Interview with Tim Russert on NBC News' "Meet the Press"
RUSSERT: Welcome, Senator Biden, to our Meet the Candidates series.
BIDEN: Good to be back.
RUSSERT: Let me start with the vote in the Senate on Thursday. And here's how it was reported: "The Senate approved $124 billion Iraq war spending bill that would force troop withdrawals to begin as early as July 1.
"The 51-to-46 vote was a triumph for Democrats, who just weeks ago worried about the political wisdom of a veto showdown with the commander in chief as troops fight on the battlefield. But Democrats are hesitant no more."
Why did you vote for a bill that had a timetable for withdrawal?
BIDEN: That language is actually the language that I–that Carl Levin and I drafted, which said that, "Mr. President, you got to start moving combat troops out of harm's way now." The whole function of this is to try to get this president to change his strategy. He operates on the premise that, if we put enough troops in the middle of a civil war, we can give breeding room to a group of people in Baghdad to get together and form a strong central government that's a democracy. That will not happen in your lifetime or mine. I said that four years ago; I say it now. The only rational purpose for troops in Iraq now: train Iraqis, prevent al-Qaeda from occupying large chunks of territory. and we should begin to decentralize the government. That's the underlying essence of what the language in this bill is about. It says, though, start now to redeploy and have as a target to get out by April 1st the bulk of the combat troops. I strongly subscribe to that view.
RUSSERT: When you were here in January, I asked you about some of these steps, and this is how you responded. Let's watch.
(Videotape, January 7, 2007)
SEN. BIDEN: I think it is unconstitutional to say we're going to tell you, "You can go, but we're going to micromanage the war." When we wrote the Constitution, the intention was to give the commander in chief the authority how to use the forces when you authorize him to be able to use the forces.
RUSSERT: Aren't you now micromanaging?
BIDEN: Not at all. Did you hear what I said? I said "how to use the forces." We have authority to tell him how to use the forces. If you get in there, though, and once you tell him–we have, we have a responsibility to tell him what the mission is. He does not have the authority to engage in a mission of the use of our force in a country or out of a country that we do not authorize. And that's the thrust of what we're trying to do here. We're trying to fundamentally change what this president is using our forces for. He's in the midst of a civil war with the objective of–a flawed objective of establishing a strong central government. That will not happen, and we have an obligation to push back as much and as often and as thoroughly as we can.
RUSSERT: But, senator, there has been an evolution in your thinking because this is what you said in–to the Brookings Institution in '05. "We can" tell it–"We can call it quits and withdraw [from Iraq]. I think that would be a gigantic mistake. Or we can set a deadline for pulling out, which I fear will only encourage our enemies to wait us out–equally a mistake." You're now setting a deadline.
BIDEN: No, we're not setting a deadline. Read what it says. It says the target date, left up to the generals to determine whether or not it is appropriate to withdraw all forces.
RUSSERT: Well, a target date is setting a deadline.
BIDEN: No, no, but it leaves forces behind. We're trying to change the mission, Tim. The mission is all of us have been arguing one exception, in both parties, that you're going to have to leave forces behind in Iraq while this new government–if we actually get one up and running–is trying to function and trying to set up. The–look, the problem here is this is also a moving target. I also called for more troops in Iraq. I called for more troops on this program a couple years ago. That was in order to stop a civil war. Once the civil war began I was on the program after that saying all the troops in the world cannot settle a civil war. So what I'm having to respond to, like everyone else, is the president's initiatives and his failures that, that required difference circumstances and different answers at different times. But the fundamental principle's the same: We have an obligation to tell the president of the United States if we disagree with the mission for which he's using American forces. And the mission that he has us on is to settle a civil war through establishing a central democratic government in Baghdad. That mission is strategically flawed.
RUSSERT: But you no longer have a problem setting a date for withdrawal.
BIDEN: I no longer have a problem setting a target, a target that is flexible. There is no–there's nothing in it says that every troop has to be out on April the 1st.
RUSSERT: You said this back in October of '02: "We must be clear with the American people that we are committing to Iraq for the long haul; not just the day after, but the decade after." Do you believe we'll be in Iraq for a decade?
BIDEN: I said back then, before we went to war, I wrote a report saying the decade after, and everyone was talking about the day after. And the point I was making was, if you went in and used force, which he should not have done when he did it, that we were committing and signing on to a decade. That was the–that was the minimum requirement. I also pointed out we needed more troops. I also pointed out at that time we would not be greeted with open arms. I also pointed out at that time oil would not pay for this. It was a warning, a warning to the president. "Mr. President, the objective of us giving you this authority is to get inspectors back in, bring the pressure of the world community–which remember, at the time, when we were sitting here talking about this, the–at that moment the issue was are we going to pull out of–are we going to lift sanctions on Iraq or are we going to put more sanctions on Iraq? That, that was the context in which that debate was taking place.
RUSSERT: So when some of your opponents in the Democratic primary say there will be no residual force left in Iraq?
