NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Two days ago, we spoke with Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa who's seeking the Democratic nomination for president.
Today, our conversation with presidential candidates continues with John Edwards, the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2004 and a former U.S. senator from North Carolina. In this campaign, he's run on an anti-poverty platform. He kicked off his campaign in New Orleans, and he's called for universal health care coverage for all Americans.
And if you'd like to join our conversation, give us a call 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is email@example.com.
And John Edwards, thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Democratic Presidential Candidate): Thanks, Neal. Thanks for having me.
CONAN: Senator Edwards is with us by phone from Charleston, South Carolina. And I have to ask, can you describe this universal health care? You're hoping to have this by the end of, if you're elected president, which would be your first term.
Mr. EDWARDS: That's correct. It would be actually before the end of the first term. It would happen - to be fully implemented by the year 2012. Of course, we have to get it passed. We have to allow time for that. But the basic concept is we have 47 million people without health care coverage, millions more who are having difficulty affording their health care coverage.
We have huge inefficiencies and high administrative costs, 30 to 40 percent of health care dollars that are spent on administrative cost. And we have, you know, holes in places like mental health care, chronic care, preventative care, and all those holes need to be filled, too.
So it creates efficiencies. It's based on the concept of shared responsibility, but it creates true universal care for every American.
CONAN: And we don't have time to go into the total details of this program here, but let me just ask is it going to require new taxes to pay for it?
Mr. EDWARDS: Well, it requires rolling back George Bush's tax cuts for people who earn more than $200,000 a year. For those who earn less than $200,000 a year, they will have no change in their tax structure. Those who make more than $200,000 a year will pay the same - go back to paying the same tax rates they paid under President Clinton.
CONAN: You're well aware that though you're saying you're rolling back tax cuts, your opponents will say he wants to raise taxes.
Mr. EDWARDS: They can say whatever they want. I think that we desperately need universal, true universal health care coverage, not an incremental approach but a real transformational change. Our health care system is dysfunctional, and it's time for us to stop taking baby steps about big issues like this and do what needs to be done. At least what I believe needs to be done.
CONAN: You also have very ambitious goals to reduce and eventually to eliminate poverty. Again, these are - this is going to be an expensive proposition, no?
Mr. EDWARDS: Not like health care. The health care, the universal health care plan costs between $90 and $120 billion a year. I see poverty as a huge moral issue, issue of character for America. I also think if we can strengthen and raise the middle - strengthen and grow the middle class, the - basically, everything I've proposed, some of the things don't cost anything - raising the minimum wage, strengthening the right of workers to organize. Helping people be able to save does cost some money. Access to college does cost some money. Creating jobs, particularly for young people in urban areas who don't have jobs, but putting them to work costs some money. It's about $15 billion a year.
CONAN: And I have to ask, I mean, these are important, ambitious goals, no small achievements either one if they go ahead. How do you prioritize things? There's so many other things that a lot of people say need to be done - attention to the environment, deficit reduction, obviously the continuing cost of the war on terrorism, Homeland Security failures. What's your priorities?
Mr. EDWARDS: My priorities are internationally to reestablish America's leadership in the world and to start leaving Iraq, and to be at - have our combat troops out of Iraq in about a year.
Second, to deal with a dysfunctional health care system. I believe I'm the first presidential candidate to lay out a detailed, substantive, truly universal health care plan.
Third, I think energy transformation change in the way we use energy, our addiction to oil, clean alternative sources of energy, which also should be married to conservation, more fuel-efficient vehicles.
And then finally, the whole issue of climate change, which I think is a huge issue for the world - very serious issue. I think we need a cap on carbon-dioxide emissions in this country. I think we can do it with what's known as a cap-and-trade system.
And then finally dealing with the economic inequality that still exists in this country. We've seen great economic growth at the very top of the ladder but not everywhere down below, and it's just, it's not good for our country or our democracy over the long term.
CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation. Again, if you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Our guest is Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards. Let's get Eddie on the line. Eddie's with us from South Lake Tahoe in California.
EDDIE (Caller): Hi, Neal, how are you doing?
CONAN: I'm well, thank you.
EDDIE: Hello, John Edwards. How are you doing?
Mr. EDWARDS: I'm fine, Eddie, how are you?
