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Democratic Presidential Candidate Forum


Location: Philadelphia, PA

Democratic Presidential Candidate Forum

MR. WILLIAMS: Senator Clinton, rebuttal?

SEN. CLINTON: Well, I don't think the Republicans got the message that I'm voting and sounding like them. If you watched their debate last week, I seemed to be the topic of great conversation and consternation, and that's for a reason, because I have stood against George Bush and his failed policies.

They want to continue the war in Iraq; I want to end it. The Republicans are waving their sabers and talking about going after Iran. I want to prevent a rush to war. On every issue from health care for children to an energy policy that puts us on the right track to deal with climate change and make us more secure, I have been standing against the Republicans, George Bush and Dick Cheney, and I will continue to do so. And I think Democrats know that.


MR. RUSSERT: Senator Clinton.

SEN. CLINTON: Well, I think that anyone who's looked at my record of 35 years fighting, for women and children and people who feel invisible and left out in this country, knows my record. I fought for expanded education and health care in Arkansas. I helped to bring health care to 6 million children while in the White House. And now, in the Senate, I've been standing up against the Republicans on everything from preventing them from privatizing Social Security to standing up against President Bush's veto of children's health.

You know, I have a long record of standing up and fighting, and I take on the special interests. I've been taking them on for many years. And I think all you have to do is go back and -- and read the media to know that.

But on specific issues I've come out with very specific plans. With respect to Social Security, I do have a plan. It's called start with fiscal responsibility. That's what we were doing in the 1990s, and we had Social Security on a much better path than it is today because of the irresponsible spending policies of George Bush and the Republican Congress.

If there are some of the long-term challenges that we need to address, let's do it in the context of having fiscal responsibility, and then let's put together a bipartisan commission and look at how we're going to deal with these long-term challenges. But I am not going to balance Social Security on the backs of seniors and hardworking middle-class Americans. Let's start taking the tax cuts away from the wealthy. Let's take away the no-bid contracts from Halliburton before we start imposing a trillion-dollar tax increase on the elderly and on middle-class workers. I don't think that's necessary.

So I have a very specific plan. My friends may not agree with it, but I've been saying it and talking about it for many months.

MR. RUSSERT: We're going to get to Social Security in a little bit, but I want to stay on Iran, Senator Clinton.

As you know, you voted for the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, the only member on the stage here who did that. Senator, Jim Leavitt (sp) of Virginia said it is for all practical purposes mandating the military option, that it is a clearly worded sense of Congress that could be interpreted as a declaration of war.

Why did you vote for that amendment, which would -- calls upon the president to structure our military forces in Iraq with regard to the capability of Iran?

SEN. CLINTON: Well, first of all, I am against a rush to war. I was the first person on this stage and one of the very first in the Congress to go to the floor of the Senate back in February and say George Bush had no authority to take any military action in Iran.

Secondly, I am not in favor of this rush for war, but I'm also not in favor of doing nothing. Iran is seeking nuclear weapons, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is in the forefront of that, as they are in the sponsorship of terrorism.

So some may want a false choice between rushing to war -- which is the way the Republicans sound; it's not even a question of whether, it's a question of when and what weapons to use -- and doing nothing. I prefer vigorous diplomacy, and I happen to think economic sanctions are part of vigorous diplomacy. We use them with respect to North Korea. We use them with respect to Libya. And many of us who voted for that resolution said that this is not anything other than an expression of support for using economic sanctions with respect to diplomacy.

You know, several people who were adamantly opposed to the war in Iraq, like Senator Durbin, voted the same way I did and said at the time that if he thought there was even the pretense that could be used from the language in that non-binding resolution to give George Bush any support to go to war, he wouldn't have voted for it. Neither would I.

So we can argue about what is a non-binding sense of the Senate, and I think that we are missing the point, which is we've got to do everything we can to prevent George Bush and the Republicans from doing something on their own to take offensive military action against Iran. I'm prepared to pass legislation that -- with my colleagues who are here in the Congress, to try to get some Republicans to join us, to make it abundantly clear that sanctions and diplomacy are the way to go; we reject and do not believe George Bush has any authority to do anything else.


