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Presidential Runoff in Afghanistan; Military Frustrated With President Obama?

Aired October 20, 2009 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And happening now: the best political team on television on these stories.

President Obama says, show me the money. This hour, he's set to raise a load of political cash. Critics say his time could be better spent.

A presidential runoff gets the green light in Afghanistan. Will that speed up a decision on sending more U.S. troops?

And the Democrats' new Medicare fix, the decision made behind closed doors to win doctors' support for health care reform.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Right now, the Obama administration is anxiously looking toward the big election in the first week of November, not the voting here in the United States, but in Afghanistan. Today, the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, bowed to enormous pressure and agreed to take part in a runoff election with his main challenger.

Just ahead, the stakes for the White House and for U.S. troops.

But, first, let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence. He's watching all of this in Kabul on the ground -- Chris.


CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there's been a huge turnaround here in Afghanistan, both in President Karzai's decision to embrace this runoff election, and in the praise he is now getting from the international community.

In fact, just a few days ago, U.S. Senator John Kerry said he didn't know who the president in Afghanistan was and what kind of government they were dealing with. Contrast that to what Kerry said after President Karzai agreed to the runoff.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: His agreement to move the process forward with respect to the runoff will allow the national leadership to govern with legitimacy. Dr. Abdullah Abdullah has made the same decision. Both have demonstrated their dedication to building a lasting democracy.

LAWRENCE: But some question whether this runoff can give the government some legitimacy. Corruption is the primary reason why many Afghans do not place very much trust in their central government.

DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH, AFGHAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is one of my main agendas as far as the future of this country is concerned. And I think this has led to the people's disenfranchisement, resentment among the people in the gap between the people and the government. And in such a situation, insurgency has been strengthened.

LAWRENCE: U.S. General Stanley McChrystal says that NATO can and will help secure this runoff election by backing up the Afghan army and police. He says they're not starting from scratch, that they have already started a plan in the works in anticipation that there could be a runoff. But ,again, it will be a definite challenge -- Wolf.


BLITZER: Chris Lawrence in Kabul, Afghanistan, for us, thank you.

President Obama says he spoke with President Karzai on the phone and congratulated him for agreeing to the election runoff. Mr. Obama says Afghan leaders are trying to do the right thing during difficult and very uncertain times.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: President Karzai, as well as the other candidates, I think, have shown that they have the interests of the Afghan people at heart, that this is a reflection of a commitment to rule of law, and an insistence that the Afghan's people will should be done.


The president spoke in the Oval Office during a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He reemphasized his commitment to withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, all combat troops by the end of next August.

What the president decides about the war in Afghanistan, especially whether to send more troops in, could earn him praise or anger. Already, we're seeing something we haven't seen regarding his approval ratings as far as the policies are concerned. The White House may -- repeat -- may need to worry a bit.

Let's bring in our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley. She's taking a look at our newest numbers.

What are we seeing, Candy?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: What we're seeing, Wolf, is a mixed bag for the president in these new polls. He's been in office for nine months and he's still overall a pretty popular guy. But the wear and tear is starting to show.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) OBAMA: What did I say during the campaign? I said change is hard and big change is harder.

CROWLEY (voice-over): And he's got the polls to prove it. As the president navigates his way through a series of issues as controversial as they are vital, he's getting a yellow flag from the American people.

New polling finds for the first time fewer than half of Americans agree with the president on issues important to them. A majority, 51 percent, disagree. That's a 10-point jump since April.


OBAMA: It's all -- I love you back.

CROWLEY: Despite the majority disagreement on issues, the CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll also found the president's approval rating remains in the healthy mid-50s. And two-thirds of Americans say he has the personal qualities a president should have.

A popular president who is less popular on the issues. There's a way to work this.

KEATING HOLLAND, CNN POLLING DIRECTOR: They still like the messenger. That's important for Obama because he'll be able to look presidential, and Americans may respond to that as he's trying to make a pitch for his health care plan, financial reform, whatever he decides to do in Afghanistan and Iran.

CROWLEY: And about the Nobel Prize, even the president seems stunned he got it.

OBAMA: To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who have been honored by this prize.

CROWLEY: Americans agree. Only about a third believe the president deserved the prize. Fifty-six percent say they disapprove of the decision by the Nobel Prize Committee to give it to him. Still, there's a hometown hero effect here, with almost 70 percent of people saying they are proud an American won it.

And then further proof of that old adage that Americans like their politicians most when they are not running for anything, the most popular person in the Obama administration is not the still- popular president.


