Several years ago, William Kristol, son of the magisterial Irving and the redoubtable Gertrude Himmelfarb, persuaded Rupert Murdoch to bankroll a new weekly conservative publication of which young William would be the editor and publisher. Thus was born The Weekly Standard, which has been published in Washington ever since.
The magazine's circulation is nothing to brag about, being roughly a quarter of that of National Review, the longtime fortnightly standard-bearer of the conservative movement. But The Weekly Standard is must reading for political junkies inside the Beltway, and it has served as a splendid platform for Kristol, who has become one of the premier Washington spokesmen of the conservative movement, in wide demand on television talk shows.
It was, therefore, no small thing when Kristol, in the course of an op-ed piece published in The Washington Post early this month, delivered himself of the following thunderous conclusion: "Leaderless, rudderless and issueless, the conservative movement, which accomplished great things over the past quarter-century, is finished."
The precipitating event was John McCain's victory over George Bush in the New Hampshire primary. Kristol noted that "The three movement conservatives left in the Republican race" (meaning Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes and Steve Forbes) "received a grand total of about 20 percent of the votes," and concluded that this pathetic showing represented the current strength of the movement.
Precisely why the passionately reiterated conservatism of both of the front-runners, McCain and George W. Bush, didn't count in the assessment, Kristol didn't explain. They may not be "movement conservatives," but both men are solid conservatives by any reasonable test. In any case, the sight of William Kristol proclaiming the death of the conservative movement certainly looked, at first blush, like a classic case of a man sawing off the tree branch on which he sits.
But it is only reasonable to assume that Kristol has some rational goal in mind. And a study of some of the themes that have emerged in The Weekly Standard under his editorship suggests what it may be. Kristol seems to be trying to fashion a new ideology, which he hopes will ultimately replace conservatism altogether.
Domestically, the new entrant looks rather more fondly on government than conservatism is accustomed to doing. "Big government" may still be a no-no, but Kristol rejects "the notion that the highest end of government is to leave us alone." On the contrary, "limited" government may still be activist and "energetic," in the service of a "positive governing philosophy." It isn't altogether clear what this muscular government will do, but unlike Gingrich, Armey and DeLay it will assuredly not merely "cut, devolve and dismantle."
Abroad, the American government of Kristol's dreams will offer the world moral leadership, backed up by whatever firepower it takes. As a "champion of democracy and decency," it will act wherever these ideals are challenged. Kristol's vision of America, in fact, bears a remarkable resemblance to DeGaulle's vision of France a mighty nation, redolent of grandeur. Conservative reservations about intervening in foreign disputes where no vital American interest is at stake will be dismissed as old-fashioned if not downright cowardly.
Can a new ideology a new political movement be cobbled together out of these rather amorphous materials? Do even Kristol's principal colleagues at The Weekly Standard agree with him on the subject? It is at least suggestive that Kristol's obituary for the conservative movement appeared, not as a lead editorial in his magazine, but over his personal byline on the op-ed page of The Washington Post.
It is said that one of Voltaire's disciples once asked him, "I'd like to found a new religion. How should I go about it?" To which the master replied, "It's very simple. Just get yourself crucified and then rise from the dead."
Starting a new ideological movement may not be quite that hard. But I think Kristol will find that it takes a lot more effort than he has yet invested in his project. Usually it requires the analytical contributions of a generation or more of political philosophers, working from various points on the periphery of a major political problem in the case of conservatism, the Leviathan state. And when the job is done, it won't be undone by a New Hampshire primary.