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Interview With General Casey; Interview With Governor-Elect Bob McDonnell

Aired November 8, 2009 - 09:00   ET


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

As the Ft. Hood community grieves, more questions about military security and the stress of combat.


GEN. GEORGE CASEY: This was a kick in the gut.


KING: Army Chief of Staff General George Casey gives us the latest on the massacre and the broader question about wartime stress and readiness.


ROBERT MCDONNELL, GOVERNOR-ELECT (R), VIRGINIA: I pledge to you over the next four years, action and results.


KING: Republicans win major off-year election prizes, but is there a national message? We'll ask Virginia's Governor-elect Bob McDonnell about health care, rising unemployment, and his path to a Republican recovery.

Plus, our "American Dispatch" from Ft. Lewis in Washington state. An up-close look at wounded warriors fighting their pain, and a solemn farewell to a fallen soldier. This is the "State of the Union" report for Sunday, November 8th.

Good morning. It is a busy Sunday morning here in Washington. Late Sunday night, but a narrow 220-215 margin, the House passed a Democratic health care plan that would cost more than $1 trillion over 10 years and create a new government-run insurance option. Just one step, but an important step on the issue that is the president's top first-year domestic priority. In a few moments, we'll get the reaction of a Republican governor-elect who campaigned against that House approach, and analysis from two leading political strategists as the debate now shifts to the Senate.

But we begin this morning with the massacre at Ft. Hood, Texas. Twelve soldiers and one civilian were killed and 38 others wounded in Thursday's mass shooting by an Army psychiatrist. Ft. Hood plans a memorial service on Tuesday, and the White House says the president and the first lady will attend. Also on hand will be our guest this morning, the Army chief of staff, General George Casey, whose job includes managing the severe stress of the force because of eight years of war and repeat deployments.

General Casey, thank you for joining us. One of the big questions people want to know is was Major Hasan acting alone? We understand now that he's off the ventilator and that he is speaking to investigators. What do you know about that question?

CASEY: Well, John, obviously, as you know, there's an ongoing investigation, and I can't speak to the particulars of the investigation or to any motivation of Major Hasan's. But I can tell you, I was at Ft. Hood with the secretary of the Army, John McHugh, on Friday, and it was at once a gut-wrenching and an uplifting experience. Gut-wrenching because the suspect is one of our own and it happened on one of our bases, and uplifting from the stories that I heard of our soldiers rushing to the aid of one another. But it's a kick in the gut.

KING: If you look at the front pages, in the last few days, this is from the "San Antonio Express News," "Iraq vets weren't stunned by spree." Some who knew the suspect doubted his loyalty, stability. What does the Army know about this man in the days and months before this? Because many people say he openly opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are these Internet postings attributed to him saying that a suicide bomber was akin to a soldier diving on a hand grenade to save his comrades.

CASEY: And again, that will be all part of the investigation, and we are encouraging soldiers and leaders who may have information relevant to the information about the suspect to provide that information to the criminal investigation division and to the FBI. But again, that's something -- you know, there's been a lot of speculation going on, and probably the curiosity is a good thing. But we have to be careful. Because we can't jump to conclusions now based on little snippets of information that come out. And frankly, I am worried -- not worried, but I'm concerned that this increased speculation could cause a backlash against some of our Muslim soldiers. And I've asked our Army leaders to be on the lookout for that. It would be a shame -- as great a tragedy as this was, it would be a shame if our diversity became a casualty as well.

KING: You have about 2,000 -- I mean, it's 1,900-something Muslims...

CASEY: About 3,000 active Guard and reserve.

KING: 3,000 active Guard and reserves. Do you believe there is discrimination against them to some degree now?

CASEY: No, I don't think so. I don't think so. I worry that, again, the speculation could cause things that we don't want to see happen.

KING: This man, Major Hasan, a psychiatrist. He's charged with one of the great missions you have in the Army right now, helping the men and women of the armed services, and in your case the Army to deal with the stress, the constant stress of these deployments and the like. And yet, and I don't want to get into the facts of this investigation, I understand, but if you have someone who was known to openly oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, should somebody like that be counseling somebody who might have PTSD and be coming home wondering about maybe a combat operation where they had to kill people, questioning themselves what they did?

CASEY: Again, I think it's a fair question. It's one that we certainly as an Army want to know the answer to, and we will take a hard look at ourselves to make sure that we properly executed our responsibility to organize and train the Army. But again, wait too soon to get in there and form any hard judgments about that.

