In part of his debate with J Street’s Jeremy Ben Ami, Bill Kristol engaged in a little bit of history re-writing. Kristol claims that Pat Buchanan was “encouraged” to leave the Republican Party in 1999 by George W. Bush, a development Kristol naturally welcomed because it weakened opposition to uncritical support for Israel within the GOP. Kristol was crowing over the fact that the attitudes of the realists — George H.W. Bush, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft — have no more purchase: the Grand Old Party has been thoroughly neoconnized. In Kristol’s telling, the GOP mainstream helped push Buchanan out. Kristol is seeking to set in stone a narrative in which the neocon triumph is seen as inevitable and irreversible.
One problem is that what Kristol says about Buchanan and George W. Bush is simply false. A New York Times story from the fall of 1999 cites the numerous efforts GOP luminaries were making to keep Buchanan from bolting the party. The Times reports:
At the Republican straw poll in Iowa last month, Governor George W Bush of Texas asked Buchanan to stay in the party and, Mr. Bush’s advisers said, the two have also discussed the issue on the telephone.. .
The article went to say Bush had talked to Buchanan on the phone, and sent emissaries to persuade him, though it all was to no avail. (Buchanan did eventually leave for a Reform Party bid that fared poorly.)
Buchanan tells me that Bush approached him personally in Iowa and asked him to stay in the GOP, that Bush was extremely gracious and he was moved by it. Buchanan endorsed Bush in 2004, and has maintained and re-established many of his old GOP ties.
The question is, why does Kristol feel compelled to make things up about Bush trying to push Buchanan out when the opposite is true? I suspect it’s because deep down the neocons feel their hold on the GOP’s foreign policy is tenuous and can still be shaken off. After all, George W. Bush himself eventually shook it off, after he realized he had been misled into invading Iraq. In his second term he took to calling Kristol and fellow neocon Charles Krauthammer “the bomber boys” and rejected their constant entreaties to bomb Iran. There is no deep structural reason why the American mainstream conservative party should be a vehicle for another country’s nationalism; it didn’t used to be, and what can be done can be undone.
Right now, “the bomber boys” — and the neocons in general — are pretty sure they have Romney wrapped up, and I suspect they’re right. But how certain can they be? Kristol’s misrepresentation of Buchanan’s 1999 bolt to the Reform Party shows it’s far from a done deal.