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The Long and Winding Republican Road

Feb 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 22 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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We moderns like our roads direct, our destinations clear, our paths planned, our routes rational. But we delude ourselves. We presume to know in advance what cannot be known. We bask in the conceit of rational control when such control is not to be had. We’re then disappointed, even angered, when we discover that life is in fact​—​to quote those perceptive Oakeshottian critics of modernity, the Beatles​—​a long and winding road.

But long and winding roads can lead to worthwhile destinations. The limitations of modern rationalism don’t preclude a reasonable outcome to our quest. Conservatives, of all people, shouldn’t despair when the way forward turns out to be murky, and the ascent full of twists and turns. It’s the modern left, after all, who are the terrible simplifiers.

Recall the wise words of Madison, in Federalist 37:

When we pass from the works of nature, in which all the delineations are perfectly accurate, and appear to be other-wise only from the imperfection of the eye which surveys them, to the institutions of man, in which the obscurity arises as well from the object itself as from the organ by which it is contemplated, we must perceive the necessity of moderating still further our expectations and hopes from the efforts of human sagacity. .  .  . Questions daily occur in the course of practice, which prove the obscurity which reins in these subjects, and which puzzle the greatest adepts in political science. .  .  . Besides the obscurity arising from the complexity of objects, and the imperfection of the human faculties, the medium through which the conceptions of men are conveyed to each other adds a fresh embarrassment. .  .  . When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated.

Conservatives in particular shouldn’t lament our dim and doubtful foresight of what lies ahead. It is, after all, the condition of human freedom.

And freedom is what Republican primary voters seem to be celebrating in 2012. They feel free to change their minds as the contest goes on. They feel free to ignore experts telling them how they must think and vote. They feel free to reverse the choices of their fellow Republicans in another state from the week before. They feel free to promote a candidate who was once last to first. They feel free to think that they shouldn’t be prohibited from rejecting the allegedly prohibitive favorite. Strikingly, in a Fox News poll last week, only 17 percent of likely Republican primary voters agreed that “Mitt Romney’s definitely going to win”; 80 percent chose the option, “It’s not over—someone other than Romney could still win.” 

In short, GOP voters feel free to believe that the long and winding road on which they have embarked will more likely  lead to the doors of the White House than would a short, straight, pundit-sanctioned path. 

And freedom is what Republican primary voters want their candidates to celebrate—and to protect—this year. Freedom is the word for what we have to lose if the Obama administration gets a second term. The issues at stake this year aren’t whether Rick Santorum voted for earmarks as a senator from Pennsylvania, or whether Mitt Romney checks every box of conservative orthodoxy. The issue is whether Obamacare, an unprecedented assault on our freedoms, will be exposed as such and repealed. The issue is whether our ballooning debt, an unforgiving threat to our future freedoms, will be addressed decisively. The issue is whether the entitlement state, inimical to a politics of individual liberty, will be transformed into a limited government worthy of a free society. The issue is whether our Constitution, guardian of our freedoms, will be reinvigorated. The issue is whether threats to a world in which we and others can enjoy freedom​—​in particular, a nuclear Iran​—​will be stopped.

Who would be better at preserving our freedoms and strengthening a free society? Republican primary voters haven’t yet decided. And why should they have? None of the candidates has yet earned the nomination. The good news after last Tuesday is that the race won’t end prematurely. And we remain confident that Republican voters will reward the candidate​—​Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum or someone else​—​who most boldly and seriously addresses these issues.

We trust that the long and winding Republican road will produce, in Tampa in late August, a nominee stronger for the trek he had to endure. And we trust that road will lead, on November 6, to its ultimate destination​—​a new man in the White House, and a new birth of freedom in America.

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