KING: One of the -- if you talk to his family members, one of the things they say is that he was very troubled. He had been troubled for some time, but he was about to be deployed, and he was very, very troubled. And they say that he wanted out. That he had tried to get out of the Army, saying that he did not believe he belonged. I know you're short psychiatrists, I know you're short mental health professionals, but is there any record that he actually requested to be let go?

CASEY: John, again, I can't get into anything dealing with the motivations of the suspect. And that will all come out in the course of the investigation.

I can tell you that we have put a huge effort into the mental fitness of this force over the last several years. You know, since 2007, we have mounted a major stigma reduction campaign that has greatly reduced the stigma to coming forward, to get help for mental problems. We have a way to go. But what I'll tell you, the stigma against mental health is not necessarily just for the Army. This is a societal problem that we all have to wrestle with.

KING: You mentioned the stigma of mental health. I was out at Ft. Lewis in Washington state, just as this shooting was unfolding at Ft. Hood, your largest installation in Texas. And one of the guys I met is a remarkable hero. His name is Danny Dudek. He is a lieutenant colonel, was in the surge in Iraq, was paralyzed from the waist down. In the old days, he would be sent home from the Army. But he wants to serve, and he now runs the warriors in transition unit out there. They have 500 to 600 soldiers. Some have just sprained an ankle or broken a leg, but others have traumatic brain injuries and PTSD and lost limbs, and many of them are trying to get back on the battlefield.

They have in that unit, one social worker, social worker, not a psychiatrist, for every 50 troops, which they say is great progress. But I want you to listen to Lieutenant Colonel Dudek, who talks about how they could use more.


LT. COL. DANNY DUDEK, COMMANDER, WARRIOR TRANSITION BATTALION: We're all making strides to improve on the great behavior (ph), you know, the traumatic brain injury that we have here, but, you know, to some soldiers, just, we can't get them -- all this to them, and we just don't make it on some of these soldiers. And that's just not acceptable to me.


KING: We just don't make it on some of these soldiers. What is it that you need? Is it more time, is it more money, is it more studies?

CASEY: No, certainly not more studies. We have hired over -- just in the last two years, over 900 more medical health providers. The tricare regions have hired over 2,800 providers. We've instituted a program with the Department of Defense called military family life consultants, where we get certified behavioral health specialists and resurge them towards the returning brigades. It is a challenge, across the country, in the number of mental health providers that are available, particularly in rural areas. And it's something that we all need to work together.

KING: I want you to hear your own words from about two years ago. This is General Casey testifying at the House Armed Services Committee, September 2007, about this very challenge.


CASEY: We're also challenged by the lack of availability of mental health specialists, both inside the Army -- I think we're under 80 percent -- and in the civil sector supporting our bases. And we're taking measures to increase the number of mental health specialists that are available to soldiers and families.


CASEY: I'm consistent.

KING: You said you've made progress since then, but I guess the question is, is it good enough, and what else can be done, in the sense that if you pick up the Washington Post, they say the Army currently has 408 psychiatrists for its force of 545,000 people. That would be a woefully low number to many, given all the stress these men and women are under.

CASEY: But I mean, psychiatrists aren't the only providers here. There's a range of different providers here in behavioral health specialists. And again, we continue to grow and build a number of providers for our soldiers and family members. And I think that we ought not forget about that. It's not just about the soldiers, it's about the family members and it's about the children who are affected by this.

KING: There was a remarkable woman, police officer, who came to the aid on Ft. Hood. And a question I have faced from women on the staff, if you look on the Internet and look at blog postings, there are many who say if this heroic woman could come and essentially disable this shooter and stop the killing and perform so admirably, why can't women have a more active role in combat operations? It's a question, of course, you have faced.

CASEY: Yes. And I don't think there's any question that women have played a much more active role in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. I mean, there is no front and rear lines in the type of combat that we're fighting today.

CASEY: And frankly, if you look at the number of the victims, both killed and wounded, there were a good number of female soldiers who were part of that processing. They were headed off to combat.

KING: If you had five minutes with Major Hasan, what would you ask him?

CASEY: You know, someone asked me that the other day. And I said the same thing. I can't go there right now. We have to let the investigation take its course.

KING: Can't go there because of the investigation, or can't go there because of your own emotions about the incident?

CASEY: No, can't go there because of the investigation. And anything I might say as the leader of the Army could hinder that investigation or prosecution down the road.

KING: Do you believe he'll be prosecuted in the military system or in the civilian system?

CASEY: That is something that is being actively worked between the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice.

KING: Much more to discuss with General George Casey, including whether the troops exist, where would he find them if President Obama decides to send thousands more to Afghanistan.


