He claimed to be the only Democratic candidate who understood how the economy works. But what he mostly demonstrated is that he knows how the financial sector allocates capital, which is how he made his $1 billion-plus fortune as founder of Farallon Capital. The board questioned him on the company’s investment in for-profit prisons and companies accused of union-busting. He said he got out of those investments and left the firm several years ago to devote himself to political causes, and he has pledged to give away most of his fortune during his lifetime.
Tom Steyer's Top Priority Isn't Climate Change
Tom Steyer, a California businessman, jumped into the 2020 race with little political track record beyond supporting campaigns on climate change, youth activism and the impeachment of President Donald Trump.
The one question that most threw him off stride was how, given his wealth and background, he could hope to persuade voters that he is the right person to address income inequality. “Well, then, I won’t win if you’re right,” he said.
Here is a transcript, [with annotations in bracketed italics], of the 90-minute discussion Dec. 3, which was filmed for a special episode of “The Weekly,” The Times’ TV show on FX and Hulu. The transcript is unedited.
Kathleen Kingsbury : OK. Welcome. Many of us in this room have not actually had the chance to sit down with you before, so our questions over the next 90 minutes are going to be focused on trying to get to know you a little bit better. I was going to start by asking you what is a big question: In your assessment, what are the policy breakdowns that have led to there still being Americans who are hungry today?
TS: [EXHALES SHARPLY] Um.
KK : Like I said, an easy one. [LAUGHTER]
TS: Being hungry. Well, I think that if you look at where — I think it comes from where people are living, I’d start with. When I think about hunger in the United States, I think about young people. I’m sitting here thinking about it.
When I was in North Carolina last year, about a year ago, the week before the ’18 elections, I was talking to young people who were organizing for us on campuses. And a young 20-year-old, a 20-year-old young woman told me that one of her two big issues was food insecurity. And it turned out and I followed up on it, it turned out that 18% of the people in the 32 counties around Greensboro, North Carolina, were hungry. And I found that out by going to the food bank there and talking about what people were doing in order to supply food to those people.
So the question’s not what were they doing about it in order to make sure that people actually didn’t starve. The question was why were they in that position in the first place. I think if you look at inequality in the United States of America, which is where food insecurity is coming from in terms of income but particularly for young people, I think that you know, we have a system where we have chosen not to provide services across the board to low-income people in this country for a variety of reasons. [Some 37 million people across America were food-insecure in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. One challenge in addressing this is that many who need government assistance don’t qualify for it (an estimated 25% of food-insecure people most likely do not qualify for federal aid). The country’s most important anti-hunger program is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (known both as SNAP and food stamps), which some Democratic contenders, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, hope to expand.]
It’s impossible to look at inequality without looking at race in the United States of America. It’s impossible to look at inequality without thinking about housing, but what I’ve seen in terms of food insecurity specifically, and I’ll talk about my home state of California, is we see that it’s particularly acute for school-aged kids and for young people. I know that we have a program.
My wife and I have built a program called California Food for California Kids, which started with a single school district doing farm-to-table in an elementary school in Pescadero, Calif. It’s now in a third of the public schools in California basically doing subsidized farm-to-table fresh food replacing because kids are hungry. What we’ve seen is, you know, it’s related to money. The number of kids in California, I think it’s almost 50%, are on free and reduced lunch, but in addition to that, it’s not a question of just lunch. It’s also a question of breakfast, dinner, weekends, summer and what food they’re actually getting. [A new Trump administration rule changing SNAP eligibility for able-bodied adults ages 18 to 49 could threaten nearly 700,000 individuals’ access to benefits, particularly in California. While California Food for California Kids is an important program, serving over 309 million school meals a year through its California Thursdays program, it isn’t a replacement for government programs tackling the challenge of widespread hunger.]
So when we look at, you know, what we’re trying to do — farm-to-table is by definition supposed to be healthy food. We’re trying to do the food that is prepared on-site, that is not processed or minimally processed, and getting kids in the public schools enough calories to be both healthy and to be able to perform at a different level particularly in the afternoon, after lunch. So, where do I think it comes from? I think it comes from a lack, the distribution of resources in this society and I think that you look at particularly single-parent households with kids and you see levels of poverty in particularly young people that are off the charts.
KK : That’s a very noble program that you’re describing and actually leads very well into our next question.
Mara Gay : Sure. Mr. Steyer, the center —
TS: Call me Tom, please.
MG : OK, thanks. Tom. The Center for Responsive Politics has estimated that the hundred million dollars you plan to spend on your campaign could fully fund five Senate races. [Steyer plans to fund his bid with $100 million of his own money in addition to outside donations; as of late December he had spent about $83 million in ad buys. During the 2017-2018 election cycle he was the second-biggest donor to Democratic candidates and liberal causes, also according to the Center for Responsive Politics.] Do you truly believe that running for president is the best use of your wealth?
TS: As I’m sure you know since you work for The New York Times and have done your research, I started one of the biggest grassroots organizations in the United States, NextGen America, and we in 2018 did the largest 2 [NextGen America said it registered more than 257,000 young voters in 2018. Rock the Vote registered nearly 700,000 voters in 2014.] I think in American history. I also have a partnership, NextGen has a partnership, with national labor unions to go door to door called For Our Future. We also do it separately under a different name in California, but I think we knocked on over 15 million doors in 2016 and over 10 million doors last year. Both of those grassroots organizations are ongoing. In fact, I’m not legally allowed to run them as long as I’m running for president, but I continue to support them and they’re doing the work.
Do I believe that we will be doing an enormous amount of work [Steyer is presumably talking about NextGen here.] specifically on the swing Senate races in the United States of America? Why, yes I do. Do I know that for sure? Well, no I don’t, because I’m not running them, and I’m not allowed to talk to them.
But I believe if you go look and see where NextGen is, I’ll be shocked if they’re not in Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, North Carolina. What are the other swing Senate races? In answer to your question, it’s not a question of either/or.
MG : How much would you like to see them spend on Senate races? [NextGen America’s leadership has said it will invest $45 million on youth voter turnout ahead of the 2020 election.]
TS: I don’t know.
Jesse Wegman : Mr. Steyer, I need to ask. I mean, your values are admirable, the efforts that we all know about and the ones that you’re even describing today, which I hadn’t known as much about, are impressive. Your diagnoses of a lot of these problems are also very accurate. We don’t have any issue with any of that, and I think I’m still trying to get my head around why you think you’re the right messenger at this moment for those values and for the next four and possibly eight years of this country’s future.
TS: OK, I think that’s a very fair question. I’ll give you three quick answers. One is I’m the person in this race who has by far the most. … Well, I put by far the highest priority on climate. Who has spent the most time actually working on it effectively for more than a decade. Who has a history on it. Who has a plan actually. [Steyer unveiled a plan last summer to tackle climate change, which focuses on declaring a national emergency while rolling out protections for low-income communities and low-wage workers. Declaring an emergency could allow the use of military funds for climate action, and might also pressure Congress to pass legislation more swiftly.] When you — I don’t know if you guys read The Wall Street Journal editorial page this morning, but they had a piece, I think their second, their third editorial was about Nancy Pelosi going and saying we’re still in and then talking about climate projection. If we actually are going to do something about climate, I believe I’m the person who’s going to do it. That’s the first point, because I think I’m the person who’s going to do it regardless of whether the Congress passes —
KK : But there’s literally no Democratic candidate who doesn’t have climate as one of their key priorities in their platform.
TS: Agreed. I know.
KK : You think it’s because of your history that —
TS: I think it’s not their No. 1 priority and they never would say it’s their No. 1 priority, and I will and I think that that’s completely different. [Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington is widely seen to have helped set a policy benchmark with his campaign’s singular focus on climate change. Of the remaining candidates, few have been explicit about establishing climate change action as an absolute top priority, though most have endorsed some version of the Green New Deal. ] If you actually look at the history of what people get done, and if you, and you know I don’t think we need to go past President Obama. His No. 1 priority running clearly was health care.
KK : Right.
TS: People talked about it for the two years before the election, and then we spent two years passing it. Never got to climate. I mean, he did a lot of stuff by executive action in the six, seventh, and eighth years of his presidency, but —
John Broder : In the first year of his presidency, the House passed his cap-and-trade bill and then it was killed in the Senate.
TS: Never really got to the Senate. It never held a foot in the Senate. [Senate Democrats dropped their cap-and-trade bill in July 2010, having failed to line up the 60 senators they needed to support the bill.]
JB : Right.
TS: So, in fact, what really happened there was —
JB : But have the politics in Washington changed appreciably from 2009 on this issue? [The Republicans gained a majority in the 114th Senate, elected in 2014. Trump has rolled back at least 90 environmental rules and regulations since the start of his administration.]
TS: If you look and see what my plan is, it doesn’t depend on passing something through the Senate and the House.
JB : Well, that’s if you could —
TS: Look, and let me say this to The New York Times editorial board: We don’t have a choice on this. You’re asking me why I think I’m the best? I’m the person who knows we don’t have a choice on this and will do it. Second thing is, look, I don’t think this is common wisdom. I actually think this government’s broken. Really. If you look and see the issues we’re dealing with, we have a government that is not working for the United States, and you can look at so many different issues and see it’s true. [A 2018 poll from the Knight Foundation and Georgetown University found that 60% of those surveyed were not satisfied with American democracy.] You can look at immigration reform. We have 11 to 13 million people living in this country without documentation. It’s been — they’re here for an average of 15 years. Everybody knows they’re here. It’s an open secret. We have no action on it. You can look at gun violence, you can look at the cost of health care, you can look at a trillion-dollar deficit with full employment. You can go just down the line. You cannot tell me this government is working on the basic stuff of government.
JW : But again, there are multiple candidates already in this race, the premise of whose candidacy is literally that, that American government is a corrupt government. How do you distinguish yourself?
KK : Also, to Mara’s question, the fastest way that you’re actually going to do any of those things that you just listed is to have the Senate flip to Democrats.
TS: Which we’re working on. [NextGen America is launching a youth mobilization effort for progressive 2020 Senate candidates, but Steyer was legally required to step away from his formal leadership role in the organization to run his campaign.]
KK : OK.
TS: I said — you’re absolutely right, and we’re doing it. It’s not a question of me not doing that. I am doing that. It’s not either/or.
Michelle Cottle : So, going back to the question of broken government, which, you know, everybody agrees, that’s what Trump got elected on. What is it that you plan to do that’s different to fix —
TS: I’m willing to actually change Washington.
MC: But how?
TS: And here’s the answer. If you look at what I’ve said, I’ve said I would push for term limits for congresspeople and senators. I would push for direct democracy, that we’d actually have a national referendum. I think what we’ve see — I do all the other stuff, too. Public funding of elections, end of Citizens United, make it much easier to vote and end voter suppression. Yeah, I do all of that stuff that everybody else is doing, too. No one else will actually talk about changing the structure of Washington, D.C. [Nearly every Democratic contender has proposed structural changes in government. Last summer, at least seven candidates promised that their first legislation would be focused on cleaning up government. Warren said as early as last February that her first bill would be an anti-corruption one.] Really, they won’t even say they’re against it, people won’t even say they’re against term limits.
