Senator who almost held out on Clinton offers advice
It was 1993, and a former rival from the previous year’s campaign held the president’s first-term agenda in the balance, serving as the last vote on the ambitious domestic policy agenda barely six months into office.
The senator hemmed and hawed, sometimes hiding out, before finally rising to speak.
“President Clinton, if you are watching now, as I suspect you are, I tell you this: I could not and should not cast a vote that brings down your presidency,” Bob Kerrey, the Nebraska Democrat, said in early August as he provided the crucial vote to pass Clinton’s economic plan.
President Trump could learn a lot from how Kerrey made the final decision to support his party’s president on a major vote early in his term. It could provide guidance on the current battle to find the 50th vote for the floundering health-care legislation or the even tougher legislative efforts to come on taxes and trade.
Trump has struggled mightily with this aspect of his job.
Rather than rallying GOP senators around common cause, Trump often uses his Twitter feed to talk about Republicans as if he’s not even a member of their party. In a highly touted White House meeting Wednesday, Trump belittled three Senate Republican holdouts, seeming to threaten their political futures, and he castigated another, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), for making too many television appearances.
“The problem is: He thinks the way to get something done is to start off by insulting them,” Kerrey, now working for a Manhattan investment bank, said during a 30-minute telephone interview last week.
Kerrey, who won the Medal of Honor from his service during the Vietnam War, recounted how it took an enormous pressure campaign to win him over despite his complaints that the economic proposal focused too heavily on tax increases and not enough on spending restraints. His closest Senate friends let him know that, if the proposal failed, nothing better was waiting in the wings on a bipartisan approach with Republicans.
One of the central tensions, similar to today’s Washington clashes, was the feeling that an early failure on such a big proposal would derail the rest of Clinton’s first term.
It’s the sort of loyalty play presidents have made for several generations to recalcitrant would-be allies from the same political party, but one Trump is particularly bad at now. His Republican resistance comes from a bloc of senators who refused to endorse his presidential bid — including Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Dean Heller (Nev.) and Rob Portman (Ohio) — along with Paul, a former GOP presidential primary rival.
Trump’s dismal popularity does not help, with last week’s Washington Post-ABC News Poll putting his approval rating at 36 percent.
But those conditions are not all that different from what Clinton faced in the summer of 1993, when his stumbling start left him with 43 percent of voters approving of his performance.
But one by one, the holdouts sided with Clinton, and finally the entire fate hung on whether Kerrey would deliver the 50th vote and allow the vice president, Al Gore, to break the tie and pass the agenda.
In some ways, Kerrey serves as a composite sketch for today’s Republican holdouts against Trump and his health-care overhaul. Kerrey was a first-term senator in a state drifting from his own party, much like Heller, and he was a war hero along the lines of Sen. John McCain (RAriz.), who has also hesitated to embrace the GOP plan.
Kerrey had run against Clinton in the previous year’s primary, and this had become a running undercurrent in the coverage, as it is now with Paul and Trump.
Kerrey lost most of a leg in Vietnam, and news coverage contrasted his war hero status with Clinton’s efforts to avoid the draft. Kerrey said, then and now, he was not trying to sabotage Clinton’s presidency.
Moreover, given the trajectory of Clinton’s entire two terms, Kerrey said it is ridiculous to see that 1993 proposal as a definitive point if it had failed.
“That was an exaggeration. That wouldn’t have brought down his presidency,” he said.
Still, Clinton did his best to make Kerrey believe the failure would signal a collapse of his presidency. “If I don’t get this, I’m just going to go back to Little Rock,” the former Arkansas governor told Kerrey, according to the Nebraskan’s recollection.
There, things get confusing. One historical account has Kerrey cursing out Clinton, but Kerrey swears it was the other way around. Kerrey’s account is he made a joke that Little Rock was an option for Clinton, but the president responded with a forceful curse. And then he hung up. The courtship didn’t end there. As he told The Post’s Dan Balz in an interview a day after the vote, Kerrey began as a “solid no,” but White House officials kept working him.
And despite the clashes with Clinton, Kerrey appreciated the president’s deep knowledge of the policy — quite a contrast to Trump’s grasp on details.
“He knew it cold. He knows policy backward and forward,” Kerrey said of Clinton.
When Kerrey finally decided to vote yes — “I just thought that’s the best we could get done” — he wrote his speech and decided he needed space.
He went to Union Station’s now-shuttered movie theater and watched “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” By himself. “It was just much easier to cast a difficult vote then than it is today,” he said. “If it was today, there would’ve been someone in the movie theater with a phone.”
Kerrey won a final concession. Clinton agreed to appoint a commission to study the longterm cost effects of entitlements. He returned home, fought hard and explained why he voted to raise taxes in a state trending Republican. He won by 10 percentage points.
To those wavering senators today, the former Navy SEAL has very succinct advice on approaching big votes.
“Don’t be last, and don’t be afraid,” Kerrey said. “They’re not firing live rounds.”
“The problem is: He thinks the way to get something done is to start off by insulting them.” Bob Kerrey, former Democratic senator from Nebraska, on President Trump