CNN’s John King Interviews Senator Jim Webb

October 1, 2010
Washington Ideas Forum

washington ideas forumKING: I had a whole list of questions for Senator Webb. Then we were talking behind the curtain, so I am going to rip this up and throw it out. But I will start with what we’ll call the chief political questions of the moment, and then we’ll move on to bigger issues.

When we gathered here a year ago, the theme was the first draft of history. We were nearly a year into the new administration at that point. You like to write. If you were sitting down at the typewriter right now writing a history of the first two years, what would the verdict be?

WEBB: I prefer to work in longer increments than two years. I think the country is clearly in a crisis. The political process is being justifiably questioned. We’re going to have to see what happens over the next couple of years in our participatory democracy.

KING: One of the debates is, in 2008, Barack Obama carries your state — the first Democrat to do that in four decades — one of a number of red states turned blue, if you will. If you look at these states this year and the race last year, those states seem to be trending back or at least having a debate about which way they want to go. Are they doing that because this administration overreached, maybe over-read its mandate?

WEBB: Let me be fair to both sides, I hope, and do this in the context of the Senate, because it is the environment in which I have been working and which, quite frankly, most people believe is pretty much dysfunctional right now.

I believe that the Administration should have brought a different set of issues to the table when it first came in. We were seeing the momentum of two years of a campaign creating political promises and a sense of responsibility to move forward on issues like health care and climate change. But then at the very end of the campaign the economic crisis hit us, and people were looking at a different set of issues. I think that putting health care reform on the table the way that it was presented — an enormously complex issue without a clear set of principles coming from the Administration — was an error. I think it affected the credibility of the White House, and quite frankly, it tied us up. We had the mandate to try to fix this without a clear set of principles. I said this to the White House sixteen months ago. I think that caused a great deal of the frustration people were feeling. They saw the economic downturn affecting not only their every day lives but potentially the future of their families, and we were in this situation where this health care reform debate was bubbling up through five different congressional committees without a specific legislative framework.

So on the one hand, we could have done a better job–or the administration could have done a better job–of putting up issues that were directly related to getting the economy back on track, for instance, infrastructure projects that would have increased employment. Those are jobs that would have happened here and would have affected things that people see every day.

The second thing that happened was that it became a clear bet by the Republican Party from day one that they needed to show that the Democrats could not govern. This was all directed at the 2010 elections. So we weren’t coming together on issues that normally we could have come together on. This is going to play out on both sides, I think, in terms of how people look at what happens in 2010.

With respect to the Senate, itself, I think that people need to understand what a filibuster really is. We got tied up by a small group of people on the Republican side in terms of moving anything forward. In terms of how a filibuster works, it’s not simply that you need 60 votes; it’s that when you have to go to a filibuster, you can tie up the entire Senate process for a week.

I’ll give you two clear examples of that. First of all, we had in Virginia one of the finest jurists that I think we will ever see: Barbara Keenan. She had held all four judicial circuit positions in Virginia and was a justice on the Supreme Court of Virginia. Politically non-controversial, she actually swore in Governor McDonnell (R-VA) when he became Governor. We had an opening in the federal Fourth Circuit that had been open for two years. We moved Barbara Keenan’s name forward. We got filibustered, and that meant we lost 30 hours of debate in which nobody showed up. So you could turn on your TV see what’s going on here. The Senate floor looks like a gold fishbowl when these sorts of things happen. I went down to the floor and said, “I’ll bet you there won’t be two negative votes.” And there were none. So we lost 30 hours of precious time by a deliberate slowdown, and Justice Keenan was confirmed 99-0.

The second example is the criminal justice reform issue which I’ve been working on for three and a half years. We brought in 100 different constituent groups from across the country to perfect this legislation. We have a total buy-in from all three of the major law enforcement organizations, plus the ACLU and the Marijuana Project, if you can believe that! Everybody is on the same table for a criminal justice reform issue. We got the companion bill through the house. Even Lamar Smith, a very conservative Republican, was a co-sponsor. And we can’t even get a vote in the Senate. We can’t even get a vote on something like that because of the minority’s ability to object. So we are a paralyzed process. People deserve to be angry about it.

KING: So what’s a big idea to fix it? If the Founding Fathers loved the filibuster, but in today’s age, you think it’s overused or misused, how do you fix it?

