Ben Wattenberg is an engaging television commentator and by almost all accounts a nice guy. But if Fighting Words: A Tale of How Liberals Created Neo-Conservatism is the best in post-Iraq War neoconservative apologetics, the movement is in far more trouble than the defeat of John McCain would suggest.
Where Wattenberg focuses on his personal story as a former presidential speechwriter, campaign adviser, and author, he is a charming and gifted raconteur. When he shifts into ideologue mode, his latest book becomes reminiscent of a Max Boot op-ed—one can’t quite shake the thought that it might have been ghosted by a paleoconservative satirist writing under an assumed name.
True, there are some unmistakable differences. Nowhere does Wattenberg call for anything as outlandish as raising vast armies of illegal aliens to man the latest crusade for global democracy. The Fighting Words author is more of a happy warrior than a cold ideological enforcer. But like Boot, a great deal of what Wattenberg writes—inadvertently and in some cases deliberately—makes the paleos’ case that contemporary neoconservatives are really the “boat people of the McGovern revolution” rather than real conservatives.
Perhaps this is understandable. Although present at the creation, Wattenberg was always more reluctant than some first-generation neoconservatives to sign up with the Right. He remains a registered Democrat and recounts fond memories of his years as a speechwriter for Lyndon Johnson, a president with whom he still substantially agrees. He adopts a tone of sorrow rather than anger—much like Joe Lieberman’s concession speech after losing the Democratic primary to Ned Lamont—when talking about the way his party has turned its back on the legacy of hawkish senator Scoop Jackson.
This vestigial loyalty to the party of FDR, Harry Truman, and LBJ comes in handy for Wattenberg’s latest project: rehabilitating, even humanizing, neoconservatism. And how better to do so in an era of liberal resurgence than to drop the conservatism and emphasize the neo? Neoconservatism, he complains, is too often “confused with conservatism, with the key differences never quite understood.”
Wattenberg works hard to make those differences plain. Rejecting Ronald Reagan’s formulation that government could be the problem rather than the solution in favor of a “muscular role for the state, and for America in particular,” he writes, “I have never been against government, big, small or medium size.” Wattenberg specifically defends the programs of the Great Society, saying, “in general, the ideas they espoused made sense.” This includes laws requiring automobile manufacturers to include seatbelts—such a measure “does indeed have Constitutional backing through the Interstate Commerce Clause,” he writes, reasoning like a Warren Court justice—and much of the War on Poverty.
“We should (reasonably) protect the environment,” Wattenberg continues, apparently burnishing his non-conservative credentials. “And poor people should get health care.” Wattenberg even distances himself from Charles Murray, an American Enterprise Institute scholar and important domestic-policy thinker often identified with neoconservatism, for claiming in his landmark book Losing Ground “that the Johnson programs were among the principal culprits that were driving America down.” Wattenberg disagrees, though he does concede some of LBJ’s handiwork was “taken overboard.” “On balance,” he writes, “the Great Society has helped the American people. How far would an elected official get today if he ran on a platform of eliminating Medicare?”
If this is what passes for conservatism in America today, neo or otherwise, how far indeed? But perhaps this is the point. “Today, it is said that the country has moved to the conservative Right,” Wattenberg notes, “but governments controlled completely by Republicans run deficits to increase domestic spending, much to the chagrin of conservatives and some neo-cons.” None of this bothers Wattenberg, however. He writes that “many neo-cons have no visceral dislike for moderately high big-government spending provided the programs can be shown to work and can be changed if they don’t. I extend that to most of the so-called pork-barrel and earmarked spending.”
Wattenberg goes out of his way to bolster the liberal credentials of leading neoconservatives and vice versa. He quotes former House Speaker Tom Foley as saying, “Scoop [Jackson] was the closest one in the Congress I can remember to a European Social Democrat.” On the other hand, Wattenberg maintains that Lyndon Johnson was “in some important ways … a neo-con.” So was Hubert Humphrey, whose 1970 election to the Senate after having served as Johnson’s vice president was “a national win for the neo-conservative notion that a candidate could be liberal, kind, tough on domestic issues, and a winner.” Even Bobby Kennedy is described as “having some neo-con tendencies,” though Wattenberg says Ronald Reagan also fits the bill because “he hated Commies, and prior to becoming governor, was a liberal Democrat.”