KK : But changing the structure of Washington, D.C., in a lot of ways, even things that you’ve just said, would require actually changing the Constitution, you know, and I think we’ve seen how hard that is with the Equal Rights Amendment, for instance. How long has it been since the United States has passed a new amendment? [The last time a new amendment was passed was 1992, with the 27th Amendment. It essentially states that a sitting Congress can’t raise or reduce its pay for the current session.]
TS: Maybe the Equal Rights Amendment gets its 38th state in January. [The Equal Rights Amendment was first proposed nearly a century ago and was passed by Congress in 1972. It requires ratification by 38 states and currently has 37, having been ratified by Nevada in 2017 and Illinois in 2018. With Democrats in power in Virginia’s state legislature, it could become the final state needed to sign off on the amendment. The amendment reads: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”]
KK : Yes.
TS: In a state where women spent, I would say —
KK : After 50 years? More than 50 years in the making.
Lauren Kelley : 100 years.
TS: Yeah, but I think the question in the United States is going to be, and the presidential election is a huge question is, what is the issue in the United States? What is the issue? That’s what the presidential election is about. That’s why when President Obama was running, he said the issue is health care. So, that’s what people dealt with and that’s actually what happened.
I’m saying that there are two issues here. Climate and failed government. And the question I would ask you guys is who really wants to change Washington, D.C.? I have spent a decade running props and building grassroots organizations, taking on the companies who I believe actually get their way in Washington, D.C., who are getting their way in climate change. There’s a reason we’ve never had a climate change legislation passed in Washington, D.C. Because oil and gas companies don’t want it. People think it’s more complicated than that. It’s not more complicated than that. [Congress has a yearslong history of failed legislative attempts to address climate change — from failure to expand cap-and-trade in 2003 and a year of talking but no action in 2007 after the Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide was a pollutant, to another abortive effort to pass broad climate legislation in 2009-10.]
JW : There’s no question you’re right about that, and there’s no question that your diagnoses of some of the major problems are right, but again, to bring it back to the question of you as the messenger. I know you don’t like comparisons to Donald Trump and I think that’s fair to a degree. But we’ve seen over the last three years how a businessman with literally no experience in elected politics has run the country. You know, you’ve talked about running for governor of California, you’ve talked about running for the Senate. [Steyer reportedly considered a California Senate run in 2016 and a gubernatorial bid in 2018, and even recorded a commercial for the governor’s race before deciding against a candidacy.] Those seem like great ways to get a degree of experience in a huge, important state that you live in and that you’ve already done amazing work in. Why would you not go that route before trying to take on the highest office —
TS: I don’t think anyone else has [inaudible]. The third thing I’ll say is this: I’m the person here who actually understands economics and understands what makes the country run economically. I think I say completely different things, I think completely differently. I don’t think anybody else in this race actually is talking about growth or what will make America prosperous and equitable. Everybody’s talking about changing the tax rules and government programs. [A number of Democratic candidates have put forth plans focused on prosperity and economic growth, from Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s “Economic Agenda for American Families” to Warren’s wealth tax plan, which she has maintained would benefit the economy.] Actually what’s important, if this is going to come down to the economy, then the question is what are we actually going to do to make this —
KK : Well, we actually have a lot of questions about the economy. Aisha, do you want to kick us off?
Aisha Harris : Yes. Thanks, Tom. Say I’m an 18-year-old voter and I am disillusioned by capitalism and the way in which this economy is running, and I see someone like you, a rich, older white man. [ Steyer’s net worth is $1.6 billion, according to Forbes magazine.] Pitch me as to why I should trust you to be our president.
TS: Look, unchecked capitalism’s failed. I completely agree. The question is, what are we going to do to make it work for the people of the United States? I think the answer is we can’t give up on growth, but what we have is so shockingly inequitable that to me, your argument is exactly right and it proves that in fact what I’m saying about broken government is true. [Steyer’s campaign has released a platform that aims to rein in “unchecked capitalism” by repealing Citizens United, raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and placing a wealth tax on those whose net worth is more than $32 million. In the October Democratic debate, he sparred with Sen. Bernie Sanders, Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden on the question of whether billionaires should exist. Sanders has said “billionaires should not exist,” while Biden has cautioned against “demonizing wealth.”] This system is now — for 40 years, you can look at the data and see this system isn’t trying to serve the people of the United States, specifically you.
AH : How would you — What specifically would you do? I’m an 18-year-old voter. I need details.
TS: You’re an 18-year-old person. The first question is, I come at it in a bunch of different ways. Let’s just start with the easy part, which is tax. This is a system which has changed the tax rules for rich people and big corporations, and giving them gigantic tax breaks on the assumption that government doesn’t work, government doesn’t matter, government support of people and investment in people doesn’t matter. I proposed a wealth tax way over a year ago, long before I was running for president, because there’s something that’s gone crazy in income but even more so in terms of wealth and assets. [In 2017, Steyer published an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times headlined “I’m a Billionaire. Please Raise My Taxes.” He has repeatedly said that he was one of the first candidates to introduce a wealth tax proposal, ahead of Warren and Sanders — though, of course, he is also the only one of those touting the tax who himself has profited from America’s vast concentration of wealth.]
I would undo the Republican tax cuts for high-income individuals and for big corporations. I don’t think it makes any sense. I think it’s wrong, and the assumption there is that it trickles down somehow, and it clearly doesn’t. We have 40 years of data. We also have the returns in terms of investment by corporations to see whether in fact the claim that if they cut those taxes, there would be more investment. There wasn’t.
The first question is about taxes. I think that the way that we do taxes is unequitable, but it goes across the board, and those are just two specific examples. The second question is about how, what we think what prosperity is in the United States, and it specifically relates to you. My opinion is the way that the United States is going to be prosperous is for you to prosper. Really. The United States is the people of the United States, that we think, we describe government programs as spending, but they’re actually investment. That actually if we’re going to prosper as a country, you’re going to have to prosper. What does that mean? It means we’re going to have government programs that enable you to reach your potential. It’s a huge issue for you.
Brent Staples : And they are what?
TS: I think they start with food. We started with food, so let’s include the idea that you need to actually have enough calories in a healthy way. I’m a gigantic believer in spending a lot more money on education and viewing that as investment in people. I’m a big believer in investing in research. I’m a big believer in investing in health care. [Steyer’s plan for health care involves a public option, but not the “Medicare for All” proposal advanced by Sanders and Warren.] I view, honestly, the way we think about money in the government in the United States is wrong, and I think that if we’re going to actually be prosperous in five years and your life is going to be what you hope it is, you’re going to need government support in the 21st century. Period. And so we should do that because it’s really good for you and it’s really good for everybody. Your success is success for everybody in the United States, and we should take that attitude.
BS: Can you drill down on the same column here? We had a front-page story this morning about how school reform in the United States has not narrowed the achievement gap between America and the leading countries in Europe and Asia. I was present at the creation of No Child Left Behind, the subsidiary reforms, and one argument for not spending more money on education is that you could be spending money in a system that’s not doing its job and won’t make any difference whatsoever. Basically, it’s the front-page story this morning, so it’s very topical. What is your idea about K- 12? [In recent decades, America has tested a range of different education reform plans — No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, the Common Core State Standards, the Every Student Succeeds Act. But as Dana Goldstein reported for The Times, American high school student performance in reading and math has been stagnant since 2000, and the reading achievement gap between the highest and lowest performers continues to widen.]
TS: Money is necessary but not sufficient in terms of education. I think we all know that. But let’s be clear: In many parts of this country, there isn’t remotely enough money being spent, and it’s not being spent in a way that’s actually equitable. [Steyer’s campaign hasn’t released many details about his education reform plans. Steyer led the board of the Opportunity Institute, a nonprofit organization that researches policy solutions to education inequities, especially in early childhood. ] If you think about how we fund education in the country, it’s mostly by local property taxes.
BS : That’s right.
TS: That means legislating inequality.
BS : One in every eight dollars is federal, something like that.
TS: Yeah. We got to start with that fact.
BS : That’s sort of baked into our system.
TS: I understand, but we’re talking here about what we should be doing. If you go to the red states and look at states where Republicans control the legislature and the governorship, they always start by cutting taxes and the second thing they do is cut education. So when you say there’s enough money, this country is very unequal between states in terms of how that money is raised, how much is raised, and how it’s spent.
My opinion about education is simple. Do we require more money? Yes, we do. Is that enough? Absolutely not. But I think we have to treat teachers differently. I also think we need much broader goals in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish. If you look at the places in the United States where the education actually is world class, where they actually have changed the system, where it’s actually worked, and Massachusetts, unfortunately, I say as someone from California who grew up in New York, is the one that I think is the best. They did increase the money across administrations over a period of time. [Massachusetts has the best public education outcomes of any state in the country. Still, the Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership’s 2018 report found that it is home to “glaring and persistent disparities in opportunity and achievement that separate low-income students and students of color from their peers.” In fact, fewer than 1 in 3 black and Hispanic fourth graders is at grade-appropriate reading levels. ] They also had a much broader mandate of what they’re trying to achieve in education.
BS : Actually, what they di d, as a person who paid some attention to this, one of the differences between us and a place like Finland or a place like Shanghai, they expect a lot more of teachers. In Finland in particular, the teacher training is a lot more rigorous. We have a teacher training system that’s mediocre and varies wildly. [A 2010 report from McKinsey, “Closing the Talent Gap,” found that one of the reasons that education inequities remain so ingrained in American public schools is the low prestige and salary awarded to teachers. In other countries, like Finland, the country’s top performing students are recruited into the teaching corps. In America, by contrast, the teaching corps largely draws from the bottom third of graduates. Education reform therefore could require cultural change, not just financial incentives. ] Teacher training is terrible here. I’m trying to get at something —
TS: But my point is do we need more money? Yes. We need to treat teachers differently. The question is, what do you think the role of a teacher is? How significant in society do you think it is? I think we treat it exactly the way you’re saying. We pay teachers poorly, some places incredibly poorly. The training is insufficient, and in addition, ongoing education is different.
I think if you look at the places that crush it from an educational standpoint around the world, teachers are viewed as the stewards of the future. It’s like being a lawyer or a doctor or an architect. We’re going to have to do that if we want to be world class in education. That means we’re going to think differently about the role of a teacher in society, how important it is, because I actually do believe that the way the United States will prosper is by an 18-year-old actually getting the support to achieve what she or he can do. We’re not doing that. [Nearly all the 2020 candidates support raising teacher pay, but not all have offered specifics. Some candidates, like Sen. Cory Booker, propose giving teachers tax credits. Sanders would work with states to set a minimum starting salary for teachers, and Warren’s plan would quadruple Title I funding and incentivize states to increase teacher pay. Steyer’s campaign has released few detailed plans on education reform.] We are clearly not doing that and we are not seeing that way. To me, long term in the United States, if we’re going to be successful and prosperous, we’re going to have to build the capability of the American people.
