Russert Watch: Tough-Talkin' Tim...on the 2004 Election

04/09/2006 04:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Greetings, and welcome to another edition of Russert Watch, everyone's favorite Sunday morning activity (or perhaps for lazing on a Sunday afternoon). I am once again your guest host, filling in on the watch for Arianna, currently occupying another slice of the dial on "Reliable Sources."

Before I launch into Russert Watch, though, a quick note on what came before: a "Hardball" rerun, and another reason to smack my forehead over Chris Matthews. His signoff: "In the words of Edward R. Murrow, the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves." Sure, in the words of Edward R. Murrow...QUOTING SHAKESPEARE. Sheesh. Clearly Chris has no idea what he's talking about when he isn't spouting Republican talking points furnished by Tom DeLay.

But I digress! Today isn't about Chris, it's about Tim, our tough-talkin' take-no-prisoners Sunday morning political watchdog. Thank goodness he's on the case this week, mercilessly grilling John Kerry on the issue that matters: the 2004 election.

Let's be clear about the subtext of this interview: John Kerry, back in circulation, with a plan for Iraq and the obvious hope of a 2008 presidential bid. But Tim had a plan too: to cut Kerry off at the knees with Republican talking points and the damning reminder of what was lost in 2004.

It started with the intro: welcoming Kerry as "the man who received 48.3 percent of the popular vote" in the 2004 election. Ding! That would be Senator Kerry, not President Kerry. Kerry corrected him with a "that's funny, I thought it was 49.2 percent" and well, Russert agreed to disagree. (For the record, these and other figures are all over the internet -- couldn't confirm either way. Thanks, Ohio!) Either way, the stage was set for locked horns and blatant opposition framed in the genteel niceties of a pleasant on-air chat.

He started Kerry off with a softball -- what did Kerry think about Iraq? Nice opportunity for Kerry to lay out his plan for troop withdrawal hinging on a five-month deadline for the Iraqis to come to a political solution. "Tim, it's unconscionable that any young American is dying because the Iraqis five months after the election are dithering," said Kerry. "Now is the time to get tough -- they only respond to deadlines."

Ding! Tim was ready with the opposition...from within Kerry's own party. Russert brought out the smackdown from Joe Biden, who attacked Kerry's plan by saying that "he doesn't tell you what happens when it falls apart." (NB: I can't find the source for this online, and it's not on Biden's own homepage, either)(Update: It's from Friday's "Real Time With Bill Maher" -- thanks to the commenters below for the intel!). The subtext here is clear: (a) Kerry's plan has major holes; (b) Kerry is no leader of Democrats, let alone this nation; and (c) and by the way, the Democrats don't have a unified message. This, unfortunately, is a fair point. Is this a Democrat plan or a John Kerry plan? Do the Democrats even want Kerry to be speaking for them at this point? (Clearly presidential hopeful Biden doesn't!) These are the questions Russert drives home, with, of course, nary a mention of Rummy, Condi, Wolfie, Cheney or Georgie and anything *else* in Iraq that might have gone awry.

Instead, Tim warns darkly of what will happen if the U.S. pulls out, basically suggesting that Kerry is rolling out the red carpet for Iran, Syria and al-Qaeda. Kerry, patiently: "Tim that's not what I've suggested." What Kerry has suggested is exhausting diplomacy, which is far less fun to talk about, and Tim knows that (he also knows that diplomacy has been anything but exhausted in anything relating to Iraq and/or Iran, which Kerry says is tantamount to "negligence" a point Tim does not pursue). Smartly, Kerry brings it back to the Administration, and their own pullout promises, reminding Tim that the Bush has said that the goal is to train 272,000 security forces, and for the U.S. "to stand down as they stand up" (where are your dark mutterings now Tim?). Kerry does some math: if, he asks, we've trained 242,000, then where are the troops that are standing down?

