NBC "MEET THE PRESS"
HOST: TIM RUSSERT
GUESTS: SENATOR BARACK OBAMA (D-IL); DAVID BRODER, THE WASHINGTON POST; CHARLIE COOK, THE NATIONAL JOURNAL; JOHN HARWOOD, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL; ROBERT NOVAK, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST
MR. RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday -- only 16 days until the midterm election. Will the Democrats retake control of the Congress? What would they do if they did? With us -- the keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic Convention and author of his new book, "Audacity of Hope, Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream," Senator Barack Obama of Illinois.
Then insights, analysis, and even a few predictions from our roundtable -- David Broder of The Washington Post; Charlie Cook of The National Journal; John Harwood of The Wall Street Journal; and Robert Novak of The Chicago Sun-Times.
But, first, he has crisscrossed the nation campaigning for his fellow Democrats and perhaps positioning himself for his own presidential run. With us, Senator Barack Obama, welcome back to "Meet the Press."
SEN. OBAMA: Great to see you, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me start with Iraq, because you write about it in your book, and you've been talking about it on the campaign a little bit. This is what you told "New Yorker" magazine, "There's an old saying in politics -- when your opponent's in trouble, just get out of the way. In political terms, I don't think the Democrats are obligated to solve Iraq for the administration." Is there an obligation in non-political terms?
SEN. OBAMA: Yes. And then if you follow up the quote in that magazine article what I said is, "despite the politics." We have young men and women who are putting their lives at stake in Iraq, we're making an enormous investment on the part of the American people, and so we do have an obligation to step up. And so what I've been saying, of late, on the campaign trail is that given the rapidly deteriorating situation down there, it is incumbent upon all of the leadership in Washington to execute a serious change of course in Iraq, and I think that involves a phased -- the beginnings of a phased withdrawal that would put more of the onus on the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people to make a decision about what kind of Iraq they want and also to engage the regional powers, whether it's Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria, to say, "You can't sit on the sidelines. You have a stake in a stabilized Iraq."
MR. RUSSERT: In your book, page 302, you write that we should begin this phased withdrawal by the end of 2006.
SEN. OBAMA: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: That's within the next 70 days.
SEN. OBAMA: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: That's your position?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, what I would do is to sit down with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at this point and say, "We are going to begin this phased withdrawal. How quickly can we begin this in a responsible way in consultation with the Iraqi government, and it may be now." Keep in mind, I was writing this three or four months ago. It may be at this point that it happens at the beginning of the year. But the most important thing is to send a strong signal that we can't arbitrate a civil war. We can't impose a military solution on the problems in Iraq. What we're going to have to do is make all the parties involved come to some sort of political accommodation, and they're going to have to make a decision about the kind of country that they want to live in.
MR. RUSSERT: Two years ago, in September of '04, this is what you told the Associated Press, "Democratic Senate candidate Barack Obama opposed invading Iraq but pulling out now, he said, would make things worse. 'A quick withdrawal would add to the chaos there and make it an extraordinary hotbed of terrorist activity,' he said. It would also 'damage America's international prestige and amount to a slap in the face to the troops fighting there.'"
So two years from now -- from then -- you no longer believe pulling out would damage our prestige or slap our soldiers in the face?
SEN. OBAMA: At the time, as you know, I thought this whole venture was poorly conceived -- not just poorly executed by poorly conceived. I think it was a mistake for us to go in. I felt that once we had gone in, it made sense for us to try to make the best of the situation, and my hope was that the Iraqi government could, in some ways, bring about some sort of stability in the region.
What we've seen is such a rapid deterioration of the situation -- there was an article in The New York Times on Saturday where the government isn't even venturing into some neighborhoods in Baghdad to pick up bodies, and an Iraqi was quoted as saying, "If a government can't come to pick up the bodies because it's too afraid, is it really a government?" And I think that's the question that we have to ask ourselves right now.
Given the deteriorating situation, it is clear at this point that we cannot, through putting in more troops or maintaining the presence that we have, expect that somehow the situation is going to improve, and we have to do something significant to break the pattern that we've been in right now.
MR. RUSSERT: What if we do get out and more foreign terrorists pour across the borders and create in Iraq something like Afghanistan in the '90s. What do we do?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, look, by the president's own National Intelligence Estimate, we've been creating more terrorists as a consequence of our occupation of Iraq. There are no good options in Iraq. There are bad options and worse options.
What we can't do is continue a pattern in which we effectively say we are supporting this government. We send in troops into Baghdad to do policing work; our casualties spike up; the administration feels political heat; pulls them back; and we continue on this cycle which could go on indefinitely. We've got to change the pattern and get Iraqis and the regional powers to take seriously the task of trying to figure out how they can live together.
