How serious is John Bolton about potentially running for president? He’s about to start hiring for his political operation.
The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and conservative star is ready to hit the road, play in the 2014 midterm elections, and flesh out his domestic-policy views —including his support for gay marriage — in preparation for throwing his hat in the ring in 2016.
For most former executive-branch appointees, this is the good life. Paid speeches, prestigious op-ed placements, a TV contract, and a think-tank fellowship — not bad for a 64-year-old former diplomat, a onetime power broker now out of power. “I like to say that I don’t have one job, but several,” Bolton tells me with a quick chuckle, quite aware of his plum perch. “I write, I speak, and I practice law.” As Mark Leibovich observes in his book This Town, such amorphous employment is the ultimate sign of clout in the capital. “You know you’ve made it in D.C.,” he writes, “when someone says that ‘it isn’t clear what he does’ about you.”
But this life, this plush political winter, isn’t enough for Bolton, who’s best known for his controversial tenure at Turtle Bay during George W. Bush’s administration. He wants to be president of the United States, or, at the very least, a provocative contender for the Republican nomination in 2016. “My hypothesis is that voters are practical and they care more about national security than the media seems to believe; I think, right now, especially after two terms of President Obama, they want a president who has the know-how to lead during a crisis, a president who can defend our national interests,” he says.
Over the past few months, Bolton confides, he has called veteran Republican strategists and friends from the Bush years, informally pitching them on what he envisions as a policy-driven, hawkish campaign. Most of the people on the other side of the line are surprised, even shocked, to hear that Bolton, a no-nonsense, private man, is serious. Bolton, though, presses on, and urges them to e-mail him tidbits of advice or early-state contact information. “I’ve enjoyed the process,” he says. “It’s taken some time to put together, since I’m paying close attention to the business details of how to run a PAC, like why it costs so much to do direct mail. At times, I feel like I’m back at Covington & Burling doing campaign-finance law.”
He’s now well beyond simply musing in AEI’s cafeteria. “You may recall that I thought about running back in late 2011, and looked into it, but since running for president has become this massive, four-year endeavor, [and] I didn’t have an operation in place, I decided against it,” Bolton says. “Then I ended up watching the Republican debates, and I got furious when I saw Herman Cain being asked about pizza before he was asked about foreign policy. I thought to myself, ‘This is horrible. We’re letting the media run these debates, and no one is discussing the issues.’”
“After that, I sat back and thought that if I had the chance, I had to do something more for my party and my country than idly watching as the debate on foreign policy and America’s role in the world devolves into these bumper-sticker slogans, or veers toward the isolationist undercurrent that’s growing,” he continues. “That means forming a political-action committee and a super PAC, hitting the road and speaking out, and looking into my own campaign, and I’m doing all of that.”
For now, Bolton, officially speaking, is a one-man exploratory campaign, but he hopes to hire a small staff in the coming months. A few hires are already on his radar, but he declines to name them. “Bottom line, I’m going to play in 2014 races, testing whether a foreign-policy-focused political organization or candidacy can find a way to shape the national debate,” he says. The PACs don’t have names yet, but Bolton says he’s close to finalizing what he wants to call them, and is planning to do a rollout of sorts “after Labor Day,” in either September or October. “The money aspect, of course, is going to be critical,” he says. “I’m going to find out if there’s money out there to get behind a foreign-policy-focused effort that has the threat of international terrorism at the top of its lists, as well as the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons, the ongoing collapse of the Middle East, and the threats from Russia and China.”
Bolton has also grappled with issues beyond foreign policy, and strategized about how he could chart a narrow path to the nomination should his candidacy catch fire. “If I run, I’m going to be talking a lot about foreign policy, but I’m not going to be a single-issue candidate,” he says. “When I was thinking about this last time, I kept hearing from people that a single-issue campaign wouldn’t really work in the current political climate, and I’ve come to agree with that perspective. This fall, when I’m in places like Harrisburg, Penn., or Miami, I’m going to get into the broader problems that face the country and the Republican party.”
“Republicans should be seizing foreign policy, and not become a pale shadow of the Democratic party,” Bolton says. “The Democratic party, under Obama, is weak on foreign policy and national security, unlike it has been in years past. Joe Lieberman has retired, there’s no Scoop Jackson wing in the Senate. Republicans have an opportunity to argue and win back the debate, to put things on the agenda that have fallen away. I firmly believe that if a Republican can do that as a candidate, and make a compelling case in Iowa, South Carolina, and New Hampshire, well before a general election, then there’s a real opportunity to win.”
Before being tapped for the U.N. post, Bolton was a fixture in the executive branch and at the State Department in Foggy Bottom, serving as under secretary for arms control from 2001 to 2005. During the George H. W. Bush administration, he served as assistant secretary of state, and in the Reagan administration he was an assistant attorney general and an administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development. “I’ve been in the executive branch, I know it,” Bolton says. “The skills a president needs, to run the executive branch, are of a very specific type, and different than the skills you need in the legislature.”
