John Edwards photo

Interview with Tim Russert on NBC News' "Meet the Press"

February 04, 2007

RUSSERT: Senator Edwards, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.

EDWARDS: Thank you for having me, Tim.

RUSSERT: A few weeks ago, Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts was on this program, and he said that, in his entire career in the United States Senate, spanning 40 years, the vote he cast on the war in–on–in Iraq was the most important. Do agree with it was the most important vote you cast?


RUSSERT: And, in your mind, you got it wrong.


RUSSERT: I'm going to go back to October of 2002, that critical week when the Senate was debating the war and you gave a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

EDWARDS: Yes, sir.

RUSSERT: Let's watch it and come back and talk about it.

(Videotape, October 7, 2002)

EDWARDS: My position is very clear. The time has come for decisive action to eliminate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. I'm a co-sponsor of the bipartisan resolution that is presently under consideration in the Senate. Saddam Hussein's regime is a grave threat to America and our allies. We know that he has chemical and biological weapons today, that he's used them in the past, and that he's doing everything he can to build more. Every day he gets closer to his long-term goal of nuclear capability.

(End videotape)

RUSSERT: " A grave threat to America," do you still believe that?


RUSSERT: Why were you so wrong?

EDWARDS: For the same reason a lot of people were wrong. You know, we–the intelligence information that we got was wrong. I mean, tragically wrong. On top of that I'd–beyond that, I went back to former Clinton administration officials who gave me sort of independent information about what they believed about what was happening with Saddam's weapon–weapons programs. They were also wrong. And, based on that, I made the wrong judgment. I, I, I want to go another step, though, because I think this is more than just weapons of mass destruction. I mean, I–at the–I remember vividly what I was thinking about at the time. It was, first, I was convinced he had weapons of mass destruction. That's turned out to be completely wrong and false. I had internal conflict because I was worried about what George Bush would do. I didn't have–I didn't have confidence about him doing the work that needed to be done with the international community, the lead-up to a potential invasion in Iraq. I didn't know, in fairness, that he would be as incompetent as he's been in the administration of the war. But I had–there were at least two things going on. It wasn't just the weapons of mass destruction I was wrong about. It's become absolutely clear–and I'm very critical of myself for this–become absolutely clear, looking back, that I should not have given this president this authority.

RUSSERT: At that time, however, Senator Kennedy's saying, " This is not an imminent threat." General Zinni, who led the military in that region, said this is the wrong war.

EDWARDS: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: General Scowcroft, former President Bush's national security advisor. And the National Intelligence Estimate that was given to you and now made public had some real caveats, and this is one of them. " The activities we have detected do not ... add up to a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing what INR [the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research] would consider to be an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons." Do you remember seeing that?

EDWARDS: Mm-hmm, I did see it. I mean, I, I think it was–there were serious questions about whether–again, we're looking back. Now we know none of this was true. But, at the time, there were serious questions about any effort to obtain nuclear weapons, which is what that statement just was. All of us believed there was no question that he had chemical and biological weapons, and there was at least some scattered evidence that he was making an effort to get nuclear weapons.

RUSSERT: But it seems as if, as a member of the intelligence committee, you just got it dead wrong, and that you even ignored some caveats and ignored people who were urging caution.

EDWARDS: Well, I, I, I would–first of all, I don't want to defend this. Let me be really clear about this. I think anybody who wants to be president of the United States has got to be honest and open, be willing to admit when they've done things wrong. One of the things, unfortunately, that's happened in Iraq is we've had a president who was completely unmoving, wouldn't change course, wouldn't take any responsibility or admit that he'd made any mistakes. And I think America, in fact the world has paid a huge price for that. So I accept my responsibility. I'm not defending what I did. Because what happened was the information that we got on the intelligence committee was, was relatively consistent with what I was getting from former Clinton administration officials. I told you a few minutes ago I was concerned about giving this president the authority, and I turned out to be wrong about that.

RUSSERT: In that same speech I showed earlier, you seemed to embrace, however, a–the Bush vision of what could happen in Iraq. And let's just watch that and come back and talk about it.


(Videotape, October 7, 2002)

EDWARDS: Democracy will not spring up by itself overnight in a multiethnic, complicated society that's suffered under one repressive regime after another for generations. The Iraqi people deserve and need our help to rebuild their lives and to create a prosperous, thriving, open society. All Iraqis, including Sunnis, Shia and Kurds, deserve to be represented. This is not just a moral imperative. It's a security imperative. It is in America's national interest to help build an Iraq at peace with itself and its neighbors, because a democratic, tolerant and accountable Iraq will be a peaceful regional partner, and such an Iraq could serve as a model for the entire Arab world.

(End videotape)

RUSSERT: Do you think that was naive?

EDWARDS: No, I think that had, had Saddam, who's–had the war in Iraq been executed the way that it should have been executed, I think there would be a much greater likelihood of there being a democratic Iraq. I think we would still see at least some symptoms of what we're seeing raging on the ground in Iraq right now. But no, I think there was some potential for a democracy in Iraq.

