Former congressman J.C. Watts

The former Republican congressman discusses the upcoming general election and why he agrees with the notion that the GOP can possibly become nonexistent.

A former University of Oklahoma quarterback who led his team to two consecutive Big Eight championships, J.C. Watts was ordained as a Baptist minister before being elected to Congress, representing his home state. He served four terms and became the fourth ranking Republican in the House. Watts opted not to seek a fifth term and is now chairman of a Washington, DC-based multi-industry company with diverse holdings that include the first African American-owned John Deere dealerships in the U.S. and a public affairs consulting company. WPC has also worked on efforts to protect affirmative action and ensure voting rights.


Tavis: J.C. Watts is a former U.S. representative from Oklahoma and the former chair of the House Republican Conference, now founder and chairman of the consulting firm that bears his name. Joins us tonight from Washington. Congressman Watts, good to have you back on this program, sir.

J.C. Watts: Tavis, thank you for having me. Good to be with you.

Tavis: Glad to have you. Let me start by saying to you that it’s pretty clear to me – and Newt Gingrich and I had this conversation last night – pretty clear to me that if this party, your party, does not do something in the short run to broaden its based and to expand its appeal, in the long run it’s going to be nonexistent. Tell me why, if you do, you could or would disagree with that argument.

Watts: Tavis, I don’t disagree with that argument, and I’ve been a Republican since 1989, and I, along with Jack Kemp and – I’m kind of a Jack Kemp disciple, and Jack and I had this conversation many times. The first time I heard Jack Kemp speak he made the argument that if we don’t do a better job in appealing to those nontraditional constituencies, we will never become the natural majority.

That’s been 20 years ago, and I happen to believe, Tavis, that you could also make an argument that we’re getting worse. When you look at the convention, I was on the ground for about 24 hours this week and when you look at the convention you don’t see – you look at the swing states, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, you see nobody from those states that looks like me that’s taking a role, that has a role in the convention.

There’s no Ken Blackwell out of Ohio that’s run statewide on several occasions, no Kay Coles James from Virginia, no Michael Steele, no Herman Cain, no Charles Butler out of Illinois, no Michael Williams out of Texas, no Timothy Simon out of California.

By the way, Timothy Simon and Michael Williams out of Texas and California, you’ve got two Black men who are right in the middle of this energy debate, this energy discussion, energy policy. So you would think that they might be at the table.

So again, you could make an argument that we’re getting worse, but we continue to chip away at it and will continue to chip away at it.

Tavis: When you say worse, I hear the explanation and the definition you’ve offered of that term. Let me take my stab at defining “worse” and what troubles me. I don’t expect you to say this, but I do want you to comment on it.

Whatever disagreements, and you and I have been friends for I think 20 years now, it feels like, and whatever issues that we’ve disagreed about and things that we couldn’t see eye-to-eye on, we’ve always maintained a wonderful friendship – I think I can say that – a wonderful friendship and a wonderful brotherhood.

Watts: I agree.

Tavis: I’ve never, ever heard you say stuff that I found to be uncivil and mean-spirited and nasty. I can’t say that about Mr. West, Allen West out of Florida. So even though there are now a couple of African American members of the House who happen to be Republican – Mr. Scott, Tim Scott out of South Carolina has the old seat that Strom Thurmond had many years ago, but he’s out of South Carolina; in fact, beat Strom Thurmond’s son for the seat that he now has.

Watts: That’s right, that’s right.

Tavis: So you got Tim Scott out of South Carolina, Allen West out of Florida, where, of course, the Republican convention meets this week. But on any given day, this guy just goes off the rails. I’m not trying to demonize him. I’m just saying is that what it takes now to be a Black conservative? Is that what it takes now to be accepted inside the party, that you’ve got to say outrageous stuff like this every other day?

Watts: Tavis, I can only speak for me. In 2008, as a matter of fact, I had people accusing me of being a Senator Obama supporter because I wouldn’t slam him. I said, “Well, consider the fact that I voted for impeachment for President Clinton, but it wasn’t a personal vote. I voted based on the facts and the law and the Constitution and what we were dealing with.”

I do think we have to strike a more civil tone in our public policy discussions, and I happen to believe on both sides, I remember when the senator or the House member from South Carolina called President Obama a liar on the floor of the house.

I was on a national show and they asked me what did I think about it, and I said I disagree with it. I think it was wrong, and the response was well, they booed President Bush. I said that doesn’t make it right. I said both sides were wrong for what they did and how they handled that.

I think there is a discourse in our public policy discussions on both sides that I don’t think is healthy for the discussion, but I hope that you can listen to my arguments and say I totally disagree with him, but I do appreciate the fact that he was civilized.

