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Meet the Press Transcript - September 21, 2014

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CHUCK TODD:

This Sunday on Meet the Press, can we defeat ISIS without troops on the ground?

PRESIDENT OBAMA (ON TAPE):

I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq.

CHUCK TODD:

But is that a promise the president can keep?

SEN. JAMES INHOFE (ON TAPE):

This notion that we’re not having boots on the ground that the president keeps saying is just not true.

CHUCK TODD:

I’ll ask Samantha Power, ambassador to the UN, and Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, if U.S. troops will be dragged into battle. Also, some Americans saying tax cutting has gone too far.

WINT WINTER, JR. (ON TAPE):

It’s been a train wreck.

CHUCK TODD:

Could Republicans now become the victims of a new anti-anti-tax fever? Plus, how the fight for the Senate may really turn out to be a battle between Starbucks and Chick-Fil-A. And what everyone in Washington knows, but is afraid to say.

I’m Chuck Todd and joining me to provide the inside analysis are Buzzfeed’s John Stanton, Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress, Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report and Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review. 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 a good Sunday morning to everybody. President Obama will be addressing the United Nations on Wednesday as the United States continues efforts to build a coalition to take on ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Last week, the House and Senate voted resoundingly to approve funding for the so-called moderate Syrian rebels.

But there are huge questions that remain over the president’s strategy after the country’s most senior general, Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that American troops might be needed on the ground. It’s an option that the president continues to rule out. All this adding to a sense of confusion about the administration’s approach to defeat ISIS. In fact, let’s rewind and watch we’ve seen over the last three days.

(BEGIN TAPE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

These American forces will not have a combat mission.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY:

And if there are threats to the United States, then I of course would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.

BRIAN WILLIAMS:

The nation’s top military officer just opened the door to the possibility of American combat troops in this fight against ISIS, despite what the president told the nation.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM:

There is no way in hell we are going to beat these guys without an American ground component in Iraq and Syria.

JOHN KERRY:

U.S. ground troops will not be sent into combat in this conflict.

ROBERT GATES:

So there will be boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of success in the strategy.

SUSAN RICE:

Our strategy does not involve U.S. troops on the ground in a combat role.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

Joining me now is Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to The United Nations. Ambassador Power, welcome back to Meet the Press.

SAMANTHA POWER:

Good to be here.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me start with this issue of combat troops. And yes, there's been what appears to be a debate between the military leaders and the civilian leaders. Your job as ambassador to United Nations, you're trying to build a coalition. Secretary Kerry's trying to build a coalition. You tweeted this on Friday, "Huge outpouring of support now at U.N. Security Council for U.S.-Led effort to support fight against ISIL." What countries in this coalition have committed combat troops to fight in Syria? Have any of them done it yet?

SAMANTHA POWER:

Well, let me underscore the point about the outpouring of support. Secretary Kerry convened a meeting of the security council on Friday, where more than 40 countries spoke in support of the anti-ISIL effort, half at the ministerial level. The French, last week, joined combat strike missions in Iraq for the first time. You have the Saudis, who've come out and offered training bases for the moderate opposition now that Congress has approved the train and equip program that the president put forward.

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

SAMANTHA POWER:

So we're seeing a diverse range of forms of support. And the commitments are coming in every day.

CHUCK TODD:

But this issue of getting combat troops from other countries, we know the president doesn't want them to be American. But because we're not pledging American combat troops, potentially, is that making it harder to get other countries to commit?

SAMANTHA POWER:

We are not having problems getting countries to commit. Our strategy is predicated on the Iraqi forces and Kurdish forces on the ground in Iraq leading the effort. They are going to be in the best position to know how to take back territory in their own country. And so too, as you know in Syria, our strategy is predicated on the modern opposition building out its capabilities over time, professionalizing those forces. That's the strategy, Chuck. It's us using our unique capabilities, the other capabilities the coalition partners bring to bear in support of ground operations by local people.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, let's talk about this moderate opposition in Syria. I'm a little confused at who we're training them to fight. All week long, the president says we're training them to fight ISIS. But a year ago, the idea was to train the moderate Syrians to fight Assad. Are we training them to fight ISIS? Are we training them to fight Assad? Who are we training them to fight?

SAMANTHA POWER:

Well, as you know, our national security imperative is to go after ISIL and to degrade and destroy it over time. And the moderate opposition now will have greater capabilities to do that, thanks to an overwhelming bipartisan vote in Congress to support that.

CHUCK TODD:

But is that what--

SAMANTHA POWER:

The training--

CHUCK TODD:

--the Free Syrian Army wants to do? I thought the Free Syrian Army was trying to fight Assad, that they've been fighting side by side, in some cases, with ISIS. That's why-- do they know that's why we're training them?

SAMANTHA POWER:

They do. But may I add, the training also will service these troops in the same struggle that they've been in since the beginning of this conflict against the Assad regime. Let me note, the Free Syrian Army and other moderate forces, have been fighting ISIL since December. They have pushed ISIL out of strategic areas.

The reason that they've lost, the moderate opposition have lost territory over time is that they have been fighting ISIL and taking the fight to ISIL, on the one hand, and then also fighting a regime that has backed by Hezbollah, Iran, Russia, et cetera. So we think, with an infusion of support, these fighters, who have actually held their own against this wide array of actors fighting on all fronts, will be in a much stronger position, both to go after ISIL and to put pressure on the regime so we can get back to negotiating table for a political solution.

CHUCK TODD:

I know the president believes he already has the legal justification to go after ISIS inside of Syria's borders. What do you need from the United Nations this week in some sort of resolution? I know there's talk of a chapter seven type resolution to try to at least give some legality to what the president wants to do, to what this coalition wants to do in Syria. Can you explain what, legally, you want the U.N. to give on this front?

