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McCain Details Views on the Iraq War, Drive for the White House

October 19, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Senator McCain, welcome. You still very much want to be President of the United States. Is that right?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: That’s correct. I still have the fire in the belly and we have been having a lot of fun lately.

JIM LEHRER: You’ve been at this for several years now. You have had your ups and your downs. What is it that makes you so determined to be President?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I can’t define it too accurately for you except to say that I love this country. I think it’s the noblest of all things one can do is to serve a cause greater than yourself. I am the most fortunate person you will ever interview. There are very few reasons for me to be on this earth, and I do not say that I was intended, but I do say that I’m fortunate enough that to serve this country and its cause is what I think that I am here for and that’s what I feel it is my duty in life. And I can do it in a variety of ways, and one of them is to be President of the United States. I want to emphasize, Jim, I don’t think there’s any inevitability or any set plan out there, but I do believe that I can serve the country best as President of the United States. But if I do not succeed, I’m telling you, I will still have the great privilege of serving in the United States Senate and serving this nation.

JIM LEHRER: But when you get up every day running for President of the United States, are you motivated by something that think only you could bring to this job, something that you could accomplish and only you could accomplish?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: No. I think that there are others and I think that this nation has been blessed with great leaders. I do believe I can do it best. I think my background, my experience, my knowledge, my vision, my understanding of the transcendent challenge of the 21st century which is the struggle against radical Islamic extremism qualifies me for the consideration of the voters. But I’m sure there that there are others that would serve as good Presidents of the United States.

JIM LEHRER: The polls show overwhelmingly now, Senator, that the American people do not believe that the country is now following is the right one. First of all, do you agree with that?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Sure. I think that we have let corruption and out-of-control spending and partisanship to cause the American people to be as dissatisfied as they have ever been in the many years that I have held public office. Our base is fed up with the spending, the American people do not believe we are working in their interests, that we’re working for the special interests. And when you see former members of Congress in federal prison, they are right. We Republicans let spending get completely out of control. We Republicans didn’t handle Katrina well. We Republicans for nearly 4 years pursued a strategy of Rumsfeld’s that would doom us to failure. And I am glad that the President decided on the new strategy. I am glad that we are on the right track. I am glad that he is saying that he going to veto these spending bills now. But we dried our enthusiastic base and we’ve got to regain their confidence and the confidence of the American people.

JIM LEHRER: And you feel you can do that, that you can do all these things you just outlined?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I am confident that I am qualified to attempt it. I think that my background and my knowledge lends themselves to some credibility with them. And I think that I can talk directly to the American people and motivate them again. It is not the first time in history that Americans have been on a downer. In the 1970s we obviously had great difficulties and lack of trust in government and every one of us role modeled, Ronald Reagan came on the scene and inspired America, restored our military, and won the Cold War. I think America’s are ahead of us, but I don’t underestimate the challenges that we face, and I think Americans will respond to straight talk.

JIM LEHRER: You mentioned trust, you mentioned Katrina, and the idea that the American people really do not trust the people running the government to get things done efficiently and effectively. You have been a United States Senator. What are your qualifications to actually run the government, to make it work, go from here to there?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I guess my qualifications begin with my knowledge and my background and my experience to take on the major issues as I told, that of radical Islamic extremism. I have a history of working across the aisle. I have been able to get things done in Washington. I have also fought hard against waste and unnecessary spending particularly in defense. I and others, but I led in a fight against a tanker that the tanker aircraft that the Air Force and Boeing and some corrupt people that later went to jail tried to foist off on the American people. I saved the taxpayers $2 billion, and I will continue to do that. I understand this defense procurement process and why it has to be fixed, why it is completely out of control. I will veto every pork barrel spending bill that comes across my desk and I will make these famous. And I will them a vision for the future of this nation and how America’s greatest days are really ahead of us. And when you look at young people working in America today, when you look at the men and women in the military, I can authenticate that assertion.

McCain as a national leader

Sen. John McCain
I am the only one of all these people that are running on the Republican side that condemned the Rumsfeld strategy. I was criticized severely for being disloyal and advocated the strategy that is now succeeding.

JIM LEHRER: What would you say to somebody who said, wait a minute, Senator, here a United States Senator means participating in a debate, making speeches and all of that, but it doesn't involve actually running something.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I have been engaged in most of the major national security decisions that have been made. I was once the commanding officer of the largest squadron in the United States Navy of over a thousand people. I didn't manage them, I led them. And I know how to lead and I know what serving the country is in the military and I understand our national security challenges, and I have been engaged in those major decisions as well. And I am the only one of all these people that are running on the Republican side that condemned the Rumsfeld strategy. I was criticized severely for being disloyal and advocated the strategy that is now succeeding. The question is, has the American people's patience run out as we are succeeding, the way that it ran out in the war in which I fought?

