Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021 | 2 a.m.
On Jan. 11, 2020, the Sun interviewed Joe Biden as part of a series of conversations with Democratic candidates leading up to the Nevada presidential caucuses. What ensued that day at the Sun’s offices was a two-part, 90-minute discussion in which Biden expanded on his policy plans on a number of key issues: the economy, jobs, immigration, infrastructure and gun safety among them.
Biden, of course, went on to win the Democratic nomination and the presidency.
As he begins his term, we felt the interview was worth publishing to give readers a better idea of where Biden will lead the country.
Please note that the interview took place before the novel coronavirus reached American shores; as you’ll see in the accompanying photos, the conversation occurred before the need for masks or social distancing.
Following is a transcript, edited for brevity and clarity.
When are you going to put a wooden stake in Yucca Mountain and get serious about solving the nuclear waste problem? Second, how would you go about addressing nuclear waste? Yucca Mountain faces stiff local resistance: We don’t want that poison here. Are you willing to pledge to Nevada voters you will end this?
First of all, I have been opposed to any (funding) to Yucca Mountain, period.
In addition to Yucca Mountain being a dangerous place, the transportation of waste to Yucca Mountain on our existing rail system is also incredibly dangerous.
I’ve spent a lot of time dealing with rail issues — I’m a railroad guy — and the number of tracks in need of significant repair, going east to west, poses a real problem. And one of the reasons I do not support expanding the number of nuclear power plants now is because of the waste issue. We don’t have a rational position in which to do that now.
So I assure you as president there will be no storage at Yucca Mountain, period. And it’s not just because of the instability and possibility of earthquakes, but because of the transportation to Yucca Mountain.
Can it be permanently halted?
I know of no constitutional way, no way by executive order, that you could say never again will there be storage at Yucca Mountain. You could possibly commit to it by writing it into legislation that related to the whole issue of nuclear plants, nuclear modernization, a whole range of things.
But that’s the only way I know how to do that. And I think it’s why it’s been so up in the air, because one administration comes along and changes things.
But I assure you, if you look at my position from Day 1, I’ve voted against every single effort to try to open it, temporarily store in it or store at all for emergency purposes. It’s just a gigantic mistake.
We have a two-part question on gun safety. One, as you sit within distance of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, do you think assault weapon bans are enough? And two, although public sentiment for gun-safety measures is growing and support for the NRA is weakening, there’s still strong opposition to gun measures in the Senate. What’s your plan for dealing with that opposition and successfully guiding your measures through the process?
First, I’m the only guy who’s ever beaten the NRA nationally twice. I’m the guy who got the Brady Bill up and passed and expanded, No. 1. No. 2, I was able to include an assault weapons ban and the number of rounds that could be held in any magazine.
What’s fundamentally changed since then is two things: the spontaneous response in both Florida at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School well as what happened in Connecticut.
And (the gun-safety movement) is real. One of the things I talk about is restoring the soul of the country. If you want to talk about a sick soul, one of the first things our kids now have to learn at school is the ability to duck and cover. We’re building schools that have abutments so you can avoid a mass shooting.
When the president (Barack Obama) asked me to put together executive orders in light of what happened at Pulse all the way back through Connecticut, we got a lot of them passed. And this is significant: An overwhelming majority of NRA members thought we should do away with assault weapons.
There’s no rationale whatsoever to have more than 10 rounds in a magazine, and even that is too much in my view.
I believe we can get this done because it now has a profound impact in the following sense: People are finding out — I spent a lot of time working on mental health issues, and one of the things we found was that the single generation that is most at risk in terms of their mental health is Gen Z — 7 to 17 years old. And the greatest fear of that generation is being shot in school. It’s generating legitimate, serious anxiety and affecting their mental health.
So one of the things I think people are realizing is the effect on an entire generation that in fact is really being impacted on in terms of long- and short-term mental health issues.
I also dealt with the folks in Silicon Valley; we have the capacity now to build any weapon where it can only be fired with your biometric marker. And that technology doesn’t violate anyone’s Second Amendment right at all. If you pass the background check, you can purchase a weapon which only you can pull the trigger.
So I am absolutely convinced I can get (gun-safety legislation) passed. The way we did it last time is we included it in a larger bill that had really good things in it like the Violence Against Women Act, community policing, etc.
So the way you give cover to some of our Republican friends who are scared of the NRA — and this outfit owns the White House right now — is you put it in a larger bill. So they (Republicans) say, “Look, I had to vote for it.”
