Leading up to the 1968 Republican primary, conservative icon William Buckley, Jr. was asked who the wisest choice for the party’s nominee was. He responded, “The wisest choice would be the one who would win … I’d be for the most right, viable candidate who could win.” That interview sparked what has become known as the “Buckley Rule” -— that the Republican Party should support the most conservative candidate who can win.
Looking at the past two elections, it seems that the GOP has forgotten the last three words of the Buckley Rule, and it is now costing us elections.
On the national level, the party primary voters have forced candidates further to the far right on issues that make our candidates undesirable to moderate American voters. During the time he was governor, Mitt Romney had viable, working solutions to health care and environmental problems. Ironically the areas where he was the most moderate happened to be the two areas where the GOP base has the least tolerance for moderates.
So to destroy any possibility that he could be attacked as a moderate by his primary opponents, he shifted further to the right, but he shifted too far, and the result was that 56 percent of self-identified moderates voted for President Barack Obama while only 41 percent supported Mitt Romney. Ultimately, I think a President Romney would have been more moderate than candidate Romney, but that is something that can now only be speculated.
The same thing happened in the Senate. This country lost two great Senators as a result of the GOP’s intolerance for moderates. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) decided to retire from the Senate due to “the partisanship of recent years”, costing the GOP an almost sure seat. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) lost his primary to Tea Party-backed Richard Mourdock, resulting in the loss of an additional seat that was all but guaranteed.
Those who are glad Snowe and Lugar are gone argue that the party was right in purging the moderates, and that such a crusade should continue. Well, purging the party of moderates will not secure the party the majority in the Senate. We made the same mistakes in 2010 when the party nominated losing conservative candidates over candidates all but guaranteed to win in Delaware and Nevada.
Four additional seats would have put the party much closer to a majority in the Senate than where it will be come January 3, 2013.
Ronald Reagan once said, “The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally, not a 20 percent traitor.” If the GOP is going to see success in the future, this mentality needs to change.
I would argue that a person who agrees with me 51 percent of the time is an ally, especially if that person can win—and that is what the Buckley Rule is about. Elect strong conservatives where they can win, but keep in mind that moderates do have a place in this party.
Editor’s note: Nathan Inks is a former CM Life columnist and former president of College Republicans.