EDDIE: That's good. I'm from - I'm doing good. I'm from the Maryland area, D.C. area, and I'm pretty much up on the politics, not too much, but I really don't feel as though the nation's ready for a minority president, and I think you're going to come out because of that.
What I really wanted to know was, running with two minority candidates with you, would you take either one as a running mate, and if so, do you think the pros would outweigh the cons of having a minority candidate?
CONAN: And Eddie, when you say minority candidates, are you speaking of Barack Obama and whom else?
EDDIE: And Hillary.
CONAN: Ah. Women are actually in the majority, but go ahead. We'll get an answer from John Edwards.
Mr. EDWARDS: Neal, could you give me a quick summary because it was breaking up a little, and I couldn't quite hear the question.
CONAN: Ah. He was asking: How do you feel about running in a campaign against and African-American, Barack Obama; a woman, Hillary Clinton; and he says given the difficulties they face, would you accept either as a vice-presidential candidate should you win the nomination?
Mr. EDWARDS: Well I'll answer the latter first, and then I'll go to the heart of the question. I think either of them, if I were to be successful, and I believe I will be - but if I were to be successful in the nomination process, either of them would be very serious candidates for the vice presidency. I have a high opinion of both.
As to the fact that Senator Obama is African-American and Senator Clinton is a woman, I'll just say this in the simplest language I know how to every Democratic primary voter who hears my voice right now. If you're considering not voting for Senator because she's a woman or Senator Obama because he's black, you shouldn't vote for me, because I think that having real diversity both in the candidates and in the campaign and in an administration, in my administration, is the heart and soul of who I am. So I just felt the need to say that.
CONAN: Eddie, thanks very much for the call. Good luck.
EDDIE: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Ryan(ph) in Denver, Colorado. During your last run for the presidency, you delighted many of us when you chose to keep your campaign positive. Do you intend to take the same approach during your current campaign for the White House? If so, will it be more difficult considering the currently politically divisive situation in Iraq and at home?
Mr. EDWARDS: I - first of all, I will run a positive campaign. It is what's inside me. It's who I am. I am by nature a forward-looking, strong, but very positive, person and so this will be a campaign based on substantive ideas. I've already begun with that and laid out a plan to straighten the middle class and to end poverty as we know it in the next 30 years, the first candidate with a universal health-care plan, laid out a clear plan for what we should be doing in leaving Iraq, including engaging the Syrians and the Iranians directly.
So I will run a positive campaign. I will tell the truth about - the truth as I see it. I think everyone deserves to hear that. And then finally, I do want people to know, who are voting in the caucuses and in the primaries, to know exactly what it is I stand for so that they can make a judgment, up or down, on whether I should be the next president.
CONAN: You were positive also in your, in the last campaign, as a vice-presidential candidate. In your debate against the man who would be later be elected vice president, Dick Cheney, some people felt - some Democrats felt you were not aggressive enough in pointing out the differences between the two sides. Would you be more aggressive should you win the nomination?
Mr. EDWARDS: Well, I wouldn't apply it just to the general election. I think it applies across the board. There is a maturity and a depth that comes from having been through being in the spotlight of a national campaign, and also some of the things that have happened since that campaign in my own experience and in my family's life.
Elizabeth's gone through breast-cancer treatment; and I've been all over the world doing humanitarian work in Africa, plus engaging in people in all parts of the world and taking concrete steps to raise the minimum wage in six states - we worked very hard on that; to make college available to kids who were willing to work in - for what we call a College for Everyone Program that we put in place and raised the money for privately.
I helped organize thousands of workers into unions. So I think that there is a maturity and a toughness and a seasoning that comes through, from going through what I've gone through, which - we all evolve, and it makes me, I think, a much stronger candidate.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail question from Laura(ph) in Baltimore. Can you clarify for me what options would be available to a self-employed or freelance worker under your health-care plan? What if they can't afford it?
Mr. EDWARDS: The - what we do is we create health-care markets so that every single American has market power. Most self-employed and individuals don't -can't buy health insurance in the marketplace. It's prohibitively expensive.
So what we'd do in her specific case is she would be able to buy in the same way that a large employer would because these health-care markets create market power for her. It would be a much more efficient, much more - less costly system because we eliminate a large percentage of the administrative costs.