JIM LEHRER: You called it the Rumsfeld strategy. Wasn't it the Bush strategy? Wasn't he the President of the United States and wasn't Vice President Dick Cheney also involved and all the generals and everybody else involved? You called it the Rumsfeld strategy. Why?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Well, frankly, it was the President's responsibility and the Vice President's responsibility. On behalf of these generals, there were a number of generals that disagreed and those generals were "Shinsekied," they were thrown out.

JIM LEHRER: General Shinseki was?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Shinseki was the general who said we needed 300,000 troops over there if we were going to succeed. And there were military people who not only went along with this strategy but strongly supported it before the Armed Services Committee. But civilian responsibility is the essence of democracy and policies are made by civilians and implemented by the military. So, yes, the President followed the wrong strategy, but it was Rumsfeld who orchestrated it. And our problems were exacerbated by the statements such as "Mission Accomplished," a "few dead-enders," "last throes," "stuff happens," which led the expectation of the American people to be very different from what was actually happening on the ground. I saw what was happening on the ground.

I came back after a first visit to Iraq early on and said we've got to fix this. I met with Rumsfeld and said it's got to be changed. But I do give the President credit for changing the strategy, for changing secretaries of defense, for changing military leaders, and we are now succeeding and it is success and there's a long, hard path ahead, but there has been a significant change since we have adopted this new tactic, actually what it is.

The leadership of General Petraeus

Sen. John McCain
We Republicans, the administration with the compliant and eager partners in the House and Senate, the Republicans, let spending get completely out of control. We presided over the largest increase in government since the Great Society.

JIM LEHRER: Explain, Senator, why one general, there have been scads of generals before, there is another as you say secretary of defense, there is still the same President, still the same Vice President, suddenly everything is working because of one man, this general, General Petraeus?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I think that his leadership is important. Every conflict that we have been in, a leader has emerged when we have succeeded. But I think it is the overall concept that it is no longer you go in and kill people and come back, the old search and destroy. You go out there, you secure the area, you give the people an environment and you stay, and you give them an environment of security so that the process can move forward. Am I disappointed in the Maliki government? Of course. Am I disappointed that the national police are still corrupt? Of course. But we have seen a dramatic change in just the last 7 or 8 months since this new strategy or tactic has been employed, and of course it requires great generals. The combination I think of General Petraeus and General Odierno is a great combination and now the question is will we be able to see the political progress and will we be able to then begin to drawn down more numbers from the conflict as the Iraqi military takes over.

JIM LEHRER: Do you believe it's correct, Senator, for this 2008 presidential election whether you end up ultimately as one of the nominees or not, the election itself, the campaign itself, one of the major issues should be how this whole Iraq got to be where it was, not where it's going from here on out, but how it got to this place?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: We are all responsible for our record and there is no doubt that the approval ratings of the President and Congress are related to our failure in Iraq. You can't paint it any other way. But Americans understand also that mistakes are always made in wars. Look at the wars in which you fought. And if we can succeed, I think overall that that will be helpful to our cause, but there is no doubt that it has hurt.

But I'll tell you what's hurt more than anything else with our Republican base, and that's the bridge to nowhere, the out-of-control spending which has led to corruption. Americans are sad and frustrated by the war. Our base is angry because we've betrayed them on spending because the President didn't exercise his veto power, because members of Congress convinced the President that they needed these pork barrel projects in order to get reelected. They didn't get reelected and I hope that some day that we will make sure that they don't get their pork barrel projects.

JIM LEHRER: So President Bush definitely in your opinion deserves these low approval ratings?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I don't say that because I think that's up to the American people, but I say that we Republicans, the administration with the compliant and eager partners in the House and Senate, the Republicans, let spending get completely out of control. We presided over the largest increase in government since the Great Society. That's not Republicans. The bridge to nowhere, Jim, in every political campaign there's a tipping point, "I paid for this microphone," et cetera, the bridge to nowhere. I've talked to our Republican faithful and mention it and they all know what it was. They all know. They all know. And that tipped them so that in the 2006 election they just said I'm taking a hike. I'm taking a hike.

Now, they didn't become Democrats, but we lost the enthusiasm of our Republican base and we lost and confidence. So when we tried to reform immigration and we said that we would fix the borders, secure the borders, they didn't believe us. They didn't believe us. You've got to regain that trust and confidence. And by the way, you've got to secure the borders as well.

JIM LEHRER: But you were talking about federal spending, let's face it, there has been a war going on and billions and billions of dollars have been spent on that war.


JIM LEHRER: It wasn't all just bridges to nowhere, it was war.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: No, but it's symbolic, it's symptomatic. The Congress just passed a public works bill that has $21 billion worth of public works projects and they successfully beat back amendments to prioritize them or have a cost-benefit analysis. So now what do the appropriators do? They pick and choose which ones of this $21 billion in projects that they want to pass. With all due respect, the Senator from New York put in a large appropriations earmark for a museum in New York State for the concert at Woodstock -- for the Woodstock museum, a cultural event that I know that a lot of Americans want to spend their tax dollars to commemorate. And that may be viewed as a cheap shot, but the fact is that we've got to make tough decisions, we got to make tough decisions, and those decisions have to do with stop the unnecessary and wasteful spending.

