Sen. Chris Dodd answers questions in our presidential mashup.

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Sept. 12 2007 11:52 PM

Dodd: Iraq Has Left Us More Vulnerable

Sen. Chris Dodd answers questions in our presidential mashup.

The following is an unedited transcript and may contain typos or omissions. Click here for more on the presidential mashup.

Rose: Sen. Dodd, Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have come, they've testified before the Congress. You were there. You had an opportunity to question them. What do you make of their assessment?

Dodd: Well, I think too much has been made of the assessment on the surge. Whether you agree with their assessment on the surge, that the violence is down, or you disagree with it, as many studies do, that's really not the issue. The issue is, of course, fundamentally, are we safer, are we more secure, less vulnerable, today as a country? Is Iraq closer to becoming a nation-state or not? And that's really the issue at hand here. And I think the conclusion I've reached, as well as many others have, is that despite all of these efforts over many, many months now, four and a half years, I think we're less secure, less safe, more vulnerable today as a result of this policy, and that Iraq seems to be further removed from achieving that reconciliation that this space was supposed to be created by the surge. So again, I think too much has been focusing on whether or not you agree or disagree with their conclusion about whether or not Iraq is—has less violence over the last six months and the more important question of whether or not we're more safe and secure and whether Iraq is closer to achieving that nation-state status. I think on both those questions, we're less secure and Iraq seems further away from achieving that reconciliation.

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Rose: Do you think anything will change between now and the election?

Dodd:  I don't. I really don't. I think we've come to the point, Charlie, where it's time to call this for what it is. This is a civil war in the country. There's never been a military solution that was going to be achieved by ourselves there. I'm for beginning withdrawal and completing the process by April of next year. It's the only thing I know of at this juncture that may achieve what nothing else has achieved, and that is to make the Iraqis the religious and political leaders, Shia and Sunni, recognize that it's now up to them to decide whether or not they're going to form, whether it's a loose federation or whatever configuration they want to come to here, it's now their responsibility. Ten billion dollars a month, $2 billion every week, not to mention the cost of lives, what it's cost the Iraqis themselves, the emergence  of al-Qaida in the country, developing a sort of incubator for terrorism. I truly think that nothing short of that is going to work. That's what I'm going to advocate, that's what I'm going to propose in the coming days in the United States Senate. I'll offer that language, in fact, that we terminate the funding.

Rose: But do you think you can get enough political support among Republicans to make it veto-proof?

Dodd: I doubt it at this point, but I'll start anyway. I think we should have started it earlier here to build that case. And even many Republicans, despite their desire to be supportive of the president of their own political party, I think many have serious doubts and reservations about whether or not this is going to go forward. The language is so eerily reminiscent of language I heard 40 years ago about showing more patience, wait a little longer, this may work down the road, that frankly, many of us who went through that are saying today that's enough.

Rose: If you're elected president in November and then take office in January, and suppose there are 130,000 troops still there, how fast would you get them out, and how many would you end up with in three months?

Dodd: Well, as fast as I could safely and reasonably here. I've been told by military planners you can probably move out two and a half brigades a month safely and securely. We've got major facilities in Kuwait and Qatar, we've got a major issue in Afghanistan that we don't hardly talk about. But we know that this is deteriorating. The Taliban is emerging more strongly than ever. Al-Qaida seems to be fine. Here's Osama Bin Laden issuing proclamations from either Pakistan or Afghanistan. And so, we need a major effort there; it's still the epicenter of terrorism. So I'd begin that process as soon as I possibly could. And let me add quickly here, I'm not leaving the region at all. Quite the contrary. I think being robust in our diplomatic efforts here, involving regional powers, engaging Iran in a broader conversation than just Iraq are all critical elements in our success in achieving stability in Iraq and dealing with the emerging problems in the region. So we shouldn't just focus on the military side of this equation.

Rose: This is from the Washington Post. Turning to health care today. "The cost of employer-provided health insurance rose 6.1 percent, the smallest jump since 1999 but still well above the increase in wages and consumer prices." This is from the Kaiser Family Foundation. They show that 75 percent of respondents said they were very worried or somewhat worried about the increasing cost of health care, and the figure was even more impressive when you considered that the thing that they were secondly worried most about was paying their rent or mortgage, and that was down to 44 percent. So health care is on the minds of the American people. Do they deserve universal health-care coverage?