She would have the option of not just a private insurer or a group of insurers, but a government plan similar to what the Congress - senators and congressman have available to them. And then finally, if she - depending on what her income level is, if she's lower income or unemployed, she would be fully subsidized in her health-care coverage.
As she goes up the income ladder and more strongly and up into the upper-middle class, the subsidies become reduced, and there is a place at about $90,000 to $100,000 a year where the subsidies stop. They still have a benefit because there are efficiencies and a reduction in costs and choices that don't exist today.
One last thing. We also fill a lot of the hole. There's required mental-health imparity in my plan. We provide for both preventative care and chronic and long-term care, which are big problems in our health-care system today.
CONAN: We're speaking with former United States senator from North Carolina, John Edwards, who's hoping to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's see if we can get Eliot(ph) on the line, Eliot calling us from Sarasota in Florida. Eliot, go ahead.
ELIOT: Hello. Senator Edwards, first I strongly supported you in the last election, and I look forward to supporting you again. I think you're a very good man. I have a quick suggestion and a question. The suggestion is on the reversal of the tax cuts, instead of calling it a tax increase, call it for what it is: reversing a mistake when they gave welfare to the rich.
And the second is a question about the war. How would you specifically handle the Iraq thing, both in terms of a timetable, funding, and how would you deal with putting an end to it?
Mr. EDWARDS: Well, first thank you for the suggestion. It's a good one. On Iraq, this is what I would do. There can be no military solution in Iraq. The only potential solution is a political reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite, and the question is how do you create the best possible way for that to happen. I believe we have to shift responsibility to them, the Sunni leadership - even though they're disorganized - and the Maliki-led government, and the way to do that is to be leaving Iraq.
The specifics are I draw 40,000 to 50,000 troops down immediately from the north and the south, the more-secure regions. I would have an orderly process that I would discuss with my military commanders that we would draw in troops so that our combat troops are out of Iraq in 12 to 14 months, roughly, and then I would engage directly with the Iranians and the Syrians.
The Iranians, for example, have an interest in a stable Iraq. The last thing they want is for - to go to total civil war, to have a million refugees coming across their western border. They're already in economic trouble, and on top of that, they are a Shiite-dominated country in a Sunni-dominated, Muslim world. So if this conflict were to spill over and become a greater Middle East conflict, they're very much in the minority. So they have an incentive to help stabilize Iraq, and we should engage them directly.
CONAN: What is Plan B? What if it doesn't work? What if it devolves into terrible civil war? What if al-Qaida establishes safe bases from which to plan attacks?
Mr. EDWARDS: Neal, here's exactly what I would do as president. I would implement this plan that I just laid out. I do think that Iran and Syria are critical to being able to help stabilize Iraq. We can't do it as long as we're occupying the country.
And then what - I would start our withdrawal process. I would closely monitor, every day, what's happening on the ground, and in addition to the other things I've said, I would simultaneously and parallel with this, develop a plan for containment because we can't be certain which way this is going. No one knows. And if it really were to go to pot, what we need is we need a whole set of policies that will help contain this conflict, and there are lots of things to do.
Moving our - moving whatever people we still have in Iraq - I'm not talking about combat troops - but away from the population areas, helping to secure the borders, creating safe havens just outside of Iraq, keeping up a presence in Kuwait and in the Persian Gulf. So there are a whole group of things we need to do, but we need a serious plan to deal with at least the potential that this could go completely bad.
CONAN: So - we just have a few seconds left, but there are situations in which you could envision sending troops back into Iraq?
Mr. EDWARDS: It's very difficult to see that, because I think the number of troops it would take - if all-out civil war broke loose, I think we're talking about 400,000 to 500,000 troops. That's what it would take to have a meaningful impact. So it's - that would be an extremely difficult thing to do. And I think in the short term, what we want to do is everything that we reasonable could to contain the conflict.
There's another question, which you didn't raise, which is what happens if genocide begins within the borders of Iraq, and these create very difficult judgments, which I don't think you can pre-judge. You just have to prepare for them.
CONAN: Senator Edwards, we thank you for your time. We wish you the best of luck.
Mr. EDWARDS: Thank you, Neal, for having me.
CONAN: John Edwards, former United States senator from North Carolina, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in 2004. He hopes to head the ticket in 2008. Our conversations with presidential candidates continues next week, when Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico will join us. I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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