Chris Shays was the most prominent in a long-serving cadre of comparatively moderate Connecticut Republicans in Congress, and the last of them to lose his seat – ousted in the Obama wave of 2008. His attempted comeback fell far short last year, when former wrestling CEO Linda McMahon beat him by 50 points in a GOP primary for Joe Lieberman’s Senate seat. In an interview last week, Shays told Salon the Tea Party misunderstands the Constitution, suggested it would be more painful to have a child die in Afghanistan than Iraq, and defended his claim that “Abu Ghraib was not torture.” A condensed version of our conversation follows.
What’s your view of the impact the Tea Party has had?
It’s mixed … There’s a reason why you have a Tea Party, and that is the government is just spending blindly and it’s alarming …
You have a lot of inexperienced people who say they value the Constitution and almost worship it … and that we shouldn’t compromise — and they don’t realize the Constitution was the best example of compromise, and the most extensive use of compromise in the history of our country. And so there is some tremendous irony …
Do you think it was the right move to try to tie policy concessions to raising the debt ceiling?
To tie Obamacare to it was a huge mistake … Tying it to entitlements in general, and reforming entitlements, I think makes sense.
So do you think Republicans should’ve been willing to go past that October deadline without raising the debt ceiling if Obama wasn’t willing to make these entitlement changes?
People, I think, misunderstand the speaker … He supported his caucus in allowing for the shutdown, and I think he knew it would blow up in their face — but that was what most of his caucus wanted. So he said OK. But I think that he was aware that it would become evident that it was a mistake — that therefore would give him the ability to make sure that the debt ceiling vote would take place without criticism from his caucus. So in other words, the thing he wanted most was to make sure that the debt ceiling was raised.
And do you think that was the right approach?
… Sometimes you can tell people something, but other times they’ve just got to experience it … The biggest challenge you have is you have people with no institutional memory and you need a mixture of both [in Congress].
If Boehner had not approached this the way he did, do you think he was at risk of losing his speakership?
I honestly don’t think that was his motivation … .John Boehner is a real patriot, and he is an incredibly capable negotiator. And the sad thing is, the talent of this man his conference isn’t allowing to take place …
By the way, John Boehner likes the president and gets along with him. You know, I heard someone talk derogatory towards the president, and he interrupted him — this is at a fundraiser — and he said, “I have no problem getting along with this president.”
Are you suggesting the speaker was trying to teach the Tea Party members a lesson by going along with this shutdown?
What I believe is that he felt the best way to make sure that the debt ceiling passed, had a vote, was to make sure that he gave ground to them on the shutdown. And that I don’t think any of what happened surprised him in the shutdown …
Almost as we speak, the Senate is expected to approve cloture on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
They should vote it … I asked a Republican who became a senator in the 2010 election … ”How do you like being in the Senate?” He said, “I love it. I can kill anything.” … That’s not democracy.
Should the filibuster be eliminated or changed?
The filibuster should be used only under extreme cases … but on appointments, absolutely not [used].
So should the rules be changed to take away that option?
Oh, absolutely. And if I had gone into the Senate … I would have helped lead an effort to do that ….
On employment non-discrimination. You signed a brief with 130 Republicans –
I co-sponsored that [ENDA] bill almost the day I was elected. I was the chief Republican sponsor of the bill, and it’s a no-brainer: You don’t discriminate against someone based on their sexual orientation.
Were you glad to see transgender protections included in the current version of the bill?
The answer to your question is: I would have liked to [have] seen the bill passed first, and then decide later if that should be in it.
The issue of transgender, there are some — there are some – there are some circumstances where I’m not sure. I haven’t studied the bill recently to know. But there are — so, a man who becomes a woman is now entitled to what? Or a woman who becomes a man …
You know, even with the whole issue of marriage. I was urging the gay community to work incrementally and help educate … When you get to know people who are gay, you’re able to understand, what’s the issue, and you get exposed to it and you adjust to it. And you evolve into moving forward in a very sensible way …
I know, you know, maybe three men who now are women, and that was their orientation. And so I’ve spoken with them, I understand how they feel … So I’ve evolved to a point where I have a comfort level on that issue as well. But there could be a little bit of patience – it would happen in a very constructive way …
If it can pass with transgender, that’s great. But if it’s not going to pass, and then, you know, the transgender community insists it be a part of it and others go along with them, and then you end up with no bill — then I think that it was a mistake to include it.
