Dodd is my copilot

In an interview, Chris Dodd questions Hillary's electability, and talks about battling his old friend Joe Lieberman and defying Bush on Syria.

By Walter Shapiro

Published July 10, 2007 12:07PM (EDT)

Chris Dodd, the Democratic senator from Connecticut, sat down with Salon for an interview last Thursday evening as his campaign bus headed from Charles City to Mason City, Iowa. The following transcript has been edited slightly for length.

I was just with Joe Biden, and I asked him this same question: Is it possible that politics has just changed, and we're in an era of rock-star politics with two candidates like Obama and Hillary Clinton? Do you sometimes worry that you're running in the wrong year?

It could be, obviously. Who knows? We'll know the answer to the question [after the primaries]. My instinct is that the answer is no. This is not the first time that we have been through this.

[There] can be a false conclusion based on celebrity and crowds that come out of curiosity, out of interest, out of respect, all sorts of reasons. And when people close that proverbial curtain, they take this stuff pretty seriously. And in a state here that has years of experience in dealing with this, [as in] 1980, when Senator Kennedy and Jimmy Carter [ran]. Certainly, Teddy's status might qualify as rock star in those days. [Carter defeated Kennedy by nearly a 2-to-1 margin in the 1980 Iowa caucuses.]

I get the sense that people like this deal here [in Iowa]. They realize that in a caucus state there is a level of commitment that forces your participation in a way that is very different than anything else that occurs. You got to show up for two hours. You've got to be on time. You've got to know what you're doing. And this requires a level of sophistication unlike a primary state.

As this process matures, what someone felt in January, February, March or April is different than what they felt in June, July and August. It will mature into something else in the fall. People will recognize that "I'm in the middle of the business of maybe electing the next president. And maybe 125,000 of us in this small state will certainly winnow out this field and maybe select the nominee." They take this pretty damn seriously.

Let me violate the first rule of political journalism and ask an issues question. In your energy plan, you both propose a carbon tax and suggest that nuclear power has to be part of the equation. Aren't you making two major enemies? How can you overcome the anti-tax crowd and those in the environmental movement who are militantly opposed to nuclear power?

The first I don't know about. The second one is very different in politics today.

The nuclear issue is different among the environmental experts, but I'm not sure that carries over to the people who send the $25 checks to support the organizations.

I don't know how you can give an honest answer to the question, since you can't operate the [electric] grid on windmills. And if you really want to deal with the CO2 issue, I just don't think it's an honest answer. It's transportation and the grid. You got to answer both those questions or you're not going to get away from the stuff.

Politics and leadership are about making a case. The best response I am getting is on this stuff and the national service stuff.

How do you sell a carbon tax?

On the basis that you're paying a tax already. What you're getting for a tax is more expensive than what I'm offering. It's status quo and more of the same. And when I particularly talk to people about how we're spending a lot of money with countries that are probably subsidizing both sides of the conflict in Iraq, I find that all of a sudden, the same guy who says, "I don't like taxes," [says,] "but if what you're talking about makes it possible to stop subsidizing countries that are nothing but enemies of ours, I'm not as hostile to the idea."

I think what people object to about taxes is the feeling that it's falling into a black hole: "I don't see what I'm getting for this." I can deliver something [energy independence] for you that you say that you want all the time. And if we don't do this [a carbon tax], I can't really do it for you. Because that crowd [the oil and traditional energy industries] can always make their product less expensive than mine. And as long as that's the case, we're hooked.

It requires more than a bumper sticker. But what's the point of doing this, unless I make that case. So I'm going to try.

You said today that you didn't really think about running for president before this time. But I heard rumors in 2003 that "Chris is thinking of going." I think there was a glimmer in 1999. So without getting too Jewish with you, Why is this year different from all other years?

Where's Elijah when you need him? There's an empty chair at the table there.

The kids have a lot of do with it. [Dodd's daughter Grace is 5 years old, and Christina is 2.] Part of it is coming to terms with running for president and understanding -- not the difficulty of running, though that's hard enough -- but the assumption that you can do this job. In the Senate, there are a lot of bills and amendments that you try to fool around with. But if you truly believe that this requires a real change in direction, then there's only one office where that counts.

