Defining “Victory”

I’ve written as much as anyone you’ll find about how historically anomalous it that the Republican Party keeps responding to presidential election defeats by moving farther from the political mainstream. But that doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with The Moderate Voice‘s Joe Gandelman in arguing that the GOP is divided into people who want to win and those who don’t:

Whether conservatives even want to win is a serious question in light of the reaction to the Republican National Committee’s brutally honest “autopsy” on why the party lost the 2012 presidential election. The RNC concluded that the party should change such things as the number of primaries, its image among minority voters, its positions on immigration reform, its ground game — and become less “scary” to voters. It all amounts to this: At least look more moderate. But “moderate” remains one of the filthiest words in the Republican Party, and the feeling is kinda mutual: Moderates voted for Obama in droves.

All true, of course. But before deciding the Right would rather be “Right” than to win, it’s important to consider the different meanings of victory. If your only goal as a political movement (which is not the same as a political party, of course) is to win the next election, that suggests a fairly clear focus on what went wrong in the last election and where changes can be made that may produce the requisite gain in votes given the projected demographic, issues and candidate landscapes of the next ballot test.

But if your goal is something a bit more ambitious than winning the next election, other calculations come into play. Suppose you want to impose so total a degree of domination of a major political party that you destroy your intraparty enemies and plow and salt the ground upon which they once trod. You go RINO-hunting, whether or not you think that may contribute to short-term success in general elections. Or suppose you are pursuing a “big-inning” strategy in which is less important to you to “score” in each election than it is to produce big results–e.g., enactment of the Ryan Budget, game-changing judicial appointments–then that, too, might indicate a willingness to undergo some strategic defeats.

Now you don’t hear conservatives admit publicly very often that they place a lower premium on any old kind of victory than non-ideological hacks who just want access to power or the money-generating reputation for political savvy. So it’s often hard to tell if they really do believe that every time they move right they are going to win immediately (some undoubtedly do). But it’s neither fair nor accurate to assume that ideologues playing the long game don’t actually care if they ever win, or prefer to lose because then they don’t have the responsibility to govern and can maintain an audience that’s perpetually in a frenzy of hate and paranoia. For some, those are just useful byproducts of waiting for the Big Victory that changes everything.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.