Political Hay

Ted Cruz Extends the Buckley Rule

The “rightwardmost viable” issue: defunding Obamacare.

By 9.26.13

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“We all understand that it is Karl Rove’s mission to promote the Republican Party. It was the mission of Bill Buckley to promote the conservative cause. There should be no confusion between the two.” -- Neal B. Freeman

Ted Cruz has done more than concentrate the nation’s attention on the train wreck that is Obamacare.

Cruz has surfaced a longstanding problem with the Republican Party and, disturbingly, various conservative quarters as well.

Cruz has also effectively extended what is known as “The Buckley Rule” from a focus on candidates to a focus on issues. And in doing so is calling attention to the divide between Republican Party apparatchiks whose only goal is to win elections for the sake of winning elections — principles be damned — and those who believe not just that elections should be won but won for a reason.

We don’t mean to pick on any conservative in particular here. There has been a lot of back and forth involving names and publications including Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, National Review, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Brit Hume, and Charles Krauthammer. As Senator Cruz himself has said repeatedly, there’s nothing personal here.

But the latest rant from ex-McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt, the man who believes politics is all about winning yet whose moderate obsession managed to give Obama the presidency, illustrates the problem of “first we have to win an election” exactly. We cite it here only because of its succinctness in stating a sentiment that is, in fact, widespread in Washington GOP circles. 

It provides a chance to discuss what might be called the Cruz Extension of the Buckley Rule. 

What is the Buckley Rule?

The Buckley Rule is often invoked — erroneously — by any number of Republicans when trying to dissuade support for conservative insurgent candidate X on the grounds that the candidate’s conservatism makes them un-electable. Its proponents loved to quote it as saying that conservatives should support “the rightwardmost electable candidate.”

Indeed, this formulation was repeatedly put forth by Karl Rove. It has been applied in recent years to conservative candidates such as Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, Nevada’s Sharon Angle and others. So often did this occur that it attracted the attention of one Neal Freeman, a former editor at National Review, a columnist and contributor of Bill Buckley’s magazine, as well as a longtime Buckley friend. Most importantly, Mr. Freeman was present at the creation of the “Buckley Rule” and, in the face of ex-Bush aide Rove’s formulation of said rule, felt it necessary to take to the pages of NRO to correct the record.

In a delightful article titled “Buckley Rule — According to Bill, not Karl,” Neal Freeman recounted the rule’s actual wording. Which was: “National Review will support the rightwardmost viable candidate.”

In other words, the key word in Buckley’s original rule was the word “viable” — not the word “electable.” The word “electable” was in fact not in the Buckley Rule at all. “Rightwardmost viable” was a world away in meaning from “rightwardmost electable.” In practical terms it meant, as Freeman notes, that NR would choose Goldwater over Rockefeller for the 1964 GOP presidential nomination. Why pick the almost certain to lose Goldwater over the supposedly more “electable” (and liberal) Rocky? Because, wrote Freeman (bold emphasis mine):

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. (And so it came to pass. For the next 40 years, the GOP nominated and elected men from the West and the South. Nixon won twice, Reagan twice, the Bushes thrice. Only in recent cycles has the GOP reverted to its habit of nominating “moderates” favored by the establishment. Dole, McCain, Romney — all of them were admired by the fashionable media until they won the GOP nomination, at which point they were abandoned in favor of the liberal nominated by the Democrats.) 

It meant that Buckley himself would challenge liberal Republican nominee John Lindsay in the 1965 New York mayor’s race. A race in which, says Freeman, Buckley:

….reaffirmed his position by running in New York City as a third-party conservative against a highly electable Republican. I can tell you as the manager of that campaign that there was never a single day, from our first planning meeting in February until the polls closed in November, that Bill considered himself even remotely electable. But viable? Absolutely. He was the best candidate in the country to carry the conservative message into the heart of American liberalism. And for those who needed further reinforcement of the point, five years later Bill’s brother, James, ran for the U.S. Senate as a third-party candidate against a mainstream-Republican incumbent.

