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Friday Interview: The Resurgence of Limited-Government Conservatism

Fox News, Weekly Standard expert Kristol assesses the impact of the 2010 elections

The American political picture has transformed drastically in the last two years, with enthusiasm for President Obama and his Democratic congressional allies yielding to renewed support for Republicans. William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard and contributor to Fox News, discussed this transformation with Mitch Kokai for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

Kokai: We have seen quite a change over the past couple of years. Why?

Kristol: Politics is unpredictable. That’s one reason why it’s fun and exciting, as well as important. Two years ago, everyone thought we were in for a new New Deal, a new liberal era. Barack Obama was the new Franklin Roosevelt. And maybe it could have happened. Maybe if he’d been more careful in what he had proposed, if he had won some Republican support for some of his legislation, perhaps we’d be looking at a very different political situation now. I’m not sure if it was inevitable that things would change as radically as they have in the last 20 months or so, but they have changed radically. I think the main reason is results. You cannot pass a massive stimulus package on a party-line vote, virtually, and then 18 months later people say, “What happened? Was that money well spent?” People think not, and you’ve got to take responsibility for that. Similarly on ObamaCare, we had a huge debate. The country got very well-informed on health care issues and I think decided basically that the president’s plan was not the way to go. So I think what happened was not really political gimmicks or one party being shrewder than the other about its messaging or anything like that. It was about substance.

Kokai: We mentioned at the outset that people are looking at a Republican alternative. But in some respects, this isn’t about wanting to get Republicans back in, but more turning toward conservatives, or people who like limited government, isn’t it?

Kristol: I think one of the great surprises of the last two years has been the resurgence of interest in limited government, constitutional government, free markets, the rules that constrain arbitrary authority and the like. I think it’s an extremely healthy thing. Obviously, a lot of think tanks like John Locke have been working on this for a long time. But what was amazing was the sort of upsurge of popular interest, the Tea Parties, the sense that when you really see modern, liberal, big government up close, when you see its attempt to expand even further, voters really got spooked by that. They really got worried that this was changing America almost. It’s one thing to have a little incremental change, a little addition to the Medicare program, or one more environmental regulation. It’s another thing to go to cap and trade or ObamaCare or to the stimulus package or the $1.3 trillion of debt.

I think voters really recoiled from that, and it made them also think. As happens when you recoil from something, you don’t just recoil. You also think, “Well, what went wrong?” And people started to rethink some of the other aspects of the modern welfare state. So I think it’s a very interesting moment for conservatives, a very promising moment, where voters and citizens are really open to rethinking some things that seemed kind of closed over the last decade or two.

Kokai: How much did this surprise Democrats? Did they really think, in your estimation, that if we give them more ObamaCare, stimulus, this sort of thing, the people will say, “I kind of like this, I like the Democrats for doing this for me,” and that really hasn’t happened?

Kristol: Yeah, I think that’s exactly what Democrats expected. It’s what the media expected, and it’s why the Democrats and the media are still so puzzled by what’s happened. It’s why they want to say, incidentally, that what’s happened is entirely due to the fact that unemployment is high and the economic recovery has been slow. But I don’t believe that, actually. What’s happened goes way beyond the mere economic data. If people, in fact, thought this was the right way to go, they could tolerate unemployment being high for a year or two, as they did with Reagan, and they could understand that we have to have a little bit of slow growth here as we work off the debt, or whatever. But that’s not what people think. People think we’re going in the wrong direction, and that’s devastating, I think, to the party in charge.

Kokai: What happens next? After a big wave year in 2010, put on your prediction cap, and tell us what’s going to happen next.

Kristol: I think we’re at a very volatile and unpredictable and fluid moment in American politics, and anything could happen, honestly. You can imagine a big Republican victory again in 2010. The Democrats had two big victories in a row, in 2006 and 2008. You can imagine the reaction after ’94. After the big Newt Gingrich-led Republican victory, Clinton came back in ’96. Or both parties could end up getting discredited to some degree, and one can imagine third and fourth parties. I really think it’s very hard to predict. So much depends on what happens. Does Obama adjust to the center? Do Republicans look credible when they present a conservative alternative in Congress? Did the Tea Party activists find that the Republican Party is satisfactory, is active enough, is conservative enough, is bold enough, or do they become disillusioned? Those things are just unpredictable.

Kokai: Do you have a sense that if the Republicans don’t act in the way that the Tea Party activists hope, that those activists would still be mad and do something else, or are these people likely to just fade back into the woodwork and be angry and not participate much?

Kristol: No way. They’ve learned that their participation and activism can pay off, and you don’t unlearn that right away. Very much like in the late ’60s and early ’70s, activists on the left really made a big difference. They didn’t then go away after one election. McGovern, for example, took a big defeat in ’72, but the left in all of its different forms didn’t retreat or stop fighting for its ideas in politics and other aspects of public policy. I think the Tea Party activists are very similar in that respect. So, no, I think this is an important movement.

I’d say the most important thing about the last two years, beyond just the political back and forth between Republicans and Democrats and Obama and his critics, has been the Tea Parties. It’s a pretty amazing phenomenon. To have something like that grow pretty spontaneously from the grass roots, no one ordered it to come into being. Most conservatives didn’t expect it. Most conservatives were pessimistic and disillusioned and getting ready for a long period in the wilderness just 18 or 20 months ago. So I think the Tea Parties are really a major phenomenon.

Kokai: How about President Obama? There’s been debate about whether with a Republican Congress he would just keep plugging away with his agenda, or whether he would regroup and try to find a way to work with Republicans and salvage his own political career. What’s your sense?

Kristol: I think he’ll do some of both. I think Clinton did some of both. He fought with Gingrich, but he also compromised on certain issues. But I believe a little more than many of my fellow conservatives that Obama will probably end up moving to the center and trying to be pragmatic. I think most politicians have a pretty strong survival instinct, and I’m not so sure he’s just going to dogmatically continue on a leftward path. But he might.

Kokai: In 2006 and 2008, the situation for conservatives looked pretty bad. What’s your sense at this point about the long-term outlook for the conservative view, whether Republican or outside of the Republican Party?

Kristol: I’m optimistic. I really am thrilled by the Tea Parties and by a lot of the young candidates who are running — nontraditional politicians, businessmen, physicians, military vets — who are running for office and who are genuine conservatives. There’s a lot of ferment. Some of it can sometimes be uncomfortable for some established types on the right among conservatives, but I think it’s a very interesting and fertile moment for conservatives. I think most conservatives are much more cheerful than they were two years ago, but not only because of this November’s returns, but really because conservatism itself seems to be alive and vigorous.