The Gentleman From Texas

When John Cornyn arrived in Washington in 2002, he was just one of many important Texans in the capital. Today he’s the most powerful one left, the man in charge of retaking the Senate for the Republican Party, which he plans to do one Facebook update at a time.

September 2010By Comments

John Cornyn, photographed on July 21, 2010, in the Hart Senate Office Building, in Washington, D.C.
Photograph by Mike McGregor

Who is the most powerful Texan in Washington? The answer is usually pretty impressive. Over the years, the state has sent to the capital three presidents, three vice presidents, three House Speakers, a Senate majority leader, three House majority leaders, and a Supreme Court justice.

Today the mantle has fallen to Senator John Cornyn. Though the state’s senior senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison, has been in office a full decade longer, her failed run for governor battered her reputation and left a cloud of uncertainty around her future. Several House members have high profiles—Ron Paul, Pete Sessions, Chet Edwards, Jeb Hensarling, Joe Barton—but none have the stature of Cornyn, who has, in a few short years, become one of his party’s most prominent spokesmen.

Tall and white-haired, with the bearing of the state Supreme Court justice he once was, Cornyn has become a go-to television Republican, appearing regularly on the news programs to dispense his particular style of Concerned Conservatism. Even railing against the Obama administration, Cornyn never seems angry; he only seems . . . concerned. He has a habit of flexing his forehead while speaking, drawing together his eyebrows in an expression of gentle worry that gives everything he says a vague air of condolence, as if he’s just come from a funeral. In an era of tea party rage, he has found a niche as the kindly face of the Republican brand.

Not that he’s any less conservative than his brethren. During his first term, he stepped out on several wedge issues, co-sponsoring amendments banning flag burning and gay marriage and stealing some of the limelight during the Terri Schiavo affair. As the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Cornyn is currently in charge of his party’s effort to retake the Senate, which is based almost entirely on staunch opposition. He is not above taunting the president on his Facebook page, which he updates regularly and which 13,479 people “like” as of this writing (far more than Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell’s anemic 1,414 but far fewer than John McCain’s robust 622,342 and Barack Obama’s steroidal 11,354,849). I spoke with Cornyn in late July, the day after the Senate passed the financial reform bill along mostly partisan lines (he voted against it) and several days before he would vote against confirming Elena Kagan, President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee.

The Senate has often been described as the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” but it’s hard to imagine anyone calling it that right now. How well does it function today?

One of my favorite descriptions of the Senate is the first hundred pages of Robert Caro’s book Master of the Senate. It chronicles the different roles the Senate has had in our nation’s history. Sometimes it has been where the leaders of the country—Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, and Henry Clay, just to name a few—have come from, but that was at a time when the presidency was not the focus of federal power as much as the Senate was. I’ve only been here since 2002, as you know.

How has it changed since then?

When I got here, it was a very different place. George Bush was president; we had 51 Republicans in the Senate and the majority in the House. Now, after a couple of disastrous elections in 2006 and 2008, I’m a member of the loyal opposition of the minority party. I think the Senate is so polarized right now because the party power is so lopsided. Anytime either party looks like they can basically go it alone, there is always that temptation to do it.

Let’s talk about the financial reform bill. You voted against it and called it an “aggressive power grab” by the Democrats. But don’t the American people want some power grabbed back from the Wall Street banks that drove our economy into the ditch in the first place?

Well, I certainly support reforms that would prevent bailouts and prevent this concept of “too big to fail.” Unfortunately, I didn’t think this bill accomplished that. It also overreached and put a firm regulatory stranglehold on Main Street, credit unions, community banks, and other folks that didn’t have anything to do with the financial meltdown. It also had two glaring omissions, and that is Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which arguably are two of the principal reasons why this mortgage-backed security crisis occurred in the first place.

So in your view the bill does not make another financial crisis less likely?

My hope is it will. But even if you grant the best of intentions to the bill’s supporters, as people find out what’s in it and as the financial system adjusts, there are going to be a number of unexpected and unpredicted negative consequences.

You mentioned the need to prevent bailouts, but you voted, along with Senator Hutchison and most Republicans, for President Bush’s bank bailout in 2008. When you look back now, how can you defend that particular vote?

Well, this was a time when [Treasury Secretary] Hank Paulson and [chairman of the Federal Reserve] Ben Bernanke came over and told the combined leadership of the House and Senate that unless Congress acted, our whole financial system would crater. In times like that you get the best advice you can and you do what you think is the responsible thing to do, and that’s what I did. What upset me is that the premise of TARP [Troubled Asset Relief Program] was that the government would create an auction or a purchase system for these troubled assets. But almost immediately after Congress approved this, the administration—and I’m talking about the Bush administration—pivoted and did something that they said they would not do. They bought huge equity interest in major American corporations, and that set the precedent that basically opened the door for the Obama administration.

That bailout vote came back to haunt many of your Republican colleagues who faced an election this year. I’m thinking in particular of Senator Hutchison. Did you think that was unfair?

