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George Will Wants Four More Years of Gridlock

The “Morning Joe” crew previewed George Will’s latest column, focusing on his comparison of the upcoming election and that of Goldwater’s 1964 debacle and a prediction that neither Mitt Romney nor Rick Santorum is likely to beat Barack Obama. The first is neither novel (I, along with scores of others, have already made it with regard to a Santorum nomination) nor really part of Will’s column. The second amounts to conventional wisdom at this point and I’ve been counseling the likelihood of Obama’s reelection since well before this campaign degenerated into a clown show; Obama’s a superb candidate and Americans tend to re-elect their presidents.

What’s actually interesting about the column, though, is this:

But suppose the accumulation of evidence eventually suggests that the nomination of either would subtract from the long-term project of making conservatism intellectually coherent and politically palatable. If so, there would come a point when, taking stock of reality, conservatives turn their energies to a goal much more attainable than, and not much less important than, electing Romney or Santorum president. It is the goal of retaining control of the House and winning control of the Senate.

Several possible Supreme Court nominations and the staffing of the regulatory state are among the important reasons conservatives should try to elect whomever the GOP nominates. But conservatives this year should have as their primary goal making sure Republicans wield all the gavels in Congress in 2013.

If Republicans do, their committee majorities will serve as fine-mesh filters, removing President Obama’s initiatives from the stream of legislation. Then Republicans can concentrate on what should be the essential conservative project of restoring something like constitutional equipoise between the legislative and executive branches.

Such a restoration would mean that a reelected Obama, a lame duck at noon on Jan. 20, would have a substantially reduced capacity to do harm. Granted, he could veto any major conservative legislation. But such legislation will not even get to his desk because Republicans will not have 60 senators. In an undoubtedly bipartisan achievement, both parties have participated in institutionalizing an extra-constitutional Senate supermajority requirement for all but innocuous or uncontroversial legislation. This may be a dubious achievement, but it certainly enlarges the power of a congressional party to play defense against a president.

Three years ago, conservatives were particularly focused on stopping two of Obama’s principal goals — a cap-and-trade climate policy and “card check” to abolish secret ballots in unionization elections. He still speaks incessantly but no longer speaks about either. And were it not for grossly corrupt conduct by Justice Department prosecutors in the trial of Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, which cost him reelection, Obamacare would not have passed.

Beginning next January, 51 or more Republican senators, served by the canny Mitch McConnell’s legislative talents, could put sand in the gears of an overbearing and overreaching executive branch. This could restore something resembling the rule of law, as distinct from government by fiats issuing from unaccountable administrative agencies exercising excessive discretion.

With regard to the Stevens prosecution, it’s worth noting it was done under a Republican Attorney General and convicted before a Democratic Attorney General decided that prosecutors had withheld crucial evidence from the defense team and declined to send the case on for sentencing. Which is to say, Stevens was in fact corrupt and the prosecution, while hamhanded, was not politically motivated. I’m sorry Republicans lost that seat in the way we did but not that Stevens himself was ousted.

Beyond that, even if the Republicans can get to a majority–and that became much harder this week with the retirement of Olympia Snowe and unretirement of Bob Kerrey–it’s not at all clear to me how “the long-term project of making conservatism intellectually coherent and politically palatable” is served by another four years of the shenanigans we’ve seen since Obama’s inauguration. While I suppose there’s a sense in which “conservatism” simply means preventing change, especially in the wrong direction, surely the way to invigorate the movement is to fight for a legislative agenda that matches conservative ideals and advances a vision for the next thirty years rather than harkening back wistfully to 30 years ago.

While a young William F. Buckley, Jr. famously declared in the founding issue of National Review that its mission was “stand[ing] athwart history, yelling Stop,” obstructionism wasn’t the whole package–or, indeed, much of the package at all. If that’s all that’s left, there’s not much to commend the movement, much less to motivate it through the nearly five years until the 2017 inauguration. And, of course, absent a positive message for the future, there’s not much reason to think a conservative will be taking the oath that day.

Will being “sand in the gears” until 2021 be the next rallying cry?

