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updated 1/23/2005 11:04:17 AM ET 2005-01-23T16:04:17

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                    MEET THE PRESS - NBC NEWS

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NBC News MEET THE PRESS

Sunday, January 23, 2005

GUESTS: U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, John Negroponte, Rep. Bill Thomas, R. Calif., Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee; Stephen Hayes, Weekly Standard; and Robin Wright, Washington Post

MODERATOR/PANELIST:  Tim Russert - NBC News

MR. TIM RUSSERT:  Our issues this Sunday:  one week from today, the elections in Iraq.  Will the results, the new government, be seen as legitimate?  Will the votes accelerate withdrawal of any American troops?  With us, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, John Negroponte.  Then, Social Security.  What changes are coming?  With us, the man who will oversee any legislative reform in the House, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Congressman Bill Thomas, Republican of California.  And in our roundtable, when George W. Bush says this...

(Videotape, January 20, 2005):

PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH:  All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know the United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors.  When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  ...what does he have in mind for the world?  With us, Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard and Robin Wright of The Washington Post.

But first, joining us now from Baghdad is the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, John Negroponte.

Mr. Ambassador, one week from today the Iraqis will vote in a free election, 14 million are eligible to vote.  How many do you expect to actually show up at the polls?

AMB. JOHN NEGROPONTE:  Well, I think that remains to be seen.  I think we expect a good turnout in the northern part of the country and in the south. There may be a couple of problematic provinces in the center, but in at least 14 out of the 18 governments in Iraq, I think we can expect a very strong turnout.

MR. RUSSERT:  But if a sizable minority boycott the election, how will it be seen by the world?

AMB. NEGROPONTE:  Well, I think that, first of all, all the polling data and all our contacts and discussions with Iraqi political figures suggest that the large majority of Iraqi people, including Sunnis, wish to exercise their right to vote.  So the important thing is security, and we are doing our utmost to work with the Iraqi armed forces and their police to make sure that the necessary security measures are in place so that every Iraqi eligible to do so can exercise his or her right to vote.

MR. RUSSERT:  These are the stories that have been read across the United States and around the world about the security situation regarding voting and campaigning in Iraq:  "Guerrillas have stepped up their attacks and driven most candidates deep indoors.  ...A result, in large swaths of the country, is a campaign in the shadows, where candidates are often too terrified to say their names.  Instead of holding rallies, they meet voters in secret, if they meet them at all.  Instead of canvassing for votes, they fend off death threats."

And as you well know, Mr. Ambassador, many Iraqis still don't know where the voting booths are going to be because of security concerns.  How can you hold an election in that environment?

AMB. NEGROPONTE:  I just got off the telephone with General Casey, the commander of the multinational force, who's been visiting three provinces in the south, where he assures me that the security measures are very well in hand and in place, and that the expectation is that there will be large voter participation.  So I think, rather than just focusing on some of the problematic areas, I think one has to look at the country as a whole and the situation in its overall context.  And in that--looking at it in that vein, I think we can expect strong participation by the people of Iraq in an election that they really want and which will mark a transition from an appointed to an elected government.

MR. RUSSERT:  The CIA and other intelligence agencies have done an analysis for our government leaders.  This is how The Miami Herald reported its contents.  "New U.S. intelligence assessments on Iraq paint a grim picture of the road ahead and conclude that there is little likelihood that President Bush's goals can be attained in the near future.  Instead of stabilizing the country, national elections Jan. 30 are likely to be followed by more violence and could provoke a civil war between majority Shiite Muslims and minority Sunny Muslims, the CIA and other intelligence agencies predict."

What's your reaction?

AMB. NEGROPONTE:  Well, first of all, I simply don't subscribe to that prediction.  Secondly, I would say that most Iraqis, including Iraqis of all ethnicities and religious persuasions, want their country to move forward in a peaceful, democratic fashion.  We're already seeing signs that the various groups and parties that are participating in the elections want to reach out in a hand--extend a hand of friendship to the other parties after the election.  People talk a lot about participation and consensus, and I think even with respect to the Sunni areas, a lot of people are thinking about if, indeed, they are underrepresented in the national assembly, might there be other ways to involve them in the political process?  There will be a three-person presidency.  There will be a new Cabinet, and, of course, there will be the drafting of a constitution.  So I think people here are looking at ways to include all elements of Iraqi society in these very, very important future political steps.

MR. RUSSERT:  Do you expect a newly elected Iraqi government would set a specific timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops?

AMB. NEGROPONTE:  I don't know whether it would do that.  The presence of United States forces and the multinational force is mandated by a Security Council resolution, which says that our forces will be here during--for the duration of the political process.  But the nature and extent of our military presence is always something that we're open to discussing with Iraqi governmental authorities.

MR. RUSSERT:  But if they set a specific timetable, would we honor it?