Let me repeat that phrase of Freeman’s about the viability of the Buckley mayoralty candidacy. Buckley “was the best candidate in the country to carry the conservative message into the heart of American liberalism.”

What is it in the widespread formulation that one has to first “win elections” that brings to mind Ted Cruz and what we will call here the “Cruz Extension” of the Buckley Rule?

With all respect to those non-Cruz fans in the Republican caucuses of the United States Senate and House of Representatives, their respective staffs and in conservative media -- this is wrong.

The way you bring real change to Washington is to change the views of the country. Simply winning an election and then setting about “consensus-building” is exactly what has gotten the Republican Party into so much electoral trouble. Not to mention gotten the country in so much financial trouble.

Thus, the Cruz Extension of the Buckley Rule, substituting the word “issue” for the word “candidate.”

The Buckley Rule would then read: “Conservatives will support the rightwardmost viable issue.”

What Senator Cruz and his band of brother conservative senatorial colleagues are doing is exactly supporting “the rightwardmost viable issue” in America today. The defunding and repeal of Obamacare. Which is to say, what makes defunding Obamacare more viable — as opposed to, say, everything from getting the truth from the IRS’s Lois Lerner to overturning Roe v. Wade — is the leverage of funding the government to defund Obamacare. And in doing this Cruz and company are also working on changing the views of the country on Obamacare — something that is not, in this case, a spectacularly hard thing to do. Obamacare is wildly unpopular already, as we don’t need to note in detail here.

This is not, as is illustrated hourly, the approach of the Washington Republican Establishment and all those listed above and more. Forget defunding Obamacare — this isn’t the approach of the Washington GOP Establishment on just about anything.

To simply “win elections” does nothing if in fact the winners’ sole objectives are first, winning, then, second, taking office just to (as Rush Limbaugh noted yesterday) “control the money” -- while continuing to steer the country in essentially the same direction it was going before the election. Just a little less so and with better management. In fact, this was indeed the formulation of both the Bush 41 and 43 administrations. After running as the heir to Reagan in 1988 — and winning in a landslide as a result -- Bush 41 made much of “consensus politics”

It is worth taking a look at some of what was said by George H.W. Bush in his inaugural address — his only inaugural address — in 1989, with the bold emphasis supplied:

We meet on democracy's front porch, a good place to talk as neighbors and as friends. For this is a day when our nation is made whole, when our differences, for a moment, are suspended.…

We need a new engagement, too, between the Executive and the Congress. The challenges before us will be thrashed out with the House and the Senate….But, of course, things may be difficult. We need compromise; we have had dissension. We need harmony; we have had a chorus of discordant voices….. To my friends—and yes, I do mean friends—in the loyal opposition—and yes, I mean loyal: I put out my hand. I am putting out my hand to you, Mr. Speaker. I am putting out my hand to you, Mr. Majority Leader. For this is the thing: This is the age of the offered hand.

The Bush 41 approach of “compromise” “harmony” and the “age of the offered hand” resulted in Mr. Bush giving up his famous “Read my lips, no new taxes” pledge and getting 37% of the vote in a disastrous re-election bid. Bringing on the Bill and Hillary era — which is still here and planning a restoration in 2016. 

All of this was Bush 41 historical longhand for the sentiment so pervasive in the GOP Establishment and in other conservative quarters: You have to win — then govern by consensus. This is Schmidt’s reason today — and he isn’t alone - for declaring Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz examples of “asininity” or “a bridge too far.”

Election won, Mr. Bush was determined to show he was a nice guy (he was) and was willing to compromise. This was exactly the kind of Washington “consensus-building” that so many conservatives in media seem to be advocating.

Win the election, goes the cry. Then change comes from “consensus-building.”

The charge of not being “realistic” or, in the memorable Bush 41 word so beloved of Saturday Night Live Bush 41 impersonator Dana Carvey, “prudent” is thrown out almost reflexively. Scratch the word reflexively.

