For conservatives, the story of the Obama years has been the depressing spectacle of Republicans fighting a rearguard action covering their retreat from a Democratic agenda backed by superior numbers. Republicans began the Obama administration with effectively no leverage: Barack Obama in the White House, Nancy Pelosi in the speaker’s chair, and Harry Reid running the Senate. The outcome of that was the enactment of the Affordable Care Act, the worst domestic defeat for the cause of limited government in a generation. The 2010 congressional elections gave Republicans some relief in the form of a House majority empowered to contain the worst fiscal and policy inclinations of the Obama administration and its congressional allies, and the blessed Republican obstructionists in the Senate have kept a few very bad apples out of high office, but a House majority alone is a poor foundation for advancing conservative policies or reversing the Left’s advances. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell have felt the wrath of the Right for spending too much time playing defense, but voters — including conservative voters — left them with little opportunity to do much of anything else.
Republicans now have the opportunity to effectively bring the Obama administration’s legislative program to an early end this November by eliminating the Democrats’ majority in the Senate, which would also give them a much stronger hand in keeping the worst of his appointees out of office, safely quarantined in whatever dank recesses of academia currently housing them. And while one should never underestimate the Republicans’ ability to blunder their way into missing a political opportunity or the fickleness of our bread-and-circuses electorate, there is a very good chance that that will happen. (Knock wood, salt over the shoulder — pick your own prophylactic.) But conservatives all too often seem to have failed to learn the lesson of the heavy losses we have suffered during the Obama years: The differences among us are minor compared with the differences between us and them, which are fundamental.
Conservatives had an opportunity to put the Obama administration not to an effective end but a literal one in 2012, but we blew it. Mitt Romney improved on John McCain’s vote total (barely), fared better in every battleground state save Ohio, and even won independents. The election in the end was decided by 334,000 votes in Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and New Hampshire. Even with Barack Obama’s edge among newly registered minority voters and an unusually high turnout among overwhelmingly Democratic black voters, only 57.5 percent of eligible voters actually showed up. That left a lot of room for conservatives to make a difference. But we did not take the opportunity.
The three most important words in politics are: “Compared with what?” And I am more than a little sympathetic to conservatives’ complaints about the failures of elected Republicans in Washington, who consistently disappoint us even when they are in the majority. I am also sympathetic to the view that our situation may have deteriorated to the point that even a unified Republican government under the leadership of principled conservatives may not be enough to turn things around. And though I reject the notion that Mitt Romney wasn’t good enough for true-believing conservatives, let’s say, arguendo, that that was the case. Unless you are ready to give up entirely on the notion of advancing conservative principles through the ballot box, you might consider looking at things this way: Even if you do not think that it matters much whether Republicans win, it matters a great deal that Democrats lose.
Maybe you were not that excited that 2012 gave you a choice between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. I sympathize — I liked Rick Perry. But how is President Romney vs. President Obama a hard choice? How is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vs. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid a hard choice? How is Speaker of the House John Boehner vs. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi a hard choice?
Even if you think that Romney is a squishy RINO Massachusetts technocrat with a secret crush on Obamacare, you have to be on the wrong side of the border between ideologically hardcore and ideologically blinded to conclude that spending four years fighting against the very worst imaginable tendencies of a Romney administration would have been anything other than wine and roses compared with spending four years fighting against the very worst tendencies of an Obama administration, especially when the president is in the position of never having to face another election.
You can tell yourself a just-so story about how the guy you liked who couldn’t beat Romney in the GOP primary would have beaten the mom jeans off of Obama in the general, and maybe you’re right, but it didn’t happen that way. (And maybe you don’t like that the so-called establishment supported Romney. Guess what? You can support candidates, too!) Likewise, if all the senators that conservatives admire weren’t already running for president, one of them might make a majority leader that you’d prefer to McConnell. And Paul Ryan probably would be a more inspiring speaker than Boehner is. Fine, fine, and fine. But that isn’t where we were, and it isn’t where we are.
The question wasn’t “Mitt Romney — yes or no?” It was: “Mitt Romney — compared with what?”
Compared with this.
The Obama administration has handed conservatives — and, more important, the country — disaster after disaster after disaster. Rather than scaling back the most worrisome aspects of the surveillance state and the so-called War on Terror, President Obama has expanded on them. Taxes are up, health insurance is a chaotic mess subject to ad hoc revision every time Democratic political necessities demand it, our allies are dispirited, our enemies emboldened, our religious liberties under attack by the very government entrusted with defending them, our economy anemic, with too many of our people unemployed and those who are employed earning too little.
I am not naïve enough to believe that having elected Mitt Romney president or consigning the Democrats to the minority in both houses of Congress would change all that. But unless you are ready to give up on electoral politics entirely — and I confess to wavering on that question with a bias toward despair — then it is a matter of deciding whether X is preferable to Y. And sometimes that is a pretty easy call. Contemplating the inevitable shortcomings of elected Republicans, conservatives may consider the situation and think: “The lesser of two evils is still evil.” And it is. But it’s also lesser. And if that’s the choice we have, it may be unpalatable — but it is a choice that we have to make. I liked the Cthulhu 2012 slogan — “Why Vote for a Lesser Evil?” — but that’s a joke, not a program. The reason to vote for a lesser evil is because we’re responsible adults who don’t want the greater evil to prevail.
If this seems inconsistent with more than a little of what I have written before, I suppose a personal note is in order. I left the Republican party because I didn’t want to be part of any organization that would have Arlen Specter as a member, and because I was appalled at the fiscal incontinence of the Bush years. And I’ve very much enjoyed being able to tell people that I’m not a Republican. (Some days more than others, as you might imagine.) That being said, I am coming around to the view that I’d rather be disappointed by Republicans who periodically fail live up to their principles than have my country pillaged and hobbled by Democrats who consistently live up to theirs. I admire the Tea Party and organizations such as the Club for Growth for being willing to do the hard work of trying to ensure that the Republican party serves the interests of principled conservatism, not the other way around, because the only real available channel of reform for conservatives who don’t like the Republican establishment is to become the establishment. I don’t know where to find a Republican registration card in New York City, but, moral and intellectual vanity be damned, I think it may be time for me to get a new one. It’s not a matter of white hats vs. black hats, but of competing visions about how the country should be governed. There are some honorable and intelligent people in the progressive camp, but the final outcome of allowing them to hold power is to make the country and the world worse off — unnecessarily poorer, weaker, and more vulnerable. Former union president Ronald Reagan talked about “a time for choosing,” while Harlan County union organizers a generation before him demanded to know: “Which Side Are You On?”
And that isn’t a hard decision.
Correction: The original version of this piece contained an error in which I bone-headedly compared actual 2009 spending to estimated 2013 spending, rather than actual 2013 spending. Actual spending went down a bit in 2010, up in 2011, up in 2012, and down in 2013. I regret the error, and God bless the sequester.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.