Election 2016

Well, What Do You Expect From "Dan Quayle's Brain"? The End of Bill Kristol & Right-Wing Seriousness

The failure to offer credible alternatives to Trump-or to accept Gary Johnson as one-shows that pro-war social cons are a dying breed.



If you were like 99.9 percent of Americans, over the course of Memorial Day weekend, you gave precious little thought to politics, especially the 2016 election that until recently pitted two historically disliked candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, against one another.

But if you were at the Libertarian Party national convention, or you followed the news at least a little, you know now that there is now an "honorable" and bracing "Libertarian Alternative" to the presumptive Democratic and Republican nominees. Former two-term New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, running for the second time as the LP nominee, along with his running mate William Weld (another two-term governor, of Massachusetts), preach fiscal conservatism and social liberalism. They are in favor of things such as abortion rights, marriage equality, more-open borders, more-free trade, and robust Second Amendment rights. Unlike Clinton and Trump, both of whom have said, in effectively identical language, that we need to censor the internet, Johnson and Weld also believe in free speech, too. They are opposed to mindless interventionism and to spending like there is no tomorrow, and they question the sagacity of giving up privacy in the name of the war on global terrorism. Which is to say, the Johnson-Weld ticket represents the center of what most Americans believe.

Over the weekend, you might also have caught The Weekly Standard co-founder William Kristol teasing out a big reveal on Twitter:

Alas, in naming National Review writer David French as his savior-candidate, the only thing that Kristol actually revealed is how sad and misguided the leaders of the #NeverTrump right really are. Indeed, they are as fundamentally out of touch as the #AlwaysTrump and anti-libertarian conservatives with whom they share so many beliefs.

The son of the immensely influential conservative intellectuals Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb, Kristol has himself wielded influence in Washington at least since his years as "Dan Quayle's Brain" (that is, his chief of staff). In the mid-1990s, Kristol helped to launch the Rupert Murdoch-funded Weekly Standard and promote what he and his then-colleague David Brooks called "national greatness conservatism," which mostly consisted of supporting wars where you could find them, overspending on the part of Republican administrations, and denouncing "the moral vacuity of dogmatic libertarianism" because it "is poisonous to public life." While I'm no fan of French's—he is a saber-rattling, trans-phobic, anti-immigrant, anti-PC right-winger out of Central Casting—he's not the issue here. That Bill Kristol could straightfacedly put forward a person whose qualifications for president are even less visible than Donald Trump's is the end of Kristol as an analyst worth taking seriously. (I rush to add that Bill Kristol has always been exceptionally personable to me on the few occasions we've met and that he is a great and interesting conversationalist; none of this is personal, it's political.)

He's not alone on the right, of course, in revealing himself to be utterly dogmatic in the way that libertarians are routinely dismissed. Consider another conservative, the publisher of The Federalist, Ben Domenech, who from time to time espouses a not-uninteresting "libertarian populism" (and who is also, like Kristol, an exceptionally cordial and interesting conversationalist). Here's Domenech's take on the Johnson-Weld ticket:

The logical vehicle for any real resistance to Trump or Clinton as the next president would have been the Libertarian Party given that they already have the ballot access hurdle solved. The key was the issue of abortion: an effort with a candidate sufficiently pro-life to satisfy social conservatives would have presented an interesting campaign challenge for Trump and Clinton, given that single issue pro-lifers are going to have a hard time voting for either candidate.

Instead, the Libertarians nominated former Republican governors Gary Johnson and Bill Weld—the latter a particularly odd choice, with virtually no libertarian bona fides—both of whom are, unlike every current libertarian-leaning elected Republican in Congress, pro-choice on the abortion issue (and decidedly not classically liberal on religious liberty, but that's another topic). More's the pity—but they are the Libertarian Party after all, and no real effort was ever made by conservatives to meet them halfway.

To his credit, Domenech slams Kristol for wasting everyone's time with a candidate who is ridiculous as a serious proposition, especially if you're trying to stop a clownish Republican nominee who somehow bested more than a dozen actual senators, governors, and other unqualified CEOs. But what fresh hell is this, that no conservative or Republican can ever be in favor of legal abortion? Is the right wing such that there is no issue but abortion? And that it's a bridge too far when the Libertarians—of all dogmatic ideological types!—nominate two moderate former governors who are former Republicans themselves? And note this: Just as you can be against drug prohibition but against drug use, you can argue strenuously against abortion while not believing it should be banned by the state.

As it happens, just one in five voters insist on a candidate sharing his view on abortion. Among pro-lifers, the percentage is slightly higher (23 percent) and among pro-choicers, it's slightly lower (19 percent). Tying a broad-based political movement—conservatism, Republicanism, or even #NeverTrumpism—to a single issue is always a bad idea, but it's especially so when 40 percent of Republicans support legal abortion.

As I've written before, I don't expect Johnson-Weld to win, and I don't think Trump is the "extinction-level event" to the American Way of Life that many #NeverTrumpers seem to believe.

But what we are seeing in this election, which still has many twists and turns to go, is the end of a broad, right-of-center coalition that has been dissolving since at least the end of the Cold War. Libertarians and conservatives could get along when they had to when the Soviet Union represented an actual existential threat to freedom (and even then, the differences were many and real).

In the rise of Donald Trump, the impotence of the conservative and Republican establishments was made clear. In the continuing failure first to offer and then to spurn credible alternatives, the looming irrelevance of socially conservative and pro-war rightists is only becoming clearer and clearer.

"The Libertarian Moment Is So Dead That Libertarians Are Now the Largest Group," finds Gallup, and the news can't be worse for the current iterations of the Republican and Democratic Parties, who insist on brittle, unchanging, out-of-date positions for their members. Yes, a Democrat (god help us) or Republican (god help us) will almost certainly be the next president of the United States, but if they wave away the simple fact that most of us are now socially liberal and fiscally conservative—they will command even less of our respect and attention and loyalty than they do now.