When Bob Corker was Chattanooga’s mayor a decade ago, his encounters with “foreign powers” mostly were limited to dealings with neighboring towns in Hamilton County.
These days, as the top Republican on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he’s more likely to be found in far-flung corners of the Earth.
The blunt-spoken Chattanoogan has become a globe-trotter since he assumed his role on the Democratic-run committee some 16 months ago. He’s racked up visits to 55 countries, including hot spots such as the Syrian border and Ukraine.
And with his occasional razor-tongued criticisms of President Barack Obama’s foreign policies, Corker’s become the go-to guy for journalists seeking the GOP viewpoint, giving him a national presence in newspapers and on TV news shows.
Just this month he introduced a bill seeking to provide Ukraine with “direct military assistance” in the form of antitank and anti-aircraft weaponry while racheting up sanctions against Russia. Along with the bill, Corker launched a verbal barrage at Obama.
“Rather than react to events as they unfold, which has been the policy of this administration, we need to inflict more direct consequences on Russia prior to Vladimir Putin taking additional steps that will be very difficult to undo,” Corker said.
While Democrat Obama and Corker enjoy cordial relations — more so than Obama has with most congressional Republicans — the president may need to get used to those kinds of criticisms from Tennessee’s junior senator.
“If Republicans do capture a [Senate] majority, [Corker] most likely will become chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations,” said Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a veteran observer of Congress and politics. “He will be a force.”
Ornstein calls Corker a GOP “rising star,” a “serious force” in the Senate, not just on foreign policy but on a number of major issues such as housing finance reform.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Corker “is gaining respect and national attention simply by working hard and being himself.”
“He is a free-enterprise, common-sense businessman who studies the issues and knows what he is talking about. He likes to get results. He is usually in the middle of most things consequential in the United States Senate,” Alexander added.
A columnist for one state newspaper recently urged Corker to run for president in 2016.
There doesn’t seem to be a groundswell for that in Washington, but there’s talk in Nashville that Corker could run for governor in 2018 when his Senate term is up, especially if the GOP fails to retake the Senate and he doesn’t become Foreign Relations chairman.
A grand old time
Right now, Corker, a former construction company owner and developer who served as Tennessee’s finance commissioner from 1995-96 and Chattanooga mayor from 2001 to 2005, appears to be having the time of his political life.
Or at least as much as an ambitious guy in a non-chief executive role can have.
“I’m in a place where I have the tremendous privilege of waking up every day and being involved in the big issues that our nation is dealing with both here but also abroad,” Corker said.
He says being a legislator “generally is a frustrating experience — because you’re not the person setting the vision and creating the agenda,” but he also says he’s “very, very fortunate to be able to play the role I’m playing.”
Corker joined the Foreign Relations Committee when he was elected in 2006 and became the ranking Republican in 2012.
During his first term, Corker earned a reputation for willingness to work across the aisle.
That appears to stem naturally from his business and government service background. As a builder and developer, he was accustomed to dealing with worksite conflicts. As Republican Gov. Don Sundquists’s finance commissioner, he had to deal with a Legislature run by Democrats to get things done. And while the Chattanooga mayor’s office is nonpartisan, he was a Republican in a Democratic-leaning city.
In the Senate, he’s worked to build bridges in bipartisan ways to get things moving. He regularly talks with White House folks, unusual among Republicans.
Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said in a statement that the panel “remains an island of bipartisanship in a sea of partisanship, and Sen. Corker played a critical role in setting that tone.”
“With the Chairman and Ranking Member working together, the Committee passed major pieces of legislation from authorizing military force in Syria to an assistance package for Ukraine,” Menendez added.
Corker describes himself as “very much of a pragmatist” and “realist” on American foreign policy, and said serving on the committee has made up for a “blind spot” in his background.
The senator said he tries to emphasize to Tennesseans the importance of foreign relations in a country that depends on selling goods and services overseas. The U.S. accounts for about 4.5 percent of the world’s population but 22 percent of its domestic product.
American values are “very important” on the world stage, Corker said, “and while we should not be haughty about that, the fact is the world is a better place when you have American leadership. That doesn’t mean we should be the world’s policeman. That does mean we need to show leadership around the world.”
