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RCP: Interview with Mitt Romney

February 26th, 2007 justinhart

Real Clear Politics sat down with Mitt for an interview. Enjoy:

Interview With Mitt Romney

By Tom Bevan

(Editor’s note: I sat down with Governor Romney at this headquarters in Boston on Friday. I asked to record the interview and Governor Romney agreed without hesitation, and as I turn the recorder on Romney is in the middle of commenting on the fact that his every utterance these days is captured on tape in one way or another.)

ROMNEY: You’ve got to be really careful about what you say and do anywhere you are. I actually had a dream about being in parking garage and having somebody in front of me taking too long to get their change and honking the horn and then yelling back, and getting out and yelling at each other and then seeing it on YouTube the next day. So I said ‘OK’, I’ve got to really be careful, you know, in my personal life.

RCP: So how’s the campaign going for you so far? Is it what you expected?

ROMNEY: It’s gotten going a lot faster than I would have expected. I saw George Stephanopoulos last week, he said he was hired on as the first Clinton campaign employee in what would be the equivalent of October of this year. And we have many tens of employees at this point. And even this early the response in states that really are early in the process: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, the response is really quite surprising. Large numbers of people, lots of questions, enthusiastic reaction.

RCP: What’s the question you get asked most?

ROMNEY: From Republican crowds most often the question relates to immigration, then education and healthcare. Interestingly, very rarely is there a question about foreign policy, Iraq, Iran. I typically have to insert those into my opening remarks to get the audience to draw out on that at all.

I think it’s in part because Republican audiences don’t want to talk about it. It hasn’t gone well. It feels like the team is losing and people don’t want to hear about it.

RCP: Speaking of, yesterday there were reports you issued some mild criticism of the Bush administration policy in Iraq, saying it wasn’t going as well as many had liked. John McCain said recently he thought Secretary Rumsfeld would go down as one of the worst Defense Secretaries in history. Dick Cheney responded by saying he thought Rumsfeld had been a great Secretary of Defense and that he’d done a super job. What do you think? What’s your impression of the job Rumsfeld did?

ROMNEY: I really don’t think pointing fingers at individuals is a productive exercise at this point. Clearly the president would agree the buck stops with him. He’s responsible for the management of our affairs, and I would not suggest we go and try and find individuals within various departments to assume the blame.

In my view, and I’ve said this many times before, we did an excellent job knocking down Saddam Hussein’s government, but we did less than a superb job in managing the post major-conflict period. And I think we were underprepared for it, under planned, under staffed, and under managed. And because of our shortcomings in those areas we’ve contributed to the difficult position in which we find ourselves. But we are where we are.

And if you, like me, have done a lot of reading about the process that led up to the conflict and the preparations for the post-major conflict period, you too will recognize that, if these accounts are accurate, we’ve made a lot of errors in terms of preparation. And whether you’ve read the Looming Tower, or The Assassin’s Gate, or Cobra II, or Paul Bremer’s book or Gen. Zinni’s book, they come to that set of conclusions even though they come from very different viewpoints.

RCP: And do you believe it’s still fixable at this point?

ROMNEY: Yes. I think there is a reasonable course - or, let me restate that, there’s a reasonable probability that there is a path to securing the nation and establishing stability for a central government. I don’t say that’s a path with high confidence of being successful, but there’s still a reasonable probability that path can be pursued. And that’s why I think the president is right to add to the military mission the responsibility for securing Baghdad and the population of Baghdad.

I think that should have been done a lot earlier and should have been part of the initial plan. But, be that as it may, it’s now being added to the mission. And when you add a mission to our military that means you need to add troop strength to carry it out. We’ll see how well that plan is working. It will probably play out over a matter of five to six months, or more. But it’s months, not years.

I presume that the Defense Department and the President have worked out with al-Maliki’s government what the milestones are and what the timetable is for determining if we’re being successful in this new effort. And we’ll be able to judge, are we accomplishing what we hope to accomplish? Those don’t have to be made public, although I think it’d be helpful if in some cases they were, so the public could understand and have credibility behind the accomplishments, if there are accomplishments. I think it’s much broader, for instance, than just saying, “are there fewer attacks?” It’s much more devoted to determining are the Iraqi military and police forces able to take the lead at some stage here in providing for the security for their people.

RCP: And, as you said, it’ll play out over course of five or six months. That’s what most experts have said. But what happens if it’s not successful, or not as successful as we’d hoped? What then?

ROMNEY: If you establish milestones, and you determine that we’re not making progress against those milestones, then you know the strategy isn’t working and you have to turn to Plan B or C. I’m not going to forecast what Plan B or C might be. Clearly there are people who say we should just turn and walk out. There are others who say we should divide the country in various - three, four, five or more parts.

There are additional risks associated with those courses that would suggest we don’t want to take those options unless there is no other option available. And the additional risks you’re familiar with. If you divide the country in parts Iran may try and seize the Iraqi portion - excuse me the Shia portion of Iraq. Al-Qaeda could play a dominating role in the Sunni portion. The Kurdish population could destabilize the Kurds in Turkey and could create conflict across the border. You could have a regional conflict develop. And for all of those additional reasons and risks, you wouldn’t want to pursue that course unless there were no other option available.

