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NBC News

MEET THE PRESS

Sunday, November 9, 2003

GUEST: Senator JOHN EDWARDS, (D-N.C.)

Democratic Presidential Candidate

MODERATOR/PANELIST: Tim Russert - NBC News

Meet the Press (NBC News) - Sunday, November 9, 2003

MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: the war in Iraq, civil liberties, the economy, gun control, all issues being debated by the Democratic candidates for president. With us today is one of them. In his first MEET THE PRESS interview in more than a year and a half, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina. And in our MEET THE PRESS Minute, 39 years ago this week, the chairman of the Democratic and Republican parties debate which party would dominate American politics. And joining us this morning, a man who wants to be president, Democratic Senator John Edwards of North Carolina. Welcome back.

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS, (D-NC): Thank you, Tim. Glad to be with you.

MR. RUSSERT: Let’s turn to Iraq...

SEN. EDWARDS: Yes.

MR. RUSSERT: ...an issue very much on the minds of the American people, and I want to refer you to something you said in September of this year, Senator, and get your reaction to it: “We have young men and women in a shooting gallery over [in Iraq] right now. It would be enormously irresponsible for any of us not to do what’s necessary to support them. ...I will vote for what needs to be there to support our troops that are on the ground.”

The president asked for $87 billion to support those troops, money for body armor, armed Humvees, and you voted against it. Why?

SEN. EDWARDS: Because, Tim, I said from the very beginning that in order for this operation to be successful—and remember, I supported the resolution. I did think Saddam was a serious threat, one that needed to be dealt with. But I said over a year ago that for this to be successful, it needed to be an international effort, and there needed to be a clear plan. The president came to the Congress without either of those things, without a clear long-term plan for success, still just an American occupation. And my view was we needed to send a clear message to the president that we had to change course. I do support, I stand by what I said there. I do support money for the troops. I support us playing a significant role in the reconstruction. What I won’t do is give this president a blank check to continue with a policy that I think has failed.

MR. RUSSERT: But if every other senator voted the way you did, there would be no body armor for our troops, no armed Humvees. What would happen then?

SEN. EDWARDS: What would happen then is the next day, the president would be back to the Congress with a different plan. He would come to us, he would respond to the Senate and the House saying to him, “The Congress of the United States says your plan and what you’re doing in Iraq is not working.” None of us would allow our troops to not get what they needed to do. But we can’t say to this president, “Yes, here’s $87 billion. You can come back next year and ask for another 100; the following year, another 100,” without giving us some indication, Tim, that you’re going to change course and take the American face off this operation, internationalize it, which is the single -most critical component that’s missing.

MR. RUSSERT: Your home state paper, The Charlotte Observer, had this observation. “Edwards’ ‘No’ Vote Will Alter Position, Candidacy Requires Distance From Costly War, Other Liabilities. ...this particular vote—a ‘no’ on President Bush’s $87 billion request for efforts in Iraq—has become a linchpin in [Edwards’] bid to revitalize his lagging campaign for president. It’s also the latest example of Edwards’ distancing himself from a few of his own previous ‘yes’ votes—on the Iraq war [and] the Patriot Act...that have since become unpopular with Democratic primary voters.”

SEN. EDWARDS: My response? Not true. What I have done on this $87 billion is perfectly consistent with what I’ve said from the very beginning. Tim, it would have been wrong—it’s fine for all the Democratic presidential candidates to criticize George Bush about his failed policy in Iraq right now, but this was a chance where I had to stand up and do something. If I had voted yes, my view is all that criticism would have just been words. I think I had to stand behind what I was saying, say this policy in Iraq is not working, and we have to change course.

MR. RUSSERT: What specifically would you do? The United Nations has pulled out of Iraq. The Red Cross has pulled out of Iraq. The president has gone to the French, the Germans and the Russians, they’ve all said “no.” What would you do differently?

SEN. EDWARDS: But the problem, Tim, is the president goes to them and asks for assistance, but he’s completely unwilling to relinquish control. That’s the critical thing that’s missing from this process. What I would do, to answer your question specific ally, is I would turn over the Iraqi civilian authority to the United Nations tomorrow. You’re right. We’d have to convince them to take that responsibility. But I believe that could be done if, in fact, we went and talked to them, told them we’re going to relinquish our control over what’s happening there. The second thing is I would make this a NATO security force instead of just an American security force. This gets to be a fairly simple thing at the end of the day. For this operation to be perceived both by the Iraqi people and people in that region of the world as one that they can respond to and embrace, it’s going to have to be two things. One, an international effort, and two, an international effort that’s moving toward Iraqi self-governance.

MR. RUSSERT: As you know, the French could veto any United Nations involvement. Any nation that’s a member of NATO could veto NATO involvement.

SEN. EDWARDS: Sure.

MR. RUSSERT: And, in fact, the French have been rather insistent, they do not want to participate in this from day one. If they did that, what would you do then? You’re in the Oval Office. The U.N. and NATO have said “no.” Do you withdraw U.S. troops?

