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Bill Clinton reflects on fixing the wealth gap, embracing the Affordable Care Act and Hillary’s health

May 14, 2014 at 6:15 PM EDT
Former President Bill Clinton sat down with Gwen Ifill in Washington to discuss growing inequality, how Democrats should talk about the Affordable Care Act, the controversy around the Benghazi attack, Putin’s motives in Ukraine and Hillary Clinton’s potential presidential candidacy for 2016. Their conversation was hosted as part of a fiscal summit run by the Peterson Foundation.

GWEN IFILL: Now: a conversation with former President Bill Clinton about economic growth, inequality, health care, and foreign policy.

I sat down with him earlier today in Washington as part of a fiscal summit run by the Peterson Foundation. And the economy was naturally the place to start.

Here is a portion of our nearly hour-long conversation.

I’m going to plunge right in, because one of the interesting conversations we have been having lately in Washington and around the world is about inequality. It’s back again.

I went back and looked at a conversation we had on this stage three years ago, and we were talking about it then. Why do you think now? Why is Thomas Piketty suddenly such a big deal?

FMR. PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Well, first of all, it is severe constraint on growth for the country.

And it is evidence of a loss of social mobility. The median real middle income, adjusted for inflation, is still slightly lower than it was the day I left office. And the cost of education and health care and other things has gone up.

The average walking-around person is having a pretty tough time. And it’s also really put a crimp in the whole idea of the American dream, that, if you work hard, you can do better than your parents did.

What we should be trying to do is make sure that we’re all growing in real terms together. And having the right budget for the government and the right investment strategy is a part of it. But the end goal has got to be more vigorous job growth, a tighter labor market, which will raise incomes.

I’m all for these raising the minimum wage. That will help you in the bottom. And it will levitate above a little higher than the people covered by the minimum wage.

GWEN IFILL: But, Mr. President, you left office 14 years ago. We’re now in the second term of a Democratic president. I’m just curious about why we’re talking about this now. Why is inequality more on people’s minds than it was during — even during the recession?

BILL CLINTON: Well, because I think, during the recession, if you’re in the middle of the ocean, and you think you’re drowning, nobody wants to have a discussion about how you should have a better swimming pool in your backyard.

In other words, I think we were just so glad the wheels didn’t run off, and they could have. So, I — you know, I think it’s healthy we’re worried about inequity now, but we have got to figure out how to fix it.

And how to fix it is, it’s people like me, people in the upper-income groups should pay the lion’s share of taxes, for the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks. That’s where the money is. And if you have prolonged inequity, you’re going to concentrate wealth. And then if you have to get tax money, that’s where you have to go to get the tax money.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. President, you and I have been talking about health care in one form or another for 20 years probably, Hillarycare, Obamacare, you name it.

So, here we are in the middle of another midterm election, where, as far as I can tell, Democrats are running as far as possible in the opposite direction from embracing the improvements you say that the Affordable Care Act have yielded. What is your advice to them?

BILL CLINTON: Well, the one — I wouldn’t do it, but there may be some places where the well’s been so poisoned, they have to do it.

What I think — what I advise the Democrats to do is talk about the good things that have happened under the bill, acknowledge the problems, and say, let’s do what sensible people would do. We had a problem we had to deal with. Albert Einstein couldn’t have done it perfectly the first time. Now let’s set a long-term repair process.

Nobody could have done this perfectly.

GWEN IFILL: It doesn’t sound like much of a bumper sticker, nobody could have done this perfectly.


BILL CLINTON: Maybe, but I find people are pretty smart about it.

You know, when you remind people that you got 100 million people now who can afford insurance because their preexisting condition can’t be used against them, you got 100 million people who get preventive benefits in their health insurance policies that they couldn’t before, you got 3.5 million young people under 26 getting covered on their parents’ policies, you have got the doughnut hole in the senior citizens’ drug program has been closed — and they saved $10 billion in drug purchases already, seniors have.

You have, I think, around four million people already in the Medicaid expansion, and, eventually, these other states I think will come along. It’s crazy not to do it. It’s a beginning. And I think that people can handle the truth. Talk about what’s good about it. Talk about the remaining problem. Commit to fix the problem. That’s the best political position.

GWEN IFILL: Can I ask you about a couple of issues on the foreign policy front? Because, if you were president now in the second half of your second term and you were facing down the Russian bear, and there was a humanitarian crisis in Syria, and terrorism on the rise in Nigeria, and the Middle East peace talks had just collapsed, and they were raising Benghazi again as a foreign policy issue, in what order would you try to tackle them?

