The Most Important Election Ever, Sort Of

by Jonah Goldberg

Dear Reader (and those of you who simply asked the new iPhone what today’s G-File says),

Every four years, people start saying “This is the most important election ever.”

It can’t actually be true, for the simple reason that it cannot be true that every four years our national predicament gets significantly more precarious. And yet it often feels that way. It’s like people who say the country has never been more polarized or divided, which is as dumb as saying dogs have never licked their crotches more. There’s simply something about the arrogance of the now that lets us think this moment is more important, more special than every other. Perhaps it’s because we play the movie of the past in our heads and assume the characters in the movie know what will happen next, so we can’t grasp that every “now” is important to those in it.

I actually think that’s an interesting topic in and of itself, but what got me thinking about it is, well, the Most Important Election Ever!

Okay, maybe it’s not technically the most important ever – that’s a good G-File contest, what were the most important elections in American history where the voters made the wrong choice.

That’s right, that just happened. I just blew up your Friday plans with a brain-bomb of counterfactual historical discussion topics! (Attn: Marvel Comics fans – No need to look over your shoulders for Uatu, I’m right here wrecking your world with “What if . . . ?” questions.) As you’re picking pieces of your brainpan out of the tight weave of your cubicle carpet, ask yourself: What would America be like today if William Howard Taft had won in 1912?

Boom. Your Mind. Status: Blown.

Anyway, as the desert mirage of Mitt Romney getting the GOP nomination becomes ever more concrete, I hear more and more conservatives either claiming they’ll stay home or expressing the fear that others will. I think this is an exaggerated concern partly intended to scare voters away from moving to Romney.

But it’s not a baseless concern either (after all, you can only exaggerate the truth). And it’s going to get worse before it gets better. If Romney continues to gain momentum and the anti-Romney bloc remains divided, then Romney’s incentive for placating the party’s conservative base diminishes even before the first primary vote is cast. Already he’s looking like a candidate with one eye on the general election.

You can see how, in that immaculately clean and organized head of his, he’s thinking, “Why move farther right if I don’t have to? Why not move to the center a bit now?” It’s not a dumb thought by any means, but the price of positioning yourself to the center too early is that you signal to the right that you’re really not very conservative at all.

In other words, most conservative voters forgive running-dog centrism in the general election because they want to win. But in the primaries, they want to be wooed. If they’re not sufficiently wooed in the primaries, the nominee’s inevitable move to the center becomes less forgivable because it’s seen not as a tactical maneuver but as confirmation that the nominee isn’t a real conservative.

Romney is fast approaching that inflection point in the campaign, which is why even if you’re a conservative who’s reluctantly come to accept Romney, you should still want Herman Cain or Rick Perry to keep pressure on Romney for a good while longer (or perhaps to become preferable general-election candidates). Indeed, it’s in the interest of the Forces of Light and Goodness to see the GOP primary play out for a good long time. The longer we go without a single lightning rod for Democratic and MSM attacks, the harder it will be for Obama to craft a clear message.

 

So Where Was I? Oh, Right: What Happens If Obama Wins?

Whether this is the most important election ever or not, the stakes are really huge. We’re used to the top-line items. Obamacare is vastly more likely to stay the law of the land. Freed from the need to be reelected, Obama can revert either to his true left-wing instincts or to his desire to be remembered for Great Things. In either case, you can imagine a slew of decisions that will lock the U.S. into its current, if unsteady, course to Eurostyle social democracy. I’d be surprised if a second-term Obama pushed for slavery reparations, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he gave the keys to the economy to the EPA. I would be stunned if the War on Terror weren’t folded into just another criminal file at DOJ.

All of those things are important, really important. But we’ll be hearing a lot about that sort of stuff in the weeks and months ahead. What the candidates won’t discuss is what an Obama victory would mean for the Republican Party.

A defeat for the GOP would almost surely produce waves of disillusionment among tea partiers (particularly if Romney is not the nominee) and conceivably the creation of a third party. If Romney were the nominee and lost, the only way to stave off a third-party movement would be to push the GOP further to the right and the establishment off a cliff in the process. If a more tea-party-friendly nominee lost, there would be utter chaos in the party, with the “We have to become more moderate” faction moving policy to the left. It would be bloody and ugly.

And contrary to what you might think, that doesn’t concern me because I’m so rah-rah for the GOP. The Republican Party is just a team which scores points by winning elections. If a more conservative third party could rise, destroy the GOP, and still win elections, I’d be just fine with that. Or, if the Democratic Party decided to become a thoroughly libertarian party, I’d be perfectly fine picking and choosing sides on an issue-by-issue basis between the two major parties. Also, maintaining the same level of plausibility, I would be totally psyched if Frodo had simply flown the Millennium Falcon to Mordor, saving all that time. Or we could use the proceeds from Meghan McCain’s invention of an all-in-one cold-fusion, perpetual-motion, and dashboard-mounted smoothie blender to simply buy a slice of America from the federal government and create our limited-government nation-state.

