No one can accuse Dan Coats of running for the Senate to put a new political feather in his cap. In November, Senator Coats re-claimed the seat from which he retired in 1998 when he thought he had hung up his political cleats for good. Motivated by what he saw as a Washington-generated crisis of historic proportions, he decided to get back in the game to do his part to rescue America's future from fiscal ruin.
ConservativeHome's Ryan Streeter recently put four questions to Senator Coats about why he ran again, what he thinks about our chief domestic and foreign policy, and what's different about his second tour of duty so far. Some main points from the interview (read it in its entirety below):
- He was driven to run again by a gut-level concern for the future of his country. "I watched as families and businesses were making sacrifices, cutting their own budgets, living with less. It seemed as though everyone except the federal government was doing that. I honestly was worried that America would become a second-tier country...We simply cannot be the first generation to turn over a country to our children and grandchildren that is in worse shape than when we started out."
- A growth agenda demands getting spending under control, including entitlements. "We need pro-growth policies, and to start, we have to cut spending and reduce the deficit. In that regard, we need to look at every area of government, and ask them to take a haircut – larger than what they think they need...We simply need to restructure our entitlement programs and make them solvent."
- We can't wait around for 2012. "We have got to make tough decisions right now, in this Congress...We simply cannot be the first generation to turn over a country to our children and grandchildren that is in worse shape than when we started out."
- Expanding middle class entitlements, as in the health care law, is exactly the wrong approach to address our problems. "We should not be throwing the middle class a life raft. We need to go upstream and change the economic environment. Taking the right approach to growth and prosperity is where government can and should be spending its time right now."
- Coats is still the compassionate conservative that he was before the term was coined. "It is clear there are limits to what the government can do, and it is probably good that there are. The role of volunteer and community groups and faith-based organizations have always played a fundamental role in promoting and protecting the common good in our communities."
RS: You have just been re-elected to the Senate seat you held from 1990-1998. It's certainly not a normal thing for a former Senator to "come out of retirement," as it were. Why did you do it?
Senator Coats: I was first elected to the House in 1980. I came to Washington when Reagan did, and one of our first major votes was whether to increase the debt ceiling. It was the first time in 200 years the country had to decide to do this, and it was astounding to everyone that the ceiling at the time exceeded $1 trillion. It just seemed historic and immense. Now we are debating a debt ceiling that is in excess of $14 trillion.
During those years, we saw the Reagan agenda implemented: a commitment to limited government, fiscal responsibility, and a focus on growth. It was a privilege to participate in that exciting decade. What we were trying to do was to remain steadfastly constitutional and to focus intensely on improving the fiscal health of the country.
In 1998, I honored a term limit pledge after my years in both the House and Senate, and I never, ever anticipated coming back.
But after 2008, I sat watching the liberal agenda unfold so quickly with such massive spending and government overreach that I couldn’t help thinking, “Everything I had worked for during my time in Congress– limited spending, supporting and promoting the private sector, keeping America strong worldwide both fiscally and in terms of security – was being thrown overboard. I watched with alarm as deficit spending and debt surpassed anyone’s imagination. All I could think was, “How could we become out of control so rapidly and to this extent?”
Meanwhile, during a time of recession, I watched as families and businesses were making sacrifices, cutting their own budgets, living with less. It seemed as though everyone except the federal government was doing that.
I honestly was worried that America would become a second-tier country.
So when the opportunity came along to run for this seat, I decided I had little choice. I realized that life had been good to me, but I just couldn’t sit back and enjoy the fruits of my labor. I couldn’t think of letting my children and grandchildren deal with the consequences of what had become an out-of-control government. I concluded America was in trouble and we needed to work hard to make it the kind of country that it has been for so long and that all of us aspire for it to be.
Like so many people, I wanted to get off the couch and join the rallies. I wanted to be involved.
And so I decided my best contribution would be to get back in the arena and promote an agenda of limited, constitutional government, fiscal responsibility, personal freedom, and strong national security.
I decided I wasn’t going to let age or anything else influence my decision to run. It was simply the right thing to do.
