Stuck in the Middle
Harry Reid to the left of him. The tea party to the right. Senator John Cornyn on the challenges of running a “big tent” GOP in a time of fierce partisanship.
John Cornyn has come a long way since 2002, when he was first elected to Phil Gramm’s old seat in the U.S. Senate. In just two terms the 61-year-old has become the senior senator from Texas and the minority whip, making him the second-highest-ranking Republican in the chamber. But it was his split with freshman senator Ted Cruz over Obamacare this fall that turned heads in conservative circles back home. Cruz favored a partial shutdown of the federal government to defund the health care law; Cornyn believed that strategy was a mistake for the party. On November 27 Texas Monthly caught up with him to discuss his reelection campaign, his relationship with the tea party, and what he really thinks about Cruz.
Brian D. Sweany: You spent the morning at the Ronald McDonald House in Austin making lasagna for the families staying there. I’d say your skills in the kitchen were pretty impressive.
John Cornyn: Well, I’ll confess that I had never made lasagna before, but I can take instructions pretty well. I like to cook, but I don’t have the opportunity as much as I used to.
BDS: An event like that must be a welcome change from the atmosphere of Washington, D.C.
JC: Absolutely. I always tell people that Washington is like Disneyland: it’s a fascinating place to visit, but it’s not real.
BDS: Of course, you’re hoping that the voters will send you back next year for a third term. What do you need to do to make the case for your reelection?
JC: Texas is growing every day, and the last figure I heard is that we are adding more than 1,400 new residents each day. So six years is a long time between elections, and there are a lot of people who don’t know me and my record. Every election is a bit different, in my experience. In 2010 and 2012 I was the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee [the campaign arm for Senate Republicans], so I had the chance to see a lot of elections in a lot of places. That taught me a lot of lessons, the first of which is the old Boy Scout motto: be prepared. The other is to stay in touch with your constituents, particularly now. People aren’t just afraid for the future, they’re angry—particularly in the Republican primary, where we’ve seen some divisions that are not constructive and frankly offer a false choice.
BDS: The energy in the Republican party is much different than it was when you ran for reelection in 2008.
JC: That’s right. I think Texas is a little different because Democrats haven’t won a statewide race since 1994. As Texas has become redder, the emphasis has switched to the primaries. During that time you’ve seen Rick Perry become the longest-serving governor in history, so that’s created a lot of pent-up political ambition. So we’re seeing a lot of activity. The tea party coalition is the most vocal, and social media allows people to organize in ways they weren’t able to in previous cycles. As it turns out, most of the differences are about tone and style; they are not about policy. Even the most recent debate over the government shutdown and the effort to defund Obamacare was about tactics, not about goals. So it’s important that I show up, that I listen, and that I try to explain to people why I’m doing what I’m doing on their behalf. As I have an opportunity to do that, it seems to address most if not all of the concerns that voters have in the primary.
BDS: At the kickoff for your reelection campaign in November, Governor Perry said that you are “the epitome of what I look for in a U.S. senator.” He has certainly been embraced by members of the tea party. But in your speech you said that Republicans should be the party of the “big tent,” which sounded an awful lot like it was pointed in their direction.
JC: To be clear, I was talking about being a welcoming party, not an exclusive party. I don’t know how we got off on this track, where some people are welcome in our party and some people are not. Hence my reference to Ronald Reagan’s line, “What do you call someone who agrees with you eight times out of ten? An ally, not a twenty-percent traitor.” Well, we’re at a point where you can agree with someone 98 percent of the time, but they think of you as a 2 percent traitor, which is just an impossible standard. I like to point out that my wife and I have been married for 34 years, we don’t agree with each other 100 percent of the time. We need to be a little more realistic about the goals, and we need to look not just at the short term but at the long term. If the goal is to change the direction of the country—and I would say to save the country from the big government track we’re on now—then we have to win elections by adding voters, not subtracting them.
BDS: When you went on Glenn Beck’s show the Monday before Thanksgiving, he asked you directly why you would go on his show when his audience represents the very constituency that views you with suspicion and believes that you did not have Senator Ted Cruz’s back during the government shutdown. Beck was particularly upset by an earlier comment you had made about groups who practice “Republican on Republican violence.” But you told him, “I think the tea party is the best thing to happen to the conservative movement in recent years.”
JC: In 2010 that was absolutely true. We would not have won seven Senate seats without the tea party. But what I was talking about when I referred to “Republican on Republican violence” was this purity movement that narrows the appeal of the party, in particular some of the groups that raise money to exploit that.
BDS: You were referring specifically to FreedomWorks.
