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STATE OF THE UNION WITH JOHN KING

The Sound of Sunday

Aired October 25, 2009 - 11:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


KING: It's 11 a.m. Eastern, time for "State of the Union's" "Sound of Sunday."

Thirteen government officials, politicians and analysts have had their say. President Karzai's key political rival, Afghan presidential challenger Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and key lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

We've watched the Sunday shows so you don't have to. We'll break it all down with Donna Brazile, Ed Rollins, Ed Gillespie, and the best political team on television. "State of the Union's" "Sound of Sunday" for October 25th.

If you listen closely, this Sunday, Democrats sound increasingly optimistic they'll soon have the votes to pass major health care changes, not just a slim majority of 51 but enough to prevent Republicans from using Senate rules to block action.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHARLES E. SCHUMER, D-N.Y.: The more moderate Democrats -- there are some who actually like it. As long as it's a level playing field, they're comfortable with it. There are others who say that "I'm not sure I like it, but I won't hold up passage of the bill."

I think we're very close to getting the 60 votes we need to move forward. And my guess is that the public option level playing field with the state opt-out will be in the bill.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: But a key conservative Democrat says, not so fast. Ben Nelson of Nebraska tells us he's made no promises to the Democratic leadership and doesn't like the plan they currently favor.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BEN NELSON, D-NEB.: Well, I certainly am not excited about a public option where states would opt out or a robust, as they call it -- robust government-run insurance plan. I'll take a look at the one where states could opt in if they make the decision themselves.

Look, I'm a -- I'm a Jeffersonian Democrat. I think the states can make decisions on their own about their own citizens.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: Looking overseas, you might remember, right here, last Sunday, the president's chief of staff said it would be irresponsible to decide whether to send more troops to Afghanistan until the president knew the outcome of that country's presidential run-off.

Well, this Sunday, the challenger in that election warns that, if incumbent Hamid Karzai wins, the United States shouldn't suddenly expect an end to corruption.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ABDULLAH: I think it's for the United States to make that judgment, but everybody has (inaudible) of the past eight years. We should have been in a position, eight years down the road, not to call for more troops but for lesser troops.

We are not there. Why? because of the failures of the current administration in Afghanistan. Any success for the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan will depend on the credibility of your partner, on the legitimacy of your partner.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: As you can see, we've been watching all the other Sunday shows, so maybe you don't have to.

With me now, here in Washington, Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor Donna Brazile; former Republican National Committee chairman and White House counselor for President George W. Bush, Ed Gillespie; CNN's senior White House correspondent Ed Henry; senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash; and from our New York bureau, CNN political contributor and Republican strategist Ed Rollins.

In a minute, we'll talk about what they want to do about health care and where the debate lies, but let's begin with how they're doing it.

John McCain is out this morning and he says that the president is not keeping a fundamental promise he made during the campaign to negotiate health care in a way that everybody can see.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-ARIZ.: Let me just tell you what I'm offended by. Candidate Obama said he was going to have the C-SPAN cameras in, the Republicans in, and the American people would be able to watch these negotiations to find out who was on the side of the pharmaceutical companies and those who were on the side of the people.

The fact is there's been no change. There's a room with a few Democrats in it and some administration officials and they are writing this entire bill. I don't think the American people like that very much.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: Maybe they don't like it very much, Ed Rollins, but does it matter how they do it? ROLLINS: You know, ultimately, they have the votes in both the House and the Senate. I don't know if they have the 60 votes to get a public option in the Senate, but, you know, that's what majority rule is all about.

The only thing I can say about the president is governing is a lot tougher than campaigning. You can make a lot of promises in the course of the campaign. You need to be held accountable. And I admire Senator McCain for doing that.

But at the end of day, they're going to push something through. They think it's a priority. Ultimately, if it's successful, they gain for it. If it's not successful, which a lot of us don't think it will be, they'll pay a price for it.

KING: Donna, to Ed's point, when you travel -- I've traveled quite a bit in recent months -- people do, even people who support President Obama passionately, do say that Washington doesn't look very different to them.

Can Senator McCain score some points there, saying, look, you know, maybe it was a bad idea when he promised it, but he did say -- the president did say as a candidate, we'll let the cameras in; we'll do this all in public?

BRAZILE: Well, first of all, John, I travel a great deal as well, and what people really want is to see the Republicans work with the Democrats and vice versa. And they haven't seen a lot of that. And you can't blame that on anybody but the process itself.

We've been talking about health care, now, for the past eight months. We've had many hearings, many, you know, amendments offered by Republicans.

The final debate will be held in public view, and I think that's what the public should be concerned about. But the public should also get involved in this debate.

We're in a critical phase in this conversation, and, you know, we still have to iron out many of the details, but the Democrats have really come pretty far in coming up with a bill that I think will help lower costs, provide more competition and choice for the American people.

KING: And you know, Ed Gillespie, that some Democrats would say, well, Republicans are complaining about the process because they don't want to get into this debate about ideas.

