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Surveying the battlefield after General Cruz’s campaign

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“Business voices frustration with GOP” was front-page news recently in The Wall Street Journal following the debacle of the government shutdown. A valid issue, it can’t be dismissed as a temporary problem.

The article’s primary point highlighted a widely held view among executives of big and small businesses nationwide, to be more results-oriented and to encourage moderation. It’s a view that needs to be addressed by hardline conservatives, who need the business community as an ally.

Most people on the right applaud the political courage of leaders like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. He should not be vilified, but he should be held accountable for not only his recent political failure but for weakening his political party’s power to compete. A rational political strategy marries one’s political principles with a winnable political plan. But rational strategies do not require following the leader into the jaws of political death.

It’s up to each of us whether to fall on our political swords by embracing unwinnable strategies based on some political principle. However, most business people, and most Americans, are pragmatic and prefer to avoid political suicide missions that cannot change an outcome.

Conservatives suffered a major defeat when they voted to shut down the government in an attempt to defund Obamacare. Why? Because defunders apparently can’t count to 51 — the number of senators needed for the defunding tactic to win. They also needed two-thirds of legislators in both houses to override an Obama veto. Cruz’s strategy to tie a congressional government-funding vote to defunding Obamacare was doomed from the start. Obama now loves Cruz more than the defunders do. Except for a small token, the shutdowners won no concessions from Obama or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. In several sections of the country, Obama’s sagging approval ratings were propped up.

How in the world could defunders expect to win when Democrats control the presidency and one house of Congress? Frontal assaults won’t work for Republicans until they regain control of either the Senate or the presidency.

The fight against Obamacare should go on, but not stupidly. True leaders not only represent their constituencies, they exercise strategic wisdom. Not much strategic wisdom went into the government shutdown strategy. The defunders chose unwise options and followed a plan that was unachievable. Theirs was a high-risk plan with, as it turned out, no reward. Worse, the strategy ended in severe penalties: Conservatives lost big chunks of moderate American voters in the past month, along with huge drops in Americans’ confidence in Republicans and an increased probability that “progressives” will win more elections in 2014. Those are serious defeats.

If you want to take a stand, don’t do it on shutting down the government — 83 percent of voters opposed a shutdown, and 80 percent voiced an unfavorable view of political factions that wanted a shutdown. Rather, take a stand on the debt ceiling, which Americans favor 2-1.

Business leaders are usually quite pragmatic and prudent. Unwinnable battles are not for them, especially battles that leave your political army in a far worse strategic position than when the hopeless fight started. That’s what the defunders delivered with their futile persistence in a failed tactic. The shutdown debacle reminded me of Machiavelli’s declaration: “Prudence is knowing how to recognize different dangers, and to accept the least bad as good.” What good does it do in politics when the price you pay for being a purist is certain defeat?

Like it or not, politics is a game of compromise. Those who don’t compromise don’t live long in the political arena, unless they are dictators with absolute power. When it becomes obvious that victory is unattainable, compromise for what you can get and retreat to plan the next attack.

Republican governors may now have the best chance of derailing Obamacare, by proposing a credible alternative. They will need such a strategy to bring a divided Republican Party together. It’s a party worth saving.

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John R. Smith


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