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updated 2/25/2007 1:42:21 PM ET 2007-02-25T18:42:21

MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: On October 11th, 2002, a majority of Democratic senators voted to give President Bush the authorization to go to war in Iraq. This week many of those same Democrats will seek to repeal that authorization and set a goal for the withdrawl of American combat troops. What now? With us, one of the architects of the new plan, an exclusive interview with Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

Then, a former Clinton fund-raiser, now an Obama fund-raiser, criticizes Bill and Hillary Clinton, triggering a testy exchange between the campaigns.

And Vice President Cheney chastises Senator John McCain for his words about Donald Rumsfeld.

All this political sniping, 618 days before the election. Our roundtable, with Dan Balz of The Washington Post, Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Byron York of the National Review.

But first, this week Democratic senators will seek to repeal the authority many of them gave to the president four years ago to go to war in Iraq. With us, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan.

Welcome.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D-MI): Thank you, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT: What are you going to do?

SEN. LEVIN: Hopefully, we’re going to come up with a resolution which is going to modify, in effect, the previous resolution, which was very broad, told the president that he had authority to do basically whatever he wanted to in Iraq, and to come up with wording which would modify that broad resolution and broad authority so that we would be in a supporting role, rather than a in combat role, in Iraq. Things have changed in Iraq. We don’t believe that it’s going to be possible to remove all of our troops from Iraq because there’s going to be a limited purpose that they’re going to need to serve, including a training, continued training of the Iraqi army, support for logistics in the Iraqi army, a counterterrorism purpose or a mission because there’s about 5,000 al-Qaida in Iraq. So we want to—we want to transform, or we want to modify that earlier resolution to more limited purpose. That is our goal. We hope to pick up some Republicans; we don’t know if we will. But the final drafting is going on this weekend.

MR. RUSSERT: Will you set a goal for withdrawing combat troops?

SEN. LEVIN: We would. We would follow basically the pattern which was set or proposed by the Iraq Study Group, which was to set a goal for the removal of combat troops, as you put it correctly, by March of next year.

MR. RUSSERT: So how many troops would that be, of March of next year, would be taken out?

SEN. LEVIN: We don’t have a specific number, nor did the study group. But it would be most, that there would be a limited number of troops that would be left.

MR. RUSSERT: So out of 150,000, we would take out how many?

SEN. LEVIN: I would say most.

MR. RUSSERT: What would be left behind?

SEN. LEVIN: It would be a limited number, which would...

MR. RUSSERT: Ten thousand, 20,000?

SEN. LEVIN: I don’t want to put a specific number on it because that really should be left to the commanders who decide how many would be needed to carry out those limited functions. But we’ve got to—the issue we’re facing, the key issue is do we want American troops in the middle of a civil war. That’s the fundamental issue which we want to debate. We’ve been wanting to debate that for many, many weeks, but, of course, we were filibustered before. But that’s the, the key issue here. The Republicans have filibustered our effort to vote on this question: Do we want to surge troops into Iraq, do we want to get in deeper militarily, do we want to get in the middle of a civil war or not? And almost all the Democrats, plus a few Republicans, do not want to get in the middle of that civil war.

MR. RUSSERT: But if Congress passes this and says, OK, most U.S. troops out of Iraq by 2008, and the president says, “I’m sorry, I disagree,” and he just ignores you, what happens?

SEN. LEVIN: Well, then we have a constitutional battle on our hands because this is a binding resolution. Remember, our resolution, which you had up on the screen there, authorizing the president to go to war, something that he surely welcomed, he doesn’t have much standing, if we can get this passed, to say that our modified resolution, which has a more limited mission, is not effective. It would be very difficult, I think, for him to sustain that position given the fact that he has relied so heavily on our resolution authorizing him to go to war in the first place.

MR. RUSSERT: Now, the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, had a news conference on Friday, talking to reporters. This is what he said. Let’s listen.

(Audiotape)

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: What seems to be coming next is the second step of their slow-bleed strategy, which I gather could best be described as trying to unring a bell. Now, that’s what the Democrats would be attempting to do in altering the original use of force authorization that, of course, a great many of them voted for. ... The truth of the matter is there’s really only, you know, one way to end the war, if that’s what our Democratic friends want to do. That is to cut off the funding for the war.

(End of audiotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Why don’t Democrats do what Senator McConnell says that they could do, cut off funding for the war?

SEN. LEVIN: There’s another way to achieve our goal. Number one, we can cap the number of troops. We can change the mission. These would both be binding resolutions without cutting funding for our troops. Most of us do not want to cut funding for our troops for two reasons. One is it’s wrong. Our troops deserve our support as long as they’re there, and we’re not going to repeat the mistake of Vietnam where we took out on the troops our differences over policies with the administration. Our differences are with the commander in chief and his policies, and we’re going to fund the troops as long as they’re there. Secondly, because that resolution would lose, the president would then use the defeat of a cut-the-funding resolution as a way of supporting his policy. So we would be playing right into the hands of the president and his policy makers by having a losing vote on funding. So it’s the wrong thing to do, and it also would strengthen the president’s hand when we don’t want to do that. We want to change the president’s course. He is on a course that is leading to defeat. The president’s course is getting us in deeper and deeper militarily. It is not working. We want to change that course. We don’t, don’t want to do anything which would strengthen that course.

MR. RUSSERT: What about the notion that Democrats are afraid politically to cut off funding?

