Conservatives are natural pessimists, based on a realism about fallible human nature that fuels our opposition to the coercive utopianism of the Left. The Founders shared this pessimism about human nature and the weakness of democracy, and kept it at the forefront of their minds as they designed our political institutions: “If men were angels,” and all that. But the conservative pessimism after the GOP’s poor showing in this election is overdone. The Republican party and the conservative movement were said to be finished after Barry Goldwater’s landslide loss in 1964, and again in 1976, when the aftermath of Watergate and Jimmy Carter’s narrow presidential win installed Democratic supermajorities in both houses of Congress. In 1977, voters who identified with the Republican party fell to an all-time low of 21 percent.
The Founders, too, would have thought our pessimism excessive. For all of the (well-founded) handwringing about adverse demographics and the critical mass of government dependents, it is ironic that conservatives — who, after all, revere the Constitution — do not take into account the “auxiliary precautions” (in James Madison’s phrase) against the collapse of our republic, or against periods when “enlightened men” would not be at the helm. In an often overlooked passage of Federalist 55 about the “safeguards” against executive usurpation, Madison writes:
As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature that justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures that have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be, that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.
So, as good and faithful constitutionalists, let’s take stock. We have not elected Obama to be plenipotentiary emperor for life; he merely gets to head the executive branch for four more years, with a less compliant Congress than he had in his first term. To be sure, a president can do a lot of damage, but he can’t foreclose on the republic on his own. To think so little of the abilities of the 30 Republican governors, not to mention GOP leaders in the House and Senate, is to display a lack of courage and faith about our grand institutions that is unworthy of us.
The concern about whether this election result means that we have passed the point of no return, and that sufficient “republican virtue” no longer remains in the American people, is similarly out of focus. In some vital respects the problem is worse than Obama himself. We need to recognize that, if Obama can cement in place or further extend the welfare state, he will be building on a hundred-year foundation that liberals constructed stone by stone. Beyond repealing Obamacare, it was never clear that a President Romney would have been able to — or was even inclined to — make a sustained effort to roll back the architecture of modern liberalism. Here is a deeper problem for the pessimists to ponder, and if they do so honestly they should conclude that Obama is a symptom more than a cause. There are no quick fixes or gimmicks for this. Symposium to follow.
But there are a couple of breaks with past political practice that we might consider after this loss. First, while everyone is calculating political tactics for future election cycles and contemplating whether and how to handle immigration, abortion, and other wedge issues, few people seem to be taking account of a troubling fact: Romney ran well ahead of many losing GOP Senate candidates in red states such as Montana and North Dakota. It is not sufficient to say that the remedy is “better candidates,” though this was surely true in Missouri and Indiana. The disconnection of presidential campaigns from congressional races, and the single-minded focus on the ten battleground states to the exclusion of the other 40, is eroding the kind of rightful partisanship that is necessary for significant transformative governance in the future. Given that Romney’s chances of repealing Obamacare depended on a GOP Senate majority, Romney should have — future GOP nominees please take note — made time for campaign stops with embattled GOP Senate nominees in red states. A few joint TV spots are good, but a more forceful message that asks voters to make a clear partisan choice is better, such as: “I can’t succeed as your president, Montana, unless you send Denny Rehberg to Washington to help me.” It is political malpractice for the party nominee to neglect the congressional races. (And it is the deliberate genius of modern liberalism to drive this wedge between executive and congressional campaigns, but that’s a long subject for another day.)
Second and more immediately, the approach of the “fiscal cliff” in a few weeks ought to be regarded as a big opportunity for boldness rather than a narrow window for a defensive compromise. News reports indicate that Obama is settling in for a long slog on taxes and spending. So here’s an idea: The House GOP should call the Obama-Krugman bluff — of letting us go over the fiscal cliff on January 1 — by passing a sweeping, pro-growth tax-reform package right now, and sending it to the Senate, coupled with an announcement that it is not going along with tax increases for anyone unless taxes increase for everyone. The House GOP could even just pass Simpson-Bowles, and rightly say they are passing the plan President Obama’s own commission recommended. The House should be prepared to let all the Bush tax cuts expire, which will expose the liberal fiction that they helped only “the rich.” (The tax increase will happen without a vote to increase taxes, so Republicans will be able to pursue this strategy without violating their no-tax-increase pledges.) It will all be on Obama and Senate Democrats. If Speaker John Boehner is serious that the House GOP has just as much of a mandate as the president, then this is the time to act on it.
A final point is that even conservatives of pessimistic bent ought to orient themselves according to a fragment from T. S. Eliot that longtime National Review contributor (and happy pessimist) Russell Kirk liked to quote in these pages:
If we take the widest and wisest view of a Cause, there is no such thing as a Lost Cause because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause. We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that anything will triumph.
– Mr. Hayward is the Thomas W. Smith Distinguished Fellow at the Ashbrook Center and the author of the two-volume political biography The Age of Reagan.