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JOHN KING, USA

President: No Regrets Over NYC Mosque Comments; Losing Touch; Leaving Iraq

Aired August 18, 2010 - 19:00   ET

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


JOHN KING, HOST: Thanks Wolf and good evening, everyone.

Two words from the president are driving our political debate tonight, no regrets. No regrets the president says about adding his voice to the emotional debate about whether to allow a mosque and Islamic cultural center just a few steps from ground zero in New York, two words spoken at the end of an hour-long backyard town hall in the middle class section of Columbus, Ohio. Well, five words actually.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE) Islamic center.

BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The answer is no regrets.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: What happens in Ohio this year will tell us a lot about the national political mood and at least a little bit about the early odds for Mr. Obama's re-election in 2012. At the moment, he's in a slump, to say the least. And at the beginning of that backyard town hall, he made a confession of sorts.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: I'll be honest with you. Sometimes when you're in Washington, you get caught up with the particular legislative battles, the media spin on certain issues, and sometimes you lose touch in terms of what folks are talking about around the kitchen table.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: So has the president lost touch on issues like the mosque debate or bigger concerns like the economy? Joining me here in Washington Democratic pollster Peter Hart; he's the chairman of Hart Research. Faiz Shakir, he's the vice president of the Center for American Progress. In New York Reihan Salam with the "National Review Online" and in Atlanta our CNN contributor Erick Erickson who is the editor-in-chief of the conservative RedState.com.

Let me start in the room here with those left of center. No regrets for what, Peter? Meaning that he stepped into the debate or that he stepped back a little bit after? PETER HART, CHAIRMAN, HART RESEARCH: I have to assume no regrets for stepping into the debate. In terms of stepping into the debate, I think he did the right thing in terms of just making the point. I think you could fault the remarks on Saturday and Sunday. But did he make the basic point? The answer is yes. And it was an important point.

KING: But Faiz, if you look at media reporting, a lot of Democrats out there saying, I wish the president weren't talking about this. When we talk to them they say we have a tough enough year, we don't need to be distracted by this. The "New York Daily News" reports today that Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, is calling around saying, please, don't criticize the president. Please, let's all try to turn the volume down on this and then the president answers that question today.

FAIZ SHAKIR, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Yes, no regrets because he's the president who has a duty to fulfill his responsibility to uphold the Constitution and he's saying that I have done that. It's my responsibility. I spoke up for the right of freedom of religion for Muslims. I think I would have liked to have heard him say that he also believes that it's smart for Muslims to build -- American Muslims to build this mosque near ground zero.

I think this particular project is one that they want to endorse. But I'm glad that he's still sticking by his position. And I think it's going to hopefully create the contrast between, I think, the hate mongers on the conservative side who want to turn this into a nasty debate over tolerance and whether we accept minorities in this country.

KING: I want to bring the conservative voices into the conversation, but first, I want you to listen, gentlemen, Reihan and Erick, this is the president speaking at a fund-raising luncheon for Ted Strickland while out in Ohio today.

And remember it is President Obama who escalated this by speaking out Friday night and then again Saturday. But he seemed to suggest with these remarks -- he didn't specifically mention the mosque issue, but he seems to be suggesting here, as Faiz just said that some people are trying to take political advantage.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: When times are tough, it can be easy to give in to cynicism and it can be easy to give in to fear, to set our sights lower, to settle for the status quo, to pit people against each other, to find wedge issues.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Reihan, a political opportunism on behalf of the president's critics or a legitimate point of discussion?

REIHAN SALAM, NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE: I have to say I think that political opportunism can be found on all sides of the political spectrum. Faiz, for example, wrote a terrific blog post back in 2006 about a lot of Democrats including Senator Charles Schumer who pointed to Dubai Ports World as a grave threat to American national security whereas in fact this is a multinational firm that had run ports throughout the world quite efficiently, effectively and fairly without any real security risk.

Yet a lot of Democratic politicians saw that as an opportunity to bash a Republican president. In a similar vein, you get a lot of political opportunism now as well and I think the president himself, President Obama has used this kind of political opportunism to brand his opponents as extremists when in fact they have different views about taxes and spending. And I think that it's contributed to a real corrosive quality and to a real antagonism in our political debates that is depressing, I think.

KING: Erick, Carly Fiorina, the Republican Senate candidate in California said you know what the point of this is to unite America. Those who want this cultural center and mosque near ground zero should pick a new location. It was a big debating point in a congressional debate down in Florida the other night among the Republican candidates, some strategists to the Republican Party say ladies and gentlemen, this is about the economy, stop talking about this. What do you believe?

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You know, I think this is a great issue overall for the Republicans, not because of the mosque per se, but because there's this growing sense in middle class America, not those reaches within 50 miles of either coast but within say 200 miles of the Mississippi River that the political class in Washington and the New York corridor has lost its way and lost touch with the people they supposedly represent and talk to from TV cameras or newspapers. And there's a big disconnect. Seventy percent of the public doesn't want this and they're referred to as hate mongers and bigots --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Erick --

ERICKSON: -- and what have you.