SAMANTHA POWER:

Well, the U.N., again, has provided a stage to show the overwhelming support for the anti-ISIL effort. It will do some again this week, when the president, President Obama, comes to down and convenes a meeting at the security council, very rare thing to have a head of state summit in the security council, dedicated to the cause of stopping the flow of foreign terrorist fighters, cutting off their financing, et cetera, and underscoring, I think, again, the multi-dimensional aspects of the fight against ISIL and the fight against foreign terrorist fighters more specifically. In terms of the United Nations, again, we continue to hear from our partners how grateful they are that we have answered Iraq's appeal to come to their defense and use our unique capabilities in support of them.

CHUCK TODD:

There's a big headline in The Washington Post this morning about, basically, more chaos in Libya, some assassins in Benghazi. The back and forth has been going back there, the fight, to sort of control Libya. What's the lesson learned on the United States' intervention in Libya, in hindsight now, for you, when you're applying it to sort of how we're dealing in Syria? We left a vacuum in Libya. And now there's chaos in Libya. How do you prevent that from happening in Syria? Once the U.S. is successful at, for instance, getting rid of ISIS? The goal to get rid of Gaddafi, you did it. Then there was a chaotic vacuum. You're going to get rid of ISIS in Syria. How do you prevent a similar chaotic vacuum?

SAMANTHA POWER:

Well, let me note, of course, that, notwithstanding being roughly in the same region, these are two very different countries, two very different sets of circumstances. What is very important, and the key, again, to stability over time, is national institutions, national actors, taking ownership of the stability of their countries. And that's, again, why this investment in the moderate opposition in Syria is so important. In addition to their fight against ISIL, in addition to them being able to fend off regime attacks more effectively, potentially, with our support, this is an investment in the future of Syria and in the stability of those institutions that are going to be needed.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, very quickly, more dysfunctional, United Nations or the U.S. Congress?

SAMANTHA POWER:

No comment. I'm a diplomat. (LAUGHTER)

CHUCK TODD:

A very diplomatic answer. Samantha Power, thanks for coming back on Meet the Press.

SAMANTHA POWER:

Thanks, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

You got it.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, in the studio with me now are two members of the Senator Foreign Relations Committee who are on opposite sides of the President's request. A Democrat, Chris Murphy, voted against the President's request to fund the Syrian rebels. And a Republican here, Ron Johnson from Wisconsin, voted in favor of the President's request. Welcome to both of you to Meet the Press.

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

Morning, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

Morning. Murphy, let me start with you. Why did you vote against the president's request to arm these rebels?

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY:

So I'm broadly supportive of the President's strategy. There's no doubt we need to have strong response to ISIL. The question is whether getting involved in a very complicated, sectarian civil war in Syria is necessary to the overall strategy. The reality is that, over the last year, these so-called moderate rebels have been openly coordinating with Jabhat al Nusra, which is a wing of al-Qaeda. It is likely an impossibility that they can effectively fight on two fronts against both Assad and against ISIS.

And to me, the risk is that the United States begins getting involved in what may be a very long-term commitment to a messy civil war inside Syria. I think that with air strikes in Syria, counter-terrorism, and a focus on Iraq, you can effectively degrade ISIS to the point that you have the room for a political solution.

CHUCK TODD:

I guess, Senator, I mean that is-- I've heard this center. It's sort of if you fail, if the moderate opposition just doesn't work, Iraq, we've spent billions of dollars and years training Iraq, and the first time ISIS came, they were all over. So what happens? Does the United States have to then sell the vacuum if these moderates don't work?

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

Well Chuck, first of all, we have to recognize reality. And if you want to see what is going to happen in the future, you have to look to the past. And, you know, we've had testifying before our committee, and I've been talking to people behind the scenes, that were involved in the 2007 surge. And back then, we were fighting six to 8,000 members of al-Qaeda in Iraq. And that's basically what--

CHUCK TODD:

Basically what ISIS is now--

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

Right.

(OVERTALK)

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

--because we didn't leave a stabilizing force behind, so they were able to rise from the ashes. But back then, we had engaged about 100,000 Sunnis in that battle. We had about 100,000 Iraq security forces that were--

(OVERTALK)

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

--cleared, we would hold new pride of protection for the Sunni populations. And we had 160,000 American troops, 35-40,000 of those were involved in that fight. That's what it took for us to defeat six to 8,000 members of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Now we've got 31,000 members of the Islamic state. And we don't have a strategy to defeat them. Listen, I believe they're a threat. I agree with President Obama's goal that they must be defeated. I'm just not seeing the strategy that's actually going to work.

CHUCK TODD:

Do you-- so you're open to the idea of keeping combat troops on the table at some point?

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

I'm open--

(OVERTALK)

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

I'm no military expert. I'm certainly open to doing what it takes to achieve the goal that President Obama has stated we have to defeat ISIS. Because they made their intentions very clear. We know what their aims are. They need to be defeated.

CHUCK TODD:

Senator Murphy, you heard the question I had to Samantha Power about the-- Ambassador Power about this issue of a vacuum in Libya. We were successful with the campaign to get rid of Gaddafi. And then, with nothing there, chaos has ensued. How do you prevent that from happening in Syria?

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY:

So we had Secretary of State Kerry before the foreign relations committee this week. And 90% of the questions that he got asked were about the military strategy. This is the Secretary of State, the guy in charge--

CHUCK TODD:

Of diplomacy.

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY:

--of diplomacy--

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah, right.

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY:

--and the political strategy, which tells you where Congress's head is here. We totally misunderstand how you beat a group like ISIL. Military exercises are a shaping exercise to give the space in order to create political resolution there. And so our focus should be on enough military power in order to force changes on the ground in Iraq so that the Sunni moderates have a place to go other than ISIL. That's what we weren't able to do in Libya, because we hadn't made the fulsome commitment to both a military and political strategy there. We've got to be able to do both of those things inside Iraq.

