Bill Kristol’s big plans start with Chuck Hagel nomination
In the weeks since Election Day — as Mitt Romney faded into obscurity, John Boehner lost control of the House GOP and tea partiers turned on one another — Bill Kristol has been busy charting the future of the Republican Party.
Kristol was among the first conservatives to break with GOP orthodoxy on raising taxes, and he and his allies advanced their hawkish neoconservative foreign policy by pushing the controversy that sank Susan Rice’s potential nomination for secretary of state.
And Kristol is just getting started.
One Kristol-linked group, the Emergency Committee for Israel, has already aired ads targeting former Sen. Chuck Hagel, who is Obama’s nominee for defense secretary and is planning a “substantial” paid-media campaign opposing the nomination. Kristol believes Hagel is both a “bitter opponent of Israel” and “very weak on Iran.”
(PHOTOS: Chuck Hagel’s career)
It won’t end with Hagel, either. Another Kristol-linked group, the Center for American Freedom, has signaled its intent to go after other prospective Obama nominees.
Plus, Kristol and his allies have been talking about starting a “reformist” organization to recraft Republican fiscal policies and champion a rising generation of Republicans, such as Kristol favorites Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. The hypothetical group, modeled on the defunct Democratic Leadership Council, would join an expanding network of media platforms and nimble nonprofits for Kristol and mark an ambitious expansion into domestic policy.
There are plenty of reasons to question Kristol’s bona fides for leading a Republican revival. He’s indelibly linked to a couple of the most damaging recent black marks on the GOP brand — Sarah Palin’s selection as the 2008 vice presidential nominee and the push for war in Iraq. Establishment critics regard him as a professional gadfly with a spotty odds-making record, while some in the GOP’s populist, tea party wing see him as personifying a self-serving establishment.
But Kristol also has an enduring ability to drive the debate. He helped recenter Republican foreign policy around neoconservative ideas over the past two decades and was widely credited with helping the GOP recover from Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory by shaping the opposition agenda that led to its historic midterm landslide two years later.
“The experience of having been through a big defeat before may make me more comfortable not relitigating what happened in the last election or the last fight, and I’m probably a little more radicalized now in terms of being open to fresh thinking,” Kristol, 60, said last week during an interview in his office at the Weekly Standard, the influential magazine he founded and edits.
Kristol declined to comment on the DLC-like nonprofit idea but suggested the GOP will continue to struggle unless it fundamentally rethinks its fiscal policy. “The Republican Party has never come to grips with the financial crisis that happened on Bush’s watch and has this kind of stale view of tax policy,” he said. “It’s a new moment with the debt and the deficits and the financial crisis in the background.”
During the post-1992 GOP rebuildling, Kristol had one nonprofit. Since then, he’s been affiliated with a slew of outfits, including several that have come and gone. Kristol World is currently composed of:
The Weekly Standard, which has been called the “neocon bible.”
The Center for American Freedom, a 501(c)4 nonprofit oppo war room of sorts run by former Weekly Standard staffer Michael Goldfarb, which counts Kristol as a board member.
The Washington Free Beacon, a news website seemingly devoted to antagonizing liberals, which is a project of CAF and is edited by Kristol’s son-in-law, former Weekly Standard reporter Matthew Continetti.
The Emergency Committee for Israel, a 501(c)4 nonprofit with Kristol on the board and Goldfarb as an adviser, which has aired aggressive ads targeting Democrats.
The Foreign Policy Initiative, a neocon think tank with Kristol on the board. FPI is run by former Bush administration national security hand Jamie Fly and hosts conferences and produces newsletters that are influential on the Hill.
Kristol also sits on the board of the Institute for the Study of War, a military policy think tank run by hawkish analyst Kimberly Kagan, whose organization and voluntary work in Afghanistan for Gen. David Petraeus recently attracted scrutiny from The Washington Post.
And Kristol has a regular platform as a political contributor on Fox News, where he instigates Democrats and Republicans alike. It was on Fox’s air that Kristol, in the days after Obama’s reelection, argued that Republicans should accept higher taxes on the wealthy. “It won’t kill the country if we raise taxes a little bit on millionaires. It really won’t, I don’t think,” he said.
The comments drew scathing criticism from conservatives, but the basic premise was eventually accepted by Republican congressional leaders in a deal with the White House last week to avert the fiscal cliff.
Kristol’s stance “hurt because it added to mainstream media and Democrat pressure on Republicans in this case,” said Joel Pollak, editor in chief of Breitbart.com, which has been harshly critical of Boehner and other congressional Republican leaders for their handling of the fiscal cliff negotiations.
