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In his one term in Congress, Virginia’s Tom Perriello carved out a reputation as an intellectual force within the Democratic Party. Now he’s helping set the progressive agenda for many of America’s toughest political debates at the helm of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. We chat with Perriello about the Democratic Party’s platform and how he thinks it can be mobilized to win elections in Virginia.
- Tom Perriello Former Member, U.S. House of Representatives (D-Va., 5th Congressional District); President and CEO, Center for American Progress Action Fund
MR. KOJO NNAMDIDuring his speech last night at the Democratic National Convention, former President Bill Clinton said democracy does not have to be a blood sport. It can be an honorable enterprise. Clearly, he's been watching too much TV in swing states like Florida or North Carolina because, so far, Election 2012 has mostly revolved around gaffs and personal attacks and out-of-context sound bites. Still, the fight for states like Virginia could ultimately come down to how well the two parties sell their policy prescriptions to skeptical voters.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIDuring his short tenure in Congress, Tom Perriello carved out a reputation as someone who talked about liberal and progressive ideas, as a vocal supporter of health care reform and other controversial Democratic Party policies. In fact, that might be why his tenure was so short. Today, he runs the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Tom Perriello is a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe represented the fifth congressional district in the commonwealth of Virginia, and he is president and CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Tom Perriello, thank you so much for joining us in studio.
MR. TOM PERRIELLOThank you for having me.
NNAMDIBack in 2010, you were one of the few vulnerable incumbent congressmen who gave a full-throated defense of the Affordable Care Act and maybe you paid a price for it, but it has now been heartily embraced by Democrats at this convention. Is health care going to be an albatross around Democrat's neck this time around, you think?
PERRIELLOIt's not. I think that what you're seeing is most independent voters in particular have taken an approach of saying, let's see how this thing works. There's some hope. There's some skepticism. But people are starting to see what it actually means beyond the sound bites. Their kids are able to stay on their health care plan through college or maybe that first job, free preventative screenings for seniors and for women, things that are actually going after and abuse in the system to extend the solvency of Medicare.
PERRIELLOThese are positive things creating a more competitive environment. And a lot of folks got checks back from their health insurance companies because we said they have to spend a certain amount directly on patient care as opposed to their own bonuses. So I think as people see more about the plan, that's a positive thing. I also think, you know, the economy has started to have a little bit of life in it
PERRIELLOAnd in 2010, as much as the debate was about health care, I think the economy tends to trump other things with voters, and I think people are finally stating to feel those months of private-sector job growth. So there's obviously a long way to go.
NNAMDICan you win with a progressive platform in Virginia or in red states around the country?
PERRIELLOSure you can. I think the issue that people want to see is, first and foremost, conviction. Do you actually have a sense of right and wrong? Do you have a vision that you're putting out there, whether that's as a Republican, a Democrat or an independent? And, second, do you have a plan for growing the economy? And I think if you talk to business leaders, if you talk to community leaders and economic development planners, they know that a lot of Virginia's competitiveness comes from the investments in education, innovation as well as infrastructure.
PERRIELLOAnd we need to have system where we can out-compete other countries and other states. And that does involve investment. And anyone who's started a business or run a household knows the difference between an expenditure and an investment. If you went out the other night and watched the, you know, last night, instead of watching Clinton, you watched the NFL game and had a few beers and some sandwiches, God bless, but that's an expenditure. If you put that money into making your home more efficient, that's an investment.
PERRIELLOAnd the same thing is true when you're talking about how we're going to grow jobs, whether it's in Virginia or across the country. So I think a more progressive vision is exactly what people want 'cause they want progress. They believe that we've had a couple of decades now where we haven't seen the kind of returns to the middle class that had made this country stronger in the past.
NNAMDILet me try it another way. Over the last few years, I've heard Republican leaders repeat an interesting claim. They say that at its core, America is a center-right country. Do you agree?
PERRIELLONo, I think we're an independent country. I think people have their own opinions and they tend to cherish that, and I think its part of what makes us great. And any attempt, I think, to suggest the country is monolithic or is in one place on an artificial spectrum is wrong. I think, when it comes to social issues, the country is becoming more progressive, I think, on national security issues, it matters at the moment that we're in. After 9/11, I think we were a very hawkish nation for some very understandable reasons.
PERRIELLOTen years on, I think people are starting -- on the right and the left, are being a little more cautious about the use of force and commitments overseas. And on the economy, I think the core is really kitchen table economics, which is right down the middle. It's the idea of whether the American dream is going to be real. I think what you have on the right, the left and the center on the economy is a concern about fairness. Nobody thinks that everybody is going to be a billionaire or everyone's entitled to that.
