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Seeking policy positions from Pete Hegseth

The Republican who wants to challenge Sen. Amy Klobuchar explains why he isn’t ready with detailed policy answers.

Republican Pete Hegseth declaring his U.S. Senate candidacy Thursday morning at the state Capitol.

Later this morning (assuming you are reading this before 11:15 a.m.), Capt. Pete Hegseth, age 31, product of Forest Lake High School and Princeton University (with a not-yet-completed grad degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard), just released from three tours of overseas active duty that took him to Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, will announce his candidacy for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, seeking to challenge Minnesota’s senior Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

I’m being dramatic, but it’s just an act. This is no scoop. Hegseth (who, by the way, would be the youngest senator in three decades if his ambition is realized) has been disclosing his plans to run as a Republican against Klobuchar for a couple of weeks. See this Strib piece or this video interview with my friend Ed Morrison when Hegseth turned up at a righty blogger gathering in a Roseville Mexican restaurant.

So, rather than talk about biography or campaign strategy, I decided to go eye-wateringly substantive and press Hegseth for details on what he would stand for as a candidate and as a senator and to explain why he believes his policies would be better for Minnesota and the nation than Klobuchar’s.

I’m afraid it actually didn’t go well. Hegseth ended up explaining why he wasn’t ready with detailed policy answers (he just got off active duty on Feb. 9) and why it would be unwise to be too specific about how he would cut the deficit, simplify the tax code or “reform” the entitlement programs because there are certain words and phrases that once you say them give openings to your opponents to make you look bad. Hegseth said he didn’t want to be “painted into a box.”

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I suppose he has a point about modern politics. Everyone is for cutting the deficit but every specific way of getting it done gores someone’s ox. But really, what are campaigns for?

Dumb question. They are for reciting phrases that have been tested in focus groups and found popular, then moving on to the next poll-tested phrase. But that mostly works in the medium of the bumper sticker or maybe the 30-second spot. And Hegseth was kind (or foolish) enough to stay on the phone with me for half an hour.

If you have the attention span for it, here’s how it went. The quotes are quotes and the rest are paraphrases.

Why he’s running?

“I’m the best person to make the kinds of arguments that we need to be making as a party and in this country about the role of government and about the out-of-control spending that we have. About all these issues that matter to Republicans and, I believe, to Minnesotans, that I can articulate those in a way that connects with everyday average Minnesotans who look at the government and see it as too complex and out of touch and growing in a way that they can’t relate to…

“We’re spending on our credit card and running up a debt that we can’t afford to pay back.

 “I really believe in this great country of ours and what we stand for, the values that we espouse and our Declaration and Constitution and the institutions that represent that.

“I see this as an extension of service” (such as his service in the military).

Why is Klobuchar popular and why doesn’t she deserve reelection?

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Because she talked a good game to get elected and people haven’t paid enough attention to how she has voted.

“I don’t like representation that says one thing, then goes to Washington and votes another way, and then comes back and hopes that nobody was looking or paying attention.”

What are some of the votes that disqualify Klobuchar?

She campaign heavily on deficits and debt but has voted six times to raise the debt ceiling and the debt has almost doubled during her term. She voted for TARP, for the $837 billion bailout of Wall Street. She voted for Obamacare. Hegseth opposes all of those things.

Would Hegseth have voted against raising the debt ceiling if it meant default?

“Without the commensurate spending cuts, we can’t just keep raising the debt ceiling. We can’t keep borrowing 40 cents on the dollar. We are driving ourselves toward an inevitable future where those choices are made for us.

“Families don’t spend this way. Businesses don’t spend this way. There’s a point where you can’t just keep saying, ‘I’ll up my credit card limit’ again and again.”

Would tax increases be part of his approach to bringing down the deficit?

“I don’t think it makes sense to raise taxes on people until you prove that you can get spending under control.

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“At this point, it’s not a revenue issue, it’s a spending issue.”

How about as part of a package that started bringing spending down, could tax increases also be part of the solution?

“There’s not a point in the future when I would see a desire or a need to raise taxes until we get spending under control.”

Hegseth not only would have opposed the big health care legislation known as Obamacare, but he favors full repeal. After repealing Obamacare, what (if anything) would he vote to put in place to reduce the large portion of Americans who lack health insurance?

Turns out there’s nothing specific but these qualities were mentioned: “Patient centered,” “Shouldn’t have government mandates,” “Consumer-driven health care” that puts the “consumer in charge,” has “transparency in costs,” (patients should “know what they are paying and have options for what they want to pay for, as opposed to the lack of choice” represented by Obamacare).

I pressed him to know whether there are plans now in front of the Congress that he could support to do those things.

“We’re going to look at a lot of different plans and we’ll roll that out” later in the campaign.

Since deficit and debt is a major issue, since the feds are currently spending about $1 trillion a year more than they are collecting, how close is he to identifying a trillion dollars in annual savings?

“Everything is on the table for cuts.”

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 “You’ve got to look at the big drivers of our debt. You’ve got to look at the Defense budget. I know you’re going to try to pin me down on specifics. And we’re in the process of developing all of that. But we will go out and have a serious conversation about the massive drivers of our deficit situation and our debt.”

