Transcript: Senators Durbin and Alexander on State of the Union with Candy Crowley
Today on CNN’s State of the Union with Candy Crowley, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) discussed the hazards of inflamed political rhetoric in the wake of yesterday’s shooting in Tucson. A full transcript of the interview is below.
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CROWLEY: Joining me now from Springfield, Illinois, Democratic Majority Whip Dick Durbin, and in Maryland (ph), Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, Lamar Alexander.
Senator Durbin, first to you, just since this is the first we’ve spoken to you, when did you hear about this incident and what do you make of it?
DURBIN: Well, I heard about it yesterday afternoon like most Americans did. And of course my thoughts and prayers are with Congresswoman Giffords and all the persons that were injured in any way.
There are two things I’d say, Candy, as I’ve listened to your program, which has had excellent coverage. The first is we live in a world of violent images and violent words. But those of us in public life and the journalists who cover us should be thoughtful in response to this and try to bring down the rhetoric, which I’m afraid has become pervasive in our discussion of political issues.
The phrase “Don’t retreat; reload,” putting crosshairs on congressional districts as targets. These sorts of things, I think, invite the kind of toxic rhetoric that can lead unstable people to believe this is an acceptable response.
And I think that we all have an obligation, both political parties — and let me salute the senior senator from Arizona, John McCain, whose statement yesterday was clear and unequivocal that we are not accepting this kind of conduct as being anywhere near the mainstream.
CROWLEY: Senator Durbin, let me just follow up before I get to Senator Alexander. And that is, when you talk about, you know, putting — putting those that you want to defeat in crosshairs, sort of, graphically, you know, on the Internet, you’re talking about Sarah Palin here.
And I guess that the undertow — and certainly it’s not an undertow on the Internet but the undertow with politicians now speaking publicly is, well, the Republicans and the Tea Party and Sarah Palin have gone way too far in their rhetoric. It’s been violent rhetoric and therefore this sort of thing happens. Are you making that direct connection?
DURBIN: I don’t think you could ever make that direct connection, but don’t we have an obligation, those of us in public life and those who cover us to say this is beyond the bounds? It may be constitutionally permissible, but it shouldn’t be acceptable rhetoric. We shouldn’t invite it on the radio talk shows or the TV, at least without comment. We ought to say that just goes too far.
CROWLEY: And Democrats are — do you think Democrats are as guilty of ratcheting up?
DURBIN: I don’t want to point those fingers, other than to — I don’t want to point those fingers, other than to say that we understand how vulnerable everyone is in this culture, and those of us in public life even more vulnerable. And we owe it to our own in both political parties to have at least the good sense and common decency, when people say these outrageous things, to say, “Wait a minute; that just goes too far,” whether it comes from the right or from the left.
CROWLEY: Senator Alexander, do you take issue with anything Senator Durbin just said?
ALEXANDER: Well, I — no, I don’t. First…
CROWLEY: I’m sorry. It was a little unfair of me. Let me have you first respond to the incident, of course. Let me have you do that first.
ALEXANDER: Well, I was thinking, listening to your show, too, listening to the Congresswoman read the first amendment, perhaps our most apprised amendment on the floor of the House this week, how what was happening yesterday in Tucson was exactly what the first amendment was about, peaceable assembly and a right to petition the government.
And that’s such a fabric of our American life that we have to, that we have to continue it. And, of course, we want civility instead of incivility and of course we don’t want violence, but I think, in all of the talk about this, we have to be very careful about imputing the motives or the actions of a deranged individual to any particular group of Americans who have their own political beliefs.
I mean, what we know about this individual, for example, is that he was reading Karl Marx and reading Hitler and burning the American flag.
CROWLEY: So I don’t — I don’t think, and certainly Senator Durbin can speak for himself, but that he was attaching Sarah Palin’s famous — now-famous crosshairs ad of those congresspeople that she wanted to see defeated with this particular — for instance, I think that the general notion is that some of this rhetoric and the talk — and so much of our talk in politics does revolve around ammunition and guns and drawing a bead and, you know, that kind of thing, that that sort of stuff does lead to this type of thing, not this specific thing.
Do you agree with that?
