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Democratic Presidential Debate - Transcript


Location: Hanover, NH

Democratic Presidential Debate - Transcript

MR. RUSSERT: Good evening, and welcome. We have some big issues to talk about tonight, so let's start right now.

Senator Obama, I'd like to start with you. General Petraeus in his testimony before Congress, later echoed by President Bush, gave every indication that in January of 2009 when the next president takes office, there will be 100,000 troops in Iraq. You're the president. What do you do? You said you would end the war. How do you do it in January of 2009?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, first of all, Tim, let me say thank you to Dartmouth for hosting this event.

And let me also say that had my judgment prevailed back in 2002, we wouldn't be in this predicament. I was opposed to this war from the start, have been opposed to this war consistently. But I have also said that there are no good options now; there are bad options and worse options.

I hope and will work diligently in the Senate to bring an end to this war before I take office. And I think that it is very important at this stage, understanding how badly the president's strategy has failed, that we not vote for funding without some timetable for this war.

If there are still large troop presences in when I take office, then the first thing I will do is call together the Joint Chiefs of Staff and initiate a phased redeployment. We've got to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in. But military personnel indicate we can get one brigade to two brigades out per month.

I would immediately begin that process. We would get combat troops out of Iraq. The only troops that would remain would be those that have to protect U.S. bases and U.S. civilians, as well as to engage in counterterrorism activities in Iraq.

The important principle, though, is there are not going to be any military solutions to the problem in Iraq. There has to be a political accommodation, and the best way for us to support the troops and to stabilize the situation in Iraq is to begin that phased redeployment.

MR. RUSSERT: Will you pledge that by January 2013, the end of your first term more than five years from now, there will be no U.S. troops in Iraq?

SEN. OBAMA: I think it's hard to project four years from now, and I think it would be irresponsible. We don't know what contingency will be out there.

What I can promise is that if there are still troops in Iraq when I take office, which it appears there may be unless we can get some of our Republican colleagues to change their mind and cut off funding without a timetable, if there's no timetable, then I will drastically reduce our presence there to the mission of protecting our embassy, protecting our civilians and making sure that we're carrying out counterterrorism activities there.

I believe that we should have all our troops out by 2013, but I don't want to make promises not knowing what the situation's going to be three or four years out.


MR. RUSSERT: You will all be running against a Republican opponent, perhaps Rudy Giuliani. This is what he said.

"Iran is not going to be allowed to build a nuclear power. If they get to a point where they're going to become a nuclear power, we will prevent them; we will set them back eight to 10 years. That is not said as a threat; that should be said as a promise."

Would you make a promise as a potential commander in chief that you will not allow Iran to become a nuclear power and will use any means to stop it?

SEN. CLINTON: Well, what I have said is that I will do everything I can to prevent Iran from becoming an nuclear power, including the use of diplomacy, the use of economic sanctions, opening up direct talks. We haven't even tried. That's what is so discouraging about this. So then you have the Republican candidates on the other side jumping to the kind of statements that you just read to us.

We need a concerted, comprehensive strategy to deal with Iran. We haven't had it. We need it. And I will provide it.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator Obama, would Israel be justified in launching an attack on Iran if they felt their security was jeopardized?

SEN. OBAMA: I think it's important to back up for a second, Tim, and just understand, number one, Iran is in a stronger position now than it was before the Iraq war because the Congress authorized the president to go in. And so it indicates the degree to which we've got to make sure, before we launch attacks or make judgments of the sort, that we actually understand the intelligence and we have done a good job in sorting it through.

Now, we don't know exactly what happened with respect to Syria. We've gotten general reports, but we don't know all the specifics. We got general reports in the run-up to the Iraq war that proved erroneous, and a lot of people voted for that war as a consequence.

Now, we are a stalwart ally of Israel, and I think it is important to understand that we will back them up in terms of their security. But it is critical to understand that until we have taken the diplomatic routes that are required to tighten economic sanctions -- I have a plan right now to make sure that private pension funds in this country can divest from their holdings in Iran. Until we have gathered the international community to put the squeeze on Iran economically, then we shouldn't be having conversations about attacks in Iran.

And I think what Mayor Giuliani said was irresponsible, because we have not yet come to that point. We have not tried the other approach.

MR. RUSSERT: So you would not offer a promise to the American people, like Giuliani, that Iran will not be able to develop and become a nuclear power?

SEN. OBAMA: I make an absolute commitment that we will do everything we need to do to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. One of the things we have to try, though, is to talk directly to Iran, something that we have not been doing. And, you know, one of the disagreements that we have on this stage is the degree to which the next president is going to have to engage in the sort of personal diplomacy that can bring about a new era in the region. And, you know, that means talking to everybody. We've got to talk to our enemies and not just our friends.


