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April 02nd 2015 print

Christopher Carr

The GOP’s Quest for a ‘Viable’ Contender

After Barack Obama's eight years of eloquent uselessness, Republicans are champing at the bit to take their crack at the White House, with Ted Cruz first out of the starting gate. If the GOP heeds the wisdom of William F. Buckley,  an early start will not count for half so much as the ability to win hearts, minds and, most of all, votes

buckleyThe announcement by Senator Ted Cruz that he is running for the GOP Presidential nomination is unprecedented in two ways. First, he has announced his candidature almost a full year before the first primaries are to take place. Second, like President Obama, he has announced his run during his first term as a Senator. Predictably, the Left Liberal media are making much of Cruz’s supposed inexperience. Of course, the same media were silent back in 2008, when Barack Obama was making his bid for the nomination.

True, Ted Cruz does not have experience as a state Governor, but he was Solicitor General for Texas from 2003 to 2008. Prior to that, he had been associate deputy attorney general and then the director of policy planning at the US Federal Trade  Commission during the George W. Bush Administration. At the very least, this is a far more substantive resume than anything of which Obama could boast.

We might recall that Truman, Kennedy and Johnson were purely legislators before they acceded to the White House. More recent presidents — Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W Bush — had experience as state governors, and it could well be that Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker may have an advantage over Cruz, all other factors being equal. On the other hand, if we take a longer term historical perspective, we can dismiss any criticism of Cruz on this level as largely confected and phoney. After all, the mainstream media have given a free pass to Obama, the former community organizer, whose academic records remain sealed from any and all public scrutiny.

Cruz’s candidature brings to mind the famous dictum of William F. Buckley, the founder of National Review in the United States. Back in June, 1964, there was some discussion within the National Review office on the choice between Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller. As Neal Freeman, the longtime National Review contributor recalled in an article in February 2013, (unfortunately the link to the full article no longer operates), there was a debate led by  Buckley on one side and James Burnham on the other. Burnham’s argument was that Rockefeller had sound national security credentials and was the more electable candidate. But Buckley argued successfully that National Review should support the most viable conservative candidate. This led ther magazine to support Goldwater over Rockefeller. As Neal Freeman wrote:

Bill Buckley was careful with words. If he had opted on that June day for the words “rightwardmost electable candidate,” we would all have recognized it as a victory for Team Rockefeller. And life might look very different today. If there had been no Goldwater, National Review might not have become so influential, and if there had been no Goldwater, no National Review, there might have been no Reagan.

There is also the perfectly sound argument that 1964 was a disaster year for conservatives. As Avik Roy argued:

But it’s worth pointing out that the landslide defeat of Goldwater to Lyndon Johnson led to the enactment of the Great Society, and most notably, Medicare and Medicaid. In other words, the very fiscal crisis we face today — for which, at our most courageous, we recommend but modest reforms — was a direct result of the disastrous Goldwater campaign. We may all prefer the policies of Goldwater to those of Rockefeller. But it’s at least debatable whether or not the conservative movement was better off, or worse off, for having nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964. Indeed, the 1964 election may be the most salient example of what happens when we don’t pick the most conservative candidate who can win.

Arguably, Rockefeller would also have lost in 1964. But I also hold that view that Goldwater ceased to be “viable”. On the key emblematic issue of 1964, civil rights for African-Americans, his vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act put him at odds with practically all his fellow Senate Republicans and in league with the worst of the segregationists of the old confederacy. When one looks at the old black-and-white imagery, one is struck by the thuggish bigotry and stupidity of the likes of George Wallace of Alabama, police chief, “Bull” Connor and others. Were these men the de facto allies of Barry Goldwater? We know that Goldwater had voted for previous civil rights acts, was no friend of segregationists and no supporter of racism. But support of states’ rights against what he saw as federal overreach was hopelessly unviable in the face of Southern state lawlessness and violence against African-Americans. On this critical issue, Goldwater descended into incoherence.

The contrast between Goldwater and Reagan is instructive. Ronald Reagan’s speech, “A Time for Choosing”, delivered on October 27, 1964, in support of the Goldwater campaign, is remarkable for its clarity and political coherence. Only two years after Goldwater’s huge defeat, Reagan defeated a longtime Democrat incumbent in California by a large margin. I acknowledge that, in 1964, Goldwater was running against the tide. Probably, even a Ronald Reagan would have lost. But the scale of the loss underlines the importance of a coherent political narrative.

Still scarred by the Goldwater debacle, William F Buckley, while publicly supporting Reagan for the Republican nomination, privately had doubts as to whether Reagan could beat Carter in 1980. His National Review withheld formal endorsement of any Republican candidate. In case Reagan stumbled, National Review editors had fallback positions. A couple favoured former Treasury Secretary, John Connally and one leaned towards Representative Philip Crane. Neal Freeman, whom we have already quoted, favoured Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker and Buckley favoured George H. W. Bush. You start to get the picture. Private conservative doubts were more than matched by open Republican “establishment” scepticism about the prospect of a Reagan candidacy.

As one could say, the rest is history: Reagan triumphed. Bush became first Vice-President, then a somewhat indifferent successor to Reagan and lostthe White House in 1992 after one term. John Connally raised more money than any other Republican candidate but secured just one delegate to the Republican convention.

What of the prospects for 2016? We should beware of rash predictions. I will not predict that Cruz will win the nomination, but he could. He has a clear and consistent narrative. Yes, one can say that he is “viable”, as Buckley would have defined it. At the very least, Cruz has set a high bar over which putative rivals will have to jump. So far, Scott Walker has demonstrated impressive credentials as Governor of Wisconsin. Unlike Mitt Romney, Walker has governed as a solid conservative in a hitherto “blue” state. On the domestic front, Walker is easily ahead on his record. On foreign and national security policy, he is still very much a work in progress. One awaits who he will choose for advice. Marco Rubio is solid on defence and foreign policy, less sure footed on issues such as immigration and border security.

I will conclude by contradicting myself and making a bold prediction. The long endurance race for the GOP nomination  will end up as a contest between Ted Cruz, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio. Notice that I end up eliminating Jeb Bush and Rand Paul. Yes I realise that Bush will raise huge money. Yet, big money is not always politically astute, as Connally’s war chest and dismal performance remind us. You cannot win in the face of hostility from the conservative grass roots. As for Rand Paul, however sensible he may try to sound, there will always be his father, Ron Paul, casting a shadow. As for the likes of Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry, I suspect Cruz’s announcement may have eliminated them as even remotely viable. I look forward to comments from readers.