This Popular (and Cool) Lawmaker Explains How to Talk About Conservatism With Next Generation

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“Young people are looking for a deeper conversation than just red-meat talking points,” says Rep. Dan Crenshaw in an exclusive interview with The Daily Signal. The popular Texas Republican, who was elected to the House in 2018, has already made waves, appearing on “Saturday Night Live” last fall. “There is a generational gap … and I’m trying to close that gap,” says Crenshaw, a veteran. 

Rob Bluey: We’re joined at The Daily Signal by Congressman Dan Crenshaw of Texas.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw: How you doing?

Bluey: Congressman, good to be with you.

Crenshaw: Great to be with you guys.

Bluey: I want to begin by just asking you what it’s been like to serve in Congress these past few months? Obviously, a lot of news coming out of Washington. What’s it like to be a freshman coming to the House?

Crenshaw: It’s a little bit like combat, just with less honesty. That’s what it’s like. I didn’t come into this naïve, I didn’t come into this with any idealistic expectations. I know how Congress is supposed to work and it’s supposed to be somewhat dysfunctional. It’s not supposed to be easy to get representatives from 50 different states to come together and agree on really substantive issues. 

It never has been easy, but it is divisive. There’s a lot of games being played, a lot of virtue-signaling happening that I think is unfortunate, and just really gets in the way of …

It’s fine if we don’t agree and we don’t get things done, but let’s at least have a real debate about those things, and that’s what’s lacking, unfortunately. It doesn’t appear to happen in committee. Most of the bills that we’ve seen come to the floor don’t really go through any kind of committee … they don’t really go through a debate in any real way that normal Americans would think it would.

And it’s unfortunate because the result is really nothing gets done. You’re seeing bills come out of the House that have no chance of getting through the Senate, and they know that, so what’s the point? 

A lot of Democrats ran saying that they wanted to run to get things done and they don’t care about party, and you hear that kind of rhetoric all the time from the more moderate Democrats, but, in practice, it turns out not to be true at all. They have no intention of working with us.

Bluey: You have such a remarkable story in your own life. Tell us why you chose to run for Congress.

Crenshaw: Well, I never wanted to leave the military, so I got to back up a few steps to help people understand how this came to be. I was wounded in 2012 and I ended up leaving the military in 2016, so for those four years, I was fighting the Defense Department pretty hard to not leave. I wanted a medical waiver, I wanted to keep deploying, and I did go overseas a couple more times, actually, back to the Middle East and in Korea.

Eventually, I just had to be medically retired, late 2016, and I wanted to stay in public service. And I went to the Harvard Kennedy School, I did my masters there, with an eye, so to speak, on some kind of public service, probably national security related, and I almost went that direction. And then Ted Poe, Congressman Ted Poe announced retirement in my district and we just decided overnight to go for it. 

Because in the end, it’s about impact. How many different policies can you impact? You can go into the policy world, per se, but you’re very narrowly focused on something if you’re doing that and a lot of people, that’s what they want to do. I cared about a lot of different issues and I wanted to make an impact on all those issues, and in order to make that impact, you need to be in public office. You need to be an elected official.

So we went for it, and we knew why we were running. I was running because I wanted to give conservatives a future, because I worry about that quite a bit, especially with our generation, and that was the message we told people and it worked.

Bluey: Let’s talk about some of those issues that you want to have an impact on. Obviously, being from Texas, immigration is a big issue. I know you’ve talked about spending and health care. If you could pick three of the top issues that you’re really focused on in Congress, what are your priorities?

Crenshaw: My priorities campaigning have remained the same. It’s flooding issues in Houston, so these are not national issues, necessarily, but this is a very big issue for Houston. What does that translate into, in a more national conversation? It’s infrastructure, it’s maybe the way we do disaster relief funding, so these are not really partisan issues, luckily. 

If there was just one thing that Democrats and Republicans generally agree on, it’s we want to streamline that system and build out our infrastructure to be better prepared for natural disasters and there’s some very specific things in Houston that we need to do, so that’s a big focus.

Border security’s a huge focus. That was something we ran on, of course. The Rio Grande Valley in Texas is the No. 1 crossing area for illegal immigrants right now, and it’s only getting worse. 

On the southern border, we’re seeing 3,000 illegal crossings a day. Those are just the apprehensions, by the way, and Border Patrol generally estimates that they maybe catch 1 in 3, so you can triple that number. And this is crisis-level numbers. We can’t possibly sustain this.

This is fundamentally about whether it’s fair to cut in front of the line. And I think that’s how conservatives need to make this argument. I think we’ve been making the argument in a very poor way for the last couple years and I think that’s why we’ve effectively lost this debate, unfortunately. 