SEN. LEVIN: Well, that’s not where I’m coming from, because I—my concerns are exactly the two that I mentioned. It’s not a fear of—politically of doing it. It’s the wrong thing to do morally in terms of the message it sends to the troop—troops, but it also would strengthen the president because he would use the defeat of that resolution as proof that the Senate or the Congress supports his policies, and the majority do not. And we ought to be allowed to vote by majority vote on this question: Do we favor a surge? Do we favor changing the mission? That’s what the Republicans will not let us vote on. They’re afraid of having the majority of the Senate vote as the majority of the House did in opposition to the surge of the president.

MR. RUSSERT: You need 60 votes to break a filibuster. Do you have 60 votes?

SEN. LEVIN: Not yet, but there’s, I think, growing concern among the Republicans about plunging our troops in the middle of a civil war, in the middle of Baghdad. This is not a surge so much as it is a plunge into Baghdad and, and into a middle of a civil war.

MR. RUSSERT: Now, some Democrats have expressed reluctance about your proposal. This is Congressman Chet Edwards of Texas. He says, “I think Congress begins to skate on thin ice when we start to micromanage troop deployments and rotations.” Fair point?

SEN. LEVIN: I don’t think so. I think Congress has at least a joint role in determining, determining what the mission is. How the mission is carried out is where you get into the presidential authority. But what the mission is, it seems to me, is as much a congressional determination as it is a presidential determination.

MR. RUSSERT: Aren’t you tying the hands of the commander in chief?

SEN. LEVIN: Well, we hope to put a cap on the number of troops. If I had my way, I would cap them. Of course, if I had my way, we never would have gone there to begin with. But, of course, we’re trying to tie the hands of the president and his policy. We’re trying to change the policy. And if someone wants to call that tying the hands instead of changing the policy, yeah, the president needs a check and a balance. This president hasn’t had one, hasn’t listened to others, including his top military commanders, and it’s about time he did. And Congress, I think, has the responsibility, not just the power, the responsibility to speak out and to change the course when you have a failing course, which is what we’re on in Iraq.

MR. RUSSERT: As you well know, if one Democratic senator decided to cross the aisle and caucus with the Republicans, the Republicans would become the majority party in the Senate. You would no longer be the chairman of the Armed Services Committee. This is what Joe Lieberman, the independent Democrat from Connecticut, told Time magazine: “The Democrats’ 2000 candidate for vice president is the only party member in the Senate supporting President Bush’s Iraq policy and says” he’s “‘very troubled about the direction’” of the Democratic Party’s “‘heading on foreign policy generally.’ ... Lieberman says leaving the Democratic Party is a ‘very remote possibility.’” Is it worth risking losing control of the Senate by losing Joe Lieberman, by pushing the legislation that you are?

SEN. LEVIN: Joe Lieberman is a person of conscience. He votes his conscience. We all, I hope, vote our conscience, and I think he respects that in others. I think, when he says that leaving the Democratic Party is remote, I believe that it’s clearly true. I know him, I like him, I’m a good friend of Joe Lieberman’s, and I would say it is remote, providing we vote our conscience. I think Joe Lieberman will respect that. He is a Democrat, and I expect him to remain a Democrat.

MR. RUSSERT: But if the Congress—the Democrats—every Democrat but Joe Lieberman said we want to withdrawal most of the troops out by March of 2008, might that cause him to bolt the party?

SEN. LEVIN: I don’t think so. It’s a conscience vote.

MR. RUSSERT: Vice President Cheney talked about Democrats this way: “I think, in fact, if we’re to do what Speaker Pelosi and Congressman Murtha are suggesting, all we’ll do is validate the al-Qaida strategy. The al-Qaida strategy is to break the will of the American people, try to persuade us to throw in the towel and come home, and then they” will “win because we quit.” Is your proposal, in effect, embracing the al-Qaida strategy?

SEN. LEVIN: No, quite the opposite. Our proposal is an effort to try to succeed in Iraq. Vice President Cheney’s credibility is pretty close to zero. He’s the one who said that the insurgency was in its last throes. He’s the one who hyped the intelligence before the war. So I don’t think that his comments carry an awful lot of weight with the American people.

But more importantly, the strategy which has been followed is a losing strategy. It is a failing strategy. And if we want to succeed in Iraq—in Iraq, we’ve got to find ways to change that strategy. And the only way we’re going to change it, the only chance we have of success—of success in Iraq, the only hope is to force the Iraqi leaders to reach a political settlement. Everybody says that, and if we just continue to have an open-ended commitment, more and more troops going into Iraq, it takes the pressure off the Iraqi leaders, it gives them the impression that, somehow or other, their future is in our hands, when their—when their responsibility is to put together a country; it is not our responsibility.

So I think he’s wrong about his strategy. I think he’s wrong about al-Qaida. I think al-Qaida likes us in Iraq. I think, when we’re in Iraq, a Western occupation of a Muslim country for four-years-plus now, al-Qaida, I believe, has the target that that they want, has the propaganda that they want, and it plays right into their hands. So I disagree with his analysis, but he doesn’t have much credibility left, in any event.

MR. RUSSERT: When the Democrats are accused of validating the al-Qaida strategy, or emboldening the enemy, or the Wall Street Journal calling you a coward, how do you deal with that politically?