SHAKIR: Do you think that this should even be a political issue? Why is it a political issue --

ERICKSON: Oh, it has become a political issue because --

SHAKIR: But it should not be --

ERICKSON: -- the president decided to open his mouth --

SHAKIR: Can we just agree that it shouldn't be? That this is one of American values, this is about defending the Constitution --

ERICKSON: You know it became a political issue when those who raised their concerns about it were labeled bigots particularly by the political left.

SHAKIR: I would argue Erick that it was people on your side, conservatives, people like Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin who injected this into the debate. Of course these Muslims wanted to build this mosque --

SALAM: Faiz, this has been a debate for several months in New York City. There have been a lot of folks have been talking about this since the spring and it's true that it became a national issue. But I think that actually Erick has a decent point.

When you start characterizing people as bigots for raising these concerns it tends to polarize the debate and it's useful for some folks to fundraise, etc., by saying that you know we're under attack from bigots, etc., rather than -- you know, there's some sensitivities here. And I happen to think that this should be a local issue. It should not be a national political issue, but the truth is that we are all taking part in this including the news media.

KING: But because the president spoke out and elevated it -- it was already a national conversation. The president without a doubt elevated it. Because of that conversation others are weighing in and I want to ask -- Peter has been quite for a minute -- but I want to (INAUDIBLE) Franklin Graham, the nationally known evangelist, he said this to "TIME" magazine, moving this debate in my view beyond the conversation about this particular mosque and cultural center in New York or anywhere else in America to something that is bigger and potentially more troubling.

Here's what Franklin Graham said. "President Bush and President Obama have made great mistakes when they said that Islam is a peaceful religion. It is not. There is no evidence in its history. It is a religion of hatred. It is a religion of war. It's not a Republican issue or a Democrat issue. This is something that is at the very core of this country." Peter Hart, do the American people feel that way?

HART: There's a lot that's in this, but what it really comes down to is something much bigger and that is society's not working. And we look -- whether it's the economy, whether it's the environment, whether it's education, all the big issues. And we look at what's happening on Wall Street and everything else. And so you get into a debate like this.

It's not going to solve the fundamental problems. It's off on the side bar. But it is what's easiest to discuss. And what happens is -- and my colleague Dan McGinn (ph) put it well. He said that it's really about sensitivities more than anything else. And it's the sensitivities not only in terms of the mosque, it's also the sensitivities on the Confederate flag and it's the sensitivities of Glenn Beck deciding that he's going to hold a rally on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's famous march on Washington. All of this has to do with taking us apart rather than the sense of how do we build consensus in society.

SALAM: I'd love to address the comments about Islam if I might. I mean the thing to keep in mind is that when you're talking about a group of 1.2 billion people, an important thing to keep in mind is that there are Muslim minorities like the Amaddias (ph) who have been attacked by al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists. There are other -- this is just an incredibly diverse group of people and the idea that you can say anything, that it is a wicked religion, is frankly absurd because you have a lot of different tendencies. And I think that that's one thing that a lot of folks don't understand. That just like Christianity is very diverse, Islam is very diverse too.

And there are tendencies within it that have to be condemned. And there are other tendencies within it that are really part of the rich fabric of religious diversity that's been part of this country for a long time.

SHAKIR: And Reihan -- Reihan you remember that President Bush, you got to give him credit, stood up and said that Islam is a religion of peace many times, made this point explicitly clear. Then President Obama following on those footsteps made this a centerpiece of his agenda, in his inaugural. He told the Muslim world, I'm going to reach out to you. He said it again in Cairo.

Said that this was something that was important to him and when he sees the defilement of the Muslim community, he almost has this responsibility, if this is something that's important to him to step up and say we can't have this estrangement here in America --

SALAM: But Faiz, I also think that Americans have a right to ask questions about Muslim leaders who have extreme views.

ERICKSON: This is exactly why --

SALAM: And I think when you try to shut down that conversation by saying that you're necessarily a bigot to raise those questions, I don't think it's terribly productive.

ERICKSON: See, this is exactly why I think this debate and building the mosque at ground zero was unhelpful for the very simple fact that if this is supposed to be done for outreach as the people who are building it have said it's going to do, it's raised not just nationally but in New York City and in New York roughly the same percentages of people opposed to it. If I as a Presbyterian were to go to some place like ground zero in another country and try to build a church there and the people said -- 69 percent of the people said no, I wouldn't be doing very good outreach and so it's problematic.

SHAKIR: So let's help them, Erick. Here's the issue. These guys -- this imam who is leading this mosque has been a goodwill ambassador on behalf of the State Department for both the Bush and Obama --

ERICKSON: So --

SHAKIR: -- administrations. Not only (INAUDIBLE) what argument do you have against this particular imam?

ERICKSON: Well, I have a particular argument about this imam in that he's made statements saying the United States is partly the blame for 9/11. He's had a mosque now -- SHAKIR: He said -- he said that the policies --

(CROSSTALK)

ERICKSON: He's gone overseas and changed the book that he's publishing in this country. He's got it under a different name overseas, where he's calling on people to impose Sharia on the United States. What he says overseas is different from what he says here and I've got a real problem with that.

SHAKIR: This particular man has been the center point of building a moderate Muslim identity here in America. If you believe in the concept of having moderate Muslims and peeling them off from the radical element, this is the guy that you want to support. You want to support --

ERICKSON: If this is the guy we've got to support, then we have a bigger problem.

