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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

Paring down

"Shrink to win" precedents are not hard to find

Paring down

(Noonan: Jennifer Graylock/AP; DeMint: Susan Walsh/AP)

Come on, Peggy Noonan. You're smarter than that.

When Sen. Arlen Specter (R-no, it used to be an R but now it's D-Pa.) decided late in April that it would be more comfy during his sunset years to be part of the political majority instead of a pitiful and impotent minority, the argument broke out all over the place. What could Republicans do to stanch the flow of blood?

So it wasn't surprising when on back-to-back pages of the very same day's Wall Street Journal (May 2) you found Noonan going at it tooth-and-nail with Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina. Noonan, in case you've lost track, is a long-time and generally conservative voice (she was a speech writer for Ronald Reagan) who in the last years of the George Bush administration ended all pretense of being a party defender. DeMint, elected in 2005 by voters in South Carolina to the U.S. Senate, is now often referred to as the most conservative member of that body-and is increasingly sought out by the media as a spokesman for such a conservative perspective.

DeMint launched this debate, to be sure, with his feisty remark earlier in the week that he'd rather have 30 Republican senators who know what they believe than 60 who blow constantly with the wind. "Really!" said Noonan. "Good luck stopping an agenda you call socialist with 30 hardy votes. 'Shrink to win': I've never heard of that as a political slogan."

That's where Noonan, who I'll confess is one of my journalistic heroes, both grabbed my attention and dismayed me. How can someone so smart say she never heard of such an approach?

Did she really forget Gideon, in Judges 7? "The Lord said to Gideon, 'The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, 'My own hand has saved me.' Now therefore proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, 'Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home and hurry away from Mount Gilead.' Then 22,000 of the people returned, and 10,000 remained." And you'll remember (although Peggy Noonan didn't seem to) that God wasn't through until he got Gideon's band down to 300.

I wish I knew whether, most of a millennium later, a much more secular Leonidas of Greece had ever heard the story of Israel's heroic Gideon. Leonidas, under attack by perhaps a million Persians from the East, deliberately dismissed the bulk of his army and staged a historic defense with only 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans, and maybe a few hundred others. The Battle of Thermopylae has for 2,500 years served as a symbol of courage against overwhelming odds. Nobody mocks Leonidas and makes fun of his impossible strategy.

Paring down and starting over with the hard core isn't really that strange an idea. Local churches and denominations have done it. Schools have done it. Businesses have done it. Check out the details of the American Revolution and you'll discover that even nations have done it, too.

I'm not saying here that I know for sure whether Jim DeMint's strategy (let's call it the Gideon-Leonidas strategy) or Peggy Noonan's approach (let's call it the farewell-to-Specter-big-tent-memorial strategy) is best calculated to work over the next few election cycles of American politics. There's always room for a robust debate between political purists and political pragmatists.

I am saying that it's surprising when someone with the conservative credentials of a Peggy Noonan, along with her vast appreciation of both recent and ancient history, dismisses so out of hand the arguments of a Jim DeMint. And when even she writes so condescendingly, "Shrink to win-I never heard of that as a political slogan," then you have to remind yourself how big our task is in teaching the next generation a few historical details about people like Gideon and Leonidas.

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