Former President Bill Clinton tells Newsmax that Washington should not raise taxes until the slumping economy is turned around – and says President Obama’s plan to increase taxes on the wealthy won’t solve the debt problem.
Clinton sat down for an exclusive interview with Newsmax Founder and CEO Christopher Ruddy in New York, where Clinton is holding the 10th annual gathering of the widely praised Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), an event that brings together heads of state, business leaders, humanitarians and celebrities to devise and implement innovative and successful solutions to some of the worlds most pressing challenges.
In the wide-ranging interview, Clinton discussed his foundation, climate change, the economy, taxes, government regulations, fellow Democrat Obama, and the possibility of civil unrest in America.
He also spoke about his wife Hillary’s chances of running for president in 2016, calling her “the ablest person in my generation” – and offered his surprising take on the 2012 GOP presidential race.
Asked about the impact the CGI experience has had on him since leaving the White House, Clinton says: “First of all it’s been exceedingly good to know that you can still make a difference, that everything I always believed turned out to be true – that private citizens can also do public good.
“It’s enabled me to work with Bob Dole, for example, who was my opponent in 1996. We raised enough money to give college aid to the spouses and children of everybody killed on 9/11, or disabled.
“[I worked] with the first president Bush on the tsunami in South Asia and Katrina, with the second president Bush on the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake.
“All this has been really rewarding, to think that you can just focus on what works and how to do it faster, cheaper, better. It’s been a joy – and a bit of a surprise. If you told me 10 years ago that half the people staying alive on AIDS drugs would have them on our contracts, that we could document 300 million lives in 170 countries we’ve affected, I wouldn’t have believed that.
“It shows what people can do if they just think about how to do something instead of how to talk about it and fight about it.”
Turning to climate change, Clinton observes: “Next year the Kyoto agreement, which was adopted in 1997 and early 1998, expires. They’ve had a meeting last year and they’re about to have one in Durban, South Africa, to figure out what to do next.
“I have been saying for 10 years, and a lot of people thought I was crazy at the time, but the fundamental problem with climate change is not that it has become a political football in America, that there’s a difference of opinion about it. It’s that – take a country that fervently believes in global warming and that human activity is causing it but will not support an agreement, China.
“China’s the number one investor in clean energy technology. They still won’t support an agreement. Why? Because they don’t know for sure that a country can get rich, stay rich, and get richer without putting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
“So what I decided to do was to dodge the debate, not because I won’t welcome the debate but because nothing’s going to happen in this space until people see that market economies can make profits and generate jobs out of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
Clinton acknowledges that the worldwide economic downturn has made it more difficult to raise money for his foundation. “But we’re doing well,” he is quick to add. “We’re going to have $6 billion worth of commitments here over a 5-to-10-year period, and they’ll affect another 100 million people above the people we’re already helping. That’s pretty good.”
President Obama this week unveiled his plan to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans in an effort to reduce the deficit, even though he could be sure that Republicans would reject the plan.
Clinton says Obama’s whole approach to the deficit is “a little confusing.”
He explains: “In the speech that the president gave to Congress, he didn’t propose any new taxes. The speech was $250 billion in tax cuts, $250 billion in spending over a period of two to three years. It focused mostly on a rather innovative set of payroll tax cuts and incentives to hire people.
“I personally don’t believe we ought to be raising taxes or cutting spending until we get this economy off the ground. If we cut government spending, which I normally would be very inclined to do when the deficit’s this big, with interest rates already near zero you can’t get the benefits out of it.
“So what I’d like to see them do is come up with a bipartisan approach, starting with the payroll tax cuts because they have the biggest return.
“Then what I’d like to see is an effort made at a bipartisan resolution of the banking home mortgage crisis.
“One of the things that President Reagan did with the Democratic Congress in the early 1980s that never gets any discussion is the way they set up this system to purge the debt overhang from the savings and loan collapse. It was unpopular but it had to be done. And as soon as we flushed it out there was a big increase in investment.
“So that’s what we need to do here with this home deal. I don’t think you can tax or cut taxes, I don’t think you can spend or not spend enough to get America back to a full employment economy until we flush that debt.
“What I would like to say to the president and Speaker Boehner is, O.K., you both have your deal. Go work it out. Meanwhile focus on putting American back to work because it just confused Americans. Americans lost the fact that whatever you feel about this millionaire surcharge, it won’t solve the problem.”