KING: All right I'm going to call a quick timeout here. When the president went to Ohio today, this was not his intention, to re- stir this feisty debate we're having. So why was he there and why do you need to care about what happens in that pivotal state? We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: Ready, we're going off to the races.

KING: If you don't think the midterm elections matter, we're going to spend the next 11 weeks trying to convince you to think again because they do. And if you can only look at one state between now and election day, look at the state of Ohio, a competitive governor's race, a competitive Senate race, three of four, maybe five, competitive House races.

Well the president was there today and he was trying to sell a message that yes times are tough, yes, there's more than 10 percent unemployment in the state, but the president insists things are getting better.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Slowly but surely we are moving in the right direction. We're on the right track. The economy is getting stronger. But it really suffered a big trauma. And we're not going to get all eight million jobs that were lost back overnight. It's going to take some time. And businesses are still trying to get more confident out there before they start hiring.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Here's the hard part. We talked a bit in the first block about whether the president (INAUDIBLE) himself raised the question has lost touch with people, whether there's a disconnect between what he says and what people feel. Look at these numbers. Here's a Reuters (INAUDIBLE) poll in the state of Ohio.

Is Ohio heading in the right direction? Sixty-three percent say no, that it's on the wrong track. National numbers track pretty closely with that. Peter Hart, as the president tries to make this case in a state like Ohio, if there's one governor he's watching it's Ted Strickland. He's got double digit unemployment. He's running for reelection in a tough economy.

The president is going to have to do that a little bit down the road and this is a perfect state for the Democratic argument that if you don't love us, you don't want to go back to them. John Kasich, the former Republican House Budget Committee chairman, Newt Gingrich deputy, is the candidate for governor.

Rob Portman, the former Bush administration budget guy, is the candidate for Senate. If this argument for the Democrats doesn't work in Ohio, it's not going to work anywhere.

HART: Well, Ohio's a perfect state and it is the key state. It always is in the presidential, it's going to be important in the congressional election. And what it comes back around to is Ohio is one of the few states where unemployment is going down instead of up. There have been more manufacturing jobs. There's a sense that at least in Ohio things might be in the wrong direction but they're starting to go in the forward direction.

And my sense is Ted Strickland's been a strong governor. My sense is he'll do quite well. I think the Senate race will be terribly competitive. But the congressional race I'd watch and you've watched it well, it's down there on the Sixth Congressional district, down along the border, all the way down to Marietta. There, if the Democrats can hold Charlestown (ph), that's going to be a sign that the Democrats are coming back. That's going to be the toughest and that's going to be the one to watch.

KING: But how much, Reihan does the president's standing play into this? He has no choice of course and he believes the economy is starting to come back. But if you look at the polling, people don't believe it. And if you look at his personal approval ratings, look he's the Democrat's best weapon.

He's a good communicator. He can help them raise money, which is critically important in these final 10-plus weeks, but if you look at the Gallup polling today, his approval rating is at an all-time low; 44 percent in the Gallup poll. How good of a salesman is he, I guess is the question.

SALAM: I don't think he's a very good salesman at all. In part because the reason why so many voters flocked to President Obama's standard is the idea that he would be a post partisan president, the idea that he would be very effective at reaching out. But the irony is that because the Democrats proved so successful in 2008, the president believed with good reason that he might be able to achieve all of his legislative priorities without reaching out to the minority and so he's really been very D.C. centric. He's really been focused on rallying a fractious Democratic majority to achieve his various long-term goals and that has I think contributed to the sense that he's out of touch because he's been catering to the Democratic base a lot of the time more often than the swing voters. Had he focused on the country at large, had he focused on winning Republican voters rather than Congress, it's possible that he could have driven a wedge between Republican voters and Republican members of Congress.

But he failed to do that. And I think that it's led a lot of folks on the Democratic side to lose confidence in him and to not want him to be campaigning in their districts and in their states.

KING: Erick, you have angered much of the Republican establishment by arguing across the country, don't pick its candidate, pick somebody, maybe it's a Tea Party activist. Maybe it's a grassroots conservative activist. When you look at Ohio and Rob Portman and John Kasich, two guys who have a lot of experience in Washington, and the Democrats can rightly say they were there. They were part of what the Democrats would say is the problem and voters will decide who to believe, would you rather have different candidates out there?

ERICKSON: No, actually I supported them both. I think Kasich is a great candidate for governor and Portman for senator as well. I mean and Portman is ahead right now in the polls by a significant margin. You know, this dynamic across the country, I think you're going to start hearing Republicans talk more and more, picking up on some of the criticism even some Democrats have leveled lately against the president on the mosque issue that he's a professor.

Everybody likes their professor, but everybody also has the joke that the reason people teach is because they can't do well in the real world. And this is a joke that's becoming part of the punch line for a lot of Republicans that Professor Obama is out there in his ivory tower preaching to the choir and he's not really doing anything and not being very successful at pushing forward other than his legislative goals which a majority of Americans didn't want.

(CROSSTALK)

ERICKSON: I think we're going to have a real big problem for the Democrats, which is good for us.

KING: You want in --

HART: Yes, I'll come in, because I think we can do a lot better than that. And to put it perfectly honest, I mean, here's the president, who has come very directly, and brought forth a lot of legislation. We're looking at General Motors and bankruptcy and how they've come out of bankruptcy. We've looked at regulation in the financial world.