MR. WILLIAMS: Senator Obama, let's get at this another way. Red line is the current expression of the moment where Iran is concerned in Washington. What would your red line be concerning when to, if to attack Iran? What would make it crystal clear in your mind that the United States should attack Iran?


MR. WILLIAMS: Same question to Senator Clinton.

What would be your red line?

SEN. CLINTON: Well, first of all, we have to try diplomacy, and I see economic sanctions as part of diplomacy. We've used it with other very difficult situations, like Libya, like North Korea, and I think that what we're trying to do here is put pressure on the Bush administration. Joe's absolutely right -- George Bush can do all of this without anybody. You know, that's the great tragedy, and that's why we've got to rein him in, and that's why we need Republican support in the Congress to help us do so.

And I invite all of our colleagues to pass something immediately that makes it very clear he has no authority and we will not permit him to go take offensive action against Iran.

But what we're trying to do is push forward on vigorous diplomacy. That has been lacking.

I believe we should be engaged in diplomacy right now with the Iranians. Everything should be on the table, not just their nuclear program. I've been advocating this for several years, I believe it strongly, but I also think when you go to the table to negotiate with an adversarial regime, you need both carrots and sticks. The Revolutionary Guard is deeply involved in the commercial activities of Iran. Having those economic sanctions hanging over their heads gives our negotiators one of the set of sticks that we need to try to make progress in dealing with a very complicated complicated situation.

Everybody agrees up here that President Bush has made a total mess out of the situation with Iran. What we're trying to do is to sort our way through to try to put diplomacy, with some carrots and some sticks, into the mix and get the president to begin to do that.

MR. WILLIAMS: Respectfully, Senator, same question, though: Do you have a threshold, a red line beyond which?

SEN. CLINTON: I want to start diplomacy. You know, I am not going to speculate about when or if they get nuclear weapons. We're trying to prevent them from getting so. We're not, in my view, rushing to war. We should not be doing that. But we shouldn't be doing nothing.

And that means we should not let them acquire nuclear weapons, and the best way to prevent that is a full-court press on the diplomatic front.


MR. RUSSERT: I want to ask each of you the same question.

Senator Clinton, would you pledge to the American people that Iran will not develop a nuclear bomb while you are president?

SEN. CLINTON: I intend to do everything I can to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.

MR. RUSSERT: But you won't pledge?

SEN. CLINTON: I am pledging I will do everything I can to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.

MR. RUSSERT: But they may.

SEN. CLINTON: Well, you know, Tim, you asked me if I would pledge, and I have pledged that I will do everything I can -- (laughter) -- to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.


MR. WILLIAMS: Senator Obama, was Senator Clinton's answer to the opposition of the Iraq war question consistent, in your view?


MR. WILLIAMS: Senator Clinton, 30-second rebuttal.

SEN. CLINTON: May I -- well, I -- I need to rebut this. I don't know where to start.

Number one, when we talk about combat missions in Iraq, my understanding is that we had the same agreement, most of us, on this stage, that we would bring out combat troops, but we would pursue a mission against al Qaeda in Iraq if they remained a threat. Now, I don't know how you pursue al Qaeda without engaging them in combat. So I think we're having a semantic difference here.

I think we should get as many of the combat troops out as quickly as possible. If we leave any troops in, like Special Operations, to go after al Qaeda in Iraq, I assume that we don't want them just sitting around and watching them; we want them to engage them. That is a very limited mission. That is what I have said consistently.

And you know, when it comes to where I stand, I have been explaining that to the American people. I stand for ending the war in Iraq, bringing our troops home. But I also know it's going to be complicated, and it's going to take time. And I intend to do it in a responsible manner that is as safe for our troops as possible. We're going to have troops remaining there, guarding our embassy. We may have a continuing training mission, and we may have a mission against al Qaeda in Iraq. So that's a very big difference than having the 160,000 troops that George Bush has there today.