Dodd: Yes, they do, absolutely. And let me just add to your numbers here. In the last six years, those who have health insurance have watched their premiums go up 87 percent in cost in the last six years. It is now consuming well over 16 percent of our gross domestic product in the country. Let me even get more specific. The price of a GM automobile has a $1,500 health-care cost for every automobile. Compare that with a Toyota. The health-care cost per automobile is $150. So beyond the problems that Americans are facing who either don't have health care or are having to watch their costs go up, it is having a huge impact on our economy as well. Therefore, a universal plan that drives down costs, spreads out the risk, which is what I'm advocating here, a plan that I think I can achieve within four years of my inauguration.

Rose: And how would you pay for it?

Dodd: Well, you pay for it by having everyone contribute based on their ability to pay. And that makes it totally universal. No exceptions. Everyone's involved in this. I'd establish what I call a universal health mart, in a sense, where people could actually shop for the best plans that suit their needs. It's done under the framework of the federal employees' health-benefit plan. Millions of us have that. It's very good for members of Congress. It ought to be good enough for the American people. I think it would be. So that's your structure. My plan is designed to do what you can actually get done here. It keeps plans or parts of things that work and gets rid of things that don't. For instance, I'd ban any discrimination against pre-existing conditions here. It follows you, not your job, in a sense here. And we drive down costs, of course, by dealing with prevention and technology to reduce the administrative costs as well. I'm told here by those who helped me put this together, we can really achieve that universality, drive down costs, and really provide the kind of benefits people are looking for.

Rose: I've asked this question of each of the candidates. Do we have to rethink the way we look at health care in America, beyond access and coverage?

Dodd: Yes, we do, absolutely. About 75 percent of the Medicare dollars, Charlie, is caused by chronic illness, I hear. I'm looking at a possibility of also requiring at age 55, for instance, a physical exam 10 years before you'd qualify for Medicare so that we could make a determination as to whether or not things like smoking, diet, and so forth are going to contribute to the cost of that chronic illness and the Medicare dollar. Those things need to be done as well. And I've done this, by the way. You know, I wrote the Family Leave Act. It took me seven years to get it done. But I brought Republicans and Democrats together about many controversial issues associated with health care. So I think not only talking what you want to do but where you've been on these issues ought to be constructive to voters.

Rose: Here is a user-generated question from Robert Grove. He says: "Since smoking has indisputably negative health consequences, are you willing to prohibit smoking for those who are to be the recipients of any government-paid health care?"

Dodd: Well, prohibition may go a little bit further here, but certainly, to make it very costly for doing it and making people pay a price in a sense for that voluntary choice. Now, it's hard to quit smoking, and anyone who's ever smoked knows that. But here, doing everything we can to move people out. Three-thousand children start every day smoking in this country. Despite all of our efforts with warnings labels and raising the cost of taxes on cigarettes, it's still a major problem in the country and, you and I both know, Charlie, a major cause for a variety of illnesses that become chronic illnesses for people. The very subject matter I talked about in a minute. Prohibition would probably go a bit further than I'd want it to, but I'd make it expensive to do it.

Rose: Let me turn to education. And this is again a user question, from Karim Kai Logue, who says, "As a teacher in both the rural South and the urban North, I'm interested in your perspective regarding the parent/teacher dynamic. In your opinion, who plays the lead role in a child's—"

Dodd: Parents. Parents. And I—you know, we talk about it. And I've, in fact, this is running the risk here of antagonizing people who raised other questions that are important. I've been asked this question for many years, the 26 years I've been in the Senate. The single most important issue is this subject matter of education. It not only improves the individual's opportunities, collectively, we do well, but also our system of governance depends upon a well-educated society. And that begins with parents here. Children are not ready to learn in our country today. I'm an advocate of universal pre-K. I've written the early Head Start legislation. I've been named Head Start Senator of the Decade by the Head Start Association. I'm a great believer in early education, but the first educators are parents, and we're not doing enough in my view to assist and support parents in that process and then insist that parents play a greater participation and role in the early education of their children. Head Start requires parental participation. About 80 percent of parents stay involved. By the first grade, Charlie, that number drops to less than 20 percent of parental involvement. So parents, in my view, are critically important to the success of a child and the success of an education of that child.