All of those things I think are smart things I think make a difference. Everybody wants an instant answer on everything. This is an instant -- public's going to have to be a little patient. It's easy to challenge --

ERICKSON: I think the patience have run out.

HART: -- just on the idea of being --

(CROSSTALK)

KING: Let me call a quick timeout. I'm going to ask everybody to stand by. Remember in 2006 when President Bush's standings started to fall through the floor, one reason why -- voters were tired of the war in Iraq. President Obama promised to end it, to get the combat troops out. Guess what? This is a very big day when it comes to ending the U.S. involvement in Iraq. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN BREAKING NEWS.

KING: Want to go straight to our correspondent in Iraq, Arwa Damon. She's on the phone from Mosul, Iraq to talk to us, to give us the latest information on a significant milestone for the U.S. military presence -- Arwa.

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via phone): Hi John. What we saw happening tonight was the last U.S. combat convoying out of Iraq into Kuwait. The U.S. military saying that they still do have 56,000 troops in country, 6,000 away from reaching that White House deadline of having troop levels here down to 50,000 by the end of August, where we're going to be seeing the U.S. military essentially ending its combat mission in Iraq.

"Operation Iraqi Freedom" coming to an end at midnight on September 1st. It will be moving into "Operation New Dawn", which is the U.S. military even more of an advise and assist mission. But most certainly tonight for many of those troops that have crossed the border, it really is a very historic moment, again, the last U.S. combat convoy moving from Baghdad to Kuwait (INAUDIBLE).

KING: And Arwa, as the president gets close to reaching an important political milestone, a political promise here in the United States what is the feeling among senior Iraqi leaders at a time when they still have not reached political reconciliation, at a time when there are still questions about the future of the government and what coalition will lead the government? Are they confident enough that despite that political uncertainty they are ready for the security responsibilities they are taking on?

DAMON: Well, John, a lot of senior Iraqi officials at this stage are feeling very apprehensive about this U.S. draw-down, even though there is very little that they can actually do to stop it (INAUDIBLE) because of what you are mentioning this political uncertainty. Many here, as you very well know that politics and violence remain heavily intertwined. We have conclusive elections back in March; a new government has yet to be seated.

Exactly how these political pieces end up falling into place, exactly how this new government is formed, whether or not is perceived as being all inclusive, it's specifically going to have an impact on the violence here, because it is going to dictate exactly how much influence Iraq's neighbors have on this situation and it's going to dictate how much internal strife they're going to (INAUDIBLE) a lot of anxiety being expected by Iraqi officials.

Some senior Iraqi officials were saying that they brought these concerns to the United States, but they're saying that their fears fell on deaf ears, that they have the sense that the U.S. is determined no matter what to stick to this current time line -- John.

KING: Arwa Damon for us in Mosul, Iraq -- Arwa thank you. And let's move over to the "Magic Wall". Before we ask our guests for their opinion on the political significance of this moment, let's go over and take a peak at what we are talking about here. We want to go back in time, all the way back to 2003 and watch as the U.S. troop levels, the beginning of the Iraq invasion they went up and down.

Now watch as we get into 2007, 2008, you see the high mark right there. Now watch what happens since late in the Bush administration and throughout the Obama administration, the numbers now down, as Arwa just noted, roughly 56,000 there the administration has committed to getting to 50,000 by September 1st. Those are the troop levels.

Now here is a number that most Americans know all too well and one of the reasons support for the war dropped so quickly starting back in 2005 and 2006. Nearly 4,500, more than 4,400 Americans have been killed, service men and women, killed in Iraq since the war began long ago. Now how important is this milestone to the president of the United States?

He sent out an e-mail to his supporters today saying he was keeping his promise to get down to 50,000 and in a fund-raising speech in Ohio, the president gave the speech he has largely given over the past three weeks, except he added this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: We are keeping the promise I made when I began my campaign for the presidency, by the end of this month, we will have removed 100,000 troops from Iraq and our combat mission will be over in Iraq.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: So the president keeping an important political promise there. You heard Arwa Damon talking about the security concerns on the ground in Iraq. But first to the Democrats in the room, Peter Hart, this was a signature promise of the Obama campaign, and my take on why the e-mail from him in mentioning it today is this is the president who knows, number one, his liberal base is still mad about Afghanistan but they want this promise kept.

I guess my bigger question is it was the Independent voters who turned on President Bush over this issue. Does this help this president at all at a time he's struggling in the middle? HART: Absolutely, helps him with the Independents, because it's a promise kept. The other thing you have to say, as you listen to the report, is what tremendous respect we have now for the military, I mean, and what happened, and what they've been able to do. But politically, I'd have to tell you, it's another promise kept. It's important because the president's been struggling.

KING: Are there risks, Faiz, in that you get down to 50, amid all this political uncertainty in Iraq. If, God forbid, there are problems there, might people say this president was too worried about keeping a political promise?

SHAKIR: Well it's placed a great trust in Iraq to handle its future but that's the way it should be. I think that honestly this moment of leaving Iraq, while it's a great accomplishment for the president, fulfilling his pledge, I think it sort of leaves us with a sick to our stomach feeling I hope. Because this is the type of venture that hopefully we are not going to engage in again and hopefully we will reflect on that.

