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FNS Roundtable - March 19

Fox News Sunday

WALLACE: And it's panel time now for our Sunday regulars, Brit Hume, Washington managing editor of Fox News, and Fox News contributors Mara Liasson of National Public Radio, Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard, and Juan Williams, also from National Public Radio.

Well, folks, I've got to tell you, usually you kind of expect or think you know what people are going to say when you ask them a question. I have to say, Brit, I was genuinely surprised that Senator Durbin, the number two Democrat in the Senate, went as far as he did today about the possibility of impeaching the president.

HUME: I think it illustrates as clearly as anything yet has, Chris, the fact that if the Democrats get control of one house or the other -- they're more likely to get the House, I assume, and that's, of course, where impeachments occur -- that the impeachment will be on the agenda.

The Republicans are claiming this. Senator Durbin, while not ruling it out, as other Democrats have -- and he is, after all, the assistant leader, has come pretty close to confirming that, indeed, it is there.

LIASSON: Well, the interesting thing about this week is that the Feingold censure effort thrilled and excited the Republican Party like no other issue that I've seen come down the pike recently. It was almost like a relief from all the troubles that they've been having. And all of a sudden here were the Democrats giving the Republicans a gift, a political gift, that they could try to rally their base with. And then you heard all these editorials about how the real agenda is impeachment, it's not just censure.

Now, that's certainly true that in the House there is a group of Democrats that have raised the idea of impeachment, and among the Democrats' liberal base there are people who are enthusiastic about it.

But most of the Democrats I talked to this week felt that Feingold's effort was terribly unhelpful, to put it mildly, that he changed the subject from Republicans being on the defensive to Democrats' effort to get the president. And I was actually surprised, too, that Durbin left the door open as much as he did.

WALLACE: How do you explain that? I mean, because I agree with you that the Democratic leaders in both the House and the Senate -- Nancy Pelosi...

LIASSON: Yes, from the top to bottom...

WALLACE: ... have been...

LIASSON: ... were quite unhappy that Feingold had done this. He hadn't consulted them.

They are trying to have a unified message of the day. Here he goes off in a completely different direction.

And you know, I thought that what the Democrats wanted to do was say look, you know, the president might be wrong, and maybe at some point the Supreme Court will rule as to whether this warrantless wiretapping program was constitutional or not, but a high crime and misdemeanor is something quite different.

I mean, the president believes that he has a prerogative under the Constitution to do this. Many people, including many Republicans and constitutional scholars, think he doesn't. Sometime that's going to have to be adjudicated and resolved.

I don't know how I explain this. Maybe there's more support for impeachment in the Democratic Party than I found from talking to Democrats this week.

KRISTOL: I think Feingold is smarter than the Democratic leadership in the House and the Senate, and I think he deserves some credit for taking a principled stand. And I honestly believe that, in fact, he's winning this debate right now.

We're sitting here talking about well, the censure, that's politically unwise. Who is defending the president's NSA actions? Suddenly everyone is talking about warrantless wiretapping. It's on the table, as Mara just said. Well, maybe he doesn't have legal justification. Impeachment will be too much, but it's certainly fair to question what he's done. I think Feingold has succeeded in casting a big cloud over the president's program here.

WALLACE: So you think this is helping Democrats and hurting Republicans?

KRISTOL: Yes, absolutely. As long as the charge is out there and is not rebutted, it helps. And I think it's out there. And Feingold makes his case coherently. He's an impressive politician. He's been elected twice in a state that's a competitive state -- three times, I guess, actually, in a competitive state, Wisconsin. And I think it's very much helping his presidential race.

WALLACE: Well, let me just add one thing on that before we go on. Let's take a look, if we can, at the Rasmussen poll that was out this week that speaks specifically to the issue of helping himself with the Democrats.

This was a poll of Democrats, and when they first asked them what do you think of Feingold, as you can see, it was 22-16. People didn't know a whole lot about him. Then they said oh, that's the guy who has proposed the censure motion. Suddenly 52 percent of Democrats favored Senator Feingold.

WILLIAMS: Absolutely.

WALLACE: Crazy like a fox?

