Good Riddance to the Buckley Rule

Published February 19, 2013

The problem with the Buckley Rule is that it requires you to evaluate two attributes – ideology and electability – when at least one and occasionally both are relative measures.

As a vestige of an era when the endorsements of elites carried a great deal more weight in the primary process, its implicit assumption is that establishment money and the intelligentsia together are best at evaluating both these measures, by which we typically mean that they read more polling data and have more access to the candidates than the rest of us. But as political boundaries have broken down, these evaluations have been shown to be a crock, and the upper tier have no more luck picking winners than the base.

Consider the evaluations of electoral viability we have seen just in the past several years from the NRSC and establishment money: Charlie Crist was without question more electable than the upstart Marco Rubio; Arlen Specter more electable than conservative activist Pat Toomey; Trey Grayson more electable than odd duck Rand Paul; Robert Bennett more electable than political neophyte Mike Lee, who easily could’ve turned out to be another Joe Miller or Sharron Angle. Tim Scott, the most recent addition to the Tea Party Caucus in the Senate, had to beat the Republican establishment in South Carolina at every stage of his career, including the sons of both Carroll Campbell and Strom Thurmond.

Consider what the Senate would look like today without any of these figures. Nor is the failure of evaluation simply one of electability: there was more than one voice in the recent Texas primary pointing out that David Dewhurst, with a proven statewide electoral history, also had a longer record of supporting conservative policy causes than Ted Cruz, thanks to occupying the important Lt. Gov. position for so many years. Thankfully, the Texas base proved wiser on that point – Dewhurst’s failing is not one of policy, but one of cronyism.

Here in Virginia we have a handy example this very year of why the Buckley Rule fails. There are a number of Republican elites, particularly the big money developers, who are concerned that Ken Cuccinelli is too conservative to get elected in the state, and hoped longtime Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling would be able to win the nomination. The Buckley Rule likely would require many mainstream conservatives to support Bolling as the “safer” candidate. But is he really?

Cuccinelli won statewide by more than Bolling did, and prior to that won his Northern Virginia state Senate seat three times in the face of long odds. On the other hand, despite being a statewide official for nearly a decade, barely one in six Virginians even know who Bolling is. Since Bolling dropped out in the face of impossible polling numbers, he has revealed himself to be the ideologically malleable non-conservative everyone suspected, stabbing his fellow Republicans in the back on several points, most recently the Medicaid expansion.

Currently, Bolling is sucking up to Democrat money to see if they’ll finance an Independent bid to undercut Cuccinelli – likely in exchange for a Cabinet seat or agency job in Terry McAuliffe’s administration, which would allow Bolling’s taxpayer funded retirement to vest at a much higher number. There’s no evidence, in other words, that Bolling is electable in any real sense. But – and this is a larger issue – is an R after a governor’s name really worth electing such men to manage decline and just take the edge off liberal policies? That’s for the people to decide, and recently, their answer has been to stand athwart and yell “STOP”.

Neal Freeman has a piece of interest on The Buckley Rule, concerning its original meaning and the difference it made. “Bill Buckley was careful with words. If he had opted on that June day for the words “rightwardmost electable candidate,” we would all have recognized it as a victory for Team Rockefeller. And life might look very different today. If there had been no Goldwater, National Review might not have become so influential, and if there had been no Goldwater, no National Review, there might have been no Reagan.”

The subtlety of the word “viability” is key, according to Freeman. Perhaps it was once. But while it is a useful guide for some, I have never liked the Buckley Rule, given how quickly viability morphs into a measure of electability. Avik Roy actually provides a good example of why, arguing that the failure to support Nelson Rockefeller over Barry Goldwater in 1964 begot the Great Society and the fiscal calamities that now face us. “We may all prefer the policies of Goldwater to those of Rockefeller. But it’s at least debatable whether or not the conservative movement was better off, or worse off, for having nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964. Indeed, the 1964 election may be the most salient example of what happens when we don’t pick the most conservative candidate who can win.”

This is not a new argument, of course. National Review’s Bill Rusher tells the tale: Back to 1961, Caroll Reece, a longtime Robert Taft ally in Congress, met with Rusher at the Metropolitan Club in Washington. “Bill,” he leaned in to ask the depressing question, “can anything be done with Nelson Rockefeller?” The truth is that nothing can be done with Nelson Rockefeller, who himself supported the creation of the Great Society in the wake of the 1964 election. Given LBJ’s poll numbers in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, in all likelihood, the only thing a Rocky primary victory would’ve assured is that the conservative movement Goldwater ignited would never have taken hold. The George H.W. Bush presidency would’ve worked out just fine in the 1980s. Perhaps the East Germans can offer their opinion.

The fact is that the election of a Rockefeller or a Bolling would do more to hurt the cause of conservatism in the long run. Short term wins can lead to long term collapse – recall that it was the Republican big spenders who destroyed fiscal conservatism and the GOP brand in the past decade. In lieu of a Buckley Rule, perhaps the time has come for a reconsideration of Alexander Hamilton’s dictum – a Hamilton Rule – arguing that it would be better for the Federalist cause to have his rival Thomas Jefferson in power than John Adams. “If we must have an enemy at the head of Government,” Hamilton wrote, “let it be one whom we can oppose, and for whom we are not responsible, who will not involve our party in the disgrace of his foolish and bad measures.”

Benjamin Domenech is editor of The Transom. Click here to subscribe.