RUSSERT: Many have suggested, included some of the candidates Friday at the Democratic National Committee, that the reason so many Democrats voted for giving the president authority in October of 2002 was a political calculation. They were afraid of the midterm elections of 2002. Do you think that's fair?

EDWARDS: It's a–it's a completely fair question. If I–if I were watching a, a politician under those circumstances, I'd be very cynical about what their motives are, and why, why they did what they did. I can only tell you, in my case, I came to the conclusion, turned out to be wrong, that the president should be given this authority.

I do think it's important–again, not defensively–but important to point out that I didn't run the war and neither did the other people in Congress who voted for the war. The president's the one who made this extraordinary mess. I mean, it's been mistake after mistake after mistake. But I did cast this vote, and I'm the person responsible for this vote, no one else.

RUSSERT: Let me bring you back to October 10th of 2004. You were running for vice president, a few weeks before the election...


RUSSERT: were on this program. The war...

EDWARDS: I remember.

RUSSERT: The war is now a year and a half old, and I asked you about your vote. Let's watch.


(Videotape, October 10, 2004)

RUSSERT: If you knew today, and you do know, there is–there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, would you still vote to go to war with Iraq?

EDWARDS: I would have voted for the resolution, knowing what I know today, because it was the right thing to do to give the president the authority to confront Saddam Hussein.

I think Saddam Hussein was a very serious threat. I stand by that, and that's why we stand behind our vote on the resolution.

(End of videotape)

RUSSERT: That's a year and a half into the war.

EDWARDS: Mm-hmm. Perfect–that's a very fair question. I can tell you what happened with me, personally. We got through–I was–at that point, I was in the middle of a very intense campaign, one that I thought was very important for America. When the campaign was over and the election was over, we had a lot going on in my own family. Elizabeth had been diagnosed with breast cancer, we were taking care of her. And for the first time I had time to really think about, number one, what I was going to spend my time doing, and, number two, my vote for this war. And over time, when I reflected on what I thought was going to be necessary going forward, to have some moral foundation to work on issues like poverty and genocide, things that I care deeply about, I could no longer defend this vote. It was pretty simple. And I got to the place I felt like I had to say it and had to say it publicly. And so–what?--a year–a year or so ago I did that.

RUSSERT: But if you look back and people say, well, the midterm elections of 2002, the Democrats did not have the courage to stand up to President Bush and voted for the war, weeks before the mid–the presidential election of 2004, you're running for vice president of the United States, a chance to say something about the war. Instead you said, 'My vote was correct, Saddam was a threat.'

EDWARDS: But in–but in fairness we were very critical about the war at that point, during the 2004 campaign, very critical about the war, very critical of what was happening with the war, the impact that the war had had on America's moral standing in the world. But, you know, my, my vote was wrong, and I, I–and I take responsibility for it.

RUSSERT: And you said that in November of '05 publicly, an op-ed piece in The Washington Post.

EDWARDS: I did. I did.

RUSSERT: Last Wednesday you gave an interview to The Politico, and you said this: " 'When we went to war, Senator Clinton and I both voted for it. ...' Edwards [said]. 'I have since said I was wrong, and I take responsibility for that. I have not heard Senator Clinton say that.' Should she say she was wrong? [Edwards was] asked. 'That is a moral decision she has to make,' Edwards said." Do you believe Senator Clinton is morally bound to admit the war was wrong?

EDWARDS: I think she's morally bound to follow her own conscience. If she–if she believes–and this doesn't just apply to her, it applies to anybody in the Congress–if she believes that her vote was wrong, then yes, she should say so. If she believes that her vote was right, then she should defend it.

RUSSERT: Can you be the Democratic candidate for president without saying the war was wrong?

EDWARDS: Yes, of course you can, if, if that's what you truly believe, and that's what your heart and conscience state.

RUSSERT: You talked about silence is betrayal, and you're urging your other candidates to step forward and clearly enunciate their views on the war in Iraq. The Clinton campaign responded this way: " 'In 2004, John Edwards used to constantly brag about running a positive campaign. Today, he has unfortunately chosen to open his campaign with political attacks on Democrats who are fighting the Bush administration's Iraq policy,' said Clinton adviser Howard Wolfson."

EDWARDS: We are at a critical time in American history. The last thing we should be worried about is how politicians react and how their feelings are hurt. What we ought to be focused on is what needs to be done about this moral issue about the war. It's stopping George Bush from escalating this war. And I think all of us have a personal responsibility, if we believe, for example–that's–and that's what the subject was that you were talking about–if we believe that it is morally wrong to escalate this war, and it is strategically wrong to escalate war. What I have said is it is not enough to give speeches, to talk to political pundits, to pass nonbinding resolutions. We have to step to the plate and show some courage and do what's right on behalf of these men and women who are serving in Iraq and on behalf of that–people in that region of the world. The country and the world is owed that from us. It's at such a critical point in America's history that we have to stand up and show some backbone.

