John Bolton Is Still Thinking About Rescuing the GOP in 2016

The darkest horse gets ready for Iowa.
Photograph by Getty Images

John Bolton, the former American ambassador to the United Nations, may run for president. Yes, yes, he said that in 2011, and he ended up taking a pass, endorsing Mitt Romney, and sticking with his busy life of columns, Fox News appearances, and legal work in Washington. This year might be different.

"I did look at running in 2011," Bolton said in an interview before heading to Iowa for Saturdays' Citizens United-sponsored Iowa Freedom Summit. "Whatever bright idea I had 2011, I waited too long. This year, I think the summer is the outer limit for everybody, and I’m in a different position from the typical candidate in that I don't have some elective office to tend to."

Some people run for president to build a brand. Bolton, who has never won elective office, has an astoundingly durable brand already. He was just on TV this week, several times, denouncing the president for delivering the State of the Union from a "dream world." He's advised Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who may run for president (and will be on the Freedom Summit rostrum) on foreign policy. Years removed from his job in the George W. Bush administration, he launched a PAC and Super PAC in 2013 and raised an aggregated $7.5 million for Republican hawks running for office, most of whom won. That was probably helped by the fitful presidential race speculation, and Bolton insists that he may run if other Republican contenders prove unserious about foreign policy. He wouldn't, for example, say that Mitt Romney's foreign policy views had been vindicated after 2012, and that he deserved another shot at the White House.

“I don’t see myself as fulfilling the function of S&P index for other candidates,” said Bolton. “I’m concerned overall with our foreign policy. It’s a question not of a couple of grafs in a stump speech, but of a much broader and focused debate on the big picture.”

A year ago, Bolton's 2016 ambitions seemed to grow out of the Rand Paul boomlet, when the inward-looking libertarian was being called a "frontrunner." With Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney getting serious about 2016, the foreign policy landscape has changed considerably.

“I don’t think the neo-isolationism represented by Rand Paul is anything like a significant factor in the GOP as a whole," said Bolton. "But if you don’t have a debate on it, candidates who advocate that line might be better than you expect, because they’re not exposed. If they have an attractive domestic policy, people might look past their foreign policy. I think defeating this virus is important.”

Would Bolton vote for Paul if he won the nomination? "Anybody who thinks Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy is better than Obama's is dreaming. I’d grit my teeth and vote for Paul.”

Bolton's prepared remarks for Saturday's summit largely focus on foreign policy. In them he warns of Ebola as a "potential biological WMD," explaining that "Russian defectors have said it was part of Moscow’s biological weapons program." When he talks about the economy, it's in the context that "a strong economy depends on [a] strong international presence."

But when pressed on why he might not want to be president, or if there was anything he disliked about the idea, Bolton insisted that he would focus on more than foreign policy. "If I run it’ll be a 360 degree candidacy," he said. "If the press—you’ll forgive me—can say 'He’s a one issue candidate,' they can dismiss me."

So, Bolton made clear that he would not follow Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan down the path of running on limiting inequality. "No, what we should focus on is reducing the federal government as a part of economy," he said. "It shouldn't be more than 16 percent of the economy. Right now it's in the 23 percent range." He paraphrased a debate Margaret Thatcher had with a British Labour Party leader: "You are so concerned with equality, you’d be happy with a lower standard of living." He claimed that President Obama had defended tax increases by calling them "social justice." (The president's typically avoided saying those words, but been accused of meaning them.) 

Bolton wants to roll back the Obama executive orders on immigration. "This begs the question of what the country is," he explained. "Back in the 19th century, when there were massive waves of new immigrants, it wasn’t immigration that was an issue. It was the question of assimilation, of people all over world forming new nationality. Today it’s hard for people to talk about Americanization. It's not politically correct. I’d welcome more Americans, but that doesn’t mean more bodies in the country. It means making them into Americans."

Bolton went on to social issues, reaffirming that he favored legal gay marriage ("I've felt that way for three or four years") while insisting there wasn't "a constitutional right to it." Before we could get into the weeds about "religious liberty," he wanted to cover another topic: "Do you want to know my abortion position?" (Illegal except in cases of rape and incest, "the Reagan position.")

Bolton wrapped up, having given a combination of things he could say on Fox News and things that might lose the crowd in a Dubuque or Sioux City town hall. That was fine; Bolton was heading to New Hampshire in two weeks.

In Iowa, the idea of a Bolton candidacy was perfectly fine with Rep. Steve King. When I mentioned that I'd talked to Bolton, King asked for a readout on his plans. When I said that Bolton would run if he worried the GOP field didn't get serious about foreign policy, King was delighted.

"That's honorable," he said. "He is our foreign policy guy, and I'm glad he's here. He's the guy I think of when I think of someone who processes the question and gives you a real answer every time. That's not the case with a lot of people in this business."

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