MR. DAVID GREGORY: And good Sunday morning. As the president begins his second term, will the White House and Republican leaders figure out how to balance the budget, or will they lurch from showdown to showdown? And how will the economy respond to what is or is not accomplished here in Washington? My exclusive guest this morning will have something to say about all of this, House Budget Chairman and the Republican Party’s 2012 vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan here for his first live interview since the election. Chairman, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.
REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI/Chairman, Budget Committee/Fmr. Republican Vice-Presidential Nominee): Great to be back with you.
GREGORY: So, let’s talk about this-- this top priority of the budget battle.
REP. RYAN: Right.
GREGORY: It’s really going to mark the beginning of the president’s second term. This debt ceiling has been raised, at least temporarily, but there are still some big decisions that have to be made. So, let’s go through it. You-- you specifically said in the last few days that your priority is to make a big down payment…
REP. RYAN: Right.
GREGORY: …on the debt, a-- a debt crisis that you see in this country.
REP. RYAN: That’s right.
GREGORY: What do you specifically require? What’s the priority? What has the president got to do in your point of view?
REP. RYAN: Well, I’m just explaining what the-- what the Speaker said when we passed that bill. Our goal is to get cuts and reforms that put us on a path to balancing the budget within a decade. One of the reasons why we did what we did was we think the Senate ought to offer a budget. They haven’t passed a budget in four years, even though we have a law that says we have to budget every year. So, the House Republicans have offered budgets. I’ve written them and passed them, but we haven’t seen any solutions offered by the president on how to get that budget balanced, pay down the debt, and literally the Senate hasn’t budgeted in four years. We need to have a kind of debate in this country about how we’re going to make these choices, how are we going to grow the economy, how are we going to get opportunity. And if we have a debt crisis like that which is plaguing Europe, everybody gets hurt. And that’s what we want to avoid.
GREGORY: So, it’s interesting. Last Sunday on the program Senator Schumer was here and he said, you know what, we’ll do a budget.
REP. RYAN: Great. Finally.
GREGORY: But this is-- this is…
REP. RYAN: It’s been four years.
GREGORY: …this is what he said, has to be in it, watch.
(Videotape, Last Sunday)
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): You’re going to need more revenues as well as more cuts to get the deficit down and I’ve talked to Leader Reid, I’ve talked to Budget Chair Marie, we’re going to do a budget this year and it’s going to have revenues in it and our Republican colleagues better get used to that.
GREGORY: So, this is still the fight between how much in taxes and how much in spending cuts? You say, look, the president got his revenue...
REP. RYAN: Right.
GREGORY: …but it’s less than he wanted, less than Simpson-Bowles thought should have been part of-- of a big package as well.
REP. RYAN: Well, Simpson-Bowles also said let’s get rid of deductions and lower tax rates through tax reform. That’s what we’ve been proposing. The president doesn’t seem to be in favor of that. He wants higher tax rates which we thing hurts growth. But the president-- let’s-- let’s not forget. He got a trillion dollars in tax increases with Obamacare, then he just got new tax increases at the beginning of this month, and now they’re calling for even more tax increases and they’re not calling to cut spending, they’re actually calling for spending increases. So, basically, what they’re saying is they want Americans to pay more, so Washington can spend more, that’s not going to help the economy and that is not going to close the gap and balance the budget. And the reason we want to balance the budget is not just to make numbers add up, we think that’s necessary for growth. We think that’s necessary for opportunity. We think that’s necessary to make sure that our kids don’t get this debt that they won’t be able to handle if we keep going on the path we’re on.
GREGORY: Well, but there are certainly those in the White House who take issue with what you said or might even say to use their own criticism that that’s a straw man argument. It’s not that they don’t want to cut spending, they were prepared to cut additional spending if it could’ve been part of a bigger-- a deal or agreement, that Republicans weren’t able to agree to, so there’s more room for spending cuts, it’s a matter of how you do it.
REP. RYAN: I’m not so sure about that. As you know, the president was insisting on more stimulus spending during the fiscal cliff negotiations. He didn’t get that. This-- they haven’t put out a plan. The reason why we wanted to-- to get the debt limit extended is so that we can actually showcase our budgets. We will put a budget on that says here’s our plan for economic growth, here’s our plan for balancing the budget, here’s our plan for entitlement reform which is necessary if you want to save Medicare from bankruptcy and-- and get this debt under control. The president hasn’t offered any of those kinds of plans in public and they try to do backroom deals, but those always seem to fall apart. We want to have a debate in public, so we can contrast these visions.
GREGORY: I want to make sure that we keep up with some terms that you’re using here because you say the president wants to raise tax rates. In fact, a lot of the Democrats I talked to and even the White House say they’re willing to do tax reform where there could be additional revenue. Are you saying that you’re opposed to any additional revenue that could come from tax reform?
REP. RYAN: We-- we already offered back-- back in fiscal cliff negotiations. The point is, though, the president got his additional revenues. So, those-- that’s behind us. Those higher revenues occurred and now we need to focus on getting spending down…
GREGORY: But you have-- but here’s the leverage question because Senator Schumer just said, no, we didn’t just get our revenues, yes, we got some, there have to more that are part of it. The president is going to say that, so as you are the budget…
REP. RYAN: Are we for more revenues? No, we’re not.
GREGORY: Right. Even if it comes from tax reform?
REP. RYAN: Look, look. We’ve already done the revenue bit. And if you keep raising revenues, you’re not going to get decent tax reform. Look, I know you didn’t want me to pull out a chart, and I’m kind of a chart gut. This green line shows you historic tax rates, how-- how much we've raised in taxes. The blue line is every tax increase President Obama is calling for. He got lots of those already. The red line, that show you where spending is going. Spending is the problem. Revenues aren’t the problem. Spending is the problem. And if you keep chasing higher spending with higher revenues, as they’re calling for, you’re going to actually hurt economic growth. You’ll never catch up. You’ll shut down the economy.
