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Interview With Sam Brownback

By Tom Bevan

(Editor's note: I sat down with Senator Brownback in his Senate office last Wednesday.)

RCP: I wanted to quickly touch on a bunch of issues to give our readers a better idea of who you are as a person, who you are as a candidate. But I want to start with last week: are you surprised by the showing you put up in South Carolina and at CPAC, or was that expected?

BROWNBACK: No...we're on a nice slow build, and it's going well. We're running third in Iowa in the polling, moving up in South Carolina. I find what I've got to do is introduce myself to places, talk about my message and my vision for the future and we start moving. And at CPAC, with values voters, I've worked that set of issues a lot, I believe in it, and I think the field is looking for a true conservative candidate.

RCP: What's the most important issue in the 2008 race, for Republican voters and for you?

BROWNBACK: Well, most important issue for me is rebuilding the family and renewing the culture. That may seem a little out of step, but it's just...it's like you've got a football team that's got a great quarterback, great defense, great running back on and no line. And so you're looking at it and you're always saying, "we've gotta have our quarterback performing and he's not performing so well." Why isn't he? Well, he doesn't have any time to throw the ball. You gotta build the line.

And that basic family unit has been under enormous pressure and difficulty for a long period of time. It then creates problems in the education system; it creates problems in the prison system. And we've gotta rebuild that.

If you're out there traveling right now the top issue is Iraq and immigration, as far as what people are asking about. They do recognize the inherent problems and the long term difficulties that our families and the cultural structure have been in.

RCP: Let me ask you about those two subjects, because I think you're perfectly in sync with the base on a lot of social, cultural issues, but Iraq and immigration are two places where you're probably a little bit out of sync. You're not in favor of the surge, and you said the other day you're in favor of breaking the country up into three parts -

BROWNBACK: Not breaking it up: three states, one country. You give regions to Sunni, Shia, and Kurds already have their region.

RCP: And is that maintaining current troop levels or is that doing redeployment of any kind?

BROWNBACK: Yes (Editor's note: The Senator's response here is indicating support for maintaining current troop levels). We're going to be there for some period of time to make this work. And part of my not supporting the troop surge is 1) I think it delays us getting the actual political solution, 2) I don't think we can impose a military solution in the region, and 3) to maintain the level of support we can't get in the situation we're headed into now - one party is for it and one party is against it.

We're not going to be able to maintain political support here for the length of time we're going to have to maintain it to get this done.

And I think it is past time we reach out to Democrats and say, "what will you support?" Not what are you against - I understand that part of it - but what will you support? And really get into the details with them of what you would actually do.

RCP: Do you think there is support for a plan like yours, possibly in conjunction with Senator Joe Biden who has proposed something similar?

BROWNBACK: Yes, I do. And I think there is with Democratic leadership, because they're in a box politically, too. They can't be seen as weak on terrorism, but they also get these free shots, "well I'm against the surge" - and the public is too - "but that doesn't mean I'm against the war." But what are you for? And it's just evolving into this one-party-is-for-it-and-one-party-is-against-it, and you just can't sustain public support going that route.

We'll win if we can keep standing. And that's what we've gotta do. So that's why I've been pushing this political solution here and there. But we cannot cut and run, otherwise you're going to leave a civil war in the middle of the Middle East.

RCP: Are you in favor of sitting down with Syria and Iran?

BROWNBACK: I'm in favor of the neighbor's conference. I am not in favor of diplomatic relations with either of these countries, and particularly you're going to be rewarding the Iranians at the very time that we're trying to put pressure on them to stop the nuclear weapons development, to stop the terrorism that they're doing. But I think we should have the neighbor's conference, which is hosted by Iraq. We'll see if they're going to participate (Editor's note: Iran officially agreed to attend the conference the next day.)

This is the same sort of thing we did prior to going into Afghanistan. We talked with Iran about that prior to going in.

Remember, Iraq is more three groups held together by exterior forces than it has so much of a country allegiance. The Kurds would rather be separate, but they're held in there by the Turks. The Sunnis would probably rather be separate - unless they could run the whole country - but they're held in there by the Gulf States. We don't know if the Iranians are trying to get the Shia to split off or take over the whole country. So the exterior forces around Iraq are significant and important on what happens for the future of Iraq.

