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CNN Democratic Presidential Debate


Location: Las Vegas, NV

CNN Democratic Presidential Debate


MR. BLITZER: Let me bring in Senator Obama, because you've been among those critical of Senator Clinton. You've suggested she's triangulating, whatever that means, on some of the key issues; she's running a textbook Washington campaign, you've suggested that.

I want you to explain, if you don't mind, Senator, what do you mean by that?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, first of all, I'm really happy to be here in Nevada and I appreciate this opportunity.

Senator Clinton, I think, is a capable politician, and I think that she has run a terrific campaign. But what the American people are looking for right now is straight answers to tough questions. And that is not what we've seen out of Senator Clinton on a host of issues, on the issue of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.

We saw in the last debate that it took not just that debate but two more weeks before we could get a clear answer in terms of where her position was. The same is true on Social Security. We have serious disagreements about how we're going to make sure that Social Security is there for the people who need it.

And what I'm absolutely convinced of is that right now, we need a different kind of politics. Everywhere I go, all throughout Nevada, people are struggling with health care. People are working harder for less. They are having a tougher time saving, tougher time retiring. And part of the reason is because they don't feel that Washington is listening to them.

And what I want to do in this campaign is make certain that we are breaking out of the gridlock and partisanship and the standard practices of Washington and actually start listening to the American people to get things done.

MR. BLITZER: All right.

Senator Clinton, do you want to respond?

SEN. CLINTON: Well, I hear what Senator Obama is saying, and he talks a lot about stepping up and taking responsibility and taking strong positions. But when it came time to step up and decide whether or not he would support universal health care coverage, he chose not to do that. His plan would leave 15 million Americans out. That's about the population of Nevada, Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire.

I have a universal health care plan that covers everyone. I've been fighting this battle against the special interest for more than 15 years, and I am proud to fight this battle. You know, we can have a different politic, but let's not forget here that the people who we're against are not going to be giving up without a fight. The Republicans are not going to vacate the White House voluntarily. We have some big issues ahead of us, and we need someone who is tested and ready to lead. I think that's what my candidacy offers. (Cheers, applause.)

MR. BLITZER: All right.

Senator Obama.

SEN. OBAMA: Well, let's talk about health care right now because the fact of the matter is that I do provide universal health care. The only difference between Senator Clinton's health care plan and mine is that she thinks the problem for people without health care is that nobody has mandated -- forced -- them to get health care.

That's not what I'm seeing around Nevada. What I see are people who would love to have health care. They -- they desperately want it. But the problem is they can't afford it, which is why we have put forward legislation -- (cheers, applause) -- we've put forward a plan that makes sure that it is affordable to get health care that is as good as the health care that I have as a member of Congress. (Applause.)

MR. BLITZER: All right.

SEN. OBAMA: That's what the American people are looking for. That's what they deserve. And that's why I intend to provide as president of the United States.

SEN. CLINTON: Wolf, I -- Wolf, I cannot let that go unanswered.

You know, the most important thing here is to level with the American people. Senator Obama's health care plan does not cover everyone. He starts with children, which is admirable -- I helped to create the Children's Health Insurance Program back in 1997. I'm totally committed -- (applause) --

SEN. OBAMA: That's not true, Wolf.

SEN. CLINTON: -- to making sure every single child is covered. He does not mandate the kind of coverage that I do. And I provide a health care tax credit under my American Health Choices Plan so that every American will be able to afford the health care. I open up the congressional plan. But there is a big difference between Senator Obama and me. He starts from the premise of not reaching universal health care.

SEN. OBAMA: Wolf --

(Cross talk.)

MR. BLITZER: Hold on. One at a -- one at a time.

MR. : (Inaudible) -- in control. (Applause.)

SEN. OBAMA: No, I understand, but look, I'm not going to --

MR. BLITZER: Senator Obama, we're going to have a lot more on health care.

MR. : There's no -- (inaudible).

