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Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate


Location: Las Vegas, NV

Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate

MR. WILLIAMS: As we sit here this, as may you may know, is the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday. Race was one of the issues we expected to discuss here tonight. Our sponsors expected it of us. No one, however, expected it to be quite so prominent in this race as it has been over the last 10 days.
We needn't go back over all that has happened, except to say that this discussion, before it was over, involved Dr. King, President Johnson, even Sidney Poitier, several members of Congress and a prominent African-American businessman, supporting Senator Clinton, who made what seemed to be a reference to a part of Senator Obama's teenage past that the senator himself has written about in his autobiography.

The question to begin with here tonight is, how did we get here?


MR. WILLIAMS: And, Senator Edwards, you waded into this topic tangentially yesterday.

MR. EDWARDS: Well, I -- the only thing I would add is I had the perspective of living in the South, including at a time when there was segregation in the South, and I feel an enormous personal responsibility to continue to move forward. Now, we've made great progress, but we're not finished with that progress, and the struggles and sacrifice of Dr. King and many others who gave blood, sweat, tears, and in some cases their lives to move America toward equality.

And I saw it. I saw it when four young men walked into a Woolworth luncheon counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and sat down, had the courage and strength to do the right thing. And they literally stood up -- stood up on behalf of African-Americans, on behalf of southerners, on behalf of Americans, helped move this country forward in a really serious way.

And having seen the pain and the struggle and the sacrifice of so many up close, because I lived with it -- I lived with it in my years growing up -- I think we, all of us, have an enormous responsibility, not to go back but to go forward.

And I would just add, I think, it goes far beyond the Democratic Party. This is about American and about creating real equality in America across the waterfront.


MS. MORALES: Thank you, Brian. And this is a question for Senator Edwards. It comes to us from Margaret Wells from San Diego, California.

Senator, she's asking, the policy differences among the remaining candidates is so slight that we appear to be choosing on the basis of personality and life story. That being said, why should I, as a progressive woman, not resent being forced to choose between the first viable female candidate and the first viable African American candidate?

MR. EDWARDS: Well, I think that the decision for every voter in this election should revolve around, first, whether you believe America needs change; if you do, who you think would be most effective in bringing about that change. We have different perspectives on that.

I think the system in Washington is broken. I don't think it works. And I think the American people -- middle-class Americans are struggling and suffering. They can't pay for their health care. They're losing their jobs. They can't pay for their kids to go to college.

Now, this is a very personal thing for me. Hillary mentioned a minute ago that I grew up in a family of mill workers. I was the first person in my family to actually be able to go to college. And so this battle for real opportunity for everybody, the kind of chances I've had in my own life, is central to everything I do. It is central to this campaign. It is a personal, personal fight for me.

And I think the decision that voters make about who can best fight for the middle class, who will never give up on the fight for universal health care, who will actually stand up strongly and -- and fervently for the right to organize, for unions to be able to organize in the workplace. These things are not academic for me; they are my life. I believe in them to my soul. And I will fight with every fiber of my being to make sure that everybody gets that kind of opportunity.

And I think there are some differences on policy and perspective between the three of us, and I hope we get a chance to talk more about that today.

MS. MORALES: And Senator Edwards, as a follow-up to Margaret Wells' question, what is a white male to do running against these historic candidacies? (Laughter.)

MR. EDWARDS: You know, I have to say, on behalf of my party -- and I've said this -- I've said this many times -- I'm proud of the fact that we have a woman and an African-American who are very, very serious candidates for the presidency. They both ask not to be considered on their gender or on their race. I respect that.

I do believe, however, that it says really good things about America, and I think, actually believe that both through these primaries and caucuses and in the general election, that the American people are going to make decisions based on who we are, what we stand for and what we're fighting for.


MR. WILLIAMS: And one more question about that last televised debate, Senator Edwards. Afterwards Senator Clinton said it was as if you and Senator Obama had formed a buddy system against her. Senator Clinton put out an Internet ad that was entitled "Piling On." Looking back on it, the campaign for New Hampshire, in total, do you admit that it might have looked that way?

