Most presidential candidates have reasons and rationales about why they are running. They have a vision, hear a calling, tell stories of making the country stronger and safer for their children and their grandchildren.
Peter King, the gruff congressman from Long Island, has an anti-vision. He doesn’t so much want to be president as he wants to keep some of his Republican colleagues from being president.
“I am not kidding anyone,” King told The Daily Beast in an interview earlier this month just as Congress was settling back into session. “My main thing first of all is to take advantage of the opportunity with my name being mentioned to get out and speak about issues I care about, and secondly to make sure that the Rand Paul and Ted Cruz types don’t take over the Republican Party.”
Paul and Cruz. Cruz and Paul. They are the two-headed Tea Party monster of King’s fevered dreams. He first started making noises about running for president back when Paul was shutting down the Senate with his talk of drone strikes on the poor café-goers of San Francisco, and Cruz was grinding the gears of government to a halt over a law passed three years prior.
“I’m looking at this because I see people like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, and to me, I don’t want the Republican Party going in that direction,” he told CNN at the time, arguing that their candidacies “would be very damaging to the Republican Party” and that their isolationist views on foreign policy represented a throwback—to the Democratic Party.
For the moment at least, that threat to seems to have abated. Both Paul’s and Cruz’s numbers have softened from those heady days of 2013. A number of more mainstream Republicans like Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio have made moves to run, and all have views more in line with the hawkish King. Lindsay Graham, who rarely sees a hot spot on the globe that would be better served by American troops on the ground, is thinking of running for president. Even John Bolton, for God’s sake, is thinking of running for president.
So, are King’s presidential ambitions, which were never taken with much seriousness by the punditocracy to begin with, over?
“I look around, I don’t see very many Abraham Lincolns or Ronald Reagans or John Kennedys or Franklin Roosevelts out there,” King said in an interview.
So full speed ahead then? Can we expect the roll out of a political action committee, the lining up of wealthy campaign donors, the slow leak of key operatives hired in Iowa and New Hampshire?
No. King has lined up no commitments from donors and isn’t building a staff, but proudly notes that he has been to New Hampshire more than any other candidate, and has travel planned to early primary states, including South Carolina at the behest of fellow firebrand Joe Wilson.
“I have a full time job, and being on the intelligence committee and the homeland security committee and being from New York, I took three days off all of last year. I am not much of a vacation guy. This is full time. When I go to New Hampshire and these places, I am usually back the next day, that afternoon, something like that.”
And so instead, King is working on something of a rope-a-dope strategy, letting the others tire themselves out in the hopes that he can be there in the end.
“My ideal situation is to be part of the debate and if I see that there is support building and others drop out, and there is a real opening and people who share my views come forward with funding,” he said.
King continued, “I go back to 2012 when you saw Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann. They all had a chance to get to the top without much money, and they were leading in the polls. If I get into their position I am not going to make the mistakes they did.”
This is a key part of King’s argument. He carries the brawling bearing of his father, a New York City police officer, but it may surprise people who have actually seen him that he has a polish some of his fellow Republican contenders do not.
“I saw that last year, I was the second or third highest in the House with national TV appearances or something,” he says. “The only reason I say that is not to tell you that I am so great or anything like that, but because I have proven that I can handle myself on Meet the Press, on Face the Nation. I can do all of them. CNN, I can handle the liberal questions, I can handle the national media spotlight. I wouldn’t be like Rick Perry out there saying the wrong thing. I know how to argue my position, whether it is the radicalization hearings or whatever. I have faced the tough questions and I have shown that I can handle them better than any of them.”
For many outside of New York, those radicalization hearings in 2011 were what first brought King to prominence. Convinced that homegrown jihadis represented a growing threat to the homeland, King convened a series of hearings to examine the issue. Massive protests ensued as King weathered comparisons to Joseph McCarthy. Keith Ellison, the lone Muslim in the House of Representatives, broke down during the hearings, saying, “We’ve seen the consequences of anti-Muslim hate.” King continued to push forward:
“To back down would be a craven surrender to political correctness and an abdication of what I believe to be the main responsibility of this community: To protect America from a terrorist attack.”
Now, King still sees that threat in the continued prominence of the Cruz/Paul dyad.
The dislike of those two remains visceral, and King cannot progress very far in an interview without mentioning his revulsion at the pair.