KING: Some important context before we continue our conversation with the Army chief of staff, General George Casey. Let's take a look here at the stress on the United States military. 188,000 troops currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 750,000 members of the service have been deployed at least twice in the past eight years. Up to 11 percent of Afghanistan veterans and 20 percent of Iraq veterans experienced post-traumatic stress disorder.

Let me ask you a broader question about the potential impact of this. Ft. Hood is the largest Army installation. It is critical to getting forces overseas to Iraq and Afghanistan, other operations around the world. Will this incident and the investigation and the potential impact on the soldiers at Ft. Hood affect the decisions you have to make about rotations of troops?

CASEY: Right now, there is no operational impact of this particular incident. That may change over time as we look at the specific impact on some of the units that we're scheduled to deploy. But broadly, across the Army, this will not have an impact on our ability to provide trained and ready forces to Iraq and Afghanistan.

KING: It does happen, though, at a time, the force is under significant strain. I want to go back through some time, just to go through this. This is in August of 2007, you talked about the significant strain Iraq and Afghanistan were placing on your ability and the Army's ability to respond to challenges.


CASEY: Today's Army is out of balance. We're consumed with meeting the current demands and we're unable to provide ready forces as rapidly as we would like for other contingencies, nor are we able to provide an acceptable tempo of deployments to sustain our soldiers and families for the long haul.


KING: Let's fast forward from 2007 to just last month, October 2009, and it sounds like the situation hasn't improved much.


CASEY: We are so weighed down by our current demands, it's difficult to do the things we know we need to do to preserve the all- volunteer force and to prepare to do other things.


KING: And at this moment, General Casey, the president of the United States has been meeting with his war council, deciding, should I send 10,000, 20,000, 30,000, maybe 40,000 more troops into Afghanistan. As the president nears that decision, if he says 30,000 troops, 40,000 troops, do you have them? Where do they come from?

CASEY: Back to your question here about the levels of stress. I mean, the Army remains out of balance. But we started in 2007 with a program to get ourselves back in balance by 2011. And since 2007, we have added 40,000 soldiers to the active force, which is a significant step forward, and we're off of 15-month deployments. We're beginning to come off of stop-loss, and we're beginning to gradually increase the time the soldiers spend at home between deployments. So we are making progress, and we're frankly in a better position today than we were two and a half years ago.

We need to continue to make progress toward that goal of one year out, two years back for the active force; one year out, four years back for the Guard and reserve. We have scientific studies that we've just completed that shows that after a year in combat, it takes you about two years to get stress levels back to normal garrison levels. And so we need to continue to make progress towards that goal.

KING: Can you continue to make that progress if the president has to send 30,000 or 40,000 more troops, decides to send... CASEY: You would have to look at the specifics of the president's decision, but again, as I said, we have already made progress, and I would look for that progress to continue. KING: To what do you attribute the suicide rate? If you look at the charts -- and we have some of the numbers, you can go back to 2004, 67 suicides in the Army. 2005, it was up to 87. Then the numbers jump, 2006, 2007. 2008, 140. So far in 2009, 117. And about a third, about 35 percent of these suicides are from soldiers who have not yet deployed. What does that tell you?

CASEY: What it tells you is that predicting human behavior remains very, very difficult. I mean, as you saw in your chart, since 2004, we've increased our suicides by an average of about 18 a year. Last year, we exceeded the civilian rate.

Unfortunately, the progression will remain about the same this year. We'll exceed the number of suicides last year.

We've had a very aggressive program to get after this, to include a suicide stand-down across the entire Army. One of the things as we looked at the challenges facing the Army was that we felt we were a little light on the preventative measures, in giving soldiers the skills that they need to prevent mental problems and suicides. And so we instituted in October a program called comprehensive soldier fitness, which is a long-term development program designed to build resilience in our soldiers. And it's already implemented across the force. Tomorrow, we'll have 150 sergeants and a few family members up at University of Pennsylvania going through the first court to build master resilience trainers. And our goal is by next year to have one of these trainers in every battalion in the Army. So we're looking at it both from the preventative side and from the assistance and treatment side.

KING: And when you sit here and you think, you know, long way to go, but you've made considerable progress from where you were, and then something like Ft. Hood happens, do you say, isolated incident, or does it make you rethink? Are we really making all this progress I think we're making?

CASEY: We have to go back and look at ourselves and ask ourselves the hard questions.

