The Dark Kristol


Over at his Ideas blog, Ricochet member Conor suggests tea partiers not get carried away with Bill Kristol’s brand of national-greatness populism. Kristol, Conor warns, is too implicated in the free-spending, big-government conservatism of George W. Bush to be trusted by the tea parties in his call for “bold” and “fundamental reforms.” It’s true that Kristol’s an odd bedfellow for anyone waving a Gadsden Flag, but stranger things have happened. I want to push back, Conor, at your basic claim, which is that the tea party should have nothing to do with Kristol and his ilk.


At the outset I must agree that anyone even remotely sympathetic with the tea partiers is likely to associate Kristol, as you do, with the greatest excesses of the Bush administration. (Even establishmentarians who have no use for tea are apt to do the same.) But we paint with too broad a brush if we leave out the ambivalence felt toward W by right-of-center Americans, everyday citizens and opinion leaders alike. Having just spent some time with a goodly number of representative folks on the right, I can attest that it’s just not possible for mainstream people on the right to reject George W. Bush or his legacy whole cloth. Nor is it possible to fully embrace them, either. Some suggested to me that Bush’s first term was significantly better than his second; any way you slice it, Bush’s legacy remains ambiguous, and, from a tea party perspective, Kristol’s does too.

So I feel like there’s more to be said than what you caution against when you write:

Mr. Kristol is calling on the Republic Party to do something radical without saying what, or even seeming to care. His column is a rhetorical blank check, and while Tea Partiers can be forgiven for desiring a radical change away from President Obama’s domestic agenda and America’s fiscal profligacy, another prudent tenet of their populist, quasi-libertarian movement is a healthy suspicion for signing over to political parties blank checks for radical change.

There are a couple of things at work, here. The first is pure politics, the second more a matter of theory. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the tea partiers do not wield decisive political influence in establishment Republican circles — for instance, in Congress. It is also well-known, I think, that Republicans have some work to do if they are to make good on a recapture this year of one or both houses of Congress. Finally, despite all the ups and downs of the Bush administration and its aftermath, Bill Kristol retains precisely what the tea partiers lack, and offers precisely what Congressional Republicans want most: ideological pull. On the right, Kristol and his ilk form a sort of bridge between deeply disaffected tea partiers and the officeholding Republican establishment — not an easy job, to be sure, and one that requires — especially at this moment — an ability to go heavier on the rhetoric than on policy. That’s not because policy’s unimportant. Exactly because it is important, Republicans, going into the midterms, need to muster up a coherent vision of what they’re going to do with a legislative majority and why.

The fact is, such a vision is out of reach unless tea partiers, establishmentarians, national greatness conservatives, and constitutionalists can find a way to put their collective weight behind a few key themes and objectives. Since it doesn’t surprise me that Kristol recognizes this, I find it predictable, not astonishing, that he would publish an exhortation this month calling on establishmentarians and tea partiers to forge ahead together in a bold new way.

Which brings us to the theory. Many to the right of center take their political bearings from the Hamiltonian founders and the early Republicans — that is, from the party of trade and the party of industry. But just as many take their bearings from the Madisonian founders and the mid-era Republicans — from the party of civic republicanism and the party of civic pride. On the one hand, an approach grounded in the vigor of powerful government and powerful business; on the other, one founded in the virtue of small government and small business. Reconciling these two visions — making them work together and educate one another — has always been the task of the modern Republican party. In what I will leave to others to call “a very real sense,” it has always been the task of the American statesman.

Alas, Republican politicos and conservative statesmen have come up against an implacable foe: progressivism. For progressives, Hamiltonian vigor and Madisonian virtue alike are too narrow to be truly good or great. Rather than being merely powerful, government and business must be big — the better to work in permanent ‘partnership’ for the perfection of public virtue. From Wilson to FDR to LBJ to Barack Obama, the progressive project has been as crystal clear as it has been persuasive — despite its remarkable consistency in meeting great promises with even greater failures. The dream of the Great Society, complete with Great Projects run by a Great Bureaucracy ruled by a Great Leader, is a powerful one. As national greatness conservatives learned from the West’s best classical liberals, democracy unleashes great passions but also encourages a base appreciation for material pleasures and mere comfort. As Tocqueville warned, democracy’s drift toward soft despotism could loose the springs of action and deprive a once-vigorous, once-virtuous people of their vigor and their virtue. Progressivism promises deliverance from that democratic dystopia — in the dual form of hope and change.

