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ABC News Coming Under Criticism for Focus of Obama, Clinton Debate

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ABC News is coming under intense criticism for its handling of Wednesday’s Democratic debate in Pennsylvania. During the first forty-five minutes of the debate, the moderators focused on Senator Barack Obama’s comments that some voters in Pennsylvania were bitter, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy, Senator Hillary Clinton’s Bosnia “sniper fire” story, flag pins and the Weather Underground, before later turning to the issues. We play highlights of the debate. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with last night’s Democratic presidential debate between Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama. It took place in Philadelphia, their first debate in nearly two months, possibly their last of the campaign. Clinton is trailing Obama in both the popular vote and the delegate count. Even if she wins Tuesday’s Pennsylvania’s primary, she would need the backing of Democratic superdelegates to win the nomination.

Much of the debate’s first half had Senator Obama on the defensive. ABC News anchors Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos confronted Obama about his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and his alleged ties to a former member of the ’60s group the Weather Underground. Obama was even asked about the fact he doesn’t wear an American flag on his lapel. Obama was also pressed about his recent comments that disenfranchised Americans have turned to guns and religion. This was Senator Obama’s response.

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: 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 as their costs of everything from healthcare to gas at the pump have 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 refugee. This is something that 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 healthcare or education or jobs.

AMY GOODMAN: In a reversal of previous statements, Senator Clinton conceded she believes Obama could defeat McCain in November, but she also defended her campaign’s focus on Obama’s recent comments and argued she’s the better candidate to take on Republican candidate John McCain.

    SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: 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, you know, 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 thirty-five 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.

AMY GOODMAN: The debate later turned to the issues. On Iraq, both candidates vowed to begin a withdrawal from Iraq rather than wait for a recommendation from General David Petraeus.

    SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: But one thing I am sure of is that our staying in Iraq, our continuing to lose our men and women in uniform, having many injured, the Iraqi casualties that we are seeing as well, is no way for us to maintain a strong position in the world.

    It’s not only about Iraq. It is about ending the war in Iraq, so that we can begin paying attention to all of the other problems we have. There isn’t any doubt that Afghanistan has been neglected. It has not gotten the resources that it needs. We hear that from our military commanders responsible for that region of the world. And there are other problems that we have failed to address.

    So the bottom line for me is, we don’t know what will happen as we withdraw. We do know what will happen if we stay mired in Iraq. The Iraqi government will not accept responsibility for its own future. Our military will continue to be stretched thin, and our soldiers will be on their second, third, even their fourth deployment. And we will not be able to reassert our leadership and our moral authority in the world. And I think those are the kind of broad issues that a president has to take into account.

    CHARLES GIBSON: And Senator Obama, your campaign manager, David Plouffe, said, “When he is” — this is talking about you — “When he is elected president, we will be out of Iraq […] in sixteen months at the most; there should be no confusion about that.” So you’d give the same rock-hard pledge, that no matter what the military commanders said, you would give the order: bring them home.

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Because the commander-in-chief sets the mission, Charlie. That’s not the role of the generals. And one of the things that’s been interesting about the President’s approach lately has been to say, ‘Well, I’m just taking cues from General Petraeus.’ Well, the President sets the mission. The General and our troops carry out that mission. And unfortunately, we have had a bad mission set by our civilian leadership, which our military has performed brilliantly. But it is time for us to set a strategy that is going to make the American people safer.

    Now, I will always listen to our commanders on the ground with respect to tactics. Once I’ve given them a new mission, that we are going to proceed deliberately in an orderly fashion out of Iraq and we are going to have our combat troops out, we will not have permanent bases there, once I’ve provided that mission, if they come to me and want to adjust tactics, then I will certainly take their recommendations into consideration. But ultimately the buck stops with me as the commander-in-chief.

AMY GOODMAN: From the Democrats, we now turn to another candidate in the 2008 field: Matt Gonzalez, running on Ralph Nader’s ticket as a vice-presidential candidate, San Francisco-based attorney, former president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. In 2003 he ran for mayor of San Francisco on the Green Party ticket but lost in a close race to Democrat Gavin Newsom. Matt Gonzalez joins me here in Palo Alto at Stanford University. Welcome to Democracy Now!

MATT GONZALEZ: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, as we play clips of the debate last night, let’s start at the beginning, with this whole controversy about what Senator Barack Obama said about people who are in desperate conditions, people who are economically strapped, turning to guns and religion.

MATT GONZALEZ: Well, Amy, I think it’s a tempest in a teapot. I don’t think that you can take this one- or two-sentence remark that Senator Obama made and really draw all kinds of conclusions by it. I think anybody that’s in the political arena, often as you’re speaking, you engage in shortcuts as you’re trying to make a point. And my understanding of the way the polls have played out there, the comment isn’t that significant.