MR. RUSSERT: Before we take a break, I want to go to Alison King of New England Cable News, who has been sifting through thousands of questions from across the country and New England and here in New Hampshire.

Alison, a question, please.

ALISON KING (New England Cable News): Thank you, Tim.

Dozens of cities around the country, including several here, right here in New England, have been designated as sanctuary cities. These are communities that provide a safe haven for illegal immigrants, where police are told not to involve themselves in immigration matters.

Would you allow these cities to ignore the federal law regarding the reporting of illegal immigrants and, in fact, provide sanctuary to these immigrants?


MR. RUSSERT: Senator Obama.

SEN. OBAMA: The federal law is not being enforced not because of failures of local communities, because the federal government has not done the job that it needs to do. And --

MR. RUSSERT: But you would allow the sanctuary cities to exist?

SEN. OBAMA: What I would do as president is pass comprehensive immigration reform. And the federal government should be doing, which is controlling our borders but also providing a rational immigration system, which we currently don't have.


MR. RUSSERT: Senator Obama, I asked Senator Clinton about experience in judgment. You have served in the U.S. Senate about 33 months. You have no landmark legislation as such that you have offered. When you were elected back in 2004, you said, quote, "The notion that somehow I am going to start running for higher office, it just doesn't make sense."

If it didn't make sense in 2004, why does it make sense now?

SEN. OBAMA: Because I think that the country is at a crossroads right now and it needs three things. Number one, it needs somebody who can bring the country together, and that's the kind of experience that I bring to this office. When I was in the state legislature, I was able to get people who were polar opposites -- police officers and law enforcement working with civil rights advocates to reform a death penalty system that was broken; bringing people together, Republicans and Democrats, to provide health insurance to people who didn't have it. That's number one.

Number two, we need somebody who can take on the special interests and win. And I have consistently done that. On money in politics, in the state legislature I passed landmark ethics legislation against not just Republicans but also some of the leaders in my own party. I did the same thing working with Russ Feingold with the ethics reform package that we passed last year.

And the third thing is telling the truth to the American people even when it's tough, which I did in 2002, standing up against this war at a time where it was very unpopular. And I was risking my political career, because I was in the middle of a U.S. Senate race.

Now, those are, I think, the kinds of experiences that people are looking for right now in this country, and that's the kind of experience I bring to bear to this race.

I just want to make one last comment. I think Hillary Clinton deserves credit for having worked on health care. I think John deserves credit for his proposal. I know that, you know, he feels that he put out his plan first. You know, Harry Truman put something out 60 years ago for universal health care. I wrote about it in a book that I wrote last year -- a plan very similar to John's.

The issue is not going to be who has these particular plans. It has to do with who can inspire and mobilize the American people to get it done and open up the process. If it was lonely for Hillary, part of the reason it was lonely, Hillary, was because you closed the door to a lot of potential allies in that process. At that time, 80 percent of Americans already wanted universal health care, but they didn't feel like they were let into the process.


MR. RUSSERT: I'd like to go to Alison King of New England Cable News again for another question. Alison.

MS. KING: Thanks, Tim.

The issues surrounding gay rights have been hotly debated here in New England. For example, last year some parents of second graders in Lexington, Massachusetts, were outraged to learn their children's teacher had read a story about same-sex marriage, about a prince who marries another prince.

Same-sex marriage is legal in Massachusetts, but most of you oppose it. Would you be comfortable having this story read to your children as part of their school curriculum?

I'm going to start with Senator Edwards.

MR. EDWARDS: Yes, absolutely.

What I want is I want my children to understand everything about the difficulties that gay and lesbian couples are faced with every day, the discrimination that they're faced with every single day of their lives. And I suspect my two younger children -- Emma Claire, who's nine, and Jack, who's seven -- will reach the same conclusion that my daughter, Cate, who's 25, has reached, which is she doesn't understand why her dad is not in favor of same-sex marriage, and she says her generation will be the generation that brings about the great change in America on that issue.

So I don't want to make that decision on behalf of my children. I want my children to be able to make that decision on behalf of themselves, and I want them to be exposed to all the information, even in -- did you say second grade? Second grade might be a little tough, but even in second grade to be exposed to all --

MS. KING: Well, that's the point is second grade.

MR. EDWARDS: -- to all of those possibilities because I don't want to impose my view. Nobody made me God. I don't get to decide on behalf of my family or my children, as my wife, Elizabeth, who's spoken her own mind on this issue. I don't get to impose on them what it is that I believe is right.

