Interview with John McCain on "This Week"

Interview with John McCain on "This Week"

By This Week - August 23, 2009

STEPHANOPOULOS: Hello again. I'm just back from a little bonus summer break, a trip to the Grand Canyon with John McCain .


MCCAIN: There's a place called Phantom Ranch, and they got these little cabins there...

(END VIDEO CLIP) STEPHANOPOULOS: Last week, the president was here with his family. This weekend, McCain's son Jimmy, back from Iraq, joined his dad.

The senator is holding a series of hearings on how to preserve our national parks with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Colorado Senator Mark Udall .


(UNKNOWN): The Udalls, the McCains, the McCains, the love for the land, the love for the place, people work for solutions...


STEPHANOPOULOS: I guess you could say that politics stops at the canyon's edge, but as was clear from our conversation, the McCain and Obama still have big differences on most of the big issues, especially health care and the economy. I began by asking McCain to weigh in on the president's war strategy.


STEPHANOPOULOS: You just got back from Afghanistan. Earlier this spring, President Obama announced 17,000 more troops and a mission to really take the fight to the Taliban. From what you saw, is it working?

MCCAIN: They're taking the fight to the Taliban. It's a very tough fight. They're going into areas that the Taliban have controlled for long periods of time, in the south. Casualties are up, as we had unfortunately predicted. But they are taking the fight to them. Our military is incredibly good.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And do we have enough troops now, from what you saw?

MCCAIN: We don't. General McChrystal is going to make some recommendations. I'm not happy with what he's going to do, because it's been published. It will be high-risk, medium risk, low risk. Whenever you do that, they always pick the medium risk. I think that he ought to do what General Petraeus did, and that's decide on exactly the number he needs and then we debate it, and the president makes the ultimate decision.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I'm going to stop you there, though, because I know you were concerned a few weeks ago. Bob Woodward went to Afghanistan with General Jones and wrote a story where it seemed as if General Jones was sending a message to the commanders not to send back a request for more troops.

Are you convinced that General McChrystal is completely free to make the best recommendation?

MCCAIN: I think there are great pressures on General McChrystal to reduce those estimates. But I have great confidence.

STEPHANOPOULOS: From the president?

MCCAIN: No. I don't think it's necessarily from the president. I think it's from the people around him and others, and that I think don't want to see a significant increase in our troops presence there.

But I have confidence that he will make his most honest and best recommendations. I just wish it wasn't this three choices, because they always choose the middle one. We need to know exactly what resources he needs.

STEPHANOPOULOS: How do you answer the argument, though, of others who say that adding more troops now to Afghanistan is a fool's errand in nation-building? That we can achieve the goal of denying a safe haven to al Qaeda by letting the Afghan government take the lead and taking them out with drones when necessary?

MCCAIN: Well, I say with respect, and I understand that argument, but that was the same argument under Rumsfeld and Casey that didn't work. I think the fundamental to success of a counterinsurgency is to clear and hold and secure an environment for people so that the political and economic progress can be made.

STEPHANOPOULOS: That's a 40-year effort, isn't it?

MCCAIN: I think within a year to 18 months, you could start to see progress. It's very hard. It's very tough. We're facing a very determined enemy that will stand and fight in some instances, that are very adaptable, and obviously with safe havens in Pakistan.

But as the president described it in the campaign, this is a good war and one that we have to win. And I think he'll hold to that.

STEPHANOPOULOS: We're seeing now that the American public is turning against the war.


STEPHANOPOULOS: The majority now says it's not worth fighting. Two to one, they don't want more troops. The clock is ticking, both with the public and Congress. You say 12 to 18 months.

What do we need to see in 12 to 18 months to make sure the public and the Congress stay behind this war?

MCCAIN: I think you need to see a reversal of these very alarming and disturbing trends on attacks, casualties, areas of the country that the Taliban has increased control of.

In other words, you need to see all of those things reversed and on a significant downward slope. And I think we can do that in a year to 18 months.

STEPHANOPOULOS: If not, should we leave?

MCCAIN: I think we have to make decisions as the situation calls for, but we always have to remember that we cannot allow Afghanistan to return to a base for terrorist attacks on the United States and our allies. That's why we went in, in the first place.

STEPHANOPOULOS: There's a concern that there may be a turning back in Iraq as well, a huge flare-up of violence this week. Did we leave the cities too soon?

MCCAIN: I think you could argue that we may have left a bit too soon, but I think it was important, in General Odierno's eyes, to give them what they wanted. I think there's probably going to be a need for greater American cooperation, particularly as far as some of our technology is concerned.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So go back in?