CASEY: Are we doing the right things? But, again, we'll learn from this incident. It's way too early to draw any kind of specific conclusions from it, but we'll ask ourselves the hard questions about what we're doing and about what impact -- what changes we should make as a result of this incident at Ft. Hood.

KING: How does General George Casey deal with stress? These issues that your men and women are facing every day, and perhaps thinking a little bit more about it on this Sunday because of the tragedy last week. How do you deal with it?

CASEY: I'll tell you, Friday was, as I said, a gut-wrenching and uplifting day. And my wife and I went home, talked a lot about it. And then yesterday, I went for a long bike ride. And I find that's helpful, just to get a little physical activity.

KING: The president of the United States will be down at Ft. Hood on Tuesday for a big memorial service. I know the brass from the Pentagon will be there as well. What is the message you need to hear from the commander in chief at this moment?

CASEY: I think the message the commander in chief will come out with is the same message that he came out with in his Saturday radio address. That as horrific as this incident was and what it showed about the bad side of human nature, the reaction of our soldiers is something to be extremely proud of. And the full -- and I think he'll also let them know, let the people know that the full support of the United States is behind them.

KING: General George Casey is the Army's chief of staff. Sir, thanks very much for being with us.

CASEY: Thanks, John.

KING: When we come back, a shift to politics. Republicans made some inroads in Tuesday's off-year elections and we'll talk with one of the big winners, Governor-elect Bob McDonnell of Virginia about the big issues facing his state and the country -- rising unemployment, health care reform. We'll also ask whether his victory is the start of a Republican comeback. Stay with us.


KING: I'm John King and this is "State of the Union." Here are stories breaking this Sunday morning. The Taliban are claiming responsibility for a deadly suicide bombing in northwest Pakistan. Officials say a car bomber detonated 22 pounds of explosives outside the home of an anti-Taliban mayor. He and 11 others were killed, including a young girl. Dozens were injured.

Military investigators say all evidence indicates the suspect in the Ft. Hood shooting spree acted alone. Major Nidal Malik Hasan is accused of opening fire at the Texas Army post Thursday, killing 13 people and wounding dozens more. Hasan, who was injured during a shootout with police, has been taken off a ventilator, and he remains in intensive care. Investigators have yet to identify a motive for that attack.

And the House of Representatives has passed a sweeping health care reform bill. The more than $1 trillion bill squeaked by on a vote of 220-215. Only one Republican voted for it. The bill restricts insurance companies from denying coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. It also includes a public option. Those are your top stories here on "State of the Union."

Joining me now from South Bend, Indiana, fresh off his big win Tuesday night as the Republican governor-elect of Virginia, Bob McDonnell.

Mr. McDonnell, thanks so much for joining us. I want to start with the health care debate in the House of Representatives last night. In the campaign, your campaign, a successful campaign in a state that President Obama had won just a year ago, you were very critical of the House Democratic approach. Can this work as you go to become governor of Virginia, is this workable for you, the way the House approaches this?

MCDONNELL: I haven't read all 2,000 pages of that bill. I did watch a little bit of the debate last night, John. I think there's legitimate issues of cost and access that have got to be addressed at the state and the federal level. My concern is just from hearing from Virginians over the last couple of months is the increase in cost, less choices, perhaps longer waiting lines, and more government control. Families and businesses in Virginia told me they're very concerned about those, taking money from Medicare, maybe $400 billion. So I need to digest what happened last night. I only saw a little bit of the debate. But the public option does not seem to be something that is going to help us in Virginia.

KING: The public option is in the House bill as they create a national public option to compete with private insurers. On the Senate side, the debate is whether to have an opt-out or an opt-in. Right now Leader Reid's proposal would allow states to opt out. Others have said, why not create an approach where states could opt in? That would be a key choice for a governor. Do you want -- would you prefer an opt-out or an opt-in, I guess, is the best way to ask the question?

MCDONNELL: Well, either way, my preference would be not to have Virginia participate, from what I know this plan contains. However they structure it, if it gives flexibility to states, I think that's a good thing. We've outlined a number of things I think we can do at our state level, John, that will help our people have more access at a lower cost, but I'm very concerned about turning this significant section of the American economy over to the federal government.

KING: You're in an interesting position, the new Republican governor of a state that voted for President Obama, had had five of the last seven gubernatorial elections won by the Democrats. For the first time in nearly 40 years has two Democratic U.S. senators. Yet you were clear in your campaign that if you see something happening in Washington that you don't think helps the people of Virginia, you will stand up. I want you to listen to yourself.


