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Highlights From The CNN/Tea Party GOP Presidential Debates From Tampa; Interview with Newt Gingrich; "What Freedom is All About"; Gingrich's Problem in the Polls; An Interview with Jon Huntsman; Huntsman's Fight to Gain Traction; Saving Social Security: Huntsman's Vision for Reform; "That Used to Be Us": Pres. Obama's Concern Over China's Progress

Aired September 17, 2011 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Many Republicans are looking at the GOP presidential candidates with a fresh eye after our historic CNN Tea Party debate. This hour, see how the frontrunner, Rick Perry, absorbs some of the fiercest hits.

Plus three of the GOP contenders talked to me about their own debate hits ad misses and how their opponents did. Stand by with my interviews with Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, and Newt Gingrich.

And why President Obama should be worried about China's rise. The journalist and author Thomas Friedman explains how the United States can maintain its role as the world's top economic superpower.

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

Rick Perry may have walked away from his second presidential debate feeling a little bit battered and bruised. This CNN Tea Party face- off proved to be a very tough test for the Texas governor. The Republican front-runner was on the receiving end of many contentious exchanges. Take a listen to some of the most talked about moments when all eight Republicans stood on the stage with me in Tampa, Florida, this week.


BLITZER: Governor Perry, speaking of Social Security, you said in the past, it's a Ponzi scheme, an absolute failure, unconstitutional. But today you wrote an article in "USA Today" saying it must be saved and reformed. Very different tone. Why?

RICK PERRY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's time for us to get back to the Constitution. And a program that's been there 70 or 80 years, obviously we're not going to take that program away. But for people to stand up and support what they did in the '30s or what they are doing in the 2010s is not appropriate for America.

MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The question is, do you still believe that Social Security should be ended as a federal program, as you did six months ago, when your book came out, and return to the states. Or do you want retreat from that? PERRY: I think we ought to have a conversation --

ROMNEY: We're having that right now, governor. We're running for president.

PERRY: If you'll let me finish, I'll finish this conversation. But the issue is, are there ways to move the states into Social Security, for state employees or retirees? We did it in the state of Texas back in the 1980s. I think those types of thoughtful conversations with America rather than trying to scare seniors, like you're doing, and other people. It's time to have a legitimate conversation in this country about how to fix that program, where it's not bankrupt and our children actually know that there's going to be a retirement program there for them.

ROMNEY: Governor, the term Ponzi scheme is what scared seniors, number one. And number two, suggesting that Social Security should no longer be a federal program and return to the states is likewise frightening. There are a lot of the bright people who agree with you. And that's your view. I happen to have a different one. I think that Social Security is an essential program that we should change the way we're funding it.

PERRY: Governor, you called it a criminal -- you said if people did it in the private sector, it would be called criminal. That's in your book.


ROMNEY: What I said was -


ROMNEY: Governor Perry, you have to quote me correctly. You said it's criminal. What I said was Congress taking money out of the Social Security trust fund is like criminal and it is, it's wrong.

JON HUNTSMAN, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't think anything should be off the table except maybe some of the drama that is playing out on this floor today. I mean to hear these two go at it over here it is incredible. You have Governor Romney who called it a fraud in his book "No Apology." I don't know if that was written by Kurt Cobain or not. And then you have governor Perry who is calling this is a Ponzi scheme.

All I know, Wolf, is we're frightening the American people who just want solutions. And this party isn't going to win in 2012 unless we get our act together and fix the problem. We all know that we've gotten entitlement problems. We have Medicare. We've got Social Security. The fixes are there. I mean the Ryan plan is there, for heaven sake. We have the answers. Don't have leadership, that's the problem.

NEWT GINGRICH, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm not particularly worried about Governor Perry and Governor Romney frightening the American people when president Obama scares them every single day. BLITZER: Governor Romney, you know Governor Perry is governor of Texas, created more jobs in Texas than any other state.

ROMNEY: Terrific state. No question about that. Some wonderful things that Texas has going for it that the nation can learn from. Zero income tax. That's a pretty good thing. Right to work state. Republican legislature. Republican supreme court. By the way, a lot of oil as well.

BLITZER: Does Governor Perry deserve any credit for all those jobs that were created in Texas?

ROMNEY: Oh, sure.

BLITZER: Go ahead and tell him how much credit he deserves.