But what I will do as president of the United States is I will lead an effort to make sure that the same benefits that are available to heterosexual couples -- 1,100, roughly, benefits in the federal government -- are available to same-sex couples; that we get rid of DOMA, the Defense Of Marriage Act; that we get rid of "don't ask, don't tell," which is wrong today, was wrong when it was enacted back in the 1990s.

I will be the president that leads a serious effort to deal with the discrimination that exists today.

MS. KING: Thank you.

Senator Obama, you have young children at home. How do you feel about this?

SEN. OBAMA: You know, I feel very similar to John: that -- you know, the fact is, my 9-year-old and my 6-year-old's -- I think, are already aware that there are same-sex couples. And my wife and I have talked about it.

And one of the things I want to communicate to my children is not to be afraid of people who are different, and because there have been times in our history where I was considered different, or Bill Richardson was considered different.

And one of the things I think the next president has to do is to stop fanning people's fears. You know, if we spend all our time feeding the American people fear and conflict and division, then they become fearful and conflicted and divided. And if we feed them hope, and we feed them reason and tolerance, then they will become tolerant and reasonable and hopeful. And that, I think, is one of the most important things that the next president can do, is try to bring us together and stop trying to fan the flames of division that have become so -- so standard in our politics in Washington. That's the kind of experience, by the way, that we need to put an end to.

MS. KING: Quickly, have you sat down with your daughters to talk about same-sex marriage?

SEN. OBAMA: My wife has.

MS. KING: Okay.


MR. RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, would you be in favor of saying to the American people, "I'm going to tax your income. I'm not going to cap at $97,500. Everyone, even if you're a millionaire, is going to pay Social Security tax on every cent they make"?

SEN. CLINTON: Well, Tim, let me tell you what I think about this because I know this is a particular concern of yours, but I want to make three points very briefly.

First, I do think that it's important to talk about fiscal responsibility. You know, when my husband left office after moving us toward a balanced budget and a surplus, we had a plan to make Social Security solvent until 2055. Now, because of the return to deficits, we've lost 14 years of solvency. It's now projected to be solvent until 2041. Getting back on a path of fiscal responsibility is absolutely essential.

Number two, I think we do need another bipartisan process. You described what happened in '83. It took presidential leadership, and it took the relationship between the White House and Capitol Hill to reach the kind of resolution that was discussed.

And I think that has to be what happens again, but with a president who is dedicated to Social Security, unlike our current president, who has never liked Social Security. You can go back and see when he first ran for Congress he was dissing Social Security. So when I'm president, I will do everything to protect and preserve Social Security so we can have that kind of bipartisanship.

And finally, then you can look in the context of fiscal responsibility and of a bipartisan compromise what else might be done. But I think if you don't put fiscal responsibility first, you're going to really make a big mistake, because we demonstrated in the '90s it had a lot to do with moving us toward solvency.


SEN. CLINTON: I'm not putting anything on the proverbial table until we move toward fiscal responsibility. I think it's a mistake to do that.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator Obama?

SEN. OBAMA: I think that lifting the cap is probably going to be the best option.

Now we've got to have a process that's already been talked about. Joe participated back in 1983. We need another one. And I think I've said before everything should be on the table.

My personal view is that lifting the cap is much preferable to the other options that are available.

But what's critical is to recognize that there is a potential problem. As I travel around Iowa and New Hampshire, I meet young people who don't think Social Security is going to be there for them. They don't believe it's going to be there for them. And I think it's important for us, in addition to getting our fiscal house in order, to acknowledge, as Democrats, that there may be a problem that we've got to take on. And we should be willing to do anything that will strengthen the system, to make sure that that we are being true to the sacred of those who are already retired, as well as young people in the future. And we should reject things that will weaken the system, including privatization, which essentially is going to put people's retirement at the whim of the stock market.


MR. RUSSERT: Senator Obama, a national law to ban smoking in all public places?

SEN. OBAMA: I think that local communities are making enormous strides, and I think they're doing the right thing on this. If it turns out that we're not seeing enough progress at the local level, then I would favor a national law. I don't think we've seen the local laws play themselves out entirely, because I think you're seeing an enormous amount of progress in Chicago, in New York, in other major cities around the country. And because I think we have been treating this as a public health problem and educating the public on the dangers of secondhand smoke, that that pressure will continue.

As I said, if we can't provide these kinds of protections at the local level, which would be my preference, I would be supportive of a national law.

MR. RUSSERT: Have you been successful in stopping smoking?

SEN. OBAMA: I have. The -- you know, the best cure is my wife. (Laughter.)


MR. RUSSERT: In the interest of time, is there anybody here, from Obama down to Gravel, who thinks we should lower the drinking age back to 18?

