JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, another of our conversations with candidates for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations who are running in the primaries.
Tonight, the candidate is Senator Joe Biden, Democrat of Delaware. Judy Woodruff spoke with him in Mason City, Iowa, yesterday.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Biden, thank you very much for talking with us.
SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), Delaware: I’m flattered you’d have me. Thank you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: We are here in Iowa. You’re campaigning all-out. You are saying to the voters of Iowa you are the most qualified person in the race. In the midst of this battle among the Democrats over who’s got the most experience, you have a new ad out, a full-page ad in the Des Moines Register saying you are the wisest, most seasoned person to lead the nation. What do you base that on?
SEN. JOE BIDEN: Actually, it’s kind of a tongue-in-cheek ad. It starts off as a picture of all my colleagues I’m running with as saying, “Joe’s right.” And so it’s kind of tongue-in-cheek.
But I’m basing it on my experience. The fact of the matter is that, although Senator Clinton talks about having the most experience — and she has great experience — while she was working for the Children’s Defense Fund, I was writing laws protecting children in the United States Senate. She did good work. I was in the Senate.
While Barack Obama talks about change, I was able to convince the Democratic Party to change their position on the criminal justice system, on crime issues, on the Violence Against Women Act. I’ve been able to convince President Clinton to use force in Bosnia to end the genocide.
But it’s really not about change or experience. I think it’s about action. And the ad is sort of a little bit of tongue-in-cheek to get people focused.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you have this impressive resume, as you’ve just referred to. You’ve been running for the better part of a year, and yet I’ve heard you — read that you complain you’re still having to introduce yourself to voters. Why is that?
SEN. JOE BIDEN: Well, close to that. It’s not that way anymore in Iowa, and it’s not that way nationally. The Rasmussen poll that just came out shows me in a dead heat with Romney and shows me in a dead heat with Giuliani. And so it’s starting to sink in.
But I think it’s because, in the Democratic side, we have two incredibly talented people, a woman who has great talent, an African-American with great talent, and they’ve sort of sucked all the oxygen out of the air. You know, they’ve been very, very much in the news. They’ve raised tens of millions of dollars.
And so it’s not at all surprising that the focus would go to them in the Democratic side, but now the Iowans are starting to focus. They’re starting to decide. And I think I’ve got a clear shot here to do very, very well.
Overcoming personal tragedy
JUDY WOODRUFF: I read where your son, Bo, has introduced you to the crowds at least in one place saying you will rebuild the country the way you rebuilt your family. You've had, of course, terrible tragedy in your life. Your first wife died. You lost a daughter. You had to deal with your own health challenges.
How do you make this transition from the personal to the political that your son was referring to?
SEN. JOE BIDEN: Well, I'm really pretty uncomfortable with that. I have no -- talk about that, and I was really sort of -- I was taken aback when my son introduced me that way, not in a bad way, but it just kind of caught me off-guard.
But I do think that how we deal with crises in our lives, serious crises, gives you, the individual -- you either grow stronger or grow weaker from it. You don't -- it doesn't remain the same. And it's given me confidence to believe that I can handle serious crises.
It is true, right after I got elected, my wife and daughter and two sons were broadsided by a tractor-trailer, my wife killed and my daughter killed, and my sons pretty badly injured. And it took a while for me to adjust to that and sort of get our lives back together.
And it is true the doctors gave me about a 30 percent chance of living and took the top of my head off a couple of times because I had cranial aneurysms. But what it does do, when you get through those things, it makes you realize that you can handle crises. It gives you an inner confidence.
And I'm sure that's not unique to me. I mean, there's millions of Americans who have gone through difficult things. So I don't know how it affects the voters, but I know how it affected me. It makes me realize that there's nothing that is critical other than life and death and that there is a solution to almost every problem.
And I've come out of my life experiences more optimistic about the possibilities than I have pessimistic.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You just referred back to 1972, when that terrible accident happened. That was the year you were elected to serve in Washington. You've now spent, what, over half of your life...
SEN. JOE BIDEN: I know. Isn't that amazing?
JUDY WOODRUFF: ... working in Washington, serving in Washington, 35 years. Can somebody who's been part of government for that long really go out and change the world, as I've heard you say you would do?
SEN. JOE BIDEN: Yes, I think I can. But I want you to know now there's only four senators who served longer than me, but 41 are still older than me, Judy. That's the very important thing I want your listeners to know.
But, yes, I think so, because that's been the history of my participation in the Senate. I mean, remember back in the days when the Republicans were beating up Democrats being soft on crime, and Democrats talked about law and order with justice, well, I came along -- it took me 10 years -- but I changed the landscape.
I wrote the Biden crime bill, which put 100,000 cops in the street, but it also put $10 billion into prevention. I brought liberals and conservatives together through a plan that worked.
The war in Bosnia, you covered that. You covered me covering that. It took me two years to convince President Clinton we had to use force in Bosnia. We did it. We saved people's lives without losing any forces.
