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updated 6/5/2005 12:46:26 PM ET 2005-06-05T16:46:26

PLEASE CREDIT ANY QUOTES OR EXCERPTS FROM THIS NBC TELEVISION PROGRAM TO "NBC NEWS' MEET THE PRESS."

This is a rush transcript provided for the information and convenience of the press. Accuracy is not guaranteed. In case of doubt, please check with MEET THE PRESS - NBC NEWS at (202)885-4598, Sundays: (202) 885-4200

NBC News MEET THE PRESS

Sunday, June 5, 2005

Guest: Ken Mehlman, Chairman of the Republican Party

Moderator: Tim Russert, NBC News

MR. TIM RUSSERT:  Our issues this Sunday:  President Bush focuses on his second-term agenda, but a majority of Americans now seem to disapprove of his positions on stem cell research, Iraq and Social Security.  What now?  With us, the president's former campaign manager, now chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ken Mehlman, in his first Sunday morning interview as head of the GOP.

And in our MEET THE PRESS Minute, 1976:  Woodward and Bernstein's first appearance on MEET THE PRESS.  And nearly a quarter-century later, in 1999, when they were asked if Mark Felt was Deep Throat.

But, first, two weeks ago, our guest was the chairman of the Democratic Party, Howard Dean.  Today, equal time:  the chairman of the National Republican Party.  Ken Mehlman is here.

Welcome.

MR. KEN MEHLMAN:  Good morning.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me show you an article from The Boston Globe.  We've seen a lot of headlines like this all around the country, Mr. Mehlman.  "Bush's sputtering second term.  This can't be the way George W. Bush and Karl Rove imagined the president's second term would go.  Less than seven months after Bush won reelection, strengthening his party's hold on Congress as he did so, the president has hit a wall with his domestic agenda.  On major matters, he's clearly lost the public.  And this week the Republican Congress itself started to revolt," talking about stem cell research.  What's the problem?

MR. MEHLMAN:  Tim, I don't think there's a problem.  What's interesting is you could have showed me an article about 20 years ago in The Washington Post that predicted that Ronald Reagan was a lame duck.  Back in 1985, the same exact month that we met, in May of 1984, this was before Ronald Reagan moved forward with his speech, "Tear down this wall," before they did tax reform, before the Reykjavik summit.  The fact is we've heard this before.  We not only heard it before 20 years ago, before George Bush in 2001 passed his tax relief, before in 2003 the tax relief were past, we were told they were dead. Before we provided prescription drugs for Medicare, we were told it wasn't going to happen.  Before the president was able to move forward with no Child Left Behind, we were told it was stalled.  We just passed class-action reform for the first time in six years and that, too, was predicted not to happen.

What's been extraordinary about this president, Tim, and what's unique about this president is not that the administration is sputtering but rather everything he's taken on he's been able to accomplish.  I'm confident he's going to continue to move forward and the reason is because this is a president who believes strongly in his agenda and he is committed to persist to accomplish his agenda for the American people.

MR. RUSSERT:  As you well know, 50 House Republicans stood up and said, "Mr. President, if a couple goes to a fertilization clinic and there are some embryos that are used to help the woman get pregnant but others that are not needed, rather than throw those away, discard them, let's use them for research."  Why is the president opposing this?

MR. MEHLMAN:  Well, Tim, as you know, this is a very difficult issue.  This is the first administration ever that has funded with federal dollars embryonic stem cell research.  And, in fact, if you add in the adult stem cell research and the embryonic stem cell research, there's 80 percent increase in funding for stem cell research by this administration.  We are very committed to scientific progress and to federal funding for research for that progress.

Here's the question--the fundamental question, the president believes, is when federal funding is involved, he believes it is wrong to destroy some life for the benefit of other life.  And I think that's where he draws the line.  So you have an administration that is unprecedented in our commitment to more scientific research, including, for the first time ever, embryonic stem cell research, but at the same time, the president believes that there are limits to when federal funds are involved science should do.

MR. RUSSERT:  But a majority of both Houses disagree with the president, both the Senate and the House of Representatives controlled by the Republican Party.  John Danforth, former Republican senator, George W. Bush's man at the United Nations...

MR. MEHLMAN:  Right.  He's a good man.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...for a period of time, an Episcopalian minister, he wrote this in The New York Times:  "By a series of recent initiatives, Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of conservative Christians. The elements of this transformation have included advocacy of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, opposition to stem cell research involving both frozen embryos and human cells in petri dishes, and the extraordinary effort to keep Terri Schiavo hooked up to a feeding tube.  Standing alone, each of these initiatives has its advocates, within the Republican Party and beyond. But the distinct elements do not stand alone.  Rather they are parts of a larger package, an agenda of positions common to conservative Christians and the dominant wing of the Republican Party.  ...  As a senator, I worried every day about the size of the federal deficit.  I did not spend a single minute worrying about the effect of gays on the institution of marriage.  Today it seems to be the other way around."

That's pretty strong.  Republicans have become the political arm of Christian conservatives.  That's John Danforth.

MR. MEHLMAN:  John Danforth, I thought, was a great senator and did a great job with the United Nations.  I think he's a good man.  I would respectfully disagree with that.  We are worried about the size of the deficit, which is why the president is pleased that the House and Senate have followed his lead in cutting the deficit in half over the next five years.  We're worried about...

MR. RUSSERT:  But the...

MR. MEHLMAN:  ...modernizing Social Security.

MR. RUSSERT:  But, Mr. Mehlman, it's gone from $218 billion surplus when George Bush took office to a $427 billion deficit.  How can you call that Republican conservative economic policy?

