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Meet the Press Transcript - January 18, 2015

MEET THE PRESS -- SUNDAY, JANUARY 18, 2015

CHUCK TODD:

This Sunday, counter-terror raids have been launched across Europe. Whatever happened to the West's strategy to dismantle, destroy, and disrupt all of these radical Islamist groups? Plus, there's millions of copies of Charlie Hebdo hit the streets, so do Muslim protests around the globe. My exclusive interview with the man now in charge of the most controversial publication in the world. And then there's Mitt Romney. He says, "Maybe I will." And Republicans say, “Maybe you shouldn’t.”

MITT ROMNEY (TAPE):

"Heaven knows I have experience running for president."

CHUCK TODD:

The sour reaction to Mitt 3.0. And we've seen it year after year.

MARCO RUBIO (TAPE):

Tonight I have the honor of responding to the State of the Union Address.

CHUCK TODD:

Can Iowa's Joni Ernst avoid becoming the latest victim of the curse of the State of the Union response? I'm Chuck Todd and joining me to provide insight and analysis this morning are President Obama's former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, Kelly O'Donnell, Capitol Hill correspondent right here for us at NBC News, Carol Lee of The Wall Street Journal, and Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee. Welcome to Sunday, it's Meet the Press.

ANNOUNCER:

From NBC News in Washington, this is Meet the Press with Chuck Todd.

CHUCK TODD:

And good morning, the shock waves of the Paris terror attacks continue to be felt, particularly in Europe. Over the weekend, thousands of Muslim protesters angry at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo's latest cover depicting the prophet Muhammad have taken to the streets across the world, with churches torched and at least three people killed in the former French colony of Niger.

There have also been anti-terror raids across Europe. Troops have been deployed, in fact, in a number of countries including Belgium. In a moment, my exclusive interview with the new editor of Charlie Hebdo. But first, our chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel, on whether U.S.'s “disrupt and dismantle” counterterrorism strategy is working.

(BEGIN TAPE)

RICHARD ENGEL:

All over Europe, police and counterterrorism officers have been raiding homes, making arrests. And at one address in Belgium, exchanging heavy fire with suspected terrorists who authorities say were just about ready to launch an attack. Most of the targets are militants who have long been under surveillance and are being pulled in all at once in the wake of the terror attacks in Paris.

Europe is stepping up its efforts to stop homegrown terrorists and continuing to send jets to bomb ISIS targets in Iraq. The French Parliament broke into a spontaneous rendition of the national anthem after it voted to recommit the nation to fighting ISIS. President Hollande got a well-photographed tour of a warship to show his own commitment. But the fact is, the U.S. is doing most of the bombing in Syria and Iraq. About five of every six sorties are conducted by American jets.

PRESIDENT OBAMA:

We are systematically taking out their fighters, we're destroying their infrastructure, we're putting them on the defensive and let the local forces in Iraq push these terrorists back.

RICHARD ENGEL:

But are they on the defensive? There's another way to look at the Paris attacks, as Islamists starting a counteroffensive.

DR. STEPHEN METZ:

Things like that cost them almost nothing, but yet, it creates a huge amount of furor and fear and anger in the West. So a very small investment, they're able to have a big psychological effect. And that's the way that they actually are on the offensive and have the initiative.

RICHARD ENGEL:

Being bombed by the U.S. and its allies has elevated ISIS's status and upped its recruiting game. Now, both ISIS and Al Qaeda are telling their supporters in the West that they don't have to travel to Syria and Iraq to join the war, they can stay at home, find targets, and attack.

In addition, the massive demonstrations in support of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and the immense popularity of its most recent issue, have enraged Muslim protesters around the world. At least three demonstrators were killed by police in the French-speaking, former West African colony, Niger.

Angry protests have erupted in other former French colonies from Mali to Algeria. The slogan, "I am Charlie," meant to express solidarity, and a defense of freedom of speech, is being understood in parts of the Muslim world to mean, "I am with those who ridicule the prophet Muhammad." And that misunderstanding, with its suggestion of a wider cultural and religious war, helps ISIS and other terrorist groups with a weapon that no jet can destroy: the weapon of propaganda.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

And Richard, this brings up a phrase that was very familiar during Vietnam: "hearts and minds." The fact of the matter is, we kill a lot of leaders of this radical Islamist movement, but we don't defeat the enemy. Is this a hearts and minds issue, and what is the next strategy and what should it be?

RICHARD ENGEL:

I think it's a lot more than a hearts and mind campaign. I think there's a hearts and minds campaign internationally to try to convince the world yet again that by fighting ISIS, the United States and other nations are not engaged in a wider war against Islam. Supporting Charlie Hebdo has worked somewhat against that message.

And then there is the very tactical mission of degrading and destroying ISIS in Syria and Iraq there has been some progress in Iraq. U.S. military officials have told me they do not believe there has been as much progress as some of the administration are claiming. And in Syria, there's been almost no progress.

In fact, just a few days ago, Turkish intelligence said, "In this country, there are about 3,000 people linked to ISIS." That's a big number. We're right on the border. Europol said, "5,000 Europeans have gone to fight in Iraq and Syria." So the numbers aren't going down.

CHUCK TODD:

Not at all. Richard Engel, in Turkey for us this morning. Richard, thanks very much. Well, it's been ten days since those horrific attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. And yesterday, I had an exclusive sit-down, or an interview, with its new editor in chief, Gerard Birard.

