Tom Daschle: Clintons Are "Very Combative"

Political Players is a weekly conversation with the leaders, consultants, and activists who shape American politics. This week, CBS News' Brian Goldsmith talked with Tom Daschle, the former Senate Majority Leader, about his support for Barack Obama, his opinion of the Clintons, and the issues at stake in the Democratic presidential primaries.


CBSNews.com: This week, Senator Clinton's campaign manager sent a letter to her counterpart over at the Obama campaign calling on him to agree to do a debate a week for the rest of the primary season. There has been only one debate with just Senator Obama and Senator Clinton. And your candidate, Senator Obama, has not accepted that offer. Why not a debate a week?

Tom Daschle: Well, I don't know that participating in eighteen debates so far means you're avoiding anything. I think he said yes to just about every debate that he's had an invitation to. And I think he'll continue to debate.

It's just the thought of having one a week may not provide the opportunity to reach out to voters all over the country and to keep the schedule that he's attempting to keep. I have little doubt that there will be more debates. But one a week probably seems excessive.

CBSNews.com: The last debate, on CNN, was viewed by about eight million people. So the Clinton campaign's argument is what better way to reach voters than through these debates, where you're being challenged, as opposed to big rallies at which you're just repeating the same stump speech?

Tom Daschle: Well, it isn't just rallies. There are a lot of different aspects to a campaign. And again, as I said, Barack is certainly not averse to more debates. And I'm sure there will be more. I think it's more a question of how many and where are the venues.

And I think we ought to take this one at a time, rather than just to lock in a weekly debate. They cover a lot of the same ground. I don't know about you, but I can almost mouth the answers now, when I watch those debates. Just because you're asked same question over and over and over again.

That isn't really a refreshing new look at the campaign, as much as it is a chance for each candidate to recite sound bites. And that isn't helpful to the voters either.

CBSNews.com: Speaking of asking the same questions over and over, it seems like a day does not go by in which Senator Obama is not attacked about his health care plan by the Clinton campaign. What is your response to their main point, which is, essentially, if you're not going to fight for universal coverage in the Democratic primaries, you're never going get it done. Because you've already negotiated with yourself 15 million people who are going to remain uninsured.

Tom Daschle: Well, I think Barack would say very emphatically that there is no difference when it comes to universal coverage between the two campaigns or the candidates. It's just a question of how you get there. I've argued both. I think you can get there by incenting and by inviting people to participate and making it more affordable.

You can get there with mandates. His view is, let's try the incentives first. People aren't unwilling to get health insurance if they can afford it. You know, we have mandates in a lot of states today for health insurance and still fall far short of complete and universal coverage.

I think it's also important to remember that about 90 percent or more of the two plans offered by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are the same in style and substance and approach. So we're focusing on the one area where there's somewhat of a difference.

CBSNews.com: What do you think is their biggest policy difference beyond health care?

Tom Daschle: Well, I think probably their biggest policy difference has to do with the way we would approach foreign policy. I think Hillary is a little bit more in the Bush vein of using muscle and using confrontational methods. Barack believes that we have to put more emphasis on diplomacy and engagement.

There's a huge difference with regard to Iraq, and how we got there, what we had to do afterwards. But, I think that, when it comes to the primary difference affecting policy in this context, that Barack is taking the approach that, historically, has worked very well for us.

We reached out to China, even though they were our enemy. We reached out to the Soviet Union, even though they were our enemy. Barack believes we have to be reaching out to those with whom there are disagreements and see if we can resolve those disagreements. Hillary disagrees with that.

CBSNews.com: Doesn't Senator Clinton, though, also argue for reaching out to those countries? She just says that we shouldn't agree for the president of the United States to meet with leaders like Ahmedinijad without any preconditions.

Tom Daschle: Well, of course, that's never what Barack has indicated. And to suggest that Barack has said that is, again, sort of a distortion that comes from the Clinton campaign.

CBSNews.com: But didn't this fight really begin at one of the debates at which Senator Obama was asked, would he meet without preconditions with five very controversial world leaders within the first year of his presidency. And he said yes. And Senator Clinton said no.

And the Obama campaign's argument has been that, therefore, she's not for reaching out to other countries. And the Clinton campaign's argument is that he would meet with people without preconditions. So how are we supposed to referee this?

Tom Daschle: Well, I think the only way to referee it is to continue to press the questions. And to make sure that we have a clarified understanding of what each side would do. They may not be as far apart as it may have originally sounded. But I think the Clinton campaign seems to find it in their interest to distort and to misinterpret what Barack has said from the very beginning on some of these things. And that's what makes clarifying a lot of these issues as difficult as it appears to be.

CBSNews.com: You've obviously known the Clintons for a long time, at least since 1993 when Bill Clinton became the president. And you've known Senator Obama for a much shorter period of time. Is it fair to say that there was something wrong, in your view, with the way the Clintons handled the presidency that led you to reject people whom you've known a lot longer?

Tom Daschle: Well, I give high marks to the president for many things that he did. I think the state of the economy and our position in the world and his ability to deal with crises that came during his presidency were all good things. But I don't know what it says about our country and this democracy if, for whatever reason, we feel compelled to re-elect members of two families over the last 20 years.

How much longer that continues, I think, is not only something that we in this country grapple with, but it is difficult for me to say to other countries, "You've got to expand your base. You've got to have other new, fresh leadership. You can't rely on the same names over and over again."

So it starts with that. Just like in my case. I mean, I've been in this business for a long time. There comes a time when the history of all of those battles and fights catches up with you. And it becomes an impediment to trying to turn the page and really bring about meaningful change.

Barack comes with a clean slate. And he doesn't come with all that baggage and history. And so, it seems to me he's in a lot better position to turn the page, to look to the future, to unite this country without all of the tremendous challenges that come with recalling the history of the last 20 years.
  • Brian Goldsmith

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