Commentary Magazine


What Would Bill Buckley Do?

The Republican Party has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections and is currently stuck in what may be a losing fight with Barack Obama over the budget and the debt ceiling. It also failed to take back the United States Senate in the past two election cycles because GOP primary voters chose poor candidates who were easily branded as extremists by vulnerable Democrats. This sorry situation has led to an orgy of soul searching by Republicans that has produced a raft of suggestions for how to do better in 2014 and 2016. Some of the ideas put forward for a GOP re-launch, such as a shift on immigration, are worth debating. So, too, is the notion that the party should do a better job recruiting and marketing candidates. But anyone who is trying to push the party to become a bland, and more moderate, alternative to the Democrats is selling a bill of goods.

That’s exactly what Joe Scarborough is doing in a piece published today by Politico in which he has the gall to invoke the shade of William F. Buckley on behalf of a campaign to make the GOP the sort of mushy moderate party that would embrace the 2013 version of Colin Powell. Scarborough is a former Republican congressman who has made a good living playing the cranky partner to Mika Brzezinski on “Morning Joe” on MSNBC where he spends most mornings agreeing with a roster of mostly liberal guests about how bad conservatives have become. In that guise he gives cover to liberal slanders about the Tea Party and neoconservatives while embracing the likes of Powell and Chuck Hagel. That Powell and Hagel are his kind of Republicans in spite of the fact that between the two of them they’ve cast four votes for Obama for president tells you a lot about his idea of where the party should be heading. But his attempt to dragoon the late National Review editor into this argument is particularly misleading. Far from following Buckley’s example, what Scarborough does every day on TV is a classic example of the kind of Republican that Buckley despised and fought against.

Scarborough quotes, as I have myself at times, the famous WFB dictum that conservatives must be, above all, realistic. As he often pointed out, the person to support in an election was the most conservative candidate who could win. That means when faced, as Delaware Republicans were in 2010, with a choice of a moderate in Representative Mike Castle who was a shoe-in to win a Senate seat and a wacky Tea Party outlier like Christine O’Donnell, conservatives should have backed Castle since adding another vote to the Republican caucus, even one that was not reliably conservative, was better than electing another liberal Democrat.

Were Scarborough to stick with a critique of primary voters who prefer pure conservatives to more electable and slightly more moderate GOP veterans he’d be on firm ground. But, as anyone who has heard his daily rants on MSNBC knows, he doesn’t stop there. His complaint is not so much with people like O’Donnell, Todd Akin or Sharon Angle as it is with the contemporary conservative movement. The problem with applying Buckley’s lesson to contemporary politics is that it can be misinterpreted to mean that the party must make a philosophical choice to move to the center in order to be more acceptable to the chattering classes among whom Scarborough lives and works these days. And that is exactly the sort of thing WFB couldn’t tolerate.

What Scarborough forgets to mention is that one of the major political projects of Buckley’s career was the creation of the Conservative Party in New York state. The Conservatives were in their days very much the moral equivalent of the Tea Party in that the driving force behind them was the anger that Buckley and others who agreed with him felt about Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits and other moderate and liberal New York Republicans who ran the party in that state. Rockefeller and Javits were exactly the sort of people that Scarborough and Colin Powell seem to be telling the GOP to nominate. But Buckley felt that a party whose leaders were hostile to conservative principles of good governance was not worthy of support. So he backed a splinter party whose purpose was not to elect moderates but to champion conservative ideas that Republicans had abandoned.

In the short term, that didn’t help the GOP win elections in New York. But it did help transform the party into one that was willing to speak up on behalf of the ideas that Buckley believed in. The Conservatives in New York were the forerunners of the revolution that transformed the GOP from a collection of office seekers willing to stand for the Democratic Platform minus five or 10 percent into the Republican Party that elected Ronald Reagan in 1980 and elected a Republican Congress in 1994.

Scarborough wants the GOP to reach out to moderates in order to win in the future. That is a reasonable suggestion, but when he says Powell must be romanced back into the party what he is calling for is an abandonment of the principles of limited government, individual freedom and strength abroad that Reagan and Buckley stood for. That is a clear path to disaster and irrelevance.

Some, though not Scarborough, have made an analogy between the efforts Buckley made to chase the John Birch Society out of the conservative movement and those who would like to do the same to the Tea Party today. But there is no comparison between the two. The Tea Party may have its share of marginal figures, but it stands for conservative principles. The Birchers were anti-Semites and outside the mainstream. As the Tea Party proved in 2010, they were a grass-roots movement that represented the views of many in the GOP base.

What Buckley taught Republicans in the 1950s when he created NR and sought to stand athwart history and say no to the advance of liberalism is that there are sometimes more important things than winning elections. The future of conservatism and the country hinges on beating the Democrats in 2014 and 2016. But returning the party to the likes of a Rockefeller or his ideological godchildren that claim to want to save the GOP from itself will not do it. If Republicans are to return to the winners’ circle it will only be as conservatives, not the sort of people who hawk the conventional wisdom of the day on MSNBC.

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