A day before the crucial Pennsylvania primary, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton talks to Countdown's Keith Olbermann about the economy, Iran and the 2008 race.
KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST, COUNTDOWN: Sen. Clinton joins us now from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Thanks for some of your time tonight, senator. How are you?
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I’m great. Thanks a lot, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Let’s start with something that got remarkably short shrift in last week’s debate.
Is the election in the fall, in your estimation, going to be decided on the price of a gallon of gas and is it not true that a president can’t really do anything about the price of a gallon of gas?
CLINTON: Well, I think it’s going to be very much influenced by the economy. I don’t know what else might happen between now and then but it appears to me that the economy is not going to recover and in fact the price of gas is going to be a big issue. I think oil hit $117 a barrel today which is just unbelievable. When George Bush became president it was $20 a barrel.
I do think there are things that we can do in the short run. I would, if I were president, launch an investigation to make sure that there’s not market manipulation going on. I am still haunted by what we learned during the Enron scandal about those electricity traders manipulating the market and causing the people in California, Oregon and Washington to pay such high prices that were not at all related to supply and demand.
I’d also release some of the oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
That has in the past had a good effect on lowering the cost at least in the short term.
And I would do what I could to try to alleviate the cost right now if we could come up with a way to make up for the lost revenue with a gas tax holiday, like, for example, a windfall profits tax on the oil companies on a basis to try to fill the highway trust fund while we let people off from paying the federal gas taxes.
I would consider that. But you’re right. Ultimately we’re going to have to have an energy policy that actually moves us from our dependence on foreign oil and being literally over the oil barrel with the oil producing countries and companies. I think if the president were to make a speech tomorrow, Keith, and that’s the kind of speech I would give right now, that we are finally serious.
We’ve had enough of the problems that come from being so dependent and not looking to ourselves to produce homegrown energy to fuel our vehicles, try to help our auto companies and auto workers, quickly move to higher gas mileage cars and more biofuels and all of the other solutions that are out there, you would see the price drop because I think the companies and the countries that supply our oil would be worried that we actually meant it this time.
And they would once again try to lull us into a false sense of security. So I would do all of that and I think it would have an impact and then of course we have to follow through to make sure that we do everything we can to take back control over our own energy destiny.
OLBERMANN: You mentioned the oil suppliers and that obviously leads us into something else that really flew by during the debate that seemed awfully important. In that debate you were asked about a hypothetical Iranian attack on Israel and your hypothetical response as commander in chief and you said, let me read the quote exactly, “I think that we should be looking to create an umbrella of deterrence that goes much further than Israel. Of course I would make it clear to the Iranians that an attack on Israel would include massive retaliation from the United States but I would do the same with other countries in the region.”
Can you clarify since there was no follow-up to that which hypothetical Middle East conflicts would incur massive retaliation by this country and what constitutes massive retaliation?
CLINTON: Well, what we were talking about was the potential for a nuclear attack by Iran. If Iran does achieve what appears to be its continuing goal of obtaining nuclear weapons — and I think deterrence has not been effectively used in recent times. We used it very well during the Cold War when we had a bipolar world — and what I think the president should do and what our policy should be is to make it very clear to the Iranians that they would be risking massive retaliation were they to launch a nuclear attack on Israel.
In addition, if Iran were to become a nuclear power it could set off an arms race that would be incredibly dangerous and destabilizing because the countries in the region are not going to want Iran to be the only nuclear power so I could imagine that they would be rushing to obtain nuclear weapons themselves.
In order to forestall that, creating some kind of a security agreement where we said, no, you do not need to acquire nuclear weapons if you were the subject of an unprovoked nuclear attack by Iran, the United States and hopefully our NATO allies would respond to that as well.
It is a theory that some people have been looking at because there is a fear that if Iran, which I hope we can prevent, becoming a nuclear power, but if they were to become one some people worry that they are not deterrable, that they somehow have a different mindset and a worldview that might very well lead the leadership to be willing to become martyrs.
