Ben Barnes

The 66-year-old Democratic lightning rod on why he’s not sorry about 60 Minutes, the real reasons John Kerry lost, and how his party can come back from the dead.

Evan Smith: You put a lot of time and energy into [Democratic presidential nominee] John Kerry over the past year, and into winning the U.S. Senate back for the Democrats, and particularly into getting [Senate minority leader] Tom Daschle reelected. None of that worked out, obviously. What kind of mood are you in? Well, I’m disappointed.

Ben Barnes: I don’t think anyone can really be involved in politics day in and day out, as I have been [as an elected official, lobbyist, and fundraiser], without becoming discouraged. The Democrats have not gotten 50 percent of the vote in a presidential election since 1976. That alone should tell us that we are not articulating ideas in a way that generates the interest and support and enthusiasm of the majority of the American people. That’s the way this country works. The winner wins. But there are still the most complicated, complex problems in this state and in this country that have ever existed. We still have to find solutions, and we still have to have a two-party system. There are still 290 million people counting on a political discussion. So a political discussion must go on.

ES: Why did you work so hard this election year as opposed to the past few cycles?

BB: There was a lot at stake. I’ve seen Texas in good times and in bad times, and we can do better than we’re doing right now. When I introduce myself and say, “I’m Ben Barnes, from Texas,” I used to hear, “Man, tell us about Texas. Y’all are really accomplishing a lot of great things. I really would like to live there.” Now people will say, “You’re from Austin? It’s a great city. I’d like to live there sometime.” But Texas? “Hmmm, y’all are a lot like Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama, aren’t you? Y’all got a lot of problems. Y’all got a lot of people in penitentiaries. Y’all are tough on them down there.”

ES: Does it really matter what other people think of us?

BB: You know, that’s what’s wrong with Texas right now: We stick our heads in the sand. And that’s what’s wrong with the United States. A lot of people in the United States are saying, “It doesn’t matter what England or France or Germany or anyone else thinks of us. We’re the United States of America, and we have more bombs.” That’s not the future I want for my children. Give me an example of an area in which we can do better. Insurance. The United States is the wealthiest country in the world, and 15 percent of its people don’t have health insurance. If my mother had to pay for her medication out of her savings, she could not afford it. In Texas we kicked all of those very poor young kids off of our Children’s Health Insurance Program. I don’t want to live in a state or country that does not recognize its responsibility to those in need.

ES: That sounds like it ought to be a Democratic issue.

BB: Well, I’ll tell you what happened in this last election. In Ohio, 20 percent of the people who don’t have health insurance voted for President Bush.

ES: Why do you think that is? Because of fear.

BB: Because of security. Whenever this country has been in a serious military confrontation, Americans have tended to support the incumbent. We have never had a catastrophe like we had on 9/11, where someone used our own airplanes as weapons to kill three thousand of our people. I think a lot of folks went into that voting booth and said, “Well, I really am for the things that John Kerry is for. We need to do something about unemployment, we need to do something about health care, and here’s this terrible deficit. I’m worried about the fact that we had a surplus and now, four years later, everybody in the United States owes $25,000. But we’ve got to be tough.”

ES: And here we thought the only thing that motivated people to vote this year was faith. Do you have any idea why the Democrats had such a tough time attracting religious folks?

BB: I don’t think they’ve been willing to talk about religion. They think it’s too personal. In my day, you put in your campaign materials that you were a member of the First Methodist Church in De Leon, but when I was running for state representative or lieutenant governor or governor, people really didn’t ask me a lot about my faith. But I want to tell you something: One of the most memorable experiences of my life was my mother driving me to church every Sunday. I went to Sunday school, and we went to the revivals. If there were fourteen services, I went to fourteen services. My mother made certain that I got that religious background. It made a big impression on me. It helped shape what few good things there are about me.

ES: How does this tie back into politics?

BB: I made the preachers very mad in the early seventies when they descended on Austin to fight against liquor by the drink. There were hundreds of thousands of letters coming into the Capitol about the issue, about how these preachers were so concerned. Well, we had liquor in brown bags and there was liquor on every street corner in Texas; I thought it was ridiculous for the state to lose out on the revenue. I remember standing up in the pulpit in the First Methodist Church and telling those preachers that I wanted to make certain they were going to come down to Austin when we were trying to pass a minimum wage for farmworkers and when we were trying to get medicine for sick children and when we were worrying about the mentally ill. If they were going to come down here to fight liquor, I wanted them to come down here to do God’s work.

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