Highlights: John Edwards at the AARP forum

For the past several Tuesdays, I have been posting diaries in support of John Edwards on the front page of MyDD.

This week I wrote a diary about Edwards' performance at the AARP forum in Davenport last Thursday. I thought it was a strong debate for all who participated, but I wanted to call attention to some particularly strong moments for Edwards.

The diary is long, so I put it after the jump. I welcome your feedback.

Tomorrow night there's another MSNBC debate. I don't have high hopes for the quality of the discussion, given the format and moderation of the previous debates hosted by that network. 

Disclosure: I am a volunteer precinct captain for John Edwards in the Des Moines suburbs.

If you missed the AARP Democratic candidates' forum on health care and financial security last Thursday in Davenport, Iowa, I encourage you to go watch the whole thing on the Iowa Public Television website. The format was better than that used in previous debates, and Judy Woodruff did a good job as moderator, asking direct questions and following up when it was warranted.

All five candidates who participated did well, in my opinion. While no one had a bad night, I thought John Edwards was outstanding, and I would like to call your attention to what I consider particularly good comments by him during the debate.

I couldn't find a transcript on the IPTV website or anywhere else. Thanks to Tracy Joan of the Edwards campaign, who was able to send me a full transcript, from which I pulled the excerpts in this post. (I added a few explanatory notes to the transcript in square brackets.) In lieu of video clips, I have included information about when these exchanges occurred, so people who click over to the Iowa Public Television website will be able to find the relevant parts easily.

One important skill for politicians is to be able to answer not only the questions journalists ask, but the questions you wanted them to ask. I have seen John Edwards take questions many times, and he is very good at bringing his answers around to the themes he wants to emphasize.

This answer begins at about the 9:30 mark in the video of the AARP forum:

>> Woodruff: Senator Edwards, what do you think about this question of letting the states go first [in implementing health care reforms]?

>> Edwards: Well, it's not a state problem. This is a national problem. I mean, there are lots of folks here in Iowa who don't have health care coverage. Unfortunately, I've met too many people in Iowa who don't have health care coverage. But this is clearly a national problem. I have a very strong view about why we don't have universal health care. I think America doesn't have universal health care because of the drug companies, the insurance companies, and their lobbyists in Washington, DC. They stand between America and the universal health care that we need, and we do–I want to follow up on what Senator Biden just said. We desperately need a president who is not working with compromising with those people, who want to stop universal health care. We need a president who's actually willing to stand up to them, and I've been doing it my whole life and I'll do it as president of the United States.

Voters who want to see universal health care adopted will have to decide who has the best political strategy to get it done, and I think Edwards makes a powerful argument here.

Here's another passage I enjoyed, which begins at around 19:00 on the video on the IPTV website. Here Edwards takes a question about how he would pay for health care reform, and he quickly addresses that (using more accessible language than what Woodruff used in her question). But note how he leaves himself enough time to segue to the need to reform our tax system, which currently favors wealth over work:

>> Woodruff: Thank you, Senator Clinton. Now, Senator Edwards, you've said that you will pay for your health care plan by repealing the Bush tax cut on individuals making over $200,000 a year, returning the top tax rate to 39 percent and keeping the estate tax. But my question is it's been noted that that would not raise the $100 billion plus that would be required until into your second term, if you were elected. So my question is would you consider raising the tax rates on the very wealthy above 39 percent.

>> Edwards: Well, I've already proposed–and let me just make clear what you just said so that the audience understands. I'm proud of the fact that I was the first candidate up here to come out with a truly specific universal healthcare plan, which I did many months ago. And I'm glad to see that others are speaking on this issue now because what's important is we're talking about this issue for America. What I proposed was, my plan costs–I don't claim it's free. It costs $90 to $120 billion a year. And what I propose is to pay for it by getting rid of George Bush's tax cuts for people who make over $200,000 a year. That was my proposal.

