Kristol is trying to persuade the conservative howler monkeys in the GOP coalition to stop flinging offal at their hilariously unsatisfying presidential candidates. Dismissing the Reagan nostalgia that he helped to animate in the 1990s, Kristol suggests conservatives might be pleasantly surprised one day:
So the conservative commentariat should take a deep breath, be a bit less judgmental about these individuals–and realize that there is not likely to be a second Reagan. They could also learn from liberalism’s history. Liberalism was the most successful American political movement of the first two-thirds of the 20th century. Its three iconic presidents were Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy. All advanced the liberal cause while in office. None was a standard-bearer for liberalism before becoming president–though each was inclined in a more or less progressive direction. What it means to be a serious, successful, and mature political movement is to take men like these–one might say to take advantage of men like these–in order to advance one’s principles and cause.
So conservatives might think of John McCain as our potential TR, Mike Huckabee as our potential FDR, and Mitt Romney as our potential JFK.
Except that TR — who by my admittedly unfriendly accounting could never stand as an “iconic” liberal president — was nevertheless loathed by his party masters because he actually took positions contrary to theirs, which is more than we can offer on McCain’s behalf. (I will concede that McCain, unlike Roosevelt, participated in an actual war.) But Roosevelt’s variety of progressivism was pretty well asphyxiated by his own party once he left office to shoot things in Africa, and the Republicans reverted to fiscal sensibilities that would go on to serve the nation so well in the 1920s.
As for the Huckabee and Romney analogies, they are to laugh. Both FDR and JFK were swept into office at the moment their parties either enjoyed (in Kennedy’s case) or acquired (in FDR’s case) massive congressional majorities, something that a Republican presidential victory in 2008 — however unlikely that may be — isn’t going to bring along with it.
With solid historical insights like these, you’d think Kristol would have been offered a slot at the New York Times or something.