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.
The Gentleman From Texas
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

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