Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)
Monday, July 17, 2006; 12:00 PM's Chris Cillizza and Washington Post reporter Dan Balz interviewed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on June 29 as part of an ongoing series of conversations with potential 2008 presidential candidates. A transcript of the interview is below:

Let's start with Iraq. Why not send a strong signal to the Iraqis and the Iraqi government that the U.S. commitment is not totally open-ended, that there has to be some significant B- at the end and the idea that we would start to bring some troops home is one to do that.

McCAIN: Here's why I wouldn't support such a message. That assumes that the Iraqis aren't doing everything in their power now to get things under control and take over more and more of the responsibilities and have their military and police act. They know that. They know that an "occupying force" is not helpful to their ability to govern, that the sooner that the United States is able to leave the better off they're going to be.

So to then have us say, "Look, you guys don't get it. We're not going to stay here and you have to stand on your own." They know that and we know that and yet there may be contingencies from time to time depending on what transpires where U.S. forces neither need to stay or maybe a temporary injection of troops.

And finally, I certainly don't know what's going to happen in Iraq and how long it's going to take. But to send a signal that we are "withdrawing" and [that] we have to also come up with a plan for that, remember that is part of the Levin Amendment. It wasn't just we're going to withdraw, but we have to have a plan to withdraw. It can only be dictated, in my view, by conditions on the ground.

Doesn't that amendment though leave about flexibility for conditions on the ground to interrupt any withdrawal?

I didn't think so, not the way I interpreted it.

It set no timetable. It set no end date.

We have gone back and forth with the military leaders in Iraq. We've drawn down and then when the election came we had to beef them up. Recently in Ramadi, there was more difficulty. We had to send in a brigade from Kuwait. Casey said that he felt that [a timetable] would tie his hands and not give him the flexibility that he needs. That bears great weight with me.

At what point can the American people justifiably say this mission is failing if we can't get to a point where it's safe to to drawn down some troops?

Well, I hope that day is tomorrow. I'm just saying that the Congress of the United States, by dictating a plan for withdrawal that would then have a certain inflexibility associated with it whether we happen to like it or not, ... then you are ... depriving [Gen. Casey] of his flexibility in carrying out withdrawal.

All of us want to withdraw, but it has to be dictated by the conditions on the ground, and I have been disappointed too many times to paint an optimistic scenario. And specifically addressing your question, I don't know when that is. I don't know when it is, and I don't know when Americans are so frustrated that they say we have to get out. But we've proved in this debate that the American people are willing to "stay the course" at least at this particular moment in time.

What do you think and can rightfully point to to say we are succeeding in Iraq with this current policy?

Casualties is one way. Numbers of attacks by insurgents. Ability of the Iraq military to take lead the next times there's a fire fight in Fallujah or Ramadi or downtown Bagdad -- that it's the Iraq military that's doing the fighting and taking the casualties. When the government is able in the view of objective observers to have control in Basra, have control in some of these cities which are tenuous in many respects where militias have sprung up and are basically controlling particularly the police force.

I'm not so worried, Dan, about the military training and capability. I think that we're on a good path. I'm much more worried about police and law enforcement. We're way behind in that. I recently met with the British. There are problems in Basra with the police and the governor there. They are just malicious and so I'm concerned about that aspect of it very much.

Are any of those indicators that you've just sketched out areas where you would say to the public "Here we have made real progress"?

Most parts of Iraq we have made real progress. The Kurdish areas are obviously quiet. We have been able to turn over in a couple of provinces the total military responsibilities. That's the good news.

The bad news is you still got the problems in the Sunni Triangle and you still have big problems in [Baghdad, a] city of 6,000,000 people. That's why my optimism is always significantly tempered by the realization that we still do not have control.

I'm encouraged by the new prime minister's comments, by his attempts to reach out to certain dissident groups, the final appointment of the Interior and Defense ministers. At the same time, it's just so frustrating that it took them five months to do it. This is the classic good news-bad news, two steps forward-one step back.

What kind of a factor do you expect Iraq to be in the midterm elections this November, and what's the best way for Republicans to talk about Iraq when they are out on the campaign trail?

I don't know what the degree of progress will be by the time we reach October. I'm hopeful that we will be able to show perceptible progress, although I think that will be slow. If that happens, then I think it will not be nearly the factor that it would be if we see a deteriorating situation. So it's hard for me to predict.

