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Discusses His Qualifications for President, the NH Primary, and the Abortion Issue (Interview)

Location: Meet the Press


MR. RUSSERT: But first, polls say John McCain and George W. Bush are in a virtual dead heat going into the New Hampshire primary on this Tuesday. Senator McCain is with us at the Bedford Inn in New Hampshire. Senator, welcome.

SEN. McCAIN: Thank you, Tim. Thanks for having me on.

MR. RUSSERT: The last couple hours you have said that George W. Bush is not ready for prime time, that he would need on-the-job training. What are you suggesting about Governor Bush?

SEN. McCAIN: I said neither. I said I wouldn't need on-the-job training, and people are saying that if he says that I'm like Clinton, that people are saying that he's not ready for prime time. Because everybody knows that I'm like a lot of things, but not like Clinton. But I say that I'm fully prepared and do not need on-the-job training, particularly, in fulfilling the job of commander in chief.

MR. RUSSERT: Is Governor Bush prepared to be president?

SEN. McCAIN: I'm sure he is. I believe I'm more prepared.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me show you a commercial you're running here in New Hampshire and let our viewers see it right now:

Announcer: There's only man who knows the military and understands the world, John McCain.
(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Only one man.

SEN. McCAIN: Would you mind running the whole thing?

MR. RUSSERT: Yeah. I'd bet you'd like that, huh? Only one man who knows the military and understands the world.

SEN. McCAIN: Uh-huh.

MR. RUSSERT: That suggests nobody else running for president knows the military or understands the world.

SEN. McCAIN: As I say, I believe that George Bush is a fine man and a good man. I believe that I am fully prepared. And that's the message that I'm trying to give in New Hampshire and around the country, and I'm convinced that that is the case, otherwise, I wouldn't be running.

MR. RUSSERT: But you're saying that George W. Bush does not know the military or understand the world.

SEN. McCAIN: No, I'm not saying that.

MR. RUSSERT: Well, you say only one man.

SEN. McCAIN: Well, there is only one man that is fully prepared. I am fully prepared. If I wasn't more prepared, then I wouldn't be running for president.

MR. RUSSERT: Well, then why run the ad saying you're the only man?

SEN. McCAIN: Because I think it's a great ad. I think it's a great message. I think it's the whole theme—primarily the theme of the campaign, that these are all good people who are running, but I believe that I'm the person that can lead the country in this new millennium.

MR. RUSSERT: And knows the military and understands the world.

SEN. McCAIN: Yes, sir.

MR. RUSSERT: And he doesn't?

SEN. McCAIN: No. No, I believe that he does know that. But the fact is that I believe that I'm the most prepared.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe that George W. Bush can beat Al Gore if Gore's the nominee?

SEN. McCAIN: What's been fascinating lately is a recent NBC poll that shows Bush dropping—George Bush dropping about 17 points and Gore and Bush running about even, so I'm convinced that I can beat Al Gore like a drum. I'm convinced that I can do that because in a debate, as I said last Wednesday night, I'll turn to Al Gore and I'll say, "Mr. Gore, you and Bill Clinton debased the institutions of government in 1996. You rented out the Lincoln Bedroom. You went to a Buddhist monastery and asked monks to give you money, and you debased the institutions of government. And then you said there's no controlling legal authority. Well, Al, I'm going to give you the controlling legal and ethical authority and I'm going to make what they did illegal." George W. Bush is in that debate. He'll have nothing to say.


SEN. McCAIN: Because he's been defending this system. He refuses to come out and advocate the reform that we all know is necessary because Washington has become the captive of the special interests. Already, according to news reports, the Bush campaign is setting up apparatus to funnel tens of millions of dollars into these soft-money, uncontrolled contributions, which is what caused the debasement of government in the last campaign. We all know this is a terrible system. We know it's got to be fixed, and Governor Bush refuses to say that he will even change a system that last time allowed millions of dollars of Chinese money to come into the American political campaign, and we'll never know how much and we'll never know what it did to national security. It's a wrong system. Everyone knows that it needs to be fixed.

And finally—Could I say?--we know that young people aren't participating, and that's because they believe that the system no longer represents them, and guess what? They're right.

MR. RUSSERT: George W. Bush would say, however, on the issue of tax cuts, he can debate Al Gore, because he has a big tax cut. Al Gore has a small tax cut. And George W. Bush says that your tax cut is inadequate. Trent Lott, the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, said McCain's tax cut is totally inadequate and very similar to Clinton-Gore. Specifically, how does your tax cut differ than Bill Clinton's?

SEN. McCAIN: My tax cut has nothing to do with a long laundry list of increases in spending, which the president spent an hour and 45 minutes articulating. So I don't have a bunch of new spending programs. President Clinton, as always, is having it all ways. First, early in the week, he said he was going to use the money to pay down the debt. Second, he would have a smaller tax cut. Third, now he's got this long laundry list of spending programs, which obviously it all doesn't match up.

