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Get Ready for Angry Old Men Throwing Low Blows
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Get Ready for Angry Old Men Throwing Low Blows

Plus, notes on conservatism and partisanship.


(So as we continue to develop this Hump Day Epistle and distinguish it from the G-File, I’m going to eschew using the “Dear Reader” salutation save on Fridays. (But, I will continue to take great poetic license with my use of parentheses.))

My apologies if you came here looking for free doughnuts and a deep dive of Super Tuesday punditry. The doughnuts I got, but I don’t know that I have a lot to add to what my colleagues said this morning or what any of you interested in the subject haven’t already heard a dozen times over by now. 

But because the union requires I log a certain amount of time on this stuff to keep my license, some quick thoughts:

I’ve argued for a long time that Biden should run a return-to-normalcy campaign. But he got pulled into one anyway. And I do mean “pulled.” As I discussed on the latest DispatchPodcast, for years we’ve been told that money buys elections, that billionaires in particular have too much power, that endorsements don’t matter, debates don’t matter, that there’s no difference between the crazy left and the moderate left, and that you have no right to judge someone who puts mayo on ham. All of that went out the window yesterday (though I may have to show my work in a future “news”letter on the mayo-ham thing). 

None of that applied to Biden’s truly huge win last night. It was like the normal rules of politics suddenly reactivated. 

Bloomberg’s strategy fizzled and so did Tom Steyer’s. Together they spent nearly $750 million and all they have to show for it are some T-shirts and some buttons that read “Samoans For Bloomberg” worn at the Democratic Convention. 

The left-wing candidates were crushed Tuesday, in no small part because they were left-wing. Yes, Sanders picked up delegates. But if, on Monday night, his theory of the race and the political landscape was like Steve Buscemi in season one of Boardwalk Empire, by Wednesday morning it was like Steve Buscemi in Fargo being fed into the woodchipper. Sure, the theory isn’t totally gone—Buscemi’s leg below the knee is still available. But there’s only so much you can do with that (Maybe make a nice lamp like in A Christmas Story?).

Yes, yes, the race isn’t over. Sanders can still pull it off. Biden can still implode. But this is good news, from a conservative perspective, if not a Republican or Trumpist one. 

Right now, however, only one thing is clear: The rest of the Democratic primary, as well as the subsequent general election, is going to boil down to a contest of angry old men low-blowing and junk-punching each other. Here’s a prescient artist’s rendition:

Conservatism and partisanship

Let’s start from the proposition that from a conservative perspective, a Sanders presidency would be disastrous. As I’ve written before, I’m not wholly convinced this is true because I think I think he would be a failed president. But let’s assume that part wouldn’t matter and a socialist president of Sanders’s ilk would be an extinction-level event. Meanwhile, a Biden presidency would simply be bad, but manageably so. It seems to me that avoiding the former even if it makes the latter more likely is a net positive. 

Think of it this way: If an asteroid were barreling toward Earth, threatening to destroy all life on the planet, that would be very bad. But scientists tell us that we can nuke the asteroid en route, preventing the worst-case scenario. However, doing so makes it more likely that a chunk of the asteroid would hit us, utterly destroying Trenton, New Jersey. That would be bad, but given the alternative, infinitely better than the worst-case scenario. Which option is preferable? I think you know my answer: “Sorry. Trenton It was fun while it lasted.”

I bring this up because I think the tendency of many right-wingers to hope for, or encourage, a Sanders presidency is wildly irresponsible. The rationale is that Sanders would be easier for Trump to beat and therefore it would be better if he were the nominee. 

Now, I get the argument that it would be better for conservatives if Trump was re-elected. I just think risking the chance that Sanders is elected is not a particularly conservative strategy. If Sanders were the nominee, I think his chances of winning would be at least as good as Trump’s chances were in 2016. Trump had about a 1 in 5 chance of winning. Those are bad odds, but 1 in 5 is very different than zero. You have a 1 in 6 chance of rolling any number on a six-sided die. Are you stunned when you roll a four?

As a conservative, I’m a big believer in mitigating downside risks. As a prudential matter, I think the downside of a Sanders presidency is greater than the potential upside of a second Trump term. So, just playing the numbers, I would much prefer Biden win the nomination, even if it makes Trump’s re-election less likely. 

Now, I know many of you will dismiss this because you think I am overcome with animosity for Trump. But you can see the principle I’m getting at, right? If your overriding concern is what is good for the GOP or Trump, you’ll have a far greater tolerance for risking a Sanders nomination. If your overriding concern is what’s good for conservatism or the country, you might have a different calculation. 

