Full Transcript: Former President Bill Clinton Speaks to George Stephanopoulos on ‘This Week’

By ABC News

Sep 29, 2013 9:04am

Below is the full interview transcript of George Stephanopoulos’ interview with former President Clinton for “This Week,” conducted on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

Mr. President, thank you for doing this.

BILL CLINTON:

Thank you, George.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

So you’re rounding out the first decade of CGI, coming up on it.  Take stock.  What’s gone well?  What do you still need to work?

BILL CLINTON:

Well, first of all, the most important thing is it turns out people want to come to a meeting where they know they had to make a commitment.  And they’re willing to make commitments and try to keep it.  They want to have an impact.  They don’t want to just sit around and talk anymore.  They– they’ve been to enough seminars.  They want to come to a place where people are trying to figure out how to do things.  I think what we had to do and what we’re– we’re doing better is to help people keep those commitments.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

Keep that–

(OVERTALK)

BILL CLINTON:

We now– we now do full time.  We have all these full-time workers that help people develop their commitments for the coming year and that help them to keep them.  And for the– the people who come all the time have noticed that we’re spending increasing time at the opening of our sessions, giving people progress reports on the commitments that have already been made as compared with just announcing the new commitments.  And I think that’s– I think recognizing that it is often going to be challenging and then things happen sometimes.  Your funding stream dries up, you know.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

So what’s the percentage like on– on people following—[through]

BILL CLINTON:

Oh, it’s quite good.  We get– we get detailed progress reports now on more than 60% of the commitments and something less on another significant percentage.  There are very few people– who we’ll never hear from again, who just wanted to come here, be here once and they– many of them are actually doing what they said they were gonna do, but they don’t think they’re gonna be part of our network, so they don’t take the time to report in.

But we get a very high reporting.  And it’s getting better.  But I realized in the beginning when we started, we made unwarranted assumptions about how easy it was to decide what you wanted to do and then to do it.  And as we learn more about how people wanted to make informed choices and they need more help putting their commitments together, we did that.

We’ve also gotten better at getting multi-party commitments.  The more people you get involved from different sectors, the better.  Like for example, we got– first big thing we announced here was built on something I saw at– at Sandy, when we had the relief.  And Chelsea said to me one day, said that we ought to just volunteer.  We ought to go out.  And so I said, ‘How many people you think we can raise?”  She said, “A thousand in eight hours.”  And she did, 1040 (LAUGH).

And I said, “How– when are we going?”  She said, “Next Sunday.”  I said, “Chelsea, do you know how hard it is to keep 1000 people busy for eight hours?”  She said, “We got it covered.”  So I go out there.  And sure enough, they had it covered because Team Rubicon, you know, the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, these young people who are great at deploying.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

They spent days down there.

BILL CLINTON:

Resources and hustle.  They spent more than– longer than they’d ever spent anyplace else.  But they also developed a software program with a company called Palantir (PH), which handles big data for a lot of defense departments and has been at the center of a lot of these security issues that you report on all the time.

The– a 25-year-old Egyptian-American who had been wounded in Tahrir Square, demonstrating, helped Palantir to develop the software program that literally showed every house, every other building, every park.  And they allocated 1000 of our people for eight hours, highly efficiently.  And it was from that that we– you know, I started talking to them and got them involved with other people.

And the Rockefeller foundation wanted to build resilient cities.  They wanted to do before– we have a hurricane or a storm or a flood what New Orleans did, for example, (UNINTEL).  And they do– recognize that a big part of that would be better response to natural disasters.

Palantir wanted to take its software program and give it to the world, beginning with all the cities in America most at risk and make it open source, so nobody would have to pay for it and everybody could develop a plan to respond better.  So we married them and then we got all these other partners.  And all of a sudden, we got a dozen groups working together with– beginning with a $35 million budget to create better disaster response and better disaster avoidance.  That’s the kind of thing that really works.  We’ve had to learn that more– the more people you can get in on a commitment, the better it’s gonna work.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

I want to talk more about CGI in a bit, but we’ve got also some big news breaking this week.  It looks like, for the first time since you were president, could be another significant government shutdown perhaps– even a default.  And when you look at it– is that where we’re headed?  And is there anything President Obama can do to stop it?

