transcript

Sep
30
2011

MS. IFILL: U.S. drone strikes kill a homegrown terrorist, looking for Mr. Right in the presidential campaign, plus the budget stalemate in Congress and why it’s not going away, tonight on “Washington Week.”

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The death of Awlaki is a major blow to al-Qaida’s most active operational affiliate.

MS. IFILL: U.S. forces take out a U.S.-born terrorist in Yemen, but at what cost?

On the campaign trail, Republicans have a crush on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

NEW JERSEY GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE (R): Anybody who has an ego large enough to say, oh, please, please, please, stop asking me to be leader of the free world. (Laughter.) What kind of crazy egomaniac would you have to be to say, oh, please stop.

MS. IFILL: Why they’re not taking no for an answer.

FMR. MASSACHUSETTS GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R): Who knows, maybe he’ll get in. It’d be fun if he got in.

MS. IFILL: And the president tries to calm nervous Democrats.

PRES. OBAMA: With patience and firm determination, we will press on. So I don’t know about you, CBC, but the future rewards those who press on.

MS. IFILL: And lawmakers kick the can down the road yet again on the budget. Why it matters?

Covering the week, Pierre Thomas of ABC News, John Dickerson of “Slate Magazine” and CBS News, Sam Youngman of “The Hill,” and Major Garrett of “National Journal.”

ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill, produced in association with “National Journal.”

(Station announcements.)

ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington moderator Gwen Ifill.

MS. IFILL: Good evening. We awoke this morning to stunning news that Anwar al-Awlaki, the charismatic U.S.-born preacher and terror plotter, had been killed in a drone strike in Yemen. The targeted killing aimed at further undermining al-Qaida was the most high-profile U.S. counter terror operation since Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan last spring.

PRES. OBAMA: He directed the failed attempt to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day, in 2009. He directed the failed attempt to blow up U.S. cargo planes, in 2010. And repeatedly called on individuals in the United States and around the globe to kill innocent men, women, and children to advance a murderous agenda.

MS. IFILL: The successful of operation immediately raised a number of questions, especially because of the U.S. government’s killing of one of its own citizens. Pierre’s been on the story for months. Tell us how important was the killing of Awlaki.

MR. THOMAS: Well, even before Osama bin Laden had been killed, sources have been telling me that this was the most dangerous man on the planet. And they said that because he was both operational in terms of getting involved with al-Qaida’s operations to kill Americans through plots developed overseas, but also a pretty massive and sophisticated online presence, English speaking magazines online, in which he would preach to Americans kill other Americans. So they said he was both operational, but also a propaganda genius.

MS. IFILL: It wasn’t long ago he was here in Falls Church, Virginia, not far from where we’re sitting tonight, and he was considered a friend, a moderate, someone who cooperated with the U.S. government. How did he become radicalized and how did he become so important?

MR. THOMAS: Well, this is an interesting story of his evolution. A lot of officials thought he was moderate, as you said. And beginning with the underwear bomb plot, we began to see some change in the thinking about this guy. I remember in December of last year, I sat down with the attorney general, even before it became en vogue to talk about Awlaki, and he said to me, look, this is one of the top three guys that we should take out. And I was sort of taken aback by that. And as I continued to talk to law enforcement sources and intelligence sources, they kept coming back and saying, Awlaki, beyond Zawahiri, number two in al-Qaida at the time, even beyond bin Laden, they kept saying, this guy, we’ve got to kill him.

MR. DICKERSON: He has connections. He’s an American. How – were there any legal problems, any questions of due process that got in the way of this operation or did those just go out the window?

MR. THOMAS: You know, we’ve heard some discussion of that today, but quite frankly people have been talking to me on background about killing this guy for some time -- killing him. They said he was an enemy of the state essentially that he was a known terrorist leader, a self described enemy of America, and that he wanted to kill Americans. And the key thing they pointed out is that Awlaki believed that al-Qaida should do small to midscale attacks, that they shouldn’t wait for the massive 9/11 scale attacks. So he was a person who said, get something done. Get on the scoreboard. So you saw December, 2009, the underwear bombing plot, Christmas Day, designed to scare Americans on the holiest of days for many Americans.

MS. IFILL: But the difference between him and all the other people this administration has successfully targeted is that he is an American citizen. That’s the first time that’s happened.

MR. GARRETT: And I guess to continue the due process question –

MS. IFILL: Yes.