BIDEN: They are mistaken. They are making a mistake that is not practical. I don't know how that can work.
RUSSERT: Senator Reid, the leader of the Democrats in the Senate, Senator Feingold, the senator from Wisconsin, have joined together and introduced a bill, and here's the operative language: "No funds appropriated or otherwise made available under any provision of law may be obligated or expended to continue the deployment in Iraq after March" 31st, "2008." Do you support that?
BIDEN: For the reasons I just stated. I think it's–may–we may end–look, Tim, here's where we may end up. This president may so–make it so difficult to reach the objective, the only reasonable one I think's available, which is to leave Iraq, leaving behind a country secure within its own borders, not a threat to its neighbors, that is a loosely federated republic. It may get so bad that we do not have that option, and all of the option we have available to us is to withdraw and try to contain the civil war inside Iraq. We are not there yet. And until we reach that point, I am not prepared to say there are no circumstances under which, after a date certain, we would not have a single troop inside of Iraq.
RUSSERT: So you will not vote to cut off funding for the war, period.
BIDEN: No, that's not what I said. I just got finished telling you what I said, which was if, in fact, this president changes the circumstances again, where there lose all prospect of being able to achieve the goal that I've just set out, which I think could be achieved if we decentralize power in Iraq, if we have a limited federal government in Iraq, where we train the army, where they have control of the borders and their currency, where we give control over the fabric of the daily lives of the various warring factions–including their local police forces–their laws relating to marriage, divorce, the things they're killing each other over, if we get to the point where that is no longer an option and the place has totally disintegrated–which it may–that's a different circumstance. You can't–I don't know anyone who can say–I speak for myself. I cannot say for–with absolute certainty what I will do on every potential contingency because I have no control over this president's foreign policy and the direction he's taking us in Iraq.
RUSSERT: But as of today, you would not vote to cut off...
BIDEN: As of today, I would not vote to cut off all funding if the funding cutoff said there can be absolutely not a single solitary American force left anywhere within Iraq within a time certain.
RUSSERT: I want to go back to 2002, because it's important as to what people were saying then and what the American people were hearing. Here's Joe Biden about Saddam Hussein: "He's a long term threat and a short term threat to our national security."
"We have no choice but to eliminate the threat. This is a guy who is an extreme danger to the world."
"He must be dislodged from his weapons or dislodged from power." You were emphatic about that.
BIDEN: That's right, and I was correct about that. He must be, in fact–and remember the weapons we were talking about. I also said on your show, that's part of what I said, but not all of what I meant. What I also said on your show at the time was that I did not think he had weaponized his material, but he did have. When, when the inspectors left after Saddam kicked them out, there was a cataloguing at the United Nations saying he had X tons of, X amount of, and they listed the various materials he had. The big issue, remember, on this show we talked about, was whether he had weaponized them. Remember you asked me about those flights that were taking place in southern Iraq, where–were they spraying anthrax? And, you know, what would happen? And, you know, so on and so forth. And I pointed out to you that they had not developed that capacity at all. But he did have these stockpiles everywhere.
RUSSERT: Where are they?
BIDEN: Well, the point is, it turned out they didn't, but everyone in the world thought he had them. The weapons inspectors said he had them. He catalogued–they catalogued them. This was not some, some Cheney, you know, pipe dream. This was, in fact, catalogued. They looked at them and catalogued. What he did with them, who knows? The real mystery is, if he, if he didn't have any of them left, why didn't he say so? Well, a lot of people say if he had said that, he would've, you know, emboldened Iran and so on and so forth.
But the point was, we were talking then about whether or not we could keep the pressure of the international community on Iraq to stay in the box we had them in. And remember, you had the French and others say the reason all those children were dying in Iraq, the reason why hospitals didn't have equipment is because of what we, the United States, were doing, imposing on Iraq these sanctions. And that was the battle. The battle was do we lift these sanctions or do we in fact increase the sanctions? And everyone at the time was talking about–from the secretary of state to even the president–that this was to demonstrate to the world the president of the United States had the full faith and credit of the United States Congress behind him to put pressure on the rest of the world to say, "Hey, look, you lift the sanctions, you're–we're going to be on our own here. Don't lift the sanctions. Get the inspectors back in." That was the context of the debate, to be fair about it.
RUSSERT: But when you read the national intelligence estimate, which has now been released, there're a lot of caveats put on the level of intelligence about the aluminum tubes and...
RUSSERT: General Zinni, who's been on this program a few weeks ago, said that when he heard the discussion about the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam had, he said, "I've never heard that" in any of the briefings he had as head of the Central Command. How could you as a U.S. senator be so wrong?
BIDEN: I, I wasn't wrong. I was on your show when you asked me about aluminum tubes, and I said they're for artillery. I don't believe they're for cascading.
RUSSERT: But you said Saddam was a threat. He had to be...
BIDEN: He was a threat.
RUSSERT: In what way?
