POLITICS

Bill Kristol Begins His Quadrennial Panic Attack

The GOP's slate of candidates is never good enough for the Weekly Standard editor.

Over the past few months, the slate of GOP presidential candidates has gone from glowing reviews of the Republicans' "deep bench" compared to the scant participation of rival Democrats, to recognition of how big that bench actually is and the sight of Fox News struggling to accommodate all comers at the first important debate. One would imagine that what most party leaders and conservative pundits are hoping for now is some kind of winnowing of the field from the pretenders to the contenders.

But there is one obvious exception: Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, who -- for some reason -- wants more candidates to enter the race. And by "more," I mean nine additional dudes.

Seventeen Republican candidates is apparently not enough for Bill Kristol.
Seventeen Republican candidates is apparently not enough for Bill Kristol.

What is it about the current field of 17 candidates that doesn't cut it for Kristol? Well, in this week's piece, "An October Surprise for the GOP" (in which the "October Surprise" comes one year sooner than a traditional "October Surprise"), Kristol doesn't actually get around to laying out any specific reasons. He can't say that "the GOP isn't on course to nominating their very own Dukakis," and he suspects Donald Trump has forced a "distorted view of the quality of the field," but that's about it. Kristol just ... isn't sure, man.

But there is one thing that he suspects to be true. "Well," writes Kristol, "it's not as if every well-qualified contender is already on the field."

O RLY? Per Kristol:

Mitch Daniels was probably the most successful Republican governor of recent times, with federal executive experience to boot. Paul Ryan is the intellectual leader of Republicans in the House of Representatives, with national campaign experience. The House also features young but tested leaders like Jim Jordan, Trey Gowdy and Mike Pompeo. There is the leading elected representative of the 9/11 generation who has also been a very impressive freshman senator, Tom Cotton. There could be a saner and sounder version of Trump -- another businessman who hasn't held electoral office. And there are distinguished conservative leaders from outside politics; Justice Samuel Alito and General (ret.) Jack Keane come to mind.

Won't some of these guys run for president? After all, if they don't get in the race and start competing, Bill Kristol might never get around to identifying the five or six people he really, REALLY wants to see run for president. Although maybe we're learning that Kristol's true dream ticket is "Diazepam/A Long Nap 2016."

(Sidebar: You have to feel a little bit bad for Carly Fiorina here, whom Kristol would pass over in favor of some "saner and sounder ... businessman who hasn't held electoral office." Gotta be one of those out there somewhere!) 

But look, this is old hat. Kristol's uncertainty about the quality of the GOP field is basically a return to the column-stuffing schtick he regularly deployed four years ago. As you may recall, Kristol spent most of the latter half of 2011 inside his Glass Case Of Emotion, constantly lamenting Mitt Romney's status as front-runner and constantly writing regular articles about how no one was inevitable, how better candidates were always available to join the race, and how there was always -- ALWAYS! -- enough time for a savior to make a late bid for the Republican nomination. 

On Sept. 23, 2011, Kristol reacted to that week's primary debate by saying, "Yikes ... maybe the GOP presidential boat needs rocking." In an Oct. 25 dispatch, he bragged that "81 percent of the GOP primary voters" were "in play" and that the "race seem[ed] to be more open and fluid than conventional wisdom has it." Kristol's post-Thanksgiving tryptophan hangover led to a brief screed denying that Romney was "inevitable" and insisting that "a late January entry by another candidate isn't out of the question." Come Dec. 8, Kristol was endorsing a Rhodes Cook piece about how it wasn't "too late for a candidate to enter the race" and suggesting there was a "window of opportunity" for such a candidate to get in around Valentine's Day. On Dec. 19, Kristol wrote a piece begging for some "non-Hughes, non-Dewey, non-Nixon, non-Dole Republican candidate to present himself" by Presidents' Day weekend to save the GOP from Romney. By December's end, Kristol was suggesting that the GOP's only hope was a brokered convention

During that time, Kristol never ran out of potential game-changing dark horse candidates, offering Rudy Giuliani, John Thune, Mitch Daniels, Mike PencePaul Ryan, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie as the certain rescuers of the GOP's White House ambitions. And throughout it all, Kristol was inspired by the illustrious voices of history's specters, like the "ghosts of Lincoln and FDR" or Harry Truman or Alexander Hamilton or Geoffrey Chaucer or William Butler Yeats.

In fact, this ground has been so well trod by Kristol that poor Yeats is being conscripted into his second "Please, please somebody else run for president" tour of duty. This week, Kristol draws on Yeats' "The Second Coming" to wonder, "But what if come October all we have is Bushies lacking all conviction, Trumpers full of passionate intensity, and a bunch of uninspiring also-rans?" Now, let's flash back to Sept. 23, 2011:

A third e-mailer Thursday evening, watching the debate, was reminded of Yeats's "The Second Coming:"

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity."

There's some truth to that. But I can't help wondering if, in the same poem, Yeats didn't suggest the remedy:

"And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"

Sounds like Chris Christie.  

There's a special irony there. The New Jersey governor is one of a handful of 2016 candidates whom Kristol desperately wanted to run in 2012. Now, Kristol isn't sure that Christie -- along with Rubio, Bush and Huckabee -- is worthy of seeking the nomination at all. The man is like Prince's mom: never satisfied.

One can only wonder how Kristol is going to hold it together this time out. Here he is, standing at the threshold of his mid-autumn anxiety attack and it's only August. But maybe it's not too late for Kristol to find some way to chill, if only for a few months. After all, the way he ends his piece suggests that he's not chosen the path of panic just yet.

It may seem odd to suggest that the solution to an already unprecedentedly large field is to expand it further. But politics is full of oddities. And what would be truly odd would be to go into battle in 2016 with a candidate we settle on rather than a nominee the country can rally behind. The presidency would be a terrible thing to waste.

One thing's for sure: I believe Kristol when he says that the presidency would be a terrible thing to waste because he ended his Dec. 19, 2011, column the exact same way.

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