Transcript: Sen. John Breaux Talks About Lessons Learned

The following is a transcribed excerpt from 'FOX News Sunday,' December 12, 2004.

CHRIS WALLACE, FOX NEWS: When Congress comes back next month, a key member of the so-called "vital center" who helped broker welfare reform and the new prescription drug benefit won't be there.

But he's here today to talk about the lessons he learned on Capitol Hill. Senator John Breaux of Louisiana is retiring after seven terms in the House and three terms in the Senate.

And, Senator, welcome. Thanks for coming in today.

U.S. SENATOR JOHN BREAUX, D-LA: Glad to be here, Chris.

WALLACE: Appreciate it.

Let's start with the buzz in Washington this morning, which is often in error but never in doubt, which is that you might join the Bush Cabinet. Any possibility in that?

BREAUX: No, well, they have not asked, and I don't think that's a likely prospect. Most of those positions are getting filled up pretty quickly.

And I've offered to help with tax reform on a commission. I've also offered to help with Social Security with a commission, if that's something that they would like.

I'm not seeking it but I'd be more than willing to help in that capacity. But I don't think a Cabinet position is in the offering and not something that's going to happen.

WALLACE: If Health and Human Services, which hasn't been named yet, were to open up, is that...

BREAUX: Not likely, no. I'd like to be involved in health care, and I think you can do so in the private sector through some type of a thinktank, which would be an unpaying job, not a full-time job.

But I think outside the recommendations can be very helpful. Cabinet secretary at HHS is a great job, very difficult. Tommy Thompson has done a wonderful job. But it's not something that I think that I'm going to be doing.

WALLACE: All right. You're still a young man, 60 years old, which I have to say seems younger and younger every day.

BREAUX: Every day.


WALLACE: You have a lot of seniority built up. Why are you leaving?

BREAUX: I think that you have to make a decision. If you want to stay in the Congress the rest of your life, I should have run again. But if you ever want to have an opportunity for a second career, to do something different, you have to pick the time to do it.

And I think that this is the right time for me. It gives me an opportunity to stay involved in governmental affairs, but do so from the private sector.

If I had run again, I should have stayed in Congress and, like I've jokingly said, one day hopefully be a Strom Thurmond and stay there that long. Of course I'm not going do that.

The timing is what's important. You still have enough time for a second career. I'm looking forward to it.

WALLACE: Let's talk about how Congress has changed since you were first elected back in 1972. During your farewell speech to the Senate, you talked about one of your mentors, Louisiana Senator Russell Long. Let's take a look at a clip from that. Here it is.


BREAUX: I learned a great deal from Russell Long. He taught me how to work with people. He was a master at it. He could get more done in the evening over a bottle of bourbon than we could get done now by having months and months of hearings and hours and hours of debate, because he knew how to bring people together.


WALLACE: Would Congress get more done if members talked more and if they drank more?


BREAUX: Well, Chris, I think that that's a key point. When I came to Congress, Tip O'Neill and Bob Michel — a liberal, FDR Democrat, Tip, and Bob Michel, consummate Midwestern Republican — they spoke more in one day than Newt Gingrich and Dick Gephardt spoke in a year, because they didn't speak. There was these two armed camps that we now look at in the Congress, which is very unfortunate. We have to engage each other a lot more than we do.

We have Democratic caucuses every Tuesday in the Senate, and the Republicans, right across the hall, have their caucuses with only Republicans, talking about how Democrats are. And we spend a lot of time talking about how bad the Republicans are and why they're at fault for not getting anything done.

I think on a regular basis, maybe once a month, we ought to have joint conferences, joint caucuses, and talk about the things we can find in common.

I mean, Congress should not be like the Super Bowl where you have to have one team that's going to win and another team that's going to be a loser. And there's nothing wrong with trying to get things done together. And then we can always fight about success and who did it, but at least we're arguing about success and not failure.

WALLACE: But, Senator, it seems to me, it's got to be a lot bigger, a lot more sort of ingrained in the system than just the fact that they don't have caucuses together. I mean, my guess is, in the current climate, if you had caucuses together, it would just be a stunt.

Why do you think this town and that building behind me has become so fiercely partisan?