BIDEN: The threat he presented was that, if Saddam was left unfettered, which I said during that period, for the next five years with sanctions lifted and billions of dollars into his coffers, then I believed he had the ability to acquire a tactical nuclear weapon–not by building it, by purchasing it. I also believed he was a threat in that he was–every single solitary U.N. resolution which he agreed to abide by, which was the equivalent of a peace agreement at the United Nations, after he got out of–after we kicked him out of Kuwait, he was violating. Now, the rules of the road either mean something or they don't. The international community says "We're going to enforce the sanctions we placed" or not. And what was the international community doing? The international community was weakening. They were pulling away. They were saying, "Well, wait a minute. Maybe he's not so bad. Maybe we should lift the no-fly zone. Maybe we should lift the sanctions." That was the context.
And on your show, you had that one Sunday the vice president of the United States saying he's reconstituted his nuclear weapons. I was on a simultaneous program, they asked me the question. I said either the president–either the vice president's not telling the truth or he did not get the same briefing I have or he fully misunderstands what he was told. So I did not believe he had weaponized his materials. But he did have material that, in fact, could theoretically be weaponized. And to let it sit there at the time, I wanted the inspectors back in to force him that position of having to give it up.
RUSSERT: You were asked on this program a few months after the invasion of May of '03 about your vote. And you said, "There was sufficient evidence to go into Iraq." And then in '04 you said–a year and a half ago–"I voted to give the president the authority to use force in Iraq. I still believe my vote was just." Then you went to Iowa in '07, running for president and said, "It was a mistake. I regret my vote."
BIDEN: That's unfair. I said that on your program it was a mistake between, and you make it sound like I went to Iowa and all of a sudden I had people out there saying Biden is...
RUSSERT: Well, there was a change in your thinking from, from being...
RUSSERT: ...a just vote to saying it was a mistake.
BIDEN: Yeah, because I learned more, like everybody else learned, about what, in fact, we were told. Even the stuff we were told, the parts that I believed about what was going on with Saddam. We were told at the time, remember, that all these Iraqi generals were ready to, you know, to step up and take on Saddam, that we had–it was implied that we had this ability to go–to do a lot of things we didn't do. We had commitments at the time from the president that he would not move without the international community with us. There were a whole lot of things that changed, a whole lot of things that changed.
The thing that I regret, and I'll say it again, and I said it way before '07 and going to Iowa, is that I regret having had the–believed that this administration had any competence. It is the most incompetent administration I've ever–if I'd known they were going to misuse the authority we gave them the way they did, if I'd known that they were going to, once they used it, be so incompetent in the using of it, I would have never ever, ever given them the authority. If I were president, would I have asked for the authority? I would have asked for the authority in order to demonstrate to the world that they better not be lifting sanctions, they better not be putting pressure on having no-fly zones, and they better join with us in putting the screws onto Saddam by screwing down the sanctions on Saddam as opposed to lifting the sanctions. That's what the debate was about at the time.
And the other thing people forget, Tim, is everybody said, "Well, how could you not know that?" Almost every major editorial board in the country reached the same conclusion that we reached about the value of keeping the sanctions on Saddam and the need to show the world this pressure was available. And why did they think it? They thought it because he had acted relatively reasonable with regard to Afghanistan. The president had acted rationally with regard to Afghanistan, and on your show–I remember being on your show at the end of that year–and the question was, "Has the president become an internationalist?" Remember that? Remember that whole–those, those discussions? So the idea that everybody should have known that they were going to be as irresponsible in the use of the authority, that they were going to overrule what, what Powell was getting done at the United Nations, that they had inspectors back in and then they were going to dis the inspectors like the vice president and president did, maybe I should have anticipated that. But most people didn't anticipate it, and I'm–and that's my mistake.
RUSSERT: Should you have gone or sought out people who had a dissenting view on the level of weapons of mass destruction?
BIDEN: Oh, I did. I did. And when I was chairman of the committee–I, I can't tell you the details–but I called every intelligence agency before the Foreign Relations Committee, had them all sit there at once. And it was on the aluminium tubes. And I pointed out to all my colleagues who came that there was vast disagreement among the intelligence community. I also said, you remember after this period, that I believed that the one part of George Tenet that I've heard about his book that I believe is right is that the–it wasn't the administration got all bad intelligence; they misused, deliberately misused the intelligence they had. They only told you the down side. They did not tell you the doubt that existed within the intelligence community. I met with General Zinni, I met with all our major commanders at the time, and they were split about whether or not what he had. But by and large, I don't think any of them really believed that somehow he had a nuclear weapon in the waiting. Nobody believed that.
RUSSERT: But despite the doubts you heard, you voted for the war.
BIDEN: I–despite the doubts I heard, I voted to give the president the authority to avoid a war. Look, Tim, he also had–there was no question in the mind–remember we were, we were on this show, Dick Lugar and I. We had the Biden/Lugar authorization through–of the president, which was much more constrained–much more constrained than the authority he actually got. But–and what, what happened? What happened was, I didn't know Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman were separately negotiating with the president until I got a call on a Monday night from Dick Lugar saying, "Look, we're going to lose our, our, our amendment, which is much more constrictive on the president because there's been a separate deal being cut." He had 55 votes no matter what.
