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What Does Bob Kerrey Think About Social Security Reform?

Aired May 17, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Tonight, Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey has always been a maverick, and he's not about to retire from the Senate quietly. What impact is he having on the presidential race and the debate over the future of Social Security?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Robert Novak. In the crossfire, Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.

NOVAK: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

On January 20th this year, Senator Kerrey had a little announcement.


SEN. ROBERT KERREY (D), NEBRASKA: I have come this morning to announce that I have decided not to seek re-election to a third term to the United States Senate. I've decided it's time for me to return to private life.


NOVAK: That produced sighs of relief from fellow Democrats. Bob Kerrey does not follow the party line: any party's line.

He recently joined two other unpredictable senators, Democrat Pat Moynihan and Republican John McCain, in proposing individual investment accounts for Social Security. That sounded like George W. Bush, and Senator Kerrey had advice for Al Gore.


KERREY: Don't get so hardened in a position that you lose the opportunity to see that this -- this -- a proposal like this can be consistent with good Democratic values.


NOVAK: Bob Kerrey has been causing commotion ever since he returned from combat in Vietnam with part of his leg missing and a Congressional Medal of Honor. The former presidential aspirant, governor of Nebraska, and two-term senator has not been an automatic vote for President Clinton, whom he once called "an unusually good liar."

Senator Kerrey was a vigorous supporter of Bill Bradley against Vice President Gore this year. Next year, he will be in New York City, heading the New School University.

But is this really the end for him politically? -- Bill.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Somehow, I don't think so. Senator, good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

KERREY: After that introduction...

PRESS: It may be, right?


KERREY: I don't know.

PRESS: The issue du jour, of course, one that you started talking about long before George W. Bush did, partial privatization of Social Security. Let's just get it out on the table, first, to start with. Governor Bush laid out his plan this week. Do you support Governor Bush's plan?

KERREY: Well, I haven't seen all the details of it, but if he's proposing something that would allow people to take part of the taxes that go for Social Security and retain those for the purpose of enabling them to generate wealth that would supplement Social Security payment, then I support it.

I'd like to see it done in progressive fashion so that lower- and moderate-income people have a chance to accumulate wealth, which they won't if he just used a flat 2 percent. And I'd like to get the accounts opened at birth, which you need to do if you're going to take advantage of compounding interest rates over the course of a life.

But I think it's a logical thing to do, and Alan Simpson and I actually first introduced it in 1994. I think it's a logical thing to do to try to modernize Social Security given that people are living a lot longer, and Social Security all by itself doesn't provide satisfactory security.

PRESS: But isn't the chief flaw the security side of the term Social Security? Something that can't fail, that has to be a guarantee, something that the candidate you've endorsed for president explained just yesterday, I believe. Please listen to Vice President Gore.


AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's not supposed to be a system of winners and losers. Social Security is supposed to be a bedrock guarantee of a minimum decent retirement. And there's just no question about the fact that the Bush privatization plan puts that at risk.


PRESS: So you can't say the market is totally secure, can you?

KERREY: Well, it may seem odd, but I agree with what the vice president said. In our proposal, we do preserve a promise to pay a defined benefit based upon a progressive system that's been established over the years through the Social Security system. I agree with what the vice president's saying. It's just that I think that individuals, as they head toward retirement knowing that they're going to live longer, need to have something more. They need to have wealth. And the only way to accumulate that is a little bit of savings over a long period of time.

So what we propose to do is enable working people to supplement that, that defined benefit, that promise, that rock-solid guarantee with the accumulation of wealth, and enable them to become less dependent in their retirement years on the government than they would otherwise.

NOVAK: Senator Kerrey, Al Gore's principal argument seems to be that the stock market is too risky. I don't know how he gets to that when, in fact, that over the last decade it's gone up 10 percent, and it even went up more than Social Security rates during the Depression and the stock market crash.