There's no doubt that it's the No. 1 issue with the American people today, and I think most likely will be in November. So it's hard to predict exactly what the effect would be. I think that Republicans should make the case that failure would have catastrophic consequences, that success can have great benefits in the region as well as in Iraq, but that we have to recognize how tough this challenge is and that there will probably be more frustrations before we should celebrate success.

I think one of the major reasons why Americans feel as frustrated as they do is because of all the optimistic statements that are made that were not justified by the facts on the ground. "Stuff happens." "A few dead-enders." "Last throes." We know all of those things that have been said and then Americans pick up the newspaper and see or see the crawl across the television screen of more young Americans dying.

The Vice President just said last week he defends the statement he made about the insurgency's last throes. That was an accurate and still is an accurate statement, he said.

I think that if you put that under the perspective of time, then maybe he's right. But in the time frame and in the patience of the American people, I think that if they're in their last throes they are still pretty vigorous. ... I just wouldn't say it. I just wouldn't say it, that's all, I mean because then it opens you up to criticism when there is some setback. That's all. I just wouldn't say it. I would say we're making progress. This is long and it's hard and it's tough. But I don't tell the Vice President what he say.

And if there is an announcement in late August or September or the end of September that there will be troop withdrawals beginning late in the year, will the voters not greet that with both a sense of relief but also some cynicism that it was [said in] time for the election?

Yes, but I think there's enough objective observers, particularly in the media, who will make an accurate judgment as to whether that's justified by the conditions on the ground.

As news reports showed last week, the Pentagon and the administration are clearly talking about phased troop withdrawals. Whether they have a final decision is a different question. For them to be as adamant as they have been about pushing back against people who have proposed it, particularly Democrats, and then to come forward prior to the election with a withdrawal plan, would it not feed cynicism that the timing was done for political reasons rather than conditions on the ground?

I really can only repeat my answer. We have credible observers in Iraq -- our media, other observers from other countries and from other agencies. And they give, I think, [a] believable and plausible depiction of conditions on the ground. I see and read them every day, and if the body of [observations] by objective observers [is] that this is justified, then I think the cynicism level will be low.

If bombs are going off and American casualties are up, I think there's a scenario you could draw that Al-Qaeda may want to orchestrate attacks in the month of October to cause a U.S. withdrawal. They're pretty smart people. They know what our electoral calendar is. So I think there's that risk as well if they are capable of doing it. I don't know if they're going to be capable of doing that or not. I know that they have proven themselves after the murder, excuse me, the elimination of Zarqawi to go to his special place in Hell, that they did try to have some orchestrated attacks all over Iraq which were partially successful, but largely unsuccessful.

I know it's not a very good answer, but I can't predict what things are going to be like in October. I do believe that if we had adopted the Levin Amendment that it would have called for a planned withdrawal. Once that plan was published, that it would be almost impossible to deviate from it no matter what the conditions on the ground were which is why Casey said this would give me inflexibility and an inability to respond to whatever conditions we might need.

Let me ask you a broader question about this. The President, when he was in Europe last week and before, said in answer to a question that for Europeans, 9/11 was a moment and it has faded fairly quickly. But for America, it changed our thinking. Did it change your thinking and, if so, in what ways?

Well, I think what it did to most of us, I think what it did to us as Americans, is emphasize our vulnerabilities that people can come and strike in the most populated city in America and kill thousands of people. And it heightened our awareness that we are in a struggle with radical Islamic extremism. So, yeah, I think it emphasized priority-wise to the American people the absolute criticality of this struggle against the forces of people who have perverted an honorable religion.

There was talk when 9/11 happened that it would change American politics. Do you think it has?

Not as much as I had hoped it would. I'd hope that we would be more bipartisan, and I think we are bipartisan in the War on Terror, but on every other issue we are more divided and more partisan than I've ever seen us.

And what's the way out from that?

Elections and the American people demanding that we address in a bipartisan basis those major issues that demand bipartisanship, such as reform of Social Security, reform of Medicare. Everybody knows those are going to have to be bipartisan efforts.

