Arguing the GOP

by Franklin Foer | March 20, 2000

Marvin Olasky was right. John McCain's campaign is crawling with Zeus worshipers. George W. Bush's evangelical crony was a bit opaque in his now-infamous article in the February 16 Austin American-Statesman, but he was on to something: Jewish neoconservatives have fallen hard for John McCain. It's not just unabashed swooner William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard. McCain has also won over such leading neocon lights as David Brooks, the entire Podhoretz family, The Wall Street Journal's Dorothy Rabinowitz, and columnist Charles Krauthammer, who declared, in a most un-Semitic flourish, "He suffered for our sins."

The McCain campaign has inadvertently revealed a shocking fact about neoconservatism: it lives. Before the current campaign, most observers assumed that the movement's Jewish intellectual stalwarts had seamlessly assimilated into the post-Reagan conservative establishment, trading the City College debates of the 1930s for 1990s seminars at the American Enterprise Institute. Kristol became conservatism's most prominent TV personality. Even Norman Podhoretz wrote a "eulogy" for his movement, claiming that its triumph in the great ideological disputes of the age had rendered it obsolete.

But, with McCain, neocons have reemerged as a distinct group. They've decided they're not as comfortable in the GOP country club after all. And they've forged a new identity for themselves: anti-establishment "rebels." In the New York Post, Podhoretz has cheered McCain for "upending the old coalition." Kristol has goaded McCain to wage a "battle for the soul of the party." At times Kristol even seems to be reenacting his father Irving's struggles with the Democratic Party of the 1970s, only on the other side of the aisle. And, like his father two decades ago, Kristol is becoming a dissident among his own people. Because of his support for McCain, he has been hammered in the National Review, The Washington Times, and Human Events and badmouthed by Republicans throughout Washington. One conservative ominously told the White House Bulletin, "After McCain loses, it's Bill Kristol who's finished." So why did Kristol and company gamble on McCain? Why have the neocons descended from their think tanks and taken to the streets against the GOP?

When the senior Podhoretzes and Kristols broke ranks with the left decades ago, they were in a tizzy over its attitude toward welfare, crime, and the Vietnam War. The current spat, on the other hand, has little to do with ideology. It's hard to find a single issue on which Kristol and Bush, or for that matter Kristol and Pat Robertson, seriously disagree. The Weekly Standard has long complained about the GOP's knee-jerk libertarianism, for instance, but this problem doesn't afflict Bush. If anything, he envisions a larger federal role in domestic policy than McCain does--think of his statements on education and faith-based institutions. And Bush's foreign policy--a hawkish blend of idealism and realism--seems perfectly in sync with traditional neocon thinking.

The best explanation for the affection neocons feel for McCain has nothing to do with issues. It stems from the fact that they're Jewish intellectuals, and being a right-wing Jewish intellectual is tricky. Like their forefather Leo Strauss, the political theorist, the neocons consider religious revivals a useful antidote to moral relativism and cultural decadence. But they also share with Strauss, and with many other Jews, a fear of religion (read: Christianity) playing too large a role in government. Strauss solved the dilemma by embracing a secular religion: patriotism. When you read Kristol and Brooks--both Strauss disciples--writing jointly in the Standard, they seem to be making exactly this point about McCain: "McCain would redirect a religiously based moral conservatism into a patriotically grounded moral appeal. When McCain talks about remoralizing America, he talks in terms of reinvigorating patriotism."

It's easy to think that Kristol and Brooks are projecting their Straussianism onto McCain. As Midge Decter, matriarch of the Podhoretz clan, told me, "We decided that we liked McCain, then we came up with our justifications." And McCain, as the apotheosis of the manliness that the Standard regularly glorifies, makes an appealing vessel. Kristol has worked with McCain adviser Marshall Wittmann, another Jewish neocon, to cultivate the Arizona maverick. A year ago, Wittmann gave McCain Standard articles on "National Greatness Conservatism"--the Kristol-Brooks theory that Republicans should return to the domestic activism and foreign interventionism of Theodore Roosevelt. And Wittmann has regularly worked the Standard's rhetoric into McCain's speeches, including the one dissing Robertson.

Rejecting religious conservatism may be true to Strauss's views, but it's a break from recent neocon behavior (indeed, some cited the neocon-Christian right rapprochement as evidence that neoconservatism had ceased to exist). In the 1990s, when an evangelical came under liberal attack, nobody rose to his defense faster than a Podhoretz or a Kristol. In 1995, Norman Podhoretz called comparisons of Robertson and Louis Farrakhan "intellectually absurd and morally dangerous." A year earlier, his wife, Decter, excoriated an Anti-Defamation League report that accused Robertson of anti-Semitic tendencies. There were reasons for this stridency. In the neocon mind, the religious right was correct on all the important issues. Evangelicals were wildly pro- Israel (even if sometimes for anti-Semitic reasons), and they shared the neocon disdain for countercultural hedonism.

But, over the past five years, relations between neocons and religious conservatives have frayed. The cold war and the counterculture--the ties that helped obscure their differences--are both gone. Looking back, it's even possible to identify a single seminal moment in the alliance's undoing. In 1996, the journal First Things published a symposium called "The End of Democracy?" headlined by Charles Colson, Robert Bork, and Robert P. George. Frustrated by their inability to make any headway against abortion or gay rights, these religious conservative intellectuals threw a tantrum, arguing that the government's immorality may warrant civil disobedience and even revolution. In response, the neocons accused the religious conservatives of anti-Americanism and, worse, unsavvy politics: by scaring off mainstream voters with their overheated rhetoric, the neocons charged, the theocons were dooming the GOP's electoral prospects.

The controversy revealed a gulf not of policy but of sensibility. Religious conservatives, it became clear, were happy to shun modernity. Neocons, on the other hand, still pride themselves on their affinity for jazz and Lionel Trilling--their cosmopolitanism. They understand politics as the terrain of strategy and coalitions, not just of morality. Of course, the neocons recognized their differences from the theocons before. But with theocon language becoming ever shriller--and more electorally detrimental--their friendship became ever more burdensome. One non-Jewish neocon put it this way: "You know the word mishugas? One morning you wake up and you find that your good friends are kind of crazy--and, worse, they feel obliged to convert you. It ticks you off."

So Kristol and the neocons now talk about "modernizing the party." They daydream about imposing their National Greatness agenda on the GOP. Yet even they concede that their platform remains extremely vague. Mainly, they seem to be making an argument about tactics: that the party's electoral success hinges on its ability to purge "the most self-caricaturing leaders of the right." Kristol and Brooks write, "You can't win the large groups of swing independents unless you disavow the Robertsons and Falwells." In other words, the McCain-led "battle for the soul of the party" is an excuse to throw the most embarrassing religious conservatives overboard.

Kristol and Brooks call this "creative destruction." But, so far, it's mostly just destruction. Kristol concedes that he has isolated himself from the rest of the party, saying, "Most Republicans don't want to see my face." And mainstream conservatives gloat that neocons will be shut out of jobs and influence in a Bush administration. There are even whispers about a potential alliance between the neocons and the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, though this seems implausible. For his part, Kristol says he hopes to keep the McCain movement alive. Already, there is talk of a new think tank to further hash out the meanings of National Greatness Conservatism and McCain Republicanism. (And Kristol reports registering the website www.partyofzeus. com.) Yet the need for such an institution only underscores neoconservatism's lack of a coherent, distinct set of ideas--beyond mere disagreement with the GOP over sensibility and campaign strategy. If, as in Irving Kristol's famous formulation, a neoconservative is a liberal mugged by reality, in Bill Kristol's formulation, a neoconservative is merely a Republican who likes to win.

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