(BEGIN TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

Mr. Biard, well, first of all, my condolences. And I was wondering if you could share with our audience just if you could put into words the difficulty you had and the staff had in putting an issue out.

GERARD BIARD:

Well, it's very complicated, because we all have been enormously affected each in our own way, each differently. Some of us were present during the attack; others arrived after the shooting and others, like me, were not even in Paris. Personally, I was not in France, I was in London. Those who were present during the attack each experienced it differently. There are those who were injured and who are still hospitalized. Some of the injured are still in serious condition. And then there are also those who were present during the attack, but who escaped injury. They are trying individually to understand why they escaped unharmed. They are also trying to process how they helped the wounded. It is very difficult to process because one obviously feels an enormous relief to have escaped mixed with a sense of guilt.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to get into some of the criticism that the publication has received, including from Pope Francis. And I want to get your response to the Pope. Answering a reporter's question about the extent of freedom of expression, the Pope illustrated his point by describing what would happen if his personal Vatican aide Alberto Gasparri said something bad against his mother.

And the Pope said this: "To kill in the name of God is an aberration. We have the obligation to say openly, to have this liberty, but without giving offense because it is true. One cannot react violently. But if Dr. Gasparri, a good friend, says a bad word against my mother, then a punch awaits him. But it's normal. It's normal. One cannot provoke. One cannot insult other people's faith. One cannot make fun of faith." What do you say to the Pope?

GERARD BIARD:

Every time that we draw a cartoon of Mohammed, every time that we draw a cartoon of a prophet, every time that we draw a cartoon of God, we defend the freedom of [conscience] We declare that God must not be a political or public figure. He must be a private one. We defend the freedom of [conscience], yes it’s also freedom of speech, but is the freedom of [conscience]. Religion should not be a political argument.

If faith, if religious arguments step into the political arena, it becomes a totalitarian argument. Secularism protects us against this, secularism guarantees democracy and assures peace. Secularism allows all believers and all non-believers to live in peace and that is what we defend.

CHUCK TODD:

Your line is you will attack any religion that is being used in your view for political reasons. But you would not-- you don't attack people of a religious ethnic group.

GERARD BIARD:

We have a problem when faith and religion become political, then we become worried and we attack. Then we respond because we are convinced that religion has no place in the political arena. Because once religion injects itself into the political debate, the political debate become totalitarian.

CHUCK TODD:

I'm just curious of your reaction. Many news organizations, including our own, have not shown your cover completely. Either blurred out. And it's a decisions we made editorially. No government told us to do anything. But it was a decision we made. And every news organization is making their own decision. What is your reaction to our decision and others who have chosen not to show your cover?

GERARD BIARD:

Listen, we cannot blame newspapers that already suffer much difficulty in getting published and distributed in totalitarian regimes for not publishing a cartoon which could cost them, at best jail, and at worst death. On the other hand, I am quite critical of newspapers which are published in democratic countries.

This cartoon is not just a little figure, a little Mohammed drawn by Luz. It's a symbol. It’s the symbol of freedom of speech, of freedom of [conscience], of democracy, and secularism. It is this symbol that these newspapers refuse to publish, this is what they must understand. When they refuse to publish this cartoon, when they blur it out, when they decline to publish it, they blur out democracy, secularism, freedom of [conscience], and they insult the citizenship.

CHUCK TODD:

Do you feel like you're a part of this war right now, this war that's taking place in the Western world between some radical Islamists? Do you feel like you've been drawn into this war?

GERARD BIARD:

We do not kill anyone. We should stop conflating the murderers and the victims. We must stop declaring that those who write and draw are “provocateurs,” that they are throwing gas on the fire. We must not place thinkers and artists in the same category as murderers. We are not warriors. We only defend one thing: Freedom, our freedom, secularism, freedom of conscience and democracy.

CHUCK TODD:

Mr. Biard, I appreciate you coming on Meet the Press. I know this is not an easy time. And I know that you're still mourning many of your friends. So my condolences. And we'll be watching. Thank you, sir.

[**EDITOR’S NOTE: a version of the interview that aired translated Mr. Biard’s words as “freedom of religion” in some instances. In those cases, the transcript has been corrected and reads “freedom of conscience.”]

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

Let's get some reaction now from the panel, Robert Gibbs, Kelly O'Donnell, Carol Lee, Michael Steele. Robert, I want to begin with you, because it's an interesting debate that goes on in France. In some of this interview got left on the cutting room floor for time and translations and things like this. But in France, they're a secular nation, this country founded on some freedom of religion issues.

But when you worked for President Obama and the administration, if a religious leader appeared in this country, appeared to be inciting Muslims, including the the pastor that was burning the Quran, you guys were aggressive in trying to stop him from doing that. That, of course, would've been totally frowned upon in France. Are you comfortable with decision?

ROBERT GIBBS:

I am because I think one of the things that we're going to have to do is show to the more than billion Muslims in the world that we're not at war with their religion. We are at war with people that take the beliefs from that religion and bastardize them to the point that justifies killing.

I think you talk about hearts and minds, we are going to have to have a greater effort on counter-radicalization to let people know in this world that they have an outlet for frustration that doesn't include either joining an army in Syria or training in their home country to attack somebody who doesn't believe what they believe.

CHUCK TODD:

Kelly, there's going to be a lot of, I think, folks that watch that and realize, who were very supportive and wanting to stand by Charlie Hebdo, realize that they're no friend of religion. And I wonder if there are going to be a lot of Americans going, "Boy, that's some harsh stuff that they do against Catholics, that they would do frankly in this country, perhaps against evangelicals."

