In a crowded 2020 Democratic field, the former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro is looking for a way to set himself apart. One way he’s tried to do that is by taking on the issue of immigration—a favorite topic of President Trump’s and one that’s important to his base. In a wide-ranging conversation with David Remnick, for The New Yorker Radio Hour, Castro lays out his plan: to repeal the law that makes it a federal crime to enter the country without documentation, and to reform the federal agencies that enforce immigration policy.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Listen: David Remnick interviews Julián Castro on The New Yorker Radio Hour.
David Remnick: I have to start with this: There are nineteen candidates out there, twenty, something like that. And already we’re seeing poll numbers. It’s just unavoidable. And I’ve got to say—what are the poll numbers showing? The white guys are doing great. Bernie Sanders, Mayor Pete, even Beto O’Rourke is getting some traction. And yet, as many women as are in the race, and people of color, they’re not gaining traction, particularly in New Hampshire, in Ohio, in those first states. Does that worry you?
Julián Castro: It doesn’t worry me yet, because we still have about forty-two weeks until the Iowa caucus. But who’s counting, right? Except for those of us who are running, we still have a long time in this race. And right now, when I get out there to these early states, or just get out in front of crowds, you can tell, especially in places like Iowa. I equate right now over there to, like, the first couple of weeks of shopping for classes in a college semester. You can tell that people are doing their homework. These folks that caucus are of a different breed to begin with, right? They’re not your everyday sort of casual voter. They’re people that truly pay attention to politics and public service. So I’ve taken note of that reality right now, of who’s ahead, of course. Everybody pays attention to where they’re at. But I also can clearly see that we have a long way to go between now and February 3, 2020, when Iowa actually caucuses.
But what do you make of the phenomenon of the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a place that’s a lot smaller than San Antonio, making such inroads? Or somebody like Beto O’Rourke, who did not succeed in winning statewide election, in Texas, as electrifying as that race was, also gaining ground and magazine covers and all the rest? Do you say to yourself, Something’s wrong, something’s rotten in the state of Denmark?
Well, what I say is two things. No. 1, you know, I’ll give them credit for being—like a lot of the candidates are—very talented. There are a lot of great and talented candidates. I also will say that the Democratic Party right now is sort of going through this soul-searching about what the best way to defeat Donald Trump is. And there is some thinking that, you know, you might have a white male candidate that could be the best representative for Democrats in 2020 to take Donald Trump on, especially in Pennsylvania or Wisconsin or, you know, one of these Midwestern states.
What I believe, though, is that, No. 1, in fact, there are a number of candidates that I believe could turn Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, that we lost, collectively, by less than eighty thousand votes, back to the Democratic column—including me.
So why is it now the time for you? Why is it the time for Julián Castro to be President of the United States? How do you propose to distinguish yourself from the rest of the field? And it’s a large field, and we’re in a volatile time.
Well, several ways. No. 1, I’m one of the few candidates in this race with executive experience and a track record of getting things done. I was not only the mayor of the seventh-largest city in the country, very diverse city, a growing city in Texas, where I had to work with both Democrats and Republicans, but I also served as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and managed a forty-billion-dollar budget, eight thousand employees, fifty-four field offices across the country. And so I didn’t just go deep in one city; I also had the chance to see what communities across the country, big and small, are doing, how they’re grappling with poverty, with issues of education, obviously, housing—everything connected to that. Secondly, I represent a new generation of leadership, and, even if I weren’t running this time, what I hear out there very clearly is that people are ready for a new generation of leadership. I’m forty-four, and, to be candid with you, I never thought that I would be the fourth-youngest person running in this race. But here we are. But I and a few other people represent that new generation of leadership.
And then, third, I’m going out there and I’m articulating, in a positive, compelling, and strong way, a vision for the future of the country, to be the smartest, the healthiest, the fairest, and the most prosperous nation on earth. And people are responding to that.
But my fear in saying that what distinguishes you early on is not a matter of ethnicity so much as a matter of emphasis—the emphasis on the immigration issue. Why do you choose that? Why is that the singular issue, and how is that the issue, to not only be fair and to have a different expression of politics in the United States but one to beat Donald Trump?
