Bill Kristol goes party-building

By W. James Antle III
web posted March 13, 2000

From their perch at The Weekly Standard, William Kristol and David Brooks embraced John McCain and claimed that he was engaged in a process of Schumpterian "creative destruction" that would ultimately revive the GOP's electoral fortunes. They went on to ascribe all sorts of unlikely virtues to the senator and tut-tut conservatives short-sighted enough to oppose him.

Now that it is clear that the only creative destruction that has taken place within the Republican presidential race was of McCain's candidacy, it might be time to revisit Kristol's and Brooks' thesis. Their political strategy in essence was this: Jettison the boorish white Southerners -- a Weekly Standard bete noire held responsible for much of the GOP's troubles within its pages -- and their Christian right friends, as well as other elements of the Republican coalition easily caricatured by the Democrats. Replace them with a party that chablis-sipping sophisticates from the Northeast who dress like Tucker Carlson would be more comfortable with. Sprinkle generous amounts of happy talk about reform. Voila! A new majority is born.

Kristol's and Brooks' approach suffers from some obvious flaws. The first is demographic: The population is shifting away from the states in the Northeast toward the Sunbelt, one of the major reasons Kevin Phillips advocated a "Southern strategy" for the GOP. The second is strategic, inasmuch as in politics one should always reward one's friends and punish one's enemies. Southerners and Christian conservatives have produced many good results for the GOP, contributing mightily to the victory margins of Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush as well as the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress. Conservative Christians comprise up to 40 percent of the electorate in some states, and Southern white males have given Republican candidates as much as 80 percent of their vote in some recent elections. What is to be gained by reading the GOP's backbone constituencies out of the party in exchange for better coverage from the New York Times? It ought to be said that when the party looked more like what Kristol and Brooks envision, it was consigned to permanent minority status.

Most of all, this formulation is utterly devoid of moral and intellectual substance. Kristol and Brooks offer no philosophical rationale for their support of McCain. But they do invoke philosophers respected on the right, not just the brilliant free-market economist Joseph Schumpter but Edmund Burke himself. Burke, they approvingly observe, recognized that "to conserve it is necessary to evolve." Yet they offer no explanation of how it is conservative to shatter existing coalitions without coming up with anything to replace them, overturn "the old order" within the GOP for the sake of overturning it and abandon first principles to support a candidate whose reform mantra has by their own admission yet to translate into a coherent governing agenda.

John McCain has many admirers on the right. This writer sent the senator a personal letter in 1997 urging him to seek the presidency. He has championed conservative causes in the Senate and compiled an 86 percent lifetime American Conservative Union rating (though his 1999 rating tumbled to 68 percent). Most of all, he is the embodiment of the character conservatives would like to restore in this country: Sacrifice, honor, courage, loyalty, patriotism and service. As a former POW, he deserves great respect.

But McCain sees private sector attempts to influence the course of government action in a society where such action is pervasive as the major crisis in self-government. He does not assign this level of emergency to the overweening federal leviathan, the size and scope of which the senator generally approves of. This is not at all compatible with the Founding Fathers' design of our republic, thus disqualifying it from being an agenda worthy of conservative support. The centerpiece of McCain's platform is not to restore the Constitution's restraints on the federal government but to enact a campaign-finance law that further ignores and erodes them.

The Weekly Standard's inability to fathom this is no surprise. William Kristol has wondered aloud why in heaven's name conservatives have gotten so glum about government (gee Bill, maybe from reading such subversive literature as the Federalist Papers), right at the tail end of a century replete with examples of government meddlers wreaking havoc on their national economies and killing some 200 million of their own citizens (not even counting wars). His model of conservatism is Theodore Roosevelt, a freewheeling anti-market statist. He aspires not to limit government but to have government shore up national unity with a variety of large undertakings.

His "national greatness conservatism" would be achieved through the federal government building bridges, erecting all sorts of monuments and blowing people up and getting shot at in the Balkans. Kristol, echoing Bill Clinton, once effectively equated the nation with its government (writing that in a democracy one cannot simultaneously love one's country and hate one's government), an appalling statement for a conservative to make. Indeed, the most important things in any nation (family, friendships, religious faith and practice, personal hobbies, work, voluntary organizations) have nothing to do with government at all and the nation itself is a bond that transcends the political.

In 1996, Kristol fervently hoped against hope that self-described "Rockefeller Republican" Colin Powell, a supporter of affirmative action, gun control and abortion, would seek the Republican presidential nomination. The common thread? A preoccupation with clever ploys to win elections without any real thought about what those election victories mean for America.

Colin Powell is certainly the most electable Republican, and John McCain may be more electable than George W. Bush. Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney were more electable than Barry Goldwater, but where would the conservative movement be today if the GOP had nominated either of them over McCain's Senate predecessor? Winning has to be defined by more than election outcomes. It is defined by accomplishing certain objectives. Ronald Reagan summarized conservatism in "five words: family, work, neighborhood, freedom, peace." Our clever strategizing should be to accomplish more on behalf of those things, our values, rather than the placement of men and women with "R's" next to their names in elected office.

David Frum, The Weekly Standard's saving grace, once wrote that "conservative intellectuals should be at work on something a little more ambitious than the Republican Party's next campaign manifesto." They should instead be reinforcing conservative principles. Frum's colleagues Kristol and Brooks would do well to take this admonition to heart.

W. James Antle III has worked for the Rhema Group, a political consulting firm for Republican candidates. You can e-mail him at

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