KELLY O'DONNELL:

And it's that struggle of the discomfort that comes with supporting of freedom of the speech and freedom of expression. People do get uncomfortable. And they are really struggling with trying to be supportive of the victims, but as people learn more about the publication, it doesn't always feel comfortable for them to support some of the ideas.

We can see it if you just interpret some of their artwork and put it against your own religion, how would you feel? It can incite feelings of real struggle inside. But I think Americans do want to show support for freedom of expression. And it does get more complicated when those images aren't shown in the U.S. or how people look at that and say, "What's the right call?"

CHUCK TODD:

Michael Steele, your party very much, there's a big religious core in the party.

MICHAEL STEELE:

Oh, very much so.

CHUCK TODD:

A huge religious core. If that publication were over here, he's basically saying he would be totally mocking anybody that uses religion in politics.

MICHAEL STEELE:

Yeah, and it would be a real, real problem.

CHUCK TODD:

It would, yeah.

MICHAEL STEELE:

There would be a lot of grassroots, evangelicals out there, particularly with respect to the sense of attack on them personally. And that's what this really boils down to. And it's a real balancing act between what both of you just said, that feeling of expression and wanting to be free to do that, and then the personal feeling I have when you express yourself and I feel like you've attacked me. And I think a lot of evangelicals, particularly in this country, would raise up mightily and make a lot of noise. Now obviously not to extremes, but there would be a lot of protests against a publication like that.

CHUCK TODD:

Carol, this issue of how the U.S. should respond to all this: Congress has one take, and they want to see, I think, a more aggressive, particularly Republicans in Congress. The president seems to be wanting to walk a line here.

CAROL LEE:

Yeah, I think there's a couple of things. One is it's interesting to see the White House's response to this particular new cover of Charlie Hebdo. In that when the original cartoons had come out, they were very, sort of, critical about them doing that. And now you see the White House press secretary this week saying that it was a poignant cover.

So that's different. And they're trying to figure out how to balance in the wake of these attacks the view that Robert was talking about, that you have a president who's very careful about how he uses language, they've been very careful about--

CHUCK TODD:

They won't say "radical Islamists."

CAROL LEE:

They won't say "radical Islamists." They won't say "War on Terror." They're very cautious about how they use words like "jihadism" and things like that. And so they're trying to figure out how to talk about this. And as you mentioned, they have this Congress, and in particular, Republicans, who want them to be more aggressive about it.

CHUCK TODD:

And yet, look what Muslims around the world, since all they're hearing, as Richard Engel reported, is "Charlie Hebdo." And that's all they hear right now. Anyway, coming up, more on the threat to the U.S. And then as Mitt Romney goes from "No, no, no, no," to, "Well, why not?" Republicans go from, "We miss you, Mitt," to, "Thanks, but no thanks." That's all coming up.

***Commercial Break***

CHUCK TODD:

And welcome back now to discuss the terror threat and foreign policy challenge that face the country, I'm joined from Jerusalem by Lindsey Graham. He's of course a Republican senator for South Carolina. He's spent the last few days traveling in the Middle East, has visited Saudi Arabia, Qatar, prior to arriving in Israel today.

Senator Graham, welcome back to Meet the Press. And let me start with a basic question that I've been hearing from a lot of folks. Over the last 14 years, the policy of going after these terrorist groups has been to disrupt, dismantle, and destroy. It's George W. Bush's policy, promise, it's been President Obama's. Fourteen years, we've killed a lot of people, but we've not defeated this enemy. Why?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM:

Well, once you liberate a country like Iraq, and you don't have a follow-up force, they fill in the gaps. Syria is a terror state. The civil war in Syria basically broke the country apart. And the only thing I can say is you have to deny the enemy safe haven. Returning from Iraq prematurely was a mistake. Not supporting the Free Syrian Army three or four years ago was a mistake. You've got to stay after these guys.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, Senator, I guess I would just say, are you advocating then more troops in a place like Syria now? More troops potentially, is it Yemen that we need to do? What is the answer now? I know we want to debate about some of these things in the past about Iraq, but what is the answer now?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM:

Well, the answer now is to deny ISIL the safe haven they enjoy in Syria and Iraq because it is a platform to strike the United States. There are more Parises coming until you disrupt this network. There are more terrorist organizations with more safe havens, with more capability to hit the homeland than before 9/11.

The answer is to form a regional coalition, America has to be part of it, go in on the ground, and get these guys out of Syria. The current strategy is failing. Everybody has told us on this trip that if you don't have a no-fly zone, the people we're training, the Free Syrian Army that we're training is going to go back into Syria and get slaughtered by Assad. There's no way to be successful on the ground without neutralizing Assad's air advantage. And so we need a no-fly zone desperately.

CHUCK TODD:

What do you tell the country that's war-weary?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM:

You need to fight them over there or they're coming back here. It's better to partner than it is to go it alone. You've got to show the ability to stay with it. You try to get partners. The Free Syrian Army would be a good partner. They've been punished pretty hard by Assad and ISIL. It's in our national security interest to deny them a safe haven. And when it comes to Iraq, let's get it right this time.

CHUCK TODD:

The most vicious radical Islamic group might actually be in Nigeria. You didn't bring it up. A lot of people don't bring it up until it’s asked.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM:

Right.