GILLESPIE: Well, no, I think Republicans would like to get into the room.

(LAUGHTER) I think we'd like to be part of the discussion and would like to have some of our ideas considered, but that's obviously not going to happen.

And I do think that it's hurting President Obama. The whole post-partisan, you know, image, I think, has taken a hit in the course of this health care process.

And, look, he also said that, when they had bills, they were going to put them online for three days for voters to go on and look at the whole content of the bill. Let's see if that happens, too, after they come out of the closed room. I think that's very important.

One of the things I hear from voters, and especially from independent voters, is this concern that these bills were rushed through without people having an opportunity to know what's inside them. And I'd be curious to see if they -- if they stick to that promise when they come out of the room.

KING: We have a lot of Eds in the house today.

(LAUGHTER)

I'm just going to use your last names, here.

Ed Henry, to that point about transparency, the president did make a huge deal about this as a candidate, that what's one of the ways to change Washington is to put it all on the Internet, bring the cameras in.

Do they -- to Ed Rollins' point, do they now concede, well, governing is a little different than campaigning?

HENRY: Well, you know, the president was asked this at a news conference a couple months back, and he, kind of, dismissed it as, well, we're at a different layer in the process now and the Republicans haven't wanted to work with me and -- you know, as Ed was pointing out.

And when you talk to senior White House aides about it, they say that, in the end, the American people won't care about how it's done if they get it done. I'm not sure that's precisely right. Because, you know, of course, it's a messy process, but promises were made about this being more open and also about this being more bipartisan and it has not been.

BASH: And I, over the years, to John McCain's point, spent many, many hours standing outside closed-door rooms where being John McCain was negotiating various pieces of legislation. So he's been part of this for many years, too.

But to his point, obviously, he's talking about a very specific promise that President Obama, then candidate Obama made that he's not keeping. And as a reporter standing outside the current meetings, it is frustrating and it is hard to get information about what this very small group of senators are talking about.

And, you know, I just -- over the years, it has not changed, in terms of how we cover the process. The process doesn't seem very different. It's closed-door meetings now...

(CROSSTALK) BASH: ... it was closed-door meetings then.

BRAZILE: Excuse me, Dana. I'm sorry. You know what's missing?

The Republicans have yet to offer their own plan, their alternative. We know, in the House, that we accepted 20 amendments from the Republicans, 160 in the Senate bill. What's missing is a Republican alternative plan.

KING: Well, there are a number of Republican...

(CROSSTALK)

KING: There are a number of Republican bills, just for the record, I want to...

BRAZILE: Tell me one that's been scored by the CBO. Yes, we've seen proposals. We've not seen a plan. And, you know, the Republicans opted out of this debate when they decided, a long time ago, that they wanted to stick with the status quo. And we all know the status quo is unacceptable.

KING: Let -- let...

(CROSSTALK)

BRAZILE: Name a bill. Name a bill that has been scored.

GILLESPIE: The fact is Republicans want to allow for competition in the health care sector by allowing for...

BRAZILE: And that's in what bill?

GILLESPIE: That's in...

BRAZILE: Sponsored by? Scored...

GILLESPIE: Paul Ryan has a bill that allows for that. There's medical malpractice reform, which Democrats have talked about, Donna, but did not come forward with, which probably could have helped them get some Democratic votes -- Republican votes...

BRAZILE: And the president said that he is willing to put some of that on the table...

GILLESPIE: ... that would have saved consumers...

BRAZILE: But you all know that's a state issue, as well as a federal issue. GILLESPIE: It is a federal issue.

BRAZILE: But, Ed, there's no bill that's been scored by CBO.

GILLESPIE: The Democrats said that they were going to come forward with that, and they never did.

BRAZILE: That's why the American people are growing increasingly supportive. I have two Republicans, so I have to speak up.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

BRAZILE: ... supportive of the public option because they're not hearing from the Republicans.

KING: All right. Time out on this point. I can see there's a little bit of a disagreement, just a little bit.

(LAUGHTER)

But let's move on to the Democrats because, obviously, the Democrats have a big majority in the House and a big majority on the Senate. The question is, on the Senate side, can they keep them all together?

You were talking about promises, a little bit. Harry Reid, the majority leader, has been trying to get all the Democrats to promise to be with him on the procedural votes, if you could just end up debate; even if you're not going to vote for the final bill, when I need 60 votes, will you give me that vote?

I put that question to Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NELSON: I've made no promise. I can't decide about the procedural vote until I see the underlying bill. It would be, I think, reckless to say I'll support procedure without knowing what the underlying bill consists of.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: And so, if you're Harry Reid and you need 60 votes, that gives one senator like Ben Nelson -- and when we get to the issues involved, one Republican senator like Olympia Snowe, enormous power, does it not?

BASH: Sure. It gives them enormous power.

