Representatives Elissa Slotkin (D-MI 8th District) and Peter Meijer (R-MI 3rd District) talk about the challenging Congressional session and find common ground to tackle the urgent problems facing the United States. February 2021.
Michael Barr: Welcome, everybody. I'm Michael
Barr, the Dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of
Public Policy. It's my pleasure to be here today
to host this conversation. This is part of our
Conversations Across Differences series, a series
the Ford School has been producing for the last
four years with politicians and policymakers
from across the ideological spectrum. This
event today is co-sponsored by the Gerald R.
Ford Presidential Foundation, the Domestic
Policy Corps student organization here at Ford,
and Detroit Public Television. We're grateful for
the support of this series, including a recent
generous gift from Tom Tuft which will help us
continue to bring essential conversations to our
community and the public. Today, we're joined
by two dynamic representatives, members of the
Problem Solvers Caucus, both have served in Iraq,
Representative Elissa Slotkin as an
intelligence officer, and Representative
Peter Meijer in the Army Reserves. So they
bring that national security perspective.
MB: They're deeply tied to Michigan.
Representative Meijer was elected
this past November, so he's been in
Congress now for just over six weeks.
In addition to his tour in Iraq, he worked with
a veterans-based disaster response organization
and led humanitarian efforts in South Sudan
and the Philippines, as well as in New York
and Oklahoma after storms. He went on to run
an international NGO organization's advisory
operations in Southern Afghanistan. We know
of his family in Michigan for four generations
as the innovators who created a great food
retail business from humble beginnings in 1934.
MB: Representative Slotkin, Democrat from the 8th
District, is serving her second term in Congress.
Before her election in 2018, she had been in
a series of senior National Security posts
at the CIA, Department of Defense, and in the
White House under both Presidents Bush and Obama,
including as Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense
for International Security Affairs. Her family has
also been in Michigan for many generations.
The family business has a food tie as well,
Hygrade Foods produced by our beloved Ball Park
Franks, which were first served at Tiger Stadium.
MB: In the interest of full disclosure,
let me also say that there are
ties to the Ford School. Representative Meijer's
own father serves on the Ford School Committee,
and my son happens to work for
Representative Slotkin. Welcome,
both of you for this conversation. I'm really
looking forward to chatting with you today.
MB: We have some really serious issues
we're grappling with right now as a country.
We've just seen an unprecedented violent
attack on the US Capitol on January 6th,
we saw the impeachment of President Trump and then
an impeachment trial in which he was acquitted.
These are really difficult issues that I know both
of you are grappling with very much. Let me just
start by asking, I don't know the answer to this,
were either of you up in the Capitol on January
6th, and what was that like on a personal
level? And maybe Peter, you could start.
Peter Meijer: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for
having us here today. I'm pleased to join
my colleague, Representative Slotkin.
On January 6th, I was in the House gallery, so
in the House chambers watching the Electoral
College certification debate around Arizona taking
place, and we ended up getting barricaded inside
the gallery for about the first half an hour, the
folks, the armed group entered the Capitol after
about the 30-minute mark. Capitol police evacuated
us from the chambers, rushed us out, put us in an
elevator, hit the sub-basement, and then we were
wandering in the tunnels trying to figure out what
parts of the complex were still secure, knowing
that the Cannon Complex had been evacuated,
we made our way to a cafeteria and then later
to a committee hearing room where we were for
several hours until we were eventually allowed to
get back to other places in the Capitol complex.
Elissa Slotkin: And for me, I was on my way to
the gallery, walking through those same tunnels,
going to the floor of the House, and when I
came to the staircase that would have led me
right up to the House floor, probably the first or
second stair, I could hear yelling and screaming
and breaking glass, and what I thought was
a flashbang, like a crowd control measure,
which was probably a gunshot, now that we sort of
know more of the facts of the day. And literally,
my mind clicked into prior training, which is just
get off the X, get off the X, get off the target,
get off the bull's eye, and I just hauled
myself back to my office and locked myself in.
Fellow Michigan Representative Andy Levin called
me, he couldn't get back to his office, so
he and his chief came and spent the next few
hours in my office where I spent the next
time, a couple of hours at least on the
phone with the senior ranks of the Pentagon,
making sure that they sent the National Guard
and making sure that they heard from someone who
wasn't... This wasn't my first rodeo of
a dangerous experience, but making sure
they understood that we had lost control of the
situation, there were weapons in the compound,
and that they needed to get over quickly.
MB: It sounds like a completely
harrowing experience, and
I'm so sorry on behalf of the whole
country that either of you had to go
through that. What do you make of the reaction
of the White House? And it sounds like, Elissa,
you were on the phone with the Defense
Department, were they responsive in terms of
getting, and I know the National Guard eventually
came, but was that a tough conversation to have?
ES: It wasn't a tough conversation. I think we
will have plenty of time for lessons learned on
unpreparedness leading up to that event, because
anyone, of course, from Michigan, would have known
there was gonna be violence on that day. In
fact, I'd told my staff in a written guidance,
no one is to come to the Capitol compound, I
just assumed the violence would be outside,
as we've seen similar things happen
in my own district in Lansing. But
I think context matters, and to be honest, the
senior ranks of the Pentagon were very chastened
after what happened with Lafayette Square in
June, where uniformed military helped clear
peaceful protesters so that the President could
have a photo op. They were lambasted for that.
We had helicopters, military helicopters involved
in crowd control by flying low over the city of
Washington, DC, and we know we had active-duty
troops just outside the bounds of the city.
