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The Consequences of Defeat

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Despite the fact that leading polls continue to indicate a close Presidential election, and point to the very real chance of an upset victory for the McCain-Palin ticket, too many conservatives have begun to embrace a bizarre form of defeatism. According to this destructive logic, a Republican defeat in 2008 counts as not only inevitable, but necessary; some disgruntled voices on the right argue that a decisive win for Barack Obama might actually help the conservative cause in the long run.


This notion contradicts both common sense and historical precedent and rests on five deeply damaging and ultimately demented myths.

MYTH #1: If Obama gets elected, his extreme liberalism will make him a one term president

TRUTH: Whoever is elected in 2008, will almost certainly win re-election in 2012--the business cycle will inevitably allow him to preside over “recovery”

The current financial crisis is painful and unpredictable, but no serious economist believes it will last more than four years. That means that President Obama (or, for that matter, President McCain) will be able to campaign for re-election with the claim that he arrived during “the worst economy since the Great Depression” and brought America back to prosperity and growth. If the next President handles our economic challenges with skill and wisdom, we will likely see the beginnings of recovery by the end of 2009 or early in 2010. If the new chief executive responds in a clumsy, misguided manner (with a heavier tax burden and more government spending, for instance) it could delay the inevitable comeback till 2011 or even 2012. Of course, a recovery that begins in 2012 (a likely development under Obama) would leave the incumbent perfectly situated for a landslide re-election.

In American politics, incumbent presidents almost always win re-election. Even Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, despite angrily alienating big segments of the public, won solid re-election victories –in part, because of the healthy economic conditions at the time of their campaigns. In the last 75 years, White House incumbents have run for re-election thirteen times, and ten of those times they’ve won. The only losers limited to one term (Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush) suffered from tough economic circumstances and spirited primary challenges in their own parties (from Ronald Reagan, Ted Kennedy, and Pat Buchanan, respectively). If Obama wins in November, there’s little chance he’ll face either economic hardship or opposition from a fellow Democrat. In other words, he’s a sure winner for re-election.

In the remote chance that the current recession morphs into something much, much worse than a typical downturn, and the nation fails to even commence recovery within four years, then we will face a situation so extreme, insecure, revolutionary and painful that Presidential politics will represent the least of our concerns.

MYTH #2: Whatever damage Obama does to the country can be quickly and effectively repaired by a strong conservative successor.

TRUTH: The most significant and sweeping changes of an Obama presidency would be permanent and irreversible.

It’s true that some changes by liberal presidents can be erased by future conservatives – for instance, George W. Bush cut the top marginal tax rate to 35%, after it had risen to 39.6% under Clinton (it’s sure to go back up to the Clinton rate – or higher – under Obama). Yes, the President and Congress tinker endlessly with details of the tax system or the levels of appropriation or regulation so that the growth in government and spending under President Obama could be adjusted, if not reversed.

But conservatives need to face the fact that Barack Obama has promised profound systemic changes that will be irreversible—permanent alterations of our economy and government where there is no chance at all that Republican office-holders of the future could in any way repair the damage.


For instance, consider two sweeping new entitlements that Obama plans to offer for all Americans – universal (but, he insists, “voluntary”) federally-funded pre-school for all children starting at age three, and a low-cost, heavily subsidized federal health insurance plan for every low or middle income American who wants it.

A President Obama would no doubt promote such proposals in his first year in office and a compliant, heavily-Democratic Congress would approve them promptly—perhaps making the benefits even more generous. This means that before the next election, tens of millions (probably hundreds of millions) of American families will take advantage of “free” pre-kindergarten education (and day care), as well as cheap, subsidized (to the tune of at least $160 billion per year) health insurance. The chances of ever taking away such goodies are nil—Presidents may come and go, but entitlements are forever. New government give-aways may accomplish nothing constructive but they’re all but impossible to eliminate once they’re up and running.

Consider Jimmy Carter’s horribly misguided establishment of two vast new cabinet level departments—the Department of Education and the Department of Energy. When the indignant public swept out of office the worst president of modern times, Reagan took the White House with talk of eliminating one or both of these two wasteful bureaucracies. Even the Great Gipper failed in this endeavor, and the Departments of Energy and Education continue to soak up hundreds of billions of tax dollars and to employ tens of thousands, despite their abject failure at improving either public education or our energy supplies.