CROWLEY: It's his secretary of state. You remember her, once seen as a sharply divisive politician, the "also ran" of the 2008 primary season. Hillary Clinton is now viewed favorably by 65 percent of Americans, outshining even Michelle Obama.

(END VIDEOTAPE) CROWLEY: And in those numbers for the secretary of state is the fundamental verity of public opinion: It changes. Most Democrats eyeing the 2010 election cycle believe that a health care reform bill signed, sealed and delivered will turn around what has been a steadily declining number on a variety of issues -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's surprising that Hillary Clinton is more popular than the president right now, but especially surprising she's even more popular than the first lady, Candy?


CROWLEY: Well, first ladies, as you know, especially if they don't step into big, controversial issues, tend to be very popular.

And I have to say, it's about a one- to two-point difference. So, probably, statistically, the pollsters would tell us they're about even. Nevertheless, that is pretty amazing.

BLITZER: It is pretty amazing. Candy, thanks for that.

Right now, President Obama is in New York City. He's trying to raise political cash.

Let's go to our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian. He's in New York City as well. Dan is not trying to raise some political cash.


BLITZER: Tell us what is going on right now, Dan. Set the scene for us.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the president is essentially in campaign mode, it appears. He's out there trying to raise cash for his party, three events here in Manhattan, the first event for Bill Owens, who is a Democrat trying to win a special election in a Democratic seat, a congressional seat in Upstate New York.

The second event is what you could call the big-ticket item. That's where an individual has to pay $15,200 and couples $30,400. This is happening at the Mandarin Oriental -- 200 people expected at that event. But the bigger event, 2,700 people later tonight, tickets starting at about $100 for that event, and it's happening at another hotel here in Manhattan.

It's being pushed by the Organizing for America group. And really the focus that they're looking at tonight is pushing health care reform. Now, for the two DNC events, a source with the Democratic Party saying that they expect to raise anywhere from $2 million to $3 million tonight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That's a lot of money.

LOTHIAN: Yes. BLITZER: Is he inviting the Wall Street fat cats, those that his administration has been criticizing for the big salaries, the bonuses? Are they coming to these events tonight?

LOTHIAN: That's right. As you know, the president has been very pointed in criticizing the Wall Street fat cats if you will who he believes acted recklessly and led to the collapse ,the financial collapse. We have now been able to get a list of the names who will be at the event tonight.

But we're told by a senior administration official that a third of those going to the dinner are from the financial industry, but only five of those who are attending come from companies that received TARP money.

But having said that, this senior administration official pointed out that only a fraction of the money the DNC has raised so far this year has come from Wall Street, only 3 percent of the some $54 million that has been raised.


BLITZER: Are they letting the news media in? Will see this, or all this happening behind closed doors?

LOTHIAN: Some of it behind closed doors, but the pool reporters will be there with the cameras and the president will be making some remarks. And we will have some of that later.

BLITZER: We will stay in touch. Thanks very much.

Let's go right to Jack Cafferty. He's in New York, as well. I suspect he's not going to be hanging with the fat cats at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel tonight.


JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Are you kidding? They wouldn't let me on the same street with those people. But they're all actually at the moment right in this building in the Time Warner Center. The Mandarin is on the other side of the building.

Public support for legalizing marijuana at an all-time high, no pun intended. And coincidentally, the Obama administration is easing up on the use of medical marijuana. The Justice Department now says pot-smoking patients and their authorized suppliers shouldn't be targeted for federal prosecution in those states that allow the drug for medicinal purposes.

Officials say it's not a good use of the prosecutors' time, although they say that agents should continue to pursue marijuana cases that involve violence, the illegal use of firearms, selling pot to minors, money laundering, and other crimes.

Supporters say marijuana helps treat chronic pain, nausea and other illnesses, while critics say this move is a step backward in the fight against the Mexican drug cartels.

Fourteen states currently allow some use of marijuana for medical reasons. California is especially well-known for having pot shops everywhere.

A new Gallup poll shows support for legalizing marijuana has shot up in the last few years to 44 percent -- 54 percent are still opposed. But support for legalizing weed had been fixed at around 25 percent from the late '70s through the mid-'90s. Now it's up, 44 percent, almost double what it was.

Liberals and younger people are more likely to favor decriminalizing pot -- no surprise there -- while conservatives and seniors are more likely to be opposed.

Gallup suggests that if public support continues growing at the same rate, the majority of Americans could favor legalizing marijuana in the next few years. California voters may get to weigh on this in next year with a ballot initiative to legalize and tax marijuana as a revenue source for state government.

