It’s time to dust off Ronald Reagan’s old “11th Commandment,” spiff it up, and give it a new and more useful set of clothes.
Reagan’s famous commandment, dating from his 1966 campaign for governor and repeated during the early contests of his 1976 presidential bid, was that “thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Taken as an absolute, it always was a silly rule—and Reagan wisely abandoned it, with a vengeance, in attacking Gerald Ford’s foreign policy just in time to revitalize his campaign and win the series of primaries that saved his political career for his later, successful White House bid.
Constructive and even sharp criticism certainly is a good thing for a party lacking creativity, principle, or spine, and it can provide a necessary corrective that revitalizes a political movement.
But as a general sentiment (not absolute proscription) in restraint of unnecessary fratricide, the 11th Commandment has some serious merit. Those who are insufficiently committed allies are still far more useful as sometimes-allies than they are as dead soldiers on the field. An offering of honey may well secure them as firmer friends far more effectively than the threat of arsenic can do. Especially when what’s at stake is the direction and survival of a great nation dedicated to human freedom, a sometimes-compatriot is still far more to be desired than an outright adversary—and we should modify (or entirely withhold) our vituperation accordingly.
These musings arise because of the increasing tendency of those right of center—both the institutionalist conservatives who oppose the right, and especially conservatives who oppose the institutionalists—to expend more time, energy, and vitriol attacking our putative philosophical allies than developing strategies to defeat the most left-wing and authoritarian-leaning president in American memory.
THE CANNIBALIZATION on the right reached fever pitch during and immediately after the recently completed “fiscal cliff” negotiations. What in truth was essentially a disagreement over tactics was all too often turned into an acid test of ideological purity or civic manhood. Those who differed only slightly in terms of where to place a “don’t cross this line” ultimatum were accused of betrayal, deceit, and spinelessness, called “the opposition,” blasted as “utterly disgraceful,” and otherwise so verbally mauled as to make it sound as if they were in the same moral universe as Aldrich Ames.
The verbal abuse from right against right wasn’t limited to elected politicians. The venerable Heritage Foundation was called “a political instrument in service of extremism.” Various Tea Party groups were—and are—frequently lumped together (even by other conservatives!) as “bomb throwers.” More comically (and less damagingly), moderate retiring Rep. Steve LaTourette famously called Tea Party enthusiasts “chuckleheads.”
Certain labels, meanwhile, have become so overused and, in some cases, inaccurately used, as to have lost almost all efficacy, reason, or relation to reality (or even to their original meanings); they therefore merit permanent burial. Chief among them are the now-near-moronic epithets “neo-con” and “RINO,” and, from the other direction, the moderates’ all-purpose dismissal of conservatives as “wing nuts.”
Now it is true that politics is a contact sport, that politicians should develop thick skins, and that important stakes naturally create strong feelings and a propensity for strong rhetoric. But…come on, people. The Obama administration is trampling the Constitution repeatedly, destroying jobs all over the place, and pushing policies abroad and legal doctrines at home that are absolutely dangerous. Republican congressional leaders during the cliff talks, on the other hand, were at worst…well…maybe, just perhaps, making errant judgments about how to make the least bad of a very difficult situation. When even conservatives as stalwart as Sens. Jeff Sessions, Ron Johnson, Pat Toomey, and Jon Kyl vote for a deal, and when antitax crusaders Grover Norquist and Steve Moore call it on narrow balance an agreement worth supporting, and they are joined by the National Review editorial board and George Will, then how reasonable is it to accuse the dealmakers of being Quislings, weaklings, or even ugly ducklings?
What’s needed is some perspective and some modulation of the invective.
Conservatives almost certainly spent more time bashing John Boehner—who, despite his flaws, is the most attitudinally conservative House Speaker since at least the Great Depression—than they did making a more creative or convincing public case about why conservative positions would produce a better economy, greater opportunity, and more legitimately compassionate outcomes. All too often, a lack of negotiating skill, public persuasiveness, or perceived effectiveness is treated on the right not as a mark of (slightly) insufficient ability, but instead as a major flaw in essential character or commitment.
Or, in the other direction, those who are slightly more moderate bash those whose tactics are more hardline as if the latter aren’t merely misguided about how to achieve desired outcomes, but are actually unhinged or even dangerous. (Jeb Bush, by the way, has repeatedly made remarks along these lines, a fact victory-starved conservatives ought to remember with no little resentment when Jeb tries to resurrect the Bush dynasty in 2016.) Sometimes congressional institutionalists portray those even a single philosophical or tactical inch to their right as if they are anarchists bent on deliberate self-immolation.
The case for resurrecting a modified 11th Commandment is simple: Without one, we will surely succeed in our frequent orgies of self-destruction, and fail at our bizarrely less spirited attempts to accurately redefine Obama, in ways that finally convince the public, as an emotionally cold, authoritarian-tinged radical.
THE FIRST NECESSARY modification is that the Commandment should apply not among fellow Republicans, but instead among fellow conservatives (and Conservatives Lite whose inclinations run mostly, but perhaps irresolutely, in our direction). The party is an arguably necessary construct, but an artificial one partly designed to attain political emolumentsB—but allies or near-allies in political philosophy are (or can be) motivated by principle rather than by perquisites. Simply calling oneself a Republican should not be a shield against criticism. But a demonstrated record of working for conservative ends should be enough to earn some leeway when prudential, rather than purely philosophical, judgments are at issue. (In that light, any member of Congress ought to enjoy at least a temporary presumption of conservative bona fides if he has conservative interest-group ratings consistently above, say, 80 percent. Over time, multi-group ratings really do provide a reasonable assessment of an official’s underlying philosophy.)
The second modification is that the Commandment should never be seen as providing full immunity. Conservatives can and should frequently debate each other, constructively criticize each other, and even respectfully oppose each other when disagreements are deep and sincere. There should be little toleration, however, for vitriol, absent a political sin indicative of poor character or bad faith. Save the choice words for the leftists who accuse us of racism or viciousness (and even then, use them only if effectively aimed), not for the erstwhile allies who merely prefer moving their knights rather than their rooks in a game of political chess.
The third modification is that a distinction should be made between speaking ill of another conservative’s prudential decisions and speaking ill of his motives or character. It is the latter, not the former, that should almost always be off limits. Indeed, Reagan himself (if memory serves) indicated that he had always intended the Commandment only to proscribe overly personal attacks, not spirited debates about means and ends.
The fourth and final modification is that the proscription does not apply at all when defending oneself from cheap shots by fellow conservatives. In other words, if the Commandment is broken at the expense of one conservative, the self-policing nature of the Commandment requires that other conservatives denounce the rightist violator who hurled the unfair invective in the first place. (For a fictional example from history, if Jack Kemp had called Ronald Reagan a “spineless Benedict Arnold”—he never did, of course—other conservatives would be duty bound to denounce Kemp in the harshest of terms.) Extremism in the defense of a fellow conservative’s basic decency is no vice.
In sum, what’s needed on the right is a re-appreciation of Ben Franklin’s famous (perhaps apocryphal) remark that “we must all hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately.” Barack Obama is determined to permanently destroy the conservative movement and the cause of limited government. The more of our fire we aim at each other, the more we aid him in his task.