September 22, 2023


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Man in the Middle | Washington Monthly

10 min read
Man in the Middle | Washington Monthly

Forty years ago, Democrat Jim Cooper was elected to Congress. The Harvard Law graduate and Rhodes Scholar would serve a rare split tenure in the House, from 1983 to 1995 and then from 2003 to next month when he leaves elective office. The 68-year-old is retiring this year after his Nashville district was carved up by Tennessee’s Republican legislature, making it impossible for him or any Democrat to win the seat. Called “the last moderate” by The New York Times, which also called him “a lonely voice for civility,” Cooper sat down in Tennessee to talk about Nancy Pelosi, gerrymandering, life after Congress, and what’s happened to the Republican Party. Note: I interned in Cooper’s office for two months in 2016. 

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

SM: This is your second time leaving Congress. What do you think most ails it?

JC: [Missouri Democrat] Dick Gephardt, the former minority leader, said that Congress is a substitute for violence because otherwise, people would literally come to blows. So, it’s a steam valve. It’s a debating platform. It’s a way to hash out issues. Bismarck described it as the sausage-making process. It’s ugly, but if you do it right, the sausage tastes great.

SM: It’s delicious. Yeah. 

JC: You know, people used to say it’s all parts of the pig except for the squeal. So that means the brains, the hair, the hooves, all the nasty parts people don’t want to think about. 

SM: Do you ever regret returning in 2003?

JC: No one who’s returned to Congress regrets it. Because it’s a privilege to serve at all, to be able to do it twice and from completely different districts, that’s a near miracle. I’ve had pure rural and mainly urban. It’s a marathon. It’s not a sprint. [Democratic Representative] Debbie Wasserman Schultz says a great line, “to be a congressman, you have to delight in an incremental change.” Most of the time, you’re just making slight improvements.

Congress functions because there’s an informal executive committee, about 20 people in each institution who actually run it. And that’s another blessing because you would have utter chaos without that. So, most of what you see on CSPAN, most of the committee stuff, is basically window dressing. It’s all about what goes on inside. 

SM: Interesting. And it’s a perfect analogy to sausage, right? The casing doesn’t really impact the flavor. It’s all the stuffing…

JC: And the ingredients and the spice. And you need that spice. It’s kind of majestic how great it can be from nothing, odds and ends, bits and pieces. 

SM: You are staunchly anti-gerrymandering and have proposed the John Tanner Act and the Redistricting Transparency Act every session.

JC: Isn’t it ironic. Hoisted by my own petard.

SM: Now that you’re a victim of it yourself, do you think this is just a part of American politics that we will have to accept? 

JC: Well, I think [Chief Justice] John Roberts and the Court shied away too far. Now, it’s one thing to let politicians do politician stuff, but if there are not guardrails, then people don’t trust the system. I think a good rule would be if you look at the presidential race. Many states vote majority Democrat in presidential races, but their congressional delegation is 70-80 percent Republican. That’s called gerrymandering. But the Court didn’t want to go into that. 

SM: You drew attention for being a fiscally conservative Blue Dog who didn’t pursue earmarks. In retrospect, do you think getting rid of earmarks was a mistake?

JC: My colleagues defend earmarks as the necessary grease in the legislative process. Well, I think we have enough grease. Grease isn’t healthy for you. And it is theoretically possible to have small appropriate earmarks, but Congress being Congress, It’s like that kid’s book: You give a mouse a cookie, you want a glass of milk. Once the camel’s nose is under the tent, watch out. 

The recently departed [late Representative] Don Young had the bridge to nowhere in Alaska. Also, he inserted an interstate interchange in Florida, which is, last time I checked, a long way from Alaska.

So that’s the trouble with Congress. It can start small and appropriate, then quickly become outrageous. 

SM: You have these kind of “change the system” viewpoints on voter rights that are anti-establishment. How does that correlate with your moderation in other areas? 

JC: Well, the most effective revolutionaries are inside the system because you don’t change government by storming the Capitol. Changing the system happens slowly, and the founders gave us a mechanism for doing that. Too bad we’ve thrown away the rule book because most of my colleagues don’t know how to do it anymore. 

I’m doing a book on the Space Force right now, which was a five-year legislative effort, but we made the biggest change in the military since 1947, or possibly, 1926. And we did it in the face of complete Pentagon and White House opposition. 

SM: What do you think of the privatization of space? Folks like Elon Musk.

JC: Well, Elon, he’s one of the most exciting businesspeople in history. He’s like Henry Ford, who was deeply flawed but also an industrial genius. So, you have to acknowledge both sides.

If you look at it spatially, just our orbits are so much bigger than our planet. We look small and pitiful in comparison to what’s out there. And I’m not a space expansionist, but some people believe that if we could just successfully mine one asteroid full of platinum or rare earth metals, the world might not even have to pay taxes anymore. It is mind-bendingly large. 

SM: Why do you think Tennessee has shifted so far to the right? 

JC: Well, Tennessee’s been a border state since the Civil War, with plenty of southern and northern sympathizers here. Because of our moderate tradition, we’ve probably produced more Senate majority leaders than any state per capita. Not only [the late Republican] Howard Baker, but [Republican] Bill Frist. [Democrat] Jim Sasser would’ve been majority leader if he’d just been reelected in 1994. So, Tennesseans tend to get along with everybody in the country. Part of it’s personality, but part of it is moderation. 

Well, what’s happened since then is Trump, who’s rarely lived lower than the penthouse and has never used toilet fixtures that aren’t gold-plated. Somehow rural people—who’ve oftentimes never been to New York, certainly never been to a penthouse, and never had a gold faucet—somehow, they’re fixated on him.

