Rush Limbaugh added an interesting footnote to our disagreement with Mark Levin on the Delaware Republican Senate primary contest. We thought that Rep. Mike Castle was the preferable candidate under William Buckley’s rule of thumb that conservatives ought to support the rightwardmost viable candidate in a given race. Levin supported Christine O’Donnell as the rightwardmost candidate in the race.
Yesterday Rush Limbaugh expressed his disagreement with the Buckley rule and suspended it in favor of the Limbaugh Rule: “In an election year when voters are fed up with liberalism, you vote for the most conservative Republican in the primary — period.” There is some tension between Rush’s expression of disagreement in principle with the Buckley rule and the limited terms in which he frames the Limbaugh Rule. Rush explained:
[It]’s time, ladies and gentlemen, for the Limbaugh Rule to supplant and replace the Buckley Rule, because the Buckley Rule requires clairvoyance. The Buckley Rule requires people who can’t possibly know the outcome of anything in the middle of September to support or not support somebody based on what they think’s going to happen in early November. Christine O’Donnell can’t win, she’s 25 points down. Can’t win? If a constitutional conservative can’t win in this climate coming down from 25 points, we need to find that out, find out where we are. Why not go for it? The stakes dictate it, do they not? Here’s the Limbaugh Rule: In an election year when voters are fed up with liberalism and socialism, when voters are clearly frightened of where the hell the country is headed, vote for the most conservative Republican in the primary, period.
I find Rush’s argument in favor of the Limbaugh Rule lacking on its own terms as well as in terms of the prudence one should ordinarily apply to matters of practical politics. Among other things, the Limbaugh Rule does not take account of the advantages of majority status in the Senate. Rush’s formulation of the Limbaugh Rule nevertheless clarifies the issues of judgment that have divided conservatives in Delaware and elsewhere this primary season.
PAUL adds: Like Scott, I see problems with replacing the Buckley rule with the Limbaugh rule. First, the Buckley rule subsumes the main rationale behind the Limbaugh rule. If voters are totally fed up with liberal policies, the resulting currents will render “viable” some conservative candidates who normally would not be. The Buckley rule counsels in favor of voting for these candidates. But even in a great year, not every conservative is viable. Voting for the ones who aren’t is self-defeating.
Second, we should take into account another distinctive feature of this election — the unprecedented threat posed by Obama and his congressional majorities. Think back to the tense vote-counting that preceded the passage of Obamacare. Even RINOs like Castle and Snowe fell into line. The problem wasn’t too many RINOs; it was too many Democrats. This, then, is not the time to be squandering opportunities to replace Democrats with Republicans. If anything, we need to be more, not less, “prudential” this year, with the stakes so high.
Third, although the Buckley rule does require one to predict the outcome of general elections several months before they occur, this isn’t grounds for suspending it. Every area of politics and policymaking calls upon decisionmakers to gauge the odds of success of competing approaches. Such assessments are inherently imperfect. However, this is no basis for dispensing with them and resorting to crude rules of thumb.
Thanks to polling, assessing political races, though far from easy, is usually not as difficult as many other types of assessments — will a military surge work; what will be the unintended consequences of an untested economic policy, etc. Few would advocate dispensing with these other types of assessments.
The left proved capable of making good political predictions in 2006, a year in which the country was fed up with Republicans. It did not back conventional liberal candidates in states like Virginia and Nebraska, on the theory that the tide was running left or that it was too difficult to assess electoral prospects in these states. Instead, the left figured out that the less-than-orthodox Jim Webb and the centrist Ben Nelson had vastly better prospects in their Red States than did their conventional liberal rivals. If the left hadn’t figured this out, Obamacare probably wouldn’t have passed.
Since the left seems capable of engaging in this sort of analysis, I see no reason why conservatives should find it too daunting.