MR. MEHLMAN:  Well, what I would say, Tim, is what we've suffered, unfortunately, was an attack on this country.  We've suffered a war, and one thing we know:  Whenever our nation's faced war, whether it was in the 1980s when we were winning the Cold War or in the 1940s during World War II, the responsible thing to do has been to borrow money to win the war.  And that's what we did in running the deficit in the '80s, in the 1940s, and that's what we did over the last four years.  The president is committed beyond making sure our priorities are met, beyond winning the war on terror.  He is absolutely committed to reducing the deficit over five years, which is why he's so pleased that we've made progress on that front in the budgets that passed in both the House and the Senate.

We've also moved forward on modernizing Social Security, reducing class-action reform, updating our bankruptcy laws for the first time in a generation to encourage personal responsibility.  These are all items that are important to all Americans, and we were pleased to make progress.  So I would respectfully disagree with Senator Danforth's characterization.  I think he's looking at only some of the things we've been doing and not most of them.

MR. RUSSERT:  Will the president continue to push for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage?

MR. MEHLMAN:  The president strongly believes that marriage in this country ought to be between a man and a woman.  He also believes it is something that ought to be decided by the people.  He doesn't believe that judges ought to impose their will on the people.  And because there have been a number of judicial decisions, most recently in Nebraska, that have made that decision for the people.  He believes that a constitutional amendment is appropriate so the people can weigh in.  It's something that's before the United States Senate.  It's one of their agenda items they intend to move on this year, and I think we can expect to see them do that.

MR. RUSSERT:  You've been trying to broaden the base of the Republican Party and yet Log Cabin Republicans, gay Republicans, issued this statement in the course of last year's election:  "...it is impossible to overstate the depth of anger and disappointment caused by the President's support for an anti-family Constitutional Amendment.  This amendment would not only ban gay marriage, it would also jeopardize civil unions and domestic partnerships. ... Some will accuse us of being disloyal.  However, it was actually the White House who was disloyal to the 1,000,000 gay and lesbian Americans who supported him four years ago in 2000.  Log Cabin's decision was made in response to the White House's strategic political decision to pursue a re-election strategy catered to the radical right. ... Using gays and lesbians as wedge issues in an election year is unacceptable to Log Cabin..."

MR. MEHLMAN:  I would respectfully disagree with their statement on that.  I think this is an issue in which there's some disagreement.  The fact is if you look at the exit polls about 23 percent of gays and lesbians voted for this president, so lot of folks disagreed with what the Log Cabin Republicans said. I'm glad they're supporting the president's position on Social Security.  But I think that fundamentally for the president and for millions of Americans, this is an issue of principle.  Who should decide on a critical question of how we define marriage in this country?  Should it be decided by an activist court or by the people?  We believe the people should make this decision.

MR. RUSSERT:  Do you believe homosexuality is a choice?

MR. MEHLMAN:  I don't know the answer to that question.  I don't think it matters to the fundamental question here because at bottom, this president believes in non-discrimination.  He believes in equal treatment.  He believes in respect for all.  He also believes, separate and apart from that question, that the fundamental question of marriage ought to be defined in the way it's been defined for more than 200 years of our nation's history, which is by the people's representative at the state legislatures.

MR. RUSSERT:  But the Log Cabin Republicans will say if you're born gay, it's a biological determination, not a matter of choice.

MR. MEHLMAN:  And that's--that may be, but the fact is that's irrelevant to question of the public definition of marriage.  They're two totally different issues.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me turn to Social Security.  NBC News and The Wall Street Journal has gone out and asked voters what they think of the president's plan for personal private accounts.  Good idea, 36 percent; bad idea, 56 percent. This is after the president has embarked on a campaign across 26 states.  It's day 92 of a planned 60-day tour.  People are simply not buying the president's prescription to deal with Social Security.

MR. MEHLMAN:  Well, Tim, there are a number of polls that have shown other things as well.  I would respectfully disagree with those numbers.  Here's what I think with respect to this question.  The fact is five months ago this was an issue that people weren't really talking that much about.  Because of the president's leadership, because he's brought it to people's attention, it's now a top issue.  That same NBC News poll showed that a plurality of Americans believe that Congress is moving too slowly on the question of dealing with Social Security.

So what we have is a president that has brought this issue before the American people.  We now understand that we can't wait.  We understand every year we wait it gets $600 billion worse.  Both the Senate and the House leads in terms of the Finance Committee and the Ways and Means Committee are working and are committed to resolving this issue and they're committed to making sure that future generations, that young Americans have a better deal with personal retirement accounts.  And so I'm confident that as we move forward now that the people know this is a top issue, now that the lead man in the House and the lead man in the Senate are ready to deal with this issue and as people hear more about why personal retirement accounts will make your life better and will give you more choices and will give you something that you own that we'll be in a position to be able to move forward to modernize Social Security, including personal retirement accounts.

MR. RUSSERT:  The difficulty seems to be, the American people understand there's a problem with the solvency of Social Security in the future, but they don't see private personal accounts as the solution to the solvency problem. And, in fact, one of the president's key advisers on Social Security, and I'll show you on the screen here:  "Robert Pozen, the business executive who developed the theory behind President Bush's plan to trim Social Security benefits in the future, urged the president to drop his insistence on using part of" the "workers' taxes to pay for individual investment accounts.  ... Mr. Pozen, a member of" the president's "advisory commission on Social Security in 2001, said at a forum at the Treasury Department that the president's approach to investment accounts would destroy the chances for a Social Security bill in Congress and would make it more difficult to resolve the long-term financial problems facing the system."

That's the president's architect of his plan.  Last--two weeks ago on this program, I asked Howard Dean about Social Security, and I said, "Where's the Democratic plan?  Why don't the Democrats come forward and work with the president?"  And this is what he had to say.  Let's watch.

(Videotape, May 22, 2005):

DR. HOWARD DEAN:  All right, Mr. President, let's sit down and get serious. Take privatization of Social Security off the table, and I can guarantee you that Senator Reid and Representative Pelosi will sit down with the president. They have told me so privately.  They would be delighted to sit down with the president and try to work this out.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  So his chief adviser is saying get rid of private personal accounts.  The Democrats are saying if the president would do that, they'd sit down and hammer out a deal.  Why not?

