About a year earlier, Rep. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., a conservative, had announced his challenge to Republican Sen. Arlen Specter — the “RINO of all RINOs.” Against great odds, Toomey had raised a significant amount of money and run a strong, spirited primary campaign. He cleaned Specter’s clock in a debate, remained sharp, on-message and nearly error-free throughout his campaign, and (I thought) proved himself the better human being. Specter became so desperate near the end that he began running ads suggesting that Toomey had voted to help pornographers and had purposely served drunks at the bar he owned. (I remember hearing these claims on the radio the day before the election as I drove past York, Pa., and wondering if anyone would actually believe them.)
On April 27, 2004, I was there to cover Toomey’s victory party in Allentown. Jeff Flake of Arizona (who is now Toomey’s Senate collegaue) and former Rep. John Shaddegg, R, showed up unexpectedly to demonstrate their solidarity, and came on stage at the very moment Toomey took the lead in the vote count — to the delight of the conservative crowd there that night.
Perhaps an hour or two later, when more returns came in from the Philly suburbs, it became clear that Toomey had lost, but only by a hair. And without blinking an eye, he graciously endorsed Specter for the general election — something I doubt Specter would have done had the situation been reversed. It was a night filled with disappointment for conservatives.
I will never know for sure whether Toomey could have won that year’s general election against Democratic Rep. Joe Hoeffel, but I have always believed he would have, and convincingly — or that, at the very least, it was worth taking the risk. (Of course, the events of five years later — Specter’s party defection and his subsequent vote for Obamacare — bear me out at least on the latter point, but that’s something no one could have known at the time.)
The media tend to blame conservatives for every mishap the GOP suffers. It is irritating, especially when so many GOP flops are precisely the mainline, establishment candidates in whose ability to win conservatives are supposed to place absolute faith. After all, it wasn’t Christine O’Donnell who lost those Senate races last year in Wisconsin, Virginia, North Dakota and Montana.
But admittedly, we have had some genuinely awful conservative flops in recent years. How does one avoid this without simply knuckling under and accepting whatever unprincipled stooge the party mandarins ordain? Surely, there’s a better way than that, isn’t there?
I bring this up now not because I feel like I have the answer, but because it’s the ongoing subject of debate by conservatives who I think are genuinely looking for the right answer. Where to draw the line? How to follow William F. Buckley’s guidance — to vote for the most conservative candidate who can win?
I don’t think there’s an easy bright-line answer to this question, but I want to put down few thoughts on the subject anyway. As a template, I’d point to Saint Augustine and the theory of just war (Ius ad bellum). A war can have a righteous cause, yet be completely unjust to engage in because it is un-winnable, or because the potential benefit of hostilities is not sufficient to justify the accompanying loss of life.
Obviously, the political equation has a very different set of consequences, but the concepts are similar. As with war, there’s a lot of prudential judgment involved. And as in war, the consciences of objectors deserve some degree of deference — but not absolute deference.
Conservatives don’t like the thought of electing Republicans in Name Only, but there’s a much worse alternative to that — and I don’t mean defeat in an election, either.
In fact, count me among those happy to lose where the odds justify rolling the dice. But the loss must also be an honorable one. If you lose elections because you put unelectable, brain-dead idiots out front as the representatives of bonafide conservatism, then you are probably harming the cause even more than the person who just insists on voting for whoever can win, principles be damned.
In the Pennsylvania case, we have ample hindsight from which to benefit — not just from Specter’s betrayal, but also from Toomey’s own subsequent success. Six years after his loss in that primary, Toomey won that same Senate seat, and he did so with a smart, disciplined campaign against one of the best candidates Democrats could have run against him. Toomey has surely slipped in some people’s estimation lately, but only a bit. No one on the Right pines to have Specter back.
Anyway, the thoughts and comments of others on this topic are very much welcome.