“If there were, God forbid, some accident at this hotel, the Republican Party and the conservative movement in Connecticut would be decimated for decades to come,” The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol told a crowd of more than 200 at a Nov. 4 Yankee Institute luncheon. “So let’s hope everything is stable for the next hour.”
“I’m familiar with being a conservative in New England,” said Kristol who grew up in New York, attended Harvard and later taught there.
“I was the token conservative on the faculty. They like to have one at all times. It’s useful so the kids know what a conservative looks like,” Kristol said. “Especially when they get out and have to have job interviews.”
“I know politics here is frustrating,” Kristol said. “Believe me, it could be worse. You could be in Massachusetts.”
After leaving Harvard to work in government, Kristol went on to start The Weekly Standard, which he still edits.
“Tip O’Neill was our Congressman,” he said, recalling his time teaching at Harvard. “He was Speaker of the House, a revered figure, obviously, in Boston.”
Kristol said in 1984 he voted for Reagan and Ray Shamie, who ran against John Kerry in his first campaign for U.S. Senate. He said he also voted against O’Neil.
“Just out of curiosity, how many votes did the Republican running against Tip O’Neill get,” Kristol recalled asking his wife.
“I hate to tell you this, there was no Republican running against Tip O’Neill.”
“I know I voted for someone,” he said. “It turned out I had voted for the Communist.”
Kristol said in 1996 he told his story about voting for a communist at a debate at Jewish Theological Seminary. He said he didn’t get much laughter and one member of the audience said it would be a tough choice between O’Neill and a communist.
After the debate another audience member introduced himself: “I’ve changed a lot in the last 12 years, but actually I’m the Communist you voted for.”
History of conservatism
Kristol said the history of American conservatism can be divided into three phases, with the first beginning in 1955 with the founding of National Review. He said conservatism in the first phase was opposition: “Opposition to big government liberalism, opposition to liberalism when it was soft on communism, opposition to various progressive projects.”
“The first quarter-century of conservatism is in opposition. I think it’s a very impressive period incidentally when you look at how united the forces were against Bill Buckley in 1955 or really even against my father and Norm Podhoretz and the neoconservatives around 1970. How the culture and the academy, the political establishment was just so dismissive of the notion that you could actually have a governing conservatism in America. That you could move back towards a respect for free markets, that you could actually defeat the Evil Empire, that it wasn’t crazy to make the case for some traditional values and social structures. That things like welfare shouldn’t just go forever. That it should be reformed. Lower tax rates. One forgets just how unpopular those positions were.”
Kristol said the 1970s were a watershed moment for the movement.
“Conservatives made their case. They were helped a lot by reality, which made the case against liberalism, especially in the person of Jimmy Carter. It helped a lot to have Ronald Reagan as a leader, who was able to convince the American public that conservatism wasn’t some crazy, you know, eccentric movement.”
“To me the big story of those 25, 28 years let’s call it, to 2008, is that a lot of those ideas worked,” he said. “We’re so involved in the war of ideas that sometimes we forget that reality is the test.”
Kristol said many serious people thought supply-side economics or Reagan’s challenge of the Soviet Union would fail.
He said Rudy Giuliani’s success as Mayor of New York is another example of unexpected conservative success, with crime falling enough that Kristol’s daughter lives in the city.
“She can’t sort of imagine it when I say, You would not have lived in New York if you had graduated from college in 1985 or 1989. You and your husband would not have thought, oh, this is such a cute, chic place to live.”
“The Reagan conservative moment really came to an end in 2006 or 2008,” Kristol said.
He said the Republican Party and President Bush both made mistakes. “Karl Rove was talking about 20 years of Republican dominance. That’s always when things fall apart and of course they did.”
The Obama administration
“And maybe we were in for a new era of progressivism, liberal dominance,” Kristol said.
He said many conservatives imagined themselves reading reading novels, writing poetry and digging bomb shelters for the next 20 years.
“I think Obama made some mistakes,” Kristol said. “If Obama were a really skillful politician in the way Franklin Roosevelt was, I’m not sure that he wouldn’t be much stronger today than he is.”
“Even though his policies were wrong and ultimately were going to run into reality.”
He said a bipartisan financial reform bill would have been a stronger political move by Obama in early 2009, instead of the partisan stimulus, Obamacare, cap and trade and card check.
Kristol said the stimulus “was a good test of Keynesiansim and it didn’t work.”
He said it didn’t produce the result its boosters expected. “Instead it produced in fact mountains of debt that we’re now going to have to work to get out from under.”
Kristol said Obama is practicing a “reactive, not terribly effective mind you, but much more conventional foreign policy.”
“He’s sort of lost the utopianism of the Cairo speech.”
Tea Party successes
“The electoral reversals in 2009 were really astonishing,” Kristol said, pointing to Virginia where Obama won by five points in 2008 and Republic Bob McDonnell won by 17 points in 2009.
“The lesson of Reagan had penetrated more deeply into the American public than people had appreciated, and probably than I had appreciated.”
Kristol said the failures of liberalism from the 1960s and 1970s and conservatism’s successes from the 1980s and 1990s are embedded in American memories.
“There’s a new generation emerging.”
2012 Presidential Race
“I don’t think 2012 is going to look like 1980,” Kristol said. “There’s no Reagan this time.”
He said there are a number of ways to defeat an incumbent and have a “very consequential election.”
Kristol said FDR’s 1932 victory could be a model for Republican’s in 2012. The candidate just needs to hold the conservative coalition together, he said, and the ideas for governing can come from think tanks and Congress.
Romney is the likely nominee, Kristol said, but he expects a “Newt Gingrich boomlet.”
“The truth is a Gingrich-Romney debate in March of 2012 would be good. I mean it would be healthy for the party,” he said.
More Bill Kristol:
“There are still some jobs in Connecticut,” Kristol said. “Better get back to work while they still exist.”
“I shouldn’t make jokes about that. Too close to the bone.”