MR. DAVID GREGORY: This Sunday, the race for the White House kicks into high gear with more Republican contenders becoming candidates.
FMR. REP. NEWT GINGRICH (R-GA): I believe we can return America to hope and opportunity, to full employment, to real security, to an American energy program, to a balanced budget.
MR. GREGORY: He's one of the most recognizable names in American politics, the man at the center of the heated debates of the '90s and, today, one of the president's most vocal critics. Joining me exclusively this morning to kick off our Meet the Candidates series, former speaker of the House and now officially a Republican candidate for the White House, Newt Gingrich.
Then, more on the field taking shape. Libertarian Ron Paul is running. Former Governor Mike Huckabee makes his plans known. Indiana governor Mitch Daniels is still on the fence, and Mitt Romney takes on GOP critics over his support for universal health care as governor of Massachusetts.
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FMR. GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R-MA): My Massachusetts healthcare plan was considered, at least by me, to be an asset politically. I hear some laughter in the room. That's not the case now.
MR. GREGORY: So who will emerge as the most viable candidate to challenge President Obama? And how vulnerable will the president be over the economy? Our political roundtable weighs in: columnist for The Washington Post E.J. Dionne, columnist for The Wall Street Journal Peggy Noonan, senior political analyst for Time magazine Mark Halperin, White House correspondent for The New York Times Helene Cooper, and chief political writer for The New York Times Magazine Matt Bai.
Announcer: From NBC News in Washington, MEET THE PRESS with David Gregory.
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MR. GREGORY: Good morning. Another turn in the Republican presidential field, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee announced on his Fox News program last night that he would not be a candidate for president.
(Videotape, last night)
FMR. GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE (R-AR): All the factors say go, but my heart says no. And that's the decision that I've made. And in it, I finally found some resolution.
MR. GREGORY: One man who came to the opposite conclusion this week and has announced he is full steam ahead for 2012 is here with us exclusively this morning to kick off the return of our Meet the Candidates series, where throughout this primary season we will once again bring you in-depth interviews with the candidates for president. Joining us live this morning, the former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
REP. GINGRICH: Good to be with you, David.
MR. GREGORY: This is your 35th appearance on the program. You've said a lot and done a lot over the years for us to go through. Mr. Speaker, as you know, campaigns are about the future; and yet, you're doing something very interesting, you're asking the American people for a stunning second act in American politics. Why?
REP. GINGRICH: Well, I--you know, my dad was a career soldier for 27 years in the infantry, and I think there are times when citizenship requires that you do what you think is necessary. We are at one of the great turning points in American history, and I believe the decision the American people make in 2012 will do more to define the next half century than any election I can remember. And I think that we are at a crossroads economically; we're at a crossroads in our core values as a country, what does it mean to be an American; we are in much greater danger in national security and homeland security than people realize. And having spent my lifetime, as you point out, studying this, working at it, becoming speaker of the House, spending the last 12 years as a small business owner and, and working on things with my wife--making movies, writing books--when you look at where we are, it just seemed to me that, that to not seek to help the country fix the problems we have would have been a failure of citizenship on my part. And we spent almost a year talking about this, looking at it, thinking about it very deeply, and I really believe we have to have a campaign which brings together millions of people. So it's not about one person in the Oval Office performing magic. It's going to take millions of Americans to get this country back on track.
MR. GREGORY: Let's go through the issues that are going to be big in the campaign. And I want to start with the debt. The big fight right now is whether to raise the debt ceiling. The president says, "You got to do it." The Treasury secretary says, "If you don't do it, we have a double-dip recession." Republicans say, "No, not so fast, not unless we get specific cuts in our government spending to cut the deficit before we raise the balance on America's credit card." You've been through this kind of fight before that goes to the mat, the shutdown of the government in the '90s that didn't turn out well politically for Republicans. And you wrote in your book "Lessons Learned the Hard Way" the following about these moments: "I was to learn something about the American people," you wrote, "that too many conservatives don't appreciate. They want their leaders to have principled disagreements, but they want these disagreements to be settled in constructive ways. That is not, of course, what our own activists were telling us. They were all gung ho for a brutal fight over spending and taxes. We mistook their enthusiasm for the views of the American public." Given what you learned, would you tell members of your party now, "Don't go to the mat on the debt ceiling? Increase the debt ceiling and fight about the budget separately."
REP. GINGRICH: No. What I'd tell them is that I think Speaker John Boehner's come up with a very good formula. It's like a rheostat; it's not on/off, it's not yes/no. It is, "Mr. President, how many spending cuts are you willing to accept? We'll give you the same dollar value of debt ceiling increase that you'll give us in spending cuts. So if you only want $500 billion over the next five years in spending cuts, fine, here's a $500 billion increase in the debt ceiling. And by the way, you'll be back by the end of the year for another debt ceiling." But I, I think the president's also got to be held to an accountability for flexibility. If the debt ceiling matters that much, what is he willing to be flexible on? You take just one item which, which Congressman Paul Ryan has proposed, and most governors agree with: If you were to block grant Medicaid, that one step is probably worth $1 trillion; $700 billion to the federal government, about $200 billion to $300 billion to the state governments. So, as a taxpayer, paying both federal and state taxes, that's $1 trillion less in debt over the next decade.
I, I would not agree to just an automatic blank-check debt ceiling. We want--you know, if your kids came in and had run up their credit cards and said, "Bail me out," you wouldn't say to them, "You don't have to change your behavior. Here, have some more money." You'd say, "Let's have a conversation about your behavior."
MR. GREGORY: But bottom line, if there's negotiations going on and they can't come to real resolution, you say go ahead, don't vote to increase the debt ceiling?
REP. GINGRICH: I would say find a formula and pass very, very short debt ceiling increases with very small amounts and take some savings that the president couldn't possibly veto. And if you had to, do a debt ceiling every three weeks. But do not give him a blank check. Because it's wrong for the American people.
