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David Gray

David Gray

Posted: January 4, 2010 11:54 AM

A Not-So-Conservative Purity Test

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As January begins, attention has followed the proposed "Resolution on Reagan's Unity Principle for Support of Candidates" that may be voted on during the upcoming meeting of the Republican National Committee. If passed, this resolution would require adherence to at least eight out of ten core principles for any Republican officeholder or candidate to receive funds or endorsement from the RNC in 2010. While some have argued that this will push moderates out of the party, turn off independents and make it more difficult for the GOP to recruit candidates in blue states, the real reason the RNC should reject the resolution is that it's not even conservative.

First, it's not what Reagan meant. The adherence to eight out of ten principles comes from a statement from Ronald Reagan that "My 80 percent friend is not my 20 percent opponent." Reagan appears to have been referring to his consideration of a liberal Republican senator Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania as his running mate for the 1976 presidential nomination. Reagan was expressing the point that if someone only agreed with him 80% of the time, that person was not his enemy. It's doubtful Reagan meant 80% as a firm number, as if someone who agreed only 75% of the time was his opponent. He likely meant that people could disagree on policy and still be Republicans. The spirit of Reagan's statement was to encourage a diversity of opinions. What Reagan realized was that the GOP was a diverse party. To be successful in different areas of the country, the party needs candidates who caucus together, but do not always agree. Most candidates who adhere to all ten of the platform principles would be unlikely to be successful winning statewide in most west coast or northeastern states. Currently, for example, the GOP has an excellent chance to pick up the Delaware senate seat in 2010 with Mike Castle running. Yet Castle is unlikely to pass the purity test. Should the party not support him and risk losing the seat?

Secondly, Edmund Burke wouldn't like the test. Of all the intellectual influences on modern Republican thought, perhaps the most significant was the 18th century English thinker Edmund Burke. When Russell Kirk wrote The Conservative Mind, he suggested that modern conservatism starts with the ideas of Burke. One of Burke's most significant contributions was to argue that what elected representatives owe their constituents most of all is their judgment. Burke believed that Members of Parliament were elected to exercise judgment, rather than simply following the desires of their constituents. Burke felt that any nation needs the best possible people serving and using their independent judgment, rather than adhering mainly to the desires of any constituency.

Thirdly, it undermines freedom and federalism. As Pat Buchanan said in his 1992 speech to the Republican National Convention, "The central organizing principle of this republic is freedom." Political scientists suggest that Democrats fundamentally are about equality and Republicans about freedom. Conservatives like local control. They generally do not like people telling them what to think. The religious right grew up in the 1970s and 1980s in opposition to elites telling them how to live. Freedom of conscience, thought and expression are fundamental conservative principles. The party needs local primary voters deciding nominees, not the national party tilting the outcome of races. Requiring adherence to the principles asserts central control, not freedom.

Fourth, it's anti-competitive. Conservatives value competition. In the free market economy, businesses put forward their products and the marketplace decides which are best. The same applies to school choice in education. The GOP benefits from putting forth diverse candidates who put forth diverse ideas and compete in primaries. While it costs funds to run primaries, it makes the general election candidates stronger. The primary challenges that many conservatives are running now against establishment candidates throughout the nation spurs competition. They let the free market decide. Requiring purity tests for funding undermines the political free market.

Finally, it's not for a party of ideas. The Republican Party prides itself on being a party of ideas. Out of the political wilderness that followed their 1992 election loses came the innovative ideas of the Contract for America, and the GOP regained power in 1994. If Republicans are going to take back Congress in 2010 or the White House in 2012, they need innovative ideas. Requiring candidates to adhere to a list of principles is not conducive to creative thinking. What a party out of power needs is to maximize its contest of ideas. Republicans should have vigorous debates about ideas in their primaries so that the best ideas will emerge. The proudest Republican and American traditions come through when the GOP engages and encourages the diversity of the party of Lincoln.