ROMNEY: Well, look --

I think governor Perry would agree with me if you are dealt four ace that's doesn't make you necessarily a great poker player. And four aces -- and the four aces that's are terrific aces the nation should learn from are the ones I described, zero income tax, low regulation, right to work state, oil in the ground, and Republican legislature am those things are terrific. By the way, there has been great job growth in Texas under Ann Richards, job growth was 2.5 percent a year. Under George Bush, was 3 percent a year. Under Rick Perry, 1 percent a year. Those are all good numbers. Those are all good numbers. But Texas is a great state.

And I'll tell you, if you think that the country is like Texas going swimmingly well, then somebody who's done that is just terrific. If you think the country needs a turn around, that's what I do.

All right, Governor Perry. You were dealt four aces.

PERRY: Well, I was going to say Mitt you were pretty doing good until you got to talking poker. But the fact is the state of Texas has led the nation. While the current resident of the White House is overseeing the loss of 2.5 million jobs, Texas has, during my period as governor, created over a million jobs. We did that during some pretty tough economic period.

BLITZER: Let me bring Speaker Gingrich into this conversation. Jobs, jobs, jobs, all of us who covered you when you were speaker and you worked together with President Clinton at the time, you compromised. He compromised. You got things done. There was a budget surplus for as far as the eye could see. If you were president, you would work with the Democrats assuming they were the majority in the House or the Senate? Would you compromise with them on some of these gut issues?

GINGRICH: When I was a very young congressman, Ronald Reagan taught me a great lesson if you have Democrats in charge. And that is to go to the American people on principle and have the American people educate their congressmen. He used to say, I try to turn up the light for the people so they will turn up the heat on Congress. When we passed welfare reform, half the people who -- half the Democrats voted yes because they couldn't go home having voted no. And on a principle basis, I'd be glad to work with Democrats in any office. But I do it on principle, not on compromising principle.

BLITZER: Governor Perry, as you well know, you signed an executive order requiring little girls 11 and 12-year-old girls to get a vaccine to deal with a sexually transmitted disease that could lead to cervical cancer. Was that a mistake?

PERRY: It was, indeed. If I had to do it over again, I would have done it differently. I would have gone to the legislature, worked with them. But what was driving me was obviously making a difference about young people's lives.

Cervical cancer is a horrible way to die. And I happen to think that what we were trying to do was to clearly send a message that we're going to give moms and dads the opportunity to make that decision with parental opt out.

BLITZER: Congressman Bachmann, do you have a problem with anything that governor Perry just said? You're a mom.

MICHELE BACHMANN, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm a mom. And I'm a mom of three children. And to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection, through an executive order, is just flat out wrong. That should never be done. That's a violation of a liberty interest.

Little girls who have a negative reaction to this potentially dangerous drug don't get a Mulligan. They don't get a do over. The parents don't get a do over. That's why I fought so hard in Washington, D.C., against President Obama and Obama care.

I just wanted to add that we cannot forget that in the midst of this executive order there is a big drug company that made millions of dollars because of this mandate. We can't deny that.

BLITZER: What you are suggesting?

BACHMANN: What I'm saying is that it's wrong for a drug company, because the governor's former chief of staff is the chief lobbyist for this drug company. The drug company gave thousands of dollars in political donation to the governor. And this is just flat out wrong. The question is, is it about life or was it about millions of dollars and potentially billions for a drug company?

BLITZER: I'll let the Senator Santorum hold off for a second. You have to respond to that.

PERRY: Yes, sir, the company was Merck. And it was a $5,000 contribution that I had received from them. I raise about $30 million. If you're saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I'm offended.

BACHMAN: I'm offended for all the little girls and the parents that didn't have a choice. That's what I'm offended.

BLITZER: I'm going to move on unless you want to say anything else?

PERRY: Look, I think we made decisions in Texas. We put a $3 billion effort into find the cure for cancer. There are a lot of different cancers out there. Texas, I think, day in and day out is a place that protects life. I'm passed parental notification, pieces of legislation. I've been the most pro-life governor in the state of Texas. And what we were all about was trying to save young people's lives in Texas.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Then give parents the opt in -- teach them, let them opt in but do not force them to have this inoculation.

BLITZER: Thank you, governor. Before I get to Michelle Bachman -- you're a physician, Ron Paul. So, you are a doctor, so you know something about this subject. Let me ask you this hypothetical question, a healthy 30-year-old young man has a good job, makes a good living. But decides, you know what? I'm not going to spend $200 or $300 a month for health insurance because I'm healthy. I don't need it. Something terrible happens. All of a sudden, he needs it. Who is going to pay for, if he goes into a coma, for example? Who pays for that.