MCCAIN: Not to go back in, but to assist. For example, after these bombings, Americans have gone in to help, you know, with the damage, et cetera. But overall, this is an uptick but one which I think can return to steady progress. We've made an agreement. We're going to have to stick to it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Leaving by 2011?

MCCAIN: And, you know, again, it's like -- it's definitional because I think we're going to have to train the Iraqi air force, for example, and do some of that. But as far as active combat involvement is concerned, I think we're going to be out of there. I think that's the commitment that we've made.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Would we be fighting these two wars any differently if you were president now?

MCCAIN: Not now, but it's very obvious that, for at least three years, we conducted the war in Iraq in the wrong fashion. And we paid a very heavy price in American blood and treasure. And we developed a strategy that worked. That strategy is adopted to the different conditions in Afghanistan.

And what has emerged, George, which I think we haven't appreciated, maybe, as much as we should, is that we have a group of leaders, both at the officer and non-commission officer level that is unbelievably good.

I ran into a colonel in Iraq that was there for his sixth tour, his sixth tour of duty, because he wanted to be back there. I mean, it's amazing.

STEPHANOPOULOS: That's put a huge strain on so many families.

MCCAIN: It's put tremendous strain on families. It has caused tragedies and loss that grieves us and brings tears to our eyes, but they have succeeded and they are so good. They are incredibly good, professional, skilled and they believe in what they're doing

STEPHANOPOULOS: And you believe that President Obama is giving those troops the support they need?

MCCAIN: I think the decision on resources which is coming up will determine that. I know that President Obama made those statements about how important this conflict was during the campaign, and I do have confidence that he'll make the right decisions.

STEPHANOPOULOS: One more foreign policy question. You were in Libya last week with Colonel Gadhafi. You tweeted and said it was an interesting meeting at his ranch with an interesting man, yet we see today the Lockerbie bomber returns to a hero's welcome.

Did you talk to the Colonel about that?

MCCAIN: Yes, we said that we thought it would be a grave mistake to give this individual a hero's welcome. And I think most Americans condemn this decision of the Scottish judiciary to let him loose.

I would point out that Colonel Gadhafi and his regime, which is very dictatorial and totalitarian in every way and very cruel, did reverse their position on weapons of mass destruction. Now, there's still further steps that need to be taken, but he's basically agreed to dismantle his nuclear efforts. If Ahmadinejad did that tomorrow, I'd be glad to sit down and talk with Ahmadinejad. So he has at least reversed the path that they were on, which was that they were going to acquire nuclear weapons.

STEPHANOPOULOS: While you were gone, the health care debate has erupted here at home. This week President Obama placed the blame for the gridlock on health care squarely on your party.


OBAMA: Early on, a decision was made by the Republican leadership that said, "Look, let's not give them a victory and maybe we can have a replay of 1993-94 when Clinton came in. He failed on health care and then we won the midterm election and we got the majority."


STEPHANOPOULOS: Is that what's going on here?

MCCAIN: No, I hope not. It may be with some, but I don't think so with the majority of the Republican Party. I look at this as an opportunity right now. The president's numbers are falling about their -- Americans' confidence in his ability to address this issue and how he's addressing it.

Now, wouldn't it be a good idea for us Republicans and Democrats to sit down with the president?

The president has not come forward with a plan of his own, as you know. He's got plans in the House and the Senate, but not from the administration.

STEPHANOPOULOS: He met with a group of bipartisan negotiators on Senate Finance Committee.

MCCAIN: But now the time, I think, is to come with the leadership and with others, at least try to sit down and see. There's so many areas that we are in agreement on. All of us agree that health care costs are out of control and we have to bring them under control.

So maybe it would be a good idea for us to sit down, and after consultation and agreement, the president could say, "Here's the health care plan that I want passed through the Congress. At least we ought to try it."

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you think start fresh?

MCCAIN: Well, at least sit down -- well, through this debate, at least we know what we agree on. We know we need more competition. We know we need more accessibility. We know we've got to provide an opportunity for every American to acquire health insurance.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Would you agree to the kind of insurance reforms the president is talking about, that you can't be denied health insurance for a pre-existing condition, you can't lose it if you get sick?

MCCAIN: You can't be denied it, and certainly, if you have it, you shouldn't have to lose it. But under the president's plan, you would have to lose it, in my view, because of the government option. I believe that one of the fundamentals for any agreement would be that the president abandon the government option. That may be hard...

STEPHANOPOULOS: No pun intended.

