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‘It’s Your Job to Lead, and to Persuade, and to Change Opinion.’

A conversation with former Senator Heidi Heitkamp.
July 12, 2019
‘It’s Your Job to Lead, and to Persuade, and to Change Opinion.’
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 21: U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) listens during a hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee March 21, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing to get a progress report on the management of the Department of Homeland Security 10 years after its creation. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Politicians who manage to get elected statewide tend to have a certain charisma about them. Bill Clinton’s was reportedly mesmerizing. When he talked to you, they say, you felt like you were the only person in the world.

Heidi Heitkamp, the former North Dakota senator, doesn’t quite have the same magnetism, but when she talks to you, she does convey the sense that she’s genuinely enjoying it. Her broad, flat, quintessentially American Midwest accent doesn’t hurt. At the Aspen Ideas Festival, after a panel discussion with former Tennessee senator Bob Corker, she stops to chat with a half-dozen strangers, someone who was either a new acquaintance or an old friend, and the cameraman in the back.

Even surrounded by journalists, wonks, billionaires, and philanthropists, Heitkamp is still a minor celebrity. Her bright red hair makes her easily recognizable, and people seek her out. 

Conservatives sometimes joke about having to be bilingual: The need to speak their own language of federalism and free markets and peace through strength and originalism, but also the lingua franca of culturally dominant liberalism. Heitkamp is a liberal who speaks both languages, as I found out when I talked to her in Aspen.

Since leaving office, she’s begun lobbying for Congress to pass the USMCA trade agreement. She identifies opponents to the bill – and to free trade generally – on the right and the left. On the right, she points to Steve Bannon and some “traditional groups that have been very pro-free trade [that] have been willing to mute their position or modify their position.”

On the left, she can make the argument for USMCA in both languages. First:

The Democratic Party over a long period of time has been much more protectionist, much more willing to erect barriers, to prevent international trade. And I think there’s a perception that [trade] actually hurts American workers. Because American workers feel like they can’t compete with low wages.

My argument is that American workers can compete on skill sets. They can compete in a lot of different ways. The most significant thing we can do for American workers is build markets for the products they produce. So when we aren’t engaging in trade, we’re hurting American workers by not expanding the opportunity to sell their products – the products that are American-made – globally.

All focus on the worker. She’d fit right in at the AFL-CIO. Want to hear the same argument, but in conservative?

I’ll explain it this way: The United States of America is a service economy. If you want people to buy more services from American businesses, having them buy goods at a lower price gives them more disposable income into the economy, allowing them to expand [consumption], and utilize their monetary resources for more services, to buy more American goods. That’s a classic definition of why free trade works when you’re looking at economic advantage.

That’s not something the Democratic party thinks about. They don’t think about lowering the cost of consumer goods. In fact, that’s anathema to the American workers who say, “You’re putting us out of jobs. If you have to spend a dollar extra for a pair of shoes, isn’t that worth it if it’s an American-made product?” That’s 1970s, 1980s thinking, during the debate on NAFTA.

Free markets! Lower consumer prices! Comparative advantage! Milton Friedman, is that you?

It’s hard to tell if Heitkamp learned conservative as a second language or as a mother tongue. She seems steeped in the culture, with plenty to say about the ins and outs of the commentariat. And as is her style, she’s unafraid to say what she thinks: “What is a more significant usurpation of legislative authority than unilaterally imposing a tax? But yet these groups seem willing to let it happen because it’s being done by Donald Trump.”

And she knows the so-called Never-Trumpers, too.

Within the classic, traditional Republican groups, you can say, when George Will leaves your party, when Bret [Stephens] leaves your party, when Charlie [Sykes] and Mona [Charen leave your party] — David Brooks! – take a look at what have been the traditional speakers for conservatism in this country. They have left the Republican party. But they might be the only ones —

At this point, we were briefly interrupted. It’s hard to sit with Heitkamp to too long without someone jumping the line, eager for their turn.

Heitkamp’s familiarity with conservatives and Republicans helps her see the internal factions and challenges Democrats face more clearly. Topping that list is the Democratic collapse in rural areas. Her new advocacy group, One Country, works to reverse that trend.

Why should rural Americans vote for Democrats? Heitkamp has plenty of answers — too many, in fact. Infrastructure. Broadband. Health care – “Obamacare has actually been very good for rural health care. Expansion of Medicaid has been critical to keeping rural hospitals open and making sure that they don’t have high uncompensated care.” Education. Did she say infrastructure?