Conservatives know better. But in order to be able to say better, to promise better, the allies on the right must topple the allure of the progressive dream while balancing their own judgments of theory and practice. It is a tricky business, prone to error, but it is a necessary task. And it is the one to which Bill Kristol is presently applying his efforts. Hamiltonians like Kristol (and David Brooks) are sure that vigorous government and vigorous business are good, but big government and big business united in pursuit of progressive ends are bad. I cannot say I disagree with them — especially to the extent that they agree only a Madisonian recommitment to the virtues of small government and small business can restore the vigor that they seek and that America needs.

I’ve had my disagreements with Kristol over the years, and I, like others, have sternly criticized compassionate conservatism for slipping too quickly into a progressivist mode. But where you claim that “[o]ur national greatness lies in Constitutional designs that limit our government’s ability to seize ever-greater power during times of crisis, not in the willingness of our citizens to demand that politicians of either party save us from crisis by being sufficiently radical in their response,” I must counter that it lies in both. We are losing both our vigor and our virtue, and the progressive aim to restore them through the supposed perfection of both in a centralized administrative state is one I know we both abhor. That makes for a crisis, like it or not.

If Bill Kristol would like to pitch in with a broad, multifarious, center-right alliance against the march toward that regime led by Obama and the Democrats in Congress, I have little doubt there is a place in the ranks for him. As for who will lead that alliance — well, I don’t doubt either that it’ll be someone who hasn’t stood center stage on the right for the past ten years. That’s change I can believe in. How about you?

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  1. Profile Photo Member


    As ever, I find much to agree with in your analysis, especially the desirability of a broad right-of-center coalition. I’d just like to make sure its the critics of Bill Kristol style conservatism who are in charge this go round, and I must confess that if I knew I could return the GOP to power, but only if the result was another 8 years that resembled George W. Bush’s tenure, I’d keep them in the wilderness for fear that otherwise I’d get a war in Iran and “comprehensive immigration reform” for my trouble.

    You write, “despite all the ups and downs of the Bush administration… Bill Kristol retains precisely what the tea partiers lack, and offers precisely what Congressional Republicans want most: ideological pull.” But look at how he has used his ideological pull: nation building abroad, compromising on domestic spending to get it, using his magazine to cheerlead “big government conservatism,” and throwing his support behind two candidates more than any others: John McCain and Sarah Palin.

    Aren’t those reasons enough for wariness?

    More importantly, you draw a distinction between big and vigorous government. What exactly does the latter entail?

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  2. Profile Photo Member
    Conor Friedersdorf: You say that Bill Kristol is seeking concurrence. Is he? What I read was a vague, unspecific call to be “bold.” Mr. Kristol prioritizes boldness in invading countries and launching “national greatness” projects, compromising on the other stuff […]. If he is a leader in the coalition going forward, won’t he just make those same tradeoffs again?

    My bet, Conor, is that he won’t be at the forefront. My bet is there’s a fairly natural cycling out going on here. The Bush years really are over. The audience in Kristol’s piece isn’t so much the tea partiers as the Congressional establishment and its allies. I read him more as endorsing the occasionally “eccentric” boldness of the tea partiers than his own personal brand of boldness. Surely Kristol recognizes, as do others, that the excesses of Bushism are exactly what planted the seed of the tea parties.

    Conor Friedersdorf: you draw a distinction between big and vigorous government. What exactly does the latter entail?

    Vigorous government as Hamilton envisioned it was strong constitutional government. Big government, as conservatives and libertarians mean it today, is government that has exceeded its constitutional purview.

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  3. Profile Photo Member

    Conor offers a decent pun in his title, and that is roughly the last useful thought in the post, beyond yet another expected shot at the foreign policy internationalists. Uh, Conor, Bill Kristol pays Matt Labash, fellow isolationist; he can’t be all bad.

    Thus far I have seen intense criticism of Limbaugh, Jonah Goldberg, George Bush, William Kristol…. I forget the rest. I haven’t seen rejections of lefties. Wonder why.

    I see one positive statement about the poll-created (there’s leadership for you) Contract With America (which I actually liked except that they didn’t mean the part about term limits and hadn’t thought through the mischief potential of the line item veto).