That back in 2003, leading up to this disaster, we had pledges that it was going to be easy, it was going to be a cakewalk, we were just going to waltz in there. Our reconstruction would pay for itself, none of that panned out. And hopefully that the lesson that the American people are taking from this is that we don't want to engage in these protracted conflicts that really are not worth the cost that was imposed on us. And I think the lessons for Afghanistan here are clear and hopefully President Obama, having fulfilled the pledge in Iraq, will also fulfill a pledge of withdrawing (INAUDIBLE) Afghanistan.

KING: I'll come back to that point in one second. Erick Erickson, you're a frequent critic of President Obama. Is this something for which he deserves credit or does it give you pause?

ERICKSON: I think this is a very good day. You know back during 2003 if you'll remember a lot of the opposition also focused on this concept of American empire. We were going to take over. It was a big criticism from overseas. Here, the world can see the United States troops went into Iraq, removed a dictator, helped settle the country, and now they're leaving.

The Petraeus strategy of the surge worked. I think there are problems here for Barack Obama, though, in that Guantanamo Bay remains open and there's Afghanistan, not with Independents I don't think but with his base. But today is a very good day.

KING: At a time, Peter Hart, when -- we just -- CNN just did a poll on this last weekend, I'm sure you have similar data in your polling -- opposition to the Iraq war and the Afghanistan war at the same time, all-time highs. What do the American people think now, seven years later, from the beginning of it, as we reach this important milestone, and they watch these troops, we get close to the 50,000, and in a year we're supposed to be down to zero, what do they think about Iraq? HART: I would assume about Iraq and we've only seen some, is that there is a sense that we are doing the right thing, but I think your point is the right point, which is it also teaches us a lesson and an important lesson to pick up on.

SHAKIR: General Petraeus was on a Sunday show this past Sunday, and was asked whether the surge was a success, whether he would call it a success. He wouldn't say that. He would not say that it was a success and then General -- or Ryan Crocker, who's our ambassador there, was -- offered a statement to "The New York Times" in which he said, "Was this bloody mess worth it?" And he said, "I'm not sure."

I mean, that's honesty. And thankfully -- I think that's the reflection that we need. I don't like conservatives who are trying to pretend that this was exactly what they wanted. This is a success, "mission accomplished," see this is what we told you guys it would be like, and we've left an Iraq. That's amazing and awesome.

KING: Both these wars started in the Bush administration. But is it fair, Peter, to say that tonight, President Obama takes a big step toward ending George Bush's war in Iraq, but that in Afghanistan, because he ordered the significant escalation, because he changed rules of engagement in Afghanistan -- that Afghanistan, that that one is his?

HART: There's no doubt about it. 2011 is going to be the year on Afghanistan and either he will make significant progress as the United States will, or it will be the major problem he'll face in 2012.

KING: And, Erick Erickson, one of the it's -- not a criticism -- one of the commentaries about this is because General Petraeus is in the middle of this media offensive, to try to sell the American people on his mission and for patience, and in part to perhaps give it more time if he can't begin that drawdown next spring. Many have said, "Why doesn't the president engage the American people more and more on this issue?"

I'm going to ask you -- I know you are a critic -- to set that part aside. As a citizen, do you need to hear more from the president on this issue or is General Petraeus the better spokesman?

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: You know, the president is the commander-in-chief. I think the American public would like to hear from him, particularly because, on Afghanistan, we've been so focused on the economy as a nation and all these other issues, there's the sense that something's not right in Afghanistan, no one wants to point a partisan finger, no one wants to blame the military. There really is no one anyone wants to blame for the situation. There's just the sense something's going on over there.

And having some more discussions about it from the political leaders, not just from the president either, from Robert Gates, who I think the biggest headline from him this week is that he's leaving after the election cycle. We want to hear more from Afghanistan, not just from the generals but from the leaders. I will make one prediction for you, though, with a lot of the troops coming home from Iraq, you can be sure that the Democrats and Republicans, with some of those leaving the military altogether now, they'll recruit them heavily for 2012.

KING: And we have several running this cycle. Any last word on the milestone, and what it means and what the risks are -- getting to this important point in Iraq?

HART: Yes. I mean, I just think it is an amazing accomplishment that we've gotten the troops out. Yes, there are going to be continued problems there. But it's a step in the right direction.

KING: Do you -- do you really believe we will be at zero in a year or are they going to have to say, "Look, there's going to be 25,000 or 30,000 there for many years"?

SHAKIR: I think that this is an instance where President Obama is standing up to the military. I think some of them would have liked to have stayed with the larger force. I think the same is true in Afghanistan. But he's deliberated these issues for a great extent of time.

I think to Erick's point, you talk about Afghanistan for a very long period of time. He's going to continue to have deliberations on it. But this is, I think, president asserting his role as the commander in chief and while the military may have certain views, I've got to make decisions about priorities as a country and one of those priorities is we've got to leave Iraq.

KING: Faiz Shakir, Peter Hart, Erick Erickson, appreciate your time, your patience in juggling with us tonight.

When we come back: the latest other political headlines you need to know right now.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back. Let's check in with Joe Johns for the latest political news you need to know right now.

Hey, Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, John.

Breaking news from Iraq: CNN is reporting that the last U.S. combat convoy has left Iraq.

