The 2018 Texas Tribune Festival

John Kerry hails 2018 midterms as “greatest course-correction moment we’ve had in years”

We kicked off the 2018 Texas Tribune Festival with an interview of the former secretary of state. Kerry answered questions about foreign policy, the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, 2020 and more.

Tribune CEO Evan Smith interviews former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at The Texas Tribune Festival in Austin, Texas on Sept. 27, 2018.
The 2018 Texas Tribune Festival

More than 300 leading figures in politics, public policy and journalism are joining thousands of Texans at The 2018 Texas Tribune Festival to discuss big-picture solutions to pressing policy issues. 

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Former Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday exhorted U.S. citizens to patch up their ailing democracy — including through involvement in the 2018 midterm elections, which he said was an opportunity for voters to quell the forward march of a Republican-dominated federal government that has made many “angry.”

“We have the greatest course-correction moment we’ve had in years available to us in about 40 days,” Kerry said Thursday evening during the opening keynote of the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin.

And he nodded to one of the most-watched races in that midterm: Texas’ U.S. Senate race. “And there’s a guy running whose name begins with a ‘B.’”

In a wide-ranging conversation with Tribune CEO Evan Smith, Kerry lamented a system of divisive partisan politics while launching a series of jabs at President Donald Trump. And Kerry, a Democrat who in 2004 lost a tight presidential election by one state, Ohio, did not rule out running against Trump in 2020.

He pointed to a decline in voter turnout for presidential elections — just 54.2 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in 2016, he said, down from 58 percent in 2012 and 62.3 percent in 2008 — and called on those frustrated with the current system to work to change it in November and beyond.

“No one should be talking about 2020. Everyone should be talking about 2018,” Kerry said. “And no, I’m not thinking about it right now. I have too much work to do.”

Kerry had harsh words for the current administration, which he has often found himself at odds with — including in a recent scuffle over the Iran Nuclear Deal, which Kerry helped craft during President Barack Obama's administration and which Trump has abandoned. Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have criticized Kerry for meeting with Iranian leaders after leaving his State Department post. Kerry dismissed those criticisms, saying he did nothing inappropriate. World leaders know to wait out the Trump administration, he said.

In particular, Kerry excoriated the administration’s handling of the confirmation process for U.S. Supreme Court pick Brett Kavanaugh, whose nomination is set for a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee Friday morning after a highly contentious, highly emotional hearing Thursday over sexual assault allegations against the longtime federal judge.

“That was sad. That was really sad,” Kerry said of Thursday’s testimony. He complained that senators have not heard important testimony from key witnesses, including Mark Judge, Kavanaugh’s high school friend and an alleged witness of the incident. “That’s a disgrace,” Kerry said. “It’s wrong. It’s just wrong.” And it is “a product of the dysfunctionality of everything else in Washington.”

The longtime statesman identified two major flaws in the current political system: an influx of influential cash from special-interest groups and a set of political maps that disenfranchise some voters.

"There is far, far too much money in American politics, and it's distorting the system," Kerry said. And "we cannot even have a legitimate, democratic general election in the U.S. because of gerrymandering."

Gerrymandering wasn’t the only voting rights problem that Kerry cited. One political party, he said, “actively works to keep people from being able to vote.”

But the decorated war veteran also showed a lighter side, throwing out barbs at the president “who got five deferments for bone spurs.”

"When [Trump] says ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,’ he means three different things," Kerry joked. "This is a president who called himself a stable genius the other day — which means [special counsel Robert Mueller] has him on two counts of perjury."