KK : Can we get back, if you don’t mind, to some of the levers of wealth inequality? Paul Volcker once asked the Nobel laureate William Sharpe what the rise of finance in the late 20th century had contributed to overall economic growth. Sharpe’s answer was, “Nothing.” [Steyer began his career working in mergers and acquisitions for Morgan Stanley, then founded his firm Farallon Capital in 1986.] What’s wrong with the view that hedge funds and private equity, where much of your money comes from, are simply collecting tolls from everyone else?
TS: If you think about what the role of financial system in the United States or anyplace else is, it’s to allocate capital. Right? That’s the job. To figure out on a micro basis what is worth investing in. It’s measured in terms of returns in dollars, but that’s the job of finance. If you look at the United States of America and think about how we do money allocation in this society. Bill Sharpe was, I believe, a professor at the Stanford Business School which I attended.
KK : Yes.
TS: So, I actually had a chance to talk to Bill Sharpe. I think that’s untrue. I think that capital allocation in this society actually turns out to be critical. In fact, if you actually look at why the Soviet Union failed, if you’ll excuse my saying so, really bad capital allocation. They did central planning by people in a room figuring out where to put capital and where to do things, and they totally failed, and the United States of America has huge issues in terms of fairness, it has huge issues in terms of what values are promoted. I believe that the financial system does not have the rules it needs.
So we started a community bank that is from zero to over a billion dollars, designed for economic justice, environmental sustainability, and to support businesses owned by women and people of color. I definitely agree that there are gigantic holes and unfairnesses and discrimination in our financial system. But in terms of do I think that the skillful and professional allocation of capital in this society is a critical function for growth? Yes. [Steyer and his wife, Kathryn Taylor, founded a community development bank, Beneficial State Bank, which uses loans to support projects like affordable housing and renewable energy. Taylor called banking the “most powerful form of crowdfunding.” The National Diversity Coalition accused Beneficial State Bank of running a predatory consumer loan program that targeted subprime borrowers.]
Binyamin Appelbaum : By the eve of the financial crisis, more than 40% of profits in this economy were being earned by the financial industry. Is that excessive in your view?
TS: Hugely. Gigantically. [Farallon Capital Management, Steyer’s hedge fund, peaked at $36 billion in assets in 2008, before the start of the recession. Steyer stepped away from finance in 2012. He told Forbes that he feared that his grandchildren would ask, “When we were completely screwing it up, Grandpa, what were you doing?” And he would have to respond, “Well, I was running my business.”]
BA: Some of that was you, right? [Steyer and his wife made $1.2 billion between 2009 and 2017. One of his most profitable years was 2012, when he sold his stake in Farallon Capital and made $174 million. ] Some of that was Farallon, which was —
TS: You know what? I took the giving pledge to give away most of my money while I’m alive.
BA : I understand that, but do you think that the profits you were earning were excessive? Do you think that the role of the financial industry has become distorted in the economy?
TS: Yes. But do I think that professional, skillful capital allocation is critical to a growing society? Yes, I do, and I think that anyone who doesn’t think that should take a look at the societies that do it poorly and see how it works out.
BA : At Farallon, you also benefited from the current tax system. In 2000, Farallon sent a letter to investors telling them it would use an offshore company to shelter some of their gains from taxation. Could you please explain why you did that and what role you think such tax shelters should play?
TS: Look … do nothing. … You can take a look at my taxes and see how clean I am. The Farallon lawyers, and I’m not trying to pass it off on them, Farallon did tax planning for its clients according to the laws of the United States of America. Do I agree with those laws? No. [According to The Los Angeles Times, Steyer wrote a memo to investors in 2000, telling them that their money would flow through an offshore company for tax purposes. Steyer’s tax records also show that he has made millions investing in companies headquartered in the Cayman Islands, Bermuda and China.] You can take a look at my taxes and see what I do. Do I think that’s the way it should be? No. Those are the laws of the United States. Do I think they should be changed? Sure, I do. Tax laws of the United States in my mind massively advantage people who make a lot of money, and that’s a clear example of and I’d change ‘em.
BA : You’ve also expressed regret for Farallon’s 2005 investment in the Corrections Corporation of America. Could you talk a little bit about whether you think other people should be able to invest in private prisons? Do you think that that was a mistake that you did it or that should be a function of government?
TS: When I made that decision — when we looked at it, the only question in my mind is whether this is a decent thing to do before. The question was this theory that it would be a more efficient service privately delivering high quality, more. Literally giving prisoners better service. After a couple of months, I thought: “No, this is just wrong. You shouldn’t be making money out of this under any circumstances and I don’t believe it.” [In the first quarter of 2004, Steyer’s hedge fund bought 53,100 shares of stock in the Corrections Corp. of America (now CoreCivic), then the country’s biggest private prison firm (now second largest), according to Politico. The shares were worth about $1.89 million. A year later, Farallon increased its holding to 5.5% of the outstanding stock, 2.27 million shares valued at nearly $90 million. Yale graduate students called on their university to divest from Farallon because of its ties to CCA, and Steyer responded in a March 2004 letter defending his firm and stating, “We are proud of the work we have done, and continue to do.”]
BA : There should not be private prisons?
TS: No. I don’t think you should be making money out of prisons. I don’t like it. That’s why I sold it then. That was whatever it was, 14 years ago. I made that decision when this was not a big issue, when I was not running for anything, because I thought it was wrong and it was a mistake. So, I sold it and got rid of it for moral reasons because I don’t think it’s right to make money from that. [Steyer’s fund sold its shares in CCA in 2006. When questioned on the fund’s investments in CCA, Steyer said, “We heard the concerns of student leaders — and in the end Farallon chose to sell the stock.”]
BA : The overarching question, we’ve come at it in a number of ways, but you’re an investor who’s profited massively from an industry that you say has grown too large. You’ve taken advantage of tax shelters that you say you want to close. You’re a billionaire in a society that you say is dealing with profound wealth inequality. How can you be the person who’s best to fix the problems that are really embodied by you?
TS: I think what I’m doing and what I have a history of doing, this isn’t like I just came to this. I’ve been doing this for a decade. Do I think that all those things you’re saying are true? Yes. Am I someone who’s actually worked on that? Yes. Am I someone who’s taken a pledge to give most of my money away while I’m alive? Yes.
Look, it’s exactly like saying: ‘You’ve been driving a car for 60 years. How can you be someone who’s leading on climate change?’ Because we have to make a change as a society and am I part of that society? Sure. And have I lived in that society and participated in that society and run my life according to the rules? Sure I have. My point is those rules should change, not just for me, but for everybody. I’ve changed and I’m asking everybody else to go make the same change I’ve made.
BA : How is that different than expecting Exxon to take the lead on solving climate change? Why would we trust them to do that?
TS: Because they haven’t spent a decade actually turning themselves inside out to make sure that happened. I have a history of doing this. If you look at the people in the race, the person in this race who has done by far the most on climate is me. [Steyer’s work on climate change began in 2013, when he founded his environmental advocacy group.] The person who knows the most about it and has actually accomplished things in it and spent time and effort and money making sure it happens is actually me. So it’s not a question of Exxon. Exxon has a history that’s exactly the opposite.
Nick Fox : Given what happened in 2008, how can you say that the financial industry in any way allocates capital efficiently and given what’s happened since?
TS: I think what I said is that it allocates capital efficiency, but it has gigantic — the rules that control it are wrong. Look, if you look at the mortgage crisis, you can see gigantic fraud, short term, and an absolute inability to control itself. So do I believe the financial industry should be running without the rules from government? No. We started a bank that’s over a billion dollars because we believe the financial industry isn’t serving the needs of the American people the way I outlined them.
Economic justice, environmental sustainability and supporting businesses owned by women and people of color because that isn’t what the financial industry has been doing. Do I think that the rules should be different? Yes, I do.
NF : But there were rules.
TS: Excuse me.
NF : There were rules. There were laws that were violated. And since then people who have tried to change the rules [unintelligible] if not broken, bent.
TS: Look, one of the things I said was I believe corporations have bought this government. There is no industry that has its hooks more into our government than the financial industry. If you ask me when I look back at 2008, one of the overwhelming facts is that nobody was criminally prosecuted. To me, that’s wrong. [Why did the financial crisis result in so few criminal convictions? Former Attorney General Eric Holder said it “has not been as a result of a lack of effort.” Author William Cohan summed it up, “Wall Street bankers make it their daily business to figure out ways to abide by the letter of the law while violating its spirit.”]
BS : Who would you have prosecuted?
TS: Well, I think there was massive fraud in the mortgage industry.
BS : I mean, a name, company? What?
TS: Look, I think all— The people who were making those teaser mortgages were clearly taking advantage of people. Clearly. Did they have a piece of paper that on Page 68 laid out all the risks? Yes. Did anyone get to Page 68? No.
BS : I was here for it.
TS: And so do I believe that they were playing on the financial inexperience and lack of education of Americans across the board? Absolutely. Do I think that they were telling the truth? No. Do I think they were breaking the law? Yes, I do think they were breaking the law. I don’t understand why people didn’t get prosecuted for it.
NF : Are you talking about the top executives at places like —
BS : Countrywide or Morgan Chase?
NF : I’m not talking about Countrywide. Like JPMorgan Chase. $35 billion —
TS: Do I think that JPMorgan Chase were breaking the law? Yes, I do think so.
NF : Right.
TS: And do I think that it would completely change behavior if people in corporations were criminally prosecuted? Yes. Completely change behavior.
NF : Let me ask you something —
TS: I think that there’s something going on here, really, where. … Look, I was at an editorial board where they literally said to me, “You don’t really think that the oil companies will let you do something about climate?” I said, “Yeah, I really do.” They’re like: “Well, you’re kidding yourself. It’s a pipe dream.” [Steyer’s fund historically invested in fossil fuel projects, including a large coal mine in Australia. Steyer’s evolution on fossil fuels has been “slow, and ongoing,” according to The Washington Post. In 2012 he declared that he would stop all “ecologically unsound” investments. That year he divested his personal holdings from tar sands and coal, and he extended that to natural gas and oil in 2013.]
NF : Given Farallon’s investments in companies like FedEx and Target and Comcast that are well known for resisting unions, why should the average American worker have any faith in you? And do you think unions need to be stronger in this country? [Union tensions hung over Steyer’s campaign launch, when NextGen’s staff union released a statement criticizing its management for “siding with the GOP’s union-busting tactics” by stalling on its response to the employees’ terms for union recognition.]
