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Jim Walsh on the Campbell Conversations

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with former 24th District Congressman Jim Walsh, who recently penned an editorial exhorting his fellow republicans to reject former President Trump, and in particular, keep him from gaining traction in the 2024 Presidential election.

Program Transcription:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today recently penned an editorial in the Syracuse Post-Standard exhorting his fellow Republicans to reject former President Trump and in particular, keep him from gaining traction in the 2024 presidential election. Jim Walsh represented what is currently New York's 24th Congressional District for 20 years, retiring in 2008. Prior to that, he also served on the Syracuse City Council. He recently retired from an advocacy position with K&L Gates in Washington, D.C. Jim, welcome back to the program.

Jim Walsh: Thanks, Grant. It's great to be with you.

GR: Well, I'm really glad that you made the time to talk with me about your editorial and the ideas there. So let me pick up where your opinion piece left off and ask you some questions about the why and the how of it. And first, I want to zero in on something that you said about the following, that former President Trump still has among Republican elected officials and by extension, also, I think many of the Republican candidates for Congress that we have seen emerging in this midterm election cycle. And you wrote here, I'm quoting you, you wrote, “It is shocking to me how so many of my fellow elected Republicans have either bought into this lie,” and you were referring to the false claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. “Have either bought into this lie or just are afraid to call it what it is.” And so my first question to you is, do you have any sense of what the breakdown between those two categories are among Republicans? The ones that recognize it as a lie but are afraid to be more open about naming it that and then those that actually buy into it.

JW: No, I have no and I only anecdotes. I have no data. But I would suspect that most people don't believe it, at least elected officials, because they know the election process. They know that it works. It's not perfect, but it works. It works better than it does anywhere else on the planet. The results are accurate. They were tested and found to be solid. No one found fraud by any great extent, including former President Trump's own Justice Department. So I think they're just they just don't want to tick off the base. I think they they they're steering a course that says, well, we'll go along with this guy publicly, you know, and then in their heart of hearts are in the back room. They're saying, this is nuts, but, hey, what are you going to do? People are buying it and they're going along with it, and we're going to be cursed if we don't. So I think there's a lot more of that.

GR: And that's that's my sense, too. And so that leads to like three or four questions. I want to I want to pick your brain on about this. The first one is by going along with it is there supporting it and not, not objecting to it in the way that that you have. So, I mean, I guess I want to get a better sense of I imagine you're probably privy to some private complaints about the president from colleagues of yours, former colleagues. I mean, can you say a little bit more about what you think is driving this compliance with this going along with it?

JW: Well, I yeah, I, I think it's about holding your office. I think it's about keeping power. I think the Republicans have a real shot coming up in the in 20 in the next election. I don't think the Democrats have done very well this past year or so. They didn't get their, you know, their billboard sort of legislation “Build Back Better” done. Immigration is an issue. War and peace is an issue. So the Republicans are riding a nice little piece of momentum and they don't want to screw it up. And, you know, but I agree with you, by being complicit in this lie, the Republicans, the Republican Party is basically saying, you know, we're going to go along with this guy so that we can get it stay in power or get in power. But, you know, that might work in the short term. But in the long term, where is the party's soul? I mean, the Republicans once supported free trade, strong defense, pro-business, you know, the rule of law, democracy. Where does all that go if you don't believe in that anymore? And I'm not suggesting Republicans don’t believe in democracy. They do believe in democracy. But they don't I guess they're willing to take the short-term gain and at the same time risking our democracy in the long term. And I don't know whether that's a calculation that they've made, but that's the reality of it.

GR: And I'm wondering whether part of it is in the thinking that you you would have a much better sense of this is whether maybe some of those folks are just hoping that Trump will fade politically and then their dilemma on this will just go away.

JW: I think that's true. Yeah, I think that's true. And, you know, and I think in actuality, that may be happening. I wouldn't I wouldn't take that to the bank yet. But, you know, there's a recent a couple of recent polls that show that his support is shrinking. And while his base will always support him, I think Republicans, in general, are starting to say, you know, if we don't believe in anything but Trump and this is a problem for us because when he's gone away, what do we believe in or if we believe in him so much that he is our next president? Are we willing to risk put our country's democracy at risk, just as it was on January 6th.

GR: Go ahead, sorry.