Tim has no answer. Instead, he has pre-planned footage geared to revive the most damaging allegation of the John Kerry campaign: that of the Kerry "flip-flop." Cue the clip of Kerry, saying "my exit strategy is success" and "I don't believe in a cut and run philosophy." Here my notes say "TIM! That's not what he's suggesting!" but Tim isn't listening, and anyway he's got his own point to make. Re-branding John Kerry as a flip-flopper is Kerry's worst nightmare, and that's tops on Tim's agenda. If you don't believe me, read on.

Kerry makes another good point, dividing the war into three separate conflicts: the war to topple Saddam, the war against the Jihadists ("It's better to fight them over there than over here") and now the third war, against the Iraqi insurgency and violent civil strife. Yes yes, says Tim, but let's go back to October 2002 and the question of WMDs in Iraq. There were none! And yet YOU voted to go to war! John Edwards has taken responsibility for this mistake. DO YOU? (That bonk you just heard was me banging my head on the desk. We've just learned that Bush was at the root of the Plame leak meant to mislead the country into war and it's KERRY'S mistake???). Sadly, Kerry bites. "You better believe I take responsibility for it," he says, in a quote that will no doubt be used against him in the future, if he has one. Others can debate whether he should, but he does say that he and other elected officials "have a moral responsibility to get this right for our soldiers." And, you know, "moral responsibility" isn't something we've heard a lot about here.

Homestretch: Kerry gets a few decent soundbites, blasting Bush's "cowboy diplomacy" at Tim's suggestion that the U.S. make some sort of nuclear show of strength (be very afraid: this is just one indication that the run-up to war with Iran has begun. Here's another, and here's another). He gets off another when the talk turns (finally!) to the CIA leak (Kerry: "This was a declassification from the president in order to mislead America" and recalls how George Bush Senior called "those who betray" CIA agents "the most insidious of traitors"). Kerry also blasts domestic eavesdropping (and Gonzales) and, interestingly, impeachment ("impeachment talk is a waste of time"), and Frist & co. for scuttling the Immigration Bill (and the "broadly-shared values of this country, which people would like to see Washington reflect"). (Update: Per a comment below, I should add that Kerry did state that he'd support a censure motion.)

Blah, blah, blah. It's closing time and Tim's got his kicker all ready: how Kerry the indecisive flip-flopper lost the 2004 election. He quotes -- selectively -- from a Boston Globe article about Kerry's possible re-candidacy, citing former DNC chairman Don Fowler saying that Democrats are concerned about Kerry's ability to articulate a clear vision. Kerry says "I have a short plan for America -- it's called tell the truth, fire the incompetents, get out of Iraq..." and oh, if he'd just stopped there but no, he went on and included health care and something else, which made it a slightly longer plan for America and far less effective a smackdown than it almost was. I mean, "fire the incompetents?" That's great stuff! Then Tim brings up some allegation that Kerry was going to speak out against Abu Ghraib -- in April 2004 -- but didn't because a focus group said not to. Kerry denies this, but Russert doesn't care, he just wanted to make sure that weird and dated allegation got in there.

Then Russert hauled out the big one: that $87-billion vote on Iraq funding. You may remember this as the Republican talking point that branded Kerry as a flip-flop and inconsistent on the war, and you may also remember the accompanying Bush ad. Russert knows that this is the Republican talking point that sank John Kerry's election bid, and he also knows the fine print behind it. Yet he brings it up anyway, saving it for the closing minute of his interview. That is not unpartisan.

But, it worked. Kerry was not expecting that, and anyway there's no quick and easy way to explain that one, especially if you're John Kerry. Russert concludes by asking Kerry what the biggest mistake he made in the 2004 election was -- still apparently relevant in 2006 -- and dammit, Kerry fumbled, mumbling something about how next time he'd spend more money on advertising. Cringe.

And that was that. What do you think the takeaway was meant to be?