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Franklin says:

    To get to 51 Republican Senators, they’re going to have to bring out the base in crucial states. Who’s the better candidate for POTUS to achieve that?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  2. steve says:

    Let us look at the overreach Will is concerned about.

    1) TARP- GOP initiated.

    2) Auto bailouts- GOP initiated.

    3) ACA- Rewarmed GOP plan. Mandate originated with Stuart Butler or Mark Pauly. Pick one.

    4) Dodd-Frank- Yes, we definitely want to give the banks freedom to do what they want again.

    5) Stimulus- Contributed much less to our debt than the Bush tax cuts.

    6) Preventive wars- GOP specialty.

    Steve

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 38 Thumb down 0

  3. Brummagem Joe says:

    Obama’s re-election is entirely dependant on turnout by his coalition. If it turns out and he’s re-elected the odds are the Democrats hold the senate and probably win back some, maybe even quite a lot of, house seats. This is electoral math. Turning now to Will’s political philosophising which JJ correctly characterises as a policy of total bankruptcy. Sand in the gears indeed is what these folks have been reduced to and Will is supposed to be one of their “thinkers.”

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 1

  4. Jay Dubbs says:

    If Mr. Will is waiting for Congressional Republicans to make conservative ideas “intellectually coherent and politically palatable” I think he will have a long wait. With the possible exception of Paul Ryan, there are no intellectual conservative leaders on the Hill. And Mr. Ryan’s ideas, while intellectually coherent, will never be politically palatable.

    Stubborn opposition, refusal to work with the other side and a longing for the old days is what we have seen from the Congressional Republicans for the past 3 years. It has not exactly propelled the party forward. (Even the recapture of the House in 2010 can be attributed to a backlash against Obama more than an embrace of the GOP.) There is no reason to expect that the next four years would be any different.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 1

  5. superdestroyer says:

    If the Republicans win control of the Senate and retain control of the House, the best thing that the Obama Administration could do is throw the Congressional Democrats under the bus and go along with the Republicans on large scale budget cuts. Such politics would leave the Congressional Democrats in the position of still being for much larger entitlement spending while forcing the Republicans to decide if they actually want spending cuts.

    The last four years of the Clinton Administration was the closest the U.S. has ever gotten to a libertarian form of government and the Obama Administration would be smart to try to repeat the deal instead of trying to move the country to the left.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 5

  6. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Jay Dubbs:

    With the possible exception of Paul Ryan, there are no intellectual conservative leaders on the Hill.

    If Paul Ryan is the Republican’s definition of an intellectual conservative they are in trouble.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 19 Thumb down 1

  7. There are times when gridlock is better than letting Congress get away with whatever it wants.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  8. Rob in CT says:

    Quick gut reaction: I don’t give a damn what George Will wants.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  9. WR says:

    George Will has several extremely high paying jobs, none of which will be affected if the economy tanks. George Will has plenty of money in the bannk and will do fine no matter how much misery is rained down on the less-deserving parts of society. All he cares about is not paying taxes.

    George Will is the Republican elite at its finest — let the country wither away and die, as long as he keeps his tax cuts.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 0

  10. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    There are times when gridlock is better than letting Congress get away with whatever it wants.

    National paralysis….Doug’s philosophy of government.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

  11. Tano says:

    As others have alluded to, it seems a bit odd that Will assumes that the presidential race and the Congressional races are completely independent – that one could accept a loss in the Presidential and still hope to do well in the other.

    While there is not a strict correlation between size of Presidential win and number of seats gained. it does seem clear that a dispirited, low-turnout atmosphere on the Presidential side will seriously undermine that party’s Congressional races.

    While some may argue that “sand in the gears’ is a smart approach, or even a valuable service to the country (not that I would agree with that), I think it is a very hard sell as a political platform, especially with the crucial swing voters.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  12. Peterh says:

    @Brummagem Joe:

    That philosophy is rather engrained over at Reason on-line, so it’s not actually a novel thought on Doug’s part…..it’s just not very helpful in efforts to move forward

    A conservative is happy moving backwards while libertarian is happy with a straw in quicksand….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  13. Hey Norm says:

    I find it amusing that the Conservative Project, some 57 years after WFB founded the National Review, needs to be made

    “…intellectually coherent and politically palatable…”

    I mean…it’s true…and it’s amusing.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  14. Rick Almeida says:

    @Brummagem Joe:

    Doing something is not always preferable to doing nothing.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  15. gVOR08 says:

    Joyner is good enough to point out that “But suppose the accumulation of evidence eventually suggests that the nomination of either would subtract from the long-term project of making conservatism intellectually coherent and politically palatable.” Is BS. Maybe Joyner, Frum, and Bartlett want to make conservatism intellectually coherent. Who else?