MR. GREGORY: But don't let America default is what you're saying as well.
REP. GINGRICH: Avoid default if you possibly can. And frankly, if you watch, they've all of a sudden said they got an extra four months that they didn't think they had. So the secretary of the Treasury can do a great deal to maneuver.
MR. GREGORY: What about entitlements? The Medicare trust fund, in stories that have come out over the weekend, is now going to be depleted by 2024, five years earlier than predicted. Do you think that Republicans ought to buck the public opposition and really move forward to completely change Medicare, turn it into a voucher program where you give seniors...
REP. GINGRICH: Right.
MR. GREGORY: ...some premium support and--so that they can go out and buy private insurance?
REP. GINGRICH: I don't think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering. I don't think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate. I think we need a national conversation to get to a better Medicare system with more choices for seniors. But there are specific things you can do. At the Center for Health Transformation, which I helped found, we published a book called "Stop Paying the Crooks." We thought that was a clear enough, simple enough idea, even for Washington. We--between Medicare and Medicaid, we pay between $70 billion and $120 billion a year to crooks. And IBM has agreed to help solve it, American Express has agreed to help solve it, Visa's agreed to help solve it. You can't get anybody in this town to look at it. That's, that's almost $1 trillion over a decade. So there are things you can do to improve Medicare.
MR. GREGORY: But not what Paul Ryan is suggesting, which is completely changing Medicare.
REP. GINGRICH: I, I think that, I think, I think that that is too big a jump. I think what you want to have is a system where people voluntarily migrate to better outcomes, better solutions, better options, not one where you suddenly impose upon the--I don't want to--I'm against Obamacare, which is imposing radical change, and I would be against a conservative imposing radical change.
MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about the issue of taxes. You've been clear so far in your campaign. You want to reduce the corporate tax rate, reduce other taxes, make permanent the Bush era tax cuts. You won't raise taxes? You won't consider it as part of a balanced budget at any point, raising taxes?
REP. GINGRICH: No.
MR. GREGORY: Under no circumstances?
REP. GINGRICH: I, I believe this is a country which has overspent, it's not undertaxed. And I believe every time you raise taxes, the politicians use that as an excuse to avoid facing the real decisions we're, we're confronting. We have a moment in history where we can get our house in order if we have the courage to stick to the job. I mean, I helped balance the budget for four straight years. We did it by cutting taxes and bringing the unemployment rate down to below 4 percent. The number one job in America today is to get people back to work because America only works when Americans are working.
MR. GREGORY: But serious bipartisan figures who have looked at this said you can't simply have a conversation about bringing the deficit into balance, the budget into balance, without looking at revenue increases.
REP. GINGRICH: Look, serious bipartisan figures are operating within the Washington consensus, which is wrong. You can, in fact, fundamentally rethink the federal government. Let me give you an example. IBM and Dell, and the other high-tech companies came together, issued a report: If the federal government was simply run as effectively as a multinational corporation, it's worth $125 billion a year. I just put on the table for you not paying crooks, which is worth between $70 billion and $120 billion a year. None of these serious bipartisan figures rethink the federal government. They fight over the current shape of the federal government.
MR. GREGORY: What, what about jobs? Jobless rate now at 9 percent. You gave a speech on Friday in Georgia, and you said the following about this president:
REP. GINGRICH: You want to be a country that creates food stamps, in which case frankly Obama's is an enormous success. The most successful food stamp president in American history. Or do you want to be a country that creates paychecks?
MR. GREGORY: First of all, you gave a speech in Georgia with language a lot of people think could be coded racially-tinged language, calling the president, the first black president, a food stamp president.
REP. GINGRICH: Oh, come on, David.
MR. GREGORY: What did you mean? What was the point?
REP. GINGRICH: That's, that's bizarre. That--this kind of automatic reference to racism, this is the president of the United States. The president of the United States has to be held accountable. Now, the idea that--and what I said is factually true. Forty-seven million Americans are on food stamps. One out of every six Americans is on food stamps. And to hide behind the charge of racism? I have--I have never said anything about President Obama which is racist.
MR. GREGORY: Well, what did you mean?
REP. GINGRICH: Well, it's very simple. He has policies--and I used a very direct analogy. He follows the same destructive political model that destroyed the city of Detroit. I follow the model that Rick Perry and others have used to create more jobs in Texas. You know, Texas two out of the last four years created more jobs than the other 49 states combined. I'm suggesting we know how to create jobs. Ronald Reagan did it. I was part of that. We know how to create jobs. We did it when I was speaker. And, and the way you create jobs is you have lower taxes, you have less regulation, you have litigation reform. When the New York Stock Exchange puts its headquarters at Amsterdam, Holland and, by the way, follows 40 other companies in the last year; when General Electric pays zero in taxes; there's something fundamentally wrong with the current system. The Obama system of the National Labor Relations Board basically breaking the law to try to punish Boeing and to threaten every right-to-work state. The Environmental Protection Agency trying to control the entire American economy by bureaucratic fiat. The Obama system's going to lead us down the path to Detroit and destruction. I think we need a brand-new path. It's a path of job creation. And one of the central themes of this campaign is going to be paychecks vs. food stamps.
MR. GREGORY: All right, let me ask you about another hot-button issue in the Republican primary, of course, and that's health care. Mitt Romney having to defend his proponent--that he was a proponent of universal health care in Massachusetts, and specifically around this idea of the individual mandate where you make Americans buy insurance if they don't have it. Now, I know you've got big difference with what you call Obamacare. But back in 1993 on this program this is what you said about the individual mandate. Watch.
(Videotape, October 3, 1993)
REP. GINGRICH: I am for people, individuals--exactly like automobile insurance--individuals having health insurance and being required to have health insurance. And I am prepared to vote for a voucher system which will give individuals, on a sliding scale, a government subsidy so we insure that everyone as individuals have health insurance.
