Cage match of the century

Top advisors for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama hold a debate of their own on PBS.

Topics: 2008 Elections, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, David Axelrod,

Thursday night, top staffers for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama met on PBS’s “The Newshour With Jim Lehrer.” It might not have been Clay-Liston, but the debate between David Axelrod, Obama’s campaign manager, and Howard Wolfson, Clinton’s communications director, did have its moments, especially when it came to the economy and the debate over more one-on-one debates between the candidates themselves. Excerpts dealing with those topics follow, after the jump.

(The “Woodruff” referred to in the transcript is Judy Woodruff, a “Newshour” correspondent.)

On the economy:

Woodruff: Picking up the economy, the Federal Reserve Board chairman, Ben Bernanke, said today that the outlook for the economy worsening in recent months. Why would Senator Clinton be better to deal with the economy than Senator Obama?

Wolfson: I’m glad that you asked that question. The testimony really centered around the housing crisis that the country faces. Senator Clinton and Senator Obama have very different plans on how to deal with the housing crisis.

Senator Clinton says, for people who have subprime mortgages, let’s freeze foreclosures and let’s freeze their interest rates so they don’t get thrown out of their homes. It’s a bold plan; it’s a plan that takes on the industry, takes on the special interests.

Now, Senator Obama does not agree with that. He has criticized that. He does not go that far. So that’s a key difference on a major, major issue that is confronting so many families in this country today.

Woodruff: And, David Axelrod, the same question, and coupled with it this charge from the Clinton folks yesterday that what Senator Obama laid out yesterday on the economy is copying what Senator Clinton said.

Axelrod: I mean, that is nonsense, but we’ll deal with that in a second. But let’s talk. Howard raises a point, and we should have that discussion, on the subprime housing situation.

Senator Clinton has proposed freezing interest rates over a period of years. Many economists, including Jared Bernstein and other leading liberal economists, have suggested that if you freeze those interest rates everyone else’s interest rates will rise.



Instead, Senator Obama has suggested that we create a $10 billion fund to help people who need help to get them out of the hole that they’re in and help them stay in their homes without adversely affecting everyone else who are not — who did not have subprime loans.

In terms of the copying of ideas, Senator Obama introduced last fall a plan to cut taxes on middle-class families. A typical family would get a $1,000-a-year tax cut, under $75,000 a year, through a tax reform that would shift benefits where they’re needed and get — and that would help stimulate our economy. Right now, we have a consumer-driven downturn in our economy, as all the economists agree.

He wrote about many of the ideas that he’s campaigning on now in a book two years ago. These are good ideas. Many of them are held in common, but the real question is: Who can get them done? Who can pull this country together to get them done?

On debates between the candidates:

Woodruff: Let me bring up debates. Your camp is criticizing the Obama camp for not agreeing to a debate in Wisconsin. There have already been 18 debates; there are two more that are scheduled. Why are debates so important at this point?

Wolfson: Well, we’ve only had one one-on-one debate, and it had enormous ratings. It proved to be enormously helpful to the people of California and everyone who voted on Super Tuesday in making a good judgment about who to vote for.

Senator Obama is happy to debate in states where he is behind, Texas and Ohio. He does not want to debate in a state where he is ahead, Wisconsin. There’s nothing more old about politics than that.

We think that the people of Wisconsin deserve to have a debate in their state. Senator Obama refuses. He does not want to discuss the issues where he differs with Senator Hillary Clinton face-to-face in a state where he’s behind. I’m sorry, a state where he’s ahead.

Woodruff: David Axelrod?

Axelrod: I think it’s a curious thing, because Howard just said we had one one-on-one debate in California where we were well behind.

Wolfson: That was my point.

Axelrod: And we ended up basically surging in that state and tying on Election Day based on that debate. It doesn’t matter where we debate, Howard. Those 8 million people who watched that debate were watching all over the country.

Wolfson: Shouldn’t the people of Wisconsin have a chance?

Axelrod: Wait a second, Howard. Howard, Howard, we’ve had 18 debates. We have two scheduled within five days next week. People across this country are going to see those debates. It doesn’t matter where the venue is. They all are going to watch it, as they did in that debate.

And I don’t think the issue is how many — you know, where we debate or how many — we’ve had 20 debates. The question is, ultimately, can we go out, meet people?

We’re not going to — we in Wisconsin want to meet voters. We had two town hall meetings there yesterday, and we want to use our time to meet people. We have a short run-up there. We’ve got a couple of weeks before the next contest and that lends itself more to debates.

So we want to debate. We’ve debated 20 times, or we will. But we want to control our own schedule and not turn it over to debates as the only function of the campaign, as the only event in the campaign.

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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