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In Praise of Competence
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In Praise of Competence

The midterms showed that relatively normal Republicans are a better bet than novice Trumpy minions.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Photo by Phelan M. Ebenhack/ Washington Post/ Getty Images.)

Dear Reader (Especially to Gallagher fans, may he rest in peace. Take the win now, watermelons),

“It’s a pity both sides can’t lose,” Henry Kissinger famously said about the Iran-Iraq war. The key to the joke is that it’s implicitly impossible for both sides to lose in a zero-sum contest (another key to the joke is Kissinger’s Strangelovian nihilism). But it occurs to me that’s just not true. Everyone can lose in all sorts of zero-sum contests. Dr. Falcon explained that in War Games: Everyone loses in a global thermonuclear war. According to the internet—which is never wrong—giant Burmese pythons die all the time after eating alligators that are too big for them. I have to assume that in the long history of duels—with swords, guns, or, in the case of Mork versus the Fonz, thumbs and index fingers—there have been plenty of times when both combatants lost. 

Heck, it’s also worth noting that there’s a very strong case that both Iraq and Iran lost the Iran-Iraq war. And while some people think Iraq sorta-kinda won, both countries were certainly worse off after the war, especially all the dead and wounded people.

Everyone can lose (or at least not win) even in the simplest binary contests. Even in checkers, lots of games are played to a draw. As a matter of scoring, that’s not the same thing as a loss, but it’s not the same thing as a win, either. In more complex contests it’s very easy to win at one stage and then lose even bigger because you won. And vice versa. How many business stories involve early failures that led to even greater successes?

The key factor here is time. The maiden voyage of the Titanic was a huge win, until it sank and that horrible woman refused to make room on that makeshift raft for Leonardo DiCaprio.

I bring this up because nearly everyone understands this implicitly about life, business, sports, love, etc., even if they sometimes forget it in the moment of disappointment. But it seems like almost everyone forgets it when it comes to politics.

Take Joe Biden. He had a good midterm election, graded against expectations and historical precedent. His party still lost control of the House. Exit polls—yeah, yeah, grains of salt and all that—confirm other polling: He’s unpopular. Only 19 percent of voters said they were casting their ballot in support of Biden. Three-quarters of Americans think the country is in bad shape. And polling for the last year has consistently shown that most Americans don’t want Biden to run again.

And what’s Biden’s response to all of this? When asked what he’ll do differently in the wake of the midterms and in anticipation of running again, he replied, “Nothing, because they’re just finding out what we’re doing.” 

Now, in fairness, I think he’s sincere in his belief that his policies will bring voters around once they kick in. That’s extremely debatable. But the Democratic Party and allied groups just spent billions of dollars telling the American people what Biden’s “doing,” and they still don’t like him. The “Biden coalition” played a relatively small role in the Democrats’ midterm victory. The decisive coalitions were the anti-MAGA and pro-abortion forces.

Compare all this to Ron DeSantis’ staggering victory. Floridians had two years to watch what their governor was doing and they reelected him by gobsmacking, historic margins. Obviously, this isn’t an apples-to-oranges comparison, but it gives you a sense of how voters who actually like and recognize competence respond. The same goes for Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. Admittedly, it’s a more Republican state, but he won by 26 points. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu won by 16 points.

I’ve already had my say about what data points like this suggest about the MAGA drag on the GOP. Relatively normal Republicans with proven track records of competent governance are a better bet than novice Trumpy minions. If the GOP had simply let Mitch McConnell pick Senate candidates instead of deferring to Trump, Rick Scott, and the infotainment wing of the party, the Senate would surely be firmly in Republican control.

But the upside of the GOP’s loss is this realization among many who long refused to see it and the opportunity to learn from it.

Meanwhile, the downside of the Democrats’ win is that the unpopular, increasingly addled president of the United States (and head of the Democratic Party) thinks he doesn’t have to change a thing. I’ve talked to quite a few Democrats of late—one advantage of hanging out at CNN this week—who all think this is crazy. But they also say the midterm “win” makes it very hard to do anything about it.

People forget that until 1994 it was normal for presidents to lose seats in their first midterms, but it was very rare for presidents to lose control of the House. Now it’s become normal—every president since Clinton has lost control of the House during his presidency (Clinton ’94, Bush ’06, Obama 2010, Trump 2018, and now most likely Biden 2022). Obviously that’s because the country is more sorted and polarized, but just because it’s normal that doesn’t mean a president should shrug his shoulders and say, “I’m doing everything right.”

And this is what I’m getting at. Each party thinks a win is a permanent state of being. Nobody thinks that in sports or war or business. Winning is great, but if you don’t learn and adjust after a victory, you’ll eventually lose.

On the other hand, if you don’t learn and adjust after losing, you’ll keep losing until you do.

But the lesson here is to stop thinking the next election or the just concluded election is the last election. James Madison’s whole idea was to saturate this country with elections at every level of government to constantly send messages to politicians about what they were doing right and wrong. Democracy wasn’t on the ballot in 2022 and neither was America in 2016. There’s always another election, and the losers will always get a chance to be winners again. If politicians and voters accepted this as baseline reality, our politics would be a lot more realistic.  

The great tea leaf war.

Let’s get back to the right for a second. Right now, there’s a concerted effort to make Mitch McConnell the scapegoat for the GOP’s missteps. Some of it is the usual intrigue and jockeying for position that is natural to Washington power plays. But the inside players—Rick Scott, Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley—are relying on the post-defeat spin game to craft their arguments and attract support.

