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August 08, 2013 10:43 AM Picking A Losing Battle To Win the War

By Ed Kilgore

There’s a fascinating column penned by Craig Shirley (one of the keepers of the Gipper’s flame) and Newt Gingrich up at cnn.com that analogizes the recent state of the Republican Party to that which existed after Richard Nixon’s resignation, and postulates a simple remedy: pick a “principled” fight with the Powers That Be, and don’t worry about losing.

The example they offer is the conservative battle against the Panama Canal Treaty, which failed to stop the “giveaway” in the U.S. Senate, but led (say Shirley and Gingrich without a single shred of empirical evidence) to GOP gains in 1978 and then to Reagan’s victory in 1980.

I think there’s a bit of projection going on in this column, at least for the Newtster. While Reagan’s visibility in the Panama fight did keep him in the public eye following his narrow loss to Gerald Ford in the 1976 Republican presidential nominating process, he was already the universally acknowledged leader of the conservative movement and the putative front-runner for 1980. As for Republican gains in 1978 and 1980, there were a few other things going on (e.g., “stagflation”) that were vastly more important than the Panama Canal, which was pretty much forgotten as an issue once the treaty was ratified. But there was one politician whose rise to national power was intimately associated with the Canal fight: Newt Gingrich.

As I recounted in a piece for TNR in 2011, Gingrich narrowly lost two consecutive congressional elections in 1974 and 1976 (two very bad years for Georgia Republicans) after running distinctly to the left of a crusty conservative Democratic incumbent named Jack Flint. Combined with his earlier gig as southern regional director for Nelson Rockefeller’s 1968 presidential bid, and the liberals and environmentalists conspicuous in his circle of associates at West Georgia College, Newt was badly mispositioned in Georgia Republican politics. It was his leadership of an anti-Panama-Canal-Treaty group in Georgia that sanitized him, just in time to take advantage of Flint’s retirement in 1978 by running as a newly rechristened Fighting Conservative against a more moderate Democratic candidate. Next thing you knew, ol’ Newt was rising star in the national GOP firmament, and the rest is history.

The other element of Gingrichian projection in his column with Shirley (chronicler of Reagan’s failed but prophetic 1976 campaign, in a book I once reviewed under the headline of “Winning By Losing”) is that the strategy of “picking losing fights” they are urging on today’s Republicans comports precisely with Newt’s route to power in the House GOP, where he famously excoriated “the Republican Establishment” (embodied ultimately by the man he deposed as Republican leader in the chamber, Bob Michel) for playing ball with Democrats in order to get things done and appear responsible.

Nowhere in the column do Gingrich and Shirley mention Obamacare, much less the “defunding Obamacare” demand conservative activists are urging upon today’s “Republican Establishment.” But the implications are pretty clear:

Fighting for principles and losing is always better than surrendering and in so doing, abandoning one’s reason for being.

It’s an argument that fits more snugly into Marxist dialectical analysis than into anything associated with genuine conservatism. But it’s become a central component of latter-day right-wing mythology, in which picking a losing fight that “heightens the contradictions” between the two parties is always a good idea, whatever it does to the short-term condition of the Republic.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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