Dave Brat has represented Virginia in the House of Representatives since 2014. He ran an anti-establishment campaign in the 2014 Republican primary and defeated then House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a stunning political upset.
This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk conducted on Jan. 11, 2018. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Let’s start with election night. Where are you? What do you think Donald Trump’s chances were? And how did it feel as he started to win, and ultimately won?
Yeah, I’m not a late-night stayer, but in Richmond at home, I was watching it. I kind of had more of the idea that he had a pretty good shot at winning, just because a couple years before, I had a big win, and the best pollster in the country had me down 30, right, and I won by 10. So that’s a 40-point swing on people that just weren’t captured, right? So I didn’t have any utter confidence that he was going to win, but I knew how off the polls were on this new type of voter. And I’m from Michigan, so, you know, the [Sen.] Bernie [Sanders (I-Vt.)] thing that people have misread kind of the election, it was—they think it was just a Trump thing. It was Bernie all the way through Trump, and Bernie had that kind of economic populist thing going, too.
Trump had it over here. And I taught economics for 20 years. The big thing, when the middle class hadn’t had a wage rate increase in 30 years, wages have been flat for 30 years, that’s probably the most important issue. So if that thing has legs, those two candidates, I think, would win, right? I would have bet my money on Bernie. …
Then, on our side, Trump had that populist economic thing, and for me, that’s always number one. I mean, it’s the economy. So I held out pretty good odds for a win, even when everybody said no.
And when he won, much to the surprise of at least the leadership of the Republicans, the leader of the Senate, [Mitch] McConnell (R-Ky.), the leader of the House, Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), big surprise, and maybe a big bonus, but also some things to worry about with this particular Republican president.
Yeah. Well, I don’t think we were ready to roll. You saw it, I think, most openly in the health care piece. Now the feedback from the Republicans is, “You had seven years.”
But wait, don’t get ahead of me. That night, when it’s over, that next morning, when Ryan says, “Finally a unified government. This is what unified government can do. Watch what we do,” what were you thinking personally? And what do you think the Republicans, the party was thinking about the new guy?
Well, I think everyone was ecstatic and just had the basic Republican platform outcomes in mind. We’re going to do Obamacare the first day. That was kind of the promise: Repeal Obamacare day one. And then we’re going to do tax reform and deal with immigration issues and get the economy humming along, get rid of regulation. And everyone thought, hey, we own all three branches, so boom. But now, I mean, it’s much tougher.
But don’t go now. You’re back then, so let’s try to live in that narrative, if we can. You’re thinking, all right, here we go; we’ve got our agenda—for seven years we’ve been talking about doing this; we’re going to go. Any worry about the fact that Trump was not an experienced guy, that he was a kind of wild card about where he was politically?
No, no. President Obama didn’t have any political experience, so from the Democrats’ point of view, it’s not an issue. You know, Trump ran big organizations. You know, he hired a bunch of guys that have major managerial expertise, the Treasury and OMB [Office of Management and Budget] and all these kind of things. We all know how it runs, right? The machines all run on separate kind of engineers, run at each piece, so the politics meant, how do you bundle it all together? How do you set an agenda? That piece was still to be seen. Back then, there was still way more question about, “Hey, how are Ryan and McConnell and Trump going to get along?” That was a question back then.
What did you think? What was at stake? What were the questions? Let’s take Ryan, for example.
Yeah, just the big pieces. I mean, Ryan and McConnell would have had just more the orthodox party-platform pieces, Obamacare, this, but not so much the immigration pieces or the other stuff Trump ran on—you know, the wall. And the trade piece was going to be a huge—you knew that was going to be a huge, contentious piece. It’s just commonsense back then. It was kind of well-stated. Everybody knew where the rub was going to be.
Were you worried at all about the relationship between Ryan and Trump?
No, not really. I think the American people wanted to see. Again, that thesis from Bernie through Trump, it was a repudiation of the swamp. Everybody—and Paul Ryan has got expertise on policy; he’s a policy wonk. And Trump is going to break open the swamp, right? So if you put those two together in the right way, that can work out pretty well. You’ve got policy expertise and someone who’s going to crack things open, and I think that’s what the American people wanted to see, and still do want to see.
Were you happy with that first press release? What was your response to what felt like Reince Priebus will be the chief of staff and Steve Bannon will be my chief strategist? When he offers both of those up early, what do you think he’s doing?
