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Democrats Debate Iraq, Health Care in New Hampshire

June 4, 2007 at 6:20 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Now, the Democrats debate in the first primary state. NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman recaps the evening in New Hampshire.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN Anchor: Welcome to New Hampshire, site of the first-in-the-nation Democratic primary.

KWAME HOLMAN: St. Anselm’s College played host to the second Democratic debate of this early election season. Differences among the candidates over the war in Iraq, an issue likely to dominate the campaign over the next 17 months, took center stage.

FORMER SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D), Presidential Candidate: They went quietly to the floor of the Senate, cast the right vote, but there is a difference between leadership and legislating.

KWAME HOLMAN: Former North Carolina Senator John Edwards criticized Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for not being more vocal in their opposition to the Iraq war funding bill passed by Congress last month.

JOHN EDWARDS: Senator Clinton and Senator Obama did not say anything about how they were going to vote until they appeared on the floor of the Senate and voted. They were among the last people to vote.

And I think that the importance of this is — they cast the right vote, and I applaud them for that. But the importance of this is, they’re asking to be president of the United States. And there is a difference between making clear, speaking to your followers, speaking to the American people about what you believe needs to be done.

KWAME HOLMAN: That drew this response from Obama.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: I think it is important to lead. And I think, John, the fact is, is that I opposed this war from the start. So you’re about four-and-a-half years late on leadership on this issue.

It is not easy to vote for cutting off funding, because the fact is there are troops on the ground. And I’ll let Hillary speak for herself, but the fact of the matter is, is that all of us exercised our best judgment, just as we exercised our best judgment to authorize or not authorize this war. And I think it’s important for us to be clear about that.

KWAME HOLMAN: Clinton responded to Edwards’ criticism by turning fault for the war onto President Bush.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: This is George Bush’s war. He is responsible for this war. He started the war. He mismanaged the war. He escalated the war. And he refuses to end the war.

And what we are trying to do, whether it’s by speaking out from the outside or working and casting votes that actually make a difference from the inside, we are trying to end the war.

The differences among us are minor. The differences between us and the Republicans are major. And I don’t want anybody in America to be confused.

KWAME HOLMAN: Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, one of the earliest critics of the war, said Democrats, including Clinton, cannot escape responsibility.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH (D), Ohio: You want to end it, bring them home, stop the funding. And this is where Senator Clinton says, “Well, this is George Bush’s war.” Oh, no.

There’s a teachable moment here, and a teachable moment is that this war belongs to the Democratic Party, because the Democrats were put in charge by the people in the last election with the thought that they were going to end the war. Well, they haven’t.

They have to stop the funding. And I certainly am urging all of my colleagues here, don’t give them any more money. The money’s in the pipeline right now, enough to bring the troops home. Let’s end the war, and let’s make this a productive evening.

KWAME HOLMAN: Former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel agreed that several of his rivals must be held accountable.

FORMER SEN. MIKE GRAVEL (D), Presidential Candidate: Four of these people here will say that it’s George Bush’s war. It was facilitated by the Democrats. They brought the resolution up, one of them authored, co-authored it here, standing here, and so it’s — sure, it’s George Bush’s war, but it’s the Democrats’ war, also.

Now, do you want to end it? You’re concerned about what’s going to happen after we withdraw. Remember Vietnam. All the dominoes are going to fall, Southeast Asia’s going to go — is going to go Communist. Well, how do we know what will happen? I do know this: that the insurgency is successful because the population sustains that insurgency, period.

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, who also voted against further funding of the war, argued for its immediate end.

SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), Connecticut: This policy in Iraq has failed. It is a civil war in that country. Everyone who has looked at this issue has drawn the conclusion that there is no military solution to it.

It seems to me, then, it’s incumbent upon us, given the fact that we are less safe, less secure, more vulnerable, weaker today, not stronger, as a result of this policy, that we ought to try to bring it to a close.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Delaware’s Joseph Biden, the lone senator and candidate to vote in favor of more war funding, said ending the Iraq war was easier said than done.

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), Delaware: We have 50 votes in the United States Senate. We have less of a majority in the House than at any time other than the last eight years.

Ladies and gentlemen, you’re going to end this war when you elect a Democratic president. You need 67 votes to end this war. I love these guys who tell you they’re going to stop the war.

Let me tell you straight up the truth: The truth of the matter is, the only one that’s emboldened the enemy has been George Bush by his policies, not us funding the war. We’re funding the safety of those troops there until we can get 67 votes.

KWAME HOLMAN: Debate host Wolf Blitzer of CNN returned to former Senator Edwards, questioning his recent claims that the war on terror was not an actual war, but a phrase made up by the Bush administration.