ES: So they were very cautious
leading up to this event
not to have a repeat situation where they were
accused of overly militarizing a situation,
and were very hesitant, and even the small
numbers that were called out ahead of time,
no weapons were authorized, they had really,
really conscribed, constrained, excuse me,
rules of engagement. So they were dealing with
now sort of the pendulum swinging and everyone's
saying, "Come here, come here, come here."
They were not mustered at a nearby armory,
they were not prepared. Now, the National Guard
needs to be called out by someone, they don't just
arrive on their own, so like I said, there'll be
lots of time for conversation. But I never was
under the impression that there was a problem,
a political problem, sending them after they
were requested, just that they weren't in place
to respond as quickly as we would have liked.
MB: That's helpful. Peter, I wonder,
what were things like in terms of,
were you kind of canvassing with Republicans
during this time, or were you all jumbled
together as a group of cross-party lines? What
were the conversations like while you were
waiting for essentially a rescue?
PM: Yeah, it was definitely very much a
bipartisan, cross-partisan mix. There was
no distinction when you were evacuating.
Actually, it was Representative Dean Phillips,
Democratic side of the aisle, he was taking
video and I hadn't seen it until I think Friday,
and I realized he was right behind me as we were
kind of fleeing the House gallery. But, well, I
guess what was kinda going through my mind, and
I think several of us had this conversation, was
you always kind of assume that there was a plan,
right? [chuckle] You hear about the Cold War,
and okay, you got the Greenbrier, and there's
all these continuity of government operations.
I understand that there are scenarios
where you don't necessarily want to brief
what may be sort of a classified or a confidential
plan ahead of time so that it doesn't leak. And
what was most dispiriting was you have the next
three people in the chain of command, right? In
the presidential line of succession, I should
say, all in the same building, and we're all
just forced to scatter. There was no secret bunker
somewhere that everyone goes and is secured in.
PM: I mean, we were first in a random cafeteria
with big windows looking out and knowing at the
time that pipe bombs have been discovered and
neutralized in adjacent buildings, that shots
had been fired and at least one person was shot
and killed, that folks had stormed the Capitol and
we're in a cafeteria or wandering through tunnels,
several dozen. I think we had groups of 25 to 40
members kind of wandering through these tunnels,
Capitol Police sprinting in the other direction
and trying to flag them down and saying, "Where
the heck are we going right now?" Not knowing
if you turn a corner and encounter folks who
had gotten in unauthorized. So in the realm
of lessons learned, there are many, many, many
lessons, but I guess it was just that sense that
we had assumed that there was a plan, and
when push came to shove, there was nothing.
MB: Do you guys think that
there should be a 9/11 kind of
commission to investigate what happened
at the Capitol that day? Is that
kind of the right next step in terms of trying
to figure out what reforms need to be done?
ES: Yeah, and actually we had some movement
on that officially yesterday when the Speaker
of the House announced essentially
what is a 9/11-type style commission
with the retired General Honoré as the head
of it. So it is extremely important that
it be independent, it's extremely important for
all the reasons Peter just mentioned, right? For
a branch of government not to have a continuity
of operations, continuity of government plan.
We could have had what we literally call in
national security circles a decapitation event,
where the top leadership are wounded or hurt or
God forbid killed. And we need to understand how
the succeeding, like failures that took place
that day in preparation and in response.
So I'm glad that it's independent, it's now
been announced, I think it's still forming,
because I think we need accountability on
that kind of event in order to move forward.
PM: And to Representative
Slotkin's point, I mean, 100%,
it has to be something that's beyond reproach,
that isn't viewed as a weaponized for political
ends entity, but I think, obviously, it was a
tragedy that that five folks died and including
a Capitol police officer, two more lost their
lives to suicide in the subsequent days.
It's important to remember that. It's
almost a miracle that it wasn't worse.
PM: Talking to some of the police officers who
were very conscious of the fact that they did
not... That if gunfire erupted, if they shot at
folks who were coming in, if an exchange occurred,
they were probably out-gunned. It's easy
to imagine a scenario where not only, where
multiple, dozens, I mean, potentially hundreds
of people could have lost their lives that day,
including senior government officials, including
those next three individuals in the presidential
line of succession. There are scenarios, there
are ways that that spins so dramatically out of
control that we should be feeling very... We
escaped what could have been much, much more
of a catastrophic event. And that's all the more
reason to make sure that we never allow anything
like this to occur again. We learn the right
lessons, we have accountability for what happened,
we clear some of the fog and uncertainty. I've
been incredibly disappointed that to this day,
apart from some of the things
presented in the impeachment trial,
unless I experienced it directly or read about
it on Twitter, I don't have any more information
than anybody else. And we've been... We're six
weeks out from this, just about, and it's still
a lot of unknowns and a lot of variables,
and obviously, this is a massively complex
investigation the FBI is conducting, but we need
to make sure that there is a full accounting.
MB: So it sounds like you all have
not been briefed systematically even
on what happened that day, let
alone the potential failures.
ES: No. I think we were given a security
briefing in the days after the attack,
literally a physical security briefing that laid
out some of the threat streams that continued
after the attack against elected officials, but we
haven't had, what I guess from my background, I'm
sure from Peter's background, would be a true sort
of update brief, after-action report, any of that.
And I know that this is feeding into a
conversation about what do we continue to do about
security now that the impeachment trial is over.
Obviously, no one likes having so many uniformed
military around such a symbolic building, no
one likes the fences, no one likes all of that,
but the truth is, I don't personally have a
great handle on what Capitol Police's plan
is to secure us going forward, to ensure
that we wouldn't have some sort of breach,
and whether that's the similar folks that we
saw on January 6th or another group, right?
