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Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne on Mitt Romney and the war.

Thursday, August 9, 2007
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HH: Pleased to welcome now back to the Hugh Hewitt Show veteran Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne. E.J., welcome back, good to have you.

EJD: Good to be here.

HH: I really enjoyed yesterday’s column, as you might suspect. Watch out…

EJD: I thought you might like that column. You know, once in a while, I figure once every year or so, I have to write something you like, you know?

HH: Well, this has been twice in a quarter. I think you ought to check your credentials. If you’ve got me smiling twice in a quarter, the left is not going to be happy with you, E.J. Let’s tell…I want to read people the first paragraph here. “Watch out, Fred Thompson, by the time you get into the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney may have run away with your constituency.” Explain for our audience.

EJD: Well, first of all, I think, and obviously the Romney campaign does, too, I quoted somebody from the campaign, but I think Thompson, two months ago, I saw him as the guy who might really pull this whole thing off, because you saw among a lot of conservatives a real desire to be for Thompson as a savior, and they were building him into Ronald Reagan, as you know, and there was just a sense this field isn’t very good, this guy’ll save us. I think he let the string run too long. I think that he may have hoped that he could avoid serious scrutiny until he jumped in. Well, that didn’t happen. There have been a lot of stories that were not ideal for him. And I get a sense that some conservatives who like him are getting impatient with him, In the meantime, Romney has put about, I guess it’s $8.85 million dollars, last I checked, into his own campaign, done all this advertising in Iowa and New Hampshire, has gotten this significant lead, at least for the moment in Iowa, and I think has started to win over some of those conservatives whom Thompson was counting on, so that I think, you know, if Thompson has a perfect entry, then maybe everything I wrote in that column will be wrong. I’ve been wrong before. But I think that if he doesn’t take off, I think the delay really gave Romney this big opening.

HH: Now I want to go to the last paragraph, because it’s here that I really found it interesting. You wrote, “As a rule, Republicans don’t think much about people too poor to pay a lot in taxes.” I disagree with that, but we’ll come back to that. “It’s another reason Romney could pose a serious danger not only to Giuliani, McCain and Thompson, but also to the Democrats.” Now that’s that old, soft-hearted lefty in you looking for a genuinely compassionate conservative. Now I think there are lots of us out there, but is that what’s drawing you to Romney, the fact that you think this guy’s got a heart?

EJD: Well, I mean, there are two things. One is I’m not for Romney, and I’m not…this was, you know, I used to be a political reporter before I was a highly-opinionated columnist.

HH: Right.

EJD: And sometimes, I just like to do political reporting. Indeed, sometimes I think people outside a particular fight can see things that other can’t. I mean, sometimes Bob Novak sees things going on in the Democratic Party that Democrats miss. So I just like to write, to do some political reporting. In this case, I just felt something was happening in the race, and like everybody who does this kind of work, I wanted to be a little ahead of the conventional wisdom. And so that’s why I wrote this column. But substantively, I really was taken by what Romney said about health care in that debate, and he hadn’t, in my view, emphasized enough what he’d done in Massachusetts. He almost seemed to be running away from it because it sounded like something liberal that would appeal to people like me, but not people who vote in Republican primaries. But he just said flatly, look, you’re not going to cover everybody just by offering tax benefits, because especially when it comes to the income tax, poor people don’t pay a lot, that you’re going to have to do something else. And so I think Romney is the one Republican who’s really stepped out there and said yes, there’s a problem with health care, and yes, it will take some serious government action. Now I’m sure he’s going to attack socialized medicine and all of that like all the other Republicans do, but I thought that was very significant, because I am struck by how wary Republican candidates are of saying yes, government has to do something about health care. He was willing to say that.

HH: Now it’s interesting, connecting the first and the last paragraph, Evangelicals, that elusive constituency, do devote a lot of their time to the care of the poor, whether or not it’s very visible in the mainstream media or not.

EJD: Not only that, they give a lot of their own money.

HH: Yup.

EJD: And there are a lot of studies that show that Evangelicals are more generous than most people, religious people in general give a significant share of their money, more than a lot of other people. So I agree with that.