SEN. EDWARDS: Well, I don’t accept that proposition. The answer is, first of all, we have a responsibility there. I believe it’s a shared responsibility, one that we need to embrace along with the rest of the world. I would never suggest that America could simply leave, take our troops out and walk away from that responsibility. I don’t believe that. But I also believe if we were—also, let me be realistic about this. Because this president has done things the way he has, this is not easy. I’m not naive about this. I understand if this had been done months ago, the likelihood of success would be much higher. But I still believe if this case were made the way it needs to be made to the United Nations, to NATO—and, for example, I think the members of the United Nations and NATO want this operation to be successful. They have a vested interest in this region of the world being stable for world peace, for their own stability. So I think there’s a great chance of being successful. But it would have been much easier if we had done it a long time ago.

MR. RUSSERT: In the interim, Senator John McCain, the Republican from Arizona, Senator Joe Biden, Democrat from Delaware, are saying, “We need more American troops in Iraq. Our guys are being attacked 30 times a day. We have to go after the insurgence in the Sunni triangle. Let’s send more American troops.” Do you agree?

SEN. EDWARDS: I understand what John McCain’s saying. He’s looking at a security situation on the ground there that’s very hazardous for our troops. Is it possible we need more troops? Of course. Now, I would give some deference to our commanders on the ground there who are saying they don’t need additional troops. The key thing from my perspective is if, in fact, it becomes necessary to bring additional troops in order to provide better security for our troops who are there, I think those troops need to be international. I don’t think it necessarily requires that we bring American troops to this effort-additional American troops.

MR. RUSSERT: The Turks wanted to send troops. They’ve been told “no.” Where would you find the other troops?

SEN. EDWARDS: Well...

MR. RUSSERT: As long as the French, the Germans, the Russians say “no,” where are you going to find them?

SEN. EDWARDS: But the Turks, Tim, that’s a perfect example of what’s gone wrong with this operation and what the administration has done wrong. They went to the Turks, they asked for troops; the Turks said eventually they were willing to give the troops, but they hadn’t cleared this and worked this out diplomatically with the Iraqi people. That ended up being the problem with trying to bring Turkish troops in. I really believe that if—and, again, being realistic, this won’t be easy, but I really believe if we made this case to the United Nations, to NATO, to our friends and allies, that we can put an international face on this operation and we can get others to participate. Now, I’m not suggesting we won’t continue to need to have a serious presence there. We will. There’s no doubt about that.

MR. RUSSERT: Will you recommend that the president go to the French and apologize for the way he’s treated them?

SEN. EDWARDS: No. No. What I would recommend is that we as a nation go to the French, the Germans, all of our friends and say, “This is important. It’s important to the security of the world. It’s important for that region of the world’s success over the long term. We have the real potential of having a foothold for democracy in a part of the world where one’s desperately needed where the only democracy now is Israel. We have the chance for having democracy in an Arab country which is obviously important for precedence purposes.” So what I would say to them is, “We need you. We need your help. And we’re not asking you just to participate and follow our lead. We’re asking you to sit at the tape, have a decision-making authority and take responsibility with us for moving this forward.”

MR. RUSSERT: And if they say “no,” we are there alone.

SEN. EDWARDS: Yeah, but I don’t accept that. I don’t accept that they’ll say “no” if, in fact, we give them some decision-making authority and give them a seat at the table.

MR. RUSSERT: Let’s talk about the lead-up to the war and what happened, what you and the Senate were told, and why you voted the way you did. On October 10th of 2002, you put out this press release:

“Senator John Edwards supported a resolution poised for final passage that would authorize President Bush to use military force to eliminate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. ... ‘I believe that the risk of inaction are far greater than the risks of action... We must achieve the central goal of disarming Iraq. ... We cannot trust Saddam Hussein, and we would be irresponsible to do so.’”

In March on the 15th, four days before the war, you went to California and spoke to Democrats out there, and you raised the whole possibility of a nuclear threat from Saddam Hussein.

Let’s listen:

(Videotape, March 15, 2003):

SEN. EDWARDS: I believe that Saddam Hussein is a serious threat and I believe he must be disarmed including the use of military force if necessary. We cannot allow him to have nuclear weapons.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Senator, you have said that you thought that Saddam Hussein could have nuclear weapons within six to nine months. What did you base that on?

SEN. EDWARDS: Over a decade of efforts of Saddam Hussein to gain nuclear capability. As you know, Tim, I serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee and there’s a significant accumulative body of evidence about his efforts over an extended period of time to get nuclear capability, and I might add-you heard the booing in the background. I will say that I do—and I’ve continued—you asked me about the $87 billion earlier. I think it is enormously important for any candidate for president of the United States to be consistent and stand behind what they believe in no matter who their audience is and I knew when I said—I brought this issue up. I wasn’t asked about it, at the California Democratic Convention. I raised it myself because my view was these people, even though I knew would disagree with me, deserved to know where I stood on this issue.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you regret your vote in giving George Bush in effect a blank check for the war in Iraq?

SEN. EDWARDS: No, I voted for what I believed was in the best security interests of the American people.

MR. RUSSERT: Where are the weapons of mass destruction that you spoke about? Biological, chemical, and a nuclear threat within six or nine months—Where’s the evidence of that?