TS: I do think they need to be much stronger. And I’ve spent over a decade partnering with unions. And not just going door to door with them, but in every single proposition I’ve ever run, we’ve had union support. My attitude is working. People have been screwed for 40 years. [Steyer has made vague promises to support unions, but unlike many of his opponents he has not released a detailed plan on labor. Buttigieg, for example, wants multimillion-dollar penalties for businesses that interfere with union elections. Sanders has argued for the creation of a sectoral collective bargaining system. Beyond supporting a higher minimum wage, it’s not clear precisely how Steyer plans to bolster unions.]
NF : And your earlier investments in companies that fought unions vehemently?
TS: Look, when we were in. … The reason I left Farallon, I could’ve stayed at Farallon and got every single thing I’m doing and they could have paid me a lot of money for being a symbolic leader. And the reason I left was I needed to make a clean break with what I saw was a system that was off the rails. [Steyer left Farallon Capital in 2012, announcing that it was time for him to “give back.”] You were asking me earlier, what do I think about capitalism? It’s not working for people. I agree. And so I felt like I had to make a clean break, not stay and get paid a bunch of money because there’s something wrong here and actually I know how it works and how to change it.
N F : I just get the feeling like your pitch is you made a lot of money, you’ve had a series of epiphanies, you’ve changed your mind and now you’re spending your money in things that you believe. And given the climate of the country now, given the emphasis on inequality, it doesn’t seem like a very strong pitch to make to the average person.
TS: Well, then I won’t win if you’re right.
KK : I want to ask you actually about a different broken system. You have called for the decriminalization of the border. This policy is opposed by the vast majority of Americans. With so many other immigration issues to tackle, why focus on that one?
TS: Well, I’ve said that, but I haven’t focused on that.
If you look at what I’m saying about immigration, if you look at my history in immigration, I’ve spent a bunch of money personally hiring lawyers for people who are under threat of deportation. We’ve hired lawyers, we’ve also attracted lawyers and we’ve also helped people who are filling out their Dream Act renewal. So in terms of immigration policy, I do believe in decriminalizing the border, but it’s funny that you think I focused on it, because I don’t think I focused on it.
I think I focused on different things. I think I focused on how we treat people who are seeking asylum. [Steyer has said he would push for a repeal of the criminal statute for entering the United States without authorization, but he hasn’t elaborated on his immigration plans in much detail. His focus, he has said, has largely been on climate change, health care and public education.] To me the biggest question is what about the 11 to 13 million people who live here without papers and who have no legal status? And where the government has done nothing about that for, what is it? Thirty-five years? So I don’t think I focused on it, but I do believe in decriminalizing the border because I think criminalizing it has enabled the agencies involved to take approaches toward those people that I think are inconsistent with a decent law-abiding country.
MG : Do you believe that Michael Bloomberg is a credible candidate for president?
TS: I have said publicly that Mike should come out for a wealth tax; anybody who wants to be a representative of the Democratic Party has got to be dealing with inequality, has got to not just acknowledge it, but be talking about it in terms of not just incumbent, in terms of wealth and assets. [Steyer has taken jabs at his fellow billionaire candidate, saying that Bloomberg shouldn’t run if he doesn’t support a wealth tax, because if “he doesn’t understand that inequality is at the heart of the problems in America” he can’t represent the Democrats, by Steyer’s estimations.] And … if he is, then he has. … Look, I don’t agree with Mike on a lot of things, but my idea is let him make his pitch to the American people and see if his message is one that they agree with.
MG : Do you believe his apology on stop-and-frisk was sincere?
TS: I don’t know. I read his apology on stop-and-frisk. It was on the front page of The New York Times. I read the comments on it, but that’s not my job.
JB : Speaking of Bloomberg, he spent the better part of the last decade, like you, focusing on climate change. He put a lot of money behind the Beyond Coal campaign and arguably was responsible for the closing of several dozen, perhaps scores, of coal plants. How has your climate campaign been more effective than his?
TS: First of all, I like the Beyond Coal campaign. I think that is a good campaign. I think that if you look at what I’ve done, I’ve actually pushed for a broader way of thinking in terms of climate than just coal. That in fact, what … we’ve been pushing for is. … If you think about what has to happen, first of all, you have to clean up your generation, which coal deals with, but it doesn’t deal with exclusively. There’s other parts of generation. So if you look at what I’ve pushed for, we’ve pushed for 50% clean energy by 2030 to clean up generation. Also pushed to end fossil fuel expansion, whether it be pipelines or fossil fuel plants, including natural gas plants. So I’ve pushed to stop specific plants and specific pipelines. [Beyond Coal, which is managed by the Sierra Club and largely funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, assembled a team of nearly 200 litigators and organizers to push for the closing of coal plants around the country. Since its start in 2011, some 299 plants have closed. NextGen America, Steyer’s organization, ran digital ad and advocacy campaigns on a range of environmental issues.]
I think we’ve also pushed in California, if you look at where the greenhouse gas emissions are actually coming from, the No. 1 is cars, transportation in general. So we pushed for a bunch of things that include public transportation to replace cars in addition to EVs across the board on that.
I think also if you really want to go and see what we’re talking about, we’re also talking about industrial and agriculture. We’ve worked on both of those things. I think it’s easy. I think people like to think about generation. The basic goal is clean up generation, electrify everything and do energy efficiency. That’s the basic program for the world. So clean up generation is first. But if you look across the spectrum of where greenhouse gases are coming from, focusing entirely on generation isn’t enough because you’re seeing greenhouse gases come from across the spectrum. And so we’ve been working across the spectrum.
MG : Should major donors be made ambassadors?
TS: I think it’s obviously not turned out well. I wouldn’t do that.
MG : Fair enough. Turning to a slightly different subject. Should someone, a candidate who hasn’t energized voters, become president? And can they?
TS: You guys are worried about something that can’t happen. The person who is going to become president is the person who gets the most votes.
JW: Not necessarily.
TS: That’s true, too. Electoral votes. OK. Touché. Touché.
MG : This is a leading question.
TS: The question is who has a message that’s different, important and is trusted to bring it home? And that’s the question.
And so that’s what I spend my time trying to say is I think I have something different to say. I didn’t run because I thought somebody would say, ‘I disagree with you guys.’ I don’t think there’s anyone else in this race who actually is going to do what’s necessary on climate, period. I don’t think that. I think that people inside the Beltway really don’t want to change the way it works. I think that.
And I think that lastly, in terms of growth of this country, the answer to your question is — and we — look, NextGen is the biggest youth voter organizer. [The question of exactly what influence Steyer’s organization has on campuses and among youth isn’t clear — the group spent $38 million in 2018, mostly on reaching college students in swing states.]
I’ve asked hundreds of kids why they don’t vote and they say exactly what you say. No one tells the truth. No one deals with my issues. System’s broken. Why would I participate? Doesn’t matter to me. But actually in my mind, the success of that 18-year-old, and I’m assuming you’re not 18, I know. That’s going to be the success of the United States or not. And when you actually think about how we’re going to prosper, what is going to be our capability, it comes back to the questions you were asking.
How can we possibly prosper as a people unless we’re actually supporting the growth of ourselves, investing in the growth of ourselves? It’s actually how we’re going. … And so the success of that 18-year-old to me is critically important in terms of success in this country. I don’t see this as fiscal policy and monetary policy. I don’t believe — That’s not true. That’s a short-term answer. The real question for the United States is how capable, how much capability, how much productivity are we building into our country on a personal and commercial basis? And that’s a real question that we are not addressing, that nobody addresses.
AH : Do you feel, though, like you are energizing the youth vote? And how do you do that?
TS: Well, I can tell you the way that we’ve done it at NextGen is by literally trying to have as much personal contact wherever we can as possible. And so I’m a grass roots person. That’s why we are on 420 campuses. That’s why we do a ton of stuff on social media at NextGen. So look, we … have done this. Do I think that. … My campaign started late. So from a grassroots standpoint, organizationally we aren’t where we would be if we’d started earlier. It’s true. But there’s no question in my mind that this election, I believe, will be won by that 18-year-old. I believe that this will be a turnout election where actually people between the ages of 18 and 35 turn out at completely different rates than what they’ve turned out traditionally. That’s actually in my mind, what happened to a large extent in 2018. I believe 2020 will be even more so. [While pollsters predict that the 2020 election could have record-high turnout, Times reporter Nate Cohn wrote that the Democratic focus “on low-turnout progressives is largely misplaced.” Whichever candidate the Democrats select, he wrote, will have to reach the key constituency of less-educated voters who don’t agree with the party’s cultural left.] I think this will be a generational election because people understand that actually there’s a gigantic difference in what happens in this election, not just for president but also for Senate. And I think everybody’s going to get that.
Charlie Warzel : Do you think they’ll buy it coming from you, though? The 18-year-olds? Not to like keep harping on it, but it really seems to be if you go spend a lot of time on these social media platforms and you see it’s not the world at large, but some are very good windows into that world and the disillusionment with the broken capitalist system is I think biggest for those who haven’t even entered it yet. Do you see yourself connecting with those 18-year-olds who —
TS: If I don’t, then I won’t get elected.
Michelle Cottle : Well, a lot of our questions obviously about whether you’re the right messenger, your response has been that over the past decade you’ve kind of shifted from where you were and have headed in a different direction. And in some case tried to correct what you had seen as a problem. So I have one that’s not ancient history. So you’ve said you want to get corporate money out of politics. You are, I think, the single biggest donor to progressive causes. I think you’re No. 2 as an individual donor right behind Sheldon Adelson overall. Now, getting big money out of politics was a big issue for Democrats in the midterms. Why are you the right person for people to trust to handle this sort of issue?
TS: Well, if you look at the money I’ve spent, it’s overwhelmingly grassroots money. If you look at what I’ve done, I’ve said, NextGen, spend a bunch of money for a bunch of years trying to make sure that people are registered, engaged and turn out. If you look at 2016, NextGen organized the registration of 1.3 million Americans, predominantly people who were underrepresented. That’s why we went there. So that was young people, African Americans and Latinos, low-income communities. Because we said this system is not representative because these people are not participating at the same level as other people. And so their voices aren’t being counted. So if you really look at what I’ve done, I have pushed really hard for props. What is a proposition? It’s the vote of the people. It’s the actual turning over to the people some question that the legislature won’t pass for some reason. [Steyer has endorsed or poured funds into at least 16 ballot propositions in California. Proposition 56 was a $2 per pack tobacco tax. Proposition 59 was an advisory measure to repeal Citizens United. Proposition 67 was a ban on plastic grocery bags. Proposition 62 focused on death penalty repeal, and Proposition 57 was on criminal justice. He also spent nearly $29 million on Proposition 39, which aimed to close a corporate tax loophole.]
MC : So you’re making a distinction in how the money gets spent, not just … the problem being the influence of. … Their voices aren’t heard, but as the top progressive donor, your voice is heard exponentially. [Steyer, who was recently the nation’s largest Democratic donor, has been referred to as the left’s answer to the Koch brothers. ] So you’re drawing the line in terms of how the money is spent as opposed to money being the problem.
