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5 More Questions: ‘Genetic Republican’ John Taft calls GOP debt-ceiling tactics ‘unethical’

MinnPost photo by Brian Lambert
John Taft: "There is no way to be effective in the circus that is our political system right now."

Editor’s note: Five More Questions is an occasional series by Brian Lambert that follows up on people and events in the news.

Late last month, John G. Taft wrote a commentary for The New York Times that began with him describing himself as a “genetic Republican.”

 Taft is the Minneapolis-based CEO of RBC Wealth Management, a bona fide financial industry heavyweight with something north of $225 billion in assets under management.

His dissection/lament for the present state of the party of his great-grandfather, President William Howard Taft, and his grandfather, Sen. Robert Taft, caught the attention of the political cognoscenti.

Said Taft of Granddad:

“If he were alive today, I can assure you he wouldn’t even recognize the modern Republican Party, which has repeatedly brought the United States of America to the edge of a fiscal cliff — seemingly with every intention of pushing us off the edge. … Watching the Republican Party use the full faith and credit of the United States to try to roll back Obamacare, watching its members threaten not to raise the debt limit — which Warren Buffett rightly called a ‘political weapon of mass destruction’ — to repeal a tax on medical devices, I so wanted to ask a similar question: ‘Have you no sense of responsibility? At long last, have you left no sense of responsibility?’ ”

Respect for fiduciary responsibility isn’t the only gulf between Taft and the new breed of Republicans, embodied by the Tea Party and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, both of whom he mentioned in his Times piece.

Taft has a solid reputation for civic, even progressive, involvement in the Twin Cities. He’s served on numerous boards, including MPR and TPT (public television). He’s currently on the board of the Itasca Project and the United Way. Perhaps more illuminative of the difference between Taft and the so-called “new breed” Republican is his high-profile support for the rights of gay employees.

Intrigued by what else he might have to say about what many regard as a civil war within his family’s party, we spoke with Taft in his office at the RBC Center in downtown Minneapolis.

We posed five questions – well, seven actually with follow-ups:

MinnPost: I’m curious what the straw was that broke your back now, to the point you said, “Enough is enough,” and you wanted your views out and your position well known?

John Taft:  The straw was the tactic I saw being employed in October, which involved Republicans threatening not to agree to an increase in the debt ceiling, in exchange for relatively minor legislative demands. You can think of a hundred different analogies for what that looks like, but it is the height of irresponsibility.

To dangle the Sword of Damocles of sovereign default above the heads of American citizens, the U.S. economy and the global economy is incredibly detrimental to business and investor confidence and to the confidence of the citizenry at a time when economic recovery is fragile. Confidence is something we have to rely on to get out of this stall-speed situation we’re in. So that was the straw that broke this camel’s back.

MP: You say, “for relatively minor legislative demands.” Would this have been a valid tactic if the legislative stakes were higher?

JT: No. I happen to agree with those who say paying your debts on time is a moral and ethical act. You agreed to spend money on X, Y and Z. You didn’t have the money, so you decided to borrow it. The decision to spend and the decision to borrow are in the past.

Therefore you now have a moral obligation to live with the consequences. Particularly when we can. We are not a Greece. We are able to service our debts. But electing not to is unethical and immoral.

This, of course, is the second time we’ve been through this debt ceiling tactic. And maybe because I’ve been writing and talking about the need to return to the moral and ethical underpinnings of the financial services industry, people have started to listen to me. I don’t know.

But this is a failure of stewardship writ large, in neon lights, at the national level. This is all about short-term tactics in the face of some of the most serious long-term issues we’ve ever faced as a nation. It was the heights of irresponsibility. I wrote a book about stewardship [“Stewardship: Lessons Learned from the Lost Culture of Wall Street”]. And I think that theme is resonating today. People are hungry for responsible leadership.

MP: … “Productive leadership?”