MR. RUSSERT: You write about the Democratic Party in your book, and this is part of it, "We Democrats are just -- well -- confused. Mainly, though, the Democratic Party has become the party of reaction. In reaction to a war that is ill-conceived, we appear suspicious of all military action." What are you saying?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think that after 9/11, all of us rallied around the president. It was an enormous shock to the system, and we were rooting for this administration to execute a national security plan that would make sense. That put Democrats, I think, on the defensive, because they didn't want to appear to be challenging a wartime president.
And that is what I'm writing about -- that sense that we can't challenge and come up with our own national security plan.
What I've seen in this election, and I think part of the reason the Democrats are doing well all across the country is that free pass is, I think, over, and you've seen Democrats emboldened and have a sense that we cannot continue on the path that we're on now, and so the consequence, you're seeing, I think, much more straightforward, much more aggressive questioning of the administration and, hopefully, an exploration by the Democrats of how we can actual improve the situation.
MR. RUSSERT: You write this, "Why invade Iraq and not North Korea or Burma? Why intervene in Bosnia and not Darfur?" Would you invade North Korea?
SEN. OBAMA: No, I don't think that's an option. They've got a million troops in uniform, very well trained. The point I was making in that passage is that after 9/11, we had an opportunity to do what Truman and Marshall and Atcheson did after World War II, which is to say how are we going to come up with an over-arching national security strategy that will allow us to engage our allies, rebuild international institutions, many of which are creaky and have outlived their usefulness? How do we determine where our national interests necessitate deploying troops and where do we use diplomacy and other tools?
That national security strategy has never been forthcoming, and because of that not only has our military actions lack legitimacy around the world, but the American people have questioned them, and there's a saying in the military that "legitimacy is a force multiplier." That if the American people are brought into our efforts, and our allies are brought into our efforts, then we are going to be more successful than what it appears that we are just acting randomly -- or, based on ideological predispositions, and that, I think, has been one of the central problems of this administration.
MR. RUSSERT: But of North Korea and/or Iran continue to develop their nuclear arsenal --
SEN. OBAMA: -- right --
MR. RUSSERT: -- and sanctions don't work --
SEN. OBAMA: -- right --
MR. RUSSERT: -- you would be opposed to military action?
SEN. OBAMA: Look, I think that military options have to be on the table when you're dealing with rogue states that have shown constant hostility towards the United States. The point that I would make, though, is we have not explored all of our options, and I'll give you one very good example. James Baker said recently he does not know why we would not talk to our enemies during the entire Cold War, at the peak of the Cold War, when there were nuclear missiles pointed at every major U.S. city, there was a direct line between the White House and the Kremlin.
We have not explored any kind of dialog with either Iran or North Korea, and I think that has been a mistake. As a consequence, we have almost no leverage over them; we end up having to use surrogates in order to try to communicate to them to find out what their interests are, what their bottom lines are, and to send clear messages to them about what we think is acceptable or unacceptable.
So I think military options always have to remain on the table, but I think that when we leave all the other tools in the toolkit, then we are doing a disservice to the American people.
MR. RUSSERT: Would you have direct negotiations between the president of the United States and Kim Jong Il?
SEN. OBAMA: What I would do is, at this point, given the provocation of the recent nuclear test, let's try to get these sanctions to work. I think the administration, which has not done a very good job on the North Korea issue, partly because it's been bogged down in Iraq, right now is taking some of the right steps. Let's reconvene the six-party talks. China and South Korea are central to those efforts.
But I think that, in time, it would make sense for us to initiate some bilateral conversations in parallel with the six-party talks partly because it would strengthen, I think, the commitment of China and South Korea to really put some pressure on North Korea.
MR. RUSSERT: Would you commit U.S. troops to Darfur?
SEN. OBAMA: What I would do is, I would take more leadership than we have taken in forming an international protective force in Darfur. I think when you have situations involving genocide, it is important for us, as a world community, and the United States is the world's sole superpower, for us to take that seriously and to make commitments of resources to deal with it.
The problem is, we haven't prioritized that partly, again, because of Iraq. Iraq has consumed all our foreign policy. We have almost no political capital around the world on anything else, and that's part of the reason why, despite very sincere efforts, I believe, on the part of the administration to do something about Darfur, I think this is an area where partly because the evangelical community has shown extraordinary and sincere concern, so has the administration, that has not been back up by any serious diplomatic efforts.
MR. RUSSERT: You write in your book this, "I also think my party can be smug, detached, and dogmatic at times. I believe in the free market, competition, entrepreneurship, and I think no small number of government programs don't work as advertised." Which programs?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, I think that if you look at how our healthcare system is structured right now -- I'm a big supporter of Medicaid and Medicare -- but I think that there's no doubt that we could squeeze more efficiencies out of those systems, simple as that.