BASH: In fact, that's why as we speak, Harry Reid does not have the 60 votes he needs for this new idea that I'm told he probably will go ahead with and announce as early as tomorrow, this idea for a public option in the Senate bill that they'll bring to the floor that gives states the ability to opt out of it. But he's going to do it without the 60 votes because he knows that this is going to be a long process. It will be a long debate and that hopefully from his perspective, there will be time to convince a senator like Ben Nelson to get those votes. It's very difficult. It is going to be a gamble no matter what the strategy.

HENRY: Here's what makes the challenge for Harry Reid even tougher, and I'm sure Dana has been picking up as well as I have, that senior Democrats on the Hill keep saying, why isn't President Obama being more specific? They've been asking for more specifics for a long time about the public option, for example, and now there's all kinds of variations of the public option and he still won't be specific about does he want the one where the states can opt out, does he want the one, the trigger that Olympia Snowe has put out there? And that's making Harry Reid's job that much harder because he's not getting that direction from the White House.

KING: Let's take a quick break. When we come back, we're going to discuss a broader look at the political environment that is shaping all these debates. We'll be back with all our group in just a minute. Don't go anywhere.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Let's continue our conversation, Dana Bash, Ed Henry, Ed Gillespie, Donna Brazile and Ed Rollins joins us from New York. Let's stay on health care. One of the big debates of course at the White House, you were talking about the public option before the break, is can we keep Olympia Snowe, the one Republican we have right now? She prefers no immediate public option, what they call a trigger here in Washington. If the insurance companies didn't behave and didn't perform, that two or three years down the road, then a public option would kick in. Here's what Democratic Senator Russ Feingold says about that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D), WISCONSIN: When people start talking about having a trigger that we might have a public option in two or three years, to me, that's just an invitation to the insurance industry to manipulate the situation for a couple of years just so they can avoid the trigger and so they can convince members of Congress to delay it again. We need to do something now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: So Donna Brazile, if Democrats think they have the votes for a public option that's stronger than a trigger, something now, whether it's state opt in, state opt out, why is it so important to keep that one Republican, Olympia Snowe onboard because she wants that trigger?

BRAZILE: Because Democrats would like to see Evan Bayh, I'll name some names, Mary Landrieu, Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln. They would like to keep the moderates in the room.

One of the very interesting things about the Democratic Party is how diverse we are. We have a very robust, moderate caucus that would like to see some Republican onboard. That's why she's still in the room. That's why her considerations are still on the table.

But we also have a very restless, progressive one that would like to see the public option. I mean, given the "New York Times" today, the fact that health care costs will continue to rise especially among small businesses, this is why the public option is so important for Democrats.

KING: I want to walk over to the wall here because I want to continue the discussion, but I want to do so in the context of the political environment we're all dealing with. So let me pop this out. I want to show you this. I want you guys, especially Ed Gillespie and Ed Rollins, to watch this first one as I pull it out of Washington. This is the approval of the Republican Party and it plays out over the course of several years and when it gets to the end, it's not so good. Watch this.

Down here, that's ouch, on a medical chart and a polling chart for the Republican Party's favorability since 1992. Now let's add into it. We asked people what do you think of the Republican leaders in Congress? How are they handling their job? Only one-third of the American people approve, two-thirds disapprove, but before the Democrats and Donna Brazile included, start dancing, let's look at this number.

How are the Democratic leaders of Congress doing? Only 38 percent now approve down from 43 percent in April and way down from 60 percent in February. So Ed Rollins, to you first, in this political environment, if you're the Republicans and you know your favorability rating is so low, do you feel restricted by that or do you just have to go ahead and try to block this health care?

ROLLINS: I think you have to go ahead and be true to your beliefs. And our beliefs are that this bill that they have before the Congress today, whatever the final version, is going to be astronomical. It's going to basically take the 85 percent of the people who have health care today and it is going to cost them more and at the end of day, they're going to get less for it.

So we think at this point in time in spite of Donna and everybody else saying they want us in the room, they don't want us in the room because they're not willing to give up anything. And at the end of day, I think that a lot of Americans will come to appreciate our position which is being fiscally conservative on a very important issue.

KING: Is that the bounceback point, Ed Gillespie? Many Republicans would argue it was in '93 and '94 when you stood up to the Clinton health care plan.

GILLESPIE: Well, I think the bounceback point is to Ed Rollins' point, the reclaiming the mantle of fiscal responsibility, very important to Republicans.

And those numbers, if you look at those numbers in isolation are discouraging, John. But if you look at other numbers, for example the congressional generic ballot. If the election were held today, Republicans are up two points for the first time in over five years. If you look at what's going on in the gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, New Jersey, a very, very Democrat-leaning state, very blue. Not sure how that is going to turn out. I still believe that Chris Christie, the Republican is going to win there. In Virginia, the Republican, Bob McDonnell -- disclosure, I volunteer as his general chairman -- but that is a gap that has just been widening for him and that's a very purple state. They've won four state-wide races in a row and Obama carried the Electoral College. So that -- those numbers, that chart is not happy to see it as a Republican, but when you see what's going on in actual elections, things look pretty good.

