’s a real tension there.
MR. RUSSERT: Ken Pollack, let me show our viewers something that you have written, “Things Fall Apart,” share it with our viewers on the screen here. “With each passing day, Iraq sinks deeper into the abyss of civil war. The history of such wars is that they are disastrous for all involved. ... Unfortunately, we may soon be forced to confront how best we can avoid ‘losing’ an Iraqi civil war. ...
“Spillover from an Iraq civil war could be disastrous. ... It is imperative that the United States develop a plan for containing an all-out Iraqi civil war. ...
“It was arrogance in the face of history that led us to blithely assume we could invade without preparing for an occupation, and we would do well to show greater humility when assimilating its lessons about what we fear will be the next step in Iraq’s tragic history.”
MR. POLLACK: Well, the basic point that we’re trying to make is that the president wants this one last shot, it’s obviously very late in the game, there is no guarantee that it’s going to work out. I think that even the administration would say that the likelihood of it working is probably less than 50-50. If it fails, we are going to find Iraq even worse than it is today. It will probably slide into a Bosnia or Lebanon-like all-out civil war. That’s going to be disastrous not just for Iraq and the Iraqi people, but potentially for other countries around it, perhaps even for the entire region.
MR. RUSSERT: If it does fall into an Iraq—or to a Bosnia or an Afghanistan, what do we do?
MR. POLLACK: Well this, of course, is the great problem, because all options at that point in time are much worse than any we would have had in the past. What we outline in that report is a strategy of containment. Could we contain the civil war, the violence and the spillover effects within the borders of Iraq, prevent it from affecting other countries that we care a lot about, like Saudi Arabia, like Kuwait, like Jordan, like Turkey? And we lie—we lay out a strategy to do that, but we’re very sober about it, because we looked at a lot of the history of other civil wars like this and what we found is it is very hard to do.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator, Senator Schumer...
SEN. VITTER: And I—and I think this is very important...
MR. RUSSERT: That’s why I want to talk about it, Senator Schumer, because if we pull out, and all civil war breaks out, all-out civil war...
SEN. SCHUMER: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: ...Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds...
SEN. SCHUMER: Yeah. Yes.
MR. RUSSERT: ...perhaps Turkey gets involved, Iran gets involved, the—who knows? And it becomes a haven, a la Afghanistan...
SEN. SCHUMER: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: ...what do we do?
SEN. SCHUMER: Well, there is no good alternative, as Ken said, because things are so bad. And this new surge, this new escalation is no change in strategy at all. That’s the problem with it. It’s not a surge and a change in strategy, it’s just a surge under the present strategy, which I think everyone agrees has failed. So what do we do? Well, we have proposed a—that 2007 be a year of transition where we change the mission, change the strategy, Tim, away from policing a civil war and focusing on counterterrorism, focusing on force protection. During that year, you move a large number of the troops out of harm’s way—because they won’t be policing a civil war, they won’t be going down the streets of Baghdad—and try to contain the damage. It’s very similar to...
MR. RUSSERT: Where do you put them? Where do you put the them?
SEN. SCHUMER: Hmm?
MR. RUSSERT: Where do you put the troops?
SEN. SCHUMER: Well, you put them out of harm’s way, either in bases in Iraq or in Kuwait or nearby, many of them would come home. It’s a very similar strategy to the Baker-Hamilton Commission. Most of the middle-of-the-road, down-the-road, sober, nonpartisan experts have agreed that this is the best way to go. Only the president in his bunker, and a very few people around him, seem to think we should keep policing this civil war.
MR. RUSSERT: Is it...
SEN. SCHUMER: It’s not going to change after our troops leave.
SEN. VITTER: Tim, I, I think Ken—I think Ken’s recent piece makes two very important points. One, the Iraq situation is very bad, but it could get a lot worse. And number two, if it does, it is very difficult to contain that sort of all-out civil war. In that context, I think it’s very important that we look at the president’s plan so we don’t get to that complete all-out civil war.
With regard to what Chuck is talking about, the question is can the Iraqi military and security really contain sectarian violence right now, completely on their own? I don’t think there’s any hope that they can. Maybe he thinks it’s a little easier on the ground than I think. I think it is very, very bad.
SEN. SCHUMER: Yeah, but six, six months of a surge isn’t going to change that. It’ll be exactly the same once we leave.
MR. RUSSERT: Ken Pollack, are you pessimistic? Do you believe there will be all-out civil war?
MR. POLLACK: I am pessimistic. I will say that while I, I share Senator Vitter’s hope that the president’s plan works, I share many of Senator Schumer’s concerns about it. And I think that what we’ve seen in Iraq is a very severe deterioration of the situation, particularly over the last year, since the bombing of the gold—the Mosque of the Golden Dome in Samarra. What we have seen is a movement of Iraqi public opinion in the direction of civil war, people signing up with different militias. Again, most of that work was historical, looking at other, other civil wars. And what you find often is that there is a psychological dynamic to civil wars. When that takes hold, it becomes very hard to stop the snowball from rolling.