But we don't use electronic billing for Medicare and Medicaid providers. Now, there is no other business on earth that still has people filling out paper forms to get reimbursed, especially for a system that large. We could drastically reduce the costs of those systems. So, overall, when you look at the federal budget, one of the problems that I've discovered during the time that I've been in Washington is we don't seem to have any mechanism where we look at the entire budget, and we make priorities. It is a piecemeal, haphazard process, and part of what I'd like to see is some more discipline and structure to how our budget process proceeds -- part of the reason why I worked, for example, with Republican Tom Coburn.
Recently a bill was signed by the president that we had passed that would call for all federal spending to be on a searchable Internet database. That's part of the reason why one of the provisions that I included in a recent appropriations bill called for the end to no-bid contracts when it came to Katrina reconstruction.
There are a number of steps where we could obtain significant savings, and that money could be applied to programs that do work, and one of the things that I've always said is that if you're progressive, you have at least as much of a stake, if not more, in efficient government as fiscal conservatives because money wasted on things that we don't need is money that we could have put into programs that do help the American people.
MR. RUSSERT: You talk and write a lot about bipartisanship, and I was quite taken by this comment about federal judges -- let me share it with you, "Because federal judges receive lifetime appointments and often serve through the terms of multiple presidents, it behooves the president and benefits our democracy to find moderate nominees who can garner some measure of bipartisan support." John Roberts, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, confirmed 78-22. That's some measure of bipartisan support, and yet you voted against him.
SEN. OBAMA: Yes. But I did not support a filibuster in that situation. So the -- I mean -- there's a situation where I thought John Roberts was a highly legitimate nominee. I anguished over that vote. I thought he was highly qualified for the job. I had some concerns about his record on the margins. I chose to vote against him, but I would not have supported a filibuster in that instance because I think that he was a good nominee on the part of the Bush administration.
So the point I'm making there was in the context of judicial nominations, it's important to distinguish between somebody that you may not vote for because you're not sure that their views on the Constitution comport with yours. That doesn't mean that you take extraordinary measures to block their appointment, and that is a good example of it.
MR. RUSSERT: You talk about visiting the White House and how the president was very gracious meeting members of the Congress and made a presentation, and then in the middle of the presentation -- this is how you write about it, "The president's eyes became fixed, his voice took on the agitated rapid tone of someone neither accustomed to nor welcoming interruption. His easy affability was replaced by an almost messianic certainty."
"Messianic certainty" -- those are strong words.
SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, I think the president is a complicated person. As I say in the book, I think he is a decent person, and I like him personally. I think that the president has come to approach the problems we face in very ideological, absolutist terms, and I think that's, to a large degree, characterized how the Republicans who have been controlling Congress have operated over the last several years, and I think that has been a mistake.
I think that the American people are historically a non- ideological people. I think when we operate on the basis of common sense and pragmatism, we end up with better outcomes, and I think that part of the reason the Republican is going to -- has been doing poorly in this election is because people have said, you know, when we look at issues like healthcare or education or Social Security or foreign policy, it seems as if the president has only one narrow approach and is not taking in the advice and dissenting views that might make for better proposals, and that is something that, you know, I think anybody who is in power for a while can fall victim to. I think this administration has been particularly victimized by that problem.
MR. RUSSERT: But when you say "messianic certainty," you're suggesting that it's almost as if he believes God wills it.
SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, I don't presume to know what is in the president's heart. I think that one of the president's strengths from a political perspective is that certainty. I think that the problem has been that that certainty has precluded him from looking at issues based on facts as opposed to based on ideology. And I quote in the book one of my favorite stories from the Senate when Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York is in an argument with a colleague on the floor, and the colleague is probably not doing too well in that argument, Pat Moynihan was a pretty smart guy, and at some point the other senator gets frustrated and says, "Well, you know what? You're just entitled to your own opinion, and I'm entitled to mine," and Moynihan frostily, I'm sure, says, "You are entitled to your own opinion, but you're not entitled to your own facts."
And I think this administration has not always understood that distinction, and that's part of the reason why we've had problems in Iraq, and that's part of the reason why we've had problems with our budget. There has been an unwillingness to look squarely at the facts in making decisions.
MR. RUSSERT: You did say the president gave you some advice. This is what you write, "'You've got a bright future,' said President Bush, 'very bright, but I've seen -- I've been in this town for a while, and let me tell you, it can be tough when you get a lot of attention like you've been getting. People start gunning for you, and it won't necessarily be coming from my side, you understand, from yours, too. Everybody will be waiting for you to slip, know what I mean? So watch yourself.'" Good advice?
SEN. OBAMA: Absolutely, good advice. I think that it is important to not buy into your own hype or your press clippings, and one of the advantages I have, I think, in that is I've got a wife who knocks me down a peg anytime I start thinking that what they're writing about me is true.
