Winning on Principle
"Set aside the merits and think about the politics" is the pith of Ramesh Ponnuru's advice to conservatives at Bloomberg.com a few days ago. In a short article titled: "Do Conservatives Actually Want to Win Elections," Ponnuru examines a few recent instances where conservatives are presumed to eschew the practical in favor of the dogmatic.
As to the first -- setting aside the merits and thinking about the politics -- it begs the question: "Why on earth would conservatives divorce merit -- or principle -- from politics?" As to the article's rhetorical question about conservatives wanting to win elections, the answer is, of course, "yes." But winning elections are about more than winning elections; it's about earning opportunities to govern. Governing, done rightly and well, is grounded in principles and worldviews consistent with nature, human and external.
If all conservatives wanted were to win elections, they could lie like Democrats and ballyhoo their compassion as bases for expanding government, cloaking as responsible malfeasance in the nation's fiscal affairs, and argue for a "balanced approach" to retiring federal debt and closing deficits (i.e., raising taxes while exploding the national debt and deficits).
Certainly, there are practicalities to governing. There's horse swapping, accommodation, and compromise. Rare is the president, governor, or legislator who gets a whole loaf in any policy or legislative fight. Conservatives grasp this quite well.
In fairness, here's the context of Ponnuru's "set aside merit" statement:
Set aside the merits and think about the politics. Which course makes more sense for Republicans opposed to Hagel? Attacking the Democrats who supported him for being soft on defense and Israel? Or attacking Republicans who voted against him for not opposing him strongly enough? The question answers itself.
What Ponnuru is either ignoring or places little stock in is that a war -- yes, a war -- has begun for the control and direction of the Republican Party. The GOP is split -- not evenly, mind you; about a third of the party is establishmentarian (the "Rovians"), while three-quarters, roughly, are grassroots conservatives. Grassroots conservatives are bound and determined to win back the GOP or, frankly, leave it. A seminal moment fast approaches for Lincoln's Grand Old Party. Will the GOP be a reinvigorated, confident conservative party, or a rump - the rightwing of the leftwing Democratic Party?
As to Hagel, conservative senators did communicate quite well to voters (as well as possible through the mainstream media filter) that Chuck Hagel is grossly unfit to serve as Secretary of Defense. Conservatives also, importantly, laid down markers within the Senate Republican Caucus that opposition to Hagel required more than an up or down vote. The broader context here is that daily the world grows more dangerous to the United States and its interests. The nation needs foreign and defense polices that are consistent with the challenges and threats posed by Islam, Iran, North Korea, China, and Russia. Chuck Hagel, based on his beliefs and worldview, which mirror President Obama's, is the wrong man at the wrong time (if ever) to hold so critical a portfolio in the executive branch (John Kerry is little better as Secretary of State). Conservatives deserve applause for raising the ante on the Hagel nomination and pushing their more pliable Republican colleagues via filibuster. With the Hagel nomination, Senate conservatives chose to lead. More of that is required in the Senate and House in the coming weeks and months.
Here's another observation from Ponnuru:
I wish New Jersey were governed more conservatively: that Christie had not, for example, agreed to expand Medicaid last week on federal taxpayers' tab. But we're talking about New Jersey here. It's a state that last elected a Republican to the Senate in 1972 and last went for a Republican presidential candidate in 1988. It went for President Barack Obama by a larger margin than any other state governed by a Republican.
Grassroots conservatives aren't merely going to sit on their hands and wish. Ponnuru essentially argues that Christie is right on other issues, so cut him slack (in fact, learn from him). New Jersey is a red state, after all. Why the litmus test?
Christie's capitulation on Medicaid expansion does more than bow to his state's politics; it concedes important ground in the fight to stymie implementation of ObamaCare (along with the nation's financial affairs, ObamaCare is the most significant battleground between the left and right today).
Christie was a publicly professed critic and opponent of ObamaCare, whose opposition as a sitting governor in a northeastern red state made him conspicuously valuable in the fight to stop Mr. Obama's flagrant encroachments on the private sector and the freedom and rights of citizens throughout the republic. That Christie opted to set aside the merits for the politics of the issue is shameful, not laudatory, given the magnitude of the issue and the high stakes.
Finally, Ponnuru chides the Club for Growth for announcing that it will take on wobbly Republican incumbents in U.S. House races in 2014. Ponnuru takes a swipe at Club for Growth president and former congressman, Chris Chocola, for having voted for a huge expansion of Medicare while in Congress. We can suppose that Chocola is a hypocrite, as Ponnuru does, or we can allow that Chocola has "grown" (isn't that a favor word of establishment Republicans?). Or perhaps Chocola simply regrets his vote and is making amends? But if Chocola is a political hypocrite, why should that bother Ponnuru? Chocola is just playing the political game according to his lights. That Chocola's alleged hypocrisy cuts against wobbly House Republicans is Ponnuru's rub. But let's give the malleable Chris Christie a pass.
There are trees, and then there's the forest. The nation has entered a time of epochal choice. Whither tends the nation? Less free or more? A renewal of liberty and its advancement, or a dark victory for statism? The war for the nation's soul has been ongoing for nearly a century now; it's approaching a climax. The Republican Party either is or isn't the vehicle for fighting the political war on behalf of liberty against statist Democrats. The divisions must be necessarily stark between the parties; the GOP must be united in the cause to triumph over Mr. Obama's and the left's aims; not just mitigate them.
In yet another masterful article by Jeffrey Lord at the American Spectator, Lord updates Bill Buckley's mission statement for National Review (where Ponnuru serves as a senior editor) and applies it to CPAC.
Lord offers a "CPAC Credenda." Lord's "Clause E" is germane to this discussion:
E. The most alarming single danger to the American political system lies in the fact that an identifiable team of Fabian operators is bent on controlling both our major political parties (under the sanction of such fatuous and unreasoned slogans as "national unity," "middle-of-the-road," "progressivism," and "bipartisanship.") Clever intriguers are reshaping both parties in the image of Babbitt, gone Social-Democrat. When and where this political issue arises, we are, without reservations, on the side of the traditional two-party system that fights its feuds in public and honestly; and we shall advocate the restoration of the two-party system at all costs.
Grassroots conservatives are unambiguously on the side of an honest Republican Party, which does more than pay lip service to conservative principles, but fights to realize them through the means of politics. Ponnuru blandly suggests that the nation is just experiencing politics-as-usual, where the existential threat to liberty isn't great and nearing immediacy.
Ponnuru's article clearly illustrates the fault line within today's Republican Party... and, unintentionally, the imperative for a conservative victory.