The Corner

Politics & Policy

Strategy Isn’t Everything

President Donald Trump attends the National African American History Month Reception at the White House in Washington, D.C., February 21, 2019. (Jim Young/REUTERS)

Sean Trende, one of my favorite analysts, has an interesting thread expressing his consternation at the folks at the Bulwark and what they are up to.

I understand what Trende is getting at, and he certainly makes some plausible points about how ugly things will be for a while. But I think he’s starting from a couple of wrong assumptions. First, he makes no allowance for the possibility that some anti-Trump conservatives are just doing what they believe is the right thing to do. If, for example, you think Trump’s emergency declaration is philosophically and politically wrongheaded, what should a writer do? Lie? Stay silent? That would make sense if you wanted to be a party apparatchik or if your business model was fan service rather than honest analysis. Sean is one of the most clear-eyed and insightful election analysts out there. I have every confidence he wouldn’t change his findings just because his readers don’t want to hear them or because it might cost him influence in the GOP. There are lots of anti-Trump — and, yes, pro-Trump — writers out there who operate the same way.

Second, let’s assume the motivations of some anti-Trump conservatives are close to what Sean assumes they are. Similar misgivings could have been aired at numerous times since the dawn of the conservative movement. From the Taft-Dewey fights of the 1950s to the Goldwater-Rockefeller-Nixon battles of the 60s, to the Reagan-Ford conflicts of the 1970s, there were times when sticking to your principles and duking it out with your intramural opponents would seem very un-strategic. Newt Gingrich’s bomb-throwing antics in the late 1980s and early 1990s made him reviled by the GOP leadership. They also worked.

Of course, there are problems with all of these analogies. The Goldwater example somewhat supports Sean’s point. The Goldwaterites were gracious losers. In 1960, Goldwater told his supporters to stick with the party, despite feeling disrespected.  “Let’s grow up conservatives,” he said, “If we want to take this party back — and I think we can someday — let’s get to work.” The Nixonites were less gracious in 1964. Regardless the Goldwaterites ultimately did take the party with Reagan’s victory, but only after decades of being thorns in the establishment GOP side.

I think the real problem is that in the past these intra-GOP factions had standard-bearers to rally around. The anti-Trump or Trump-skeptical conservatives for the most part tend to be Reaganites philosophically, but they have no Reagan to raise the banner for. Larry Hogan’s a good man, but he doesn’t seem to fit the uniform. Kasich? Ugh. Weld? Bless your heart. The potential Reagans are strategically waiting it out (which is paradoxically a somewhat un-Reaganite thing to do).

That’s a real problem for those who care a lot about strategy — but it’s also a great excuse to be happy warriors in what they see as a good and rebellious cause. It’s always more fun to be the underdog.

Meanwhile, for those who just think that they’re doing the right thing or who believe that their job is just to tell the truth as they see it — even if that means they’re just speaking to a remnant of the conservative movement — it’s not a problem at all. As James Burnham liked to say, “Where’s there’s no solution, there’s no problem.” It’s just a fact of life in this moment — and a source of good copy.

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Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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