REP. RYAN: And you won’t actually get the budget balance.
GREGORY: Here’s an interesting point, though. During the campaign, particularly when you’re campaigning in Virginia, a state that you wanted to carry but didn’t. You said, look, the sequestration cuts, these automatic spending cuts that-- that are put in place because Republicans and Democrats can’t agree. So you have to have the (Unintelligible) that comes down. You said we’re not going to let those happen. Those will not happen, those automatic defense spending cuts. Well, now we have a new deadline coming up in a couple of months. It says there’s going to be more automatic spending cuts, the same ones that were in place before.
REP. RYAN: That’s right.
GREGORY: Are you going to let those happen?
REP. RYAN: So if Mitt Romney and I won the election, they would not have happened. You know why? Because we would have gone and worked with Democrats and Republicans in Congress to actually put the budget on the path to balance and we’d have saved defense. So where are we right now? I think the sequester is going to happen because that 1.2 trillion dollars in spending cuts, we can’t lose those spending cuts. That was the pay for the last debt ceiling increase, let alone any future increases. Don’t forget one other thing. We passed legislation. I wrote it and passed it in the House twice to replace those sequesters with cuts in other areas of government. So we’ve shown precisely how we should protect defense spending by cutting spending in other areas. And by the way, in our budget last year, we did take money out of defense, just not nearly as much as the president seems to want to.
GREGORY: But are…
REP. RYAN: These-- we think the sequesters will happen because the Democrats have opposed our efforts to replace those cuts with others and they’ve offered no alternatives.
GREGORY: Is this worth shutting the government down over?
REP. RYAN: Shut-- no one is talking about shutting the government.
GREGORY: Well, but it’s part-- a piece of the leverage that-- that conservatives have. You didn’t want to fight over the debt ceiling because you thought you can’t do that. You have to pay the government’s bills. You think this fight over priorities is worth shutting the government down?
REP. RYAN: We’re not interested in shutting government down. What happens on March 1st is spending goes down automatically.
REP. RYAN: March 27th is when the-- the moment you’re talking about the continued resolution expires. We are more than happy to keep spending at those levels going on into the future while we debate how to balance the budget, how to grow the economy, how to create economic opportunity. That’s the kind of debate the country deserves because god-- by the way, if we keep going down this path, we will have a debt crisis. It’s not an if question, it’s a when question. This isn’t a Republican or Democrat thing. It’s a math thing and we have to get serious with this problem if we want to save people from the problems that inevitably (Unintelligible) from a debt crisis.
GREGORY: Let me challenge you from a critic farther on the left. I mean a lot of centrist…
REP. RYAN: I get those.
GREGORY: Yeah, I know. A lot of centrist economists who may disagree with you in some areas but agree about the imposing or the impending debt crisis. Some on the left like Paul Krugman disagree. He calls you a deficit scold and he calls you worse than that. But his point is that-- that you’re being alarmist about the deficit and its relationship to how the economy performs and how the economy grows. So here’s what he wrote in his column on Friday and let me get you to respond to it. “It was, in fact, a good thing that the deficit was allowed to rise as the economy slumped. With private spending plunging as the housing bubble popped and cash-strapped families cut back, the willingness of the government to keep spending was one of the main reasons we didn’t experience a full replay of the Great Depression.” And this balance now between austerity, which he believes you call for, and appropriate investment on the part of the government is still where the great tension is.
REP. RYAN: Well, we can debate the efficacy of changing economics or not and I don’t obviously believe-- I think that that is pretty clear, it doesn’t work. We’re not preaching austerity. We’re preaching growth and opportunity. What we are saying is if you get our fiscal shift fixed, you preempt austerity. That’s the-- here’s what a debt crisis is. A debt crisis is what they have in Europe, which is austerity. You cut the safety net immediately. You cut retirement benefits for people who’ve already retired. You raised tax and slow down the economy, young people don’t have jobs. That’s the austerity that comes when you have a debt crisis. And when you keep stacking up trillion dollar deficits like this government is doing, it’s bringing us to that moment. Our job, our goal is to prevent and preempt austerity so we can get back to growth.
GREGORY: The question, though, I have is who’s really with you? You know, a lot of the business community, natural allies, have now kind of come around to the president's way of thinking saying, look, you know, get more revenues if you want them, raise tax right-- rates if you need them, let’s just get something done. Silicon Valley, a lot of the innovators in the-- in the country, big job creators, big idea people, not natural allies of your way of thinking. So that’s the question and sort of who’s really with you in this?
REP. RYAN: I don’t know if I agree with that. They believe we should have tax reform. We have the highest corporate tax rate in the world. We’re taxing our small businesses now at rates higher than corporations. We should have lower tax rates so we can be competitive. When we tax our job creators more than our foreign competitors tax theirs, they win, we lose. Silicon Valley…
GREGORY: The president is not really opposed to that. Is he on corporate tax?
REP. RYAN: He says so but he has yet to actually put out a vision or an agreement to actually make good on these promises. We hear the rhetoric but we never see the results. And more-- more importantly, businesses know we have to close this deficit. Businesses know we can’t keep spending money we just don’t have. Businesses budget. Washington hasn’t has had a budget for four years. The president and his party have been in charge of Washington during this time. They have not budgeted for four years and businesses know that you can’t operate an enterprise let alone the federal government without budgeting.
GREGORY: So let me have you respond to this other philosophical argument about entitlements, about the role of government and the president really launched it as part of his inaugural address when he said this.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, anyone of us, at any time, may face a job loss or a sudden illness or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers, they free us to take the risks that make this country great.