CHUCK TODD:

Boko Haram slaughtered thousands in the same week that 17 people were killed in Paris. Should the United States be doing more in Nigeria? Other countries? What's the answer there?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM:

Well, I think, yeah, we should be doing more. But Boko Haram doesn't represent the threat to the homeland in my view that ISIL does and Al Nusra and other groups in Syria and Iraq. But this problem is spreading throughout the world. The next stage of the fight I think is Africa.

But if we could show some resolve in Syria and Iraq and reset the table and go after these guys in Syria and Iraq with success, I think it would change the landscape throughout the world. Success anywhere breeds success everywhere. Failure in any one spot hurts you everywhere. But you're right, 2,000 people were killed in one weekend in Nigeria and the world basically ignored the story.

CHUCK TODD:

Let's move to Iran. Let me play what the president said in pushing back at Congress's attempt to apply more sanctions before the negotiations are done with Iran. Here's what he said:

(BEGIN TAPE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

My main message to Congress at this point is, just hold your fire. Nobody around the world, least of all the Iranians, doubt my ability to get some additional sanctions pass should these negotiations fail. That's not a hard vote for me to get through Congress.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

Why not wait?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM:

I think we're trying to tell the Iranians that we would like a political negotiation, a diplomatic solution, but please understand in Iran that the Congress is intent on re-apply sanctions, if you walk away from the negotiating table, and if you cheat, I don't think that's a disruptive message.

All we're telling the Iranians, "If you walk away from these negotiations, sanctions will be reapplied. If you cheat, they will be reimposed." But let me just say this. I'm willing to forgo sanctions, Chuck, if the president will take any deal he negotiates and brings it to Congress for our approval. If he thinks sanctions is disruptive to a good outcome, I'm willing to forgo that vote with the understanding that any bill he negotiates will come to the Congress for our approval or disapproval as a check and balance.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to follow up on two other things very quickly. Last week, you said something pretty provocative about the president. You said, "When he left Iraq, he did so based on a campaign promise. He's trying to close Gitmo based on a campaign promise. His campaign promises are getting a lot of people killed." Is that proper rhetoric? You think the president of the United States is getting people killed?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM:

I think his policies are getting people killed. I think sound military advice was given to the president to leave a residual force in Iraq and he turned it down. And as a result, Iraq has collapsed. His entire national security team suggested three or four years ago to create a no-fly zone and train the Free Syrian Army while it mattered.

Almost 300,000 people have been killed in Syria on his watch. Syria, the worst is yet to come. Lebanon and Jordan have closed their borders. Where do the people in Syria, where do they go now? Hell on earth is about to descend upon Syria and it matters to us.

The safe havens in Jordan and Syria and Iraq by ISIL and other terrorist groups are a direct threat to the United States. Letting people out of Gitmo in this environment, I think is irresponsible. So yes, his campaign promises should be adjusted based on reality.

CHUCK TODD:

And final question, John McCain, when he was asked about Mitt Romney running for president, he talked about his illegitimate son running for president, referring to you. Where are you on this? And I hear you're actually polling right now to test your ability to run for president.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM:

We're not polling, but we set up a testing-the-waters committee under the IRS code that would allow me to look beyond South Carolina as to whether or not a guy like Lindsey Graham has a viable path. But the good news is, I guess I'm in John's will and I can get part of the estate. But I don't know where this will go, but I am definitely going to look at it.

CHUCK TODD:

All right.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM:

I think the world is falling apart and I've been more right than wrong when it comes to foreign policy. But we'll see.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, we'll check with Cindy McCain to see if you're actually in that will as well, anyway. Senator Graham from Jerusalem, stay safe while traveling overseas, sir. Thank you very much. Coming up, why Republicans thought another run by Mitt Romney was a good idea, right up until Romney agreed with them.

***Commercial Break***

CHUCK TODD:

Well, you know the saying, if at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Well, for some time, quite a few Republicans, particularly rich ones, suggested that's exactly what Mitt Romney ought to do, make a third run at the White House. Well, surprise: Romney seemed to warm to the idea as he was meeting with his donors. And then surprise again, a lot of those same Republicans got cold feet, very cold feet. On Friday night, Romney addressed this issue head on. Well, sort of.

(BEGIN TAPE)

MITT ROMNEY:

In the last few days, the most frequently-asked question I get is, "What does Ann think about all this?" And she believes that people get better with experience. Heaven knows I have experience running for president.

CHUCK TODD:

Mitt Romney, trying to persuade Republicans that the third time's the charm, suggests that if he runs again, he'll be running a different kind of campaign.

MITT ROMNEY:

Under President Obama, the richer have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse, and there are more people in poverty in America than ever before.

CHUCK TODD:

But Romney's evolution on 2016 from, "No, no, no, no, no."

MITT ROMNEY:

I'm not Ronald Reagan. I think that's been pointed out to me before. And I'm not running for president. The answer is no. I'm not running. I'm not running. I'm not running for president. I said that so many times.

CHUCK TODD:

To Romney 3.0. has been lampooned by late night.

COLIN JOST:

Mitt Romney is reportedly considering running for president in 2016. In a related story, Charlie Brown is planning on finally kicking that football.

SETH MEYERS:

This is never a good sign when you have to start your speech with, "Hear me out."

CHUCK TODD:

Relished by Democrats.

PRESIDENT OBAMA:

I have no comment.

CHUCK TODD:

And panned by some in his own party.

JONAH GOLDBERG:

I feel like I'm taking crazy pills at the idea of Mitt Romney running again. I think it's a terrible idea.

