Our Interview With GOP Presidential Hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy : The NPR Politics Podcast Vivek Ramaswamy is a 37 year-old investor and pharmaceutical entrepreneur who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination. A self-described nationalist, he says he can expand Donald Trump's America First message to a wider audience.

This episode: political correspondent Susan Davis and White House correspondent Asma Khalid.

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Our Interview With GOP Presidential Hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy

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(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

And I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

KHALID: And today on the show, we're joined by Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy. Vivek Ramaswamy, welcome to the show.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: Glad to be on. How are you all?

KHALID: Oh, we're great, Mr. Ramaswamy. We have to thank you because you are the inaugural candidate in our series we hope to be doing on the 2024 presidential candidates. So welcome. And I think we have a bit of a kinship 'cause apparently you also host a podcast.

RAMASWAMY: (Laughter) Well, I started that very recently. I'm trying to lift the veil on the campaign process, which is a little bit mystifying to a lot of people, by just having open conversations and taping them and putting them out as a podcast. So I've been enjoying doing that as well.

KHALID: All right. So for folks who may not be very familiar with your bio, we wanted to just give a brief introduction to your story. You're the son of Indian immigrants who grew up in Ohio, a Midwesterner - I will say I'm a fellow Midwesterner. You went on to Harvard. I did not. You worked as an investor, went to law school, became a pharmaceutical executive, and you've never held elected office. But now at the age of 37, you have decided you want to be president of the United States. So help us understand how you got to this point of thinking that politics, the presidency, would be the next logical step in your life.

RAMASWAMY: Well, I think that if I was thinking about the standpoint from my life and the way I'm building a career, it absolutely would not be the next logical step - that much I'll say off the bat. But I'm not looking at this as building my own career. I'm looking about - I'm looking at a need in our country and a job that needs to be done that I see very few people stepping up to actually deliver, which is to answer what it even means to be an American today, to revive our missing national identity. Especially in the next generation of Americans, we have completely lost our sense of civic pride, civic identity, civic duty, what it means to be a citizen of this nation. We have lost all sense of that. And I think a lot of our economic struggles and our foreign policy struggles start from that loss of American identity, that loss of civic pride.

And so the reason I'm running for president is I do have a vision of what it means to be a citizen of this country. I've lived the full arc of the American dream. I've spent the last three years of my life not only thinking about but having conversations in a majority of states across this country, laid out in three books that I've written over the last 18 months, laying out my vision of how we revive American national identity today. And I think there's no better way to translate that into action than to lead a national revival - yes - starting from the presidency as Ronald Reagan did in 1980. I think there's an opportunity to do that for this country starting in 2024. So that's what calls me into doing this - not, you know, another step in my career journey.

DAVIS: You talk a lot about identity. I'd like to hear more about your political identity. You've never held elected office before. You don't have a voting record that we could sort of dissect to get at that. And I read a quote from you recently in which you said, I recoil when I see someone describe me as a conservative - not that there's anything wrong with being a conservative, it's just not how I would describe myself. So I want to give you an opportunity to describe yourself. How do you describe your political identity?

RAMASWAMY: Yes. So, I mean, I think the accurate reading of that quote - and I'm speaking a million miles a minute to a lot of people - but I would maybe cringe when someone calls me a Republican is what I would say because to me, the partisan labels - Republican, Democrat - these things don't mean anything anymore. They're words without meaning. What I care about is - what do we stand for, and why do we stand for it?

So I stand for - I consider myself a part of the pro-American movement in this country. Yes, I'm running as a Republican, but I'm using the Republican Party as a vehicle to advance my vision of the America First agenda, taking the America First agenda to the next level. I think to put America first, we need to rediscover what America is.

