In the late 1960s, Irving Kristol, a New York University professor who was editor of a small academic journal called The Public Interest, began using the journal to promote a more conservative approach to domestic policy. Some of the standout contributors included James Q. Wilson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nathan Glazer, Daniel Bell and Seymour Martin Lipset -- all very prominent liberal intellectuals with impeccable academic credentials. Such people could not be dismissed by the liberal intelligentsia with the casual disdain it exhibited toward the tiny remnant of conservative intellectuals.
As time went by, such people came to be called neoconservatives in order to differentiate them from traditional conservatives. In the mid-1970s, Kristol gave up on reforming the Democratic Party, perceiving a better chance of reforming the Republicans. At that time, following electoral debacles in the 1974 and 1976 elections, the latter were more receptive to change.
In a new essay in The Weekly Standard (edited by Irving's son, Bill), Kristol explains what he was trying to do: "To convert the Republican Party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy." Most importantly, this meant making peace with the state -- accepting the inevitability of big government, but using conservative insights to improve its operation.
Kristol's essay should be read together with an article by Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes in The Wall Street Journal on Aug. 15. He argues that neoconservatism is essentially big government conservatism, which means "using what would normally be seen as liberal means -- activist government -- for conservative ends." He adds that neoconservatives are "willing to spend more and increase the size of government in the process." Barnes concludes, approvingly, that George W. Bush is a big government conservative.
One problem I have with this analysis is that it is too pessimistic about the prospects for genuine conservative reform. In the 1970s, when the prospects of conservative reform seemed virtually nonexistent, it made some sense to settle for halfway-measures -- an efficient conservative big government instead of an inefficient liberal big government. But today we have a Republican president, a Republican Congress, and a strong and vibrant conservative intelligentsia and media. Rather than making peace with the state, now is the time to show what real conservative reform could accomplish.
Unfortunately, I think Barnes is right. Bush is a big-government conservative. This reinforces my belief that he is more of a Richard Nixon than a Ronald Reagan. I just hope we don't suffer the same consequences.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
Be the first to read Bruce Bartlett's column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com delivered each morning to your inbox.