The “Buckley Rule” and Its Implications

You may have heard during the kerfuffle over American Crossroads’ “Conservative Victory Fund” that Karl Rove is defending his planned intervention in Republican primaries as justified by the so-called “Buckley Rule,” whereby True Conservatives should support the “most conservative candidate who can win.”

At National Review today, there’s an interesting piece of history from Neal Freeman, who was present at the creation of the “Buckley Rule” by William F. himself at an NR meeting in 1964, when the magazine decided to editorially endorse Barry Goldwater over Nelson Rockefeller (who, believe it or not, had support on the magazine’s board). According to Freeman, the exact formulation of the “Buckley Rule” was: “National Review will support the rightwardmost viable candidate.” But Buckley had a somewhat different way of interpreting “viable” than does Rove:

We all knew what “viable” meant in Bill’s lexicon. It meant somebody who saw the world as we did. Somebody who would bring credit to our cause. Somebody who, win or lose, would conservatize the Republican party and the country. It meant somebody like Barry Goldwater.

I’m guessing this will end that particular argument, and that Rove won’t cite the “Buckley Rule” going forward. But there a planted axiom underlying both the original and the Rovian versions of the “rule” that needs to be examined: it’s that the most conservative candidate available is always to be preferred so long as he or she is “viable” or “electable.” In other words, Republicans should always opt for the maximum ideological extremism that the political market will bear. It’s okay to reject someone because they aren’t “viable” or “electable,” but that’s the only acceptable justification.

Now to be fair, I would imagine that most conservatives would at some point this side of Benito Mussolini acknowledge limits to acceptably right-wing views on their own merits, not as a matter of what general election voters could tolerate. But it’s kind of important to come out and say so, and say so often. Otherwise we might get the impression that for many conservatives the only problem with Todd Akin was that he was clumsy about articulating his deeply offensive views on abortion and rape. Matter of fact, I’ve already gotten that impression repeatedly.

This is not purely a problem on the Right. Some progressives do sort of assume that anyone in the Democratic Party to their own right must be corrupt, craven, or politically timid; nobody could actually support that “centrist” stuff unless they had to, right? I can tell you from personal experience that is not necessarily so. Still, you don’t hear Democrats talking about some “Wellstone Rule” or “Vanden Heuvel Rule” that requires support for the leftiest electable candidate in every circumstance, do you?

In any event, the argument over the “Buckley Rule” is yet another piece of evidence suggesting that the “battle” between Rove and his right-wing enemies is over strategy and tactics, not ideology. They’d all pretty much like to see a one-party government that would do a frightening amount of violence to the New Deal/Great Society legacy, create an even more comfortable life of privilege for the very wealthy, and bring back the patriarchal culture of the 1950s, while probably getting us into some more avoidable and disastrous wars. Getting from here to there is the only subject worth a “struggle.” It’s certainly not for “the soul of the party.”

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.