Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.)
Monday, March 13, 2006; 6:00 AM's Chris Cillizza interviewed former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) on Feb. 13 as part of an ongoing series of conversations with potential 2008 presidential candidates. A transcript of the interview is below:

Let's start with Iraq, specifically the piece you wrote in The Washington Post that started out with the statement "I was wrong." What convinced you to do that? Was there a moment when you finally said, "This vote was the wrong thing to do," and when was it?

Edwards: It happened over time. And I can't pinpoint a specific moment. What happened for me was I have been traveling the country and around the world talking about moral clarity in connection within the issue of poverty. I thought it was important if I was going to try to take the moral high ground and do what I think America needs to do to start from a foundation of truth. And it was something that I felt was the truth and something I needed to say, which is why I did it.

Was it something that took a long time?

It did take time. If there was a point in time, I can't tell you today when it was.

Had you felt pressure to essentially recant on that vote?

No, I don't feel pressure today. I never felt any pressure. I thought it was the right thing for me to do. It was more important for me.

If John Kerry were president and you were vice president, what would our Iraq policy look like today?

I hope that we would -- I can only speak for me, I can't speak for John -- I would hope that we would begin by telling the truth about how we got there. I think that is important, important in terms of the way the rest of the world views us.

Secondly, I think we both believe that on the fundamental judgment about whether troop presence in the numbers that we have now is more harmful than helpful, that it is more harmful. Because it sends all the wrong symbols to the Islamic world, to Iraq about how long we intend to stay there, about whether we are actually going to allow the Iraqis govern themselves and whether we are going to allow the Iraqis to provide their own security. All that means is we have to start substantially enough to reduce the troop level that we send the right signal.

I think we would have begun -- I can't tell you precisely when because I think we would have listened and consulted with our military leadership there -- but I think we would have begun a reduction in our troop level. I think we would have sped up the process and intensified the process of training of Iraqis. And I know we would have made a more intense effort to work on diplomacy in that region of the world and try to bring other countries into what we were trying to accomplish.

You're not where Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) is I take it?

Immediate and total withdrawal? I am not.

And what about the plan that the Center for American Progress has proposed -- to basically reduce troop levels by half by the end of this year and get everybody out by the end of next year?

What I have in my own head was a reduction in roughly the range of our Guard and reservists who are there toward the end of the year, which would mean 40,000 to 50,000 troops. And then to make judgments as we went along about what other troop withdrawals would be necessary.

And you don't think that reduction would cause a collapse in the government or make security appreciably worse for the Iraqis?

I do not. Not if they were taken from the right parts of the country.

Have you been talking to military officers about this? I'm just curious about how you came to that conclusion that we could do the job there for less.

[I] read stuff that was being written by others, talk to people who work on Iraq policy in DC and had some but limited conversations with military leaders. I wouldn't want to exaggerate that part.

How do you feel that the U.S. got into this fix -- and you clearly think it's a fix and it caused you to recant your vote in 2002? You must have thought a lot about this whole situation and how we got taken to war in a way that you clearly think was wrong.

I think there were multiple things that happened at the same time. One is there was clearly bad information, bad intelligence -- information that was given to the Congress, information that was given to the administration. I think in addition to that the administration hyped the information that was available to them, and I think they did as subsequent reports have indicated, cherry pick what was available to them. I think there were multiple things happening at the same time.

I'm only speaking on my own behalf now. I think that it's very important for those of us who voted to take responsibility for our vote. I made my own judgment. I made it based on what I heard in the Intelligence Committee based on conversations with military leaders at the time, based on -- and this is not insignificant -- based on meetings with Clinton administration leaders including people like Sandy Berger, Richard Holbrooke and others. All of that information led me to the conclusion that was wrong.

From my perspective it's important to hold Bush and others around him accountable for their misleading the American people, but I made my own independent judgment. And I'm responsible for that.

As you travel around the country, how often and how quickly is the Iraq war brought up when you take questions and what is the reception when you talk about your transformation on the issue?

