Freshman Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) may be the brightest GOP star you never heard of. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) have taken the party by storm and garner nonstop coverage, but in Ayotte the Republicans have a polished and tough conservative who has the discipline of an attorney general (her old job in New Hampshire) and an easy presence. Her softer edge gives her an advantage over many of her Republican Senate colleagues — and most of the current presidential contenders — when it comes to deal making and appealing to voters beyond the conservative base.
She spoke at the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) on Tuesday in a relaxed interview format with FPI chairman Bill Kristol. It is worth viewing the session in full, if only to see how comfortable she’s become in less than a year on the job with subject matter that is both complex and controversial. She is plainly in the Ronald Reagan and not Jon Huntsman mold when it comes to preserving and projecting American power.
Her immediate concern is the possible defense sequestration, which would result in $600 billion in cuts on top of the $400 billion President Obama already wrung out of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. She finds the prospect of sequestration unfathomable. If the sequestration goes through, she says, the U.S. navy would be as small as it was in 1914, the U.S. would have the “smallest ground forces since 1940,” and the smallest air force size as well. She announced, together with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Marco Rubio, Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), she would be “working on an alternative to sequestration.” She promised that “this week we will put forth legislation” that finds cuts elsewhere in the budget.
The Senate also reached agreement in the Defense authorization bill on treatment of detainees. Ayotte was alarmed when in conversation with military officials it became clear there was “great operational uncertainty” as to what the U.S. would do if a terrorist was captured on foreign soil. Under the agreement, there is a presumption that military detention would be the rule for foreign combatants. In fielding an question from the audience, she said this is a confirmation of longstanding law.
Ayotte put the issues in a larger context: “Are we at war or aren’t we?” She contends the administration comes out in favor of criminalizing war fighting. “As a former attorney general,” she said, “I have the greatest respect for the criminal justice system. But it is not good at intelligence gathering.” Would the president veto the bill, as he has threatened from time to time? She said, “I dare him to.” After all, there was broad bipartisan support for the bill.
In Ayotte’s view, “the overriding theme” of the administration has been to ignore the advice of military commanders. She cites Iraq, where commanders had requested a force of 14,000, and Afghanistan, where the president seems bent on drawing down forces. She is particularly concerned that Obama intends to pursue further troop reductions in Afghanistan in 2012. She said, “Afghanistan is ground zero. Do we want that country to be a safe haven for al-Qaeda?”
In an interview after her talk, I asked her if Republicans had adequately informed the public about the need to spend enough money to maintain U.S. defenses. “We need to do a much better job on two fronts,” she said. She argued that conservatives who care about a strong national defense need to explain “the implications of an isolationist view.” Ayotte said Republicans must remind the public that if U.S. defense forces erode, when we need to go into battle again, U.S. troops will pay the price.
She also criticized the cheap political points scored on threatening to cut foreign aid. “It is less than one percent of the total budget,” she says. And in her book, the return on investment is excellent. While she doesn’t bring up the presidential campaign, it is worth noting the candidate she endorsed, Mitt Romney, has taken on those who want to cut defense spending and shied away from gamesmanship about eliminating foreign aid.
On the Arab Spring, Ayotte said she is comfortable with the U.S. support for democracy, despite the obvious downsides, for example, in the wake of Hosni Mubarak’s departure. She says U.S. foreign policy is “based on what our country stands for. We can’t fail to stand for democracy.” She said, “None of us is certain about the outcome of the Arab Spring,” but she nevertheless concludes that it would have damaged our influence in the region had we tried to keep Mubarak in power.
Both in her public talk and in the interview, Ayotte seemed sincere about her determination to find bipartisan agreement where possible. And as she describes deals made on Iran sanctions and the potential for the passage of the Sergei Magnitsky bill to impose sanctions on Russian human rights abusers, it’s clear that she has been able to find common ground more readily with Democrats in the Senate and House than the White House.
She’s hoping, of course, for a new chief executive. She is an enthusiastic spokesperson for Romney. She said she sat down with Huntsman as well, but she looked at Romney’s “overall experience, his leadership experience and . . . how he’s handled himself in the debates.” He shares her concern about the troop withdrawal in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Given the invitation by another reporter to attack Newt Gingrich’s temperament, she shied away. “What I can say,” she said, is that she has confidence in Romney’s temperament.
Clearly she’s a hawk in the tradition of McCain, Reagan and George W. Bush. (On China for example she says, “We need to send a message” that we won’t tolerate China’s aggression.) But her demeanor is calm and her emphasis on looking for bipartisan solutions give her a less abrasive persona than many with similar views. Don’t, however, mistake her for anything other than a devoted internationalist and believer in America’s ability to do good in the world. And while it may be premature in 2012, expect to see her on a presidential ticket one day. Poised, committed conservative women in critical swing states don’t grow on trees, you know.