MCCAIN: Yes, excuse me, the public option. I think he'd have to abandon the public option and that I think is what a lot of Americans now are concerned about.

STEPHANOPOULOS: If he does you're willing to sit down and talk about insurance reforms and agree to that?

MCCAIN: I think that Republicans are more than agreeable to sit down and talk about various reforms.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The president also says that the debate has been infected by falsehoods. And probably the most notorious one is the one made by your former running mate, Sarah Palin , who said that his bill would encourage death panels that would encourage euthanasia.

He called that "an extraordinary lie" and he is right about that, isn't he?

MCCAIN: Well, I think that what we are talking about here is do -- are we going to have groups that actually advise people as these decisions are made later in life and...

STEPHANOPOULOS: That's not in the bill.

MCCAIN: But -- it's been taken out, but the way that it was written made it a little bit ambiguous. And another thing ...

STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't think that's correct, Senator. The bill -- all it said was that, if a patient wanted to have a Medicare consultation about end-of-life issues, they could have it at their request and the doctor would get reimbursed for it, no panel.

MCCAIN: There was a provision in the bill that talks about a board that would decide the most effective measures to provide health care for people, OK?

Now, we had amendments. We Republicans have said that in no way would that affect the decisions that the patients would have made and their families. That was rejected by the Democrats and the HELP Committee.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But that's not a death panel.

MCCAIN: So what does -- what does that lead to? Doesn't that lead to a possibility, at least opens the door to a possibility of rationing and decisions made such are made in other countries?

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, every single independent group that looked at it said it just wasn't true.

MCCAIN: Well, then why did the Democrats turn down our amendments that clarified that none of the decisions that would be made by this board would in any way affect the depriving of needed treatments for patients?

I don't know why they did that then.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you think Sarah Palin was right?

MCCAIN: Look, I don't think they were called death panels, don't get me wrong. I don't think -- but on the best treatment procedures part of the bill, it does open it up to decisions being made as far -- that should be left -- those choices left to the patient and the individual. That's what I think is pretty clear, which was a different section of the bill.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You worked -- have worked a lot with Senator Kennedy, on immigration and other matters. How much of a difference has it made that he hasn't been part of this debate?

MCCAIN: Huge, huge difference. No person in that institution is indispensable, but Ted Kennedy comes as close to being indispensable as any individual I've ever known in the Senate, because he had a unique way of sitting down with the parties at a table and making the right concessions, which really are the essence of successful negotiations.

So it's huge that he's absent, not only because of my personal affection for him, but because I think that health care reform might be in a very different place today.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You talked about working with the president now on health care. On election night, you promised to work with the president.


MCCAIN: I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together, to find ways to make the necessary compromises to bridge our differences.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Yet I was struck -- this week Congressional Quarterly came out with a study of your voting record and it said your voting record this year is the most partisan of your entire Senate career.

MCCAIN: Well, I think it's probably been some of the issues. I did work with the president on reform of defense weapons acquisition. I've worked with him on other defense issues. I have supported him on Iraq and Afghanistan.

I have -- on a number of other national security issues, we have worked together, and there are other areas where we have simply disagreed.

STEPHANOPOULOS: On just about every major domestic issue and on Guantanamo, even though you say it should be closed, you've been quite critical of the president.

MCCAIN: Well, let me just say, on spending and the stimulus, I think the major reason why the administration is having difficulty today is because of the out-of-control, unheard-of deficit that we're running, which then gives people pause about another trillion dollars that would have to be spent to reform health care in America.

On Guantanamo, I share the same goal, but I wouldn't -- again, they have not had an overall policy developed which should have come first, and that, I think, has caused some difficulties.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I've talked to people in the administration and they say, wait a second, John McCain even voted against Secretary Sebelius for health and human services secretary, Justice Sotomayor.

MCCAIN: Well, all I can say is that I used my best judgment. I consider myself the loyal opposition and that is loyal to the president where I can be and in opposition where we have fundamental disagreements. And I look forward to working with the president on a number of issues and I will continue to try to do so.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me bring one of them. You just talked about the deficit. You just learned today the administration's saying that over the next 10 years the deficit will be $2 trillion higher than they thought, $9 trillion.

I spoke with Secretary -- Treasury Secretary Geithner just a couple of weeks ago. And he pledged that this administration would do whatever it takes to get that deficit down over the long run, including new revenues. Can you make that same pledge?

MCCAIN: No. First we have to send a message to the American people that we're serious. The earmark and pork barrel spending, you know -- and when we've talked about earmarks, only a few million dollars, only a few ...