And so my political identity is this - I will unapologetically embrace and advance the ideals that this nation was founded on. I believe that we ought to be willing to make a sacrifice to advance those ideals, to fight to advance those ideals. And that is distinct from an opposite movement in this country which increasingly wishes to apologize for a nation founded on those ideals, to apologize or moderate free speech or meritocracy or the rule of law evenly applied or the idea that citizens can be trusted to sort out their differences on questions like climate change or racial equity. That's my political identity. And I believe that, you know, maybe that would - maybe you would classify me as a nationalist in that label if you have to use a label. I think it's a label I'm willing to wear. I don't think that that has to be a bad word. As long as it's a nationalism built around the ideals that set a nation into motion, I think that can actually unite us as a country. That's how I would describe my political identity.

DAVIS: I'd also like to talk about faith, especially as it's often a central question in a Republican primary. You're Hindu. I don't know if you're the first Hindu, but there's - hasn't been a long history of Hindus running for president. You're running in a primary where one of the largest voting blocs are evangelical Christians, and I wonder how you see that interplay. Does your faith play a role in the campaign? And how do you connect with these voters that are so critical to determining the nomination when their Christian faith is so central to how they vote?

RAMASWAMY: So I think my faith in God and my conviction that we are a nation under God and my willingness to talk about it in the open, I think, is something that's actually very important to religious voters who long have, I think, been abandoned, frankly, by even Republican leaders who have become very - I would say - what would be the word I would use here? - almost prudish in talking about God. I'm not here to convince you that I'm a Christian because I'm not. But what I am here to convince you of is the truth that we still share those same Judeo-Christian values in common, and I live my life accordingly. I was raised in a two-parent household with a focus on education, with a focus on God, with the nuclear family as the unit of governance that mattered most to us, that showed us that the love of family opens you, opens your heart up to the love of God. And we raise our two children, my wife and I do, in the same way. We live our lives according to Christian values.

And I'm not running to be somebody's pastor. I'm running to be the president. But I'm running to be a president who recognizes that we are one nation under God, that recognizes the Judeo-Christian values on which this country was founded, values that I also deeply share. I can stand up for those values without anybody accusing me of being a, you know, whatever - Christian nationalist or whatever labels one might use. I think that that actually puts me in a better position to represent the values that undergird this country, including Judeo-Christian values that we share in common, better than someone who's shy about it or feels pressure to apologize for it because it's not popular in our culture to be a Christian. What I tell people is that, actually, I think I can make it cool to revive those values, those Christian values, family values, in our culture again because even as a religious Hindu, we grew up subscribing to those same values grounded in what it means to be a member of a family, a father and a household.

KHALID: Mr. Ramaswamy, I want to ask you about some of the threats you see to the national identity that you've been describing. I think it's fair to say, from our understanding of your ideas, that one of the central theses that you have is that the country is hyperfocused on the diversity of immutable characteristics like race. And I want you to help us understand what your concerns are with the left, with the Democratic Party, as you said, focus on race and gender in particular.

RAMASWAMY: Yes. So I think we can talk about race and sexuality broadly - gender including also sexual orientation and gender identity. But all of that - the immutable - you said it well - the immutable characteristics that you inherit on the day you're born - I think it's inherently divisive. The thing about American identity that's beautiful to me is that it calls upon our distinctive humanity. The thing that makes us a human being rather than an animal is the fact that we can embrace ideals. I think that this alternative worldview of identity grounded not in the ideals that we share in common, but rather in the genetic attributes we inherit on the day we're born causes us to see ourselves as less than human, as just the sum total of those genetic attributes. And I just believe that for us as human beings, for us as Americans, there is more to us. The most interesting part of us is not our gender identity or the shade of melanin that we have on a given day. It is the set of values that unite us together as a people.

And so I grew up into a generation where I was taught - we were all taught, I think - to believe that diversity is our strength. I reject that vision. I don't think our diversity is our strength. I think our strength is what unites us across that diversity. That is not America to me. It's the America I see sometimes today, but it's not the America I know. It's not the America that I learned to pledge allegiance to as a kid. That America is grounded on a set of ideals that brought us together. And measured across the backdrop of common ideals, yes, our diversity can be a beautiful thing, but without that, it's a meaningless physical attribute.

