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updated 8/17/2005 5:51:18 PM ET 2005-08-17T21:51:18

MS. ANDREA MITCHELL:  Our issues this Sunday:  the war in Iraq.  The violence continues as the president faces declining support at home.  Conflicting signals over troop withdrawals.  And unrelenting protesters camped out in Crawford, Texas.  When will the Iraqi government and its security forces be strong enough for U.S. troops to begin to come home?  And will the Iraqis meet tomorrow's deadline for a new constitution?

With us, the United States ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat Joseph Biden of Delaware.  Then, in our roundtable, more on the politics of the war in Iraq; plus, interest groups battle over the John Roberts nomination, and Senator Hillary Clinton picks up a new opponent.  Insights and analysis from E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Byron York of the National Review.

But, first, the war in Iraq.  We're joined in Baghdad by the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad.

Welcome, Mr. Ambassador.

AMB. ZALMAY KHALILZAD:  Well, thank you for inviting me.  It's good to be with you.

MS. MITCHELL:  Mr. Ambassador, what is the status of the constitution?  You are facing a deadline of tomorrow.  One of our guests to follow you, Senator Joe Biden, has said at your confirmation hearing that if you meet this deadline of August 15, he will put you up for the Nobel Peace Prize.  Are you going to deserve that prize?

AMB. KHALILZAD:  Well, of course, the decision, with regard to the constitution, is made by the Iraqis.  But given what you have said, reminding me of that, I will work as hard as I can to see if I can encourage the Iraqis to produce that draft tomorrow.

MS. MITCHELL:  Mr. Ambassador, you have said that it is their decision, but we are told that you, in fact, gave them draft language, and one of the criticisms might be that you are going to help the insurgents by undermining the legitimacy of this outcome.  If they do get a constitution, they'll say it's "made in America."  How do you respond to that?

AMB. KHALILZAD:  One of the big problems that Iraq faces, Andrea, is that there is not agreement among the major communities in Iraq, particularly with the Sunni Arabs.  With regard to the current political arrangement in Iraq, the constitution provides an opportunity to decide on a national compact in which all communities, including Sunnis, will participate, and that's isolate insurgency, which is strong in the Sunni Arab area.  The insurgents are trying to derail this process, but they will fail.  My role--what I've done is to provide bridging options, when there have been disagreements, and Iraqis, obviously, will decide if they can choose or ignore the options that we have provided to them.  As I said, my role is here to help.  I'm happy if I'm not needed.  But we have a lot at stake here.  We want to do everything we can properly to be helpful to them when our help is needed.

MS. MITCHELL:  Mr. Ambassador, the Sunnis have threatened to boycott this process.  Do you think you can you get them to buy into it?

AMB. KHALILZAD:  Oh, it's very important that the Sunnis participate in the political process.  Without them participating, the insurgency will have a substantial base of support.  It will be harder to isolate and defeat them. And so it's very critical to have Sunni participation and buy in.  We may not get all of the Sunnis that are out there, but I believe there will be a significant change.  Most Sunnis are likely to support the draft that's under consideration.  That's what I'm told, when I talk with the Sunni leaders. They are prepared, for the most part, to participate in the political process. They think it was a mistake for them to boycott the elections that took place last year.

MS. MITCHELL:  Now, perhaps, one of the biggest obstacles is the role of religious law and whether this does become a state dominated by religion, and what the role of women will be.  When you briefed the president on Thursday by video telephone down in Crawford, he said afterwards that he had some comments about what the role of women would be.  Let me play that for you.

(Videotape, Thursday):

PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH:  Hopefully, the drafters of the constitution understand our strong belief that women ought to be treated equally in the Iraqi society. But those are issues that still are out there.

(End videotape)

MS. MITCHELL:  Now, the president said hopefully this issue will be resolved and the issue is still out there.  Are you going to tell the thousands of American women who have fought, and many have died in Iraq alongside their male colleagues, that we fought this war for a society that will not grant equal rights to women?

AMB. KHALILZAD:  I have made that clear to Iraqis that we believe very strongly that equality between men and women before the law lack of discrimination is vital, that any country that wants to be successful and discriminates against more than half of its population will not succeed and Iraq must succeed and, therefore, to tie the hands of half of its population behind their backs or to move forward without the full energies of all of the Iraqis, that would be a terrible mistake, that this is an issue of critical importance to the international community, to the United States and to the Iraqi women.  I have every expectation that the draft constitution will grant equal rights to men and women and that our efforts and the effort of many women here in Iraq and the international community will ultimately pay off on this score.

MS. MITCHELL:  Let's turn to the next step.  If you do get a constitution, do you believe that there will be a need for more troops to guarantee the referendum on the constitution in October and again the elections in December, at least in the short term?

AMB. KHALILZAD:  Well, it's possible that there will be some increase for the elections, but those are recommendations that our military folks will have to make and the president will have to decide.  But we're working very hard to build up Iraqi security institutions not only in terms of numbers and quality but also in terms of the trust of all Iraqi communities in them.  Clearly the national compact is critical but also building Iraqi institutions so that they can look after Iraqi security needs.  There's another critical element of the strategy that I'm trying to implement here in order to break the back of the insurgency and in order to accelerate the success of Iraq and an Iraq that can stand on its own feet.

