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16 questions for Hillary Clinton

DETROIT — As a former first lady, U.S. senator, secretary of state, Hillary Clinton is the most experienced and credentialed candidate now running for president. But voter discontent makes 2016 an unusually poor year for political credentials. At a time when most Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction, Clinton seeks a third-consecutive term for Democrats in the White House.

Adding to her challenge are an ongoing FBI probe into her email practices, and questions about her ability to inspire enthusiasm even among fellow Democrats. Her primary rival, Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, has galvanized the support of young Democrats — even young women — despite the prospect that Clinton could become America's first female president.

Days before Michigan's primary on Tuesday, Clinton sat down with me at a manufacturing plant here where she announced a new proposal to crack down on companies shipping jobs overseas. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of our conversation.

HARWOOD: How much difference do you think presidents make in the actual results in our economy?

CLINTON: Presidents make a huge difference. Let's just talk about the last two Democratic presidents. My husband inherited the quadrupling of the national debt in the prior 12 years. At the end of his eight years, we had balanced budgets and surpluses. That didn't happen by accident. That wasn't some deus ex machina intervention. We had the longest peacetime expansion in modern history. We had incomes going up for everybody. We lifted people out of poverty — far more than were lifted out under Reagan's presidency.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks with CNBC's John Harwood speaks with at Detroit Manufacturing Systems in Detroit, MI on March 4, 2016.
Mary Stevens | CNBC
Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks with CNBC's John Harwood speaks with at Detroit Manufacturing Systems in Detroit, MI on March 4, 2016.

HARWOOD: Some people say, well, that was a tech bubble.

CLINTON: No — well, you know what? It also matters whether you've got good leadership. You can look around the world and see the difference. You can certainly see it here. Because when the Republicans came back in, we got the same old snake-oil of trickle-down economics. Even now, when you listen to the Republicans who are vying for their nomination, it's the same thing.

President Obama inherited the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. In my view he doesn't get the credit he deserves for guiding us through what were really treacherous waters. The Fed played a role. The stimulus package played a role. But his leadership, in my view, was central. And that's why I think it matters who your president is.

HARWOOD: Over multiple decades we haven't in a durable way raised prospects for middle-class families. Your economic policies are quite similar to President Obama's and to your husband's — higher taxes on people at the top, more investments in human capital, education, infrastructure. If we've had presidents espousing those philosophies for 16 of the last 24 years, why shouldn't people conclude that either those policies don't work, or you can't get the political support to enact them in full?

CLINTON: But let's talk about the results that were achieved. I think this proves my point. Elections matter. George W. Bush came in with a very different economic approach, and I think our country paid a big price because of that. This election, when it comes to the economy, is between a return to the snake-oil of trickle-down economics or building on what has been proven to work.

I'm not running for my husband's third term. I'm not running for President Obama's third term. But I am not somebody who is an ideologue the way the Republicans turn out to be. I look at what works. Investing in human capital works. Improving education works. Investing with things like empowerment zones, the new market tech credits in under-invested communities work. So I have a long list of what has worked. I am adding to it, and I am making clear that there's more we can do because the evidence is on the side of what I'm proposing.

HARWOOD: When I talk to Democrats and ask "What's your critique of Hillary Clinton's economic plan?," what they say is "too cautious." Isn't this a time to flip over the table and be aggressive across a wide range of fronts — more aggressive than you've been?

CLINTON: I think I've been really aggressive. And you know, on Super Tuesday more people voted for me than anybody else running on either side. So somehow my message is communicating.

I want us to deploy half a billion more solar panels by the end of my first term, and enough clean energy to power every home by the end of my second term. Those are big goals. I think we can get there. And when we get there, we'll put a lot of people to work.

I want to invest far more in infrastructure. I think it's clear we really need it, not only what we can see with roads and bridges and airports, but what's under the ground with water systems and sewer systems. We can put a lot of people to work with doing that. That's pretty bold.

HARWOOD: But that gets to the point that I was raising. Larry Summers, who served in your husband's administration and President Obama's, has called for infrastructure investments twice as large as you've proposed.

CLINTON: Well, look I've gone as far as I think the political, you know, equation will sustain.

HARWOOD: So that's not a substantive thing — that is a political calculation?

CLINTON: Well, it has to be both. I want to propose things I can get done. I don't want to make promises I can't keep.

