We chat with journalist and author Masha Gessen, whose newest book explores the complicated family history behind bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
One of the men of the hour at the RNC this week is Virginia’s own Gov. Bob McDonnell. As the governor of a swing state, McDonnell offers insight into the GOP’s strategy for appealing to moderate voters and hard-line conservatives alike. Kojo sat down with the governor at the Tampa Bay Times Forum for a wide-ranging conversation that covered everything from the prospect of sequestration and its potential effect on Virginia’s many federal jobs to the need for greater transparency in government.
- Robert F. McDonnell Virginia Governor (R)
MR. KOJO NNAMDILive from the studios of WAMU 88.5 in Washington and WMNF in Tampa, Fla., welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. Later in the broadcast, a Tech Tuesday conversation about the e-infrastructure that has been put in place here in Tampa to keep tens of thousands of politicians, delegates and reporters connected and how the weather affects those best-laid plans.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut, first, presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney is the man of the hour, but plenty of other GOP luminaries are gathered in Tampa this week to enjoy their own fair share of the spotlight. Among them is Virginia's own Gov. Bob McDonnell. We caught up with the Commonwealth's chief executive last night, obviously the highlight for this much-in-demand official with a full slate of interviews at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe talked with us about the road ahead for the Republican Party and for candidate Romney, Virginia's deep ties to the military, Dulles rail and much more. Gov. McDonnell, glad to have you. Thank you so much for joining us.
GOV. ROBERT F. MCDONNELLThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDITom Davis, a Virginia Republican who gave you a lot of good advice when you ran for governor in 2009, once said on this show that politics is a game of addition, not subtraction. What concerns do you have about whether the party's rightward shift on issues like immigration, abortion and spending might be pushing people away from the party rather than bringing people into it?
MCDONNELLListen, I think, Kojo, most Americans realize that America is broke and that this unacceptably high 8 percent unemployment rate for 23 months is intolerable. It hurts access to the American dream. And so that's the issues that I think people are going to vote on. The president has tried hard for three years. His policies just haven't worked. And all you got to do is look at those numbers.
MCDONNELLSo I think, despite the opportunities that the Democrats are trying to take to say, oh, they're too conservative or their policies are bad on this, I just don't think that's going to carry today. First of all, I think that there are a set of issues that the governor is running on that will draw people in on a variety of issues, and I think that the president's attempt to focus on things like Bain and tax returns and social issues is both divisive and not what people are going to vote on.
MCDONNELLSo I think those things are important issues to certain blocs of voters, but overwhelmingly what Americans agree on is that our great country needs to get out of debt and back to work. And Mitt Romney's ideas are just better than Barack Obama's record, and I think that's why he'll win Virginia.
NNAMDIIn other words, the Romney campaign and the Republican Party are hitching their wagon to the economy as the key to the -- in this election rather than any social issues.
MCDONNELLAbsolutely. You ask almost any voter what do they care about, especially those independent voters, and, Kojo, you know what they care about? They care about the things they talk to their kids and their family about around the dinning room table -- roads, schools, transportation, debt, energy, getting new jobs. That's what they're concerned about, and Mitt Romney is -- and I think you'll see more over the course of this convention -- is a problem-solver.
MCDONNELLHe did it in the public sector as governor. He's done in the private sector as a job creator. And if you want solutions, you got to give Romney a chance. If you want the same status quo and the same policies that made the problem worse and the president didn't create the problem, he's just made it worse, I think, by some of his big government policies that aren't working. So what we're saying is we're offering solutions and not more rhetoric that hadn't worked.
NNAMDIWhen you ran for governor in Virginia, you did not have to compete in a primary...
NNAMDI...so you've got to focus on appealing to voters in the middle for the general elections. So stop me if I'm asking the same question again, but Mitt Romney had to work very hard to defend his right flank in a competitive primary. How does he begin to pivot from here and make that appeal to independent voters while keeping the voters on his right flank?
MCDONNELLWell, first of all, he's running against the most liberal president in the history of the country, and his policies matches his voting record when he was in the U.S. Senate and in the Illinois Senate. I mean, this is a very progressive liberal president, and I think that's why some of those policies aren't working. Listen, we're not, as Republicans, going to run from the fact that we're pro-life.
MCDONNELLWe're pro-family. We believe in traditional values and traditional marriage. And those are the things the party has held for a long time, Kojo. But what people will vote on in this election overwhelmingly is how do we create a good energy policy that creates more independence for our country, how do we get 23 million people that are unemployed and underemployed back to work? How do we get this 23 -- the $16 trillion crushing, immoral, unsustainable national debt under control?
MCDONNELLI mean, the spending out of the -- out of both parties in Washington for the last 30 years has been reckless, and, now, the bills are due. And so I think Mitt Romney has got a good plan on how we do that. He's going to be honest with people to say we can't afford this anymore, we're going broke, and I need you all to join me in a plan to get America back on track. I think people are ready for straight talk.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia. Virginia Republicans have pounded the president pretty hard on the prospect of sequestration...
