Q & A: 'Not a Good Year': Coble Voices Doubts About GOP Chances
It's not going to be a good year for incumbents in general and Republicans in particular, predicts 6th District Congressman Howard Coble.
"We met at the White House some time ago," Republican Coble says, "and the president said, 'We're going to regain the U.S. House and regain the U.S. Senate and keep the White House.' I told somebody, 'What's he been smoking?'"
Coble spoke in a wide-ranging interview recently in the offices of The Pilot.
He also made clear that Sen. John McCain wasn't his first choice for the Republican presidential nomination; defended his vote against the economic stimulus package; and said that the troop surge in Iraq is doing better than he had expected, though "we have come up short on the diplomatic and political side."
Coble spoke with Senior Writer Florence Gilkeson, Managing Editor David Sinclair, Editor Steve Bouser and Publisher David Woronoff. Here is an edited transcript of their taped conversation.
Q: Sen. John McCain just went on the air this morning [the interview was conducted Thursday, Feb. 21] to deny that he did anything improper with this lobbyist. How much of a public issue should this be, and how much should what he may or may not have done eight years ago affect his campaign?
A: I may have to go backwards before I address that. I stayed out of endorsements. Sen. George Allen was my choice, and you probably know what happened to him in 2006. I believe that if he had been re-elected to the U.S. Senate, he'd be a presidential nominee today. I firmly believe that.
I stayed out of it when we had 10 folks in. And when they narrowed it down, I endorsed Romney. They said my timing wasn't very good, because the next day he was out. But I want to go on record that I was at least for somebody. I just felt like he brought more stability and expertise as far as the economy is concerned, than the others did.
Now. Having said all of that, I'm glad to vote for McCain, but this storm -- this is the sort of thing that he surely doesn't need at this point. This does not necessarily constitute guilt, but the first thing McCain did was hire (Washington lawyer) Bob Bennett, to the tune of $1,500 and hour, or whatever his fee is.
Now, there is another side to it. I'm putting the best spin on it for McCain -- that if he can neutralize it, then this thing may backfire on the face of The Times. But as you all know, there are many members of our base, including me for that matter, who are not real happy with McCain. So he doesn't really need this other albatross at this juncture. But it's there.
Q: What's wrong with McCain -- I mean, to the point that some people like Rush Limbaugh are saying that they would vote for Hillary Clinton? What's that all about?
A: I'm not that far in the right-hand ditch. Others are, obviously -- as you just pointed out. I served with him for two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. We were never on the same committees, so I never got to know him that well, but our relationship was not unfavorable. He voted against the Bush tax cut, which I think he announced he would support. The immigration bill turned most of them off.
Q: Congress passed a $168 million economic stimulus package. Was it needed? Are we in a recession?
A: I voted against it. It was not an easy chore, because you are saying to a guy that might need 600 bucks that you're not going to get it. One economist from The Wall Street Journal referred to it as nonsense and he said it would in fact damage the economy. I guess I just felt like it was reckless, imprudent spending.
I don't know if we're in a recession. But if we're not, I think we're in the shadow of it. I think times are by no means all that great right now. I'm not sure that where we are right now constitutes a recession, but there's a mortgage crisis, and of course that blame is twofold, and the Iraq war furthermore adds to the woes. So it's not a good time. If I had to say yes or no to a recession, I would probably say a near yes.
Q: In response to your voting against the stimulus package, have you received any negative response?
A: Amazingly, overwhelmingly support. Now, we've gotten some negative responses back. I was prepared for a firestorm. I was expecting the worst. So far, so good. And I think I would have heard from them by now. There were a couple of nasty letters to the editor in The Greensboro News & Record, maybe one in The Pilot. But on balance, more support than non-support.
Q: Congressman, why is the Congress messing around with these steroid hearings?
A: Let baseball resolve this matter. I never have particularly liked (Roger) Clemens, because he threw at people's heads in the American League, when he knew he didn't have to bat. But I don't think he ever threw at a National League batter, so I'm subjective to begin with.
If I had to believe one or the other, I probably would disbelieve Clemens. I don't think Congress needs to be involved in this. Let baseball clean it up. Let them resolve this matter.
Q: This thing with President Bush trying to get terrorist surveillance extended: Should the House be going along with the president on that?
A: I have never felt threatened by FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act). I don't know of any American who has been in any inequity or any illegality as a result of the FISA investigation. Yes, I think we should have gone along with Bush on this.
Now, as to whether we're desperately weaker, I don't know if that is the case, but I don't know if we're as up to speed as we would have been had we gone along with it. It will be revisited, but I just believe that the opposition is overreacting on it. I think there may have been three Republicans who voted with the Democrats on this. I feel like we should have gone with that because I don't think the abuse has been there.
Q: Congressman, all the presidential candidates seem to have a big push on reforming the health care system. What role should our federal government have in that? And what presidential candidates, in your opinion, have the best solution to the problem, if indeed it is an issue.