You know, I have a 20-gauge and a 12-gauge shotgun. I’m a skeet shooter, and I used to go up and down the (Delmarva) Peninsula in Delaware and talk to the guys hunting and fishing. They’d say, ‘God darn, Joe, why are you taking my weapon away? You’re taking my shotgun.”
And I’d show ’em a picture of an assault rifle and I’d say, “You need this to hunt with? And you need a magazine with a hundred rounds or 30 rounds? You must be a lousy damn shot.”
The point is, it’s a totally salable idea.
Also, the gun industry is the only outfit in America exempt from being sued. The only one. Imagine if that were the case with drug companies now. We’d still have 9 billion opioids being sold without warnings. But guess what? You can sue them.
Imagine what we could do if we held the gun manufacturers accountable for lying about products, for producing products they know are doing great harm, etc.?
That’s going to be one of the things I’m going to move very hard against.
Here’s the last point. This is an issue that no one wants to campaign against me on. Nobody. No Republican wants to stand up and say, “No, I want assault weapons out there.”
Think about that; not a joke. Even the ones who are afraid because they think they’re going to lose, they don’t want that argument.
So I think the whole environment has changed.
By any standard, the middle class has been devastated in the last 25 years as ever-greater concentrations of wealth have taken place at the top. Every candidate has specific plans to address the middle class, but do you feel it’s time to declare the domestic equivalent of the Marshall Plan for the U.S. middle class, with a specific czar administering efforts?
Yes but no. Yes, the focus has to be that. But the answer is no in the argument that is going to be made by the far left and the far right that this is about going a socialist route here. This has nothing to do with socialism. It has nothing to do with the confiscation of wealth.
It has to do with basic, fundamental equity.
What’s happened is it’s as if Milt Friedman never died and his spirit lives on. With all due respect to anyone who’d be offended by this, but I’m not, corporate America has concluded that the only legitimate basis upon which a corporate board has any responsibility is to their stockholders and/or their CEOs. There’s no other responsibility.
And that’s the Friedman notion. So what we have to do is change the corporate notion about what their responsibility is.
What’s really changed is that we’ve moved to short-termism. I’ll give you an example. I commute to Washington every day, and I was standing on the train platform one time with the head of AstraZeneca and the DuPont company. So I said to this particular chair, “Where are you going?” He said, “I’m going up to speak with some smug little brat who is up on Wall Street, who’s going to ask me what my profit’s going to be in the next quarter.” And he said, “(Expletive), what I’m going to have to do is cut the number of research pieces I have people working on. Because if I don’t, they’ll downgrade me.”
What you’ve seen is corporations moving away from responsibility to their own employees and to their communities. . I’ll give you an example in contrast. In Delaware, the DuPont company — actually, it was the DuPont family at the time — maintained a five-star hotel there, helping the inner city. They supported the symphony. They provided money for mental health. They did all these things thinking they had an obligation to the community.
It’s like with AstraZeneca. The community came in and spent $20 million building new highways and ramps off to their facilities. They thought they had a responsibility to pay back.
So one of the things that’s happened is several of the top 100 CEOs came to me the last year I was vice president and asked if I’d change the corporate culture. Because what they were worried about was that short-termism was preventing them from long-term investments.
As the DuPont chairman said, we’d have never been able to invent nylon if I had to come along and every quarter dictate what profit I was expecting the next quarter.
So part of it is fundamentally changing the corporate culture back to a position to where it has responsibility where it was.
Since the late 1990s, rules changes at the SEC and federal policy have changed a key element of postwar prosperity and increased incentives for companies to use profits to buy back stock. This is enriching CEOs, boards and the investing class but weakens America’s companies’ ability to withstand pressures, innovate, benefit their communities, expand or pay employees more. This issue is vaguely on the radar of some candidates, but no one has tackled the matter head-on. We’re talking $800 billion a year of corporate profits — TARP level funds annually — diverted into an unproductive area that companies could use to fuel enormous growth in the economy. Do you consider this an issue and what should the federal government do to reverse this trend and get companies to use their profits in more productive areas?
I’m going to reinstate (the policy) that changed under the Reagan administration, when the SEC suggested there’s not a limitation on buybacks.
Look, there’s a study done by a professor at the University of Massachusetts who pointed out that from 2004 to 2014, the greatest span of corporate profits since the New Deal, companies spent 36% of the profits for their stockholders in dividends. They took 57% for buybacks. That left less than 10% for everything else — investment in research and development, wages, any expansion.
When Ronald Reagan was president, the CEO of a Fortune 500 company was making 34 times what the average employee in that organization made. Now it’s over 420 times, if my memory serves me correctly. As my mother would say, “Who died and left them boss?”
