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The Neocons Lose One Last War

Paul Ryan's utilitarian politics have fallen out of favor in a party once poised to send him to the White House.
Outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan Delivers Farewell Address At Library Of Congress

Paul Ryan knows that conservatives are at war—with one another. And his side is losing. The former House speaker appeared on a panel with Matthew Continetti and moderator Yuval Levin earlier this week at the American Enterprise Institute, where they discussed Continetti’s new book The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism.

Ryan hasn’t been in the trenches quite so long, but from the time he got into politics some 30 years ago he knew who his enemies were: the populist, nationalist, paleoconservative right.

Continetti’s book has already received a great deal of attention, and more is on the way. I’ll be moderating a panel with him myself on May 25, when we’ll join Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts and Yoram Hazony for a discussion of issues related to Hazony’s new book Conservatism: A Rediscovery.

But Paul Ryan’s remarks at AEI deserve attention in their own right. Although he’s been out of public office for two years now, he remains the best representative of the Republican Party’s pre-Trump orthodoxy. As a fellow panelist quipped, if history had taken a different turn in 2012 this might be the second year of a Paul Ryan presidency.

To his credit, the former speaker didn’t seem at all bitter. But it was remarkable to hear him describe in his own terms the complete reversal that has taken place in conservative politics since his days as a young wonk in the early 1990s.

“We were fighting the paleocons at the time,” Ryan said, “which was Pat Buchanan, a little bit of Perot, and—it was funny, I grew up, I read from college on, the National Review—but it was Brimelow, O’Sullivan, and guys like that over at the National Review.” 

On the other side, the one where his own sympathies lay, Ryan alluded to the Project for a Republican Future, an early 1990s policy-advocacy group founded by Bill Kristol a few years before he launched The Weekly Standard. “So you had what were the neocons fighting the paleocons, and then some other groups in there.”

At the time John O’Sullivan was the editor of National Review, and Peter Brimelow, an outspoken immigration restrictionist, was a senior editor before he started his own website, VDARE.com. O’Sullivan, a former aide to Margaret Thatcher, was not exactly a Buchananite. He supported a more activist U.S. role in the world after the Cold War than Buchanan did, even looking to build a “Conintern” of conservatives from across the Anglosphere to advance a common economic and strategic vision.

But with O’Sullivan at the helm, National Review did, in his own words, “give a tactical endorsement of Pat Buchanan in the New Hampshire, ‘Super Tuesday,’ and Michigan primaries” in the struggle for the 1992 GOP presidential nomination.

Magazines like NR were a scorecard of the right’s civil war back then. In 1992, paleoconservatives had a presence in National Review, the Washington Times, and a controlling interest in Chronicles, while the neoconservatives had Commentary and significant representation in The American Spectator, where the Canadian journalist David Frum made his name by attacking Buchanan.

If this configuration had persisted, the conservative movement might have taken a populist turn decades before Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, with NR holding together a fractious but not fragmented coalition of nationalist paleoconservatives and Reaganite stalwarts.

But Bill Kristol changed the equation. With support from Rupert Murdoch, he first, it seems, made a bid to take over National Review as sketched in David Frisk’s biography of longtime NR publisher Bill Rusher, If Not Us, Who? When Buckley refused to sell, Murdoch’s money eventually went into the creation of a new Kristol vehicle, the Weekly Standard, in 1995. 

The Weekly Standard was based in Washington, D.C., and from the start combined neoconservative politics with intrepid political reporting as Republicans took over Congress for the first time in 40 years. NR, rooted in New York, had been outflanked by an upstart that was published twice as often and whose editors had ready access to another new Murdoch venture, Fox News.

Momentum shifted to the neocons, not only in the battle between magazines but within National Review itself. In 1997 Rich Lowry replaced O’Sullivan as editor. The brief window where NR could be described even by Paul Ryan as “paleoconservative” had closed.

Magazines were one index of rising neoconservative power. Another was the proliferation during that era of policy shops promoting an agenda of “democratic capitalism” at home and abroad, meaning more immigration, free-trade agreements, and a police-like role for America in international affairs. Ryan got his start in politics at one of these institutions. 

“I was at a think tank called Empower America, founded by Jeane Kirkpatrick, Bill Bennett, and Jack Kemp—there’s the fusion right there. They were basically the titular heads of the three different movements,” Ryan told Yuval Levin at Wednesday’s panel.

Kirkpatrick was seen as a foreign-policy hawk; Bennett, who had served as George H.W. Bush’s “drug czar,” had positioned himself as a social conservative; and Kemp, as a congressman, had been a supply-sider even before Reagan. Over time Kemp and especially Kirkpatrick would come to have doubts about the neoconservatives’ foreign policy. But in the early ’90s, as Ryan reminisced, they were in the neoconservative orbit. And so was Ryan, though he told the audience at AEI, “I’d never really thought of myself as a neocon as much as I thought of myself as a supply-sider.”

When National Review senior editor Frank S. Meyer worked out the set of ideas that came to be called “fusionism” in the 1960s and early ’70s, he was not thinking about policy prescriptions so much as a philosophical interpretation of history: He believed that the West’s Christian morality and commitment to liberty, while in tension, were parts of a single whole. Ryan’s account shows how the conservative movement became more technocratic and less historically minded. Fusionism now meant a mix of three kinds of policy priorities.

Immediate political battles rose to the fore. In Ryan’s telling: “When the Reagan era ended with the defeat of H.W. Bush by Clinton…the conservative movement turned inward and shot at each other,” which did not abate “until a standard bearer emerged, meaning a nominee—in this case it was W. [George W. Bush], who won” but whose “compassionate conservatism…never really took hold, I would say, never really replaced a solid fusion because of circumstances, you know, wars and the rest.”