MR. GREGORY: What you advocate there is precisely what President Obama did with his healthcare legislation, is it not?
REP. GINGRICH: No, it's not precisely what he did. In, in the first place, Obama basically is trying to replace the entire insurance system, creating state exchanges, building a Washington-based model, creating a federal system. I believe all of us--and this is going to be a big debate--I believe all of us have a responsibility to help pay for health care. I think the idea that...
MR. GREGORY: You agree with Mitt Romney on this point.
REP. GINGRICH: Well, I agree that all of us have a responsibility to pay--help pay for health care. And, and I think that there are ways to do it that make most libertarians relatively happy. I've said consistently we ought to have some requirement that you either have health insurance or you post a bond...
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
REP. GINGRICH: ...or in some way you indicate you're going to be held accountable.
MR. GREGORY: But that is the individual mandate, is it not?
REP. GINGRICH: It's a variation on it.
MR. GREGORY: OK.
REP. GINGRICH: But it's a system...
MR. GREGORY: And so you won't use that issue against Mitt Romney.
REP. GINGRICH: No. But it's a system which allows people to have a range of choices which are designed by the economy. But I think setting the precedent--you know, there are an amazing number of people who think that they ought to be given health care. And, and so a large number of the uninsured earn $75,000 or more a year, don't buy any health insurance because they want to buy a second house or a better car or go on vacation. And then you and I and everybody else ends up picking up for them. I don't think having a free rider system in health is any more appropriate than having a free rider system in any other part of our society.
MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about the U.S. role in the world. We're still digesting the intelligence that's coming out of the raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden. You said back in February, "Any honest assessment on 9/11 this year, 10 years after the attack, would have to lead to the conclusion that we are simply and slowly losing the war." Do you still feel we're losing the war against terror?
REP. GINGRICH: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think...
MR. GREGORY: Even after bin Laden?
REP. GINGRICH: ...the thing--sure, look at what we've learned about bin Laden. We've learned that for nine and a half years the country, Pakistan, to which we have given $20 billion was apparently hiding him. Now, does any serious person believe that the Pakistani government had no idea bin Laden was sitting there? Does anybody--and notice, by the way, what the intelligence chief has apologized for. He's apologized for the Americans getting bin Laden. He didn't apologize for nine and a half years of failing to find him. He didn't apologize for Pakistan having failed to do its duty. And who did the--who did the Pakistanis call the minute the American covert helicopter was shot down? They called the Chinese. Now, I would just suggest to you, we need to rethink carefully what do we mean by the word, "ally."
MR. GREGORY: Well so, what does it mean? Would you cut off foreign aid to Pakistan right now?
REP. GINGRICH: I would look very seriously at the whole relationship. But I, I, I believe something much deeper. I think this conflict with radical Islamists is so much more profound and is going to last so much longer that we had better be thinking about very different strategies. I, I don't know that a simple boots-on-the-ground and violence from predators model--this is not a comment on President Obama. I think the, the whole system, including in the Bush administration, has underestimated the depth of the problem and, and the level of the, of the challenge that we face.
MR. GREGORY: Let me turn to another area that has earned you criticism, and that is questions about your temperament, given things that you have said during the long career in, in the public arena where people question your motivation. Once such comment was made in September of last year. You were talking about the president. I'll put it up on the screen.
"What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]? That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior. ... This is a person who is fundamentally out of touch with how the world works, who happened to have played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president."
Now somebody like you has this reputation for such an intellect to make statement like that sounds either ill-informed or, at worst, bigoted. What's the basis for making a comment like that?
REP. GINGRICH: Well, first of all, that comment was made in reference to a book by Dinesh D'Souza who's a first generation American from India, who wrote a very interesting book arguing away a thing about Obama. So it was in the context of a discussion about a book written by an American first generation immigrant who says, "Gosh, from my perspective here's a way of thinking about the president." Second, I think it's fair to say that I'm going to have--one of the tests on this campaign trail is going to be whether I have the discipline and the judgment to be president. I think that's a perfectly fair question.
MR. GREGORY: Is this a fair example--in other words, this notion that somehow Obama's anti-American, that he is not on America's team, that he doesn't love America, are you prepared to say right now to say both on behalf of yourself and to other Republicans out there that this is nonsense, we ought to put this to rest?
REP. GINGRICH: Well, look, I think he loves America. But I think he has a very different vision of what America is.
MR. GREGORY: And what is that?
REP. GINGRICH: I think it's a--well, for example, he gives a speech to the National Defense University on Libya in which he cites the United Nations and the Arab League eight times and the U.S. Congress once. Now, I just think there's a little bit of imbalance there.
MR. GREGORY: You don't think he believes in American exceptionalism?
REP. GINGRICH: I don't. I'm fairly confident if you look at the--now, he's learned recently how to say it.
MR. GREGORY: Hm.
REP. GINGRICH: But if you go back and look at the first two years of his presidency, it was a real change, a real...
MR. GREGORY: All right.
REP. GINGRICH: But here--let me talk about me for a second, not about President Obama.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
REP. GINGRICH: One of my great weaknesses is that part of me is a teacher analyst. And part of me is a political leader. And I've--one of the most painful lessons I've had to learn, and I haven't fully learned it obviously, is that if you seek to be the president of the United States, you are never an analyst, you know, you're never a college teacher because those folks can say what they want to say. And somebody who offers to lead America has to be much more disciplined and, and much more thoughtful than an analyst. Analysts can say anything they want to because there's no downside. But the person to whom you're entrusting the leadership of the United States had better think long and hard before they say things. I think that's a fair criticism of me.
MR. GREGORY: Let's talk about the campaign and your role in the campaign. You said back in 1996 that you're not a natural leader, that you're more of an intellectual gadfly. And yet here you are running for the presidency. Is that your role in this campaign, to be an ideas guy...
