When Failure is Not an Option
Host, Ken Harbaugh, interviews political leaders, influencers, and other history makers about the choices we confront when failure is not an option. Choices like Alexander the Great made when he landed his troops on the shores of Persia and ordered his men to burn their boats.
Bill Kristol: The Crisis within the Republican Party
"We have two parties and it's kind of important that both of them be moderately responsible. It would be bad for the country to have one that is simply nativist and authoritarian. We can't be sure that they'll always lose. We can't be sure that they won't affect the behavior of others, including others not in their party, that they won't degrade all the standards of politics. So I’m with you, it’s a crisis." - Bill Kristol
Bill Kristol, founder of The Weekly Standard and chief of staff to the Vice President under George H. W. Bush, talks about the current state of the Republican party, how it got there, and his bipartisan push for political decency.
Bill Kristol is a conservative political commentator who served in two presidential administrations and has recently been outspoken in his criticism of Donald Trump and his administration. Bill is the host of Conversations with Bill Kristol, a video and podcast series, and he is the director of the conservative advocacy organization Defending Democracy Together. Find Bill on Twitter at @BillKristol.
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Bill Kristol: We have two parties and it's kind of important that both of them be moderately responsible. It would be bad for the country to have one that is simply nativist and authoritarian. We can't be sure that they'll always lose. We can't be sure that they won't affect the behavior of others, including others not in their party, that they won't degrade all the standards of politics. So I’m with you, it’s a crisis.
KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
In Episode 7, I sit down with Bill Kristol, conservative commentator, political analyst, and founder of The Weekly Standard. Lately, Bill has been an outspoken critic of Donald Trump. He sat down with me to talk about the current state of the Republican party, how it got there, and his bipartisan push for political decency.
Bill Kristol, welcome to Burn the Boats. You, of course, served in multiple Republican administrations. You founded the Weekly Standard, which for decades served as the intellectual standard bearer for the conservative movement. Of course, it is extinct, which might be a metaphor for the conservative movement that you help lead, and I'll be sure to ask you about that. To start off, you used to be such a reliable sparring partner for people like me, your political opposites. Now on the most significant matters of the day, whether it's preserving the constitutional order or standing up to tyrants, not just abroad, but here at home or defending democratic norms, we're on the same side. The difference being, I didn't have to abandon a political party to get here. How does that feel?
BK: Look, I think I've got the same principles I've held for really my whole adult life. I have worked with Democrats before, many times on many issues, especially in foreign policy where there's often been a kind of bipartisanship. I remember when we started the Weekly Standard in 1995, Bob Kagan and I wrote an editorial two, three months in supporting President Clinton's intervention in Bosnia. And that probably was in accord with more Democrats at that time than Republicans who already were showing some signs of this Pat Buchanan and America First, let's not intervene abroad just for the sake of saving liberal democracy or preventing ethnic cleansing in Europe or whatever. I remember getting a lot of cancellations from people saying, "I didn't subscribe to the Weekly Standard to read editorial is defending Bill Clinton." So, I've been to minor versions of this before, but obviously this is a fundamentally different moment when almost the entire Republican party has been captured by Donald Trump, who's both in my view, lacks the character and judgment to be a good president. And also just on a whole bunch of fundamental public policies, maybe foreign policy as much as anything, I really can't support. So I'm with the Democrats a little more than the Republicans these days I guess. As long as they're Trump Republicans, that's going to be the case.
KH: Your colleague John Podhoretz described the extinction of the Weekly Standard as intellectual murder, and I would love to tease that out a bit. Especially, the idea that one of the intellectual standard bearers, maybe the last one of the Republican party, has been snuffed out in large part because of its resistance to Trumpism. Let me ask you to validate that first, and then I want to build on the question.
BK: I think being opposed to Trump and being kind of unwilling to accommodate Trump as so many others who started off opposed to him have done, and I'm not challenging their motives. They thought, "Well we're getting some good things and policy out of this and things I don't like maybe are less important." We really weren't, most of us, willing to make that accommodation. We called it as we saw it and look, the owners are free not to own us anymore, and then they're free to close us down. So, I miss the Weekly Standard. We have The Bulwark. I think there are plenty of opportunities in this day and age for people to get their voices heard. So I don't feel at all deprived. I don't want to complain about it. I think we had a very good run, and people can read the articles that were there about both political and foreign policy but also cultural, but I'm proud of what we did for a couple of decades.