BILL CLINTON:

Well, I guess he could stop it but the price of– the current price of stopping it is higher than the price of letting the Republicans do it and taking their medicine.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

How so?

BILL CLINTON:

Well– the current price of stopping it is, we’re not gonna have any legislative process, no negotiations, no hearings, no evaluation of the consequences.  Here are the draconian cuts we want you to adopt, including massive cuts in nutrition for the children of low-income working people, people working.  The Republicans say, “You just haven’t given us enough cuts in the things we want to cut.  And we’ve decided what we want to cut and we’ve decided what we don’t want to cut.  We don’t want to negotiate with the democrats in the House.  And we have no intention of doing what the law requires that we negotiate with the Senate, because the Senate has the Democratic majority.  The Democrats in the Senate have already negotiated with the Republicans.”

“So we want to just scrap all that.  Give us what we want or we’re gonna shut the government down.”  I think under those circumstances, the president has to take the position he’s taken, which is you, not me, you voted to spend this money.  America is one of– maybe the only country in the world that requires two votes to spend money.

First, they vote to spend the money.  Then they got to vote again to issue the bonds to, in effect, bar the money from the American people to cover the spending they’ve already voted for.  You can’t negotiate over that.  And I think he’s right not to.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

But as you know, one of the things the Republicans say is that you did that.  You did negotiate over the debt limit back in 1996.  They do control the house.  So doesn’t the president have to negotiate?  And they’re banking on it.

BILL CLINTON:

Well, but the negotiations we had were extremely minor and keep in mind.  There was two different things.  Number one is the economy was growing and the deficit was going down.  Before we ever signed the balanced budget amendment, 90% of the deficit was gone, because of economic growth and what the Congress voted for in our economic plan in ’93.  So it was– we didn’t give away the store and they didn’t ask us to give away the store.

What they– it was more like we got out here on this ledge.  Please give us some face-saving way to walk back.  And we didn’t stop negotiating when we passed the balanced budget bill, for example, I’ll tell you– give you an example, ’cause I’m often criticized for it.  The balanced budget bill, which led us to four surpluses was a negotiating process.  You remember Erskine Bowles led the negotiation.

And I have often been criticized for agreeing to lower the capital gains right from 28 to 20%, but people forget the other side of the coin.  In return for that, I got the children’s health insurance program which subsequently gave health insurance to more than 10 million kids, by the time we got through the Bush presidency and the Obama first term.   So that’s what lawmaking is.  It’s that kind of compromise.  There’s no opportunity for that in this forum.  We don’t have enough time.  They don’t want– they’re mad because they don’t want to negotiate.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

But the demands are so high right now on the Republican side.

BILL CLINTON:

That’s what I mean.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

Delay Obamacare for a year, spending cuts, approval of Keystone.  At the same time, this deadline is coming, October 17th says Jack Lew (PH).  We hit that dead limit.  The consequences of not negotiating are so high, default.

BILL CLINTON:

Yeah, but there’s nothing to negotiate with.  He– he– he shouldn’t delay the health care bill.  It’s the law and we’re in the– we’re opening the enrollment on October first.  We’re ready.  It’s– it– they’re in better shape now than the country was to implement President Bush’s drug program, which was– everybody’s forgotten.  Go back and look at the polls, even more unpopular than health care reform is now.

And– so I think that’s a non-starter.  I think some of these budget cuts are just– like I said, if I were the president, I wouldn’t negotiate over these draconian cuts that are gonna take food off the table of low-income working people, while they leave all the agricultural subsidies in for high-income farmers and everything else.  I just think it’s– it’s chilling to me.  The– the entitlement spending is going down as the unemployment rate drops and the economy grows.  Half of the deficit’s already disappeared.  The rest of it will– this is just– it seems almost spiteful.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

But doesn’t it all come undone if there’s a default?  I mean, all the– if you’re not gonna negotiate, you’re betting on the other side simply caving.

BILL CLINTON:

That’s right.  But I will say again.  This is the house Republicans and the Tea Party people saying, “We don’t want to negotiate with the Democrats.  We don’t want to negotiate with the Senate.  We acknowledge that the Senate Democrats and Republicans have negotiated, but they’re not right-wing enough for us.  In other words, we want to dictate over the Senate, over the House Democrats, over the speaker of the house of our own party and over the president, we insist on dictating the course of—[the country]

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

So you’re saying you just have to stand up to that–

BILL CLINTON:

I think you do.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

–no matter what the consequences.