Here's the question: The federal government is OK'ing medical marijuana where it's legal. Is this the first step toward overall legalization of that drug? Go to Post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.

BLITZER: If they legalize it, that is a ton of money potentially for the states, because they can tax that like cigarettes.

CAFFERTY: Legalize it, tax it, and it takes the incentive for the drug cartels away. If it's legal and it's regulated, it can be grown in this country, sold in this country, and those hoodlums that are terrorizing our southern borders are suddenly out of business. It makes a certain amount of sense, at least on that level.

BLITZER: Yes. All right, Jack, thank you.

Are the troops getting antsy as the commander in chief decides their roles for war? A newspaper reports some in the military are frustrated over President Obama's deliberations on troop levels for Afghanistan. Our political panel is coming up. And joining them are the Pulitzer Prize-winner Tom Ricks and Democratic strategist James Carville.


BLITZER: The commander in chief is taking his time deciding troop levels for Afghanistan. Are the troops themselves gets antsy waiting for the decision?

Let's bring in our political panel. Joining us, our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger, our CNN correspondent Joe Johns, Republican strategist Kevin Madden, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tom Ricks, and our CNN political contributor the Democratic strategist James Carville. Let me start with you, Tom, and read to you from a story in "The New York Times" today by Elisabeth Bumiller. She writes this: "After nearly a month of deliberations by Mr. Obama over whether to send more American troops to Afghanistan, frustrations and anxiety are on the rise within the military. A number of active duty and retired senior officers say there is concern the president is moving too slowly, is revisiting a war strategy he announced in March, and is unduly influenced by political advisers in the Situation Room."

We're talking about their Situation Room, not our SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Is that what you're hearing, because you're well plugged in?


I'm an Obama fan, and I personally find it demoralizing, how he has handled this. I don't think you're hearing it so much among the troops who are too busy doing other stuff like cleaning weapons and driving trucks. But among the generals, there's a sense of unease that they thought Obama had made the deal back in March and then wanted -- seemed to revisit everything.

And they kept on giving these announcements from the White House: We're reviewing assumptions that might be myths.

This is pretty insulting to people who have been working on this intensely for several years.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I just think, Wolf, there may be a real change in style here from what you're used to with George W. Bush, for example.

And the real problem here is not that the president is deliberating, because I believe that you ought to be flexible and look at changing situations on the ground, but that the deliberations have played out so much in public. And that becomes a problem, not only for the president, but for people who are reading about these deliberations, and see that the president and the vice president may actually be disagreeing.

RICKS: Public is definitely a problem. It makes life much harder, but there's a point at which deliberation becomes dithering. And I think Obama probably passed that point a while ago.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: There's also this perception out there that the president is sort of buying time, that when he decided, oh, we're going to wait until we figure out about the politics on the ground, because one Democratic analyst I talked to today said, if you look at it, essentially, what's happening on the ground is going to be there regardless of who's in power. So, is he just buying time?

BLITZER: Let's bring James in. James, that word dithering is a serious word.


And we say that we're going to wait until the election. I don't know if the Karzai before the election is going to be much different than the Karzai after the election. Or why do we think this runoff is going to be any better conducted than the first round of voting?

These things, I do not know. I do have the sense that everybody's pretty dug in here. And it seems to me on everything I have read there are not a lot of good options here, and maybe the president's trying to see if somebody comes up with something better.

But what's on the table now, it all looks pretty tough from this vantage point.

BLITZER: Kevin, they're sending 40,000 additional U.S. troops beyond the 68,000 who are already there. There's another 40,000 NATO troops already there. That's a life-and-death decision for any commander in chief.

KEVIN MADDEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: True. But I think Tom makes the most important point, which is whether or not the deliberation here begins to look like hesitation and whether that sends a very troubling message, not only to our allies, but to our enemies, that this is a president who is being driven by timidity when it comes to make this decision.

And I think probably what's most troubling right now is the gap between the information between what Secretary Gates is getting and what the political advisers in the White House are talking about on the Sunday shows.

It's been reported that what Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel talked about on Sunday was not made -- was not information that was made available to Secretary Gates about whether or not there was going to be a cause and effect, A vs. B, when -- about the decision related to the Afghan elections.

BLITZER: Tom, let me get right to the core issue. Is it winnable?

You told us a couple weeks ago when you were here in THE SITUATION ROOM that the situation in Iraq, despite what we're seeing today, the president meeting with Nouri al-Maliki and all that talk of meeting the deadlines, getting combat forces out by the end of August, all U.S. troops out by the end of 2011, you were very gloomy about the long-term success of U.S. strategy in Iraq.

