Breaking the Buckley Rule

September 24th, 2010 at 9:40 am | 24 Comments |

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On Wednesday, cure Andrew C. McCarthy, published an article on National Review Online making the case against the Buckley Rule, namely, that a Republican should always vote for the most conservative politician electable.

Certain passages in his article deserve a response.

McCarthy writes:

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.

It’s highly ironic that this sentence appears in an article defending a crop of politicians that includes some whose entire political education starts and ends in an enumeration of well-worn slogans, clichés etc. (see Angle, O’Donnell)


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.

Yes, these are not ordinary times. The Democrats have a big majority in the Senate so let’s make sure we put up some unelectable candidates, so the Democrats keep their majority, pass some bills and confirm Obama’s appointees.


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 would be an acceptable response if the Buckley rule said: choose the most electable Republican no matter what. Of course the rule says choose the most electable conservative. That’s a big difference. It’s a difference that McCarthy completely avoids grappling with, a contrast which if dealt with would have actually added something to the debate.


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.

How exactly do you strip down the Titanic to “a reasonably efficient cruiser” if you don’t have the power to do so? How do you do that when the time came and you had the opportunity to gain the influence to do so, but you chose instead to do something that drove you back to minority status? Is the false sense of some ideological purity worth having your ship going down to the bottom of the ocean?


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.

It’s a bit of a surprise to the rest of us, but it appears that in the period of complete Republican dominance, 2001-2007, it was Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins who ran the show.

If I recall correctly, the big government items of that period originated from the White House. A White House, so admired by the base of the party, which in order to appeal to the rest of the country could only come up with liberal policies (prescription drugs, immigration).

Perhaps that period should have prompted McCarthy to ponder three very important points:

1)   Ideological purity or the perception thereof, does not guarantee the implementation of conservative policies (see Texan president with southern/conservative dominated Congress)

2)   Ideological purity does not mean much if it cannot achieve results that are viewed by a large part of the country as successful.

3)   Ideological purity doesn’t do much good if it is peddled by generally unattractive candidates, yakking extreme and often bizarre stuff. Hard as it may appear to many nowadays, politics often requires persuasion.


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.

The question then is how the primary victories of Angle and O’Donnell advance that conversation or agenda? In what sense does the addition of inarticulate and problematic Republican candidacies advance the conservative case for the nation’s future? Is there magic involved? Does O’Donnell know something we don’t?


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.

It’s hard to turn a type of a politician into an endangered species if you make easy or easier for them to get elected – ask Harry Reid.


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.

But isn’t O’Donnell good enough? Why do we need all of a sudden a “better O’Donnell”? What would be the characteristics of a better O’Donnell? May we say that this better O’Donnell would actually be an electable kind of conservative in Delaware?

If McCarthy had started to write his article with this paragraph, which happens to be his last, perhaps he would have never bothered to challenge Buckley’s rule.

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24 Comments so far ↓

  • MSheridan

    Andy McCarthy is, with no exaggeration, the very worst writer in National Review’s lineup. Or at least he writes the worst material. Blind prejudice, abuse, and hatred are his staples. It is pointless for anyone posting here to rebut anything he writes because anyone who can read his rants and take them seriously won’t be swayed by a logical argument on FrumForum, den of RINOS.

  • GEValle

    Having Mike Castle as a Senator doesn’t guarantee a damn thing. You need 60 Senators to wield true power, and that isn’t happening this year, Castle or no Castle.

    So yes, you lame-brained RINOs and CINOs…It’s about “purity”, or whatever you fools want to call it.

    We not only want to rid the House and Senate of Democrats, we want to purge it of all the quisling, Benedict Arnold-Repubiks like Mike Castle.

    You are either with us, or you are against us. And if you’re against us, you may have noticed that with rare exception, you’ll soon be on the outside looking in.

    And we’re doing pretty good so far! Rubio, Miller, Angle, O’Donnel…They’ve killed 4 RINOs! That’s good huntin’!

  • Saladdin

    We not only want to rid the House and Senate of Democrats, we want to purge it of all the quisling, Benedict Arnold-Repubiks like Mike Castle.

    Don’t go throwing away the baby with the bathwater now.

    Relax, calm down.

  • GEValle

    Saladdin:

    We’re totally calm. And we’re sending a clear, unambiguous message:

    If the “baby” is a RINO/CINO, then it’s getting tossed with the bath-water.

    It’s time for the RINOs and CINOs to suck it up, and support Tea Party Candidates for “the good of the Party”.

    If they don’t support Miller, Angle, O’Donnell, Rubio, then that’s OK…We’ll know what they’re made of, and who we need to get rid of next.

    We’re not playing along anymore. Those days are over.

  • balconesfault

    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.”

