Sen. Lamar Alexander: Trump should do for immigration what Nixon did for China

  • Sen. Lamar Alexander on why Americans need to study history and sort out immigration: "I don't think we ought to rewrite our history."
  • "We need to know who Jefferson Davis was, and why slavery was wrong, and the progress we've made since then."
  • "Let's have a legal immigration system, not a perpetual argument about who's legal and who's not."

"Speakeasy with John Harwood" is now available as a podcast. Subscribe on iTunes and listen to Harwood's extended conversations with political decision-makers.

Sen. Lamar Alexander sat down with CNBC to discuss a range of topics, including his ultimate vision for American immigration. What follows is an edited, condensed excerpt of the conversation.

CNBC's John Harwood: OK. Well, let's talk about the other issues. Civil rights, Confederate monument.

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, 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.

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.

Read more excerpts of Lamar Alexander's Speakeasy here.