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NBC "Meet the Press" - Transcript

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Senator Kerry, good to have you. Welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA): Thank you. David. Glad to be with you.

MR. GREGORY: I have to ask you, when you see news like this, when you hear about this loss of life among our soldiers, is your reaction, "What are we still doing there?" or is it, "Are we doing everything we need to do to beat the enemy?" Which is not al-Qaeda, it is the Taliban, the insurgency.

SEN. KERRY: Well, my first reaction, David, and I'm sure John McCain's also, is just an extraordinary sense of loss, a sense of gratitude for the quality of their sacrifice and their service, and just our hearts go out to their families. I think John and I join every single American in feeling as if we've lost a member of our family. So the first thought is sadness and sorrow for the loss. John and I and, I think, many others believe that we are in a transition in Afghanistan. The effort that they are making there is, is one that is important to our national security in this transition. Notice there were seven Afghans there, members of a commando force. It is part of the transition that is taking place. So I think, you know, we have to find out exactly what happened. I'm going to be very interested to see sort of who might have been involved in this and what the linkages may be. And that's something we need to check out very carefully.

MR. GREGORY: Let me...

SEN. KERRY: But it's really a loss for the country.

MR. GREGORY: Let me put this into some context and ask one of the strategic questions that I think has to come to mind in this debate. First of all, a sense of where, of location, as we put it up on the map. This was in Wardak province, which is adjacent to the province where the capital, Kabul, is, which has become a lot safer. And, indeed, when I was with General Petraeus in Afghanistan last summer, Wardak province had a lot of success stories about security and political advance as well. The New York Times, in its lead story this morning, put some of the context this way, and I'll put it up on the screen: "Saturday's attack came during a surge of violence that accompanied the beginning of a drawdown of American and NATO troops, and it showed how deeply entrenched the insurgency remains even far from its main strongholds ... American soldiers had recently turned over the sole combat outpost in the Tangi Valley to Afghans. ... The redoubts in these areas pose the kind of problems the military faced last year in similarly remote areas of Kunar province, forcing commanders to weigh the mission's value given the cost in soldiers' lives and dollars spent in places where the vast majority of the insurgents are local residents who resent both the NATO presence and the Afghan government. The dilemma is that if NATO military forces do not stay, the areas often quickly slip back under Taliban influence, if not outright control, and the Afghan National Security Forces do not yet have the ability to rout them."

We're on a glide path, Senator, out of this country. The question is, what are we leaving behind?

SEN. KERRY: Well, that's up for grabs, obviously, and that is exactly what this is about. Nobody is surprised by these spectacular attacks. It is, in fact, very much in the pattern of what the Taliban have left, and partly because we have been successful. Our, our, our military efforts with ISAF and our own forces have been extraordinarily successful. And they have created less space for the Taliban to be able to operate in, so the Taliban are choosing to attack in Kabul, to assassinate people individually, to take on this kind of event. That doesn't represent their strength across the country. There is a broad struggle for power in Afghanistan between Pashtun, Hazara, Uzbek, Tajik, between Karzai's folks, others and, of course, the Haqqani network based in Pakistan. And Pakistan's influence is also significant. That's why the administration is putting huge effort right now into the reconciliation process. The Pakistanis, the Iranians, the Russians, the Chinese, the, the Stans to the north, all of these countries can be critical to this, including India. And what we need is a regional approach. We need great intensity in our diplomacy. We need to try to find that political solution that everybody has said from the get-go is the only way to resolve what's happening there. But our presence must continue to diminish to the point that we have the ability to protect our national security interests as we go forward. We are not getting out completely. We are reducing the level to a point that I think has the ability to prevent the Taliban from taking over the country.

MR. GREGORY: Senator, as you know, this is part of a debate about America's influence in the rest of the world. And our economy and this debt fight has raised similar questions. And now the other big news that markets are going to be reacting to tomorrow and that is the downgrade of America's credit rating. Standard & Poor's issued a release on Friday, and this was part of its justification: "The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America's governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, less predictable than we previously believed. The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy. Despite this year's wide-ranging debate, in our view, the differences between political parties have proven to be extraordinarily difficult to bridge." ...

Is this a wakeup call to Washington?