Her argument boils down to this: Democrats will spend more on rural voters. Then again, what else do the big two political parties really offer their voters anymore?

Looking back on her Senate term, Heitkamp remembers a better time, not that long ago, when it at least seemed like politics was about more than buying off one tribe or the other.

I think for the first two years, there was a steady discussion about the role of the Senate, and senators informing public policy, and making sure the institution was protected – that the institution of the Senate was viable and an equal partner.

I think that in the advent of Donald Trump, the Senate belongs to Donald Trump so long as Republicans are in the majority. There’s very little deviation. You saw [deviation] a little bit on the executive order [declaring an emergency for border wall funding] and in a number of sanctions votes, but fundamentally there’s very little daylight between Donald Trump’s agenda and the agenda of the Republican majority in the Senate.

Obama’s second term didn’t look like such a golden age of Constitutional propriety to some, but no doubt it’s gotten worse.

I asked Heitkamp what about Congress still works.

She leaned back, tilted her head, and said nothing for a long time.

“Oh please,” I begged, half-joking, “don’t pause for that long.”

“Oh, no. Oh, no. I’d say right now nothing is working.”

Sometimes it’s unclear if Heitkamp is a better translator of conservatism to liberals or of liberalism to conservatives. She’s joined the board of the McCain Institute — as in John McCain, the quintessential maverick who spent half his time telling his party they were wrong.

“I think everybody respected John McCain,” she told me.

Depending on which side of an issue you were on, he was a fierce competitor. And I think a lot of people sometimes bristled at that. But I think John McCain, at the heart of it – you never had to worry about whether it was about him. It was always about the country and about what he wanted to do for the country.

Has she noticed a change in the way her colleagues talk about him? She’s eager to cut me off here with a dodge: “It’s hard for me to know because, you know, John died in September, almost a year ago. And – [I] went right into final campaign mode so I really didn’t spend a lot of time in the Senate without John being there.” Lindsey Graham escapes unscathed.

She has plenty of praise for some of her old colleagues, though:

If you’re a true leader, and if you believe the right decision is the decision that you’re making, then it’s your job to lead, and to persuade, and to change opinion. No one wants to do that. They want to take a public opinion poll and then just follow the public opinion poll.

[As a senator], you have access to so much more information when you’re making that decision… So I think that you have to believe that it’s your job to go out and persuade. And I think one of the failures of new politicians – really, this era of politicians – is they don’t want to do the tough job of persuasion.

A great example of who did that, I think, was Joe Manchin when he did Manchin-Toomey [a failed 2013 bill that would have expanded background checks for gun purchases]. He didn’t just sit in Washington and get the accolades. He went out and did town halls in West Virginia to persuade people he was right. I think it speaks volumes that he had a good result. I mean, he got re-elected in spite of doing Manchin-Toomey, which a lot of people would have thought couldn’t happen.

Toomey, the Pennsylvania Republican, also won re-election.

Heitkamp wasn’t a war hero, and was never a nominee for president, so her stature was never that of McCain’s (few are). But she played a similar role in her party, often dissenting from among its ranks. And she still has grievances with Democrats.

My policies and my proclivities are much more moderate, much more incremental… I was pretty harsh with her [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] I think, but I just said: You had a chance to pass the Green New Deal in the Senate. Think about that! Mitch [McConnell] put it on the calendar. If the Green New Deal had passed [the Senate], then it would have crossed over [to the House], right? Trump would have vetoed it, but even Democrats didn’t vote for it.

I was talking [earlier in the day] about this intergenerational transfer of debt. I’m doing fine. I don’t pay, we aren’t paying for government services as we receive them. We’re borrowing money. So who’s going to pay? Eventually you’re going to pay. But think about who you’re going to be as a cohort when you’re in your 40s or 50s. You’re going to be much more diverse. So not only is it a generational transfer, it is a racial transfer of debt. So if I’m going to talk about income inequality, I wouldn’t just talk about what we’re seeing right now with the rich getting richer, and money begets money. What I would be talking about is this intergenerational transfer of debt.

If that sounds like a much more interesting, politically practical, and nuanced progressive message than the current Democratic presidential candidates are offering, that’s not an accident. I asked her if there was anyone running for president who was sharing a vision like the one she outlined.

“You know, I’m kind of unique, I think.” She is.

Heitkamp lost re-election in 2018 by 11 points.

Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.