I don’t think it’s unfair. It is a fact that she voted for it. I remember when I ran for reelection in 2008. It was shortly after that vote, and Rick Noriega, my opponent, took me to town for it.

As chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, you’re in charge of Republican efforts to retake control of the Senate this fall. The minority leader recently made some headlines for saying that the Republicans have got their “groove back.” Do you agree with him?

Yeah, I thought that was kind of an unusual thing for [Mitch] McConnell to say, but I understand what he means. We’ve kind of been in the wilderness after the 2008 election, where we got beaten very badly. We’ve come a long way in the following year and a half. I think so much of that has been not because people have all of a sudden fallen in love with Republicans, but really it’s been the movement of independents away from the Democrats. I think, again, there’s sort of an instinct that the American people have for checks and balances, recognizing that it probably is the best protection for their liberties or security. I think they’re going to reestablish more balance. In 2010 the question’s going to be, Are they going to trust Republicans to govern again? And that’s a case we’re going to have to make.

Some of the energy in the Republican party in the past year and a half has come from the tea party movement. What has been the effect of the tea party movement on the Republican party? Has it pushed you further to the right?

I think it has been a net beneficial effect. Republicans have never been the party of top-down. We’ve always been the party of bottom-up, in terms of how we’ve governed and the direction we’ve headed in. The tea party movement is a reminder that the real power in the country is the power of the American people and the voters, because in the words of the Declaration, “the consent of the governed” is the legitimate basis of the government operating in the first place.

It has made life tough for some of your incumbents, though.

It has.

Republican senator Bob Bennett, who lost his primary in Utah, has blamed the tea party for creating “mischief.” You disagree with him, I take it.

Well, I mean, I wouldn’t call it mischief. I think that this is a very difficult election cycle for incumbents. I remember Senator Bennett telling me that he would talk to voters who told him, “I like you very much as a person, I actually agree with you on a lot of your positions, but you’ve been there too long. We need to give someone else a chance.” That’s hard to argue against. Indeed, it’s a good reminder that none of us have an entitlement to these offices. We are here at the sufferance and the pleasure of the voters, and we have to continue to make our case to them why we deserve to be here and how we are communicating their concerns in Washington.

What are the Republicans’ prospects for picking up enough seats this November to win a majority in the Senate?

I remember after the 2008 election people saying that the Republican party was no longer a national party. We were a regional party at best. Obviously that proved to be wrong. We’re going to have competitive races all over the country. I’ll give you the best answer I can: Our candidates are currently leading or tied in eight states where seats are held by Democrats, and for all of the seats that are currently held by Republicans, our candidates are leading. If we had the election today, we would have a good election. Obviously I would rather be in my shoes than [Democratic senatorial campaign committee chairman] Bob Menendez’s shoes.

So let’s say the election was today and you did take control of the Senate. What should be first on the agenda?

Part of it will be, I think, just doing some of the things that needed to be done for a long time, which is to deal with excessive spending, to deal with entitlement reform, things like Medicare and Social Security, which are on an unsustainable path. Then we obviously need to deal with things like national security, for which I think President Obama has largely had the support of Republicans in terms of our commitment in Afghanistan, although the 2011 deadline is problematic. Energy reform, obviously, with what is happening with the moratorium in the Gulf and our continued dependence on imported oil while we work our way into an alternative-energy future. Those remain problematic. Most of all, though, this election is going to be about spending and debt and the role of the federal government. People do not agree with the muscular assertion of federal control and intervention in their lives in a way that they’ve seen in the last year and a half.

Let me ask you about immigration reform, something you were deeply involved with during the last administration. I gathered from your Facebook page that you weren’t very impressed with President Obama’s speech on immigration a few weeks back. What didn’t you see from him that you had hoped to?

Folks on the right and on the left have been very disappointed that the president said he would take up immigration reform his first year in office and he hasn’t done it, and now the election is approaching and he is facing disappointment from some groups that wanted him to keep that promise. He’s trying to figure some way to appease them, or at least deflect any blame or responsibility. I remember going to a meeting at the White House with John McCain, Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, and others a year ago to talk about immigration. A number of us said at the time, “Mr. President, the only way this is going to move is if you use political capital, if you roll your sleeves up and you take leadership.” You’ll recall that President Bush, at some cost in terms of his political capital, did exactly that, and we weren’t successful. It doesn’t mean we can give up.

Do you support the new law in Arizona?

You know, my thought on the Arizona law is that this is a manifestation of the federal government’s failure to do its job, that the state feels like it has to fill in the gap. I would agree that it is a federal responsibility, and the federal government ought to do it, but I think it’s a shame that the administration, rather than stepping up and doing what it has an obligation to do, is suing Arizona instead.

But it sounds as if you’re saying that the jurisdiction does lie with the federal government, and so the Arizona approach is invalid.

The technical argument is that state law is preempted by federal authority, but I’m not sure that where the federal government has failed to act, whether you can say that state action that basically enforces federal law is preempted.