STEPHANOPOULOS: That's a tiny fraction of the budget, though.

MCCAIN: It's a tiny fraction, but it's a signal of how serious we are. And when you say it's a tiny fraction, remember every time we add one of those projects, it becomes a permanent part of the budget.

So it has a cumulative effect. Look, there was 9,000 of them in the omnibus bill, 9,000, and all of them became a permanent part of the budget. So we've got to show the American people we're serious about tightening our belts.

Then, in my view, we have to look at entitlement reform. And we all know that Social Security and Medicare are going broke. And we have to sit down together and do that, or maybe have a same thing like a BRAC Commission, commission of most respected Americans, come out with a recommendation to reform Social Security and Medicare, and it's an up-or-down vote in Congress.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The president has said he's open to that kind of a commission as well, but even -- and I think you would agree that former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan is no slouch on the deficit, has credibility on the deficit. He also said there's no way you're going to solve this problem over the long run without new revenues, probably a value-added tax.

MCCAIN: Well, first of all think with value-added tax is a regressive tax and it's a European model, which I don't think has been successful.

Second of all, should we go to the American people and say, hey, we're going to have to have new revenues when we're spending several million dollars on a pork barrel project, that we have corruption, we have absolute corruption that people go to jail on?

Can't we reform that first? Can we go to the American people with clean hands before we ask them to make further sacrifice?

And second of all, as principle, I think the worst thing we do in bad economic times is raise taxes.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Not right now, but over the long run, you're not going to solve a $9 trillion gap without revenues, are you?

MCCAIN: I think you can reform Medicare and Social Security and not have to do that if you truly reform it. Look at what eats up a greater and greater percent of the federal budget, the -- the Social Security and Medicare.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You've also pledged to help -- to work with the president on preserving our national parks. You're here with Secretary Salazar. And one of the things you're having a hearing on this weekend is the threat of climate change to our national parks.

I was in Glacier National Park a couple years ago with Governor Schweitzer.


GOV. BRIAN SCHWEITZER, D-MONT.: We had over 100 glaciers. Now we're down to a couple of dozen. And by 2025, 2035, at the rate that they've been declining, there will be no glaciers in Glacier National Park


STEPHANOPOULOS: What's the threat here?

MCCAIN: I think the threat is serious here. We've seen increased temperatures, which has had impact on the wildlife, on the flora and fauna, on the Colorado River itself, which we are seeing less and less of.

We are in serious drought conditions. Our parks have very fragile ecology here. And, frankly, when you're in this driest area anyway, then they're even more fragile.

So I think that part of the impact of climate change on our national parks is -- well, you know, they're going to have to change the name of Glacier National Park because the glaciers are going away.

STEPHANOPOULOS: In the past, you've been supportive of legislation to deal with greenhouse gas emissions, with cap-and-trade. What about the current legislation that's coming out of the House now, moving to the Senate?

They've met a lot of your objections about not giving away the allowances. Is this something that you can support?

MCCAIN: Well, to support a 1,400-page piece of legislation to start with is always difficult for me, but I believe that the only way we're going to truly reduce greenhouse gas emissions effectively is the nuclear power.

We have got to build 100 nuclear power plants in the next 20 years. We can do that. Right now, the administration's position is against storage and they're against recycling of spent nuclear fuel. I can't support a genuine reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, unless nuclear power is a key part of it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But you've been for it in past.

MCCAIN: I've been for -- and nuclear power -- assuming that nuclear power would be a key part of it. I mean, you can't get there from here. The only country that's really making its Kyoto goals is France, where 80 percent of their electricity is generated by nuclear power.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But you'd be willing to go along with cap-and- trade, if it were part of a comprehensive deal that included more...


MCCAIN: Well, that would have to be part of it. And second of all, in any 1,400-page piece of legislation, you put in a lot of special deals for a lot of special interests. We know what happened there. The bazaar was open in the House of Representatives, so obviously, I would have to want to do away with a whole lot of that.

But I think climate change is real, and I would be glad to sit down and try to work, as I have in the past, across the aisle on this issue.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I'm seeing all these condors fly around the camera while we've been talking. Are you going to make time for a hike while you're out here?

MCCAIN: We're going to hike later on. And these condors -- former Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt had a big role to play -- as you know and many of our viewers may not, they had disappeared. They took a group of them into captivity and then released them here in Arizona and now they're doing pretty well. STEPHANOPOULOS: Thank you for bringing us here. It's a magnificent place.

MCCAIN: Thanks for having me on, George. It's very interesting times.

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