RON PAUL, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: In a society that you accept welfarism and socialism, he expects the government it take care of it.

BLITZER: But what do you want?

PAUL: He should do whatever he wants to do and assume responsibility for himself. My advice to him would be to have a major medical policy. But not be forced --

BLITZER: But he doesn't have it. And he needs -- he needs intensive care for six months. Who pays?

PAUL: That's what freedom is all about, taking your own risk. This whole idea that you have to prepare and take care of everybody -

BLITZER: But congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?

PAUL: No. I practiced medicine before we had Medicaid in the early 1960s. When I got out of medical school, I practiced at Santa Rosa hospital in San Antonio. The churches took care of them. We never turned anybody away from the hospitals. And we have given up on this whole concept that we might take care of ourselves and assume responsibility for ourselves, our neighbors, our friends, our churches would do it. This whole idea -- that's the reason that the cost is so high.

The cost is so high because we dump it on the government. It becomes a bureaucracy. It becomes special interest. It cow tows to the insurance companies and the drug companies. Then on top of that, you have the inflation. The inflation devalues the dollar. We have lack of competition. There's no competition in medicine. Everybody is protected by licensing. We should actually legalize alternative health care, allow people to practice what they want.

BLITZER: Did you sign legislation giving some illegal immigrants in Texas the opportunity to have instate tuition at universities in Texas.

PERRY: In the state of Texas, if you've been in the state of Texas for three yeas, if you are working towards your college degree, and if you are working and pursuing a citizenship in the state of Texas, you pay in-state tuition there. And the bottom line is it doesn't make any difference what the sound of your last name is. That is the American way. No matter how you got into that state from the standpoint of your parents brought you there or what have you, and that's what we've done in the state of Texas. And I'm proud that we are having those individuals be contributing members of our society, rather than tell on them you go and be on the government dole.

BLITZER: You heard some boos there. Go ahead, Congressman Bachmann. Is that Dream Act that President Obama wants as well?

BACHMANN: It's very similar. I think the American sway not to give taxpayers subsidized benefits to people who broken our laws, or are here in the United States illegally. That is not the American way.

Because the immigration system in the United States worked very, very well up until the mid 1960s when liberal members of Congress changed immigration laws. What works is to have people come into the United States with a little bit of money in their pocket, legally with sponsors so that if anything happens to them, they don't fall back on the taxpayers to take care of them. And then they also have to agree to learn to speak the English language, learn American history and our Constitution. That's the American way.


BLITZER: All right. A little flavor of what went on during that lengthy debate in Tampa. We're going to go dig deeper though now with some of the candidates straight ahead. I'll go one-on-one with Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman, all three of them joining us right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Mitt Romney a harsh critic of the Obama administration. But now polls show him trailing Rick Perry in the Republican race for the White House.

So, will Romney step up his attacks? I talked about that and much more with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.


BLITZER: The front-runner Rick Perry, at least according to a lot of the polls, he just spoke to our sister publication "Time" magazine. He made this statement. I'm going to play it for you and then we'll discuss. Listen to Rick Perry.


PERRY: I still believe they are socialists. Their policies prove that almost daily. I mean when all the answers emanate from Washington, D.C., one size fits all, whether it's education policy or whether it's health care policy, that is, on its face, socialism.


BLITZER: He's talking about the Obama administration's policies. Do you agree with him?

ROMNEY: Well, you know, words have a lot of unintended meanings and calling people socialists probably goes beyond the fact that it is true that President Obama's team and the president himself seem to believe that government has a better approach to our economy than does the private sector. And I disagree with that approach.

I believe that we have to have a government that is a partner that, is encouraging the private sector, encouraging freedom, encouraging free people. What they've done instead is add regulation, add taxation, add burdens to the free enterprise system which does tend to make us more European. And Europe isn't working in Europe. Europe is not going to work here in this country. So, you know, I don't use the word socialist, or I haven't so far. But I do agree that the president's approach is government heavy, government intensive, and it is not working.

BLITZER: You remember that exchange I had at the debate with Ron Paul. When I asked him about that hypothetical 30-year-old that has a good job, healthy, makes a good living but decides he doesn't want to buy health insurance. He wants to do something else with that money. But he gets into some sort of accident and needs life support for six months. Costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. What do you do with -- who pays for that kind of care? You heard the exchange I had with Ron Paul. What do you say?