ES: And I think it exposed vulnerabilities that
had clearly long been there, but you can imagine
lawmakers want to make sure that before all
that security dissipates, and that includes
the Michigan National Guard who were pulled back
to go help secure the Capitol. We all want them
to go home, but we need to understand the plan
for securing the building after they depart.
PM: And Elissa and I were out at FedExField
thanking all the Michigan National Guardsmen
and Air Guard who were out there and
for the work that they did, and then,
what, 72 hours later, they got recalled
back to the Capitol. So it's clear,
and we've seen this in some of the resignations
and the statements of no confidence by some of
their members that the Capitol Police are going
through an incredibly trying leadership moment.
But to Elissa's point, I mean, the vulnerabilities
that were exposed, others could take advantage of.
How there was not some additional
provocative entities in that crowd,
how other malign actors, international malign
actors didn't see this as an opportunity?
I mean, as I said before, it is so easy
to imagine how this spins dramatically
and catastrophically out of control, and that's
all the more reason that we have to make sure
that we have a full accounting, we learn every
lesson and we apply the right ones going forward.
MB: Let's talk more broadly about the
domestic terrorist threat in the United
States. Some people think that's the
biggest threat we're currently facing.
What should we be doing about it? What
should we be doing about the rise of
white extremist nationalism, white supremacist
organizations that were involved in this attack?
How do we move forward on a national security
basis, not just with respect to the Capitol, but
broader issues of domestic terrorism in the United
States? Maybe, Elissa, you could start us out.
ES: Sure. Well, this is some of the bread and
butter that I know Peter and I will be working
on this year. I just became the Chairwoman of the
Subcommittee on Intel and Counterterrorism, which
will be basically taking on domestic terrorism
this year. And the truth is, I think the 9/11 era,
those 20 years after 9/11, have officially
been capped off, where the greatest threats
are external to the United States, where we're
looking at terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS
and others, and lone wolves who are associated
with them here in the United States, I think
the division between us as Americans is the single
greatest national security threat. And I mean that
not in terms of just physical security, but our
inability to govern because of that division,
that the problems it creates even at the local
level, which which we're seeing now. So clearly,
I think it's really a risk to us moving
forward and having the life we all want here.
ES: But it's important to learn some of the
lessons from the 20 years of the 9/11 era
and not repeat, frankly, some of the mistakes.
Some of those mistakes involved over-reacting,
we had been attacked, we'd had the symbolic event
loss of life, and so frankly, in those early days
after 9/11, we made some bad decisions, we
opened up Gitmo, we allowed detention, rendition,
torture, we launched the war in Iraq on false
pretenses, we reacted because we were emotional
'cause we had been attacked and Lord knows, I got
international security because of that emotion,
but we can't do the same thing with domestic
terrorism, particularly 'cause it's so sensitive,
because freedom of speech
issues are wound up in it.
ES: So we're gonna be taking a look
at it and looking at whether we need
additional domestic terrorism laws, but also at
some of the things that, frankly, we can be doing
to affirmatively educate people, right? I'm
really into mandatory Holocaust education
across the country, so people understand
the symbols that we saw out on the lawn
of the Capitol as I walked through that morning,
and making sure that we are appropriately
resourced for the threat. For Peter and I, if
you were really a up-and-coming national security
type in the 9/11 era, you focused on external
terrorist groups. The resources, the support,
the interest in domestic terrorism wasn't really
the hot place to go in national security, and so
we've under-resourced it, and that's at a time
when the FBI will say that they have more open
domestic terrorism cases than they do foreign, o
we've gotta be resourced to the threat, and those
are some of the things we'll be looking at. And
Peter's a member of the committee, which is great.
PM: And as Elissa's on Intelligence
and Counter-Terrorism as the lead,
I'm the ranking member on Oversight, Management
and Accountability on Homeland Security,
so there'll definitely be some opportunities to be
very mindful of how do we get to the point where
this threat was not adequately assessed. And to
Elissa's point, I'm also deeply concerned and
want to make sure we don't over-react,
we don't infringe on civil liberties.
The biggest difference between domestic terrorism
and international terrorism is within the confines
of our country, our government has a monopoly of
violence, we have legitimate authorities, we have
law enforcement and investigative apparatuses,
we have the ability to deal with these acts
through appropriate criminal mechanisms. We don't
have those by and large overseas, that's what
makes international terrorism so hard is you have
areas that are non-permissive, where our forces,
our law enforcement cannot operate without
some type of military or lethal support.
PM: So I think we need to... And this is
some of the conversations we've been having,
be open to what might need to change, but
my bigger question is, is this a question
of staffing, is it a question of resources,
is it a question of focus and attention, or
is it a question of permissions and having
the statutory grounding to go after and
ensure that those who are seeking to sow
political violence don't find opportunities.
That's something that's going to be coming out,
I should hope, of the 9/11-style commission
of the independent investigation that
will have that more full accounting.
I don't want us to, in this immediate moment,
over-react and potentially cause more damage.
PM: And we've seen with some of the... It could
be a very slippery slope on domestic terrorism,
at what point does First Amendment right to
protest, right to engage in speech, where does
that transgress and at what point does the FBI
start to go in? 'Cause even if we look before the
9/11 era, going back to the Civil Rights Movement,
there were long-standing abuses of peaceful groups
in the FBI, especially under J Edgar Hoover,
infiltrating and recording and blackmailing
individuals who were engaged in peaceful
protest and expressing their political beliefs
that didn't cross into violence, didn't reach that
level. So we need to strike that right balance,
or else I don't think we'll be ultimately putting
the country into the direction it needs to go.
