John Kline always fit the bill as a Republican congressman out of central casting: silver-haired, sharply dressed, former Marine, cigar aficionado, quick with a quip about how he’d rather be fishing or golfing.
Kline, 69, also fit well within a particular era of Republican politics — an era that comes to an abrupt end just as Kline’s 14-year career in Congress ends, too.
Weeks after Kline’s official last day in office, Donald J. Trump will take the oath of office and become president.
Trump’s brand of populist, nationalist politics, which defies easy categorization, is at odds with the fiscal conservatism and active international engagement mainstreamed by Kline and his party for the past several decades.
Kline decided to step down long before it was clear Trump would be his party’s nominee. But his is a compelling vantage point from which to consider major changes in the Republican Party, and in U.S. politics.
In a sitdown with MinnPost on Thursday, Kline reflected on his service in Congress, and how much this institution, and his party, has changed.
Now an old-school Republican
When Kline first won election to the 2nd Congressional District seat in 2002, his profile and his politics were very much of the time for the George W. Bush-era Republican Party.
He came from the Marines, where his 25-year service included a stint as military advisor to Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, a duty that included carrying the so-called “nuclear football.”
A fiscal conservative, national security hawk, and traditionalist on social issues, he supported the Bush administration’s War in Iraq, voting for the troop surge there in 2006, and their efforts on free trade, supporting the 2005 Central American Free Trade Agreement, among others.
When Barack Obama was elected, Kline was a loyal member of the opposition, in the congressional minority for two years and the majority for six.
As chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce for those six years, Kline fought the Obama administration on its proposals on student debt and overtime pay regulations. Many of his stances were anathema to Democrats, so much so that in 2014, liberal TV host Bill Maher targeted Kline in his “flip a district” campaign.
He won that race handily. After, though, Kline found himself in a House majority defined by squabbling between moderate Republicans and hard-liners. One of Kline’s closest friends in Congress, former Speaker John Boehner, stepped down under pressure from these hard-liners in 2015, a group of 40 or so lawmakers in the so-called House Freedom Caucus.
Their insistence on influencing the direction of the House GOP still doesn’t sit well with Kline.
“If you’re majority leader, and you’ve got a split in the conference with 200 guys here and 40 guys here,” he said, “it’s unreasonable for the 40 guys to think the Speaker’s going to do everything they want to do to the detriment of the 200.”
Republicans achieved a historic majority during Kline’s tenure in Congress, giving them the numbers to pursue policies they wanted, but those numbers also provided cover for members like those in the Freedom Caucus to take some risks.
Institutional changes from the last decade — like Republicans’ decision to ban earmarks, the riders on legislation bearing federal money for members’ districts — gave leadership fewer tools to keep rank-and-file members in line.
It’s something Kline accepts, however. Despite the fact that Congress is gridlocked and unproductive, he believes the institution is better off now than it was before, partly because leadership exerts less control.
In the old days, he said, “leadership could withhold or grant earmarks to get votes or not, which is an awful system, and one of the reasons I really didn’t like that system.”
“Toe the line or you don’t get projects in your district” was the rule of the era, Kline said.
The era of Trump
It might not come as a surprise that Kline — the free-trader, Iraq War supporter — didn’t see Donald Trump coming.
Like many establishment Republicans, Kline supported the candidacy of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a conservative noted for his hawkish views, a clean-cut, camera-ready guy that Kline’s generation believed would surely carry forward the torch of conservatism.
Rubio won Minnesota — cleaned up in Kline’s district — but it was the high water mark of his campaign. Trump’s ascendancy, Kline says, shocked him and his colleagues.
“I never, in my wildest dreams, imagined that Donald Trump was going to be my party’s nominee, much less was going be president of the United States,” he said.
“We’ve got a man in Donald Trump who has tapped a nerve, if you will, in the whole electorate, across the country, so he was getting votes from union Democrats, all sorts of things, that were out of the norm of what we had come to expect not just from the Republican Party but from partisan politics. We’re in a different realm.”
But Kline, unlike other Republicans, is not wringing his hands over what Trump could bring, and doesn’t believe he’s irrevocably changed the character of the GOP.
“I think that Donald Trump is learning from other members of the party, including here, and Republicans in the House and Senate are learning from him,” he said.
Kline, the military man, said he believed Trump was putting in place a “mature, experienced team,” one that includes three generals.
“Campaign rhetoric, ok, you know, both sides sometimes get a little carried away in their rhetoric,” he said. “I’m sure he didn’t mean to say that he’s smarter than all the generals.”
He also didn’t express concern, as many did during the campaign, that Trump would have access to the country’s nuclear codes. “The football is by its nature designed to be a response to a nuclear attack not an initiator,” Kline said.
“President Trump will learn an awful lot about what our nuclear capability is… It’s not something that a construction tycoon normally has, all of that stuff. So he’s learning.”
Looking to a legacy
Few predicted that 2017 would be ushered in by unified Republican control of the White House and both chambers of Congress.
Kline, for his part, isn’t lamenting what could have been if he’d stuck around. He was term-limited out of his chairmanship of the Education and the Workforce Committee, constraining his future influence. (He also said he’d had enough of the place.)
If anything, he cautioned Republicans against overplaying their hand.
“One of my concerns has been, there’s a perception out there… that Republicans have all the levers of power,” he said.
“No, we don’t. We have a clear majority in the House, but we have differences of opinion, and we have nowhere near the 60 votes you need to get cloture in the Senate. So the Republicans are going to have to manage expectations.”
Though he has been a loyal partisan for the Republican side, Kline often pays homage to bipartisanship, and the notion that compromising with the other side is essential to the governing process.
His signature achievement, and likely his legacy as a member of Congress, is a testament to that: the Every Student Succeeds Act, the long-awaited replacement to the No Child Left Behind education law, which Obama signed into law a year ago.
The law, referred to as ESSA, will govern K-12 federal education policy for the foreseeable future, and Kline worked with Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate to craft it over a course of years.
“It’s a solid law,” Kline said, “a very bipartisan piece of legislation, negotiated the old-fashioned way, not everyone got everything they wanted, but everyone got rid of No Child Left Behind.”
He hoped the law might be a lesson for Republicans as they begin governing next year, and a rebuke to an Obama administration that he argues shut Congress, and the GOP, out of the policymaking process.
“If you want you policies to last, then you need to get buy in from more than just your partisan flank, whether you’re writing a regulation or whether you’re trying to get the law changed,” he said.
“You need to get some buy in. It just won’t hold.”
Kline is hopeful that his law will hold in the Trump administration, which appears very friendly to the broad GOP goal of devolving authority from the federal Department of Education.
But Kline’s work is likely done. Hours before he took his last vote as a member of Congress, he made it clear he’s done with politics, saying he had “no plans” to run for an office like governor.
“I have major plans,” he said, “to retire.”