A: I think it's an issue. I haven't read much about it, but I think the Baby Boomer retirements are going to play into this. There are going to be a lot of Baby Boomers that are no longer in the workplace, and they are going to be on the receiving end of Social Security checks, unlike what was started with FDR.
At that time, there were anywhere from 35 to 40 contributors for every beneficiary. Now, I think we're at about three or less contributors for each beneficiary. It is a problem, but as to who has the best choice, I don't know. I think most all of them have skirted around the issue.
Obama and Clinton have talked more thoroughly about it than the Republicans have. But as to who has the best plan, I don't know. America's living longer, which will continue to impact the delivery of health care.
Q: House Democrats issued contempt citations against the White House for not cooperating with the investigation into the firings of federal prosecutors, prompting a Republican walkout. Did you walk?
A: They walked. They passed the word that we would walk out to meet on the Capitol steps. I said I would walk out, but that I would not meet on the steps. I had folks back in my office waiting on me, and I said for them to deal me out. I think the word "circus" would probably be more appropriate in that exercise.
I don't think Miers or Gonzales were guilty of any contempt charges. Now, admittedly, the U.S. attorney fiasco was not handled very adeptly. In fact, I think it was handled very sloppily. But I don't believe it warranted what they were proposing to do. I believe that we are generously laced with partisan politics.
Q: John McCain has said that if America has to stay in Iraq for 100 years, he'd be prepared to do that. Of course we're still in Korea after 54 years. What is your feeling about the progress or lack thereof about Iraq, and have you changed your opinion about the surge in bringing our military personnel home?
A: I think the 100-year statement is going to come back to bite him. He may have been talking off the top of his head. But that is going to be revisited, I'm sure.
You'll remember that in 2005, when I called for considering withdrawal, I never did establish a date certain. I think a date certain should be established by the commanders on the ground. Back when I did that, no one was even considering withdrawal. That was never even mentioned. So I haven't changed my mind on the surge to this extent.
The surge is working more effectively than what I thought it was going to, because I voted against it, you remember. But I think we have come up short on the diplomatic and political side. The surge has improved not only the military part of the equation, but the diplomatic side, whereby Iraqis would start assuming more control and responsibility, which would hopefully accelerate our ultimate withdrawal. So I haven't changed my mind on that point.
Some people have accused me with being inconsistent because on the one hand I said, 'Let's start talking about withdrawal,' but yet I have never set a date. I don't believe that's inconsistent, but my point was to at least let somebody consider that withdrawal may be part of this issue that nobody is remotely discussing.
I think the 100-year statement is going to haunt McCain.
Q: There is such a cynicism about politics out there. We had a letter from a reader that said, "How can you tell when a politician is lying? When his lips are moving?" How did we get to this point? Is it justified for people to feel that way about politicians?
A: That's a fair question. I guess it depends upon the politician. I have worked in Washington, D.C., with some scoundrels who probably were not fit to hold office.
On the other hand, I think most of them up there are pretty decent folks, so I think to say you can tell when he is lying when his lips are moving, I think that's probably a stretch.
I've served with five or six Democrats and Republicans who since have either served active prison sentences or are currently serving active prison sentences. But I don't think they represent the rank-and-file members of Congress, whereas to a lot of your readers and a lot of the citizenry, I think they probably do. I think a lot of the citizens think they are a bunch of politicians, and you can't trust what they are thinking or saying. But I think that's probably a stretch.
Q: What kind of mood are you encountering when you're out among the people down here?
A: Generally speaking, most people are pleasant folks. That's been true this week. I don't think I've had an unfavorable encounter.
Q: You've filed for re-election. Is this going to be a good year or a bad year for Republicans?
A: I think people smell blood in the water.
I have four opponents -- three officially, one hasn't filed. I call them the four Ps: a pediatrician, a painter, a plumber and a postal worker. I've talked to all of them but the pediatrician. When I called the plumber, I said, "Welcome to the arena." I said, "By the way, you know I'm one of your customers, and he said he knew that. He said he hoped it would continue, and I said, "I have no trouble with you all."
But they smell blood in the water. If you follow what happened in Maryland last week, for the first time in 28 years two incumbents lost in a primary -- one Republican and one Democrat. That tells you folks are unhappy with us during the 12 years we were in the wheelhouse of that ship, and we invited a lot of our own problems. We did a lot of reckless spending, and the base is annoyed with us about that.
And to this date they are annoyed, but they are also annoyed with the incumbents. They are impatient that the Democrats haven't moved fast enough.
Q: So it's going to be a bad year for incumbents?
A: It's going to be a bad year for incumbents, but it's also going to be a bad year for Republicans nationally.
I feel pretty good about Republicans gubernatorially. We have a stable full of good gubernatorial candidates. You all remember how the scandal damaged us in 2006.
The scandal that occurred in Raleigh had the potential of damaging the Democrats more than Republicans in this coming election. I feel pretty good about the state races.
We met at the White House some time ago, and the president said, "We're going to regain the U.S. House and regain the U.S. Senate and keep the White House." I told somebody, "What's he been smoking?"
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