HH: And so when Romney taps into that, that we’ve really got to be concerned about the lost and the least, he’s really speaking into that constituency, which has been very hard for anyone to nail down. Let me ask you about what happened to him today, E.J. An anti-war protestor challenged Romney that none of his five sons had served, and Romney said look, I’m proud of my sons, they made different choices, they serve in different ways, they’re in politics now, they’re serving by trying to get me elected. Do you think that’s a legitimate issue to attack a candidate for the choices their kids make?

EJD: You know, I thought a lot about that. I wrote a column a couple of years ago when Charlie Rangel called for reinstituting the draft, and A) I don’t think it’s going to happen, and I’m not 100% sure it’s a good idea myself. But I admired him for what he did, because he was saying that there are an awful lot of people who are not being asked to pay a price or to bear a burden for this particular policy. And the simple fact is that an awful lot of people in the privileged classes and the political classes do not have kids in the military. Mark Shields did a column some years ago, and this may have changed since Mark wrote, but there was only one member of Congress in either House at the time in the enlisted ranks in the military, and that was Tim Johnson’s son in Afghanistan, the Senator from South Dakota. So I think it is fair to ask the question, if you really believe in this policy so much, what about your own kids? What is your view of their obligation to serve? As I happen to know, people who strongly support this war, who have kids over there, and I admire them, and they, you know, and I worry for those kids. So you know, is it an attack? I don’t know if it’s a legitimate attack. I do think it’s a fair question to ask people who support a policy, well what are you willing to put on the line for this policy?

HH: Should Mrs. Clinton have to talk about Chelsea then, because obviously she voted for the war as well, and I don’t think it reflects on her toughness at all to be president that Chelsea has chosen to serve or…

EJD: I don’t think it’s about toughness. I just think it’s a legitimate question to ask all the elites in our country, liberal as well as conservative. Look, on the whole, and maybe I’ll partly contradict myself, on the whole, I don’t like making people’s kids issues. One of the only columns I’ve written in the entire Bush administration, I ever got a nice call from the Bush administration on, was a column when I wrote saying lay off President Bush’s daughters. So I don’t like bringing kids in period, because they don’t ask their parents to run for office. So as a general principle, I don’t like that. But I do think on military service, it is fair to ask people what are you willing to pay? What price are you willing to pay personally for this policy you’re asking other people to carry out for you.

HH: I think that’s a profoundly dangerous bit of turf to get onto, with all the candidates back through American history, although some, like FDR, had kids in the military, because it suggests that there is a greater claim on the presidency for those who have children fighting or who themselves have fought, and I just don’t think that’s our tradition, E.J., do you?

EJD: No, but I do think our tradition is when we mobilize for an important cause in the past, World War II is obviously probably the best example, is we ask everybody across classes to serve their country. And World War II, you went all the way from the richest to the poorest, you know, everybody, I mean, obviously there were exceptions, but you know, most of the country went in, and I do think it’s fair to ask isn’t there something wrong with the way we’re apportioning service now? We have a very, very heavy burden, and I teach some of these kids at Georgetown Public Policy School, we have these extraordinary captains and majors who come through every year, so I’ve taught a bunch of Iraq veterans…

HH: So have I in law school, yup.

EJD: I’m sorry?

HH: I’ve taught a lot of them in law school as well.

EJD: They’re amazing people. They’re great people. And we’re asking an awful lot of a very small number of people, and I think we ought to think about that, and yeah, it’s not the best way to do it, to do it going after candidates, but I do think that we have to raise this question with the elites in our country.

HH: I think that’s a fine way to…I agree with that. But I also point out to the fact…did you…I’m not trying to trap you, but did you ever call Bill Clinton on the carpet for not having served in Vietnam, because I know you’re a Clinton…

EJD: Well no, but Bill Clinton got called on the carpet at the time. I was actually a…

HH: Reporter…

EJD: …political reporter and not a columnist. You know, but if you want to raise that, I was always struck by the fact that conservatives who went after Bill Clinton for not serving, and George Bush the father did serve courageously, suddenly got, you know, lost their memory of that issue when George Bush did not go to Vietnam, though he was in the Reserves, and Al Gore did. And suddenly, that wasn’t an issue anymore, so there’s a lot of hypocrisy on this.