MCDONNELL: I believe that a governor needs to stand up to Washington. I don't care if they're a Republican or Democrat. If they do things that are bad for Virginia, that are going to kill jobs or raise taxes or create new bureaucracy or hurt small business, I will be a governor that will stand up and say, that's not good for Virginia.


KING: You've made clear health care is one of those issues, especially on the question of the public option. What else? Where else do you see yourself at odds with Washington?

MCDONNELL: Well, first, I look forward to finding the common ground. For instance, charter schools and merit pay. The president was very nice and called me on Wednesday, and we talked a little bit about that. I look for those kind of areas of common ground. It's what I did as attorney general. I want to continue to look for those. And Senator Warners and Webb called me as well, and we had a very nice chat and pledged to do what's good for Virginia.

But bills like card check, cap-and-trade, some of the unfunded mandates on business and the stimulus bill, some of the other micromanagement of the free enterprise system, significant tax increases, those are the things, John, that I don't think are good for our citizens or good for our business. And I believe in our federal system that the governors, Republican and Democrat around the country, closer to the people can make some of these decisions better.

KING: Your Democratic opponent and Democratic critics tried to campaign against you as someone who was captive to the far right, who would advance the far right social agenda. You smartly and strategically focused on jobs. I want you to listen to a snippet of one of your campaign ads, one of your signature promises.


MCDONNELL: I grew up here in Northern Virginia, so I understand how vital transportation is to growing our economy and creating jobs.

MCDONNELL: My plan: new money for transportation, while protecting education funding and not raising taxes.


KING: Not raising taxes, sir, that last line.

Thirty states have had to raise taxes or fees or other revenue- increasing measures in the wake of this painful national recession.

Are you convinced, with national unemployment at 10.2 percent; Virginia's unemployment is 6.7 percent -- can you restate that promise that you will be a four-year governor who does not raise any taxes in Virginia?

MCDONNELL: Yes. I think that's the worst thing you do in a recession is to raise taxes on -- on the citizens. We're going to have hundreds of billions of dollars in new taxes at the federal level with this health care bill. When the tax cuts expire in 2011, it's going to be a crushing increase in new taxes.

People told me everywhere I went, John, they wanted government to work better, be more accountable, be more user-friendly, be more transparent. So I've promised audits of our state agencies, finding ways to innovate, to consolidate, to privatize. People want a better bang for their buck out of their government and don't want to have a tax increase every time we have an economic downturn.

We had one about every decade since the Great Depression. And if the tax increase is the only resolution, we're never going to control government spending.

KING: Republicans were thumped in 2006, thumped again in 2008, and they now have a governor-elect in a state that President Obama had carried and said was convincing evidence of a turning Democratic tide. What is Bob McDonnell's message to a Republican party as it prepares to head into a midterm election season looking for a road to recovery?

MCDONNELL: Well, I think one of the reasons we were very fortunate to win is we stuck to our conservative principles. We translated those into common sense, practical solutions.

You played the clip. We talked about job creation and transportation, economic development, energy, government efficiency, keeping taxes low. All these are kitchen-table, bread-and-butter issues, John, that citizens all over the state told me, this is what we are concerned about right now.

Secondly, be positive. I think that's one of the reasons we were fortunate, the message, overwhelmingly, on TV, was an uplifting, positive message about how we can improve Virginia economic development.

And three is just stick to your word. I've said things that I'm going to do. I'm going to bring people together on both sides of the aisle, find those common solutions and get people to work together for the good of Virginia. I think, if we do that, Republicans have bright days ahead.

KING: And what about on the social issues on a state level?

Does a McDonnell administration wants to advance any new initiatives on abortion, any new initiatives governing or regulating same-sex marriage?

MCDONNELL: We've already passed the constitutional amendment on the marriage issue. I've made no secret, throughout my career, I'm pro-life. I believe we need to defend the sanctity of innocent human life.

But I do think we need to find those areas like adoption, improvement in the adoption laws, the fatherhood initiative. President Obama's been -- been a leader on that. I'm looking for ways to implement that. Because people on both sides of that issue think we need to find ways to reduce the number of abortions.

But, overwhelmingly, John, I've got to focus on creating jobs, improving the economy, and managing this budget. That's what people, I think, overwhelmingly elected me to do and that will be my focus.

KING: Bob McDonnell is the Republican governor-elect of Virginia. And, Governor, when you have that title full-time, come up from Richmond and visit us some day. We'll check in how you're doing.

MCDONNELL: Hey, that's a great offer, John. Thanks a lot.

KING: Take care, sir. Thank you very much.