JC: FreedomWorks is one example. But there are several Washington, D.C.–based groups that want to cynically manipulate people for their own fundraising purposes. I want to differentiate between them and the individuals who are being misled by those groups but are worried about the future of this country. I want to embrace them, and I want to embrace their energy. I think the Republican coalition, which is how every party should be viewed, includes the tea party, social conservatives, establishment conservatives, and libertarians. So it should be everything from people who support Ted Cruz, who are aggressively tea party, to the libertarians who support Rand Paul. We need an “all of the above” approach. As Haley Barbour says, “we need to multiply, not purify.”
BDS: I interviewed Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison last fall as she was preparing to leave office, and she told me there was no such thing as a RINO, or Republican in Name Only. That sounds like what you’re saying.
JC: I think the name-calling is counterproductive. Maybe it’s a function of 140 characters on Twitter, but people engage in name-calling when I would hope they would carry on a more thoughtful discussion about the issues. If I found someone who agreed with me nine times out of ten, I’d be working with them all I could. I wouldn’t be calling them names. That’s not a recipe for success. So you can count me in when it comes to stopping the name-calling; that’s really the lazy person’s substitute for thoughtful discussion and debate.
BDS: But on Twitter you did refer to Senator majority leader Harry Reid’s “temper tantrum” during the filibuster vote.
JC: I think that was factual myself. It’s not an opinion when it’s a fact. [Laughs.] I’m being a bit facetious with you, but I understand your point.
BDS: If National Journal ranks you as the second-most-conservative member of the Senate, why did the tea party in Texas try to field a high-profile candidate to run against you in the March primary? What is the disconnect between you and that segment of the voters?
JC: First, I’ll take responsibility for not communicating as well as I should have. But you also have a lot people who are not traditional Republicans who have come into the process recently, and they aren’t as familiar with me. You asked me about Glenn Beck. I think the worst thing you can do is to run away from a confrontation, because I think the interview turned out well and he was complimentary, not that I was looking for a compliment. But if you have a discussion instead of one-sided name-calling, I think you can find common ground.
BDS: Do you think you can bridge that gap? Tea party voters in Texas look at Cruz’s upset of Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, and they want the same thing in 2014. We just received an email from a reader on a topic unrelated to politics, but he ended the note by saying you were “wimping out” on Cruz and Texas voters.
JC: Ted Cruz ran a great campaign, and he understood the direction the party was headed and knew how to tap into that. He captured the moment, and I remember on the day he was nominated in the primary, Ted said he wanted to thank Republican women, the tea party, and grassroots activists. I think that was telling, because he tapped into the real energy that formed the base of the Republican primary. And it wasn’t just the tea party. Ted did a really good job of nurturing support among the traditional base. I think David Dewhurst has been a good public servant, and had he been elected, I don’t think there would have been much of a difference in the voting record.
BDS: Let’s talk about your relationship with Senator Cruz, who has commanded the stage in a way that few, if any, freshman have.
JC: It’s unprecedented.
BDS: Well, the media has made a lot out of it, but I’d like to hear your version of it.
JC: We have a good working relationship. On Tuesdays we jointly hold Texas coffees for visitors to the Capitol, and we have a lot of cross-pollination on our staff. I have to give Ted a lot of credit for capturing the imagination of people who are angry at Washington. We did have a disagreement about tactics, but it wasn’t about policy. I think we have different styles, and that may be because I was a judge for thirteen years, so my style of discourse is more suited for the courtroom. I’ve had a fair amount of success in the Senate, which has been good for Texas, and I’m number two in the leadership, which is good for advancing the Texas model in Washington, D.C. But I don’t think there is any daylight in terms of our philosophy.
BDS: At the event this morning at the Ronald McDonald House, you said you hoped that the people who advocated a government shutdown had learned a lesson.
JC: I would say that I hope we’ll be less confrontational. It’s a difference of opinion within the family about the tactics of achieving a goal, not the goal itself. But you’re right, I thought the effort to defund Obamacare was not achievable, and I think the facts bear that out. I’ve made mistakes in how I’ve approached certain things, and I’ve learned from every one of them. That’s part of being a rational human being. I’ve read that a number of the folks who were proponents of the defund Obamacare on the continuing resolution are not going to pursue that tactic again, and I think that’s good. The shutdown did not help our cause. What did help our cause was the president’s implementation of Obamacare, which has overwhelmed everything else. I don’t hear anyone thinking that another government shutdown is the way to achieve our goals.
