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Matt Lauer Fawns Over Clinton: 'Are You Surprised at How Good You Are?'; Allows Him to Bash GOP

In a softball interview with Bill Clinton on Monday's NBC Today, co-host Matt Lauer gushed over the former president's Global Initiative: "One of the things that's always impressed me....you're really good in a closed room. I mean you get people to commit to things, to invest money....Are you surprised at how good you are at that?"

At the same time, Lauer allowed Clinton to slam Republicans as stubborn ideologues when he asked: "Mitch McConnell came out on that and basically said, 'We've thrown a big wet blanket over the private sector economy and now we're threatening to raise taxes on top of it'....What's your reaction to that?" Clinton replied: "...the Republicans in Washington always say the same thing, any tax on any upper income person is bad because they're job creators. It's an insult to those people. They don't mind being asked to pay their fair share."

Lauer lamented the current state of politics and became nostalgic for the Clinton era, giving the former president sole credit for accomplishing goals pushed by Republicans: "You got things done. You know, you reformed Social Security. You balanced the budget. What's different today? What's changed the dynamic?"

Clinton used the opportunity to again bash the GOP: "In 1995, we didn't get much done because they shut the government down twice trying to force me to agree to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency and eliminate the Department of Education-" Lauer interjected: "And then they decided they had to work with you." Clinton replied: "That's right, because the American people made their preferences clear. "

Lauer followed up: "But clearly there is a changed dynamic, it's more politics now it seems, they put politics ahead of the good of the country. When you travel around the world as part of your role for the global initiative, do you find a similar dynamic in other countries all around the world?" Clinton argued: "They're much more interested in what works. This is the only major country that I go to where people just take a position and it doesn't matter if there's no facts to support it."

Almost as an afterthought, Lauer wondered: "Is it true of Democrats and Republicans by the way? Do both play politics equally?" Predictably, Clinton claimed: "...mostly this is the anti-government extreme position that you see on this tax thing....It scares people around the world. They think Americans have basically voted for a government that's ideological and too uprooted from facts and that bothers them."

In response to Lauer's question about how good he was "in a closed room" raising money, Clinton proclaimed: "What works in bringing the economy back is cooperation. What works in getting on the news programs and in politics is conflict. Conflict is great for politics, great for news coverage, lousy for economic policy. That's what the problem is. We got to go back to a cooperative environment where everybody kicks in a little."

Here is a full transcript of the September 19 interview:

7:00AM ET TEASE:

MATT LAUER: The next big showdown. President Obama set to unveil his long-term plan to bring down the national debt this morning. But Republicans are already saying some of his ideas are dead on arrival. What does Bill Clinton think? The former president speaks out in an exclusive live in-studio interview.

7:01AM ET TEASE:

LAUER: Also, as we mentioned, former President Bill Clinton is here in our studio this morning. He's bringing together some of the world's top minds this week to try to figure out how to jump-start the global economy and the struggling jobs market. We're going to talk to him about that and also get his take on the 2012 presidential race, as well as some other topics as we discuss the Clinton Global Initiative.

7:09AM ET SEGMENT:

LAUER: Now back to politics and a morning exclusive. What will it take to turn the nation's struggling economy around? We're joined now by the former President of the United States Bill Clinton. Mr. President, it's good to see you.

BILL CLINTON: Thank you, Matt.

LAUER: Sixth Global Initiative, you're getting that underway here in New York this week and you're going to bring together the top minds in the world, in the world of business. I guess we would all want to be a fly on the wall and we would want to pull up a chair because one of the things you're going to be discussing is jobs, jobs, jobs. Are you going to come up with or are you going to hear ideas this week that you think can dramatically help the problem?

CLINTON: I tell you yes and no, that is, keep in mind, we work all over the world.

LAUER: Uh-huh.

CLINTON: And there are literally hundreds of millions of people looking for jobs all over the world. This is a global meltdown. And the crash occurred in 2008, about four months before the President took office, and if you go back several hundred years, on average, when the financial system collapses, it takes longer for countries to get out of it, at least five years. So we'll be talking about how to speed it up in areas where that's occurred and in areas where you didn't have it, how to speed it up. Yes, I think there'll be a lot of good ideas.