Now, beyond that I'm also proud of the fact that I've laid out a very specific tax reform proposal which goes beyond just getting rid of taxes on those–getting rid of Bush's tax cuts for people who make over $200,000 and beyond doing something about the estate tax. For example, I believe that the capital gains rate in America, which is now at 15 percent, is completely out of whack with what working people pay on their income, on their working income. What happens is people like Warren Buffett–and he says this himself, by the way. People like Warren Buffett pay 15 percent of the millions of dollars that they earn from wealth income, which is investment income, while their secretary is paying a higher rate on her work income. It's not right. What I have said is we ought to change the capital gains rate from 15 to 27 percent for people who make over $250,000 a year so that we actually treat work with the dignity that it's entitled to in the United States of America.

The wealth v. work portion of Edwards' stump speech has always been one of the most effective, in my opinion.

I like this next part as well, which begins around 22:30 in the video. Edwards is responding to Governor Bill Richardson, who claimed he can provide universal health care without raising taxes and listed various cost-saving measures that can be implemented:

>> Edwards: I just wanted to respond briefly. My proposal actually saves $120 to $130 billion a year by doing all those things. It has preventive care, chronic care, long-term care covered. It requires electronic record-keeping, requires the use of technology, puts limits on what insurance companies can charge for profit and overhead at 15 percent. But the thing I want to say about this is I think it's really important, particularly in this election. Since the American people have been misled for seven years, it is time for us to tell people the truth. And we cannot have universal health care for free. And I think we need to be honest about what it costs and honest about how we intend to pay for it.

>> Woodruff: And are you suggesting other candidates on stage have not been?

>> Edwards: No, I'm suggesting that for decades what's happened is politicians have rolled through Iowa saying we're going to give you this, we're going to give you that, we're going to give you this, and, oh, by the way, by the way, we're going to get rid of the federal deficit. It is not reality and people need to hear the truth from us.

Cosbo already covered this next part in a diary complete with a You Tube clip. It begins around the 24:00 mark, when Edwards joked about the similarities between his plan and Hillary's:

>> Woodruff: All right. I do want to come back to you, Senator Edwards, to pick up on something you said a few minutes ago. You have been very critical of Senator Clinton's acceptance of lobbyists' money and what you call her ties to corporate America. You've said, among other things, you guarantee your picture wil never be on the cover of Fortune magazine as the corporations' favorite candidate. Well, you've now had a chance to look at Senator Clinton's health care proposal. Do you think it was influenced by her associations with these lobbyists?

>> Edwards: No, no, I don't. I think her health care proposal is actually a very good health care proposal. It's very similar to mine, so it's very hard for me to be critical of it. [laughter]

And I'm proud of the fact that, you know, six, seven months later, Senator Clinton came out with a plan that is very similar to mine. […]

I do think that–as much as I respect her, I do think we have some differences about the most effective way to do this. I don't believe you can take money from health insurance, drug companies, insurance company lobbyists, sit at the table with those people, let them pay to play, and negotiate and compromise your way to universal health care. I think if that worked, we would have universal health care today. I don't believe it works. And what I believe is the system in Washington is broken, and I don't think it works for ordinary Americans. And that's what I believe has to be challenged in order to bring universal health care to America.

What's important to my mind is not the joke, but the fact that Edwards again is making the case that he has a better strategy to get this done than Hillary. I know that the Clinton supporters disagree with him, but I think that what he says will resonate with a lot of Democrats. Also, I think this message is important enough for him to repeat several times during the debate.

Here's another part I thought was effective, beginning around 34:45 in the video. The first couple of sentences are a response to Joe Biden, who had earlier implied that Edwards was unable to get a patients' bill of rights through the Senate. The rest of it deals with the problems in Medicare:

>> Edwards: Briefly. Joe, we did pass the patients' bill of rights in the United States Senate. It was Bush who stopped it. I just had to respond to that. But here's what I think. The reason that the Medicare prescription drug law is as bad as it is, is a perfect living example of what's wrong with the way Washington operates, because the drug company lobbyists got everything they wanted. Everybody on this stage wanted to allow Medicare to negotiate better drug prices. Everybody on this stage wanted to dole out prescription drugs into this country from Canada.