MS. MITCHELL:  Well, just this week, the mayor of Baghdad was taken out in what he called a political coup d'etat.  There was a kidnapping as well of an interior minister official.  How are you going to deal with this insurgency? The American officials have said that the insurgency is not supported locally, but it keeps replicating and expanding.  It does seem to have a good deal of local support.

AMB. KHALILZAD:  Well, Iraq is going, Andrea, through a very difficult transition from an authoritarian dictatorship that was the case under Saddam to a new kind of Iraq, a democratic Iraq.  And, you know, the institutions that existed in Iraq, the army, the police, were destroyed.  New institutions are coming up.  There are elements of old and elements of new in this transition.  And so you have instances of the kind that you talked about. Building national institutions, transitioning countries or a country like Iraq in a difficult neighborhood to become a democratic state is very hard and the road ahead will not be easy, but we have a strategy for success.  Iraqis would like to succeed.  We have no good alternative to success here.  But the difficult situation that we face now will persist.  The American people need to be aware of that, that we have taken on a very vital, important but difficult task--the transformation of Iraq from an authoritarian regime to a democratic regime which will take time to achieve.

MS. MITCHELL:  How much of a problem is Iran, Syria and, in fact, terrorists coming from Saudi Arabia?  How much are you experiencing from across the border and are there, in fact, weapons coming in from Iran?

AMB. KHALILZAD:  There's a third requirement for success to diminish and end support for the insurgency from the neighboring states.  Syria is the most serious troublemaker when regard to Iraq.  Iran is the second one.  Some young Arabs come from countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia also to undermined stability in Iraq or to add to the insurgency here.  We're working together with the Iraqis, and my colleagues in Washington also are working to devise strategies to encourage these countries to stop undermining what's happening here positively.

It is a requirement for success here, but the policies of undermining stability here has changed.  We need a new way of interaction among states of the area not to look at the difficulties of their neighbors' opportunity but rather to cooperate with this new Iraq.  Iraq will succeed.  The neighbors can make it harder, therefore, causing it to take longer for Iraq to succeed.  It behooves them to work with this new Iraq because Iraqis will remember when they do succeed, who was working with them and who was working against them.

MS. MITCHELL:  Ambassador, to succeed, especially with declining political support at home, do you think it's going to be possible, as General Casey has suggested, to begin withdrawing troops by next spring?  I know that's a Pentagon judgment, but you know the situation on the ground better than anyone.

AMB. KHALILZAD:  Well, it's very important, as I said before, that we have Iraqi institutions that can look after Iraqi security needs.  As Iraqi capabilities go up, our forces can come down, assuming that the insurgency doesn't increase and the political process that I described succeeds.  I cannot be specific in terms of the time line and the numbers at this point. We have got a joint group with the Iraqis to work on conditions and circumstances that could allow change in the composition of our forces, the size of our forces.  The principle is, as I described, a recommendation on the specifics will be made by our military folks and the president, obviously, will make the ultimate decision.

MS. MITCHELL:  Ambassador, thank you very much.  Good luck to you and your colleagues in your very challenging mission.  And be safe.

AMB. KHALILZAD:  Well, thank you very much.  Thank you very much, Andrea.

MS. MITCHELL:  And coming next, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee weighs in; Democrat Joe Biden is next.  And then our political roundtable with E.J. Dionne and Byron York, all coming up on MEET THE PRESS.

                               (Announcements)

MS. MITCHELL:  Democrat Joe Biden, then our political roundtable after this brief station break.

                               (Announcements)

MS. MITCHELL:  We're back, joined by the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden.

Welcome.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN, (D-DE):  How are you doing, Andrea?  It's great to be with you, Andrea.

MS. MITCHELL:  Good to be with you.  Let's start, first of all, with today's Washington Post, today's headlines.  The lead story:  "U.S. Lowers Sights on What Can Be Achieved in Iraq."  It says, "The Bush administration is significantly lowering expectations of what can be achieved in Iraq, recognizing that the United States will have to settle for far less progress than originally envisioned during the transition due to end in four months, according to U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad.  The United States no longer expects to see a model new democracy, a self-supporting oil industry or a society in which the majority of people are free from serious security or economic challenges, U.S. officials say."

Are you seeing this possible leak as an exit strategy?

SEN. BIDEN:  Absolutely.  I think that the administration has significantly downgraded their expectations.  They have squandered about every opportunity to get it right.  The best thing they've done so far is the man you've just spoken to, our ambassador there, who seems to understand it better than anyone in the administration.  But the bottom line is, they are significantly lowering expectations.

MS. MITCHELL:  I want to return to that in just a few minutes, but I also want to get to today's headline in The New York Times...

SEN. BIDEN:  Yeah.

MS. MITCHELL:  ...because The Times' lead story says that the U.S. is struggling once again, for the second time, in fact, with body armor, that the body armor is failing our troops.  This is a critical issue.

SEN. BIDEN:  It...

MS. MITCHELL:  What is your response to this and how does this happen?

SEN. BIDEN:  Well, you know, I don't understand how it happens.  Imagine if Secretary Rumsfeld was the CEO of a corporation.  These guys talk about how they came from business backgrounds.  He'd be fired by now.  The idea that we are at this moment, with this headline saying "U.S. Struggles to Get Soldiers Updated Armor," is absolutely irresponsible.  And I realize all the problems. If you read the article, it goes back two and a half years and the mistakes consistently being made.  And I just--I don't get it.  I think Rumsfeld should get his notice on Monday morning.