RUSSERT: But make no mistake about it, the bill that you voted for authorized the president to go to war.
BIDEN: It allowed the president to go to war. It did not authorize him to go to it. You make it sound like it said, "Mr. President, go to war." It said, "Mr. President, don't go to war." It said "go to the United Nations. Mr. President, don't go to war, try to get a deal here. Mr. President, get the inspectors back in. Mr. President, tell us that that's what you're about to do. And, Mr. President, if all else fails, you have authority to use force." That's what it said.
RUSSERT: Do you believe we're safer now that Saddam is gone?
BIDEN: I believe we are less safe as a nation now because what has happened is the conduct of this war has so badly damaged our readiness; the conduct of this war, and the, and, and, and the blood and resources we've had to expend, it has limited our credibility around the world and limited our flexibility in terms of the use of force. Here we are, we could end the carnage in Darfur tomorrow, but why aren't we doing it? In part we're not doing it because we are so tied down. We could fundamentally change the dynamic in Afghanistan. Why aren't we doing it? Because we are tied down. So in a broad, broad sense–so when I come back on my 41st, if you invite me back, or my 48th trip here, you don't say, "Well Biden, you know, you, you really like Saddam," you know, that's not what this is about. What it's about is Saddam was a butcher, the world's happy, may he burn in hell. He deserves it. But in terms of our globally–global positioning, our geopolitical strategy, as the think-tank guys down here talk about it, we are worse off than we were when we had Saddam sitting there because of the impact on our military and the impact on our credibility.
RUSSERT: The leader of the Democrats, Harry Reid, two weeks ago offered some comments. Let me share them with you and our viewers and come back and talk about them.
(Videotape, April 19, 2007)
SEN. MAJORITY LEADER HARRY REID (D-NV): I believe, myself, that the secretary of state, secretary of defense–and you have to make your own decision as to what the president knows–that this war is lost.
RUSSERT: Do you believe the secretary of state, secretary of defense believe the war is lost?
BIDEN: I believe the secretary of state and secretary of defense believe they don't know what to do with it, and they plan on handing this war over to the next president. I said that a year ago.
RUSSERT: Do you believe the war is lost?
BIDEN: I–this is, this is not a game show, where you know, a,a, a football game. What this is about is we have lost 3300 dead, we have 24,000 wounded, and, and we still have an opportunity to deal with the possibility of not trading a dictator for chaos, and–but it will not happen unless we have a serious change in our operating strategic premise. And that is we have to decentralize, not centralize this government. We've got to get the world community in on owning part of this, by calling an international conference to put pressure on the regional powers. If we don't do those two things, I don't see a happy ending to this whole undertaking. We may be forced into a position where there's no option, at some point, to withdraw and try to contain the chaos. The fact of the matter is that there is–I am worried about–my son gets angry with this. My son's unit may get sent to Iraq, and if it does, he goes. I don't want that to happen. But if it happens, it happens. But I don't want my grandson going. And how we leave Iraq is going to determine not merely whether my son goes or not, but whether my grandson goes. So the idea of winning and losing this is the wrong language, in my view. It's about salvaging our interest, or not salvaging our interest. And we're very close to not being able to salvage any of these policies.
RUSSERT: But these are serious words. If Senator Reid says the war is lost, that's an important choice of words, it's an important message.
BIDEN: And it's an important message I'm not delivering.
RUSSERT: So you disagree with him?
BIDEN: I–he can say what he says, I'll–I stick by what I said.
RUSSERT: But you say–if you–if you come to the conclusion that the war is lost, then you have an obligation to try to end it and stop funding.
BIDEN: Well, I think you have an obligation to figure out how to salvage your interests. Look, sometimes the game is lost, but what do you do? You may decide you're going to make sure that your halfback ends up winning the scoring championship by letting him run 12 more times. Look, this is not absolute. There's nothing absolute. If you believe–what is lost, is lost the opportunity to establish a democracy there? Well, that was lost on the day we got there. But if it is about whether or not you can establish a stable regime, an environment so this war doesn't metastasize, you do not have Turkey in after the Kurds, you don't have the Iranians in full-bore, you don't find this thing blowing up around the region, that is not lost yet. But it could be lost. What is the prize? What are we attempting to do here? What I'm attempting to do is protect American interests, so that we do not end up a year, three, five and 10 from now where there is total chaos in the Middle East well beyond the borders of Iraq.
RUSSERT: The Iraq Study Group said that your idea of partitioning Iraq is, is wrong, and...
RUSSERT: ...and, and would, and would result in even wider civil war. James Baker, the chairman of that committee, said that he's talked to experts and they believe it would trigger a, quote, a "huge civil war." Major cities are mixed between the Shiites and the Sunnis and that basically your plan just wouldn't work.
