Bill Kristol has not given up on defeating Donald Trump.
He tried and failed once before to recruit an independent candidate to challenge Trump in 2016. Now, with 2020 on his mind, Kristol badly wants a Republican to primary the president. The conservative commentator has been traveling to Iowa and New Hampshire, running a campaign for a campaign, and evangelizing on behalf of a cause that’s less about policy and more, to him, about morals.
“I have a feeling,” Kristol said Wednesday at Politics & Eggs, a can’t-miss speaking engagement for White House prospects at Saint Anselm College, “that we are now entering ... a turbulent era, when the character of both parties is up for grabs.”
He’s quick to note that challenges to sitting presidents had big consequences in other turbulent periods: In 1968, Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy chased then-president Lyndon Johnson from the race at the height of anti–Vietnam War sentiment; in 1976, Ronald Reagan nearly beat then-president Gerald Ford, a preview of the conservative Reagan Revolution to come; and in 1980, Ted Kennedy challenged then-president Jimmy Carter and helped define the liberal direction of the Democratic Party.
And so, armed with this history and fresh polling (Morning Consult and Politico found 38% of Republican voters want Trump to face a primary challenge), Kristol made his case this week to dozens of influential New Hampshire activists during a breakfast buffet beneath blown-up photos of past presidential candidates campaigning in the nation’s first primary state.
Many Republicans who voted for Trump in the general election last time around did so, Kristol asserts, out of concern over Supreme Court appointments and because they hated Hillary Clinton more.
“It is possible,” Kristol told the audience, “to say, ‘Yeah, I approve of Trump — maybe not strongly, but somewhat — but I’d also like to have a choice … in 2020 that’s different from Trump.’ You don’t have to be a Never Trumper to not be on board for eight years of Trump.”
His 2018 tour seems designed to argue a challenge could work, even if one never quite has. (Notably, the party in power lost the White House in 1968, 1976, and 1980.)
“If I could just shake people up a little bit,” Kristol told BuzzFeed News after the Saint Anselm remarks. “Get them out of ‘Gee, I just saw a poll where he’s got 82% approval among Republicans, it’s over.’ If I get them to think for a minute, I think that by itself is useful.”
He wondered hopefully, in the interview, about the availability of Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, and James Mattis — three men who were on his 2016 wish list — and of Nikki Haley, who like Mattis ended up taking a job in the Trump administration. Kristol also has kind words for John Kasich, whom he visited recently in Ohio and acknowledged is the Republican most likely to take on Trump, though the governor’s personality and moderate politics have turned off other leaders in Kristol’s neoconservative orbit.
Thus far, though, there’s been little indication there will be a viable primary challenge to Trump or that there's a groundswell in favor of one. Party officials in the early voting states say they haven’t seen it. And the Republican National Committee has made moves here and there (like disbanding the primary debate committee) that would make it a little tougher for anyone who tried. Asked about the possibility and Kristol’s crusade, Trump’s reelection campaign criticized him by name, noting the president’s high approval ratings among Republicans — the same measure Kristol argues is soft.
“Mr. Kristol is clearly out of touch with most Americans and most definitely with Republican voters,” Michael Glassner, the campaign’s chief operating officer, said in a statement emailed to BuzzFeed News. “Kristol is living in a fantasy world if he thinks that Republicans still embrace his old swamp values. The vast majority of GOP voters are hard working Americans who see through Mr. Kristol’s malcontent rhetoric and see proof, including in their own job security, that President Trump is keeping his promises to Make America Great Again.”
All of this raises the question of what Kristol, or any Republican who buys into his efforts, would consider a win. Say a Kristol candidate doesn’t win the nomination but weakens Trump enough to help tip the election to Democrats. “That’s not the best outcome,” said Kristol. “But I’ll put it this way: When people say, ‘Oh you can’t do it because it might cause that,’ I regard that as less problematic or less damaging than just sitting back and letting Trump have a free ride.”
Tipping the race to Clinton worried David French in 2016. When Trump clinched the nomination, Kristol turned to the Iraq war veteran and National Review writer after failing to cajole Mattis, Romney, or any other brand-name Republican into an independent bid. It was bad enough for Kristol that his public search for a Trump stopper yielded another conservative intellectual barely known outside such circles. It was worse when French turned him down, too.
“The weak link in that whole scheme was me,” said French, who was impressed with the legwork Kristol had done in researching ballot access and securing fundraising commitments. “It wasn’t Bill. It wasn’t what he constructed. I thought I could probably peel away enough votes to keep Trump from winning. But I didn’t want to be the Ralph Nader of 2016.”
Kristol has a long history in conservative thought and politics. His father founded the Public Interest, a journal that promoted the economic and foreign policy views that became the backbone of neoconservatism. Kristol followed in his footsteps and thrived during the 1990s and 2000s: He was chief of staff to then-vice president Dan Quayle during the first Bush administration, gained visibility as a Fox News talking head during the second, and in between cofounded the Weekly Standard, an ideological heir to his father’s magazine.