CHUCK TODD:

Is the United States more committed to defeated ISIS than folks in the Middle East?

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

It's hard to say. And that's certainly one of the reasons why I'm going up to the U.N. next week is I want to meet with every representative of every Arab state to certainly make sure they understand that the only way the American public will support the type of action we're going to have to take to defeat ISIS is they have to be visibly supportive themselves, both militarily and financially, to this effort.

Because in fact, they are more threatened by the Islamic state than we are. But we aren't a threat. And Chuck, it has to be pointed out, you cannot negotiate with ISIS. Their diplomacy consists of beheadings, crucifixions. We've heard of, you know, obviously, mass executions. And what they do to women is just-- and we sanitize it. We say ‘the enslaved women’.

No, the fighters who took over Mosul Dam. And I hate to say this, but people have to face this. There were two women bound, they were naked. They'd been raped repeatedly. They were the spoils of war. That's who we're fighting right now. And we've been at war with this Islamic terror since 1993. We have to recognize it. We can't bury our head in the sands on this.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, Senator Murphy, I mean that's the issue here. How do you defeat this ideology? I mean diplomacy isn't going to do it, is it?

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY:

And what we've learned is that whenever we kill an extremist, whenever we take out the number two, it seems like another one or two more take their place. So ultimately, you have to get the regional powers to be just as committed. And Chuck, I--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

But are they committed?

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY:

They aren't as committed as the United States.

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

(OVERTALK)

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY:

That's the part today. Saudi Arabia is not leading this coalition, the United States is leading this coalition. And that really is going to be the key as to whether this is ultimately successful.

CHUCK TODD:

There are-- weird transition here. But there are three different bills trying to take away the NFL's tax exempt status. I know where you stand on this. You want to see the NFL lose its tax exempt status. Senator Johnson, where are you on this?

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

We have far higher priorities than really arguing about--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

Three Senate bills are in there.

(OVERTALK)

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

But listen--

CHUCK TODD:

Coburn, Cantwell, Booker.

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

But listen. We are mortgaging our children's future. We're facing the threat of Islamic terror.

CHUCK TODD:

How would you vote if it hits the Senate floor?

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

I'll take a look at the bills. I mean that is so low on my priority list--

(OVERTALK)

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

--I'm not even thinking about it.

CHUCK TODD:

Fair enough. Senator Murphy, Senator Johnson, thank you much.

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

Thanks, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

By the way, where do you see this one? As we were digging through the Meet the Press archives this week, we found something fascinating. This is a 1970 clip of a Senator from New York, a Republican, discussing Congress's power to authorize military action. We posted it on our website. The Senator's name? Charles Goodell. And he just happens to be the father of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

SEN. ROGER GOODELL:

Because Congress has permitted its power to be to be eroded completely in this area and we've let the president do anything he wants to and the constitution does not give the president the power to declare war. Only congress has that.

CHUCK TODD:

44 years ago and that debate is actually still raging. Anyway, can we really defeat ISIS without American ground troops being deployed. I’m going to ask the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, President Obama’s first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen who is right here with us. I’ll be back in a minute.

***Commercial Break***

CHUCK TODD:

And we are back. As we’ve been discussing, the political talk this week was dominated by the President’s strategy to take on ISIS and whether the war can be won without committing U.S. troops on the ground. No better person to assess that next question than my next guest, Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And I know you love armchair generals and admirals so I will try not to make you play that armchair aspect of this.

Admiral, I want you to react to something that retired General Mattis said this week in testimony in front of the intelligence committee. He was talking about the U.S. not taking anything off the table when it comes to combat troops.

He said “If we put any restrictions in terms of how much time we are willing to commit to it or if we say there are certain elements of our national power that we are going to take off the table in advance, it can perhaps work against us in terms of building the coalition that will give the full support.

You deal with-- you’ve dealt with military leaders in other countries. Will they be hesitant to commit if the U.S. is not committing ground troops?

ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN:

I think that they’ll commit to the mission as they understand it. I think what you heard General Mattis say was, "Don't take any options off the table." I actually think, when General Dempsey, current chairman, anticipating a question at a hearing that he'd be asked about ground troops, took it off the table in his opening statement from the standpoint of if the circumstances warranted it, that he'd go back and he'd recommend to the president the possibility r the option of using ground troops.

I think that's a natural part of the discussion in this debate about how you execute a mission. There should not be any question in the end, who decides this. And that's the president. So I think what General Dempsey was trying to do was certainly explain, to some degree, how the process works. I think it's been blown way out of proportion in terms of the disagreement between the military and the president.

CHUCK TODD:

And sometimes we're also talking about degrees of what might be done. Nobody is saying, and I don't even think military leaders say, "You need hundreds of thousands of American combat troops in Syria." I think the question is could you need five or 10,000 of, say, Special Forces serving side by side, sort of the way Special Forces helped the Iraqi troops? Is that really-- when some military leaders talk about it, is that what they're talking about?

ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN:

I don't know any leaders, military or civilian, who are talking about brigade size units, 4,000, 10,000 at a crack. We've certainly learned in these wars that it's important to have indigenous forces on the ground. And our ability to both train them and support them has made a difference. I think we're going to clearly, right now, see where we are in Iraq, at least feedback I'm getting is cautiously optimistic, once the air power strikes have started, the force is a little more engaged.

CHUCK TODD:

Why did they roll over that first time? Why did they seem-- we spent billions training this Iraqi Army.

ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN:

I think what's missing in that discussion is what Maliki did to his army, his ground forces, over the course of three years. And he replaced all the leaders, and particularly those in the north, were generally known as weak leaders. And when it got really tough, those leaders left. And then you had the forces with no leadership there.

So I think that is a big part of it. I mean what I'm hearing now is that, with the support of the American firepower, they're coming back. So we'll see. And I think they've got to work hard to reduce the space that ISIL's operating in. And I'm cautiously optimistic that they'll be able to do that.

CHUCK TODD:

Now, when you talk about Syria, the president does want some combat troops in there not American. Who's capable in the region? If, you know, we're asking these coalition forces, we're trying to create this.

ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN:

Yeah.

CHUCK TODD:

What countries are really capable of being a good ground force and a help in Syria?

ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN:

We've had, and again, not major combat units.

CHUCK TODD:

I understand.

ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN:

But we've had forces on the ground in Afghanistan from the UAE. We've had them from Jordan. We've had them, small numbers, from Bahrain. And so--

CHUCK TODD:

But those are the countries we should really be thinking about when--

(OVERTALK)

ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN:

Right. And actually, I mean we've seen the Saudis. I mean the Saudis actually have a capable force.

(OVERTALK)

ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN:

I think, in the end, that becomes a question is will the Saudis support us in that regard? And I don't know the answer to that question, quite frankly. I mean I listened to Ambassador Power talk about this meeting on Friday. And the feedback I got on that, it was a pretty powerful meeting.

I mean there were foreign ministers that flew in from all over the world because the United States asked them to come to discuss this. So it's sort of this convening power of the U.S., as well as the sense of urgency that we really need to do something about this threat.

CHUCK TODD:

As a chairman of the Joint Chiefs, public opinion about a war, public opinion about ground troops, should it impact the advice you give a commander-in-chief? And does it end up impacting, even if it shouldn't?

ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN:

I didn't see it. I don't think it should. And I didn't certainly integrate it into my recommendations to two presidents. Obviously, you know it's out there. But you're given a mission by the president. You put the options on the table to execute that mission. And it really is up, I think, to the president and his team to integrate all the other aspects of it, the political aspect of it, the policy aspect of it, the confidence they have in terms of executing.

CHUCK TODD:

But you end up having to come up a plan where you realize, "Boy, the politics of this are just impossible. We're going to focus on this plan even though we really could do this one," just because the reality of the politics.

ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN:

I mean I didn't do that. I didn't see military leaders shape options or shape ideas or come up with plans that were shaped by politics or anticipation of difficulties in that arena. That we really kick over to the president and his team.

CHUCK TODD:

And create the firewall there.

ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN:

Yeah.

CHUCK TODD:

Admiral Mike Mullen, nice to see you--

ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN:

Thanks, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

--this morning on Meet the Press.

ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN:

Thank you.

CHUCK TODD:

You got it. We get some reaction from the panel, John, Neera, Amy, Ramesh. Neera, let me start with you. Your party, a little bit split on this when it comes sort of the hawks and the doves. You know, you work at a think tank that does try to get into foreign policy. What are you hearing from the progressive base when it comes to what the President's trying to do in Syria?

NEERA TANDEN:

Oh, there's a lot of anxiety about what the President's trying to do in the Middle East, right? And I think what's energizing it is an anxi-- you know, people are really haunted by the last Iraq war. And the truth is we put a lot of boots on the ground, and it had a really negative repercussion. (CHUCKLE)

I mean we're still dealing now, throughout the world, with the repercussions from George Bush's war in Iraq. And so I think actually that really permeates this debate. And I think people think about the politics. But I also think what we should recognize about the President's position about ground troops and a large American footprint is that it can have negative repercussions. It's not just a--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

No. And there's no doubt that's what's haunting-- that's what haunts him more. I mean--

NEERA TANDEN:

Absolutely.

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

It's a different-- it is politics, but it's a different politics.

NEERA TANDEN:

But it's also that if it's just a U.S. war with ISIL, right, or--

CHUCK TODD:

Right. That's what ISIS wants.

NEERA TANDEN:

Yes.

CHUCK TODD:

Yes.

NEERA TANDEN:

That also will create real problems for an effort to defeat it. So I think we're talking about the politics. But I think there's a real substantive reason why a large footprint is a problem.

CHUCK TODD:

Stanton, Capitol Hill, it seems that's where you see this rubber meet the road. It really is--

JOHN STANTON:

No, and--

CHUCK TODD:

--anxiety. Iraq fatigue. It's the new Vietnam fatigue, isn't it?

JOHN STANTON:

Well, yeah. And I think, you know, if the public is haunted by it, politicians are very much haunted. I mean we're not talking about the Clinton administration here, right?

CHUCK TODD:

No.

JOHN STANTON:

We're talking about the Obama administration. And there's a reason, partly, because of how votes on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I think you see this playing out on Capitol Hill. Nobody wants to touch this thing with a ten foot pole. You know, they're willing to give him money to train people--

CHUCK TODD:

They don't even want to authorize it.

JOHN STANTON:

No.

CHUCK TODD:

They claim they want to authorize-- "Oh yeah, we should vote on it." But--

JOHN STANTON:

"We'll wait until next--

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah, "We'll wait till next year."

JOHN STANTON:

"We'll wait till next year."

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah.

JOHN STANTON:

And next year again.

(OVERTALK)

NEERA TANDEN:

After the election. After.

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

JOHN STANTON:

And which election exactly are they talking about? Is it 2014? Is it 2016? You know, I think it's very toxic right now for everybody on the Hill.

CHUCK TODD:

Ramesh and Amy, I mean it is this sort of-- you feel the anxiety. The military leaders, I don't think they think they can win with this strategy. But they know that the public-- I mean this is where you feel this tugging.

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah.

