The Flawed Logic of William Kristol

In a recent Washington Post article titled “A Good Time to be a Conservative”; Mr. Kristol made a bold assumption, claiming the “center of gravity” within the Republican Party would shift farther to the right, propelled in that direction by a collection of conservative personalities from beyond the Beltway. Indicating a lack of faith in the G.O.P.’s elected leadership, Kristol says: “Even if Republicans pick up the House in 2010, the party’s big ideas and themes for the 2012 presidential race will probably not emanate from Capitol Hill. The center of gravity, I suspect, will instead lie with individuals such as Palin and Huckabee and Gingrich, media personalities like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, and activists at town halls and tea parties. Some will lament this — but over the past year, as those voices have dominated, conservatism has done pretty well in the body politic, and Republicans have narrowed the gap with Democrats in test ballots.” Kristol’s logic is derived from two polls. First, the Gallup Poll of October 26, 2009 that puts the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as conservatives at 40 percent, and an earlier Rasmussen Poll indicating that the only 2012 Republican presidential prospects polling double digits are Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. When one looks inside the numbers, it would appear that there are more than a few flaws in Mr. Kristol’s math and intuitive reasoning.

The Gallup results show that the net increase in the percentage of people identifying as conservatives had taken place within that subset of the electorate classified as independents. Quoting Gallup: “Changes among political independents appear to be the main reason the percentage of conservatives has increased nationally over the past year: the 35% of independents describing their views as conservative in 2009 is up from 29% in 2008. By contrast, among Republicans and Democrats, the percentage who are "conservative" has increased by one point each.” In spite of the shift in independents identifying as conservatives, the actual percentage of voters who identify with the G.O.P., which is the defacto conservative party, has fallen to historical lows. The latest political identification polling results available on reveals that just 25 percent of those polled identify themselves as Republicans. That percentage improves when registered and likely voters are polled, but the G.O.P. still trails the Democrats here as well. To date, had independents firmly embraced the principles of the conservative movement generally or the G.O.P. in particular, the percentage of voters identifying as Republicans would show a marked increase and so far that is not the case. I would argue that the shift to the right among independent voters is far from solid and is conditional, being subject to a set of factors that will likely change by the time of the 2012 election. In fact an even newer Gallup Poll reveals just how transient independent political attitudes actually are. That poll: “Race for 2010 Remains Close; Democrats Recover Slight Lead”, which came out on December 14 states: “The current generic-ballot results are similar to those Gallup found in July and October of this year, and indicate that the Republican gain observed just after the Nov. 3 elections was not sustained. Shifts in candidate preference for Congress typically occur primarily among independents, whose "unanchored" status makes them much more vulnerable to short-term events in the political environment than are those who claim allegiance to either major party.” I would go beyond the latest Gallup findings to suggest that the number of independents identifying as conservatives will decrease proportionately to the degree to which the G.O.P. moves to the right, especially if the Republican Party finds its public image welded to the personalities of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin or the Tea Party crowd.

In his reliance on the results of the above cited Rasmussen Poll, Mr. Kristol is in effect betting the house on a collection of would be candidates that, in spite of polling in the double digits, leave much to be desired when it actually comes to getting elected. Kristol is one of Sarah Palin’s most passionate cheerleaders, but in suggesting that the future of the conservative movement might lie in the fortunes of Ms. Palin, he seems to be gambling on a horse not worth the wager. Mid-December poll results from both and Polling show Palin registering an unfavorable rating of 48 percent. An ABC poll of November 15th showed that 53 percent of respondents would not vote for Palin with 60 percent saying she was not qualified to be president. More damaging still is a CBS poll of November 15, which revealed that 62 percent of those Republicans polled felt that Palin lacked the ability to be an effective president. At the time of Palin’s resignation from elected office, Republican strategist Mike Murphy opined: “If the Sarah Palin we perceive today wins the nomination in 2012, the G.O.P. will lose. Most Americans don’t think Palin is ready to be President. The base loving you is not enough to get you elected.” Conservative columnist Michael Gerson, reflecting on Palin’s resignation said: “She really alienated women and the college educated on both coasts and that is not how you rebuild the Republican Party.” The reality is that the Republican Party cannot hope to win without the support of independent voters, whom Palin clearly alienates and whose ranks are, according to Pew Research, now at a seventy-year high. Recently, two Republican heavyweights: Haley Barbour, former Chairman of the RNC, and Congressman Eric Cantor (R-VA) both declined to endorse a 2012 Palin presidential bid when they appeared on MSNBC and Fox News.