As vice president, I proposed a program and the administration started it where we were going to make sure we invested in (jobs training). We found out there were 100,000 high-tech jobs that pay an average of $50,000 a year that people are not qualified to hold.
For example, Dow is building solar shingles, but they found out they didn’t have anybody who knew how to run a photovoltaic machine on the floor of the factory. So we put together a proposal where we spent $8 billion and found companies that needed workers with a certain skill, and we’d go out and recruit people and train them. We asked 35 CEOs of the Fortune 500, what do you need most? They said a better-educated workforce. But they weren’t doing a damn thing about it. It hit me like a ton of bricks — like, we’re spending $8 billion and working with them, and they’re not spending any money on retraining their employees.
That’s when the light went on and I got deeply involved in this issue.
So what caused (the escalation in buybacks)? It happened in Reagan’s second term, where they fundamentally shifted how much you could buy back and not be in violation of the SEC rules. So I’d attempt to reinstate (the pre-Reagan limits).
We’ve got to figure out a way also to change the tax structure that allows you to deduct more based on your total profit, the amount of money you can deduct for the CEO’s salary and move on the issue of reducing the amount of money that comes from stock buybacks.
I think there’s a different world out there now. When I talk to my Republican friends — and I’m not talking about electeds, I’m talking about Republicans who are in business or work in different areas — they’re now sick and tired with what’s happening.
Let’s assume you win and have a Democratic House and Senate. What specific steps will you take to ensure the abuses of the last several years are not repeated by future presidents; how do you harden our system now that we’ve seen weaknesses in it?
The truth of the matter is there’s been such an abuse of executive power by this president (Donald Trump), particularly in the use of foreign policy, that it is truly dangerous. You see what’s happening now with what’s going on in Iran. If I said two months ago that there would be Russian, Chinese and Iranian ships patrolling the Persian Gulf, I think you would have looked at me like, “Oh, Biden really is as wacky as Bernie says he is.”
So take a look later at what I’ve talked about in the past on two things:
— The role of Senate relative to the appointment of the third branch of government.
— The role of the House and Senate in terms of the ability of the president to conduct war.
Here’s the bottom line: No president should be able to take the country to war without the informed consent of the American people. That’s why I ran (for Congress) in the first place as a 29-year-old kid, over the war in Vietnam.
The legitimate balance of power exists in the three branches. They’re the guardrails.
Now, though, even the folks I’m running with are talking about how, “When I’m president, I’ll use executive order to do this or that.”
Well, they can’t do a lot of what they’re talking about. It leads to the abuse of power across the board.
So there has to be in a sense a reeducation of the public of the limitations as they exist in all three branches. You probably read the book the two professors at Harvard wrote about how democracies die. None of them involve battering rams going through the door of parliament. What they described happened after a legitimate election, and whoever won brought down those safeguards.
And we have to talk about it. We don’t have enough people who in fact are prepared to talk about it like there were before.
A president can change that whole direction, first of all by not abusing the power but also by talking about the way you should proceed.
How would you feel about changing laws to allow a special court to hear cases involving balance of power. Would you support the establishment of a FISA-like court on balance of power issues?
I don’t think it’s constitutional. I don’t think you could preempt the ability of the Supreme Court of the United States, ultimately, to make a judgment as to whether or not there’s a violation of separation of powers.
We’re not talking about a separate court, but one that reports to the Supreme Court.
I haven’t thought that through. But again, I don’t think you’d be able to get through the district and circuit court level in terms of a major constitutional issue relating to separation of powers. I may be wrong.
Let us describe three different types of Nevadans and ask you to briefly explain why they’d benefit under your health care plan more than the plans of your opponents. One is a young single mother without health care coverage. The second is a small-business owner with fewer than 15 employees. The third is a 30-year-old union worker who has coverage through the union or a peer with a similarly good private plan.
To start with, if I’m someone who’s given up significant chunks of my pay to have a really robust health care plan that I’ve negotiated through my union with my employer, I should be able to keep it if I want it and I think it’s better than any other plan that’s being offered. Nobody has a right to tell me I can’t do that.
Every other plan that’s offered (by Democratic candidates) will require that all those 60 million people who have plans through their employer go off of those plans. You cannot have a private plan.
My plan covers people completely. If someone’s employer decides they don’t want to cover them anymore and they do away with their plan, that employee can buy in at a subsidized rate to my plan. (Options include) either the gold plan, which says no more than a $1,000 deductible and full coverage. Or if they lose their job, they can buy a Medicare-like proposal in the public option that I propose to be added to the plan. It’s “Medicare if you want it.”
