News flash: Republicans and Democrats worked together to get people better mental health care. They helped the economy rebuild from a near-depression. They’re planning to work together to keep Russian sanctions in place.
In truth, bipartisanship in Washington doesn’t make news headlines. But according to Chris Murphy, it’s happening. Even as the political world is otherwise imploding.
Murphy, a first-term U.S. senator from Connecticut now gearing up for the two-year cycle of running for reelection, said that despite the focus on genuine instances of Congressional gridlock, he has found that both parties in fact can work together sometimes to pass important legislation.
That was among the observations Murphy made during an interview on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven” program about his first four years in the Senate — a time in which domestic and international politics have changed dramatically, and Murphy has been in the thick of it all.
Yes, Congress has a “dysfunction” problem, Murphy said. But “the narrative that Congress is doing nothing is wrong.… Our democracy is still a miracle.“
Murphy, who’s 43, has been a rising star in the Democratic Party. He has played a leading role in debates over food stamps, gun control, and the Russian invasion of Crimea. This summer he emerged as a potential vice-presidential running mate for Hillary Clinton and delivered an address at the Democratic National Convention. Meanwhile, he has been an omnipresence in New Haven, hosting press events that have highlighted work done in the trenches to combat homelessness, the opioid crisis, and school reform. This week he presided over a packed town meeting on foreign policy at New Haven’s John C. Daniels School, where he answered questions for an hour and 45 minutes and advanced a “Hippocratic Oath” approach to foreign intervention.
Now, as 2017 dawns, Murphy is “in cycle.” That means he focuses more on fundraising and other strategic moves for a 2018 reelection campaign.
To some extent, Murphy, like his colleagues, has been running for reelection — or at least raising an initial $2 million — since his first day as a senator. He said he wishes the system didn’t make that necessary. He said he is committed to pushing for public financing but unwilling to “unilaterally disarm” in the meantime. In the WNHH interview, Murphy spoke of how the quest to get big money politics has fared, and how his embrace of new technology and old-fashioned politicking has succeeded, and fallen short, in advancing his priorities in the Senate.
Here’s an edited transcript of the conversation. You can hear the full episode by clicking on the audio file at the bottom of this story.
“I Never Stopped Raising Money”
So Chris, you’ve been in the Senate now for four years. In some ways it seems like a long time, but in others it’s gone fast. Now that you have two years to go, is that when you start running for reelection? Is that how the cycle works?
You typically talk in those terms. Certain senators are “in cycle,” meaning that they are in the two-year period before their election comes up, and so I certainly haven’t formally announced that I’m running for reelection. But you have to prepare for that inevitability.
I’ve enjoyed every second of this job, so right now it’s something that I would think about doing for another six. But some of it is perpetual. I mean I never stopped raising money, I didn’t raise much money in the first four years, but now I’ll have to significantly pick up the pace ...
And what does “not much” mean?
You know, it’s all relative. I think I’ve still raised maybe $2 million over the course of four years, but ...
And actually, most people would say that is nothing when you’re running for Senate, right?
Well, Senate you’re probably talking about $10 to $15 million overall. If you’re [his 2012 GOP opponent] Linda McMahon, she spent $50 million, so $2 million is, you know, is a small amount compared to the overall amount you need.
Isn’t the theory that incumbents like to raise some early to let potential challengers know. “You’re going to have a race, and you’re going to have to raise a lot of money”?
Yeah I think that’s certainly part of what you’re trying to do — show that you’re not taking an election for granted. You know, fundraising has become a little bit easier now because a lot of people give online, and you don’t have to spend as much money calling only rich people who can write thousand-dollar checks, which is great. So it is a very different environment today and makes it easer for people like me.
I was looking back on things you said when you took office, and how it looks four years later. You talked a lot about this money-in-politics issue. How does that come out in practice? Have you had to spend time every week at lunch dialing for dollars, and have you found that you’ve been able to build a base of small donors that frees you up from the influence of big money?