ROMNEY: As you know, what I say is states have a responsibility for caring for their own poor. This should not be a federal responsibility. And there are two-ways that states traditionally have done that. One is to give out free care at the hospitals. And that gets paid for either by other insured individuals or by taxpayers. In my state, it was paid for by taxpayers. Or, you can have inferior care given to people who in which their lives or their health may be in jeopardy.

We're going to insist on people taking personal responsibility. We're not going to have people dying or have their health care in jeopardy. We are going to come up with a system that gives people the care they need. And if they can afford their own care, we're going to insist they pay for it as opposed to looking for government. The people that come up with other ideas, I want to seat ideas in different states. You know in, Massachusetts now about 98 percent of our people have insurance. And I'm proud of the fact that we're seeing better health outcomes as a result.

BLITZER: Were you taken aback by when the audience, Tea Party supporters, when I said, would you just let that young man die? And some of them screamed out, yes! Were you taken aback by that response from some in the audience?

ROMNEY: I sure was. I was very disappointed by that response. Look, we're a people that care very deeply for one another. We respect the sanctity of human life, whether unborn life, middle of their life or end of their life. I tried very hard as governor of my state to come up with a plan that would care for people in our state in a thoughtful and compassionate way.

You know, in our state, less than 1 percent of our children don't have health insurance. Over 99 percent of our kids have health insurance. There are other states where the uninsured kids are as high as 20 percent. You know, I look to find a solution to problems and to try and help our people. I think that's the role of those that have responsibility.

And incidentally, there may be better ways to do it that I came up with. And as Ross Perot used to say, I'm all ears. I'm happy to see what other people come up with. If they come up with something better than I did, I'm happy to have states be able to adopt. That but a federal takeover, with a federal government telling states how to do it, that is a mistake. And that's one reason I repeal Obama care.

BLITZER: How far would you go to stop Iran from building a nuclear bomb?

ROMNEY: Iran has to be convinced we'll go all the way. That we'll take military action. That military action is on the table.

I think our president communicated in various subtle ways that there is not a military option that, we would consider. I think that's a mistake. I think you have to have crippling sanctions against Iran. I think you have to have covert action in Iran to convince the people there of the folly of becoming a nuclear nation.

But I think the Iranians have to believe, as well, and particularly their leadership believes, that America would consider taking military action. That has to be on the table and plans have to be in place. And that's something which clearly you have to consider. We cannot endure a world where Iran has a bomb, because then, of course, the Saudis will and Turkey will and you go aren't world. Syrians will. You'll have all sorts of people with nuclear weapons. Ultimately, the fissile material will find its way in the hands of terrorists and the consequence for the world and for the America is unthinkable.

BLITZER: If you were president and you had to deal with the United Nations General Assembly vote in the coming days that would call for the creation of a Palestinian state, what would you do about it?

ROMNEY: You start a long time ago. This vote and the course being pursued by the Palestinians and by others in the United Nations, is another testament of the president's failure of leadership. This would have been avoided or could have been avoided, in my view, had the president made it clear from the very outset that we stand by Israel. That we lock arm and arm. Instead, the president tried to communicate to the Palestinians and others that support their effort that, well, there may be some distance between us and Israel. Look, you stand by your allies. You show that you're united. That's the best way to keep people from taking adventurous activity.

BLITZER: Good luck, governor. We'll stay in close touch.

ROMNEY: Thanks, Wolf. Good to be with you.


BLITZER: Here's a question: Why is Newt Gingrich comparing himself to Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and George McGovern? You're going to find out, my interview with Newt Gingrich, that is coming up next.


BLITZER: Newt Gingrich got some good reviews for his debate performance in Tampa this week. The former House Speaker often seem to be trying to teach the audience and his rivals a thing two.

I asked Gingrich about many of the key moments of the debate including Rick Perry's stand on the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

PERRY: It's time to bring our young men and women home as soon and obviously safely as we can. But it's also really important for us to continue to have a presence there. And I think the entire conversation about how do we deliver our aid to those countries, and is it best spent with 100,000 military, who have a target on their back in Afghanistan, I don't think so at this particular point in time.

BLITZER: It sounds like, correct me if I'm wrong, Mr. Speaker, he wants to get out of Afghanistan a lot more quickly than you would recommend.