Look, here's the debate between me and George Bush. What do you do with the surplus? Do you put it all or—do you put it into a working family's tax cut, into Social Security, Medicare and pay down the debt, or do you put it all into tax cuts? Now, the majority of Republicans, according to polls, think that we have obligations in the form of a Social Security Trust Fund that's about to—that has got $ 5 trillion to $ 7 trillion in liability, a huge $ 5 trillion debt, a Medicare system that's going to go broke. We incurred all these obligations in bad times. Now, we have good times, and we ought to try to take care of those obligations.

Tim, in town hall after town hall meeting, people have stood up—these are working-class families that come to these town meetings—they say, "Senator McCain, why don't we pay down the debt? We have an obligation." Well, Governor Bush's proposal has not one penny for paying down the debt, not one penny for Social Security outside of the Social Security Trust Fund, the $ 2 trillion that's already there, and not one penny for Medicare. Now, that's the debate here.

And polls show that the majority of Republicans, not all Americans, but Republicans, view that we have these obligations and we ought to start out by paying off the debt, which, by the way, Alan Greenspan also testified earlier this week before the Senate about the necessity of having that as a primary goal of the use of this surplus.

MR. RUSSERT: If you add up your tax cut—Clinton says cut taxes $ 350 billion over 10 years. He has some revenue raisers. But there's a net tax cut of $ 250 billion. Everything I have read, Senator, is that your tax cut's $ 240 billion, but you have $150 billion in tax raisers leaving a net tax cut of about $ 90 billion. With all these record surpluses, all the Republican candidates are saying, "Give the money back to the people." John McCain is saying, "No, a $ 90 billion tax cut is enough for you."

SEN. McCAIN: Tim, first of all, the revenue closers I don't think are tax raisers. When you tell these people that rent out the skyboxes, the stadium owners, that they can't take a write-off anymore and when you tell the gas and oil people that they can't take all these strange deductions that they have, when you say that corporations can't write off memberships in golf clubs and spas—look, the reason why the tax code is for...

MR. RUSSERT: Well, how about an alumnus who gives stock to a university. You're saying they can't take a full deduction.

SEN. McCAIN: I'm saying that we have an egregious practice that we all know about. Somebody acquires a painting for $1,000, goes out and has somebody appraise it for $ 1 million and then they give it and get a huge write-off. That's what I'm trying to stop. Obviously, I'm not interested or committed in any way to harm the deduction for charitable giving, and we all know that. But...

MR. RUSSERT: Mrs. Dole, Bob Dole's wife, said that, "George Bush believes that people should not be taxed on money they give to help others. John McCain believes they should be taxed." Elizabeth Dole.

SEN. McCAIN: I'm sorry to say that Elizabeth Dole is misinformed because the fact is that, when you look at this—at—what I'm trying to do is to reform egregious practices. Just as Governor Bush attacked me saying that there was a $ 40 billion tax increase, we proved it was—he ran an ad saying that. We ran a counter ad, and I'm happy to say he pulled down his ad because he was wrong. He was wrong, again.

But the point here, again, Tim, is, What do you do with the surplus? Now, President Clinton wants to have a whole new laundry list of spending programs. The Republican Congress last August, as you know, before we went out of session, passed a huge $ 793 billion tax cut. It dropped like a stone in a pond. The American people did not support it because the American people feel we have these obligations.

Finally, 38 percent of Governor Bush's tax cut go to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. I want to help all Americans. But I think working families who pay as much as 40 percent, when you total up all of their taxes, and taxes need that break first. And I think that the worst thing we could do is bank on all these surpluses being there forever. It doesn't happen, then what happens to the Social Security Trust Fund? You either have to change eligibility or you have to raise taxes, payroll taxes on working families.

I'd like to put this money into the Social Security Trust Fund, so that people will be able to invest part of their payroll taxes in investments of their own choosing, and thereby, dramatically increasing the amount of money they have when they retire.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to the issue of abortion, which is a difficult one for all candidates. The Right to Life Committee had this to say about John McCain, and I'll put it on the screen for you and your viewers. They say, "Senator McCain's positions have been conflicting, and we do not think he warrants the support of pro-life voters."

You have said that you believe life begins at conception.


MR. RUSSERT: And, yet, you want exceptions for rape and incest.

SEN. McCAIN: And the life of the mother, yes.

MR. RUSSERT: That would be the taking of a human life.


MR. RUSSERT: How is that consistent morally?

