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Transcript (with my notes) from January 24, 2010 (PART 1)

February 13, 2010

Valerie Jarrett, Mitch McConnell, E.J. Dionne, Katty Kay, Peggy Noonan, Chuck Todd
Sunday, Jan. 24, 2010

MR. DAVID GREGORY: This Sunday, the stunning upset in Massachusetts is the shot heard round the political world.

(Videotape)

SEN.-ELECT SCOTT BROWN: Tonight the independent majority has delivered a great victory.

(End videotape)

(Videotape)

PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Got to admit, we had a little bit of a buzz saw this week.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: Is healthcare reform dead amid growing concerns about what Washington is doing to create jobs?

(Videotape)

PRES. OBAMA: So long as I have the privilege of serving as your president, I will not stop fighting for you. I will take my lumps, but I won’t stop fighting to bring back jobs here.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: What does the president do now? How will he frame his agenda during next week’s State of the Union address? Our exclusive guest morning, senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett.

Then the Republicans. The Massachusetts victory gives the minority party a shot in the arm, but does the GOP stand for something more than opposition to the Obama agenda? We’ll ask Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Plus, our roundtable assesses the political landscape and the Obama agenda. With us, The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne, BBC World News America’s Katty Kay, The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan and NBC News chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd.

Finally, in our MEET THE PRESS MINUTE, January 1976, another time of economic turmoil. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Lloyd Bentsen offers some practical advice to then President Gerald Ford on his upcoming State of the Union address.

(Videotape, January 18, 1976)

SEN. LLOYD BENTSEN (D-TX): We should be creating opportunity. What people are really looking for in this country is a return of self-confidence.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: But first, senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett.

Welcome back to the program. Welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.

MS. VALERIE JARRETT: Well, thank you, David. It’s a pleasure to be here.

MR. GREGORY: Thank you. There is some news developing overnight that I wanted to ask you about.

MS. JARRETT: Sure.

MR. GREGORY: Osama bin Laden has reportedly cut another audiotape claiming responsibility for the Christmas Day attempted bombing. Is that his voice, and is it striking that he appears to be back in charge of calling the shots on running operations for al-Qaeda?

MS. JARRETT: We have no independent confirmation that that is, in fact, his voice. But let’s look at—the fact of the matter is, is that he’s a murderer, he has attacked Americans. In fact, he’s killed more Muslims than any other group in the region. And so the president is committed to going after al-Qaeda and all of their affiliates and bringing them to justice.

MR. GREGORY: Is he in direct command and control of al-Qaeda? Is that the view of the intelligence community?

MS. JARRETT: We have, we have, we have no independent verification of that whatsoever, but we are going to go after al-Qaeda and its affiliates and certainly him for the atrocities of the past.

MR. GREGORY: The other big news story this morning is the question about whether Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is going to be confirmed for another term. Where is the level of confidence right now within the White House that he will get the requisite votes?

MS. JARRETT: Oh, it’s very high. President Obama checked in with the leadership over the weekend, and he heard from Senator Reid that there is a lot of support for Ben Bernanke. We are confident that the chairman will be confirmed.

I really like it when Gregory opens the show, when appropriate, with a question or two about a very current news development. It gives a sense of urgency, builds on the strength of doing a live interview, and it broadens the possibility that news will be made (the holy grail of Sunday morning talk shows).

MR. GREGORY: So much news this week out of Massachusetts. The stunning victory of Scott Brown, the Republican, in that special election. And the obvious question that came out of that is what’s next for healthcare reform? The president was out in Ohio on Friday, he was talking about health care, talking about jobs, but he said he’s going to keep fighting for health care. So what specifically will he fight for?

MS. JARRETT: He’s going to fight for what he’s always been fighting for, David. Look, the fact of the matter is, you’re right, it was a stunning victory. But the people in Massachusetts already have healthcare reform. In fact, Senator Brown voted for the healthcare reform that Massachusetts has. He said he wouldn’t vote to repeal it. And in fact, we’re very confident that it’s similar to the bills that are currently being debated here.

MR. GREGORY: So he’ll fight for everything?

This is a decent line of questioning. I might have phrased it differently by trying to force Jarret to say which of the healthcare items were the top priorities. But asking “So he’ll fight for everything?” makes essentially the same point.

