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Against Despair



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Let’s not kid ourselves, last night was a bad night. I understand and appreciate the impulse to “come together” and put aside the partisanship. That’s a good and necessary impulse in politics. But so is honesty. And I think the voters made a terrible mistake. No serious person thinks that just because the public votes one way or another, their verdict is right. But all American citizens should accept that the voters have the final say. Maybe things will work out better than I expect with another four years of Barack Obama in the White House. Crazier things have happened.

But that’s not how I’d bet.

Even so, that’s a matter of what will come out of Washington in the months to come. And even if John Boehner & Co. work wonders, I don’t really see how conservatives can spin the news about what came out of the electorate. The fact that Barack Obama was reelected, and how he was reelected, can only be seen as dispiriting news for conservatives. 

That Mitt Romney got fewer votes than John McCain is dismaying on any number of levels. We were told, by strategists and by what seemed like common sense, that the McCain coalition was a floor for Romney to build up from. The possibility that it was in fact a ceiling is pretty awful to contemplate. It is also pretty infuriating when you think about what the Romney campaign was telling us about their path to 270.

I’ll be blunt: I do not think Mitt Romney ran a good campaign. Don’t get me wrong, I think he worked his heart out as did many who worked for him. I think he made himself into the best candidate he could (which is different from saying he was a great candidate). But I also think that Romney’s theory of the contest was wrong. As I wrote at the time, the Republican convention was a mess. I think Romney strategist Stu Stevens’s contempt for ideas — never mind conservative ideas — was absurd. I think the failure of the Romney campaign to offer a compelling explanation of any kind (at least until the second debate) for how it wasn’t a third Bush term was fatal (as I discussed here and elsewhere). Politics is about persuasion. And persuasion requires making serious arguments. Stevens, by all accounts, has contempt for serious arguments.

None of this means that all of the talk about changing demographics and long-term structural challenges for the GOP is without merit. I have strong views about all of that as well.

In fact, I have a different view from some about the coming wave of recriminations: I welcome it. I don’t know that things need to be vicious or personal, but they do need to be honest. And honesty requires we say things that may feel personal to our friends. This is one of the great and abiding strengths of the conservative movement and the thing I love about it most. Contrary to the conventional wisdom among liberals, conservatives are actually far more willing to examine their dogma and their first principles than liberals or “centrists” are. This has been the source of conservatism’s lasting strength.

It’s going to take a while to sort through this mess. There’s evidence for every faction either to cling to as a flotation device in rough emotional seas or to wield as a cudgel in a fratricidal battle for dominance on the right. Much of the instant analysis (yes, possibly including my own) is bound to be proven wrong in the coming days and weeks. And, given the scope of this loss, many contradictory arguments will be sustainable simultaneously. For instance, I for one don’t blame the tea-party base’s skepticism in response to claims that if only the GOP had elected an even more moderate candidate we would have won. But I also think the tea parties’ insistence on picking the candidate with the most strident position, regardless of his skills as a candidate, is mistaken. The problem was never the Buckley rule, it was figuring out how to apply it successfully.

My only real counsel for the moment is against despair (see: “How to take a beating”). I hear lots of people saying they’re done with politics. I understand the impulse. But that way lies ruin. Despair is the gateway drug to cynicism and Nockian indifference. Our problems are too great and our cause too just for that. There is time to take a timeout and have a drink (or 50). But it’s worth remembering that the cause is lost only if you leave it and choose to never find it again. “Never despair,” Edmund Burke allegedly said, “but if you do, work in despair.” I don’t know that Burke actually said that, but whoever did was right. 



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