KING: Does that shape the White House view? Are they worried about these elections one week from Tuesday and if Republicans have a good day or even a mixed day, somehow those moderates -- Virginia happens to be one of those red states that he turned blue -- if the Republicans win big in the state of Virginia, do they think that moderate Democrats on health care are going to say, ooh?

HENRY: They are very concerned about that, especially in the short term, because someone like Ben Nelson will look at that and say maybe people really are as Ed Gillespie is suggesting, worried about the price tag, worried about the fiscal responsibility and maybe it's time to reign that in.

What they're more concerned about though is 2010 and the midterm congressional elections and I spoke a few days back to one of president's top advisers and he was insisting when you look at the Republican poll number, it suggests that they're dipping even as the president hasn't been doing that well. And that the Republicans are not gaining at least in the short term.

And looking ahead to 2010, what Democratic advisers to the president are saying is if you give them a few more months, they believe the stimulus will finally kick in and that the economy is cyclical and by November of 2010, the economy will pick up and they think they'll get a victory on health care and they think a lot of the charges from Republicans about death panels, about government takeover, will not pan out and that the American people might see by November 2010, things are starting to get better. It's going to take awhile for health care to kick in and they think they will be able to paint the Republicans as the party of no.

HENRY: Now, that may be optimistic, but that's what they're thinking at the White House.

BASH: There's something else the Democrats are worried about, and that is a disillusioned Democratic base, and, you know, the fact that the president has -- will perhaps send more troops to Afghanistan, that he's not done what he -- what unions want him to do, that he has not done the public option yet.

And I think you cannot discount this shift, especially in the Senate, for Harry Reid deciding, all of a sudden, that he will put some form of a public option in the bill, in the Senate, that that is an answer to a very upset Democratic base.

Because, you know, we'll see what happens on Tuesday, but, even looking ahead to 2010, if the Democrats, Harry Reid included, because he's got a tough re-election battle ahead -- if he doesn't have a very active and activated Democrat base, he's in trouble and lots of other Democrats across the country are as well.

KING: Do you second that?

BRAZILE: Yes.

KING: OK, good. Do we have a quorum?

(LAUGHTER)

Dana just -- Dana just mentioned the debate over sending more troops to Afghanistan, the strain among Democrats, some interesting sound in that context this Sunday. We'll be right back. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHENEY: Having announced his Afghanistan strategy in March, President Obama now seems afraid to make a decision and unable to provide his commander on the ground with the troops he needs to complete the mission. The White House must stop dithering while America's armed forces are in danger.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: Former Vice President Dick Cheney, last week, suggesting in a speech here in Washington that the commander in chief should make his decision, not wait for the Afghan elections, not listen to those in the Democratic Party saying not to send more troops.

Dick Cheney says send more troops. Carl Levin, who's a senator from Michigan and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says the former vice president should keep his mouth shut.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CARL LEVIN, D-MICH.: I thought that the comments of the former vice president were totally out of bounds. I don't think he has any credibility left with the American people, in any event, but I think it's really wrong for the vice -- former vice president of the United States to be talking, as he did, about the president dithering. Because the president needs to reach the right decision.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Ed Rollins, unusual for the former vice president? He seems to pick his moments in a very calculated way for when he wants to re-emerge and take a shot at the president.

ROLLINS: Yes, I think he feels he's the only defender of what went on in the past. I mean, obviously, some good people like Ed Gillespie and others do, but I think the critical thing on this is this is the president's own credibility that's at stake. Afghanistan was not something that we blundered into. This was a country that basically was run by the Taliban, had Al Qaida, had bin Laden.

In 2002, after September 11, we said, "Give up bin Laden; get rid of Al Qaida, and we'll let you stay."

They didn't; we went in, and we changed the government.

It now will take a period of time. They need 400,000 to 500,000 Afghan troops in order to basically make sure that's a stable country. They don't have that today. They don't, like the Iraqi army that we basically dismantled, they don't have trained troops. And it's going to take a while for that to occur.

There's 41 other countries that have been involved in Afghanistan. This was a U.N. sanction, a NATO-run operation. And I think, to a certain extent, what the president's decision is not his alone. There are other allies that are there. And if he doesn't make the right decision on this, I think people will basically question his ability to lead effectively internationally.

KING: Ed Gillespie, to the point Ed just noted -- Ed Rollins just noted you worked in the Bush White House at the end. After Rahm Emanuel was on this program last week, he said they needed time because a lot of these questions hadn't been asked in the prior eight years.

My phone and my e-mail have been going nuts, been an overload all week from people who worked in the administration and were close to your administration, the former administration, saying, essentially, hogwash, that we actually did a very detailed review and we gave it to them.