AMY GOODMAN: And these other issues that were raised for the first forty-five minutes of this debate: wearing a lapel pin, friends with someone who was in the Weather Underground in the 1960s?

MATT GONZALEZ: Well, I think that that’s disturbing. I think the real question is the responsibility of the media not to, essentially, present these in a way that suggests that there is something that Senator Obama has to explain about them. And that’s the sense that I have is what occurred last night.

AMY GOODMAN: Their positions on war?

MATT GONZALEZ: Well, I think the debate actually — and the problem with the debate is that they’re not getting clear answers on these issues. The candidates are using certain catch phrases. They’re saying “no permanent bases” and “we’re going to start a withdrawal” or “we’re going to get combat troops out.” But they’re not committing to having troops out of the region in the first four years of their presidency. They have left it very open. I think Senator Obama, in an interview with you, indicated that he would leave the private army that’s there, over 100,000. And I think there are policy groups, Democratic policy groups, that have made it clear that it would require tens of thousands of soldiers in Iraq to carry out Senator Obama’s mandate, which is to be able to strike at al-Qaeda and do counterterrorism there.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your proposal?

MATT GONZALEZ: Well, I think Nader has been very committed to getting our troops out. He’s saying that the resistance is going to continue as long as there’s an American presence there, and we have to start engaging in a foreign policy that doesn’t believe that you’re going to accomplish everything through aggression. I think it’s very clear that the United States has a long history of engaging in foreign policy for our quote-unquote “interests,” which are unfortunately too often corporate interests.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to the candidates’ positions on the economy. This is a clip from last night’s debate in Pennsylvania.

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: We have seen wages and incomes flat or declining at a time when costs have gone up. And one of the things that we’ve learned from George Bush’s economic policies, which John McCain now wants to follow, is that pain trickles up. And so, partly because people have been strapped and have had a tough time making ends meet, we’re now seeing a deteriorating housing market.

    That’s also as a consequence of the lack of oversight and regulation of these banks and financial institutions that gave loans that they shouldn’t have. And part of it has to do with the fact that you had $185 million by mortgage lenders spent on lobbyists and special interests who were writing these laws.

    So the rules in Washington — the tax code has been written on behalf of the well connected. Our trade laws have — same thing has happened. And part of how we’re going to be able to deliver on middle-class tax relief is to change how business is done in Washington. And that’s been a central focus of our campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Clinton also touted her economic plan.

    SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: I think we have to invest in our infrastructure. That also will get the economy moving again, and I believe we could put about three million people to work in good union jobs, where people get a good wage with a good set of benefits that can support a middle-class family with a rising standard of living.

    I want to see us actually tackle the housing crisis, something I’ve been talking about for over a year. If I had been president a year ago, I believe we would have begun to avoid some of the worst of the mortgage and credit crisis, because we would have started much earlier than we have — in fact, I don’t think we’ve really done very much at all yet — in dealing with a way of freezing home foreclosures, of freezing interest rates, getting money into communities to be able to withstand the problems that are caused by foreclosures.

AMY GOODMAN: Independent vice-presidential candidate Matt Gonzalez, your response to their economic proposals?

MATT GONZALEZ: Well, I don’t think you can really talk about the economy without talking about the tremendous amount of resources we’re putting into the war. A full 55, maybe as much as 60, percent of our tax dollars are going to this war, to paying debt on the war, to going into the military. Both the Republican and Democratic candidates in this field want to increase military spending. And so, for all of the rhetoric about trying to deal with, you know, the common person, the war has to be addressed.

The other thing I would say is that when the Democrats took Congress, when Pelosi became the Speaker, they moved forward on raising the minimum wage. But one thing that they didn’t do is address an issue that these candidates are raising now, which is, as cost of living shifts, that minimum wage should be going up without having to go back and have a fight in Congress. When we passed the minimum wage in San Francisco, we did that. And again, the question mark is, how effective is our opposition party in Congress, when, when they have a majority, they don’t take advantage of it and institute something that can work on its own in the future?

AMY GOODMAN: Do you and Ralph Nader have a strategy to win?

MATT GONZALEZ: I do. I certainly do. In talking to Ralph, I think he’s very heartened by some of the polls that are out there. The real question is whether or not we’re going to be allowed into the debates. When I ran for mayor, I started — in San Francisco, I started with support of maybe three, four percent. Because I was allowed into debates, that eventually became 47 percent. Nader has poll numbers in Michigan at ten percent. Other national polls have put him at five, six percent. I think that — put us in the debates, and let’s see how it goes. And I think as the American people see there is an alternative, those numbers will get stronger.

AMY GOODMAN: And the argument, of course, that this is a pivotal year, 2008, in changing the direction of this country — what impact do you think your race will have?