Look, I was in favor of a much bigger stimulus package. I was in favor, with quantitative easing, of figuring out how to make some investments in infrastructure. What I'm proposing is on top of what the Congress finally got around to passing. Look how long it took them to pass the highway bill. I also want to put in place a national infrastructure bank so we don't have to keep going back to the Congress. What I have proposed is both doable and realistic.

When I get to the White House, if I'm so fortunate, if there's a Democratic Senate, which I hope there will be, and if we've made some gains in the House, maybe we can go further. But what I have proposed builds on what the Congress finally did and takes us even further. That's the very point that I'm making. We've got to do more.

HARWOOD: Another example: Neel Kashkari served in the Bush Treasury Department, ran for governor in California as a Republican. Now he's the president of the Minneapolis Fed. He said, "You know what? We should break up the big banks." That's what Bernie Sanders has called for. If a former Goldman Sachs (executive) thinks that's a good idea, why don't you?

CLINTON: I haven't said that it wasn't a good idea. I'm on record, John, as saying that we now have the tools under Dodd-Frank. I am proposing we follow the law. We have a process under Dodd-Frank. If any bank poses a systemic risk, it can be broken up.

HARWOOD: Sanders wants to do it pre-emptively.

CLINTON: But we have a law. You know what? We are a nation of laws. We have passed a law which sets forth a process. Now, you know if you want to claim you can do it without following the law, that seems pretty radical to me. But what I have said is I would support breaking up any bank that posed a systemic risk to the economy. And we have a process now in place, thanks to Dodd-Frank, thanks to President Obama, the toughest regulations on Wall Street since the Great Depression.

My opponent acts like he's going to create this. We passed a law, and the law gave us the tools. And if we meet the criteria, we should act. I'm committed to acting.


"People make all these claims. And it's hard for voters to really evaluate — is this person being smart? Are they just over-promising? Are they way out in left field or right field? Who knows? That's why I've tried to say, 'Look, here's what I will do. Here's how I will do it. Here's how much it will cost.' I think that's pretty revolutionary." -Hillary Clinton

HARWOOD: Is it your view that a political revolution is not necessary, or not possible?

CLINTON: I've laid out my plans and my policies. I've talked about the kind of bold proposals that I have put forward. I'm very ambitious in making the claim that we've got to take on bad business practices. We have to continue the Affordable Care Act, don't deviate from it. We're at 20 million people now insured. That's a big deal. We're at more than 90 percent now in terms of coverage.

People make all these claims. And it's hard for voters to really evaluate — is this person being smart? Are they just over-promising? Are they way out in left field or right field? Who knows? That's why I've tried to say, "Look, here's what I will do. Here's how I will do it. Here's how much it will cost." I think that's pretty revolutionary.


HARWOOD: Let me ask you about your approach to top-end taxation. You set that top rate at a very high level of income — $5 million. Why so high? It looks like you set it that so that nobody would accuse you of raising taxes on anybody who could be thought of as middle class. But you could've done that at $3 million, too.

CLINTON: I've got several proposals. Number one, I'd like to apply the Buffett Rule on anybody at $1 million or more so that we avoid what Warren Buffett rightly points out as the unfairness of paying a lower tax rate than his secretary. I have a 4 percent surcharge on top of income at $5 million because I want to try to stop the gaming of the system.

The New York Times had a series about how effective people are in getting lawyers and accountants and advisors to really help them avoid paying any taxes. That's why I want to try to capture income. So at $1 million, and at $5 million, there's a lot of money there.

We're going after where we think the real money is. As we say, follow the money. And the tax system has been, in my view, not effective in capturing money from people who are very successful. We need to do a better job.


HARWOOD: The attitude of the Obama White House toward fundamental tax reform has been, "Sounds great. Nice idea. In our current political alignment it's just not happening, and therefore, it's not worth wasting a lot of time on." Is that also your view?

CLINTON: Well, look, I think it's important that we have a really robust debate about corporate taxes, and we also entertain good ideas that come from people as long as they're on the progressive side of the ledger. Our progressive tax system was one of the real accomplishments of the United States. There's been a concerted effort to try to undermine it, to dismiss it, from the Republican candidates.

I'm open to ideas as long as they are progressive ideas and as long as they are ones that will actually work in practice, not just on paper, and that we have a commitment to paying for whatever we invest in.

