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Bill Kristol's Think Tank Fetish

The political operative has a talent for pseudo-intellectual hackery.

Earlier this month, a new conservative economic think tank called e21 sent a letter to Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke. The missive bore a heavy gloss of intellectualism. Its topic was the Fed’s “large-scale asset purchase plan (so-called ‘quantitative easing’),” and it carried the signatures of numerous academics and professional economists, all of whom listed their various books (The Ascent of Money), past governmental jobs (Chairman, President’s Council of Economic Advisors; Director, Congressional Budget Office), and current institutional affiliations (Harvard, Stanford, Columbia). The worthies were writing Bernanke with a specific and technical request: to abandon the Fed’s plan to buy $600 billion in additional U.S. Treasury bonds because, they argued, the “purchases risk currency debasement and inflation, and we do not think they will achieve the Fed’s objective of promoting employment.”

But, for all its intellectual and technocratic pretenses, the letter was really a political attack ad. It was written in consultation with Republican politicians, and e21 paid to have it run in both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. As the Journal reported in a separate news article, the letter was the first salvo in what a “tea-party-infused Republican party” hopes will be an anti-Fed campaign that it can wage in Congress and, possibly, against Barack Obama when he runs for reelection in 2012. Indeed, e21—the think tank that describes itself as a “nonpartisan organization dedicated to economic research and innovative public policies for the 21st century” —turns out to be nothing more than a political pressure group.

Which isn’t a surprise when you consider the man behind e21: Bill Kristol. Kristol has been hailed—and castigated—for numerous deeds over the years, from killing Hillary Clinton’s health care reform effort to pushing us into war in Iraq. He may in fact be the most talented political operative of his generation. But even more impressive than his accomplishments have been his methods, as he has developed a singular talent: cooking up conservative think tanks that churn out pseudo-intellectual arguments to serve the GOP’s immediate political interests.

Kristol debuted this talent back in 1993.  He was coming off an impressive run as a valuable apparatchik in successive Republic administrations—first serving as chief of staff to Education Secretary William Bennett during the Reagan years and then as chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle —when he found his party, and himself, out of power. At this point, most Republican operatives became lobbyists or opened their own political consulting shops, but Kristol took a different path. He started a D.C.-based conservative think tank called the Project for the Republican Future . But, instead of using it to cook up policy ideas, he employed it to rally opposition among congressional Republicans to the Clinton administration—specifically on health care reform.

In a series of memos to “REPUBLICAN LEADERS,” Kristol, under the Project for the Republican Future’s letterhead, advised them to ignore any instincts to negotiate a “‘least bad’ compromise” with Clinton on health care and, instead, commit to “killing” any Democratic-backed plan “sight unseen.” To be sure, Kristol’s memos included trumped-up policy justifications for this tactic of outright opposition, namely that Clinton’s plan, in any form, would impose so much regulation it would destroy the country’s health care system. But Kristol’s most convincing argument was a purely political one: that “rejection by Congress and the public would be a monumental setback for the president, and an incontestable piece of evidence that Democratic welfare-state liberalism remains firmly in retreat.”

Congressional Republicans followed Kristol’s advice to the letter—then-Senate minority leader Bob Dole even cribbed Kristol’s line that “there is no health care crisis” in response to Clinton’s 1994 State of the Union address —and dealt Clinton the “monumental setback” Kristol had predicted. So much so that the GOP took back the House and the Senate in the 1994 mid-terms. A year later, with a Republican future seemingly secured, Kristol shuttered his first think tank.

But then, in 1996, Clinton won a second term and pushed back the dawning of that glorious Republican future. In response, Kristol founded another think tank, this one devoted to foreign policy. He called it the Project for the New American Century (PNAC).  The group was devoted to a “Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity” —in the form of hefty defense budgets and a willingness to intervene in foreign hotspots —and found its purpose in attacking Clinton for being feckless and weak, especially on Iraq. PNAC was an early advocate of “regime change” in Iraq and continually faulted Clinton for being insufficiently dedicated to that cause, even after he signed the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998.  Perhaps because Kristol’s preferred Republican presidential candidate in 2000, John McCain, didn’t get his party’s nomination, Kristol kept PNAC running even after George W. Bush won the White House. In 2001, after the September 11 attacks, PNAC began urging President Bush to use the events as an occasion to remove Saddam Hussein from power, and, over the next 18 months, Kristol and other PNAC members provided the intellectual framework for the Iraq war.  

Of course, a costly debacle like Iraq should have spelled an end to Kristol’s foreign policy influence. But it only spelled an end to PNAC, which had become an object of almost universal derision (and some obsessive conspiracy-mongering) on both the left and right.  The think tank closed up shop in 2006.

Undeterred by the Iraq embarrassment, Kristol and some of his PNAC compatriots started yet another think tank in 2009. This one, called the Foreign Policy Initiative, serves to promote “robust support for America’s democratic allies and opposition to rogue regimes that threaten American interests” —which, in the age of Obama, would presumably translate into assailing a Democratic president for being weak in the war on terror. But Obama, by doubling down in Afghanistan and continuing much of the Bush administration’s foreign policies, has given Kristol and his think tank few opportunities to assail the new administration.

Rather, as the country struggles to emerge from a great recession, Obama is most vulnerable on domestic policy, namely his handling of the economy. Hence Kristol’s creation in 2009 of e21, which, as evidenced by its Bernanke letter, is already seizing on this opportunity. Indeed, critiques of “quantitative easing” are now appearing everywhere Republicans gather, from the halls of Congress to Sarah Palin’s Facebook page.

Kristol’s fondness for think tanks may be psychological. As the son of one of modern conservatism’s most prominent intellectuals, Irving Kristol, it’s possible he felt a career as a straight political operative—coordinating media buys, instructing field directors, and subsisting on a diet of jelly donuts in a campaign war room—was beneath him. Thanks to his think tankery, plus his editorship of The Weekly Standard—a conservative magazine that, unlike its counterpart National Review, is more partisan than ideological—Bill Kristol has been able to cultivate a professorial air. This has helped him secure platforms not just on Fox News, where he’s a paid contributor, but in more rarefied settings, too: Kristol is one of the few political hacks who’s been invited to serve as a lecturer in public policy at Harvard and to pen a column for The New York Times. His intellectual pretenses have served him well.

But they’ve also served his causes well. Kristol is not the first person to recognize the political power of think tanks; long before him, conservatives were putting organizations like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) to good use in Washington and across the country. But those think tanks actually produce ideas. Kristol’s think tanks produce strategy memos and press releases. And yet, because his groups present themselves as think tanks in the traditional sense, their output carries a certain gravitas. This cover of intellectual seriousness is what allows them to avoid being spotted for what they almost always are: engines of pure partisan hackery.

Kristol’s think tanks are also different in another crucial way: While stalwarts like AEI and Heritage are now in their seventh and fourth decades, respectively, Kristol’s think tanks are decidedly ephemeral, existing only as long as they are tactically useful to the GOP. Which is why, despite e21’s name, it’s hard to imagine it lasting well into the century.

After all, before too long, the GOP will need some other kind of pseudo-intellectual cover. And Bill Kristol will have founded yet another think tank to provide it.

Jason Zengerle is a senior editor for The New Republic.