Moving ahead, Bolton is expecting two things: Conservatives who have long cheered him may be turned off by some of his social views, and the national political press will likely be divided between hostility and indifference. “I have the advantage or disadvantage of having never run before, and I speak in longer sentences than you find on Twitter,” he says. “But that’s part of my hypothesis. People are ready for something with more depth.” On domestic issues, he says, he’s a self-proclaimed “libertarian,” which he knows will jar people who think he’s interested in running purely to irk Senator Rand Paul, another likely 2016 candidate and Bolton’s ideological opposite on foreign policy. “My argument is that you can’t protect your liberties at home unless we are protected internationally,” he says. “I think that argument can have currency across the Republican spectrum.”
“I can go to voters and tell them, without reservation, that I’m for limited government, as much as possible, on taxes, on regulations, but on foreign policy, I want to make sure we’re protected,” Bolton explains. “It’d be a mix of being against nanny-ism and libertarianism. On abortion, I’m about the same as Reagan; I’m against it except in the cases of rape, incest, or the life of the mother. On gay marriage, I support it, at both the state level and the federal level. Gay marriage is something I’ve thought about at length as I’ve looked at my future. I concluded, a couple years ago, that I think it should be permissible and treated the same at both levels.”
Bolton calls himself a Goldwater conservative, for the most part, at heart. (Goldwater, too, was more moderate on social issues later in his career.) He grew up in Baltimore in the 1950s and 1960s, and The Conscience of a Conservative was one of his favorite books during childhood. In 1964, he spent Election Day taking leaflets around the city, encouraging his neighbors to vote for the Arizona conservative. He later went on to intern for Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s vice president. In the early 1970s he earned a bachelor’s degree and law degree from Yale, where, he recalls, he never fit in with the era’s anti-Vietnam protesters.
Bolton stops me when I press him for more information about his younger years. He says he doesn’t mean to be rude, but if he pulls the trigger and runs, he doesn’t want his candidacy to “be about some kind of narrative, which I know all of the reporters like to write.” He’d rather be known as a policy man who eschews biography and pomp. “People keep telling me that I have to ‘tell my story,’ but I’d rather not,” he says. “I don’t feel terribly comfortable doing it, and I don’t think my private life is different from other Americans’, so what does it have to do with being qualified to be president? I’m betting people would much rather hear less of that stuff.”
Former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber, another former Romney campaign adviser, who has known Bolton for three decades, is skeptical. “John is an extraordinary person, and he could be a prominent spokesman for the internationalist point of view on the Republican side, but it’s doubtful he can get to critical mass as a national candidate,” Weber says. “Can you develop a grassroots following around American international leadership with a hawkish edge? Maybe, but that’s not where a lot of the public opinion is right now on those issues, and it’s not often that national security and foreign policy dominates a Republican-primary debate.”
John Weaver, a GOP operative who advised former Utah governor Jon Huntsman during last year’s primary, and tried to use his candidate’s foreign-policy cred to elevate him, is similarly pessimistic. “We now live in a time where there’s not a lot of focus on foreign policy, except for lurching from crisis to crisis,” he says. “It was even hard for John McCain, when I was working for him back in 2000, to get attention for his foreign-policy positions until he won the New Hampshire primary. We’d have him give a big speech on foreign policy and it’d promptly be ignored. Let’s face it: Campaigns are now all about process, the horse race, and polling, and you can try to do something different, but it probably won’t work.”
Steve Grubbs, who advised Herman Cain’s 2012 primary campaign in Iowa, working on turning a small campaign into a larger movement, says Bolton doesn’t recognize the challenges of going to Iowa these days, where such politicians as Paul and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas are giving speeches and building shadow campaigns at a much larger level than making calls to old Bush hands and slowly forming PACs. “In Iowa, you’ve got to be warm and fuzzy to make the relationships work,” he says. “He’s going to need to find some champions here to work for him and really touch the voters. If he ends up going on a lecture tour, it’d be interesting, but not much more. He’d need a lot of national media to lift him.”
Not everyone, though, is pouring cold water on Bolton’s aspirations. Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican party, got to know Bolton a few years ago when Bolton, soon after he left the Bush administration, came up to the Granite State to give a speech to the state GOP. The pair clicked, and they have since kept in touch. When Bolton called Cullen this summer about his White House dreams, Cullen invited him to visit. Late next month, Bolton will make the trip, attending a house party at Cullen’s home in Dover, N.H., as well as a fundraiser in Keene and a handful of smaller events.
Cullen tells me that, with an open Republican presidential primary on the horizon, any candidate with strong name-identification and enthusiasm has an outside shot at winning the first-in-the-nation primary. He also believes that the growing divide in the party between the conservatives weary of foreign conflicts and U.S. intervention, such as Paul, and the conservatives like Bolton who advocate a more muscular approach will only widen, potentially giving someone like Bolton room to rise.
“Look, I don’t have a close personal relationship with him, but I like how he’s coming at this from a policy angle, making it about intellectual arguments regarding the future of the country and the party,” Cullen says. “We need more of his type in the party, a counter to the neo-isolationist view that seems to be more and more of a force. He’ll get a hearing.”
Bill Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard and one of Bolton’s confidants, isn’t ready to write him off, either. “The more thoughtful and intelligent candidates the better,” he says. “Run, John, run!”
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.