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Sound of Sunday

Aired October 11, 2009 - 11:00   ET


KING: I'm John King, and this is "State of the Union."

(voice over): It's 11 a.m. Eastern, time for "State of the Union's" "Sound of Sunday."

Twenty-nine government officials, politicians and analysts have had their say, voices of the Republican Party and Democratic chairs of powerful Senate committees. We've watched the Sunday shows so you don't have to.

We'll break it all down with Bill Bennett and Donna Brazile, the best political team on television. "State of the Union: Sound of Sunday" for October 11th.

The senator who pushed President Bush to embrace the surge in Iraq now warns the United States won't win in Afghanistan unless President Obama embraces his commanding general's request for at least 40,000 more troops.


MCCAIN: To disregard the requirements that has been laid out and guyed to by General Petraeus and Admiral Mullen, I think, would be an error of historic proportions.

KING: But as the president mulls his decision, there's extreme pressure from liberal Democrats.


REP. JIM MCGOVERN, D-MASS.: We're now saying we should have 100,000 American forces to go after less than 100 members of Al Qaida and Afghanistan? I think we need to reevaluate our politics.


KING: The president has is reassuring the gay and lesbian community he has not forgotten campaign promises to them. Speaking to a leading gay rights organization, the president says he wants Congress to repeal a law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. And although he didn't give a deadline, the commander in chief also vows to end the ban on gays serving openly in the military.


OBAMA: We cannot afford to cut from our ranks people with the critical skills we need to fight, any more than we can afford for our military's integrity to force those willing to do so into careers encumbered and compromised by having to live a lie.

So I'm working with the Pentagon, its leadership and the members of the House and Senate on ending this policy.


Legislation has been introduced in the House to make this happen. I will end "Don't ask, don't tell." That's my commitment to you.



KING: As you can see, we've been tracking the president and watching all the other Sunday shows so maybe you don't have to. Let's break down all the issues that we do every Sunday.

Joining me now, here in Washington, the Family Research Council's senior fellow staffer, Peter Sprigg, and CNN political contributors Bill Bennett and Donna Brazile, and with us from New York, the host of "Roll Call TV" and a former longtime congressional staffer, Robert Traynham.

Thanks, all, for coming in.

Bill Bennett, I want to start with you. The president did say in the campaign he would end "Don't ask, don't tell." He's saying it again now. He still hasn't attached a timetable to it, but is it the right thing, right now, for the president to be out publicly pushing this?

BENNETT: I don't think so. I don't think it's a top priority, given what's going on in the world, Afghanistan, all the health care debates, the budget debates and so on. But I think he also sets himself up a little bit, John.

You remember the "Saturday Night Live" skit where he had all the boxes, all the things he promised and all the things he didn't do, one for one. Here's another one. He could be pushing this harder than he is pushing it. He gives a speech, but he's the president of the United States. He can move this along if he wanted to.

Nevertheless, he is still apparently opposed to same-sex marriage, so he has to explain that to me, too. I don't know why he wants to wade into the thick of this, except he was at a dinner last night.

KING: We'll get to the marriage point in a minute, but on this part, to Bill's point, if you're a gay or lesbian American out there, or someone who cares about this issue who just thinks it's time for the ban to be repealed, could you make the case that he's just at a dinner last night? When's he going to do it?

BRAZILE: Well, this is more than just a dinner speech or a conversation with a few friends. This is a real commitment of the president to try to ensure that all Americans, regardless of their sexual orientation, can be able and should be able to serve openly in the military.

Our allies, Great Britain, Australia, Canada, Israel -- they all allow gays and lesbians to serve openly. There's no reason why they should not be part of the strategy going forward, whether it's building up troops in Afghanistan or protecting our interests across the world. There's no reason to discriminate against any American who's willing to make the sacrifice to serve our country.

KING: Peter, he did promise this in the campaign. Should we be surprised?

SPRIGG: Well, I don't think we should be surprised, but I think it's important to emphasize that this -- I don't believe this is something that President Obama can do by himself. There is a statute that was passed by Congress in 1993, and I want to remind people that "Don't ask, don't tell" was not the statute. "Don't ask, don't tell" was the Clinton compromise policy.

The statute says the presence in the military of people with a propensity to engage in homosexual conduct is a threat to good order, morale, discipline, and unit cohesion. And I believe that's as true today as it was then, and it would be unwise for Congress to change that law.

KING: Robert, I want you to jump in and join us. As you do, I first want you to listen to Senator Saxby Chambliss. He is a Republican of Georgia. He is someone who thinks the president has a very bad idea.


SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS, R-GA.: Well, my question back to the president is why? We've got a program that's working within the military. It's been very effective, very accommodating for about 15, 16 years now, and it's worked well, and I think there's no reason to change it.

I get calls from military personnel on a regular basis. Every time this issue gets stirred up -- and this is not a popular discussion within the military, I can assure you.