MR. MEHLMAN:  Well, Tim, I welcome what Chairman Dean has said, which is something we hadn't heard before from Democrats, which is that they're willing to offer a solution to Social Security.  Maybe he was responding to James Carville, who warned the Democrats that the public wanted reform.  The Democrats seem stuck in concrete.

The reason the president is so committed to personal retirement accounts is because it's a better deal for future generations.  If you had taken in 1988 $10,000 and put that money into the personal retirement account that is available to every single member of Congress, every single federal employee, you'd have $42,000 today.  If you put that same money in Social Security, you'd have $11,700 today.

Why shouldn't future generations and young Americans have the choice to earn a higher rate of return?  Why shouldn't they be able to own their own Social Security so that Congress can't spend it on other things?  And most importantly, Chairman Dean talks often about his commitment to more economic equality in this country.  I agree with him.  A personal retirement account would say to the worker that lives from paycheck to paycheck, "You can finally get ahead and can you set aside a nest egg for your own retirement or for your children."  Why shouldn't they have that same right that the higher wage earner has?

MR. RUSSERT:  As Robert Pozen, one of the president's principal advisers on Social Security said, "Because we can't afford it."  To make the transfer into those private personal accounts would be enormously costly, trillions of dollars.  And if you really want to fix the solvency problem of Social Security, you should avoid it.

MR. MEHLMAN:  Well, I would respectfully disagree with Mr. Pozen, Tim.  I think you do want to make sure Social Security is solvent.  You also want to make sure our families in the future have more solvency when they retire, that they're financially in a strong position.  The goal of Social Security, after all, was to make sure that everyone when they retired had financial security. Personal retirement accounts will mean they have more security, not less.

MR. RUSSERT:  Will the president insist on private personal accounts to be part of any Social Security reform package and be willing to say, "If I don't get it, then I'll take nothing"?

MR. MEHLMAN:  Tim, the president believes very strongly that personal retirement accounts need to be part of the plan.  They're good for the future. They'll help Americans.  They'll create more economic equality in this country.  He doesn't think we should say one thing is good for Congress and for government employees, but for the rest of the Americans, let them eat cake.  He thinks everyone ought to have access to these personal retirement accounts.

MR. RUSSERT:  Would he veto a bill without private personal accounts?

MR. MEHLMAN:  I'm--as the chairman of the party, I'm not in a position to speak for what the president will or won't veto, but he believes they're very important, and I think he's right, that they are important to our future.

MR. RUSSERT:  What do you think of Howard Dean?

MR. MEHLMAN:  I have met Howard Dean.  We had a meeting.  We appeared together before an APAC conference.  I called him to congratulate him on his election.  I think he'll be a strong chairman.  He arouses a lot of the passion on the Democratic Party throughout their base, and he ran a good campaign in 2004 with not a lot of money, attracted a lot of support.

MR. RUSSERT:  He said the other day that a lot of Republicans have never earned an honest day's living.

MR. MEHLMAN:  I'm not sure of the best way to win support in the red states is to insult the folks who live there.  I think that a better approach might be to talk about the issues you're for.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me turn to another poll question.  We asked George W. Bush's handling of the economy:  Approve, 43 percent; disapprove, 51 percent.  The slowest job growth in nearly two years.  The economy seems to be stalling somewhat.  What's the problem?

MR. MEHLMAN:  Well, Tim, I think that the economy is doing well.  We've created, as you know over the past two years, 3.5 million jobs.  Homeownership is at an all-time high, including homeownership among minorities in this country.  Most recent consumer confidence numbers were good.  That having been said, the president's not satisfied.  Even though the economy is good, he wants to do more.

For four years he's been talking about the need for an energy bill because lower energy prices will help grow the economy.  We're still waiting and we're hoping Congress will act on it this year.  We need to pass the CAFTA agreement for free trade in Central America.  That'll help our economy.  Americans are worried about their pensions and their retirement security, which is why we need to act on Social Security.  We need to make the tax cuts permanent, 'cause that'll be good for the economy.  So what I'd say is I think the economy is strong, but it needs to be stronger and the president has plans to make it stronger that he hopes Congress will act on this year.

MR. RUSSERT:  The Republicans control both houses of Congress.  What's the problem?

MR. MEHLMAN:  Well, we've seen some progress.  As I mentioned, we saw the bankruptcy reform bill.  That'll be good for our economy.  The reduction in frivolous lawsuits through reducing class actions, something we've been working on for six years.  That'll help the economy.  This past year the House and Senate both passed budgets to cut the deficits in half.  That'll help the economy.  All those are good for the economy, and all those will be important to the economy, and we still have more to do.

MR. RUSSERT:  Those are projected cuts to the deficit.  The deficit's still over $400 billion.

MR. MEHLMAN:  It is, but obviously passing those budgets is the first step to making those deficit reductions a reality.

MR. RUSSERT:  Foreign policy.  Handling of foreign policy:  George W. Bush, approve, 42; disapprove, 52.  And this one cuts to the core, I believe, of the president's policy on Iraq:  Was it worth the lives lost and the financial cost?  Worth it, 40; 51 percent say not worth it.  A majority of Americans believe that going to war in Iraq was not worth the cost of the lives or the financial cost.

MR. MEHLMAN:  I think that it is worth it very much so, and you see it a lot. I felt one of the most moving images we've seen throughout the course of the entire past year was the 60 percent of the Iraqi people who decided to go out and brave the terrorists and vote in the elections.  That was incredible, and that's very important in terms of making sure that we have democracy, we have stability and we defeat the terrorists in Iraq.

The fact is, in Iraq today, there are 50,000 Iraqi police that have been trained by the American troops to make sure that they're able to help secure that country.  The Iraqi Cabinet has been filled out.  The Iraqi legislature is meeting.  We continue to see significant progress in Iraq, and we continue to see challenges because the terrorists understand that as we make this progress in Iraq, it's a tremendous threat to everything they're trying to do.

