As is frequently the case, Jeff Lord and I disagree again, mightily, on political strategy and tactics, even though both of us are solidly conservative. (That’s an important point, by the way: Differing tactical senses do not necessarily mean different degrees of commitment to the conservative cause, much less a lack of, or conversely proof of, principle.) Jeff’s column the other day, full of his usual vim, vigor, and high emotional dudgeon, accuses those who didn’t take his exact stance on the “fiscal cliff” negotiations of showing “timidity,” of “not taking the full measure of [the] adversary [meaning Barack Obama],” of a “clueless inability to understand what it means to deal with Obama,” of “simply protesting while passively accepting,” and most of all of operating without a “long-term conservative strategy.”
Well. Where to begin?
Try this: Maybe, Jeff, just maybe, there are those who took other tactical positions not because they don’t have a long-term strategy but because they do — because they look at the long term and see better ground to fight on in the future. They may be right; they may be wrong — but they aren’t timid. (Is Jeff Sessions timid? Is Pat Toomey timid? Is Stephen Moore timid?) Indeed, they might think that you, Jeff, are the one guilty of dealing with “only the issue at hand” by treating every skirmish as an inch of ground to die for. It is not necessarily a mark of timidity or lack of vision that looks at the situation — as George Will did, and as Harry Reid’s aides reportedly do from the other side — and sees trouble ahead for Obama now that this tax fight is over. It may be prudentially wrong and it may be prudentially right to look at the different legal and polling circumstances and come to different conclusions about tactics, but it is not a mark of character or courage. Alas, Jeff seems to suggest the latter.
For instance: In the fiscal cliff deal, the tax hikes would have been automatic if nothing were done. Policy advantage, by law, to Obama. But when the sequester hits, it is the spending cuts that will be automatic if nothing is done. Advantage, by law, to conservatives who want to cut spending. Moreover, polls showed large majorities of Americans wanting to raise taxes on upper-income folks. Advantage by short-term politics at least, in the fiscal cliff negotiations, to Obama. But polls also show a large majority of Americans not wanting debt to go up without spending cuts. Potential advantage ahead, at least by short-term politics, to conservatives.
Those suppositions may or may not prove correct, but they are hardly unreasonable.
This is not to say that the prudential judgment of when and where to make the biggest stand is necessarily better one way or the other. I myself thought throughout the morning of Dec. 31 that it was better to give no ground in the cliff negotiations; but then when Biden made more concessions I thought that by a 50.1 to 49.9 margin, it was perhaps better to take the deal and start setting up a big trap for the president involving the March 1 sequestration deadline in which, if nothing is done, not a single tax will automatically go up. I pledged then, and say again, that I will very soon be publishing a plan for conducting that coming battle in conjunction with other battles also imminent. I will be surprised if there is a hard-liner in the country who, when reading my plan, will think anything other than that it is bold and tough-minded and strongly conservative. (They might think it’s unlikely to work, or that it has holes, or have other criticisms, but they won’t say it’s not bold, tough-minded, and conservative.)
Again, the point is that there are different ways of choosing when and how and where to fight, with none of those choices necessarily being reflective of lack of vision or lack of character. (This is not to say that Mitch McConnell and John Boehner do have a strategic sense about all this, or that they do see Obama as he really is, or that they do see the big picture, or that they do have enough spine. It is just to say that it is possible to differ on tactics without being a turncoat or a weakling. Jeff and some other conservatives do not appear willing to even consider that possibility, and seem all to willing to write completely out of the conservative movement anybody who doesn’t toe Jeff’s own particular line. As for me, I think that, objectively speaking, the deal Mitch McConnell got was a better deal than eventually would have passed had he not reached out to Joe Biden. I’ve been a strong critic of McConnell at times — without ever questioning his character — but here I think he pulled at least a small rabbit out of a very deep hat.) Because this isn’t a one-off battle, but a long war, there may have been virtue in “banking some long-term gains,” which is how I seem to remember Grover Norquist described it while saying the deal on taxes was acceptable.
No, Jeff: This was not an Anschluss; it was a different way of playing chess.
To use martial examples: McCarthur temporarily abandoned the Philippines while vowing to return. Washington abandoned Manhattan Island. The Russians being attacked by Napoleon retreated steadily for three solid months and even abandoned Moscow. All three retreats proved salutary in the long run. And they proved salutary, and eventually triumphant, even though none of them featured any important gains of long-term goals for the retreaters, which is what the fiscal cliff deal did by finally writing into permanent law 99 percent of the Bush tax cuts that liberals had long opposed. In short, this deal was hardly a full retreat, not at all in the sense that Manhattan and Moscow were. Instead, this was a reasonably orderly withdrawal while taking plenty of prisoners and significant enemy supplies.
Finally, let it be noted that my reluctant acceptance of the cliff deal and this blog post itself are not mere after-the-fact justifications or excuses for a big loss. Instead, I am doing exactly what Jeff says conservatives should do, which is to recognize that Obama is playing a different game from most liberals and, in response, for conservatives to not just treat each battle as a separate entity but instead specifically as part of a longer struggle requiring long-term strategy. I wrote exactly as much in the December print edition, which I penned seven full weeks before we reached the “cliff.” Some excerpts:
Barack Obama is not a normal politician. He’s out for blood—or, as he told voters in the last days before the election, for “revenge.”…. The entirety of both the political and societal playing fields will be altered, and our side will be demonized every time we dare set foot in the arena…. Meanwhile, we may need to pick our battles. Even with a Republican House majority protected via clever redistricting, we won’t be able to fight on every front. We might need to use flanking maneuvers, political guerrilla warfare, and pinpoint attacks rather than full frontal charges. Yet when it comes to defending the Constitution, or defending truly essential principles, we must be fiercely defiant against anything Obama throws at us. If this man in the Oval Office truly wants to transform America rather than just reform it, he must be resisted with every legal weapon we can muster…. Conservatives must not delude ourselves: The 2012 elections were a disaster. Barack Obama has the upper hand and will try to use it for terrible ends. But for the many (we’ve all heard them) who say we now are doomed, it’s time to reconsider. We’re not in yet in perdition; we’re retraining ourselves in Valley Forge.
It is precisely because Obama is waging a new and more dangerous kind of war that we must not offer up a new Pickett’s Charge or attack on Gallipoli at every opportunity. Sometimes — as Stonewall Jackson showed at Fredericksburg, and as Meade showed at Gettysburg — it’s better to choose excellent high ground, and then wait for the adversary to over-extend himself in an uphill attack.
The tools for a Stonewall Jackson-type counter-assault are very much available for conservatives in coming months. As John Paul Jones said, we have not yet begun to fight.