Mudflats Chats: Paul Begala on Pebble & Democrats
I sat down with Presidential adviser Paul Begala, and asked him his thoughts about the proposed Pebble Mine project, Senator Mark Begich, blue lawmakers in red states, and what it really means to be a Democrat.
One of the lead advisers to President Clinton, Begala and James Carville shaped a moderate campaign agenda that focused on balancing the budget and creating 22 million new jobs.
I’d been told that Begala is an avid hunter and fisherman, and has been fishing near Bristol Bay. So, I knew where I wanted our conversation to begin – with an issue that is of the heart, and a political deal breaker for many Alaskans across political boundaries.
Devon: Do you know much about the whole Pebble Mine controversy?
Begala: Oh, yeah.
Devon: So, tell me what you think about it. What’s your take?
Begala: Well, it doesn’t sound like a good idea to me. I’m someone who comes here to fish, but also, I buy your fish. I do think it’s strategically smart that Senator Begich is saying to let the science play out. Let’s follow the science. Because we say this on lots of issues, and it’s usually conservatives who then say we don’t want to follow the science, we want to follow the political science. And so I think that’s being consistent. My own belief is that the science is going to show that this is a bad deal.
Devon: Well, the EPA came out with their assessment, and it seemed pretty clear. I consider that to be “the science.”
Devon: They’ve basically come out and said that even in the best case scenario, you jeopardize this fishery. And of course with the fishery goes 17,00 jobs, and a whole way of life…
Begala: Right, and that’s the nice thing from the progressive side of it. Because, often there’s this false choice that’s given to us between jobs, and the environment. And the truth is that the pro-environment position is generally the pro-jobs position. And I think that’s clearly the case here. But I do think it’s prudent to say let’s be rigorous and get all the science out. I think you’re right. I think the science is going to show that this is a bad deal. It’s bad environmentally, it’s bad economically.
Devon: And it really already has. I consider the EPA to be the final word with that. So, there definitely are people here who are a bit puzzled as to what science is actually being waited for.
Devon: And I think in Alaska, this is a very clear win. It’s not just a progressive position. I think the latest figures are somewhere in the neighborhood of 68% of Alaskans with a clear position against this mine.
Begala: Right. It’s not just some boutique thing with some obscure species we’ve never heard of. It is the lifeblood of the state. The summer we came up here fishing, we went to Seward, into Resurrection Bay, caught a bunch of fish, shipped it home, and I ate so much salmon that year that my cholesterol went down. We ate it like three times a week. There were six of us, and I think you could take four each that year – silvers. And my doc said that when I went for my annual check-up.
Devon: So remember, Alaska could have saved your life.
Begala: Yeah! So, it’s good all the way around. And I think that’s really an important point for people to drive home. I used to have this sort of dichotomy. Years ago, I worked for Frank Lautenberg who just passed – the Senator from New Jersey. He was a great environmentalist. And the distinction that he made was that we need to be “people environmentalists,” and not “species environmentalists.” What he really meant, because he was an urban guy from an urban state, was that we have to try to show people how this affects their lives. If you get up in the middle of the night to get your kid a glass of water, you want to make sure that’s something that you can bet your kid’s life on. In New Jersey, that’s how it works.
Here in Alaska, the species are the people, in the sense that the people depend upon the species for their livelihood. It’s not some snail darter, or horned frog, which I’m all for… but like in Texas where I grew up, you get a lot of that – “Do we really have to not have this entire ranch, or feed lot, or development because there’s some obscure frog here?” And that’s the way it’s often couched in Texas – some obscure species you’ve never heard of vs. human beings. Here in Alaska, the whole thing revolves around that.
Devon: It’s an easy sell.
Devon: And I think it is an easy sell for the nation as well. It isn’t just a local Alaskan issue. It affects so much of the wild salmon that people are able to buy. And I think it’s something that Alaskans cannot do by themselves, because we’re up against powerful forces. And if it’s left to the 700,000 people in this state against these huge moneyed interests, it’s really an uphill battle.
Begala: Well, you have lots of allies that way. There are lots and lots of people who fish. The “hook and bullet environmentalists,” as we’re called, we cross both parties. My brother who I hunt with and fish with all the time is a member of the NRA. He’s a small businessman who lives in Houston. He is not a liberal. He is not a Democrat. But man, if you cross him on his access to take his girls and boy hunting or fishing, then you’ve crossed him. And he’s very pro-business; he’s a businessman. But that’ s the kind of coalition I think that the Pebble Mine helps us create.
