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How Bill Kristol ditched conservatism. Great Escape
The New Republic ^ | 5/28/2001 | Franklin Foer

Posted on 10/03/2002 7:41:50 PM PDT by logician2u

The New Republic


How Bill Kristol ditched conservatism.
Great Escape

By Franklin Foer
Issue Date: 05.28.01
Post Date: 05.17.01

Back in the winter of 1995, Bill Kristol liked to fantasize aloud about "President Newt Gingrich." Once, after the House speaker addressed a group of Republican governors, Kristol gushed to The Washington Times, "How can anyone hear the speech he gave today and not want to see him run?" For Kristol, who was editing the newly launched Weekly Standard, Gingrich--energetic and idealistic, smart and strident--embodied all that was good about modern conservatism. By the fall of 1997, however, disillusionment had set in. Kristol's litany of gripes with Gingrich seemed unending: His foreign policy was flaccid and corporate; he prosecuted the culture war without vigor; his hostility to government bled into anti-Americanism. Along with his Standard colleague David Brooks, Kristol set out to knock the intellectual underpinnings from beneath Gingrichism. "Wishing to be left alone isn't a governing doctrine," they wrote on the Wall Street Journal editorial page. "And an American political movement's highest goal can't be protecting citizens from their own government." 

A manifesto accompanied their critique. In place of the GOP's libertarianism, they proposed "national-greatness conservatism." They spoke of returning the Republican Party to the activist ways of Theodore Roosevelt, even borrowing his rhetoric. "[B]ust the great public trusts of our time--the education, health and Social Security monopolies," they shouted. But while the rhetoric was new, the substance wasn't. Yes, Kristol and Brooks wanted an activist federal government, but only so it could dismantle itself, which was exactly what libertarians had been demanding all along. 

But Kristol and Brooks have come a long way in the past three years. These days they champion campaign finance reform and environmental protection. They oppose the Bush administration's proposed repeal of the estate tax because, as Brooks puts it, "We should be concerned with the widening income gap." They attack corporate power with Naderesque ferocity. No one can accuse them of being mere libertarians in Bull Moose garb anymore. National-greatness conservatism, to the surprise of many, has come to mean something. It's a real ideology now. It's just not a conservative one. 

In the universe of Newt Gingrich, a special place was reserved for the intellectual guru. And, for a time in the early '90s, the man who occupied it was Bill Kristol. From his personal think tank, the Project for the Republican Future, Kristol whispered in the ear of the aspiring House speaker. Stumping for the Contract With America, Gingrich came to parrot Kristol's lines about the hollowness of the liberal welfare state. And one of Kristol's many memos formed the basis of Gingrich's strategy of "principled obstructionism" against Hillarycare. 

As long as Gingrich played the part of anti-establishment insurgent, Kristol venerated him. In 1995, the debut cover of Kristol's Standard portrayed Gingrich as Rambo, bravely swinging on a vine above a burning Capitol. But once Gingrich was entrenched as speaker, Kristol began to express reservations. "Gingrich seems determined to move at a snail's pace," Kristol editorialized in a fit of frustration. On affirmative action and vouchers, Gingrich was insufficiently vocal; on defense spending, he asked for barely a pittance. Most disappointingly, Gingrich had begun extolling the virtues of engagement with China. "[T]he Republican establishment has joined the Clinton administration in subordinating both strategic concerns and American principles to business interests," Kristol lamented in early 1997. Nor was China an isolated case. Where Kristol and his neocon comrades called for aggressive, moralistic interventions around the world, Gingrich and his congressional cronies treated foreign policy as an extension of their libertarianism: Here, too, they let U.S. business set policy. The scuffle over China sowed the seeds of Kristol's growing suspicion of corporate influence over the Republican Party and of the libertarian ideology that rationalized it. Marshall Wittmann, a key Kristol ally now at the Hudson Institute, explains: "When Republicans took control of Congress and pursued a foreign policy more interested in promoting the dollar than democracy, we became concerned about the corporate corruption of the movement." And the movement became concerned about them. In April 1997 Gingrich phoned Rush Limbaugh's radio show and lambasted his old friend: "I've concluded that [Kristol] thinks he has to make news by pandering to the liberals every week and has become sort of the most destructive element on the right." 

