Transcript: Obama and Clinton Debate

The debate was a last chance to settle scores before the Pennsylvania primary.

ByABC News
April 16, 2008, 11:10 PM


GIBSON: Good evening, and welcome. And it is fitting that we come to you tonight the National Constitutional Center, just up Independence Mall, from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall itself.

And we are here in Philadelphia for the Pennsylvania Democratic debate. The contest for the Democratic presidential nomination has gone on for some time, to say the least. This is sort of round 15 in a scheduled 10-rounder.

This debate comes after a long pause in the primary and caucus schedule. It's been five weeks since the last votes were cast, six weeks since last the candidates debated. Much has happened in those six weeks, and there is much to discuss.

Just to reintroduce and give due respect to the candidates, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York...


... and Senator Barack Obama of Illinois.


ABC News is pleased to sponsor the debate, along with the National Constitutional Center. And while the candidates debate on stage, a lively debate will also be unfolding online on and on Facebook.

We have time guidelines for answers tonight: 90 seconds to answer a question; 60 seconds for rebuttal. George and I are going to be very lenient about time, but not permissive.

I have actually two clocks in front of me tracking the total time that a candidate has spoken as the evening goes on. And if we find one speaking longer than the other, we will do our best to equalize time in the later stages of the evening.

I've asked the audience not to applaud during the debate. What's important is not the reaction of those in the Kimmel Theater, but the reaction of voters in Pennsylvania, who go to the polls next Tuesday, and people around the country.

So we're going to begin with opening statements. And we had a flip of the coin, and the brief opening statement first from Senator Obama.

OBAMA: Thank you very much, Charlie and George.

And thanks to all in the audience and who are out there.

You know, Senator Clinton and I have been running for 15 months now. We've been traveling across Pennsylvania for at least the last five weeks.

And everywhere I go, what I've been struck by is the core decency and generosity of the people of Pennsylvania and the American people.

But what I've also been struck by is the frustration.

I met a gentleman in Latrobe who had lost his job and was trying to figure out how he could find the gas money to travel to find a job. And that story, I think, is typical of what we're seeing all across the country.

People are frustrated, not only with jobs moving and incomes being flat, health care being too expensive, but also that special interests have come to dominate Washington, and they don't feel like they're being listened to.

I think this election offers us an opportunity to change that, to transform that frustration into something more hopeful, to bring about real change.

And I'm running for president to ensure that the American people are heard in the White House. That's my commitment, if the people of Pennsylvania vote for me and the people of America vote for me.

GIBSON: Senator Clinton?

CLINTON: Well, we meet tonight here in Philadelphia, where our founders determined that the promise of America would be available for future generations, if we were willing and able to make it happen.

You know, I am here, as is Senator Obama. Neither of us were included in those original documents. But in a very real sense, we demonstrate that that promise of America is alive and well.

But it is at risk. There is a lot of concern across Pennsylvania and America. People do feel as though their government is not solving problems, that it is not standing up for them, that we've got to do more to actually provide the good jobs that will support families; deal once and for all with health care for every American; make our education system the true passport to opportunity; restore our standing in the world.

I am running for president because I know we can meet the challenges of today, that we can continue to fulfill that promise that was offered to successive generations of Americans, starting here, so long ago.

CLINTON: And I hope that, this evening, voters in Pennsylvania and others across the country will listen carefully to what we have to say, will look at our records, will look at the plans we have. And I offer those on my Web site,, for more detail.

Because I believe with all my heart that we, the people, can have the kind of future that our children and grandchildren so richly deserve.

GIBSON: Thank you, both.

GIBSON: We'll begin each of the segments of this debate with short quotes from the Constitution that are apropos to what we're going to talk about. And it is good to be back here at the National Constitution Center.

So let's start. And I'm going to give a general question before we get to the issues to both of you on politics.

There have already been many votes in many states. And you have each, as you analyze the vote, appealed disproportionately to different constituencies in the party. And that dismays many in the party.

Governor Cuomo, on elder statesman in your party, has come forward with a suggestion. He has said, "Look, fight it to the end. Let every vote be counted. You can test every delegate. Go at each other right till the end. Don't give an inch to one another. But pledge now that whichever one of you wins this contest, you'll take the other as your running mate, and that the other one will agree, if they lose, to take second place on the ticket."

So I put the question to both of you: Why not?


Don't all speak at once.


