Against Despair

by Ramesh Ponnuru & Rich Lowry
The bad ideas behind the shutdown.

Prior to the government shutdown, the House Republican leadership offered a plan to force the Senate to hold a symbolic vote on defunding Obamacare before allowing it to move on to a so-called clean continuing resolution — one, that is, with no anti-Obamacare provisions. The plan was denounced by various conservative groups as a sell-out and caused a revolt in the caucus. A few weeks and a government shutdown later, all Republicans had to show for their trouble was . . . a symbolic vote on defunding and a clean CR. They were back where they had started, only with lower poll numbers and more poisonous divisions.

If someone had missed the intervening weeks, he would have had no idea of the drama and political pain that had ensued before the party accepted a version of the initial unacceptable compromise. From one point of view, the entire episode was all rather pointless; from another it was quite important. It was the latest and most consequential expression of an apocalyptic conservative politics.

It is a politics of perpetual intra-Republican denunciation. It focuses its fire on other conservatives as much as on liberals. It takes more satisfaction in a complete loss on supposed principle than in a partial victory, let alone in the mere avoidance of worse outcomes. It has only one tactic — raise the stakes, hope to lower the boom — and treats any prudential disagreement with that tactic as a betrayal. Adherents of this brand of conservative politics are investing considerable time, energy, and money in it, locking themselves in unending intra-party battle.

The tendency arises from legitimate frustrations. The federal government seems constantly to expand even as — and sometimes because — it proves itself incompetent. Republicans have done precious little to reverse or even halt the trend. Obamacare is a disastrous and unpopular law; but if the Republican party has a strategy for bringing about its eventual end, it has been kept well-hidden.

So it is entirely reasonable to search for new ways to tame the welfare state rather than keep doing what has been done before. The Republican consultant class has often seemed to suffer from an almost clinical deficit of imagination. And the Republican party’s leadership could certainly use the occasional poke with a cattle prod. If the conservatives behind the defunding crusade now turn back to fighting the Senate’s immigration bill with the same passion and commitment, they will again be denounced by Democrats, the press, and some Republicans as a mindless wrecking crew. It shouldn’t stop them.

The key premise that has been guiding these conservatives, however, is mistaken. That premise is that the main reason conservatives have won so few elections and policy victories, especially recently, is a lack of ideological commitment and will among Republican politicians. A bigger problem than the insufficient conservatism of our leaders is the insufficient number of our followers. There aren’t enough conservative voters to elect enough officials to enact a conservative agenda in Washington, D.C. — or to sustain them in that project even if they were elected. The challenge, fundamentally, isn’t a redoubling of ideological commitment, but more success at persuasion and at winning elections.

The plan to defund Obamacare was an attempt to find a shortcut around this necessary work. For many reasons, it had strong appeal to conservatives. Many conservatives — although not the leaders of the defunding effort — were under the false impression that if the House refused to allocate funds for Obamacare, it could defund it. In truth, Obamacare’s funding keeps going unless both houses of Congress and the president (or two-thirds of both houses) agree to stop it. The defunders thus needed to win the assent of many congressional Democrats and President Obama. They were never going to get it, and have barely tried to explain why they thought otherwise.

The leading defunders thought that the shutdown would increase their leverage, but in the actual event it eroded that leverage a little bit every day. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and President Obama denounced the shutdown but always knew they could wait it out, watch Republicans’ poll numbers drop, and count on a capitulation at the end. They were right, and any student of the shutdowns of the 1990s would have expected as much.

The defunders convinced themselves, however, that those shutdowns had gone much better than any conservatives at the time had thought. In the months after those shutdowns, they observed accurately, Republicans enacted welfare reform and lost only a few House seats. Newt Gingrich, who led the Republicans at the time, has been happy to highlight that part of the record, since it puts what has generally been considered the low point of his career in a flattering light. What this retelling of the story leaves out is that the shutdowns ended conservatives’ political momentum and Republicans spent the next several years running away from the limited-government conservatism that was associated with the debacle.