REP. GINGRICH: No.
MR. GREGORY: ...to force the issue or to actually win?
REP. GINGRICH: That's a very fair question. And all I can tell you is that I've now spent 15 years trying to grow from gadfly to proposer of very serious, very fundamental policy change. And one of the real parts of this campaign will be the process of going to the American people, starting tomorrow in Iowa, talking about the things you and I are talking about. What do we do to get people back to work? What do we do to get back to a balanced budget? How do we enforce the 10th Amendment and move power out of Washington? These are huge undertakings. And my job is to gather together really bright people, listen to them carefully, and develop over time a series of proposals around which I think America, not just Newt Gingrich, but America, should stake its future.
MR. GREGORY: You look at the field that's starting to take shape on the Republican side--and we'll put the, the current polling on the board--Mike Huckabee is now not running. He was high up there. Donald Trump. You were there at 10 percent. And our latest poll still indicates that you've still got high negatives. There's still a high unfavorable rating. Some of that, Mr. Speaker, has to do with your own personal life, the fact that you've been married three times, you had extramarital affairs, one of--during which the time that Republicans were pursuing President Clinton for impeachment that earned you the label of being a hypocrite. And I wonder how you're going to deal with this, particularly when social conservatives, like Tom Coburn, senator from Oklahoma, has said the following about you. And I'll put it up on the screen. This was from last summer. Senator Coburn "made it clear that he won't be on Newt Gingrich's 2012 presidential bandwagon.
"Gingrich `is a super-smart man, but he doesn't know anything about commitment to marriage,' he said of the thrice-married former House speaker. `He's the last person I'd vote for, for president of the United States. His life indicates he does not have a commitment to the character traits necessary to be a great president.'"
REP. GINGRICH: Well, all I can say to every American, and every American has the right to ask these questions, is that I have made mistakes in my life. I have had to go to God for forgiveness and to seek reconciliation. And I'd ask them to look at who I am today, look at the strong marriage that Callista and I have, look at the close relationship I have with my two daughters and their husbands, look at the loving relationship we have with our grandchildren, and decide whether or not I am today a person that they believe could lead the country and could save us in a period of, of enormous problems. I think the problems we face require a leader with the courage to take the heat and to try to bring together millions of people so that collectively we can get this country back on the right track.
MR. GREGORY: But before you get there, it becomes an electability issue. You've said--one of the things you've said is that you've matured. But you were 55 years old at the time these things were going on, hardly a young man. And at the same time, just this year, you've talked about what was going on in your life at the time. This is what you told the Christian Broadcasting Network.
(Videotape, March 8, 2011)
REP. GINGRICH: There's no question that at times of my life, partially driven by, by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and that things happened in my life that were not appropriate.
MR. GREGORY: Do people--should they be expected to take that as a serious act of contrition?
REP. GINGRICH: No.
MR. GREGORY: That you were so patriotic and so passionate that you cheated on your wife?
REP. GINGRICH: No. David, and that, that's 15 seconds out of what I think was a 20-something minute interview. I have said--I'll repeat what I said to you a minute ago. I clearly have done things that were wrong. I've clearly had to seek God's forgiveness. I've seen--I believe people have to decide whether or not what I've said and what I've done is real. And I think that if people watch me and talk with me and get to know me, my hope is it'll--the majority of Americans will decide that I can help this country get back on track in a way that no one else can. And if they decide that that's true, then I think we will have a very successful campaign. But people have every right to ask the tough questions and to measure somebody personally.
MR. GREGORY: You understand people, particularly conservative Republicans saying...
REP. GINGRICH: Absolutely. Yes.
MR. GREGORY: ..."This is not a guy I can support."
REP. GINGRICH: I, I understand people questioning. And then we'll see whether or not, over time, they decide I'm somebody they can support or whether, as many people say to me, that as they get to know me and as they listen to what I'm doing and they watch how I operate and they watch what I'm doing, they say, "You know, I really do think you can help America, and we're going to help you." I have a large number of social conservatives who support me because, as we've talked this through, they've reached a different conclusion about what America needs and what I can bring in trying to fill that role of leader.
MR. GREGORY: What about taxes? Also important to conservatives. There are reports about your businesses having unpaid taxes. Can that be resolved?
REP. GINGRICH: Look. I--they're all--every single thing in that report had already been resolved. We run four businesses. Over 12 years we've paid millions of dollars in taxes. There were, I think, four or five places where, largely because stuff got lost in the mail coming to us, we didn't even know we had the liens. And several of the cases, when we called, the liens didn't even exist. All of that's taken care of. I think the total amount was $6,000 over a 12-year period.
MR. GREGORY: What about Mike Huckabee? Do his voters go to you? Will you be working for him?
REP. GINGRICH: Look, his voters are very independent, and they're going to go where they believe that America needs to go both on conservative and spiritual values. Huckabee--Governor Huckabee is going to remain a very important figure in the conservative moment, and I suspect that, that he is going to have a role to play for many years to come.
MR. GREGORY: In the conservative moment, there is, of course, a celebration of Ronald Reagan. And a lot of candidates, you--try to grab that mantle of Reagan. Back on this program in 1990, you said some interesting things about Reagan. I want to show them.
(Videotape, July 29, 1990)
REP. GINGRICH: First of all, Ronald Reagan did a lot of things that conservatives didn't like. And I think it's a little bit much to go back and say that was Camelot, that that was an era of pure conservatism. George Bush isn't as good as Reagan was at making speeches on the right while governing in the center, but the fact is, that's what Ronald Reagan did.
MR. GREGORY: Is that a model for President Gingrich? Run on the right, govern from the center?