Follow this habitual caution, lace with a high-alert political defensiveness and sheer fear of being badly portrayed in the media and one produces — the Bush 41 presidency. Or, for that matter, the Bush 43 presidency with its devotion to expanding the Department of Education (with the help of the late Senator Ted Kennedy) and more government spending, not to mention TARP. Which collectively caused so much un-enthusiastic anticipation in 2000 that it produced a Supreme Court-election and in 2004 a re-election by a mere 100,000 vote-plus margin from Ohio. And a presidential departure with a 35% approval rating not to mention the arrival of the Obama era.

We have cited recently the work of the late Sir Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher’s intellectual ally in conservatism. Thatcher (like her friend Ronald Reagan) was a thorough-going opponent of the very idea of “consensus,” believing correctly that what it amounted to was Labour governments steering the country left, then when Conservative governments had their turn at the wheel, the essence of the leftward turn was accepted as the status quo, added to modestly and managed. Ready for the next Labour government to take the government even further left.

It was Joseph who persuaded a very much agreeing Thatcher that instead of wheeling and dealing with “consensus-building” in Parliament and 10 Downing Street, the way to return Britain to economic and societal health from its “sick man of Europe” status was to take the collectivist consensus and wage against it: “… a battle of ideas to be fought in every school, university, publication, committee, TV studio.”

Those ideas were based on fundamental beliefs in freedom and liberty, not on the idea of consensus-building. Which is exactly the battle Ted Cruz was engaged in on that Senate floor the other night.

Plainly put, as Neal Freeman said of Buckley’s Rule, what Cruz is about is once again conservatizing the country — and not to put too fine a point on it, re-conservatizing the Republican Party. And to do it by promoting the conservative cause with the “rightwardmost viable” issue — defunding Obamacare.

There is no accident in this story by Kerry Picket over at Breitbart headlined: "Mark Levin's Liberty Amendments Spotted Among Cruz's Reading Material."

What Ted Cruz understands is exactly what this battle over defunding Obamacare represents.

Obamacare is but the latest leftward turn that every Democratic administration since Woodrow Wilson has been engineering in a bid to dramatically remake America in the progressive image. Unfortunately, of the eight Republicans that have been elected president since Wilson’s departure in 1920 (and we leave out Warren Harding who died two years into his term), only two — Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan — have had the political courage to firmly grasp the wheel and take the country forward to its original ideas of a nation based on individual liberty and freedom. All the others — Hoover, Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford and the two Bushes — took Wilson’s progressive vision and either added to it or simply refused to change course.

From Hoover’s tax increase (the income tax was raised from 25% to 63%) to Eisenhower’s creation of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (the predecessor bureaucracy of today’s Health and Human Services) to Nixon’s creation of the EPA, Ford’s pro-choice Supreme Court pick and the Bush 41 and 43 insistence on raising taxes and expanding the Department of Education, every single GOP president save two has gone along with the liberal agenda. Just trimming at the edges and managing better.

As a result, when one adds in Obamacare, the base of America’s supposed conservative party — the Republican Party — is enraged.

They are looking for someone who has both Reagan’s principles — and most importantly, Reagan’s guts. Someone who is fearless when it comes to carrying the conservative message right straight into the teeth of American liberalism 

There is no patience anymore for what are perceived as wimpy strategies that have proved themselves to be less than worthless in execution. And there certainly is no more patience for timid Republican leaders who are seen as smooth talkers of the talk but quake at walking the walk when not, as in the case at hand, refusing to walk that walk outright.

In the words of Buckley nephew Brent Bozell of For America, as noted, the sentiment now is: “You fund it, you own it.”

What Ted Cruz has accomplished is to bring the Cruz Extension of the Buckley Rule to life.

For 21 hours Ted Cruz stood alone on the floor of the United States Senate and vividly battled for “the rightwardmost viable issue.”

In doing so, Senator Cruz has reinvigorated the conservative movement, the Republican Party — and America itself.

There is a name for this.

It’s called leadership.

Photo: UPI

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.