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Dodd Reflects on Political Experience, State of the U.S. Economy

November 28, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT
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In the latest in a series of in-depth interviews with 2008 presidential candidates, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., reflects on his extensive political experience, why he's chosen to run for the White House in 2008 and the volatile state of the U.S. economy.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, another conversation with a candidate for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations who is running in the primaries. The candidate is Senator Chris Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut. Judy Woodruff spoke with him yesterday in Iowa.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Dodd, thank you for joining us here in Des Moines.

SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), Connecticut: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You considered or were asked to run for president in most of the last election years over the last 20 years, 1988, 1992, 2000, 2004. Why is 2008 the right year for Chris Dodd to run for president?

SEN. CHRIS DODD: Well, there are a lot of reasons. First of all, having two children, age 6 and 2, had a lot to do with the motivation. After 9/11 — my daughter was born two days after 9/11, Grace — and wondering what kind of a world, what kind of a country she was going to grow up in after the world had just changed forever two days earlier, certainly part of the motivation.

Secondly, just looking at what’s happened over the last six years. In previous years, it didn’t make a lot of sense for me personally and, frankly, with good people I thought running. This time around, I just feel that experience is tremendously important here, to have a nominee that can attract independents, as well as Republicans, who seek change, not to mention Democrats, to win that election. I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that any Democrat can win.

And then, secondly, to bring those same abilities and talents on January 20th together to get this country moving again in a direction both at home and abroad where there’s a heightened sense of confidence and optimism about our future.

I was on a plane about eight or 10 months ago when I’d just really begun this process — I had made the decision earlier, but really getting involved in it — where a woman said to me, as a plane was landing, after a long conversation, she said, “Senator, what you don’t understand is America’s best days are behind her.”

And I remember getting very angry in the sense that someone would think that way, and then even angrier as I began to realize she wasn’t alone in those thoughts. I think an awful lot of people in this country think that way. And if people do and that becomes a majority opinion, then I think we’re in for a lot more trouble in this century than one can imagine.

So while the problems are mounting every single day, and if I had suggested in any other campaign that I ought to consider me, after 26 years in the Senate, I probably would have been rejected on that basis alone. But I think this time around people are truly looking for a candidate that can win an election, but also has the ability and the proven ability to actually bring Democrats and Republicans together, independents, to accomplish things for the country, both at home and abroad.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’ve taken the fairly drastic step of moving your family from Connecticut, your home state, out here to Iowa, enrolled your 6-year-old daughter in school. You brought your wife, your 2-year-old daughter. This must give you more time with your family. Does it also help your campaign? And what do you hear from your constituents, your Senate constituents about it?

SEN. CHRIS DODD: Well, it’s about six weeks, and the decision was either to see them once every 10 or 12 days for a day and then leave again. And because of their ages, we could really pack up and come out here for six weeks, rent a little place, and made the decision to put Grace in a local public elementary school, in kindergarten, which has been terrific, and they’ve been wonderful to her.

So I get to be with my family. And, obviously, having them around — over Thanksgiving, we had a wonderful time. An Iowa family, a farm family, that have met for 60 years together as a family invited us to join them for Thanksgiving Day, which was a great experience for the kids, as well as their father and mother, and then just being around with them.

And I think it helps, as well. I think people like to see their family. That has a lot to do — Jackie does a wonderful job campaigning, is out almost every day doing her own schedule around the state, my wife. So that helps.

But the real value of it was personally, in a sense, for me to have them around and be with them has really made a wonderful difference, to be able to come home at night to a house, to be able to wake up in the morning, and as I did this morning, take Grace to school about four blocks away before starting the day, adds a dimension to this process which makes it more tolerable than it might otherwise be.

Dodd's experience in Washington

Sen. Chris Dodd
Over that last 26 years, I prided myself on the fact that I've been able to bring Democrats and Republicans together on one issue after another that I've been involved in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mentioned your time in the Senate. You served in the Senate, what, 27 years...

SEN. CHRIS DODD: Twenty-six, yes, 27 years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... before that, six years in the House, total of 33 years in Washington. Some would say that maybe that's too much time, that it makes you too much of a Washington insider. What do you say about that?

SEN. CHRIS DODD: Well, I think that's a legitimate issue. And as I said a moment ago, I think in any other race I can think of over the last 20 years, Judy, had I mentioned that at the outset you'd be disqualified on that basis alone.

But I think having been through on-the-job training, so to speak, over the last six years, with one mistake after another being made because of the lack of experience, proven experience-- it isn't just how many years you served. What did you do with those years? What have you been involved in? Give me some evidence here that you know how to do this.