Well, he’s doing what he always did. In the private sector he would, from everything I’ve heard—I’m not an expert on the biography, but I heard he would pit his chief VPs against each other. He likes the tension. He likes the ideas popping against each other. With that, you’re going to have some ideas popping against each other, so I think that’s the way he likes to roll.
Now give me a little sense of what’s going on inside, right before we start health care, a little sense of what’s going on inside the Republican [Party], the GOP itself. You guys have come up from Tea Party to—you, especially, with the big surprise victory of vanquishing [House Majority Leader Eric] Cantor (R-Va.). And then [Speaker of the House John] Boehner (R-Ohio) goes away; Freedom Caucus exists. Give me a sense of the lay of the land inside Ryan’s caucus just before he begins the Obamacare repeal.
Yeah, hard to summarize. But in the [Republican] Conference, pretty much status quo. But you’ve got the addition of President Trump in, so everyone’s trying to analyze, what does that mean? Which way does this go? And it is interesting, because everyone kind of saw that the president might help with their agenda, right from the Tuesday Group to the Freedom Caucus to whatever. So it’s interesting, right? He’s from New York; he’s from New Jersey; he gets that world. He’s into the Freedom Caucus idea on some of the core issues and doing what you promised the American people you were going to do.
It was kind of status quo, but with a big new variable, and everyone was kind of trying to see how does that new variable fit into our agenda and my agenda, whatever? At first, people were kind of jockeying, and now that’s kind of gone. We’re kind of in a good spot right now. It’s kind of unified right now. And lately we’ve had 218 votes across the last CRs [continuing resolutions], only Republican votes, so it’s been interesting.
Now, Ryan decides to go with health care. Were you involved in any of the early conversations in any meetings and any other things where there were arguments about whether we should start with health care, or was it always health care from day one?
Yeah, no, it was health care from day one. I think that was one of our goof-ups, was the health care product we proposed wasn’t the health care product in the Republican platform, which talks about using the free-market aspects as best you can up here in the swamp, and then even the better-way agenda. So we put a huge federally run health care piece in place again. Leadership popped that up, so they put that thing together. We had seven years, and all of us should have been involved in producing that product. But leadership gave us the thing, the Freedom Caucus, a bunch of us. I was in the Conference. I asked Paul, just straight up, I said: “Is this thing going to lower price? If it doesn’t lower price, I can’t be for this thing.” And he said, “Yeah, that’s the whole objective.”
But then, when that product ended up being scored, it didn’t lower price. So I was a no on that piece, and several other people weren’t happy with that product. But then Paul, to his credit, let us weigh in, and we improved it, and price went down. It’s tied to regulations. It wouldn’t get rid of the Obamacare regulations, so you have a premium product—platinum, gold, silver. Sounds neat. It’s the Cadillac coverage for everybody. But now that the premiums are about $30 grand in Charlottesville for a family of four, and the deductibles are like $9,000, when the average person has $400 in savings, so I just knew that’s not going to work, right?
So he creates a kind of PowerPoint. It’s almost like: “Forget whatever you guys in the Freedom Caucus thought. I’ve got this idea. I’m going to make it happen.” The president doesn’t know anything about the details, so he’ll sell it, I guess, for us. But I’m going right at it, and these guys will all—it’s almost like he thought these guys are going to fall in line with me, because we’re the Republicans, we’re in charge, and we’re going to—
Is that how it kind of felt to you? It was like it was being rammed through?
Yeah. Well, no. We don’t like that. I mean, we don’t like it when it’s a kind of leadership bill, and you had back then the language; you had a binary choice, yes or no. … You’ve got to remember, I represent 800,000 people. So does everybody else in the Conference. You know, three weeks to analyze one-fifth of your economy. That’s a $3 trillion or $4 trillion bite. That’s the fatal conceit in high economics. The fatal conceit is to think a little finite mind can capture one-fifth of the economy and the relations between infinite number of actors and put that in your mental calculator. No one can do that, and that’s the failure of central governments from the beginning of time.
I knew it wouldn’t work. It’s not working now. It’s all blown up. And we were going to emulate parts of that. That didn’t work. So yeah, a bunch of us weren’t happy. We knew the logic would blow up, costs would still go up, and it wasn’t a long-run solution.
Why was he pushing it?