Our argument needs to be this. This is unsustainable, we can’t afford it, we can’t absorb this many people at one time, we can’t afford it in our school systems, our hospitals, or our court and law enforcement costs, and it’s not fair.

It’s not moral to legal immigrants. We should want to have legal immigrants. And if we want to have a conversation about even raising quotas for legal immigration, let’s have that debate. That’s a fair debate to have, it usually is, and there’s a lot of good arguments to suggest we need better skilled workers coming into this country in the medium and high school ranges. 

But instead of having those debates, we have Democrats that simply want … I mean, at this point, cynically, I have to suggest that they simply want people coming across. Because every argument they give me only leads to that conclusion.

I didn’t always believe that, but after seeing this debate play out, I unfortunately do. So we’ve got to get a handle on our immigration system, and that includes physical infrastructure, it includes reforming our asylum process and how we go through that. That would have an immediate effect. We need to implement that as soon as possible.

Aside from those two issues, I’m on the Budget Committee, so I’m concerned greatly about the debt and what causes that debt. The debates that happen in Congress right now are … It would surprise most people here and all of your viewers, but we actually debate what causes the debt. 

So Democrats think it’s tax cuts, we think it’s spending. And I think we have all the numbers on our side to suggest that it’s mandatory spending that truly drives the debt, and it’s health care costs and Social Security and whatnot because it’s 70% of our spending.

They think that history began two years ago and that the tax cuts created a giant debt, which is just fundamentally false, on a mathematical level and a conceptual level, but that’s the debate we have, so that’s what we’re fighting out.

Bluey: Thank you for fighting on those issues. I want to go back to immigration for a moment, because you told a story recently on Sebastian Gorka’s radio program about an 18-year-old woman who came to you and I was hoping that you could share that experience with our listeners because it profoundly impacted me, in terms of the way I think about it, and I’m not sure that people necessarily recognize the scope of the problem. Can you share that?

Crenshaw: Before I tell that story, let’s give everybody the framework of how to understand that story and it is this: Our immigration system incentivizes you to bring a child across. If you don’t bring a child across, if you’re a single adult, there’s a good chance we can quickly adjudicate you and deport you. Our system works OK for single adults.

It doesn’t work OK when you have a child with you. Our system breaks down at that point, that’s where catch and release happens. This truth catches on, eventually, and everybody realizes that they should bring children across. OK, what if you don’t have an actual child? Well, then they find a child. OK, so now it results in child trafficking and Border Patrol will see the same kids recycled with different adults on the border all the time.

And again, it goes back to also that it’s fundamentally immoral and unfair to be able to use this loophole to cut in front of the line, but it incentivizes child trafficking in pretty terrible ways and who are they paying? It’s the drug cartels. They have operational control of the border.

So that’s the framework. And so this particular woman, she was saved by a nonprofit organization that does sting operations and works with law enforcement and actually saves these kids all around the world. It’s really incredible what they do. And they brought her in to tell her story and she was 18, but she was brought to the United States when she was 13. 

She was told by these traffickers that they would give her a better life, make her a princess in the United States. She didn’t have a great home life in Mexico and they get her across on their third try. Because the first two times, they were turned back. Third time, as she talks about it, they could just walk her across.

And again, a wall seems so simplistic and so medieval, as the Democrats like to say, but it does work. If there’s a wall there, you won’t just walk across and maybe you’ll go where there’s no wall, but you’ll get caught by Border Patrol and they can at least distinguish—because they have methods of doing this—”OK, are you really a parent or are you not?” And they will separate them if they believe that they’re being trafficked.

But when there’s nothing there, traffickers can just walk these children across and then they send her to New York. And for five years, she was basically raped, every single day, as a slave. 

Eventually, she was able to devise a plan to escape and put those traffickers in jail. And I think that case is ongoing, but it’s just heartbreaking to hear that and what the people of good intentions don’t want to believe is that our system incentivizes it. Their good intentions directly incentivize this terrible, terrible behavior and it’s the saddest story you could imagine.

Bluey: It is a tragic story and I thank you for sharing it with us, though, so we can better understand the consequences of what’s going on. 

You spoke earlier about the importance of the future of conservatism and you yourself have been able to serve as an inspiration for a lot of young people.

You have prolific social media accounts and your message spreads virally in many different ways. What is it about that that you think has caught on, particularly with younger people?

Crenshaw: Young people are looking for a deeper conversation than just red-meat talking points. That should be very obvious. They want to know why you believe what you believe and I think too many conservatives have gotten too comfortable just spewing the talking points. “Limited government and constitutionalism.” Great. What does that mean? Where did it come from?

