In 2012, Did Conservatives Lose a Battle or the War?

By Conor Friedersdorf

And is militarism even an appropriate way to assess the state of partisan politics in America today?

On Uncommon Knowledge, an underrated right-of-center interview program far better than anything on Fox News, host Peter Robinson and guest Rob Long mull the implications of Mitt Romney's loss, which they regard as a serious setback with which conservatives must urgently grapple.

With them is John Yoo*, who is more sanguine. Their exchange is a good example of the sort of disagreement roiling movement conservatism at the moment. Let's start with Rob Long. "We do this on our side," he argued. "When we lose, when we get a drubbing, we spend about a day lashing ourselves, and the rest of the time trying to prove how we didn't lose at all."

Here's what followed (transcript follows video):

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Along with losing on a lot of social issues over the years -- many of them issues where today's conservatives agree with yesterday's liberals -- conservatives do seem to have lost the argument about the social safety net. The Republican Party has gone through multiple campaign cycles advertising itself as the side that won't cut Medicare. (You'd think, given his rhetoric, that at least Mark Levin would be calling for Medicare to be abolished as unconstitutional abomination, but no one with an audience as elderly as his has the courage of his convictions on the subject.) And yes, Obamacare probably is going to significantly change America's relationship to the federal government -- not in the way that I'd prefer, to be sure -- but the conservative presumption that repealing it is obviously the highest priority for a freedom-loving people isn't grounded in anything but dubious predictions about how it'll end in imminent tyranny**. (As Noah Millman writes, we'd actually be lucky if it ended in Europeanization.)

Improve on the left's health-care policy, by all means.  

But perhaps there are bigger affronts to freedom that deserve more attention from the right -- things like warrantless spying on millions of innocent Americans, extrajudicial killings, and incarcerating a higher percentage of the population than any other Western nation by a wide margin. Those are aspects of liberty that don't tend to be aired when you're always talking with Yoo.

That doesn't make them unimportant, given that the transgressions are happening right now. Conservatives worry so much about stepping onto slippery slopes that they often don't even notice when they're already at the bottom of one. (Just ask Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley).

I'll leave Robinson and Long, both of whose arguments are always worth considering, with some questions about what they actually think about the entitlement state. I know they regard it as financially unsustainable in its present form. I agree. I'd like to means-test Social Security. For high-net-worth individuals, I'd like to cap Medicare at what they paid in during their working years. I'd like to reform medical torts too.

Do Robinson and Long favor a strong safety net? If they could, would they repeal Social Security and Medicare, or do they simply want to reform those programs to make them permanently sustainable? Do they want the state to help subsidize health insurance or health care for people who can't afford it?  

I'll be curious to hear their answers. In my experience, conservatives exaggerate their differences with liberals on these subjects, making it sound as if the divide is as big as the one that separates Karl Marx and Milton Friedman, and the Democrats are radical socialists ... but then, every time conservatives wield power, they tinker around the edges of the welfare state at most. Sometimes the tinkering is making sure that it has a generous prescription drug benefit!

I don't mean to suggest that there aren't significant differences in the approaches favored by the left and right. I just don't think that they are as intractable as people on both sides sometimes claim. So Rob and Peter, forgive me if you've addressed this somewhere I haven't seen, but what are your preferences on Social Security, Medicare, and health insurance for the people who would be uninsured if Obamacare was repealed? What do you see as the intractable principled (as opposed to empirical or prudential) differences you have with Obama on those issues?

I'll close by answering the question in the headline: Because wars are zero-sum and electoral politics aren't, the metaphor is fundamentally unsuited to the present situation in the United States.  

*Yoo is the UC-Berkeley legal scholar who advocated for checks, balances, and the rule of law when Bill Clinton was in the White House; altered his avowed beliefs completely and became a zealous advocate for maximal executive power when President George W. Bush was the one waging foreign wars; went so far as to claim that no treaty or law can stop the president from crushing the testicles of an innocent child, depending on why he thinks he needs to do it (seriously); and had a finding that he engaged in professional misconduct during the Bush Administration overturned by David Margolis, who nevertheless said that Yoo's work was flawed, adding, "I fear that John Yoo's loyalty to his own ideology and convictions clouded his view of his obligation to his client ..." Despite all this, he is far more welcome within movement conservatism than, for example, David Frum, whose transgressions against movement orthodoxy are apparently deemed more serious.

**It isn't as if there's a provision in Obamacare that creates death panels where executive branch employees sit around a "disposition matrix" and make secret decisions about which American citizens will die without any due process or checks by other branches of government.

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