MB: That's really helpful. Let's spend just a
little bit longer on this moment, and then I'm
gonna broaden to some other topics. Obviously,
we just came out of an impeachment trial,
President Trump was acquitted, although
there were 57 members of the Senate
who voted to convict President Trump
of inciting the riot on the Capitol
on January 6th, including seven Republicans. Both
of you voted to impeach. Peter, you were more
alone on your side, not fully alone, but more
alone in your side in doing that, and I know
have been criticized strongly from a number
of Republicans for that stance. I wonder if
both of you could just say a little bit about
your decision with respect to impeachment,
and then maybe more critically, what does the
acquittal mean for the health of our democracy,
the future of our institutions? How worried should
we be about... Not just the, again, the particular
moments of January 6, but more broadly, the
strength of our institutions, our democratic
institutions? So maybe Peter, if you could start
us out and then Elissa, that would be great.
PM: Yeah, well, I was one of
10 Republicans in the House
to vote for impeachment. This was a vote that was
a vote of conscience, and when I say that, I don't
just mean we were voting with our conscience, I
mean this was not what's called a whipped vote, so
leadership and the whip team weren't going around
and saying, we recommend you vote this way, it was
up to each individual member and that's...
I don't think we've ever had an impeachment,
we don't have a strong track record of them,
historically, only, there's only a handful,
but where this... At least in the party of the
President, where that was not a whipped vote,
which doesn't mean there weren't tremendous
consequences, especially at the local level, and
folks feeling deeply frustrated, but in the days
leading up to it, I had a number of conversations
with folks back in the district, and to me, the
most striking and frankly terrifying element of
some of those conversations were the people
who immediately shifted to a denial mode.
PM: It wasn't supporters of the former
President that stormed the Capitol,
it was BLM, it was Antifa, I mean, the rapid
proliferation of just absolutely unfounded ideas
that were a means of denial, a means of avoiding
accountability or trying to hang their hat on the
smallest procedural grounds. To me, it was
ultimately a question of, is the Republican
Party a party of rule of law, a party of holding
leaders to a high standard? I talk to people who,
when we were evacuated, were strong believers,
that they've lost complete confidence in the
President, were discussing the 25th Amendment
and whether or not to openly support that,
and then a week later vote to acquit. So you can
see how this kind of reversion back to a pretty
unsustainable mean occurs, and I think we've seen
the same in a lot of rhetoric from officials of
my party who were openly condemning in the days
that followed, and then kind of back-pedaled so
hard the chain fell off the bicycle or chain fell
off the sprocket and was dragging on the ground.
PM: So I think when we slip into
political violence, that is a line
that cannot be tolerated, that cannot be
excused, that cannot be treated with kid gloves,
and we saw that if it wasn't for the President
propagating and insisting that this had been a
landslide election victory on November 3rd that
was stolen from him, and that January 6th was the
day to stop that steal, without those two...
The violence of the Capitol never happened.
Without encouraging more folks to come on
January 6th, we wouldn't have had the...
Not only encouraging them to come, but in
that speech, telling them go to the Capitol.
Granted, he said, march peacefully. He
also said, fight or fighting 20 times.
And if you don't fight like hell,
you're not gonna have a country anymore.
PM: You can try to squirm out
of the accountability question,
but at the end of the day, the folks who were
arrested at the Capitol, they were doing what
they felt Donald Trump wanted them to do.
And if he was disappointed or horrified
at what had occurred at the Capitol in those
immediate moments, he wouldn't have... He would
have been reacting immediately to shut that down,
to tell people to go away. It took him hours.
He was still trying to get Senators to delay, he
was still tweeting attacks at the Vice President
while the Vice President and his wife and his
daughter were in the building, and people who were
roaming the hallways were chanting, "Hang Mike
Pence," and there was a gallow erected outside.
PM: So to me, it was an unconscionable dereliction
of duty, it disqualified him from that office,
he abandoned his oath of office. And I will
be very honest, in the days leading up to it,
it was the worst week of my life, not because of
what occurred, not just because of what occurred
at the Capitol, but knowing that this was a
decision that would deeply disappoint so many
folks in my district, but at the end of the day,
if the Republican Party is one that coddles QAnon,
that gives into the darkest and most feverish
corners of the online fringe, that is a
sad and dangerous direction for the Republican
Party to go in and for the country to go in.
ES: And I would just add, when you work
alongside the military, you are taught
that leadership climate is set from the top,
and watching, frankly, the years of messaging
to the President's followers using his mantle at
the White House to set a tone of permissiveness
around hate and violence, that is the legacy
we're gonna be living with long beyond what
happened in the Senate last week, and this is what
makes it, I think, even harder as we go forward.
Peter made a decision that risked his career.
When I was going through the first impeachment,
people told me, that's the end of your career. And
I think it's critical that people be willing to
stand up for what they believe in, but now
the work of trying to bring the country back
together in some form or fashion really begins
when the cameras turn off on Capitol Hill.
ES: And just in the past week, in my own district,
we've had pastors and church services Zoom-bombed
by the KKK and people threatening to rape
and kill our pastors, people Zoom-bombing
our city council meetings, kids bullied at
school because of their political views.
It has seeped into the fabric of our lives, and I
think it is extremely important as we go forward
that we try and reset that red line around
threatening or inciting or using violence
in politics. That goes nowhere good,
that goes nowhere good for any side,
and we have to be just absolutely vigilant
that if someone's going to threaten violence,
that is a law enforcement issue, that
is no longer a freedom of speech issue.
