Meadows rides a rising red tide
Asheville Republican Mark Meadows has now served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives — the last two as a powerful figure in the majority party, the most recent under unified Republican control of the presidency, the Senate and the House.
During that time, he’s also seen the appointments of justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, putting the Supreme Court on solid conservative footing for the foreseeable future. Must be a great time to be a Republican in Washington, D.C., right?
“It’s a work in progress,” said Meadows. “I think obviously we’ve had significant accomplishments, and we can be happy about that. As a conservative, having conservative Supreme Court justices is something that will outlive this particular administration for many years to come. Having been able to play a part in some of the issues like on the tax cut, and moving the embassy to Jerusalem, getting a front row seat has been really exciting. At the same time, you can’t travel across Western North Carolina without seeing that there’s still a whole lot of work to be done.”
Meadows also serves as chair of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of 33 conservative lawmakers that has in the past used its clout to torpedo the liberal agenda as well as alter the course of more mainstream Republican legislation.
As such, he’s been a familiar face on the national scene and has come to represent much more than just a rugged rural chunk of Western North Carolina — Mark Meadows represents the idea of a fundamentally conservative government.
That idea has proven popular not only at home in N.C.’s 11th Congressional District — a safe Republican district where he’s won three consecutive elections by ever-increasing margins — but also across the country; the most recent reports from the Federal Election Commission show he raises a substantial amount of money from outside the district and the state.
Currently, Meadows has nearly 12 times the amount of cash on hand as his Democratic challenger, McDowell County’s Phillip Price, and has outraised him five-to-one. His Libertarian opponent, Jackson County contractor Clifton Ingram, has raised $142.
But even $1.7 million doesn’t seem like much for a candidate like Meadows. Nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog MapLight says the average amount raised by winning congressional candidates in 2012 was about $1.6 million, and Meadows is far from average.
Well-known and well-respected in conservative circles, he’s long been thought suitable for higher office, with the theory being that he’s avoided going to the well too often, donor-wise, in the event that Republican N.C. Sen. Thom Tillis declines to seek reelection in 2020. Republican N.C. Sen. Richard Burr has already indicated that he won’t seek reelection in 2022, and then of course there’s 2024 — the end of Donald Trump’s second presidential term, or some Democrat’s first.
Any which way, Meadows appears solely focused on getting through this election and the next two years. The tack he takes after that will likely depend largely on the way the political winds blow.
“You’re only as good as your last accomplishment,” he said. “If I have the privilege to continue to serve, how do we continue to advance it as we started it out, and put points on the scoreboard?”
Cory Vaillancourt: On the last full day of the Obama administration, I was sitting on your couch in the Longworth House Office Building and said, “Now your team has the ball, and if you’re not scoring touchdowns for your constituents, how long until they come with the pitchforks?” You said two years. Do you think you and your House colleagues have been scoring touchdowns?
Mark Meadows: We’ve been scoring touchdowns. I don’t know that we’ve scored enough touchdowns to win the game. Obviously, we’re in the red zone right now, to put it in that same vernacular, and I think a lot of people are trying to look up at the scoreboard and say, “Did they put enough points on the board?”
For most people, they feel like they’re better off today than they were two or four years ago. They’re more confident in their jobs, and in the economy and you can see that in some of the consumer sentiment, but I think some of the penalty flags left on the field are still trying to get healthcare costs down — because that’s been one that has eluded us — and addressing some of the issues on immigration has also been difficult.
Obviously, if it was a slam-dunk and we’d have run away with it on the scoreboard, the midterm elections wouldn’t be so close. The question really has to be, for each individual person, are they better off today than they were two or four years ago? And who do they trust to hopefully finish up with some of the things that have been left undone?
Vaillancourt: I think one of those is term limits, which we also talked about that day. Where is that going, as you presumably enter your fourth term?
Meadows: I’m one that has changed dramatically on term limits. I’ve gone [from] not running on term limits to being a strong advocate for term limits. I think that four terms, really, for a House member should be about right. That’s eight years, and two terms for senators. That’s something I have not only signed legislation [on], but I’ve met with the president, and encouraged some of my colleagues to do the same.
I think our Founding Fathers had it right — you need to come here, and [then] go back and do something else. I tried to use some of the leverage to get a vote on it, and the only place that term limits are not popular is in Washington, D.C. Yet I think there’s a growing consensus that I’ve been a part of, that would say it’s time we actually address that and at least have a vote on it and let everybody know where they stand.