And so that's what bothers me about it, is I think that it calls on us to see one another as less than the full humans that we really are, when we see one another instead as bound by a common set of ideals and even when we disagree about how to apply those ideals, that we're able to debate them in the open with full respect for one another as fully thinking, autonomous human beings, that's what actually allows the American lifeblood to revive itself rather than to be lost in this identitarian dilemma that we now find ourselves in.

DAVIS: But do you dispute the idea that racial differences have led to racial disparities in policy making, that laws have affected different racial groups differently, and should the government play a role in writing those inequities?

RAMASWAMY: So to the first part of that, I mean, of course it's true. I mean, you'd have to have your head in the sand to read our history and not understand that there have been many points in our national history when we have been less than perfect in living up to our ideals. I mean, we had slavery in this country, right? We had even a period after slavery in the reconstruction era where voting rights weren't fully secured for Black Americans, for women until, you know, that was constitutionally ordained in a later amendment. So, of course, right? I mean, this is obvious. I don't think there's an American today who believes these things to be false, right? I think that we all agree on this.

However, I think that at some point we're going to have to decide how we move on as a nation. And I think something peculiar has happened in the last few years in particular, is it's when we get closest to the Promised Land that we become even more vehement in our claims that somehow we're systemically racist and misogynistic and homophobic and transphobic, right? If you went back to 1860, if you went back to 1960, and then fast-forwarded to a state of affairs today where no matter what your skin color is, who you marry, if you marry, whatever you choose to wear, whether you're a man or a woman, you can still vote in this country, you can still enjoy full civil rights in this country, would say we have reached the Promised Land.

And yet the irony is it's precisely when we achieve racial equality before the law that we then obsess over systemic racism. It's precisely when we achieve gender equality before the law that we talk about misogyny and bigotry. It's precisely when we achieve gay marriage as a norm in the country that you then see the birth of a new leg of the LGBTQIA movement that says that actually, no, it was - the same movement that said your - person of - the sex of the person you're attracted to is hard-wired on the day you're born now has to embrace this new ideology that says your own biological sex or gender can be completely fluid over your life.

KHALID: I do want to be clear and make sure that we understand. Do you acknowledge or do you believe that there are, at this moment, enduring social inequities?

RAMASWAMY: There are all kinds of inequities in results. Absolutely. Are we perfect today? No, we are not. But America is not built on perfection. It is built on the pursuit of perfection, the pursuit of a more perfect union, the pursuit of liberty, equality and justice for all. That is what makes us us. We have ideals. We're human beings. By definition, that means we'll fall short of our ideals.

But I think our worst hypocrisies are still our best evidence that we have those ideals at all. It's why we can't call the Chinese Communist Party hypocritical. You can call them a lot of things. You can't call them hypocrites 'cause to be a hypocrite, you had to have the ideals. Well, maybe we're hypocrites, but we're hypocrites because we have ideals, and all we can do is continue to aspire towards them together. And that's what I favor doing.

KHALID: And do you see any role for the government in resolving any of the enduring social or racial inequities?

RAMASWAMY: We could - I'm open to a conversation about what role that is, is to make sure we have equality before the law. But I don't believe in a backwards-looking, distributive justice-based framework for distributing social goods or services on axes like race or gender or sexual orientation. No, I don't believe on that. I think that there's a more reasonable conversation to be had about economic inequality. I think there's a more reasonable conversation to be had about inequalities in access to education and to be able to fix that. I think that's a big part of what school choice, if well funded, can actually do. I think there's a conversation to be had about some of the problems introduced by intergenerational wealth transfers. So those are, I think, productive conversations to have. But when we reduce it to attributes like race and gender, I think it ends up being divisive. That's where I'm at on it.

KHALID: All right, Mr. Ramaswamy, stay with us. We're going to take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll dive more into your specific positions on policies.