NNAMDI...and the possibility that defense spending will be cut as a consequence of the inability of Democrats and Republicans to agree on a broad deficit reduction strategy. Eric Cantor, the Republican House majority leader from Virginia, was intimately involved in the party's decision to agree to the threat of sequestration rather than to any tax increase. At any point, did you tell Eric Cantor or any of your allies on the Hill, hey, Virginia could take it pretty hard if defense is cut, you should cut a deal?
MCDONNELLWell, what I said at the time, and I think what a lot of Republicans said is, the greatest country on the earth is about to lose its credit rating and default on its obligations. That would have sent the world into financial tizzy. And so because of the inability of Congress and both parties to agree last August, they cut a deal to extend the debt ceiling, but they held a sword over everybody's head. And that sword was called sequestration, $600 billion of cuts to defense, $600 billion to domestic programs.
MCDONNELLBut the truth is, Kojo, nobody thought that was actually going to happen. If you remember, the super committee was supposed to fix the problem, and then when they failed, the Congress had about another eight months, and they failed. And I believe the president has been a bystander, and here's what the problem is right now. I thought the debt deal was the better of two evils, and that is don't default, do this deal and then work things out before we get to another cliff.
MCDONNELLBut now, we're 60 days away from hundreds of thousands of Virginians getting sent notices that said, hey, guess what, Jan. 1, you may not have a job. And that's just unacceptable. Secretary Panetta, previous Secretary Gates have both said we're in a war in Iraq. You cannot dismantle some of the spending for the Defense Department at this time. And I'm saying, look, you've had a year.
MCDONNELLYou've botched it. The president has been a bystander. He hasn't lead on this. Congress hadn't been able to get a deal. You guys need to go back in now. Don't wait for the lame-duck session. Go back in now and make an attempt to fix this, ratchet down the cuts to defense and ratchet up the cuts to social programs and entitlements because we can't defang part of the United States' military at this time.
NNAMDIPeople will say but you, Bob McDonnell, you went for the deal, and now, you're complaining about the fact that they're going to be defense jobs cuts and so many of those defense jobs in your state. You want to put those cuts onto somebody else.
MCDONNELLNow, what I'm saying is that defense is only 12 percent or so of discretionary spending and entitlements. Look, Kojo, everybody knows that the reason that we're in this disaster situation of trillion dollar deficits every year of the Obama administration, the largest increase in debt in American history, $16 trillion, is because we don't have the courage cut. We have to cut across the board in both defense, entitlements, in everything, but we have to do it with dramatic reforms, I believe, like we've done in Virginia, like other Republican governors have done.
MCDONNELLAnd, yeah, I went for not defaulting on our obligations and maintaining the United States of America's credit rating. I thought that was better than default. But part of that deal was we expect you in Congress, working with the president, to not actually have it go into effect but to have some other plan put in place. It's been a year. They failed.
MCDONNELLAnd now, I'm saying let's get it done because I don't want to see a couple of hundred thousand Virginians laid off and having the security of the United States in jeopardy, and 350,000 American men and women in uniform in Virginia going into unparalleled uncertainly because we can't get something worked out in Congress.
NNAMDIProjects like the Silver Line to Dulles, one of the biggest...
NNAMDI...infrastructure projects in the entire country, would they be even possible without federal support?
MCDONNELLYeah. Well, that's -- I think defense, transportation, infrastructure, these are some of the things that need to have funding, but you've got to make tough choices. Look, I had a $6 billion deficit when I took office in Virginia, and I look to people in the eye and said, you know what, we're in big trouble in Virginia. We've got to make cuts, and I cut in a lot of tough places, and I guess what?
MCDONNELLNow, we've had $1.4 billion in surpluses the last three years because we had more people coming to Virginia creating jobs and paying more taxes. So governing is about making choices. It's about being honest with people about what you can and can't afford. Every American understands that because since the meltdown of the economy in 2008, Kojo, people have had to make tough choices they don't like. They're willing for some, you know, some straight talk from elected leaders. We don't have that. We have Congress that's over-promised and overspent now for 30 years, and the bills are due.
MCDONNELLWe can't afford it anymore. And so I think that's what they need to do. Look, I'm a supporter of rail to Dulles. We kicked in a little money from the state. I think it's not being managed well, and we should -- we've already cut $1 billion out of the cost of that project with Secretary Connaughton and Secretary LaHood working together. So we need more reforms in the way that project is governed, but I do think it ought to be funded and federal help and state help will get that done.
NNAMDILet's talk about transparency. One of the major dividing lines between the two parties comes down to the size and the role of government. But regardless of where you stand on that question, many people would agree that transparency is essential to making sure that tax dollars are being spent efficiently. A recent report by the State Integrity Investigation ranked Virginia 47th out of 50 for transparency, giving the state an F grade. Do you agree with that assessment, and how important do you feel transparency really is?
