Shift at the Standard

News Corp. is selling the Weekly Standard. Is it an early sign that the GOP is ditching neoconservatism?

The Weekly Standard has been the flagship publication of the neoconservative movement since it first appeared in 1995. William Kristol and Fred Barnes have been at the heart of the magazine, whose influence soared during the Bush administration, when it championed invading Iraq. The news that Rupert Murdoch, the head of News Corp., is selling the magazine to the billionaire Philip Anschutz, who also owns the Washington Examiner, raises some questions about the magazine's future direction.

Will Kristol and Barnes remain at the helm? Or will the magazine turn toward a more traditional conservatism?

The neoconservative movement has recently suffered several blows. The sun has set on the pugnacious New York Sun, which served as a valuable outlet for neoconservative journalists and authors. The American Enterprise Institute has ousted several neoconservatives, including Joshua Muravchik, from its roster of fellows. But no magazine, it can be safely said, has become more important to the fate of the movement than the Weekly Standard.

The Standard's contribution has been to inject a dose of youth into the movement, a kind of Viagra. It didn't specialize in long, academic treatises of the kind that Commentary published, with their mandarin language. (Only now is Commentary being overhauled by its new editor John Podhoretz, who has brought on a number of new writers, such as the always stimulating Max Boot, to enliven it.) Instead, the Standard aggressively tried to steer the political conversation in Washington in the direction of neocon doctrine, and, to a surprising degree, succeeded. Some of that success can be ascribed to Barnes, who is a seasoned and savvy journalist with a keen ability to pucture the pretensions of the liberal elite. But the Standard's greatest feat was to play a decisive role in shaping the debate during the run-up to the Iraq War, when magazines such as the New Republic followed its lead in promoting the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

Since then, the election of Barack Obama has pushed the neocons back into the wilderness, as it has conservatives generally. There has, however, been little examination among conservatives of the results of the embrace of the neocon program (a notable exception being the extremely penetrating columns of former Standard writer, now New York Times columnist David Brooks). If the Standard's success helped push the Bush administration in the direction of pursuing a kind of World War III against Islamic terrorism, it also influenced magazines such as National Review. Formerly redoubts of traditional conservatism, skeptical of nation-building and foes of big government, these publications muted-if not abandoned-much of the original faith, to the distress of conservative founding fathers like William F. Buckley, Jr., who depicted the Iraq War as a dangerous Wilsonian crusade.

Perhaps, then, Kristol's influence as a journalist has peaked. With Obama in charge, the GOP in civil war and moderate Republicans joining the administration, a new era has begun. An energetic and shrewd political operative, Kristol may simply become bored with journalism and take a post either at a think tank or inside the GOP itself.

Nevertheless, he could also stay on as the voice of the opposition. In this scenario, the temptation would be to push the GOP even further toward the right on foreign policy in the expectation that Obama will flub up somewhere, whether it's in North Korea or Iran. What's more, it's entirely possible that Anschutz will leave the Standard as it is, while pouring in more resources. It's heartening, in fact, to see that someone still wants to buy a print magazine. But the conservative movement is groping. The sale of the Standard could become an important signpost in the reinvention (if it happens) of the GOP. Anschutz, who is a more traditional conservative and is clearly seeking to become an important voice in Washington policy debates, might also seek to steer the magazine in a different direction. If that happens, then it will be clear that the aftershocks of the Iraq War continue to reverberate not only in politics, but also in journalism.

 

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.