Since the Weekly Standard launched in 1995, there’s one scenario the conservative magazine hasn’t yet faced: Democrats in control of both the White House and Congress.
But that’s what lies ahead in just two months, leaving staffers there and at other media outlets on the right bracing for a period on the outside. looking in.
The Weekly Standard has long supported the national ambitions of John McCain, going back to the 2000 primary race, and boosted Sarah Palin a year before she was well known to the Lower 48. Nevertheless, editor William Kristol, speaking from the Republican Governors Association meeting, seemed to be taking the loss in stride.
“We’re not going to sit around sniping and wailing and wish, ‘if only things had gone differently,’” Kristol said. “We’ll try to be cheerful.”
And Kristol is not the only one channeling Reaganite optimism at the start of the Obama years. The post-election issue of the National Review, a conservative journal that was frequently critical of McCain, features a sunrise adorning the cover, with one-word in the center: “Renewal.”
“It’s really about the first steps of revitalizing ourselves as conservatives,” said editor Rich Lowry.
Looking inward makes sense now that access will likely be reduced during an Obama administration. It’s doubtful that David Axelrod will answer the phone as quickly as Karl Rove, or that Joe Biden would provide a Weekly Standard writer with the exclusive access that Dick Cheney gave when he sat down with Stephen Hayes for his biography of the vice president.
“The Weekly Standard and National Review are not chiming in along with a president for the next four years,” said one Republican leader. “When they’re talking out loud, they’re talking into the wind.”
But there may be some upside to the view from outside. Just because fewer copies will arrive on the doorstep of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue doesn’t mean all is lost. Lowry pointed out the “countercyclical” effect that opinion magazines often encounter when their party is out of power.
“People get ginned up when the other side is in power,” he said, noting that the National Review’s circulation increased to 280,000 during the first two years of the Clinton administration, substantially higher than its historical baseline of 150,000. Similarly, The Nation’s circulation nearly doubled during the Bush years.
But Lowry sees a less commercial benefit, too.
“When you have a Republican president in office like George W. Bush, he kind of becomes the de facto face and the voice of conservatives, whether what he is doing is conservative or not,” said Lowry.
“National Review and other opinion makers will have more of an unfettered voice” in an Obama administration, he added.
The New York Times' Sam Tanenhaus, who edits The Book Review and the Week in Review section, and is writing a biography of National Review founder William F. Buckley, said that the conservative movement “has always been most fertile when excluded from power.”
“The conservative movement originated as an insurgency, and over time it became attached to the Republican Party,” Tanenhaus said. “It ceased to be a hotbed of ideas, and was more about the tactics and strategies of winning elections.”
Tanenhaus said that the recent election showed a party “fighting the old battles with the old weapons.”
The 2008 election also opened a rupture between camps of conservative writers, sparking a philosophical debate that’s likely to continue while the party reexamines itself. During the last weeks of the campaign, some writers publicly took shots at McCain, endorsed Barack Obama or, like New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks, harshly criticized Palin — &lduo;a fatal cancer to the Republican Party” is how he summed up her candidacy.
But then there was Kristol — Brooks’ former Weekly Standard colleague — on the other side, pushing Palin on Fox News months before her selection.
“Palin’s sudden rise to prominence,” the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer wrote last month, “owes more to members of the Washington elite than her rhetoric has suggested.” In a much-talked-about piece, Mayer described how both the Weekly Standard and National Review hosted Alaskan cruises in summer 2007, and top editors and writers stopped by the Governor’s Mansion in Juneau.
Mark Lilla, a Columbia professor and former editor of the Public Interest, continued the Palin debate days after the election in The Wall Street Journal, where he decried “populist chic.” Citing Mayer’s piece, Lilla wrote that Palin’s ascendancy was partly the fault of the “editors of National Review and the Weekly Standard, magazines that present themselves as heirs to the sophisticated conservatism of William F. Buckley and the bookish seriousness of the New York neoconservatives.”
“After the campaign for Sarah Palin,” Lilla continued, “those intellectual traditions may now be pronounced officially dead.”
Kristol said that the media has overplayed recent disagreements among conservatives about the Republican ticket and that debate is healthy as the party works out its next steps.
“The biggest mistake conservatives can make is to unite right way,” Kristol said.