MR. WILLIAMS: Senator, thank you. And a brief housekeeping note here: we have built two or three rather short breaks into tonight's program, this two-hour debate tonight.

And we're going to choose to take the first of them right now, mostly so everyone can take a breath, on this hot stage, on this otherwise cool night in Philadelphia. We will continue with our debate, from the campus of Drexel University in Philadelphia, right after this.


MR. WILLIAMS: We are back from the campus of Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, resuming what will be tonight a two- hour debate.

And we're going to start with another subject at the top of this segment. Senator Clinton, it will go to you. It speaks to electability.

Earlier this month, Republican presidential front-runner Rudolph Giuliani said this about you, quote, "I don't know Hillary's experience. She's never run a city. She's never run a state. She's never run a business. She's never met a payroll. She's never been responsible for the safety and security of millions of people, much less even hundreds of people. So I'm trying to figure out where the experience is here." End of quote.

Senator, how do you respond to the former mayor of New York?

SEN. CLINTON: Well, I think the kind of experience that the Republican nominees are exhibiting is the kind of experience we don't need. And I think my experience of 35 years as an advocate for children and families, as a citizen activist, as someone who helped to bring educational reform and health care reform to Arkansas, bringing the Children's Health Insurance Program to fruition during the years in the White House, my time in the Senate, I think my experience on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue -- but it's really about what's at stake in this election and who can deliver the change that we all know this country desperately needs.

And in a perverse way, I think that, you know, the Republicans and their constant obsession with me demonstrates clearly that they obviously think that I am communicating effectively about what I will do as president.

And I am trying to do that because it matters greatly. We've got to turn the page on George Bush and Dick Cheney. In fact, we have to throw the whole book away. This has been a disastrous period in American history, and we hope it will be aberration. Then we need to get back to doing what will work again here at home and around the world.

And I've set forth big goals to restore America's leadership, to once again rebuild a strong and prosperous middle class, to reform our government, and to reclaim the future for our children, and that means ending the war in Iraq, having an energy policy that works and creates jobs, having health care for everyone, having an education system from pre-kindergarten to college affordability and so much more.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, I'd like to follow up because, in terms of your experience as first lady, in order to give the American people an opportunity to make a judgment about your experience, would you allow the National Archives to release the documents about your communications with the president, the advice you gave, because, as you well know, President Clinton has asked the National Archives not to do anything until 2012?

SEN. CLINTON: Well, actually, Tim, the Archives is moving as rapidly as the Archives moves. There's about 20 million pieces of paper there and they are moving, and they are releasing as they do their process. And I am fully in favor of that.

Now, all of the records, as far as I know, about what we did with health care, those are already available. Others are becoming available. And I think that, you know, the Archives will continue to move as rapidly as the circumstances and processes demand.

MR. RUSSERT: But there was a letter written by President Clinton specifically asking that any communication between you and the president not be made available to the public until 2012. Would you lift that ban?

SEN. CLINTON: Well, that's not my decision to make. And I don't believe that any president or first lady has. But certainly we'll move as quickly as our circumstances and the processes of the National Archives permits.


One last point I want to make: Part of the reason that Republicans, I think, are obsessed with you, Hillary, is because that's a fight they're very comfortable having. It is the fight that we've been through since the '90s. And part of the job of the next president is to break the gridlock and to get Democrats and independents and Republicans to start working together to solve these big problems, like health care or climate change or energy.

And what we don't need is another eight years of bickering. And that's precisely why I'm running for president. Because one of the things I've been able to do throughout my political career is to bring people together to get things done.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator Edwards had his hand up. Then I want to give Senator Clinton the chance to respond.


MR. RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, please.

SEN. CLINTON: Well, I think we were making progress in the 1990s, and I'm very proud of the progress we're making until, unfortunately, the Supreme Court handed the presidency to George Bush. And we have been living with the consequences ever since. And I think it is time for us to step up and say we're going to change the way Washington works. And I've laid out very specific plans about how to do that. I'm going to take $10 billion away from a lot of these industries, starting with money from the HMOs that are getting too much out of Medicare, starting with the no-bid contracts for Halliburton, starting with the defense industry that needs to be pared down and reined in. I've been very clear about that, and I intend to implement that.