Funeral services are under way tonight for former Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska. Stevens and four others were killed in a small plane crash last week. Just yesterday, hundreds attended the funeral of former Illinois Congressman Dan Rostenkowski.

General Motors tonight filed once again to sell shares to the public after going bankrupt last year. It also means the government can start getting taxpayers money back from G.M.'s $50 billion bailout.

A federal appeals court today ruled that crosses along a Utah highway put up to honor troops killed in the line of duty are unconstitutional. An atheist group sued to have them removed. This case could still end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

And President Obama is heading back to the White House after a five-state swing to talk up his economic policies. During a stop in Ohio today, the president said the economy is coming back, but slowly.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A lot of it is sort of like recovering from an illness. You get a little bit stronger each day and you take a few more steps each day. And that's where our economy's at right now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JOHNS: This was also a fund-raising tour. The president helped raise an estimated $3 million for Democrats.

Battleground Ohio, John -- seems like some things just never change.

KING: And, Joe, they'll need that $3 million because it's tough, the president thinks he has a solid case to make that we have an illness and we're slowly recovering but, boy, you know, "things aren't so bad" isn't a great bumper sticker or "things could be worse" isn't such a great bumper sticker in an election year, tough sell for the president.

JOHNS: I'm sure those unemployment numbers mean a lot.

KING: They do indeed. Joe Johns, thanks so much.

So, is FOX News going to start running disclaimer on its coverage of governor races? That's a question tonight. We'll tell you why when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Now, let's look at some stories on my radar. And joining us to help with the conversation -- we have Robert Traynham, a veteran Republican from Capitol Hill, now a host of "Roll Call TV."

Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster and from Atlanta, call to the principal's office, I think.

Jessica Yellin, our national political correspondent.

I want to start with the story front and center right before us which is: the United States approaching, getting its last combat troops out of Iraq. We saw the convoy rolling across the border into Kuwait a bit earlier tonight. That videotape. Cornell Belcher, for a Democratic president who has angered his base by escalating in Afghanistan, how significant is it that he keeps this promise to get down in Iraq?

CORNELL BELCHER, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER: Well, it's very significant. And let's be clear: he's kept a lot of promises. He's gotten in trouble for keeping a lot of promises but he's kept them.

And this is not only important to our base, but guess what, independent voters turned against George Bush around this war as well. Independent voters wanted to see this war over and see those resources and manpower moved back here and focused on home.

It's very important. It comes at a great time politically. All the while, I don't think we should play politics with this. As an American, left or right, this is a good day.

ROBERT TRAYNHAM, HOST, ROLL CALL TV: I agree. It's a good day for America. It's a good day for the troops. It's also a good day for Iraq. I mean, let's remember, the reason why we went into Iraq was, obviously, to remove a brutal dictator. And so, for the Iraqis to say, "You know what, finally, we can govern ourselves -- finally, we can protect ourselves" -- this is a good thing for democracy overall.

KING: And, Jessica Yellin, as the president keeps this promise, though, some of his base will say, "Great in Iraq -- how about doing the same thing and making sure the generals don't push back on Afghanistan?"

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. I mean, the frustration this White House has, John, as you know so well, is that every news cycle moves so quickly. So, the moment that we finish talking about this, eyes will turn immediately back to Afghanistan. And his base is so upset there.

It does, though, still resonate for independent voters -- not just because they're relieved about the news of this, but they do, as Peter Hart said earlier, like to see a president keeping his word. And President Obama has been strong on national security in the polling. It's amazingly one of his strong suits right now. And so, this only bolsters that.

KING: And folks out there, whatever you think about this war, whatever you thought about the beginning, whatever you think about it now -- this is a milestone that gives you a chance to reflect and say "thank you" to the men and women who keep serving -- there are many of them three and four deployments over the past six or seven years. So, thank you to those who have served there and are serving elsewhere.

Moving on, the Democratic Governors Association is calling for the FOX News Channel to run a formal disclaimer whenever it covers gubernatorial races this year. The request comes a day after we learned the network's parent company made a $1 million contribute to the Republican Governors Association. FOX called the request, quote, "a stunt." Is it a stunt?

TRAYNHAM: Well, I don't know if it's a stunt or not, but I'm not sure how this is any different from any other parent company that owns a news organization that gives money to political candidates. G.E. does it -- obviously owns NBC, to a certain degree. Viacom does it to a certain degree with CBS --

KING: Time Warner does it, they own us. Not at this level. But we should be clear.

(CROSSTALK)

TRAYNHAM: You're exactly right. So, the level is obviously a bit disturbing and that's obviously FOX's right constitutionally, or FOX News Corporation's right to do that. But it's no different from any other parent company doing this. It really isn't.

BELCHER: Robert -- I mean, $1 million?

TRAYNHAM: It's true.

BELCHER: A million dollars? Let's not even pretend anymore. When you give someone $1 million, you can't even pretend anymore. I mean, they are --

TRAYNHAM: Let's be clear. It's not giving anyone $1 million. FOX did not -- it's an organization, and that's a big difference.

BELCHER: They are donating $1 million to defeat Democrats. Let's not pretend they are fair and balanced anymore. They are a wholly operated propaganda arm of the GOP.