PERRIELLOThey want to believe that if you work hard and play by the rules, you're going to get a chance to live the American dream and leave your kids in a better place. I think progressives tend to believe that the system is rigged against the working and middle class, and therefore we need some intervention in order to make sure working- and middle-class folks get a chance: strong public education, making college more affordable, making it easier to start a business. On the conservative side, I think some feel like the fairest thing to do is a laissez-faire approach where you let the chips fall where they may.
PERRIELLOThose are genuine debates that we can have, and I think you see it in the Medicare debate right now, where Democrats that are -- the party that created Medicare and is repeatedly protecting Medicare and continues to have a proposal that extends the solvency of Medicare. And the conservatives are putting forward something that isn't based on the idea of a social insurance program where everyone's got -- given a guaranteed benefit and everyone pays in, but more of a voucher program.
PERRIELLOAnd so those are just different visions, and I think that's a legitimate thing for us to discuss. So I don't think I would put America as a nation anywhere on the spectrum. All you have to do is walk up and down the streets of Charlotte to realize there are some people that disagree very strongly. And I don't think any one of those folks is less American than the other just because some are on the far right and some are on the far left.
NNAMDIWell, let's ask our listeners what they think. Do you think America is a center-right country or not? How would you characterize the country ideologically? 800-433-8850. Our guest is Tom Perriello. He's a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and he's now president and CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. You can also send email with your questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIRoss Douthat from The New York Times recently wrote about what he sees as a kind of crisis lurking beneath the surface of the Democratic Party, that the party for decades reflexively offered new government programs as a way to entice voters, but, in an age of austerity, that the party needs a compelling, new positive vision. Do you agree?
PERRIELLOI certainly think we should be constantly reinventing ourself as a country and as people, and that's part of the spirit that Jefferson called on and grew up in Charlottesville where we want to be constantly reinventing our sense of our competitiveness, our economic vision. And I think you've seen from the president a commitment, whether it's some of the things that haven't gotten as many headlines, really new generation of agriculture and forestry work, looking and bringing manufacturing back, which some people think is a step backwards.
PERRIELLOBut if you go down to Southern Virginia, you realize there are a lot of people who want to keep making things in this country, and there are a lot of good jobs with good wages when we make things again. I didn't think I'd see manufacturing tick up in my lifetime, but the president's made investments that have brought manufacturing back, not just in the auto sector that has been -- gotten the most attention in the efforts to save General Motors, but really across advanced manufacturing.
PERRIELLOI believe that's based on an economic vision that we have to have a plan for out-competing the world. There was a vision that I think elites in both parties signed up for too quickly in the '90s, that if we simply dropped all barriers to trade and got into a race to the bottom, everyone, every coal miner, will become a software engineer. Well, that's not actually how that transition works.
PERRIELLOSo I actually think the new focus on the middle class has not come from either party. It's come from main streets across America, demanding that we understand how serious this economic recession has been. I think the Republicans have doubled down on their old approach, which is a failed approach. And the Democrats have actually reinvented a little bit and said, you know what, we need a competitiveness strategy.
PERRIELLOAnd I think that's why you're seeing policies that are bringing private sector job growth back. So, you know, I think in that situation, you know, you will want to reinvent, but there are also principles that are timeless, like the idea that all people are of equal dignity and therefore we want to make sure civil rights are protected, people's right to vote is protected. Frankly, those shouldn't be partisan issues, but they have been a little too much.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones, David in Fairfax, Va. You're on the air, David. Go ahead, please.
DAVIDHello. Thank you for having me and taking my call.
DAVIDI had a quick question, both, I guess, for your guest currently, and I was listening to the guest before. And he mentioned there's, like, Solyndra investment, and you mentioned now the Affordable Care Act. My question is what -- where does the intense resistance to anything government come from from some people? Like anytime you have the government involved in spending, investing in health care, it seems bad for some reason, whereas if the government hires someone, it's wasteful.
DAVIDIt's -- you shouldn't spend that. If a private person hires someone, it's great. It's heroic. It's creating jobs. Same thing for health care. You know, if the government is involved in subsidizing health care and taking care of people, that's bad. That's, you know -- but if a private insurance company does it, that's good.
NNAMDII'll have Tom Perriello respond, but I'll refer you to a column in The Washington Post today by Joe Davidson called "The Federal Diary," in which somebody conducted a survey about which kinds of businesses they felt were doing well. And the government came in, I think, second to last among, like, 24 businesses. But here is Congressman Tom Perriello.