What about Afghanistan?

RICKS: I think the McChrystal plan really does have a chance. It's not a guaranteed success. It's probably better than anything else out there. The important thing about the McChrystal plan is, it's not just more troops. It's using additional troops in a very different way, getting them out, actually living with Afghan units. That changes not just the behavior of the Taliban. It means the Afghan units will be more effective. Afghan police will be less corrupt.

That's really the important change in getting the Afghan government...


BLITZER: But that's a long-term commitment. We're talking years and years of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

RICKS: I think McChrystal has talked publicly about three to five years of an intense plan.

BORGER: How can you make sure that the Karzai government is going to be a credible partner in any way, shape or form?

RICKS: Well, one thing you can do privately -- and I think this should be considered -- is threatening to publicly back the opposition, Abdullah Abdullah, funnel a million bucks to his campaign.


RICKS: Another thing you can do to improve credibility and legitimacy is to go out with American troops and say, get these checkpoints that are just shaking down truck drivers out of here. We're going to have American troops next to Afghan troops at checkpoints. That makes those checkpoints a lot less corrupt.

BLITZER: All right. I'm going to take a break, but I want James to give me a final thought on this subject, James. Go ahead.



Well, I think that Abdullah is a good guy, but the Pakistanis have, as I understand it, quite a problem with Abdullah. He was -- it's my understanding he was educated in India and they're very sort of skeptical of that. And there are a lot of people that say that actually Pakistan is more of a threat in terms of al Qaeda than Afghanistan.

So, it's a pretty complicated deal. But, you know, who knows? And this is some pretty sticky stuff we're dealing with here.

BLITZER: Yes. But in fairness to the Pakistanis right now, the new government, they are cracking down on the Taliban and al Qaeda in Pakistan...

CAVUTO: They are. That's right.

BLITZER: ... much so than the previous government of Pervez Musharraf.


BLITZER: All right, guys, stand by. We're going to continue our analysis of what is going on.

Tom Ricks, as always, thanks very much for coming into THE SITUATION ROOM, our little SITUATION ROOM, as opposed to the other one down the road. Thank you.

As we count down to hard-fought governor's races in two states, one voting bloc is emerging as pivotal, at least potentially. We're going to tell you how both parties are courting the Latino voter.


BLITZER: The best political team on television is standing by.


BLITZER: Democrats are working on an expensive so-called fix for Medicaid payments, but is it really just a way to get doctors on the health reform bandwagon? Dana Bash standing by with the story.


BLITZER: Democrats are going to new lengths to appeal to a powerful group they desperately want to sign on to health care reform. That would be the nation's doctors. The plan would supposedly fix a Medicare problem costing physicians a lot of income. But critics say it's simply a gimmick.

Let's go to our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash. She has been digging into this story for us.

What are you learning, Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we know, Wolf, that Democrats -- that doctors, rather, have been trying for years to change a complicated formula that leads to the threat annually of cuts in the payments they get for Medicare. Now the White House and Senate Democratic leaders, they are willing to help them, and they are even willing to swim in red ink to do it.



BASH (voice-over): Barbara Fusco (ph) is one of dozens of Medicare patients Dr. Steve Zimmet and his partners will see today.

ZIMMET: Medicare accounts for 48 percent of our practice revenue on an annual basis.

BASH (on camera): So, that's half of your practice.

ZIMMET: That is half of my practice. And it's -- it's huge.

BASH (voice-over): That's why he says a looming 21 percent cut in government payments doctors get for Medicare receipts would hurt his practice and his patients.

ZIMMET: And that's just really unsustainable in today's universe.

BASH: Doctors have fought for years to stop annual Medicare cuts permanently -- and failed. Now, suddenly, Senate Democratic leaders are listening and pushing a whopping $250 billion fix.

(on camera): It's a surprise move announced after a closed door meeting right here in the Senate. CNN is told by two sources in the room that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told doctors groups he will try to stop Medicare cuts, but made it clear that in return, he expected them to support Democrats' health care overhaul.

(voice-over): Several sources tell CNN there was no explicit deal. But the head of the powerful American Medical Association on Capitol Hill lobbying senators carefully puts it this way.

DR. JAMS ROHACK, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION: This is very important. If people are serious about health system reform, we've got to get this bill passed.

BASH: To get that bill passed, Democrats are engaging in what some call budget trickery. They're separating the enormous $250 billion doctor fix from the larger health care overall. And here's why. If the Senate health care proposal costs roughly $900 billion, add $250 and the price tag would exceed a trillion dollars, above what the president wants. Not just that, the $250 billion cost is not paid for and adds to the deficit, which conservative Democrats call a nonstarter.