ALEXANDER: Well, I’m not — I’m not sure, Candy. I mean, as I said, this — this individual — what we know about this individual is that he read Karl Marx; he read Hitler. We know he was burning the American flag. Now, that’s not the profile of a typical Tea Party member, if that’s the inference that’s — inference being made.
I think, obviously, we’re much better off in our country if we peaceably assemble, treat other with respect, show courtesy and condemn people who go over the line, and particularly those who do it violently as this individual did yesterday. Of course we could.
I agree that Senator McCain’s comment was exactly right. We all agree — all agree with that. So I think, in all of the — it’s tempting to say, well, this person might have been the result of this other person’s comments, but I think we need to be very, very careful about imputing any of these actions to someone else.
CROWLEY: Let’s — let’s cut that connection then, and let me just ask you as a question separate and of itself, is it over the line politically these days, given the kind of climate we’re in, to be talking about or graphically showing a politician in the crosshairs or talking about taking them out?
Is that — was it over the line, sort of, specifically, since it’s now being talked about everywhere, with Sarah Palin’s web ads about people that she would like to see targeted for political defeat?
ALEXANDER: Well, Candy, I think you’re — I think you’re responsible, by bringing this up, of doing the very thing you’re trying to condemn. I mean, you’re making and implying a direct connection between Sarah Palin and what happened yesterday.
CROWLEY: No, I specifically said we need to tie it away from that.
ALEXANDER: By picking out a particular — picking out a particular incident. Well, I think the way to get away from it is for you not to be talking about it.
CROWLEY: No, Senator Durbin did bring it up, so that’s, kind of, why I am.
ALEXANDER: His own view of it.
CROWLEY: Yes, I just — I guess — look, I totally agree with you, Senator Alexander, that even by bringing it up — and I don’t know if you’ve seen the Web, but it is all over the Web now, so it’s not as though this is, like, some new idea that I’ve come one suddenly standing here.
And I think the question is — and I agree with you that, when you get into a discussion of what’s over the line and what’s not over the line in terms of rhetoric, that that itself becomes something that incites people, but then how do you ever come to an agreement on what’s acceptable political public conversation?
ALEXANDER: Well, you treat each other with courtesy. You know, on the floor of the Senate we try to do that. We have pretty emotional issues to discuss, but we still treat each other with a lot of civility. Most of the incivility doesn’t come from people who are elected to public office. It comes from other people.
So I think, as Senator Durbin said earlier, we ought to cool it, tone it down, treat each other with great respect, respect each other’s ideas, and even on difficult issues like immigration or taxes or health care law, do our best not to inflame passions.
CROWLEY: Senator Durbin, it’s a difficult conversation, and you were the one that brought up what’s being talked about a lot. How do you get to a point where you do not see something that could incite an unstable mind in an opponent’s verbiage?
Because just the discussion itself can be used politically, as Senator Alexander points out.
DURBIN: But you know what Lamar said is exactly right. As long as our conversations between ourselves and members of Congress really are at a higher level and don’t descend into even these images of violence or violent reaction, that helps to set the stage.
And then we have to ask those consistent with our constitutional rights who are engaged in the media to try to do the same. I — that’s the point I wanted to make at the outset here. We have to return this to, I hope, an era of civility in our conversation.
I’m not suggesting — I hope no one is drawing from inference here any connection between specific language and what happened yesterday in Tucson, but let’s step back and be honest about this. We ought to be a lot more civil toward one another and understand that ordinary political discourse never — underline never — should invite violence.
CROWLEY: Senator Durbin, Senator Alexander, let me ask you to stand by with me, and we’ll be back with both of them right after this.
CROWLEY: We are back with senators Dick Durbin and Lamar Alexander.
Senator Durbin, first to you. We know that members of the leadership of both the House and the Senate do have security provided by Capitol Hill. I’m wondering if you think there needs to be — this is to both of you, enhanced security for other members of Congress who don’t have any security at all or is this the price of public life?
DURBIN: Well, there is a price to public life because we are living a life in the open, meeting people all the time, strangers, and that’s just the nature of what we do, whether in leadership or not.
But any member of Congress who even has the slightest suspicion that they’re in danger should be able to turn to our own law enforcement within the Capitol and that law enforcement available in other sources to protect them.
