In Praise of the Establishment

by Charles C. W. Cooke
McConnell and Boehner have steered us right for a few months now.

Much maligned as it is, the Tea Party’s essential complaints are sound.

The federal government is, indeed, too big; it spends far, far too much; it taxes and borrows an awful lot more than it should; and it intrudes habitually and without fanfare into what should of right be the business of the states. The president is guilty as charged — increasingly lawless and typically dismissive of anybody who dares to protest — and his still-unpopular signature legislation is not only creaking under the weight of its own contradictions but is the proximate cause of our current political trench warfare. And, as ever, the whole sorry mess appears to be rolling on inexorably, without the reverse gear ever being engaged or the ratchet dismantled and thrown away.

Equally correct is the Tea Party’s insistence that the Republican House should use its power to try to effect a change in course. President Obama and his acolytes may trade in whatever insults they wish, terming recalcitrant legislators “nullifiers” or “terrorists” or “hostage-takers” or “neo-Confederates” or what they will, and they may do so as loudly as they see fit. But they cannot change the fact that the House is not only allowed to disagree with the White House and with the Senate, but that, in questions financial — including whether or not to raise the debt ceiling — it is intended to be prime. This, both the Constitution and the Federalist papers tell us plainly, is what the body is for, and no amount of rhetoric can change it. As such, you may mark it down at the outset: The charges that conservatives routinely level against Washington are fair, and they have in me a staunch ally. Laminate my dissenter’s card and add me to the rolls, Mr. Adams.

Still, all of that notwithstanding, many conservatives have of late demonstrated a worrying tendency to believe that the virtue of their grievances and the legitimacy of their pursuits must automatically translate into political victory — and that if these do not, that this is the fault of the leadership of the Republican party. I appreciate that this is difficult for some to hear, but I would venture that the opposite is the case. In my estimation, the only thing of which Mitch McConnell and John Boehner have been guilty in the past few years is to have worked tirelessly within political reality and to have reacted sensitively to the hands that they were dealt. The hysterical epithets and acronyms, the witless talk of the amorphous “Establishment,” and the lucrative fundraising e-mails all to one side, there is little that either man could have done differently while their party controlled just one half of one branch of government.

Insofar as last year’s shutdown served a purpose at all, it was to reveal how fragile is the GOP’s hand, how extraordinarily determined to stand firm was Harry Reid, and how tricky it is to play offense from a position of weakness. Budgets and continuing resolutions, remember, still need the agreement of the Senate and of the president — both of which are staunchly opposed to the Republicans’ agenda — and they rise or fall by the say-so of the public. In October 2013 at least, it was the Democratic party that enjoyed popular support, not Republicans. This is to the discredit of the American electorate, certainly, but that being the case does not render it untrue. Scream all you like about veterans’ memorials being closed and children’s cancer treatment being canceled and the executive branch being capricious and petty; these things did little to change the dynamic. Instead, the Republican party’s popularity dropped to record lows, its members started to fracture into inchoate subgroups, and the media’s attention was taken away from the most profitable story Republicans have enjoyed in a decade: Obamacare. One can regret that President Obama and Harry Reid behaved as they did, as I do. One can regret that the American people were not more upset with the White House’s peevish and indulgent behavior, as I do. One can regret that the present economic malaise has not caused more of a backlash, as I do. But one cannot deny reality.

As during last October’s shutdown, much of the current griping from the right is predicated upon a false dichotomy of precisely the sort that those of a Burkean disposition are supposed to abhor. When a progressive stands up and compares the status quo to his best intentions — or suggests that anybody who disagrees with his preferred tactics must be against his aims, too — conservatives rightly roll their eyes and sigh knowingly. Alas, of late a number of us have fallen into precisely the same trap as tends to ensnare our friends on the Left — comparing difficult reality to promised (often wholly imagined) future victories, and celebrating how brave we are for opposing the way things currently are without outlining a workable means of changing it. There is, I’m afraid, a touch of Occupy Wall Street about much of the Right’s insurgency — an unlovely propensity to believe that if a small group just wishes hard enough for a particular outcome, it will be able to achieve it. The most risible thing I saw during my time in Zuccotti Park was the participants’ perpetually misguided belief that they were representing a silent majority. “The people united shall not be defeated,” they would cry, without doing anything at all to indicate that they were indicative of anything of the sort. I have recently encountered a similar tendency among people with whom I politically agree.

“I’d be willing to risk losing the Senate if we could keep America,” Mitch McConnell’s primary challenger, Matt Bevin, told Glenn Beck this morning. What an astonishingly incoherent and misguided sentence that is. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” asks the King James Bible. A fair question, yes, but politics is a different game altogether, and, in this case, the alternative isn’t an otherworldly victory or spiritual advancement but simply more loss. The question for Bevin must be “for what shall it profit a man if he shall lose another debt-ceiling fight and lose his party’s shot at the Senate as well?” And the answer is “not at all.” If this is what we are to expect from the revolution — a host of nihilistic, suicidal, performance artists who would rather be outside of the control room screaming than inside and in charge — then give me the cynical calculations of a Mitch McConnell any day of the week.

“Any time, you and I question the schemes of the do-gooders,” Ronald Reagan complained in 1964, “we’re denounced as being opposed to their humanitarian goals. It seems impossible to legitimately debate their solutions with the assumption that all of us share the desire to help the less fortunate. They tell us we’re always ‘against,’ never ‘for’ anything.” Could this sentiment not be applied currently to some slices of the Right? After all, pretty much every single Republican agrees on the question of Obamacare. Pretty much every single Republican agrees on taxes and spending and the size of government. Pretty much every single Republican agrees on the debt. They disagree, however, on tactics. And tactics matter. Make no mistake: For all the bluster, the Democratic party and the wider progressive movement is absolutely terrified of Obamacare, which has been a liability for almost five years now, and which is not going away. As I noted yesterday, the majority of the elections this year are going to yield fights between a candidate who wants to repeal the law completely and a candidate who is critical of it in at least one way. There is nothing that the president would like more at this moment than to play last October over again — to paint the GOP as an extreme, risk-taking, rump party holding the country hostage. McConnell and Boehner were right to recognize that handing him that opportunity this year would have been a disaster.

Back in October, I made three predictions: That Obamacare’s rollout would be a mess, leading to a bump in the Republican party’s fortunes; that while conservatives had failed to secure a delay to any part of the law, President Obama would continue to serve them up illegally; and that, if conservatives could resist the temptation to dress up and play Light Brigade, they could hold the line purely by passing a clean spending resolution and a clean debt-ceiling hike. On the first two counts I was correct. On the lattermost, I was partially correct: We got a clean debt-ceiling hike, thus avoiding a protracted fight that, in their current situation, Republicans cannot win, but we did not quite get a clean spending bill — instead, there was a grand compromise, which, although imperfect, preserved much of the sequestration that the Tea Party liked and denied the Democratic party anything approaching the spending levels that they wanted and, just a few years ago, had expected to achieve.

For a party that enjoys such little power in Washington, this has been pretty good going and, unfashionable as it is, I feel that I should buck the trend and praise the party for playing a difficult round adroitly and with foresight. Well done, McConnell. Well done, Boehner. Now win the Senate in November, and give ’em merry hell.

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