REP. GINGRICH: Well, Ronald Reagan ran a very broad center right platform. Ronald Reagan ran on defeating the Soviet empire. He and I agreed totally on cutting taxes, and I helped pass the three tax cuts. Callista and I have done a movie, "Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny." I just spoke yesterday at Eureka College, his alma mater, at--in the commencement. He is an extraordinary man. But there is a lot to learn from him. You were mentioning earlier about the debt ceiling fight. Reagan had a pretty firm rule of get 80 percent and keep moving. Don't go for 100 percent.
MR. GREGORY: Is that how you would approach it? Try to govern from the center?
REP. GINGRICH: I--the center right. I think it--I don't think that people on the left would be very happy, but I've always said publicly, and Reagan believed this, you can't have a hard right presidency succeed because the country, there's a center-right majority that will isolate the left. There's not a right wing majority in this country. But clearly Reagan was a great conservative overall, and I think that my record is pretty extraordinarily conservative in the same tradition.
MR. GREGORY: Who's the front-runner right now on the Republican side?
REP. GINGRICH: Oh, I suspect Governor Romney is just because of the scale of the money he has and the amount he can raise. But, candidly, since Governor Huntsman probably has equal amount of money, he may be in. If Donald Trump comes in, he has, he has...
MR. GREGORY: Is he a serious candidate? Is Trump a serious candidate?
REP. GINGRICH: Who knows? I mean, this is a free society, and anybody who wants to can come play. All three of them are capable of providing enough money on their own that they're very formidable candidates.
MR. GREGORY: Would you entertain being on the ticket as a number two if it came to that?
REP. GINGRICH: David, I want you to ask yourself, can you imagine any presidential nominee who would pick me to be the vice presidential candidate?
MR. GREGORY: But would you entertain it? Would that be a no?
REP. GINGRICH: Nobody--as Reagan said in '76 when he was hoping Ford would not ask him, nobody could automatically say no to the president of the United States. But it strikes me as so implausible, I'm not--Callista and I will not spend long hours worrying about that question.
MR. GREGORY: And the debate goes on. Speaker Gingrich, thank you very much.
REP. GINGRICH: Thank you.
MR. GREGORY: Appreciate it.
Coming up, the Republican presidential field taking shape this week with both Gingrich and Ron Paul throwing their hats into the ring, while Mike Huckabee, he bows out. But there are still some big names on the sidelines. How will the Republican field shape up? And can the eventual nominee make a successful case against President Obama? We'll get immediate reaction from the interview you just heard here from our political roundtable: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal, Mark Halperin of Time magazine, Helene Cooper of The New York Times, and Matt Bai of The New York Times Magazine.
MR. GREGORY: Coming up, our roundtable breaks down the 2012 political landscape after a pretty busy week and our interview here with Newt Gingrich. Peggy Noonan, E.J. Dionne, Matt Bai, Helene Cooper and Mark Halperin, they're all here, they're ready to go. They'll weigh in right after this brief commercial break.
MR. GREGORY: We are back. Big week in politics, and we are joined by our roundtable to talk about it: columnist for The Washington Post, E.J. Dionne; columnist for The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan; White House correspondent for The New York Times, Helene Cooper; senior political analyst for Time magazine, Mark Halperin; and chief political writer for The New York Times Magazine, Matt Bai.
Welcome to everybody. Well, we've just heard the first of our Meet the Candidates series, Mark Halperin, with Newt Gingrich, now a candidate. What did we learn?
MR. MARK HALPERIN: He knows what he has to do to win. And amongst it, he referred to it quite self-consciously in response to your questions, he has to not be an analyst, he has to not be a, a gadfly, as he said.
MR. GREGORY: Hm.
MR. HALPERIN: He's got to be a, a leader, a political leader and a politician, not talk like a speaker of the House, not talk like a Fox News analyst, talk like a potential president. I think in, in this whole field, he's one of the underrated candidates in terms of his chances, and I think he showed today...
MR. GREGORY: But do you think he did that?
MR. HALPERIN: ...his strength.
MR. GREGORY: Do you think he dialed back the reputation as, I mean, not just an analyst, but a flamethrower? I mean, talking about Obama and anti-colonial views, about anti-Americanism; talking about the, the left as the, you know, that has to be saved, to--akin to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. I mean, that's, that's language.
MR. HALPERIN: The, the animating force in the Republican Party today is be in Barack Obama's face, be aggressive, be out to destroy his presidency. Newt Gingrich has a complicated problem. He needs to inhabit that space, which he naturally does; at the same time, he does need to dial back, as he said. Whenever you asked him a tough question today, he smiled and he tried to stay calm and not be a flamethrower, and I think that's what he's going to try to do the rest of the way.
MR. GREGORY: E.J., you've covered him for a lot of years. Is he too much a symbol of the past, or does he deserve a second act?
MR. E.J. DIONNE: Well, he is a symbol of the past. But, you know, Newt has always wanted to run for president, so I'm actually glad he's doing it. And he seems to be trying to cast himself as a good-natured flamethrower, and he was very good at kind of fending off those questions. But he can never resist going a few steps over the top. Right during your interview, you asked him if this comment on food stamps is racially tinged.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. DIONNE: And he doubles down and says, "Well, do we want the U.S. to become like Detroit," aka Motown, you know? And so Newt's always unplugged. But you've got the most unsettled Republican field, I think, since 1940, when Wendell Willkie snuck in. You know, usually it's either a front-runner or a structured choice--Rockefeller against Goldwater, or Ford against Reagan. This time it's wide open, and you saw it on that poll where the numbers are just scattered all over the place.
MR. GREGORY: Matt...
MR. DIONNE: That gives anybody a chance.
MR. GREGORY: Matt Bai, back a couple years ago you wrote a cover story for him for The New York Times Magazine. This is what it looked like. The question was, he was the anti-Obama. And underneath that, he would answer no. And yet this issue of Obama's values, are they in sync with what Americans want, how Americans define themselves, and whether Obama loves America? I didn't hear the former speaker dial back a lot of his views that Obama's still outside the mainstream.