Obama’s new entitlements will similarly survive all attempts to eliminate them. If he becomes President we’ll be permanently stuck not just with federal pre-school and a subsidized health insurance guarantee (Obama described it as a “right” in the last debate), but with a $4,000 annual check (a so-called “refundable tax credit”) to all “non-wealthy” college students, a doubling of the Peace Corps, vast increases in AmeriCorps, new billions for “National Service,” a tripling of the foreign aid budget (a specific Obama promise) and much, much more. For those who believe it’s easy to reduce or erase such spending in future administrations, consider the example of Bill Clinton’s cherished “service program” AmeriCorps (which pays its “volunteers” close to $30,000 a year). Gingrich, George W. Bush and countless other conservatives recognize that this is a wasteful, crooked, outrageous effort to use taxpayer money to fund leftist activism, but even when the GOP controlled all levers of government they made no progress in slaughtering the monster.

Or think about Lyndon Johnson’s federal initiative for a “National Endowment for the Arts” in 1967. By now, this appalling program has wasted many billions of taxpayer dollars to fund the ugliest and most puerile sorts of artistic expression. No one can make a serious case that the NEA has accomplished anything worthwhile in uplifting or enriching our culture (in which more than 98% of all cultural spending comes from private sources—donations, opera tickets, sales of paintings, museum admissions, or corporate grants—rather than government initiatives at the federal, state or local level). Despite the endlessly demonstrated uselessness and insipidity of the National Endowment, it continues to flourish and even won increased appropriations in recent years.


Aside from the ongoing growth of government and the waste of public money, other changes brought about by President Obama will prove to be unalterable and devastating: in his first year, he will authorize gays serving openly in the military, and hasten the national imposition of homosexual marriage (he’s pledged to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act).

He will also get the chance to appoint at least two, and perhaps as many as four new justices to the Supreme Court of the United States. All legal observers expect Obama’s nominees to embrace an even more activist, leftist view of the Constitution and legal system than Clinton’s appointees, Breyer and Ginzburg. The damage from the remaking of the court could prove incalculable. There is also no chance of impeaching any Supreme Court Justice (short of a credible murder or rape charge) even if Republicans re-take control in some future Congress. The GOP (led by Jerry Ford as House Minority Leader) tried to gain traction for impeachment efforts to counteract the wildly destructive excesses of the Warren Court but got absolutely nowhere and managed, mostly, to embarrass themselves.

Finally, and perhaps most fatally, a President Obama will radically revamp our already broken immigration system and permanently remake the country, politically and demographically.

Many conservatives passionately opposed the sweeping immigration reform promoted in 2007 by President Bush and Senator McCain (and, it must be noted, a majority of Republican members of the US Senate). Opponents of the comprehensive Senate compromise objected to the bill because it granted a complicated path to legalization for some of the millions of illegal immigrants who are already here. Those concerned citizens who celebrated “victory” last year with the collapse of the immigration compromise should prepare themselves for a much more liberal, forgiving reform under Obama (and his supportive Congress) that will make legalization far easier, and will include far more illegal future voters and citizens.

Of course the Democrats will push such changes, knowing that they can thereby claim sole “credit” for welcoming millions of new citizens to the voting roles, and with the expectation that such freshly minted Americans will vote Democratic for the rest of their lives. The Democrats will also cut back immediately on the workplace immigration raids and enhanced border security that has enabled the Bush administration to sharply cut back on illegal entries in the last year –Obama has specifically condemned these efforts and might even halt or slow ongoing work on the border fence.

In any event, we’ve been down this road before: the Republicans claimed credit for the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924, all but eliminating the flow of humanity from Eastern and Southern Europe, and as a result vast numbers of ethnic voters (Italians, Poles, Jews, Greeks and more) became loyal Democrats for a generation or more.

This shift in immigrant voters played a huge role in the establishment of the New Deal Coalition that won five Presidential elections in a row (1932 through 1948) and totally dominated Congress for an appalling fifty years (1930-1980).

As Amity Shlaes shows in her necessary new book “The Forgotten Man,” FDR failed miserably at turning around the US economy (the Depression lingered until the beginning of World War II) but succeeded brilliantly in achieving long-term power for the Democratic Party. The innumerable government programs launched by the New Deal may have done nothing to advance the overall interests of the nation of the economic system, but they performed magnificently at creating dependent interest groups who voted reliably Democratic for decades. If the government hands out goodies to various constituencies, those segments of the population will continue to support the idea of enriching themselves with other people’s money.


That’s the biggest threat of an Obama presidency: the creation of vast new groups of dependent Americans who will comprise an unassailable new coalition that will enjoy iron control of our politics for a generation or more. If you start with newly legalized immigrant voters (with as many as 10 million new Democrats totally beholden to Obama and company) and then add the beneficiaries of government pre-school, the new nursery school teachers, the recipients and administrators of federal health insurance, federal college grants, the businesses who’ll enjoy the $150 billion in promised subsidies for “alternative energy,” the companies and employees of the vast increases in “infra-structure” spending (lots more bridges to nowhere), the non-tax payers who will suddenly receive a $1,000 per household check (under the guise of “refundable tax credit,”) and many, many more.

