Sen. George Allen (R-Va.)
Interview With The Fix's Chris Cillizza
Monday, February 27, 2006 10:00 AM's Chris Cillizza interviewed Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) as part of an ongoing series of conversations with potential 2008 presidential candidates. A transcript of the interview is below:

Why do you think the political environment in this country is as sour as it is?

ALLEN: I don't know, and it's something that I'm trying to find ways to unify this country and recognize who our enemy is. Usually you can unify -- and this does come from football -- you try to get people motivated and inspired for something. We are in the midst of a war. That doesn't mean we don't have differences on domestic policy, tax cuts maybe, exploration of the north slope of Alaska, who knows what. But as far as the war on terror we ought to have unity of purpose and there just doesn't seem to be that.

I've talked to some people --- talked to Dick [Wadhams] on it, shared the discussions with my brother Bruce and others on this lack of unity in this country. The image for our enemies, our opposition, is that the United States is not necessarily unified. You have some saying we ought to pull out the troops and there should be a timetable and this is wrong and get all the Monday morning quarterbacking and so forth, as opposed to 'here's where we are and how are we going to succeed in this mission.' ... I think the president did try to do it in the State of the Union address, I don't know if he was successful, but I do think the president did try to find a unity of purpose for this country in the midst of this war on terror.

Iraq and the military action there -- we have differences in our country and differences with some of our allies as well. ... [W]here we need to move in the future in the midst of this war is have our own country unified -- that's very important -- but also make sure we have our allies unified. There's been several good examples that maybe haven't been noticed. One was Lebanon. I had just come back from Iraq and Israel and days later Hariri was assassinated. The United States was all upset with it, Israel was all upset with it, telling the Syrians to get out. What was best about all that though was who else was upset. The Europeans -- particularly the French and they took the lead ... and then some of the more moderate Arab countries also said 'Syria get out.' So Syria saw 'Well alright there not going to have this usual division between Europe and the United States' and they pulled out.

We're seeing the same unity, which I think is important for the future, in so far as Iran is concerned and making sure they don't get nuclear weapons with that theocracy. The fact that we've worked the Big Three ... out of Europe -- Germany, France and Britain -- has been very good. The Russians, of course, have economic interests making money off of this nuclear power deal with Iran, [and they were helpful] and I was pleasantly surprised with China. I thought the best we'd get out of China was not vetoing it. So that's the sort of effort we're going to need. I am not sure we're always going to have China on our side. We cannot let Saddam Hussein create a rupture between European representative democracies and the United States.

Do you think that Democrats do not share the same goals of the war on terror or is there some other reason why there is disagreement particularly over Iraq?

The problem is that there's so much partisan sniping on things and looking for partisan advantage on something like the war. There was even a response to some New Hampshire questionnaire where I said I very much admire Joe Lieberman. Joe Lieberman in so far as this war on terror or these military actions understands that politics ends at the water's edge. It seems to me we ought to have that unity of support.

But then when Karl Rove goes to the RNC and says here's what we're going to make this election about and says the Democratic Party has a pre Sept. 11 mindset and the GOP has a post Sept. 11 mindset -- that doesn't do a lot to bring the two sides together. Do you think that was a mistake?

I'm not going to say it was a mistake. I do think there are three key things for our country or three conditions or matters that are important. One is security, clearly. Second is competitive. The third is our values as a country. There are some Democrats, Nancy Pelosi for example, who are saying we should pull our troops [out], which to me is forfeiting the field to the terrorists. That would just be tucking tail and running and clearly losing. That is not a proper approach. It is not as if Nancy Pelosi necessarily represents every single Democrat, but she is the Democrat leader in the House of Representatives and you have others who [agree with her]. I do think that that is the wrong approach.

I make enough mistakes in my speeches over the years -- and it's always my fault. But ... you have to qualify; it's not all Democrats, but there are some Democrats who do very much believe we ought to pull our troops out and think we should have pulled our troops out before. You have also some who were saying Iraqis were not ready for elections -- hold off these elections, they're not ready for them. When you look back at things, my view is that we should have gone to elections sooner. Nobody likes to be occupied, it's human nature. At any rate, there are those Democrats -- not all, but some -- of the Democrat leaders who think we ought to pull out of Iraq, which in my view is capitulating and losing. At a time of war security is always the top issue.

Are their specific things you would have done differently in Iraq?