GREGORY: Now that line of attack that didn’t mention you by name but certainly mentioned you in the substance went back to a number of comments that you’ve made about the-- the makers versus takers. Here’s on back in September of 2011. I will show you.
REP. RYAN: Right now, according to the tax foundation, between 60 and 70 percent of Americans get more benefits from the federal government than they pay back in taxes. So we’re getting toward a society where we have a net majority of takers versus makers.
GREGORY: How do you respond to it?
REP. RYAN: But if you keep the context going, my point in making that statistic is, it’s not as these statistics lead you to believe. We don’t want a dependency culture. We want a safety net that makes sure that people don’t fall through the cracks, that gets people on their feet. Americans want the American Dream. And the point I make when I cite that statistic is, it’s not as it seems, people want the American Dream. They want lives of opportunity. They want to reach their potential. And so our concern in this country is with the idea that more and more able bodied people are becoming dependent upon the government than upon themselves for their livelihoods. We want to make sure that we don’t continue that trend. And when you take a look at those statistics, it’s not as bad as those statistics say. People want lives of upper mobility. People want to chart their own course. They want to reach their potential. And our policies should gear toward doing that so…
GREGORY: Wait, wait, wait…
REP. RYAN: …no one is suggesting that Medicare and Social Security makes you a taker. These are people like my mom who worked hard, paid her taxes and now is collecting a benefit that she paid for. No one is suggesting people like my mom is a taker…
GREGORY: But then why-- look you’re citing figures that of course include entitlements like Medicare and Social Security.
REP. RYAN: Look, what I am trying to say is, when these statistics get cited, it leads you to think that America is gone, that we’re becoming too much of a dependent culture. And my point, as always has been, no that’s not the full picture. That’s not the whole picture.
GREGORY: But here-- here is the criticism…
REP. RYAN: People want the American…
GREGORY: …against you and Jonathan Chait writes about it-- wrote about in the New York Magazine blog this week. And I’ll put it up on the screen which goes to whether you really want to expand the base of the party and reach out to the poor. This is what he writes. It's part of this argument. Obama is arguing that misfortune can strike Americans in all forms-- a disability, a storm, an illness, or merely outliving our savings-- and we have some obligation to each other. Ryan’s budget, the one you proposed, imposes savage cuts to food stamps, children’s health insurance, and other mitigations of suffering for the least fortunate. Oh, and Ryan also voted against relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy. By Ryan’s definition, if the government is rebuilding your destroyed home, you’re a taker, too.
REP. RYAN: No. Look, this is the straw man argument. The president said I think the week earlier that we have suspicions about Medicare and taking care of the elderly and feeding poor children. When he sets up these straw men, which is to affix views to his adversaries that they don’t have, to win the argument by default, it’s not really an honest debate. Here’s the point, we’ve been making all along. We want to have a safety net. A safety net that’s there for the vulnerable, for the poor, for people who cannot help themselves. But we don’t want to have a culture in this country that encourages more dependency that saps and drains people of their ability to make the most of their lives. We want opportunity…
GREGORY: Which part of the culture, the safety net culture today is doing that? Because as part of this culture as some pointed out this week that you even benefited from after your father died when you got Social Security benefits.
REP. RYAN: Absolutely. Social Security benefits. Survivor benefits helped me…
GREGORY: So which part of the safety net culture is sapping America’s opportunity right now?
REP. RYAN: So this is the point we keep making with benefits-- like food stamps, for example. The benefits that he talks about, the changes we made, all we’re saying is you have to actually be eligible for this program to receive this program. We need to target these things to people who actually need them. And if our reforms on food stamps went through, they would have grown by two hundred and sixty percent over the last decade instead of two hundred and seventy percent. So when you call such reforms savage, that I think does a disservice to the quality of the debate we need to have. And what we’re trying to achieve here is a system where you have that safety net to help people who cannot help themselves, but you have an opportunity of society, education reform, economic growth, so that people can get on their feet and make the most of their lives and reach their potential and that is what we’re worried about losing in this country.
GREGORY: One more on the budget then we’re talking about a couple of other things. Do you feel like there’s just a failure to get to know each other in Washington, to really understand each other? You haven’t had much contact with the president over the last couple of years. Somebody pointed out to me something I thought was-- was smart, which is solving the problem on the budget is actually not complicated. Winning politically and solving the problem, that’s hard. And that’s what both sides seem to be locked into trying to do.
REP. RYAN: Well, I don’t think that the president thinks we actually have a fiscal crisis. He’s been reportedly saying to our leaders that we don’t have a spending problem. We have a health care problem. That leads me to conclude that he just thinks we ought to have more government-run health care and rationing. I don’t think that’s going to work and so there are a lot of Democrats that are good friends of mine who agree with us on how to do Medicare reform. On the need to do entitlement reform, on the need to do tax reform with lower rates for faster economic growth. The problem is the leaders of that party don’t seem to want to ever come to agreement with this. And so my concern is the president may be more focused on political ends, you know, in 2014, versus actually moving to the middle. When you saw his speech, say, at the inauguration, it leads us to conclude that he’s not looking to moderate. He’s not looking to move to the middle. He is looking to go farther to the left, and he wants to fight us every step of the way politically. And I don’t think that’s good for anybody in this country.
GREGORY: It’s reminiscent, isn’t it, of a lot of Republican leaders after his first inauguration getting together and sort of plotting how to make him a one-term president? Is that how you see it, is that your image?
