Rep. Richard Gephardt
Morning Edition: March 6, 2003
Listen to an extended version of the interview.
BOB EDWARDS, host: You've done this before. (Gephardt laughs.) And considering you have done it before, why are you doing it again?
Rep. RICHARD GEPHARDT: I think it's time we had a president who carried the same life experiences into the White House as most ordinary Americans. I grew up in a household that was a labor household. My dad was a Teamster and a milk truck driver. My mother was a secretary. Neither of them got through high school. But they worked hard and they gave me very, very important opportunities to go to school, get a good education. When I was in sixth grade, my principal called my mother to the school. I thought I was in trouble, but she said 'Dick ought to go to college, have you saved any money?' Of course they hadn't. So she started saving five and ten dollars a month, and with church scholarships and government loans, I got to go to college and law school. So I feel very fortunate, but I got a lot of help. And I think all of us need help. I think it's time to have a president who understands that and tries to help every American have the opportunity to fulfill their dreams.
EDWARDS: One of the things you're proposing is the elimination of the Bush tax cut and giving that money to business and individuals to pay for health care. Explain how that would work.
Rep. GEPHARDT: My feeling is that we have forever tried to solve this problem of getting everybody covered with health insurance and making people feel secure if they have it that they're going to keep it. So I led the fight for the Clinton health care plan in 1994. We failed. I learned from that experience. What I learned is you can't pass a complicated government-run plan. I think what you can pass if you can rescind the Bush tax cuts, which you'd have to do to pay for this, is... I would try to put the money into tax incentives for businesses -- all kinds of businesses -- large, small, individual businesses, to help pay a greater proportion of the cost of health insurance for their employees. I think this would accomplish the goal of getting everybody who works covered. We'd still have to fill in some holes like unemployed workers, workers between 55 and 65 who lose their jobs, but I think those would be easier holes to fill if we had everybody who works covered. That's my goal and I think I can pass this plan.
EDWARDS: Yet to do the whole job it would require more than the Bush tax cuts.
Rep. GEPHARDT: Well, we think we can calibrate this plan to an amount of revenue that equals most of the Bush tax cuts. You get a deduction now at a corporation for health care for your employees. I would turn it into a credit. It depends on where you set the credit, how high you can set it. I'd like to set it as high as I can, but we'll be governed in that by how much revenue there is available to do it with.
EDWARDS: As you know very well, the way it works in politics is the removal of a tax cut is characterized as a tax increase. Now, how is that going to go over with the American people?
Rep. GEPHARDT: Well, I understand that's the charge that the other side will make, but I don't buy it. I think their tax cuts have been largely a failure. They have not stimulated the economy, they haven't gotten anybody covered with health care, they haven't gotten anybody educated. So I'm happy to take on this argument because I think it's the right argument for me and it's the right argument for the country. So I will argue that it is far preferable to three or six hundred dollars in a tax cut to have substantially more help than you have today in keeping or getting health insurance, which is, in my view, the most important thing to everybody.
EDWARDS: You're also talking about a universal pension plan. Explain that.
Rep. GEPHARDT: Well, one of the problems we have today with the changed world we live in is that workers often work for five or six or more employers in their time of employment. In the industrial society that we used to have, often people would work for one employer for their entire career, earn the credits in a private pension system and then get that pension when they retired. What's happening now is people are working for different employers. They get credits with each one of them, but they don't get enough to get any pension. For instance, my mother's 95, she worked for five different employers. She got credits at all of them, but she only wound up with one pension and she's now drawing $42 a month from the one pension that actually succeeded in vesting. So I would set up a universal pension system with the federal government helping employers tie together the credits that people earn in each employment, so at the end of their employment time they have at least one decent, fairly good pension from their employers in total.
EDWARDS: You're pledging to work through the World Trade Organization to establish an international minimum wage.
Rep. GEPHARDT: I think we're in danger because of the opening up of free trade -- which we all support -- of having a race to the bottom, what I call a race to the bottom for wage levels. Companies everywhere, not just American companies, are really being forced to go to the cheapest-wage countries to do their manufacturing or to deliver their services. I think we have to bring about international standards, both for workers and the environment, in our trading relationships. Whether it's the WTO, the World Trade Organization, or whether it's free- trade treaties that we're trying to reach with other countries, or groups of countries. On the minimum-wage suggestion, as president I would go to the World Trade Organization and try to get them to legislate an international minimum wage. Now it would obviously be different in different countries, because you're at different levels of development. So you couldn't have the same wage here that you would have in China. But I think we've got to start putting a floor under wages. We've got to recognize that we must honor work wherever it's performed, and it'll help everybody. It'll help build consumers worldwide for all of the products that are being made worldwide. And that's something I think we've got to start paying attention to. We've figured out supply. We haven't figured out demand, and I think we better do that if we're going to have a good economy for everybody in the world.
EDWARDS: You spoke very little about foreign policy in your declaration speech. Isn't that odd, given that we're on the brink of war, perhaps?
