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Inside Politics

Sen. John Kerry back in the fight

He's been speaking out on the road and on the Hill

By Judy Woodruff
CNN Washington Bureau


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Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, talked with CNN's Judy Woodruff about Social Security reform, Iraq, Iran, the Middle East....and '08.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Sen. John Kerry seems to be putting himself into the political arena more earnestly and more often.

He's been speaking out on the road and on the Hill -- promoting, among other things, his plan to expand health care coverage to all children.

On Tuesday, we talked with Kerry in his Senate hideaway for one of the few television interviews he has given since Election Day.

Social Security reform

I began by asking him if he agrees with Vice President Cheney's assessment that President Bush won a mandate in November for the centerpiece of his social security reform plan: personal retirement accounts.

Kerry: No. No, I don't agree.

I mean, look, the president won re-election and we honor that and respect it. But if 60,000 people had voted the other way, half the people in a football stadium in Columbus, Ohio, on a Saturday, you'd have a different outcome in this race. The president won by the narrowest margin of any incumbent president winning in history.

I think what he won a mandate for is to govern by unifying the country, bringing people together and seeking the common ground, not pushing an ideological agenda, notwithstanding every other point of view. So I hope the president in the next weeks, months, will reach out.

We're ready to work, we're ready to work in the interest of the country. That's what the country wants, is really get rid of the politics, get rid of the fighting, and find the common interest of the American people.

Woodruff: You say get rid of the fighting, but Democrats have made it clear, you and others, you oppose the president's plan, and yet it's clear that Social Security in the long run has a real solvency problem.

Kerry: Sure.

Woodruff: You've got people, baby boomers retiring. Don't Democrats have an obligation to talk about what you would do?

Kerry: Sure, and we have and we will continue to. But what we're opposing by the administration's own admission does nothing, nothing -- understand that -- zero, to cure the problem of solvency.

Privatization is not related to solvency. And so what we're trying to do is stop something that requires borrowing $2 trillion or more, adding to the debt of our nation and putting Social Security at risk.

That's a moral responsibility. That's not politics.

If the president will stop pushing the privatization and admit it's not going to pass and it's a failure, and move to a broad discussion of how we strengthen Social Security for the long run, he'll have a lot of partners here. We're ready to do that.

Woodruff:: So you're saying that will happen?

Kerry: I'm convinced. But you know what, Judy? The real crisis facing America -- you know, once again the president is out selling something in an artificial way. The real crisis facing America is not Social Security. It's health care, it's Medicare, Medicaid, and that's why I'm pushing so hard to get 11 million children who have no health insurance at all, to get them covered.

Woodruff: But this is a point. You call it Kids First.

Kerry: Right.

Woodruff: And you just put this plan out there last week. It would cost $22 billion a year. Is that realistic, Senator, at a time when we are in such -- this country is in such tight fiscal constraints?

Kerry: You bet it's realistic. You bet it's realistic.

You know what the president's tax cut that he hasn't yet given to people to make it permanent costs over the next 10 years? $1.6 trillion. Just next year alone, the president's tax cut for people earning more than $1 million a year costs $32 billion.

So this is a value's choice. What are your values? What are the values of the American people?

Do we cover children with insurance who are not getting immunizations for diseases that we know we've cured, who don't get medicine for asthma? One out of three kids doesn't get medicine for asthma. Do we cover them or do we give millionaires a tax cut? That's the values choice for America.

And I know where I stand, and unfortunately we know where the president stands. He wants a tax cut for millionaires. I want to cover children.

Woodruff: Now, you've also said you would go into the districts of members of Congress who vote against this plan. The Republicans are saying, good, they'll pay for your plane ticket to do that.

Kerry: Oh, that's...

Woodruff: Who's bluffing whom here? I mean...

Kerry: Look, this was a very close election. And the fact is that a lot of parts of the country were a margin of less than a percentage point.

They can put all the bravado out there they want, they can use their talking points, and can play their game. But I can tell you this, when the American people start to get organized around this issue, as they are, they're going to feel it at the ballot box. And that's how you make issues move here.

What I'm going do is take this incredible energy that people gave as a gift to our country to change our nation. Three million people on an e-mail list, countless numbers of people -- we have over 600,000 people who have signed on as cosponsors of this effort. When those people start organizing in their districts, I think you're going to see senators and congressmen sing a different tune.

Bush's Iraq policy

Woodruff:: About this time one year ago, John Kerry was hoping that the crisis in Iraq would help him defeat President Bush. We all know how that turned out. But Sen. Kerry is not backing away from his criticism of the president's Iraq policy. In our one-on-one interview, I asked Sen. Kerry whether the situation in Iraq is better now than what he had predicted during the campaign, given on the recent elections there and the moves towards democracy.