You know, change is just a word if you don't have the strength and experience to actually make it happen.


MR. RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, I want to clear something up, which goes to the issue of credibility.

You were asked at the AARP debate whether or not you would consider taxing -- lifting the cap from 97,500, taxing that, raising more money for Social Security. You said, quote, "It's a no." I asked you the same question in New Hampshire. You said no. Then you went to Iowa and you went up to Tod Bowman, a teacher, and had a conversation with him, saying, I would consider a -- lifting the cap perhaps above 200,000. You were overheard by an Associated Press reporter saying that.

Why do you have one public position and one private position?

SEN. CLINTON: Well, Tim, I don't. I have said consistently that my plan for Social Security is fiscal responsibility first, then to deal with any long-term challenges which, I agree, are ones that we're going to have to address. We would have a bipartisan commission. In the context of that, I think all of these would be considered.

But personally I do not want to balance Social Security on the backs of our seniors and middle class families. That's why I put fiscal responsibility first, because we have to change the Bush tax cuts, which I am committed to doing. We have to move back toward a more fair and progressive tax system and begin once again to move toward a balanced budget with a surplus.

You know, part of the idea in the '90s was not just so Bill would have a check mark next to his name in history, but so that we would have the resources to deal with a lot of these entitlement problems. George Bush understood that, the Republicans understood that. They wanted to decimate that balanced budget and a surplus because they knew that that would give them a free hand to try to privatize Social Security. I am not going to be repeating Republican talking points.

So when somebody asks me, would something like this be considered? Well, anything can be considered when we get to a bipartisan commission, but personally, I am not going to be advocating any specific fix until I am seriously approaching fiscal responsibility.

MR. RUSSERT: But you did raise it as a possibility with Tod Boman.

SEN. CLINTON: Well, but everybody knows what the possibilities are, Tim. Everybody knows that. But I do not -- I do not advocate it, I do not support it. I have laid out what I do believe, and I'm going to continue to emphasize that. I think for us to act like Social Security is in crisis is a Republican trap. We're playing on the Republican field, and I don't intend to do that.

MR. RUSSERT: You called it a Republican talking point. Georgetown University, February 9th, 1998: We are in a -- you're heading to a looming fiscal crisis in Social Security. If nothing is done, it will require a huge tax increase in the payroll tax or 25 percent in Social Security benefits, Bill Clinton, 1998.

That's recent history, only two years to go in his term. Is that a Republican talking point?

SEN. CLINTON: No, but what he did was to move us toward a balanced budget and a surplus. And if you go back and you look at the numbers, they really took off, starting in '98, '99, 2000, 2001. And that would have given a president who actually believed in Social Security, which George Bush does not, the resources and the options to make decisions, but not the kind of draconian decisions and certainly not the move toward privatization, which is what the Republicans have been advocating for as long as I can remember.


MR. RUSSERT: I'd like to talk about taxes. Senator Clinton, I'd like to start with you because the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Charlie Rangel, is strong supporter of your campaign. He wants to repeal the Alternative Minimum Tax, but he also wants to have a 4 percent surtax on a single $150,000 income or a $200,000 married couple. You went to Harlem with your husband, with Charlie Rangel, and the former president said, quote, "Charlie Rangel wants me to pay more taxes so you can pay less, and I think that's a good idea." Is that also your view?

SEN. CLINTON: Well, I am a great admirer of Chairman Rangel, and what he's trying to do is deal with a very serious problem. You know, the Alternative Minimum Tax was never intended to hit people who are in middle income, upper-middle income. It was meant for people who are rich and evading taxes.

Now, I don't know all the details of what Charlie is recommending, but I certainly agree with the goal. We've got to do something with the Alternative Minimum Tax. There are a lot of ways of getting there. I want it to be fair and progressive. It starts in the House. It starts in the Ways and Means Committee, which he chairs.

