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The American Conservative, The Right's Most Unorthodox Magazine, Seizes The Moment

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The March/ April issue of The American Conservative magazine.
The March/ April issue of The American Conservative magazine.

NEW YORK -- After Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) spent 13 hours last week questioning the Obama administration’s drone policy, including the legal rationale for killing a U.S. citizen linked to a terrorist group, several prominent conservatives in the media were quick to dismiss the filibuster that caught both the Democratic and Republican establishment off guard.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page scoffed at Paul’s "drone rant” and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol mocked the senator's “fearmonging” and “kookinesss."

But right-leaning readers, especially those interested in civil liberties, could find a very different conversation taking place on the website of The American Conservative, a small-circulation magazine founded just over a decade ago in opposition to the neoconservative chorus advocating the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. The magazine has continued warning against U.S. military entanglements under President Barack Obama.

The American Conservative live-blogged the March 6 filibuster and published a post that day headlined, “Go, Rand Paul, Go!” In an article published Tuesday related to the filibuster, Jim Antle wrote that “the idea of America as a permanent battlefield is ultimately incompatible with limited government in any meaningful sense,” while Pat Buchanan -– a co-founder of the magazine who remains on its board –- argued that “the hegemony of the neocons and the lockstep conformity of a vast a slice of the GOP that cost Reagan’s party its primacy during the Bush wars, seems to be coming to an end.”

Whether or not Buchanan's prayers are answered, Daniel McCarthy, the magazine’s 35-year-old editor, does see an opening for his publication among conservatives and libertarians fatigued by the post-9/11 wars and interventions abroad.

“Both Rand's filibuster and his father's presidential campaigns, especially the reaction Ron Paul got when he challenged Rudy Giuliani over 9/11, show there's a market for a civil-libertarian conservatism, definitely one that's critical of the War on Terror,” McCarthy told The Huffington Post. “It's a big and growing part of our readership.”

“The paradox is that even though Bill Kristol and the Wall Street Journal are unhappy about being challenged on war and civil liberties -- and even though they have a lot of egg on their faces after the last decade -- they still control most of the money on the right. So it's a question of whether the youthful energy around the Pauls can translate into a wider movement, and make up for the financial gulf that separates the civil-libertarian right from the neocons, or whether the neocons can use their money to make up for the credibility they lack with anyone who's not already on a Republican payroll. I'm optimistic: some realities are too big for any amount of money to overcome.”

It's understandable why McCarthy hopes ideas can trump resources. The magazine relies primarily on donor support to publish, employs a small staff, and recently opted to share office space in Washington, D.C., with The American Prospect, a liberal publication that stayed alive last year following an online fundraising effort. Several poster-size Prospect covers hang on the walls as visitors make their way to McCarthy’s office, where a similarly sized cover of the The American Conservative's inaugural Oct. 2002 issue, headlined “Iraq Folly,” rests on the floor near a pile of books. The conservative magazine, which just moved from Arlington, Va., in late December, is apparently still getting settled with its new liberal roommates.

In a recent interview with The Huffington Post, McCarthy spoke about the magazine’s relationship to the conservative movement and media ecosystem. McCarthy suggested that more recently established conservative outlets, like The Daily Caller, Breitbart News and Washington Free Beacon, are unwilling to give “a policy a sort of objective hearing” and come from the “same mindset as talk radio and Fox News.” Those quotes appeared in a broader piece on conservative media. McCarthy responded to that piece in a post of his own that argued the problem in conservative journalism isn’t that there’s too much opinion, but “dishonest or partial reporting.”

While The American Conservative doesn't want to be viewed as a Republican organ -- and boasts “Ideas over Ideology, Principles over Party” as its motto -- McCarthy said he still hopes the magazine is able to influence the debate taking place within the GOP.

“We want certainly conservative Republicans to be reading the magazine and sort of taking hints from it,” McCarthy said. “It’s nice to have influence on the public policy process in a broad way as well. So I think influencing influentials and sort of shaping the issues environment and larger discussion, is a big part of what we do." The magazine's objective, he added, is “cutting across the usual lines and generating new kinds of discussion and ideas out of an unpredictable approach.”

That approach, less restricted by Republican orthodoxy, has won supporters among conservatives who similarly stray from the party line.

“I love it,” Andrew Sullivan told The Huffington Post in an email. “It's the one conservative magazine actually thinking about the world we live in and finally free of the neocon hangover. It's rescuing the tradition from the neocons and evangelicals, while respecting proper defense policy and a realistic view of how to help family structure.”

In post-election column titled “The Conservative Future,” The New York Times’ David Brooks described The American Conservative as “one of the more dynamic spots on the political Web,” with writers who “tend to be suspicious of bigness: big corporations, big government, a big military, concentrated power and concentrated wealth.”

McCarthy started at the magazine in 2003 as a staff writer, before leaving in 2006 to work in book publishing and briefly on Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign. He returned to The American Conservative later in 2008, and since becoming editor in 2010, he has focused on revamping the website. The site averaged 56,400 page views daily in February, a small number compared to the millions tuning into Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, but still enough to make it the site's best month ever outside of the November 2012 election spike.

Prominent liberals like New York magazine’s Frank Rich and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes headed to the site during the 2012 election and praised its writing and perspective. Hayes told The Huffington Post that he appreciated The American Conservative because its politics don’t map onto the “very two-dimensional political spectrum we’ve constructed.”

“We have a pretty clear sense of what liberals believe in. Conservatives believe this,” Hayes said. “There are some places where there is some kind of an interesting disruption -- Rand Paul and civil liberties. They’re just providing that all the time.”

The magazine also apparently has a fan in Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who, despite a conservative record in office, fizzled out during the 2012 Republican primary. Huntsman used The American Conservative last month as a platform to come out in favor of same-sex marriage, arguing that “marriage equality is a conservative issue.” That piece sparked a lot of discussion on the magazine’s site, not all of it in support of Huntsman's position.

The Hunstman op-ed also generated plenty of attention outside strictly conservative circles, getting picked by the Associated Press wire and on numerous websites, including The Guardian, Talking Points Memo and Politico. Two major Utah papers, The Deseret Morning News and Salt Lake Tribune, ran stories on Huntsman’s position, and White House press secretary Jay Carney fielded a question about the piece at a briefing.

McCarthy said that Huntsman’s view on same-sex marriage is something “that needs to be discussed in a civil and intelligent way on the right and that’s been rather lacking in the last five or 10 years.” He noted how the Conservative Political Action Conference, which kicks off Thursday, has again refused to allow gay conservative group GOProud to participate, and argued that decision was made because some of the right are “afraid that they’re going to have some of the Christian conservative groups walk out or not buy tables and so forth.”

“There’s a lot of fear of stirring up any kind of controversy or departing from the party line or the ideological orthodoxies,” McCarthy said. “We’re willing to do that. We’re willing to question these things and sort of get a conversation started.”

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