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Interview with Cal Cunningham

Interview with Cal Cunningham

By RealClearPolitics - December 9, 2009

Let’s start with your decision to get into the race. You had ruled it out. Take me through your decision making process.

It’s really not in my nature to sit on the sidelines when the challenges we’re facing are as serious as they are. We’ve got in many parts of the country double-digit unemployment, record home foreclosures. North Carolina’s traditional economic base is getting hit. Our white collar banking industry, Charlotte, is taking it on the chin. And of course we’re involved in two foreign wars, one of which I’m personally very familiar with, and the other of which is taking an increasing amount of our time and our attention in this country.
 
To begin with, even in acknowledging -- stepping back from the race a month ago, the issues are serious. And there are compelling reasons to be in the race. A lot of those issues, as we look at our incumbent senior senator, he hasn’t really been doing his part to move us forward. He has not, in 15 years on Capitol Hill, in the House and Senate, been part of some of the answers to these challenges. To the contrary, he’s voted down the party line to put us in the ditch, drive the country into the ditch.
 
So I know we can do better. I know that we need people who are working to be part of the solution. I’m going to focus the campaign on jobs and economic transition here, transitioning our economy, investing in our schools, our colleges, our universities. And so that’s kind of how we got to where we are.
 
Since you mention the economy I’ll ask for your reaction to the proposals that President Obama outlined today. Are these the answer for stimulating job growth in your opinion.
 
Well, I have been holed up all day and I haven’t actually looked at them yet. I would love to take a moment to look at them before – I understood he was going to go to the Brookings Institute and make some proposals but I haven’t seen them yet.
 
What’s curious is that you’re making the move to come into the race at a time when here in the Beltway the talk is, after the ’09 elections, that independent voters may be turning away from Democrats and that the environment isn’t favorable for the party next year. What’s your reaction to that, and is there something you’re seeing that we’re not?

I’ve spent some time here working my way across North Carolina before announcing the decision to run. I have visited 45 of our counties, engaged with a lot of our citizens in dialogue about what they’re looking for in this next election. We believe that they’re going to respond to an energetic campaign, an issues- and ideas-based campaign, one that reaches out, brings young people and new voters into the fold.
 
We saw what happened in Virginia. We saw the results in New Jersey. But did you see our results in Charlotte? We elected a new, young, African-American, Democratic mayor for the first time in over 20 years. Very significant. We won a number of the key municipal races, Democrats did, here in North Carolina. We think that there is a lot of good stuff happening on the ground here.
 
So we know that if we run an energetic campaign, we know that if we reach out and bring people in to their government and into this campaign, they’re telling us that they’re ready to respond, we think that they will.
 
Sounds like you’re saying there’s been some carryover from President Obama’s victory – a narrow victory, but a victory nonetheless – last fall. Do you still see that carrying over into 2010?

I think it’s a little bit different. It’s not carryover from Obama. It’s a new chapter that we’re starting to write in our politics here in North Carolina. North Carolina’s population has grown very rapidly. Its traditional industry has changed. Its demographics have changed. We think that this becomes a more attractive place – a competitive state, I have no illusions about that. But we think that coming into this race, we’ve got a very fair shot at convincing North Carolina that we’ll be part of the solution in Washington. And they’re telling us that’s what they’re looking for.
 
And the flip side of it is, after 15 years in Congress, Richard Burr is not known for any singular accomplishment. And so we think coming into this environment that folks are going to weigh how he has spent his last 15 years with the offer of change and the offer to be part of the country’s solutions. We think we’ve got a competitive, good shot.
 
This Senate seat has been a hot potato – it’s changed hands every six years going back quite a bit of time. Why do you think so many, including yourself at first, were going to pass on this race, even with Burr being potentially vulnerable?

I would defer to them on that question. I have talked with an awful lot of others who have looked at the race. There are a lot of unique circumstances behind why others have decided to pass. But what I know, is that this is a difficult family decision to make, and a difficult decision to make for us personally. But over the last few weeks, the phone calls, the e-mails, the energy, the desire to have this option on the ballot next year has really been humbling. We see a real good shot through the primary into a general election, and a matchup with an incumbent that we think we’ll be very, very competitive with.
 
What kind of conversations have you had with folks here in Washington, the campaign committee and the White House?