>> Woodruff: But this question about [she is trying to ask about the solvency of Medicare] –

>> Edwards: Let me finish. Let me finish, please. Everybody on this stage wanted to do something about drug company advertising on television, where they spend much more money than they do in research and development. We all wanted to do that. The problem is because of the way the system works in Washington, these drug company lobbyists got exactly what they wanted. They literally wrote the bill. And the result is for all these seniors in Iowa and for millions and millions of seniors across America, they can't pay for their prescription drugs. This has to stop. We have to give the power in this government back to the American people and take it away from that crowd in Washington, the insiders who are running our country today.

Later in the debate, Woodruff asked several questions related to the solvency of Social Security. Again, Edwards brought up how our tax system favors wealth over work. This part begins around the 43:45 mark in the video:

>> Edwards: I just want to follow up on one thing that Senator Biden said just a minute ago, but he mentioned it briefly in passing. There is something we can do to generate more revenue for Social Security. Today for those in the audience who may not be aware of this–and I suspect most of them are–it caps out at about $97,000. In other words, if you make $80,000 a year, you're paying Social Security taxes on every dime of your income. If you work on Wall Street and you make $50 million a year, you pay Social Security tax on the first 97,000, no Social Security tax on the rest of it. This is not right and it's not fair and what we need to do, in my judgment–[applause]

I don't–to the point that Bill just made, I do think we need to have a bubble above that 97, probably up to about 200,000 so we don't raise taxes on middle class families. But above the 200,000, these millionaires on Wall Street ought to be paying their Social Security taxes.

Later, Woodruff turned the discussion to pensions. Several of the candidates, including Biden and Clinton, made good points about the unconscionable behavior of corporations that used bankruptcy code to wipe out workers' pensions while giving top executives lucrative compensation packages.

Then Edwards made sure to bring up an important issue without waiting for Woodruff to ask about it. This begins around 52:00 in the video:

>> Edwards: Very quick. I really just want to say two things that have not been discussed yet. It is so important if we want workers when they retire to have pensions and to have pensions that are protected, that we strengthen the right of unions to organize in the workplace– [cheers and applause] because 80 percent–80 percent of union workers have a pension, and that's–the result of that is the result of collective bargaining. It's a result of organizing in the workplace. We need to make it easier for workers to organize in the workplace. I want to say one other thing, and I'll do it very quickly. We ought to have a law in the United States of America that says CEO, chairmen of the boards, compensation, golden parachute pension will be treated exactly under the law the same way as the lowest paid worker in the company's pension is treated. [applause]

Here Woodruff asked a narrowly-focused question on alternative minimum tax, but Edwards used his answer to bring the discussion around to the big picture: comprehensive tax reform. This begins around the 1:06:00 mark:

>> Edwards: No, I think it needs to be modified. The AMT, it was originally designed, the alternative minimum tax, to hit at high-income taxpayers who were using big tax loopholes to their advantage. Because they had accountants, they could take advantage of these things. So the notion actually was a very good one when it was originally enacted. The problem is it's now hitting many middle class families. And I think we are going to have to change it, number one. It's part, from my perspective, of a broader, comprehensive tax reform that's needed in America. I've spoken about some of it already, getting rid of Bush's tax cuts for people who make over $200,000, not eliminating the estate tax, doing something about the capital gains rate. I think it's all these things in combination that have to be looked at. The problem with asking just about the AMT alone is it's part of a bigger problem. We need serious comprehensive tax reform in America.

There are other parts of the debate I liked as well, but this diary is getting long, so I will sign off. Again, I encourage Democrats to watch the whole video. We've got a very strong field.

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