GINGRICH: Well, think we have to ask the military what is the most rapid rate at which we could withdraw from Afghanistan safely. I think we're drifting towards the most dangerous period in the Middle East since the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

The Turkish/Israeli confrontation could become extraordinarily dangerous. The developments in Egypt, in the last week, have been very, very dangerous. Iranians I think yesterday announced that their first nuclear reactor had gone online. I think people underestimate how many different problems they're building very rapidly.

Frankly, I think that the administration's decision to keep 3,000 troops in Iraq is extraordinarily dangerous-and indefensible. So I think there are a lot of things going on simultaneously across the region. And we need to review all of our in the region, not just Afghanistan or Iraq. I think this is going to become a very serious and very dangerous region.

BLITZER: I had this exchange with Ron Paul the congressman from Texas; a sensitive subject. Let me play the clip and then we'll discuss. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He doesn't have it. He needs -- he needs intensive care for six months. Who pays?

PAUL: That's what freedom is all about. Taking your own risk. This whole idea that you have to prepare and take care of everybody --

BLITZER: Congressman, you are saying this society should just let him die?



PAUL: Yes!

PAUL: I practiced medicine before we had Medicaid in the early 1960s when I got out of medical school. I practiced at Santa Rosa Hospital in San Antonio. And the churches took care of them.


BLITZER: What went through your mind when you heard that exchange?

GINGRICH: This idea, you know, what's happened is modern liberalism said if you don't have insurance you can't be covered. That's not true. We could provide health care for the indigent, for much less money than we can provide free health insurance. And I think there are times when you ought to look at whether or not free clinics are less expensive than a universal insurance program, whether or not having a charitable program and charitable hospitals is less expensive-and delivers first-rate care.

None of the doctors who work in free clinics are bad doctors. None of the hospitals that historically are charitable hospitals are bad hospitals, but it's a recognition that if you refuse to be responsible, you refuse to take care of yourself.

A 30-year-old has a job, perfectly healthy, refuses to be an adult, and refuses to be a good citizen. I'm not sure we owe them 100 percent of what we owe somebody who's done everything right and worked hard and paid their taxes and bought their insurance.

BLITZER: What about his decision to allow instate tuition for children of the illegal immigrants in Texas? That wasn't popular in the audience there, the Tea Party supporters. But what do you think? Does he have a point there?

GINGRICH: First of all, the idea that you have to have instate tuition or you can't get educated is nonsense. There are private universities. There are for profit institutions. There's Phoenix University. There are dozens of ways to solve this.

Second, you could have said well, you pay out a state tuition. There are a variety of things you could do. So it's not an either/or situation.

BLITZER: One final political question before I let you go, Mr. Speaker. Our latest CNN/ORC poll had Perry at 30 percent, Romney 18 percent. Palin is not even in 15 percent, Ron Paul, 12 percent and you and Herman Cain at 5 percent. What is your campaign stand right now? Where do you assess your position in this race for the White House?

GINGRICH: Well right now, we're exactly where George McGovern was at this stage before he got the nomination, where Jimmy Carter was at this stage before he became president. That's where Bill Clinton was at this stage before he got to be president.

And by the way at this stage in 2007, John McCain wasn't in the top two either. So I'm pretty comfortable. We're talking about substance. We're talking about things that matter to the American people starting with job creation.

Every week that goes by, I think we gain strength in every debate we've been in. We have a lot more folks showing up at and volunteering to help so I feel pretty good about where we are and how it's developing.

BLITZER: I never thought I'd hear Newt Gingrich making comparisons between himself and Jimmy Carter and George McGovern, Mr. Speaker. That's not every day you hear that, right?

GINGRICH: They got the nomination. They got the nomination as did Bill Clinton and John McCain.

BLITZER: Mr. Speaker, good to have you back in The Situation Room.

Much more ahead on the Republican battle for the White House. Up next, my interview with the presidential candidate and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman. I'll ask him about the growing controversy over the future of Social Security here in the United States and what he plans to do about it.


BLITZER: Jon Huntsman had his work cut out for him during the CNN Tea Party debate this week. He is trying to make end roads with voters before the first presidential contest five months from now.

I spoke with the former U.S. ambassador to China and followed up on many of the heated topics we addressed during the debate.


BLITZER: Let's talk about Social Security first. If you were president, how you would make sure that our children and grandchildren would continue to get Social Security?

