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Edwards Reflects on Campaign Deja Vu, Plight of the Middle Class

October 10, 2007 at 6:35 PM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: Senator Edwards, welcome back to the NewsHour.

FORMER SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D), Presidential Candidate: Thanks for having me.

RAY SUAREZ: You said, “Poverty in America is the cause of my life.” First of all, what does that mean? And, second of all, what can the president of the United States do to alleviate poverty?

JOHN EDWARDS: Well, I think it’s the great moral issue facing us inside the United States. The war in Iraq is, obviously, a big issue. But having 37 million people, by the federal government’s definition, who wake up every day worried about feeding and clothing their children is not OK.

And I think we as a nation have a responsibility to do something about it, and I think it says something about our character, what we’re willing to do about it.

The question of, what does the president have to do with it? The president has a lot to do with it. The president can lead on this issue. The president can bring the plight of millions of Americans who are struggling to the attention of the rest of America, much as did the situation in New Orleans after the hurricane hit in New Orleans, and we saw the Lower Ninth Ward and the struggles that people were going through there.

So there are lots of things that can be done. The president can lead on raising the minimum wage, expansion of the earned income tax credit, changing the laws to strengthen the rights of unions to organize in the workplace, pushing national legislation to get rid of or at least regulate predatory payday lenders, changing what I think is a dysfunctional national housing policy that feeds the cycle of poverty.

We have people waiting five, seven, eight years for a Section 1 housing voucher — Section 8, excuse me, housing voucher. And the result of that is they’re either homeless or they’re living in shelters. I think we ought to have at least a million new Section 8 housing vouchers. And I think we need to restructure the bureaucracy with inside HUD.

And then, also, I think that we have millions of kids who want to go to college, and it’s become increasingly difficult for them to go to college. So my idea is called College for Everyone, where we pay for the tuition and books for young people who are willing to work when they’re in college. So we make it easier. We knock down some of those obstacles.

And I think that on a different front, but a more difficult front, there are clearly societal, cultural components to the cycle of poverty in this country. And the president can at least use the bully pulpit to talk about it, to bring people together to address those issues.

RAY SUAREZ: But as a presidential candidate, you’re talking to a country, an electorate, where the vast majority of people are not poor.

JOHN EDWARDS: That’s correct.

RAY SUAREZ: And you’re asking them to care, and you’re asking them, in effect, to go somewhere with you in order to change it. Is the country in 2007, 2008, in that kind of mood to listen to that message?

JOHN EDWARDS: Well, it’s going to be the message, whether they listen or not, because I do believe deeply in it. I don’t think poverty is the only issue facing the country. I think the middle class is struggling dramatically. We’re becoming a country made up of a few rich people and everybody else.

People are having trouble paying for their health insurance, their gasoline, their college tuition, which we spoke about a few minutes ago. Their income is not going up and the cost of everything that they have to spend money on is, in fact, going up.

But I don’t think we can ignore, because somehow they’re supposed to be forgotten and invisible, the millions of people who, in fact, live in poverty every day in this country.

And I’ll go one step further: I actually believe that it is time for the president — and I would do this as president — to ask Americans to be patriotic about things other than war, to say, “We’re in this together. What we do together matters. And you have to be willing to sacrifice.”

I mean, if you want your country to be what it’s capable of being, then whether it’s on energy conservation, whether it’s on reaching out and helping your fellow Americans who are struggling, that collectively we are powerful, and what we do as a national community really matters.

Cynicism towards poverty rhetoric

John Edwards
Democratic Presidential Candidate
I don't believe in the genetic lottery; I don't think it should be that your children's destiny is controlled by the family they're born into, or where they live, or the color of their skin. That's not America.

RAY SUAREZ: I'm sure you've heard the critiques, the quibbles about a rich guy talking about poverty.

JOHN EDWARDS: No, I can't even imagine what you're talking about.

RAY SUAREZ: What do you make of that? Do people just not want to hear it?

JOHN EDWARDS: No, no. I think people are naturally cynical, and it's understandable. I mean, they've had politicians deceiving them for a long time, and it's not surprising to me at all that people would be cynical of somebody who's done well, like myself, talking about these issues.