Social conservatives, are they getting stronger within the party or getting weaker?
Well, I think they are getting weaker … If the pope can say what he said, the Republican Party can be a little bigger tent than it is right now …
The primary in which you ran against Linda McMahon, you had said you had never run against someone that you respected less. What was the lesson of that race?
… I raised $1.9 million, and it was incredibly difficult, and it took so much of my time, and it was not enough to get my story out … She spent $15 million, a good chunk of it in advertising…
And the lesson there is that she was somewhat of a celebrity. I mean, she was on TV and so on, so I mean, I learned a lesson that I didn’t like … You’re asking me, I’m not complaining … What I observed was that Republicans love people who have money. And the good side of this is, well, it shows that they live — in many cases live — the American dream, and they appreciate that. But they didn’t seem to care how her money was made ….
Dirty money beats no money most of the time.
And what you said about “Republicans love people who have money,” is there a policy –
Republicans — and the good part is they respect people that succeed, they live the American dream, they admire it and they want to be just as successful as the person they might have respected. The bad part of it is people with money aren’t necessarily the best candidates. They may not be in touch. I mean, one of the biggest requirements of politicians is to have empathy …
Do you think Chris Christie has that empathetic quality?
I think he does. I wasn’t pleased that … at the convention he didn’t once basically mention Romney — it was about him and not Romney, and he was the invited speaker at the convention … But I think, I think he’s a very astute and capable governor who’s willing to confront people even if in the short run he may suffer the consequences.
In your last House race your opponent – disclosure, my brother worked on that race – argued that you and other moderates … were voting against the leadership when they didn’t really need your vote, but voting with them when they did need your vote. Was that –
What would’ve been helpful was for him to give an example … I voted against my leadership when I thought they were wrong. And the irony to it is, when the Democrats defeated me, they defeated the bridge between the two parties …
I support the war in Iraq, I voted for it, not because my leadership voted for it or wanted it, but because I believed in it … I knew what I felt was the threat.
Now we were wrong about weapons of mass destruction … if I knew that, would I have voted to go in? No .… had I known how poorly we were prepared to fight it — it wasn’t the fighting men and women that I blame, it’s the leadership…I wouldn’t have voted [for it] even if I thought he had weapons of mass destruction.
The statement you made in 2006 that Abu Ghraib was not torture – do you stand by that?
Oh absolutely … in this context: It was sexual torture, done by a renegade group of National Guard reserve units from Maryland. It was – so it was torture in that sense, but it wasn’t the federal government saying we’re going to torture people. You know, we tortured people, but not at Abu Ghraib. Abu Ghraib was a funky runaway sick group of people — I mean, I spent three hours looking at the pictures … You had one American woman who was [doing] basically pornographic pictures with other Americans. You had her requiring Iraqi to have no pants on … You had her with her dogs scaring the shit out of them …
Did we have torture in Iraq? Yes. Was Abu Ghraib, all that sick stuff that was over the Internet, the torture? No ….
So you know, in the end, of course torture — it’s torture. But it’s torture in a different way than I think most people understand torture to be.
And the –
Let me ask you, why are you even asking me that question?
Well, because it’s a – I mean, torture remains a controversial topic, and so does –
Isn’t it interesting that Barack Obama ran on saying, you know, we need to get out of Guantanámo and we need to stop this and that, but when he became president, he realized he better not do that or he’d put American lives at risk. And the press became silent …
And the man who the Associated Press reported died under CIA interrogation – the AP reported that he was “suspended by his wrists,” that his hands were “cuffed behind his back” –
Was that in Abu Ghraib or was that in another place in Iraq?
According to the Associated Press, that was in Abu Ghraib.
Well, that would be torture …
Is waterboarding torture?
