You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Bill Kristol Is ... Making Sense?

Bill Kristol, in a remarkably thoughtful and sober-minded column (at least relative to this past year's output), makes the case today against reflexive, small-government conservatism. He writes:

But conservatives should think twice before charging into battle against Obama under the banner of “small-government conservatism.” It’s a banner many Republicans and conservatives have rediscovered since the election and have been waving around energetically. Jeb Bush, now considering a Senate run in 2010, even went so far as to tell Politico last month, “There should not be such a thing as a big-government Republican.” Really? Jeb Bush was a successful and popular conservative governor of Florida, with tax cuts, policy reforms and privatizations of government services to show for his time in office. Still, in his two terms state spending increased over 50 percent--a rate faster than inflation plus population growth. It turns out, in the real world of Republican governance, that there aren’t a whole lot of small-government Republicans. ... So talk of small government may be music to conservative ears, but it’s not to the public as a whole. This isn’t to say the public is fond of big-government liberalism. It’s just that what’s politically vulnerable about big-government liberalism is more the liberalism than the big government. (Besides, the public knows that government’s not going to shrink much no matter who’s in power.)

Now, it's true that Kristol has never been as libertarian-minded as some of his fellow conservatives, and that knee-capping small-government types advances his personal preference for a more robust military. (Kristol basically concedes as much at the end of the column.) It's also true that, beyond the military, Kristol mostly opposes small-government claims on crass political grounds, not because they're substantively misguided. (He writes: "Only Reagan was even close to being a small-government conservative. And he campaigned in 1980 more as a tax-cutter and national-defense-builder-upper"--as though the only problem with small-government conservatism is that it kills you on the campaign trail.) But, all in all, it's a pretty intellectually honest statement. In fact, it sounds like something his former Weekly Standard colleague David Brooks might have written (or already has), and makes you think Kristol and Brooks, despite their split during the campaign over Palin and know-nothing conservatism, could mostly end up on the same side in the right's coming intramural smackdown.

 --Noam Scheiber