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.
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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.
I feel the same way about what happened in this election. I am proud the churches participated. They’ve got a right. But I’ll tell you what—maybe all these religious leaders who have found politics and who read Scripture, which tells them that they should do unto others as they would have done unto them, will be involved the next session of the Legislature in taking care of the kids kicked off of the Children’s Health Insurance Program. And I know that they’re going to be concerned about the fact that some of the poorest counties in the U.S. are here in Texas. I’m sure that our religious leadership is not going to be just worrying about abortion and stem cell research and gay marriage.
ES: Let’s talk about John Kerry.
BB: Why did you support him? About two years ago, he and I played golf together in Nantucket, and he asked me to be for him for president. I told him I had too many friends running: I had Joe Lieberman, Bob Graham, a long list of people. I said, “I’m not going to do anything to hurt you.” That was our discussion on the first hole—it was just the two of us playing. We teed off. And we talked for three, three and a half hours. He talked about Vietnam. We talked about how I was on one side of Vietnam and he was on the other. We talked about Lyndon Johnson, about his courage in doing the civil rights bill when it was so politically self-destructive. We talked about how he saw as a young man, and I saw as a young man, that you really could make a difference. We had a very deep, soul-searching conversation. I gave him as thorough a cross-examination as a person of my below-average intelligence can give someone. And I saw a side of him on that golf course that I had not seen before. I saw an extremely intelligent man, a man of deep faith and conviction. I came away with an inordinate amount of respect for John Kerry.
ES: Did you commit to him that day?
BB: Yeah, I did. I called my friend B. Rapoport [one of the state’s leading Democratic fundraisers and kingmakers] to tell him that I’d committed to Kerry, and he said, “I thought we had agreed to stay uncommitted.” And I said, “Well, I’m not too sure that a Jewish insurance executive from Waco can understand a golf course conversion.” He died laughing.
ES: So how did the man of faith and conviction and great intelligence lose by more than three million votes?
BB: It’s so easy to blame the candidate. Ultimately, the candidate has to take the blame. But until you’ve done it or been so close to it that you can see the bullets piercing, you don’t really understand what it’s like to run for president. I think that John Kerry’s organization made some mistakes. I think they went into this race looking at the polls, believing that there were enough anti-Bush voters that whoever got the nomination was going to win. But George Bush ran a very good campaign. George Bush and Dick Cheney reminded the American people every few hours that if they elected John Kerry, we were probably going to suffer another 9/11 at any moment. They were effective at spreading fear.
I thought John Kerry did an incredible job on the debates. I think he looked presidential, and I think he had a grasp of the issues. He articulated the King’s English. But you know, when I was in office, when I’d go to northeastern states or northwestern states and make speeches, they’d say, “You’re from Mars.” I remember a governor or lieutenant governor introducing me someplace by saying, “Now, I want you to hear Barnes, because he talks funny.” Well, Kerry talked funny to people in a lot of the red states. And, you know, he was introduced to the American people by the Republicans much more than he introduced himself.
ES: Democrats I know have been profoundly depressed about the consequences of a second Bush term. Are you worried?
BB: Everybody says that Bush is going to be more moderate. There’s not anything that’s happened since Election Day that proves to me that Bush is going to be moderate at all. He’s going to do exactly what he wants to do, without a voice of dissent. There’s not going to be anybody around George Bush who’s telling him anything that he doesn’t want to hear. That’s what I’m worried about.
ES: I mentioned that it’s been a hard year for you because of Daschle and Kerry, but it was also hard because of you. You made a decision during the campaign to go on television to talk about how President Bush got in the National Guard.