KH: But the Republican establishment does seem to have banished voices like yours to the periphery. What fascinates me about that is that while a lot of commentators have written about the moral rot within the party, and you described it as accommodation, but the complicity in Trump's outrages for the small gains in terms of judges or whatever policies are worth that compromise, is often described as moral acquiescence. That's one thing. It's the intellectual rot that fascinates me, because I think that's a different thing altogether. When you have moral compromise, there are ways to walk back from that. That's why we have the rituals of penance, not just in faith traditions, but in society. You can make amends for moral compromise, but when you hollow out the intellectual center of a movement, is there any getting it back?
BK: I sort of disagree with you on that. I think the moral side of it, for me, is more offensive. Because yeah, you can make penance, but at the end of the day, a moral failing is probably more fundamental than an intellectual failing. People can disagree with me on foreign policy and with the Bush and McCain views on foreign policy. They can be for a less robust free trade. I think they're wrong, and I think they are taking the party down intellectually, ultimately a kind of bankrupt path. So, I don't disagree with you that it's worth being very worried about. Having said that, for me, the core is the utter collapse of moral standards and people who knew better, really did know better three or four years ago. And two years ago sort of knew better and were kind of going along for the time being, but were still holding up some resistance. The degree to which they've just capitulated and are now pretending that behavior that would have been totally unacceptable three or four years ago, is now not just acceptable, it's sort of great because “Trump's really showing them. He's really sticking it to them, and we're not going to condemn him-” When he makes fun of Debbie Dingell, the widow who's herself a member of Congress, but also the widow of the great Congressman John Dingell from Michigan, the longest serving member of the house of Democrats and a World War II veteran, and really an impressive fellow. When he just stands up there in Michigan and ridicules them both and makes clear that he thinks the reason he as president ordered flags to fly at half mast when Congressman Dingell died was somehow transactional, it was a deal, and that Debbie Dingell shouldn't, therefore, vote to impeach him if she thinks that's the right thing. It's so revealing about his character and the fact that almost no one- I've noticed a few members of Congress tweeted and said to Debbie Dingell, who's their colleague, that was unfortunate what the president said. No one has stood up and just condemned the president, and said, "What does this show about your character?" So for me, that's really fundamental.
KH: But part of that is a matter of intellect. You describe these policy disagreements, which I don't think really capture the depth of the intellectual crisis. It feels like the right is facing this epistemic challenge in not even being able to discern truth anymore. You're not arguing about policy. You're arguing about what's real and what is not.
BK: That doesn't come from misunderstanding the truth. That comes from not caring about the truth.
KH: There you go. Okay.
BK: That comes as Garry Kasparov has said, from wanting almost to discredit the notion of the truth so you could just follow Trump and ignore that the facts are different from what he says. So I'm agreeing that it's a very deep crisis. In a way, it’s almost a deeper crisis. People go off on the wrong path. They go off on the wrong path, you show them, "Hey, climate change is happening and here's a lot of data." And maybe they come back to the real path after a little bit of a wake up call, so to speak. Once you sort of decide that data doesn't matter, facts don't matter, decency doesn't matter, you're in very dangerous waters. So I am in total agreement that is a real crisis of the Republican party, a crisis of conservatism, kind of a crisis for America. We have two parties and it's kind of important that both of them be moderately responsible. It would be bad for the country to have one that is simply nativist and authoritarian and a cult-like follower of this guy Donald Trump, and that's not a good thing. We can't be sure that they'll always lose. We can't be sure that they won't affect the behavior of others including others not in their party, that they won't degrade all the standards of politics. So I'm with you. It's a crisis.
KH: You mentioned climate change, which I think is a very helpful lens to begin to understand this abandonment of reason. Is the anti-science trajectory of the modern Republican party, the celebration of ignorance itself, cynical and intentional and merely a tactic to win over certain constituencies, certain members of the electorate, or do you feel as if the party leadership itself is buying into an anti-science agenda, is itself reveling in this celebration of ignorance that seems to be so resonant with the base these days?
BK: Yeah, it's hard to distinguish those two sometimes. And obviously there are different people. Some are more cynical and will say one thing in private and another public. Others are true believers in some doctrine or faith. It's not based on facts or evidence.
KH: I would imagine you still have these friendships, so give us a sense of the ratio. Is it skewing now towards the true believer side or can we hope in a post-Trump era that the Republican party will once again be able to behave rationally?