RUSSERT: If you were in the Senate, would you vote to cut off funding for the war?

EDWARDS: Well, first of all, I'm not running for the Senate, I'm running for president of the United States. What I would do is, is say we're not going to fund an escalation of this war. That's what I think we should do. I would not cut off funding for the men and women who are part of our troops and serving in, in, in Iraq. Now, we know that a significant number–in fact, I think most of the troops who are part of the surge–and by the way, there was a disturbing report in the last couple of days that, you know, 20,000-plus troops may turn into 40,000 troops, because there's 20,000-plus combat troops who will have to be supported. I think that's–will be very surprising to most of America who heard the president speak about this. But we know most of them are already there, and what's actually going to happen is, in Anbar province where the Marines are, around Baghdad where the Army is, their deployments are going to be extended. And these are men and women who are already on their second, third–many of them–their second and third deployment. They deserve to come home. Their families deserve for them to come home.

And what I'm saying is that the men and women in Congress who have a vote, and those of us who have a, a platform to talk about this nationally, we have a responsibility to those men and women. And I, I actually believe that what the president and Cheney are counting on is that what we'll do is we'll talk about it, we'll complain about it, we'll talk about how bad the escalation is, but, at the end of the day, we'll go along. We cannot go along. We cannot enable this president to make another in a–in a terrible series of bad mistakes.

RUSSERT: So stop funding for the monies that would be paying for the surge?

EDWARDS: That would pay for the escalation, that's correct.

RUSSERT: Another opponent in the Democratic race for the presidency is Barack Obama of Illinois. In October of 2002, he was a state senator in the Illinois legislature. He came out against the war, and I want to share his words with you and our viewers. " I know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military is a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.

" I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars." His judgment was on the money.

EDWARDS: Yeah, he–he's correct. Now, I will say, he wasn't burdened, like a lot of us with the information that we were receiving on the Intelligence Committee. And as members of the United States Senate, we were getting very intimate, detailed information about what was actually happening in Iraq. Senator Obama, I think, you–what'd you say?--was a state senator at the time. So he obviously wasn't, wasn't in the Congress and wasn't part of the–of the decision making. But a lot of those predictions turned out to be true.

RUSSERT: But why shouldn't voters in Democratic primaries say, 'On the big issue of the war, Obama was right, Edwards was wrong'?

EDWARDS: I was wrong. They should say that. And the question becomes,

'Who's best suited to be president of the United States? Who has the depth, the maturity, the judgment to be president of the United States?' And what I would say to anybody is I take full responsibility for what I did, I should be held accountable for that, but I do think it matters when you're willing to be open and honest with voters about what you've done. I think it's really important that the next president of the United States–and I'm not criticizing anybody, certainly not Senator Obama. But I think it's really important that the next president of the United Sates be a good, decent, honorable human being who's open and honest with the country because that is the only way we're going to re-establish trust between the American people and the president. And I also think it's going to be really important to re-establishing trust between America and the world, because the president is, in effect, the personification of America. And when the president, what I believe–one of the things I do believe the president needs to do is, in the first 100 days, travel the world, not just meet with leaders, but speak to the people of the world the way great American presidents have in the past. The famous John Kennedy " I am a Berliner" speech is an example. And for that to work and for us to spread a message that America doesn't tolerate diversity, we embrace diversity, different cultures, different faith beliefs–it's the heart of who we are–that spokesperson is going to have to be somebody that the rest of the world looks up to and respects.

RUSSERT: Do you believe that Senator Clinton has been open and honest about her support of the war in Iraq?

EDWARDS: I don't know the answer to that question, honestly. I, I can't–I can't–I don't know what's inside her, her head and her heart about this. I can't tell whether there are political calculations going on. I just don't know. But I think, as we go, that's what campaigns are about. I have a high opinion of Senator Clinton. She's done a remarkable job as a U.S. senator, but being president of the United States is a different test. And I think, through the course of this campaign, all of us, not just me or Senator Clinton or Senator Obama, but all the Democratic candidates and all the Republican candidates are going to be scrutinized for whether they have the character to be president of the United States. And they should be.

RUSSERT: You mentioned the vote in the Senate, and this is what you said about it. " That nonbinding resolution against Iraq troop surge favored by Barack Obama? 'Useless,' said Edwards. 'Exactly like a child standing in the corner and stomping his feet.'"


RUSSERT: So the Democrats shouldn't vote for the resolution against the president's surge.

EDWARDS: Oh no, it's fine to vote for the resolution, but the–complaining at this historic moment in American history is not enough. I mean, we won the election. We're now in charge of the House and the Senate. We have–we have the power to actually do something about this escalation. I totally understand that there are political consequences from, from showing that strength and courage. But I think it's necessary. I think it's what America needs from us.

RUSSERT: But if Democrats voted to cut off funding for the troops who are part of the surge, the accusation would be they're not supporting the men and women.