SEN. EDWARDS: Well, that’s a serious—that’s a very good question. What we know is that a lot of what the intelligence and the information we were given before the vote on the congressional resolution has not been found, has not been found on the ground. Which means we, those of us who not only are candidates for president, but those of us in the Congress, we have an enormous responsibility here, which is to find out why is there a discrepancy between the information we were given beforehand and what we’ve now found. Did, in fact, somebody misrepresent what was there? Did, in fact, somebody exaggerate what was there? Is this just a failure in intelligence? All those are important questions because if either of the first two are true, we have to hold responsible and accountable the people who did it. If the latter is true, it’s enormously important going forward.

I mean, right now, Tim, you were asking earlier about the security situation on the ground in Iraq. One of the critical things that we’re missing in trying to be successful in providing security is we don’t have an adequate intelligence operation in Iraq right now. We need to strengthen that operation. So what went wrong before the congressional resolution, and why did it happen, and how do we make sure that it doesn’t happen in the future because we depend, not only on our military operations, but in our policy-making, on the information that’s given to us by the intelligence community. It has to work.

MR. RUSSERT: There were dissents with the intelligence community, the National Intelligence Estimate, which, as a member of the Intelligence Committee you see, had this from the State Department. “...The activities we have detected do not...add up to a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing what” the ”[State Department bureau of intelligence and research] would consider to be an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons.” Why do you believe that? And why weren’t you more demanding of the administration to provide evidence that their notion of a nuclear threat was real?

SEN. EDWARDS: Because you can’t look at any isolated piece of information, Tim. You have to look at what Saddam Hussein had been doing over the course of a decade. I mean, there was a long and very powerful body of evidence that this was a brutal, sadistic dictator who had been doing everything in his power to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and, ultimately, his goal was to have nuclear capability. And that would have completely changed the stability of that region of the world. And I’m—I was convinced then, I’m convinced now, that for a long period of time he was trying to acquire nuclear capabilities.

MR. RUSSERT: But if we cannot find the biological or chemical weapons, or evidence of an advanced nuclear program, what was the threat and why did we have to go to war when we did?

SEN. EDWARDS: The threat was that this was a man who we knew was going to do everything in his power to acquire nuclear capability. And he was a different and distinct, unique kind of threat, because of his history, because of having started a war. We know that over a long period of time we made the effort, whether he, in fact, has them, had them at the time the war began or not, we know that over a long period of time he had been trying to acquire that capability. It is an obvious and serious threat to the stability of that region of the world. And Saddam Hussein, Tim, with nuclear capability, completely changes things.

MR. RUSSERT: The French were saying at the time of the vote in the United Nations “Let’s give inspections a few more months, and if you, Mr. President Bush, do that, we will then go along with you, ultimately, in fact, if Saddam does not cooperate.” In hindsight should the president have gone along with the French and allowed inspections to continue?

SEN. EDWARDS: Well, we don’t—those of us who have responsibility for making these enormously important decisions, we don’t have the benefit of hindsight. I mean, that’s a great luxury, looking back now. I did what I thought was right at the time. I still believe it was right. We’ve had almost 400 young Americans lose their lives in a cause that I think is important. Saddam Hussein is gone. That region of the world, if we pursue the right policy, can be much more stable than it was before he came there. And I will not say to the mothers and fathers of those young men and women who lost their lives that it wasn’t important because I think it was enormously important, and I think they deserve to know that.

MR. RUSSERT: So President Bush was right in invading Iraq in March?

SEN. EDWARDS: Well, you know, I didn’t make the decision about the timing. The president of the United States made the decision about the timing. What I voted on...

MR. RUSSERT: But his policy’s right?

SEN. EDWARDS: His policy about going to war at that time?

MR. RUSSERT: Going to war at that time.

SEN. EDWARDS: I believe, based upon—I voted for the resolution. I stand by that decision. You know, whether, if I had been president of the United States, I would have done this exactly like him, probably not, you know? Because if I had been in a decision-making position, I would have made more of an effort to build a coalition over a much longer period of time because, as I’ve said from the beginning, I think having this be an international effort was enormously important. But, having said that, I still stand by what I did.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to the Patriot Act, because this is an issue that—I’ve been listening to your comments very, very carefully, and it’s something that I want to have a chance to talk about.

SEN. EDWARDS: Sure.

MR. RUSSERT: At the Congressional Black Caucus Fox News debate in September, this is what you said:

(Videotape, Fox News, September):

SEN. EDWARDS: I support dramatic revision of the Patriot Act. The last thing we should be doing is turning over out privacy, our liberties, our freedom, our constitutional rights, to John Ashcroft. The notion that they are going to libraries to find out what books are checking out, going to bookstores to find out what books are being purchased...

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Those are very serious charges. It prompted The Washington Post to write this editorial: “‘I support dramatic revision of the Patriot Act. The last thing we should be doing is turning over our privacy, our liberties, our freedom, our constitutional rights to John Ashcroft.’ So said North Carolina Senator John Edwards... Surely, then, Mr. Edwards voted against the anti-terrorism law rushed through Congress after September 11. Well, no. When he rose on the Senate floor...he said, ‘The bill’s not perfect, but it is a good bill. It’s important for the nation, and I’m pleased to support it.’ Indeed, Mr. Edwards voted against all four amendments offered by Democratic Senator Russell Feingold to ameliorate some of the civil liberties concerns that Mr. Edwards now seems to feel so keenly—and that the Democratic audiences he is wooing respond to with such fervor... Democrats have enough to run on against President Bush. They don’t need to ignore their records, stray from the facts or take such cheap shots to make their case.”

