Sen. Joe Lieberman
Morning Edition: May 27, 2003
Listen to an extended version of the interview.
BOB EDWARDS, host: You've been called the most conservative of the nine contenders. Is that fair?
Sen. JOE LIEBERMAN: No, it's much too simplistic. You know, I've always rejected labels, Bob. I like to think of myself as a Democrat who's independent. I'm very proud to be a Democrat. I totally embrace the central values of the Democratic Party and the history of the party, which is all about opportunity, America as an opportunity society helping people up into the middle class, removing barriers, to people achieving their potential. So I'm a believing Democrat. I think maybe people say that today because I've taken a very strong stand in one, supporting our military, and two, being willing to use it when we have to to protect our security and our freedom. But to me that's part of being of Democrat in the Franklin Roosevelt-John F. Kennedy-Bill Clinton tradition. Bill Clinton used our military to stop genocide in the Balkans during the '90s. And so to me being strong on defense is part of being a Democrat. But also part of being a Democrat means helping the economy grow and continuing the unique tradition of social justice and social progress in our country. So if I was going to self-describe, I guess I'd call myself an independent Democrat, a Democrat who believes in the history and values, programs of my party but hasn't been hesitant to be independent from them when I think they're not quite right for my country at a given moment.
EDWARDS: Well, what in your program would separate you from the other eight?
LIEBERMAN: A lot. I do think that the campaign that we're into now for the nomination of the Democratic Party is a very important campaign. It's these campaigns for the presidential nominations that really determine the heart and soul of the party and eventually, in the election, the heart and soul of the country and who can best realize the hopes of the country. I'm a so-called New Democrat. I see America as having tough and unprecedented problems today: terrorism, war, disease, an economy that is in a persistent slowdown, stagnation, where people's sense of their own economic security, let alone their own physical, personal security is threatened, retirement security, health care security. And we're all offering answers to those problems. There are real differences between me and the other candidates and me and the Republicans. I think part of the question is are we going to offer outdated answers to the unprecedented problems of today or new answers? And I think people in both parties are offering outdated answers -- some people in both parties. The Republicans act as if tax cuts are the answer to every problem we have, whether we could afford those tax cuts or not or whether they work or not, which the Bush tax cuts clearly have not, to increase our economic growth and grow the economy. Bush folks in their administration are creating deficits that will go on as far as the eye can see and they have pursued an outdated social agenda that has really torn America apart at a time when we should be most united. Some Democrats, I think, fall back on old ways of seeing big spending programs as the answers to all of our problems. They're not. Seeming to be reluctant to use America's power to protect our security. And being uneasy with what I would call mainstream values. So my approach is to keep our military and our homeland security strong, to protect our security, to return to some of the fiscally balanced, pro-growth, pro-middle class fiscal policies of the Clinton-Gore years and to continue a very aggressive social progress agenda. I think that package sets me apart from most of the other Democrats and certainly from the Bush-Cheney administration.
EDWARDS: You don't think support for the war cost you among some Democrats who see this as President Bush's war?
LIEBERMAN: It probably did cost me among some Democrats who strongly opposed the war, but I felt for a long time -- long before George Bush came to power -- that Saddam Hussein was a danger. We did so much after the Gulf War -- sanctions, inspections, diplomacy, even limited military action -- that didn't work. John McCain, Bob Kerry and I concluded in 1998 that Saddam had to go. We couldn't work with him anymore. We passed legislation that actually set that as America's policy. It was signed into law by President Clinton. But our preferred path to do that was to support the Iraqi opposition. Somewhat along the style that we supported opposition to the communists in the Soviet Union. So I felt that the lessons of the last century... and of history tell us that if you leave a brutal dictator with the kind of weapons that he had, eventually he's going to use them and hurt you and therefore we had to get rid of him. And for me, I hope that my support of the war, which was my support before George Bush came to it, will be seen even by those Democrats who disagreed with me as a measure of the kind of president I would be, which is I'm prepared to do the right thing... what I believe to be the right thing for my country even if it's not politically popular.
EDWARDS: How would you assess the postwar activity in Iraq?
LIEBERMAN: Postwar activity in Iraq has been profoundly disappointing, troubling. I want to say that as early as last fall and then about a month or so before the hostilities began in Iraq in speeches before two groups, the Wilson Center and Council for Foreign Relations, I set out what I thought this administration had to do to secure whatever victory we achieved in Iraq and they've not done it. They seem remarkably unprepared, so today in Iraq there's been chaos, there's no law, there's no order. There's the appearance of America as an occupying power, not as a liberating power. It's really surprising and very disappointing to me how unready the Bush administration appears to have been to secure the victory our military won in Iraq. It's not as if it was a surprise. I mean, the folks in the administration thought it might be even quicker than it was.