JT: Well yes, “productive.” I’ve been asking myself, “What would be the equivalent in terms of behavior in my role as a CEO? How detrimental to the good of the corporation would it be if I behaved the way Republicans are behaving in Congress?”

MP: The old saying is “95 percent of life is showing up.” At some point, don’t you have to say that this is democracy in action? The people you’re talking about, the people who elect them anyway, show up at the caucuses, make their demands and have grabbed control of the party.

5 More QuestionsJT: Well, that’s an interesting point. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. I don’t know. But for someone like me, what it makes me say is, “If that’s democracy, I need to find a different way to contribute.”

I mean, I get asked all the time if I’m going to run for political office. But why would someone like me do that? There is no way to be effective in the circus that is our political system right now. So, if that’s democracy in action, we need to find a different way to address the serious long-term issues we have.

For someone like me, political involvement isn’t the answer. Civic engagement is. Sitting down with political leaders, other CEOs, nonprofit leaders and thinking about the problems we face locally and nationally and addressing them outside the political system, that seems to be the only hope we have.

I’ve been personally involved in many things where I’ve been able to make a difference, or feel like I’m making difference in this parallel-to-politics activity.

MP: One of the facets of your Times piece that registered with people, and I don’t mean to be catty when I say this, is that you, with your family heritage, are an embodiment of the country-club Republican. By that, I mean the successful businessmen who built companies, kept books and answered to shareholders. But I wonder where the interface is between you and the Republican Party’s new base? So let me ask you a personal question, do you regularly socialize with people who are openly supportive and sympathetic with the Tea Party?

JT: I would say, yes. I mean we’re in 43 states …

MP: I mean personal friends. People you see regularly and enjoy hanging out with?

JT: Well, it’s a valid point. I guess I’d say that there are people in the local business community, business heads, who are Tea Party-esque. They come to Minnesota Business Partnership meetings. Or are on the Itasca Project board. So that point of view is not something I see on an hourly basis but see it often enough to be exposed to it and have it influence my thinking.

But, I’m not a politician. So I socialize with people I want to socialize with. Their political affiliation is probably the last thing that occurs to me if I decide I want to have a drink with somebody.

And, I live on East Lake of the Isles. You drive around the parkway over there, and you’re not going to run into a lot of Tea Party folks. I live in one of the most liberal areas of a very liberal city. The Obama signs were up in the front and backyards last year. I know what you’re asking, but I’m not even that active in the Republican Party.

In fact, the story I tell is being out to dinner with my family and seeing the local Republican Party across the way having a meeting. To me, that said it all. I’m here having dinner, and they’re over there, doing their business.

Another story, and this gets back to the failure of leadership we see in Washington. I married a Canadian girl, and when we were dating, I sort of played the swaggering American. [He laughs.] We were so superior to everyone, remember? Well now I’m embarrassed for my country, by our failure to act responsibly and in any kind of long-term way.

MP: Finally, let me ask you about the effect the hyper-partisan media bubble has on the problem you’re looking at. Does the infotainment, anger-stoking apparatus undermine what you’re saying we need to accomplish?

JT: I’ll make two comments to that. I grew up a Taft, surrounded by role models. It was in the water. It was in the air that the way you were supposed to behave was reasonable, reasoned, responsible and, to some extent, unemotional. But there was no one you wouldn’t talk to.

You were supposed to be intellectually honest, to try and understand everyone else’s ideas. Then you accepted them if they had validity or argued against them. Those were the values I grew up with, and it’s not what’s in vogue today.

I facilitated a discussion a couple years ago between James Carville and Mary Matalin, and to your point about media, I asked Carville, “Why do we have what we have?” He said there are two reasons.

One, we live in a world today where when we wake up in the morning you can flip on your iPad or computer and you can read for the next 20 hours only things that confirm your point of view. Social media and traditional media have evolved today to a point where it’s not about bringing people together — it’s about confirming what people already believe.