But it is at the core of why I'm running for president, to speak for the kind of people that I come from and grew up with. You know, I come from nothing. I mean, we didn't have anything when I was young. My father had to borrow money to get me and my mother out of the hospital. And we lived in mill villages when we were growing up.

And I worked my way through college, and I've been lucky in my life. I've worked hard, but I've also been very lucky, extremely lucky. And I don't apologize for it. I'm proud of what I've been able to do.

But what drives me every day is for those kind of chances to be there for everybody. I don't believe in the genetic lottery; I don't think it should be that your children's destiny is controlled by the family they're born into, or where they live, or the color of their skin. That's not America. That's not what America should be, at least.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, as someone who has done well, you know the difference of how different kinds of income are treated by the tax code.

JOHN EDWARDS: Yes, I do.

RAY SUAREZ: Have we gotten to a place where working for wages is actually an inferior way of making money?

JOHN EDWARDS: Our tax code treats it as inferior, because my perception is that we value wealth over work. We treat wealth income much better than we treat work income.

Warren Buffett actually says it better than me, and he makes a lot more money than me and most Americans, and he says that he's paying a lower tax rate, because most of his income is capital gains -- and the rate is 15 percent -- he's paying a lower tax rate than most Americans pay on their work income, and than his secretary, in some cases, is paying on his or her work income.

That's not right. I mean, there's something wrong about that, which is why I propose for people who make over $250,000 a year that the capital gains rate be raised from 15 percent to 28 percent.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Americans are aspirational, and that's one of the reasons why it's been difficult in our history to have class-based politics. A lot of the people who would be helped by that kind of tax increase, say, "No, no, I want to be that rich person some day."

JOHN EDWARDS: Oh, yes.

RAY SUAREZ: "So don't tax the rich."

JOHN EDWARDS: Well, I'm aspirational. I believe in aspiration. I believe in an America where people can come from nothing and do great things. I mean, that's the heart and soul of what this country is.

But I think those of us -- and that includes me -- those of us who have been lucky, who've been successful, I didn't get here by myself. My country was there every step of the way for me, every step of the way, whether it was borrowing money for college, going to a state university, both for undergraduate and graduate school. There's not been a single place in my life where I did it alone. My country was always there for me.

And I think those of us who've taken advantage of the extraordinary opportunities that can exist in America, we have some responsibility to give something back. And we don't want to pull the ladder up behind -- at least I speak for myself, I don't want to pull the ladder up behind me.

Senate vote on Iran

John Edwards
Democratic Presidential Candidate
What worries me is, are we going to, six months from now, a year from now, if Bush invades Iran, are we going to hear once again, 'If only I'd known then what I know now'?

RAY SUAREZ: You're no longer a member of the Senate, but recently, in the last several days, the Senate voted to term Iran's Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization. Would you have voted the same way? And do you think the Senate, the administration is sharpening their knives for Iran now?

JOHN EDWARDS: I think they very well could be. I would definitely have not voted yes for that; I would have voted no. I think it's a mistake, given the president's saber-rattling on Iran, to give him an inch. And he's proven in the past that, if you give him an inch, he'll take a mile.

And declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization I believe is -- or could be, I don't want to exaggerate -- could be the first step of giving Bush the authority to move militarily on Iran. And I know that there were -- I have to give credit to some members of the Senate, even though it was a lopsided vote, Senator Biden, who's running for president, Senator Dodd, who's running for president, voted no. I think that's the right position.

I think we have to learn our lessons from the past. Senator Clinton is totally entitled to her position on this, but she voted yes, and we just have a different view about it. I mean, I respect her view, but mine is very different.

I think what worries me is, are we going to, six months from now, a year from now, if Bush invades Iran, are we going to hear once again, "If only I'd known then what I know now"?

I mean, I learned a lesson, a very important lesson from my vote on Iraq: I was wrong to vote for this war in Iraq. And I've taken responsibility for that and been very clear about it. But the lesson to be learned from it is you cannot give this president this kind of authority, and you can't even move in that direction, because it's extraordinarily dangerous.

