Teatime for the Republican Establishment

Teatime for the Republican Establishment

Conservatives clashed sharply over which nominee, establishment candidate Mike Castle or Tea Partier Christine O’Donnell, would be a better choice to run for Joe Biden’s vacated Senate seat. Those backing Castle noted that he had won a dozen statewide races and was a surefire winner, whose presence deterred Beau Biden, the First State’s Attorney-General and son of VP Joe, from running for his father’s long-held seat.  Castle supporters cited his House votes against the Obama stimulus and health care bills, plus his support for extending in full the Bush tax cuts; they also derided O’Donnell’s cipher resume and apparent inability to manage her personal finances.  Those behind O’Donnell stressed the need to shake up the establishment, assailed Castle’s support for the cap & trade bill, and warned that established incumbents were vulnerable in a year that has seen unprecedented levels of public disgust with career politicians.

How can Tea Party & establishment concerns best be reconciled for future races?  One idea, advanced by Castle supporters, is to apply the so-called Buckley Rule, named after the great conservative revivalist figure: vote for the most electable conservative.  Tea Partiers argue that while the Buckley Rule holds in normal times, these are extraordinary times that call for rejecting establishment candidates who seem more electable.  They point to several huge upset races in which favored establishment types lost.

But Tea Partiers are wrong to think prudence should be tossed aside completely in these times.  I propose a modification of the Buckley Rule to fit today’s times, based upon a middle ground: Back the best plausible conservative candidate with a reasonable shot of winning.

“Modified Buckley” would hold that where a conservative candidate of reasonable quality has a somewhat lesser chance of winning than an establishment type, it is worth the risk to back the more conservative one, though judged less likely to win, so as to press hard for incumbent replacement by candidates not tied to old ways of practicing politics.  But given a conservative candidate of dubious quality and thus far less likely to win, settle for the establishment favorite to improve chances of the GOP gaining control of the legislative agenda.

If O’Donnell wins this may appear moot for the time being.  But if as seems likely she loses, and if the balance in the Senate is 50-50 after November 2 with VP Joe Biden presiding and providing the tiebreaking vote in the Senate, Tea Partiers will pay dearly over the next two years for pursuit of ideological purity at all costs.  Controlling the Senate agenda means setting legislative priorities, such as bringing repeal of ObamaCare to the Senate floor and demanding changes to the New START Treaty before allowing a floor vote; it means using hearings to spotlight, for example, Kathleen Sebelius’s heavy-handed blackmail of insurers to shut up or else face the government’s wrath; it means being able to block far left-wing Supreme Court nominees from confirmation.

In other words, in selecting the best candidates in 2012, go for a touchdown on 4th & 5 instead of settling for a field goal; but do not throw 70-yard Hail Mary passes.

John C. Wohlstetter is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, author of The Long War Ahead and the Short War Upon Us, and founder of the issues blog Letter From the CapitolSM.

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