The Buckley Rule, The Tea Party, and Winning

Most experts trace the beginnings of modern conservatism to William F. Buckley and his National Review magazine. Among other quotes, his most famous is now known as the Buckley Rule: Nominate the most conservative candidate who is electable. For conservative purists, this often creates conflicts. And there is no shortage of debate here and elsewhere about the Buckley rule. On any given day, various politicians are depicted as RINOs or “Benedict Arnolds,” or worse. Many times, they are in response to single actions (or inactions) among many an elected official or candidate may take. For example, earlier this morning I was reading an article about Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and his non-committal responses to inquiries about the Law of the Sea Treaty. Apparently, this is one among other issues that have ticked off the South Carolina Tea Party contingent. But, taken in its totality, can we really say with a straight face that Lindsey Graham is a closet liberal?

The fact is that the candidate needs to match the ideological leanings of their district, or even their state. I have always contended on these pages that at its heart, this country is right of center- more right on some issues than others. Public opinion polls are one thing, but history and tradition are stronger indicators of American conservatism. That is why social issues like gay marriage and abortion are so hotly debated today. The concepts of gay marriage and abortion-on-demand simply run counter to our natural socially conservative traditions and history. And whether that history and tradition can be “overcome” remains to be seen. Personally, I do not think they SHOULD be overcome. Given the example of abortion, the debate still rages 40 years after Roe v. Wade, and it is doubtful that abortion-on-demand and gay marriage will ever cease to be a source of contention in American politics.

And there are certainly recently examples of the Buckley Rule coming back to “haunt” the Republican Party. But, again, when viewed in its totality, those examples are, on balance, offset by conservative advances in other areas. For example, the campaign and candidacy of people like Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Ken Buck in Colorado, and Joe Miller in Alaska certainly were factors that cost Republicans an earlier chance at control of the Senate in 2010. Each had their own problems and disconnects from the electorate. Christine O’Donnnell overcame the poster boy of House RINOs- Mike Castle- in the primary. That was a momentary victory for the Tea Party in a very blue state. But, look at the alternative that WAS elected- Chris Coons, a/k/a “the bearded Marxist.” Would Coons have defeated Castle? Ken Buck in Colorado presents different dynamics. Although he was certainly more conservative than the Colorado GOP-backed candidate in the primary, he was “too” conservative in the general election. In Alaska, campaign miscues more than ideology sunk Miller’s candidacy. Although no fan of Mitch McConnell as Senate Minority Leader, he deftly stated that if write-in candidate and “former” Republican candidate Lisa Murkowski prevailed, she would retain committee assignments and seniority, thus keeping her “in the fold.”

But even these “ha ha” moments against Tea Party backed candidates have to be viewed on balance. While it is true that the more purist conservative ran for the GOP in Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, and Nevada, there WERE significant Tea Party/more conservative candidate victories in Kentucky (Rand Paul) and Utah (Mike Lee). Most impressively, Marco Rubio in swing state Florida took down establishment favorite Charlie Crist in both the primary and general election. I believe that is indicative of Florida’s general right-of-center tendency that should create a Romney victory in Florida in 2012. That is why the “more conservative” candidate is never a major risk (see next paragraphs) in a staunchly conservative state. Had Orrin Hatch lost in Utah to a more conservative Republican, it likely would not have affected the general election outcome. Likewise, a challenge against a Bob Corker, or Lindsey Graham (I will give his detractors one here), or Richard Lugar make sense. But one against a Scott Brown, Mark Kirk or Susan Collins is rife with pitfalls.

We can also look at the situation from the opposite side. Does anyone really believe a firebrand conservative has any chance of winning a statewide election in Massachusetts? That is where Scott Brown, by all accounts a moderate, won, thus ushering in the shift that gave the House to Republicans in 2010. It makes more sense to run the moderate Republican in urban areas, or on the West Coast and east coast (north of DC) in statewide elections. Such was the case of Scott Brown and Chris Christie (he is NOT a staunch conservative) and Mark Kirk in Illinois. Given the trends and ideology in the area, at times the GOP will have to suffer “RINO risk” if the Republican Party is to gain and keep any house of Congress. The bottom line is that a RINO is a 100% improvement over a liberal Democrat, in fact most Democrats.

Additionally, many times the rush to nominate the most conservative candidate overlooks personal issues that need to be considered. For example, an oddball statement and television appearance years previous about witchcraft and masturbation sunk the candidacy of O’Donnell in Delaware. I hate to relive the Delaware Senate in 2010, but it is a textbook case of what happens when there is a rush to the most conservative candidate ignoring the second part of the Buckley rule- electability.

Democrats and liberals like to deride the GOP as being beholden to the Tea Party and social conservatives. Yet, they have their own problems. Personally, I don’t believe the Blue Dog Democrats are such a monolithic movement within the Democratic Party as the Tea Party is within the GOP. If they were, they would have performed better in 2010. Still, they certainly do not fit the Pelosi mold of Democrat. But, on balance, a Heath Shuler in North Carolina is certainly better than a Barney Frank anywhere.

It is also important to mention special interest group endorsements and pledges. Sometimes, Republicans are criticized for not signing the Stop the Debt or the No Taxes Pledge. Sometimes in the debate over candidates, we place too much emphasis on interest group endorsements like those from the Club for Growth or the National Taxpayer Union. This is not to denigrate those organizations, but reliance strictly on these endorsements is misplaced. They certainly give clues as to the “conservative credentials” of a candidate, but they are not and should not be the “be all, end all” when considering a candidate. For example, it makes little sense to support a Club for Growth endorsed yet, objectively-speaking, unelectable candidate. Likewise, signing or not signing a pledge should not be a major criteria in supporting a candidate. In 1984’s Contract with America, although it never became law, there was a promise of 12 years of Congressional service. Yet, twelve years after that contract, numerous signatories “broke the pledge” and ran for reelection. Some of these people may have had very good reasons for breaking their pledge just as some of those signatories to the current pledges may have equally good reasons for breaking their pledge, or not even signing a pledge in the first place.

Looked at in its totality and on balance, despite its sometimes electoral defeats, the Tea Party has done more good for the Republican Party than liberalism has done for the Democratic Party. The Tea Party is above all else a fiscal conservative movement predicated upon smaller, more constitutionally sound government. It was an inevitable backlash against the liberal policies of the troika of Obama, Pelosi, and Reid. Of course, there is some overlap with the social conservatives and maybe even the neocons, but foreign policy and social issues do not define the Tea Party movement. Additionally, it is certainly more enduring and influential than the Occupy Wall Street “movement” that, ironically, also has some overlap with Tea Party ideals. As a somewhat nascent movement, based upon basically old principles, they are learning the Buckley rule. The number one goal of this election should be, ideally, to take down Obama. It is currently close, yet iffy. Let us learn from some of the mistakes from 2010 and make sure the GOP maintains the House and wins the Senate. It is not a fail-safe option; it is a political imperative.