WALLACE: Well, I think it's not crazy like a fox. I think lots of Americans think that he is taking a principled stand and only Tom Harkin -- to support Mara's point, only Tom Harkin has put his name in support.

HUME: Boxer has, too.

WILLIAMS: Boxer, OK, so two Democrats in support of this. Pretty much the leadership has said they don't want it, they consider it a distraction, off-message.

But what you do see here is that someone is saying that the president has to be held accountable, and there's no question -- no question -- that there was unauthorized use of wiretaps. No warrant...

HUME: Yes, there is.

WILLIAMS: ... granted. I mean, that argument is so weak. That's why I think Bill says that the president and the Republicans will lose that argument, because if you ask people about it, what they'll say is well, on the basis of it -- we impeached President Clinton for what, messing around with the intern, but we're not going to impeach a president who's actually violating the laws of the United States? There's something out of kilter here.

HUME: I agree with Bill that this is good politics in terms of the Democratic Party for Feingold, and the survey you showed backs that up.

I don't agree, however, that this is a smart move on his part in terms of damaging the president on this issue. It gets a couple of days with people talking about the illegality of the wiretap program, but that program has proved surprisingly, not to say astonishingly, popular with the public.

Should we listen in on Al Qaida conversations in the United States or Al Qaida-related conversations? And the answer is overwhelmingly yes. Senator Feingold is in a peculiar position, as you pointed out in your interview with Senator Durbin, to be talking so confidently about how illegal all this is when he is not among those who has been briefed on the program and is essentially, therefore, talking through his hat.

I don't think that's a winner in the long term for the Democrats, although, you know, all kinds of wacky ideas, including impeachment, have a great deal of attraction in the Democratic Party.

Mara referred to some of the Democratic base who feel that way. I would say that a majority, and probably a quite distinct majority, in the Democratic base feel that way, which is, depending on how you look at it, either a burden for the party in general or perhaps, in the case of Senator Feingold, a blessing.

WILLIAMS: But you've mixed up two things. You've mixed up the idea of the popularity of the program with its legality. I don't think I've met any American who says we shouldn't be doing everything we can to prevent another terrorist attack against this country, including surveilling these conversations.

But it's not the question of people say oh, yeah, therefore, we don't need the judges, we don't need the Congress, we don't need anything but to put our trust in the president.

HUME: Excuse me, Juan. If I'm not mistaken, the leaders of Congress were fully and completely and repeatedly briefed on this. And for Senator Durbin to say, as he did, that those leaders really were powerless to do anything about it because it's classified is utter nonsense.

Any of them could very easily have objected in a letter to the president in strong terms.

WILLIAMS: They did object.

HUME: No, excuse me. They did not. There was one weak little weird, sort-of-slightly-incomprehensible letter from Senator Rockefeller, which was followed up by him in no way whatever.

They were in the room with the vice president. The vice president chaired the briefings. They could all have objected noisily to this if they suspected it was illegal. They also could have done a great deal of constitutional research into the hypothetical question of whether such a thing would be legal or not. There is not one scintilla of evidence that any of them did that. The idea that this is illegal springs from the fact that it got into the New York Times and politicians within the Democratic Party decided it was a good idea to chase that idea around. It is by no means a settled matter that it was illegal.

There's very good reason to believe that the inherent constitutional powers of the president and possibly even the grant of the use of force to repel Al Qaida would have authorized him to do this. So it's no settled question, Juan.

WILLIAMS: The New York Times took one year, gave the president so much leeway. Democratic politicians...

HUME: To do what exactly?

WILLIAMS: They did not report the story for one year.

HUME: Why not?

WILLIAMS: Because out of respect for this president and our fight against terrorists. I mean, not everything is politics, Brit. Sometimes you are concerned about the welfare of our state, of our country, and the New York Times waited a year.

Democratic politicians granted him sufficient leeway. They say the briefing was inexact and vague as to what was -- they didn't realize about the nature of the...

HUME: There is absolutely no reason to believe...

WILLIAMS: ... surveillance taking place here within...

HUME: Juan...

WILLIAMS: ... the United States on American citizens.