In a post soon after Kristol’s tax comments on Fox, Pollak linked them to Kristol’s criticism of Mitt Romney’s campaign for not releasing his taxes and said Kristol epitomizes a GOP establishment “so desperate to hold onto positions of influence that they are willing to abandon the newly confirmed House majority and a bedrock Republican principle for the last two decades.”
Kristol contends his impact on the tax debate had been exaggerated, as have his roles in setting the stage for the Iraq War and the selections of GOP vice presidential nominees Palin and Paul Ryan.
“McCain and Romney did not call me up and say, ‘Who should I pick?’” Kristol said, adding Ryan “worked out well. Palin is much more complicated, but I still defend her, to some degree.”
Liberal assertions that the Hagel fight is the “last stand” for his cohort of foreign policy hawks also miss the mark, Kristol said: “Honestly, that’s not the way I think about it. I just think, ‘Should Chuck Hagel be defense secretary?’ And for me, the answer is no.”
Kristol’s late father, Irving Kristol, is regarded as the father of neoconservatism. But Kristol’s first forays into politics were on behalf of Democratic candidates, and he briefly started down an academic path before landing a job in the Reagan administration, where his father held some sway. When George H.W. Bush won the 1988 presidential election, Kristol was tapped to be chief of staff for Vice President Dan Quayle, and he became a mainstay on the television chatter circuit during the 1992 campaign.
After Clinton ousted Bush, Kristol formed the Project for the Republican Future, reportedly with funding from, among others, Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch and Steve Forbes. PRF consisted of a handful of staffers writing strategy memos that Kristol pushed in television interviews and faxed to his contacts around town. One such memo, which urged Republicans to kill — as opposed to amend — Clinton’s health care bill rallied Republicans opposition.
Clinton took notice, attacking Kristol by name at a Des Moines, Iowa, rally before the 1994 midterms. “Mr. Kristol — you’ve probably never heard of him, but he’s the fellow that tells them what to think up in Washington. He told them, for example, to stop cooperating with us on health care,” Clinton said.
Days later, Republicans retook control of Congress in an historic landslide. “I figured, we’re not going to do better than that, so I might as well move on,” Kristol said, explaining his decision to shutter PRF and return some cash to donors.
After securing more money from Murdoch, he launched the Weekly Standard in 1995 using the same 17th Sreet Northwest offices and some of the same staffers. A couple of years later, out of the same suite and from the overlapping staff pool, came the Project for a New American Century, which helped make the case for the Iraq War and served as a feeder system for George W. Bush’s foreign policy and military teams.
During the Bush years, Team Kristol’s nonprofit generator largely went into hibernation, but it sprang back to life when Obama took office.
In 2009, Kristol and his PNAC co-founder Robert Kagan helped launch the Foreign Policy Initiative, and he teamed with former Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter Liz Cheney to start Keep America Safe, an advocacy group that assailed Obama as soft on terrorism and opposed his administration’s plans to close the Guantánamo prison and try terrorism suspects in civilian courts.
It’s largely been mothballed. But the two young operatives who helped run it — Goldfarb and Aaron Harison, who worked together on the 2008 presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain, a Kristol ally — last year teamed up to start the Center for American Freedom.
In 2010, Goldfarb helped launch the Emergency Committee for Israel, which sources say is planning to launch a substantial paid-media campaign opposing Hagel, possibly including ads in the districts of senators who support his nomination.
Both the Emergency Committee and CAF pay consulting fees to Orion Strategies, a lobbying firm in which Goldfarb is a partner, which is located in an office that once housed another Kristol-linked nonprofit, the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq.
Kristol’s far-reaching tentacles have sparked liberal conspiracy theories, with the White House-allied Think Progress blog — after which the Free Beacon was patterned — speculating in the days after Obama’s 2008 election that Kristol was looking to revive PNAC so that, if he helped Palin become president in 2012, it could serve as her “Pentagon in waiting.”
The players within Kristol World laugh off such attention. And though they speak of Kristol reverentially and acknowledge they’re bonded to him and one another by common goals, they stress that they work independently.
“We’re all friends, but we’re not colleagues,” said Noah Pollak, who runs the Emergency Committee, which rents space in FPI’s Dupont Circle office. He described working in Kristol’s orbit as “like attending a great yeshiva — you learn almost as much from the other students as you do from the Rabbi.”
Kristol says his pattern of helping start and fund small and medium-sized nonprofits with limited life spans is no accident.