JW: No, it just is it is it's still shocking to me that so many people are willing to go along with this man, given the things that he has done, the lies that he's told. The life that he's lived.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm speaking with former central New York Congressman Jim Walsh. So if the Republicans were to take, if Republican leaders and elected officials, presidential candidates were to take a more proactive strategy of resistance, what do you think would be the best methods and tactics that they could employ to do that?

JW: Well, I think I think you've seen people willing to create a little space between themselves and Trump. Asa Hutchinson from Arkansas, really a great guy, standup guy. I served with Asa in the house. I think he's done that. He said, you know, we need to move on. We need to talk about the next election, not the last election. Even Lindsey Graham, who goes back and forth like the wind said, you know, if we wait, Trump shouldn't be pardoning the if he got to be president, he should be pardoning these people who were involved in the insurgency. They should throw the book at him. That's a space between Trump and Lindsey Graham that we haven't seen in a while, not since Trump was elected president. Mitt Romney needs to be more out front. Ben Sasse from Nebraska needs to be more out front. Members of Congress. I mean, Liz Cheney, she should get a Congressional Medal not the Congressional Medal of Honor. But, you know, the gold medal. Congressional Gold Medal. I mean, she is...

GR: Profile in Courage, I guess.

JW: Yeah. I mean, what a stand-up person she's been. She's risked everything, just as others should risk their everything, meaning their political career. She has far more in her life than just your political career. But. But what a remarkable woman she is. And I just wish there were more people willing to take that risk. And what you'll see, I think, is if Trump's numbers start to slow down or start to drop, you'll see more and more of that. And there could be a momentum created. Again, I'm not betting the ranch. This is the guy that said if he killed shot someone out on Fifth Avenue, his supporters would still love him. So he knows his supporters and he knows what he can get away with and he can get away with pretty much everything with them. So, you know, but not with that with everyone, not with all Republicans, he can't get away with everything. So I'm hopeful that more and more leaders will stand up and create some space in that space will get wider and wider and wider because our democracy cannot take a chance with this guy again. He came so close. Look at what happened after the election. All the court cases in state by state, they're all thrown out. They're they're they're meritless. And then he tried to get the Defense Department, the Justice Department, and now the National Security Administration. There's a story in The Washington Post this morning, to try to take over the election, to take the election, the polling machines away and do a recount. This is a former president doing this. My God, no one has ever done this in our history. And January 6th, I said in my letter, this is the first time in American history since George Washington that we had a violent transfer of power in this country. If people don't think twice about what this man has done in this country to our form of governance, in our faith in our governance. I mean, he has completely undercut the faith in our elections. People. Millions of people now have no faith in our elections. Just recently, he said the whole thing is rigged. Before he was elected, he said the whole thing was rigged before he you know, it just it defies logic to me.

GR: So another way to think about this, and I think it is a strategy of some to get your thoughts about this is I think it's pretty clear that this former president craves constant attention. And so I wonder if it wouldn't be simply best just to ignore the guy if Republicans just ignored him completely. What do you think about that?

JW: I don't know, he’s pretty tough to ignore. The press loves him.

GR: Yeah, I want to talk about that in a minute too

JW: They talk about him constantly, whether it's Fox or CNN, and they're all still talking about Trump. I mean, he's a shiny, bright object. He's poison for this country but he’s a shiny, bright object. And he's eminently quotable and he's clever as hell. He's not dumb. People say he's stupid. He's not stupid. He's clever. And he, but you know, it's not just about attention anymore. He was elected by the people of this country, president of the United States, the most powerful position in the world. And if you don't think him having all that power in his hands affected his outlook for the future, it's not just about attention anymore. It's about power.

GR: Well, that's a good point. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Jim Walsh. He's a former congressman who for 20 years represented what is currently New York's 24th Congressional District, the seat held by John Katko. We've been discussing Jim's recent editorial in The Syracuse Post-Standard about former President Donald Trump. Jim, I want to pick up on something you mentioned right before the break, and that is the fact that the media still can't get enough of this guy. That obviously seems to me that it, not to help the problem that you're talking about in your editorial, I guess I'm doing the same thing today by talking to you. But I'm wondering whether this type of free media attention, you know, ultimately helps him?