MR. EDWARDS: Might have looked way or actually was that way? I don't think it was that way. I mean, my -- my job, as a candidate for president of the United States, is to speak the truth as I see it. I have spoken the truth. I will continue to speak the truth, whatever the consequences are and whatever the perception that -- that people have is.

I do believe that I am a candidate for president who is fighting for change, who believes that we have entrenched moneyed interests in this country that are preventing the middle class from having a real chance.

And it's drug companies, insurance companies, oil companies, there are lobbyists. Barack spoke about them just a few minutes ago. It's why I've never, the whole time I've been in public life, taken a dime from a Washington lobbyist or special-interest PAC, because I do believe those people stand between America and the change that it so desperately needs, in real ways. They're the reason we don't have universal health care. They're the reason we have a trade policy that's cost America millions of jobs. They're the reason we have an insane tax policy that actually gives tax breaks to American companies sending jobs overseas.

The promise of America that I and millions of others have lived -- and we are in Nevada tonight, a place that people come to in the thousands every day to find the promise of America because they believe in it. It is central to everything we are as a nation. And I do believe that that promise is being jeopardized by very well- financed, monied interests. I believe that's the truth, and I'm going to keep saying it.


MR. RUSSERT: Senator Edwards? Greatest strength, greatest weakness.

MR. EDWARDS: I think my greatest strength is that for 54 years I've been fighting with ever fiber in my being. In the beginning, the fight was for me. Growing up in mill towns and mill villages, I had to literally fight to survive. But then I spent 20 years in courtrooms fighting for children and families against really powerful, well-financed interests.

I learned from that experience, by the way, that if you're tough enough and you're strong enough and you got the guts and you're smart enough, you can win. That's a fight that can be won. It can be won in Washington, too, by the way. And I've continued that -- that fight my entire time in public life.

So I've got what it takes inside to fight on behalf of the American people and on behalf of the middle class.

I think weakness -- I sometimes have a very powerful emotional response to pain that I see around me. When I see a man like Donnie Ingram, who I met a few months ago in South Carolina, who worked with for 33 years in the mill, reminded me very much of the kind of people that I grew up with, who's about to lose his job, has no idea where he's going to go, what he's going to do -- I mean, his dignity and self-respect is at issue, and I feel that in a really personal way and in a very emotional way. And I think sometimes that can undermine what you need to do.


MR. WILLIAMS: Senator Edwards, I neglected to point out that one of the companies keeping these giant American banks afloat is Kuwait -- a nation, an economy arguably afloat itself today, as you know, thanks to the blood, sweat, and tears of American soldiers. What would you do as a remedy?

MR. EDWARDS: Well, the things that Senator Clinton just spoke about are correct. We need more transparency; we need to know what's actually happening. But the fundamental problem is what's happening at the core of the American economy.

What's happening to the economy in America, if you look at it from -- distance, is we have economic growth in America; we still do. But almost the entirety of that economic growth is with the very wealthiest Americans and the biggest multinational corporations.

You ask any middle class family in America, and they will tell you they do not feel financially secure. They're worried about their job; they're worried about paying for health care; they're worried about how they're going to send their kids to college; they're worried about, in many cases -- here in Nevada particularly -- worried about their home being foreclosed on.

I spoke a few minutes ago about thousands of people coming to Nevada every day to try to find the promise of America, to try to find a good job, a good home, to meet the great moral test that all of us have as Americans, which is to make certain that our children have a better life than we have. This is the great challenge that we're facing in this election.

We talked about other historic moments. It is an historic moment for America in this election. Are we going to do what our parents and our grandparents did, who worked and struggled and suffered to ensure that we would have a better life? They have now passed that torch to us, and it is our responsibility and it will be my responsibility as president to ensure that our children and our grandchildren have a better life than we had.


MR. RUSSERT: Senator Edwards, poor folk, middle-class folks, really feeling the pinch.