SEN. OBAMA: I will be very brief on this issue. Hillary states --


SEN. OBAMA: -- states that she wants -- she states that she wants to mandate health care coverage, but she's not garnishing people's wages to make sure that they have it.

MR. BLITZER: All right.

SEN. OBAMA: She's not --


MR. BLITZER: Okay, please.

SEN. OBAMA: She is -- she is --


MR. BLITZER: Go ahead, Senator.

SEN. OBAMA: She is not -- she is not enforcing this mandate.

And I don't think that the problem with the American people is that they are not being forced to get health care.

MR. BLITZER: All right.

SEN. OBAMA: The problem is, they can't afford it. And that is why my plan provides the mechanism to make sure that they can. (Applause.)


MS. BROWN: All right, let's talk about the issues.

Senator Obama, I want to ask you about immigration. It's an important issue in this state in particular. There are between 100,000 to 200,000 illegal immigrants here in Nevada. And you've supported various benefits for illegal immigrants, including driver's licenses and in-state college tuition.

What do you say to those Americans who say they are losing out because you would give benefits to people who broke the laws of this country, who came here illegally? And then more generally as president, where do you draw the line when it comes to benefits for illegal immigrants?

SEN. OBAMA: I would say that they're justified in feeling frustrated because this administration -- the Bush administration -- has done nothing to control the problem that we have. We've had 5 million undocumented workers come over the borders since George Bush took office. It has become an extraordinary problem, and the reason the American people are concerned is because they are seeing their own economic position slip away.

And oftentimes employers are exploiting these undocumented workers. They're not paying them minimum wage. They're not observing worker safety laws. (Applause.) And so what we have to do is create a comprehensive solution to the problem.

Now, I have already stated that, as president, I will make sure that we finally have the kind of border security that we need. That's step number one. (Applause.)

Step number two is to take on employers. Right now, they -- an employer has more of a chance of getting hit by lightning than be prosecuted for hiring an undocumented worker. That has to change. They have to be held accountable. (Applause.)

And when we do those things -- when we do those things, I believe that we can take the undocumented workers, the illegal aliens who are here, get them out of the shadows, make sure that they are subject to a stiff penalty, make sure that they're learning English, make sure that they go to the back of the line so they're not getting an advantage over people who came here legally. And when we do that, I think that we can, instead of shedding all this heat, start shedding some light on the problem, and we can once again be a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. That's what I intend to do as president of the United States. (Cheers, applause.)

MR. BLITZER: All right. I want to just press you on this point because it's a logical follow-up, and then I want to go and ask everyone. On the issue that apparently tripped up Senator Clinton earlier, the issue of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, I take it, Senator Obama, you support giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Is that right?

SEN. OBAMA: When I was a state senator in Illinois, I voted to require that illegal aliens get trained, get a license, get insurance to protect public safety. (Scattered applause.)

That was my intention. And -- but I have to make sure that people understand the problem we have here is not drivers licenses. Undocumented workers don't come here to drive. (Laughter.) They don't go -- they're not coming here to go to the In-N-Out Burger. That's not the reason they're here. They're here to work. And so instead of being distracted by what has now become a wedge issue, let's focus on actually solving the problem that --

MR. BLITZER: All right.

SEN. OBAMA: -- this administration, the Bush administration, has done nothing about.

MR. BLITZER: Well, let's go through everybody because I want to be precise. I want to make sure the viewers and those of us who are here fully understand all of your positions on this.

Barring, avoiding, assuming there isn't going to be comprehensive immigration reform, do you support or oppose drivers licenses for illegal immigrants?

SEN. OBAMA: I am not proposing that that's what we do. What I'm saying is that we can't -- (interrupted by laughter). No, no, no, no, look, I have already said I support the notion that we have to deal with public safety and that drivers licenses at the state level can make that happen. But what I also --

MR. BLITZER: All right.

SEN. OBAMA: But what I also know, Wolf, is that if we keep on getting distracted by this problem, then we are not solving it.

