MR. DAVID GREGORY: This Sunday, we will talk about your government behaving badly. New details emerging in the Secret Service and U.S. military prostitution scandal. Now six agents have lost their jobs and government bureaucrats living large on the taxpayers' dime. These are not low-level employees. What were they thinking? And who's going to be accountable? I'll ask the congressional watchdogs trying to get to the bottom of it: House Government Oversight Committee Chairman Republican Darrell Issa of California and House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Republican Peter King of New York.
Then it's back to the campaign trail as the president and Governor Romney try to get into each other's head.
FMR. GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R-MA): Even if you like Barack Obama, we can't afford Barack Obama. It's time to get someone that'll get this economy going and put the American people back to work with good jobs and rising incomes.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth. Michelle wasn't. But somebody gave us a chance.
MR. GREGORY: So just what kind of campaign are we in for? Will either candidate figure out how to make Washington work better at a time of so much pessimism and anxiety about the economy? Senior campaign adviser to the president David Axelrod meets the press this morning.
And finally, our political roundtable on what voters are telling us they are looking for in a president and how these candidates stack up. Here with us, NBC's political director and White House correspondent Chuck Todd, New York Times White House correspondent Helene Cooper, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, and New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Announcer: From NBC News in Washington, MEET THE PRESS with David Gregory.
MR. GREGORY: Good morning. There are new details this morning in the prostitution scandal involving the Secret Service and the U.S. military. Here is the very latest. Now 12 Secret Service agents and 11 members of the U.S. military have been implicated in the scandal. Six agents have already been forced out of the Secret Service, including two supervisors. We're told investigators from the Secret Service and the Pentagon have sought to interview some of the 21 Colombian women who were involved. They've obtained security video from the Hotel El Caribe and have been able to identify the women. And the man you see there, director of the Secret Service Mark Sullivan, briefed the president in the Oval Office on Friday. Jay Carney, the president's spokesman, saying unequivocally that the president quote has "faith in the Secret Service and high regard for the agency." So that's where things stand.
Where is it going? Joining me now, Republican congressman from Califorma--California, rather, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Darrell Issa and Republican congressman from New York, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee Peter King.
Welcome to both of you.
REP. PETER KING (R-NY): Good morning. Good morning, David.
REP. DARRELL ISSA (R-CA): Thank you, David.
MR. GREGORY: Congressman King, let me start with you. Where is this headed? Ultimately, will everyone involved lose their job?
REP. KING: I would say anyone who is found to be guilty will. As you know, there was one of the 11 has been partially exonerated and he will probably not be terminated. He will face administrative action. But I would expect within a very near future to have several other Secret Service agents leaving the agency of those 11, and there's, you know, one other person's been added on. So Director Sullivan from the moment this broke has moved effectively and this investigation is going full speed ahead. There are many, many agents in Colombia interviewing the women involved, interviewing the hotel employees. There's, I believe, hundreds of Colombian and--police are assisting the Secret Service in this. So it's going all out and from every indication I've seen from the moment this scandal broke until now, there's no attempt to cover anything over. Everything is being--every lead--possible lead is being examined.
My staff, I began an investigation last week. I've sent a detailed letter to Director Sullivan with a list of questions that we need to be answered. We're in contact with the Secret Service and other sources of law enforcement and from all I've seen so far, this investigation is going at a very proper rate and is going to be carried all the way and it has to be.
MR. GREGORY: But Congressman King, what else needs to be known? What else do you want to know?
REP. KING: Well, first of all, we have to know exactly what happened, when it began, who was involved, who in the chain of command found out about it and what they did. Secondly, we have to make sure that there is--there were no security violations, that nothing was made available to anyone other than Secret Service, that there was no--the president was never compromised and no, no information was ever made available to anyone else. Then we have to find out what is going to be done to ensure or to minimize the possibility of this ever happening again because I have great regard for the Secret Service. I believe Director Sullivan has done a fine job, but the fact is that you can't allow 11 men like this to tarnish what, what--the great reputation of that agency and we have to make sure that others are not doing it and that precautions are put in place and procedures in place to ensure it never happens again.
MR. GREGORY: Congressman Issa, let me pick up on that point. Are others doing it? Have others done it in the past? Where does this investigation need to go in terms of whether other members of government who are involved in security or otherwise who, who make these kind of trips down there would be involved in this kind of activity?
REP. ISSA: Well, I think echoing what Chairman King said, we're looking over the shoulder of Mark Sullivan asking the director to do an exhaustive search, first of all, on this incident, but also to make sure from a human resource management standpoint, that whatever in the culture allowed people to think this was OK, this could happen, would be gone and gone forever. And I'm--I have great confident he's doing it. Obviously, nobody believes that something with 11 or 12 people involved couldn't have happened before. The real point is will we have confidence that it'll never happen again, particularly foreign nationals having access to our men and women in, in, in the Secret Service. That's the important part that the director is working on. Yes, these were prostitutes, which is awful and salacious, but they were also foreign nationals. Every one of these Secret Service people who had a contact with any foreign national of any sort would've had an obligation to report this potential problem. So obviously, you know, it's, it's bigger than that. But it's something that we believe that the Secret Service can fix. Our committees are going to look over the shoulder, make sure it's fixed, and then announce, as I think Chairman King is announcing, that we have confidence that it will be fixed.
MR. GREGORY: Does everybody have to be fired involved in your judgment, Congressman Issa?
REP. ISSA: Well, I think the individual decisions as the--Peter had said, you do have one individual who clearly made a decision that he wasn't going to participate once he knew the woman was a prostitute and that person will be disciplined for his poor judgment going down a road of drinking and taking a woman back to his hotel room. But possibly that one and others like it to be handled administratively. Again, the most important thing for all of us is this never happen again or anything like it because it could someday lead to a compromise if it isn't fixed.
