As a construction contractor, Chattanooga mayor and U.S. senator, Bob Corker said he tried to be a leader more than a follower and sometimes broke with the orthodoxy of his party, including his well-publicized split with former President Donald Trump.
But on the question of America's next president, Corker said Thursday he is following what most Americans say about their concerns over the leading candidates in both parties.
"I always liked to go my own way, but on this, I am following the vast majority of Americans who think the people of our nation deserve better than a second term by this president or our former president," Corker told the Chattanooga Rotary Club, which applauded his message.
Corker delivered some of his strongest and earliest criticism of Trump in a 2017 speech to the same Rotary Club when Corker said the former president was too divisive and "had not demonstrated that he understands what has made this nation great."
Corker on Thursday said he likes Democratic President Joe Biden personally, but he also questioned the judgment of having Biden serve a second term and potentially serving until he is 86 years old as U.S. president.
Corker, who served two terms in the U.S. Senate as a Republican and did not seek re-election in 2018 when he was 66, said too many politicians seek to stay in Washington past their prime. The median age of those in the U.S. Senate is now over 65.
Corker recalled a 2017 meeting with U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, who at age 89 is now the oldest sitting member of the U.S. Senate.
"She was a wonderful lady, but she just wasn't there any longer," Corker told the Rotarians, "and we're all likely to get there at some point."
Corker said after observing Feinstein's inability to think clearly, he went to then-Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and told him, "You cannot let her run again."
Corker said Schumer said she planned to run again in 2018 and would likely step down two years later.
Five years later, Feinstein is still in the U.S. Senate with plans to finish out her term through 2024, although she has said she won't seek re-election and has missed many days in the U.S. Senate this term.
Corker is not yet supporting any presidential candidate in the 2024 race, but he did urge those seeking the White House and all Americans to tone down the attacks against one another.
"I never had the ability to bash the other side," Corker said, recalling the adage of former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tennessee, that politicians should listen to members of the other party because they may be right.
Corker, who served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and traveled the world during his 12 years in Congress, said he worries that both the Biden administration, former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican leaders are being too provocative in their statements and actions regarding China.
Corker said in an interview he regards Communist China as a competitor more than an enemy, and provocative talk and threats about arming Taiwan and threatening China could prove disastrous.
"I don't like where we are right now, and I think our rhetoric needs to be toned down," Corker said. "The best antidote to China is the United States getting our fiscal house in order and getting those issues that divide us straightened out."
Corker said China is trying to exploit America's divisive politics and partisan bickering to claim its form of government works better than America's democracy. But Corker said the U.S. is likely to bounce back from any economic downturn this year, while China may struggle over time as its population declines.
Corker questioned why Pelosi recently visited Taiwan even though the White House urged her not to go.
"Most Americans don't have the stomach to send their boys and girls to Taiwan" to support any armed attack against the island, Corker told the Rotary Club, and the U.S. needs to avoid provoking such an attack.
"I just fear that we're now talking ourselves into a place that is inappropriate," Corker said. "We need to tone down our rhetoric."
Corker also said the U.S. should look for a way to eventually resolve the war between Russia and Ukraine. Corker said he fully supports the U.S. and European support for Ukraine in its battle against Russia. But over the long term, public support for a foreign war is likely to wane, and the U.S. shouldn't expect that Russia will break apart or be easily defeated, he said.
"I hope we continue our support for Ukraine, but at the same time, what is going to happen — let's face it — is that the American people and our European allies are going to tire of a prolonged war," Corker said. "I hope that very soon there can be some negotiations to bring an end to this conflict."