JON HUNTSMAN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I'd begin with a conversation like I had with the large group of seniors today and that is not to scare them with language that tends to turn off voters, but rather put forward ideas.

Like the idea that we can look at the underlying assumptions for inflation and peg it more to the consumer price index, like the idea question take Social Security now that we're living three decades longer than somebody in 1900.

And maybe take it out to the 85th percentile of the average age of life. And third, Wolf, I have to tell you, there are a whole lot of people in this country beyond a certain income category who probably don't need Social Security.

They would be the first ones to stand up and probably applaud if a politician was courageous enough to say let's get the numbers right. Let's maybe draw a line in the sand where people really don't need it. They can afford to do otherwise.

And let's begin fixing the numbers to secure it for future generations. The fixes are there. We just don't have the political leadership to move us forward.

BLITZER: Well, those are courageous positions you're taking because on the cost of living, for example, in effect that means less money for retirees, right?

HUNTSMAN: That's correct.

BLITZER: And on the issue of means testing, people pay into Social Security all their lives. If you earn a certain income, you wouldn't necessarily get Social Security. Where would that cut-off point be?

HUNTSMAN: Well, we would have to work out those details. But let me just say, I would be willing to have that conversation with the American people. You can find the cut-off and it would be in the spirit, Wolf, of shared sacrifice.

Everyone has to recognize that given entitlements where they are today, given the fact that this economy is sucking wind and we've hit the wall, we have no choice. People have to stand up and they have to hear the president say that it's going to require a little bit of shared sacrifice.

We haven't started that conversation, but I believe part of it will be exactly what I've outlined in broad strokes here.

BLITZER: So from 65 to 67. What age do you think would be a good age not necessarily for the current retirees, but for 10 years down the road, 70? Is that what you want to raise the age to?

HUNTSMAN: Well, let's just say that we're living longer with each passing year and the benefits of science and health is all a very good thing. Let's face it to the 85th percentile of the average length of life. And use that as kind of a moving scale. I think that would be a good place to start this conversation.

BLITZER: Let's talk about another sensitive issue that came up during the debate we all had Monday night in Tampa. The HPV vaccine, the vaccine that in Texas the governor by executive order Rick Perry mandated that 11 and 12-year-old girls get this vaccine.

It's a sexually -- to deal with a sexually transmitted disease that could lead to cervical cancer. Michelle Bachmann as you well know was very critical of him on this. Who is right, Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann?

HUNTMAN: Well, let me just say that whoever comes down against mandates, I think is on the side of where the American public are. Parents and guardians can make choices. Mandates do not have a role predominantly in these kinds of issues whether it's health care reform or whether it's what we are discussing here.

I think American people -- the American people are very skeptical of mandates in society. They want freedom. They want the freedom. They want the freedom to choose these things. And I think Rick came out courageously and basically said that he had erred and basically took back that earlier decision he made.

BLITZER: One final question on this. Michelle Bachmann, one of your rivals, she says that she spoke to someone, a woman who told her that her daughter became mentally retarded after getting that HPV vaccine. A lot of scientists, almost everyone saying that was totally irresponsible. No evidence for that. What do you make of that?

HUNTSMAN: Well, if you're going to say something, just check your sources. Get your information right. If you're going to run for president of the United States, people are pretty much going to want to rely on your facts. They're going to want to rely it is on what you're presenting. And you're darn well better make sure that it's consistent with reality.

BLITZER: Is she qualified to be president of the United States?

HUNTSMAN: Well, I think she meets the constitutional requirements, of course.

BLITZER: The constitution is one thing. But in terms of her experience, her expertise, her knowledge, is she ready to become commander in chief?

HUNTSMAN: Well, I would never go beyond what the constitution requires. Leave that up to the people to decide. They always typically make the best choices.

BLITZER: Governor Huntsman, good luck.

HUNTSMAN: Thank you, Wolf. I appreciate it.

BLITZER: Thank you, Governor Huntsman.


BLITZER: Here's a question, is the United States losing its status as the world's leading superpower? I'll talk about that and much more with Tom Friedman of "The New York Times". Stay with us.


BLITZER: As President Obama struggles to jump-start the ailing U.S. economy, a mounting debt crisis and newly downgraded credit rating, there is deep concern around the world about the current standing of the United States as a global superpower.


Joining us now, "The New York Times" columnist Thomas Friedman. He has a brand new book out that he co-authored with Michael Mandelbaum, a professor at the School of Advance International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, my alma mater, I always mention that.

