While conservatives are right to be dissatisfied with the results that our political engagement over the decades has yielded, it has produced real achievements. Persuasion, winning elections, passing legislation the normal way: That’s the approach that helped bring the top tax rate down from 70 percent, reduce the crime rate, reform welfare, and . . . oh yes, topple the Soviet Union. Few aspects of our national life are more disheartening than the enduring regime of Roe v. Wade. Even on that issue, however, incrementalism has enabled some victories, changing public opinion in a pro-life direction and reducing the abortion rate.
Many conservatives would like to believe that purifying the Republican party isn’t an alternative to expanding it but an essential means to that end. On this theory, Republicans lost power because they were too compromising under a “compassionate conservative” president, nominated two moderate presidential candidates in a row, and in general demoralized conservative voters. The available evidence does not lend much credence to this theory. Both of those last two nominees — who really did have more moderate records than most Republicans — ran ahead of most of their party’s other federal candidates, for example. That’s not an argument, in our view, for a left turn by Republicans. But it is an argument against the idea that moving in the opposite direction will in itself pay political dividends.
Jim DeMint, the former senator who now heads the Heritage Foundation, famously said that he would “rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who believe in the principles of freedom than 60 who don’t believe in anything.” By any reasonable standard, though, we have had at least 30 conservatives in the Senate for the entire time DeMint has been in Washington. The trouble is that, without elected allies, 30 conservative senators cannot govern the country or even block liberal initiatives.
An emphasis on purity — even when defined essentially by matters of style and attitude rather than policy views — has too often kept such allies out of power. It has led Republican primary voters on several occasions to choose candidates who lost races that mainstream conservatives would likely have won. William F. Buckley Jr. said that conservatives should support the rightwardmost viable candidate, with viability understood to include the ability to make the case for conservatism in a way voters will find compelling. For the purists, viability is an unacceptable compromise. Which leads us to such candidates as Sharron Angle.
The people who backed these candidates reply that nobody has a perfect track record of picking winners, and that many of their candidates, including Marco Rubio and Cruz, have succeeded. Those are fair points, and this magazine backed both men over their more established rivals. To note the inconsistency of the pattern, though, is to acknowledge that circumstances matter — in which state the race is taking place, how skillful the candidates are — and that purity can exact a price. National Review joined the purists in supporting Richard Mourdock in Indiana, too, and that turned out to be a mistake. Too many conservatives have not admitted it or drawn appropriate conclusions.
The defunding campaign was the legislative equivalent of the hopelessly ill-suited candidate — and, like many of those candidates, it drew support from people who see politics primarily in terms of purity, confrontation, and willpower. The contrast to the Democrats’ behavior in 2009 and 2010 is instructive. They were willing to muscle through a health-care bill even though the public opposed it, and even though some of them realized it would cost them seats. Republicans should have a similar commitment to better causes. But they should also note that Democrats used this maneuver only when they had the votes — large majorities in both houses of Congress, control of the White House — to pull it off. They did not take a large political risk while having no plausible way to gain a policy victory to show for the potential costs.