But it is so difficult, when I think of walking in to crowds at different places, I never think twice about what might have happened, what might happen as it did yesterday in Tucson.
There’s one other thing I might say, Candy, and I hope we don’t miss this point. At some point we need to ask the question, how did this man with this history of mental instability end up with this weapon?
He had clips with him with 90 different bullets in them, only 20 victims, sadly 20 victims, but it could have been so many more yesterday. How did he go through the process and end up with this gun and with this ammunition? I think that’s a legitimate question that needs to be asked as well.
CROWLEY: Senator Alexander, that is a question that always gets asked after incidents of this — Virginia Tech, we also had a man that was unstable, although I don’t believe he had been in any trouble with the law at any point.
But nonetheless when you look at this and you step back, do you sense that there will be any change in tone on Capitol Hill and do you see any effect on the agenda on what you all might be willing to look at now in terms of gun control or anything else?
ALEXANDER: Candy, for the next few days, obviously it’s going to affect our agenda. The House of Representatives has already said they’re not going to vote on repealing the health care law now. So we need to stop, pause, and reflect.
But then I think we’re back to business. All the way back in 1968, when Robert Kennedy was assassinated, I remember that Governor Rockefeller of New York went back to California, started campaigning right away because he wanted to reassure the American people that people who want to be elected will be out with the people.
So I’m going to be at the basketball game on the front row. I’ll be in the grocery store in a few minutes. I mean, we’ll be out just like elected officials are supposed to be. And I hope what Dick Durbin and I can do when we resume work in a couple of weeks in the Senate is take up the issue of the debt that he did — he stuck his neck out on that with the president’s debt commission.
And I think the rest of us ought to follow his lead and try to use these next few months to work together on the biggest problem we’ve got, which is dealing with the federal debt.
CROWLEY: Senator Durbin, one of the things obviously that’s going to happen on the House side at least is the repeal of health care reform, which has been postponed this week, but undoubtedly will happen at some point.
I wonder if the two of you, starting with you, Senator Durbin, can agree it goes nowhere in the Senate.
DURBIN: At this point, I can tell you, having spoken to the Democratic Caucus, there are solid support within that caucus for maintaining the president’s health care bill.
Now, we are open, we should be open…
CROWLEY: How about changing it around the margins there? Go ahead.
DURBIN: Well, of course, of course. Listen, the only perfect law that I know ever written was carried on stone tablets down a mountain by “Senator Moses.” All of the other efforts that have been made in every legislature throughout history have been subject to review and should be.
And I’m open to that conversation but I don’t believe repeal has any legs in the Senate at this point.
CROWLEY: Is there a specific provision would you like to see repealed or looked at?
DURBIN: Oh, there’s one, of course, and that has nothing to do with health care directly but the funding of the program relative to small business expensing, so-called 1099 provision. I think there will be a change in that.
CROWLEY: OK. Senator Alexander, can you agree that the Senate will not in toto repeal the health care reform bill and what do you think is the next step for those Republicans that want to see it repealed?
ALEXANDER: Well, Republicans are going to vote to repeal it. Senator Durbin is correct, he counts the Democratic votes, he’s the leader and they’ve got the numbers. So if they all vote not to repeal it, it won’t be repealed.
One area I’d like to see us tackle, if it’s not repealed, is the letter that the governors — Republican governors wrote to the president this week saying the law requires us in our states, instead of cutting the cost of Medicaid, to maintain increasing the cost of Medicaid.
So we have this unfunded mandate, this bankrupting states in difficult conditions, yet the federal law says states can’t take steps to reduce the costs of health care. That would be one specific change that we could make.
CROWLEY: Just quickly, Senator Alexander, because I’m out of time, and that is, did I understand you correctly, every Republican in the caucus wants to repeal health care reform in its totality?
ALEXANDER: Every Republican in the caucus voted against it. I haven’t done a whip count. I’m not the whip on the Republican side like…
CROWLEY: I thought you might have an idea.
ALEXANDER: … Dick Durbin is on the Democratic side. But my sense is Republicans will almost all if not all vote to repeal the health care law.
CROWLEY: Senator Lamar Alexander, Senator Dick Durbin, thank you both so much for joining thus morning.
DURBIN: Thank you.
ALEXANDER: Thank you.
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Megan Grant | CNN Washington
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