In the Arena

Bill Kristol’s Blues: The Republican Party Is Still Looking Backward

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Bill Kristol proves, once again, that he’s a far better political tactician than a political thinker, with this assessment of the presidential campaign to come. He continues to be something less than full-blooded in his support of Mitt Romney–he’s been twenty shades of tepid throughout–and for all the right structural reasons: traditionally, it takes a national meltdown (1976 and 1980) or an extraordinary politician (1992) to defeat an incumbent president. With the economy drifting toward prosperity and no major foreign crises on the horizon, Kristol sees Obama as a clear favorite. Nothing special about that. But Kristol does have a few nice suggestions about the sort of campaign that Romney should run.

It shouldn’t be a backward-looking campaign as John Kerry tried in 2004, a combination of biography and vitriol against a marginally popular President. Romney needs to offer an alternative. He needs to explain what that alternative would be–and then Kristol describes the things that he thinks Romney has to explain:

Can he explain how an Obama second term would be even more dangerous and damaging than the Obama first term has been? Can he explain that we’re heading off a cliff of debt and deficit if Obama’s fiscal policies are allowed to continue? Can his campaign make vivid the harm Obama’s tax hikes and regulations will do to the economy, and Obama-care to our health care system and our country? Can he explain what a second term of Obama judicial appointments will do to our courts? Can he explain the damage an Obama second term will do to self-government, and limited government, and constitutional government in America? Can he conduct a campaign that describes how much more dangerous the world might look in 2016 if we continue Obama’s foreign and defense policies? Can the Republican campaign present a choice of paths for the future, à la Paul Ryan’s budget and his explanation of it, rather than simply complain about the recent past and the difficult present?

You may have noticed that, with the exception of Paul Ryan’s deficit-busting, Medicare-privatizing* budget, all of the things that need to be explained are attacks on Obama’s first term. So much for forward-looking. And that is one of the essential problems with today’s Republican party: it has no intellectually honest vision of the future, no answers except “no” and “less” (or “more” when it comes to the military). Such answers can be semi-plausible when dealing with budget matters, but there are real problems the country is facing that it might be nice for Republicans to address.

We need to figure out how to rationalize the health care system, whether Obamacare survives the Supreme Court or not. I doubt that even Bill Kristol believes that “market forces” are the one and only solution to a public-private system that encourages doctors to conduct as many tests and procedures as possible.

We need to figure out how to rationalize the regulation of the financial sector, especially the more exotic derivatives. The Dodd-Frank bill was lousy to begin with, and has now become a regulatory mess. I haven’t heard Romney, or any other active Republican, propose a plan that would help prevent the 2008 disaster from happening again. (We also need to systematically weed through the rest of the regulatory thicket that has grown up, and become impenetrable, over the past 100 years.)

We need to figure out a long-term energy strategy that encourages non-fossil fuels because, as Romney himself has said, the earth is warming, even if he isn’t–at least, wasn’t, during the Republican primaries–entirely sure that the warming is man-made. The Republican silliness about science in this and other areas, like evolution, is a witting, disgraceful fraud.

There was a time–the turn of the 1990s, to be precise–when the Republican Party offered solutions to all of these problems (and welfare and education reform as well). In many cases, their solutions were superior to the Democratic brand–the individual mandate was, and is, superior to the then-Democratic solution of an employer mandate; cap-and-trade was a good way to handle pollutants (though not so good as a straight-up, but refundable, carbon tax); choice and market-incentives were, and are, good ways to deal with our desultory educational system. Republicans and moderate Democrats, led by Bill Clinton, came to a humane solution to an immoral welfare system (and should finish the work now, by carefully reforming Social Security disability payments).

If I remember correctly, Kristol was part of that conversation. His turning point came when he advised Republicans to oppose the Clinton health care plan on purely tactical grounds–he didn’t want Clinton to win the political victory that reform would represent. And yet, he refused to propose an alternative. He didn’t even support the Republican alternative. He has led the GOP nihilist caucus ever since–except when it comes to warmongering, where he is an uninflected and unmitigated hawk.

And so it is entirely predictable, and sad, that Kristol’s idea of a forward-looking campaign is a combination of aggression overseas and nihilism at home. I still believe a Romney win is entirely possible, if less likely, this November, but he will have a difficult time winning, and an impossible time governing, with Kristol’s cocktail of aggression overseas and nihilism at home.

*Actually, Ryan’s Medicare privatization is, hilariously, a more liberal version of Obamacare (that is, Obamacare with a public option). As I’ve written elsewhere, I think that some version of this could work with younger retirees–say, up to the age of 80. But older retirees can’t be expected to make complicated market decisions when it comes to medical care. But either way, we need to get rid of the expensive fee-for-service system and severely limit medical malpractice suits if we want to control costs.