There are different reasons that I’ve chosen to focus early on and rolled out as my first policy plan on immigration. No. 1, that’s close to my heart. My family story is an immigrant’s American Dream story. I grew up with a grandmother that had come over from Mexico when she was seven, because her parents died, and her nearest relatives brought her across the border to Eagle Pass, Texas, into the west side of San Antonio. She worked as a maid, a cook, and a babysitter.
How did they get into San Antonio? What was their process of entering the United States at that time?
They got their papers and—in fact, I didn’t even know—this is an interesting story. I didn’t know whether my family with my grandmother had been documented or undocumented until two days before I gave the D.N.C. speech, in 2012. A genealogist in New Jersey did the research and actually put up on the Internet, I think on Huffington Post, the images of the paperwork from back then. So they came across in 1922, settled there in San Antonio. She worked very hard. It was this classic American Dream story. She never graduated from even elementary school, and worked as a maid, a cook, and a babysitter, raised my mom as a single parent. My mom became the first one to graduate from high school, go on to college. My brother Joaquin and I were able to go to college, to law school, to become the first in our family to become professionals, as lawyers.
And you’re the son of real activists, political activists.
Yeah. So my mother and father were involved—mostly my mom, but my dad for a little while—involved in the old Chicano movement, the Mexican-American civil-rights movement of the late nineteen-sixties and early seventies, and my mother was a hell-raiser when she was young. She had started off in the Young Democrats and then was part of this committee for Barrio Betterment that ran for city council and then part of the Raza Unida Party—that was a third party that, at the time, said that neither the Democrats nor Republicans are really sufficiently serving the needs of the Mexican-American community in Texas and the Southwest. So they formed their own party. And by the time my brother and I were growing up, her activism was sort of tamping down, but we still grew up being taken to rallies and speeches and different organizational meetings. And so we grew up around this sense that participating in the democratic process was a good thing. And I’m convinced that I wouldn’t be in politics if I hadn’t grown up in that household.
Well, as you watch President Trump behave as he does on the question of immigration, as you listen to his rhetoric on the question of immigration, let me ask you this: Is Donald Trump a racist?
No, I think he behaves like a racist.
What’s your difference?
I don’t think there is a difference.
So then you’re saying he is a racist.
Yeah, I believe that he has been racist. Sure.
And how do you go about defeating that? Because, I must tell you, he behaves as if he is absolutely convinced that this kind of rhetoric of division on immigration, this kind of behavior, this kind of policy along our border is a winner for him. Maybe more than any other issue.
When you asked why am I taking this on—of course, this is the first of many policies that we’re going to roll out, but I wanted to go as straight to what this President has considered his bread-and-butter issue. This is how he stokes division. This is how he stokes fear and paranoia. This is what he’s counting on, in terms of an issue to win a narrow Electoral College victory in some of these states again. And so I’ve released a People First immigration plan that represents a completely different vision. You know, we can get into it and—
Well, what’s at the core of it?
Well, at the core of it is that we should treat people with compassion and not cruelty, and stop treating people like criminals and instead treat border-crossing like we used to, which is a civil violation. Reduce the backlog of people who are waiting for some sort of adjudication in our immigration legal process. You know, somebody deserves a hearing; they get their hearing, whether they’re claiming asylum or they’re here undocumented, and we can make decisions. So people are not waiting years and years in limbo in the United States, that we create a pathway to citizenship for people who are undocumented who are here, the ten to eleven million people, not only Dreamers but also their parents and other undocumented individuals who have not committed a serious crime. Also, that we take a long-term, smart view. Why would a mom come here with her six-year-old infant from Honduras or El Salvador or Guatemala? In most cases, it’s because there’s tremendous danger over there. They can’t find safety and they can’t find opportunity. So I’ve proposed the equivalent of a twenty-first-century Marshall Plan for Central America, so that we can help build up safety and opportunity there, and then get the benefit of not having, like we did last month, ninety-two thousand people show up at our southern border.
So what I’m hearing, then, is a real deëmphasis of the notion of enforcement.
