Bill Kristol's Second Spring

A (slightly) chastened neocon guru hopes his ideas will live again.

Photography by NBC Newswire

The Twitter hashtag for the event was #weaknessisdangerous.

Though hardly subtle, it just felt right considering that the foreign policy luncheon Tuesday at the Willard Hotel in Washington was moderated by the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol, was co-hosted by the Concerned Veterans for America and featured as its keynote speaker Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

Kristol, 61, the neoconservative magazine founder, pundit and intellectual whose father was a crucial progenitor of the movement he's championed, stood unassumingly in the back of the room between the coat rack and the buffet before the program began, explaining why he isn't planning on championing one Republican presidential hopeful over another anytime soon despite his attention-grabbing declaration Sunday on ABC's “This Week” that Rand Paul is “totally overrated” as a potential 2016 nominee.

“Given my track record I probably should not try to do that since I have not exactly been…” he trailed off, smiling. “Anyone I prefer, if I say I prefer them they immediately, you know, some misfortune happens to them. So, no.”

Kristol has been on the wrong end of enough predictions over the years—on everything from health care to the Iraq war to Barack Obama's chances against Hillary Clinton—that it's become its own meme. Google “Bill” and “Kristol” and “wrong” and just sit back. In the process of establishing himself as a dealer of less than bankable wisdom, he's also developed an undeniable instinct for survival that combines timing, networking, adaptability and a good-natured chutzpah that allows him to poke fun at himself while vigorously defending his ideas.

“I just say what I believe and sometimes it's more popular than other times,” he said. “I do think that, you know, the failure, I think it's fair to call it, of President Obama's strategy of withdrawal from the world and not intervention is pretty clear. And that does open people's minds, who might have been a little bit averse five, six years ago, to the notion that America does have to be a kind of world policeman.”

Kristol's career has recently undergone a surprising reversal. He was a central voice in the push toward the Iraq war, and the policy’s failures, while never removing his platform, left him drifting and irrelevant. But the Islamic State's advances in Syria and Iraq, and Putin’s incursions into Ukraine, have breathed new life into his movement. Kristol is taking his act to a bigger stage Wednesday when he moderates two panels at a daylong Foreign Policy Initiative forum titled “A World In Crisis: The Need for American Leadership.” He’s no longer at the center of things, and his pronouncements are more modest than they were a decade ago, but he’s managed to maintain a place at the table.

“There is a change in the Republican base electorate, a greater openness to the notion that the basic posture on the American military should be one that's more forward-leaning,” said Lanhee Chen, a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign policy director. “I don't line up with him 100 percent of the time,” Chen said of Kristol. Still, he said, “I respect Bill a lot.”

Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor for National Review, said Kristol “wants to influence who the nominee is and he wants to also influence what those people are thinking and saying.” In many cases, especially with governors who decide to run for president, “it's not like they have foreign policies,” Ponnuru said. “At best, they have instincts. He wants to continue to exert influence.” (Ponnuru and Chen both are columnists for Bloomberg View.)

Kristol is seeking to elevate his ideas, in part, through increased engagement with a variety of think tanks including with seats on the board of directors of FPI and the 2017 Project and on the policy advisory board of the Ethics & Public Policy Center.      

“That doesn't mean people are all going to be exactly where I am, and I don't think the Republican candidates are,” he said. “But I'm heartened by this: I really do think it's striking that, you know, two years ago, 'Rand Paul's the future, the wave of the future, blah, blah.' We had a ton of candidates run in 2014, a lot of younger candidates for the Senate and for the House. Very, very few of them ran as Rand Paul Republicans. And I think that's telling.”

Kristol says he has “no misconceptions that I can be a kingmaker or anything like that” when it comes to the next Republican nominee for president. “And honestly, you know, truthfully, I want them all to run for it and compete. I think it's healthy.” Republicans have been hurt in the past by the nominating the next in line, he said. This time, with Hillary Clinton the runaway Democratic presumptive frontrunner, he said, “Democrats weirdly are now are in the typical Republican position.”

“So I'm happy to have a bunch of senators and governors run this time and let's just see. My honest attitude really is, let's just see what they have to say and how they do. I don't know who I would even vote for now.”

There's been a campaign-fueled triumphalism to some of the pronouncements of some of his ideological allies. But this time, Kristol is being more circumspect. “I think the party will find its way to something that's not quite where I am,” Kristol said, “but to a pretty hawkish foreign policy.”

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