Young people are hungry to hear that and so I like to talk about the cultural narratives that lead to the constitutional principles that we had and young people are willing to hear that. 

They want to feel like they’re informed, they want to feel like they’re getting a little bit more information than the usual talking points. They want to be independent-minded and they’ll say this often, right? Most young people still identify as independents and they have their mantras of fiscally conservative, socially liberal.

That’s what they’re comfortable in right now, which gives us an opening. It gives us an opening to talk to them and we just have to do it. And we have to do it in their language, also. 

So there is a generational gap, I think, and I’m trying to close that gap. And so it’s easy for me to talk to people in their 20s, because I’m close to their age, I grew up with them. 

It’s not a lot more complicated than just engaging and going to college campuses and high schools and simply engaging and helping people understand why you came to believe what you believe. That is huge because then maybe they’ll find something they can relate with, so it’s telling a story.

Bluey: And one of the ways that you did engage and relate to people was through “Saturday Night Live,” of course. 

“Saturday Night Live,” for those who might not know, while I’m sure many do, poked fun of you in an episode, and then a week later, you chose to show up and go on. Take us back to that moment and why you decided to do it the way you did.

Crenshaw: It was a perfect opportunity because they went far enough to make everybody outraged, but … it was also clear that it was a bit of a misstep. 

So we can have space for those missteps and that’s where we get confused sometimes in the public debate because I’ll get slammed, because I’ll criticize somebody, and they’ll say, “I thought you were forgiving.” I’m like, “Well, no, they meant it.” Yeah, I still criticize words. What I don’t do is criticize the intent or character of somebody and that’s the place we need to get to.

And it was not clear that they truly wanted to attack my character. Maybe you could argue they did, but they did call us gross people and then list us, but was I really offended by it, was the question. Is it even possible for me to be offended? You should hear the kind of jokes that we tell on the SEAL teams, … these go far beyond any normal sense of humor. We have very thick skin.

I just wanted to take that moment to say, “We don’t always have to be offended.” We can say it was wrong or we can say you shouldn’t have said that, it wasn’t even funny, but I don’t have to be outraged, I don’t have to be a victim. And that was the place I was trying to get to and it just ended up being a lot of fun. 

And it gets to another way to reach people and this is the more shallow … So I gave you the deeper answer before, and the more shallow answer is it’d just be fun and cool. That’s it. Then you will reach a lot of people that way. If they can see something of themselves in you, then they might want to hear some of the deeper ideas that you have.

We forget about how important that is, to engage in pop culture.

Bluey: Absolutely, it’s so important. I want to ask you, finally, you yourself have certainly gained a lot of attention as a Republican member of Congress, but there are those on the other side of the aisle who have gained a lot of attention as well—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar. What’s it like to be in that class, with some of these other people, who almost on a daily basis it seems are front and center in the headlines?

Crenshaw: At first it was sort of funny. Now it’s getting worse. It’s just the truth, it’s becoming more divisive, as they seem to get angrier and angrier and angrier and almost everything that comes out of their mouth is really taking shots at somebody, oftentimes me. 

So I’m not sure where to go from there. It’s just getting to this point where I think, try to ignore them as much as possible, unless they’re saying something that I think truly needs to be addressed. But what’s it like? Geez. It’s interesting.

A lot of this plays out in the public sphere. It doesn’t really play out behind closed doors. Again, we don’t really get to debate each other on the House floor or in a committee. Even if we’re in the same committee, and Omar and I are on the Budget Committee, but during a hearing, she’ll only show up when she’s asking questions. And vice versa. All of us are coming in and out. There is not this debate that happens. You almost wish there was, and maybe a lot of people think there is, but very often there isn’t, and people need to understand that.

You’re more debating the people giving a witness testimony. So the only time that we actually interact is on social media because there isn’t another opportunity to really do it. And this is a debate of ideas. 

People can be upset about that, but it’s kind of our job, to go up there and publicly debate ideas and do your best not to do ad hominem attacks. And I never have. We get ad hominem attacks all the time because what’s the single line if they disagree with you? You’re a racist, bigot, homophobe, right?

And that’s the wrong way to debate, and I think that undermines their argument in the long run and we just have to keep debating ideas, telling people why we have the right ideas, and stand strong on that.

Bluey: Thank you for keeping the focus on ideas. Thanks for also sharing the insider’s perspective, as a new member of Congress. We appreciate your being with The Daily Signal.

Crenshaw: Thank you. Great to be with you.

Bluey: Congressman Dan Crenshaw, everyone. Thank you very much.