So I’ve been very public and open about the travesty of privately financing campaigns. When I was elected to the House of Representatives I wrote an op-ed piece for the Hartford Courant entitled “I Didn’t Get Elected To Be A Fundraiser,” where I described this phenomenon of members of Congress sort of sitting in these cubicles at the Democratic National Committee dialing for dollars in the middle of the day.
At the time you described it as four to six hours a day. Was it really that much?
I think that’s the amount of time that political people would like you to spend raising money. I don’t know that I ever did that. In the Senate, the pressure is greatly slackened. I would probably spend a few hours a week raising money in my first four years, not a few hours a day.
And you know, the internet has changed things. But not yet in the transformational way that it’s changed presidential campaigns. You can run presidential campaigns, as Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama showed, based largely on these small online contributions. For me, I will likely be able to raise several million dollars online through small contributions but that will be still less that 50 percent of my overall fundraising. So it has not radically transformed Senate and House campaigns yet. It probably will. We’re probably an election or two away from that.
And is that where we want to be? And is the argument that that helps people have a voice in politics at the grassroots level? Or do we want public financing, or is that irrelevant given that Citizens United is the law of the land, and it doesn’t look like it’s changing anytime soon?
You ultimately want public financing, because it is much more palatable to have loads of small contributions online. But there’s still the risk that you will feel beholden or feel responsible to the reasons that people went online to give money to you. So we ultimately want public financing — it’s something that I deeply believe in. Citizens United doesn’t rule out the possibility of having a national system like [the one we] have in Connecticut.
Which is voluntary.
Which is voluntary….
Obama had this opportunity to raise so much money online that he knew that he would be leaving money on the table if he went the public financing route. [So he didn’t opt in.] I would argue that we should start by making that workable again, by making the money we put into the presidential public financing system big enough that people will take it.
You know, you still have that check off on your income tax form, and that for a very long time worked.
Chris, how likely is it that you realistically believe that in the next two or four or six years we could actually get a public financing system?
I don’t think it’s likely. It’s probably wildly unlikely that we’ll get it in the next two years….
[Republicans] threatened to filibuster the campaign finance reform bill [in 2009], and so it was was not brought up in the Senate. Listen, it used to be that both Democrats and Republicans at least agreed on a simple ideal like disclosure, and now Republicans won’t even work with us on disclosure. We want to say at the very least, these big billionaire mega-donors, we should see their contributions when they go into these super PACs. And so we want sunlight on that, and Republicans have been opposing that sunlight. Republicans now essentially stand for unlimited secret money in campaigns.
I just know that I’ve had that super PAC money spent against me, and the idea that I couldn’t find out who it was — that sometimes it was people that were smiling to my face and turning around and giving money through the back door — I think that’s bad for democracy. I can’t imagine that there’d be more harm than good if we knew who these super PAC donors were. Right now it’s a really small handful of individuals. It’s a small handful of billionaire Republican donors that are essentially paying for more than half of the money that exists in political campaigns today. That’s outrageous.
I’ll read you an email a constituent wrote to you in March when you sent an appeal [saying], “Donald Trump could have a stranglehold on the Republican nomination more than ever; we’ve got to fight back; please donate to my campaign as senator.” And someone wrote:
“Dear Chris, You’re doing a great job in the Senate, I’m glad to have you represent me. You worked hard to win your seat and when it’s in jeopardy you can count on me for a modest contribution. However your next election is two and a half years away, I don’t know if you’ll have an opponent, I want my progressive Senator focused on legislation and constituent service not on raising money for a distant campaign that may or may not be contested. Please don’t send me any more fundraising appeals until we at least know anyone’s running against you in 2018.”
How do you respond to someone like that?
I wish that I could unilaterally disarm. I wish that I could wait until the two-year cycle to raise money.
But here’s how I look at it. I’m going to have to raise a certain amount of money over six years. I’ve seen a lot of my colleagues disappear in the two years before they were up for election because they waited to raise their money until those last two years. All of a sudden they’re not at committee meetings. They’re not at advocacy meetings, because they’re squirreled away raising money.