MR. BLITZER: But -- because this is the kind of question that is sort of available for a yes or no answer. (Laughter, cheers, applause.) Either you support it or you oppose it. Let's go down and get a yes or no from everyone...


MR. BLITZER: All right. Thank you.

Senator Obama, yes or no?


(Cross talk.)

MR. BLITZER: Okay. (Applause.)

SEN. OBAMA: I am going to be fighting for comprehensive immigration reform, and we shouldn't pose the question that somehow we can't achieve that. I believe that the American people desperately want it. That's what I'm going to be fighting for as president.


MR. BLITZER: All right. Everybody's going to have a chance.

Senator Obama, is human rights more important than American national security?

SEN. OBAMA: The concepts are not contradictory, Wolf.

MR. BLITZER: Because occasionally they could clash.

SEN. OBAMA: They -- they --- they -- they -- they are complementary, and I think Pakistan is a great example. Look, we paid $10 billion over the last seven years, and we two goals, deal with terrorism and restore democracy, and we've gotten neither. And Joe and Bill are exactly right on this. Pakistan's democracy would strengthen our battle against extremists. The more we see repression, the more there are no outlets for how people can express themselves and their aspirations, the worse off we're going to be and the more anti-American sentiment there's going to be in the Middle East. We keep on making this mistake.

As president, I will do everything that is required to make sure that nuclear weapons don't fall into the hands of extremists, especially going after al Qaeda in the hills between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But we've got to understand that if we simply prop up anti- democratic practices, that that feeds the sense that America is only concerned about us and that our fates are not tied to these other folks.

And that's -- that's going to make us less safe. That's something I intend to change as president. (Applause.)


MR. BLITZER: Senator Obama, I'll put the same question to you. Is General Petraeus' strategy working?

SEN. OBAMA: There is no doubt that because we put American troops in Iraq -- more American troops in Iraq, that they are doing a magnificent job, and they are making a difference in certain neighborhoods.

But the overall strategy is failed, because we have not seen any change in behavior among Iraq's political leaders. And that is the essence of what we should be trying to do in Iraq.

That's why I'm going to bring this war to a close. That's why we can get our combat troops out within 16 months. That's why we have to initiate the kind of regional diplomacy -- not just talking to our friends but talking to our enemies, like Iran and Syria, to try to stabilize the situation there. (Applause.)

But I just want to make this important point because all of us, as we're campaigning, we're seeing this in human terms. People are on two, three, four tours of duty. Families are carrying an enormous burden.

This year, we saw the highest casualty rates for American troops in Iraq since this war started. The same, by the way, is true in Afghanistan. If we have seen a lowering violence rate, that's only compared to earlier this year. We're back to where we started back in 2006.

MR. BLITZER: All right.

SEN. OBAMA: And so the notion that somehow because we've gone from horrific violence to just intolerable levels of violence, and that somehow that justifies George Bush's strategy, is absolutely wrong. And I'm going to bring it to a halt when I'm president of the United States. (Cheers, applause.)


MR. BLITZER: All right.

Senator Obama, was NAFTA a mistake?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, first of all, I hope Chris is clear -- I haven't changed positions on Peru. I am intending to --

SEN. DODD: Oh, you are for it.

SEN. OBAMA: I am for it, and I plan to vote for it because it is a small country.

SEN. DODD: Okay.

SEN. OBAMA: This is a trade agreement that has the labor agreements and the environmental agreements that we've been fighting for in it, and I think it's the right thing to do.

I am opposed to CAFTA. I've been opposed to South Korea.

But going back to the issue of China -- you know what Japan does with the Chinese when it comes to, for example, food importation? They send their own inspectors over to China and they set up their own safety system and they say, "If you don't abide by our rules, you can't send food into Japan."

Now, the question is, why doesn't the United States impose these same rules and regulations as Japan has? (Cheers, applause.) This is the biggest market -- this is the biggest market in the world. China has to sell here.

