Highlights from A Conversation with Senator Ted Kaufman
April 24, 2017
On Monday, March 27th the Penn Democrats and the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative welcomed former Senator Ted Kaufman. He spoke about his involvement in the Dodd Frank Wall Street reform, policy work on the Foreign Relations, Armed Services, Judiciary, and Homeland Security Committees, and his vast experience running a Senate office.
Mr. Kaufman began his talk reflecting on the state of healthcare in America, the Republican movement to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, and the recent failure of Trump’s American Health Care Act. He specifically spoke about the perplexing nature of Republican House voting: since the Republican Party gained a majority in 2011, they have voted 60 times to repeal Obamacare, yet were unable to execute a viable alternative. Kaufman also discussed the difference in Republican strategy from “saying no” during the Obama Presidency from 2008 to 2016, to governing and “saying yes”. “If there’s no compromise, legislative bodies don’t work,” he noted.
Speaking on the Trump transition, Kaufman contrasted the current transition with his experiences working with the Obama-Biden transition team. He remembered the ways that cabinet members and other positions were carefully appointed in advance, specifically recalling a meeting with President-Elect Obama where he outlined his four most important issues for the presidency: dealing with the financial crisis, focusing on creating jobs, environmental protection, and healthcare. When Obama mentioned healthcare, the leading politicians in the room warned him against pursuing the issue in his first term since it would make him unpopular and potentially sacrifice his re-election. Obama fully understood that these potential repercussions, both for the future of his presidency and the power of the Democratic Controlled House and Senate, yet he passed the Affordable Care Act nonetheless.
“It’s not all about re-election,” Kaufman reminded the audience. “People do things just like you do them: because they want to make a difference. If you believe it’s all about reelection, you believe it’s all about politics,” he said, before lamenting “that, in my mind, is the discerning public opinion in the country.” Kaufman also confirmed that the passage of the ACA definitely affected Obama’s ability to do things in office later in his term. Kaufman remembered when Obama was presented with data saying that in 8 years, 54 million individuals would be uninsured and said “I can’t let that happen.” “Everything was difficult after that, there wasn’t a single senator that didn’t know that this was a political mistake. But, Obama is really smart and knew what he was getting into.”
Kaufman then moved back to discussing the transition. Given that the President of the United States has the opportunity to appoint 4,000 people to work for his Federal Government, it is “really important that you get to them quickly,” Kaufman said. Of those 4,000, 553 are critical cabinet positions. A study by McKinsey & Company found that of the appointed positions, it is ideal for a President to have 100 of them selected and ready to nominate on inauguration day. During his inauguration day, Obama had 27 of these prominent cabinet positions selected and quickly filled the rest. At the 66th day of his presidency, Trump only had 61 of these people appointed out of the 553 most important positions and of the 4,000 total. Kaufman expressed his concern about this situation and encouraged the president to continue appointing positions as fast as possible.
Kaufman also expressed concern about Trump and his most trusted advisers: Reince Priebus, Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon each have no experience working in the White House or in the government whatsoever. “The misconception that the Federal Government is not that complicated is not true,” Kaufman said, before asserting that Trump’s unconventional actions and leadership are “attacking the basic fabric of the country.” Citing Trump’s hostility to the free press and his aggressive and combative comments to many fundamental parts of the American Democracy – for example, attacking Federal Judges, Kaufman asserted that the moral fabric of the country and constitutional separations are at stake. He was also skeptical of Trump’s campaign promises to be tough on Wall Street, specifically Goldman Sachs executives given his appointment of many former Goldman Sachs employees in his White House as prominent economic advisers and leaders.
So, what have we learned from the past 3 election cycles? “People aren’t interested in people who have been around for a while,” said Kaufman. Citing Barack Obama, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump, all popular presidential candidates in the last decade, Kaufman noted they were all outsiders.
Finally, Kaufman ended by recounting the story of how he got into politics. In the 1972 election for the state of Delaware, incumbent and experienced politician Caleb Boggs seemed unbeatable. Nobody wanted to run against him until 28 year old Joe Biden decided he was up for the challenge. At the time, Kaufman had earned his MBA and was starting a career at DuPont as a corporate engineer. When Biden called to ask him for help, he said “I’ll work for you, but you don’t have a chance of winning. But he pulled it out, and somehow he won by 3600 votes.” When called by Biden again to help set up his office in Delaware, Kaufman took a leave from DuPont to help. “The rest is history,” Kaufman laughed.
“Running for office isn’t just about winning. If you care about some issues and are willing to talk about them, running office is a good way to do it,” Kaufman said before thanking Penn Wharton PPI and Penn Democrats for hosting him.
About the Speaker
Mr. Kaufman served on the Senate staff of Joseph Biden for 22 years, 19 years as Chief of Staff, was the U.S. Senator from Delaware from 2009 to 2010, and is now the board chair of the Biden Foundation. In addition, he is currently a Visiting Professor of the Practice at Duke University Law School.