By David Davenport
These are not happy times for conservatives. Rather than fighting President Obama and the Democrats, they are busy pummeling one another. No sooner had New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a self-proclaimed conservative, won a landslide reelection in a Democratic state than Tea Party activists dismissed him as “no more conservative than Senator Harry Reid” and Senator Rand Paul damned him with the “M” word (“moderate”). With his party taking a beating in the polls for shutting down the government in a hopeless quest to defund Obamacare, Senator Ted Cruz described his fellow Republicans as the “surrender caucus.” Even with Obamacare fraying badly and the president’s poll numbers at a new low, conservatives can’t seem to get out of their own way.
It occurs to me that to avoid imploding altogether, conservatives need to take a page from that 1980’s classic All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. With apologies to author Robert Fulgham, I propose to rewrite a few of those basic lessons for conservatives to consider as the elections of 2014 and soon enough 2016 come to the fore.
• “All or nothing” in politics produces “nothing.”
One disease that has become rampant in politics is to win at all costs. Compromise has become a dirty word. But in a republic, we have a divided government, with people from different parties and viewpoints in power. No one wins everything. As Otto von Bismarck said, politics is the art of the possible. Defunding Obamacare, the latest conservative crusade, was not going to pass a Democrat-dominated Senate or get by its sponsoring president. In the end, this crusade produced nothing but hard feelings and bad ratings for its sponsors. Another way to put it is that winning at all costs, in politics, usually means losing expensively, as Republicans did here.
• When your opponent is busy imploding, stand back and watch
The irony is that things were starting to break for Republicans prior to the shutdown. This could have been, should have been, a strong year for them. Mid-term elections are often good for the party out of power, and Republicans were looking to strengthen their hold on the House and increase their power in the Senate. As we now know, Obamacare had plenty of problems of its own, without falling under a direct political attack. Rather than make themselves and the government shutdown the issue, Cruz and Company would have done far better to step back and let the healthcare website and all the many legal and court problems unfold on their own. Unfortunately the government shutdown was so noisy, no one could really listen to the underlying case about healthcare.
• You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em
A colleague and I recently discussed how much political (and other) wisdom is in the old Kenny Rogers song “The Gambler.” Much of life truly is knowing when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em, when to walk away, and when to run. Conservatives all agree that Obamacare is a really bad thing and that the president and his allies need to be replaced in 2016, there is no disagreement on that. But tactically, the Tea Party conservatives seem to have no feel at all for when to push and when to walk away. In kindergarten terms, Ted Cruz was the classroom bully who was determined to have his say and his way.
American conservatism is the kindergarten game “fruit basket upset” right now. It is an uneasy coalition of fiscal conservatives, social or Christian conservatives, libertarians, business leaders, national security types and others all scrambling for the empty chair of leadership. Unless conservatives relearn some kindergarten lessons—as Robert Fulgham said, share everything, play fair, don’t hit people, clean up your own mess and the like—it is a movement that will implode and miss the opportunity Obamacare and the president are putting right in front of them to make gains with the American electorate. They need to be like the kindergarten-age girl I saw at a hotel swimming pool with her younger brother who, when she asked her dad if they could stay a long time, was told, “as long as you make good decisions.” “Oh daddy,” she replied, “we’ll make lots of good decisions.” It’s time for conservatives to quit making statements and start making lots of good tactical decisions.