TS: I am pushing for broader democracy and power to the people. And do I trust the people and do I think that they make good decisions? Yes, I do.
NF : Do you think that is, though, the experience of California with direct democracy, because there seems to be one group of rich people fighting another group of rich people often.
TS: I think everybody in California wishes the ballot didn’t look like it looks like. But I also think that in California we wouldn’t have a functioning state without propositions. [The California state Constitution was amended in 1911 to allow for statewide ballot initiatives and referendums, and the state has voted on more than 1,200 ballot initiatives since then.] And if you go back and look, take a look at where all of the increase in taxes has come. Seriously, we were bankrupt, right? We were paying people in scrip. I mean, I know that it was a recession, but we were bankrupt. Prop 30. They didn’t raise taxes in the Legislature. They raised taxes on the ballot. Prop 56. That didn’t happen in the Legislature. Prop 39. That didn’t happen in the Legislature. Every single one of the bills that has increased the revenue in the state of California with the exception of the gas tax, which they deeply regret and now proves that they’ll never do it again, has happened on the ballot.
BS : Wasn’t that Proposition 13 the sort of —
BS : The great-great-grandfather of all this? Is it not possible to see Proposition 13 as the prima facie evidence of the sort of bankruptcy of the proposition idea?
TS: It was definitely a terrible idea. There’s going to be a big push to undo Prop 13 this year on the ballot. [California’s Proposition 13, enacted in 1978, introduced sweeping changes to the state’s property tax system, leading to severe distortions in the real estate market.] I’m sure you know that. You know the so-called split role. It’s going to be on the ballot, and it’s going to be probably the key proposition in California in 2020. So do I think. … Look, that’s not the only bad proposition that got passed.
BS : But it was the grandfather of them.
TS: There … others that I would argue are almost. … There’s one other that’s almost as bad.
KK : How would you assess how Sen. Harris has done in representing California and your state?
TS: That’s for you guys to decide.
KK : Who’s on your short list as your running mate?
TS: You guys are funny.
BS : We ask this question to everybody. It’s the same question as —
MC : Well, how about —
TS: Look, in my opinion, if I am in fact the candidate, whoever I would want as a running mate is someone with a completely different background from mine to make sure. … Because I am a huge believer in disparate opinions and different backgrounds.
MC : What factors would you look at? Are you talking geography, ideology?
AH : Race?
MC : Race, gender?
TS: I’m talking race, gender, ethnicity, age, everything. Look, my opinion is that, take a look at our staff. Take a look. I’m a believer that the most diverse group comes up with the best answers.
KK : We want to ask you some more policy-related questions. Jeneen, do you want to kick us off?
Jeneen Interlandi : I’m going to make sure Michelle’s done. I want to actually circle back to immigration really quickly. During the LGBTQ town hall with CNN, you called for increasing oversight of health care access among LGBTQ asylum-seekers and I was wondering if you could elaborate on —
TS: I did?
JI: Yes, you did.
TS: Could you remind me what I said?
JI : You said that you would increase oversight of health care access for LGBTQ.
TS: I’m not sure I know what that means.
JI : OK. So then I guess you cannot elaborate on that.
TS: I’d like to see the language on that. [During CNN’s “Equality in America” town hall, Steyer was asked whether his administration would put in place stronger measures to protect the health of LGBTQ asylum-seekers. He responded: “Of course we will. I mean, what we’ve seen from ICE in terms of inhumanity, this is a perfect example, but it’s not the only example. I think it’s absolutely critical for the United States of America to treat people in a humane and decent fashion.”]
JI : OK. Let me put it to you more broadly. Can you talk a bit about what you would do to improve the health and safety of asylum-seekers? So in response to Katie’s earlier question, you said you did not actually focus on decriminalization, but you did say you had —
TS: I’m for decriminalization.
JI : Sure, but you said it wasn’t your focus.
TS: But to me I’m much more interested in the United States being a country that observes international law, that it does not commit crimes against humanity, that it is actually humane and efficient in their treatment of people coming here seeking asylum.
JI: Of course. How would you go about doing that? What steps would you take as president to increase, just specifically, the health and safety of asylum-seekers? Because presumably anything we come up with for broad immigration reform is going to take quite a while. And in the meantime there are many people being detained at the border in really just inhumane conditions. So what steps would you take to improve —
TS: So what ends up happening for asylum-seekers is they come here, they are treated very harshly and then released to whoever in the worst possible way. Everyone has a right to seek asylum in the United States of America. The first thing we should do is process this much, much faster. We have people who are waiting … an incredibly long period of time to be. … Secondly, obviously I’m against separating families. Next, they’re getting zero support. They literally are released onto the street at midnight with no money and no place to go.
JI : Well, it’s worse than that. They’re often taken and bussed very far away from where they are. And —
TS: I see in my home state of California that nonprofit organizations are stepping in to do what the federal government should be doing, which is making their transition to the United States while they wait for their case to be adjudicated.
JI : Yes. So as president, how would you change that?
TS: I would do the role that the ACLU, that the Jewish Family Foundation and that the other groups are doing to take in, which is to treat them decently and to get them placed while they wait for their case to be adjudicated. [Times reporting showed that as the Trump administration has reduced its efforts to help migrant safety, nonprofit organizations have had to step in and play a larger role.] And the United States is specifically not doing that, and treating them as harshly as possible as a way of preventing other people from wanting to come to the United States because they figured this is even worse than wherever they’re coming from.
JI : Sure.
TS: And obviously that’s wrong.
JI : Have you thought about specific policies you might have to enact or if there would be changes at Department of Health And Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement?
TS: I think that the organizations, the departments that are in fact dealing unfairly with them. And so the question you’re implicitly asking is, should we be shifting the departments that are dealing with it? We have departments that are rogue departments that are dealing with immigration and asylum-seekers in a way that is intentionally inhumane. And obviously we have to change that. And obviously we have to actually treat them humanely and get them, do everything we can to get them settled safely in United States. But we also need to have these cases handled much more quickly. If you asked me … should I hire a lot more judges and have this. … Yeah … Look, there’s something going on here that is. … This is a legal situation. They have legal rights, we have legal obligations. We’re not living up to them.
KK : I want to make sure we get ——
TS: We also have human rights. I mean, look, it’s amazing. You guys are all Americans, I presume. They are actually committing crimes against humanity in your name.
KK : We have actually a lot of health care questions for you, but I want to make sure we get to foreign policy. So Alex, do you mind kicking us up on foreign policy, and maybe we can come back if we have extra time?
JI : Absolutely.
Alex Kingsbury : Sure. I want to sort of ask you about foreign policy and the military, just to see sort of how you would approach things differently than the Trump administration. You can talk about ending the war in Afghanistan. The Trump administration [says it] is negotiating with the Taliban and seeming to kick the existing Afghan government to the wind if they reach a deal with. … Is that an appropriate approach for ending a war there?
TS: Well, let’s take a step back. We’ve been in … Afghanistan is the longest-running war in the United States. We’re very concerned that when we leave, we’re going to leave a vacuum and there’s going to be a lot of violence ensuing. It’s probably true. And so when we think … about what’s going on, the question is how can we … you know what is the … we made… Obviously we didn’t understand exactly what we’re getting into and we went in. We didn’t have a clear mission. We tried to get something done and then we stayed and we stayed and we stayed because that is always going to be true. So the question of Afghanistan is what exactly are we trying to do? [The editorial board’s interview with Steyer was held before The Washington Post released its investigation showing that senior government officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout most of its 18-year span.] What is the mission we’re trying to accomplish and how are we going to end it? And I think if you look at the United States of America, we have been willing to commit troops without a clear plan of what we’re trying to accomplish, without a clear plan of how we’re going to get out and unilaterally as opposed to as part of an actual international force. And so as a result, we’re stuck. We’re in the same situation we’ve been in before where we’re basically the de facto peacekeepers in a country that has got gigantic internal strife.
James Dao : And is that wrong? I mean, what should our role in Afghanistan be? Should it be to not be there at all or should it be there?
TS: I think if we had a choice, if we could not be in Afghanistan right now, we would not be in Afghanistan right now. Or if we were there, would it be part, honest to God, of an international coalition that was there for a peacekeeping mission? But we would not be doing what we’re doing now, which is basically keeping the unilateral peacekeeper in a country where we. … I absolutely believe that. I think that when we think about what we’ve been doing, we have obviously been too fast to move to military action. We’ve been not clearsighted in terms of defining the mission and how we’re going … to accomplish it and how we’re going to end it. We have. … There’s no question about it. I mean the question is, how to do that better, but there’s no question that looking back, that we have made gigantic mistakes.
AK : Well, so we’ve made mistakes, but how do we get out of it? That’s the question. The question is, do we leave tomorrow or what?
TS: Whenever we leave, in my opinion, we’re going to be leaving some broken glass behind us. And the alternative is to stay forever. Yes.
AK : So we should leave tomorrow?
TS: No, I think we’re going to do what we can to get out and to leave it in as good a place as possible. Which means negotiating with the people on the ground, doing everything we can to see if there’s a way to bring in other international actors in a coalition to try and have things go. [Steyer’s campaign website doesn’t include detailed policy plans on Afghanistan, the Middle East or other regional conflicts, and his approach to international agreements has been largely framed in terms of climate change (e.g. the international Powering Past Coal Alliance).] But do I think that we’re going to leave it in a perfect position? No, I don’t. I think that there’s going to be, the… Afghanistan… having talked to Afghanis who grew up there, who now live in the United States, about what it was like and what the situation actually is on the ground. I think that in fact when we leave there is going to be a lot of conflict. And I think that that’s true. And so we can either accept that as truth and deal with it and try and minimize it and try and do everything we can or we can stay forever. Those were our choices.
AK : Just a real quick question about the footprint of the U.S. Navy. It’s a massive cost for our government. Can you tell me how many aircraft carriers we have and if that’s an appropriate number given that our —
TS: I have heard it, but I don’t recall it. [The Navy has 11 aircraft carriers.] But I’ll say this, the U.S. Navy is that unilateral force keeping over straits around the world so that shipping can go on specifically of oil. The U.S. Navy is the reach of the United States around the world to a large extent.
AK : Should it get bigger? Should it get smaller? Is it appropriately small?
TS: I think there’s a sense that the United States should be the world’s controller, for instance, of all those straits so that oil can move around the world. I’m not sure that’s true … then I look at the United States, I think we’re moving to. … I would move to a much more coalition-based foreign policy. You’re asking about the Trump administration. America first. We just compete with people. We have no allies. We have no allegiances. We have no values. I don’t believe that for a second.