But I think my husband was expressing an opinion that a lot of people who have been very fortunate and blessed over the last six years feel. You know, we've not been asked to sacrifice anything. You know, young men and women wearing the uniform of our country are dying and being maimed. We have the average American family losing $1,000 in income, and George Bush and his cronies can't figure out how they can give even more tax cuts to the wealthiest of Americans.

Now, I never thought Bill and I would be in that category, to be honest with you. So it's kind of a new experience but it's not one that makes us very comfortable, because we should be investing in new energy. We should be investing in college affordability, universal pre-K, the kind of health care plan that I've outlined. That's what we intend to do.

But we're going to have to deal with the AMT, something that the Republicans have refused to do because, very frankly, it hits people who are below their concern. They're concerned about the real top wage-earners. This hits people that are -- you know, the police chief. This hits people that are, you know, two-income families that are doing well.

So we're going to have to do something about it. I think Charlie's being very courageous in moving forward. I don't agree with all the details, but he's on the right track to say we've got to do something about the AMT.

MR. RUSSERT: So in principle, you would be in favor of looking at a 4 percent surtax --

SEN. CLINTON: No, I didn't say that, Tim. I said that I'm in favor of doing something about the AMT. How we do it and how we put the package together, everybody knows, is extremely complicated. It's not going to happen while George Bush is president; everybody knows that. I want to get to a fair and progressive tax system. The AMT has to be part of what we try to change when I'm president.

And there are a lot of moving pieces here. You know, there are kinds of issues we're going to deal with as the tax cuts expire. I want to freeze the estate tax at the 2009 level of 7 million (dollars) for a couple. There's a lot of moving parts.

So I'm not going to get committed to a specific approach, but I applaud Chairman Rangel for beginning the conversation.

MR. RUSSERT: But you will not campaign on the Rangel plan?

SEN. CLINTON: No. No, I -- that's Charlie Rangel's plan, and as I say, I support and admire his willingness to take this on.


MR. WILLIAMS: Senator, thank you.

We're going to introduce the concept of a lightning round here. Take one question; go down the line. 30 seconds each -- a time we're going to enforce.

And Governor Richardson, we're going to start with you. This is about something called Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. It's called TIMSS. A number of overseas nations took part in it. It found that overseas students spend an average of 193 days annually in school. The deficit compared to the U.S., where it's 180 days -- over 12 years, that adds up to one-year gap between education in the U.S. and overseas.

Do you believe we in this country need to extend the school day and/or extend the school year? And will you commit to it?


MR. WILLIAMS: Senator Obama, thank you.

Senator Clinton.

SEN. CLINTON: Well, very quickly, I would start at the very beginning. We need to do more to help our families prepare their children. A family is a child's first school. The parents are a child's first teacher. This is something that I've worked on for many years.

We need to really support it through nurse visitation or social worker, child care. We need to do more with the pre-Kindergarten program that I have proposed.

In addition, though, this has to fit into an overall innovation agenda which I have also set forth because we can't just say go to school longer. We need to do what happened when I was in school and Sputnik went up and our teacher said, your president wants you study math and science. That's what I want kids today to feel, that it's part of making sure we maintain our quality of life and our standard of living.


MR. WILLIAMS: Keep you -- I have to keep you to time, Senator. Thank you.

We're going to continue this notion of a lightning round.

After a quick break, we're going to start our next segment with a question handed to me by a student here at Drexel today. So again, our last break now, and a short one -- we will continue from Philadelphia right after this.


MR. WILLIAMS: We are back in Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Something we'd like to institute as the lightning round. We've put a clock and a noise, perhaps not loud or severe enough, on the screen. (Laughter.) As we tried this out in the previous segment, we're going to get try to get tougher and heavier concerning our enforcement.

I promised to begin with a question handed me by a Drexel student today. It dovetails -- and Senator Dodd, we'll start with you -- it dovetails with what physicians have asked me to ask in this room, to this group here tonight.