But anyway, he says the stock market is too risky. But in January of 1999, commenting on a Clinton administration proposal to put money into the stock market, the government investigation, this is what he had to say.


GORE: There are all kinds of investment opportunities that add a whole new layer of insulation from the political problems that some people have raised, which we looked at so carefully. And you know, during this whole national discussion, one of the single-most important salient facts that jumped out at everybody is that over any 10-year period in American history returns on equities are just significantly higher than these other returns.


NOVAK: Well, can you explain that inconsistency to me?

KERREY: Well, I'm not sure that I...

NOVAK: He's saying the stock market is a hell of a deal!

KERREY: Well, the stock market -- I mean, I would not -- we have not proposed -- and I think when the vice president says you shouldn't have a scheme that has individuals actually picking individual stocks because that's too risky, I agree with that.

NOVAK: Well, they don't. No one's proposing that.

KERREY: Under our proposal, it's very similar to what all of us who work for the federal government have, the thrift savings plan. And if you want to pick a bond fund or a corporate bond fund or an equity fund, you can pick one of several.

NOVAK: Well, that's what -- that's what Bush is proposing.

KERREY: That's what I understand he's proposing as well.

NOVAK: Have you sat down with your candidate, Vice President Gore, and said, hey, you're on the wrong track?

KERREY: Well, I think he is on the right track on so many other things. I...

NOVAK: On this one? On this one?

KERREY: Well, look, I think what matters to me when I look at vice president and what he is proposing to do is that he understands that low- and moderate-income people, unless we intervene, and provide increases in the minimum wage, expansion of the earned income tax credits, some assistance with education, and assistance with health care, that they simply are not going to enjoy the same kind of life that those of us with higher incomes are going to do, are going to have.

And I think he's open, as a consequence, that anything that will in a progressive fashion assist people with low and moderate incomes.

That's why I said in that press conference that my intent -- and I have not talked directly to them except for once on this issue; I've talked to Tony Coelho a number of times about it -- is to just keep the values progressive. Say, you understand that if, for example, 75 percent of everybody in America who has income under $25,000 a year has no savings.

NOVAK: Are you -- are you going to talk to him about it?

KERREY: Yes, yes.

PRESS: Well, here's one of the contradictions that I see. I mean, Bush is now saying the market's a place you ought to be, at least with part of your money as an individual. His chief economic adviser, Larry Lindsey, said -- has said two years ago he took all of his money out of the stock market.

Yesterday morning in the -- in "The Philadelphia Enquirer" -- I'm sorry -- he was quoted as saying he did that. "That was because," he said, "of my personal situation. I don't take any risks. I hate losing money."

Now, Bush's chief economic adviser is saying he's not going to take these risks. Why should the candidate be encouraging others to take the risk and then saying, we're going to bail them out if you lose?

KERREY: No, he shouldn't be. In fact, you're not. But I -- again, I don't know the details. I'll tell you what I, Senator Breaux, Senator Gregg and others, Senator Moynihan, have proposed. We proposed is that you pick a range of funds. You don't pick individual stocks. This is the very reason that Mr. Bush's individual adviser lost a bunch of money.

NOVAK: But nobody -- nobody proposes that. Steve Forbes didn't even propose that.

KERREY: We're not talking about individual stocks or picking commodities or so forth.

Look, here's the problem we're trying to fix. The rich in America are getting richer: You're not going to stop that, and you shouldn't. But the poor are getting poorer. And you can solve that problem, and raising the minimum wage and expansion of EITC doesn't solve it.

NOVAK: Senator...

KERREY: What you have to do is help them accumulate wealth, and that's what we're trying to do.

NOVAK: Senator, there is a lot of data that shows that if people -- this is fact. I'm not making an opinion.

KERREY: Right.

NOVAK: If people own stock, they're more likely to vote Republican. Just as they work for the government, they're more likely to vote Democrat.

Senator Moynihan, maybe in jest, said, we're going to make a lot -- a lot of Republicans if we put this through. Isn't this what the objection to it is by so many of your colleagues?