SEN. LEVIN: Well, we, first of all, state what we believe and have the American people judge as to whether or not it’s important to change course in Iraq. This is a war, and politics really have no place in a war. We’re talking life and death, not just for people and families, but for our nation. And we owe it to this nation to give the best advice we possibly can and make the best decisions we possibly can. And to heck with the politics here, we’re in the middle of a war.

MR. RUSSERT: If, in fact, we withdrew most of the troops out by March of 2008, your goal, and all-out civil war broke out, complete, total chaos in Iraq, what do you do then?

SEN. LEVIN: Well, that’s where we’re heading now. And that’s what—where I think the supporters of the president’s policy are so wrong. What they say is that pulling the troops out will lead to a civil war, where, as a matter of fact, that’s the direction we’re heading with all of our troops in and more troops coming in. That’s the—that’s the path we’re on, is towards an all-out civil war and chaos. And we’ve got to change that path, and we’ve got to force the Iraqi leaders to take the responsibility by not taking them off the hook by providing more and more troops, but by forcing them, by saying, “Look, we’re going to reduce some troops; we’re going to leave a limited presence here,” and that limited presence, I think, can address the issue that you talk about, to an extent. But, obviously, there’s risk in either direction. But the known risk is the failing path that we’re on now, and what is, it seems to me, essential is that we change that course and not deepen our military involvement, which is what the president wants to do.

MR. RUSSERT: If we became convinced, after we left, that Iraq had become a haven for terrorists for planning attacks on Europe and the United States, would you be prepared to send troops back in?

SEN. LEVIN: It’s now a haven for terrorists. It wasn’t before we attacked Iraq, but it now is. The question is how do we try to turn that around. And I would leave a limited force, as I indicated. And I think our resolution will do this for a number of purposes, including a limited anti- or counterterrorism purpose. There are now 5,000 to 6,000 al-Qaida people in Iraq. There weren’t any, or there were just a handful, prior to the war. Now they’re there because of the policies of this administration. And we believe we should leave a limited force for a number of limited purposes, that being one of them.

MR. RUSSERT: Before you go, you are chairman of the Armed Services Committee, as I mentioned. These are the headlines all week long about Walter Reed Hospital and the plight of young men and women, many of them amputees, who came home. Here’s the headline: “Soldiers Face Neglect, Frustration At Army’s Top Medical Facility.” “The Hotel Aftermath: Inside Mologne House,” “Survivors of War Wrestle With Military Bureaucracy and Personal Demons.” And then this cover of Newsweek, “Shattered in body and mind, too many veterans are facing poor care and red tape, why we’re failing our wounded.” “One reason to worry about a crush of new vets at the VA has to do with the proportion of wounded to dead Americans in Iraq. In Vietnam and Korea, about three Americans were wounded for every one who died. The ratio in World War II was nearly” 2-to-1. “In Iraq, 16 soldiers are wounded or get sick for every one who dies.” Could your committee have done more oversight with Walter Reed?

SEN. LEVIN: Sure. I think all—it was the lack of oversight here for the last many, many years, for a number of reasons. And by the way, I think, in part, it was because it was a Republican Congress and a Republican president that didn’t—they didn’t want to embarrass the president in a whole host of areas. But we have a responsibility, and the secretary of defense, I think, has accepted that responsibility. And I give him credit. He welcomed those headlines. He wasn’t defensive about it. He was disgusted, and he was absolutely upset, and he said that they are going to act, and that’s clearly overdue. Where we need a surge is not in Iraq, we need a surge of concern for our troops, for the veterans, for the injured, for the wounded, for the families of those who lost loved ones. That’s the surge of concern, and that’s the surge that we need. We’re going to have a hearing a week from Tuesday on the Walter Reed situation. We’re going to take all the steps that are needed. These young men and women deserve everything we can possibly give them.

MR. RUSSERT: Are you going to go out there personally?

SEN. LEVIN: We are.

MR. RUSSERT: When?

SEN. LEVIN: Next week.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator Carl Levin, we thank you for joining us and sharing your views.

SEN. LEVIN: Thank you, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT: Coming next, Hillary Clinton vs. Barack Obama, Dick Cheney vs. John McCain—the rhetoric of the 2000 race through the eyes of Dan Balz, Maureen Dowd, Doreen—Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Byron York. Our political roundtable is next, coming up only on MEET THE PRESS.

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MR. RUSSERT: Our MEET THE PRESS roundtable, Decision 2008, after this brief station break.

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MR. RUSSERT: And we are back.

Maureen Dowd, out there in California, let me start with you. You started all this on Wednesday with your column, talking to former Clinton fund-raiser, now Hollywood movie and music mogul David Geffen. He told you, “I don’t think that another incredibly polarizing figure,” talking about Hillary Clinton, “can bring the country together. Obama is inspirational, and he’s not from the Bush royal family or the Clinton royal family. Everybody in politics lies, but [the Clintons] do it with such ease,” it is “troubling.”

Well, that fired off the Clinton campaign. This is how they responded. They put an e-mail out that says, “If Senator Obama is indeed sincere about his repeated claims to change the tone of our politics, he should immediately denounce” those “remarks, remove Mr. Geffen from his campaign and return his money.”

The Obama campaign shot back, We’re not “going to get in the middle of a disagreement between the Clintons and someone who” has once, “was once one of their biggest supporters.” It’s “ironic” “the Clintons had no problem with David Geffen when [he] was raising them $18 million and sleeping at their invitation in the Lincoln bedroom.”