BK: I don't have as many of those friendships anymore as you might think. I'm not sure I'm the best person to judge this. I really don't know how to judge it. Again, I come back - in a way this is our earlier discussion, which is an interesting question. What's worse, to be a true believer in something that's false or to be a cynical proponent and justifier and rationalizer of that kind of true believer's prejudices or instincts. I think the true believers in a funny way can wake up and say, "Oh, I guess I was wrong." But once you've got down this path of being willing to rationalize things you know aren’t true, that's not a leadership that can come back. That's a leadership that has to go away in my view. People like me still fight the fight in the Republican party. There's a primary coming up, there's questions of impeachment and the Senate trial, but there's a whole year here to try to see whether the party might snap out of it’s captivity to Trump. But I do worry that it's not going to be that easy to snap it out of that captivity. And my colleague Jonathan Last wrote a terrific piece with The Bulwark a couple of weeks ago saying, "Even if Trump loses, it's not obvious that Trumpism loses. Trump doesn't go away. All of Trump's acolytes don't go away. What people have said over the last year or two or three don't disappear down some memory hole," and maybe the party just figures, "Well, we lost one presidential race. But you know what? If we could be a more clever form of Trumpist, get a younger standard bearer or whatever, wait for recession when the Democrats take the presidency," So I am pretty worried that we end up with a Trump-y party on the right, which is bad for the country.
KH: Do you seriously believe that the Republican primary is going to be an actual contest?
BK: No. No. Symbolically, it would be good to have 20, 25, 30% of Republicans in some states show that they're not simply on board Trump. Even if half of them then ended up voting for Trump, at the general, it establishes a little distance, and it also frankly would help the Democrats in November to have had some percentage of Republicans sort of peeled off a first time from Trump. It's easier to get someone to vote a second time against a candidate than if you're asking us to do it for the first time in November.
KH: Sure. How far does your never Trump commitment extend? Would it actually compel you to vote for Elizabeth Warren? Does it depend on who the Democratic nominee is or has the offense to your principles been so great from Trump that it doesn't matter?
BK: The offense of Trump leads me to say I won't vote for Trump, but voting for a Democrat obviously is different. Most of the Democrats I do think are much less dangerous than Donald Trump and a couple of them might actually be pretty good presidents, Biden, Buttigieg, I'd be fine with that. Elizabeth Warren, something like that gets to be a little bit of a closer call. I think analytically, I would make this argument, the first term of a liberal Democratic president, even if he or she is much more liberal than I would like, is going to be less dangerous than a second term of Donald Trump. A second term of Donald Trump, people have not really internalized this, I don't think, how dangerous that would be. If he gets away with this impeachment. He's not convicted, then he's reelected. Everyone's been saying since impeachment that "Oh well it's a black mark on him. He'll never recover from that." I don't believe that for a minute. If he gets away with a sham trial on the Senate, quick acquittal and exculpation, as he'll put it, and then gets reelected? The impeachment just becomes a tiny little footnote to his first term, and he's the guy who got reelected. He's the guy who got reelected despite an impeachment. He'll be emboldened. The party will be 110% in with him. If you think Trump-ism and many of his views and his character traits and the way he thinks of the presidency, his authoritarianism, all of that, if you think that's dangerous, it'll be a heck of a lot more dangerous in 2021 if he's reelected, than it is today.
KH: You focus much if not most of your ire on Trump, which is probably right, but there has to be an acknowledgement that political market forces are at work here and he's responding to a market demand as is his party. Do you have a reaction to that? Assuming you agree with at least part of it that the rot goes well beyond Trump, that he is really the symptom?
BK: I think he's both the symptom and a cause. That is what they've always been nativists. They've always been bigots. They've always been elements of the Republican party that were anywhere from disagreeable to really worth condemning. And a lot of us did condemn them. And in fact, Pat Buchanan ran, and he got 25% of the vote, some primaries in ‘92 and ‘96, and people like me were appalled. Ron Paul got 25% of the vote if I’m not mistaken, 20% in Iowa in 2008, but Ron Paul never got close to the nomination. And I don't think they even let him speak at the convention. Buchanan did speak in ‘92 to some bad effect, but then he was out of the party by 99, 2000. So I think it was a party that had problematic elements as any party's going to have with half the country with it, but was able to keep it mostly under control. Maybe a little less under control than I thought at the time, and maybe I should have seen it coming more. I plead guilty to that I suppose if I didn't, but I think there was rot. In a way there's always rot though, right? And it's one very, very different world to have Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan as your nominees with Donald Trump running around being a birther, but they weren't taking him seriously. No one supporting who’s respectable. So that's okay. That's life in a big messy democracy. You have two parties, and each party will have at different times in different ways on its fringes disreputable people. They are sometimes tolerated a little too much, because it's useful to do so, but basically kept in check. That's very different from once he became the nominee and then became president above all, the degree to which he’s not just a symptom, he is a cause, goes way, way up, and presidents are powerful, and you can have a lot of bad demagoguery. You could have a lot of nativism. You could have a lot of bigotry. And you could have a Joe McCarthy, a George Wallace and Pat Buchanan as I mentioned, and they do some damage. I don't mean to minimize any of that. They need to be resisted, but at the end of the day, they don't define the politics. They don't take over a party. They don't accelerate or intensify the bad forces that they're playing off, the anxieties, the prejudices, and so forth. When you have a president doing that for three years now, it makes things much, much, much worse. I think he's both a symptom, but now it's a symptom that's become also a cause of a real crisis almost in American democracy, I think.