Tavis: First of all, indeed I can. You mentioned Jack Kemp and that you were a Jack Kemp disciple. Paul Ryan says he’s a Jack Kemp disciple. Unless Jack Kemp was teaching y’all two different things, your political and Paul Ryan’s politics are not exactly the same, and I’m not the first person to make this point. He’s a Kemp disciple, but he is a bit more conservative, and I’m being kind here, than Jack Kemp was, and on the diversity issue and other issues, I don’t see the Kemp, not the Jack Kemp that I knew and spent time with and debated and had dinner with and had on this program and other programs, I don’t see that Kemp coming out of Paul Ryan, although he’s a Jack Kemp disciple.

Watts: Well, I think, Tavis, Paul is dealing with much different and much tougher circumstances in terms of the numbers and where we are in debt and deficits and our federal programs, et cetera, but also I think Jack Kemp, Jack and I hit it off pretty well, because Jack was in a huddle.

He had Black, white, red, brown in the huddle with him. I think Jack had a perspective that a lot of Republicans don’t have. Again, I think Paul, while I think he learned at the feet of Jack Kemp in many respects, I don’t think that he has the same playing field that jack had to death with.

Now, having said that, I still don’t think you abandon the Jack Kemp principles. Not that I believe Paul has, but I don’t think Republicans as a whole, that we say we’ve got to reach down and create opportunities for the least of these. Jack made a passionate argument about supply-side economics, but he also talked about taking those economics and getting opportunity to the poor, to the underserved, to Black business owners.

When he talked about capital gains, every time there’s been a cut in capital gains you’ve seen investment grow in Black business and small business, et cetera. So Jack, everything that he did, everything that he was, he breathed in opportunity for everybody. So you would listen to Jack and whether you’re Republican or not, at some point in time, or for 50 percent or better of this conversation or his dialogue, his speech, regardless of where you stood in the political spectrum, you were saying, “Me too. I can handle that model.”

So Jack was very good at that and no one’s picked up that mantle. As a matter of fact, when you talk about helping the poor in many respects, some look at you like you’ve got a fish head.

But I do believe, in spite of the fact that I am for tax relief, I also have to think about the least of these. Sometimes, Tavis, in thinking about the least of these, it’s a matter of saying I disagree with the model that someone on the left or someone on right or someone in the middle, I disagree with their models.

But nevertheless, if I’m opposed to Tavis Smiley’s model I have a responsibility to come up with a model on my own that says I see where you’re trying to go, Tavis, but I would use a different model.

Tavis: I respect that, and I think that’s part of the problem right now is that we have not seen Mr. Romney’s model as yet. One can debate Ryan’s budget plan all day long. He’s the number two guy on the ticket. Romney is at the top of the ticket, which raises a very simple question.

When are we going to see what his model is? All we keep hearing is that he’s better than Obama, that Obama’s not the answer, that I can do a better job, I’ve got business experience, but he hasn’t laid out his economic plan yet. When do you think might be a good time for him to get around to laying out the plan?

Watts: Well, I thought here two, three days ago, and I say this in the name of transparency, I am from an energy state. I was an oil and gas regulator. I thought what he laid out here four or five days ago I thought was a pretty good start on the energy side.

We’re going to see energy prices rise because of what we’re seeing happen down the Gulf, down in New Orleans, Louisiana, Florida, we’re going to see the price of oil rise at the pump. I think we can be energy independent in the next 10 years. He laid out a plan to do that.

Not only can we be energy independent just based on the North American continent, Tavis, those are pretty good jobs. Down in Oklahoma, Texas, those energy-producing states, all you have to do is be able to pass a drug test and you can get jobs starting at $20 an hour.

Now, I would have taken this plan a step further and I would have said I’m going to create processes and encourage those people that do the hiring and do the procurement. I’m going to encourage them to open up opportunities for everybody – red, yellow, brown, Black and white.

If you can start out making $20 an hour with no high school diploma, no high school education, just be able to pass a drug test, then that’s a pretty good opportunity.

I would say let’s expand that to make sure that people of all colors, if you’re an American, you should be able to have access to that opportunity. But I do think his plan was pretty good.

Then also, as I said earlier, I’m for reducing tax rates, allowing people to keep more of their money to do what they need to do with it, but at the same time you have to be engaged and saying to Tavis Smiley or the people that Tavis Smiley talks to every night, to say this is how my plan impacts you.

It’s not just enough to lay it out there, but you need to be engaged with all demographics and all constituencies, explaining how it impacts them.

Tavis: Well, we will see what he has to say to the folk who watch Tavis Smiley, and for that matter, Americans across the country, on Thursday night.

Watts: Tavis, let me ask you.

Tavis: Yeah?

Watts: Have you invited him on?

Tavis: We have.

Watts: Okay.

Tavis: Let me say this – yes, we have invited him on, but then again, I’ve invited Barack Obama on, and in four years I ain’t seen him either. (Laughter) So I think for me, if you’re Tavis Smiley and you’re doing your best to try to tell the truth about the left and the right, you might end up without talking to either one of them.

But I digress. J.C., good to have you on, man. Have a great week. Talk to you soon.

Watts: Tavis, good to be with you.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: August 29, 2012 at 3:51 pm