Doggett: Keep Hope Alive

Lloyd Doggett on Trump, the future, and the responsibility of citizens

On Jan. 9, Chronicle staff writer Michael King spoke to U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-San Antonio/Austin, by phone from Washington, during the first days of the 115th Congress. For some notes on the conversation, see "Point Austin: Keeping Hope Alive." Following is a lightly edited, full transcript of the conversation.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (Photo by John Anderson)

Michael King: When we spoke earlier, at the federal courthouse, you mentioned your concerns over the future under Trump, especially internationally. What’s your sense of where things are going, under the incoming Trump administration?

Lloyd Doggett: I do think that the greatest of the many dangers that we have with Trump is on the international scene. There is the concern that he can get us into some conflicts, accidentally, through bad intent or through negligence. But I think my pressure-point responsibility here, at the moment, is to keep hope alive – making our neighbors aware that we can’t give up on our democracy, that we have to stay involved, participating, and presenting alternatives. That’s much of what I’ll be about here in Congress, much of what I’ll be about, there at home.

MK: I’m sure you’ve gotten a sense from talking to people, that people are frightened, and worried.

LD: There’s good reason to be concerned, and especially among some of our neighbors. I’m very concerned and involved in what happens to our “DREAMers.” I’m also waiting to learn if there’s arson associated with the burning of that mosque out by Lake Travis. Trumpism and the Trumpettes have certainly unleashed some hate, and have emboldened those who are more narrow-minded, that they are in the mainstream instead of on the fringe.

MK: In terms of Trump’s appointments and other moves, what do you think is the trend line?

LD: I think the appointments show the total contradiction with his so-called “populist” campaigning. I think another part of my responsibility, with Democrats in Congress, is to point out the contradictions and the hypocrisy – that says he’s going to take on Wall Street – that he’s so smart he can take on Wall Street – and then he puts a branch of Goldman Sachs in his cabinet. That’s what we need to be doing in Congress, and I think that’s some of what we need to be doing at home. We’ve got to continue to reach out to all people, and to win over some people who supported Trump.

We need to do some of what Jimmy Flannigan was able to do in organizing in red Williamson County, in turning out his voters, but also in continuing to reach out to people who might not agree with us on everything, and who thought that Trump is a solution to all that was wrong in Washington. In fact, he is a part of what is wrong in Washington.

MK: What struck me about the presidential voting, with some exceptions, is how everything finally fell into partisan lines. There was all this “NeverTrumpism” on the part of some Republicans, but when Election Day came, in voting patterns, it seemed to just disappear. He was the GOP guy, and that was that.

LD: I think that’s right, although there are some exceptions, in urban areas. I’ve not looked at all the data on Travis County, in areas I don’t represent, but I think it’s notable that Clinton was winning in Dallas County, even in highly Republican areas. I think there are people to reach out to and involve, but that Trump would not be in office had not the vast majority of Republicans come home to support his candidacy, despite any reservations expressed by people who were questioning him.

MK: On the Senate side, the Democrats might be able to peel off a few Republican votes here and there, but on the House side, you are really under siege. What levers do you think you have?

LD: Well, pausing a moment on the Senate side, the narrow GOP majority there does provide some opportunity to slow the Trump agenda, much as when the 60-vote requirement significantly slowed down much of the Obama agenda, when things were the other way around. In the House, one of the responsibilities we have, since many things will start here, is to set the stage for that Senate action.

When you look at the calendar on Senate races, the races that are up next time don’t give significant hope that we can make gains in the Senate. They’re tough seats. So our job is, make them work, show the alternatives, play up the contradictions and the hypocrisy involved, so that we engage more people all around the country, and we provide a good foundation on which Senate Democrats can block bad legislation: undermining the Wall Street reforms, the assaults they will make on environmental health, law enforcement, and all of the health care measures. I presume you’re familiar with their efforts to circumvent any filibuster by using the budget reconciliation process.

MK: Do you see Obamacare as essentially doomed?