The other thing that’s going on is that we’re living in an era of slow growth, maybe no growth. There isn’t a lot of money to go around. Resources are limited, because we became over-leveraged and we just moved the leverage from the private sector to the public sector and added to it. So we’re over-leveraged in an era of slow growth with scarce resources and an aging demographic.

In that environment, if I want something, I have to take it from you. It’s win-lose. It’s not like it was in the past.

Both those factors — a media that confirms what you want to know and a win-lose economic environment — contribute to the polarization we see.

Comments (33)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/13/2013 - 10:09 am.

    It’s interesting

    that according to public records, the alleged republican gave $1000 to the Jim Graves, Amy Klobuchar, and Keith Ellison campaigns. I’m sure he’s the only republican to ever do so.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 11/13/2013 - 12:14 pm.

      Sounds like an independent thinker to me,…

      …freed from the vise-grip of dogma.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/13/2013 - 02:50 pm.

        It’s called principle

        Which is another clue that this guy doesn’t vote republican. You may not like our principles, but at least we have some.

        • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 11/13/2013 - 04:09 pm.

          You must admit, rigid adherence to “principle”…

          …seems to walk and talk like dogmatism.

          If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s probably…well, you know how that wise old saying goes.

        • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 11/13/2013 - 10:58 pm.

          What “principles” now Tester for Republicans

          Usually you are consist in condemning the Republicans for not having any conservative principles.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/13/2013 - 01:40 pm.

      Gee, I can’t figure it out….

      How could a self-proclaimed “reasonable person” interested in effective government NOT support Michele Bachmann, Kurt Bills or Chris Fields?

      It’s a puzzle for the ages….it certainly defies logic, Mr. Tester.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/13/2013 - 02:46 pm.

        I don’t care who he contributes to

        It’s just disingenuous to claim to be a republican for the purposes of trying to give weight to your political commentary when you’re obviously not.

        I don’t care who he contributes to or what his views are. But they should be taken as any other non-republican’s views.

        • Submitted by jody rooney on 11/13/2013 - 04:27 pm.

          I considered my self a republican until the latest batch or nuts

          I even worked for three Reagan appointees. But of course Reagan wouldn’t be a Republican now.

          He speaks for what I value.

          But I would love to hear what your principals are Mr. Tester but first you will have to define what you consider a principal and I would certainly like to hear you state them clearly as in”

          I believe that….

          Give it a shot I dare you.

        • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/13/2013 - 04:31 pm.

          Gee, Mr. Tester, when did your appointment as “enforcer of doctrine” for the Republican party come through?

          Got you official badge as “Belief Inspector”? Duly deputized to kick out those who don’t meet your standards? Congratulations, maybe one day your Republican party will be able to meet at a table for two–with a chair to spare.

  2. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 11/13/2013 - 11:17 am.

    would love to hear the regular republicans who post here…

    respond to this reasonable-sounding column.

  3. Submitted by Robert Gauthier on 11/13/2013 - 12:27 pm.

    Since when…

    Is being a Republican require 100% fealty. Sounds like this guy thinks, unlike the TP droned.

  4. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 11/13/2013 - 01:08 pm.


    Mr. Taft sounds like a reasonable individual. It’s too bad the Republican party doesn’t have more people like him steering the ship.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/13/2013 - 01:21 pm.

    It’s funny…

    You see some people bragging about their “independence” and the courage of their “independent” thought, yet these same people are so shackled to narrow ideology they can’t tolerate the slightest deviance from purity let alone free thought.

  6. Submitted by Bill Toppson on 11/13/2013 - 01:31 pm.

    Genetic Republican concerns?

    So he never really thought about being a Republican, he was just born that way? I am surprised that a money manager would not be concerned about the Federal Reserves policy on QE.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/13/2013 - 07:23 pm.



      How could it go wrong?? Both appointed by Republicans, yet the first worried about the possibility of all debt being paid off and so acted to guarantee a deficit by the end of the Bush 2 administration. He h
      ad absolutely no recognition of the on-coming collapse. The second continued the ride up the roller coaster, started the biggest devaluation of the currency under Bush ever, and is still a vociferous backer of QE—full steam ahead!!