No. 2, the single woman, if she were qualified for Medicaid, she’d be automatically enrolled in the Medicare-like option, with no cost. If she’s covered by Medicaid because the state has expanded it, she gets the coverage she needs, including preexisting conditions and preventative care.
The small-business owner may be in a position where he or she is not making enough money to be able to provide for their employees. Under my plan, that employer can buy into a broad coverage plan that covers their employees. And they can afford it, because my plan subsidizes them. It costs a lot of money — $740 billion over 10 years — but it doesn’t cost $3.5 trillion and it doesn’t raise any middle-income person’s taxes at all, period.
If those folks are below the threshold of $44,000 a year, they’d automatically be able to get into the deal. If they’re up to $66,000, they’d get into the subsidized rate. So it covers everybody across the board, it’s affordable and it gives everybody a choice what they want to do.
We’ll ask specific questions on your plans for immigration in a moment. However, while many candidates offer ideas on addressing some of the root causes of immigration crisis in Central America, most candidates are not talking much about Mexico. It is a top-three trading partner both from the perspective of imports and exports, it is our neighbor and America and Mexico are culturally intertwined. And it is riven with cartel violence and corruption that makes the Mexican people miserable. We know from our successful work with Colombia that a focused effort can end these problems. What would your administration do to work with Mexico to end the violence and help it become more prosperous?
No. 1, as vice president, I spent a lot of time in Mexico, and what we focused on was helping them deal with their internal corruption problem. We did the same with Colombia and other countries.
Secondly, I put together a bipartisan plan for $750 million to change the circumstances that exist in Guatemala and El Salvador. I spent probably over 100 hours meeting with the heads of state of each of those countries, and the deal I made was working.
What we did was to set set out specific requirements of what those countries had to do internally to get any of the help and the money they wanted. For example, we put together programs to train and vet the police in those countries, to determine whether or not they were on the level before we’d give them the money.
It went down the line, including the biggest issue they had to deal with, which was the flow of oil through the area to the Panama Canal and the corruption that went with it. It took a month to get the 300 or 400 miles through the area and to the canal because of all the corruption at each of the crossing points.
We agreed to put together a proposal to help them to be able to deal with the money that comes from that trade going through. A whole range of other things we did as well.
But this president (Trump) cut the funding for those programs back to zero initially and then to $500 million from $750 million.
What I’ve proposed is to increase that funding to $4 billion for the first four years — a billion dollars a year. But what it’s going to take is the actual implementation to get it done.
But more specifically, how would you work with Mexico?
If you noticed, there was a net migration back to Mexico as their economy increased. But the pressure the president (Trump) has put on Mexico relating to the issue of asylum — the message that you have to stay in Mexico, you can’t come to the United States — has increased the opportunity for more corruption.
And you have an additional problem that the present government in Mexico is not playing with the same deck as before in terms of corruption. Their anti-corruption president is having a lot of trouble.
I would assign a State Department person, an aid person, to be directly responsible for day-to-day relations. And I’d personally engage the president of Mexico in dealing with the transition.
Look, we should be organizing the hemisphere. Venezuela is going to destabilize Colombia and the region. So we should be dealing with TPS (temporary protected status) for Venezuelans now. We should be organizing like they didn’t do in Europe and you had this great migration coming from Iran, Libya, Afghanistan, etc.
This is all about being able to deal in the foreign policy space. It’s about gaining the confidence of the people in the region that we know what we’re doing.
I’ll add one last thing. The largest carbon sink in the world is burning in Brazil. I came along with Richard Lugar years ago, 25 years ago, and made the plan where we’ll trade debt for forest. They got offered $2 billion to stop clear-cutting and deal with agriculture.
Follow-up interview by phone
You’ve pledged to create a roadmap to citizenship for 11 million long-term undocumented people, agricultural workers and DACA recipients – how will this work in practical terms?
In practical terms, it would be very similar — a little more expansive — to the bill we voted on and lost (during the Obama administration)
It goes through the same requirements: You have to demonstrate that you’re employed, paying taxes, how long they’ve been here, whether you’ve been going through the programs that are required to achieve citizenship. It’s not a unique program — it’s been proposed before — but it is unique in the sense that it affects so many people.
For example, and you know better than I do being out there, 24 of every 100 children in school today from kindergarten through high school is Latino. And the idea we’re going to walk back and ignore that wealth of potential talent, to me, is mindless.
We’ve had waves of immigration starting from after the Civil War to after every major war, and we’ve always been able to accommodate and integrate those individuals into the workforce, schools and other ways.
And I think it’s an asset, not a liability.