Second guessing is not a strategy. You always do a post-action review anyway, which is always appropriate in everything one does. One of them is I would have gone to elections sooner. I've said this previously because I remember at the time of those elections coming up about a year ago people were saying we are not going to be able to secure these polling places and they're going to threaten people and this is just going to be a disaster. They don't understand voting and so forth. My general view was definitely do not delay these elections. Go forward with elections. If you delay the elections, you caved in to the threats of these terrorists and you've emboldened them. It would have been better to go to elections earlier. All of this whole process of self-governance would have been better.

One thing I heard from listening to experts is that in the training of Iraqis, early on have our people embedded with the Iraqi troops as opposed to having classes. Then you're in your barracks and there wherever they are. To the extent you're living and breathing with the security forces, it is much more effective. It's much more difficult, it's much more dangerous and it takes a real special person to be able to do this, but if that were done I think we would have trained up more Iraqis for their security forces sooner. That change was made to the credit of the administration and those on the ground. Eight months ago they changed that method of training and if that were done [earlier] we would have been more effective. So I think they'd admit that. We also focus on the domestic police forces. This year the focus needs to be on those domestic police forces as well as the main focus on the army and the equivalent of the National Guard and border security.

What does it mean at this point given the record of the Bush administration to say, "I am a conservative"? What are the elements of conservatism today?

Good question. That is a profound question. The term conservative means different things to different people. I haven't looked at a dictionary definition. For me, it is one who trusts free people and free enterprise as opposed to meddling, burdensome government. There's a need for government in a civilization, but it should be very focused on its key responsibilities. At the state level, the top responsibilities are education and law enforcement. The federal government level -- it is clearly national security, national defense issues and I think key areas of research beyond the interstate commerce matters. And you need to do those things and focus on those.

Otherwise, leave people free. There are those though who think people won't make the right decisions and so therefore the government makes those decisions for them. You end up with higher taxes because the government needs to provide services. I'd just assume leave people to their freedom and they may not make the decisions that are the best decisions but it's their life. And I like the concept of individual responsibility. This would fit in with the conservatives who are traditional and don't change things and heritage and all that. And that is very important. I look at those as foundational principles expressed in the spirit of our Declaration of Independence to recognize why we seceded from Britain and make sure you stick to those principles. Those are principles of individual responsibility and the government is limited and that we as individuals in my view, all human beings regardless of what country they're born in, it doesn't matter their religion, their ethnicity, their race or their gender are naturally born free.

This is why I call myself a common sense Jeffersonian conservative. The best embodiment of those principles in my lifetime is Ronald Reagan. There are those though that are conservatives that are just not wanting to change. I understand that, but I think you always have to be innovating and adapting and improving. You can't stay the same. That's why I think there is a good logic in the federal government and federal agencies working in universities, the private sector ... [such as the] area of nanotechnology -- multifaceted field from microelectronics to life sciences to materials engineering and so forth, and I think it's important for the competitiveness of our country and opportunities for people in this country to lead in innovation.

I like the spirit [described] by De Toqueville in the mid 1830s -- his observations of America where everything's in motion, nothing is settled, the only things that haven't been done are those that man has not attempted to do. In other words, we are only limited by our imagination. Maybe that's conservative, but that's my view of it. Trusting individuals rather than large institutions and authorities ... all this nanny government and pestering regulations.

Do you come down more on the side of saying "Tax cutting would be my priority, getting money back into taxpayers' own hands," or would deficit reduction be your bigger priority?

The best is you do both. It's a broad and diverse party. If you asked [another] Republican, they may give you an entirely different definition of conservatism than I just did. The reason you have to reduce taxes is if you want a stronger economy, if you want a competitive country for investment, for risk taking, for job creation - lower taxes makes it more conducive to that investment and those jobs being created. To the extent that this matters for government revenues, the reality is if you just look at these tax cuts that I strongly supported over the last several years that took us out of the big trough that we hit after 9/11 and the revenues are at all time high. Revenues have gone way up even on the capital gains tax cut.

Now, the problem is that the federal government is spending too much. It's not as if it doesn't have enough revenues from the taxpayers. It's spending too much. And that's why I have introduced a balanced budget requirement as we have in Virginia [and] the line-item veto. Line-item veto actually puts responsibility on the part of the executive or the president. You say, "Gosh I have to sign this bill, it's been held up 11 times and we've got all these projects and they've got to get working on roads, the building season is coming on and I can't veto this because of five percent or ten percent of these less than essential projects." If you have the line-item veto you can ... knock out that bridge to nowhere or whatever other less-than-essential projects in it, and the president is responsible.