Well, it did a bunch of other pieces. There were some Medicaid reforms. The entitlements are $100 trillion unfunded right now. Medicare and Social Security blow up in 2034, bankrupt, upside down. So if you don’t solve those, the kids get nothing. They’re going to get a haircut, 20 percent cuts right off the bat in 2034. He’s an expert on that stuff. He’s very good, policy-wonkish on knowing these long-run programs aren’t sustainable. They’re not. So he was trying to fix some of those in the health care bill itself, so it was achieving some good. But the health care, the price of health insurance is the big deal. A kid still can’t go out now, or then, or any time, and buy a catastrophic package after college. They can’t afford it. That’s an easy way to summarize what’s wrong.
So basically, the thing you wanted, one of the big things you came to Congress to do, you finally have a chance to do it, and it isn’t actually happening the way you want it to happen. How does that feel?
No, it’s very frustrating. And you’ve got—I mean, on that one we had reconciliation. You only needed Republican votes. We had 52 in the Senate at the time, and the House. The Senate ended up—obviously, in retrospect—being the total block on all of this. So in the tax package, we had 2-2-2, right? We had the Gang of Six, and we preconferenced together on what a package that could pass would look like. We did not do that on health care. On health care, we had our House project, and then the Senate couldn’t get to yes on anything in retrospect. If we would have started from the beginning together and said, “What do you guys need that you can actually pass?,” which was—
So why didn’t that happen?
I don’t know. That hurts our brains. Just because we assumed—
What do you mean it hurts your brains? What does that mean?
Well, it’s just you assume if you run on the Republican platform and commitment to some free-market competition in health care, so you don’t have mini-monopolies in health care, which is what you have regionally—you’ve got-mini monopolies across every state in the country, even back then. Now you really do. And we wanted to break that up, because it’s broken. So you assume that’s the error; you assume the Senate is going to do something logical or rational. And by the end of it, they couldn’t. But we had a Madison Avenue tagline, you know. We were calling it a repeal of Obamacare, but it didn’t do much at all. Then, at the very end, we got to block grants for the states. That I was more open to, because at least it gets it out of our hands.
The president, meanwhile, while you guys are wrangling, and you guys are certainly saying, “This guy, he’s pushing a lot of other stuff; this is not what I signed up for,” the president is, who has, at least the way I can read it, a natural affinity for the Freedom Caucus—he and [Rep. Mark] Meadows (R-N.C.) talk to each other all the time—but the president is looking at his watch and saying: “I need to win, and I need it fast, guys. What are you doing, going down in the details of this? I need something now.” And he’s trying to—I’ve watched closely—he’s trying to chip off some of you guys, from the—“Oh, come over for dinner. Let’s go bowling. Let’s do this.” Was he trying to chip you off?
No, sure. He can’t conceive, as a firm—if you think about us as a firm or a nonprofit, you have a mission statement and then objectives. If you’re the CEO, you’re not down at the VP level doing micromanagement of the policy pieces. You’ve got the brains that are supposed to bring that up to you. So he’s saying, “You all said repeal of Obamacare for seven years,” and if you’re the CEO, you’re going, “Well, that’s what we’re going to do, so I’m going to compromise, but that’s what we’re going to get, right? Right, guys? Right, team?” When you’re the CEO and that doesn’t happen, it’s a little frustrating.
At the end of the day, on the House bill, the Freedom Caucus was opposed because the price didn’t go down. We got a few communiques from the president, and they were loud. And that’s OK. …
Very loud. That’s the way this city operates. And we just said: “Mr. President, just so you know, this doesn’t repeal Obamacare at all. It doesn’t get rid of the regs. No one is going to have lower health insurance premiums under your watch for the next eight years if you do this.” And he goes, “Well, fix the regs.” And the Freedom Caucus put that in play. Then we did fix it as much as we could. But that was hugely politically hot, too.
Right. So Bannon, for example, goes over, issues a kind of ultimatum. What did you think of that? What did you make of that?
I didn’t know what to make of that. Yeah, he said, “You’ve got to just vote for the health care bill.” I’m like, “Well, we’ve got people telling us that every day.” That’s OK. I mean, everyone can say what they want to say.
What did it tell you about Bannon and about the president in terms of just lack of experience, I guess, if nothing else?