    Well, from what I can tell, the Tea Party activists are all saying that the country needs fundamental change too.

    Does that mean they “reject the premise that the country is essentially good?”

    I agree with MSheridan. McCarthy speaks in code that only true believers can appreciate. I still chortle over his call a few weeks ago that anyone running for office in the US be asked directly whether they support Sharia Law or not. There is certainly a faction of Americans who this makes sense to … then again, Alex Jones has his devotees as well.

  • andydp

    What part of the word “electable” is hard to fathom ? Even Pres Reagan knew it was better to compromise than to go off the cliff waving your “purity” banner.

    Using Angle and O’Donnell as examples: I can’t believe with all the smart, conservative women in Nevada and Delaware Politics this was the best the GOP could do. One need only go to a meeting of the Clare Boothe Luce Foudation to see what reasonable, intelligent, and ELECTABLE people (women) are like.

    Spouting about a RINO extermination and the “purification” of the GOP is not going to get people elected. Of course as other people have asked: can you give us cogent positives for Angle and O’Donnell in support of their candidacy ?

  • midcon

    I wonder what will happen if Castle decides to run as a write in candidate? If he wins will he be a Rep or Ind? Personally, I hope that if ran and run he would become an (I).

    Actually, I agree with GEValle, I want all so-called RINOs out of the GOP. Once the party becomes pure…well pure whatever, it will interesting to see how well they do winning national office. As far as the RINOs go, I did not vote for them because they were Republicans anyway. Rather I voted for them in spite of their party affiliation.

  • WillyP

    Ironic how the commentators here are at odds with nearly every conservative principle as espoused by WFB, but suddenly hold the so-called “Buckley Rule” to be sacrosanct when it means a conservative winning a primary.

    Oh right, this is the site of liberal progressives… whoops

  • MSheridan

    I believe most of the commentators here also applaud Buckley for standing up to and rejecting the Birchers, WillyP. I wouldn’t deny that there is a long list of things Buckley and I would have disagreed on, but it’s another example of what I call the Reagan Syndrome: the right sets certain icons on pedestals while simultaneously ignoring not only their faults but also their real virtues.

  • WillyP

    msheri,
    Buckley took over the Republican Party and remade it in his own image. I don’t think he’d be shooting spitballs at the Buckley-esqe Tea Partiers.

    And what is Bircher-like about O’Donnell or Angle or Rubio or Rand?

  • dugfromthearth

    The problem is that those calling for purity are calling for liberal statists and not conservatives. The tea party candidates are not conservatives. They are not planning on balancing the budget. They are not planning on reducing government legislated morality.

    I fully support electing pure conservatives, not electing people who will recite the popular slogans.

  • shecky

    “And what is Bircher-like about O’Donnell or Angle or Rubio or Rand?”

    You might ask Angle, who spoke at a Bircher sponsored event recently.

    http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=cache:http://www.thenewamerican.com/index.php/usnews/constitution/4642-utahs-freedom-conference&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8

  • WillyP

    would you really like to open the can of worms of judging politicians by their event sponsors?

    Sharon Angle never TAUGHT Alinsky (read: radical socialist) community organizing. But our president did. Does this phase you?

  • MSheridan

    Right loves to hate, imitate Alinsky

    However, I’ll tell you what, WillyP, if you want to attack Alinsky I’m going to do you a huge favor. Here–his own words in a very long, very candid interview, including plenty of stuff I’m quite positive you can use to attack him. Really and truly–no faking–good attack material. You’re not going to find a lot of socialism/communism, though, because that wasn’t the kind of leftist he was.

  • WillyP

    does anybody have a pdf of rules for radicals? i would prefer not to buy it but it should be read

  • CD-Host

    – Of course as other people have asked: can you give us cogent positives for Angle and O’Donnell in support of their candidacy ?

    I can.
    Angle — While the Nevada legislature fought for years against provisions and was willing to stand along against business as usual. She is highly unlikely to be corrupted. Also she has ties to the patriot movement in case the war against K-Street needs to be taken up a few notches.

    O’Donnell — A total sweetheart. Republicans have a reputation for being nasty and mean and she is by all accounts very nice. She has 20 years as a Christian activist, and speaks well. She has a great sense of humor and can do comedy. Democrats and moderates like her personally, even if they think she is too incompetent or crazy. She is also poor, which is going to be very helpful in defending Republicans against the “party of the rich”.

    She seems like a great choice to do interviews and represent the congress. To prevent Obama from doing to Boehner / McConnell what Clinton was able to do to Gingrich. Who else do we have like her?

  • WillyP

    all this petty nonsense, and the bottom line is that this country is staring down a tyrannical party that needs to be stopped come nov. 2. if we do not repeal obamacare and address the financial outlook of the country, we are quite literally doomed.