BILL CLINTON:

I do, because they haven’t asked for negotiations.  They said, “Yeah, we negotiate with everybody and we don’t like where it came out.  We want our way.  It’s our way or the highway.  And if you don’t do it, we’ll shut the government down.”  I think there are times when you have to call people’s bluff.  And it’s terrible, because all over the world, people say, like, you know, I’ll listen to some of Senator Cruz’s (PH) filibuster on the health care bill.  And he just kept making all these claims that just aren’t so and everybody knows they’re not.

And in other parts of the world, where– where we draw investment from, they think, “Why is America majoring in the minors?  Why aren’t we working on bringing our economy back?  Why aren’t we working on bringing the global economy back?  Why– or– why are they debating these things and how can they possibly refuse to pay for spending they have approved?  Nobody else understands it.  And so it won’t be good if we put the full faith and credit of the country at risk.  But at some point, if they’re gonna change the way the constitution works and fundamentally alter the character of our country and damage the future of a lot of kids, you just have to say no.  And then hope that there’ll be a basis for some agreement.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

So much of the focus, of course, is on health care, as you pointed out.  And I’ve been struck by even those who don’t agree with Senator Cruz that you should shut down the government over even threatening to go into default, think that Obamacare is simply gonna collapse under its own weight.

And I was really struck by something Lindsay Graham said– the other day.  He said, “From now on, after Tuesday’s meeting, I’m gonna call it Clintoncare.  If it’s a huge success, Hillary Clinton will win the presidency.  If it’s the failure I think it’s going to be, then she needs to own the result of embracing this bill.”  How worried are you about that for 2016?

BILL CLINTON:

(LAUGH) Not at all.  Not at all.  There are some similarities in his bill and the one we proposed.  If they pass our bill, health care would be less expensive and higher quality today and would cover more people, because you just delay.  I think this– this bill’s already produced a lot of good results and every– look, they are desperate for this bill to fail, because if it’s not a failure, their whole– everything they’ve been telling us since 1980 that government’s bad is wrong.  They so badly want it to fail–

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

But so many Americans–

BILL CLINTON:

I’ve never seen a time– can you remember a time in your lifetime when a major political party was just sitting around, begging for America to fail?  And it’s interesting, because there were serious problems with implementing the– the Bush senior drug program.  And they all voted for it, but they didn’t want to own it, because the government was somehow involved in it.

The Democrats, instead of saying, “Delay it.  Repeal it.”  They say, “Okay, we still think you should have paid for it, but we’ll help you implement it.  We’ll figure out how to do it.”  That– that’s the difference.  I don’t know what’s gonna happen.  But I’ll be shocked if it fails–

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

But isn’t there– isn’t there a self-fulfilling nature to this, if people believe it’s not good for them and most Americans right now are saying they’re not convinced, then they don’t sign up.  And it’s much harder for Obamacare to succeed.

BILL CLINTON:

Well, it depends on who they are.  For one thing, let’s remember.  16% of the people aren’t covered.  If this bill is really, really effective, it should probably enroll 11 of those 16%, give or take.  Take, it’s up to 95% coverage.  And– but what’s hurting Obamacare in the polls are all the people who are covered who are afraid they’re gonna lose what they have.  That’s– and there are some– you know, labor’s afraid they’re gonna lose some of the good plans they’ve–

(OVERTALK)

BILL CLINTON:

Yeah, all that kind of stuff.  I believe that that will happen in some places, but I think it’s largely overstated.  And I believe that when– in the states that are fully compliant, I– all– all the figures I’ve seen so far is the insurance is coming in less– costly than was estimated.  And most people who don’t have insurance who are younger and healthier will be able to buy it for $100 a month or less, that– that will enable people with preexisting conditions to buy insurance on the same terms as other people in their age group.

And I think it’s gonna make a big difference.  I just think that when all these dire predictions don’t come out, if they don’t– I believe that pretty soon, within the next several years, this’ll be like Medicare and Medicaid.  And it’ll be a normal part of our life.  And people’ll be glad it’s there.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

And a big plus the next election.

BILL CLINTON:

Yeah.  It– unless there really are all these implementation problems they predict, but the– the biggest problem I see with it has nothing to do with all this.  You know, the– there are detailed issues like what do you do if you work for an employer who has fewer than 50 employees and doesn’t have to cover you, but wants to cover you?

