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

“This is a failure of stewardship writ large … the heights of irresponsibility,” the great-grandson of President Taft says of government-shutdown efforts.

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

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.