MSNBC: Tim, where do you see the growing, noisy dissent among the conservative faithful over the Harriett Miers Supreme Court nomination heading ultimately?
Tim Russert: It hasn’t subsided and now I think all eyes are on Harriett Miers. She’ll have a chance to go before the Senate Judiciary committee and demonstrate her mettle. And people are going to take her measure and make a decision whether or not her legal background, her intellectual heft, are those that meet their standards for the Supreme Court.
Conservatives who oppose her are not backing off, because they believe if her nomination is withdrawn or defeated, they will get someone in their mind how they will “trust” much more in terms of a conservative judicial philosophy.
MSNBC: Is it possible she could be prepped enough to pass muster before the committee by answering boilerplate-type constitutional questions?
Russert: Well, as someone who went to Jesuit college and law school – I always got caught. Because you can go out there and say, “Let me talk about Brown versus Board of Education and Marbury versus Madison,” and then they’d say, “Well, what do you think of the dissent in that case Mr. Russert?” And I’d be saying, “Ahem… excuse me, may I be relieved?”
It’s pretty hard to cram for this if you have no feel for it and no history in it.
On the other hand, the Senate’s got to be careful not to look overbearing in asking questions the public feels are unfair.
I think there’s a lot of latitude and I think she has a lot of work to do to get ready.
MSNBC: Are sitting Republican senators who are going to run for election, presumably, going to be that respectful of a nominee of a president who’s not running for anything?
Russert: What you’re seeing in both houses of congress are people who are starting to step back from the president, on Harriett Miers and on Iraq, because they are on the ballot in November of 2006.
So, you’ll see Sen. Arlen Specter, R-PA, who just got re-elected and is chairman of the Judiciary Committee going full throttle, full speed ahead. He wants to know where Harriett Miers stands on issues. Interestingly enough, for him, he is pro-abortion rights and if she gives the wrong answers in his mind, the constitutional response to that, he could be quite upset. If her answer didn’t satisfy him, it could really polarize a lot of conservative Republicans.
This will be an interesting hearing to watch.
MSNBC: The president is said to be fuming more than his ideological opponents on all this. Is that true?
Russert: He is very, very upset by the reaction from conservatives. He can’t understand why they don’t take his word.
You couple that with the situation in Iraq and the situation with Katrina and you see why the latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll has President George W. Bush with a 39% approval rating – the lowest we have had in polling during his five years as president.
And in that poll, for African Americans, he has a two percent approval. This is a president and a political party who tried to reach out and recruit African Americans and the images of Karrina have just really pushed that away.
MSNBC: But hasn’t every president of the last seven gotten down to that 40% approval rating range or so at one time?
Russert: Absolutely. We’ve seen it with Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and others and then they just kind of crawl and claw their way back. This president, I think is going to have a particularly hard winter with Harriett Miers and the war on Iraq. But I think fuel prices is the great sleeper issue. If you expect a price increase of 50-70% - it may never be the president’s fault, but guess who gets the blame?
MSNBC: Times appear to be pretty tough for Republicans. They are dealing with a series of scandals and investigations, which are taking quite toll on the party, including the president.
In fact, a Pew pollster says the president’s numbers are going from bad to worse and people just see more and more bad news everywhere, and don’t see a way out. Is there a way out for the administration?
Russert: In addition to the president’s favorable rating being down to 39% -- the lowest we’ve ever recorded for him in his five years -- when it comes to, “Is the country on the right track/Wrong track”, a very important question for pollsters to ask – we have nearly six of ten Americans saying the country is on the wrong track. And when they talk about energy prices and gasoline prices, they say the worst is yet to come. And in terms of Iraq and Katrina and the economy, they say we have a long way to go.
So, not only is the current atmosphere bleak, but the future, in the minds of these American voters is very similar.
The president is going to have to show some success, obviously in Iraq, some success in continuing to rebuild the Gulf after Katrina and some success in managing and controlling energy price - particularly home heating this coming winter.
It’s a tall challenge for anyone.
MSNBC: It appears the public, when it looks at everything, seems to feel nothing is getting done by its government.
Russert: In the indictment of Rep. Tom Delay, R-TX, and the investigation of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-TN, the one striking thing in our poll is the vast majority of Americans said it wasn’t just politics as usual, there may be some serious illegality there – and nearly half the Republicans said that.
And one other number that i think was particularly powerful in our poll along with the president’s job approval of 39% -- only two percent of African American voters gave George W. Bush a favorable rating. Clearly that’s a fallout from the images of Katrina. It’s president and it’s a Republican Party that has tired to reach out to black voters across the country and with a two percent approval rating, that, indeed, is a monumental challenge.
MSNBC: Some Democrats are taking about the 2006 elections, saying maybe the simple choice of change will be enough for them to take over. But really, is that all they need? There must be more than that to it.
Russert: Yeah, like in the great movie, “Cool Hand Luke”, sometimes nothing’s a real cool hand. Just sit back on the sidelines and let the other guys unravel.
Our poll question on that is, “Who would you prefer to control congress after 2006?” And it’s a nine point spread for the Democrats - the largest I have seen in a decade.
But it’s only October of 2005 and just as we couldn’t have seen two months ago Katrina and a lot of other things, there’ll be ten more major news stories between now and November of 2006.
I don’t think the Democrats can recapture control of congress simply by saying, “We’re not the other guy.” I think they have to have a forward-looking proposal saying “This is what we believe in,” and contrast it with the Republicans.
MSNBC: What can we look forward to on Meet the Press Sunday?
Russert: We’re going to talk about Iraq. The vote is Saturday on their constitution… all eyes are on that country. United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will join us with her first comments after that vote has ended in Iraq.
Then, Louis Freeh, the former head of the FBI, who has said some very critical things about former President Bill Clinton and his relationship with Saudi Arabia, will come to Meet the Press and talk about his book and allegations, The September 11th commission had said some things about Mr. Freeh’s ten year as head of the FBI. That should be quite interesting.
All Sunday, on Meet the Press.