Your transportation policy – which impacts the environment as well as infrastructure – has a strong and welcome focus on mass transit in cities and rail intra-cities. Do you envision new rail lines beyond the California high speed rail project? Where do you stand on a high speed rail line between Las Vegas and Los Angeles?
I fully support it. You may recall the president (Obama) used to kid me, call me Amtrak Joe. I put together a proposal early on when I was a senator as to where I thought we could fundamentally reduce congestion on highways, reduce pollution, on a total of five different corridors where in our recovery act we placed money.
For example, you can significantly reduce traffic congestion and save a hell of a lot of money on highway construction if you run a high-speed rail line from Tallahassee all the way to Mississippi. There’s a way to do that too: There are existing rail systems there, which we could improve.
What you have to be able to demonstrate is that a person owning an automobile can get to their destination as rapidly by train as they could if they were driving. You also have to show that the cost is not prohibitive relative to driving their vehicle and the wear and tear on their vehicle.
So we had one line going from Orlando to Tampa, one from Northern Florida across the southern states, one from Chicago into Wisconsin. One — the famous one — is the rail system that rebuilt the tunnels going under New York Harbor going from Amtrak South all the way through Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and New York. And there’s overwhelming evidence that those high-speed rail systems would significantly cut down traffic.
The bottom line is if you were to eliminate the Amtrak rail from Washington to New York, you’d have to build seven new lanes on Interstate 95 to accommodate the traffic. More people get on and off an Amtrak train than get on every single flight in every single airport from Maine to Florida within 50 miles of the Atlantic Ocean. And that costs $20 million a linear mile for one of these lanes to be expanded on I-95. It costs a fraction of that to build a rail system.
In addition, if you look at what happens in terms of consumption and reduction, and moving to electric base for pollution, they’d be electric run trains like Amtrak is now. But in addition, light rail is vitally important. Look what we did in bringing Detroit back.
You find out that most of the jobs now for our workers who live in cities are actually in the suburbs. And somewhere between 40% and 70% of citizens in the cities don’t have vehicles that can get them to work. Light-rail has fundamentally altered that in terms of access to jobs and increasing productivity in the cities.
So there’s a lot going on there.
What does the America that your infrastructure plan builds look like?
Look, you have somewhere like 60, 70, 80% of all the investment that has come from the investing class going into six or seven cities in America.
That cannot be sustained if we’re going to continue to have a culture in this country where people think they have an equal shot at prosperity, or equal access.
So I think in terms of families. What is going to allow somebody who lives in rural Nebraska or rural Nevada or rural Delaware to be able to raise their child and give them opportunities to learn, and when they learn, not have them say, “Mom, there’s nothing here for me, I’ve got to leave.”
That’s why I focus so much of my effort as it relates to climate change on rural America and agriculture as a solution, as becoming the new carbon sink America.
Secondly, I look at it in terms of what it takes to live in a rural community and maintain those basic, fundamental American values of honesty, dignity, treating people fairly. So that’s why, in my health care proposals, for instance, I look at making sure we can keep rural hospitals open and expand them so that people don’t have to go 60, 80, 100 miles to obtain health care. There are ways we can do all that, and then it expands the center of those towns, and it spins off additional jobs.
In the big cities, we need to provide people with an opportunity not just to go to college but to get a job where they can make $45, $50 an hour plus benefits like you’d have in tech or the solar industry.
When I think of the transportation (in the big picture), I guess the formative place where I start is the interstate highway system. It fundamentally changed the way in which we live. It caused incredible expansion of suburbia. It generated an entire new set of means by which people lived, and the housing where they lived and why they lived there.
So I start there and say, OK, how can we change the infrastructure to give everybody an equal shot and live in a culture rooted in their family being comfortable?
What got me to run for a county seat when I first got into politics was (a road project) in the fastest-growing county in America, New Castle County, where I lived in the ’70s.
Instead of the logical extension of the two highways, which was you’d take them through the upscale area of Delaware, they decided to widen two-lane highways that were already overcrowded into four-lane highways with access going through suburban neighborhoods. And it was just because they didn’t want to upset the homeowners who were big-money guys. That’s what got me involved: stopping the extension of those highways. Because I realized what it does. It changes everything. It changes where you can play ball, where your kid can go to the park, whether or not you can ride your bicycle, how you get out of your driveway.
It’s very basic. But when you think of infrastructure, you have to think of the impact on individual communities. So rail, and a lot of other ways we deal with rail and highways, has a big impact on that.
I think we have an enormous opportunity, whether I’m nominated or not, to take this country in a direction which can be something we haven’t seen in a long, long time.