Photo by George Lauby
Kerrey at Cody Park
Photo by George Lauby
After the recent Nebraskaland Days parade, U.S. Senate candidate Bob Kerrey and I strolled over to the Cody Park concession stand, talking about coal.
Kerrey had read the Bulletin’s May 16 report of less coal loaded in the Powder River Basin, leading to less trains through Bailey Yard, leading to layoffs.
A month ago, I gave the Bulletin’s exclusive report on the situation to Kerrey and his opponent Deb Fischer almost as soon as the ink was dry.
Kerrey was back in town for the Nebraskaland Days parade. While a couple of people on Fischer’s staff walked the route, handing out stickers. Kerrey didn’t walk or pass out stickers, in part because he has an artificial leg, the result of a Vietnam war injury.
“Thanks for that article,” Kerry said. “It was very detailed.”
“Glad you liked it,” I said. “I had heard about it from some of the workers, but they wouldn’t be named. Both railroad management and the union are typically reluctant to talk openly.”
Kerrey nodded, seemingly aware of the dynamics.
“So my question is -- where do you stand these days on the use of fossil fuels?” I asked.
“I’d say ‘cap and trade’ looks dead,” he said.
“Cap and trade” is the nickname of a plan to cap the amount of carbon emitted by a power plant, unless plant officials buy “carbon credits” on a trade exchange. With enough credits, more carbon than the “cap” could continue to be emitted.
On the other hand, a “clean company” that emits less carbon would get “carbon credits” for their efforts and sell them to a “dirty company.”
That’s the way the trade works, when it does. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
“It worked in the Clean Air Act of the 1990s,” Kerrey told me. “That was the first time the marketplace was used to solve pollution problems. But given the way the carbon exchange has been corrupted in Europe, I don’t see it happening here any more. The majority of people aren’t behind it. Cap and trade has been killed.”
“We’re at around 390 parts per million (of carbon in the atmosphere) and we’re probably going to 500 ppm, which would increase the temperature 2-3 degrees and significantly increase the amount of arid and semi-arid land in Nebraska. If we go to 800 ppm in 30 years as projected, it would mean a 5-6 degree increase – that would affect big pieces of the state.”
I asked Kerrey how he intends to beat Fischer, when Republican attack ads turn what he says completely around. For instance, one attack ad says he favors increasing taxes. But Kerrey actually said “the first step has got to be, how much can we cut? You’ve got to take the spending down. That’s what we did as Governor. That’s what we did when I was in the Senate. You have to take spending down because nobody is going to trust you if you don’t.”
“How are you going to counter those ads?” I asked.
“I’m not sure you can,” he said. “The Koch brothers (Charles and David) said they each have $200 million to spend during the campaign (nationwide). The America at the Crossroads just announced a $300,000 advertising buy. There’s the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity. They all make highly-crafted ads.”
“How much do you have in your campaign chest?” I asked.
“I suppose $6-8 million,” he said. “We’ll do some advertising. I’m not sure it’s enough.”
Kerrey said he will campaign and raise money. After challenging Deb Fischer to debates, she declined, so Kerrey speaks to the groups himself.
He took two days off to move his wife and son to Nebraska earlier in the week. Then he went back on the trail, regretting he couldn’t be with family.
By Monday, Kerrey was in Lincoln to speak to the Lincoln Independent Business Association.
“Please, do not allow the hostile criticism being made by outside groups on television or political opposition to confuse you,” he said. “Those of us who leave for work reasons always consider ourselves to remain loyal to Nebraska.”
Kerrey reminded the business men and women that he co-owns four family fitness clubs (Prairie Fitness Center), two restaurants (Grandmother’s) and two bars (Bob and Millie’s) in Lincoln and Omaha.
“I am very much aware of the difficulty faced by independent businesses with the economic uncertainty of new regulations and taxes,” he told them.
“America is struggling with a number of serious challenges. Our Congress has become dysfunctional. Our economy is growing much too slow to satisfy the need for our people to work. The trajectory of federal borrowing and spending cannot be sustained. Wealth and income gaps continue to widen. We have made promises to pay that we cannot keep without punishing virtuous behavior by devaluing our currency or inflation.”
“Both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were fought with borrowed money,” he said, “something I feel strongly we must never do again, (but) last week President Obama and Governor Romney gave competing speeches about our economic futures.”
“Both men remind me of a man who watches the last five minutes of a two-hour movie and afterwards tries to tell us what the movie was all about. For America’s most important economic challenge began not three or even 11 years ago. It began right after the Second World War when Congress began to alter the 1935 Social Security Act from a promise to provide a small amount of support into a significant retirement program.”
“Beginning in 1946 and continuing every two years for the next 26 years, Republican and Democratic Congresses made regular changes,” he said. “Over that two-decade period Social Security added more beneficiaries and benefits, including adding a health care benefit for seniors and the poor (Medicare) in 1965.”
As Kerrey and I ate ice cream, he told me the Simpson-Bowles plan to cut the deficit is a good basis for bipartisan agreement. He said the Domenici-Rivlin plan has a good approach to Medicare reform. He praised conservative Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who has a specific list of cuts to make.
“It’s a very valid list,” he said.
He said the only hope is for the two parties to come together around a bipartisan plan – which liberals, moderates, and conservatives alike see as fair – and work together to make it a reality.
Instead, Kerrey said divisions are deep and ugly in D.C.
“I know groups on both sides,” he said. “What I see disturbs me. The (party) caucuses have become a huge problem.”
Kerrey wants to somehow remove the political parties from Congress, more like the Nebraska Legislature. Currently in Congress, members of the majority party gets to chair Congressional committees, deciding what bills reach the floor. So, party leaders stir up hatred for the other party to keep control of the committees.
“The rules need to change,” Kerrey said. “We need someone to take that to Washington and fight for it.”
He doesn’t think it unrealistic.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “The power of public opinion can be amazing. At least we still hope so. I’m gonna try.”
“In 1983,” Kerrey told the Lincoln business group, “President Reagan established a commission to recommend changes to Social Security, and when Congress passed it, the President signed into law one of our largest tax increases, and enacted changes that included a significant curtailment of Social Security benefits.”
“Nothing demonstrates the problem Congress faces today than asking the question: Could the President and Congress duplicate this political bravery today? At the moment the answer is sadly and emphatically no,” he said.
“I began my term as Governor in 1983 with a deficit and ended in 1987 with a surplus,” Kerrey said in Lincoln. “I began my two terms as Senator with a deficit and ended with a surplus. This success was possible because I found common cause with Republicans who are also passionate about the need for fiscal restraint and solvency.”
”If elected in November, I will do the same again,” he said.