On March 21, 2010, my former boss and mentor, David Frum, wrote a story that ran on FrumForum.com under the headline "Waterloo." It harshly criticized conservatives for their uncompromising opposition to the bill officially titled the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but which most of us know simply as ObamaCare. David agreed that in a perfect world, ObamaCare would never see the light of day. However, surveying the legislative landscape, David observed that the GOP never had enough votes to defeat the health-care bill.
While conservatives could not prevent the bill from becoming law entirely, David argued that they could have engaged with Democrats and possibly watered down many of the bill's most unconservative provisions. Instead, though, the GOP refused to participate at all because the worse the bill the unchecked Democratic Congress passed, the better Republicans would do in the 2010 midterm elections.
"Waterloo" went live on the website at around 5 p.m. on the 21st. Within 24 hours, American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks took David to lunch and fired him, essentially for daring to disagree.
More than three years and two elections have passed since David was shouted down for pointing out the flaws in the GOP's "strategy" for handling ObamaCare. History appears to have provided David right. While the GOP did seize control of the House in November 2010, the party has failed to secure the Senate and, more importantly, Barack Obama won re-election. Realistically, what that means is that repeal is not an option, since even if the GOP did somehow manage to secure a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate in 2014 (which even the most optimistic prognosticators will tell you is not going to happen), the GOP still could not affect repeal (since the president would veto). And yet, despite this harsh reality, serious members of the GOP are still promising voters that they will repeal the law. Indeed, Mike Lee and Ted Cruz are threatening to shut down the government if the president does not defund the law.
Not surprisingly, plenty of smart liberals have taken note of the GOP's obstinacy on this issue. But more interesting is the fact that some of the brightest voices within the conservative movement are beginning to speak out against the futility of the strategy that my old boss was fired for raising back in 2010. The question ought never have been whether we can prevent ObamaCare, but rather how bad ObamaCare was going to be when the bill finally was delivered to the president for signing.
Late last week, Charles Krauthammer finally put his foot down in the face of Cruz and Lee's continued efforts to shape GOP policy proposals as if they lived in a perfect conservative world that simply does not exist. Krauthammer did not mince words, describing the Cruz/Lee ultimatum as "nuts." While he acknowledged that he would support defunding ObamaCare if he thought it would work, he also said it's obvious that it won't work, and that he does not fancy "suicide." Indeed, while Lee and Cruz will undoubtedly claim those who don't support their cause are less than full conservatives, Krauthammer correctly observed that one's position on their proposal has little to do with principle and everything to do with "sanity."
Interestingly, the point that Krauthammer makes is virtually identical to the one David made three years ago. The proposition underlying both articles is that electoral realities must govern ideological decision-making. In a perfect world, Republicans simply could have prevented ObamaCare's passage by voting against it. Similarly, now, in a perfect world, Republicans would have the votes to repeal or defund ObamaCare.
But alas, this is not a perfect world and that being the case, true conservatives adjust their tactics and their expectations. Over the past three years, the GOP base has become so enamored with the idea of ideological purity that they have been willing to throw the realities of real world politics overboard to chase it. But real defenders of conservatism must learn to embrace the painful compromises of day-to-day governance. Otherwise, we will become a party that stands by and debates itself while living under completely unchecked legislation shaped wholly by our ideological opponents.