Politics & Policy

The Irony of Bill Kristol

You never know for sure what he's up to.

What is Kristol doing?”

Among the pointy-headed media addicts I call my closest friends and family, that has been the question of the moment. Indeed, it seems to transcend such obviously more important questions as “What will John McCain do?,” “What was Bill Bradley thinking?,” “How did we get stuck with George W.?,” and “Why isn’t Al Gore afraid of being struck by lightning?”

Still, it is Kristol’s odd tack that captivates. I know and like Kristol, as does just about everybody I know. But the problem with Kristol-the-pundit is that you never know for sure what he’s up to. Before “This Week” moronically let him go in order to give George Stephanopoulos’s hair more maneuvering room, Kristol was always the most interesting guy to listen to on that show. It wasn’t that his analysis was necessarily better than George Will’s, but you always got the sense that if you listened carefully, you could get equal doses of text and subtext.

And that’s the problem. Take his bizarre bit of rotisserie politics at the Weekly Standard website. He doesn’t actually say he wants John McCain to bolt the GOP and run a la Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. Rather, he weaves a scenario in which McCain could do it, and makes it sound pretty appealing. Now, if you didn’t know that Kristol is very close to McCain and his various staffers, you might even think it was a bit of purely dispassionate analysis. If, yesterday, you had read his objective hypothesis that McCain should simply “suspend” his campaign and wait it out in his Arizonan Elba until circumstances warrant a return, you might have thought, “hmmm, what a coincidence” when it turned out that McCain announced he would do precisely that.

This is not the best example, because everyone in town knows that Kristol is so deep and snug in the McCain bunker that he could steadily play “Operation!” during a Dresden-style air-raid and not even light up the patient’s nose.

But the point remains: It’s very easy to take Kristol seriously because he is a very serious person. But it’s very hard to take him at face value, because you never know what his end game is. Kristol’s been heard around town talking up the 1912 scenario for a while. But he is only writing about it now. How long has he had it in mind?

I confess that I have always marveled at what seems to be Kristol’s gift for a sort of Socratic irony, in which he feigns not to know what’s going on behind the scenes as he tries to lead others to the “right” conclusion. Some see Straussian conspiracy theories at work. Others see mischievousness. And some see a master at the inside game having a really good time.

But there is another, simpler, irony. Kristol became the 800-pound gorilla he is today not so much because of his tenure as “Dan Quayle’s Brain” in the Bush administration. Instead, he became a major player in his own right when he pioneered a little group called “the Project for the Republican Future,” in the early 1990s. He provided an invaluable service in putting some backbone in dispirited Republicans and whacking away some of the legs from underneath HillaryCare. Now he effectively wants to see the Republican Party self-immolate so the “McCain majority” can blossom in its fertile ashes. They say this is merely so much creative destruction. I say, so much for the Republican future.


As readers know, I myself was pulling for McCain to win the Republican nomination. I still think he would have been the better nominee (this is not an invitation to another round of arguments with readers who think I am higher than a moon bat). But that’s over. I can see clearly now, McCain is gone.

And the most important issue — the only issue — is defeating Al Gore. He simply cannot be permitted to add a layer of Gore judges on top of the putrid strata of Clinton judges. He cannot be allowed to spend four years talking down to American voters as if they were dogs who just peed on his rug. He cannot be allowed to delete all of the files a Republican administration would find.

The bad news is that there is a growing sense that Bush is not up to the task of defeating Gore. I predicted over a year ago in this space that Gore simply could not win. I still believe it. Here are just a few reasons — assuming John McCain does the right thing and honorably goes back to the Senate — why the only “President Gore” in your future will be the new head of the University of Tennessee.


There are no iron laws in American politics, but there’s a reason Teddy Roosevelt called the job a stepping stone to oblivion. While it’s almost impossible to deny a sitting VP the nomination of his party, it is almost equally impossible to get him elected once he gets it. This isn’t a coincidence. Vice Presidents spend years creating an un-presidential impression as the hall-monitors of American politics. Indeed, only three sitting VPs have ever been elected president: Jefferson, Van Buren and Bush the Elder. Jefferson doesn’t count because he belonged to the opposite party of President Adams. Van Buren was Andrew Jackson’s handpicked candidate to continue the Jacksonian Age. Similarly Bush was touted as the best candidate to continue the Reagan Era — and he ran against Michael Dukakis which, when translated from the Greek, roughly means, “man who doesn’t know how to run for President.” CLINTON FATIGUE

Gore’s betting that he can ride the current prosperity and use the game plans of Bush and Van Buren. Reassuring himself with Clinton’s job-approval rating — which is shockingly high — won’t help. Polling by the Pew Research Center shows that unlike Bush in 1988, Gore’s popularity is tied to Clinton’s personal standing, not his job performance. Clinton may have some influence over his job-approval numbers, but it’s hard to imagine that he’ll start getting offers to baby-sit anyone’s daughter any time soon. To be fair, few people blame Gore for Clinton’s penchant for using the intern pool as a harem. But what they will not forgive is a continuation of what is rightly seen as the most defining characteristic of the Clinton era: lying.


Everyone knows Clinton defines the truth as what gets you through the day. Gore learned that lesson well. Forget inventing the Internet or his claim to be the real-life inspiration for the novel Love Story. Just this week, we learned, from a memo written by Gore himself, that he actually knew the Buddhist fundraiser was in fact a fundraiser — despite his constant claims otherwise. Gore claims he swore a solemn oath to his dying sister that he’d fight tobacco in all its forms, but he kept selling it and taking tobacco money for years after. He told reporters that “I pulled my turn on the perimeter at night” in Vietnam and that he was “shot at.” He was actually, according to biographers, hanging around in guarded barracks as a military journalist smoking pot and reading anti-War poetry. He said that while in Congress he: discovered “Love Canal”; wrote the SuperFund law; and authored the Earned Income Tax Credit. The truth: President Carter declared Love Canal a disaster area well before Gore’s “discovery”; Jim Florio wrote the Superfund law; the EITC Act was passed in 1975, two years before Gore even entered Congress.


Often with disgust, the Tory pundit believes Presidential elections boil down to who we want in our living rooms for the next four years. If that is the case Gore should hang it up now. He’s spent years fostering his boring, squeaky-clean image. This has been a convenient cover for the truth: Gore is a very weird dude who makes most people very uncomfortable.


The GOP will rise again. Family fights always seem worse than they are. Pundits claim the Republican primaries permanently fractured the GOP. Such warnings are issued every four years, But by November such squabbles become trivia questions. Bush — having opted out of the Federal rules in the primaries — should have no problem raising more money. We know he’s at least good at that. Indeed, the only real story out of the GOP primaries is that unprecedented thousands of crucial swing voters voted Republican, albeit for McCain. Despite what the media or the McCain campaign say, when Democrats vote in a Republican party, it’s not because they want to send a message to the GOP. It is because they want to send a message to their own party. In this case, the message is: Gore is toast.


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