MR. RUSSERT: Michael Gerson, now that you’ve left the Bush White House, are, are you liberated to look back and say we made some huge fundamental misjudgments?
MR. GERSON: I think that’s fair. I think initially they—the assumption was that Iraqi society—the pyramid of Iraqi society would stay together when the top was taken off the pyramid, and it didn’t happen. And I agree with Ken, I think there should be planning going on right now for the worst. I think you should always plan for the worst. I think it’s a different thing than to assume the worst and not give the, the current chance—plan a chance to even to go into effect.
MR. RUSSERT: Does the president accept the fact that significant, major misjudgments were made?
MR. GERSON: I think so. I mean, in the speech a few weeks ago he used the word failures. I think that that was very important. And I think that that’s the reason we have a new leadership at the Pentagon, a new general in charge of it, a new strategy. And it’s hard—it may be right, and it may be wrong, but it’s not more of the same.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Vitter, you live in New Orleans. The president was down a few days after Katrina and gave a speech about what he was going to do. Let’s listen.
SEN. VITTER: Right. Sure.
(Videotape, New Orleans, Louisiana, September 15, 2005)
President GEORGE W. BUSH: And tonight, I also offer this pledge of the American people: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes. We will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives. And all who question the future of the Crescent City need to know there is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again.
MR. RUSSERT: The State of the Union message this year, not one mention of Katrina.
SEN. VITTER: Right. That was personally very disappointing to me, no two ways about it. Having said that, the real task is what the president supports in terms of funding and what we need on the Gulf Coast. So far, he’s been keeping that commitment in terms of those concrete dollar and other issues. Now, we have huge continuing needs, and there’ll be more needs, and so that is an ongoing test, if he’s going to keep that commitment. But so far, in terms of real dollars, he’s—and real help, he’s kept it. We wouldn’t have gotten the billions we’ve gotten in Louisiana through Congress without his leadership. His leadership pushed it through Congress. Now, again, that’s an ongoing test, so we’ll see.
MR. RUSSERT: Were you surprised there was no mention of Katrina?
MR. GERSON: A little bit. Those words haunt me a little bit, because I was involved in producing them. And it’s a disappointing thing, the way that not just the administration but the, the Congress and the country have refused to confront the—a great reality here. We have two different Americas in, in—and that hurricane revealed it. And I don’t think that’s been taken as seriously as it needs to.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Schumer, “Positively American: Winning Back the Middle Class Majority One Family at a Time,” Let me read something you wrote and share it with our viewers and with our panel here as well. You say: “In 2004, [Republicans won] with eight words: War in Iraq. Cut taxes. No gay marriage. Those eight words sum up the reasons for George W. Bush’s reelection. ...
“In 2006, Democrats did much better, ... but only because of Bush’s mistakes.
We had our own eight words: No war in Iraq. No corruption. Bad economy.
“But these eight words did not describe our own vision; they were the negative image of the Republican message. ... In 2008, we will need to do more to persuade the Baileys,” a fictional family from Long Island that you created in your mind and in your book, “to again trust the Democratic Party.” You’re suggesting you have a lot of candidates for president, but no platform.
SEN. SCHUMER: If we don’t have a good, strong platform, even though we do have very strong candidates, it’s going to greatly hurt our chances of winning in 2008. That was—that’s my anguish, and that’s why I wrote the book.
MR. RUSSERT: A, a, a press story in the New York Post described it this way, it was this headline, this is the Schumer book, “Schumer A Party Pooper; New Book: Dems ‘Lost Touch’ With Middle Class.”
“In a revealing new book on politics, Senator Charles Schumer comes out with guns blazing—not at President Bush, but at his own Democratic Party.
“Schumer ... rips his party for being in the clutches of special-interest groups for too long and for losing touch with the middle class.
“‘Washington Democrats too often took their cues from interest groups without considering the needs of the average person. ... Group identities around the country were less important, but those claiming to represent group interests in Washington were stronger than ever,’ Schumer wrote.”
Which special-interest groups?
SEN. SCHUMER: Well, all of them. Left, right and center. I bring up, in my book, talk when I got to Congress in 1980, for instance, and that was—that was about crime was ripping apart my district. I come to Washington, and I find out that the ACLU is writing crime legislation, has a veto over any piece of crime legislation. Now, they should be at the table. Their views should be considered. But our job, whether we’re Democrat or Republican, is not to just take what the interest groups want and just make it into legislation, it’s to balance their needs against others’. I believe in the environment, but there’s the issue of jobs. I believe in civil liberties, but there’s the issue of security. And what both parties have done, Tim, is forgotten the average middle class voter—yes, I call them the Baileys, but they could be anybody—and instead paid too much attention to interest groups.
