Many conservatives were disappointed that the House Republican leadership did not attempt to extract concessions from Senate Democrats and President Obama when the latter asked for an increase in the national debt ceiling last week. But the only battles they can win are those for which they have enough votes. The sad fact is that they don't.
Too often the complaint has been made that GOP's reluctance to fight losing battles shows a lack of commitment to fiscal conservatism. A difference over tactics, however, is not a difference of principle. Nothing comes without a fight, but the fight must be taken to the American people in the 2014 and 2016 congressional elections and the 2016 presidential election.
There is nothing original or thoughtful about pointing out the obvious, but sometimes that is the burden of informed commentary on politics. I will provide an example from history which demonstrates the virtue of patience among Republicans who had to deal with a much more serious — and deadly — issue.
Historians have been loath to admit it but slave masters came close to nationalizing slavery. Beginning with the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) which permitted slavery to be introduced into the old Louisiana Territory from which it had been banned north of the line of 36 degree, 30 minutes by the Missouri Compromise (1820); and carried forward by the Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that declared that slave-holding was a constitutional right, the Democrat party was determined to remove all limits on slavery expansion.
The moment the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed the Republican Party was born. For the next six years its members committed themselves to reversing the nation's pro-slavery policies while respecting the original Constitution's guarantees for slavery. Our history had been marked by a series of compromises and mutual deference which spared the nation the Civil War that eventually came in 1861.
But, as Abraham Lincoln made clear in his famous House Divided speech accepting the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate from Illinois in 1858, the Democrats' determination to extend slavery into new territories (and states) changed everything. That's why he predicted that our states would become either all free or all slave. Freedom lovers must fight back or lose their republic to the slaveholders.
But until Republicans actually controlled the government, there was no way to stop the Democrat juggernaut. So while they protested the attempt by slave holders to foist a slave constitution on Kansas, they could not yet stop it. They objected strenuously to the Dred Scott decision but they could not reverse it. They simply went to work on winning elections to the House of Representatives, the Senate and the Presidency.
Republicans made steady gains in the 1854, 1856, 1858 and 1860 elections for Congress while failing with Col. John C. Fremont, their party's first presidential candidate in 1856.
Lincoln failed to unseat Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, and he won the GOP nomination for president two years later only because none of the leading contenders could win a majority of the delegates to their Chicago convention. Lincoln, in fact, was everyone's second choice, a position which enabled him to pick up votes from those who faltered on the second ballot.
Over and over again, Lincoln made it clear that Republicans had no intention of interfering with slavery where it had already existed, vowing only to prevent its spread to new territories. But that wasn't good enough for southern politicians, for whom the distant prospect of minority status in the government was too awful to contemplate. They made no distinction between Republicans and abolitionists, the latter of whom were openly contemptuous of a Constitution which had for so long protected slavery.
Lincoln gave no speeches during his campaign for the presidency, letting his previous — and numerous — speeches on the slavery controversy speak for themselves. Southern states denied the Republican Party a place on their ballot, but Lincoln won anyway by sweeping all but a few states in the North, as well as California. He won a solid majority of the Electoral College but won less than 40 percent of the popular vote.
But Congress was still controlled by the Democrats. However, once southern states commenced their secessionist movement, their representatives and senators went with them, giving Republican their long-sought majority. One might say that the Republicans took control only by the skin of their teeth.
Certainly, there is no reason to expect a civil war over our truly serious fiscal crisis today, but there is every reason to devote all necessary resources toward electing a Republican majority that can end the fiscal madness and put the nation on a more prudent course.
In short, Republicans must win control of the Senate and the White House, just like their forbears did a century and half ago.
Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of "Taking Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org