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09/04/2006 12:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

RussertWatch: Santorum And Casey Take To The Airwaves

Greetings and welcome to another edition of RussertWatch, officially kicking off MTP's exciting season of debates between 2006 Senatorial candidates. Before launching in, apologies for our absence last week: I had started not one but two entries last week and both were lost in computer-related snafus (and, since I have spent the past week with my parents in Dwight, Ontario, Canada in what Canadians know and love as "cottage country" but which is also unfortunately "dial-up country," I took that as a sign. I had called the entry "RussertWatch: Nagin And Novak Flap Their Jaws" because I felt like New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin spent most of his (only one-quarter!) allotted time apologizing and backtracking over his brutal "hole in the ground" comment (and anyway, I can't take him seriously after reading this excerpt from Douglas Brinkley's "The Great Deluge" in Vanity Fair). Rober Novak, meanwhile, seemed uncommonly cheerful, and was uncommonly pious, saying that he felt it was high time for his source (Richard Armitage, as we now know) to reveal himself. Well, la di da, look who's on a moral high horse! Let's not forget who published the damn Plame name in the first place. Anyhow, that's essentially what I would have said about last week. That transcript is here.

But that was then; this is now, and Tim Russert has moved into safe-ish territory by having a nice roster of debates to rely on for the next few weeks: Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, Missouri, Minnesota, and Maryland. Summer recess is over for that hard-working Congress and everyone's all agog about midterms (so agog that Russert felt that Katrina only merited half of last week's show, having a roundtable of talking heads to prognosticate about midterms for the second half). Yesterday's debate featured Pennsylvania Republican Senator Rick Santorum squaring off against his Democratic challenger, State Treasurer Bob Casey. I have to say that Russert was refreshingly non-partisan as moderator, which, all political sympathies aside, makes for a far more interesting debate than regurgitated Republican talking points (cough Mehlman cough). Sadly, there's little reference to man-on-dog love, but if you're still interested read it here, or watch it here.

Front and center in today's debate: Iraq. Predictably but surprisingly effectively, Russert puts the stock paint-'em-in-a-corner question to Casey: "Knowing what you know today, would you still have voted for the war?" No doubt bearing Kerry's vivid example of the consequences of see-sawing on the initial vote for war, Casey is smart to dodge the question, and Tim tries to pin him on a yes or a no, and Casey points out, smartly, that any information underscoring a 'yes' vote would have been flawed, anyway: "Based upon the information that we have now, I think that, that a lot of Americans would have serious doubts. I'm not sure there would have even been a vote on Iraq..."

Looking to the future, however, Casey deviates from some of his Democratic brethren: Asked whether he would vote to cut off funding for the war effort, he says no: "I don't think we can, Tim. I'm not ready to abandon this mission; I think a lot of Americans are not, either." He is, however, more than ready to abandon Rumsfeld: "We don't need a deadline, a timeline; we need new leadership... Accountability, I think, means replacing Donald Rumsfeld -- Rick and I disagree on that."

Casey's tack is surprisingly effective: it manages to criticize the Administration for its failings abroad, without actually offering any concrete alternative other than a few key personnel changes. Even so, Casey's talking points don't add up to much of an alternative in terms of dealing with the problems America is facing on the ground in Iraq. Casey emphasizes the need for "clear benchmarks", in addition to putting greater numbers of Iraqi troops at the forefront of the effort to stabilize the country (though the U.S. miitary is already doing its best to increase Iraqi military participation). Cassey concludes with a call to rebuild the American military (something that Rumsfeld himself has been advocating as early as 2000). On the whole, then, it's not clear from Casey how, exactly, a Democratic foreign policy would differ from that of the Republicans in terms of dealing with the immediate problem of winning the war in Iraq, though, like many frustrated Democrats, it sounds like he's pretty sure he couldn't do worse than the Republicans at this point.

Well, that's because we have a devious ever-shifting amorphous enemy that we're fighting on many fronts! says Santorum, picking up the fun new new Republican talking point du jour: "We need to go out there and continue to fight this war on Islamic fascism. Not just, as my opponent likes to focus on, just the war in Iraq. That's a front of a multi-front war in which we're fighting against an enemy that's a very dangerous enemy." Santorum is warmed to this topic, having already used it earlier in the week at a Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon when drawing parallels to America's struggle against German fascism and Japanese imperialism during World War II (sound familiar?). At the forefront of this struggle, says Santorum, is Iran. But Russert won't let him hide behind alarmist terminology. Granted, Iran is a principal instigator of violence against Israel. Iran may also be responsible for much of the sectarian violence in Iraq (though Tehran's reasons for agitating in Iraq stem less from its distaste for democratic rule than from a complex admixture of centuries of religious enmity, an unshakeable sense of entitlement to regional hegemony, and a decade-long war in which the United States supplied Saddam with munitions and material (though that's a story better left to Frank Rich). But what this all means, Russsert reminds us, is that the principal beneficiary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq was clearly Iran. Aha - a genuine Russert gotcha moment! It's interesting to see Santorum recognize that he just played into the hands of his Democratic opponent:

MR. RUSSERT: So Iran now has more influence in Iraq than they did before Saddam Hussein?