Commercial -- time for more Britpop with ads featuring Paul McCartney (Fidelity) and Oasis (AT&T) (IBM's ad featuring The Kinks didn't run this week). What's up with all these American companies using foreign music? What's wrong with American music, dammit? Yes. You see my point. And on that note, we return to "Meet The Press" and the immigration debate.

Welcome back! Russert has convened a three-person panel with two Republicans (Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-TX), Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ) and one Democrat, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), who is also the chair of the Democratic Caucus Immigration Task Force. Nothing new, debate-wise, though it is of interest that the Republican Bonilla is Hispanic and was the first Hispanic Republican elected to Congress from Texas. Here are some bullet points:

  • Gutierrez: The "sane, sensible, compassionate thing to do is to integrate" the 11 million illegal immigrants at issue before the House and Senate. "They're part of the fabric of our society and theyr'e necessary to the economic well-being of our country."
  • Bonilla voted for the Sensenbrenner bill. Why? He says it's because Texas has "a state of emergency" along its border. Russert questions him on his vote, wondering if he really advocates denying these people medical treatment if injured -- and fining hospitals for treating them! Bonilla squirms a bit and says of course hospitals will treat them. They're not going to be held accountable! Oh really? And also, huh?
  • Hayworth, to whom I confess I took an instant dislike, mentions his book! He has a book! Did you know he had a book? Funnily enough, he has a book. He should talk about it more. It's called "Whatever It Takes: Illegal Immigration, Border Security and the War on Terror." Amazon thinks it goes well with "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam."
  • Russert asks Hayworth about American kids who would ask him "why do you want to send my mama and my papa back to Mexico?" Hayworth is glad Tim asked that! He says a judge HAS to take into account the sentiments of a legal citizen. Whew! Those kids can rest easy! But anyway, Hayworth thinks it's time to "take a realistic look at the concept of birthright citizenship." WOW.
  • Hayworth also said this: "This is first and foremost about national security in a time of war." Hmph. He's OBVIOUSLY not thinking of Ann Coulter and her need for fresh towels.
  • Gutierrez asks, "Who picks the tomatoes in Florida? Who picks the grapes in California? Mostly immigrants. They contibute in so many aspects of our economy." He cites the Labor Department on the annual creation of "half a million low wage, low skill, low paying jobs. Who's going to do that work? The same people who have always done this work," and who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps to give a better life to their children.
  • Fine, says Russert. But what of the Mexican flags? How DARE anyone wave anything other than an American flag in this country! Gutierrez remind him that he's from Chicago, where they TURN THE RIVER GREEN on St. Patrick's Day. (And a happy O'Hardball to you, Chris Matthews!)
  • Russert cites a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by former RNC chair Ed Gillespie, which warns the GOP against becoming an anti-immigration party: "Our majority already rests too heavily on white voters."
  • Hayworth (who has a book, did you know?) says that "this guest worker plan is the wrong plan at the wrong time for the wrong reason." What fresh, original phraseology!
  • Says Russert: America would rather just build a fence. Bonilla doesn't quite respond to that, just reiterates that he's very gung-ho about border security.
  • Best for last: Russert asks Hayworth about....HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH JACK ABRAMOFF! (Currently he's number three on the Abramoff payola list). Hayworth is glad Tim asked that! He's part of the Native American Caucus! They love him! They don't want him to return their money! Or his wife's salary! He welcomes the chance to talk about this issue! He's done nothing illegal or unethical! He appreciates the plug from Tim! Buy his book! My guess is that Gutierrez isn't putting it on his Amazon wishlist any time soon.
And that's all for this week's Russert Watch, wherein Tim lost a bit of the cred we assigned him over the past few weeks by harping on Republican talking points and stale issues, and failing to focus on two of the biggest stories of the week, namely Washington's growing war-mongering with Iran and the CIA leak bombshell (which led, incidentally, on the McLaughlin Group with the headline: "Leaker In Chief?"). Sigh. We'll see what he has to say next week -- because if it's Sunday, it's Russert Watch.

p.s. Transcript eventually here, video of the whole mad extravagaza here.