WEBB: There is a function for the filibuster. The way that our Congress was designed, they say, is that the House is where you get things done and the Senate is where you keep things from getting done. But the filibuster has been overused, and I think people need to understand that. Maybe the democratic process, itself, can help put pressure on the people who were misusing it.

KING: I want to ask you another question or two about domestic issues. Then I want to talk about foreign issues with you. There’s a debate in this town still – and it’s a rippling debate out at elections across the country about TARP. A lot of people voted for the Wall Street bailout, as a lot of the American public would describe it. Look at the record. Yes, it was controversial, but the financial system is relatively stabilized and eventually the taxpayers will break even or maybe make a buck. Was it a good idea?

WEBB: Let me address that in three separate components because it also goes into the paralysis of the process when you get to point number three.

Point number one: Should we have voted for it? We got a phone call September 19, 2008, where Secretary Paulson and Chairman Bernanke got all the Democrats on the line, and they said, “If you do not do this within the next two weeks, the world financial system is going into a cataclysmic free fall.” It’s the most serious phone call I have been on under the most serious issue that I have seen since 9/11. I spent the next ten days calling people from across the political spectrum trying to understand if this was really as bad as they were saying. The idea was to put this $700 billion in to strip out the toxic assets– the assets they could not value at the time–from our banking system in order to allow liquidity to occur and get ourselves going again. On the weight of the advice that I was receiving, I said, “Yeah, this is real, and we need to do that.”

So I voted for this. Then they didn’t do what they said they were going to do. Secretary Paulson left town. They didn’t strip the assets out. They allowed this money to go in and make whole the financial institutions. And the bonuses moved forward. So a lot of people, including myself, felt like we had been ripped off in terms of the credibility of that vote.

I then introduced a piece of legislation based on an idea I saw in the Financial Times – this wasn’t some ultra left idea – to say that the executives in the institutions that received $5 billion or more in this bailout should pay a one-time windfall profits tax on their bonuses. Not on regular compensation but on any bonuses over $400,000. I thought that was fair. Somebody driving a truck or a nurse working in the hospital had to throw money in to bail these people out. They made good bonuses. I couldn’t even get a vote on that on the Senate floor. Neither party wanted to touch that issue.

That’s really what the third point is. Quite frankly, the way that money affects the political process sometimes paralyzes us from doing what we should do.

KING: One more bold political question. If the American people make a judgment that Washington is broken and the Democrats have been in charge for two years (or you could argue at least from the congressional standpoint four years) and decide their answer to that is to send a whole lot more Republicans to Washington DC, is that an understandable verdict? I didn’t say, “is it a fair verdict?” Is it an understandable verdict?

WEBB: I would hope they take a really good look at the candidates that are running and make up their minds carefully. That’s the way our process works.

I wrote a cultural history on the Scots-Irish people. It took decades to put this book together. My family was part of this. They came from the lowlands of Scotland, over into Ulster, were trapped in that environment, settled the Appalachian Mountains and became a big part of the Midwest and the American South. When I look at the Tea Party, I can trace this back to the Scottish Kirk during the Protestant Reformation, when they created the notion that any individual has the right to protest against their government if they believe that what that government is doing violates their conscience. Don’t get me wrong here, the Tea Party hasn’t done me any favors, but I can understand the sense of anger of the people in the movement.

KING: Do you think it’s a lasting force or a fad?

WEBB: I think it’s part of a big bellwether culture in this country that sort of moves from one party to the other but never really affiliates directly with either party. I think it’s part of a long-term force in this country.

KING: Let’s move on to some other pressing issues, and I’ll start with what is a domestic issue which is a result of a recent policy challenge. There are six or eight Iraq Veterans I keep in touch with that I met over there or after they came back. Each to different degrees is dealing with PTSD, traumatic brain injury, injuries in a previous war that would have probably killed them, but thanks to the increases in medical science, they’re alive. Do you think the country has its mind and will have its money around the generational challenge 25, 30 years down the road of keeping track of these people and taking care of them?

WEBB: Well, first, as you know, I grew up in the military. I served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam. My brother was a Marine. My son served as an enlisted infantry Marine in Iraq and had hard combat time. I was the first Vietnam veteran to work as a full committee counsel in the Congress many years ago when we did the pioneering work on post-traumatic stress.