It doesn't come up real often. The other thing I've discovered is most people don't have any idea that I wrote something in The Washington Post. So I usually have to tell 'em. When I speak I do bring it up, but I don't get much in the way of follow up questions. Honestly, I think probably the reason for that is because the bulk of my time is spent on poverty and moral leadership and how it affects us around the world. That would be the natural focal point for peoples' questions. I spend a lot of time taking questions. I'll get a question on Iraq occasionally, but it's fairly small compared to the poverty stuff.

How optimistic are you that there will be a successful outcome in Iraq?

That depends, of course, on your definition of "successful outcome." If the definition of successful outcome is a relatively stable Iraq, a[n] Iraq that is being governed by itself and providing at least some reasonable level of security, I still think there is a good chance of success. I think it is a very difficult situation right now. And that assumes that we do what needs to be done.

How optimistic are you that the Bush administration can bring it to a successful conclusion?

Less optimistic. I didn't want to spend all this time talking about the Bush administration, but I will since you're asking. I want it to be clear in these tapes that I am responding to your questions because I think it is very important for us -- the Democratic Party -- to talk about a positive vision for the country and not spend all our energy on what's wrong with George Bush.

But since you asked, I think that the Bush administration has shown a fairly consistent pattern of incompetence. They've shown it in the lead-up to the war, they've shown it in their execution of the war, they've show it last fall in how they dealt with this hurricane. they've shown it in the implementation of the Medicare prescription drug benefit. I think there's been a clear pattern of incompetent governing, and unfortunately there are real consequences to that. I think a lot of why we're in the position we are now in Iraq lies at the feet of this administration.

When you say you think the Democrats have to be offering a more positive vision, there's certainly a perception that that's not happening at this point -- that in fact Democrats are offering an almost wholly negative critique of the Bush administration but nothing particularly positive on their own. Do you disagree with that?

First of all, it's just a practical matter [that] the party that doesn't have the White House and doesn't have control of Congress never speaks with just one voice. You know that. it's true of the Republicans when Bill Clinton was president. I think it's normally true. So there is more than one voice for the Democratic Party. And I think there are people trying hard to lay out a positive vision -- it's harder.

But I think it's of critical importance that we do both. That we hold the administration responsible for their failures, both their failure to act and their proactive failures, and secondly that we lay that aside [and present] our positive vision for the country. As you all have probably heard me talk about, and I won't bore you with the speech, but I think this is about moral leadership. I think it is about filling the void in moral leadership that America so badly needs. And there are a whole range of substantive issues that fit into that critique, starting, I hope, with the issue that I am spending most of my life on these days, the issue of poverty.

And secondly, I think there is a huge void in America's moral leadership around the world. We, the Democratic Party, need to provide leadership on [these issues]. It seems to me that gives us a frame for a positive vision and the substantive subparts of that vision.

Polls show that Democrats trail Republicans pretty consistently [on the question of] "who shares your values." How do you make up that values question? That seems to be at the core of how Democrats get back majorities, get back the White House ... to effectively address the question that you as a party are effective messengers on values issues that are important to people across the country. How do you specifically address that?

It's your job to analyze strategy. What I want to see my party do is recognize the difference between right and wrong, and do what's right. I want to see us show the conviction that will provide strength in both vision and leadership. I want it to be absolutely clear to the country what it is we stand for, what we're going to fight for from day one when we are in the White House. it's important, particularly for governing, that we have a depth to the substance of that vision, but everybody who votes has to know what it is we care most about and what it is we're gonna fight for.

Do you think people knew that in the 2004 presidential race?

I'm not in the business of going back there. it's a perfectly fair question, but I've now learned it's better to look forward than look back, and I am going to stick with that. Let me just add to that that I absolutely believe that John Kerry would have made a very good president. I believed it then and I still believe it. The most important thing is to make clear what we stand for, that we have backbone -- that we'll fight for what it is we believe.