Alienated from the GOP leadership--and convinced by the 1996 elections that its libertarian politics couldn't win--Kristol and Brooks unveiled national-greatness conservatism. There was only one problem: No one, perhaps not even Kristol and Brooks, had a clear idea of what the phrase meant. In the Standard, Kristol urged Gingrich to be more stridently conservative. In their manifesto, they urged Republicans to jettison their strident anti-government rhetoric. The incoherence was painfully evident. When Brooks and Kristol tried to devise policies for their brand of activist governance, they either ended up reciting conservative boilerplate about privatizing Social Security and education or suggested quirky, symbolic causes like revamping the space program and building ornate public libraries. 

National-greatness conservatism probably wouldn't have amounted to much more than that, had it not been for the presidential candidacy of John McCain. When Wittmann first supplied the straight-talking senator with Brooks's essays on the topic in the spring of 1998, McCain's campaign was in desperate need of a rationale. It had a candidate with a compelling biography but no clear agenda. So McCain took the themes of national-greatness conservatism--Teddy Roosevelt-style reform, nationalist revivalism--and made them his own. Even his campaign slogan, "the new patriotic challenge," was an explicit nod in Kristol and Brooks's direction. As McCain aide John Weaver acknowledges, Wittmann and Kristol were "the home breeding ground for the legislative and strategic concepts that ultimately emanate from McCain." 

It's easy to understand why McCain's fledgling campaign bought into the national-greatness conservatism concept--he needed ideas that would separate him from the Republican pack. Why Kristol and Brooks chose the Arizona senator as their vehicle is more complicated. After all, George W. Bush's speeches also borrowed unabashedly from their criticisms of "leave us alone" conservatism. W.'s foreign policy slogan, "a distinctly American internationalism," repudiated the isolationism of the House Republicans. And one would have expected McCain's casual indifference on abortion and homosexuality to infuriate genuine social conservatives such as Kristol and Wittmann. 

There was, however, a significant obstacle to a Bush-Kristol alliance. The political tradition from which Kristol and Brooks hailed was neoconservatism, a movement with urban, Jewish, Northeastern, highbrow roots. The Texas governor, with his Southern pedigree, evangelical flourishes, and anti-intellectual tendencies, represented something very different. As Brooks puts it: "We're separated from him by culture." 

Under Ronald Reagan and Gingrich, those differences had been papered over. The neocons had praised evangelicals for remoralizing American life, even overlooking the occasional anti-Semitic slur from their friends. (After Pat Robertson published his ravings in 1991 about the "cosmopolitan, liberal, secular Jews" who "undermine the public strength of Christianity," for example, the Podhoretzes and Kristols sprang to his defense.) But by the 2000 campaign, many of the Jewish neocons had decisively fallen out with the Christian theocons. The breaking point came in 1996 with a symposium, sponsored by the journal First Things, titled "End of Democracy?" and featuring such social conservative stars as Charles Colson, Robert Bork, and Robert P. George. Unable to make headway against legalized abortion, the religious intellectuals lashed out in frustration. The government's immorality, they warned, justified civil disobedience and even revolution. This rhetoric transgressed too many of the neocons' first principles--patriotism, the rule of law, and the basic religious pluralism of the American state. Neocons accused the religious conservatives of anti-Americanism and broke ranks. 