SEN. KENT CONRAD (D), NORTH DAKOTA: We should pay for it. We shouldn't just tack it on to the debt.


BASH: And because of what you just heard there, concern and even opposition from conservatives within the Democrats' ranks about adding $250 billion to the already sky high deficit, Democratic leadership sources now admit to CNN that they do not have the votes right now to permanently stop these Medicare cuts for doctors. And they are hoping, in fact, banking on the fact that this big lobbying campaign from the American Medical Association and now even the AARP will help change that -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And, Dana, just to be precise, it's a sensitive issue -- are they letting reporters and camera crews into these deliberations, as they try to come up with new legislation reconciling the differences between the House and the Senate, and even within the two bodies?

BASH: No. No. We are not allowed in at all. In fact, I can tell you that there is a meeting going on -- at least there was one planned -- as we speak inside the Senate majority leader's office right now, with the White House chief of staff, others from the White House, with the key players in the Senate. Those have been private. No cameras allowed in. I think there was one allowed in for the very first meeting, but that was it. And it's very hard even to stand outside, because it's -- it's pretty blocked off from reporters.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to...

BASH: It's hard to get information.

BLITZER: We're going to talk about that, Dana, with the best political team on television. But I just wanted to clarify that one sensitive issue.

The message from Democrats and Republicans to the nation's Latinos -- we want you. Both parties know that in close races, Latino votes can, indeed, seal elections, which is why they're being courted big time, especially in places where Latino populations are growing.

Our CNN national political correspondent, Jessica Yellin, has been looking into this story. And there's some big races in Virginia and New Jersey coming up.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Wolf. And in both those states, the races are just around the corner. In New Jersey, the candidates -- they're pouring time and money into wooing Latino voters. And in Virginia, we visited the candidates as they are ramping up their outreach to this crucial voting bloc.


YELLIN (voice-over): Here in Virginia, one community is getting noticed.

BOB MCDONNELL (R), VIRGINIA GOVERNOR CANDIDATE: Buenos noches. And thank you so much for having me.

YELLIN: That's Republican candidate for governor, Bob McDonnell.

And here's current governor, Tim Kaine, introducing the Democrat.

GOV. TIM KAINE (D), VIRGINIA: Let me present le governor nor setente (ph) y uno de Virginia, Creigh Deeds.

YELLIN: There are ads.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hola. Soy el governor (INAUDIBLE) Tim Kaine.


YELLIN: And promises. MCCONNELL: I have made the heart and soul of this campaign something that I think is very important to so many in the Latino community and that's jobs and opportunity.

YELLIN: Because this voting bloc is a growing force in Virginia and nationally. The Latino population in Virginia has tripled since 1990. Last year, 5 percent of the state's voters were Latino, while nationally, it was 9 percent. And overwhelmingly, Latinos voted for President Obama.

The Republican Party says it is working to gain ground in the community.

GAIL GITCHO, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE SPOKESWOMAN: The Hispanic community is an incredibly important voting bloc for Republicans. So what we're doing is reaching out at the grassroots level, talking to the Hispanic community about the Republican Party being a party of openness.

YELLIN: But Democrats are also trying hard to build on their gains in last year's election.

HARI SEVUGAN, DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE SPOKESMAN: Support around Democrats has actually consolidated since then. And I think that's for a number of different reasons. One is because we're speaking to issues that matter to Hispanic families, whether it's education, health care, jobs.

YELLIN: Latino activists say they like the attention. But the community has a challenge of its own -- voter turnout. This waitress at Democrat Creigh Deeds' event isn't sure if she'll vote.

ASHLEY TORRES, WAITRESS: I just haven't really had the chance to look over the two governors' information.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's no question that Latinos need to understand and come out to vote more than we do.


YELLIN: Now, the most recent figures show that Democrats have a decided advantage among Latino voters. As of early this year, 19 percent identified themselves as Republican, 61 percent as Democrats. The rest, Wolf, say they're either independent or undecided.

BLITZER: Well, to really have an impact, they have to really go out and vote.

YELLIN: They have to vote. And if they do, it's a big enough block to decide elections.

BLITZER: Jessica, thanks very much.

CNN's newest ground-breaking documentary, "Latino In America," it starts tomorrow at 9:00 p.m. Eastern. You'll want to see it. It also will be simulcast in Spanish on CNN en Espanol. Frustrated with the size of the health care bill?