So this was the time to get out there. I am feeling comfortable with who I am. And I've reached a level of maturity and a comfort level with where I stand and what I believe in. And I am convinced that the American public believes that experience matters [after Sept. 11]. Where in the past, it became almost an albatross. I think it's kind of a unique moment when someone with my background, credentials, comfort level with himself, kind of fits there.

When I made a decision to do this, I was still looking at [potential candidates] Mark Warner, Evan Bayh, Russ Feingold. So I was aware of the mountain to climb. Certainly Hillary -- and Barack was coming along, though it wasn't so obvious earlier on.

Even with all of that, I decided that if you believe in yourself and you believe that you can bring something to this -- on both domestic and foreign policy agenda, and a proven ability to do things and a passion and commitment about it -- why not go out and make a try at it? And see what happens.

I don't believe in taking fool's errands. This is wide open. We have done 35,000 phone calls in this state and almost the same number in New Hampshire -- and 80 percent are threes. [This is political lingo for undecided voters, where "ones" are committed supporters of a candidate, and "twos" are leaning toward one.] Not ones. If I'm not getting them, nobody else is.

I was with Biden in Iowa the other day, and he asked a roomful of voters whether they thought that half of the voters in Iowa had made up their minds. Not a single hand went up.

It's a dangerous question, though. [Dodd starts laughing.] You don't know what they will answer.

There is a certain on-the-high-wire-without-a-net quality to Joe Biden.

One of his lovable qualities, I might add.

Turning to Iraq. In a Dodd administration, what kind of residual forces would be in Iraq, three months or four months after you take office?

If you're going to have an embassy there, you'd have to have something to protect your embassy. And [troops] in Qatar, maybe Kuwait and obviously Afghanistan in the region. But I really believe that our continued military presence at the size that we are talking about is a huge mistake. So beyond what is necessary for embassy personnel and the like, I am of the mind that this is the only way to have any hope that the Iraqis may decide to be a nation-state -- even one that Joe [Biden] advocates that will be a three-part confederation.

But in the absence of that, I just think that we are just delaying the inevitability that this is going to break down into a continued chaotic situation. I also believe that's a possibility. But the status quo is unacceptable.

I had a long meeting with [Syrian leader Bashar] Assad in December. And I had to fight with the State Department, who didn't want me even to talking to him ... I said to Assad, what do you want Iraq to look like? And he said, "The last thing I want is a Shia-dominated, Iranian-dominated, fundamentalist state on my border. Syria is 98 percent Sunni. I'm an Alawite. I wouldn't last six months."

So the assumption that chaos is going to reign if we leave fails to take into consideration both the Iranians' historical concerns about chaos in Iraq and the Syrians' political concerns about what it may be ... The moderate Arab states, I think, are deeply worried about what Iran's intentions may be. Hence, I think there may be a unique opportunity for the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli issue. The events recently in Gaza and so forth. [King] Abdullah in Jordan tells me that the Israelis may have been a problem, but it dwarfs the Iranian emergency.

We're so bogged down in this situation that our flexibility to deal with other multinational issues has been severely hampered. We basically give [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez a free run of the Americas. The Russians are basically playing us like a harp. The Chinese couldn't care less about what we say about the Sudan. So our ability to have influence on these other issues has been severely curtailed and hampered by our inability to move ourselves out of the Iraq situation.

So the numbers [of troops] are the ones that I would accept about an embassy -- if you had an embassy to sustain there -- that you could keep safe.

I heard numbers like 5,000 Marines to protect an American Embassy in Baghdad. At that level, is there any point?

I know it isn't a scientific survey, but when you talk to the kids [soldiers who are recovering] at Walter Reed, they tell me that [the Iraqis] are "nice people. But they know where the IEDs are. They know where the enemy guns are." How frustrating that must be. To know that you're over there trying to make a difference and the very people you're trying to give a chance for a future -- and whether it's fear or whatever else it is -- [won't help]. When the other side gains the ability to recruit to a larger extent than you can, it's over. And right now, they're recruiting and we're not.

Given that you only got 11 votes against Iraq war appropriations without a timetable attached, how can you master the politics to get a veto-proof margin in the Congress to change Bush's conduct on the war?

