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NBC "Meet the Press" - Transcript


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NBC "Meet the Press" - Transcript

MR. RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday -- a big win for Obama in South Carolina. The next 2008 battleground -- Florida -- with the Republican primary on Tuesday. Mitt Romney and John McCain lead in the polls, and Rudy Giuliani makes his last stand in the Sunshine State.

With us, the senior senator from Arizona, Republican presidential candidate, John McCain. Then -- the Democratic race turns bitter.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL): (From videotape.) While I was working on those streets watching those folks see their jobs shipped overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal- Mart.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY): (From videotape.) I was fighting against those ideas when you were practicing law and representing your contributor, Rezko, in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago.

MR. RUSSERT: Continuing debate over the campaign tactics of former President Bill Clinton -- insights and analysis from New York Times columnist, Maureen Dowd; NBC News political director, Chuck Todd; and Byron York of The National Review.

But, first, a huge victory for Barack Obama in South Carolina last night. He beat Hillary Clinton 55 percent to 27 percent, a two- to-one margin. We'll talk about the lessons of that victory in our roundtable, but the next primary stop is here in Florida on Tuesday with the Republicans. We are joined by one of the leading GOP contenders, Senator John McCain, welcome back to "Meet the Press."

SEN. McCAIN: THANK YOU, Tim, nice to be back with you again.

MR. RUSSERT: Thursday night the debate was rather civilized. Over the last few days, however, the fire exchanged by you and Mitt Romney has been rather intense. This is what you said in the statement yesterday about Governor Romney, "The fact is, Governor Romney has hedged, equivocated, has ducked and reversed himself." What are you talking about specifically?

SEN. McCAIN: I'm talking specifically about a number of issues but in the specific case of whether we should have maintained the surge in Iraq and whether, at the April of 2007, when we had a choice between doing the surge when things were at their lowest, when Republicans and the Democrats were saying that we've got to withdraw, we have to have "timetables." "Timetables" was the buzzword at that time, and there were -- and it was a defining moment. It was a low point in my political career, and we, Lindsey Graham, I, the president and others said this is what needs to be done no matter what the consequences are.

Governor Romney obviously said there had to be "timetables," although they had to be secret because we weren't going to tell the enemy when we were leaving. I mean, that's just the fact, and if we'd have done that, as the Democrats and some Republicans wanted to do, we would have lost that surge, and al Qaeda would be celebrating a victory over the United States of America.

MR. RUSSERT: Governor Romney said he never suggested a specific timetable. You are being dishonest, and you should apologize.

SEN. McCAIN: I see. Well, you know, you flash these up on the screen all the time, let me just see -- he was asked should there be a timetable for withdrawing troops? Well, there's no question -- "the president and Prime Minister al Malaki have to have a series of timetables and milestones that they speak about, but they shouldn't be for public pronouncement. You don't want the enemy to understand how long they have to wait in the weeds until you're going to be gone." That's, my friend, is the quote. That was a clear indication of setting timetables, but you don't want to tell the enemy when you're going to be gone. It's very clear.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, when she suggested timetables, you said was waving the white flag of surrender. Is Governor Romney waving white flags?

SEN. McCAIN: Actually, Tim, what Senator Clinton said was that she would set a timetable within 60 days of withdrawal -- complete withdrawal from Iraq. To me, that's surrender. And I think in most people's view that would be surrender if we told al Qaeda that we are leaving Iraq within a certain period of time.

MR. RUSSERT: Is Governor Romney suggesting surrender?

SEN. McCAIN: I said that he has said is wrong, and I think he is equivocated on it. In one of the debates he said the surge is "apparently working." It was working, it wasn't "apparently."

Look, these were a tough time in American history. I think historians look back at April of 2000, when Harry Reid, the majority leader of the United States Senate, declared the war lost. When Republicans even were saying that we had to have "timetables" because we needed to get out of there. That was a critical time. I'm proud of the role that I played at that time, and I don't believe that Governor Romney's statement indicated anything but that we were going to tell, we were going to have a timetable for withdrawal.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me ask about Iraq, and the question I posed at the debate. This was the survey of attitudes of Americans, "Was removing Saddam worth the price in U.S. casualties and the cost of the war?" Worth it, 32; not worth it, 59 percent -- that's the highest level of people who said the war is just not worth it.

You're going to go into the November election, if you're the nominee, saying the war was a good idea, it was worth the price, and we're going to stay forever or 100 years -- (inaudible) --. Is that a winning formula in a presidential election?

