Uncommon Interview: writer, pundit William Kristol

William Kristol, former chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle, sat down with the Maroon to discuss the current state of televised punditry—including the likes of Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly—among other things.

By Noah Weiland

William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, spoke on campus last night about the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election. Kristol was the former Chief of Staff to Vice President Dan Quayle and foreign policy advisor to John McCain. He sat down with THE MAROON to discuss the state of political journalism, Mitt Romney’s candidacy, and the insignificance of Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow.

CHICAGO MAROON: Is what it means to be conservative today in tension with what it means to be a Republican?

William Kristol: Yeah, it always is, somewhat. You know, political parties are complicated coalitions and aren’t excessively theoretical, and different kinds of conservatives would have much.…Conservatism as an “ism” is always going to be somewhat in tension with a political party, and I think it should be. I don’t think you want political parties that are entirely driven by some extremely doctrinal ideology, and of course there are different forms of conservatism. Having said all of that, I would say just analytically that the Republican Party is more thoroughly conservative and the Democratic Party is more thoroughly liberal today than has been the case for most of modern history. People used to complain in the 50s and 60s and even in the 70s when I was in school, studying political science, that “if only we could have two political parties that presented a choice, but there were all these liberal Republicans and there were all these southern Democrats who are conservative so people just don’t have a clear choice.” Actually, not because of anyone’s intention but just because of some sociological and some other things that have happened over 25, 30 years, the parties have sorted themselves out much more ideologically, which has some benefits and some costs.

CM: Do you believe that political journalism is becoming increasingly partisan?

WK: These things seem to go in cycles. I think there was a moment in the middle part of the century into the 60s, 70s when at least elite journalism claimed to be non-partisan. You can go back and look at it and wonder about how non-partisan it was. In a way maybe this is more like the 19th century when there were explicitly partisan journals and ideological journals. Maybe one thing that has happened is that the claims of non-partisanship of the mainstream media have been a little bit exploded. Mostly I’d say what, if anything has caused the change, are just the obvious technological changes—proliferation of easier access to getting your opinions out and the proliferation of media. Going from three TV channels to broadcast TV to cable to talk radio; obviously the online explosion has changed things. I am on the whole a defender of the current, despite being a conservative. I mean, I think things are better than when I was younger. You all would be really shocked, if you were dropped back down into when I went to college, by the narrowness of the opinions you could get just by reading newspapers and magazines and watching TV. There was no cable; there was no talk radio; there was no internet obviously.…You’d get just whatever columnists were carried in the two Chicago papers. You probably could get The New York Times here on campus. You watched three 22-minute newscasts a night that were pretty much identical and all produced in New York, and that’s it; no talk radio, no MSNBC or Fox, no going online in the morning to read Charles Krauthammer or E.J. Dionne or whoever you like, no ability to go to The Weekly Standard website or The Nation website. So I think you take for granted the world you live in. My sense from talking to college students is that you have a healthier sense of the diversity of opinions or arguments or analysis about issues. In our day it was just sort of, “Well gee, this is what the news says so that’s the way it is.” It didn’t really get challenged that much.

CM: But do you think people are prone to only reading opinions that they agree with?

WK: It’s hard to tell. First of all, it was always a little bit that way. People read the Tribune or the Sun-Times, you know, way back when the Tribune was a right-wing paper. I’m sure there was a pro-FDR, pro-Adlai Stevenson paper.…It’s always been somewhat that way. We take 10, 20 years in the 50s and 60s as kind of the norm, when there was this sort of bi-partisan parent consensus. The media claimed to be non-partisan, centrist. It’s not been that way for a lot of history.

I don’t really believe that people read just the stuff they agree with. I know a lot of people, young people, and not young people; I know us at The Weekly Standard, we read plenty of liberal websites and columnists. This notion that there are a whole bunch of incredibly self-limiting people who are only reading stuff they agree with—there are probably some like that, but there have always been some like that. I still would say generally that more people have access and take advantage of more diversity of opinion than was once the case…For all the talk about the bitterness and the partisanship in American politics, is it really that bitter and partisan? Think of American history. Think of Joseph McCarthy. Think of the New Left. Think of McGovern. Think of Reagan. Think of George Wallace. We’ve had an awful lot of real extremism on both wings. We’ve had a lot of real, bitter partisanship in American history. This doesn’t strike me as that…I mean Obama and Romney, is that the most extreme election in American history? A Harvard Law vs. a Harvard Business School graduate. It’s a sort of upper-middle class liberal against a wealthy moderate conservative. It doesn’t feel as radical or bitter as people say. There’s a sort of romanticizing of the past. When you actually think about the past, you know it’s a little different.

CM: Why do you think it’s important for college students to get involved in political journalism?

WK: Well I don’t think it is. I’m happy to have interns at The Weekly Standard and happy to have readers of The Weekly Standard, but if you all tell me that you were busy reading Plato and Tolstoy and playing violin in the orchestra, I’d say that was great. I wouldn’t tell you to take time out from that to get involved in political journalism. I think you should get a good education here and do what you like. Obviously I think politics is interesting and important and educational and, you know, I think reading intelligent expressions of different points of view is a good thing, and there is a way in which being in academia in a classroom at the University probably gives you, can give you an academic view of things, and reading actual real time debates about what should we do in Syria or the Buffett rule, budget issues…gives you a kind of sense that’s hard to get in a classroom. It’s part of an education about politics, but not everyone has to be interested in politics.