MR. RUSSERT: Bankruptcies are up 40 percent in one year. Five percent of credit card debts are now delinquent. In 2001 you voted for a bankruptcy bill which was the precursor to the 2005 bankruptcy bill that became law, which made it much tougher for middle-class folks, particularly women, when they became bankrupt. Do you regret that vote?

MR. EDWARDS: I absolutely do. I should not have voted for that bankruptcy law.

If you look at what's happening in America today, the -- the bankruptcies that are occurring -- about half of them are the result of medical costs. And the idea that any single mom who has a child who gets catastrophically sick and incurs $30,000 of medical costs has to go into bankruptcy as a result and can't be relieved of that debt makes absolutely no sense. And it's not fair, and it's not right.

And I spoke for just -- just a few minutes ago about the great struggles that the middle class are faced with in this country. And you hear it every single day, because what's happening in America is, jobs are leaving, cost of everything is going up -- health care, college tuition, everything. And -- and on top of that, middle-class incomes are not going up. The incomes at the very top are going up. Profits of big corporations are going up. But the -- but the incomes of middle-class families are not going up.

So the question is, what do we do about it? Besides having somebody who truly understands in a personal way what's happening, what would the president of the United States do? There are a bunch of things we need to do.

We desperately need truly universal health care that covers every single American and dramatically reduces health care costs. We do need, as Barack spoke about just a few minutes ago, a radical transformation of the way we produce and use energy. We can create at least a million new jobs in that transition. We need a national law cracking down on predatory and payday lenders that are taking advantage of our most vulnerable families.

We ought to raise the national minimum wage, which is going up to 7.25 an hour. That's fine. It's not enough. The national minimum wage should be at least $9-and-a-half an hour. It ought to be indexed to go up on its own.

We need to make it easier for kids to go to college. My proposal is that we say to any young person in America who's willing to work when they're in college, at least 10 hours a week, we'll pay for their tuition and books at a state university or a community college. And that can be paid for by getting rid of big banks as the intermediary in student loans. They make 4 (billion) or $5 billion a year. That money ought to be going to sending kids to college.


MR. WILLIAMS: Now to that segment we promised earlier. We asked the candidates and their campaigns to come here tonight prepared with two questions, one for each of their opposition candidates. It's not our intention that these be novelty or at all throwaway questions, but that they be real questions. And we should know right away here whether this was a good or a very bad idea. (Laughter.)

Senator Edwards, I would like to start with you. A question for Senator Obama and a question for Senator Clinton.

MR. EDWARDS: I get to do both to begin with?


MR. EDWARDS: (Laughs.) Okay.

Well, let me start this question. This is about campaign finances. And let me start it by saying the obvious, which is, all three of us have raised a great deal of money in this campaign, so this is not preachy or holier-than-thou in any possible way.

What we know is that all three of us want to do something about health care in this country. We also know that until recently, Senator Clinton had raised more money from drug companies and insurance companies than any candidate, Democrat or Republican, until you passed her, Senator Obama, recently to go to number one.

My question is, do you think these people expect something for this money?

Why do they give it? Do they think that it's for good government? Why do they do it?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, let's be clear, John. I just want to make sure that we understand. I don't take money from federal lobbyists. I don't take money from PACs.

MR. EDWARDS: As I don't either.


MR. WILLIAMS: Let me just interrupt here. Before I give you your question, would the other two of you join in the 2009 pledge that Senator Obama has made, concerning the withdrawal of American troops?

MR. WILLIAMS: Senator Edwards.

MR. EDWARDS: I think I've actually, among the three of us, been the most aggressive and said that I will have all combat troops out in the first year that I'm president of the United States. I will end combat missions and while I'm president, there will be no permanent military bases in Iraq.


MR. RUSSERT: In September, we were in New Hampshire together, and I asked the three of you if you would pledge to have all troops out of Iraq by the end of your first term. All three of you said you would not take that pledge. I'm hearing something much different tonight.

(Cross talk, laughter.)


MR. RUSSERT: Thirty seconds for Senator Edwards.