OBAMA: Well, I'm happy to start with a response. Look, this has been an extraordinary journey that both Senator Clinton and I have been on and a number of other able candidates. And I think very highly of Senator Clinton's record.

But as I've said before, I think it's premature at this point for us to talk about who vice presidential candidates will be, because we're still trying to determine who the nominee will be.

But one thing I'm absolutely certain of is that, come August, when we're in Denver, the Democratic Party will come together, because we have no choice if we want to deliver on the promises that not only we've made but the Founders made.

We are seeing people's economic status slipping further and further behind. We've seen people who have not only lost their jobs but now are at risk of losing their homes. We have a sharp contrast in terms of economic policies. John McCain wants to continue four more year of George Bush policies and, on the foreign policy front, wants to continue George Bush's foreign policy.

So I'm confident that both Senator Clinton's supporters and Senator Obama's supporters will be supporting the Democratic nominee when we start engaging in that general election.

GIBSON: But, Senator Clinton, Governor Cuomo made that suggestion because he's not so sure, and other Democrats are not so sure.

Just to quote from the Constitution again, "In every case" -- Article II, Section 1 -- "after the choice of the president, the person having the greatest number of votes of the electors shall be the vice president."

If it was good enough in colonial times, why not in these times?

CLINTON: Well, Charlie, I'm going to do everything I possibly can to make sure that one of us takes the oath of office next January. I think that has to be the overriding goal, whatever we have to do.

Obviously, we are still contesting to determine who will be the nominee. But once that is resolved, I think it is absolutely imperative that our entire party close ranks. That we become unified. I will do everything to make sure that the people who supported me support our nominee. I will go anywhere in the country to make the case.

And I know that Barack feels the same way because both of us have spent 15 months traveling our country. I have seen the damage of the Bush years. I've seen the extraordinary pain that people have suffered from because of the failed policies. You know, those who have held my hands who've lost sons or daughters in Iraq. And those who have lost sons or daughters because they didn't have health insurance.

And so, regardless of the differences there may be between us, and there are differences, they pale in comparison to the differences between us and Senator McCain. So, we will certainly do whatever is necessary to make sure that a Democrat is in the White House next January.

GIBSON: All right. I will let this go. I don't think Governor Cuomo has any takers yet. Let me start with a question to you, Senator Obama.

Talking to a closed-door fund-raiser in San Francisco 10 days ago, you got talking in California about small town Pennsylvanians who have had tough economic times in recent years. And you said they get bitter and they cling to guns or they cling to their religion or they cling to antipathy toward people who are not like them. You said you misspoke. You said you mangled what it was you wanted to say. But we've talked to a lot of voters. Do you understand that some people in this state find that patronizing and think that you said actually what you meant?

OBAMA: Well I think there's no doubt that I can see how people were offended. It's not the first time that I've made a statement that was mangled up. It's not going to be the last.

But let me be very clear about what I meant because it's something that I've said in public. It's something that I've said on television, which is that people are going through very difficult times right now.

And we are seeing it all across the country. And that was true even before the current economic hardships that are stemming from the housing crisis. This is the first economic expansion that we just completed in which ordinary people's incomes actually went down when adjusted for inflation. At the same time, the costs of everything from health care to gas at the pump has skyrocketed. And so the point I was making was that when people feel like Washington's not listening to them, when they're promised year after year, decade after decade, that their economic situation is going to change and it doesn't, then, politically, they end up focusing on those things that are constant like religion.

They end up feeling this is a place where I can find some refuge. This is something I can count on. They end up being much more concerned about votes around things like guns, where traditions have been passed on from generation to generation. And those are incredibly important to them. And, yes, what is also true is that wedge issues, hot-button issues, end up taking prominence in our politics.

And part of the problem is that when those issues are exploited, we never get to solve the issues that people really have to get some relief on, whether it's health care or education or jobs.

So, this is something that I've said before. It is something that I will repeat again. And, yes, people are frustrated and angry about it.

But what we're seeing in this election is the opportunity to break through that frustration. And that's what our campaign has been about. Saying that if the American people get involved and engaged, then we are going to start seeing change. And that's what makes this election unique.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Clinton?

CLINTON: Well, I am the granddaughter of a factory worker from Scranton who went to work in the Scranton lace mills when he was 11- years-old. Worked his entire life there, mostly six to eight weeks. He was also very active in the Court Street Methodist Church. And he raised three sons and was very proud that he sent all of them to college.