TRAYNHAM: How come you say that about G.E.? How come -- OK.

(CROSSTALK)

BELCHER: It fits perfectly in the narrative.

TRAYNHAM: But apply that to G.E. -- apply that statement to G.E. --

BELCHER: If you give $1 million to a Republican organization to defeat Democrats, you are not fair and balanced.

TRAYNHAM: But answer the question, though. How does that -- how does that apply to G.E.? You won't answer the question.

BELCHER: A million dollars. One million dollars.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: Jess, I'm sure you're really sad you're not here in the room.

YELLIN: I know. It is a question of magnitude. There's been no other single contribution of that size. We look at them in the last two years from any other parent company. No single contribution of that size to a single party organization.

But in defense of all reporters everywhere, I will say that I know the political reporters at FOX. They are not necessarily informed by what their parent company's political donations are. They really try to do, you know, their reporting.

But it does inform how everybody perceives the larger organization, who they choose as their hosts, and, of course, feeds this political debate about whether FOX News is down the middle or not, and that helps the Democrats.

KING: Carl Cameron, et al., extend their thanks to you right now for that.

YELLIN: My defense for Carl Cameron, right?

KING: Let's move on to this one. Sarah Palin's political picks always grab headlines, but do they help win elections? She's endorsed controversial Nevada GOP candidate Sharron Angle, but Angle might not be so pleased to know that Palin is 0-for-5 in picking winning primary candidates this month. The former Alaska governor's big endorsement test come Tuesday, in her home state, Florida and Arizona hold their primaries.

Her choices: the challenger to Senator Murkowski, Joe Miller, that's up in Alaska. Senator John McCain, her running mate in Arizona. And Marco Rubio, running without serious opposition for the GOP nod for the Florida Senate seat.

So, I'm not sure about the Alaska race, but I think in Arizona and in Florida, at least at the moment, she's looking good.

TRAYNHAM: Sarah Palin, say whatever you want about her and about her win/loss record, the American --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I will --

TRAYNHAM: The American people out there, there's a large majority of people out there in this country that believe that what this woman says is gospel and believes that this woman has the pulse of America. So, say whatever you want about her intelligence. I know you probably want to say something about that. Or say anything you want about how she articulates her thoughts.

But she touches a nerve with millions of people around this country who believe in America and who believe that this country's going down the wrong direction.

BELCHER: I will push back on you here. I don't think it's a large majority of Americans who fall in line with her. Quite frankly, she has some of the highest negatives in politics.

What's also disturbing -- wait for it -- is that your front- runner has such little sway over the Republican process that she can't even pick winners. She's her -- she's like the kiss of death. Her last two Tuesday nights went down.

YELLIN: Well

TRAYNHAM: You know, I got to tell --

YELLIN: The kiss of death.

(LAUGHTER)

YELLIN: Come on, we all know endorsements don't really drive votes. They drive money and media attention. And if she casts a spotlight, media spotlight on a candidate who actually hasn't been getting attention but is pretty strong, that candidate tends to do better than they would have done otherwise.

BELCHER: You're getting away with my spin.

YELLIN: Oh, sorry, go spin. Sorry.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: I never knew I would speak this sentence -- here we go, here we go. I never know I was going to speak this sentence, and in other Sharron Angle news -- "Las Vegas Review Journal" columnist published a letter the Nevada GOP Senate candidate wrote back in 1993 to her current opponent, the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, criticizing his support for the Clinton administration budget which included a large tax increase on the wealthiest Americans. She said in that letter, quote, "The answer to this mess is clear: stop funding the wasteful social and entitlement programs, make the difficult choices that will keep our country strong. That's what you were elected to do. I beg you not to support the taxpayer funded national health care which is the next hit we are in line for."

This is from a candidate who has worked hard to smooth over his remarks in the primary campaign in which she called for eliminating Social Security.

TRAYNHAM: Yes, she's trying to play a little offense here with Harry Reid. And she recognizes that internal polling data shows in Nevada specifically, that most Nevadans do not support the overall health care plan that Senator Reid championed in the United States Senate. So, what she's trying to do, which of any good candidate is doing, is trying to put your opponent on the offense and trying to change the story because we all know the story with her is that she doesn't answer the questions -- the tough questions at least from the mainstream media.

BELCHER: I feel guilty even beating up on her anymore. But here's -- here's the problem, you know, that was primarily about the budget, and it shows that she was wrong then and she's just as wrong now, because guess what --

TRAYNHAM: But it show she's in tune with the --

(CROSSTALK) BELCHER: No, because it was about the budget. Remember, they were gung-ho against the Clinton budget. The Clinton budget that, by the way, produced the largest peace time expansion in our country. You remember peace and prosperity, you remember that?

TRAYNHAM: But I do. But that really was the Bush tax increases in 1981 --

(CROSSTALK)

BELCHER: It was Reagan --

TRAYNHAM: No, that was the Bush tax cuts.

BELCHER: It was the tough choices that Clinton made. And guess what? Rich people paying a fair share of the tax burden -- and guess what? We have a surplus.

(CROSSTALK)

TRAYNHAM: Again drinking the Democratic Kool-Aid.

BELCHER: That's not accurate. The accuracy --

KING: Ms. Yellin on the anniversary, I believe, of the 19th Amendment would like to speak.

