Some conservative pundits are still mad at the editors of National Review for an editorial in which the venerable magazine urged Republicans not to back Newt Gingrich for president. Though NR didn’t endorse a candidate in the piece, many outraged conservatives who had embraced the former speaker as the leading “not Romney” in the race felt that Mitt Romney was the intended beneficiary of the broadside. The latest to vent his spleen about this alleged betrayal of conservative principle is Jeffrey Lord who wrote in the American Spectator that the attack on Gingrich was akin to NR’s founder William F. Buckley blasting Barry Goldwater in 1964 or Ronald Reagan in 1980. His point was not just that any of the other conservatives still in the race was better than Romney but that Buckley’s magazine had become the moral equivalent of the old-line GOP establishment that its founder had spent his life battling.
But Lord’s anguish is misplaced. Newt Gingrich isn’t Ronald Reagan. Neither is Rick Santorum, Michele Bachman or Rick Perry. And if you really think any of them are worthy successors to Barry Goldwater, does anyone on the right believe another 1964-style wipeout that would mean four more years of President Barack Obama is a good idea?
A focus on winning in 2012 is what many conservatives think is wrong with NR’s editors and others who have come to grips with the fact that Romney is the Republicans’ best chance for victory next November. Lord, and others who agree with him are not really arguing that Gingrich should be president any more than they are making a serious case for Perry, Bachmann or Santorum. None of them have a ghost of a shot at beating Obama though all of them can make a much better case than Gingrich for representing a consistent conservative stance on the majority of the issues. Rather, Lord seems to be making the case that ideological purity is a higher value than electability.
To that one can only respond with one of Buckley’s most famous sayings that instructed his followers to always back the most conservative candidate available who could win.
It should be stipulated that this didn’t mean you always backed a Republican. In Buckley’s heyday the two parties were not divided so much by ideology with conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, two now largely extinct factions, being very much a part of our political life. Buckley helped found the Conservative Party of New York to combat the leftward tilt of a Republican Party dominated by liberals like Nelson Rockefeller and Jacob Javits.
But the notion that a relatively moderate candidate like Romney is in any way comparable to the liberal Rockefeller Republicans that the conservative moment defeated in 1964 is absurd. For all of his imperfections and flip-flopping there is no question that he is to the right of center. Like the first President George Bush whom Buckley and other conservatives backed in 1988, Romney is no favorite of the right and may disappoint them. But, as Republicans learned after 1992 when some stood by and watched Bill Clinton beat Bush, life is choice. Any conservative who would prefer to see Obama re-elected than to stomach a Romney presidency has lost perspective about the whole point of their movement.
Even more to the point, the argument that Gingrich — whose deviations from conservative principles over the years are too numerous to count — is more authentically conservative than Romney is unsustainable. As for Perry, Bachmann and Santorum, even the most fervent Romney-haters know they can’t be elected.
That may say something unflattering about the current state of American conservatism but it is no reason to willfully choose to go off the cliff with a certain loser. Unlike in 1964 when the main point of Goldwater’s candidacy was to seize control of the GOP from its liberal establishment, conservatives already run the party. To the extent that there is a Republican establishment these days (and I have argued that there is no such thing anymore), everyone that is supposedly part of it, like Weekly Standard publisher William Kristol and the editors of NR, are all conservatives. Nominating another Goldwater (not that anybody in the race can really be compared to the Arizonan) would merely be doing a hard-core liberal like Obama a favor. Surely, that is not something Bill Buckley would ever have supported.