So in my view, as Mr. Jefferson said and Ronald Reagan in his farewell address, the number one thing that needs to be done is the balanced budget and the line-item veto and bind down the government or politicians with a change of the Constitution. ... There can be slight increase in defense spending, key areas like armaments and new technologies and missile defense and supporting our troops, and everything else ought to be pretty much level funded. But, in that, you have to make priorities. For those things that we just cannot afford to do with the deficits, we just have to say "No, it's not reasonable." I've done significant budgets as governor of Virginia and it's not pleasant. You usually get the heck knocked out of you. I don't think the federal government has shown sufficient fiscal restraint.

So, I think both are important. But I do think cutting taxes is good for individual empowerment and it's also good for jobs and our economy and thirdly to the extent you care about revenues, it does raise revenues.

Aside from Jefferson and Reagan, which presidents have influence your political philosophy or your political approach?

Well, Jefferson philosophically. One cannot go to Mr. Jefferson's university and major in history and take seminars on Thomas Jefferson without appreciating those principles. Ronald Reagan is the one who motivated me to get involved in organized politics. I was not in the College Republicans, I took no political science courses. I wanted to be a lawyer or an architect and have a farm or a ranch. There was too much math to architecture and they didn't have pre-law so I majored in history and I buckaroo'd on ranches out west in Nevada and Idaho and realized ... you have to be wealthy to have such large scale to make any money of it. I didn't have the money to do that.

When we moved out to California when I was in high school (I lived in Illinois from 2nd to 8th grade when my father was on the coaching staff for the Bears.) Moved out there in '66 -- it was my father's first year and that was the year Ronald Reagan got elected governor. Ronald Reagan used to come to the Rams practices and then we moved to Virginia after high school. I came back to Virginia and I was talking about Ronald Reagan and all these great things he did. Even if I wasn't in political science I loved debating and arguing and talking about how great Ronald Reagan was and all the things he did. I liked his optimism. Obviously, I liked his philosophy, his idea. But I just liked his personality.

I took our family up two Christmases ago -- my mother lives in California -- and it was a Ronald Reagan pilgrimage. We went to the library which I had been to before but then to Rancho Del Ceo. No one is like Ronald Reagan, but just seeing how he lived up there, it was very sparse. Even the shower is so little I don't see how he could be in that shower without bumping his elbows all the time. Riding horses and splitting wood, you could see why he stayed grounded. I think it's important to get away from cities, get out in the country.

Gosh when I go to Las Vegas my favorite place to go to is the Valley of Fire. It's almost a religious experience it's so beautiful. From the massive artificiality of Las Vegas to the natural beauty of these red rocks and so forth. I could just very much see why he kept his sanity, his grounding because he spent about one of out every eight days during his presidency there. He was one who very much embodied Jeffersonian principles facing the challenges of his time.

Another great leader that I learned over time was George Mason, a very unsung person. He wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which is ... a predecessor to the Bill of Rights and it's much better than the Bill of Rights because it's more words to it. The Statute of Religious Freedom is paragraphs as opposed to one sentence. He was one that if this country had listened to George Mason in the beginning -- and he lost his friendship with George Washington over this because he would not support the Constitution without a Bill of Rights. He also said that we should have gotten rid of slavery right at the beginning. And what a better country this would have been. He was one who put principle over everything else.

And George Washington also is a very admirable individual -- the self-discipline of George Washington is what's most admirable because he could have been king but he wasn't and he showed that self-discipline, that self-restraint, that integrity and visionary leadership that this country was a country of laws, it was a representative democracy, it was not to be tied to him as much as he could have had anything he wanted. And that sort of selflessness is almost saint-like.

You had got great exposure President Reagan. And you've now served in Congress under President George W. Bush. In terms of leadership style, how would you compare the two?

I think the similarity ... is that Reagan, President Reagan was facing the Cold War. President Bush is at the beginning of the war on terror. At least when we were hit, which was more like a Pearl Harbor attack than the Cold War, which lasted for decades with battles in Vietnam and Korea and Grenada and all across eastern and central Europe. Reagan came in in the midst of it and changed the dynamic of the Cold War from one of containment and co-existence to one of the advancement of freedom. And he was ridiculed for saying, "Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall" and calling them the evil empire. [A]ll the elites criticized him, but he was right and there's hundreds of millions of people now free in central Europe from Lithuania, Estonia on down to the Black Sea who are good friends and allies and appreciate freedom more than anyone else. Reagan persevered.