So I did try to do some of it in my first four years knowing it was more likely than not that I was running for reelection, so that I could be a senator for six years, not a senator for four years and a candidate for two years.
So I know that ... people get discouraged when they’re getting fundraising emails so far out from the election. But to me, frontloading a little bit of that obligation — which exists! I wish it didn’t exist! — is a way for me to make sure I’m doing the job for six years.
Just Say No?
[Some] proponents of campaign finance reform say, “If we just, before the rules change, stop taking certain kinds of money and doing certain kinds of fundraising, it’ll just allow people who oppose the change to cement their grip on power so it can never change.” Other people say the only way you change your system is to put yourself at risk. Russ Feingold did that several years ago in Wisconsin years ago when he wouldn’t take certain kinds of special interest money, and he lost his Senate seat. Bernie Sanders swore off certain kinds of money but used that to his advantage and actually raised more money.
Do you think there comes a point at which people should put their own positions on the line in order to advance that principle? Or is that self-defeating, the way a lot of people look at unilateral disarmament? That it just allows the more powerful other side to steamroll you?
No, that would be suicidal. I mean, Bernie Sanders is a unique phenomenon. He was able to raise money from individuals because he was on the news every single night nationally, right? So people saw him and were able to donate to him.
He actually had a great social media campaign which cost almost no money, and I argue that that’s a better way [to] raise the money. Early on, the studies [showed] that he didn’t get much network news. But he was running these early, 1930s-style Facebook posts that got more reads than all the other candidates among young people. That’s what I think was unique about that.
Yeah, but the Sanders and the Obama phenomena are unique. They’re not available to people running for Congress, people running for the United States Senate today. So the idea that you would stop using money from anybody that was able to give more than $100 is an invitation for the Koch brothers to own every corner of the government. That’s what they’re hoping for.
So I unapologetically raise a lot of money. I’m a very good fundraiser. And I do it because I want to change the system so that I or any other candidate never has to fundraise again. I think they’re entirely compatible.
Chris, looking back at when you started this term in the Senate, you spoke a lot about bipartisanship. Your argument was that Democrats have to stand firmly for what they believe, don’t backtrack on what your principles are, be very transparent about [them], and also do a very good job of listening to the other side so that when there are points of common agreement…. Four years later, what have you learned about the possibilities and the limits of bipartisanship in Washington?
Well I think today we have a system that in many ways is built for dysfunction, is built for partisanship. You raise more money if you’re more partisan. You get more celebrity, spots on the cable news shows, if you’re more partisan. There’s all sorts of reasons why you wouldn’t sit down and cooperate. And yet there’s a lot of cooperation that happens. My frustration is that it’s almost never covered by the national media.
It’s not soap opera. It’s not sport. You know, we repealed the No Child Left Behind [law] and replaced it with a brand new federal education bill. There was that scandal with the [Veterans Administration] where people were getting really bad care, and we were really good with the laws overseeing the VA and put billions of new dollars into it. We just passed a major mental heath reform bill, a bill that puts billions into NIH [National Institutes of Health] research. I was a sponsor of that.
And that came out of [the massacre at] Sandy Hook.
Yeah, it came out of Sandy Hook, and I worked with a guy, Bill Cassidy, who is a diehard Republican, conservative Tea Party Senator from the deep South. And he had different views on how to fix the mental health system. But we were able to come together and do something really big and comprehensive and get it passed.
And what does the bill do?
The bill required insurance companies to administer their mental health benefits in a way that’s similar to their physical health benefits. Right now you’re supposed to get mental health coverage, but as it turns out, they put up all this red tape, bureaucratic hurdles to getting it. So our bill says no: If you’re denying more mental health care than physical health care, then you’re in violation of federal law. It puts a new assistant secretary for mental health in the Department of Health and Human Services. It creates a whole bunch of new preventative programs to try to get to early intervention, programs [that] try to get to people faster when they’re showing the initial signs of mental illness.
It doesn’t spend as much money on new care as I would like. We had to make some sacrifices to get Republican support. But it’s much tougher on the insurance companies than Republicans would have liked.