I never got a veto-proof margin to defeat John Bolton [for U.N. ambassador.]

But you also had Bolton at the U.N. for nearly two years on an interim appointment.

I disagree with Joe [Biden] on this that it is pointless to try anything unless you have the presidency or [67 Senate votes to override a veto] ... Baloney. The people who are more worried about Iraq policy are people like [New Mexico Republican Sen.] Pete Domenici, who just comes out and says that it is a failed policy. And [GOP Sens.] Dick Lugar and John Warner and others. And they're just the beginning of this, believe me.

The idea that the president is not going to change his policy until you have a veto-proof margin, I don't think so. People are looking at him and saying, "We'll come up with [the votes] unless you change this thing." The fact is that you're building this thing [support for mandating a withdrawal plan] is incredible on the face of it. People don't understand that nobody is going to abandon our military -- it's a silly argument ... Of course we're going to provide the resources.

But that's not the issue when you're talking about the supplemental [Iraq appropriations bill]. I think you have some people who have been intimidated that somehow they're going to be branded as abandoning our troops on the field, so they're skittish. Again, the general public is so far beyond where people [in Congress] are now. Others think that they will wait until September to deal with this.

"They" being the administration?

Senate Republicans and Democrats. I don't know what the Democrats will come up with in the next few weeks. I suspect it will be closer to what we had offered [before] without quite the teeth. They'll try to get closer to it.

But the point is that you don't have to win these things. Even though you're in the majority, it's a majority by one. Standing up for something with conviction and purpose can be more valuable in the process than winning 51 votes. There are moments when that's more important than producing a majority. So don't define victory in every case as winning the vote count. This is a time when victory on this issue -- in terms of changing this issue and making a real correction in the mission -- can be won by something a lot less than 60 or 50 votes.

You mean, it's the right Republicans going to the administration to push for a change in policy?

It's where the public sees you getting close to this thing. Where it builds and you get closer. All these are factors. You can have victory with 40 votes. So I don't think there is enough appreciation that when you're in the majority, doing the right thing, though you may lose the vote, you may win the issue. It will get you to a conclusion of this much more rapidly.

When you just try to get to 51 [votes], you compromise to such an extent that you end up with something meaningless. And you make everyone upset.

Speaking of that one-vote margin, let's talk about one vote you know well -- [Dodd's Senate colleague from Connecticut now identifies himself as an independent, though he voted with the Democrats to elect Harry Reid as majority leader.] Could a Dodd administration guarantee that Lieberman wouldn't vote with the Republicans in organizing the Senate?

I'd be very surprised if Joe was ever to become a Republican. We're very good friends.

It got a bit frosty last year when you supported Ned Lamont after he defeated Lieberman in the Democratic primary.

It did get tough at a point. But Joe did what he had to do, and I did what I had to do in this thing. It was painful, but I can't reject 300,000 people in my state who participated in the process. As the senior Democrat in the state, I can't say I'm going to disregard your conclusion.

I nominated [Lieberman at the party convention], I campaigned with him [in the primary], I was tireless on the stump. And it was a dreadful campaign. He ran a much better campaign as an independent. Had he run that kind of campaign in the primary, he would have won. Case over.

Our relationship is too deep and too long-lasting for us not to maintain it. It still has some tension a bit, but we're getting over it.

I would be very surprised [if he became a Republican]. Joe's instincts are so much a Democrat's -- on environmental questions, on choice questions, on economic parity. Joe is profoundly a Democrat. This [a party change] would be so uncomfortable for him. Not that this issue [Iraq] is insignificant, but it's not so big that it would cause him to abandon a whole set of principles that he's embraced for four decades.

In your speeches, you talk about shared sacrifice and the bonding experience that came with people from different backgrounds sharing the same foxholes in World War II. But I don't see how you can achieve that level of shared involvement with what you're advocating for national service. [Dodd's plan calls for the eventual expansion of AmeriCorps to 1 million participants, doubling of the size of the Peace Corps and requiring 100 hours of community service as a high school graduation requirement].

Obviously, I am not going to duplicate the experience of World War II. I am going to try to approximate that sense of having done something. I believe it is addictive. I believe it is contagious. That once people start to do these things, there is almost a smugness of reward that you feel.

