That’s not an easy admission to make, and it’s understandably not particularly welcome among the conservative clan, which has chafed under the jab for most of the last two centuries.
It was the otherwise estimable John Stuart Mill who observed that “Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives,” and the taunt has stuck. Even though Mill was obviously wrong (hanging out for a few hours at a Capitol demonstration or listening to Nancy Pelosi will sorely challenge the generalization) , the slur has been an source of comfort to the left and annoyance to the right for generations.
So last week, when Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal invoked the old libel, his comment was designed to get under the skin of conservatives.
“We have to stop being the stupid party; it's time for a new Republican party that talks like adults. It's time for us to articulate our plans and our visions for America in real terms. It's no secret we've had a number of Republicans this year damage our brands with bizarre and offensive comments. I’m here to say we've had enough of that.”
But this was too obvious to be controversial. The GOP had squandered opportunities to win senate seats in Indiana and Missouri after candidates made inept comments about rape (and in the case of Missouri’s Todd Akin, refused to pull out of the race.) Just two years earlier, two other senate seats and their six year terms were sacrificed on the altar of crackpotism: in Delaware, where Christine O’Donnell declared that “I am not a witch,” and in Nevada where Sharron Angle lost an almost unlosable race against the doddering Harry Reid after she took several too many trips to Crazytown. Four years earlier, the GOP lost a senate seat in Virgina after its candidate used the racially tinged word “macaca,” to the great delight of Democrats and the media.
By and large Wisconsin conservatives have been free of such temptations and blunders. But earlier this year, we learned that several members of the legislature had told a fringe tea party group that they supported legislation that would allow police to arrest federal officials who implement Obamacare in Wisconsin. Many of the same pols also endorsed "legislation that would allow TSA agents to be charged with sexual assault if they use invasive ‘pat-down” procedures.’”
Suffice it to say that these positions are to quote our own Bob Uecker... "Juuuust a bit outside...." As I wrote then:
“It is one thing to oppose Obamacare and to oppose the implementation of state exchanges (as I do), quite another thing to begin channeling your inner John C. Calhoun and embrace the rhetoric of the 1850s.... Frankly, it is hard to imagine a less effective way to make the case for opposition to an overweening federal government than to adopt positions that fit every caricature of the retrograde right the left/media could ever imagine.”
Worst of all: they make it that much harder for the substantive and thoughtful conservative critiques of these issues to break through the media clutter. Because the stupidity and extremism of the right remains the operating assumption of the mainstream media, they are more than eager to let the wacky displace and overshadow the sensible.
Going forward, the problems are both substantive and tactical. On substance, we need to have a pact under which conservatives no longer ever use the words rape, nullification, birth certificate, Kwanzaa, or secession. Conservatives win when they sound like the party of common sense. They lose when they get trapped in their own ideological bubble of eccentricity.
On tactics, conservatives need to know that won’t win by being reckless. Victory is seldom achieved by impaling oneself on the spears of a superior enemy. In fact, the enemy actually likes it. When your opponent has a larger army and bigger guns and controls the high ground, direct frontal assault is probably not the smartest strategy. Gallipoli and Pickett’s charge are not, after all, considered models of military brilliance.
This was the burden of Paul Ryan’s speech at the National Review summit over the weekend, when he laid out the case for “prudence” in the age of the Obama Ascendancy. Ryan told his fellow conservatives they couldn’t allow themselves to get “rattled.”
“We won’t play the villain in his morality plays.”
“If we play into [Obama’s] hands, we will betray the voters who supported us—and the country we mean to serve,” Ryan said. “We can’t let that happen. We have to be smart. We have to show prudence.”
Invoking “prudence,” of course is not without risk for Ryan. It’s is hardly a leg-tingling clarion call to rally the conservative ranks for the fight ahead. Many activists are understandably skeptical of the term, because prudence can easily morph into timidity and even the surrender of principle.
And it is easily mocked: recall Dana Carvey’s classic spoof of the first President Bush: “Not gonna do. Wouldn’t be prudent.”
So what did Ryan mean?
He defined prudence as “good judgment in the art of governing,” quoting Lincoln who called it “one of the cardinal virtues.”
“We have to find the good in every situation—and choose the best means to achieve it. We have to make decisions anchored in reality—and take responsibility for the consequences.”
Ryan argued that conservatives need to be both intelligent and modest in their goals. They could mitigate the worst of Obamanism, and advance good alternatives when possible. But they could not expect to sweep their opponents before them or win historic victories.
The mandate for conservatives: Limit the damage. Articulate your principles forcefully, but be smart about it. Do no harm. Win when you can, wait when you have to. Renew yourselves.