AMB. NEGROPONTE:  Well, we are here at the invitation of the Iraqis, and we are here in complete respect for their sovereignty.  But you are asking a hypothetical question, and I wouldn't want anything I say to be construed as predicting whether or not that might actually happen.

MR. RUSSERT:  How large is the insurgency?

AMB. NEGROPONTE:  Well, I can say I don't think anybody knows with absolute certainty how large it is.  We've heard varying estimates.  But I can say that since I have been here over the past six months, I think the level of military activity and the level of incidents instigated by the insurgency has remained roughly the same.

MR. RUSSERT:  How could an insurgency of that magnitude exist without support, significant support, from the populace?

AMB. NEGROPONTE:  Well, it may have popular support in some areas, but what I would submit to you is that the core of this insurgency are ruthless Saddamist former regime elements who are aided and abetted by al-Qaeda and other international terrorists.  I don't think they care that much about popular support.  They use terror as a tactic, both against the enemy and against the populace from whom--upon whom they depend for support.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Joe Biden, Delaware Democrat, said this week in Washington that there are only 4,000 fully trained and capable Iraqi soldiers in the Iraqi armed forces.  Is that accurate?

AMB. NEGROPONTE:  Well, I think that really understates the accomplishments of the Iraqi army and police forces.  They've had a number of successes in the past several months in Najaf, in Samarra, in eastern Baghdad.  There are some 75 or 80 Iraqi battalions that are currently trained and operating, so I think that that 4,000 figure understates the progress that has been made by Iraq's armed forces in the past six months.

MR. RUSSERT:  Where would you put the figure?  What should the American people know?  How many fully capable and trained Iraqi soldiers are there?

AMB. NEGROPONTE:  I'd be--I'm not certain what number to put on the number trained.  I would say that--but as I did mention, there are 79 or 80 battalions that are out there operating.  For example, just to give you an example, in Fallujah right now there are nine Iraqi battalions that are operating.  There are several Iraqi battalions up in Mosul providing security there.  These are forces that simply did not exist six or eight months ago.

You may recall last April when the situations in Najaf and Fallujah arose, there were no Iraqi forces available to help deal with those situations.  But in August when the Najaf uprising was put down, when the Sadr City situation was brought under control, there was a real team effort between the multinational force and the Iraqi armed forces and the police forces to bring these situations under control.  So there's been a definite improvement.  It's not been as good or as fast as we would like, but there is no higher priority than continuing to train, equip and mentor Iraqi armed and police forces going forward.  And we think that's a very essential aspect of our policies here.

MR. RUSSERT:  The New York Times reported yesterday that $300 million was taken from the Bank of Iraq, put on a chartered jet to Lebanon.  What can you tell us about that and how did it happen?

AMB. NEGROPONTE:  Well, first of all, we're looking into these allegations, but I would note that they have arisen in the context of an electoral campaign here and campaign charges that are being exchanged between two of the principal candidates.  So I'm not entirely certain what to make of them, but I would note that they come up one week before the election date.

In any event, we're looking into it and trying to find out as much detail about those charges as possible.  My understanding is that these are Iraqi moneys that are involved, not United States government appropriated funds. Nonetheless, we are trying to gather as many facts about this situation as we can.

MR. RUSSERT:  The Iraqi national security adviser said, "corruption is worse now than under Saddam Hussein."

AMB. NEGROPONTE:  Well, I just--I simply can't accept that or can't agree to that allegation.  I would also point out that while he may still carry the official title of national security adviser, he is, in fact, a candidate for political office and not carrying out the national security adviser function at this time.  But when you think of the corruption in the Saddam regime, the oil-for-food scandals, the billions of dollars that were smuggled out of the country, I think those levels of corruption simply pale in comparison to anything that might possibly have been happening in recent months.

MR. RUSSERT:  When the world wakes up next Monday, Mr. Ambassador, what will they say and think about the Iraqi election that just took place?

AMB. NEGROPONTE:  Well, what I certainly hope they'll say is that Iraq took a very important step towards the fulfillment of its democratic process, that this was a historic first in their political history and that going forward hopefully that this will ensure even greater participation and inclusiveness in Iraq's political activities going forward.

MR. RUSSERT:  John Negroponte, we thank you very much for your time and your views and be safe.

AMB. NEGROPONTE:  Thank you very much.

MR. RUSSERT:  Coming next, an exclusive interview with a key player overseeing the reform of the Social Security system, the chairman of the House Ways and Mean Committee, Congressman Bill Thomas of California.  He is next right here on MEET THE PRESS.

                               (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  What is the future of Social Security reform in Congress?  Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas is next, after this brief station break.

                               (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  And we are back.

Mr. Chairman, welcome.

REP. BILL THOMAS, (R-CA):  Thanks for having me.

MR. RUSSERT:  President Bush has said Social Security is in a crisis. Democrats say hold on, not so fast, it's not a crisis.  Is it?