We're going to check it out.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Here's the bill from the Health Committee. That is only some 600 pages. And over here, we have the Finance Committee bill, some 1,500 pages.


BLITZER: With a health reform bill this complex, will it inevitably end up being decided behind closed doors?

What's going on?

We'll talk about that and more, with the best political team on television.


BLITZER: Why is the White House and the Democrats -- why are they trying so hard to make deals with the nation's doctors?

What's going on?

We're back with the best political team on television.

Our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger; our CNN correspondent, Joe Johns; Republican strategist, Kevin Madden; and our CNN political contributor, the Democratic strategist, James Carville -- James, "The Washington Post," in an editorial today, writes : "President Obama has vowed that health reform will not add a single dime to the deficit, but he is seemingly unfazed about adding more than a quarter trillion dollars to the deficit by changing the Medicare reimbursement formula without finding a way to pay for it."

What's going on?

CARVILLE: Well, I think that's something that was in a '97 bill, as I understand it. And every year they do this because the doctors, who are really quite powerful -- and so is the AMA -- says that if they don't -- they don't get the re -- the reimbursements according to that schedule, that it would be a catastrophe for their profession. And they're a pretty powerful interest group.

The same thing happened when the Republicans were in Congress and it's sort of happening now. And I don't have a better answer for that (INAUDIBLE)...

BLITZER: I thought it wasn't supposed to...

CARVILLE: ...powerful interest group.

BLITZER: I thought it wasn't supposed to happen, though, under this new administration.

CARVILLE: Well, you know what, when you've got a powerful interest group that comes in and says you're going to lose 40 per -- 40 percent of the doctors that are not going to do this, it probably gets everybody's attention. And it's something that's been done by every Congress since the last 12 years. And -- and that's just the way -- that's the practical reality of Washington. I don't know if it's great or -- or anything else, but that's the reality.

BLITZER: That editorial, by the way, was entitled, "2.47 Trillion Dimes." And it was -- it was in Monday's "Washington Post."

Kevin, when you get "The Washington Post" really blasting you on this kind of stuff, it's significant.

MADDEN: And when you have James Carville, one of the best in the business, unable to explain it for Democrats, then you're really in big trouble.

Look, this is -- the biggest problem here for Democrats is that they came into power saying that they were going to challenge the status quo, they were going to reform the system. And now, you basically have all the brightest minds in the Democratic Party saying this is just how it's done. And it's a sort of broken promise to the American public on transparency and fixing the system and paying for things as you go.

BLITZER: James...


BLITZER: James is chuckling.


BLITZER: I want to hear -- I want to understand why he's laughing.

CARVILLE: Yes, I am. I've got...


CARVILLE: I've got a bet.


CARVILLE: I've got -- well, first of all, can I finish?

I agree. But in the Democrat Party, as you call it -- we prefer to call ourselves the Democratic Party, but that's your business, this is -- again, I'm acknowledging the fact that there's a very powerful interest group that, for 12 years, has got something through Republican Congresses who, by the way, trumpet themselves as "fiscally conservative," that had every opportunity to do away with this. And it was a formula that was instituted in 1997. It may be a bad thing and maybe "The Post" has a -- a good point here. But when these doctors come in, they've got a lot of power and they've exhibited it in both administrations. And that's a -- a pretty clear explanation for what happened.

BLITZER: But, you know, as -- as significant as this is, something else that's irritating a lot of folks, Gloria -- and -- and Senator McCain went public with this. I'm going to play this little clip of what he said, responding to the president's campaign promise that all of these deliberations...


BLITZER: ...would be out in the open, C-SPAN could carry them live.

Here's Senator McCain.


MCCAIN: And not far from here, very close to here, there's a handful of Democrats and administration people behind closed doors that are reconciling these two bills.. And sooner or later they will come out of that room, fortunately no -- no longer smoke-filled, but certainly with no access or information to the American people, with perhaps a 2,100 page bill.


BORGER: I think -- I think he has a point. You know, this is a president who campaigned on openness in government, who said everything's going to be on C-SPAN. We're all depending on Dana Bash, who probably knows more about what's going on in that room as most United States -- than most United States senators. And it would be great for people to be able to watch this bill being made. I guarantee you, some of them might be impressed and a lot of them might be bored, but at least they would have a sense of ownership.

JOHNS: Look, on the one hand, they tried it out in the open once and the process got simply out of control. They had a whole bunch of different bills. Now they're trying to rein in that process.

That said, this is always a clean shot for a politician. When you take something like this behind closed doors -- Hillary Clinton got hit on it, Dick Cheney got hit on it and now the Obama administration has followed suit.