REP. RYAN: No, I see it as we have got big problems in this country we’ve got to fix. We want to be a part of that solution. We have divided-- whether people like it or not, or intend it or not, we more or less had the status quo election. We have a divided government. We have to make it work. And when we see our country living far beyond its means, when we see our nation destroying our children’s future by settling with a debt they can’t handle, we’ve got to do something about that. And when we see families struggling in society, in this stagnant economy, we’ve got to do things to grow the economy. And the things that are coming out of Washington right now don’t do that. And that’s why we’re offering solutions. That’s why we were showing with our budget here’s how you grow the economy. Here’s how you save your kids from a debt-laden future. Here’s how you save Medicare. This is the kind of debate, the honest debate that we need to have versus impugning people’s motives.
GREGORY: What did you learn from your-- your run for the vice presidency and being Mitt Romney’s running mate? What did you take away as a Republican as you look to the future?
REP. RYAN: It was a great experience. I feel that I benefited tremendously from that. My family got to see a lot of this country. We’ve got to see countless people who just feel so passionate about their country. The other thing I learned was Mitt Romney would have been one heck of a great president. He is a very good man. And the big regret I have is we didn’t win the election and we weren’t able to put the kinds of reforms that we think are right for the country in place. And now we’re going to have to, you know, use this tool of divided government to try and make it work.
GREGORY: What do you think the party should learn from the loss?
REP. RYAN: Well, we obviously we have to expand our appeal. We have to expand our appeal to more people and show how we’ll take the country’s founding principles and apply them to the problems of the day, to offer solutions to fix our problems. We have to show how our ideas are better at fighting poverty, how our ideas are better at solving health care, how our ideas are better at solving the problems people are experiencing in their daily lives. And that’s a challenge that we have to rise to. And I think we’re up for it.
GREGORY: On a couple of issues in specific areas, immigration is one, what’s it going to take to get conservatives to rally around an idea that-- that illegal immigrants who are here now can stay without having to first leave, which is something you propose…
REP. RYAN: Yeah. Touchwood I…
GREGORY: …and-- and get a pathway to citizenship? Do you think that conservatives can rally around that idea and ultimately get reform passed?
REP. RYAN: Yeah. I think there’s a balance between respecting the rule of law and-- and adhering to the reality of the day. And I think Marco Rubio probably touched on it. I-- I support and agree with the principles that he laid out about earned legalization, making sure that you’re not rewarding people for having cut in line but making sure that we can fix this problem. Look, we did the Immigration Reform in ’86, then we tried to do it again in ‘96. We’ve been trying to do immigration since 2004. It’s a system that’s broken that needs fixing. And there are many of us who have been involved in this issue over the years. Look, immigration is a good thing. We’re here because of immigration. That’s what America is. It’s a melting pot. We think this is good. We need to make sure that it works. And so I think that there are Republicans and Democrats-- many of us are talking to each other, that can come together with a good solution to make sure that this problem is fixed, once and for all. And I think those Rubio principles do a really good job of-- of adhering to the founding principles, respecting the rule of law, and respecting those who came here for a better life.
GREGORY: And do you see that getting done this year?
REP. RYAN: I do. That’s one of the areas where I feel that-- I think the president has got a big speech coming up. The question that many of us are asking, Republicans and Democrats, is he looking to play politics or does he want to solve the problem? We don’t know the answer to that yet. But I do know that there are a lot of Democrats in Congress who once and for all want to solve this problem, fix this mess, broken immigration system, and many of us agree with that. So hopefully, we can actually get this done.
GREGORY: On gun control legislation, are there any new regulations that you could support?
REP. RYAN: Well, I think the-- the question of whether or not a criminal is getting a gun is-- is a question we need to look at. That’s what the background check issue is all about. And I think we need to look into making sure that there aren’t big loopholes where a person can illegally purchase a firearm. But I also think we need to look beyond just recycling failed policies of the past. Let’s not take this moment. Look, any-- it’s any-- you and I are the same age with the same age kids, same number of kids. It’s-- it’s our worst nightmare something like this happening. Let’s go beyond just this debate and make sure we get deeper. What’s our policy on mental illness? What’s-- what’s going on in our culture that produces this kind of thing? You know, we need to have that kind of discussion and debate, and I hope we don’t just skip past that and bring out political, you know, ideas that recycle failed policies of the past.
GREGORY: You seem to see a lot of division here. You think the president in some ways is-- is trying to finish off the Republican Party. So I don’t hear you as-- as saying when about more comprehensive reform in the ways that you think is necessary…
REP. RYAN: Well…
GREGORY: …and you blame the president for that and his mindset.
REP. RYAN: Look, I decided to not comment between the election and the inauguration because I wanted to see what kind of presidents we are looking at here, what kind of path and trajectory he was putting his-- his administration on. And all of the statements and all of the comments lead me to believe that he’s thinking more of a political conquest than political compromise. And that’s my concern. And this is why we’re going to have to have a big debate this spring about how to balance the budget, about how to save us from a debt crisis, about how to grow the economy. And I think there are issues, like Immigration Reform, where there are Democrats and Republicans who want to come together to fix the problem, the question is will the president frustrate that or will he facilitate that. I just don’t know the answer to that question.
GREGORY: It was interesting on the day of the inauguration, Brian Williams and I and others were talking, and we noticed some video during the luncheon after the inauguration, and one of the things that caught our eye was a great moment here. You have your back to us. But there you are and you’re speaking, you know, with Secretary Clinton but also President Clinton. And that’s just one of those moments where you say, gosh, what were they talking about? Any advice there coming from the former president?
REP. RYAN: We’re talking about personal health, both of us lost our dads when we were young, and we were just-- just talking. You know, I got concussions when I was young, and Hillary was telling me about hers. And we were just kind of chumming it up. Look, if we had a Clinton presidency, if we had Erskine Bowles, Chief Staff of the White House or President of the United States, I think we would have fis-- fixed this fiscal mess by now. That’s not the kind of presidency we’re dealing with right now.
GREGORY: And you don’t blame conservatives, particularly in the House for thwarting that effort.