And up next, did Tuesday's results reveal any hints about where voters will turn in 2010 and maybe even 2012? We've got two of the best in the business, political strategists, to weigh in. Stay with us.


KING: Joining me now to break down Tuesday's races and to look ahead to 2010 and 2012 and the big health care vote last in the House. Peter Hart is the chairman of Hart Research Associates. And Bill McInturff is the co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies.

Democrat Mr. Hart, Republican Mr. McInturff, welcome.

HART: Thank you.

KING: Let's start with the health care debate last night. Democrats win. It's a big step, but, Peter, to you first, they have an 80-seat majority in the House and they get this by 220-215. So a victory, but there's a message in the victory.

HART: Well, the answer is, this is a big, big step forward for America and it was an important step. And getting it through the House, it's not going to be easy; it's not going easy through the Senate. But at the end of the day, my guess is that we will have a health care bill that will be signed by the president. And that will be a huge achievement for the president.

KING: It is a big step. Thirty-nine Democrats left their majority and voted with the Republicans. What does that tell you about what they're hearing back home?

MCINTURFF: Well, what it tells you is that's what's happened in the last few weeks is, as we get closer to the vote, opposition has gone up. In a CNN survey and multiple survey, now a majority of people saying they oppose this bill.

So this is one of those interesting cases where both parties think they're helped. The Democrats want to demonstrate to their base they've made big action. I think Republicans see this as a flawed bill, too much government, too much spending, in a way that will make those issues a huge and stronger part for Republicans in 2010.

KING: Let's step back and discuss how all this plays out in the politics of the moment.

And, Peter, you wrote a memo on the one-year mark since Barack Obama's election. It was pretty stunning, actually, if you read the language. And I want to show it to our viewers.

"It has been one year since the election of Barack Obama. The joys and the exultant expectations that rang out from Grant Park across America have been mainly silenced by a year of economic turmoil and international uncertainty. But more striking than the domestic and international struggles is the sense of disappointment and disgust the American public feels towards Washington. It is as strongly negative as the period of 1979/1980 and 1973/1974. Pretty tumultuous elections after those two periods you mentioned there. Are Democrats going to face a wave next year if this doesn't change?

HART: Well, obviously, '73/'74 was a terrible year for the Republicans, but what it really comes down to is people have really had it with the -- with Washington and everything that's going on. And that's what Bill and I discovered in our poll.

It is a sense that Washington is captured by the special interests and things aren't doing well. For every incumbent, it is going to be a treacherous year. You tell me how the economy is going to go and I'll tell you about 2010. It is going to be -- it's going to be a year that will revolve around the economy.

MCINTURFF: Well, if it revolves around the economy, the Democrats are going to have troubles. We hit 10 percent unemployment this week. We've had so many huge news stories, but that is so central to what's going to happen next year.

We also know that it takes months and months and months for consumer confidence to increase. And that's not happening. And most importantly, that in these off year elections, according to the exit polls, that people who were very worried about the economy voted overwhelmingly Republican.

MCINTURFF: Very different than in 2006 or '08 and just like 1994. All of the -- and so, lastly, CNN poll really powerful to me. I thought it was the most important piece of data I've seen this week. It was, if the economy does not improve in the next year, who do you blame? In March, it was George Bush and Republicans by 22 points. This week it was dead even.

As this economy goes on, as the stimulus either works or doesn't work, this is becoming Barack Obama's economy. And like every other president, he faces that burden in 2010 in the off year.

KING: On that point, Barack Obama's economy. I want to show our viewers a chart that Bill sent us about the decline in the president's standing on a number of issues. He's still personally very popular, but take a look at this. Would he heal the political divisions in the country? 2008, right when he was elected, 2009, minus 26 points. Would he control federal spending? Minus 21 points. Improve the health care system? Minus 18 points. This list goes on and on. Reduce unemployment, down 16 points.

Peter, to you first, the Democratic president still personally popular, but when you see all these drops in policy standings, how worried does he need to be?

HART: Well, the important thing is, personally, he's still very, very well accepted. And in that respect, he's a lot more like Ronald Reagan than he is like Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. That's important.

In terms of what's happening, I think there are two things that the Bill has outlined. One is getting things done and second is it's changing the culture in Washington. I think he has to prove that he is a person of change rather than ending up as part of the status quo. That's what I think the health care bill does for him and that's why it's going to be exceptionally important that they get it passed and they get it passed quickly.

MCINTURFF: You know, the Democrats fell to 1993-'94, they did this huge health care, nothing passed, and they paid an enormous penalty. So they are obsessed with this time, we're going to pass health care. I don't know if they thought through what happened when you pass a health care bill that people don't like.

