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Lose Now and Win Later?

Don't bet on it.

11:00 PM, Feb 11, 2008 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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FLUSHED AND AGLOW the thrill of defeat, some movement conservatives have their crystal balls out and are busily whipping off comeback scenarios in which all will be well. They will lose now to win later on; they will give the White House to Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, and get Congress back two years later; they will get it all back in 2012 with their new hero, Mitt Romney, who four years later will be assumed to have made even more money and developed the combat skills in the mean time he so notably lacked this time. This year will be the new 1992, when Republicans lost everything to Bill and Hillary Clinton and came roaring back two years later to win both houses of Congress. This year will be the new 1976, in which Ronald Reagan lost the nomination in his first serious bid to be president, and came roaring back four years later; won two landslides in rapid succession, and went on to alter the world. (Or, he's the new Gary Hart, who runs, loses, is seen as the great hope of the upcoming cycle, and then goes to pieces. But the people who look into crystal balls for their futures don't like to think about this sort of thing.)

There are two or more things wrong with this picture, as you may have guessed. Sometimes you lose now AND lose later (as Peggy Noonan said on a talk show the other day), and the problem with the future is that it's so . . . unforeseen. You never can tell what it might come up with. It stuns you with things that you never see coming. It often blindsides you with the last thing you expect. Mitt Romney came in this time with his good looks, his big plans, and his bottomless fortune, having remade himself as a social conservative and planning to run on the right unimpeded while Giuliani and McCain battled over the same pool of votes. Instead, HE split votes with Mike Huckabee--the last thing he expected--while Rudy imploded at just the right moment and gave all of his votes to McCain.

Hillary had been planning for eight years--or ten years, or thirty--to emerge as the unchallenged Queen Bee of her party, and when the white centrists--Evan Bayh and Mark Warner--bowed out of the contest, she seemed home free. The last thing she expected was Barack Obama, who came at her at once from the left, right, and center, if not from above, a missile hand-crafted by the Almighty to tie her in multiple knots. He was not only to able to checkmate her gender card ('The first woman president!') with his more significant race one, but to goad her (and her husband) into statements and tactics that were at best tasteless, and at worst regarded as racist themselves. But fate seems to revel in these odd strokes of fortune. "It seemed Romney the buttoned down businessman had planned for every contingency, except one," Tom Bevan explained on Real Clear Politics. "The exceptionally gifted speaker with the Mayberry charm proved to be the kryptonite to Romney's well oiled, deep pocketed campaign." Hillary also prepared for everything, save for the one thing she never saw coming. But that's how life is.

And if people aren't enough to keep things exciting, there's always the flow of events. George W. Bush was supposed to have a small-bore presidency, focused on acts of domestic compassion; to lose Congress by forty seats in the 2002 midterms, and to lose the White House two years after that to enraged Democrats energized by the election's strange outcome. Then, one late summer day, something strange happened in lower Manhattan, and the world hasn't settled down since. If that can happen, so can anything else--in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Lebanon, or even New Jersey--to reshape the board wholly, before the day of this coming election, much less before 2012.

The view in the ball is that Romney becomes the new Reagan, and a transformational figure, but in the past century transformational figures have come only twice: in 1932 and 1980, when a monster political talent coincided with the total collapse of a system. But most administrations don't collapse--they merely screw up on the margins--and talents of this sort are rare. FDR and RR were Man O War and Secretariat, talents that come along twice in a century, while most times, a horse is a horse. Picking your horse this soon before the next Derby can be fraught with peril. By that time, the whole world can change.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.