It hasn’t been widely recognized yet, but we’re in the midst of a historic neoconservative resurgence.
That’s right, the neoconservatives — left for dead and buried after the political costs to Republicans of the Iraq war — are back and emerging as the ideological engine of the Republican Party.
The definition of “neoconservative” is famously both flexible and idiosyncratic. One of my personal favorites was Ann Coulter’s answer to the New York Observer, when they asked her whether she is a neoconservative: “No, I’m a gentile.”
More seriously, Irving Kristol, with Norman Podhoretz a founder of the movement, described it in his 1995 book "Neoconservatism" in contrast to “the traditional Republican Party” which had, “little use for intellectuals, whom it regarded (with some justification) as more foolish than wise; its economic policy stopped short at the ideal of a balanced budget; it was still campaigning against the New Deal and, in foreign policy, its inclination was almost always isolationist.” Kristol described neoconservatism as “optimistically future-oriented rather than bitterly nostalgic.”
In addition, the individual neoconservatives were often former liberal Democrats. It’s into this tradition that, rather neatly, fits Charles Krauthammer, whose book of collected columns sits atop the best-seller list.
Dr. Krauthammer, channeling Congressman Paul Ryan, offered a useful look at his message in an interview with Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show": “The welfare state as established with great success by liberals has now reached a point where it no longer fits with the new demographics and with the higher technology in medicine. We will simply become insolvent unless we radically reform.”
Krauthammer said that rather than trying to reverse or roll back “the great accomplishments of liberalism” — Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — mainstream Republicans need to focus on reform.
Nor is Krauthammer alone. Another heir to Irving Kristol, Yuval Levin, is out with his own book describing today’s conservatives as “too rhetorically strident and far too open to the siren song of hyperindividualism.”
And on the Jewish front, my friend Seth Lipsky is out with a biography of Abraham Cahan, the editor of the Yiddish Forward newspaper who has been described as the first neoconservative (or neo-Cahan.)
The neoconservative energy extends not only to the publishing world, but also in politics, where Tom Cotton, a Republican congressman and Iraq war veteran who supported President Obama’s call for military intervention in Syria, is attracting positive attention as he runs for Senate in Arkansas.
The neoconservative rise is visible in the Republican congressional leadership, which is maneuvering for a budget deal that would remove the “sequester” reductions in the defense budget.
What does this mean for 2016? It’s good news for Jeb Bush, not so good news for Rand Paul. But 2016 is a long way away, and while neoconservativism may be on the rise in Washington and on the best-seller list, it doesn’t necessarily dominate among Iowa caucus goers.
Still, winning over Iowa caucus goers doesn’t count for much if a nominee can’t go on to win a general election.
There’s an unfortunate tendency among conservatives to confuse neoconservatism with squishy moderation on domestic matters or bloodthirsty imperialism on foreign policy. Those are misconceptions.
One can be a fierce Fox News conservative like Krauthammer yet still embrace Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Ronald Reagan, the most successful Republican politician in our lifetime, did that.
That’s not the achievement he is remembered for, and he certainly did not start out as a fan of Medicare, as YouTube videos of him talking about the perils of socialized medicine readily attest. But that was his record as president (as George W. Bush no doubt realized when he updated Medicare with prescription drug coverage).
As conservatives look toward 2016, they can do worse to learn from Dr. Krauthammer and his fellow neoconservatives.
Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are flawed and expensive. But the neoconservative approach to the safety net — repair rather than rollback — is the one Republicans will need to pursue if they hope to avoid bitter nostalgia and return instead to Reagan-era optimism.
Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of "JFK, Conservative." Read more reports from Ira Stoll — Click Here Now.
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