MR. RUSSERT: You do write this, and it's a very interesting observation, "When you watch Clinton versus Gingrich or Gore versus Bush or Kerry versus Bush" -- that's '98, 2000, 2004 -- "you feel these are fights that were taking back in the dorm rooms in the '60s -- Vietnam, Civil Rights, the sexual revolution, the role of government -- all that stuff has just been playing itself out, and I think people sort of feel like, 'Okay, let's not re-litigate the '60s 40 years later.'"
Are you suggesting that those political players are the past, and you represent a new generation that won't get caught or bogged down in those kinds of debates?
SEN. OBAMA: I think the categories we've been using were forged in the '60s. I think the arguments about big government versus small government; the arguments about the sexual revolution; military versus non-military solutions to problems. I think in each and every instance, a lot of what we think about is shaped by the '60s and partly, you know, the baby boomers are a big demographic. I read about the fact that whether it's the market for Viagra or how many cup holders are going to be in a car, a lot of it is determined by what the baby boomers want. Politics isn't that different, and my suggestion is that -- take the example of big government versus small government -- my instinct is that the current generation is more interested in smart government.
Let's have enough government to get the job done. If we're looking at problems -- if the market solution works, let's go with the market solution. If a solution requires government intervention, let's do that, but let's look at what are the practical outcomes. And I think that kind of politics is what the country is hungry for right now.
MR. RUSSERT: You told "Men's Vogue" magazine that if you wanted to be president, you shouldn't just think about being president; that you should want to be a great president. So you've certainly given this some thought.
SEN. OBAMA: Yes.
MR. RUSSERT: And what would, in your mind, define a great president?
SEN. OBAMA: Obviously, most of the time, it seems, that the president has maybe 10 percent of his agenda set by himself, and 90 percent of it set by circumstances. So, you know, an Abraham Lincoln is defined by slavery and the war; FDR defined by the Depression and World War II. So I'm not sure that I can categorize what is -- are those ingredients in each and every circumstance, but I think -- when I think about great presidents, I think about those who transform how we think about ourselves as a country in fundamental ways so that at the end of their tenure, we have looked and said to -- "That's who we are," and, for me, at least, that means that we have a more expansive view of our democracy; that we've included more people into the bounty of this country. And, you know, there are circumstances in which I would argue -- Ronald Reagan was a very successful president even though I did not agree with him on many issues partly because, at the end of his presidency, people, I think, said, you know, what -- we can regain our greatness. Individual responsibility and personal responsibility are important, and they transformed the culture and not simply promoted one or two particular issues.
MR. RUSSERT: The last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, said this, "Barack Obama," who he thinks has "the intelligence and the toughness necessary to be president, but has to be careful about running too soon." Is that a fair comment?
SEN. OBAMA: I think it's a fair comment, absolutely.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you think President Clinton has some self- interest in making that comment?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, I don't know how the president is thinking. I'm a big admirer of Bill Clinton's work. I think that -- the one thing I'm clear about in terms of the presidency is it can't be something that you pursue on the basis of vanity and ambition. I think there's a certain soberness and seriousness required when you think about that office that is unique, and at some point the bargain you're making with the American people is that, "You put me in this office, and my problems are not relevant. My job is to think about your problems."
And so anybody, I think, who is pursuing it, has to understand the gravity of it and make sure that the reason they want to do is not simply because they want to see their name in the headlines.
MR. RUSSERT: You've been a United States senator less than two years. You don't have any executive experience. Are you ready to be president?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, I'm not sure anybody is ready to be president before they're president. You know, ultimately, I trust the judgment of the American people that in any election they sort it through. We have a long and a rigorous process, and, you know, should I decide to run, if I ever did decide to run, I'm confident that I'd be run through the paces pretty good, including on "Meet the Press."
MR. RUSSERT: Well, nine months ago, you were on this program, and I asked you about running for president, and let's watch and come back and talk about it.
MR. TIM RUSSERT, "MEET THE PRESS": (From videotape.) When we talked back in November of '04 after your election, I said there's been enormous speculation about your political future. Will you serve your full six-year term as United States senator from Illinois? Obama: Absolutely.
SENATOR BARACK OBAMA (D-IL): (From videotape.) I will serve out my full six-year term. You know, Tim, if you get asked enough, sooner or later, you get weary, and you start looking for new ways of saying things, but my thinking has not changed.
MR. RUSSERT: (From videotape.) So you will not run for president or vice president in 2008?
SEN. OBAMA: (From videotape.) I will not.
MR. RUSSERT: You will not?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, that is how I was thinking at that time, and I don't want to be coy about this -- given the responses that I've been getting over the last several months, I have thought about the possibility, but I have not thought about it with the seriousness and depth that I think is required. My main focus right now is in '06 and making sure that we retake the Congress. After November 7th, I'll sit down and consider it, and if, at some point, I change my mind, I will make a public announcement, and everybody will be able to go at me.