I will say one thing about tenor in Washington, Peter, and that's again something I think Governor McDonnell did well. When he was asked about when Obama campaigning for his opponent, he said the president of the United States is always welcome in the Commonwealth of Virginia. And one of the things I think Republicans have to get tonally right is people want to see this president succeed, they like him personally and they don't want to watch a political party trashing the president of the United States of America. And I thought Bob McDonnell showed more grace in a way that is a real sign and signal for our congressional minority for how to handle their dealings with the president.

KING: I'm going to get up while we continue. Please, as I'm going to get up, you continue your point. I'm going to walk over to the wall and show you something.

HART: I think the key point that Bill brings up is the problem that the Republicans had in the 23rd district of New York. And there it was an example where the Republicans essentially ended up with all the infighting that's going on.

I think the country wants to come together. I've always believed that. And the second thing is that I think the way in which Bob McDonnell handled this campaign was a sign for the Republicans. And are they going to listen to the Rush Limbaughs and the Glenn Becks of the world or are they going to have that positive agenda? We haven't seen it coming out of Congress. They need to have it if they're going to be successful.

KING: Let's take a closer look at that because we just showed some numbers showing how the president has fallen some. I want to take a look at this play out over time. This is the favorability of the rating of the Republican Party since 1992 and it comes way down here, Bill McInturff. Before we take the question, let's also show this. Peter Hart, you sent me this, it's a GOP poll. How do people feel toward the Republican Party? October 1993, 44 percent positive. October 2009, 26 percent positive. So you may have a great opportunity as a Republican on your hands, but you have an image problem.

MCINTURFF: Yes, but you know, off-year elections are about a signal to the majority party. America kind of drags each party back from its extreme. So I believe that 2009 is an important signal for a very good year for 2010 for Republicans. I think it's going to help recruitment and money.

But what I'm very clear in my party, believe me, nothing that happened or is happening is -- means that we're improving as we get ready to try to run for 2012. We as a party still need to have a positive solution and we still need to do better with the Latinos and younger voters. And those voter groups might not be as important a year from November, but they are still hugely important in 2012. And we've got lots and lots of room as a party that we need to improve if we're going to seriously compete for the presidency.

HART: And I'm usually here in the odd year crowing about how well we've done. And I hate to come here in the even years, a lot of time, and congratulate Bill.

This is a situation where, obviously, what happens with the economy is going to be central. I don't think people will be voting on health care, no matter how it turns out, I think we'll be at the economy and I think the question is, can Democrats get that group to the polls?

They have to get the minorities, they have to get young people. They didn't turn out. If you look in Virginia, a year ago, Democrats won it. This year, if the same people had been voting in the on year, McCain would have won it by 10 points.

KING: This is a hugely important question in terms of politics, but to the degree, you can't take the politics out of it. You both are polling public opinion, looking at focus groups all the time. Help me understand the depth. I've traveled to 44 states in the last 44 weeks and you cannot find people optimistic about the economy, even when they see these positive numbers. Explain the depth of the pessimism about the economy.

HART: Well, what it comes down to is 63 percent of the American public don't think that we've hit the bottom on unemployment. We hit 10.2 and Bill's absolutely right. Of all the numbers that you saw last week, that's the single most important. And if a year from now, I can guarantee you if Bill and I are here, we will talk about the importance of unemployment and how it played out in the election. You have to do something to get people back to work, because without it, Democrats and incumbents are going to be in trouble.

MCINTURFF: Here's another way to look at it. There's something called the Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index, it's a confidence index that's been done since 1952. Only three times in our history have we dropped below 65, this is the fourth. I went back and looked. How long did it take for consumer confidence to recover? The answer is two to four years, two to four years. We're at 20 months.

There's nothing that indicates that this is going to get better before 2010. Now, the other issue is it could be just getting better in time for the 2012 re-election, much like what happened to Ronald Reagan, because the other time this happened, was Reagan between '79 to '84.

But if I were a Democrat, I would look at the difficulty they had mobilizing their voters. I would look at how the margin by which Republicans won people who were very worried about the economy. And I would look at that historic index and not unemployment and I would be very, very concerned and afraid if I were a Democrat facing the electorate in 2010.

KING: Need to call it a day for this morning, but we'll bring you both back as we go on. Republican Bill McInturff, Democrat Peter Hart, thank you both, gentleman, so much. When we come back, we're going to head to Fort Lewis in Washington State where soldiers and their families valiantly trying to fight the physical and mental strain of eight years at war.