MR. GREGORY: Congressman King, I think a lot of people look at this and say, first of all, the people you see around--the agents you see around President Obama, Vice President Biden, part of the protective detail, these were not the individuals who were involved. And of course, anybody like me, I've covered the White House for eight years under President Bush, you see first hand how first rate the Secret Service is.
REP. KING: Right.
MR. GREGORY: Nevertheless, these were not low level agents involved. You do have supervisors involved. Just what were they thinking?
REP. KING: Again, that has to be the question. And as Chairman Issa said, the key thing here is not that they were prostitutes, that makes it good, you know, for the tabloids. The fact that foreign nationals were brought back into a security area on the eve of the trip of the president of the United States goes against everything the Secret Service stands for and the fact there was supervisors involved, two of the 11 were supervisors, this is just wrong. There's no way it can be explained, condoned, excused in any way, it's wrong. And that's what has to be really a zero tolerance policy for this in the future. I'm confident Director Sullivan wants that as well. But again, we have to look into the entire matter. But I can't emphasize enough, the key issue here were the foreign nationals and what these supervisors were thinking, especially the supervisors, what they were thinking is beyond me since that is their--it's everyone's responsibility, but especially the supervisors' responsibility.
MR. GREGORY: The president a week ago reacted to this. Really the only thing he said about it publicly, directly, this is what he said in Colombia last Sunday.
(Videotape, last Sunday)
PRES. OBAMA: If it turns out that some of the allegations that have been made in the press are confirmed, then of course I'll be angry.
MR. GREGORY: Chairman Issa, depending on what you find here, what do you want the president to do at the end of this?
REP. ISSA: Well, I think I want the president to do what Chairman King and I are doing: leave it to the professionals, look over their shoulder, make sure it's dealt with properly, and then let's move on. And remember, the Secret Service doesn't just protect the president, the vice president, the first family, they protect a host of other dignitaries and our Cabinet. And that's one of the reasons that we can't say, well, the elite weren't compromised. Every member of the Secret Service can potentially be an extremely important individual for protecting an equally important individual. So I think the president's anger, and I'm sure there is some, will be moderated by a recognition that this agency has to fix itself and that plenty of eyes are on it. He can focus on being president and, and let's move forward and put this sorry incident behind all of us.
MR. GREGORY: Do you both agree that Director Sullivan should keep his job?
REP. KING: I, I certainly do right now based on everything that I've seen so far.
REP. ISSA: I have confidence in him.
REP. KING: Yeah, I, I have full confidence in him, yes.
MR. GREGORY: Let me...
REP. KING: David...
MR. GREGORY: Yes.
REP. KING: David, I do expect, though, in the next day or so, I think you're going to see more Secret Service agents leaving. So I think this investigation's moving as far as those 11 very quickly. But I think Darrell and I would both agree it goes beyond the 11 as far as finding out what procedures are going to be implemented.
MR. GREGORY: What about culture, though? This is a piece of this. Back in 2002, U.S. News & World Report did a front page story investigating some of these cultural questions within a secret survey. This--Secret Service, rather--and this is what they found. Here was the cover story. In part they reported "A U.S. News investigation shows ... that the agency is rife with problems and resistant to oversight and correction. The troubles range from alcohol abuse and misuse of government property to criminal offenses and allegations of extramarital relationships by Secret Service personnel with White House employees. ... Secret Service agents assigned to the elite Counter Assault Team, which responds to any attack on the president, sometimes watch pornography on White House satellite channels in the `band room' in the basement of the executive mansion. ... In Miami and Ohio, according to sworn affidavits by several agents, the Secret Service supervisors brought professional strippers into the offices."
That's back in 2002. Do you think Congress has done its job in providing oversight, especially getting to some of the questions you're raising about a problem with the culture within the Secret Service?
REP. KING: Which one? I'll take it.
MR. GREGORY: Go ahead.
REP. KING: I think overall the Secret Service does an outstanding job. I think you can always find incidents, you can always find, you know, things to be looked at. But the fact is this agency does a phenomenal job and there's always been people within an agency who can, you know, disclose this or that. The fact is they do a good job. But I agree, especially based on what we saw in Colombia, there will have to be more oversight. I think the Secret Service realizes that. But there has been oversight over the years and, you know, despite that story back in 2002, when you look over the last 10 years this has been a very outstanding organization. And I think under Director Sullivan's leadership it's been very powerful. Again, this thing in Colombia is something, you know, that really stands out.
MR. GREGORY: It's interesting in both the case of this scandal, but also the General Services Administration scandal, the use of Facebook and email in talking about these excesses. Here was an example, back to the Secret Service story, back in 2009. You had one of the Secret Service agents involved, Agent Chaney, posting on his site as he's protecting former candidate Palin, "I was really checking her out, if you know what I mean?" And Governor Palin responded to that on Fox this week.
FMR. GOV. SARAH PALIN (R-AK): Well, this agent who was kind of ridiculous there in posting pictures and comments about checking someone out, well, check this out, bodyguard. You're fired.
MR. GREGORY: And to go along with that, Chairman Issa, you also have in the case of the GSA this regional director at the center of this lavish spending in Las Vegas, Jeff Neely, who, who--this is the New York Post cover of it--this is a, a picture that he also posted as well, you know, when he's out here at this conference on taxpayers' dime. This use of Facebook, as if there's some corner of privacy that they have, is that part of what you want to look at?
REP. ISSA: Well, it certainly is a window into activity that we wouldn't otherwise have. But remember that the GSA scandal was uncovered by a hardworking inspector general who did a very, very good job and that's one of the points that I think the American people have to understand. We have about 12,000 IG personnel, 70-some official IGs that they work for, a $2 billion budget and it has to work on overtime to find these failures that exist throughout government.