Well, we would still enforce; it would just be a civil violation, so somebody would still have an immigration judicial process that they would go through. But, for instance, I would end family detention. So people ask, well, if you’re not detaining people in that way, how are you keeping track of them? And the answer to that is that—
You’ve got a backlog of eight hundred thousand people.
Yeah. First of all, they’re already releasing a whole bunch of people into the country that are not detained right now. In fact, there was a report out of the San Antonio Express News, my home newspaper, the other day that pointed out that several of those detention facilities in south Texas that had families are only, like, a quarter full right now.
So people would still be part of a judicial process. In the Obama Administration, they piloted this program called a family-monitoring program that essentially was intensive case-worker monitoring of these families to get them to stay within the system and actually report back for their court hearings. And it had a ninety-nine-per-cent success rate of getting people to come back and report for their hearings—which is what we want, right. You want people to report for those hearings. My point being that we can accomplish this without incarcerating people, and certainly without separating children from their parents.
Now, one of your proposals is to repeal the law that makes illegal entry in the United States a federal crime. Why do you see starting there as an essential first step?
Because the mess that’s been created, the chaos that’s been created with family separation, this cruelty. A lot of the backlog that we have, a lot of the expense in the system has developed after 2004. Before 2004, we used to—even though this law was on the books—we used to basically treat this as a civil violation, a civil penalty. After 2004, we started using incarceration more, and treating it as a crime. That’s what’s led to this mess with family detention, with separation, with the backlog that we have. So I believe that we can have a better system if we go back to treating it as a civil violation, with enhanced monitoring of these families so that they show up for their court dates.
Now, any number of political leaders, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a congresswoman from the Bronx and Queens, wants to ban Immigration and Customs Enforcement as an institution, feels it’s been so morally compromised that it’s impossible to go on. I don’t hear that from you. What do you want to do?
I want to break it up and separate the enforcement part of it, put that back into mostly the Department of Justice, and then have Homeland Security Investigations, which is a separate unit of ICE, go on and do its investigations. About a year, year and a half ago, there were nineteen people who worked for ICE, employees, who said, Look this is not working. The setup of this department is not working. And I believe that ICE would be, that enforcement would be better served if we actually break ICE apart and separate Homeland Security Investigations from the other part of ICE.
So the institution is not fundamentally broken in such a way. There aren’t so many violations and documented cases of mistreatment by ICE that you think it’s necessary to dissolve it?
Well, I don’t think it’s necessary to do away with, or we should do away with enforcement completely. But I do think that we should reconstitute it, and that’s part of my plan. I don’t think that it should go on the way that it’s been. I think that it needs to be changed, from the way that agents are trained to administratively, where it’s located in the federal government.
If you get as far as a debate stage with President Trump, I guarantee you that he’s going to say you’re for open borders. Are you?
I’m not. And nobody is talking about open borders. We have six hundred and fifty-four miles of fencing, we have thousands of personnel, we have guns, we have boats, we have planes, we have helicopters, we have security cameras all over the border. I’m talking about a system where people still are subject to deportation. So nobody’s talking about open borders. But the thing is, David, is, you know, it doesn’t matter if I have a plan, or another Democrat has a plan; he’s going to say we’re all for open borders, just like they’re gonna call a socialist—it doesn’t matter if you proposed that we literally move to a socialist system or that some people get a relief on student loans, they’re going to say that it’s socialism. Part of the reason that I’ve proposed this immigration plan and that it’s so bold is because, No. 1, I don’t buy into the B.S. narrative that the people who are coming to the southern border represent a national-security threat.
What does it represent?
Desperation and the beauty of this country, that people still see this country as a place of opportunity and safety. And that is beautiful, in its own way. You know, my brother has this wonderful line that I wish I’d thought of, my brother Joaquin, who’s in Congress, that says that there’s something a lot worse than the day when so many people want to come to this country, which is the day that nobody wants to come to this country. And people around the world want to come to the United States. We need an orderly way to sort that out. What we don’t need is the kind of cruelty that this Administration has engaged in. But the other reason that I put forward this bold immigration plan is I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid of the President on this issue. He’s counting on that he can stoke up enough fear and paranoia, and enough people to get a small, narrow Electoral College victory.