MR. RUSSERT: But it's fair to say you're thinking about running for president in 2008.
SEN. OBAMA: It's fair, yes.
MR. RUSSERT: And so when you said to me in January, "I will not," that statement is no longer operative?
SEN. OBAMA: I would say that I am still at the point where I have not made a decision to pursue higher office, but it is true that I have thought about it over the last several months.
MR. RUSSERT: So it sounds as if the door has opened a bit.
SEN. OBAMA: A bit.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Barack Obama, we'll be watching. Thanks for joining us.
SEN. OBAMA: It was my pleasure, Tim, thank you.
MR. RUSSERT: Coming next -- what will happen just 16 days from today? The midterm elections -- insights, analysis, and a few predictions from David Broder of The Washington Post, Charlie Cook of The National Journal, John Harwood of The Wall Street Journal, Robert Novak, Chicago Sun-Times and Fox News analyst. Our political roundtable is next right here on "Meet the Press."
MR. RUSSERT: All right, gentlemen, here we go. Let's look at some poll data from the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. First, the president's job approval. He's at 38 percent approve; 57 percent disapprove. On the economy, a little bit better -- 44 percent approve the economy; and 52 percent disapprove. The war in Iraq -- not so good -- approve, just 33; disapprove, 63. How about Congress? Approval, 16 percent of Americans approve the job Congress is doing; 75 percent disapproval. Look at October '94 -- the month before the Republican revolution led by Newt Gingrich, Congress had a 24 percent approval, and this question -- who should control Congress? Thirty- seven percent say Republicans; 52 percent say Democrats -- a 15-point gap, again, October '94 before the Republican revolution when the Republicans won 52 seats, the Republicans were up 6 points.
And this -- in terms of keeping control, if the Republicans keep control -- "It's a good thing," say 26 percent of the American people; "a bad thing" say 48 percent. What about if the Democrats took control? A good thing, 40; a bad thing, 30.
David Broder, what do all those numbers tell you?
MR. BRODER: Trouble. I think we have --
MR. RUSSERT: Right here in River City.
MR. BRODER: I think we got trouble right here in River City and all across the country, and what we've been hearing all this past week, 10 days, is one congressional seat after another added to the list of worries for the Republicans.
MR. RUSSERT: John Harwood, in the Journal, you write similar to that but also a little caution. You say this, "One solace for Republican incumbents, national polls are decidedly imperfect predictors of local election outcomes, particularly given voters' historic penchant for saying they loathe Congress, but they like their own representative. While only 16 percent of voters approve of Congress, more than twice that number, 39 percent, said in answer to another poll question that their own representative deserves to be reelected." Which on prevails?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, I think the national mood is stronger than those local factors at the moment, but one of the things I'm hearing from Republican strategists is that the further they get away from the explosion of the Foley story, the more Democrats, race by race -- Republicans are fighting their way back, at least into contention. They may still be behind, but they're not as behind as they were.
The thing that I think is interesting, with the attention on Foley, we forget about the impact of Iraq. I was talking to a Republican Senate strategist yesterday who said, "Don't forget, Bush, at 38 percent in Iraq are devastating to our candidates. They've got to try to separate themselves and fight it out."
The other thing in our poll is that Republicans, in that generic vote -- Democrats have a 15-point lead -- but Republicans still, 87 percent, say they want Republicans to win. It's independents, the center of the electorate, where Republicans have collapsed.
MR. RUSSERT: Charlie Cook, you wrote in your National Journal article yesterday, "This election season has been so maddening, trying to get a fix on what's going on has been like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. It just won't stay put." You don't know my sister's Jell-O.
Oops, I'm in trouble on that. What are you talking about?
MR. COOK: We had this deterioration on a national level at the 30, 40, 50,000-foot level for the better part of the year. Things got a little bit better for Republicans late spring, then it got worse, and then it got better in September, and then the bottom sort of fell out. And the old Tip O'Neil adage that all politics is local, it's right in 4 midterm elections out of 5. But 1 out of 5 is just not right -- 94 for Democrats, 74 for Republicans. It's like, as John said, the bottom just sort of falls out.
And these are really challenging times for Republicans, that one strategist said we keep pounding with negative after negative after negative, and this year they're wearing Teflon, we're wearing Velcro.
MR. RUSSERT: Bob Novak, "Barron's" writes for tomorrow that they did an analysis of how much money each candidate has raised and will spend on the election and didn't look at any polls and based simply on money being raised, they predict the Republicans will lose eight House seats, a maximum of 14, hold the House, hold the Senate.
MR. NOVAK: That's a ridiculous method of forecasting elections -- strictly on the money. Money is important, but it's not everything.
The interesting thing to me is that we -- everybody thinks that it's going to be a narrow Democratic victory in the House, with the Senate almost too close to call, maybe a narrow Republican victory. Why is it narrow with those huge gaps in the polls?
