As theater goes, the shutdown has been a bust. It is difficult to become emotionally invested in the drama when there is so little at stake, less than on an average episode of Glee.
So little? What about striking a mortal blow against Obamacare? Or reforming entitlements? Or generally saving the Republic from financial ruin? Weighty issues, indeed, but none of those ever was truly on the table. With Barack Obama in the White House and a Democratic majority in the Senate, the chances were always approximately zero that any serious reform of the Affordable Care Act was on the table, short of the sort of populist conservative groundswell that our talk-radio friends are always assuring us is waiting to be summoned from the vasty deep but that rarely materializes.
If you remember the first supercommittee, officially the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, formed in 2011, you will remember that it accomplished nothing. Or almost nothing. There was one remarkable outcome of that debate: Sensible people found themselves nodding in agreement with Newt Gingrich. Mr. Gingrich, who has 10,000 interesting ideas a week but is plagued by a lifelong inability to distinguish the wheat from the chaff or the great from the daft, greeted the failure of the supercommittee with perfect equanimity, arguing that in the long term the only way to meaningfully address the fiscal straits of our increasingly indentured state is through “regular order,” i.e., the normal legislative process of crafting budgets, seeking savings on a department-by-department basis, engaging in judicious taxation, and all the other boring stuff that manages to get done for the most part every year in the 50 states but not in Washington, D.C. Grand bargains and magic bullets are out, Mr. Gingrich argued, and ordinary governance is in.
Never mind for the moment that those wise words about regular order do not match up terribly well with Mr. Gingrich’s career as speaker of the House. He is still right. The unspoken corollary here is that conservatives are not going to be satisfied by the outcome of the 2014 election or the 2016 election. The real changes they seek can come about only through — at best — a decades-long project of steady incremental reform.
Conservatives here are, as is so often the case, at a structural disadvantage: It is far easier to create, for example, a massive new health-care entitlement than to take one away, or even to achieve meaningful reform of one. The country will have its conservative moments — it is having one now — but it also will have its moments of infatuation with the welfare state and the almighty government check. From Woodrow Wilson onward, the pattern of our history has been that the Left can get more done during its moments — the income tax, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare — than the Right can undo during its moments. That explains both the creeping statism of the 20th and now the 21st century, and the conservative dream of achieving dramatic reversals through campaigns such as the Contract with America or by exploiting legislative leverage as in the debt-ceiling episode. It does not help that Republicans sometimes create massive new entitlements of their own or engage in irresponsible fiscal shenanigans inspired by loopy economic theories.
Another way of saying this is that conservatism is by nature defensive, preserving that which should be preserved, resisting what Thomas Sowell describes as the impulse to replace what works with what sounds good. We are the constant gardeners of politics. The Left is more on the lines of King Ludwig II, looking to build a new Neuschwanstein before the mortar is even dry on last year’s model. The problem is that what sounds good often sounds really, really good: “Hey, Obama’s going to lower my monthly insurance premium! Hurrah!” A businesswoman of my acquaintance recently shared the fact that her premium will be going up by about $800 a month to pay for the new ACA-compliant benefits package that she does not want but under the law must have. When she complained, a perplexed friend asked her: “Don’t you qualify for subsidies?” And that’s the challenge in a nutshell: Just as Obamacare is a terrible program, Social Security and Medicare are terrible deals for those of us not born in the 1950s or earlier, but woe unto him who tries to reform them.
People are going to notice — are already noticing — those higher premiums. The question is what they will do in response. Will they vote for Republicans? Will Republicans give them a reason to vote for them?
A country that maintains Barack Obama and Harry Reid in power is not quite in the conservatives’ camp. But a country that maintains 30 Republican governors and only 17 Democrat-controlled state legislatures is not entirely in the liberals’ camp, either. The situation at the state level suggests very strongly that conservative candidates and conservative ideas can win, and that they can achieve real reform in government.
The important difference is that at the state level, there are few equivalents to the periodic debt-ceiling fights or other similarly powerful legislative choke points. So Republicans take a different tack: They win elections, build majorities, and govern. The same people who write me weekly to insist that John Boehner and Mitch McConnell aren’t “real conservatives” say the same thing about Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal, which in addition to being laughable entirely misses the point: Would you rather have a country that is moving in the direction Texas and Louisiana have been, or in the direction that Washington, D.C., has been? The problem with Mitch McConnell as a minority leader is not that he is insufficiently committed to conservative ideals, but that he is the minority leader, squaring off against a Senate and a White House controlled by the other side. The Republicans’ congressional leadership in the Reagan years was by no means overflowing with conservative heroes, and yet conservatives managed to get some important things done.
For all the counterfactuals — “If only my guy had been the nominee,” “If only a Republican would make this speech,” “If only my pet constitutional amendment with zero chance of passing would be submitted nonetheless,” “If only my magic-bullet tax plan would be adopted,” etc. — the lesson of the shutdown showdown is that there really is no substitute for winning. Job No. 1 is ensuring that the Democrats control no larger a share of Senate seats than they do of state legislatures. That, and the long, dreary business of responsible governance.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent and the author of the recently published The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.