William F. Buckley’s descendants in the conservative movement gathered a week ago to lick their wounds, some of them fresh and self-inflicted. When student organizers at Yale scheduled their conference on “The Future of Conservatism” months ago, they couldn’t have guessed it would take place a day after a government shutdown ended, one for which conservatives took a disproportionate share of blame.
So the timing was apt for the get-together of conservative writers and intellectuals in the Buckley mold. National Review was represented by editor Rich Lowry, whose unofficial job title is keeper of the Buckley flame. Buckley’s older brother, Jim, a vibrant 90-year-old who retains the good looks and charm of the politician he once was, represented the family. Enough members of The Wall Street Journal editorial board were present almost to reach a quorum.
Things have been worse for the movement, began author Craig Shirley. Shirley got his start in politics on Gordon Humphrey’s 1978 campaign for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire, and has since written histories of Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaigns. He reminded the group of the state of the Republican Party pre-Reagan, in 1977, when the GOP claimed just 143 members of Congress, its lowest number in the past half century.
This prompted one participant to joke about the difference between a pessimist and an optimist. The pessimist says, “Things can’t get worse.” The optimist says, “Oh yes they can!”
Syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg of National Review Online (whose columns are run in this newspaper) observed that too many conservatives have lost interest in persuasion, preferring to surround themselves with the like-minded, get their information from sources that confirm what they already believe, and avoid talking with people who disagree. Sen. Ted Cruz goes to an Americans for Prosperity rally and comes back to say he’s talked with the American people and they oppose Obamacare.
Goldberg characterized the Tea Party as a delayed backlash against President George W. Bush by conservatives who bit their tongues when Bush expanded Medicare and the federal role in education. He reminded the group that the movement needs good politicians — people who can win elections and bring people to their side — not just candidates who are right on the issues.
During a panel on “Should Conservatives Accept a Truce on Social Issues?” Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens provocatively challenged social conservatives to ask themselves whether they are willing to go up to a gay couple raising a child and say, “You should not be raising that child.” He doubted many would, and asked how such a position can be considered conservative. Are social conservatives willing to go up to 50 million American women and call them murderers, he continued. If not, he suggested, then perhaps social conservatives don’t really have the political courage of their convictions.
Lowry, who is out with a new book on Lincoln, described the first Republican President as “the first RINO.” Lincoln was opposed by the radical Republicans of his day for being too moderate and for not moving quickly enough to end slavery. Echoing others, Lowry criticized the practice of turning differences over tactics or timing into matters of high principle warranting inquisitions and purges.
Speakers clarified the “Buckley rule.” Often interpreted as Buckley’s advice to support the most conservative candidate in a primary who can still win a general election, what Buckley actually said was less pragmatic. Speaking in the context of the 1964 presidential nomination contest between Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller, Buckley said the National Review would support the “rightwardmost viable candidate.” By that he meant the candidate who would credit the cause of the conservative movement even if he or she ultimately lost.
Some conservatives have the gall to speak for Reagan or Buckley, imagining what they might say to today’s conservatives. Usually what follows is revisionist and self-serving. Would Buckley stand athwart the Republican Party today and yell, “Stop! You’re doing it all wrong?” Would he encourage conservatives in Congress to sit back, have a drink, and let Obamacare’s failures make the case for limited government better than they can do for themselves?
Buckley saw the movement through tough times before and, five years after his death, we still miss him.
Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @FergusCullen.