LAUER: Cynics are going to – listen to what you're saying right there, Mr. Clinton, and they're going to say, 'Five years, he's saying it's going to take four or five years. Conveniently that takes us right through this election and we should have patience.' And I know you're looking at history.

CLINTON: Well, conveniently that's the truth. When the Japanese did it and they had a lot more stimulus spending than we did because they had more money, because they hadn't gone back – they didn't double the debt before it happened, as the previous administration in Congress did – it still took them ten years to get out of it because they didn't reform their banking system.

I think the quickest thing we could do to move out of this would be to clear this mortgage debt more quickly. That is, the – everybody that's got an underwater mortgage where the mortgage is worth more than the house, either write the mortgage down or lengthening it out, if they still couldn't make the payment, give the people the option to convert it into rent and that to cover the taxes and utilities and the maintenance instead of dumping more houses on the market. There are lots of variations on that. If you did that and you cleaned up the banks' balance sheets, then I think there's enough money in the banks and in corporate treasuries to get this economy going again. We could beat the five-year period but would have to do something on the houses.

LAUER: You talk about corporate treasuries. You sit down in your role these days and you meet with some of the biggest business leaders in the world and particularly in this country. By all accounts, businesses, corporations in this country are sitting on about $2 trillion in cash.

CLINTON: That's correct.

LAUER: And they're not spending it. They're not hiring people. When you talk to those leaders, what is the one reason they give you that they're afraid to spend that money and hire people?

CLINTON: Well, first, they don't give me just one reason. They say demand is weak, they're not sure that if they do hire more people, the products they make will be sold. Most of them believe that we should have a more competitive tax system in America. No one complains about the price of labor. No one complains about the quality of labor. All the corporations that I talked to said the American workers are highly productive, they work like crazy, they're more flexible. They're – they like that.

So what I think what we have to do is to find ways, sector by sector, to increase sales for them and to make our business taxes more competitive. There's some businesses that pay as little as 15% on their income and others that pay the full 35% and we need to level it out so everybody pays about the same.

LAUER: You talk about increasing the markets and getting people to buy things, so let's talk about the average consumer, okay? You've got people out there hearing terms like 'double-dip recession,' that we're back in the dumps in the economy and the average consumer says this is a time to hunker down, 'I am going to cut to the bone. I'm not going to spend.' If you were still president, how would you convince the average consumer out there that they've got to help us by spending our way out of this recession?

CLINTON: Well, first we can't completely spend our way out of the recession. The problem – keep in mind, before the financial collapse occurred in september 2008, our economy had had eight years with virtually no job growth because all the economic growth was in consumer spending and finance and home buying. So there's some understandable reluctance and what I would say to the consumers is, you don't have to overdo it.

If the President's plan to lower the payroll tax 50% passes, that's worth about $1,500 to every family. If – let's say they're worried about it. If every family spent a thousand of it and saved 500 of it, then that would help to grow the economy. And begin to start this again. Keep in mind, in addition to what you said about corporations, the banks have $2 trillion uncommitted to loans, there's enough money here to get this thing going again.

LAUER: As part of what the President's going to announce this morning, his long-term deficit reduction plan, is the 'Buffett Rule' and we've heard an awful lot about this after Warren Buffett came out and said, 'Look, you've got to make wealthier Americans pay more.' Mitch McConnell came out on that and basically said, 'We've thrown a big wet blanket over the private sector economy and now we're threatening to raise taxes on top of it. That's not going to get the economy moving.' What's your reaction to that?

CLINTON: That's what they always say. That's what they said about me. They said, when I asked – when I became president, we had a different kind of recession but I asked that the same – the wealthiest Americans who had had their incomes grow the most in the eight years before I took office and had had repeated tax cuts, to give back some of that money so we could balance the budget and get interest rates down, and it worked. And all the time that the Republicans in Washington always say the same thing, any tax on any upper income person is bad because they're job creators. It's an insult to those people. They don't mind being asked to pay their fair share. And if their incomes went up more and they certainly – 90% of the income gains in the last decade went to the top 10% of us. 40% to the top 1% of us, who also got the lion's share of the tax cuts.

LAUER: So you're saying it's the same old, same old. And yet, things we're different. 1995, you're President of the United States. You have Bob Dole running the Senate, You had Newt Gingrich running the House. Now you've got Barack Obama, he's got the Senate but he's got John Boehner over in the House. You got things done. You know, you reformed Social Security. You balanced the budget. What's different today? What's changed the dynamic?