I don’t think it had to do with lack of experience. I think it had to do with the failure on our part to have a product ready to roll. That’s what I’m saying. If you’re the CEO, and your mission statement and your objective statements are all clear on paper, which they were, and then you don’t execute what’s on paper, that’s not the CEO’s fault; that’s the Senate’s fault. They couldn’t fix the problem.
And the CEO comes in and gives a push to Meadows and says, “You know, we”—I know he’s joking, but maybe not, “You know, we could primary you. You’d better get into the game here with me.” What do you make of that?
I don’t know. Mark was just laughing. We all get along. He does a lot. He’ll push the rhetoric and the narrative. But you can tell in the real world, if you’re dealing with a New Yorker, I don’t know, you can tell who’s really ticked at you versus someone who’s ticked with a smile on their face. We’re all people, so you look at it, and you go, “OK, I know what’s going on.” We all share. So it didn’t change the substance at all, yeah.
Yeah. So when Ryan comes down and goes over to the White House and says, “We’re going to have to pull this bill,” how hard do you think that was for Paul Ryan, and what did it say about his leadership?
Well, there were just so many balls in the air right now. We’re starting to learn what was going to be acceptable to the Senate, and then it was tough. We would have liked to [have] had a win right there, right up front. So it’s tough. But Paul, to his credit, he said the Freedom Caucus made the bill better, and we added some stuff. So it wasn’t like we were saying no. It was just like, it’s got to be something that lowers the price, and he acknowledged that. He says, “If the health care bill doesn’t lower the price of health care”—it was going up at 20 percent back then, and you cannot have one-fifth of the economy doubling in price every five years, 20 percent blowup. I mean, it’s catastrophic.
This is the moment when Trump in one meeting says, “I had no idea this was this complicated.”
Right, right, right. No, that’s right. And it blows your mind up here how complex it is. You’re given the House and the Senate and the White House, and yet the press often deals like the Democrats have leverage with eight votes. They say it to us every day, on every issue. “Well, you’ve got to do what the Democrats do. You know, you’ve got to compromise.” I said: “It’s fine. Let’s compromise. But it should proportional to eight votes. That’s fine.”
One of the things that a lot of people we talked to love to talk about is the Rose Garden ceremony after, when it’s a little premature to be having a big ceremony, but maybe not. What do you make of that Rose Garden moment? Were you there? What was it about? Was it a little premature? What was it, exactly?
Well, it’s just clearing one huge hurdle. I don’t read too much into the substantive thing, but yeah, you clear one hurdle. But in hindsight now, it’s cleared the only hurdle that matters is the Senate on anything. So you just look—what have we gotten done this year? It all depends on the Senate. We got a budget done; Senate couldn’t do it. We passed 12 approp bills; Senate couldn’t do it. We did health care bill; the Senate couldn’t do it. It’s just a litany.
But what about the optics of the new president standing there? He needed this to look like a win I guess, right? And you were all happy.
Well, it was a win. It was a win—you got it through the House. And back then, I did think it would get through the Senate still. I mean, I was nervous. OK, we’re going to go to Conference, and the Senate centralizes power every second it can get. So I wasn’t optimistic about the shape of the compromise in Conference. But we thought we were going to have a win.
Meanwhile, in the towns and the cities all over, and in those town meetings, those town halls, it’s a little bit like ’09 all over again, the summer of ’09 all over again. Man. And you guys are getting the heat now. Tell me about that.
Well, there’s just a huge reaction. I had town halls with people in churches swearing and lobbing F-bombs at the pastor while he’s giving the opening invocation, if that helps set the tone. I’d try to finish sentences on health care, etc., whatever. Folks were just—I mean, there was resist movements and paid activists with green and yellow cards and placards of what to say. If you say that, then the press says, “Well, you’re putting down your constituents,” because I don’t think there’s a fair play on the press these days. That’s what we were facing. People were saying, “You’re going to take away health care from millions.” Like, I don’t know anyone that can access their health care right now in a meaningful way. Is that accurate? “Rah! Boo!” It’s hard to have a rational dialogue. Still is.
But there’s a thing that happens as a result of it, isn’t it? It’s a feeling, I suppose, for some Republicans, especially people who are worried about re-election, people who are in different kind of districts, “Oh my God, oh my God, what have we opened up here? What Pandora’s box have we opened up? And what is happening in the country that we missed when we started down this health care repeal-replace road?”
