John McCain photo

Interview with Tim Russert on NBC News' "Meet the Press"

May 13, 2007

RUSSERT: Senator McCain, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.

MCCAIN: You didn't have to say unsuccessful; everybody knows that.

RUSSERT: Well, all part of the history. Let's go right to it--Iraq.

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: We've been talking to voters across the country, our NBC/Wall Street Journal poll: Is victory in Iraq still possible? Thirty-six percent say victory's possible; 55 percent say victory not possible. And look at this, senator. Was the war--was the war--was it a mistake to send troops? Fifty- eight percent say yes, a mistake; 40 percent say no. Are you surprised at those numbers?

MCCAIN: Not too. Particularly on the issue of the second question, when we have experienced the enormous difficulties and sacrifice that have been part of this conflict that, certainly, you can understand that. Americans are frustrated, and they're saddened our failures in this conflict. My point is, and I'm sure we'll get into it, and that is we have a chance of success, and I don't think that a lot of Americans are as fully aware as they should be of the consequences of failure in Iraq.

RUSSERT: When you were speaking in 2005, the American Enterprise Institute, you said this...

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: "If we can't retain the support of the American people, we will have lost this war as soundly as if our forces were defeated on the battlefield." Haven't they lost the support of the American people?

MCCAIN: I think if we can show the American people some successes in Iraq and continue and expand on some of the successes we've already experienced in Anbar province and some neighborhoods in Baghdad, that I think Americans would--and if we do a better job, and that's people like me, of explaining the consequences of failure.

The consequences of failure, Tim, are that there would be chaos in the region. There's three--two million Sunni in Baghdad. The Iranians would continue to increase their influence, the Saudis would have to help the Sunni, the Kurds would want independence, the Turks will never stand for it. Some people say partition. You'd have to partition bedrooms in Baghdad because Sunni and Shia are, are married. This, this is a very, very difficult situation, but the consequences of failure, in my view, are unlike the Vietnam war where we could leave and come home and it was over, that these people will try to follow us home and the region will erupt to a point where we may have to come back or we will be compating-- combating what is now, to a large degree, al-Qaeda, although certainly other--many other factors of sectarian violence, in the region.

RUSSERT: In hindsight, was it a good idea to go into Iraq?

MCCAIN: You know, in hindsight, if we had exploited the initial success, which was shock and awe, and we succeeded, and we had done the right things after that, all of us would be applauding what we did. We didn't. It was terribly mismanaged. It was--I went over there very shortly after the initial victory and came back convinced that we didn't have enough troops on the ground, we were making the wrong decisions, and that Secretary Rumsfeld was badly mismanaging the conflict. And I spoke about it and complained for years. So, if we had succeeded and done the right thing after the initial military success, then all of us would be very happy that one of the most terrible, cruel dictators in history was removed from power. Now, because of our failures, obviously we have paid a very heavy price in American blood and treasure and a great sacrifice.

RUSSERT: So it was a good idea to go in?

MCCAIN: I think at the time, given the information we had. Every intelligence agency in the world, not just U.S., believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He had acquired and used them before. There was no doubt that he was going to acquire and use them if he could. The sanctions were breaking down. The Oil for Food scandal was in the billions of dollars. And, of course, at the time, given the information we had--hindsight is 20/20. If we'd have known we were going to experience the failures we experienced, obviously it would give us all pause. Yet the information and the knowledge and the situation at the time, I think that it was certainly justified.

RUSSERT: The Pentagon's Quarterly Report, the director of the CIA, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, all have said that sectarian violence is the problem. In fact, the--General Maples said that al-Qaeda accounts for only a small fraction of the insurgent violence.

MCCAIN: You know the...

RUSSERT: Who's our enemy?

MCCAIN: Well, first of all, General Petraeus, the general on the ground, does not agree with that. Al-Qaeda is exploiting these sectarian differences. They are trying to orchestrate attacks on both Sunni and Shia, but--in order to spark this and increase this sectarian violence that's going on. Al-Qaeda is playing significantly. Now, are there problems with sectarian violence? Of course there is. Is there other problems, such as in Anbar Province where Sunnis are now combatting al-Qaeda? Are al-Qaeda being shoved out of Baghdad into areas outside of Baghdad? Yes. And are there problems in those areas?

Look, this is long and hard and difficult, and I've said it for a long time. And it's no last throes, it's no mission accomplished, it's no few dead-enders. It's long and hard and tough. We are experiencing some successes. Do we have to experience more? Yes. But to do what the Democrats want to do, and that's set a date for withdrawal, even those who opposed the war from the beginning don't think that that would lead to anything but an enormously challenging situation as a result.

RUSSERT: But, senator, the Iraqi parliament, a majority of the Iraqi parliament, has signed a petition asking for a date certain for withdrawal of American troops. If the Iraqi parliament wants it, a majority in the Congress want it...