CHUCK TODD:

The Wall Street Journal quipped, "If Mitt Romney is the answer, what is the question?" And the paper's owner, Rupert Murdoch was even more blunt, "He had his chance, he mishandled it, you know? I thought Romney was a terrible candidate." Even former supporters are trying to squelch the idea that anyone's drafting Romney.

VIN WEBER:

Governor Romney had two increasingly good years after losing the presidency. And now he's had one pretty bad week.

CHUCK TODD:

Potential opponents are already taking jabs.

SEN. RAND PAUL:

Obviously, we weren't successful, and you have to ask yourself why.

SEN. TED CRUZ:

Whether it's John McCain, whether it's Mitt Romney, the result over and over again is we lose.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER:

I think it's pretty hard to make an argument about going forward when you're arguing about people and ideas from the past.

CHUCK TODD:

But if presidential elections are supposed to be about the future, 2016 is turning into the year of the political rerun. The fathers of Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush once served together in Richard Nixon's cabinet. Now supporters of one dynasty are attacking the other.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ:

Three times the Bush, I'm not sure that's the right for me.

CHUCK TODD:

What does it mean for the ultimate dynasty in Democratic politics? Under pressure from the populist wing of the party, led by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton took on a new fight Friday, tweeting, "Attacking financial reform is risky and wrong. Better for Congress to focus on jobs and wages for middle-class families." A hint that Clinton is eager to prove to Democrats that she's thinking about tomorrow.

(END TAPE)

Well, Mitt Romney, 3.0, Kelly O'Donnell, you have been traveling, I know you covered the Chris Christie’s State of the State, he's somebody that is probably not happy about Mitt Romney suddenly thinking about this. This is not playing we'll in the establishment Republican wing of the party, is it?

KELLY O'DONNELL:

I think you've got a case where Mitt Romney's been hearing from people who have been his loyal supporters and donors, who are mixed with nostalgia and respect, telling him, "You would've made a great president." That's very different than actually doing it again. At the same time, I've talked to a number of people close to him. They're not convinced he's going to do it.

But when he joked about experience, I'm told that he really believes he would be a better candidate. And that by the time people actually vote, nobody will be a fresh face. And so then it becomes a choice between what Romney has to offer and what other candidates have to offer.

CHUCK TODD:

But Michael Steele, the reviews, and they're coming from former supporters or former people that maybe agree with I mean, Peggy Noonan wrote yesterday, "Mitt Romney is a smart, nice and accomplished man who thinks himself clever and politically insightful. He is not and will not become so. He should devote himself to supporting and not attempting to lead the party that has raised him so high." And she was in there, there was no such thing, for instance, she said a "Romneyism." She couldn't figure out what is--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

--other than Mitt Romney trying to finally succeed.

MICHAEL STEELE:

Right. And that is a huge problem. The question that I've been hearing since all of this started to break was, "So, how is this going to be different from four years ago or eight years ago?" And he has not, and I don't think he'll be able to successfully answer that question for an restive base that wants the White House to complement the House and the Senate.

And they're looking not just at a Marco Rubio or a Rand Paul, but they've also got governors who are going to come online. So you're talking about having a Scott Walker on the stage with Governor Jeb Bush, who's been out 12 years, and a governor who's been out for eight. So it's tough.

CHUCK TODD:

Carol and Robert, presidential elections, we always know, they're always about the future, they're never about the past. But yet, in 2007, Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney were running for president. Here's what some other presidential candidates were doing.

Marco Rubio was Florida House Speaker. Ted Cruz was the solicitor general in the State of Texas.Scott Walker was the county executive in Milwaukee, Elizabeth Warren was simply a Harvard professor, Rand Paul was an ophthalmologist. So it's eight years away, and it's like, "Ugh. Somebody, fresh face."

CAROL LEE:

Well, yeah. And elections, as you said, are about the future. And when you have a lineup that includes a Bush, a Clinton, a Romney, even a Perry, it's like that's--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

Frankly, even a Paul. Let's not forget Paul.

CAROL LEE:

And a Paul. Right, it's like back to the future. And you have this clamoring on both sides frankly on either end for something new. And they're probably not going to get that on a Democratic side. But certainly--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

Robert, you guys successfully prosecuted the we’re-fresh in 2007, Clintons are part of the past. Hillary Clinton, how does she not get sucked into this vortex? Because Romney I think has created this storyline right now of, "Oh my God, it's Romney, it's Huckabee, it's Bush, it's Clinton." Like, she gets sucked into that vortex. How does she avoid it?

ROBERT GIBBS:

Well, I don't think that Democrats believe the nostalgia for Clinton ends with tragic losses in two different presidential campaigns. I think they believe her resume as secretary of state is something that lifts her up. I think for Romney--

CHUCK TODD:

Do you believe that?

ROBERT GIBBS:

I do. Look, I think if you're Mitt Romney, there isn't one negative that you had in either 2008 or 2012 that you in any way mitigated leading into 2016. There's no reason to believe that 3.0 is going to be any different than 2.0. I think Hillary Clinton quietly had a very good week bringing in people like John Podesta, people like Joel Benenson and Jim Margolis, who actually will be different actors in a presidential campaign and have the potential to change the outcome because the infighting will be less because the characters will be different.

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

Well, it’s all Obama folk.

KELLY O’DONNELL:

Could this be about the Obama legacy?

CHUCK TODD:

I was just going to say, well, Obama third term.

ROBERT GIBBS:

Right. No, look, anybody that runs on the Democratic side, and Hillary Clinton will almost certainly be the nominee, will agree some with the president and disagree some with the president, as it has to be. There's not going to be the third Obama term and the pressure will be on her, quite frankly, not to be the third Obama term or the third Bill Clinton term.

