Years ago my friend Cooper coined what has become known in conservative circles as "H's Axiom." It's a snippet of political wisdom that, while it may not rise to the level of Reagan's 11th Commandment is nevertheless useful: When a Republican does something to disappoint you, take it out on a Democrat. It's cathartic and often leads to good public policy outcomes.
It's advice that conservatives of all strips might want to take to heart right about now. Since losing more than it won in 2012 election, the American conservative movement has come close to splintering. This, of course, pleases no end the folks in the Obama White House, the fellows on the top floor of the AFL-CIO headquarters, the fatuous factotums that make up the New York-to-Washington media elite, the politicos at Democratic National Committee headquarters, and just about everyone who thinks they should move on, occupy, or otherwise remake America in the image of Saul Alinsky, Paul Ehrlich, and Karl Marx.
It may be too much to ask for harmony among the different elements of the conservative coalition, which still for the moment includes mainstream Republicans and longtime party activists who came into the process under Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and the Contract with America, or with George W. Bush and "compassionate conservativism." Is some civility too much to ask?
Consider Karl Rove, whom the second president Bush referred to as the "architect" of his political victory. Rove is an increasingly controversial figure in conservative circles, having as he does access to most of the major Republican donors who, more importantly, have been up to now willing to invest their political giving in organizations he had a hand in creating. Since the election and its disappointing, for conservatives anyway, results, there have a number of knives aimed at squarely at his back and those of anyone else derided as being a member of the so-called Republican establishment.
The anger among conservatives is not totally misplaced. They are right when they argue that the interests of the republic are better served with Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate instead of former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, with Mike Lee representing Utah instead of former GOP senator Bob Bennett, and Ted Cruz in the seat vacated by Kay Bailey Hutchison instead of David Dewhurst.
What is lost on them is that it works both ways. Some of the same people who criticize the establishment's support, at least initially, for moderates like Crist and Bennett are some of the same people who gave us Senate nominees in 2010 like Delaware's Christine O'Donnell and Nevada's Sharron Angle, and in 2012 Missouri's Todd Akin among others instead of candidates who likely would have won in the general election. Can anyone seriously argue that the GOP would not be better off with three additional seats in the U.S. Senate right now? Right now, oddly enough, there is talk of an alliance between the far left and the Kentucky "Tea Party" in an effort to oust Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell from his seat in 2014. Could anything be more self-destructive?
Instead of focusing on stopping President Barack Obama from pushing through his ultra-liberal second term agenda, the conservative coalition threatens to fracture into a kind of uncivil war that neither side can win and would only work to the benefit of the liberals.
The late William F. Buckley, Jr., had it right when he observed that the goal for the right should be to nominate the most electable conservative candidate in any given race. This approach does not allow for a uniform standard, given that places like California and New York are not likely to tolerate, let alone elect the kinds of conservatives one might find in South Carolina, Wyoming, or Arizona.
Long ago it was impressed on me that you win elections by turning out your voters in greater numbers than the other side can. The attractiveness, the electability of a particular candidate is an important part of that calculus—as is the national environment, the top of the ticket, the right track/wrong direction number, presidential approval ratings, and a host of intangibles that it sometimes takes years to learn to read correctly.
The results of the 2012 election are not an argument for a wholesale revision of what conservatism stands for. Reagan settled that for a lot of people and his general definition—support for limited government, a strong national defense, and respect for essential cultural institutions and values—still works pretty well. There are some who say Reaganism is outdated but it seems that the GOP does best all across America with the candidates who adhere to its essential pillars most closely—or at least pretend to. The party does not have to abandon its opposition to higher taxes or abortion on demand or any of the other hot button issues that seem to get the media's attention in order to assemble a winning coalition. In fact it should reinforce them.
The party needs to stick to its core values as represented by attractive candidates that can win elections. Too much of the current debate is really about who is in charge rather than what conservatives and Republicans believe. Those who seem to believe they are not among those "in charge" seem to be more concerned with what is being done by those who they perceive have the power than anything else. They want to inaugurate an ideological house-cleaning rather than settle things in the marketplace of ideas and hard work, one that writes people unnecessarily out of the movement. Nothing much can be accomplished by whining.
The so-called establishment, meanwhile, needs to stop being afraid of conservatism, properly, attractively, and cheerfully articulated. It's the Reagan formula and if it worked in 1980 it can and will work again. Too many people on both sides of the emerging fight appear to have forgotten that subtraction is not a formula for victory and that the objective it to enact good public policy, not to find the next hill to, metaphorically, die on.