BDS: We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre, and I want to read something that you said after having met with the families of the victims: “These families who lost both children and parents and spouses want to make sure that their loved one did not die in vain. They want to make sure that something good comes out of this terrible tragedy. And why wouldn’t we want to work together to try to help them achieve their goals? Instead of calling the president names and taking the low road, like he did yesterday, and chastising my fellow senators for their good-faith disagreement and the best policies to pursue in order to make sure these families’ loss was not in vain, I’m here to ask for his help. I’m here to ask for every members’ help to try to make sure that we actually continue to look for measures that we might be able to get behind to actually make things better, that would have offered up a solution to some of these problems.” But Congress hasn’t moved forward on this issue. Does that mean those children did die in vain? Are you satisfied with the way this has been handled?
JC: No, I’m not satisfied, but I think the focus has been misplaced by limiting the rights of law-abiding citizens who are exercising their constitutional rights. This is not something we allow people to do at the sufferance of the government. What I’ve noticed is that the way people react to guns has a lot to do with the region of the country in which they live, and people who did not grow up around guns are scared of them. So of course that colors your point of view. I actually have legislation that I’m working on with Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, on mental health issues. [Editor’s Note: The bill, known as the Graham-Cornyn Mental Health and Criminal Justice Reform Act, would improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check (NICS) system, ensuring that fewer violent individuals and criminals will be able to purchase weapons, and would strengthen and reauthorize various federal programs to assist law enforcement in identifying and treating persons with mental illness. Cornyn expects to file the bill early next year.] Adam Lanza was a deeply disturbed kid, and it seems that his mother didn’t know what to do with him. But whether you look at what happened in the navy yard shooting or at Virginia Tech or in Aurora, Colorado, the common thread is the mental illness of the shooter. This is not something that a normal person does, and I’ve come to gain a new appreciation for how sensitive the issue of mental illness is because it touches nearly every family in America to some degree. I think some people want to take the easy way out and pass bills that restrict the rights of law-abiding citizens for owning and using firearms for recreation or for self defense but don’t do anything to make the world safer from mass shootings.
BDS: Gun rights and the Second Amendment are a big part of the March primary in Texas, as you know, and several weeks ago there was a rally at the Alamo where people were encouraged to bring their loaded weapons and display them openly. I’m a gun owner, and I enjoy shooting. But I have to say that that type of display gives me pause. Would you support an expansion of open carry laws, which have been part of some Republican candidates’ message?
JC: I support concealed carry, and the training that people have to go through to get those things is a good thing. I’m not sure what the point is about open carry. I say that as an avid gun owner, but I’m not sure what the attraction is for that.
BDS: Let’s switch gears and talk about the interim nuclear agreement with Iran. You raised eyebrows with a Tweet in which you wrote, “Amazing what WH will do to distract attention from O-care.” Is it one thing to criticize the substance of the deal but another to suggest that it was some kind of political ploy?
JC: Notice that I didn’t mention Iran there. Now, there’s no question I was thinking in part about that, but I was also thinking about Benghazi, the IRS, and Syria. I do think the president has been very skillful at changing the subject whenever there’s bad news. These guys are good. But Iran is a serious subject and deserves a serious discussion.
BDS: So you’re saying this wasn’t specifically about Iran?
JC: I meant it to be more open-ended. I will not mislead you and say that I wasn’t thinking about Iran, but it was just one element. Here’s the problem with the deal: Iran has been at war with the United States since 1979 and wants to wipe our principal ally in the region, Israel, off the face of the map. Iran is a state sponsor of terror. One of the things I would start with is, why in the world would we cut this deal when two of our allies in the region think it is, in the words of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “a historic mistake”? I have not been a fan of Secretary of State John Kerry’s negotiating ability, and I worry that you can want to make a deal so badly that you are willing to make a bad deal. If I’m wrong, I’d love to be wrong. But I worry about a deal that does not dismantle a single centrifuge and allows Iran to continue to enrich uranium while sanctions are lifted for six months and rejuvenates their economy.
BDS: Of course, not all the sanctions will be lifted, and there is a promise of daily monitoring and inspections. No deal is perfect, but is this possibly a step in the right direction for a country that we have not had direct relations with for more than thirty years?
JC: I hope I’m wrong, I really do. I would love for this to be the beginning of a new path to peace in the Middle East. But the single most important thing that worries me is that the countries in the region that this deal will affect the most think it’s a horrible mistake. All the United Nations resolutions regarding Iran called for a dismantling of its nuclear program, not a cessation. This represents quite a reversal of our support of previous U.N. resolutions.
BDS: In addition to the government shutdown and the Iran agreement, the Senate has been embroiled in an internal fight about ending the filibuster, which Senator Reid did for executive appointments and judicial nominees excluding the Supreme Court. We saw a similar battle brewing in 2005, when Republicans controlled the chamber.
JC: Both parties have shown that they are willing to go up to the brink. We didn’t go over the brink in 2005, by the way.
BDS: Let’s go down a hypothetical path: If minority leader Mitch McConnell loses his primary next year, but Republicans win back the Senate, as the new majority leader would you put that rule back in place?