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: ...then why do you stand there and say, "No, you can't have it"?

MCCAIN: Because it's my job to give my best estimate to the American people, no matter what the political calculations may be, as to what's the best in our nation's national security interest. Young men and women are risking their lives as we speak in, in, in Iraq. And I know that they will be in greater harm's way if we withdraw from Iraq, as we keep debating over and over and over again. And I know what's best, in my mind, in my experience, in my knowledge, in my inspiration, as to what's best for this country. So political calculations such as polls, I understand that if the American people don't continue to support this effort that we will be forced to withdraw. But it's also my obligation to tell the American people and my constituents in Arizona that I represent, what the consequences of failure will be; and I believe they will be catastrophic.

RUSSERT: But the duly elected people's bodies, the U.S. Congress and the Iraqi parliament, say they want a troop withdrawal. That's more than a poll. Isn't that the voice of the people?

MCCAIN: Well, the--as far as the Iraqi parliament is concerned, the Iraqi government obviously doesn't feel that way, their--the representatives in their government. Second of all, there is some, a certain amount of domestic political calculations involved there in what the Iraqi, quote, "parliament" said. The Iraqi parliament has their ability to, to voice their views, and I respect them. And I, as I say, I--I'll repeat again, I understand how democracies work. I saw it in Vietnam. I saw it in Vietnam. And I saw it in Vietnam, the predictions, that everything would be a worker's paradise in, in Vietnam if we left. And thousands were executed and millions went to re-education camps. So I, I believe that, that the consequences of failure, and particularly sitting on the large reserves of oil they have, particularly considering the influence of al-Qaeda is concerned, you will see enormous destabilization in the region, and that's my duty. That's my obligation. It's not my privilege. And political calculations should not enter into any information or position that I take on, on a, on an issue of national security.

RUSSERT: The Iraqi parliament says they want to take a two-month vacation while our men and women shed their blood.

MCCAIN: I am, I am unalterably opposed to it. One of the real difficulties we face in this conflict, obviously, is whether the Maliki government will act as an inclusive government, and whether the Maliki government will do the things that are necessary to be done. And I'm very concerned about it. All of us are very concerned about it. This government has to pass the oil revenue sharing law. This government has to pass de-Baathification. They have to declare elections in the provinces so that Sunni, who now want to take part in the electoral process, can have their representatives.

RUSSERT: They've had four years to do this.

MCCAIN: They have had this time, and they have done some things. It took us about 100 and some years before we had a bloody civil war to decide the future of our country. This is a fledgling democracy. I'm not, I'm not making excuses for it, but they have not been in this business before. And yet that does not change the fact that, in my view, unless they act, it could jeopardize what is already in jeopardy.

RUSSERT: Would you be in favor of a referendum amongst the Iraqi people to make a decision as to whether U.S. troops should stay or leave?

MCCAIN: No, no more than I should--would have a referendum in the United States of America as to whether Iraqi troops should leave, or whether we should be in or out of NATO, or any other issue. The Iraqi government is an elected government, and they are functioning. And so why we would need a, quote, "referendum" is no more necessary in this country as in that one. Does the Maliki government have to act more effectively, more inclusively? Absolutely they do, and it's of great concern, and I think it's one of the great vulnerabilities as we try to move forward and succeed there. Now, what's success? Economic, political and social progress, which can only be obtained in an environment of security. Neighborhoods in Baghdad are safer. They're not safe, but they are safer than they were before. And the government has to function more effectively, and then the Iraqi military and police take over those responsibilities as we gradually withdraw. That's the recipe for success.

RUSSERT: The Iraqi army, over 120 battalions.


RUSSERT: There are only 10 battalions--10! That's 6,000 soldiers...

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: ...that are independently working separate and apart from Americans. How can it be, after four years, the Iraqis only have 6,000 soldiers operating independently?

MCCAIN: Well, two things. One, because the war was so badly mismanaged. The--Secretary Rumsfeld claimed that there was, at one point, I believe, 175,000 trained, and they obviously fell apart. There's a difference, though, between those who can, can perform, quote, "independently," and those that can perform effectively alongside U.S. troops in Baghdad and around the country. There are--there are Iraqi units that still probably can't stand up on their own, but they can operate effectively alongside U.S. military. The key to it is, will we be able to train more who can operate independently on their own? We have a ways to go. But we, again, with this new strategy--and it is a strategy, not a surge--we have been able to see significant improvement. Enough improvement? Probably not. But at least we're seeing some progress. And our commanders on the ground are saying that the Iraqi military is functioning far more effectively, effective, and we are seeing progress there.

