Bill Kristol’s year-long stint as columnist at the New York Times has ended. His last column, entitled “Will Obama Save Liberalism?“, begins with the line:
All good things must come to an end. Jan. 20, 2009, marked the end of a conservative era.
In so doing, Kristol ties himself to conservatism’s swan song, and then takes pains to concern himself with Liberalism’s fate (by suggesting it become more conservative). It’s clever wordplay but ignores the question of explaining what conservatism is/was to the NYT audience, a genuinely precious opportunity upon which Kristol serially failed to capitalize. His writing was factually sloppy (necessitating numerous retractions) and even more of a cardinal sin for op-ed punditry, rather boring. Possibly the only genuinely useful piece he’s written, in terms of analyzing and promoting the conservative movement, was “Let 1000 Republican Flowers Bloom” and that was in the pages of the Weekly Standard, not the NYT.
The idea that the NYT should have an explicitly conservative columnist is a good one. The ideal role of such a columnist would be to present the conservative viewpoint on various issues, and in so doing, seek to persuade the readers of the Times towards that conservative position. By articulating a consistent set of conservative ideas and principles, the columnist could do much to contribute and perpetuate the movement as the Republican Party wanders the political wilderness and grapples with its own identity. The central question of conservatism today, in the wake of two successive historic electoral defeats, is how to integrate the various factions under one tent, or whether they should even try. As Rick Moran writes at an excellent piece at The Next Right, libertarian “small government” conservatives and social “splenetic” conservatives are in a fundamental conflict. Meanwhile, David Frum’s new blog The New Majority seeks to “build a conservatism that can win again” – an explicit admission that the old coalition strategy is no longer viable and that Republicans need to move past old dogmas to appeal to the mainstream. For their part, social conservatives like Rod Dreher and others at Culture 11 are trying to articulate their values in a non-divisive way (using the label, “crunchy cons” – see Rod’s book). The challenge all of these next-generation conservative intellectuals face is to articulate their views and innovate their ideas while remaining within the same, overall conservative framework. Is the tent big enough for all of them?
One of the next-gen conservative leaders who I respect, Patrick Ruffini, has dismissed the idea that conservatives should care who replaces Kristol. When I pressed him on Twitter for who he’d pick, he cavalierly suggested Rush Limbaugh, which is as backwards, pre-2006 a choice as you can imagine. Rufini went on to write the argument for Limbaugh in more detail at The Next Right, which is rather ironic if you think about it. Ruffini argues,
The goal of conservative new media should not be to legitimize the
status quo in media, but to challenge it and shift the balance of
power. To hang on the prestige of a Times appointment is a
mostly useless exercise by navel-gazing pundits whose sole concern is
accurately describing the status quo, not moving the ball forward.
Doubly disturbing is the notion that the Times‘ token conservative should be someone who is acceptable to sensibility of liberal (and hence more civilized) Times readers;
that only a certain type of conservative will do — a “smart,”
“reasonable” figure worthy of dining with President Obama.
I have a great deal of respect for Bill Kristol and David Brooks (or
for that matter, Charles Krauthammer and George Will), but they play a
very defined role in the process — which is to represent a safe flavor
of Beltway-centric conservatism that is acceptable within the Acela
corridor. I appreciate that someone has to play this role, but by
engaging in this parlor game, we are playing with fire: feeding the
left’s desire to elevate a narrow elite of Times-worthy conservative pundits whose job it is to hold the braying Coulterite masses in check.
We shouldn’t play this game. Either we engage the liberal media on our terms or on none at all. The Times needs
someone who is as far to the right, in as hard-edged and partisan a
way, as Paul Krugman is to the left. The fact that strident left-wing
voices one step voice up from Kos appear on the op-ed page is not
considered a problem, so why shouldn’t the same be true on the right?
This argument is not an objective one, however, but dictated by his certitude that the NYT’s secret agenda is to marginalize conservatism and that the liberal mainstream is equivalent to the progressive left wing. In other words, he makes the same mis-characterization of the Left that he accuses the Left of making towards the Right. By suggesting a “fighter” for the columnist position, he is just perpetuating the same old politics that led to conservatisms’ defeat. This is not how you grow a movement, or even preserve an intellectual heritage. Limbaugh is an entertainer and a provocateur; all his selection would achieve is the cementing of conservatism into the splenetic caricature it has come to be from right-wing radio. If that’s Ruffini’s goal, then why not Ann Coulter instead of Limbaugh? the logic is largely the same.
