The late Frank Sheed wanted every morning, with his breakfast, a papal bull to impart conviction and momentum to the day. For more than 30 years the same effect has come for me through the editorials of the Wall Street Journal. Among the major newspapers, there is surely no editorial staff more politically savvy, or one with better practical judgment. But this morning, the editors fell into a rare but telling mistake: They lambasted the proposal by the Republican National Committee to adopt a set of minimal principles, as offered by James Bopp Jr.
Bopp has distinguished himself for years in the pro-life movement and won some telling cases before the Supreme Court, resisting controls on campaign funding and political speech. Bopp has offered a list of ten items — not principles, but particulars — that can furnish a minimal test of whether a prospective candidate stands, with any credibility, with Republicans in a conservative party. As the Journal noted, the list includes: “support for smaller government and lower taxes, troop surges in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Defense of Marriage Act, containing Iran and North Korea, and gun rights; as well as opposition to ObamaCare, cap-and-trade legislation, ‘amnesty’ for immigrants, union card check and government-funded abortion.”
Bopp has suggested that a prospective candidate should hold to at least eight of these items in order to stand honestly and coherently with Republicans. The concern of the editors at the Journal is that the imposition of a litmus test comes at precisely the wrong time: After the election in Massachusetts, Republicans are suddenly competitive again in all parts of the country, including New England and New York. This is the time for a bigger tent, they argue, the time to invite in more voters without quibbling over the finer grain of principles.
But what the editors don’t seem to appreciate is that the list already contains vast accommodations in prudence, avoiding any firm test on the principles at the core of the matter. Take the matter of banning public funding of abortion: Even people who are firmly pro-choice have been willing to support that position — as indeed Scott Brown is. They support that position while leaving wholly unchallenged the claim of a right to end the life of a child in the womb at any time for any reason. They simply hold that abortion is a private liberty, not a public good to be funded with monies drawn by law from the public. If even the father of the child has no standing in making the decision, why should the public at large be implicated in this business and compelled to pay for abortions?
On the matter of marriage, the list would seek only the support for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) — once again, a position that Scott Brown has no trouble affirming. The Defense of Marriage Act simply establishes that the meaning of “marriage” in the federal code refers only to the legal union of a man and woman, known as “husband” and “wife.” It also bolsters the authority of states refusing to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. That act, as simple as it is, offers a hard nut to crack for any group that would try to establish same-sex marriage as a national policy. But one could hold to DOMA while leaving undecided the question of whether one would vote for a constitutional amendment to preserve traditional marriage against the willingness of the courts to strike it down. While Scott Brown opposed same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, he supported the right of the people of Massachusetts to vote on that matter for their own constitution, and he has held to a federalist line, declining to support a federal constitutional amendment on marriage.
It could be argued that the real problem with the list offered by Bopp is that it does not get to the core of real principles. There is no attempt, for example, to discern the reasons some candidates to prefer a free economy to a command-and-control economy, and we are simply reminded that people may end up taking the same position while their motives spring from principles that are strikingly different.
And while the items on the list do not represent principles, they are telling. In our current politics, it is President Obama and his party who show the most passionate determination to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. Those who support DOMA are more likely to support other measures to defend traditional marriage, just as those who reject the public funding of abortion are more likely than others to support a chain of limited, precise moves to restrict certain kinds of abortion or to resist the efforts of the federal government to promote abortions on a vaster scale.
We can quibble over items in the list of ten, but they already have built into them the kinds of prudential accommodations that provide ample room for disagreement, even disagreements running back to the root of things. But at the same time, the list offers the public a crisp account of what Republicans are about. Yes, support may be lost at times because certain voters are put off by the look of rigidity. But that apparently rigidity may also be read as Republicans’ having the nerve to define their own character, to tell us honestly who they are. If nothing else, it is truth in advertising.
And yet it is more than that: It is a serious effort by a political party to impart to the public a better-defined sense of what makes it coherent as a party, with a principled perspective on political life. What has not been fully understood about parties is that they may offer us an understanding of the regime itself: The need to reconcile the interests of groups in a coalition begets the need to settle on the principles that keep those interests aligned in a stable way. As a party does that, it offers a sense of the ends that may be rightly — or wrongly — pursued with the uses of the law.
And at the time same, it shapes our understanding of the rightful distribution of power: the arrangement of constitutional powers that is compatible with a “government by consent” and the most prudent for people in this particular place. This is not the kind of work done by any other associations in our political life. It is the work distinctly of parties. And whether or not it is now done deftly by Jim Bopp and the Republicans, it is work rightly aimed.