Senator Obama himself on Wednesday said, “It’s not clear to me why I’d be apologizing for someone else’s remark.” And on Friday, Senator Obama said, “I told my staff” “I don’t want us to be a party to these kinds of distractions because I want to make sure that we’re spending time talking about issues. My preference going forward is that we have to be careful not to slip into playing the game as it customarily is played.”

Looking back a few days later, Maureen Dowd, what played out, what did you see, what did we learn?

MS. MAUREEN DOWD: Well, the big tiff in Tinseltown is a fascinating glimpse into these two candidates. No one here is even talking about Brad Pitt and Meryl Strip—Meryl Streep. Hillary and Obama are the stars out here, and I think that David Geffen gave voice to what a lot of Democratic donors and supporters had been secretly worried about, and, in fact, it’s reflected in Hillary’s own talking points for her supporters, which is the fact that she’s polarizing, that she’s calculating, that she’s overscripted, and that her relationship with Bill could still cause problems. And, you know, he was bold enough to say that, and that sort of broke the dam of nervousness over that.

MR. RUSSERT: Dan Balz, what’s your sense?

MR. DAN BALZ: Well, this was, A, another example of how extraordinarily intense and early this campaign has gotten under way. I mean, to have this kind of a soap opera in February of 2007 as opposed to November of 2007 or in the middle of the primaries is pretty shocking. The interesting thing about this is that I don’t think either campaign came out of this very well. On the one hand, Senator Clinton’s campaign seemed a little twitchy with the—with the trigger finger on this. They were quick to respond and, in a sense, overly harsh to respond, I thought. And Senator Obama, I think, missed an opportunity to project the kind of campaign that he says he wants to project, which is to get away from the politics of polarization and personalization. They stepped into it, and I think, as his comments suggested on Friday, he’s a little regretful of that.

MR. RUSSERT: Byron York, E.J. Dionne in the Post said that Hillary Clinton, however, was able to knock Barack Obama off his pedestal. One Clinton supporter said, ‘We took the halo off his head.’ What’s your sense of this?

MR. BYRON YORK: I think that’s a little bit too pro-Clinton. But it—Mrs. Clinton’s response was classic Clinton. The—this is—these are the lessons that she and her husband learned in 1992 about how you respond to any attacks. George Stephanopoulos, who was a top Clinton operative back then, wrote a memoir about that campaign, and he describes the campaign being frustrated not being able to respond to attacks well enough. And he writes about James Carville proposing a single strategic center for attacks and counterattacks. Hillary got it immediately. “‘What you’re describing is a war room,’ she said, giving us both a name and an attitude.” So she responded precisely in the way that has worked so well for the campaign since 1992.

MR. RUSSERT: In fact, Hillary Clinton in Iowa in January was asked about how she would deal with the campaign, and her answer was very succinct, very direct. Let’s watch.

(Videotape, January 27, 2007)

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY): (Des Moines, Iowa) When you are attacked, you have to deck your opponent.

(End of videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: (Network difficulties)...Kearns Goodwin.

MS. DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, it seems like what we’ve got now are not just two people running against each other, but these huge armies, you know, with donors and supporters and pollsters. And one of them sticks their head out into the trenches, and then they have to get shot down on the other side, and you don’t have control over them. I think each candidate has to become a commander in chief of his own army. But when you look at the past, this sniping’s nothing unusual. I mean, there’s LBJ claiming that Kennedy had a fatal disease before Kennedy wanted anyone to know he had Addison’s disease. He said, “I never thought Hitler was a Nazi,” speaking of the father, yet he becomes vice president. George Bush is constantly talking, George Bush one, about voodoo economics, and Reagan then lambasted him for that, makes him the vice president. The question is when does it go over the line that these guys can never get back together again? I think the McCain problem in 2000 with the idea that the Bush campaign had smeared him with the idea of an illegitimate black child being fathered made it impossible for that dream team of McCain and Bush to, to take place. So it depends on whether it gets really personal. This is pretty mild. I mean, poor Andrew Jackson was an adulterer, a murderer, a bigamist, and, in fact, it so hurt his wife that she died, he thought, because of it, between the election and the inauguration. Never forgave the opponent. So we’re still in pretty mild territory.

MR. RUSSERT: But if Mrs.—Senator Clinton is going to raise the Clinton administration as a point of reference, those eight years were great for our country, introduce Bill into the campaign, in effect, is it not fair for opposition to say, well, then let’s talk about all aspects of the Clinton presidency?

MS. GOODWIN: In fact, that’s what was argued about John Kerry, that he raised his Vietnam veteran service as such a big thing, that the swift boat then came after them. I think you can’t leave Bill Clinton out. She is the wife of Bill Clinton and she was the first lady, so you’re going to have to take the good with the bad.

MR. RUSSERT: Maureen Dowd, you mentioned the strategy. The New York Post, in fact, reported yesterday that talking points were distributed to supporters in Iowa, and let me read those for you and come back and talk about them. “A ‘talking points’ memo distributed to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s supporters gives them the carefully crafted campaign line on how to deal with a host of nettlesome questions. ...”

“Titled ‘Surrogate Q + A,’ it gives detailed answers that supporters should give to 15 questions, including ‘Will President Clinton be a drag on the campaign?’” Answer: “‘Of course not. ... Americans give President Clinton very high ratings, and he is one of the most respected and beloved leaders in the world.’ ...”