JC: I’m a big fan of Senator McConnell’s, and I don’t think he will lose. But one thing that could happen—of course they tried to carve out Supreme Court nominations and ordinary legislation—is that when the Republicans are in charge, we change the rules to include U.S. Supreme Court nominees so that when the next Republican president is elected, he or she could have them confirmed with just 51 votes. I think it was a mistake for Democrats to do what they did. In the Senate, there are two ways to make a rule: a formal rule change or a precedent. In 2005 we established a precedent in which, under the arcane rules of the Senate, no judicial appointments could be filibustered outside of extraordinary circumstances. I argued over a series of weeks that President Obama’s appointment of three judges to the D.C. circuit court was an effort to tilt the makeup of that court to pursue his political agenda when there were other judicial emergencies in the country. In the short term I think Senator Reid’s decision will poison the atmosphere in the Senate and makes cooperation harder. Having been in the Senate in both the majority and the minority, I have a strong appreciation for how the Senate is structured to protect minority rights because I do think it’s wrong to say, “Okay, Senator Cornyn, you come from a state that has 26 million people yet you have no opportunities to offer an amendment to legislation because Senator Reid has filled the amendment tree then filed for cloture.” And if they can get sixty votes to close off debate, you have been frozen out of the discussion. That’s what has happened. So doing away with the filibuster is only a part of a larger effort on the part of Senator Reid to minimize the power of the minority.
BDS: Isn’t part of the problem that both parties use the same tactics when it’s convenient? For example, when it comes to filibustering presidential nominees, Obama has been blocked 79 times. All other presidents, going back to 1949, had had their nominees blocked just 68 times.
JC: Don’t get me wrong. Both sides try to use the rules to their advantage. But I’m glad that you brought that statistic up. This is down in the weeds, but we are on the Defense Authorization Bill right now, and Senator Reid tried to limit the amendments that were offered on that—called filling the amendment tree—and after a few days filed for cloture to essentially cut off debate. Republicans rose up to block cloture, which technically might be called a filibuster, but all that meant was that we wanted to remain on the bill. Senator Reid has filled the amendment tree—or blocked the minority’s ability to offer amendments—a total of 76 times. By contrast, his six predecessors, combined, filled the amendment tree 40 times. When our only option is to go along with that and lose our rights, or to block cloture so that we can negotiate amendments, then we have used that because we have no other tactics available to us. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that both sides haven’t tried to use the rules to their advantage, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen such disdain for the rights of the minority and changing the nature of the Senate in such a fundamental way. Some of this is arcane, and I’m not sure that people follow it too closely, but it explains how we got to where we are.
BDS: I think that’s right, the approval rating for Congress is hovering around 9 percent, so the public is clearly unhappy with the situation. You told the magazine in a previous interview that you admired Robert Caro’s book Master of the Senate because it gave such a good history of the chamber. And I’m reminded that as majority leader, Lyndon Johnson was criticized for being too cozy with President Eisenhower. How do you think history will remember this era of the Senate?
JC: I love Robert Caro’s books, and I wish we had more Lyndon Johnsons in the Senate today when it comes to the skill to actually get something done. What he recognized was that you can’t do something big without bipartisan support, particularly at a time when it’s hard to find bipartisanship. That’s the fundamental mistake that President Obama and Senator Reid, by pushing Obamacare without any Republican support. I think there’s a lot of wisdom in the way that LBJ operated as majority leader, and I wish we had somebody capable of doing that now. Look, President Obama was a unique candidate and is a unique president, in many ways. There were many people who cheered his election who didn’t agree with a single one of his policies because of what it represented in terms of American’s evolution in terms of slavery to having an African American as president. I think people’s good wishes for his success continues today, and I think most Americans would like to see him succeed but are disappointed in his lack of interest in the day-to-day aspects of his job, rolling up his sleeves and getting engaged with Congress and working with both parties to get what he wants accomplished. Maybe not 100 percent, but the 80-20 rule is pretty good.
BDS: In this climate, is it a good time to be a senator?
JC: Well, it’s interesting that over the past four years, as the head of the NRSC, I tried to get people to run for the senate, and it’s amazing how many people are not interested in running. It’s not easy. But I would say that I don’t worry so much about me because I’m a volunteer, but I do worry about my family, and the families of those people who do run, but you have to subject yourself to the slings and arrows of the process. But it’s a great honor and privilege to represent 26 million people in the Senate, in the same seat that was once held by Sam Houston. This isn’t a short-term game, and being a Texan, and being an optimist by nature, I don’t think things will always be like this, nor should they be, and perhaps things will be better after the next election. If there’s something I can do to make that happen, then I hope to have the opportunity to do so.