Sunday, March 11, 2012


A purely imaginary conversation we can only daydream about having.

Interviewer: Mr. B______, I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to answer these questions for us. Honestly, I feel a little pretentious even presuming to ask you about this now. It doesn’t seem like we have the right to bother you. But things are in quite a bit of disarray at the moment.

W______ F. B______, Jr.: Don’t mention it.

Q: First, I probably should just ask what you think of the Republican selection of presidential candidates. We're half into the primaries, and most conservatives I know are still really struggling to accept that this is what we have to choose from and - wait, why are you smiling?

A: The number of times that conservatives have historically not been satisfied with their selection of candidates in an election is astronomical (as you on earth would misuse the term) in number. The problem is not new. Even Edmund Burke had some writing to do on that subject back in, oh say, 1774.

Q: But this time, it seems depressingly worse than usual to most of us. Bret Stephens, in the Wall Street Journal, just compared trying to comprehend the current GOP field to confronting a terminal diagnosis.

A: Have you read Burke’s thoughts on the subject?

Q: I don’t think I have.

A: Then do so. He’ll help educate you and your fellows on that particular problem. It is perhaps inevitable that people always imagine their ideal candidate. The problem is that this ideal candidate does not, in fact, exist on the planet earth. The ideal conservative presidential candidate is a chimera. Therefore, the question that follows is which candidate can best be used by conservatives in order to accomplish the ends of conservatism.

Q: That sounds practical, but I have a large number of friends who view trying to figure out which candidate is most electable as the compromising of their principles.

A: The tension between ideological purity and practicality (or electability) should always be an ongoing discussion within conservatism. In the early days of National Review, Willi Schlamm and Bill Rusher often quixotically upheld their principles in spite of the practical problem of actually trying accomplish the task of winning elections. I usually had to side instead with James Burnham and Gerhart Niemeyer on that sort of thing.

Q: But what if a candidate who is principled does come along? Shouldn't you vote for him over a more popular candidate who has waffled on important issues?

A: It is a historically proven rule that ideological purists charmingly and romantically lose elections. Conservatives still need to learn to distinguish between positions that they find desirable and the sine qua non.

Q: But what if we just vote our principles during the primary and then, even if it pains us, vote for whoever the Republicans nominate in the general election?

A: The problem there is that it is possible to elect a candidate who can, obviously, win the primary, but who can't win a general election. This has happened before. Furthermore, a really protracted and divisive primary election is capable of killing off any chance the nominated candidate has of winning, as evidenced by the Republican primary in 1964.

Q: But isn't it just a better influence on the party to support the most conservative candidate?

A: It depends entirely on what you desire to accomplish in the general election. If you desire to accomplish nothing, then by all means, vote for the candidate who can't win. If you want to accomplish something, then the wisest choice would be to vote for the most conservative one who could win. No sense running Mona Lisa in a beauty contest. You ought to be voting for the most right, viable candidate who could win.

Q: You almost make it sound like the ideological purists who insist on considering only principle rather than electability would rather lose than risk the slightest possible violation of their consciences.

A: Again, the problem with this purely abstract way of thinking is that it's disconnected from reality. It is entirely possible to be loyal to one's principles and then to consider how, realistically, to start accomplishing tasks towards one's goals. You can't do this without winning elections. You can't do that unless you're willing to support candidates whose political philosophies are often quite less than satisfactory.

Q: So, are you really implying that "holding to one's principles" plus "ignoring reality" equals refusing to really do anything for what you claim to believe in?

A: Lofty principles are useless without understanding the limits of human nature.

Q: By human nature, I assume you mean that, in our fallen world, candidates with less than morally perfect positions on all the issues will sometimes possess more appeal to a majority of voters than more principled candidates?

A: Conservatives who insisted on ideological purity proved their ineffectiveness during the New Deal era elections of 1936, 1940, 1944 and 1948. Insisting on only voting your principles, which are washed white as snow by the refusal to consider the less than perfectly principled, is a historically proven methodology that guarantees victory ... for the other side.

Q: Alright, I'll get down to it. Speaking of ideological purists, what do you think of Ron Paul?

A: Mr. Paul has run for president before both back in 1988 and in 2008. As he wouldn't then, he won't now admit that his campaign is primarily a didactic enterprise. Now while there is nothing wrong with that, it is regrettable that Mr. Paul's libertarian positions are discredited by a kind of reductionism that is simply incompatible with real life.

Q: By reductionism you mean that he takes extreme positions that he will never persuade any majority to adopt?

A: I mean that when he inveighs against the government, he confuses the failure of management with theory. For example, Mr. Paul's foreign policy positions suffer immensely from a failure to distinguish criticism of the nature of American intervention overseas from the question as to whether American intervention overseas ought to exist at all. What is wrong with certain acts of interventionism is their failure in practice, not necessarily the reasoning behind attempting them.

Q: I know Mr. Paul inspires a large number of conservatives with his blunt descriptions of the failure of government solutions to our problems.