I don’t think it was health care. I mean, I shook hands. I had the resist movement and the protesters around the building. I went outside the building; I shook hands with every single one of them. I said, “What’s going on here?” I said: “You know me. I don’t buy what you’re yelling at me. I don’t think it’s really aimed at me. What’s really going on?” They said: “We’re just ticked at ourselves. Hillary lost. She should have won, in our view. We’re ticked off at ourselves. We were lazy. We’re sitting at home. Didn’t work hard enough on it. And we’re totally ticked, and we’re going to take it out on you.” So I was like, “Well, thanks for your candid—”
Well, if I’m you, I’m a little nervous about an activated Democratic base all of a sudden, right?
Well, sure, right. No one wants to see that. But the deeper reality is they were angry at themselves. And if you look at the fundamental issue of Obamacare—that supposedly is what all the angst is about—do they have a fix on paper anywhere that you’ve seen? No. So you can be mad, but then, OK, what’s your policy fix? They said we should fix it, and the fix they want is just more funding, CSRs [cost sharing reductions] or whatever, payments to prop up a failing system. Well, that’s not a solution. So if they have a win-win bipartisan fix, I’m all open to that.
So then something happens with President—I mean, Leader McConnell takes it off and closes the doors, and 12 guys rewrite it and make eventually what becomes called skinny health care, and we’ll get to that in a minute. But the president meanwhile, talking to them, it feels like to me and maybe to you, sells out the Republicans in Congress and says: “This is mean. This was a mean bill.” How did that feel to you? I mean, you guys worked hard on it, and here it is, characterized by the president of the United States [as] “It’s mean. Let’s do something better than what these guys did.”
Right. No, I mean, it’s a rough world up here. You’ve got kind of your policy world, then your constituent world, then the media world, and he’s in the media world. So he’s like: “The media is saying this is mean, so fix it. Don’t make this a mean bill. Make this a loving bill.” And he’s telling the Senate, you know. …
What do you mean he’s in the media world?
Well, he’s huge. I mean, his whole background, he’s very media-savvy. He’s just saying what he’s hearing in the mainstream press: “This is a mean bill.” The mainstream press is trying to impeach him since day one, so I don’t think it’s any shock that they’re in opposition to every policy piece that we deliver. And he’s just saying: “Look, here’s what I’m hearing. Fix that. It must mean something, so fix it.”
How did that feel to you, though? You guys worked hard on this.
No, I don’t—
You’re a realist.
Yeah. No, it doesn’t hit me.
Yeah. When [Sen. John] McCain (R-Ariz.) puts his thumb down, how was that? Tell me about that. Did you watch it on television? Did you hear about it the next day?
Yeah. No, we were all watching that.
Tell me where and how and under what circumstances.
Oh, I think we were just in the offices individually. I don’t think we knew exactly when that vote was coming up. I can’t recall. But yeah, no, we weren’t confident of it in the first place. We weren’t sure. We were just watching it that day. And it’s thumbs down, and it’s like, oh, my word. They can’t even—and what was that on? That was on the skinny bill? Is that right? That thumbs down was just on a skinny bill, right? That wasn’t even close to a repeal. It just signaled the Senate is just so far off-course to us. And then you know what you’re dealing with. I mean, they can’t vote on a Madison Avenue tagline bill, right, that wouldn’t have made fundamental changes in the health care system. So yeah, no, we were ticked off, but more ticked off that it just showed the substance of what we’re going to get done with the Senate right now.
What was your guess about the response at the White House by the president at that inability by the Senate to pass at least that?
Oh, just the same. He’s in a tough pickle there, because he needs eight votes, and they’re failing, so he’s ticked off at them. But if you get ticked off at them, then they’re not going to vote yes, right? It’s tough. You’ve got a couple, you know, [Susan] Collins in Maine, and up—and McCain. And they’re tough—a couple of tough votes, [Jeff] Flake (R-Ariz.). I don’t know if he and Flake were in a tussle back then, but that—you’re right. There’s personal dynamics going on there. And then [Bob] Corker (R-Tenn.), you know. He was trying to push them to do the best they could do without ticking them off too bad, you know, and you’re going to need them in the future.
What do you think, Congressman, about Trump and tweeting? His response to the defeat is, he goes after McConnell really hard.
Right, right. Yep.
What do you think about the president of the United States doing that as a device?