“Another question asks, ‘How do you combat Clinton fatigue, or those who say they don’t want the drama of the Clintons again?’” Suggested “answer: ‘A lot of Americans will gladly take the eight’” “‘years of economic prosperity and peace that the Clinton Administration delivered. ... We can do this again with experienced leaders like Hillary at the helm.’”

“Still another asks, ‘Isn’t she too polarizing to win?’” Suggested “answer:

‘Obviously not, since she’s already winning!  If you look at the polls from the past weekend, she’s ahead in both the primary and the general election races.’”

So the Clinton campaign fully anticipated all these questions being raised.

MS. DOWD: Exactly. So they acted as though these were the politics of personal destruction when they were their own acknowledged vulnerabilities. Some of that was word for word what David Geffen was saying. But the Clintons have been really good about mau-mauing everyone not to bring up their marriage or their history. But that’s like walking blindfold into the nomination. The reason it was so damaging to Hillary and the reason she panicked about Obama in Hollywood is because her whole strategy, according to that memo, is to create an aura of inevitability based on her fund-raising prowess. And if that fund-raising prowess is questioned, then the whole thing falls apart.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me talk about the question that Hillary Clinton’s being asked in Iowa and New Hampshire on the campaign trail—Dan Balz, Byron York, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Maureen Dowd—and that’s the war in Iraq. Every Democratic candidate who voted for the war has said, “I made a mistake,” save Hillary Clinton. And this is what she said in New Hampshire: “If the most important thing to any of you is choosing someone who did not cast that or said his vote was a mistake, then there are others to choose from.” Pretty straightforward.

MR. BALZ: It is pretty straightforward, but so far it has not put the question to rest. I mean, the interesting thing is, she is, right now, in the kind of a period in this campaign in which that question keeps coming back and coming back and coming back. It’s almost as if people are out there to try to torture her to force her to say, “I’m sorry,” and she is being resistant. She has moved, step by step, farther and farther away from that vote. But there seems to be a point beyond which she’s not willing to go, and the question is how long she can sustain that, will people give up on that question, is she correct in assuming that eventually people will say, “OK, she’s not going to say it, we’ll move on.”

MR. RUSSERT: Byron York, why do you think she’s dug in on that question?

MR. YORK: I don’t know. I was—I was talking to a Democratic strategist yesterday who said, “You know, 80 or 90 percent of the American public supported the war in the beginning, they thought it was a good idea, and they’ve changed their mind. So changing their mind is something they’re familiar with, so she could just do that without paying a large cost.” So her strategy now seems to be to suggest that, “If this bothers you, if I haven’t—it bothers you that I haven’t apologized, then maybe there’s something wrong with you,” which is kind of what she was saying. But she’s going to be under increasingly intense pressure with the people who vote in the Iowa caucuses and who take part in the Democratic primaries to, to repudiate this.

MR. RUSSERT: Doris, you have John Edwards, who was the first Democratic candidate who voted for the war and to write an op-ed piece saying “I was wrong.” Barack Obama was not in the Senate, but 2002, said he would not vote for the authorization, he was against the war. And Hillary Clinton is trying to carve out this ground. Her supporters say it shows strength, that in a general election, if she were to capitulate and say “I made a mistake,” it would show weakness, particularly for a woman candidate dealing with national security. What do you make of that?

MS. GOODWIN: Well, I think that’s the decision they’ve made, in part, because it’s too late for her now to change her position. If she had done it a half a year ago, then she might have been fine. But now it would look so calculating, so why not go with the other side of that and say it shows strength and responsibility, as she talks about it. You know, I think what was just said is so true, though. If you do change her mind, what old Abe Lincoln used to say, “I’d like to believe I’m smarter today than I was yesterday. I know things now I didn’t know then.” But on the other hand, what are we doing by demanding these apologies? You want to know that the person learned from the mistake so they won’t make it again. You know, we always cite John Kennedy as polls go up to 83,000--83, 83 percent when he acknowledged error on the Bay of Pigs, but more importantly, he changed his way of decision making so the Cuban missile crisis came out well. So the question for her is, what did you learn? Not just how you were misled, but what did you learn about why you made the wrong, wrong decision.

MR. RUSSERT: The war in Iraq, it continues to be an issue also in the

Republican primary. John McCain, the strongest supporter of the war, staunch

ally of President Bush on the war, and yet he’s trying to distinguish support

for the war with criticism of the management of the war. Here is one

reference last month. “The president listened too much to the vice president.

Of course, the president bears the ultimate responsibility, but he was” “badly served by both the vice president and, most of all, the secretary of defense.”

On Monday, Senator McCain even went further with Donald Rumsfeld. Let’s watch.

(Videotape, Monday)

SEN. JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ): (Bluffton, South Carolina) I think that Donald Rumsfeld will go down in history as one of the worst secretaries of defense in history.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: And this is how Vice President Cheney responded, “John [McCain’s] entitled to his opinion. I just think he’s wrong.

“John said some nasty things about me the other day and then the next time he saw me, ran over to me and apologized. Maybe he’ll apologize to Rumsfeld.

“I think [Rumsfeld] did a superb job in terms of managing the Pentagon under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.”

Dan Balz.

MR. BALZ: I don’t think he’s going to apologize to Donald Rumsfeld for what he said. He may have apologized to the vice president, and he may have felt that that was an impolitic remark on his part, but he feels very strongly that this war was badly managed, totally mismanaged. We interviewed him a month ago, and he described it as a train wreck, watching this thing occur. He’s in a very tough position. He is the architect, in many ways, of the surge policy, or certainly identified as such. His political aspirations, his political hopes for becoming president, may well depend on whether this surge works and what things look like a year from now or 15 months from now. At the same time, he is very unhappy with the way the administration has mismanaged the war. He’s not willing, at this point, to break with the president, and so he’s going after others who’ve been responsible.