MCDONNELLWell, we're looking at that. We have some disagreements with some of the things that they put in that report. But, look, we take that very seriously. I mean, Virginia, for the most part, under Republican and Democratic governors, has had pretty clean, honest, open, transparent governing. We've got a FOIA system. When people violate the public trust, guess what, a lot end up going to prison, but there's been very few instances of that.
MCDONNELLI think, overall, we do a pretty good job. At my request last year, we created a new state inspector general office. I've just appointed a former FBI agent to take that job. We've got to do an awful lot of inspection at every level of government, rooting out waste and inefficiency, making government more accountable and more transparent. And I think we'll build on some of those critiques in that report and have some new ideas for next session on how to make us even more better.
NNAMDIMost people consider Virginia to be one of the most important swing states in the country...
NNAMDI...and Northern Virginia to be one of the swingiest, if you will, regions...
NNAMDI...within the Commonwealth. But Northern Virginia has relatively low unemployment, under 6 percent.
NNAMDIWhat's the message that you think will play well with Northern Virginia voters?
MCDONNELLWell, I was very fortunate when I ran for governor in 2008. I won Fairfax County, Loudon, Prince William. Of course, I'm a Fairfax County native, so I had a little bit of home court advantage. But I'd tell you, Kojo, what I talked about with the grass -- it was the kitchen table issues. We've talked about how we were going to make government work better, how we were going to protect the taxpayer but how we were going to address issues of education, transportation, college tuition, energy, gas prices, the things that most Americans at the end day care about.
MCDONNELLYou know, they're tired of rhetoric, frankly, on both sides. It's too hyper and too strident. And they just -- they want problem-solvers, I think, and that's the way I've tried to govern. So I told the Romney campaign that's what they need to talk about. They need to be addressing the real-world issues. And right now in Northern Virginia, it's traffic, it's spending, it's energy, it's small business. I mean, most of the success in Northern Virginia has been that small businessman, that entrepreneur located somewhere along that great technology corridor out to Dulles, and they've pursued the American dream.
MCDONNELLSo I think Mitt Romney's message of promoting small businesses, reducing the tax burden for those 900,000 people that President Obama wants to raise taxes on, talking about how we can promote even a better incubator for technology in Virginia and around the D.C. area, helping to create the climate where we have lower increases in college tuition. I think those messages resonate very well in Northern Virginia.
NNAMDIWhat region in Virginia do you see as being, well, key in this upcoming election?
MCDONNELLWell, now, you're asking me to pick among all my constituents, all 8.2 million people.
MCDONNELLWell, look, there's no question about the numbers in Northern Virginia. A third of the population lives in Northern Virginia. One-seventh of the total population lives in Fairfax County. So numerically and because of the swing that can happen in Northern Virginia, I don't think there's any question that that's key to the election. You can't get 39 or 40 percent of the vote in Fairfax County and win the election.
MCDONNELLAnd so we were very fortunate obviously to get 51 percent of the obviously other very swing area of the state as Hampton Roads, so those outer counties in Virginia Beach and Chesapeake and Suffolk and Newport News and Hampton have also shown, like Northern Virginia, the propensity to swing back and forth. So the ability to have a message that lifts up and encourages the independent voter in those couple of regions of the state, that'll determine who wins Virginia.
NNAMDIOne final question. You plan to use Virginia's budget surplus to fund raises for state employees. If you had been able to anticipate that surplus, are there any budget cuts you might not have made?
MCDONNELLNo. I mean, the surplus was my idea both in 2000 -- excuse me. Well, of course, the surplus was my idea and we worked here. The bonuses for our state employees who haven't had any raise in five years was my idea in 2010 and then again this year. And I said, what we ought to do is use private sector initiatives, Kojo, and that is if state employees are able to work hard and smarter and save money that goes back to the general fund, let's give them a part of those -- of that surplus.
MCDONNELLAnd so it's about $75 million. It's a 3 percent bonus. It's a one-time reward for state employees for being hardworking and creative. We have 3,000 or so less than employees when I became governor. So government is a little smaller now in Virginia. But, no, I don't regret any of the budget cuts that we've made. I mean, we were in deep trouble, $6 billion operating shortfall, when I became governor. We made tough choices. I gave people a dose of reality. They went with me in support of this on that.
MCDONNELLAnd now, we've had a billion foreign surpluses. I'd say those policies have worked, and it was Republicans and Democrats. I don't take all the credit for it. Republicans in the House, Democrats in the Senate said, yeah, we need to make these cuts. They found a way to do it. Our state agencies worked harder and smarter with less money, and it's worked. And now, we're down to 5.9 percent unemployment rate and surplus. People are getting back to work. And so I'd say that philosophy is working in Virginia.
NNAMDIGov. McDonnell, thank you so much for joining us.
MCDONNELLKojo, always good to be on with you. Thanks very much.
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