KING: Help us understand this, Robert, from your unique perspective. You're a gay American, also someone who has worked for conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill. What are the politics of this under the Capitol dome? TRAYNHAM: Well, the politics are twofold, John. First and foremost, the constituents out there are saying one thing, but also, gays and lesbians in the military are saying something completely different.

Gays and lesbians in the military, John, as you all know, and of course Donna and everyone else knows on your panel, knows that they're saying, listen, what I do in the privacy of my bedroom really should not matter what I do on the battlefield. That's number one.

But also, number two, when it comes to the overall fervor of the law, yes, "Don't ask, don't tell" sounds great on paper, but in reality, it's very discriminatory.

But listen, to answer your question specifically, what lawmakers are hearing is from their very conservative constituencies, particularly in the South, that are saying, you know what? This is moving way too fast for us; we have so many other issues that are pressing right now, like the war in Afghanistan, like trying to get our economic mess back in order.

So, you know, the president, listen, has two different constituencies out there. But the reality here is that, look, what are the specifics; when will the president actually end "Don't ask don't tell?"

He quite simply can do this with an executive order if he really wants to. Plus he has the majorities in the House and the Senate. If he really wanted this, he could push this sooner rather than later.

KING: And that is one of the big questions. Is the president just saying it because he was at a gay rights dinner?

I want to continue the discussion, but I want to bring into it the point he also made about same-sex marriage. Now, the president, during the campaign, said his personal opinion was that marriage should be between a man and a woman, but last night, he did tell the Human Rights Campaign this.


OBAMA: I've required all agencies in the federal government to extend as many federal benefits as possible to LGBT families as the current law allows...


... and I've called on Congress to repeal the so-called Defense of Marriage Act and to pass the Domestic Partners Benefits and Obligations Act.



KING: You see the standing ovation there. Let's just remind our viewers the Defense of Marriage Act was passed in 1996, and it says this: "The word 'marriage' means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife." It passed the House overwhelmingly, 342-67, passed the Senate overwhelmingly, 85-14, signed into law by a Democratic president, Bill Clinton.

Peter, let me go to you on this one. Number one, I know you think the policy is wrong. If this issue is on the table heading into the midterm elections, are we going have a culture war politically? SPRIGG: I think it could be a major issue. Obama's position is quite radical because he not only wants to allow federal recognition of same-sex marriage and domestic partner benefits at the federal level, but he also wants to do away with the part of DOMA that protected the rights of individual states to define marriage for themselves.

This would open the door to judges being able to force the redefinition of marriage in a handful of states upon every state in the union. I think that's a radical step.

KING: And, Robert, on the credibility question, does the community believe him or does it believe he's pandering, giving a speech to their community, but where's the legislation; where's the executive order?

TRAYNHAM: John, my BlackBerry has been blowing up this morning from friends and allies and so forth that were at the human rights campaign dinner last night, and the message was pretty consistent. They really like President Obama. His rhetoric is very lofty. It is something that is to be applauded. But when it comes to the actual specifics and when it comes to actually delivering something, they're still scratching their heads.

So the real question is, again, when will the president actually deliver on his campaign promises?

KING: And to deliver...


KING: Hold on one second. To deliver, he would have to get legislation through the Congress to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act.

I asked two Democratic senators from blue-collar states, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who is pro-life on abortion, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, who is pro-abortion-rights, both of them from blue-collar states .

I asked what should be a yes or no question, would you vote to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act? I couldn't get a straight answer without pressing.


KING: ... Defense of Marriage Act -- would Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, vote to repeal it?

CASEY: John, I've said in the past, I don't think that's the way to go.



KING: I asked you if you would vote to repeal the Defense of Marriage act and you didn't answer the question. Why is it so hard?

STABENOW: The challenge for me is that we have had on the ballot and there has been passage in Michigan of a law prohibiting gay marriage. So I think, for a number of us, that becomes a challenge, in terms of what has happened in terms of voting in our states.


KING: Donna, why is this so hard? These are your Democratic friends. Senator Casey says no, he won't vote to repeal, and Senator Stabenow says, if I read that right, probably not, because the voters of Michigan have gone on the record saying there shouldn't be same-sex marriage.

BRAZILE: You know, John, it shouldn't be hard if you believe in the Constitution of the United States; if you believe in the freedom and equality of all people.

BRAZILE: And I can understand some of the objections that my colleagues here on both my right and my left.

But let me just say this, the president, at some point within the next couple of weeks will sign a hate crimes bill, that's a very important step in outlawing discrimination against gays and lesbians in this country. And the president will work very hard with Congress to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." He will work very hard to bring forward inclusive bill to prevent non-discrimination of gays and lesbians in the workplace.

This is -- some people believe it's incremental, some people believe that it has taken too long, but this is where we're going as a country and we're not going back.

BENNETT: I'll tell you why it's difficult for those senators. Because the American people believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman, that's why. It's not a constitutional issue. The American people are tolerant. The American people are decent. But they believe marriage is between a man and a woman period, and those politicians know it.

