The contours of Wisconsin’s Republican US Senate primary in 2018 seem pretty straightforward.
Leah Vukmir is a state Senator, and has held elected office since 2002. In the estimation of most Wisconsin Republicans, she’s been both competent and reliably conservative, and she’s running on her experience.
Kevin Nicholson is her primary challenger, and has been criticized by her for lacking elected office experience. He was formerly a marine and a businessmen before running for this office, and touts such an “outsider to politics” status as a positive.
There’s a third declared candidate, the perennial John Schiess, but honestly he’s not even relevant to the race.
The problem with viewing this race from the internet or ads, however, is that neither has much out there that’s both easy to find and all that specific. Vukmir may have a track record, but it’s on state-level issues, not federal ones… which often may as well be different worlds. Nicholson doesn’t have a voting record, and to boot is a former Democrat. Both have websites and marketing that are high on platitudes and short on specifics. In an election so far based largely on trust, there’s just not enough information out there for the average voter without going to talk to the candidates themselves.
So I did. I’ve talked with Nicholson, and reached out to Leah Vukmir, who has yet to respond.
They say you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, but Nicholson wears his own stereotypes well. He’s stolen Richard Spencer’s hair, and maybe his retro-80s sweater too… though such a vintage could just as easily be a Glenn Beck tweed look. He’s built and postured like a marine, which he was (touring both Iraq and Afghanistan), and he wears his service with pride as a core part of his identity. His strong jaw is that of an astronaut, President, or skilled swindler.
His stump speech is filled with the patriotism of service, the story of how reality beat the Democrat out of him (in his words, “reality intrudes”, and it’s a strength because “converts make the best advocates”), and that trick of politicians where they claim not to be one when they lack the prior experience of actually winning a race. It’s full of cultural signalling, from family values, to agricultural experience, to preference given to the “western” world that one would expect from most Republican politicians as effective standard fare, and a list of endorsements . However, it also included specifics, primarily about military matters where his heart seems to lay… but also a spattering of enough other issues to convince people that he’s actually thought much of the wider issues through.
What’s a stump speech worth? I don’t know, but answering questions seems worth more.
TLR: You mentioned the fact that Bannon endorsed you…
TLR: A week ago, there was an article on Breitbart listing a lot of… quasi-endorsements for candidates, that included you, and said some good things about you. In the article, they said these were candidates that would promote economic nationalism. Are you an economic nationalist, or are you an economic conservative?
KN: So, I… I’m not going to use anyone else’s terminology. I’ll tell you how I feel about that, list issue by issue, right? Here’s my concern. And I’ve talked to a lot of people about trade, right? Across the conservative spectrum. We don’t have free trade deals, right? We enter into these multilateral agreements that end up allowing other countries like China that subsidize industries and trade with the United States of America, and we give them access to our markets. On the flip side, we do not give the same subsides and help to American industries, yet we expose them to that competition. That’s not free trade.
And the one thing I will say, in my view, is that… that’s not a good place for the American industry, its’ not a good place for the American worker. I believe we should do more bilateral agreements… trade agreements… because that gives us greater leverage as a country, because everyone wants access to the American consumer market, period. And when we do that, we should hold our trade partners accountable, so they are not subsidizing industries that are coming into our nation and then trying to trade with us. Period.
I’ve said that to everyone. I’ve been very consistent. I’ve said that to Club for Growth, and… whomever else… right? I mean, in any given conversation. To me? That’s common sense. That’s how I’ll win with that. Period.
I believe we need to take care of our debt. If we don’t, it’s going to end up destabilizing our currency some day. It’s going to quash opportunities for economic growth. To me? That’s common sense. What does that mean? Does that mean less aircraft carriers? Not really. It means that we’ve got these long term promises that the federal government is making to people that it’s probably not going to be able to deliver unless we do something to rectify our issues. To me, that’s common sense. You have to deal with these kind of things.
