Ethics & Public Policy Center

Conservatives Must Govern with Prudence and Patience

Published in Commentary Magazine's Contentions Blog on October 26, 2010



In a recent interview with Philip Klein of the American Spectator, Representative Paul Ryan spoke about the limits of the strategy to defund ObamaCare:

Obviously, I'm in favor of anything we can do to stop it, to halt it, but the problem we have is, he [Obama] has to sign those bills. I get this question every single day, 'If you take back Congress, you have the power of the purse, just defund the thing.' Well, yeah, technically speaking, we can put riders in appropriations bills that say, 'No such funds can go to HHS to do x, y, or z in implementing ObamaCare.' He's gotta sign those things. And he doesn't strike me as the kind of person who would sign those things. And so that means we go to a continuing resolution or something like that. So I see a lot of stalemate — not over just whether we defund ObamaCare and cap and trade and FinReg or whatever — because he's not going to agree to our spending levels anyway. We're going to cut spending way below where he would go. So I don't see him signing our spending bills, which are the bills you'd have to pass into law to defund ObamaCare.

There is no more committed budget cutter on Capitol Hill than Ryan, which is why his words are worth taking into account for conservatives who, once Republicans retake the House (as I fully expect they will), insist that the GOP repair much of the damage President Obama has done. It won't be easy — and conservatives should internalize that fact sooner rather than later. There are certain governing and political realities that cannot be wished away. Repealing ObamaCare is impossible so long as Obama sits in the Oval Office — and even defunding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is going to prove to be exceedingly difficult. Those in the conservative movement who set that up as the standard of success are setting themselves and their closest political allies up for failure.

An alternative conservative governing agenda to Obamaism should commit to repealing ObamaCare; that is an entirely reasonable demand to make. But insisting that this commitment be legislated into law within months of the GOP's retaking control of the House is simply fanciful. So long as Obama is president, the best that conservatives may hope for between now and 2012 is to stop the leftward lurch that has occurred during the past 21 months. That would itself be a significant achievement. Cauterizing the wound of a bleeding patient counts for something.

Beyond that, next spring Representative Ryan, as chairman of the House Budget Committee, will lay out an alternative to what Obama and Democrats have proposed. My guess is that it will be quite bold and ambitious. Still, what happens in 2011 needs to be seen as setting the stage for 2012. Ryan refers to this period as a “shadow boxing match” to the real fight — “2012,” Ryan says, “is the fight for the soul of America.”

The November 2 election will hopefully bring to Washington a large number of lawmakers who care more about the conservative cause than they do about a political career, who are skilled at tactics and strategy, and who are serious about reversing the trajectory of things. But the wise ones among them will also understand that the 2010 election results will probably set the stage for an intense, protracted, and at times frustrating struggle. Things rarely happen in politics as neatly, cleanly, and quickly as we like; this is in part the results of our Madisonian form of government.

In the aftermath of the midterm elections, the conservative movement should keep pressure on members of Congress to propose a governing blueprint that is equal to this moment — one that limits government and champions a growth agenda. At the same time, conservatives need to show some measure of maturity, sobriety, and patience. They cannot demand that everything be done all at once. They should not confuse lack of results (repealing or defunding ObamaCare) with lack of will. And for some conservative commentators to write “I have a feeling that if the GOP d/n repeal or defund Obamacare in 2011, there will be no GOP in 2012″ is both unwise and apocalyptic. One of the characteristics of conservatives is prudence — “the god of this lower world,” in the words of Burke. In this instance that means pushing an agenda that re-limits government while rejecting utopian dreams and utopian demands. That's worth keeping in mind as conservatives find themselves on the cusp of power again.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.

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