My hope is creating the opportunities and the structures for it [national service]. I got 30 million people between the ages of 18 and 24. Employing that at a livable wage for a year of service is just astronomical. I got 4 million 18-year-olds. I'm trying to figure out a way to structurally create this opportunity and promote this idea that I realize is a shadow of a foxhole in the Battle of the Bulge.

And so if I can create the structures and opportunities -- albeit on a local and state level -- it's not as much as what in my mind I'd like to create. But in the absence of doing nothing and trying something, this gets as close as I can do. And making it part of using [the White House] to promote the idea.

In hindsight, do you regret declaring your candidacy for president on the Don Imus show?

No, not at all. I'll tell you candidly that if CBS or somebody else had said that we'll give you a couple of minutes, maybe. But I've done the Imus show -- and there is as big an audience there. You get 20 minutes. That hour between 7:30 and 8:30 was always a pretty good hour.

But don't you think that to a small degree you were an enabler of him in treating this like "Meet the Press"? A place not to make jokes, but a place to make a serious political statement?

I've done all those [Sunday] programs for many years. I don't have anyone come up to me and say, "You were great on 'Meet the Press.'" But I can walk through an airport and people will say, "I miss you on Imus." I've heard that 20 times in the last two days. I loved the fact that you could talk -- and not only have some self-deprecating humor -- but you also got a chance to talk about an issue for more than 30 seconds.

It was a dreadful thing that he said and did. We all said so. He went over the top. Imus made the mistake that instead of being Howard Stern all the time, he would move back and forth. So he damned himself to the fate he had by slipping into the traditional mainstream stuff.

Look, there are other ways I might have done things, but I don't regret it.

What do you think of the fact that after 9/11 everyone said that we need experience in the White House, but the three leading candidates for the Democratic nomination have spent a total of 15 years holding federal elective office?

You're talking almost about incumbency status for different reasons. You've been on a national ticket [Edwards], or spouse of a eight-year president [Hillary Clinton], or someone who has attracted a tremendous amount of interest in himself as an individual [Obama]. Again, if the election were tomorrow, I'd say that's troubling. But it's not tomorrow. And I'm already sensing that despite all the resources and all the notoriety, this is not [over]. You can ask me why I'm not doing better. But it's a very appropriate question for them as well.

You have 100 percent name recognition. You have the [former] president of the United States campaigning for you. You've been on the cover of every news magazine. Why aren't you winning this thing hands down? Why is the door still open?

I think the answer is that people have a lot at stake in this election -- and they want to win this. The number one issue in Iowa today is not Iraq. It's not healthcare. It's not energy policy. It's electability. And it has happened in the last month.

By implication are you saying that Hillary Clinton is less electable than other Democrats?

Not necessarily. But it is a very legitimate issue to raise. And the question is going to be a very important issue over the next 190 days.

Since experts can't figure out electability 16 months before the 2008 elections, how should an average voter figure out electability?

It's a gut thing. The first and most important thing that you and I ask anybody who solicits our support is a question that we don't even know how to ask. So we disguise it. Gussy it up as some substantive question.

But the question we're asking is -- whether you're running for the city council or the presidency -- is the following one:

Do you know who I am? Do you pay any attention to me? Do you know what I care about? What fears I have, what worries I have? I want to get a sense that you're paying attention.

And if I don't get that sense down here about you, then forget about it. You can give me 20 answers on every substantive question that I agree with. But if I don't draw this gut, primal reaction to you -- that I think you're paying attention to me -- then forget about it.

I don't care where you're from or what your ideology is. If you connect with me, then I can be for you. Tell me about your issues now. I'm interested in you. But if you don't pass the first test, you never get to the second.

There's that great story that I heard a million times. About the Roosevelt funeral procession and the reporter going around and interviewing people in April of '45 about their recollections of Roosevelt. And one guy seems more grief-stricken than the next, and the reporter naturally gravitates to him and says, "You must have known the president pretty well." The man says, "I didn't know him at all." Then why do you seem so grief-stricken? "I didn't know Roosevelt, but Roosevelt knew me."

If at the end of your day, if people will say that about you, that's the best monument that can ever be built to you.

Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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2008 Elections Christopher Dodd D-conn. Democratic Party