Do you regret your vote for the Patriot Act?

SEN. EDWARDS: No, I think there are provisions in the Patriot Act which never get any attention, Tim, that were very good provisions: for example, provisions to deal with some of the information-sharing deficiencies that existed before September 11, provisions that, in fact, bring the law up to date with technology, that allow us to deal in an effective way with some of the money laundering that’s gone on.

But I do believe there are provisions in the Patriot Act that can be changed. I can give you a couple of examples. For example, we are now allowing what is called sneak-and-peek searches without notice to the person who’s being searched, in my view, without adequate due process safeguards in place. The same thing is true—and I mentioned this in the statement you just showed—about the ability to go into libraries and bookstores without—and, again, in my judgment—adequate procedural safeguards in place. But if I could just for a moment step back from the Patriot Act, I think this issue’s a lot bigger than that. I think, for example, the administration’s pursuing a policy on what they call enemy combatants that allows them to arrest an American citizen on American soil, put them in prison, keep them there indefinitely. They never see a lawyer, never see a judge, or even get a chance to prove that they’re innocent. You know, to me, this violates absolutely everything we believe in as a nation. So I think there are provisions in ‘the Patriot Act that need to be changed. There are provisions that need to stay in place. And I think there are other policies of this administration that run completely contrary to our civil liberties.

MR. RUSSERT: But Senator Feingold tried to amend the Patriot Act dealing with the library provisions, and voted against it.

SEN. EDWARDS: And here’s why. The problem with what Russ was doing was he was imposing on the national government, the federal government, a requirement that they meet individual state law requirements. The way to deal with this issue—it’s a national issue. We’re talking about federal law enforcement. They way to deal with this issue is to have national legislation. So if we fixed, for example, the provisions that I just talked about at the national level, that’s the effective response. The response is not to require our national law enforcement agencies to have to meet procedural requirements that exist in 50 different states.

MR. RUSSERT: When you go before a Democratic audience and say, “The notion they’re going to libraries to find out what books are being read” or bookstores, what books are being purchased—the Justice Department actually was asked whether that had ever been done, and here’s the response. “The Justice Department, which has repeatedly been accused of encroaching on civil liberties in its war on terrorism, has never actually used a controversial provision of the act that allows it to seek records from libraries, according to a confidential memo from Ashcroft... ‘The number of times the provision’s been used to date is zero.’” So it’s wrong for you to say that that’s being done.

SEN. EDWARDS: No. I think that—well, first of all, I have no way of knowing everything that the Justice Department is doing. What I do know is that based on testimony they provided to Congress, they have been—and I think I’m using something close to their language—they have been in touch with libraries and bookstores around the country. Now, what provision they were using to do that, whether it was the Patriot Act or something else, I have no way of knowing. But what I do know, is when the United States Justice Department is contacting libraries and bookstores, it has an enormous chilling effect. And that’s what my concern is about this provision in the Patriot Act. I still believe it needs to be changed.

MR. RUSSERT: Some Democrats have a different view: “Joe Biden of Delaware called criticism of the Patriot Act. Dianne Feinstein, (Democrat, California), mounted a strong defense of the Patriot Act, saying she believes that there is substantial uncertainty and perhaps some ignorance about what this bill actually does do and how it’s employed. ...I have never had a single abuse of the Patriot Act reported to me.” Have you?

SEN. EDWARDS: To me, personally? No. But the independent inspector general in the Justice Department has found 34 credible complaints under the Patriot Act. I think in the first—if I’ve got the timing right, the first six months of this year, I think it’s a serious issue. I respect Joe Biden and Dianne very much, but I think we know that there have been abuses, and the inspector general’s findings would show that.

MR. RUSSERT: Is your paper, The Charlotte Observer, correct that because you’re running in a Democratic primary, where now the base of the party seems to be against the war in Iraq, that it is necessary for you, for someone who had voted for the war, to now oppose the $87 billion and to point out problems with the Patriot Act, even though you had supported that as well, in order to make yourself more palatable to the Democratic primary electorate?

SEN. EDWARDS: No. For the reasons I just laid out, there are specific problems in the Patriot Act. There are also provisions in the Patriot Act that are good and should stay in place. Remember, you’re asking this question of the same person you just showed being booed at the California Democratic Convention bringing up myself why I thought it was the right thing to do. I’ve not wavered from that at any point. I haven’t wavered on this during this interview on this television show. I still stand by what I did. Now, I think that everything I’ve done has been completely consistent with what’s in here, what I believe is the right thing to do.

MR. RUSSERT: We’re going to take a quick break and come back and talk about the economy and a whole lot of other issues.

SEN. EDWARDS: OK.

MR. RUSSERT: Our conversation with John Edwards, Democratic candidate for president, will continue right after this.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: More of our discussion with Senator John Edwards, Democratic candidate for president, and our MEET THE PRESS Minute after this brief station break.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: And we are back.

Senator Edwards, how would you describe the economy right now?

