Home inFocus Agenda for a New Congress (Winter 2023) “The Public Still has a Big Center”

“The Public Still has a Big Center”

An inFOCUS interview with Sen. Norm Coleman

Senator Norm Coleman Winter 2023

Norm Coleman served as Republican Senator for Minnesota from 2003 to 2009, prior to which he was elected mayor of Saint Paul in 1994 as a member of the Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party; he became a Republican in 1996. Sen. Coleman received his BA from Hofstra University and his JD From the University of Iowa. He presently chairs the Republican Jewish Coalition and the American Action Network. inFOCUS Quarterly Editor Shoshana Bryen spoke with him recently.

Norm Coleman

inFOCUS Quarterly: Senator, if you were the incoming Speaker of the House, what would your three top priorities be?

Sen. Coleman: Americans are concerned about inflation, the border, crime – and number one, the economy. Republicans ran on those issues; Democrats didn’t. if you’re the Speaker, you got to jump on those from the start.

You can’t change policy right away, but I think you’ll see strong statements about the border. You’ll see strong actions coming from the House about supporting our police and fighting crime. Strong actions to cut down on reckless spending. The good news about having a Republican Speaker of the House is that the days of tax increases and multi-trillion dollar reconciliation packages are gone.

iF: How will you find agreement?

Sen. Coleman: People talk about the narrow majority that the Republican Congress has, the Speaker has, but, in fact, it is similar to what the Democrats had the last cycle. The point is the Chair, and we have the Chair. The Republican Congress has an opportunity, then.

The root cause of inflation has been reckless spending. Congress has to send the signal that the days of tossing money at problems is over. The Republican Congress has to take a very strong stand on spending.

On immigration, it’s important for the House Republicans to let the voters know that they heard their concerns, so among the first things would be a strong statement about illegal immigration.

There is, actually, an opportunity for some bipartisan action on immigration. I believe some Democrat members of Congress – in both the Senate and the House, particularly in border states – recognize that their constituents are not happy with the flood of illegal immigrants, the flood of fentanyl, and the human factors in terms of those people who are trying to get into the country.

iF: The House is divided almost in half. Does mean there is a center? Or is it that all the Republicans are conservative, and all the Democrats are liberal?

Sen. Coleman: I remember looking at a chart years ago and seeing that 66 percent of the Congress defined itself as “in the middle.” You actually had a large group of Democrats who were more conservative than liberal Republicans. You had a large group of Republicans who were more liberal than conservative Democrats. Today, that number is just about zero. The parties are more partisan and more divided. The public, I think, still has a big center.

But the House operates in a winner-take-all manner. It’s different than the Senate. I’m a product of the Senate. The reason you keep the filibuster is because you need to get to 60 votes. When was elected, I was the 51st Republican, but we needed to get to 60. The Senate, even divided as it is today, still has a little bit more of that “looking for allies.”

The House is going to be more challenging for a center to operate with the very strong partisan divide. And the House, by its very nature, makes it difficult to kind of come together in a bipartisan fashion.

iF: Let’s go to energy. The President has drawn down more than a third of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Can we refill the Reserve with domestic or Canadian oil? And can we bring the Keystone pipeline back?

Sen. Coleman: We have to get back to America being energy independent; get back to domestic oil production; get back to having pipelines with Canada for the free flow of oil and natural gas. One of the things that has seriously hurt the economy and hurt America’s national security, is the president’s immediate move away from carbon fuels.

We were literally energy independent, and we still have the capacity to be the world’s largest producer of energy, passing everybody.

The administration was – and is – catering to environmental extremism, not the center of America. The center of America would say, “Let’s do it all. Let’s do renewables. Let’s do cleaner energy. Let’s do wind and solar where it makes sense. But let’s also do American production, American natural gas, American oil. Let’s do Keystone.”

But America is being stymied by this administration kowtowing at the altar of a Green New Deal that is not helping the American economy. It is not helping the American worker; it is not good for American national security.

iF: Well, that’s depressing.