EDWARDS: But there's a very easy way to do this. In fact, I saw you questioning Senator Kennedy on the show about this. Senator Kennedy actually has a bill that, that–what it says is, in order–if it's passed into law–in order for more troops above the levels that are there now to be put into Iraq, the president would first have to come to Congress–and they use their funding authority as the basis for this–would have to come to Congress and get their permission. And I don't believe the Congress would give him that permission under the circumstances. So there–there's an easy, straightforward way to do this, but we, we have to have the strength to do it.

RUSSERT: Senator Joe Biden, another opponent in the Democratic race for the White House, had some things to say about your Iraq policy in the New York Observer. " 'I don't think John Edwards knows what the heck he's talking about,' Mr. Biden said, when asked about Mr. Edwards' advocacy of the immediate withdrawal of about 40,000 American troops from Iraq."

" John Edwards wants you and all the Democrats to think, 'I want us out of there,' but when you come back and say, 'OK, John, ... what about the chaos that will ensue? Do we have any interest, John, left in the region?' Well, John will have to answer yes or no. If he says yes, what are they? What are those interests, John? How do you protect those interests, John, if you are completely withdrawn? Are you withdrawn from the region, John? Are you withdrawn from Iraq, John? In what period? So all this stuff is like so much Fluffernutter out there. So for me, what I think you have to do is have a strategic notion. And they may have it - they are just smart enough not to enunciate it."

EDWARDS: Fluffernutter, huh?

RUSSERT: Did you ever have one?

EDWARDS: Oh, I, I think–I,I actually saw Senator Biden talking about this interview on television a few days ago. I think this is, unfortunately, I–part of the same interview where he criticized Senator Clinton also, and also talked about Senator Obama, which has gotten so much attention. I think he just–I think he had bad information. He misunderstood, based on what I heard him say, what I was saying that we should do in Iraq.

RUSSERT: But you are calling for an immediate withdrawal of 40,000 troops.

EDWARDS: That I am, yes. What I think we–I'm sorry, I don't mean to interrupt you.

RUSSERT: No, that's OK, excuse me, because, because that's an important point. The, the National Intelligence Estimate came out last week...


RUSSERT: ...which talked about the grave situation in Iraq, but it also addressed the issue of an immediate withdrawal of a sizable number of troops.

EDWARDS: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: And this is what the intelligence community said. " If Coalition forces were withdrawn rapidly ... we judge that this almost certainly would lead to a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict in Iraq, intensify Sunni resistance to the Iraqi Government, and have adverse consequences for national reconciliation.

" If such a rapid withdrawal were to take place, we judge that the [Iraqi Security Force] would be unlikely to survive as a nonsectarian national institution; neighboring countries ... might intervene openly in the conflict; massive civilian casualties and forced population displacement would be probable; [al-Qaeda in Iraq] would attempt to use parts of the country - particularly al-Anbar province - to plan increased attacks in and outside of Iraq." They're talking about your plan.

EDWARDS: Well, can we step back? I, I...

RUSSERT: Please.

EDWARDS: I'll respond to that specifically. If we can step back for a minute, because we really haven't talked about what I think, as president of the United States, we should do–if I were president today–what we should do in Iraq. I think everyone recognizes that what's happening on the ground in Iraq is a direct result of the Sunnis, the Baathists having been in, in power for a long period of time under Saddam, and now–as a minority–and now the Shia and the Maliki-led government are in charge, and they feel excluded. They think they're on the outside, which they largely are, legally and constitutionally. And that feeds the violence. It is the foundation for the violence. There are other contributors, which everyone recognizes. Certainly the foreign fighters, the terrorists, the Shia militia are all contributing to the ongoing violence. But the basic foundation for the violence is very clear, which is why I and others, the Baker group, determined that the only solution is not a military solution, but a political resolution, a political reconciliation. So the starting place for me in analyzing what we should be doing in Iraq, to create the–create the greatest chance for success–and I'll caveat what I'm about to say with what you just read and what is in the rest of that N.I.E. report from, from this week, which is the conditions are horrendous in Iraq. Not–and there–what's basically happened is there's a political track and there's a security track, and they're terrible on both fronts. So everyone recognizes this place could go chaotic no matter what you do, and I'd be the first to say that.

But the question is what do we do to try to get the Maliki, Shia-led government to bring the Sunni in, so as to have a buy-in to a long-term, stable government? What do we do to get the Sunni, disorganized as they are, leadership to try to contribute to a buy-in to the–to, to a political reconciliation? And the president's plan is we put 20,000-plus more troops into Iraq. I think all that does is enable the continued bad behavior, political bad behavior that we've seen over the last few years. What we need to do instead, in my judgment, is to shift this responsibility to them. It is the most likely way to create this political reconciliation.

Now, the argument by Senator McCain and others would be as long as the condition on the grounds–and that's what you–on the ground is as bad as it is–and that's what you just read from the N.I.E. report–is as bad as, as it is, political reconciliation is impossible. I think they've got it exactly backwards. I don't think there's any chance that these two groups are going to reach any kind of reconciliation until they feel imminent responsibility. We cannot continue to prop them up.