MS. MITCHELL:  Well, in fact, one of your colleagues, one of your Republican colleagues, John McCain, this morning on FOX reiterated what he said previously:  that he does not have confidence in Don Rumsfeld.  Is Rumsfeld just a...

SEN. BIDEN:  No one does but the president.

MS. MITCHELL:  ...convenient whipping boy for this, though?

SEN. BIDEN:  No.

MS. MITCHELL:  This is the president, this is the Pentagon; I mean, this is larger than just one defense secretary, is it not?

SEN. BIDEN:  No, that's true, but we can't fire the president and the vice president for their incompetence, to the extent that it exists, but you can, in fact, do that with the secretary of defense.  And look, one of the reasons we've had difficulty getting others to get involved, meaning our European friends, NATO, the EU--they look out there, and as long as Rumsfeld's in charge of this operation, as opposed to the uniformed military, they virtually have no confidence in our ability to get the job done.  And I just think it is--I don't understand the president's willingness to continue to follow the advice of a man who has not been right on a single major piece of advice he's given the president since the statue of Saddam has fallen in that circle on that fateful day over two and a half years ago.

MS. MITCHELL:  Well, in addition to the military challenge that we face minute by minute in Iraq, obviously today a major political challenge; you just heard from the ambassador...

SEN. BIDEN:  Yes.

MS. MITCHELL:  ...the president, as you heard this morning, said on Thursday in Crawford that hopefully--hopefully--we will be able to have a constitution there that permits equal rights for women.  After $215 billion spent since the war began, just on the military side, not even on reconstruction, and, of course, the most important value, the more than 1,800 American troops that have lost their lives and countless others who have been injured, are we creating a fundamentalist country there that is more rigid, more hard-line, than what originally existed under Saddam Hussein?

SEN. BIDEN:  Well, hopefully, that won't occur.  But it's become a likelihood, or it's very probable that we may face that problem.  And it's because we have misread, misrepresented, and misunderstood from the day we've gone in with this civilian side of this administration exactly what was going on in Iraq.

And, look, you have Zal now, our new ambassador, in place.  If he had been there from the beginning, I doubt whether we would be in this place.  You look, Andrea, and for the past six to 10 months, we have virtually had hands-off in terms of anything having to do with the constitution, refusing to bring in any regional powers to be part of the political success that may be enjoyed in Iraq, and only now with Zal coming in at the very end, he may be able to pull the chestnuts out of the fire, but we have squandered one opportunity after another.  And it's frustrating.  It is really--and it makes it hard to support this administration.

MS. MITCHELL:  Well, Secretary Rice told Time magazine last week that the real measure of progress will be political progress.  She said, in fact, to Time, that the insurgents are "losing steam."  Do you agree with that?

SEN. BIDEN:  I see no evidence of that.  And it's questionable whether or not political progress alone, without military progress and progress in reconstruction on the ground, changing the lives of the people who live in the neighborhoods that are now wracked with crime, have sewage running in their streets, have no electricity, have no jobs--I don't--I'm not sure that political progress alone, absent those military and economic progress, is going to make the difference that this administration seems to be counting on.

MS. MITCHELL:  Let's talk about the troops and whether or not we are stretched too thin...

SEN. BIDEN:  Oh, we are.

MS. MITCHELL:  ...as one of our analysts, General Barry McCaffrey, has suggested.  Are we stretched too thin?

SEN. BIDEN:  Absolutely.  Positively.  From the very beginning, when we went in with too few troops, we fired General Shinseki, the chief of the Army, for saying we need several hundred thousand troops.  That's what we needed from the beginning.  We have a situation--I just came back from my fifth trip over the Memorial Day weekend into Iraq.  Every flag officer, every general level officer I met with pointed out that we don't have enough troops to mount a sufficient counterinsurgency.  That area of Anbar province, which is up against the Syrian border--these brave Marines go in, they clear it out, they cannot stay in, occupy it, it fills back up again.  And so now there's this race, this race against time.  Can the insurgents bring more people in from the outside, jihadists, before we can train up an adequate military in Iraq? And that's going to take at least another year.

MS. MITCHELL:  Another year?  Well, Senator, Secretary Rumsfeld and General Myers both said this week that we've now trained and equipped, to use their language, 178,000 Iraqi troops.  That's 5,000 more than what they had told Congress a month ago.  So they say they're making progress.

SEN. BIDEN:  That is...

MS. MITCHELL:  You told FOX a week ago--you told our friends at FOX, that only 3,000 are really trained and equipped and able to stand on their own. That's a very...

SEN. BIDEN:  Fewer than 3,000.

MS. MITCHELL:  Well, how do you account for that disparity?  Are you lowballing it?

SEN. BIDEN:  Well--no, I'm not.

MS. MITCHELL:  Are they exaggerating it?

SEN. BIDEN:  Look, I can tell you with absolute certainty that the number of troops that we have trained out of 100 battalions that are in uniform--and battalions make 300 to 800 people in each battalion.  These are Iraqi battalions.  We have fully trained fewer than 3,000.  Fully trained meaning they can take the place of an American troop.  We have another probably 20 to 30 battalions out there that, with embedded U.S. military, are able to do a serious, positive job.  After that, it falls off the cliff.