MR. MATT BAI: No, and I thought your questions on that were really fair, David. I mean, all politicians--and we know this, covering them--are contradictions. All humans are contradictions. This human, this politician is especially contradictory. And one of the big contradictions you see when you spend time with Speaker Gingrich, if you've looked at him over the last couple years, is he is a very thoughtful, history-minded individual. He can, he can expound very thoughtfully and carefully on the currents of history. And at the same time, I think, like his old nemesis President Clinton, in some ways, he really wants to be liked, and he has a tendency to dive into the currents of extremism very quickly, I think, and often to his detriment, when he feels there's a, there's an advantage to be gained.
MR. GREGORY: Interesting. Helene Cooper, on some of the issues that you're covering right now--the Medicare fight, the issue of health care and how the president's going to defend it--I mean, here you have Newt Gingrich basically supporting the individual mandate.
MS. HELENE COOPER: That...
MR. GREGORY: Which is what President Obama did in his healthcare plan, which Mitt Romney did. And also saying about Medicare that he doesn't support what Paul Ryan's doing to refashion the program.
MS. COOPER: I thought that was really interesting. I was very surprised to hear what he said about the individual, individual mandate. I think we saw today, this morning, a much more in control Newt Gingrich. He...
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MS. COOPER: I mean, his--the, the biggest issue for Gingrich has always been--there's no doubt that he's one of the smartest guys out there in politics. But his tendency to wild hyperbole and this discipline issue that you guys talked about during the interview just now. We saw a much more disciplined Newt Gingrich just now, a, a few minutes ago, but I--and I, I was very surprised to hear what he said about, about health care and the individual mandate. But I'm going to be--it'll be interesting to see whether, moving forward in the campaign, he can keep that discipline.
MR. GREGORY: Hm. Peggy:
MS. PEGGY NOONAN: One of the most interesting things today that I saw in your Newt Gingrich interview was that a very busy green room, in which a bunch of people were walking around and chatting, stopped and watched it. It was a silent green room. That tells you something. People will stop and listen to him. He is a compelling character. Gingrich is one of the best explainers of generally conservative views and philosophical starting points that there is out there, so that's going to be interesting. I found him very nondefensive today, good-natured...
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MS. NOONAN: ...and easier, as, as if he had decided, "I'm going to be an easier character this time."
MR. GREGORY: Can he get past the personal baggage, the affairs, the marriages?
MS. NOONAN: I don't know.
MR. GREGORY: Is, is this an electability problem?
MS. NOONAN: I think probably. One of the things, however, I was thinking as I watched him was, you know, to young people, to 18- and 20-year-old voters, it just occurred to me, he's new. To all of us, he's been around for a long time. He left the speakership in 1998, we all covered it. To somebody who's 18 or 22, this is a new figure. They may find him quite compelling. The personal stuff, I don't know.
MR. GREGORY: Well, but, Mark Halperin, what he's saying is, "It's fair to ask about the personal stuff, but I don't think it's really going to matter to people because I'm in a good marriage now and, you know, I, I've said that I've made mistakes."
MR. HALPERIN: Well, there's something to that. And, and unlike his previous passes, this--even though his current wife has never been through a campaign with him...
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MR. HALPERIN: ...she's, she's going to be more front and center. She's involved in a lot of his activities now. There are no perfect candidates in this race, and, and the flaws that are easy to isolate with Newt Gingrich I think are, are in some ways, if he, if he stays as disciplined as he's been, are more manageable within the base of the Republican Party than some of the other flaws some of these other candidates have.
MR. GREGORY: Let's talk about Mike Huckabee, his announcement last night on Fox News. He, he drew it out till the very end, as an entertainer, and then this is what he said.
(Videotape, last night)
GOV. HUCKABEE: The past few weeks, the external signs and signals and answers to many of the obstacles point strongly toward running. And when I'm with people encouraging me to run, it's easy to feel the strength of their partnership and commitment to help me to the finish line. But only when I was alone, in quiet and reflective moments, did I have, not only clarity, but an inexplicable inner peace, a peace that exceeds human understanding. All the factors say, "Go!" But my heart says, "No." And that's the decision that I've made. And in it, I finally found some resolution.
MR. GREGORY: So a lot of flash in that announcement that he's not doing anything. So who occupies that space in the field, E.J.?
MR. DIONNE: Well, you know, I think Mike Huckabee occupies two bits of space. First of all, I think he is one of the most likable people in national politics. If you spent time with him in the last campaign, he's just a very warm, easygoing guy. There's a likability space that I think people underestimate. You know, Tim Pawlenty, I think, could occupy that kind of space, except he's become a really much more hard-line figure in order to get the conservative vote.
And then there is the Christian conservative vote, which is very--was very solid for him in Iowa, almost helped him win in South Carolina.
MR. GREGORY: Right. And this is your question. Iowa and South Carolina, then, who, who picks up that rope, in effect, that he would have been pulling?
MR. HALPERIN: Those, those are two huge geographical holes he left. I'd add to E.J.'s excellent list of, of the likability and the social conservatives, it's the downscale economic conservatives.
MR. DIONNE: Yes.
MR. HALPERIN: People making below $100,000 a year, where Huckabee had great appeal. He's not a Wall Street Republican, he's more of a populist Republican. So Huckabee, you know, the way he went out I think was, was, was, was partly he wanted attention, he wanted people to think one more time he's the national front-runner. Of all the unprecedented things we're seeing this cycle, we've never had someone--the national front-runner, the Iowa front-runner, the South Carolina front-runner just walking away from the thing. I think there's a lot of unpredictability now added as people try to figure out, "How can we take a little bit, at least, away?" The religious conservative movement needs a candidate. They don't have one now.