MR. EDWARDS: I just want to say it is dishonest to suggest that you're not going to have troops there to protect the embassy. That's just not the truth. It may be great political theater and political rhetoric, but it's not the truth.

There is, however, a difference between us on this issue, and I don't think it's subtle. The difference is I will have all combat troops out in the first year that I'm president, and there will be no further combat missions, and there will be no permanent military bases.


SEN. OBAMA: Look, I think it's important to understand that either you are willing to say that you may go after terrorist bases inside of Iraq if they should form -- in which case there would potentially be a combat aspect to that, obviously -- or you're not. And you know, if you're not, then that could present some problems in terms of the long-term safety and security of the United States of America. So I just wanted to be sure that we got that clarification.

MR. EDWARDS: I'll be happy to respond to that. Is that a question?

MR. WILLIAMS: Yeah, I think we've ruled it a question. (Laughter.)

MR. EDWARDS: My answer to that is as long as you keep combat troops in Iraq, you continue the occupation. If you keep military bases in Iraq, you're continuing the occupation. The occupation must end.

As respects al Qaeda -- public enemy number one -- they're responsible for about 10 percent of the violence inside Iraq, according to the reports. I would keep a quick reaction force in Kuwait in case it became necessary.

SEN. OBAMA: Well --

MR. EDWARDS: But that is different, Barack, than keeping troops stationed inside --

SEN. OBAMA: John --

MR. EDWARDS: Excuse me. Let me finish, please.

SEN. OBAMA: I'm sorry.

MR. EDWARDS: That is different than keeping, say, our troops stationed inside Iraq, because keeping troops stationed inside Iraq, combat troops, and continuing combat missions -- whether it's against al Qaeda or anyone else -- at least from my perspective, is a continuation of the occupation. And I think a continuation of the occupation continues the problem not just in reality, but in perception that America is occupying the country.


MR. RUSSERT: This statute's been on the book for some time, Senator. Will you vigorously enforce the statute to cut off federal funding to a school that does not provide military recruiters and a ROTC program?

MR. EDWARDS: Yes, I will.

But I'll have to say it's not enough to talk about the extraordinary service of men and women who are wearing the uniform and have worn the uniform of the United States of America. Tonight across this country, 200,000 men and women who wore our uniform and served this country patriotically, veterans, will go to sleep under bridges and on grates.

We have men and women coming back from Iraq with PTSD, post- traumatic stress disorder, other kind of emotional problems, many with serious physical injuries.

We have families who are here at home while they serve in Iraq, who are having a terrible time paying for child care, paying the bills.

We have reservists and members of the Guard who go to serve and get paid 50, 60 cents on the dollar for what they were making in their civilian jobs. What are we going to do about this? Every man and woman who comes back from Iraq or Afghanistan deserves to have a thorough, comprehensive examination of their medical needs, including mental health needs and physical health needs. Every one of them ought to get job training if they need it and additional education if they need it. We -- America, you know, we should help them find a job. They didn't leave us on our own; we shouldn't leave them on their own. And we need to narrow this gap between civilian pay and military pay, and help these families with their child care.

And then, finally, for all the veterans who have served this country, we need a guaranteed stream of funding for the Veterans Administration so we don't have veterans waiting six months or a year to get the health care that they deserve.


MR. WILLIAMS: We have to, at this point, turn a bit more local. And let's talk for a moment about Yucca Mountain.

As sure as there is somebody at a roulette table not far from here convinced that they're one bet away from winning it all back, every -- every person who comes here running for president promises to end the notion of storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. And the people of Nevada have found it's easier to promise to end it than it is to end it. Anyone willing to pledge here tonight to kill the notion of Yucca Mountain?


MR. WILLIAMS: Senator Edwards.

MR. EDWARDS: Well, I'm opposed to Yucca Mountain. I will end it, for all the reasons that have already been discussed, because of the science that's been discovered, because of apparently some forgery of documents that's also been discovered, all of which has happened in recent years.

But I want to go to one other subject on which the three of us differ, and that is the issue of nuclear power. I've heard Senator Obama say he's open to the possibility of additional nuclear power plants. Senator Clinton said at a debate earlier, standing beside me, that she was agnostic on the subject.

