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Neo-conservatism: New York's gift to Republicans A liberal state provides fertile ground for the most significant counter-culture philosophy of the last 25 years

"How come you're so wrong, my sweet neo-con . . .

-- The Rolling Stones

New York is a safely Democratic "blue" state, the most liberal of the top 10 electoral prizes, voting for the last five Democratic presidential candidates in a row.

But the Empire State made a little-noticed contribution to the conservative movement of the last generation: A group of mostly white, ethnic writers and social scientists -- notably including Jewish intellectuals who dabbled in Marxist thought as college students -- who led the charge against liberals.

By the mid-'70s, these lapsed liberals, virtually all ex-Democrats, would be called "neo-conservatives." These folks did their work so well that "liberal" had become an object of contempt by about 1978 and the most conservative president since the 1920s was easily elected in 1980.

It is inevitable that a landmark decade like the 1960s would reshape voting trends and intellectual discourse. The Sixties will rank as one of the most historic in American history, along with the 1770s, the 1860s and the 1930s.

The 1960s began with Dwight D. Eisenhower ending his second term as president. Internationally, the nation was at peace (although tensely), going through an economic slowdown (unemployed workers provided John F. Kennedy's tiny margin of victory that year) and watching the first stirring of the civil rights movement in the South. The decade ended with one president and one King assassinated, another would-be president killed, an accidental president driven from office, the nation at war in the far corner of the world and its cities aflame.

If depression pushed the country to the left in the 1930s, disorder caused a swing to the right in the 1960s. Ironically, the Sixties' most lasting legacy has been the rise of the modern conservative movement. And the intellectual "cutting edge" of the conservative movement has been the neo-cons, at least according to them.

In "Neo-Conservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea," Irving Kristol asserted, "Neo-conservatism is the movement that has provided the intellectual foundation for the resurgence of American conservatism in our time."

"It is the neo-conservative public policies, not the traditional Republican ones, that result in popular Republican presidencies," he also wrote.

Another neo-con pioneer, Norman Podhoretz, told Time in 1982 that President Ronald R. Reagan probably could not have done as well with Democratic Catholics and Jews without the neo-cons' intellectual spadework and "skill at ideological warfare."

>The rise of the neo-cons

As a movement, neo-conservatism came front and center in 1979 with the publication of Peter Steinfels' "The Neo-Conservatives: The Men Who Are Changing America's Politics." Steinfels didn't hesitate to label the movement as "the serious and intellectual conservatism America has lacked."

Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Krauthammer recently wrote, "What neo-conservatives have long been advocating is now being practiced at the highest levels of government . . . Above all, it is the maturation of a governing ideology whose time has come." Of course, when the world's greatest rock and roll band writes an entire song attacking your movement, you know you've really "arrived," in the 1960s sense.

Who are the neo-conservatives? Above all, they are intellectuals. Only a few neo-cons -- the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan and former congressman and New York City Mayor Edward Koch to name two -- ever won elective office. (And Moynihan drifted back to conventional Northeastern liberalism after 1980). In the late 1970s, as the conservative tide began to surge, Newsweek described the rise of the neo-cons:

"In intellectual circles, the social thinkers who were once the driving force of Democratic liberalism have been upstaged by a group of 'neo-conservative' academics, many of them refugees from the liberal left, including Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Irving Kristol, James Q. Wilson, Edward Banfield, Seymour Martin Lipset and Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan of New York."

Other neo-con stars would include: Podhoretz, his wife Midge Decter, Robert Nisbet, Samuel Huntington, former U.N. ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, former Education Secretary Bill Bennett, Walter Laquer, Milton Himmelfarb, Sidney Hook, Peter Hook, Diana Trilling, Michael Novak, Andrew Greeley and Arnold Beichman. Leading neo-con publications would include Commentary, the Public Interest, the Weekly Standard (run by Irving Kristol's son Bill) and the Editorial Page of the Wall Street Journal.

As Steinfels has pointed out, these are the most powerful intellectuals in the nation: besides dominating the neo-con publications, they have little difficulty placing articles whenever they desire, even in traditional liberal outlets like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post or New Republic.

While many neo-cons are Jewish, there was also a substantial Catholic presence, including Bennett, Moynihan, Novak, Greeley and Wilson.

>An intellectual elite

The source of neo-con political influence is intellectual firepower, not electoral clout: probably less than 1 percent of voters read Commentary or the Weekly Standard. As historian Kevin Phillips once wrote, neo-cons are "long on chiefs and short on Indians, long on magazine editors and short on hod-carriers."

Nor is there any great neo-con grass-roots constituency that takes its cues from Kristol, Podhoretz, et al. Talk radio, with over 40 million listeners, surely has more sway over rank-and-file conservatives. Spiro Agnew once ridiculed "elitist intellectuals." Neo-cons are the elite of conservatives, and they've proven terrific at bureaucratic infighting to get their ideas turned into policy. (Full disclosure statement: During the late 1980s and early 1990s, I worked at the American Enterprise Institute researching a book on urban politics where many of the senior scholars were neo-conservatives.)

What do neo-cons believe? In a 1976 Newsweek article entitled "What is a neo-conservative?" Kristol outlined five key neo-con principles:

* Support for the social safety net, but not "the paternalistic state."

* Support for a market economy, with a few exceptions.

* Respect for traditional family values. ("If there is one thing that neo-conservatives are unanimous about, it is their dislike of the counterculture.")

* Equality of opportunity rather than equal results.

* A strong American foreign policy, especially vigorous anti-communism and support for the Cold War.

Neo-cons fervently believed that a "crisis of authority" overtook America in the Sixties, largely due to the poor values of the various liberal "movements," and traditional authority had to reassert itself. By attempting to do too much -- i.e., eliminate poverty at home and fight a war in Southeast Asia -- the government inevitably suffered from overload and inadvertently unleashed chaos.

Kristol promulgated his "Law of Unintended Consequences," which stated that government programs often backfired, creating unforeseen side effects and doing more harm than good. Accordingly, the government must return to basics: promoting economic growth, encouraging the private sector, maintaining law and order and providing a strong national defense.

As crime rates soared in the late Sixties, it was joked that "a conservative was a liberal who had been mugged." Kristol refined this joke by saying, "a neo-conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality."

By the reality of a social fabric unraveling, by an urban underclass that failed to be dislodged by the Great Society programs, by a Third World hostile to American interests, by the rise of OPEC and the Arab threat to Israel, and by the cost of high taxes and business regulation.

>Democrats left behind

Most of the people known as neo-conservatives today were still traditional liberals as late as 1968. For example, Kristol supported Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1968. The post-election coverage of Nixon's narrow victory over Humphrey in Commentary, the house organ of neo-conservatism, emphasized the potential for a comeback by moderate labor-based liberals.

But after Humphrey's loss, the Democrats went left. They repudiated both the Vietnam War and the "containment" doctrine promulgated by Truman. The party nominating process was reformed to give more power to grass-roots voters (especially women and minority activists), who tended to be more liberal, at the expense of party regulars, who tended to be more pragmatic.

They also gave a green light to what conservatives denounced as "social engineering" (like racial preferences) that sought to guarantee equality of results. Most neo-cons made the standard argument against the Democrats' new direction: "We didn't leave them, they left us."

With neo-conservatives joining the "Democrats for Nixon" effort, George McGovern suffered the worst presidential loss in history (by nearly 18 million votes). Nixon became the first Republican president to win a majority among Catholics and carried roughly 40 percent of the Jewish vote.

Neo-conservatism didn't even exist in the Fifties, when Eisenhower became the first post-Depression GOP president. After that, neo-conservatism began to grow in power. The movement did have some influence on the next GOP president: Nixon hired Moynihan as a special adviser on urban affairs, read the Public Interest occasionally and invited Kristol to the White House for policy discussions.