“There’s a need and an importance for these heavyweight organizations that have a real institutional heft,” he said. “But I saw more of an opening on the light footprint side of things, to use an Obama phrase, where I can be a little bit more of a thought-provoker or even a troublemaker.”
The various Kristol-linked nonprofits had a combined budget of more than $4.8 million in 2011, according to federal campaign finance and tax filings. Sources say the groups raised about twice that sum in 2012, and the Center for American Freedom and Free Beacon are eyeing a 2013 expansion. Still, all the Kristol groups combined are dwarfed by behemoth conservative nonprofits like The Heritage Foundation, which brought in $78 million in 2010.
Yet Kristol-linked groups have received funding from some of the deepest pockets in politics, including Steve Forbes, GOP megadonors Mel Sembler and Obama backer-turned-critic Dan Loeb. A gala roast last month celebrating Kristol’s 60th birthday drew GOP donors Paul Singer and Ira Rennert among 280 or so guests at New York’s Plaza Hotel, where presenters poked fun at Kristol’s alphabet soup of nonprofit groups and spotty king-making record.
Elliott Abrams — who helped found PNAC with Kristol and advised Ryan during his vice presidential bid — detailed Kristol’s history of backing unsuccessful candidates. According to an account of the roast in Commentary magazine, Abrams, whose wife is affiliated with the Emergency Committee for Israel, concluded that Kristol must be a Democratic “double agent.”
Commentary editor John Podhoretz, who was master of ceremonies at the roast and worked with Kristol at the Weekly Standard, delivered a slide show that riffed off the names of various Kristol groups to come up with absurd-sounding parody groups suggesting their goal was simply to spawn more groups to employ his protégés.
But Team Kristol’s efforts have had an undeniable impact over the years, especially in GOP foreign policy circles. They largely marginalized so-called realists like Hagel, and it is telling that the former Republican senator is up for a cabinet post in a Democratic administration and has generated little support from GOP lawmakers.
Kristol’s neocons “have several compelling qualities” that make them formidable, said Aaron David Miller, a veteran foreign policy hand who has often found himself at odds with Kristol — including defending Hagel. “First, they’re smart,” said Miller. “Second, they’re entertaining; third, they have smart and media savvy outlets; and finally, they are able to articulate what more responsible conservatives in power at senior levels can’t or won’t say.”
Those qualities — combined with an almost gleeful ability to gin up controversy across the media — were on full display in December, when Kristol launched a full-scale assault on Hagel that could potentially serve as a blueprint for how to wage political war in today’s Washington.
Soon after the White House first floated Hagel’s name as a prospective nominee for defense secretary, the Weekly Standard quoted an anonymous Republican Senate aide promising: “Send us Hagel, and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite.”
The item caught fire in the blogosphere and was followed the next day by a fact sheet, which Kristol indicated was “circulating widely on Capitol Hill,” detailing a number of Hagel’s statements and votes on Israel and the Middle East. The sheet — including an eyebrow-raising quote from an old interview Hagel gave to Miller in which he referred to the power of the “Jewish lobby” — quickly came to form the foundation for the case against Hagel.
On Fox and in the Weekly Standard, Kristol articulated some of those points and suggested Republicans should be emboldened by their success in compelling Rice to withdraw from consideration for the country’s top diplomatic post.
For the GOP “to have blocked Rice and then roll over for Hagel would be a disgrace,” Kritsol opined in a Weekly Standard column promoted heavily by FPI, which publishes a tip sheet that’s widely read on the Hill.
The next day, the Emergency Committee for Israel launched an ad on Washington cable hitting Hagel for some of the same issues raised in the Weekly Standard. The ad was first reported by POLITICO but then cited in both the Standard and the Free Beacon, which unleashed reporters on the Hill to round up quotes from lawmakers expressing concern about the new information on Hagel.
The resulting stream of damaging information shaped the mainstream media coverage, as well, aided by the ability of the Standard and the Beacon to score coveted links on the influential Drudge Report.
The common themes in Kristol’s evolution from blasting out PRF faxes opposing Hillary Care in the 1990s to riding herd over a loose network of information age groups attacking Hagel are his abilities to nurture talent and his joy in the cause, asserted Goldfarb, who previously worked PNAC and the Weekly Standard.
“He’s a troublemaker at heart, and he likes hanging around with young troublemaking types,” said Goldfarb. “But having friends in low places is hugely important if you want to have influence in Washington. And with Bill as a mentor, most of those kids end up going on to bigger and better things.”