So, even though Kristol remained committed to banning abortion, he jumped on the McCain campaign as an opportunity to purge, in his and Brooks's words, the "self-caricaturing leaders of the right." It was more than just an occasion to toss the yokels overboard; McCain presented the neocons with an opportunity to shape the conservative movement in the fashion their intellectual forefather Leo Strauss had imagined. Gone would be Robertson's sectarian Christian politics. In its place, McCain would install Strauss's preferred antidote to relativism--the secular religion of the state. In March 2000, soon after McCain called Robertson and Jerry Falwell "forces of evil," Brooks and Kristol wrote that "McCain would redirect a religiously based moral conservatism into a patriotically grounded moral appeal. When McCain talks about remoralizing America, he talks in terms of reinvigorating patriotism." 

As important as Kristol's cultural affinity for McCain was his temperamental affinity for the senator's rebellious style. Kristol, too, had made a career of shaking his fist at the GOP establishment. In the early '90s he had backed Spencer Abraham's renegade campaign to become chairman of the Republican National Committee. In 1993 he started the Project for the Republican Future with the purpose of goading the party leadership rightward. In 1996, even after Bob Dole's nomination seemed inevitable, Kristol continued to flirt with every other imaginable Republican candidate. He laid bare his guiding philosophy in the Standard in 1997: "What's needed is an insurrection--one, two, many insurrections--from within the ranks of the GOP." 

Signing up for McCain's insurrection, however, had unanticipated ideological side effects. From the start, Kristol and Brooks realized they would have to embrace campaign finance reform--despite the fact that a 1999 Standard editorial had pronounced the House's version of the McCainFeingold legislation "a piece of shameless zealotry." But they could hardly have guessed how far left McCain would drift. In the heat of an insurgency, his hostility to the GOP establishment steadily deepening, McCain began jettisoning the conservative movement's core economic agenda. After a career of supporting tax cuts, McCain attacked the Bush economic plan's bias toward the wealthy. Although he had routinely voted down HMO reform, he became a proponent of the patients' bill of rights. Over and over, he slammed Bush for failing to set aside money for Social Security. 

But the Kristolites didn't distance themselves from McCain's transgressions. Indeed, the Bush campaign's bare-knuckle response to McCain's challenge only bonded his supporters more strongly to his renegade campaign. In the primaries, conservatives whispered that the Bushies were enlisting the Standard's advertisers to apply pressure to Kristol and Brooks. Kristol says he never experienced any strong-arming. But the rumors grew so intense that, according to one eyewitness, McCain confronted Standard owner Rupert Murdoch at a Los Angeles fund-raiser and pressed him to guarantee the health of the magazine. For Wittmann, who'd become a McCain supporter in 1998, the threats were more than rumors. After years of loyal service to the conservative cause as a lobbyist for the Christian Coalition and the Heritage Foundation, Wittmann's support for McCain transformed him into a pariah. His colleagues at Heritage warned him that his support for McCain would jeopardize his career. His superiors forbade him to identify himself as a Heritage employee in conversations with reporters. Life at Heritage became so uncomfortable that Wittmann left. 

Nor did the recriminations end when the campaign did. Since the election, Kristol has been publicly badmouthed by everyone from Paul Weyrich to Dick Cheney. Tim Goeglein, one of Bush adviser Karl Rove's hirelings, has complained to Wittmann's new patrons at the Hudson Institute about his criticism of the administration. Ultra-activist Grover Norquist has been even blunter, telling one of his fellow conservatives that Wittmann was no longer welcome in the movement. And as far as Kristol is concerned, the feeling is mutual. "Why are conservatives so upset? It isn't that we supported McCain; it's that we haven't apologized for supporting him," he told me. "There's something sick about a movement like that." 

Kristol, Brooks, and Wittmann, having joined the McCain crusade as nettlesome members of the conservative movement, ended it cast out of the movement altogether. And ideology has followed sociology--with the national-greatness conservatives willing to entertain ever more radical heresies against conservative orthodoxy. As followers of Strauss, neocons had always held that public virtue--not economic efficiency or individual freedom--was the measure of a good society. Their journals, Public Interest and Commentary, never objected to the welfare state per se--only the efficacy of specific policies. During the cold war, neocons joined the anti-government crusade because it gave them allies against communism abroad and against relativism at home. But, with their bonds to the conservative movement loosened, Kristol and his allies have begun to drop the strategic anti-statism of their neocon ancestors and are beginning to develop an economics that doesn't worship at the altar of unregulated free markets. 

