Duncan Hunter, a solidly conservative U.S. Representative from California since 1980, has a two-part answer for those who say his low name identification and lack of obvious financial wherewithal will doom his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.
First, he says he has the right "three pillars" as issues to build his campaign on: He's the most experienced in standing up for a "strategic national defense." He's the most accomplished on border security. And he is dedicated to "reversing the one-way trade street with China" as part and parcel of a national security effort toward "the restoration of what I call the arsenal of democracy."
Second, Hunter says that "the money will follow the message" rather than vice versa. "Our message is resonating," he says, citing strong results in countywide Republican straw polls in Arizona and South Carolina and frequent national media appearances on shows such as Hardball and Laura Ingraham's radio program -- 17 major appearances in the last week alone, supposedly reaching 18 million viewers or listeners. He says earned media will beget more earned media, which will beget more interested voters and more money: "This whole process is a process of acceleration."
Time will tell on that. What is abundantly clear is that there is no doubt about Hunter's bona fides on his chosen three issues -- or as a conservative on others such as low taxes, restrained spending, the rights to life and to bear arms, and private property rights. He's known as a straight shooter (figuratively and, as a devoted hunter, literally), as a guy who doesn't waffle, and as a diligent legislator. And he's a military man through and through: His father fought in World War II, he himself fought in Vietnam, and his son Duncan D. Hunter recently fought in Iraq -- including during the fierce first battle of Fallujah. (Duncan the son just announced on Wednesday that he plans to run for the House seat from which the presidential candidate is retiring.)
It is no wonder, then, that Rep. Hunter has particularly devoted himself in Congress to defense issues, including serving for the past four years as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. He has spent years fighting for a larger, stronger military -- or, during the Clinton administration, of battling to keep Clinton from cutting the military as much as Clinton had proposed.
And he remains very much a hawk on Iraq. On March 12, Hunter returned from a visit there and wrote a letter to President George W. Bush proposing a specific course of action to achieve victory. "We are succeeding in Iraq as long as we keep standing up the Iraqi military," he told me in a Tuesday interview. "The best way to stand up a military is with actual operations."
Toward that end, Hunter wrote to Bush that "Iraqi and U.S. commanders must develop and implement a schedule to ensure that all 129 battalions of the Iraqi Army rotate into a major combat zone for a minimum of three months....Battlefield experience develops leadership, unit cohesion, and combat effectiveness."
With the surge of American troops backing up (and partly imbedded with) these fighting Iraqis, Hunter believes they can achieve success. He said his recent trip convinced him that the Sunni population in Anbar province is turning against the "brutality" and "hard edge" of the terrorists there, and that Sunni and Shia leaders are increasingly working with each other and with U.S. Marines.
"I define success in Iraq," he told me, "as a nation that is a friend, not an enemy, for the United States, that has at least a modicum of freedom, and that will not be a state sponsor of terrorism in the coming decades. Right now it has an inept and clumsy government, but that is just as most new governments are, and I believe it will mature and improve over time."
Meanwhile, Hunter is extremely focused on what he describes as a growing threat from China, and he insists that his advocacy of a tougher trade stance against China is not a betrayal of free market principles.
"Reversing the one-way trade street with China will save millions of American jobs and avoid driving billions of dollars to China which its central government is using to develop a formidable military," he said. He said China rebates its own taxes on all of its exported goods, and then imposes taxes on American imports, thus providing about a $34 advantage for every $100 of actual value of its own products. The United States, though, does not impose import duties of that sort, nor does it rebate the taxes on our own exports.
"Republicans are the party of markets, but we're not the party of dumb markets," he said. "Trade agreements are business deals, and it is more important than ever that we have smart business deals. What I am proposing is not protectionism, it's just reciprocity. And it is important because they are using the trade to develop 75-100 short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles each year and to construct a large number of submarines....That's ominous."
Whether or not that message will resonate with Wall Street, it certainly should be popular with blue collar workers, especially in textile-heavy South Carolina, the key early-primary state.
Finally, on the third "pillar" of his campaign, Hunter is about as tough on border security as anybody in public life. He was the single driving force behind the tremendously successful double-fence along the border in San Diego, and he was the lead author of legislation passed last year to build a fence across almost the entire U.S.-Mexican border. Again, that's not Wall Street's position. But it's a position supported by a large and vocal portion of the Republican electorate.
BUT ENOUGH ABOUT THE ISSUES; here is a story about the sort of man Duncan Hunter is. Former House Appropriations Chairman Bob Livingston (my former boss) told it to me several months ago, and agreed this week to let me put it on the record.
Last summer, Livingston and his wife Bonnie suffered the tragedy of losing their middle son, Richard, to a freak accident as Richard was trimming a friend's Katrina-ravaged tree in New Orleans.
As background, Livingston describes himself and Hunter as longtime "friends. Not really close friends, but we've worked together ever since 1980 and gone fishing together and he's always been a great guy. Very direct, no malice, not at all Machiavellian, and generally a very, very positive individual."
Anyway, Livingston said, he and his family were in New Orleans preparing for Richard's funeral when they got word that Hunter had altered his plans in order to stop in New Orleans, en route home to a busy schedule for the House's August "recess," just to show support for the Livingstons.
"That Saturday morning, I figured I would go on over to Duncan's hotel to thank him for coming," Livingston said. "I realized I had the key to Richard's truck instead of my car, so I got into the truck and got halfway downtown and I noticed the fuel gauge starting to drop like a rock."
The truck's fuel line had sprung a major leak, and soon Livingston was out of gas and calling AAA on the phone for help.
"I called Duncan and told him I was stuck waiting for the tow truck, and he said to just wait there. Soon he showed up with two cups of coffee and we just shot the bull and waited for Triple A. He had just gotten on a plane and stopped by to wish us well, just to be a friend, and I don't think I will ever forget it."
Hunter clearly was surprised to be asked this week about that private act of friendship. But he quickly launched into praise for the Livingston family, and then said: "I think this is the real valuable part of this business, is the people. The most obscure part but the important part is the friendships and the loyalties you develop for people. Sure, on Capitol Hill you can find some of the worst people anywhere, but the best people in the world also work on Capitol Hill. With the good ones, you just care about each other."
Such is the innate decency of Duncan Hunter, presidential candidate. Conservatives ought to give him a listen.
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