Alas, in this slice of reality, conservatives need the GOP for the simple reason that there aren’t any great alternatives to it. The Republican Party is the more conservative of the two political parties, and without it as a vessel – and a seaworthy one at that – conservatism in America is in grave trouble.

The GOP still faces long-term demographic trouble. Its current revival is largely a function of the fact that it’s getting an ever larger share of a shrinking slice of the electorate: white people. I don’t believe in straight-line projections into the future. But I think the Republicans need this win, badly.

 

They Call Him Mr. Hoover

I’m not usually prone to quoting Ezra Klein approvingly, but I think he gets at one of the reasons why this election matters a lot. While I think Obama’s made things worse, it’s also true he inherited a mess. Historically, the party that inherits the mess gets blamed for the mess. Hoover wasn’t responsible for the crash, though he made it worse. FDR made it worse too, but he also managed to take credit when the Depression ended. As lame as it sounds, if the economy gets better over the next four years, whichever president/party is in power will get a lot of credit for the recovery. Here’s Klein:

The pat story behind FDR’s victory and the ensuing decades of mostly Democratic dominance is that the president got the policy right and the politics followed. Whatever you believe about FDR’s policies, a more international perspective will disabuse you of the notion that the golden age for the Democratic Party was an ideological triumph rather than an accident of history. As Larry Bartels, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, has written, globally, the pattern is clear: Whichever party was in power when the Great Depression hit was booted out of office, and whichever party was in power when the global recovery took hold reaped huge political benefits.

“In the U.S.,” wrote Bartels, “voters replaced Republicans with Democrats and the economy improved. In Britain and Australia, voters replaced Labor governments with conservatives and the economy improved. In Sweden, voters replaced Conservatives with Liberals, then with Social Democrats, and the economy improved.

Now, I do think the economy will improve more with a Republican victory than it would with a Democratic victory. The best way to clear out the uncertainty plaguing business but also consumers is a clear do-over with a new team. Moreover, repealing Obamacare, imposing growth-oriented tax reform, etc., would have non-trivial effects. But even if you’re a complete skeptic about the ability of Washington run the economy, the simple rules of historical musical chairs say it’s important to have a Republican at the helm in 2013 and beyond.

That may not be an uplifting, passionate, emotionally satisfying explanation for why, even if it’s Romney, you should hold your nose and race to the polls. But we don’t look to politics for our emotional satisfaction. We’re conservatives.

 

Speaking of Hoover

As several readers have suggested, isn’t it time we call these Occupy Wall Street encampments “Obamavilles”? You know that if this was a Republican president, they’d already be called Bushvilles or McCainvilles by the New York Times et al.

 

Steve Jobs, RIP

For some reason, I haven’t commented on his passing. Before the issue becomes completely stale, some very quick thoughts:

1) The hype has been a little over the top. I heard a guy from the Wall Street Journal tell NPR that there wasn’t a single American – other than Barack Obama – who would deserve the huge six-column headline Steve Jobs got on the front page. Really? If Bill Gates or Warren Buffett died tomorrow theJournal wouldn’t give them similar treatment? What about George W. Bush or Bill Clinton? Similarly, the idea that he was as monumental a figure as Thomas Edison strikes me as unpersuasive.

2) But before his defenders get their dudgeons up (can one do that?), these are hardly harsh criticisms. Steve Jobs was an amazing person with monumental accomplishments under his belt. To say there are a half dozen or so people who’d get similar headlines if they died is not exactly an insult, nor is saying his contribution is slightly less than Thomas Edison’s.

3) What I found interesting was how often I noticed the disconnect between what people were saying about Jobs and the conversation in Washington. He didn’t compromise! Republicans are dangerous extremists for not compromising! He created billions of dollars in wealth! It’s outrageous that the super-rich aren’t taxed more! Etc.

 

Various & Sundry

The new issue of NR is out, and I share the cover with good Kevin Williamson and the editors. Subscribe now or badgers will sneak into your bedroom at night and gnaw off your toes.

Here’s my column today. Short take: Iran is messing with us because they’re not afraid of us.

Podcasts! Here I am talking Iran, Occupy Wall Street, and the GOP with the guys from the Banter Podcast at AEI (it’s free!).

I’ll be on Special Report tonight for a very special edition.

The G-File

By Jonah Goldberg