MATT GONZALEZ: Well, I think one thing that’s important to keep in mind is that if you don’t change how elections are happening, you’re never going to have the fundamental change that you need to address a host of issues. So if we don’t run, there’s no problem that needs to be fixed, and we keep on this very narrow political spectrum. If we run, we raise the question, which is, “What are the other political parties doing to reform elections?” and “Why aren’t they addressing issues that we’re addressing, like single-payer healthcare or issues related to a full withdrawal from the war in Iraq?” — questions like that.

AMY GOODMAN: If you had won in 2003 against Gavin Newsom for mayor of San Francisco, you would have been the first Green mayor, the first Green Party mayor in the country. Yet, now you have left the Green Party to run as an independent. Why?

MATT GONZALEZ: Well, I left the Green Party to enhance ballot access in certain states that don’t allow you to be a member of a political party and run as an independent. I think the important thing that would have happened if I had been elected mayor of San Francisco is that a lot of the red-baiting that was taking place in that campaign would have essentially gone to the wayside. I think people would have seen that members of the left can govern when they’re given an opportunity to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: You talked about the polls in Michigan, indicating Ralph Nader has a good percentage there. But what is your strategy to win? How are you campaigning right now?

MATT GONZALEZ: Well, Ralph is on the road full-time. I’m doing interviews every day, and I’m going to join him as he’s reaching California in a couple of weeks and start traveling up to the Northwest. And I think it’s the way you campaign in any contest: it’s one voter at a time. You talk about the issues, and you challenge your opponents to win your voters away from you if they’re concerned about some outcome that shouldn’t happen. I think that in a three-candidate race, a four-candidate race, you can win the contest with 35 percent of the vote. So if you’re allowed into the debates and you suddenly have 15, 20 percent, there are a lot of voters who will suddenly consider you, if they truly believe that you’re competitive and have a chance to win.

AMY GOODMAN: If you were vice president today, what would be your first act in regards to Iraq?

MATT GONZALEZ: Well, I think we would certainly start an orderly withdrawal of all the troops out of Iraq. I don’t think there’s any question about that.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of the candidates on the issues, what — is there a candidate who you prefer?

MATT GONZALEZ: Well, I don’t want John McCain to win the contest, but I don’t want Senator Obama or Senator Clinton to win either. I think what’s missing from the debate is the fact that nobody is asking Senators Obama and Clinton to account for some of their terrible votes, when Obama votes for the Class Action Reform Act, which was a Republican bill to really make it harder for people to bring class-action lawsuits, or when he supports something like the Energy Policy Act in 2005, which is one of the reasons why oil companies have the profits that they have this year. Why aren’t we having that discussion? And before progressives vote for him or vote for Clinton, they ought to have an accounting as to how you can vote for those bills and somehow suddenly change the culture of Washington if you’re elected president of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to another clip of the debate last night. This is a clip of — well, Senator Obama was asked how he would use past presidents, how specifically he would use, if he would use, George W. Bush.

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I’m probably more likely to ask advice of the current president’s father than the President himself, because I think that when you look back at George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy, it was a wise foreign policy, and how we executed the Gulf War, how we managed the transition out of the Cold War, I think, is an example of how we can get bipartisan agreement. I don’t think the Democrats have a monopoly on good ideas. I think that there are a lot of thoughtful Republicans out there. The problem is, we’ve been locked in a divided politics for so long that we’ve stopped listening to each other.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to Barack Obama?

MATT GONZALEZ: Well, I think it’s unfortunate that he continues to make these remarks. He made similar remarks on Larry King Live about a month ago. I think he’s romanticizing George Bush, Sr.’s presidency and the way that he acquitted himself in the original Iraq war.

AMY GOODMAN: The fact that President Bush — that’s George H.W. Bush — invaded Panama, Iraq, as well, what about Obama’s expressed support for him, turning to him?

MATT GONZALEZ: Yeah, I just don’t understand it. I don’t understand how, on the one hand, you can be suggesting that you’re really going to engage in a different kind of foreign policy and sort of wax eloquently and romanticize this sort of presidency in what it could offer you in terms of advice. I think it’s troubling.

AMY GOODMAN: Is there an area of the country you’re going to be focusing on?

MATT GONZALEZ: I’ll probably be more on the West. I’ve got trips planned to New Mexico and Arizona, and that’s where I’ll start.

AMY GOODMAN: The fact that Barack Obama didn’t want to have a photo taken of him with Gavin Newsom, afraid, at least as the reports go, concerned about Gavin Newsom’s support for gay marriage?

MATT GONZALEZ: Well, I think that the way we create change if we’re progressives is that we have the courage to go out and articulate what we believe in. And certainly, taking a picture with an elected official, there’s just nothing wrong about that. And to want to distance yourself from that, I think, says a lot about the lack of courage you have and the unlikeliness of you being able to change Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Gonzalez, I want to thank you for being with us.

MATT GONZALEZ: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Independent vice-presidential candidate on Ralph Nader’s ticket.

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