Last week, FiveThirtyEight launched a new interactive graphic that tracks how often members of Congress vote in line with President Trump’s stated positions. Today, we’re starting a series of Q&As to talk to members about their votes and their Trump Scores. First up is Henry Cuellar, who represents Texas’s 28th Congressional District. At the moment, Cuellar is the House Democrat with the highest Trump agreement score. The transcript below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Malone: On our Trump tracker, we have that you’ve voted with Trump 75 percent of the time. We predicted [based on how well Trump did in your district and how other members of Congress have voted] that you would vote with him only around 10 percent of the time. You’ve also voted against the Democratic Party line on four bills. I wanted to give you the space here to walk me through your reasoning on these votes.
Cuellar: First of all, President Trump does not share my values, and I certainly have a lot of serious concerns with some of his statements and actions. I want to start off with that. Second of all, if you’re using items that came up before Trump, again with all due respect to your Trump Scores, they’re not very accurate because a lot of those issues and rules came up before even Trump got into office. Those are things that I had concerns about even before Trump came in. The other thing is, if you look at my record here since I started here back in 2005, I’ve always been a centrist. If you want to use voting with the Democratic Party as a measure, you and I are going to be off completely because I was not sent to Washington to vote with the Democratic Party. I am a Democrat, but I don’t see my job as to vote with the Democratic Party. And I think any Democrat or Republican that votes their party, then I think they’re doing a disservice to their constituents.
My district is about +7 Democratic [paywalled], but it’s still a diverse district in many ways. I do better than most Democrats here even though I’m a moderate conservative Blue Dog and I still do very well here. My hometown of Laredo, the border area, I’ll get 90, 95, 98 percent of the vote, so I must be doing something right here. I think people know that I will vote my district, and they know I’m bipartisan and they know that I’m not here to represent the Democratic Party. I think the best way to describe my position is what President Lyndon Johnson said many years ago where he said, “I’m an American, I’m a U.S. Senator, and I’m a Democrat, all in that order.”1 And I agree with him in the sense that we’ve got to come up here and vote the district.
Malone: You talked about voting the district — where are the places you think you and President Trump can work together, where are the places where voting your district means compromise, because it’s obviously a very entrenched partisan political environment.
Cuellar: No one really knows what Trump is going to come up with, what executive order is going to come out. I can tell you on NAFTA, I disagree with him, I think we need to modernize it. The 20 percent tariff, I think that’s wrong. I disagree with him on withdrawing from TPP. Again, I don’t know what I’m going to agree with him on until we see what he’s going to come up with. In my district — I think I know my district better than other people do, than the national folks do — in my area, for example, trade is very important. Most Democrats don’t support trade, but Laredo is the largest inland port. Every day we have 14,000 trailers. In my area, I’ve got most of Eagle Ford [shale], and if you’re familiar with that energy sector, it’s one of the largest mines in Texas, so I’m a pro-energy folk. So you’ve got to understand that I represent a district and I travel my district. I know my district, and I think I know it better than the nationals do.
Malone: A lot of Democrats have said, “Well, infrastructure might be one place where we’re with the Republicans.” Are there any other sorts of inklings of places where you say, “Hey, that’s a good idea, that’s something we could get done.”
Cuellar: Certainly infrastructure is one thing that we supported. It’s not a Trump idea — it’s been around a long time. The question is, “How do we pay for it?” The issue, I’m just looking at this news alert — President Trump might be open to comprehensive immigration legislation, the Gang of Eight, maybe not. You just don’t know what this president is going to say. So we’ve just got to wait. I was in Mexico City a couple of weeks ago, and I was talking to Carlos Slim, and I was talking to some of the senators, and I kept telling them, “Hey, you’ve got to wait until Trump has some of his Cabinet members because I think his Cabinet members will tone [down] his positions in many ways.”
Malone: I’m glad you brought up Mexico — your district is on the border. How nervous are you about the U.S.’s relationship with Mexico deteriorating?
Cuellar: That’s one of the reasons I was there in Mexico City, talking to Mexican business people, talking to some of the senators there, because we’re all concerned. I’ve talked to some of the business people not only there but here — on both sides of the border. In fact tomorrow, I think we have six to seven Mexican congress folks who also represent places along the border that are coming over to Laredo to meet with me to talk about issues. In many ways, I feel a lot better in talking with Republicans in the sense that a lot of them don’t agree with him that we need to get rid of NAFTA, we all need to modernize it, and TPP actually did that already. On the fencing part of it, the wall, even some of the Republicans I’ve talked to … just look at some of the quotes that have come from Texas — they’re saying, “Well, maybe some strategic fencing, we need to have technology and personnel, the right mixture.” The good thing is that Trump just can’t do an order and get it done. He still has to come though Appropriations, he still has to come through Congress. I think Congress and his Cabinet are going to tamp down a lot of the things he’s been saying.
Malone: When you’re talking to politicians from Mexico, what are their biggest worries? Is it worry about trade deals eroding between the two countries, or is it about Trump’s rhetoric toward the country itself? What comes up most?