REP. RYAN: Both parties-- forget about just the recent past. Both parties got us in the mess we are in, this fiscal crisis--Republicans and Democrats. And, you know, what? It’s going to take both parties to solve this problem. That’s the kind of leadership we need today.
GREGORY: So how do you think about 2016 and a presidential run?
REP. RYAN: I don’t.
GREGORY: You don’t. You’re not thinking about it now.
REP. RYAN: It’s-- I think it’s just premature. I’ve got an important job to do. I represent Wisconsin. I’m chairman of the Budget Committee at the time we have a fiscal crisis. I think I can do my job, representing the people I-- I work for by focusing on that right now than focusing on these distant-- these distant things.
GREGORY: But you’ll take a serious look at it?
REP. RYAN: I’ll decide later about that. Right now I’m just focused on this.
GREGORY: All right. Chairman, thank you very much.
REP. RYAN: You bet. Thank you.
GREGORY: As always, appreciate it.
Coming up here, what did we learn from President Obama’s inaugural address, about his vision for the country and he plans to govern in a second term? Plus, the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton exits the stage, and Vice President Biden’s profile expands. We can't help but think about what it all means for 2016, as I was just speaking to the Chairman Ryan about. The roundtable is here to weigh in. Joining me former senator, now incoming president of the Conservative Heritage Foundation, Jim DeMint; president of the NAACP, Ben Jealous; the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and NBC's Andrea Mitchell, plus, NBC's own Ted Koppel.
GREGORY: The president’s nominee to run the State Department, Senator John Kerry, faced questions during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week. During his opening remarks, Kerry was interrupted by an anti-war protest, which triggered this personal reflection.
SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA/Secretary of State Nominee): When I first came to Washington to testify, I obviously was testifying as part of a group of people who came here to have their voices heard. And that is above all what this place is about.
GREGORY: Nearly 42 years ago, it was Kerry who aimed to have his voice heard when he first appeared on Capitol Hill not as a politician, but as a protester. The year, 1971. And he was part of an anti-war group testifying before that very committee. But it was days before on this program where Kerry gave the country its first look at a future leader. And it’s this morning’s MEET THE PRESS Moment.
(Videotape, April 18, 1971)
SEN. JOHN KERRY (Vietnam Veterans Against the War): We’re down here to demand that those who call themselves the most committed of all in this country, namely the senators and congressmen, who have been talking peace for the past few years, that these men exercise their responsibility granted them by the constitution of this country to end this war.
GREGORY: As Kerry prepares for his new assignment, he faces some critical challenges as the president’s foreign policy opens a new chapter. It’s among the topics we’ll tackle with our political roundtable. Coming up next after this break.
GREGORY: We’re back with our roundtable. Joining me, President and CEO of NAACP Ben Jealous; former Senator from South Carolina, incoming president of the Conservative Heritage Foundation, Jim DeMint; NBC News special correspondent for ROCK CENTER, Ted Koppel, we love to reinforce NBC’s own Ted Koppel; author and associate editor for The Washington Post Bob Woodward; and NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell. Welcome to all of you. A lot to get to. And as we react to-- to Paul Ryan this morning, I want to show some of the headlines from the president’s inaugural address because he really speaks to it. “Obama Offers Liberal Vision: We Must Act.” The L.A. Times, against talking about a liberal vision. Charles Krauthammer wrote this in The Washington Post and it caught my attention on Friday and I want to put it up on the screen, “His mission, speaking of Obama, is to redeem and resurrect the 50-year pre-Reagan liberal ascendency. Accordingly, his second inaugural address, ideologically unapologetic and aggressive, is his historical marker, his self-proclamation as the Reagan of the left. If he succeeds in these next four years, he will have earned the title.” And I show that, Bob Woodward, because what Paul Ryan said that I thought was so notable, is that he believes this president is more interested in political conquest than political compromise. That is the backdrop for a second term.
MR. BOB WOODWARD (Associate Editor, Washington Post/Author, The Price of Politics): Yeah, and-- and-- and Ryan is an important figure in this in many ways. And I think you agree. He’s the quite likely the future of the Republican Party. But if you go back three years ago, President Obama himself publicly said that the Ryan proposal on Medicare was serious and legitimate. The president is playing and not that the Republicans aren’t. They play a lot of politics. But the president is playing politics, too. You know, when I talked to the president six months ago about Medicare, he said the spending trajectory is untenable. And so he knows there needs to be a fix in this area. And what’s the shame in all of this is that they can’t kind of sit down and work it out, because, you know, if you were the negotiator up at Camp David, you’d be able to do it.
MS. ANDREA MITCHELL (Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent, NBC News/Host, ANDREA MITCHELL REPORTS): Well, one of the problems is they’re not at Camp David. They’re not sitting down together. But the State of the Union, I think should not be viewed as a-- the-- rather the-- the inaugural address should not be used-- viewed as a State of the Union speech. This is not the place where he was laying it out. I’m told by White House officials that what he put on the table on Medicare and on entitlements, it’s still out there and still he wants to negotiate it. And I think Paul Ryan is going to be leading the Republican side on where they go on this. There are going to be serious negotiations. They have to get down to it. I think where the liberal or progressive mission was from the inaugural speech was on human rights, on Doctor King’s legacy, on gay rights. That was profoundly moving and important, that’s where he sees his legacy...
GREGORY: But it’s interesting that’s not going to drive legislation as much. Ted Koppel, the big issues of the day are the ones we’ve been fighting for the last several years. How much taxes, how much in spending cuts, and this-- this role of government.
MR. TED KOPPEL (Special Correspondent, ROCK CENTER/NBC News): David, I think the president recognizes the obvious that is he’s got 8 to 12 months to do things, and the time for being coy is long over. He-- he laid it out and he laid it out without any ambiguity. I think he’s going to push. He’s going to push hard. He’s going to push immediately.
