Against Despair
The bad ideas behind the shutdown.

Senators Mike Lee (left) and Ted Cruz (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)



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.