If we have a Democratic Senate, then I think we have more leverage to have a sensible discussion about fundamental tax reform. There have been some Republicans who have worked with Democrats to come up with some plans over the last few years.

HARWOOD: Do you think you could work with Paul Ryan on fundamental tax reform?

CLINTON: I would hope so. I would hope so. I am open to working very hard on these key issues that we have to address as a nation — that being one of them. So I'm not going to give up on it before we've even tried to do it.


"No. No, it doesn't make me nervous. They've been after me for years. Nothing new about that to me. But I'm gonna wait and see who they nominate. Right now I'm running my own campaign." -Hillary Clinton on whether all the sharp rhetoric being used by Republicans makes her nervous.

HARWOOD: Donald Trump has been a completely unpredictable candidate. He said the other day, "Hillary came at me, she accused me of sexism, and I came back hard and talked about her husband, and she's never gonna do that again." Are you worried that this campaign is going to get rhetorically out of control?

CLINTON: Well, the Republicans already are, aren't they? The rhetoric they've been using, the insults they engage in, the bigotry and bullying that we see is, I think, distressing to a lot of voters. I'm not gonna jump ahead to think about what I might do.

HARWOOD: Does it make you nervous, though?

CLINTON: No. No, it doesn't make me nervous. They've been after me for years. Nothing new about that to me. But I'm gonna wait and see who they nominate. Right now I'm running my own campaign.

I don't want to get ahead of myself. I still have a lot of states that we have to compete in. I know Senator Sanders is really working hard in all of these states.


"I really regret some of the ways that the Republican candidates — and not just Trump, but the others — have been so divisive, finger-pointing and blaming people, going after people's fundamental rights, their civil rights and women's rights and gay rights and workers rights. You've got to run a campaign that is about people's lives, I don't expect to win them all, but I'm going to reach out to everybody, talking about what I will do as president, how what I will do will help Americans of every kind." -Hillary Clinton

HARWOOD: You talked the other night about how we need to make America whole. Look at the way the two primary campaigns on each side have progressed: Donald Trump has been appealing to white voters — some pretty hard-edged appeals. You are being salvaged in your campaign by the support of nonwhite voters — African-Americans, especially, in the South. Are you concerned that we are looking at a fall campaign that could be polarized by race and defined by race in a way that we haven't seen, and that would make the idea of making the nation whole extremely difficult?

CLINTON: No, I'm not. I'm proud and grateful for everybody who supports me. If you analyze the returns from Super Tuesday, I won the white vote. I do want to make America whole. I do want to unify the country. I do want us to work together to find common ground.

I really regret some of the ways that the Republican candidates — and not just Trump, but the others — have been so divisive, finger-pointing and blaming people, going after people's fundamental rights, their civil rights and women's rights and gay rights and workers rights.

You've got to run a campaign that is about people's lives, I don't expect to win them all, but I'm going to reach out to everybody, talking about what I will do as president, how what I will do will help Americans of every kind.

I'm the only candidate with a plan for coal country — what can we do to try to revitalize the economy in places where people have literally sacrificed their lives and their health for generations? So I'm focused on actually producing results, knocking down the barriers that stand in the way of people getting ahead. I think that will be a very positive message in the general election.

"When I am working with people, they say a lot of nice things about me. In fact, we have a whole archive. Perhaps we'll see that during the general election. I think you will. They know I mean what I say, and I will do the best I can to achieve it. It's a contest, and they want to win it. I want to win it." -Hillary Clinton

HARWOOD: Last question, and it's about what led to the email problem. A lot of people think the reason that happened was that your guard is up after a very long time in public life. Is it possible that you've accumulated so much scar tissue that makes it difficult for you to lead effectively, interact effectively with people on the other side?

CLINTON: No. There's no evidence of that in my public career. As first lady, I worked with Republicans. We got the Children's Health Insurance Program passed. I worked with Tom DeLay to reform adoption and foster care. I got to the Senate, worked with nearly all the Republicans, starting with Lindsey Graham, and we got a big piece of legislation to give health care to National Guard members. In the secretary of state's office I worked with Republicans. I had to round up the votes to pass the treaty to lower nuclear weapons with Russia.

When I am working with people, they say a lot of nice things about me. In fact, we have a whole archive. Perhaps we'll see that during the general election. I think you will. They know I mean what I say, and I will do the best I can to achieve it.

It's a contest, and they want to win it. I want to win it.