Ken Buck is one of my favorite interview subjects because he is very comfortable with who he is and strives to give complete answers. At one time in the interview he asked me if he had answered a question sufficiently. My primary goal in these interviews is to illustrate who the candidate is, and Ken makes that easy.
Ken's focus is to eliminate deficit spending. However, listening to what he dove into on subject after subject I think it is more accurate to say that Ken is driven to have the federal government restrict itself to performing the jobs appropriate to the federal level, and to set our tax rate to match that expense. The real common thread through all of Ken's answers was to push addressing issues down to the most local political level where they can be handled.
Ok, so on to the interview. I first asked him if he's enjoying himself. His reply was "well, no." He then discussed how he likes talking policy, meeting with folks, etc. But that the end of the primary was a lot more negative than he had expected. (Inter-family fights can be rough - we had that on the Dem side too this year.)
I next asked what is the biggest problem we face. Ken's reply - "spending is the biggest problem we face." I asked if this was more important than the economy and he replied that they are linked. That is we had spending under control then the economy would not be in as much trouble. He combined them saying "clearly we have to put people back to work, clearly we have to stop spending as much as we are."
He then said what I think defines how Ken would vote in the senate - "clearly we have to let states, local government, and the private sector take care of a lot of the issues that the federal government is trying to take care of." This fundamentally is what you will get if you elect Ken Buck to the Senate.
I next asked about jobs, specifically if there is anything we should be doing at the federal level to address our horrible unemployment problem. Ken started discussing how job growth comes from small business (very true) and that we need to give small business certainty so they are comfortable expanding. To Ken certainty is business knowing what the tax rates, health care costs, regulatory costs, etc. will be down the road.
He next discussed the problem that small businesses can't get loans. The banks have money, but they won't loan it to small businesses. He discussed how we need a counter-cyclical program where we have banks loan more at times like this and less during booms rather than having the bank lending match the economic cycles. I asked how we get this and Ken's reply was that one of the things in the financial reform bill that made sense was it puts tools in place for the regulators to get the banks to do this.
My $0.02: Lack of lending to small business is a giant impediment to recovery. Small business will be the prime engine of recovery and most small businesses cannot grow without credit. While this issue lacks sex appeal, it is critical and kudos to Buck for focusing on it.
I then brought up the question of demand. Assume tax rates are locked in and credit is available, a company is not going to hire more people if they can't sell more widgets. Ken's reply was that we unquestionably need to create jobs. He then went to the example of oil drilling on the Western Slope. Ken started by saying that while he thought Governor Ritter's new regulations had an impact, the primary cause of the decline in drilling was caused by the recession.
Ken then walked through how layoffs on the oil rigs then caused layoffs throughout the communities out there of all the people who made a living providing services to the oil workers, describing the true size of the layoffs caused by the reductions in drilling. That led to the question of how do we get the jobs back. Ken first brought up leases that Interior is sitting on (true, but there are a ton of approved leases not being drilled). He then jumped to wanting to see us drill more oil here, both for the good jobs it brings and for national security, and import less.
Ken then continued on discussing energy to say we need to look at nuclear energy, we need to promote renewables. And that this effort on the energy sector will create a lot of the jobs we are looking for to address unemployment.
I asked if he supported the idea of taxing imported oil to make domestic drilling more cost effective. Ken's reply was that he does not like tariffs because he's "a free market kind of guy." He then added that it doesn't make sense to him that it costs less to bring oil & gas across the ocean than to drill it here. He then added that he thinks the oil & gas companies and the environmentalists can sit down and effect a compromise that they are all happy with.
My $0.02: This made me feel a lot better about finding bipartisan solutions to our problems. I think you could lock Al Gore and Ken Buck in a room and they would rapidly come out with a solution that was acceptable to both, and was better from having both viewpoints involved. This is the environment we need to return to in the Senate.
I next asked if we should look at another stimulus bill. One that this time would be focused solely on the capital improvement projects that are clearly needed and not loaded up as a Christmas tree with something for everyone. Ken's reply was no - that the stimulus bill we had did not work. He then added that the way out is to stimulate small business and not to grow government. He then added that capital improvement is a one-time fix, that once you've repaired the bridges over I-25, then there's no more work to do.
Ken then dove in to the issue that we've created policies that have driven jobs overseas and if we don't bring those jobs back and remain competitive, then we will continue to face this problem. He then added a comment that I think defines the core Ken Buck - "the answer to me is not onetime government spending, as much as it is trying to figure out where, in my view this country's economy blossoms because of inexpensive energy, lower taxes and barriers to entry, than other countries." And he finished that we need to get back to that to continue to being a manufacturing country.
Next question was should the Bush tax cuts expire. Ken replied that they should be extended. I then listed out how the Bush tax cuts are 1/3 of the deficit, that Medicare, Medicaid, & defense alone lead to a deficit, and as a balanced budget guy where will he cut spending (and it would be deep) and/or increase taxes to balance the budget. Ken's reply was that we need to grow our economy because that is the only way to increase revenues. He added that raising taxes sends jobs overseas and leaves people here with less money to spend, further impacting the economy.