The book is entitled, "That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind In The World And How Invented And How We Can Come Back." Tom, thanks very much for coming in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Great to be here with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Congratulations on the new book. I'm going to start off with a clip. It will be obvious why I'm playing this clip. Listen to this.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: It makes no sense for China to have better rail systems than us and Singapore having better airports than us and we just learned that China now has the fastest super computer on earth. That used to be us.


BLITZER: Now we know how you got the title. Is that plagiarism a little bit? Did you pick that --


BLITZER: You obviously are giving him full credit. That used to be us, but it's not us anymore. What happened?

FRIEDMAN: Well, you know, Wolf, this is a forward looking book with a backward looking title and the reason is that we really argue that we had a formula for success in this country. It was built on five basic principles, educate our people up to and beyond what the technology is so he had can master it.

Second, have the world's best infrastructure. Third, have the world's best immigration policies to attract the most energetic and talented immigrants. Fourth, have the best rules for investing and prevent recklessness. And fifth, government funded research.

That used to be us. That's how we got here. That public-private partnership is how we became a rich country. What is the book is about is basically how we've lost all five. We're there pointing down at all five and our way back is to turn those arrows up again. BLITZER: How much responsibility do you think President Obama has? He's been president now for approaching three years for getting the U.S. or preventing the U.S. from getting out of what you clearly describe as a rut.

FRIEDMAN: Well, our argument, Wolf is that the hole we're in right now is not from 2008. It really is 20 years. It dates back to the end of the cold war, which we dealt with as a victory. It was a great victory.

But it also unleashed two billion people just like us who want to compete with us and collaborate with us. It was a moment when we really need to be tying up our shoes to run the race. And we kind of put our feet up.

Unfortunately, it was compounded by the last decade where we tragically found ourselves having to chase the losers from globalization, al Qaeda and Taliban, rather than the winners.

BLITZER: What is the single most important thing the president can do, given the fact there is a divided contract legislatively. He's not going to be able to achieve much. But what can he do as president unilaterally through executive orders or whatever to help get the U.S. out of this hole?

FRIEDMAN: Unfortunately, Wolf, the hole we're in requires collective action. It's too deep. It's collective action, the kind that won the cold war in World War II. I think the most important thing the president can do is basically lay out his side of a grand bargain.

He can't strike that bargain alone. He needs the Republican partner, but his side has to include a plan for cutting spending. We made promises we cannot keep to future generations, for raising revenue. We don't have enough revenue.

BLITZER: Which means tax increases.

FRIEDMAN: We cannot just shred our safety nets. Lastly, for investing in these five pillars of our national greatness. We have to do all three at the same time.

BLITZER: As far as raising taxes, Republicans are not going to go along with raising taxes.

FRIEDMAN: Well, you know, Republicans will tell you that's off the table. To which I will tell you then our future is off the table. We can't do this without doing all three. We have to cut spending. We have to raise taxes.

I hope we can do it through tax reform. There seems to be some impetus for that in the Republican Party and we have to invest in the sources of our strength.

BLITZER: Let's talk about this potential Republican crop of candidates out there. I did an interview this week with the eight Republican candidates. You see any of them have the vision that you and Michael would like to see, to help the United States move on to this next level?

FRIEDMAN: You know, I think Governor Romney probably comes close to it although you never quite know because he has to spend so much time pandering to the Republican base right now to win the primary. I think Jon Huntsman certainly would agree with 90 percent of this book as well. Whether they can win their primary and deliver the Republican Party to that agenda is a whole another question.

BLITZER: What about Rick Perry who's the frontrunner obviously?

FRIEDMAN: You know, he doesn't feel like someone who really has this sense of -- how we got here in full. You know, this sense that we got to cut spending and raise revenue and invest in the source of our greatness. But I'm ready to listen --

BLITZER: In Texas, he helped create a lot of jobs in Texas.

FRIEDMAN: Yes, I think there are situations in Texas that are peculiar to Texas. You know, first of all, but I want to hear -- Perry is early in the race. One of the points we really make in this book is we don't have a candidate.

We have an agenda. And if Rick Perry signs on to this agenda or President Obama or Jon Huntsman or Romney, God bless them. We're with them. The country needs the agenda and so I'm not really here to pick candidates.