GREGORY: Mm-Hm. Well, Jim DeMint, former senator, where do you see your party pushing? Where should they push? How do they balance conservative principles with a real desire on the part of the public to see compromise and to see achievement?
FMR. SEN. JIM DEMINT (R-SC; Incoming President, The Heritage Foundation): Well, Paul Ryan was talking about one of the most important moral issues of our time--the fact that we are stealing from our children and we’re putting so much debt on them that their lives, their opportunities, are going to be greatly diminished. And what he said about balancing our budget or putting our country on at least a path to balance our budget in 10 years is a complete contrast with what President Obama is talking about. Before we get into all the political labels and the specifics, it’s clear the president plans to keep spending and borrowing and putting more debt on our children. So America has a-- a-- a perfect contrast between the directions that they want to go. We know--
GREGORY: But we just had an election, Senator, with two different directions, and America chose. I mean, that’s something that Paul Ryan said. He said last year, the country will choose what happens in 2013.
FMR. SEN. DEMINT: Right.
GREGORY: And they did. So were-- were-- are we past the point of two-- two different visions in choosing?
FMR. SEN. DEMINT: I don’t think the country has-- has chosen that. In fact, we see almost in the majority of states now where a conservative, bold visionary governors are implementing the ideas that work. And that’s what conservatism really is, now whether it’s cutting taxes or freedom in the workplace or education choice, what we want to do and what we need to do for the American people is show them the successes and which ideas work. We can show where President Obama’s ideas go. I mean, we can look in history, at countries that failed, at Europe today. We can look at his home state of Illinois. The tax and spend and big government approach has always failed. So our job as conservatives is to make sure Americans know that and we need to show it with real people and real faces.
GREGORY: Ben Jealous, a lot of this we have to remind ourselves is about economic growth. What makes the economy grow, what gets people back to work and what role does Washington play in that?
MR. BEN JEALOUS (President and CEO, NAACP): Look, we know how to get out of tough times. We got out of the Great Depression by investing in what we wanted to be as a country, by investing in jobs rather than focusing on our fears. You know, I would push back and say that the big issues of this day also include marriage equality. They include comprehensive immigration reform. They include making sure that we lift all boats. And right now when you look at joblessness in this country, you know, the country is back to pretty much where it was when this president started. White people in this country are doing a bit better. Black folks are doing a full point worse when to comes to-- and so with this president having said to us we need to invest in strategies to lift all boats, now that some boats are clearly more stuck, the question is will Congress join him in getting those boats unstuck too.
GREGORY: Well, but the-- but the-- the question, Ted Koppel, as well is where the president tries to seek a-- a way forward. I mean, he doesn’t think much of Republicans in terms of their approach or being able to deal with them. But he can also confuse the opposition a little bit if he would take the reins and say, look, we’re going to have to do big spending cuts and here’s why. It’s ultimately helpful for the-- you know, the solvency of the country, even if he has to push back against some Democrats.
MR. KOPPEL: Look, David, I’m going to-- I’m going to defer to some of the others here who spend more time covering-- covering domestic policy. I think this president is going to end up facing some of the biggest foreign policy crises that we’ve had in many years. And I know you want to get to that a little bit later.
GREGORY: Yeah. Yeah.
MR. KOPPEL: So let me hold my…
GREGORY: Well, Bob answer that piece of it.
MR. WOODWARD: Well, look, this can be worked out if you look at the plans, and they-- they seem very abstract when Paul Ryan and President Obama talk about them. They are just saying, let’s fix a little bit on the entitlement front, and they’re not saying let’s start tomorrow cutting. They’re saying let’s start in 5 years or 10 years. It is all doable and fixable. And then this gets to the engine of the economy. And if you fix that, if you stabilize the debt in some reasonable way, we’re going to have growth. The unemployment rate should come down. And President Obama is exactly right at focusing on the people at the lower end here. You fix and help the people at the lower end by getting the economy going again. You’re exactly right. And the psychologically for the business community, for Democrats and Republicans, it’s so important that there be some consensus, I mean you get Paul Ryan here with his charts, and it looks like the world is going to end at some point. And you need to get everyone onboard to the idea, no, the world is not going to end.
GREGORY: Andrea, I was on Capitol Hill this week and you get a sort of state of play where there’s a sense that a lot of the gun legislation is not going to be successful. Immigration reform is moving apace. They’re having very constructive conversations, Republicans and Democrats together. The entitlement piece is going to be hard, whether the president wants to go very far on Medicare. He’s got, you know, liberals saying don’t do it, don’t raise the retirement age. So how do these pieces come together here in the next three, four, five months?
MS. MITCHELL: Well, that is exactly the question. Because when he even suggested raising that retirement age from 65 to 67, decades from now actually, and not affecting current retirees, the whole liberal base exploded against him. The AARP went to war against him. So he has to decide whether he’s going to take that on because even his budget negotiators, the people who are in the gang of six and-- and working like Dick Durbin said that was a nonstarter. That is the big question. You know, on immigration, you see these are-- these negotiations with-- with Lindsey Graham and McCain and Rubio on the Republican side and Durbin and Schumer and others on the Democratic side. They are really making progress. The president is giving a speech on Tuesday with outlines. The question now is, is he going to send legislation up? That’s still to be determined. And he’s just met with the Hispanic caucus and with these senators in the last couple of days. The other thing is guns. And despite all of the hints from the White House that they are not backing off of the assault weapon ban, most people I have been talking to in recent days, inside the White House and out, agree that that is really going to be the biggest lift. But if they can get the magazines and the background checks and something on mental health, they think that there is something that can be done there.