Ken then discussed reducing what the federal government does, and by so doing also reducing the cost of running the federal government. But on the programs he lists, he is not discussing ending them, he wants to see them moved back to the states. Ken does not see the federal government as the solution to most problems. He specifically brought up pushing education back to the states. He also brought up that a robbery of a bank is handled by the FBI while a robbery of the 7-11 next door is handled locally.
My $0.02: I think this is very illustrative of Ken's view of government. He's not saying government should stop providing services it presently provides (although I am sure he can list some things he thinks should end). Instead his focus is on figuring out which level of government he thinks is appropriate for each service. And call me crazy, but I agree with him that the local police can handle bank robberies.
That led to my asking him if he thought our tax policy favored the rich. He replied "no" but then went on to discuss how the big problem is that the tax system is way too complicated. And because of that complication everyone figures no one is paying their fair share. He then brought up Paul Ryan's plan for tax simplification where the only deduction is number of kids. Ken then brought up how we spend $200 billion a year on filling out our taxes and that doesn't manufacturer a single additional widget.
I next asked how do we fix the K-12 system. Ken sees a very important role for the federal government where it can support research on what works best in the classroom and promulgate the results of research out to schools. But he is opposed federal requirements and funding such as Race to the Top an NCLB. He then added that competition is the best way to find best practices and the combination of public, charter, parochial, private, and home schooling provides the innovation that we need.
Ken then spoke directly about how our educational system is not presently providing what we need for our economy and our country. That we need more scientists and engineers, but that it needs to be accomplished locally. I asked if the educational system can reform without federal pressure. Ken said "yes." He started with he doesn't blame teachers at all for what's going on. He sees the core problem that parents have not been involved enough, and that he thinks Michael Bennet would say the exact same thing from his experience at DPS.
Ken discussed the fundamental need for a parent (usually the mom) to be fully involved in the child's education. To attend every parent-teacher meeting, to ensure homework is being doe each night, etc. That this engagement is key to the child's success and it can only be encouraged at the local level. As D.A. Ken would at times sit down and talk with the parents of kids in trouble and he would lay out for them the difference in their child's future earnings based on if they graduated high school, if they graduated college. And he would see a light bulb go off in the parent's mind as they realize the impact education could have for their child.
Next up was Ken's independence. It's easy to say one is independent and will not vote a straight party line, but the key is what will be done in the Senate where party line votes have caused major gridlock. I asked if there was an Obama policy that he agreed with and would have voted for. He said that was a difficult question and he couldn't think of one. He then talked about the financial reform bill which had parts he liked although because of weaknesses in it he would not have voted for it.
Ken spoke very highly of the parts of the bill that will institute counter-cyclical lending and that it addresses to some extend the trading of derivatives. He described derivatives as "a very scary situation that is lingering out there that could send us into another tailspin." So he clearly sees the danger of derivatives and that the reform bill did not fully address that danger.
The weaknesses? That it ignored Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae and he is concerned about the nebulous independence of the consumer financial protection agency. Ken discussed at some length how its governance is like the Fed and he does not like agencies that do not clearly report to the executive branch because they can become runaway agencies.
So I asked if there would be an issue where he could see himself voting with the Dems to stop a filibuster. Ken thought about it for a bit and then apologized saying he didn't know. He clearly saw this as a possibility but couldn't think of a specific case where he would disagree with the Republican leadership. This took a humorous turn when I brought up the example of a case where could he take a position where Mitch McConnell wanted to have him shot. Ken said absolutely and added that Mitch McConnell was not a big Ken Buck supporter. Nor were the rest of the GOP Senate leadership.
Ken brought up the very fair point that the Republicans are every bit as much to blame as the Democrats. He said that if he had been in the Senate during the Bush administration he could have pointed to numerous things. But now with the Obama administration, suddenly the Republicans are fiscal conservatives and so they've moved to his position.
My $0.02: I don't know if Ken will ever vote with the Dems on a filibuster. But if he does, while outwardly he will be very serious and thoughtful speaking to the Republican leadership, deep down inside I think there will be a part of Ken Buck that has a giant smile on his face. I think Ken will vote his policies, not his party. But those two will line up most of the time.
That led to asking if he thinks the filibuster or individual hold rules should be changed or eliminated. He thinks both should be retained. He first started discussing the genius of our government being designed so that it is difficult to change things. That this inefficient balance of power makes for a better government. Key to this is "the Senate is where bad bills go to die." (Unfortunately it's also where good bills go to die.)
Next up was health care reform. I asked if there was anything he could see the Senate doing over the next 2 years when legislation would have to meet Obama's approval, but funding could be restricted by the Senate.
Ken started going big picture saying that a Republican Congress will make Obama a much more popular president. He went back to Clinton where the first 2 years were his toughest, and then we had 6 years of Clinton/Gingrich where between that conflict we had a better outcome. He also saw the same advantage back in Reagan/O'Neill. He sees the same thing happening next year.