I think the last thing we ought to be worried about is polling and focus groups and political consultants. We ought to leave those people behind. that's following, it's not leading. [We need to show] we have the courage of our vision, that we understand where America needs to go, we understand what our core convictions are and that we're going to stand up for them, including some cases [that] may be popular and some [that] may not.

If a Democrat is elected president in 2008, the fiscal situation of the country will probably be pretty grim -- large budget deficits, huge entitlement problems. What opportunities do you think there are for the Democrats to actually propose some new things that they could actually do if you got into office on these larger issues?

I think there's an opportunity to propose big ideas on critical issues as long as we're willing to tell the truth about them, which means there's going to be pain associated with the gain in most areas. I don't want to do that today in this interview, but I can tell you that I hope myself and others will be laying out what we believe some of those of ideas.

Putting aside the pain, which I recognize is difficult politically, what about the gain? There must be one or two things you thought that, "Hey if I'm president I would want to do this to deal with the problem of poverty in America"?

Oh, I didn't understand your question. On the issue of poverty, I see it as basically falling into two categories. One is financial and the other is societal-slash-cultural. A lot of this comes from a little over a year meeting with families who live in poverty in most of the country, 35 states roughly. There is a huge income gap in America which is becoming stratified -- it's becoming hard to move from one income group to another. The things you can do about that is raise the minimum wage, a lot of these families are working for the minimum wage, we are trying to do that in initiatives I'm involved in in Michigan and Ohio and Arizona, Montana, Arkansas, Nevada -- second time around in Nevada because you've got to do it twice there.

I think we ought to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit beyond where it is today, particularly to make it more available to single workers, get rid of the marriage penalty that presently exists in the Earned Income Tax Credit. there's an asset gap, not just an income gap, which is really important. If I'm going too far and wasting your time just stop me.

There's an asset gap. It particularly has a racial component: Black families' net worth [is] $6,000 on average; Latino families $8,000; white families $80,000. I think you saw a lot of that in the aftermath of the hurricane in New Orleans. And the question is what do you do about it?

Here are some ideas: Work bonds, which means we set up accounts for low income families to the extent they are able to save, we, America, the government, matches what they're able to save. We use housing vouchers in a more aggressive way not just to provide basic housing but to allow some mobility across economic and racial divides like we saw in the lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans.

Access to education. We've actually started a model program in a small county in eastern North Carolina where we've made college available to any young person there who graduates from high school, qualified to go to college and going to a state university or community college and agrees to work at least ten hours a week. There are others. Health care is an obvious example of another financial issue.

On the non-financial side, one of the things that I've learned from sitting in so many meeting now ... is when you go to poverty centers you mostly see women and single mothers and a lot of them have four or five kids. they're supporting the kids by themselves and their kids are having kids. You can just feel the cycle repeating itself. So we have to find ways -- I know this is a difficult, controversial subject -- but we have to find ways to do something about teen pregnancy. We have to find ways to at least address the issue of responsibility. We have to say it's wrong when 14-year-old girls are having kids out of wedlock. That it's wrong when the parents -- including the fathers of the children -- are not supporting them. It's wrong when young African Americans think all that's going to happen to them is that they are going to die or go to prison. We have to find ways to do try to do something about that.

There are actually some creative programs about teen pregnancy, there's a great one in Connecticut for example, there are terrific fatherhood initiatives being done all over the country, including one right here in Washington, D.C.

So, that's sort of the range of things that I see. Poverty is going to take a very serious, comprehensive response. If you deal with any piece of it, it's like quicksilver, the problems will go somewhere else.

As you watch what's happened in New Orleans since the hurricane and flooding, what has this taught you if anything about the issue of poverty and dealing with it?

The hurricane and the aftermath -- horrible as it was -- actually provide the country with a chance to do something. But that will never happen without national leadership driving the issue. I was actually in New Orleans two weeks ago, and it's startling to go through the lower Ninth, the upper Ninth, east New Orleans and see how little has been done.

But I think New Orleans is just a microcosm for what exists all across the country. Right here in Washington D.C., is another example. White people move to affluent areas, in some cases to the suburbs, send their kids to private schools, and we cluster poor people and black people together in the same neighborhoods. I don't know how long it's going to take us as a country to figure out clustering poor people together is a very bad idea.