This is a huge job, obviously, the presidency of the United States. We're tired of the country being divided politically. Over that last 26 years, I prided myself on the fact that I've been able to bring Democrats and Republicans together on one issue after another that I've been involved in.

The very first thing I did 26 years ago as a new senator was to invite a guy named Arlen Specter, a new senator from Pennsylvania, a Republican, to form a children's caucus with me in the Senate. It still exists to this day.

When I wrote the first child care legislation, I did it with Orrin Hatch of Utah. We haven't agreed on much since then, but we did on that issue. When I wrote the Family and Medical Leave Act, it took me seven years, three presidents, and two vetoes, but Kit Bond and Dan Coats, two senior, conservative Republicans, joined with me in that effort to pass the Family and Medical Leave Act.

In every instance, it wasn't just how many years I'd been there, but did exactly what I think people are looking for this time around, leadership that understands no one party can do this on their own, no one candidate can do it, but the proven ability to actually reach across that divide here, and invite people you might otherwise disagree with on certain issues to be a part of a solution that people are looking for, both at home and abroad, foreign and domestic issues.

And that's what I've done with those 26 years. And so my case that I bring to the people of Iowa and New Hampshire is that it isn't just the years that I've spent, but what did I do with those years? Was I able to create change in the country, to improve the quality of life for people who care about things such as family medical leave, child care, and these other issues?

JUDY WOODRUFF: One of your opponents has gone so far as to say he'd put Republicans in the cabinet. Bill Richardson said this. Would you put Republicans in your administration?

SEN. CHRIS DODD: I certainly wouldn't reject that at all. I think those kind of symbols are important. Franklin Roosevelt had Henry Stimson as his secretary of war. Bill Clinton had Bill Cohen. I remember strongly recommending Bill Cohen as part of that administration.

I think the American people are looking for that. This idea that 50 percent plus one gives you the power to lead the country may be technically true, but you're not going to get much done.

And today I can't even begin to describe to you how angry people are in this country over what they see as nothing more than one-upmanship in the political process, and how they want leadership with proven experience that not only says what they want to do, but can demonstrate that they have done of bringing Democrats and Republicans together.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You're chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, oversight over, among other things, mortgage and financial industries. How do you size up the state of the American economy right now? And what, if anything, should the federal government be doing?

SEN. CHRIS DODD: I think it's very fragile right now. And I think many people feel as though this is -- the future doesn't look good for them. That sense of optimism, consumer confidence, which is such a critical element in a successful economy, is in very fragile shape today.

Most working Americans believe that their children are going to have less opportunities than they've had, and that's a very troublesome statistic for me here when you look at the future. So we need to restore that sense of confidence, of fiscal responsibility in the country, the idea that jobs are going to be here, that we'll have an administration that will be doing everything possible to increase those opportunities not shrink them, recognizing we're in a global economy, that you have federal agencies that are going to be good cops on the beat here.

This problem with mortgage foreclosures didn't have to happen, in my view. The major federal agencies sat back and did nothing at a time they should have known more of what was occurring on the street, with people being lured into home mortgages that they never were going to be able to meet with a fully indexed rate, once these adjustable rate mortgages kicked in. It was outrageous what people did.

In fact, I now know, having become chairman of this committee only 10 months ago, that the Federal Reserve Bank knew three-and-a-half years ago that this problem was one that was growing here and that more steps should have been taken.

So in my administration, I'll have people in charge of those agencies here that are on the beat, watching what's happening to people every single day, and not sitting back and allowing a laissez-faire attitude to take hold, which has created the problems today, where middle-income families see their future not as very strong as it ought to be.

Addressing economic priorities

Sen. Chris Dodd
I reached the conclusion over a year ago that we ought to begin redeploying. In fact, that may be the only way to convince Iraqis that they have to decide their future for themselves.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, in that connection, your home state newspapers and some national papers have taken note of the fact -- and even been critical of the fact -- that you've been absent, running for president, while some of this mortgage, subprime loan crisis has been unfolding, spreading now perhaps to other sectors of the economy. Is that fair criticism, in your view?

SEN. CHRIS DODD: No, I don't think so. Obviously, I'm busy doing this, but I would point out that, in terms of the hearings, the markups of bills we've had, are equal to any leadership of that committee over the last 20 years.

In fact, we've had hearings, major efforts here, legislation introduced to deal with the problem of the foreclosure issue. I've had meetings with all the major stakeholders on this question. We've had a very, very active committee on these questions.