PERRIELLOI think it's an important question. First of all, I think that Americans have tended to be skeptical of a lot of big things, big corporations and big government. And there's been more of a main street frontiersman mentality from early on, and I think that's a good thing. I think we're based on the idea that we want a government that is accountable to the people, and a certain amount of skepticism is a good thing for holding officials accountable, relative to founders who had -- have fled regimes where there was not that form of accountability.
PERRIELLOSo that idea of wanting to call out particularly our public officials, I think, is a healthy thing, though obviously when we do it civilly and substantively, I think, it's a little bit better. I think the question comes back to this issue of fairness. If you ask the question how big should the government be, most people are a little bit skeptical of -- somewhere between a little and a lot skeptical of big government.
PERRIELLOI think if the question is how fair should the economy be, people think the economy should be fair. It should be something where people who work hard and play by the rules get ahead. And I think one's attitude towards government programs, philanthropic programs, the private sector, et cetera, is based on the extent to which you think they reflect fairness or meritocracy versus representing a lack of that.
PERRIELLOAnd I think it comes back to this question of the American dream. If you believe -- you know, my father grew up very poor in West Virginia, was able to make it to a great public university, the University of Virginia, become a doctor, see his kid go on to be in the House of Representatives. That is a quintessential American narrative. You've heard that over and over this week from speakers about their own experiences in life.
PERRIELLOAnd I think that the Democratic Party represents a belief that there's a tremendous number of people out there who, if given the chance, could go on to do amazing things, whether that's in their own community, whether that's inventing the next computer or solving the next disease. And we want to make sure that every kid, no matter what zip code they're born into, has a chance to live that out and that public education, student loans, to help make college affordable are an important part of protecting that dream.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Tom Perriello, former member of the U.S. House of Representatives and current president and CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. But you can still call us at 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Tom Perriello. He's a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives and president and CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He joins us in studio here in Charlotte, N.C. I'd like to talk about faith for a second. Catholics are among the most targeted demographics this election. And it seems that they're making high-profile cameos at both conventions.
NNAMDICardinal Timothy Dolan, the head of the U.S. Conference of Bishops, delivered the closing prayer at the Republican National Convention, and he's appeared to align himself on parts of the Catholic Church hierarchy with the GOP over social issues. On the other side last night, Sister Simone Campbell, a member of Nuns on the Bus, spoke last night at the DNC about the social gospel and why the Ryan plan fails to meet the moral teachings of the church.
NNAMDIPrior to running for elected office, you helped found a number of groups that sought to build up on the social justice traditions of Catholics. How do you think the Catholic vote will break?
PERRIELLOWell, like with so many parts of America we're talking about before, it's hard to talk about the Catholic vote monolithically. You have a lot of Latino Catholic voters. You have Catholic voters in -- who are part of heavy manufacturing areas in the Midwest, et cetera. But I would say overall, you know, the choice of putting Paul Ryan on the ticket has probably really hurt Republicans with Catholic voters. He's been such the public face of what the nuns have called out as a fundamentally immoral budget.
PERRIELLOAnd keep in mind, the bishops also called -- said that Paul Ryan's budget has failed the basic moral test of our time. And so I think you have a real concern there. The nuns obviously are -- for those of us who are still -- who are Catholics, we certainly see the nuns in our Jesuit universities as some of what we're most proud of. And they don't get into politics often. And you saw on Sister Simone's speech last night, it was not a partisan speech. It was a compassionate speech.
PERRIELLOIt was a speech about putting a face and a voice on those who are kicked to the curve under the Romney-Ryan budget. And we talked before about having a deep sense of fairness as Americans. We do also have a deep sense of compassion. We're an incredibly giving country through our...
NNAMDIAnd what do you say to Catholics on the right who say a deep sense of fairness would stop the Democratic Party from passing laws that have Catholic women being able to access contraception?
PERRIELLOWell, you know, the -- there's a lot of misunderstanding about this situation. This is really about whether your boss has any business telling you and your spouse when you're going to start a family. And this is not a freedom of religion issue. This is whether, you know, and it's not just workers I know who say I don't want my boss having a say in when my wife and I start a family.
PERRIELLOBut a lot of bosses who say the last thing I want to be involved in is the, you know, family planning decisions that someone on our staff makes or on -- yeah, on our team. And I think this comes back to the fundamental -- one of the ways in which Romney and Ryan are so out of touch with people's lived experience. You know, to get contraception for a year, if you and your wife have decided not -- that you may be not in an economic situation to start a family for a few years, that might be $600, $800, $1,200 for a year.
