Pay no attention to the neocon behind the curtain

Debates among and about “Neoconservatives” and “Paleoconservatives” recently have bounced between being enlightening, mendacious, vicious, and dangerous. But easily the most bizarre aspect of the fight is the claim that neoconservatives don’t exist–that they are the hallucinations of fevered minds.

Regardless of whether you consider yourself neo-, paleo-, non- or just plain-conservative, it is worth examining whether a) there is such a thing as a neocon, and b) how, if it all, they differ from conservatism proper.

First, the obligatory historical note.

Everyone can agree that Irving Kristol–author of Neoconservatism–is a neoconservative. A few men of his generation cut their alliances with the left when it was clear that the right was the only force serious about fighting the Soviet Empire. Those anti-Communist former Marxists are, historically speaking, the true neocons.

But after that, arguments ensue over whether the term “neoconservative” really means anything. Certainly Kristol and Norman Podhoretz have ideological kindred and followers. First among them their children, William Kristol and John Podhoretz, who believe in an aggressive foreign policy and reject the libertarian’s visceral opposition to the welfare state.

Bill Bennett and Michael Novak are widely understood to subscribe, largely, to a way of thinking that believes in liberal means (government) to conservative ends (upholding traditional values and liberty, at home and abroad), and they have many cohorts.

But some of the neocons’ allies try to argue that neoconservatism and neoconservatives don’t really exist. There is little or no difference, they will assert, between mainstream conservatism and the arguments of those who get called neocons.

A quick look at a handful of well-known neocons makes this claim hard to swallow.

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Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, is a tireless and eloquent warrior for the conservative cause, as well as the interventionist foreign policy that the Right has for the most part embraced. But certainly his conservatism is different from that of most on the political Right.

“Are we willing to say that the country is worse off because of FDR or JFK or LBJ?” Kristol asked rhetorically in an interview with columnist E.J. Dionne. If you asked a room full Weekly Standard or National Review readers that question, the answer would be a resounding “Yes!”

Kristol, though, concluded, “I’m not willing to say that.”

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Barry Goldwater is seen by many as a hero of the right. His 1964 victory in the GOP primary over liberals Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney was seen as the first major political victory for the still-young conservative movement. Human Events and National Review considered his nomination their reason for existence. Arizona’s right wing think tank calls itself the Goldwater Institute.

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, however, uses his name as a slur, attacking the likes of Bob Novak and Pat Buchanan as “lean mean unreconstructed circa-1964 Goldwaterites.”

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Conservative writer Max Boot recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that he was “not eager to ban either abortion or cloning,” and found himself and neocons in general “not as troubled by the size of the welfare state as libertarians are.”

Opposing abortion and advocating limited government (or at least one of those), are for most conservatives the very essence of conservatism.

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Conservatives usually leave it up to the left to play the race card. Byron York of National Review sums up nicely the “standard rhetorical device of the Left: If you can’t win an argument with a conservative, call him a racist.”

Sadly, this device has been employed by a handful of conservative writers who have called those who criticize the neocons anti-semitic. “Neocon,” we are told, is a code word for “Jew.” Even though, as Boot points out:

First, many of the leading neocons aren’t Jewish; Jeane Kirkpatrick, Bill Bennett, Father John Neuhaus and Michael Novak aren’t exactly menorah lighters. Second, support for Israel–a key tenet of neoconservatism–is hardly confined to Jews; its strongest constituency in America happens to be among evangelical Christians.

This bizarre reasoning–that “neocon” secretly means “Jew”, but neoconservatism isn’t particularly Jewish–reminds me of another absurdity. Some will call you a racist for opposing welfare, and in the next breath bring up that most welfare recipients are white. Doesn’t the latter fact discredit the former accusation?

Every thoughtful conservative differs from the “official” Right wing line in some way. Support for the New Deal and the Great Society, indifference to abortion, belief in racial politics, disdain for Goldwater–none of these, arguably, make someone unconservative. Neither should opposition to the Iraq war or support of trade tariffs shouldn’t precipitate excommunication from the Right.

But just as Pat Buchanan, among today’s conservatives, is a breed apart, so are the Great Society conservatives Kristol and Krauthammer and Boot. They consider the Right their home team, and it would be unfair to call them anything but conservative.

Still, they differ in important ways from the conservative principles championed by National Review and exemplified by Ronald Reagan. Maybe the word neoconservatism doesn’t mean what it meant when Irving Kristol used it as his book title. But to argue that this collection of men–who subscribe to principles and policies mostly foreign to the right–are not a distinct sect of conservatism with a clearly different philosophy is hocus-pocus.

Tim Carney is a reporter for the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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