The Art of Losing

TAS alum Ross Douthat’s much-anticipted debut is today, and I can’t believe I beat Reihan to the punch in offering my congratulations. And it’s a good, well-written column, though one whose sentiments offer no suprises to long-time Douthat fans.

Do I agree with it, though? Not really. I’m not sure the kind of “decisive battle” Douthat thinks would have been salutary – for the GOP and the country – ever actually happens in politics.

Start with the fact that the landslide losses of 1964 and 1972 did not decisively defeat the Goldwaterite or McGovernite factions in their respective parties – rather, the losers in those general election contests went on to become the dominant factions within a couple of decades.

It seems to me that the way to defeat a faction is not to let it win so it can lose a general election but to defeat it in an intra-party contest. I supported McCain in the primaries (knowing I’d probably vote Obama in the general) in significant part because he was not the candidate of supply-side economics and stress positions. I saw the GOP seriously considering making support for torture a litmus test, and I thought: that’s got to be stopped. If McCain had represented some specific vision of the GOP future – if he hadn’t become a faction of one by that point – then a McCain primary victory would itself have proved that the Cheney faction was no longer dominant – would itself have represented a repudiation by the party of that tendency. Right? And that would have been good. Right?

At this point, there’s very little about the GOP with which I can identify, and I don’t expect to be voting for it much in national elections. (I’d happily support a good GOP nominee for Governor – and no, Rudy Giuliani is not a good nominee.) The things I’m least-happy about with the Obama Administration represent continuity with the Bush Administration; my favorite national politician is a Democrat (Senator Jim Webb of Virginia); and the GOP appears to be fully in thrall to crazy people.

But I want America to have two healthy political parties. And there’s plenty of material in the GOP DNA, howsoever unexpressed or poorly expressed in the party’s current form, that still speaks to me. So I care about the question that animates Ross’s column. I’m just not convinced that giving them enough rope to hang themselves is the way to beat the ultras. Give ‘em enough rope and you never know who they’ll wind up hanging.