A: In the Garden of Eden it was proved that man is not always going to be very good at wielding power. But Ron Paul is the sort of person who would oppose Ronald Reagan's tax decreases simply on the purely theoretical basis that attempting to decrease taxes epistemologically acknowledges the power of the government to tax in the first place.

Q: What's wrong with that?

A: What's wrong with that is that it forces him to take positions that could never convince anyone grounded in the public square and tends to defeat steps taken in the direction of his own viewpoints. He opposed President Reagan's conservative economic policy on the grounds that it increased federal government revenue because of the mere fact that government revenues increased during Reagan's presidency.

Q: Reagan did increase government spending.

A: By decreasing taxes. If you correctly understand economics, you will realize that, on a curve, as taxes go down, revenues go up. The ideologically pure libertarian finds himself arguing against the conservative position that increased government spending can be a product of economic growth rather than of increased government restriction upon the free market.

Q: But don't you see Ron Paul's appeal to conservatives who are sick and tired of the misuse of government power?

A: We can all agree with Mr. Paul when he argues that we have no need for stupidity in government. But that doesn't mean voting for him will accomplish one single thing to help decrease stupidity or the freedom encroaching size of the government, which is an ultimate conservative goal.

Q: Would it be a dumb question to ask if Ron Paul has any chance at winning?

A: It would be a mischievous question. Why don't you go over the Primary results so far.

Q: Republicans have voted in 23 states so far. Out of those 23 states, Ron Paul has won zero. Out of the 2,286 delegates that will be at the Republican Convention, Mr. Paul currently has a grand total of 24.

A: In 2008, Sebastian Mallaby, a journalist for the Washington Post, explained some of the disadvantages of primary elections. He reminded us that if three people are running for office, we can’t always know which of the three is the true favorite of the voters. You can’t merely subtract the vote for the man who came in third and apportion it to scale as between #1 and #2, because if #3 had not been in the race, more of his voters might have gone for #2 or for #1. And the confusion deepens if there are more than three candidates.

Q: So when Mr. Paul's voting percentages decreased as other candidates dropped out of the race, the inference there is that most of those other candidates' voters did not turn to Ron Paul?

A: Yes, it is true that his epigoni is limited in number. Of course, it's also ... shall we say, possible that the states from which Mr. Paul has won his few delegates (like New Hampshire, Nevada, Alaska and North Dakota) are not very useful as sample sizes of the more diverse voting block of the rest of the nation. Piquancy does not equal electability.

Q: Fair enough. What's your estimation of Newt Gingrich?

A: There are times when brevity is preferable. Why don't you go over Mr. Gingrich's Primary results so far?

Q: Well again, 23 states have now voted. And out of those 23, Newt Gingrich has won 2 states (South Carolina and Georgia). A candidate must collect 1,144 delegates to win at the Republican Convention. Halfway into the primaries, Mr. Gingrich has collected 110.

A: Mr. Gingrich has his own strengths and his own weaknesses. The primaries are mathematically proving that one of his weaknesses is an inability to appeal to any majority of American voters who do not live in the deep south.

Q: Are there any good reasons for a conservative to vote for Mr. Gingrich in this election?

A: Let's put it this way. Mr. Gingrich says he enjoys studying history. In the entire history of the United States, no candidate who lost the first 21 out of 23 states in a presidential primary was ever able to come back and win the rest of that primary election. Therefore, anyone who votes for such a candidate is either deluding themselves (however pleasant or unpleasant the sensation of doing so) or simply does not believe that participation in the democratic process is of a consequential nature.

Q: But some of my conservative friends tell me that Gingrich is the only candidate who can be relied upon to support conservatism with any intellectual rigor.

A: See if you can name for me one of the most intelligent young conservative minds currently working in the federal government?

Q: There are a few rising stars, but ...

A: I seem to remember hearing of a fellow who managed to get a Medicare Reform proposal passed through the House. It was the proposal that would force Medicare to compete with private insurance plans for American dollars.

Q: Oh, that's Paul Ryan.

A: And who was the Republican candidate to prominently attack Paul Ryan's Medicare Reform plan?

Q: Newt Gingrich.

A: Ergo, merely one example one out of many demonstrations that prove false your friends' claim that Mr. Gingrich can be relied upon to support the conservative position.

Q: So Gingrich has proved himself to be the opposite of amiable to a majority of Americans. He has no chance of winning the primary. And he's proved to be something of a loose cannon when it comes down to consistently supporting conservative proposals at the precise time they are being considered in the public square?

A: The word you are searching for, in the case of a presidential election, is "unelectable."

Q: Alright, well, I'm a little hesitant to ask about this one, but what about Rick Santorum?

A: Mr. Santorum is the candidate currently the most closely associated with the religious right, as evidenced from his rhetoric and from his highest profile endorsements coming from names like Dr. James Dobson, Gary Bauer, and Tony Perkins. He's a good man, but it goes without saying that moral virtue is not synonymous with electability.