KERREY: I don't -- I don't see -- by the way, I think Senator Moynihan actually was joking.


I don't see...

NOVAK: Was he joking?

KERREY: I don't think...

PRESS: This is a conspiracy theory, senator, you know...


KERREY: I don't think -- I mean, I -- honestly, I don't think -- in fact, I don't see a correlation between wealth and political orientation.

NOVAK: There is between stock ownership and political orientation.

KERREY: Well...

NOVAK: Do you want me to send you the figures?

KERREY: Yes, I'd love to see the figures. And I hate to think that you might be both right and right.


NOVAK: I'm right right.

NOVAK: Senator -- senator, George Bush has been blasting your candidate. It's kind of funny you talk about Al Gore as your candidate, but we are. He's been blasting Al Gore.

Let's listen to what the governor had to say the other day.


GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is an issue which shows that the vice president is mired in the past. And my campaign is willing to think about the future, and I look forward to working with Democrats and Republicans to get something done.


NOVAK: Will you work with the governor to get something done?

KERREY: Well, I'll work with him as president of the New School University, but I won't be in the Senate. If I was...

NOVAK: No, I'm...

KERREY: I mean, I -- I mean, I worked with his dad when his dad was president. So did Al Gore, by the way. I voted for the Gulf War, Al Gore did.

I mean, look, if the national interest is there and needs to be served, I think people will work with both Al Gore and George Bush.

PRESS: You have alluded a couple of times tonight to you don't know all the details of the Bush plan, but if it's this, if it's that. I mean, that -- that to me gets to the heart of it, that there are still a lot of questions left unanswered. Now, I don't want to say this. Let me just show you what The Wall Street Journal said yesterday morning under the headline about his plan: "What Bush Doesn't Tell You." One, how big the accounts would be; two, how he would pay for them; three, whether the government would ensure against losses.

Senator, don't you think we ought to know the answers to that before anybody embraces such a plan? Those are pretty big questions?

KERREY: Yes, emphatically yes. I think those questions need to be both asked and answered prior to embracing a plan.

PRESS: Well... KERREY: But fundamentally, one of the things that we have with Social Security that you've got to acknowledge is that the political environment allows very few politicians the liberty of being able to say, here's what we're going to do in order to keep the promise to anybody. There's only 30 members of Congress who have signed onto a piece of legislation to actually fix Social Security out of 535, even though that's the No. 1 debate in the country. So...

PRESS: Let me give you another quick question, which is the cost of -- changing from this -- from one system to another, which is estimated as high as a trillion dollars. George Bush says he doesn't know how he would pay for that. How would he? Where does it come from?

KERREY: Look, this is -- I think he should be called upon to call how he's going to pay for it. And by the way, this is not rocket science. This is not something that requires anything other than a staffer to look up a few options. You can either raise taxes, you can either cut benefits, or you can do some kind of individual accounts, such as we're proposing, as an alternative.

In our proposal, we hold harmless everybody who's over the age of 55, but in the out years, there is a reduction in benefits. We reduce benefits in order to pay for it. That's the only way you can do that.

NOVAK: I've got -- I've got to say, I mean, this mindset kills me, senator.

KERREY: My mindset?

NOVAK: No, his! Because...

PRESS: What! I want the answers to questions.

NOVAK: If I could talk while you're interrupting me.


What it is, is when you talk about transition -- he was talking about transition costs, this enormous engine of all these stock accounts will make a trillion dollars look like nothing.

PRESS: Maybe.

NOVAK: Isn't that true?

KERREY: Yes, I think that it is true that individual accounts done in a safe fashion...


KERREY: ...will enable you to solve part of the problem. But it doesn't mean, Bob, that you -- you still are going to have to make other adjustments.