The other thing we have, and this is the area that becomes a little more political, political appointees. Thousands of them are embedded throughout government. In this case at GSA you have political appointees handing out awards for this essentially bad conduct and over-the-top activity. You had a political appointee who was on her second term. Martha Johnson had been the chief of staff under Clinton, she comes back and she's got an entitlement attitude. These people are entitled to bonuses even after this behavior. That's where I'm very concerned that the IGs have to be able to report to Congress in a timely fashion, not 11 months later, and make, make us aware that there were problems and failures by the political appointees that are supposed to be the fresh eyes looking for, as the president said, scrubbing the, the spending in government. GSA didn't scrub anything, just the opposite. In the last three years of the Bush administration they had a budget of $700 million.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
REP. ISSA: In the first three years of the Obama administration, $3 billion.
MR. GREGORY: Congressman King, I want to ask another Secret Service question. This is also taxpayer expense when it comes to presidential candidates. And Newt Gingrich is still getting Secret Service protection. Do you think, given the state of the campaign, it's a wise use of taxpayer funds to be having Newt Gingrich protected by the Secret Service?
REP. KING: Newt Gingrich is still a candidate, he was never my candidate, but the fact is the director has to make that decision. And I remember back in, I guess, 2007 it was when he decided that Senator Obama at that time was entitled to Secret Service protection. You know, that's up to the Secret Service. But again, once you're not a candidate you should definitely not be getting the protection. But Director Sullivan would not be making that decision--there's certainly no political pressure on him to do it--he would not be making the decision unless there was reason out there to do it and so long as Speaker Gingrich is still a candidate and Director Sullivan believes there are sufficient threats then he has to make those decisions. Those are really professional decisions.
MR. GREGORY: All right, I'm going to leave it there. Chairman Issa, Chairman King, thanks to both of you.
REP. KING: Thank you, David.
REP. ISSA: Thank you, David.
MR. GREGORY: Joining me now is senior adviser--excuse me--senior adviser to President Obama's re-election campaign, David Axelrod.
David, welcome back to the program.
MR. DAVID AXELROD: Thanks, David, good to be here.
MR. GREGORY: Just how mad is the president about all of this?
MR. AXELROD: Well, on the GSA issue he as--I think it's fair to say apoplectic because we'd made a big effort to cut waste, inefficiency, fraud against government, saved tens of billions of dollars doing it on just this very kind of thing. And so this was very enraging to him. And of course he acted quickly and the administration acted quickly and changed the management there.
The Secret Service issue is ongoing. He expressed himself on it. I associate myself with what the chairman just said. I mean, I think on the whole the Secret Service does heroic work. My experience has been they're quite professional. I always felt that way. But this is really disturbing and we have to get to the bottom of it and I'm sure that we will.
MR. GREGORY: Some Republicans have raised the question of ultimately where does the buck stop? Does the president has some responsibility beyond expressing anger and disappointment to do something? Senator Sessions spoke during a press conference on Thursday. Let me show you his remarks and get you to respond.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R-AL): The president needs to assert discipline, management directions throughout the executive branch, and presidents are to be held responsible. I don't sense that this president has--is showing that kind of managerial leadership at this point in history, in my view, is one of the most important qualities in a president.
MR. AXELROD: That's really shocking because Senator Sessions is generally so supportive of the president. To hear him say that I find, I find shocking. Look, the, the point here is you don't want a president who shoots first and asks questions later. When he got the facts of the GSA scandal, the director--the administrator resigned, the top management was remade and we went after the problem. This is a early stage of the investigating on the Secret Service and, and I think that the changes that are necessary will be made. The real test, there--look, there's going to be misbehavior in any large organization. Even Comcast and NBC probably faces that from time to time. The question is when people do, how do you deal with it, what do you learn from it, what systems do you put in place to keep it from happening again.
MR. GREGORY: He's got 100 percent--the president does--100 percent confidence in Director Sullivan?
MR. AXELROD: Yeah. The president has confidence in, in Director Sullivan and in the agency. And again, I--it was nice to hear that note from the chairman because I think unless we can all agree...
MR. GREGORY: The president wants him to stay in his job.
MR. AXELROD: The president wants him to get--he thinks he's the right man to get to the bottom of this and make the changes that are necessary.
MR. GREGORY: He should keep his job.
MR. AXELROD: Yes.
MR. GREGORY: OK.
Let's talk about the campaign and how as we get into general election mode, how things stack up. We did some polling this weekend, NBC News/Wall Street Journal. Here's the head-to-head matchup and it's advantage to the president at this juncture, 49-43. You go inside those numbers, a lot of positives for the president in terms of how voters evaluate him, but also...
MR. AXELROD: Let's talk about those for awhile.
MR. GREGORY: Let's talk about--right. I know you want to talk about those. But there are a couple of areas that seem to matter if you go inside the numbers here. Who has the advantage when it comes to having good ideas to improve the economy? You put up those--put those up on the screen, the advantage is to Governor Romney at 40-to-34 percent. Also, who would be better when it comes to changing business as usual in Washington. Again, advantage Romney over Obama 36-to-29 percent. As many positive attributes as the voters see...
MR. AXELROD: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: ...in the president those have to be two warning signs for you.
MR. AXELROD: Well, I think you polled 13 attributes, the president led in 11 of them, some of them very important. Fighting for the middle class, identifying with your problems and so on.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MR. AXELROD: I think that Governor Romney at the early stage gets a bit of an advantage because he has this moniker of businessman and people assume that because of that that somehow he'll bring some magic elixir to the economy. But when they get under the hood and see what he's actually proposing, more massive tax cuts for the wealthy, fewer rules for Wall Street, deep cuts in the things we need to grow, education, research and development, energy, I think people are going to say, `Hey, we've seen this movie before,' and it's--and it didn't work. And by the way, this is the same case he made in the state of Massachusetts. He said, "I'm going to get the economy moving again. I'm a businessman. I know how to create jobs." They went from 37th in the nation in job creation to 47th in the nation in job creation. So we've tested the Romney acumen when it comes to creating jobs and he's been found wanting.