REP. THOMAS:  Well, couple of weeks ago, the president had one of his forums in Washington, and if you'll look at what he said actually at that Washington forum, he used the term "problem" 27 times.  He used crisis zero.  I think problem really is what we're dealing with.

MR. RUSSERT:  2018, the surplus keeps growing until that date, and then we start using it down.  But not until 2042 do we lose--we will not have the funds to pay 100 percent of all benefits, 37 years from now.  Why worry about it?

REP. THOMAS:  Well, one of the reasons is the funds that you talked about beginning to go downhill in 2018 began to be built up in 1983 when we increased the payroll tax far beyond what we needed to fund the system at that time.  So we've been riding the up part of the roller coaster since 1983.  We tip in 2018.  And quickly we go down in terms of that fund and it does go below the zero mark in 2042.  So in terms of these fundamental funds for society's well-being, 20 years is a relatively short period of time.  We need to be concerned now.  And I really want to compliment the president for getting the discussion of what we do with Social Security on the table.

As you well know, given your background, it had been the so-called third rail--touch it and you die--of politics for a long time.  The president, by proposing a particular approach, putting more money in the money that's available, has led, I think, the society to a great service.  We shouldn't be attacking his proposal even before it comes out.  We should be complimenting him on discussing it.  Now, let's look at solutions.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me ask you about a comment you made at the National Journal Forum and give you a chance to talk about it.  "I look forward to those discussions [on Social Security reform] and not continual beating of what will soon be a dead horse of their proposal, and I look forward to that."

Many thought you were suggesting the president's proposal had become a dead horse.

REP. THOMAS:  No.  The phrase for that, as you well know, is dead on arrival. I didn't say it was dead on arrival.  What I said was I hope we didn't have our friends on the other side of the aisle attacking the president's proposal once it's introduced, because once it's introduced, it becomes part of the legislative process.  Suggest changes or suggest substitutions, but don't continue the arguments against the president's plan because it's now part of the legislative process.  That would be beating a dead horse.

Some of these young journalists, I'm concerned.  Had I said, Tim, "You're barking up the wrong tree," they may have accused me of being anti-environmentalist.  So I've got to watch the old phrases that used to mean something when you say them.  The point is we should deal with the legislative process and the president's proposal will then be part of the legislative process.  Let's debate the legislative process, not the president's proposal.

MR. RUSSERT:  The president is proposing personal or private accounts, the vocabulary differs according to the ideology or the party using it.  But you have said that private accounts alone "don't really solve the problem."  Why?

REP. THOMAS:  Well, because that doesn't address the fundamental inadequacies of dealing with seniors in our society today.  Some time ago it may have begun to address the problem by bringing the time value of money to the table.  A lot of people don't realize that in 1992 I introduced legislation to create Social Security individual retirement accounts.  At that time, had we done it, we could have seen a buildup of money that would have mitigated what we need to do.  Seniors have a lot of concerns, but not just seniors.  The way we fund the Social Security system, I think, needs to be examined.  What we fund it for, chronic or long-term care, has not been addressed, and that's one of seniors' major needs.  I just think the opportunity to examine Social Security should be an opportunity to examine other themes in the system that need addressing that we've never done.

MR. RUSSERT:  Including Medicare, Medicaid and the whole income tax code?

REP. THOMAS:  Well, Medicare's costs have gone up because we've used primarily home health and skilled nursing facilities' costs as surrogates for long-term care.  Medicare is an acute care system.  Medicaid is going bankrupt because the single fastest growing portion of Medicaid is the long-term care of low-income seniors.  Notice they all focus on chronic or long-term care. Seniors need more money as they live longer because of chronic and long-term care needs.  That's an issue that can be addressed in concert with the question of Social Security and its funding because it's all part of the same problem, how you deal with an aging society and how you fund their needs.

MR. RUSSERT:  Many specific questions about Social Security.  Right now we have a cost-of-living increase, a COLA increase, that is tied more to wages than actual inflation.  It is inaccurate by everyone's estimation.  Should that be adjusted in order to be accurate and specifically related to inflation?

REP. THOMAS:  Well, I think it's something that we need to look at because a market basket needs of a couple of 65 are different than the market basket needs of a couple of 35.  So that's something that you should look at.  But to immediately say that it's a cut in benefits is a label that could be placed on anything that we did.  In 1983, when we began the gradual increase of the age at which you could retire, that was, in essence, a benefit cut.  So the terms that we use need to be watched because if you want to create a black and white disruption of the ability to try to solve a problem, then you choose certain words.  If you want to be part of the solution, you have to be careful about the words you choose.  I don't think anything should be above being looked at, including a number of other controversial things I've said.  But I think we need to talk about them.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me raise another one.  Right now you pay the payroll tax. It's capped at $90,000, the first $90,000 of your income.  Some have suggested, even Republicans, that that $90,000 cap be increased so that people who make a higher income would pay more payroll tax.  Could you look that the?