NOVAK: But the adjustment doesn't matter if you... KERREY: But we've got 270 million Americans right now living in our country, and all of them are Social Security beneficiaries at some point in the future. And under today's law, 150 million people under the age of 40 are going to take a 25 to 33 percent cut in their benefits if there's no tax increase. And both the presidential candidates say they're against raising taxes.

NOVAK: If you're raising -- if you're raising the money at a 10 percent rate instead of a 1 percent rate, that changes the ball game, doesn't it?

KERREY: Oh, yes. It...

PRESS: Yes, and the market never falls. Believe that.


PRESS: When we come back, we're going to talk about politics 2000. By the way, Bob Kerrey ran against Bill Clinton in 1992: Eight years later, what does he think of the job Bill Clinton has done as president? When we come back.


PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE and our debate tonight with Bob Kerrey, a man who defies easy definition. He usually, votes like a Democrat, but sometimes talks like a Republican.

So is he an enthusiastic Gore supporter or a secret Bush admirer? And what does he really think about Bill Clinton?

Let's find out. Tonight's guest: Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey -- Bob.

NOVAK: Senator Kerrey, your state of Nebraska voted last week in the presidential primary, and they gave Bill Bradley 27 percent of the vote.

Now is the news slow getting to Nebraska?


Or are they saying -- is one out of four Democratic voters saying, we don't like Al Gore, and is Al Gore in trouble?

KERREY: No. I mean, look, I'm chair of Al Gore's campaign in Nebraska, and I think Al Gore is going to even do very well in Nebraska. I mean, he's got a tremendous -- I mean, you may disagree with him on issues, and I suspect you do. But he's got a tremendous amount of experience. And you've got to look at the administration of Clinton-Gore and say, they have done some tremendous things for the United States of America.

NOVAK: How do you explain the 27 percent for Bradley?


You know, people like him.

NOVAK: It wasn't in "The Omaha World Herald"...


KERREY: No, I don't no. I don't explain things like that.


NOVAK: All right. Let me -- let me give you an assessment of Al Gore's vulnerabilities as a candidate made by a senator whose political acumen I really respect.


KERREY: Remember what happened in 1995 and 1996! Remember Dick Morris! Remember the financing of that re-election campaign! Remember how bad you felt, because if you don't remember it, I guarantee you'll hear an awful lot about it in this general election!



NOVAK: Comment?

KERREY: When -- you say a lot of crazy things, you know, during the campaign. I guess that means I would probably not be on the short list of vice presidents.


PRESS: I want to ask you another Nebraska question. You, as a Democrat, haven't always been kind to President Clinton. In fact, as Bob pointed out, you once called him an "unusually good liar."

"TIME" magazine reports this week that in 7 1/2 years Bill Clinton has visited every state in the union except Nebraska .


PRESS: Do you think there's a connection between a and b?


KERREY: I don't think so. Look, I voted for his budget in '93.

PRESS: Not eagerly we remember.

KERREY: Well, no, not eagerly, but a yes is a yes. And you know, I've -- I've praised the president when I think he deserves the praise. I think he deserves a tremendous amount of praise: I mean, 20 million job. We don't have a deficit. We've got a surplus. I mean, crime's down. Welfare's down. I mean, there's been an awful lot of good things over the last seven years.

I mean, he's managed this economy (UNINTELLIGIBLE) I think reasonably well on foreign policy, too. He's done a good job as commander in chief. So I think he does deserve a lot of praise, and he will be in Nebraska before he leaves office.

PRESS: Don't you think, however -- I want to come back to Bob's videotape there, those comments, plus the comments you've made, the good comments even here tonight about George Bush's Social Security plan -- that those things are going to be used by the Bush campaign against Al Gore?

KERREY: That's possible.

PRESS: Doesn't bother you?

KERREY: It bothers me a little bit, but look, I care very much about this issue of Social Security. I've been doing it -- look, if I was a presidential candidate and calling Al Gore and saying, say, could you trim your sales a little bit on global climate change because you and I have a different opinion? I've -- you know, I've gone on this since 1994. I mean, I can't just all of a sudden say, gee, I'm not for enabling people to accumulate wealth.