MS. JARRETT: He’s going to—of course, he’s going to fight for the American people. David, listen, nothing changed about the fact that costs are escalating too high, that out-of-pocket expenses for health care are growing, that premiums have doubled over the last 10 years, that people who do not have insurance need insurance, the people who do have insurance are losing it because of pre-existing conditions, that the deficit is looming out of control in large part because of health care and that small businesses are having to choose between laying off people and paying for health care.

MR. GREGORY: I understand the arguments for health care.

Since Jarret started to lay out the elements, this would have been a good entre to saying “So those are the top reform priorities we can expect the President to push?” or “Which of those are the ‘must have’ for this new push and which ones are expendable?”

MS. JARRETT: That—none of that changed as a result of that election.

MR. GREGORY: But what specifically in the bill will he continue to fight for? Does everything have to be in there in order for it to be considered reform by this president?

Here we go.

MS. JARRETT: What he’s doing and what happened over the course of the weekend is there’ve been a series of phone calls and conversations to try to see what, what the climate is, what’s the art of the possible. But what the president is always going to do is try to push hard for the American people. He’s not going to give up on that because of one election in Massachusetts. He’s going to continue to work hard. We don’t know what’s going to happen. But what we do know is that we have a president committed to delivering for the American people.

She is squirming away from naming the priorities.

MR. GREGORY: So he’ll fight for the package as-is?

MS. JARRETT: He’s going to fight for trying to get as absolutely as much as he can to reduce the cost of health care, to provide insurance, provide a security and safety for those folks who have insurance now, all of the core principles that we set forth at the very beginning of the process; core principles, I might add, that were included in both the bill that was passed by the Senate and the bill that was passed by the House.

MR. GREGORY: The, the…

MS. JARRETT: So we’ll see where we go, David.

And David let’s her go. (Which has to happen sometimes in this format.)

MR. GREGORY: Republicans have said he has not been bipartisan in this process. Is he now prepared to sit down with Republican leaders to figure out what, precisely, could be passed?

MS. JARRETT: David, he has been prepared since day one—in fact, he has sat down with the leadership the members of—on the Republican Party, both the House and the Senate. And in fact, bills in both the House and the Senate contain provisions that were suggested by the Republican Party. So nothing’s changed about the president’s approach. I think the question to be asked and what we learned from the Massachusetts victory is that people are sick and tired of Washington not delivering for them. And so the question is really, will the Republican Party become—be willing to come and work with us? A silver lining is Senator Brown said yes, he’s looking forward to coming to Washington and working with the Democrats, and we’re hoping that that provides new leadership within the party.

MR. GREGORY: You raise Massachusetts and you raise this question of priorities. This is what our recent polling found in terms of what are the priorities of the American people? And on top of that list is not health care; in fact, it’s job creation. That was first on the list at 38 percent. There’s health care at 12 percent, fourth on the list. Why keep pushing for health care in the middle of a recession when the American people don’t seem to put that at the top of the list?

MS. JARRETT: Well, you’re assuming that it’s a choice between either or. The president, from the day he was elected, has made job creation and the economy a first priority. Let’s, let’s just remember where we were a year ago, David. We were losing 700,000 jobs a month. We were in the middle of the worst economic meltdown in our nation’s history. Our financial system was on the brink of collapse. We had the largest federal deficit in our nation’s history. And what’s happened over the last 12 months? We’re no longer losing 700,000 jobs a month. We’ve cut that number by—to less than 10 percent. We’ve turned the economy around. We are moving forward in the right direction.

No doubt Jarret wishes she hadn’t used the phrase “turned the economy around,” especially without also adding a bunch of qualifying words. And Gregory pounces.

MR. GREGORY: You can’t say—I’m sorry.

MS. JARRETT: However, however, David…

MR. GREGORY: You can’t say you’ve turned the economy around when there are four million jobs that have been lost on the president’s watch.

MS. JARRETT: You didn’t let…

MR. GREGORY: When the debt is higher and the stimulus did not produce the jobs that the administration said it would.