RAY SUAREZ: So how should the United States, how would the United States, if you were president, respond to an Iran where recently the president said, "The debate over our nuclear program is over"?

JOHN EDWARDS: Well, I think there's a very clear path for America on Iran. I mean, what we have is a president, Ahmadinejad, who is bellicose and dangerous. But there is a divide between this president and much of his people.

And if you look at the Iranian people, there are a lot of moderates in Iran. They marched on the streets of Tehran for America after September the 11th. This president ran in Iran on the theory that he would strengthen their economy in Iran, lift up the poor, strengthen the middle class. None of that has happened; there's been no serious economic reform.

And the result was, a little less than a year ago, in the council elections nationwide, his candidates got beaten badly. So I think he is significantly unpopular and has lost political support in his own country.

The reason that matters is because, even though America has no economic leverage with the Iranians, the Europeans do, and the European banking system does. We should be working with the Europeans to, in my view, put a proposal of sticks and carrots on the table.

The carrots are, "Give up your nuclear weapons, give up your nuclear ambitions, and America, the Europeans, we will help you with your economy," at least in some way similar to what you've seen happen in North Korea. "If you don't, there will be severe economic sanctions."

It seems to me, we want to drive the wedge deeper between a dangerous and bellicose leader and a people who at least have the potential to move in the opposite direction.

Getting troops out of Iraq

John Edwards
Democratic Presidential Candidate
If we keep combat troops stationed in Iraq, I think they have a target painted on their forehead. Second, I think it continues the perception that America is still occupying Iraq, which I think is the wrong perception for America to be projecting.

RAY SUAREZ: Let's turn to Iran's next-door neighbor, Iraq. Earlier in this series of candidate interviews, we've had everything from "get them all out and get them all out right away," American troops, that is, to other candidates who are talking, using the metaphor of Korea, where, after 50 years, there are still tens of thousands of American troops. Where on that broad continuum do you fall?

JOHN EDWARDS: I fall in the place of, as president, I would get our combat troops out of Iraq, period. I'd do it over a period of nine or ten months. And I would do all the other things that go with it, which is engaging the other countries in the region, including Iran, who you just spoke about, making a serious effort to get the Sunni and Shia leadership to reach some political compromise, which is the bedrock for any kind of stability in Iraq, in my judgment.

But I think the combat troops need to be out of Iraq. Now, I want to be really honest about something. I think there's too much political rhetoric around this. As long as we have an embassy in Baghdad, unless it's going to be unlike any embassy in the world, it has to be protected.

So there will be some troops in Iraq just for the purposes -- a small number -- for the purposes of protecting the embassy. Those are not combat troops. In my administration, they would not be engaged in combat missions.

Now, there's a difference -- this is another choice voters have -- there's a difference between my position and Senator Clinton's position on this. She would, in her words, continue combat missions against terrorists.

My concern about that is, number one, if we keep combat troops stationed in Iraq, I think they have a target painted on their forehead. Second, I think it continues the perception that America is still occupying Iraq, which I think is the wrong perception for America to be projecting.

So my view and my difference with Senator Clinton on this is she would continue combat troops and combat missions over a long term. I would not.

RAY SUAREZ: You've written most recently about restoring America's reputation. Well, what do you think has happened to America's reputation, and what would restoring it consist of?

JOHN EDWARDS: I think it's been destroyed. I think America's reputation in the world has literally been destroyed. The devastation of the last seven years is almost -- it's literally unprecedented.

And there are a lot of components to reversing that. The way I think about it is to reverse the bad, and then actually do some good. Reversing the bad means ending the war in Iraq; it means closing Guantanamo. The idea that the United States of America would hold anybody against their will without at least the right to some kind of hearing is un-American.

We should not be operating secret prisons; we should not be engaging in anything approaching torture or condoning torture; we should not have any additional spying -- illegal, in my judgment -- spying on the American people.

Those things are un-American. They need to be stopped, and they will be stopped when I'm president.