      By the way, if you haven’t noticed, the financial industry is doing just fine with QE 1, 2, 3,,,,,

      Record profits, hmmm. Stock markets up, hmmm.

      Do you notice the distinct dip in the markets anytime the end of QE is mentioned? Now who could be considered “better off” now, than before?? It wouldn’t be the financial people, would it?

      It’s silly to expect sound financial direction from someone just because they are “Republican”.

  7. Submitted by Sean Huntley on 11/13/2013 - 01:42 pm.

    RBC Plaza, not Center

  8. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 11/13/2013 - 02:23 pm.

    A switcher

    This guy hasn’t voted Republican for years. It’s obvious. I don’t understand why DFLers believe someone who switched parties has more credibility than people who have been DFLers their entire lives.

    • Submitted by Jackson Cage on 11/13/2013 - 03:08 pm.

      Umm, Rosalind???

      Would you care to back up your claim with even an iota of proof? Or are you just another Tea Partier who will throw all but the True Believers under the bus the minute they stray from Approved Thought? I’m just speechless.

      • Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 11/13/2013 - 04:21 pm.

        voting booth

        Mr. Lambert didn’t follow John Taft into the privacy of the voting booth to see how Taft actually voted. Lambert took his word for it. I’m basing my opinion on Taft’s words, too.

  9. Submitted by John Edwards on 11/13/2013 - 02:57 pm.

    This story’s purpose

    When you read this article, and virtually every other on MinnPost, it helps to understand that the website’s purpose is the advancement of liberalism—not journalism as it purports.

    It is not hard to find second-generation-and-later-individuals from highly successful, previously Republican families like John Taft who—because of guilt at their privilege—embrace liberal views that Brian finds newsworthy. We have seen it in Minnesota with the Daytons, Pillsburys, Oppermans, Carlsons, Pohlads, and others.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 11/13/2013 - 03:41 pm.

      Guilt ? Really ?

      Could you provide a little evidence to support your psychoanalysis of the people you name ?

      By “a little”, I mean ANY EVIDENCE AT ALL.

      Also, it would be interesting to note what you believe their political views WOULD BE – IF they weren’t saddled with the guilt that privilege brings.

    • Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 11/13/2013 - 04:05 pm.

      I Second Steve’s Question

      I didn’t detect even the slightest trace of handwringing over privilege or “guilt” in this article.

      But, then again, since you started this game, I sense projection of your own guilt regarding your attitude toward your fellow humans, God’s creations each and every one, onto someone you believe surely MUST feel guilty,…

      for no other purpose, of course, than to make yourself feel better about the things you can’t face in your own sorry, miserly, attitudes and actions.

  10. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 11/14/2013 - 07:30 am.

    A Greater Party

    This just demonstrates that the Republicans need to expand their party to include more than just a few tea partiers. Without people like Taft in the mix there simply aren’t enough like-minded people in the GOP to get more than a few ultra conservatives elected in solidly red districts.

    If you want to get your people in office and influence the direction the country is going, you need to do more than simply lock the doors to anyone who isn’t ideologically as pure as you. That just alienates people and they leave your platform in search of more welcoming venues.

  11. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/14/2013 - 08:49 am.

    It is clear that the Republican party is beset by a Mao-esque “Cultural Revolution”/People’s Army type of self-criticism.

    Purity must be enforced.

  12. Submitted by Andy Summers on 11/14/2013 - 09:25 am.

    As Goes Congress, So Goes This Forum

    Mr. Taft, in his Times article and in this interview, has highlighted some critical issues facing our nation, our economy, and our society. Rather than an actual discussion about those issues, however, we once again have a debate in this forum about the person and about fellow contributors to the forum. Is it possible to have an honest-to-God debate and discussion in this country without resorting to personal attacks and easy sound bites?