REP. THOMAS:  Well, my argument, of course, is why even bother looking at the payroll tax?  That was a solution in the 1940s and the 1950s.  Right now the United States is paying a number of the social costs of the Europeans and the Asians through their tax structure.  We pay some of their costs.  They don't pay any of our costs.  My point being there may be ways to fund the needs for revenue that would look beyond the payroll tax.  Why go back to the same old solution?  When it was 2 percent, doubling it wasn't that big a problem.  Now that it's 12 percent, we actually are dealing with a job-killer; the higher the payroll tax, the fewer people are hired.  Why does that have to be the way that we solve the financing problem?  Let's find revenue that doesn't continue to kill jobs but also meets our needs.  Those are the kinds of discussions that I think would be very fruitful.  None of this would be happening without the president's willingness to put the issue of Social Security on the table.

MR. RUSSERT:  Find revenue in other places--where?  Income taxes?

REP. THOMAS:  Take a look at--again, why deal with income taxes?  Payroll tax is tied to the income.  And that's one way of financing them.  Other countries have used other taxes.  For example, they have taxes that are added to our products that go into their country.

MR. RUSSERT:  Value-added taxes.

REP. THOMAS:  Value-added taxes.  They subtract them from their products leaving the country.  The United States is the world's largest importer and the world's largest exporter, and our tax system is out of sync with the rest of the world.  We pay their social costs.  They don't pay ours.  That at least needs to be examined.

MR. RUSSERT:  Some will suggest a national sales tax.

REP. THOMAS:  Well, I'm willing to look at ways in which we solve our societal problems and not go back to the same old solutions which have never been long-term solutions.  By that--when you're dealing with something like Social Security, you're looking at a half a century.  Upping the payroll tax or changing the age is what we did in '83.  We're back to the table because those aren't long-term permanent solutions.  Why go back to them immediately? Why not look at other options?  That's what I'm trying to urge my colleagues, both in the House and the Senate, to do.

MR. RUSSERT:  Do you think it would be difficult to increase the payroll tax beyond the 12.4 percent it is now?

REP. THOMAS:  Well, politically it would be difficult, but frankly, from an economic point of view, I think it would be stupid.  Why would we make it more difficult to create jobs when jobs are one of the ways we're going to help solve our financing problems over the years?  Just as I think it doesn't make sense to dismiss the idea of looking at ways to increase the return on the revenue we already have.  And the president's approach, with the individualized accounts, would bring more money to the table.  The question of security and all the other factors are areas that we have to look at.  But his idea needs to be part of the solution.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me show you something else you said at the National Journal Forum that raised some eyebrows:  "Women are living longer relative to men today than they were in 1940.  Yet, we never ever have debated gender-adjusting Social Security.  ...But, at some point if the age difference continues to separate and more women are in the workforce and you have more of an equality of pay structure in the workforce, at some point somebody might want to suggest that we need to take a look at the question of whether or not actuarially we ought to adjust who gets what, when, and how."

A gender adjustment--what does that mean?

REP. THOMAS:  Well, it was one of my ways of getting people to focus on the issue of age.  To move from 65 to 68, which we did in 1983, was a benefit cut. But it also creates hardships based upon the occupation that you have, and it creates inequities on who you are and how long you live.  You could just as easily have a discussion about occupations as to when would be a fair or an unfair time to require.  We also need to examine, frankly, Tim, the question of race in terms of how many years of retirement do you get based upon your race?  And you ought not to just leave gender off the table because that would be a factor.

Now, there are people who are saying, "Gee, this is great.  We can get them into a box and maybe we can win some seats in the next election over this issue."  This ought not to be about the next election.  This is about how we have an opportunity given to us by the president, his willingness to work with us to solve some problems that are here and now, but will only get worse.  If we're not in a crisis now, we're in a problem.  Wait a few years.  We will be in a crisis.  We ought to examine all opportunities to solve the problem. Then we can dismiss them.  But to not look at them denies us an opportunity to have yet another way to solve our problem.

MR. RUSSERT:  So if someone is a woman and they live longer, they would get less per year?

REP. THOMAS:  It's not that you would do it; it's something that you need to look at.  Because if you extend the age beyond 78, if you go to 80 or 82, all of those concerns about race, occupation and gender are exacerbated.  And you shouldn't just extend the age without understanding the additional complications and unfairness that you're bringing into the system.  That's the point I'm trying to make.  Don't look for a simple solution like shifting age without realizing you're creating additional problems for yourself down the road.  Same thing with payroll tax.  Same thing with individual accounts or other ways to bring additional revenue in the system.  All of them should be examined.  None of them should be labeled with the pejorative with an opportunity to try to gain seats in the next election.  You are doing a disservice to the society if that's your intention in this debate.  My goal is to get it as broad as possible, look for bipartisan support and give the president a bill on his desk that he can sign that addresses the real societal inequities that we have with seniors.