EDWARDS: Is it too late to fix that now? Is there something they could be doing?
LIEBERMAN: It's not too late to fix it, but they have to act quickly. The first thing I believe the administration has to do is to better secure the country and not just Baghdad. These are all lessons that we should have learned in Afghanistan. And one way to secure the country is to begin much more aggressively to invite in other countries and other world institutions, including the United Nations. Of course, we were disappointed by the U.N.'s behavior leading up to the war in Iraq. Of course, we were disappointed and angered by the behavior of some of our allies in Europe, particularly the French but also the Germans. But now's the moment to say to them, 'OK, that's over. Now we all have an interest in securing post-Saddam Iraq. You've got to come in here and help us militarily with a peacekeeping force and also economically.' The other thing we've got to do and I think one of the big mistakes... I recommended before the war that after a victory we find not an American but an ally from the Arab world, an experienced, trusted governmental administrator who could be the civilian administrator of Iraq before the Iraqis themselves were able to take over. And I also said we ought to let the Iraqis, who have a good reputation at managing their own oil industry, to continue to do that. And have some kind of international board to oversee it to make sure the proceeds, the profits were going to benefit the Iraqis. Instead, we've diminished the Iraqi role. We've got a board there led by a retired American oil company executive -- exactly the wrong message. So we've got to act quickly to restore order and give some hope. A final word: we fought the war in Iraq for reasons of security, our own security. Having won it we are now presented with an extraordinary opportunity to win what might be called a battle in the larger war against terrorism. What do I mean? The war against terrorism is of course a war to capture and/or kill al Qaeda and other terrorists who are after us, but it is in a larger sense a war for the hearts and minds of the Islamic world. And here in Iraq suddenly we're presented with an opportunity to show the Islamic world what we're about. Basically to show that the result of overthrowing Saddam is that a lot of followers of Islam in Iraq will now not only have the opportunity, particularly the Shias, to worship as they want that they didn't have under Saddam but the Iraqi people will live better and freer lives and we're off to a bad start in that particular battle.
EDWARDS: I was just going to ask you how the war on terrorism is going.
LIEBERMAN: Well... we've made some progress, but sadly we don't have Osama bin Laden. That's not the end of it all, but that would help. The more sad and troubling recent facts of course are the brutal attacks that occurred in Saudi Arabia, which show us that al Qaeda is still out there and they still have people willing to, as Tom Friedman of the Times said once, who hate us more than they love life, so they're prepared to kill themselves to kill us. We still have a long way to go before we can claim victory in that war against terrorism.
EDWARDS: On the economy, you feel that President Bush is vulnerable there. What are your plans?
LIEBERMAN: Well, the Bush leadership has been an abysmal failure on the economy. The numbers are powerful. We've gone from creating 22 million jobs during the Clinton-Gore years to losing almost 3 million in the last two years-plus under Bush and Cheney. I talk about growing the middle class as one of the great American ideals and goals. You know, more than a million and a half million people have fallen out of the middle class into poverty in the last two-plus of the Bush-Cheney administration. And of course we've gone from surplus in the federal government to overwhelming debt long-term, which is money that comes out of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds that our kids and we are going to have to pay back so that the baby boomers get Social Security and Medicare. I think we've got to go back to fiscal discipline. I think we've got to go back to what worked in the '90s. I'd take just about all of the unimplemented parts of the Bush '01 tax cut and put them off, maybe cancel them. That gets you more than a half-trillion dollars. I'd use some of that right now, maybe about $150 billion, to stimulate the economy -- not throwing money out there as Bush has to a lot of people that maybe don't need it, but giving it to businesses who actually create jobs or buy equipment or start new businesses. I propose, for instance, a zero capital gains tax for investments in new businesses that create new jobs. I'd take some of the rest of it and do some middle-class tax cuts and then I'd put the rest into education, homeland security, investments for our future, send some back to the states... to help them with their crises and then put the rest into paying down the long-term debt. You can do all that with more than a half a trillion dollars... I just want to cite this, the president proposed originally $750 billion in [tax cuts] as a fiscal stimulus, now, this year, for the next 10 years and boasted that would create a million and a half new jobs over the next 10 years. First off, our economy should be creating a lot more jobs than that. But secondly, a million and a half jobs for $750 billion comes to $500,000 a job. I don't know any business person who would accept that return on investment and we shouldn't either. We should give targeted tax cuts to businesses that actually do create jobs.