MS. JARRETT: Well, I actually disagree with everything you just said. Let’s, let’s take a look. We have pulled it back from the brink of disaster. That was our first and primary goal. The president took some bold steps that were not necessarily popular, but that did stabilize the financial system. This is a long haul, David, and we are not satisfied—having any American who wants to work unemployed is something that the parent—the president takes to heart each and every day. This isn’t something that’s going to be repaired in one year. We’re going to have to push forward. But that doesn’t mean we give up and that doesn’t mean that jobs haven’t been a top priority from day one.

Jarret regroups. She knows “stabilize the financial system” and “pulled it back from the brink of disaster” are the phrases she should have used to begin with.

MR. GREGORY: You talk about the economy. What specifically is the president prepared to do this year to create jobs?

This is a really good question. It is the kind of question I would like to see more of on MTP. The show too oten trends toward obsession with the political surface rather than the meat of issues or a drive for solutions. More on this later.

MS. JARRETT: Well, as you mentioned, he’s going to be giving his State of the Union address this week, on Wednesday, and he’ll have an opportunity that he’s looking forward to speak directly to the American people, something you know that he always enjoys doing. And he’ll be able to set forth his priorities, and they will be focusing on the middle class. Our middle class is struggling out there. They’re frustrated, they’re angry, they’re working hard to try to make ends meet. They’re having to make terrible choices between paying their rent and putting food on the table and paying for their health care and sending their kids to college. These are the same principles that the president advocated in the course of the campaign. They’re the same principles that he’s carried with him throughout the course of this year. And we’ve taken several bold steps over the course of the year. The recovery act saved thousands and thousands of jobs. There are school teachers and firemen and, and teachers all across our country, policemen, who have jobs today because of that recovery act. We are investing in infrastructure. We’re investing in public education so that our kids can compete going forth into the next generation. We’re investing in renewable energy to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. These are all connected to the economy. And what we have to keep in mind, David, is that, is that we need to have a sustainable, healthy, long-term economy.

Hmmm. While all of this is likely true – it describes the current situation and says what the president has already done – it does not answer Gregory’s question.

MR. GREGORY: OK.

MS. JARRETT: Not a quick fix, but a long-term, sustainable growth.

MR. GREGORY: Here was the president on Friday in Ohio, and his, his tone was different. He sounded more like a campaigner than he did as an incumbent president. Let’s watch a piece of that.

(Videotape, January 22, 2010)

PRES. OBAMA: I did not run for president to turn away from these challenges. I didn’t run to kick these challenges down the road. I ran for president to confront them once and for all.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: Does this mark a new approach to how he’s going to communicate with the American people during the State of the Union and beyond?

Looks to me like we dropped the thread here of “What specifically is the president prepared to do this year to create jobs?” Now we move into a discussion of “tone” and whether of not the president is frustrated. Mildly interesting, but I never know what Gregory is hoping to get out of a conversation about presidential mood. I’d like to see more pressing on the job creation question.

MS. JARRETT: You know, I would ask you to go back and, and look at the speech that the president gave in September of 2007 on the floor of Nasdaq, where he’s—he called for accountability. He said that there are excesses that are running out of control. He called for checks and balances that would stop the excessive risk taking that was going on. That same tone is what he has had for as long as I have known him. So no, I don’t see any difference. I do see…

MR. GREGORY: But he, he acknowledged…

MS. JARRETT: …a heightened frustration.

MR. GREGORY: But he acknowledged a, a failure of communications of sort to communicate to the concerns of the American people. He said this this past week.

MS. JARRETT: What he—what I saw him express on Friday was the growing frustration with Washington and the fact that what you continue to see here is an entrenched status quo where the special interest groups and the lobbyists dominate the day, and where people have lost sight of the American people that they are here to serve. And so what you saw was some frustration and some anger because of what’s happened over the course of the last year. We are working so hard to put our country back on the right track, and what we want is partners in the Republican Party. And we’re hoping that with Senator Brown, we have that.

No new ground broken in that exchange.

MR. GREGORY: Evan Bayh, the centrist Democrat from Indiana, as you know, is among those that we’ve sought out in the course of this program today to get some outside voices to join the discussion. This was the wake-up call that he described from the Massachusetts special election.