JW: Well, I used to tell my kids when they were little, you know, there's good attention and bad attention. If you want attention, there's good attention. Then there's bad attention. You don't want bad attention. But Trump doesn't seem to care. It's all the same to him. But you know, I would be the last one to tell the media who to cover and how to cover. But there's no question that he feeds off of it and his supporters feed off of it. This guy is, he's an enterprise. There are hundreds of people making gobs of money on Donald Trump, whether they're talk show hosts or they're Fox News or they're Joe Rogan, or they're Mark Zuckerberg or, you know, Jack Dorsey. And Twitter cut him off. But their, people are making money off of this guy. And what they're what I think, again, this is just my opinion. I, I could be totally wrong. But, you know, I've been around for a long time and I've seen a lot. I don't think I'm wrong about Donald Trump. He's dangerous. He is a danger, a clear and present danger to our democracy. And we saw in the manipulation of the election, after the election by his attorneys, these crazy, bizarre ideas. He lost this election fair and square. So the courts threw it out. Then he went to and the Supreme Court basically said the same thing. His own majority-appointed Supreme Court said the same thing. And then he went to the administration And as I mentioned, justice. Defense. National Security. Homeland Security and tried to take over the election, try to overthrow the votes of the American public. And then when all of that failed, he called out his thugs to go to Washington to raise hell. And to threaten the vice president of the United States life for doing his job. You know, Mike Pence and I served together. I always thought he was an honorable guy. I thought he was too complicit with Trump as Vice President. But to his credit, he saved our country. He saved our democracy. If he had caved, there's no telling what might have happened that day. There's no telling what might have happened. So I think we owe Mike Pence a lot.

GR: Yeah, that's an interesting point, too. Let me ask you a question about the Democrats now, because we you know, we've talked about how the media still gives the former president a lot of attention, how Republicans are still doing that. Democrats are certainly doing that and they like to continue to bring him up, I think in part because they imagine they view that as a winning argument. But that seems to me to, again, help keep him in the forefront of people's minds and also indicate to others that the guy still has a lot of power, because, as you well know, the reputation for power is an ingredient in actual power. So, I mean, do you have any thoughts about what the Democrats are doing? Because it seems like the messaging always features him.

JW: The extremes in both parties are far too influential today. I think the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is out of touch with reality. I think the Trump wing of the Republican Party and I don't know how to philosophically phrase them. You know, they're not pure conservatives. They're Trumpists. The Trumpist wing. They're out of touch with reality. If they think that Trump won the election, they're out of touch with reality. The Democrats, the progressives, they want the government to pay for everything. They want to give everybody everything for free. They want to forgive student loans. And they want to, you know, our debt just piles up and up and up. And by the way, Trump spent created more debt than any other president in American history. So, you know, now the Republicans call the Democrats socialist because Bernie Sanders said, I'm a socialist, and now they're all labeled with that. And the Democrats are referring to the Republicans as, you know, white supremacists and all these these these horrible names that they're calling each other. What they are forgetting, both parties are forgetting, is you can't have a democracy without compromise. Neither party has a monopoly on good ideas. Neither party is totally wrong and neither party is totally right. But this demonization of the other side has got to stop. We are a nation of different ideas and different philosophies. And the only way it works is if everybody gives a little to get a little and you can't have a more perfect union unless people are willing to move the ball forward a little bit at a time and everybody wants everything right now, today. And nobody's talking. Everybody's talking. No one's listening. And it's a serious problem.

GR: If you're just joining us, you're listening to the Campbell conversations on WRVO Public Media, and my guest is former Congressman Jim Walsh. Well, you were talking about the extremes of either party. And this question kind of relates to that, because I was wondering if there were potential Republican presidential candidates out there that give you some hope and get you excited that the former president might be put in the rearview mirror. But, of course, they've got to get through a primary election in order to do that. So are there people out there that excite you and how might they frame their campaign message?

JW: Well, you know, you always look typically you look to the governors for the best candidates, because they've been executive branch leaders. They've made decisions. The states are sort of the laboratory for the federal government. Things that aren’t happening at the federal level are happening at the state level. So I think that's traditionally the way it's been, although today, you know, if that's not the case, we have a senator, former senator. Before that, we had a talk. We had a what do they call those celebrity host shows or whatever. You know, so the typical approach doesn't work. We had some great governors who wanted to run for president last time. Jeb Bush and John Kasich and others. So, you know, I think there's a it's a long time till election for president. It's three years away. What you'll see, I think, is if there is a space created between Trump and the Republican Party, if it continues to widen, you'll see more courage. And I think you'll see more people step forward. I really as I mentioned before, I really like Asa Hutchinson a lot. I love John Kasich. He's my friend. We served together. I don't know if his time has passed or not, but I really like him. John is a thoughtful guy and he knows how to work with the other party. You know? I'd have to think some more about who, who else is out there. You could have, you could have a candidate who runs just runs against Trump, you know, like a Lynn Cheney. A Liz Cheney, for example. I don't know. It's a long ways away. And I think, you know, the off-year election that's coming up, I think the Republicans are very well positioned, although, you know, nothing is for certain. So we'll see what happens in that election before we start predicting the next one.