But this goes back to how we did most favored nation trading status with China. The problem was we had one (level ?) when we allowed them in. We should have said, "We will review this every single year, so if you are not behaving properly, if you are not safeguarding our consumers and we find that you are not looking out for American workers or the administration is not, we won't have that subject to review." That was the failure on that China bill.


MR. ROBERTS: Want to explore the energy issue for a moment here because it's been of particular importance to the state. Senator Obama, the price of oil is flirting with the $100-a-barrel mark right now, making all the more urgent the need for alternate fuel forces. You support nuclear energy as a part of the plan for the future, but there is an issue of what to do with the waste. You are opposed to the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository about 90 miles from here. Your state uses about -- gets about 48 percent of its power from nuclear compared to 20 percent for most other states.

Yet you are opposed to bringing nuclear waste from other states and keeping it in Illinois.

The question is, if not in your backyard, whose?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, as I've said, I don't think it's fair to send it to Nevada, because we're producing it. (Applause.)

So what we have to do is, we've got to develop the storage capacity based on sound science. Now, laboratories like Argonne in my own home state are trying to develop ways to safely store nuclear waste without having to ship it across the country and put it in somebody else's backyard. But keep in mind that I don't think nuclear power is necessarily our best option. It has to be part of our energy mix.

We have a genuine crisis that has to be addressed and as president, I intend to address it, and here's what we have to do. We have to, first of all, cap greenhouse gases, because climate change is real. And it's going to impact Nevada and it's impacting the entire planet. (Cheers, applause.)

That means that we're going to have to tell polluters, we are going to charge you money when you send pollution into the air, that's creating climate change. That money we can then reinvest in solar, in wind, in biodiesel, in clean coal technology and in superior nuclear technology.

MR. BLITZER: All right. Senator, until there's some new technological breakthrough, as you would hope and all of us would hope, where do you send the waste?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, right now it is on site in many situations, and that is not the optimal situation, Wolf. But don't keep on assuming that we can't do something. I mean, this is about the third time where you said, "assuming we can't do it, what's our option?"

MR. BLITZER: Well, until we -- until we do it.

SEN. OBAMA: Well, but I'm running for president because I think we can do it. (Cheers, applause.)

GOV. RICHARDSON (?): Wolf? Wolf?

SEN. OBAMA: I reject -- I reject the notion that we can't meet our energy challenges.

MR. BLITZER: All right.

SEN. OBAMA: We can if we've got bold leadership in the White House that is saying we are going to do something about climate change, we are going to develop renewable energy sources. That's what I intend to do as president. And we shouldn't, you know, be pessimistic about the future of America. (Scattered applause.)


MR. BLITZER: Welcome back. We're on the campus of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas in the Cox Pavilion. All the candidates are now seated. We're going to begin the second half of this presidential debate.

Our White House correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux, is here with us. (Applause.) And Suzanne, you have some undecided voters who are ready to ask these presidential candidates some specific questions. Let's begin right now.

MS. MALVEAUX: Sure, Wolf. They are all very excited, about a hundred folks here. I've had a chance to actually meet at least some of you here, and obviously I noticed when you were responding to some of the candidates you were shaking your head, wrinkling your nose. I'm not sure if they've answered your questions, and this is your opportunity to ask the candidates what you really care about.

Catherine Jackson, I want to start off with you. If you'd stand with your son, please. Now, Catherine, I understand that you're quite concerned about your son, Christopher. You have served three tours of duty in Iraq, and you're -- (cheers, applause) -- recognize your service. (Extended cheers, applause.) That's for you, Christopher.

Your mother, I spoke with her -- your mom -- is so worried that you're going to be called to duty again, but not to be deployed in Iraq, but rather Iran. Do you share her concern?

CHRISTOPHER JACKSON: Yes, I do. And I feel that if we continue on the path we're at, that's where we're going to end up, in Iran. And that's not what our troops need. Our troops need to come home now. (Cheers, applause.)

MS. MALVEAUX: Catherine -- Catherine, your question.