DAVIS: And we're back. And let's talk about some of the issues that are important to both Republican primary voters and the country as a whole. But let's start here, Mr. Ramaswamy. Do you believe that Joe Biden was the lawfully elected president in 2020?

RAMASWAMY: I think that in the technical sense of that word, he's obviously the lawfully elected president. I think that in a deeper sense, I'm deeply bothered by, for example, the Hunter Biden laptop-story suppression that really was - in the name of suppressing misinformation, actually created misinformation across the news media and all the boards. So I have a lot of issues with the suppression of information by social media companies and internet companies that led up to that election. And do I believe that there's - I mean, it's not a dispute, so I think that's a problem. But in the technical sense of, you know, do I think that there was large-scale ballot fraud or whatever that changed the election outcome based on how the votes were counted. I have seen no evidence of that.

DAVIS: And you yourself, you are - you have been quite successful in business. You've accumulated a fair amount of wealth. You are still a businessman. How would you approach a presidential run? I mean, do you plan on releasing your tax returns if you ultimately secure the nomination? And would you divest from your private holdings if you become the nominee?

RAMASWAMY: Look, I believe in practicing what I preach. Transparency is the way. Part of the podcast you're asking me about is just lifting the curtain on the entire process, my briefings.

DAVIS: Yeah.

RAMASWAMY: Let's tape it and put it out. So actually, you'll be pleased to know we actually put out 20 years of tax returns already. It was actually, like, in the early phase of the campaign. We just made it available. And there's one reporter who asked. We sent it to them. It's on a website. People can find it. And so anyway, I just believe in total transparency. And then, look, I think that the right thing to do, it's not something I'm going to relish doing. But so let's just take my first-personal hat off for a second. But just - is it the right thing to do - probably - for a president to divest their holdings or really have it in a hard form of a blind trust where like it's not a wink and a nod, but they really just know they have no idea what they own...

DAVIS: Yeah.

RAMASWAMY: ...To make sure that they're acting on behalf of the country? I just think that's the right thing to do. I just think that if you want to be president of the United States, you owe it to the country to serve the country and also to show the country - even if your intentions are the best of intentions - to show the country that you actually mean it and shouldn't have any basis for doubt.

KHALID: I want to ask you about an issue that was key in the minds of many voters during these most recent midterms, and that's abortion. Would you sign further abortion restrictions into federal law?

RAMASWAMY: I would not, but I am pro-life. For years, I was an opponent of Roe v. Wade. I think it was constitutionally wrongly decided. I think Dobbs was correct to overturn it because the federal government has no business here. Murder laws are governed by the states. So if abortion is a form of murder, which is the pro-life position and I am pro-life, then it would make no sense for that to be the one law that was still governed at the federal level. But a federal ban violates the constitutional principle that led us to actually overturn Roe v. Wade, which is why I would not sign a federal abortion ban.

KHALID: Mr. Ramaswamy, you know, in terms of prepping for this interview, I was listening to a lot of interviews you've done, reading through other reports. And one of the takeaways that I had is that it seems you want to make a number of decisions unilaterally - for example, abolishing the Department of Education, shutting down the FBI, deploying troops to the U.S. border, ending affirmative action. So the question I have is, do you see any limits on the power of the presidency?

RAMASWAMY: Of course. It's called the Constitution. And so let's take the last one, of ending affirmative action by executive order. The reason why I say that is it was created by executive order. So I'm just talking about rescinding an old executive order - Lyndon Johnson's Executive Order 11246, which requires anyone who does business with the federal government to actually adopt, effectively, race-based quota systems. I'll end that by executive order.

So I'm a careful student of the Constitution. I think there are certain things the president can and ought to do without asking Congress for permission or forgiveness. I think running the executive branch of the government is on that list. There are many things like, for example, my position to make political expression a civil right. I'd love to do that, but a president can't do that without actually working through Congress. And then there's things that the federal government, both the president and Congress, shouldn't be doing that should be left to the states. This is actually, you know, where abortion discussion came in. And so I think it's important to have a clear-eyed constitutional perspective of what falls into each category. I believe that I do, and I will govern accordingly.