With so many young people choosing not to go into medicine, so many veteran physicians choosing to get out or losing heart because their ability to earn an income is going down, how do you expect this nation to attract, to continue to attract quality people to medicine, Senator?


SEN. CLINTON: Well, again, I agree with everything that has been said. In my proposal for the American Health Choices plan, we basically give the insurance companies an ultimatum. They have to get into the business of actually providing insurance instead of trying to avoid covering people. They cannot deny people coverage; they cannot exist -- have a pre-existing condition which is not covered. That is one of the biggest problems that doctors face. They face this constant barrage of harassment and bureaucratization from the private insurance world.

We also need to clean up Medicare and Medicaid. They're not as friendly as they need to be either.


MR. RUSSERT: Thank you, Brian.

Senator Clinton, Governor of New York Eliot Spitzer has proposed giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. You told the Nashua, New Hampshire editorial board it makes a lot of sense. Why does it make a lot of sense to give an illegal immigrant a driver's license?

SEN. CLINTON: Well, what Governor Spitzer is trying to do is fill the vacuum left by the failure of this administration to bring about comprehensive immigration reform. We know in New York we have several million at any one time who are in New York illegally. They are undocumented workers. They are driving on our roads. The possibility of them having an accident that harms themselves or others is just a matter of the odds. It's probability. So what Governor Spitzer is trying to do is to fill the vacuum.

I believe we need to get back to comprehensive immigration reform because no state, no matter how well-intentioned, can fill this gap.

There needs to be federal action on immigration reform.


SEN. CLINTON: I just want to add, I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it. And we have failed --

SEN. DODD: Wait a minute. No, no, no. You said yes, you thought it made sense to do it. ` SEN. CLINTON: No, I didn't, Chris. But the point is, what are we going to do with all these illegal immigrants who are (driving ?) -- (inaudible)?

SEN. DODD: Well, that's a legitimate issue. But driver's license goes too far, in my view.

SEN. CLINTON: Well, you may say that, but what is the identification if somebody runs into you today who is an undocumented worker --

SEN. DODD: There's ways of dealing with that.

SEN. CLINTON: Well, but --

SEN. DODD: This is a privilege, not a right.

SEN. CLINTON: Well, what Governor Spitzer has agreed to do is to have three different licenses; one that provides identification for actually going onto airplanes and other kinds of security issues, another which is an ordinary driver's license, and then a special card that identifies the people who would be on the road.

SEN. DODD: That's a bureaucratic nightmare.

SEN. CLINTON: So it's not the full privilege.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, I just want to make sure what I heard. Do you, the New York Senator Hillary Clinton, support the New York governor's plan to give illegal immigrants a driver's license? You told the Nashua, New Hampshire, paper it made a lot of sense.


MR. RUSSERT: Do you support his plan?

SEN. CLINTON: You know, Tim, this is where everybody plays gotcha. It makes a lot of sense. What is the governor supposed to do? He is dealing with a serious problem. We have failed, and George Bush has failed.

Do I think this is the best thing for any governor to do? No. But do I understand the sense of real desperation, trying to get a handle on this? Remember, in New York we want to know who's in New York. We want people to come out of the shadows. He's making an honest effort to do it. We should have passed immigration reform.


MR. RUSSERT: I want to see -- (laughter) -- I'm going to ask Senator Obama a question in the same line.

The three astronauts of Apollo 11 who went to the moon back in 1969 all said that they believe there is life beyond Earth. Do you agree?


SEN. CLINTON: I'm going to do everything I can to do that. I went to Lance Armstrong's cancer symposium in Iowa and it was a very moving experience -- not only people like us speaking but a lot of cancer survivors, a lot of researchers.

It's just outrageous that under President Bush, the National Institutes of Health has been basically decreased in funding. We are on the brink of so many medical breakthroughs, and I will once again fund that research, get those applications processed, get those young researchers in those labs to know that we're going to tackle cancer and try to do everything we can to drive its death rate down.

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