If he wants to bring this on his head, fine. If he doesn't think he has enough issues in which people think he doesn't know his mind and hasn't decided, says one thing but can't pull it off, fine. Welcome to it, we'll use it in 2010. But he brought it up, we didn't.

KING: To that point, we'll use it in 2010, is this -- will I see a Family Research Council fund-raising letter in the next week or two saying look what the president has laid out, we need your help, we need your money, then we need you at the polls next year?

BENNETT: I would hope so.


BRAZILE: Well, they've used the issue -- they've used the issue over and over and over again. So I'm not surprised that they'll use it again in 2010, 2012, 2014, and probably 2020. That's not the point, the point is what do you do when two individuals, two human beings, two Americans, two tax-paying people want to, you know, be in some union? That's the position.


BENNETT: Leave them alone, leave them alone, leave them alone. SPRIGG: There are lots of relationships that are -- that are worthwhile that we don't call marriages in our society. Marriage is something unique.

But as to the political question, I did think that it's important for -- politicians should not be running from this issue. This is one of those issues with 60, 70 percent support that they should stand beside and say, I believe marriage is a union of a man and a woman. It distresses me that sometimes we see them, you know, sort of hedging on it.


KING: Please, jump in, Robert.

TRAYNHAM: John, to answer your question specifically, that's a bunch of Washington double talk. The issue really is, is that both sides, the hard left and the hard right are going to be be using direct pieces over the next 18 months to use this as a wedge issue, very sadly.

And I totally agree with my friend Donna, look, two individuals that are loving, that are law-abiding citizens, that are paying their taxes, if in fact they want to get together and have a civil union or a marriage, what's wrong with that?

We live in a society right now where that should be celebrated and not necessarily rejected. This will be a political issue, and it's very, very sad.

KING: Let me close this by asking -- Bill and Donna are going to stay with us, I want to close by coming back to you. Peter, what is wrong with the Cheney position, which is that if you repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, and just left this to the states, what if we just left this to the states and each state would decide whether or not to allow same-sex marriages?

SPRIGG: Well, in effect, that's what we have now. And the majority of states have already decided that it's so important to them to preserve the traditional definition of marriage that they've enshrined it in their constitution that...

KING: So then why do you need this federal law?

SPRIGG: Well, you need the federal law to prevent federal courts from forcing those states under federal constitutional interpretation to violate the terms of their own law and their own constitution.

KING: Peter Sprigg, we thank you for coming in. Robert Traynham as well. We woke you up early on a Sunday morning to ask you to join the conversation because of the president's speech last night. And we will bring you back another day, I promise you both.

Bill and Donna are going to stay with us. We'll also be joined by members of the best political team on television. Much more to talk about. We've got health care, Afghanistan, we'll continue to talk about this as well. Stay with us.


KING: Welcome back. Joining me now, four members, you've never heard this term before, of the best political team on television: senior political correspondent Candy Crowley; CNN political contributors Bill Bennett and Donna Brazile; and senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash.

Let's stay for a minute on this debate, the president re- energized. It didn't start last night, the issues aren't new. Talking about ending the policy "don't ask, don't tell." Gays can't serve openly in the military. The president said last night, I will do this, trust me, I will do this, speaking to a gay rights organization, but he didn't say when.

And I asked his national security adviser last week just when and here's what General Jim Jones said.


GEN. JIM JONES (RET.), NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: The president has an awful lot on his desk. I know this is an issue that he intends to take on at the appropriate time, and he has already signaled that to the Defense Department. The Defense Department is doing the things it has to do to prepare, but at the right time, I'm sure the president will take it on.

KING: No idea when the right time is?

JONES: I don't think it's going to be -- it's not years, but I think it will be teed up appropriately.


KING: So, Candy, the president last night gets a standing ovation when he says, I'll do it. I don't think General Jones' "we'll get to it" would get a standing ovation.


Listen, he'll do this when -- and I think that's the exact right answer. He'll do this when the timing is right. The timing is so totally not right now,because he has -- it's not just that he has got a lot of things on his plate, because let's face it, presidents always have a lot of things on their plate, it's the things he has on his plate that he has to pass, health care, that he has to do, Afghanistan. To muddle it up with a big and divisive debate about "don't ask, don't tell" or any of those things is just the wrong political timing. My guess is that the political timing will be before his re-election. He will bring home this very group that is at the core of the Democratic Party.

KING: So Candy says before his re-election. That could be after the midterm elections, which I assume the point she is making.

Do Democrats on Capitol Hill, do they -- even democrats who want to do this, who think it's the right thing to do to reverse this policy, do they ever get the deja vu that 1994, Bill Clinton had a big health care plan, got involved in the gays in the military debate, and in the 1994 midterm elections there was a rush of conservatives to the polls and the Republicans won the Congress?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Oh, there is no question about it. But what is so interesting is that it is the Democratic Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, that wrote a letter in the last couple of weeks to the president, saying, you've got to do this.

On Capitol Hill they're talking about ways to do this legislatively, in the Senate there actually isn't a sponsor of it yet. That might answer your question. But they're looking for one. I talked to a Democratic source this morning who said that there is a small chance, small chance they might push it before the end of the year, but it is much more likely next year, which actually could put it before the mid-term elections, which could add to deja vu.

