Sen. John Edwards answers questions in our presidential mashup.

Sen. John Edwards answers questions in our presidential mashup.

Sen. John Edwards answers questions in our presidential mashup.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 12 2007 11:52 PM

Edwards: Free College for Everyone Is Achievable

Sen. John Edwards 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. Edwards, first on Iraq, give me your assessment of what Gen. Petraeus said and your opinion of whether he is accurate about the situation on the ground and what this administration is prepared to do next.

Edwards: My view about it is that both the administration and Gen. Petraeus are not focused on what is the only important question, which is, has there been political progress in Iraq? Because unless and until there's some political compromise between Sunni and Shia, there could not be stability in Iraq and the violence will continue. And instead of focusing on one small part of Iraq, Anbar province for example, where the Sunni tribal leadership has actually decided to work with America against al-Qaida, what we should be looking at is, has there been a political progress? Because without political progress, what's the purpose of us being here? I mean, what is the purpose of all the lives being lost? What's the purpose of now $500 billion and counting? And my view about this whole subject is the Congress has a mandate from the American people, and that mandate is not to provide funding to this president unless there's a timetable for withdrawal in the bill. And it's very important for the Congress to stand their ground. No timetable, no funding. That's exactly what the Congress should do. Because I do not believe George Bush will ever change course unless or until he's forced to change course. I mean, he's stubborn. He thinks he's incapable of making a mistake. And I think the Congress has a responsibility. The American people expect them to meet their responsibility. And right now, I think the—the troops in Iraq are stuck between a president who has no plan from my perspective for success. He just wants more of the same. You know? He wants more troops. He wants more time. He wants more money. He wants more war. But there's absolutely no indication that the Sunni and Shia are any closer today than they have been in reaching a political solution. So I think the Congress needs to make him change course. If he vetoes a funding bill with the timetable for withdrawal, I think that they should submit another bill with a timetable for withdrawal and they should continue to do that until he's forced to change course in Iraq.


Rose: Do you think your fellow candidates for the presidency who in the Senate are afraid to do that because they worry about being charged with not providing funds for men and women who are at risk?

Edwards: My view about this is—I can't read their minds. My view about this is this is way beyond politics now. With all the lives that have been lost and the billions of dollars that have been spent, this is literally about life and death now. The American people are behind them. I mean, they're behind the Congress standing its ground against the president. I think it's a historic moment, it's a crucial moment for the Congress. The Congress needs to have the strength to do what's right, to do what's right for our troops and begin to bring them home, and to do what's right for the American people and force Bush to end this war.

Rose: If you become president and there's still 130,000 troops there, how fast would you get them home?

Edwards: Quickly. It's hard to know exactly what the environment would be come January of 2009, Charlie. What I would do if I were president today is I'd take 40,000 to 50,000 out immediately and continue to pull troops out over the next nine months or so until all of our combat troops were out of Iraq.


Rose: What should be our mission today? To get a political reconciliation?

Edwards: Yes. That's the only mission. The mission, the goal is for there to be some sort of political compromise reached between Maliki and the Shia-led government and the Sunni leadership as fragmented as it is. Because—until that happens, there can't be stability there. I mean, that's the whole purpose for everything we've been doing. That's the whole purpose theoretically for the surge, which I think was an abysmal failure. But it's also the reason for us being on the ground right now. We're policing a civil war waiting for the Sunni and the Shia to reach some agreement. I have to say I find it so offensive that we have American men and women putting their lives on the line and some losing their lives while the Iraqi parliament goes on vacation for three or four weeks. This is not acceptable. These people need to feel the pressure in their—to take responsibility for their own country.

Rose: Let me ask you one last question about Iraq, because it's part of the political debate in some quarters.'s advertisement, do you think it was the appropriate thing to do?

Edwards: I don't know if I've seen it, Charlie. Tell me what it is.


Rose: Basically they used Petraeus in a play off of betrayal. General Betrayal.

Edwards: I'm sorry. I just haven't seen it. So it's hard for me to comment on it. I do think that what I've heard from Gen. Petraeus is not focused on the fundamental question as I've just talked about. And I think, unless and until there's some political progress, which I have seen none of, the Congress needs to force Bush to change course.

Rose: Do you believe he's simply reflecting what the president wants?

Edwards: You mean, Gen. Petraeus?


Rose: Yes.

Edwards: There's no way for me to know that. I think that anything that comes through the administration and the White House has a PR spin on it. That's been true through the entire war. It's one of the reasons that the American people have lost faith in this president. They don't think he's being open and straight with them, and they don't—he and the vice president, Cheney, and the result is they don't listen to what he says anymore. Anything that comes through the filter of the White House and comes through somebody speaking on behalf of the administration, I think has the same kind of issue.

Rose: Let me turn to health care. You were first out of the gate with a health-care program that you would initiate if you become president. In constructing that program, tell me how you came to the conclusions you did about universal coverage.