So, it's a...

BLITZER: But, what -- James, what's the down side?

Why not let the doors open, let C-SPAN or CNN or anybody else go in there...

BORGER: We'll be there.

BLITZER: ...and watch what's going on?

Why not?

CARVILLE: Well, because -- because we will -- look, what did Bismarck say, there's two things you shouldn't watch being made, laws or sausage.

I mean, do you really want to go and see somebody make your sausage or your hot dogs?


CARVILLE: I don't think so.

BLITZER: But if the president, as a candidate...

CARVILLE: And, look...


BLITZER: ...said he would let it...


BLITZER: he backing away from his campaign commitment?

CARVILLE: Of course he is. Of course he is. I mean but he's not in the Congress, either. He's the president of the United States.

But, look, and everybody comes in and they're going to reform Washington and it's not going to be the same way. And, you know, Reagan was going to do that. We would have been -- when President Clinton came, we were going to do it. Bush was going to do it. Obama was going to do it.

But I mean, the truth of the matter is, is that you have to -- they -- this is just the way that it is. Thus it was, thus it is and thus it shall be. And I don't know if we -- any -- you know, I just eat the sausage. I'm not really, you know, looking forward to watching everything in the sausage factory, to tell you the truth.

But, yes, it -- yes, these things that -- this is the way that it works. The doctors come in. They have a ton of influence. They're very, very powerful people. They have a great, great, you know, lobby. The AMA does a good job for them. And they say, look, if you cut these reimbursements, we're going to -- people are not going to do these procedures, people are not going to take care of people with Medicare. And that's the political reality...

BLITZER: You know...

CARVILLE: ...and the politicians look at this for 12 years in a row and say hey, you're right, we're out of here.

BLITZER: So was it just naive for some of us to think things were about to change?

MADDEN: Well, I think it was... CARVILLE: Of course.



MADDEN: I think that what we saw is -- is, you know, the Republicans -- I'm sorry, the Democrats and President Obama, as candidates, engaged in a lot of rhetoric. And now here's the reality of trying to put it into practice and action. And they're not living up to it.

And I think that further erodes the public's confidence in this process and, ultimately, whatever comes out of this process.

BLITZER: Joe, is it the Congress that doesn't want to keep the doors open or is it the White House that doesn't want to keep the doors open or both?

JOHNS: Well, it's obviously the Congress, in the first place. But the administration, as well, could have advocated, if you will, to -- to put this out in the open in some form or another.

When I covered Capitol Hill all the time, we fought over making conference committee meetings open, when they melded the bills.

BORGER: Right.

JOHNS: And a lot of times we lost those fights. It was very frustrating, because it's a very fundamental question about access to what the government is doing. And it goes on.

BORGER: I call it semblance of access, because it's not really access. You know, they might let you into a room for a meeting and say this is access. And then at some point, they're always going to find a door to go behind to cut the deal.

JOHNS: But it was the president...



JOHNS: It was the president who said he wanted you know...

BORGER: I agree. I totally agree. I agree.


BLITZER: All right, guys...


BLITZER: Guys, let's continue this conversation tomorrow, unless, James, you have 10 seconds. CARVILLE: I'm amazed that people say they're not -- they broke their promise on transparency when the Republicans come into office promising balanced budget amendments. I mean, you know, come on, let's get real here. I mean let's -- please.

BLITZER: That's 10 seconds.

Guys, thanks very much.

How the "Balloon Boy's" neighborhood turned into a battleground. Stand by. And the fists were flying long after the balloon went flat.


BLITZER: The White House is reacting to a disturbing development in Iran right now.

Let's go to Betty Nguyen.

She's got some details.

What do we know -- Betty?

BETTY NGUYEN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, Wolf. Well, the White House has responded to the 15 year sentence that has been imposed by Iran on Iranian-American scholar Kian Tajbakhsh. Now, in a statement, the White House expresses "the deepest regret and strong objection" and says Tajbakhsh poses no threat to Iran or its national security.

We want to remind you that he was picked up after anti-government protests following the country's presidential election.

Well, the White House says that he has dedicated his life to fostering greater understanding between Iran and the international community. And the statement goes on to say, it expresses "deep concern" that he may have been forced to stand trial in the Revolutionary Court without the benefit of his own legal council and it urges Iran to release Tajbakhsh as soon as possible -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A very strong statement coming in from the White House.

Betty, thanks very much.

Let's check in with Lou to see what's coming up at the top of the hour -- Lou.

LOU DOBBS, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, thank you very much.

We'll have much more on that story, as well as the new election in Afghanistan. A new set of security challenges -- still no new war strategy.

