USA Today: '08 hopefuls hash out pressing issues of '07
As the next presidential campaign gets underway, USA TODAY asked two former governors who are planning bids to discuss their positions on the Iraq war, climate change and immigration.
Former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, and former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, a Republican who was secretary of Health and Human Services in President Bush's first term, spoke Friday at the J.D. Power convention in Las Vegas.
The forum was moderated by Susan Page, USA TODAY's Washington Bureau chief. Comments have been edited for space and clarity.
The Senate is going to begin considering a resolution Monday (today) that would express opposition to President Bush's plan to increase U.S. troop levels in Iraq. If you were in the Senate, would you vote for or against this resolution?
Thompson: I would vote against the resolution. President Bush was asked by the (Iraq) Study Committee, by the American public, by the electorate to try something different in Iraq. He's come up with a program that was really brought to the forefront by Gen. (David) Petraeus, who is the commanding general in Iraq. And Gen. Petraeus sincerely believes that the surge capacity will stabilize Baghdad and will allow the government to work. We should give this opportunity a chance to work.
Give President Bush and the new deployment and the government of Iraq, which is really now starting to step up, (Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's) government, give it a chance to work. I'm not confident that it's going to, but at least I think we should support the president and the troops in the field at this point in time.
Vilsack: The president's escalation plan is about to make a big mistake even bigger. I was in Iraq last March talking to Gen. (George) Casey, who at the time was in charge. It was his belief that we had about six months to give the Iraqi government the ability to stand up, and at that point it was time for our troops to come home.
The reality is that an escalation is not the answer. I believe Congress actually has to go further than that resolution. I think it is time for us to take our troops out of harm's way. It's time to have the Iraqis assume full responsibility for their security.
We've been there four years, 3,000 lives lost, over 20,000 injuries, and hundreds of billions of dollars spent. I think it's time to ask the Iraqis to assume full responsibility.
If U.S. forces withdraw now, does that mean the United States has not met an obligation it owes to the Iraqis who have worked with us and supported us there?
Vilsack: We have absolutely met our obligation. We created an opportunity. We spent four years, longer than we were in Europe during World War II. We sent many of our brightest and best. We are undermining our military. As commander in chief of the (Iowa) National Guard, I know full well what has happened to our National Guard as a result of this long-standing war. We are not as well equipped as we need to be for the future.
When I was over in Iraq last March, I had an interesting experience. In speaking to an Iraqi security officer this was a man who was being trained to protect the prime minister and Cabinet officials he got very agitated when he started talking about the United States.
He said, "Why can't you, America, keep us safe?" This was a man being trained to keep his people safe. It's clear the mind-set needs to change in Iraq. As long as we are there, the mind-set will not change.
We have got to force them to make the tough decisions that only they can make.
Gov. Thompson, you said "terrible mistakes" were made in the execution of this war. Who is responsible for those terrible mistakes?
Thompson: People got lulled into believing that we moved so rapidly in Iraq that the Iraqi people were just going to stand up and embrace us. They didn't do that. We didn't put enough force in there to protect the borders.
No. 1, when you go to war, as Colin Powell has said, go in with the force to win. We didn't do that. We went in with a slimmed-down force because we thought we were so good and so able to defeat the enemy so quick that we didn't need a big army anymore. That was the mistake.
Second thing we should have done is allowed the Iraqi army to stand in and be able to continue to support the borders and prevent other people from coming in from Iran, Syria, and Jordan. We didn't do that. Those were the two big mistakes.
Do you think President Bush is ultimately responsible for these mistakes you've identified?
Thompson: The president is the ultimate determiner. The president is responsible. He's the one that is going to reap the successes but also the failures. Success has a thousand fathers, and failure has but one.
But Congress has a role to play. Congress, you know, needs to step up. The Department of Defense, the generals I mean, the president, I can assure you, did not set up this war plan. This war plan was set up by the generals in the Department of Defense. He agreed to go ahead and execute on it, but it actually is a plan by the generals. So the generals in the Department of Defense have a big role and a big responsibility for the failures.
On other adversaries
Do you think the administration should be negotiating directly with Iran and Syria?