I don't believe that my grandfather or my father or the many people whom I have had the privilege of knowing and meeting across Pennsylvania over many years cling to religion when Washington is not listening to them.

I think that is a fundamental sort of misunderstanding of the role of religion and faith in times that are good and times that are bad.

And I similarly don't think that people cling to their traditions, like hunting and guns, either, when they are frustrated with the government. I just don't believe that's how people live their lives.

Now, that doesn't mean that people are not frustrated with the government. We have every reason to be frustrated, particularly with this administration.

But I can see why people would be taken aback and offended by the remarks. And I think what's important is that we all listen to one another, and we respect one another, and we understand the different decisions that people make in life, because we're a stronger country because of that.

And, certainly, the weeks that I have spent crisscrossing Pennsylvania, from Erie to Lancaster County, and meeting a lot of wonderful people, says to me that, despite whatever frustration anyone has with our government, people are resilient, they are positive, and they're ready for leadership again that will summon them to something greater than themselves and that we will deliver on that, if given a chance.

GIBSON: We're going to have some other questions on the same theme, so you'll be able to get back to that.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me pick up on this. When these comments from Senator Obama broke on Friday, Senator McCain's campaign immediately said that it was going to be a killer issue in November.

Senator Clinton, when Bill Richardson called you to say he was endorsing Barack Obama, you told him that Senator Obama can't win. I'm not going to ask you about that conversation; I know you don't want to talk about it. But a simple yes or no question: Do you think Senator Obama can beat John McCain or not?

CLINTON: Well, I think we have to beat John McCain, and I have every reason to believe we're going to have a Democratic president and it's going to be either Barack or me. And we're going to make that happen.

And what is important is that we understand exactly the challenges facing us in order to defeat Senator McCain.

He will be a formidable candidate; there isn't any doubt about that. He has a great American story to tell. He's a man who has served our country with distinction over many years, but he has the wrong ideas about America, and those ideas will be tested in the caldron of this campaign.

But I also know, having now gone through 16 years of being on the receiving end of what the Republican Party dishes out, how important it is that we try to go after every single vote, everywhere we possibly can, to get to those electoral votes that we're going to need to have the next president elected.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But the question is: Do you think Senator Obama can do that? Can he win?

CLINTON: Yes, yes, yes. Now, I think that I can do a better job.


I mean, obviously, that's why I'm here. I think I am better able and better prepared, in large measure, because of what I've been through, and the work that I've done, and the results that I've produced for people, and the coalition that I have put together in this campaign, that Charlie referred to earlier.

Obviously, I believe I would be the best president or I would not still be here standing on this stage, and I believe I'm the better and stronger candidate against Senator McCain, to go toe-to-toe with him on national security and on how we turn the economy around.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Obama, do you think Senator Clinton can win?

OBAMA: Absolutely, and I've said so before. But I, too, think that I'm the better candidate.


And I don't think that surprises anybody.

Let me just pick up on a couple of things that Senator Clinton said, though, because during the course of the last few days, you know, she's said I'm elitist, out of touch, condescending.

Let me be absolutely clear: It would be pretty hard for me to be condescending towards people of faith since I'm a person of faith and have done more than most other campaigns in reaching out specifically to people of faith, and have written about how Democrats make an error when they don't show up and speak directly to people's faith, because I think we can get those votes, and I have in the past.

The same is true with respect to gun-owners. I have large numbers of sportsmen and gun-owners in my home state, and they have supported me precisely because I have listened to them and I know them well.

So the problem that we have in our politics, which is fairly typical, is that you take one person's statement, if it's not properly phrased, and you just beat it to death. And that's what Senator Clinton's been doing over the last four days.

And I understand that. That's politics. And I expect to have to go through this process.

But I do think it's important to recognize that it's not helping that person who's sitting at the kitchen table who is trying to figure out how to pay the bills at the end of the month.

And Senator Clinton's right: She has gone through this. You know, I recall when, back in 1992, when she made a statement about how, what do you expect, should I be at home baking cookies? And people attacked her for being elitist and this and that.

CLINTON: And I remember watching that on TV and saying, well, that's not who she is. That's not what she believes. That's not what she meant.

And I'm sure that that's how she felt, as well. But the problem is that that's the kind of politics that we've been accustomed to. And I think Senator Clinton learned the wrong lesson from it because she's adopting the same tactics.