I think it’s torture. And I know my brother when he was in the Navy, he had waterboarding done to him. We used to have all our troops who were overseas [in] our Navy … go through that experience …
So I mean, you know, with all due respect, I just want you to recognize the context [in] which I was talking about Abu Ghraib. I was talking about, as I came out of watching pictures of what our soldiers did, and what I viewed … Is that torture? Yes, but not in the context that the press was talking about. It wasn’t to elicit information. It was truly the sexual deviance in this reserve unit that were not being supervised in any significant way. So that’s the context.
Do I believe that what we did to get information about certain acts to break up cells needed to take place? Yes. Are there some things that I may have disapproved in that process? Yes. … Do I think it should be regulated? Yes. Do I think people should be held accountable when they go too far? Yes.
Do I think there are one or two people that we needed to do whatever we needed and save lives? Without question.
And when you say “whatever we needed,” does that include things that you’d consider torture?
You know, I think I answered my question. Did you see the movie to get Saddam Hussein? Did you see that movie?
The movie to get – not Saddam Hussein, but Osama bin Laden … Basically as uncomfortable as some may be with that, I believe what took place there had to happen.
It sounds like what you’re saying is that there are some people that the government should torture.
The torture that they did, yes. Pulling out their fingernails, cutting off their hands, no. What they did there I understood …
And to make sure –
This is really important to me, and you seem to be asking me something that — I don’t even know what you’re asking me. I’m no longer in office. I mean, you know, and I don’t intend to run again. So I don’t — I don’t know why you’re focused on this issue. Is this just an intellectual dialogue …
I want to make sure that I understand exactly what you’re saying –
But why — but why – what’s the point … I’m having an intellectual conversation with you … I don’t understand why you even care. I’m not in office. What’s your point?
Well, I think it’s – you know, all of these issues are issues that continue to be –
No … But the way you write it matters to me.
Yeah, it’s –
No, listen. Should we torture people? I’m telling you what I was not uncomfortable with, when — I was uncomfortable, but I thought needed to happen. Now “Zero Dark Thirty,” I thought what I saw there, as painful as this was to watch, I thought had merit…
Do I think what happened in “Zero Dark Thirty” needed to happen? I think it did. And do I think that – was I uncomfortable watching it? Yes. But that defines what I – what I felt needed to happen. There are some things that I don’t …
To make sure I heard you correctly on waterboarding … it is torture but it’s also something that our own soldiers have been subjected to?
I can see it being used in rare circumstances, yes.
So do I think there needs to be tremendous oversight? Yes …
Does President Obama believe that torture should be allowed, waterboarding and other things? I think he does. Because he’s allowed it to happen for some of his time in office. And so I’m probably in the company of our own president …
But do I think we should be in Afghanistan? No, unlike the president, I think we should have gotten out a long time ago. Do I think Afghanistan was a “good war”? I never thought it was a good war …
Did you vote to authorize it?
… Yes, I voted to allow our troops to go find Osama bin Laden … I felt we had far more at stake in Iraq than we ever had in Afghanistan …
[While in Congress] I had clearly evolved to a point that I thought we had been there too long and we needed to leave … I thought, you’re talking a nation with 15 per cent literacy … so 85 percent deal in rumor, and they have an ancient view of life. They never had the industrial age …
I can understand a parent just being heartbroken if they lost a child in Iraq. But I think they would be bitter at losing a child in Afghanistan.
Do you need anything else?
No, I think that covers it.
And by the way: You called me, I didn’t call you. Sometimes I read stories that somehow I injected myself …
I do observe things, and I had tremendous experience. I went to the Middle East and Afghanistan … Terrorism has been my focus since 1998 … I lost 72 people in 9/11 and they all said to me, “Why didn’t you tell me about the fact that the twin towers was a target?” … I’ve seen weapons made by our own scientists, using basic materials you can buy at Home Depot, and without enriched uranium but they had every element of an atomic bomb, a nuclear weapon … If the terrorists get ahold of plutonium, they can have a nuclear explosion. Particularly if they don’t care if they blow up with it. And the stakes are high, and I fear that some Americans have no concept, no sense of how significant they are.