Coons trajectory: From boring to ‘reassuringly normal’
During Chris Coons' first years as one of Delaware's two U.S. senators, he rarely found himself in front of television cameras. Now you can hardly turn on a news program without seeing his face.
So what changed Coons' trajectory?
During a recent visit to the Cape Gazette office, Coons reflected on why he's gone from almost no television appearances to four or five each week.
"It doesn't hurt that my office in the Russell Senate Office Building is up just two flights from the rotunda where the news teams often gather to interview senators. And I've adjusted my schedule to be available between that 6 and 7 news slot. Basically, I'm more accessible," he said.
Other than that, Coons hasn't changed his style. He continues to be the classic, well-vetted, successful Delaware politician who stays near the center and keeps both his left and right ears engaged.
What's changed is the Tweet- and partisan-dominated rhetoric of Trump's Washington, D.C., where news is constantly whipsawed by voices further out on the right- and left-wing spectrums.
"It used to be they would call me for weekend programs. Then they would cancel. Then they would call again, and then they would cancel. It happened a few more times, and I asked one of my communications guys why. He told me they would come back and say they found someone who was willing to throw a punch. They thought I was boring."
Now, in punch-crazy Washington, Coons said compared to colleagues in his own party, he's not hyperventilating over the Trump phenomenon. Remember, Coons first won his U.S. Senate seat in a race against Republican candidate Christine O'Donnell of Tea Party - and 'I am not a witch' - fame. As an outspoken outlier, like Trump, O'Donnell beat U.S. Congressman and former Gov. Mike Castle in one of the great political upsets in Delaware history.
"I'm careful with what I say. I use terms like 'alleged' and 'early reports are.' I've gone from being boring to being reassuringly normal. I think we've seen our nation's system is holding strong; our courts are working. Now I'm on Fox and MSNBC a lot and on CNN every week. I think they see me as a voice of reason, in the middle ground. Somewhere between not saying anything about the president, and rushing to impeach him."
Coons' staff gives him a written survey of all calls and comments that come into his office each week. "There's a small but genuinely freaked-out group that are alarmed about the president, and there's another sector that are die-hard supporters of Donald Trump. But the greatest majority by far are in the middle. Their general tone is, 'What's going on with this guy?'"
Coons said his conservative constituents usually start their comments by saying they disagree with him because he's a Democrat. "But then they tell me they like what I say about veterans and law enforcement, and they like that I'm open to working across the aisle to get things done." When he talks about some of his concerns about Obamacare - the Affordable Care Act - Coons said he often gets funny looks from conservative constituents and Republican colleagues like, 'Hey, I thought you were supposed to be a Democrat.'
"But affordability for small business owners is a real problem," he said. "Rates are going up too quickly. The whole act didn't get baked - it's not done. It's big, complex and difficult. It's done some great things, but it's not affordable and sustainable in its present form."
Coons said he met with Vice President Mike Pence recently and let him know there were Democrats who have ideas about ways to fix the problems and were willing to help.
What's the last problem, the most nagging problem, that stays with Coons before he falls asleep at night? He held up his cellphone. "It's the crap on Facebook and Twitter. This has changed our lives.
"It makes it harder to hear, trust and compromise. And often it's the last thing I look at before I go to sleep. It's allowing the venting of the most destructive attitudes; it keeps us from sitting with people. It's creating an inability to listen to each other."
Coons said Russian hackers are using a KGB doctrine of influencing societies by finding political divides and then working to widen them. "That's a further degradation of a common purpose rooted in common values. It's dangerous for confidence in news to be undermined, but our intelligence briefings tell us that's what the Russians are doing." Information, or disinformation, that comes to cellphones via Facebook and Twitter furthers those societal divides. That's why he said he was pleased with a recent 97-2 bipartisan vote in the U.S. Senate to place further sanctions on the Russians.