Conservatives committed to defunding, finally, thought that the unpopularity of Obamacare would buoy them politically. Here they made a double miscalculation. While Obamacare is unpopular, the public is more wary of it than hostile to it (something that may change as it takes effect). And while some defunders claim that their campaign drew public attention to Obamacare’s deep flaws, the reverse is true: It at least temporarily drew attention away. The unpopular shutdown itself was bound to take precedence in the public mind over the unpopular law that had occasioned it. Besides tanking Republican poll numbers, the main effect of the shutdown ended up being a paid vacation for part of the federal work force.

Republicans — both those who were truly committed to the defunding strategy and those who felt compelled to go along with it — did make some smart tactical moves. They sent the Senate bills to reopen parts of the government and publicized the administration’s petty determination to make the shutdown unnecessarily painful. Shrewd tactics were unable, however, to rescue a flawed strategy.

The press covered the shutdown as a disaster for both the country and the Republican party. The damage in both cases was overstated. The shutdown did impose some harms on the country that should have been avoided, but most people’s lives do not depend on non-essential federal employees. Although two major polls showed the party’s image to be at a low ebb during the shutdown, the political damage may not be long-lasting.

Its legacy depends on what lessons conservatives draw from this episode. Its odd end does not augur well. The House Republicans punctuated their humiliation with a standing ovation for Speaker Boehner. They were not applauding him for trying, though failing, to keep a fractious caucus together and undamaged — a score on which we have some sympathy for the man. Instead they congratulated him for having “fought the good fight.” Objectively, all he had done was make it possible for legislation to pass over the “no” votes of most of his Republican colleagues so that they could claim to have nothing to do with it. It was applause for theoretical purity, regardless of legislative results.

The same impulse was on display at the start of the year. The tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush were about to expire, and taxes were going to rise on everyone. The parties were haggling over which of the tax cuts would be extended. Boehner tried to get the House to vote to renew the tax cuts for everyone making less than a million dollars a year. Many Republicans refused to back him because they did not wish to be seen as favoring tax increases for anyone — even tax increases they had not voted for and could do nothing to stop. The result of their decision was that taxes went up more, and on more people, than they might have otherwise.

The need for greater purity, the ever-present danger of betrayal: These have been long-standing themes on the right. When our people get power, they immediately stop being our people, the great conservative journalist M. Stanton Evans quipped decades ago. Yet this assessment of what ails conservatism has grown less and less true with time.

The Rockefeller Republicans who once ruled the party have long been vanquished. Today’s Republican party has a bolder plan to rein in our fastest-growing entitlement program, Medicare, than Ronald Reagan did, and that plan has the support of such establishment Republicans as John Boehner and Mitt Romney. What they don’t have are the votes to enact it. Today’s Republican party is more committed to confirming judicial conservatives and blocking judicial liberals than it has ever been. (Compare the confirmation votes on Robert Bork and Samuel Alito, or Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.) It just isn’t in a position to win those fights. Replace Mitch McConnell as Senate Republican leader with Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who led the defunding brigades, and that would still be true.

While conservatives are right to be dissatisfied with the results that our political engagement over the decades has yielded, it has produced real achievements. Persuasion, winning elections, passing legislation the normal way: That’s the approach that helped bring the top tax rate down from 70 percent, reduce the crime rate, reform welfare, and . . . oh yes, topple the Soviet Union. Few aspects of our national life are more disheartening than the enduring regime of Roe v. Wade. Even on that issue, however, incrementalism has enabled some victories, changing public opinion in a pro-life direction and reducing the abortion rate.

Many conservatives would like to believe that purifying the Republican party isn’t an alternative to expanding it but an essential means to that end. On this theory, Republicans lost power because they were too compromising under a “compassionate conservative” president, nominated two moderate presidential candidates in a row, and in general demoralized conservative voters. The available evidence does not lend much credence to this theory. Both of those last two nominees — who really did have more moderate records than most Republicans — ran ahead of most of their party’s other federal candidates, for example. That’s not an argument, in our view, for a left turn by Republicans. But it is an argument against the idea that moving in the opposite direction will in itself pay political dividends.

Jim DeMint, the former senator who now heads the Heritage Foundation, famously said that he would “rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who believe in the principles of freedom than 60 who don’t believe in anything.” By any reasonable standard, though, we have had at least 30 conservatives in the Senate for the entire time DeMint has been in Washington. The trouble is that, without elected allies, 30 conservative senators cannot govern the country or even block liberal initiatives.