So I think there was an opportunity available to do something because it was kind of seared into the conscience of the country, what they saw on their television screens [in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath]. It will never happen without us up there driving it, and I might add with real value-based ideas about what we do about it. Nobody likes the idea of what they saw on their television screens, but they also don't like the idea of just spending money to take care of people who ought to be taking care of themselves. They want to figure out a way to help them but by way of opportunity instead of just dependency.

Could I ask you about the foreign policy side of this in terms of moral leadership? Certainly, the supporters of President Bush would say the kind of leadership he is providing in pushing for democracies in areas that have not been receptive to it is a moral thing to do. Do you agree with that? As you think about it in terms of moral leadership, how would you define it?

The way I think about it is there are huge moral issues the world is facing. What the world looks to from America is are we leading on these big moral issues. From the world's perspective, what they've mostly see from America today is the use of our power in Iraq. And then they look at the other things that are going on. Things like the ongoing genocide in Darfur [in] Sudan, and there have actually been some positive things happening recently on that, but over a long period of time America did virtually nothing while black people were being killed because they're black. Particularly in the aftermath of Rwanda, that sends the wrong signal. It's also not the right thing to do.

Global poverty. Instead of leading over the last many years, America has not shown the kind of leadership on global poverty that we need to show, and again I spent some time in the slums outside of Delhi just before Christmas and I had trouble sleeping. I don't know how this could ever be OK, and where is the America that all of us believe in? Where is our leadership?

I think across the whole range, I won't go through the all -- human rights abuses, pandemic of AIDS -- there are all these huge opportunities for America to show that we are the great moral leader in the world and we have not done it. it's a place where if America doesn't lead than no one leads. Less than a year ago I spent about an hour of so with [Prime Minister Tony Blair] in London and listened to him talk about the things they were doing. It was climate change, Africa, global poverty. And the whole time I'm thinking to myself: "Where is America? Where is American leadership?" There's no way in the world for Britain do to this without us. It was a very striking example of the void that we've created on these kind of issues. And I think it matters to the rest of the world.

How do you equate that with the war on terror and this clear battle now between parts of Islam and parts of the West? Is that in your estimation the most important thing that we're doing, or should these other things that you're talking about take precedence over that?

It's not an "Either-Or." We have an obligation. American leaders have an obligation to keep this country safe, to do everything that's reasonable within our power to promote freedom and to strike out at those who are clearly bent on killing Americans before they get to us. I think we have an affirmative obligation to do that, but we should be doing it simultaneous with the things that will show the rest of the world we don't just care about our own plight, we actually care about what's happening on the planet.

We can't be naive about this. There are very dangerous people in this world, and we have to go get 'em before they can get us. But we have to at the same time show that we care about doing what's right. If you do those things in combination and you lead in a way that brings other countries to you instead of driving them away, it changes number on the security of our country. Number two, it changes the way the world perceives us, and number three over the long term it creates the kind of world we want to live in. We have been clearly missing on the second part of that, and you can make arguments about whether we have effectively done what we need to on the second part.

Can I ask you for a few minutes about the NSA surveillance program? I'm curious about your general opinion about what the administration has done with this program and if you're critical of the program, which I suspect you are, I'm curious to know whether you're critical of the substance of the program -- what they're doing -- or how they went about it, without getting explicit congressional approval for their specific changes in FISA that some lawmakers say are needed.

I think it is very important for American security that if members of al Qaeda, which is the example that most people talk about, are communicating with American citizens for us to know about those communications. I think it also critical to what America stands for and who we are that it be done in a lawful and constitutional way. The administration recognized the first but ignored the second. And they ignored it an area where, number one, Congress had spoken. They weren't moving on a blank slate. Congress had told them what needed to be done.