KH: You say you perhaps should have seen it coming, but do you accept any more responsibility than that beyond just the passive lack of anticipation? Your support for Sarah Palin is something I point to-
BK: Well I would totally quarrel with that. Sarah Palin ran as John McCain's vice president. That was an attempt to bring populism within the fold. She turned out to be a very flawed person. I didn't know her well. I thought that was a way to channel populism, that turned out to be wrong. It was a bad judgment of her, but what Palin actually ran on in 2008 was McCain's agenda. She wasn't an isolationist. She wasn't anti immigration. So I take a little bit, maybe we were too tolerant, but I was personally a little too tolerant, if you want to use that word of the Tea Party types. But hey, it's a democracy. They won some primaries, and I felt we did a pretty good job honestly, the Republican side, of channeling them into the party and into more responsible roles. I thought Marco Rubio could be the future of that kind of Tea Party insurgency. It turned out that yeah, Palin's person flaws turned out to be much more replicated than I realized. So I’m not going to say she would've been a great vice president. I don't think all the Democrats who supported John Edwards in 2004 for as the vice presidential nominee probably think he would’ve been a great vice president either.
KH: Fair point.
Bill Kristol: No, but I think this sort of taking responsibility for me is a little fake, honestly. I'm for taking responsibility for what you take responsibility for, I just think the attempt to sort of- This is a party that nominated, in my adult lifetime, has nominated Ronald Reagan, George Casey W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. I'm totally comfortable with having defended those people.
KH: But in some ways, Palin was a harbinger of this anti-intellectual hero. And at what point did folks in your orbit realize that, "Wow, this could grow"?
BK: Well she quit as governor in 2009. We all said goodbye to her. She was a nobody by 2011 or ‘12, but yes, I agree, she was a bit of a harbinger. But there’s always been anti-intellectualism on the outside. We should've seen it perhaps that it would grow more than it did. But Trump also I think came out of the blue. We didn't really owe Sarah Palin a heck of a lot.
KH: I'm going to ask you a personal question. It is something that I have long wondered about your approach to argument, because often when you're challenged, especially from the left, there this air of this moral high road that people take. And I'm thinking especially about people like Bill Maher or others in his vein who don't just attack on ideas but attack you as being over intellectual and intellectualizing something as serious as invading Iraq, and never once have I heard you offer an emotive counter and say that your family has had skin in the game. You have a son who served in Afghanistan, some of the toughest fighting around Sangin. And never once have you invoked that in making an argument that you legitimately could ground in the idea that you have risked something. Why do you not bring that kind of thing to the table when pushing back against people like that?
BK: Well, it's kind of you to mention him, we’re proud of his service. I don't think I should get any credit for his service. Honestly, it was his decision and I don't want to in any way trade off that to justify my foreign policy views, which could be right and could be wrong. I have friends who've had sons and daughters who have had to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan who were against the war. I have friends who have served who were against the war. It doesn't really prove anything. Proves that our son wanted to serve his country and did so courageously, and so I'm proud of that. But I don't really think it's that healthy to have these kinds of everyone playing the card of, "Well, I have a relative who served" or something as a way of proving that you're right or wrong. I don't think it's really appropriate. These are serious decisions that need to be argued out intellectually. I've been wrong about my share of things and a lot of things that are just very hard to get right, honestly. There are people who do deserve to be denounced, I think, because they really say terrible things. I think Donald Trump is one of them about John McCain and about the soldiers who served in Iraq who he seemed to think had just taken things when they wanted to. But I think within the rational spectrum of debate, it's much healthier to have the debate obviously on the merits of the policies.
KH: I agree. And I'm glad you don't trade on your family sacrifice, but I wonder if it's one reason the other side wins, because they hit below the belt. They use those emotive arguments and do not argue issues on the merits.
BK: Other people do it on my side too. I don't want to be at all holier than thou about this. I don't want to do it. But maybe that's a reason I do what I do and edit at a magazine and comment on things, and never got into elective politics. And maybe if I were in elective politics and I were in a close race, I would be tempted to say and do certain things that I fortunately really haven't had to do. Other people have different pressures on them sometimes to play certain cards. I've been fortunate in really not having to.