BREAUX: Well, it's the competitive edge that is, I think, brought on by outside consultants. They represent clients, they want their team to win, and they're constantly looking at ways we can make the other side look bad. It's a competitive measure.

But again, it's not a football game. It's trying to run government together. It should be one country, not two armed camps. And I think we've moved away from that.

The competitiveness of the system now, I think, provokes these type of positions which people cannot move from.

We ought to find out what we can agree on — Social Security, for instance. Everybody agrees we should have the system. Everybody agrees there should be enough money in it to pay the benefits. The only difference is, how do we get there?

So I think that by talking together, you hear the other side. If you never hear the other side, you only listen to echoes of yourself. And I think that's not the best way to govern.

WALLACE: You know, we have been talking about Social Security reform today. Do you think that, as it is presently structured, and the mood in this town, that Congress and the president have the capacity to put together a bipartisan compromise that everybody could sign on to?

BREAUX: The short answer is yes, but it's not going to be very easy to get there.

I think the public has to understand this issue better than they do. And that's why the White House has to be in a position of explaining it to the American public. This is going to have to be an issue that's going to be resolved by the public understanding it better than we do right now.

Some people, when you mention private accounts, they say you're removing the government obligation to pay the benefits. Well, you can't take a position, "We're not going to make any changes, but we're going to fix it." And none of the ways of fixing it is very easy politically.

I think the president and the Congress is going to have to speak to the American people first, get them to understand and perhaps accept these new ideas.

The younger generations know that we have to do something to fix it. Those who are on the system now don't want any changes. But you can come up with a system that protects those who are on there now and then offer new alternatives for the next generation, the younger people who are yet not on the system, and get them convinced.

WALLACE: You served in Congress under seven presidents. Are there any that you especially admired and any that you especially did not? And who was the toughest, who was the most effective at twisting arms?

BREAUX: Well, I have three presidents I really admire. One I did not serve with, but really got me involved in politics, and that's President Kennedy. He was young, he was vibrant, he encouraged young people to become involved in helping to save this country and our nation.

Secondly, Ronald Reagan, because he was a great communicator. I mean, he really understood, maybe because of his actor training, but he understood how to communicate a clear and concise message and get people to follow him and those recommendations.

And thirdly, Bill Clinton, because of his innate intelligence. He really understood the details of the issue and really knew how to get problems solved and took some risk in bringing the Democratic Party to the center.

So, three different presidents for three different reasons.

WALLACE: Anybody who was particularly effective at twisting arms, at getting you in there and making you bow to his will?

BREAUX: Not really, but, I mean, the standard is Lyndon Johnson. I mean, I was here as a staff person when he was here, and he would put his arm around you and do a body crunch on members.


And if you, you know, dared to oppose him, you did so at your own risk, and sometimes almost a physical risk.

WALLACE: One thing that has changed dramatically in your 32 years in Congress is the status of the Democratic Party. When you came in, Democrats were not an endangered species in the South, for instance. And now when you look at the presidential election map, there are broad stretches of the country where Democrats need not apply.

What do the Democrats need to do so that they can become competitive again in the so-called red states?

BREAUX: Well, Chris, first of all, we have to understand that the base of the Democratic Party and the base of the Republican Party is not a majority.

So you have to do what Bill Clinton was able to do, and that was to preserve the base and also expand to those in the middle and bring them on board. I mean, the base of the party maybe is 42 percent of the vote, but that's not enough to get elected.

How do you do that? How do you keep the base happy and also expand it? Well, you have to speak to the concerns of the American people. Those are a lot of the social issues. I mean, we have to say that we too believe in families, that we too believe in the proper health-care provisions for all of our people. Those are moral values as well.

We can't run away from that. We can't pretend that we don't have faith. We can't pretend that Democrats don't go to church on Sunday. We do. We've been successful with that type of a message in the South for a long period of time.

But we get away from talking about those social values, we lose the ability to attract people in the middle. We can't do that.

WALLACE: Senator, we're going to have to leave it there. We want to thank you so much for joining us today.

BREAUX: Appreciate it.

WALLACE: And we want to thank you for your 32 years of service. And best of luck in whatever comes next.

BREAUX: Thank you, Chris. Appreciate it.

WALLACE: Thanks an awful lot for coming on.

BREAUX: Thank you.