Did Somebody Mention Bill Kristol?

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THE PLANK DECEMBER 28, 2009

Did Somebody Mention Bill Kristol?

The other Jonathan has a great item explaining how implausible it is that Republicans will or could successfully execute Bill Kristol's suggestion that they repeal health care reform. Of course, understanding Kristol's strategic worldview as a coherent whole is always fairly tricky. Kristol, of course, famously warned in 1993 that the passage of health care reform would provide a huge political boon to the Democratic Party:

Because the initiative's inevitably destructive effect on American medical services will not be practically apparent for several years--no Carter-like gas lines, in other words--its passage in the short run will do nothing to hurt (and everything to help) Democratic electoral prospects in 1996. But the long-term political effects of a successful Clinton health care bill will be even worse--much worse. It will relegitimize middle-class dependence for "security" on government spending and regulation. It will revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates, the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests. And it will at the same time strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle class by restraining government.

To be sure, Kristol wrote this about Bill Clinton, not Barack Obama. But it's hard to see what politically could have changed so much that health care reform would be a massive political boon for Clinton and the liability Kristol now paints it as for Obama.

Moreover, it's kind of funny that Kristol is now gloating about the resilient anti-government conservatism of the populace:

The American public seem to have decided--personal goodwill toward the man notwithstanding--that President Obama is not doing a particularly good job, that more big government liberalism is the last thing we need, and that, yes, American exceptionalism isn't a bad thing or an out-of-date idea.

So our Man of the Year is the American citizen. He's sensible, resistant to being herded around like a sheep, and invigorated with, in the words of Federalist 39, "that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government."

... at the same time he's calling for Republicans to immediately repeal several hundred billion dollars of Medicare reductions. I mean, if the public has decided that big government is "the last thing we need," I'm not sure how they're going to be chomping at the bit to add several hundred billion dollars of entitlement spending to the budget deficit. Nor do I quite understand how this squares with the ideal of self-government. But admittedly I lack Kristol's expert understanding of Federalist 39. Maybe it's in there somewhere.

In all seriousness, there's pretty clearly no intellectual coherence to Kristol's worldview. As a political strategist, his worldview is basically the same thing as his foreign policy worldview. He advocates maximum partisan hostility against the opposition at all times. (As captured by this quintessential Kristol passage: "Fight on with respect to health care. Fight on other fronts. And recruit new fighters. In a word: Fight.")

So, when health care reform hangs in the balance, Kristol fires up Republicans to fight by telling them that passage would be a political disaster. When its passage is all but assured, he fires them up to fight by crowing that it's a looming disaster for Democrats if only the GOP will press its advantage. His method of fighting can take the form of advocating bigger or smaller government, whichever seems to offer the best tactical prospects. And, of course, the worst is always behind the Republican Party and glorious victories always lay ahead, especially if Kristol's fighting words are heeded.

As political strategy, this isn't always wrong. But it's hard to imagine the exact same advice can be the correct prescription for every scenario. And, given that Kristol's entire strategic calculus could be written on the back of a postage stamp, with room left over for a dreamy Sarah Palin doodle, it's difficult to figure out why anybody chooses to listen to him.

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posted in: the plank, barack obama, bill clinton, bill kristol, democratic party, medicare, republican party

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