Right. Well, I went to Princeton [Theological] Seminary. He’s a Presbyterian. I always—if the press asked me on personal stuff, I never get personal. I say, “I don’t do personal stories.” You’ll see I don’t do these drama stories in The Atlantic or whatever that always want to do these profiles. I say, “You can ask me any policy question and anyone’s view on a policy, and I’ll give you my view. And if that rubs over on the personality side, that’s OK.” But I wish he would do more dancing and have fun on the policy side. It’s clear he likes that. He loves the media world. He gets his message out to whatever it is, 40 million people direct. I mean, you don’t want to give up that. That’s a huge advantage.
My little Presbyterian bias would be just keep it to the policy, not to the personal, because the personal stuff, it just blows up in unanticipated ways. And then the media blows it up every day, and that becomes the story instead of our policy pieces.
You know what happens, if you go back and chart it across the timeline, that’s the late summer, July 27 or so, and it’s almost like he realizes what you’ve said. It’s a monster policy in Washington, getting it done, moving it around. Even if you’ve got the House and the Senate, the moving parts are just too complicated. The gears all don’t just fall into place. There’s Ryan; there’s McConnell; there’s the Freedom Caucus; there’s the Tuesday Group; there’s the mainstream group; there’s the this, the that. For this guy, as you say, who comes in with a CEO mentality: “Wait a minute. I run the company, right? They all work for me.” Well, of course, that isn’t true in America. It almost feels like he walks away from policy over that summer and on into the fall and says, “Wow, get me out of here.” And he’s up in Bedminster [at his Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey], and he’s doing “fire and fury” about North Korea, lots of other stuff that’s happening. But he’s not in the policy world. He stepped away. And as always happens in America, some challenge is presented to him that’s right out of the blue, no preparation for it, no understanding of it, and that is Charlottesville. Boom, right?
And his response is, whatever his response is, it’s policy that’s explaining it, because when he responds in any way, it’s policy.
But he’s not. It’s not legislative policy; it’s an American attitude. It’s a Republican, all of you Republicans. It’s your CEO responding in a way that causes a convulsion even inside the party. Tell me about that. What do you think the stakes were? Let’s start with what you think the stakes were in Charlottesville. What were the implications of that?
Yeah, well, the context of Charlottesville is the context for everything, right? So you’ve got the Democrats and the left have the hype at the town halls we talked about. They’re trying to impeach the president, so there’s your backdrop. And then you get an explosive event with these white skinhead neo-Nazis. I went to seminary. They’re the exact opposite of everything that Republicans believe in. The Nazis, by definition, wanted a fascist total state, yet Republicans want a small federal state. I mean, I wish the president would go more at the policy angle there and just explain, very slowly to the American people: “These folks, the KKK, they’re not Presbyterian; they’re not Christian. They don’t love their neighbor as their self.” Go through the policy, the Judeo-Christian tradition. Madison and Jefferson out of my district believe in religious toleration across the board. These guys don’t. I said all this on CNN and Fox and whatever the day after.
That’s what I’m saying. I’m a Presbyterian. I wish he would get deeper in that, right? He believes in the country and the American values, but when he articulates it, he’ll just go boom, right at the thing. I wish he’d do a little bit more dancing around the intellectual scaffolding that made this country great. And then, on the fascist piece, [that] is easy to just blow up because it’s just evil. I think he’d be better off if he would get into that more historical, philosophical piece, because I think he agrees with everything I just said. But then if you just, boom, get into the debate between these people yelling at these people, who’s going to sort that out? They still haven’t sorted it out, right? The police are still—there’s the city council and the police. They’re sorting that mess out, because it was just a total mess.
Why did he do what he did?
I don’t know. That’s—just ask him. I mean, I never—that’s why I don’t do personalities, because I’m—you know, I’m not a shrink.
The implications of what he did to the party, to you?
Well, we’ve just got to mend it all, and to the party, that’s—I always emphasize the party platform. And so our—for me, I’ve said it throughout the whole interview, that’s what matters. On paper, we got it all right. We just have to message way better—“Here’s the principles we believe in; they’re embedded into our policy”—and just keep it going, right? Because there’s a war. The president and the media are going to be in this war forever, so I don’t see that going away, so you’ve got to show the proper context for where do all these hot issues fit into our philosophy. That’s the way I view it.