Policy rather than philosophy is the basis for “a solid fusion” as Ryan understands it. After George W. Bush the conflicts that had divided the right before his administration reemerged. Over the last three decades, continued Ryan, “I think we’ve had pauses, we’ve won some White Houses, but we’ve never settled into a posture of a majoritarian center-right movement that is capable of racking up consistent majorities, presidencies, and putting in place a governing agenda for the 21st century.”

Instead, there has been “churn,” and “right now it’s dominated by Trump. Which is populism, just pure rank, untethered-to-principle populism, cult of personality populism, which is really not an agenda, a theory; it’s a person. So I think we’re still in this churn, and I think underneath that is the kind of fight we had in the early ’90s, is the kind of fight we’re having now, but with digital.”

He would explain what “digital” meant a little later. First Ryan described how he had hoped the Tea Party would give rise to “supply side 2.0,” an agenda of “pro-growth economics, limited government, get the debt and entitlements under control, and a robust foreign policy.” That was the agenda he wanted to pursue in the House of Representatives, though “on the issues of trade and immigration there was a fight, but we sort of pushed that to the side, and then we really tapped the Tea Party movement. We got the majority back.”

Trade and immigration would not remain off to the side, however: “In hindsight, this is just me looking back, we didn’t understand…the potency of those issues, the power of those issues, and [what] I think the establishment Republicans, people like me included, missed was just the effects of issues like trade and immigration on the forgotten man. And how that really played into not just policy but people’s thinking and perception.”

Speaker Ryan and his Republican majority “were more focused on just the Tea Party movement, re-limiting government, kind of libertarian…all of us more or less agreeing on strong national defense. So the isolationism hadn’t crept in yet, like it is now, at that time. And what ended up happening was I think the trade and immigration issue sort of overtook the movement, and the Tea Party morphed into something like what it is today.”

For Ryan that means a GOP with a “no more Mr. Nice Guy” style, in which “the entertainment wing of our party” is ascendant in the “digital age”: “the entertainers sort of replaced the think-tank type people, replaced sort of the intellectual Buckleyites.”

There is an outline of a different kind of conservative history here, a history not of factional fights but of changing genres. The first incarnation of the postwar conservative movement—the “intellectual Buckleyites,” of whom Buckley was the least intellectual (though entirely indispensable for coordinating the others)—was a movement of ideas, neither divorced from but nor consumed by politics or policy. The second incarnation of the conservative movement, post-Reagan (or perhaps from Reagan onward) was a movement not of ideas but of proposals, and in that it arguably resembled the very managerial liberalism that conservatives had formerly abhorred.

The failure of this second, policy-centric form of conservatism has been profound. Not only has it failed to secure sufficient electoral support to hold power in the long term, long enough to enact a substantial agenda, but it has even failed to hold the affections of conservative voters themselves. The policies are simply irrelevant, too far removed from the cultural conflicts and the personal woes voters on the right live with every day.

The third and latest form of conservatism, “the entertainment wing,” is triumphing over Ryan-style technocracy because it actually speaks to what conservatives care about. Words sometimes do matter as much as deeds, or matter more than policy “solutions” that never pass or never adjust to the ugly realities of 21st-century America.

Ryan’s final thoughts on the panel suggested that he has not really opened his eyes to the new dispensation, even if he understands at an intellectual level how immigration and trade became stumbling blocks for his politics. Taking stock of the welfare state (in particular “health, retirement security”), he said, “I think you have to reconcile our life with these programs.… These are settled issues, I would argue.… Then the question is how do you go about achieving those in the best possible way to maximize upper mobility, economic growth, limited government, in your economy. And so once you get over the fact that these programs exist and we have a social contract that we all agree should exist, then let’s get on to the task of repairing them from bankruptcy and making them perform the best.” 

For Ryan, the trouble with the left is it “wants government to run it all, they want no private sector, they want command of resources, means of production, they want to use it as an extension of their ideology. We want to use the power of markets and choice and competition to deliver these services that we all as a country have reached consensus on. That may sound like me-tooism. It’s just radical pragmatism.”

He went on to warn about loss of the dollar’s reserve-currency status and about an eventual debt crisis, and there is surely a need for good, practical policies to avert those outcomes. But his basically utilitarian understanding of politics has proven inadequate to the times, and not just in the United States. Ryan concluded by contrasting his politics with the conservatism of “the blood and soil nationalists, which is this European flavor of populism that’s [now] here on the right, [and] disregards the uniqueness of the American idea of a country based on natural law…” 

Rather than ascending from natural law to nature and Nature’s God, however, Ryan descends to calling for “a movement that can have great debates on policy matters within the sphere of these principles. And we won’t get to that point until you have a party or a movement that is capable of having a strong, vibrant debate not dominated by just one personality.… This kind of populism is one that’s not tethered to principles. We can get to a populism, and I think we will, that is tethered to principles.… I do believe the country is yearning for this.” 

The reflexive invocation of “European” conservatism—Burke? Churchill? De Gaulle? Metternich?—is cheap scaremongering. There is no possibility of America adopting anyone else’s conservatism, and lest it be forgotten, some of Europe’s worst right-wing regimes learned a few lessons about race laws from the good old U.S.A. But Ryan is right if he thinks American conservatives must take America more seriously. They might even want to put America first. Slogans aside, that means dealing with Americans as the men and women they are, and not as mere clients for “policy.”