Really quickly, though, John, Ii was stunned at the way those two Democratic senators -- Senator Casey and Senator Stabenow, would not answer your question about the Defense of Marriage Act. I mean, it was like they were trying to find a way, any way to not answer it. I thought they were going to start talking about the color of your tie, they were so determined not to answer that question.

BASH: And that tells you about that. That's where the real controversy is on this issue, and I talked to -- the Democratic sources I talked to this morning said don't expect that to come up any time soon.

KING: OK, I'm having a hard time finding the question, but why are we still so uncomfortable having this debate? You can have your position, but when you have two members of the United States Senate, who as I said to Senator Stabenow, I asked you about voting on healthcare and I asked you about helping autoworkers you would say yes, yes, yes. On this one, you can't get a yes or a no.

BENNETT: Because you're a tough guy. You asked a tough question. You asked these folks to choose between their leader, the president of the United States, his position and what they know the polls are, 60 to 70 percent.

KING: What about where their heart is? Should this be a question of the president or the goals? Shouldn't it be a question of the heart? Do they think it's right or wrong?

BENNETT: Just to follow up with Candy -- yeah, but they're not going tell you that. Some people act on principle. Some people act on politics.

KING: But we have a respectful disagreement between the two of you right here and we have it respectfully. Why can't we have that?

BENNETT: Let me follow up on what Candy said. Do you really want at the same time that you're getting criticism for not listening to your generals in terms of policy, to be not listening to your generals and the uniform military on something like this? I mean does that sound like strategic thinking, sound tactical thinking? Well he just doesn't regard the men in uniform on any of these things. He has to keep that issue separate. Jones wanted it even less than those two senators did.

BRAZILE: First of all, I think the president is listening to his generals and he's getting a lot of advice on Afghanistan, but we'll get to that in a minute.

But think about those Americans in California who went before the judge, the priest or their pastor and they got married and now that was overturned. Tens of thousands of our fellow citizens will be on the Mall today on the Capitol petitioning Congress to address these issues, to address these concerns, and I hope Congress will listen and will have the moral courage to speak up and to say that it's wrong to have a discriminatory policy that don't love people who love themselves and loving relationships to have some kind of union.

KING: Let's add one voice, one other voice to this discussion. Carl Levin, the other senator, the senior senator from Michigan, Senator Stabenow was here earlier, was on another program. He's the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, so he has to deal with the question all of the time. Here's his answer.


SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), MICHIGAN: I think he will and he can. I think it has to be done in the right way which is to get a buy-in from the military which I think is now possible. Other militaries in the west, the British and other Western armies have ended this discriminatory policy. We can do it successfully, but it ought to be done with thoughtfulness and with care and with a buy-in from the military.


KING: Thoughtfulness, care, buy in from the military. That suggests to me to Candy's point from earlier, we're talking despite the rousing speech last night, at least months.


BRAZILE: He was on the way, the Pentagon is reviewing it, the president has asked them to come back with some recommendations. Many military officials like Colin Powell, they have spoken out in favor of it. I think the time is just a matter of months and maybe years.

BENNETT: If I were a serious general in Afghanistan or overseeing something like that where we are losing eight or 10 people a day and I'm asking for more troops and I find the debate in Washington is about this, I might consider resigning my commission.

If this is really what you guys think is the most important thing to worry about right now and to spend 25 minutes even on this great show, I think the priorities in Washington are wrong. They're just wrong.

BRAZILE: But if you're Arabic speakers, you're linguists, you're military analysts, you're intelligence officials are being kicked out, simply because they're gay, that's also an issue as well.

BASH: And I just want to say one thing. You mentioned California, Donna. That is something that is important when it comes to President Obama as you well know and the gay community because there is so much discord within the gay community particularly about California because they felt that he didn't fight enough to prevent that being for being overturned and that really is simmering below a lot of this.

BRAZILE: Now we have a situation in Maine where this issue is still percolating. KING: We're going to call a time-out here.

BRAZILE: Let's go on to another topic.

KING: Mr. Bennett thinks we're spending too much time on this. I didn't schedule the president's speech last night. We thought it was worth some discussion. But when we come back from a quick break, we have to make a little money here. When we come back, we'll talk about healthcare, Afghanistan and more. No apology is necessary. We'll be right back.


KING: We're back with Candy Crowley, Bill Bennett, Donna Brazile and Dana Bash. Let's move on to the critical debate the president faces about should he send more troops to Afghanistan? We know the commanding general has said in the most robust option on the table, send me 40,000, maybe more than that. It's caused a big debate around the town. Earlier this morning, I put the defining question to Senator John McCain.


KING: Do you think the United States can win in Afghanistan with fewer than 40,000 more troops?