I think there's serious flaws in the Social Security program, and I spend a lot of time with people over the age of 60 who are now beneficiaries, and all they have is a few hundred dollars a month coming from Social Security. And they pray to God that they'd had a little bit of wealth, a little bit of savings as a part of this thing.

So I just feel very deeply about this, and I hope, in fact, to be able to persuade the vice president, who I think will win this election, that he ought to think and consider how to do this in a progressive way so as to solve this problem of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

NOVAK: Do you think he's too negative in his campaign?

KERREY: I don't think so. I mean, I -- I do think he's going to win the campaign. I think he's proven himself as vice president. He's got a great record, and he's tested. And I think he's going to come out on top in November as a consequence.

NOVAK: We're almost out of time, but I've just got to ask you one question about foreign policy, and that is the question of Kosovo you're debating in the Senate currently. Senator Hollings, Democrat of South Carolina, made an impassioned speech against. Do you -- do you think that it's a good idea maybe to put a time limit on the troops in Kosovo?

KERREY: I don't think so. I mean, I think we have an -- any time we want, any time Congress wants to come down and say, troops are out, let's pull them out -- I mean, I think any time we want to do that that's fine.

I've been critical of the mission. I think it has hurt us in some of our -- some of our retention problems that we're having right now. But...

NOVAK: Do you think we could have done without the bombing of Serbia?

KERREY: That -- that's -- I mean, that's -- I don't feel like I ought to get into that kind of evaluation, frankly. But I -- I was critical of it at the time.

NOVAK: I know you were.

KERREY: I thought once the -- you know, once the balloon had gone up we ought to go all the way. I think it's an important deployment. And we ought to stick -- stay the course.

PRESS: Senator, this has got to be the last question. You're -- I'm going to miss you in the United States Senate. I'm sorry to see you leave. You're walking away from a seat, it's a strong Republican state. You're the only Democrat now from Nebraska here in the Congress.

I mean, are you concerned that you're just giving another seat to the Republicans in the Senate?

KERREY: No, Ben Nelson, former governor of Nebraska, is going to get elected in November.

PRESS: He lost four years ago.

KERREY: So did Abraham Lincoln. So he's going to come back and win this time.


PRESS: All right.

NOVAK: Bob Kerrey, thank you very much for being with us.

KERREY: You're welcome.

NOVAK: Bill Press and I will be back with closing comments.


NOVAK: Tomorrow night in the crossfire, an angry businessman named Clint Eastwood. Yes, that Clint Eastwood, who's up in arms because federal regulators are making life miserable for him in Carmel, California.

Watch Dirty Harry go nose-to-nose with Bill Press, tomorrow night, 7:30 p.m. Eastern.

PRESS: Where are you going to be?

NOVAK: Bill, you know, when I first came to the Senate, covering the Senate for The Wall Street Journal over 40 years ago, it was really -- there were so many people like Bob Kerrey and Pat Moynihan, who were loyal to their party, as he's a loyal Democrat.


NOVAK: You just saw it here tonight. But they had independent views. They weren't automatons.

But since people like you got into politics...


... they have all these senators who just go the party line, they read what's put in front of them.

I'm going to miss Bob Kerrey even more than you do.

PRESS: Well, I'm going to miss Bob Kerrey. I think he's the John McCain of the Democratic Party. I mean, he calls it like it is. There are no sacred cows, Bob. And I think -- I honestly think -- even though I don't agree with him on every issue, I think we need more like him.

I think he was right about entitlements. I think he's a little too enthusiastic about Social Security. My problem with it is invest in the market, but don't ask me to bail you out when you fail.

NOVAK: Fine. You know what -- what the trouble with you -- he made one mistake, and that is shared ownership does increase Republicanism. And I'll bring in the figures to prove it to you.

PRESS: Bob, it's not a conspiracy to get more Republicans.

From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



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