EDWARDS: You've mentioned Bill Clinton at least three times.
EDWARDS: I'm kind of surprised. I would think that the Bush White House would love to resurrect that name to focus their supporters.
LIEBERMAN: Well, I haven't done it intentionally, but it's part of my history. I was of the Democratic Leadership Council, New Democratic movement that Bill Clinton came out of. I actually know Clinton for 33 years since 1970 and my first race for public office, state senator in New Haven, Conn., he was a Yale law student and came in, believe it or not, and volunteered in my campaign. I always say that showed even at a young age Bill Clinton had very good political judgment. And we've been friends ever since. He had a wonderful presidency in what he did for our country and I don't mind saying that I want to... take us back to some of that. It gave us some extraordinary prosperity and peace.While the times have changed and every election is about the future, not the past, there's a lot to learn from the Clinton-Gore years that I'd be happy to apply. Obviously, some of his personal mistakes I criticized myself early and publicly and that's part of the historic record. But as a president, I think history will treat him very kindly.
EDWARDS: But wouldn't they like to bring back those mistakes for the voters to contemplate?
LIEBERMAN: Let them... they can bring back the mistakes. I'm pretty clear about my own condemnation of the personal mistakes. But I'm happy to compare the Clinton-Gore record on the economy and world peace and people's sense of security to what they feel today, which is to feel very insecure about their jobs, about their retirement security, about their personal safety, about their rights and liberties. To suggest that taking a lot of what we learned in the '90s and putting it to today's problems is just what we need to create not only hope, which is what every campaign should be about and a feeling about how we can make the future better, but to give people a sense of both security and opportunity again which they've lost now, too many have lost.
EDWARDS: They're going to run on moral values. You feel you can deal with that. You said...
LIEBERMAN: They're going to run on moral values... You mean the Bush people are. Yea, that's the message they send out and look, what I've said for a long time in my political career is that public officials ought to try to hold themselves first to the highest values in their conduct because we are examples, whether we like it or not. In the modern world, every aspect of our life becomes public. That's just a reality. Secondly, we ought to try to reflect our best values and America's best values, opportunity, particularly and responsibility in our public policies in the programs that we advocate. I happen to be a person whose faith is important in my life. One of the things I argue here is that one of the great things about America is that we respect each other's faiths. In the same way we ought to respect the differing directions in which our faiths take us in terms of politics and public issues. There are times when this administration seems to be arguing that... if your faith matters to you, it can only take you in one direction, which is to extremely conservative politicalky values or positions. I think that's not only not right, it's not consistent with our history where faith has been a great source of progress -- abolitionist movements, civil rights, etc., movements that were considered liberal or progressive in their day. But it's also not tolerant and it's not unifying... the Bush social agenda has really taken us so far to the right that I believe that it's separated the American people at a time, because of all the threats we have, when we really most need to be united.
EDWARDS: You have taken on Hollywood...
EDWARDS: ...and that can't help you with your fundraising.
LIEBERMAN: (Laughs) Well, it hasn't. I just felt as a father that I didn't like what was coming over the TV. When I first focused on what my 4-year-old was watching and then television, video games, music... I believe in the First Amendment. I don't believe in censorship, but I do think that as a public official I have First Amendment rights myself to say to people in the entertainment industry, 'Hey, some of this stuff you're putting out is so hyper-violent, so sexually inappropriate that's going to our kids -- that's what I'm really worried about it -- that it's creating role models for them or a sense of what's acceptable that's really not good for our country and our society. I hope Mr. and Mrs. executive of an entertainment industry company make a decision sometimes that says, 'OK, I'm not going to go here even though I can make some more dollars that way, because it's just not good.' I don't hesitate at all about that... I think we've actually made some progress in that way, particularly in getting some of the entertainment industry -- the movies, particularly -- to be much tougher about not marketing products -- movies -- that they rate as acceptable only for adults to kids, which they were doing for too long. Yea, it's maybe hurt some fundraising, but so what? That's what this is supposed to be all about, doing what you think is right.
EDWARDS: With nine contenders, even Jewish support has to be split nine ways, if not nine equal ways.
EDWARDS: It's diluted.