RUSSERT: Jim Miklaszewski, our Pentagon correspondent, reports that he's being told by senior military officials that, come April, we do not have the troops to continue to send to Iraq in the rotation that we've been--that's been ongoing. We simply don't have them.

MCCAIN: Come next April.

RUSSERT: That's correct.

MCCAIN: We are increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corps. Another one of the great failings when we began this was not increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corps. I've said for years that we need to dramatically increase them, particularly in certain specialties. I hope that the increased recruitment that we are experiencing now will give us an opportunity to increase those numbers. I also hope that we can see some signs of success in this challenge that we are facing.

RUSSERT: General Petraeus said this: "Any student of history recognizes there's no military solution to a problem like that in Iraq, to the insurgency of Iraq."

MCCAIN: And, you know, I've had many conversations with General Petraeus and I don't want to put words in his mouth, but he'll also tell you that history shows us, any student of history will tell, you that in--if--unless you have an environment of security for the people to try to live normal lives, and the economic, politically--political and social environment is able to grow and flourish, then you are doomed to failure. So, when you say it's all we--it's all up to the Iraqis, that's like saying a neighborhood that's been taken over by gangs, it's up to the people in the neighborhood. We have to do whatever we can to provide them with an environment in which they can exist and begin to lead normal lives. We are showing some success. The, the strategy before was, "Go kill people." It was the old search-and-destroy. "Go kill people and go back to your base." We've now got 53 or more outposts in Baghdad where Iraqi and American military are 24/7. There are some progress being made, and General Petraeus will say that, too. Enough? We'll see.

RUSSERT: It's been more than four years.

MCCAIN: I know.

RUSSERT: And the American people are saying, "Why are we shedding our blood, and they're taking vacations as a parliament?" They don't have independent soldiers and battalions up and running. Our "National Intelligence Estimate" "outlines increasingly perilous situation in which the United States has little control" "strong possibility of further deterioration, according to sources familiar with the document.

"It couches glimmers of optimism in deep uncertainty about whether the Iraqi leaders will be able to transcend sectarian interests," "fight against extremists, establish effective national institutions and end rampant corruption."

That's our own intelligence agency...


RUSSERT: ...four years out.

MCCAIN: Yes, and these same intelligence agencies gave us some very bad intelligence about four years ago, as well, as you might--as you might recall. But the fact, the fact is, this is long, hard difficult. And we talk about these present challenges that we face. We don't talk a lot about what happens if we fail, and I think that that's got to be part of any national discussion that we have. And the consequences of failure are chaos, genocide and, when you--when--and I'm sure you will ask this at some point, what's plan B? My, my, my question to those who say, "Let's set a date for withdrawal," what's your plan B? And the fact is, if we spent time on plan A, we, we, and give it a chance to succeed, I think would be a useful way of spending our time.

RUSSERT: But under your plan, you're strongly suggesting we're going to be there for the next 10 years at least in order to secure and stabilize that country.

MCCAIN: I am suggesting that we will have--hopefully reach a situation where American troops will not be on the front lines, where--and, by the way, that will not be immediately--where American troops are able to withdraw. We've had troops in South Korea for 60 years, and Americans are, are very satisfied with that situation. The key to it is, is the Iraqi military and police taking over these responsibilities. And that is, I believe, the ultimate way we're going to know whether we can reduce American casualties and they take over the responsibilities for, for governing their own country and militarily attacking and resisting al-Qaeda and other sectarian violence which will be there for a long, long time.

RUSSERT: And we're going to be there for a long time.

MCCAIN: But if it is--if it is--if it is only in a role that is of support and American casualties are minimal, then I think it's probably worth the investment. If the level of casualties stays where it is and we do not have success, then we know that that will be a, a condition that we cannot stand for.

RUSSERT: By when?

MCCAIN: I don't have a date. I think that the important thing is whether we assess as we move along. Everybody talks about--some people talk about April or May--August. Some people talk about September. The fact is that we've got to be showing progress along the way, and we will be--have plenty of time to assess that.

Look, Tim, I understand you, you are voicing the frustration that Americans feel. We've only got four of the five brigades over there now. We have just begun this new strategy. It is barely beginning, and I think it ought to be given a chance to succeed or fail. And for us to, to go for two months of funding after we voted time and time again. The president, the president has vetoed, and we continue to, to try to micromanage this war, and, and if you want us out of there, then cut off the funding and bring them home tomorrow.

RUSSERT: Let me show you the kinds of things that are often said when soldiers are overseas, like this: "There's no reason for the United States to remain. The American people want them home. I believe the majority of Congress wants them home. Our continued military presence allows another situation to rise, which could then lead to the wounding, killing or capture of American fighting men and women. We should do all in our power to avoid that. What should be the criteria is our immediate, orderly withdrawal. And if we do not do that and other Americans die then I" "say that the responsibilities for that lie with the Congress who did not exercise their authority under the Constitution. For us to get into nation-building, law and order, etc., I think, is a tragic and terrible mistake."

