Legend of Zeldin

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Lee Zeldin won election to represent New York’s 1st District, an eastern swath of Long Island, in 2014. The district flipped from Barack Obama to Donald Trump in 2016, and this year, Zeldin is facing his closest race for reelection, with polling showing challenger Nancy Goroff, a Stony Brook University chemistry professor, neck and neck. An Army Reserve lieutenant colonel and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the 40-year-old Zeldin has been outspoken on foreign policy and national security. He spoke to the Washington Examiner Magazine ahead of the Nov. 3 election. This has been edited for clarity.

WASHINGTON EXAMINER MAGAZINE: Your Republican National Convention speech stood out among the others in the way that it was very focused on a local application of a national policy addressing the national crisis. And you talked about the Trump administration helping to bring PPE to your district. Up to this point, how do you think the administration has handled the COVID response?

LEE ZELDIN: Once the outbreak hit New York hard, it was Gov. Cuomo’s own words referring to the president’s response as “phenomenal.” Those are his words. And as I was watching the daily press conferences from the governor, and many other state capitals and Washington, I thought to myself that this is good, that Republicans and Democrats are working together, not as Democrats first or Republicans first, but Americans first, but that as Nov. 3 was going to approach, I could see some of these elected Democrats not being as kind and rewriting this history that we were witnessing … firsthand. And sure enough, as Nov. 3 got much closer, all of a sudden, anything good that the president and his administration did at any time, going back to January, was completely ignored and universally criticized, and the approach of responding to the coronavirus pandemic as Americans first was going to be replaced by a desire to have the maximum amount of power. … In the military, you conduct after-action reports after your mission is complete. And that’s one of the many reasons why we have the greatest military in the history of the world. We learn our lessons, what worked, what didn’t work, and we try to become better for it. And there was this premature transition toward rewriting history, because the most important timeline in all of this was Nov. 3 and a desire for absolute power.

WEX: You’re saying the response to the coronavirus got dragged into electoral politics?

ZELDIN: Yeah. It’s not like there’s nothing to possibly Monday-morning quarterback. I’d give that to anyone who wants to grab a soundbite and offer their idea of how they might’ve done something a little differently, but a lot of the people who engage at that level aren’t doing it constructively; they’re doing it to try to score political points.

WEX: To state the obvious, there’s two ways the election will go. But I think both of them will have, or could have, long-lasting effects on the Right and on conservatism and its ideology. So, I guess we’ll start with, if President Trump wins reelection, it will, I think, solidify the hold that his political worldview has on conservatism. What do you think that looks like, long-term?

ZELDIN: It’s a stronger, more consistent foreign policy that treats our friends as friends and our adversaries as our adversaries, that builds on a substantial amount of success over the course of the last few years. I can think of a dozen history-making accomplishments just in and around Israel and the Middle East. [In addition,] we have a stronger military, stronger homeland security, stronger border security, a stronger support for our nation’s law enforcement, giving them all of the tools and resources that they need in order to do their jobs safely, to provide law and order, to provide safety and security and an understanding that our nation’s backbone is our rule of law.

As far as the economy goes, we were setting all sorts of new economic records earlier this year, before the pandemic hit. And the president would be focused on continuing to improve our economy by pursuing ways to reduce taxes, eliminate unnecessary wasteful regulation, and reach trade deals with other countries that would improve our economy. There’s a lot that goes into the job of being the president of the United States, but those are just some of the many highlights that he’s shown to be a top priority that I’m confident he would look to build upon.

WEX: If Joe Biden wins, what is the Republican Party’s role in opposition, and yours, if you hold on to your seat? And what do you think that does to the way that conservatives have been viewing both the policies of the past four years and where to go from here?

ZELDIN: Well, the first question with regards to the hypothetical would be who controls the House and the Senate, and strategy as it relates to legislation and oversight in many respects would be dictated based off of who’s in charge of the chambers — who’s in charge of the committees, who can issue the subpoenas, who can rally the 218 to vote to get a bill across the finish line in the House. In one respect, [that’s how] a Biden presidency could be forced to test the limits of executive power: if he can’t get some of his worst proposals through a chamber controlled by the other party. And we even saw that start to some respect when he was vice president under the Obama administration.

… As far as the ideas that are in his agenda, a lot of those ideas are for some other country, somewhere else on the planet. Those aren’t good ideas for the United States of America. And, you know, it’s one thing to try to find common ground in order to keep the government funded — there might be competing values and priorities, but at the end of the day, there may be a strong bipartisan desire to figure it out. In other respects, there might be ideas that are just nonstarters.

WEX: Such as?

ZELDIN: The vice president has cashless bail on his national party platform. The Republicans aren’t going to support cashless bail, and we’re seeing it fail miserably in New York, eroding public safety here. And as you go through his agenda on items that are nonstarters, there’s no middle ground. … It’s an American value to be able to debate and disagree. We encourage it. We end up with better legislative product as a result of sharing your ideas of what might be wrong, what can be made better. And there would be some ideas that could potentially result in a product that a conservative and a liberal can agree upon. And in many other respects, it would never happen. And it wouldn’t happen the other way around, either.

WEX: Considering your military background and your position on the Foreign Affairs Committee, what is the main threat to America abroad that you think we’re going to be facing, or one that you think we’re not paying enough attention to?

ZELDIN: China, Russia, North Korea, Iran in different respects. Each of those nations will choose what path they want to move forward as it relates to their nation, their region, their relationship with the United States, and what kind of increased threats they may decide to pose. But those are the first four countries that come to mind as nations that could end up providing the biggest national security issue in the years ahead. And the list is longer, but those are the first four that come to mind.

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