I am not for it or agnostic. I am against building more nuclear power plants because I do not think we have a safe way to dispose of the waste. I think they're dangerous. They're great terrorist targets. And they're extraordinarily expensive. They are not, in my judgment, the way to (green this ?) -- to get us off our dependence on oil.

MR. WILLIAMS: Tim Russert.

SEN. CLINTON: Well, but John, you did vote for Yucca Mountain twice. And you didn't respond to that part of the question.

MR. EDWARDS: I did respond to it. I said the science has -- the science that has been revealed since that time and the forged documents that have been revealed since that time have made it very -- this has been for years, Hillary; this didn't start last year or three years ago; I've said this for years now -- have revealed that this thing does not make sense, is not good for the people of Nevada and it's not good for America -- which, by the way, is also why I am opposed to building more nuclear power plants.


MR. RUSSERT: Senator Edwards, you say you're against nuclear power, but a reality check. I talked to the folks at the MIT Energy Initiative, and they put it this way: that in 2050 the world's population is going to go from 6 billion to 9 billion; that the CO2 is going to double; that you could build a nuclear power plant, one per week, and it wouldn't meet the world's needs. Something must be done, and it cannot be done just with wind or solar.

MR. EDWARDS: Well, you have to -- there a lot of things that need to be done. If you were to double the number of nuclear power plants on the planet tomorrow, if that were possible, it would deal with about one-seventh of the greenhouse gas problem. This is not the answer.

And it goes beyond wind and solar. We ought to be investing in other cellulose-based biofuels. There are a whole range of things that we ought to be investing in and focusing on.

And I want to come back to something Senator Clinton said a minute ago. I agree with her and Senator Obama that -- that it's very important to break this iron grip that the gas and oil industry has on our energy policy in this country. But I believe, Senator Clinton, you've raised more money from those people than any candidate, Democrat or Republican, and I think we have to be able to take those people on if we're going to actually change our policy.

Now, what we need, in my judgment, is we need a cap on carbon emissions. That cap needs to come down every year. We need an 80 percent reduction in our carbon emissions by the year 2050. Below the cap, we ought to make the polluters pay. That money ought to be invested in all these clean renewable sources of energy -- wind, solar, cellulose-based biofuel.

As I said earlier, I'm opposed to building more nuclear power plants, but I'd go another step that at least I haven't heard these two candidates talk about. They can answer for themselves. I believe we need a moratorium on the building of any more coal-fired power plants, unless and until we have the ability to capture and sequester the carbon underground. Because every time we build a new coal-fired power plant in America, when we don't have that technology attached to it, what happens is we're making a terrible situation worse. We're already the worst polluter on the planet. America needs to be leading by example.


MR. WILLIAMS: Senator Edwards, in touching on immigration here, let's go to something that a lot of people have found to be a disconnect between the Democratic Party and majorities of voters in a lot of states. What would be the problem with English as an official language, as a bedrock requirement of citizenship?

MR. EDWARDS: Well, at least from my perspective, what we need to be doing is we need comprehensive immigration reform. We need to create a path for citizenship for 11 million to 14 million who are here who are undocumented We need to give them a real chance to earn -- I'm not for amnesty, but I am for being able to earn American citizenship.

MR. WILLIAMS: But what about speaking the language?

MR. EDWARDS: I'm about to get to that. I think that a couple of the requirements, in order to be able to earn American citizenship, are, first, if you came here illegally, we can't pretend it didn't happen. We are a country of laws and we believe in enforcement of those laws. So we have to show recognition of having violated the law, and that means payment of a fine.

Second, I think if you want to become an American citizen and earn American citizenship, you should learn to speak English.

Now, I think that we should help with that process. We should help make sure that those who are living here, and they're not English-speaking as their first language, get a chance to actually learn English. But I think that should be a requirement for becoming an American


MS. MORALES: And this comes to us from one of our cosponsors of tonight's debate, the 100 Black Men of America. They ask: To what do you attribute the disproportionately high dropout of black males at every level in our educational process? And what would you do to stem the tide of black men exiting the educational system?