I don’t buy that but I think we have to test it and one of the ways of testing it is to make it very clear that we are not going to permit them, if we can prevent them, from becoming a nuclear power. But were they to become one, their use of nuclear weapons against Israel would provoke a nuclear response from the United States, which personally I believe would prevent it from happening and that we would try to help the other countries that might be intimidated and bulled into submission by Iran because they were a nuclear power, avoid that state by creating this new security umbrella.
OLBERMANN: Not to equate nuclear conflict or its use as a deterrent to the Pennsylvania primary but that is the other headline, I suppose, of the day. Let me ask you about the campaign and something you said in Pittsburgh today and again, let me read the quote about being president: “It’s the toughest job in the world and you have to be ready for anything. Two wars, skyrocketing oil prices, an economy in crisis. Well, if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
That is almost word for word the narration of this new ad that your campaign put out today, and that ad flashes a very brief image of Osama bin Laden. For nearly six years now since Sen. Max Cleland was cut down by a commercial that featured a picture of bin Laden, that tactic has been kind of a bloody shirt for many Democrats. Is it not just, in your opinion, as much of a scare tactic for a Democrat to use it against another Democrat, as it is for a Republican to use it in a race against the Democrat?
CLINTON: Well, first of all, that ad is about leadership, and I obviously believe I do have the leadership experience and qualities to become the president and the commander in chief. And as you said in the beginning, lots of times important issues get short shrift in the back-and-forth in a campaign.
But the fact is that the next president will be sworn in at a time of very, very difficult world conditions, and here at home, a lot of challenges. This is one of the most serious elections we’ve ever had. And as people zero in on the choice they have to make here in Pennsylvania and around the country and the remaining contests and then certainly in the fall, I want people to really understand what a serious decision it is.
There is nothing at all that is in any way inappropriate in saying, look, presidents face the unexpected all the time. Katrina was also a part of that ad. We don’t know what the next president will face.
And I like to ask audiences to consider this as a hiring decision. If you were to hire the person you thought was ready on day one to do the toughest job in the world, what would you look for? What kind of resume would you be trying to seek out?
I obviously believe that I have a unique set of qualifications and experiences that prepared me for this moment in time. I would not be in this race, Keith, I would not be campaigning hard across Pennsylvania as I have been for the last week if I did not believe I would be the best president of the three of us still in this contest, and that I would be the stronger candidate against John McCain and the Republicans in the fall.
And I know that national security will be a prime issue when we get to the fall. I don’t think anybody will be surprised by that, and no Democrat who wants to win in the fall should be surprised. We’re going to have to go toe to toe with John McCain on national security. In fact, we’re going to have to stand up to whatever the Republicans throw our way. And I do think we ought to get real about some of the big issues that we’re going to face in the White House starting next January and certainly during the campaign leading up to the election of the next president.
OLBERMANN: The resumes of all three of you who are in this semi-final round, if you will, of the hiring decision came up over the weekend. Sen. Obama said all three of the current presidential candidates, himself, yourself and Sen. McCain, would be better presidents than is Mr. Bush.
You were critical of him for saying that, Sen. Obama that is, by saying, “we need a nominee who will take on John McCain, not cheer on John McCain, and I will be that nominee.”
But earlier in this campaign, last month on the sixth of March, you had also said that you thought it was, and again, this is a direct quote, “imperative that each of us be able to demonstrate we can cross the commander in chief threshold, and I believe that I’ve done that. Certainly Sen. McCain has done that, and you’ll have to ask Sen. Obama with respect to his candidacy.”
To some degree, Sen., in those remarks from last month, hadn’t you already cheered on Sen. McCain at Sen. Obama’s expense?
CLINTON: No, not at all. I think that obviously, Sen. McCain has military experience. He has a long experience on the Senate Armed Services Committee, where I served with him. And I think most people in this country would look at his experience in the military and in the Senate, and on national security say he does cross that threshold.
The problem is that he has the wrong ideas. He would continue the Bush policies on Iraq, which I think is wrong for the country. And in fact, his statement about his being willing to leave troops in Iraq for up to 100 years is something that I absolutely reject. That would be worse than President Bush.