(Videotape)

SEN. EVAN BAYH (D-IN): If you look at the independent voters who have bailed out on the Democratic Party in Virginia and New Jersey and now Massachusetts, they care about the economy, they think the healthcare bill was—went too far in some ways, and they care about spending and deficits. That’s one thing we can correct, starting with the president’s budget and starting with the State of the Union address this week.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: Add to that that the president’s standing among independent voters is down 11 points from Election Day 2008. The president said this week that Americans should be frustrated and angry. Should they be frustrated and angry at him?

Not a bad question. But did we need the Bayh clip to set it up? He was talking about making the economy and deficits a priority… and maybe scaling back the healthcare bill. It seems like the clip could have been used differently.

MS. JARRETT: Look, he’s the president of the United States. Ultimately, he accepts responsibility and he knows that he has to move our country in a new direction. He’s said from the beginning that it’s going to be tough and it’s going to be challenging, and he isn’t, he isn’t shying away from that challenge. He said he’s going to continue to fight, and that’s what he’s going to do. Every single morning he wakes up recommitted to fighting on behalf of our country. Every night before he goes to bed, he reads letters from 10 people from all around the country, sometimes children, asking for help. The people of America are so resilient. They love this country.

MR. GREGORY: But do they have a…

MS. JARRETT: They’re willing to work hard.

MR. GREGORY: My question was, do they have a question to reason to be frustrated at him?

Good answer from Jarrett and a good follow up from Gregory.

MS. JARRETT: They have a reason to be frustrated with everybody, because we have not delivered yet. We’re now in Washington, and so we have to change the culture here. That’s not something that’s easy, it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. But certainly, they have ever reason to be frustrated. But there was also a Washington Post poll that came out this week that said, look, if you actually show people what’s in health care, for example, they’re very supportive of it. And part of the problem is, is that there’s been such a distortion and such a rhetoric and such misinformation that clutters the media, that it is hard to get our message through. Well, do we have to do a better job with that? Absolutely.

Very good response from Jarrett. But in the end, the line of questioning about frustration with Obama didn’t really yield fruit. Coming out of the Bayh clip, the question could have been “So the centrist Democratic Senator says you need to use the budget and the State of the Union address to correct some things and to keep from overreaching. Will Evan Bayh like what he sees in the next two weeks?”

MR. GREGORY: There—David Plouffe, who was a campaign manager for the campaign of 2008, is now back in the fold as an adviser.

MS. JARRETT: Yes.

MR. GREGORY: A lot being made of that. Was the president upset that, in effect, he was too surprised by what happened in Massachusetts? Did his political team let him down?

MS. JARRETT: You know, that’s the game that Washington likes to always play. David Plouffe has been a regular adviser to the president throughout the course of the year. He ran a magnificent campaign. He’s been off writing a book and on a book tour, and now that that’s running to a close the president asked him to come back. The president has full support of his team, and that team will work closely with David Plouffe. He’s value added, and we’re delighted to have him back.

Jarrett is right. DC loves to play this game. And it is largely seen as inconsequential outside of DC. So does MTP see their target audience as primarily inside the Beltway or outside?

MR. GREGORY: You’re not hit, hitting the reset button here?

MS. JARRETT: No, we’re not hitting the reset button at all. David is, David is terrific. We’re going to engage him. And I think Washington’s always looking to have somebody out and somebody in. That’s not the way this president leads. He’s always looking for new talent. He looks for new talent in the Republican Party.

Well, if I wanted to hear more about this topic, I would want Gregory to say “But Plouffe doesn’t count as new talent” or ask if Jarrett’s last line means the president will be pulling other Republicans into the Adminsitration.” But overall I am glad Gregory let the topic drop.

MR. GREGORY: The president came into office promising change. In his first year, what has he changed?

MS. JARRETT: Well, I think what we’ve seen is a, a dramatic difference in terms of how the United States is perceived around the world. I think that the president has been able to travel across the world and to establish relationships with world leaders that lie—lay a foundation for keeping America safe and, and making us a partner around the world so that we can tackle challenges collectively with other world leaders. I think that he has pulled back the economy from the brink of disaster. That’s an enormous amount of change when you consider where we were a year ago, right on the economic brink. And he’s adding discipline in government to try to get control of our—over our fiscal house. So I think we’ve seen enormous change.