HUME: Juan, that is absurd. No politician among those who has been thoroughly briefed on this claims that the briefings were insufficient and vague.

WILLIAMS: Rockefeller.

HUME: Rockefeller does not claim that. Rockefeller has said many things about this program, but he has never said that he wasn't fully briefed that I know of.

LIASSON: Just to get back to the politics of this for one minute, the question that Bill raised, which I think is an interesting one, that this isn't helping Republicans -- I mean, this is the kind of thing that people like Paul Wyrick said this week, if Republican activists see the president endangered by this threat of theoretical impeachment if the Democrats get the House back, they'll rally around the president.

You have a series of bad polls for him, his approval ratings in the 30s. You know, there's a range of them, but they're not good -- people very pessimistic about Iraq. And my question is will the rallying cry that conservatives are now saying that impeachment is down the road if Democrats win the house -- will that actually work to rally people to the president's side or not.

WALLACE: Bill, you get the brief final word.

KRISTOL: Republicans cannot go to a midterm election saying re- elect a Republican Congress to protect the president from impeachment. They have to make a substantive case for the president's policies. And the reason Feingold's move is very smart for him personally as a Democratic presidential candidate that is smart for the Democratic Party is he's going at a strength of President Bush.

You don't get in politics only to play at issues where you already have public opinion on your side. He's trying to change public opinion. I disagree with him. I hope he doesn't succeed in changing public opinion. But so far he's making the case that it's illegal. He's going to have editorial pages backing him up.

And the Republicans are just whining that ooh, he's trying to censure the president. They're not making a substantive defense in defense of the program.

WALLACE: Time out, panel. We need to take a break here.

But coming up, the third anniversary of the war in Iraq. Where are we on the front lines and here on the home front? We'll tackle that one in a moment.



BUSH: There is no middle ground. The enemy will emerge from Iraq one of two ways, emboldened or defeated.


WALLACE: That was the president this week stating his case for the war in Iraq in the starkest terms.

And we're back now with Brit, Mara, Bill and Juan.

So three years after shock and awe, Brit, where do we stand now with our involvement in Iraq?

BRIT HUME, FOX NEWS WASHINGTON MANAGING EDITOR: We are at war in Iraq, and the Iraqi people and, increasingly, their military forces are at war with basically Al Qaida and some allies within Iraq. That is what this has come to.

I don't think the American military planners or anyone else anticipated that this would be what happens, but this is what's happened. It is unimaginable that this organization that is wantonly murdering and indiscriminately killing people is popular in Iraq the way insurgencies, at least to some extent, usually are. That doesn't mean it won't go on for a while.

Historic and remarkable things have happened there. In retrospect, some years out, we may look back on them and think that they happened at warp speed. It doesn't appear that way today, and the public is frustrated with what it thinks is the lack of progress in the war.

Whether that can be turned around in time to save the Republicans in the fall is not clear. But that's the issue. That's the only real issue. All the president's troubles in the polls all relate to Iraq. If the situation there improves, his situation will improve and so will that of his party.

MARA LIASSON, NPR: Yes, I agree that Iraq is kind of the central issue affecting the president's political fortunes. But I also think there's something else happening in Iraq other than just the U.S. and Iraqi forces against the insurgency.

And that's the spate of sectarian violence and the question of whether the Iraqis are going to form an inclusive, non-sectarian government, and whether the kind of whatever you want to call it -- low-level warfare -- I don't think it's outright civil war yet -- but the armed conflict and violence between Shiites and Sunnis is going to get solved, and I think that is what's responsible for the American public's pessimism recently about the future in Iraq.

Now, when American people see purple fingers on T.V., you know, Iraqis going to the polls, usually the polls here show that Americans are very optimistic about the prospects for a stable democracy there. The news from Iraq has been about sectarian violence, not just about the insurgency, and I think that's the reason for the pessimism.

WALLACE: Bill, where do you see the situation right now?

BILL KRISTOL, WEEKLY STANDARD: I think we're at war and, as the president said, we have to win the war, and I think we will win the war. I wish we'd stop always talking about drawing down our troops, which I think makes it harder to win the war.