Rose: What do you think of those who say that if education is so important, we ought to provide a free college education for everybody who qualifies?

Dodd: I'm an advocate of—and offered this most recently—of a free community-college education, and I do that by offering a match to any state that will equal 50 percent of that cost. I'll match that here. In order to release that initial portal of higher education becomes available. To talk about a free education for everyone, regardless of choice they make between private and public institutions, may be difficult, but certainly expanding Pell Grants here, providing more work-study programs, Americorps, I've advocated a million slots, not 150,000 that we have today, where educational benefits become a part of that. As a former Peace Corps volunteer, for people who make the choice to become involved in the national service of our country, the military or otherwise, I'd provide tremendous incentives for them to do that. I'd provide a sliding scale, so if you choose careers that are not as lucrative as others are, that your payback of loans would be calibrated to those choices rather than insisting upon everyone paying the same amount back. And college costs are going up all the time. So I'm an advocate for an indexing of that as well.

Rose: All right, finally, turning from education to what we call our wild card. We have from California, on video, Bill Maher with a question specifically for you, and here it is.

Dodd: OK.

Bill Maher: Sen. Dodd, between illnesses, accidents, homicides, and suicides, it's been estimated that America suffers roughly 100,000 alcohol-related deaths per year. Marijuana kills virtually no one, and yet, it is such a third rail in American politics to suggest we stop persecuting the people who wish to use this more-benign but no-less-mood-altering and no-more-of-a-gateway drug. Can you give me a good reason why, in a free and fair society, marijuana should be illegal?

Dodd: Well, Bill, I've taken the position, certainly with medical use of marijuana, that it ought to be allowed. And many states, I think 12 or 13 states allow that today. In fact, we just had a huge debate in the committee in which I serve dealing with the issue. And I've strongly advocated that these states not be biased or prejudiced because they allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes. And again, the overall of general of allowing the decriminalization, I strongly advocate as well. We're cluttering up our prisons, frankly, when we draw distinctions. And let me go beyond marijuana here in terms of crack cocaine or powder cocaine, where we have differentials in prison sentences here. So I would decriminalize, or certainly advocate as president, the decriminalization of statutes that would incarcerate or severely penalize people for using marijuana. But I want to be careful, and I know there are a lot of people across the political spectrum who would just totally legalize it. I don't go that far. But certainly in the areas I've mentioned to you here, I think, certainly, are steps that move in that direction.

Rose: When you look at the issues that seem to be the third rail, give us a sense of how you feel about the divisiveness in American politics and the power of interest groups.

Dodd: Well, I don't think we're as divided. I think this is one of the myths in American politics. The political community seeks to divide it. These wedge issues that are brought up all the time. But I find that there's a commonalty of interest, Charlie, among many subject matters here. People may disagree on how best to achieve universal health care or what needs to be done with education, but no one disagrees that our public school systems need far more attention than they're getting or that health care needs to be addressed. So the talk of actually uniting and bringing people together I think is a very important issue that doesn't get discussed enough in this campaign. It's important to talk about the grocery list of issues, where you stand on Iraq and health care and education. But the more important question is, show me what abilities you have, demonstrate to me that you have the capacity to actually bridge these gaps and bringing people together. It's something I've done for a quarter of a century. I do it very well. My colleagues know this, Democrats and Republicans. On every major issue of landmark legislation that I've authored that have fundamentally changed the face of America, such as family and medical leave, early childhood education, dealing with financial institutions, for instance. In every case, I did them with a conservative Republican. Not necessarily because I wanted to, but because there no other way this was going to be achieved unless you brought people together around a common idea. And that's been missing, I think, in our debates. There's an acknowledgment that this is important because people talked about it, but too little is asked to demonstrate where you have shown the ability to do this. And I think we've reached a point where if we don't do this in the coming days, both domestic and foreign policy issues are going to split this country wide apart and make it very difficult for us to grapple with any problem at all. So it's a very important issue, one I hope we talk more about in the coming weeks.

Rose:  I welcome coming back to the table, Sen. Dodd. Thank you.

Dodd: Thank you very much, Charlie.

Rose: Sen. Christopher Dodd. Back in a moment.