MR. RUSSERT: The vice president and the secretary of defense.

MR. BALZ: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: Pretty close to the top.

MR. BALZ: It’s very close to the top. But, but he, you know, he, he made a decision, 2004, when he went around the country with the president, strongly supporting him as a strong wartime leader. He can’t go back on that at this point. So he’s got to go after others.

MR. RUSSERT: Maureen Dowd, you traveled to Seattle to cover John McCain campaigning this week. What did you see? What did you report?

MS. DOWD: Well, I mean, my bottom line was that, you know, I tend to miss John McCain even when I’m with him, because he is such a different candidate than the one that I covered in 2000. But he—I asked him in Seattle whether he thought Cheney—you know, I said Cheney has reached new lows of lunacy here. He’s saying that if the British get out of Iraq, that’s a positive thing for us, but we have to stay or al-Qaida wins, and any Democrats who try to find an exit are helping al-Qaida. And, you know, the old John McCain might have answered that, that question with a salty answer, and this one just started talking about how grateful he was to the British. So he’s, he’s just stuck. He’s on the bridge of a ship with W and Cheney on the war, and it’s sinking.

MR. RUSSERT: Byron York, is the war a problem for John McCain?

MR. YORK: Yes. And—but, but he believes in this policy. I called John Weaver, who is McCain’s top adviser, yesterday, and I said, “You know, about a year ago you said to me if George W. Bush and John McCain are the last two guys standing in favor of bringing democracy to Iraq, so be it.” I reminded him of that, and he said, “Well, we, we may be getting there.” And so he knows its hurt him. But he believes very strongly in this, and, and when you listen to him, he’ll say basically, “My friends, they’re coming after us. If we lose, they’re coming after us. The consequences of defeat are disastrous.” So you know, I think this is one of these things that he could perhaps get some political benefit by nuancing a little bit, but he actually believes in it.

MR. RUSSERT: But Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, and Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York, other leading candidates...

MR. YORK: Yeah.

MR. RUSSERT: ...have been very supportive of the war as well, and supportive of the president. I think Sam Brownback, the senator from Kansas, is the only one who publicly came out against the surge.

MR. YORK: Right, and Chuck Hagel, I believe, the...

MR. RUSSERT: If he runs.

MR. YORK: Exactly. And that’s true. I, I spoke to a couple of other strategists for competing campaigns yesterday, and they said, “Well, you know, we’re all for the surge—McCain, Giuliani, Romney. But McCain owns the surge.” So inside the Republican field, I think there’s this feeling that, while they all support the policy, one candidate would be hurt more if it failed.

MR. RUSSERT: And McCain—excuse me, Giuliani and Romney can say we’re not part of Washington, and we can go there and fix that mess.

MR. YORK: That’s right. They haven’t been on it—with it the whole way.

MR. RUSSERT: Doris Kearns Goodwin, in your native state of Massachusetts, the former Governor Mitt Romney seeking the presidency. In every description of him, in the first sentence is “a Mormon.” You remember well John Kennedy running for president in 1960, “a Catholic.” Talk about the parallels you see.

MS. GOODWIN: Well, in both cases it seems there are people who are worried. Four out of 10 claim in a poll about Romney that they’re worried that somehow the Mormon church will be controlling his actions, just as they were sure that John Kennedy was building a tunnel to Rome to have the Vatican control him. John Kennedy knew he had to take it head on, and he did it twice. I mean, West Virginia, originally, before the primaries, he was way ahead, 70 to 30. And then a few months later, after he got more publicity, they went down, and he had flipped with Humphrey, he was 30-70. He said, “What happened?” “Well, they didn’t realize you were a Catholic before this all began.” So he decided, he said right then, “I can’t believe that my country would deny me the right to be president from the day I was baptized.” But then it still didn’t go away, even though he won West Virginia, so he gave a speech in Houston to the ministers, which some people are urging Romney to do as well, to make a major speech in which he said, you know, “I will not speak for my church. My church will not speak for me. And if the finger of suspicion is pointed toward Catholics, some day it may be towards Baptists, some day towards Quakers,” or he may have said some day toward Mormons. So it may be that Mr. Romney’s going to have to deal with this issue head on, because it does seem like there’s a subterranean concern out there, not knowing much about Mormonism, and fearing he might be controlled by some hierarchy.

MR. RUSSERT: Let’s go back to September of 1960 when President Kennedy—then Senator Kennedy—went to Houston, said, “I’m not a Catholic candidate for president. I’m the Democratic candidate for president who happens to be Catholic.” And he also went on to say this, let’s listen:

(Videotape, September 12, 1960)

FMR. PRES. JOHN F. KENNEDY: I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic zealot would tell the president, should he be Catholic, how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.

Whatever issue may come before me as president, if I should be elected, on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling, or any other subject, I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest. And without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates.

(End of videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Dan Balz, clearly saying to the country, “I may be a Catholic, but the Catholic Church is not going to govern the country.”