And in this respect, I think reading Don Rumsfeld's op-ed today in the Washington Post makes me even more amazed that Bush has not removed him as secretary of defense. I mean, Rumsfeld has an op-ed in which he talks about the situation in post-war Iraq.

But we're at war, and he has for three years tried to jump to the post-war Iraq without winning the war in Iraq. There's a devastating op-ed in the New York Times by Major General Eaton who retired from the Army after 33 years this year, who served in Iraq, criticizing Rumsfeld.

I think we can win the war. We will win the war. I just wish we had a secretary of defense who spent more time thinking about winning the war.

JUAN WILLIAMS, NPR: Gee, I took away something totally different from the op-ed. I thought he made a strong case. You know, he said it's like leaving, you know, post-war Germany and letting the Nazis back in. I thought it was a compelling argument for his side, but I didn't think it was compelling.

But I understand your point that we are at war and he's got to be about winning the war, but you're in favor of putting more boots on the ground, as they say. I just don't think that has any political sale- ability in the American mind. At this point, it is about pulling people back.

It's three years in, Bill. Three years in, in which you go from they've got weapons of mass destruction, they didn't have weapons of mass destruction. Then it's a matter of oh, he's a despot and he's a terrible man. And Saddam Hussein was all that. But would the American people have gone to war to simply push him out? I don't think so.

And then you go to the argument well, this is about democracy. Would the American people really have gone to war -- do we really believe that it's possible to impose democracy on Iraq at this point? I'm a big fan of democracy and rights, you can imagine, given my interest in civil rights in this country. But I just think at this point that may be too much in terms of resources, in terms of the blood, American blood, that has been shed.

It's too high a toll, and I think that's why you're seeing the American people say enough. You know, we've put in for this, and it's not a matter of cut and run, which is what some -- or lack of patriotism. How can you question the American resolve after the extent of the commitment that we have demonstrated?

HUME: Chris, I'd like to call attention to reports from a couple of people who have just come back from there. Both of them have been sharply critical of the military and the way the war has been handled. One of them has been nearly as critical of Rumsfeld as Bill has, and that would be Ralph Peters, who is a columnist now, an author, military man by trade. He's been harshly critical.

And he came back and said he's just in there, he was there at the height of the so-called civil war that broke out after the bombing of the mosque. He said he couldn't find it there. He was all over the place. He didn't see it. What he saw was a situation which is clearly getting better, and Iraqi troops, which are getting better, and a situation in which the terrorists, despite their continued ability to maim and kill people, are losing.

A similar report now from David Ignatius of the Washington Post, who has been a consistent critic of the handling of the war. He came back and said that in terms of the political and military formulation over there now that we've now, at long last, in his view, got it right.

That being the case, I think, you know, the idea that Rumsfeld isn't thinking about winning the war, it's a -- Bill, it's a matter -- that's a semantic argument you're making there. It isn't a real argument. I suspect it's -- that Rumsfeld really thinks of very little else most days.

And I think that we ought to heed those who have been critics, who have been there recently, and hear what they say.

WALLACE: Mara, when you look at the polls and you just get your sense of talking to politicians up on the Hill, how much do you think the public has turned against this war? And could we reach a point, do you believe, where they could put enough pressure on congressional Republicans that they could, in effect, get the president to change his course?

LIASSON: You mean to pull out troops before he feels the military situation there...

WALLACE: I don't mean a total pullout, but to change direction.

LIASSON: Well, in terms of changing direction, I'm not even sure what that means. I mean, the president says he wants to bring troops home. This week what was the big news? They are coming home, because we're going to be turning over however many -- 75 percent of the territory to Iraqi forces.

So I think you hear this message from the administration: We're going to be coming home, in some numbers, not pulling out immediately and altogether.

The thing about this idea of a tipping point -- I mean, at what point does the American public turn against the war irrevocably, I think the polls are all over the place. In some polls when you're asked should American troops be brought home immediately, you have in the 20s for that. In other polls it's in the teens. I don't think we're at the tipping point yet.

WALLACE: Thank you, panel. That's it for today. See you all next week.

For more visit the FOX News Sunday web page.

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