SEN. SANTORUM: Just understand.

MR. RUSSERT: Is that true?

SEN. SANTORUM: I would say that they have influence in, in, in a free country where you have an opportunity to express yourself, if you will. Yes. You can probably do more...

In other words, anyone who insists that we helped Iran come closer to regional hegemony by invading Iraq is arguing that we shouldn't have removed a totalitarian regime. Well done, Tim, you just got Santorum to admit that invading Iraq totally benefitted Iran. Maybe he'll do better on WMD's. Or not:

MR. RUSSERT: Senator Santorum, leading up to the war. In October of 2002, this is what Rick Santorum said, "Saddam Hussein's regime, is a serious and grave danger to the safety of the American people." "Given the threat posed to he world by his weapons of mass destruction programs..." Would you now acknowledge that that was not correct?

SEN. SANTORUM: What I would say is that we have found weapons of mass destruction, they were older weapons, but we have found chemical weapons. The report was just released not too long ago that, that said that there were over 500 chemical weapons found in Iraq.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator, the president has accepted the report of his two task force and said, "That the chief weapons inspector has issued his report. Iraq did not have the weapons our intelligence believed were there."

and

SEN. SANTORUM: Well, based on the fact that they were working--and we have certainly lots of information about the fact that they were working with other terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda, and that they were, in fact--had camps that they were--while they were training Baathists, they were also training terrorists to be used. The...

MR. RUSSERT: President Bush said that Iraq had "nothing to do with September 11th." Do you agree with that?

SEN. SANTORUM: As far as we know, that's, that's the case.

Nice one, Tim. Too bad you couldn't have remembered this when Newt Gingrich was on.

Santorum then tries to get traction with Saddam's support of Palestinian terrorism against Israelis, but at this point, Russert has him in a twist:

MR. RUSSERT: But knowing what you know now about the weapons of mass destruction, the primary rationale for the war, would you believe that the Iraq war was a war of choice or a war of necessity?

SEN. SANTORUM: I believe that it was a war of necessity because it--they are a--they were a threat. It is important that we are in the, the Middle East right now and, and confronting this broad war that we are involved in against Islamic fascism.

Having been forced to concede that there was nothing to the Administration's WMD claims, or its claims that Iraq had ties to terrorist organizations targeting the United States, Santorum can do little except make assertions — and take it back to the broader war against Islamic fascism, and specifically Iran. It's a tricky position to be in, because by admitting that the Administration's primary rationale for invading Iraq is faulty, he is allowing that Iran's ability to act as the "central destabilizer of the Middle East" is, in large part, a problem of America's own making.

Russert doesn't let up, though, pulling a move typically reserved both his more liberal guests and holding his subject accountable for an old quotation that runs contrary to current assertions:

MR. RUSSERT: When President Clinton took troops into Kosovo, this is what you said. "President Clinton is once again releasing American military might on a foreign country with an ill defined objective and no exit strategy. He is yet to tell Congress how much this operation will cost. And, he has not informed our nation's Armed Forces about how long they will be away from home."

Do you believe you should have the same standard for President Bush? He should give a defined objective, he should give an exit strategy, he should give a cost, and he should give a timeline for Iraq, just as you were demanding President Clinton give for Kosovo?

SEN. SANTORUM: No. Because, because Kosovo and, and Slobodan Milosevic were never a security threat to the United State of America. No way. There--I mean, it wasn't even close.

MR. RUSSERT: But these are men and women at war.

A valid point indeed, Mr. Russert. What's more, by Santorum's own admission, Iraq did not have the WMDs originally ascribe to it, or connections to terrorist organizations threatening the United States, and therefore did not satisfy the the Administration's own standards for threats to national security. Accordingly, Santorum falls afoul of his own admonishments to Clinton over Kosovo. But who cares; he already explicitly stated his support for pre-emptive military action against a "threat." Santorum has his talking points and he's sticking to them (whether or not they're hitting home at home). It's almost a surprise, then (though unquestionably a relief), to hear him say that we shouldn't attack Iran, though he does insist that the military option on the table. Sigh. Whenever is it not?

Santorum and Casey also discussed the morning-after pill, where Santorum charmingly chided Casey for his support of the emergency contraception, saying of Casey that "I think his father would be very upset if, if he were alive today and, and heard him be supportive of something like this." Wow. Because, you know, as between Santorum and Casey, Santorum would totally be the authority on that point.

Read more about how Casey and Santorum performed with respect to other issues in John Dickerson's take at Slate; though Casey ain't winning any charisma prizes, he says Santorum's in trouble and he can't afford a draw. Here's what we think: An hour is a very long time to watch these two chatter. It's also a lot to write about, so I'm sure we missed plenty — elucidate & enlighten in the comments; something tells me you have plenty of opinions about Rick Santorum. See you next week, because if its' the day after Sunday on a Holiday Weekend when hopefully you're all out doing something fun, it's RussertWatch.