GILLESPIE: That's exactly right. And, in fact, in mid- September, there was a two-month review process, interview process, and then an analysis of that. And the fact is Rahm Emanuel, last Sunday, was either uninformed or willfully misleading in what he said because he knows full well, I suspect, that there was a proposal given and a review given that took into account the Afghan national army, the politics over there, the policing, the international framework.

And they actually asked that the Bush administration hold off in making it public and let them have a chance to take it -- a reasonable request, one commander in chief leaving, another commander in chief coming in. And President Bush did the right thing and said, you know what, take it; take a look at it.

There's an interesting suggestion today, in the Weekly Standard, by Eliot Cohen, former State Department official. He said, you know what, after what they said, they ought to put forward and declassify what President Obama came out with in March and what was given to him in January when he came in, by the Bush administration. Let's see how different it is.

That's how much they actually changed what was given to them, because I suspect not much.

KING: Well, you were in the room, so let me ask you a question. Someone told me this week that, late in the administration, the Bush administration, General Petraeus wanted to announce a further reduction of troops in Iraq as a sign of progress, and that President Bush said no, let President Obama do that, that it will help him in the early days of his administration to make that announcement. Is that true?

GILLESPIE: I'll only say that President Bush made some decisions at the end, relative to his successor, that he thought would make it easier for his successor, as commander in chief, to do the right thing in terms of our national security. And what you just said would be consistent with the president's approach at the end, President Bush's approach at the end of his second term.

KING: If he is making a fair case -- and please feel free to dispute it if you think he's not...

BRAZILE: I wasn't there. So -- and General Jones said that he was never told to withhold the -- he never told the Bush administration to withhold the information.

But I do recall, back in October of last year, that there was an NIE report -- and Ed probably knows a lot more about this than me -- that indicated that Afghanistan was in a downward spiral.

So I'm sure that the president came into office knowing that the situation in Afghanistan was grave and that he had to begin to put more resources.

Look, in the last seven years of the Bush administration, we were spending, on average, $120 billion in Iraq, $20 billion in Afghanistan.

So that's not the issue. The issue is, what do we do going forward? We're at a critical moment. We don't have the outcome of the elections resolved yet. If we -- and a key part of the counterinsurgency strategy is to clear it and then to hold it and to build it.

Our troops are good. They can clear it, but we need the Afghanistan government to help us hold and then build. And I think the president is right in trying to make the best judgment and assessment before we commit more troops and more resources.

KING: I want you listen to some other voices in this debate. I asked Senator Orrin Hatch, this morning, if he agreed with former Vice President Cheney. He said he did not want to use the term "dithering," but that it was time for the president to make his decision.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HATCH: We don't support General McChrystal and in the end the president. I understand why these are tough decisions, but I think it's taken too long and some people have even been I think hypercritical in suggesting that he's waiting until after this election because they have tough governorships up for election. I hope that's not the case.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: On Donna's side in the room, which you heard Senator Hatch say some people are suggesting he's waiting for the gubernatorial election. Well I asked Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio if he thought the commander-in-chief would ever do that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: It's outrageous that any partisan -- that partisans in this country would say the president of the United States is waiting on two governor's races in New Jersey and in Virginia to make a decision in Afghanistan.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: Here's the other part of this is that just step back for a second and Ed will remember this. I was covering President Bush late 2006 when he announced the surge. I remember he took three or four months to make that decision and I think back then, there may have been Democrats throwing stones at him about dithering or something, but that would have been wrong.

BASH: And John McCain.

HENRY: And John McCain. So for now, for former Vice President Cheney to be saying he's dithering, putting aside the politics for a second, we've got to get this right. So he should take the time that he needs. I think President Bush got the time he needed to figure out the surge in Iraq and it looked like the surge worked, whether Democrats want to admit that or not. President Bush appeared late in the game to get that right.

So give President Obama the time to get it right as well. More important for President Obama is not the criticism from former Vice President Cheney, but the comments after the interview with Rahm Emanuel when Defense Secretary Robert Gates started publicly saying, why are we going to wait until after the Afghan election to sort it out? We have to get this going.

The fact that President Obama has so much credibility because he has Defense Secretary Gates as a holdover. If he starts moving against this administration that's a bigger deal.

BASH: I thought that was one of the most interesting things that happened last week was the public split after Rahm Emanuel said on your show, let's hold off and Robert Gates clearly saw that and also from David Axelrod, similar comments and said wait, wait, wait, wait.

But look in terms of the politics of this, I think it just happens to work out in the president's favor with regard to the calendar that the Afghan runoff is November 7th, just a few days after the elections here, you know, it's I think lucky timing for the president. ROLLINS: The only question I would like to raise is what difference does it make who wins there? The bottom line is we either go in with our NATO allies and try and build up their military. You know, the prospect of a change there is slim and even if there is a change, we still have to back up this government and build an army there. The premise here is we're not trying to capture that country. We're trying to basically make that country function effectively to keep the Taliban from coming back and taking it back and sponsoring al Qaeda again.

BRAZILE: But the credibility of the government is important in winning the hearts and minds of the people. General McChrystal said that.