RS: Our focus these days is heavily on domestic issues - health care, jobs, the deficit - but, of course, threats from abroad aren't waiting around. You have a long history of focusing on foreign affairs and defense. What would you most like the American public to understand and support regarding America's obligations overseas?
Senator Coats: America plays a very special role in the world. While serving as ambassador to Germany, it was abundantly clear that, even though many European lawmakers were elected to get engaged in security issues, they themselves recognized that nothing could be successful unless the United States was involved. And there is, of course, a long history in this regard. Whether it was America’s commitment to address the Nazi threat of the 1930s and 1940s, the Cold War from the 1950s through the 1980s, or whether it’s in addressing catastrophes around the world – America plays a fundamental role.
But there are simply too many problems in the world for us to be providing leadership alone. We need to do our part and lead, and we always will, but we also need partners. NATO and other alliances have got to be willing to step up and help, and we need to do what we can to make sure they do. Given the multiple threats we face to our health, welfare and our security, strong alliances are critically important.
Our main challenge today is to keep strong relationships with other free countries and advance what is important to all of us: free and democratic institutions, trade, and sound market economies.
In fact, in just a couple weeks I’ll be back in Germany with allies asking how can we address threats to our collective security. We are in it together. We need to take the lead globally, but we need support, and we need to do the work to get that support.
RS: Many have said your efforts with the Project for American Renewal in the 1990s, which was a policy package aimed at increasing opportunity among low-income families, was a precursor to the kinds of policies that later became known as "compassionate conservatism." Today, we have not only enduring problems among the poor, but also a lot of anxiety and stagnation in the middle class. How does your experience from those former efforts shape your thinking about the economic realities faced by middle America?
Senator Coats: What we’ve learned over the years is that there are simply limits to what the government can do. So much of what we have tried to use government for in the past has been inefficient and not cost effective.
Especially now, given the serious economic difficulties we have been facing, it is clear there are limits to what the government can do, and it is probably good that there are. The role of volunteer and community groups and faith-based organizations have always played a fundamental role in promoting and protecting the common good in our communities. They need to be strong, and they need to continue to play a leading role. They have always been more cost effective in their varied approaches to solving problems than those we try to roll out from the government. They work with a sense of engagement that comes from the heart. They provide ways for us to help our neighbors, and to look after our communities.
Now, people around the country are recognizing the limits of the state. We simply do not have the money to do everything we want to do. Meanwhile, large groups across the country like Boys and Girls Clubs, the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, Goodwill, and others continue to achieve results, as well as the thousands of churches and community groups who care for and rebuild neighborhoods. These community groups and faith-based organizations always remind us of some of our more important founding principles as a nation: self-sufficiency, self-government, and volunteerism.
Now more than ever, the government needs to get back to its fundamental responsibilities, the chief of which is to do what is necessary to help grow the economy. We should not be throwing the middle class a life raft. We need to go upstream and change the economic environment. Taking the right approach to growth and prosperity is where government can and should be spending its time right now.
This starts by getting America’s fiscal house in order, which only happens when enough people recognize that the bank is broke. We can’t spend more than we make. We need pro-growth policies, and to start, we have to cut spending and reduce the deficit. In that regard, we need to look at every area of government, and ask them to take a haircut – larger than what they think they need. More than this, a pro-growth agenda looks at just about everything we know affects economic vibrancy, including tax reform and entitlement programs. We simply need to restructure our entitlement programs and make them solvent. Advancing this pro-growth agenda is the single greatest challenge before this Congress.
RS: What "feels different" about entering the Senate this time compared to last time?
Senator Coats: The difference now is the urgency of the situation we are in. We do not have time to push the big problems facing America down the road. We can’t leave what needs doing for the next Congress or next President. We have got to make tough decisions right now, in this Congress.
This obligation transcends just about everything else because it has to do with the future of America. It has to do with my generation’s effect on future generations. We simply cannot be the first generation to turn over a country to our children and grandchildren that is in worse shape than when we started out. It would be a travesty if we took away opportunities that we enjoyed from future generations.
So we need to act now. This last election showed that people are willing to support us as we make tough decisions. The American public can take the big changes we need to make. That means this Congress needs to determine how to take the medicine now so things are not worse later.