Reagan was the next GOP president elected, and neo-cons had major influence: Jeanne Kirkpatrick was appointed to the U.N. after Reagan was impressed with her writings in Commentary. Former Washington Sen. Henry Jackson staffers Richard Perle, Eliot Cohen and Paul Wolfowitz helped define Reagan's hard-line anti-Soviet policies.

Eliot Abrams, the husband of Midge Dector's daughter, worked for Moynihan in the Senate and moved on to famously get indicted during the Iran-Contra scandal. Abrams now works on Middle Eastern policy in the Bush White House. And the neo-cons were strong proponents of the "supply-side" economic theory of cutting taxes (regardless of deficits) to stimulate economic growth.

>In power at last

Neo-cons had little or no influence in the first Bush administration. The standard GOP Establishment-types like James A. Baker and Nicolas Brady did not call upon them for advice. In 1990, Irving Kristol openly speculated that Bush would be a one-termer. Thus, they shed no tears when Clinton replaced Bush.

The second Bush administration may be the most neo-con ever: After spending the Clinton years marinating at the American Enterprise Institute, Richard B. Cheney and Donald H. Rumsfeld, who had been regular Gerald Ford Republicans, came back changed men. They proved the old saying that there's no zealot like a convert.

The neo-cons had the goal of overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq since the mid-'90s and remaking the Middle East by "tumbling the democratic dominoes" in Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

Sept. 11 gave them their opening, and they took it. The Bush powers also bought the "supply-side/Wall Street Journal" line that any tax cut is a good one. Despite three major tax cuts, the economy has turned in a very mediocre performance, with growth rates well below those of the 1990s, 1980s, 1960s and 1950s. And the stock market is only a few percent above where it was on Bush's first Inauguration Day. Since the market has averaged a 50 percent gain over the last five presidential terms, this has been a hugely disappointing performance.

True, there's been a net gain of about 2 million jobs, but population has gone up by 10 million since Bush came into office.

Kirkpatrick, in a denunciation of the Sixties, once wrote an essay warning of letting intellectuals get too much power in government. The decline of President Bush in the approval polls from 90 percent after 9/1 1 to below 50 percent this year is a testimony to following poor advice given to him by neo-cons.

The Bush administration's conversion of a $100 billion surplus into a $500 billion annual deficit has alienated traditional GOP economic conservatives. And now a majority of Americans feel the Iraq War was a mistake. (Although it is certainly possible that the Iraq policy could be vindicated someday, if our nation-building works out as well as in Germany and Japan).

It is one of the supreme ironies of American intellectual life that the same people who worried about "an excess of democracy" in America and opposed letting rank-and-file Democrats choose their presidential nominees in primaries would try to extend democracy to the entire world, by force, if necessary.

And that the same people who lectured on the "law of unintended consequences" would not foresee that starting a war in the world's most volatile region would lead to complications. Most people active in politics start out as youthful idealists, but fade into cynicism as they age. As Steve Sailer, the film critic for the American Conservative, comments, the neo-cons rose to prominence as skeptics and ended up as crusaders.

>Last hurrah?

Incidentally, despite the disappointment in Iraq, the neo-cons may yet have one last chance at redemption. Iran, a charter member of their "Axis of Evil," is apparently developing nuclear weapons. Their new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is also apparently crazy: he has hinted that he welcomes Armageddon, doubts the Holocaust happened and has pledged to "wipe Israel off the map."

In the public mind, it's one thing for countries like India and Pakistan to go nuclear, it's quite another for the mullahs in Tehran. There are still uncashed deep feelings for revenge for the hostage crisis from 1979-81. A military incursion to destroy potential Iranian wmds would likely draw great public support.

Indeed, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll done in late January showed that 57 percent of Americans favored military action to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. It's unclear whether pollsters asked those in favor if they were prepared to watch Iran wreck the world economy by withholding oil from the market and watching the price rise to $100 a barrel.

A war with Iran (roughly three times the size of Iraq) would either be the neo-cons' finest hour or their last hurrah. The rest of us can only hope that this time they get it right.

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