MR. RUSSERT:  Do you think Congress, Mr. Chairman, would accept any formula that said that people would be treated differently because of their gender or their race?

REP. THOMAS:  If we discuss it and the will is not to do it, fine.  At least we discussed it.  To simply raise the age and find out that you've got gender, race and occupational problems later, I would not be doing the kind of service that I think I have to do.  You and I have been around quite a while.  We went through the '80s.  We went into the '90s.  And now we're in the 21st century. We saw the choices that were made in the past.  We went to the well over and over again with the same old solutions which really aren't solutions.  We've reached the point where we have to fundamentally examine it in my opinion. The president has given us that opportunity.  We ought to take it.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me show you an interview I had with George Bush, then governor of Texas, back in 1999 about Social Security.  Let's watch.

(Videotape, November 21, 1999):

MR. RUSSERT:  Specifically, how will you preserve Social Security?

GOV. BUSH:  By first and foremost making sure the Congress understands that if I'm the president, all the money that's supposed to be going to Social Security will be spent on Social Security.  Secondly, to allow personal savings accounts.

People ought to be allowed to invest part of their moneys in personal savings accounts in order to make sure that there are benefits available in the long term.

MR. RUSSERT:  Would you look at--look at--raising the eligibility age for the boomer generation?

GOV. BUSH:  Yeah.  Not for the short term.  That may be an option for the boomer generation.

MR. RUSSERT:  For the long term.

GOV. BUSH:  As part of a tradeoff or as part of an opportunity for the boomers and pre-boomer boomers to be able to manage their own accounts.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Raising the eligibility age, would you consider it?

REP. THOMAS:  Well, again if you look at all of the downsides of doing that. Frankly, I've been upset with some of those senior groups, frankly AARP with the tens of millions of dollars they're spending to simply scare people.  What I would have preferred would have been a forum between the younger generation and the seniors about the way each of them look at the world and what their concerns are.  That's what we really need to do is to talk to each other and look for options.

You notice the president was talking about personal accounts in 1999.  I introduced a bill in 1992 to deal with that issue.  We should look at all possible ways--tax code, changing the way people are compensated, determining how long they should work, and more importantly than almost any other issue, because Medicare, as people have said, is going to be a greater crisis problem than Social Security, how we deal with the costs of being a senior, primarily in terms of acute care needs, Medicare and the chronic or long-term care needs.  Without addressing that, you will never address the financing of seniors and a comfortable living as they retire.

MR. RUSSERT:  The president said in that interview that all the money that we take in for Social Security should be spent on Social Security.  As you well know, $150 billion last year that was taken in from the payroll tax for Social Security was spent as part of our deficit.  Should we allow that to go on?

REP. THOMAS:  Well, this is an argument that really isn't worth entertaining, with all due respect, because it's a government note.  And if all those people holding e-bonds and all of the other Treasury notes are worried about the government paying them, then we need to worry about not meeting our Social Security concerns.  The real problem with 2018 that people need to focus on is that some of those bonds come due.  Some of that paper comes due because we aren't getting the money from the pay-as-you-go system.  So we are going to have to have the revenue available to pay it.  It seems to me that the payroll tax has served its purpose.  We ought to look at different ways to meet those revenue needs, ways that get the rest of the world to help pay our costs, as we've paid their costs since World War II.

MR. RUSSERT:  The Concord Coalition which is made up of Democrats, Republicans, Independents, took a full-page ad out recently and this is how they concluded their comments.  "Ensuring a more sustainable system will require change, meaning that someone is going to have to give up something -- either in the form of higher contributions, lower benefits or a combination of both.  No Social Security reform will succeed unless this fact is acknowledge up front."

So you agree?

REP. THOMAS:  I agree if you want to stay with the old way of dealing with Social Security.  That is, you get benefits, you get the money from the payroll tax, and it's a pay-as-you-go system.  You've noted in previous programs, there are fewer people paying into the system.  Yes, we can get some increases out of productivity.  But why use the payroll tax, which is a regressive tax, to pay a progressive Social Security structure, and by the way, the payroll tax is a job-killer as well?  Why don't we get outside the old pieces of the Social Security structure and think about bringing in revenue in a way that doesn't punish the employer, that brings the revenue to the table?  Why don't we address chronic long-term health-care costs as part of the time value of money argument so we can meet the needs we know are going to be out there with planning that begins earlier?  And also take a look at the other parts of the seniors' support.  Social Security isn't the only thing we rely on.  You've got a pension structure that needs to be examined.  You need to look at the question of, frankly, estate taxes, how you do your planning prior to dying and how you deal with it after you die.