So you’re telling me bipartisanship can work. You also seem to be criticizing the way the media covers politics and government — always go to what the conflict is, that makes a “better” story. Does that mean that overall you feel that there’s a good feeling of bipartisanship, that it’s alive and well? Is the reason we think that there isn’t bipartisanship because not only does the media cover more of the conflict, but it also eggs it on by highlighting it? So that if you’re a politician and you want to succeed, you want to get on cable TV, you’re going to do the fight? Or has there been an erosion in ability to talk across partisan line when it comes to solving big issues — whether it’s guns, or these budget showdowns, or whether it’s the way we conduct foreign policy?
I think there’s clearly been an erosion of our ability to work together. There are these big outstanding issues like immigration reform, like tax reform, like gun violence, that stand unresolved.
And immigration reform was a classic bipartisan issue until like what, two years ago?
Yeah. And it remains a bipartisan issue in the Senate, not in the House. So we passed a big bipartisan immigration reform bill in the Senate, but the House couldn’t because their Republicans are much more radical. So there has been an erosion of support. But I don’t buy this narrative that there is no bipartisan achievement happening. It’s just that nobody knows about it because it’s not generating ad revenue for the cable news networks.
I think that absolutely you want bipartisanship. I mean, I think this country is not going to be a one-party nation anytime soon. So the only way for it to be functional is for the two parties to figure out a way to get together.
The Stimulus Worked
I tell a story from 2008 until today about the surprising functionality of government. The fact of the matter is that our economy is stronger here in the United States than any other competitor nation. We were able to bounce back from the global recession faster because government did some extraordinary things. It passed a major stimulus bill that put us back on the path to prosperity. It rescued two major American industries — the auto industry and the financial industry. We made all our money back along the way. We insured 20 million more people. We did sort of classic countercyclical economics; we drove deficits up to about 10 percent of GDP and then through a bunch of spending cut bills and tax increases, we drove deficits down to three percent of GDP. All of that was done by things happening in Congress. Proactive action by Congress.
So is Congress working? People just don’t notice?
No. I just think it’s that the narrative that Congress is doing nothing is wrong. Congress is still dysfunctional. There’s still not enough happening. This idea that it is utterly, completely broken, which you would think if you watched cable news ...
Or even read the papers. You feel that there’s a crisis.
Yeah! You feel there’s a crisis, and ...
And you feel there’s not a crisis.
Listen. I don’t feel there’s a crisis. I think there is a incentive structure for dysfunction that we have to fix, but I still think that our democracy is still a miracle.
I think there’s a story that doesn’t get told about Connecticut. You have Len Fasano, who is a Republican in the State Senate, the minority leader, and you have Martin Looney, who is a Democrat — they have a remarkably good working relationship. They passed a health care overhaul in the last term working together. When they disagree it’s never personal. They’re always able to strike deals. Looney just got a new kidney yesterday while negotiating how they’re going to have the rules on an 18-18 break in the Senate. Has that happened anywhere else in the country? I mean look at North Carolina, where the legislature just took away the governor’s powers because he’s a Democrat. Is there something different going on in Connecticut?
There’s something different going on in Connecticut. Our Republicans here in Connecticut don’t look like Republicans in Texas. We were able to pass with Republican support a major anti-gun violence bill. Listen, I know the Democrats are upset that the [state] Senate is now 18-18. But this will be something to watch. Republicans and Democrats having to own all these decisions collectively. So the acrimony has never been as high in Hartford as it is in Washington and there’s probably some lessons to be learned there.
Early Tech Adopter
When Michelle Obama came here to campaign for Dan Malloy [in 2014], I remember you lifted your phone [during a speech to the crowd]. I forget what app you were using ... [It] was broadcasting it live to everyone and [you were] saying: “Here’s the story of how much excitement there is in the room.” What is that you were using?
It’s funny, that was Vine, which has come and gone. There’s just other ways to do that now. But yeah, I was one of the earliest adopters in at least the political space of Vine ...