ES: So I am gonna try and figure out,
frankly, what my role is in helping to bring
our communities back together, because leadership
got us into this and it will take leadership to
get us out. That's complicated, but if
anyone thinks that kind of like we can
separate into two Americas, we cannot talk to
each other... That doesn't work here in Michigan,
that's not who we are, it's not our state. And my
neighbors are devoted Trump voters, my in-laws.
So this is something that I think Michigan has a
special role in helping the country think through
how we move forward and how we heal, because
we have to keep that on the agenda, or else
it concerns me where we'll
be in a couple of years.
PM: And I think the phrase a time
to heal is especially appropriate
given the name of the school.
MB: I was gonna ask you a little bit about that,
Peter. So I want to touch on the themes that both
of you have been raising, 'cause they're just
so critical for the future of our country. And
maybe we'll start, Peter, with that last
point. Your district isn't fully aligned
with President Ford's former district, but
it's got certainly quite a lot of overlap.
What does it mean to you to have the legacy
of President Ford as part of your legacy?
PM: When I was running my campaign, my motto
was to return strong, stable and effective
representation of West Michigan and fulfill the
legacy of Gerald Ford, Paul Henry and Vern Ehlers.
That's an open question whether
or not the Republican Party
is still one that nods to that legacy,
that conservative legacy. But to me,
it's the question of does... And then this
gets kind of back to the Burkean sentiment,
is the role of a representative to pull the
district or their half of that district and
do what a majority of them want at any one time
or, as is my belief, is it to exercise judgment,
judgment that will be held to account on those
two-year cycles, but with the understanding that
what might be that incredibly intense emotion
in that moment may age in a different way.
PM: I obviously voted my conscience.
It was a difficult vote. I've been on,
I think I'm on my second county GOP censure, and
continue to talk to constituents and hope that
that those relationships can be mended and that we
can respect differences of opinion on that side.
But I've strongly thought about Gerald
Ford and, frankly, if I would have...
That was one of the argument that some folks were
making that President Ford pardoned Richard Nixon,
that was how we move on and we need to
unite, we need to heal these divisions.
To me, I couldn't square that with not voting for
the article of impeachment that was presented,
because in the case of the Ford pardon,
it came after Nixon resigned, it came
after Nixon accepted responsibility.
PM: That was a way to move forward because
that responsibility had been
accepted by the guilty party.
And in this case, not only did the President
accept no responsibility, but there was no...
You can't move past something without
working to... By papering over the division.
That wound will remain open, it will never heal
unless you confront the reality, unless you demand
accountability, and I don't want us to wind
up in the same spot in another two years,
four years, six years. I don't want us to
wind up in a scenario where political violence
is not fully held to account. And so that's
why I thought that this district and where I
hope that West Michigan and Michigan as a whole
can be a place where tough decisions are made,
where we don't just take the
easier, the popular way out,
but do what's right and necessary for the
long term and the good of the country.
MB: Elissa, obviously, you've been... You won
the first time, you've been re-elected a second
time in a district that traditionally is
quite Republican. You ran as a Democrat,
and you're obviously... You speak in terms that
I think many of your constituents might not
agree with all the time. How do you think about
these questions of reaching across the aisle,
having conversations across the differences we all
have, and taking that special role of Michigan,
as you said, seriously, to be a model for
the country. How do we do that together?
ES: Well, it's true, there is a smaller group
of us in Congress right now, I think there are
seven of us Democrats who represent Trump voting
districts, Trump 2020 districts. And I think I'm
the last Democrat in Congress right now who
represents a district that went for Romney,
Trump and Trump, and... So we're a smaller
group, but when I was making decisions,
when Trump's first impeachment happened, you have
to get comfortable with the fact that you may
not be re-elected and that some things are more
important than you keeping a job, and you have to
have faith in people, right, you take a leap of
faith that people want people representing them
who have integrity. And they may not agree with
everything you believe in, but they respect you
for being transparent about how you make decisions
and for then going with what you believe in.
ES: And I made that gamble and the voters answered
that in the affirmative, and to me, Michigan is
a good place to try and bring integrity back into
politics, because I still believe the average
Michigander can't stand the violence, can't stand
the vitriol. They just want government to work,
they're pragmatic people that get up every day and
they have stuff in their lives that annoys them,
and they have stuff that they love, and they just
want to do well and have their kids do better.
ES: So if you believe in that, as I do, then
you can take votes that are difficult, and I
think... Listen, I'm a Democrat who, my father
was a devoted Republican. I believe that we are
a better country when we have a Republican Party
of empathy, where we have legitimate ideological
differences about the role of government in our
lives, and we push and pull against each other,
but we all believe in making the country
a better place and have a shared vision of
what that is. So I desperately want my peers in
the Republican Party to figure out where they're
going as a party, and obviously Peter is a great
representation of a modern Republican, I hope.
ES: But in the meantime, I think you can't close
the door to other people, you can't say, "Well,
I didn't agree with that person a year ago, so
I'm just... They're done. I'm not gonna ever
keep the door open for them." Both Peter and
I are members of the Problem Solvers Caucus,
these are the Democrats and the Republicans
who desperately believe in bipartisanship and
in getting things done. We've had some difficult
conversations since the attack on the Capitol,
it has not always been easy, but I think we feel
that it is important that we show to the country
that you can still disagree without it being
so angry and vitriolic. So setting an example
and then, frankly, just realizing that
people can always come in the door,
if you keep it open. So that's what we're
trying to implement, at least in my district.