All I'm saying, Tim, is that the Social Security component, as an assistance for seniors, is a part of the area we need to examine.  And if we go back to the same old argument somebody's got to give up a benefit, somebody has to increase the payroll tax, I believe we would have done this society a disservice.  We need to look at health-care costs, we need to look at the way we fund the system, and we need to look at the way seniors are allowed to use money in retirement and even after death and at the same time allow younger people to structure for their needs in the future, not just in personal accounts but in something to help them with the known costs of chronic and long-term care.  All of those are issues that we need to begin to examine, don't have to deal with them necessarily, but we should examine them in terms of dealing with Social Security.

MR. RUSSERT:  Listening to you, my sense is a year from now if there was a Social Security system that had some form of private or personal accounts, had a different revenue stream other than the payroll tax, perhaps some adjustment in the cost-of-living increase, perhaps some adjustment in the age eligibility, you'd be happy.

REP. THOMAS:  Well, we'd need to deal with chronic and long-term care as well.  The point is if you're going to have a bipartisan solution that the president can sign, I think all of those points at least need to be examined. I'm perfectly comfortable, after having examined them and having them rejected, we move on.  But to not examine them at this point and to simply lock ourselves into trench warfare over private accounts or not private accounts, over benefit cuts or not benefit cuts means we will fail once again in addressing the needs of this society, both the young and the old.  And I don't think that's what we should spend our time doing, and neither do I think the American people think that.

MR. RUSSERT:  Chairman Bill Thomas, we thank you for your time and your views.

Coming next, George W. Bush speaks to the nation and the world in his second inaugural address.  How will he implement the Bush doctrine?  Our roundtable is next:  Stephen Hayes of The Weekly Standard, Robin Wright of The Washington Post, right here on MEET THE PRESS.

                               (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  And we are back.

Welcome, both.  So much discussion about George W. Bush's second inaugural address.  What did he mean by it?  Let's watch part of it and come back and talk.  Here we go.

(Videotape, January 20, 2005):

PRES. BUSH:  We have seen our vulnerability, and we have seen its deepest source.  For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny, prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder, violence will gather and multiply in destructive power and cross the most defended borders and raise a mortal threat.  There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment and expose the pretensions of tyrants and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Robin Wright, can anyone disagree with that?

MS. ROBIN WRIGHT:  Not at all.  But it's interesting how the second administration really is redefining the war on terrorism to a war to achieve liberty and to go after the regimes whose unjust rule has led to resistance and the emergence of Islamic extremism.  The one flaw in his speech or the one limitation is that he defines it in terms purely of liberty, and he doesn't really talk a lot about human rights law.  And there's a big difference.  Liberty is achieving, you know, political change.  But achieving it is often dealing with the very regimes who are responsible for creating this extremist--Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt.  There are a number of countries where the United States faces a challenge.  As noble as it sounds to take on the cause of liberty, it's very difficult in practical terms to get regimes we count on for the war on terrorism to actually undergo that transition.

MR. RUSSERT:  Stephen Hayes, let me show you another part of the president's speech.  Let's watch.

(Videotape, January 20, 2005):

PRES. BUSH:  So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  If you apply that doctrine, that if we, in fact, would support the growth of democratic movements and institutions of every nation, will we be meddling in the affairs of everyone across the world, including some of our allies?

MR. STEPHEN HAYES:  I would say meddling in the affairs of our allies would be one way to put it.  Promoting democracy because the things that the president was talking about are universal rights.  And in that sense this was really an exceptional speech.  He's talking about American ideals as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, that Abraham Lincoln talked about extensively, and carrying those to the rest of the world.  I don't think that that would be considered meddling.  And I think we've seen, even in the sort of soft ways that we've supported these fledgling democratic movements in other countries already, that it's been somewhat successful.

If you look at the Ukraine, I mean, certainly nobody would say that the United States was responsible for the flourishing democracy or the beginnings of democracy in the Ukraine, but certainly the president, I think, took a hard step, a difficult step by, in a sense, facing down Putin and saying, "We are not going to let the fraudulent results in the Ukraine stand and are going to at least lend rhetorical support to the democrats, the small D democrats."

MR. RUSSERT:  Here's one more bite from the president's speech and we'll come back and talk to Robin about it.

(Videotape, January 20, 2005):

PRES. BUSH:  All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know the United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors.  When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  That is the phrase that is being most questioned across the world, "When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you."  Is it the Iraq model, or is it simply trying to win the hearts and minds and more figurative than military?  What's your sense?