If we have 178,000 troops that are already trained, Andrea, why do we need 130,000 American troops which would get you over 300,000 people in Iraq, with the body counts going up, with the insurgency gaining strength?  And the president continues to say he is pleased with the training schedule.  I don't know any military man or woman in Iraq who's pleased with that schedule.

MS. MITCHELL:  Well, let me show you what the president said only this week about that.

(Videotape, Thursday):

PRES. BUSH:  Our mission in Iraq, as I said earlier, is to fight the terrorists, is to train the Iraqis, and we're making progress training the Iraqis.  Oh, I know it's hard for some Americans to see that progress.  But we are making progress.  More and more Iraqi units are becoming more and more capable of fighting off the terrorists.

(End videotape)

MS. MITCHELL:  In fact, there was a report just recently from Ramadi that there were Sunni forces willing to go to bat to protect Shiites in their area from Zarqawi attacks.

SEN. BIDEN:  Yes, but none of those...

MS. MITCHELL:  So is there some progress?

SEN. BIDEN:  Well, there is some progress, but just to get that straight, the Sunnis who went to bat to protect the Shia against al-Qaeda forces were not trained by the United States.  They were tribal forces that were taking on in their region the al-Qaeda elements of Zarqawi.  That is a very positive step, but that is not an organized army.  That is not the trained military we are talking about.  It is useful.  It is positive.

But, look, Andrea, my greatest concern is this gigantic riff between the rhetoric we hear from the administration and the reality on the ground and it's causing the American people to abandon what is an essential fight we have.  We must succeed in Iraq leaving a stable country behind that's not a haven for terror and we need more time to do that.  And when the president continues to talk about this success, the American people just turn on your channel, they turn on your television.  They understand that they are not being leveled with here.

MS. MITCHELL:  Senator Biden, what should the endgame be?  Big picture.  Do we need to create a democracy in Iraq?  Is that even realistic?  What is the definition of success?

SEN. BIDEN:  Well, my definition of success from the very beginning has been not a democracy.  It will not happen in my lifetime there will be a liberal democracy.  What I am hoping for, along with Republicans members of the Senate, as well Hagel and Lugar and others, has been that there be a secure nation within its borders that's basically a representative government where everybody thinks they've got a piece of the action that is federated in part where there is more autonomy given to the regions than ordinarily would be assumed in a united democracy, and the institutions in place where there is enough ability for that government, whatever is elected, to secure the physical safety of its people and not be a threat to its neighbors.  That is as good as it is going to get and pray God that that's what happens.  But the idea of a liberal democracy with institutions that function like Western democracies is beyond my comprehension in the near term.

MS. MITCHELL:  There is a mother of a soldier who died in Iraq who is protesting down in Crawford and has now been joined by organized anti-war protesters.  Do you agree with Cindy Sheehan?  Should we withdraw immediately?

SEN. BIDEN:  No, we should not withdraw immediately.  The fact of the matter is if we withdraw immediately, now we're going to end up with a haven for terror, the very thing that didn't exist before, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy in the middle of a region that is of vital interest to us.  We have a lot of hard slogging to go and the first measure is to level with the American people about how much more is needed.  If you listen to--and you did obviously--to the ambassador, he said, "We need more time," and he indicated something--he's the first administration official to say it, something that I've been saying and others for some time.  We need a regional policy.

When we're in the Balkans, we, in fact, dealt with the Croates as well as the Serbs in order to the Dayton accords.  We need a regional policy that encompasses some sort of agreement and deal with the Iranians, the Syrians, the Saudis.  The irony here is you have the United States and the Iranians pitching in with the Shia and the Kurds and you have the Saudis and the Syrians promoting the Sunni extremism.  There's got to be a regional policy here.  They have none thus far.

MS. MITCHELL:  Let me show you a recent poll of how the American people now view the situation in Iraq.  The CNN-Gallup Poll says that only 34 percent now feel that it has made us safer.  Fifty-seven percent feels it's made us less safer.  The president in his radio speech yesterday said that we're fighting this war in Iraq as part of a global war on terror and we're fighting there so we don't have to fight them at home.  Is the homeland safer because of the war in Iraq?

SEN. BIDEN:  We're all better off Saddam is gone, but I--this is an example once again where the American people are brighter than their leaders, they're smarter than their leaders.  They understand fully that what's happened is it has become a training ground.  There's actually some evidence when I was there back in--Memorial Day that not only are these jihadists coming in and fighting and getting trained on the job, that they're also after being trained being exported to Europe and other parts of the world.  So the fact of the matter is we have not become safer from terrorists as a consequence of this, but the irony is unless we now finish the job, we will be considerably less safe than we were before and that's why we must stay in order to try to put a government in place that has the capacity to, in fact, secure its own country.

MS. MITCHELL:  Senator, let's turn to domestic issues.  You are a prominent member of the Judiciary Committee.

SEN. BIDEN:  Thank God I'm no longer chairman.

MS. MITCHELL:  Well, you may not be chairman, but you carry a lot of weight on that committee.  And you and seven other Democrats on the committee have written to the administration demanding documents, records from when John Roberts was in the solicitor general's office.  Is this a fishing expedition?

