GOP Intransigence: Wise or Foolish?

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It's too early for a definitive answer, but few conservatives appreciate the opportunity costs of total combat.



After I reviewed Philip Klein's e-book about how conservatives should behave if Mitt Romney is elected, he and I had a conversation about Election 2012 and related subjects over at Bloggingheads.tv. In the clip above, Klein notes that after Obama's victory, there was an argument among Republicans about how to respond to a newly elected, relatively popular president:

We all remember how popular he was when he came in. There was one side that said we need to moderate and change our image, and we can't be as combative with Obama. And there was another school of philosophy that said we have to block his agenda and stand up against him, and we're not going to compromise on these principles. Clearly over time the latter category won out.

But it wasn't clear where things were going to fall in 2009.

In conversation, I argued that the Tea Party too often mistakes a combative posture with standing on principle. A polite fiscal conservative like Mitch Daniels is considered a squish for suggesting a temporary, tactical truce on social issues. Jon Huntsman is totally dismissed by the conservative movement for a tweeted zing aimed at the base, despite a very conservative governing record. Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich adeptly throws out red meat and is accordingly presumed a staunch defender of conservative principles, despite years of glaring unprincipled behavior.

Perhaps the GOP's unmitigated combativeness and obstruction these last two years will end in a victory in the upcoming election. Especially if it doesn't, Republicans will have to confront the opportunity cost of the path they've chosen. I am not talking about the good of the country. Set that aside for the time being. What I'm saying is that Obama would've traded major concessions for GOP support on his health-care bill, he would've cut a deal that reduced the deficit with significantly more spending cuts than tax increases, and he might've even cut a deal on entitlements.

But the GOP didn't want to compromise.

Thus the status quo today is marginally worse by their lights than it might've been. And it isn't clear that their intransigence has improved Mitt Romney's electoral chances. He wasn't in Congress casting votes. And Obama's reelection chances hinge on the economy more than anything. Republican members of Congress aren't stupid. They've chosen this tactic because the base loves their intransigence and refusal to compromise. The c-word is thought by the rank-and-file to mean "selling out one's principles," rather than "reaching a mutually beneficial trade that needn't violate anyone's core principles." But if Republicans are ever going to govern successfully, advancing their agenda in any circumstance save the right-wing fantasy of a unified, permanent conservative majority in the White House and Congress, they'll have to compromise.

That means distinguishing between the bad and good kinds of compromise. It means that the Tea Party must keep encouraging its representatives to stick to principle, but that it must also pressure them to successfully execute the sort of trades that good negotiators leverage, when there's an incentive. It means measuring "conservative victories" by policy advances rather than news cycles or even elections. It means maturing enough to do what works instead of what feels good.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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