Exclusive: Obama, Clinton Make Closing Arguments as Montana Primary Looms

By Beacon Staff
Obama and Clinton face off in Montana's June 3 primary.

With Montana’s June 3 primary election approaching, the Beacon interviewed Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama May 24, and Hillary Clinton May 26, via phone, while the senators campaigned in Puerto Rico, on issues ranging from gun rights to federal land management. Here is the transcript of those interviews:

Q: Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer has said he is skeptical a Democrat can beat John McCain here because of a real or perceived weakness on gun rights. Do you think Gov. Schweitzer is correct and how do you reconcile any need for gun law reforms in urban areas with the anxiety many Westerners may feel that their Second Amendment rights may be trampled?

Obama: Well I think you just identified exactly the argument that has to be made. And that is that we have two realities when it comes to guns in this country. You’ve got illegal guns landing on the streets in the hands of gang-bangers in places like Chicago where children have been shot on the streets in astonishing numbers, and then you’ve got law abiding gun owners who are hunting, and sportsmen, and keeping a gun in the house to protect their family, and who have a tradition of lawful gun ownership dating back generations. It’s part of a way of life. The key is to reconcile those two realities.

The voters of Montana need to understand that I believe in the Second Amendment, I believe it is an individual right and I will not encroach on their right to get firearms and to do everything that they’re doing right now. What I do want to see is better enforcement when it comes to handguns that are pouring into the streets of urban centers and that means better background checks, it means being able to trace guns that are used in crimes back to gun dealers that may be violating our laws. It means closing the gun show loophole. Those are, I think, some common sense regulations that in no way will impede on the ability of lawful gun owners in Montana or anywhere else in the country from exercising their Second Amendment rights.

Well, I believe strongly in the Second Amendment and the right for responsible gun ownership. Obviously hunting and fishing are traditions that are especially important to generations of Montanans and I think it’s important too that we look to strike the right balance that doesn’t in any way infringe on the rights of lawful gun owners but endeavors to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and gang members and people who, unfortunately, have been adjudicated as in some way mentally fragile or disabled. And I don’t see any contradiction between those two very important goals. So I’m going to work to preserve and promote responsible gun ownership. I want to make sure we preserve access to public lands for hunting and fishing and I want to see if we can support law enforcement in a constitutional manner to try to make sure that guns don’t fall into the wrong hands.

Q: A new Bush administration report says most of the oil and nearly half of the natural gas beneath public lands in the U.S. are off limits to drilling. To get at those resources would require Congress to roll back environmental safeguards and lift drilling prohibitions on large areas of the Rocky Mountain West. As president, would you favor lifting some of these restrictions to increase domestic energy production?

Obama: I do not believe that we can drill our way out of the energy problem. I think that the way we solve our energy problem is by investing in a new generation of technologies: solar, wind, biodiesel, making our cars far more fuel-efficient. That’s the answer to our long-term energy needs and the more we put that off by trying to drill our way out of the problem, the bigger the price we’re going to pay down the road. Now is the time for us to start and that’s why I’ve said I’m going to invest $150 billion dollars, over ten years, $15 billion dollars a year, on an “Apollo Project” for energy independence and we are going to not only invest in science and research but we’re also going to invest in major projects that are going to produce millions of “green” jobs, all across the country, including Montana. That’s, I think, the kind of leadership that we need out of the White House right now.

Clinton: Not at this time, no. I’m familiar with the discussion about drilling on the Rocky Mountain Front and on other federal lands. I do not favor that at this time. I think we ought to be much more focused on energy efficiency and conservation and looking for sources of renewable energy like investing in clean-coal technology. I agree with Senators Baucus and Tester that keeping the Rocky Mountain Front untouched by drilling is essential to the enjoyment and economic security of local families and communities along the Front and all of Montana.

Q: But what role should fossil fuels play, specifically in Montana, where we’ve got vast coal reserves. Do you think, in the short term or the long term, Montana should be moving more quickly to develop some of those coal reserves, to help us become a more energy independent nation, or do we need to wait until better carbon capture technology is developed?

Obama: I come from a coal state and so I am a big proponent of clean coal technology and I want us to move rapidly in developing those sequestration technologies that’s required. We’re not going to immediately move off coal. A huge percentage of our electricity is generated by coal. What we need to do though is to put clean coal technology on the fast track and that means money. It means investment in research. That’s something that we should have already been doing. We had a project called FutureGen, a billion dollar project that was slated to go up and the Bush administration cancelled it after the siting decision was made and it wasn’t in Texas. I think that’s a mistake. We’re the Saudi Arabia of coal, and the sooner we can figure out how to burn it cleanly, not only are we going to benefit but we can license that technology to countries like China and India that are putting up new coal facilities every week.