It's not just the accusation, hurled in Standard editorials, that Bush was "groveling" to China on behalf of American business. As Wittmann has written on his website,, "[C]onservatism need not be defined by K Street. As we pursue tax cuts, it seems reasonable to focus on middle-class relief such as cutting the payroll tax." Says Kristol, "I don't have any problems with the safety net." Which raises a question. If national-greatness conservatism scorns the Christian right, jettisons the struggle to shrink government, and champions an idealistic foreign policy more likely to be supported by The New York Times than Dick Armey, in what meaningful, contemporary sense is it conservatism at all? 

If you haven't seen much of this heresy in the pages of The Weekly Standard, that's because on domestic policy Kristol and Brooks have become a minority in their own office. Unable to turn the Standard into a vehicle for their movement, they've essentially stopped writing about economics and social policy. Ironically, as its top editors have inaugurated one of the most interesting Beltway debates in years, the magazine has grown less interesting. Instead, Kristol and Wittmann have started a think tank called the Project for Conservative Reform, run out of the Hudson Institute, with the sole purpose of developing position papers for their movement. And Brooks's next book will aim to infuse national-greatness conservatism with some needed marrow. 

But will their ideas have consequences? In Brooks's view, the national-greatness conservatives should become a Republican version of the New Democrats--a movement to reform the party from within. But New Democrats took over the party in the early '90s, after it had lost dismally for more than a decade. The GOP, by contrast, controls the presidency, both houses of Congress, and most of the nation's governors' mansions; most Republicans don't see the need to blow it up and start again. That's why Wittmann is considering a more radical route: the creation of an entirely new political party. "The Bull Moose Party and the 1912 election are the only models I have to work with," he says. McCain, of course, would be the latter-day Teddy Roosevelt. And although the Arizona senator has publicly said he won't challenge Bush, his aides insist he has left himself some wiggle room. ("If Bush vetoes campaign finance reform, all bets are off," says one loyal McCainiac.) 

But if Wittmann and Co. hope to create a new Bull Moose Party, they might take a look at what the first one produced: a two-term Democratic president. Instead of forcing the Republicans in a progressive direction, the conflict turned reform-minded voters (the precursors to the independents who backed McCain last spring) into Democrats and drove the Republican faithful into the arms of reactionaries like Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. The national-greatness conservatives understand that risk, which may be why they call their strategy "creative destruction." But today, at least, the second half of that slogan seems more likely than the first. 

FRANKLIN FOER is an associate editor at TNR.


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Copyright 2001, The New Republic


TOPICS: Constitution/Conservatism; Foreign Affairs; Government; Politics/Elections
KEYWORDS: brooks; bush; foreignpolicy; gingrich; kristol; mccain; nationalgreatness; neoconservatives; trustbusting
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Last night, a thread was started (which I can no longer locate) on the topic of, generally, how did we get to the current state of affairs where America has become the least respected, most feared nation in the world.

As I recall, some posters were quite upset that we are no longer the beacon of freedom and example for other countries to follow but rather thought of as a bully to the rest of the world. Others took exception to the word bully and accused the original poster of being a member of the Hate America First Crowd, etc. They insisted they were the genuine conservatives, since they were preserving America from the terrorists while the anti-war faction was inviting our destruction.

Without getting into the pros and cons of first strike, pre-emptive attack and advanced concepts such as MAD, I believe it is necessary that we FReepers understand which way the conservative movement has drifted since the end of the Cold War.

As a start, I am posting this article, originally published in that formerly left-wing but now respectable journal of opinion, The New Republic, over a year ago. It provides some background on the evolution of neo-conservativism from a pseudo-libertarian, don't-trust-the-government movement of former socialists and New Dealers to the "national greatness" conservatism as practiced openly by McCain and Kristol and, without a doubt, in the closet by any number of others, both in and out of the Bush Administration.