SEN. BIDEN:  Not at all.  There are very--it's a very narrowed request, as you know.  Walter Dellinger, the former solicitor general who pointed out in the Miguel Estrada case, saying that you should not have access to those papers, has pointed out that with a political appointment and a senior person like John Roberts there at the solicitor general's office is totally appropriate.  In addition to that, the administration has already given us those materials when he worked at the Justice Department and the White House, and so they've waived any privilege that existed.

And look, this shouldn't be a game, Andrea, a game of hide-and-seek here.  The American people are entitled to know what general views that the new nominee has on the major issues of the day.  And so instead of playing a game like us having to, you know, sort of we got you, you got to give us this document, they should be willing to be forthcoming and have to state forthrightly what his views are on a number of these major subjects.

MS. MITCHELL:  Well, would you follow your own precedent with the John Bolton nomination and oppose the nomination of John Roberts if you don't get these documents?  You opposed Bolton when you didn't get the documents...

SEN. BIDEN:  Well...

MS. MITCHELL:  ...you were looking for.

SEN. BIDEN:  Well, the answer is that my vote for or against John Bolton will depend upon how forthcoming he is about his views.

MS. MITCHELL:  You mean John Roberts.

SEN. BIDEN:  I mean, excuse me.

MS. MITCHELL:  Go ahead.  Sorry.

SEN. BIDEN:  I mean John Roberts.  Excuse me.

MS. MITCHELL:  I think that I confused everybody here.

SEN. BIDEN:  No, no, no, that was me.  My vote on Judge Roberts will depend upon how willingly forthcoming he is about his views.  Imagine us saying to a presidential candidate or a Senate or House candidate, "Look, we don't really care what your views are.  We just want to make sure that you're honest and decent and bright."  Can you imagine the public saying, "Oh, that's OK. That's all we need to know."  And here we're about to appoint someone for life; for life, and God willing, he will serve over 30 years based on the actuarial tables if he is confirmed and he is required, we are required, under the Constitution, to find out what his general views are on how to interpret those difficult clauses in the Constitution, like the liberty clause and the takings clause in the Fifth Amendment, and all other aspects of what are the defining issues of the day for the Supreme Court.

MS. MITCHELL:  So you would be prepared to vote against him if he is not specific...

SEN. BIDEN:  Oh, absolutely.

MS. MITCHELL:  ...and/or you don't get these documents?

SEN. BIDEN:  Oh, absolutely.  Absolutely, positively, and I told that to the judge when he visited with me.  I was very impressed with him.  He's a very bright fellow.  He has a great personality, and he seemed to understand that he had an obligation and a requirement not to tell us how he will vote on a particular case, but to tell us how he views and how he approaches interpreting those very, very difficult elements and words and phrases in the Constitution that have serious consequences relating to our privacy.  For example, does he believe there's a right of privacy in the Constitution?  I believe there is.  A significant number of scholars do and a significant number don't.  What is his view?  I don't want him to tell me how he would vote on any position regarding Roe v. Wade, but I do want him to tell me if whether or not he believes that there is an area of autonomy we have in our lives that the government cannot intrude upon.

MS. MITCHELL:  In fact, Roe v. Wade was predicated on the so-called right to privacy...

SEN. BIDEN:  Exactly.

MS. MITCHELL:  ...which has been challenged by legal scholars on all sides.

SEN. BIDEN:  Oh, it has.

MS. MITCHELL:  But let me ask you this.  In the last few days a prominent pro-choice group, NARAL, has withdrawn a television commercial against John Roberts, which is very controversial, which, in fact, is, by all accounts, misleading.  Would you have run that ad?

SEN. BIDEN:  Absolutely not.  It was a misleading ad, and the thing that bothers me about it is it takes our eye off the real issue and that is now we're going to debate whether or not the ad was misleading or not--and I believe it was misleading and unfair--instead of focusing on what is Judge Roberts' view on the question of whether or not the government--the Constitution protects individuals from the government being able to intrude on their autonomy, like the Schiavo case?  What does he think the extent of the power of the government to invade our personal space is and what extent does he think that the government can act as a shield against major interests, major powerful economic interests, like can we stop tobacco companies from targeting our children so that they smoke?  Is that a violation of the First Amendment?  These are issues that he should be discussing.  They're critical to our future, and I expect him to do that.

MS. MITCHELL:  Now, Senator, back in June, you stirred things up in Washington and around the country when you told my friend Bob Schieffer that is your intention now, to use your words...

SEN. BIDEN:  Yes.

MS. MITCHELL:  ...to run for president.  Are you any closer to making a decision, to establishing an exploratory committee, to raising money?

SEN. BIDEN:  Well, yes.  I'm out there.  I've spent a lot of time in the red states, Andrea, trying to find out if there's anybody but me that thinks I should run for president of the United States of America.

MS. MITCHELL:  And what have you found?

SEN. BIDEN:  Well, I've found that it does not a nomination make, but I've found some sporadic support.  Where I've gone, there's been--it's been--I've been greeted with open arms.  It does not mean that I would be the nominee, but it does mean I'm going to continue the quest to determine whether or not I can put together a campaign and raise the money and be a viable candidate for president.  That's my intention.  Now, I know I'm not supposed to tell you that; I'm only supposed to play the game like the rest of the potential nominees and say, "Well, I'm"--but I am thinking about it and that's my intention until I run against something that indicates to me that I would not be viable.  I believe I can be a viable candidate, but it's too early to make that final judgment.