And when it comes to the economy, his policy seems to be more of the same, more of the same failed policies that have brought us to the brink of a recession, that have brought us huge deficits and an exploding debt. And I think that’s wrong as well. So, you can have a license to practice law, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that somebody should hire you to perform certain services and take on certain cases.
And I don’t think that Sen. McCain is the president or commander in chief that we will need. And I don’t want to in any way say he would be better. It would be hard to be worse than George Bush. I said several years ago I think he is the worse president we’ve had. And I think you’ve echoed that sentiment on many occasions on your show. So I don’t think that he would be better than George Bush. I think he’s more of the same of President Bush, and I don’t think the country can afford that.
OLBERMANN: President Buchanan’s supporters are still arguing that point with both of us, but we see eye to eye on it, I think.
OLBERMANN: One thing about this has been touched on, I’d say once an hour during the entire campaign — this historical nature of both your candidacy and Sen. Obama’s. And it has so many important and positive things for this country. But there’s necessarily an unfortunate flip side to this. And I’ve see it in person with some protesters out here on the plaza next to this very studio in the last couple of weeks.
Do you believe, as some of them seem to, that criticism of your campaign is necessarily sexism or largely sexism, or sometimes sexism?
CLINTON: Well, I think the historic nature of the campaign is causing a lot of cognitive dissonance among so many people, Keith. And a few of them are in the media, I believe, because no matter what happens in this election, the fact that Sen. Obama and I are in this close race for the Democratic nomination means that forever forward, every little girl, and every African-American child, will be told that, yes, you too can grow up to be president.
I think that is not just historic, I think it’s wonderful.
But there have been, and you’ve reported on some of them, moments when people have said things, or expressed opinions, that are certainly not mine and certainly not Sen. Obama’s. Speaking for myself, I know that I’m trying to break the highest and hardest glass ceiling that exists in our country. I take on that challenge willingly and gladly, because I think it’s the right thing to do.
But I also believe that people have to take a look at us individually.
And I hope that’s what they are doing. That they’re asking themselves who will do the best job under difficult circumstances. And we’re going to break some real barriers as we already have in this campaign. And I hope that that will push our society beyond some of the remnants of discrimination on the basis of race or gender that we still see from time to time.
OLBERMANN: One thing about this particular primary in Pennsylvania, a lot of us who felt that you and President Clinton were sorely mistreated in the late '90s — to say nothing of the Constitution being sorely mistreated — thought that the phrase that you introduced to that sad conversation, “the vast right-wing conspiracy,” was pretty apt, if not perfect. And we thought, maybe I’m just speaking for myself, I don’t know, but one of the few utterly unforgivable individuals in that entire equation was Richard Mellon Scaife, who among other things is the publisher of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
I mean, seriously, to some degree, senator, I quit this job the first time around because of Richard Mellon Scaife and people like him. And I realize you have a primary to win but why on Earth did you meet with Richard Mellon Scaife and why did you accept or at least not reject his endorsement of you over the weekend.
CLINTON: Well, Keith, nobody was more surprised than I when I was invited to the editorial board and I was very open to meeting - and frankly, I was very curious. I had only met the gentleman once in my life in a receiving line, just in a matter of seconds. Obviously I was on the receiving of quite a bit of his activities during the '90s, much to everyone’s dismay, most certainly mine. But I was curious and he has a lot of interesting people who write for that paper and who work for him.
And it was a fascinating question. A lot of give and take. They certainly don’t agree with me on many of my positions and I was dumbfounded both to have been invited and then to have been endorsed.
But I do believe in redemption, Keith. I believe in deathbed conversions and I think it’s possible for anyone to see the error of their ways. So I’m bringing people together as we speak. Anyone who doubts my ability to bridge the most incredible chasms can point to those recent remarks.
OLBERMANN: I’ll leave the remark about the deathbed conversion when there’s more time. Sen. Clinton, thank you for your time and safe travels.
CLINTON: Thank you. It’s great to talk with you.