PM: One of the things that resonated
off of what Elissa said was
the idea of serving every term as if it's
your last. And I think the problem that
I've seen... And granted, I've been
in the role for all of six weeks,
but I saw this in some of the difficult votes, not
only on the 13th with impeachment, but on the 6th,
and the conversations leading up to it
about certification, which at the time
I thought that that would be... That certifying
the election would be an act of political suicide,
so I was pretty... It goes to show you
the naivete of the pre-January 6th moment.
PM: But that sense of, if your number one
goal is how do I ensure my own re-election,
you're going to be looking at every issue from a
point of self-preservation rather than fidelity
to the oath of office that you've taken. And to
me that's something I never want to forget, it's
what is the appropriate policy? What
needs to be done? The politics side,
that's something that you work on later, but it
is what is in the best interest of the country,
not just in the best interest of
furthering an individual career.
MB: Well, I think that if we had this kind
of perspective widely shared, that both
Elissa and Peter you've expressed, our country
would certainly be in a much better, a much
stronger place. We're gonna go to
audience questions in just a moment.
I thought I might pick, before we do, just one
or two substantive areas to think about. So
one of them obviously that is pending right now
is the stimulus bill, or the relief package,
that President Biden has put forward. I wonder
if each of you could offer your perspectives
on whether we're on the right track with that
approach, are there things you'd like to see done
differently in it, and maybe again, Elissa,
we'll start with you and then go to Peter.
ES: Sure. Well, it's a little wonky, but
we are passing this bill, we're on a course
right now to pass the next COVID bill through
a wonky process called budget reconciliation.
And instead of doing what we've done for
the last five bills of work hard, negotiate,
get a bill that independently stands on its own
and goes through the House and Senate and over
to the White House, we are putting it into a
budget reconciliation process, which basically,
I don't love. I'll be honest, I don't love. It
wasn't my preference, and I still am holding
out hope that we could have an independent
COVID bill, because I think that's the way
we should make big decisions, is through a bill
that we can debate and amend and argue over.
ES: I do think it's important that
we get money out into the system,
especially for vaccine distribution, I'm sure
for Peter it's the same thing, it's the number
one thing people are asking me about is how come
there feels like there's differences in who gets
the vaccine based on where you live, and all
this stuff. That's 'cause we have scarcity,
we don't have enough supply, and people are
frustrated. So we need to get money out,
no matter what. I don't love the method,
but we gotta deal with the problem, so
frankly, the number... I tend to be a little
bit more on the fiscal conservative side when
it comes to being a Democrat, so I want to
understand and unpack all of those numbers.
ES: It's a lot of money, we've gotten pretty
used to throwing out trillions of dollars,
and I still do believe we have to think about,
overall, the debt. Now, we're spending right now
because we need to be spending, but I think we
shouldn't get too comfortable passing trillions
and trillions of dollars without actually diving
into it, and that's what I'm doing right now.
PM: The question is, well, where
does the $1.9 trillion come from?
And the best as I can tell, that's the highest
number that you can claim without saying it's
in the "trillions" of dollars. It's a plural
question. If we look... Two recent things,
one, under President Obama, the recession era
stimulus was $800 billion, and we're already
upwards of $3 trillion that we've been spending.
So there's this ultimate question of how are
we arriving at the numbers? What is the right
number? I'm deeply worried about the inflationary
consequences we may be facing. I think some of
the economist estimates that our GDP gap, or
our GDP loss, relative to expectations, may be in
the magnitude of $800 billion to $1 trillion. And
if we are tripling or quadrupling that in terms
of deficit spending we're adding to the economy,
that could have some very unforeseen macroeconomic
consequences, in addition to our elevated debt.
PM: But I'm deeply frustrated by the budget
reconciliation process. It essentially means that
no Republican input is required whatsoever. I
think Elissa and I were both on some efforts to
carve out the most urgent necessary components,
specifically money for vaccines, for testing,
and for PPE, and have that as a set-aside,
because the more rapidly we can get vaccines
out and in people's arms who want it, and are
eligible, the faster we're gonna be through the
other end of this pandemic, and the less need
there will be for the never-ending stimulus.
PM: I'd also like to see the direct cash payments
cleaved off as well. I have yet to hear a
compelling argument about why a $15 minimum wage
increase should be in a COVID stimulus package,
that seems like a separate legislative
item, and especially worrisome for our
restaurant and hospitality industry that are
already getting hammered by the pandemic. I think
the hospitality industry's off anywhere from 40%
to 50% negative declines in revenue year on year.
So I'm optimistic that we can find a
more expedited way to get support to
people and to support the vaccination
process that allows us to separate,
you know, items that are frankly not an
immediate priority, as the vaccinations are.
PM: And the prior stimulus package, the
COVID stimulus we had, the 1.0, the 2.0,
the CARES Act, those are overwhelmingly bipartisan
initiatives. So going down a path to make the next
American rescue plan inherently partisan
spits in the face of the message of unity
that President Biden made nods
to during his inaugural address.
MB: Let me shift focus from the immediate
economic needs that you all just discussed
with respect to the stimulus, and ask you to
share with our viewers your thoughts when you
think about the long-term health of the state
of Michigan in particular, and how you imagine
us with a different kind of economy in the next
decades than the one we have now, which is still
not where it used to be and not where I
think anybody wants it to be. So maybe
Elissa, if you could start us out and then
we'll go to Peter, on long-term thinking
about what the Michigan economy ought
to look like and how we might get there.