SEN. McCAIN: Tim, let me just point out that I understand the frustration and the sorrow of the American people over the sacrifice that has been made. It was badly mishandled for nearly four years. On this program, I severely criticized the so-called "Rumsfeld strategy." Republicans criticized me at that time, and I advocated the new strategy under General Petraeus, and I think if we can show Americans success and continued success, that they will support it.

And there's now doubt, there's no doubt that this war has been mishandled, and some people talk about the impatience of the American people, I'm proud, frankly, of the patience.

On the issue of how long we stay there, I think that's a false argument. The point is, is how many Americans are going to be harmed there. We've got, right next door in Kuwait, we have military bases.

We have bases in South Korea and Japan and Germany, Bosnia, we have troops there. It's not a matter of American troop presence, it's a matter of American casualties, and I believe that by next November, I can show the American people significant more progress, significant withdrawals, as dictated by the conditions on the ground and General Petraeus's opinion.

Because -- and I also have to explain to them and maybe do a better job of the consequences of failure; the consequences of setting a timetable. So al Qaeda would then be able to tell the world that they defeated the United States of America. I agree with General Petraeus when he says that Iraq is the central battleground in the struggle against radical Islamic extremism. We have to succeed there. It's long, hard, and tough, and thanks for letting me give a long answer. I apologize for that.

MR. RUSSERT: Looking back, do you think the war was a war of choice or a war of necessity?

SEN. McCAIN: I think that it was a -- that's an excellent question, because I think if we had succeeded and implemented the right strategy, we would all be glad that Saddam Hussein, who had used weapons of mass destruction in the past and was seeking to acquire them, as we know then, but the mishandling of the war was really what has skewed everybody's opinion, and I understand that. I mean, it just was -- you know, I used to call it "whack-a-mole" when we didn't have enough troops there, and it would pop up one place and another. I believe the world is a better place with Saddam Hussein gone. I think that we are going to pay a heavy price in the future when we face other threats because of the failures we experienced in Iraq, and I think we're going to be in a very dangerous world for a long time.

MR. RUSSERT: But absent weapons of mass destruction --

SEN. McCAIN: Mm-hm.

MR. RUSSERT: -- how can it be described as a war of necessity?

SEN. McCAIN: Well, he was -- he had acquired those weapons in the past. It's clear that he was trying to acquire them. The sanctions were breaking down. There was a huge multibillion-dollar Oil for Food scandal in the U.N., as you know. He has practiced the worst kinds of brutality as you can imagine. I think the world and Iraq will be better off if we are able to succeed.

If we fail, obviously, then -- well, then we have enormous other challenges there and in the region, in my view, because I think you're going to have genocide and chaos and, unfortunately, I'm afraid, we'd be back in the region.

MR. RUSSERT: I want to bring you back to Thursday and an exchange we had. Here is a question I asked you and your response. Let's watch.

MR. TIM RUSSERT, "MEET THE PRESS." (From videotape.) Senator McCain, you have said repeatedly, "I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated." Is it a problem for your campaign that the economy is now the most important issue, one that, by your acknowledgement, you are not well versed on?"

SEN. JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ): (From videotape.) Actually, I don't know where you got that quote from. I am very well versed in economics.

SEN. McCAIN: Now I know where you got that quote from, now I know where you got that quote.

MR. RUSSERT: I will show you where I got the quote. I got it from John McCain, and here it is, "McCain is refreshingly blunt when he tells me, 'I'm going to be honest, I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated'" -- Wall Street Journal, November 26, 2005. You repeated it to the Boston Globe in December of '07. You said it.

SEN. McCAIN: Okay, let me tell you what I was trying to say and what I mean, and that's obvious. I spent 22 years in the military. I spent 20 years on the Senate Armed Services committee. I've been involved in national security issues all my life. I attended the National War College. Of course, I know more about national security than any other issue. That's been my entire life.

Am I smart on economics? Yes. I was chairman of the Commerce committee --- that's why people like Phil Gramm and Tom Coburn and Warren Rudman and Carly Fiorina and the real strong economic minds -- Jack Kent -- the real strong minds on the economy and conservatives on the economy are supporting me. They don't think that I'm -- of course, I always have things to learn, and I continue to learn every day, but I'm very strong on the economy and, frankly, if my economic record is a lot stronger than that of the governor of Massachusetts when you look at his record as governor.