MR. GREGORY: Republicans will say, so this what, what the campaign's going to be about? You want to really tear down Romney and run away from the president's own record on the economy?
MR. AXELROD: Not at all. In fact, I, I, I--we got to office at a time when we were in a deep hole and we knew these problems were years in the making. They, they'd take a long time to solve. And the question is are we moving in the right direction? Have--are we...
MR. GREGORY: Or are we flat-lining? Is there a concern now the recovery is flat-lining, spring into summer?
MR. AXELROD: Well, we got to be vigilant about it, which is why we want Congress to act on our small business package, which would actually help small business. Why we want to put teachers back to work and, and a number of other things. But we have to keep going at it. And because, look, the last quarter was the best quarter we've had in six years in job creation. The last quarter was the best quarter we've had on manufacturing in two decades. We have something to build on here but we have to accelerate that momentum. What we shouldn't do is go back to the very policies that got us into the hole in the first place, and that's what Governor Romney's proposing.
MR. GREGORY: A lot of people wondering now what kind of campaign we're really in for. How negative is it going to be? Governor Romney was interviewed on ABC this past week and this was one of the questions he was asked.
MS. DIANE SAWYER: What would each of you say to President and Mrs. Obama?
FMR. GOV. ROMNEY: Well, start packing.
MR. GREGORY: You went on to tweet in response to that and some other things on Thursday. "Even Mitt's friends are warning him grinding negativism has its limits." Certainly this campaign, the Obama campaign, has not shied away from grinding negativism, saying that Governor Romney has no core, making fun of his use of the word marvelous and certainly try to cast him as out of touch and even a right wing extremist. So is this what we're in for?
MR. AXELROD: Look, I think he is out of touch. And on the substantive issues that are going to affect the lives of the American people he's out of touch. His policies are out of touch. When you want to give people like yourself, Mitt Romney and frankly, President Obama and others have done well, massive tax cuts and raise taxes on people under $40,000 a year and so on, that, that is out of touch. When you think we can grow the economy by cutting education and aid to students. Look, this week we had an example. The Congress, the Republican Congress passed a $46 billion small business tax cut. Half of those tax cuts will go to people like hedge fund firms, law firms. Donald Trump characterized, it would, would be a small business under their definition. And, and yet they said that we didn't have $6 billion to, to extend a policy of keeping low the interest rates on student loans. So if we don't act, student loan interest rates will double on June--in June. That isn't a prescription for growing the economy, and it's not, and it certainly is out of touch with the experience of everyday Americans. So there's a very distinct choice, David, and it's not about gratuitous remarks. It's about fundamental policy.
MR. GREGORY: You know, back in 2004 when I covered the re-election of President Bush, Karl Rove, his top campaign strategist, would always say, look, if the question is the war on terrorism, the answer is President Bush. And that effectively encapsulated a big part of what their campaign was. What is the question in 2012 that President Obama is the only answer for?
MR. AXELROD: I think the, the question is, are--if--are we going to build an economy in the future that is durable in which the middle class is growing and not shrinking, in which hard work is rewarded, responsibility is ward--rewarded and everybody plays by the same rules, from Main Street to Wall Street. That's what the president is fighting for, and it's completely different than the approach that had--was taken in the last decade and the approach that Governor Romney wants to reinstitute if he's elected president.
MR. GREGORY: But if you want to make this a referendum on the president's leadership, you do have difficulties because you have an economic record, a sense of pessimism. You have a high unemployment rate. A referendum on the president guarantees what in your judgment?
MR. AXELROD: This president guarantees an economy that will grow and provide new opportunities for the middle class. It's not going to provide more of what we saw in the last decade with a narrowing group of people doing well and everybody else pedaling faster and faster. That's not a healthy economy. You build the economy from the middle out, not from the top down. And the president strongly believes that. That's why he said, you know, you mentioned the silver spoon remark. His point is, when we invest in, in excellence in young people and respond--and reward responsibility, we all benefit as a country. When we walk away from that, we jeopardize our future.
MR. GREGORY: There's a lot of questions about the president's ability to break through. If he has another four years, you know, he had a Democratic Congress when he began this administration. Where are the new ideas from the president going to come from to break the impasse on spending, to break the impasse on taxes, to deal with real problems like Medicare and Social Security? Those have not been dealt with, which it seems to me is one of the reasons why people look to Governor Romney and say, "Well, he's got a better shot to change business as usual in Washington."
MR. AXELROD: Well, I don't think he has a better shot to change business as usual. Look, when all you do is take a negative approach as, as he has done, you know, the only ideas he's offered are recycled ideas from the last decade. The--there was a spokesperson at the Republican National Committee who said this week that this is just the Bush policies updated. Now she may not be elected employee of the month over there but she should get some credit for candor because that's exactly what they're proposing.
I think we can move forward. We have to move forward on education reform. We have to implement health reform. We have to move forward on, on, on things like immigration reform. And we have to reform our education system and give kids the access to education. Manufacturing, we have to move forward with initiatives to, to spur manufacturing, to get control of our energy future. And here's what I believe, David. I believe when this president wins in November, there are a lot of good Republicans who know better and have been in thrall of this reign of terror on Capitol Hill are--who are going to turn to those strident voices and say, "We did it your way. We opposed everything he did, even when we thought it was right, and it didn't work for us. And now we're going to work with this president. We won't always agree with him but where we do, we want to find common ground."
MR. GREGORY: There was a funny moment this week. We read The Onion around here.
MR. AXELROD: Mm-hmm.