TLR: You talk about long term issues being the biggest drivers of our debt, I’m assuming you’re talking about entitlements–social security, medicare… two of the three things that are bankrupting us. Um… How… These programs have a lot of problems and obviously need at least some kind of reform to be stable and to be there for when people like me are old enough to need them… how… would you reform programs like social security to get them to be solvent, if you are trying to save them?
KN: Sure. So, I mean, there’s a lot of things–lets start with the healthcare piece first, because, like, medicare, medicaid… all of them… if you really… very few people appropriately size the amount of promises that have been made in terms of healthcare, right? And so… one thing I’ll say about healthcare, is when we’re talking social security, medicaid, whatever remains in the private… you know… how we properly reform the private healthcare industry, we need a couple of key features injected.
One, price transparency, period. Two, uh, consumer choices, I mean, people literally have more choices to make between different health providers than health insurers… And then, three, greater portability of healthcare dollars, so consumers can actually move their healthcare dollars around, that’s healthcare savings accounts.
Any number of those different reforms can also be injected into medicare, certainly, in order to actually suppress healthcare costs. That has to happen, or anything else we do in any other part of the budget isn’t going to make a difference, because healthcare has becoming such an enormous amount of our spending.
With social security, I think there’s a couple of different ways to come at it. With younger people, I think we need to look at a whole host of different options. People might decide that they want to go the route of instead of defined benefit, defined contribution. Right?
Those that are on social security and are receiving benefits, I don’t think there should be any changes whatsoever. Those close to retirement, I don’t think there should be any changes whatsoever. For those of us who are younger, very few of us think we’re going to be retiring on social security. Very few of us will be, because the program is insolvent.
So, whether it’s looking at uh, changing, talking about means-testing, talking about changing the retirement age for those that are younger–again, not for those that are already on it or those who are close to– those are things that can have a huge, huge effect, in terms of overall finances of the program.
But, the bottom line is, we’ve got a problem with politicians making all these inter-generational promises. We’re going to pay you now, we’re going to make all these people wait who aren’t even born yet pay for it. That’s a bad place for our country to be. And you know, everyone will scream and yell, and Tammy Baldwin will say it’s terrible to call these things out, but it’s a really lousy thing to do to people who haven’t even been born yet. And none of us should think that’s OK. We have to be responsible. And if we don’t… if we’re not… we’re going to spend ourselves into oblivion, right? We’re not going to be the country that we are, offering the opportunity we do for people, let alone helping to keep Americans safe. Because if we can’t pay our bills, we’re not going to be able to project the strength that we need to.
TLR: Speaking of “strength,” you seem pretty passionate about issues surrounding defense and our military. Two recent developments I wondered your thoughts on. One, we recently lost some of our military people in Niger. Do you believe that Boko Haram is covered under the AUMF, which specifically said the people who attacked us on 9-11, and if it’s not covered… Does it matter, and what is Congress’ role in declaring or initiating war, especially given that we’ve been in Niger longer than the War Powers Act allows? And the other thing I wanted to ask about… do you think our recent actions with the Kurds in Iraq is us turning our backs on the Kurds, which have traditionally been our allies as they seek more independence from the Iraqi government?
KN: So, a couple of things I guess. I mean, Boko Haram, um… Let me talk at a high level about the commitment of American life to conflict. I’ll tell you my feelings on that, which will inform everything else you’re asking about. So, I’ve fought in two wars, I’ve seen good people lose their lives, I… personally have a very high bar for the commitment of American life to a conflict. A couple of different things that need to happen.
One, crystal clear mission. Crystal clear mission. I would argue we do not have that in Afghanistan in any way, shape or form. We don’t have that a lot of times in the smaller missions, like seek and destroy missions with Boko Haram either. Um, so crystal clear mission has to be in place.
Number two–resource allocation, human and financial, needs to be overwhelming. In other words, we need to be honest and be upfront about how much things are going to cost. Most importantly in terms of blood, but also in terms of financial resources. It has to be overwhelming, because in the long run that is what is going to save lives, both American and multi-national. It’s also what’s going to result in the conflict costing less. Because conflicts that are over quickly cost less in terms of blood and also human treasure.
