ABC "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" Transcript; with Senators Elect John Thune (R-SD) and Barack Obama (D-IL)
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: And we're back with two of the big winners from Tuesday night, Congressman John Thune defeated House -- Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, and state senator Barack Obama, the incoming senator now from the state of Illinois, won with 71 percent of the vote.
Gentlemen, welcome. I know you both heard Dr. Dobson there. So let's get right in on teeing off of some of his comments. Congressman Thune, you heard what Dr. Dobson had to say about Chairman Specter, the man who wants to be the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Will you support Senator Specter for Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee?
SEN.-ELECT THUNE: Well, I think all that's going to be decided, George, you know, next week when we get in for orientation and as the leadership begins to make committee assignments, there are some proposals about changing the rules to give the leaders more latitude when it comes to making those types of assignments.
The seniority system in the Senate is something that's worked for a long time. But I do -- I am troubled by what Senator Specter said and I think he quickly, as you noticed, came back and said that he had misspoke and I would certainly hope that he will give consideration to what he said and what it means for the judicial nominations the president will be sending forward.
I think it was a central theme in this election this year that we need to get good judges on the bench, that these people need an up and down vote. And I think that the president has made it clear that he wants judges who will apply and interpret the Constitution, the laws of the United States, who will be strict constructionists. And I would certainly hope that if Senator Specter ends up as Judiciary Committee chairman that he'll take that into consideration and operate along those parameters.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Congressman Thune, that was very artful, but are you supporting him or not?
SEN.-ELECT THUNE: (Laughs.) Well, I don't know if -- my assumption is that if he's going to be the person that's going to be set forward by the leadership that we'll all support him, George. But I think it's going to depend upon an understanding for many of us, particularly new members, the freshmen who are coming in, who are concerned about the things that he said and where many of us were elected because we spoke about the importance of judges and having judges on the bench who are going to be judges who interpret and apply the Constitution and the laws of the United States. So I suspect there will be some questions asked by those of us who are coming in as freshmen who ran our campaigns and built around that very central theme, that we need to have good judges on the bench.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Mr. Obama, you heard what Dr. Dobson had to say about your ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. What did you think of that?
SEN.-ELECT OBAMA: Well, first of all, I want to congratulate Congressman Thune for his victory and I'm looking forward to serving with him. You know, I think that that kind of language is unfortunate. One of the things that was successful for me, at least, in my campaign here in Illinois was projecting, I think, the capacity to disagree without being disagreeable. And as a consequence, I ended up not only getting 71 percent of the vote, but George Bush and I shared a million voters here in Illinois. And that indicates to me, I think, that people want to get beyond the slash-and-burn, scorched-earth politics that I think has become the custom in Washington. I think that we can find common ground around issues and I'm hopeful that I can work with Senator-elect Thune and others to identify areas that we agree on that can move the country forward.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: You were one of the bright spots for the Democrats on Tuesday night. But, you know, Democrats are really scratching their heads and trying to figure out exactly what went wrong on Tuesday and there is this catalog of recrimination in this morning's New York Times. Janet Napolitano, the governor of Arizona saying, "How did a party that is filled with people with values get tagged as the party without values?" Senator Evan Bayh: "We need to be a party that stands for more than the sum of our resentments. Too often we're caricatured as a bi-coastal cultural elite that is condescending at best and contemptuous at worst to the values that Americans hold in their daily lives." And one more, Herald Ickes, you know, he worked for President Clinton. He said that, "We Democrats ignored in large measure the three big cultural issues of this election - guns, abortion and gay rights, epitomized by gay marriage." Weigh in here. What went wrong for the Democrats, most of the Democrats, on Tuesday?
SEN.-ELECT OBAMA: Well, I think that a part of what was just discussed played a role. There's no doubt that the Democrats, if they're going to be successful, have to be able to talk about family, faith and community, because that's where people live. That's the experience that people find most important and most meaningful in their lives. And if the Democrats are only issuing white papers and policy positions and not talking to people about their central experiences, then I think there are going to be problems.
Now, I do believe that we have to broaden this conversation about morality and about values so that it includes not only the three issues that you named, but also the immorality of 45 million people who are uninsured.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: But let me just stop you there. Didn't Senator Kerry try to do that and as long as you have guns, gay rights and abortion up there in front, are you blocked from making that cultural connection with the rest of the country?
SEN.-ELECT OBAMA: George, I don't think it's an either-or proposition. I mean, I was very successful, I think, here in Illinois, talking to people in rural communities and down-state communities, oftentimes who may take more culturally conservative positions than I do, but I think they felt that I was listening to them, that I was open to the concerns that they had. They didn't feel that I was condescending with respect to these issues.
So I think it's important to recognize there are a complex set of forces out here. We're going through a cultural transition. And what people want is a sense that folks are authentic and that they are concerned about these issues. Although I don't think that the voters across the country are prescribing a particular position that you have to take in order to be successful politically on each of these issues.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Now, Congressman Thune, it's hard to imagine someone who was more connected to the people of South Dakota for three decades than Senator Daschle. What defeated him in the end, do you believe?
SEN.-ELECT THUNE: Well, I think, George, in a lot of ways it ways, and I would say to Senator-elect Obama, I'm looking forward to working with him, as well. I mean, here's a guy who's more popular in Illinois than the Chicago Bears, so obviously -- (Laughs.) --
SEN.-ELECT OBAMA: That's not hard. We're losing! (Laughs.)