I am counting on that the people who want to be sensible about this and compassionate are white and black and Latino and Asian-American and people from different backgrounds. I was in McAllen, Texas, on the border, on Father’s Day of last year, with a group of activists to protest this family-separation policy. And, as depressing and dismaying as it was to be at this Ursula processing center, where they were separating children from their families, it was uplifting to see that the activists that were there were white and black and of all different backgrounds, not only Latino. And it reminded me that we share common values and beliefs. And one of those is to treat people with basic respect. I’m betting, fundamentally, that, in that head-to-head, we can win with that.
Jonathan Blitzer, who writes about immigration for The New Yorker, recently did a series of pieces from Honduras, Guatemala, et cetera, and said that one of the biggest reasons for people heading toward our border is the effect of climate change in Central America, that the agricultural economy there is getting obliterated by shifts in the environment, in weather patterns. You call for a Marshall Plan for Central America, and we very often hear calls for Marshall Plans, for whatever crises there are in the world, but I don’t hear a huge emphasis on the environment in your view. So where are you on that? Are you for a Green New Deal?
I am. I like the concept of a Green New Deal, but let me relate it back to, very briefly, this immigration plan. I actually, in my immigration plan, I say that we should set aside slots for refugees who are fleeing from climate change specifically, which would be new in our country.
Yeah. That’s right. That is new. I think it’s bold. You know, some policy wonks have suggested that, and it’s a great idea. I believe in the Green New Deal. Fundamentally, what we recognize is that we don’t have to choose between protecting our planet and growing our economy and creating jobs and opportunity. I mean, in my neck of the woods of Texas, we see that, with the solar-energy industry, the wind-energy industry, other renewables—there is a new energy economy out there that is at the nexus of both reducing carbon emissions and protecting the planet, and also creating good jobs for people as the economy changes.
You support Medicare for All. How do you plan to go about achieving that, paying for it, making it a reality in a Congress that’s deeply split?
So, I support everybody having access to Medicare. But if somebody wants to have a private health-insurance plan, then I believe that that’s O.K. also. But what I don’t believe is that anybody in the country should ever go without the health care that they need, not just health insurance but actually health care and medication, because they don’t have means. And during the course of the campaign we’re going to put forward, basically, how we would pay for that, because I do think that the American people deserve to know that. How would we do it? Well, No. 1, I believe that, on January 20, 2021, at 12 or 1 p.m., we’re going to have a Democratic President, a Democratic House, and a Democratic Senate.
You’re hoping that, or you believe that it’s going to happen?
Oh, I believe that’s going to happen. I believe that 2020 is gonna be a watershed election, that a lot of the frustration with the direction this President has been taking the country, that 2018 was the starter and that, 2020, you’re going to see the full effect of an America that does not believe we should have another four years of this President.
So you aren’t anxious, you aren’t concerned that we’re underestimating Donald Trump’s capacities as a politician, as a debater? And that the Democratic Party, which has nineteen candidates, might end up finding a way to undermine itself so that, when it comes to Election Day, something unexpected may happen yet again?
Well, it’s possible. You know, I’m not discounting that, but I believe that, first of all, I believe that having this many candidates is actually going to help the nominee, because you have to be that much better to prevail. And there’s—
After all, look what happened in the Republican Party.
Yeah, I mean, but Trump obviously hit a chord, right, and resonated in a way that was telling of what he was going to be able to do in the general election. And same thing, I believe, for the—hopefully it’s me, but—the nominee that emerges out of the Democratic primary, I think, you’re going to be that much better and able to resonate with Americans.
So it’s possible, but, you know, we know what the game is now, right? We’re going to go and make sure that we patch up where we came close but just barely fell short of: Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania. I also believe that, if I’m the nominee, in addition to getting those states, I can go get the eleven electoral votes of Arizona, the twenty-nine electoral votes of Florida, and even the thirty-eight electoral votes in my home state of Texas.
You do believe that?
Oh, I believe it. Yeah.