MR. GARRETT: – what – why not try to arrest him because the administration, when it talks about Guantanamo says these cases can be successfully prosecuted? You develop the evidence. Federal courts can handle the evidence. They have in the past. Was there a reason and has there been a reason for a while not to arrest him, not to try to even go there –

MR. THOMAS: We saw it toward the end of the Bush administration, and ramped up with the Obama administration, the use of drones to kill terrorist targets. They found that it was a very effective way, a very precise way of doing it, and a very clean way of doing it. So they began to say, forget this due process thing in terms of bringing people here, having the national security issues, having trials. If people are clear and present dangers, we’re going to kill them. And that’s what they’ve been doing.

MR. YOUNGMAN: I was struck today at the White House daily briefing, Jay Carney was reluctant to say anything about this killing, which is a stark contrast from last – from when bin Laden was killed, when John Brennan came out and told us basically everything we’d want to know about it. I wonder, do you think that speaks to the legality of the operation or is it more about lessons learned from the bin Laden raid?

MR. THOMAS: I think it’s a combination of both. There’s lessons learned. You know, they got in some hot water for saying things that turned out not quite to be true. Also the fact that he is an American is a sensitive issue. There was a legal battle over that earlier this year, where Awlaki’s father had gone to a federal court and said, please stop this. This is illegal. The court threw it out, by the way.

MS. IFILL: It wasn’t long ago that the administration was saying that al-Qaida is weakened. Leon Panetta said that. Now, today they’re saying they’re really, really weakened. Is this that significant that they can stop worrying about al-Qaida?

MR. THOMAS: This is huge. Al-Qaida central, based in Pakistan and Afghanistan was severely damaged. Bin Laden led that group. They have been killing their leaders for quite some time. Again, al-Qaida in Yemen, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, was a group that again tried not only the Christmas Day plot, but also 10 months later, tried to bomb cargo planes, using a printer bomb plot. So they are thought to be the most active group. So the notion that you could take out their spiritual leader and also someone who was radicalizing Americans online. I think the most fascinating thing that I found out today talking to sources is one reminded me that of 50 cases brought against Americans charged with terrorism, 19 of those cases, Awlaki – his name came up in the files in terms of people online looking at his materials, looking at his sermons, he was the guy they said that we needed to get.

MS. IFILL: He was that central. Well, thank you, Pierre.

Now, we move on to presidential politics. Is this the man who can save the Republican Party?

GOV. CHRISTIE: We watch a president who once talked about the courage of his convictions, but still has yet found the courage to lead and still we continue to wait and hope that our president will finally stop being a bystander in the Oval Office.

MS. IFILL: Follows in the steps for now of other longed-for non-candidates from Colin Powell and Mitch Daniels, who did not run, to Wesley Clark and Fred Thompson who did, much to their regret, but if this is not new, is it different? What’s driving this latest draft movement, John?

MR. DICKERSON: Well, as you point out, it’s always looking for a dream candidate and there’re some –

MS. IFILL: Ours seems better –

MR. DICKERSON: – and there’re some green room conservatives – columnists and pundits who want somebody else to run in the race. They look at the field. They were most recently sorely disappointed by Governor Perry of Texas, his performance in these debates. They thought he might be a candidate who had governing experience plus tea party cache and he could meld those two and be the candidate. Well, he had a tough time out of the gate. And Mitt Romney is very polished and good, but doesn’t excite the blood.

And so this is the new hope they’re looking for, but that’s – beyond that, I mean, Chris Christie has a good record for Republicans on balancing the budget in New Jersey, fighting and taking on unions. And that clip of him speaking was – was fine, but where he really comes alive is in the Q&A. I mean he’s got authenticity is the word you keep hearing over and over again. They want somebody with this moment, where they can take on Barack Obama, who is so weakened. They want somebody out there who can take it to the president, but also speak to a kind of gut-level feeling Republicans are having.

MS. IFILL: Do they really? I mean, to what degree is this people longing for something that just seems just out of reach, whether it was Mitch Daniels or Haley Barbour or now Chris Christie or the fact that he’s just encouraging this?

MR. DICKERSON: Some of it is just uncomfortableness with the normal course of campaigns, which is that these things happen and there’re candidates who take time to get going, and they want (a savior ?) because it seems like such a right moment. But also part of it is that Chris Christie has said no many, many times, but he hasn’t absolutely said no. And we saw this in his speech at the Reagan Library –

MS. IFILL: But he has absolutely said no.

MR. DICKERSON: But here’s the thing, but watch that speech at the Regan Library.

MS. IFILL: Yes.