CLINTON: Well, first of all, we got things done in the election year, 1996. In 1995, we didn't get much done because they shut the government down twice trying to force me to agree to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency and eliminate the Department of Education-

LAUER: And then they decided they had to work with you.

CLINTON: That's right, because the American people made their preferences clear. So I think all this – I think, first of all, Speaker Boehner, I think, would like to have a relationship with President Obama but he doesn't want a working relationship at the expense of being kicked out as speaker. And, you know, the American people voted for this House of Representatives. They put them – the Tea Party crowd in control of the House, and so they basically are of two minds here. We'll just have – it'll play out, I think, pretty much the way it did in '95/'96.

LAUER: But clearly there is a changed dynamic, it's more politics now it seems, they put politics ahead of the good of the country. When you travel around the world as part of your role for the global initiative, do you find a similar dynamic in other countries all around the world?

CLINTON: No, all over the world, the conservatives and liberals disagree about how much should be taxes, how much should be spending cuts, you know, but they always are talking about how to do something. Their arguments are much more rooted in the real world. They're much more interested in what works. This is the only major country that I go to where people just take a position and it doesn't matter if there's no facts to support it. Like – and I really – and a lot of people who-

LAUER: Is it true of Democrats and Republicans by the way? Do both play politics equally?

CLINTON: No, no, the Democrats are not blameless and Democrats are going to be given a chance by the President to deal with the long-term problems in health care spending, but mostly this is the anti-government extreme position that you see on this tax thing. If – that, 'No, no, we'll never raise another penny of taxes on anybody no matter how well off they are.' It scares people around the world. They think Americans have basically voted for a government that's ideological and too uprooted from facts and that bothers them.

LAUER: 39% of the people right now think Barack Obama is doing a good job. 52% do not. You add to that 9.1% unemployment. Can he get re-elected?

CLINTON: Oh, yeah, it's a little bit early to be writing his obituary and it's a little bit early to be worried about it. I mean, look, this country's hurting. You say 9% unemployment but we all know they're-

LAUER: It's more than that.

CLINTON: It's de facto 15%. If you look at how many people have quit looking for jobs, they're not counted. If you look at how many people are in part-time jobs that don't have full-time jobs, that's all that really matters. Now I think what he did is a good thing, what he's going to do, saying, 'Okay, when the economy gets going again, here's what I think we should do to bring the deficit down.' That's a good thing, but right now what we need to do is get the economy going again. I think what I'm trying to do is gather people to talk about what would get the banks to loan, what would get the corporations to spend and what would do that not just here but in other places around the world.

LAUER: We've sat down, we've talked about your global initiative on a number of occasions throughout the years. One of the things that's always impressed me and what I've heard anecdotally as well, you're really good in a closed room. I mean you get people to commit to things, to invest money that they perhaps didn't even think they were going to invest. You know, you put the squeeze on them and I mean that in the nicest possible way. Are you surprised at how good you are at that?

CLINTON: It's easier when there's no politics involved. I think if everybody – if all the politicians and the business people would bring the same attitude to this in Washington that we can here, because nobody's running for anything, I think it would have the same results. We need to – we just need to focus on what works again and what works – here it is in a sentence, what works in bringing the economy back is cooperation. What works in getting on the news programs and in politics is conflict. Conflict is great for politics, great for news coverage, lousy for economic policy. That's what the problem is. We got to go back to a cooperative environment where everybody kicks in a little.

LAUER: 30 seconds to end on a lighter note. When you were president, you were known for your appetite. Man, you loved the doughnuts, the junk food, anything southern fried. Now we sit here and you're just turned 65, you've had a quadruple bypass and you're a vegan. Does that suck?

CLINTON: Who'd of thought it? No, no, you know, when you get older your appetites change and abate and you're more interested in having another good day so I'd like to have as many good days as possible and this seems to be the best way to get it.

LAUER: Good luck with the Clinton Global Initiative.

CLINTON: Thanks.

LAUER: Great to have you in the studio, also. That's really nice of you.

CLINTON: Thanks.


- Kyle Drennen is a news analyst at the Media Research Center. Click here to follow Kyle Drennen on Twitter.