Vaillancourt: You and President Trump have had some disagreements, but you’ve also worked together on some important issues. What’s your relationship like with him now?
Meadows: I’ve got a very good relationship with the president right now. It’s been really one that, as you mentioned, has been both difficult at times and good at times. I think what he has come to understand is that my first priority is the people that I represent in Western North Carolina, and as long as it aligns with them, I’m going to be all in. That’s difficult when you have a president of your own party, if you’re at odds with the president on a particular piece of policy because of what it’s going to do for the people you represent back home.
We continue to have regular conversations, and the president and I enjoy a very good relationship. I would actually call him a friend. Most of my disagreements now are in private, if we’re going to have those. My attitude has always been to try to do things with a little bit more civility and try to work with some of my Democrat colleagues, and yet being the chairman of a conservative caucus, it doesn’t always make headlines that way, but it’s really about making your first priority the people that you represent.
Vaillancourt: How do you think that relationship with President Trump is going to translate at the polls this year?
Meadows: You know, I don’t really know, Cory. For me, I am who I am, and I learned a long time ago — this is not your first rodeo, or mine — I don’t focus on the politics of things. Just to be candid, I think if you do the right thing for the right reasons hopefully the results take care of themselves in elections. And if they don’t, I serve at the pleasure of the people of Western North Carolina. If they feel like I’m not representing their values well, then I would encourage them to make a change there and would not hold it against them.
I can tell you this, if you start worrying about relationships and politics and forget your first priority, which are the people that voted for you in the first place, it will not serve you well in the long-term. So I typically don’t spend as much time campaigning and hopefully do a lot more on the policy end of things.
Vaillancourt: It wouldn’t take much to see Republicans lose control of the House. How would that change what you’re trying to do in Washington?
Meadows: It obviously changes the dynamics between a Republican House and a Republican president. Some of the things that the president has been advocating for become much more challenging when you have the opposite party in the House. It will change tactics more than what I stand for. When you have the majority and you can play a little bit more hardball and you’re trying to get your way, it’s maybe a little less finesse.
Whether it’s a Republican majority or Democratic majority in a week or two, it’s going to change the tactics anyway, because it will be such a thin majority that whether the Republicans or Democrats are in charge, it’s going to require a whole lot more work on the nuances of policy more than anything else, and that’s something I’ve been doing for the last two years. It doesn’t get a whole lot of headlines. It’s already something I’ve been trying to work on for the last six months or so in anticipation that there may be a change coming in Washington.
Vaillancourt: The Affordable Care Act has been more or less neutered. What’s your agenda for the remnants of Obamacare?
Meadows: To pick up on a term that was used when the Affordable Care Act was originally passed, they said, “If you like your doctor you can keep your doctor.” If you like your health plan, you can keep it. One of the things I’ve been looking at and am working with my colleagues on is, if you like your Obamacare plan, you can keep it, and just [giving] consumers more options. So when doing that, if they like their Obamacare and the way that it is performing for them — and there’s some that obviously do, in fact it’s kind of divided 50-50 and depends on which group you poll — we have to do two things. For me, it’s all about making sure that we perform on these two issues.
One is, we have to lower premiums. The premiums have gotten so high, the out-of-pocket expenses for my entire district, it’s really one of the major challenges I hear — how do you afford your insurance, and then when you use do you really get to use it when your deductibles and co-pays are so high? We’ve got to address that.
The second part of that is we have to make sure that pre-existing conditions are covered. Those two pillars, when we were starting the negotiations, I said it came down real simple — handle pre-existing conditions and lower premiums. How you go about doing that is key. So I think what you may see is still government subsidies for Obamacare plans, and then a number of other plans that will come up that will allow for others to perhaps to find plans that are more affordable but also more directed in terms of their healthcare needs. The older I get, the less I need of some benefits, and the more I need of others. So having something tailored that way, once you’ve got a plan, to take that away becomes very, very difficult to do.
Vaillancourt: The first four years of the Obama administration we saw budget deficits of well over $1 trillion. It was $1.4 trillion in 2010, and then in his second term it shrank to the $400-500 billion range. Since 2015, it’s done nothing but climb. Last year it was $779 billion, and this year it’s projected to be nearly $1 trillion. How does that set with you?