“I tell you, one of the things that really bothers me about this debate is, you know, they talk about, ‘Is the party going to go conservative like Ted Cruz or Rand Paul?’ I mean, Rand Paul is a George McGovern Republican or a Henry Wallace Republican. This is not Ronald Reagan. This is not Dwight Eisenhower. This is a left-wing person who believes that the U.S. is an imperial power, and that the United States wants to rush into wars. That is a slander against anyone who has served in war. If you have ever been to Walter Reed or Bethesda you would never say that.”
As for Cruz, “he is all over the place. And shutting down the government was one of the most irresponsible things any conservative could do. It would be like if the Democrats opposed some weapons system and so they decided to shut down the government. I mean, you can’t call that a conservative way of doing something. We have a system. You don’t throw temper tantrums.”
Cruz’s office declined to comment. But Doug Stafford, an aide to Paul, said “Senator Paul introduced a declaration of war against ISIS. Congressman King has absolutely no idea what he is talking about, as usual. Senator Paul has across-the-board top rankings from conservative groups, while Peter King gets failing grades. I am not sure Congressman King wants to start a battle accusing someone else of being ‘left wing.’”
King considered running in 2012 but decided against it. Then too, the notion was mostly met with sneers, a fact that befuddles King’s admirers. He has been in office for more than two decades, which gives him more experience than almost anyone else vying for the presidency. Sure, he is only a congressman, and no member of the House has ascended to the presidency since James Garfield, but that makes King ambitions dim; it does not necessarily make him ridiculous.
Some of the wounds of King’s image are surely self-inflicted. A self-described “blue-collar conservative, a Catholic who grew up in a working class neighborhood, worked my (way) through college,” before catching himself—“I don’t want to dwell on that stuff about life experience”—King is blithely unaware of how much of what he says sounds. There was the time he urged donors to cease giving money to his fellow Republicans unless they voted in favor of recovery aid for Hurricane Sandy. There was the time, in the wake of the shooting of Congressman Gabby Giffords, he proposed a bill that would have barred anyone from carrying firearms within 1,000 feet of an elected official (the rest of us, apparently, would be left to fend for ourselves.) He argues in favor of racial profiling. He goes on Don Imus’s radio show to trade insults with the host (“You sound like a remedial reading course,” Imus once told him.)
“Coming from Long Island, there is something that just makes it harder for him,” said Ed Rollins, who worked for Ronald Reagan in 1984. “He is not a charismatic speaker. He is not going to, all of a sudden, turn on the evangelicals, never mind the money people. He gets a lot of media attention, and I am sure he has a lot of people telling him he should run, but who is the guy who is going to tell him he doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell? What is his issue besides terrorism?”
Michael Dawidziak, a Long Island based consultant who has done four presidential primaries, disagreed.
“Presidential primaries are battle of attrition. It’s about who can survive the longest. He is conservative enough on the issues that conservatives care about and if he survives he is moderate enough to be a good candidate,” he said. “He is like Ronald Reagan—you don’t have to agree with him to like him.”
To King, that issue of terrorism is actually enough. Even among the likes of Bush and Christie, he is the only one who has experience in taking the fight to the other side. The fact that with each passing month the world seems more in flames—with beheadings in the Middle East and gunfights in Paris newsrooms—is further proof of Paul’s dropping stock and his own rise.
“This is the issue that is going to be front and center, and no one can debate it like I can,” King says.
And so King continues his flirtation. If Cruz and Paul are running, then so is he. Let the party’s moneyed class get wined and dined by Bush, Christie and the rest. Let the early state operatives sort themselves out. King is ready to ride to the rescue, if need be.
“I want to be their second choice. That is a good spot to be in. There are always people that end up dropping out. And if lightning strikes, so be it.”
If it does, King sounds ready to take on Hillary Clinton. He says she may lack her husband’s skill on the stump, but she is still a great personal friend.
When Clinton was a New York senator, “Our offices had each other on speed dial,” he says. She was the first person to call him when his mother died. Debating her would be like Kennedy-Nixon, he says—“The last time you had real intelligence at a debate”—and woe to Republicans who underestimate her. They just need to find the right candidate.
“And I gotta tell ya,” he says. “I look around, and I say, ‘Who is better?’”