RCP: Back to immigration real quickly. We all know the general outlines of the debate: either for a "comprehensive" program or against. You're in favor the former, in favor of increasing the number of work visas -

BROWNBACK: Yes. I'm also strongly in favor of increased enforcement. I voted for the fence, I'll fund the fence, I believe that's a key part of getting people into a regularized system. But I think once you move them to a regularized system, you're going to have to up the numbers that you allow legally for some form of work visa program. It's going to need to be simple; you're going to encourage people that are low skilled workers that they don't have to get a lawyer to get into the system. They can come here and work and go home.

A key part of that is getting the Social Security system to where that number means something. Everybody shows up with a Social Security number, but a lot of them are bad numbers. And that employer needs to be informed immediately when they send in that Social Security number whether this is a good or a bad number.

RCP: Politically, the issue is obviously one the Republican base is very much against. How damaging is it to the Republican Party in the long term to take on the perception of being against immigration?

BROWNBACK: Everybody will say that they're not opposed to immigration; they're opposed to illegal immigration. That's what I'm saying. Let's go that path then. Let's create a legal system that can work. To do that you're going to have to up your numbers and make the system simpler, particularly for low low-skilled, low-wage type jobs.

RCP: So, John McCain is talking about bringing his bill, McCain-Kennedy, back up for a vote. Is that a proposal that you would vote for?

BROWNBACK: I'm working right now with my Republican colleagues to put together a comprehensive bill that would work with the administration and that would get, hopefully, 40 Republicans to pull together on in the US Senate.

RCP: Do you think it's important for the Republican Party to pass an immigration bill this year?

BROWNBACK: I think it would be good, but it can't be just any bill. I think it's also feasible to do it, but it can't be a bill that rewards illegal activity. That's what we're working on. We've got a coalition of people that have gone to our leader to talk about building a group within the caucus that includes the various spectrums to see if we can together come up with a comprehensive bill. And I think we're going to be able to do it with Arlen Specter, Mel Martinez, Jon Kyl, and I hope John McCain will be involved in the process too.

RCP: Do you think the passage of such a bill will adversely affect how you'll run in places Iowa and South Carolina with the Republican base?

BROWNBACK: (Pauses) I don't know. Immigration is a volatile issue, but we're in the middle of it now, and probably the worst thing to do is to not do anything. Everybody recognizes the current system is not working the way we want it to work. It has huge flaws to it, we need to do something.

RCP: We're running out of time. To give our readers a better a sense of who you are, tell me one thing about yourself that only people who know you well know.

BROWNBACK: (Pauses) Ah, boy...

RCP: It's not meant to be a trick question....

(Laughter)

BROWNBACK: Well...

RCP: Let me rephrase then: what's the one thing you'd like people to know about you that you don't think they necessarily do know at this point?

BROWNBACK: Well, most people generally don't know I had melanoma in '95. Not that I'm asking for sympathy or that it's any great task - it's simple cancer and we caught it early - just that it had a big change in my life. It caused me to look at the end of life, particularly in those periods when you're not sure how much, how far this thing has gone. And it's really made me look at the end of life and ask, "was I pleased with how I was doing in my life?" And I wasn't.

It made my faith real, changed my perspective, got me working on a lot of issues; human rights, human dignity, life questions that before I'd been supportive of but I hadn't been dedicated to. It made me really try to focus on what are the key things: Fighting for life, fighting for marriage, fighting for the child in Darfur, the person that's trafficked.

It got me involved in the basics, what were the core issues. And there are a lot of issues, but at the end of the day the fact that we abort nearly a million kids a year, that you've got a genocide going on in Darfur, that you've got hundreds of thousands of little girls aged ten to fifteen being trafficked into brothels or forced prostitution in the world. You gotta do something about that.

RCP: Do you think the Bush administration has done a good enough job on those issues? They've taken a stand, more so that previous administrations, on what's gone on in Darfur. President Bush has talked about and done work on trafficking. How would you rate the administration's performance on some of these issues that you now say are the basics and the core of what you believe?

BROWNBACK: I think they've done a very good job, in that they've overcome the inertia of the system to deal with problems like this, and overcoming that inertia is incredibly important. They could have feigned philosophical grounds for not doing these things and just said, "it's not vital and strategic to us what happens in Darfur." That would have been a perfectly legitimate philosophical position, but it wouldn't have stood very well in your heart after you're out of office.

And so they've engaged. And they've engaged on trafficking, and they've engaged aggressively. I do think there's a need for continuance and for stepping it up even further.

On the life issue, we've made strides that we haven't made in 30 years. We passed and signed partial birth abortion and the unborn victims of violence act. We haven't had pro-life legislation pass on the offensive like that for 30 years. I do think there's a lot more we can do on the life agenda.

RCP: Senator Brownback, thank you very much.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com

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