February 4, 2013

It’s not easy being a Republican. I learned this from a story in Sunday’s New York Times about a group called the Conservative Victory Project which wants to stop the party from choosing nominees who, say, think there is such a thing as “legitimate rape” or that a pregnancy due to rape is “something God intended.” In order to do this, it turns out, the new organization wants local Republican organization to follow the Buckley Rule. This is where things get complicated.

William F. Buckley Jr. (Associated Press)
William F. Buckley Jr. (Associated Press)

The Buckley Rule is named for the late William F. Buckley, the longtime editor of the National Review and inexplicable possessor of an accent from “Downton Abbey.” His rule went like this: Support the most conservative candidate who can win. (This sounds vastly more impressive in Latin.) The operative words are “who can win” since a touching belief in witchcraft (Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell) or some antediluvian ideas about rape and conception (Todd Akin, Richard E. Mourdock) can and have had a deleterious effect on the Republican vote caused, mainly, by nausea. In fact, had these candidates not been nominated, the GOP might now have three additional seats in the Senate.

The trouble is that the Buckley rule can run afoul of Ronald Reagan’s “11th Commandment” which, paraphrased, goes like this: Never, but never, speak ill of a fellow Republican even — and here take some liberties — if they confess to dabbling in witchcraft or believing that if a witch gets raped and becomes pregnant, this is what God (or you know who) intended. I think I have done the commandment justice, don’t you?

This a dilemma because to ensure that witchcrafters and medievalists of all sorts do not get to represent the GOP in Senate races, you have to speak ill of them by, of all things, telling the truth. And since, as we all know, a commandment carries more weight than a rule and, just to added heft to the commandment, it came from a president and not a mere magazine editor, I would venture that it is both controlling and takes precedence…whichever comes first, or something like that.

Ah, yes! I self-remonstrate myself — but what about the Norquist Pledge to never, ever, cross-your-heart-and-hope-to-die raise any tax whatsoever? What if a somewhat sane Republican is pitted against a Republican who believes in legitimate rape and also that you-know-what gives you hives and this very same person — maybe even a Yale graduate and a gun owner — refused to sign Grover Norquist’s entirely sacrosanct pledge? This is a pickle, a dilemma, a puzzlement (The King and I) made all the worse if the Buckley rule is also invoked. With that, we have a rule-commandment-pledge gridlock of the sort that could give your average Republican a severe migraine and might, on a given day, cause John McCain to leap over the committee room dais and throttle some poor witness. Look, it could happen.

So, if I’m some poor addled GOPer, just trying to do what’s best for the U.S.A. (We’re Number One!), what do I do? Do I follow the Buckley Rule, the Reagan Commandment or the Norquist Pledge? Can I do all three at once or could I — look, it’s just an idea — register as a Democrat, which as Will Rogers once observed, is hardly a party at all. It is right here that I have to invoke the Cohen Rule for these sorts of writings: Stop When You Have Nothing More To Say.

So…

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post.