MR. WILLIAMS: Senator Edwards, 30 seconds.

MR. EDWARDS: Thank you. We need universal pre-K. Barack spoke about early childhood education. We need universal pre-K for every 4- year-old in America. And we ought to go earlier than that, with -- with child care, nutrition needs, health care needs.

We also have a huge dropout rate. We have high schools that are essentially dropout factories. We have to create second chance schools. We have to create opportunities for those young people to be -- even though a lot of them do; he's right -- start to drop out from a very young age, we need to get them on the right track. But once they're in high school, if they drop out, these second chance schools have been remarkably successful in getting them back into school.


MR. RUSSERT: Senator Edwards, Democrats used to be out front for registration and licensing of guns. It now appears that there's a recognition that it's hard to win a national election with that position. Is that fair?

MR. EDWARDS: I think that's fair, but I haven't changed my position on this. I'm against it. You know, having grown up where I did, in the rural South, everyone around me kept guns; everyone hunted. And I think it is enormously important to protect people's Second Amendment rights.

I don't believe that means you need an AK-47 to hunt. And I think the assault weapons ban, which Hillary spoke about just a minute ago -- as president of the United States, I'll do everything in my power to reinstate it. But I do think we need a president who understands there's sportsmen, hunters who use their guns for lawful purposes, have a right to have their Second Amendment rights looked after.


MR. RUSSERT: Senator Edwards, on the conduct of foreign policy, after Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, you made a phone call to General Musharraf in Pakistan. He called you back quickly. Close to half the people in Pakistan believe the government of Musharraf or allies were involved in the assassination of Ms. Bhutto.


MR. RUSSERT: Was it appropriate for you to talk to Musharraf at that time, perhaps give him cover at a time when he needed legitimacy?

MR. EDWARDS: It was absolutely appropriate. And I didn't actually speak -- place a call to President Musharraf; I placed a call to the Pakistani ambassador in the United States and told him that I knew Musharraf -- we had met in Islamabad years ago, had talked about some of the problems in Pakistan at that time -- and that I had some things I wanted to say to him. Now, the things I had to say to him were tough, and they were exactly the things that the president of the United States should say to a President Musharraf under these circumstances.

First, I said to him, "You have to continue on the march to democratization inside Pakistan." Benazir Bhutto, who I was with in Abu Dhabi in the Middle East just a few years ago, I heard her talk about the path to democratization being baptized in blood in Pakistan. And she put her life at risk for that path to democratization. And what I said to Musharraf is: "You have to stay on that path." Now, he said he would. That needs to be taken with great cynicism and a huge grain of salt, given his history.

Second, I said you must allow international investigators in to determine what happened, because no one is going to trust some internal investigation that you conduct. And actually they have now allowed Scotland Yard investigators into Pakistan to at least conduct some investigation.

And then third, I said these elections that are scheduled have to take place as soon as possible, but they need to be real. They have to be open, fair. The opposition parties need to be represented. They have to be secure.

And those are the points I wanted to make to him, and those are exactly the points I would make to him as -- as president of the United States.


MR. WILLIAMS: We promised this audience we would read a particularly thoughtful e-mail. And we're going off the air in a matter of minutes, so we're going to truly enforce the time limits: 30 seconds, from all of you, to answer the following from Jim Milton of California. "Given the decision to run for president in the first place has to be and should be one of the most important and memorable decision-making moments any American can make, tell us when you made that decision."


MR. WILLIAMS: Senator Edwards.

MR. EDWARDS: It was December a little over a year ago. Made the decision with my family. And the discussion was, what is the cause of our lives -- with my wife, Elizabeth -- and what is it we want to spend our time doing to serve this country we love so much? And the cause of my life is the middle class, low-income families, and having everybody in America have the kind of chances and opportunity that I've had. And that is what my campaign is about. It is central to everything I do, and it is personal to what I'll do as president of the United States.

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