GREGORY: Senator DeMint, part of the-- the calculation for Republicans is where do they push, where do they fight. What battles do they pick? And this is part of a period of self-examination for the party that-- that you’re a part of as well. Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana spoke out-- was outspoken on Thursday, talking to Republicans. Here’s part of what he said.
(Videotape; Republican National Committee Winter Meeting, Charlotte, North Carolina/Thursday)
GOV. BOBBY JINDAL (R-LA): We’ve got to stop being the stupid party. And I’m serious. It’s time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults. It’s time for us to articulate our plans and our visions for America in real terms. It’s no secret we had a number of Republicans that damaged the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments. I’m here to say we’ve had enough of that.
GREGORY: He is arguing that that’s getting in the way. Colin Powell on this program a couple of weeks ago, talking about a deep vein of intolerance within the Republican Party. How do you respond to that as you take a look at where the party needs to go?
FMR. SEN. DEMINT: I talked to Governor Jindal yesterday because we’re on the same page of where we need to go. He-- he knows that spending more than we’re bringing in this debt is-- is a moral argument that we need to connect with the American people. And not just in numbers. But we need to help people see that what we’re doing here in Washington, the politicians are the real takers because they’re taking the future away. Every paycheck is going to be worth less and the future of our children with the debt on their head is-- means that the opportunities that they could have are going to be diminished.
GREGORY: But that’s not quite what he is speaking of there. What he’s talking about is how the brand positions itself. How it reaches out to people.
FMR. SEN. DEMINT: I’m not going to speak for Republicans and one of the reasons I-- I left Congress is because I don’t believe that politicians are going to solve our problems unless the American people force them to. They’re going to keep spend-- spending and borrowing in Washington. They’re going to keep implementing policies, as Ben just said, that hurt minorities. We’re-- they’re worse off. And we can go to Detroit and Philadelphia and Chicago where these liberal progressive policies have been in place for decades, and you see Latinos and African-Americans with-- in failing schools, with high unemployment. What we’re going to do, and I know what Governor Jindal is going to do along with a lot of other governors, is show the success stories where the right ideas are implemented. And we’re going to show the failures in Detroit and Philadelphia and L.A.
GREGORY: Ben, comment before we go to break here.
MR. JEALOUS: Look, you-- you know, there are places where we can clearly work together. Criminal Justice Reform is one of them. But the real question for the GOP is whether they are willing to give up on the gasoline that has been the old Dixiecrat rhetoric that they’ve indulged in for the past 40 years. And when he talked about those bizarre and insulting comments, that’s what he’s talking about--playing to the cheap seats again, again, again. They need to stop. They need to say, look, you know, we have an old brand as the grand old party, the party of Linc-- Lincoln, the party of Kemp, the party of people who united this country again and again. Let’s be that. And let’s stop trying to be these Dixiecrats, because it just doesn’t work for anybody.
GREGORY: I mean, Senator, do you regret, you know, some of the comments about abortion in this last cycle, about rape, about again what Colin Powell thought were veiled racist comments from the party?
FMR. SEN. DEMINT: Well, David, the fact that we are losing over 3,000 unborn children a day is an important issue. But Republicans or conservatives should not engage in a debate about exceptions for abortion when the other side will not even agree that we have real people or real human beings. And-- and we need fight the battle where it-- it should be fought. Life is important. We know from all of the new technology and improved sonograms that we do have a baby. And it’s important that we fight for that. But instead of just offering my opinion on-- on some hypothetical debate about exceptions for abortion, we need to move it back and particularly work with the states that are fighting for just the personhood of the child. And if we can start there, I think America will move with us.
GREGORY: All right. A little different than the question about rhetoric and how they reach as voters. But I’m going to take a break here. I want to come back. I want to move the debate a little bit, talk about foreign policy in this president’s second term. Hillary Clinton in the hot seat this week talking about Benghazi. And the threat that is ahead that she warned about, that as Ted Koppel suggests, could occupy a lot of the president’s time. We’ll get to that as we hear more from our roundtable after this.
SEC. OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans.
MAN: I understand.
SEC. OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided to go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened, and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator.
GREGORY: A combative section of the hearing on Benghazi on Capitol Hill this week. We’re back with more of the roundtable. Ted Koppel, wider than just the Benghazi investigation and the questions are about a region that’s in ferment, in revolution in certain parts, where there are a lot of threats facing the United States. And it’s not getting a lot of attention thus far from the administration and certainly from the president’s inaugural address. And there are real fears in the region that Iran particularly is going to be on the-- on the edge of causing problems for the U.S.
MR. KOPPEL: I think, David, as I suggested before, that we’re entering one of the most dangerous periods this country has ever known. A, it’s not over in Afghanistan. B, to this-- to the degree that al Qaeda has moved over into Pakistan, that’s a country that has over a hundred nuclear weapons, Syria, which is an ongoing problem. The suggestion constantly seems to be that we need to come in on the side of the rebels. There are at least a thousand al Qaeda members in Syria today fighting on the side of the rebels. If the chemical weapons fall into their hands, big problems. You mentioned Iran. Remember now, and it may even have been on this program, I think that Bibi Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister suggested that come spring, come early summer, if the Iranians still have not pulled back from building a nuclear weapon, the Israelis may attack. The Iranians would respond against the United States. And they have the capacity to do it with cyber war.
MR. WOODWARD: I think it’s even bigger and more troubling than that. It isn’t just the Middle East and that region. Look at North Korea announcing that they are going to target the United States. They have nuclear weapons, unlike Iran at this point. You look at what happened in Algeria and Mali. You-- the Egypt problem is not solved. I actually had one of the experts tell me recently that the next book I ought to do is this whole sweep of foreign policy and the working title of the book would be Meltdown.