The other biggest cost factor are the big entitlement programs.

What does he propose to do about Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security?

“No one is talking massive privatization or wholesale getting rid of or undermining or removing. We’re talking about strengthening them for future generations and that will require some serious discussion in Washington about how you attack these entitlement program. No, not ‘attack.’ How you ‘reform’ these entitlement program in a way that makes them solvent for future generations.

“And I think there will be need to make difficult choices and so far our senior senator has shown an unwillingness to take them on…”

If it isn’t privatization, I asked for some concrete measures to reduce entitlement spending.

“What I’m saying is that I understand how folks will attempt to characterize reform. And I’ve watched how Senator Klobuchar has attempted to characterize how others have talked about reform. Characterizing it as ‘ending Medicare as we know it.’

“That’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about making sure that Medicare is around so that my parents enjoy it and have it and use it. And if we don’t make tough choices now, it won’t be around in the same form that it is. That’s what I’m talking about when I talk about the phrase…  ‘Privatize’ is a bomb that people throw to avoid serious discussion.”

Yes, but what is this “reform” that would cut costs without ending Medicare (or Social Security) as we know it?

“If you’re talking about something like Medicare, it would be that fee-for-service is not sustainable. There’s no transparency in costs. There’s no incentive to improve the quality of care. So, a premium support plan of some kind, without pinning myself down to one in particular is the type of thing that we need to be looking at.

“I would also say that there should be an option in there for the traditional Medicare system, if folks wanted to stay in it, which gets around this idea that anything we’re talking about would, quote, end Medicare as we know it.

(I didn’t say it at the time, but the traditional Medicare system is based on fee-for-service, which Hegseth said a minute earlier is unsustainable.) I asked how, if too many people stayed in traditional Medicare, that would result in big savings. He said that as people chose the “premium support” alternative, that would spark the power of free-market forces to bring down costs.

How has Obama done on Iraq and Afghanistan?

Hegseth first came to public attention as one of the founders of “Vets for Freedom,” which strongly supported the troop “surge” in Iraq. I asked him whether he supported the actions of President Obama to end the combat mission in Iraq and to set a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“In Iraq, they were wedded to a political desire to, quote, end the war. And therefore did not show the kind of aggressive negotiations that should have been had to make sure that we were able to stand alongside, in a very limited way, the Iraqis’ ability to continue to build their military and provide a stable outcome there.

“It’s pretty hard to be successful when you’re simultaneously telling the enemy when you’re going to leave. I was one who disagreed with Senator Obama in 2008 on the Iraq surge, but was supportive of the decision to surge in Afghanistan in 2009, but was very wary of that deadline. And, just having gotten back from Afghanistan, I can attest to you the great damage that that deadline does to our ability to demonstrate that we’re there to stand beside a floundering Afghan government.

“So I don’t think the decisions were made on either front out of a desire to find the best outcome but out of a desire to get out as quickly as possible. But I wouldn’t be painted into a box of saying that that means we’re there indefinitely either.”

Notwithstanding all of the above, Hegseth wants the centerpiece of his message to be how to get the economy moving. How would he as a senator try to make that happen?

“The fundamental piece is understanding that it isn’t government that creates jobs. It’s small businesses and individuals that step out and take a risk put their own money on the line and create new businesses or expand existing businesses.

“It’s not a politician’s job to step out and say, ‘I create jobs,’ but to help create a climate in which businesses can flourish through a simplifying of the tax code so it’s not something that’s just maximized by those who understand and can pay lawyers who understand it. It’s creating a predictable environment so that businesses know or think they know what’s coming down the pike and can plan accordingly and can therefore think about hiring.”

He has seen estimates that government regulations add $10,000 or more to the cost each employer pays, per employee, just to deal with and comply with regulations.

“Government’s job is to as best we can reduce regulations, provide predictability and simplify the tax code in a way where these businesses can actually do the kind of job creation that it isn’t government’s job to do.”

Hegseth favors cutting taxes on corporations, especially those in manufacturing. As for the individual income tax system, the way to make things better is “really a simplification to the point where you know what you’re going to pay. And if you are a millionaire who’s supposed to be paying in the highest tax bracket, the code should be simple enough that you pay what you owe and aren’t able to exploit loopholes that ordinary Americans are not able to exploit.

I asked him if he could be specific about what kind of tax simplification he favors, for example which deductions and tax credits might be abolished or how many brackets the simpler code should have or any specific details like that. He replied:

“The details are simplification.” He repeated that it would be a code so simple that you could fill out the forms without professional help.

To his credit, Hegseth didn’t act annoyed at my pressing him for more specifics. He specified that he doesn’t feel the need for details at this stage. He reminded me that he was unable to be involved in politics until after he left active duty on Feb 9.

The Obligatory last question for a new candidate in Minnesota

I closed by asking the obligatory question: Will you seek the GOP endorsement and will you abide by it if you don’t get it?

He said he would seek the endorsement and he intends to win. But he wouldn’t say whether he would drop out if he fails to get the endorsement.