MR. BALZ: And Mitt Romney is basically saying the same thing, as a candidate who happens to be a Mormon. What’s interesting about this is this was never an issue when his father was running for president. This is really become an issue now in part because of the rise of evangelical Christians as a potent force inside the Republican Party. I don’t think this is so much a general election issue for Governor Romney as it is on the issue of can he get through the Republican primaries. There was one recent poll that said the 45 percent of white evangelical Christians view the Mormon religion unfavorably. That’s an unfortunate situation for Governor Romney, and I think he’s trying to address it forthrightly. And we will see, as we go forward, whether people are willing to accept the idea that he is a man of faith, that he believes in Christian values, and that people will respect him for that. But there is, there is, A, a lot of, if you will, ignorance about the Mormon religion in this country. Most people will say they no very little about it. They know only a little bit more about Mormon religion than they do about Islam. And there is suspicion about it, particularly among evangelicals. So, in a place like South Carolina, a state that could be a crucial Republican primary, this could be an issue for Governor Romney.

MR. RUSSERT: Byron York, the one thing that Governor Romney has done, however, is talked about his positions on abortion, on gay rights, on stem cell research, and his positions have evolved on all of those.

MS. GOODWIN: “Evolved” is a nice word.

MR. RUSSERT: Doesn’t that complicate his problem? You heard Senator Kennedy talking about divorce and birth control.

MR. YORK: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: He wasn’t changing positions on those issues, but Governor Romney is now embracing positions much more consistent with the evangelical right than he did when he was governor of Massachusetts.

MR. YORK: Oh, yeah. We, we may not know the effect of the Mormon thing until Election Day, but what is hurting him right now is the social issue stuff. And voters are getting kind of the full position or a full picture of what his positions were in Massachusetts, not only that, in his debate with Teddy Kennedy in 1994 for the Senate where he talked about protecting a woman’s right to choose, but in 2002, when he ran for governor of Massachusetts, he made it very clear that his position, at least officially, was strongly pro-choice. I talked to the director of Massachusetts Planned Parenthood, who did an interview with him in that. He filled out a questionnaire for them. He was very strongly pro-choice. So now he says that, that he had a change of heart in late 2004, and that—over the stem cell issue, and that he came to believe that, that this was how far we had gone away from the sanctity of life, and he changed his position. And he’s still got a long way to go to convince the people for whom abortion is a big issue that he’s genuine on this.

MR. RUSSERT: Maureen Dowd, what’s your sense of Governor Romney, his—the issue of being a Mormon and the issue of evolving positions on sensitive issues like abortion, stem cell research, gay rights?

MS. DOWD: Yes. I haven’t covered him yet, but I did grow up in a family—I mean, we held our breath for a whole year hoping that JFK would not get hurt by his affiliation with the Catholic Church. But since that time, W has sort of merged church and state, while trying to keep it apart in Iraq. So I’m fascinated to watch that race.

MR. RUSSERT: Doris Kearns Goodwin, how does a candidate go forward publicly and say, “This is how I now feel on issues like abortion, and gay rights, and stem cell research, and yes, it may differ from the way I used to feel, but I have changed my mind or I have grown, or I have had a...”

MS. GOODWIN: An epiphany? You know, I think it’s easier if you’re moving from a position that was less tolerant to one that’s more tolerant, as the country has like, for example, on gay rights. If you’ve been less tolerant before on civil rights, and yet the country’s moved forward, you can say, “Yes, I’ve learned and I feel better.” It’s harder if you move backwards. And what it seems with Mr. Romney, he was so strong on gay rights, and now he seems to be taking some of that away. And then the real problem becomes is it worth it to have to dance, as you do, almost a tango to win the primary and then worry about the general election. What’re you doing to your character? I mean, Adlai Stevenson once said the hardest thing about any political campaign is how to win without proving you’re unworthy of winning. And I think all of them have to figure out how far are they going to go just to win this thing, and where is some consistency in their own character.

MR. RUSSERT: The issue of being a Mormon and polygamy, Governor Romney’s great-grandfather had five wives. But I thought Kate O’Beirne of the National Review handled that issue in an interesting way. Maureen Dowd, you’ll enjoy this. Kate O’Beirne wrote this: “Should Mitt Romney join a 2008 race that included John McCain, Rudy Giuliani [and] Newt Gingrich, ... the only guy in the GOP field with only one wife would be the Mormon.”

MS. DOWD: I know. I know. Yeah, Rudy’s the one with multiple marriage problems.

MR. RUSSERT: I want to turn to the—Pew Research has done an interesting analysis of all the candidates, and they asked voters, give us a word, your impression of these candidates. And let’s run through these, because they’re fascinating. Here’s Hillary Clinton, and the words voters gave: good, president, “Bill,” husband, smart, strong, wife, don’t like, like, experienced, first lady. Here’s Barack Obama: inexperienced, good, young, new, president, intelligent, fresh, honest, charismatic, smart. John Edwards, they said: good, young, lawyer, like, vice president, honest, Democrat, don’t like, candidate, leader. Rudy Giuliani: New York, 9/11, good, mayor, leader, job, like, president, strong, great, Republican. Then we have John McCain: good, war, experienced, Vietnam, military, honest, old, Republican, hero, leader, conservative. And finally, Mitt Romney: good, conservative, Massachusetts, governor, Olympics, well, Republican, leader, Mormon.

Dan Balz, it’s interesting, the sketches being filled in by the voters.

