September 13, 2006


How to Win by Losing (RAMESH PONNURU, 9/13/06, NY Times)

CONSERVATIVES are dreading the November elections. The Republican capture of the House of Representatives in 1994 was one of modern conservatism’s signal political accomplishments. Now the Democrats are poised to take back the House. If that happens, however, conservatives will find several silver linings in the outcome.

It would be worse for conservatives if Republicans actually gained seats. The Congressional wing of the party lost its reformist zeal years ago and has been trying to win elections based on pork and incumbency. An election victory would reward that strategy, leaving the congressmen even less interested in restraining spending, reforming government programs and revamping the tax code. Political incompetence and complacency, sporadic corruption and widespread cynicism: having paid a price for none of it, Republicans would indulge in more of the same. [...]

There is also the matter of the 2008 elections. Do Republicans really want to go into 2008 running a unified government? The last time an election maintained unified party control from one presidency to another was in 1928.

Realistically, this mid-term doesn't matter very much. Even if the GOP does well, Democrats will likely retain enough seats in the Senate to filibuster the next major set of Third Way reforms. Even if Democrats do well they aren't going to win enough seats to break a GOP filibuster in the Seanate, nevermind override presidential vetoes. And the Republicans are going to increase their current majorities in '08, regardless of whether John McCain or Rudy Giuliani is at the top of the ticket.

What's revealing here though is the conservative terror of governance. Note the date that Mr. Ponnuru cites: 1928. In the pre-Depression era the Republican Party was the governing party, America being a naturally conservative country. Indeed, the only Democrats to be elected president from Lincoln to FDR were the rather conservative Grover Cleveland (the Bill Clinton of his day) and Woodrow Wilson, who owed his election entirely to the petulance of Teddy Roosevelt. But today some on the Right are so invested in their small government cant that they'd rather be powerless and pure than be responsible for running what is inevitably a strong government.

Contrary to Mr. Ponnuru's essay, the signal achievement of modern conservatism was not a mere election, but the legislation, appointments, and policies that Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich/Bill Clinton, and George W, Bush have put into effect: tax cuts, breaking the Air Traffic Controllers, Welfare Reform, NCLB, GATT, NAFTA, myriad bi-lateral trade agreements, civil service reform, Medicare Reform, judicial appointments, democratizing eastern Europe and the Middle East, etc., etc., etc..... Winning in '94 was fun for conservatives. The Party ran on a set of crytal clear ideas. But things get messy when you have to try to turn ideas into law. You have to compromise and you even lose sometimes. But it is the great flaw of the intellectual to prefer the idea in your head to he reality of human affairs and it is a flaw that should be anathema to conservatives. We are, after all, the Stupid Party and that stupidity is what makes us perfectly suited to run the Stupid Country.

Meanwhile, you'd pretty much have to be as Bright as a libertarian to explain how electing Democrats is a good idea for the Right.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 13, 2006 11:45 AM

Ramesh, you submitted this column for the New York Times. Why are you such a traitor, Ramesh?

Snarkiness aside, I wonder if Ramesh and his fellow hangers-on in the NRO Chatting Class fully realize that deciding who has what conservative values is not their call to make in this election. This election is fully in the hands of Karl Rove, and you (NRO) are his plaything.

I would humbly submit that Hugh Hewitt and his fellow Salem Communications employees at have more swing in electoral influence than the NRO Cluckers do.

Posted by: Brad S at September 13, 2006 1:02 PM

Reminds me of conservatives who did not work/vote for the first President Bush because Clinton wouldn't be so bad, we will win in 1996 etc. How is Beyer and Ginsbrg working out for you, Ramesh, for instance?

Political parties (and political movements forthat matter) exist to win elections and thereby advance its goals. One can't throw one election on the hope that the next one will be won. Next time may never come.

By the way, if the Dems take over the House and Senate, the 2007 immigration bill signed by President Bush won't go over well at NRO, will it?

Posted by: Bob at September 13, 2006 1:20 PM

I agree. The right-wing ideologues who would rather be right than be president need to wake up and smell the napalm*.

Conservatives need to wean the nation from the nanny state to the ownership state. We can do this, and we are doing this, but we can't do it if we aren't winning elections.

*"I love the smell of napalm in the morning: it smells like victory."

Posted by: Lou Gots at September 13, 2006 1:22 PM

Neither has any--they're talking to a small group of upper middle class young white secular men.

Posted by: oj at September 13, 2006 1:28 PM

So OJ, are you saying Fox News and Sean Hannity are the bigger influences on this election? Speaking of Sean, it's amazing he's pushing the election angle as much as he is, given the allegedly huge upside risk he has in pushing it.

