Sen. Corker: 'Tribal' politics over President Trump polarizing Congress

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker talks with the Times Free Press editorial board in the Chattanooga Times Free Press offices on Thursday, May 3, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker talks with the Times Free Press editorial board in the Chattanooga Times Free Press offices on Thursday, May 3, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

"Tribal" politics over President Donald Trump threatens to polarize Congress to the point that it can't solve the nation's problems, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker says.

The Tennessee Republican said last week in Chattanooga that national politics has been distilled to a single point in both the GOP and the Democratic Party.

"It's Trump. You're with him or you're against him, and that's all the campaigns are about now."

The Republican with one foot out the Senate door told Times Free Press reporters and editors his party has discarded core principles under Trump.

"Before the [2016] election, Republicans generally thought that America was a force for good in the world, and their involvement helped make the world a better place and made us as a country safer. But not so much anymore," Corker said.

"Republicans used to believe in fair free trade, and, really, Republican congressional people still do. But the base following the president, he doesn't. So not so much anymore, free trade.

"Republicans used to care about fiscal issues? Not so much anymore.

"And then Republicans had a lot of respect for the institutions of government, right, because we're conservative, traditional people? Not anymore.

"Now, it's so tribal. The Republican base out there, which has changed a lot since the election, all they want to know is, are you a Trumper? Period. I don't care what the issue is.

"And I would guess on the Democratic side they want to know one thing, are you doing everything you can to hurt the president?"

Trump supporters say he's doing what he promised, cutting taxes and regulations, supporting gun rights and getting a conservative appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Corker has mostly supported Trump, even though he hasn't minced words about what he sees as the president's shortcomings.

But the hyped-up political bases of both parties are making it tough to do the people's business, Corker said. Republicans' hatred of taxes and Democrats' rigidity against entitlement reform make realistic budgeting impossible, he added.

"We're in a place where Republicans, period, are not going to propose paying for anything, and where Democrats, period, are not going to propose even changes that really don't hurt people," Corker said.

"The way the political parties are, the people in the right ditch, and in the left ditch, you have people back home saying, 'Look at the courage this guy's got. Look at how he's standing up.' On both sides of the aisle.

"There's no courage. None. Not an ounce of courage. What takes courage is to burn your political capital to solve the nation's problems. There are times you can reach across the aisle, burn some capital, solve a problem, and make our nation stronger. It's those moments that mark your career as being a statesman or not being a statesman."

Conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, whose show regularly reaches more than 13 million Americans, argues that compromise isn't possible in the current environment.

"We all want to compromise, we all think there is virtue in it and we think it would be a great thing to come to some mutual agreement on things, just to lower the intensity level," Limbaugh said on the air Monday. "But it isn't possible because we don't have any areas of overlap of commonality. If you begin to compromise our principles just to get along, what good is that? Their definition of compromise is us caving in."

Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, said Corker's upcoming departure from the Senate puts him in a position to work on solutions to dysfunction.

"He's gone along with most of it, except for voting against the big budget package," Oppenheimer said Monday. That includes the massive tax cut opponents call a giveaway to the wealthy and corporations.

"I don't think his criticism is ill-founded. The question is, what is he doing, now that he doesn't have to worry about the electorate, to try and change things?

"He's viewed as a visible Republican voice and, aside from speaking out, is he doing anything to build coalitions to try to break that down? Or is he just thinking about running for president in 2020 and being the alternative to Trump?"

Corker said he's still mulling his post-Senate plans, and he wouldn't rule out running for office again.

With Iran, North Korea and Russia on his plate, he's got plenty to keep him busy as Foreign Relations Committee chairman.

Like most of the nation, he's waiting for the results of special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Russian interference "is real, there's no question," Corker said. The question is whether the president's campaign had anything to do with it.

People in the Trump campaign did "some really stupid things," he said, but added, "I don't think they had anyone there at all talking to them about protocol and what to do in a presidential race and what you do relative to other countries. I don't think there was a soul there that had any experience in that whatsoever.

"My sense is they had a lot of people doing things where they weren't using their head, but I'm not sure that it went further than that.

"[Special counsel Robert] Mueller will be out soon, and we'll see."

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at or 423-757-6416.

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