WOLF BLITZER: Do you believe the U.S. is not at war with terrorists?

JOHN EDWARDS: What this global war on terror bumper sticker — political slogan, that’s all it is, it’s all it’s ever been — was intended to do was for George Bush to use it to justify everything he does, the ongoing war in Iraq, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, spying on Americans, torture, none of those things are OK. They are not the United States of America.

KWAME HOLMAN: Senator Clinton disagreed, citing the 9/11 attacks.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: And I have seen firsthand the terrible damage that can be inflicted on our country by a small band of terrorists who are intent upon foisting their way of life and using suicide bombers and suicidal people to carry out their agenda.

And I believe we are safer than we were. We are not yet safe enough. And I have proposed over the last year a number of policies that I think we should be following.

KWAME HOLMAN: Domestic issues also got a share of the attention during the two-hour debate. Edwards and Obama again differed over the cost and coverage of each other’s proposals for universal health care.

JOHN EDWARDS: Senator Obama came out with a plan just a few days ago, which I don’t believe is completely universal, but it deserves to be credited because he laid out what the cost is and exactly how he was going to pay for it.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: John believes that we have to have mandatory insurance for everyone in order to have universal health care. My belief is that most families want health care, but they can’t afford it. And so my emphasis is on driving down the costs…

KWAME HOLMAN: And on the issue of immigration, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson praised parts of the bipartisan compromise reached in the Senate, but said he could not support a bill that would keep families apart.

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), New Mexico: There’s a touchback provision. The head of household has to go back and then apply. I believe that is unworkable, too. It divides up families.

But you don’t immediately get an amnesty. You don’t immediately get citizenship. It’s a process that takes about 13 years. Now, I commend the Congress for facing up to having a legalization plan, but I will not support a bill — our immigration laws in this country always bring families together. This separates families.

KWAME HOLMAN: The 10 Republican presidential candidates will take their turn debating at St. Anselm’s College tomorrow evening.

Airing out Iraq views

Dan Balz
The Washington Post
I thought the airing out of Iraq was the most important thing. I thought it told us more about these candidates than we had seen, certainly in the first debate.

JIM LEHRER: Now, how it looked to Dan Balz, chief political reporter for the Washington Post. And he joins us now from New Hampshire.

Dan, welcome.

DAN BALZ, Political Reporter, Washington Post: Thank you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: What do you believe was the most important thing that happened last night?

DAN BALZ: I thought the airing out of Iraq was the most important thing. I thought it told us more about these candidates than we had seen, certainly in the first debate. We began to see some real engagement on this issue.

The exchanges between Senator Edwards and Senator Obama, the way Senator Clinton tried to stay above the fray, all of that told us, a, that this issue will continue to roil this primary process until there is a nominee, and then in the general election. And, also, I think it gave us a sense of how the candidates see their own strengths and weaknesses on it.

JIM LEHRER: So when Senator Clinton said, "Hey, wait a minute, this isn't about Democrats; this is about President Bush," the Democrats didn't hear that message?

DAN BALZ: Well, no. Let's start with Senator Edwards. Senator Edwards has been trying to create a gulf between himself and certainly Senator Clinton and Senator Obama on the war. He has argued that he is trying to get the United States out of Iraq faster than they are.

The truth of the matter is that both Senator Clinton and Senator Obama are more closer to where Senator Edwards is today certainly than they were a number of months ago. His criticism last night was interesting: They voted the right way, but they didn't take a leadership position. Now, in a sense, as your show showed, he walked into a criticism from Senator Obama who said, "Wait a minute, I was against this war from the start, John Edwards. You voted for it. I've been leading on this for a long time."

But what Senator Clinton did, because she believes she's the front-runner, she believes these debates can only cause her problems, not help her, did not want to get into a situation in which she's drawing distinctions or helping to have distinctions drawn with the others. She wants people to look at her as presidential, as experienced, as competent, and as trustworthy.

Agreement that war was a mistake

Dan Balz
The Washington Post
On the broad question of should the war be ended, the Democrats agree, Biden included. There is a question of how quickly, and then the obvious question of cutting off funding.

JIM LEHRER: But would it be correct to say, Dan, speaking of distinctions, that just those folks that were on the stage there, that the real distinction is between Joe Biden on one part of the issue, but everybody, all the Democrats agree this war is a mistake and they want the war ended, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, correct?

DAN BALZ: That is absolutely right. On the broad question of should the war be ended, the Democrats agree, Biden included. There is a question of how quickly, and then the obvious question of cutting off funding.