I would welcome any comments, as well as links to articles on Free Republic that supplement what Mr. Foer writes.

And please, for the sake of discussion and faster loading of the page for people using a dial-up account, refrain from inserting huge graphics that only clutter the screen and detract from the subject at hand. We are all perfectly aware of what happened on September 11, 2001.

1 posted on 10/03/2002 7:41:50 PM PDT by logician2u
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To: logician2u
Conservatism isn't neo-con, it's not libertarian, it's not "Well I'm a social liberal and a fiscal conservative", it's not compassionate conservatism, etc.

I think few "conservatives" know what the hell the word means.
2 posted on 10/03/2002 7:48:36 PM PDT by TheBigTown
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To: TheBigTown
I think few "conservatives" know what the hell the word means.

Can that be due to its relative meaninglessness since Reagan left office?

I use that as a proximate benchmark, because it was around then that the remaining conservatives in Washington pretty much threw in the towel. They had lost any sense of power with passage of the 1986 tax bill.

3 posted on 10/03/2002 7:55:36 PM PDT by logician2u
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To: logician2u
Kristol is a mess. Like many conservatives of my generation -- who got involved because "Conservativism", as then defined, was the most radical, anti-establishment political form then available -- he's never been able to transition to a role in a majority, ready-to-govern coalition. He seeks the fight, but has no stomache to actually build, or create, anything. So sad.

And what's wrong with "leave me alone" conservativism? It still holds an appeal for me; as it would the Founding Fathers.

4 posted on 10/03/2002 7:58:24 PM PDT by Reverend Bob
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To: logician2u
People are not all that fond of Bill Kristol around here.

We already noticed his support of McCain and a number of his other egregious gaffs.

I'm surprised to hear that the New Republic is "formerly left-wing."
5 posted on 10/03/2002 8:00:07 PM PDT by Cicero
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To: TheBigTown
I think the biggest confusion began actually with the election of Reagan. You had these moralists, who switched over from the democratic party on issues such as abortion and homosexuality. It had nothing to do with their views on labor unions, the minimum wage, corporate welfare, etc...

Gary Bauer is a good example. He is to the left of Bill Clinton economically, but a devout moralist christian, so he is called a conservative. Is he?

I think the words get confused. Conservatism means just as it says, to conserve, to preserve the moral order. But in a time when the order is chaos, the meaning of conservative is thrown into the abyss as well.

I would argue that Gingrich is more of a reactionary than a conservative. Reagan was trying to reinstill old values, so he was conservative, Gingrich was interested in new ideas, etc...

Is Free trade or protectionism conservative? Are the steel tarriff's Bush adopted conservative? Is the federal war on drugs conservative? It all depends on your definition.

6 posted on 10/03/2002 8:01:15 PM PDT by dogbyte12
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To: logician2u
that we FReepers understand which way the conservative movement has drifted since the end of the Cold War.

I am at a loss to understand how the conservative "movement" has drifted. The term neo-con is a misnomer but it will suffice for the subject of this article. The article itself is somewhat incoherent but the final message appears to be that the neo-cons have lost influence within the "movement" rather that steering its course.

7 posted on 10/03/2002 8:04:54 PM PDT by Texasforever
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To: logician2u
I think it's hard to keep the meaning of the word because it's not an ideology, as Kirk says, and the meaning can evolve. It's somewhat elusive. But I don't think it should be splintered into factions, which is what has happened.

Few people understand that conservatism doesn't mean standing still, for example. It doesn't mean wearing a three-piece suit and slipping pocketwatch in your vest.

This is a massive topic, actually. Interestingly, and not ironically (another severly misused word), I had searched a while ago for conservative books and this one popped up: "Bob Cobb's Dittohead Bartender's Guide."