MR. RUSSERT: One of the questions that has been raised repeatedly in this campaign, Senator, is your opposition to the Bush tax cuts back in 2001; one of only two Republican senators. Back then you gave a floor speech and said this, "I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us at the expense of middle-class Americans who most need tax relief."

Then you were on "Meet the Press" in April of '04. I asked you about that vote, I also asked you about postponing the Bush tax cut, and this is what you said.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ): (From videotape.) I voted against the tax cuts because of the disproportional amount that went to the wealthiest Americans. I would clearly support not extending those tax cuts in order to help address the deficit.

MR. RUSSERT: You wouldn't support extending them --

SEN. McCAIN: Mm-hm.

MR. RUSSERT: -- but you are now supporting extending them on the radio with this ad.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ): (From audiotape.) I'll make the Bush tax cuts permanent.

MR. RUSSERT: That's a direct contradiction.

SEN. McCAIN: Well, at the time, I still wanted to do two things -- one was a different set of tax cuts that also had more emphasis on middle and lower-income Americans but, most importantly, most importantly, we are now facing a situation with a shaky economy with tax cuts not being permanent, and then people experience an increase in their taxes.

And let me go back to 2001 again. I was right. We had to have restraint of spending. I'm proud to have been one in the Reagan revolution where we not only cut taxes, which I am proud to have supported, and I have a record of it, but we restrained spending, and when you have tax cuts and not restrain spending and let things go completely out of control, as we did, look, we lost the 2006 election because we didn't restrain spending.

So I not only didn't -- had a different set of tax cut proposals, which were very strong, but I also had restrain of spending, and I believe, to this day, if we had adopted the tax cuts that I proposed, and I did have a strong tax cut proposal, today we'd be talking about further tax cuts instead of alienating our base by letting spending get completely out of control, and then -- we, then, are facing -- and it's one of the major contributors to the fiscal difficulties that we have in America today.

I am proud of my record of tax cutting, I am proud of my record of being a fiscal conservative. Would I have had those tax cuts differently? Of course, I would have, and now, right now today, Americans in 2010 are facing, unfortunately, the prospect of a tax increase when we had -- if we don't make them firm then, in a time of a very shaky economy. I think that's the worst thing we could do.

MR. RUSSERT: But you have changed your mind?

SEN. McCAIN: No, I have not changed my mind in that I want restraint of spending, I would have had a different set of tax cuts. We've got to make these tax cuts permanent. We have to; otherwise I think it will have a negative impact on our economy.

MR. RUSSERT: But you told me in '04 you were against making them permanent.

SEN. McCAIN: In '04 our economy was fine, and I have said many, many times since then, I've said many, many times -- as the tax cuts came closer to whether they need to be made permanent or not, I've said 500 times that I want the tax cuts to be made permanent. Did I want my tax plan approved when I was running in 2000? Yes, and if we'd done what I wanted to do, we'd be talking about more tax cuts today.

MR. RUSSERT: There is a suggestion that one of the reasons that you are now in favor of the tax cuts is because criticisms about you and how good a Republican you are. Here is the headline from the St. Petersburg Times, which I'll share on the screen, "Is He Republican Enough? Florida Republicans Say McCain is not Always Conservative." They point to that tax cut vote, your support for McCain-Feingold campaign finance spending.

Rick Santorum, a former colleague of yours, said this, "The bottom line is that I served 12 years with McCain, six years in the United States Senate as one of the leaders of the Senate, who had responsibility of trying to put together the conservative agenda, and almost at every turn on domestic policy, John McCain was not only against us but leading the charge on the other side."

SEN. McCAIN: Well, I don't know what to say except examine my record, look at my ratings by the objective organizations that judge these things -- Citizens Against Government Waste; National Taxpayers Union; Citizens for a Sound Economy." I am proud of my conservative record and the rankings. Those people who observe and the National Federal of Independent Business who named me the "taxpayers' hero" I have a clear, consistent record.

Have I always gone along with the Republican Party? A Rumsfeld strategy was a Republican policy. Abramoff, who I investigated, was a Republican, and we have former Republican members of Congress that are in serious trouble as a result of it.

Did I fight against the appropriators time after time after time and when we saw these pork barrel spending projects? Of course, I did, and that's why people like Senator Tom Coburn, the strongest fiscal conservative in the Senate, is supporting me. That's why I have a broad base of conservative support.