MR. RUSSERT:  There's a real debate and we've heard it from members of the administration as to whether or not there are now more terrorists in the world than there were prior to our invasion of Iraq.  The Washington Post reported this on Saturday morning:  "The U.S. military released new details yesterday about five confirmed cases of U.S. personnel mishandling of the Koran at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, acknowledging that soldiers and interrogators kicked the Muslim holy book, got copies wet, stood on a Koran during an interrogation and inadvertently sprayed urine on another copy."

Do you believe that that behavior, in fact, provides serious consequences for the image of the United States around the world?

MR. MEHLMAN:  I believe that that behavior is unacceptable, which is why I credit our Pentagon with carefully investigating it and taking steps to making sure that it never happens again.  We also need to remember the big picture. At Guantanamo Bay, the American--our troops have provided 1,600 Korans to prisoners that are there in order to make sure that they're able to act accordingly, to practice their religion and to have the Koran to look at.  Our men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan and all over the world have risked their lives in order to make sure that Muslims are free from tyranny and the tyranny of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.  How many Korans were destroyed when the Sufi mosque was attacked this past week by the terrorists that we saw in Iraq?

And so, Tim, I think that there's no question it's unacceptable.  We also need to remember it in the context, in the context of an America that is liberating Muslims, that is protecting Muslims and that is making sure people are free to worship and to read the Koran as they see fit.

MR. RUSSERT:  That report was released by the Pentagon at 7:15 on a Friday night, after the network evening news shows.  Was the administration trying to bury that?

MR. MEHLMAN:  I don't think the administration was.  I think we carefully investigated it, and from the beginning, what's been different about how America does things and how the enemies do it is we do investigate these things and we do make sure that people, even if they're prisoners, even if they're terrorists, even if they're people that we suspect of harming innocent civilians, we still provide them with rights, and we still make sure that, when incidents occur, those are investigated and those are dealt with.

MR. RUSSERT:  When Newsweek wrote a story that turned out to be inaccurate about the Koran, the administration said, "This will have serious consequences and has caused damage to the image of the United States, and people have lost their lives."  When the administration released five instances of abuse of the Koran, the administration said, "It's unfortunate that some have chosen to take out of context a few isolated incidents."  Why was the administration so hard on Newsweek but, when it came to the Pentagon report, "Please understand this"?

MR. MEHLMAN:  I think there are two different things.  I think the Pentagon report reported on a few incidents, looked at them as individual incidents. The Newsweek report alleged, wrongly, based on a single anonymous source which, by the way, it called "sources," alleged that this was a widespread effort, that there was a widespread, intentional effort, when, in fact, the intent was exactly the opposite.  We have systems and policies to make sure it doesn't happen.  And every time it does, we hold people accountable for their mistreatment of the Koran.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me turn to the now-famous Downing Street memo.  This was a memo, July 23, 2002, from the head of British intelligence to Prime Minister Blair; in effect, notes taken from a briefing that was given to Prime Minister Blair after the head of British intelligence came back from a trip to Washington.  It says this:  "[The head of British Intelligence] reported on his recent talks in Washington.  There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable.  Bush wanted to remove Saddam, though military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

This is July of 2002.  We didn't invade until March of 2003.  And the prime minister of Great Britain is being told by the head of his intelligence that he went to Washington and believes that a decision had already been made and that the administration was fixing or manipulating the intelligence to support the policy.

MR. MEHLMAN:  Tim, that report has been discredited by everyone else who's looked at it since then.  Whether it's the 911 Commission, whether it's the Senate, whoever's looked at this has said there was no effort to change the intelligence at all.  The fact is that the intelligence of this country, the intelligence of Britain, the intelligence of the United Nations, the intelligence all over the world said that there were weapons of mass destruction present in Iraq.  We knew that Saddam Hussein had used weapons of mass destruction before.  We still know that there was a weapons of mass destruction program.  He was evading the sanctions, and he had plans to reconstitute the program.  We also knew that Saddam Hussein had uniquely invaded his neighbors, had uniquely supported terrorists and we all know today that we are safer because he's been removed from power.

So I believe that that individual report not only has been discredited but that the overall reasons for removing Saddam Hussein were broader than that, they were correct, and we're now safer and certainly the people of Iraq are safer now that Saddam Hussein has been removed from power.

MR. RUSSERT:  I don't believe that the authenticity of this report has been discredited.

MR. MEHLMAN:  I believe that the findings of the report, the fact that the intelligence was somehow fixed have been totally discredited by everyone who's looked at it.

MR. RUSSERT:  There--let me go back to another sentence from that report. "There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action."  Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, now head of the World Bank, said the other day, "The war never ended," and the concern many Americans have, Mr. Mehlman, is that we now have 1,669 Americans who've died bravely in Iraq, 1,532 of those after the president said major combat operations were over.  We have 12,762 Americans wounded or injured, 12,000 of those after the president said major combat was over.  This memo seems to suggest that the head of British Intelligence told Prime Minister Blair that there was little discussion in Washington to plan for the aftermath of military action.

MR. MEHLMAN:  I would respectfully disagree with that finding.  I think that there was clearly planning that occurred, planning that occurred to deal with the results of the war.  If you remember after the first Gulf War, whether it was the breaching of the dams that we saw all over Iraq, that didn't happen. Whether it was the fires that we saw, that didn't happen this past time. Plans were made for after the war.  There's no question that there has been an insurgency.  The insurgents understand the stakes of the situation in Iraq. They understand that if we're successful, their efforts to promote terrorism around the world, their efforts to defeat democracy and freedom will be hurt. And there's no question-- therefore, we need to deal with these insurgents.