    Mr. Taft was able to get column inches due to his lineage, his position, and his reputation. His voting record and personal motivations are irrelevant to the discussion. How do we bring back real civic engagement, actual governing, and general respect to this country? It feels like we are fighting over deck chairs on the Titanic.

    The hard line Republicans and Democrats can fight away for their party but the rest of us need to fight for our nation. That seems to me to be the most crucial part of this interview; our political system is all but broken, so the solutions to our shared problems are likely to reside outside of politics. The ball is in our court; we can choose to take our guidance from MSNBC and Fox, or we can choose to engage for our own reasons, with people with whom we share a common goal but not necessarily agreement on a common approach.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 11/14/2013 - 11:00 pm.

      Excellent Point

      Though Taft’s comments were interesting… No where did I get a feel for how he would control the growth of government spending as a percent of GDP, while getting the GDP growing faster again and reducing the national debt.

      It seemed he was saying “government is failing, so I stay out of it… I would prefer to be a rich power broker…”

      I thought that Liberals disliked rich power brokers?

  13. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 11/14/2013 - 11:02 am.

    Hell freezes over

    I’m afraid I have to agree with Tester and the conservatives on this one. When a guy is giving money to Democratic candidates and ripping the Republican party, he’s not a Republican any more. Or at least he can’t claim to speak on behalf of Republicans.

    When Zell Miller spoke at the Republican convention, was he still really a Democrat? When Randy Kelly endorsed George Bush, was he still a Democrat? It works both ways.

    • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 11/14/2013 - 06:48 pm.

      Who cares about his party label?

      He’s pretty honest that he’s not tied to a party label. He seems like a reasonable person that has something interesting to say. It is a problem when people aren’t allowed to voice an opinion unless they’re placed into the correct box first.

      • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 11/14/2013 - 11:07 pm.

        Party labels

        Its his party label that gives weight to his argument. A Democrat criticizing Republicans (or vice versa) isn’t anything special. There would not be a story here about it. But a Republican criticizing one of his own is. The fact that his Republican credentials are suspect undermines his argument.

        As a Democrat, I don’t like fake Democrats criticizing (real) Democrats. So I understand and sympathize with the complaints of our Republican friends here. What Taft is saying is fine. The problem is that he is claiming to be a Republican while saying it.

        • Submitted by Diane Nelson on 11/15/2013 - 01:32 pm.

          Mmmmm….test that logic

          Would it be *suspect* if a Catholic criticizes some of its traditional teachings, and then throws a tenspot in the plate one Sunday while attending Lutheran services with a friend? Would that require they then publicly identify as a Lutheran?

          Would you suspect my intentions if I criticized an extreme feminist’s attempt to suppress a publication, and deem my opinions on feminist issues as questionable thereafter?

          There’s a possibility one might be in transition from one dogma to another, and in the beginning process of discovering they are increasingly at odds with the radicalism of their group and its leadership. Or they simply wish to temper or even rid the extremist faction that is threatening the group’s sustainability. Taft is not alone in the latter.

          Tester and his ilk would be wise to take heed of voices like Taft’s. But, they can say they *obviously* don’t belong, throw them out, and continue to require strict adherence to the doctrines in the teabag take-over. It works for me and my (true big tent) representative choices.

          • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 11/17/2013 - 07:17 pm.


            Your non-political analogies are nonsense. This is a so-called Republican who donates to liberal Democrats. Would you believe an Obama critic who claims to be a Democrat but has donated to Michelle Bachmann and Ted Cruz? Of course his claims are suspect.

            I agree with the guys points, but I think its dishonest for him to call himself a Republican. If you can’t see the problem here, you are as narrow-minded on the left as Tester and company are on the right.

  14. Submitted by jason myron on 11/18/2013 - 07:45 pm.

    Why dishonest?

    I’m a Dem but I voted for Arne Carlson. I have several concerns regarding some in my party, but it doesn’t mean that I’m some sort of traitor.

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