Devon: You obviously have tremendous experience with red state Dems, and getting them where they want to go, so when you look at Alaska, do you see it as sort of a typical scenario? Are there any issues here that don’t translate to the other four or five critical Senate races?
Begala: I’ve been in all 50 states I’m proud to say, and the truth is that many of them have become homogenized. And I love everywhere, but is Kansas really that different from Nebraska? Well, yeah, kind of… but not really. Alaska has its own culture. It’s unique; it’s powerful. I now live in Virginia, and it kind of has its own distinct thing, but it’s not really that different from North Carolina. But it’s a swing state.
If you look at things in Virginia, I do think that politically it is very different here. There’s a much stronger libertarian streak here, which is both left and right. So, if my cousin wants to marry her partner, that’s not the government’s business – and I think a lot of Alaska conservatives would agree with that position. In Virginia, where the Moral Majority was founded, most conservatives would say, “No, no. We can’t allow my cousin to get married because she’s a lesbian.” And I do think it is different here.
Devon: So, in terms of Senator Begich and Alaska, what are the tough spots as you see them?
Begala: Here this is probably more powerful than anywhere else – the distance between here and Washington, literally, figuratively, politically, attitudinally is vast. And I think that one of the strengths he has is that he’s very much Alaska’s ambassador in Washington, rather than Washington’s ambassador in Alaska. It’s not like he’s coming back here and saying, “Oh, yeah. Things are great in Washington. Let me just show you how wonderful everything is.” It’s the other way. He’s coming there and saying, “No, this is how it’s actually working in my state. This is what’s going to happen to rural airports if the sequester goes through. This is what’s going to happen to my veterans if these budget cuts go through. If the military has to go through this sequester, it’s going to kill huge bases in Alaska.” And I get to see that.
I meet very frequently with Harry Reid and the other leaders, and Mark’s one of them. And so, I get to see him behind closed doors, and it’s always that sort of perspective. “I’m not sure what’s going on in your state, but here’s mine.” And I think that when the system really works at its best, that’s how it is.
It’s kind of cool because a guy like Frank Lautenberg, from New Jersey has a totally different perspective on guns than Mark’s going to have here.
Devon: Obviously, there are red state Dems who feel very strongly about second amendment rights. They have to, and they do, and that’s the way it is. Issues like that, and certainly resource development issues as well. You’ve got an oil state, or a coal state, and you have to take those things into consideration.
What is your take when those issues stray past the norm, and in particular I’m thinking of a press release that came recently from the Senator which said now that climate change is melting polar ice caps – and certainly Alaska is at ground zero for climate change with melting permafrost, methane emissions, sea ice deteriorating, and villages washing into the sea. But what it was talking about, and both Senators from Alaska push for this, is advocacy for ice breakers. Basically, it’s stating that there are polar shipping lanes opening up, so lets help that process along and break up more ice. And I think that as far as the Democratic base is concerned, they’d like to try to reverse this trend, or at least try to mediate this in some way. I think they have problems understanding positions like this in a global way. So, what do you do with that? From the perspective of the Democratic party nationally do you just say, “Oh well, that’s the way it has to be?” Do things like that drive them nuts?
Begala: No, and I’ll tell you why. I think this is a really important cultural difference between the two parties. They go back and forth over history, but right now the Democrats are more united and they’re more mainstream, even though they’re also more diverse. It’s really interesting. They’re more diverse demographically, geographically, racially, ethnically, and in terms of gender – really diverse. And yet we’re more united. President Obama ran, and nobody challenged him in the primary, which is pretty extraordinary given that we had a weak economy.
The Republicans are really monochromatic. Something like 8 out of 10 Romney voters were white. Something like almost half of all the House Republicans are white southerners from the eleven states of the old Confederacy. And I’m from there, but that is a narrow and monochromatic base. And yet, they’re less united. They’re going at each other tooth and nail. They’re about to croak the Speaker; he’s on thin ice. And apparently McConnell’s on thin ice in the Senate.
So, how do you not get that way? Some of it is you don’t live on litmus tests. You say OK, we have regional differences, ideological differences, as well as ethnic differences. I was for the gun safety bill. I’ve got like 19 guns. I’m a huge hunter, a big gun owner, but I didn’t think the background check was going to harm the second amendment, and so I was for it. Mark’s against it, Mark Pryor in Arkansas is against it. Lots of other good Democrats are against it. My view is that you don’t drive someone out of the party for that; you respect that.