A couple days ago I interviewed Jeff Flake for a while, and he said he’s had many problems with Trump. That’s his own issue. And he articulates them well, just as you’re doing. But he said it was at that moment that he really felt he had to break with the president. He and other United States senators wrote and said: “Absolutely not. This is not what we stand for.” And I said, “Why?” And he said: “I was worried about the stain on the party itself. I wasn’t worried so much about Jeff Flake, senator, but I’m in Arizona, and maybe I’m OK, and maybe I’m not. But I’m worried about the ongoing stain of the party not being the party you’re talking about, the party of Lincoln, the party of all the good things that have happened since then.” And he said that that was the thing that really led to—and Trump’s response to him and other Republican senators was just—and then he said: “Oh my God, what are we into here? We’re beyond a CEO who doesn’t understand the details. We’re in something a lot deeper, a lot stronger. And the party’s survival is at stake at a moment like Charlottesville.”
Yeah. It’s a tough one to navigate, so you want to put forth the best principles that we believe in. That’s why I say the fascist KKK elements—he’s a tough New Yorker, right, and I honestly believe, if you look at his family back, the being in New York his whole life, no one’s come for the anti-Semitism charges [that] were leveled at him. His family is Jewish, right? I mean, a couple—son [son-in-law Jared Kushner], daughter [Ivanka Trump], etc. It’s just this press interplay.
I think the press pops it on him all the time, without looking at the charges made against him, [which] are equally evil in my view. The press wants to say, “He says this, this and this, and it’s off-key and off-color.” And that’s true. But the press is doing the exact same thing they’re accusing him of doing. … The golden rule goes both ways. Do unto others as you want them—so do you want someone calling you anti-Semitic when your kids are Jewish? And just on and on—KKK, and first he was a Russian spy. This applies to all of us, too, right? We’re all being—for months I was labeled every name in negative thing. I went to seminary and taught kids ethics for 20 years.
So we have a problem with the culture, and the press doesn’t spend enough time saying: “What are we teaching our kids in K to 12? What philosophy do we teach?” The answer is zero. Now the cultural left is in charge of all the elite institutions. They’re in charge of K to 12; they’re in charge of higher ed. Go to Harvard, go to a philosophy brown bag some day, and have a nice little chat, and you’ll see who’s in that room. If you bring up the Judeo-Christian tradition, the rule of law, free markets, you’ll get laughed out of the room for believing in the very things that made this country so successful in the first place. If you bring up the fact that Martin Luther King had a Ph.D. in Protestant theology, which is my background, they’ll go, “Well, that’s cute, but what about justice?” No, that’s what made the man. And these pieces will get clipped out of most media accounts. So hopefully, when I’m going through this long, detailed, foundational stuff, it gets in the piece, instead of just the quippy “Oh, there’s a political war, and there’s a drama” and whatever.
I always, on immigration issues, same thing. I open every comment [by saying] I love every person in the world. They’re all children of God. That always gets clipped. And then onto the war, right? If the media does its job and does the news instead of opinion pieces constantly, by editing and clipping out people’s true foundational views, I think that would help the country a lot. I think the press can help solve some of this thing. It’s a two-way street.
Let me ask you this other question, not in this territory, but I think you said it well. That summer, last summer, Flake, Corker, by now 30-some other Republicans [are] walking away from the process, not only because of Trump, obviously, but because of the changes in the way that things are working, so that by the end of the summer, by heading into the fall, by heading into [Alabama judge and senatorial candidate] Roy Moore, by heading into all of that, it feels like the party itself, there’s a kind of part of the party—experience, the establishment, whatever—walking away; that [there’s not] room maybe in the Republican Party for some of these people, Flake, Corker, those kind of guys. What is your thought about that? And what does the party lose if it actually does have 30 or so establishment figures walk away in the next year?
Well, it’s devastating for us. If you compare it to when we started this timeline, we were utopian, right, so that’s not where you want to end up. On the other hand, the Senate can’t get its act together. I’ve gone through that whole timeline, right, 12 approps bills. We’ve got several hundred bills waiting over there for them to do Republican policy. They won’t do it. They face-planted on health care; we got a bill through. You can kind of say, you know, there’s this Trump tension or whatever, but there’s also an utter failure to execute on behalf of the Senate, and that part never gets treated.
They ran on very concrete stuff on paper, repeal of Obamacare, on and on, and all of the policy stuff. They failed to execute, right? So it’s a two-way street. But I think that part always gets left off. It’s like, “Oh,” like there’s always some dualistic version of all these good people walk off into the thing, because there’s the—no. That’s not exactly true, either.