Now, I would add that I think it would be foolish for the president of the United States, if we go through this process–I mean, what I think the process should be is withdraw, as you pointed out, one piece of it, 40-, 50,000 troops now from the more secure areas of Iraq, continue to draw down American troops, combat troops over the course of the next 12-plus months, make it clear to the–to the leadership, both the Sunni and, and Maliki and, and the Shia that they're going to have to take responsibility for this. And finally, engage not just our friends in that region of the world–the Saudis, the Jordanians, the Egyptians–but engage directly with Iran and Syria, because both Iran and Syria have an interest in Iraq not going totally chaotic. I mean, if you just look–for a moment, just think about Iran. They're in a situation where–and by the way, we–it should be pointed out that Iran has actually participated in support–while they have done some bad things, they provided supplies, equipment to these Shia militia. On the other hand, they have been fairly supportive of the Shia-led government in, in Iraq.

So what is Iran's interest in this? Iran's interest is first of all in not having, you know, a million-plus refugees coming across their western border, which could clearly happen with an all-out civil war within Iraq. Their, their second interest is they are Shia, Shia-dominated country, Iraq is a Shia-dominated country in a Sunni-dominated Muslim world. They're about 10 to 15 percent of the Muslim world. So if this thing were to actually go completely to pot and to spill over, and it became a broader Middle East conflict, they are very much in the minority. And I can assure you they understand that. So we have leverage in dealing with Iraq. Similar leverage, leverage with Sunnis. They don't want to see the refugees coming across their border–Syria, I'm sorry. They don't want to see the refugees coming across their border; they're Sunni not Shia. But they also have an interest in not seeing this thing go chaotic. But they will never participate in stabilizing the country as long as we are the occupying force there.

RUSSERT: If, in fact, you withdrew 40,000 troops and the situation was, in your words, " totally chaotic," would you have the option of bringing the troops back into Iraq?

EDWARDS: I can tell you exactly what I'd do as president. I'd start drawing the troops down. I'd bring out the 40,000 to begin with. I'd continue the process in a very thoughtful, orderly way with, with the suggestions of my military commanders on the ground. The second thing I would do is I'd have very close, 24-hour-a-day monitoring of what's happening with the situation on the ground to see if it's, in fact, deteriorating. As we reduced our presence over time, I think we'd need to keep troops in the region. The redeployment, I believe some, some American men and women should come home, some should go into Kuwait, some should go into Afghanistan, which we haven't talked about, which is moving south, unfortunately. The Taliban's resurging, heroin trade is way up. So those are the things I would do. The troops, I'd keep–I'd keep an able presence in the Persian Gulf, and then I would watch and monitor what's happening.

And I–at the–simultaneous with that, I would be working with both my intelligence leaders and my military commanders to develop a policy about–a plan, not a policy, about what we would do in the case this thing blows into total civil war. Hard to predict. You don't know how, how, how bad it would be. But you clearly would have to have some mechanism for containing so that this thing doesn't spill over. You'd want the Syrians and the Iranians to be involved with that, the Saudis, the Kuwaitis, everybody that, that borders, borders Iraq. And there's some obvious things to do. In fact, I thought–I saw that Ken Pollack discussed this on your show last week. But you need to plan for every possibility. Because the overwhelming message from this N.I.E. report, you know, the Democrats will pick out their stuff that they want to argue and the Republicans will pick out their stuff. The overwhelming message, though, is we are in a terrible place in Iraq, and the choices are bad and worse, and we have to prepare for, for the worst possibility.

RUSSERT: Do you think that the Bush administration is planning for a war in Iran?

EDWARDS: I don't know. I don't know. I hope not. I don't know. I think that there's a legitimate concern about Iran getting a nuclear weapon. We should be concerned about that for a lot of reasons, including the possibility that, first, that they would use it; second, that it could, could nuclearize the Middle East, the most volatile place on the planet. But what's disturbing is that we're not dealing with this in a smart way at all, in my judgment. Here–what we've got is a radical leader, Ahmadinejad, who's bellicose in his rhetoric about America, bellicose in his rhetoric about nuclear weapons and about Israel, but he is not politically stable in his own country. He is–first of all, the political elite have largely left him, there are religious leaders who have left him. He was elected on a platform of economic reform and strengthening the middle class and lifting people out of poverty. He hasn't done anything about any of those things. What he's doing instead is he gives speeches and he travels around the world drawing attention to himself. And what this has done is it has begun to isolate him from his own people.

Now, what would strengthen him? A military strike by America against Iran would strengthen him. They would rally around this guy. On top of that, we would see retaliation. It'd be hard for them to get to us, except through terrorists, but they–we got 100,000-plus American men and women right next door, and there–a lot of us believe that there's an infrastructure for retaliation if that were to happen. What–what's much smarter for us to do, certainly now, for the time being–no American president should ever take any option off the table–but what's smarter for us to do now is to continue to tap into this growing isolation between this radical leader and his own people.