CHUCK TODD:

Exactly. All right, we will pause it there. But I wonder if Mitt Romney has gone out too far, because pulling back now might be a pride issue. Anyway, when we come back President Obama's new plan to raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for some tax cuts and new benefits for the middle class. Dan Pfeiffer coming up next.

***Commercial Break***

CHUCK TODD:

Coming up, on Tuesday, is President Obama's second to last State of the Union speech. And last night, we learned that the president will call on Congress to raise taxes on the wealthy in order to pay for some tax cuts for the middle class. And he would do that by raising the top capital gains rate to 28% which would hit only the wealthiest Americans.

Last night, the White House also announced plans that they want to close what's called the Trust Fund Tax Loophole. That also would hit those who of course are better off. Earlier in the week, the president unveiled plans for free community college tuition and paid sick leave. He's pressuring Congress to do that. And of course, people were wondering how is he going to pay for it? Well, now we have the answer. I'm joined now by Dan Pfeiffer, senior advisor to the president, welcome back here.

DAN PFEIFFER:

Thank you, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me start with taxes here. Forms of this tax proposal to pay for things that you want to do for the middle class, you've done for five years in some form or another, trying to target wealthiest Americans in various ways, raising deductions. It didn't get through when you had a Democratic Congress, it didn't get through when you had a Democratic Senate. Why do you think a tax hike on the wealthy is going to get through a Republican Congress?

DAN PFEIFFER:

Okay, so we're in a place now, Chuck, where we have come back from the crisis, where the American economy is in the best place that it's been in a long time. So the question is, what do we do now to deal with the decades'-long trends of wage stagnation, declining economic mobility? So the president's put forward a series of investments and tax relief for the middle class paid for by a very simple idea.

It is the wealthy and the largest financial institutions and corporations who pay a little more. Some of these ideas have Republican support. The fee on financial institutions is an idea very similar to one that Republican Congressman Dave Camp's tax plan last year. So we're going to make a case for it and we're going to see what we do. If Republicans want to oppose closing the Trust Fund Loophole, let them make their case to the country.

CHUCK TODD:

And again, I've heard this, look, taxing on the wealthy before, it's never found traction. Again, and look, Mitch McConnell has said he's willing to do tax reform with you guys, but he wants it to be neutral. No -- that overall, some people might see their taxes go up, but overall, it would be a net zero tax increase overall.

DAN PFEIFFER:

Well Chuck, that's not actually the case. If I had been on this show in 2011 or 2012, you'd say, "There's no chance that we'd ever raise rates on the wealthiest Americans back where they were when we were under Bill Clinton," and we did that at the end of 2012. So we're going to make the case. The president’s job is also his mission for what's best for the country and he's going to do that on Tuesday night.

CHUCK TODD:

And I understand, how much of this State of the Union, it feels honestly, if this were a campaign year, it feels like a campaign because some of the things he's proposing, nobody in Washington believes it can get through a Republican Congress.

DAN PFEIFFER:

Well, first, Tuesday night's speech, let me give you the theme of the speech in three words: middle-class economics. He's going to talk about how middle-class economics brought us back from the brink and put us to a place where the economy's growing, jobs are growing, the deficit is shrinking, and it's all out of his plan to deal, as I said, with wage stagnation and declining economic mobility, in ways we can really help the middle class.

And we're going to push for those things. Some of them are going to be legislative proposals Republicans may not love, but we'll push them on them. But a lot of them, some of them will be executive actions. Like, this week, he announced a plan to reduce the premiums on mortgages which will put $900 in the pocket of an average new borrower. So, every level we can, whether it's with Congress, on our own, or using the bully pulpit to push states and localities like we have done on minimum wage to make real progress to help the middle class, we're going to do that.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. I want to switch gears a little bit. Keystone is going to get to the president's desk at some point. I know you guys have said you're going to veto it. But this has really put a strain on Canadian relations. Canada really wants this. This summit, the Three Amigos Summit, the summit of North American leaders, Mexico, America, and Canada. It has been postponed. You guys say, "Oh, it has nothing to do with this." But it does feel as though it does. Why not throw this bone to Canada?

DAN PFEIFFER:

Well, the president's going to make the decision he needs to, the best interests of the United States. That process is not finished yet. And when that process is done, out of the State Department, a decision will come. Congress is trying to front-run the process for politics. That's not a good idea.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. And I want you to respond. You heard Lindsey Graham earlier, when it comes to Iran. And of course, the president had some strong words for Congress on that. But he said he's willing for Congress to, he said he wouldn't pass more sanctions in exchange for the president taking the Iranian deal and at least getting it approved through Congress. What's wrong with that?

DAN PFEIFFER:

I think what Lindsey Graham would like to do is he would like to make all the foreign policy decisions in the United States and be commander-in-chief. And as I learned on your show today, I think he really wants to do that. But it's the president's authority. He is going to see if we can get the best deal we can.

It does not make any sense for Congress to scuttle that deal right now, because that will put America in a bad place, not just in dealing with Iran, but with the world. Because Iran will be able to go to the world and say, "The United States negotiated in bad faith here," and that'll make it harder for us to make them a sanctions regime across the world if that happens.

CHUCK TODD:

So Congress shouldn't have a role in Iran at all?

DAN PFEIFFER:

Oh, we're going to consult with Congress. We have, the president has done that. We'll continue to do that. But the idea that Congress gets to all of a sudden dictate the entire foreign policy in the United States is not a good idea.