Why should we contract with a major defense contractor for a small ship that is supposed to cost $160 million, it costs $400 million, and they cancel it and nobody is held responsible? Just there's $400 million down the drain. We're not talking about small amounts of money here.

Values of the next president

Sen. John McCain
If you accept that the struggle against radical Islamic extremism is the transcendent challenge of our time, I have no doubt that my qualifications and my vision is far superior than to my competitors who are all good people.

JIM LEHRER: Senator, a lot of people say this is all very important, but in making a decision who should be the next President of the United States, it is really going to revolve around leadership and about character, about the ability to react to the unexpected, et cetera. Give us your qualifications in those areas.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Well, I have been tested. I have been tested in difficult decisions. I have a record of standing up against the special interests. I have a record of understanding and being involved in the major national security issues of our time. And I believe in honest government, and I have practiced that. And I know how to work across the aisle with the other party.

I have been working with a lot of the individuals from the leadership of the Democratic Party for many, many years. I know how to work with them and preserve my fundamental conservative credentials and principles as well. I would examine my record. I would ask people to do that. But also listen to my vision and my commitment to the future of this country and its security. And if you accept that the struggle against radical Islamic extremism is the transcendent challenge of our time, I have no doubt that my qualifications and my vision is far superior than to my competitors who are all good people.

JIM LEHRER: You mentioned the Senator from New York, Senator Hillary Clinton. There are many Republicans who say now the ability to beat Hillary Clinton is the number-one qualification for a Republican nominee in 2008. Is that how you see it?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: No, but I know there's recent polls that show that I am the closest to her, tied or a little behind of any of the other candidates. I'm sure that that's a factor because we always want to win. But I think the average voter is going to judge me and the other candidates on their vision, their qualifications, and their confidence in who will lead in difficult times. But of course it's a factor with our rank and file, but the average American is going to say who is the one I want to lead.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with some of the average Americans who increasingly say they don't care whether people are Republicans or Democrats anymore, they just want people to function and get the government operating? Do you agree with those folks?


JIM LEHRER: Or does party still matter to you very much?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Parties matter to me very much, but parties have to stick to their principles and their ideals and to practice them. When we say we're the party of fiscal conservatives and then we go out and spend money like drunken sailors, then of course the people say, wait a minute, I can't identify with that. What we're seeing of dissatisfaction with both parties is the dramatic increase in independent voters, but we can bring those people home. We can bring them home by practicing -- I believe, Jim, that America is a right-of-center nation, fundamentally the Republican party is a right-of-center party, I believe the Democrats are a left-of-center party, and I think that's just when you look at the various philosophical positions that both parties have taken. So I think that we are more in tune if we do the things we espouse and practice our principles.

Diversity among the GOP

Sen. John McCain
Am I worried about the Hispanic voter as far as the future of the Republican Party is concerned? Absolutely. They should be naturally our voter.

JIM LEHRER: For instance, you and the other major Republican candidates declined to participate in forums and debates that were specifically designed for racial minorities, Latinos and African Americans. Is the message there that the Republican race is just among white people?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Let me just say I was the one who accepted the Univision debate and will continue to do so. I did not accept the Tavis Smiley debate because we had another obligation and I offered that if we arrange that debate at another date. I am proud of my record and relationship with the Hispanic community. I got 70 percent of the Hispanic vote in my last reelection. Am I worried about the Hispanic voter as far as the future of the Republican Party is concerned? Absolutely. They should be naturally our voter. They're pro-life, small business, patriotic, less regulation, pro-family, et cetera, and yet we are not gaining, in fact, we are losing significantly. Much to his credit, President Bush got 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004. That dropped to 26 percent in 2006. So we've got our work cut out for us.

As far as African American voters are concerned, I'm proud that I was heavily engaged in the fight in Arizona being one of the last states to give official recognition to the birthday of Martin Luther King. But do we have our work cut out for us as the Republican Party? Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: There has also been discussion, finally, Senator, about which of you candidates is the real Republican. Are you the real Republican in the race?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I think that there are real Republicans. I just disagreed with Governor Romney's assertion that he was "the real Republican of the Republican wing," when he said he didn't want to go back to the Reagan-Bush years. He has supported a liberal Democrat for President of the United States, he gave financial support to a candidate in New Hampshire who was a Democrat, and virtually had different positions on virtually every issue when he was in a liberal state, so I disagree with that.

I think it's fair to point out differences. I don't make personal attacks. I think that there is a clear difference between Governor Romney's record and mine and I think that's a big part of the decision-making process. You've got to win the respect of the voter and the way you do that is show your respect for them, and that is a clear depiction of your record. And then I think you qualify for their consideration, and that's when they begin to judge you on your vision and how comfortable they are putting their confidence in you as commander in chief and as President.

JIM LEHRER: Senator McCain, thank you.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Thanks, Jim.