Political Animal

Blog

February 13, 2013 4:30 PM The “Buckley Rule” and Its Implications

By Ed Kilgore

You may have heard during the kerfuffle over American Crossroads’ “Conservative Victory Fund” that Karl Rove is defending his planned intervention in Republican primaries as justified by the so-called “Buckley Rule,” whereby True Conservatives should support the “most conservative candidate who can win.”

At National Review today, there’s an interesting piece of history from Neal Freeman, who was present at the creation of the “Buckley Rule” by William F. himself at an NR meeting in 1964, when the magazine decided to editorially endorse Barry Goldwater over Nelson Rockefeller (who, believe it or not, had support on the magazine’s board). According to Freeman, the exact formulation of the “Buckley Rule” was: “National Review will support the rightwardmost viable candidate.” But Buckley had a somewhat different way of interpreting “viable” than does Rove:

We all knew what “viable” meant in Bill’s lexicon. It meant somebody who saw the world as we did. Somebody who would bring credit to our cause. Somebody who, win or lose, would conservatize the Republican party and the country. It meant somebody like Barry Goldwater.

I’m guessing this will end that particular argument, and that Rove won’t cite the “Buckley Rule” going forward. But there a planted axiom underlying both the original and the Rovian versions of the “rule” that needs to be examined: it’s that the most conservative candidate available is always to be preferred so long as he or she is “viable” or “electable.” In other words, Republicans should always opt for the maximum ideological extremism that the political market will bear. It’s okay to reject someone because they aren’t “viable” or “electable,” but that’s the only acceptable justification.

Now to be fair, I would imagine that most conservatives would at some point this side of Benito Mussolini acknowledge limits to acceptably right-wing views on their own merits, not as a matter of what general election voters could tolerate. But it’s kind of important to come out and say so, and say so often. Otherwise we might get the impression that for many conservatives the only problem with Todd Akin was that he was clumsy about articulating his deeply offensive views on abortion and rape. Matter of fact, I’ve already gotten that impression repeatedly.

This is not purely a problem on the Right. Some progressives do sort of assume that anyone in the Democratic Party to their own right must be corrupt, craven, or politically timid; nobody could actually support that “centrist” stuff unless they had to, right? I can tell you from personal experience that is not necessarily so. Still, you don’t hear Democrats talking about some “Wellstone Rule” or “Vanden Heuvel Rule” that requires support for the leftiest electable candidate in every circumstance, do you?

In any event, the argument over the “Buckley Rule” is yet another piece of evidence suggesting that the “battle” between Rove and his right-wing enemies is over strategy and tactics, not ideology. They’d all pretty much like to see a one-party government that would do a frightening amount of violence to the New Deal/Great Society legacy, create an even more comfortable life of privilege for the very wealthy, and bring back the patriarchal culture of the 1950s, while probably getting us into some more avoidable and disastrous wars. Getting from here to there is the only subject worth a “struggle.” It’s certainly not for “the soul of the party.”

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Peter C on February 13, 2013 4:48 PM:

    I suspect a fair amount of the battle between Rove and his enemies is over corporate money. No doubt it pays for a very comfortable lifestyle as well as obnoxious political attack ads. Hucksters always take their cut.

  • c u n d gulag on February 13, 2013 4:54 PM:

    The Republican Party has no "soul."

    They are Capitalist Nihilists, in that, wherever the "Free Markets" takes them, as long as the result is sustainable wealth for the very wealthy over countless (de)generations, that is fine with them, as long as they get a piece of the action via elections and reelections.

    They are completely soul-less.

    Which, one would think would be an impediment for the party of Jesus - except that they use wedge issues like race, misogyny, xenophobia, and/or homophobia, to keep the religious, and poor and middle class people who are ignorant and stupid, voting for them.

  • Rob Noblin on February 13, 2013 6:03 PM:

    I think the selecting the most rightward or leftward viable makes sense for conservatives or progressives respectively as a strategy for achieving their goals. For example, I am on the left, not as far left as say, Bernie Sanders, but to the left of the median Democratic Senator. I would support someone to the left of me, even though I don't approve of all her views, because it moves the median Democratic Senator to the left.

