This is the second part of a two-part interview with former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, who Split Ticket got the chance to interview. Kander was also the Democratic Party’s nominee for the Missouri Senate election in 2016 and came within two points of defeating incumbent Republican Roy Blunt. In the second part of this interview series, published below, he discusses his thoughts on electability, politics, and veterans’ affairs.
Kander recently published a book titled Invisible Storm, and we reference it in this interview series. You can find the link to the book here. You can find part one of our interview series here
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Split Ticket: Playing off the point about the Senate becoming unrepresentative in a sense and needing reform: we’ve seen the Senate actually experience a decline in appeal to ordinary politicians as well, and now a lot of them don’t want to do it. You’re away from your family for a long time, most bills don’t really pass if you don’t have unified control of government, and you’re often just a rubber stamp vote for judicial nominations. And so we’ve seen top recruits like Chris Sununu and Josh Shapiro refusing to run for the Senate and going for governor instead. So I wanted to ask you: why did you choose to run for Senate and not for governor in 2016?
Jason Kander: A couple of reasons. When I looked at the practical stuff, I had a good friend who was already running for governor. So I never really even considered it. So it’s not like I made a choice between the two, right? For me, the choice was really to either run for reelection as Secretary of State or run for the US Senate.
Ultimately, I had an overwhelmingly Republican state legislature I was dealing with. So I spent the first few years as Secretary of State getting some cool stuff done, like online voter registration — things I was very proud of. And I felt like I spent the second two years of my term defending that stuff and keeping the Republican legislature from undoing it. And it just wasn’t very appealing to me to get reelected just to try and defend, and to still spend my career playing defense.
At that time, it looked like we were going to have a Clinton presidency. And it looked like my election could possibly be the one that gave us the majority in the Senate, so it could have given me the ability to go on offense with making change. That was appealing to me. However, to your point [about why the Senate might not be exceptionally appealing], I’m not currently interested in running for the US Senate. I’m not currently interested in running for anything. But if you could wave a magic wand tomorrow and make me a senator, I would decline.
That’s not because being a senator is necessarily a crappy job (although I don’t think it’s a super great job or anything). I think it’s better than a lot of jobs. But it’s not better than the job I have [at Veterans’ Community Project, or VCP for short], where I don’t ever have a question about whether I’m making a difference. I like that. And I think that there’s a lot of people who are interested in making their country and community a better place who, at this moment, are choosing to do that outside of electoral politics, and outside of running for office.
Sometimes, those are people who are entrepreneurs. Sometimes, they’re in the nonprofit space. Sometimes, it’s in community organizing. And I think our country goes through periods of this, and given the nature of our politics right now, it’s not surprising that we’re in a period like that.
Split Ticket: So I guess it’s fair to say, from what you’re saying, that you believe you’re doing much more now with VCP than you ever could have in the US Senate?
Jason Kander: There’s no question in my mind that I’ve made a greater positive impact on the world out of office than in office. That’s not to say that I think that you can’t make a difference in office. It’s just my individual experience. In the last four years, I think I’ve affected more people’s lives in a positive way than I did in the eight years prior, when I was serving in office [as a State Representative and then as Secretary of State]. That doesn’t leave me with much of an incentive to try to return to elected office.
Split Ticket: On the topic of not returning to office: When Joe Biden became president, there was a lot of speculation about you possibly being the VA nominee, and I even heard a rumor that they might have offered it to you. But for one reason or another, nobody seems interested in taking that job, as if it’s some sort of political graveyard of bureaucracy. Why does it seem like such a poison pill politically, especially considering how many people it serves?
Jason Kander: Well, I get my medical care at the VA. The people who work at the VA are great — they’re all working really hard, and they take a lot of pride in what they do. The way that Washington treats veterans issues, makes it very difficult for the VA to make the difference that it should be able to make.
Now, I don’t know if this is why people would turn down the job. It would have had nothing to do with any interest or lack of interest for me — my position is that I like my life the way it is right now, and without speaking to any individual cabinet position, my wife and I just made the determination that this was not a treadmill that we wanted to get back on right now. But with regard to other people, all I can say is that Congress has asked the veterans issue question the wrong way, and they’ve been doing it for decades.
