The Spectacle Blog

Conservative Candidates Are Not the Problem, Weak Candidates Are

By on 8.17.11 | 3:01PM

Jonah Goldberg warns conservatives not to nominate a presidential candidate who might be viewed as "too conservative." But I think Jonah's got this wrong. He seems to mistake "weak" candidates with candidates who are "too conservative" -- but the two are not synonymous.

"The weaker Obama gets," Jonah writes,

the more comfortable the conservative rank and file feel moving as far rightward as possible. When the incumbent looks like a loser no matter what, electability loses its premium. That the GOP just swapped Pawlenty for Perry is a testament to that fact, and far more significant than Bachmann's straw-poll victory...

The danger isn't so much that GOP voters will reject the Buckley rule but that they will think that almost any conservative will be electable given how weak Obama seems. After all, independents don't subscribe to the Buckley rule -- because they're independents. If the economy improves or Obama gains traction, a Bachmann candidacy could resemble Goldwater '64 more than Reagan '80.

The "Buckley Rule," of course, is named after William F. Buckley, Jr., who famously said that he would support for president "the most rightward viable candidate." But Buckley declined to support certain conservative candidates (such as Ronald Reagan for President in 1968), not because he thought they were "too conservative," but simply because he didn't think they could win -- or because he believed that they were not yet ready for high political office.

Critics of the Tea Party love to point out that it nominated (in 2010) losing senatorial candidates such as Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada. To the critics, this is prima facie evidence of the Tea Party pushing the GOP "too far right."

But the problem with Angle and O'Donnell was not they were "too conservative"; it was that they were seriously flawed candidates -- and I say that as someone who seriously defended O'Donnell (at least in print).

Moreover, Republicans in Delaware and Nevada had good reason, given the available alternatives (and given the sorry state of the Republican Party there, especially in Delaware), to nominate O'Donnell and Angle.

Jonah worries that "if the economy improves, or [if] Obama gains traction, a Bachmann candidacy could resemble Goldwater '64 more than Reagan '80."

Of course, if the economy improves, then all bets are off, and Obama might win reelection no matter which candidate the GOP nominates. But Jonah's concern about Bachmann is misplaced and reflects, I think, an elite prejudice against the upstart congresswoman from Minnesota.

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