In politics today, we’re often quick to disparage elected leaders as weak and cowardly. Fingers in the wind, we presume they’re always eager to do the easy and expedient thing—to cave to the demands of their party bases or sell out to some special interest group willing to cough up campaign donations. Too often that indictment rings true—but not always. There are, today, figures in Washington who quietly set their own political interests aside to do what’s right for the country. That’s exactly what Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) is doing today.
To understand Cornyn’s role, you first have to understand his political reality. For all Democrats want to believe that Texas is turning purple, it remains by most standards a solidly red state, and voters there expect their senators to reflect the Lone Star state’s sensibilities in Congress. To that end, few doubt that Cornyn is a principled conservative—he’s proven his bona fides time and again, and was recognized as such when his peers elected him to a position in the GOP Senate leadership.
But if he’s a rock-solid conservative, he has also proven himself capable of negotiating with his adversaries to solve big challenges in a bipartisan way. That is, he’s willing to talk to Democrats to see if they can find ways of collaborating in the pursuit of smart policy. Being from Texas, reaching across the aisle comes at some political peril—an opportunistic competitor might always use his willingness to confer as evidence he’s betraying some arch conservative cause. But that hasn’t spooked the senator. He doesn’t avoid issues if he thinks there’s a viable way to work arm-in-arm. And his willingness to take that approach to leadership in Washington is exactly what America needs.
Take the issue of guns. A vast majority of Americans believe something should be done to curtail the availability of the sorts of powerful weapons used to carry out the sorts of horrific crimes America witnessed in Buffalo and Uvalde. But a very committed and active constituency in the conservative base is wary of imposing any restriction on gun ownership beyond those that already exist, for example on fully automatic machine guns.
In Republican circles, the topic is particularly perilous because, merits aside, the emotional resonance of the issue hits so hard. A Republican who votes for any form of gun safety legislation is understood to be inviting a challenge from the right in their next primary. It’s for that reason that many in the GOP for decades have chosen to dig in their heels, refusing even to consider commonsense gun safety measures.
But not Cornyn.
In recent weeks, he has stepped up to negotiate a principled compromise with Democratic Senate colleagues. He’s no pushover—Democrats will still rail on Republicans for refusing to embrace even stronger measures. But we should be clear that there is likely no political incentive for Cornyn to support any form of gun safety legislation. The only reason for him to engage is that he believes it’s right for the country and, almost as important, that getting a bipartisan agreement would point the bipartisan way forward on other contentious issues. And Texas’ senior senator wasn’t going to give up on that opportunity.
It doesn’t end there. Cornyn has also taken real political risk during his career by being willing to negotiate on immigration reform and border security. Though he’s been a vigorous advocate for enhanced border security, he also believes immigration strengthens America and agrees with many Democrats that DREAMers need an opportunity to live, work, and pay taxes in the U.S. Again, that position could put him crossways with some on the right. On issues where Republicans and Democrats can broach a compromise, he’s not willing to let politics get in the way.
To some, a readiness to sit down across the table from advocates from another political persuasion—and then to embrace a collaborative solution—may not sound like anything out of the ordinary. But those who profit from the parties’ unending mutual antipathy will inevitably try to frame it as some sort of cowardice. The reality is that, much as it’s the right thing to do—much as it is what we send our leaders explicitly to do—it’s dangerous today politically because it invites criticism from your allies. Cornyn, for willingly taking that risk, demonstrates the best sort of leadership. For all that Americans are prone to criticize officials in Washington, we should recognize true gumption when we see it.
Margaret White is executive director of No Labels.