I think we’ve got a pretty good handle on post-traumatic stress disorder today compared to 30 years ago when the Vietnam veterans were going through it. It’s not totally a question of how much money will be there; it’s a question of making sure that people get the right sort of counseling and do not feel stigmatized.

When I came into the Senate, I introduced an amendment called the Dwell Time Amendment. At this time in 2007, we actually were sending our ground units into Iraq and Afghanistan for longer periods than they were even at home. The historic ratio was 2 to 1: if you’re gone a year, you get two years back. The Army was moving into 15 month deployments with 12 months back. In 2007, I was trying to say, set aside your politics; this isn’t a political issue. You can’t keep doing this to these people because of the long-term emotional risks. Our amendment failed but we put the issue up there. Now the ratio is a little better than 1 to 1.

So many of the issues our troops are facing are the result of constant deployments. There’s no magical counseling or program that can take away the difficulties that brings people – when you’re never really out of it. You’re deployed and then coming back getting ready to deploy. We’re paying the price for that.

KING: Does Senator Webb see a clear exit strategy in Afghanistan?

WEBB: No. In fact, I raised the issue with General Petraeus. I raised it with Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen when we first began this. I said, we are at risk here of defining our success in two areas that we can’t really control. One is the success of the political system over in Afghanistan, in an environment where their history does not really lend itself to serious national government. The other is growing the military and the police force to the appropriate size when the history of national armies in Afghanistan doesn’t exist. I think before what we’re trying to do right now, the largest national army in Afghanistan was about 80,000 people.

I’m holding back on any specific recommendations until after the December review out of respect for what our people are trying to do tactically over there. I would always support that. But we need to be able to understand from the Administration very clearly what political objectives are going to be accomplished, and I don’t think they’re really talking about that.

KING: There’s a panel that will either be right after us or two after us that will talk about the current political paralysis and negotiations in Iraq. How would you label Iraq? Is it a success? Is it a victory? Is it the best we can do after a horrible start? What is it?

WEBB: Well, I would say with some regret –and I said this before the invasion – that I do not believe the invasion itself was a strategic necessity for the U.S. We saw, in real terms, a short war if the objective of the war was to take apart this hostile regime. Then we saw years of an occupation basically attempting to separate all the sectarian violence.

Five months before the invasion, I was trying to warn that if you weren’t careful, you were going to (1) empower Iran; and (2) get us stuck in Iraq for the next 30 years. There are always going to be sectarian difficulties in Iraq. My view is that we do not belong as an occupying power in that part of the world and that 50,000 troops won’t hack it. We really need to reach the point where we have withdrawn our military from Iraq. The difficulty of course is that you can’t withdraw in a way that would further destabilize the region. But we need to withdraw, and we need to signal that is our clear objective.

KING: Let’s close on Southeast Asia—specifically the Pakistan challenge. There are more tensions between the United States and the Pakistani government, between the Pakistani military and its own government and some people are making the dire prediction that the government in Pakistan could collapse.

WEBB: Pakistan itself is enormously worrisome in terms of its political structure. It is a country that has nuclear weapons and also a country that has elements that encouraged the creation of the Taliban and continue to support them.

You have a second problem in Pakistan related to the number of people we now have in Afghanistan. I raised this issue well over a year ago. We have this odd situation, seen very rarely in history, where the more people you put in Afghanistan, the more vulnerable are the logistical lines that go through Pakistan. They say, “Amateurs talk tactics and professionals talk logistics.” You saw an example of that in the last day or so where there was either a deliberate or accidental overflight into Pakistan. Three Pakistani soldiers were killed and then a dozen supply trucks going into Afghanistan were blown up inside Pakistan. We have made this growth of our forces in Afghanistan vulnerable to a logistical supply line where we cannot have the American military in these convoys. It’s a very delicate situation.

KING: Do you trust the government of Pakistan as a partner?

WEBB: I’ve had a number of discussions particularly with Admiral Mullen about that, and I was one of those who basically said we have to see more transparency in terms of the money that’s going into Pakistan. This is something that Admiral Mullen and his people would deal with better than you or I, but I would trust we have provisions in place with respect to the security of the nuclear weapons in Pakistan.

KING: We’re out of time here, so let me ask you lastly for this group that will be back here next year, we assume, for another conference to talk about big ideas. What will be the big idea that we are talking about a year from now?

WEBB: Boy, that’s hard to say. As you can tell from last year, a year is a long time in politics.