MR. GREGORY: And here was this satirical headline: "Obama launches more realistic," `I have big ideas but we'll see how it goes campaign slogan.'" The article says, "If given a second term, I have very big plans for our nation's future. Ambitious forward thinking plans I will have to drastically scale down based on opinion polls, budget considerations and political roadblocks. But, you know, I'll see what I can do. No promises, though."
MR. AXELROD: Well...
MR. GREGORY: It gets a laugh. Is there any grain of truth to that?
MR. AXELROD: No. I mean, the fact is we are going to have to tackle the fiscal problems. There's a time, a ticking time bomb in terms of expiring tax cuts that trigger that on, on, on spending, that will require that. I think that will force decisions, and we're prepared to do it. We're going to, to move forward in a balanced way that, that's, that brings down our deficits in a responsible way and still protects the investments we need to grow the economy, and ask everybody to do their fair share. I think that's what the American people want. We're prepared to do it. I think big things can happen but we have to get past this period we've been in where we've had obstructionism as a political theory on the other side.
MR. GREGORY: David Axelrod, as always, thank you very much.
MR. AXELROD: Good to be here.
MR. GREGORY: And you may want to have an extra doughnut in the green room because we do have a little surprise coming up. A surprise appearance at the end of the program that you are only going to see on MEET THE PRESS, particularly as a sports fan.
But up next, we're going to talk more politics. The fallout from the scandal involving prostitutes in Colombia. Who will Mitt Romney select as a running mate? And we're going to go inside our NBC News/Wall Street Journal polling. What are people looking for in their next president? Our political roundtable is up next here: the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne, David Brooks and Helene Cooper of The New York Times, and our own Chuck Todd. Also later, previewing PRESS PASS, my conversation with Jay Leno, including the rules of engagement when it comes to politics and comedy.
MR. JAY LENO: Doing this kind of stuff is like dealing with the mafia. Don't go after the wives or the children, but as long as you just hit the candidates, I think anything's fair and it's open game.
MR. GREGORY: Coming up next, a lot to chew on here with our political roundtable. The president and Governor Romney sharpening their attacks. Joining me in our roundtable conversation: David Brooks, E.J. Dionne, NBC's Chuck Todd, Helene Cooper. It's her birthday today. It's up next after this commercial break.
MR. GREGORY: We're back with our political roundtable. With me, NBC's chief White House correspondent and political director Chuck Todd; White House correspondent for The New York Times Helen Cooper; also at The Times, columnist David Brooks; and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne.
Welcome to all of you on a busy week. So there haven't been a lot of great cartoons, but we did find this one that we thought was good on all of this fallout with the Secret Service. Kids getting his mouth washed out with soap. Why? The caption says, "When he grows up, he says he wants to be a Secret Service agent." That's from Mike Keefe in InToon.com.
David Brooks, what does this add up to? I mean, is this about people just upset with government? They see something like this and they say what an outrage?
MR. DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, that's part of it. Listen, my sister-in-law's a Secret Service agent. I'm biased. I think they're a great agency. Most of the people I meet there are really committed to what they do and they'd be willing to die for the president.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MR. BROOKS: So that's impressive. But in every office, you have two sorts of people. You have people who are egocentric, who say this job makes me really important. And some people who are jobcentric, this job has certain duties, it's my job temporarily to carry them out the best I can. Most people in Washington I think are generally jobcentric. They're just trying to do the job. But there are a bunch of egocentric people and when they get a picture of themselves with Sarah Palin, they put it on Facebook.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. BROOKS: And we've seen an outbreak of that.
MR. GREGORY: Helene, what's going on within the White House here in terms of how they're thinking about this and again, separating who actually was involved in this because people think, oh, are these the people who are actually standing there with the president? Not the case.
MS. HELENE COOPER: Not necessarily at all. For the White House, this is really--it's a really tricky thing for them, particularly for President Obama, because keep in mind that these are guys who have pledged to die for him.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MS. COOPER: And so he has, he has his core group of Secret Service agents that he's--they're on the plane with him, they're in front of him, he sees them all the time. They're the ones who are standing between him and a crowd of supporters. They're telling him, you can't go this place because it hasn't been swept. You know, da-da, da-da, da-da. And then you have the more--the, the larger group and these are more the advance people, the people on the periphery, the people that he's not seeing all the time. So he's had--he's in a really--you see how, how reticent he's been, you know, about criticizing.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MS. COOPER: He said, "Oh, I'll be very angry." But you know, there've been three instances so far now in his presidency, starting with the state dinner crashers, with the Salahis, the, the couple that got all the way into the receiving line at the Indian state dinner and shook hands with the president, even though they weren't on the guest list. You had that--the shooting incident at the White House a few months ago and now you have this. And each time President Obama has not called for heads to roll, you know. And there's, I think there's, there's an ambivalence at play there because you have--on the one hand, you feel gratitude, you feel, you know, the idea that people who put themselves and their lives in the, you know, on the line for you. But on the other hand, you see there've been, you know, this sort of seems to be a complete disarray, disarray right now in the culture. The culture of the Secret Service isn't one that, I think, can actually tolerate this sort of scandal that we just saw.
MR. CHUCK TODD: Well, I think, first of all, they also view this as a distraction.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. TODD: You know, they're trying to talk about other things other than this and GSA was one distraction. Now this is a larger distraction and they know that we in the media are obsessed with it for what Peter King said, right, which is, oh, it involves prostitutes. So it adds a sort of level of "sex appeal" that, that's, that, that the media will gravitate to.
MR. GREGORY: And can I just add the human point, too.
MR. TODD: Right.
MR. GREGORY: Which is that this actually started because you have an agent who uses a prostitute but refuses to pay her.
MR. TODD: Right. To pay the money. Right.
MR. GREGORY: And that's how it becomes a security incident. I mean, human--I mean, really? I mean, that's...