But the president has mentioned repeatedly that he thinks every day about it and meets with the families of the men and women who have given their lives in Iraq.  They've given their lives for an incredibly noble cause.  We did plan for the future.  There are some things you can plan for.  There are some things that are harder to plan for, but I believe we're doing a very important mission in Iraq, which is defeating the terrorists, promoting democracy and you've seen throughout this spring what the effects of that democracy have been in other Arab nations.

MR. RUSSERT:  The primary rationale given for the war, however, was the elimination of weapons of mass destruction.  And again I refer you to the memo of the prime minister's meeting.  "It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided.  But the case was thin.  Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than half that of Libya, North Korea and Iran."

MR. MEHLMAN:  Well, the president, I think, was responsible in saying we need to simultaneously prepare for war and also try to avoid that war.  There were simultaneous efforts at the diplomatic stages that were made and yet at the same time it would have been irresponsible for us to say we're going to wait and then plan for war later because we wouldn't have had as effective an effort as we did to remove Saddam Hussein from power, so we needed to do both at the same time.  I would also, though, disagree, as I said a moment ago, with the notion that Iraq was somehow less of a threat.  Iran and North Korea hadn't invaded their neighbors.  Iran and North Korea hadn't used weapons of mass destruction.  Iran and North Korea hadn't, in the same way that Saddam Hussein had, been paying off suicide bombers in Israel and in the Palestinian territories.  Iran and North Korea are serious challenges.  So was Saddam Hussein, and removing him makes the world safer, makes America safer.

MR. RUSSERT:  There's a front-page story in The Washington Post today that talks about the Rose Garden optimism vs. the Baghdad pessimism when it comes to Iraq.  Senator Joe Biden, a Democrat, Congressman Curt Weldon, a Republican, say that when they go to Iraq and what they witness and observe is an insurgency that is alive and well and being assisted by surrounding companies--countries.  Vice President Cheney said the other day that we are seeing the last throes of the insurgency.  Is that a false optimism or an accurate presentation?

MR. MEHLMAN:  Tim, I think it's an accurate presentation, and here's why. You may remember we saw an increase in violence right before the Iraqi elections.  And at the time there were a lot of voices that said we need to put these elections off.  The Iraqis aren't going to show up to vote because of the rising insurgency.  The reason there was that insurgency then was because the terrorists understood the stakes and they understood that when 60 percent of the Iraqi people showed up and voted, which they did, that it was a very serious blow to their efforts.  I believe today, as the Iraqi Cabinet meets, as the Iraqi legislature is constituted, as the Iraqi government operates, as newspapers open, as troops are trained, as the police force goes forward, the terrorists understand they face similar threats to their continued viability.  And that's why, like before the elections, we see this unfortunate violence.

Now, it doesn't make it easier for the families of soldiers or sailors of airmen or Marines who were killed.  We pray for them and we think about them constantly.  And it doesn't make it easier for the Iraqi people to have to deal with that.  But we also need to remember the big picture, which is we must prevail here and we must continue to move forward, just as we did before the elections.

MR. RUSSERT:  One family that is particularly upset that is that of Pat Tillman, the former NFL football player.  This is what his mom, Mary Tillman, said:  "`The military let him down.  The administration let him down.  It was a sign of disrespect.  ...he was the ultimate team player and he watched his own men kill him, [it] is absolutely heartbreaking and tragic.  The fact that they lied about it afterward is disgusting.'"

And what she's referring to is that her son was killed by friendly fire, but the Pentagon tried to cast it in a much different light, and the suggestion being they were trying to make Pat Tillman a poster boy for the war in Iraq. And his family is devastated and very angry about that.

MR. MEHLMAN:  Well, Tim, I would agree with his mom that it is heartbreaking and tragic.  Friendly fire--anytime anybody is killed in friendly fire, it's the ultimate tragedy.  It's something that when you think about it, the person that was responsible for that was on his side and must feel terrible about it and will have to live with that for the rest of their lives.  And I think that certainly the Pentagon has admitted it was handled wrong.

I do think that to try to question the intent of the Pentagon with respect to the war in Iraq isn't fair either.  The men and women at the Pentagon are serving their country as well.  They're working hard for their country.  They should have informed the family earlier.  They should have let them know what happened earlier.  They've admitted that.  They've taken steps to make sure it wouldn't happen in the future.  But I think it is wrong to that say this was somehow an attempt to make him a poster boy for the Iraq War.  I don't think this was what they were trying to do.

MR. RUSSERT:  Well, many people close to Pat Tillman have said just that.

MR. MEHLMAN:  Well, again, I would respectfully disagree, at the same time recognizing the tragedy, and how hard it must be for his mom and his whole family.

MR. RUSSERT:  We're going to take a quick break.  We have a lot more questions for Ken Mehlman.  He's the chairman of the Republican Party.  We'll come back and talk to him about what's going on in the Senate with judicial nominations and a whole lot more, right after this.

                               (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  More with the chairman of the Republican Party, Ken Mehlman, after this brief station break.

                               (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  And we're back.

We should make it clear that Pat Tillman died in Afghanistan.  The suggestion was that his death was being used as a recruitment poster for the war in Iraq. Let's move on away from that real tragedy.

Let's talk about the situation in the United States Senate.  Fourteen senators, seven Democrats, seven Republicans, got together and in effect declared a truce, saying, "We'll allow some judicial nominations for the Circuit Court to go forward, others won't."  What did you think of that deal?

MR. MEHLMAN:  Well, Tim, I thought--I believe it's very important that every judge get an up-or- down vote.  For 214 years, that's been the standard in our country.  The effect of that deal is that three judges who were denied an up-or-down vote for four years will provided the opportunity--will be provided the opportunity, in the case of two and were in the case of one, for an up-or-down vote.  I also think that deal established a standard, and you might call it the Owen standard.