GREGORY: And Andrea, I want you to respond to something. Hillary Clinton, when she was not talking about Benghazi, issued a warning for her successor, which I-- I gather she also wanted to make sure was heard inside the White House, when she talked about the region, in this case, North Africa, the al Qaeda presence bigger than Benghazi. This is what she said.
SEC. OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON (Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing; Wednesday): Let me underscore the importance of the United States continuing to lead in the Middle East, in North Africa, and around the world. When America is absent, especially from unstable environments, there are consequences. Extremism takes root. Our interests suffer. Our security at home is threatened.
MS. MITCHELL: I think she-- she is trying to warn the administration and the world that we cannot retreat from this engagement here. And you know right now, overnight, we’ve seen that the U.S. is doing refueling of French fighters in Mali, which is very troublesome to some. It is a much more aggressive posture. But the UK has taken all of their nationals out of Somalia overnight. This area of North Africa as Bob and Ted were just saying, is the most dangerous perhaps in the world, aside from Pakistan and Afghanistan which are nuclear armed against each other-- and-- or Pakistan and India nuclear armed against each other and what’s happening in Afghanistan as we retreat and the effect on that and North Korea. So they have to really not just look at immigration and guns and the budget as the next challenges here.
GREGORY: But have we figured out, Senator-- have we figured out what the balance is between invasions, nation building, a huge commitment on the part of the United States in this part of the world, and turning our eye away from governments that could become illegitimate or failed states that invite either, you know, terrorists or authoritarian regimes to take root?
FMR. SEN. DEMINT: Well, there’s not a lot of patience for the requirements of understanding here in Washington. What Secretary Clinton said reflected a-- a deep problem, not just in foreign policy but domestic policy, when she said what difference does it make? It’s the same type of thing we see on all policies. It’s an unwillingness to really bore down and understand the root causes of failures and successes and that’s why I think we see our foreign policy going in a lot of directions. It doesn’t seem to be coherent. It sends signals of weakness. We don’t understand what North Korea really does-- is doing right now. It is-- it’s not just to provoke us, but it’s a product demonstration for Iran and other countries that want to see if these things work because we know North Korea wants to sell them. So I think there is a perception of American weakness. But our problem here is the failure to really understand what is motivating these other countries and how we can affect…
MR. JEALOUS: But is that what the conversation should be because the conversation hasn’t really been about that at least not that we the voters see. What we see is people in Washington kind of picking on each other, focusing on the personalities, who knew what when. What-- what we want to hear as voters is what’s really happening out there and what are you going to do to make us.
GREGORY: Well, Ted, that comes back to my point. Do have we-- do we have a real policy approach that is somewhere in between a-- a projection of American power and just leaving the region.
MR. KOPPEL: I mean, the answer is yes. I don’t think, Ben, that it means that we necessarily have a strategy, but we have new tactics. We have moved away from the big unit operations, divisions, tanks, and are moving now more in the direction of special operations, CIA, drones, civilian contractors, cyber warfare. This is what you’re going to see happening. But we’re also playing whack-a-mole with al Qaeda. And I think one of the-- one of the greatest mistakes that the president has made is in leaving America with a sense that somehow al Qaeda has been dealt with, the war in Afghanistan is over, the war in Iraq is over. The fact of the matter is we’ve got major problems, and al Qaeda is one of them.
GREGORY: I want-- I want to get to a political note. It happens on 60 Minutes tonight, an interview with the president and his outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raising a lot of eyebrows, here’s a portion of the interview.
(Videotape, Friday, 60 Minutes)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, the main thing is I just wanted to have a chance to publicly say thank you, because I think Hillary will go down as one of the finest secretary of states we’ve had. It has been a great collaboration over the last four years. I’m going to miss her.
HILLARY CLINTON: A few years ago, it would have seen-- been seen as improbable because we had that very long, hard primary campaign. Look, in politics and in democracy, sometimes you win elections, sometimes you lose elections. And I worked very hard, but I lost. And then President Obama asked me to be secretary of state. And I said yes. And why did he ask me and why did I say yes? Because we both love our country.
GREGORY: Andrea, is he passing the baton?
MS. MITCHELL: You can imagine the Joe Biden camp reaction to that.
MS. MITCHELL: Unprecedented and-- a interview that President Obama has never done an interview with anyone other than his wife, and here he is doing it with the secretary of state. I have talked to a lot of Democrats who say that if she decides, and she hasn’t decided, but if she decides and she is completely positioned for it to run, she clears the field.
MS. MITCHELL: That there’s no one else. Not Cuomo, not-- not the Maryland governor, not Joe Biden, no one can take her on. Because after eight years of President Obama, who could come in and as a woman and as a non-Obama person originally, be enough of an outsider to challenge a Republican.
MR. JEALOUS: There is a real powerful historic mandate.
MR. WOODWARD: But-- but don’t wipe Joe Biden off the slate. I mean, he-- he has been a vital part of the Obama administration on-- on foreign affairs and on domestic affairs. He’s the one who goes and makes the secret deals with McConnell.
GREGORY: That’s right.
MR. WOODWARD: He is the go-to…
MS. MITCHELL: But Bob, I’m saying what democratic leaders are saying. I’m just quoting what they say, that she has…
GREGORY: Ple-- plenty of time-- plenty of time for 2016.
MR. WOODWARD: It ain’t over.
GREGORY: It ain’t over, but it’s over for us this morning. Thank you all very much. We’ll come back and have our final moments in just a minute.
GREGORY: Thanks to the roundtable this morning. Before we go, quick programming note. You can watch this week’s PRESS Pass conversation with Martin Indyk, the former U.S. Ambassador of Israel, director of foreign policy at the Brooking Institution, on some of the big bets President Obama is making during his second term in foreign policy that’s at email@example.com. That’s all for today, we’ll be back next week. If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.