BLITZER: I've heard some of the other interviews. You've suggested maybe the country needs a third party, some sort of non-Democrat, non- Republican, somebody else who's going to come in and pick up some of these ideas.

FRIEDMAN: Well, our point is because we have an agenda and not a candidate. If no candidate actually pursues that agenda, we think -- it doesn't matter what we want. The country needs that kind of shock.

We think someone will step into that void, Wolf. Where we are right now, I think our choices are very simple, Wolf. We're either going to have a hard decade or a bad century. That is either we're going to realize this hole is not a couple years old.

It doesn't take just a little tax cut here and cut of spending there. We've been on a 20-year mardigras, OK? We made up for a lot of hard work by injecting ourselves with credit steroids. We're going to have to overcome this.

It's probably going to take a decade to get out of this hole. It will get quicker and quicker, the smarter and harder we work at it. But if we don't do that, Wolf. If we don't assume a hard decade, we're going to have a bad century. We're going to look like a big Japan, I fear.


BLITZER: More with my interview with Tom Friedman just ahead including that political unrest exploding across North Africa and the Middle East right now. It's known as the Arab Spring. Is there a bigger role that the United States should be playing in the process?


BLITZER: Let's get right back to my interview with Thomas Friedman of the "New York Times." He's the co-author of the brand new book, "That Used To Be Us."


BLITZER: Let me pick your brain on the Arab Spring that has unfolded over these past several months. Is this working out the way you and I and most Americans would like it to work out?

FRIEDMAN: Wolf, you know, my view from day one, I was in the Tahrir Square when it happened in Egypt, is that this is going to be a long, long haul. These countries were led by a generation of tyrants basically who prevented any civil society institutions, any liberal politics from basically emerging under them.

So when they cracked at the top, the elevator went where, straight to the mosque. I mean, that was the only institution that was there. So naturally, you're going to see this initial Islamic surge and it is natural you're going to see this kind of chaos frankly because there are no institutions.

You know, I can be optimistic about the Arab Spring as long as I have a very long timeline. But I think the big question we have to ask about all these other countries, Wolf, they need a midwife, somebody to help them through this process.

Now in Iraq, we were that midwife. At a huge cost to our country. But at least we did get them through various elections and into a constitution. Who is going do that in Egypt? Who's going do that in Tunisia?

Who's going to do that in Libya? Who's going to do it in Yemen? Who's going to do that in Syria if it goes down that road? That's a big question I still have. And without that kind of midwife, it's going to be -- it's going to take that much longer.

BLITZER: There's enormous concern here and in Israel about Iran right now maybe being on the verge of developing some sort of nuclear device. That could change the strategic equation big time over there.

FRIEDMAN: Yes, that part of the world is just -- I've never been more depressed about it than I am now.

BLITZER: You've covered it for a long time.

FRIEDMAN: For my whole adult life.

BLITZER: I remember your book, "From Beirut to Jerusalem."

FRIEDMAN: They're like no positive -- I mean, other than the broad -- this upsurge which is hugely important, people taking responsibility for their own lives. But my bottom line in the Middle East right now, Wolf, are (inaudible).

Stability has left the building. OK, if you're looking for stability, it's left the building. The question is what kind of instability are we going to have? Is it going to have a positive slope, head toward a South Africa transition, Indonesia transition or is it going to have a negative slope and head towards the Somalia, God forbid, you know, Pakistan kind of situation. I don't know.


BLITZER: Tom Friedman of the "New York Times." Thousands of people fleeing deadly flooding, our "Hotshots" is coming up next, pictures worth a thousand words.


BLITZER: Here's a look at this hour's "Hotshots." In India, villagers wade through floodwaters that have killed more than two dozen people and displaced more than 100,000 in the past week.

In Paris, love pad locks are attached to a fence. Lovers either hold on to the key to reopen the lock or throw it into the river below as a sign of undying love.

In Nevada, lightning flashes over the Las Vegas strip. In Germany, check this out. A zookeeper holds twin baby red pandas. "Hotshots," pictures coming in from around the world.

This programming note, this coming week, I'll be reporting live all week from New York City, the site of the United Nations General Assembly. We've got special interviews already arrange with several world leaders. THE SITUATION ROOM in New York this entire coming week.

That's it for me today. I'm Wolf Blitzer. Join us weekdays in THE SITUATION ROOM from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. Eastern, every Saturday at 6:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN and at this time every weekend on CNN International. The news continues next on CNN.