After a busy few days of litigation, I finally got a chance to read Rich and Ramesh’s excellent “Against Despair,” an essay that has led at least one prominent voice to call them “well fed” and to decry National Review as essentially the “house publication of the Republican party.”
Now, I say that as someone who disagrees with Rich and Ramesh on the defund/delay strategy. I thought it was the right strategy at the right time, especially given the very high stakes – the looming implementation of a broken health-care plan, one that will likely fund more than 100,000 abortions per year, result in the cancelation of millions of insurance policies, and cause untold and as-yet-unforeseen damage to not just the American economy but also the American spirit (as large-scale entitlement programs tend to do). I believe a fair reading of history will be quite kind to those who threw their political bodies in front of such a monstrosity. And while the defund strategy was a long-shot, at best, the delay proposal (the actual conservative “last offer” before the shutdown) was not only viable, it still may yet happen — with Democratic assistance.
But a disagreement on tactics is not proof of disagreement on underlying commitment to the core outcome: repeal of Obamacare and its replacement with conservative health policies that are better for our citizens, better for our economy, and respect life and core liberty interests. The true test of conservatism isn’t supporting a shutdown until you achieve your policy wish-list. After all, not even the most fire-breathing of widely read conservative commentators are advocating a renewed government shutdown to force large-scale changes to existing entitlement/dependency infrastructure. They recognize the limits of the possible in some contexts, yet they angrily deny the good faith of those who disagree about the extent or nature of those limits in other contexts.
By the same token, I’ve heard and read many Republicans (not Ramesh or Rich, to be sure, but even some folks I consider good friends) angrily dismissing tea-party conservatives as stupid, irrational, self-interested fundraisers content mainly to rule their tiny empire of conservatism at the expense of the republic. That’s as ridiculous as calling Rich and Ramesh “well fed.”
Of course, there are always the outliers — the “establishment” folks whose main ambition is the retention of power (principle be dammed), or the tea-party activist drunk with new-found attention, exploiting (and feeding) conservative rage for financial gain — but in my exposure to both sides of the emerging “civil war” on the right, there is a very real commitment to shared values, if not to common tactics.
The problem, however, is the sin of pride. As the battle lines are drawn, the two sides (and again, I’m not referring to Rich and Ramesh here — they stated their case the way it should be stated) are often not only taking the position that they’re right, but that they’re certain they’re right, and the other side is not only completely wrong but acting in bad faith. Yet, when dealing with complex cultural/political fights, against a well-funded ideological foe, backed by all the talent and influence of pop culture and the mainstream media, with the object of persuading a critical mass of the more than 300 million American citizens (most of whom follow politics casually, if at all), the idea that we can be certain that any given strategy is superior is sheer fantasy. Even worse is certainty so blinding, so self-righteous that one goes out of his way to actually disrupt the strategic efforts of fellow conservatives and then attempts to publicly and privately destroy their good name.
It was quite disturbing, for example, to see some Republicans who opposed the defund/delay strategy not only work to make sure it failed but then run immediately to the press to declare their predictions vindicated. To continue with a football analogy I used in a previous post, this behavior is equivalent to hating the quarterback’s audible, actually helping bat down his pass, then running to the press box to say, “Stupid play. I knew that wouldn’t work.” It is, however, equally disturbing to see name-calling and vitriol directed not just at those who actively and viciously attacked Mike Lee and Ted Cruz but also those who merely had a good-faith disagreement about an undeniably complex and difficult political and cultural challenge.
I supported the defund/delay strategy because I thought it was the best of a number of bad options, because I thought it was the most compassionate option for citizens (many of them sick) facing the looming loss of health insurance plans they bought and paid for, and because public funding for abortion is a deep moral wrong. But not for one moment did I think those who disagreed with me were necessarily less committed to constitutional government or less committed to life.
Conservatism isn’t just an ideology, it’s a way of life fundamentally grounded in the Biblical reality that men and women are fallen — including even sincere and committed conservative men and women. Yes, we can clash over strategies and tactics. Yes, we can argue over deep principles. But we must do so with the full knowledge that we may well be wrong, and that one day we might need the grace and forgiveness we’ve denied even our friends and fellow travelers.