So it's not a legitimate criticism when you look at actually what we've been able to do. Recently passed the Terrorism Risk Insurance, which is a major accomplishment, the FHA legislation, the flood insurance legislation, as well, sanctions against the Sudan for dealing with the Darfur issue. One issue after another, the committee has actually done very good work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It is written that your approach has been less to pass legislation than to pressure the financial and mortgage industries to act differently, to behave differently. Is that an accurate assessment?

SEN. CHRIS DODD: In part, it is, because I'm not a believer that legislation solves every problem. And, in fact, the market forces can do an awful lot of good here. We saw the market flush out a lot of bad actors in the mortgage business very, very quickly here.

And so I'm one that believes that you ought to not rush to legislate in every area here, but to allow things to take care of themselves to some degree. Now, we also believe that there's been a huge gap here in how brokers have operated here, that no one has any skin in the game, as they speak, on some of these mortgages, that they pass the problem on once they've made their profit.

So we'll be introducing legislation, in fact in the next two days, as we come back into session here next week, that will deal very specifically with some of these issues. So there is room, clearly, for legislation here, but in some cases letting the market work is also the appropriate way to approach this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Turning to international matters, the war in Iraq still on everyone's minds. You voted for it initially. You voted to fund it consistently, but then you changed your mind about the war last year. Now you want the troops out.

I guess my question is, why should a voter look to someone like you to have the right answers on Iraq, rather than to somebody who was against the war from the beginning?

SEN. CHRIS DODD: Well, look, I don't claim perfection here. And obviously, many of us drew improper conclusions based on a lot of cooked evidence and information that was false at the time we made the decision.

In fact, I cautioned at the very time, including up in March, cautioning and urging the president to delay taking military action until the inspectors could complete their work. So I did vote in October of 2002 to give the president the authority but simultaneously, at the time of that vote, cautioned that the administration use some patience and thought before rushing to that alternative as a way of dealing with what we believed at the time to be the case of weapons of mass destruction.

But I've also admitted it was a mistake. I'd love to have the vote back. I wish I knew then what I know now here.

One thing people in public life rarely do is admit mistakes here. We all make them from time to time. I made one there.

The more important issue, I think, with all due respect -- and that's not an illegitimate question at all -- is what do we do at this point forward here? This has gone on longer than World War II. The whole idea behind it not only was to get rid of Saddam Hussein, but to create the space in Iraq for the political and religious leadership of the country to be able to form a government, to develop the relationships necessary for them to become independent about their own future.

They haven't done that, in my view here. Despite the efforts, the amount of money we've exhausted, roughly $10 billion every month, $2 billion a week, not to mention lives lost or changed and altered forever as a result of what they've suffered here, we're no closer today, in my view, to the Iraqis coming to a political resolution about their future than there was four or five years ago.

And so I reached the conclusion over a year ago that we ought to begin redeploying. In fact, that may be the only way to convince Iraqis that they have to decide their future for themselves.

And I regret that other candidates here, despite what votes they may have cast earlier or positions they took, when asked at the Dartmouth debate only a few weeks ago whether or not, at the end of their first administration in 2013, that we'd have our troops out of Iraq, and the so-called leading candidates in this race would not make that commitment.

I found that rather stunning here, considering how much we've lost, how damaged we are, both in terms of our safety, security, our isolation, our vulnerability as a nation here, than a Democratic candidate seeking the presidency would not make the commitment we'd have our troops out, without that assurance -- in my case, I'll do as soon as we possibly can, safely and securely, obviously.

American faith in the Iraq war

Sen. Chris Dodd
Too often we fail to understand that we have many more strengths and tools available to us to make a difference. This administration has created the illusion here that the only way for us to protect our interests is through military force.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you do have now a reduction in the violence, and some new polls are showing that the American opinion, public opinion is shifting back again, after a majority of people saying the war seemed lost. You now have a majority saying they believe the U.S. can succeed.

SEN. CHRIS DODD: Well, I wouldn't base...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Could there be -- could there be a basis for reassessment?

SEN. CHRIS DODD: Well, I wouldn't base what your foreign policy ought to be on polling. First of all, that's dangerous here, in my view.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But I mean on the military successes.

SEN. CHRIS DODD: On the military side, if you put 30,000 people into a province, I'll guarantee you'll probably get some security for a few weeks or months. The question is, once they leave, what do you get?

Talking to a father of a young Marine corporal serving in one of those provinces, he said to his father the other day, he said, "The only thing I'm doing is I'm arming Sunnis to kill Shias here." This was never a war we were going to win or lose.