We got hit in this war on terror by the terrorists here on the home front. The same sort of perseverance and trying to rally the country towards these ideas are similar sort of leadership we need now in this war on terror, to recognize that it won't be over quickly or easily. It'll take a resolve, perseverance, and also a faith in human beings similar to what I was saying before that no matter their culture, their race or their religion people will instinctively want to have a better life for themselves, for their children -- to have a say in who their public servants are. The concept that freedom is on the march and there is a natural gravity to it, there is that similar sort of leadership that is needed now in this country for this prolonged war on terror as we received out of President Reagan in the midst of the Cold War.

With the exception of the Iran-Contra scandal, President Reagan's public support remained quite strong. This president has not maintained strong support in his second term. Is that a function of something about his leadership, or is it a function of the changing time in which we are just so divided that anyone who [governs] like President Bush is going to have trouble getting even majority support?

I don't know the answer. President Reagan won his elections, big elections. ... I hope this country never has go through an election like [2000] again where the Court decided it. ... There was a great deal of animosity on the part of Democrats who lost that election. One needs to be cognizant of that. In the last election, it was clear who won ... . But as far as long term for this country, I hope your premise and your concern is not right because we do need to come together on this war on terror. I am optimistic Iraq will stand up for a free and just society. It won't be easy, but they will ultimately do so. That is not going to be the end of this war on terror. I think the most pressing issue is the possibility of these theocrats in Iran getting nuclear weapons and they are deadly serious about knocking Israel off the map. They are not joking about it. They're deadly serious. Tyrants and dictators always have to create scapegoats to justify their own existence. Stalin did that, Hitler did that, these mullahs in Iran are doing it as well, and for that matter in Syria and other countries. We simply cannot let them get a nuclear weapon.

I think for the future we need to obviously unify this country. We run elections on ideas, and if you get elected on those ideas ... that helps you get them through. That helped, I know, as governor in the abolition of parole, high academic standards and stop the social promotion so we have accountability and welfare reform, make sure the world knows Virginia is open for business, parental notification and so forth. ... And we had a Democrat legislature, but they knew the people voted for me on those ideas. That's what you try to do in the midst of a campaign is motivate people for something. And you see that applies up here.

The fact that Tom Daschle was defeated. Notice how those plains state Democrats and Rocky Mountain Democrats voted on filibuster. ... There's object lessons, there's political object lessons. Notice Tim Johnson. I like Tim Johnson. His nephew plays with my son and I like Tim a lot. Tim was always voting for that stuff. Look at Kent Conrad, Baucus. I notice their votes -- they didn't vote with Reid and Clinton and Kennedy and all of them on this filibuster and Alito. That was one of the dividends of the 2004 elections.

At any rate, in the future we need to unify this country behind ideals, motivation. I think you can do it and make it positive. The other reality is that we need the rest of the world. We must be the strongest military power, but we cannot do it alone. There needs to be a respect level in Asian countries such as Korea and Japan of course the European countries, South American countries and others. For example, on Iran we need the rest of them if we're going to have embargoes [and] sanctions. We need to get a unity of purpose for countries that generally share the same values as we do. That's something that also, in my view, is very important for the future of our security, our freedom and also opportunities for people around the world. I do think there is a steady improvement, but it does help when we're all unified and not fractured.

What kind of presidential candidate do you think Mark Warner will make?

Oh gosh. You saw what kind of a candidate he was for governor, and he'll run on his record as governor. Everyone runs on their record of performance [such as] when I was running for the Senate. ... So one runs on their record of performance and that's what I would suspect that he would do.

Do you think Warner can make a credible case, as his advocates say, that he can run in the Democratic primaries as the candidate who can show Democrats how to win in red states? Or is there something unique to the time and place in which he ran for governor of Virginia that isn't necessarily applicable?

I don't care to be criticizing Mark. He and I worked together. This isn't the time to be getting into all of that. He and I worked together before I was in the Senate, before he was governor, on a communities and schools initiative. This is to get private donations in helping out kids who are in a low-income area and need assistance. I was very happy that he kept and improved what we were doing in our Standards of Learning [program]. If you don't get those standards in place and if they get switched every so often, it ends up losing all its credibility. So I appreciate that.

We were together this week ... on an initiative of research at universities, which is consistent with what I am always talking about in competition with India and China. We need more women and minorities interested in science and engineering. So where we can we have worked very well together.