And Senator Biden alone on that stage was the one person who said, "I'm not prepared to vote to cut off funds at this point." Senator Clinton and Senator Obama, who have been reluctant to do that until this recent vote in the Senate, have now moved in their position, leaving Senator Biden alone on that spot.

But the Democrats in general at this point, there's very little daylight between any of them on the general proposition of, should the United States get out of the war as quickly as is possible?

JIM LEHRER: So it's really about how they each handle it, right?

DAN BALZ: A lot of it is about how they each handle it. And what you saw last night was Senator Edwards trying to create more of a disagreement than may actually exist in terms of the actual policy.

And I think what's interesting about Senator Edwards is, he sees positions on the war and on health care and some of the others as, in a sense, proxies for his statement that he would be the bold leader. He would be the ambitious leader. He's the person who is prepared to be the truth-teller, and he's trying to suggest that the others are, in one way or another, flawed on that front. Senator Obama refused to take it, threw it right back at him. Senator Clinton rose above it.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Well, how important was it to you, Dan, in looking at it, CNN's decision to stage it the way they did, to put the three front-runners, Senator Clinton in the middle, and Barack Obama on her left or her right, on camera-wise, and then Senator Edwards, and then leave the others kind of out of it for the first 10 minutes, just the top three? How important was that?

DAN BALZ: Well, I think it was very important. When they debated in South Carolina at the end of April, I thought one of the things that came out of that debate was a reminder to people that, while there may be two tiers in the polls, that Senators Biden and Dodd and Governor Richardson are substantial politicians. They're serious candidates; they're qualified to be president.

I think what last night did -- and partly because of the staging, partly because of the exchanges, partly because of the questioning -- was to reinforce the idea that, in fact, there is a stratification in this race. It made it much harder for Senators Biden and Dodd and Governor Richardson to get into the middle of this, to break through.

And I think that's a reality of where this campaign is, and I think this debate last night, for a whole series of reasons, reinforced that.

Difficulty of raising money

Dan Balz
The Washington Post
This is going to be a very costly election, because of big states that have moved their primaries very early in the process. So it's going to take a lot of money to compete.

JIM LEHRER: And for them, the Bidens and the Dodds and the Richardsons, breaking through is the key to this. I mean, if they don't, it's over, right?

DAN BALZ: Absolutely right, and I think they're very frustrated. They're very frustrated with the way these debates have gone. They have plenty more debates. But to some extent, the more there is this sense that there are two tiers, the more difficult it makes it for them to raise money.

We're now in the final month of the second quarter of fundraising. This is going to be a very crucial quarter. What we saw in the first quarter was, you know, the haves have and the have-nots don't have as much. It's likely that that's going to be exacerbated in this second quarter; that makes it more difficult for them to break through.

This is going to be a very costly election, because of big states that have moved their primaries very early in the process. So it's going to take a lot of money to compete. And for those three candidates, this is going to be a struggle heading toward the fall.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, Dan, just in pure political terms, horse race terms, roughly 24 hours after that debate, does everybody remain pretty much where they were, Hillary Clinton in number-one place, Barack Obama number-two, John Edwards number-three, and the others below?

DAN BALZ: I think that's right. I don't think this debate or the first debate or any of these early debates will change the overall structure of the race very much.

I think Senator Clinton gave another strong performance. I think Senator Obama did a better job this time than he did. Senator Edwards was aggressive, and the other three are still trying to break through. But I don't think this debate changed that basic fact.

Spectator time

Dan Balz
The Washington Post
There are a lot of voters who are paying attention, Jim, but I don't think they're paying attention in the way of saying, "Who do I have to vote for, because I've got to make up my mind tomorrow?" Voters know they've got plenty of time.

JIM LEHRER: Is it likely that any of these early debates will change anything that dramatically?

DAN BALZ: No, I don't think so. I mean, as we get farther into the year, as we get closer to the primaries, there will begin to be more engagement. I mean, I think the polls will begin to move, but probably not until some time in the early fall.

There are a lot of voters who are paying attention, Jim, but I don't think they're paying attention in the way of saying, "Who do I have to vote for, because I've got to make up my mind tomorrow?" Voters know they've got plenty of time. In a state like this, they know they have months and months before they really have to make a decision. So they're paying close attention, but not in the sense of saying, "All right, who am I going to vote for?"

JIM LEHRER: It's still spectator time.

DAN BALZ: It is still spectator time, that's right. And there are a lot of spectators here in New Hampshire.

JIM LEHRER: OK, Dan Balz, thank you very much.

DAN BALZ: Thank you, Jim.