The way Congress looks at veterans issues is that they make the number one concern to be preventing veterans who don’t deserve it from getting any benefits, including health care. The problem with that is that there are no veterans who don’t deserve it. There is an assumption that if you do something wrong and open the site aperture too widely, people will take advantage of the system. But what does that even mean? We already have a Chutes and Ladders-esque system in some cases, where some people either get bounced out or don’t even get in the door, despite the fact that they served
We have crafted for ourselves a system where if you are a civilian who commits felony murder, you still get Medicare upon turning 65 — which you should. But if you are a combat veteran who got a couple of DUIs in between each of your three combat deployments because you were self medicating, you then got yourself a dishonorable discharge (probably unfairly), and you’ll never have access to the VA. That’s stupid, and it’s because, as we’ve seen this week, Congress — particularly Republicans, but in general, both sides, over the course of many years — is always able to find money for wars, but becomes extremely frugal when it comes time to actually taking care of the people who fought those wars.
And look, I’m not speaking for myself. But in general, I think that makes the job that the VA does very hard. I’m not just talking about the cabinet position — I’m talking about clinicians. therapists, benefits specialists…it makes their job harder, because they went to work there out of a desire to serve veterans. And they’ve got members of Congress constantly trying to create all sorts of different hoops for people to jump through, which makes it very difficult to do that job.
Split Ticket: Yes. The burn pit bill being blocked this week was probably one of the most disgraceful things I’ve seen in my time following politics. I was furious at it.
Jason Kander: The Burn Pit bill being blocked is a classic example of how a lot of politicians — in this case, Republican ones — think that veterans are a thing you can put on your website, and that’s it.
There was a bill a few years ago called the Fallen Heroes Act. This act was meant to give a flag flown over the Capitol to the families of service members who had been killed in combat. The f**king audacity that it takes to name a bill that gives people a flag the Fallen Heroes Act is exactly how you ended up with a group of people who are willing to screw over veterans with something like recanting on the Burn Pit bill.
And the thing is that a lot of the time, you have a lot of well-meaning members of Congress who really do want to do good things for veterans. But look, we’ve created such a byzantine system, to the point where I’ve been working in the veterans’ space for three years now and I’m still learning new things every day. And that doesn’t mean that we should have every member of Congress work full-time on veterans’ issues; it just means that we need to make the system a whole lot simpler.
Split Ticket: Yes. Both political parties actively solicit the vote of veterans, and try to run as many of them as they can for office. But it does seem like they’re increasingly treating this as a commodity to gain votes.
Jason Kander: Look, man. Jon Stewart said the other day that as soon as they start calling you a hero, it means they’re okay with letting you die. And that’s pretty sad, but it kind of hits home.
Split Ticket: You frequently mention the issues veterans, including yourself, face with PTSD and mental health in your book. Interestingly, The Atlantic profile on you also has a quote saying there are things in Invisible Storm that “could be thrown back at you for years” if you ever ran again.
Somehow, this reminds me of Thomas Eagleton in 1972, who was forced to abandon his position as VP nominee when his struggles with depression were revealed. Is mental health still as heavily stigmatized among politicians in the public, and does this prevent them from discussing it, especially when running?
Jason Kander: Well, yes. Political campaigns are infomercials. The point of a campaign is to present a candidate as a finished product. Any politician is concerned about showing any weakness, and mental health issues aren’t a weakness, but they can definitely be portrayed as one. If Donald Trump is the nominee in 2024, and he’s running against someone who has had any mental health problems in the past, do you think he’s going to not mention it? He’ll probably make that part of their nickname!
So when I said that there are things in that book that can be used against me, I mean, yes — I’ve got my PTSD in a place where I don’t think there’s any job I can’t do. But that doesn’t mean that somebody who runs against me won’t take excerpts from the portions of my book before I got treatment and try to use them against me.
But the reason I’m so adamant about always saying, “Yeah. I can run for President. Yes, maybe I will one day. Yeah, I think I’d be really good at it” is not because I’m trying to preserve the opportunity of being able to run for President. I don’t think I need to do anything to preserve that opportunity if it’s something I choose to do.
I do that because there are people who read my words and then interview someone with PTSD for a job. And I want to be clear that they can do that job. And if I don’t go out there and vocally say “Yeah, I have PTSD, and I don’t think that’d stop me from being a good president”, then aren’t I sending the signal that there are some jobs that people with PTSD can’t do? I would be, and I don’t want to do that.