His support for the Iraq war and early enchantment with Sarah Palin — then an obscure Alaska governor whose 2008 catapult to the Republican vice presidential nomination Kristol and the Weekly Standard helped spring — made him a villain to many on the left and some on the right, with an occasional joke here and there about how Kristol has a reputation for predictions gone wrong. After 2008, Palin’s rise, which fed on celebrity, identity politics, and populism, was a harbinger of Donald Trump.
“She’s been a disappointment to me,” Kristol said Wednesday when a guest at Saint Anselm asked him about John McCain’s recent revelation that he regrets not choosing Joe Lieberman, the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2000, as his running mate.
But Kristol also doesn’t think it’s fair to say Palin foreshadowed the nationalist elements of Trumpism. “Go look at the Palin-Biden debate,” Kristol said. “Palin defends moderate immigration policies … she defends American internationalism. She’s proud that her son’s going to Iraq to engage in nation building. She’s a free-trader. She’s not nativist.”
The explosion of social media and the Republican Party’s realignment also have cast Kristol in a new light, demystifying him in a way. Twitter, not widely used for political branding and communication in 2008, is now a window into his salty and avuncular personality. Friends note that these days he’s known less as a Palin-loving neocon and more for the Trump critiques that have united him, at least on one principle, with the liberals who hated him for years.
“Bill has long been a thought leader in the Republican Party, and now he’s a thought leader for a disparate group of people with differing ideologies who have come together in their opposition to Trump,” said John Weaver, Kasich’s strategist and a former McCain adviser who has known Kristol for years.
Kristol stepped away from his day-to-day duties at the Weekly Standard after the 2016 election. But he remains a frequent presence in the Washington office, where no one seems to begrudge his extracurricular fire at Trump. (“This is still Bill Kristol’s magazine, and I think it always will be,” said one staffer.) One Kristol friend, noting all of the conservative causes he has championed, described him as “more serious about the Trump thing than I’ve ever seen him” about policy.
"I think Bill’s one of those guys who actually has character and integrity,” said the friend, who requested anonymity to avoid alienating Trump allies. “And I think those are the people who have had the toughest time with Trump on our side. Bill just can’t stomach it.”
Kristol acknowledged that he could be wrong about the state of the Republican Party — that it’s possible Republicans won’t be convinced they made a mistake and will renominate Trump.
“If he lost [in the general election], I can still imagine the party having a moment in 2021 where it’s like, ‘OK, well that’s over,’” Kristol said. “But I think if he wins, we really are in a different world. I don’t think it’s just a Republican problem. At that point, our politics in general on both sides are going to be Trumpy. That would be a pretty significant moment, I’m afraid.”
Separate from Kristol’s recruitment efforts, Kasich for months has been exploring the feasibility of primarying Trump or running as an independent — a route Kristol prefers to avoid this time, though he believes a far-left Democratic nominee could create space for a third party. Weaver said their recent meeting in Columbus was an opportunity to discuss the future of the party and country.
“He did pretty well here in 2016,” Kristol said of Kasich at Saint Anselm. “I think he would have sort of, I won’t say first call, but I think he would be a formidable figure and others would probably step back if he were going to do it.”
Jeff Flake, the retiring Arizona senator, also has shown some interest in a primary. But Kristol’s other favorites are in no immediate position to run. Romney has a Senate race on his hands in Utah and for the moment must navigate Trumpism delicately. Sasse, the Nebraska senator, is up for reelection in 2020 and has given no indication he’s seriously thinking of running for president instead. Haley and Mattis still have Trump administration jobs.
French offered advice to those weighing Kristol’s pitch: “Every person who entertains a race, particularly a race against great odds, has a strain of real idealism in them. One of the things I would say is, squash your idealism for a minute and take the cynic’s view. What would the cynic say about your chances? Weigh that against your idealist’s case.”
Tim Miller, who worked on Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign and has been relentless in his criticism of Trump, sees only upside for a challenger.
“While Trump would be a heavy favorite, the challenger would be doing the right thing both morally and for the conservative movement writ large and dramatically raise their profile in the process even if it goes south,” said Miller, who has had casual conversations with Kristol about his candidate search but does not plan to have a formal role in such a campaign. “And then there’s the Trump wild card that always is hanging out there — if something crazy happens and he has to drop out, maybe you are the only one on the field.”
The Kristol friend believes Kristol should have run in 2016 — and that he should consider running in 2020. “The truth is if you want to do the job right, do it yourself. If someone’s going to do it, at least with Bill, people know they would have fun. People would know it would be honorable.”
For a moment Wednesday, Kristol wrangled with that idea.
“I’m not going to run, but I think the only circumstances under which I can imagine me or someone like me running … would be if no one else runs.”
And if no one else does? Kristol backpedaled a bit.
“I would consider going to a lot of my friends and trying to get them to do it.”