In pushing back against the all-or-nothing crowd that wants no compromise with the Obama administration regardless of the results, a number of more mature conservatives  admit that Republicans, with a majority only in the House and a filibuster-capable minority in the Senate, have to “pick and choose” their battles.

President Obama with his nominee for defense secretary, Chuck Hagel (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) President Obama with defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

This is progress. But as soon as they say that, some of these conservatives then demand that whatever their particular issue (never allow women in combat, no tax hikes ever, no gun regulations ever) be one of the chosen battles. The result of course is a lot of indiscriminate fighting, some of it for unwise or unattainable ends. How do Republicans go about sorting out what battles to fight?

Make no mistake: It is important to be selective. Not all nominees (e.g., Sen. John Kerry for secretary of state) should be opposed, but the really bad ones should be. Not all revenue raisers are an anathema (e.g., a flatter tax that raises more revenue), but some really are. There is not enough energy or public patience to fight every battle, every time.

For starters it is worthwhile to see if the ship has sailed. With more and more states adopting gay marriage by popular referenda or legislative action, you have to wonder, for example, whether picking marriage as one of the battles is all that smart. On women in combat, we already have a number of women in combat (simply not recognized for it), so do opponents want to re-litigate that or simply make sure smart decisions are made on a case-by-case study as to how women are integrated into combat positions? (Not even the Israeli have women in all combat roles, for example.)

Just as it may be too late to have some fights, other attacks may be premature. Sometimes litigation (e.g., on affirmative action, on recess appointees) can take a fight off the table. In other cases, some action (Medicare reform) may be more urgent that other (Social Security), which can be delayed a few years without serious harm.

The consequences of the fight have to be considered as well. Sending the country into default or raising taxes on every American are not acceptable outcomes (and hence not  realistic threats), but allowing sequester to go forward if the Democrats don’t agree to an alternative set of spending reductions may not be so calamitous.

Blocking an egregiously bad nominee should never be ruled out because “the next one will be worse.” Sometimes the one before the Senate is the worst. Confirming nominees because Republicans in the future will want their nominees confirmed is even sillier. Democrats have routinely blocked exceptionally qualified nominees (e.g., John Bolton, Miguel Estrada) for no good reason.

There has to be some chance of victory. At the time he cast his vote and again at the National Review Institute gathering on Saturday, Rep. Paul Ryan (R- Wis.) made the case why a vote in favor of the fiscal cliff deal was really the only responsible option. “In short, there was no way we’d get a better deal. That’s not to hide from the fact that this bill wasn’t perfect. We wanted to keep taxes low for everyone. We wanted to cut spending. But this bill had to pass. Otherwise, every single taxpayer would have paid higher taxes. And our economy would have gone into a nosedive. Once I came to that conclusion, my decision was simple: If you think a bill has to pass, then you vote for it.”

By contrast if Republicans even without a Senate majority stay united on an egregious nominee, they can filibuster, and/or there is always the chance to convince other Democrats.

We’ve seen in just the past 24 hours Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and David Vitter (R-La.) lay out the case against Hagel in separate letters. Each is a model of principled objection. Vitter’s letter includes the following:

I am concerned by the way you attempt to explain your much-reported comments regarding a ‘Jewish lobby’ and your oath to the United States Constitution rather than to Israel,” writes Vitter. “As a non-Jewish Senator who strongly supports the State of Israel, let me assure you that my support is rooted in the shared values of our two democracies. Let me further assure you that as a supporter of Israel who took the oath of office, I am offended by the suggestion that my support of Israel is somehow contrary to my Constitutional oath. . . .Your comments do not get any better if you merely substitute ‘Israel lobby’ for ‘Jewish lobby.’ Your statements clearly suggested the existence of a Jewish or Israel lobby that ‘intimidates’ American leaders into supporting a foreign government’s interests over our own. Whether they were intentional or not, your public comments echoed centuries-old anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of influence in government and dual loyalty.

Inhofe argues:

The most immediate threat facing the Defense Department is sequestration, which, if allowed to occur, will result in drastic across-the-board cuts to most major budget accounts. Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has stated that these cuts would have a “catastrophic” and “devastating” effect on the military. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has stated that we are “on the brink of creating a hollow force.” I couldn’t agree more.


Chuck Hagel, however, does not seem to share this view. In stark contrast, the Financial Times reported in December that he said, “There’s a tremendous amount of bloat in the Pentagon, and that has to be scaled back.” I strongly disagree and believe that averting the outcomes of defense sequestration must be the government’s top priority.

When these Senators vote no on Hagel, the public will know why. There is no horrible consequence if they succeed (another nominee gets sent up), and the next guy is unlikely to have such an array of ethical, experience and ideological handicaps. Moreover, the extraordinary action of blocking a nominee is reserved for the most extreme cases while other nominees can be countenanced. And of course, if enough of their colleagues join,  there is the potential for a victory.

By contrast, if the Defense Department has yet to lay out a plan for women in combat, military commanders may be able to construct a reasonable plan and there is only a queasy feeling at the bottom of objections to women in certain combat roles, it surely would not, for example, be worthwhile, say, to refuse to pass a Defense appropriations bill.

There is unlikely to be complete agreement  among conservatives on which battles to fight to the end and on which Republicans can simply register their objections and move on. But if Republicans utilize some of the criteria laid out above they will make wiser choices and have a batting average above .000. Fighting the wrong battles, and doing it a lot, are  harmful to the credibility and survival of Republicans straining to convince Americans that they can govern responsibly. Failing to fight any battles is harmful to establishing a clear contrast between the parties and making the case for the GOP’s vision.