As a class, politicians are not think-outside-the-box types, which is not a good thing when the frontiers of your box are fixed by Interstate 495. More apt to follow the herd than lead it, Beltway pols usually have a lot of help from Washington’s elite punditocracy when they go astray. So it is with the suddenly resuscitated “Buckley Rule,” now much on the tongues of the commentariat and, hence, of the so-called Republican establishment.
William F. Buckley Jr. was, of course, the trailblazer of the modern American conservative movement. The rule in question, however, is much more modest than one might infer from its nominal linkage to a visionary. It does not offer a strategic vision. It is, instead, a tactical guideline for choosing candidates: Size up each contested race and support the “rightwardmost viable candidate” — meaning that a moderate conservative who can win is preferable to a true believer who, clairvoyance says, cannot. That way, votes are not wasted on a hopeless cause, and the political system steadily inches in a more rightward direction.
As one would expect from a tactical guideline, the Buckley Rule’s ambition is limited. Tactics are not strategy. They are what you use to succeed within a given strategic framework. If you don’t have a strategy, tactics become a poor substitute for thinking. If you have the wrong strategy, tactics are only the means by which you will fail to achieve your highest interest — because you have miscalculated what your highest interest is.
The Buckley Rule is sensible only in a strategic framework that assumes ordinary politics. To be sure, such times will always feature intense policy disagreements. Yet the competing factions will be in agreement on fundamentals: They will see the American people as essentially good and the nation as exceptional. They will attribute these characteristics to ordered liberty even if they differ on where to draw the line between order and liberty. Some will always be favorably disposed toward government, while others will regard it with suspicion; but in ordinary times, competing partisans will concur that government is both necessary and potentially dangerous, and thus that state power must be divided as an internal check and limited to prevent its devouring of freedom. There will remain room aplenty for robust debate, but it will happen within a stable structure.
These are not ordinary times. The nation is in the grip of post-sovereign leftists who reject the premise that the country is essentially good — that’s why, they say, it needs “fundamental change.” They are locking in their redistributionist vision by borrowing the terrifying trillions they spend. They are not worried about governing against the opposition of a lopsided majority of Americans. Unpopular is one thing; transformational is something else.
This is where the chattering Sunday-morning know-it-alls lead the GOP establishment over the cliff. To hear the pundits tell it, the highest Republican interest is control of the government. The holy grail is winning enough seats to take over the House, the Senate, and the constituent committees of both chambers. Ideological purity is secondary to wielding the levers of power.
This, however, conflates the highest interest — i.e., the national interest — with the parochial interest of establishment politicos. The “establishment” exists precisely because there is a professional political class. GOP leadership has come to accept — to revel in — the same basic conceit that animated Woodrow Wilson and FDR, and that guides Obama: Modern society is too big, too complex, and too judicialized to be hamstrung by so obsolete a notion as federalism, or to be managed by so quaint a figure as the citizen-legislator. From this perspective, government is a profession. It is a life’s calling in which wonkish mastery of how it works counts for more than what one would have it do.