In his first years in office, a President Obama could easily succeed in buying so many interest groups and constituencies with expensive new governmental favors, that conservative dreams of rebuilding a small government majority will go absolutely nowhere.

MYTH #3: An Obama win in 2008 will set up a far more significant conservative triumph in 2012 (or 2016); after all, isn’t it true that “we had to go through Jimmy Carter to get Reagan”?

TRUTH: In fact, Reagan would have been elected President in 1980 whether or not America suffered under Jimmy Carter, and there’s no potential 21st Century Reagan waiting in the wings.

Some of my talk radio colleagues insist that an Obama victory might be a blessing in disguise in the same way that Carter’s victory over Gerald Ford paved the way for Reagan’s election four years later. The common (and historically illiterate) formulation claims: “We had to go through jimmy Carter to get Ronald Reagan.” According to this logic, a disastrous Obama presidency will prepare the electorate for a future, Reagan-like conservative champion.

The most obvious problem with this analogy and this argument is that Ronald Reagan would have won the presidency in 1980, regardless of who won the general election in 1976. Remember, if Jerry Ford had bested Jimmy Carter in what turned out to be a very close race, he would have been term-limited under the 22nd Amendment. Reagan, who had lost to Ford in a breathtakingly close primary struggle, would have been his obvious successor due to his strong base within the party, national popularity, and support for the Ford-Dole ticket. His well-advertised policy and personal differences with Ford would have allowed him to offer a change in direction in 1980, even if Ford had been his predecessor. The idea that Reagan required the disastrous Jimmy Carter regime in order to capture the White House falls apart when considering his campaign of 1976—when, without the benefit of Democratic disgrace, he nearly captured the GOP nomination against a moderate incumbent and would have likely defeated Carter in the general election nearly as soundly as he did four years later.

Reagan, in other words, won the presidency on a pro-Reagan vote (with tens of millions of loyal supporters) at least as much on an anti-Carter vote. This undeniable historical truth leaves an obvious question: who’s today’s Ronald Reagan, waiting in the wings to lead a united GOP and to unseat President Obama? The lack of any prominent conservative contender with a formidable national base is one of the most obvious arguments against the peculiar notion that this year Republicans can “win by losing.”


MYTH #4: If McCain loses, Sarah Palin becomes the obvious leader for the reborn Republican Party

TRUTH: If McCain loses, Governor Palin will enjoy no future in national politics, but if he wins, then she could become a very plausible successor.

Many conservatives support and admire Governor Palin, and cherish the hope that after an Obama victory she would emerge as the natural, inevitable leader of the GOP. Unfortunately, political history and current circumstance make it highly unlikely that she’d survive the defeat of a McCain-Palin ticket as an enduring figure of national stature. While it’s certainly true that any candidate who wins election as Vice President becomes an instant Presidential possibility, defeated Vice Presidential candidates almost always disappear as contenders for party leadership. Consider the four most recent losing nominees for Vice President: John Edwards, Joe Lieberman and Dan Quayle all tried to run Presidential campaigns after their losing VEEP bids and all three failed miserably. Meanwhile, the previously well-regarded Jack Kemp (Bob Dole’s running mate in ’96) left politics altogether after his ticket went down in flames. In the last eighty years, a losing Vice Presidential bid has been a virtual guarantee of future frustration and obscurity. Does anyone remember the names John Bricker, or John Sparkman, or Estes Kefauver, or William Miller, or Thomas Eagleton? All of them won nomination as Vice Presidential candidates and then quickly dropped from sight in national politics.

The last time a defeated VEEP candidate actually made it to the White House was with the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee in 1920, Franklin D. Roosevelt. After losing that race (to the ticket of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge), FDR waited twelve years, went through polio, then won election as Governor of New York, before he finally re-emerged as the Democratic Presidential nominee and, ultimately, President of the United States.

For obvious reasons, Sarah Palin would most likely follow the frustrating example of John Edwards or Jack Kemp, rather than FDR. After the election of 1920, nobody blamed young Roosevelt (who attracted widespread praise for his brisk, effective campaigning) for the crushing Democratic defeat. If the McCain-Palin ticket loses the election, many Republicans will blame Palin (she’s already attracted more than her share of mean-spirited intra-party critics), or at least blame McCain’s choice of Palin, for undermining GOP chances. If the party attempts to regroup after a prospective loss, it’s impossible to imagine this dispirited remnant somehow rallying around Palin.

