A Half-Century of Service: A Conversation with Ben Cardin

U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (Photo by David Stuck)

On a cold and rainy Monday morning, 75-year-old U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, who’s been an elected government official for more than half a century, stood in the doorway of his Pikesville home, ready to shake hands, relieve people of their coats and refresh them with beverages. After the visiting reporters sat down and declined drink offers, Myrna, Cardin’s wife, said, “You guys are cheap dates!”

Cardin’s career began in 1967 when he was elected to Maryland’s House of Delegates. As a member of Congress, the Democrat Cardin has worked with members of both parties, serving under presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. He was recently elected to a third term.

The hourlong conversation excerpted here came at a busy time for the senator: between an early morning CNN appearance and driving his granddaughter, a sophomore at University of Maryland, back to College Park after Thanksgiving break.

You were just elected to your third term as a U.S. senator. How do you feel about the new Democrats who were elected?

It’s exciting to see the energy levels. We saw more interest in this midterm election than we’ve ever seen in a midterm election. It not only gave us a large voter turnout, but a lot of young people wanted to get involved. Some did it by voting, some did it by helping candidates and some did it by running for office. I think they are going to bring a new level of necessary energy both at the national and local levels.

Do you think the new Democrats will put pressure on incumbent Democrats to move farther to the left?

There is a concern about whether the Democratic tent will see a real push to the left. What Democrats have in common is that we believe the government is there to help the people and we should empower the people by government activism.

What we worry about is what we saw on the Republican side with the Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus. There was a real pull to the right and more moderate Republicans felt intimidated. We don’t want to see that happen on the Democratic side.

Do think you it’s necessary for the party to move to the left?

It’s important to have ideas and different views and a common agenda. Included in that are individuals who believe we’re moving too slow and they want us to move more aggressively. That’s a healthy part of our caucus. But we don’t want to exclude any element. We don’t want to say that you can’t be a moderate or a conservative in the Democratic Party, because I believe you can be. We don’t want to be so exclusive that rural America or areas that have traditionally gone Republican believe that there is no room in the Democratic Party for their views.

Sen. Cardin talks with then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2007 about introducing legislation to outlaw voter suppression practices. (Mark Murrmann)

Throughout your career, you’ve worked with many Republican and Democratic leaders. What’s it been like to serve under this president?

In my lifetime, I’ve never experienced anything like President Trump. We’ve had presidents I’ve disagreed with. Ronald Reagan and I did not share the same vision of America’s future, but he was extremely effective in this country. I respected him when he was president, and respected what he was able to do and I tried the best I could to balance what he was doing. That’s how our political system should operate.

Reagan clearly had political strength on his side. Donald Trump was elected as sort of a reaction, not really as a vision for the future. I don’t believe America believes the president shouldn’t be very clear about not leaving any room to hate in America. I don’t believe most Americans are represented by the way he won’t avoid conflicts, won’t release his business records and won’t stand strong for basic international values.

We have hundreds of examples where he’s been factually wrong and he’s never admitted it. It’s his moral standing that I worry about. I don’t believe he’s qualified to be president of the United States based upon his inability to accept his responsibility as president to tell the truth and be the moral leader of the free world. America’s strength is in our values and he has violated our values over and over again.

In terms of the next two years, what are your priorities? With a Democratic House and a Republican Senate, do you expect gridlock?

I hope not. I know Nancy Pelosi fairly well. I do believe she will be the next speaker of the House. It’s her legacy, and she would like to not just send message bills over to the Senate, but to enact good policy over the next few years. And in a way, it’s in Donald Trump’s interest, too, to show that he can govern. I think the political mix could lead to some productive resolution of issues.

The list of my personal priorities is pretty long, and we’re already planning for 2019 in my Senate office. As senior senator I’m very concerned about Maryland. We have Maryland-specific issues like the Chesapeake Bay, which goes along with the climate change and environmental agenda.

U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin sits at his office desk in his Pikesville home. (Photo by David Stuck)

These are all going to be matters that are important for me to keep 10 members of our congressional delegation all focused on a common agenda. And I’ve been able to do that during these two years, including with Andy Harris, the lone Republican. I expect I’ll continue to play a major roll on these Maryland-specific issues.

I will continue to play a key role in expanding preventative health care and dealing with issues regarding more access to health care. But the two major issues will be to protect the progress we made on the Affordable Care Act against discrimination based on preexisting conditions and to make prescription drugs more affordable.

I will continue to mention gun safety whenever I can. We cannot continue to do nothing about that. It’s outrageous that we haven’t passed gun safety legislation. Ninety-five percent of the people in this country support it. How can that not pass through the Congress of the United States? It’s difficult to understand why we haven’t gotten rid of military-style weapons for private ownership. These are issues that are common sense. They’re not Democrat or Republican, they’re common-sense issues.

