Republican Field, Mellow Edition

I find myself feeling mellow on the subject of 2016. I have nonspecific affection and sympathy for everyone. Actually when I think of the Republican field the picture that comes to mind is of Cloris Leachman in the movie “Spanglish.” Merrily: “I love you. I love everybody, that’s what killed me.” I am interested that wherever I go people say “Who’s going to win?” and when I say I have no idea they say, “No, really?” There are many Americans these days who think there are other Americans who have the lowdown inside scoop and should share it. I told a woman the other day that when I ask 20 Republicans who they like I get a lot of different answers including, often, “I don’t know.” She looked skeptical. Who do you like, I asked. She said, “I don’t know—any of them!” Republicans strike me right now as both chipper and dour. Chipper: Whoever we get, it will be better than the guy in the White House. Dour: But maybe America will just go for Hillary. They all follow the polls. They should take heart from the terrible pre-election polls in Britain. There may be a lot of shy Tories in America, too. Slay me, Nate Silver.

*   *   *

Having listened a few times to to Megyn Kelly and Jeb Bush on Iraq, I have to think he misunderstood the question either honestly or conveniently.

Kelly: “On the subject of Iraq . . . knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?”

Bush: “I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody, and so would have almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.”

Kelly: “You don’t think it was a mistake?”

Bush: “In retrospect the intelligence that everybody saw, that the world saw, not just the United States, was faulty.”

Bush seems at first to be answering the question, “Would you as president in 2003 have invaded Iraq as your brother did?” And he seems to answer in the affirmative: Yes, because of the intelligence, and Hillary Clinton would have done the same.

But that isn’t what Kelly asked. She said: Knowing what we know now would you have invaded? Meaning, knowing how it turned out—knowing we would not find weapons of mass destruction, knowing a destabilized Iraq would produce many bitter outcomes, knowing 12 years later the war would be unwon, knowing we had illusions about Iraq’s ability or willingness to transform itself into a peaceful constitutional democracy—would you have invaded? He doesn’t answer that question.

So he’ll be asked it again, and should be prepared.

If his honest answer is, “No, knowing what we now know I would not have invaded,” it will be a big story for a while, with headlines like “Jeb: Iraq Was a Mistake—Breaks With Brother on Most Consequential Decision of Presidency.” But as an answer it will be in line with the thinking of the majority of Americans. If the answer is “Yes, I still would have invaded even knowing what we know” that will likely set off a firestorm, and last longer.

It is hard for me to believe he doesn’t think invading Iraq was a blunder. I wonder if he feels he can say it.

In any case he’ll be asked again. There was never going to be any dodging of this question.

*   *   *

A friend this morning sent a note, jeering at Scott Walker for having significant personal debt. He linked to this story. My friend’s tone suggested the debt makes Walker look less impressive as an individual and less viable as a presidential candidate.

My reaction was the opposite. To me the story made Walker look normal. (That in fact was my impression of him when I met him about a year ago for coffee at a New York restaurant. I was late. He was at a small table alone, reading some papers. No aides, no staff, no security, just a guy at a table, a Midwestern businessman having a cup of coffee between meetings. He also acted normal. This was so startling to me—politicians now are so often weird, outsized, faintly deranged—that I couldn’t stop thinking about it.) According to the piece Walker owes up to $50,000 to Sears and some perhaps similar amount on another card. His spokeswoman said well, yeah, he’s got two kids in college and his parents live with him. His yearly salary is $144,423. More jaw dropping: his net worth is minus $72,500. Meaning he has done a great deal of work and accomplished many things over the years and never bothered to make himself rich. This is so refreshing—public service that is not, apparently, a self-enrichment project—that I can’t help but think we should tip our hats. Good for him for doing it the old-fashioned way. As for its impact on his appeal, unless I’m very wrong, a lot of Americans will feel not derisive about his financial condition but almost touched. “Harry Truman had no money either.”

My friend said Walker’s lack of wealth suggests he can be bought. I’m seeing it the opposite: if he hasn’t sold himself yet, it suggests he is not for sale.