LIEBERMAN: You know the old joke: two Jews, three opinions... Sure, but that's fair. I'm very happy with the support I'm getting, not just from the Jewish community but from all around the country and every other ethnic and racial community in the party. I feel as if I've put together the most support, certainly the most endorsements, in most places around the country of any of the nine Democratic candidates. It encourages me in that way and it also says to me, going back to an earlier question you asked, Bob, where you said, 'Oh, he's too conservative.' Right now... in the polling we've seen -- I know we're not supposed to mention polling but occasionally we look at them -- I am ahead among African Americans, Latino Americans, women. I think this says that I really am speaking from the heart of Democratic history, Democratic values and Democrats' hope for the future. Of course, I say that I'm the one Democrat who can stand toe-to-toe with Bush where he's supposed to be strong, on defense and values, and then beat him where we know he's weak, on his failed fiscal economic policies and on the very divisive social agenda. I think Democrats want to win in '04 and I believe I have a real sense of mission about this. This administration has taken our country in directions that are not good for our future and not good for our kids and stands for so much that is so inconsistent with what I've fought for over more than three decades in public office at the state and federal level. I feel that those three decades have uniquely prepared me for this moment, that I'm ready to be the president that American needs to take us to a better, safer future.
EDWARDS: A couple of the Democratic contenders figure the Bush administration is vulnerable on health care. Is there a Lieberman plan here?
LIEBERMAN: There is and there will be in more detail. I agree with my colleagues... Look, the Bush administration is vulnerable on almost every aspect of domestic policy because they have literally nothing to show for the first half of their administration. The economy is failing, our health care system is crumbling, our schools are not getting better, the environment... they've cut back protection worse than any president since the movement began. Civil rights has atrophied because they're opposing affirmative action... I could go on and on. My feeling about health care is that the candidates have to make... presidents have to make a decision. Bush hasn't done anything, so whatever we do would be better than that. People are uninsured, the costs of insurance are going up, businesses are really strapped as a result. First question is, do you try to tackle a whole problem all at once, or step by step? Dick Gephardt has chosen to tackle it all at once. I think that's a mistake. I think he spends as much on his health care program as Bush does on these tax cuts. That has the same effect, takes all the money out of Social Security and Medicare [and] leaves us with no money to do anything else. So I'm for a step-by-step. Howard Dean seems to be more in that direction, interestingly, that I think we should go. I don't think Gephardt's plan will ever have a chance of being adopted, therefore it won't cover one more person with health insurance. I'd start with where Al Gore and I left off in the 2000 campaign: take the children's health insurance program, which provides insurance for children of working families who can't afford to buy in the market. We had a program that was going to cover every child in America -- it was almost 10 million, I think, that don't have insurance now, by 2005 and then let their parents on a sliding scale based on income buy into Medicaid at a price much below what they'd have to pay in the market. Our estimate was that we would cover about 20 million of the then-slightly under 40 million uninsured, more than half. That would be a significant step forward. I think it's still a good first step. But I'm going to speak... in a more detailed way to that in the coming weeks.
EDWARDS: The voting begins with Iowa, where your pro-war stance gave you a slow start, New Hampshire, where you're behind two other regional favorites, Kerry and Dean, [and] South Carolina, [a] southern state you and Al Gore lost by 18 points. Where do you see your first win?
LIEBERMAN: Well, I'm in it for the long haul and that's the important thing. Of course, the long haul in the new schedule next year will come quickly because the primaries will come quite quickly after one another. I'm a candidate who has more support than any of the others nationally in the Democratic Party. I expect to do well in Iowa and New Hampshire. I think that on Feb. 3, a week after New Hampshire, when there are primaries in South Carolina, where I believe I'm ahead now, in Arizona, where I believe I'm ahead now, in Oklahoma, where I believe I'm ahead, and other states. That's when I will win some primaries and go on through February. We've had some great endorsements lately. The attorney general of Iowa, Tom Miller, [the] first statewide official to endorse, has come to my side. I appreciate it very much. The lieutenant governor of Virginia, Tim Kaine, which has an early primary in February. And then we're going to come to some climactic states early in March, New York and California particularly. I think we're ahead in both of those states at this point. It's early, but we've got great organizations in New York, headed by the speaker of the Assembly, the top Democrat in the state, Sheldon Silver. [In] California, we're going to have a big announcement in the next couple of weeks about the person who will lead our effort there, who's a very prominent statewide Democrat. So I'm in it for the long haul. The important thing to say is I'm in it because I believe that I can be a better president than either the incumbent or my fellow Democrats who are running, and I believe I'm a Democrat who can and will defeat George Bush because I will provide not an either-or choice for the voters not either a president who says he's strong on security in the world and a Democratic candidate who says he can do better here at home. The American people deserve to have both security and prosperity and I'm the candidate who can best do that.
Copyright ©2003 National Public Radio®. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information, please contact NPR's Permissions Coordinator at (202) 513-2000.