Ken then dove in to addressing health care costs. He first brought up tort reform, wanting to change the approach. He thinks medical courts should be considered where medically expert judges would streamline that process. He thinks we need more done in the area of portability. He then brought up one that could be gigantic, giving the tax benefit to individuals to match the tax benefit that goes to employers which would then increase competition.
That third one could have a major impact so I asked if that could get through Congress. Ken answered this by saying part of the problem was we had this gigantic bill that they were in a hurry to get through (I'm sorry but a year is not a hurry). Ken Buck things the Senate would work much better if the bills were broken out into individual bills on each specific piece of a problem and those pieces were then clearly debated. He thinks this would not only lead to better policy, but it would make it much easier for the American public to understand the legislation moving through the Congress.
My $0.02: Maybe they can find a compromise between reforming the filibuster/individual holds and instituting a single subject rule. One of the main reasons for these gigantic bills is the effort required around each bill moving through the Senate. If you're going to break one bill in to many, then each bill has to move through faster with fewer speed bumps.
I next asked about illegal immigration. He started off talking about the present situation where we have a need for labor where we have not regulated it and it has put a disproportionate burden on many communities. He then discussed how whenever there is a need in America it will be fulfilled (hey - free enterprise works!) just as there is a demand for drugs in America that leads to sales of illegal drugs. He then said we need to work on the demand side of these problems (illegal drugs, immigration, etc.).
So step 1 for Ken Buck is get people into this country legally, much more quickly, with a verifiable card that has biometric info. And at the same time there is a need to secure our borders. He then discussed making it easier for companies to determine if an applicant was a citizen or legal worker. (Not a word demonizing illegal immigrants and not a word about amnesty.)
I next brought up the example of Emma Sky on General Odierno's staff and asked him, who is his insurgent? His immediate answer was his wife. (I've found about half the people I interview give this example - an engaged spouse that differs with a politician is, I think, a superb positive in many ways.) He then said that he was in the U.S. Attorney's office as the conservative voice under a Clinton appointed Attorney. He went on to say he has not decided on Senate staff yet, but there will be Democrats on his staff so he is hearing a diversity of views when making decisions.
He also volunteered that on the campaign trail he has talked with a number of Democratic candidates that he has a huge amount of respect for. And he will talk to them about issues. Ken says he likes talking to people from differing viewpoints because he is never 100% right and in talking through issues with others he would see where ideas he had could be improved. He concluded with "I don't want to just talk to people who want to suck up to me or who think the way I do."
Next question, I asked what in 6 years will be his biggest accomplishment from his first term in the Senate. Ken's reply was "I tried my hardest for a constitutional balanced budget amendment. I tried my hardest to eliminate spending. I tried my hardest to create a federal government that really co-existed with the other levels of government." He then followed up that he doesn't think the odds are good for the constitutional amendment, but that the debate will help address deficit spending.
He then followed up that he is going to find a way to make things work back in D.C. That they need to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable. But at the same time, they have to get the federal government to a size that makes sense.
My $0.02: I think this illustrates what Ken is going there for, to find a way to work with others to craft a solution that reduces the footprint of the federal government and matches spending to tax receipts.
My final question was on abortion. I asked that as we have a wide range of opinion in this country as to at what point a fertilized egg becomes human, and fundamentally this is an opinion or belief, how would he like to see this legislated. Ken replied "I recognize that most Americans disagree with me. And I recognize that the worst laws are laws that a small group tries to impose on a majority." Ken then talked about the effort he is involved in to provide a place for pregnant women to stay while they take the baby to term and then keep it or put it up for adoption.
Ken then added "we need to change the hearts and minds of people on abortion before we're ever going to have a law that is accepted in this country." Ken brought up the very valid point that he does not duck from the issues so when people ask him his personal opinion on abortion, he tells them what he thinks. But his record of effort is to provide alternatives. He concluded saying this is not an issue he is running on.
What do we get with Ken Buck? Number one is that he will be focused on pushing many jobs the federal government does back to the states and local government. And that is something an individual Senator can have some impact on bill by bill. Number two is that he will be focused on reducing our deficit. He's not volunteering to raise any taxes to do so - but no elected official campaigns with a promise to raise taxes, that's our political environment today (which speaks poorly of us voters more than of the candidates).
I also want to speak of what Ken Buck is not. He is not a drown the government in a bathtub proponent - he wants to move programs to the states, not end them (although I'm sure he can name some he would end). While he is personally socially conservative, he does not want to impose his social mores on the country.
I do think he will look for common ground with the Democrats. The filibuster has made the Senate unworkable without compromise. I think Ken will be open to that, except on the issue of deficit spending. But that's a big exception since most legislation is about spending money on something. On the flip side, we Democrats are going to lose a couple of seats in the Senate and so significant compromise will be required and Ken will definitely not be a lapdog to Mitch McConnell.
Finally, Ken Buck consistently tries to give people direct answers to their questions. This means at times, with afterthought, he realizes he said something dumb. We want our politicians to be spontaneous, honest, and authentic. When they are they are also imperfect and inconsistent - because they are human beings. My hope is that campaigning as he does is rewarded not penalized.
Recording of interview at Ken Buck Interview (very end).
Follow David Thielen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DavidAtWindward