LD: I think there is a huge gap between their ideological commitment to repeal it, and with what Trump and other Republicans have said they intend to preserve. They’ve been on this trail that they may stay on, which is to repeal it now, but defer the effectiveness and the replacement to some future date, just after the next election. If they pursue that, it’s clear that it will be very destabilizing, and have a big negative effect on the insurance market. But they have never been able to agree on what the replacement should be, and all of the replacements that I’ve heard Republicans advance would mean millions of people would lose their insurance. This isn’t a question of expansion – as with the Republican refusal to expand Medicaid in Texas – it’s a question of whether, after all these ideological votes [to repeal] in the past, they actually want to take insurance away from people. That’s what they would be doing.

So I think, sometime this week or next, Congress will vote on reconciliation, trying to lay the groundwork to destroy Obamacare, but how or whether they can actually manage their open destruction of it, remains to be seen. The odds are against us; it’s a big mountain to protect it. But the effects of what they’re doing will be so much of a calamity for so many families across the country, that if we can engage the danger of their approach, I think we can reduce the damage, if not eliminate it.

MK: Back to where we started: Do you see any particular context that you’re worried about Trump action internationally, or is it a generalized fear that he’s going to jump in somewhere and make a mess?

LD: It is generalized, but there are two sides to the model. In addition to him doing something ill-considered – as he did in relation to Taiwan and China [violating long U.S. precedent by directly contacting the Taiwanese government] – there’s the possibility that he’ll react to some insult from North Korea, and drag us into a conflict that good judgment would not have led us into. I am concerned, on the other hand, that his policies and comments with regard to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin could encourage Putin to engage in activities that really do get us involved in conflicts.

Putin heads what I believe is as much a criminal enterprise as it is a state. The things that he has done with the Baltic states – he’s done things that can tempt us into conflict. And I think some things Trump has said, and his refusal to accept Putin’s obvious interference in our election process may encourage Putin to do more of the same, to see what he can get away with, and we could get into conflict that way, just as well with a Trump overreaction to a negative comment from North Korea.

MK: If Russia becomes more expansionist, perhaps in the Baltics or Ukraine, it’s difficult to know what Trump’s reaction might be.

LD: If his policies encourage Putin, who pushes at any sign of weakness, to engage in more adventurism, it puts us in a difficult position. Another thing I’m concerned about is all the comments about nuclear weapons. There’s already too much “modernization” of our nuclear force that was going on under Obama, and there are certainly interest groups here that want us to spend more and more money on maintaining too many nuclear weapons. There have been comments, since Rick Perry will have so much input into this issue, whether he and Trump will yield to the desire to begin testing nuclear weapons. Whatever might happen there, we’re not doing things to remove our weapons off "hair-trigger" – that increases the chances of getting into conflicts accidentally. It’s almost happened a few times in the past.

So there’s a series of issues, so that getting through the next four years without a major international incident is worrisome. There are also the Iran issues – I was reading a Wall Street Journal op-ed the other day, quoting some former Bush official to the effect that if the Iranians keep getting their boats near ours, the best thing to do was to shoot them out of the water. That’s the sort of bravado that might appeal to Trump, that could really, really endanger us.

MK: His ambassador to Israel [bankruptcy lawyer David M. Friedman] is not a great sign either.

LD: Absolutely outrageous comments, to slander other Jewish groups that don’t believe as he does, as well as non-Jewish friends of Israel.

MK: What do you think we’ll look for in Texas, with retrenchment everywhere?

LD: Well, certainly on health care. I’m doing a rally in San Antonio Sunday with groups about the Affordable Care Act, in connection with this National Day of Action that Bernie [Sanders] has called for. Immigration – as I mentioned, the DREAMers especially. Even while this discussion goes on about repealing Obamacare, now we hear “We’re going to build a wall, and Mexico will pay for it … someday.” In the meantime, we’re going to make the taxpayers pay to pour concrete there, instead of where we need it, on our water and transportation infrastructure system.

All of those issues, certainly. You and I have expressed concerns about these issues before – during both the Bush and Obama days – concerns about our civil liberties, and what kind of law enforcement we’ll have under [Attorney General-designate] Jeff Sessions, and whoever else Trump involves in our national security apparatus. Everything having to do with the environment, that we care so much about in Central Texas – air, water, climate change – all of these are issues that are under threat. Tom Price, with whom I served on both Budget and now Ways and Means, going over to Health and Human Services: Their notion is, if you kind of return to the Articles of Confederation, and give all the money to the states, they’ll figure out what to do with it – whether it’s neglect basic services to poor people, or ignore the quality of our air and water.