In spite of the fact that Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have double-digit support among Republicans, none of them breaks a 40 percent favorability rating among voters generally, except Huckabee. However, Huckabee’s 40 percent approval rating was registered before Maurice Clemmons, an inmate pardoned by Huckabee, gunned down four police officers in late November. That said, we might see a decline in Huckabee’s overall standing in the polls. Poll numbers aside, in the 2008 Republican primaries, Huckabee was only able to win in the south and thus his viability as a national candidate is questionable. Furthermore, Huckabee’s past equivocation on the topic of evolution works to his detriment when it comes to appealing to that large segment of the population that believes in science as well as religion. Mitt Romney, as a result of his Mormon faith, had problems with the evangelical base of the G.O.P., which plays a crucial role in the early primary states of Iowa and South Carolina. Moreover, Romney may well run into formidable headwinds from the far right as a result of his relatively moderate approach to politics and policy positions. Newt Gingrich, who’s favorable ratings are the lowest, at 14 percent, has a closet full of skeletons of his own which led in 1998 to his stepping down as the Speaker of the House and his departure from Congress altogether. Needless to say these issues will surely be resurrected and they will be in the forefront of the debate in the event that Gingrich becomes a serious presidential contender.

It is in his rather absurd suggestion that the G.O.P.’s center of gravity might travel further to the right as a function of the influence of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck or the Tea Party Movement, that Kristol, having slipped his moorings to reality, has embarked on what can only be considered a voyage of political fantasy. Neither Limbaugh nor Beck are particularly compelling personalities beyond the realm of their audience. Both traffic in the sensational, often blurring the lines between fact and fiction with their primary purpose being incendiary commentary rather than legitimate hard news analysis. The media watchdog, Media Matters for America has compiled fifty-three pages of citations detailing Limbaugh’s distortion of facts or their deliberate misrepresentation for political purposes. For Glenn Beck there are forty-two pages. The latest NBC/WSJ poll (June 2009), which I was able to find on Limbaugh’s popularity, showed that 50 percent of those responding viewed him in a negative light. A similar poll in September showed Glenn Beck registering a positive rating of just 25 percent. In spite of the fact that both Limbaugh and Beck have a committed following, accurately measuring the true size and composition of their respective audiences and the extent to which they actually reflect more than a thin slice of this country’s political spectrum is almost impossible. Paul Farhi of the Washington Post attempted to plumb the length and breadth of Limbaugh’s audience and therefore his influence, in a March 2009 article: “Limbaugh’s Audience Size? It’s Largely Up in the Air.” Relying on interviews with media industry sources, Farhi claims that Limbaugh’s audience fluctuates between 14 to 30 million, depending on the issues of the day. Quoting Michael Harrison of “Talkers Magazine”, Farhi puts Limbaugh’s average audience at 14.25 million listeners per week, which is just under 5 percent of the population. Glenn Beck’s audience is far smaller and his largest audience to date was roughly 3.4 million viewers on September 15, 2009, which amounts to just 1.1 percent of the population.

When it comes to the Tea Party Movement, it is equally difficult in coming to an agreement as to just how many people are involved here and to what extent they really reflect more than a microcosm of American political life. According to the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, a pro-Tea Party group, just 578,000 people participated in the 2009 April Tax Day Protests. Their website does not display figures for the July 4th protests nor does or any other pro-Tea Party website that I came across. The largest number I remember seeing is in the neighborhood of 215,000 protestors. Regarding the September 12th Washington D.C. protest rally, Talking Points Memo described the turnout as follows: “FreedomWorks, the main organizers of the Tea Party event in Washington this past weekend, has dramatically lowered its estimate for the size of the crowd at the event from 1.5 million, a number the group now concedes was a mistake, to between 600,000 and 800,000 people — though this is still substantially more than the tens of thousands that most mainstream media outlets have estimated, and which FreedomWorks wholeheartedly rejects.” Thus if we add up the total attendence at all three Tea Parties, using the higher estimates, we come up with a gross attendence of roughly 1.6 million or just one half of one percent of the population.

What the math reveals is that the actual number of people who either participate in Tea Parties or who listen to Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck, presumably many do both, is a rather small percentage of the overall population, even considering that portion that would identify as conservative. That said, its a bit of a strectch to assume that such a statistically insignificant number of people is either enough to move the Republican Party further to the right or that it is likely to do so.