MR. GREGORY: And of course, then the surprising thing, right after he's done announcing at the end of the show--he interviews Mario Lopez during the show, and then right after he says "I'm not running," then you see this video pop up from the Donald.
(Videotape, last night)
MR. DONALD TRUMP: I think he'd be a terrific president. But a lot of people are very happy that he will not be running, especially other candidates. So, Mike, enjoyed the show. Your ratings are terrific. You're making a lot of money. You're building a beautiful house in Florida. Good luck.
MR. GREGORY: Helene, what does that mean? What just happened there? What happened?
MS. COOPER: I think you were seeing--the second that Mike Huckabee--I found out that he wasn't running, not because I was sitting in front of the TV because it was a Saturday night, but my BlackBerry exploded with e-mails and statements from every other candidate running to try to scoop up his voters. So I think that's what you just saw here. But I also think Donald Trump is hilarious. Don't you want this guy to stick around?
MR. DIONNE: The whole Republican presidential contest is about promoting books...
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. DIONNE: ...promoting products, promoting TV shows and promoting Fox News.
MR. GREGORY: All right.
MR. DIONNE: It's an extraordinary moment.
MR. GREGORY: Let me get a break in here. I want to come back and talk about the rest of the field. I apologize for my cold. It's still lingering. More from our roundtable right after this break.
MR. GREGORY: We're back with our roundtable.
Matt Bai, we're talking about the rest of the Republican field. And isn't it interesting? Here you have Mike Huckabee, "Don't have the fire in the belly." Haley Barbour, "Don't have the fire in the belly." Mitch Daniels, "Not sure I want to have all that fire in the belly and go through all of this."
MR. BAI: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
MR. GREGORY: What's going on?
MR. BAI: Yeah, well, you know, I think you look at this, it's a little bit like 1992, right? They look at this race. They see a president who has very high likability ratings. It's a tough race to run. They don't--they can't get a sense of the field. They don't know how competitive it's going to be...
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. BAI: ...you know, in terms of money and, and support. And you know, four years later might be a better run. So some of these folks are making a lot of money, like Huckabee, and they don't really want to give that up. And some of them are looking forward and thinking maybe this isn't the right race to make.
MS. COOPER: Yeah. And keep...
MS. NOONAN: Part of Republican, I think...
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MS. NOONAN: Forgive me, Helene. Part of Republican frustration on the ground is that Republicans on the ground, conservatives on the ground, think, "We can take this thing. We can win." But the leaders of their party, those who might be running, I suspect are thinking, "This ain't going to work."
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MS. NOONAN: "I don't want to be the guy who loses to Obama."
MR. GREGORY: It's interesting. We talked about this with our NBC News/Wall Street Journal pollsters, Bill McInturff for the Republicans and Peter Hart for the Democrats. And Bill McInturff made a point about this unsettled field. It was part of our midweek Press Pass conversation that you can see in its entirety on our Web site. We'll play a portion of it.
MR. BILL McINTURFF: Let's be honest. As a Republican, I don't think the Republican Party has yet a candidate on the field that this country says, "Oh, I could see that person as the next president."
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. McINTURFF: That's the person I'm rallying around. We have a long way to go to kind of fill that blank. And, and, and you know, that's to the president's advantage right now.
MR. GREGORY: And Mark Halperin, you did the odds for the Republican candidates in Time magazine this week. We'll put it up on the screen. Mitt Romney, 3-to-1; Huckabee, 9-to-1; Daniels, 10-to-1; Michele Bachmann, 1,000-to-1. So with Huckabee gone, you still have Huntsman and Daniels out there. How does that affect those odds?
MR. HALPERIN: Look it, we keep saying it, but it's true, but bears repeating. This is so unsettled right now.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. HALPERIN: We don't know what Trump is going to do and what kind of a candidate he'll be. We don't know what Daniels is going to do. We really haven't seen if Huntsman is the real deal or not. Sarah Palin still looms out there as a potential candidate, and then a wild card like a Chris Christie or somebody getting in. I think right now it's Mitt Romney's to lose, but, but he's doing his best to try to lose it.
MR. GREGORY: Well, let's talk about Mitt Romney, E.J. So health care is the big battle. He fought for universal health care, got it in Massachusetts. And now he's, you know, was advised to run hard away from it. And he gives a speech this week, and he does it in a PowerPoint presentation. This is the new Mitt Romney. He's not wearing a tie. Apparently he's never going to wear a tie for the rest of his life. But he talks specifically about the individual mandate which was at the core of his healthcare plan, and this is what he said.
GOV. MITT ROMNEY: I also recognize that a lot of pundits around the nation are saying that I should just stand up and say this whole thing was a mistake, that it was just a bone-headed idea, and I should just admit it. It was a mistake and walk away from it. And I presume that a lot of folks would conclude that if I did that, that would be good for me politically. But there's only one problem with that, it wouldn't be honest. I, in fact, did what I believed was right for the people of my state.
MR. GREGORY: Is that going to work? There's a big liability for conservative voters.
MR. DIONNE: I--this pundit, to quote Mr. Romney, thinks he'd be better off to really buy the whole thing he did because it was an extraordinary achievement. What he tried to do is go halfway on one side and halfway on the other side and say, "Well, the mandate was right when I did it in Massachusetts, but Barack Obama was wrong to use the very same idea at a national level." I don't think that worked on either side. And I think one of the problems that Republicans have is that this primary electorate, had--the one that gave us Sharon Angle and Christine O'Donnell, is so conservative compared to primary electorates in the past, that all these candidates really have to reshape themselves in order to appeal to this and it makes them all look smaller.
MR. GREGORY: This is, this is tough, Helene. In--because you're going to have the president out there saying, "Gosh, I agree with Mitt Romney."
MS. COOPER: Yeah. They were...
