The Internet can be a cruel place. David French was surely reflecting on that truism when he went to bed last night. After Bill Kristol announced that he was courting French as a possible anti-Trump presidential candidate, Twitter squealed with derision and promptly set about crucifying the National Review scribe, even though many of these newfound critics readily conceded they’d never read his work before.
Internet punditry can be a reeking piss-pot of an industry, a malignant wasp’s nest in the corner of the political garage that someone should really spray with Raid already. (And I say that as a fully credentialed member of the profession.) I’m not here to defend French, with whom I sometimes agree and sometimes disagree, but I have gone through the trouble of reading him over the years, and certainly find him more interesting than many of his detractors, like the reliably tedious Josh Barro. French may be a mere blogger, but he’s also an attorney, Harvard Law graduate, major in the U.S. Army Reserve, and foreign policy author. That arguably makes him more qualified than the current Republican nominee.
The real question is why Kristol feels compelled to put forward French in the first place. With all due respect to French, he can’t have been Kristol’s first choice, or his second, third, or fourth. Yet with Ben Sasse apparently declining, and Mitt Romney not only sitting out the race but forswearing criticism of Trump going forward, French must have been the best that Kristol could do. So why subject him to a bruising presidential gauntlet that he’s likely to lose? Why not remember Buckley’s rule about “the rightwardmost viable candidate” and endorse successful former GOP governor Gary Johnson? He’s not perfect through Kristol’s eyes, but he’s surely better than Trump or Hillary.
The answer lies, as it so often does, in foreign policy. Johnson was the rare Republican who opposed the Iraq war from the start; he later voiced skepticism about overthrowing Gaddafi and has vowed to bring our troops home from Afghanistan. Trump, of course, is the least interventionist Republican presidential contender in a generation. And Hillary Clinton, though significantly more hawkish, still supports the Iran deal, activated that humiliating restart with Russia, and is herself hardly a construction of neoconservatism. It’s the first presidential campaign since at least 2000 where neocon ideas don’t have a voice on center stage.
That leaves Republican hawks tossing and turning over foreign policy with two options: sit out this election or endorse Hillary Clinton. The first they’re not accustomed to doing, as establishmentarians who have long had a hand in Republican politics; and the second they fear would move them back towards the left, validating Reid Smith’s observation from three years ago that a realist resurgence in the GOP was sending the neocons “homeward bound,” and perhaps leaving them without a political home at all.
Neither option is acceptable, and so they’ve blazed a third way: nominate someone—anyone—who espouses their ideas, even if it’s a relatively obscure scribbler like David French. This mission was made even more urgent by the electorally serious Johnson/Weld ticket, which emerged from the Libertarian Party convention in Orlando over the weekend. It’s no coincidence that Bill Kristol dispatched a tweet on Sunday promising “an independent candidate—an impressive one.” He was trying to dispel Republican curiosity swirling around Johnson in a year when a third party stands a chance at genuine electoral success. He wasn’t going to let those damned isolationists lay claim to anti-Trump sentiment.
Kristol may be delusional enough to think this will work. He continues to maintain, against all evidence, that there’s a dormant hawk inside the Republican electorate waiting to be unleashed, and French seems to epitomize his ideal conjurer: a military man, tough on terrorism, Tom Cotton 2.0. Still, I can’t help but notice that French is far closer to me and Rand Paul on the question of a no-fly zone in Syria, and on Libya he offers this bit of wisdom: “When America creates power vacuums, jihadists fill the void.” That’s a world away from, say, Marco Rubio, or even Carly Fiorina, and considerably less hawkish than Hillary Clinton.
My God, I’ve just realized it. Sound the alarm! Kristol has a secret neo-isolationist in his midst!