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A Pyrrhic Victory?

Special editorial, December 19, 2009.

1:00 PM, Dec 19, 2009 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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When a fellow conservative tried to cheer me up this morning by assuring me that the Senate Democrats' victory on health care was going to be a Pyrrhic one, I realized I didn't remember much about Pyrrhus.

I went of course to Wikipedia. That fine reference work defines a Pyrrhic victory as "a victory with devastating cost to the victor." It also provides this quotation from Plutarch's Life of Pyrrhus, describing the aftermath of the battle of Asculum in 279 BCE:

"The armies separated; and, it is said, Pyrrhus replied to one that gave him joy of his victory that one more such victory would utterly undo him. For he had lost a great part of the forces he brought with him, and almost all his particular friends and principal commanders; there were no others there to make recruits, and he found the confederates in Italy backward. On the other hand, as from a fountain continually flowing out of the city, the Roman camp was quickly and plentifully filled up with fresh men, not at all abating in courage for the loss they sustained, but even from their very anger gaining new force and resolution to go on with the war."

So: Pyrrhus's victory became Pyrrhic because the victorious party lost many of its supporters--but also because the opposition didn't abate in courage, was able to gain new recruits, and had the force and resolution to go on.

It's certainly true that the Obama administration and the Democrats have lost supporters over the past year. On February 24, when President Obama laid out his domestic agenda in his first speech to Congress, his approval/disapproval (in the Rasmussen tracking poll) was 60-39. By September 9, when he delivered his big health care speech to Congress, he was at 50-50. Today, as Harry Reid unveils his final text of the health care bill, Obama is at 45-53.

But I'd guess Obama is about to stop shedding supporters, at least for while. And it would be risky for Republicans simply to point to the public opinion polls and merely sit back and wait for good things to fall into their laps in 2010 or 2012.

So how should Republicans move forward?

1. Keep fighting on health care. Fight for the next few days in the Senate. Fight the conference report in January in the Senate and the House. Start trying to repeal the worst parts of the bill the moment it passes, if it does.

After all, never before has so unpopular a piece of major legislation been jammed through on a party-line vote. This week, Rasmussen showed 57% of voters nationwide saying that it would be better to pass no health care reform bill this year instead of passing the plan currently being considered by Congress, with only 34% favoring passing that bill. 54% of Americans now believe they will be worse off if reform passes, while just 25% believe they'll be better off. Making the 2010 elections a referendum on health care should work--if Republicans don't let up in the debate over the next year.

2. But don't fight only on health care. Republicans need to expand the battlefield. The rest of the past week's news--some Gitmo prisoners being released back to the battlefield, while others are to be brought to the U.S.; the Copenhagen farce and the EPA CO2 regulation; an Obama-appointed "safe schools czar" who's more interested in safe sex than safe schools--reminds us that there are many fronts for conservatives and Republicans to fight on, ranging from economic policy to social issues to national security. The criticism of the Obama administration needs to be broad-based, because you never know just what issue is going to take off, and because the opposition needs to knit together all those who object to the Europeanization of America.

3. And broaden the base for the fight. Many Republicans--especially Republican elected officials--fret that the Republican party remains unpopular. Don't worry about that. It will take a while longer to repair the damage that's been done in recent years. So what if the GOP has a favorable/unfavorable rating in this week's NBC/Wall Street Journal poll of 28-43 percent? The good news is that, for the first time in more than two years, the Democratic party has a negative favorable/unfavorable rating, of 35 to 45 percent. The Democrats' decline is evening up the playing field between the two parties.