STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE | December 2015
“Let's give more power back to the states. I think it would be a very common-sense proposal.”
William Kristol is the editor of The Weekly Standard magazine, which he co-founded in 1995. He regularly appears as an analyst on Fox News Sunday and the Fox News Channel. Kristol received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1979 and taught politics at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He served as chief of staff to Secretary of Education William Bennett under President Reagan and to Vice President Dan Quayle during the George H.W. Bush administration. He sits on the boards of several research organizations and think tanks and has published on a variety of topics, including the best-seller “The War Over Iraq,” in 2003.
STATE LEGISLATURES: Does Donald Trump’s success surprise you?
KRISTOL: It sure does. I saw early on that Trump was hitting a chord, and wrote an editorial or two saying so—Don’t underestimate him; take him seriously; listen to what he’s saying; learn from what he’s saying. But I figured he would rise and then begin to fall, and his support would go to the more traditional candidates. But it’s very unpredictable. The rules would suggest that he will fade and will not be the nominee, but once every 30 years, 50 years, 75 years, the rules get broken, and maybe this is that year.
SL: How would you compare state legislative action to what you see in Washington?
Kristol: I think voters are pretty happy with what’s happening at the state level, in a lot of states at least. States don’t work perfectly; states work pretty well. The federal government doesn’t work well at all.
I live in Virginia, so I follow Virginia’s legislature quite a lot. I think a state legislature is much more responsive, much more attuned to real problems and solving them. People expect their state representatives to do something about different issues in the state. That doesn’t mean that everything that gets done should be done, or it doesn’t mean that they don’t duck problems too.
What should GOP-controlled legislatures be doing to distinguish themselves from Congress?
Kristol: Right now, the place Republicans can show that their ideas are practical, are successful, are popular, as well as being well-thought-out, is in the states.
Republican state legislators in particular need to pass sound legislation, especially if they have a Republican governor. Maybe they can work with Democrats, even when they’re in the minority, to pass good legislation on taxes, job growth, health care, education—and show that conservative ideas, Republican ideas, really work. So from a Republican point of view, the next year is important at the state level.
Why do you think Congress, with GOP majorities in both chambers, seems unable to move its agenda.
Kristol: Washington really has become dysfunctional, in the sense that while everyone agrees that certain things are a problem, they just can’t get anything through. Maybe that will change.
We’ve had a few years of divided government, and pretty bitterly divided government, and that won’t last forever. So maybe that’s just a temporary phenomenon.
There is also a Democratic president who has, to his credit, strong views. He isn’t going to bend, and he isn’t much interested in compromising. He wants to go ahead and use his executive authority as much as he can.
And, he isn’t going to sign a whole lot of Republican legislation in the next year and a half. So it’s very hard for the Republican Congress. With a Republican president the question is, Will that be a different story?
A Republican presidential candidate in 2016 would be well-advised to run on a federalism platform. Let’s give more power back to the states. I think it would be a very common-sense proposal. It also fits with kind of conservative philosophical predispositions. I’m a little surprised there hasn’t been more attention to the federalism agenda so far.
Do you think the Republican primaries will be dominated by the party’s most conservative elements as in the past?
Kristol: I don’t know. Trump seems to have support from all parts of the party and in a fairly non-ideological way. This one feels to me less likely to be the standard case of an establishment candidate beating back a conservative insurgent—that’s the Romney/Santorum kind of story. That’s often been the pattern.
But it doesn’t feel that way. It’s just a lot of different candidates. I think it might be resolved a little bit more on personality or on individual agendas and accomplishments and abilities than on a straight, ideological fight.
The candidates agree on an awful lot, honestly. So I think the question becomes, Who will do a better job of actually implementing these ideas? Who could beat Hillary Clinton or whomever the Democratic nominee is in the general election?
When I talk to conservative audiences, to Republican audiences, I hear a lot of these two questions: Who can win? and, Who can govern? But not quite so much, Who is loyal to every single item on the laundry list of the conservative agenda?
Ed Smith, director of NCSL’s Digital Communications Program, conducted this interview.
Editor’s note: This interview is part of a series of conversations with national leaders. It has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed herein are not necessarily those of NCSL.