What do you hope to see happen on immigration?

Democrats have been willing to yield, much more than I think we should have, on border security issues. I’m for border security. I came out initially when people said we should get rid of ICE, and I said, “That makes no sense at all.” ICE is carrying out the policies of the Trump administration and that’s the problem.

I’m for better border enforcement. I’ve talked to immigration officers. I know that they need help. You can’t build a wall that’s going to be effective. They need technology.

We can agree on orderly entry into America and enforcing orderly entry into America. That is what Republicans have as their No. 1 priority, and Democrats agree with that.

But we need to be welcoming those who can help this nation continue to grow in the future. Yes, that means family reunification.

Sen. Cardin and his wife, Myrna, seated fourth and fifth from left, attended the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Brotherhood’s 2014 opening event, where Cardin spoke about foreign and domestic policy. (Provided)

What actions would you like to see in terms of combating anti-Semitism?

We don’t want to reinvent the wheel. We did that in Berlin at the Berlin Conference. I was one of America’s representatives there. We came out understanding what leads to anti- Semitism and how to deal with it. It starts with leadership. We’ve seen this be very effective in other countries. The leader of that country on any episode of anti-Semitism will say, “This will not be tolerated in our country.” That’s what you need to have, clear messages. But you also need to recognize that tolerance for any hate, whether it’s against Muslims, African Americans or the LGBT community or reporters or immigrants, can lead to anti-Semitism.

Has this administration been good for Israel?

I’m pretty hawkish about this. I take issue with anyone that tries to make Israel a partisan issue. Every administration since Harry Truman has been pro-Israel. I think this administration is pro-Israel. I’m pleased that they are.

I agree with Jerusalem being the capital of Israel. I think the manner in which President Trump did it could have been more effective, but I agreed with the decision. I agreed with his budgets on support of Israel. We approved of that in Congress. It’s been a mutual effort to deal with that. He’s been very supportive of Israel in the United Nations. Nikki Haley did a great job in elevating Israel’s significance in the United Nations.

But I think President Trump’s foreign policy is not good for America. It’s not good for our national security and it’s not good for our closest friends. And I think Israel is one of our closest friends.

You’ve been pretty active in opposing BDS. Do you feel there is a threat to the Jewish community coming from the left?

No, I don’t think it’s a threat coming from the left. Again, I think we need to inform and understand. On the BDS movement, we need to explain what it is. Plain and simple, we are protecting American companies from being intimidated to boycott Israel in order to do business with Arab countries. That is the whole BDS movement. To characterize it as a free speech issue is just wrong. No bill I have ever sponsored would take away a business owner’s personal decision to show their concern for Israel by boycotting Israel.

When you explain that to the left, one person at a time in the United States Senate, those who you would think are the far-left are now supporting my anti-BDS bill.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, center, meets with the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, of which Cardin is a ranking member, in Washington in 2015. (REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan/ [Photo via Newscom)
What do you make of Israel becoming such a divisive issue in the Diaspora?

The Diaspora will have different views on any subject, including Israel. As Israel becomes more dominant in the world, it’s going to have more critics. That’s a natural evolution. But what we should always be harping on is that there is no country in the Middle East like Israel. There is no vibrant democracy in the Middle East other than Israel. That’s a fact. There is no economy in the Middle East like Israel’s economy.

Your colleague Rep. John Sarbanes is big on getting money out of politics. What do you think of that?

I agree with him. In my capacity in foreign policy, I meet a lot of legislators of emerging democratic states. And I always tell them the same things. They all come here to see how we do it, and we are perceived, even until this day, as having the strongest democratic system in the world. People admire our independence and the three levels of government. I say, “you can try to copy some of the things we do, but one of the things you should not copy is how we finance campaigns.” I think we have one of the worst systems of any of the free countries in the world. It’s scandalous.

The cost is growing each election. $100 million for a Senate race is not going to be unusual. Think about it. The most you can get from any single source is $2,700. You start doing the math — you can’t do that on your own. It means dark money.

What are your thoughts about a “Green New Deal”?

There’s a group of senators, about 20 of us, that meet every Tuesday at noon and we go over climate agenda. We think it’s urgent. We think it’s one of the top concerns globally. The report that was just issued on Nov. 23 verifies what we all know is true: that we are paying hundreds of billions of dollars in damages for not spending millions to clean up our environment and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The president’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement was horrible for the United States and the global community.

There are many multipliers of jobs and opportunities in green energy compared to fossil fuels. Renewables and green energy create many more jobs.

From a security point of view, the Saudis are not nearly as important as they used to be, but Russia is dominant. Russia uses energy as a weapon. They’ll hold up energy as a way of influencing countries. Let’s have energy sources that we control, rather than having our enemies control it.


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