ROLLINS: How do you make them credible? The way they have functioned in that country for a period of time is not going to change no matter who's there.

BRAZILE: I agree. There's a lot of widespread corruption, Ed, but we cannot just send our troops and they are brave men and women, onto the battlefield without a functioning government to lead behind and ensure that the Taliban doesn't come back and retake those areas.

KING: All right we need to quickly --

GILLESPIE: I want to go back to the politics of this and without refraining from speculating about governors elections and all that, the fact is it was Vice President Biden who said out loud and was quoted in the newspapers that one of the concerns here is that increasing troops in Afghanistan is politically unsustainable in the Democratic Party. So we can set aside speculation and just that the vice president -- let the vice president's words speak for themselves about this.

KING: A quick break for us, a quick break for us. When we come back, we're going to continue the feisty conversation. A feisty group here, wow! I'll tell you what they say during the break, too. Trust me. When we come back, we're going to talk about the economy and spending. Don't go anywhere. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Having a good staff and a good library comes in handy when a politician says something now that doesn't match up with what they said back then. You remember the big political debate over President Bush should approve a surge of troops in Iraq. Among those who back at the time were talking December 2006 now said no, bad idea, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LEVIN: I would oppose increasing forces. I think it would be a mistake because it gets us in deeper rather than getting us out and mainly because it's a political solution which is required here.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That was then. This is now. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LEVIN: History will show that President Bush reached the right decision. It wasn't the only cause for the improved situation in Iraq, the extent it has improved. But nonetheless, he took the three months. No one pressured President Bush at that time to reach a decision more quickly than he felt he could.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: We don't do that to embarrass Senator Levin. I do it to make the point that sometimes what you think at the moment especially when these debates get so political doesn't always turn out to be the right over time.

BASH: Look at Barack Obama. As the senator, he opposed the surge. As a candidate, as the surge appeared to be working, he said it was the greatest idea in the world. So Senator Levin is not alone.

HENRY: At least he's sort of acknowledging finally. There are a lot of other Democrats who won't admit that the surge worked. So you've got to give him the credit there.

GILLESPIE: That's right, he said it out loud. A lot of other Democrats only think it.

KING: Let's move on to the economy. One of the challenges for the administration is the stock market goes up and that does help a lot of people's 401(k)s, but then they see these stories about bailouts on Wall Street and huge salaries being paid to the people in the financial sector.

When people on Main Street, Michigan's 15.2 percent, a lot of states have double digit unemployment. One of the president's top economic advisers Larry Summers was out trying to make the case this week that when you're trying to bring back the economy, sometimes some people are going get rich.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LAWRENCE SUMMERS, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL ECONOMIC COUNCIL: We can note that just as in war, there are unintended victims, so, too in economic rescue. There are unintended beneficiaries.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Ed Rollins, you worked in the White House. I know it was a Republican White House, but would that speech ever get through your office?

ROLLINS: That definitely would not get through my office. Unfortunately, the unintended consequences is not what's happening in Goldman Sachs or the bonuses on Wall Street. What's happening is that millions and millions and millions of Americans are unemployed without hope. ROLLINS: And I think that's the more serious -- this is the most serious unemployment we've probably ever had and I lived through it 25 years ago when it reached over 10 percent and we paid a heavy price in the midterm elections in -- I'm sorry, 1982. The critical thing here though is if this recovery doesn't get people back to work pretty quick, every Democrat and some Republicans are going to pay a very hairy price.

KING: I want you all to listen as we close out this block. This is a family farmer I met this week in Nebraska. Unemployment right there is 4.9 percent, that's half the national average and we were talking in the context of these bailouts and the bonuses and I said, why does Nebraska have such a low rate?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEFF SHANER, OWNER, NEALE FARMS: That's why unemployment is as low as it is because people don't go out and do things that don't make sense. It doesn't make sense to me and, granted, I don't know the whole -- everything, but if I made a bad business decision, if I gave somebody money and said here's a bunch of money I know you're never going to repay it to me, but here it is anyway, and that's my impression of what's happening. I wouldn't expect -- A, I wouldn't expect someone to come along and bail me out from it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Donna Brazile, that is the impression out there, fairly or unfairly and this all started in the Bush administration, TARP and the bailouts and the like, but you ask people and they see these bonuses and they think why is Washington letting this happen? Why won't the president stop this?

BRAZILE: Well you know, one of the things I was writing down is Wall Street should pay attention to Main Street. Most Americans try to live within their means. Most Americans understand you can't go out and buy things that you can't afford and you can't pay back. But unfortunately, we have this value system on Wall Street that don't really appreciate the fact that Main Street is hurting.

They need help and that's why I think this week the president made a decision to spend some of the remaining TARP money and giving community banks a lifeline to help small businesses. That's the only way to create jobs.

BASH: It's not just Wall Street. It's also Washington. That's why a $250 billion bill to bail out basically doctors who are going to get cuts in Medicare, it failed big time because there was no way to pay for it.