    In a world where politics worked, Conor and Kristol would agree that 1) spending needs to be reduced significantly; 2) government regulation needs to be brought under control; 3) any reforms of government programs (SS or health) need to be market-based; 4) immigration reform must be realistic, possible, and carefully avoid anti-ethnic impressions; 5) we need to resist tyrants abroad by some effective means.

    Agree on 4 of the 5, you have 80% concurrence. At least Kristol is seeking that.

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  4. Profile Photo Member


    Your comment doesn’t rebut my argument, it accuses me of insufficient antagonism toward the left. There was a time when I would’ve responded by linking writing that’s critical of President Obama and his policies, but I’ve tired of starting every argument as if the important thing is the degree of my fealty to the right. Either I am correct or incorrect. Where I aim my fire is irrelevant, and focusing on that suggests a weakness in your position, not mine.

    I think Matt Labash is a treasure. And I agree with your points 1, 2, and 4. Means testing SS isn’t market based, but I’m for it. There are lots of tyrants abroad that we cannot afford to overthrow — that is just reality. You say that Bill Kristol is seeking concurrence. Is he? What I read was a vague, unspecific call to be “bold.” Mr. Kristol prioritizes boldness in invading countries and launching “national greatness” projects, compromising on the other stuff as necessary, or such has been our experience from 2000 to 2008. If he is a leader in the coalition going forward, won’t he just make those same tradeoffs again?

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  5. Profile Photo Member


    I don’t believe that supporting the Iraq War disqualifies someone from being a conservative, but I do think the war has proven to be a costly mistake, and it is indisputable that Bill Kristol’s specific predictions about the Iraq War have proven to be wrong. Likewise, it is clear that The Weekly Standard did more than support President Bush. It acted as an apologist for the very “big government conservatism” that the Tea Party movement is so apoplectic about.

    You write, “This tendency of the paleo-right… to conflate Bush with the left gave us the Obama disaster.” With all due respect, this is a stunning assertion. There are a lot of factors that led to President Obama’s victory in 2008. Were all the important ones listed, the attitudes of the paleo-right wouldn’t even have a place on the list, and to lay blame on them for the Democratic ascendancy makes me think that you haven’t grappled with the real reasons for Republican defeat.

    I enjoy your comments, and I’ll read any rebuttal with an open mind. How specifically did paleo-cons cost the GOP Election 2008?

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  6. Profile Photo Member

    Conor, my criticism was not that you express insufficient antagonism toward the left- it is that, from my observation, you appear to exclusively express antagonism toward the Right. I wasn’t trying to rebut your “argument”- I saw less argument and more assertions; e.g., Kristol and TWS supported “.. .(t)hat ill-conceived military action”.

    The active GWOT is not universally reviled on the Right. I understand that for a significant (probably) minority of Republican voters, supporting the Iraq war disqualifies one from being conservative. I respectfully disagree. Stating that people who support and agree with George Bush are not conservative because he was not conservative does not appear to me to be helpful commentary if one really cares about ascendance of the Right.

    I say that Bush was more an heir to Reagan’s actual governing than any modern Republican president. Reagan raised taxes. Bush didn’t. Reagan compromised with Congress to get his more important programs approved- so did Bush. This tendency of the paleo-right (not necessarily you; I am not sure where you actually stand, I haven’t seen your specific policy views) to conflate Bush with the left gave us the Obama disaster.

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  7. Profile Photo Member

    You are right, Conor, that I haven’t run the numbers, and I suspect that my impression is derived from the Right echo-chamber in 2008. There is no question that the systemic tsunami of boredom, Obamanovelty, media advocacy, recession, and war fatigue, not to mention McCain’s own issues, all conspired to create disaster in 2008. I do tend to believe that had the congressional picture not been as bleak Obama would not have been able to pull off some of the worst nonsense that he has perpetrated.

    I suffered through a bunch of debates in which conservatives actively advocated staying home, because “Obama can’t be any worse than Bush”, then in the next breath “We need for Obama to really be bad, and then the public will realize how awful liberalism unbound is and react by voting for True Principles”. The counter was, first: the second statement disproves the first, and second, the irreversible mischief Obama can wreak while running amuck is too large a price to pay.

    Between the “stimulus” raising the budget floor, Obamacare, and the possible cataclysms of a lame duck session we see the stupidity of the win-by-negative-reaction strategy.

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