Senator, I'm wondering what do you make of the idea of compassionate conservatism? Do you think that has played out over the last six years in this town and, more broadly, nationally? And do you see yourself in that role philosophically or not?

Like any other slogan, the New Deal or whatever it is, it has a certain amount of sloganeering associated with it. But I think that the president has been successful in involving faith-based organizations more throughout our government as part of our government's effort to help people, and I think that's been very successful.

I think that the president has shown that one of the interpretations of compassionate conservatism is find ways that the private sector and branches of government can address issues in a more faith-based but also less bureaucratic fashion. That's why we have the word "conservatism." Do more with less government and more involvement of outside organizations as well as faith-based organizations.

So I think that we've made progress in that direction, and I think the president was probably good [at] motivating voters. But having said that, it's obvious that we have a very bitterly bipartisan divided government between Republicans and Democrats. But I'm not sure that that phrase applies to bipartisanship as much as it does to the role of government, and I think the president has been successful, particularly in the outreach by faith-based organizations and other private organizations, to do some of the stuff that government bureaucracies have been doing not very well.

Is there a specific role for you in trying to solve that problem, or is the partisan divide broader than anything that you can address?

I would like to believe that I can have a significant effect, but I'm not sure of that. I think the message has to be sent by the voters, not by me, that we expect you to do what you've traditionally done. It's not a new idea for Democrats and Republicans to sit down and fix Social Security. That's not a new idea. Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan did it in 1984. It's not a new idea that we sit down together and shape our national defense structure and organization and missions to meet the post-Cold War era threats.

But I do think that I can support candidates and urge candidates to be more involved in reaching across the aisle on issues. ... [Sen. Edward Kennedy] and I worked on Immigration together. [Sen. Joe Lieberman] and I on 9/11 and on climate change. There's a long list of issues that I have reached across the aisle or had people across the aisle reach to me in order to try to address issues that seek bipartisanship.

Having said that, I will do battle with the Democrats philosophically as hard and ferociously as I can where we have philosophical differences about the role of government, about government regulation, about less government and, of course, my huge disappointment and along with other Republicans about spending practices.

... There is a dividing line, which always isn't static, between issues that deserve partisan debate ... [where] generally the majority rules, and those issues which are for the good of the country. That was best exemplified when the president in the State of the Union message said, "I regret we were unable to reform Social Security" and the Democrats stood up and cheered.

We all know we have to reform Social Security. Everybody knows that. There is no living American that doesn't believe that we have to reform Social Security. So that's a long way from Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan standing in the Rose Garden saying, "We're going to fix Social Security" and they did for 35 or 40 years. It was about to go broke and it was backed up with the Greenspan Commission, as Dan probably remembers. So they had something to back them up. And yet now we've gone from Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan standing together in the Rose Garden to Democrats cheering that we were unable to reform Social Security to make sure that future generations of American have the same benefits or some benefits that the present retirees enjoy.

On national security, Karl Rove has repeatedly drawn very sharp distinctions between Republicans and Democrats.


What do you think of that, and what would you do differently?

I don't like to criticize Karl Rove or the president or anybody else. We do a lot of that around this town. I just would be respectful of my opponents. On the floor in the debate last week, I was respectful because they deserved it. ... Jack Reed's a West Point graduate. Jack Reed has a lot of knowledge and expertise. Jack Murtha fought for his country.

I strongly disagreed [with the Democrats' Iraq timeline resolutions], but I think we need to be more respectful. On the immigration issue, can't we be more respectful of one another's views. My views are sincerely held. I respect the views of those who think that all you need to do is enforce the border. But can't we respect each other's views and that would allow us to sit down and probably come to some agreement.

I've made many mistakes. One of the biggest mistakes is occasionally in my passion is attacking someone's character or integrity or patriotism -- because people don't forget that. They don't forget and I don't blame them. So the best thing to do is say, "Look. You are wrong and here's why you are wrong." And I believe I can convince the majority of the American people that we can't pull out of Iraq right now.

But you don't have to impugn somebody's character particularly, I mean most particularly, the fact that they served in the military. I spoke out against the Swift Boat ads that attacked John Kerry's performance in combat. Now I criticized his performance after the war, and I think that's legitimate. But you just shouldn't do those things in my view.

Those kind of attacks have helped Republicans in critical elections.