CHUCK TODD:

Is that a dictation? It's just asking, "Hey, we want to build--" they may pass a resolution regardless.

DAN PFEIFFER:

And they're welcome to do that. The president has the veto if he doesn't support what they do.

CHUCK TODD:

Dan Pfeiffer, a lot of rumors. Is this your last State of the Union with the president?

DAN PFEIFFER:

Chuck, I am focused only on the State of the Union right now. This has been, the, this job, you know, when Robert Gibbs over there and I started this process and it was a far-fetched idea, we’d never either be in the White House or on the Meet the Press set. This has been a great honor and privilege and I'm going to keep doing it for as long as I can.

CHUCK TODD:

Okay. Dan Pfeiffer, thanks for coming on Meet the Press. Coming up, we know Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior changed civil rights in America. Now on this MLK weekend, we'll tell you about his other lasting change on American politics, one that no one talks about a lot.

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CHUCK TODD:

NerdScreen time. Tomorrow as a country, we remember and honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., leader of the civil rights movement. But did you know that MLK can also be considered a crucial architect of the modern political map? That's because the civil rights movement fundamentally changed the country's political landscape.

Let's start by taking a look at the Deep South. And here are the states we mean when we say the Deep South: Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. With the help from our friends at the American Communities Project, we looked at how voting patterns here have changed since the civil rights movement.

Before 1964, these states outperformed the national average for Democratic presidential candidates regularly. In fact, look at 1952. Democrat Adlai Stevenson carries just nine states, overall. Two-thirds of the states he carried, Deep South states. Overall, Stevenson received 52% of the vote in the South, significantly more than his national average of 44%.

Story of course was basically the same in 1956. But by 1964, the year the Civil Rights Act was enacted, a year after MLK's famous, "I Have a Dream" speech, Democrats started losing these states to Republicans. That year, Lyndon Johnson won the presidency with over 60% of the vote. But look at the states that went to Republican Barry Goldwater.

That's right, those Deep South states. He overperformed there by ten points in the region. By far, his best numbers compared to other areas. The pattern has continued until today, with the exception of '76 and '80, when Georgia native Jimmy Carter did better in the South than any other region in the country and outperformed his national average.

What was once the Democratic-solid South, is of course, now the Republican-solid South. But at the same time, the exact opposite happened in the north, particularly New England. Those states had been solidly Republican. It started turning blue, turning Democratic, after '64. You can't ignore the power of the civil rights movement and the role Dr. King played in creating the modern electoral map.

Here's, of course, another legacy of Dr. King, and that is African American elected politicians. First African American mayors of major U.S. cities happened after the movement. '67, Carl Stokes elected mayor of Cleveland, Richard Hatcher, elected mayor of Gary, Indiana. Big strides in big cities. In Congress in '63, there were just five African American members of Congress.

That number jumped to 11 in '69, and of course, it's continued to rise today. It stands at 46. Progress, but still below, of course, the national average when it comes to the percentage of the population that is African American. But of course, the biggest legacy of all for Dr. King, is the first African American president. Coming up, giving the response to the State of the Union. It's supposed to be a ticket of stardom, but why it can be more trouble than it's worth.

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CHUCK TODD:

And welcome back. Of course, we've been focusing on President Obama as he prepares to deliver yet another State of the Union address. But across the country, a lot of governors have been doing their own speeches, specifically, State of the State addresses, including some governors who may see themselves someday delivering their own State of the Union speeches. Here are some highlights.

(BEGIN TAPE)

GOV. RICK PERRY:

We don't accept the false choice that the president offers about projects like the Keystone Pipeline, between a clean environment and a strong economy.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER:

I believe that government has grown too big and too intrusive in our lives and we must rein it in, but the government that is left must work.

GOV. JOHN KASICH:

But folks, I think the erosion of basic values that made our nation great is the most serious problem facing our state and our nation today.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE:

This anxiety was the most palpable emotion that I saw and felt. More than anger, more than fear, anxiety. I saw it on the streets of Chicago and felt it in the suburbs of Maryland. I heard it from farmers in Kansas and from teachers in Colorado. I felt it from veterans in Maine and from workers in Arkansas.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

I tell you, Michael Steele, he needs to learn he needs to be saying, "Farmers in Iowa," and "Health care workers in New Hampshire," and "Textile workers in South Carolina." He doesn't have these presidential primary--.

MICHAEL STEELE:

No. He needs to be talking about pig farms in New Jersey is what he needs to be talking about.

CHUCK TODD:

The anxiety piece though, I actually thought that that is, it was actually I thought a very smart frame.

MICHAEL STEELE:

It is. And I think that, it goes to what I was saying before. When these governors engage in this presidential campaign, I think they have the potential to really change the dynamic of the conversation, away from crazy and more to substance. Because these are governors who governed through the recession, that great recession. They had to balance budgets. They had to deal with health care. And they will have, I think, a clear argument to make potentially than those others that we've talked about.

CHUCK TODD:

Robert, you were just mentioning the tone that Mitt Romney wanted to do, and you heard Chris Christie's tone, John Kasich's tone. I would say those three in particular trying to deal with poverty issues, trying to deal with middle class anxiety issues. It does, as if-- they're adopting Obama 2012 rhetoric.

ROBERT GIBBS:

I would say this, what we do have is some pretty large agreement on the national stage as what the most important issue facing this country really is.

CHUCK TODD:

Yes. I think both parties, you're starting to see.