BIDEN: Basically, Baker's in a minority. Henry Kissinger's signed onto that plan. Madeleine Albright has signed onto the plan. If you look at the Baker report, it goes on to say "We may get where Biden is talking about." Guess what? We're getting there. What is this administration implicitly acknowledging by building a wall? Give me a break. They're building a wall, and they're talking about a centralized government? Now, look, Tim, you know what happened in the Balkans. Once there was an agreement reached as to this–political agreement reached as to the separation of the parties, from Brcko to Sarajevo to Srebrenica, there was an incredible diminution in the internecine warfare. Why? Because we're in the context of an overall political settlement. What this is all about is maneuvering each of these groups to determine who is going to call the shots. Once you've laid that out and you put yourself in a position where–look, there's never been a time in history that I can think of, Tim, where there's been a self-sustaining cycle of sectarian violence that has ended even remotely reasonably without a federated system. Never. What makes Jim Baker and everyone else think that this is going to be the first time in history that it's different? And mark my words, everybody's coming in the direction that I'm talking about. There's an inevitability to it.
RUSSERT: Before we take a break, Rudy Giuliani, one of the Republicans running for president, offered this analysis of the Democrats.
He said if a Democrat's "elected president in 2008, America will be at risk for another terrorist attack on the scale of September 11th. ...
"If a Republican's elected," he said, "especially if" it's "him, terrorist attacks can be anticipated and stopped." ...
"'But the question is how long will it take,'" "'how many casualties will we have?' Giuliani said. 'If we're on defense [with a Democratic president], we'll have more losses,'" "'it will go on longer.
"'I listen a little to the Democrats and if one of them gets elected, we are going on defense. The Democrats do not understand the full nature and scope of the terrorist war against us.'"
BIDEN: While Rudy and his friends were cheering on Star Wars, I made a speech the day before 9/11 to the National Press Club saying that because of the preoccupation of this administration of not focusing on terror, we are going to have a major terrorist attack and it's likely to come in the belly of a plane or in the hull of a ship. Rudy Giuliani continues to abide by and adhere to this utterly failed policy. The message Rudy should be sending is to the president, "Mr. President, you have not imported any, not a single solitary major recommendation, Mr. President, of the 9/11 Commission. Mr. President the majority of American cities still don't have any interoperable capability. Mr. President, all those cargo containers that come ashore in my city, they're not being inspected, Mr. President."
I say to Rudy, Rudy, you're directing your, your ire at the wrong guy, the guy you continue to cling to. This administration has been almost criminally negligent on what it has done to deal with protecting the homeland. They've cut thousands of cops across the nation. They're the ones who're going to find terrorists walking into an apartment complex that's been empty. They have not done virtually anything the 9/11 Commission has recommended. Rudy is being Rudy, and Rudy is dead wrong, and I really look forward to debating Rudy on this subject.
RUSSERT: We're going to take a quick break. More of our conversation with Joe Biden, Democratic candidate for president in 2008. Our Meet the Candidate series continues right after this.
RUSSERT: Meet the Candidates 2008, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden right after this station break.
RUSSERT: And we're back, talking to Senator Joe Biden.
I was up on your Web site looking at some of your campaign positions and promises.
BIDEN: I, I should go on that site.
RUSSERT: Yeah. Here's what you say about energy: "Biden would make a substantial national commitment by dramatically increasing investment in energy and climate change research" "technology.
"Health care" "expand health insurance for children" "relieve" the "families and" business "of the burden of expensive catastrophic cases.
"Education" "expand help for families by increasing" "tax" deductions "for tuition payments." "Expand Pell grants to cover the average tuition" to "public colleges for low income families." "Expand national service programs" to help "high school students so" "they can earn money for college.
"Homeland Security" "take back one year of the tax cuts for Americans who make over a million dollars" "and put this money in a dedicated Homeland Security and Public Safety Trust Fund.
"Crime: Biden's priority is restoring the nearly $2 billion" that's "been cut from state and local law enforcement."
All noble goals for Democrats, but it's more money, more money, more money.
BIDEN: Yeah, but it's...
RUSSERT: Where you going to get it?
BIDEN: I'll tell you where you get it. First of all, we're going to end this war. It's 100--$100 billion a year we're spending. Number one, it's 100 billion. Eliminate the tax cuts for people making over a million bucks, and they'll go for it. They, they didn't ask for it; they know they don't need it. That's 85 billion bucks a year.
RUSSERT: But that goes to the trust fund. You still have...
BIDEN: No, you have–you have...
RUSSERT: ...energy, health care, education.
BIDEN: No, I got it. I got it. Let's go through them, because I think you're asking, obviously, a fair question.