MR. BALZ: The—you know, we think that people aren’t paying attention. We say, well, this race is starting early, but it’s only the activists. I think a lot of people are paying attention, and they’re already forming opinions. And they’re along the lines that the candidates in, in some ways, would like to have formed, but, in other ways, they’re focusing in on some of the weaknesses that you see in these candidates. And, you know, going forward, Senator Clinton is going to have to deal with all of the baggage, good and bad, from the 1990s. And the question is can she take the best of the 1990s and not have the worst of it. I mean, that’s been her challenge from the beginning. And there’s been this odd combination of pugnaciousness and defensiveness in her campaign from the get-go.

If you look at somebody like Senator Obama, it is this question of can he marry up this notion that he is, clearly, very charismatic—if you see the crowds that are attending his events, they’re extraordinary and they’re very hopeful that he can bring a new politics. And yet, in the back of all of their minds and right in the forefront of his campaign advisers’ minds is the issue of can he prove to people that he’s ready to do this job.

MR. RUSSERT: Byron York, it—it’s interesting, because we know the issues of Iraq and health care and budgets and taxes, but voters are looking at that, but also for judgment, for character, for some things that are almost indescribable. And those words seem to indicate they’re watching this.

MR. YORK: You know, I think the words, actually, for Rudy Giuliani looked quite good. I mean, they’re looking for an executive. They’re looking for the man or the woman who’s going to be in charge. And that’s why senators have had so much trouble over the years winning, and, and someone like Giuliani, if you look at those words, just strikes them as leader, guy in charge, executive.

MR. RUSSERT: Can Rudy Giuliani, who as Maureen Dowd pointed out, married three times, in favor of gay rights, in favor of abortion rights, in favor of gun control, can he go to conservative Republicans and say, “Yes, that’s who I am...”

MR. YORK: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: “...and that’s how I believe, but I’m also the man who helped lead a city and the country through the difficulties of September 11th”?

MR. YORK: Well, more importantly, on that issue he’ll—he, he says, “Look, I can’t change who I am. Those are my positions, I’m not going to flip-flop. But you know, I think Antonin Scalia’s a really great guy, and Samuel Alito is a really great guy, John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, those are the type of people I would appoint to the Supreme Court.” And that is his basic appeal to pro-life conservatives, that, regardless of his personal position, he would support strict constructionists for the Supreme Court.

MR. RUSSERT: But that’s suggesting that he doesn’t want Roe vs. Wade to be overturned, but he would appoint justices who would do that?

MR. YORK: Yes. It—you know, abortion is the issue that people have always, or many times, separated their personal beliefs from what they’re going to do in policy, and it happens on the Democratic side, and it’s, it’s happening on the Republican side.

MR. RUSSERT: How, how do you see the campaign of 2008, Doris, the issues, the personalities? What, what are you watching right now?

MS. GOODWIN: Well, I think the fact that it’s going to be so long, and the fact that it’s going to be so heated means that temperament is going to be the determinate. I mean, how these people respond on the campaign trail to the ups and downs really will tell us something about them. I’ve always thought we should be looking at that even more than we look at their past stands on issues 30 years prior, 20, 10 years prior. Have they acknowledged mistakes when they made them? Have they a staff around them that’s loyal, that when something gets screwed up on the staff, they take responsibility or do they push it onto somebody else? There’s going to be all sorts of ways we’re going to look at this as we go along. And I think have they got a staff around them that tells them bad news? We can see a microcosm, from this two years that we’re going to be going through, the kind of leader they’re going to be. And that’s, in some ways, as important as experience. It’s temperament, it’s character. And those questions, and the way those people answered it, suggest that they’re looking at those qualities of temperament. And that’s key in my judgment.

MR. RUSSERT: You just never know what problem is going to come under that door of the Oval Office.

MS. GOODWIN: Absolutely.

MR. RUSSERT: Who could have predicted September 11th and how people would react to it? And, and you really have to find a way to make a judgement as to who this person is and how they would deal with something that they can’t anticipate at this moment.

MS. GOODWIN: The one thing that worries me is that I think campaigns in the old days, the candidates could learn from the people more. I mean, when Harry Truman’s roaming around on a train, he’s listening to what people are saying. Nowadays, there’s so much back and forth between them, they’re meeting with the media, they’re meeting with these huge people, I don’t know that they’re absorbing the people the same way they used to be. So it’s more themselves projecting themselves onto the people.

MR. RUSSERT: Maureen Dowd, you understand the nexus between Washington and Hollywood—whatever that means—better than anybody. I note in Wednesday’s column you added this. “Who can pay attention to the Oscar battle between ‘The Queen’ and ‘Dreamgirls’ when you’ve got a political battle between a Queen and a Dreamboy?” Is that what people are really focusing on tonight, the Academy Awards, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton?

MS. DOWD: Exactly, and I think this is why Geffen’s interview, you know, hit a nerve, because he said that the Bushes and the Clintons do not have the right to be these royal families that run the country for 30 years, and, if we want a queen, maybe we want Helen Mirren, not Hillary Clinton.

MR. RUSSERT: Will Al Gore win the Oscar tonight, Maureen Dowd?

MS. DOWD: Maybe so, and then that will bring another interesting element into this amazing race.

MR. RUSSERT: Stay tuned. Maureen Dowd...

MS. DOWD: That could...(unintelligible)...yeah.

MR. RUSSERT: ...there you go. Maureen Dowd, Dan Balz, Byron York, Doris Kearns Goodwin, thank you for a really interesting roundtable. We’ll be right back.

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That’s all for today. We’ll be back next week. If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.

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