SEN. EDWARDS: We’ve seen a little lift. The most recent reports over the last two weeks have been some signs of encouragement. But my view is that we’re going to have to see a lot more to indicate that we have any kind of sustained economic growth.

MR. RUSSERT: But 7.2 percent economic growth, 250,000 new jobs since August—that’s pretty encouraging.

SEN. EDWARDS: Yeah, it is, but if you put it into context of what’s been happening with this administration from the time they came into office, I mean, they’ve lost over three million private-sector jobs, two and a half million manufacturing jobs. We have over nine million people who don’t have a job. We have over three million people who’ve slipped into poverty. Almost four million more people have lost their health-care coverage under this president. We’ve still got an awfully long way to go.

MR. RUSSERT: Is this some evidence that the Bush tax cuts have worked in terms of stimulating the economy?

SEN. EDWARDS: Oh, absolutely not. I can tell you how strongly I disagree with this president’s tax policy. And I listen to some of the Democratic presidential candidates talk about this—and I do have sort of a slightly different perspective than they do because I’m against President Bush’s tax cuts for people at the top. I believe there’s something more dramatic and more radical than that occurring here because I think the president is in the process of actually shifting the tax burden in America from wealth into wealthy to work in the middle class. And what I mean by that is he wants to eliminate things like the capital gains tax, the dividends tax, the taxation of large estates, all taxation of wealth or passive unearned income on wealth. That burden then gets shifted to the middle class. I think it’s wrong for at least two reasons. One is it violates our values. I mean, why should some investor be paying a lower tax rate than a secretary or a firefighter? I don’t believe that.

And, second, it also is bad economic policy because when you’ve had sustained economic growth in this country—in the last 50 years, when the middle class was strengthened and expanding—it happened after World War II, it happened in the second half of the Clinton administration. So what President Bush is doing is the opposite of what we should be doing. Instead of putting more burden on the middle class, we ought to be helping them, helping them buy a house, save, invest, all those things that would expand and strengthen the middle class.

MR. RUSSERT: How much of the tax cut would you repeal?

SEN. EDWARDS: I would get rid of the tax cuts for people that earn basically over $200,000 a year which are the top two income brackets. I would, in addition to that, raise the capital gains rate, which is presently at 15 percent, to 25 percent for those in the top income bracket. And I would also close a group of corporate tax loopholes and get rid of some subsidies, for example, subsidies for millionaire corporate farming operations, subsidies to go to banks for making loans to students, the so-called janitors’ loophole.

MR. RUSSERT: You did in 2001 vote for a $1.2 trillion tax cut. That’s a big tax cut.

SEN. EDWARDS: No, actually what I voted for, Tim, was—You remember that there was a

framework? All it was was $1.2 trillion. At that point, we didn’t vote on the actual components of the tax cut, the substantive components. And, actually, I think it would have made sense had that tax cut gone to the middle class and the working poor. But that’s not what happened. When they filled in the meat on those bones, in fact, it was completely loaded up for people at the top, shifted the tax burden to the middle class, which is why I voted against the actual tax cut.

MR. RUSSERT: But you would support a $1.2 trillion tax cut if it, in fact, was targeted to the middle class?

SEN. EDWARDS: Then. Now, remember, then we were faced with surpluses, a much different financial situation than we have today. There are some—I mean, I just told you which parts of the tax cut I would get rid of. There are some additional tax cuts that I would do for working middle -class families to allow them to make the down payment on a home. I would reduce the capital gains rate and the dividends rate for moderate- and low-income families so that we can expand the investor class in this country. And I’d help people save.

I mean, we’ve had a dramatic shift in this country over the last 20 years. Back in the early ’80s most middle-class families were saving about 10 percent of their income. Now, they’re saving nothing. In fact, we have negative savings. Which means we have so many middle -class families, millions, around this country, that are teetering on the edge. If something bad happens to them, a bad medical event, they lose their job, they are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. So we have got to find ways to strengthen and shore up the financial status of the middle class.

MR. RUSSERT: We have a $400, $500 billion deficit.

SEN. EDWARDS: Yes.

MR. RUSSERT: How would you balance the budget?

SEN. EDWARDS: I would do the things that I just told you. Well, let me start with the bigger picture. There is, in my judgment, a natural tension between the need to do something about the deficit, which is real, and I believe in it, we have to reduce the deficit. And, on the other hand, the need to invest in those things that will give us sustained, long-term economic growth, things like education, help for the middle class, the things I just went through, you know, doing something about the health-care problems that the country faces. Those two things are at odds with one another. Because when you’re spending, you’re obviously not helping the deficit situation. And I have, in fairness, you haven’t asked me about this, but I have proposed some additional spending, things like a health-care plan, helping kids be able to go to college, helping middle class save and invest. But, simultaneous with that, I have paid for everything that I have proposed and left hundreds of billions of dollars of deficit reduction. I can’t tell you, with honesty, as I sit here right now, when the budget’s going to be balanced. What I think is important is to make a commitment to deficit reduction, get us back on the path so that we know we’re moving in the right direction.

MR. RUSSERT: The Republicans will say, “You’re a typical Democrat. You’re going to balance the budget by raising taxes.”