Tim, I am confident, as a nominee of the party, I will unite the party, I will bring all of them together, and I'm very proud, by the way, that polls show that I'm the most competitive, by far, against Senator Clinton or Senator Obama when all others lag far behind, because I not only can consolidate the Republican base, but I can reach out to independents as well. And there are times, I am very proud to say, I will put my country above my party, but I am a proud, proud Republican that was in on the Reagan revolution, and I'm proud of my conservative record.

MR. RUSSERT: Many conservatives point to your ubiquitous partner on the campaign trail, Joe Lieberman, who was the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2000 -- there you are. Lieberman, who is pro-abortion rights, pro-gun control, pro gay rights, against the Bush tax cut, he has a very liberal Democratic record on these social and cultural issues, and yet you seem to embrace him on the campaign trail.

SEN. McCAIN: I embrace him anywhere at anytime, including the fact that we were responsible for the establishment of the 9/11 commission, and the implementation of their recommendations on so many issues, but my admiration for Joe Lieberman on the number-one issue that faces this nation and the world is without bounds. He stood up against his own party and said, "We can succeed in Iraq. We have to support this surge, we can't wave the white flag of surrender." I am so proud of him for his steadfastness, and I'm proud to have him as a partner and a friend, and I know that one of the things all of our constituents, Republicans and Democrats and Americans, they want us to work together, they want us to work together, and I am proud to have worked with Joe Lieberman on a number of issues.

Right now, the approval ratings of Congress, as you know, are very, very low, and one of the reasons is they're frustrated is that we won't sit down together, a Lieberman and McCain, and establish a 9/11 commission and come up with those recommendations and implement them. I'm proud of my partnership with him and other Democrats where I've been able to get things done the way Ronald Reagan did, but maintaining my fundamental conservative principles.

MR. RUSSERT: If the Senate passed your bill, S1433, the McCain- Kennedy Immigration Bill, would you, as president, sign it?

SEN. McCAIN: Yeah, but, look, the lesson is it isn't won. It isn't going to come, it isn't going to come. The lesson is they want the border secure first. That's the lesson. I come from a border state. I know how to fix those borders with walls, with UAVs, with sensors, with cameras, with vehicle barriers. They want the border secured first, and I would do that and, as president, I will have the border state governors certify those borders are secured, and then we will have a temporary worker program with tamper-proof biometric documents, and any employer who employs someone in any other circumstances, will be prosecuted.

That means a lot of people will leave just normally because they're not going to be able to get a job. Then, of course, we have to get rid of the 2 million people who have committed crimes here. We have to round them up and deport them.

As far as the others are concerned, we were in an ongoing debate and discussion when this whole thing collapsed, and part of that, I think, has to be a human approach, part of it has to be maybe people have to go back to the country that they came from for a period of time while we look at it. But the principle the American want -- secure the borders, reward no one ahead of someone who has either waited or come to this country legally because they have broken our laws to come here.

But I am confident -- look, there are humanitarian situations, there's a soldier who is missing in action in Iraq. His wife was here illegally. America is not going to deport her. We have humanitarian circumstances. Look, America is a generous, Judeo-Christian valued nation, and we can sit down together. All the leading Republican candidates now, just about, agree that losing those principles that I just articulated, we can fix it, but secure the borders first.

MR. RUSSERT: But you would sign your bill, if it passed?

SEN. McCAIN: It's not going to come across my desk.

MR. RUSSERT: You won't pass it?

SEN. McCAIN: If pigs fly, then -- look --

MR. RUSSERT: So it's dead?

SEN. McCAIN: The bill is dead as it is written, we know that, we know that. And the bill is going to have to be, and I would sign it -- securing the borders first and articulating those principles that I did. That's what we got out of this last, very divisive and tough debate, and we have to get those borders secured. That's what Americans want first.

MR. RUSSERT: Rush Limbaugh, one of the leading voices in the conservative movement, said this the other day, "I am here to tell you, if either of these two guys," Mike Huckabee or John McCain, "get the nomination, it's going to destroy the Republican Party. It's going to change it forever, be the end of it. A lot of people aren't going to vote, you watch.

SEN. McCAIN: Well, all I can say is that I'm proud of winning Republican votes in New Hampshire and South Carolina. I know that there is a broad base of our party. I am a proud conservative. I think that when a lot of Americans, a lot of Republicans, review my credentials, they'll vote for me but also I believe that most Republicans' first priority is the threat of radical Islamic extremism.

I know the concerns about --

MR. RUSSERT: More than the economy?

