Sen. John McCain, six weeks removed from his presidential campaign, visited the Tucson Citizen Editorial Board this week, answering questions from us and from readers.
Q What have you been doing since the election?
A Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the White House.
I just got back from a trip to Iraq, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The situation in Afghanistan is very serious, particularly in the southern part of the country where we are not winning. Therefore, in warfare of this kind, if you’re not winning, you’re losing.
We’re going to have to have a new strategy there and an increase in troops. Things will get worse before they get better.
The good news is that we are succeeding in Iraq. But we’d better not pull out too quickly. There is still some volatility associated with the situation there.
In India, they view the Mumbai attacks the same way we view 9/11. And there is great dissatisfaction with the way the government handled that.
We obviously will have a stimulus package. I hope we can also seize that opportunity for fundamental reforms: elimination of earmarks, put us on the road to reforming Social Security and Medicare and other much needed reforms in the way we do business.
As you know, I met with the president-elect and have had several phone conversations with him. I continue to look forward to the opportunity of working with him as we address the toughest and gravest economic challenge of our lifetime.
I remain the ranking member – the senior Republican – on the Senate Armed Services Committee. I look forward to getting back to work, which we have already done.
QWhat do you feel is your relationship with the people of Arizona? You haven’t been in Arizona much because of your national campaign. Do you have some fences to mend?
ANo. I was re-elected in 2004 with 70-some percent of the vote. And most people I run into in Arizona are proud of me and of the campaign we ran.
Our polling data shows very strong approval. If I run for re-election – I intend to, but I haven’t made a final decision – I expect a tough race. I expect a tough race in every campaign I’ve ever been in.
QWhat are your hopes on immigration reform?
AI think that’s up to the incoming president and his agenda. He will be setting the agenda, for obvious reasons. And I don’t know where that is on his priority list.
I don’t know what his position will be as president. I know that as a senator, President-elect Obama proposed amendments that would have killed the temporary worker program, which was the position of the unions. They did not want a temporary worker program. But I do not know what his position will be as it evolves.
QWould you be comfortable with the immigration bill you proposed earlier?
ASure, except that it failed twice. Why go back with a bill that may fail again?
I think we have to assure the American people that our borders are secure. But we still have to address it in a comprehensive fashion.
I will tell you again, and I am not ashamed or embarrassed: These are God’s children. There has to be a humane, compassionate approach to this issue, making sure whoever has committed a crime is either behind bars or out of the country, but it’s got to be addressed.
QWhat should we do about the drug-related problems in Mexico?
AA big problem right now is whether Mexico is going to be able to control their side of the border. They’re in an existential struggle for the very heart and soul of their country.
The drug cartels are a threat to the very existence of Mexico as a nation. I don’t have to tell you: 21 people killed in Nogales in one night. And corruption. So we have to really worry about the drug cartels and their influence. And sometimes corruption doesn’t just stop on that side of the border.
For the first time we are really working with the Mexican government. (President Felipe) Calderón is serious. His predecessors haven’t been. That’s why you’re seeing this violent reaction on the part of the cartels. That and the competition between cartels.
The corruption has reached the highest level of government. It’s serious. I think it was the third-ranking guy in the national police who kept where he lived and where he worked completely secret. He came home one night and a guy was there in his apartment and shot him eight times in the head. The guy that killed him had the keys to his apartment. Now this goes on all the time.
We all worry about illegal immigration; we’d better worry about the country of Mexico. We’d better worry about its system of government. Because the drug cartels are a direct threat to it.
QWhat do you think it will take for the Republican Party to reclaim its conservative and fiscally responsible roots?
ABy behaving like fiscal conservatives, which we have not for the last several years.
We let spending get completely out of control. We let corruption come in to the way we do business. And I do mean corruption. As my friend Sen. (Tom) Coburn (R-Okla.) calls it, earmarking is a gateway drug.
That’s why we have former members of Congress residing in federal prison. And our most senior Republican member convicted in federal court. We lost our way.
We have to be fiscally conservative, we have to eliminate earmarking and pork barrel spending.
We can regain our footing and we can regain the support of the American people. But we have to abandon our old habits. The president not vetoing bill after bill as he should have is not only a grave error, but it laid a debt on future generations of Americans which is not acceptable nor in any way keeping with our principles.
QWhat would be your priorities on the economy?
AThe housing issue. It was the housing crisis that triggered this tsunami and it should be the housing crisis that begins our way out.