The good news for us, Tim, and we talk about this in the book, people have an inclination to support the Democrats. Joe and Eileen Bailey, this middle class couple, they bought into Reagan Republicanism in 1980. They were in great shape. “Get the government off my back. Get it out of the way.” 2006, the world is different. We have terrorism, which we’ve talked about. Our—their kids in their schools have to compete against Chinese, kids in Chinese and Indian schools. We live a lot longer. Not only is that a problem for Medicare and Social Security, but how we live, getting married later, when and whether to have kids, all that leisure time. And for the first time, the Baileys are saying, “You know, I might need some government help.” The party that comes up with a platform that adjusts all these major changes caused by technology to the Baileys’ lives and, and, and helps them, doesn’t supplant them, realizes they’re doing OK, will be the majority party.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Vitter, the Republicans lost Congress in 2006. What does your party have to do to bounce back in ‘08?
SEN. VITTER: Well, we have to do the same thing, present a positive, proactive vision. I agree with Chuck, and it’s a lesson for Republicans, too. I also agree with Chuck that that is a void on the Democratic side with regard to this debate. And I’ll go back to what I said before, it’s every senator’s right to oppose a plan, including the president’s plan, but I think it’s also every senator’s responsibility to be for a plan. The Biden resolution, the Warner resolution are not plans. They’re opposition to a plan. So I think, to be responsible, we all have to put forward ideas with some specificity, and we all have to be for a plan because this country is in Iraq, not President Bush, and we need to move forward in a positive way.
MR. RUSSERT: Ken Pollack, right now there’s anti-war fervor in the country, but if the troops did start coming out and all hell broke loose, a civil war, could the Democrats be in a weaker position in 2008?
MR. POLLACK: It certainly is possible, and this is one of the things that we need to confront when we’re thinking about Iraq. And I think that all the Democratic candidates need to be thinking about that is, “Where do we wind up if there is a Democratic president taking over the White House in January of 2009? Is the situation better or worse?” You know, the problem with the situation that we’ve gotten ourselves into right now is that we have a tiger by the tail, and it’s terrible to be on the tiger’s back and it’s also terrible to let go of the tiger’s tail. But we’ve got to figure out how do we get to a position where we can at least deal with the problems that we’ve unleashed in Iraq. As we say, our hope is that some kind of containment strategy might offer a reasonable alterative. It will not be good for the Iraqi people. We need to keep that in mind. It will be a tragedy for the Iraqi people.
MR. RUSSERT: Mi—I’m sorry. Michael Gerson, some have suggested that the president just wants to buy time, hold on in Iraq, and then pass it off to the next president.
MR. GERSON: I don’t think that’s fair. I think the president has always been interested in victory, and he still talks about it in, in this case. I think victory—the standards of victory probably are a little lower right now. It—it’s avoiding the worst. It’s Ken—you know, Ken’s approach.
MR. RUSSERT: When you see John Warner, the former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, begin to distance himself from the president’s policy, if the surge doesn’t work, can you envision a time in the fall where Republican senators go to see the president and say, “Mr. President, it didn’t work. It’s over”?
MR. GERSON: Well, I think even General Petraeus in his testimony talked about late summer as a very important point, break point. And I think that’s what we’re likely to see. The problem will come on the Republican side when it comes, and it—there has to be serious progress.
MR. RUSSERT: How will the president respond to that?
MR. GERSON: Well, I—you know, I—the president’s a very determined man, as I—as I know. I think he’ll try to do what’s in the interest of the country, but it—it’s gong to be a difficult moment if this plan, which I think in many ways is a final plan, doesn’t get traction.
MR. RUSSERT: What will happen?
SEN. SCHUMER: Well, I think the bottom line is that the president will have no choice but to begin a withdrawal come this summer or fall of 2007. And that’s why I think the 2008 election, Tim, is going to turn on a positive platform. That’s what I’ve written...
MR. RUSSERT: Not Iraq.
SEN. SCHUMER: Not Iraq. I think we do have to discuss how to deal with the war on terror in the future. But I think that the president has shown so little veering from this plan, which is a disaster, that by 2000--early 2008, even he is going to be forced to withdraw troops from Iraq.
MR. RUSSERT: We shall see. Chuck Schumer, the book is “Positively American.” Thank you, and to the Baileys. Senator Vitter, thank you, Ken Pollack, Michael Gerson. And we’ll be right back.
MR. RUSSERT: That’s all for today. Next Sunday our MEET THE CANDIDATES series returns for 2008. The Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2004, John Edwards, who is leading the crowded field in recent Iowa polls, will be our exclusive guest. That’s John Edwards, right here next week.
If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.