If, on the other hand, McCain and Palin shock the smug Democrats and win a come-from-behind victory, the new Vice President would emerge as an instantly plausible presidential possibility. During four or eight years as the second-ranking officer of the government, Sarah Palin would enjoy an excellent chance to silence all doubters and mockers and demonstrate her competence and preparation on the world stage. It’s easy to imagine her touring world capitals and dazzling the populace as well as foreign leaders. Assuming (as I do) that the skeptics are wrong about Palin, and that she’s a gifted politician and solid conservative leader, the Vice Presidency would provide the perfect opportunity to prove her stature and mettle.


MYTH #5: A GOP defeat in 2008 will help get rid of the moderates and country club Republicans who damage the party, and Republicans will emerge as a more pure, conservative and successful political force in the future.

TRUTH: After a crushing defeat, all parties move to the center, not to the right or left; in U.S. politics, you can only build a winning coalition by addition, not subtraction.

It’s amazing that some smart conservatives still cling to the “winning-by-losing” strategy, refusing to surrender the lunatic idea that you can build a party’s strength by reducing its numbers. No movement in U.S. political history has ever benefited from a purification process; purges always weaken or destroy a party’s vitality and viability, as even 1930’s Communists could attest. Nothing is more obvious in the American political process than the proposition that you win elections by attracting wafflers, moderates, dissenters, and independent spirits to your side; you lose elections by driving away such uncertain souls.

The greatest conservative of them all, Ronald Reagan, always understood this principle. At the moment of his greatest triumph, when he finally captured his party’s nomination in 1980, he didn’t turn to a “pure conservative” or a “true conservative” as his running mate. Instead, he chose party unity and selected George Herbert Walker Bush, a prime example of the Ivy League, country club Republican many right-wingers instinctively despised. Reagan also used Bush’s friend and aide, the notorious moderate James Baker, as his chief of staff. Unlike his mentor Barry Goldwater (who lost in a landslide), the Gipper understood throughout his career that a party that achieved “pure conservative” status would become a “pure loser” in competition for swing voters.

Moreover, history shows conclusively that a bitter defeat never pushes a conservative party farther right, or pushes a liberal party further left. Instead, political organizations that experience harsh rejection from the electorate move instinctively, inevitably toward the center in quest of precisely those middle-of-the-road voters who abandoned them in the previous contest. After outspoken conservative Barry Goldwater led the GOP to an overwhelming defeat in 1964, the nominees that followed (Nixon twice and then Gerald Ford) clearly represented the more moderate wing of the party. When unapologetic liberal George McGovern brought the Democrats a ruinous 49-state drubbing in 1972, they followed with a long series of relatively centrist, purportedly non-ideological candidates (Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Gore), reliably shunning the strong leftist contingent within their coalition.

There is simply no historical model for the process of party defeat, purification and rejuvenation that some deluded conservatives recommend. Consider the sad state of the Republican Party during the 1930’s and ‘40’s. In 1928, Herbert Hoover represented the most moderate, or even progressive, nominee since Teddy Roosevelt in 1904. When Hoover got crushed by FDR in 1932, the Republicans didn’t turn back to solid conservatives in the Coolidge tradition. Instead they kept nominating moderates (Alf Landon, former Democrat Wendell Wilkie, New York progressive Tom Dewey twice, and then the non-ideological General Eisenhower) in the often forlorn hope that they could woo wavering independents or conservative Democrats away from the New Deal coalition. Not even five consecutive defeats on the Presidential level led the Republicans to shift to a more conservative, ideologically rigorous posture.


Today, Barack Obama is running an unusually explicit liberal campaign, and if he loses the presidency the Democrats will almost certainly adopt a more centrist, “New Democrat” image for the next campaign. If, on the other hand, McCain and Palin lose, political operatives will (for better or worse) steer the Republican Party even further toward the middle of the road, seeking a more moderate (or at least “inclusive”) image to attract the centrist, independent, undecided voters who decide almost all elections.

In other words, a McCain victory would force the Democrats to turn to the right, while a McCain defeat would almost certainly send Republicans scurrying toward the mushy center. Since most right-wingers rightly hope for a more moderate Democratic Party, and a less moderate Republican Party, they should seek a rousing GOP victory and help avoid an historic defeat that would shrink and cripple the conservative cause.

With less than two weeks left before a fateful Presidential election, committed conservatives should abandon the toxic myths suggesting that defeat could somehow help our movement. The refusal to recognize the obvious rebuttals to such twisted logic, and to acknowledge the huge stakes in this campaign, counts as nothing less than suicidal.

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