MR. TODD: But I think--can we talk about a larger--right.
MR. E.J. DIONNE: Right.
MS. COOPER: What an idiot.
MR. TODD: Well, he should be fired for stupidity. You know, I--sort of--but there is this larger sense, and David and I were talking about it, we're both obsessed with this National Journal cover story about "In Nothing We Trust."
MR. GREGORY: We have it.
MR. BROOKS: Hm.
MR. TODD: Right? And so it's this--this is all feeding into more government, the idea that what part of government is working well? What part of it has got trustworthy institutions? And, you know, you know, there's--and the White House is actually--they're upset at this idea that some of us are stringing all this together, GSA and the--but it is--does get to this underlying current that is out there that there is just a lack of trust in the American public with a lot of institutions.
MR. GREGORY: E.J.:
MR. DIONNE: And the Secret Service thing in particular, on the one hand we should never forget, yes, these are people willing to die for the president. On the other hand, I thought it was very interesting. As you pointed out earlier, there was a story 10 years ago in U.S. News and, and that story sounds awfully similar except without the sexy details that we now know now about dysfunction in the Secret Service. Why weren't we on it then? Why wasn't there a scandal and a discussion then? But I think it's really bad for progressives, liberals, when any of these scandals come out. Because progressives and liberals are people who say based on history, government can accomplish great things. And paradoxically, I think these scandals hurt the progressive side of politics more because they feed this doubt that the public has.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MR. DIONNE: And I think the task of people who are on that side of politics say no, we can fix government and make it work and do good things. So I think this undercuts part of the progressive argument.
MR. GREGORY: So all this is going on as we're in the middle of a presidential campaign and we've gotten a lot of information in terms of what voters are looking for and how they're evaluating these candidates, Chuck. Let's talk about where we actually are as this race begins. And, and I thought what was interesting hearing David Axelrod this morning is what an emerging strategy really is for this president against Governor Romney.
MR. TODD: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: And actually, it's a story that Helene wrote on Saturday, which we can put the, the lead from up on the screen, that has to do with what the real strategy is. Is he going to be cast as a flip-flopper or something else?
MR. TODD: Hm.
MR. GREGORY: In fact, the strategy shift, Obama team attacks Romney from the left after "so long, flip-flopper, hello, right-wing extremist."
MR. TODD: Right.
MR. GREGORY: "After months of depicting Romney as the ultimate squishy, double-talking, no-core soul, Team Obama is shifting gears." Chuck, you first.
MR. TODD: Well, I was just going to say and our poll shows it's likeability vs. the economy, right?
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MR. TODD: So if you make it a referendum on Romney the Republican. So you don't really like him, and oh, by the way, you really don't like the Republican Party, that's what--that's the Obama strategy. They're trying to make Romney own all parts of the Republican Party. The Republican negatives are worse than Romney's negatives right now, the Republican Party's brand. But just look at the economy part. You brought it up with, with David Axelrod. I mean, that, that's the campaign here, right? Which is Obama wants to make it a referendum on the Republican Party and make Romney own...
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. TODD: ...the most conservative elements and Romney just simply wants to say, "No, no, no, no. You may like the president, but you don't like this economy."
MR. GREGORY: And your story gets it best.
MS. COOPER: Yeah, that's, that's exactly where we're headed. And it's sort of, in some ways, a kind of natural evolution. I mean, during the Republican Party--during the Republican primaries, you saw Romney, you know, fighting this belief among a lot of conservative Republicans that he wasn't conservative enough. And so the general--what usually happens after that is you move to a general election, he moves more to the center because now he has to go after moderates and independents. And the Obama administration wants him to stay right there on the right side with these conservative positions because they think that at the end of the day, the country is not, is not that extreme. But it's sort of weird because we've been seeing for so long, you know, the, the fundamental critique we've seen about Mitt Romney from the Democrats has always been, he--you know, he doesn't know which way, you know, he'll go on the basis of which way the wind, wind goes.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MS. COOPER: He'll flip-flop this, he was before this before when was against this. So now actually putting him in the right and painting him there is definitely a strategic shift.
MR. BROOKS: You know, to me you had the crucial number earlier in the show. Which party can bring change?
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MR. BROOKS: And both those numbers were pathetically low. Romney and Obama. So if I'm running for president this year in a period of high alienation, I'm thinking my opponent is not necessarily Romney, it's I've got to show that I can bring change. And so what I want to do is first, I want to ignore all the peons in my staff who say, "Let's win the battle today, let's win the message today." That looks just super political, then you get written off. Second, you say, "OK, I'm going to try to be nonpolitical. There are three big problems, here are my three big solutions. Don't pay attention to me do--as a politician, talk about my solutions, my narrative." I don't see a narrative for the next four years from either of these two guys and therefore they both look sort of they're jockeying.
MR. GREGORY: See, I have--I keep coming back to this question, who can break through? I mean, Americans don't like how Washington works. They don't think Washington knows how to solve big problems. That's--I mean, when I talk to people I get the same question, "What's wrong with these guys?" And yet both of them have the duty now to sort of pitch, "Hey, I have this ability and here's why that I can break through all of this."
MR. DIONNE: Well, see, and that's why I think the Obama folks are moving toward this right-wing message. I mean, the ideal message, of course, is that Romney is a flip-flopping extremist.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MR. DIONNE: And I think the way where they will eventually get is to say, "He's a flip-flopper, has no core, and therefore he will go where the right wing of the Republican Party wants him to go." And I think they want to argue and I think it's a very plausible argument, that the dysfunction is caused by a sharp shift to the Republicans to the right. But if you look at the long-term I think there are three big things in the election. One is does growth continue or not?
