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  • Clinton Interview: The Next Term

    The Washington Post
    Sunday, January 19, 1997; Page A16

    Following is President Clinton's interview in the Oval Office Thursday with Washington Post reporters:

    Newt Gingrich

    We were interested in the comments yesterday [Wednesday] about [House Speaker] Newt Gingrich, and you seemed to be urging parties—both parties to concentrate on issues rather than excessively focus on scandals. Do you think the Democrats on the Hill have been too partisan in their approach?

    Well, that's not—I didn't mean to say that, exactly; but let me tell you what I do think. I think that whenever something like this comes up, you naturally expect the party under attack to be generally supported by the members of his or her party, and the party on the other side, you know, to do this. And all of this is aggravated by the memories of [former House speaker] Jim Wright and all of that kind of stuff; I know that.

    What I would urge is that everybody try to take a calm look at the record. Did Mr. Cole make his report today? He didn't?

    The committee members will get it tonight. The members of Congress look at it sometime tomorrow, and maybe we'll get it later tomorrow.

    Well, anyway, look at the evidence and just make whatever judgments they think they have to make, and then put it behind us. I mean, what I think is that we spend in general a disproportionate amount of time on all of this kind of stuff, and it takes not only time, but it takes enormous emotional energy away from the work of the country, the things that affect the lives of ordinary Americans, and our ability to sort of make the most of this remarkable moment in history we've been given to effect our own transition into the future.

    I think that—that's the only point I wanted to make. It was interesting—I was talking to Bob Dole, you know, when he was in here the other day . . . and we had a great visit and talked about the campaign and all kinds of things. And at the end I just asked him, I said, you know, you've been here a lot longer than I have. He said, that's what I tried to tell people in the election. I said, would you say that politics and politicians on the whole are more—that the system and the people involved in it are more honest or less than they were 30 years ago? He said, it's not even close, he said much more honest. He said the system is much better, the standards are much higher.

    And yet, because so much time and attention is spent on every dispute, I think the people of the country may have the reverse impression, and I think that—that's not to say we don't need campaign finance reform, and we'll get a chance to talk about that—but I think that—I guess I'm mindful of it, you know, because on the day after the inauguration, I will have served more time than I have left to serve. All of us, we just have so little time and it passes so fast, and we can do so much when we work together and think about the interests of the people and the future, and they're still honest differences, more than enough to be debated at election time, that it's a shame to waste this time by giving any more attention to these things than we need to.

    Now, sometimes when legitimate issues come up, they have to be addressed, they have to be focused on, but even then they ought to be focused on, dealt with in the appropriate fashion and then you go on. That's the only point I was trying to make.

    The Tone of Politics

    Are you concerned that this has already poisoned the atmosphere up on the Hill, which will detract from your ability and the Republicans' ability to deal cooperatively as you and they have talked about it?

    Well, I think that one of the great challenges of leadership today—and maybe in any democracy, but certainly in ours—is learning to get the poison out of your system in a hurry. That's something I've had some passing acquaintance with in the last four years. And I think you've got to—you just have to do it. The oath that we swear, the duty that we have is to do the public's business, and we have to strive to do it, and that's the only thing that I can say about it.

    I think if everybody feels the way I do—my experience is that even the people with whom I have the deepest disagreements, they love our country and they believe they're doing the right things. And if we would listen carefully, we could learn a lot from one another. That was certainly my experience in these budget negotiations when just the sheer timetable of the presidential campaign I think is the only thing that ever kept the leaders in Washington from coming to an agreement.

    I hope that I can set a tone on Monday and in the days ahead that will help flush the poison out of the atmosphere and get people to thinking about the folks that sent us all here.

    Do you have any responsibility to talk to the Democrats on Capitol Hill toward that end and toward wrapping up the Gingrich thing as fast as—

    I don't know. It depends on what's in that report and how much time they need to wrap it up. I don't know what the facts are, and I have intentionally stayed away from them, because it's not within my province to resolve.

    But the only thing—I think that all of the leaders of both parties should want to preserve the appearance of fairness and propriety and getting the facts out, then making a prompt decision and going forward. The Congress, each of them, this is a responsibility that is uniquely theirs. The executive branch has nothing to do with this. My only concern is for serving some sort of—and make a decision in the appropriate way, and then let's get back to the business of the country. That's what I think the voters told us to do in the election, and that's what I'm trying to do.