And what should be done, in my judgment, is we ought–we ought to work with our friends in Europe. You know, actually, the banking institutions in Europe have been pretty good about being tough on Iranian banks. The governments have been less good. But we ought to put an offer of both sticks and carrots on the table. We ought to make it clear that there are things that America and the Europeans are willing to do–it'd be great if we could get the Russians and the Chinese to participate–but certainly the Europeans, they have economic leverage with Iran. And those things include making the nuclear fuel available to them, controlling the cycle–this has been offered before–but combining that with a set of economic incentives that will be very attractive to the people in, in Iran who're already feeling an isolation from this president. And then on the stick side say, 'But there will be consequences if you don't give up your nuclear program. And the consequences are the economic decline that you're seeing within your own country will be accelerated, and it will be accelerated because the bank–the banks in Europe and the European governments will not continue to do economic business with Iran.'

RUSSERT: Would President Edwards allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon?

EDWARDS: I–there's no answer to that question at this moment. I think that it's a–it's a–it's a very bad thing for Iran to get a nuclear weapon. I think we have–we have many steps in front of us that have not been used. We ought to negotiate directly with the Iranians, which has not, not been done. The things that I just talked about, I think, are the right approach in dealing with Iran. And then we'll, we'll see what the result is.

RUSSERT: But they may get one.

EDWARDS: Yeah. I think–I think the–we don't know, and you have to make a judgment as you go along, and that's what I would do as president.

RUSSERT: You said this about President Bush in answer to this question:

" 'You don't believe President Bush is a good man in difficult circumstances trying to do the right thing?' [Edwards was] asked.

" 'I don't believe it. I don't,' Edwards said." You don't believe he's a good man, or you don't think he's trying to do the right thing?

EDWARDS: The context in which that discussion took place was I was describing what I wanted to see and, I think, most of America wanted to see from their president when he spoke about Iraq a few weeks ago. And his policy is obviously enormously important. But beyond that, I think what Americans want in their president, particularly in these hard–we're in very difficult, historic times. I think they want a president that they feel like they can trust and who's being open and honest with them about how difficult circumstances are, what the possibilities are, and to feel like, even though it's hard, even though it's difficult, and even though the president may not be doing what they would do under the same circumstances, that he's a good and decent human being that they believe is trying to do everything he can. I did not see that in George Bush's speech. What I saw in George Bush's speech was a continuation of trying to sell the American people about what's happening in Iraq.

RUSSERT: We're going to take a quick break and come back and talk about health care and a whole lot more. More of our conversation with John Edwards. Decision 2008, Meet the Candidates, will continue after this.


RUSSERT: Meet the Candidates 2008, presidential candidate John Edwards.

More of our conversation after this station break.


RUSSERT: And we are back. Senator Edwards, Friday you spoke to the Democratic National Committee about health care. I want to show that clip and come back and talk about it.

(Videotape, DNC Winter Meeting, Friday)

EDWARDS: Can we finally say we stand now and forever for every single man, woman and child in America having health care, universal health care? We will leave no one behind. We will not allow a single family or a single child in America to not have health care coverage and to not have the health care that they need and deserve.

(End videotape)

RUSSERT: Universal health care, noble goal, but that's 47 million more men, women and children. How much would that cost and what kind of plan would you propose?

EDWARDS: It'd cost between 90 and 120 billion a year once it's–once it's fully implemented. I will, on this show and tomorrow, be laying out details of a universal health care plan. Basically, we start with the problem, which are–we want to get–make sure that the 47 million people who don't have health care coverage are covered immediately. Second, we want to do–deal with the costs that middle class families, who may have health care coverage but are worried about paying for it, worried about keeping it. Premiums are up 90 percent, literally 90 percent just over the last few years. So I want to do something to bring costs down for others. And we want to create some efficiencies that allow competition. And, and then finally–here, here's the bottom line. We want to make sure everybody's covered, we want to help middle class families with the costs, we want–we want to try to create competition that doesn't exist today. And I think the best, most effective way to do that I–which is what my plan will be as I lay it out tomorrow, is we take the 46 million, 47 million people who don't have health care coverage, we expand Medicaid, we provide subsidies for people who don't have coverage. We ask employers to play a bigger role, which means they either have to have coverage, or they have to buy into what we're calling health markets. We're going to create health markets all across the country which will help provide some of these efficiencies. One of the choices, by the way, available in these health markets is the government plan. So people who like the idea of a single-payer insurer health plan, that is actually one of the alternatives that people can choose. They'll be allowed to choose. We expand SCHIP; we expand Medicaid. The bottom line is we're asking everybody to share in the responsibility of making health care work in this country. Employers, those who are in the medical insurance business, employees, the American people–everyone will have to contribute in order to make this work.

RUSSERT: Would you be willing to raise taxes in order to help pay for this?