Just to be clear where I’m coming from, I have my disagreements with McConnell, but I think the idea that he’s to blame for the GOP’s poor showing is simply ludicrous. For some people, the effort to blame McConnell is really a diversionary measure to avoid blaming Trump. There are a lot of people who’d rather the GOP remain a MAGA fan-service party and keep losing than become a competent and reasonably—and reasonable—conservative party.

The most interesting front in this battle isn’t the fight over McConnell’s leadership of the Republican caucus. It’s the effort to spin the reason for DeSantis’ massive victory. Rod Dreher scorns the “normie” Republicans as a themeless pudding. “The future of American political conservatism,” Rod writes, “is Ron DeSantis, J.D. Vance, and National Conservative-style Republicans like them. Not MAGA. Not the Bulwark sad remnants of the pre-Trump GOP establishment.”

Now, broadly speaking, I don’t think the Bulwark approach is the future of American conservatism (and I don’t think they’d claim that either). And I certainly hope he’s right that MAGA is on the way out. As for the “sad remnants” of the pre-Trump GOP, it’s worth noting that wherever those kinds of Republican incumbents ran, they won—often by much larger margins than the handful of “nationalist” types who managed to win.

The interesting question, however, is what kind of conservative DeSantis is. I will be the first to concede he’s very good at picking his culture war battles, and feeding that very online constituency. And it’s easy to see why Rod and other sincere new right types see him as one of their own.

But I have no idea what Rod’s talking about when he says, “With the exception of DeSantis, no other major elected Republican politician has wanted to touch wokeness. I cannot understand why.” Has he not heard Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Kevin “Green Eggs and Ham” McCarthy, Marco Rubio, et al., speak? Dinging “wokeness” is standard fare for elected Republicans on the right-wing rubber chicken and Twitter circuit.

Rod seems to sincerely believe that “gender ideology” is the great threat to America and the West today. I probably agree with many of his criticisms of gender ideology, but where we part company is on the question of whether it is the existential threat many make it out to be.

Some nationalists even seem to think that Putin needs support or at least sympathy because he’s on their side of the sexuality fights. What cheap dates! If that’s all it takes to go soft on Putin, it makes me suspect that his position isn’t the reason for his Western right-wing fanbase, it’s the excuse. Sure, he’s a genocidal murderer and authoritarian who’s kidnapping children, but at least he’s not confusing those stolen tykes about their gender!

But let me put it this way. What do you think was worth more votes to Ron DeSantis: competently dealing with Hurricane Ian or yelling about wokeness?

Moreover, while his rhetoric about the problems with wokeness is undeniable, it’s worth noting that his bigger theme is a Reaganite embrace of freedom as an unalloyed good.

“Florida was a refuge of sanity when the world went mad,” DeSantis declared in his victory speech. “We stood as a citadel of freedom for people across this country and, indeed, across the world. We faced attacks. We took the hits. We weathered the storms. But we stood our ground. We did not back down. We had the conviction to guide us, and we had the courage to lead. … The survival of the American experiment requires a revival of true American principles. Florida has proved that it can be done. We offer a ray of hope that better days still lie ahead.”

His tweets are just shy of Team America rah rah for freedom.

He boasts—rightly—about Florida as a global (dare I say globalist) destination for immigrants, tourists, and business. He’s very proud of Florida’s low taxes (which, in fairness, is a third rail for the state).

Now, obviously, the context for this freedom boosterism was often related to COVID and—to a lesser but still significant extent—culture war stuff.

But you know who thinks freedom, low taxes, robust commerce, etc., are core components of conservatism that flow directly from “true American principles”? We members of that “sad remnant” Rod dismisses. You know who has a more … nuanced … view of such contentions and commitments? Post-liberal nationalists. Some, like Patrick Deneen, agree that such things stem from “true American principles.” They just think a lot of those principles are bugs, not features. 

If Ron DeSantis runs for president on the promise to make America more like his vision for Florida—minus the alligators and Florida men—I’m good with that. 

Now, DeSantis may be more of a “nationalist” than I’d like. I honestly don’t know because I’m still unsure of where his smart messaging ends and his sincere convictions begin. But if he runs on freedom, low taxes, reduced regulations, etc. that will look a lot more like continuity with the approach of the Reaganite pre-Trump GOP establishment than a sharp break from it.

More to the point, without that stuff, he wouldn’t have won on Tuesday. Why? Because that stuff is still popular in this country generally and with conservatives in particular. Pretending otherwise doesn’t make it so.

Various & Sundry

Canine update: I’ve been away all week, but reports from home about the beasts are all good, though they’ve missed me. The girls got to play with Sammie yesterday and that always makes them happy. Pippa is still convinced that her labor strike against pre-dawn walks is why they moved the clocks backward. The unfortunate news is that Pippa went in for her surgery today to remove a benign but badly located tumor. I’m leaving straight from here (I’m working in my car in a supermarket garage) to go pick her up. Nearly all dogs hate the vet, but Pippa really, really hates it. She shakes and cries and hyperventilates and tries to escape and poor Jessica had to deal with it this morning. Hopefully, the surgery went well and she won’t have to wear a cone of shame for very long. I’ll post pupdates on Twitter later this evening because I know some people are eager to hear how she’s doing.

ICYMI

And now, the weird stuff

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.