Sen. Coleman: Reality is a tough thing. When you don’t control the presidency and you only control one body of Congress, it makes it really tough to make the change that, I have no doubt, most Americans understand.

iF: Might there be a consensus in Congress for more military spending or different ways of spending our military resources?

Sen. Coleman: There is some cause for optimism in the area of military spending. A bipartisan majority understands that we have to have a strong military. I think some of President Biden’s foreign policy choices make it difficult. But the president submitted a budget to Congress and Congress came back and put more into the military than the president asked for.

Between [Democrat] Jack Reed and ranking Republican member Roger Wicker on Armed Services Committee, I think we have an opportunity for Congress to tell the administration, “You’re not doing enough. Your policy choices are not the right choices.” That’s the Armed Services side, but the question of foreign policy is more challenging. Democrats are not apt to buck the president. He’s been talking about and trying to get back into a nuclear deal with the Iranians. President Trump wisely, wisely said, “We’re getting out of this.”

The Iran deal was a disaster when President Obama did it. It was done without putting any limitations on the Iranians, neither on ballistic missiles nor on their malign activities around the world; they are the largest state sponsor of terrorism. They control Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen, and Shiite militias in Iraq. They control five regional capitals.

Unfortunately, Democrats in Congress have not shown the backbone to challenge the president enough on this. And I do fear what happens until we get a change in administration. America is still the world’s greatest power. We’re still Ronald Reagan’s beacon; the shining city on the hill. But I do think that the policies of this president are weakening America in the world.

Our friends are not sure they can trust us, and our enemies feel emboldened.

All sides in Israel tell us that the Iran deal is an existential threat. Iran getting a nuclear weapon is an existential threat to the Jewish state. I do fear what can happen with poor American leadership. But again, I’m a great believer in the resiliency of America. We have overcome weak presidents and bad presidents in the past.

iF: Do you think the execution of protestors in Iran – or the drones Iran shared with Russia for use in Ukraine – might change the view either of Congress or in the White House?

Sen. Coleman: The Obama theory was that if we were just nice to the Iranians, if we gave them money, if we did a deal, they would come back and be a responsible member in the community of nations. But that is not who they are. These are thugs, these are tyrants.

It’s hard for the administration to turn a blind eye to what you’re seeing now with Russia, what you’re seeing in the streets of Iran. As a result, there’s been a bit of slowing in this effort and an understanding that if we go back into a deal, we have to do something about broader malign activities.

iF: Throw China in as a malign influence. Is there a bipartisan way for Congress to approach China?

Sen. Coleman: If there’s one issue today on which there is bipartisan agreement, not 100 percent, but bipartisan support, it is dealing with the threat of China – militarily, economically, and from an intellectual property perspective. TikTok, Huawei, etc.

China is where I think you can get something done. One of the first things that Speaker-to-be, Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) will do is appoint Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) to take the lead on a China-focused effort in the House: to deal with the military, economic, intellectual property, and other threats.

There is a clear focus on the Republican side and there is some support from Democrats, so this should be an area in which we can confront the threats we face today from China.

iF: Can we deter China from invading Taiwan, or defeat China if it did attack?

Sen. Coleman: The relationship and between the U.S. and Taiwan today is stronger than it has ever been. And most people I talk to agree that strong support for Taiwan is necessary. My big fear is that Xi [Jinping, Communist Party leader of China] looked at Afghanistan and said, “Oh, look how they dealt with Afghanistan – Taiwan is probably ripe for the picking.”

The perception is out there. The broad American response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in part, has been motivated by a sense that if we don’t hold the line here, Taiwan will be gone.

If Xi thinks the U.S. can’t deal with Putin or couldn’t deal with Taliban, he’ll think he has free rein to do what he wants with Taiwan. I don’t think that’s the case now. I think the response to Ukraine put a brake on it. But there would be a huge challenge if the Chinese were to move on Taiwan.

But ultimately you have to decide, is there order in the world? Where is the line?

iF: Let’s see if we can get one more bipartisan bit out of this. There’s been a dramatic increase in antisemitism in this country. Why now? And is there is anything that Congress can do about it?