Posted by: Brad S at September 13, 2006 1:45 PM

I think most conservatives can agree that government ought to be smaller and a huge amount of money that the government spends is wasteful and even counterproductive. But there are some things to consider: 1.) It doesn't always seem to bother the public as much as it does us, 2.) People naturally don't want money to stop coming to them, 3.) A big part of that spending is entitlements and those are tough to cut, 4.) Compromise is the essence of politics and politics is dirty, which means making decisions that some people construe as "selling out," and one more thing that conservatives of all people should understand, 5.) We can't get everything we want as soon as we want it.

So compromise is essential. But there's also the danger that you can lose your principles if you do it too often, becoming so obsessed with winning that you don't realize how cozy you've become with power. Finding the middle ground means taking the Ronald Reagan approach: List what is important to you, rank your priorities, and decide just what you are willing to compromise on to reach certain essential goals. In Reagan's case, he was willing to increase government spending in order to counteract the Soviet Union. He took many actions that enraged conservatives, as any look at source material from that era will attest. But at the end of the day, conservatives remember him for the myriad positive accomplishments, not for the negative small-bore stuff.

In Bush's case, he is trying to reform the welfare state by setting up programs that may cost serious money in the short-term, and by spending further money so as to buy Democratic votes. But if the plan works, people will be at least partially weaned off of government and the Democratic party will suffer accordingly.

This isn't a very pure process, but it does reflect reality and none of us gets a free pass out of that.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at September 13, 2006 2:31 PM

Bigger, not big.

Posted by: oj at September 13, 2006 2:43 PM


What you described can be better stated under terms such as One-Time Cost and Recurring Cost. Would you spend a larger amount of money to resolve the initial problem or spend small amounts of money on yearly Band-Aid fixes to that problem?

Some folks are so true to their ideology, especially their economic ideology, that they can get their arms around this fairly simple concept.

Posted by: Brad S at September 13, 2006 2:53 PM

Well said oj.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at September 13, 2006 3:45 PM

The emerging lemons-out-of-lemonaid secnario by Washington-New York conservatives seems to be it's OK for the Democrats to win the House, because then they'll have to govern, and their actions will have to be explained by Ms. Clinton or whoever the Democratic nominee is during the 2008 elections, while a narrow GOP margin in the House and Senate would set the party up to shoulder all the blame two years from now.

The problem with that is, as the Plaime investigation has shown, the Democrats can count on big media outlets to support and promote whatever scandal, no matter how far-fetched, the majority House Democrats would come up with, and any investigation would have a shelf life at least through the '08 general elections.

While their track record does show Pelosi, Murtha, Conyers, et al. will almost certainly exhibit bizarre behavior if they have operating control in the House, Ramesh seems to be under the delusion that lots of people are going to be reporting on this repeatedly, as opposed to their actions being one-day stories buried back on Page 19-A. They may act wacky enough to get McCain or Giuliani elected in the long run, but short-term, the next two years will be an effort to create Watergate II, which isn't good if you're trying to continue to fund the WOT.

Posted by: John at September 13, 2006 4:48 PM

They can't govern. They can prevent W from putting judges in place.

Posted by: oj at September 13, 2006 6:17 PM

They can't govern, which is why they'll spend their time doing everything else the power of the majority will entitle them: impeachment and scandal-mongering and congressional sub poenas delivered to the excutive branch and anything else to get revenge for all the slights they imagine have been done to them these past 6 or 12 years. It may be entertaining and a financial pleasure for the pundit class, but it won't help the country.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at September 13, 2006 10:19 PM

"We are, after all, the Stupid Party and that stupidity is what makes us perfectly suited to run the Stupid Country."

A fitting end to what is truly a stupid post.

Posted by: Jim at September 14, 2006 1:56 PM

For what it's worth, OJ, Ramesch disagrees with your hypothesis.

Posted by: John at September 14, 2006 4:42 PM

The normally sensible Mr. Ponnuru must be trying to get back in good with the looney libertarians who hated his book. But if you think Life matters how can an anti-Life Congress be tolerable?

Posted by: oj at September 14, 2006 5:57 PM


Did you see his specific comment? Here it is:

My friend Orrin Judd says that I am displaying a "conservative terror of governance," which I think is silly.

Mr. Ponnuru specifically said that a gain in GOP seats is a bad idea. I'd love to hear what he calls it.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at September 14, 2006 7:31 PM

What's the point of a majority when you don't do anything with it?

Posted by: Guy Who Thinks Orrin Judd Hasn't Said Anything Worth Listening to Since Bush Was Elected at September 15, 2006 3:29 PM

What's the point of a majority when you don't do anything with it?

Posted by: Guy Who Thinks Orrin Judd Hasn't Said Anything Worth Listening to Since Bush Was Elected at September 15, 2006 3:30 PM

There would be no point.

Posted by: oj at September 15, 2006 4:12 PM