ROBERT GIBBS:

Yeah, exactly.

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah, we've got an income inequality problem, and everybody agrees.

ROBERT GIBBS:

Right. Middle-class economics, and the fact that wages are basically at the same rate that they were 15 years ago, it's something now that animates both parties. I think with the State of the State addresses, and also in the State of the Union address, you begin the race for ideas for 2016.

As you mentioned with Dan, the likelihood that a lot of this stuff gets through Congress is not that great. But it does start the race for ideas. What are Republicans going to now propose if they all agree that anxiety and middle-class economics are, indeed, the biggest issue facing this country. What is their solution? That's the first race in 2016.

CHUCK TODD:

And Kelly, you were again, you were covering Chris Christie's speech, looking in it through the national prism--

(OVERTALK)

KELLY O'DONNELL:

In the chamber when he was giving those--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

No offense to New Jersey, not the New Jersey prism there. He's looking like he's been squeezed out, okay? Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney would be squeezing out a Chris Christie. He's got an Aaron-Rodgers-like response to all of this, which is what?

KELLY O'DONNELL:

Well, he's talking about the fact that he believes that he has a capacity as a leader to say things others can't, and that he can bring the message of having worked with Democrats in a very blue state, New Jersey, and anxiety just doesn't cover for the economic troubles that are real in New Jersey.

And I think he also believes that donors will try to hedge their bets and will try to support more than one candidate. And he's had a real record of raising money for other governors. So we'll see what he does in the next, perhaps, week or two.

CHUCK TODD:

Kelly, obviously you're not a big Packers fan.

KELLY O'DONNELL:

No, clearly not.

CHUCK TODD:

I'll say this, and the Aaron Rodgers message is, after going--

(OVERTALK)

MICHAEL STEELE:

He’s gonna try it one more time.

CHUCK TODD:

--R-E-L-A-X, relax. And that was Chris Christie's message to don't.

KELLY O'DONNELL:

That was a sandbag.

CHUCK TODD:

It was, absolutely. She’s a Cleveland Browns fan so she doesn't know what the playoffs are like. Well, like I said, I feel terrible, but the whole idea of--

CAROL LEE:

I’m an Eagles fan, I don’t know either.

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah. He's trying to tell people to relax, that all is not lost.

CAROL LEE:

He is trying to tell people to relax. And as Kelly mentioned--

(OVERTALK)

CAROL LEE:

And as Kelly mentioned, the problem with, and Chris Christie and some of these other governors, is that their states aren't doing that great. And so he's out there and he's trying to get on this national stage, but New Jersey is struggling still. And they have a huge problem in terms of their pensions, their economy is still sluggish.

CHUCK TODD:

His economy record--

CAROL LEE:

And that's all going to be put on the--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

Right. If he is a top-tier candidate, he's going to have a tough time, the economic record. But I want to change subjects very fast. Four years ago, this would've been a gigantic moment, Supreme Court deciding same-sex marriage, making that decision. They made that decision Friday. We're going to know in June. It will be a shock if same-sex marriage is now not legal in all 50 states come July 1st.

But Michael Steele, evangelicals in the Republican party, will they make this a primary issue? Or is it going to be more like what we heard from Mike Huckabee and Jeb Bush saying, "You know what, personally I think marriage is between a man and a woman, but the law is the law."

MICHAEL STEELE:

I think it will be a primary issue. And you've already begun to hear and see that. I think the Supreme Court ruling is going to really make a big difference for a lot of folks, and to a conservative court, to open up gay marriage across the country. And that is going to be a frustration that's going to boil over in the primary, and every candidate's going to have to clearly state where they are on that.

CHUCK TODD:

The phrase you're going to hear is not about marriage, it's going to be religious liberty.

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

That's going to be the sort of, the dog whistle, if you want to call it that, or whatever, on that. All right, we’re going to have a little fun here. We learned this week that Joni Ernst, the new Republican Senator from Iowa will give the Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union message. And it sounds like a ticket to political stardom.

Until you realize that in recent years, giving a response has been more trouble than it's worth. In fact, it's been a lot like the infamous Sports Illustrated jinx. 2008, Governor Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, her ship's been sunk by the botched healthcare website rollout. 2009, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, damaged by that Gone-with-the-Wind-like entrance that he made.

2010, Bob McDonnell of Virginia, he now, next month will have a new home in a prison cell, apparently. 2011 was Congressman Paul Ryan. Actually, worked out alright for him, losing VP candidate isn't so bad on the resume. Also in 2011 though, you have Michele Bachman giving the first tea party response. She struggled, looking at the wrong camera.

2012 was Mitch Daniels, he's now out of politics. 2013 with Senator, *sips water*, excuse me, Marco Rubio, who was, of course, hurt by that famous drinking water incident. So I should note last year though, Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers gave the response, and she's been an exception to this rule so far. Kelly, but Joni Ernst, from a state Senator in southwest Iowa two years ago, giving--

KELLY O'DONNELL:

I would've won the office pool on this, because she was my pick, because I thought Republicans won't want to put a finger on the scale and pick a 2016er. But with her, you get Iowa. So there's 2016. She's the first female combat veteran in the Senate, so she can speak to some of those foreign policy issues we've been talking about.

CHUCK TODD:

And it gives all of us on Tuesday night the easy transition to go from Iowa senator to presidential politics. That's all for today. I'll be back with Brian Williams, of course, and the team, including Kelly for our live State of the Union coverage on Tuesday night right here on NBC. We'll be back next week, because if it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press.

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