MCCAIN: I do not. And I think the great danger now is not an American pullout. I think the great danger now is a half measure, sort of a, you know, try to please try to please all ends of the political spectrum.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: Candy, it was nudging from Senator McCain and others that convinced the Bush administration to come around on the surge strategy which many in the White House, the Bush White House initially rejected. Is he as effective now?

CROWLEY: Not as effective as those around the table with the president at this point. This is as tough a policy and political dilemma as I've seen a president have in some time and that even includes President Bush because when President Bush made the decision in Afghanistan, when he made the decision in Iraq, the public was with him.

Now we are looking at a president who has a campaign pledge saying this is where the real war on terror is. This is where we should be putting our troops, who has a military pushing him to do that, who has the Republicans with him, who has the Democrats against him and most of the American public against him and that's as big a bind as I've seen for some time.

I think Senator McCain is one voice, but there are a lot of voices and a lot of them have him in private.

BENNETT: Well, I think he's backed up by his own words. He said this was necessary, essential to the defense of the United States and obviously the people of Afghanistan, particularly the women. He also in March announced what he called a comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, marking the conclusion of a careful policy review.

What happened since March? What are these changing facts on the ground? I disagree rarely, but I disagree with Candy here. I think it is relatively straightforward for him what to do. Most of the American people do not want us to abandon the field in Afghanistan. They'd like us to win in Afghanistan.

BENNETT: There's some more question about whether to commit more troops, but I think he can rally the American people with a strong decision that follows the experts here and his own rhetoric and his own stated convictions.

KING: Let's get a -- let's get a sense of the angst on this one. Because Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who is no dove when it comes to national security -- she was here about a month ago and she said she thought we might need a timeline in Afghanistan. She was that worried about the mission.

But if you listen to her today, you hear yes, she has concerns, but she also seems to embrace General McChrystal.


SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, D-CALIF.: Should we stay there for 10, 12 years, General? I don't think so. I don't think the American people are up for that or want that. But I think -- I don't know how you put somebody in who is as crackerjack as General McChrystal, who gives the president very solid recommendations, and not take those recommendations, if you're not going to pull out. If you don't want to take the recommendations, then you put your people in such jeopardy.


KING: Senator Feinstein sounds like she's with General McChrystal on this one now.

BRAZILE: Well, let me just tell you, John, I think the mission should define the strategy and the strategy should define the troop level.

We have a number of problems, from my vantage point, and that is the election results are still unknown. We know that the international community is looking into election fraud. The Afghanistan government itself is looking into it.

First of all, if you have a weak government or weak infrastructure -- and we haven't decided whether or not Karzai is the winner -- then what are we doing? I mean, what is the mission?

The second thing is that the Taliban is clearly stronger. They have been able to go into certain regions that we've left. And we have to have a strategy that we -- we clear these areas and then we build. But to build, we need the Afghanistan people with us. We need police, and we have to train their military. And then how do you hold when you don't have a government?

KING: To that point, Donna mentioned the elections. There are those who say it doesn't matter; if the mission is get the Taliban and Al Qaida, it doesn't matter whether there's a good government in Afghanistan or a lousy government in Afghanistan, corrupt or not; the mission is a military one.

There are others, though, Dan, in the building where you work, who oppose sending more troops, who are beginning to cite the elections in their argument against a buildup.


MCGOVERN: I think a lot of it has to do with the fraud in the last election. I think my constituents; I think people all over the country are saying, what the hell are we doing?

You know, we're backing a -- our men and women are dying for a government that is making deals with warlords and drug lords that stuff ballot boxes in the last election. I mean, you know, we have to -- we have to draw a line in the sand, here, and tell Mr. Karzai that there are consequences to his behaving irresponsibly.


KING: Does the fraud in the elections, the questions about the legitimacy of President Karzai -- does that embolden the anti-war Democrats like Jim McGovern? BASH: Absolutely, it emboldens them. But I think, you know, it's -- you said it right; obviously, he's an anti-war Democrat and he is very proud of it.

But he, and I think with Senator Feingold in the Senate, were probably among the first in that camp to say we need a timeline and we need to be more aggressive here.

But that really does illustrate a big part of the problem for President Obama, and that is obviously his own party.

The polls show that the majority of Democrats are against it, but when it comes to Congress, there really is a division. And you saw that outside the White House with the two leaders, the two Democratic leaders, the speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

They came out at the White House. They stood before the cameras. And when Senator Reid talked about, you know, giving the president time, you could almost see Speaker Pelosi rolling her eyes.

KING: She was, kind of...



BASH: It was -- it was really remarkable.

And therein lies, you know, part of the problem for the president. Because when he has to go to Congress, there is absolutely no clear...


KING: Here's another problem for the president. When you travel the country and you ask people, even people who support this president and would do almost anything he asked them, what are we doing in Afghanistan, what you get sometimes is a shrug. They don't quite know.

I want you to listen to Rick Paul. He runs a diner called Rick's White Light Diner in Frankfort, Kentucky, where I was this week. Listen.


RICK PAUL, DINER OWNER: It's really hard to deal with something that's so open-ended and without a clear plan. I mean, I don't even know what we're doing.