MR. GRAVEL: I think we should lower it to -- anybody that can go fight and die for this country should be able to drink. (Applause.)

MR. RUSSERT: Eighteen?

Kucinich -- Congressman Kucinich? You said yes.

REP. KUCINICH: You know, I think that not only about service, but we have to have confidence in young Americans. And a president who reaches out to them and talks to them about drinking responsibly is much better than a president who tells them, "Thou shalt not," because young people will do what they do, but they're looking for leadership from a president. I'm ready to provide that leadership.

Of course they should be able to drink at age 18, and they should be able to vote at age 16.

MR. RUSSERT: Obama, Edwards, Clinton are all no on 18?




MR. RUSSERT: We are back in New Hampshire.

Politicians spend millions of dollars on TV commercials, which last 30 seconds. We want to demonstrate to the American voters tonight that you can answer a question in 30 seconds. (Laughter.) Here we go.

Senator Obama, you go around the country saying it's time to turn the page. Are you talking about the Bushes, the Clintons or both?

SEN. OBAMA: What I'm talking about is ending the divisive politics that we have in this country. I think it is important for us as Democrats to be clear about what we stand for. But I think we also have to invite Republicans and independents to join us in a progressive agenda for universal health care, to make sure that they are included in conversations about improving our education system and properly funding our public schools. I think turning the page means that we've got to get over the special interest-driven politics that we've become accustomed to. And most importantly it's important for us to make sure that we're telling the truth to the American people about the choices we face.


MR. RUSSERT: Senator Obama, you were criticized by Jesse Jackson and others about your -- in their words -- tepid response about the situation in Jena involving civil rights difficulties in Louisiana. Should you have gone to Jena, Louisiana, in order to try to bring those communities together?

SEN. OBAMA: No, because I was in Washington at that time trying to bring an end to the war in Iraq, and that was something that was critical.

The fact is, is that I was -- before any of the other candidates on this stage spoke out with respect to Jena. I put out several strong statements, including ones prepared with Jesse Jackson's son, Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. And subsequently I think Reverend Jackson acknowledged that.

This is an issue that's not black or white. It's an issue of American justice. We've got to make sure the justice system works for every single person.

MR. RUSSERT: Governor Richardson, if you're president of the United States, you're automatically honorary chairman of the Boy Scouts of America. In light of that organization's position on sexual orientation, would you accept that position?

GOV. RICHARDSON: No, I wouldn't, because I think, as president, I would commit myself number one that I will be a leader that prevents discrimination on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation. I will also be a president that follows the Constitution of the United States. I will also be a president that will bring back habeas corpus and the rule of law. I will also be a president that will shut down Guantanamo.

I will also be a president that will follow the Constitution and not permit torture as a tool in our foreign policy. I will not eavesdrop on American citizens and I will not go to war unless I get the consent of Congress.

And there is still a basic difference on the war. My plan ends the war, getting the troops out, and with all due respect to Senator Obama, Senator Edwards, Senator Clinton, what I heard tonight is that even in their second terms they will not get the troops out. Therefore, the war will not end.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator Obama.

SEN. OBAMA: You know, I'm happy to have this discussion again, Bill.

I think it is important to tell the American people the truth. Now, military commanders indicate that they can safely get combat troops out at a pace of one to two brigades a month. That is the quickest pace that we can do it safely, and I've said I will begin immediately and we will do it as rapidly as we can. And it's the same issue with Social Security, where the pretense is that somehow we can do this magically. We can't. And I think it's important for the next president to tell the American people not just what they want to hear or to tell our own base what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. And they need to hear --

MR./REP./SEN. : Could I --

MR. RUSSERT: I got to move on to give Senator Edwards a chance.

Senator Edwards, you heard Alan Greenspan recommending raising gasoline tax. We do have a dependency on foreign oil, which all across America people say we must become energy independent.

Would you be in favor of developing more nuclear power here in the United States?

MR. EDWARDS: No. Period. No. So that was less than 30 seconds. (Laughter.)

MR. RUSSERT: Senator Obama, nuclear power.

SEN. OBAMA: I don't think that we can take nuclear power off the table. What we have to make sure of is, is that we have the capacity to store it properly and safely and that we reduce whatever threats might come from terrorism.

And if we can do that in a technologically sound way, then we should pursue it. If we can't, we should not. But there is no magic bullet on energy. We're going to have to look at all the various options to reduce greenhouse gases and to put us on a path to energy independence.

MR. RUSSERT: Congressman.