KING: OK, a quick time out. Don't go anywhere. When we come back, our lightning round this week. The battle of the sexes, is the Obama White House a boys club?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KING: All right. We are back and a subject that is a big debating point in Washington. It's on the front page of "The New York Times" today. "Man's world at White House, no harm, no foul, aides say."

Our Dan Lothian did a smart piece on this yesterday and earlier this week, NBC White House correspondent Savannah Guthrie asked the president of the United States, is this a boys' club?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE, NBC NEWS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Some people might look at that and say, gosh, there's the old boys' club again.

OBAMA: Yes, I've got to say, I think this is bunk. You know, basically, the House of Representatives, they have a regular basketball game and they had wanted to play here at the White House court and we invited them.

Now, the fact that there were no women participating in that regular game, in fact, I don't know if there are women who are members of Congress who play basketball on a regular basis. I don't think there are, I don't think sends any kind of message or signal whatsoever.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Let's start with the ladies. Donna Brazile, the president says bunk.

BRAZILE: Well, perception is, as you know, 90 percent of reality and it is true the president likes to play hoops with the guys and I don't care if we're not in the loop, not playing hoops.

KING: I see you at basketball games. Would you go over there and play?

BRAZILE: And I will spot him 10 points. I played ball, OK? So I'm not afraid, but John, the most important thing is that women are in the loop. If you call over to the White House and I have on a limited amount of time, I talked about the environment, I talk to Carol Browner. I talk about health care, nasty, talk about the economy, Christina Romer. Valerie Jarrett, clearly she's involved in a lot of these discussions.

Women are in the loop, but the perception of course is that he's only playing ball with the boys. Bill Clinton once asked me if I play golf, and I said no, Mr. President, but I can hit little tiny balls. But I'm sure he can find some women on Capitol Hill to play ball with him and spot him 10 points.

BASH: The thing is it's not just about one basketball game. It's apparently a feeling that the discussion is about sports and sports analogies and that it's a feeling of a boys' club within the senior staff of the White House and across the board. And look, when Dan Lothian was looking into doing this story and his producer Shawna Shepherd called me and said do you think any women on Capitol Hill will talk about it, I won't name names, but I went up to one female senator and I said this is sort of the story and the first thing she said was, so you want me to go on television and call the president a sexist? I don't think so.

So, look, there's a feeling that -- that boys in the White House, so to speak, do have kind of that locker room feeling, but I don't think that there's a big desire to talk about it.

HENRY: I just have to interrupt Dana, she doesn't know what she's talking about. That was a joke. That was a joke.

KING: Towel snapping.

HENRY: I was obviously joking.

BASH: You better be.

HENRY: The president -- when I was watching the interview with Savannah Guthrie was sort of like, stop digging. Because I don't even think there are any women who play regularly. All right, stop, stop, stop. Some woman is going to step forward and there are women who play basketball, obviously.

So anyway, I think symbols, clearly, there are a lot of women in senior positions at the White House and that should be noted, but when we saw the invite list and it was Shawna Shepherd and the White House producers looked at it and they noticed there were noticed there were no women on that list and I think it's something this White House has to be a lot more conscious of.

All of the history making of the first African-American president to make sure also that also women are included as well.

KING: Has it always been thus?

GILLESPIE: It hasn't always been thus. In the Bush White House, obviously, you had a lot of women, senior domestic policy adviser, Margaret Spellings, Condoleezza Rice, obviously, Dana Perino was the press secretary for the last year and a half or so.

I think that makes a different. I think it does add a different perspective on things and it's valuable. I think they would benefit from it. I think frankly, look, there are a lot of kind of Chicago, thuggish behavior that coming out of this White House in terms of intimidating critics and going after the Chamber of Commerce and FOX News and that kind of thing and I think they would probably benefit from somebody tapping the brakes on that every once in a while.

GILLESPIE: Some women won't do it, by the way. Some are as -- tougher than any of those...

(CROSSTALK)

BRAZILE: Let's not smear the city of Chicago. It's a wonderful city, and I don't think we should smear the city of Chicago.

GILLESPIE: Chicago-style politics.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

BRAZILE: It's like their barbecue is spicy.

ROLLINS: There's been 44 presidents and 44 boys' clubs. Each administration in modern times has made some progress. This president basically operates with higher expectations because women were such a critical part of getting elected.

Obviously, women are the majority in the workforce today. Women are a majority of voters. I promise you, if Nancy Pelosi and Olympia Snowe were invited down to a basketball game, there would be a lot of boys getting out of the way to let them score baskets right about now.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: And besides, he's the only non-canine male in the family quarters. That was pointed out also.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: Only -- do you think -- how do you think this story is going over in the family quarters today? What do you think?

(LAUGHTER)

BRAZILE: I'm sure that the first lady and Malia and Sasha are giving the president a run for his money today.

KING: Maybe they're trying to find two more. They've got five. They've got a game right there.

