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Why warts matter

Joe Miller, Lisa Murkowski, and Democrat Scott McAdams debated last night in Anchorage. The Weekly Standard has a summary here. Fox News’ summary is here. CNN’s is here.
During the debate Miller admitted that he was once disciplined for violating policy while he worked as a local government attorney. Miller previously had refused to discuss the matter, but eventually made his admission after a judge ordered that the relevant personnel file be released. During the campaign, it has also been revealed that Miller’s family received federal government benefits like Medicaid, unemployment and farm subsidies — benefits he has raised concerns about as a candidate.
In one of the most dramatic exchanges of the debate, Murkowski asked Miller how he thinks his fellow West Point graduates would view the way he has conducted himself. Miller responded that there are, in fact, West Point graduates working on his campaign who know his “warts and all” and stand behind him “proudly.” Miller also said that Alaskans probably know more about him than any other candidate. and that this is a good thing because they “get to understand that, hey, they’re electing somebody like them.”
Miller is the winner of the Republican primary, as well as the most conservative of the three candidates. Thus, his “warts and all” defense is not without force for conservatives. I write here not to assess this defense as it applies to Miller, but instead to discuss more generally its limits.
Conservatives like to say that the past ten years have taught us the perils of electing mere Republicans, as opposed to solidly conservative Republicans. This is a legitmate lesson. But another lesson from these years, and from the six that preceded them, is the perils of electing candidates with serious character flaws (i.e., major warts). The loss of the House in 2006, which helped pave the way for President Obama’s legislative successes, may well have had more to do with the sense that too many Republican members were personally corrupt or badly flawed than it did with the view that Republican members were insufficiently conservative.
In fact, this is an old lesson. In 1980, a somewhat overlooked Republican wave election, the GOP picked up 12 Senate seats (including Alaska, via Frank Murkowski) to gain the majority. When it became clear in 1986 that the Republicans would have their hands full defending its majority, Bob Dole quipped that if he had known Republicans would do so well in 1980, he would have pushed for better Republican candidates. Behind the cynicism of Dole’s remark lies the reality fact that good government, not just pragmatic party politics, requires candidates of high quality and character.
The pragmatic need to elect not just conservative Republicans but conservative Republicans of integrity and strong character is especially acute in the current environment. Congress has never (to my recollection) been held in lower esteem than it is now. And the Republican brand commands little, if any, more esteem than the Democratic brand.
In this context, it’s widely understood that Republican members of Congress will need to demonstrate that they do not intend to conduct “business as usual.” But this isn’t just a matter of ideology; it’s also a matter of personal qualities, above all integrity. If, as in the past, Republican members fail to meet a high standard, there is little hope of a conservative revolution; there isn’t even a high probability of maintaining enough seats during the next few elections to prevent the Democrats from recapturing their momentum.
This lesson has more bearing on 2012 and 2014 than it does on this election, where the die is largely cast. Whatever one makes of this year’s Alaska Senate race, we should be wary “warts and all” and “my flaws are your flaws” arguments as a general matter going forward.

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