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. DIONNE: If you look at your poll and others, the one narrative that might work for Romney is Obama didn't fix the economy fast enough. So it all depends on whether job growth goes back to the 200,000 or not. Two key groups, one, a collection of groups, really, can--can Obama mobilize turnout among African-Americans, Latinos and young people? His leads are so big among African-Americans and Latinos that they really--we're going to have to watch the polling carefully because a lot's going to depend on what the makeup of those samples is. The other is the white working class. He lost them badly in 2008, but he lost by a small enough margin that he won the election. That's where Romney's got to win, and Romney has some real disadvantages in that group.
MR. GREGORY: Let me take a quick break here. We'll come back to more about this, including the veepstakes idea. Who will Mitt Romney choose? We'll also have a preview of my PRESS PASS conversation with Jay Leno when we come back with our roundtable in just a moment.
MR. GREGORY: Back with our roundtable. That's how it looked in 2008, the electoral map. John McCain in red, Barack Obama, President Obama in blue.
Chuck Todd, now take us through it, that's 2008. Where's the battle going to be fought in 2012?
MR. TODD: Well, I think this battle is about--to me it's about two geographic areas. One is the West and this issue of Hispanics.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MR. TODD: And you have those three states in blue out there in the Rocky Mountain West: New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada. If the president holds all three, and because of his leads among Hispanics there's a good chance that he holds all three, what that does...
MR. GREGORY: So the darker, like the gray shading here, those are swing states.
MR. TODD: Those--that's right. Those, if he goes ahead and holds both Nevada and Colorado, what it does is it actually eliminates the need for the president to win either Florida or Ohio. That means if he just tacks on either North Carolina or Virginia--the president could lose Iowa...
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MR. TODD: ...the president could lose New Hampshire, the president could lose Florida and Ohio, all he has to do is pick up Virginia plus Colorado and Nevada and that's what's scary if you're Mitt Romney. This map when you're down by 40 points among Hispanics, this map is a really big problem for him because you've got to figure out how to put Pennsylvania in place...
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. TODD: ...and that hasn't happened in 20--in two decades.
MR. GREGORY: So, David Brooks, then one of the choices that Mitt Romney faces is who does he put on the ticket? So here was Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida, speaking this week and he had an interesting slip. Watch.
SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): Three, four, five, six, seven years from now if I do a good job as vice president--I'm sorry...
MR. MAJOR GARRETT: You guys all got that, right?
SEN. RUBIO: As a senator.
MR. GARRETT: You all got that, right?
SEN. RUBIO: If I do a good job as a senator instead of a vice president, I'll have a chance to do--I'll have a chance to do all sorts of things.
MR. GREGORY: But he's saying this morning, Rubio is, "I want to be taken out of the, the consideration. I'm not going to focus on that. That's the last thing Mitt Romney needs." What does Mitt Romney need and what's he likely to do?
MR. BROOKS: Yeah, first I would say the conventional wisdom among Republican donors and Washington officialdom is that Marco Rubio isn't ready to be vice president...
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. BROOKS: ...emotionally. And so I think Rob Portman, senator from Ohio, he's--Ohio sort of matters, he might help. But basically the, the goal for a challenger in an, in an incumbent election is, are those guys decent enough?
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. BROOKS: Now a Romney/Portman race would be like a bunch of boring white guys. So it wouldn't be like scintillating, but it would be, oh, they're decent enough.
MR. GREGORY: Helene, if you look--let's put up the screen where we have some of the potential contenders here to be running mates, Paul Ryan; Bob McDonnell, Virginia governor; Marco Rubio, we mentioned; and Senator Portman, we mentioned. Pick somebody else there, Helene, and just a pro and a con on, on Romney picking them.
MS. COOPER: Paul Ryan, not so much. I think he's--the view is that he's not quite ready for prime time yet. And his budget is too polarizing. I don't think--who are the other who were...
MR. GREGORY: Bob McDonnell. Yeah, we talked about Rubio and Portman.
MS. COOPER: Rubio not so much either because what--the biggest thing he could bring to the ticket is he could help Mitt Romney with Hispanics. But wasn't there a poll that came out last week that said he actually hurts in Florida? And then Bob--I'd, I'd say either Portman or McDonnell. McDonnell brings to the table the same sort of things that Portman does. You know, he would be seen as, seen as a little bit boring, but you know, Virginia putting--Virginia's another swing state and...
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MS. COOPER: ...there again you'd have these two white guys who look like, eh, not so bad.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah, that's, that's an important point. E.J., the point though also about Paul Ryan is that if you want to send a message you're serious about the budget you could do that with Paul Ryan.
MR. DIONNE: Well, I don't think his budget is serious, so I disagree with the premise of the question. But if you're serious about presenting his agenda then you pick him. I think the real choice is the one that faced McCain. McCain really wanted to go with somebody like Tom Ridge or maybe Joe Lieberman. That would have been I think a much better choice for McCain because it would have reassured middle-of-the-road voters. He could have reached out. Instead, he went right. There'll be a lot of pressure on Romney to move right. If he gives into it, I think he makes the same mistake McCain made, which is why I agree with David, that Portman as--he's not scintillating, but I think he'd reassure middle voters, middle-ground voters.
MR. TODD: He's the safe choice, but I do think the one piece of baggage he brings is his Bush years.
MR. DIONNE: Yes, absolutely right.
MR. TODD: And the question is, and you do have the Obama campaign. I think a wild card that I think will be serious in a couple of months is the senator from New Hampshire, Kelly Ayotte. I do think he's got to have a woman that's going to get vetted and I think her background, appointed attorney general by a Democratic governor, there's a lot to her. She's a rising star. I think--and she's been very good for him on the stump.
MR. GREGORY: Somebody...(unintelligible).
MR. DIONNE: Somebody who will make everybody cautious about somebody who hasn't been around a long time.