*   *   *

The other day I spoke to Mike Huckabee. He’d announced just the day before. I liked his speech, kind of warmly fiery. He’s under great pressure for not joining the call to cut entitlement spending. But the way he argued for his position cut through, had a certain moral force, and will have plenty of appeal:

“Some propose that to save safety nets like Medicare and Social Security, we need to chop off the payouts for the people who have faithfully had their paychecks and pockets picked by the politicians promising that their money would be waiting for them when they were old and sick. You were forced to pay for Social Security and Medicare for 50 years. The government grabs money from our paychecks and says it will be waiting for us when we turn 65. If Congress wants to take away someone’s retirement, let them end their own congressional pensions—not your Social Security. As president, I promise you will get what you paid for.”

That’s written in a way—you’ll get what you paid for—that might give him room to maneuver as president. Here I note that it is the politician who has a natural, visceral and well-known opposition to something who is best situated to do it and get away with it. Nixon could go to China because he was rather on record as not liking commies; Reagan could raise taxes in 1983 because he hated them, so if he did he probably had to. I suspect it is an amnesty foe who will be best situated to down the road get some form of immigration reform through. Huckabee, viscerally opposed to reform that comes on the backs of the people, and with a reputation as a spender as governor, could be well-positioned to get some sort of entitlement deal through.

From our telephone interview:

What is Huckabee conservatism? “Taxes ought not to punish productivity and reward irresponsibility. That’s why I’m a proponent of the fair tax. Second, that we would turn loose true capitalism but not crony-insider capitalism that dominates the American economy today.” He referred to “the Washington-to-Wall Street axis of power.” He said: “Outside that loop there’s no sense of recovery.”

That sounds pretty populist. Is he a populist? “People say ‘Huckabee is a populist.’ If it means I have a connection to those who do not have any connection to that axis of power than yes.”

What is the American mood right now? “I think the mood is frustrated with a dysfunctional government that is so disconnected with the lives people really live. . . . The economy isn’t in recovery. You need to talk to the people I talk to each day. Their economy is stumbling. No one in Washington cares less about what’s going on in their lives, across all the demographics of race, gender, age, religion.” You see the detachment from real life in the “inane questions from journalists” who obsess on polls and process. “I’m thinking seriously, there are millions out of work, high rent, foreclosures.” It is producing a national “loss of dignity of which Washington, D.C., is not aware.”

What is the biggest misconception about you? That he’s “a big government guy.” He feels he governed effectively “in a hard-core Democratic state . . . with a structure that was far more partisan. . . . A lot of the think tanks that evaluate states have a template that does not account for the political dynamics (in those states), who has power to do what. They compare Arkansas to Texas or California. They’re not applicable.”

I asked if he thought the impact of his popular Saturday-night show on Fox, and his radio broadcasts, might be comparable in effect to the television and radio work of Ronald Reagan. Does he think the impression he made might have a residual power that isn’t sufficiently appreciated? “Gosh, I hope it does.” He thinks it will help protect him from attacks. “One of the things that was very evident was where I was easily defined eight years ago by opponents, now when people throw the nastiest stuff . . . people being polled say, ‘No, I like Huckabee, I see him on TV, hear him on the radio.’”

There’s a “misguided narrative” of the 2008 campaign that says he had only evangelical support. “Where I had most support was working-class people disconnected from the political elite, and some were evangelical and some not.” He sees “disaffected, struggling” working-class people as his natural base. “I wanna be faithful, speak not just to them but for them.”

Are you too kind of Southern/hokey/cornball to get the nomination in a party that after eight years of Obama is feeling tougher, hungrier, maybe harder? You can’t see someone bridle over the phone but I sensed bridling. “What people want more than geography, region or accent is a history of leading. I went into a harsh Democratic environment [as governor of Arkansas] and got 95% of my record passed. If they really want to win they need someone not only with a history of fighting but winning.”

He ended with political philosophy. “Elections are won vertically, not horizontally. Horizontal politics is liberals versus conservatives, Democrats versus Republicans. But the people in the middle who swing the election, they don’t think or vote horizontally. They are not left and right, they are ‘Are you taking me up or down?’ If they see your optimism and record they’ll vote for you. People perceived Obama vertically, not horizontally.”