MS. MITCHELL:  But aside from a final judgment, so far you're encouraged by what you're seeing...

SEN. BIDEN:  Oh, yes, I am.

MS. MITCHELL:  ...in the so-called red states?

SEN. BIDEN:  No.  No.  No, I am.  I am.  I know what I think.  I know what I believe.  And I believe that if I state clearly my views on where this country should go, if I can convince enough Democrats to share that view, that I would have a shot at being the nominee.

MS. MITCHELL:  All right.  Well, stay tuned, and we will watch that progress.

SEN. BIDEN:  Thank you.

MS. MITCHELL:  Senator, thank you very much for joining us today.

SEN. BIDEN:  Thank you, Andrea.  I appreciate it.

MS. MITCHELL:  And coming next, public opinion on Iraq:  The war ad--and the ad war over the Roberts nomination.  And Senator Clinton gets a new opponent. We'll have our roundtable with E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Byron York of the National Review.  They're next.

                               (Announcements)

MS. MITCHELL:  We're back.  E.J. Dionne and Byron York, welcome, both of you.  Well, the president goes on vacation and he goes down to Crawford, and look at what he encounters.  Some vacation.  He's got anti-war protesters on his doorstep and, of course, this woman, whose son died so tragically, Cindy Sheehan.  Let's take a look at this recent ad that she prepared, and the people around her now, the political movement around her, prepared this ad for local television down in Texas.

(Videotape, Gold Star Families for Peace Ad):

MS. CINDY SHEEHAN:  Mr. President, my name is Cindy Sheehan.  On April 4th, 2004, my son Casey was killed in Iraq.  Mr. President, I want to tell you face-to-face how much this hurts.  I love my country.  But how many more of our loved ones need to die in this senseless war?  How many more soldiers have to die before we say "Enough"?  I know you can't bring Casey back, but it is time to admit mistakes and bring our troops home now.

(End videotape)

MS. MITCHELL:  E.J., Mrs. Sheehan, for all of her suffering--has she now become part of a political movement?  And is this an unfair approach to the president?

MR. E.J. DIONNE:  Well, I don't think it's unfair.  In fact, I am still surprised that the president, when she first went down there, didn't say, "Come on in.  Talk to me."  He can be a very charming guy.  And instead, he's let her sit out there.  The fact is, one mother who lost a loved one is more effective than 200,000 demonstrators or God knows how many politicians or commentators.  And so...

MS. MITCHELL:  Now, he did meet with her once.  He met with her...

MR. DIONNE:  Correct.

MS. MITCHELL:  ...during a CBS meeting in Seattle, I believe.

MR. DIONNE:  Right.  But to have her--when she went down there and said, "I want to talk to you"-- there are a lot of Americans who have doubts about this war, including people who may still want to support it.  Things aren't going well over there.  The polls show that the country has a lot more doubts now than it did six months ago.  It seems to me that it would be a good idea, and perfectly legitimate, for the president to say, "Come on in, let me talk to you."  He wouldn't persuade her, but I think he would show a lot of Americans that, yes, he understands, a lot of people, including people with kids over there, have doubts about the war.

MS. MITCHELL:  Byron York, it does seem a little ham-handed, politically. This is the crowd that's supposed to be so smart politically.

MR. BYRON YORK:  Right.

MS. MITCHELL:  How did they let this one woman become the symbol for the entire anti-war movement?

MR. YORK:  Well, the White House points out that the president has met personally with hundreds of family members of servicemen and women killed in the war.  But this has become a very political event.  The White House has to deal with her very sensitively because she did suffer this terrible loss, and her son did die in service to the United States.  So they--she has standing to be doing what she's doing.  On the other hand, the White House knows that the only person who can really damage her credibility is Cindy Sheehan herself. She took part in a conference call I think on Wednesday, which I listened to. It was moderated by Joe Trippi, the Democratic strategist, and another Democratic strategist, Bob Fertig, of a Web site called...

MS. MITCHELL:  This was a conference call with bloggers.  So she was...

MR. YORK:  Exactly.

MS. MITCHELL:  ...setting off another storm about...

MR. YORK:  Of a site called Democrats.com.  And she said--she thanked her anti-war bloggers for all their support.  She said, "Thank God for the Internet.  Without it, we'd already be a fascist state because one party controls everything, and the mainstream media is the propaganda tool of the government."

Now, this is the kind of rhetoric that you normally associate with fringe elements on the left.  And if she does more of that, I think she'll diminish her own credibility.

MR. DIONNE:  But the point is that she has still started this out as a mother of a son who served the country.  And I think that any kind of attack against her has the potential of backfiring because she did suffer this loss, regardless of what she says.

MR. YORK:  I just think...

MS. MITCHELL:  And it certainly doesn't help when you see the...

MR. DIONNE:  And I...

MS. MITCHELL:  ...videotape of the motorcade rushing past the protesters on their way to a Republican fund-raiser at a neighboring ranch.

MR. YORK:  But in my talks--talking with administration officials...

MS. MITCHELL:  That's not great PR.

MR. YORK:  ...they do not want to criticize her.  I mean, they said to me in privacy we're going to give her as much room as she needs.  There is no plan for the president to meet with her now because he said he has met with hundreds and hundreds of families.  But they--in private they have not criticized this woman.