    And Joyner was fair enough to point out that it was W. Bush JD prosecutors who convicted Stevens, as Will was not.

    “Then Republicans can concentrate on what should be the essential conservative project of restoring something like constitutional equipoise between the legislative and executive branches.” They had a chance to do that when they had majorities under W Bush. Didn’t seem to be a priority.

    “In an undoubtedly bipartisan achievement, both parties have participated in institutionalizing an extra-constitutional Senate supermajority requirement for all but innocuous or uncontroversial legislation.” Both parties may have contributed, but it’s largely a Republican accomplishment.

    Why does anybody still read George Will?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  16. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Rick Almeida:

    @Brummagem Joe:

    Doing something is not always preferable to doing nothing.

    And this is a basis for managing the multifarious activities of the most important country in the world?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  17. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Peterh:

    That philosophy is rather engrained over at Reason on-line, so it’s not actually a novel thought on Doug’s part…..it’s just not very helpful in efforts to move forward

    A conservative is happy moving backwards while libertarian is happy with a straw in quicksand….

    What Will and Doug forget of course is that if you are in control of one or both houses of congress you have thereby assumed partial responsibility for the governance of the country. As the events of the last 14 months have demonstrated it’s not that easy to escape the actual and popularly perceived received responsibility. To take some examples the debt ceiling is going to have to increased early in the new term. So what is congress going do force a default if Obama refuses to gut Medicare. So they pass lots of legislation cutting off contraceptive, forcing vaginal examinations et al and it all gets vetoed. Do they think this all passes un-noticed. All the Bush cuts expire they won’t have enough votes to reinstate them. And so on and so on. Will for a supposed conservative intellectual has about as much foresight as GWB. Negation isn’t a policy as JJ apparently understands…. but not Doug.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  18. Dividist says:

    Music to my ears. I explicitly vote for divided government.

    In the recent episode of One Party Democratic rule we got $2T+ of new spending passed in two bills, in two years, on purely partisan votes. In the first two years of our last episode of One Party Republican Rule we initiated $2T+ of new spending on two decade-long wars. Not to mention the unpaid for prescription entitlement.

    The worst of all worlds is having either party with control of the White House and both legislative branches. I will always vote against that circumstance and suggest you do the same.

    Republicans will hold the House majority although it is likely to narrow. While Snowe leaving the race certainly helps the Dems, it does not change the crushing structural advantage the Republicans enjoy this cycle in the Senate races. That does not mean that the GOP are not capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory as they did in 2010 by putting up a plethora of clown candidates.

    Intrade currently shows Obama with a 60% chance of being reelected, the GOP with a 63% probability of taking the Senate and a 63% chance of retaining control of the House.

    It is not about whether we have a liberal democrat or conservative republican as president. It is more important to be sure that said president does not a laydown congress controlled by the same party. My gut is that the Senate is a coin flip and the House is a lock for the GOP. If this dynamic does not change , it means the right vote for those independents who what to continue divided government is a vote to re-elect Obama.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 3

  19. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Dividist:

    I was trying to remember the greatest achievement of a prolonged period of governmental gridlock……ahhhh yes…..the civil war.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  20. michael reynolds says:

    It’s a stupid column by a burned-out old man desperate to remain relevant.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  21. Brummagem Joe says:

    @michael reynolds:

    It’s a stupid column by a burned-out old man desperate to remain relevant.