The other night when you were at this town hall meeting at John Daniels School on foreign policy, you held up an iPhone 7. And you said Steven Jobs, the Apple creator, without whom we’d have never had this technology, his father was a Syrian refugee, to make that point. How important have you seen the changes in technology [to be], and how have you used those changes since you’ve been a senator?
Listen, [I] think you can’t read the 2016 election without understanding the power of Twitter, right?
Except with that part, I feel Twitter’s almost out, especially with younger people.
Well, I think younger people are today on Instagram and on Snapchat, where I am as well. But Twitter’s still a powerful medium in large part because a lot of opinion makers are reading Twitter. So today I can get a news story not off of a press release, but off of a tweet.
You can save a lot of time. You don’t have to write a press release; you can just write 140 characters. I find that it’s an incredibly effective mechanism to talk to people directly. And then to get direct feedback.
Go on to my Facebook page and compare it to most senators’ Facebook pages. My Facebook page is just off the charts with debates between conservatives and liberals, arguments, sometimes not very nice arguments. But it’s a forum for thousands and thousands of people all across the country to communicate with each other, as is my Twitter feed.
So these are not just mechanisms for me to communicate, but they’re places, they’re forums for participating. So I think it’s revolutionary.
And yes — I own these feeds. I do my Facebook posts. I do my tweets — not all of them, but I do a lot of them. It’s also a way for me to break through and show people who I am. So if you follow me on Twitter, you know that I’m mostly tweeting about politics, but I’m sometimes tweeting about my kids, or the Red Sox, or the Giants, or what I had for breakfast.
It keeps you connected with your constituents.
Yeah! A lot of people think we’re all plastic. We’re all some cookie-cutter political character. I can show people a little bit of who I really am.
And do you enter it yourself or does your staff?
We do both. You can kind of tell when it’s me. When it’s a sort of generic post about “Hey I was glad to be with the Elks Club of Waterbury,” that’s my staff. But when it’s anything with any edge or personality to it, that’s me. Not because my staff doesn’t have edge or personality. I just tell them: “Just don’t do anything that is opinionated. I’ll do the opinionated stuff.”
So in your first four years not only have you used technology, I’ve noticed you’ve used some old-school methods of trying to raise an issue. You did a walk across all of the southern part of Connecticut ...
That walk across Connecticut was not on any specific issue. I just walked across the state to talk to people, meet people. When I came to New Haven, who did I end up talking to? I ended up talking to people that were homeless, and so a lot of the focus on my visit here was on homelessness and housing. But my walk over six days, 130 miles, was just ...
And that’s the opposite, a 130-mile walk, of a Facebook conversation.
Which had more of an impact in how you do the job?
They’re totally integrated. So when I walked across [the state] not only did I tweet it, but I Snapchatted it — I snapped it. Got to use the words right. So I used Snapchat for that, and of course that’s where young people are today. That’s where teenagers and college kids are.
And are they following Chris Murphy on Snapchat?
Yeah, it’s the same thing. I tweeted the whole walk and I was able to integrate the two together.
Think about what the Sanders [presidential] campaign was. The Sanders and the Trump campaign had that innovative use of social media, and then the oldest political organizing mechanism in the world, the political rally. Right? So there’s still a place for those old-school pieces.
Bernie Sanders had the biggest political rally in New Haven since 1970 and the Black Panther trials. We had the biggest rally on the Green since then, and then he got clobbered in New Haven [in the primary]. He got under 40 percent of the vote in New Haven after having the political rally. Does that say something about the limits of the old-fashioned method?
No. I think the people who came to that rally were not just from New Haven. They were from all over the state, and the race was very competitive statewide.
He got creamed in New Haven.
Yeah, but listen. Remember that this is a socialist running for a main party’s nomination.
And this is a socialist city.
That wasn’t New Haven on the Green. That was people from all over Connecticut.
My feeling is that he didn’t have links to the black community. Their people didn’t even work in the black community.