KING: That's the problem, eight years later. Isn't it?

CROWLEY: And that's his -- that's his sales job. If he decides to go with McChrystal, he needs to talk to the people in the diners. I mean, he needs to talk to people on Capitol Hill.

Because, as long as you have congressmen saying, well, what are we doing propping up the government, the president needs to say, we're not trying to prop up this government. We're trying to protect ourselves here; that's what we're doing, if that becomes his argument. I mean, that -- that needs to be what he says.

And he's going to have to sell that because we all know that no war in the U.S. can continue without popular support. And right now -- and I think our last poll was like 38 percent or something supported the war in Afghanistan, or they don't know what it's for? Clearly, a lot of them don't.

KING: And Bill, to your point earlier about the casualties and the decision. One of the things that struck me most about what Senator McCain said, in making his case to act and act quickly on General McChrystal's request is that he specifically cited the mounting casualties.


MCCAIN: I have urged the president to act with deliberate speed because Admiral Mullen and General McChrystal and General Petraeus have said the situation is deteriorating. Just over the last several days, as you know, a week or so, we lost 10 more brave, young Americans. And the longer we delay the decision, the longer it will be before we provide them with what the needed resources are.


KING: It's both powerful, but isn't it a bit risky?

BENNETT: Sure, it's risky. War is always risky, but again, he has to make the case for why we are there, to back up the American people, to give them the reasons and the backbone for it.

When you read a story, like you did last weekend, of eight of our guys down there in a valley being attacked from above by the Taliban, the president can say this is a situation throughout much of Afghanistan, and we need more men.

Now, if he wants to make the decision to withdraw, which he said, apparently, with this meeting with congressional leaders, absolutely not, but if he does, then he can take the consequences of that.

But if he doesn't, it seems to me the best thing to advise him to do is to listen to people who know what the hell they are talking about, the person he picked, hand-picked as the world's expert in this. If you're going to fight the war, fight the war, then listen to people who know how to fight the war.

BRAZILE: And then -- and then there's no real evidence that he's not listening. What he is doing is looking at all of the various options, the complexities, because this has implications for Pakistan, the region itself. And I think the president needs to have a deliberative process. That's something that even General McChrystal says the president should do.

At end of the day, the president has to have a strong mission and put it to the American people. Because this will cost not just more troops, men and women, but also more sacrifice for military families, and it will cost us money.

The Afghani government annual budget is $600 million a year. They can't stabilize themselves with that amount of money. So they will rely on us for a couple of more years. And once again, we will end up paying for staying there and bringing in more troops.

BENNETT: Deliberateness is one thing. A dithering Hamlet is something else, and that's what it's become.

BRAZILE: Well, it's not that.


CROWLEY: One, sort of, element I think we have to, sort of, add to this, why this is important, is, if you talk to people at the State Department, what are they worried about?

They're worried about their State Department people, because there have been an increased number of both volunteers and official State Department people who have gone over to help in the nation- building, if you will, or to try to, you know, help put together in certain areas. If it becomes so dangerous that -- they will pull out.

I mean, you know, I can assure you Secretary Clinton's not going link people over there if she feels that there are not adequate troops to protect them. So you then lose the other part of that war, which is the hearts and minds part.


KING: Time out. Time out. Time out. We've got to work in a quick break here. We're on a deadline. We'll be right back. Lots more to discuss. Don't go anywhere.


KING: I'm John King and this is "State of the Union." Here are stories breaking this Sunday morning.

A hostage standoff in Pakistan has come to a bloody end. Pakistani commandos stormed a building at army headquarters freeing 39 hostages. And at least 19 people died during the 22-hour siege including four militants and three captives.

It's a pivotal week for health care reform. The Senate Finance Committee will vote this week on a long-awaited health care bill. The measure would cost $829 million over 10 years and expand insurance coverage to 94 percent of eligible Americans while its sponsors say, reducing the federal deficit.

Those are your top stories here on "State of the Union."

We're back with our panel here, Candy Crowley, Bill Bennett, Donna Brazile and Dana Bash. Let's move on to the health care debate here in town. As we noted, the Finance Committee is going to vote this week. The big criticism from Democrats have been that the Republicans are the party of no, that they keep voting against everything. Republicans dispute that. They say they've had a lot of proposals voted down in committee. Let's hear from Senator McCain one more time on whether he could support the healthcare bill that comes out of committee or whether Republicans need to have a big one of their own.


MCCAIN: We Republicans need to come up with our agenda and we need to do it so that there is a viable alternative to this and it has to do with things that are not associated with government control of health care with America and there are many, many things we can do, medical malpractice reform, go across state lines to get insurance policies of your choice and refundable tax credits. There is a long list of things that we can and should propose as we enter this debate.


KING: Long list of things they could and should propose. Is this going to be a bipartisan debate on the Senate floor or are we in partisan mode to the end?

BASH: In partisan mode I think to the end. Look, John McCain was I think the only Republican senator to offer an alternative to the president's stimulus package. This is in keeping with the way he thinks Republicans should do business. And the House Republicans, in fairness, do have some legislation out there.