CATHERINE JACKSON: I finally got my son home after three tours of policing Iraq's civil war. Now members of the Bush administration and neoconservative members of Congress are beating the drums of war again. My son is still part of the Marine Individual Ready Reserve, and if President Bush starts another unnecessary war, there will be a chance that he'll likely be recalled for war.

All of you on the stage have either -- I'm sorry -- have formal political power or significant informal power, and have the ability to stop the rush to war.

Please tell me, how are you going to show us your leadership so -- on this issue now so I can decide who I think would be the best leader for tomorrow?


SEN. OBAMA: Well, Chris, we appreciate your service, and your mom, I can only imagine what she went through when you were away, so we're glad you're back home.

But understand the problem with this vote on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. It wasn't simply that it was identified as a terrorist organization. It was also that in the language of the resolution it said we should maintain our forces in Iraq with an eye towards blunting Iranian influence. So it's not just going to have an impact in terms of potentially having a war against Iran. It also gives this administration an excuse to perpetuate their failed strategy in Iraq, and that could mean that you could be redeployed in Iraq. That's why this was a mistake, and that's why not only do we have to bring the war in Iraq to a close, but we have to change the mindset that got us into war, which means we initiate -- yes, I agree with Hillary that we've got to initiate bold diplomacy. I think the next president has to lead that diplomacy. It can't just be envoys.

And one of the reasons I'm running for president -- and Hillary and I had a disagreement on this. I said I would meet with not just our friends, but also with our enemies because that's what strong countries and -- (cheers, applause) -- what strong presidents do is meet with our adversaries, tell them where we stand. (Continued applause.)

MR. BLITZER: Senator, I want to go back to Suzanne Malveaux, but this was an important vote, and you missed that vote. You weren't present in the Senate when that vote occurred.

SEN. OBAMA: No, this is true. And it was a mistake. This is one of the hazards of running for president. But the -- but what I've -- but what I have consistently said, and I said at the time of the vote, was that we should not take steps that would increase troop presences inside Iraq with an eye towards blunting the impact of Iran. I always think that's a mistake.


MS. BAGLEY: I'm a booth cashier. And we moved here over 30 years ago. And I have three children, and as of yesterday, eight grandchildren. (Applause.)

MS. MALVEAUX: And what is your question -- congratulations. That's amazing. And what is your question to the candidates?

MS. BAGLEY: My question is, over the next several years the baby boomers, like my husband and I, will be retiring en masse. At the same time, the country is at a record deficit. We face a major challenge. When I retire, I will have my pension, but many others will not.

Throughout the campaign we've heard the candidates supporting -- committing to support -- oh, my goodness -- committing to support Social Security and Medicare. My question is -- but the ideas on reform are often vague. My question is, what do you plan to do to ensure that Social Security and Medicare are truly available to us, our children and grandchildren in light of the current budget conditions?

MS. MALVEAUX: Thank you very much; a very important issue.

Senator Obama.

SEN. OBAMA: Well, first of all, Judy, thank you for the question, and thanks for the great work you do on behalf of the culinary workers; a great union here. (Applause.)

Look, this is something that we've talked about in our campaign. We've got 78 million baby boomers who are going to be retiring and the first thing we have to do is to put an end to George Bush raiding the Social Security trust fund to pay for a misguided war in Iraq. (Applause.) If we take some of that money back and we start getting control of our budget and have fiscal discipline, that will make some of the difference, but not all of it, because we're going to have more senior citizens, more retirees and fewer workers.

So I've been very specific about saying that we should not privatize; we should protect benefits. I don't think the best way to approach this is to raise the retirement age. But what we can do is adjust the cap on the payroll tax. Right now anybody who's making $97,000 or less, you pay payroll tax on 100 percent of your income. Warren Buffet, who made $46 million last year, pays on a fraction of 1 percent of his income. And if we make that small adjustment, we can potentially close that gap and we can make sure Social Security is there. (Applause.)

MR. BLITZER: Thank you.

SEN. OBAMA: Last point because -- just because I have to answer the full question.