SEN. McCAIN: Because I think that these are careful balances that you have to make. And by the way, that also happens to be Henry Hyde's amendment, the wording of Henry Hyde's amendment, who is the leading pro-life advocate in the Congress of the United States. We have to make careful decisions here. These are all moral problems that we have to work out for ourselves. The life of the mother, obviously, is a human life, too. The gripping aspects of rape and incest are terrible situations and we have to kind of come to conclusions, taking into consideration the interests of all parties in this very difficult issue.

I have come to the conclusion that the exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother are legitimate exceptions in this situation, but I don't claim to be a theologian. But I have my own moral beliefs and I hold those. And by the way, I do have a 17-year voting record that's pro-life. Mr. Johnson and the National Pro-Life Committee have turned a cause into a business, and they are very worried that if I have campaign finance reform, all this uncontrolled, undisclosed contributions may be reduced and it may harm them in their efforts to continue this huge business they've got going in Washington, D.C.

MR. RUSSERT: A constitutional amendment to ban all abortions?

SEN. McCAIN: Yes, sir.

MR. RUSSERT: You're for that?

SEN. McCAIN: Yes, sir.

MR. RUSSERT: If, in fact, all abortions were banned in America...

SEN. McCAIN: I understand.

MR. RUSSERT: ...under President McCain...

SEN. McCAIN: Understand.

MR. RUSSERT: ...let's look at our country. What would happen to a woman who had an abortion?

SEN. McCAIN: Obviously, it would be illegal, but I would not prosecute a woman who did that. I would think that it would be such a terrible trauma that—but I would not make those abortions available or easy as they are today in America. And I think that, again, we're talking about a situation which is very unlikely at this time, and I would like to see us ban partial-birth abortion, pass parental notification, parental consent and move forward in the areas that we can move forward in, including working with pro-life, pro-choice Americans on trying to make adoption easier, which is very difficult in America, trying to improve foster care, trying to move together in areas that we can agree on, rather than polarizing us as both ends of the spectrum have done.

MR. RUSSERT: But, Senator, women across the country would say, "Senator McCain, prior to Roe v. Wade, hundreds of thousands of women a year went to the back alleys to have abortions."

SEN. McCAIN: I understand that.

MR. RUSSERT: Many died.

SEN. McCAIN: I understand that.

MR. RUSSERT: And here you are, want to bring that back.

SEN. McCAIN: Perhaps.

MR. RUSSERT: Would you prosecute a doctor who broke the law?

SEN. McCAIN: If a doctor violated the law, I believe that he would be prosecuted. But the fact is that if Roe v. Wade were repealed, then it would then be up to the states in the United States of America to make those decisions. It would not immediately outlaw abortion. It would mean that each state would make the decisions on that issue among the states.

MR. RUSSERT: But if it's a moral issue, you would not want to have any state allow abortion either.

SEN. McCAIN: I would not, but your thesis that a repeal of Roe v. Wade would immediately outlaw abortion isn't true. What would happen, it would then return those decisions to the states.

MR. RUSSERT: But you would hope all the states would outlaw abortion, too.

SEN. McCAIN: Yes, I would. Yes, I would.

MR. RUSSERT: And so a doctor would be criminally liable.

SEN. McCAIN: Would be liable.

MR. RUSSERT: Not criminally.


MR. RUSSERT: A woman would be an accomplice.

SEN.McCAIN: Tim, look. This is...

MR. RUSSERT: This is reality.

SEN. McCAIN: I know.

MR. RUSSERT: It's easier for people to say, "I'm for banning all abortions..."


MR. RUSSERT: ...and then when you apply it in a real-life situation...


MR. RUSSERT: ...circumstances of human beings are involved...

SEN. McCAIN: In a real...

MR. RUSSERT: well as...

SEN. McCAIN: In a real...

MR. RUSSERT: ...the unborn baby.

SEN. McCAIN: And in a real-life situation, we in America want to reduce and eliminate abortion over time. We want to work on those areas in which we agree and then address those we don't agree on. Partial-birth abortion is a practice that's taking place today in America. More than 80 percent of Americans think that that's a terrible procedure. Let's work on that and reduce that.

Most parents in America believe that they should be notified if their child is going to receive or seeks an abortion. I think that that also should be made into law, parental notification. There are areas—adoption, foster care—we need to work together and do it in a lot less confrontational fashion. You and I are talking about some very theoretical situations that don't match with the reality in America and where we are in abortion, although I'd be glad to discuss them with you.

MR. RUSSERT: But go slow on banning all abortions outright?

SEN. McCAIN: It's not so much go slow, recognize reality. Abortion is not going to be banned outright. Recognize that. So in the meantime, we go down the path, trying to work with pro-choice, as well as pro-life Americans to reduce and eliminate abortion. Most pro-choice Americans don't like abortion either and would like to work with us to try to reduce and eventually eliminate, not all, but eliminate abortion in America.