Rep. GEPHARDT: Well, I talked about it, and I talk about it in almost every speech that I give, because it's obviously of great importance. But because I'd talked so much about it in the last weeks I thought I would dwell more on the domestic initiatives that I'm trying to explain to people. But I've been very clear about Iraq. I met with the president on 9/12 after the tragedy of 9/11, and I told him that we had to put politics out of these issues as much as we could, and that he had to trust us and we had to trust him, because these were life and death questions. Beginning in the spring or summer of last year I began to encourage him to go to the United Nations if he wanted to deal with the problem of weapons of mass destruction winding up in the hands of terrorists from Iraq. And I said that we had inspectors in there for eight years, we've had them out for four, and I thought it was important that we go back through that process to try to maintain support within the United Nations for whatever would be done to try to get Saddam Hussein to comply with those resolutions. He finally went in September to the United Nations. I thought he gave a good speech in which he said this is a world problem, not just an American problem, and it's a moment of truth for the United Nations. He has... he then came back to us and said I need resolutions from the United States so I can get a resolution out of the U.N. I agreed with that, but I said I want language in it that says we're going to, we're going to work with the U.N., we're going to go to the U.N. and try to do this through the U.N. So I negotiated that language into the resolution. And I think it helped lead them back to the U.N., and that's where they are today, and they're continuing to try to get U.N. support for whatever is decided to be done with Saddam Hussein. I think that's very important. They may not be able to get it done, but I told him that we must exhaust every human effort to do that. And I think if they will keep at it, they can accomplish that.
EDWARDS: But how do you feel now about the use of force?
Rep. GEPHARDT: I felt all along that we should deal with this diplomatically if we can, militarily if we must. And I think that is what they have been trying to do. And I still believe that the best way to avoid military action is if the whole United Nations and the whole world is united in telling Saddam Hussein that he must do what these resolutions have told him to do for over 10 years.
EDWARDS: Is it at the must stage now? Is it time for force?
Rep. GEPHARDT: We'll see. I don't know the answer to that at this point. I still believe that the administration is trying to get the support in the United Nations. I hope they get it. And I still hold out the hope that if the whole world is united in saying that force will be used if he doesn't do what he should have done a long time ago, that we still have a chance of getting him to do it without the use of force. But if he doesn't, after that is said, for the last time, then military force is needed. This is about weapons of mass destruction, or components of weapons of mass destruction, falling into the hands of terrorists. Our highest responsibility is to keep our people safe. We cannot have a weapon of mass destruction detonated in the United States if we can humanly stop it from happening. That's what this is about, and that's why this is important.
EDWARDS: So what's next? Another resolution? Another report from Hans Blix?
Rep. GEPHARDT: It's a little unclear. It looks like we're going to try to get the Security Council by a majority vote to bring out an additional resolution that states the facts: that he is in material breach; that he has not done what the resolutions in the past have told him he must do. And then talk about some kind of action that would be taken, if by a certain period of time he has not done, finally, what he should have done a long time ago.
EDWARDS: What should President Bush be doing about North Korea?
Rep. GEPHARDT: Well, I think North Korea is a similar and very dangerous situation. I think there we should proceed the way we have tried to proceed with Iraq. And that is we ought to deal with their weapons of mass destruction diplomatically if we can, militarily if we must. I'm distressed, a bit, that the Bush administration, when they came in office, seemed to disparage the diplomatic success that Bill Clinton had with the North Koreans. As modest as it was, it was certainly better than having to use military action to get rid of their nuclear bomb-making capability. It's not well remembered, but in 1994, Bill Clinton was very close to calling an air strike on their nuclear facilities. Instead of that he sent Bill Perry. They got a good agreement. It wasn't a perfect agreement, but a good agreement with the North Koreans. But when George Bush came in he kind of disparaged the agreement and included them in the "axis of evil," and made a lot of other statements about them that were not positive. And then the North Koreans proudly announced that they had breached the agreement and were, yes, on their way toward trying to make nuclear weapons. So now we're in kind of a hurry-up offense to try to get back to that diplomatic agreement, which essentially was, 'We'll build you three civilian nuclear facilities if you'll give up your bomb-making program.' So we've got to get back to that if we possibly can. If we can't, then we're going to be back to where Bill Clinton was in the early '90s, and that is you've either got to try to find a diplomatic solution or use the military if you must.
EDWARDS: There are a number of Democrats now are willing to challenge President Bush. But there weren't many before the last elections, and a lot of people said that the Democrats didn't stand for anything.
Rep. GEPHARDT: Well, it's always great to have Monday-morning quarterbacking. My sense of it was that our candidates and members wanted to have individual campaigns. They did not want to have a national message. They urged us to work district by district and have local issues and local messages, which is what we did at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. And I think in the races we were seeking to win we did have a good message. We did have a good set of issues out there. There are a variety of reasons that we didn't prevail, but I would urge everybody to remember that in the four elections since we lost the House, we picked up seats in three of those elections. So we had victories in three out of four elections. And in the last election where we lost a handful of seats, it frankly was a very close election, just like 2000. If 75,000 votes had been the other way in the right districts, we would have won the House back in this election, so it was a very close numerical election, and I think we did have a good message. There's no doubt that George Bush was able to use his bully pulpit in the last two weeks to raise the issue of homeland security, and marginally I think that helped. Unfortunately, we did not have a counterpart to him to run around the country and give a counter message. So he was kind of alone out there and it made a marginal difference and I think that's one of the big reasons they eked out a small victory.
