''This administration hates criticism, but they react to criticism,'' Mr. Kristol said. ''We have a funny relationship with the top tier of the administration. They very much keep us at arm's length, but Dick Cheney does send over someone to pick up 30 copies of the magazine every Monday.''
"White House Listens When Weekly Speaks," The New York Times, March 11, 2003
Saddam has proven--he had proven by December 1997--that he will not disarm peacefully. And he must be disarmed. So war will come.
We are tempted to comment, in these last days before the war, on the U.N., and the French, and the Democrats. But the war itself will clarify who was right and who was wrong about weapons of mass destruction. It will reveal the aspirations of the people of Iraq, and expose the truth about Saddam's regime. It will produce whatever effects it will produce on neighboring countries and on the broader war on terror. We would note now that even the threat of war against Saddam seems to be encouraging stirrings toward political reform in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a measure of cooperation in the war against al Qaeda from other governments in the region.
-- Bill Kristol, "The Imminent War," The Weekly Standard, March 17, 2003
The case for Bush's conservatism is strong. Sure, some conservatives are upset because he has tolerated a surge in federal spending, downplayed swollen deficits, failed to use his veto, created a vast Department of Homeland Security, and fashioned an alliance of sorts with Teddy Kennedy on education and Medicare. But the real gripe is that Bush isn't their kind of conventional conservative. Rather, he's a big government conservative. This isn't a description he or other prominent conservatives willingly embrace. It makes them sound as if they aren't conservatives at all. But they are. They simply believe in using what would normally be seen as liberal means--activist government--for conservative ends. And they're willing to spend more and increase the size of government in the process.
-- Fred Barnes, Executive Editor of The Weekly Standard, "Big Government Conservatism," August 15, 2003
The passages above are a handy summary of The Weekly Standard's legacy in American politics, along with a whole bunch of great feature stories and smart blog posts that are tragically overshadowed by it. In foreign policy, the magazine did more than any other to encourage the United States to launch an inconceivably expensive war against Iraq. That ill-conceived military action certainly did "clarify who was right and who was wrong about weapons of mass destruction," and it proved utterly useless in bringing "political reform in Iran and Saudi Arabia," even as it added massive sums to our national deficit and debt.
Domestically, The Weekly Standard served as the most influential conservative apologist for the profligate spending of the Bush Administration, making itself complicit in fiscal imprudence that did great harm to the United States and American conservatism, even as it claimed that officials would react to criticism printed in its pages.
Given that history, it is astonishing that the William Kristol of July 19, 2010 is now lecturing the nation about "the crisis at which we are arrived," never mentioning his small role in precipitating it. It is darkly amusing that he opens his strangely hollow outreach to the Tea Party movement with a quotation from Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Father its typical adherent would most abhor.
Inside the Tea Party movement, there is much annoyance -- some of it justified -- about the treatment received at the hands of media elites. I submit that Mr. Kristol's latest is as striking an example you'll find of treating Tea Partiers as if they're naive idiots. Our leading, unrepentant advocate for "national greatness conservatism" is doing his best to co-opt a fundamentally small government movement that has had enough of "bold efforts" by federal legislators, and he's so confident that criticizing President Obama is sufficient to forge this alliance that he trots out as prelude the most brazen principled advocate for a powerful, far-reaching, supreme federal government in American history.
Far be it from me to understate Mr. Hamilton's genius or his patriotic deeds, but thank goodness his ambitions were restrained. Tea Partiers pondering whether Mr. Kristol should be considered a trusted ally will want to read the whole of Federalist 1, and ask themselves what kind of person would choose it of all things as a preface to a post ostensibly written in solidarity with their movement.
This passage is of particular interest:
An enlightened zeal for the energy and efficiency of government will be stigmatized as the offspring of a temper fond of despotic power and hostile to the principles of liberty. An over-scrupulous jealousy of danger to the rights of the people, which is more commonly the fault of the head than of the heart, will be represented as mere pretense and artifice, the stale bait for popularity at the expense of the public good. It will be forgotten, on the one hand, that jealousy is the usual concomitant of love, and that the noble enthusiasm of liberty is apt to be infected with a spirit of narrow and illiberal distrust. On the other hand, it will be equally forgotten that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the contemplation of a sound and well-informed judgment, their interest can never be separated; and that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.
What exactly does Mr. Kristol say in his piece?