SEN. McCAIN: More than the economy, at the end of the day. We'll get through this economy. We're going to restore our economy, and many of the measures we're taking right now -- although it's very difficult now -- this transcendent challenge of radical Islamic extremism will be with us for the 21st century.

We are in two wars, we are in two wars. We have young Americans sacrificing as we speak. I am most qualified to be commander-in-chief with the knowledge, experience, the background and the judgment.

Part of that judgment, I was the only one that's running that said Rumsfeld's strategy failed, we've got to do the Petraeus strategy.

MR. RUSSERT: The issue of your temperament has once again come to fore -- this is from a colleague, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who has known Senator McCain for more than three decades, endorsed Mitt Romney. Cochran said his choice was prompted partly by his fear of how McCain might behave in the Oval Office. "The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine," Cochran said about McCain. "He's erratic, he's hotheaded, he loses his temper, and he worries me."

SEN. McCAIN: Well, I, you know, I've known and loved Thad Cochran for many years, and I've always felt we had a very close and warm relationship. My family goes back to the state of Mississippi; his colleague, Trent Lott, of course, is one of my strongest and best supporters. I have a wide circle of supporters, conservative and moderate -- Richard Byrd, Tom Coburn, and Lindsey Graham.

MR. RUSSERT: What is he basing it on?

SEN. McCAIN: I really don't know. Do I feel strongly about issues, and well know, as much as I love Thad Cochran, he is an appropriator, and I have fought him hard time after time after time on these pork barrel projects that he has been famous for, many of which, in my view, have been harmful to our economy and our environment.

So we've had strong words from time to time about pork barrel spending. He is one of the great pork barrelers, and he's very proud of that, he's very proud of --

MR. RUSSERT: He was a co-sponsor of your campaign finance bill.

SEN. McCAIN: He was, and I appreciate that, and there are many areas in which Thad Cochran and I have agreed, but I have to admit to you, and I think it is very clear -- we've had strong debate on the floor of the Senate about pork barrel projects.

In the last two years, the president of the United States has signed into law $35 billion worth of pork barrel projects, many of them sponsored, in all due respect, by my friends on the Appropriations committee on the Republican side. That could have meant a $1,000 tax credit for every child in America. That's where we have open and honest disagreements. Sometimes you feel very strongly. I feel very strongly about protecting the American taxpayer.

MR. RUSSERT: Before you go, I want to show a tape of Bill Clinton, the former president, talking about you and Hillary Clinton. Let's watch?

PRES. BILL CLINTON (D-AR): (From videotape.) She and John McCain are very close. They always laughed that if they wound up being the nominees of their party, it would be the most civilized election in American history, and they're afraid they'd put the voters to sleep because they like and respect each other.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you accept the endorsement?

SEN. McCAIN: I thank Senator Clinton for his endorsement. Let me just say I will have a respectful debate whether it is Senator Obama or Senator Clinton or whoever it is, but it won't be boring, it won't be boring. We're going to be talking about more or less spending, higher or lower taxes; we're going to be talking about the role of government in health care, and we're going to be talking about the struggle we're in against radical Islamic extremism. It's going to be anything but boring.

MR. RUSSERT: Is he being mischievous, trying to give you the kiss of death in the Republican primary?

SEN. McCAIN: I don't know. I know that he is one of the most talented politicians that ever appeared on the American scene, and I only attribute to him the noblest of motives (laughs).

MR. RUSSERT: If you were the Republican nominee, and Hillary Clinton was the Democratic nominee, would you have to run against Bill and Hillary Clinton and how would you do it?

SEN. McCAIN: You know, I don't know, but I think it would be clearly a philosophical difference. But I haven't, frankly -- obviously, Senator Obama's win last night makes him very, very competitive. Senator Edwards is still in it -- active. Look, I've only won two primaries, Tim. I've got a pretty massive ego, but not quite so much as I'm planning on that yet.

MR. RUSSERT: If you don't win in Florida, what happens?

SEN. McCAIN: Oh, I think we have good polling numbers throughout the nation, and I think we go on. I think it's going to be a close race here on Tuesday, but I think we've got some good momentum. General Norman Schwartzkopf, our friend Mel Martinez, the senator from Florida, and Charles Crist --

MR. RUSSERT: So you go on after Tuesday, win or lose?

SEN. McCAIN: Oh, sure. Governor Crist and Senator Martinez, the two leading Republican politicians, are bound to give us a little bit of a boost.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator John McCain, as always, we thank you for sharing your views and be safe on the campaign trail.

SEN. McCAIN: Thanks for having me on again.


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