A softball question, but not undeserved on the first anniversary of the Administration. And the video tape of Jarrett’s response may be useful on MTP in a year or two.

MR. GREGORY: Valerie Jarrett, thank you very much.

MS. JARRETT: Oh, you’re welcome, David.

MR. GREGORY: Let me turn now to Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

The image now switches to McConnell sitting on the other side of the MTP table. Was he there the whole time? Does Jarret stay seated or slip out silently while McConnell answers? The transistion seems awkward. Moreover, if you have your represetative from the other party right there in the same room, all mic’ed up and ready to talk, wouldn’t it be a more interesting program if you let the two guests actually converse?

Leader, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL (R-KY): Glad to be with you, David.

MR. GREGORY: Is there one Republican who will support any Democratic healthcare initiative?

Really, that is the question? What was Gregory hoping to evoke from McConnell? In effect it gave McConnell an open door to say whatever he planned to say.

SEN. McCONNELL: Well, what we really need to do is start over. I mean, I—the message in Massachusetts was absolutely clear. The exit polls that I looked at said 48 percent of the people in Massachusetts said they voted for the new senator over health care. Only 5 percent mentioned any other issue. The American people had a victory in Massachusetts, and they were sending us the message “stop and start over.”

The first thing we ought to do is go back to what the president said in 2007, let’s have the C-SPAN cameras in the room. Number two, let’s concentrate on cost, which is what the American people would like us to address. And a good place to start there is with junk lawsuits against doctors and hospitals, which were not even a part of the proposal. Absolutely, it’s time to start over and go step-by-step to address the issue that the American people thought we…

McConnell’s math concerns me. 48% say they voted for Brown because of healthcare. Only 5% mentioned any other issue. So the remaining 67% gave no reason for voting for Brown? Weird. But then he goes on to raise the CSpan issue, the need for cost-cutting to be the top priority, and (for the second time) to call for starting over on health care.

MR. GREGORY: So let me just be clear. There is not one Republican that would vote for any Democratic healthcare reform initiative that’s out there now?

McConnell threw some meat on the table. But Gregory is still digging for something I don’t understand. Is he hoping McConnell will throw one his colleagues under the bus? Or is he trying to establish that Republicans are completely opposed to bipartisanship? The question might be interesting to pose to one of the show’s political observers. But McConnell’s job is to exude party unity. His answer is pretty predictable.

SEN. McCONNELL: Well, this comprehensive bill? Of course not. You know, the American people are overwhelmingly opposed to it.

MR. GREGORY: So it sounds like…

SEN. McCONNELL: What we need to do…

MR. GREGORY: …the party of no charge is well deserved.

SEN. McCONNELL: No, no. What I said we need to do—I just said it. We need to, we need to stop and start over and go step-by-step…

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

SEN. McCONNELL: …to fix the cost problem.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Gregory’s aggressiveness right here. But in the end it is about the DC dance rather than the substance of reform. With endless hours of cable news focused on the DC dance, MTP at its best is a place where the substance can take center stage.

MR. GREGORY: So what elements of the president’s reform plan would you keep as part of comprehensive healthcare reform?

SEN. McCONNELL: We’d have to sit down and discuss that. But it’s…

MR. GREGORY: Well, we’ve been discussing it for months now.

SEN. McCONNELL: Well, the problem is we haven’t been a part of the discussion. We’ve had a number of different ideas, none of which are in the bill.

MR. GREGORY: How many Republicans were negotiating on the Finance Committee?

SEN. McCONNELL: Well, several.

MR. GREGORY: Right. So weren’t they part of the process from the start?

SEN. McCONNELL: Yeah. But it’s not just about talking, it’s about what you end up with.

MR. GREGORY: Right.

SEN. McCONNELL: And from a policy…

MR. GREGORY: What did they say yes to in the course of that negotiation?

Within the narrow context of the DC dance, this line of questioning from Gregory works well. It shows that Republicans really were part of the bill’s process, they just didn’t like the outcome. But it could have been dispensed with much more quickly and left room for more discussion of the substance.

SEN. McCONNELL: From a policy, from a policy point of view, what this ended up being was a $2.5 trillion bill that cut Medicare by half a trillion dollars, raised taxes by half a trillion dollars, would drive up insurance premiums for most Americans. That’s not reform. And that didn’t have much appeal to Republican senators.