EDWARDS: Yes, we'll have to raise taxes. The, the only way you can pay for a health care plan, from 90--that costs anywhere from $90 billion to $120 billion is there has to be a revenue source. The revenue source for paying for the plan that I'm proposing is, is first we get rid of George Bush's tax cuts for people who make over $200,000 a year. This plan, in and of itself, creates some efficiencies and helps to reduce the cost of health care globally in America. And then, finally, we need to do a much better job of collecting the taxes that are–that are already owed. And a very specific example of something we should do, we should have brokerage houses report the capital gains that, that people are incurring, because we're losing billions and billions of dollars in tax revenue, and billions and billions of dollars from capital gains not being reported.

RUSSERT: But you'd be willing to increase taxes to provide health care?

EDWARDS: Yes, absolutely.

RUSSERT: What about Social Security and Medicare? There's 40 million people on Social Security and Medicare now. The next 15 years it's going to go to 80 million. The chairmen of the Federal Reserve say, if we do nothing, you'll have to raise taxes by a third and cut all the rest of government by 50 percent in order to meet those demands and expectations of the entitlement programs.

EDWARDS: Yes. Well, we have a huge challenge on this front. I think the starting place is Medicare, not Social Security, simply because Social Security is stronger, longer–significantly longer than Medicare. So let me, if I can, start with, with Medicare. You know, the, the–Medicare has very serious short-term, intense financial problems, and there–and there are things we can do that we're not doing, which is–we ought to have much better chronic care management than we have today. We ought to be investing in a serious and systemic way in preventative care, which we're not doing today. And we have significant fraud and abuse in the Medicare system. It's–every study that's been done demonstrates that. So I think there are things we can do to strengthen Medicare. And we ought to be using like, for example, in my universal health care plan, we create these health markets which require providers to, to compete against each other. We ought to be using the power of the federal government to negotiate better prices in Medicare. And it was a–it was a foolish thing, in the Medicare prescription drug law that was passed, which I voted against, to not allow the government to use its market power to negotiate better prices. And those are all things we can do that will help, help strengthen Medicare.

RUSSERT: But, in terms of Medicare and Social Security, life expectancy is now 78, 79, 80 years old. Would you consider raising the age of eligibility? Would you consider looking at cost of–cost of living increases? Would you look at means testing? Would everything be on the table?

EDWARDS: Well, here's, here's what I think we're going to have to do, actually, in both cases. This is such a hot political issue that it will require serious–this is the one area where it will require really serious bipartisan effort to get anything done. You know, this has been approached and approached and approached in the past. But I do have–and, and so what I would do is, let me first say what I would do as president of the United States, I would bring together leaders on both sides and experts and put–try to put together something that would work on both Social Security and, and Medicare. But, but I just have to put one caveat in here. I heard your description about people are living longer. You know, this applies to my own father and yours, you know, people who, who have–we still have a lot of people in this country who work very, very hard and, when they reach retirement age, they deserve to be able to retire. And I just think we can't ignore the fact that we have made a social contract with millions and millions of Americans, and we can't go out there and just yank it out from under them.

RUSSERT: But what about for Americans, say, who are 50 and younger, the next generation? Could you establish something different for them?

EDWARDS: I think there're multiple ways to do it. You know, we could do–one example is, we now have a cap on, on, on the taxes that're paid. About–it's about $90,000. And does that cap make sense? Maybe not. Do we need to be–do we need, perhaps to–if we're going to raise the cap or eliminate the cap, do we need to have a bubble for middle income families that earn over $90,000 a year? Maybe. I think there're–I think there're tools available to us, and we certainly do need to deal with it.

RUSSERT: After Iowa, January 14th, the caucus next year–you're doing well in Iowa?

EDWARDS: I'm winning there, according to the polls. I don't know if I believe them, but they say I'm winning.

RUSSERT: Next stop is Nevada, January 19th. Big issue there is Yucca Mountain...


RUSSERT: ...the nuclear repository. You voted against making that a national repository, then you voted for making it a national repository, saying that...

EDWARDS: And that's starting to have a familiar ring.

RUSSERT: You voted–you voted for it before you voted against it. But the thing...

EDWARDS: You said that, not me.

RUSSERT: But now you're saying that maybe the nuclear waste should be stored locally where the waste was produced. Is that your position?

EDWARDS: My position is that, that what's happened with Yucca Mountain is there've been serious questions, including the, the possibility of lying and fraud in the scientific evidence of–that Yucca Mountain would work. I was always concerned, still am, about this nuclear waste being transported around the country. I, I think, at this point in time, it does not make sense to do–to do Yucca Mountain. So the, the, the answer is we have nuclear plants, the, the stuff has to be stored–waste has to be stored somewhere, so it has to be stored where the plants are.

RUSSERT: So in...

EDWARDS: Or in the vicinity.

RUSSERT: So in Seabrook, New Hampshire, the nuclear waste has to be stored in New Hampshire.

EDWARDS: It has to be stored somewhere close by.

RUSSERT: Gay marriage.

EDWARDS: I can't imagine why you asked about New Hampshire.