Kerry: No, I think it's what I said it would be. In fact, when I came back from Iraq about a month and a half ago before the elections, I said that we will -- that we ought to have the elections, that the Iraqi people want to vote and they're going to turn out in significant numbers.

But the real issue is how do you patch this government together and provide services to the Iraqi people as rapidly as possible so we can get our troops home and so we can reduce the risk to our troops?

I don't believe the administration has done all that's possible to get further international cooperation. They're certainly not training at a rate that the king of Jordan or the president of Egypt told me they're prepared to train. They're just not doing it.

So, I think you can do a better job of moving faster, but that doesn't mean -- we're all excited about what's happening in Iraq. I think it's great, even if it's not the reason that the president gave us for going to war and it's not the reason that the Congress gave him permission to go to war.

Middle East

Woodruff: The Middle East, more broadly. In Lebanon you've got big moves to get the Syrians out of there. The Palestinians are sounding more moderate. You've got stirrings of democracy in other parts of the Middle East. Is it -- couldn't it be said that all of this is an outgrowth of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein?

Kerry: No. The assassination of Hariri, we don't know why that took place and what happened. We just don't -- nobody has a rationale for it yet. The death of Arafat was a God-decided moment, not a war- decided moment. And everybody will tell you that those are the two principal reasons for what's happening.

Now, have things changed because of the election? Of course they have. I mean, I'd be silly not to honor what happened in terms of that election. It's wonderful.

I was there in the West Bank the day that the Palestinians voted. And it was -- you couldn't help but be moved and touched by the way in which they took pride in what they were doing and trying to accomplish. We've all of us always advocated democracy and pushed democracy.

I put out an initiative two years ago called the Greatest Middle Eastern Initiative, which could push democracy faster. I still believe we could be doing a more effective job of transitioning were we to have more of the world at our side in this effort.

Iran

Woodruff: Well let me ask you about Iran. Right now the president is engaging some U.S. allies. He's taking a less confrontational approach.

Kerry: Good for him, long overdue.

Woodruff: Is that any different from what a John Kerry would have done?

Kerry: It's what I advocated for long time. The president has adopted the John Kerry policy. I said you ought to be involved with the French, the British and the Germans. I raised this during the campaign, Judy. You can go back and see it in the course of debates and otherwise. I'm glad it's happening finally.

But, you know, should we jump up and down and be so excited in America because four years later we do things we should have done four years ago? Look, I hope it works. I want to keep moving in this direction. I'm glad the president's attempting a better and different diplomacy. It's good for our country. But I believe there's still more we can do more effectively and I hope we continue to move in that direction.

Presidential politics

Woodruff: We're already asking people what do they think of 2008, who do they think should be the Democratic nominee? Right now Sen. Hillary Clinton is out front in a couple polls. Is she the frontrunner?

Kerry: If she wants to be. I don't -- it doesn't matter to me who's the frontrunner right now. I think all of this talk about 2008 is unbelievably premature and then we have barely three months beyond the last election or four months, whatever. It's just too early.

And I think the focus for our party and for everyone really ought to be on these issues that we're just talking about and on 2006. We've got to win governorships, we've got to win state houses, legislators, Congress, senators. I'm going to focus on those efforts and, you know, what happens in the future will take care of itself.

Woodruff: Well, we checked, we looked back into -- and realized that it's been over 100 years since a losing presidential nominee came back to win the White House. It was Grover Cleveland in 1892. Does that history discourage you?

Kerry: I don't know what you're talking -- I mean, I thought Richard Nixon came back from losing and won in 1968. I don't think that's correct research, actually.

Woodruff: Since a losing presidential nominee came back...

Kerry: Yes, Vice President Nixon ran in 1960, lost to President Kennedy and he won the election in...

Woodruff: Four years later was the caveat. I didn't make it clear.

Kerry: Oh, well, I'm not sure.

Woodruff: Four years later.

Kerry: Look, you know what, I don't care what has happened or not happened. It's too early to be making decisions or thinking about it.

I'll make my judgment when the time comes and I don't care what history says or did. Now is now and these are the -- you know, the whole different set of issues, whole different set of circumstances.

But it's way too early to be thinking. It's just -- it's crazy to be thinking about it now. We've got 2006, all of us, to work on together as a unified party and that's what we're going to do.


Judy Woodruff is CNN's prime anchor and senior correspondent. She also anchors "Judy Woodruff's Inside Politics," weekdays at 3:30 pm ET.

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