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The Audacity of Nope

Feb 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 20 • By ​WILLIAM KRISTOL
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President Obama has gone on the offensive at the beginning of his second term, and Republicans aren’t happy campers. Of course, every Republican camp is unhappy in its own way.

Sock 'em

Graphic River

There are the lamenters. Shouldn’t Obama have been less partisan in his Inaugural Address? Who gave liberals the right to launch ideological offensives? Doesn’t Obama know this is a center-right country? Didn’t he learn any lessons from Bill Clinton? Beneath these rhetorical questions, of course, lurks the fear that Obama will succeed.

But he won’t. There’s no need to worry that Barack Obama will be a liberal Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s foreign and economic policies succeeded. Obama’s policies are failing, at home and abroad.

But will the public notice? This is the concern of the second camp, the despairers. Liberals will continue to get away with shortsighted policies, they think, because the American public that reelected Obama is demographically different from in the good old days; also, there are now more takers than makers; what’s more, voters today are moved only by their short-term comfort rather than by their self-interest properly understood. So Obama will get away with it, the GOP is finished, and America’s doomed.

Not so. Against a candidate who ran an exceedingly unimaginative campaign, Barack Obama won just over 51 percent of the vote. He’s no FDR, and today’s public actually shows considerable resistance to being seduced by the siren song of contemporary liberalism.

On the other hand, the public isn’t enraptured by some of the conservative Republicans they see​—​which leads us to the third GOP camp, the kamikazes. Real men, they think, march off cliffs. Real political parties bull straight ahead​—​even if their offensive line is too small and too slow. Real politicians scoff when one of their colleagues urges them not to be stupid. Stupid people deserve representation too, after all.

Actually, they do. But they can be represented by less-stupid leaders. And those leaders don’t have to fall into the fourth camp, the accommodators. Last week, the Obama administration announced a startlingly irresponsible decision to send women into ground combat units. Rather than make the case against this based on the realities of biology, psychology, and sociology, rather than stepping up to defend the military and to defend women, leading Republican senators, shellshocked by the success of last fall’s “war on women” gambit, rushed to announce their support, or slunk away in quiet acquiescence.

This is foolish and pathetic. What self-respecting person wants to join such a party?

So what’s to be done? Here’s the outline of a three-step program.

The first is to remember the words of Pope John Paul II: Be not afraid. The odds against Republicans and conservatives have been much worse in the past. A little courage now would go a long way.

The second step is to recall Bill Buckley’s famous words, at the founding of National Review. The magazine​—​and by implication the conservative movement​—​would “stand athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” A little willingness on the part of Republicans to sometimes stand athwart History would also go a long way.

The third step is to fight. The fights won’t all succeed. The opprobrium that will be heaped upon Republicans who dare to engage in some of them​—​like opposing women in combat​—​will be daunting. But as Leo Strauss wrote in a letter to National Review just a year after its founding: “A conservative, I take it, is a man who despises vulgarity; but the argument which is concerned exclusively with calculations of success, and is based on blindness to the nobility of the effort, is vulgar.” Even in our modern mass democracy, the Republican party​—​even or especially a healthily populist Republican party​—​could surely strive occasionally to rise above the merely vulgar. In the same letter, Strauss praised political Zionism: “I can never forget what it achieved as a moral force in an era of complete dissolution. It helped stem the tide of ‘progressive’ leveling.” Even in Obama’s America, the Republican party could sometimes dare to stand as a moral force.

Of course it’s not enough to be unafraid. It’s not enough to stand athwart history. It’s not enough to fight. There needs to be fresh thinking and a positive governing agenda. But it’s evident from the first week of President Obama’s second term that Republican recovery will begin with a willingness to say No to President Obama​—​no to the nanny state at home, no to dishonorable retreat abroad.

Will Republicans have the spirit and the nerve to embrace the Audacity of Nope?

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