ES: Sure. Well, we still are a place that makes
things and grow things, and that's our specialty,
we're the best in the country at it, and I think
we saw during COVID when our companies stepped up
and we needed things like ventilators and masks,
and we had the manufacturing base to actually
answer the call in a way that a lot of my peers
from other states were like, "Can I get some of
your ventilators?" We were in demand, because it
turns out it's still important to make things.
ES: I think we can bolster that sector and do that
by strengthening buy American requirements, by
making sure that if you're using taxpayer dollars
to buy stuff for the Centers for Disease Control,
that should be mostly American stuff. And I think
the Biden Administration understands we can open
up that market a little bit and enhance American
manufacturing, which is always gonna be important.
But we also have to realize that time marches
on, and the announcement that GM made the other
day of going to all-electric vehicles, I'm a
little biased 'cause I represent Lake Orion,
which is where we're making a lot of
these electric vehicles, but if the
country is in some ways moving towards electric
vehicles, let's be the one to make them, right?
ES: I don't need to give that to Tesla, let's
be the ones that make that and capitalize on
our know-how on those industries. And then I think
we've learned a lot through the pandemic. I think
everyone knows people who have come back home,
who have relocated temporarily, people who have
fancy jobs in Silicon Valley are able to do them
at a fraction of the cost of living and have the
great Michigan life that everyone enjoys. I think
letting our small towns have a piece of that pie
so that anyone, as long as they have
broadband, which we should talk about, anybody
can participate in that economy and keep that
know-how, that engine, going here in Michigan.
And we all know that in the manufacturing
sector there are fewer and fewer jobs,
but we also have the biggest robotics
community in the country, so if we're not
the guy on the line, we should be the guy
making and fixing the robot. We have to adapt,
and I think we're well-positioned to do
it, but it takes creativity and vision.
PM: And I couldn't agree more. I think
for too long Michigan's losses have been
the gains that have been seen overseas, by a place
that a lot of our jobs have been outsourced to.
COVID showed us the fragility of our international
supply chains and  ____ manufacturing sectors,
and we're dealing this right now with chip makers,
supporting our autonomous and electric vehicles
and just our vehicles more broadly, how the
more outsourced some of those components are.
PM: And maybe there was a marginal gain in
productivity or a cost decrease initially,
but very quickly that cost gets eroded by the
additional risk that's added in. So thinking
strategically about how to on-shore a
lot of the medicinal, pharmaceutical,
higher technological and other critical
components of our supply chain is going to be
a real opportunity, especially for Michigan,
in the years to come. But To Elissa's point on
our cities and towns and our state in general, I
want New York, and this is me being very selfish,
but I want New York and California and
Illinois, I want their losses to be our gains.
We have a higher quality of  ____ lower cost
of living, and the intersection of those two,
especially in a world where a significant amount
of work will continue to be remote, and frankly, I
hope that the conversation
we're having right now...
PM: I'm about to run and go tour a vaccine...
A mass vaccination site with the Governor.
I can do both of those things
in the span of two hours,
right, because of Zoom, because of this remote
work. When Elissa and I are back in DC for votes,
we can still be present in our community through
remote systems. And so the more we adapt to that,
the more opportunities to decentralize a lot
of the employment that we've seen historically,
and the more that I think Michigan can gain.
But, to Elissa's point, making sure we have
a robust infrastructure to support that will be
critical, including high speed Internet access.
MB: The next set of questions from the
audience are around climate change,
which both of you touched on in different ways
in your remarks, but I wonder if you could
tell us what you think, again, both Michigan
needs to do and the United States needs to do,
and the world needs to do, with respect
to the problem of climate change, which
so many people are worried is the biggest
existential threat that the world faces.
Peter, maybe you could start us out, your
views on climate change, and then Elissa.
PM: I think climate change is
real, I think it's a problem,
and I think it's something that we need to
act in a thoughtful and serious way towards.
One of the President's executive orders that
frustrated me was shutting down the Keystone
XL pipeline. We need to recognize that the more
we can shift production to renewables the better,
but we're always going to need some form of
on-demand energy generation, whether that's
nuclear, whether that's natural gas, that's
going to have to be the case, and that we can't
flip a switch. We have existing systems, we
have existing infrastructure that we need
to be doing what we can to pave the way to the
future, but that that's also going to take time.
PM: I'm firmly supportive, and we are in a
state that's defined by its natural resources,
I mean, the shape of our state is defined by the
lakes all around us. We have the third largest
fishery industry, protecting the environment,
preventing the worst impacts of climate change,
and beginning to peel back the path that
we're on is essential for our economy,
it's essential for our future,
and it's going to ultimately be
a far lower cost in the long term
than continuing to neglect this issue.
ES: Yeah, and I would just say, listen, I
come from a national security background,
and when I was at the Pentagon we co-authored
the first study of how climate change should
be viewed as a national security issue.
And again, when you're in the intelligence
community or the military, you're planning. If
something even has a 10% chance of happening,
you're planning against that threat, so prudent
planning obviously should be accelerated and
taken extremely seriously when it
comes to mitigating climate change.
ES: I think we have to acknowledge that that means
doing something about carbon and fossil fuels,
we can't do it at the expense of collapsing our
economy, but we can have serious conversations
about how we lower the carbon coming out of our
state, out of our country. I think we should have
those conversations. The good news is I think the
environment, as Peter mentioned, is one of the
most bipartisan issues in the state of Michigan.
It always seems to surprise people from the East
or West Coast, they think it's this political
thing, and it's like, "No, our local lakes,
rivers, streams, our way of life, our Great Lakes,
people are pretty serious about protecting them."
