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‘You want your senators to read books’: Todd Young talks politics and AI

Indiana Republican has a scholarly view of the job

Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., says he has a long reading list, between biographies, current events, histories and the classics.
Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., says he has a long reading list, between biographies, current events, histories and the classics. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Todd Young’s evolution from a member of the House to a second-term senator can be measured in pages read.

The Indiana Republican likes to joke that he ran for Senate to reclaim some quality reading time, and his vision of the job sounds almost quaint. “Be a scholar,” he says.

He devoured a biography of Abraham Lincoln this summer and a tome on Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy, but next on his list is a high school classic, Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”

“It’s just a cautionary tale I need to revisit because I’m working on artificial intelligence and synthetic biology and other policy areas … that require me to be sensitive to the moral implications of their continued development,” he says.

Sipping coffee and scanning The Wall Street Journal in his Dirksen Building office last week, Young shared his outlook for AI regulation (“existing laws and regulations will help us address most of the risks”) and described the sometimes contradictory path he’s carving on the Hill. A recent critic of Donald Trump, he insists he doesn’t really like electoral politics, even after his stint as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the 2020 cycle.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: How would you describe your approach to politics? What might surprise people? 

A: I don’t really enjoy electoral politics much. I enjoy the day job. I enjoy being a United States senator and representing the people of Indiana, but the very politics that most of my constituents and most Americans curse, I curse too. 

A lot of people think elected officials are intoxicated by electoral politics, and some are. That doesn’t mean I’m better than anyone. It just means I think people would be surprised by that. 

I had never been elected to any office until the U.S. House. I had never worked on a campaign in any active way. I did some policy work years ago on Mitch Daniels’ first governor’s campaign, but that was minor, and I worked in the official office of Dick Lugar for about a year and a half.

So when I showed up here in 2011, our politics had changed significantly over that time on account of modern technology, and that in turn shaped the incentives for media and politicians alike. I didn’t fully understand the various facets of the job and how much time would be spent fundraising, crafting communications, memorizing lines. And so I tried to sort of do the job the way I saw others do it for several years, and I found myself pretty unsatisfied.

When I got into the Senate, I changed my patterns. That was interrupted somewhat because I was NRSC chairman for two years, and I had to go back to just, you know, doing what those chairmen do.

Q: Chairing the NRSC is a pretty strange job for someone who feels that way about fundraising and elections.

A: Totally. Yeah. But now I feel like I have the requisite space to put my skills — and frankly, my preferences — to use on behalf of the country and my state, and it’s a lot more satisfying.

Q: You’ve made it clear you don’t want Donald Trump to be the nominee for president next year. So have several other GOP senators, but it still puts you at odds with a lot of your party. Is that difficult? 

A: No, not for me. 

Q: Will you support him if Trump does win the nomination?

A: Support him in his bid for the presidency? No. Just as Donald Trump, incidentally, will not be supporting any other Republican should they win the nomination. Trump’s rules.

Q: Does anybody else in the field excite you?

A: Anybody but Mr. Trump. With that said, I think Nikki Haley has run an effective campaign, and she’s done so in a way that is dignified and professional, yet still hard-hitting, which is what I want from a candidate.

Listen, I like a lot of the things that my friend Mike Pence has been saying on the stump, but I think Haley, at least as of today, is the one who both represents my values and could conceivably win if she has a good [showing in] Iowa and New Hampshire.

Q: Looking back, who was America’s best president ever?

A: It’s gotta be Lincoln. I’ll start with the parochial. He’s a Hoosier. His formative years were spent in Indiana. 

It’s remarkable to me that we Republicans who rightly venerate Abraham Lincoln oftentimes misunderstand how he accomplished what he accomplished. He suspended portions of the Constitution. He vastly expanded the size of government. He was crafty and tough. But I do not think he ever indulged those sorts of tendencies outside of what was needed.

He used the crisis of the Civil War, working with his Republican Civil War Congress, to advance many Whiggish policies, like infrastructure investments, investment in science and technology, establishing the land grant college system so that common people could rise to a higher station. He identified ways in which government could play a positive role to empower regular people, and I agree with that. 

As you go from Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt to Eisenhower to Reagan and up to today, it’s a reminder that as times change, so our politics should change, so the Republican Party should change. People continue to invoke Ronald Reagan, who was a great president — but Reagan, and those other figures, would have a different politics now than they did in their time. 

Q: You mentioned you were a staffer for Lugar in the early 2000s. What was that like?

A: I observed the way he handled his office, and I absorbed some lessons. One, if you want to be good at this job, work long hours. Two, read a lot. I half jokingly tell people I ran for the Senate because members of the House read webpages and sometimes magazines. Senators can read books. I’m serious — like, now I read books, and I didn’t have time to read books before. You want your United States senators to read books. 

Three, treat people with respect. In retrospect, people think of Dick Lugar as the great nonpartisan senator. That was true, but he would make arguments, he would criticize. But he was fair in his criticism, and rarely did he make ad hominem attacks. He would argue about ideas and principles. 

Q: You’re one of the key AI players in the Senate. You’re working with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and a couple others to figure out how and when to regulate it. Do you agree with people like Elon Musk, who have called AI a “civilizational risk”?

A: That’s accurate with respect to certain narrow use cases. But the vast majority of cases present amazing, life-changing, positive, exciting opportunities for humanity to make us more productive, make us more healthy, to sustain our lives, to free up time for us to engage in more recreation, and on and on. 

The risks that have to be managed are [things] like creating novel pathogens through the use of DNA synthesizers and AI technologies, which could empower bad actors to cook up superbugs that could conceivably kill millions or billions of people. That’s not sensationalist or overwrought. That is a genuine risk, and there are serious people who are working on making that a very low probability. 

Existing laws and regulations will help us address most of the risks. It’s already illegal to invade people’s privacy. It’s already illegal to discriminate against certain racial or ethnic groups in the application of our banking laws. How does that look in an AI-enabled world? But there will be some gaps that have to be filled in our legal structure. And that’s the journey that I and Sen. Schumer and a handful of other senators are embarked on right now.

Q: You’re optimistic you still have time to regulate and rein it in?

A: I am. There is some urgency for us to get done. But so far, there’s been a seriousness of purpose among innovators in the business community and members of Congress and members of civil society, and I think a recognition that we’re going to have to act pretty soon.

Quick hits

Last book you read? “The Peacemaker” by William Inboden, a history of Reagan’s foreign policy from his election until winning the Cold War and beyond. We look back and it all looks so clear and sanitized, but there were so many internal disagreements along the way, and Reagan welcomed dissent.

In politics, can the ends justify the means? If your ends don’t justify your means, then you need to rethink both your ends and your means. 

Your least popular opinion? Right now, it’s probably the fact that Donald Trump is unqualified to be president of the United States.

Something your friends know about you but your constituents don’t? I wanted to be a professional soccer player when I was a kid. 

Closest friend across the aisle? Chris Murphy would be one, and Brian Schatz would be another. They’re great guys about my age, they have good senses of humor, and each of them enjoys Diet Mountain Dew. Once in a breach of norms, I was ranking member on a subcommittee hearing, and I asked my staffer for a Diet Mountain Dew. I said, “Go get two,” and I gave one to Murphy. He was in the middle of making some sort of dignified statements. We both opened our Diet Mountain Dews at the same time, and I felt like we had entered a new era of the Foreign Relations Committee. 

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