MR. GREGORY: "He's making my case for me."
MS. COOPER: The White House was thrilled with Romney's speech and was sending--all pointing out saying this is the most powerful, you know, advocate that we could possibly have out there defending Obama's healthcare legislation. But what I thought was really interesting, and this is the case, I thought one of the things that somebody at the White House pointed out to me was with Hillary Clinton in 2008 and with John McCain, they both had this issue of having to untangle themselves from something that their base really, really hated. With Hillary Clinton, it was the case of the war in Iraq. With John McCain, it was immigration. And McCain managed to get beyond that and win the primary, but this was a big issue for his base. And this is the problem for Mitt Romney right now is that he, this is--the whole tea party was basically founded off of, you know, their opposition to the individual mandate.
MR. GREGORY: Right. On opposition.
MS. NOONAN: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MS. COOPER: And this is--that's going to be a huge problem for him.
MR. GREGORY: Matt Bai, let me ask you about President Obama.
MR. BAI: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: Slight bump because of the bin Laden operation, still a lot of vulnerability because of the economy. We got a sneak peek at Politico/George Washington University's battleground poll, the full poll will be available tomorrow. Here's what we see this morning on re-election of the president, 30 percent definitely for, 29 percent consider, 38 percent definitely will not vote for. He's being dragged down some here, Matt, by high gas prices, principally.
MR. BAI: Yeah. And obviously the bump from the bin Laden killing isn't going to last till Election Day. It's going to help enhance his credentials as a commander and chief. Obviously, he's tied to the economy. We've all talked about it. A factor some within his control, some without, that will affect him. But here's the thing, here's the underpinning for President Obama that I think makes them hopeful and makes Republicans a little wary, which is this likability factor that has been very constant, and even in very difficult economic conditions, has remained pretty resilient. Not everybody likes his policies, not everybody thinks he's, he's doing a good job on the economy all the time, or on other issues. But people wish this president well. They still have a good regard, a good feeling for him. That is a tremendous asset for a president going in, especially at difficult times, going up for re-election.
MR. GREGORY: And yet, Mark Halperin, we know if the unemployment rate is above 7.4 percent, going back to the '40s, it's very difficult to get re-elected president or impossible.
MR. HALPERIN: Historically, it would be, but I would say today, if you talk to most Republicans, they agree that if they're not making the case for why they'd be better then he can win with a high unemployment rate, presuming that things don't get worse than they've been. Not one of these Republican candidates today is a strong enough political athlete to beat Barack Obama. Not one of them. If one of them proves to be strong, it's going to be a close race. There are just too many red states out there that Obama's not going to be able to compete in.
MR. GREGORY: Right. We're going to take a break here. We will come back with our final Trends and Takeaways segment, a look at what made news here this morning. What is ahead, including the president's focus on foreign affairs. How will that be an issue in the race? Right after this.
MR. GREGORY: We're back. A few minutes left with our roundtable. We want to talk about our takeaways for the hour. Some of the news that Speaker Gingrich made here on the program, now that he is a candidate for high office, we've been obviously monitoring the conversation online. This is TweetDeck that shows you some of the, the major threads, open threads of trending conversation. A lot of reaction, as you can imagine the issues as well as the president's--the former speaker's personal life.
And this is something, Matt, that you tweeted as you were coming into the show. "Newt Gingrich says in the MTP green room the campaign is about three things: economy, American identity, home security. The middle one seems ominous." Is that something you got a lot of traction on, talking about online?
MR. BAI: I'll tell you what seems ominous, David, is that huge TweetDeck with my tweet...
MR. GREGORY: Yes, very huge, very scary.
MR. BAI: ...blown up in life-size. Yeah, look, I think this is the question I start out with about Speaker Gingrich, which is, you know, the last two, the economy, homeland security clear issues. He'll be very thoughtful about them, he'll be provocative. He may be the strongest authority in the field, in fact, if he really, you know, is clear and consistent. But this thing he keeps coming back to, playing to the anti-Americanism strain, going at Obama as not perhaps a real American, this is a dark current in American politics. This is a--this is not an ennobling current in American politics. And I don't think he can resist it, and I don't think it bodes well either for his campaign, if he goes there, or for the, or for the tenor that the country's about to experience.
MR. GREGORY: One of the things we'll look forward to, Newt Gingrich will be in Iowa, 18 stops coming up this week, will be the focus on the foreign affairs, Helene Cooper. And we know that President Obama's preparing a speech to talk about the Middle East. Lindsey Graham is somebody, senator from South Carolina, I interviewed this week as part of the week's opinion awards, and he said the following about the challenges on the foreign affairs scene for the president. He "deserved a bump from the bin Laden operation," Graham said, "but I think he will be judged not just on the economy. If Iran has a nuclear weapon by 2012, that's not going to bode well for the president. If Khaddafy is still in power in October 2012 that doesn't bode well for the president. If Afghanistan is going backward, not forward, that doesn't bode well for the president. So, at the end of the day, foreign policy is still very much in play."
Specifically, how much of an issue is Afghanistan in the campaign?
MS. COOPER: I think it is going to be probably a little bit less of an issue in the campaign than I would have said two weeks ago. I think there's not that much--there was never any appetite among the Democrats for staying in Afghanistan much beyond 2014. And I think--I don't think Republicans are going to make that huge an issue of it either. I think Pakistan, though, is going to end up--could surprise us and take over the Afghanistan in the--in the campaign. You saw what, what Newt Gingrich said during your interview about Pakistan.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MS. COOPER: You see there's so, there's so much ambiguity to our policy right now in Pakistan. You know, you have Americans right now saying, "Why, why were these people harboring Osama bin Laden?" At the same time the administration's hands are kind of tied there, and we're sort of stuck with this reluctant ally.
MR. GREGORY: All right, we are going to leave it there. Thank you all very much. We'll be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.