From the very beginning, we made it clear this was only a military presence that would provide space here. It was not for us to win or lose. It's a civil war in Iraq. This is a war and a difference that goes back hundreds and hundreds of years.

This is a neighborhood we're not familiar with, a culture we're not familiar with. And the assumption that we could win this war for the Iraqis in the middle of a civil war in that country is, I think, a false notion and one that we've got to put aside and recognize the only things we can possibly do, which we've done, create that space for them.

But when the Iraqi parliament takes a month-long vacation, when they're unwilling to sit down with each other and decide they want to be a nation-state, I don't think it's our obligation to stay there in perpetuity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You want U.S. troops out by April of next year, no troops in that area? You don't have any concern about Iran trying to destabilize the region or Iraq falling into civil war? You don't see any role for the U.S. in that part of the world?

SEN. CHRIS DODD: No, of course I see a role for us, clearly. This has been a one-dimensional debate about this, about the military presence here. We don't go any further than that, unfortunately, in these discussions. But, clearly, the United States has very important interests here, and they are many other tools...

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the military presence.

SEN. CHRIS DODD: Well, I think we have huge military presence in the region. We have massive facilities in Kuwait and Qatar here. We have a huge obligation in Afghanistan that isn't going away. We have allies in the region. We have economic interests in the region.

I'm not suggesting here -- obviously, embassy personnel, security forces, there are various things that would be a part, I presume, assuming there was a rationale for us to be in Iraq after the end of our military participation at this level.

But too often we fail to understand that we have many more strengths and tools available to us to make a difference. This administration has created the illusion here that the only way for us to protect our interests is through military force.

No other administration, Democrat or Republican administration, in the last 25 years has assumed that kind of logic here. What about all these other tools we have available to us to make a difference?

Yes, I'm concerned about Iran. I'm much more concerned about Pakistan today than I am Iran. And I believe there are ways and opportunities for us to deal with Iran short of using military force to deal with their potential accumulation of military weapons, of nuclear weapons.

Today, North Korea is hardly discussed at all because this administration finally came to the conclusions, six years late, that there are ways of dealing with North Korea short of threatening a third world war, and they're doing it today, but late. And it's far more difficult today than it would have been had they started earlier.

I believe those options exist with Iran. I would not exclude the use of military force, but don't jump to that conclusion. And too often that's what I think we're doing in this region of the world.

The country's role in the world

Sen. Chris Dodd
In my administration, there won't be an Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo. Habeas corpus will come back. Torture will be eliminated. We won't end up having candidates for the attorney general's job in this country that believe presidents are above the law.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, you're elected president -- the U.S. role in the world has clearly changed over the last eight years. What would you do to affect that role?

SEN. CHRIS DODD: Well, the first is dealing with Iraq, Judy, because every other issue we're dealing with here is seen through the prism of Iraq. Our ability to have an effect in Darfur, dealing with Latin America, even the Pacific Rim issues are being affected because other nations lack the kind of confidence in us because we're still bogged down in Iraq.

So you need to deal with that problem here. We need a change of direction here if we're going to be successful once again of building the kind of relationships necessary to deal with these global problems.

International stateless terrorism is a serious issue. It's not going to be solved by us alone. It will be solved if we are able to build those relationships that allow us to get the kind of cooperation we're going to need if we're going to be successful in dealing with those problems.

I think it becomes more difficult every day if we don't realize that we're becoming more and more isolated as a result of this policy. So you have to begin there, if you're going to be successful in these other, more serious matters that are threatening our security.

We're less safe, less secure, more isolated, and more vulnerable today as a result of this policy. So we need to change it.

We don't need to leave the region. It's not a question of taking our troops out of Iraq and walking away. It's a question of what we supplant. What was the alternative to that idea that will provide that security and confidence that this country can once again reassert its moral authority?

We're facing this false dichotomy in choice, as well. The American people are being told that we have to make a choice. We can be more secure; we have to give up rights.

In my administration, there won't be an Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo. Habeas corpus will come back. Torture will be eliminated. We won't end up having candidates for the attorney general's job in this country that believe presidents are above the law.

I've talked about it for the last two years. I'm pleased to say that many people in this country are now recognizing how important the rule of law is. In addition to this nation's moral authority in the world and how we can reassert that kind of leadership, it begins in Iraq.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we will leave it there. Senator Chris Dodd, it's good to talk with you. We appreciate it.

SEN. CHRIS DODD: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: For more on Senator Dodd, you can visit our Vote 2008 Web site at All of our candidate interviews and campaign updates are also available there.