AMY WALTER:

Right, was pretty clear in what you put out there. And look, the American public-- this is what's fascinating doing this. I know we said there's not just politics involved, but there obviously is a lot of politics. The fact this is happening 40 days before an election is important to remember, in that, if you're a Democrat right now and you wanted to make this election about the issue which you are strongest on--

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

AMY WALTER:

--the economic security issues, right, to make the contrast between the Republican economic plan and the Democratic plan, that's not what we're talking about at all. We're talking about security. And it is permeating-- watching voters right now, there is a security concern--

CHUCK TODD:

Oh.

AMY WALTER:

--safety concern that is palpable.

CHUCK TODD:

Ramesh before I let you jump in. We play Republicans are-- it's a 2002 flashback. I've got a couple of ads that they're doing now. Let me run a couple of them. The ads were in places like Iowa and in a little more rural areas, swing districts, where Republicans are doing the terrorism attack. "Hey Democrats, weak on terrorists."

AMY WALTER:

That's right.

CHUCK TODD:

The politics of the GOP?

RAMESH PONNURU:

Well, you know-- terrorism was one of the remaining advantages that President Obama had where he was weighted with a pretty good job approval. And that advantage has now collapsed in the CBS New York Times poll out this week. I think they're in a very precarious position. If you look at the House vote earlier this week, Republicans in the House were actually more supportive of this action than Democrats were. So he's going into this conflict with a split party.

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

RAMESH PONNURU:

And I think that that, though, overstates his support on Capitol Hill, because Republicans are still deferring a little bit to the Commander-in-Chief, and Democrats are still deferring to their party leader. But those things are going to erode over time.

AMY WALTER:

That's right.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. Sorry about that little-- I caught the control room off guard there. (LAUGHTER) I was telling them when I wanted to pull that out. That's okay. (CLAP) Interesting week for you here. Anyway, up next, the anti-tax revolt, people actually saying, "Tax me more, sort of." And it's happening in a place you'd least expect.

***Commercial Break***

CHUCK TODD:

And we are back. Some things are just set in stone. The sun rises in the east. The Chicago Cubs are just never going to win a World Series. And Republicans are in favor of tax cuts. Or are they? One of the givens of American politics is being seriously challenged this year. And of all places, it's in Kansas, where Republican Governor Sam Brownback policy of cutting taxes and shrinking government has put his job in jeopardy. We sent Kevin Tibbles to go cover a Kansas prairie fire that is threatening to spread to other states.

(BEGIN TAPE)

KEVIN TIBBLES:

In the deep red state of Kansas, a full-on Republican revolt over taxes and the governor who cut them.

WINT WINTER, JR.:

It's been a train wreck.

MARK BUHLER:

My disappointment tends to be pretty focused on the governor's office.

KEVIN TIBBLES:

These are all dyed-in-the-wool Republicans taking aim at their Republican governor, Sam Brownback, who's done what Republicans historically want their politicians to do, cut taxes. But in Kansas, critics say schools are suffering, social services have been slashed, and the deficit is going through the roof. Kansas is not alone. A 1992 Colorado constitutional amendment said taxes could only be increased by popular vote. It left the state so broke voters ultimately suspended it. At least 30 states since then have considered similar measures. None has passed, with opponents citing Colorado's experience. (VOICES) Over breakfast in an historic Lawrence, Kansas hotel, a group of Republican voters, some former politicians, explain why they've had enough of tax cut fever.

ALICE ANN JOHNSTON:

I'm going to vote for the Democratic governor.

KEVIN TIBBLES:

Is that difficult for you to say? (LAUGHTER)

ALICE ANN JOHNSTON:

A little.

PAT ROSS:

That's the direction that many of the Kansas farmers are going.

WINT WINTER, JR.

He's taking us in a track of bankruptcy.

KEVIN TIBBLES:

Still, not all Republicans here feel alienated.

JANE REA:

It takes time for the free market to grow. It's the right direction.

KEVIN TIBBLES:

And voters will decide whether their state remains red or turns blue. For Meet the Press, Kevin Tibbles.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

Thank you, Tibbs. I'm joined now by Thomas Frank, columnist for Salon.com and author of numerous books on politics and economics, including What's the Matter With Kansas?. He published that one ten years ago. And Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. Grover, since it apparently tax cuts that are on the ballot this year, if Sam Brownback loses, he's losing on a referendum on he cut taxes too much. Are you concerned that this basically hurts your cause for 30 years that you've been fighting, which is to try to get taxes lower all across the country?

GROVER NORQUIST:

One, I think he'll win. Two, I think he'll win because he's done the right thing for the economy. But three, there are 50 states. And in the 30 states with Republican governors, in the last four years, they cut taxes over $30 billion. The Democrat states, the 20 Democrat states, they raised taxes $40 billion. If you want your taxes higher, vote for a Democrat governor. If you want lower taxes, vote for Republican governor.

Right now, it's overwhelming Republican governors in the country. And the people who are losing are guys like Illinois, Democrat, who's raised taxes too much in the state, and maybe Republican governor who also raised taxes in Pennsylvania.

CHUCK TODD:

But, you know, I mean I'm going to pull up a chart here that we did. There is no-- that tax cuts, or take hikes, have no impact on economic growth in either direction. Let me put up this chart here. Thomas, I want you, I mean this is something that you based a lot of your book on, in some ways,in this argument: taxes and economic growth. So we got here the red dots are when we've had tax cuts. This is on a federal level. The black dots are when we've had tax hikes. And as you can see, economic growth is sometimes spiked after tax hikes.

THOMAS FRANK:

Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

CHUCK TODD:

And sometimes economic growth has gone down after tax cuts. But there is no correlation.

THOMAS FRANK:

Well, it's actually worse than that, Chuck. I mean if you go back to the age that we think of nowadays as kind of golden age of capitalist prosperity in this country, in the '50s and '60s, do you know where taxes were back then? I mean they were pretty high.