Edwards: Well, basically what I decided was, first, the only way to have universal coverage was to actually mandate it, in other words, to have a legal requirement that every man, woman, and child in America be covered. That was probably the single most controversial element of my proposal when I made it, and as you said, I was the first one out of the gate. I believed that that was important because if anybody's plan is not universal, then they should be made to explain to the American people and the Democratic primary voters why—what man or woman in America is not worthy of health care. I think they're all worthy of health care. And then I constructed it in a way that everybody required to be covered, that people could choose between a private plan and the government plan, which is essentially Medicare plus. I did that for a very simple reason. Because there is a very good and legitimate argument that we should go straight to single-payer health care as other countries have. I wanted—I've also heard the flipside of that from lots of people I've met around the country, who are nervous about going to a Canadian system, for example. So what I did is construct this plan so that Americans could choose, and then we'd see in a model of the entire country what actually works best. If Americans choose to go towards the government plan, this could gravitate in a single-payer plan. That's perfectly fine with me. But we're going to have the American people deciding what provides the most cost effective, most efficient health care. What provides the best health care. That's the reason it's constructed the way it is.


Rose: You would not eliminate necessarily a single-payer system as the best way to go?

Edwards: Oh, no, I would not. I mean, there are huge advantages to single-payer, which all the proponents speak about regularly. It's much more—much lower administrative costs. Medicare, for example, which is tantamount to single-payer for seniors, Medicare has a 3 percent to 4 percent overhead. I mean, most private insurers are somewhere between 30 percent to 40 percent overhead and profits. So there are serious advantages. But I thought it was something that we should let Americans decide. Get everybody covered, get rid of the holes in the system. Which means outlaw pre-existing conditions. Mental health parity. Put mental health parity in place. Make sure prevention care, long term care, chronic care, and dental and vision care are covered and then set up a system that everybody's health care goes with them wherever they go. If they're laid off or if they change jobs, or move, which is the big problem, not having coverage and cost, which I didn't speak about. We saved about $120 or $130 billion a year system-wide with a whole range of provisions to bring down costs.

Rose: How much would your plan cost?

Edwards: $90 to $120 billion a year. I know that there will be some who argue that they can do universal health care either for free or for very low cost. I don't believe that's the truth. And I think we need to tell people the truth about this. My plan is $90 to $120 billion a year. And I pay for by rolling back President Bush's tax cuts for people who make over $200,000 a year.

Rose: All right, say one other thing—

Edwards: Yes.

Edwards: Charlie, can I say one last thing about this? I won't take long on it. I do think that there's a fundamental issue that voters need to focus on in looking at these health-care plans, because I believe without taking drug companies, insurance companies, and their lobbyists on— head on, we will never have universal health care. And they are what has stood between America and universal health care for decades now. And I know that some of those who are running on my side, the Democratic side, argue that you should give them a seat at the table, you should negotiate with them, compromise with them. I fundamentally disagree with that. I respect their view, but I think that view will not work. If, in fact, you could compromise with drug company lobbyists, for example, and negotiate with them and reach a deal, we'd already have universal health care. The reason we don't have universal health care is these people have absolutely no intention of giving away their power voluntarily. We have to take their power away from them. Which means the president of the United States with the backing of the American people. I think that is an important and fundamental difference. I don't think you can defend the system in Washington and say you're going to work with the people in that system and say you're going to bring about the change we need in this country. I don't think that change will ever occur unless you're willing to confront what's wrong fundamentally with the way Washington and lobbyists work in Washington.

Rose: I assume that means you would not accept any contributions from lobbyists who represent the health care industry and you might seriously consider not accepting contributions from principal executives at insurance companies or pharmaceutical companies?

Edwards: I've never taken any money from Washington lobbyists. I've challenged the other candidates to not going back, not giving money back but going forward for us to make it clear we're not taking money from Washington lobbyists. Ultimately, the answer to this is public financing of all our campaigns, which is what I will fight for as president

Rose: Here's a question—a user question from Kathy Henry. She basically says, how do I encourage my children to attend college when they see their college-educated mother get laid off and has not been able to find gainful employment?

Edwards: You see she's got the same problem that thousands and thousands of families across this country face. What I proposed is something called college for everyone. It's a very simple concept. The idea is for any young person in America who graduates from high school, qualifies to go to college, and commits to work while they're there, a minimum of 10 hours a week, we pay for their tuition and books. So the notion is knock down the barriers, don't give it away, make sure that young people who want to go to college and are committed to go to college are willing to work for it. I think that work ethic is an American value. I worked when I was in college like millions of other people. And I think it's a good thing for me and I think it's generally been good for those who have done it. And in addition to that, you don't have kids graduating from college with this huge, crushing burden of debt. I will say we've actually put a similar model in place in the place you know, Green County, N.C., a relatively poor county in eastern North Carolina. It's just that we did it for the first year of college there. So far it's been hugely successful. We've had it there a couple of years, and I believe last count I saw was about 70 percent of the kids were signed up for college for everyone.

Rose: Let me just make sure I understand you. You're proposing free college for everybody for four years for a four-year program, not just community college for two years and not just the first year?

Edwards: But I want to caveat it by the other requirement is since private colleges and universities cost so much, this is what I propose requires either a public community college or public university.

