Those looking for a true conservative to enter the Republican presidential field might be feeling a bit perplexed in the wake of Sam Brownback's performance on this morning's Fox News Sunday. The senator from Kansas:
- Endorsed the ISG report and appeared to strongly support negotiations with Iran and Syria.
- Called for a timetable for US withdrawal.
- Spoke approvingly of a Bidenesqe division of Iraq into three ethnic regions.
- Declined to swing at the softball host Chris Wallace lobbed at him regarding Mitt Romney's flip-flops on abortion and gay rights.
- Seemingly described himself as a "compassionate conservative."
Invited by Wallace to comment on the ISG report, Brownback was surprisingly supportive: "I think [Pres. Bush] really should look at these recommendations very seriously as well. And it seems to me that what Baker-Hamilton provides us is a chance to kind of reset the table and get a bi-partisan buy-in and not just a bipartisan buy-in, a global buy-in to what we can do to move forward in Iraq and get our troops out of harm's way and out of the sectarian violence. I think this is an important moment, like senator Dodd identifies as well"
Most surprising was this statement: "One of the things I like about the report is it talks about a very aggressive regional political diplomatic effort which I think is key for us now to really get engaged with." Hard to read that as anything but a strong endorsement of negotiations with Iran and Syria.
View video of Brownback's praise of the ISG's call for a "very aggressive, regional diplomatic effort" here.
Brownback also endorsed the idea of a timetable.
Wallace: "Let me ask you about that, Senator Brownback - the idea of putting out a date, maybe with caveats, but a specific statement that says this commitment is not open-ended."
Brownback: "I think that's a good thing as well, to force action in the region."
Without prompting, Brownback then expressed support for something that Joe Biden has proposed but that the ISG rejected - a tri-partite division of Iraq. Brownback: "You may have to see that place move more to where you have a Sunni-dominated area, a Shia-dominated area, you certainly have a Kurdish-dominated area, to get to some form of political equilibrium."
While Brownback denied it, it was hard to take issue with Chris Wallace's assessment of the senator's statements: "I get the sense that you're getting a little close to jumping ship on the president's policy."
Moving to presidential politics: almost a year ago, Chris Wallace, in an outstanding bit of cross-examination described here, forced Mitt Romney to admit that his views on abortion have "evolved" from pro-choice to pro-life.
Wallace tossed Brownback a softball on that and other Romney flip-flops: "Senator Brownback, you say that you are the true conservative in this potential Republican field. It turns out that one of your potential rivals for that mantle up there on the screen, governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, has changed his positions on abortion and now it turns out on gay rights since the 1990s. How concerned should . . . social conservatives be about that?"
Brownback wouldn't swing: "These things come out during lengthy campaigns and Mitt Romney is a wonderful American with great accomplishments. I'm just looking forward to get out there and the competition of ideas."
Brownback went on to describe himself as "conservative on economic and fiscal and moral and social and compassionate conservative issues." Conservative on compassionate conservative issues? An enigmatic statement that some might interpret as meaning he is opposed to big-government compassionate conservatism as practiced by Pres. Bush. But, in its context, I read it as saying he identifies as a compassionate conservative, which might come as troubling news to more traditional conservatives.
Wallace tried once more to get Brownback to distinguish himself from Romney: "Should people be concerned, though, if someone in the course of the last decade has changed their position on abortion and gay rights?"
Brownback again declined to go after his rival directly: "I think they should examine track records. Examine mine. Examine other people's to make decisions about where they think that person is on the topics. But that's why we have campaigns and debates, is to talk about those issues. And I look forward to putting them out there and having mine tested as others are tested as well."
Brownback's reluctance to go after Romney this early in the campaign season is certainly understandable. But put alongside his enthusiasm for Baker-Hamilton, including the endorsement of negotiations with Iran and Syria, and a picture emerges of Brownback at odds with that of the fire-breathing conservative some would make him out to be.