  • andydp

    WOW !! Purify the GOP, get rid of RINOs.

    Can you say “re-education camps” ?

    Speaking of “staring down” Where the *&^$#^ were YOU when this happened ?

    (Just to add one little fact this is as of January 1 2009 – i.e. before the Obama Administration)

    The day the Bush administration took over from President Bill Clinton in 2001, America enjoyed a $236 billion budget surplus — with a projected 10-year surplus of $5.6 trillion. When the Bush administration left office, it handed President Obama a $1.3 trillion deficit — and projected shortfalls of $8 trillion for the next decade. During eight years in office, the Bush administration passed two major tax cuts skewed to the wealthiest Americans, enacted a costly Medicare prescription-drug benefit and waged two wars, without paying for any of it.

    To put the breathtaking scope of this irresponsibility in perspective, the Bush administration’s swing from surpluses to deficits added more debt in its eight years than all the previous administrations in the history of our republic combined. And its spending spree is the unwelcome gift that keeps on giving: Going forward, these unpaid-for policies will continue to add trillions to our deficit.

  • balconesfault

    WillyP if we do not repeal obamacare

    Especially because just this week provisions kicked in that:
    - prevent insurance companies from barring newborns with defects from being added to policies because of “pre-existing conditions”
    - prevent insurance companies from discontinuing insurance coverage for people just because they become ill
    - eliminate “lifetime coverage caps”, so that insurance companies can’t force families to decide whether to pull the plug or go bankrupt

    And here I thought the GOP billed itself as “Pro-life”.

  • anniemargret

    balconesfault: ” And here I thought the GOP billed itself as “Pro-life”.”

    They don’t care about the needs of the individual, the child, the parent, the struggling. Much easier to hang the sword of Damocles over the heads of women with their anti-abortion stance. Never mind that they almost never talk about the men who got those women pregnant in the first place. Do they presume to put those men in jail as well, and not just the women? Or do they get a pass for creating a baby and then dumping the women? The entire abortion issue is full of hypocrisy for Republicans.

    They could care less about adequate or inexpensive healthcare for Americans. If Obama had not even brought up the issue, it would be laying dormant on the shelf collecting dust for the next 50 years if republican had sway. They talk the talk, but never walk the walk. Their signature theme is simply….if you cannot afford to purchase healthcare for yourself and your family, or if you have been denied healthcare, then…good luck!”

    That about sums it up. Pro-Life? They ought to change that one to ‘Pro-Birth”.

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    Does the Buckley rule even apply to Christine O’Donnell? Bill Buckley admonished his followers to nominate the most electable conservative on offer. Christine O’Donnell isn’t merely unelectable– she’s not really conservative, either. She’s a theocrat. If you want to see what truly invasive and unwieldy big government looks like, put her and candidates like her in control of the federal government. Or, if you prefer, imagine a government jointly run by the Ayatollah Khomeini and William Jennings Bryan.

    (Well, then again, she may be electable, but merely by default. That is, if Castle runs a write in campaign. I’ve already expressed myself on another post on the implications of a Castle write-in bid, so I’ll just reiterate the bottom line here: he’ll throw the election to her. If any Deleware voters are reading this, please, please discourage Mike Castle for making such a ghastly mistake; in a state small both in population and geography, you could conceivably influence him.
    Chris Coons is the only reasonable choice in this election. True, he’s by no stretch of the imagination a conservative, not even remotely moderate, but you still have to vote for him. Yes, it sucks, but yes, you have to.)

  • CD-Host

    – Christine O’Donnell isn’t merely unelectable– she’s not really conservative, either. She’s a theocrat.

    Based on what? She has made many statements upholding the constitution, and the bill or rights. I’m not sure why you think name calling helps things.

  • rectonoverso

    Christine O’Donnell is emblematic of Conservative purity !?

    If that is the case, fighting modern Conservatism is akin to patriotism. A theocraty we need not.

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    CD-Host: just do a google search. Enough said.

    Also: you don’t seriously consider a group like SALT even a wee bit theocratic in tone and attitude? True, Christine O’Donnell has never explicitly called for theocracy, i.e. “rule by clerics.” Few people on the religious right actually have, though not because they don’t want to but rather because they know it would be politically disadvantageous.

    Just read between the lines from the vast paper and audio trail the theocons have left over the past thirty years, from Falwell to Robertson to the Ayatollah Dobson on down to Palin and her “prayer warriors” today. Anyone who thinks none of these people would practically die to have a Christian theocracy in the U.S. is delusional.

    Any politician fundamentally adverse to the Bill of Rights can make a lot of noise in support of them to cover his or her ass. Witness the careers of Ralph Nader or Pat Buchanan. Or Jesse Jackson. Or Jackson’s present day identity politics analogue, Sarah Palin.