Would you support similar legislation in Texas?

I would prefer that we not have each state sort of going it alone. We have a huge two-thousand-mile-or-so common border with Mexico on the south. It just doesn’t make any sense to me that California is going to do one thing and New Mexico another, Arizona another, Texas another. It needs to be a uniform response. That’s why I think the federal government should do it. No, I don’t think a state-by-state solution is a real solution.

One of the trickiest parts of this, as you well know, is that there are 11 million or so folks who are here illegally right now. In a reform scenario that’s successful, what is the course of action for those people?

That’s the $64,000 question. I will tell you, I think this is an area where credibility-building measures are very important. What I mean by that is, in 1986 Ronald Reagan signed an amnesty for 3 million people premised on the belief that there would be enforcement of our immigration laws and that there would never be a need to do this again. And the American people, in their compassion, recognized that compromises needed to be made, but they never believed that they would be fooled into believing enforcement was going to occur. Now, I think, they’re understandably skeptical of promises of border security and enforcement. There’s no reason why we don’t have those now, and indeed now it seems those are being used as bargaining chips to try to get a pathway for those 11 or 12 million. I’m not intentionally avoiding your question, but what I’m suggesting is, if we were sincere and demonstrated our sincerity by dealing with the border-security issues and the enforcement issues, then the American people, in their typical compassion, would allow a humane way to deal with those 12 million or so who are here.

What would be an example of a humane way?

Well, for example, I’ve advocated for a guest-worker program. I would be willing to let those people participate in a guest-worker program, and at the end of that period of time, they would be, of course, expected to return to their country of origin. They would be allowed to reenter the United States in a legal capacity. I think the one thing most people have a hard time with, and generally this goes under the label of amnesty, is the idea that you can come in violation of our immigration laws and then be rewarded with the single greatest gift that the American people can possibly confer on you, and that is the gift of American citizenship. Like I said, this is an extraordinarily challenging topic. The biggest problems are that the federal government doesn’t have the credibility when it comes to stopping the future waves of illegal immigration. If we were able to establish credible measures of border security and enforcement, I think we could work the rest of this out.

I want to turn and ask you briefly about your trajectory in the Senate. In your first term, you moved quickly into a leadership role, and since then you’ve become one of the party’s most prominent spokespersons on the national stage. Are you going to keep ascending that leadership hierarchy?

I found when I got to Washington that there weren’t a whole lot of senators that were willing to stand up in front of the TV cameras and explain why it is we believe what we do and why it is we vote the way we do. I felt like the best way for me to represent 24 million Texans was to explain firsthand why it is I believe what I do and why it is I believe the way I’m voting is consistent with what my constituents would support. That’s given me maybe a little higher profile than others who don’t do that.

As someone who has a leadership role in the party, can you look inside your crystal ball at the 2012 presidential election for a minute?

It’s kind of murky.

Do you see Governor Perry in that ball?

I don’t know if the American people are ready for another Texan in the White House this soon or not. I’ve read, as you have, that Governor Perry has indicated his lack of interest in national office, and indeed, I think what he has correctly stated is that Texas is a pretty good laboratory for the kind of policies that result in job creation and economic growth. If Washington would pay more attention to those policies and imitate them, the country would be better off.

Though we’re also facing quite a large deficit in the next legislative session.

Well, you’re exactly right, but part of that is the federal government’s unfunded mandates like the Medicaid expansion and the like. A lot of states are in economic distress because of the recession and because of lack of income because tax receipts are down. I don’t know who’s going to be our candidate in 2012. I hope that we have a vigorous competition. I hope people that we haven’t even thought about step forward to run.

Slightly off topic of this, you, along with many other folks in Washington these days and elsewhere, are a heavy user of Facebook and Twitter.

I heard you mention that. Yes, I am.

I wonder how in your view these social media have changed the game for politicians.

Well, I think it’s really important. I use Twitter and Facebook almost on a daily basis, much to the chagrin of my staff, since it’s sort of unfiltered.

You post yourself?

Yes, I do. It’s a way for me to communicate with people about things that they may not see in magazines and newspapers and on TV, just because the volume of things coming at them is so huge. Just filtering those things out is for me a way to communicate with constituents about things that I think are interesting or problematic. The other part of it is it’s clearly a two-way street. If you followed my Facebook page, it’s a pretty free-for-all conversation.

Do you read the comments on your page?

I do, and it’s not just between me and my constituents. It’s between people on the Facebook page. Needless to say, I don’t agree with all of them. I don’t even like all of them.

From what I’ve seen, I don’t think all of them like you either.

I think that’s okay. The worst thing that can happen to those who serve in office, in particular those who work in Washington but live in Texas, is to become isolated and live in a bubble. That’s what’s happening to some of my colleagues in this election, where too many elected officials are out of touch. So Facebook and Twitter are just a very straightforward, easy way for me to stay in touch and listen. You don’t always have to like it or agree with it.

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