MR. DICKERSON: He said, I refer you to my previous 900 comments where I said no, and everybody said okay, he’s closed the door. And then a woman stood up and gave a very impassioned plea, saying please run, run for my daughter, run for my country. And he said, I take in what you’re saying. I hear you. Well, you talk to his aides now, and they say all those previous nos, honest, wasn’t going to run, but he’s considering it now. So what do we know? I talked to somebody who talked to him recently and they thought he’s really going to run. I talked to another person who had the same recent conversation, they thought he’s not going to run. He’s got to decide in about a week.

MR. GARRETT: John, how much of this is about blue-state politics for Republicans? There was a sense that Perry could really light everything on fire, but then there’s a sort of a sense well, maybe he’s lived and governed in a one-party state for so long he doesn’t really know how to carry a message nationally. How much of this curiosity and fascination with Christie is about the idea that you have a rough and tumble politician, who’s a Republican, who succeeded in a blue state and can run nationally.

MR. DICKERSON: I think that’s part of that and I think it’s also he happens to be in a blue state that’s near New York, which is near media markets, and he’s also a guy that you don’t have to travel far to know his story. I think – I think that’s part of the idea he can cross over, but that’s also one of his weaknesses, right, because he’s got views on immigration. With immigration, he said when he was running – when he was previously, he said that immigration was not a crime. There’s no such thing as illegal immigrants. Well, you can’t say that kind of thing in the modern Republican Party. On guns, he doesn’t have the proper pro-gun. He’s got a bit of gun control enemies. For civil unions, he believes that global – that human behavior does contribute to global warming. All of these are positions that will get him in big trouble. But it’s also his ability to work in a blue state, as you say, that gives him potentially a general election appeal, and so that’s, again, what makes him appealing.

MR. THOMAS: But given the state of the Republican Party, is he conservative enough?

MR. DICKERSON: No, he’s not. And the problem also is he’s not conservative enough for the places where he’s going to run. So look at the states he’s got to work in. In Iowa – well, in Iowa, he is a New Jersey rough and tumble governor running in a state with Midwestern evangelicals. How does he make that connection? And you talk to folks in Iowa and they know all these things about civil unions.

And this electability argument, you know, he can win because he’s from a blue state. He’s also got authenticity. That doesn’t matter. If he’s wrong on the issues, he’s wrong on the issues. And one of the problems also in Iowa will be the fact that he said no so many times. They want somebody who sticks to their word. South Carolina, well, South Carolina is seen to be Perry territory. Well, he doesn’t really mesh with conservatives in South Carolina. And so with so little time left, how does he talk to all those constituents and still have enough time to actually breathe and sleep?

MR. YOUNGMAN: Speaking of time, I listened to the Reagan Library speech. I heard him say no, no, no, no, no, maybe. It reminds me of the old joke. Orange you glad I didn’t say banana. (Laughter.) But I wonder, with Florida moving up in the counter-primary, with New Hampshire moving up, they’re following the line to I believe October 28th, does this have an impact on what decision he makes?

MR. DICKERSON: It does. It has an impact on him or Sarah Palin if she gets in. So what happened is Florida moved up to the 31st of January. Now we’ve got the four previous states are all going to leapfrog in the beginning of January. When they do that, they’ll lose some of their delegates, which means it starts earlier, you need money to get going and – but the process, because those early states have lost their delegates, it means the process lengthens, which means you need money to live to the end.

So for a candidate like him, it puts more pressure on raising money in organization and that’s hard to do with so little time left.

MS. IFILL: And we’re expecting a decision maybe by next week this time –

MR. DICKERSON: Week out is the latest, is the latest.

MS. IFILL: Well, okay. Well, we’ll see.

Over in the Democratic Party, the enthusiasm gap is directed squarely at the incumbent. The White House, which has noted the growing discontent, is taking two approaches, to warn of a tough fight ahead –

DAVID AXELROD [Obama Senior Advisor]: We don’t have the wind at our backs in this election. We have the wind in our face because the American people have the wind in their faces. And so this is going to be a titanic struggle.

MS. IFILL: – and to tell detractors to get over it.

PRES. OBAMA: I don’t have time to feel sorry for myself. I don’t have time to complain. I’m going to press on. I expect all of you to march with me and press on. Take off your bedroom slippers. Put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining. Stop grumbling. Stop crying. We are going to press on. We’ve got work to do, CBC.

REPRESENTATIVE MAXINE WATERS (D-CA): You know, I’ve never owned a pair of bedroom slippers. (Laughter.)

MS. IFILL: That’s Maxine Waters, who we assume the president was talking about there. Is this a real feud that’s going on or is –

MR. YOUNGMAN: Can’t you feel the love –

MS. IFILL: Yes.

MR. YOUNGMAN: – in the CBC remarks?