I guess this is where we are, eh?
8 posted on 10/03/2002 8:06:21 PM PDT by TheBigTown
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To: Reverend Bob
And what's wrong with "leave me alone" conservativism? It still holds an appeal for me; as it would the Founding Fathers.

Well said, and I agree.

This was pretty much the standard form between 1964 and sometime in the '80s. (I'm still not sure where we went adrift, either with Reagan's second term or Bush the Elder's term. The end of the Cold War cinched it for many, as they learned that the "peace dividend" would be paid in social programs.)

9 posted on 10/03/2002 8:08:27 PM PDT by logician2u
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To: TheBigTown
I guess this is where we are, eh?

Not all of us. Just the Dittoheads.

10 posted on 10/03/2002 8:11:05 PM PDT by logician2u
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To: dogbyte12
Is Free trade or protectionism conservative? Are the steel tarriff's Bush adopted conservative? Is the federal war on drugs conservative? It all depends on your definition.

I think your examples are either conservative or populist positions depending on the stance taken.

11 posted on 10/03/2002 8:12:01 PM PDT by Texasforever
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To: logician2u; Pokey78; A Citizen Reporter; Dog; Howlin
I am probably not going to be your favoroite reply, but I am quite grateful you posted this.

If you read through this article, you get a picture of Bill Kristol's behavior through the last few years, and it is obvious that as I have often pointed out, he chooses positions and personalities which are detrimental to the Republican party. He isn't a conservative at all.

He is a mole.

This article fails to document his long campaign to get Colin Powell to run as the Republican nominee in 2000. This is the same Colin Powell which Kristol now routinely trashes.

Kristol was originally backing Powell because he knew it would cause a split in the Republicans. Now he trashes Powell as Secretary of State, for the same reason.

So, thanks for posting this article, as it documents other incidences of the same type of behavior.

12 posted on 10/03/2002 8:13:40 PM PDT by Miss Marple
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To: logician2u
So where does the conservatism of, say, Burke fit in all this? The word has meaning before Goldwater.
13 posted on 10/03/2002 8:14:32 PM PDT by TheBigTown
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To: dogbyte12
Conservatism means just as it says, to conserve, to preserve the moral order.

By that definition, I should think Gary Bauer would fit right in. He is about the most moral politician we have, isn't he?

Or by moral order do you mean "social order?"

14 posted on 10/03/2002 8:15:29 PM PDT by logician2u
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To: logician2u
I use that as a proximate benchmark, because it was around then that the remaining conservatives in Washington pretty much threw in the towel. They had lost any sense of power with passage of the 1986 tax bill.

There came a realization that the 'New Deal" programs were so entrenched that it was a losing battle. Reagan tried to starve them to death with tax reductions but also had to make large concessions for the same strategy of spending the Soviets into bankruptcy on defense buildups.

15 posted on 10/03/2002 8:16:13 PM PDT by Texasforever
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To: logician2u
Bill Kristol (D)
16 posted on 10/03/2002 8:16:33 PM PDT by AdA$tra
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To: TheBigTown
So where does the conservatism of, say, Burke fit in all this?

Why cloud the issue with dead 18th-century males?

Wasn't Burke a royalist, after all?

17 posted on 10/03/2002 8:19:21 PM PDT by logician2u
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To: logician2u
Kristol is a bright one holds his views... but interesting none the less.

He and his fringe are really just media marketable conservatives...great for TV filler but not representative of any constituancy that votes.

When he went for the Nixonian Phase of McCain, I quit even listening to him 90% of the time.

18 posted on 10/03/2002 8:21:58 PM PDT by KC Burke
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19 posted on 10/03/2002 8:22:55 PM PDT by Anti-Bubba182
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To: Texasforever
There came a realization that the 'New Deal" programs were so entrenched that it was a losing battle.

That "realization," as you call it, is one of the basic precepts of neo-conservativism: Don't even think about undoing what has already been done, 'cause it won't fly.

Reform, yes. Repeal, no.

20 posted on 10/03/2002 8:24:15 PM PDT by logician2u
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