An emphasis on purity — even when defined essentially by matters of style and attitude rather than policy views — has too often kept such allies out of power. It has led Republican primary voters on several occasions to choose candidates who lost races that mainstream conservatives would likely have won. William F. Buckley Jr. said that conservatives should support the rightwardmost viable candidate, with viability understood to include the ability to make the case for conservatism in a way voters will find compelling. For the purists, viability is an unacceptable compromise. Which leads us to such candidates as Sharron Angle.

The people who backed these candidates reply that nobody has a perfect track record of picking winners, and that many of their candidates, including Marco Rubio and Cruz, have succeeded. Those are fair points, and this magazine backed both men over their more established rivals. To note the inconsistency of the pattern, though, is to acknowledge that circumstances matter — in which state the race is taking place, how skillful the candidates are — and that purity can exact a price. National Review joined the purists in supporting Richard Mourdock in Indiana, too, and that turned out to be a mistake. Too many conservatives have not admitted it or drawn appropriate conclusions.

The defunding campaign was the legislative equivalent of the hopelessly ill-suited candidate — and, like many of those candidates, it drew support from people who see politics primarily in terms of purity, confrontation, and willpower. The contrast to the Democrats’ behavior in 2009 and 2010 is instructive. They were willing to muscle through a health-care bill even though the public opposed it, and even though some of them realized it would cost them seats. Republicans should have a similar commitment to better causes. But they should also note that Democrats used this maneuver only when they had the votes — large majorities in both houses of Congress, control of the White House — to pull it off. They did not take a large political risk while having no plausible way to gain a policy victory to show for the potential costs.

If politics is mainly a test of wills, then the task ahead for conservatives is to engineer a series of high-stakes, long-shot confrontations with President Obama and try to win them. That’s a recipe for disappointment: In modern America, for good or ill, presidents have built-in advantages over congressional party caucuses, not least because the latter are usually more cacophonous. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid did not set up such confrontations with President Bush after they took Congress in the 2006 elections. It was not because they were more civic-minded but because dramatic battles are not generally the way party caucuses frustrate presidents and advance their own policy objectives.

They are also a recipe for constant infighting. Conservative groups that have internalized the apocalyptic view of politics believe the most effective model for gaining ground is simply pressuring Republicans to be more confrontational. The first step of the defunding strategy was not to persuade most Republicans that it was a good idea; it was to force them to go along with it whether or not they agreed. So the defunders prevented the majority of House Republicans, who disagreed, from being able to follow a different approach, and threatened to run primary opponents against some of them. Then they began to insist that Republicans who remained critical were dishonorably breaking the party’s (coerced) unity. It turned out that the power to move the House Republican caucus is not the power to move the world. Again and again it has instead been the case that as House Republicans go, so go House Republicans.

While not working, this approach increases the amount of bad blood among allies. The elevation of tactics to the level of principle means that there will always be new turncoats to purge. In recent weeks, Senators Ron Johnson and Rand Paul, both previously tea-party favorites, have been denounced for not being sufficiently committed to defunding. Constantly generating new turncoats is not a sign of a workable strategy.

Senator Cruz himself — who is, for the record, a longtime friend of one of your authors — understands perfectly well that prudence places limits on statesmen, even if his rhetorical flights in this fight have sometimes ignored the point. Asked at a town hall a few months ago why we couldn’t impeach President Obama, he said that we didn’t have the votes. By his logic in the defunding fight, though, why should it have mattered? Leave aside, as the senator did, whether impeachment is desirable. If it is an important way to vindicate the Constitution, why not ram it through the House and see if making the case for it would flip enough red-state Democrats in the Senate to convict Obama? If opponents of defunding were “defeatist” for counting too few votes for it, wasn’t he a defeatist too? Scorn prudence and you can justify any course of action so long as you approve its ends.

For that matter, why didn’t the defunders ever call for a budget bill that would repeal Obamacare altogether? If, as we have sometimes heard them say, it is the most basic rule of politics to start with a maximalist position and then compromise — as opposed to “negotiating with yourself” — why didn’t they follow that rule? Presumably it is because they drew a prudential line of their own: They considered a shutdown fight over temporary defunding more winnable than a straight-up budget fight over full repeal.