Eliminate the, the, the tax break for investment on dividends and–which is $195 billion is, is, is the cost of that. And begin to do, for example, on the crime side, it's pointed out in my crime bill for every single dollar we spent we saved the public $6, $6 dollars. We have to have–there's a fancy word down here–a little new paradigm down here in Washington, as my Republican friends like to say. Investment in these areas saves money. For example, for $26 billion a year, I can insure every single solitary child under the age of 18 in the United States. America doesn't have health insurance. For $3 billion a year, I can double the investment we have on alternative energy sources and research. For a billion dollars a year I can put 50,000 more cops back on the street. And so this is where–we're, we're talking manageable numbers. But the larger point here, in my view, the larger point here, and I think distinguishes me from Democrats, I think we got to start looking at the direct savings that come from the investments we make. If we make an investment in wellness, we save hundreds of billions of dollars here. And so we got to look at it differently, Tim. But you need start-up dollars. The place I'd start off with is somewhere over $220 billion a year by the tax cuts and ending the war. And, by the way, all you need is $10 billion a year for the next five years to fund every single solitary aspect of the 9/11 Commission report, and I would only use 10 of the 85 billion from the top 1 percent for that purpose.
RUSSERT: But, senator, we have a deficit. We have Social Security and Medicare looming. The number of people on Social Security and Medicare is now 40 million people. It's going to be 80 million in 15 years. Would you consider looking at those programs, age of eligibility...
RUSSERT: ...cost of living, put it all on the table.
BIDEN: The answer is absolutely. You have to. You know, it's–one of the things that my, you know, the political advisers say to me is, "Whoa, don't touch that third"–look, the American people aren't stupid. It's a real simple proposition. We have to do–you and I were talking about Bob Dole earlier. I was one of five people–I was the junior guy in the meeting with Bob Dole and George Mitchell when we put Social Security on the right path for 60 years. I'll never forget what Bob Dole said. After we reached an agreement about gradually raising the retirement age, etc., he said, "Look, here's the deal, we all put our foot in the boat one at a time." And he kicked–he stepped like he was stepping into a boat. "And we all make the following deal. If any one of the challengers running against the incumbent Democrat or Republicans attack us on this point, we'll all stay together." That's the kind of leadership that is needed. Social Security's not the hard one to solve. Medicare, that is the gorilla in the room, and you've got to put all of it on the table.
BIDEN: Everything. You've got to.
RUSSERT: Let me talk–turn to abortion. The ban on partial-birth abortions or late-term abortions, you supported that ban.
BIDEN: I did and I do.
RUSSERT: And the Supreme Court came and basically upheld that ban...
BIDEN: That's right.
RUSSERT: ...and you criticized the Supreme Court.
BIDEN: I'll tell you why I criticized the Supreme Court. They upheld the ban, and then they engaged in what we lawyers call dicta that is frightening. You had an intellectually dishonest rationale for an honest justification for upholding the ban, and that was this: They went further, and then they, in the language associated with the decision said, by the way, they blurred whether there is the first trimester and third trimester in how much–I know this is going to sound arcane to the listeners–but whether or not they blurred the distinction between the government's role in being involved in the first day and the ninth month. They blurred the role in terms of whether or not there is–they became paternalistic, talking about the court could consider the impact on the mother and keeping her from making a mistake. This is all code for saying, "Here we come to undo Roe v. Wade." And it went on to say, by the way, that the life of the mother was, in fact, permissible exception, and it went on to say that even–that any woman could challenge, even if her health is at risk, could come back to the court to challenge that. So the bottom line here is, what they did is not so much the decision, the actual outcome of the decision, it's what attended the decision that portends for a real hard move on the court to undo the right of privacy. That's what I'm criticizing about the court's decision.
RUSSERT: You have changed your position on abortion. When you came to the Senate, you believed that Roe v. Wade was not correctly decided and that you also believed a the right of abortion was not secured by the Constitution. Why did you change your mind?
BIDEN: Well, I was 29 years old when I came to the United States Senate, and I have learned a lot. Look, Tim, I'm a practicing Catholic, and it is the biggest dilemma for me in terms of comporting my, my religious and cultural views with my political responsibility. And the decision that I have come to is Roe v. Wade is as close to we're going to be able to get as a society that incorporates the general lines of debate within Christendom, Judaism and other faiths, where it basically says there is a sliding scale relating to viability of a fetus. We can argue about whether or not it's precisely set, whether it's right or wrong in terms of its three months as opposed to two months, but it does encompass, I've come to conclude, the only means by which, in this heterogeneous society of ours, we can read some general accommodation on what is a religiously charged and a publicly-charged debate. That's the, that's the decision I've come to.
Even within our own church, there's been debates about life, you know, from, from "Summa Theologica," Aquinas, and 40 days to quickening and right to, you know, you know, Pious IX, animated fetus doctrine and so on. So this–the, the, the decision's the closest thing politically to what has been the philosophic divisions existent among the major confessional faiths in our country. And that's why, I think, that's why I've come to the conclusion some long time ago, over 25 years ago, that is the–it is the template which makes the most sense.
RUSSERT: Are you still opposed to public funding for abortion?