BRAZILE: They're turning the sports channel off.

ROLLINS: she and her brother could give them all a run for their money.

BRAZILE: Oh, you're right.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: All right, we're going to call it quits on this day. Ed Rollins from New York, Donna Brazile, Ed Gillespie, Ed Henry, Dana Bash, thanks for coming in today, a lot of fun.

Up next, we get out of Washington, head to Omaha, Nebraska for a great meal and a great discussion on the economy, health care, and the role of government.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KING: One of our viewers asked on Facebook this week if traveling gets old. And I was quick to answer no, that I find it invigorating and critical to reminding me and us that the wonder of America, 50 very different states, is what makes our politics so complicated.

Being a Democrat in New York, for example, can mean something completely different from being a Democrat in more conservative Nebraska, which is where we stopped this week, our 41st state in 41 weeks.

Look at this state. One in three jobs in Nebraska are tied to agriculture; 4.9 percent unemployment rate, half the national average, but they have lost 13,000 jobs in the last year.

Lyndon Johnson was the last Democrat to carry the state, back in 1964, in a presidential election. So, at Harold's Koffee House -- they spell it "Koffee," with a K -- we tried the "Susie Special," delicious, and got a taste of why Nebraska is so red.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Unemployment here is half the national average. So does that mean Nebraska is doing well or just doing better?

(UNKNOWN): Actually, Nebraska is doing just as bad as California, every place else. We're just a smaller state. That's all. But on the same level, I mean, we're losing jobs left and right here, too. It's no different.

B&K just lost 300-some people out there, you know, doing drywalling. So, yes, it's like that everywhere.

(UNKNOWN): I don't think it's any better. You know, we work in a construction outfit, so, you know, the winter's coming up. I don't know -- I think it's going to be a little slim this winter. I don't know.

(UNKNOWN): Nebraska is made up of smaller communities, and when you lose a business in a smaller community like Auburn, that area, that is a major hit for those people. And there was another one out in Cozad, and I cannot tell you for sure what the name of the business was, but they're losing between 300 and 400 jobs. And for a small town, that is a big deal.

KING: At the beginning of the year, the government did spend a lot of money. And the idea was it would stop the bleeding, at least, and hopefully, in the long term, help. You see any evidence that it's helping?

(UNKNOWN): No, not really. That -- that little bit didn't do much, I don't think. I really don't.

(UNKNOWN): I haven't seen any huge changes, either, as far as the stimulus money. KING: Everybody's cutting back in their own lives; they're being a little bit nervous because of what's going on. Do you see the same concern in the government?

(UNKNOWN): No.

(LAUGHTER)

No. I see -- I see the government spending just like usual. And when I see where some of the pet projects go to, to benefit a particular narrow constituency, I have problems with that.

(UNKNOWN): You know, the bailout money -- a lot of the banks got the money, you know. And you see all of that on the news, where the executives are going to get big bucks.

(UNKNOWN): They're still doing the same thing. They're going to give all these guys big money and big paychecks and everything, and fancy homes and, I mean, it's like just wasting our money still.

(UNKNOWN): I have a little bit different spin on it. I'm not interested in a lot of government intervention into private business. If your company does well and is managed well and you have good people, it will survive. And if it goes under, it goes under.

(UNKNOWN): The president faces a big decision, right now, about whether to send more troops into Afghanistan. The country is clearly a little messed up, with its own election and politics, but the general on the ground there says he needs more troops, maybe as many as 40,000 more troops. And the president is, you know, debating what to do.

What do you think he should do?

(UNKNOWN): I'm willing to trust the military people, as far as what needs to be done. So all this procrastinating, I don't think, does good. It tells the bad guys that we're undecided, again, like it was in '69 and '73.

(UNKNOWN): I think we need to support those troops, you know, those kids over there. KING: The president says he just needs some time to sort this out. Where's the line between, you know, deliberation, and, as some of his critics say, dithering?

(UNKNOWN): Well, we're already over there. I mean, it's already started. I mean, you can't say, well let's think about it; think about it. We've got the pressure on them. Keep the pressure on them.

KING: This is a conservative state. The president didn't win here, probably won't win here next time. But when you look at Washington, is it any different?

(UNKNOWN): There's an unhealthy distrust for Washington's policymaking. I don't think that's good for the country.

(UNKNOWN): That health care thing just scares me. KING: Why?

(UNKNOWN): Well, it seems like, every time the government gets involved in something, they're going to screw it up eventually, you know, maybe not right away, but...

(UNKNOWN): ... somewhere down the line.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Great time at Harold's Koffee House. We thank the people of Nebraska for sharing their stories with us.

As you know, one of our goals is to get out of Washington as often as we can. We've made it our pledge on "State of the Union to visit all 50 states in our first year. So far, we've been to 41, including Nebraska, Florida, Alaska. Where should we go next? E-mail us at "State of the Union" at CNN.com. Tell us why we should come to your community.