There are some old Democrats Wattenberg won’t claim as his own, however. He chastises Francis Fukuyama for using the phrase “Wilsonian realism”: “Woodrow Wilson was a racist.” But Wilson is a rare exception. Wattenberg boasts that liberal journalists “toilet trained by the neo-cons” must now “grudgingly accept the media-savvy, intellectually studious neo-cons in a way they would never have accepted criticism from rigid, old-fashioned conservatives.” Wattenberg says “to use an old union phrase, it is the conservatives who are the free riders” benefiting from neoconservative media access. He even brags that he once refused to sign off as “From the Right” when filling in for Robert Novak on “Crossfire”—“a modest neo-conservative act”—because “neo-cons are not necessarily people of the Right.”
At this point, one almost feels compelled to defend neoconservatism from Wattenberg. The first generation of neoconservatives ably reacted to the excesses of liberalism at home and abroad. Many of them were more animated by domestic policy than foreign affairs. Unlike their successors, they understood that government actions often have unintended consequences. They proved effective critics of liberal policies from the late 1960s onward—unlike Wattenberg, most of them opposed those aspects of the Great Society that benefited people who did not work—and had a hand in conservative successes like Reagan’s supply-side tax cuts, deregulation (no longer in vogue), welfare reform, and even ending the Cold War on terms more favorable to the United States, though we should be grateful Republican presidents did not always heed the neocons’ advice in this last area.
Wattenberg touches on some of this, especially in his chapter on “the social issue” where he remembers working with Richard Scammon on The Real Majority, a book that influenced no less a conservative than Pat Buchanan. He brought some of Wattenberg and Scammon’s findings to Richard Nixon’s attention as they tried to peel the Silent Majority away from their ancestral home in the Democratic Party. Wattenberg graciously thanks Buchanan for this by smearing him as someone who sees “an evil Mexican wetback in every bathtub.” There is nevertheless a real connection between neoconservatism and the Silent Majority—many of the same trends that pushed the neocons rightward also accounted for the new Republican sympathies of conservative Southern Protestants and Northeastern ethnics.
But even at their best, National Review senior editor James Burnham warned that neoconservatives had never broken with “the emotional gestalt of liberalism, the liberal sensitivity and temperament.” The neoconservatives opposed Soviet Communism and the New Left, but not the administrative state or big government. They did not reject liberalism per se but continued to embrace the liberal policies that they had supported before they were mugged by reality. So a neoconservative can support the civil rights movement but oppose affirmative action, approve of Medicare but resist Barack Obama’s health plans. Moreover, neoconservatives frequently relied on social science data to prove what ordinary people knew from tradition, religion, the Constitution, and common sense.
That’s a tough thing for Wattenberg to grapple with as he equates neoconservatism with Scoop Jackson’s 1972 Democratic presidential campaign slogan: “Common sense, for a change.” So naturally, he doesn’t contend with it, instead arguing, “My kind of neo-con was for the Bush doctrine before there was one.” Most Americans, chastened by the Iraq War, clearly don’t regard this kind of foreign-policy thought as common sense. The fact an adventure so closely associated with neoconservatism is in no small part responsible for the Democrats’ recent political victories—and the electoral repudiation of the Republicans—will make liberals unlikely to take the neoconservatives back, no matter how much Wattenberg emphasizes the movement’s liberal roots.
As Wattenberg’s personal memoir, Fighting Words contains some amusing anecdotes and interesting stories. Yet even as a sympathetic portrait of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority and the neoconservative role in Reagan-era anticommunism, it is less valuable than, say, Jay Winik’s On the Brink. As a defense of the neoconservative worldview, it doesn’t stack up to early classics by Irving Kristol or Norman Podhoretz and any number contained in later anthologies, such as the Mark Gerson-edited The Essential Neo-conservative Reader. Its account of how neoconservatism helped build the Right’s think tanks and intellectual institutions could also use more meat.
That’s not to say the ideological component of the book is completely useless. Fighting Words does deliver on the promise of its subtitle: Wattenberg has shown more clearly than any paleoconservative critic ever could that neoconservatism is at heart a liberal creation. Those critics should thank him profusely for telling the tale.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.
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