Petraeus New Hampshire Speech: Presidential Campaign Underway?


Reports that General David Petraeus is giving a speech at Saint Anselm College’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics on March 24 is ginning up speculation that he’s running for president.

Mark Ambinder:

News that Gen. David Petraeus is venturing out of his Centcom comfort zone late this month to the state of New Hampshire is catnip for a certain chunk of obsessives who believe that Petraeus wants to run for president (and be nominated as vice president) in 2012. Petraeus has said he’s not interested, in public. So do most would-be candidates at this stage. So ignore that for now. Here’s what I can add:

First, as James Pindell notes, Petraeus lives in New Hampshire. He’s registered to vote there as a Republican.

Petraeus attends a lot of fancy private dinner gatherings in Washington. I have never been to one of these gatherings, but I’ve spoken with several folks who’ve attended several of them, and they all seem to come away with the impression that Petraeus is far more interested in exploring his political options than he says publicly.

He’s speaking at St. Anselm’s College, the site of many historic political moments — Ronald Reagan paid for his microphone there. No one runs for president without speaking at St. A’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics.

I presume but don’t know that Petraeus will run as Republican. Maybe he’d run as an independent. How does Petraeus fit in with the Tea Partiers, the Libertarians, the Social Conservatives? He certainly upstages Mitt “No Apology” Romney by sheer force of conviction. He’s not a terribly good political speaker, though, even though he gets the politics of large institutions quite small. Also, he’s small in stature. Do not be mislead into believing that a candidate’s height — even a general’s height — doesn’t matter. Wes Clark can tell a few stories about that.

Laura Rozen and Ben Smith dutifully pass along the report without commentary.   Matt Yglesias thinks a Petraeus run “slightly ridiculous” but,

I’d really sort of like to see the guy run for the GOP nomination. Presumably we’d see Mitt Romney slamming him as soft on terrorism and Petraeus would be slamming Romney for supporting Obama-style socialism on health care. It’d be kind of awesome.

At any rate, just thinking about it is a reminder that one reason these high-level military officers seem like appealing candidates is precisely because they get to be famous media celebrities without engaging in that sort of annoying political cut-and-thrust. But recall that as soon as Wesley Clark became a candidate, he started looking a lot more politician-y than he had before. It would be the same with anyone. Americans have a very low opinion of politics and politicians and people who act like politicians, but in practice the political system requires politicians to act like that. So anyone outside the arena looks appealing until he steps into the arena.

Despite my longstanding cautions against Petraeus fetishism,  I like and admire the man.  He’s a genuine soldier-scholar-statesman.

General Petraeus was the General George C. Marshall Award winner as the top graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College Class of 1983.  He subsequently earned MPA and Ph.D. degrees in international relations from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and later served as an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the US Military Academy.  He also completed a fellowship at Georgetown University.

Awards and decorations earned by General Petraeus include two awards of the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, two awards of the Distinguished Service Medal, two awards of the Defense Superior Service Medal, four awards of the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star Medal for valor, the State Department Superior Honor Award, the NATO Meritorious Service Medal, and the Gold Award of the Iraqi Order of the Date Palm.  He is a Master Parachutist and is Air Assault and Ranger qualified.  He has also earned the Combat Action Badge and French, British, and German Jump Wings.  In 2005 he was recognized by the U.S. News and World Report as one of America’s 25 Best Leaders, and in 2007 he was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential leaders and revolutionaries of the year and one of four runners-up for Time Person of the Year.  Most recently, he was selected in a poll conducted by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines as one of the world’s top 100 public intellectuals and was chosen by Esquire magazine as one of the 75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century.

But Matt’s right: Petraeus is held in such high esteem precisely because of the contrast between his military bearing and the namby pamby styles of our political leaders.  But one can’t run for president without becoming a politician.  At least, not if you’re other than a vanity candidate running solely for the platform ala Alan Keyes, Dennis Kucinich, or Ralph Nader.

Petraeus is an enormously competent and successful general.  He’s got celebrity on par with Colin Powell and has likely surpassed Norman Schwarzkopf.  Right now, conservatives can view him as exactly the sort of guy they’d like leading their charge.   We know very little about his political beliefs and, by definition, the more we know the less some will like.   He hasn’t had to tell us what he thinks of health care reform, abortion, school prayer, campaign finance reform, capital punishment, torture, detainment, electronic surveillance, or pretty much any other controversial public policy issue.  And, especially for conservatives who like him, the natural tendency is to presume that he holds exactly the same positions they do.  (Then again, I said that about Barack Obama, too, and it didn’t bear out until well after the inauguration.)

MoJo’s Adam Weinstein notes that Bob Dole and others are touting Petraeus and that centrist Republicans are especially enamored of him.

But on further review (and ignoring the obvious concerns about militarism in electoral politics), a Petraeus candidacy might be healthy for the GOP—and for the country. He publicly supported the Obama administration’s now-stalled plan to shutter Guantanamo Bay’s detention facility and end torture. He holds a doctorate from Princeton and has surrounded himself with intellectuals, left and right, in and out of uniform, who embrace out-of-the-box thinking—no small feat in the military’s often stultifying bureaucracy.