Sen. Coleman: Actually, I don’t necessarily think that it’s increasing; I think it’s always been. If anything, we see it more and that may be a function of social media, which makes everything instant and connected.

At the same time, it is getting worse – demonstrably worse – on college campuses. If you are a young Jewish student today who cares about Israel, you probably are in fear of articulating that. You’re in fear of saying it in a class where your professor is saying that Israel is an “apartheid state.” You’re afraid of saying it in a student group if your group will be banned or barred from participating in student activities. The real cesspool of antisemitism today is on American college campuses.

I don’t have the answer, but I do believe social media makes it easy to spit that garbage our and for it to be circulated among like-minded idiots.

And antisemitism rears its ugly head in the BDS [boycott, divest and sanctions] movement. BDS is antisemitism. It seeks the destruction of the Jewish state.

On the Republican side of the aisle, I have to say I hope a former president never again has dinner with a Nazi. But in Congress the loudest voices of antisemitism today are in the Democratic Party – Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and the Squad.

But it transcends politics; it has always been with us. We have to confront it and say we will not tolerate it.

iF: In Congress, the people you mentioned would tell you they’re not antisemitic. They just don’t like the policies of the State of Israel. How do you see Congress in terms of its historic pro-Israel tendencies?

Sen. Coleman: Israel benefits from broad bipartisan support and there is still some of that, but on the Democrat side, there is less. The reality is that “I stand with Israel,” is an applause line at a Republican rally, but at a Democrat base rally, I don’t think the member of Congress would say it because it would not be well received. Polling shows that Democrat base support for Israel has been severely diminished, seriously weakened by the emergence of the progressive movement in the Democrat party.

I would hope that it not be a partisan issue, but it is challenging in that at least in one party, the base continues to move more and more away from support of the Jewish state. But they have to be challenged and not get away with the excuse, “It’s just policies of Netanyahu that we don’t like.”

iF: The administration has said if Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu puts certain people in his new government, the U.S. won’t talk to that person. Does this lend Congress cover for things like saying, “Well, we don’t want to give Israel security assistance, or we don’t want to do joint exercises, or whatever.”

Sen. Coleman: It’s a bad policy, start with that. Does it have an impact on Congress? Yes, it makes it easier for some to then enact policies that undermine Israel’s security and undermines the strength of the bilateral relationship. I don’t think it destroys it. There is still a measure of bipartisan support for Israel in the Congress that is strong enough at this point to overcome many of those things. I just worry about the direction and the strength of the so-called progressives. Not every progressive, by the way, is anti-Israel. Richie Torres (D-NY), right? A few are real progressives, but they recognize the importance of our ally, Israel.

The good news in the Arab world is that the relationship with Israel is changing. The Abraham Accords were a monumental feat, and the impact is continuing to grow.

Oddly, some of the policies of Obama and the Iran deal actually were an opportunity for Israel to connect with some of its neighbors in ways it couldn’t in the past. Obama was talking to the Iranians, wasn’t talking to the Israelis, the Saudis or United Arab Emirates about the nuclear deal. Those countries appear to have decided, “Hey, we need each other, and let’s figure out a way to work together.”

Then the Trump administration came in and made the Abraham Accords possible. Suddenly, you’re seeing phenomenal energy in the region.

There is a change in the Middle East in terms of Israel’s relations with its neighbors at the people-to-people level. There is also an understanding that Israel’s neighbors want to tap into Israel technology. The idea of a region that would have Saudi capital and access to markets, and UAE financial platforms, along with Israeli technology, well, that would be a pretty powerful force.

iF: Maybe some of that energy and goodwill will reach Congress and people will say, “You know what? We don’t want to step on this. We don’t want to divert it.”

Sen. Coleman: Agreed. There are a lot of problems that really difficult – China, Russia. But there are some areas where folks are finding common ground, and that would be in the Middle East right now. I keep coming back to the Abraham Accords because they were so powerful. Initially, everything I was seeing from the Biden people was indifferent at best – I think that’s totally changed right now.

