A New Hope?

An Interview with William Kristol

I think the consequences could be interesting in ways people haven't quite focused on yet. For example, in the Congress, there is a big group of Democrats who ran either as incumbents or challengers and won and who said they wouldn't for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker. I've taken that with a grain of salt. I think that's a thing you say in a moderate district, but then you show up in D.C., you end up getting your arm twisted, and you vote for Pelosi as Speaker.

But I was talking to a Democrat the other day who said, "No, don't count on that. If you've said 50 times on the stump that you won't vote for her for Speaker, you probably won't vote for her for Speaker."

There is also this to consider. You have a situation where Ryan is stepping down as Republican leader. If Democrats win a majority but Pelosi doesn’t have the votes to get actually get elected speaker, maybe the Democrats just replace Ryan with a line-voting Democrat. But you could also attempt to change the rules of the game a little bit and find a bipartisan Speaker, or make a deal in the way the committees work, the way discharge petitions work, the way the rules work so that it's a little less partisan and the Speaker has a little less power.

I think with the legislative branch, citizens, but also legislators themselves — especially younger members of Congress — aren't happy with the way it has worked and is working. I do wonder whether you could get lucky and have a disruptive moment where things get shaken up in that respect.

On the presidential level, November 7th, 2018 is an important date. The day after, I think, Republicans will no longer look backwards to 2016. Trump supporters, especially reluctant Trump supporters, no longer have to justify their vote. They no longer have to say that Trump's better than Clinton would've been. They don't get stuck with “but Gorsuch” and deregulation. Beginning November 7th, Republicans have to face up to a real question: who do you want for the next four years? Now, it's one thing to say, "People like Kristol were wrong, it was right to vote for Trump. He's done better than we expected." It's another thing to say, "You know what? Four more years of Trump is what we need." I really think a fair number of Trump supporters think about that and think, "Four more years will be chaotic and crazy. He's bad for country in certain ways, even if you agree with some of the policies, and he's not so young." I think for that reason there's more of a potential challenge to Trump on the Republican side then conventional wisdom has estimated.

OR: Do you think the Republicans can right themselves, or do you think the party’s pandering to Trump has irrevocably damaged them?

Kristol: I don't know. I think that is the big question of American politics. It’s fifty-fifty, I guess I would say. I feel personally that my best use, short term, is to try to save the Republican Party from Trump. It is one of our two major parties. It would be bad for the country if one of the major two parties went to the nativists, went in an authoritarian, xenophobic, demagogic direction. So if the Republican Party can be saved from Trump, even if it's a 1-in-3 chance or a 1-in-4 chance, it's worth trying. Now, if it can't be saved, it can't be saved. If he's nominated, he's nominated. Then we'll have to look at independent candidacies, or third parties, or maybe moderate Democrats.

OR: Are you concerned about the bad demographic news coming down the pike from the Republicans?

Kristol: Yes. I think the Trump coalition is not a long-term majority coalition, but it can hang on for another election or two, develop a sense of comfort about its future, and end up getting swamped. I'm generally not a big believer in demographic determinism, I'd say, but in this case I can't believe that a Trumpian message is going to attract a lot of young voters or a lot of minority voters. There are more young voters coming into electorate; the old voters are aging out; the country's becoming more diverse. That would be one reason to try to move the Republican Party away from Trumpism. But I think the more serious reason to move the Republican Party away from Trumpism is that Trumpism is bad for the country.

In that moving the party away from Trumpism, it can't just go back to where it was in 2013 or 2011. It had its good elements then, it had its limitations then, but it's just a different world and there are issues where thinking needs to be updated and new realities need to be confronted. Maybe in that respect the challenge of Trump is an opportunity really to rethink these issues and build a newer and fresher Republican party.

OR: If there were a challenge to Trump, where would it come from?

Kristol: I think there's some obvious people, but history would suggest that these things are not easily predictable. Sometimes it’s Reagan against Ford, Kennedy against Carter. Those were reasonably predictable people to launch their primary challenges, but at other times, it’s Pat Buchanan in the 1990’s. He did some damage to Bush. I think it's hard to know. Someone like Kasich, who ran last time and got a fair number of votes, had been a successful two-term governor — someone like that would start off with the inside track in the Republican sweepstakes to challenge Trump. More than one person might run. I think at the end of the day, it'll narrow down to probably one challenger because of the way the system works. For those who don't want Trump, there'll be a wish to consolidate forces.

You can imagine a 1968-type dynamic where a modern Eugene McCarthy — a more fringe, less well-known candidate — is the first one to take on Trump and does surprisingly well, and then someone serious or heavyweight comes in à la Bobby Kennedy. The assassination, of course, colors everybody’s memories of that year (as is inevitable), but Kennedy could have won. That was the most successful primary challenge in recent times.