Split Ticket: Last question I had for you: In 2016, you outran Hillary Clinton by 16 points. This is a separation we haven’t seen for a non-incumbent in a long, long time. How did you go about achieving that, especially considering Clinton’s campaign was borderline toxic in Missouri?
Jason Kander: Well, mainly by not trying too hard. I outran the top of the ticket substantially in 2012 as well, despite being an avowed supporter of President Obama. In 2016, I was co-chair of Millennials for Hillary. I didn’t try to hide the ball — I just got points from people for communicating in a way that resonated and was genuine.
Look, I am somebody who admires Hillary Clinton a lot, so I don’t want this to come across as a criticism. But I think there’s a real misunderstanding from us as a party right now on what it takes to win voters in the South and the Midwest. A lot of people think the solution is to move to the middle and to moderate, and then there’s a lot of people who think that the way to go is to be unabashedly progressive. I think that’s missing the point.
The average, middle-of-the-road voter in the South or Midwest does not see any distinction between Joe Manchin and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. For them, they’re both Democrats. The reason they don’t see any distinction is because the average voter is not watching cable news every day. What they’re doing is engaging with a few weeks to go before the election, and they’re deciding who they think is telling them the truth about what they believe. And if they decide you’re telling the truth about what you believe, they’ll then decide whether you believe what you do because you care about them.
They don’t even necessarily need you to believe the same things as them. They just want to know that you’re thinking about them. A few weeks before the election, President Obama issued guidance regarding bathrooms in school for transgender individuals. Everybody observing the race thought “Kander now has to break hard with Obama. There’s no way he can endorse this policy in Missouri”.
I didn’t do that. When asked about it, what I said was “I don’t see why anybody would want to discriminate against other people’s kids. I have no interest in that.” I took the exact same thing President Obama said, but I said it in a way that somebody would say it where I’m from.
That’s the thing. I got famous for the gun ad, and people thought that the gun ad was me somehow throwing an olive branch to pro-gun voters. It wasn’t — it was a full throated argument for gun control. But it was a cultural message, and that message was “Hey. You and I don’t agree. But you can see how I reached my conclusion, and by the way, we would get along fine. I could show up at your neighborhood, and I could drink beer with you and your buddies, and whenever I left, you’d be like ‘that guy is alright’. And that’s what most of politics is when it comes to winning over persuadable voters.”
Split Ticket: Yeah, perhaps that explains why John Fetterman is doing so well in the polls against Mehmet Oz.
Jason Kander: There’s two things about this. One is something you’ve got to acknowledge, which is that I’m a white man. There’s not a lot of examples of people of color getting to employ the same strategy — and that’s not fair, but it is the case. It’s easy to relate and seem relatable when people look at you and can see themselves. And who are most of the voters that we need to persuade? Mostly white men. So yes, being a white man is a pretty big advantage, and I don’t want to dismiss this.
But the other part of it — President Obama is not a white man. But he won over a lot of white voters who likely disagree with him. And he didn’t make people uncomfortable by seeming like he wasn’t comfortable with who he was.
Anytime a politician is taking a position because they think that position will help them win over voters, it’s just acting. And if politicians were good actors, they’d be actors instead of politicians. Instead, they’re just bad actors. Americans don’t see a lot of bad actors — they see good actors on television and in movies, and when you see bad acting, it makes you deeply uncomfortable.
So at the end of the day, when someone is acting, when they take a position that they don’t believe, it’s off-putting. That’s why the answer is never to adopt positions you don’t believe, whether it’s more progressive or less progressive. If you’re out there saying things you don’t believe in, it will hurt you.
Split Ticket: Yes. I remember Josh Hawley’s favorables actually plunged after his actions at the US Capitol. A lot of Americans realized what that was: a Stanford-educated elite pretending he believed in something he really didn’t believe in.
Jason Kander: Yeah…uh, Josh Hawley is like if you watched The Office and Michael Scott was never funny. It’s just cringe without the laughs, because it’s just a dude trying as hard as he can to be something he’s not. At least when Steve Carrell did it, it was funny.
I’m a software engineer and a computer scientist (UC Berkeley class of 2019 BA, class of 2020 MS) who has an interest in machine learning, politics, and electoral data. I’m a partner at Split Ticket, handle our Senate races, and make many kinds of electoral models.