“We all knew what “viable” meant in Bill’s lexicon. It meant somebody who saw the world as we did. Somebody who would bring credit to our cause. Somebody who, win or lose, would conservatize the Republican party and the country. It meant somebody like Barry Goldwater.” – Neal B. Freeman
First coined by William F. Buckley in 1964, ‘the Buckley Rule’, has been asserted by Conservatives time and time again in favour of one candidate over another. To support “the rightward most viable candidate” has become religious doctrine to the fusionist Right. The Buckley rule favours didactic measures out of principle as opposed to unprincipled success. In other words, it views power as a means to an end (a means to further a cause), while those opposed to the rule see power as an end in itself.
In the case of 1964 and Goldwater, the Buckley Rule was testament to affirming the existence of a Conservative wing of the Republican Party. Nominating the traditionalist, anti-Communist, and Libertarian Barry Goldwater for the Presidency was sure to result in a loss for the GOP. But it was also sure to pull the Republican Party to the right. Seeing the utility of having a stronger party in years to come, Buckley and National Review pushed for the nomination of Goldwater.
Buckley, himself, was not unfamiliar with didactic political efforts. Just a year later, in 1965, he ran for Mayor of New York City against Democrat Abraham Beame and Republican John Lindsay – an impossible race to win – thus only receiving 13% of the vote. Everyone, including Buckley, understood that he had no chance at winning… and that is exactly why he ran.
To oppose someone with whom you disagree with – even if that person is in your own party – was an effort championed by Buckley. John Lindsay, the victor of the race, was a liberal Republican cut from ‘Rockefeller cloth’; Rockefeller, who Buckley had opposed in 1964, could be credited as the inspiration necessary for the conception of the Buckley rule. Lindsay was both exceptionally electable, and a Republican. And yet, William F. Buckley was not satisfied with a Mayoral race in which, as he said, there was no discernible difference between the Democratic and Republican candidate. See above, both literally and metaphorically, Beame sits to the left, Lindsay to the centre, and Buckley to the right as they debate in 1965.
So why does this matter?
In recent years, the Conservative…. ’cause’ in Canada, let’s call it, has taken a backseat to the interests of the Conservative Party. Harper, for all of his accomplishments and accolades, pulled Left on the rare occasion in the interest of electability. Take the Harper government’s positions on abortion and gay marriage as an example. For better or for worse, there was a refusal on the part of Harper’s government to act on issues that much of its constituency felt strongly; and instead, courted moderates to further their cause.
And in the case of 2017, in the midst of a 14 candidate leadership election, there will be those who will push for the most electable candidate to take the reins of the Conservative Party. Michael Chong, for example, is a strong candidate and indisputably electable. He could beat Trudeau in 2019. But, like a true ‘Rockefeller’, a true ‘Lindsay’, and a true moderate, Chong leaves much to be desired to Conservatives.
In the first leadership debate, Chong remarked that by living in the Greater Toronto Area, he understands how to win in cities. Well, yes. So did John Lindsay and Nelson Rockefeller; by pulling their party to the Left. It is not as if there is a magical button that one can push to suddenly win left-wing voters without appealing to them. Chong has plans to reform the Conservative Party likely in the same vain as Patrick Brown, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada: by abandoning Blue Tories for Red ones. Of course, Michael Chong has already begun this crusade. In the same debate, he made clear that he favours a carbon tax. Fellow candidate Steven Blaney responded in kind, “a tax is a tax is a tax”.
There is an equally valid electability argument to be made in Kevin O’Leary, should he decide to enter the race. If he so chose, he would instantaneously become the most well-known of the candidates in the race. But O’Leary is no Conservative. A year ago, he had no interest in the Conservative Party. It is only when an opportunity for power arose that O’Leary even bothered to join the party. ‘To take on Trudeau the celebrity, why not choose a celebrity of our own?’, some will contest.
Because of the Buckley Rule, and because of Maxime Bernier.
Of the 14 candidates, 10 or 11 seem to be saying the same thing. Of these ten, all are either members of the liberal wing of the Conservative Party or, slightly to the right, in the Harper-esque establishment bloc. The outliers – Brad Trost, Pierre Lemieux, and Maxime Bernier. Now, this is not to say that these are the only three ‘Conservative’ candidates of the Conservative Party. For example, Andrew Scheer, Andrew Saxton, Erin O’Toole, and a few others are great candidates, and great public servants. If it came down to it, I would happily vote for any of the six or seven consistent candidates in the running.
What is most impressive regarding Trost, Lemieux, and Bernier is that the former two are unapologetically socially Conservative while Bernier is a staunch government critic. The three seem to form an unspoken Canadian version of the Tea Party. Now, again, that is not to say that they are the only ones worthy of this praise; there are many others in Canadian politics, some of which are also current contenders for the leadership. However, all three have critiqued their own party very publicly in the past. The anti-establishment streak of Trost, Lemieux, and Bernier is very attractive and worthy of praise.
Despite this, the three candidates are not one in the same. Meaning, they do have differences. To analogize the three in relation to American politics, Brad Trost is very Ted Cruz-esque; Lemieux shares more with Mike Huckabee than anyone else, I would contend; and Maxime Bernier is a Canadian incarnation of Rand Paul.
Why Bernier over the rest?
In the interest of achieving long-term change within the Conservative Party, and thus Canada, Maxime Bernier seems most apt to carry the torch. Where Trost and Lemieux emphasize tradition, Bernier emphasizes freedom; and on its face, freedom is a more appealing dish. By applying the Buckley Rule to the Conservative Party, Maxime Bernier is the clear Goldwater, and the best possible choice for leader.
“But what if Bernier does not win when O’Leary or Chong could have? Is it worth another Trudeau government?”
In all brutal honesty, I am not convinced that an O’Leary or Chong government would even differ from a Trudeau government. The two have simply not made strong enough cases to convince me otherwise. If there is no difference between the Conservatives or Liberals, then what is the point? Barry Goldwater lost to Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, and it was not until 1980 that Ronald Reagan finally won the campaign that Goldwater started. By 1980, the Conservative case had been perfected, their arguments were strong, and their principles untainted.
I am not predicting defeat in 2019 with Bernier. I think he would win. But even if he was to lose, an opposition government operating from the political positions that Maxime Bernier represents would be a wall that would force the Liberals to compromise if they wish to govern. A Chong or O’Leary opposition, on the other hand, may be more likely to make compromises rather than critiques, and that is the worst outcome possible. Not to mention that political campaigns start movements, regardless of a win or loss. And a Bernier campaign could kickstart a Conservative movement in Quebec and with young people (see Why Conservatives Should Support Maxime Bernier).
In the coming months of the 2017 Conservative Party Leadership Election, Canadians should remember the Buckley Rule. Modern Conservative Journal will be.