Where are you on the impeachment question? Your brother sits in the House of Representatives. You’re close, however competitive, but you’re close. There’s a big question now. Nancy Pelosi says, Let’s just continue investigating, impeachment might be counterproductive. And then there are people within the Democratic caucus who say, you know, what more evidence of obstruction of justice do we need than what we find in the Mueller report? Where are you on this?
Well, a lot of your listeners know, and folks who have read the reports about the Mueller report, or perhaps read the whole Mueller report, he points out ten instances that basically amount to obstruction of justice, and, in footnotes in the text at the beginning, essentially says, Hey, Congress, we couldn’t do this because, you know, we couldn’t indict him because—
You think he’s stamping up and down and saying, Impeach?
Yeah, about as close as you can get to that. Now, I believe that the predicate is there for impeachment, that the question is going to become, once they have their hearings on the Hill, if they subpoena Bob Mueller, they gather additional information, you’re still going to get back to the ultimate question, which is, look, this guy, on these different occasions, basically tried to obstruct justice. The fact that he was Fredo and not Michael.
You’re referring to the Corleones.
Fredo meaning the dumb brother and not Michael.
The fact that he was Fredo—nobody respected him enough to carry out his orders, versus somebody whose orders may have been carried out, like Richard Nixon. That does not absolve him of the fact that he tried to break the law, tried to obstruct justice. And so they’re going to have to make a decision about whether we’re going to uphold that rule of law and hold him accountable.
What are you hoping?
I hope they do.
You hope they impeach? You are for impeachment?
I hope they hold him accountable, yeah.
Even though the Senate—unless something very, very dramatic happens—even though the Senate, which is Republican, would vote not to convict.
Well, I believe, though, if they did that, that people would see you have the weight of evidence on your side here. And this is something that directly relates to the office, and so I believe that there’s enough substance there to—even if, politically, it did not turn into a full-blown impeachment, successful impeachment, a removal from office—that there is enough substance there that enough of the American people would say, I understand why you did that.
So you are for a Green New Deal. You are for Medicare for All. You want to raise the minimum wage, many other economically based and considerable reforms. Bernie Sanders is for the same thing. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is for the same thing, with some detail differences. They call themselves socialists. You do not. What is the meaning of the word “socialism” in our current political environment as you understand it, and what is the difference between a liberal capitalist, such as yourself, and, say, Bernie Sanders?
Well, I mean, speaking for myself, you know, I believe that we need a twenty-first-century safety net. That today, what we see happening in our economy, whether it’s the gig economy or what’s happening with automation, essentially, you have more and more people that are becoming self-employed. You have more of an independent-contractor model than the traditional employer-employee relationship. Even within the employee-employer relationship, pensions, and even 401(k)s now—
Yeah. Disappearing, not what they used to be. And so what’s clear is that we need a stronger safety net to step in, and the government has a robust role to play. Not the only role, but a robust role to play in that. With health care, with things like childcare and pre-K, with higher education, because jobs require more knowledge and more skill than ever before. So, as I see it, this is all about trying to make sure that our country and its economy can continue to prosper. We’re going to have, of course, a capitalist economy, but it’s capitalism that is responsible capitalism and fair capitalism. It’s not capitalism that runs roughshod over vulnerable communities.
Well, then, where do you differ with somebody like Bernie Sanders in that sense, whether it’s in terminology or in policy?
Well, I mean, I think I’ve pointed out some differences—for instance, his Medicare for All plan would not include any private health insurance whatsoever, right, and mine would. I still have to release, and I’m going to release my plan on education and student loans and so forth, and I have no doubt that there will be some differences. We also differ on some issues, for instance, on immigration, right, at least from what I’ve gathered. You know, Bernie and I have probably a difference of opinion on some of those things.
So, whether it’s Bernie and me, or any of the other candidates, I think what you’re going to find is that some people on some of the issues are more to the left, and then, on other issues, they’re a little bit more to the center. I don’t think that you have one candidate that is uniformly on all of the issues the most to the left or the most to the center.
You know, very few of the people responsible for the great recession of 2009 went to jail. Very, very few. How would you bring accountability to Wall Street?
Well, hopefully, that will not happen again, right? What we hope is that we’re not going to experience what we did just over a decade ago—
And yet a lot of commentators believe that, through deregulation, we’re headed that way, perhaps in a different form, yet again.
