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.
Unfortunately, that arrangement works for the pundits, too, their protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. Government is becoming ever more centralized, its processes more abstruse, its determinations more intrusive. Naturally, those who explain it to mere mortals — including to the professional pols who crave the cognoscenti’s seal of approval — become increasing consequential.
But to the tea party — belittling shorthand for what used to be known as the “silent majority” — this arrangement and its underlying assumptions are exactly the problem. Sure, they’d like the candidates of their choosing to wield the levers of power. But that is a decidedly secondary concern. They want the Titanic stripped down to a reasonably efficient cruiser that does the few things we absolutely need a government to do and nothing more.
Control of Congress is not what inspires them. The Republicans had control of Congress when the seeds were sown for much of what now ails us: for the prescription-drug entitlement that begat Obamacare; for the auto-company bailout that begat Obama-motors; for the stimulus that begat the deluge; for the TARP that begat the very slush-fund antics TARP opponents warned against; for the McCain Amendment that begat the Mirandizing of terrorists; etc. At every turn, the GOP-controlled Congress — at the urging of weathervane RINOs and a punditocracy consumed by tactical politics at the expense of limited-government principle — was Big Government Lite. (And “lite” is used advisedly here, for it is lite only by comparison to the monstrosity to which it gave way). That President Obama has made a canyon of the hole we were in does not mean he’s wrong when he says Republican leadership drove us “into a ditch.”
The movement now ascendant in the country is not about anything so small as the question of which party has control over the Senate in 2011. It is about the future of freedom and prosperity, about the kind of nation we will be. Its goal is to return the United States to a pre–New Deal understanding of the Constitution’s limits on federal power, and to a pre–Baby Boom Left’s appreciation of the greatness of America. That is not a project for one election cycle. It is the work of a generation.
The Buckley Rule has no place in that enterprise. The object is to make Big Government pols of both parties members of an endangered species. And unlike the callow GOP establishment, the tea party is bold enough to believe good ideas — applied, limited-government conservatism — can win even in Delaware . . . and Massachusetts.
The GOP establishment will either get the message or it will go the way of the failed candidates it has backed. If it had done its job, if it had undertaken to represent rather than thwart the public will, it wouldn’t now be asking itself how you get Christine O’Donnell elected. It would have found a better Christine O’Donnell.
– Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.