With an eye on the upcoming congressional elections, there is a great deal of speculation about what is going to happen in 2014 to Republicans, who are divided and subdivided: Establishment vs. Tea Party, social conservatives vs. libertarians, military hawks vs. deficit hawks, etc. Prognostications about how those tensions are going to play out should be informed by what is not going to happen — for example, the United States of America in 2014 is not on the precipice of: 1) abolishing abortion; 2) restoring the marriage culture of the Eisenhower years; 3) returning to a prelapsarian constitutional order; 4) transforming itself into what we used to think of as a Swedish-style welfare state before Sweden reformed itself; 5) being overrun by jihadists; 6) being overtaken economically or militarily by China; 7) approaching the terminal point on the road to serfdom; 8) politically and morally repudiating its election and reelection of Barack Obama; 9) undergoing a generations-spanning ideological realignment; or 10) possessing a rational electorate. Feel free to check me on these this time next year.
A group of prominent social conservatives recently convened in Tysons Corner, Va., to plot the year ahead. Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce caucus is quietly working to counter the influence of the Tea Party, and libertarian-leaning folks on the right are trying to decide whether to give it another go with the GOP or decamp for New Hampshire or Colorado. Democrats hope that such disagreements presage a fracturing Right — and their minions in the press love to tell that story — but such debates are natural to conservatives. Conservatism is a grouping of ideas; progressivism is a grouping of special interests.
The ongoing “Republican civil war” is partly a media creation and partly real. (The Democrats will have their own civil war when the interest groups that make up their coalition run out of other people to steal from and have to start stealing from one another.) The differences in the Republican party and in the conservative movement are partly philosophical and partly tactical. They are also in many cases the product of self-interest: In a values-driven movement, there is always a profit opportunity in staking out a position that is, if not holier than thou, then at least holier than John Boehner. Thus the risible complaints that Boehner and Mitch McConnell, two men who would have been among the most conservative leaders of Congress had they served in their current capacities during the Reagan years, are not “real conservatives,” and such inanities as Erick Erickson’s dismissing the American Conservative Union’s scorecard as “embarrassing” because of the high marks it gives to Senator McConnell.
I am not the most pragmatism-minded conservative in the world, but if your definition of “conservative” is too narrow to include the American Conservative Union or Rick Perry, you can pretty much count on never winning another election again ever. That’s fine if you make your living abusing elected Republicans and Republican candidates — better than fine, really: You can always keep whining that the Republicans would have won if they had run some “real conservatives” instead of whomever they do run, and there are enough half-bright people in the world to make up an attractive audience for advertisers. As a business model, that’s fine; but if your goal is changing the direction of the country, you might want to broaden your view.
This is not to say that all such criticism is counterproductive or self-serving. Mark Levin and the Club for Growth and Andrew C. McCarthy do excellent and principled work in trying to keep Republicans honest. And if we are really, really lucky, we may upon some blessed day arrive at the point at which my desire to cut federal spending by a third runs up against Bill Kristol’s desire to protect the military from those cuts, or at which Ramesh Ponnuru and the flat-taxers can have it out over what deep and meaningful reform of the tax code should look like. But we are not at that point. The current live issue in the gay-marriage debate, for example, is not whether it should happen or not, but about whether bakers are going to be thrown into prison for refusing to provide cakes for such nuptials.
It is difficult to imagine plausible circumstances under which that course is reversed. The thundering moral illiteracy of the American electorate — which cannot digest the fact that such grievances as gay Americans have are not very much like those of black Americans, who were kept in slavery for three centuries and brutally repressed for another — suggests very strongly that this ship has sailed. If conservatives take a cold-eyed look at the menu of victories that are plausibly within our grasp, there is a lot less for us to be fighting over among ourselves.
Put another way: The question for Republicans in 2014 is whether they want to have a Duck Dynasty election or an Obamacare election.
Choosing to emphasize one set of issues does not mean abandoning another. It means prioritizing your battles wisely and conducting them on the terrain and timetable of your own choosing. Setting aside the question of whether the term “social issues” refers to anything meaningful (I do not think it does; abortion is a very different kind of issue from gay marriage), we should ask ourselves what a Republican congressional majority in 2015, or a Republican president in 2017, might hope to accomplish on the social-issues front. The stakes are far from negligible: The issue of judicial appointments alone is worth fighting over. But there were a fair number of Rudy Giuliani enthusiasts in 2008 who argued quite convincingly that the socially liberal former New York mayor would probably appoint judges who were equal in their dedication to constitutionalism to any that a Rick Santorum or a Mike Huckabee might appoint, and perhaps judges of a higher quality. Conservatives are likely to get pretty good judges out of any Republican president in the future. But it is not very likely that conservatives in 2015 will be in a position to reverse the advance of gay marriage or to prevent its continued advance. And though I have been accused of offering the counsel of despair on this issue, the state of heterosexual marriage — no-fault divorce, widespread illegitimacy, etc. — renders the gay-marriage fight a lot less urgent. You can’t destroy marriage twice.
If you want to have a Duck Dynasty election, you need to be able to answer the question of what you can really hope to get out of it.
On the other hand, the chaotic dysfunction of the Affordable Care Act regime presents conservatives with a very attractive opportunity. The Tea Party hates it, libertarians see it as a textbook example of the failure of political steering of economic sectors, spending hawks are terrified by the gushers of money it opens up, the business lobby resents the burdens it puts upon its constituents, the Religious Right recoils from its gross violations of the First Amendment and its forcible subsidy of abortifacients. (There’s probably something in there for the gung-ho military wing of the movement, too, but I can’t think of what it is.) Replacing Obamacare is something all conservatives can agree on, while most of the things we disagree on are beyond our reach at the moment. I’d like to ban abortion in 2015, abolish the IRS, repeal the 17th Amendment, pull our troops out of Europe and South Korea, and reassign everybody at the DEA and ATF to highway trash patrol until we sell off the interstates to private operators. But that is not going to happen.
Undoing Obamacare? That’s possible. Replacing Obamacare with a sensible, market-oriented, consumer-driven model of health care? That’s possible, too, and would provide conservatives with a dramatic example of exactly how and why our philosophy works, not just in the books of F. A. Hayek or in Liberty Fund seminars, but in the real world. Winning is more fun — and winning with a purpose is the best of all.
— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review.