CHUCK TODD:

They were incredibly high. (CHUCKLE) Up to 90% on some people.

THOMAS FRANK:

That's right. Well, you know, the marginal tax rate.

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

THOMAS FRANK:

Yeah. And so it's more complicated a story than that. But the Kansas story is very interesting. The Brownback administration talked the state legislature into cutting taxes in a pretty spectacular way, in a way that states don't often do, as you mentioned before. And it was-- the promise was that this would lead to a kind of immediate economic boom in the state. And that hasn't materialized.

But it has, of course had this, you know, obvious effect of, you know, cutting off revenues. You know, revenues coming into the state. And that, in turn, has had all the problems that you would expect from that, public schools, you know, state services. Now I should say public schools are a particularly big deal in Kansas. Because, first of all, they're very proud of their schools. I went to their public schools in Kansas.

(OVERTALK)

THOMAS FRANK:

And as someone else did here. We'll talk about that later.

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah.

THOMAS FRANK:

But also, if you were in a small town, and your public school closes, that's it. This is a state that the rural areas are suffering from depopulation in a kind of dramatic way, people leaving, people moving, small towns dying. When you lose your elementary school--

(OVERTALK)

THOMAS FRANK:

--in a small town--

GROVER NORQUIST:

This has been declining in its population over the last 40 years. What we had was a bipartisan establishment position which was keep raising taxes in Kansas. We've now elected a Reagan Republican majority in the House and the Senate. This is not all about the governor. The governor certainly supportive of reducing taxes.

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

GROVER NORQUIST:

But the reason why the entire left in the country has jumped on top of Kansas is they provided the model, a successful model, that will phase out the income tax. Why? Because when revenue comes in--

CHUCK TODD:

But wait.

GROVER NORQUIST:

--beyond 2% growth--

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah.

GROVER NORQUIST:

--it goes towards reducing the income tax. We've now taken it down to where you pay 4.8% above 30,000. The Democrat running for governor, Paul Davis, a week ago, people thought might win. Now, because Politico did an exposé on his lap dance with the naked lady in a strip club, he's not the kind of person you can ask your sister to vote for anymore. But the issue (CHUCKLE) is going to-- or your mother or your daughter.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. But is--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

But wait a minute.

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

But let me ask you this. Moody's downgraded Kansas, what, three months ago on their ability to borrow money, and saying, because of the sluggish recovery, which a lot of people think is because of these tax cuts that has made the economic recovery worse in Kansas than it should have been.

GROVER NORQUIST:

Except that they've had 57,000 jobs in the private sector created in Kansas. They've actually been spending more money each year from the state on education than in the past. They can try and make this case. But there are 191,000 small businesses in that state, many in the rural areas, who basically have their corporate income tax, their business income tax, taken to zero.

There's a reason why Missouri passed a tax cut to be more like Kansas, why Kansas's model is being looked at in Oklahoma and Louisiana. It's halfway passed in North Carolina. There are a lot of states looking to do exactly what Kansas did. And yes, they've had challenges. But they've had decades--

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

GROVER NORQUIST:

--if bipartisan establishment, too much government.

CHUCK TODD:

John's saying you want to jump in.

JOHN STANTON:

You know, Grover, you know, you've done a great job of getting folks on the Republican side to be ideologically pure on taxes. But that purity has come at a cost, which is now we look at Congress, tax reform is probably not going to get done for several years, immigrant reform, all these other issues. Do you feel a bit of responsibility for this sort of intransigence we see now? And is there any way to move away from that and get back to sort of more of a Reagan Republican, willing to compromise, kind of an approach?

GROVER NORQUIST:

Oh. Well, I'm always willing to compromise, which means moving towards freedom less rapidly than I'd like to. What the pledge did (CHUCKLE) was stop a $1.4 trillion tax increase--

THOMAS FRANK:

But it-- but it's--

GROVER NORQUIST:

--that Obama wanted--

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

GROVER NORQUIST:

--and gave us $2.5 trillion in spending, gave us the sequester--

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah.

GROVER NORQUIST:

--and gave us a stronger economy. That was progress.

CHUCK TODD:

Thomas, I'm going to give you the last word here. Tax cuts, taxes, I mean can you use that for economic growth? Or if not-- in either way?

THOMAS FRANK:

Well, I mean of course. There is all sorts of situations. But look, you need to take this-- I mean I'm not talking about Kansas here anymore, although, you know, I could talk about that for hours and then write about it today on Salon. But--

CHUCK TODD:

You call it Brownbackistan.

THOMAS FRANK:

(CHUCKLE) Well, yeah. That's a sort of--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

Brownbackistan and this weird strip club story. But--

THOMAS FRANK:

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

CHUCK TODD:

--that's--

(OVERTALK)

THOMAS FRANK:

We can talk about that some other time.

CHUCK TODD:

--the Wizard of Oz.

THOMAS FRANK:

But this is something that he-- this is something-- I mean this is so ridiculous that this is on national television. Because this is something that's happened back in the '90s. He wasn't married yet. He was a lawyer.

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

His reaction to the police was what was--

(OVERTALK)

THOMAS FRANK:

But it doesn't-- you know, that's not what I want to talk about.

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

(OVERTALK)

THOMAS FRANK:

Okay. (CHUCKLE) But no, but seriously, Grover, the tax issue, you have to think about this in the grander terms of the problems that we're facing in the country.

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

THOMAS FRANK:

The problem these days in America is not overreaching big government taking away your freedom. Who's taking away your freedom? This country is sliding into oligarchy. You and I know this. President Obama talked about inequality. You look at the top 1% and what they're taking home. Taxes are one of the ways that our ancestors used to deal with this problem, okay? It's off the table today, and look what's happened.

