by Eli Clifton
Bill Kristol was taking incoming from Donald Trump on Tuesday morning, which the neoconservative pundit relished. Even Trump seemed nervous about Kristol’s boasting over the weekend that “there will be an independent candidate—an impressive one, with a strong team and a real chance.” The presumptive GOP nominee tweeted, “If dummy Bill Kristol actually does get a spoiler to run as an Independent, say good bye to the Supreme Court!”
By Tuesday evening, Kristol’s promised candidate was revealed as David French, a staff writer at National Review with no name recognition outside Kristol’s corner of the neoconservative echo chamber. Kristol’s desperate reach for a third-party candidate had devolved into an Internet joke.
French is decidedly an odd choice for Kristol, especially since Kristol spent months teasing the possibility of a run by Mitt Romney, Mark Cuban, or another GOP moderate who could appeal to disaffected Republicans and Democrats.
French’s writings bounce between a bizarre obsession with opposing same-sex bathrooms, decrying the “transgender movement,” and Game of Thrones recaps. Kristol’s pick is a social conservative during an election cycle in which Trump trounced a GOP field of social conservatives and in which an independent candidate will almost certainly need the financial backing of Paul Singer, a billionaire GOP megadonor who supports same-sex marriage.
But French may offer some valuable insights into the insecurities that cloud Kristol’s decision-making.
Kristol’s Foreign Policy Delusions
Kristol, the son of noted intellectuals Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb, has consistently failed to live up to his parents’ legacy. His mother’s work focused on the interplay among virtue, morality, and modern values, and his father famously defined a neoconservative as a liberal who had been “mugged by reality.” Kristol, however, is better known for decrying diplomatic efforts as “appeasement” or comparing policymakers who pursue negotiations to Neville Chamberlain in Munich.
Kristol’s lightweight political philosophy matches up with French in another way: denying that the invasion of Iraq was a grievous error and that the American public has no appetite for further loss of life in the Middle East.
Kristol co-founded the Project for a New American Century, which pushed for the invasion of Iraq in the years leading up to the war. More recently, Kristol supported a proposal to deploy 10,000 US troops to Iraq to fight the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and entertained the possibility of deploying as many as 50,000 troops to Syria to defeat the IS stronghold of Raqqa.
A Quinnipiac University poll from May 2015 found that only 32% of Americans believe that the invasion of Iraq was the right thing for the U.S. to do. A CNN/ORC poll last winter found that more Americans blame George W. Bush than Obama for the problems currently facing the U.S. in Iraq, a fairly clear rejection of Kristol’s brand of foreign policy advocacy.
And if that isn’t enough to drive the point home, both GOP primary voters and Donald Trump spent the winter battering former Florida Governor Jeb Bush for his unwillingness to acknowledge that his brother’s invasion of Iraq may have helped lay the ground work for the rise of IS.
French is salve for Kristol’s biggest professional failure. He signed up to join the Army in 2005, declaring to himself that “America wasn’t too soft to fight a long war. I was too soft”—according to a graduation address conveniently posted on Kristol’s Weekly Standard website that French delivered to “a small group of home-schooled seniors.” In a response to progressive Christian writer Jonathan Merritt denouncing French and other Evangelical supporters of the invasion of Iraq, French shot back in a 2014 National Review column:
I’m not sorry that I advocated that America destroy a regime that committed mass murder, harbored terrorists, invaded its neighbors, funded jihad against Israel, shot daily at American pilots, tried to kill an American president, and was diligently working to rebuild its once-massive stocks of chemical weapons.
French, much like fellow-Kristol protégé Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), represents the diehard neoconservatives who won’t admit that George W. Bush and the neoconservatives who advised him are partially responsible for pushing the U.S. headlong into over a decade of war in Iraq. They also refuse to admit that their actions fed the current anti-establishment backlash against the Republican Party. Rubio, Cruz, and Jeb Bush surrounded themselves with advisers who advocated regime change in Syria and a muscular foreign policy abroad. Yet that message fell flat with GOP voters who overwhelmingly backed Trump and his foreign policy proposals comprised of equal parts isolationism and mercantilism.
Kristol clearly wants to believe there’s still space for a pro-war and pro-interventionist candidate who refuses to acknowledge the errors of the George W. Bush administration’s first term, even when the American public has already passed judgement.
Kristol’s Crystal Ball
Kristol, no doubt, will keep clinging to his created persona as a Machiavellian intellectual and political strategist who is always one step ahead of the punditry. But in picking an unknown pundit to challenge Trump’s insurgent takeover of the right, Kristol is revealing his greatest weakness. He is out of touch with the American public and the Republican Party.
Now he’s endorsing a candidate who promotes a revisionist version of history that air-brushes the role played by Kristol and his allies. In French’s narrative, they emerge as heroes rather than war-hawks who helped push the U.S. into a war that cost the lives of over 6,800 U.S. military personnel and over 150,000 civilians, and cost the US more than $2 trillion, all while offering no great strategic victories or benefits to the U.S.
French’s message must boost Kristol’s self-esteem after his abject failure to block the Iran nuclear deal or field a third-party presidential candidate with any name recognition. Kristol’s backing of French is also an act of desperation that reveals the neocon’s sinking relevance in the American political debate.
Photo: William Kristol by Gage Skidmore (via Flickr).