The Magazine

More’s Maxims

Jan 14, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 17 • By ​WILLIAM KRISTOL
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At the Mass of Christian Burial conducted for Robert Bork on December 21, the program for guests included two quotations from Thomas More, traditional patron saint of lawyers. They were presumably favorites of Bob Bork’s, or perhaps the family felt they exemplified the principles of his public service. But they also happen to be useful guides for conservatives and Republicans over the next few years .  .  . and beyond.

Thomas More

First: “What you cannot turn to good, you must make as little bad as you can.

Welcome to President Obama’s second term. It won’t be easy for Republicans to check a reelected Obama administration, supported by a Democratic Senate and a larger Democratic minority in the House. The fight over the fiscal cliff presented only the first of what will be many challenges of how to make a bad situation as little bad as possible. These challenges will produce differences of opinion about strategy and tactics, about where to give way and where to fight, about how little bad is good enough to settle for.

But perhaps all Republicans and conservatives can agree on three postulates that follow from More’s First Maxim.

(1) Don’t have high expectations. The Republican House will be able to mitigate some damage, and perhaps even to force some progress, over the next two years. But at the end of the day the government of the United States, under the stewardship of President Obama, and absent outside shocks that force fundamental changes, will run ridiculous deficits, will spend irresponsible amounts of money on foolish programs, and will overregulate and overtax the private economy.

(2) Don’t predict immediate disaster. Poor governance by the Obama administration doesn’t mean the economy will necessarily pay a huge price over the next couple of years. The underlying American economy is strong, the recovery so far has been desultory, and we may be due for some decent quarters of growth, however unsustainable the debt is over the medium- and longer-term. Republicans should be wary of prophesying imminent doom and gloom.

(3) Don’t attack the motives of your fellow conservatives. There will be differences over what course of action should be followed in dealing with the many unattractive choices that will confront us. “We are all Republicans, we are all conservatives,” should be the postulate that governs and tempers the (healthy) debate that will undoubtedly take place at each juncture on the difficult road that will be Obama’s second term.

Which leads us to More’s Second Maxim, courtesy of Bob Bork: “You must not abandon the ship in a storm because you cannot control the winds.”

Conservatives and Republicans won’t be able to control many of the winds of American public policy, domestic and foreign, over the next few years. But it would be disgraceful and dishonorable to abandon the ship of state. That ship will have to be kept afloat and as upright as possible, and conservatives will have to do as much as can be done to prevent it from being blown further out to sea. Until a new and better captain is at the helm.

That of course will present its own challenges.

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