I mean, that’s what happened state by state. When it came to African-American and Latino turnout, it really benefitted Hillary Clinton. I think you’ve gotta really look at who Bernie is. He’s a friend; I know him well. But it is kind of implausible that an avowed socialist could have competed that well for a Democratic presidential nomination, and so I do think there was a transference of the big rallies that came out and enthusiasm for him at the polls.
“Hungry Every Single Day”
Another old-school thing you did is you went on the food stamp diet. You said “Here’s what it’s like to live on food stamps,” so you called attention to the issue. Did it have an impact? It’s still getting cut, right?
We were able to hold the line in those years. I think it’s going be up for cuts in the Trump administration.
I’m just wondering what you learned from that experience. Did you feel like it was worth it to do it that way?
Oh, absolutely. I think it’s ridiculous I only walked in these people’s shoes for one week and they’ve got to do it all year. But I was hungry. I was hungry every single day. And I couldn’t imagine doing that for more than seven days.
So how did that change what happened with food stamps in America?
Well I can’t claim that what I did changed what happened with food stamps in America. But I do think people in Congress listened to what I had done. Some other members did it, so I inspired other members to do it themselves, and so I think the issue became more personalized.
You personally got a greater understanding. Did that make you more ramped up to do something about it?
Yeah. So it raised my level of advocacy.
This job is tough because you can’t work on everything you want to work on. You’ve got to compartmentalize, and you’ve got to set priorities. So working on nutrition and food stamps definitely raised up on the list for me after having done that. And I think a bunch of Congressmen and senators who did the food stamp challenge after I did probably did the same thing.
The highest profile move in the last year was probably the sit-in at the House. You did a filibuster in the Senate for gun control legislation. Did that have the impact? You were trying to get a bill raised they wouldn’t vote on. What happened as a result of your filibuster and then the sit-in at the House?
That filibuster certainly had an impact.
First and foremost we are in a long-term fight with the gun lobby to build up a political fight nationwide that rivals theirs. And I know that the filibuster combined with the sit-in, which was inspired by the filibuster, resulted in hundreds of thousands of people across the country who had not been invested in this issue deciding to step up and join. Moms Demand Action, or the Gabby Giffords group [Americans for Responsible Solutions]. I saw it this fall when I went and campaigned for Hillary.
So it kept going. Dd this have a lasting impact?
This had a lasting impact. There are people that are working on this issue. There are people that are activated. They were activated by the tragedies, and then they saw a bunch of members of Congress speaking truth to power and refusing to take no for an answer and getting something, right? The vote didn’t pass in the end, but ...
But did you get to vote as a result?
Not only did we get the vote, but after the vote failed, a group of Republicans and Democrats sat together for about three days to craft a second compromise, which also failed due to a filibuster, but got more votes than any other gun control measure in the post-Sandy Hook era. So we got closer than ever before to passing something. We activated thousands of people all across the country. More than one Senate candidate lost their seat in part because of the votes that they were forced to take. So Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire was forced to take some votes that made her constituents very unhappy back in New Hampshire, and she lost her seat because of it. So it definitely had an impact.
After Sandy Hook
Tell me something that didn’t work.
That’s a great question. Listen, I can tell you the story of the filibuster, but clearly, what we believed in the wake of Sandy Hook, that we were never going to have to be doing filibusters three years later. We thought in the wake of Sandy Hook we were going to get immediate change….
That was a defining moment in your first term, wasn’t it, the massacre of the school children at Sandy Hook?
It changed my life.
I get a sense that it renewed what your purpose was to be a senator. But now you’re telling me something you thought didn’t work.
I thought that everyone else had been changed like I was. I thought that everyone saw what happened there and knew that we had to finally fight back against the NRA. And I’m not saying that I took that lightly. I fought really hard in January, February, March of that year — but I definitely thought that this was a communal experience.
The idea was that we had the moment. We did seize it in Connecticut. We had the moment to change some minds and do something.
But we didn’t succeed in Washington.