...it's increasingly clear that "the inefficacy of the subsisting federal government," in our case welfare state liberalism, is no longer sufferable. Out-of-control spending and debt really do threaten our economic future. Weakness and timidity abroad really do threaten a world in which terrorists and fanatics possess, and use, nuclear weapons. The nanny state, at once all-intrusive and all thumbs, really does threaten the future of self-government. The dogmas of multiculturalism really do threaten the strength of a free society.
It's a cleverly written passage if the intention is to highlight Mr. Kristol's agreement with certain Tea Party beliefs: that we've long since gone broke, that welfare liberalism is the cause, that the Obama Administration is timid in its foreign policy, that the nanny state threatens the future of self-government, and that multiculturalism threatens our freedom. As a diagnosis of what ails America, I agree in part, strenuously disagree in part, and believe that the failure to consider the role of military outlays in "out-of-control spending" is noteworthy. Many typical Tea Partiers share that last concern, though they'd largely dissent from my other gripes. That is immaterial here.
For what does Mr. Kristol propose as a solution?
I was telling a friend about the Philly Tea Party, noting a few eccentric proposals from some of its participants. He commented, "Well, that's better than talking points." He's right. At this moment, bold and seemingly impolitic or impractical ideas are more useful than the diligent repetition of mostly sensible short-term critiques and proposals. At a moment like this, talking points are not enough.
That's the challenge for the Republican party. It is of course a real, existing political party, with real existing responsibilities. So it has to do the day-to-day work of a loyal opposition--helping Generals Petraeus, Mattis, and Odierno to win the wars we're fighting and which we certainly can't afford to lose, resisting foolish Obama administration programs and appointments, proposing legislation and amendments that would improve public policy or at least highlight the difference between the two parties.
But the GOP can be the party of the future as well as the present. It can be the party of fundamental reflection and radical choice as well as the party of day-to-day criticism and opposition. This isn't easy. It can lead to mistakes and missteps, tensions and confusions. But it's what the moment requires.
So fear not the Tea Parties. Be open to fundamental reforms. Belt-tightening and program-trimming, more transparency and greater efficiency, are not enough. The danger for Republicans isn't that they will address the current crisis too boldly. It's that they won't be bold enough.
In other words, Mr. Kristol has offered exactly zero solutions. "At a moment like this, talking points are not enough," he writes, having published a piece that is all vague talking points, and bereft of any specific suggestions. The moment requires "radical choice," he says, but offers none. Defending "bold and seemingly impolitic or impractical ideas," he neither names nor endorses any of them. "Belt-tightening and program-trimming, more transparency and greater efficiency, are not enough," he writes, without offering anything more.
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. The Tea Party attitude toward government should be "trust but verify," not these times are dire, so beware of politicians not doing enough. The Bill Kristol approach is a minor variation on the Obama Administration maxim to never let a good crisis go to waste.
The right is understandably fond of looking back at the Reagan years, but its most recent success at advancing the core tenets of conservatism came in 1994, when Newt Gingrich helped sweep a GOP majority into Congress. Due in part to that victory -- and the specific mandate afforded by the Contract with America -- the United States enjoyed a brief period of fiscal conservatism, and succeeded in passing long overdo reforms to the welfare system, a corrective to American entitlement spending that hasn't afterward been equaled in its significance.
Come 1997, Mr. Kristol co-wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal to complain about that Republican Party, declaring that "the era of big government may be over, but a new era of conservative governance hasn't yet begun."
Later in the piece, he and David Brooks wrote:
It would be silly to try to lay out some sort of 10-point program for American greatness. In any case, the particular policies are less important than getting Americans to begin to think differently about politics. The gravest threat to America today is the complacent mediocrity and petty meddling of the nanny state. Efforts to get big government off our backs, to strengthen families and to invigorate communities are healthy responses to the threat. But they are insufficient without the ambitions and endeavors of a conservatism committed to national greatness.
Here we are in 2010.
Once again, Mr. Kristol is telling conservatives to be bold, and basically reassuring the right that "the particular policies" are less important than that we're sufficiently committed to radical change to reclaim our greatness.
Last time, having attracted some support for his vague project, Mr. Kristol marshaled it not to shrink government, but to cheerlead for expensive foreign wars while acting as an apologist for profligate domestic spending. Insofar as I know, he has neither renounced nor apologized for his catastrophically mistaken behavior.
For better or worse, he is no Tea Partier -- nor am I -- but anyone who cares about limited government, as I do, would be foolish to join Mr. Kristol of all people in a "bold" but conspicuously unspecific GOP effort. Our 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.
Down that road lies a Weekly Standard editorial circa 2015 that offers apologia for a new brand of "big government conservatism."