SEN. KERRY: Well, it's a partial wakeup call. I believe this is, without question, the "tea party downgrade." This is the tea party downgrade because a minority of people in the House of Representatives countered even the will of many Republicans in the United States Senate who were prepared to do a bigger deal, to do $4.7 trillion, $4 trillion, have a mix of reductions and, and reforms in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid; but also recognize that we needed to do some revenue. I think this is one of the most telling, important moments in our country's history right now. We've had a fairly straightforward economic road throughout the 20th Century. But now, David, this poses a set of choices. It's not just about a recession, it's about a financial crisis and a structure of our economy which really has been misallocating capital. We've had an enormous amount of capital going into arbitration over these last years--phony deals, commissions, not creating jobs. And the real problem for our country is not the short-term debt. We can deal with that. It's the long-term debt. It's the structural debt of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid measured against the demographics of our nation. That, then juxtaposed to the lack of jobs and job creation and growth. That's our problem, structural. And what we need is a Washington that stops this bickering, that gets rid of these hard positions that I noticed even in Speaker Boehner's comments about the downgrade, politicizing it in the sense that, you know, sort of blaming it on the Democrats and the lack of decision. Barack Obama put a $4.7 trillion deal on the table. Three times he was refused that deal because there were some people in the Republican Party, and Mitch McConnell even admitted this, who wanted to default. He said there were people in his party who are willing to shoot the hostage. In the end, they found that the hostage was worth ransoming. This is not about ransom. This is about our nation. It's about our country. It's about growth. It's about statesmanship. I know John McCain and I know many of his colleagues in the Senate are prepared to sit down and be serious about how we deal with this quickly because our nation's security, our nation's future is at stake in an unprecedented way.

MR. GREGORY: The, the, the political debate about the, frankly, the viability of our political system right now because of these entrenched interests and disagreement, still gives way to the more pressing problem. If you look at the unemployment numbers, and we'll put a summary of that over the president's term, the high point, 10.1 percent unemployment in October 2009. It's still stubbornly at 9.1 percent, even though the jobs report for July did beat expectations. Bottom line is, what is a growth plan for Washington that Washington can actually execute on?

SEN. KERRY: I'll give you a growth plan very clearly. Number one, we've got to deal with this debt and deficit, send Wall Street and the marketplace a message that the United States of America is deadly serious about dealing with this long-term structural debt. That means putting a plan on the table, $4 trillion plus, if necessary, that lays out how we go forward in terms of our debt and deficit. But we do it, David, in a way that doesn't turn our backs on the history that we've created, where we know how to do this without cutting off our job creation and our economic future. In the 1990s, we balanced the budget. We did it without a constitutional amendment. We balanced the budget, we created 21 million new jobs, and we put ourselves on a glide path to pay off our debt for the first time since Andrew Jackson by next year. That changed when we went into credit card debt, two wars, two tax cuts. We couldn't afford them. And boom, you have six point some trillion dollars of the debt goes to George Bush, $2.4 trillion goes to Obama, three times to George Bush, and Obama's was largely in response to George Bush and Hank Paulson asking us to bail out the financial structure of America. So we have to get real about what the problem is. The second piece of this, Senator Boxer and Senator Inhofe have a terrific highway bill. If we were to do that and do it quickly, we will save 600,000 more jobs than what the House is setting out to do. Three, we need to pass the infrastructure bank, which is bipartisan. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and myself have introduced this, with Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and, and Mark Warner of Virginia. We have $2.2 trillion of infrastructure deficit in America. China's putting 9 percent of GDP into infrastructure. Europe's putting 5 percent into infrastructure. The United States of America is putting 2 percent or less into infrastructure. We have $80 billion of loss every year just to bail out--just to grid problems with our energy structure to our highways that are clogged because we don't build a transportation system. We know how to do this. We could have patent reform. There are millions of jobs being wrapped up in the bureaucracy of patent reform, which isn't moving forward. We could have regulatory reform so we don't take 10 years to give business people a decision. There are countless things we could do. And yes, we can cut waste. There is waste. And we could come together and do that.

MR. GREGORY: All right.

SEN. KERRY: But we have to be statesmen here. We have to find the happy middle ground of compromise and common sense. I know John McCain's prepared to do it. I'd like to see the members of the House of Representatives prepared to do it. And that would avoid the future confrontation.

MR. GREGORY: All right. We're going to leave it there. Senator Kerry, thank you, as always.

SEN. KERRY: Thank you.

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