And number two, I've never yet heard a legitimate explanation about why they couldn't get a FISA warrant when it became necessary. Especially given the fact that for 48 or 72 hours you can come after the fact and get the FISA warrant. I know from my own experience on the Intelligence Committee [that] these FISA warrants are not hard to get. it's hard for me to understand why the president of the United States believes he has to violate the law, and I've not heard any legitimate explanation for why he did it or why he continues to do it.

what's the remedy at this point?

The remedy is, I think, the American people holding this administration and others responsible for what they've done. that's one of the things elections are about.

Do you think this is a losing issue for Democrats to point out?

I think it's a mistake for us to think that way, to ever get into that mindset. I think it's when we start saying, "Here's the question, here's the answer, but we shouldn't talk about this because this 48 percent of the public is not for it or 52 or whatever."

I think when it's a question of right and wrong, and there are a lot of areas of right and wrong, this is one of them, that we ought to say what's right and we ought to stand for what we believe in and that's the right thing to do and it's the position of strength. It's what leading is about.

As you've gone around you've done a lot of party events. What kind of shape is the Democratic Party in heading into this election?

I think we're doing much better, actually. I think we're in many ways moving in the right direction. One of the things that Governor Dean gets no credit for in this place, Washington, is all the party building he is doing around the country, and I can tell you the people out there are very appreciative of what he's been doing. He's really working at it.

A week or so ago I did a thing in Ohio where they're very pleased with the money and the effort that's being made to strengthen the Democratic Party there. I hear it everywhere. There is a real effort to strengthen the structure and grassroots of the Democratic Party, which I think is actually very encouraging. [The] 2006 election will tell us something about how effective it's been.

You've now been out of office for a little over a year. Are there specific things that, perspective-wise, are different?

Yes. Nobody out there in the country cares about the petty fights that go on in this place everyday ... [T]hey don't care about it, they're not interested in it and it's part of what feeds the cynicism they have about politics and about Washington, D.C., in general. To be blunt about it, I have trouble keeping up with it, and most people wouldn't call me a normal person when it comes to politics. I have trouble caring. I really do. When I read the newspaper I come to that stuff and I just skip it. It doesn't mean anything, it's totally transient and it doesn't mean anything in peoples' lives. It happens every day literally. Although I have to admit I don't read The Washington Post every day.

It seems as though you are saying you have a broader perspective than when you first came here. How does that inform the things you find important, the things you talk about, the things you think about. And is that a helpful, a hurtful or a neutral thing for you?

I think not only do you have better sense of what most people care about and what's important to them. Secondly, I think instead of being mired down in Washington, when you spend more time traveling around the country you have a better gut feeling for not only what their priorities are but also what they're looking for. What they're hungry for. It's much easier to understand that when you're not in the bubble of Washington, D.C.

Is there a downside to not being in the Senate from your perspective?

If there is I haven't figured out what it is.

Are you running for president or not?

You waited this long to ask that question? I have not decided anything about that. I'm trying to make sure Elizabeth is well. I'm trying to do everything I can about poverty in the country and that's where my focus is. I'll figure that out later.

Are their lessons that you learned from the 2004 campaign? Political lessons, personal lessons, life lessons?

That's not the same question? I'm trying to figure out what the difference is. Here's what I think: I am going to take your question and still look forward but it partly answers it. I think that number one it is an a amazing country and anybody that's ever had the honor to be on a national ticket as either the presidential or vice presidential candidate and doesn't say that they learned something it's because they weren't paying attention. You have so much to learn. It completely changes you in that respect as a leader or a potential leader. That's first.

Second, I think that what most people are gauging potential leaders on is not just their positions and not just policy issues -- those are important -- but I think they're looking for character and strength, leadership ability and, I might add, I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I think sometimes that that's characterized superficially and wrongly I think as a personality contest. I don't think it's a personality contest. I think it's a voter's judgment about whether a particular candidate has the qualities to be a leader of the greatest nation on earth. I don't think there is anything wrong with that. I think those are the kind of judgments that voters should be making about their potential leaders.

Now, do they look at what issues you stand for, what you believe in in order to make that calculation? Yes, they do and they should. But I think they look at other things too.

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