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The most common form of contemporary conservative electoral argument is flawed in its premise. They argue that we don’t win elections because we don’t follow their advice (give up on social issues / double down on social issues / the same for fiscal issues and/or foreign stuff / use stronger language / use more moderate language / educate the public on abstract issues / stop talking about abstract issues / talk about gaffes more / talk about gaffes less).
In fact, we win elections. We run the legislature in most states, reaching a level of (small d) democratic control rarely seen in American history. We have most governor’s mansions, again, right at the edge of the historical record. We have the House; after decades of suffering from Ike’s neutrality and Watergate, we got it back in 1994 and we’ve mostly kept it. We have the Senate. Even presidentially, we’ve lost just five out of the last twelve races, with the “always losing” argument often resting on the last two. If you decide on the basis of receiving two tails after tossing a coin twice that the coin must be faulty and have no heads on it, you’re probably excessively predisposed that belief.
When people tell you that we’re losing and the only way to win is to buy their snake oil, whether classy snake oil like Arthur Brooks’ or off-brand oils like Mike Murphy’s or Mark Levin’s, they’re wrong in two ways. Firstly, we’re winning, and secondly, many of those who are winning are not from their faction of the party. Ron Johnson and Pat Toomey win in blue-purple states while being unapologetically socially conservative, whatever Murphy might prefer; while Graham, McCain, Murkowski, Capito, Cochran, and Alexander can win in red states despite Levin’s assurances that their path is doomed to fail.
Allied to this is the claim that we don’t win on the issues. Sometimes this is specifically aimed at McConnell and Boehner. In the comments, I’d like people to suggest a Senate leader and speaker who have been more effective at stopping the legislative agenda of a post-war President. I don’t believe that such a man exists. Bush got what he really wanted from Daschle and Reid. Clinton got a bunch of what he wanted from Dole and Newt. Anyone who wants to argue that Reagan and 41 failed to leave a legislative legacy has a tough case to make. And so on. From tax cuts to gun rights to trade agreements to partial birth abortion to bankruptcy to the surge, the Democrats never united in the way that McConnell and Boehner have kept the party together in opposition to Obama, so time and again Bush could peel off enough Democratic moderates to get his reforms passed. Today, pro-choice Republicans refuse to vote for pro-choice bills. Pro-union Republicans don’t vote for pro-union bills. Obama has been reduced to acting through executive orders by the most effective and courageous Republican party leadership in a half century. Obama did pass radical reforms, but only while he had a supermajority; a supermajority that was kept brief between the death of Ted Kennedy and the election of Scott Brown. It’s the united efforts of moderates and less moderate Republicans that has won us our position.
At some level, most of us are aware of this. Over and over again, I speak to closeted McConnell fans who will not admit it in public (some, like James O’Keefe, are open about it if they’re asked, but don’t raise the topic). It’s not cool, and it’s bad for fundraising, to declare that affection. I’ve spoken to people who were coming off a panel discussion angry because they didn’t get to demonstrate their bona fides by attacking McConnell on a point irrelevant to the discussion. Our pundits have overwhelming incentives to bad-mouth our leaders. There’s sometimes almost as little respect for the achievements of our governors and state legislators, although the Constitution gives them the scope to go on the offensive even when there isn’t a cooperative President. Our states are popping and fizzing like mad, deregulating labor, protecting electoral integrity and self-defense rights, closing abortion clinics, cutting taxes, reducing recidivism by expanding religious charitable access to inmates, expanding school choice, shoring up the Constitution with anti-Kelo laws and the like, and finding many other ways of expanding Americans’ freedom.
It’s my belief that America, and the world, were in a precarious state in Reagan’s first term, but that we are in a better position now, and that we were in a precarious state when Ted Kennedy died, but that we are in a better position now. I outline why in posts addressing each of the three legs of the conservative stool and comparing our position to Reagan’s first term and to what one could refer to as the B.M. period of American history (“Before McConnell,” the period of supermajority).
I’ll conclude with a post on the stakes for the upcoming election. We can fix entitlements to make them affordable, but not every party is likely to do so, and even four years would make the problem much harder. We can restore American leadership to the world, but we would have to choose to do so. Almost all the regrettable Court decisions are 5-4, so we can revive our Constitutional fidelity to unprecedented levels, but the good decisions are also mostly 5-4. It is merely likely, not certain, that the shining city on a hill will illuminate the world even more brightly than before.