I don’t think that’s how the world is working. In fact, you look at — you can start with climate change. We can’t solve climate change. We can’t solve climate change unless we get a coalition of the world to solve climate change. Can’t happen. So when we think about what we’re trying to do in the world, by and large, I think the exact same thing is true. We can’t do this role by ourselves. Can’t do it. So the question is, how are we going to transition to a different world? The world’s going like this. There’s no doubt about it. The question is, how are we going to deal with that and how are we going to be a leader of coalitions based on values? Look, I was talking to a —
BA : What is the answer? How do you get China to stop burning coal?
TS: I think you may. … Look, it’s like every negotiation. What do you care about? The question in dealing with other people is what do you care about and what are you willing to do about it?
KK : So what’s your assessment of what China cares about? What would you bring to the table in those conversations?
TS: Look, I think what China cares about is cheap energy, and I think that at this point wind and solar is cheaper than coal. And I think that they are going to suffer; these people are not dumb. If you take a look at who’s going to suffer from climate, I don’t know if you guys have looked at that, I mean, probably you have, OK, the Chinese and the Indians are going to suffer in ways that are almost unimaginable. So the real question is sitting down with China and saying, how are we actually going to do this, because it is in your interest? And by the way, coal plants are more expensive than wind and solar.
So the question is, why would you want to do that and what can we do together to make sure that you don’t do that? But it’s a question of priorities, because if it’s not your chief priority, then that’s not going to be the thing that you’re going to be pushing on. It’s not going to happen. But do I think that it’s in the Chinese country’s and the Chinese leaders’ interest to actually get on top of this? Yes. And do they know it? Yes, they do.
But honestly, I’ve looked at the coal numbers, too, the number of plants that they’re talking about building. I know how many plants they’re talking about building, not even in China, but it is just part of the Belt and Road expansion. The number’s 350. So, I’m highly aware of what happens if everybody in the world builds the coal plants that they’re talking about building and the United States closes our 237 coal plants.
JD : Could you talk more broadly about what you think our relationship with China should be?
TS: We’re a frenemy.
JD : And define that. What is that?
TS: We’re tied to them. They’re the second-biggest economy in the world. We don’t want them to fail. We want them to play by the rules. They don’t play by the rules. So the question is, what can we do to pressure them to obey the rules, to be decent counterparties without trying to destroy them? Because we don’t want to destroy them. And to me, a lot of questions in all these things is trust and relationship. Do people think that you actually are a fair, trusted counterparty who tells the truth and is not trying to hurt them, but is actually trying to cooperate in a way that is better for everybody?
JD : Is President Trump wrong in taking as aggressive a stance as he does using tariffs and other —
TS: Yes, he’s wrong. Yes, he’s stupid. Yes, it’s stupid and failing.
JD : Well, flesh that out for a minute. There are many Democrats who would say he’s fundamentally heading in the right direction, even if it’s an instrument.
TS: He’s wrong. It’s not working. It’s not going to work. They’re cheating. Look, do I know that they steal intellectual property? Yes. Do I know that they close markets to American companies? Yes. Has our tariff. … He’s basically trying to create pain over there and pain over here so that they’ll stop doing things. Look, in my opinion, we should be dealing more directly with the things they’re doing. That there should be a specific response on it, that we’d go after them, and not by ourselves.
He’s an America First person. Everybody’s an individual actor promoting their own interests. I don’t believe in that, that we’re not the only people they steal intellectual property from. We’re not the only people they close markets to. We should be going after this with a coalition of people who are also being treated unfairly by the Chinese in terms of those things. But the other thing that’s true is we don’t want the Chinese to fail. It’s not good for us. It’s not good for the world. It’s definitely not good for us if China has a terrible situation, which they could have.
Look, I’m somewhat honest, so I view them as a frenemy. They do things that we really, really, really hate and we’re tied to them very closely. And if you think we’re separating from China in a realistic way, I beg to differ.
KK : Is President Xi a dictator?
TS: He is. He doesn’t have a term limit. He wasn’t elected. I don’t know what the definition of a dictator is, but an unelected leader who has no term limit, I don’t know what that is. [Steyer hasn’t released detailed plans on China but said from an economic perspective, “We actually can’t isolate ourselves from China.”] It’s not America. I believe in democracy, I’m telling you. I’m a grassroots person who wants everybody’s vote counted. So do I like that? No, I don’t like that. But it’s also ——
KK : So, we have some questions on another close relationship of the president’s.
Serge Schmemann : Yeah. I was going to ask you, I’m sure you’ve been learning a lot about Ukraine, as we all have in recent weeks about what the United States is doing, should be doing, is not doing. What would you do? Would you consider sending more lethal weapons to Ukraine to help them fight Russia?
TS: Look, the questions about Ukraine are really questions about Russia.
SS : Yep .
TS: So, we talk about Ukraine, but we’re really talking about Russia. I have a different opinion about Russia obviously than Mr. Trump. Look, I think these are guys, they hacked our election, they hacked Brexit, they’re attacking democracy around the world. In the 21st century, people think that warfare is going to be people pulling up their gun ships and shelling Washington, D.C. I don’t think so. I think cyberwarfare is warfare.
So, when I think about what Russia is doing, we’re talking about how China cheats in terms of stealing intellectual property. Yeah, they do. Close markets to us. Yes they do. Russia is a country that has actually attacked our basic system, tried to overturn the basics of democracy in our country. So when I look at what they’re doing, should we be pushing back on Russia? Yes. Are they a hostile foreign power? In my opinion they are.
SS : Does that include sending more lethal weapons, say, to Ukraine?
TS: I don’t know. I think in terms of having a policy of how we respond to Russian aggression, that question implies, if you’ll excuse my saying so, once again, a bilateral, unilateral reaction. I would not take this as a bilateral, unilateral question. To me, when I say I actually believe in coalitions and allies, of pushing forward together as opposed to the United States being the peacekeeper for the world, I mean it. And when I look at Ukraine, that’s a perfect example of a place where I believe we should be responding with allies, not by ourselves.
SS : With brain-dead NATO, I’m sure you heard what Macron said. He said NATO is brain-dead. [In November, President Emmanuel Macron of France said NATO was experiencing “brain death” because of a failure of strategic coordination by the United States.] Do you think it can be brought back to life for this kind of coalition?
TS: I do. Look, I think it’s funny, I was talking to an ambassadress from Canada over Thanksgiving, [“Ambassadress” is the female term for an ambassador used infrequently in media and politics.] and she was saying, look, it’s like we have a team and the captain of the team has decided to quit the team. Whether we like it or not, we’re the captain of the team. But we need a team. And so when I think about Ukraine, the idea of the United States unilaterally dealing with this doesn’t make sense to me. It literally doesn’t. It’s like that’s an attitude that I think is going to get us to the wrong place almost by definition.
KK : May I ask how you ended up having Thanksgiving with an ambassador?
TS: She’s a friend.
KK : I actually have a question for you that’s a little —
TS: Does that seem strange that I’d have a friend?
KK : It’s not the average person [inaudible] ambassadors. I actually have a personal question for you. Who has broken your heart?
TS: Who has broken my heart?
KK : Mm-hmm.
TS: OK, so I would say a month ago I was in Iowa talking to predominantly women working in mental health facilities who were being treated terribly. They were being. …[TEARS UP]
KK : From that experience, how would you help those women? What was your takeaway?
TS: Look, they’re being mistreated across the board. They weren’t getting overtime pay, they weren’t getting raises, they’re underpaid, they were getting physically abused and then fired for not coming back to work fast enough. It was illegal for them to tell the truth outside their job function or they’d be fired. There was a treatment of working people in the United States that’s wrong.
KK : Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with God, your spirituality? Do you believe in God? I believe that I’ve read that you’ve recently become religious.
TS: I do believe in God. Excuse me?
KK : I’ve read that you’ve recently become more religious and more spiritual, but correct —
TS: That’s not true.
TS: That’s not true. If recently is 32 years ago, then [cross talk]. Because seriously, there’s an implication with that question that somehow I’m being manipulative. That’s not true.
KK : Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that. I’m curious, church and religion are the center of community for so many millions of Americans. Who are your spiritual advisers? How do you feel like that faith would inform your leadership?
TS: I think it’s a framework for value. I think that I would never be doing this if I didn’t believe in God. I think that my definition of God is a positive life force in the universe, and I think people get there in different ways. I have my way of getting there. I don’t ask everybody to do it my way, but I do think everybody has a responsibility to be part of that positive life force. And so my way, honestly, is through going to church and using that time to reflect and be a framework for life. But I don’t ask everybody else to do that.
And I always say to people, if there’s a God, what is the chance that he, she, it really decided that only one hill tribe in the Middle East was going to be saved and everyone else was going to be damned. I’m going to go with zero. So however, some people say, God, great outdoors. You can get there however you want. But I believe that particularly now, if you’re not part of the positive life force, then you’re missing it. That’s the point of a meaningful life.
JD : Can I ask what happened 33 years ago.
TS: I think I had kids. [Steyer has four children.]
MC: So looking at the positive life force, religion, race, immigration, all of these are tools that the current president has to some degree used to divide the nation.
TS: No question.
MC : What steps would you take to heal this cultural divide? Because we’ve talked some about policy and specifics.
TS: I totally agree. I totally agree.
BS : Can I come on top of that, too, before you answer?
TS: Look, I think this is a huge question. Huge.
BS : Listen, this president was elected with the most racist campaign in my lifetime except George Wallace.
TS: I was going to say.
BS : OK. Except George Wallace. And that campaign had a broad appeal. How do you run for office and win election, but talking candidly about the broad constituency for racism in this country?
TS: First of all, I think we have to talk about race. I don’t think you can talk about the United States of America without talking about race. I don’t think you can talk about inequality in the United States without talking about race. [Steyer hasn’t been shy about calling Trump a “racist.” ] I’ve been saying, if I’m president, on the first day we’re going to have a formal commission on race.
BS : Well listen, I have told people all the time, and I write all the time, the United States does not have a race problem. United States has a racism problem.
TS: Look, and it’s deep. And if you look at the United States of America, we’ve never told the truth about what’s happened here in our history. We’ve never apologized for slavery. It’s amazing. We’ve never been willing to go back and tell the truth. I believe that policy comes out of narrative. That actually Ronald Reagan got his policy through by telling a narrative that changed the way people think that was terrible, including racist. And so the question is, how do we retell the narrative truthfully so we can get policies that actually address how we got here, and make it fair and try and repair what’s happened? So when I think about — what are we going to do to pull together?
First of all, look, I think winning really helps, and I’m not talking about winning an election. I think, as a country, we have some huge tasks. One is honestly to save the world. People are unwilling to face the fact that we actually have to save the world, and it has to be us, and that if we do that it will make us better paid, richer, healthier.
We’ll address … some of the justice issues, because environmental justice has got … I mean, I call my climate plan a justice-based climate plan. But doing that actually will pull us together. The actual task together of building a sustainable world and passing it on and leading the world morally again is something that I actually believe will pull us together.
But I also believe we’re going to have to be much more honest. I think that the conversation about race specifically, starting from the narrative, but also talking about solutions as a result, is something that’s critical for us spiritually.
