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"This country needs better leadership," said Evan McMullin.
So many armchair politicians say those words and fail to follow through. Not McMullin. The independent candidate for president threw his hat in the ring more than a month ago and has been taken seriously ever since. Even conservative columnist Erick Erickson declared last week, "McMullin's candidacy is not the lesser of an evil, but an alternative against evil." That's a stamp of approval that should gain more currency for other conservatives after Donald Trump's disaster of a debate against Hillary Clinton on Monday.
In the ninth episode of "Cape Up," McMullin made a case for himself as a suitable alternative candidate, saying, "I heard a preacher the other day say, 'If you're voting for the lesser of two evils, you're still voting for evil.' " McMullin is no fan of Clinton, the Democratic nominee. But he is especially critical of Trump, whose candidacy, he believes, not only has damaged the Republican Party but also endangers the nation.
Trump's support, particularly from GOP elected officials "who know he's dangerous," left McMullin incredulous. These are people, he said, "who know what a danger [Trump] is to this country and how much damage he is doing to the country [with] the promotion of the racist alt-right movement, as well as ushering in this authoritarian view of leadership that he .... admires so much."
"I think we need a new conservative movement," McMullin told me. That movement "would embrace the cause of individual liberty," "would be inclusive" and "embrace diversity." Case in point, his view on Black Lives Matter. When I asked him what he hears in the phrase, he said, "I hear a statement of fact. ... As a white male, there are certain challenges that African-Americans face that I don't understand because I haven't lived them."
McMullin's inclusive and empathetic vision of conservatism is identical to one articulated by Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, in his 2015 book "The Conservative Heart." Because Republican conservative leadership failed to follow that vision, McMullin believes the GOP was "vulnerable to what I'd consider a hostile takeover by Donald Trump."
McMullin is a former covert CIA operative who takes a dim view of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who along with his government, "are clearly attacking our democracy ... in the same way that they've attacked the democracies in Europe." After detailing Putin's process, which includes fomenting divisions along racial and ethnic lines, I couldn't help but ask McMullin if he thought Trump was either a witting or unwitting Putin agent. "Oh there's no question," he said. "There's absolutely no question."
That was part of a rhetorical world tour of the challenges facing the nation and the next president. Syria? China? North Korea? Russia? All of McMullin's responses were thoughtful and befitting someone with national security experience. But they also had me wondering how what he proposed was radically different from what President Obama is doing or tried doing.
I also wondered how McMullin would win. He won't be on the ballot in all 50 states on Election Day. And his push to deny Clinton or Trump the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency strikes me as dangerous given the Republican-controlled House would then decide who won.
"If we're able to do it that will, I believe, reset the election. And then there will be a true three-way race between Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and me," McMullin told me. "And I think we will then have a fair opportunity to make the case to the American people that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are both unfit for the responsibilities they seek and that I am a better choice for president for this country."
We talked about other things. McMullin's hardscrabble upbringing in Washington state. The movie that sparked McMullin's childhood desire to join the CIA. How he came to eventually work at the agency. And the movie he said presents an "accurate portrayal" of what it's like to be an undercover agent. And listen to the "Cape Up" podcast to find out what McMullin said "woke me up" to the challenges facing African Americans. You can also subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher.
Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog