The Spectacle Blog

Like William F. Buckley, the Tea Party Is Taking the Long View

By on 9.17.10 | 1:30PM

Slate's David Weigel, who was born and raised in Delaware, does a good job of chronicling the carnage from that state's recent primary. Mike Castle was clearly the state's most electable Republican. How electable? Read it and weep, GOP: "Castle won five elections while his party was losing the presidency, five elections while his party was losing the governor's mansion, and four elections...while his party was losing the race for U.S. Senate."

Castle was shouldered aside by a political novice, a former vice presidential candidate, and a few thousand Tea Party activists. Unless a miracle happens, this result will throw a seat that had been in play to the Democrats in November.

Tea Partiers dispute that assessment. They maintain, publicly at least, that Christine O'Donnell can win. But they also insist that there is more at stake in this election than control of the U.S. Senate.

Castle was a moderate Republican who cast votes many conservatives find abhorrent, including votes for the first massive government bailout and the cap-and-trade bill. A vote for O'Donnell was a message aimed at moderate and liberal Republicans around the country -- roughly, "We are watching how you vote, so don't cross us."

Countless unimaginative pundits will seize on a likely O'Donnell defeat to say that the Tea Party has gone too far this time, but that misses the point. Conservatives have moved the country to the right in the past. They can do so again if they are willing to show a little independence from the Republican Party.

William F. "Bill" Buckley Jr. launched National Review in 1955 to be the flagship magazine of the conservative movement. The journal did battle not just with liberal Democrats but plenty of moderate and liberal Republicans as well. In both 1956 and 1960, the magazine refused to endorse the Republican candidate for president.

In 1964, the magazine's editors watched conservative firebrand Barry Goldwater go down to an overwhelming national defeat. In 1965, Bill ran for mayor of New York as the Conservative Party candidate and failed to keep liberal Republican John Lindsay from being elected.

These defeats were discouraging, but they were also necessary. They laid the groundwork for future conservative challenges, many of which succeeded as voters started to be more accepting of conservative ideas. In 1970, Bill's brother James "Jim" Buckley ran as a Conservative candidate for Senate from New York and beat a liberal Democrat and a liberal Republican.

In 1976, Jim snagged the Republican nomination and National Review charter subscriber Ronald Reagan came only a few delegates short of denying a sitting president the nomination of his own party. And in 1980, Reagan and a horde of new conservative activists and congressmen invaded our nation's capital.

And so it went: Rudy Giuliani's victory as mayor of New York and the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 were made possible in part because conservatives were willing to challenge not only liberal Democrats but members of the stupid party as well.

In the past, conservatives proved willing to work with Republicans when possible, and against them when necessary. Following Bill Buckley's lead, they took the long view that ideas matter more than elections, and that conventional wisdom can be bent over time. The approach has worked before. There's no reason to think that Tea Partiers can't make use of it again.

(And by the way, I have a new book on this subject...find it here.)

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