I think we are way behind in moving on carbon capture and sequestration. I support developing the country’s coal resources in a responsible way that lessens our dependence on foreign oil and I believe Montana can play a major role in helping us achieve that. But it has to be done right, and as Gov. Schweitzer and I have both advocated, it has to be part of a larger strategy that includes wind and solar and biomass and geothermal and other renewables.

As president I would support the construction of 10 carbon sequestration demonstration projects to further this technology and I would like to see them placed strategically around the country in states like Montana, because there are different kinds of coal produced in different regions of the country and I think we should be looking to place these demonstration projects in areas where we’ve got to determine what our realistic options are for developing clean coal and clean coal technology.

Q: Wilderness designations on public lands have stalled over the last seven years. There is a bill working its way through the U.S. House, the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, or NREPA, which designates wilderness across five Western states. Do you support this bill, or do you support a different means of increasing wilderness on public lands?

Obama: I haven’t thoroughly examined the bill that’s going through the House right now. I can tell you that my basic principle on wilderness areas, as well as public lands is the concept of sustainability. What I want to do is be able to pass on to our children and our grandchildren the same extraordinary gift that we received from our parents and our grandparents. Nowhere is that truer than in Montana. And so designating lands as wilderness lands that are off-limits to development I think is critically important.

I think we can balance that with economic growth as long as that economic growth is of a sustainable kind. If we’re going to have timber industries operating on public land then we should make sure that old growth forests aren’t destroyed but it’s that second growth are what are harvested. If we are going to have our fishing industries prosper and thrive over the long term we’ve got to take that into consideration in terms of how we’re using water.

I think one of the things about my campaign and hopefully my presidency that I want to bring to bear is us getting past this notion of it’s “either/or.” Either there’s no economic development and any use of public lands by anything other than hikers is off limits, or alternatively, that commercial interests should be able to do whatever they please for private profit. I think that most people recognize that there’s a public balance to be struck and the key from my perspective is to make sure that the federal government is on the ground working with local leadership, working with state and county governments, and is listening and not just dictating from on high how these policies should be put together.

Clinton: Well, we need to strike a balance between putting people to work on public lands and preserving public lands for recreational and wilderness use. I think that can be done by bringing all the parties together. Everyone’s going to have to cooperate.

I know in Montana there are a number of efforts underway that partner the conservation industry with the timber industry, for example. That’s the only way we’re going to make any progress. And it’s essential that we try to find these types of resolutions because our public lands are precious. There are appropriate ways to use some of them.

I have been distressed that the Bush administration has refused to support the thinning of a lot old growth forests in the West, which I think is a real missed opportunity to be able to put people to work in sustainable forestry because they want to be able to cut old growth forests. So, nobody can take these absolutist positions with any real credibility, and I want to bring people together to try to find a resolution.

Q: Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Great Falls, is one of three bases in the West that maintains Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. What role do you think these bases should play in a post-Cold War world, and should funding and staffing at such bases be scaled back? And if not to bases like these, what are some other areas of military spending where you think cutbacks could be made?

I think that us maintaining our nuclear deterrence is obviously critical to our national security. I have said that we should carefully examine how that nuclear deterrence functions in a post-Cold War world. If we make a determination that we do not need as many warheads as we currently possess in order to maintain that deterrent, that’s something that obviously should go into our budgeting process because we’ve got all these needs for our care of veterans. I think that we need more ground troops than we currently have to avoid two or three or four rotations in some of the conflicts that we’ve been fighting.

But what I’ve said is that I want to do a thorough audit of Pentagon spending to make sure that it’s responding to 21st century needs and not 20th century needs. There are specific programs that are out there that I think are worth examining. Some of the weapons systems that have been issued would be nice to have, but may not be our top priority. I don’t foresee a significant reduction in defense spending any time soon but I think that we have to make sure that the money we are spending, we are using wisely.

Clinton: Well, I think we first and foremost have to keep our country safe. That means we have to analyze all of our defense spending in light of that over-arching goal. Malmstrom has been called the “tip of the spear” of our national security and I tend to agree with that. I agree with the position that Senators Baucus and Tester have taken to try to prevent decommissioning those missiles, not only because I think it’s critical to our security, but also to the economy of Great Falls and Cascade County.

The important thing is to make sure that our bases are used to the fullest potential. And Malmstrom is a first-rate facility, which deserves to be evaluated and used effectively to enhance our country’s security. Having said that, we’re going to have to take a hard look at defense spending and make sure what we’re spending is in line with what our threats are. And I intend to conduct such an in depth analysis when I’m president.

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