MR. GREGORY: So tick off the top three points of the Republican plan for, for healthcare reform.

SEN. McCONNELL: First, you do have to do it on a bipartisan basis. You put the C-SPAN cameras in the room, as the president said. You start with junk lawsuits against doctors and hospitals, interstate competition among insurance companies, and many of my members would be looking—would be willing to look at equalizing the tax code. Right no w if you’re a corporation and you provide insurance for your employees, you get to deduct it on your corporate tax return. But if you’re an individual on the individual market, you don’t. Step-by-step to work on the cost problem. That’s what Republicans are willing to do.

So we are back to almost exactly what McConnell said in his very first answer. I wish Gregory would have just engaged on all of this back then.

MR. GREGORY: Is universal coverage a priority?

SEN. McCONNELL: Expanding coverage is a good idea. But even under this $2.5 trillion monstrosity, they still didn’t end up covering everybody. That is easier said than done. But if you equalize the tax code, you make it more possible for more people who are currently uninsured to, to purchase insurance. Right now they have no tax incentive to do it. And a lot of young people look at the situation, say, “Gee, I’m going to live forever, why should I buy it?”

Nice question and answer on substance. McConnell dodges a little, but offers some meat. Will Gregory explore? Nope. we go right back to the politics.

MR. GREGORY: Is healthcare reform dead?

SEN. McCONNELL: This particular bill deserves to be stopped. What we need to do is start over and get it right.

Not a bad question per se. Why not start the whole conversation with this? This is the kind of DC dance question which could then lead to discussion on the substance.

MR. GREGORY: But my question was, you’re looking at the votes, you’re looking at the landscape; is healthcare reform dead?

SEN. McCONNELL: Well, the Democrats are in the majority. They have the White House, they have the House, they have the Senate. They have to decide whether they want to listen to the voices of the American people. All the surveys all across the country—and even in the most liberal state in America, arguably, Massachusetts—the people are telling us, “Please don’t pass this bill.” Now, if they get past this arrogant phase that they’ve been stuck in for about a year that, “We know best. We don’t want to listen to public opinion here, we want to `make history,’” if they can work their way past that and concentrate on the real problem, which is the cost, we’re willing to look at it. But I think we need to be concentrating on the economy.

Look, we passed a stimulus bill. The, the goal there was to keep unemployment at 8 percent. It’s now 10 percent, in my state 10.6 percent. Let’s concentrate on what the American—you showed the survey earlier in your program of what people would like for us to be working on, and that’s job creation.

McConnell restates the current situation in DC. Yawn. Let’s move on.

MR. GREGORY: I just—before we get to, to jobs, I just want to ask you quickly, it sounds like you’re saying there still may be some, some reason for hope here, that the president can cobble together and agreement to actually get healthcare reform through. Is that your view?

SEN. McCONNELL: What I, what I hope is that this current bill that we’ve had on the table is finished, over.

MR. GREGORY: Right. But you’re not pronouncing it finished.

SEN. McCONNELL: Well, the majority ought to make that—reach that decision. It ought to be over. The American people are telling us, “Please stop trying to pass this.”

And I am saying “Please move on to another topic.”

MR. GREGORY: You talk about jobs. Before we get to that, a key issue coming up, as I mentioned, is Ben Bernanke’s renomination. Will you vote for him as head of the Fed?

SEN. McCONNELL: Well, he’s going to have bipartisan support in the Senate, and I would anticipate he’d be confirmed.

MR. GREGORY: Will you vote for him?

SEN. McCONNELL: He’s going to have bipartisan support…

MR. GREGORY: But you won’t say how you’ll vote?

SEN. McCONNELL: …in the Senate. I’ll let you know in the next day or so.

MR. GREGORY: Do you have concerns about his renomination?

SEN. McCONNELL: He’s—I think he’s going to be confirmed.

MR. GREGORY: But do you have concerns about his renomination?

SEN. McCONNELL: Some of my members do, but I think he’s going to be confirmed.