If you remember, Priscilla Owen was viciously attacked because people disagreed with her judicial philosophy before she was given the up-or-down vote.  Now, we know that judicial philosophy in and of itself is not disqualifying for someone to receive an up-or-down vote.  So while I believe every judge ought to receive an up-or-down vote, I think that the effect of that deal is to establish a standard for the future and to allow three very good judges to move forward.

MR. RUSSERT:  So you think it was a good deal for the country?

MR. MEHLMAN:  I think at the end of the day there was some progress that was made.  I think that at the same time, I do believe every judge deserves an up-or-down vote.

MR. RUSSERT:  Does it help John McCain with the Republican base?

MR. MEHLMAN:  I think that John McCain--there's been a lot of speculation on who's up and who's down.  At the end of the day I think that what the--first of all, I think people are getting a little bit ahead of themselves here in Washington.  I know that that never happens here, but ultimately I think what voters in--who are going to think about things in 2008 are going to say is, "In 2005 when you did do to help make sure we confirmed good men and women as judges?  What did you do to help save Social Security?  What did you do to help make sure that we have those tax cuts and make them permanent?  What did you do to help make sure we continue to win the war on terror?"  And then next year, "What did you do to protect and preserve the majority?"  I think that these are very important questions that come out before people start thinking about the long term.

MR. RUSSERT:  There seems to be some disagreement as to what exactly was decided with this agreement.  Here's an exchange between the Democratic leader, Harry Reid, and the Republican leader Bill Frist.  Let's watch.

(Videotape, May 24, 2005):

SEN. HARRY REID, (D-NV):  I support the memorandum of understanding.  It took nuclear option off the table.  Nuclear option is gone for our lifetime.

SEN. BILL FRIST, (R-TN):  If filibusters again erupt under circumstances other than extraordinary, we will put the constitutional option back on the table, and we'll implement it.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Is the nuclear option for judicial nominations gone, or will the Republicans try to reassert it?

MR. MEHLMAN:  Well, I think you had two of the people that signed the agreement.  Senator DeWine and Senator Graham both said that to the extent to which the principles of the agreement are not kept and a judge is inappropriately filibustered, that they would support exercising a constitutional option.  And as I said a moment ago, in my judgment, what that means is, if a judge in the future is filibustered based entirely and simply on his or her judicial philosophy, the fact that they believe in judicial restraint as opposed to judicial activism, then I think the agreement has been breached and I think the Senate will have to look to exercising its right to constitutional option.

MR. RUSSERT:  And the administration would prefer to have just 51 votes needed to confirm a future Supreme Court nominee?

MR. MEHLMAN:  Well, the administration believes in a simple principle of fairness.  For 214 years, we've had an up-or-down vote.  There's never been a judge before Miguel Estrada, that was denied the chance for an up-or-down vote if they had majority support.  And I think establishing this new kind of double standard that they applied to Miguel Estrada was the wrong approach, and we need to make sure that every judge--the fairness principle gets an up-or-down vote.

MR. RUSSERT:  Democratic leader Harry Reid said that the president pledged to him that the president would not involve himself in this debate over filibuster.  Then Vice President Cheney came forward and said that he would go and preside over the Senate and cast a deciding vote, if need be, to invoke the nuclear option, stop the filibuster.  Senator Reid then said the president was a liar.  He also said the president was a loser.  Rolling Stone magazine this month had this interview with Senator Reid.  Question:  "You've called Bush a loser."  Senator Reid:  "And a liar."  Question:  "You apologized for the loser comment."  Senator Reid:  "But never for the liar, have I?"

MR. MEHLMAN:  Tim, I was disappointed to hear that Senator Reid would say that.  Particularly, I believe, he said the loser comment to a bunch of kids in high school.  It's hard to imagine going back, if you think about the relationship between presidents and Senate leaders from the other party that happening in the past, it's hard to believe Senator Dole or Senator Mitchell or Senator Byrd using such language to describe the president of the United States.

I was also surprised and disappointed that he reaffirmed the liar comment recently, particularly since the question--the issue at question, which was the president's involvement in this question, it's widely reported on the Hill that, in fact, Senator Reid later on was trying to get the president to get involved in this question.  So I really think that that kind of language, the liar, the loser, doesn't really have a place in politic.  We can disagree in politics without calling each other liars and losers, particularly from a senator that first wanted the president not to get involved and then apparently wanted him to get involved.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Reid called the president and asked him to get involved in the filibuster debate?

MR. MEHLMAN:  I'm not exactly sure of the nature of the conversation between the two, but as I said, it's been widely reported that after calling the president a liar for allegedly getting involved, which, by the way, the president didn't do, the vice president simply said, as an officer of the Senate, what his position would be, Senator Reid then came forward and apparently wanted the president to get involved.  So it's unclear which position he wanted the president to take.  But regardless, to call the president of the United States a liar or a loser, I really don't think is becoming of the Democratic Senate leader.

MR. RUSSERT:  But to say, "The president said, `I won't get involved in the whole debate,'" and then Dick Cheney, his vice president, you know, very close adviser, said, "But I will."

MR. MEHLMAN:  Well, the vice president was saying what he would do, Tim, was you know--he's, as you know, an officer of the Senate.  And if it's 50/50 and it comes to him, he then has an obligation to make a decision.  He was announcing what his decision would be, and he said it, as I recall, when he spoke before a group of Republican lawyers who were very interested in this judicial issue.

MR. RUSSERT:  But that doesn't violate the president's word not to be involved?

MR. MEHLMAN:  I don't think it does.  And as I said a moment ago, what's particularly interesting is that the president said he wouldn't lobby, and he didn't.  The president said he wouldn't advise the Senate on how to deal with it from a strategic perspective, and he didn't.  But what's most interesting, as I said a minute ago, was the very same Senator Reid that called the president a liar then later on was urging the president to become involved.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me turn to another man who's been in the center of the news, Tom DeLay.  This was a dinner, May 12, a tribute dinner to Tom DeLay. You were the highest ranking Bush associate, I guess you would say, who was at that dinner.  There you are offering some kind of support to Congressman DeLay, tapping on the shoulder.  What did you say to him?

