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‘I would like us to get the smile back’: Sen. Kevin Cramer on the GOP

Republicans still have a lot to learn from the eternal optimism of Donald Trump, senator says

Sen. Kevin Cramer talks with reporters as he leaves the Senate floor on May 27.
Sen. Kevin Cramer talks with reporters as he leaves the Senate floor on May 27. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

When he’s talking to reporters, North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer has a habit of starting his answers with, “Yeah, it’s interesting …”

That fits the Republican’s just-happy-to-be-here persona, which sets him apart from the stern-faced ideologues of Capitol Hill. He’s tickled to be in the mix of things and can laugh about the swirling political dramas that leave other politicians on edge.

His party can get its “smile back” in the extended Trump era, he told Heard on the Hill at the end of May. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: Some lawmakers just completely avoid the press.

A: Yeah, I’ve noticed. [Laughs.]

Q: You’re pretty much the exact opposite.

A: I pretty much am, yeah. This is going to sound corny — and I know I do sound corny sometimes — but I actually feel like we’re kind of in the same business. That is, you’re my conduit to inform people.

A lot of people aren’t very well informed. And if Republicans aren’t talking to you, then they’re not informing. 

Even in college, I liked the media. I was intrigued by how it was done. I did my first telethon for March of Dimes — my grandmother had polio — when I was a college student, and pretty soon I was doing the Jerry Lewis telethons locally. I was a baseball umpire, but I always wanted to be the guy in the booth, you know?

Q: And you also just really like talking politics, right?

A: I do, I do.

Q: So, let’s talk politics. You’ve said Ronald Reagan and his “sunny conservatism” was what drew you to the Republican Party. But the GOP under Trump used the language of fear and “American carnage.” Which describes the party today?

A. Donald Trump was an eternally optimistic person. In fact, many times it got him in some trouble. With the COVID thing, much of his stream of consciousness was because he believed it wasn’t going to be a big deal; he always thought we were going to bounce back quickly.

Thinking out loud like that — which is something I accuse myself of doing a lot — is very dangerous in this business. But when you’re the president of the United States, you don’t get a lot of grace when you say the wrong thing.

So, in some respects, he wasn’t that different from Reagan and his optimism. He just doesn’t have the eloquence that Reagan had. 

As a party, I would like us to get the smile back. I mean, we still are the greatest experiment in political world history. Self-governance requires people of virtue, as Os Guinness puts it, and our virtue needs to be demonstrated in our personalities, not just in our ideals. If I grieve anything, it’s that we’ve become too angry.

Q: Where does the GOP go from here, looking ahead to the 2022 elections?

A: Here’s the unfortunate thing about being the minority: The thing that unites the loyal opposition is the majority party. And I say “unfortunate,” because it’s an easier role to play — the minority party is an easier role to play in a campaign year.

You have James Carville saying, “Democrats gotta just pound Jan. 6, every day, over and over,” and using all his usual colorful vulgarities to make the point.

Well, Republicans have the opportunity, as we watch inflation going up, as we watch war breaking out in the Middle East, when we see the southern border collapsing — there’s just a lot of things that can unite us, and none of them require a solution. And like I said, that’s an easy role to play.

Now, I don’t adhere to that as the only philosophy, because every day can’t be about the next election. It just cannot be. It’s got to be about the country.

Q: Where does that leave the opportunity for bipartisanship? You’ve sponsored a number of bills with Democrats, things like rural broadband and the SAFE Banking Act. But now Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says the only goal is “stopping this administration.” 

A: One of my bigger concerns in this town is that everybody looks for things they can do where they are the winner and somebody else is the loser. 

That’s what we’re going through right now with infrastructure. I think Democrats don’t want us to get a victory, and so they are playing hard to get. But the surface transportation thing we just agreed to might pass unanimously. Where it goes after that is yet to be seen.

Do you know how hard it is to get a 28 to 0 vote out of the [Senate Environment and Public Works] Committee on something as big as a transportation bill like we did last year? In order to do that, I had to agree to some climate stuff, and they had to agree to some funding for rural America. There’s a tradeoff at the end of the day, in which case, two sides can win.

Q. So you’re OK with the idea, in theory, that you pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill that Biden signs, plus a few other things, like the SAFE Banking Act and Endless Frontier Act?