The president is very unpopular, and the war is very unpopular. Those are the two issues that are killing Republican candidates. So there must be some voter resistance to the Democrats, and I think that's what the problem is, and that's why the Republican strategists say this is not a referendum, it's a choice. That's a terrible thing to say -- it's not a referendum. They say you can't judge the Republican Party on its record of being the governing party in America. You have to choose between each race, but in each race there are Democratic problems.
MR. RUSSERT: Could it be that the number of Democrats in some of the blue states are so overwhelmingly opposed to the president that it skews the national number?
MR. NOVAK: That's true, and there is one other factor. We have to mention why it is -- the race for control of the House is still relatively close, and that's the gerrymandering. A lot of these districts are gerrymandered, so there's many fewer races than there used to be 40 years ago or even in 1994.
MR. RUSSERT: That they were devised and cut out --
MR. NOVAK: -- a competitive race, yes --
MR. RUSSERT: -- to make it a safe seat. David Broder, the House majority whip in the Senate, Roy Blunt of Missouri, had this to say, "Pelosi's House" -- referring to Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic congresswoman from San Francisco who would become speaker -- "this list of bills most likely to be championed by committee chairmen in a Pelosi-led House of Representatives would be great fodder for the late-night talk show hosts if it weren't true. Instead, it's just plain scary. While Republicans fight the war on terror, grow our robust economy and crack down on illegal immigration, House Democrats plot to establish a department of peace, raise your taxes, and minimize penalties for crack dealers. The difference couldn't be starker."
MR. BRODER: I like Roy Blunt, but that rhetoric gives a measure of how hard up the Republicans really are. I mean, that is not the Democratic agenda. The Democratic agenda is raising the minimum wage, doing something about drug prices, and probably doing something about the war in Iraq.
MR. HARWOOD: But, Tim, that was an interesting reflection of how House Republicans are thinking at this point. I talked to a House Republican strategist yesterday. He said what we want in the last two weeks of the election is more from the White House, from Bush and perhaps Cheney, attacking Nancy Pelosi, raising the stakes on Democratic control. A tough challenge for the White House, because if they lose the House in a couple of weeks, they're going to have to be working with those people. But one of the problems for Republicans is how do you make people scared of the impact of a Democratic Congress if your own Republican Congress has not been delivering for your base? Gay marriage, nothing's happened; Social Security, nothing happened; immigration, next to nothing -- so Republicans don't have a great record to talk about.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me show you this article from The Washington Post, "Most worrisome to the White House is the subpoena power that Democrats would gain with a majority in the House or Senate. For years, Republicans have been mostly deferential in scrutinizing the Bush administration, but Democrats are eager to reexamine an array of issues such as Vice President Cheney's energy task force, the Jack Abramoff scandal, preparations for the Iraq war. The cover of "Newsweek" -- "The GOP Running Scared. Would a Democratic majority go wild or govern from the middle?" Bob Novak?
MR. NOVAK: There's going to be a subpoena onslaught, which may or may not be politically beneficial. I have never found, in my time in Washington, that these congressional investigations are that effective. I know that in six years of investigating everything possible in the Clinton administration, the Republican Congress was not all that effective.
Tim, let me say this -- that all politicians always say this is the most important election we have ever been in because it is to them. I would make the argument this is one of the least important elections I have seen, because everybody is really looking ahead to 2008 as an important election, because if the Democrats win the House, as is probable, they can pass a lot of legislation, get nowhere in the Senate -- the Senate is a very difficult to get through -- and the president will suddenly discover his veto pen that he lost track of for six years.
So I don't think much is going to happen substantively. It is a nice -- it's a nice thing for Nancy Pelosi to be speaker of the House, but I don't think there's going to be much action out of it.
MR. RUSSERT: Ms. Pelosi tells "Newsweek" the Capitol is not going to be a courthouse; that she has a real agenda. But, David, do you think this is an important election?
MR. BRODER: It's a very important election in a couple of ways. One, because of the pressure that a Democratic victory in either house will put on the administration to change policy in Iraq. I would think it would be very difficult for the president to continue straightforward to keep Don Rumsfeld in as secretary of defense with a partially Democratic Congress.
Secondly, I think there is a chance -- maybe I'm being Pollyanna- ish, but because the people running this fall have heard so many complaints from their constituents about the gridlock and the partisanship in Congress that the whole atmosphere in this next Congress may be different.
MR. RUSSERT: Bob Novak, you wrote this in your political report on Wednesday, and I'll use it to frame our discussion here about what's going to happen in two weeks, and here in the "Evans-Novak Political Report", "With hopes of the late comeback faded, the Republican strategy has changed from that of a quarterback in a fourth-quarter come-from-behind mission to that of an overwhelmed emergency medical technician performing triage on several dying patients. The only thought now is to minimize losses by plugging whatever holes can be plugged. Late decisions have to be made about who lives and who dies. The GOP has to decide where it can win and it cannot afford to waste time or resources on those who cannot be saved. At this point, the best indication of how races are going is where the money is being spent. If the election were held today, Democrats would gain control of the House of Representatives," 20 seats? Your Darwinian theory there all set aside, you stand by that?