CHUCK TODD:

This is a debate that I have to pause. And it will continue. I wish I had another hour. Thomas Frank, Grover Norquist, (CHUCKLE) thank you both. Up next, control of the U.S. Senate, is it really being decided by Starbucks and Chick-Fil-A's? Actually, yes, it is. Caffeine versus chicken. Back in a moment.

***Commercial Break***

CHUCK TODD:

And now to a different way to look at campaign 2014 this election cycle. In one corner, it's Starbucks Nation. These are Democrats that live in the big cities, adjacent suburbs, lots of Starbucks. In the other corner, it's Chick-Fil-A country. Basically, Republicans that live in the areas between suburban America and rural America. We call them the exurbs. It's also another way of saying small town America.

In 2012, the presidential battleground map favored Democrats. And here's why. 36% of people that lived in those battleground states were in the cities, or those close-in suburbs close to the cities. 20% lived in those Republicans strongholds, the exurbs, more rural America. This year, the numbers are completely reversed. Only a fifth of the population in this Senate battleground map live in urban areas. While it's 36% that live in those communities that are favorable to Republicans, in the exurbs.

So what does all this mean? When Democrats had the advantage two years ago, President Obama essentially swept the board. He won all but one of the nine tossup states. He had a lot of Starbucks states, essentially. This year, it's the Republican edge. The GOP is almost certain to pick up states in Chick-Fil-A country, Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia. Don't forget, they have Arkansas, Louisiana here. These Republicans have a lot of opportunities to win Senate seats in areas that are favorable to them.

Then you have the swing states, the ones that are in the battleground map, both in 2012 and 2014. It's places like Colorado and Iowa. These were the big swing states in both years. And they're going to make the difference. And look at how close things are here. For instance, in Colorado, incumbent Democrat Senator Mark Udall support is mostly going to come from Denver and the immediate suburbs, plus Boulder County, which account for 37% of the state's population, Starbucks territory.

But as the counties around Denver that are growing rapidly and becoming more Democratic, much of the other parts of Colorado are more rural. They are the suburbs of Denver outside of those immediate areas, and Colorado Springs, and they're much more conservative. Congressman Cory Gardner is hoping it's these areas in Chick-Fil-A country that end up determining that race.

Let's move to Iowa. It's the same thing. You do have Des Moines and those folks in suburbs around it, as well as the college towns of Ames and Iowa City. That's territory that's good for Democrats. But the rest of the state is going to be a lot tougher for the nominee for the Democrats there, Bruce Braley. It's a lot of more rural middle America. And that tends to favor Republicans. Take Dallas County, it's a true exurb next to Des Moines. It went for Romney by 12 points. So the challenge for Democrats will be getting out the vote in their urban center, firing up their turnout in Des Moines while holding back a Republican surge in a Dallas County that hopeful Joni Ernst believes will take her to victory.

So there you have it. It's Starbucks country versus Chick-Fil-A country. Who's going to turn out in 2014? It could be advantage to the chicken. We'll see. Election will be determined between the big cities and rural America. And that's the way to look-- one way to look at this 2014 map. Coming up in half a minute, the strategy Democrats are trying to use the hold the Senate that has never worked in the past. So why are they trying it again? I'll be back in 30 seconds.

***Commercial Break***

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. We're now just six weeks, that's 44 days, away from the midterm elections. And we're seeing something that happens whenever a president has low poll numbers, members of his own party are doing everything they can to look like they are keeping him at arm's length.

CHUCK TODD:

With President Obama's approval ratings continuing to sit at or even below 40%, Democrats who face the voters in a matter of weeks aren't just walking away from the president, they're running and gunning away. Just this week, Kentucky Democratic Senate hopeful Allison Grimes was out with this ad.

ALISON LUNDERGAN GRIMES (TAPE):

I’m not Barack Obama.

CHUCK TODD:

That's the standard play if you're a Democrat in a tight race from a state that the president lost in 2012, like Louisiana.

MARY LANDRIEU (TAPE):

I’m Mary Landrieu and I approve this message.

CHUCK TODD:

Where Obama lost by 17 points. Or Alaska.

MARK BEGICH (TAPE):

I’m Mark Begich and I approve this message.

CHUCK TODD:

Where he lost by 23 points. And of course Kentucky.

ALISON LUNDERGAN GRIMES (TAPE):

I’m Alison and I approve this message.

CHUCK TODD:

Where he also lost by 23 points. And a parade of Democrats are following this practice.

NARRATOR (TAPE):

He [Mark Begich] took on Obama.

MARK PRYOR (TAPE):

I’m not gonna invite anyone from out of state.

MARY LANDRIEU (TAPE):

This administration’s policies are simply wrong.

NATALIE TENNANT (TAPE):

I’ll make sure President Obama gets the message.

CHUCK TODD:

And when the president has shown up in these states, Democrats are suddenly finding themselves busy and making it clear Obama does not want to see them.

MARK UDALL (TAPE):

The White House, when they look down the front lawn, the last person they want to see coming is me.

CHUCK TODD:

Okay, Mark Udall. Anyway, don't laugh too loud there, Amy.

AMY WALTER:

Sorry.

CHUCK TODD:

But Ramesh, Jim Talent on this program in 2006, in a heated debate with Clair McCaskill, talked about all the things he differed from President Bush. He lost. Blanche Lincoln, in 2010, took all the differences she had with President Obama. She lost. The strategy, it never works.

RAMESH PONNURU:

It's a strategy that's always tempting and never works. And as we just saw with that segment, it's not just in red states that voted for him.

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

Right, Colorado, right.

RAMESH PONNURU:

Obama won that twice.

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah.