BIDEN: I still am opposed to public funding for abortion, and the reason I am is, again, it goes to the question of whether or not you're going to impose a view to support something that is not a guaranteed right but an affirmative action to promote.
RUSSERT: Were you yourself–do you believe that life begins at conception?
BIDEN: I am prepared to accept my church's view. I think it's a tough one. I have to accept that on faith. That is a tough, tough decision to me. But there is a point relatively soon where viability–it's clear to me when there's viability, meaning the ability to survive outside the womb, that I don't have any doubt. That's why the late-term abortion, and that's why I continue, like your old boss Pat Moynihan, shared the same view, he was very pro-choice is–to use the jargon. But he, like me, believed that you have this notion of abortion in the last month, where there's clearly viability. And if you make that judgment based upon the nature of the child's health, that is not a good basis for a societal decision. Only the mother's health should be–dictate the outcome then. Otherwise, you, you yield to the side of the–of, of, of the fetus, which is almost full term.
RUSSERT: Let me bring you back to November of '03. You were asked this question. "Do you believe gay marriage is inevitable?" Biden: "I'm not sure. I think probably it is."
BIDEN: Well, I think it probably is because social mores change. But look, Tim, I don't think the government can dictate the definition of marriage to religious institutions. But government does have an obligation to guarantee that everybody has, every individual is free of discrimination. And there's a distinction. You and I talk–I shouldn't say this–I think we did–talked about Meacham's book, the "American Gospel." And I, anticipating you asking me this, I wrote a quote from his, from his book that I think sums it up. He says, "The American gospel is that religion shapes the life of the nation without strangling it." That's where I think–that's how we have to view these very difficult decisions. I think government should not be able to dictate to religions the definition of marriage, but I think, on a civil side, government has the obligation to strip away every vestige of discrimination as to what individuals are able to do in terms of their personal conduct.
RUSSERT: So New Hampshire coming out in favor of civil unions is OK by you?
BIDEN: Yes. Yes, it is.
RUSSERT: Let me turn to the debate on Thursday night, and Brian Williams' question of you and your answer. Here it is.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: (From MSNBC Democratic Candidates Debate) Senator Biden, words have, in the past, gotten you in trouble, words that were borrowed and words that some found hateful. An editorial in the Los Angeles Times said, "In addition to his uncontrolled verbosity, Biden is a gaffe machine." Can you reassure the voters in this country that you would have the discipline you would need on the world stage, senator?
RUSSERT: Was that hard?
BIDEN: No, not at all.
RUSSERT: You have gotten in trouble with your language. When you said that Barack Obama was clean and articulate, you apologized for it. Richard Cohen of The Washington Post wrote this: "Loose Lips Sink. The only thing standing between Joe Biden and the presidency is his mouth. His Achilles' heel is his mouth." Do you have a problem?
BIDEN: No. I don't have a–look, I have met with more world leaders and as many world leaders as anybody who sits in government today. They've never had a problem understanding me. Milosevic had no problem understanding me when I said, "I think you're a war criminal. I'm going to do everything in power to see you're tried as one." The prime minister of, of Great Britain's never misunderstood me. All the way back to Deng Xiaoping, he never understood–misunderstood me. Look, this is a rough game, man. This is a very rough game. My referring to Barack as articulate, it was a mistake. But guess what, if you look at–I will not mention the national press person who just–in saying that the problem with Barack's appearance last–on the debate was he wasn't articulate enough. I mean look, give me–give me a break. The average American out there understands–look, let me put it another way. The good thing about being around a long time is people have a basis upon which to judge you. And I didn't find any serious person in the civil rights community, because of my long history and long support for civil rights, thinking that I was trying to insult Barack Obama in any way. I didn't find anyone suggesting that anything else I have said goes to the heart of whether or not my record is, is being undercut by what I've stated. But it is true. It is true that my candor sometimes get me in trouble.
RUSSERT: And so does, sometimes, your embellishment. You go back to '88 when you withdrew as a candidate, this is the way E.J., E.J. Dionne wrote it: "Mr. Biden's trouble began with the revelation that he had used, without attribution, long portions of a moving address by the British Labor Party leader, Neil Kinnock." "It emerged" "he had also used passages from the speeches of Robert" "Kennedy" "Hubert Humphrey." "It was revealed that Mr. Biden had been disciplined as a first-year law student for using portions of a law review article in a paper without proper attribution" and "was hit again by a videotape of" his "appearance in New Hampshire in which he misstated several facts about his academic career." That was a problem.
BIDEN: No, it was.
RUSSERT: And you learned from it?
BIDEN: I did. It was 20 years ago, and I learned from it. The good for me is, and the bad news, people have had 20 years to judge since then whether or not I am the man they see or I am what I was characterized as being 20 years ago. I learned a lot from it, and, let me tell you, it was a bitter way to learn it, but I learned a lot.
RUSSERT: Let me ask you about something you said at Al Sharpton's National Action Network on April 19th. Here it is, and let's come back and talk about it.