MK: That’s what we’re hearing from the Legislature as well.

LD: I read your column on the Legislature [“The Age of Trump,” Jan. 6] – our delegation has its work cut out for it, not only in that it’s “Austin in the crosshairs” again, which happens almost every session, but just the general attitude there, which fits in well with the worst of the Trumpettes up here.

MK: Let’s talk a little bit about the controversies related to the election, culminating in this latest report on the Russian interference. There are plenty of theories for the Democratic predicament – blaming it on Hillary, or ground disorganization with the Democratic National Committee, or external interference. What are your thoughts on this, and what should be the direction of the DNC?

LD: With an election that is this close, probably all of the above is more accurate. A different strategy, Russian interference – any of this could have made the difference. It’s no doubt that Putin got his preferred candidate, and he worked hard for Trump, and he was successful. And I believe all the anger, and Trump’s refusal to accept the reality of Russian interference, reflects that he is the loser of the popular vote, and what the Russians did in interference appeared to have made a difference or Trump wouldn’t have been talking so much about WikiLeaks throughout the campaign.

I joined early on in endorsing my friend Keith Ellison; I think he’s a very able member of Congress, and would do a good job with the DNC. I’m also favorable toward Tom Perez, but I’m sticking with Keith. I think we’ve got to find a better way to engage younger voters than we have, but just getting everyone who supported Bernie Sanders involved in our party will not be enough to make us a majority. We had one previously blue county around Austin, Caldwell County, and we lost Caldwell County this time on two key commissioner races, and school board races, so that it’s now pretty much a red county. Hays County, which at one time in the past was at least purple, has become solidly red as a county, on the whole. So we’ve got to find ways there, and in Williamson, and in Bastrop, which has become more red, to take our island of progress there, our oasis of progress in the desert, and broaden it, to cover some of the surrounding areas.

As important as it is to engage younger voters, it will not be done by that alone, any more than it will be done by Latino voters alone. We’ve got to reach out and persuade some of the voters who thought Trump was the answer to all their problems.

MK: A key question seems to be the voters who just sat on their hands – whether they thought the Democrats were going to win easily, or they were disillusioned with the whole process, or angry because Sanders didn’t get nominated – whatever it might have been.

LD: When the vote’s that close, any of those factors could have made the difference. I think we need two years of trying to engage more people, to keep hope alive, reaching out to young people who are so engaged in social media, and not just social media – just “social,” of reaching out to people who might not agree with them on everything. When you talk about the party, yes we need an assessment of what went wrong. But we don’t need all the guns focusing internally, and focusing all our attention on demanding 100 percent ideological purity, and finding fault with one another. Let’s learn from our mistakes, yes, but try to expand our base, rather than having a smaller, pure base.

MK: One thing we haven’t talked about is the state of racial politics in the country. For the first time on a presidential level, we have a candidate who won on naked appeals to racism. And it worked, with a majority of white voters who either endorsed that racism or decided it didn’t matter.

LD: It’s very alarming, and there’s no doubt that Trump activated groups that we thought were in our past, or certainly were on the fringes of American society. He has empowered some of them to expand their base. We’ve got to turn out more of our people, but not everyone who voted for Trump is a racist. That’s why I say we’ve got to reach out and win some of those folks back, still recognizing that we have to fight racism, and religious intolerance as well. We still have to reach out to some of those Trump voters, and bring them home, at the same time we’re trying to turn out more of our own.

We’ll have a little better idea of what’s next later in the spring. In some ways we are hunkered down, but we can’t stay down. We’ve got to be up and active here and at home. We do have the chance, I think, to make some significant gains nationally – not so many in Texas, but nationally, in the House, in each one of these elections. It’s not like there’s a magic way that 2020 suddenly changes everything. We have to build a little each time. I hope that we can identify some state and local races that we can make progress in, in Texas. It’s uphill, but it’s still doable.

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