But beyond that, the world needs to see America as a force for good again. Today, they see us as bullying, selfish, at war with the Muslim world. That has to change. And so I think there are lots of things we can do to change it.

Instead of spending $500 billion in Iraq, if we spent $3 billion, $3.5 billion a year to help lead an international effort to make education available to 100 million children in the world who have no education, in Africa, in the Muslim world, in Latin America. We can make a huge dent in stopping the spread of disease if sanitation, clean drinking water, were pushed by America at relatively low cost. I mean, I've seen from my own work in Africa what an enormous difference that can make.

Economic development, using micro-lending, micro-finance, I mean, it's very clear to me that America, over time -- it wouldn't happen quickly -- but over time could shift the perception that exists in the world today of America as a bullying, selfish country, only interested in expansion of our power, to us once again being the source and the light for opportunity and hope for the rest of the world.

RAY SUAREZ: Other politicians looking over these last seven years would say, instead, that sometimes America has to go it alone and has to think about its own security before it thinks about being popular. Why is it important to identify America's reputation in shreds to talk about working with other countries? Weren't there values over this past era, since 9/11, that sort of supersede that?

JOHN EDWARDS: No, I don't think so. I think that, if you think about this instead of just in the short term, I mean, what we've had in the last seven years, among other things, is a foreign policy of convenience. You've seen it most recently in the administration suggesting that we do a $20 billion arms deal with the Saudis. Enormous mistake, enormous mistake.

The idea is it creates a hedge against Iran and their nuclear program. But the Iranians spend $4 billion or $5 billion a year on conventional weapons. We do a $20 billion arms deal with the Saudis, they're going to accelerate their nuclear program, exactly the opposite of what we want to see.

So my view is, we have to deal with short-term threats, and I will do that as president, which means finding al-Qaida, bin Laden, et cetera, wherever they're plotting against America and its allies, and stopping them, using every tool available to us for that purpose.

But we also have to understand that, over the long term, we want most of the world to see America as a force for good. We want to isolate the extremists and the radicals. We want to isolate those who promote violence against their neighbors. And the way to isolate them is for most of the world to see America as a country that's actually interested in what happens to humanity as a whole, not just in our own selfish interest.

Taking on a second campaign

John Edwards
Democratic Presidential Candidate
When I made my decision, that is what it was about, whether there were other ways to serve that would be more effective than this. And I came to the conclusion on balance that this was the most effective way to serve my country.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, four years ago, you ran a national campaign, and doing it is grueling work, a multi-year process. And here you are, doing it again. Why did you make that decision to take on a thing that really is tough work?

JOHN EDWARDS: Well, the most -- actually the most -- Elizabeth and I made the decision together with our family at the end of 2006. But, actually, the most crucial moment for us came in a hospital room in which the world now knows about, in March of 2007, where, when Elizabeth's cancer returned, we had to make a decision about what to do.

She was remarkable, not surprising to anybody. But we made the choice that this is the cause of our lives. You know, all the things that you and I have talked about during the course of this conversation, this is what our lives are about. This is what we will spend our lives doing. And we could not walk away from it.

And it is -- it is hard, and it is challenging, particularly if you're us. Elizabeth's doing great, by the way, incredibly well, which is encouraging. But, you know, we have a daughter who's in law school. We have two young children, Emma Claire and Jack, who are at home. I mean, it presents huge hardships for the family.

But I want to -- when I leave this Earth, I want to feel like I've done absolutely everything that's humanly possible to help the kind of people that I grew up with and the people in America and around the world that are struggling to just have the same kind of chances that I've had.

RAY SUAREZ: And running for president is how to do that?

JOHN EDWARDS: It's one way to do it; it's not the only way to do it. But it is one way to do it. And, in fact, when I made my decision, that is what it was about, whether there were other ways to serve that would be more effective than this. And I came to the conclusion on balance that this was the most effective way to serve my country.

RAY SUAREZ: Senator Edwards, thanks for joining us.

JOHN EDWARDS: Thank you so much for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on John Edwards, you can visit our Vote 2008 Web site at PBS.org. All of our candidate interviews and campaign updates are also available there.