    Nope….his rejected girlfriends don’t drive around on his front lawn any longer.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. Herb says:

    @Doug Mataconis: “There are times when gridlock is better than letting Congress get away with whatever it wants. ”

    True, but Will’s arguing for gridlock to stop the president from getting what he wants, not Congress. Indeed, with his sand-in-the-gears metaphor, he’s arguing for a government that doesn’t even function. Not only is that not ideal, it’s not ideal in this situation. Why would Republicans waste Obama’s lame duck period on pure opposition? It’s not like it worked so well in the first term.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  23. Ron Beasley says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Unfortunately one thing that won’t be impacted by gridlock is war. The Republicans and many Democrats will be most supportive of any attempt by Obama to expand the empire.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  24. JohnMcC says:

    In 1964 the Johnson landslide enabled Dems to take a 2/3ds majority in the House. They took 36 seats from Repubs. Mr Wills is whistling past his graveyard. And as our hosts on this forum demonstrate, he is not walking alone.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  25. Brummagem Joe says:

    @JohnMcC:

    Mr Wills is whistling past his graveyard. And as our hosts on this forum demonstrate, he is not walking alone.

    To be fair JJ gets it but remains a committed Republican despite the fact that:

    the long-term project of making conservatism intellectually coherent and politically palatable.

    hasn’t been a notable success.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  26. An Interested Party says:

    …the long-term project of making conservatism intellectually coherent and politically palatable.

    Please…that project looks like it will take centuries, if ever, to come to fruition…oh, and said project would be helped immensely if hacks like Will weren’t pushing it…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  27. rudderpedals says:

    @JohnMcC: Great point. Truman’s another example. The president has the center well staked out and that puts the other party in a real jam where they’re faced choosing between Will’s nihilism and DeMent style radicalism.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  28. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Watching George Will at this particular stage of his disintegration is sort of like watching Gloria Swanson’s character in Sunset Boulevard.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  29. There is a misconception here. The gridlock is not motivated by the political system. It´s motivated by the MERE fact that if you don´t want to cut spending( And cut spending in areas that most voters would note) and if you don´t want to raise taxes you have gridlock and deficits.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  30. An Interested Party says:

    It´s motivated by the MERE fact that if you don´t want to cut spending( And cut spending in areas that most voters would note) and if you don´t want to raise taxes you have gridlock and deficits.

    This gridlock is about far more than simply taxes and spending…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  31. Dividist says:

    @Brummagem Joe:

    “I was trying to remember the greatest achievement of a prolonged period of governmental gridlock……ahhhh yes…..the civil war.” – BJ

    Exactly so. The end of slavery in the United States and preservation of the union. That’s the interesting thing about divided government – ugly process but right results.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  32. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Dividist:

    That’s the interesting thing about divided government – ugly process but right results.

    The civil war….an advertisment for the benefits of divided govt accoriding to Dividist. How sane, I’d never thought of that before.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  33. superdestroyer says:

    @Dividist:

    Divided government was the best thing that ever happened to Bill Clinton. Instead of nationalizing health care and pandering to big city mayors, the Clinton Administration was able to pass welfare reform and liberalize trade.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  34. Dividist says:

    @Brummagem Joe: Apparenty you’ve forgotten that you are the one who incorrectly invoked the civil war in this thread in this context. I was just playing with your silly and inaccurate metaphor, and reminding you there was a reason we fought that war.

    Of course the civil war has nothing to do with the political science definition of “divided government”, which is a state where the executive and both branches of the legislature are not controlled by the same party. Fortunately, and despite the protestations of the media, we have a much more civil and respectful partisan political environment today than we did in the1860′s or for that matter, during most of our history.

    @superdestroyer: True. It’ll probably do the same for Obama in a second term.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  35. An Interested Party says:

    True. It’ll probably do the same for Obama in a second term.

    Awwww…it’s a shame than that it’s too late to close the barn door for “nationalizing health care”…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  36. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Dividist:

    I was just playing with your silly and inaccurate metaphor, and reminding you there was a reason we fought that war.

    Oh you were just playing…VIZ

    “I was trying to remember the greatest achievement of a prolonged period of governmental gridlock……ahhhh yes…..the civil war.” – BJ

    Exactly so. The end of slavery in the United States and preservation of the union. That’s the interesting thing about divided government – ugly process but right results.

    Er….yes….playing seems to be a speciality of yours.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0