The Buckley Rule.
I am under no impression this post will be comprehensive; however, the following is something I believe the Conservative movement should consider when playing in electoral politics. I have been reminded on a number of occasions that the only people who make policy in America today are those who are elected to office – be it local, state, or federal.
I should say it again because I think it bears repeating: The only people who make policy are elected officials.
And while public sector union protests or tea party rallies tend to make headlines and can certainly drive the debate, throngs of concerned people – angry or upset for whatever reason – do not make law. We are, at all levels and with very few exceptions, a representative republic. You and I elect people to represent us on city councils, county commissions, state legislatures, and in Congress. And in any debate, we must define the terms, so that we each approach the issue from the same understanding. Guaranteed, we’ll come to different conclusions.
My final paper as an undergrad was entitled: “From Buckley to Goldwater: American Conservatism as an Intellectual Movement from 1945 to 1964.” Growing up, I remember reading about William F. Buckley, Jr. and Barry Goldwater, and they have and continue to shape my political ideology.
Beyond left and right, liberal and conservative, I believe that many Americans are split between the two. For instance, most of my friends are economically conservative, or “market liberals” as the Cato Institute suggests. We believe, more or less, that government should get out of the way of the market – that less regulations allow market forces to provide economic opportunity. When given the choice, I think most people want the easiest path to consumption of goods and acquisition of wealth and resources. And whenever government sets up a roadblock through regulation or some other way, it hinders that progress.
As it relates to social issues, I tend to consider myself more libertarian, or even “liberal” for those who are unfamiliar with the first “L” word. If people are able to make economic decisions on their own, then perhaps they are equally able to make other decisions: what to eat, what to ingest, how to take care of themselves, and a whole host of other so-called “social issues.”
But I digress. (This happens sometimes. I’ll try to stay on track.)
Buckley said two things that are increasingly important in this debate for conservatives:
1. Idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive.
In an ideal world, things work the way we want. I have a libertarian friend who does not recognize the fact that Social Security is a program in the U.S. His “ideal world” conflicts with reality because, in fact, Social Security does exist. Some of my libertarian friends believe the 16th Amendment to the Constitution was never actually ratified, regardless of the fact that Congress has levied an income tax since its “ratification.” Their belief clearly conflicts with reality. And it prohibits them from engaging in serious debate. We cannot debate policy issues of the day without recognizing certain political realities. Things that just are. The end result is ultimately no compromise and no progress.
2. The wisest choice [in an election] would be the one who would win… I’d be for the most right, viable candidate who could win.
This is sometimes boiled down to: “Support the most conservative candidate who is electable.” Notice the statement is not: “Support the most conservative candidate.” Conservatives do themselves a disservice by ignoring arguably the most important part of the sentence: who is electable. Charles Krauthammer, a pragmatic and intellectual contemporary conservative, had this to say leading up to the November election last year:
Tuesday in Delaware was a bad day not only for Republicans but also for conservatives. Tea Partyer Christine O’Donnell scored a stunning victory over establishment Republican Mike Castle. Stunning but pyrrhic. The very people who have most alerted the country to the perils of President Obama’s social democratic agenda may have just made it impossible for Republicans to retake the Senate and definitively stop that agenda.
Bill Buckley — no Mike Castle he — had a rule: Support the most conservative candidatewho is electable.
A timeless rule of sober politics, and particularly timely now. This is no ordinary time. And this is no ordinary Democratic administration. It is highly ideological and ambitious. It is determined to use whatever historical window it is granted to change the country structurally, irreversibly. It has already done so with Obamacare and has equally lofty ambitions for energy, education, immigration, taxation, industrial policy and the composition of the Supreme Court.
That’s what makes the eleventh-hour endorsements of O’Donnellby Sen. Jim DeMint(R-S.C.) and Sarah Palin so reckless and irresponsible.
Of course Mike Castle is a liberal Republican. What do you expect from Delaware? A DeMint? Castle voted against Obamacare and the stimulus. Yes, he voted for cap-and-trade. That’s batting .667. You’d rather have a Democrat who bats .000 and who might give the Democrats the 50th vote to control the Senate?
Castle wasn’t only electable. He was unbeatable. Why do you think Beau Biden, long groomed to inherit his father’s seat, flinched from running? Because Castle, who had already won statewide races a dozen times, scared him off. Democrats had already given up on the race.
Now, those are Krauthammer’s words, not mine. I firmly believe that Christine O’Donnell can play an important role in post-November 2010 conservatism. I also believe Sarah Palin plays an important role. (Do I want to see her elected President? No.) And finally, I have tremendous respect for Senator DeMint. He is arguably the most effective conservative Senator in Congress today.
But the fact remains, November may have looked entirely different for Republicans under different circumstances. What could Republicans have done with 51 Republican Senators? Wasn’t it Reagan who said something to the effect: The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally — not a 20 percent traitor.
This is where I get accused of “going soft” or becoming a moderate, but those accusations simply aren’t true – and they’re made by people who are too shallow to understand electoral politics. Sure, we can debate the issues over drinks one night, but at the end of the discussion, we haven’t changed policy. I would rather have a Scott Brown or Mike Castle in office – who will more or less vote with us 40% – 80% of the time than a dream candidate who will never get elected.
And I do draw the line in the sand. There are some issues where I will not compromise. The fact remains: We can govern responsibly with who is elected, or we can be out of power and have all the right ideas. It’s not enough to just have the right ideas. We have to implement them.
Most recently, this concept reared its ugly head in the race for RNC Chairman. Certain conservative elements sought to unravel the debate because of the roughly $20 million in debt accrued by former Chairman Michael Steele in an election year where we made significant gains in both the House and the Senate.
As the RNC met to select the next Chairman, some found this debt inexcusable and irreconcilable. How could Republicans consider tackling the national debt with debt of its own on the books?
Then rose the National Committeeman from Virginia, Mr. Morton Blackwell, who has long been respected in conservative circles. His Republican resume is long, beginning somewhere in the late ’50s but most notably his first major achievement was being elected the youngest delegate for Barry Goldwater in 1964. From there, he served in the College Republicans, wrote direct mail, and even spent some time on the Regan ’80 campaign and in the Reagan White House before joining the Leadership Institute full-time as its President in 1984.
Along the way, he was personally responsible for the political careers of people you may have heard of: Karl Rove, Mitch McConnell, and Terry Branstad, just to name a few. (Yes, another digression.)
Morton rose to defend the actions of the previous RNC Chair during the 2010 election cycle. He argued that it was not uncommon for an organization to accrue some debt, particularly in the wake of such success. Now, most of the success from the RNC standpoint was overshadowed by the poor management, but Morton made an excellent point.
While Morton is just about as conservative as they come, he stopped short of being an unreasonable reactionary, and cooler heads prevailed in that debate.
Likewise for tea party types and libertarians (who overlap, but are not necessarily the same group). In electoral politics, we have to win elections to advance policy. Sure, we could run as far to the right as possible in a primary and find someone with whom we agree with on most issues, but elections aren’t always won by who is right. What good does it do us to elect unelectable candidates?
This post isn’t an endorsement of a Mitt Romney-esque candidate. The flip-side of not electing a too far-right candidate is not to elect someone who stands for nothing, someone with no ideology. There is a balance.
I’m sure I’ll continue this musing at a later date. I’m interested in what you have to say. Click the box below and write your thoughts. And pass this link to a friend.