MR. RUSSERT: The last time we spoke, you said that Elian Gonzalez, the six-year-old Cuban boy, should go back home, that you would support legislation to make him an American citizen. Republicans in Congress now have said, "No, no, we're going to put that on the back burner." The American people, by a margin of now 2:1, say, "Let the boy be reunited with his dad." Have you changed your view?

SEN. McCAIN: No. And, again, I know what communism is like. I still remember very well the plight of the people behind the Iron Curtain who talked about how important it was to experience freedom. I still say, as I did the last time, why doesn't the father come to Florida and say that he wants to bring his son back to totalitarian oppressive communism. And we all know the reason why. We all know the reason why. Why don't we admit it? Because the father would say, "I'd like to stay here in freedom with my son."

MR. RUSSERT: How do you win this nomination? Assume you win the New Hampshire on Tuesday, what happens next?

SEN. McCAIN: Well, the message now resonates all over America. And that is that we need to reform the government. I'm going to give the government back to the people and take it out of the grip of the special interests and the iron triangle in Washington, the lobbyists' money and legislation. I'll have a huge megaphone and I believe that that message is resonated here in New Hampshire. I think it'll resonate in South Carolina where we're already making progress and I think it'll resonate all over America.

MR. RUSSERT: Now, South Carolina, and then Arizona, Michigan...


MR. RUSSERT: ...and then California.

SEN. McCAIN: California and 13 other states all the same—March 7th is the big day, as we all know.

MR. RUSSERT: If you win California, do you believe you've won the nomination?

SEN. McCAIN: I think that the nomination is decided on that day and I believe California is very key. Unfortunately, due to some Stalinist practices on the part of the state party in New York, we're having difficulty getting on the ballot there, as you know. I went in front of the Russian Consulate the other day. I certainly wouldn't indulge in any publicity stunts and...

MR. RUSSERT: No, hardly. No. Just have the motorcade stop by there.

SEN. McCAIN: Yeah. Yeah. We're just driving by and pointed out that there's going to be two elections in March, one in New York and one in Russia. In Russia they will have a number of candidates on the ballot. In New York state, thanks to Governor Pataki and Mr. Powers, the state chairman, they'll only have one name on the ballot. Fascinating. What's wrong with that picture?

MR. RUSSERT: The Bush people say, "McCain, when you ran for Senate in Arizona, you knocked your opponent off the ballot, too. You're just like we are."

SEN. McCAIN: Everybody knows that in Arizona we try to get credible candidates on the ballot. We also know that the state of New York tries to keep credible candidates off. Look, Rudy Giuliani, Al D'Amato, Congressman Peter King, they all know. Look, all Governor Bush has to do is pick up the phone and say, "Pataki, let him on the ballot." I'm deeply disappointed that Governor Bush won't do that. And anyway—so the message is resonating. We're doing fine. We're having a great ride. Tim, it's been a great ride. We've had a wonderful time.

MR. RUSSERT: You talk about reforming the government. When your campaign finance bill went to the floor of the Senate, all 45 Democrats said, "We're with McCain."

SEN. McCAIN: But then they blocked it.

MR. RUSSERT: Only...

SEN. McCAIN: But then they blocked it.

MR. RUSSERT: But only eight Republicans, eight out of 55, stood up and said, "We're with McCain." How are you going to turn your own party around on this issue or might you become, as some of your colleagues are suggesting, a quasi-Democrat?

SEN. McCAIN: Please remember that when the bill was on the floor, it was the Democrats, it was Tom Daschle and Harry Reid, that filled up the tree so that we could not move forward in the parliamentary fashion.

MR. RUSSERT: But your own party is not for it.

SEN. McCAIN: So it came out...

MR. RUSSERT: Your party is against it.

SEN. McCAIN: All of them are worried about it because this is—an incumbency protection racket is really what it's all about, but I believe this Supreme Court decision, the United States Supreme Court, is a seminal event because, as one of the justices said, "Money is property not free speech," and they affirmed constitutionally that a limit of a thousand dollar contribution is totally constitutional and the language they used is remarkable, talking about the effect of money and its corrupting influence on politics.

MR. RUSSERT: Even if you lose in New Hampshire, the campaign goes on?

SEN. McCAIN: Oh, sure, we go on. We're having a great time. I think this election on Tuesday is going to be very close, as you said, at the beginning of the program, but let me just mention one anecdote. I've had 100, and now today I'm going to Peterborough for my 114th town hall meeting here. At my hundredth meeting in Plymouth, New Hampshire, a woman stood up and she looked me straight in the eye and she didn't ask a question. She had an eloquent statement. She said, "Senator McCain, it is vital that the next president of the United States always tell me the truth no matter what." As president of the United States, I'm always going to tell the truth no matter what.

MR. RUSSERT: John McCain, we'll be watching. We'll see you on Tuesday night here in New Hampshire and on to South Carolina.

SEN. McCAIN: Thanks, Tim.

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