That does have an impact on Congress, making it easier then to do things that support Israel because it’s seen as being in the U.S. interest to have some more security and stability in the Middle East. That’s in our own security and national interest.

iF: Let’s go back to a domestic subject. People talk about onshoring key industries and key components, not to have all of our manufacturing in the hands of China, not to have everything overseas. Can we do that with the shortages in the workforce, or does it ask us to consider increased legal immigration?

Sen. Coleman: First, it is critically important to onshore certain production manufacturing that is vital to our national security. Pharmaceuticals – we’ve seen the impact of COVID. Rare earth minerals for 5G technology and other things. Semiconductor chips. Our world today is run on semiconductor chips and there are very few American domestic manufacturers. We have to figure out a better way of dealing with the supply chain that doesn’t make us vulnerable because things critical to national security are being produced elsewhere.

We have to make it economically feasible for folks to operate in this country. That was always the problem, it’s so much cheaper to do it in China. Let’s figure out how to make it economically viable for them to exist in the US.

The second part of your question is how do we ensure that we have the workers to handle the production of these critical, critical manufacturing operations? I’m a big supporter of legal immigration. I would think, across the aisle are others who are supporters of legal immigration.

It’s in our economic interest to have legal immigration. We obviously want to make sure we’re not displacing Americans, but I do not think that’s the case. We have to figure out a way to control our borders, have people here contribute to our national security and economy. I think all that’s doable.

iF: How do you feel about Chinese citizens working and studying in this country? We’ve come to understand that they are, in many ways, a security threat.

Sen. Coleman: It’s tough because it goes back to the benefit. You do have to deal with the national security issues and people may disagree, but I would hate to totally cut off Chinese students from studying here.

This goes to the question of whether Americans are becoming more isolationist.

iF: That was my next question.

Sen. Coleman: As we focus on America, does it mean we become more isolationist? That we shouldn’t worry about what’s happened in the Ukraine because we’ve got bridges that are falling down here, and we have domestic problems? I hope the answer is no. Is there an element of that within both parties? Yes. This is oftentimes where, by the way, the left, far left and right come together.

I think America is the greatest nation in the world. God’s blessing has shined upon us from our creation; from the genius of our Founders to what we’ve done historically.

My dad was 18 or 19 years old on the Omaha Beach on D-Day. He made his way through Europe, liberating a concentration camp along the way. If you go to places that were liberated by American grace and American blood you know we don’t fight to seize land. That’s been our history and I think it’s a glorious history.

What I fear about the left is that it denigrates America. President Obama’s apology tour and all those things that take away from how the rest of the world views America.

I do fear that rather loud element within the party that doesn’t understand the importance of America being the world’s strongest power, being the country that people turn to and finding us there for them. If America is involved with other nations so that they lift themselves up, the world is safer, and that stability adds to our national security.

I’m passionate about this subject because I do worry. It is so easy for a person sitting in Northern Minnesota worried about paying for electricity or heat, worried about their jobs or their kids’ healthcare, to wonder, “What are we doing in Ukraine?”

We have to say that we are not isolated and can’t be. What happens in a place called Wuhan, China, has an impact around the world. We need to understand that we need to be prepared to respond in an appropriate fashion.

iF: Last time we were in this domestic position, high inflation, and high energy prices, Ronald Reagan, in the middle of the mess, made us believe exactly what you said, that we still needed to be out there in the world doing our thing. Is there a Reagan there for us?

Sen. Coleman: This is part of the American character. This is who we are and I’m just praying we never lose it. I worry then about our education system. I worry about this kind of “woke mentality” that seems to be capturing at least the big institutions in Big Tech and big business. I have some concern that somehow, we may lose sight of that magnificent vision that Reagan had.

This is where I’m the optimist – I think it’s still in our character.

There are people who love this country, who take pride in our country, want to serve our country. It is part of our character. I think in 2024, we’re going to have an opportunity to move forward with better leadership and better direction than the country is getting today.

iF: Senator Coleman, thank you for a terrific encapsulation of our problems and America’s ability to meet the challenges.