Clearly, he's known for the tax increase. Some people are going to applaud the tax increase, others will not. Everyone knows where I stood on it. I was not convinced Virginia needed this large tax increase. And it wasn't just me, it was Governor Wilder. We were trying together saying, "Let the people decide," because that's what Mark said as a candidate -- "I'm not for tax increases," which was a salient issue in the campaign. ... Regardless, if you look at the surpluses Virginia has, I think it kind of indicates that Governor Wilder and I were correct that such large, massive tax increases weren't necessary. The Democrats aren't going to care what I have to say. What Mark and I have tried to do in our relationship is we do have difference on significant issues but also try to work together when possible for Virginians. This initiative this last Monday that we were together with, with new Governor Kaine and Republican leaders in the General Assembly, was an effort of building that sort of consensus, working together for something that is beneficial. I think it's great for Virginia, but I also think this is very important for the future of competitiveness in the United States.

Do you think that Gov. Tim Kaine's ability to carry Loudoun County last year is a harbinger of change that Republicans should not take exurbia for granted?

Well, he did well in Prince William County as well, and Fairfax. Every election has its own dynamics and personalities. Mark Warner, when he was running, said [Democrats] could do better than this Republican governor and Republican legislature who could not adopt a budget. And all he had to say [was] 'we could do better than this.' It wasn't very difficult to do much better than that unnecessary embarrassment of not getting a budget adopted.

Regardless, you get into the most recent campaign with Jerry Kilgore and Tim Kaine. What Tim ran on, which was the only significant issue... .. this anti-development, anti-growth issue, which is a big issue at the local level in Loudoun County and even [among] Republicans in Loudoun County. Tim talked about giving local governments these additional powers to control growth and so forth, and it was interesting to me just watching all of this as it unfolded, how realtors were all upset with this and developers. ... I went out there for a fundraiser for Mick Staton who was running for the special election on [Jan. 31]. You always go out there on that Greenway. You get out to Leesburg. We're winding around and I have a compass on my watch and where going all around and I just cannot imagine the growth in Loudoun County. I said, 'Next time we come through here I'll bet you there all be development here, a new shopping center here and there.' It's just phenomenal, the growth in Loudoun County. I think that growth or anti-growth issue is a big, big issue which manifests itself clearly in the local supervisor elections. And the way that Tim Kaine played it, it ends up being a big issue for the state.

The way it came up when I was running against Chuck Robb was, "What are you going to do to stop this growth," they would ask me this. And I would say, "You want the federal government to be making land use and zoning decisions?" And they said "Oh no." And I said "Neither do I." And actually, an issue such as the death tax is an issue that is really understood out there. These farms are sold, and if you actually talk to developers, and it's not just Loudoun it's also in the Richmond areas -- Goochland, Henrico, Hanover, New Kent and all this -- when they get a development it's from an estate sale. In a place like Loudoun County if somebody's got a farm, when you die the IRS doesn't tax it at its value as a pasture or a farm, they tax it at its highest and best use. And it's highest and best use is not a farm, it is a subdivision. If it's along the highway, it's highway/commercial. So the families have to sell the farm or subdivide it just to pay these death taxes.

And it's understood also in the Shenandoah Valley. Somebody can own some pretty raw mountain land and make just timber. [But the IRS] can say 'well you've got Massanutten, you've got Basie and all these places. This could be built into all these chalets for people out in northern Virginia, the Washington area and so forth.' And there's no way they can get a loan on that property because the proceeds from harvesting the timber or whatever they're raising or growing on that land is just not going to be enough to pay those death taxes.

So I use [the estate tax] as a green issue. And, personally, way back when I was in Mr. Jefferson's seat (I had Mr. Jefferson's seat in the House of Delegates) I was one of those who actually supported a concept called transferable development credits, which was out of kilter for some Republicans then. I said 'Look, it's their land. If they want to give up those development rights and let those development rights go to where the county has planned for more dense growth, let them do it.' ... Not that you would want to dictate that from the federal government. For the issues that matter on those growth issues, I have been able to address it with my record. But, you're right, it's a heck of a battleground, but I think it's that anti-development, anti-growth frustration with traffic and congestion but also this rapid growth and all the new schools that have to be built and how do you pay for 'em and so forth. But that's more of a state and local issue.

Are you running for president in 2008?

Running for reelection right now, and I hope the people of Virginia accord me the honor of serving them as a U.S. senator. I have been encouraged by many people to seek higher office. It's meaningful, it's flattering because a lot of these people are individuals whom I respect. Many were in the Reagan administration. ... You never know the future, but no matter what I'm doing I'm going to be advocating these common sense Jeffersonian conservative principles.

Editor's Note: The above transcript has been edited slightly. Where words short passages have been deleted, an ellipsis or bracketed text is substituted.

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