You hear those kinds of words, right?

MCCAIN: Sure I do. Americans are frustrated and saddened by the enormous sacrifice we've made and the gross mismanagement of the war. Now, my response to that statement is and what happens after we leave? Listen to all of the experts who will tell you that we can have a situation in the region which will, in, in the long run, entail far greater casualties, far greater dislocation, far greater threats to our national security than trying to give this an opportunity to succeed. That's what the--my response to that heartfelt statement is.

RUSSERT: Well, those are your words from 1993 about Somalia.

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: And that's the kind of thing we're hearing about Iraq.

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: You felt that way about Somalia when you saw no end in sight.

MCCAIN: Yes, I did, and...

RUSSERT: And many Americans now are echoing your words about Iraq, because they see no end in sight.

MCCAIN: Well, if you compare--want to compare Somalia to what's at stake in Iraq, please feel free to do so. I don't see any comparison except that there was chaos in the streets of Mogadishu, and this now is got to do with vital national security interests. I also said that we should get out of Beirut when we did, because a, a presence of a few Marines in a barracks was not going to, in any way, significantly impact what was going on in Lebanon. And I was right, and a lot of young Marines died because we--of the way that we put a presence in there without any chance of success.

RUSSERT: You say we're making progress. You've been on this program talking about Iraq. In 2003...

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: said, "I believe we've achieved significant goals"; 2005, we view it as, as "hopeful," we're making "progress"; 2006, we're on the "right track," "I want to emphasize again" the "good things happening"; we're "showing signs of success" in 2007. It's upbeat, upbeat, upbeat.

MCCAIN: I think...

RUSSERT: And yet the reality is quite different than that kind of optimistic message.

MCCAIN: You know, Tim, I think it would be fair also to put the statements that I made when I came back from Iraq that said it was a failed policy, that we had to have more troops on the ground, that we were not carrying out the right kind of effort at training and equipping the Iraqis, that the Iraqi government wasn't--so it might be fair to flash some of those statements up, including the long speech I gave, after I came back from Iraq, to the Council on Foreign Relations, where I said if we pursue this failed policy, we will fail in Iraq. So I think that that might balance it out a bit. Do I think we had, we had made some progress? Yes. And do I think that we have had some significant setbacks? Yes. We-- both is--are the case.

RUSSERT: You made a lot of news back in April when you went to Iraq. You went on a radio show and said never--had a news conference, "never been able to go out in the city as I was today." And then later these photographs were released, where we saw--(clears throat) excuse me--John McCain in the marketplace, surrounded, wearing a flack jacket. The next day the papers said that, "A day after members of an American congressional delegation led by Senator John McCain pointed to their brief visit" in "Baghdad's central Market as evidence that the new security plan for the city was working, the merchants were incredulous about" "Americans' conclusions. 'What are they talking about?'" "the owner of an electrical supply shop said. 'The security procedures were abnormal.' The delegation arrived at the market" "more than 100 soldiers in armored humvees--the equivalent of an entire company," "attack helicopters circled overhead, a senior" "military official in Baghdad said. The soldiers redirected traffic from the area" "restricted access to the American." "The congressmen wore bulletproof vests" through the hour-long visit. 'They paralyzed the market when they came,'" "'This was only for the media.'"

MCCAIN: Well, I don't...

RUSSERT: Wasn't that...

MCCAIN: ...I don't know who Mr. Faiyad is, and I'm sorry that I didn't see him. I talked with many, many of the merchants. We stayed there for more, more than an hour. That same place was not a functioning market a short time before. A bomb had gone off in that area and killed many, many people. There, there was a group of people that I talked to, as I traveled--walked around that, that shopping area for over an hour who said, "I'm glad to see you. Things are better." They--some--a guy came and complained about a sniper that, that they'd had problems with, and the police chief we talked to about that.

My point is the neighborhoods are safer. They are not safe. That's why we have to continue what we're doing. We have a new strategy that, that can succeed. I was glad to walk through that market. I will go walk through a market as often as I can. It was not allowed to go through a market a short time before that.

RUSSERT: But, senator, you had an armed escort.

MCCAIN: I had an armed escort because, because that's what General Petraeus thought we ought to have. I was glad to go outside of Baghdad and have over an hour opportunity to talk to the people that I talked to. Now, they are very different from the people that, that you are quoting here and others. They said, "I'm glad to see you. Things are better here. We have, we have seen improvement." That's what I was told, and that's what the other two members of Congress were told when we were there. You can find a lot of difference of opinion if you want to, but I believe that it's important for me to go out and meet those people if I can and be around them. I didn't call for the kind of, quote, "protection" that was around me. But I am not afraid, and I'm glad to go any place that I can to talk to the people of Iraq and tell them of my commitment to see that they have a free, democratic government where they don't have to face the bombs going off and the suicide bombers and the--and can start leading normal lives. And I'll do that every chance I get.