SEN. EDWARDS: Well, I disagree with that. I’m, actually, for the vast majority of Americans, middle class, the working poor, I’m going to lower their taxes. Under my plan, their taxes will be lower than they are today. They’re right in only one respect. For people at the top, people like me, and you, who have been lucky enough to do well in this world, I think we carry some responsibility to try to make sure this country moves forward. And so that—only in that respect, because I did, in fairness, mention a few minutes ago, that I would raise the capital gains rate from 15 to 25 percent. But there is another reason for that. Because it makes no sense to me for people in the top income bracket to be paying a lower tax rate on their passive investment income than they’re paying on their earned income. That’s just completely at odds with what I think we value in this country, which is hard work.

MR. RUSSERT: Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, made a decision yesterday that he’s going to opt out of the matching public funds for campaigns. In other words, he will simply raise as much money as he can through thousand-dollar or less contributions from Americans across the country, saying he needs that much money to take on George Bush. What do you think of what Governor Dean did, and will you imitate it?

SEN. EDWARDS: The answer to the second question is, “No, I will not. I will stay within the campaign finance system.” I think that it’s a mistake for Governor Dean to do this. He has said earlier this year, that he would—he felt very strongly about all the candidates staying within the campaign finance system. Now, that he’s apparently figured out and he thinks it’s advantageous to him not to do that, he’s choosing not to do it. It sends exactly the wrong signals to voters in this country. If it’s a matter of principle to operate within the campaign finance system, then we should stay within the campaign finance system, and not deviate from that because a particular candidate, in this case, Governor Dean, thinks it’s to his advantage.

MR. RUSSERT: What do you think of Governor Dean?

SEN. EDWARDS: I like him personally. He and I have had some run-ins over the last couple of weeks. I felt very strongly about his statement about the Confederate flag and pickup trucks in the South. And I’ve expressed that to him, not only publicly but in personal conversations, because my worry about that is- -and there’s already been a lot of discussion about this, but I’ll be brief—I think the Confederate flag is a very divisive symbol. It’s bad—it’s wrong to even suggest that we might in any way be embracing that. And secondly, to stereotype Southerners as pickup-truck, you know, Confederate flag voters, I think, is also a mistake. But I think it’s even bigger than that. I think it’s important for our party, and here’s why: Because it’s like saying to any group of voters, including voters in the South, “You know, you don’t know what’s best for you. We know what’s best for you. Even though you don’t understand that we’re better for you, we’re going to come and make sure you understand it. We’ll explain it to you.” There’s an elitism and a condescension associated with that attitude that’s enormously dangerous to us. I mean, what voters in this country want, is they want us to treat them with respect, wherever they live, whatever part of the country, whatever their financial condition, who their family is. They want to be treated with respect. It is enormously important for us as a party to not be elite, to not look down on people and talk down to them, but to give them the kind of respect that they’re entitled to.

MR. RUSSERT: As a son of the South, what does the Confederate flag represent to you?

SEN. EDWARDS: A divisive symbol.

MR. RUSSERT: Howard Dean also said that felons, convicted felons, should be given the right to vote. Do you agree with that?

SEN. EDWARDS: I do. I do agree with that.

MR. RUSSERT: Why?

SEN. EDWARDS: Well, because I think if we want to get—the whole notion is, if somebody’s coming out of prison, even if they’ve been convicted of a serious crime, which obviously a convicted felon has been, we want to get those folks back into the society. And one of the ways that we can show that is to allow them to vote. I—in my state of North Carolina, we allow convicted felons to vote. I think it makes sense.

MR. RUSSERT: Let’s turn to your own fund-raising. This is how The Wall Street Journal described it: “Everyone knew that, as a formal trial lawyer, John Edwards would be courting his plaintiffs’ bar allies in his Presidential bid. But even political professionals seem stunned by the degree to which his candidacy has become a wholly owned financial subsidiary of the national tort bar.”

And this is what the Center for Responsive Politics found: that of the $14.5 million that you raised, 51 percent came from lawyers, law firms and their employees. And, in fact, Senator, as you know, the Justice Department is looking into allegations that your campaign took money from employees who were promised to be reimbursed by their bosses.

SEN. EDWARDS: Well, there was one incident many months ago involving one law firm, one set of contributions. So...

MR. RUSSERT: Turner and Associates in Little Rock, Arkansas.

SEN. EDWARDS: I believe that’s right. I believe that’s right. But we have consistently told all-every time we take a contribution from anybody—my suspicion is the other campaigns do the same thing-we make sure they know what the rules are, that we’re doing everything in our power to make sure that those laws and rules are being complied with. As to the bigger question that you’re raising, which is money from lawyers—you know, I spent 20 years as a lawyer, Tim. I’m proud of what I did as a lawyer. I mean, I fought for kids and families against big drug companies, big insurance companies, big HMOs. They were tough battles, and I won most of those battles. It’s nothing but an extension of most of my life. And so it’s not shocking to me that people who do the same thing that I did for 20 years would support me. But what also is in that statistic you just showed is about half of my money is from all other kinds of people. So we’ve raised money from people from all walks of life, and I’m actually proud of the support we’ve been able to get.

MR. RUSSERT: But more than half coming from lawyers is striking, and would suggest to people, “My God, can he be independent if, in fact, half of his support is coming from lawyers?”

