The Magazine

A Loyal Opposition

Defeating Obamacare and the Taliban.

Aug 31, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 46 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Six months into the Obama presidency, conservatives and Republicans have occasion for some good cheer.

It's not simply that key and noxious elements of Obama's legislative agenda are in serious trouble. It's not simply that his approval numbers are down. It's not simply that the evidence is increasingly conclusive that 2008 didn't mark a sharp break to the left on the part of public opinion, and that "conservative" remains a term of approbation for much more of the electorate than "liberal." And it's not simply that the term "Republican" is less poisonous than many feared (or hoped): The GOP has recently improved its comparative position in most 2010 generic congressional polls.

The most heartening development in the Age of Obama so far is this: the impressive behavior of conservatives and Republicans. They have been principled in their major domestic and foreign policy positions, have opposed Obama and advanced their own agenda in a savvy and sensible way, and have begun to find new and fresh spokesmen. There are some conservative pundits and GOP talking-heads who've kept themselves busy with navel- gazing and fratricidal-sniping--but they haven't distracted most on the right from the job at hand.

In domestic policy, it's the American public who deserve much credit for slowing down and perhaps capsizing Obamacare. But Republican politicians and conservative policy analysts and polemicists have done their part. GOP senators and congressmen refused to be intimidated by claims that a victory of some version of Obama care was inevitable. They therefore weren't suckered into foolish equivocations and compromises.

Conservative policy wonks helped to explode the false budgetary and health-improvement claims made on behalf of Obamacare. Conservative polemicists pointed out how Obamacare--conceived in the spirit of budget chief Peter we-spend-too-much-as-a-nation-on-health-care Orszag and adviser Ezekiel we-need-to-stop-wasting-money-on-extending-low-quality-lives Emanuel--means, in effect, death panels.

So good for them. And it's a sign of Obama's desperation that he seems unwilling to debate the substance of his own health care proposal or to discuss elements of reform on which there could be agreement if he would consider starting over. He prefers to spend much of his time attacking his critics as "naysayers." But his critics aren't his problem. His proposal is.

Meanwhile, as a decision looms for Obama on a new strategy requiring increased numbers of troops in Afghanistan, a Washington Post-ABC News poll last week discovered that "majorities of liberals and Democrats alike now, for the first time, solidly oppose the war and are calling for a reduction of troop levels." Conservatives and Republicans are far more supportive of the war--they "remain the war's strongest backers"--and a majority of conservatives don't merely support the war but say they approve of President Obama's handling of it.

So much for charges of knee-jerk or unprincipled partisanship. Conservatives support a president they generally distrust because they think it important the country win the war in Afghanistan. And despite temptations to make political hay out of a war that's getting more unpopular, and despite doubts about Obama as commander in chief, Republican political leaders remain supportive of the war effort. They are urging Obama to commit himself unambiguously to win the war and to approve General Stanley McChrystal's coming request for more troops. And in urging the administration to follow this course, they are willing to see the president get credit for doing the right thing.

In sum: In opposing Obamacare and supporting victory in Afghanistan, conservatives and Republicans are behaving as a loyal opposition. Those who were worried that partisanship would trump patriotism among conservatives, and that loathing of Obama would overcome loyalty to the country among Republicans, have so far been proved wrong. And those who were worried that timidity would prevent vigorous opposition where warranted in domestic policy have been so far proven wrong as well. The Republican party and the conservative movement are behaving in a way that can make Republicans and conservatives proud.

As for today's liberals: They just don't want America to win wars, do they? They're ready, willing, and able to see America lose in Afghanistan. Luckily, President Obama seems to understand that the United States can and ought to win. And the Obama administration will benefit from the support of a loyal opposition if it chooses to surge to victory.

--William Kristol