PERRIELLOAnd to someone like Romney or Ryan, that may not seem like a lot, that may seem like pocket change, but for families that are struggling, that's real money and that is a hardship. So anything that's really passing on cost to working middle-class families, obviously, the Romney-Ryan plan raises taxes, $2,000 on middle-class families. That's from the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center that's headed by one of President Bush's advisers that says their plan raises taxes on the middle class by $2,000.
PERRIELLOYou can just start to add up the price tag. Another $900 on Pell Grants for your kid. If you have a parent who's aging, $11,000 more for current retirees. They say current retirees are protected. That's verifiably false, 11,000 more dollars that they're going to be paying when they've paid into a system. These costs add up. And it's a basic question of whether you feel right now is a good time to be getting relief to the middle class or adding up their bills.
PERRIELLOAnd to try to turn this contraception debate into some sort of war on religion, you know, I've worked in a lot countries overseas where there's real religious oppression, where people are truly oppressed for practicing their faith. The idea that we're going to have contraception covered under health care and that your boss doesn't get to intervene and that moral decision is not ranking up there with the very serious threats that we see in the world.
NNAMDII want to circle back to Virginia for second. I'll let Bill in Alexandria do that for me. Bill, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BILLThanks, Kojo. Tom, first, I want to thank you for -- you and your staff for helping my brother in Victoria get qualifications for benefit for his adult handicapped son. Thank you very much. It meant a huge thing to the family. More importantly, though, what is your opinion on Virgil Goode's run as an independent and what is that going to mean in Virginia for...
NNAMDIVirgil Goode, being the man that Tom Perriello defeated in 2008. He's a conservative five-term congressman. He's running for the presidency under the conservative party. And this week, a Virginia panel ruled that his name should appear on the ballot in November. Do you think he kind of -- could be the Republican's Ralph Nader here?
PERRIELLOHe could be. And he, like Nader, he's a person of...
NNAMDIAt least in Virginia.
PERRIELLO...deep conviction. And first, Bill, thank you for the kind words. You know, there aren't -- there are a lot of things I don't miss about being in politics, but one thing I do is that idea of helping constituents in ways that, really, I'll carry with me the rest of my life. And so it was an honor to serve in that way. On the Virgil question, you know, he's a really fascinating guy, and I obviously, you know, have my own bias here in the sense that it would probably -- a strong performance would help Obama. I don't deny that.
PERRIELLOBut I do think it was so much more interesting to debate him than other politicians because he's willing to say what he really means. I think he represents a part of the Republican base far better than Mitt Romney does. I think his views are more aligned, his passion is more aligned with much of the Republican base and speaks to that. So I think it represents a real challenge for Mitt Romney, who has put himself really pretty far out on the spectrum to the right.
PERRIELLOAnd the question is if he moderates to the middle, does that mean that people see, you know, start to push towards Virgil Goode? You know, I'm going to let Virgil run his own campaign. He's certainly always been his own man, and he really is, I think, a person who has a point of view and has a right to say that. And I think it's going to resonate with a lot of Virginia voters.
NNAMDIBill, thank you for your call. We know that Norton, Va., is a critical target for the Democrats, but you have represented a district that spanned Charlottesville and rural areas. Will the Democrats be able to at least close the gap with Republicans down state?
PERRIELLOI think that they can. I think they're focusing more on direct voter contact and organizing as opposed to just the 30-second spots. The money gap is significant in Virginia. I think that's going to be tough. But I think, you know, Mitt Romney has really failed to resonate.
PERRIELLOWhen I go out and meet with rural Virginia voters, which I've been doing a fair amount of, you know, the idea of a guy who made his career in part on outsourcing American jobs, the Cayman Islands accounts and the idea that he actually wants to increase the loopholes for foreign profits that encouraged outsourcing, when you go down to a rural area that has lost thousands of manufacturing jobs over the '90s and the odd years, and they blame both parties for that quite understandably so.
PERRIELLOMitt Romney represents -- the thing I keep hearing from conservatives out there is he doesn't represent the boss who shut down the factory. He represents the guy that came to town out of nowhere and told the boss to shut down the factory. So I think it's a very tough sell for him with rural voters. Now, some of those voters like President Obama, some of them despise him with passion.
PERRIELLOAnd there's a question of whether that will be enough to drive them to the polls or drive them to Virgil Goode. But I do think Romney has really had a tough time, as you saw in the primaries, resonating with rural Republican voters.
NNAMDITom Perriello, thank you so much for joining us.
PERRIELLOThank you for having me.
NNAMDITom Perriello is a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He represented Virginia's 5th Congressional District. He's now president and CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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