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Boehner, Cantor and the Politics of the Hail Mary

Durham, NC – The House of Representatives is in utter chaos. As the chair of the Duke College Republicans, this concerns me. John Boehner’s exit and Kevin McCarthy’s withdrawal from the race for the speakership has left me and many other Republicans simply praying that Paul Ryan goes against all political sense and becomes speaker.

Meanwhile, the Democrats stand on the sidelines of this intra-party clash, laughing and reveling in our dysfunction. The greatest source of our dysfunction as a party has been this common refrain I hear: Republican congressional leaders have done nothing to advance the conservative cause and halt the Obama agenda, have been over-willing to compromise and have not demanded 100 percent from the president.

Eric Cantor, himself a victory of one of an anti-establishment purge in 2014, took on this argument in his New York Times op-ed the day after Boehner announced his coming resignation, echoing my exact sentiments. People often forget that Republicans were elected in 2010 to halt the Obama agenda that steamrolled through an overwhelmingly Democrat Congress in 2009-2011, which Republicans fought to do. But, somewhere along the line, Cantor argues, a number of voices on the right took to the airwaves and the internet claiming the Republicans in Congress could completely roll back the president’s agenda and enact a conservative agenda of their own. Cantor notes that:

“Strangely, according to these voices, the only reason that was not occurring had nothing to do with the fact that the president was unlikely to repeal his own laws, or that under the Constitution, absent the assent of the president, or two-thirds of both houses of Congress, you cannot make law. The problem was a lack of will on the part of congressional Republicans.”

These voices were simply not selling Republican listeners the truth. They were, as Cantor says, “not honest about what can be accomplished when your party controls Congress, but not the White House.” Taking the argument farther, Cantor says:

“It is imperative that we fight for what we believe in. But we should fight smartly. I have never heard of a football team that won by only throwing Hail Mary passes, yet that is exactly what is being demanded by Republican leaders today. Victory on the field is more a result of three yards and a cloud of dust. In politics, this means incremental progress, winning hearts and minds before winning the vote – the kind of governance Ronald Reagan perfected.”

It is this argument for political practicality that resonates so greatly with me, and it pains me that so few of my fellow conservatives understand the critical nature of this argument. The longer I’ve spent as the Duke CR chair, the more I’ve come to understand just how vital it is that we as a party face the Democrats with a united front rather than fight among ourselves in a quest for ideological purity. One can’t fight for the conservative cause with one hand, strike those fighting for the same side with the other, and expect victory come Election Day.

The way to advance the conservative cause isn’t by attacking those on your side you don’t completely agree with, rather than the Democrats. The way to advance the conservative cause isn’t by demanding 100 percent of what you want from each and every elected leader, and then get angry when the Hail Mary falls incomplete. The way to advance the conservative cause is, like Cantor said, to fight smart, by going for and getting 60 percent and 70 percent of what you want every time, by fighting for the three and four yard gains, until you find yourself in the end zone.

In the end, the end zone is all that matters, not whether the play you called was ambitious enough. That end zone is the White House in 2016, and if we are ever to bring conservatism and sound government back to Washington — as well as restore American influence abroad after this disastrous administration — it isn’t by tearing down our elected leaders. It is by getting a Republican in the White House.

If we are to ever advance the conservative cause, it’s infinitely more critical that a Republican wins the White House in November 2016 than it is to demand 100 percent conservatism from a presidential candidate and to be on the outside looking in of a Clinton or — God forbid — a Sanders presidency.