We need to learn the lessons to insure that we don’t water down things like Dodd-Frank, and we continue to appoint people who are going to be scrupulous regulators. That’s one of the biggest frustrations I have with this Administration, how they’ve acted with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, for instance, and tried turning it into a shell of what it was. So we need smart regulation, strong regulation. We also need to be willing to hold some of those executives accountable and prosecute, which is what we did not see last time.
You were one of the few people, maybe among the first of these candidates, to support a congressional bill to study reparations. What does reparations mean in your mind? And what is the best way to go about paying them? What are reparations?
To me, as I see it, reparations would be something that is fairly specific to the descendants of slaves, and it would also be an official apology from the United States government for slavery. I’ve long believed that we should consider reparations. Because, you know, as I see it, it’s one of those moral debts. This original sin of the country that has not been paid, and, to put it in more legal terms under the Constitution, we compensate people if we take, if the government takes their property. So why wouldn’t we compensate people who actually were considered property, and sanctioned as property by the state? Some people say, Well, nobody alive today was a slaveholder, and nobody alive today was a slave, and I say, If the government takes your property today and then you pass away tomorrow, your estate still has a claim for that taking. And this is an issue that we have never addressed in the United States in the right way. And I believe that the legislation that Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, out of Houston, has proposed, to set up a commission that would study reparations, and then could make a recommendation to the President on how to go forward, offers an opportunity that I would analogize roughly to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Which is to say it’s not just about the result. It’s about the process.
And moral culpability.
That’s right, and getting there, and it’s not only about the descendants of slaves. It’s about all of us who are Americans. It’s about white Americans. It’s about all of us who are Americans and who are living still with the fruits of what slavery produced for this country, and also the bankruptcies, so to speak, that it produced for this country.
You’ve spent time as a Cabinet member in the Obama Administration, and one of your purviews was housing. And when Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote his piece about reparations, the vast majority of that piece was about housing inequities and the very specific ways that—in Chicago in particular, but not only Chicago—housing was arranged to create segregation inequality, separate schooling, all the rest. Did your immersion in that kind of issue lead you to a reconsideration of the notion of reparations?
Well, it was just very informative, getting to see that firsthand, the legacy of that. First of all, that article was such a blockbuster, well-written article. I mean, he points out the role that the Federal Housing Administration had in sanctioning, redlining, in making discrimination worse in the housing market. It started in 1934, and was part of the problem for many years.
A great example of the progress that we have made is that, by the end of the Obama Administration, about forty-five per cent of African-American first-time homebuyers were able to afford a mortgage because they got an F.H.A.-insured loan. So that’s an example of what we can do when we actually move in the right direction and open up the doors of opportunity to people.
Now, I hate to skip from the high-mindedness of policy and the rest to the grittiness of politics, but I have to ask. It’s obvious that you’re not leading the pack at the moment, but we’re many months away from these early primaries and caucuses. What is your path to victory? Any candidate has to have in his or her mind a way of seeing the field winnowing and you emerging, as realistic as you are. What is that path?
Well, look, there are important moments that are coming up in this campaign. We have forty-two weeks until the Iowa caucus. We’re going to get to the debates that start in late June, and there’ll be six debates for every candidate. That’s going to be a tremendously important series of debates.
I’m confident that when I’m up on that stage, as people compare the candidates, that I’m going to fare well. I can tell already when I’m getting to these early states that I’m getting traction with audiences. So my path is, of course I’m going to focus a lot on these early states, especially that first state, of Iowa. I believe that I can do well in Iowa and then go and do well, especially in a state like Nevada, which is the third state, and then, right after—
New Hampshire doesn’t look good.
Well, it can. We’re going to spend a lot of time there, too. But I’ve gotten the strongest reaction in Nevada. And—
Just curious—for politicians, what does that mean, the strongest reaction? You’re doing a lot of retail politics, you’re going into diners and all kinds of small halls and people’s homes. What does that mean, a strong reaction, as opposed to, uh-oh, I’m in trouble?