There is an honest debate whether gun control works. So people in blue Connecticut, we believe it’s sick that you have all these guns, and there are more guns than people, and you can have assault rifles, and often you’re getting more people killed with their own guns than you are protecting yourself. There are people who genuinely believe that [even with gun control] the wrong people are going to have the guns, people won’t have the chance to defend themselves. So is the idea that you would change minds, or that you would be able to find common ground on what’s reasonable, and the very large number of people who are in the middle can be swayed?
I mean there really isn’t a debate over the proposals that we had on the table in 2013. Ninety percent of Americans, the vast majority, support universal background checks, and so that’s what I thought was bewildering. I thought — okay, I thought we were going to get a ban on assault weapons.
But once we didn’t get that, I thought, “Of course Congress is going to pass expanded background checks. Sandy Hook just happened. The parents are demanding it; 90 percent of Americans agree.” I didn’t understand how powerful the gun lobby was. And I didn’t understand how badly atrophied the anti-gun-violence movement was. And so I’m not initially sure if it’s an example of when something didn’t work. But it’s certainly an example of a place where I had an expectation of how things were going to turn out, and it didn’t turn out that way. Which is why I decided to sort of step back and be part of, to build the political infrastructure around anti-gun-violence so that we could eventually win that issue.
The mental health bill that was just signed, wasn’t that partly a result of where you did find common ground?
Yeah, the Sandy Hook parents were there at the swearing in. I mean, a handful of them were there at the signing ceremony.
It’s always a tricky issue when you try to talk about mental illness and gun violence, because there is not an inherent connection between being mentally ill and carrying out an act of violence. But there’s no doubt that Adam Lanza was deeply mentally ill, and he didn’t get help for it.
Some of the things in our bill, like early identification and intervention, will help. I don’t think it’s going to have a major impact on rights of gun [owners and] gun violence, but it certainly won’t hurt.
The Hippocratic Oath
We haven’t even gotten to foreign policy yet. This week in New Haven you spoke about the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm.
We watch horrible tragedies unfold in the world, whether it’s famine or some terrible, malicious civil war. Right now in Syria the eyes of the world are on the loss of Aleppo and the continual destruction, the loss of thousands and thousands of lives. The point that you were making — I think — was that we look at these terrible situations and want to act, but sometimes acting can make it worse. And that we have to take a Hippocratic Oath..
Yeah, the Hippocratic Oath for medical professionals is your first obligation is to do no harm. And there are plenty of crises around the world in which American leadership can make the difference. Famine, disease are clear examples where simple American intervention and money can save lives.
In the Middle East, what we’ve learned is that they are going through a long-term sorting out of peoples and priorities and sects, and the United States military is particularly inept in trying to deliver political change. We’ve seen that over and over again.
In Syria, it is heartbreaking to watch what is happening in Aleppo today. My message at this town hall was that restraint in the face of evil feels unnatural. It feels dirty. It feels awful. But what we have done in Syria over the last three years is give just enough support to the rebels to keep going — never enough to be definitive. In part because we did learn lessons [from] Iraq, and we don’t want to have an invasion force marching in and owning that quagmire like we did in Iraq.
We would have been better off had we never taken sides in that Syrian civil war. Tens if not hundreds of thousands would have been killed, but there would have been less that were killed but for our intervention ...
Unintended consequences. You look back at Rwanda — does that make you challenge the accepted notion that we were wrong not to intervene there?
I just think there’s a lot of self-declared smart people in Washington who can come up with plans in their head about how U.S. military intervention is going to bring political change, and it doesn’t work out that way.
I spend a lot of time on foreign policy in Washington. There is sort of a defense industrial complex, but there’s also a foreign policy establishment. There’s so many people in Washington that get paid money to think about ways that America can fix the world. And the idea that America is in some places helpless really doesn’t pay the bills. So you are constantly getting told as a member of Congress: Here’s the solution where America can solve this problem.
You went to Maidan [Nezalezhnosti, in Kiev] when the Russians invaded part of Ukraine, and you must have had that feeling.
Yeah, I mean there are places where you have to stand up for values.
But how do you stand up? I guess my point was that military action would not have helped there.