ES: And so I tend to focus on those issues where
we have overlap 'cause it's the way to havfe a
real conversation about the environment, but if
we don't understand that environmental security
is literally Homeland Security, after Flint
and having PFAS in our water, if you can't hand
your child a glass of water without knowing that
they might get a life-long learning disability,
that is a direct threat to your family. And so I'm
for reframing the issue and being more muscular
about it. Protecting your local watershed,
protecting the water that comes out of your tap,
that's what you should be doing as a citizen,
protecting your family. So I think reframing
the issue and then keeping it something that
we all focus on, I think is kind of the
way that I engage in environmental issues.
MB: That's great. We're getting
close to the top of our time here,
but we have a set of questions that are
returning to the theme about conversations
across difference from the beginning.
And one question from the audience is:
"Present company aside, could each of you
name a political figure of the opposite party
who you admire and say a little bit about
why?" And maybe Elissa and then Peter.
ES: Sure. Well, I've worked in Republican
administrations, so I worked in the Bush
White House, I was assigned there. I
worked for senior Republican officials.
Someone who I appreciated quite a bit was,
actually just more current, is Brian Fitzpatrick,
he's a Representative, a Republican Representative
from Pennsylvania. He cares deeply about things
like PFAS and water, he's one of the chairmen
of the bipartisan task forces on that,
and I think separate from any one issue, he's just
a decent person. We've had issues where we don't
agree, we've had issues where we agree, but you
can tell pretty quickly when you come to Congress,
and I'm sure Peter is going through this now,
everyone says they want to work across the aisle,
but it's hard work sometimes, especially
in this polarized environment.
ES: You have to be committed to doing it, and
the way that you get through hard times like this
is you just... You be a human being, and
say like, "Hey, I don't agree with you,
here's where I'm coming from, this is tearing
my town apart and we can't go on this way,"
and having another human being say, "I hear you,
that's not... I didn't think about it that way."
And it is... Brian has been
one of a number of folks who
we don't always agree, but he's a human
being, and when he lost his older brother
last term, we were able to comfort him as human
beings because we saw each other and dealt with
each other that way, and we need more of
that in Congress, desperately, right now.
PM: And a lot of the folks that come to mind
are freshmen, and some of them come from very
blue districts, and so I don't want to
throw them under the bus by getting a
compliment from a Republican. So I'll shift
to the other body and just say I appreciate
folks like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema,
and how you have folks who are not afraid
to buck their party, are not afraid to make an
unpopular vote. I think we've seen in many bodies,
and you see it on the Supreme Court,
you see it in our houses of government,
how in a trying time, in a highly polarized
time, there are folks who gravitate and
realize if somebody doesn't try to create some
balance then we're all gonna be out of whack.
PM: And so I really respect those who are
not afraid to take grief, aren't afraid to
have their party and primary challengers thrown
against them. Maybe I'm now psychologically
revealing a little bit about myself
in the current moment that I'm in, but
I do think that in the long arc of history,
history looks kinder on those who stand up
for what they believe in than those who
just try to not wind up in the minority.
MB: So we have only a minute left, and the last
question is pretty complicated, but I'll try it.
One thing our students are worried about is when
people call for civility, they mean sit down and
shut up, don't say what your... Don't speak up for
injustice, in the way, Peter, that you were just
describing. How do you wrestle with this question
of how to be strong in your principles and stand
up for what you believe in for justice, but also
reach out that hand to people who disagree with
you? And again, we only have a minute left, so
give it your best shot. Peter and then Elissa.
PM: I think it's being honest. And being honest,
you can tell a very hard truth without being
impolite. And I think folks deserve
that, they don't deserve to be...
You disrespect, you patronize somebody when
you tell them what you think they want to hear
rather than what they need to hear. And I think
that can be a problem with rising generations,
is assuming something that's uncomfortable
is negative rather than something that's
uncomfortable might be exactly the
conversation that needs to happen.
ES: Yeah, I don't see it as calling for civility
means backing off the strength and passion of your
argument. I actually see it as the opposite.
It gives you the tools to actually have that,
frankly, moral high ground. If someone is
threatening violence and is heckling and is
angry and is crossing all kinds of civility
lines, and you respond in kind, what have you done
to help the cause? I mean, you've all solidified
your feelings that you don't trust the other side.
ES: But you can have a passionate,
strong argument without it being nasty,
and I would argue that it's more effective.
And I don't consider myself a shrinking violet,
and I have had threats and things hurled against
me for a long time now, and it doesn't empower you
to sink to that level. And the truth is, I think
some of the greatest leaders in our country have
been the ones that have said... I think of Martin
Luther King, I know it's trite, but honestly, the
man lived in the segregated South, and he figured
out a way to keep his heart open to other people,
and he did more to transform our country
and civil rights than any other human being.
ES: So it's not always easy, it's sometimes
deeply uncomfortable to have conversations
with people who you really don't agree with, God
knows, I know, but if you just respond in kind,
you're just... That's not demonstrating leadership
and it doesn't get you where you want to go.
MB: Well, this has been an amazing conversation.
I wish it could go on for hours longer, but you
all have both been generous with your time. I
really appreciated the openness towards each other
and towards opposing views, and the courageous
stance you both have taken in different aspects
of your work, so on behalf of the Ford School
and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation
and our wonderful student sponsors,
thank you so much for joining us today.
ES: Thanks, Michael. Thanks, Peter.
PM: Thanks, Elissa.
MB: Take care.