Rose: But it's four years?

Edwards: Yes, sir. But I wanted to be clear that what we've done in Green County is not just the first year.

Rose: I wanted to make sure that I understood that. Education today in America. Do we need to rethink education in any particular way as far as you're concerned, beyond the—

Edwards: Yes.

Rose: Go ahead.

Edwards: Yes, I believe we do. I think that we tend to think of education as K through 12, maybe college and in some rare cases, graduate school. We should think of education as a birth-to-death experience in America. That means we get the kids as early as we possibly can, we head start basically 3- to 4-year-olds. That's not young enough. We can start much earlier, much more intensely but particularly focus on at-risk kids. Better training for those who teach in early childhood, better health care and nutrition, support for those kids. I think that there's some very specific things we should do in K through 12 such as provide bonus pay—raise teacher pay, generally. Provide bonus pay to teachers that will go to the most difficult places. And we've got to I think dramatically change No Child Left Behind. I just talked about college. Let me go to the last element which is the one that I haven't heard of, there's talk about. We know if you graduate from college this year that the information you learned, a huge amount will be outdated in five or 10 years, we have to be the most creative, innovative, best educated work force on the planet, so we need an infrastructure for continuing education after high school, college, or graduate school, whichever is the last part of your formal education. So we continue to learn. Now, I wish I could tell you I have a specific proposal on this. I don't, not yet. But I do believe that because—basically it's ad hoc now. We leave it to individuals or their employers the enormous responsibility of ensuring that 45-year-old workers or 50-year-old workers in America are up-to-date and best trained, best educated they can possibly be and I think we have to develop a national infrastructure for making sure people continue to learn as they age.

Rose: Our last question, senator, comes from Bill Maher in Los Angeles. And it is on videotape. Here it is.

Bill Maher: Sen. Edwards, you've suggested that Americans should give up their SUVs for the sake of the environment, but a recent UN study found that deforestation for the purpose of creating grazing land for cattle and methane emissions from cattle generated more greenhouse gas emissions than all the cars and planes in the world, so it's not just the SUVs, it's the c-o-w-s. Taking a shot at SUVs was gutsy. Do you want to take a shot at meat?

Edwards: I love listening to Bill Maher. I think he's correct about some of that. He's such a funny guy. The deforestation is a huge issue. He's absolutely correct about that. Obviously, our trees, our plants play an enormous role in keeping the environment appropriately balanced over time. I think we do have to, particularly if we're looking at the long-term consequences of what we're doing to the climate to the temperature of the Earth, those are things that have to be looked at and taken into account. The one thing I would add to that, though, is I actually saw a study just over the last few days. It didn't get much attention in the United States, but I think it was done by American scientists if I remember correctly that suggested the possibility that the polar ice cap at the rate we're going now could melt over the next 23 years. I think that is some indication of how serious the crisis this climate change and global warming is. I want to see both the presidential candidates and myself as the next president of the United States lead the charge on dealing with this crisis in a really aggressive way. Because we have to. I mean, first of all, we have to get off our addiction to oil in America. We use 22 million barrels a day. I've laid out a specific set of ideas about how to do that, reducing greenhouse gases by 80 percent by 2050 and transforming the way we use and produce energy in this country. But I would add, this goes to the SUV part of Bill's question. I do think we need a president who actually says to America, you have to be willing to sacrifice, who calls on Americans to sacrifice. Instead of making a bunch of promises about what the president is going to do, who says to America if you love your country, you need to be patriotic about something other than war. You need to say I'm willing to drive a more fuel-efficient vehicle and I'm willing to conserve in my home and workplace, because all of us have to do this together. That's real patriotism to say if we're going make America better and bigger and stronger and more independent and if we don't want to be driven by the addiction to oil and we want to actually preserve the planet, we have to do it together.

Rose: One last question from me. Since you first ran for the Senate from North Carolina and served one term and then was the vice president candidate of the party in 2004, until today, what is the most profound change in your political growth?

Edwards: It's a really good question, Charlie. It would probably take more thought than I could give just sitting here. I can tell you my initial reaction is, that the extraordinary opportunity that I grew up with in America that allowed me to come from nothing to basically having everything now, that when  I move around the country, as I have as a presidential and a vice presidential candidate—I've been doing it for years  now, and I hear people's stories, it feels to me like there are millions of people in this country that no longer believe what my parents believed, which is if they worked hard, their kids would have a better life. It seems to me that the old American dream, it seems to me that that dream is distant and dim for millions of people. Whether it's because they don't have health care or living in poverty or middle class families that are struggling to just pay bills. It seems like things are harder and harder and harder. And at least from my perspective, it's actually the reason I'm running for president. So that those opportunities can be available to everybody, and I think they're really important substantive components of that. I think when I began my political career, which you just made a reference to, I hadn't seen the way I have seen today. How difficult it is for so many people to be able to live the American dream and have their kids have a better life. I want to be the president that restores that.

Rose: I thank you for joining us for this, and we look forward to having you here at the table again.

Edwards: Thank you, Charlie.

Rose: Sen. John Edwards. Back in a moment. Stay with us.