MS. MITCHELL:  Well, does this play into a bigger problem, the declining support that you've both referenced to the war, the fact that the polls show the president has a political problem?  Take a look at some of these numbers. If you look at the Newsweek approval ratings, 34 percent approving of the way the president is handling the war; 61 percent disapproving.  Then if you look at Gallup, when asked whether the war is going well--How are things going for the U.S. in Iraq?--only 43 percent think that it's going well; 56 percent thinks it's not going well.

Byron, how does he deal with this?

MR. YORK:  One way he deals with it is to talk more about it.  I think he's gotten some criticism from Republicans and conservatives for not talking about this enough.  He has spent many months talking about Social Security earlier in the year and White House officials point out that, you know, after the elections on January 30, things were going pretty well, so the president didn't talk about it as much.  Then he makes a speech down at Ft. Bragg.  Then we haven't heard more about it lately.  He's getting-- he needs to talk more about this, more frequently, and explain what's going on and what his plans are.

MS. MITCHELL:  Should he shorten his time at the ranch?

MR. YORK:  I don't see that that's necessary.  I mean, he's traveling around all over the place.  He's in the news all of the time.  So I don't think physically being in Washington is the thing.  I think that talking about the war.  And the other thing about this is that, since this is a war and a life or death issue, people are very anxious about it, and the conventional wisdom tends to just very wildly back and forth.  If you remember, after the elections, when there was progress not only in Iraq but in Lebanon and Libya, there were a lot of the president's adversaries who were saying, "Wow, do you think Bush was right about all this?"  And now the conventional wisdom--and it wasn't that good.  The reality was not as good as the conventional wisdom at the time.  Now, things are looking bad, and the conventional wisdom has plunged, and I think it's probably not as bad as that is.

MS. MITCHELL:  But take a look at The Washington Post which we talked about earlier with Joe Biden:  "Can The U.S. Lower Its Sights On What Can Be Achieved In Iraq."  E.J., is this the beginning of an exit strategy?

MR. DIONNE:  Right.  Well, I think the administration's problem--I agree with Byron, the president really hasn't made much of a case for his policy for quite a while, but I think it's deeper than that.  I think you're getting these contradictory signals from the administration.  One day, the president says, "We're there for the duration, whatever that is," and then you have these signals from other parts of the administration, saying, "We're lowering our sights."

Secondly, I think the big problem here goes all the way back to the beginning, not just that the administration may have tried to fool the American people. I don't think that's the issue.  I think it fooled itself as to how easy this would be on this program.  Vice President Cheney right before the war on every single question that Tim Russert asked, he took the optimistic position, "No, we don't have to worry about this, the number of troops, the Shia, the Kurds and the Sunnis," and it turns out to be much more difficult.

I think there's a third factor here which is that this war was never broadly popular.  If you go all the way back when the president started selling the war in 2002, what you found is 56 percent of the people would said, "Yeah, we would like to throw Saddam out of power," but then a quarter of that support melted away when people were asked, "Would you like to do this if we didn't have allies?"  This war never had real hard-core support of more than 40 percent of Americans.  When the news is good, as Byron says, it bumps up a little bit.  But at base, this is not a popular war.

MS. MITCHELL:  Byron, why do we get these conflicting signals?  Why is General Casey saying that perhaps there could be a troop drawdown by spring? And then the president comes out on Thursday and says...

MR. YORK:  Right.

MS. MITCHELL:  ..."No, you know, we're staying the course."

MR. YORK:  Right.

MS. MITCHELL:  Is there a pull, a tug-of-war still going on on the policy front that's internally?

MR. YORK:  Well, I don't think they've done a great job of coordinating the message, but that particular thing just drives me crazy.  I talked to several people yesterday in the administration who pointed out that in March General Casey had said, "If the political process goes well, there can be a fairly substantial reduction in troops."  So they feel that Casey is not saying anything different now than he was then.

But as far as the article in The Post is concerned, there has been a conflict going on inside the administration about this war from the very beginning. Some of the things in the article I think are accurate in the sense that people are telling me that, you know, "Do not expect us to defeat this insurgency."

MS. MITCHELL:  So they're lowering expectations.

MR. YORK:  To some degree, yes.  They say insurgencies can take a long time to defeat.  We have no plans to be there that long and they have to be defeated domestically as opposed to foreign sources.  On the other hand, some of these things in this article are sources setting up a straw man, saying, "We wanted to do this, and now we're failing to knock it down."

MS. MITCHELL:  Let's talk about the domestic policy and, of course, the John Roberts' confirmation battle.  The NARAL ad, which by all accounts is misleading, distorting, refers to, in fact, a clinic bombing that took place long after--many, many years after John Roberts filed a brief.  Let's take a look at the ad in question.

(Videotape of NARAL Pro-Choice America Ad):

Announcer:  Seven years ago, a bomb destroyed a women's health clinic in Birmingham, Alabama.

MS. EMILY LYONS:  When the bomb ripped through my clinic, I almost lost my life.  I will never be the same.

Announcer:  Supreme Court nominee John Roberts filed court briefs supporting violent fringe groups and a convicted clinic bomber.

(End videotape)

MS. MITCHELL:  E.J., you're one of the people who wrote that this ad was outrageous.  Has this pro- choice group hurt the efforts by many liberals to block John Roberts' nomination?