HH: Well, I think it was an issue. If Bush had not served at all, I would have argued that with you, but I think the appropriate way is to look at a candidate and ask them about what they’ve done and the choices they made. I did that with Romney, by the way, and I wrote the book about it. And he said it’s one of the great regrets of his life that he never served, which is a candid response. He was on his mission, he did two years or 28 months, or 30 months in France, and then he came back and had number 300 in the draft. So I thought that was a legitimate question to ask a candidate. I just hate this going after kids. I’m with you on that. We never have made Chelsea Clinton or any kid of any candidate an issue here. It makes my skin crawl a little bit. E.J., I want to turn to your other column the week before about the rise of Kos. Now I’m an admirer of Kos. I think he’s, you know, mad as a hatter on some stuff, but I think he’s a tremendous activist out there, and you nailed it. Now are you concerned, though, that whereas Kos understand effective partisanship, some of his acolytes do not?

EJD: Well first of all, the great thing about the web is that there are every kind of point of view is represented out there. There’s brilliance, there’s wackiness, there’s all kinds of stuff out there, and that’s what freedom is all about. You know, I think that when you, what Kos reflects, as I argued in that column, is a very strong feeling on the liberal side, and more progressive side as some people prefer, I call myself a liberal just because conservatives attack the word so much, and you ought to stand up for own word. But let’s say on the progressive side, there was a sense that you conservatives were far more effective in mobilizing people, and no one did more than Rush Limbaugh, whom I think deserves some real credit for the Republicans’ victory in 1994.

HH: You’re absolutely right.

EJD: And that I think what Kos and some of his allies see is that you needed a mobilizing force, a comparable mobilizing force on the left side of politics that they, for a variety of reasons, it hasn’t worked as well as liberals had hoped on talk radio. But then along came the web, which seemed a natural outlet for constituencies that were allied in some broad sense to progressivism. So there is that activism. Do I agree with every word on Kos? No. And I think a lot of people who read Kos all the time don’t agree with every word on that blog. Do I think that some of the posts get way too nasty all across the political spectrum? Yeah, there’s a lot of nastiness out there that I don’t particularly like. But I think on balance, their understanding of the need for a mobilizing medium is correct, just as Limbaugh realized that, and then spawned imitators all over the country.

HH: Agreed. Now in terms of nastiness, there is a nasty war going on between the New Republic and just about everyone. What do you think they ought to do about Private Beauchamp and his Washington Diarist, E.J. Dionne?

EJD: Well, you know, I thought you’d raise that. First of all, it’s not the New Republic and just about everyone, it’s the New Republic and the Weekly Standard and you and a couple of other folks. My understanding of where that stands is that…first of all, I’ve known Frank Foer for a long time, and he has an awful lot of integrity, and I think they’ve shown in what they’ve put out so far, and in re-reporting those stories, a lot more transparency than, say, the administration has on some issues. As things stand now, Beauchamp has said there’s one story that you know, he put in Iraq that’s actually in Kuwait, and that my understanding is he stands by the rest. I know the Weekly Standard posted this anonymously sourced thing saying he’d recanted. I don’t believe that’s true. And if it is true, then we’ll deal with it then.

HH: Today, the New York Times quotes Major Stephen F. Lamb, the deputy public affairs officer in Baghdad as saying we’re not going into the details of the investigation, the allegations are false, his platoon and company were interviewed, and no one could substantiate the claims he made. What’s that cause you to think?

EJD: Well, but then, the New Republic has gone back and interviewed a lot of people involved in that story. They re-reported the whole story, and their sense is what he said is true. Unfortunately, he can’t come out and talk. I hope that the Army, just so we can settle this controversy, lets this gentleman come forward, answer questions, and then we can settle this. But I’ve got to say, you know, as I say, I’ve known Frank for a long time, and I think this is a person of a lot of integrity. So watch out what you say about him, because…

HH: But E.J., it’s not about Frank. It’s about what the Army said today, the allegations are false. Now for him to say…

EJD: You know what? I think that’s a very sweeping statement, and I don’t know what that means until he can speak for himself. I think that Mr. Beauchamp should be given a chance to speak for himself, and then we can judge the whole thing.

HH: I don’t know, when they say no one could, no one could substantiate the claims he made, that suggests that whatever truthing the New Republic’s been doing, they couldn’t possibly have come up with the kind of evidence a reporter like you would have relied upon in your reportorial days for the Post.