BS : How much time have you spent in talking to white people in Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina?
TS: South Carolina, I have.
BS : Talking to white people?
TS: White Democrats. Look, I’ve done, the funny thing is, look, I’ve traveled around this country full time for seven years. I’ve been organizing for 10 years, but full time that’s been what I’ve done, travel around the country. And as a result of impeachment, I traveled to all the red states. Now, do I think that people who came to impeachment forums were a fair representative of those states? No, I don’t. But there were even in states like Oklahoma, Georgia, South Carolina, what I would think of as both deep red and Deep South states, lots of, tons of white people. [Steyer said he held at least 30 town halls across the country to make a bipartisan case for impeachment. ] So I’ve had a chance to sit and talk to them. Yes.
BS : And?
TS: Look, I started by saying I’m not sure I got a representative group. Did the people who did it, could I have a frank conversation with the people that I’ve talked to who are probably overwhelmingly, not exclusively, but probably 80% Democrats? Yes. Am I talking to the born-again Christians who believe that Donald Trump is an imperfect vessel sent by God to prepare us for the end of days? Yeah, I’ve talked to some. Have I talked to a lot? No. Do I really think that the people at this table are going to convince them that he wasn’t sent by God and that he’s not preparing us for the end of days? I don’t think you guys are going to do that. I don’t think I’m going to be able to do it. There is something going on there that’s deep.
JI: Mr. Steyer, I want to circle back for a second. You’ve talked about making climate change your priority and that you’re the only candidate that’s been willing to do that, and I appreciate you setting a priority. I think that’s a tough thing to get candidates to do. Particularly there’s been a lot of — I think wariness with health care policy has grown, especially in the wake of the debates, because it got so much airtime. But the focus on that is predicated on some pretty dire needs, and it didn’t come out of nowhere that Democrats chose to focus on that. How do you make the case to voters who can’t afford their insulin, who don’t have adequate health care, for whom health care policy, however boring it gets, is actually a matter of life and death? How do you convince those people that climate change needs to come first? Because to your earlier point, whatever you focus on, whatever you said is your priority, is the thing that’s going to get done. Obama got health care done because he didn’t prioritize climate change.
TS: The two things I’ve said that I would do are climate change and break the corporate stranglehold on our government. Look, the reason I think we have the health care system we do is because of the drug companies, the private hospitals, insurance companies. So, do I understand? Look, I’ve gone around this country, I’ve had people tell me, “Without the Affordable Care Act, I’d die.” I’ve gone to the states where they haven’t done Medicaid expansion. I see what it means for human beings.
I mean, you guys may not believe it, but I don’t like being mean to people and I don’t like people torturing people and taking away their. … I believe health care is a right for every American citizen, just so you know. So, do I believe that I will do everything? I’m a competitive person. What is going on with the American people is they’re getting their ass kicked, and this is a perfect example of the American people getting their ass kicked by corporations for money.
JI : So again, how do you make the case to people who are getting their ass kicked in all of these ways, that climate change is the thing we’re going to have to focus on? [During board deliberations, . Interlandi lamented, “I kind of want to see what it would be like to have a candidate really strongly and emphatically make the case for climate change as the priority. No one does that. That was your moment to convince me, convince everybody, say that. No one has ever done that. Everybody goes with health care.” Of course, as mentioned above, Gov. Inslee made climate change a central part of his platform before bowing out.]
TS: Because what I’m going to do is, I’m the person who’s going to say, there’s two things I’m going to do, climate change and break this corporate stranglehold. If we break the corporate stranglehold, we’re going to get fairness. Am I going to push really hard for this government to negotiate against every one of those health care companies? Yes. [Steyer’s health care plan, which places him among the field’s centrists, favors the public option but envisions a role for the federal government in negotiating payment rates for providers and hospitals.] Am I going to push really hard to get passage? We’re only going to get passage. … Look, one of the reasons I was running is I don’t believe this that we’re going to get passage of any of these sweeping health care changes until we change the way this government’s working.
Look, if you think about the Affordable Care Act, there are four big special interests in health care, right? Drug companies, insurance companies, private hospitals and doctors. The Affordable Care Act went four for four. They were all on back of it, it helped them all. That was the way it was designed. It was politically intelligent to get it done. Medicare for all, zero for four. Public option, zero for four. Maybe one for four, actually. But my point is, to fight those people, then we’re going to have to take away their ability to control this. Really.
JI : So what do you do in the short term?
TS: I think in the short term what you do is you negotiate like hell. Look, we have laws. I mean, obviously the people, you guys are not average voters. Excuse me?
JI : We have a president right now whose whole plan was predicated on negotiating like hell with drug companies ——
TS: No. We have a president right now whose actual plan in health care has been to take away as much health care as possible from Americans because he hates the Affordable Care Act because it’s called Obamacare. And actually he’s refused to do the things to build on Obamacare. He’s done everything he can actually to make it worse, to make it more expensive and less effective. So, actually, that’s what the president’s been doing.
And so, with the Affordable Care Act, we could be doing a much better job if Mr. Trump weren’t trying to sabotage the Affordable Care Act. So there’s a bunch of stuff that we could be doing to make it much more responsive, to work on costs, which we’re not doing.
But to get the real changes that we’re talking about, and I happen to have been from the beginning a public option person, that in order to get that, we’re going to actually have to have political change. We can make the Affordable Care Act a lot better, but we can’t get what I would think of as affordable health care is a right for every American until we get political change.
KK : For the past several decades, most of the change in government has actually come through the courts. Who is on your Supreme Court shortlist? Give us some names.
TS: I don’t have a Supreme Court shortlist. Do I think that there are — do I know federal judges who I have a lot of respect for? Sure I do. But have I gone through and drawn up a list of people for the bench? No, I haven’t. This is kind of honestly a little bit like asking who I’d have as a vice-presidential candidate.
BA : Can I go back one second to the last. … You presented yourself as the one candidate who is willing to stand up for the primacy of climate change as an issue. And then she asked you to defend that and you didn’t. You said, nope, I want to do health care, too. Why won’t you stand up for the primacy of climate change? [In November, Steyer critiqued some of his Democratic rivals in saying, “I’m the only person on this stage who will say climate [change] is the No. 1 priority for me.” He continued: “Vice President Biden won’t say it. Senator Warren won’t say it.”]
TS: I will. I will declare a state of emergency —
BA : Well, do it right now. How do you explain to a voter who thinks health care is their No. 1 priority, that climate change is actually the most important?
TS: Look, if we don’t get this right, then it’s going to overtake the lives of every single American.
JB : What do you mean when you say you’ll declare an emergency on Day 1? What does that look like? What do you do?
TS: I think it basically, there’s some emergency powers to president. What it really means is determining how we’re going to generate power, putting in rules about power generation, putting in rules about transportation, how many miles per gallon rule, EV rules, putting in rules about building efficiency. [Steyer’s plan is unique in proposing the use of emergency powers to redirect government funding toward measures countering climate change. Trump was broadly criticized for declaring an emergency to appropriate funds for his border wall.] Putting in, changing — those are things we can do, that the president can through, can put in a whole bunch of rules in terms of how we generate and use power on Day 1. What can’t happen is the idea that we’ll spend all the money that’s necessary in order to get things done. But we can put in rules, and I’m a big believer, just so you know, in actually putting in rules. What we’ve seen in California over the last 12 years is that putting in rules really works.
KK : If you’re not elected president and a Democrat is, would you consider taking the role of energy secretary? [One WikiLeaks email exchange from Clinton associates mentioned Steyer as a possible energy secretary.]
TS: I haven’t even thought about it.
JW : Can I follow up on Katie’s question about the Supreme Court and Michelle’s question about vice presidency? You’ve demurred on these questions, but I think it would be nice to return a little bit to political reality for a moment and look at how Washington works, and that there are three branches of government, and that much, as Katie said, of what has happened in American policy and politics in the last 40 years has happened through the courts. You haven’t really talked about Congress, although you did mention I think to Mara that the Senate is going to be an important part of the 2020 election. How do you see — I mean, you’ve talked about executive orders, how do you see that working in the current political environment in Washington? I just don’t understand. Even if you were able to do half of the things that you’re talking about doing through executive order, you’re already seeing a Supreme Court that’s becoming increasingly hostile to at least Democratic presidents’ assertions of executive authority. We’re watching that right now in the DACA case. I don’t quite see the leap that you’re making from your talking a lot about what you would do as president, but it seems sort of separated from how things actually work on the ground in Washington. How would you navigate those straits?
TS: I think Washington’s going to change. I mean, I know you’re going to sit there and think I’m naive, but I think we have an election —
JW : No, I’m just wondering how.
TS: Look, I think have an election in 2020 that is going to change things in Washington, D.C. I think it’s absolutely critical.
JW: You think the Senate is going to — come — the Democrats are going to take back the Senate, you think?
TS: I do. [Thomas Edsall, a contributor to The Times on demographic trends, recently wrote that the Senate is structurally resistant to Democratic control because of national polarization. For Democrats to take back the Senate, they need to win 11 seats in competitive states, while Republicans need to win only five seats in competitive purple states.]
JW : You do?
TS: Yep. Look, I think that you guys take a look. I’m not just, you know, dreaming here. If you look at what happened, I have a different opinion about how elections work in the United States than most people do, or at least that what I would think of as establishment than people do.
JW : What’s your opinion?
TS: I think that the argument that I had starting at the end of 2017 but going fully for more than a year was, how are we actually going to win in 2018? And the answer was we’re going to be moderates from the establishment. We’re going to have moderates, and we’re going to get the — we’re going to persuade the liberal Republicans and the independents to vote for us, and that’s how we’re going to win seats and that’s how we’re going to take back Congress. I never thought that. I don’t believe that’s true. I don’t believe that’s what happened. And I said, no.
TS: The way that we’re going to win back Congress is we’re going to have a completely different turnout model. And in fact, we’re going to win because a whole bunch of people who haven’t voted before are going to realize it’s critical to vote and we’re going to need to be organized to make sure that happens. And if you actually look at what happened in 2018, the number of people who voted Republican from 2014 went up, but the number of people who voted Democratic went from 35 to 59 million people. It was up by 75%. If you look at the number of people in the districts where we were organizing young people, what the turnout went, it went from 18% to 41%. So when you asked me what happened in 2018, Democrats showed up in a completely different level. [Turnout in the 2018 midterms was the highest recorded since the Census Bureau started tracking midterm voter turnout in 1978. The turnout surge was especially salient for youth, Democratic-leaning Hispanics and Asian Americans and white college graduates.]
TS: If you look at what happened in 2019, if you look at Virginia, Kentucky, Louisiana, turnout. The Kentucky governor lost with more votes than he won with. If you look at Louisiana, read the stories in the, I believe it’s called The New York Times, turnout. This is a turnout election. If the people of the United States, which I strongly fervently believe they do, understand what’s at stake, we have a sweeping victory.