What just happened? Gregory appeared tough with four follow-ups, but to what end? The news here is the Senate Minority Leader predicts confirmation with bipartisan support. But Gregory presses on how McConnell specifically will vote and what his personal concerns are. How important is this?

MR. GREGORY: All right. Let me ask you about jobs. What is the GOP plan to create jobs?

SEN. McCONNELL: Well, the first thing you do is you stop this job killing healthcare bill, and you don’t pass the energy tax that passed the House earlier this year. Their prescription for new jobs is obviously higher taxes. Don’t do that. You’ve got tax relief that was passed a number of years ago expiring next year. Don’t raise taxes in the middle of a recession. Look, if I’m running a small business, David, and I’m trying to figure out what to do next year, I’d like to expand employment, but I’m looking at the potential for healthcare taxes, I’m looking at the potential of income taxes going up, dividend taxes going up, capital gains taxes going up. The cost of adding employees is bothering me. And then I see the administration rattling the markets on top of it. You know, if you sum up the first year, what this administration has done best is rattle the markets, advocate tax increases and run up deficits. That’s not a very comforting message to business people looking at trying to expand employment.

Nice substantive answer which deserves some challenging. Or, if Gregory wants to stay with the DC political process, he could ask “So, on which if these things do you really expect the Democrats to cooperate?” But he lets it go.

MR. GREGORY: The president’s also looking at the long-term fiscal health of the United States. He wants to put together a bipartisan commission that will look at the possibility of either tax increases or budget cuts or both, but long-term budget health. Will you support that?

SEN. McCONNELL: I think a spending commission is a good idea. I’ve been advocating it all year. We’re going to have votes on several different forms of that in the, in this very next week in the Senate. Spending is the problem. I do worry that if we construct this commission in the wrong way, it will be kind of an indirect way to raise taxes. I’ve already indicated what I’ve said earlier today, that raising taxes in the middle of a recession’s not a good idea. We don’t want this to end up doing that. What we need is a spending reduction commission. Get spending down.

MR. GREGORY: You said that the Republicans would always choose bipartisan solutions when they were available. And yet the one statement from a Republican this year, Senator DeMint, that health care would be Obama’s Waterloo, to many people signals the approach that Republicans have taken, which is oppose the president at all costs, just stand in the way of his agenda. Is that constructive?

Again, back inside the Beltway. I think what DeMint said is indefensible, and I wish the Republican leadership would denounce it. But a) it feels like old news and b) it seems like a real nonsquieter in this conversation.

SEN. McCONNELL: Look, we have a hundred members of the Senate. All of them have different points of view about every issue. My view is that this is not about the president, this is about the country. And if you look at the first year of this administration, we haven’t made much progress. You know, we passed a deficit—a budget that doubles the national debt in five years and triples it in 10, tried to pass energy taxes, tried to pass healthcare taxes. I—what I hope we’re going to hear from the president next Wednesday night is an indication that he’d like to go in a, in a different direction. And as I’ve said all year, if he wants to meet us in the middle of the political spectrum, we’ll be there to help him.

MR. GREGORY: Well, this is how you’re characterizing President Obama’s first year. How would you characterize the performance of Republicans?

SEN. McCONNELL: What we did is—this year is try to operate on principle. The president made a decision to go hard left. That’s why he doesn’t have many of my members. If he chooses to govern in the middle, I think he’ll have much broader cooperation from Republicans.

McConnell takes the opportunity to repeat the party’s main talking point.

MR. GREGORY: We talked about Scott Brown’s surprising victory in Massachusetts. The celebration went forth from Massachusetts throughout the political world. It was an indication that perhaps a Time magazine cover from earlier in the year might have been wrong. This was Time magazine in May. It had the GOP as an endangered species. Maybe the party’s gotten a big shot in the arm here. But look at this in terms of confidence in Republican leadership, from our recent poll. To make the right decisions, confidence in congressional Republicans, 75 percent, three quarters say they have some or none. Are the American people ready to return to Republican leadership?

SEN. McCONNELL: I think the most significant question is what’s call a party generic ballot question. If the election were held today, would you vote for the Democrat or the Republican candidate for Congress? On the day the president was sworn in, my party was down 15. A couple of weeks ago we were up 4. I, I think the American people are never permanently in the camp of either party, never permanent. They’re looking at performance. They want to know what we’re going to do for them. And I think the reason that you had the victories in Virginia and New Jersey and most improbably in Massachusetts, of all places, was the American people are saying, “We want to go in a different direction.” I hope the president will get the message and change direction, and we’ll begin to see that next Wednesday night.