In fact, if I was a member of the Freedom Caucus, and maybe a former member or existing member of the Tea Party, if it still sort of exists and is vibrant, this is a good news. A lot of people are going to get elected in a lot of these seats who are more closely aligned with your politics than Jeff Flake’s politics or Bob Corker’s politics. Yes or no?
No, we don’t really view it that way. It’s just more—say you had two or three pickups in our direction. That doesn’t change anything. The Senate rules, the 60-vote cloture stuff, is self-imposed. It’s been around 40 years. It’s not in the Constitution; it’s not fundamental. And they choose to go forward with this kind of stuff. They’re slow-moving, plodding. They’re like royalty when they walk in—we’re supposed to bow and this kind of thing—into our chamber. They’re with the laurel wreaths and etc.
So you would think, if you ran for six [years], you might have a little more spinal cord tissue, not less. We have to run every two and do the hard stuff and keep our promises. They run every six. It’s like, come on, guys, we need some help over here. That’s [how] we view it, more that way. It’s like, come on, guys. We’re friends with all of them. We’re friends with all the Democrats. We work out in the weight room. We bust each other’s chops. They’re all good people. None of this ever gets reported. We all get along on that personal level.
People say, “Well, the Freedom Caucus hates this.” That’s absolutely false. [Rep.] Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) and I probably go head-to-head on policy. We’re good friends, and it just never gets covered.
Yeah, Charlie is one of those people leaving, isn’t he?
Will that be a big loss?
Sure. I mean, he’s a very smart guy. And people come from their districts, and I don’t judge people in their districts. We just had [Rep. Rodney] Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), the head of Ways—not Ways and Means, the head of Approps, take a tough vote for his district on the tax thing, and people said: “Well, what do you make of that? He should lose his gavel.” And what I said, “No, his job is to represent 800,000 people.” And there were other folks out on Long Island, delegates, [Lee] Zeldin (R-N.Y.), etc., great guy. He had to vote for his constituents. Then when I vote for my constituents, I want the same respect, that hey, I’m not going off; I’m doing exactly what I promised I would do on paper, and what I promised my constituents I’d do. And they are, too, I think.
That’s the way it’s supposed to work, right? The idea that there’s total unity, where we have a diehard bloc of Republicans that always do this, that or the other thing, it’s just not reality.
When the tax bill is passed, a lot of people were saying there’s a civil war inside the Republican Party, and the Republican Party is about to fall completely apart. Suddenly the tax bill is passed, and there’s that ceremony at the White House, where everybody is standing on the steps and everybody is thanking Donald Trump for everything. What does that moment signal to you? … A lot of people talked to us and said, they’re just papering over the real fundamental problems. The chickens are going to come home to roost on Obamacare and on everything else soon enough. But for that moment, that snapshot, right before Christmas, it’s wallpaper.
Yeah. No, it’s fundamental. That’s why I came here. The press, the pundits, the economists, [Director of the National Economic Council] Larry Summers, the [former] head of the World Bank, [former president of] Harvard, everything is totally wrong on everything. Everyone—we can never get past 2 percent real GDP growth. We’re at 3. The Fed has us going to 4 next quarter. How did that come about? There’s expectations and economics gains, not known for being a right-winger, talk about the [Keynesian notion of] “animal spirits.” Consumer expectations are at their all-time high, business investments at its all-time high. Real GDP growth is at its high for a 20-year period. The stock market is—
So what does that all tell you?
Oh, it’s real. It tells me that it’s real. Then you’ve got a million people with $1,000 pay raises announced already; it’s less than a month after. What it tells you, the press—JFK, by the way, right, I just always go back to fundamental—JFK is the one who said “A rising tide lifts all boats.” He did tax cuts. He got growth. Camelot is remembered warmly because you had some GDP growth, right? Reagan is remembered warmly because of GDP growth. So it is real. And that can help pay for the deficits and health care, etc., if we get it going. And most importantly, I ran on getting kids jobs, right? I was a college prof for 20 years. Kids are going to have multiple job offers now. That’s the most important thing in my world. And if you looked 10 years ago, kids were getting out of college, and they’d go be a whatever, [barista at] Starbucks, etc., for the first job instead of following their passion, their dream. If this economy now provides those kids an avenue to have real success, I’m lit up. I’ll be totally pumped.