How long can President Obama afford to put off that decision?

Also, new poll numbers are out and for the first time since the president took office, a majority of Americans disagree with him on most important issues.

Which public officials do Americans admire most?

We'll have some very surprising results for you, as well.

And new swine flu warnings -- young people continue to be the hardest hit and most at risk. Questions about the vaccine persist.

Is it too late already?

Will it be here in time?

Also, will the Democrats succeed in passing a government health care plan?

One of the key voices on that issue is Senator Charles Grassley. He's among our guests here tonight.

Please join us for all of that, a great deal more, all the day's news at the top of the hour -- Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Lou.

See you in a few moments.

Let's get to Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour: the federal government OKs medical marijuana in states where it's legal.

Is this the first step toward legalization nationwide?

Robert in Oregon writes: "It most certainly is and it's about time. If there's one thing the Mexican drug cartels fear, it's legalization of the drugs they're selling. Millions of Americans are already using marijuana on the regular basis, whether legally for medical purposes or illegally for leisure purposes. Why not take the money out of the hands of the Mexican drug cartels and put it into the hands of the U.S. taxpayer?"

Paul writes: "I have absolutely no problem with marijuana being used for medical purposes. But many people out there undoubtedly would like to abuse this right, so the distribution of medical marijuana must be strictly controlled."

Bert in Denver: "We can only hope this is truly change we can believe in."

Kyle in North Carolina: "Medical marijuana, a brilliant strategy, really. How in the world will anyone be able to oppose healthy people using marijuana after sick people have used it for years without incident? The slippery slope is in sight, folks."

Michelle in Canada: "One can only hope. My husband is a paramedic. We have friends and family who are police. And they all say the same thing -- they have never been to an assault caused by pot. Alcohol, yes, but never pot. Pot's not addictive, has few side effects and contrary to popular belief, it's not a lead-in drug to harder drugs. If it were, half of Canada would be addicted to heroin."

And Patrick writes: "Let's hope so. I don't inhale personally, but I can certainly see the myriad benefits of legalizing, regulating and taxing the hell out of marijuana. On one fell swoop, you'd flood government coffers, reduce violent and petty crime and massively increase revenue for Frito Lay. I say smoke them if you've got them."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, check my blog. You'll find it at -- Wolf.

BLITZER: See you tomorrow, Jack.

Thank you.

Jeanne Moos, she's next.


BLITZER: Jeanne Moos has this update on that bizarre balloon saga.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: (voice-over): The balloon boy story may be losing helium, but the testosterone level was up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can say whatever I want you punk mother (EXPLETIVE DELETED).

MOOS: It was neighborhood guy verses the news media camped out in front of the Heenes' home.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What are you guys (EXPLETIVE DELETED). What are you guys going to do?

Get off the (EXPLETIVE DELETED) street.

MOOS: He then called the police. Samir Tevacoli (ph) was fed up with the press.

Fox 31 reporter John Bowman says Tevacoli drove by several times, yelling slurs.


JON BOWMAN, KDVR REPORTER: The next thing I know, he jumps out, "I got you now. I'm going to get you people out of the neighborhood." And he comes up and he grabs me by the collar.


MOOS: Tevacoli says someone elbowed his car window. He chased Fox 31's cameraman around their truck. And then... (VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: ...Tevacoli got tackled from behind by another press person coming to the cameraman's rescue. The two landed harder than that now famous balloon.

The press has been outside the Heenes' house ever since the balloon chase -- bored.

RICHARD HEENE: I want your questions in the box. I'll get right back to you, OK?

MOOS: Except for the times when "Balloon Boy's" dad surfaces...


MOOS: ...or his mom leaves the House and the media glom onto the car like locusts. These two glommed onto each other...


MOOS: ...until the neighborhood guy started punching.

(on camera): It doesn't pay to tangle with the media. After deputies showed up and talked to both sides, guess who got a citation for fighting in public and careless driving?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He jumped on me from behind.

MOOS: Yes, the neighborhood guy. He tells us he's hiring an attorney.

Things outside the Heene house have since quieted down. The circus has moved on -- online.


MOOS: Where parodies about "Balloon Boy" hiding...


MOOS: ...and t-shirts signify that the story may be on its last legs.

Back on the Heenes' door, the sign says, "We are not taking any interview anymore. We are tired."

And so is this t-shirt. "I don't want to hear another word about "Balloon Boy"."

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a hoax.

Jeanne Moos, CNN. New York.



Up next, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" -- Lou.

DOBBS: Wolf, thank you.