Three, we have to have a plan to bring everybody home. Which, you can say that’s… yeah, of course. But we’re still in Germany, and still in Japan. Let’s start with that, right? Let’s be honest about saving contingents for conflicts that really need them. And let’s be honest from the upfront, right? This is not my saying don’t do it, this is my saying let’s be honest about it.
And then four, have a plan to take care of everybody serving. That means them, that means their families. That can be very, very expensive, and that’s a lifetime commitment, and one that… Well, it goes all the way back to President Washington and President Lincoln at the close of the war and what we can think of as the modern VA, that we have to take care of, not just veterans, but widows and orphans too. Now, everything I’ve said is common sense, right? But I can tell you that there’s a lot of policy makers who think that through before they take that vote.
To your question, the meta-question which is what is Congress’ obligation here, uh… in terms of authorizing conflict? I think they should do it almost always when possible. There might be certain times when there’s a time-sensitive mission that the President has to make a quick decision to send somebody in, that’s a different issue. Um, but… on… a larger scale event, Congress has largely abdicated it’s duties to take actual authorization votes, and it should. Because they should have to go through this exercise. The mental exercise and the emotional exercise of saying ‘I’m going to send Americans into harm’s way, some may lose their lives, but I believe this mission is important enough’.
TLR: So you think Congress should authorize any act of war that isn’t an imminent threat to us that–
KN: Yeah, yeah. Well… what does that even… well, now you’ll ask me what’s an imminent threat. Case by case, right? I don’t know. I mean… I couldn’t even define if for you completely. There are imminent threats, they are real, and Congress can’t vote on every single one of them.
But a sustained war? Yes sir. And they should have to. And for all the reasons you saw with, let’s look at what happened in Iraq, right? It’ll be like John Kerry, who said, yeah… ‘Ohhh, well, I was for it, but now I’m not’. Make people held to account, make them be upfront about it, and when people’s lives are on the line you don’t get them in a war they should not get in to.
So Boko Haram… case by case basis… is it a threat to us on a given day? Do I think Boko Haram provi… like, at this moment, provides an existential threat to American citizens? No, I don’t. Ah… do I think it could grow to a threat that could eventually involve American interests? Certainly, yes. And… in some cases, they probably have already. But… I would run that exercise we just talked on a mission by mission basis… is this worth sending American service members into conflict?
TLR: And the Kurds?
KN: And the Kurds? Look, I’ll say this about the Kurds. I mentioned John Bolton endorsing me and John and I have talked about this, the Ambassador and I have talked about this quite a bit… my view is this: I think there should be an independent Kurdistan nation, I really do.
And for a long time, we’ve been staying away from that because we didn’t want to, ah, well, anger Turkey. But Turkey has all but turned it’s back on NATO and turned towards the Russian-ized world, right? That to me has opened up the door for us to say that between Turkey, Iran, where there’s a large Kurdish population, and Iraq, that yes, it is the right thing to do to allow the Kurds to form their own nation.
They have, in almost all instances, proven their ability to defeat threats, to take care of themselves, and to show a set of values that are far more consistent with ours than many other players in the region. So I believe that they deserve that. Um… what we can do to encourage that without shedding more American blood is a different question, and that’s why it’s a case by case basis, but I believe that it’s the right thing to do in the long term. I think it’ll resolve more conflicts than it will start.
TLR: One last unrelated one, I don’t want to not get this one in… do you support a full audit of the federal reserve and at least a partial audit of the pentagon?
KN: Say? One more time? Sorry.
TLR: Do you support a full audit of the federal reserve and at least a partial audit of the pentagon?
KN: Yes, yes. Audits are… that’s an easy one. Yes. More… more sunlight’s a good thing, less sunlight’s a bad thing. Yes. I think that’s perfectly reasonable. I think, again, this is our government, we consent to it’s existence, and we should have a right to see inside of it. Absolutely. One hundred percent.
TLR: Obviously the most important question of the night… what’s your favorite Star Wars movie?
KN: Ah… Empire. The Empire Strikes Back.
I couldn’t have ended my conversation with him on a better note.