SEN. EDWARDS: But I can be, and I’ve shown that I can be. I mean, not only—I mentioned earlier that I’m proud of what I did, and I am proud of what I did. But, for example, I have proposed that the whole issue of the medical malpractice premiums that doctors and health-care providers are having around the country—I think it’s a serious issue. I think it’s one that deserves a response.

And one of the things that I have proposed is, in addition to insurance reform and some other steps that I think need to be taken in helping doctors with some tax credits, I’ve also proposed that we put a responsibility on the lawyers to have—before they even file a case, that they have it reviewed by independent experts, determine that it’s serious and meritorious, and then make the lawyer certify that. And if he or she fails to do it, hold the lawyer accountable, not the client. And if they do it three times, violate that rule three times, three strikes and you’re out. You lose your right to file those cases over a period of time—the whole notion being, let’s keep cases that don’t belong in the legal system out of the legal system. I will do what’s right for the American people.

MR. RUSSERT: There is legislation pending which would limit the liability of gun manufacturers. The lawyers are very much opposed to that. Where do you come down on it?

SEN. EDWARDS: Oh, I’m opposed to that, but it has nothing to do with the lawyers. I mean, why should we pick a particular class of Americans and say, “We’re not going to hold you responsible”? I mean, you and I are held responsible for what we do. Doctors, as we just talked about, are held responsible for what they do. Lawyers should be held responsible for what they do. Exactly the same thing is true of gun manufacturers.

MR. RUSSERT: Governor Dean may have a difference with you on the issue of civil unions for gay couples. This is The Nation magazine. “Edwards’ campaign says”—”though he endorses gay adoption he has reservations about civil unions for gays and lesbians and would leave decisions on this matter to the states. His press secretary noted, ‘It’s an issue he thinks the country—and North Carolina—is not ready for.’” Why not?

SEN. EDWARDS: I think that the issue of civil unions is one that should be decided by individual states. I think that’s the natural way that that decision would be made. Having said that, I think it’s also very important for the president of the United States to make clear that everybody who lives in this country is entitled to equality, including gays and lesbians and those involved in committed gay and lesbian relationships, which means we should have partnership benefits. It means we should end discrimination in the workplace, which we still have not done. We should do something about—I think that just made reference to it—something about our adoption law, something about our immigration laws. I think the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of the military is something that clearly needs to be revisited with our military leaders. Now, I think it’s important for us to make clear to people in this country that we welcome all of them.

MR. RUSSERT: If a gay couple goes to Canada and is married legally and returns to the United States, should that marriage be honored here?

SEN. EDWARDS: Again, I think this is a decision that has to be made on a state—individual states have to make that decision and...

MR. RUSSERT: If you were governor of a state, would you be supportive of that?

SEN. EDWARDS: No, I would not.

MR. RUSSERT: You would not. Why?

SEN. EDWARDS: I would not. Because, well, first of all, you probably know this, I just went through my discussion of what rights I think need to be given to gays and lesbians, those in committed gay and lesbian relationships, but I don’t support gay marriage.

MR. RUSSERT: Should states also have the right to set laws on abortion or gun control? If you’re going to say for civil unions, why not abortion, why not gun control, allow states to make that decision?

SEN. EDWARDS: Because I think this is a different kind of issue. I think this is an issue that individual parts of the country have different perspectives on. And I think the logical thing to do is to allow the states to do it, which I believe, by the way, is also Governor Dean’s position.

MR. RUSSERT: But don’t individual states have different views on abortion and gun control?

SEN. EDWARDS: Yeah, but there are some issues—and gun control as an example —we have guns traveling across state lines. They contribute to crime or don’t contribute to crime depending on your perspective, and I think these are issues that ought to be dealt with at the national level.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to the state of your campaign. This was the article from the Raleigh News Observer, your home state paper. “Edwards is Top Spender in 2 States. Sen. John Edwards is the frontrunner among”—Democrat—”presidential candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire. In spending, that is. Campaign finance reports filed recently show that Edwards has spent more than his opponents in the states which will kick off the chase for the nomination.” And political observers point to these two polls, Senator. In Iowa, it shows this: Dean, 26; Gephardt, 26; Kerry, 15; Edwards at 8. And New Hampshire, Dean ahead, 38; Kerry, 24; Clark, 4; Edwards, 4. Despite being the leading spender in Iowa and New Hampshire, you are way behind in terms of popular support.

SEN. EDWARDS: You’re a good questioner, Tim. This is—of course, there are lots of polls beyond the ones that you just showed. And what I know from having seen the whole group of polls, in the early primary states, is I have moved up significantly and dramatically in Iowa, which I’m very proud of. In New Hampshire, there was a Boston Globe poll a week or two ago that showed me moving up into third place behind the two candidates that are from neighboring states. And in South Carolina, all the polls taken as a whole show me with double -digit leads. And I think I’m either tied for or right at the lead in Oklahoma. Now, I think we’re very pleased with the progress this campaign is making. It’s clear. And I just came from New Hampshire yesterday. I’ve been on a bus trip tour through New Hampshire, and we’ve had big crowds, great response. People are responding.

MR. RUSSERT: The latest South Carolina poll we’ve seen from American Research Group shows Wesley Clark at 17, John Edwards at 10. You were born in South Carolina.