MS. IFILL: Actually, I was in the room. There was a lot of love in those rooms –

MR. YOUNGMAN: I heard that. Right. It’s being – it’s sort of been filtered out and responded to differently. It is a real family feud, but it’s sort of old hat to the Democratic Party. This is what they do. The infighting is sort of their signature trait. What’s remarkable is to see the Republican Party going through this now. If you think about moveon.org as sort of the precursor to a conservative version of the tea party, it’ll be interesting to see how Republicans deal with this kind of identity crisis.

But right now, the president’s trying to mend fences with his base, with black voters, with what they call the professional left, with environmental voters. They’re not doing so well, the environmental voters, I don’t believe. But I think right now, the president’s main challenge is the way he goes about courting the base. We saw this in –

MS. IFILL: Is that – is that what they’re really upset about – that they don’t feel like they’ve been courted or are there actual policy issues that they’re upset about?

MR. YOUNGMAN: It’s both. It’s absolutely both. If you go back to the health care debate, you’ll have the jettisoning of the public option, which was clearly a policy issue that the left felt dearly about. That being said, there’s also a matter of just the lines of communication. A lot of key constituencies done feel like they’ve been reached out to enough or consulted enough as the president’s moved forward.

MR. THOMAS: Well, in terms of the black community – I want to go back to that for a second – I’ve talked to some friends of mine who said, look, I was offended by the slippers remark, and other people say, look, that speech had a lot of love, as Gwen mentioned. Can you expect the community, the black community to come out in the force that they did in 2008?

MR. YOUNGMAN: Well, a lot of the problem for the president is that the novelty has worn off. He’s now – he’s a man. He’s a president, not a candidate catching lightning in a bottle. But there again, I think the White House’s defense this week was that the president talks to everybody like this, not just the black community, but everybody, all of his friends like this. And I think that there’s some evidence of this if you look into the –look at the run up to 2010, the midterms. The president was doing sort of the same thing, sort of bullying, chiding his friends into going to the polls. I don’t know if that will work this time. It certainly didn’t in 2010.

MR. DICKERSON: Exactly it didn’t work in 2010. And is the target the same, which is to say, is there one complaint that he can go after? I wrote a piece this week about leadership. And the blast of anger came from the left, who said on issue after issue he showed no leadership. Well, there was a long list of issues. Or is there a central complaint he can go at in terms of mending these fences?

MR. YOUNGMAN: Well, I think it all starts with leadership. I know for a lot of people I’ve spoke with that would fit this category of traditional Democratic base the final straw for them was the debt ceiling debate. They felt like the president caved and it was the sort of – that was it. They’d seen him compromise and capitulate before. And they sort of felt like with that one it was just – it was time to give up because they didn’t recognize Barack Obama anymore.

Now, I think that what he’s doing right now is trying to turn that around. You’ve seen him go on the offense with this American Jobs Act. You’ve seen him on the road, in Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell’s backyard. So he’s certainly trying to take the fight to Republicans and correct that leadership issue.

MR. GARRETT: Republicans thought that’s what the president was trying to do with the speech and all the various road shows. And they look at the numbers and they say the president still hasn’t moved the needle.

MR. YOUNGMAN: Right.

MR. GARRETT: Does the White House agree, A, it hasn’t moved the needle, and how deeply concerned are they about that?

MR. YOUNGMAN: The White House does not agree that they’ve moved the needle. They even –if you hear them say, a broad sector of the American public supports the American Jobs Act the president wants to pass right now, which is not going to pass right now. But I don’t – I don’t know that it’s a huge concern for them right now. It’s enough concern that they’re putting energy, time, and money into it. But at the same time, I think that there’s a belief that whoever emerges from the Republican nomination battle will go a long way in solving whatever concerns –

MS. IFILL: Well, but that’s – that’s the question. The president said there’s always someone who’s going to be – critical of the president of the United States. And by the way, look at the other guys. I’m not the almighty, but I’m also not the alternative. Is that what they’re counting on?

MR. YOUNGMAN: I think so. I think Joe Biden went far off message this week, when he said that right now this is a referendum on the president and Joe Biden. Well, if it’s a referendum, they’re going home early. They want this to be a choice. David Axelrod is speaking openly about making this an election about contrast, and for those of us from Washington, we know contrast is a code word for mud and lots of it.

MS. IFILL: Oh, mud. Thank you. Thank you, Sam. Welcome to “Washington Week.” Finally, to Congress where yet another last-minute compromise headed off, yet another threat of government shutdown and unfunded priorities, but whose priorities, and is the threat permanently averted? And will we all have to get back on the merry-go-round the next time this happens only six weeks from now, Major?