KH: What do you make of the crop of freshmen Democratic congressmen who have made incredibly risky political decisions to vote for impeachment, as contrasted with the other side, the Republican side, where I don't think there's been a single act of bravery in this sad episode.
BK: So in 2018 I really rooted, did a little work and voted for Democrats to win the house. I thought it was important to check Trump, but I also, and that was the main thing- I thought it was very dangerous to give him another Republican Congress to acquiesce and everything he was doing. I think I've said that to be vindicated by impeachment and by other things, but I also was impressed.I got to know, therefore since I was vaguely saying nice things about the Democrats in general, I got to know some of those candidates - they were very impressive. I said this to a lot of people, and they thought "Oh come on, you're just being charmed because..." I don't know why. But they really had a good crop of candidates. The Republicans have had sort of the opposite problem honestly, in 2018, certainly and it's happening again this year. Who wants to run in a party that's headed by Trump? And look at the retirements, look how many good people have left. You would've seen a different house. It wasn't great. That is a case where the mob was already pretty deep, honestly. But to watch that debate on impeachment, what was most striking to me was the Democrats thought, "Okay, this is a serious moment. We have to give some version of a serious argument as to why the President of the United States has gone over the line and has to be impeached and should be removed from office." The Republicans didn't even feel, a huge majority of them, any need to make any kind of substantive argument. And it was just pure demagoguery-
BK: And a lot of performance and playing to the base, and it really is a party, in that respect, that has internalized Trump and Trumpism, not just as an ideology as you were saying before, which is important, but as an affect that is a way of doing politics and denigrating the opposition, and just creating your alternate reality, pretending it's as true as the real reality. All of that is very dangerous and therefore, I think that for short, medium term, the hopes of the country rest with the Democratic party, and I have a big interest in therefore having a better Democratic party rather than a less responsible one, and I feel good about the younger members of Congress.
KH: There honestly is very little I hope for more in American politics than a Republican party that is resurgent, finds its moral center and can be that counter that acts in good faith. We don't have that now, and that is bad for everybody. Bill, thanks for the time. Really appreciate it.
BK: It was great talking to you.
KH: Thanks again to Bill Kristol for joining me. Bill is the host of Conversations with Bill Kristol, a video and podcast series, and he is the director of the conservative advocacy organization Defending Democracy Together.
Today, Bill talked about the importance of having two balanced and responsible political parties. And we wanted to hear from you. So we asked what you think is the biggest obstacle our country faces in achieving that balance.
Isabel Robertson: Hi, I’m Isabel Robertson, producer of Burn the Boats. We got some great comments from folks on social media in response to this episode’s discussion prompt. So I’m in the studio here to read off some of my favorites:
@justincarrohio on Twitter says that gerrymandering is the biggest obstacle to balanced parties. ““Safe” districts mean the election is decided in a primary where candidates push to the extreme of the base.”
@GraceShuss on Twitter thinks the problems are “Lack of term limits. Failure of checks and balances. Failure to require candidates to meet a set of standards including psychological fitness and security screening.”
Andy Dufresne tweeted “I’m starting to believe it might be Facebook.”
Meanwhile, over on Facebook, Donald Adams called out money in politics and lobbying.
Donald wasn’t the only one who pointed to money as the issue.
Joanna Clancy said “Dark Money must be removed from politics.”
Larry Rudd agreed, saying “I echo the others concerns of endless dark money.” He also expressed concerns “that being a politician has become a lifetime occupation where there is no need to compromise with others, just keep stoking the divide.”
Multiple people called out the two-party system itself as the issue. On Twitter, @abooknut said “The problem is the two-party system itself. People wind up being loyal to one party and rationalizing the extremism in it.” @EricBronner1 said that he looks forward to the day when, quote “the Blue & the Red team go the way of the dinosaurs!”
Well, Eric, you especially should stay tuned for our next episode!
You can join in the conversation yourself by finding Ken Harbaugh on Facebook or following him on Twitter at @Team_Harbaugh.
KH: Next week, I’m talking to Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and, more recently, the founder of Righteous Media and host of the Angry Americans podcast. Paul talks to me about being an independent in today’s political climate, about the role of veterans in our country, and about anger as a political force.
And we want you to join our discussion. Do you think anger is a destructive force or a positive one? Or can it be both? Let us know what you think by leaving a message at 216-245-5461 or sending a voice memo to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews and Michael DeAloia. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Our theme music is Climbing to Greatness by Cody Martin.
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I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcasts about big decisions.