There’s a magnificent book on Congress by Jon Grinspan, The Age of Acrimony, and he talks about the 50 worst years in congressional history, from 1865 to 1915. A congressman was murdered every seven years, and this is post-dueling. Three presidents were assassinated, and voter turnout was through the roof. Over 80% of eligible voters voted because people like gladiatorial combat. You know, the Romans did bread and circuses. There’s a dark part of human nature that is not taught in political science departments.

Henry Adams in his book, The Education of Henry Adams, which was published posthumously, but won the Pulitzer Prize (you know, that’s pretty good—I didn’t even know you could win the Pulitzer after you were dead) but anyway, on the first page, he defines politics as “the systematic organization of hatreds.” That’s a stunning insight. 

We’ve soiled our brand, but Republicans have this false brand. It’s not even the Republican Party anymore. I know so many alienated Republicans, and our strategic error was not creating a bigger tent so we could have a way station for disillusioned Republicans. So they could vote our way without losing face. 

SM: And how do you think Nashvillians can make their voice heard now that Nashville doesn’t really have representation? 

JC: Well, we still have the state and local level. We can still go out and convert people. One of the saddest things about modern politics is it’s become mobilizing your base, not persuading independent voters. And I’m still a deep believer in being able to persuade the independents.

So many of my friends here in Nashville and other cities, they’ve never lived in a rural area enough to see the extraordinary quality of life they’ve got there. Now, there are problems, but these folks help their neighbor do almost anything. You rebuild a barn, you know, find a stray cow.

One of my lucky moments was when David Broder, the great Washington Post reporter, was down here covering me. We had just gone to an event at the Shelbyville Country Club, a women’s book club, and we were driving back, and a horse was out on the road. So, we got out and put the horse back in the pasture. It’s just like, “That’s what people do.” 

SM: I saw pictures of you with a chainsaw after the storms—

JC: Chainsaws are awesome. You’re too young to have a midlife crisis, but they’re way better than a motorcycle or a sports car. They’re way cheaper. It’s only like $300 to 400. Now, they’re dangerous. But if you handle them responsibly, the power of that engine.

Seasoned oak, if you try to nail a nail into it, the nail will bounce out. It’s that tough. But with a chainsaw, it’s like butter right through it. 

I love this analogy of tools. If you have the right tool, you can solve the problem. And one of the tragedies of the modern Congress is we use a screwdriver on a wrench problem. The most popular screwdrivers today are tax breaks because they seem appealing to everyone. It’s much better to have a clear, direct subsidy—like you write a check, so you know how much the people are getting, not this hidden indirect stuff. 

SM: I know you’ve often voted against Nancy Pelosi for speaker. You know, arguably she did hold the caucus together pretty well. What do you think of her role as a speaker and do you regret your votes?

JC: This is widely misunderstood. My voting against Pelosi helped her, and it helped me because she needed to look liberal, and I helped make her look liberal. I needed to look more conservative, and she helped me. I never torpedoed her chance to be the speaker. So, to have one symbolic vote—and it’s a very visible vote, it’s the only time in two years that you stand to declare your vote by voice on the House floor—it helped both of us.

And to give you proof of our close relationship, I am now serving on more committees than anyone else in Congress, including Intel. It’s like jazz. You have to be able to riff on the theme, and I was able to be that one symbolic no-vote, which didn’t hurt her at all. Then to vote with her, especially in this more partisan era, 99% of the time, like, yeah, this is kind of the magic of politics. It’s a little sleight of hand, but people enjoy seeing a magic trick.

SM: A lightning round?

JC: Okay. 

SM: Who is the best president during your tenure in office, the one you were most impressed by, and which president was best at arm-twisting.

JC: Well, I’ve gone back to every president since Reagan, and it would probably be a tie between Obama and Reagan. Now, in terms of arm twisting, probably Joe Biden. He’s a creature of the institution and the first since LBJ to know the process. And that’s the sort of mechanical genius that you have to have if you want to know the pressure points. Look at the infrastructure bill. Every president for 30 or 40 years talked about that. How many have they produced? 

SM: Yeah. He’s arguably gotten the most done since LBJ.

JC: Totally. And people don’t want to give him credit for that. I hear people all the time saying, “Well, isn’t he senile?” No, I was with Reagan in his first term, and he was senile then. We were too respectful to call him out. But, like, it’s obvious now. My wife had Alzheimer’s. You see these signs.

SM: Who’s the Republican you most admire? Dead or alive, Lincoln and Roosevelt don’t count. 

JC: [The late Senate Majority Leader from Tennessee] Howard Baker would be one. I was a [Illinois] Bob Michael fan. You know, he was the former minority leader. When he would come back after a State of the Union, he would sit by me because he felt ostracized by his own party. And see that’s the way gentlemen are treated. He was completely honorable and fair. 

SM: What’s your take on Mike Pence, having served with him? 

JC: Well, I don’t want to be cruel. Basically, a shallow radio broadcaster with the demeanor of a funeral home attendant who is so sympathetic and so concerned, [imitating Pence] “We love old Joe.” And it’s like, “Give me a break.” 

He ended up doing the right thing by not caving into the January 6th protest, but there were four years of mayhem in that administration. 

One of the best books about this is The Fifth Risk, about the chaos at the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Commerce. And it is stunning. That year, the president’s budget didn’t come out until June. He didn’t expect to win, so he didn’t have any infrastructure, and enemies of the government and incompetent fools filled the unfilled positions. It’s just that it’s sabotaged from the inside.

Meanwhile, my Democratic friends don’t want to hear this because last time I checked, there are 50 different federal programs to do job training, and none of them work. Some work better than others, so why don’t you consolidate and fund the three that work? 

SM: Thank you for the time.

JC: My license plate is LMW. That stands for “luckiest man in the world.”

Shaan Merchant is a writer, producer, and researcher completing a master’s in literary journalism at New York University.

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