You can just tell by the reaction of the crowd, and, you know, anybody. I would imagine it’s not just in politics, right—
What does bad feel like? Describe for me what it feels like.
Man, there is a range of bad, right? A range of bad, from people walking out of the room while you’re talking to not really paying attention.
Does that happen, when you’re talking, that people are hitting the door?
Not very often, but sometimes.
That’s gotta sting.
Well, sometimes you can tell that you’ve hit on an issue that somebody really disagrees with.
Tell me an instance of that.
I’ve noticed sometimes that I’m very blunt about this issue of police brutality, and so I will talk about that we need to hold police departments accountable. And that there needs to be a new day, when it comes to the way that especially young black men are treated in this country.
And that’s sensitive?
Yeah, I think I’ve noticed on two or three occasions that, you know, one or two people right after that—well, sometimes I don’t know if it’s directly related to that— but, you know, have basically had enough of what I’m saying.
They check out.
So be it. I mean, I continue to do it because I believe what I’m talking about and the path that we need to take as a nation. But, you know, the overwhelming majority of folks that are there are there because they’re interested in hearing from me, or from whichever candidate that they’re there to listen to, and they have a positive reaction. I’m just saying that you can tell. It’s almost like, you know, an entertainer who gets up in front of audiences will talk about the reaction from a crowd, right. You hear comedians talk about this all the time. There are nights that are O.K. And there are nights that are great. And so forth. And so I can tell, and it’s not uniform—sometimes I’ll be, whether it’s in New Hampshire, South Carolina, or other states, and have a great reaction, also. But on balance, in Iowa and Nevada, so far, I can tell that the reaction is the strongest.
Now, you’re of the generation that the master figure—the mentor figure, better to say—in politics, the example of how to do it, not only performatively but intellectually, was Barack Obama. Have you talked to him about this?
You know, I talked to him the day before I announced. So I announced on January 12th. I talked to him over the phone for twenty or twenty-five minutes.
What’d he say?
Well, he gave me some good advice. I mean, basically, just said to be yourself. And that’s great advice, because it’s clear that what people want is they want to know who you are as a person, and the way that most pundits have talked about that is this issue of authenticity, right? That with Trump, for instance, even if people disagree with him, they think that they’re getting the real deal in terms of who he is.
Do you find that hard to do? I know, to be perfectly frank with you, last time we talked, you were in a different position. You weren’t a candidate; you were a Cabinet member. You were much more circumscribed in the way you talked. You were more careful. You had notes.
Yeah. I hate it. That’s what I—maybe the only part of that job that I didn’t like. I never liked having to speak for somebody else and not speak for myself.
You were very cautious.
I complained about it to myself and my immediate staff and my family the whole time.
Because the biggest problem would be bad news that came out. You put a foot wrong.
Yeah. Because, you know, you’re not just speaking for yourself.
I didn’t like this idea of having to censor what I was saying. What I used to constantly tell the people right around me at the time is that I enjoyed it when I was mayor or, you know, in politics before. And if I said something that people got pissed off about, then so be it. It was just me. You know, I’m speaking for myself. I didn’t like to have to speak filtering for what I thought somebody else would or wouldn’t want me to say.
If you get that far, you’re about to face the most unfiltered human being on the face of the earth, who’s willing to say astonishing things on Twitter and at the podium—by any standard, much less for President of the United States. Now, is that something to be countered by almost excessive dignity, or do you meet it on the same plane? How do you defeat that?
We’re going to defeat Donald Trump by not trying to out-gutter Donald Trump. You’re never going to out-gutter Donald Trump. Know I don’t think you should try. What you should do is be the opposite of Donald Trump. And so there are these four ways that I’m thinking about how to be the opposite of Donald Trump, right. And they relate to themes that reappear in different intensities in Presidential campaigns over the years.
So, for instance, there’s unity versus division. He’s been the most divisive President that we’ve had in a very long time. I think people, again, are yearning for somebody that at least tries to bring the country together. This was 2008, Barack Obama, all right, no red states and blue states. Honesty versus dishonesty. He has shown, and this Muller report reminds us, that this is one of the most corrupt Administrations that we’ve had in a very long time.