Cuellar: All of the above. They think a wall is insulting to them. They feel that the U.S. should secure the border and all that. They feel that Trump doesn’t understand how much cooperation there is between DEA, FBI and other folks that are in Mexico — they share intelligence. They worry about NAFTA because they know trade, and you know the numbers between the U.S. and Mexico, every day there’s about $1.5 billion in trade between the U.S. and Mexico. Just generally, they feel insulted by the way that President Trump has talked to not only the Mexican president but to them.
Malone: Can you talk a little bit about the larger strategy of what a Democratic legislative minority should be doing in a mostly Republican government? Do you buy the argument from people in the Democratic base who are saying that too much compromise with a Trump administration is giving a moral stamp of approval to the Republicans and to this administration?
Cuellar: I can understand that anger out there, that fear. Trump’s order on the religious discrimination, on the immigration ban, that’s something that we all don’t agree with. If the strategy is zero-sum, where everything is resistance against everything, then that’s difficult for somebody like me, because remember what I said at the very beginning: If I’m here just for the Democratic Party, I don’t think that’s the right approach. I don’t think it’s just a party vote here. I’ve always taken the position, way before Trump got in, that the problem with health care was Democrats on one side didn’t want to change one word — an extreme position. The other position, the Republicans’, was another extreme position — repeal the whole thing. I always thought that was wrong. I always thought the legislative process, the way it works in a normal process was you look at what works, you keep it, you look at the things that need to be modified, repealed, you do that and you make it better. On health care, I don’t know what they’re going to do. If they’re going to repeal and not put anything in place, then I have to disagree with that. On health care, I think I voted against Republicans every single time because health care is very important to me because of my district — 35 percent of my folks here don’t have health insurance. It’s a little lower now that we’ve had Obamacare. So, it depends, but to take a strategy of 100 percent disagreement-resistance, I don’t agree with it.
Malone: You identified earlier as a Blue Dog, which is a thing you hear less and less in the Democratic Party. I know you’re pro-life. Do you ever feel out of place in the Democratic Party?
Cuellar: No, no, no. I’m a Democrat, will always stay a Democrat. I grew up as a Democrat here, as a young state legislator with the Bill Hobby philosophy, with the Pete Laney philosophy. And their philosophy was that the Democratic Party is a big-tent party — you accept liberals, you accept moderate, conservative Democrats — but we’re all Democrats. The problem with the Republicans and Democrats now is that they want to purify, they want to see you in the same image — that’s wrong. I think that’s wrong for both the Democrats and the Republicans. The Democratic Party will always be my home, and whether people like it or not, I’m always going to stay a centrist. As I’ve told the House Democratic leadership, find me all the liberal seats we need to win across the country to take back the House. There’s none! I’ve always voted for Nancy [Pelosi] — I disagree with her, but there are some Democrats who have not voted for her. I’ve always voted for Pelosi, so when it comes to the votes that are important, I’ll stick with that. The way we won the majority in 2006 was because of the Blue Dogs. The way we win the majority again is through the Blue Dogs again. I told the DCCC, I told the House leadership, and they gave me a nervous laugh. How did we lose veterans? How did we lose a lot of the labor folks to Trump? When people think that you’ve got to be a “pure Democrat” in our image, they’re wrong. When we lost Blue Dogs because a lot of us voted for health care and a whole bunch of other things, we lost the Democratic leadership.
Malone: Were you at all tempted to vote for Rep. Tim Ryan when he ran against Pelosi in the leadership, given that his vision was basically what you’ve been saying to me — Democrats to get back to the big-tent philosophy, opening up the party to some people who are pro-gun, pro-life?
Cuellar: Look at Tim Ryan, Ruben Gallego, look at all the folks that are out there — they were basically crying out that the messaging was wrong. And I say that in a good way. They were saying: “Hey, guys, the messaging is wrong. How did we lose veterans? How did we lose women? How did we lose seniors? How did we lose labor guys to Trump?” For six years, I was part of Pelosi’s leadership, I was part of the messaging, and you know, I had my message, but the caucus decides overall, and my voice was not the message that came out. I can tell you a lot of stories. Another is when we were there and they brought a pollster and the pollster kept saying, “We’ve got these Democrats and Republicans on the polling.” And I asked for the independent voters, and he said, “Oh, I don’t count independent voters because they’re all Republicans.” And I’m saying, “What? No wonder we keep losing.” If we don’t target the independent voters, there’s something wrong with this strategy.
Malone: Do you feel perversely vindicated now?
Cuellar: I don’t want to say that. But I would say that some of us … we brought our messaging, but we got out-voted. That’s all I’ve got to say. When you look at the Democratic caucus … it’s a liberal-leaning caucus. All I’m saying is, like I told Steve Israel and Nancy Pelosi and the ranking members when I was there, I said, “Guys, give me all the liberal-leaning seats in the country that we need to take away from Republicans so we can win. That’s what our messaging is targeted at, and if that’s it, then we’re going to be a minority for a long time.” That’s all I got to say.