MR. NOVAK: As of today. There's always a possibility of a wave coming through and really getting higher than 20 seats.
MR. RUSSERT: Could it be lower?
MR. NOVAK: It could be lower, too, as some of those races are very close. The money -- the money situation of saving the people who are in bad shape -- Tom Reynolds, the House Republican campaign chairman, had, in one poll, fallen back by 15 or 16 points, and the Republican National Committee has now instituted an independent expenditure -- I love that "independent expenditure" by the Republican National Committee -- television ads saying his opponent is a protectionist, which will mean higher prices. But that's an example of making a rescue mission on somebody that two weeks ago or a month ago they never thought, before the Foley scandal, was even in trouble.
MR. RUSSERT: And they made him the point man for the recovery from the power outages in the snowstorm in terms of federal assistance. Charlie Cook, Mr. Novak is on your turn here. What do you think? Democrats win seats, lose seats, what happens?
MR. COOK: Well, first, Bob was on this turf a long time before me, but I think we start at 20. I mean, look, 16 days, obviously, everything could change. I think it's at least 20 in the House. I think it's more 25, 30, 35. It could go -- this could get bad, particularly if Republican turnout really drops.
MR. RUSSERT: They need 15 to take control.
MR. COOK: They need 15, and I think 20 is the starting point unless something big happens. And voter turnout, Republican voters right now are depressed, and Democrats are spitting nails, and, wow, that's -- if Republicans -- I mean -- when you see these wave election -- midterm elections -- it's when one side's voters are energized, and the other side's are disillusioned.
MR. HARWOOD: And, Tim, we saw on our Journal/NBC poll, when you ask how interested are you in the election, how enthusiastic are you about voting, we show a significant advantage for Democrats.
But, let me tell you, I talked to a couple of top Bush advisors yesterday who said "Your way of measuring is wrong; that if you look at our metrics for the number of volunteers we have, the number of contacts we're making, we are doing much better than you think." So that's going to be a test on Election Day, and let's don't forget, a lot of the people now predicting big Republican losses here. We're predicting that George Bush was going to lose, and the Bush team is right about that.
MR. RUSSERT: What's your gut saying?
MR. HARWOOD: My gut tells me 20 is about right, and that in the Senate maybe five seats for the Democrats, and you end up with 50-50.
MR. RUSSERT: Dave?
MR. BRODER: I think our friends are absolutely on target. If they're wrong, I think it would be underestimating this wave -- not overestimating it.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me just --
MR. NOVAK: I'm sorry -- the Senate is a little harder to call.
MR. RUSSERT: Let's just try that. I'm going to run through some of the Senate races, and then we'll come back and talk. Here is Montana, Republican Conrad Burns versus Democrat Jon Tester. Tester has been ahead. Let's look at Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum is the incumbent, Democratic challenger, Bob Casey -- Casey has gone ahead. Let's look at Ohio, Mike Dewine, the Republican incumbent; Sherrod Brown the Democratic challenger, Brown has been ahead. And we look at Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee, the Republican who won his primary handily is behind Sheldon Whitehouse, the Democrat. Missouri -- Jim Talent, the Republican; Claire McCaskill, the Democrat, a very tight race. Tennessee -- Bob Corker, the Republican; Harold Ford the Democrat, very tight race. Virginia -- George Allen, the Republican; Jim Webb, the Democrat, very tight race. Then two states held by the Democrats -- all those other ones were held by Republicans -- New Jersey -- Bob Menendez, the Democrat; Tom Kean, tight race. Maryland -- Ben Cardin, the Democrat; Michael Steele, the Republican, the Lieutenant Governor. Cardin has been ahead but closer than many people expected.
Bob Novak, in those seven key races, the Democrats are either tied or ahead. Is that a pretty good indication, do you think, of where we are at 16 days out?
MR. NOVAK: I think so. I think the first four you mentioned look to be locks for the -- not locks, but highly probable for the Democrats. That's four seats, not enough to take control.
MR. RUSSERT: They need six.
MR. NOVAK: They need six. The races that really are quite competitive and decisive will be Tennessee, Virginia --
MR. RUSSERT: -- and Missouri.
MR. NOVAK: And Missouri, if this --
MR. RUSSERT: If they won all those, it would be seven.
MR. NOVAK: That's right. Those three states are extremely close, and I would say, right now, on all three of those, I would give the edge right now to the Republicans. I wouldn't bet a lot of money on it. I think New Jersey is very interesting, because Menendez has proved a very poor candidate, a very unstable candidate, and if he can survive, appointed senator, in that state against Tom Kean, Jr., that will mean this is really some Republican -- some Democratic year.