Foreign policy traditionally has tended to be bipartisan, Corker said, and he prefers it that way.
“I try to solve the problem,” he added. “I don’t throw bombs — and I can count, you know. In City High School I learned to count to 60, and I realize the only way to solve a problem [in the Senate] is to pass a bill and to put it into policy.”
Senate rules require 60 votes to break a filibuster.
Corker said he works not to “blindside” the Obama administration with criticisms, giving it a heads up and a chance to argue its point before lambasting it publicly.
This spring, he tore into a State Department official on the administration’s military plans with regard to civil war-torn Syria, accusing her of peddling “major, misleading baloney” when she declined to answer questions about what she said was classified strategy.
The notion the administration even has a military strategy in Syria “could not be further from the truth,” Corker retorted.
Speaking with two Tennessee reporters last week, he accused the administration of “checking out” on crises such as Ukraine and Syria.
“On all of these issues, they cannot wait until January of 2017” when a new president takes office, Corker charged. “It’s a sweep-under-the-rug foreign policy, And I think that’s exacerbating the potential for conflict down the road.”
Shots from home
Loyal home-state Democrats lose no opportunity to slam the senator.
Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron was in the Legislature when Corker was finance commissioner.
“We often went running together before dawn with a group at the YMCA and then during the days we would work together. We shared a faith commitment and a willingness to work in a bipartisan way,” Herron said.
“That’s why I am so disappointed that there is no substantive difference between his voting record and [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell’s,” Herron said.
Despite his “bipartisan rhetoric,” Corker has “voted with McConnell and the tea party Republicans against women … against working people … against health care for working families, against middle-class Tennesseans,” he said.
Corker inflamed many Democrats and the United Auto Workers with his strident stance against unionization at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga factory, which he helped to recruit.
After Corker charged VW would not add a second production line if the workers voted for the UAW, union officials and Democrats accused him and other GOP officials with torpedoing the election.
Massing GOP strength
Republicans think they’re in good position to retake the Senate in midterm elections, and Corker’s doing his part to make it happen, GOP political strategists say.
He held a recent fundraiser for the National Republican Senatorial Committee at his Chattanooga home. This weekend, the senator, who also sits on the Senate Banking Committee, was scheduled to attend another NRSC fundraiser in New York, the nation’s financial capital.
Corker said his first 3 1/2 years in the Senate were heady — he was elbow-deep in major issues including attempts to address the nation’s financial crisis. The remainder of the term, he said, was like “watching paint dry.”
Tom Ingram, Alexander’s former chief of staff who advised Corker in his 2006 race, said Corker “went through a very serious process” of deciding whether to run again. But once that happened, Ingram said, Corker became “fully committed to the Senate and to the job as senator.
Ingram said Corker is “absolutely focused right now on helping the NRSC win the majority.”
A bid for higher office?
Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, said many senators can see themselves as president.
Corker clearly has “done things to make himself potentially viable,” Oppenheimer said, such as his post on Foreign Relations.
The American Enterprise Institute’s Ornstein said that Senate Republicans are almost uniformly conservative, but are generally divided between party loyalists, “purist ideologues” and “problem solvers.”
Corker is mostly in the third group, he said, but GOP’s “center of gravity” these days pulls more toward ideologues like Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah.
“In an earlier era Corker would have been on every short list as a presidential or vice presidential possibility,” Ornstein said. “In this era it’s less likely because of where his party is.”
So does Corker have the presidential bug?
“You haven’t seen me in New Hampshire, You haven’t seen me in Iowa,” he said. “I wake up every day trying to do the best thing I can.”
So is that ruling out a bid?
“We’ll just see what happens down the road,” the senator said. “It’s a total change for your family. It’s a total change in your life.”
Asked about running for governor, Corker reminisced about his time as state finance commissioner.
“I have to tell you I loved it,” he said. “I was able to make things happen with the flick of a pen in so many cases. As mayor, it was being able to push a vision for a city and go deep and give it your all.”
But, the senator said, don’t go saying he wants to run for governor.
“I just don’t game things out like that,” he said. “I just try to do the best job I can on a daily basis.”
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...