WHEN: Monday, November 20th
Sen. Lamar Alexander's 50-year career in politics spans every top job short of the presidency. He began as an aide to Sen. Howard Baker, worked in the Nixon White House and served two terms as governor of Tennessee with an emphasis on education and economic development. After a stint as president of the University of Tennessee, he became Education secretary under President George H.W. Bush. Then came two unsuccessful campaigns for president in his own right, followed by his election in 2002 to the U.S. Senate. Now 77, Alexander has earned a reputation for seriousness, diligence and pragmatism. A few years ago, he quit his post as the third-ranking member of the Senate Republican Leadership to gain more latitude for compromise with Democrats. Now the deal he has struck with Democratic counterpart Sen. Patty Murray to stabilize Obamacare marketplaces has become a key bargaining chip in the Senate tax-cut debate. He sat down in Nashville's Bluebird Cafe, the songwriter's haven where Taylor Swift was discovered, to discuss the quest for successful governance in President Donald Trump's Washington. A partial transcript from Speakeasy with John Harwood featuring Sen. Lamar Alexander follows.
All references must be sourced to CNBC.com.
Sen. Alexander: If all I want to do is make a speech, or shout, I'd go to a street corner or buy a radio station. I want to get a result. And that's harder to do today.
John Harwood: A few years ago, we talked when you had made the decision to quit the Republican leadership. You said at that time that you felt you would be freer to solve problems if you were not in the leadership. How's that worked out?
Alexander: It has done that. I mean, fixing No Child Left Behind, that took a few years. President Obama said it was a Christmas miracle when we got it done. The smaller bill that Sen. Murray of Washington state and I worked out to try to stabilize the individual insurance market, bring premiums down, avoid chaos, which we hope the president will sign.
Harwood: Is that going to work?
Alexander: I believe it will. I think the country could use a bipartisan solution on health care, and it wouldn't hurt the president and Congress one bit to enact one.
Harwood: President Trump seems, in many ways, to be a polar opposite from you. You have a president who doesn't give any evidence of knowing what's in the bill that you guys have worked out, or caring much about the content of the bill. Sometimes he says, "Let's do it," sometimes he says, "Let's don't." He'll tweet one thing, tweet another thing. How do you navigate that process?
Alexander: Lamar Alexander isn't president. I tried to be, and the people chose Donald Trump at a different time. So the president called me in this case, and he said, "I think we need a bipartisan solution on health care, so people aren't hurt for the next couple of years. Why don't you work with Sen. Murray, and see if you can do one?" We've done our job, it's sitting there at the White House, wrapped up in a nice package.
Harwood: Well, what about fellow Republicans in the House and in the Senate?
Alexander: I think if the president supports it, it'll be a part of the end-of-the-year package. We see premiums going through the roof. So, for the next two years, we ought to be able to agree that we're going to stabilize that. I mean, we're sitting here, in the Bluebird Cafe. Most songwriters don't have health insurance, because they can't afford it. If they do have it, in Tennessee, their premiums went up 176 percent in the last four years, and 58 percent this next year. So, what this little bill would do is take those premiums down, not up.
Harwood: And so does that mean the entire game for you, in particular, not so much Sen. Murray, is to be the last person to talk to President Trump, to get him to go like this [thumb-up], instead of go like that [thumb-down]?
Alexander: We're going to say, "Mr. President, you asked us to do this. You don't want chaos, neither do we. Sign it, take some credit for it, and give the American people a bipartisan win. I think they'll like it."
Harwood: Let me talk a little bit about your party. And I was looking back at the causes that you've advanced over your career. From when you were a student, civil rights –
Harwood: Education, economic development. What do you think about where your party is headed, and the set of priorities that the party is embodying right now?
Alexander: On taxes, I think we're right where we ought to be. It's a middle-income tax cut. People in every category get some lower taxes. But more importantly, it'll take the handcuffs off job creators and allow them to grow. Cutting the corporate rate from 35 to 20, allowing you to cap to expense the things you buy immediately, that doesn't sound like front-page news. But what it should do in Tennessee is raise family incomes. In every category, most people will get a middle-income tax cut. Ninety percent of the people will use the standard deduction. The child-care tax credit will be doubled. And there should be more good-paying jobs, more competition for employees, which means wages go up.
Harwood: What about the argument from Marco Rubio and Mike Lee, that if you gave a little bit less money for people at the top, you could make a larger child credit, and you could make it refundable against the payroll tax for people who don't have income-tax liability?
Alexander: It's hard to take much more from people at the top, when 10 percent of the people pay 70 percent of the taxes. What you really need is a growing economy that produces more revenues. That's more money for the government, and that's more money in your wallet.
Harwood: We already have substantial deficits. We're already on track to have $10 trillion in deficits in the next 10 years. You've got more and more people coming on Medicare and Social Security. What gives afterwards?