And is any of it leave room for growth or hope or possibility?

BILL CLINTON: Well, I don’t think — Benghazi is a whole different deal.

GWEN IFILL: I know, but I just threw it in there.

BILL CLINTON: We did — in my opinion, Hillary did what she should have done.

She impaneled a very high-level review committee, with the immediate past chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, who is backstage, and Tom Pickering, our state’s most — I mean, our country’s most distinguished senior diplomatic who has worked for more Republicans than Democrats in his life.

And they looked into what was wrong. They gave 29 recommendations. She took them and started implementing them. And they established the fact that, whether it was right or wrong in the past, secretaries of state never were involved directly in these security decisions.

And they also have untangled what was an early mystery at Benghazi, when all we knew was that four people were killed. And we know now two of them were heavily armed CIA contractors who were military combat veterans. And they were part of a group of 20 authorized to provide security, among other things, where they were in Benghazi.

And it’s nowhere — and the last time we had one of these things made public was when I did it after the Africa embassy bombings in 1998. And so most Americans don’t even know how many American diplomatic personnel were killed when President Bush was president.

They don’t know what, if any, after-action review was done, what, if any, recommendations were made, what, if any, action was taken to implement those.

So I think my advice to everybody involved is to be not defensive and realize what this is and just answer the questions.

GWEN IFILL: What is it? What is it?

BILL CLINTON: You just want me to get into a political fight. I’m not running for anything. I’m not doing that.


BILL CLINTON: Now, these other things are very different.

Putin wants to reestablish Russian greatness, not as the Cold War, but in 19th century empire terms. He believes Russia was badly damaged and humiliated by the collapse of communism, the end of the Warsaw Pact, the loss of control near, abroad.

And he sees all these things in zero-sum terms. The Ukrainian reformers had a different idea. And most of the Western Ukrainians seem to agree with them. They said, you know, we really want to be friends with Russia. We want to get along with them.

And if you don’t think they do, look at the map. I mean, would you want to have a healthy relationship with Russia if you were located where Ukraine is?

But they said, we want to be a bridge between Europe and Russia. And it was just outside of his imagination zone. And so we are where we are. It’s not the end of the world. He invaded Georgia too and took part of that. I don’t agree with this. And I think we have to be firm against it. But it’s not the end of the world.

GWEN IFILL: You know, I asked you about a lot of things in one question. But I guess the overarching question for all of them, all of these issues is, what does a U.S. president or a U.S. government do in these situations anymore?

BILL CLINTON: Well, first of all, I think what we should recognize is, we’re living in a world with much more diffuse power centers, in which we’re in this catch-22, because there are very few problems we can solve by ourselves and very few problems that can be solved without our involvement.

So, we’re always being pressed to be more and more involved, knowing that, depending on who else goes along for the ride, we will succeed or not, and knowing that the span of our control is subject to being undermined.

GWEN IFILL: Final question, depending on how you answer it. It has to do with health, but it’s about your wife’s health.

Karl Rove asked yesterday or raised the question over the weekend, I guess, about whether Hillary Clinton is well enough to run for president in 2016, and whether in fact she had suffered a brain injury.

Dr. Rove wants to know as much as we do whether that’s true and whether it will affect her decision-making.

BILL CLINTON: Well, first of all, I have got to give him credit, you know, that he — that embodies that old saying that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.


BILL CLINTON: First, they said she faked her concussion, and now they say she’s auditioning for a part on “The Walking Dead.”


BILL CLINTON: I mean, you know, whatever it takes.

Look, she works out every week. She is strong. She’s doing great. As far as I can tell, she’s in better shape than I am. She certainly seems to have more stamina now. And there’s nothing to it.

It — it — I didn’t even — I was sort of dumbfounded. They went to all this trouble to say that she had staged what was a terrible concussion that required six months of very serious work to get over, something she never lowballed with the American people, never tried to pretend didn’t happen.

Now they say she’s really got brain damage.

BILL CLINTON: Well, if she does, then I must be in really tough shape, because she’s still quicker than I am.


GWEN IFILL: Do you think this is their way of inserting her age or her physical capabilities into the 2016 debate?

BILL CLINTON: I don’t know, but, if it is, you can’t be too upset about it. It’s just the beginning. They will get better and better at it.


BILL CLINTON: I mean, you know, it’s — I’m still waiting for them to admit there was nothing to Whitewater.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. President, thank you very much.

BILL CLINTON: Thank you.


GWEN IFILL: You can watch my entire conversation with President Clinton, which also touched on immigration and Democratic prospects in the midterm elections, online. We have posted it on our web site.