It’s fair to say that I have had conversations with them. What I know is that we have work to do here in North Carolina. This is a North Carolina campaign. We’re running it on North Carolina issues. North Carolina was a battleground in the last election. We think we are winning the debate in North Carolina, and we’re winning the debate nationally. So North Carolina I think features prominently in the national debate, in the national strategy. We’ve got work to do here, though, and this campaign is a North Carolina campaign.
 
We will work hard. We will have the resources to communicate with voters. And I think we’ve got a really good shot.
 
Midterm elections are often seen as a referendum on the president. Would you consider yourself and would you campaign as a vote for President Obama in the Senate?
 
No – look, I’m going to have differences of opinion with the administration. And I’ll have differences of opinion obviously with the way Republicans have conducted themselves. I represented in the state Senate a swing state Senate district, from time to time broke ranks with my party when I thought it was not doing what the people in my part of the state thought was important. North Carolina has a unique voice in the national debate, and I’m going to make sure that it’s represented.
 
Having served in Iraq, what is your view of decision by the president to surge in Afghanistan?

As an Iraq war veteran, I landed in Iraq at the peak of the surge. When our country was debating getting out of Iraq, I agreed to go. And so I know firsthand that it’s going to take more boots on the ground for us to regain the initiative, break the back of the insurgency, and establish the security in Afghanistan that’s going to really come back and protect our homeland. So I think the president is on the right path by putting the boots on the ground and pursing the counterinsurgency strategy.
 
Let me also say, though, when he gives the order he just gave, it’s North Carolinians that are going to carry it out. It’s the people I served with at Fort Bragg. It’s the Marines at Camp Lejeune. It’s the airmen at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. In fact, I understand 1,500 Marines just had their leave canceled from North Carolina and are on their way. So I’m going to hold the administration accountable for success in the policy that the president just proposed.
 
There’s been much made of the timetable, beginning in 2011 to withdraw. Is that the right strategy?

Let me say this. With respect to -- the only way our troops are going to come home is if we have success. The path from here to success is putting the boots on the ground necessary to regain momentum. So I’m aware of the fact that a deadline, or a timeline is being discussed. It’s important to make sure that Karzai and the Afghanis understand that we’re not providing an open-ended commitment. As to whether 2011 is the right time period, I’m not sure at this point.
 
Taking a more political look at this, when you hear someone like Vice President Cheney saying Obama is showing weakness on the day of announcement, what’s your reaction as someone who did serve.

I don’t give Mr. Cheney a whole lot of credibility on these issues. Let me just illustrate this. I spent 900 days, since March of 2003, as a reservist on active duty as a result of the decisions the Bush administration made in Iraq. That, at a great cost to my family. So I don’t give the former Vice President a whole lot of credibility on the issues. If I’m not mistaken, he exercised more than a few deferments of his national service.
 
Continuing on these national issues, the big debate is health care here. What’s your sense of the debate here, and what solutions would you be advocating if you were here.

First of all, I believe that a health care bill will pass before I arrive in Washington. But I think that it will require additional work. There are a handful of principles that I approach the discussion with. One of which is, that the people I’m talking to here in North Carolina are first and foremost concerned about security and stability of care. Making sure that health insurance doesn’t drop them in the middle of a catastrophic challenge. Second, dealing with the hidden tax of the uninsured by extending coverage to more Americans. Third, working to bend the cost curve. Contain cost, control costs that have been growing at double-digit rates. All the legislation seems to be getting at the challenge of discrimination, pre-existing conditions, which is important. I want to make sure that what is passed honors our commitment to seniors in Medicare. And I want to make sure we close the prescription drug doughnut hole.
 
I would have been a vote to begin this debate, to make sure that the amendment process starts, and that we get to a final bill. First and foremost, reform is important. very important. the way we get from here to there is to move legislation.
 
Is the support of President Obama something you’ll look for on the campaign trail? Would you like him to campaign with you and would it help your campaign?

I think we’ll be having a lot of that discussion with the White House over the next year. But he is the president. He is the commander-in-chief. He has a lot to offer to the country and to North Carolina, and I look forward to working with him on many issues, both here and in Washington. But also from time to time making sure that we hold him and the administration accountable to make sure that North Carolina’s voice is being heard.
 
You’ve talked about your opponent some. What’s your sense of the challenge you can expect from him if you win the primary, and what might be some of the issues you clash on?

I think time is going to tell. We’re going to have some real substantive disagreements. And I think time will tell and those lines will sharpen as we move forward. And I look forward to it.

 

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