Medicare is a tougher problem because we've got health care inflation going up, and I am meeting people all across the country who just can't manage, even if they've got health insurance. Their premiums have gone up 78 percent since George Bush took office. It's a scam, and people are getting desperate.

The only way we're going to fix Medicare is if we get that rising cost under control, and that means having a universal health care plan where every single person has prevention and they are able to get the treatments they need. We're instituting health technologies and managing the chronically ill so that we save money; we provide coverage for everybody. That over the long term will save Medicare enormous amounts of money, and it will be there for you.


MR. BLITZER: All right. So Senator -- so you're not ready to accept that raising of the cap on that, but I know that Senator Obama wants to respond to you.

SEN. OBAMA: I will be very brief on this because, Hillary, I've heard you say this is a trillion dollar tax cut on the middle class by adjusting the cap. Understand that only 6 percent of Americans make more than $97,000 -- (cheers, applause) -- so 6 percent is not the middle class -- it's the upper class.

And you know, this is the kind of thing that I would expect from Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani -- (laughter, boos, cheers, applause) -- where we start playing with numbers -- we start playing with numbers in order to try to make a point. (Cheers, applause.) And we can't do that. No, no, no, no, no. This is -- this is -- this is too important. This is too important for us to pretend that we're using numbers like a trillion dollar tax cut instead of responsibly dealing with a problem that Judy asked for, and she said she wants a specific answer. And that's what I provided.

But understand, this is the top 6 percent, and that is not the middle class. (Cheers, applause.)


LASHANNON SPENCER: We constantly hear health care questions and questions pertaining to the war. But we don't hear questions pertaining to the Supreme Court justice or education. (Applause.)

My question is, if you are elected president, what qualities must the appointee possess?


MR. BLITZER: Thank you.

Senator Obama, you used to be a professor of law.

SEN. OBAMA: I would not appoint somebody who doesn't believe in the right to privacy. But you're right, Wolf, I taught constitutional law for 10 years, and I -- when you look at what makes a great Supreme Court justice, it's not just the particular issue and how they rule, but it's their conception of the court. And part of the role of the court is that it is going to protect people who may be vulnerable in the political process, the outsider, the minority, those who are vulnerable, those who don't have a lot of clout. (Applause.)

And part of what I want to find in a Supreme Court justice -- and Joe's exactly right, sometimes we're only looking at academics or people who've been in the court. If we can find people who have life experience and they understand what it means to be on the outside, what it means to have the system not work for them, that's the kind of person I want on the Supreme Court. (Applause.)


MS. MALVEAUX: I'd like to refer that to Senator Obama.

Senator Obama, you said on a TV interview just this past weekend, you didn't believe that Senator Clinton was able to unite this country. Why do you believe she can't?

SEN. OBAMA: No, that's not what I said. What I said was I thought I could do it better. That's why I'm running for president. (Applause.) If I didn't think I could do it better then I wouldn't be running for president, because the stakes are too high, just as we heard.

Here's what I would do immediately. I would convene a continuous advisory meeting, with not just Democrats but Republicans, specifically on national security issues, because there is a long tradition that our differences in foreign policy should end at the water's edge.

And we have lost that tradition. And there are some wonderful Republicans -- Dick Lugar, Chuck Hagel -- there are a group of them who have continued that tradition, but we have lost it because of the polarization of the Bush administration.

So I want Republicans and Democrats and independents to understand that, as president, I am going to want to go before the entire world and say, America's back, we are ready to lead. But we're not just going to lead militarily; we're going to lead by building schools in the Middle East that teach math and science instead of hatred of Americans. We're going to lead by shutting down Guantanamo and restoring habeas corpus in this country so that we offer them an example. (Applause.)

MR. BLITZER: Thank you.

SEN. OBAMA: We're going to lead by talking to our enemies and not just our friends.

And I believe that there are a lot of Republicans who hunger for that kind of bipartisan approach. That's what I will offer as president of the United States. (Cheers, applause.)


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