DAVIS: You've also proposed a change to the Constitution, at least one. You're promoting raising the voting age to be 25. It seems like a difficult pitch to win over young voters in this country. Why did you make that decision?

RAMASWAMY: Well, I want to be precise about what I actually said. So I would support a constitutional amendment - this would require widespread support for an amendment to the Constitution, of course - that would raise the voting age to 25 but still allow you to vote at age 18 if you either serve for six months in the military or a first responder role. Or else, even if you don't serve, if you pass the same civics test that every immigrant has to pass in order to become a citizen of this country.

DAVIS: Now you're saying there would be two different thresholds for when you get to vote.

RAMASWAMY: Yes. So we lowered the voting age to 18 in the context of the military draft. That was the justification in 1971 for lowering the voting age. So you're right. You can't do this by law because if it was by law, it would be unconstitutional. But if you're following the constitutional process to amend the Constitution, as we have 27 times over for the better - adding equal protection under the law for race, no discrimination on voting on the basis of race, making the voting age 18, telling - giving women the right to vote. That's a constitutional amendment process. I think we should go through that constitutional amendment process to attach civic duties to voting.

Now, the why, though, that's the more important question. And you asked it. I think we have a loss of civic pride in our country. I think people, young people included, do not value a country that they simply inherit. I think we value a country that we have a stake in building. And I think that asking a young person, asking any citizen to know something about the country before voting I think is a perfectly reasonable condition. Or else, if you don't know something about the country - we already ask immigrants to know this, by the way, so it's not making up some new test. No matter your skin color, if you've been a taxpaying green-card holder for 10 years, you still have to pass that test to vote.

I don't think it's unreasonable to ask a young American to do the same thing, or else, if they don't want to do that, to at least serve for six months in the military or a first responder role, or else to have some life experience as an adult, at least by the age of 25. And the good news is it requires a constitutional amendment which would require broad, widespread national consensus to ever get passed, which I think is appropriate. But I'm looking to actually elevate that debate because our revival of civic pride and civic duty isn't going to happen automatically. It's going to happen because we make it so.

KHALID: So, you know, some people seem to view you as being Trump 2.0, I would say, a younger, browner businessman who perhaps can take some of the former president's message and translate it to a younger, perhaps more optimistic audience. Do you see yourself as a disciple of Donald Trump?

RAMASWAMY: I wouldn't call myself a disciple of Donald Trump, no. I would embrace the label of America first 2.0. So America first is bigger than Donald Trump. It does not belong to Donald Trump. It doesn't belong to me. I mean, Ronald Reagan used the phrase. Others have used it throughout American history, too. It's about reviving the ideals that the country was founded on and to actually advance those in the forms of policy. And so I think I am taking that far further than Trump did. But I also expect and hope to unite the country in the process if we're doing it based on principled footing rather than vengeance and grievance.

And I just truly do believe that we don't have to be a nation in a inevitable national decline. We don't have to be Rome. We don't have to be Carthage. I think we as a nation - you talked about me being young - I think we as a nation are just a little young, actually, going through our own version of adolescence, figuring out who we're going to be when we grow up. So that national identity crisis then becomes natural, unsurprising. You go through an identity crisis when you go through adolescence. So too it is for our nation. But when you view it that way, I think it just becomes obvious that I think it's possible our best days can still truly actually be ahead of us, that we might not be in decline.

DAVIS: A final question, but it's a yes or no. If you are not the nominee, will you support whoever is?

RAMASWAMY: I have to think about it. I want to see the conditions of who's on the - what commitments, you know, the conditions for the debate stage. So I'm going to have to think about that.

DAVIS: All right. Vivek Ramaswamy, thank you so much for speaking with us.

RAMASWAMY: Appreciate that. Thank you.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

KHALID: And I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: And thanks for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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