KING: We were visiting Fort Lewis, it's out in Washington State on Thursday when word of the massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, came. Thirty thousand military personnel based in Fort Lewis, 18,000 of them currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 200 have died in the past eight years of war. A shooting underway at Fort Hood. Our visit to Fort Lewis, a reminder of the remarkable stress and strain on the army.



KING (voice-over): The pain is excruciating.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Don't lock your right knee. There you go.

KING: But to Specialist Michael Ballard, pain is the price of progress.

SPC. MICHAEL BALLARD, FIFTH STRYKER BRIGADE, FT. LEWIS: We ran over an IED in Afghanistan. I broke the top of my femur with the plate and screws. Now actually two months later, I'm actually able to walk, do some walking on my own. Physical therapy is coming along every well.

KING: Once the hip heals, Ballard will need knee surgery. His mission, all this struggle is about more than just walking pain-free.

(on camera): What's your ultimate goal?

BALLARD: To get back out in the fight, return to duty.

KING (voice-over): Eight-plus years of war have taken a heavy toll on the army and its major installations, communities like Fort Lewis. As it said farewell to one of its men this past week, Private First Class Brian Russell Baits (ph) was killed in an IED attack in Afghanistan, Fort Lewis buzzed with news of the horrific shooting underway in Fort Hood.

COL. KERRY HAYNES, CHAPLAIN, FT. LEWIS: We are a community of brothers and sisters at arms and an event like this affects us all. KING: All the more shocking here because the post is a soldier safety net, a place to be with others who understand, a place to train, a place to honor and remember and now, more than ever, a place to repair.


KING: Many like Specialist Ballard have physical wounds.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's 10 pounds more than you did last time. Keep going.

KING: Other wounds are harder to detect. At the Fort Lewis Warrior Transition Battalion, twice a month on average, a soldier either attempts suicide or tells counselors of suicidal plans.

BRIG. GEN. JEFF MATHIS, FT. LEWIS: What we now understand more than anything else is that there is a cumulative effect. We understand this not only from multiple deployments, but from multiple -- as you said, explosions or incidents that take place.

KING: Two-thirds of Fort Lewis' combat troops are already overseas. Brigadier General Jeff Mathis says troops and their families know the debate about sending more troops to Afghanistan could mean more deployment cycles.

MATHIS: If we continue to see these kinds of deployments, will there be stress on the force? Absolutely. I meet with families. We have consultants that meet with families, trying to do everything we can to ensure that we're alleviating that stress in every way. So I would like to see longer dwell times, but we're going to do what our nation asks us to do.

KING: Lieutenant Colonel Danny Dudek went to Iraq after the last big political debate after sending more troops.

LT. COL. DANNY DUDEK, FT. LEWIS: I was a unit, I was part of the surge. I was the fourth striker brigade.

KING: On his office wall, constant reminders.

DUDEK: July 2007 and an explosive form projectile which is a pretty vicious type of an IED came through the back of the striker. It killed the kid next to me and hit me in the back. It damaged my plate and hit my spine and immediately, I couldn't use my legs.

KING: On his wrist, a reminder of the comrade killed in the attack and his experience now shapes Colonel Dudek's command of the Warrior Transition Battalion.

As many as 600 soldiers at a time, with issues ranging from ankle sprains to post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.

DUDEK: I don't think we've really cracked a nut on how to really get at PTSD and TBI. This is the most complex job I've ever had, being in a battalion where people are going through the most difficult thing they've-to deal with.

KING: Specialist Ballard's goal is to get back on the battlefield. Colonel Dudek's injuries are too serious for that, but he's in the army to stay.

DUDEK: Having to separate from the uniform is really the heartbreaking piece of it. That's the hardest thing I can't imagine is not being a soldier. Taking the uniform off is something I dread. I have to be honest with you. I really want to be a soldier and have the uniform on until they make me take it off.


KING: Just remarkable heroes and whatever you think of the war, you should honor the service of those men and women. Up next for viewers here in the United States, Howard Kurtz and his "Reliable Sources" look at the media coverage of the off-year elections.


KING: I'm John King and this is STATE OF THE UNION.


KING (voice-over): The off-year election returns are in as reporters and pundits sort through the winners and losers, are they overstating what the results mean for President Obama?

Plus, it's become a top source for information right at our fingertips, but is the Internet powerhouse Google also undermining newspapers and magazines?

In this hour of STATE OF THE UNION, Howard Kurtz, as always, breaks it down with his "Reliable Sources."