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October 28, 2013 5:06 PM Conservatives Against “Now Or Never”

By Ed Kilgore

Two notable subscribers to the theory advanced by Jonathan Chait that the “Defund Obamacare” crusade reflected a panic-stricken reaction to the loss of a “now or never” election are Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry of National Review, who have penned what amounts to a piece of parental advice to the Tea Folk that they’d best settle down and look for future electoral opportunities.

The essay alternates between patronizing tokens of praise for the principles and passion of the people behind “Defund Obamacare” and gentle admonition that they are trying to replace what might take many years of hard work and persuasion with a burst of intensity:

A bigger problem than the insufficient conservatism of our leaders is the insufficient number of our followers. There aren’t enough conservative voters to elect enough officials to enact a conservative agenda in Washington, D.C. — or to sustain them in that project even if they were elected. The challenge, fundamentally, isn’t a redoubling of ideological commitment, but more success at persuasion and at winning elections.
The plan to defund Obamacare was an attempt to find a shortcut around this necessary work.

Noting that the Democratic control of the Senate that thwarted the “Defund Obamacare” effort was in part the product of feckless but “pure” primary challengers in 2010 and 2012, Ponnuru and Lowry draw a direct parallel:

The defunding campaign was the legislative equivalent of the hopelessly ill-suited candidate — and, like many of those candidates, it drew support from people who see politics primarily in terms of purity, confrontation, and willpower. The contrast to the Democrats’ behavior in 2009 and 2010 is instructive. They were willing to muscle through a health-care bill even though the public opposed it, and even though some of them realized it would cost them seats. Republicans should have a similar commitment to better causes. But they should also note that Democrats used this maneuver only when they had the votes — large majorities in both houses of Congress, control of the White House — to pull it off. They did not take a large political risk while having no plausible way to gain a policy victory to show for the potential costs.
If politics is mainly a test of wills, then the task ahead for conservatives is to engineer a series of high-stakes, long-shot confrontations with President Obama and try to win them. That’s a recipe for disappointment: In modern America, for good or ill, presidents have built-in advantages over congressional party caucuses, not least because the latter are usually more cacophonous.

There are more “tips from the coaches” making it clear that the authors are entirely in accord with the philosophy and goals of the ultras:

The elevation of tactics to the level of principle means that there will always be new turncoats to purge. In recent weeks, Senators Ron Johnson and Rand Paul, both previously tea-party favorites, have been denounced for not being sufficiently committed to defunding. Constantly generating new turncoats is not a sign of a workable strategy.

Then they encapsulate the “2012 or never” syndrome as a counsel of despair:

There is no alternative to seeking to expand the conservative base beyond its present inadequate numbers and to win the votes of people who aren’t yet conservatives or are not yet conservatives on all issues. The defunders often said that those who predicted their failure were “defeatists.” Yet it is they who have given in to despair. They are the ones who entertain the ideas that everything has gotten worse; that the last few decades of conservative thought and action have been for nothing; that engagement in politics as traditionally conceived is hopeless; that government programs, once begun, must corrupt the citizenry so that they can never be ended or reformed; that the country will soon be past the point of regeneration, if it is not there already.

Ponnuru and Lowry do not offer any strategy—or even a “rebranding” exercise—for curing fellow movement-conservatives of electoral despair. As I reached the end of their essay, I expected a ritualistic invocation of the political magic and unconquerable optimism of Ronald Reagan, but they didn’t give their unruly allies even that much. What they counseled is that an explicitly anti-majoritarian approach won’t work in elections and won’t work around them, either. And that’s pretty sound advice.

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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