What the American people want are not distractions. They want to figure out, how are we going to actually deliver on health care? How are we going to deliver better jobs for people? How are we going to improve their incomes? How are we going to send them to college? That's what we have to focus on. And, yes, they are, in part, frustrated and angry, because this is what passes for our politics instead of figuring out how do we build coalitions to actually move things forward.

CLINTON: Well, could I...

GIBSON: Senator Clinton, before I move on, do you want to do a brief response?

CLINTON: I do. First of all, I want to be very clear. My comments were about your remarks. And I think that's important because it wasn't just me responding to them, it was people who heard them, people who felt as though they were aimed at their values, their quality of life, the decisions that they have made.

Now, obviously, what we have to do as Democrats, is make sure we get enough votes to win in November. And as George just said, the Republicans, who are pretty shrewd about what it takes to win, certainly did jump on the comments.

But what's important here is what we each stand for and what our records are, and what we have done over the course of our lives, to try to improve the circumstances of those who deserve to live up to their own potential, to make the decisions that are right for them and their families.

And I think year after year, for, now, 35 years, I have a proven record of results. And what I'm taking into this campaign is my passion for empowering people, for giving people the feeling that they can make a better future for themselves.

And I think it's important that that starts from a base of respect and connection in order to be able to get people to follow you and believe that you will lead them in the better direction.

GIBSON: Senator Obama, since you last debated, you made a significant speech in this building on the subject of race and your former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. And you said subsequent to giving that speech that you never heard him say from the pulpit the kinds of things that so have offended people.

But more than a year ago, you rescinded the invitation to him to attend the event when you announced your candidacy. He was to give the invocation. And according to the reverend, I'm quoting him, you said to him: "You can get kind of rough in sermons. So, what we've decided is that it's best for you not to be out there in public." I'm quoting the reverend.

But what did you know about his statements that caused you to rescind that invitation? And if you knew he got rough in sermons, why did it take you more than a year to publicly disassociate yourself from his remarks?

OBAMA: Well, understand that I hadn't seen the remarks that ended up playing on YouTube repeatedly. This was a set of remarks that had been quoted in Rolling Stone magazine and we looked at them. And I thought that they would be a distraction, since he had just put them forward.

But, Charlie, I've discussed this extensively. Reverend Wright is somebody who made controversial statements, but they were not of the sort that we saw that offended so many Americans. And that's why I specifically said that these comments were objectionable. They're not comments that I believe in. And I disassociated myself with them.

And what I also said was the church and the body of Reverend Wright's work over the course of 30 years were not represented in those snippets that were shown on television and that the church has done outstanding work in ministries, on HIV/AIDS, prison ministries, providing people with the kind of comfort that we expect in our churches.

And so, what I think I tried to do in the speech here at the Constitution Center was speak to a broader context, which is that there is anger in the African-American community that sometimes gets expressed, whether in the barbershop or in the church. That's true not just in the African-American community. That's true in other communities, as well.

But what we have the opportunity to do is to move beyond it. And that's what I think my candidacy represents. And Senator Clinton mentioned earlier, that we have to connect with people. That's exactly what we've done throughout this campaign.

The reason we've attracted new people into the process, the reason we've generated so much excitement, the reason that we have been so successful in so many states across the country, bridging racial lines, bridging some of the old divisions, is because people recognize that, unless we do, then we're not going to be able to deliver on the promises that people hear every 4 years, every 8 years, every 12 years.

And it's my job in this campaign to try to move beyond some of those divisions, because when we are unified there is nothing that we cannot tackle.

GIBSON: Senator Clinton, let me -- I'm sorry, go ahead -- Senator Clinton, let me follow-up and let me add to that.

You have said that, "He would not have been my pastor," and you said that you have to speak out against those kinds of remarks and implicitly, by getting up and moving, and I presume you mean out of the church. There are 8,000 members of Senator Obama's church, and we have heard the inflammatory remarks of Reverend Wright, but so, too, have we heard testament to many great things that he did.

Do you honestly believe that 8,000 people should have gotten up and walked out of that church?

CLINTON: I was asked a personal question, Charlie, and I gave a personal answer. Obviously, one's choice of church and pastor is rooted in what one believes is what you're seeking in church and what kind of, you know, fellowship you find in church.