Most important, Petraeus has reportedly identified himself as a “Rockefeller Republican,” a rare breed of urbane, educated, big-state social liberal that’s been excommunicated from the Grand Old Party of late (see also Crist, Charlie; Chafee, Lincoln). Since Barack Obama’s election, the GOP has sought to co-opt ultraconservative, right-wing, and Tea Party anger as its brand of choice, effectively marking moderate Republicans as Godless traitors. But who’s going to level such attacks on the uniformed, mythical superman who averted disaster and “pacified” Iraq? He could debate the ins and outs of health care policy without being labeled a socialist. He could shut down military tribunals and expand diplomacy without being called an Al Qaeda sympathist. He could discuss the finer points of social policy without being shouted down as a pinko libertine.

In effect, only someone of Petraeus’ unassailable stature could force mainstream Republicans back to the political center—and whether or not it’s enough to win an election in 2012 or 2016, his candidacy could be an undeniable victory in America’s protracted war with rightist extremism.

A noble thought but, of course, ultraconservatives, right-winger, and Tea Partyers are a large part of the Republican nominating electorate.  It’ll be a neat trick winning their support while pulling the party back to the center.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. steve says:

    I think the base would be horrified. He is against torture. He is an educated elite. He is willing to talk with the Taliban. If he really is a social liberal, he will be unconvincing in his attempts to pander to the evangelicals. In short, while he might be the kind of Republican I would consider voting for, I see no way in hell he gets nominated. Bet he could take a legitimate shot at Senator, but not sure he would be willing to aim that low.


  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    I don’t think Petraeus is the right guy for conservatives.

    For one thing he’s an actual military hero (like McGovern, or George H.W. Bush, for example) as opposed to a phony, imaginary hero (like Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush.)

    And the whole quasi-fascist, quasi-homoerotic thing the right has for the military is mostly about blustery speeches, hubris, posturing and stern weenie-tingling denunciations of all things liberal.

    The right wants a Mussolini or a Patton, not an Omar Bradley or George Marshall.

    I am confident that all of you will agree.

  3. just me says:

    I think it depends. I think he could be a great candidate, although I think he is going to have a tough time if he runs on celebrity alone.

    My guess is that in the end, youth and fiscal conservatism are what will win the nomination come 2012, especially if Obama and the dems continue to spend-at some point “Bush did it” isn’t going to fly. If he can be youthful, with substantive ideas, and a belief in controlling spending he will likely make a case. Obama isn’t bleeding conservative Christians or social cons (since the two aren’t necessarily the same), he is bleeding independents, in the end I think the 2012 winner is the person who appeals to that group.

  4. sam says:

    He is the kind of Republican I would vote for, and that is the kiss o’ death for him getting the nomination.

  5. UlyssesUnbound says:


    Exactly what I was thinking. Is he competent, intellectual, and has wide-ranging appeal? (In other words, is he not an idealogue, has a pragmatic approach to issues that doesn’t toe the conservative line, and doesn’t pander to the religious right?)

    If yes, try again.

  6. Are you gentlemen enjoying your circle jerk of calling everyone on the right the worst things you can think of? And I bet you think you are the serious grownups too.

  7. Franklin says:

    I would certainly consider Petraeus and possibly Mitt, but I can’t think of any other halfway decent Rs at the moment considering bids.

    But I’m still predicting that Obama will easily win re-election. Lesser Democrats, not so much … and good riddance.

  8. anjin-san says:

    A candidate who is intelligent, educated, competent and accomplished? Very hard to see the gop base going for that…

  9. UlyssesUnbound says:


    We aren’t calling everyone on the right the worse things we can think of. In fact the very premise of our comments–that Petraeus would make a very good candidate–means that we don’t believe bad things about everyone on the right. The gist of the comments is that the current base of the right will not nominate someone like Petraeus, and that is a shame. That assessment is made without ill feelings towards the right, it is simply how I believe the current conservative base to be. In 2 years it may be a different situation.

    On a related response to your comment–do you really believe these comments to be vicious pejoratives meant to insult conservatives? Have you never actually been insulted, because I can think of much more polemic statements that could be uttered.

    And I’ve never considered myself serious nor grown-up.

  10. steve says:

    Here is a list of the 100 most popular conservative sites. (Sorry James on 78). In the top 20, I can see maybe 5 or 6 giving Petraeus a fair shake unless he is much different that portrayed by James above.


  11. sam says:


    Are you gentlemen enjoying your circle jerk of calling everyone on the right the worst things you can think of? And I bet you think you are the serious grownups too.

    Charles, your martyr shtick is getting old. I sometimes wonder how you can face getting out of bed in the morning what with all the persecution you’ll undergo during the day.

  12. Mr. Prosser says:

    No, he will not get the nomination; but, like Powell, would be dangled as Sec State to add legitimacy to whomever is running.

  13. Dantheman says:

    If this article is accurate on Petraeus’s views on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, his chances of convincing the Republican base to support him is going far down.

  14. nice strategy says:

    Why does everyone assume he is a Republican? Just because MoveOn didn’t like his Congressional testimony about a military matter doesn’t make him a Republican. Or maybe he was one, but the incompetent Bushies drove him out. Or he is a Republican, but not prone to hyperbole and demonization, and thus unlikely to win the Republican nomination. In any case it would be hilarious if Petraeus were to run as a Democrat.

  15. Dantheman says:

    In addition, he seems willing to reconsider Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I don’t think the Republican primary electorate will go for that, either.