But won’t cover your family at a price you can afford.  But there’s a little glitch in the law that says, “Your family cannot go into these exchanges and qualify for the tax credits.”  There’s stuff like that.  That’s a legitimate deal.  We’ll have to figure out how to work that out.

But I think that we’ll get through that.  And I believe that it will go much smoother than people think.  And that the real– the only thing that could really derail it is if young people decide in massive numbers not to enroll.  That means that all the people who– currently don’t have insurance or currently have insurance they can afford, because they have preexisting conditions, it’ll be hard to make the prices go down as much as they otherwise would, if everybody enrolls.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

Let me ask a question about Iran.  It seemed like a little bit of déjà vu this week.  President Obama– had a similar experience to yours, setting up for a meeting, perhaps, with the Iranian president.

BILL CLINTON:

You remember that.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

I do.  It didn’t happen at the last minute, absolutely–

BILL CLINTON:

2000.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

Now what, though, this time, what’s gonna prove to you that it’s different, that this charm offensive we’ve seen from the Iranians is real and if it’s not, where do you come down on the final choice?  Are we gonna have to go to war with Iran or learn to live with a nuclear weapon?

BILL CLINTON:

Well, first, I think there is a greater chance of constructive engagement this time for a simple reason.  When the Iranian president– of my term, the moderate progressive Khatami (PH) was elected, I came here and gave a speech.  You remember I apologized for the role of the United States in overthrowing a genuinely democratically-elected government in the ’50s.

And headed by Mr. Mosaddegh in Iran.  And then I went out and sat in the American delegation and listened to his speech.  I think at the time, first of all, it was so new.  We’d been estranged for so long.  And he thought that they couldn’t take advantage of it.  The supreme leader– Khamenei (PH) also thought of doing an outreach.  And I think they didn’t do it ’cause I didn’t have a lot of time left.  And they didn’t know what was gonna happen in the election.  And you know, it just didn’t work there.

A change in their election direction occurred too late in my term.  President Obama has enough time to make something out of this.  So I think they should keep the door open.  This is– but the short answer to your question is, we should keep working for the best and preparing for the worst.

And remember, Syria could be a good dress rehearsal, because if– Russia and Syria keep their word and are judged to have done a good job in identifying and turning over the chemical weapons and the materials used to make them, then it gives us a chance to say, “Okay, now the world won’t understand if you go back to kill just as many people with conventional weapons.  So let’s go to Geneva, as we did several years ago and put together a future for Syria that has a future for the Sunni, the Shia, the Alawite (PH), the Christians and the huge Kurdish population.”  We’re gonna have to some– have some sort of shared participation agreement like the Lebanese constitution.  That’s what I think, if you do that, then you can say– then it may be that the political climate will have shifted enough that the current president of Iran will be able to engage us.

They have repeated their pledge that they will not develop nuclear weapons.  And we can’t take their word for it.  But we can take them up on it.  But I think the first test will be, ironically, whether the Russian-Syrian promise works out.  If it does, we can go on– this.  And I hope they’re doing lots of stuff that you and I don’t know anything about.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

One of the biggest commitments here at CGI this year, a big project, $1.5 billion– to help fund women and entrepreneurs all across the world.  And Secretary Clinton also announced her big project to kind of track how women are doing around the world.  Is that the project you’re most excited about this time around?

BILL CLINTON:

Yes, because it– coming out of this CGI and because it has so many– implications for other things– in– in the poor countries of the world, if we know we can get all the girls in school and all the young women in the labor markets, it would do more than anything else to lift them out of poverty.  And one of the great, big tests we’re all looking at in the rich countries is Japan.

What about Prime Minister Abe (PH), this great, aggressive economic program reminds me of us in 1992.  Is it gonna work?  And the answer is, maybe, but Japan’s getting older.  They have a very low birthrate and they don’t take immigrants yet.  They– not comfortable with that.  The answer is, it will work.  I– in my opinion, it will work.  And it’ll work for about 20 years, for the– time for them to get used to they’re going to have to take immigrants, if they get women in the workforce in the same percentage men are.