A: As I remind some of my colleagues pretty regularly, we didn’t win the election. If we’re going to do some things we like to do, we’re going to have to do some things they like to do.

I do a lot of conservative talk radio. I have to explain myself a lot, shall we say. You’ll have somebody, they’re a freedom fighter, they’re a patriot, they’re a tea partier or they’re a Trumpster, but then they want to toss out the Constitution when it isn’t convenient. So, I’ll say, “Now, remember our founders created this system on purpose — three coequal branches, bicameral legislature. No one entity gets to control everything, and it’s what makes us great.”

Q: You’re close to the former president, who has been going after Republicans who’ve challenged him on his election falsehoods or voted for impeachment. Let me throw out another Reagan quote at you: “The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and ally, not a 20 percent traitor.” Does that still hold true in today’s GOP?

A: Well, I think impeachment is an extreme example, because that would be a pretty strong measurement of loyalty. [Laughs.] I might set that one aside.

The president called me not that long ago. He wanted to run some Senate names by me, people he was thinking about endorsing. There was one example where he said, “Well, he wasn’t with me on everything.”

I said, “Sir, can I just tell you something about this person you’re talking about? He’s not the kind of person who’s going to put his head through a wall for you. But philosophically, he’s more like you than I am — he’s more of a populist, whereas I tend to be a little more conservative.”

He said, “Oh, yeah, I know what you mean.”

I’ve had many conversations with Donald Trump where I didn’t agree with him — interest rates, the Paris accord, I defended [Federal Reserve Chairman] Jay Powell many times — and he’d always say “Well, you make a good point there. You could be right — but I don’t think so.” [Laughs.]

There’s no question: He’s a brawler, he’s a street fighter and it’s worked for him. But he doesn’t demand 100 percent loyalty. A lot of the people that he ended up liking a lot, people like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, were big-time primary opponents. 

Q: Unlike past presidential elections, the losing candidate isn’t going away.

A: No, quite the opposite, right? So, what’s his role going to be? On one hand, there’s Trump the personality. And on the other hand, there’s the populist philosophy that he’s clearly influenced in our party.

And this is where Liz Cheney got a little bit sideways with him. She was just hard on him personally, and she also doesn’t share his basic philosophy of governance. So, she had two strikes against her — plus she’s just a really good talker, and that got her into some trouble with him.

But all that said, I do think some people are missing the bigger picture, and that is this brand — this more America-first version of globalism, this populism when it comes to trade or wars in the Middle East. The Republican Party is not the wide open, free trade, globalist party that it was before, whether there is a Donald Trump or not.

Q: You talked earlier about the founders. They put a lot of stock in the rule of law. The president refusing to recognize an election flies in the face of that, crossing the line from being a brawler into something more dangerous. How do you reconcile your faith in the system with support for Trump?

A: Well, I don’t know that I have to reconcile them, because I recognize the election and am moving forward as such. And even if I thought it was wrought with fraud, it’s still over, and we still have the next election to worry about.

In the movie “Gumball Rally,” the Italian sports car driver Franco reaches into his Fiat and rips the rearview mirror off and throws it in the backseat and says, “What’s behind me is not important.”

There’s a rearview mirror for a reason, but it’s a lot smaller than the windshield, right? But I think Franco was on to something: If you spend all your time dwelling on the past, you really can’t get much done in the future. And that’s just a luxury we don’t have, especially with this administration not wasting a minute of total power.

Q: That’s what confuses me about the GOP right now, because politically it’s not in your interest to relitigate the 2020 election, but you still have one guy with a megaphone talking about it all the time. Are you worried that’s going to come back to bite you?

A: Not that much, frankly, because while he’s doing that, it fires up the base.

But more and more people are getting engaged in what’s going on in this current administration. Here we’re talking to Iran about lifting oil sanctions, we lift the sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and then shut down our own energy industry. It’s just so upside down, and we pay people to not work, and all this stuff that people are catching onto little by little. 

Could we get to it a lot faster if we didn’t have that distraction? Maybe. But I’ll tell you what’s going to happen: When he starts doing his rallies again — while he’s talking into the megaphone — he’s firing up millions of Republican voters.

So, I think we can do both. I think you can have Donald Trump the disrupter on the one hand, while we focus our messaging on what’s going on with the Democratic-run country.

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