Kuttner vs. Kristol: It’s Hard Out Here For A Neocon

There was a genteel smackdown between Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect and William Kristol of The Weekly Standard. But beneath the generally gentlemanly exchange between the two intellectual titans, there were some genuine jaw-droppers from Kristol, who showed that however thoughtful conservatives can be, their blind spots can be huge.

Kuttner opened the debate by saying that the Republicans at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library debate on Thursday will call for a return to Ronald Reagan, distancing themselves from President Bush but not from the underlying ideology. In order to develop that ideology, “it took a village. It took a movement,” he said. Once the basic framework was in place, the Bush administration got six years to try out all of its ideas, “and it all crashed and burned.”

Not only do we see failed government policies, but “every day we see the results not of principled libertarianism but simple opportunism” as the controls of government have been turned over to interests who use government for their benefit and not for the common good, Kuttner said.

Kristol ran through a list of what he said were conservative economic accomplishments based on their unleashing of the free market. One such statement was that because countries such as China and India have followed the United States in adopting market-based government policies, millions of people have been lifted from poverty. He offered nothing to document that statement, but, more importantly, he did not say at what price.

The price has been clear in the United States—growing economic disparity, more economically stressed families, lower- and middle-income people falling behind, and many of the poorest falling through a weakened safety net. But, we digress.

Kristol also said that “in foreign policy, Reagan had one of the greatest vindications that any president could have” with the fall of the Soviet Union. That proved to be a statement Kutter easily rebutted, noting that liberal foreign policy analysts that conservatives had discredited in the 1970s correctly predicted that the Soviet Union would fall of its own weight.

When an audience member brought up “the elephant in the room” –the war in Iraq – Kristol offered a lukewarm defense of the Bush administration. He later asserted that part of what went wrong with Iraq was that the Bush administration was fighting a post-9/11 war with a pre-9/11 military. We should be spending more on a larger military, not less, he said.

Given that the Bush administration did not give Kristol much to work with in terms of conservative success, Kristol mentioned New York City under while Rudolph Giuliani was mayor as an example of conservative policy success. “We had a very interesting test case in New York,” he said, of a city governed under “liberal principles” that he characterized as unsafe and dysfunctional until Giuliani cleaned up the city and made it safe. But it is not clear that Giuliani or Kuttner can claim “conservatism” as the key for New York City’s transformation, nor can they say that the city Giuliani left behind for his successor, Michael Bloomberg, was a better city for its residents at the lower end of the economic spectrum. In fact, Giuliani’s New York ended up being a city where the poor was finding it harder to make a living, where racial strife was exacerbated by several high-profile incidents of police excess, and where the schools were so bad Bloomberg was compelled to take them over as one of his first acts as mayor.

Kristol closed by saying that “this country needs a vigorous liberalism” to be a check on the excesses of conservative government, and he expressed hope that progressives will not be merely reactive — “the great liberal tradition deserves better than that” — but step forward with bold ideas.

“I don’t think there is a danger that liberalism will be merely reactive,” Kuttner said in his response, adding that the failures of conservatism have resulted in progressives getting a political tailwind, in no small measure because “Conservatives got a full-field trial and fell flat on its face.”

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