But look, what we're going to see is likely a highly partisan vote. The big question on Tuesday when the Senate Finance Committee votes is whether or not Olympia Snowe will vote with the Democrats. That's it.

Then what we're going to see for the next maybe week and a half is something actually we won't see. There is going to be a very private meeting inside Senator Reid's office, the majority leader with the two key chairman and Rahm Emanuel and they are going to be hashing out probably just the four of them with key staff, what is going to end up on the Senate floor and that's the way it's going to happen.

KING: Transparency.

BASH: All Democrats in there and don't expect very many. Senator Snowe is pretty much the only Republican ultimately that they expect to get. There could be surprises.

KING: Let me move on to another issue that came up a lot on your beats this week on Capitol Hill and you were chasing down Charlie Rangel and John Ensign, a Democrat in the House, a Republican in the Senate, both of whom are subject to Ethics Committee investigations at the moment. Is this one of these things that goes on and does not get in the way of progress or is it one of these things that trips up the politics of the moment?

CROWLEY: I think these particular ones, it goes on and the health care bill moves on and it is not so much a side show, but it's not a show that really I think has any impact on health care and that sort of thing.

Now Charlie Rangel heads a very important committee, let's face it, the tax writing committee. And should he be forced off that committee? That makes a difference.

So far, the leadership is sticking with him as the Republican leadership is sort of sticking with it and at least they're not throwing him off the end of the ship at the moment.

BENNETT: Yes, both those guys are more in need of my brother's advice than my advice.

KING: A distinguished attorney.

BENNETT: Absolutely, glad to throw any business his way, but, look, Rangel, the "New York Times," I agree with the "New York Times," needs to still step down.

KING: That's our headline of the day, Bill Bennett agrees with the "New York Times."

BENNETT: It may be. As the chair of the committee, he cannot do this. The violations are flagrant. Now Ensign ain't no great shakes either, but he's had to step down from his chairmanship of the Senate committee. But Rangel, sitting where he is, it may not be at the moment all that critical, but it will --

CROWLEY: It is if he has to move out, but they're kind of sticking with him at the moment.

BENNETT: They're sticking with him. Pelosi is backing him up, but sooner or later a lot of business is going to come to Charlie Rangel and he is really compromised right now.

BRAZILE: I think we cannot adjudicate this on the House floor, the Senate floor, in the case of John Ensign. There are other members of Congress under investigation. Jerry Lewis from California under the Department of Justice investigation. Look, I think the Ethics Committee has to render his decision and I think the leadership will have to determine at that time whether or not Mr. Rangel needs to step aside.

He's an affable member, that's why he's had so many people come the floor and support him. A hard-working guy, a war hero and clearly, he admitted his mistakes and also, he is taking his case to the Ethics Committee.

BASH: That's the feeling among Democrats now, but it's not going to last long.

KING: Not going to last long. OK, we'll continue to watch this. We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, our lightning round, two issues, panel, two sentences, give or take one, maybe. Sarah Palin, good subject, Nobel Peace Prize. Lots to talk about. We'll be right back.


KING: All right. Lightning round time. Two issue, hopefully two sentences from each of our panelists. We start with Sarah Palin. A little more than a week ago, the man who ran the McCain campaign said she would be a catastrophic nominee for the Republicans if she won the presidential nomination in 2012. So I put that question, would she really, to John McCain?


MCCAIN: She still is a formidable force in the Republican Party and I have great affection for her.

MCCAIN: Will Sarah and I -- did we always agree on everything in the past? Will we in the future? No. But look, let's let a thousand flowers bloom. Let's come up with a winning combination the next time.


KING: The Zen John McCain. Let's let a thousand flowers bloom. What do we think of that?

CROWLEY: We all want Bill and Donna to hold hands and sing "Kumbaya." Well, let me say that first of all, he did select her as vice president. It's a little tough for him to now say, she would be so disastrous.

And second of all, she will be a formidable force. That's not the question. The question is not, will she be a formidable force, it's, would she be a disaster as a candidate? Two separate questions.

BENNETT: And she is a formidable force, will remain so. Interestingly, the two big campaigns for governor, New Jersey and Virginia, have turned down her help. I think they've taken some money but have turned down her help. I don't think she will be the nominee, but she will be a force.

BRAZILE: I think that she remains a very attractive candidate for the Republican base, but right now I would tell the governor, if I had any, you know, advice to give her, to try to become a role model for young women and girls to enter into politics and to encourage and inspire them to serve.

BASH: I think he was thinking about his ranch in Arizona, heading to Sedona and getting in that Zen feeling.

But I also think that if you said, open up and say, ah, you would have seen maybe blood on his tongue from biting his tongue.

KING: Ouch.

BASH: Maybe what he really wanted to say, that's all.

