Friday, September 15, 2006

Conservatives tout the virtues of losing (really!)

The most fascinating debate of the ’06 congressional election season is pitting the conservatives who want the GOP to win against the conservatives who want the GOP to lose.

Yes, it’s true. There is a sizeable contingent of prominent conservatives (and even a few party strategists) who actually hope that the Republicans cough up control of the House and/or the Senate on election day. This sentiment is a sign of deep pessimism within conservative ranks about the GOP’s November prospects; eyeing the latest polls and fearing electoral defeat, these people have convinced themselves, and seek to convince others, that maybe a Democratic takeover wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all.

It’s quite a spectacle, in a way: Republicans haven’t even lost anything yet (and they may not lose at all), yet already some of their staunchest partisans are giving us pre-spin about the upside of a disaster.

Here’s Ramesh Ponnuru, a respected conservative commentator, writing a guest piece Wednesday in The New York Times: “A straight loss (in November) would make the Republicans hungrier and sharpen their wits. Freed from the obligation of cobbling together thin majorities for watered-down legislation, Republicans would be able to stand for something attractive…If Democrats win the House now, the next Republican presidential candidate will be able to run against Nancy Pelosi and the liberal committee chairmen who would suddenly be in the headlines…If Republicans play their cards right, and the Democrats prove unequal to the task of running the House, the voters could put the Republicans back in power on Capitol Hill in 2008.”

Jonah Goldberg, agrees, writing yesterday in the Los Angeles Times: “Yes, the thought of Nancy Pelosi as Housze Speaker and John Conyers Jr, Henry Waxman and Alcee Hastings as potential committee chairmen does cause an involuntary gag reflex and a shudder for the future of the republic.” However, “letting voters see this crowd try to have its way for two years would only help the GOP in the far more important 2008 election.”

One Republican strategist has even gone on the record about this. Tony Fabrizio, who in my experience I have long considered one of the most forthright Republican operatives, told The Atlantic Monthly Online, “If we hold on to both houses narrowly, we maintain the illusion of power and control, but…get blamed for all the problems.” On the other hand, Fabrizio argues, if the Democrats capture a chamber, then the GOP ’08 presidential candidates can run as outsiders against Washington – a scenario that easily trumps “having to take on the entire GOP establishment.”

Meanwhile, seven prominent souls have just vented on the Washington Monthly website. Consider Christopher Buckley, the conservative humorist, ex-GOP speechwriter, and son of conservative scion William F. Buckley Jr. Here’s a bilious, three-graf excerpt:

“With heavy heart, as a once-proud—indeed, staunch— Republican, I here admit, behind enemy lines, to the guilty hope that my party loses…Bob Woodward asked Bush 43 if he had consulted his father before invading Iraq. The son replied that he had consulted ‘a higher father.’ That frisson you feel going up your spine is the realization that he meant it. And apparently the higher father said, ‘Go for it!’ There are those of us who wish he had consulted his terrestrial one…

"Anyone who has even a passing personal acquaintance of Bush 41 knows him to be, roughly speaking, the most decent, considerate, humble, and cautious man on the planet. Also, the most loving parent on earth. What a wrench it must be for him to pick up his paper every morning and read the now-daily debate about whether his son is officially the worst president in U.S. history.

“What have they done to my party? Where does one go to get it back? One place comes to mind: the back benches. It’s time for a time-out. Time to hand over this sorry enchilada…My fellow Republicans, it is time, as Madison said in Federalist 76, to “Hand over the tiller of governance, that others may f--- things up for a change. (Or was it Federalist 78?)”

It can’t be a good sign for the GOP that its ranks include eminent conservatives who are so fed up with (in their words) high budget deficits, corruption, incompetence, and a mess in Iraq that they find defeat to be attractive. What does this say, potentially, about the mood of conservative voters nationwide?

Naturally, there are staunch conservatives who think that the defeatists are off their rockers; as commentator Dean Barnett (who blogs frequently on talk show host Hugh Hewitt’s website), contended Wednesday, “At a time of war, we cannot afford to have the party controlling Congress have as its sole mission an unending quest to undermine the Commander-in-Chief….I happen to agree that the Republican party deserves to lose the House. The past 12 years (since Newt Gingrich’s takeover) have been an epic disappointment. But for the sake of the country, we’d be a helluva lot better off reforming ourselves (while still in power) rather than as a result of an electoral repudiation that will weaken the country in time of war.”

This argument will persuade many conservative base voters to show up in November and vote GOP; certainly, the recent speight of speeches by President Bush and his surrogates have stressed that theme, in their efforts to fire up the base – and the latest polls do indicate an uptick of base support.

But here’s the key caveat: When disillusioned partisans start talking about the virtues of a defeat, it generally means that their ranks are not sufficiently motivated and that defeat indeed may be in the offing.

That’s precisely what happened to the Democrats back in 1980, when liberal base voters were ticked off at President Jimmy Carter, and argued that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if Ronald Reagan won the election, because then the Democrats could recoup by exploiting inevitable Reagan screwups. So the liberals stayed home, Carter lost…and the Republicans kept the White House for the next 12 years.