Look at how the Republicans have handled Murkowski. They’ve driven her out of the party, effectively. And what’s her apostasy? She’s a perfectly mainstream Republican – a conservative Republican if you ask me. So, I think that’s the difference.
The Tea Party has been great for the Republican Party in some ways. It’s energized the base, but it’s been more harm than good, because they are so intolerant. They demand absolute perfection. Even Newt Gingrich has called them “The Perfectionist Caucus.” And, you know, this is a big diverse country, and that’s why I think it’s better to have a big, diverse party. It’s really good training for running a big, diverse country. So, I don’t believe in litmus tests; I never have. I mean, I’ve worked for Frank Lautenberg and Bill Clinton who did not support any restrictions on abortion rights. I’ve worked for Barack Obama, his SuperPAC. I used to work for Bob Casey who was for every restriction on abortion, completely pro-life.
Devon: So what is at the core then, in this overlapping Venn diagram of issues, where you are a Democrat, or you are not?
Begala: To me, it’s all about who’s on your side, the middle class, economic issues, education, jobs, health care – that cluster of issues. To me, that’s the heart of the American Dream; are my kids going to do better than I did? And my friends who are Republicans, their life turns on those same issues too, but the other way. They pull the ladder up behind them. They kind of don’t believe in the American Dream.
Here’s a true story. There’s a guy in Houston, a very rich lawyer, a big Democrat and he had a fundraiser at his home in River Oaks, the nicest, richest neighborhood in Houston. And I think even Speaker Pelosi came – one of those big Democratic stars. So a couple days later, he’s out in the front yard, and his next door neighbor who is equally wealthy comes over and says, “How can you have these communists come here to our neighborhood. I hate those people. How can you do that?”
And the guy’s like a typical Democrat, a typical Texan good ol’ boy, he hunts and fishes, but he’s a big Democrat. So, he tries to explain. He’s a brilliant lawyer, so he thinks like a lawyer. And he says, “You see that guy over there, that gardener running the leaf blower? I grew up poorer than he did. I was as poor as I could be. And yet, I made it. I went to free school. Then I went to the University of Texas for $4 a credit, and the government sustained me. I went to government schools, and had government aid, and government loans, so I believe in the government. It’s given me a shot.” And his punchline was, “Don’t you think that gardener’s son should have the same opportunity we had?” The Republican neighbor kept saying, “Well, I was poor too, and I made it my way.” But the Democrat said, “Shouldn’t that kid have the same rights?” And you know what the Republican said? “That gardener’s son is going to be my son’s gardener. And all he needs to know is how to run a leaf blower.”
So, to me…
Devon: That crossed the line?
Begala: Yeah, you can’t be a Democrat like that. You can be for or against abortion; you can be for or against guns; for or against the health care bill. But fundamentally, there is a view on the other side that our best days are behind us, and everything is cramped, and the pie is shrinking, and we have to pull the ladder up behind us.
Devon: And not let “them” in.
Begala: Right. And we can’t let immigrants come in. And unless you’re Native, by the way, we’re all immigrants. It drives me crazy. And to me, that’s the heart of it; if you really believe in the American Dream, and you’ve lived that dream, you want to extend that to everyone else.
And I got into a big argument with my friend Tucker Carlson about this. And I love Tucker, he’s a great guy. He is very, very conservative and kind of libertarian. We’re arguing about immigration and he says, “Well, we should let people in, but only the best people. If you have a PhD in computer science, we want you in. But if you’re uneducated and you’re just here as a day laborer, we don’t.” And I said, “Well, OK, that’s a view, but it’s not mine. First, my grandmother never finished fourth grade. We let her in; she was a maid. Her son went to college. Her grandson went to law school and advised the President. That’s a pretty good deal, and it’s called the American Dream.”
I’m on the board of MD Anderson, which I think is the best cancer hospital in the world. The top guy there, the president of MD Anderson, the best cancer researcher on earth – his father was an undocumented immigrant to America. He came here without papers, worked his ass off, and that son got an education, and he’s keeping my old man alive. My father is a patient there. You never know. We extended this ladder of opportunity to my family, and that doctor’s family, and great things happened.
Devon: I think your point is well taken that it’s less about an investment in a particular individual, and more about an investment in human beings – giving people as a whole opportunity, and allowing them to make of themselves what they are capable of being.
And I know you have other obligations now, but thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.
Begala: I do read your stuff, and it’s a real thrill to sit down with you.
Devon: The pleasure was mine.