KING: Well, I'm off to Alaska this week, state number 40 on the STATE OF THE UNION tour. We'll see if we pick up any intelligence while we're there. Next subject, we were all surprised Friday morning, remember that talk of the 3:00 a.m. phone call in the campaign? Well, it was a 5:00 a.m. phone call that President Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize. And many, even supporters said, well, what has he done yet? Lofty goals but what has he achieved?

Among those having a little fun with this this morning was the Republican senator, Lindsey Graham.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: If he can successfully turn around Afghanistan, deter Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, I will build a bookcase for him to put it in. It depends on what he does.



KING: He's a funny guy, Lindsey Graham.

BENNETT: Right. Yes, exactly right. Yes, I mean, this whole thing was ridiculous, provided nobody believes it.

Most important, he doesn't believe it. I hope he doesn't think he deserves it. And the best suggestion I heard about this is he should say, I appreciate it and I'm going to send over a mom of one of these guys who's fallen in Afghanistan or Iraq to accept the award on behalf of the American people.

BRAZILE: I think it is silly debate to discuss whether or not he deserves it. He...

BENNETT: He does not deserve it.

BRAZILE: He deserves it, he will earn it. And, Bill, you will live to see the day that he will prove it.

BENNETT: When he earns it.

BRAZILE: First of all...

BENNETT: When he earns it.

BRAZILE: This is a great thing for any American to be honored. And I would support the president and I would congratulate all of the winners of all of the Nobel Prizes.

BASH: I think separate from the political response, which is expected, I think the most interesting was the response from the stakeholders in a lot of the peace talks on various issues. And they were surprised and in many cases dismayed.

CROWLEY: No heavier burden than great expectations. They're probably sorrier at the White House than any place else. KING: All right.


KING: No, we've got to go, got to go, sorry, got to go. When we come back, Frankfort, Kentucky, a great breakfast and conversation, stay right there.


KING: We had a fascinating time in our travels in Kentucky this week. We were down here in coal country, then up here in horse country. Then we made it to the state capital in Frankfort for breakfast, 11.1 percent unemployment, 81 troops have died in Iraq and Afghanistan from Kentucky. In 1996, they voted for Bill Clinton in Kentucky.

We wanted to get a sense as we passed through the back roads, we finally came to Rick's White Light Diner, and we wanted to talk about national security, the economy, and more.


KING: Let me start by asking you about national security. It's eight years this week that the United States has been in Afghanistan and the president is facing a recommendation to send maybe 20,000, 30,000, or as many as 40,000 more troops. And some in the White House and some in his own party say, no way, it's time to get out, not up the stakes.

RICK PAUL, DINER OWNER: I don't think we should have ever left Afghanistan in the first place and gone to Iraq. So it's really hard to deal with something that's so open-ended and without a clear plan. I mean, I don't even know what we're doing.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it is a difficult question and that's why the president is being deliberative about it, because I have to agree with Rick, we took our eyes off the real issue and ended up in Iraq where we didn't belong.

JOEL SCHRADER, NEWSPAPER OWNER: I think he needs to stay until they have a stable government and can run themselves.

KING: If that's 20 years?

SCHRADER: If that's 20 years, that's what it has to be, because if we pull out before then, we'll have more terrorism problems. That's where it was generated at the first time. So no, we can't leave. If we need more troops to stabilize it, put more troops in.

KING: Let's turn the page to the economy, 11.1 percent I think is the statewide unemployment rate here in Kentucky. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's very high. One of the highest in the country. KING: Getting better or getting worse in your view at the moment?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't really know. It's probably still getting a little worse.

PAUL: It feels to me like it's getting a little better. Certainly the cash register tells me it's getting better here and a small business is area challenge.

SCHRADER: But I don't see a lot in the economy that's stimulating it or stimulating a lot of other job growth. The "Cash for Clunkers" was huge for Kentucky. They were getting ready to put on another shift at Toyota to produce the Camry. But if car sales go back down, it is a short-term gain, and now we're saddled with a lot more debt.

KING: When you look at Washington, do you see a change? Do you see grown-ups having rational conversations and airing out their disagreements -- legitimate disagreements in many cases over health care, over the economy, over spending and taxes? Or do you see children and polarized partisanship?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have some fairy noble public servants in Washington, but they're being drowned out by a lot of hysterical nonsense that's all designed to defeat, for example, health care reform, because they want to, frankly, pander to the insurance industry.

PAUL: The only way to get to a clear field is for each and everybody to speak their mind. I wish Obama would stand up and say, OK, this is exactly A, B, C, D, E. You can agree or not agree, but now you have my message clearly.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If they don't, the same thing is going to happen to them that happened when Bill Clinton was president. That failure is going to result in their loss of seats. Get universal health care in this country. It is embarrassing. And it's tragic. And it's inexcusable that the richest nation in the world cannot provide universal health care. It is just inexcusable.

SCHRADER: They've got, you know, huge majorities in both houses. They were elected to change and it has only been nine months. But in nine months they don't have anything to show for their efforts at this point.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's not true. That's not true.

SCHRADER: What have they got to show for their efforts?


KING: Don't miss Rick's if you're driving through Frankfort, trust me.