RUSSERT: But the military felt you needed that protection, and the number of suicide bombers has gone up since the surge began.

MCCAIN: The military--the suicide bombers have gone up because they know that this is probably the most effective way publicitywise. It's not the most effective way if you're talking about winning a conflict. Suicide bombers are the most difficult of any to counter, people who are willing to take their own lives in order to take others'. You can ask the Israelis; I think they'll tell you that. They have literally sealed their borders, and yet suicide bombers get across. And again, is this long and hard and difficult? Is that market safe? No, but it's safer than it was before. And that, in my view, is the key to whether we will succeed or fail or not. And I'll be glad to go back to that market with or without military protection and, and humvees, etc. But the fact is, I walked through narrow streets. I didn't have people all around me. I don't know what, what--where they get their information, but I was glad to walk around and talk to people and have contact with them and tell them that I, as an American, will do everything I can to let them lead the normal lives which are God-given rights to everybody on earth.

RUSSERT: There seems to be a real erosion in support of the war amongst Republicans.


RUSSERT: Eleven Republican congressmen met with the president. One said "My district is prepared for defeat if that's what you are going to say, Mr. President."

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: The leader of the Republicans in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, "condemned the Iraqi government for its failure to resolve security and political problems more expeditiously and predicted that, unless the current troop surge succeeds, U.S. policy will be changed by year's end either by" the president or by "congressional action."

MCCAIN: Well, first of all, I share his, his dismay, and we've discussed it already about the Iraqi government's failure to act effectively. When I was over there, I met with Iraqi government officials and told them how important it is for them to act as a inclusive government, and, and I believe that they certainly are having messages sent. I hope that they are receiving them. And again, I understand the lack of patience on the part of the American people. And we're getting a little circular here in how sad and, and frustrated they are.

RUSSERT: But these are the Republicans. They're, they're--Mitch McConnell's saying that they're ready to move this year, Republicans in Congress, against the war unless the surge shows success relatively quickly.

MCCAIN: Look, I think, I think by the end of this year we will see some signs of success, how significant those will be. But if every Republican is against it, if every Republican calls for withdrawal, I will do what my conscience, my knowledge, my--I know what war is. I know how evil these people are. I know what war, war and peace is about. And I know the consequences, from my study of history and knowledge and background, the consequences of failure. So if I'm the last man standing, I have an obligation to do what my conscience and my knowledge and my background and everything I've known through my well-experienced life is best for this country. And I will not change from that, from that position. But I also understand what public opinion does and what democracies do. But that doesn't mean that I change my views and my positions and blowing in the, in the direction of which the political winds are blowing.

RUSSERT: In 2000 you lost the Republican nomination to George Bush. Would it be ironic that you lost the 2000 nomination because you embraced George Bush's Iraq war policy?

MCCAIN: Life isn't fair. I did not embrace the policy for a number of years. I was one of the severest critics. But life isn't fair. But I--I've had a wonderful opportunity to serve this country. I have been the--I am the luckiest guy you will ever have on this program. I've been honored to serve. And I will continue to serve in some capacity until I am unable to do so.

RUSSERT: We're going to take a quick break. We're going to come back and talk to John McCain about other issues--immigration, taxes and more--right after this.


RUSSERT: More Meet the Candidates 2008. We're with Republican candidate John McCain, after this station break.


RUSSERT: We're back. The Republican candidate for president John McCain.

Immigration reform, a signature issue for you. Here's how The Washington Post reported it. "The co- author of lat year's immigration bill" "John McCain, has been largely absent from this year's negotiations, as he soft-pedals his pro-immigration stance.

"Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin" of Illinois "said McCain's absence from the negotiations has been a big factor in the rising tide of Republican opposition" to the bill.

MCCAIN: Actually, as short a time ago as Friday, I was in a meeting with Senator Graham and Senator Kennedy. I've been on many meetings. I'm on constant contact on this issue. I think we are close to an agreement that I think can pass both Houses, the Senate this time. The president's been heavily engaged, Secretary Chertoff has been heavily engaged. And Secretary Gutierrez, other Republicans, including my friend John Kyl has done a tremendous job in this effort, and I think we've close to an agreement that we can bring to the floor. And I've been heavily engaged in daily having conversations with people on all sides of this issue.

RUSSERT: The New York Times says McCain's aide says a--says his identification with Senator Kennedy has accounted for his political problems on the issues with conservatives.

MCCAIN: I don't know who that aide might be. The fact is...

RUSSERT: Would you be willing to tell...