BB: I made some remarks in Austin in a speech to John Kerry workers in March, a long time before 60 Minutes. Unbeknownst to me, when I told the story about feeling bad about the role that I had played in getting George Bush in the National Guard—the role I’d played in getting anybody in the National Guard, because a young man of 26 or 27 should not have that power—someone got it on video, and it went on a Kerry Web site. I did not do it for partisan reasons. The [Ann] Richards campaign had wanted me to say something in the governor’s race, when Bush was first running, but I very carefully did not say anything, and I did not say anything in Bush’s first presidential race. I didn’t feel comfortable saying something this time, but when I finally did, it wasn’t because George Bush was running against John Kerry. It was because I went to the Vietnam Memorial with two guests from England, and I was overcome by grief. Maybe I just hadn’t focused on it for a long time, but I had played a role. I supported President Johnson’s position on Vietnam, and 50,000 people died. I look back on it as a mistake this country made. And that’s why I said what I said. Sure, when I made the speech to the Kerry supporters, it was in a political environment, and I was making a political speech, so from that standpoint I was being political. But what I said was that I, Ben Barnes, am very sorry that I had that power and used that power.
ES: Any regrets?
BB: At dinner last night, some people said, “Well, we really hated to see you do that. And we know you’re probably sorry you did it.” I’m not sorry I did it. I feel very good for having done it. Not for political reasons. I feel good for having done it for me.
ES: People outside your circle, people who are admittedly partisan, say, “The only reason he did it was because he’s a Kerry guy, and if he had not been, he wouldn’t have done it.”
BB: I was a Richards guy and I didn’t do it. I was a [Al] Gore guy and I didn’t do it.
ES: Help me understand what’s going on in Texas. The president won 61 percent of the vote here, more than he did four years ago. There were pockets of good news for the Democrats, but the day after the election, Tom Craddick announced that he had 119 pledges for Speaker, and the Senate is still solidly Republican; the Democrats didn’t even run people in a whole bunch of races, so nothing was going to change anyway. Republicans are squabbling over who’s going to run for governor and everything else, but there isn’t a single Democrat anybody gives half a chance to win any of the statewide races in 2006. What’s a Democrat in Texas supposed to think of his or her party looking two years ahead?
BB: I don’t know that I can be the eternal optimist looking two years ahead. I can look down the road to 2010, 2012, 2014. If I was talking to a young state representative in his twenties—
ES: Not that you’re thinking of anybody in particular.
BB: I would encourage him to remain a Democrat and to discuss the issues: education, transportation, health care. There is a tradition of Democrats solving these problems. If I had to describe our present state government, I’d say they’re not solving the problems—they’re managing the problems. If you’re going to rebuild the Democratic party, you have to offer a solution to these problems, and you have got to talk about it. The most discouraging thing about the races that have been run in Texas by Democrats in the past few years is that there hasn’t been enough debate about the issues. I don’t think we’ve gotten up into the faces of the people of Texas and said, “Let me tell you about health care. Let me tell you about transportation. Let me tell you about Robin Hood. Let me tell you about our rapid free fall in higher education.” Also, we have to remember that we are the party that creates a better standard of living and a better way of life and a better environment for the small-business person to make money and educate his children. We have to deliver the message that it can be done better and that our way is better. We can’t beat the Republicans by talking about what’s wrong with them. We have to talk about what’s right with us.
ES: Is the problem that the party is lacking in candidates who can deliver the message?
BB: I think our cupboard needs to be restocked. We need candidates who are so strong and have so much charisma and create so much excitement that they’re not going to have to tell the special-interest groups that they’re 100 percent with them on everything. Because when they tell them they’re 100 percent with them on everything, they can’t get elected. If you’re 100 percent against the National Rifle Association, you can’t win in Texas. If you’re 100 percent for a woman’s right to choose, with no exceptions, you can’t win in Texas. If you’re for gay marriage, you can’t win in Texas. We’re not going to elect anybody to state office in Texas who passes that litmus test.
ES: Restock that cupboard for me right now. Tell me who in the Democratic party has a snowball’s chance in hell of getting elected in the next four or eight years.
BB: I’m not going to name names, but in the darkest periods of this country’s history, the least expected people have turned out to be the giants, you know? Someone out there is going to come forward to be the messenger for the Democratic party and is going to be able to convince people that we care more about them. Now, if the Republicans were having a meeting right now, they would tell you that the Democratic party is deceased in Texas, that we do not have the talent, that we do not have the money, that we are not on the right side of the issues. But I believe that this state was built by people who were continually working to improve the general welfare of all Texans. I believe those are the people whose names have been indelibly written in our history. And I believe there’s much more room for many more names.