MR. GREGORY: Does the Republican Party, in this election year, need what the Republicans had in 1994, which is a contract with America, as they did in ‘94, to get 300 Republicans to sign up for no new taxes and a balanced budget? Do you see that as being a necessity this year?

SEN. McCONNELL: Yeah, I think we will have a plan. We’ve had a plan, an alternate plan, on everything this year, and I think we’ll have an alternate plan for the voters in, in November.

MR. GREGORY: So you will have a contract with America for 2010?

SEN. McCONNELL: Well, I don’t know what it, what it’ll be called. And of course, every race is different. You know, running in New England is different from running in the West. Senate races are typically, to some extent, custom crafted to the, to the people that, that will be voting.

Not a bad exchange (Update: Interesting that one week later, John Boehner was on MTP holding a copy of the GOP plan. Did McConnell know this was in the works? Why didn’t he give it more of a tease?)

MR. GREGORY: The Supreme Court decision this week to allow corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on campaigns is getting a lot of criticism. Who do you think it benefits most, Republicans or Democrats?

SEN. McCONNELL: Well, I don’t know who it benefits, but it’s an important victory for the First Amendment. Right now if you’re General Electric and you own NBC, you can say anything you want to about any candidate right up to the day of the election. But if you’re a corporation or a union that doesn’t own a media outlet, you haven’t been able to. So you’ve had this big gap in the First Amendment applying one standard to media-owned corporations, another standard to unions and corporations that don’t own media outlets. Now the Supreme Court has said the First Amendment is for everyone. I think that’s a step in the right direction.

Interesting twist on the argument. For most observers, the discussion has been around “Should corporations have the same rights as citizens?” Gregory didn’t press him on that.

MR. GREGORY: Final point here. The president’s about to give his State of the Union address. You know, a lot people look at Washington and they say Washington doesn’t work. So beyond the partisanship, how about some constructive engagement? What would you advise the president to do to help Washington work better in his second year?

SEN. McCONNELL: Look, it’s about policy, not personality. I like the president. I like him a lot. I think he’s a terrific person. We’ve had a number of meetings. I enjoy being around him. I like what he’s doing in Afghanistan. It’s about policy, David. And if the president wants to govern in the middle, there’ll be Republicans there to meet him.

MR. GREGORY: What are Republicans prepared to do to be more constructive this year?

SEN. McCONNELL: We have to see what he—you know, he’s the president. He has a right to govern. Governing is hard work, as he has discovered. But he, he makes the initiatives and we react to them. And if he will move to the political center, I think he’ll find a lot more Republican support than he’s had in the first year.

MR. GREGORY: But he has to move before Republicans will do anything?

SEN. McCONNELL: He’s the president of the United States. We’re waiting for him to make his initiatives. He was chosen to make the tough decisions. He chose to go hard left the first year. We’ll see, beginning Wednesday night, where he plans to be the second year.

No real news here.

MR. GREGORY: Given the, the state of the political mood right now, are there incumbent Republicans who need to worry this election year?

SEN. McCONNELL: I think that—as I said earlier, I don’t think the voters are ever permanently in the camp of either party, and we’ve seen that on full display over the last couple of years. Our candidates will be arguing for lower taxes, lower deficits and a vibrant economy, and we’ll see what the American people decide in November. If the election were held today, obviously, we’d have a very good election.

No arrogance or taunting in this answer. If Republicans maintain the discipline shown here (a big if), Democrats should be worried.

MR. GREGORY: Leader McConnell, thank you very much.

SEN. McCONNELL: Thank you.

MR. GREGORY: And coming up next, our roundtable sorts through it all. Weighing in on the 2010 political landscape and the Obama agenda: E.J. Dionne, Katty Kay, Peggy Noonan and Chuck Todd. Plus, our MEET THE PRESS MINUTE from 1976: Advice from a senator to a president as he prepares to deliver his State of the Union address. Only here on MEET THE PRESS.

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