MCCAIN: Could I just respond? I--I'm proud of the bipartisan effort that I've made on many issues with Democrats and Republicans, ranging from Joe Lieberman on 9/11 to working on the other side of the aisle on immigration reform and others. And that's why I think I'm prepared to be president of the United States. The American people want us to work together on issues that are important to the American people. That's my record.

RUSSERT: When you were in Iowa, you said you might be open to taking illegal immigrants who are here now and, rather than having a path to citizenship while they're here, rather, send them back to their home country.

MCCAIN: No, what I've said is it's one of the proposals that's on the table. We want to consider everything. If someone just came here yesterday, they should be sent back. We are looking on a--at a package, a comprehensive approach. We are in agreement, no matter where we stand on the--on the specifics of this issue, that doing nothing, the status quo, is totally unacceptable with broken borders and with 12 million people in America illegally. We have to assure the American people, whether they be Democrat or Republican, that we will secure the borders. I believe it has to be comprehensive. But I also understand very well that securing the border first and then taking the necessary steps on a temporary worker program and addressing the 12 million people is the way we have to go. And there is certainly an agreement on those principles amongst most members.

RUSSERT: You think you're going to get a deal.

MCCAIN: I think we're very close to it, and, and I'm very pleased to see that we have a number of the more conservative Republicans engaged in, in this effort, as well as people on the other side of the aisle. And I'm especially glad the president has been actively engaged. He can--he understands this issue as well as anyone, having been governor of the state of Texas.

RUSSERT: On tax cuts. You were on this program back in '03, and I asked you this...

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: ..."Do you believe the president, because of the war, should be asking Americans for more sacrifice," "should" not "hold off any future tax cuts"--"should hold off" "any future tax cuts until we have a sense of the costs of the war and the state of our economy?"

"Yes, I do. I believe that until we find out the costs of this war and the reconstruction that we should hold off..."

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: "...on tax cuts."

You came back the next year, I again asked you about opposing the Bush tax cuts...

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: ...and this is what you said.

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm.

(Videotape, April 11, 2004)

MCCAIN: I voted against the tax cuts because of the disproportional amount that went to the wealthiest Americans. I would clearly support not extending those tax cuts in order to help address the deficit.

(End videotape)

RUSSERT: Disproportionate to the wealthiest Americans.

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: And you didn't--wouldn't extend them because it would hurt the deficit. You voted to extend them.

MCCAIN: I voted to extend them because it would have the effect of having a tax increase. I also had a proposal, and also stated time after time, that we needed to restrain spending. The tax cuts have increased revenues enormously. I mean, they've been very beneficial. The problem is that spending has lurched completely out of control. My proposal was to restrain spending. And now, if you don't make them, those tax cuts, permanent, businesses, families, farms all over America will have to experience what, for all intents and purposes, the impact on them would be a tax increase. Would I have like to have seen more tax cuts to middle income Americans? Did I have a different proposal? Yes. But I supported tax cuts, and I have never supported--I have--I do not support tax increases. And the effect of not making them permanent would have the effect of a tax increase.

RUSSERT: But, senator, there's a suggestion that, when you were running in 2000 and shortly thereafter...

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: were this bold independent willing to stand up against tax cuts, even as a Republican.

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. I...

RUSSERT: And saying they would increase the deficit. Then you decided, "Well, I got to become more of a traditional Republican," and you started embracing tax cuts.

MCCAIN: Well, first of all, I had a tax cut proposal of my own which was very, very large and significant. So I didn't oppose tax cuts. And I'll show you that in my platform when I ran in 2000. So, I mean, that's just a fact, and I'll be glad to show it to you. Second thing is, I believe in tax cuts for Americans because I think it's important that...

RUSSERT: Even during a war?

MCCAIN: Even during a war. It is not--it is not the tax cuts that've caused us the fiscal difficulties we have. In fact, it has increased revenues. It is the spending which has completely lurched out of control, failure to reign in spending, having the government increase in size dramatically with unfunded liabilities. And that is the reason why we are facing the fiscal difficulties that we are today.

RUSSERT: The spending on the war is considerable.

MCCAIN: Spending on the war is considerable. Spending on an unfunded liability and a Medicare part D for 800 billion or a trillion dollars unfunded liability as well. Expanding the size of government as well. Failing to, to veto big spending bills such as a highway bill with $233 million bridge in Alaska to nowhere. Spending has got to be reigned in. Vetoes have got to be issued by the president of the United States. Earmarking has to stop, which not only increases spending but causes corruption in Washington, D.C.

RUSSERT: But as you well know, you well know we keep defense spending, Social Security, Medicare and pensions at their same current rate...

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: could veto every spending measure in all the rest of the government, close it all down, and you'd still have a deficit.