(Videotape, April 19, 2007)
SEN. BIDEN: To paraphrase a line from the Bible, you reap what you sow. And ladies and gentlemen, we are reaping what we have sown, the seeds of destruction and the seeds of malcontention that we've sown. I would argue, since 1994 with the Gingrich revolution, ladies and gentlemen, just take a look at Iraq, Venezuela, Katrina, what's gone down in Virginia Tech, Darfur, Imus. Take a look. This didn't happen accidentally, all of these things. Since 1994, from the Gingrich revolution to Karl Rove and President Bush, we have wallowed, wallowed in the politics of polarization.
RUSSERT: Explain that logic. How does Virginia Tech or Don Imus, relate to the Gingrich revolution or Karl Rove or George Bush?
BIDEN: Well, by the way, they're, they're, they're not directly responsible for any of those things, but the atmosphere–look, think of it this way, how many shock jocks did we have in 1970s and the 1980s? What happened when we concluded that when Newt Gingrich said the way to win the House is to burn the House down? When all of the sudden we went from–I served, for example, I got here and a lot of old segregationists were still here. Yet, we did not engage in arguments about motive, we engaged in arguments about policy. And all of a sudden, in the, in the mid '90s, it became "If you're not with us, you're not a good Christian. If you're not with us, you're not moral. If you share a view, you are unpatriotic." The whole nature of the debate changed. You had senators talking about the president of the United States on the floor calling him Bubba. And we wonder why that doesn't percolate through the entire society.
RUSSERT: But Virginia Tech? How does that relate?
BIDEN: Oh, well, what Virginia Tech is about is the debate that come out–came out afterwards, where you had this whole debate about, you know, if everybody had a gun, this wouldn't have happened and so on. I mean, it wasn't–it didn't produce that kid, that kid was mentally deranged. And it didn't produce that.
But think of the–all the other things, Tim. I mean, you cannot engage–a leader cannot engage–the leaders of the country cannot engage in this kind of, of, of talk and the way we characterize people and the hatefulness of it and think it doesn't permeate society. As I said earlier, you know, the famous line of Pat Moynihan, we've defined decency down. I mean, look, what we've defined down is, is civility in this country. I mean, things that you could say today in the public square, you would have been pilloried for saying in 1975. It matters.
RUSSERT: You said this back in September of 1987 as sort of a diagnosis about yourself, "I exaggerate when I'm angry."
BIDEN: Yeah. That's true. I did. And look, and that, and that was '87. And, and, and the question was related directly to a guy asking me about where I stood in my class. And I was like–I was an immature 42-year-old guy who was acting like "Your mother wears combat boots" in response. I thought he was challenging my–and I just went out at it, and I didn't know where the heck I ended up in my class. I honest to God had no–I wonder how many Americans would say, "Tell me exactly where you ended up in your class," and they could give you a number. And I just went out, and I was angry. But that had–I mean, I have, a lot's happened in my life since then. And hopefully I'm a much–I've controlled that, that, that anger. I mean, the joke was I had two craniotomies, and, you know, because I had two major aneurysms, and they had to take the top of my head off a couple times. And as one wag in Delaware said, writing about it, the reason they had to go in a second time is they couldn't find a brain the first time. Well, I hope when they were in the second time, they cut the temper cord...
RUSSERT: So the exaggeration and the anger is gone?
BIDEN: Yeah, it is gone, because all you've got to do is lie in a hospital bed for five months, them telling you you're not going to make it and–to give you a new appreciation for the lack of urgency in anything other than life-and-death issues.
RUSSERT: Joe Biden said that he needed to raise $40 million to be viable in this campaign. Thus far you've raised about $2 million. You're 2 percent in the polls. Are you viable?
BIDEN: Yes. I think what I said was that I needed to be able to get through the campaign. That's what I had to do, not to start the campaign. I believe to get through the first–and I have to admit to you, I admit I thought a lot more about how to be president than how to get elected president, but I think I can raise sufficient money to make me viable in the first four contests, and I think that's going to be where the decision is made about who the next nominee's going to be.
RUSSERT: You said in the debate whoever wishes for Hillary is making a big mistake on the Republican side. You seem to be almost a quasi-endorsement. Are you interested in being vice president?
BIDEN: No. I will not be vice president under any circumstances.
RUSSERT: How about secretary of state?
BIDEN: Secretary of state's a different thing, but I don't–I won't do that either. Look, the bottom line is, I really resent it when they go after her or other Democrats the way they do. I think it's–I think part of this is being fair. And the idea that Hillary Clinton is somehow not capable of dealing with–or any one of those candidates, or at least four of the candidates–not being able to deal with Rudy Giuliani I find–or others–I, I find not very accurate.
RUSSERT: Senator Joe Biden, we thank you for joining us...
BIDEN: Thanks a lot.
Joseph R. Biden, Interview with Tim Russert on NBC News' "Meet the Press" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/278218