In the wake of the victory of Christine O’Donnell, backed by Tea Party members, over establishment Republican Mike Castle in Delaware’s senatorial primary, much has been made of the so-called “Buckley rule.” The late William F. is said to have argued that Republicans should nominate the most conservative candidate who is also the most electable.
Many Republicans believe O’Donnell—and other Tea Party-backed candidates who beat establishment Republican rivals—does not fall into that latter category. But whether or not she can become Delaware’s next senator, this rule blurs an important distinction that is crucial for the quest to restore freedom in America.
Let’s cast this discussion in terms of pro-freedom rather than conservative candidates. The latter generally support economic liberty but too often are still possessed by the urge to have government get involved in our sex lives and other personal matters.
So what about this “electability” rule? Pro-freedom intellectuals on the one hand and candidates and officeholders on the other have somewhat different aims. The former seek to understand human nature, society, and culture. They deal in ideas and ideals, of the best of all possible worlds even if such a world lies generations in the future. They challenge the status quo with visions of what can be and should be. But they don’t expect utopias to spring forth immediately from their insights. It takes time to change the anti-freedom ideas that dominate a culture.
Pro-freedom candidates and officeholders should be armed with such a philosophy. But they must appeal to voters who share parts but not all of their vision. In office they must work with other officeholders who represent different constituencies and interests, and who favor freedom little if at all. They must devise strategies and tactics to take steps in the right direction that still will fall short of their ideals.
But we need to make another crucial distinction about “electability.” I derive this insight from the way Ed Crane, my former boss, runs the Cato Institute, the country’s top all-purpose libertarian think tank. Big Ed was chairman of the Libertarian Party in the mid-70s, and he knows politics from the inside. He also appreciated its limits. That’s why, in 1977, he founded Cato.
He understood the need to educate policymakers, opinion leaders, and the public about why the purpose of government is to protect the lives, liberty, and property of individuals from the initiation of force or fraud and to otherwise leave us alone, and to explain how individuals can prosper and thrive in civil society when they deal with one another based on mutual consent. This would mean eliminating most of the federal government, to say nothing of the state and local ones.
America’s Founders established the United States on these principles, which were radical at the time but which became the ruling principles in the hearts and minds of most Americans well into the twentieth century. However, since that time government has moved away from those principles, metastasized, and eroded the spirit of independence and initiative that was the way of life for most Americans. Thus many of these founding ideas again sound radical. But Crane, with other lovers of liberty, recognizes that those principles are morally, politically, and intellectually the only ones on which any society fit for humans must be based.
Anyone who has attended political events—and certainly Libertarian Party ones!—recognizes that a certain number of folks who might support the right public policies are eccentric or even kooky. Perhaps their hearts are in the right place but their subtlety of thought and their communications skills leave much to be desired.
And here’s Crane’s important rule. In order to be effective, advocates of ideas that might seem radical today must show themselves to be serious, thoughtful, and credible. They must offer logical arguments backed by sound thinking, data, and analysis. They must not pull punches, but they must take account of their audiences and treat them with respect. This does not mean a lack of passion when advocating freedom. It means that passion must be founded on reason.
The political establishment that is threatened by the Tea Partiers wants to lump together both individuals and ideas as kooky and radical. But pro-freedom activists should not be taken in by such confusion. When judging candidates supported by one Tea Party group or another in addition to the electability issue, there are two other questions to ask: (1) Do they actually favor those radical ideas of freedom and limited government? and (2) Are they credible, articulate individuals?
Alaska Republican senatorial candidate Joe Miller is a West Point graduate, a decorated war veteran, and has a law degree from Yale—certainly someone of personal achievement. He has spoken of phasing out Social Security and Medicare, and replacing them with voluntary systems—good pro-freedom ideas. And he’s articulate when he speaks. He looks like a credible candidate who would make a credible senator.
Florida Republican senatorial candidate Marco Rubio (pictured above) is speaker of his state’s House, an achievement that indicates political skill. And he is a well-spoken guy. Another credible candidate!
Kentucky Republican senatorial candidate Dr. Rand Paul has a medical degree from Duke and has practiced for several decades. He’s imbued with the pro-freedom philosophy of his famous father, Congressman Ron Paul. Early on the younger Paul was a bit too much the scholar rather than the savvy campaigner. It’s not that his answers to questions about how the Civil Rights Act limits free association were wrong. It’s that this issue is politically irrelevant at this time and distracts from more crucial matters like the federal takeover of the economy. But Paul is shaping up to be a great citizen-legislator.
On the other hand, Christine O’Donnell dabbled in witchcraft in college. Okay, so we all did weird things when we were young. In 1998 she called evolution a myth and asked, "Why aren't monkeys still evolving into humans?" Okay, so her grasp of science and her critical thinking skills were not of the highest caliber at that time. But more recently, in 2005, she filed a $6.5 million lawsuit for “mental anguish” against her employer, the respected, conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute, claiming that ISI demoted her because its conservative philosophy holds that women must be subordinate to men. If she were a liberal, most conservatives would mark her down as a crybaby seeking victimhood. She doesn’t come off as credible—the word “ditzy” springs to mind.
Nevada Republican senatorial candidate Sharron Angle has spent a lot of time avoiding the press rather than using it as a bully pulpit to articulate the pro-freedom philosophy. Further, as a state legislator she pushed the Scientology cult’s drug rehabilitation program, even though fellow legislators warned her that the group was dangerous. Scientology strong-arms its pregnant workers into having abortions; browbeats epileptics and others with neurological disorders into throwing away their medication, which has resulted in deaths; mandates that members never see or speak again to parents, children, or spouses who leave the cult; condemns to cruel “reeducation” camps workers who doubt their UFO fairytales; and uses bully-boys to harass critics. Dealing with such a group suggests a lack of judgment on Angle’s part, to say the least.
Mind you, it’s better for liberty to have O’Donnell in the Senate voting against Obama’s energy tax—Castle voted for it—and Angle voting against everything that Harry Reid stands for, than to have their Democratic opponents in power.
But those who favor freedom should realize that the messenger is often seen as an indication of the soundness of the message. Tea Party members should support radicals for individual liberty and limited government who are also the most electable because they are credible, thoughtful, articulate, and up to the serious job of restoring this country to that radical, founding philosophy.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.