YELLIN: Very nice segue.

I did speak to the campaign about this letter, John, and they point out that she never mentioned Social Security. And they are correct. And what we've seen, she doesn't actually say Social Security. She criticizes social programs. They say she means things like Planned Parenthood funding.

And so, it's -- we're out of line, she says, for the media -- they say -- for the media to characterize this as a slam on Social Security back years ago.

KING: Here's the one thing we know this is, as we thank Jessica Yellin -- Robert and Cornell are going to stay with us for the play- by-play, here's the one thing we know this is, it's proof that Harry Reid has got a pretty good filing system that they kept this letter from years ago and they went back and were able to find it.

YELLIN: Amazing.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: When we come back -- Jess, thanks very much, enjoy your stay in Atlanta -- when we come back --

YELLIN: Thanks.

KING: -- Robert and Cornell stay right here for the play-by- play, including what some would call the president's -- listen carefully -- ditch slap.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Play-by-play in a moment, but first, let's check in with our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence, for some important context on this big milestone the administration is talking about tonight. It says it is nearing the point where we'll reach 60,000 troops in Iraq and zero combat troops.

Chris, what's the latest?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: You know, we're hearing that the 4th Stryker Brigade that is now -- some of it is now crossing over into Kuwait. So, technically, yes, that combat brigade -- the last combat brigade -- starting to pass into Kuwait.

But I just talked with the Pentagon official who said, look, you know, an entire brigade never leaves at a precise day. It takes several days, if not weeks, for that brigade to totally move out. He said that's what's in the process of happening right now.

He also said, look, there are still about 57,000 troops there in Iraq right now. Obviously, they supposed to get down to 50,000 by the end of the month.

And he said, look, you know, some of the units that are still left there in Iraq can still conduct combat missions. Our combat mission doesn't end until the end of the month. He said, in fact, some of the units, two of the units -- at least two -- were originally combat units that were then transitioned to sort of the new advise- and-assist role after they got there.

When it comes to getting down to that 50,000 number, he said, it looks like we're on track. We might not be exactly at that number at the end of the month. You know, logistically, he can't say for sure that exactly all of the troops will be sitting in Kuwait at that time. But, again, this is a process, not a sense of the last combat soldier walking over the border right at this minute, John.

KING: Important context from Chris Lawrence at the Pentagon -- Chris, thanks.

ANNOUNCER: Here comes the play-by-play.

KING: All right, let's break down the tape. Cornell Belcher with us still. Robert Traynham is with us as well.

If you've been following the president in the last couple months of the campaign, dating back to really about mid-May, he's been using a driving metaphor that, you know, those guys, the Republicans, got us into a ditch. Well, what we did is went back through time, the metaphor has escalated over time and we thought we'd put together a little of this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

OBAMA: I mean, think about it, if this -- if the economy was a car, and they drove it into the ditch.

Made it as difficult as possible for us to pull it back.

If we give them the keys back, they will drive right back into the ditch. And riding shotgun with them will be every other special interest under the sun.

When you're in a car and you want to go forward, you put -- you put it in "D." When you want to go backwards, what do you do? You put it in an "R."

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

KING: Notice what I called that, with a capital "D" slap -- I was just little play on words there, just like the president. As it gets laughs and it gets applause at these Democrats gatherings, put it into context.

BELCHER: It's very important, and I absolutely love it, and this is why -- actually, you were just criticizing the president for being professorial, you criticized him for having lofty --

KING: Did I say that?

BELCHER: Well, you can't trust the press. But you criticized him for having lofty rhetoric.

This is a Joe six-pack narrative. This is a story that every sort of American can instantly get and what you'll find is that Americans want stories and it's instantly a narrative that they instantly get. It's not lofty. It's good messaging. I absolutely love it. He should work on it, work on it, work on it.

TRAYNHAM: Let's put -- well, let's put this in context. I mean, if you want to use this driving metaphor, the American people own that car, and they get to decide what direction to go into and oftentimes, when someone owns a car, they get to put the brakes on something. And based on the polling, they're saying "I don't want to go this direction, I want to go in a different direction" -- not necessarily in reverse, not necessarily in drive, but a different direction. And that's evidenced by the polls, that's evidenced by the president's approval rating and that's evidenced by the American people owning the keys.

KING: Put it in neutral, that's the message. (INAUDIBLE)

(LAUGHTER)

KING: We'll continue this debate. When we come back -- Pete is out on street. Don't go anywhere.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Critics of the proposed mosque and cultural center near Ground Zero, at Ground Zero, some say it's too close to hallowed ground. Our offbeat reporter Pete Dominick hit the site today.

Pete, do New Yorkers view this site as Ground Zero?

PETE DOMINICK, JOHN KING, USA'S OFFBEAT REPORTER: No, New Yorkers don't view this site as Ground Zero. Well, I can't speak for all New Yorkers. But the Upper East Side isn't the Upper West Side. And that is -- there's a street, there's plenty of buildings up. It's not Ground Zero, that's what everybody told me today. We'll later on the week maybe we'll go down there.

KING: We'll have more time later, breaking news cutting our time with Pete tonight. We appreciate your patience.

That is all the time we have tonight. We appreciate your stopping by. Hope to see you tomorrow.

"RICK'S LIST" primetime starts right now.