MR. GREGORY: All right. I want to preview this week's PRESS PASS conversation, which was a lot of fun. I got to sit down with the host of "The Tonight Show," Jay Leno, to talk about the late-night landscape and of course some politics, including what he thinks are some of the biggest differences between the two political parties when it comes to comedy. Part of that conversation now.
MR. JAY LENO: Democrats and Republicans are interesting because Republicans really laugh at themselves more. Like when Bush came on it was, "We want to do a skit. We're kind of making fun"--"Yeah, go ahead." And we just walked up, "Can we do the sketch?" "Yeah, fine." We went up to Al Gore. We want to do this skit. Hang on. And there was a focus group and then media people came in. Where will Al be sitting? OK, now will Al have the punch--well, it's just, we don't have to it. It's, it's not a big. And, you know, in the dressing room, Al Gore was very engaging and very funny and very loose.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah. yeah.
MR. LENO: But once the camera came on, oh, no.
MR. GREGORY: But this is a key test. Will you go on "The Tonight Show" and let it rip if you're a politician? Right? Isn't that, I mean, it's a test from their side of it.
MR. LENO: Yeah. I mean, I mean, we, I remember we had John Kerry on and he came on on a motorcycle and had a beer, and it just seemed like we're pushing a little too hard here. I mean, I like John Kerry, but I just felt like, really? He rode the bike on a ramp, you know, had the leather jacket. He's a regular guy, by golly. You know? It was very funny.
MR. GREGORY: So you've had some fun with the candidates this year. What about Mitt Romney? What was your take? He was here recently.
MR. LENO: You know, the real trick, and we don't, you know, I took a great quote from Joe Biden once. "I don't question anybody's motives. I question their judgment." You know? And doing this kind of stuff, it's like dealing with the mafia. Don't go after the wives or the children, but as long as you just hit the candidates, I think anything is fair and it's open game.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MR. LENO: I mean, I like the fact that I can do weeks of Mitt Romney jokes and Mitt Romney then comes here because I haven't insulted his religion, I haven't insulted--I mean, I've made fun of him but I haven't questioned his patriotism or his loyalty or his family. You know? And, and you keep it within a normal realm, I guess.
MR. GREGORY: And the full interview with Jay Leno is on our website.
We're going to take another break here but we'll be back with something very special, a surprise appearance only here on MEET THE PRESS. You'll want to see what we're talking about, after this.
MR. GREGORY: It is a big day for hockey on NBC, here in Washington and in many parts of the Northeast, Philly and Pittsburgh, as well. The great part about this job is who I get to meet, who I get to talk to and what I get to interact with. Look at what is here this morning, Lord Stanley's Cup right next to me on our little set here at MEET THE PRESS. This is the actual cup. This is the Stanley Cup. This is what the Capitals and everybody else are fighting for, and Mike Bolt is here with us from the NHL.
Mike, it's great to see you. Without you we see no cup, because without--we never see you apart from the cup. You are the official keeper of the cup.
MR. MIKE BOLT: Yeah. I'm one of four guys that do it. I actually work for the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, and, yeah, I get to travel all over the world. I spend about 250 days a year traveling the, the globe with the Stanley Cup.
MR. GREGORY: Well, I'm going to get another shot of this, and you can look. All these rings which are so special actually list the teams and all the members of the team, and they get replaced as time goes on. Is that correct?
MR. BOLT: Yeah. We get 52 names per year. The current winner's going to go down at the bottom, right next to 2011 Boston Bruins.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. BOLT: And they will be on there for 57 years before their names are removed and put it in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
MR. GREGORY: So this is never apart from you. How do you work that out?
MR. BOLT: Well, it's apart when we fly. Once I hand it over to the TSA and they inspect it and make sure it's safe, that's when Lord Stanley and I split our ways until we get to the next city. So it's a little nerve-racking at times when, when you're not sure if it's going to make it. But the airlines are great. We've had a very small hiccup here and there over the last 13 years that I've been traveling with it.
MR. GREGORY: Interesting facts. When you brought this in the studio today, I said, can I, can I hoist this over my head? And you said, no. You'd have to tackle me if I do that. You got to win this thing. You got to earn it.
MR. BOLT: Yeah. I do believe you have to earn the right to hoist it over your head. And it, it's very, it's a trophy that the players, like, you know, this playoff has been unbelievable. These guys are working so hard for it, and it's so important that I keep that respect to it. Because, again, there's guys out there trying to hoist it right now.
MR. GREGORY: This is pretty cool, right, that we got the cup here?
MR. BROOKS: It's unbelievable.
MR. GREGORY: You know, you can hold four...
MR. BROOKS: Unbelievable.
MR. GREGORY: Is it 14 cans of beer in this part right here?
MR. BOLT: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: But nobody's ever done it. So every...
MR. BOLT: It's been done a few times.
MR. TODD: White gloves. White gloves. And yet, we know what's been in that.
MR. BOLT: Well, I mean, I give it the white glove treatment because, you know, again when we present it, you want the fingerprints to be the first of the winners. Again, this is the time of year where it's getting the prestigious. But yeah, when they do, do...
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. BOLT: When they do win it, it's a bowl, it's a cup, and it's meant to have champagne or beer. Sometimes the players' kids will eat ice cream sundaes out of it or have breakfast cereal, you know, in the morning or have...
MR. GREGORY: Hey, Mike, thanks so much.
We're going to have more with you coming up when we have a special discussion in our Press, MEET THE PRESS Take Two Web extra with the keeper of the cup, Mike Bolt, who has held that post for over a decade. As I say, wherever he goes, the cup goes with it. He's traveled the world and has seen it all.
Also a reminder that you can see my full PRESS PASS conversation with Jay Leno on our blog. It's all online, meetthepressnbc.com.
Go Caps, unleash the fury today against the Bruins right here on NBC. That's all for today. We'll be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.