A Mitt Romney loss wouldn’t necessarily be a disaster

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Don’t buy the doom and gloom pronouncements from conservatives telling you, “this is the most important election in history.” A loss for Mitt Romney would not necessarily spell long lasting disaster for Republicans, nor would it be the death-knell to conservatism. In fact, it’s possible a 2012 loss could lay the groundwork for a stronger Republican party and conservative movement.

Elections are almost always seen as urgent and morally imperative. But sometimes major victories can only come in the aftermath of what appear to be devastating defeats. John Kerry‘s loss in 2004 laid the groundwork for a Democratic takeover in 2006 and 2008, and Jimmy Carter‘s defeat of Gerald Ford in 1976 paved the way for the Ronald Reagan in 1980. In other words, it is a mistake to assume losing a presidential election is a permanent defeat.

“This should be the most important election since 1980, but so far it is not,” says Reagan biographer Craig Shirley. “Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle postulated the ‘great man’ theory of history, and indeed this was true with Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, TR, FDR and Reagan. But history has not summoned forth great men in 2012 and in fact our history today is small.”

This is not to say Republicans should concede the election, but conservatives should keep November in proper perspective.

For one thing, controlling Congress can sometimes matter as much as winning the White House. It is in Congress that spending can be curtailed, the executive branch can be reined in, and other conservative principles can be championed. And regarding the upper chamber, George Will was not  absurd in advising the GOP to focus on the senate.

There’s also the sense among some that Romney, based on his tenure as governor of Massachusetts, may not govern as a conservative reformer.

When it comes to tax reform, Ryan Ellis from Americans for Tax Reform noted that Obama is far from their darling. “[Obama’s] formula seems to be “raise the rates, water down the base,” he said.

But as a lame-duck president, Obama would presumably have more on his agenda than just scuttling Republican attempts on tax reform.

What is more, it’s some observers believe that, lacking a solid philosophical core, once ensconced at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, President Romney might just do what seems most likely to win him a second term. If he believes success would more likely come through compromise and cutting deals, you had best believe that’s what he’ll do. (Every president does). A compromising Republican presidency might end up being worse than no presidency.

Of course, Supreme Court appointments have long been the cudgel establishment Republicans wield to persuade recalcitrant conservatives to grudgingly support their less-than-perfect nominees. Carrie Severino, the chief counsel and policy director to the Judicial Crisis Network, painted this election as urgent, reminding me here are likely going to be three new justices appointed during the next presidential term. If elected, Obama will have had the “opportunity to appoint a majority of the court,” the most since Franklin Roosevelt.

Then again, “conservative” justices haven’t always worked out so well. Remember earlier this summer when Chief Justice John Roberts abandoned the conservative movement, siding with the Obama administration on health care reform? “Republicans will tell you that the biggest difference between [Obama and Romney] will be their judicial appointments,” Shirely says. “But for every Scalia [there] is a [David] Souter or a Harriet Miers.”

Politics, of course, does not end at the water’s edge. Looking abroad, it would be hard for Romney to wage a War on Terror in a more aggressive manner than Obama, who has largely followed — and in some ways ramped-up — the policies of George W. Bush.

Would Romney issue more drone strikes and other targeted killings? Would he expand the already sizable kill list? It’s hard to imagine.

Romney and Obama do display differences in policy objectives and outcomes — when it comes to other areas, such as Russia — but many of those differences are largely irrelevant due to the realities of the relationship. As Leon Aron, Resident Scholar and Director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (and a Romney adviser), says, the reality of the situation is that “[O]n every issue where we deal with Russia, we have either reached the limit or Russia is less relevant.”

Whether the issue is energy policy, security in the Middle East and South Asia, or the American attitude to Russian human rights violations, the reality is that very little is likely to hang on which party occupies the White House. An exception to that, however, is missile defense and nuclear disarmament.

Under Obama, disarmament was given priority. “It is the alpha and omega of his policy toward Russia,” Aron said. ” It is what he wanted most from this relationship.” As a result, when it comes to helping our Eastern European allies via missile defense, the United States has been forced to give ground. “If your primary concern is the reduction of nuclear weapons,” Aron noted, “there’s a pressure to go to greater lengths to accommodate Russia on this.”

Per Israel, an issue on which Romney has hammered Obama for the entire campaign, not all Israelis believe there is much difference between the candidates. “I should tell you honestly,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barack recently stated, “that this administration under President Obama is doing in regard to our security more than anything that I can remember in the past.”

The notion that the two candidates might not be all that different sound absurd to anyone paying attention just to the rhetoric. We tend to argue about rhetoric — “Obama said such and such” — but while words do matter greatly, a great deal of campaign rhetoric fails to materialize into action. Some of it, of course, is red meat being tossed out to one’s political base.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: If one believes (as many do), that the country is hanging by a thread — that Barack Obama is out to destroy democracy — then it is clear he must be defeated. But if one believes that history is unpredictable, that sometimes winning is losing, and that the stable of “rising star” conservatives might need just four more years to fully mature, then the importance of this election becomes a bit less urgent.

It is impossible to know which theory is true. And while most conservatives would advise working hard to elect Mitt Romney, they should not assume that Obama’s re-election, should it happen, would be any more destructive to the cause of conservatism than Bush’s re-election was to the cause of liberalism.

Matt K. Lewis