MCCAIN: Sure, but how do you go to--hang--let me respond. How do you go to the American people and say we're going to have to make some tough decisions here on Social Security and Medicare if we're spending money on things that are frivolous and unnecessary? We've got to go to the American people with clean hands and say, "We've tightened our belt. We've reduced the size of government. We've stopped all this excess spending. We've stopped the pork barrel spending. Now let's sit down together, Republican and Democrat, like Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill did, and let's solve Social Security and Medicare rather than pass it on to an unluckier generation."

RUSSERT: When I asked...

MCCAIN: And that's what I intend to do as president of the United States, and I am prepared to do.

RUSSERT: When I asked you about that in 2005--February 20th on this show...

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: ...I said one of the suggestions is that the payroll tax, which is now capped at $90,000 of income...

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: lifted so the people who pay a payroll tax on more than the first 90,000.

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: You said you'd be willing to do that as part of a compromise.

MCCAIN: I am...

RUSSERT: Is that still your view?

MCCAIN: The president of the United States has said everything on the table. I am against tax increases, and that's a well-known position of mine. But I think that, as the president has said, he'll sit down with everything on the table. Am I opposed to tax increases? Yes. But we've got to sit down together and figure out what our options are, and tough decisions have to be made, Republicans and Democrats. And I know how to do that. That's been my experience in the--as a United States senator, reaching across the aisle, addressing the tough issues in a bipartisan fashion where bipartisanship is called for.

RUSSERT: Rudy Giuliani, the mayor of New York, your opponent for the Republican nomination, said the other day that he's pro-choice, pro-abortion rights.

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: Can someone who is pro-choice, pro-abortion rights be nominated by the Republican Party?

MCCAIN: I don't know the answer to that, but I know that the base of our party--and I have been pro-life unchanging and unwavering for all of my political career, and I think that an important part of the base of our party is a pro-life position. But I, I--we'll, as Chris Berman says, that's why they play the game.

RUSSERT: Could you support a nominee who was pro-abortion rights?

MCCAIN: I can support a nominee if it's a nominee of the party, if--no matter what their position are. But I would not agree with that position.

RUSSERT: Back in 1999, you gave an interview to the San Francisco Chronicle, and you said this...

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: ..."Certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe vs. Wade, which would then force X number of women in American to undergo illegal and dangerous operations."

MCCAIN: Well, it was in the context of conversation about having to change the culture of, of America as regards to this issue. That is a conversation that I had in that context. I have stated time after time after time that Roe v. Wade was a bad decision, that I support a woman--the, the rights of the unborn. I have fought for human rights and human dignity throughout my entire political career. To me it is an issue of human rights and human dignity. That conversation was in the context of we have to help young women who are experiencing a crisis pregnancy. We have to help them with compassion, and we hope--have to help those young women with courage. And we also have to do whatever we can to let them know that if they don't want the child, if they'll bring them into life, that we'll do everything we can to help with adoption. Just like there's three--I have three adopted children. It's a wonderful thing. But my position has been consistently in my voting record, pro-life, and I continue to maintain that position and voting record. Is it a tough issue in America? Yes. But I believe the states should be making those decisions.

RUSSERT: But if Roe vs. Wade was overturned in a--during a McCain presidency...


RUSSERT: ...and individual states chose to ban abortion...


RUSSERT: ...would you be concerned that, as you said, X number of women in America would undergo illegal and dangerous operations?

MCCAIN: No, I would hope that X women in America would bring those, those children into birth and into life in this world, and that I could do whatever I could to assist them. Again, that conversation that you--that--from 1999, which is so often quoted, was in the context of my, my concerns about the issue, and the need to change the culture in America to understand the importance of the rights of the unborn. And I will continue to hold that view and position.

RUSSERT: In 2000 you chose not to enter the Iowa caucuses.


RUSSERT: But this year you're going to enter the Iowa caucuses. And ethanol is a big issue in, in Iowa.

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: This is what you said about ethanol--not about subsidies, but about ethanol.

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: "Ethanol does nothing to reduce fuel consumption, nothing to increase our energy independence, nothing to improve air quality."

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: And after you said that, you acknowledged you might pay a political price for that view, and this is what you said.

(Videotape, June 19, 2005)

MCCAIN: My opposition to ethanol has--obviously would hurt me. But you know what I found out? That every time I've done something from what may have been influenced by political reasons, I've regretted it. Every time that I've done something that I think is right, it's turned out OK in the end. I've got to do what I think is right. And if it offends a certain political constituency, I, I regret it, but there's really nothing I can do about it.

(End videotape)

RUSSERT: Now you go to Iowa and say this: "I support ethanol. I think it's a vital alternative energy source, not only because of our dependence on foreign oil but because of its greenhouse gas reduction effects." You had said it had nothing to do with reducing fuel consumption, nothing to do with improving air quality.