MS. WRIGHT:  I think it's a little bit more figurative than military, but I also think the administration, frankly, hasn't thought through exactly how it plans to implement this policy.  For example, in Egypt, it has an election this year and Hosni Mubarak will be standing for a sixth presidential term under emergency law that's been in place for a quarter century.  The United States is not likely to say to Hosni Mubarak, "Lift emergency law," which prevents more than two or three people from meeting together without a license.  Very difficult for opposition parties to meet under those circumstances.  We have a deal with Egypt that they get to say where our aid goes to non-government organizations.  So they, in effect, can block it from going, and did for some time, for some of the pro-democracy movements in Egypt.  So it's a matter of taking that--they're great words, noble idea, but it's a matter of putting that in practice.  And I don't think they figured out how to do that yet.

MR. RUSSERT:  "When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you."  Do we stand with the democratic forces in Saudi Arabia, in Egypt, in Pakistan, even though the leaders of those countries have been our allies in the war against terror?

MR. HAYES:  Well, I think that, in that sense, this speech potentially marks a significant shift.  I mean, if you look at Egypt, if you look at Saudi Arabia, you look at those places where we have had "allies" in their leaders--"allies" in quotes--the populations are anti-American.  If you look at places like Iran, where we've been critical of the leadership, to say the least, you have populations that are vastly more pro-American.  I don't think that's an accident.  I think one of the things the president can do, and frankly, some of us think he should have been doing more in his first term, was speaking directly to these reformers in Iran, in places throughout the region, giving them the moral support.  I mean, that worked for President Reagan.  You remember when he said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."  We didn't show up with a crane and bring the wall down ourselves.  Rhetoric is sometimes action.  And I think, in that sense, what the president did the other day is significant and historic and could mark a significant turning point in the history of both this nation and in the world.

MR. RUSSERT:  But do you think that we would want to see reforms made in Pakistan that would weaken Mr. Musharraf?

MR. HAYES:  Well, I think you have to be practical about these things at the same time.  I mean, I don't think that anybody's talking about implementing these reforms or forcing these reforms on President Musharraf tomorrow.  You know, he's been a good ally by most accounts in the war on terror.  We couldn't have done the things that we did in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region without his support.  Certainly, nobody's talking about overthrowing Musharraf or regime change in some of those kinds of places.  But at the same time, it's quite natural to make the rhetorical arguments about democracy to push leaders like Musharraf towards democracy as sort of an ultimate end, if not something that's going to happen within a year or two.

MR. RUSSERT:  So it's a flexible doctrine in its application?

MR. HAYES:  Well, it has to be a flexible doctrine in its application.  I mean, I don't think you can--I think it's unrealistic to say, because he said this in his inaugural speech, he has to, therefore, apply this evenly across the world within the next two weeks.

MR. RUSSERT:  Have you been surprised by the world reaction to the speech?

MS. WRIGHT:  No.  I think there's a great deal of skepticism in the outside world, in part because of Iraq.  But it extends to the kind of ideas, the Bush doctrine--both the idea of a pre-emptive strike whenever the United States perceives a threat, not just is threatened, but also the idea that the United States is going to push democracy.  We've seemed to become almost aggressive in--that's the way it is perceived in other parts of the world.  And so you can see there's a great deal of skepticism.  I mean, again, it's the issue of what actions follow those very good words.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me show you an interview that Vice President Cheney had with Don Imus on the "Imus in the Morning" program on MSNBC and on the radio. They were talking about Iran and what role Israel might play.  And here's what the vice president had to say.

(Videotape, "Imus in the Morning," Thursday):

VICE PRES. DICK CHENEY:  Well, one of the concerns people have is that Israel might do it without being asked, that if, in fact, the Israelis became convinced the Iranians had significant nuclear capability, given the fact that Iran has a stated policy that their objective is the destruction of Israel, the Israelis might well decide to act first and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards.  We don't want a war in the Middle East if we can avoid it.  And certainly in the case of the Iranian situation, I think everybody would be best suited by or best treated and dealt with if we could deal with it diplomatically.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  What was the vice president doing there, Stephen Hayes?

MR. HAYES:  I don't know.  It was fairly blunt language.  Perhaps setting up some kind of a marker of saying, "Look, this is a possibility.  This is an urgent situation."  I don't think, you know, he was acting on--I don't think he knows anything about a potential Israeli strike.  I mean, I don't think that we are at that point.  But I do think he was saying this is an urgent situation that needs to be dealt with.

MS. WRIGHT:  This is very much a psychological war period against Iran. There's enormous dialogue going on between the Europeans and the Iranians over permanent disarmament of a nuclear program.  We have a temporary agreement, but the real challenge, of course, now, is getting it to last so that Iran is unable, down the road, to turn back to developing a nuclear weapon or trying to.  And there's, you know, the carrot of the Europeans and the United States is playing the role of the stick, threatening, indicating that we are--no option is off the table, even though we prefer a diplomatic solution, to make it clear to the Iranians that we might be willing to take actions, military strikes, against any facilities that might be engaged in a nuclear program. So this kind of quote fits into that game.

MR. RUSSERT:  And even if we are patient, who knows, "what the Israelis might do."