Yes, it may have. It may have and they may be right and I may be wrong.

You sound as though you think it has come at a significant price.

I think so. My Democratic friends get very angry, of course. You can imagine. I haven't talked with Jack Murtha in a long time, but I saw him on "Meet the Press," how he reacted to when [Tim] Russert asked him about the comments that have been made about him. I can understand that.

A couple of times I was attacked on my military record, that I was brainwashed, and I mean it's been a long time ago, but I just couldn't believe it that people would say that. And I understand this is a tough business. It's not beanbag. We're not all courteous and we're not all ladies and gentlemen, and I don't have any Pollyanna-ish view of how rough and tumble politics can be.

But much to my regret, I have violated this tenet, and that is let's try to do everything we can to be respectful of others' views and let the merits or demerits of the argument prevail. Is that going to happen? Of course not. But at least when I go out and talk, I'm going to try to do everything I can to adhere to those principles.

There are now two models for winning national campaigns. One is the one that the Bush campaign used successfully in particular in 2004, which is to motivate, mobilize and turn out the base. The other is to pay more attention to the middle swing voters. Which do you think is likely to prevail in 2008?

I don't know. I really don't know.

Is there a preferred course?

I don't know. I really don't know because I always had been of the conventional wisdom that you establish your base and move to the center. That has been the formula for winning campaigns, and as you just said, in 2000 and particularly in 2004, the winning strategy was the opposite. So I just don't know.

The last time we were here, the immigration debate was ongoing and you said you still held out some level of hope for a compromise package.

I still do. I had a meeting with some House guys this morning -- I and some other Republican senators just this morning -- with Congressman Pence, Congressmen Lahood, Flake, Ryan, Kolbe and Martinez was there, Brownback, Lindsey Graham. And we agreed that we would work as hard as we can to try to see if there is some common ground. We believe there's some common ground that we could come up with some way of bridging this gap, because the one thing we are in agreement on is that the American people and our Republican base don't expect us to do nothing.

... I think doing nothing is the worst of all results. ... The one thing I think we're all in agreement on is that the system is broken. A product of 40 or 50 years has failed, government policies, Republican, Democrat, whatever it is, and for us to do nothing about it would be the least satisfactory to the American People.

Jim Kolbe this morning quoted a study, I haven't seen it, that 95 percent of Republicans want us to act. They may be divided on what we do, but they want us to act. And just one additional comment, the Democrats who I have talked to that are supporters on the bill, Sen. Kennedy in particular and others, they realize that we have to make some accommodations. They're not stuck in the Senate bill and I've tried to repeat that over and over again. We're not stuck on that bill.

But where we are stuck ... is that we don't believe that border enforcement alone is a satisfactory answer to addressing the problem. But the modalities of a guest worker program and earned citizenship and how you approach those issues and all that -- we're fully open fully to negotiation on.

Including the sequencing that you worry first about securing the border and then creating a guest worker program?

Yes, but then it's such a straw man. Here's why it's such a straw man, because it will take a long time. If tomorrow we said here's a temporary guest worker program and by the way, here's the path to citizenship. It would take a year, two years, whatever, even more maybe, to set the bureaucracy, do the regulations, the set of procedures. I mean this wouldn't be easy, and so in the meantime you could continue building the walls, using the UAVs, hiring more border patrol, using the National Guard. And the guest worker program, I think any new program has to be phased in. You don't, bam!, all of a sudden [have it running]. Do you see my point? So it's a bit of a straw man to say secure the borders first. Now if you're saying secure the borders first and ask the president to certify that it's sealed, which it can never be, the Israelis just proved that you can't ever seal a border, then that's one thing. But if we had to move forward with the process that would not be impeded, then it seems to me it would be fairly easy to accommodate that.

You said recently, somewhat playfully, that you would like to be president. Why would you like to be president?

I think I'd like to be president because I think that I would, with a monumental statement of the ego -- I think that my life and my experiences and my abilities have qualified me to address the challenges that the country faces. But I also understand that running for president is a very tough, arduous business, and I think that you have to be sure. [That's] the reason why we're waiting until 2007 to decide, the priorities of the American people and the challenges we face, that my experience, talents and abilities and knowledge are in keeping with those priorities.

... Thanks very much. Glad to see you.

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