Alexander: Nobody likes to cut entitlements. But I think the Republican Party should, and always has said, we want to reduce the growth of government, increase the amount of money in your pocketbook, and reduce the federal debt. That, I think, is a winning formula.
Harwood: When we had that conversation six years ago, when you left the leadership, you told me roads and bridges, national laboratories, college scholarships –
Harwood: All those things should be part of our agenda and our economic program. We're not hearing much talk about that from your – when you look at the budget priorities, where the Trump administration's budget has gone. You haven't seen anything on infrastructure this year. How –
Alexander: Well, but if you look at what the Republican Congress has done, let's just take that. We've increased spending for biomedical research, for the National Institutes of Health, more than any other Congress in many, many years. Now, the budget didn't, but we don't pay attention to presidents' budgets, whether they're President Trump, or President Obama.
Harwood: So, what you guys have done on the budget in the Congress is more important than the things that the administration has been – because that sends a signal.
Alexander: Well the administration – well it sends a signal. Everybody pays attention to it, but it doesn't turn into anything. What we do becomes the law.
Harwood: Steve Bannon, he's going after every Republican who supports Mitch McConnell, with one or two exceptions.
Harwood: What is that all about? What is he after? What do you think of that situation?
Alexander: I wish he'd go after Democrats. I don't see how defeating Republicans helps advance a conservative agenda. I think all it does is create an opportunity for Democrats to take back over and advance the Obama agenda, or the Clinton agenda, or the Bernie Sanders agenda.
Harwood: So, why is the president's former campaign chief executive and top strategist doing this?
Alexander: Beats me.
Harwood: Steve Bannon says that he's going after the people who are part of the global establishment clique, who look down on the blue-collar Trump voters. So, how do you plead on that?
Alexander: I don't know what he's talking about. I mean, I know that –
Harwood: Are you a globalist?
Alexander: I'm sitting in the Bluebird Cafe, 40 miles from the largest auto plant in North America. It's called Nissan. And it helped to attract 1,000 auto suppliers to Tennessee, raised our family incomes, made us richer. I went to Japan to help get it. I'm interested in us being a part of the world. That's why I think the president's gotten bad advice from Mr. Bannon or others about NAFTA. Argue with China, argue with Japan, leave NAFTA alone. Mexico and China have helped make us rich in Tennessee — richer.
Harwood: Why do you think the president doesn't get this?
Alexander: He gets advice from different people, and so I'm giving him other advice.
Harwood: When I did that story, when you left the leadership, I talked to your old advisor Mike Murphy.
Harwood: And we were talking about the things that made you need to leave the leadership and he said, "You know, if voters wanted politicians with guts, they'd elect them. But more often than not, they vote for the opposite." What do you think about that? Is that true?
Alexander: I think the rewards today are for people who do stand up, and stand on their principles, and don't work together to get a result. I think that's where the rewards are. But I think the satisfaction of public service is getting a result, is lowering the songwriter's health care premium.
Harwood: Is there any prospect, as you see it, that the fashions of the country change so that that satisfaction gets rewarded more than it is right now?
Alexander: Well, maybe. We'll see. I get up in the morning, and try to do something to help the country, and go to bed at night thinking I have, that I've done a good day's work. And in the end, that's what I should be doing.
SEN. ALEXANDER ON PRESIDENT TRUMP
John Harwood: Now, your colleague, Sen. Bob Corker, recently had some very strong things to say about the president. You were asked about that, and you made a joke, like, "Oh, they should go play golf together." But I think you know this is not about two guys having a personality conflict. This is about a very serious and experienced legislator, of your party, who says he is worried for the country about the stability, the competence of this president. Is he right? And are you worried also?
Sen. Alexander: Sen. Corker's a very serious person. What he says is worth listening to always. The president does things and says things that I don't do, and that I don't approve of. But he was elected by the people, and I spend my time, for example, trying to work with him, and with Democrats, with whom I don't agree, to get a result on health care so I don't have songwriters in Nashville who can't afford insurance. I think that's the best way for me to spend my time.
Harwood: Are you worried about a nuclear crisis with North Korea, and somebody who is not up to the job making the decisions in the crisis?
Alexander: Well, let's give the president a chance. His Asian trip seems to have gone pretty well, from what I've been able to tell. I think most presidents who arrive thinking they're going to deal just with domestic issues — I think of Bill Clinton, I think of Ronald Reagan — end up dealing mostly with issues they've never thought much about. And some become very good at it, as President Reagan did, having very little foreign policy experience to start with. So, let's see if the president's style of things gets a better result in North Korea.
Harwood: But you don't think he is a unique case, in terms of the potential peril to the country from his behavior and the way he makes decisions?
Alexander: Oh, he's a unique case. He's completely unconventional. He doesn't do things, as I said, the way I would do them, nor the way I would rather presidents act. But he was elected by the American people.
