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Outgoing Rep. Perriello: ‘We Walk Away With Our Heads Held High’

Judy Woodruff begins a series of interviews with lawmakers facing involuntary retirement after losing in the November midterms. Up first, Virginia Tom Perriello, a one-term Democratic congressman, on how the next Congress should break through partisan gridlock.

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    This week, as the year comes to a close, we begin a series of interviews with congressional Democrats defeated at the polls in November.

  • First up:

    Tom Perriello of Virginia. He was swept into office in the Obama wave of 2008, only to be swept out in the Republican wave of 2010.

    Judy Woodruff recently spoke with the departing congressman on Capitol Hill.


    Congressman Tom Perriello, thank you for talking with us.


    Thank you for inviting me.


    You were elected to Congress two years ago, but with the narrowest margin in the country.

    Different this time. What happened?


    Well, we actually also lost this year by one of the narrowest margins.

    We outperformed expectations by about 14 points over the national average this year. And I think what worked both times in some ways was conviction. I think people appreciate knowing your sense of right and wrong, knowing where you stand.

    And I think two years ago was a time when people were really hoping for great things. I think there's a lot of concern right now. But we walk away with our heads held high, very proud of what we did and with a lot of respect, even from those who disagreed with us in the district. And I don't think that's a bad model for politics.


    Do you think that the voters in your district changed their minds from 2008? Or do you think different voters turned out in 2010?


    I think it was a little bit of both.

    We actually did have a lot of the 2008 voters show up in our case, which is why we stayed closer than in many races. You saw a surge of people who were very concerned, particularly about the president and some of the Democratic leaders.

    So, I think people had hoped perhaps for too much to be accomplished with us coming into power. And, you know, people said, hey, wait a second. Maybe we want a little more checks and balances and a little more bipartisanship.

    But I think, at the end of the day, jobs trumps everything else. And I think what people want right now is a job if they don't have one and job security if they do have one. And they're still concerned.


    Is there something the president, Democrats, you could have done differently to change this outcome, do you think?


    Sure. I think there are many things that you could do differently, but I think we made a serious attempt. We walked into the worst economic crisis since the Depression.

    And we did something before the president was even sworn in that may be the only example in legislative history of preventing an economic depression. Now, I believe there was a chance to do something bolder, to really reinvent America's competitive advantage with a 10-year vision of how we're going to outcompete the world.

    We didn't do that. We actually went, partly because of the need to get Republican support at the time, with a much tamer stimulus, frankly, that did prevent a depression and has led to 11 straight months of private sector job growth, which is somewhat of an economic miracle.

    And, so, I do think that there's a lot to be proud of in there. But I think what people want is to make sure we're moving forward.


    The president flipped Virginia in 2008 from Republican to Democrat. Is it out — is Virginia out of his — and you not only lost. You — there were two other Democrats who lost their seats this year. Is Virginia out of President Obama's reach in 2012?


    Certainly not. You know, he was actually ahead in the poll that was run the other day.

    I think voters haven't made up their minds. I think they're concerned with what the Democrats did. They're concerned with what the Republicans did. And evidence shows they're even concerned about what the Republicans are continuing to do.

    As Marco Rubio in Florida noted, this wasn't a mandate for the Republicans. And they shouldn't over-read it in the same way that Democrats shouldn't. What I think people hoped for was an era of post-partisanship. And I think what they're getting is, at best, bipartisanship. And there's a difference.

    This tax deal, unfortunately, is an example of bipartisanship. Let's take the goodies from one side and add them to the goodies with the other side to get something through. Post-partisanship says, what solves the problem? And I think that we need to have a serious conversation about what that problem is.

    What I see in a district like mine is that we have been getting outcompeted by the world. And too many jobs have disappeared or gone overseas. And we need the kind of jobs that someone coming out of community college or trade school can support their family with. And we need a real vision for that.


    That sounds like a good plan, Congressman Perriello, but, going forward, given the hyper-partisanship in this city, is that realistic?


    I think it isn't. I mean, I will be honest. I don't come out of a party background. I didn't come out of a partisan background. And I was really shocked by the way the Republicans acted going back to January of '09, when your country is on the verge of a crisis, when a very popular new president comes in and meets only with the Republicans.

    The joke in January and February, when I first came in, was the only way to get a meeting with the president was to become a Republican. And here you were, a country in crisis, a new mandate, a rejection of really conservative ideas that had gotten us into this, and the response from Republicans was: Hey, if this works, you're going to get the credit. If it doesn't work, we don't want any part of it.

    That's not statesmanship. That's not engaging with the problems of our country. Unfortunately, I think you saw that in this campaign as well, an attempt to take — for the Republicans to take as few positions as possible, get no specifics on the table, talk about cutting spending, and then come in and cut a deal to blow a major hole in the deficit.

    So, we need to do better on both sides than we have done.


    Well, what does that bode for the future? Because I have seen a poll just in the last few days — I think — I believe a Pew poll — that said a large percentage of Democratic voters are out there saying they don't want Democrats to compromise with the other party.

    And an even larger percentage of Republicans voters say they want — they don't want Republicans in Congress to cooperate, to compromise.


    Well, you know, I think, when you look at things like redistricting and the funding of campaigns, we have real structural problems in our democracy right now that does push in that direction.

    We did make the effort in the last couple of years. And there's been a lot of talk about whether the administration went too far to the left. You had a stimulus plan that was supported by the Chamber of Commerce and Ronald Reagan's and Bush's economists. You had an approach to energy that was developed by the first President Bush and supported by John McCain.

    You had a health care proposal that was supported by Mitt Romney and Bob Dole's plan back in the day. This was an attempt to actually get beyond the old partisan divisions of either not caring or thinking government was the solution. Here were market-based solutions.

    So, I think, as we continue to put some of those next-generation ideas on the table, hopefully, people will reach a point where they say, this is the kind of substance that's going to get us there in 10 years, instead of just thinking about the next 10 minutes.


    But it sounds like, in the short run, you're not optimistic.


    Well, I think it helps to have politicians who don't mind losing an election.

    I think that history judges on a different timeline than the news cycle, with — with all due respect. And so I think that what you need is people who are interested in getting into this to solve problems, and not to survive the next electoral wave.

    I am not optimistic about this, the next two years, in terms of the sides working together. I certainly hope people will do some soul-searching and find that. You know, I hope the president will continue to lead and have a long-term vision.

    And I think we will see some of these ideas come from the outside.


    I have read that the president is interested in having you — at least talking to you about a position inside the administration. Have there been conversations? And are you interested?


    Well, you know, I'm interested in serving. And there are a lot of ways to serve.

    I came out of the nonprofit sector, where you learn to create big things with very few resources. And I have always been interested in the issue of reducing human suffering and increasing human flourishing, and done that in Africa and Afghanistan and here and other places.

    And it's just an amazing thing. This was my first time on the public sector side. I think this administration is incredibly important. I think the next two years are incredibly important. You know, China and India aren't waiting for us to get our act together on energy policy or on competitiveness.

    They are more than happy to move ahead, while we continue to fight with each other. If I can be part of that, whether it's in the administration, in the private sector, in the nonprofit sector, the question for me is, what is going to move us forward?

    And where I see opportunities to do that, I will jump. But there have been no specific conversations.


    Congressman Tom Perriello, thank you very much for talking with us.


    Thank you for having me.


    Judy's next conversation in this series is with departing South Dakota Democrat Stephanie Herseth Sandlin.

    When Congress convenes next month, we will talk with members of the new Republican majority.

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