MR. HARWOOD: In all three of those states, one of the key dynamics is the rural turnout versus the big-city turnout, and in Tennessee is there a hidden white vote against an African-American candidate?
MR. RUSSERT: David Broder, if the Democrats ever won six seats, which would mean control of the Senate but then lost New Jersey, how would they feel that Wednesday morning?
MR. BRODER: They would be very upset with Governor Corzine for the choice that he made on the appointment of that -- the successor.
MR. RUSSERT: Charlie Cook, you scrubbed these states, these numbers, looking at those seven Senate seats, tell us about it.
MR. COOK: Well, I think Pennsylvania, Santorum; Mike Dewine, Ohio. Boy, they're just way, way, way, way down. It's really hard to see them make it up. Burns -- I think Burns is going to lose, but the margin isn't nearly as wide as the first two. Chafee, it's closer, but Chafee is behind. You know, I think it's more likely than not the Democrats pick up that one. That gets you to four. The next is, okay, what happens next? Missouri, Tennessee, Virginia, Missouri -- gosh, it's really close, maybe McCaskill ahead a tiny bit more than behind, but it's close and, as John said, those rural areas -- how far are they going to go for Republicans? Tennessee -- absolutely right. I mean, Ford's been ahead, but it's been closing, Corker pulling up. Virginia, George Allen is up a little bit, but I think if a feather landed on his head, it would probably knock him out. And New Jersey, two weeks ago, I thought Kean, the Republican, was going to win. Now Menendez has pulled back up, and Republicans don't have the money, ironically, to spend to really compete in New Jersey.
MR. RUSSERT: John Harwood, when a party takes control of the House, the historical pattern is they also take control of the Senate when there's a switch. Do you see something of that magnitude?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, it's certainly possible, and one of the things that we've discussed before is that when you have a big wave election -- you've got a whole bunch of close races, and how do you calculate how many are going to go to one side or the other. But in a wave election, a lot of them just fall on the same side, so that certainly could happen for the Democrats.
MR. RUSSERT: David Broder, before we go, you just heard Senator Barack Obama who, nine months ago, said, "I will not seek the presidency or vice presidency." And today he rather candidly said, "Well, that's what I believed then, and I may be changing my mind." What's your take on that?
MR. BRODER: He's under a lot of pressure, and is riding a wave of his own in terms of publicity to jump in. It would be a big gamble for him, because his potential is so huge, and he is, at this point, pretty green in terms of experience; lacks any executive experience; never has had to sit in a job where he was the single decision-maker, as a president is. But he is an enormously attractive candidate, and I thought he handled you very well this morning.
MR. NOVAK: He, certainly, Tim -- I took that as an announcement of possible candidacy. That was making news on "Meet the Press." I think he's a very attractive personality, but I think the fact where everybody is so excited about him, everybody is writing about him, indicates there's a lot of Democratic resistance to Hillary Clinton, and the whole field that we have, because I have seen the candidates who have really been inspirational candidates with their rhetoric -- John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and talk about a loser from Illinois -- Adlai Stevenson.
I don't see this in Barack Obama. I don't see much humor, I don't see much irony. I'm not that convinced that this is the answer to a Democratic victory.
MR. HARWOOD: Tim, I spoke to a top aide to Bill Clinton last night who said Barack Obama will run in 2008, Hillary Clinton will not. So we'll see what happens there.
MR. RUSSERT: Hillary Clinton will not?
MR. HARWOOD: That was his prediction.
MR. RUSSERT: But when you look at American voting behavior, Charlie Cook, we seem to like governors -- Bush, Clinton, Carter, Reagan. The last sitting United States Senator was John Kennedy, who was also criticized for not having executive experience.
MR. COOK: And Warren G. Harding before that.
MR. RUSSERT: And Garfield before that.
MR. COOK: You beat me.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: He was House member, he was a House member, a New York guy.
MR. COOK: The thing is, I agree with everything David said, but the thing is, it's too son, he's not -- but when you've got the hot hand, when you are the hot hand, how do you not run? You can't have the hot hand for six years, 10 years.
MR. RUSSERT: We'll be watching -- Charlie Cook, John Harwood, David Broder, Robert Novak, thank you all, and we'll be right back with more of "Meet the Press" after this.
MR. RUSSERT: Two days from now, this coming Tuesday, MSNBC continues its full coverage of the 2006 election campaign -- nonstop coverage all day and all night long. And here, next Sunday, we'll continue our "Meet the Senate" debate series. Maryland -- Democrat Ben Cardin versus Republican Michael Steele. Cardin versus Steele, the Maryland U.S. Senate seat at stake.
That's all for today. We'll be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's "Meet the Press."