Paul Greenberg

Defeat is already having its usual, salutary results. See the emergence of a reasonable Republican position on illegal immigration -- a shift led by John McCain, who's been trying to turn his party around on this issue for years, and by Marco Rubio, the new senator from Florida and bright new hope for the GOP. Reason dawns. Instead of fighting the problem, why not try to solve it?

For a worthy and durable cause -- and what political cause is more worthy and more durable than conservatism? -- losing is less an end than an intermission. It's a welcome break from the sound and fury of the campaign. It affords the losers a chance to heal, re-think and even reform.

We forget what an education losing can be. Who has ever learned from victory? And who has not learned from defeat? A great cause can survive defeat. It's surviving victory that's the real challenge.

Losing calls for its own kind of heroism. It is not the Churchill who triumphs at the end of his life that we recall with the greater admiration, but the querulous backbencher who spent a decade warning about the Gathering Storm, and would not be still despite being cast into political exile.

It is not the Lincoln celebrating victory while the band plays on who lifts our eyes and soul, but the Whig lawyer who spent decades fighting the Slave Power only to be defeated at every turn -- the Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott Decision -- but who would not go quietly, knowing his time and freedom's would come. Even as he was engulfed by his own Wave of the Future, he would not go quietly. And he would be heard.

Elections come and go, but principles endure. The best of causes has risen from defeat, the worst have been encouraged by their early triumphs. Napoleon was invincible, fascism was The New Order, and communism was historically inevitable -- at first. Their defeat should teach us all something about the transience of temporal power.

But we seem to have lost any appreciation for losing in this country. The notion that it is better to lose in a good cause than win in a bad one comes to seem foreign, strange, un-American -- when it is considered at all.

Barry Goldwater lost in 1964, yet he laid the groundwork for a (Reagan) revolution. His landslide defeat gave conservatives an opportunity to reassess their ideas, and distinguish conservative principle from reactionary impulse. Would there have been such an opportunity if Sen. Goldwater had merely won?

Adlai Stevenson lost a presidential election not once but twice, yet for my devalued money, the slim volume of his campaign speeches back in 1952 is worth all the evanescent oratory of both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney this past election.

Robert A. Taft never even got his party's presidential nomination -- he was such a clear loser -- but he set an example of political integrity by speaking honestly. So did Robert LaFollette, a Progressive when that term meant more than just a cover for liberal.

And if Norman Thomas, the perennial socialist candidate for president, had ever been elected president, his first act might have been to demand a recount. The size of his vote decade after decade may have been minor, but his influence was major. That is, after all, the function of third parties: to influence the Big Two, and he did. By his simple dignity and decades-long devotion to elevating the public discourse. Win or lose, honesty wins -- and more than an election.

In his first (and highly successful) run for the presidency, one of the few bright spots in Bill Clinton's campaign came when he faced off against a now-forgotten candidate named Paul Tsongas, a governor of Massachusetts with the voice and demeanor of Elmer Fudd. He was the very antithesis of Slick Willie. At one point, irritated by Mr. Tsongas' daring to disagree with him, Bill Clinton told him: "Well, Paul, no one can disagree with you because you're always right." You could hear the sneer in his voice.

The only thing Paul Tsongas could say in response was, "I'm not perfect, but at least I'm honest." And that was enough. For just a moment, a light went on in the shadowy hurly-burly of an American presidential campaign. Thanks to a candidate who lost.

In the light of its defeat in 2012, the best and worst traits of American conservatism can be seen more clearly -- if we'll only look. The contrast between its permanent virtues, as articulated by Burke and de Tocqueville, and its passing populist vices, as enunciated by today's Rushbos and Don Imuses, those prophets of talk radio-and-TV, has seldom been so clear as in the light of defeat. If we'll only look. And learn.

If these be the times that try our spirit, they may also be good for our soul.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.