MR. DIONNE:  Yeah, I think this ad was outrageous.  I mean, I'm a liberal.  I didn't like the Swift Boat ads at all and what they did to John Kerry and I didn't like what this ad did to John Roberts.  And I think the problem with the ad--it's not only the question of whether he was tied to clinic bombings--of course, he wasn't--but also that the real issue here is that the administration has been unforthcoming with these documents, that this really is a fight about the issue.  Senator Biden mentioned this.  And I think the argument to be had is, "Look, this is nomination that could change the direction of the U.S. Supreme Court.  The administration and Mr. Roberts need to be forthcoming."  This was both wrong and a terrible distraction, and I'm sure glad they pulled it off the air.

MS. MITCHELL:  Well, some Democrats, in fact, are criticizing them for pulling it of the air, saying that the conservatives supporting the Swift Boat ads didn't yank those ads when they were criticized.  Are liberals wimps, Byron?

MR. YORK:  No.  I think you can ask Robert Bork that question and he'll say no, but I think the White House and the administration were happy that this ad situation worked out the way it did because it really blew up in the face of a number of Democrats and it caused them to--it distracted them from what they think is their greater issue as E.J. said which is the documents.

MS. MITCHELL:  Now, why didn't they--why won't they turn over those documents...

MR. YORK:  Yeah.

MS. MITCHELL:  ...and do you think they're going to have to?

MR. YORK:  Well, first of all, they've turned over a lot of documents.

MS. MITCHELL:  Yes.  But what he was talking about are the solicitor general documents?

MR. YORK:  The way they explained it, there are three types of documents. There are documents that had to do when Roberts was working for Attorney General William French Smith.  Those were declassified in the Clinton administration.  The White House got ahead of the game, turned them over. "See how nice we are?  Here are all of the documents."  The documents from the Reagan White House counsel's office, covered by the Presidential Records Act are out of the Reagan library, those are going to be given up.

Now, they're holding the line on these documents from the solicitor general's office.  A number of former solicitor generals support them on this, and they got a huge bit of news when Arlen Specter, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, supported them on it.  On the other hand, they're going to have a hard time making the the argument that, "We released all these documents, but we're not going to release these."  So that's going to be the crux of the fight.

MS. MITCHELL:  Bottom line, is he going to be confirmed or not, Byron?

MR. YORK:  Yes.

MR. DIONNE:  My guess is yes, but I think the administration really does have to turn over these things, and you're not a wimp when you look at a weapon that's shooting in your face and you stop shooting it.

MS. MITCHELL:  But let's also talk about another political battle which is Hillary Clinton's new opponent in New York.  Let's take a look at what could be one of the most lively races, Jeanine Pirro, the county D.A. in Westchester County, who launched her campaign, and take a look at her launch. Here she is trying to describe and explain why she is running again Hillary Clinton.  She had a page missing.  Not exactly a great kickoff.

E.J., is this a real threat to Mrs. Clinton?

MR. DIONNE:  I think that Ms. Pirro's challenge is not to have her entire campaign defined by the sentence, "Do you have page 10?"  It was really a remarkable moment.  Look, she's a lady...

MS. MITCHELL:  And her husband was nowhere in sight, of course.  He is a convicted felon.  Is this also going to be race where you've got two very accomplished women trying to keep their husbands off of the podium?

MR. DIONNE:  Given the comparison, I think Mrs. Clinton may bring out her husband as often as possible.  You know, she is taking a chance.  Mrs. Clinton is way ahead in the polls.  She's been a very good politician in New York state and Ms. Pirro is hoping to get at least some attention out of this. She's got to run at least better than Congressman Lazio did against Mrs. Clinton last time, which wasn't that good.  This was not an auspicious start for her campaign.

MS. MITCHELL:  But, Byron, does Hillary Clinton have to come up with an answer in '06 when she's running for re-election as to whether or not she is then going to turn around and run for president in '08?

MR. YORK:  I don't think so.  I don't think she's facing an unforgiving public in New York, and I think if she runs for re-election and wins, which she most likely will, she'll be able to turn around and run for president and not alienate any of her supporters, although her husband did say recently that, you know, you look--you have to look to the next election or you may not get past the next election.

MS. MITCHELL:  And briefly, we've got just a few seconds left--a transportation bill, $286 billion, more than 6,000 projects.  Byron York, whatever happened to the George W. Bush who said he would veto pork projects?

MR. YORK:  He gave up on it.  He tried and tried and tried and gave up on it, and now we have money going to--my favorite is the Packard museum in Ohio.

MS. MITCHELL:  Well, it wasn't bad--the beautification of the Ronald Reagan Expressway, either.  That's a real contradiction.

MR. YORK:  True.

MR. DIONNE:  And you have the combination of the transportation bill with this energy bill that's just a whole bunch of tax breaks for oil and gas.  I think Congressman Ed Markey said it best.  He said, "Adam Smith is spinning in his grave so fast that he would qualify for a tax break as an energy source under this bill."

MS. MITCHELL:  And...

MR. DIONNE:  That's what's happened to free-market economics.

MS. MITCHELL:  ...with oil pushing $70 a barrel and no--nothing in the energy bill that will help that.  Thank you very much.  We've got to leave it there.

And we will be right back.

                               (Announcements)

MS. MITCHELL:  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.  If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.

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