Or you might not. I’m not saying that anyone who supports doing anything that boosts Trump’s chances isn’t concerned about conservatism or the country. I’m just saying that the concerns are not synonymous with each and that one can weigh the variables differently. What is good for conservatism isn’t always synonymous with what is good for Trump—or the country. And when dealing with imperfect knowledge about the future—which everyone does because the future hasn’t happened yet—you can disagree about means without invalidating consensus about ends. 

I owe a little apology to my former colleague Alexandra DeSanctis. She tweeted the other night:

To which I replied:

As I tried to clarify a bit later, I didn’t intend this as a criticism of what she was saying. Rather, I’m just annoyed by all the people who think boosting a socialist to take over one of our two major parties is the unalloyed right thing for conservatives to do.

But since we’re on the subject, I should say I disagree with Xan and with Stephen Miller, who says that it is a “fact” that you can’t call yourself a conservative if you vote for Biden. 

I do think you can be a conservative and still want to vote for Biden. I wouldn’t vote for him, but I know people who are pro-life, in favor of limited government, and all the other things we usually associate with conservatism who will eagerly vote for Biden if he’s the Democratic nominee. Is that the wrong thing to do? Let’s say it is. That doesn’t transform them into liberals. It just means they’re wrong.

And you can be a conservative and still be wrong. Likewise, you can also be a conservative and not be a good or loyal Republican. 

If you believe that Trump is unfit for office or that he will be in a second term—both eminently defensible points of view—you might think it’s worth having a doddering Democrat in office for four years to get him out of there. If you think the transformation of conservatism under Trump is worse in the long run for the country than four years of a Biden presidency—particularly if Republicans hold the Senate—you don’t lose your conservative decoder ring by making that prudential decision. You might be a terrible strategist (or you might not), but contra Miller, you won’t lose your ability to call yourself a conservative. 

To the Wayback Machine.

Peter Viereck, a once-prominent quirky conservative intellectual, supported Adlai Stephenson over Eisenhower in 1956. Now, in fairness, Viereck was a great poet but a pretty lousy political analyst. Russell Kirk supported the socialist Norman Thomas in 1944. The great Willmoore Kendall, one of the most influential conservative intellectuals of the early conservative movement, broke with National Review in part because of its support for Goldwater and was rumored to have voted for LBJ. Joe Lieberman became a senator in no small part because William F. Buckley supported his first Senate bid against the incumbent liberal Republican Lowell Weicker. There are even some conservatives today who care so much about foreign policy that they fancy Tulsi Gabbard (the anti-imperialism strain of conservatism was what drove Kirk to vote for Thomas). 

Let’s circle back to Kendall for a moment, In The Conservative Intellectual Movement, George Nash says in a footnote that he was told that Kendall voted for LBJ, but I have my doubts (and Nash must have as well, given that he simply reports what he was told in a footnote). But what is true is that Kendall had grave misgivings about Goldwater, believing he was “Very bad for the cause.” He wrote a brutal essay for National Review titled, “Quo Vadis, Barry?” that caused something of a crisis at the magazine—because by the time William Rusher, the publisher, saw it, it was too late to kill it. It later turned out that it was ghostwritten L. Brent Bozell Sr.—father of the guy you’ve probably heard of.

Now I think Kendall and Bozell were wrong. But again: Conservatives can be wrong. Political punditry and political philosophy do not always work in concert. There is literally no definition of conservatism—save one that says conservatism is merely the GOP’s think tank—that can render Kendall and Bozell non-conservatives because they read Goldwater wrong. (If it helps, part of the reason they disliked Goldwater is that they thought he was an untrustworthy squish and a traitor for endorsing Nixon in 1960.) Get as mad as you want at Bill Kristol for what you think are his mistaken responses to the Trump presidency, but even if all of those criticisms are correct, that would merely make him wrong, not unconservative (Jen Rubin is another matter). 

You can flip this around as well. There are many people, including friends of mine, who support Donald Trump in ways I find utterly embarrassing, indefensible and very, very, bad for the cause (and many of them were on the exact same page as Kristol before they hopped onto the Trump train). That doesn’t make all of them non-conservatives—at least by my lights—but it does make all of them wrong.  

Parting note.

It might be worth noting that one of the reasons I wanted to start The Dispatch was to explore and expound precisely the argument I am laying out above. For conservatism to have any positive role in shaping attitudes in a conservative direction in this country, there has to be some space—more space—between conservatism and Republicanism. That doesn’t mean conservatives shouldn’t agree with the GOP on many, most, or even all policy issues. But it does mean that conservatism has to be more than the tail on the dog, or in this case, the elephant. If conservatism means nothing more than whatever the GOP prioritizes at any given moment, then conservatism isn’t a philosophy or an ideology or even a temperament, it’s simply a way to rationalize political will-to-power. Most of the conservatives I know and respect understand this and agree with it, they just play the numbers differently. Which is to say, we often disagree about means, but not ends.

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Photograph by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.