EDWARDS: And you don't think that loss cost you support among Democrats?
Rep. GEPHARDT: I really don't. I think most people who follow this closely know that I did a good job for eight years as minority leader, that I won, again, three out of four elections. That's a pretty good batting average. I think most people aren't going to be that concerned about what happened in the past, they're going to be looking at the future. They're going to want to know who I am, where I come from, what I believe in, and what my issues are, and what I would try to do as president. And that's how they're going to decide this. And I think I have a good chance, in fact I think I have a real good chance to win the nomination, and I think I'm going to beat George Bush.
EDWARDS: So you take no responsibility for the losses of November?
Rep. GEPHARDT: Well, we are all responsible. Obviously none of us wanted that result. All of us wanted to win. But I also am proud of what I was able to accomplish over eight years. I won three out of four elections. We picked up seats in each of those three elections. I worked very hard with the members to do it. So while we're all disappointed and we all take responsibility for the failure to win back the House in the last election, we also all take credit together for what we were able to do in three out of four elections.
EDWARDS: If there was confusion before the election about what Democrats stand for, is there confusion now?
Rep. GEPHARDT: Well, you're just starting this election season. The candidates are just announcing their campaigns. The issues are just starting to be discussed. We'll have lots of debates about what the issues are and what Democrats stand for. I tried in my announcement speech to not only get good ideas, new ideas, innovative ideas based on my experience, but also I tried to give a different world view for the Democrats, or at least a more defined world view of how we see things. Basically what I said in my speech was that I think, unlike the Republicans, I think we're all tied together. We're bound together. Our destiny is tied together. One of the ways I put it was that if you don't have health insurance, whether we like it or not, everybody else who has health insurance winds up paying for you. So the sensible thing to do is to get everybody covered with health insurance, give everybody that opportunity. I even quoted Martin Luther King and said, 'I can't be what I ought to be unless you can be what you ought to be.' And I really believe that. I think the Republicans see it differently. I think George Bush believes we're all separate. If you make it, great. Survival of the fittest. If you don't, that's just too bad. Doesn't matter. Well, I think it does matter, because it affects me and everybody else if you don't.
EDWARDS: Al Gore did not run. Decided not to run this year, in part because he felt that a fresh face was needed. You are a lot of things, but probably not a fresh face.
Rep. GEPHARDT: (Laughs) When did you first know this?
EDWARDS: Should the next generation be in the forefront here?
Rep. GEPHARDT: I think that's really for the voters to decide and they will decide it. I think in this election experience is a plus. I think Americans are going to be reticent to turn this country over to a new president, given the situation we're in in the world, given the challenges we have domestically, that they're not sure about, that they don't know whether that person has steady hands, and has the experience to make the hard, tough decisions on the big challenges we face. I've been in the Congress for 26 years. I've seen every domestic and foreign issue. I'm sure people won't agree with every position I've taken, but they're sure going to know that I've seen everything, that I've been a leader in the Congress, that I've dealt with all these issues, and that I have the experience to be the steady hand on the rudder that I think people are going to want in this election. We've got to beat George Bush, and I think experience is going to be a plus in doing that.
EDWARDS: OK, you're experienced and you're not George Bush. Those are the two main things you've gotten over to me today. But is that enough?
Rep. GEPHARDT: People in the end pick a president based on whether they like and trust the human being that they're voting for. And if I can get into the general election, when I get this nomination, I've got to convince people, over the debates and the other events that you go through, that I am someone they like, I'm someone who has a personal experience that they can relate to, and somebody they can trust -- as much, if not more, than George Bush. I think I can do that. If I get that chance, I believe I can do that, and I think I will do that.
EDWARDS: But before you can do that, they have to like you more than Joe Lieberman or John Kerry.
Rep. GEPHARDT: Well, that's absolutely true. You've got to win the nomination and I think I can do that. In 1988, as an unknown candidate, totally unknown, I won Iowa, came in second in New Hampshire, won South Dakota. I was ahead in every Super Tuesday state the day after South Dakota. The only problem was I didn't have enough money. I had a million dollars left, and Al Gore had three and Michael Dukakis had three and it was lights out. I couldn't run the ads in those nine, or eight or nine states, that I needed to get my message across. So, I was able in that time and place, without as much experience as I have now, to convince people that I was likeable and trustable with this important job. I think 15 years later with more experience I have a better chance to do that.
EDWARDS: But what separates you from Lieberman, Kerry, Dean, Sharpton...
Rep. GEPHARDT: We'll have differences on issues. It's a little unclear now exactly what those will be, because everybody hasn't gotten their whole issue platform out there. Eventually that will happen and we'll have differences. Not huge differences of goals, but differences on how to get to goals, and that'll be important. But again, the way you get separation in this thing is by somebody starting to win primary campaigns, because voters are more attracted to this candidate or that. And that's how the winnowing begins. It may end very quickly, and then you're on to the general election and into the same process, which I look forward to.
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