Meadows: It doesn’t set well. I mean, listen, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, deficits and continuing deficits are not something that are sustainable. And what was criticized under the previous administration needs to be criticized under this administration.
The deficit originally this year, we were looking at $1 trillion and because of the economy and just doing well, it’s actually off that trillion dollar mark a bit, but it’s not sustainable, and we’ve got to address it. Some will say, “You had the tax cuts, and that made it worse.” The tax cuts right now, this year, are actually paying for themselves, which I never thought that they would do. The problem is that we continued to spend money at the federal level. Even under a Republican administration, they’ve done that.
My proposal would be this: let’s assume that government services right now are providing adequate service. We may have to realign some of it to make sure that this area is provided for, and that one is properly adjusted, but let’s assume there’s enough money there today to provide for the essential benefits and safety nets. Let’s grow the size of government only at the inflation rate.
The problem with that is, the inflation rate has been about 2 percent but we’ve grown the size of government 6 percent. I would be in favor of saying, alright, we’re going to grow the size of government along with the inflation rate, and so we’ll continue to bump that up, and then over time because of the economy doing well, it would balance out. Now, it may take a long time to balance out. Current projections would put it at 18 to 22 years, but at least we would be on a path to fiscal solvency instead of the path to fiscal bankruptcy.
Vaillancourt: We talked briefly about the tax cuts maybe factoring into the budget deficit, but something else that’s kind of started to float itself are cuts to Social Security. I haven’t really heard that seriously considered since Al Gore’s “lockbox” comments back in 2000. Do you see that discussion going anywhere?
Meadows: The Social Security that they’re talking about are really cuts to the projected growth in the outlying years. So in terms of [cuts to] any benefits to individuals, seniors, today or tomorrow or even next year or the following year, they’re just not based on reality.
And I can tell you, this is one of the areas where the president has been unbelievably firm, making sure that we save Social Security and Medicare, but that we don’t cut it. A lot of times they say, “Well the tax cuts were paid for by Social Security.” Actually it may have been an outlying year, but taking from the trust fund is not something I’m in favor of, and honestly something we have to shore up.
The interesting thing is that on Social Security, I’ve actually been working with a Democrat, John Larson, on this particular issue. It is a bipartisan issue. My mom has told me a number of times Social Security and Medicare are the two areas that make the biggest difference in her budget, and so it’s not just from my mom’s standpoint but all the people that I have the privilege of serving, we’ve got to get it right. John Larson and I, two very different guys — a guy from North Carolina, conservative district, and a guy from a liberal Connecticut district — are working together to try to come up with that.
We’ve sent some proposals to the administration, but on the future of Social Security, I’m old enough now, I’m right on the doorstep. I can remember when I was a kid they said, “It won’t be there when you get there.” Now that it’s part of my financial plan for retirement, we’ve got to make sure that it’s not only good for me and those that are of my age, but for the generations to come. There’s real work to be done. I think we can do it easier on Social Security than we can on Medicare, but we’ve got to figure a way to solve it, and the president is all in on that particular issue.
Vaillancourt: Our country is probably more politically divided now than at any time since the Civil War. How does a guy like you go to Washington and help us overcome that?
Meadows: I think it’s showing respect to anybody whether they’re Republican, Democrat or unaffiliated. You can have your own personal views, and yet you can respond in a civil manner. I probably have 30 Democrat colleagues that I could call on today that if I was in real pinch they would be more than happy to help me, and part of that’s because we represent very different districts but we treat each other with respect.
We’ve got to get back to that. And some of what happens is, with social media and everything else, people put things on the internet that they would never say in private, and it becomes a real rock ‘em-sock ‘em kind of environment. Hopefully we can dial that back. I think the best thing is to show civility in our debate. That doesn’t mean you compromise your principles, doesn’t mean that you are any less passionate about your position, but you do so in a manner that’s respectful.
Vaillancourt: On that same note, tell me something nice about your Democratic opponent, Phillip Price.
Meadows: I normally don’t talk about any opponent. I haven’t done so since I started, and in fact I haven’t said a negative word, I haven’t said anything about my opponent, but I can say this: anybody who’s willing to put their name on the ballot and run, put themself out there — not just them, but their family — is to be applauded. One thing you won’t find from me is, I just refuse to say anything negative. If I’ve got to throw mud to get elected, I’m going to go home, and that’s why if I keep it focused on the policies, I don’t have to worry about the personalities.