SEN.-ELECT THUNE: Well, maybe that's -- this year -- that's true. But I do think the things that he touched on are really accurate. And that is that people want to see their institutions of government working. And I think the perception in South Dakota was that Senator Daschle, you know, the position that he held, for better or worse, put him in a position where he had to carry the agenda of the national Democrat Party, an agenda that was very far out of step with where a majority of South Dakotans were. And as a consequence was blocking the agenda that the president had put forward. Many of the things here that people in South Dakota support.
And so I think that, you know, people want to see the United States Senate function. They want to see it get its work done. They want to see people, you know, in the United States Senate focus on doing what's right and addressing the challenges and the problems that are facing the future of this country. And that includes a whole range of issues and legislation. But it also is partly the notion of, you know, making sure that judges get an up and down vote in the United States Senate. And I think these things, and that pattern of sort of obstruction that has been going on in the Senate, and the partisanship, and the political games and agendas that have been at, you know, cross purposes there, has keep this agenda from moving forward. And I think people here in South Dakota, like people around the country, for that matter, want to see their elected officials work together to get things done, rather than to block things from getting down.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, let's talk about that, Mr. Obama. There's a White House aide quoted in U.S. News & World Report saying, "We think that Obama could emerge as their point person on bi-partisan issues." Why don't you take a crack at it right now. You heard the president's agenda on Thursday. What part are you ready to sign on to?
SEN.-ELECT OBAMA: Well, let's take the example of tax reform. It strikes me that there's consensus in the country and hopefully in Washington that the tax system is too complex, that it's full of loopholes that are exploited by special interests, and that we need to simplify. And that's something that I would love to work with Congressman Thune and the President on. I think, though, there are going to be some specific disagreements on some issues. And if we can arrive at a tax simplification agenda that is not resulting in a shift towards a more regressive tax system, but is instead genuinely making it simpler for ordinary Americans to file their tax returns without a lot of paperwork and gobblety-gook, then I think that's something that we could work together on.
The president was kind enough to call me this week and offer his congratulations. He was extraordinarily gracious. I told him that I'm rooting for his success. I don't want to be a tactician looking at the mid-term elections. I want us to move the country forward. But there are going to be areas where I will be concerned if the tax policies appear only to continue a move towards a more regressive tax system.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: A key to that success will be, of course, Iraq, and one of the first votes you both will face will be for a new infusion of up to $70 billion for Iraq. Congressman Thune, are you prepared to vote for that?
SEN.-ELECT THUNE: Well, I'm prepared to give the troops what they need to get the job done, George, and I think that, you know, right now we have to finish the job there. We have to win the war on terror and we want to make sure that our troops have all the resources, the equipment, the training that they need to do that job. So, you know, if that's the proposal that comes forward from our military, from our commander-in-chief, from the administration and it's what it's going to take to get the job done, then, yes, I will support it.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Obama?
SEN.-ELECT OBAMA: Well, again, I think this is an example where I said during the campaign this is no longer George Bush's war or a Republican war, this is an American war. We want to see Iraq successful and our troops protected. I do think that presenting a clear, detailed plan that includes an exit strategy and includes how the money is going to be spent would serve the president well. I think it would discipline the Pentagon in terms of how they actually --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: So you won't vote for it unless you have a new plan?
SEN.-ELECT OBAMA: Well, what I would like to do is encourage the White House and the Pentagon to itemize and detail how the money will be spent. I think the money will be spent more wisely as a consequence.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Congressman Thune, a lot of us have also been waiting for the details on possible Social Security reform. The Congressional Budget Office and others have said that the transition costs are between one and two trillion dollars over ten years. But the president and members of Congress have not yet spelled out how they're going to pay for it. There's really only three ways -- increase the deficit, cut benefits and spending, or increase taxes. What's your preferred route?
SEN.-ELECT THUNE: Well, I think that if you -- the other consequence of doing nothing, George, is that, you know, the Social Security trustees have said it's going to cost us $10 trillion if we don't take steps to fix it. And, you know, the Social Security actuary has estimated that if we move to a personal retirement account system, program for younger workers, that we can actually get it solvent by 2029.
But my view would be that you set up some off-budget account and you finance it that way. I'm not in favor of raising taxes. I'm not in favor of reducing benefits. I think there are other models --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: So that would mean increasing the deficit in the short term.
SEN.-ELECT THUNE: Well, I think there are other models that have been used where countries have created this sort of off-budget account. It's like, you know, when you borrow money for a farm, you don't borrow -- sign the loan on Friday and then on Tuesday say "I'm broke." You obviously are taking steps that you need to make sure that over the long run that investment is sound and solvent. And we have a commitment with our seniors, with people in this country to keep Social Security up and going.
If we don't take steps to do it, it's going to be a $10 trillion unfunded liability in the future. And that is a much worse scenario than, you know, taking the steps right now to correct it. So I think this is an issue that hopefully in the second term the president will tackle, as well, as Senator-elect Obama mentioned, tax reform, which, in my judgment too, is something that's long overdue. And I think those are things that if we can put the politics aside, we can work together to try and achieve something that's really meaningful for the American people in those two areas.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Mr. Obama, you get the last word on Social Security.
SEN.-ELECT OBAMA: Well, I think that the basic principle has to be that our seniors are protected and the numbers have to work. And I won't pre-judge the administration's proposal. I think that they should put it forward. But if we haven't handled the transition costs, then I think that there are some serious problems there. I'm happy to work, though, we the other side of the aisle to see if we can come up with something that makes more sense.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Mr. Obama, Mr. Thune, thank you both very much.
SEN.-ELECT OBAMA: Thank you.
SEN.-ELECT THUNE: Thanks, George.