Sen. Ted Cruz's straw poll victory at the Values Voter Summit, just as his strategy to block Obamacare was collapsing in recrimination and desperation on Capitol Hill, indicates that some voters don't place much value on political realism.
While it is difficult to call Cruz's 317 votes significant by itself, the summit measured the mood in a portion of the right. Two themes were common: apocalyptic diagnosis and utopian solutions. "We have a couple of years to turn this country around," said Cruz, "or we go off the cliff to oblivion." Obamacare, added Michele Bachmann, is really "deathcare" and the evidence of a "police state." According to Dr. Ben Carson, it is "the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery."
Yet, Obamacare can be defeated. By standing strong. By fighting the good fight. And how will this approach secure sufficient votes in the Senate to overturn a presidential veto? The question itself indicates a lack of faith and conviction. Glenn Beck: "I'm tired of people saying, 'Oh, but we might lose'; yes, and we just might win." Standing ovation. So America is going to hell, and will be saved by the methods of Peter Pan: "If you believe, clap your hands." I had always thought this type of romantic posturing more typical of the hard left. The world is going off a cliff of inequality and capitalist oppression -- so pitch a tent in Zuccotti Park. Achievable results, even reasonable demands, are irrelevant. What the revolution needs is fearless consistency. Movement conservatism, meet Occupy Wall Street.
There is a difference between tactics that are difficult to implement and those that are unviable from the start. In this case, the effort had little to do with governing and everything to do with positioning -- the ideological maneuvering of tea party leaders. And they will certainly take the defeat they invited as further evidence of the GOP impurity they decry. When intentions are all that matter, no outcome can be discrediting.
But sometimes, it's been said, the greatest courage is displayed in standing before a crowd and affirming that two plus two equals four -- now the main Republican challenge. Political morality is determined not simply, or even mostly, by intentions, but by results. There is a virtue in achieving what is achievable -- in actually making things better than they are. Effective leadership requires large, visionary goals -- Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms or Ronald Reagan's post-Soviet world. But it connects vision to strategy. It stretches the boundaries of reality without denying the existence of those boundaries. It both opens vistas and draws maps. The political world is moved by optimistic pragmatists, not by despairing utopians. The best leaders give romance to realism. Historically, conservatives have diagnosed serious dangers in utopianism. A disregard for realism and prudence raises expectations that are predictably dashed, encouraging political disillusionment or worse. People may lose faith in public engagement or even in the legitimacy of political institutions themselves. If Obamacare is really the worst thing since chattel slavery, then it would be justified to view our nation and its institutions in a different light. And maybe to flee from them.
The reductio ad absurdum of utopianism gets truly absurd. One funder of the Club for Growth has invested in a project to explore the creation of floating libertarian cities, called "seasteads," to explore "new ideas for government." What type of ideology would cause men and women to forsake their green and pleasant land, and leave their friendly and frustrating neighbors, to start anew on an oil derrick? It is certainly not conservatism. Both apocalyptic language and utopian hopes are foreign to it. Conservatives have traditionally affirmed that social systems should fit the contours of reality, not patterns cut by abstract ideology. The task of politics is reform, which requires prudent calculation and respect for consequences. Instead of alternating between despair and bluster, conservatism offers a deeper confidence: that human nature is best suited to ordered liberty. And for this reason, persistent, responsible political action can make a large difference, on health care and much else.
"I've always believed," said William F. Buckley in 1970, "that conservatism is ... the politics of reality and that reality ultimately asserts itself, in a reasonably free society, in behalf of the conservative position." This is the true source of conservative hope: the politics of reality.
Email Michael Gerson of The Washington Post at firstname.lastname@example.org.