MR. GARRETT: Yes, we get to ride the merry-go-round again. Aren’t we so happy about that?

MS. IFILL: Yes, not really.

MR. GARRETT: The threat averted? Yes, for a couple of weeks. Washington has now become a place, particularly on Capitol Hill, where extending government operations for six weeks is actually viewed as a significant accomplishment. That’s really something to high-five about. We’ve kept the government open for six weeks, aren’t we proud of ourselves? That’s the minimal level of task accomplishment on Capitol Hill now because everything is fought over.

And I wrote a piece for “National Journal” this week saying even disaster aid, for immediate assistance to those Americans devastated, left homeless by natural disasters, events completely out of their control, for the last five or six weeks, have received no reconstruction assistance from the federal government. Why? Because the funds were all gone. Why? Because Congress didn’t replenish them fast enough.

So basically, if you’re a disaster victim and you weren’t bleeding from your eyes, the federal government had nothing to give you. The only money available was for life and limb emergency intervention. We’ve never been in this position before. Why? Because you can’t even agree on this – this elemental form of government service in response to citizen need. That’s what we’ve gotten in Washington and that’s really one of the things that was part and parcel of this debate. Not that it was new that we’re fighting over money, but that we’re fighting over the most basic kind of money we’ve ever given out before.

MR. DICKERSON: And has it gotten worse? In other words, what lessons have the Republicans and Democrats taken about the next stage in this fight a week or two from now?

MS. IFILL: If any – if any at all.

MR. GARRETT: Right, briefly, last week on the House vote, the first one collapsed. House Democrats said, you know what, we’re not going to give you votes anymore on these big issues. We’re just not going to help you out. And so House Republicans said, we’ve got to try to find the votes ourselves. They couldn’t. Then, a day later, House Republicans found the vote. Two lessons. Democrats said we’re going to be unified from now on. The president’s in trouble. We as a party are in trouble. We’re not going to capitulate, deal with Republicans anymore.

What did Republicans learn? Well, if we’re going to have to find the votes ourselves, we’re going to have to go farther to the right to get them. So for a country that may look at this Congress and say, gosh, they strike me as awfully conservative, just wait.

MR. YOUNGMAN: It’s pretty – excuse me, it’s pretty easy politics to say that voting against federal disaster aid is bad politics. How much of this was actually about natural disaster aid and how much of it was about ideology and spending and all that good stuff?

MR. GARRETT: I talked to someone who I think is conversant on both of these questions. Jeff Landry is a freshman tea party inspired Republican from Louisiana. Two of his perishes were devastated by Katrina. He said, I am proud that I voted against the disaster aid the way I did because we are in a $14 trillion debt situation. My constituents want us to economize. We offset some of that was taking money out of programs I think are wasteful – fuel technology, green jobs, things the president is doing. We can do that. And I can stand and I’ll look at my constituents and say I’m willing to make that because we have to take hard positions. That’s a defensible ideological approach. It’s part of what droves this.

Democrats look at this and say, wait a minute, we’ve never held disaster aid hostage over budget issues before. It’s just a new argument. And even those who you might thing wouldn’t be part of that Republican argument are.

MR. THOMAS: Party leaders, do they even care that their numbers in terms of Congress approval are approaching single digits? I mean, do they even care?

MR. GARRETT: Congress has the lowest net approval rating it’s ever had in history. The distance between approval and disapproval is now 70 points or more on almost every poll that’s taken. Within that Republicans can find some reassuring signs that there’s a general sense, maybe in the 40s that keeping a Republican Congress would be a good idea or my member of Congress is still okay, but it does weigh on the minds of congressional leaders. But you can only lead if your followers will follow.

MS. IFILL: Well, that was my next point. The president can’t guarantee that the Democrats will stick with him and Speaker Boehner can’t guarantee that the Republicans are going to stick with him. They haven’t got earmarks to grease the skids, so –

MR. GARRETT: They do not. That’s right.

MS. IFILL: – what do they do?

MR. GARRETT: Well, I talked to several people in the House Republican leadership today who said, look, the Speaker has been very good at explaining things, but explaining things late. He needs to explain things earlier. This needs to be a bottom-up process. That’s easier said than done.

MS. IFILL: Okay. Well, I get the feeling we’re going to be back on the merry-go-round again. Thank you all very much. That was depressing. Thanks. We’ll have to go now, but we’ll pick up where we left off online, on the “Washington Week Webcast Extra.” You can find it at 11:00 p.m. Eastern at PBS.org. Keep up with daily developments, including the return of the Supreme Court first Monday in October, on air and online all week long at the PBS “NewsHour.” Then you can join us around the table next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.