The Case for Optimism

by Charles C. W. Cooke
Conservatives can have a good year — if they want to.

The shutdown is over, and the Democrats have won. Now, we will be told incessantly about the damage that was done to the Republican party, about the insurrectionist “fever” that the president masterfully succeeded in “breaking,” and about the free hand that the White House has to implement Obamacare, its central achievement.

All of this is to be expected, but it is not necessarily to be taken seriously. Given the romantic and unrealistic goals that it established at the outset — and the calamitous absence of anything approaching a strategy throughout — the Republican party can certainly have been said to have “lost” the shutdown. And yet this was a loss that was marked not by any serious policy concessions but by the maintenance of the status quo. The president succeeded in ensuring that his side did not lose anything it wanted, yes. But as Dan Meyer, Newt Gingrich’s former chief of staff, observes, he also “didn’t get more revenue. He didn’t get the sequester caps lifted. All those decisions were punted.”

Punted to less promising ground for the Democratic party, too.

Whether or not the national media will elect to focus on the Obamacare rollout mess now that it cannot claim to be distracted by the shutdown will, in truth, be largely irrelevant going forward. Up and down the country, local newspapers are telling brutal stories of breathtaking technical incompetence and of genuine sticker shock. The national papers can continue to append to objective criticisms the usual “Republicans say . . . ” but it is pretty clear to all but the truest of believers that the administration’s promises are in tatters and that its critics are starting to look happily prescient. The media are corrupt; but they’re not corrupt enough to hide the debacle.

Indeed, even the law’s fiercest advocates have been impressed into conceding that the rollout has been a disgrace. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, Obama cheerleader par excellence, has characterized the launch as a “disaster.” Former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has argued on television that the episode has been “excruciatingly embarrassing.” Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum, meanwhile, has echoed the growing fear that the issues will be with us for the long haul. “The bugs,” he wrote this week, “seem deep and profound.”

Rather amusingly, Drum went on to ask, “Why has this turned out to be so much worse than I thought it would be?” This prompted a blunt answer from my colleague Jim Geraghty: Well, “because you have way too much faith in the good intentions and competence of Obama administration officials.” Jim is correct, and herein lies a real threat not only to Obamacare but to the entire progressive sales pitch of “Let us take charge!” This is to say that the failure of the administration to deliver a simple website in three years is an indictment of technocracy itself and, more specifically, of the ugly Wilsonian contention that governments are realistically able to “open for the public a bureau of skilled, economical administration” run by the “hundreds who are wise” for the good of the “selfish, ignorant, timid, stubborn, or foolish.” Back in June, HHS technologists were telling The Atlantic that “it’s incredible what can happen when you give a team of talented developers and managers [room to work] and let them go.” They were right. As we have learned in these past three weeks, it is indeed incredible what happens when the federal government does this.

Conservatives have been presented with a golden opportunity to remind Americans why bloated, arrogant, centralized government is not to be trusted in this age or the next. They must take it. Obamacare, as Ross Douthat has observed, is “the whole ballgame for liberalism right now.” If it fails, the “hoped-for of liberalism will have been foreclosed, not by Tea Party extremism, but by a liberal administration’s own unforced errors.”

Irony of ironies, the truth is that Obamacare is far more likely to be delayed by the White House than by the Tea Party — or, for that matter, by anybody in the conservative movement. In an in-depth piece that delves into the “third world experience” offered by the online exchanges, the New York Times confirmed that “the growing national outcry has deeply embarrassed the White House.” This is a president who, to put it rather mildly, does not do well with being laughed at and who has a nasty habit of attempting to remove anything that he can from the immediate judgment of the electorate. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the man who has so steadfastly rebuffed Republican attempts to delay his beloved law will be forced by events and pride to add another delay of his own. Remember: For all the talk of “nullification” and “sedition,” Obama is the only political actor in Washington who has thus far managed to effect any changes to the law whatsoever.

Should it happen, a unilateral delay might make the Republicans’ behavior during the debt-ceiling debate look a touch more reasonable in hindsight, distilling the disorganization, desperation, and inconsistency of their inchoate push into one politically beneficial memory: “They really wanted to stop this, huh?” The inevitable election-season commercials painting Republicans as extremists prepared to shut down the government would be easily rebuffed, too, allowing those accused of resorting to desperate tactics to respond, “You’re damn right we did. Do you remember the disaster? Have you seen your premiums?” Extremis malis, extrema remedia, and all that.

Journalists and political commentators are correctly observing that, in all likelihood, Americans will be treated to another budget fight early next year. This time, if they are sensible, Republicans will be presented with a solid opportunity to block the president’s fiscal agenda — and to do so using his own tactics. All told, Democrats hate sequestration, and they remain desperate to raise its spending caps. Republicans, on the other hand, are generally much less worried about the law, and the tea-party contingent is the least bothered of all. This means that maintaining the status quo is considerably more appealing to conservatives than it is to progressives.

It also means that, early next year, the House can simply pass a “clean” debt-ceiling raise and a “clean” continuing resolution and then go on vacation — perhaps after raising a middle finger to Harry Reid on the way out of D.C. Meanwhile, John Boehner can go to the nearest microphone and, deliciously, parrot the president’s own message. “We have today passed clean bills to fund the government and to ensure that the country pays its bills,” Boehner can say. “We hope that the arsonists and terrorists in the Senate and the White House will not choose to manufacture a crisis during which they allow extremists to take the country hostage. If they do demand ransoms, we will not pay them.” “Sequestration,” Boehner can say, “is the law of the land — passed by Congress, and signed by the president.” And then he can drop the microphone and go golfing, secure in the knowledge that conservatives will keep spending caps at their current levels and that, a few months away from an important election, he has publicly dared Harry Reid and Barack Obama to attach a deeply unpopular spending increase to an unpopular increase in the debt ceiling.

And what of that important election? Well, it looks as if it is going to provide a real opportunity. Democrats are defending 21 Senate seats, a considerable number of which are in conservative-leaning and swing states. Meanwhile, 13 of the 14 seats that the GOP is looking to hold onto are in conservative-leaning states. Montana and South Dakota look likely to go Republican and, whatever national polls show, the shutdown does not appear to have significantly affected the close races in Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana, or West Virginia. While the Democratic incumbents in those four states are all leading by slim margins, the Republican party is 12 points more popular than the Democratic party in West Virginia, ten points more popular in Alaska, four points more popular in Louisiana, and three points more popular in Arkansas. The sabermetrician Nate Silver predicted in July that “Senate control in 2014 increasingly looks like a tossup.” There is little evidence to suggest that this has changed. If conservatives can resist their usual habit of finding the least likeable candidates in all of America, they really do have a shot.

Counterintuitive as it might sound, the moment the shutdown ended, the horizon brightened for the Right. As a fellow radical, I understand the causes that impelled the hardliners: a crippling frustration with the ever-increasing size of government; disgust at the seeming inability of anybody to do anything concrete about the Obamacare train wreck; and a righteous irritation at an intransigent progressive movement whose philosophy appears to be that when the economy is good, well, there’s excess money to spend, and when things are bad, well, then we need to spend more. I also understand that irritation and frustration do not a strategy make.

One of the key insights of conservatism is that moral vehemence and actual political advancement are not synonymous. As Ronald Reagan argued in his famous 1964 “A Time for Choosing” speech, “anytime you and I question the schemes of the do-gooders, we’re denounced as being against their humanitarian goals.” The intentions of the Right in the past 16 days were spot on. The scheme? Not so much. This can be a strong year for conservatism and its goals if conservatives will just think. Don’t blow it, guys.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer for National Review.