REP. KUCINICH: I -- well, first of all, you know, I know a little bit about this because I actually blocked a nuclear dump in Ohio, and I was one of the few up there who actually spoke against having a nuclear dump in Nevada. The truth of the matter is that nuclear power is very expensive, Tim. They never factored in the cost of storage, which continues forever. I want to keep utility rates low by having a "works green" administration, emphasis on solar and wind, drive down this energy curve of hydrocarbon consumption, and finally, no more war as an instrument of policy, no more resource wars. We've got to make the transition away from oil, and that's what a Kucinich administration --

MR. RUSSERT: Nuclear power.

MR. GRAVEL: Not at all. The solution, obviously, is wind power. If we manufactured 5 million of these two-and-a-half meg windmills across the country, we could electrify the entire nation, the entire nation. I'm talking about a transportation system. Why don't we do that?

We know the -- this is technology off the shelf. That's why I kept saying, we can get off of gasoline in five years, we can get off of carbon in 10 years; all we got to want is to do it, and it will take the American people, because they can't get that through the Congress.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, would you rule out expanding nuclear power?

SEN. CLINTON: No, but it would not be one of the options that I favor unless, number one, the costs can get down for the construction and operation; number two, that we have a viable solution for the nuclear waste. I voted against Yucca Mountain, I've spoken out against Yucca Mountain. I think that recently the discovery -- there's an earthquake fault going under the proposed site at Yucca Mountain certainly validates my opposition.

So there are a lot of very difficult questions. But we're going to have to look at the entire energy profile in order to determine how we're going to move away from our dependence upon carbon-based fuels. And I will look at everything, but there are some tough questions you'd have to answer with respect to nuclear.

MR. RUSSERT: I want to move to another subject, and this involves a comment that a guest on "Meet The Press" made, and I want to read it as follows: "Imagine the following scenario. We get lucky. We get the number three guy in al Qaeda. We know there's a big bomb going off in America in three days, and we know this guy knows where it is. Don't we have the right and responsibility to beat it out of him? You could set up a law where the president could make a finding or could guarantee a pardon."

President Obama, would you do that as president?

SEN. OBAMA: America cannot sanction torture. It's a very straightforward principle and one that we should abide by. Now, I will do whatever it takes to keep America safe. And there are going to be all sorts of hypotheticals, an emergency situation, and I will make that judgment at that time.

But what we cannot do is have the president of the United States state as a matter of policy that there is a loophole or an exception where we would sanction torture. I think that diminishes us, and it sends the wrong message to the world.


MR. RUSSERT: Is there anyone here who doesn't believe that presidential libraries and presidential foundations should make public all their donors.

SEN. OBAMA: I just want to amplify on this issue. Because I think it's important not only that all this information is disclosed, but I also think that we need to have a situation in which we are disclosing he bundling of large donors. And that is something that we were able to successfully do. I pushed it with Russ Feingold to make sure that large bundlers who are lobbyists were disclosed. We are now in the process of presenting a bill where any large bundler has to disclose who they are bundling money from and who are they funneling it to. And I think that should be passed right away.


MR. RUSSERT: Before we go, there's been a lot of discussion about the Democrats and the issue of faith and values. I want to ask you a simple question.

Senator Obama, what is your favorite Bible verse?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think it would have to be the Sermon on the Mount, because it expresses a basic principle that I think we've lost over the last six years. John talked about what we've lost.

Part of what we've lost is a sense of empathy towards each other. We have been governed in fear and division. And you know, we talk about the federal deficit, but we don't talk enough about the empathy deficit, a sense that I stand in somebody else's shoes, I see through their eyes. People who are struggling, trying to figure out how to pay the gas bill or try to send their kids to college -- we are not thinking about them at the federal level. That's the reason I'm running for president, because I want to restore that.


MR. RUSSERT: I want to thank you all for your answers this evening. I want to ask Allison King for one more question. This, after all, is New Hampshire. She wants to ask you about baseball.


MS. KING: For many here in New England, the answer to this next question may be the most important one you answer tonight. Red Sox or Yankees? (Laughter.)



SEN. OBAMA: Sox, but the wrong color. (Laughter.) I'm a White Sox fan all the way.


MR. RUSSERT: Thank you all. Thank you voters of New Hampshire and all across the country for watching the Democratic candidates tonight, and thank you Dartmouth. (Applause.) Our thanks to New England Cable News -- (continued applause) -- Dartmouth College. The broadcast re-airs tonight 1:00 a.m. Eastern on MSNBC. If you want to see the Republican candidates in a similar setting, NBC will bring you the debate from Dearborn, Michigan October 9th. (Continued applause.) I'll see you this Sunday on Meet the Press.

From Hanover, New Hampshire, good night.


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