During the Depression, there was an organization called the Home Ownership Loan Corp. that went around and bought up people’s mortgages and reissued them mortgages with payments they could afford. That should have been, in my view, one of (Treasury Secretary Henry) Paulsen’s first priorities. It was not.
And unfortunately the quote, bailout or rescue package, has seemed to ricochet from one priority to another. And there’s not been the transparency that I think has given people confidence.
We have not seen the worst of this economic crisis we’re in yet.
QWhat do you think of the potential auto industry bailout?
AI think that if we, quote, bail out the auto industry, we are delaying the demise of one or two of them by just a few months. I think that when the auto industry, and that includes the unions, found out the White House was willing to, quote, bail them out, any real compromise or concessions that would have been made by the unions died. So I was very disappointed.
QHave you run for president for the last time?
QSo what do you see your role in the Senate now?
AI think there’s very little doubt that I come back with more influence than when I left.
QHave you been able to determine what you might have done differently in the campaign?
AI’m sure the post-mortems are being conducted all over.
I can show you polls that show us 3 to 5 points up after our convention. And the day the stock market tanked, we went right down with the stock market. I think most people agree that it was the economy that had the major impact.
QMike Huckabee said that he thought you could have won the election if, when you came back to Washington after suspending your campaign, you came back to oppose the financial bailout. Do you think he’s right?
AI don’t know if he’s right or not. I had to do what I thought was right for the country. The, quote, bailout – just the name itself offends people. Rescue probably was better.
The day before I came back to Washington, the stock market wiped out $1.2 trillion in American savings and wealth. The stock market went down 700 points.
“Country First” was our slogan. I had to do what was right for the country. For me to not have supported that, quote, package, wouldn’t have been putting my country first.
And for me not to have gone back to Washington when we were in the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression and do nothing and continue to campaign as if nothing was wrong is not John McCain. Gov. Huckabee may be right or wrong, but John McCain had no choice.
QIn the past six weeks, you’ve lost your Secret Service protection and your own plane. Is that a difficult transition to make?
AIt’s a relief in a lot of ways. I regret it when we had to have Secret Service and they would block traffic. I regret it when people are inconveniences when my motorcade went to downtown New York City.
It’s just not in keeping with the way I live and the way I am. I am not criticizing the Secret Service in the way they did their job. They are wonderful people. I just didn’t like the way it kind of puts you in a bubble. I’m much happier with my old lifestyle.
QWhen you speak of reform, do you have plans to hold President-elect Obama’s feet to the fire on that because he campaigned on change?
AIt was a tough campaign and a rough campaign but I think overall it was an honorable and respectful campaign. There were no lasting injuries.
My first instinct and motivation is to work with him rather than putting his feet to the fire.
QYou’ve been traveling around the world a lot. How are you received?
AEvery place I went on this last trip, the first topic they talked about was my concession speech. I was stunned.
In Bangladesh, where they are about to have an election between two women who have fought for power for years, they played my speech over and over and over and over again on their national television in hopes that these two women would understand that the loser has to respect the results.
The prime minister of India talked about it as soon as I walked in. It’s amazing. It’s truly amazing to me the effect of that speech.
QSarah Palin went around telling people that Obama palled around with terrorists. Why weren’t you able to control what was coming out of her mouth?
AFirst of all, he did. The second point is in political campaigns, sometimes there are very rough things said and done. And I resent enormously some of the things that were said about me.
And what I most resent was John Lewis, a man that I admired and respected and have written about, accusing me and Sarah Palin of being racist. And Sen. Obama refusing to repudiate that. John Lewis associated Gov. Palin and me with the bombing of a church in Birmingham. That’s not acceptable. And in the debate I asked and challenged Sen. Obama to repudiate those remarks by John Lewis and he wouldn’t.
So if you want to review all of the injuries and statements and comments that were made, I would be glad to do that. Overall, it was a very honorable campaign.
I am proud of Sarah Palin. I am proud of the way she ignited our party. I am proud of her family. I am proud of her reform agenda. I could not be more proud and happy with the selection of Sarah Palin.
But I resent enormously these allegations that Sarah Palin was, quote, unqualified and many of the other things that were said about her and that she was subjected to. It really was painful for me to observe that.
I really believe she will be a big factor in the future of our party.
I’m sorry about me being harsh about me controlling Sarah Palin, but it is a little bit of a sore subject with me when I don’t think she deserved some of the criticism she got from people who didn’t even know her or hadn’t had any contact with her.
And I think that she is a wonderful person and one that I appreciate and admire and have grown to respect more and more over time.