A Conversation with Howard Baker

Don’t label McCain, says the former Senate Majority Leader.

The AI talks presidential politics and the state of the Republican Party with the former Senate Majority Leader.

AI: Good morning, sir, and thanks for talking with The American Interest. As one of the four former Senate Majority Leaders who sponsor the Bipartisan Policy Center, you’re in a friendly place with us.

Howard Baker: I know it and I’m ready, so fire away.

AI: First of all, what would a McCain Administration look like, if Senator McCain were to win the election? Without speculating about specific individuals, what sort of cabinet officials would he be inclined to pick?

Howard Baker: Well, the first thing to remember about John McCain is that he is not afraid of strong people. I suspect, then, that the people he would choose would not necessarily be mirror images of himself or his philosophy. Rather, he would select and admire them because of their ability and their predictability.

AI: Some have commented that, at least on the foreign policy side, Senator McCain has a mixed group of advisers—some traditional, Scowcroftian, realist conservatives, others more idealist neoconservatives—leading them to wonder what McCain himself really thinks. Journalists have asked me, “Who’s John McCain? How should he be labeled?” And my response is that, judging from his record of both words and deeds, you can’t label the man.

Howard Baker: No, you sure can’t. That’s right.

AI: But still the question remains: What kind of intellectual or strategic framework do you think that a President McCain would bring to the Oval Office?

Howard Baker: You’ve already touched on the answer: McCain would be very much McCain. He would listen to his own beliefs. He would not be afraid to have people around him with differing views. He would be able to take into account those views, and formulate his own position without creating schisms or great controversy.

AI: Do you think his background in the military would make any difference? You’ve been in the Navy, so you know something about what the military is like. Some suppose that people with military experience, and combat experience in particular, would be quick to draw and shoot, and I’ve heard several Obama supporters make that argument against McCain. But my experience of such people has been just the other way around: It’s the civilian officials who don’t always understand the full implications of using force.

Howard Baker: That’s right. I agree with that, absolutely. I knew McCain when he was just out of the Navy. He was assigned to the Senate as a liaison. I was the Republican leader at the time, and he was assigned to travel with me overseas. I had a chance to get acquainted with him pretty well, and his judgment is sound, his instincts are good, and I think he would be a balanced, careful, but decisive chief executive.

AI: Another question we have heard a lot concerns how much continuity or discontinuity we would see between a McCain Administration and the Bush Administration, in terms of either domestic policy and foreign policy. Clearly the Democrats are trying to pin “continuous” on him, while he’s trying to break away, call for change, and pin “discontinuous” on himself. How do you think it would play out?

Howard Baker: I have no idea; it seems to me it will depend in part on the unforeseen challenges that will arise. I do know that McCain is very much his own man, someone capable of charting his own course. He’d be mindful of precedent, the positions of the past, both Democrat and Republican. But he would certainly have the leeway and the determination to do his own thing. He himself would not pursue a platform of continuity or discontinuity for its own sake.

AI: Your mention of Democratic and Republican precedent raises the issue of bipartisanship. I talked to Senator Chuck Hagel a few months ago, and he made the point that people in Washington have become more interested in assembling political coalitions than governing coalitions. I remember that as Senate Majority Leader you dealt with Senator Brock and Senator Sasser and most of the time you found a way to create governing coalitions to get things done.

Howard Baker: That’s true. They were good men, pretty easy, by and large, to deal with.

AI: It seems that those governing coalitions are rarer today, and that a bitterness of spirit has grown within our public life. Would a President McCain, then, be wise to create a bipartisan cabinet, in the interest of dispelling some of that bitterness?

Howard Baker: I think that would be his instinct, and it would be useful. But I don’t think it would be a driving force. Bipartisanship is a good thing, and it is very desirable if it is effective. But it’s not necessarily the best way to address every issue. To go back to Barry Goldwater: I was not a big fan of Goldwater, and I probably was defeated in my first race for the Senate because of Goldwater and his positions on many things, including the Tennessee Valley Authority. But he made a point back in 1964 that remains very relevant today. A conservative view, even a dogmatic view on a matter of principle, is not necessarily bad if it is in the interest of the country, if it is the correct course to follow.

AI: If Senator McCain loses—and that’s certainly in the realm of possibility—what kind of loyal opposition would the Republicans constitute over the next four years? Who would be the Republicans’ opposition leader, if not, as seems unlikely under the circumstances, McCain? Others might play that role, but it’s not clear who they would be, since the GOP is divided in many ways, both on domestic policy and foreign policy.

Howard Baker: Well, first of all, traditionally the presidential nominee is the titular head of the Party. That is, he is nominally the head of the Party, but actually, almost never is he the real leader. Sometimes it is the leadership of Congress; sometimes it is someone independent and separate. I don’t know what McCain’s position would be, but I don’t believe he would aspire to lead the Party under those circumstances.

AI: Just one more question, if you don’t mind.

Howard Baker: There’s always one more.

AI: Yes indeed there is. Let me preface the question by noting that you’ve had an unusually rich career. Not only were you in the Navy and not only did you serve as Senate Majority Leader, but you have also been a diplomat as U.S. Ambassador to Japan, and you even haunted the Executive halls of the White House for a while as President Reagan’s Chief of Staff. So you’ve seen our government from about every side there is to see it.

Howard Baker: I did those things, sure, but I never meant to do any of them, except of course for the Senate. But I’m glad I did.

AI: Since you’ve earned such a well-rounded view of the U.S. government, I’d like to ask you this: If you had to put your finger on one thing that’s broken right now and needs fixing in our country, something that a new president, either a Democrat or a Republican, would have a chance to address, what would that one thing be?

Howard Baker: I’d say the hostility between the Parties is the most difficult thing to deal with, and perhaps the most dangerous. I think that someone has to convince the country and the political establishment that politics is not a game. It is not about keeping score. There can be hostility and controversy, sure, but it should not always be warfare. I think back to President Washington’s Farewell Address, in which he warned against the development of factions. He made that point and had tried to act on it as President, and it wasn’t until after Jefferson that we got into this mold. I don’t think we’re going to change now, but I do think we need to understand that there must be a decent respect for the other fellow’s point of view. Politics is a serious business. It’s the only instrumentality the American people have to express their views, and it must be preserved as a functioning entity.

AI: Thank you, Senator. Now the American people can read for themselves what Howard Baker knew about the McCain Administration, and when he knew it.

Howard Baker: You’re most welcome.

Appeared in: Volume 04, Number 2 | Published on: November 1, 2008
Senator Howard Baker from Tennessee was Senate Minority Leader from 1977-1981 and Senate Majority Leader from 1981-1985.
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