Talk coming out of Washington is that there is widespread disarray in Obama White House. If Clinton could meet privately with Obama, he was asked, what advice might he give the president to jumpstart the economy and work with the Republicans.
“The first thing I’d say is we need to get a joint plan,” Clinton responds. “I would organize a meeting. There are two big chunks of money in this country, untouched corporate treasuries and banks. Companies have $2 trillion but they’re not investing it. Banks have $2 trillion but they’re not investing it. I’d like to see him have joint meeting with these people and say, tell us what it takes to get the money flowing again. We don’t have to borrow that from China. We don’t have to run the deficit up. The money’s there.”
Another way to get that money flowing is to pull back on the imposition of new government regulations, Clinton opines.
“What I find is a lot of business people can be supportive of new regulations and new standards, but particularly in a fragile time they don’t like to have too many things changing at once.
“A business can’t do five things at once and decide whether to get back into the investment business after it’s slow. It may be that there is a way, for example, to stagger out a way things are going to be done under the Dodd-Frank bill.
“The really important thing about Dodd-Frank, that we had to do to establish our financial bone fides again, was to have capital requirements on banks and investment banks so we have leverage limits.”
New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and political analyst James Carville have both recently suggested that the nation’s economic woes could lead to riots and civil unrest.
Clinton comments: “There are two issues. One is the fact that the country has grown markedly more unequal over the last 30 years. This often happens when you change an economic paradigm.
“The industrial economy tended to settle out in a way that was very powerful in Europe and the United States and Japan. We had a big middle class and opportunities for poor people to work their way into it, and a successful class of businessmen and financial leaders. Then we moved into what Tom Friedman calls a flatter world and it changed everything. It changed the job mix and requirements for doing well in it.
“The bottom line is, things start growing more unequal again. In general that has not sparked riots in America. We don’t have a lot of resentment against people who are successful. We kind of like it, Americans do. It’s one of our best characteristics. If we think someone earned their money we do not resent their success. That’s why there’s been very little class conflict in American history.
“The second problem is that it appears that the jobs engine is bad on the vine. A lot of voters get that companies have $2 trillion but they’re not investing it. They get that banks have more than $2 trillion and they’re not investing it. Unless we can find a way to start the jobs engine going again, it is conceivable that someday we could have trouble.
“But I don’t think we should even think about that. I think we ought to think about how to get the jobs engine going because it’s the right thing to do. I wouldn’t worry about the other stuff. Let’s just put America back to work. That’s the right thing to do.”
Casting his eye toward the heated race for the Republican presidential nomination, Clinton agrees that Mitt Romney and Rick Perry are the definite front-runners. But he adds: “If you ask who has the power to get back into the mix, assuming no new people enter – I think Mitch Daniels would have been very competitive, I think Haley Barbour would have appeal, I think the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, would have appeal – but if you assume nobody else gets in, then of those that are there the question is can Speaker [Newt] Gingrich pull what McCain did last time.
“The one thing that makes it very hard to count him out is he’s always thinking. He’s always got a bunch of new ideas and some of them are pretty good. So a guy that can still use his brain cells and come up with good ideas, you’re never really sure what happens there.”
Jon Huntsman is a viable candidate “because he was governor of Utah, which is a conservative state, speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese and has an exemplary public career, but there may just not be enough space for him in the ideological bandwidth of the Republican primary. But it’s hard to say right now that he would never get anything going.
“If it stays between Romney and Perry, I think Perry will have the juice of being perceived as the more conservative one, Romney will have the power of being perceived as perhaps more electable because he’s more moderate.
“I just have this uneasy feeling that politics is not so static that it will be these two guys fighting it out all the way to the end, with nothing unpredictable happening. We just live in a world that’s too unpredictable.”
A recent poll found that Hillary Clinton is the most favored political figure on the scene today. The former president was asked under what circumstances Hillary might consider a run for the White House in 2016.
“You’ll have to ask her,” Clinton responds with a smile. “But when we were kids and I met her and we started our now 40-year-plus conversation – I met her 41 years ago this last spring – pretty quick I decided that she was the ablest person in my generation. And nothing has happened in those 41 years to change my opinion.
“I may have been a better politician, at least on the first go-round, but I never met anybody I thought had a better combination of mind and heart.
“If she wants to come home, I’ll be happy. If she wants to serve, I’ll be happy. But she has to decide that. All I know is I’m glad that she’s serving now.”