So I guess what I'm trying to say is that the things that I've been involved in, from the Violence Against Women Act to foreign policy, I have been -- I won't say ahead of the curve, that sounds too self-serving, but I've been an agent of change. I've been the one moving the Democratic Party or moving the president or moving the country.
And I think that's what exactly what I'm doing on Iraq. I'm the only one with a clear plan adopted by a majority of the foreign policy establishment, 75 senators. It took a long time, but I would argue that my participation in government has been not in sync with what the conventional wisdom was, but mostly out of sync and ahead of the majority of what the conventional wisdom was.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Your Iraq plan, you were out with it months ago. Essentially, you would separate Iraq into three ethnic divisions, in effect, Sunni, Shia and Kurd. There would be a weak central government.
The U.S. Senate has endorsed this. It's got a number of fans here in the United States, but not so many fans in Iraq. How do you make it happen?
SEN. JOE BIDEN: Well, the way you make it happen -- and, by the way, initially there weren't many fans in Iraq, because the president called it partition. It's not partition. It calls what their federal constitution calls for.
So I know most of these leaders. I met with Hashimi, the Sunni. I've met with the Shia, the Kurds. I've met with all these leaders. Every one of them now has gone on record as endorsing the plan, except for Sadr, the guy who has the Mahdi Army.
And so the way you make it work, I could tomorrow, were the president prepared to do it -- look, we have -- the military's done a very good job in this surge. No one ever doubted that. But now the opportunity presents itself, what do you do with this better condition?
Now is the time for the president to call in, as I've recommended, the international community, get an international conference on Iraq sponsored by the big five countries. Bring in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey. Bring them in and get them an agreement on a federal system inside Iraq.
This is the time to do it. We could do it right now. The Iraqis are ready for it. The international community is ready for it. And I believe, with the leadership of the permanent five in the United Nations, we could get this done.
But the president continues to cling, Judy, to this notion that we can have a strong central government, a shared power, that they're going to -- all the Iraqis are going to trust. And it won't happen.
U.S. Policy in Iraq
JUDY WOODRUFF: But with this recent reduction in violence on the heels of the surge of U.S. troops, is that not a reason to rethink not just U.S. policy, but your plan?
SEN. JOE BIDEN: Oh, no.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that such a new factor here that...
SEN. JOE BIDEN: No, what it does, it really -- no one ever doubted that the military would do their job. Now it's time for the president to do his. Now there's a little breathing room, and the president is doing nothing.
The number-two man in the military in Iraq, general, says there's a very short window here, a small window. We see no progress on the part of the Iraqis reconciling their differences.
So, Judy, once this surge is lifted, once we stop, they're going to go back to the civil war again. This is the time the president has to say, "All right, here's the deal. You voted for a constitution that says you are a loosely federated government. Go ahead and implement it. Implement it now. Get the rest of the world to bless it," just like we did in Bosnia, just like we did with the Dayton peace accords, but it requires presidential leadership.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You're on the record calling for U.S. troops, most of them, to be out of Iraq by the summer of 2008. Is that realistic, given the...
SEN. JOE BIDEN: The president is making it less realistic because he isn't acting on the political side. It is realistic if, in fact, we get a political settlement. Why are we there? We're there as a referee in the midst of a civil war. That's why we're there. If we left tomorrow, everybody says, "What would happen?" The Sunnis and Shias would start killing each other again.
So if you're going to be able to leave without leaving chaos behind, you've got to leave in a circumstance where the Sunnis and Shias have worked out a deal that they're not going to kill each other. How do you do that? You do that by going forward with the Biden-Gelb plan, which has gotten so much support, and say, "Hey, take your militia and make them your local army. Have a central government that controls the army and the resources, but doesn't tell you what kind of laws you have to have relative to education in your community."
JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying, if you were elected president, you could make this happen?
SEN. JOE BIDEN: I guarantee you we could make it happen.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you about another critical place on the map, Pakistan.
SEN. JOE BIDEN: Yes.
JUDY WOODRUFF: President General -- really good news and bad news there right now. General Musharraf, the leader of the country, has set elections for January the 8th. He's let back into the country one of his arch-political rivals.
But he's also, as you know, imposed a state of emergency. He's cracked down on the judiciary, on the press. What should the U.S. posture be right now so that Pakistan turns out in the way that it is in the best interests?
SEN. JOE BIDEN: I've spoken with Musharraf, and I've told him what I think our posture should be, what he should do. He has to hold these elections. He has to lift what is essentially martial law, so the whole world can see that these are fair and free and transparent elections.
And if he does that, he will be able to then work out the constitutional issues with the role of the prime minister versus the president in a negotiation within a freely elected parliament. If he doesn't that, Judy, there's going to be chaos. There's going to be chaos.
And don't count on the military continuing to back him indefinitely. He needs the military, but they do not like this chaos that he is causing by insisting on how he's going.
So we should make it clear to him these must be transparent elections, not under martial law. Sharif is back. They are strong. They don't like one another at all. They're a splinter of the same party. And you have the most popular party, the most popular party is Mrs. Bhutto's party. Who knows how that election will turn out? But they need the election to take place.
