Bob Corker's introduction to the nation and to politicians in Washington
was not auspicious. In his race against Democratic representative Harold Ford
for an open Senate seat in Tennessee
in 2006, the Republican National Committee aired a TV ad featuring a white
woman who says she "met Harold at the Playboy party." In the ad's tag
line, she adds, "Harold, call me," and winks at the camera. The ad
drew enormous attention and, since Ford is African American, was attacked as
racist. Corker urged the RNC to take the ad off the air. It was too late. He
won narrowly, though the ad probably hurt his campaign more than it helped.
Today, after 18 months in the Senate, Corker has overcome the stain of being
linked, if only involuntarily, to an infamous episode. By carefully following a
set of rules that many senators ignore, he's become a serious player on Capitol
Hill, someone who draws attention for his ideas on policy, especially on the
biggest policy issue of the day, energy.
The rules, which require a touch of humility, are very simple: (1)
concentrate on a few issues; (2) learn a lot about them; (3) don't overreach by
trying to tackle too much of your chosen issues at once; and (4) don't blab
about every other issue that comes up. Adhere to these rules and your moment of
prominence should come. Corker's has, sooner rather than later.
Republican John Cornyn of Texas
boils the rules down to a single sentence: "The best way to move up in the
Senate is either to be here a long time or be an expert on something."
Corker, 55, chose three issues to study: fiscal matters, health care, and
energy. On each, he aimed "to know as much or more" as any Senate
Last winter, he proved to be a fiscal tightwad when he was one of 16
senators to vote against the economic stimulus package. "I find something
extremely inappropriate about a deficit-ridden federal government borrowing
money from our grandchildren and sprinkling it across the country for a
short-term fix that will do little, if anything, to jump-start our troubled
economy," he said.
Many senators know a lot about fiscal issues. Far fewer are knowledgeable
about the nexus between energy policy and the heralded "cap and
trade" system for reducing global warming. On this issue, Corker has
become an expert, at least by Senate standards.
A year ago, he joined Democratic senator Jeff Bingaman of New
Mexico on a trip to Europe to
learn about how cap and trade had worked there. They talked to E.U. officials,
carbon traders, and utility industry leaders. Corker's conclusion: Cap and
trade is a failure. Carbon emissions in Europe had
actually exceeded the cap.
Two months later, he spent two days in Greenland on a
Senate excursion led by Democrat senator Barbara Boxer of California,
viewing glaciers melting due to climate change. He was not overly alarmed,
recalling that in any earlier climate cycle potatoes were grown in Greenland
and that it had gotten its name for a reason.
While in Greenland, he met Dr. Minik
Rosing, a Danish climate scientist. "Corker, here's the deal," the
senator quoted the scientist as saying. Nothing should be done to curb global
warming that might be harmful if the fears about climate turn out to be
unfounded, Rosing said.
Corker was taken with this advice. His goal became a policy hat trick: to
deal with global warming while achieving energy security and continued economic
growth. "There are some rubs" among the three goals, he concedes.
He argues that "our fossil fuels are a bridge to the future."
Exploiting the oil and natural gas reserves offshore and underneath federal
lands over the next several decades will provide time for alternative sources
of energy to be developed--without harming the country in the meantime.
When the Senate debate on global warming legislation began in early June,
Corker took a major role. At one point, he says, Democrat John Kerry approached
him on the Senate floor and suggested a handful of senators work out an
agreement. Corker was interested. But when he insisted increased oil and
natural gas production would have to be part of any deal, Kerry balked, and the
brief negotiations ended.
Corker focused his attention on cap and trade, not the broader issue of
climate change or the science behind it. "Debating that today is
counterproductive," he told me last week. On the cap and trade bill, he
offered three amendments (which were never voted on as the bill died
prematurely) and infuriated the legislation's chief proponent, Boxer, in the
One amendment required the billions from auctioning off carbon allowances to
be rebated to taxpayers. Otherwise, the money would be handed out to special
interests in "the mother of all earmarks," Corker said. Boxer took
umbrage. "I resent the senator from Tennessee
saying our bill is a slush fund," she said.
Another Corker amendment barred carbon allowances from being handed out
"to entities that have nothing to do with reducing carbon emissions."
His third amendment prohibited so-called "international offsets" as a
way to comply with an American carbon cap.
Corker's mastery of cap and trade proved to be eye-catching. Lobbyists on
all sides began to pay attention to his words. John Pemberton of the Southern
Company, a utility, says it's clear Corker "knows how to dig into an issue
and learn it."
In Washington, knowledge usually trumps opinion. "All of us have opinions,"
Corker says. "To be heard in the Senate and break through the clutter,"
it takes more than voicing an opinion. Senators who speak with authority,
Corker says, are the ones who listen and learn, and are thoughtful and
knowledgeable. "I'm not saying I'm in that category. But that's my goal."