RAMESH PONNURU:

And Mark Udall is trying to distance himself. And the reason is Obama, in the latest poll in Colorado, 36% approval.

AMY WALTER:

But, you know, this is also sort of the depressing part, right? Where we have Americans that say, "You know what? We want a Congress that compromises. We want people to get things done." And guess who they vote out? The people who are the compromisers.

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

AMY WALTER:

When those people that you just mentioned in the package, if they lose, there's nobody for Republicans to go to, to compromise.

(OVERTALK)

AMY WALTER:

The moderates are gone. And it happened in 2006 when Democrats attached everybody to Bush and said they were terrible and--

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

AMY WALTER:

Even though--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

Voted 95% of the time.

AMY WALTER:

Right.

CHUCK TODD:

The ads are almost identical right now.

AMY WALTER:

They're all the same.

(OVERTALK)

AMY WALTER:

And so that power gets the Congress we get, which is--

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah.

AMY WALTER:

--if you want to push those people out, that's fine. But they're actually the people who are compromisers.

CHUCK TODD:

And the irony here is, okay, so you're Mark Prior, you're doing everything you can to distance yourself from Obama, but the only way he wins Arkansas is if African-Americans turn out in a bigger way around the Delta than they had before. So the strategy actually can work against his own coalition.

NEERA TANDEN:

Yeah. And there's definitely a squeeze play between moderates and base voters in this. But I have to say, like, you know, look, in Colorado I think we're going to win Colorado, or Democrats--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

Do you think they're winning it because Mark Udall is so-- strikes so much fear (LAUGHTER) into the hearts of Barack Obama on the West Wing Drive?

(OVERTALK)

NEERA TANDEN:

No, no, I--

AMY WALTER:

Yeah.

NEERA TANDEN:

--look, I think there are-- there's a dissatisfaction in the country, right? And unfortunately, the president is facing that and feeling that. And people are taking at it against him. But there are also, look, it's not like the Republican brand is doing so well.

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

NEERA TANDEN:

People love the Republican Party. It's really a problem of two parties. And it's an anti-Washington mode, mood, not just anti-Obama.

CHUCK TODD:

But there's no doubt that, but Stanton, there is a-- voters have a BS detector. And when they see these guys suddenly do this, especially if some-- you know, you see some of them, you're like, "Well, they rode the coattails of this president." It's like, you, that's what hurt Talent, right? You know, he'd say, "Well, Republicans rode the two coattails of Bush, and then they suddenly tried to run away."

JOHN STANTON:

Well, in an election like this, you know, you're not going to get a lot of middle-of-the-road voters. This is not that time, right? I mean there's no big polarizing issue--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

Which makes this sort of a silly way.

JOHN STANTON:

Exactly.

CHUCK TODD:

It should be a base, right?

JOHN STANTON:

You need the margins.

(OVERTALK)

JOHN STANTON:

But we need those groups on the outside, then all those votes will count. And if you're not trying to bring them in, and it's-- you know, this is a corollary to also running against your time in Washington. And we see that over and over again and these guys always lose. Whereas those that say, "I brought home all this bacon," are like Mary Landrieu--

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

JOHN STANTON:

--who's now in a very good position where she maybe shouldn't be. And so it's an odd--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

And the thing is one out of ten it works for. And nobody says, "Oh see! That strategy worked." (LAUGHTER) Nine out of ten, it didn't. All right, very quickly, before we go, time for our fun segment here. What everyone in Washington knows but isn't saying, this week it is Joe Biden. He's not running against Hillary Clinton. And yet, the media cheeses it as if he is.

AMY WALTER:

He is the sitting vice president of the United States.

CHUCK TODD:

I understand that. But he's not running against Hillary Clinton.

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

We know he's not running against Hillary Clinton.

AMY WALTER:

That's true. But--

CHUCK TODD:

So-- but we pretend--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

Am I wrong?

(OVERTALK)

JOHN STANTON:

It'd be so great.

CHUCK TODD:

Well see, that's what it is. It's like-- right, it's reporters.

NEERA TANDEN:

So this is really on you. Like, you guys cover it, right? So it's really a media-- it's a media issue.

CHUCK TODD:

Do you agree with that premise? Should we be shocked if Biden challenges Hillary?

NEERA TANDEN:

I would be surprised. But, you know, things happen in politics.

CHUCK TODD:

Ramesh, I mean is it-- this is reporters cheering for a story. It's not based in reality, correct?

RAMESH PONNURU:

The alternative is that we spend the next two years talking about Hillary Clinton's inevitable nomination.

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

We're now playing into the stereotype--

NEERA TANDEN:

I think it's--

CHUCK TODD:

--that everybody's saying--

NEERA TANDEN:

--really exciting. (LAUGHTER) I think that's very exciting.

CHUCK TODD:

But that is. We're actually--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

And this is actually-- and in all honesty, I think it becomes a media trust issue a little bit. We're almost playing into a stereotype.

JOHN STANTON:

True. Although, again, like with Joe Biden, he's sort of media crack, right? I mean he goes out there, he says all this crazy stuff. And he's sort of hilarious. And people look at him, you know, like, "What is going on with this guy?"

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

I was just going to say--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

But isn't he like W, like people-- they don't get offended by his--

NEERA TANDEN:

Right.

CHUCK TODD:

--gaffes the way they did-- just like W, right?

(OVERTALK)

NEERA TANDEN:

Other people get offended by--

CHUCK TODD:

All right. (CLAP)

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

I've got to leave it there. That's all for today. No program next week due to NBC Sports coverage of the Ryder Cup. Go America. We've got to get that thing back, right? We'll return in two weeks. With a bit of luck, we're going to have a shiny new set. Just remember, if it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press.

* * *END OF TRANSCRIPT* * *

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