American voters on immigration
JUDY WOODRUFF: A couple of other questions closer to home. Immigration, it's been a more divisive issue for the other party, for the Republicans over the last year, until this recent flap over driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. Refresh us on or remind us on what your position is on that. And how big an issue do you think it is going to be with the American people next year?
SEN. JOE BIDEN: I think it's a pretty big issue, Judy. It's amazing. Out here in Iowa, I've done hundreds of events in Iowa. I always first get asked about Iraq and foreign policy. The next question is always immigration.
And there's three pieces to it. The one piece is that people don't want to persecute the 14 million undocumented aliens that are here, but they want to have some sense that we have some control over our borders and that you're not bringing in loads of people that are driving down wages for Americans and American jobs, so legitimate concerns.
So, in my view, what you have to do is you have to have much more security on not only the border on the south, but all our borders. We are woefully, woefully unprotected in terms of drugs to immigration to terrorism.
And with that said, you have to also find a way for the 14 million people that are here undocumented to be able to work their way through. And what you should require is what we said before. Everyone should have to show up and register. They get a tamper-proof card, have a criminal background check. If they have a criminal record, deport them. If they don't show up to get the record, deport them.
If, in fact, they show up and they have a job and no criminal record, allow them to earn their way through to get in line for citizenship, as long as they learn to speak English. In the meantime, you've got to come down hard on employers who deliberately hire illegal aliens.
My problem with the driver's license and the reason I don't support the granting of driver's licenses, driver's license is the main means of identification, when you get on an airplane or you get access to anything else. And we have no control when that occurs. We have no control.
And so it seems to me that if it were not in a post-9/11 circumstance, it might not be as critical, but in a post-9/11 circumstance, people using driver's licenses to access through security is not a good thing to be able to do without you being an American citizen.
Reviving the U.S. economy
JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. economy, how would you size up its health? And what would you as president want to do to see it get out of this current subprime mess, which is spreading to the rest of the economy?
SEN. JOE BIDEN: Sure is.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And what would you want to see to keep the U.S. economy...
SEN. JOE BIDEN: The state of the economy is precarious right now. Two reasons: We don't know how deep this subprime hole is, because there's no transparency in the hedge fund business. And we don't know how many of these bad subprime, collateral loans that were offered to get good loans to build, you know, to provide good money, we don't know how much is built on a bad foundation.
We need transparency. You need transparency in the hedge fund side of things, and that has to happen in the future. You have to provide for the ability of people who are losing their homes to be able to negotiate for the ability to maintain those homes at the interest rates they're in at now because, in the interest of the company, they not go bankrupt, in the interest of the mortgage-holder.
But more importantly, Judy, the problem we have here is that we owe China a trillion dollars. We're $2 trillion in debt to the world. The value of the dollar is falling. And why are we so much in debt? The war and tax cuts for the wealthy.
I would let the tax cuts expire for the very wealthy. We get the bunch of all these tax cuts. That would put trillion dollars back into the economy that we could use that for other things to begin to prop up the economy.
I would also change our trade policy. Here we are, take a look at China. We have the ability to curtail the importation of those products China is sending to us as tainted toys, tainted dog food. We can do that under the World Trade Organization rules. We don't do it. We don't even enforce fair trade in this administration and even in the last administration a little bit, because we don't want to offend or hurt major companies with interests in those countries. So I would impose fair trade.
And the third thing I would do is, by ending this war, it would free up $120 billion a year. What is happening? We are hemorrhaging blood and treasure here with war and tax cuts, driving ourselves in debt more than we ever have been. And it's having a dramatic impact upon the stability of the dollar and the stability of the markets here.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Last question. Whatever happens in this election, throughout this process, what has Joe Biden learned about himself, yourself, and about the American voter?
SEN. JOE BIDEN: About myself, it surprised me. I feel more passionate. I wasn't ever going to run for president again. I truly wasn't. I had no intention. I haven't done a political speech in 20 years. I mean, I've done speeches, but, I mean, I haven't gone out to these Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners and campaigned and go around the country.
And what I'm surprised was, when I started, I wondered whether I'd have the passion and the energy to do this. What has surprised me, I feel more passionate about the possibilities for this country than I did when I was 29 years old and elected to the Senate.
The other thing that I've learned, I've learned that the American people are a lot tougher, have a lot more resilience and a lot more gumption and grit than either political party gives them credit for.
They're prepared to take on all of these issues. They are not afraid. But they're tired. They're tired of the timidity of my party. They're tired of the triangulating and not giving the full answers and not leveling with them.
People get it. I made a commitment this time out. I may have said this to you before that, win or lose, I'm going to do it on my own terms. I am not going to lose on anybody else's terms. And so I've learned that it also probably is the best politics.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Joe Biden, on that note, we thank you very much.
SEN. JOE BIDEN: Thank you very much, Judy. I appreciate it.
JIM LEHRER: For more on Senator Biden, you can visit our Vote 2008 Web site at PBS.org. All of our candidate interviews and campaign updates are also available there.