Could the Perfect Conservative Candidate Cost the 2016 Election?

A popular saying is, “[d]on’t let the quest for the perfect become the enemy of the good.” In other words, we shouldn’t be so determined to find perfection in politics that we lose sight of what can be attained, even if it’s only part of what we’d like to achieve.

Good politicians once practiced this principle. Ronald Reagan – probably the best conservative leader of my lifetime – found it necessary to modify some of his goals to attain part of his agenda. Think, for example, of Reagan’s acceptance of the Simpson Mazzoli Act of November, 1986, which -- among other things -- offered amnesty to three million illegal aliens who could show they had resided in the U.S. since at least 1982. Granted, some of what had been promised by the act’s proponents -- such as securing U.S. borders -- was never done. But, the fact remains that the Gipper signed that bill before the border was secured. 

Does that incident fatally compromise Reagan’s reputation as a conservative?

Today, some conservatives insist upon achieving perfection in presidential candidates, for example, even if it means they lose the prize -- the presidency -- in 2016. They rail against this or that candidate. 

Take Marco Rubio, for example. (I can hear the angry yells. The charges against him boil down to the assertion that he isn’t conservative enough.) 

As I understand it, the major charge against Rubio seems to center on his position -- he’s had more than one -- on amnesty for illegal aliens. Evidently, “real” conservatives are not supposed to change their policy stances over time.

By that standard, Donald Trump’s support for Obama in 2008 ought to eliminate him from the race for the GOP’s presidential nomination. (There go those angry shouts again.)

I am not plumping for Rubio. I want to learn more from (and about) other candidates for the GOP’s presidential nomination before making a choice. (A choice has to be made and, as we shall see, William F. Buckley provided an excellent criterion for the choice.) 

Has nothing been learned from the past? In 1992, for example, I listened to frustrated conservatives tell Rush Limbaugh, “[i]t can’t get any worse!” That was supposed to justify deserting George H. W. Bush’s presidential candidacy.

Bush #41 lost. Didn’t things get worse after Slick Willie became president? (“Bimbo eruptions,” anyone?  How about failure to stop terrorist attacks on the U.S.?)

In 2008, some people who called themselves conservative thought that an Obama presidency was just as good as, if not preferable to, a McCain administration. How’d that work out? (ObamaCare, anyone?  How about Lois Lerner?)

I’ve saved my best ammo for last. In 2012, conservatives who, apparently believed Mitt Romney wouldn’t pass muster, may have stayed away from the polls.  Romney’s popular vote was down by roughly two million votes from McCain’s vote total. [correction: Romeny actually received a million more votes than McCain. Hat tip: Richard Baehr] The result:  four more years of Obamaism.  (Benghazi, anyone?  How about that nuke deal with Iran?)

In the run-up to the GOP’s presidential nomination in 2016, I’m hearing the same meme from some people: “If the Republicans don’t nominate ‘a real conservative’ I’m staying home on Election Day! Let Hillary Clinton win!”

Fine! Let her win. Let her pick the next two, three, or even four Supreme Court justices, in addition to the profound damage to the country that her domestic and foreign policy agendas will do.  (More class warfare, anyone?  How about environmentalism über ӓlles?)

A Democrat Party victory in 2016 will almost inevitably mean another eight years in limbo for the GOP. (History teaches that the American electorate is reluctant to deny an incumbent president and/or her/his vice-president a second term. It has happened only three times since 1900:  1932 [Hoover], 1968 [Humphrey], and 1992 [Bush #41].)

History also teaches that after the same party has held the White House for eight years, the electorate is ready for change. (Again, if we pick 1900 as the starting date, the eight-year term for the same party in the White House has rarely been broken: GOP victories -- albeit with different candidates -- in 1920, 1924, and 1928, FDR’s re-election in 1940 and 1944 -- which occurred under very special circumstances -- Truman in 1948, and Ronaldus Magnus’ “third term” in 1988.)

If the pursuit of “a real conservative” -- although unelectable -- candidate results in a Clinton victory in 2016, which very likely will be followed by a Democrat win in 2020, that means the Republican presidential candidate will have won the popular vote only once in eight presidential elections between 1992 and 2020.  At that, Bush #43’s popular vote margin over the wooden John Kerry -- who served in Vietnam, by the way -- was very small.

Watching the impending train wreck come next November, I’m reminded of the late William F. Buckley’s guiding principle for picking candidates in an election.  (Buckley was probably the most important conservative thinker in the second half of the 20th century.)  His motto was:  “[n]ominate the most conservative candidate who is electable” (my italics).

The meaning of the last three words varies from time to time. Many voters might see candidate X, for example, as too extreme at t1, but after her/his opponent’s miscues in office, a majority of the voters may deem X acceptable at t2.

The opposite can happen as well.  Take the case of Alaska governor Bill Walker, who had received Sara Palin’s endorsement in 2014. I wonder what Alaska’s conservatives think of him now? (Chris Christie hasn’t recovered from embracing Obama in 2012; will Walker overcome how he I share conservatives’ frustration with the course of U.S. politics. Republicans have controlled the House of Representatives since 2011, and now the Senate as well, but have been unable to stop Obama’s agenda. 

Focus frustration on where it belongs: the GOP’s feckless congressional leadership. Replace Mitch McConnell and John Boehner with people who will stand athwart left-wingers’ agenda, and yell “Stop!”

Boehner has announced his resignation. As speaker, Paul Ryan may not be perfect, but he’ll probably be a step in the right direction.

Then cull the overcrowded GOP presidential field so that we get -- as quickly as possible -- to the most conservative candidate who is electable. This is where conservatives will probably have to duke it out with the party’s establishment.

I don’t know who is the most conservative and electable candidate.  But it’s time we get serious while looking. Don’t let the quest for the perfect become the enemy of the good.