In his own words: Charles Djou—before the win

Jon Letman

HONOLULU—In the days leading up to the special election to fill the 1st District Congressional seat left vacant by Neil Abercrombie, Charles Djou talked about his views on the Obama administration and his own take on the important matters he will now face as a congressman. In conversation, Djou is pleasant, cordial, and comes off as neither a “right-wing nut” nor particularly warm to the Tea Party brand of politics that is getting so much attention from likes of Sarah Palin and Rand Paul.

Djou, who served as vice-chair for Rudi Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign in Hawaii, displays an interesting mix of red meat Republican stances (supportive of smaller government, tax cuts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, against trying terrorism suspects in U.S. civilian courts) while expressing a desire for greater bipartisanship—at least as a candidate during a campaign.

Now that Djou has won a seat in D.C. until Abercrombie’s term ends next January, he occupies the unusual role of being a Republican—the first since 1991—to represent Hawaii in Congress, and will be in a position to oppose or support a president with whom he shares not only a home town, but also a high school.

In a late March telephone interview, Djou was critical of some Obama policies, but spoke respectfully with open personal admiration for Obama, who, like Djou, graduated from Punahou. Djou was in the class of ‘88, along side the president’s sister Maya Soetoro-Ng. Djou even joked that had he known her brother was going to become the president, he might have asked her to the prom.

And as much as the GOP and Fox News pundits will attempt to make the Djou victory appear to be a “major upset” for Obama, Djou clearly agrees with the president in some areas; most noteworthy, perhaps, on national security and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Djou says he is mostly satisfied with Obama’s approach to Iraq and Afghanistan and is pleased that, as he puts it, “Obama the president has ignored the advice of Obama the senator when it comes to national security.” Asked to grade Obama on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Djou says he would give Obama a “B.”

Before liberals or progressives lament another Republican vote that appears unlikely to oppose Obama’s (or any other president’s) request for additional billions of dollars for war, they should keep in mind that Ed Case famously said, had he been in office at the time, he would have voted to authorize an invasion of Iraq. Both Case and Colleen Hanabusa, like Djou and the majority of Republicans, support Obama’s escalation of the war in Afghanistan and offer no vocal opposition to the ongoing occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

As Djou heads to Washington, the people of Hawaii will be watching to see how closely his voting mirrors his campaign rhetoric. Below are comments by Djou from the March interview that focused on current issues, the Obama administration, and the policies Djou now faces as Hawaii’s newest member of Congress.

National Security: “One thing I am happy about is that Obama has reconsidered his national security. When he was running [for president], Obama called for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and a reconsideration of American policy in Afghanistan. I am in agreement and do think the president has taken the right approach in Iraq and Afghanistan today. Obama policies look very different from Senator Obama’s policy calls during the 2008 campaign.”

Iraq and Afghanistan: “We are on the flight path to achieving stability and a situation where we can withdraw our troops. I think it was a good idea to pursue the ‘mini surge’ [in Afghanistan]. Obama took way too long [to decide], but it’s the conclusion which matters. There are a lot in the GOP who wanted him to be more aggressive, but I support him there.”

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: ““I am actually to the left of Obama on this. I think this is another issue in which he has acted too slowly. He should have acted faster.”

Economy: “The one and only thing [the Obama administration] has done is spend a lot of money for very little effect. Obama proposed a $3.8 trillion budget, asking to finance it with the largest budget deficit by a factor of three. That’s an enormous sum of money the American people simply don’t have. On fiscal responsibility, I’d give Obama a ‘D’ [grade].”

Environment: “The position I take is a bit different from most Republicans. I believe in protecting the environment. Because I represent Waikiki [as a council member] and tourism is the heart of our economy, I think it is important [to protect the environment]. I appreciate and understand tourists do not spend thousands of dollars or travel thousands of miles to come play in our casinos or amusement parks. We have none. They come for our beautiful natural environment and that’s why it’s critical to protect. Because it is in our economic interest.”

Copenhagen Climate Change Conference: “I had very low expectations from Copenhagen. I think the best way to deal with the environment is to make sure the economy gets back on its feet. There is a direct co-relation between economic growth and environmental protection. I’m very concerned about Obama’s approach to cap and trade. In the middle of an economic recession we need new jobs, not a new government program. Obama’s approach to the environment, his elixir, is to spend more money and I don’t think that’s the right approach.”

Education: “Education is one area I have been generally happy with Obama and his Department of Education. I believe Arnie Duncan is the brightest light in the Obama cabinet. I’ve been pleased with Obama’s approach to pushing for more accountability in schools ... increasing student testing, expansion of charter schools, and demanding under-performing teachers be dismissed. If I have a criticism of Obama’s policies with education, it’s that I don’t think they are being aggressive enough.”

Obama presidency: “At its core, my biggest disappointment is the failure to conduct in a bipartisan fashion. I think the country was tired of the polarization under George W. Bush, which, I think, helped Obama win the presidency. He assumed the presidency with super majorities and, like Bush, immediately governed to his base instead of governing from the center. The Obama administration has shown a propensity to govern in the same fashion as Bush, swapping out Karl Rove for Rahm Emanuel. I was expecting more bipartisanship.”

At the end of the interview Djou summed up with what he saw as the most critical issues to the American people. He said, “Right now, for the American people, the economy and fiscal issues are most important. Foreign policy is a distant second and the environment is barely on the radar screen.”

In the final weeks before the special election, as Djou advanced in the polls, garnering national attention, Ed Case and Colleen Hanabusa ran vigorously against him—and each other. Now Charles Djou, Punahou alumnus, former city council member, and newly minted Republican Congressman from Hawaii, will have a chance to show us how his beliefs translate into votes.