My argument was that in Ukraine, military action wouldn’t have helped, but showing solidarity with a Democratic government is important. I mean Putin was about to march tanks — [Viktor] Yanukovych on Putin’s behalf was about to march tanks through that square, and having figures like myself and John McCain there kept people safe. So there are times when American intervention can make a difference, but I think ...
You think that you personally stopped tanks from going into [Maidan Nezalezhnosti]?
No. I think that we personally were helpful in reminding the Russians and the Yanukovych administration of the costs to the world.
So you’re saying there are nonmilitary ways to show solidarity?
That’s going to be tested more and more because Putin in Russia is testing that prospect. The conclusion from Syria is that nothing short of military action is going to stop intervention by Russia or Iran in foreign affairs.
Right. But listen. When you’re talking about Syria, you’ve got to remember ... this was an ally of Iran, an ally of Russia. In Syria they are not being expansionist. They are just seeking to keep an ally that they had.
That’s different than some other places where they are being expansionist.
I’ve always argued from the beginning that we should understand that in Syria, Russia and Iran have much greater equities than we do. They have much more at stake than we do. So they were always going to be willing to do more, spend more, lose more than the United States was.
And the whole fight with Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Sunnis versus the Shia in sects of Islam ... is there any way we could intervene in that and succeed?
No. It took 1,500 years for Europe to sort itself out after the fall of the Roman Empire. We’re only 100 years after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
And a lot of those nations are breaking apart, along sectarian lines.
Yeah, and the dividing lines that were created out of the fall of the Ottoman Empire don’t make any sense. So it’s natural that some of these nation-states should start to atrophy. But the idea that United States is going to be from the outside the broker of peace in the Middle East between Shia and Sunni, I just think misunderstands how much people care about us there.
Can you think of an area coming up in the world where you think it might make sense for the U.S. to intervene militarily?
Militarily? No. I think that would be sort of irresponsible to predict. I think if we’re going to intervene militarily it has to be because U.S. citizens are threatened and we have to know that our intervention can be decisive. And I think those two questions have to be answered before we ever put American troops on the ground.
How do we answer the question about the decline of democracy? It seems like if we go into countries ranging from Philippines to Hungary to Turkey to Russia to Poland, people are democratically choosing non-democratic governments. And the U.S., some of us would argue, with Trump. Authoritarian leaders who want to limit the press, who will jail their opponents or kill them, and want to scapegoat minorities or, if you want to put a more neutral term, clamp down on the rights of minorities and abilities of outsiders to come in. This is a trend around the world. Why are we seeing that?
Foundationally you’re seeing it because democracy is unnatural. There’s very little in our lives that are run by a democratic vote other than our government. Our families aren’t run by democratic vote, our workplaces, our sports teams. So we’ve chosen to organize our government in this manner, but it isn’t something that is organic to human existence. So we have to remind ourselves why we have it. We have it because we believe that there’s a better chance of delivering an outcome that’s better for the whole rather than for the select few through democratic government.
But folks in the heartland of America haven’t seen that. People here in Connecticut haven’t seen that, right? Their wages are going down; their lives are getting tougher despite a democracy that’s supposed to protect them. The rich are getting richer, the elites are getting more powerful, in a democratic system of government. So people say: Why have a democratic system of government when the elites just get more powerful? That’s where a strongman — I don’t know that Trump is going to be that person, but I certainly know that Viktor Orbán in Hungary is that person, I know that [Rodrigo] Duterte in the Philippines is that person. People say: OK, the democracy didn’t deliver on what it told us it was going to deliver, and so I’m going to give a chance to this one individual to blow it up.
I’m wondering whether it’s also human nature to follow strong leaders and authoritarian measures.
You’ve got a lot of social scientists who could point to some pretty strong studies to tell you about the attraction of strong leaders. And I think given the course of human history there have been few and select democracies and far more countries run by autocrats. That probably tells you that there’s something in our psychology. It’s just an invitation to us over the next four years to remind people about the strength of democracy and actually spend some time investing in fixing it rather than looking for an alternative.
Click on or download the above audio to hear the full interview with Murphy.
Lucy Gellman contributed to this story.