MR. MEHLMAN:  I told him I thought it was a very moving dinner, which I think it was.  First of all, it was a lot of fun.  It was an interesting dinner. Folks roasted him and had a lot of fun, but I hadn't known before something that is remarkable, that in 1987, I believe it was, Tom DeLay and his wife went to the Soviet Union, met with a Jewish family there that were Soviet refusniks, that were people who were being persecuted because they believed in wanting--because they believed in God and they wanted to worship under their religion and he conducted a Passover seder for them.

I didn't know that about him, and that's another example like the fact that Tom DeLay is so committed to helping make sure that foster children have the care they need.  There's a caricature too often in this town of people that describes them in these one-dimensional ways.  I think more people ought to know that about Tom DeLay, about not only that he's an effective leader but an incredibly compassionate man.  And I told him--I thanked him from my perspective for the fact that he would go to the Soviet Union, learn how a Passover seder is conducted and conduct one for a Jewish family oppressed behind the Iron Curtain who weren't able before to celebrate that way.

MR. RUSSERT:  He's been admonished by the Ethics Committee three times.  He is now being brought before the Ethics Committee again with suggestion that lobbyists paid money for him to travel.  You're not troubled by those?

MR. MEHLMAN:  I believe, Tim, that the Ethics Committee will look into these. Tom DeLay has repeatedly asked the Ethics Committee to look into these questions.  He's asked to bring his information before the Ethics Committee. And I believe when they do, that he has said, he looks forward to their results.  And I think that's the way things ought to move forward.  I also think we should not ignore the important issues that are before the country that Tom DeLay is trying to deal with--reducing the cost of gas prices, making the tax cuts permanent, improving education and improving health care.  These are the things that Tom DeLay works for every single day and I believe that the American people expect he and all of their legislators to continue working for these things.

MR. RUSSERT:  Would you be proud to campaign with Tom DeLay all across the country for Republican candidates?

MR. MEHLMAN:  I'm very proud to campaign with Tom DeLay.  He's an effective leader for our party, an effective leader for the American people.  As I mentioned a minute ago, he's also an incredibly compassionate man.

MR. RUSSERT:  Tony Perkins was at the dinner.  He's the head of the Family Research Council and this is what he had to say.

(Videotape, May 12, 2005):

MR. TONY PERKINS:  And I think the message tonight is that if they pick a fight with Tom DeLay, they pick a fight with all of us.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  So if people are critical of Tom DeLay, are they, in effect, picking a fight with the Republican National Committee or with the White House?

MR. MEHLMAN:  Well, I think the point that he was trying to make, that Tony was trying to make that night, was that Tom DeLay has worked very hard on behalf of the American people and that his supporter are going to stand behind him, which is entirely appropriate for them to do.

MR. RUSSERT:  Howard Dean, the chairman of the party, repeated on this program that Tom DeLay is not an ethical person, he ought not to be leading Congress, and he would not back off his suggestion that Mr. DeLay should be in prison.

MR. MEHLMAN:  I think that was an unfortunate statement.  I think that Congressman Frank was right when he admonished Chairman Dean for making that statement.  I don't think it's our job as chairmen of either party to be prejudging people or to be calling for people to go to prison who haven't even been charged let alone convicted with anything.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Hillary Clinton of New York sent out a fund-raising letter on Wednesday saying this.  "...Republicans are raising tens of millions of dollars to defeat me in 2006.  ...They're going to find out that I am not that easy to stop.  ...  Your support has been important to me in the past; now, in this fight against the Republican power grab, I need it more than ever."

Do you think that Senator Clinton would be a formidable presidential candidate?

MR. MEHLMAN:  I do.  I think that senator--first of all, whoever the Democrats nominate in the future I think will be a formidable candidate.  I said this before John Kerry was nominated.  We live in a closely divided country and the Democrat nominee walks into the election with a significant level of support.

Senator Clinton is smart.  She's effective.  And she certainly is very effective--has a massive fund-raising network.  I think the question that people will look to for Senator Clinton is:  Where does she stand on the issues they care about?  If you look at the most recent Congress, she was more liberal than 82 percent of the United States Congress.  She voted against tax relief in 2001 and 2003, including tax relief that benefits middle-class Americans.  There's been a lot of noise made recently about the fact that she's moving to the center on the question of life.  Yet Hillary Clinton has 100 percent rating from the National Abortion Rights Action League, a 0 percent rating from the National Right To Life, voted against protecting people in the future like Laci Peterson.  So I think what the people are going to look for is what she in her record has done as opposed to simply rhetoric or fund-raising appeals.

MR. RUSSERT:  She has found common ground with former Speaker Newt Gingrich on the issue of health care.  In fact, Newt Gingrich was on this program way back in December of 2003, and let me share some of his comments.

(Videotape, December 7, 2003):

FMR. REP. NEWT GINGRICH, (R-GA):  I think Senator Clinton is almost certainly going to be the Democratic nominee in 2008.

MR. RUSSERT:  Why do you say that?

REP. GINGRICH:  Well, because I looked at the same poll you showed her.  I mean, there's no reason to believe she's going to grow any weaker, and she is serious, she is hardworking, she is a first-rate professional.

(End video)

MR. RUSSERT:  "Serious, hardworking, first-rate professional."

MR. MEHLMAN:  Well, first of all, let me just add that not only does Newt Gingrich and Hillary Clinton believe we need to reduce the amount of paper in our medical systems and move more to technology, so does George W. Bush, so did former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.  That's an important initiative of this administration and it's critically important for everyone's health care.  But I think that the speaker's comments about Mrs. Clinton are right.  I think she is very hardworking and she's smart and she's effective politically.

MR. RUSSERT:  And she voted for the war in Iraq.