RCP: On a related subject: Iran. You made some comment yesterday about Iran. If Iran hasn’t acquired nuclear weapons by January 2009 when President Romney takes office, would they acquire them under a Romney administration?

ROMNEY: I think it’s unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon. Unacceptable to our interests and to the interest of the civilized world. For that reason I think we should exert every source of our world pressure to keep Iran from pursuing that course. And, of course, the military option must be left on the table

In my view, at this stage, we should be doing as the Bush administration has begun, which is tightening economic sanctions, as well as tightening diplomatic isolation, we should be communicating to the Iranian people the downsides of becoming a nuclear power, we should be engaging the moderate Muslim states in the neighborhood to help put pressure as well on Iran and to help us by taking pressure off of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Finally, in my view, we should be putting together a much broader comprehensive strategy to defeat radical jihad in the world of Islam.

RCP: So, just to phrase it a different way, it’s your view that the national security risk to the United States of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon outweighs -

ROMNEY: Is extreme…

RCP: and outweighs any sort of adverse effect or fallout that might come from attacking them either with airstrikes and/or some sort of ground force.

ROMNEY: You know I won’t describe precisely what action should be taken or how it would be taken, but clearly the consequences of a nuclear Iraq - excuse me, a nuclear Iran - for the world and for America are so severe that military options have to remain on the table. Those options I have not discussed in great depth with the US military, so I’m not going to describe what particular path would be considered, but I can say that given the fact that we would never want to pursue a military option unless we had pursued every other reasonable option, I want to make sure we are aggressively pursuing those other options. And those other options relate to tightening economic sanctions so that Ahmadinejad is increasingly unpopular in his own country, so that religious leaders like Khamenei, as well as the public at large, are dissatisfied with him and ultimately sweep him from power, or cause him to withdraw his nuclear ambition. And that’s why it’s so important for us -

RCP: Do you think that’s probable?

ROMNEY: Yeah, I think that - in fact the Bush administration’s restrictions on credit and banking are already having an impact. Ahmadinejad did fall behind in the most recent elections. Our intelligence in Iran is somewhat limited, as it is throughout the Middle East, but there is indication among some observers that Ahmadinejad is on a bit of thin ice and that if we were to continue to exert extensive pressure on his economy and the diplomatic reception that he and his fellow Iranians receive around the world that that could have the desired effect of either causing him to retreat to a certain degree or to be replaced by a leader that had more moderate views.

RCP: Switching gears to a lighter subject, for our readers to get a better sense of who you are as a person, tell me something about yourself that only people who know you well know.

ROMNEY: I love practical jokes and humor. That there’s frankly no joke that I don’t think is funny. I love practical jokes, but I don’t like being scared. My sons will tell you that when they have jumped out of the tree when I’m coming from work in the middle of the night and said “boo” to me, that there is swift and severe retribution.

I have five boys in the family, and it’s constant competition, sport, humor, and practical jokes. For instance, when we gathered for my big - was it the announcement day, no I guess it was the big fund raising thing, we were going to have a January national call day - all my sons came back to gather for that. We were there at the dinner table and someone said, “hey, should we go have a 440 race at the high school?” Sure enough, we all went upstairs and found our respective jogging shorts, put on tennis shoes or running shoes, went over to the high school and had a 440 competition at the track.

RCP: Who won?

ROMNEY: I came in last. I was thinking I could beat my son Ben but, boy, even though he’s in medical school and has gotta be out of shape, he still beat me, darn it!

RCP: One last question, and forgive me if you’ve already been asked and answered this question because I haven’t seen it. Being that we celebrated President’s Day this week, and I see John Adams by David McCullough here on the table… who is your favorite President?

ROMNEY: Ah, it’s too hard to pick a favorite President. It really is. It’s like picking your favorite from a box of chocolates - I love all of them. There are, of course, the famous and great presidents that everybody knows and says “ah, Lincoln, Washington.” How could anyone not choose Lincoln and Washington, and they’re so obviously so far above the standard of Presidents in our land or any land, that of course they have to be at the top of the list.

But I love John Adams. His book is on my desk there. The first time I read that book by David McCullough when I got to the last page I literally had tears in my eyes because I felt like I was losing a family friend.

I love Teddy Roosevelt. I read everything I can get my hands on about Teddy Roosevelt. Anybody who says “Bully” is a friend of mine. And his enthusiasm, his energy, his can-do attitude was just extraordinary.

From a more modern standpoint, you’ve gotta love Ronald Reagan. I respected him for his optimism, his humor, the glint in his eye throughout his career. But I find that as I get older and older, he gets smarter and smarter as well.

RCP: Any Democrats at the top of list?

ROMNEY: Truman was a man I see as having real character and the courage of his convictions. And FDR at a great time of need was a communicator that made a real difference for America. Clearly, there are a number of his policies that I vehemently disagree with. But I think as you look at American presidents, more important than their policy was their character, and those who brought something to the American spirit are one who we remember with affection and admiration for generations.

I frankly don’t know whether Teddy Roosevelt’s policies would be accepted by the Republican party today, but Teddy Roosevelt was as Republican as any Republican I know.

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