CM: How do you think this election will be different than 2008’s election?

WK: You know the biggest difference is that President Obama is an incumbent and incumbents have to run on their record, not on hope and change. He could win, but he has a mixed record. He has a 46, 47 percent approval, and about the same disapproval. I just think if you look at it as a political scientist, you’d say he has about a 50–50 proposition of being reelected. But in any case, open-seat presidential elections like 2008 just are different in character from incumbent reelects, and I think that’s the most important thing about this election—is that once there’s an incumbent running for reelection, most of the debate is about, “Has he done a good job?” Most of the judgment is, “Do you want to keep him or do you want to replace him?” Now, the opponent has to also be acceptable and has to make his own case. I don’t think Romney can sit there and wait to win because perhaps people are disappointed with President Obama. But I think the whole dynamic is different. Whereas in Obama’s case, even though there was no incumbent, he was able to run against eight years of Bush-Cheney and a Republican Congress, and everyone was tired of everything. He was able to benefit from that. He ran a very good campaign. It wasn’t easy but still it was a good time to be from the out party in 2008, and I think it’s a mixed time to be from the in party in 2012.

CM: How do you think the media should adopt a balance between covering the election and what’s going on in the White House and Congress?

WK: You have to do both. Some journalists just get too wrapped up in daily news cycles and tempests in a teapot that are not going to make any difference. As someone who is older and has been through a few election cycles, maybe this is just being an old fogey, but I think I know what’s going to really matter and what’s not. It’s more exciting, and frankly, if you’re 26 years old and there’s a war on women or there’s not a war on women, you can get all wrapped up in it and get lots of traffic on your website and get into exchanges and scream and yell about it on MSNBC or Fox, and a week later no one can remember what that was about. It’s not going to change a single vote, so I think that we’ve tried at The Standard, and obviously on our website we cover stuff and we joke around about the dogs being on the roof of the car. The dog controversy seems like a particularly ludicrous example of the crazed tempest in a teapot character of the election coverage, but the campaigns care about that stuff because they’re like, “Oh, we could score a point here, but we’ve tried to focus a little bit more on ongoing trends, the bigger issues.” I think if you read Jay Cost’s election coverage you get a lot more sophisticated analysis. He’s a University of Chicago graduate student, so you guys should be proud of that. You can get a sophisticated analysis of what really might drive the voters. If you read our contributors on the budget or on healthcare I think you get a pretty substantive analysis of what the issues at stake are, and I think we don’t get too distracted by the really silly back-and-forth.

CM: It seems like the language of politicians and journalists makes people believe that Republicans are the opponents of Democrats, and vice versa, instead of colleagues. But do you think that since CNN is sort of faltering in the ratings and Fox News and MSNBC seem to be really successful, do you think that this kind of approach is actually a successful model? Is this really what people want deep down?

WK: I mean, I wouldn’t overdo it. Fox gets two million viewers a night, and MSNBC gets one. It’s four million people, five million people, and 130 million people are going to vote. There are an awful lot of voters, and an awful lot of politically engaged, intelligent people who are not hanging on whatever happens on Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow. So I think it’s fine that there are five million people who are watching it, and obviously I’m happy they are since they’re on the air, and there are a couple hundred thousand people reading The Weekly Standard online, and that’s great too, but most Americans aren’t engaged that intensely, and are much less partisan.…They may be quite partisan, but they’re not getting wrapped up in the controversy of the day. That’s always been the case in America; there’s been a big spectrum in how much people are interested in American politics. I think that’s fine. People will focus, and people will remember…the three big debates, two big conventions with acceptance speeches that will probably have 40, 50, 60 million viewers.…If you’re a swing voter, you’re going to say “Hey, I kind of like what he said.” You’ll watch the debate and think he’s not quite up to it. Those are going to be huge moments, much bigger than these little squabbles right now.

CM: How do you think Romney will persuade the part of the Republican base that was fiercely opposed to him in the primary?

WK: I honestly think it will be pretty easy.…This was actually, relatively speaking, not as fierce as some other Republican primaries, certainly not Bush or Reagan. The differences weren’t that great. At the end of the day, Romney was pro-life, but Santorum was more fervently pro-life, and had been for longer. They’re all going to repeal Obamacare, but Romney has once endorsed something like it. In the old days, there really were differences on fundamental issues, even on foreign policy, Gingrich, Romney, and Santorum were pretty similar. Ron Paul would be the one outlier there, and he didn’t get many votes. I think actually, and I think the data show this, if you look at the polls—the conservatives are fine. They’re going to end up being for Romney, and I think there will be a fair amount of enthusiasm, or at least motivation. They very much want to remove President Obama. Obviously Romney can do a better or worse job of reaching out to them, of showing that he’s attentive to their concerns.…Santorum exposed a weakness of Romney’s. It’s not his fault; he’s lived the life he’s lived. But maybe he doesn’t have as much of a feel for lower working class, middle class voters in Southern Ohio or even here in Illinois where he won fairly easily. He still lost most of the Southern parts of the state against a very underfunded candidate. I like Santorum personally and respect him, but you wouldn’t say that he was really that strong of an opponent. At the end of the day it wasn’t like Reagan running against Bush, or Bush against McCain, even. It’s sort of surprising that Romney had as much trouble as he did, and I think it shows a weakness in appeal to those voters. But I also think he can get a huge majority of them for the general. You see it in the polls now, which is basically an even race.…I think he came out of it better off, because he’s a better candidate than he was going in.