So here’s one of the wealthiest countries on earth and all these poor countries and all the ones in-between.  Look at America.  What would it do for the American economy if the 25% pay gap that still persists, actually 23 cents on the dollar between women and men doing the same kind of work, what would it do for us if we could eliminate it?  It’d be good for the economy.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

When you look– look back to 2008, do you think it was a mistake for Hillary’s campaign not to emphasize that whole theme of women and women’s empowerment more?

BILL CLINTON:

You know, I don’t know.  I don’t know.  You know, they had just– they were starting in Iowa.  They’d never elected a woman to any major position.  And it’s hard to know.  We’re at a better place now on women’s participation, I think.  We’re up– but there are lots of countries, rich and poor, that still have higher participation rates for women in politics.  So it’s– I don’t know.  All I know is that, you know, this is stuff she’s done all her life and convinced me I should get involved in.

And it turns out it works.  It– it’s good.  It’s not just good for a country.  It’s good economics.  And I think– I think women’s prospects around the world were brightened by Chancellor Merkel’s reelection and the fact that she is not a conventionally charismatic politician, but she is charis– charismatic, partly because of her common sense and her competence.

And she’s even developed a sense of humor around her– her whole persona.  You know, I’m– I’m a big– I’m very impressed with her.  So I think that there’s a global movement now to– if you will, to power-sharing.  I just was watching Joyce Banda (PH), the president of Malawi, go up on stage with Hillary and Chelsea and all the male African presidents to announce their efforts to save the elephants.  It’s just getting more normal.  And we just have to keep working at it.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

Finally, we’re getting wrapped up.  I know we’re out of time.  But I just want to ask one– one final question about all that.  I know you can’t answer anything about 2016.  But when you look back to the last campaign, if you could boil it down to one, what is the one big lesson you learned from it?

BILL CLINTON:

I think the most important thing that anybody can do– well, two things, is you’ve got to have a plan for the future that relates to the people.  You know, this is not about the candidates as much as about having a plan for the future.  And secondly, you have to have a strategy for presenting your true self to the voters in an environment where there are unprecedented opportunities for those who don’t want you to win to paint a different picture of your true self.

And yeah, big data helps, it really matters.  And you have to merge high-tech with grassroots.  I still think we have way too many caucuses.  They’re not democratic.  And unlike primaries, they have no legal enforcement.  You can break the rules, nobody’s gonna say anything.  I think there are way too many of them.

But you can talk about all that calendar  stuff.  But the most important thing is, you got to have a plan for the future.  That’s one of the reasons we won in ’92.  And you have to keep struggling.  And every new environment has different media rules and possibilities and constraints.  And you have to find a way for who you are to be presented to the voters.

And we have learned that it’s a strategy in modern life to make– do reverse plastic surgery on people, so that people don’t really know who you are.  That’s– that’s what I got out of 2008.  It’s– and you know, the– there’s– there’s always, in every campaign, a storyline and a story.  And the candidate should want– as po– much as possible for the storyline and the story to coincide.

If you believe in yourself, then you believe in what you do.  And ’cause then, when it does, you prevail and when it doesn’t, you don’t.  But 2008 was way more complicated than that.  You had two extraordinarily gifted people with great political skills, particularly President Obama.  He– you know, he’d been in more races than Hillary had, by far.  Her first primary election in her life was the presidential primary of 2008.  So she– so you know, it was– that was a one-off, exciting thing.  That may never– we never– we may never see anything like that again in our life.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

A pretty titanic battle.

BILL CLINTON:

Yeah, and– and the– the calendar, the early states were better for him than the later states.  And the later states were better for her than the early states were.  And the votes reflected that.  And then God, they had all those debates and everything else.  It’s just a fascinating thing.  We’re not gonna– and– and he had a better grassroots organization in many states.

And he was able to raise enough money to do that and have a credible media campaign.  And– one of the things that I totally missed was how much the calendar had changed, for example, from ’92 to 2008.  But– I don’t know if– it’s just– I have no idea how to answer your question.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

You just answered it pretty well.

BILL CLINTON:

The next one will be better.  It’ll be different.  Whether she’s in it or not, they’re all different.  And the main thing you can’t do, the great trick in any human endeavor, including politics, is you must learn the lessons of your mistakes and your failures without becoming a general who fights the last war, because every new encounter will be shaped by different forces.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:

Great way of summing it up, Mr. President.

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