    To put it another way, if we had ten socialist Senators, that faction would help get progressive legislation enacted by preventing what happens all too often in the current climate: President Obama's proposals get defined in the discussion as the left fringe of what is under consideration. President Obama and liberals generally would benefit if there were a left equivalent of the Tea Party faction. Then liberals could triangulate against socialist, a faction whose presence would reassure many voters and media members that they themselves were somewhat near the "reasonable center."

  • boatboy_srq on February 13, 2013 6:05 PM:

    I would imagine that most conservatives would at some point this side of Benito Mussolini acknowledge limits to acceptably right-wing views on their own merits, not as a matter of what general election voters could tolerate. But itís kind of important to come out and say so, and say so often. Otherwise we might get the impression that for many conservatives the only problem with Todd Akin was that he was clumsy about articulating his deeply offensive views on abortion and rape. Matter of fact, Iíve already gotten that impression repeatedly.

    Au contraire. The only problem, as stated (and mentioned repeatedly at WM and other venues) by Boehner, Cantor, McConnell, Priebus, Ryan, and a host of other GOTea bigwigs, is that the messaging and not the platform is the party's stumbling block. Most GOTea leaders have said (some in nearly so many words) that Akin et al lost their elections because they were simply too honest about their policy positions, and that the next election push would include a friendlier, more digestible rephrasing of the platform planks so they wouldn't be so hard for the electorate to choke down.

    It's hardly surprising that Rove would reinterpret the Buckley Rule as "True Conservatives should support the most virulently reactionary, extremist candidate the Party can put over on the electorate." After all, that was his job in Texas, and (sad to say) he managed it reasonably well - although putting over reactionary candidates in Texas doesn't seem to take the work it does in other, less cantankerous states.

    What's laughable is the expectation that Rove's reinterpretation of the Buckley Rule has any chance of succeeding anywhere a) the electorate actually has sufficient access to the candidate to experience his/her wingnuttery firsthand and b) the presented candidates do such a magnificent job of exposing that wingnuttery in all its ugliness. Part of the reason the GOTea 2012 primary was such a winner for the popcorn sellers was that we got to see each candidate for pResident have their Full Metal Wingnut moment, after which the flameout was sudden - and quite entertaining. Imagine this on a national scale, with a host of wingnuts to choose from, and the flameouts will make the Perseid meteor shower pale by comparison.

  • VandaDuarte on February 13, 2013 9:30 PM:

    FWIW, JK Galbraith allegedly adhered to the rule that he should support the leftwardmost viable candidate. There's some dispute about which came first, Galbraith or Buckley. See: http://tinyurl.com/axy32ml. Also: http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/246598/speck-archeology-jay-nordlinger

  • VinnyD on February 14, 2013 7:08 AM:

    Michael Harrington, the author of The Other America and leader of the Democratic Socialists of America, used to talk about supporting "the left wing of the possible." But of course he knew that no one to his left, e.g. actual Marxist-Leninists, would ever be a possible winner in any US election in his lifetime. What he meant in effect was "whatever Democrat comes closest to my socialist values and has a chance of being elected."

    The Republican Party and the conservative movement are in a different position at the moment. The furthest-right Republicans are probably analogous to the Trotskyists and Stalinists to whom Harrington was of course deeply opposed.

  • OKDem on February 14, 2013 9:55 AM:

    Il Duce was waving on the Left platform as the GOTP train left the station, caboose first, for the a trip over the edge of their flat earth.

  • locoparentis on February 14, 2013 10:47 AM:

    I doubt Barry Goldwater would have satisfied that rule these days since he was against social/religious conservatives and for gays serving in the military before he died. And Ronald Reagan certainly doesn't qualify with his tax history and spending policies.

    Not that it will stop anyone from invoking the memory of these two icons.