Thompson: I believe strongly that the United States should take the leadership not alone, but in conjunction with all the European countries that support our philosophy, our way of government, Japan and our allies. (We should) have a conference, have a summit and develop a unified position. America cannot do it alone.
Vilsack: We have made a mistake over the course of the last several years in not having direct discussions with Syria, Iran, and North Korea. We in all areas have made situations that were quite dangerous be more dangerous.
The reality is that in Iran, you have extremists and moderates. Our position in not engaging has emboldened the extremists and marginalized the moderates. It's important for the United States as a great nation to always be willing to talk. The fact that you talk doesn't mean that you capitulate, it doesn't mean that you don't negotiate hard.
By failing to do so, we clearly exacerbated the situation in Lebanon. We clearly allowed the Iranian government to become more extreme in its rhetoric. We obviously made a very dangerous situation in North Korea much more dangerous.
On climate change
Do you support raising mileage standards for cars?
Thompson: The president has come up with a plan that's going to reduce the reliance on gasoline and fuel by 20% by 2018. I think that's a step in the right direction. In order to (combat global warming), the standards are going to have to be raised.
Vilsack: I think we need to change the debate about this. I'm not so sure it's about miles per gallon. I think it's about emissions per tailpipes. I think we ought to be taking a look at a different structure and a different system to regulate emissions from tailpipes.
It gets you into a discussion of how you expand renewable fuels and energy production in this country. We need to see a rather significant expansion in this country of renewable fuels. The reality is so long as we continue to import the level of oil we are importing, we are literally funding both sides of the global insurgency that we are confronting.
Do you support providing a way for illegal immigrants to gain legal status while remaining in the USA?
Vilsack: These are people coming across the border seeking to do what? Seeking to do right by their family. It's pretty hard to criticize them for trying to have a better life for their family. I'm not critical of them. I am critical of governments that don't create economies that will allow them to be able to live at home and raise their families.
There are currently between 12 and 13 million people who are here in an unauthorized fashion. If we were to try to deport all of these people based on the current system that we have in place, it would, I'm told, take 238 years to complete that project. That's not feasible.
In this country, when you violate the law, you're held accountable in some way. You're either put in jail, but most often you're required to pay a fine. I think these folks should have to pay a fine. I think they should have to pay back taxes, because that's only fair to the rest of us. I think they should be put at the back of the line, given no preference, and be given the opportunity to earn their way to citizenship.
If they're not interested in doing that, then I think it's at that point in time to ask them to leave. But if they are interested in doing it, I think we ought to give them a pathway to citizenship.
Thompson: There is no question that there has to be a procedure to take care of the 12 million individuals who are unauthorized or illegal in this country.
The truth of the matter is, we have laws on the books, and you should not be able to have amnesty. I think what they really need to do is, they have to go back to their country and apply. They've got to go to the back of the line and allow those individuals who come into this country legally really to have preference.
To say to the other 12 million that have not obeyed the law that you're automatically going to be (allowed to stay) in this country is wrong. They should have to go back and petition.
On health care
We have 46 million Americans who lack health insurance. What is it that the federal government should be doing differently on this issue?
Vilsack: The federal government and state governments need to cooperate together to provide universal coverage. But every politician is likely to say that. I think one of the things that Secretary Thompson and I will absolutely agree on is that this system needs to be changed from a health care system to a wellness system.
We have to really focus on driving health care costs down. And one way you can do that is by preventing illnesses to begin with. So as we take a look at redesigning the health care system, we have to incorporate significantly wellness components, both in the way we insure, what we incent, what we encourage, and even how we educate parents and children.
Thompson: The government is not doing nearly enough on health care. No. 1, we spend $2 trillion on health care in America. That's 16% of the GDP. In seven years, ladies and gentlemen, that's going to go to $4 trillion, to 21% of GDP, unless we make a change.
Out of that $2 trillion, 75% of the costs of health care go to chronic illnesses. These are items that you have to personally change, like tobacco smoking, like obesity, like sugar diabetes.
None of us would set up a health care system, in which we wait for people to get sick and then spend thousands and hundreds of thousands of dollars to get you well. You've got to start preventing. We have to go to a wellness system.
You're going to have to cover the uninsured. We've got to cover everybody in America on health insurance. It would be cheaper. It would stimulate the economy.