I believe people are going to want somebody that has demonstrated integrity and honesty in government, in public service. This is 1976 and Jimmy Carter, and I’m not going to lie to you. He very clearly is pitching for thirty-seven per cent of the population that he considers his base. And this is about, basically, opportunity for some. I believe people want a President for all Americans. And so I’m out there talking about what we can do for every single American. And then the fourth is the future versus the past. And this is like Clinton in 1992. He wants to make the country, Trump wants to make the country something again. You know, I don’t want to make the country anything again. I want to make the country better than it ever has been in the years to come, in the future. And this is one place where I believe that that generational contrast will matter more.
Now, finally, it’s sadistic for reporters to ask you over and over again, You know, you’re such and such in the polls—why aren’t you doing better? As if, you know, that’s going to change the dynamic. But you must be thinking about, How do I break out? How do I emerge? And it can’t be a passive process. It can’t be just a question of a certain number of candidates falling away from the process. What’s next for you, in these coming months? How will you attempt to emerge as a candidate who’s in the top tier?
Well, we’re going to have these moments that are coming up. The debates are going to be critical. I’m confident that I’m going to have some great moments there. You know how these things work these days, as more people watch the clips on Twitter or some other platform, whether it’s Facebook or Instagram, and I believe that I’m going to do very well when we get to those debates. But also I’m trying to build a strong, well-organized campaign on the ground that gains momentum steadily.
Have you got money to do it?
We have enough. And our fund-raising has accelerated a lot, right. I was toward the back of the pack in this first quarter. I think we know that our fund-raising has accelerated tremendously since the second quarter started.
Well, you take Wall Street money.
I’m not. I haven’t.
What about PAC money?
I can’t say categorically that nobody from Wall Street has given, but I’m not taking any PAC money, whether it’s corporate or otherwise. I’m not taking any federal-lobbyist money, so people can know that, you know, if I make a decision as President, that that decision is going to be made in the best interest of the American people and not because somebody gave me a lot of money.
Who’s your model as a President? When you try to figure out how to be, how to present yourself, how to behave as a candidate and potentially as a national leader, as a national figure, who are your models?
I think different Presidents, in different ways. Obviously, Barack Obama, as somebody who upheld the dignity and esteem of the office, and did it with a lot of grace, and also was an inspirational figure, somebody who set a wonderful vision for what we can become. In terms of a President who had a great impact on expanding opportunity in our country, I think of Lyndon Johnson, and also somebody who was a mechanic who was able to get things done in Congress. Now, you know, they were living in a different era back then, of more collegiality. And sometimes it seems so polarized today that it would be difficult, even with somebody of President Johnson’s skill at moving legislation, to get the same things done. But Lyndon Johnson, when it comes to producing these results, whether it’s Medicare or the Fair Housing Act or other things that continue to lift up vulnerable communities. F.D.R., for his sweeping vision of what the country could be, and a stick-to-itiveness, to use that word, of just driving at these these aims for the country and doing it during a time that was very tumultuous for our country. So, you know, I’d take my inspiration from different Presidents.
Is there any book that you take any political inspiration from?
Well, there are a number of them, and, actually, I’m reading “The Road to Camelot,” which is this book about the 1960 election. But I don’t know that I would say that I’ve taken particular inspiration from one book. I’ve read a number of them about Lyndon Johnson. I actually have read a decent amount about Ronald Reagan over the years, even though I disagree with his politics, just because I do think that he was an effective communicator and showman for his time, and had an interesting story.
Now, if this narrative doesn’t end with a victory, sometimes younger politicians run to run again, or they run for something else. You decided not to run for statewide office. Is that a possibility in the future?
I’m not even going to think about that right now. Let me give you the typical politician’s response, David.
And I’ll do my typical roll of the eyes.
Fair enough. Y’all can’t see this, but we’ll play the part. Yeah, I mean, I believe that I can win. You know, I’m not the front-runner now, but I wasn’t born a front-runner. I didn’t grow up a front-runner. I’m going out there and doing what families across the country do, and what my family did, which is to work hard, to scrap, to do everything that I can do to be successful. And I believe that I can be. And, you know, the voters are gonna decide starting next year.