MC : All right. I’m one of the board members based out of Washington, so it’s partially my job to be the skunk at the garden party. So if you don’t have Democrats take back the Senate, you’re facing a Senate led by Mitch McConnell, well known for not being particularly fond of bipartisanship or confirming Democratic presidents’ justices. How are you the best person to deal with him?
TS: Look, if I remember correctly, Mitch McConnell is the person who said when Barack Obama got elected, my job is to make sure he doesn’t get reelected. [In an interview with National Journal in October 2010, McConnell said: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”]
BS : No, my job is to make him a one-term president.
TS: OK. Slightly different, but the same point. He’s also the person who never made a deal with Barack the whole time. I watched that whole thing. I — I was shocked. I remember first term and second term, President Obama thought he could be a fair, trusted counterpart who would make fair, reasonable proposals and get things done, and it never happened. So if you’re asking me, do I think that Mitch McConnell is someone who’s unwilling to get to make deals? Yes, I do think that. And do I think that that’s true of every single person who’s going to be president? Yes, I do. And do I believe that that’s something that is a huge impediment to progress in this country? Absolutely, I do. [In November, Steyer’s Need to Impeach group started a billboard campaign targeting McConnell, telling “Moscow Mitch” to “Do Your Duty or Lose Your Job.”]
TS: So to me the answer in that is, we can’t afford not to win. Because the idea that, I mean we’re watching it right now in terms of impeachment. Look, I mean, I will also point out to you that the same Democratic establishment that thinks we won by being moderate in 2018 thought that impeachment was the worst thing that was ever going to happen and was going to make sure we didn’t win back the House in 2018. And I will say, if you look at what the Republicans are doing on impeachment, to me it’s making your point in spades.
MC : How so?
TS: In my opinion, the things that they’re saying make no sense, are not grounded in fact or logic, and are purely partisan and ——
KK : Still, half of the country still thinks that impeachment is not a good idea.
TS: And we’re in the middle of a process of bringing out the facts to the American people. We’re right in the middle. And I’ve followed the numbers, I know that, I think something like 50% of Americans think he should be impeached and removed from office. So the question is, as more information is brought out, will people’s opinions be changed? It’s a great question.
KK : But the Democrats have almost wrapped up their case, more or less. I mean, there’s not much more of the case to be heard at this point. At least that’s what they’ve indicated, they’d like to take a vote in a week.
TS: Well, then we’ll have a chance to see how the Republican senators feel. Look, my opinion all along has been this is about the American people, not about the people in Washington, D.C.
KK : So if the outcome is that the Senate votes to not convict the president and remove him from office, you still think this was worthwhile exercise?
TS: Do I think it’s right to do the right thing in a constitutional question about the rule of law and protecting the American people? Do I think that’s right? Yes, I do think that’s right. I think this is a question of right and wrong. I mean, I understand that you’re asking me, do I think this is politically ——
KK : I’m just saying, there could be political ramifications.
TS: You’re asking me, is this a politically tactical question? And I’m making a different point, which is this isn’t about political tactics.
KK: Yeah, no one in this room disagrees with you. [This may not technically be correct, but the editorial board did, ultimately, call for the House to vote for impeachment.]
TS: OK. So therefore you’re asking me, do I think it’s right to do the right thing under pressure? Yes.
MC : Now, as far as messaging goes, though, there are plenty of voters and Democratic House members and senators, and the president will have to speak to these people who think that impeachment has been a distraction from issues like health care and income inequality that impact your life. What do you say to those people? Because obviously this is a big deal in Washington, and in certain political circles and the Democratic base, but not everybody sees this as the end-all be-all. [A national poll from NPR, “PBS NewsHour” and Marist found that 65% of Americans can’t imagine how any information from the congressional inquiry might change their minds about impeachment. A different national survey found that Republicans and Democrats are deeply divided on the most important issues facing the country — but the two a majority agree on are health care and terrorism.] So how do you address those people?
TS: Look, do I think that when a system goes awry, the way this system has gone awry with the most corrupt president in history, that it distracts us from solving real problems in real time? Yes, absolutely it does. Do I think that this Congress was really going to solve health care? No, I don’t. Do I think this Congress was really going to solve immigration? Baloney. I don’t think that’s true for a second. I think when you have a serious moral issue in your country and you choose not to do it for political reasons, it’s a gigantic mistake.
KK : So even if President Trump is reelected, then it was still the right thing to do?
TS: Yes. Look, do I think that it makes the president stronger to be exposed as being a criminal, which seems to be the implication of your question? No, I don’t think it makes him stronger. Do I think that what the Republicans are doing in this is wrong? Yeah, I think it’s wrong.
KK : But there are plenty of political realities that tell us that there may actually be a political consequence to impeachment.
TS: And what are those realities?
KK : Well, we saw in 1998, for instance.
TS: In 1998, I believe the vote came after the election in ’98, and in 2000 the Republicans won everything.
MC : But the investigation came before.
TS: And you know something? The Republicans did. They lost a few seats, but they kept everything. It did not hurt the Republicans. In fact, I believe that whatever his name is, George Bush, ran on the theory of bring decency back to Washington, D.C. And he became president of the United States. [The question of who benefited politically from the Clinton impeachment remains open. On the one hand, President Bill Clinton recorded his highest score in Gallup’s presidential approval poll on the day he was impeached by House Republicans. Clinton boasted that he could have won a third term if it weren’t for the 22nd Amendment, and the Republicans lost calamitously in the 1998 midterms. But, as Steyer notes, Republicans won the White House (narrowly) in 2000.]
So there is no theory here that this somehow crushed the Republicans, and that was at a place where a president with 60% approval rating or something. And there was something like 29% of Americans who thought he should be impeached. I don’t see it comparable, and I don’t see the crimes is comparable. I think it’s a completely different situation. And if you guys are worried that impeachment is going to make Republicans vote, my suggestion to you is stop worrying. Republicans are going to vote.
JD : Do you think that Democrats should run on an impeachment narrative? That they should make it a key part of their campaign?
TS: No, and I’m not running on it. My opinion about this is, this is the right thing to have done, period. It was important to do. Personally, I still hope that the televised hearings will show the American people what a crook this guy is. Seriously. But if you’re worried about, do I think it was the right thing to do? Absolutely. But is that what we should be running on? No, we should be running on not talking about Donald Trump, talking about what we can do. [Before beginning his presidential campaign, Steyer was best known publicly as the face of a multimillion-dollar effort to impeach the president.]
MC : Why do you think it hasn’t moved public opinion? The —
TS: Well, first of all, it has moved public opinion since, if you’d said three months ago where was impeachment, it probably was at least 10, I don’t know the exact numbers, probably 10 or 12 points lower. [A November poll found that 47% of Americans supported impeachment, including 8 in 10 Democrats and 1 in 10 Republicans.] So it actually has moved public opinion, and I think it’s a process.
KK : So, we actually have run out of time. So, I’m going to let Brent close this out, and then I think we have to wrap up.
BS : At some point in this race, you’re going to have to choose, I think, between pushing your own agenda and putting your shoulder to the wheel to defeat Trump. What’s your view of that? Will you come out when that happens?
TS: I’m not sure I agree with your premise.
BS : No, that’s what every candidate says, but humor me.
TS: Look, what I have been doing, I’ve said this consistently. What I am trying to do is have the most positive impact. I’m not going to change that. I think there’s something critical here going on that no one else was saying, and that what is going on was I didn’t want to run. I mean, I wasn’t … planning on running, and I felt like I had to. And so, am I going to continue to do. … Look, my calculation is what can I do to have the most differential impact in a positive way? [After waffling on the question of whether to run for months, Steyer began his campaign in July with a pronouncement that no other candidate in the race was adequately focused on fighting corruption and democracy reform.] That’s my only question. And so, if I think that it changes, I’ll change. But that’s my only question.
BS : One more thing on the scale of self-criticism: What are you most likely to fail at as president?
TS: So — everything. Look, I want to make sure that I keep my temper, because I think there’s something wrong here, pretty much across the board. I really do. I mean, you were asking me what got me upset? I’m upset.
KK : OK. Well, thank you.
TS: I mean, we should all be upset.
BS : I do this for a living, too.
TS: I want to make sure I keep my self-discipline because otherwise I’m going to get very mad. When I hear stuff that’s wrong. Look, if you go around this country, you guys write for The New York Times. It’s a fancy newspaper. You’re talking mostly to fancy people. But if you go around this country and see what’s happening, it’s wrong.
KK : I take exception to that, I do —
TS: Is it a fancy newspaper?
KK : Of course we write about fancy things, but we also write a lot about a lot of problems —
TS: I know you do. I know you do. But I’m just saying, when you really get down and see it, it’s not complicated. It’s not complicated.
BS : Tom, I come from a family of truck drivers, all the way back … before that —
TS: So, control your temper while I try to control mine.
BS : … and before that enslaved people.
TS: Yeah, so it’s not right. What’s going on is not right.
BA : All right.
TS: And I think that this isn’t described viscerally enough in the way people talk like this. It’s right and wrong. Look, impeachment. Everyone’s talking about what’s it mean for turnout? It’s like, no. There’s something really wrong here.
KK : But the problem is, is that if you don’t have turnout, then you can’t vote and get people elected.
TS: Dude, I started one of the biggest grassroots organizations in the United States. [Steyer’s campaign bought 8 million voter files compiled by his group Need to Impeach and is renting data files from NextGen America. NextGen America claims to have run the largest youth voter turnout operation in the country — its volunteers knocked on over 1 million doors in a premidterm get-out-the-vote push in 2018.]
KK : That’s fair.
TS: I’m not sitting here just running my mouth. Tell me who else has done that? Seriously. I mean, there are a lot of people running their mouth.
BS : Next time you are in Iowa, I spent a little time in Iowa, too. Next time you are in Iowa talking to those health care workers and related people, have you riddled out how many of those people who are really being brutally treated in the health care system, and voted for Trump anyway?
TS: Look, I’m not down on people who voted for Trump. They made a terrible, terrible, terrible decision. Terrible decision. I come back to this question. How do we appeal to them in a positive way?
KK : That feels like a good note to end on. I don’t want it —
TS: I do.
MC : You have an answer?
TS: I do.
KK : Thank you very much.
TS: Thank you. I didn’t drink my coffee.
BS : We didn’t get to talk about the tie. We’ll talk about it next time.
TS: The tie’s simple. Put on the tie.
BS : Whose tartan is that?
TS: I have about 10 of these things. It’s just a red plaid tie. Do you want to bring some energy? [Steyer frequently wears his signature red plaid tie because it reminds him “you gotta dress up for a fight.” The tie has now spawned two Twitter accounts, @TieToms and @TomSteyersTie.]
BS : We were kind of decoding that.
TS: You want to bring some energy to a fight? You bring some energy.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .
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