MS. WRIGHT:  That's right.  Well, after all, it was Israel that went into Iraq and bombed its nuclear program back in 1981.

MR. HAYES:  Yeah, I mean, I think it's also important to bear in mind how the vice president ended that quote, which was that we all prefer a diplomatic solution.  I mean, I do think that there was probably some psychological warfare.  I don't think that this was something that they had planned to say on the Imus show.  I mean, I think it was one of these things that, well, he was just speaking his mind and this is what came out, but he ended by emphasizing the fact that we want a diplomatic solution.

MR. RUSSERT:  "We don't want a war in the Middle East if we can avoid it."

MR. HAYES:  Right.

MR. RUSSERT:  Strong words.

MS. WRIGHT:  Well, the bottom line is they're not really going to be able to do very much against Iran.  You know, even if there's found--even if the nuclear armament talks break down, we may have an air capability to strike some of their installations, but we're not in any position to engage in some kind of ground war with Iran.

MR. RUSSERT:  So the Iraq model cannot be used with Iran or with North Korea.

MR. HAYES:  Well, certainly not any time soon.  We simply don't have the resources and the troops to do that.  I don't think anybody is talking at this point about using an Iraq model on Iran.  At the same time, I do think that's why he's talking about it in such stark terms.  It is why he's sending these warning signals to say that we are serious about these things.

MR. RUSSERT:  What's going to happen in Iraq a week from today?

MS. WRIGHT:  Well, I suspect you will get over 60 percent turnout, which is about what we got in our presidential contest, and that will allow a lot of players to say, "Well, that's legitimate because you've got the majority of people."  I suspect the Sunnis will turn out in very low numbers.  A lot will be determined, of course, in the middle seven days--how much violence there is, if there are new tactics.  The danger is that once they identify the polling stations, that in the last-minute drive, the extremists or the old regime loyalists try to attack those facilities.  There are over 500 of them.

I think this election, though, is so complicated for the average Iraqi who's never voted.  You're going into a polling booth and you face a ballot that has 111 options on it that you can vote for.  And you also have to vote for a regional council, and you have to pick from 75 different parties, nine coalitions and 27 individuals and--most of whom are not campaigning, you're not sure of who their identify is except in the case of the individuals.  It's a very--for a first test, I mean, I'm numbed and I'm very--if they don't get a lot of bad ballots, I'd be surprised as well.

MR. RUSSERT:  Dangling chads?

MR. HAYES:  I think most Iraqis, however, are going to say, "Give me complicated.  I would much rather have 111 choices than one."  I mean, Saddam Hussein in the most recent election, when he was in power, won something like 99.6 percent of the vote and there were pictures throughout the Western media of Iraqis voting with blood for Saddam Hussein to show their loyalty.  Now, you have Iraqis who appear to be, in the face of all of these threats, willing to shed blood potentially to go and cast votes.  You have Iraqi Americans here in the United States traveling 12 hours to register to vote and then being willing to travel another 12.

MR. RUSSERT:  You see a big turnout?

MR. HAYES:  I do see a big turnout.

MR. RUSSERT:  Tell me on this debate about the Iraqi army, trained, capable. Joe Biden says 4,000; Ambassador Negroponte saying we have 16 battalions, which could be anywhere from 300 to 1,000 per battalion.  Who's right?

MR. HAYES:  Probably somewhere in the middle.  I think certainly it's higher than 4,000.

MR. RUSSERT:  But it's far less than 150,000...

MR. HAYES:  A hundred and--yeah, 120,000...

MR. RUSSERT:  ...necessary we need to replace our troops.

MS. WRIGHT:  Well, we need more than that.  The estimate is that we need 270,000 Iraqi troops.  So whether it's--even if you gave them the benefit of the doubt and said they have 120,000 that are in some stage of training, you need more than double that in order for our troops to leave.  We're still a long way away from the point that the Iraqis can take over for themselves, but I do think you're see in the aftermath of the election a push that a lot more Americans will be in the role of trainers.  They're going to start this mentoring program where they're going to deploy more Americans with some of the Iraqi officers.  They're going to bring back more and more of the troops from Saddam Hussein's era, officers as well as ordinary soldiers.

MR. RUSSERT:  And then whoever's elected to take over the Iraqi government will have a timetable for American withdrawal?

MS. WRIGHT:  I think that this year you will see that as very much on the table.  It will be a point of discussion.

MR. HAYES:  It will be a huge issue in the Iraqi electorate.  I mean, I think people want to know what's going to happen.  And when they have somebody to pin accountability on, that person is going to have to make those determinations.

MR. RUSSERT:  Stephen Hayes, Robin Wright, thanks very much.  And we'll be right back.

                               (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  Next week, an exclusive interview with Senator John Kerry, his first television interview since the presidential election.  That's next week right here on MEET THE PRESS.

If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.

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