There is one final flaw in Kristol’s analysis and that is his ignoring the rising tide of moderates within the party that are opposing any suggestion that the G.O.P. needs to be purified of any moderate tendencies via litmus tests that even Ronald Reagan would fail, that political orthodoxy should be the face of the G.O.P. or that Republicans can only win elections when they embrace ultra conservative ideas. The now formidable array of moderates seeking to stem any drift to the far right encompasses a spectrum of Republican notables from sitting Senators to strategists and political commentators including: Olympia Snowe, Lindsey Graham, John McCain, Bob Inglis, Mickey Edwards, Christie Todd Whitman, Newt Gingrich, Tom Ridge, Colin Powell, David Frum, Andrew Sullivan, Kathleen Parker and a host of Republican strategists. Gingrich, appearing on Meet the Press (5/24/09) stated that the G.O.P. has to be “broad enough to incorporate divergent views and can’t be purged to the smallest conservative base.” Tom Ridge stated that the G.O.P. “needs to be less shrill and less condeming of those who don’t hew to a far right view.” Following the departure of Arlen Specter from the Republican Party, Olympia Snowe, in a New York Times editorial opined: “There is no plausible scenario under which Republicans can grow into a majority while shrinking our ideological confines and contiuing to retract into a regional party. Ideological purity is not the ticket back to the promised land of governing majorities.” At an April debate over the future of the G.O.P. Lindsey Graham made the following observation: “We are not losing blue states and shrinking as a party because we are not conservative enough. If we pursue a party that has no place for someone who agrees with me 70 percent of the time, that is based on an ideological purity test rather than a coalition test, then we are going to keep losing.” I could go on, but anyone who has been paying any attention to the civil war within the Republican Party knows that there are more than enough voices and intelligent arguments being made to more than call into question the logic and wisdom of people like Bill Kristol and their fanciful notions that the redemption of the G.O.P. lies in the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck or the rank and file Tea Party participant. All one has to do is examine the results of the 2009 off-year elections and what is evident is that where Republicans won elections, in the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey, they did so by running moderate campaigns that played to the centrist voter. In contrast, the great and financially costly effort by the far right in trying to influence the congressional election in New York’s 23rd Electoral District resulted in a conservative failure with a Democrat capturing a seat held by the G.O.P. since as far back as the Civil War.

Over the course of his career, William Kristol is a man who has backed more political losers and also-rans than winners and it would be nothing less than disastrous for the Republican Party to heed his advice or put any stock in his predictions. Kristol worked for former Secretary of Education William Bennet, the voice of personal responsibility during the Reagan Administration, who subsequently lost much of his credibility when he admitted to losing over a million dollars in Las Vegas slot machines. He was Vice President Qualye’s Chief of Staff. Kristol managed the failed Senatorial campaign of Alan Keyes in 1988 and Keyes would go on to fail twice more in seeking a seat in the Senate and then two more times when running for president. Kristol championed the pardon of Scooter Libby and the nomination of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate, a decision that McCain’s staffers would later admit to be his single biggest mistake. But it is in an examination of Kristol’s unabashed cheerleading for the War in Iraq that his predictive abilities are revealed to be so totally lacking. It was Kristol who predicted that the removal of Saddam Hussein from power would unleash a chain reaction of democratic reform across the Middle East that to date has failed to materialize.

Bill Kristol represents that desperate sort of conservative that can’t abide the dynamics of political change wrought by the election of Barack Obama. Likewise, the relatively rapid decline in the influence of Neoconservatives since the 2004 election can’t bring him much joy either. To my mind, Bill Kristol falls into that category within the Conservative Movement that is firmly wedded to the notion that their orthodox ideology is the only one acceptable for America and that anything else is either politically irrelevant or treasonous. Kristol’s faulty logic gives rise to the notion that he is engaged more in wishful thinking than objective political analysis. His prediction as to future direction of the G.O.P. amounts to nothing more than a political “Hail Mary pass” in hoping beyond hope, that somehow or other the Republican Party can be moved to embrace the orthodoxy of the far right. In my opinion, having watched him over the past decade and read his articles, he seems to be increasingly assuming the role of a shill for ultra conservative ideas, becoming as a result less objective in his political analysis. Republicans would be well advised to part company with Mr. Kristol, least they find themselves facing a future of continued electoral defeat and a decline in the party’s appeal among that now indispensable factor in American politics, the unaligned independent voter.

Steven J. Gulitti
New York City

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