The choice to replace Kristol should indeed be someone who drives liberals “crazy” – but not in the Limbaugh sense, as Ruffini would have it, but rather as Kevin Drum (a liberal) says “because he makes such compelling and hard-to-refute arguments for conservative ideas.” Michael Calderone at The Politico made several suggestions, including Megan McArdle, Ross Douthat and David Frum. However, the problem with all of these is that they already have (print) editorial outlets of their own, which would dilute their voice; McArdle and Douthat at The Atlantic, Frum at National Review. A conservative columnist with no major commitments at present, but with solid pundit credentials, would have the maximum impact.
Also, most of the suggested choices are somewhat detached from the social conservative wing. A true conservative v2.0 voice needs to be one that reaffirms social conservatism as a team player rather than as a minority view that must be accommodated and placated. They also need to have genuine experience in community building online, and be able to leverage the new media and social graph tools for effective dissemination of their ideas beyond the NYT and into the blogsphere, to drive the debate rather than follow behind.
All this is prelude to my own suggestion to replace Kristol, of course. I am of course biased because he is my friend, but I think that Joshua Treviño meets and exceeds the criteria above and would in fact be the ideal advocate for the conservative movement in the Obama era. Josh was a speechwriter for the Bush Administration, served in the Army, and had a brief stint at the Pacific Research Institute, a mid-level conservative think tank. Josh was one of the original conservative bloggers, including founding RedState.com (though no longer associated with them). He currently is running his own media consultant firm, and has had numerous media appearances on television and guest columns at National Review.
Resume aside, though, what is more important is that on the issues, Josh transcends the raw divisions of the conservative movement. He’s a contributor to Credo, the religion blog at Culture11, and is unabashedly pro-life. Josh has endorsed the Rebuild The Party 10-point plan (focused on technology innovation) and is highly active on twitter (@jstrevino). Despite his loyalty to the Republican brand, he was a conservative critic of the Bush Administration, was skeptical of Sarah Palin and Harriet Miers (to put it mildly) and (with the luxury of being a California Republican) abstained from voting for John McCain. And with respect to the Iraq war, he remains convinced it was the right thing to do, albeit poorly-executed. This places him all over the conservative v2.0 map, which is a good thing if you are looking for someone who can relate to all sides. In the context of the conservative movement identity, however, his most important essay went largely un-noticed at his personal blog – an argument that Obama’s victory did not hinge on the moderate vote:
The conservative defectors to Barack Obama were of all stripes — and
the “values voters” and “social fundamentalist” demographic segments
actually outstripped the rate of defection of conservatives at large.
Whereas 22% of conservatives deserted the GOP, 26% of white Protestant
born-agains and evangelicals did, and 32% of voters explicitly
concerned about “values” did. All told, the numbers more readily demand
a Republican shift toward “social fundamentalism” than away
from it. Tellingly, Whitman and Bostock neglect the most compelling
numbers of all: the decisive victories of popular referenda defending
traditional marriage in Florida, Arkansas, Arizona and California.
That’s two McCain states and two Obama states — and one of the latter
is among the nation’s most liberal. Social conservatism alone is no
panacea for the Republican Party’s ills, but it has the virtue of winning, and without it, what remains is mere administrative technocracy.
Naturally, speaking as a liberal, I disagree with almost everything Joshua writes! But he truly is the kind of conservative writer who “makes compelling arguments for conservative ideas.” Such conservatives strengthen not only conservatism, but liberalism as well – for the good of the nation as a whole. As Bill Clinton said at the dedication of his Presidential library in November 2004,,
“America has two great dominant strands of political thought – conservatism,
which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed;
and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that
should never have been erected.”
And should Joshua be selected by the Times, I have a humble suggestion for the title of his first column: “Will Obama save conservatism?” With Treviño at the Times, the answer might well be yes.
Related – Editor and Publisher rounds up some of Bill Kristol’s greatest hits. Also, RedState’s reaction to Kristol’s assertion about the conservative era’s end kind of proves Kristol’s point, and highlights the need all the more for someone from the ranks of conservatism v2.0 to replace him. Daniel Larison also chimes in, and has been floated as a replacement as well.