Why you should care
Corker will be a key player in Republicans’ quest to show they can govern.
Sen. Bob Corker was having a tantrum. It was May 2010, and the Tennessee lawmaker had just emerged from a lunch with President Barack Obama and other Senate Republicans to discuss a landmark piece of legislation Congress was weighing to overhaul the way Wall Street does business, just a few years after the disastrous financial collapse.
Corker, normally a gregarious sort, was peeved about how the White House was handling the bill, commonly known as Dodd-Frank, and wasn’t shy about letting people know it.
“Let’s face it: Republicans came to lunch, in my opinion, today as a prop for the president. He talked a great deal about bipartisanship, and yet the three major initiatives he’s put forth have all been very partisan,” Corker fumed to reporters. “I asked him how he was able to reconcile that duplicity today coming in to see us.” One reporter gave him a chance to backtrack, asking if he actually called the president “duplicitous” to his face. Yes, said Corker, he had.
From the day he came to Washington in 2007, the silver-haired 62-year-old has made it clear he wants to be a player.
It wasn’t the first time, and certainly not the last, that this self-made businessman and former mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee, has been driven to a public fury by the way he believes D.C. politicians let political gamesmanship get in the way of getting things done. His willingness to call people out publicly — usually Democrats, though his own party has not been immune — has made him a favorite of the congressional press corps (you know you’re going to get a good quote when he starts a sentence, “Well, candidly …”), though it hasn’t always enamored him to his colleagues.
But with Republicans now poised to take over the Senate — and make Corker chair of the Foreign Relations Committee — his colleagues on both sides of the aisle have come to realize that they’re probably going to need this garrulous Tennessean on board to get any big, controversial policies passed. So has the White House. From the day he came to Washington in 2007, the silver-haired 62-year-old has made it clear he wants to be a player and jumped feet-first into some of the most complicated issues facing Congress — from Dodd-Frank to a mortgage industry overhaul to what should be done about the slaughter in Syria.
It hasn’t always worked out the way he may have hoped. Corker’s bid to broker deals with Democrats on the auto bailout in 2008 and Wall Street reform in 2010 fell through. Those early leadership forays hurt his standing with Democrats, who appreciated his efforts to forge compromise (a dirty word for many in Washington these days) but doubted his ability to wrangle others in his party. Corker aides contend that, in both cases, it was those on the other sides of the negotiations who were at fault — Democrats either walked away or failed to live up to their end of the bargain.
Either way, Corker’s gotten better at delivering on his bipartisan policy gambits since, including teaming up with Virginia Democrat Mark Warner to write the blueprint for the mortgage industry overhaul. He credits the slow, patient work of coalition building for advancing the legislation as far as it’s gotten. “We worked on that for a year and a half; we built support,” Corker says. “It was really a group process.” The Senate Banking Committee approved leaders’ version of the bill but is hasn’t gone anywhere since.
For all his bipartisan street cred, Corker is more pragmatist than traditional moderate, taking conservative stands that enrage liberals.
One thing he’s learned when it comes to teaming up with other politicians — and all the competing agendas and egos that entails — is to start by listening, particularly for any inklings of common ground. “When you really dig in, in so many cases there’s a lot more commonality,” he explains. “One of the best places for me to find it, if you want to know the truth, is in a committee setting, where you see the kind of questions other committee members are asking. It gives you a real good sense of where they are on the issues.”
That’s been a strategy of Corker’s going back to his time as Chattanooga mayor last decade. “He was always very focused on gathering information and making decisions based on information and not just kind of the way the wind was blowing, so to speak,” says Jed Marston of the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce, who worked with and supported Corker’s business-friendly policies back then.
I just feel like I can call ’em like I see ’em and always be direct and transparent …
– Sen. Bob Corker
In the Senate, that attribute has helped, particularly in his emergence as a leading voice on foreign policy (which he concedes he was far from an expert on when he began). Nevertheless, he found his way to the Foreign Relations Committee and studied up, soon ascending to the panel’s highest-ranking Republican post. Since then, he’s worked closely with Democratic chairmen John Kerry, now Secretary of State, and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and has become a swing vote on everything from high-profile treaties to American policy in the Middle East.
For all his bipartisan street cred, Corker is more conservative pragmatist than traditional moderate. He enraged liberals back in February with his active campaign against efforts to unionize a Tennessee Volkswagen plant, an effort that came perilously close to interference and prompted labor supporters to demand an investigation.
And while other Republicans who work across the aisle have been met with Tea Party primary challenges, Corker cruised to an easy re-election in 2012. That and his frustration with Senate gridlock have some political pundits musing that he may decide to ditch Capitol Hill at the end of his current term and run for governor in 2018.
The senator, like most politicians, insists that he’s not thinking past his current office (though he was quick to shoot down the prospect of becoming a Senate “lifer” á la West Virginia’s Robert Byrd, who died in office at the age of 92). “I still look at the term as a lease,” Corker insists. “I don’t really look beyond that. I’m not just saying that, I really don’t.”
In doing so, “I never feel handcuffed politically,” he says. “I just feel like I can call ’em like I see ’em and always be direct and transparent and controversial if need be.” That part, at least, is undeniable.
This OZY encore was originally published March 7, 2014, and has been updated to reflect recent developments.