EJD: No one could substantiate the claims does not mean they went to everybody who might have substantiated the claim. In other words, I don’t know what…we’ll find out eventually what the truth here is. But as I say, my understanding is he has not backed away from anything except that one correction that he did make about where he placed this one incident. So we’ll figure out…

HH: Okay, I think that underscores what the Army needs to understand out here. I like that, E.J., because I think that means that they need to do more work. A couple more questions very quickly. Do you think the surge is working, based on everything you’ve seen?

EJD: You know, has the surge had some positive effects? Sure. The surge has probably had some positive effects. Everybody points to Anbar where things are better partly because the leaders of, Sunni tribal leaders have thrown in against al Qaeda. We don’t know where that’s going to lead in the long run, but it’s good that they’re fighting al Qaeda. But I’m not sure that that means, and in fact, I’m skeptical that that means that the surge is working in its larger sense. The whole point of the surge was, and President Bush was very explicit about this, was to create political space for the Iraqi government. And as far as I can tell…to achieve reconciliation…and as far as I can tell, politically, things are going backward, not forward. And so the question is how much can you gain militarily that will make any difference, if there is no political progress. So I’m still looking for political progress. You know, you probably would put more emphasis on those successes that they have had. I would put much more emphasis on whether this gets us anywhere three or six months from now.

HH: Last question about your column of last Friday. Obama, Senator Obama, when questioned about meeting with Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korean leaders, as you wrote, without hesitation replied I would. Did he make a mistake, E.J. Dionne?

EJD: You know, it’s interesting. I went through two thoughts on this. Initially, I thought he probably shouldn’t have shot right quickly like that. He should have put some conditions on it. But then, when Mrs. Clinton went at him, and he hit back, stuck by his position, he actually backed away a little bit in the course of the week, but then turned it around and said well, look, you know, I’m new, I’m willing to meet with all these guys, and I’m not part of the old Washington…I thought politically, he may have come out ahead by the end of the week, because he needs a fight with Mrs. Clinton right now, because she has had probably the best six months, seven months now, of any candidate this year. So I think turning that into a fight about how she voted on Iraq, and how he’s different from her was making, you know, something useful out of what was potentially a difficult situation. Are your Republican candidates going to throw it back at him? You bet, and they already have started.

HH: But as a matter of substance, is he right to have answered the way he did?

EJD: Oh, I probably would have answered the question differently myself.

HH: How would you have answered it?

EJD: Because I heard the words, you know, it depends on how you heard the question. I heard the question without preconditions, and so I sort of had a natural, maybe I’ve been in Washington too long, I had a natural caution. I think the general idea that we should be more open in negotiations is right. I think the general idea that just because someone isn’t your enemy doesn’t mean you don’t sit down with them. Ronald Reagan did a great job with Gorbacev. So I think the general point he made is right. I heard the caveats in the question, and they would have made me a little nervous.

HH: Yeah, I heard that, too. Was that just a mark to his inexperience?

EJD: I don’t know if that was, if that was inexperience. You know, I think you’ve probably had this happen on your show, where people hear the question that is in their head, and not necessarily the question that was asked them.

HH: Inexperienced guests…

EJD: I’m sorry?

HH: Inexperienced guests make that mistake, like inexperienced Senators.

EJD: I don’t know, I still think he’s a very smart guy.

HH: Well, I do, too. You know, Harvard Law Review, they don’t throw you off the turnip truck.

EJD: And he was supported by the conservatives when he became president of the Law Review.

HH: Oh, I know.

EJD: You knew that, right?

HH: I know. Carol Platt Liebau, one of my guest hosts…

EJD: He was the president of the Law Review.

HH: Yeah, so I think he’s a real smart guy, I just think he’s green. And did he give you any cause to believe he’s not green with that answer?

EJD: No, in general, I don’t think he’s looked green in these debates, and that as I say, what impressed me is that he had to prove to Democrats that he was capable of taking a punch and returning it, and he hadn’t yet, and Mrs. Clinton has clearly run a very tough campaign. And so I was in the end more impressed with how he came out of it than I was with the mistake he made in the first place, or the partial mistake he made in the first place.

HH: Well put. E.J. Dionne, always a pleasure talking with you, thanks for making time on your trip, and I look forward to talking to you again as the campaign progresses.

EJD: Ditto, if I could say that on your show.

HH: Absolutely.

EJD: Take care.

HH: E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, thanks.

EJD: Bye.

End of interview.

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