None of this is to impugn the sincerity of those who pushed for defunding, or to blame them for their frustration. It’s not as if the Republican leadership handled this episode especially well. It set the stage for this fiasco. It advanced some clever tactics against Obamacare — such as diverting some propaganda funds to actually helping sick people — but never outlined, in public, an overall repeal strategy into which those tactics could fit. That failure bred distrust among conservatives, who torpedoed the leaders’ tactical plan in part because it looked like an alternative to repealing Obamacare rather than a means to it.

The defunders thus filled a vacuum — but filled it badly. And they did not supply what the leaders most woefully lacked. Neither group has promoted a free-market health-care plan of the kind that would have to be part of any plausible strategy to replace Obamacare.

Once the shutdown began, Republican congressional leaders and their aides began to give anonymous quotes criticizing the defunders. The gist of many of the quotes was that the defunders were stupidly venting rather than pursuing a sound plan to achieve their goals. But the leakers were doing the same thing. So were John McCain and some of his allies, who were on the record with gleefully scornful criticisms of supporters of defunding, or, as McCain charmlessly called them in a different context, “wacko birds.” Other critics claimed that the organizations behind the defunding campaign, such as Heritage Action and FreedomWorks, were seeking to raise money, and that the politicians behind it were trying to raise their standing. Both of those ambitions are helpful ones when rightly directed.

The anti-Obamacare passion we saw in the defunding fight, too, is welcome even if it needs to be better applied. That passion is, indeed, one of the wonders of American politics. Where else would an entitlement promising a kind of free lunch engender such strenuous populist opposition? For that matter, where else would a Tea Party be possible? The groups that pushed defunding play an important role in galvanizing grassroots sentiment. The insistence on conservative rigor can exercise a welcome influence in fights like the one over the farm bill, in which inertia and self-serving Republican politics are at their worst and many of the same groups that supported defunding urged a better, more reformist course. Their willingness to go out and fight is indispensable.

Nonetheless, there is a better way forward: the kind of normal conservative politics that our Constitution envisions. The end of that politics is preserving and restoring, as necessary, our constitutional order, while applying it to new challenges. Its means are presenting platforms, persuading voters, winning elections, and setting policy, sometimes heroically and excitingly, more often competently and reliably. These things can be done well or badly — and in recent years no faction of the party has a great track record — but they have to be done.

The near-term tool at the disposal of this politics is the U.S. House. It can stop most foolish ideas, raise popular issues that cause trouble for Democrats, and make future Republican electoral gains and then policy victories possible. It can strike the occasional deal that on balance advances the public interest and the conservative cause. This isn’t much, but it isn’t nothing, which is what Republicans had in 2009 and 2010.

For the country to be governed conservatively, however, conservatives have to win more elections. Among the most dismaying developments of the shutdown fight was the explicit assent given by a few conservative writers and politicians to the notion that it is a pipedream to seek to elect more conservatives who will then, for example, repeal Obamacare. That is asking a lot of a party, exponents of this view said, that has won the popular vote for president only once in the last six contests.

So it is. But it is asking for the impossible to expect conservatives to realize their policy goals if that electoral record continues or gets worse. There is no alternative to seeking to expand the conservative base beyond its present inadequate numbers and to win the votes of people who aren’t yet conservatives or are not yet conservatives on all issues. The defunders often said that those who predicted their failure were “defeatists.” Yet it is they who have given in to despair. They are the ones who entertain the ideas that everything has gotten worse; that the last few decades of conservative thought and action have been for nothing; that engagement in politics as traditionally conceived is hopeless; that government programs, once begun, must corrupt the citizenry so that they can never be ended or reformed; that the country will soon be past the point of regeneration, if it is not there already.

Effective political movements create the conditions for their own success. Conservatism has not done enough of that, but when it has prospered it has never been moved by despair. The apocalyptic style of politics holds that the future of the country is at stake. That is true, which is why conservatives need to get to the work of persuading and electioneering — and drop the fantasy of a shortcut.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor at National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg View, and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: [email protected]. This article appeared in the November 11 issue of National Review.