MCCAIN: I, I, I am of the confirmed belief that when oil is 10, $15 a barrel, that ethanol does not make sense. When oil is $60-plus a barrel, then ethanol does make sense. I still oppose the subsidies to it. It makes a lot of sense. We are dependent on foreign oil too much. We have a situation where greenhouse gases has now become--emissions has become a vital issue. I am for sugarcane, biofuels, switch grass, and corn-based ethanol because of our need for independence on foreign oil. And it has become far more graphic and dramatic as we watch people like Mr. Chavez in Venezuela behave the way that he has, and President Putin behaving the way that he does. It's a fact that when oil is low amounts per barrel and--that we are not concerned about greenhouse gases or dependence upon foreign oil, it doesn't make the sense that it makes today. It does make sense today.

RUSSERT: But you do now disagree with what you said in '03, that it has nothing to do with reducing fuel consumption...

MCCAIN: What I was...

RUSSERT: ...or nothing to improve air quality?

MCCAIN: I don't...

RUSSERT: You now believe...

MCCAIN: I don't know what--I don't know what it does to fuel consumption. I'm sure that there is some question about that, as the...

RUSSERT: How about air quality?

MCCAIN: the, as the technology has increased dramatically. The air quality, it does reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Most effectively? Does--as much as nuclear power? No. But given our dependence on foreign oil, given the situation as the price of oil then--and, and the realities of climate change, we should go for many alternate fuels. I do not support the subsidies.

RUSSERT: So you've changed your mind.

MCCAIN: No, I haven't. I have--I have--I have adjusted to the realities of the world we live in today, and if I don't adjust to those realities, then I would be stuck in the past. I have to adjust to the realities. The realities today are that we have a serious problem with climate change, which I have been concerned about for many years, and we have a far more serious challenge as associated with our dependence on foreign oil.

Not too long ago, a year or so ago, there was an attempted attack on a Saudi oil refinery. If that attack had succeeded, the price of oil would have gone to $150 a barrel overnight.

RUSSERT: And the reality of being part of the Iowa caucuses had nothing to do with it.

MCCAIN: I don't--I don't--I can't respond to a, a statement like that.


MCCAIN: I do what I--I do what I think is right, and I will continue to do what I think is right. And if conditions change as far as some specific issue is concerned, then, obviously, then I will continue to re-evaluate my position on specific issues.

RUSSERT: This...

MCCAIN: My values, my principles, my goals, my ideals maintain exactly the same because they were formed long before I was running for any elected office.

RUSSERT: The Senate on a voice vote in the--said that we should--in the committee...

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: ...increase miles per gallon for automobiles to 36 miles per gallon. You in favor of that?

MCCAIN: I think we ought to increase the miles per gallon, but I think we ought to sit down with Detroit and see what they think is doable and come up with a consensus opinion.

RUSSERT: Thirty-six too high?

MCCAIN: Detroit--I don't--I don't--can't give a specific number, although I think we can sit down and find one that they think they can reach. The automobile industry in America is in very serious difficulties, as we know.

RUSSERT: Before you go, interview with The Hill newspaper back in 2000 after your campaign didn't quite work out in 2000, and you were asked this: "Do you think you'll ever run for president again?"

"In 2004 I expect to be campaigning for the re-election of George Bush"--which you did.

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: "But by the year 2008 I believe my age would not equip me to run."

MCCAIN: Well, you know, my energy level is great. My--I work 24/7. I'm pleased that I am in the excellent health, and I, I believe that I may not be the youngest candidate in this race, but I'm certainly the most prepared. And I'm prepared to lead this country. I don't need any on-the-job training. I'm ready to do the hard things, not the easy things. And that's what I intend to do.

RUSSERT: On the day of your inauguration--this will not surprise you--for the first term of a president, John McCain...

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: ...January 20, 2009 would be 72 years...

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: ...four months, 22 days.

MCCAIN: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: Ronald Reagan on his first term inauguration, 69 years, 11 months, four days.

William Henry Harrison, 68 years, 23--several years older than Ronald Reagan.

MCCAIN: And William Henry Harrison. The fact is that I'm in great shape, and I hiked the Grand Canyon with my son last August from rim to rim. I'm ready to serve, and I'm sure that people will make their own judgments. But they'll make their judgments by watching me and my performance. And they were very happy to see Ronald Reagan in for a second term.

RUSSERT: And Wil--you were going to say about William Henry Harrison, after he took the oath...

MCCAIN: Poor guy.

RUSSERT: ...he died in a matter of months.

MCCAIN: Poor guy. Yeah.

RUSSERT: Senator John McCain, we have to leave it there.

MCCAIN: Thanks.

RUSSERT: Thank you for sharing your views.

MCCAIN: Thank you.

John McCain, Interview with Tim Russert on NBC News' "Meet the Press" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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