SEN. EDWARDS: Yes, I was, and I will win South Carolina. That poll is different than all the other polls. I believe all the other polls show me in the lead by varying amounts and that one’s at odds with those.

MR. RUSSERT: Let’s talk about the campaign against George W. Bush. This is what you said in June of this year out in Newton, Iowa, about the president: “This president is a complete, unadulterated phony.” Why would you say that?

SEN. EDWARDS: Because he walks around on his ranch in Texas with a big belt buckle and acts like he understands the lives of most Americans, at the same time that his contact with regular Americans is largely limited to showing up at events that are ticketed, controlled. He’s not doing the things—first of all, he comes from a different background than I do. That’s not to be critical of him but it is important to understanding the perspective of regular people. Second, I’m out there every day, five, six, seven times a day, having town hall meetings, meeting with voters, hearing what their concerns are. George Bush doesn’t do that. And for him to pretend that he understands their problems and that he has a personal

connection with them is not true, and I think what I said there is absolutely right.

MR. RUSSERT: When you call the president a “phony,” how do you think the American people respond to that?

SEN. EDWARDS: I don’t know how the American people respond. I mean, my points is this president is out of touch with the lives of most Americans. I absolutely believe that, and it shows in all his policies, his effort to shift the tax burden in this country, his failure to follow through on trying to improve our public schools. He’s the only person running for president in this election who has no health-care plan. I mean, we have a health-care crisis in this country and our president has no plan for how to deal with it? I mean, he does not understand what’s going on. The very notion that he and his administration, Tim, would talk about us being in a jobless recovery, what in the world does that mean? I mean, we got millions of people out there without a job. People are scared to death that the plant or facility in their community is going to close and these folks are talking about a jobless recovery? This is a consistent pattern. They are out of touch. They do not understand what’s happening in peoples’ lives.

MR. RUSSERT: Despite the way people may feel about the economy or the war in Iraq, the

underpinnings of the polls seem to be that people like George Bush as a person. Do you agree with that?

SEN. EDWARDS: You mean, do I like him as a person, or do I think other people like him as a person?

MR. RUSSERT: Both. Oh, answer them both, yeah.

SEN. EDWARDS: Well, I think other people do generally like George Bush as a person. I don’t know him that well. I’ve been around him sometimes. He seems like a personable guy. But I think at the end of the day, when people get ready to vote in the election, when voters in America get ready to decide this election in 2004, they’re going to be looking at a lot more than whether they like him. He’s going to be held responsible. This is not like 2000. He’s been the president of the United States for four years. He has resided over an economy—he will probably be the first president since Herbert Hoover to have negative job—in other words, to have job loss during the period of his presidency. And simultaneously with that, I might add, he’s driven us deeper and deeper into deficit. I mean, in theory, tax cuts and spending, which puts you in deficit or for the purpose of job creation. Well, he’s managed to

lose jobs and drive us deeper into deficit at exactly the same time.

MR. RUSSERT: We have to stop there. Senator John Edwards, thanks for joining us.

SEN. EDWARDS: Thanks, Tim, glad to be with you.

MR. RUSSERT: Coming next, our MEET THE PRESS MINUTE from 39 years ago, the former chairman of the Democratic and Republican parties squaring off on the future of politics right after this.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: Election week 39 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson vs. Republican Barry Goldwater. Two former party chairmen, Democrat James Farley, Republican Leonard Hall, appeared on MEET THE PRESS and discussed the future of the two-party system:

(Videotape, November 1, 1964):

MR. DAVID BRODER (Washington Evening Star): Mr. Hall, it’s been about 32 years now since the Republican Party developed within its own ranks a man who could lead the party to a presidential victory. If Senator Goldwater loses Tuesday, do you think we have to face the fact that the GOP is really washed up?

MR. LEONARD HALL (Former Chairman of the Republican Party): Why, of course not. I think Jim Farley will agree with me—I was in politics back when Niles Smith was beaten in 1928, and I remember the flowers they put on the grave of the Democratic Party at that time. I think when this election is over, you’re going to have two flourishing political parties.

MR. JAMES FARLEY (Former Chairman of the Democratic Party): Yes, I agree that there will be-the Republican Party will stage a comeback. I don’t know how fast it can come back. The Democrats came back rather quickly after ’28. But they’ll come back because I believe in the two-party system. I’d like to see my party in power. But this country has a way of changing its administrations from time to time, and it will again. I hope not too soon, however.

MR. BRODER: Yes.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Republican candidate Barry Goldwater did end up losing the election two days after that interview. President Lyndon Johnson was re-elected with 61 percent of the vote. But the Republicans did stage a comeback in 1968, when Republican Richard Nixon edged out Democrat Hubert Humphrey. Since then, the party in control of the White House has changed hands four times. Two competing parties, indeed.

One final note on Jim Farley. He was the very first guest when MEET THE PRESS debuted on television 56 years ago this very week, November 7, 1947. Happy 56th birthday, MEET THE PRESS, the longest-running television program in the world.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: Coming up next Sunday on MEET THE PRESS, another Democratic presidential candidate, General Wesley Clark, in his first Sunday morning interview since announcing his candidacy for the White House.

That’s all for today. If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.

Copyright© 2003, National Broadcasting Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

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