Harwood: Is he dangerous?
Alexander: I'm not going to sit here and say he's a dangerous man. He's a man that the American people entrusted with the presidency, and I'm going to try to help him succeed.
Harwood: I talked to a Republican member of Congress the other day, was talking about the comments by Corker, Flake, McCain — colleagues of yours who are not running for re-election –
Harwood: Who've said very alarming things about the president — worried out loud. I said, "When are you going to see people who are not leaving the Congress do that?" And his answer was simply, "Bob Mueller. When Bob Mueller comes back with something serious, that's when you're going to see everything change." Is that right?
Alexander: I'm not going to be one more person, spending most of my time worrying about an investigation that we have a special prosecutor undertaking, that we have the intelligence committee undertaking. Let them do their job. I'll do my job.
Harwood: You came to office as governor. You were elected and took office early because the outgoing governor was behaving corruptly. And there was an intervention by people in both parties to try to deal with that situation. Do you have any concern that Donald Trump and the situation we're in now could turn into a Ray Blanton situation?
Alexander: Oh, I certainly hope not. I mean, what was happening in Tennessee at that time was, as you know, the governor was selling pardons for cash. And he later went to jail for selling whiskey licenses for cash. And his general counsel went to jail for selling pardons for cash. I don't think we have that situation in the White House today.
SEN. ALEXANDER ON IMMIGRATION
John Harwood: OK. Well, let's talk about the other issues. Civil rights, Confederate monuments.
Sen. Alexander: Well, let's talk about Confederate monuments. I take high school teachers on the Senate floor before it opens — a senator can do that. They rush to various desks of the senators, Daniel Webster, various people. One of those desks is Jefferson Davis' desk. He left the Senate to be the president of the Confederacy. There's a chop mark in the desk, because a Union soldier came in, when they came to Washington, and started chopping the desk. His commander said, "Stop. We're here to save the Union, not to destroy it." It's the best story of any of the Senate's desks. Should we take Jefferson Davis' desk out of the United States Senate? I don't think so. I don't think we ought to rewrite our history. I think our heroes ought to be placed in appropriate places. So, in Tennessee, we should have the Howard Bakers, and the Ben Hookses, and the Alex Haleys, somebody who represented us all. But we were all involved in the Civil War, all of our families. There's a place for everybody.
Harwood: Understood, but do you not think that line of argument that was advanced by protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, that's been picked up by some candidates in your party in other parts of the world, stand for something other than simply honoring history?
Alexander: I can tell you what I think. And I think we ought to spend more time learning about American history, less time rewriting it. The worst scores in high school today are not in math and science, they're in United States history. And we need to know who Jefferson Davis was, and why slavery was wrong, and the progress we've made since then. And if we act like it didn't happen, we'll not know our country at all.
Harwood: Are you comfortable with the message that the Republican Party under Donald Trump is sending on race right now?
Alexander: What I'd like for President Trump to do is to do for immigration, which involves race, what Nixon did for China. And I've said that to him twice. And he's responded very well. He could, more than any other president I can think of right now, help us solve the immigration problem in this country. We need a legal immigration system, and we need to put that behind us. We tried to do it in 2013; I voted for it. It would've solved many of the problems that we have today.
Harwood: Would you vote for it again?
Alexander: I would vote for it again. But it needs the president to say, "Let's solve all these problems now." Let's solve border security; let's solve the problem of legal status. Let's deal with these children who were brought here, who didn't know they were being brought here at the time. Let's make this a country of laws. Let's have a legal immigration system, not a perpetual argument about who's legal and who's not.
Harwood: And do you see any reasonable prospect that he, in fact, will take your advice?
Alexander: He might. He indicated that when he talked about the Dreamers. I think he wants a result on the Dreamers.
SEN. ALEXANDER ON ROY MOORE
John Harwood: Roy Moore, the Republican nominee. You've doubtless seen that in conservative media, and in some Republican politicians in Alabama in particular, have said, "Well, it's he said/she said, not that big a deal, it was consensual." What does that tell you about the state of partisanship in the country that you have that kind of a reaction?
Sen. Alexander: It tells me we've got an internet democracy where anybody can say anything, and usually get heard today. So, my view on it is the charges, as detailed, seemed well-documented and serious.
Harwood: If he doesn't step aside, based on what you know, if this happened in your state, would you urge voters to vote for the Democratic candidate?
Alexander: That's much too hypothetical. I don't urge voters in Tennessee to vote for anybody. They didn't elect me to tell them how to vote.
Harwood: But you personally wouldn't rather have Doug Jones as your colleague in the Senate than Roy Moore?
Alexander: I'm not going to start getting in — the people of Alabama are going to elect their United States senator. I support – obviously, I like having a Republican majority, but in this case, you've got a problem that needs to be resolved.
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