GR: Well, we've got a few minutes left, and I and I want to shift the topic now and talk a little bit about what's going on here in this area of New York and looking more toward the upcoming midterms in the fall of this year, 2022. And so, first of all, as we speak, the new congressional districts are being finally decided. And because of its population loss relative to other states in the country, New York had to drop one district and then also needed to redraw its districts to reflect population shifts within the state since 2010. The maps that have come out. We ended up not having a nonpartisan or bipartisan process that ended the usual process, but did anything leap out at you when you saw these maps? Certainly, the old 24th is not going to be around anymore.

JW: Naked partizanship, naked. I mean, the Democrats who run Albany, it's a one-party state now, probably for the foreseeable future. They just picked up their pen and they said, let's screw the Republicans the best way we can. And that's what they did. They created these huge, huge blocks of territory where they could the they could consolidate all the Republican vote and weaken all the other marginal districts around the country, around the state, so that there's no way a Republican can win these marginal districts. So you've got at least Stefanik's district, you've got the Southern Tier District, then you've got that I don't know what you'd call it. Necklace around Lake Ontario that runs from Niagara Falls to Saint Regis Falls. It's just absolute partizan, gerrymandering. And that's what we get when we have one-party government in New York state. It's there's no other way to describe it. And I hope the Republicans take them to court. I hope they win because this is the problem at the national level. This partizanship at the state level reflects it at the federal level. You don't have moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats anymore because of this reapportionment process, the gerrymandering that occurs in the states, one party screws the other party and they make the districts as partisan as possible. And people who are willing to cross over to work with the Democrats if they're a Republican or vice versa, they can't get elected anymore. People like John Katko.

GR: One of my colleagues describe the district that you described as a necklace, as a shrimp. So there will be something there will be some kind of description of that, but…

JW: Just call it gerrymandering. In the worst partisan sense.

GR: So we've got just a couple of minutes left. And I want to focus even more specifically on your old district here. And it does look like the 24th District, which would now largely be the 22nd District, has been redrawn again, as you suggest, to favor Democrats. It now focuses down to from Syracuse down to Ithaca. I just wonder if you have any personal reflections about that change, given that you represented Syracuse for 20 years in Congress?

JW: Well, I mean, the districts change every ten years. I had three different districts. I had initially had Madison County and Onondaga County. Then I had Onondaga County, Cortland County, part of Cayuga. Then I had part of Monroe, Wayne, Northern Cayuga, Onondaga. So they change, I think, to strengthen the to weaken the Southern Tier. In other words, make the Southern Tier more Republican district. So they could consolidate Republicans down there. They took Ithaca and they put it into the Onondaga County district. They picked up, did they pick up Utica in that in that district or not? I can't remember.

GR: I don't think so. No, I think Utica…

JW: Yeah, yeah. But anyway, you know, it's the whole process is rife with partizanship. Whether or not a Republican can win that district, I don't know. But, you know, it's there's logic to putting Ithaca and Syracuse in the same district. I mean, we're not different countries here. So but the point the underlying point of all this is that we have a one-party rule in New York state and they executed their plan.

GR: Just a few seconds left. I want to squeeze one last personal question in. When John Katko announced his retirement, you sent him a message that said, life after Congress is great. So in just about 20 or 30 seconds, tell us a little bit about your life since Congress has been so great.

JW: Well, you know, I worked in advocacy for 13 years. I just retired. But my life is really here in central New York. I have friends and family. My favorite pastimes hunting, fishing, hiking. I love it here. And you have time to do what you want, not what you have to do. That's what's great about after Congress.

GR: Sounds good. That was Jim Walsh. Jim, it's really good to be with you again. I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me. And I want to wish you good health.

JW: Thanks, Grant. Great to talk with you. Good to see you, take care.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.