RUSSERT: It's next up after Nevada. Gay marriage. You said this: " It is [a hard issue] ... because I'm 53 years old. I grew up in a small town in the rural south. I was raised in the Southern Baptist church and so I have a belief system that arises from that. It's part of who I am. I can't make it disappear. ... I personally feel great conflict about that. I don't know the answer. I wish I did. I think from my perspective it's very easy for me to say, gay civil unions, yes, partnership benefits, yes, but it is something that I struggle with. Do I believe they should have the right to marry? I'm just not there yet." Why not?

EDWARDS: I think it's from my own personal culture and faith belief. And I think, if you had gone on in that same quote, that I, I have–I, I struggle myself with imposing my faiths–my faith belief. I grew up in the Southern Baptist church, I was baptized in the Southern Baptist church, my dad was a deacon. In fact, I was there just a couple weeks ago to see my father get an award. It's, it's just part of who I am. And the question is whether I, as president of the United States, should impose on the United States of America my views on gay marriage because I know where it comes from. I'm aware of why I believe what I believe. And I think there is consensus around this idea of no discrimination, partnership benefits, civil unions. I think that, that certainly a president who's willing to lead could lead the country in the right direction on that.

RUSSERT: Do you believe you're born gay?

EDWARDS: I, I, I think that–I, I, first of all, sexual–I'm not an expert on sexual orientation. I, I think that, that, there's a real possibility that people are born gay, yes.

RUSSERT: You don't believe–do you believe that homosexuality is a sin?


RUSSERT: Do you believe that openly gay men and women should be able to serve in the military.


RUSSERT: And you would do that as president?

EDWARDS: Absolutely.

RUSSERT: Let me ask you about an interview on " The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." Here's the clip right here.

(Videotape, January 10, 2007)

EDWARDS: Could I have beaten Bush?


EDWARDS: Oh, yeah.

(End of videotape)

RUSSERT: " Could I have beaten Bush? Oh, yeah." How could you have beaten Bush, and John Kerry and John Edwards together couldn't beat him?

EDWARDS: Oh, I–first of all, I wouldn't take that too seriously. I was on Leno, remember? I, I don't think I know, looking back, what would have happened if, if we–either–anybody besides John Kerry, including me, had been the nominee. You, you have to have confidence when you're running for president that you could actually be president.

RUSSERT: Looking at the race now, you have Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Carolina. Is that your strategy, roll through those four states and lock up the nomination?

EDWARDS: My strategy is to demonstrate to voters and caucus-goers that I am prepared to be president of the United States, and I'm what we need as president of the United States, and that I'm doing it because I want to serve my country. That's my strategy. And that I want every voter, every–one of the reasons I'm glad you're having me on the show for the whole time is I want every voter in, in any of these states and in America to know where I stand, to know what I would do as president of the United States, and to know what the differences are between me and the other candidates. I think that, that I start off in a very strong place, but that's why we have campaigns.

RUSSERT: What is your biggest difference with Hillary Clinton?

EDWARDS: I think we have a difference about what we're–from what I've heard–from–about what we ought to do in Iraq right now. We have a difference, at least up until now, about how we feel about the vote that we cast with respect to, to Iraq. I don't know whether Senator Clinton will have a universal health care plan. I have–if she does, I haven't heard it yet. She might. I think that–I think there are substance differences.

RUSSERT: And differences with Barack Obama?

EDWARDS: Less so. I think that Barack Obama, because he is relatively new to national politics, it's, it's not as clear to me where he stands on, on, on issues. And, and no, I'm not faulting him for that, I just–I think he just hasn't been around as long, so he doesn't have as long a track record, so.

RUSSERT: Do you think two years in the U.S. Senate is enough experience to be president of the United States?

EDWARDS: I don't think the test should be how many years you've been in the United States Senate. I think the test is do you have the depth and maturity and the personal characteristics of leadership that America needs in its president? And I think that test will be applied to me, to Senator Clinton, to Senator Obama, and every other person running.

RUSSERT: What's the most important lesson you learned from running for president in 2004?

EDWARDS: That what America needs is leadership, not politicians. We need a leader who has strong–a strong sense of beliefs.

RUSSERT: Are you a different candidate?

EDWARDS: A leader–oh yeah, of course. Yeah. I hope so. I know a lot more, I've worked a lot harder, I've seen what's happening around this country, and I've spent about half my time either overseas or working on issues overseas. I think I have a, a different level of maturity.

RUSSERT: Colts vs. Bears?

EDWARDS: I wish the Panthers were playing. I, I–I'm going to be for the Colts. My mother...

RUSSERT: There goes–there goes the Illinois primary.

EDWARDS: I know. So be it. I'll live with that. Senator Obama's running anyway. My mother went to high school with Jimmy Orr, who used to be a wide receiver for the Baltimore Colts, so I've always been sort of fond of them.

RUSSERT: I won't get to Boston College, North Carolina...

EDWARDS: Please.

RUSSERT: ...but that, that's coming. Senator John Edwards, we thank you very much for coming on here and sharing your views.

EDWARDS: Thank you, Tim.

John Edwards, Interview with Tim Russert on NBC News' "Meet the Press" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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