It is the “moment of truth for the Republican Party and American conservatism,” journalist William Kristol told a Kennedy School audience Wednesday night (Dec. 1). President George Bush’s “narrow but clear” re-election victory supplemented by GOP gains in both the House and Senate provide a unique opportunity, he said, for dynamic change in Washington.
The influential editor of The Weekly Standard delivered the 2004 Theodore White Lecture on Press and Politics in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum.
Assessing the outcome of the 2004 election, Kristol termed it the “most consequential election in a generation” which resulted in the “biggest victory” by a political party since Ronald Reagan was swept into office in 1980. It was, in fact, the first time since 1964 that a sitting president has gained seats in both houses of Congress and the first time since 1924 that a Republican president has accomplished that feat.
“This is the culmination of a 36-year rolling alignment” in the Washington political structure, Kristol said. What began with Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968 slowly evolved into a Republican majority that flexed its muscles at the ballot box last month. “The question [now] is will it all fall apart or, now that [the GOP is] a majority party, how can they really govern and change America?”
With the GOP in control of both houses of Congress, Kristol said, Bush will most likely have four years to carry out his conservative agenda. “And it’s going to be a very important four years for American politics,” Kristol said.
Social security reform, tax reform, and health care reform top the administration’s domestic agenda, he said, although two possible Supreme Court appointments will also provide Bush with the opportunity to shape the American political scene for years to come. The second appointment especially will be a “potential donnybrook and could be a big moment for the Bush presidency,” Kristol said.
Bush’s foreign policy agenda will be dominated by the war in Iraq and by further American efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and strengthen democracy abroad, Kristol claimed. “If Iraq succeeds, then we are in a completely different world,” he said, “but if Iraq does not turn out well, the chances of the others [Iran, North Korea, Russia] turning out well are pretty slim.”
The challenges ahead are daunting, Kristol admitted, but added that Democrats are foolish to sell the president short. Playing on Bush’s infamous misstatement during the 2000 campaign, Kristol surmised that “four years from now the president’s opponents, both at home and abroad, will end up being judged by historians to have misunderestimated him.”
The Theodore White Lecture is sponsored by the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.