Q: I suppose his ties to the religious right would explain why he seems to spend more time talking about the social issues than the other candidates?

A: Unfortunately, Mr. Santorum suffers from rhetorical problems on that front. What frightens people most about the Religious Right is the rhetoric that is sometimes used. There ought to be some thought given, for example, as to how to formulate one's position on particularly emotional issues. If you must take an unpopular position on such an issue, it should be more pastoral than vitriolic.

Q: Does that mean that Santorum shouldn't have compared homosexuality to bestiality?

A: An electable candidate ought to find himself consciously avoiding any sort of gay bashing, even if merely implied. There seems to be a mental lapse in some religious circles that distinguishes between permissible and impermissible gay bashing. In the first place, it is unChristian, period, and in the second place, it just doesn't work. It doesn't persuade anybody of anything. Comparing a man marrying a man to a man marrying a dog is worse than useless. Attempting to argue that the difference between straight marriage and gay marriage is that between a paper towl and a napkin (they're not the same, you see, really they aren't), is evidence of a severe disconnect with how the rest of the entire American public thinks.

Q: Not only that, but anti-homosexuality and/or gay marriage has been the issue that Senator Santorum was most infamous for speaking about before the presidential primaries. In 2003, he compared homosexuality to pedophilia.

A: It is quite unfortunate for something like anti-homosexuality to be the defining issue of one's presidential campaign, much less of one's political career. Senator Santorum has a number of well thought out and interesting positions on other issues, but his insistence upon waging the culture war may have the unintentional result of rendering his ideas on other issues as if they were surreptitious.

Q: I don't know if I would blame Senator Santorum for that.

A: It has been by process of accretion, but the rhetoric of the religious right over the years has turned their positions on gay marriage and abortion so prominent as to become their defining characteristics. Mike Huckabee was the equivalent candidate of Santorum four years ago, around whom various chiliastic implications were enthusiastically asserted.

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Q: I just have a hard time imagining Santorum's speaking style appealing to a majority of Americans. When he distinguished himself from Gingrich by proclaiming that he'd never so much as sat on a couch with someone other than his wife, I thought it was a joke, but most of us couldn't really be sure. He makes too many errors when he tries to defend his positions.

A: We're aren't so much talking about Senator Santorum's errors, we're talking about his attitudes and resulting unpleasant public utterances. For instance, when the Senator compares pedophilia to homosexuality, as he did, it's a kind of tour de force, in which he attempts a rhetorical amalgamation intending to link gay people with pedophilia. It strikes the average American as dishonest.

Q: It was probably unwise for Santorum to tell Americans that JFK's speech about the relation between his Catholicism and his public service gave him the urge to vomit.

A: As I said, unpleasant public utterances. See also: off-putting, disagreeable, distasteful, irksome, offensive, uncivil or unpalatable.

Q: Would you at least say that Senator Santorum was conservative?

A: There seems to be a trend, and we saw this with Mike Huckabee too, that often the evangelically popular socially conservative candidate is, for some reason, weakest on his economic conservatism. That Senator Santorum has supported a long laundry list of big government spending over the last two decades that he's been in the Senate is not a good sign. His arguments for government intervention and control over moral questions exceeds any understanding of the roots of conservative political philosophy.

Q: Definitely not ideal, but you were saying earlier that -

A: Mr. Santorum does have an affinity that is much closer to conservatives than to liberals for the obvious reasons. But the majority of conservatives are not going to get behind a candidate who cannot articulate the grounds for limited government in the marketplace because he has been too busy supporting protectionist tariffs and pork-barrel earmarks with one hand, while slamming his fist against the podium to denounce the use of contraceptives with the other. It's a combination that , by the way, is ignoring a majority of conservatives, much less a majority of Americans in a general election.

Q: You mention the birth control issue. I'd be interested in your thoughts on a recent quote from the Senator. Last October, Santorum said "One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is I think the dangers of contraception in this country ... Many of the Christian faith have said, well, that’s okay, contraception is okay. It’s not okay. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be."

A: Before we get into the correctness of the Senator's theology, there's a fundamental problem here for any conservative who is considering supporting Santorum as the Republican choice against President Obama.

Q: And that is?

A: First, the Senator is exhibiting complete ignorance of the majority views held in modern day American culture. He later expressed his surprise at how merely following the Catholic Church left him so outside the mainstream. Second, these sorts of statements demonstrate the depletion of any powers of persuasion that the Senator may have, at some point, possessed. If he really wants discourage birth control, he clearly does not know how to explain his position attractively. Third, Senator Santorum is essentially to blame for the most currently publicized conservative objection to Obamacare being that one of its minor provisions would force the few employers who do not believe in birth control to indirectly pay for birth control. This ought not to be the most talked about conservative objection against Obamacare.

Q: But I believe Santorum is sincere in his religious and pro-life views. He's passionate on a few social issues that are important to us.