    Social Security And Medicare

    One of the things you've said you want to get to work on is the budget, both short-term budget and the larger question of entitlements out there in the future. As these issues are discussed around Washington, there seems to be an expectation on both sides that somehow people can—there's almost a wish that this could get solved by immaculate conception, some sort of plan would come out of the sky, people would agree on it, great, you have a bipartisan deal. But other people are saying, well, it's not realistic, it's not going to happen unless somebody leads, and these questions all—particularly Medicare, Social Security—involve great political risks. You're now freed from an election. Are you willing to take on these political risks by showing leadership on entitlements and—for example, CPI is another one of those issues?

    The question is, what is most likely to produce results. I am willing to take initiative, I'm willing to take responsibility for making decisions that need to be done over the long run, but I would just make two points.

    First of all, we cannot do those things, can't deal with the long-term issues of Society Security and Medicare unless we first get ourselves into an agreement on a balanced budget. I believe that—and I'm going to reach out to them on this budget, as I did last time, and on the Medicare issue in terms of the trust fund in the near term—near term, I mean 10 years more or less; 10 years or a little more, in that range. On Social Security and Medicare long term, it's basically a demographic problem. You're dealing with the aging of the baby boomers, and for 18 years we'll have a demographic problem. Then it will reverse again and we'll have relatively more people working than we have retired.

    The question that I have to be mindful of is this: If I were to go out and give a speech, prescribing everything I would be prepared to do, I could—I don't have an opinion yet on some of those issues like should we invest a small portion of the Social Security fund in the equities market, in the stock market. . .

    No, I mean, I've thought about it a lot, and I have solicited a lot of opinions, and I've listened to people, even in New York, who are pro and con on it. It's quite interesting. The people that really want Social Security reform have different views. Some people believe that if you increase the returns to Social Security by investment in the equities market, you would inevitably reduce the returns of private pension funds, because somebody would have to buy the bonds, and the overall return of the market wouldn't change. In other words, this is a complex question.

    So are you open to it at this point? I mean, some people are just flatly against it.

    I'm flatly against privatizing the system, because I think you have to keep a base—I believe in order to deal with the fact that a lot of our—for a foreseeable future, we will still have relatively low-income people coming into their retirement years. We ought to have a base system of retirement that guarantees an existence for all of our elderly people. We had—keep in mind—in 1995, we had the lowest poverty rate among seniors ever recorded because of Social Security and Medicare and all those things.

    But I think that the other recommendation to the commission is their study, but let me go back to your point. I would like, when I am finished here, to be able to say that one of the things we did to prepare for the 21st century was to recognize the reality—the demographic realities—and to make the adjustments necessary to preserve Social Security and Medicare for future generations. A lot of young people don't think they're going to get it. They just take it as a given.

    And it wouldn't take much change. It wouldn't be enormously powerful, painful change to fix these things so that we would have a reasonable certainty that they would be available.

    The question is, how can you best do that? All the evidence is that the best way to do it is through—and the only way to get it done is through a bipartisan process that actually produces legislative changes. For me to actually give a speech and say, "This is what I think should be done," invites the reverse of that. It invites people to play politics with it. Whereas, if we can get a bipartisan process so that in the end we come up with an agreement we can all live with, I believe, interestingly enough, the political risks are not as great as have been supposed.

    If you take the AARP [American Association of Retired Persons] for example, they know what the demographics are. They just got me for a member. Pretty soon they're going to have nothing but baby boomers as members.

    Did you send in your card?

    I haven't sent in a card, but—

    You're eligible.

    They were supposed to—you know what I mean. I'm eligible and I'd be happy to belong. I worked hard for this for 50 years.

    But they understand that. So I think the political risks attendant upon doing what is only sensible for the long-term future are greatly overstated unless we turn it into an object of politics. We haven't done that with Social Security.

    And even in the Medicare fight we have in the election, I did my best to make these three points clear, not just one. One is that I vetoed a budget that had Medicare cuts I thought were entirely too excessive. Two is that when we quit our negotiations, we were actually quite close together and that I was prepared to be forthcoming and I'm going to reach out to them in the budget I sent to the Congress. Three is that I thought if we adopted a 15 percent tax cut that we would be forced to go back to the larger Medicare number—again, not to save Medicare, but to pay for that in the short run, which would arguably not have long-term benefits. Those were the points I made.

    I think we can—my own view is that we can agree on some sort of bipartisan process that will put a lot of life onto Social Security and will strengthen Medicare. We can also plainly agree—I mean, we're not very far apart on a plan that would increase the life of the trust fund considerably as a part of the balanced budget agreement. So I'm quite optimistic about this.

    I don't—I believe in four years, when I leave office, we will have done this thing and I believe that the news that I will make or the things that I will do tactically between now and then will be designed to maximize the chances of actually getting an agreement. We can't do it by immaculate conception, but we can't do it by fiat either. In the end, this requires an act of Congress.

    Go to Part 2

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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