MR. MEHLMAN:  She voted for the war in Iraq.

MR. RUSSERT:  She's on...

MR. MEHLMAN:  It was the correct vote.

MR. RUSSERT:  She's on the Senate Armed Services Committee honing those credentials.  Are you serious that she'd be a tough, serious candidate or are you hoping that she is the candidate?

MR. MEHLMAN:  Tim, I think that just as in 1979 when Democrats were relishing the possibility of running against that right-wing crazy Ronald Reagan, they made a mistake.  I think we do better in the Republican Party to focus on today getting the mission accomplished, serving the people, next year protecting the majority.  And there'll be plenty of time to think about 2008, and when do, we should focus on who our best nominee will be and what he or she stands for, as opposed to trying to handicap the other party.

MR. RUSSERT:  If, in fact, Vice President Cheney does not seek the presidency, this could be the first presidential election in 56 years...

MR. MEHLMAN:  Yep.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...where there's not an incumbent president or vice president on the ballot.

MR. MEHLMAN:  That's right.

MR. RUSSERT:  You see that as the case?

MR. MEHLMAN:  I think that--no question.  First time since 1952.

MR. RUSSERT:  You don't see Dick Cheney running for president?

MR. MEHLMAN:  He has said he wouldn't.  If he decided to I think he'd be a fantastic candidate, but I take him at his word.  He's a man of his word.

MR. RUSSERT:  So if he does not run, how many Republican candidates do you see in the race?

MR. MEHLMAN:  There could be a lot, and hopefully--and I'm already seeing this--they're all going to work in 2006 to help protect our majority.  I believe that the primary voters in 2008 are going to look and they're going to say, "What did you do in 2005 and what did you do in 2006?  When it was the opportunity to save Social Security, to reduce taxes, to confirm good judges, to win the war on terror, to reduce frivolous lawsuits, where were you?  And then where were you in protecting your majority?"  So in many ways the first primary of the 2008 election cycle is what you do this year, and the second primary is what you do to protect the majority next year.

MR. RUSSERT:  Is there a front-runner?

MR. MEHLMAN:  I don't think that there is.  I think that the unique situation you identified, first time in 56 years, means there's not a front-runner.  And we have a lot of very good men and women who are thinking about it and have talked about it, and I think that the opportunity exists for that competition to help us build and strengthen the party and make sure we have a lot of really good ideas going forward.

MR. RUSSERT:  A Republican woman?  Who?

MR. MEHLMAN:  Well, obviously, there's--I said man or woman.  I think Elizabeth Dole's a great person.  I think that Condi Rice is a great person, although she's said she's not interested in running.  I think that Senator Hutchison's a good person.  These are all highly qualified public servants. They haven't announced that they're going to run, but were they to, I think they'd be good choices.

MR. RUSSERT:  Do you think Deep Throat was a hero?

MR. MEHLMAN:  I think that's for the American people to judge.  It's for history to judge.  I think that's not really about partisan politics.

MR. RUSSERT:  But do you think it's appropriate for a government official to come to a conclusion that he has to take his information to the media because he feels that if he went to his superior it may, in fact, be ignored?

MR. MEHLMAN:  I think everyone has to take a look at that make a judgment for themselves.  Obviously somebody who's in law enforcement comes at it from a different perspective than somebody who just serves in the government.  But again, I think each person--you know, one of the interesting things, Tim, that I think is happening with this debate is people in government are thinking about this and young people who might want to enter government have to think about this and frankly, journalism is thinking about this.  They're looking at the way Woodward and Bernstein conducted themselves, which I thought was an appropriate way, and then they're looking at some alternatives like the story that occurred with CBS this past year, like the story with Newsweek, and all this whole public debate I think is a good thing for this country.

MR. RUSSERT:  Ken Mehlman, we thank you for joining us, sharing your views, and we hope you'll come back.

MR. MEHLMAN:  Thanks a lot.

MR. RUSSERT:  Be safe on the road, by the way.

MR. MEHLMAN:  Thank you.

MR. RUSSERT:  Campaign never ends.

Coming next, our MEET THE PRESS Minute with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein 1999 right here.  They were asked if Mark Felt was Deep Throat.  You'll hear their answer, coming up right after this.

                               (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  And we are back.

On Tuesday, a 30-year secret was no more.  Vanity Fair magazine revealed that the former number-two man at the FBI, Mark Felt, was indeed Deep Throat.  Six years ago, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were asked about that very possibility right here on MEET THE PRESS.

(Videotape, August 8, 1999):

MR. RUSSERT:  Your son and ex-wife are quoted as saying it's Mark Felt, a high-ranking member of the Justice Department.

MR. CARL BERNSTEIN:  Neither of whom has any more idea than the man in the moon who it is.  Bob and I did one really smart thing during Watergate, and that is that we told neither of our ex-wives-- wives at the time--the identity of Deep Throat.  So--but indeed...

MR. RUSSERT:  So Bernstein...

MR. BERNSTEIN:  Indeed, I think one of the ex-wives speculated as to Mark Felt, but they certainly have no knowledge whatsoever.

MR. RUSSERT:  Bernstein knows and Woodward knows, Ben Bradlee knows.  When will the rest of the world know who is Deep Throat?

MR. BOB WOODWARD:  But--when that source passes away or releases us from our agreement and pledge of confidentiality.

MR. RUSSERT:  And who will write that story?  Woodward and Bernstein return to The Washington Post?

MR. BERNSTEIN:  I think it's probably a very good way--you know, look, it's of great historical importance.  And we want it to be known, and we've made arrangements that it will become known.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Mark Felt and his family decided not to wait for The Washington Post.  And we could have resolved it all right here six years ago.  And we'll be right back.

                               (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  Start your day tomorrow on "Today" with Katie and Matt, then the "NBC Nightly News" with Brian Williams.

That's all for today.  We'll be back next week at our regular time.  If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.

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